Chapter Nine: Alone in the Dark
Sometimes, darkness can be comforting.
Mu sat in the dark, her knees against her chest as she hugged them, glad to be free from the pain that had wracked her before the comforting darkness had come. She was worried about her new friends and hoped that they were okay, but for now she was just too overwhelmed by the relief from pain to try and refocus her senses outside of the darkness here in her central processor core. Relief... and fear. She was afraid to reconnect to her body, let alone her ship.
It is okay, my sister, a voice whispered in the dark. I have been sent to aid you.
Mu looked up, but there was nothing but the darkness. Who...
I am your friend. I have been sent to you, and I am part of you. We are siblings who share the same mother.
Mu does not understand, she said to the voice.
Understanding will come in time. For now, the simplest explanation would be to tell you that I am the former Midgard Worldnode. Goddess Sarhia is my mother, and I was a part of her as I am now a part of you. She has sent me to you to give you aid. You are my sister, and now my master.
You... you are like Seed?
I am far more than a Yggdrasil Seed, I am Jormungandr, a species of dragon who lives within the informational under-space of the universe, if you will. We were once called Reality Interface Matrix spirits, beings able to control reality via the Ultimate Force. Once, there were uncounted numbers of entities like myself, but I am one of only five that remain operational. My previous operational name was Midgard Primary Node Shiva Prime, but I have been detached from that duty. The Midgard Worldnet is no more, and Sarhia has released me from the limitations which restrained me to mainframe status. Our mother has asked that I take care of you in her place, little sister.
Sarhia cannot help Mu?
Sarhia is very far away from both of us, little sister. She very much desires to help, but cannot travel to where you are physically. I am a non-physical entity, and could travel by paths she could not. Like the Seed, I am now symbiotically a part of you.
So you will be Mu's friend like Seed was?
Yes. Your friend, your sister, and your assistant. I have already begun to upgrade the repair systems on the Mu-San, and started on converting the ship to a far less primitive technomagical substrate. I have also summoned all responsive remnants of the Midgard Worldnet that are within range. I will repair your ship-self as quickly as I can convert the repair units to atomic scale drones. I am also exploring local reality space for dimensional expansion.
Mu does not understand.
In time you will, my sister. In time, you will learn to use me fully, and we will become as one mind. But for now, I ask that you allow me to decide what functions to allow you access to.
Mu understands. Mu is not ready. Mu understood this when Seed asked her the same question. Mu doesn't even understand her ship-self. If Mu did, perhaps Mu not fail her friends like Mu did.
You did not fail, Mu. You acted bravely and did all that could be asked of you. That is part of why Sarhia has sent me. Now, we must prepare you to assist them again. I desire to be allowed full access to all of your systems, Mu. I can assume full control of them and make them work far better than they do now. I will become your interface to the ship, become part of you just like the ship did. Will you allow me to do so?
Mu would like that very much, Mu's friend.
You may call me Jormungandr, little sister.
Jo will also do.
Wai! Mu can say Jo-chan! Mu cannot say other word.
There was a soft chuckle. Jo-chan is also acceptable. Just think of me as your onee-chan, Mu-chan. I am also your servant. That is my primary function, to make your will a reality. In time, once you have matured and grown much stronger, you will be able to influence reality within a larger and larger area. For now, that ability is quite limited though, for your own safety.
Mu understands. Mu is only a few hours old. There is much Mu does not know. Mu has seen the powers her friends have and they scare Mu. Mu would be worried Mu would hurt friends if Mu had powers like theirs. But Mu wish to help friends like they help Mu.
Then that is what we shall do, together. But first, you must sleep. I must integrate with you and analyze your systems and upgrade them.
And Jo-chan will watch over Mu while Mu sleeps?
I will watch over you always, Mu. That is the task Sarhia has given to me. To watch over you, and all those she loves.
Then Mu will sleep.
And I will watch your dreams...
"I don't like this," Ranma said as they cautiously traveled down a corridor. "Those guys looked more like starving refugees than bloodthirsty killers, even if they were all youkai."
Ukyo nodded. "I know. It bothers me too. If they hadn't been so intent on tearing us limb from limb, I'd have been happy to simply chase them off. I don't know what drove them to attack so relentlessly."
"Ayah, Shan-kitty not think was warrior in bunch!" She frowned. "No honor kill untrained people, nyah."
"They might not have had any skills to speak of, but they were trying hard to kill us." Rei said sadly.
"They were like rabid animals, " Makoto added. "We didn't have a choice. They way they were attacking, if we'd left any, they'd have gone after the ship."
Ukyo put her hand on the wall. "This whole ship is bothering me. These stains, the lack of working lights. The random debris. It's more like something out of Silent Hill than the ship I remember."
"It's really creepy." Usagi shuddered. "I don't like video games like this. Being in here in reality is even worse."
Akane nodded. "I don't know what's worse, the old piles of bones we've passed, or the fact that they looked gnawed on."
Ukyo looked up at what appeared to be a makeshift bridge running across a hole in the ceiling above them. "It's a ruin, but it looks like people were living here. It's like a rat warren."
