His muscles were sore from hours of hard labour. The afternoon sun was harsh against the unprotected skin of his back. His hands hurt, the skin raw from using the heavy labouring tools all day long. His lips were dry and his throat hurt from thirst. Yet, for the first time he could care to recall, Shinji was happy.
He had just turned sixteen. And with adulthood came his chance at finally proving himself; to show the village that he was more than just some unknown bastard from some faceless noble. When he had heard that there was a shortage of workers to till this year's crops, Shinji had given his name without hesitation.
The work promised to be hard, and if he understood correctly, poorly paid. While the nobles whose land he toiled on, the Kuno clan, was the village's richest family they were also well known for being stingy. But Shinji didn't care. Never in his life had he possessed a single copper piece to call his own, let alone any silver. For him, even a chance at a little coin was an improvement. But that was not why he was toiling under the bright sun and welcoming it. It was about showing the other villagers that he existed, and that he was capable of doing *something*.
"Hey Shinji! It's break time, you can stop already!"
But Shinji didn't stop. He would show them... show them all that he could be as good as any other. The other men just shrugged as they settled down under the shade of an isolated tree, watching him work.
"If he thinks he's trying to get a raise, he's in for a surprise."
The labourers fell into an uncomfortable silence as the young master Takewaki chuckled at something he felt was amusing. The workers tried to avoid drawing attention to themselves, the young lord being known for abusing the power his position provided. Focusing on their all too brief moment of rest, they didn't see the young lord's eyes set themselves on Shinji and narrow in annoyance.
An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story
Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX
Written by Alain Gravel
Assisted by Myssa Elaine Santos Rei Darren Demaine
CHAPTER 4 - The Storm Within
The soft voice pulled Shinji from his working trance. He blinked once, twice, then lowered his hoe. Looking right, he saw a pair of uncertain blue eyes, framed by straight black hair looking at him.
Shinji blinked again then looked down at the eyes' owner, a girl his own age he knew as Ami, who was offering him a cup of water.
"Oh... thank you..." said Shinji, blushing slightly, as he took the offered cup and drank from it. The water was fresh and relief seemed to wash over him as it slowly slid down his throat.
"I've seen you here these last few days... you're really working hard... I thought you could use a drink."
The girl seemed somewhat nervous. Shinji for his part, found himself overwhelmed. He wasn't used to people being nice to him, and here was a girl who had come to the fields to see HIM. He mirrored her blush.
Why would she come to see him? He hardly knew her. His past had been a particularly harsh teacher and had taught him well that his presence was often an unwelcome one. The manner of his arrival in the village and his attitude isolated him from others, so he hardly knew anyone. But he had seen Ami before; her father owned the bakery in town and she helped out by delivering loads of bread. In fact, as he looked at the position of the sun in the sky, he ventured a guess that she had just finished one such delivery.
And while he couldn't say that he knew her, another glance in her direction acknowledged that she was very cute. Even if Shinji wasn't the most social of persons, he was still a teenager. Although too awkward to actually seek companionship like some of his peers, he had found himself becoming more and more curious about the mystery that was female kind. And he most certainly wasn't immune to the enchantments its members could cast. Shinji found himself blushing even more as he realized his eyes had strayed down to the girl's modest, yet attractive chest, and snapped his gaze back up to her eyes. If she noticed, she was too polite to mention anything.
"Err.. thanks. I appreciate this. I was thirsty... and... uh... yeah, thirsty."
"I.... I'm glad..."
Shinji was too nervous to notice that the girl seemed as uneasy with the situation as he was. Fortunately for both of them, while he'd been looking at her blouse, Ami had dropped her gaze to his bare chest, bringing her eyes back up at the same time he did. It saved them both from further embarrassment.
"Do you... do you... do you want me to come back tomorrow?" blurted the girl, after an uncomfortable moment. "To bring you something to drink... of course... "
Shinji felt a weird warmth flow over him and couldn't help a long unused smile from splitting his face. The girl's eyes widened. It wasn't something she'd ever seen from him.
"I... I'd like that..."
"I will not allow this!"
Startled, both the girl and Shinji turned around to see Takewaki approaching them. It was too late however, for Shinji to try and avoid a swing of the heavy oak cudgel in the other's grip. Pain exploded in his shoulder as the blunt weapon hit and the force threw him to the freshly worked soil.
"Is that bastard boy the reason you rejected me, Ami?"
Rolling over in an attempt to get up, Shinji didn't see the kick that rammed into his stomach, blasting the breath from his lungs and dropping him back into the hard soil once more. Stars swam before his eyes as he laboured to get air in. There was a pounding in his ears, blocking out sound. Fighting through the pain he could just make out the enraged shouting above him.
"Ami! A fair flower like yourself shouldn't be wasted! Not on a low breed bastard peasant like this!"
Sucking in painful gasps of air, Shinji raised his head to see Takewaki approach the scared girl and forcefully take hold of her.
"No! Let... let me go!"
Shinji saw Takewaki slap Ami, the force of the blow staggering the small girl. Grasping her chin forcefully in his grasp the noble smashed his lips against hers, the victor greedily taking his spoils.
ANGER! HATRED! RAGE! There was an explosion of emotion behind his eyes, and Shinji felt more in that one instant than he ever had in his life. The pounding in his ears turned into the thunder of a raging windstorm as something buried deep inside him broke free.
- - -
Shinji opened his eyes, the emotion of rage no longer part of him, just a cold feeling of emptiness in its place. His senses were still somewhat off, but out of habit he raised his hands to look at them.
While his hands showed no sign of it, he knew better. They were stained, drenched in blood. He could see it, in his mind, like he could feel the coppery taste in his mouth, like he could smell the scent of it on the air, lingering phantoms of a day he could never forget.
The day he had become a monster.
Suddenly remembering about the Kagenoshi, Shinji sat up, grunting in pain, yet his heart pounding and his senses alert. As he took notice of his surroundings he saw that such danger was, for the moment, a thing of the past. The sharp edge of danger left him and he began to feel a dull ache all over.
He looked around the cave, noticing the small fire still burning, as well as a sleeping Misato. He felt an exhausting sense of relief as he saw her. He didn't clearly remember what had happened before, but he could recall her collapsing lifelessly, her unconscious body being battered by one of the Kagenoshi's attacks. While he could see some bandages on her and signs of fading injuries, to see her sleeping peacefully was a good sign he ventured.