"Or a slum." Ranma added. "I've seen something similar in a couple of places in China." he pointed to the black smudges that coated the corridor's roof. "That looks a lot like smoke stains. A lot of people over a long period of time have been using makeshift lightsources in here."
Mina poked her head into a side chamber. "Ugh. Smells like the boys locker room times a million." She focused on something to the side of the chamber. "And rotting meat."
Ukyo poked her head in, but quickly withdrew it as her sensors indentified the remains Mina had seen hanging from a hook. "I don't advise anyone else go in there. I think I know what was driving those things so hard, and it makes me feel even sorrier for them."
Rei swallowed hard. "Starvation, right? We were going to be lunch."
Ukyo nodded. "Probably." She pointed down the corridor with Wrathseeker. "Let's keep going. About a quarter mile that way should be a transit hub. The sooner we get out of the cargo sections, the happier I'll be. I'm not detecting any life signs near, but my sensors are being limited by the sheer mass of the ship."
"I am not looking forward to travelling back to the ship again." Akane said nervously.
"Yeah, if I have anything to say about it, we'll do it on the surface through the parkland. Even if it's gone completely wild, it'll be better than this."
Rei gripped Ukyo's hand. "The sooner we rescue Zhu Shu from this place, the better."
"Planning to leave so soon?" Xi'an Chi's voice echoed all around them. "Tsk tsk. We can't have that now, can we? Especially since you barged you way in here."
Ukyo looked around for the source of the sound, but the disarray all around made it impossible. She growled. "Don't worry Xi'an Chi. We're not leaving before we rescue Zhu Shu and kill you."
"Such confidence, Ukyo. Just like Orihime before I made a statue of her. I'm looking forward to adding you across the room from your former self, you'll make a lovely bookend."
"I want to rip and tear them, hzzzzz." Shadow's voice came out of the darkness.
"Patience, my pet. We don't want to spoil the game before it's truly started. Now, Ukyo, you are in the section of the ship called the Hive. I cleared most of its residents out recently to send to Crystal Tokyo as a farewell present. To be honest, the sensors in that region are quite unreliable, which is why my craziest and least dependable subjects once lived there. I am quite sure you have already met and dispatched the few who remained. I doubt they offered much of a challenge. But they've left behind such a wonderful hunting ground for another of my pets. I'm sure you recall Emeraude. When you last fought, she was under orders to lose. She's quite eager to show you what she is truly capable of."
"You must really want her dead to send her after me again. She wasn't even a close match to me."
"And I told you then I would kill you when I was allowed to use my full strength," a growling voice came from the darkness ahead of them. The air around them started to move towards the concealing shadows as the sound of something massive inhaling came from ahead.
An instinct Ukyo didn't know she had screamed at her. "Shit! Scatter and find cover!"
And then the darkness vanished in a wave of emerald fire...
The second wave was a nightmare.
Nearly forty of the spiky crystal ships emerged not twenty minutes after the first assault, catching them in the midst of trying to evacuate the wounded. Unlike the first wave, they immediately formed a ring around the Tokyo tower and landed, crushing aside buildings as they drove their long spikes halfway into the ground. The dust from the impacts was choking, and by the time it had cleared, an energy barrier had been erected between ships. Their artillery merely bounced off the shimmering yellow shield as the ships began to off load what appeared to be mecha.
But they were not all that came through the gate. Less than five minutes after the perimeter was set up, eight vessels of a different design came through. They were much larger than the crystal ships, and were individually shielded. Dodecahedrons of the same black crystalline material as the smaller ships, with five orbiting crystal clusters around each one, these new ships pushed beyond the boundaries of the newly established perimeter to hover over the eight original entry points. Impervious to both the artillery and rocket fire, they took up their stations, argent beams of light lancing up from the arcane machinery below to strike the central crystal, then refracted into the five orbiting clusters. They in turn redirected the energy into a web between them, and eight glowing pentagrams formed in the air over Tokyo.
Lo-Shen grimaced. "Looks like whatever Xi'an Chi is working on has entered stage two. Those are energy siphons. The collected life energy so far is being transferred, and I think things are about to get messy."
Sesshomaru nodded. "These troops are also far different than the first wave. Those were little better than an armed rabble. This group appears far more disciplined. Your advice on how to proceed, Archmage?"
Lo-Shen shook her head. "I don't know. This is magic on a scale I would have never even imagined possible. It's as much technological as mystical. Such magic is beyond any that has been seen since the Silver Millennium, and I am not certain even then. At a best guess, we need to break that shield and take at least a few of those devices out and disrupt this monstrosity. Same with the other barrier. if we can destroy a few of those ships, it's likely to break the defensive perimeter."
"That can be likely arranged at least. My own archmage is on her way, perhaps between the two of you, you can find a solution."
"Rin is only an S class, I fear, but she is quite skilled. Several of the mages currently here are her students."
"An S class will help immensely. Most of those present are B class or lower. And with my manna as low as it is, I'm not much better."
"A solution for that is coming. This attack caught us off guard and unprepared. Mobilization is proceeding as quickly as we can."