Besides, she was snoring loudly enough to wake the dead.
Raising a hand, he took notice of his own bandaged state. Both arms were covering in wrappings, his right stiff and painful to move. Pushing away the covers that draped his body, he saw that his chest was tightly bound in gauze as well. Looking at Misato, he wondered who had taken care of them, when details from the fight rushed back into his mind.
Painfully he picked up what he had mistaken for the blanket that had covered him and realized it was a blue cape. The fabric was thin and soft, like nothing he had touched before, yet it was so warm over his legs. He brought the cape to his face and took a deep breath. It smelled of leaves, flowers, and some light but intoxicating scent he couldn't quite recognize.
"You are awake now."
Shinji gasped and let go of the cape, bringing his head up to see
the elf standing in front of him. He couldn't help but blush
furiously, feeling as if he had been caught doing something improper.
Which probably wasn't too far from the truth. While it wasn't quite
as bad as it would have been with other... garments... Shinji's inept
social skills still hazarded a guess that women didn't take too
kindly to strangers smelling their clothing.
"It's... it's not what you think-" Shinji tried to explain as the elf leaned towards him, her eyes fixed on his. "I didn't mean to-"
The elf just ignored him and pulled on her cape. Shinji cringed, preparing for the worse, but the elf just looked at him. He blinked as she knelt down aside him and slowly caressed his bandaged chest with her fingertips.
"Your wounds are healing very well," she said simply, then began to remove the sodden bandages.
Shinji didn't really know what else to say, and he found the elf's proximity to be rather distracting. Along with her cape, the elf had also removed her epaulettes, gloves and gauntlets. And while her tunic was high collared, its sleeveless cut still exposed delicate and creamy white arms and hugged her body well enough to hint lovely curves. Shinji quickly found his face growing hot for an entirely new reason and prayed that she wouldn't notice. How he could possibly think of something like that when his whole body was aching in pain... but her close proximity as well as her feather light touches were very distracting. At least he could tell that he still had his pants on.
For several minutes, the elf removed the old bandages to replace them with new ones. Shinji stiffened lightly as the elf tightly bound his ribs and right arm.
"Your arm and a number of your ribs were fractured," said the elf in answer to Shinji's unspoken question.
"This is why you are in pain. But the injuries are recovering well and the pain will soon be gone."
Slightly, Shinji moved his right arm again. The pain was indeed bearable.
"How did I get injured like this? Was it the Kagenoshi?"
Without another work, the elf removed her cape from Shinji to tend to his legs. Whatever had happened to him, his pants had suffered from it. They were ripped and shredded, with one leg completely torn away. Although, considering how his leg was bandaged, Shinji wondered if it hadn't been cut on purpose. That train of thought was derailed, however, as Shinji let out a gasp, as he realized that the elf's hands were caressing his now unbandaged right leg.
"Do you feel pain?"
"No... I..." Shinji felt himself at a loss for words as her hands reached his thigh.
"The bone and tissues are healing well. You should be able to walk. Excessive strain is, however, unadvisable for a few more days."
Apparently satisfied, the elf's hands left Shinji's legs. While a part of him was disappointed, Shinji still sighed in relief.
"You should rest now. You seem to be still slightly feverish. Your face is all red."
Shinji stared at her dumbly as she helped him lie down and covered him again with her cape. He found himself staring at the cave ceiling for a long time, wondering if the Elvin girl had been humouring him, or if she was really as innocent as she seemed.
- - -
When he woke up again, Shinji noticed that the pain in his arm and sides had lessened considerably. In fact, the only pain that he could feel acutely was centered on his stomach. He couldn't remember ever having been as hungry as he was right now. He sat up, feeling only discomfort as he solicited work from unused muscles, but no pain.
While a small fire cast its warm glow over the secluded cave he could see pale silvery moonlight outside the entrance. It had been light when he awoke before, which meant that he had slept most of the day. A particularly loud snore told him what his eyes confirmed a moment later: Misato was still asleep. This concerned him, maybe her condition was far worse than he had first assumed. He didn't know what he would do if... That thought was quickly thrust aside, and he focused on his hunger pains. That was a problem he was more familiar with.
"You are hungry."
Shinji screamed, jumped up, and stumbled away from the presence that had suddenly materialized behind him. Her words were spoken in a casual, soft tone that nonetheless found their way over the crackle of the fire. As he tried to recover from the beat or two his heart had skipped, Shinji blinked at the elf now standing before him.
"You... you scared the hell out of me!" Shinji screamed, his heart making up for the beats it had missed by pumping adrenaline through his system. The mix of awkwardness and admiration he felt for the elven girl being pushed aside by a flash of momentary anger.
"If you are able to jump out of bed like that, then you are feeling better."
Shinji's indignation dissipated at that comment, as he found himself unable to counter that argument. That's when he noticed that the elf was holding a slightly steaming bowl and a small hunk of bread in her hands.
Shinji blushed as a low growl made itself heard at the sight.
"Come," said the elf as she knelt down. "You need to eat."
Shinji approached, hesitantly.
"Are you sure that..." he pointed the cape on the floor, on which she had invited him to sit on.
"Do not worry. It is of enchanted. And even if it was not, it would only be a piece of fabric."
Shinji nodded at the wisdom of her words and did as she said. She handed him the bowl, which he took with a bow and words of gratitude. As his fingers came in contact with the wooden bowl, Shinji noted from the feel of its surface that it seemed to have been carved only recently. He also took note of its perfect smoothness, an indication of a work of great dexterity.
The contents of the bowl didn't look as good as the bowl itself. It seemed to be a soup, of an ugly greenish brown. He could recognize floating on it what seemed like mushrooms and roots, as well as other herbs and plants he couldn't quite distinguish, not being well fared in the knowledge of edible plants. Shinji didn't really care about the look of the meal offered to him, however, as pangs of pain reminded him of how hungry he was. So he brought the bowl without hesitation to his lips, closed his eyes, and let the substance slid into his mouth, then down his throat. A moment later, his eyes snapped open.
"Wow! This is good!"
Shinji's taste buds wept in joy, at the explosion of flavors that filled his mouth, as he let the rest of the soup wash into his mouth. It tasted great, unlike anything he had ever tasted before, numerous and subtle flavors blending together to make a poor looking meal the equivalent of a chef's best recipe.
The elf bowed politely before him.
"I am happy that you like it."
"It's really, really good! I've been cooking ever since I was a child, but never I've tasted something like that!"