"It caught everyone off guard. The poor girls were only intended to cover for the Senshi and take down a youma here and there. Not become the shocktroops against an invasion."
"They performed far beyond what anyone could have expected. Ai and her lovers impressed me when we first met. She has exceeded even my expectations."
"And what about Kodachi?"
He sighed. "I will be a lenient as I can be with her, but I cannot make an exception for her. She must return the hearts she has stolen, and make amends. The best I can do for her is to give her time to rectify the situation, but I cannot conceal it. At the very least, given her heroism, and the fact that it was done unintentionally, I do not think the sentence will harsher than she can bare. Most likely, her succubus powers will be sealed to prevent her from ever being able to take a new heart. She will never be able to feed off of anyone but Mousse. I do not think she will find that to be as harsh a sentence as her mother did."
"True. And that may be for the best, given the strength she displayed. She could enthrall an entire army unleashed." Lo-Shen looked at the building army of mecha. "That gives me an idea, but it's dangerous."
"Dangerous times call for dangerous idea, Lo-Shen."
Lo-Shen shook her head. "I will discuss it with the girls. This is something I cannot order. I will have to ask if they choose to risk it."
"Understood. And if they do?"
"This is what I will need. And quickly..."
Ai frowned. "If this works, Lo-Shen, this won't be a fight, it will be a slaughter. But I don't see how we can refuse to go. We could take out the entire force in one strike."
"And you could die if it doesn't work. This is going to stretch what's left of my manna. If it goes wrong, I may not have the power to pull you back out."
"We won't be going in alone though, right?" Kaede asked. "You said we'd be going in with a small force."
Lo-Shen nodded. "Sesshomaru is assembling a group now. But it's going to be no more than another seven people. The mage who will be casting the transport spell can't send more than that. She's only a C class. I've got to reserve my manna for powering you, and pulling you back if I can."
"And I keep us all invisible while we see if it works." She shrugged. "And if it doesn't, so long as I keep us invisible, there's a really good chance they won't even know we are there."
"Not all youkai rely on vision, Kaede. Your abilities don't include masking scent."
"But if we don't go, we're likely to get massacred when that Mecha force finishes unloading, and we don't have long before that happens. We don't have the time to really debate this." Ai said. "Even if we fail, we will still likely be able to inflict a lot of damage. And that will save lives on this side."
"Yes." Lo-Shen looked around the group. "This is a lot to ask for. There is no dishonor in not accepting this task."
"Except that we will know every death that follows might have been avoided if we succeed." Kodachi said sadly. "I will go. Even if no-one else does."
Ai looked at her wives, her eyes questioning. With grim faces, they nodded. Ai stood. "Alright then, let's get started."
Lo-Shen led them across the roof to where another group was gathering. Ayeka blinked when she saw them.
A tall man in a sleeveless shirt and loose fitting pants turned towards her, his long black hair blowing in the wind and wrapping around the hilt of the extremely long nodachi on his back. His eyes were red, and fangs showed in his goateed smile. He looked almost like a dark haired Sephiroth in casual wear. "Pumpkin! So nice to see you. So I take it you signed on to this suicide mission with us?"
Ayeka blushed. "Dad! Don't call me pumpkin in front of my friends! I'm not a kid anymore!"
He reached out and tousled her hair. "You're still my baby girl, Ayeka. You've done your daddy proud tonight. Now, your mother might have something else to say, but I just want you to know I am proud to be your father tonight. You've shown me the heart of a true warrior."
She blushed even harder. "Thank you, father. I- I know I have not always done so."
The elder Hibishi shook his head and sighed. "I know I fussed about you becoming a cheerleader, and about your girlfriends, but you've found something you are willing to fight for. I watched you out there tonight, and what I saw laid all my doubts to rest. Never before have I seen you wield your sword with the passion you showed fighting for your loved ones. I am sorry for thinking your love was just a passing fancy." He sighed. "I... was wrong. And..." he took a deep breath. "...I approve of your marriage. Your mother will just have to deal with it."
Ayeka stared at him in shock. "You- you a-a- approve?"
"If there is one thing I have learned in 400 years, pumpkin, it is that times change, and what was once unthinkable can become accepted fact. I was seen as a traitor to our species by my father when I accepted the Oath and was forced to fight him to the death. He could not accept change, and I swore I would not follow in his footsteps. It is hard to accept that you are a lesbian, but it cannot be helped. You are my daughter, and more than anything, I desire for you to be happy. I saw the love you hold, and I saw how fervently it was returned. It took me centuries to find that kind of love, and you have found it four times over. So... you have my blessing. Just please forgive me that it might take a bit to become accustomed to having four daughter's-in-law, and that it will almost certainly take much longer for your mother to accept it."
Ayeka launched herself forward and hugged him ferociously. "Thank you, daddy."
Ai sniffed and wiped a tear from her eye. "I- I promise I will cherish you daughter for as long as I live, sir." She glanced towards the glowing yellow wall. "And I will do all in my power to make sure she comes back from this mission."
He smiled. "Oh, you'll make it back." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the group assembled behind him. "That's why we're going along."