"It is a recipe that my kind has been improving over the centuries. The mixture of herbs and spices brings flavor, but will also give strength and help injuries heal."
"Nice," Shinji replied as he finished the bowl. With another bow, he gave the empty bowl back to the elf.
Silently, she accepted it, delicately put it on the ground, then handed Shinji the piece of bread she had been holding while he had been eating the soup.
While not as sensory overwhelming as the soup, the bread was still soft and excellent. Like the soup, it tasted of herbs, but it was sweetened by the presence of wild fruits.
After being done with half of the bread, Shinji looked at the elf, who's gaze had been fixed on him the whole time. He blushed slightly, but managed to say the words that had been on his mind for some time.
"Err.. miss... I don't mean to be rude, and I'm grateful for what you've done for us, but... why are you doing all this? Saving what remained of Edo from the fire, following up, risking your life to help us against the Kagenoshi, taking care of us..."
Her eyes met his again, and he had the impression that gaze could pin his soul to the wall behind him.
"It is my sacred duty."
"Your sacred duty?"
"Yes. I am a priestess of Lilith, therefore it is my duty to help those in need. I am also the Water Chosen. Wherever the forces of the Dark rise, it is my duty to fight them."
Something in her words caught his attention more than the rest.
"Chosen? As in Lilith's Chosen?"
The elf girl nodded and then closed her eyes.
"A time of infamy,
Of Darkness long foretold,
When One long fallen will rise against,
The Light most revered,
Aligning with those who are Lost,
To bring a tide of Blood and Tears,
Yet hearten all, despair not,
All is not lost,
Heroes four, of heart disparate,
Shall take up the Sacred Torch.
One of Wind, a child whose heart is torn,
Whose gentle touch is like the breeze,
Can become a whirling storm,
Whose yearning is to be accepted,
But whose past brings pity and scorn.
One of Water, Tempest blue,
Her eyes a sea of fire
Whom nature sheltered and Magic raised,
As soft as the ocean's spray,
As cold as the azure depths below.
One of Fire, Heart Unreadable,
Her soul a battleground,
Whose passion, a fickle blaze,
Can give needed warmth,
Or burn and most often scald.
One of Earth, of Rock and Steadfast strength,
Quickly dismissed and misunderstood,
Whose bluster is a steely mask,
A thick fa?ade,
Hiding a heart of Gold.
Listen all, never despair,
Lest ye fall victim to the Night,
For in the world's darkest hour,
The Four shall carry on the Fight!"
The girl opened her eyes, which seemed to burning with an intense determination.
"I am the Water Chosen. I am the will to fight the Darkness given form. It is my fate and my charge. It is to be your fate as well. I have suspected so, when I realized that you had sensed my presence in that village. The attacks of the Kagenoshi and the unsealing of your powers during the last battle confirmed it. You are the Wind Chosen."
Shinji looked away from her. As she had been talking, he had been expecting that. It didn't mean he had to like it.
"So, you'll say that I'll need to fight."
"Yes. If you do not, you will die, as well as countless others."
"Not much of a choice..."
For the first time since she had came to bring him his meal, the elf's face softened, a certain sadness visible in her eyes.
"No. It is rather a heavy burden."
Shinji suddenly found himself ashamed. Here he was, selfishly complaining about his life without realizing that others were suffering worse than him. Here was another, a creature of beauty, surely destined for greater things than fighting monsters, of whom the same was asked and who had accepted her fate. She could obviously have been so much more, whereas he was nothing more than some unknown bastard, good for nothing else but violence. Where did he gain the right to complain about his fate?
Looking at the pale, momentarily vulnerable features of her face, Shinji made a decision; the first life changing decision he had ever made for himself.
"Maybe... maybe it won't be as heavy... if we're not trying to carry it on our own... but together."
The elf looked at him. He could see hope, joy, and the renewal of her determination in he eyes.
"I'm Shinji," he said, as he presented her his hand. A shy smile appeared on the elf's face as her hand met his, silently sealing their fate with one another.
"My name is Rei," she simply said.
Shinji smiled, feeling happy for a reason he couldn't quite explain. That feeling of being unfocused, drifting, not knowing your place... it had been part of him his whole life without him consciously acknowledging it. Now that sensation was gone, and the constant state of vexation he had never really pinned down was also missing.
"Ah, you two look so cute together! Will you invite me to the wedding?"
Shinji nearly jumped out of his skin as yet again, another unexpected voice made itself heard. His face flushed red as he realized he was still holding Rei's hand, her soft, delicate hand... Which he quickly let go as he scooted away from the elf, before his attention focused on Misato. The White Knight was obviously awake, her head resting on one of her arms, her gaze focused fondly on the two Chosen.
"It's nothing like that, Lady Misato! I'm just... I'm just..."
He looked towards Rei, in search of an answer, but noticed that her expression had returned to the neutral one that seemed to be normal for her.
"Oh sure! Holding the hand of a young woman, like that...
losing yourself into her eyes... you wanted to kiss her, didn't you?
A hot, deep, passionate kiss, as your hands... well, let's just say
your hands would be busy..."
The resting knight hooted with laughter. Shinji looked around for some way to salvage the situation only to see Rei staring back at him. The knight's laughter and the elf's mysterious gaze broke what little spirit Shinji had left and he fled for the safety of the outside world.
"Well, that was no fun..." pouted Misato, before turning her attention to Rei. "So, you decided to tell him, huh? Does that mean that you'll also be training him?"
Completely unphased by the human woman's teasing, the elf picked up Shinji's weapon from the ground and unsheathed it. Her eyes fixed the crimson blade for a moment, before answering.
"It may be dangerous. It might in fact bring our deaths. But there is no other choice. Without the Wind Chosen, we may not have enough strength to defeat the Darkness. And if he is not trained in how to use his powers, then he will be of no use to us, a burden at best. And perhaps sword discipline will teach him control and restraint. It may be possible."
Misato sat up. Her own wounds were healing nicely and Rei had even been able to use healing spells on her. She still felt very weak, though.
"You're right. He's a wild card we have no choice playing."
Rei lifted the blade, feeling the powers coursing through it. "The Goddess will protect us. I am sure."
Misato nodded. And as she had said, they had no other choice anyway.
Rei sheathed the blade and threw it back to Shinji who had just recovered enough of his tattered dignity to try an entrance. The startled young man barely caught it.