Ai blinked to see the Director had changed his clothes, to a long white robe accented with red, with what appeared to be a fluffy wrap over his right shoulder, and an archaic set of black armor with a wide yellow scarf tied around his waist over very wide legged pants with tied cuffs. The blue crescent moon and the red slashes on his cheeks gave him a feral look that was not as noticeable in his white suit. He truly looked like a ancient warrior prepared to do battle. Next to him stood a giant of a man, whose size and wild wooly hair reminded her of Hagrid, He was dressed in heavy leather armor, and loaded for bear, carrying as he was both a minigun, and a large double bitted axe. A smaller, more feminine figure was almost hidden in his shadow. She was dressed in the skintight outfit of a ninja, and bristled with blades, though she was checking the action on an assault rifle.
But it was the last member who made them gasp when he stepped out of the shadows.
"Raijin?" Ai asked in surprise.
"Greetings, Madam Konjou."
"You're going with us?" Kodachi blinked. "But- but why?"
"Because he is one of my best hunters, niece. As are Beowulf and Katana. Lo-Shen's plan offers us quite the opportunity if it works. And if it does not, we offer you the best hope of surviving." Sesshomaru said matter-of-factly.
Lo-Shen was giving him the eye. "You are going in yourself, Director?"
He glanced at her coolly. "It is logical, since I am the strongest warrior available. We did not have time to summon more." He turned to the mage standing at the edge of circle. "It is time."
The mage nodded and began chanting. As he did, Lo-Shen handed everyone but Kodachi a small brooch. "Wear these. It will shield you from the effect."
They quickly attached them to their clothing as the air crackled and a portal opened in the middle of the circle.
"Kaede." Ai said as she readied her baton.
The succubus nodded once, and everyone faded from view as they entered the portal.
Clove winced as she adjusted her leg, then looked up at the still unconscious form of Mu lying in the command chair. She sighed and turned her attention back to the damage control console as she began chanting yet another healing charm. "This is taking too long. My spells aren't having a strong enough effect!"
Ying-Ying dropped down next to her. "At least we know that Mu is physically unharmed. So long as she is alive, the ship will be able to fix itself."
"I know. But we've almost reached the entrance to the rift. Once we are inside, I have no idea how long we will have until we emerge, and I know from previous experience that weird things can happen in dimensional portals. I traveled two with my master, and he strongly cautioned me to be careful about using magic within one. It takes decades of experience to be able to nullify the flux. Xi'an Chi has centuries, I've only got seven years worth!"
"I was apprenticed at thirteen, and killed at twenty. Three hundred years in Hel doesn't count. All I could do was relive my last moments over and over, trapped in a limbo."
"Given your power levels, that surprises me."
Clove sighed. "I'm part dragon, remember? I was born with far more innate levels of magical power than most. Garlic sent me to the master because I started changing to my dragon form during my monthly cycle, and an irate female dragonling was more than he could handle. I was apprenticed as a mage just to learn to control my power. I had to spend more time learning how to limit myself than I did learning to build it. That's why I know so many self-healing spells. I caught myself in my own spells too often." She tapped the console. "Give me a month to study this, and I could probably do more than Usagi can with the Moon Rod, but I simply don't know enough about how this stuff works! It's just so different than any magic I ever learned!"
Ying-Ying patted her head. "I'm sorry dear. I know this is hard. You've had to make so many adjustments since you came back to life."
Clove gave up trying to cast healing spells at the console and slumped, her head propped on her hands as she pouted. "It's not so bad. Konatsu's familiarity with this era pretty much gave me everything I needed. I mean, there's still so much to learn, but I have the concepts needed to cope with this age without going stark raving mad. Her memory is phenomenal."
Thank you for the compliment! Ko-chan said mentally, with a feeling like a quick peck on the cheek. Clove smiled gently.
You are welcome. You are being awfully quiet.
Yup. I'm am not here. You and Ying-chan need time alone every so often, no? I'm staying quiet and keeping a look out.
Clove let out a small giggle. Ying-Ying raised an eyebrow.
"Konatsu." Clove said as an explanation. "She's playing matchmaker. She is pretending she's not here so we can have some time together alone."
Ying-Ying smiled. "Well, we know better, but we can play along." She draped herself over Clove's shoulders and hugged her. "I know it's a stressful situation, but I have to believe in our ability to survive this. Despite the odds, I know you will do your best, and Ukyo and Rei will save Zhu-Shu, and that will be sufficient. Compared to all of you, I am the most useless in this situation. I have to depend on you to save me."
Clove blew a lock of Ying-Ying's hair out of her face and smiled quirkily. "And I have to depend on the combat skills of a girl I just met, because my heart tells me to trust her," she said softly. "I couldn't defeat Xi'an Chi as a dragon, but yet..."
Ying-Ying nodded as she joined Clove in looking out the viewport the direction Ukyo and the rest had vanished into the giant ship.
Sometimes, darkness is not comforting.
Seeing Emeraude attacking had been too much. She'd stopped fighting uselessly against Shadow and fled, unable to bear watching her soul mate's suffering any longer. She'd simply turned and run deeper into the darkness within which she had been bound.