"Rest well. Tomorrow your training begins."
Shinji looked quizzically at Misato.
"She can show you the basics, Shinji. Trust me on that. Besides, I don't have the energy to move much, let alone cross blades with anyone." A rogue grin appeared on the knight's face. "She's got a knack for teaching young pups how to handle blades. As you two will be companions for a while, you might as well learn to work with her. Just don't let her do the thing with the bamboo stakes."
Shinji nodded. These seemed like very valid arguments. "Alright... Lady Rei?"
The young man blinked, as he found himself unable to find the elf anywhere.
"It's her style. Don't worry, she'll pop up when needed."
"Ah... So... Lady Misato... how was the Kagenoshi defeated?"
Misato's answer was to cover herself with her cape.
"Later... I'm tired..."
Finding himself without anything else to do, Shinji opted to follow his companions' advice and get more rest. But for some reason he couldn't shake a cold feeling that something was being kept from him.
- - -
The exhausted young girl, who looked no less older than eight, stumbled and fell to the ground, hissing as rocks scraped the skin of her palms she had instinctively used to break her fall. Blood poured from the deeper scratches staining her dark skin a deep crimson, but those injuries were far less severe than the deep cuts that now ran all over the soles of her bare feet. Not far behind her, she could hear her pursuers approaching, a duo of shisshars, and she could no longer hold in her tears of despairs.
Bardiel had warned her not to leave the protected walls of the clan refuge, especially at night. And now she understood, too late, how wise his advice had been.
She curled out in a ball, crying, scared, and ashamed of herself. She had been taught to be brave, to be a warrior, but here she was, about to die at the hands of a duo of lizard men, barely more intelligent than a common dog.
Fury in her eyes, ignited by the repulsion she felt for her weakness, she turned around to face her would be killers. Standing over five feet tall, the mutant reptile humanoids looked like giants to her, their dark green scaled bodies casting shadows over her small form. Grabbing the biggest stones she could find, she hurled them at the shisshars, only succeeding in infuriating them. She closed her eyes, to avoid seeing a razor sharp claw that was raised in order to strike her and open her up.
"Leave this child be."
The words has been spoken with a tone one would use for mundane conversation, the voice soft to the ears. Yet, the young girl felt power being carried through the voice, power that both made her shiver in fright and ignited a spark of hope within her. She dared open her eyes, to see a form standing behind the shisshars.
Her hopes were crushed on sight.
Compared to the shisshars, the man, as she hazarded to guess from the voice, stood rather small and frail. He had no weapon, holding only a worn wooden staff. He wore a worn beige traveler cloak, testament of years of travels, that might had been white at one time. A hood hid his head and a scarf most of his face. The only thing she found herself able to see was a pair of red eyes.
She didn't know why, but when she saw those eyes, ancient yet powerful, she knew that the shisshars were already dead.
One of the shisshars jumped to attack this unexpected but more substantial meal, but the cloaked figure was already in motion as it did. There was one swift movement from the man's part, followed by two distinct sounds; the sounds of old wood breaking and of bone cracking. The shisshar fell to the ground, dead, part of his skull now embedded into his brain. The man let go of the useless remains of his staff and his eyes focused on the remaining lizard man.
The dark elf girl watched with a mix of awe and fear as the stranger moved between the claws that threatened to shred him, his left hand firmly taking hold of the shisshar's face. She could see blood spill from wounds the deceptively weak-looking fingers dug, then with an animalistic scream, the stranger brought the shisshar's head down, smashing it against a large rock. Again and again he smashed the head; the rocky ground becoming slick with blood, skull fragments and bits of brain.
The shisshar had been dead for some time before the cloaked man was done opening his head like a nut.
As the stranger turned to looked at her, the girl's eyes went wide in surprise. His violent movements had made his hood fall from his head. She had never seen one before with her own eyes, but she recognized his features has being those of an High elf, as taught by her father. Pointy ears, pale skin, red eyes. She hissed at him, taking a rock in hand, readying herself to throw it at him.
"Stay away! I won't let your kind take me alive!"
He made a step toward her. Without hesitation, she threw her rock at him. He grunted as it hit his chest, but still made another step. The dark elf girl found herself suddenly overwhelmed with fear again, as he raised his bloodied hand toward her. Before she could react, the hand had grasped her throat and was lifting her off the ground, squeezing. She began to squirm in his grip, thoughts of kicking him vanishing as she simply struggled to free herself, fighting for breath. He just casually lifted her up some more, moving his arm from one side to the other, examining her features. The girl was about to pass out when he finally dropped her to the ground, as if she was no longer of any interest. Her throat on fire, tears in her eyes, she fearfully looked up at him.
"If you want to survive, become stronger."
She saw him lift one of the dead shisshars by its tail, and pulling it over one shoulder, walked away. Once she was able to breathe normally, she stood up and watched quizzically the now almost imperceptible form. As her hand rubbed her sore and bloodied throat, only one thought was on her mind.
'Strong. I want to be as strong as him.'
- - -
"This dream again... why must he always be in my thoughts?" Armisael wondered aloud as she stared at the stone ceiling of her chamber, her senses slowing adjusting to her wakened state.
It was a recurring dream, memories of the past that periodically rose from the depths of the mind. It had, however, been happening more frequently now. It was as if... something... didn't want her to think of anything else but him.
Mechanically she dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come.
That first encounter had changed her life. He had taught her a very important lesson. She had heard similar words from others before, but never had her life been tied to them in such a way as it was now. She owed her life to his strength. He owned her life.
That fact had been both humiliating and humbling. Her status as the daughter of her clan's leader didn't mean anything anymore. Her life had been saved by an High elf, her kind's nemesis. It was unacceptable.
From that point on, she struggled and prepared herself for the day when she would be able to claim back her life. She learned of the arts of the sword and dark magic, pushing herself to her limits and beyond, training with a determination unequalled in her kind. The day she reached adulthood, she ventured into the desert and let out a scream of challenge. Her blades sliced through the bodies of the dozen of shisshars who answered her call with embarrassing ease. It hadn't been enough to satisfy her though. She still had to face him.
She didn't even have to look for him.
Out of habit, her fingers traced a line on her throat. Healed by one of the rare half-elf females of her clan capable of using holy magic, the scar was almost imperceptible to anyone but those who knew it was there. Yet, she could somehow feel it under her fingers, she could feel the phantom pain of the tip of the blade that had drew blood there.