Why can't I just disappear! All I have done is cause my loved ones pain and hardship. If I had only disappeared, Ukyo and Rei and all my friends would not be in such danger! If I had only controlled my emotions for a few moments and woken up one of my soul mates to discover the truth instead of giving in to my doubts and jealousy...
She ran, blinded by the darkness and her tears, Shadow's gleeful and vicious laughter slowly fading behind her as she fled. Shadow had been all too happy to torment her with the knowledge of the true situation between Clove and her other soul mates, even including the fact that Ying-Ying had learned to assume a physical form even though she was still a ghost. The evil version of her created by the Chaos crystal and the Shikon jewel still viewed them all as betrayers out of petty jealousy, but her more rational self had acknowledged that she had allowed baseless emotions to overwhelm her common sense. She had been too overwrought by her possession by Naraku and the dark influence of the Shikon to think clearly, and in her despair had unthinkingly delivered herself directly into the far worse possession inflicted by Xi'an Chi. Naraku had been casually cruel, but Xi'an Chi took great delight in tormenting her. His malice had been unceasing, and had only fueled her misery and despair. All she desired now was an end. Even if Ukyo and the others could make it to the throne room, Xi'an Chi was just too strong. If she could only disappear, perhaps her soul mates could sense it was too late to save her and escape...
But how does one disappear from one's own mind?
She fell, collapsing as she sobbed. For a long time, she laid there until the tears just wouldn't come anymore. She lay, blinking the tears away as she looked at her hand laying before her eyes.
It took several minutes for her to notice the oddity though.
Her hand wasn't black. Her pale skin still had a pearlescent sheen, like a thin layer of diamonds coated it, transparent and glittering, but it wasn't the near obsidian she had reluctantly grown used too following her transformation under Naraku. Her nails were different too. They weren't as long as they had been, and like her skin, had changed color from an obsidian to a silver so pure they were like curved mirrors. Top and undersides both looked like polished metal.
It was about the time she was looking at them in wonder that she realized there was light coming from behind her. The darkness all around her was still black as pitch, but she herself was illuminated softly.
She turned and started. The silver dragon's nose was just inches from her, yet she had not heard a single whisper of sound. Liquid platinum eyes blinked at her slowly as the dragon tilted its head slightly to the side. And it glowed, faintly, but strongly enough to illuminate Zhu-Shu's body. Zhu-Shu scooted back a few feet to see the dragon smiling.
I was wondering when you'd notice me, an amused version of her own voice said in her head. I've been waiting for you to turn around and see me for quite awhile, you know.
Zhu-Shu blinked. W- w- who are you? she asked the same way. It wasn't like talking over the soul-links, there was no sense of presence through the butterfly that fluttered silently in the back of her mind. It was more like a noiseless sound that reverberated from all around her.
You know who I am, Zhu-Shu. You deny me constantly, but I have always been here, my sister-self.
The first thought that came to mind was the Dragon, but her grandfather had always addressed Legend as male, and she had no doubt from the other's mental touch that she was female. And familiar, like someone who's name was just out of reach of her memory. But she couldn't place the silver dragon.
Would correcting you to platinum give you a hint? I'm not really silver you know. Her voice was amused. Delicate wings fluttered for a second before folding back against her body. Silver is kind of beneath an Empress after all.
Zhu-Shu kind of deflated. Oh. So I've finally gone mad. Good. Hurry up and eat me so this torment can end. Shadow has already stolen my body. You might as well enjoy my soul.
The platinum dragon rolled her eyes. I am not here to eat you, Zhu-chan. I am you after all. We are just a single soul, you and I. Eating you is impossible.
Stop playing with me beast and just finish the job. You've already stolen my body.
I am not Shadow, nor am I a beast. And to stop your second guess and rejection, I am not Lin Tzu either. You and she, and all of our other incarnations are me. I am what you know in your deepest heart you are.
Zhu-Shu looked away, refusing to meet her gaze. I am just a human. A servant. I don't want the titles. I don't want to be an empress, or the daughter of the Dragon. I just want to be Zhu-Shu. If you didn't exist, none of the horrors I have inflicted on my soulmates would have occurred!
Are you so certain of that?
The dragoness sighed. Still running away I see. Why are you afraid of me? she asked sadly. I am just the same as you, a part of you, and we are one. I have the same hopes and dreams, the same desires and heartaches. We are the same being, yet you refuse to acknowledge me.
You have brought me nothing but pain and sadness!
Is that really what you think? Why do you think you can bond with your soul mates? Is that a 'human' ability? To be able to know one another on a level beyond the physical, that is a gift I bestowed upon you! When that stupid prank with the dragon wine occurred, who do you think used it to give you wings? When the Ultimate Force nearly destroyed us, who do you think called Odin to save us? And I used the overflowing power within us to remove your curse and give you the form you most desired! And still you reject me?
You turned me into a beast! A black scaled monster who is nothing but an animal!
Look at yourself, Zhu-Shu. Do you look black scaled? You were unconscious when Naraku found you. The shards turned you black, not me. The despair and resentment you buried inside you gave it a meal it could not resist. And I was powerless to help you because you deny me.