It only added to the humiliation that the blade had been one of her own.
Her musing was cut short as she realized there was another presence in the room besides her own. The past was forgotten for the time being and she smiled as she realized who it was, despite the meaning of such an intrusion at this time. She was getting better at concealing her presence, Armisael noted with satisfaction. Not that she would actually tell her pupil. It wouldn't be wise for her to get too confident, after all.
"I gather that the news mustn't be good for you to let me get a full night of sleep before delivering them."
"I'm sorry, my Lady. It was late when I sensed that you were back with us, and I figured that you could use some rest after traveling such a lengthy distance."
Armisael nodded. Crossing over half the length of Japan via a shadow jump had taxed her powers to near their limit. While she wouldn't admit it out loud, she had been glad to see her bed and had welcomed its comforting embrace.
"And you are right, the news are indeed bad."
The dark elf woman sat up, looking at the younger woman kneeling in front of her. Her skin was of a paler shade, her pointed ears smaller, testament of the human heritage that mixed with her dark elf blood. She was completely dressed in black and brown leather, from the fighting boots to the battle tunic, which hugged a shapely and attractive figure. Playfully, Armisael fussed over the wavy, shoulder-length hair of her companion.
"You know, you're the only person who would dare rouse me while I'm in bed. Well, aside from Bardiel, perhaps. He certainly wasn't shy of getting me out of bed at sunrise back in those days where I was learning swordplay under his tutelage."
"I know from experience, my Lady."
"Why don't you sit down and tell me how badly things have degraded in my absence, while I dress?"
The young half elf nodded and sat down in a chair, the only one in the room. As leader of the dark elf clans, Armisael could have been entitled to luxurious living quarters, but she cared very little for luxury. It only made a person weak. She much preferred to live among her subordinates, just as they did. A bed, a library to hold her books, a chest to hold her clothes and a desk with a chair for her studies was all that she needed. And the row of spikes outside her abode to remind some people of the heads that had once adorned those metal lances.
The fresh morning air greeted her bare body as she pulled herself from the covers of her bed and the cold stone floor met the soles of her feet, chasing away the last remnants of sleep. A few steps lead to her clothes chest, which she opened to search for fresh garments. Her previous garb had been rather dirtied from a week of traveling unknown woods in search of the White Knight and her Chosen proteacute;geacute;es. Or probably more the opposite in that case, as the High elf Chosen was very likely responsible for her search being in vain.
"So, are you going to sit there all day looking at my naked body, or are you going to make your report," she teased. "Not that I can blame you."
The younger woman chuckled, before becoming serious enough for Armisael to feel it as she put on a long but light black robe. The enchanted fabric was so dark that it seemed to absorb the light around it. There would be no need for her to put her battle garb for the next few days, so this would do nicely.
"Two days after your departure, one of the eastern orc slave groups initiated a rebellion and attacked one of our guard towers. All of the men posted there were killed, except for a mage who managed to elude them and report here. Bardiel settled the situation."
Which meant that Bardiel had taken some men and killed all of the rebels, Armisael guessed from experience.
"We've lost four men in the initial orc attack, and eleven more men died in the retributive strike, nine soldiers and two mages. It seems that the orcs are growing smarter and are learning that mages are more of a threat than simple solders."
"It makes sense, considering that they are using the tactics we showed them to use on our own enemies."
"Bardiel was also hurt in the battle, but he's healing nicely. He will meet with you later."
Armisael nodded. It would take more than simple orcs to be the end of Bardiel.
"Fourteen apprentices died from their training. Four of our soldiers died due to either fights or duels. Six of our female slaves died, three of them due to birth complications."
"And the three other?"
"One was strangled, the other two beaten to death."
Armisael didn't miss the look of contempt on her pupil's face and the anger in her brown eyes.
"Have the men, I am assuming those were men, who killed those slaves been punished for their actions?"
"Yes, I have seen to that."
"Good. While humans are inferior to us, those slaves are but unfortunate victims of circumstance and they have provided us a great service by producing new warriors for us. They should receive a minimum of respect for the role they play in our clan." The younger woman nodded at those words. "And we can't afford to replace those we lost at this time. Anything else?"
"Seven people were reported missing. Two of them, a male child and a scout, are assumed to have been killed by shissars. The other five, two of our female soldiers and three slaves, however... I suspect that Arael is responsible for their disappearances. But I can't prove it."
Armisael clenched her first, before relaxing a few seconds later. How dare he...?!
"Then there is nothing we can do about this. As much as I'd like to be rid of Arael myself, he does have his uses and I can't kill him without concrete proof of his betrayal."
"Be sure to keep an eye open for any sign of betrayal on his part, but be careful. He is cunning and dangerous."
"Yes, my Lady."
"Our food supplies have reached a dangerously low level. I don't know how long it can last us. I doubt the food will last until the next harvest and even if it does, it will only be delaying the inevitable. Even with the help of water and earth mages, most of the crops are dying out. These cursed lands have reached their limits, even with magic to aid us. In that light, the recent orc uprising had at least some beneficial effects. We have fresh meat at our disposal now."
Armisael frowned. To think that her people had been reduced to being forced to eat the flesh of their fallen allies. At least they weren't eating the flesh of their own dead... yet. She shivered at the thought. While a mistress in the art of necromancy, there were still some limits she didn't dare cross.
"Is there actually any good news?" asked the dark elf, as she pulled the sleeves of her robes in order to put two leather bracers on her arms, on which were fixed daggers. It never hurt to be prepared in case magic failed.
"Why, yes, there's actually one good piece of news. Kei'oh gave birth two days ago."
This bit of news seems to brighten the dark elf's day.
"Really? What sex is it?"
"Her child is female, my Lady. Kei'oh would appreciate it if you could bless her child."
"Of course. It will be my honor to welcome her child on our clan. It's a pleasure that has become less and less frequent..." she said, her expression sombre. "In fact, I'll do that just as soon as I'm done with my meeting with Lord Tabris," she added, more cheerfully.
Her companion frowned at the mention of the name.
"He does not deserve such reverence from you, my Lady. He
should be at your command, not the opposite."
Armisael's fingers ran the length of the faint scar on her throat.
"He owns my life. Twice he could have taken it, but hasn't.
He is the only one who ever beat me in combat, and thus deserves
respect. He could have taken my position as leader of our race, but
instead merely offered to help us in our time of need. And help us,
he has so far."