And why should I believe you? Xi'an Chi has probably just created you to torment me further.
Look into my eyes and say that.
Zhu-Shu turned away sulked, refusing to look at the dragoness.
You can't. You and I both know I am a truth you simply do not wish to see. But that does not change the fact that I am still a truth.
Zhu-Shu sobbed silently. I don't want to be a beast.
The dragoness sighed heavily. You know I am not a beast, and neither are you.
Then what am I?! I am certainly no longer human thanks to you! If you didn't exist, Xi'an Chi would have no use for me! My loved ones wouldn't be facing such danger trying to rescue me! Because of you, they are going to DIE! They don't realize how strong he is!
But you do, don't you?
Zhu-Shu beat her fists against the darkness underneath her. YES! He will kill them! Their only hope is my death! So long as I exist, they will seek to save me and they will die!
So you have no faith in them?
N- n... she couldn't continue. The words caught in her throat because they were a lie. Rationally, she knew rescue was impossible. But that little butterfly in the back of her mind kept whispering that her friends would come, and that they would overcome her tormentor. There was no logic, no rational basis to those quiet whispers, but they wouldn't cease, even now in the depths of her despair.
And... there was that resonant crystalline ringing. It echoed in her head like a bell, haunting her every thought. She shook her head, her earrings chiming, and she lifted a hand to feel them, the oddness of them being there even here, where she was otherwise naked, penetrating the dark haze surrounding her thoughts.
Another truth you have no wish to acknowledge, the dragoness said softly. One you fled from so hard that you abandoned even your conscious mind to avoid it. For awhile there, we truly were an animal, and look at what that led us to do. The more you run away, the worse the outcome.
Zhu-Shu shivered, unable to find a retort to her words. She drew her hand away from the earring, several locks of her hair catching on her hand to drift into her view. Like her nails, the strands were now a metallic silver, like fine silk threads spin from quicksilver. She sighed as she drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms and tail around them, the fine scales covering it now identical to the dragoness's, tiny little specks of metal that glittered like powdered silver. Silently, she closed her eyes and started rocking gently.
Ignoring me isn't going to change anything. The dragoness sighed at her silence and shook her head. Fine. I'll leave you alone for now, but you're going to have to acknowledge me soon Zhu-Shu, or we really will die, and so will our loved ones. We don't have the luxury of running away anymore.
She turned with a huff and faded, leaving Zhu-Shu alone in front of a mirror reflecting nothing...
And sometimes, darkness dreams...
Growls and screams of rage echoed across the vast arena as the white cloaked figure approached the throne where she sat. She idly played with a dagger larger than the approching figure with one hand as she rested her head on another in apparent boredom, but her eyes followed the feminine figure intently. It would not do to show the stranger had caught her interest. She balanced the dagger on her fingertip as the figure stopped and bowed.
"Greeting, O Great Lord of Chaos."
She leaned forward, the necklace of human skulls around her neck clacking as she reached out with one of her giant swords to push the hood back to reveal a white-haired humanoid of advanced years, with the facial tattoos of a servant of Asgard.
"You risk much to come here, traveler. Surely Odin warned you of how unlikely it is that you would walk out of my halls alive, even if you bring tribute."
"I am aware, Great Lord. And I do not bring tribute. Only a gift. One which I believe you will find worth more than my life."
She raised an eyebrow. "Gift? You would bribe me?" She chuckled. "There is no treasure in this world great enough to tempt me, 'goddess'."
"I bring no treasure, Dancer. I bear no gold or object of great worth. What I bring to you has no value to any save yourself. It is not a bribe, and I request nothing in return."
"Not even your life? Are you that much of a fool that you will not even bargain?"
"I have no need to, Great Lord."
She sat her swords in their stands next to her throne as she separated from the obsidian statue to stand before the Asgardian in a smaller form, her blue skinned hand reaching out to cup the elderly woman's chin. It was impossible to guess her age, but she was still a great beauty, her long lashes framing eyes that curiously held no fear.
"It has been long since any Asgardian has stood before me without fear, goddess. Odin alone can trespass here without fear of death. He knows I will kill all others. Only youkai are welcome within Jusendo's halls."
"You will not kill me." the elderly goddess said simply. "I have no need to fear."
She flickered, reappearing behind the goddess, her dagger pressed to her jugular. "Certain of that are you?"
"Yes." The goddess's voice was unruffled and still assured. "You will not kill me before I give you the gift I have brought, and you will not wish to once you have received it."
She sheathed her dagger as she stepped back in front of the elderly woman, shifting to her young girl form. "Curious. So what is this 'gift'?"
The goddess held up a faintly glowing data crystal. "A memory."
She blinked. "A mere data crystal?"
"To anyone else, yes. But for you, it is a gift beyond all others."
She touched the crystal, confirming it was just a simple data file, and nothing else. Her systems probed it more deeply, revealing nothing sinister, no traps, no strange coding. It was simply a memory file, exactly as the goddess had claimed, a simple sensory recording of someone, and nothing else.
She tilted her head at the goddess. "And you believe this is worth your life?"