"True, but his plans threaten to consume all of our resources..."
Armisael approached her pupil and softly caressed her cheek.
"We don't have any other choice. Our race is dying out. Once, centuries ago, we had risen in power enough that we might have been able to do something to change our condition, but instead our kind chose to battle within itself for the meager resources these cursed lands have to offer. We are but a fraction of what we used to be, barely more than what we were when our people were banished in these regions after the defeat of our Father. We have reached our limit. As things stands, even after uniting all the clans under my banner, we are none but a dying flame facing an upcoming hurricane. Only desperate measures can save us now. There are no other alternatives."
"But to call for the rise of our Father, to use the Unholy Ones as tools against our enemies... The risk..."
"Is a necessary one. We have no other choice. You should know that better than any other, Myssa. The humans can never accept us."
The half elf's expression darkened.
"Trust me, Myssa dear, all will be alright. Once Adam has risen and has been put under our control, we will drive out the humans and elves from this island. We will claim a place of our own in this world and we will thrive on, once again. I have seen two of the heroes that Lilith has chosen. History will not repeat itself. They will pose no threat against our Father and we will be victorious. Just have faith in me."
"What of Tabris? I doubt that his ambitions are limited to simply aid us to survive..."
"If that is the case, then we will dispose of him."
Armisael couldn't help feeling a certain pang of hurt at that possibility, but forced herself to give her pupil a reassuring smile.
"We'll live through this. We will build a new future for our kind, one where we will no longer have to live hidden in darkness. A future where the threat of humans, elves, and their allies are nothing more than old tales, where the children of your children will no longer have any trace of the tainted blood in their veins. A future where we can live in peace, at last."
Again, the dark elf woman let her hand caress the paler cheek of her companion.
"Will you help me build the foundations of that future, my dear Myssa?"
"Of course, Lady Armisael. I serve you, and only you."
"Then, there is nothing for you to fear. Go, now. You have duties to attend. As I do."
"As you wish, my Lady."
The half elf knelt down, then left the room. Armisael smiled. She was such a good and promising child.
She raised a hand, shadows seeming to grow from her open palm. Soon, the room's shadows were drawn to her and enveloped her in a cloak of darkness.
Once the shadows parted, Armisael was no longer there.
- - -
Shinji woke up with a start, his body drenched in cold sweat. He raised his hands, staring at the crimson stains in his mind's eye.
"Shinji? Are you all right? I heard you scream..."
Startled, Shinji looked up to see Misato enter the cave, panting and using a stick as a crutch. He noted the numerous tears in her uniform, somewhat surprised to see that despite the damage to her clothes, she still looked about as indecent as the first time he met her. She was covered in bandages however, and as he watched, he noticed her legs start to wobble. Getting to his feet, he rushed over and caught her just as her knees buckled.
"Lady Misato! You shouldn't be up with injuries like that..."
Letting go of her walking stick, Misato accepted the help Shinji was offering her and let herself be carried to her makeshift bed.
"It's... it's not so bad. The injuries are mostly healed. I just... I guess I just overexerted myself a bit."
"Really, you should rest..."
Misato shook her head.
"Nah, what I need is to build up strength. Some exercises in moderation and a bit of meditation will do wonders. I'll have my chi back in normal levels before you know it!"
Shinji smiled in relief. While the White Knight did look exhausted and weakened, it was a good sign that she was in such high spirits.
"I guess, as long as you don't overdo it either."
"Don't worry, I'll be careful. I can't afford not to. We have to leave here and be back on our way to Tokyo as soon as possible."
Shinji couldn't help but sag at those words.
"Is something wrong Shinji?"
The young man shook his head.
"You do know that when someone says 'It's nothing.', it gives out the message 'There's something on my mind! Please take notice!', right? So, why don't you just spit it out already?"
Shinji just looked away, partly embarrassed and partly uneasy. The cave ground seems suddenly very interesting. Yes, the rock was a rather interesting shade of gray...
"Hmph! Fine! Let's pretend I never asked..."
Shinji turned his attention back to Misato, who seemed equally annoyed as concerned. He found himself torn with indecision. This was something he didn't want to think about... even less talk about. But perhaps... perhaps she was someone he could open up to. The burden was heavy... so heavy alone...
"Does someone... does someone get used to killing... with time?"
Surprise was visible on the woman's face, showing that she hadn't expected something like this. Her expression grew more somber, perhaps somewhat even sad.
"Yes and no," admitted the White Knight. "Yes, in a way that with time, we learn to make excuses for our actions. We did our duty, we served justice, a life taken saved hundred others. But there are other times... I often wake up from nightmares, where the faces of those I killed comes back to haunt me. I consider it my punishment. Whether for vengeance, justice, or self defense, killing is an extreme act, one that can't be taken back. Because of that, one has to let the past behind and move on."
"I see..." nodded Shinji, unsure of that to think of this. The dark haired woman surprised him by taking one of his hands in hers and looking up to him, her gaze intense against his own, before smiling softly at him.
"Want to talk about it?"
Shinji opened his mouth to speak... but found himself unable to. Misato nodded.
"You don't have to, if you don't want to. I don't need to know. Whatever happened to you... I believe myself to be a pretty good judge of character, and I think you're a good kid."
The young man felt palpable relief at hearing that. No one had ever said something like that to him back in his home town, before aloofness left place to hostility over time. It felt good.
Perhaps... perhaps he could tell her.
"I... It happened over a year ago. I was working the fields... it was a good job. It was hard, but I was glad... to be able to do something. Show my worth. There was this man... he was one of the sons of a rich family. They owned the lands I worked on. Nobody liked him, because he enjoyed tormenting workers. But..."
Shinji stopped a moment, trying to find the rights words to say next.
"One day, this girl... Ami. She came to see me. She's been nice to me... bringing me water. Takewaki... he got upset. He started to beat me up, then... he... he hurt her..."
The young man looked down, trying the control the powerful emotions that were rising within him as he told his tale. He felt a soft hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Misato waiting for the rest of the story. He could tell that she had already guessed what had happened next, at least to an extent, but she didn't seem to pass any judgment on him.
"I don't really remember that happened. I just remember the anger. Hot, burning, overpowering anger washing over me. I... I... when I realized what was going on, he was lying on the ground... my hands were numb... covered in blood... some mine, most his. I... I beat him to death, Lady Misato! From what people said... I started hitting him... and never stopped, pushing away those who tried to talk reason into me. I only stopped once I could no longer hit him, when my arms felt too tired to move, when I felt too spent to even stand up. I... I didn't want any of this to happen!"