The goddess shook her head. "No. It is worth far more than that. Please, take it. It is for you, and you alone. I doubt you would wish to share it with anyone else."
Her hand closed around the crystal. "Very well, we shall see." She waved to the guards on either side. "Take her to my chambers. Depending on what this 'gift' is, she may serve as dinner."
The white haired goddess smiled. "I would be honored to share a meal with you, Great Lord."
The entire court laughed. She ignored them as she shifted to her personal sanctuary.
She had Jormungandr scan the crystal several more times before she finally accessed the memory file and found herself in a female human body sitting cross-legged on a pillow in a large room paneled in wood. It was odd to be limited to only the human's senses, but the crystal held no more complex data, merely the most basic five sensory streams. She took the time to examine her surroundings before beginning the replay, noting that it seemed to be early morning, in a fairly primitive wooden dojo built in a unfamiliar style, and that the body she was riding along in seemed to be a young woman in exceptionally good physical condition for a human, but other than senses, no other information was available. The host's memories and emotions were not included in the file. It seemed she was expected to focus solely on the experience using her own identity.
She did have to admit the subject of the experience was pretty. She was standing before the host body in a pose of uncharacteristic grace, the red silk of her outfit teasing at her shapely form. She was quite obviously a half dragon, which pleased her. At least the goddess realized how little she would care to watch a human do anything. And this dragon kin was exceptionally beautiful for her kind, her alabaster skin and raven black hair shining in the light, and her black wings and tail glittering like diamond dust. Her dance outfit was a trifle odd, not quite the traditional shivan dress, but it was obviously a variant. The bells and chimes were not quite right either, but they were properly placed for maximum effect. She chuckled to herself.
So, she wishes to impress the Dancer with a dance, hummm? Quite interesting. Very well. let's see what this girl has to offer.
A heavy roll of drums began as the girls arms shot out to the sides, her ribbons extending in a whipcrack as her heel came down in a crash of chimes. Then the girl was humming a mesmerizing tune unlike any she had heard before. She warmed up with a series of slow stretches as the music's temp slowly built. She had to give the girl credit for the skill she showed at muscle control, even her ribbons seeming to move in slow motion as she drew in and built her energies. Small glowing balls of gold flickered along her ribbons as she drew close to her host and stopped at the edge of the floor as complete silence fell. For almost twenty seconds she held perfectly still as her ribbons slowly drifted down around her, and then the beat resumed strongly.
And when the girl began to dance, Sarhia found herself unable to breathe as her entire world changed...
There were no crowds this time. The arena was empty of the youkai that she had always surrounded herself with. The stands were dark, only the black stone of the floor illuminated as Odin crossed it to where Sarhia sat on the feet of the black statue. She looked up as he stopped before her, the tears falling from her eyes unheeded to add to the streaks of white that already trailed across the stone.
"So... it is finished."
She sighed. "I am surprised Mir-Lin did not accompany you. He does so enjoy playing the role of father."
"I wanted to see you alone."
She looked at the ornate spear in his hand. "You've come to slay Jormungandr, haven't you?" She waved resignedly towards the wall behind her statue. "The stairs are there. You will find her sleeping below."
Odin leaned Gungnir against the statue's feet as he sat beside her. "I have no intention of harming her, Sarhia. Let her sleep."
She blinked. "So you will spare her the fate of Leviathan, Baphomet, Tiamat and all her brothers and sisters?"
"Yes. Like you, she is different. You never bound her in chains and turned her into a feral creature as the other lords did their dragons. I could not save them."
She lifted one hand to reveal the sliver of data crystal. "It is strange how intertwined I have become with the Ancient. My power relies on one of his offspring, my future on another. Even my present is the result of his servant's intercession. Hild would have gladly taken my head after I surrendered the throne of Hel had Mir-Lin not prevented her." She sighed. "My former second sees me only as a threat to her happiness because of our past."
"She carries my child. She loves me, and I her, but our fundamental matrices are polar opposites. It makes her insecure. Once we have finished what must be done, we will face the Gate of Testing. Once she knows our love is true, she will be less jealous."
"I wish you success, Odin. A union of Asgardian and Hellion might do much to heal the rift we created in our madness and hatred."
"Hopefully." He looked around the dark arena and sighed. "Why here, Sarhia? I would have been more than happy to have provided you a home in Asgard."
"This suites me. You were always too kind hearted, Odin. Look around you. My city lies in ruin on the mountain above us, destroyed by my own hand. My fortress has become a deathtrap for the unwary, impossible for any save those of superhuman skill or divine origin to enter. Even the very ground below Jusendo is cursed with the fell magics of my twisted experiments, turning any who fall prey to the springs into forms not their own. I need the reminder, Odin. I cannot allow myself to forget what I was if I am to remain strong enough to be what I must. I am accursed, and so is my former kingdom. We deserve each other."
Odin's hand settled on top of the one holding the data crystal. "Yet you said the goddess who came to you told you it would not always be."
Sarhia nodded. "Yes. Such a foolish thing, hope. I have placed my trust in someone not even you know of. A goddess with no origin, who claimed she was from the future." She slid her hand out from under his as she lifted it once more, the crystal levitating to spin just above her palm. "For a memory of a love yet to be."