Shinji looked down in shame.
"People said that I had acted like a man possessed. I think they're right. I'm a monster..."
"No." The single, soft spoken word, surprised Shinji. "You're not a monster. A monster wouldn't carry this amount of guilt over what happened. A monster wouldn't care. A monster might even have *enjoyed* what he had done. You don't. The only thing you feel over that are emotions that are tearing you up. So I'm very certain that you're not a monster."
Shinji gaped at her, relieved and surprised.
"Shinji... there's a darkness within each and everyone of us. We aren't being of lights. Whatever were Lilith's reasons, she created us as imperfect creatures, always struggling in the shades of grey between the darkness and the light, good and evil. Maybe those struggles are what defines us. Whatever the reason, I don't think it's something that we can ever understand. What I do know, is that we are free of making our own choices, to decide whether we want to try and reach the light, or succumb to the darkness. The darkness tried to claim you, and for a moment it did. But it still doesn't hold your soul. You can fight back.
You can't change the past, but you can chart your own future. You can learn to control the anger, to tame it. To make sure that never again, such a tragedy occurs. What happened is terrible. But it can't be changed. Unless you move on, the darkness will slowly taint your soul in sadness and eventually claim you. You can't change the past. But you've been given a path to atonement. As the Wind Chosen, you can learn to battle the darkness that threatens to cover the world, and the darkness within yourself. Yes, your hands are tainted in blood, and there will be more blood to cover them, but in doing so, you might save countless lives. It's not an excuse or a justification. It's simply the only thing you can do, to learn to live with yourself and others."
Shinji nodded. Misato's words made sense, but still...
"No one says you have to feel better about yourself right away. But with time..." Misato took a deep breath, then suddenly brightened up. "In the meantime, why don't you go take a bath? There's a river not too far from this cave, and its water is refreshing. It may help soothe your soul."
A bath... it sounded good.
"I think I'll do that."
"Good." She sighed and shook her head. "I'm starting to sound like my old sensei, Lilith forbid. I guess the old bat might have known something after all. Anyway, go off and enjoy the water. I'll be meditating on some things the old witch hoped I'd gain insight into."
Shinji nodded again.
A minute later, Misato was snoring loudly.
- - -
In a flash of light seven figures materialized in the middle of a wide, empty, blackened rocky plain. While six of those figures ,all dressed in black, seemed to blend well with the desolate lands of the North Wastes, the seventh stuck out with his pale skin, gray hair, and white robes.
"So, this is the spot?" asked Armisael. The question was rather pointless, considering how obvious it was that they were now standing deep within the heart of the North Wastes, but she judged safer to ask nonetheless.
"No doubt about it," said Tabris, a look of absolute confidence on his face. "I can clearly feel the power."
Armisael closed her eyes and tried to feel it herself. It was difficult. Like everything in the North Wastes, everything was tainted with echoes of dark power. Even after three millennia, the passage of Adam was still tangible. For a moment, she wondered if her pupil was right. Perhaps reawakening Adam was pure madness.
She shook her head to clear that thought. No, all would be alright. Adam wasn't the monster humans and elves tried to make him pass for. True, he wielded the powers of destruction, but he was also the father of her race. He would be able to come to their aid, to offer them a place of their own. After all, after destruction, there was always rebirth. If these lands were forever cursed, it was only due to Lilith's interference. Through sealing Adam, she had made the cleansing process incomplete. His powers, uncontrolled, had burned the land which had witnessed his defeat. Nothing could live in this desolate land, and very few dared to adventure close to the outskirts of the Northern Wastes. Which was why the dark elf clans had been banished there.
"Let us begin," said Tabris, interrupting Armisael's musings.
She looked at him. He was calm, composed, confident. What they were about to do appeared at best trivial to him. She couldn't help but admire his strength, even envy it. For years she had hated him, hated how he could make her look weak. But now she realized that it had never been his intention. He simply surpassed her in power without trying.
Perhaps this was why his own kind had cast him away. Perhaps they had sensed he had been destined for greatness, that he was one of such powers that he could never be tamed by the lies of Lilith.
Armisael tried to keep a straight face, to hide the embarrassment she felt as she realized that she had been staring at him while he waited an answer.
"Yes, Lord Tabris."
Turning to their companions, she looked at each of the five children in turn. Male half-elves, they were the best, the strongest in raw power that the clan had produced. Each met her eyes and she could see there the iron discipline they had been taught. All unnecessary words had been spoken before they left. Now there was only service to the clan. She nodded and the boys all moved off to their assigned positions to begin the ritual. Still, she couldn't help but smile as the eagerness of youth showed through in how quickly they rushed to their places.
She stood back as Tabris began a chant in a language she couldn't understand, guessing that it was a dead dialect from before the Black Wars. His voice was strong and somber, all but drowning out the boys as they began their own unique incantations. As the boys' voices rose with eagerness, a column of dark power rose.
On the ground, lines of power reached hungrily for all five children. More lines of power shot from each child towards their companions, tracing the broken ground in a perfect pentagram and star. The chanting rose even higher, then the power burst forth from each child and shot towards the heavens, before crashing back down to the earth in the form of black lightning. Armisael felt a momentary thrill of pure ecstasy from the dark power in the air, wanting to drink it in, become part of that rush. The lightning struck the ground in a massive explosion and she forced herself not to be swept away from her assigned spot. Still, she had to protect her face with her cloak as rocks and debris flew all around her.
When she lowered her arm, there was only deadly silence all around her once more. Looking toward the site of the ritual, she noticed a sole form, the shape of a naked man, his skin even paler than Tabris, standing in the middle of five small charred skeletal remains.
Both Armisael and the figure turned toward Tabris. The newly awakened Kagenoshi knelt before him, his knees crushing one of the skulls on the ground.
"Master," he intoned, in a voice without warmth or humanity.
"I have a mission for you." From a pocket in his spotless white robe, Tabris pulled forth a sliver of dark crystal. Letting go of the shard, it flew over to Shamshiel's hand where the Kagenoshi effortlessly caught it.
"You will follow the light of this crystal. It will eventually lead you to the city of Tokyo. On the way you will revert to your original form and feed until you are at the peak of your powers. Once at Tokyo you will lay waste to the city and all its inhabitants. Let none survive."