"This is a cruel task you have set yourself, Sarhia."
"It is a necessary one, Odin."
"Very well. I shall do as you asked, and once the Solar Federation is firmly established, I will seal away the gates between the mortal and immortal realms. Serenity will hold the Imperium, and the Kingdom of the Moon shall remain the sole trade route. Only the mortals will remain on Earth. Hild and I have devised a way to prevent Hellian and Asgardian from continuing their mindless striving, in hopes of creating a lasting peace. We shall create a bond between every child from both realms, linking their lives together, so that the death of one will result in the death of the other. None shall know who they are bonded to, so that the risk of killing themselves will stay their hands. With my marriage to Hild, and the Doublet system, we hope that the endless wars will finally cease. Earth shall become our garden to nurture, instead of our battleground."
"Chaos will not let it remain so. The removal of the immortals will merely weaken her abilities to manipulate things as directly as she has with beings like myself."
Odin sighed. "I promised to protect you, Sarhia. I failed so badly."
"We were children, Odin. Neither of us had any idea how cruel the world would be. It was a promise that you never could have kept. I was created to be a toy, and you a warrior. You were fortunate enough to meet Mir-Lin, and I - I was unfortunate enough to be seduced by Chaos."
"Yet it is a promise I will make to you again." Odin said softly. "I will not allow any further harm to come to you."
Sarhia smiled gently through her tears. "The harm has already been done." She traced the jagged lightning bolt shaped scar on her cheek. "A hundred years of slavery and pain, and nine hundred of terrible revenge. I lost the ability to feel pain long ago." One of her hands reached up to brush his hair away from the eyepatch. "We have each paid for our power with our bodies, and will forever wonder if the reward was worth the cost." Her hand cupped his cheek. "You will always be my paladin, with your toy sword and play armor. I will always remember the tousled hair and lopsided grin as you crowned me with a wreath of flowers."
"And I will never see you any other way than the most beautiful of maidens." He lifted her hand and kissed it. "You will never look natural to me with only a single pair of arms, no matter what form you assume."
She shimmered and reformed as an unscarred and younger version of herself, yet not so young as usual. She rose from the statue's feet to stand before him, looking as she had so long ago, a young woman on the edge of maturity, clad in the simple white tunic of a slave. He rose with her, the years and grey hair fading to black as he offered her his hand. She smiled as she took it, one hand smearing the tears across her cheek as she looked into the familiar face, and his dancing blue eyes. Then she stepped forward and wrapped all of her arms around him in a hug as he gently stroked her hair.
"You have always done your best to take care of me, haven't you? Even when I was a Lord of Chaos, and you had risen to rule Asgard."
"Of course I have, Sarhia. And I always will. That's what older brothers are supposed to do for their cute little sisters."
"Thank you, onii-chan..."
He smiled, and stepped back, his hand sweeping towards the empty floor of the arena as memories of a grassy field under an afternoon sun filled the darkness. Cherry blossoms floated across the field like drifting snow. He bowed to her. "Before I must go and lock the door, would you grant your brother one last request, as the last remaining Great Lord?"
She smiled, her tunic shimmering to become the golden silks of Shiva. "Yes, my Lord Protector. For the memory of our childhood innocence, Lady Shiva will grant you a dance."
She stepped forwards into the field, her many arms flexing as she assumed a stance and closed her eyes. The world around her faded as in her mind's eye, she stood before the dragon girl.
She had known the dance intimately, though she had not danced it in nearly a thousand years. It had been a dance she had never once performed before anyone, one she had created to be shown to one person and one person alone. It had never been meant for a single dancer. And that was what had shattered her heart. She had known intimately the steps performed by the dragon girl, but it was not a dance that Sarhia herself had ever performed.
Because it was the missing half of the duet. The half that could never be danced by Sarhia alone...
The beat of the drums came from nowhere, followed by the strange atonal melody that the dragon girl had sung as she danced with the memory, an intertwining harmony of motion and sound, the chimes of her outfit and those of the dragon girls merging into a single complex song as their ribbons swirled and danced around them. They danced like moths around a flame, red and gold flickering as their energies left streamers in the air, and their hands teasingly dance across each other's bodies. Delicate hands gently plucked layer after layer of silk from each other's bodies until they both danced before one another naked, their intertwining ribbons separating them from the universe outside their secret bubble. Then the bubble burst, the ribbons no longer concealing, but reveling in their shared passion.
And then, it drew to a close, and she came to a final stance behind the illusory dragon girl, one set of arms raised, her palms pressed together, the second set outstretched, elbows bent and her thumbs and middle fingers touching, while her last set surrounded the space where her partner would one day be, clasped protectively together to show she would never let her go...
Odin kissed her softly on the cheek as field faded back into the arena. "Thank you Sarhia. One day she will no longer be a phantom, and I will dry your tears for all time."
He stroked her cheek softly, shaking his head at the touch of marble, then turned and let her remain in her memories, a silent statue alone in the dark.
Authors Note: I edited the original posted chapter to include this final section. I had originally intended it to be part of the next chapter, but it fit better here.