The Kagenoshi nodded, still bowed.
"You will is mine."
Despite the distance, Armisael didn't miss the smirk on Tabris' face.
"Be careful, Shamshiel. You will encounter humans who have destroyed your brother Sachiel."
Shamshiel snarled and Armisael's danger senses went haywire as she felt a build-up of power from the Kagenoshi. An aura of dark power enveloped him, then suddenly died down as fast as it had arisen.
"They will die."
"Then go, Shamshiel. Bring death to our enemies."
Shamshiel rose and held the crystal up before him. A purplish light pulsed from the crystal, pointing south.
Without another word he walked in that direction, the bones of the half-elf children kicked aside unknowingly.
Once the Kagenoshi was out of earshot, Armisael approached Tabris.
"Lord Tabris, didn't you say before that drawing the attention of Tokyo was unadvisable at this time?"
"I have revised my position on that matter. With the White Knight aware of the awakening of a Kagenoshi and the Water Chosen heading to Tokyo, our enemies will expect a certain amount of reaction from us. And so we'll give them what they expect. At best, Shamshiel will reach Tokyo before the Chosen and level it to the ground. At worst, he will cause untold casualties and uproar, which for the moment suits my plans."
Armisael rose an eyebrow. "Your plans?"
Tabris smiled. "My dear Armisael... that is a secret."
The dark elf lady would have found herself outraged by the notion that he was keeping plans involving her kind a secret if his hand hadn't softly caressed her cheek. But as it was, her knees nearly threatened to give way under the simple contact. He leaned toward her, and she shivered slightly as she felt his hot breath against her neck.
"There is no need to worry. Trust me."
It took all of her will not to grab hold of him, or beg him to kiss her, touch her, do anything he wished of her. As he pulled back, the frustration was palpable, almost physically painful. She didn't know why she would desire him in such a burning fashion. While he was attractive, despite his origins, there were others of her own kind who were as equally attractive, if not more. While she respected his strength, it was also a reminder of her own weakness. Her heart should burn with hatred for him, not lust and desire. And yet...
Was it possible that she desired him for the same reason she hated him? That she wished to make him hers, to make his strength hers? That she wished to win over him by any means at her disposal, no matter the battle? Or perhaps it was the way he toyed with her, arousing the flames of desire in her just to pull back the next instant. Maybe is was simply because of the fact that he was the only one who seemed able to resist her charms. She could still remember the few attempts she had made at seducing him, and the humiliation of being ignored. Ignored, except when he led the seduction...
Yet, she also knew that her desires went against all that she believed in. No matter how useful an ally he was, he was still a High Elf. Her kind's nemesis. To feel something for him, even if it was mere physical attraction... It was unthinkable. If her people were to find out... Thankfully, only Myssa knew, and Armisael was confident that her loyal pupil would keep that secret to herself. There were rumors and whispers, but nothing she hadn't been able to squash down so far.
Her thoughts and mind confused, she didn't notice him taking hold of her hand and teleporting them back to Neriak, home of the Dark elf clans. Nor did she notice the satisfied smile on his face.
- - -
In a dark chamber of Tokyo Castle, High Mage Gendo felt the awakening of the Kagenoshi. He could feel its power, which had been slumbering, now growing and moving, its destination unmistakable.
"So, sacrificing another pawn..."
The man smiled, as if to challenge his opponent.
- - -
Shinji found the river water slightly cold, but very refreshing and its pure flow seemed to soothe his aches, both physical and emotional, as well as purify his soul. Furthermore, the feel of the spring sun on his chest created a warm, pleasant contrast. For a moment Shinji entertained the thought of returning to the river's edge and lie on the lush grass, to let the wind and heated rays dry his body.
When he had first exited the cave, Shinji had been surprised to discover that they were deep in a forest, no sign of human presence or any sign of their desperate battle. It was a deep and green forest, obviously old and unsoiled by humans. Shinji had no idea how the elf had managed it, but somehow she had taken them far away from commonly used traveling routes. It made sense, if she wanted them to hide from other potential enemies.
Shinji found the river just as Misato had told him, not very far from the cave. It ran slowly, at a graceful if lazy pace, just deep enough so that he could be immersed up to his waist if he walked to its centre. It didn't threaten to take him away with its flow, instead parting around his body, hugging him. It was peaceful and tranquil, if somewhat cold.
In some ways, it made him think of Rei.
The elven girl... he had seen two different aspects of her. Cold and lethal, capable of killing opponents in single, fluid motions, of possibly even freezing an opponent to death if what he had seen in their battle with the Kagenoshi was an accurate indication of her skills. Yet, her pale, delicate hands, could also soothe, heal, comfort. With his fingers, he traced scars on his chest that hadn't been there before, last vestiges of injuries almost completely healed.
"Am I like her?" he mused to himself. "If she is like the flowing water, am I like the wind, if her words are true? Am I just a raging storm, fated to die out as fast as it came, or can I ever hope to simply be a gentle breeze?"
"Though there are destinies we cannot escape, I do believe that many paths to achieve those destinies are available to us. It may still be up to you to decide which path you choose, if you are unafraid to contemplate all those possibilities."
Shinji gasped in surprise, as he noticed that the elven woman was standing on the river's edge. He gasped again when he realized she was removing her tunic.
"Wha.... what are you doing, Lady Rei?!" he asked, as equally confused, scared and in total disbelief of what he had just saw. He hurried to look away as his face turned crimson, but only after a vision of pale skin, tantalizing curves, and hints of fine pale blue hair was forever burned into his soul.
"I am washing," she replied, matter-of-factly.
Shinji had to fight back strong urges to look at her as he heard her sigh in pleasure as she entered the water. He turned away slightly more, to be sure that only his back was exposed to her, to respect her privacy and be sure to maintain his dignity. He was rather glad that the water was cold enough for certain parts of him to remain... dormant... but he didn't know how much more he could take before he had a bit of a problem.
"Is there something wrong?" he heard her ask behind him. He could hear her approaching, the sound of a body moving through water. He tried to speak, but he found himself frozen, unable to move, even less speak.
"Your face is red. Are you ill?"
Shinji felt the breath that carried those words, as the elf leaned against his back, in order to probe his forehead with her hand. He also felt the heat of her body pressed against his, the softness of her breasts pressed hard against his back as she leaned forward...
Two conflicting impulses came to him. The first was utter panic. Here was a girl, a beautiful elven girl, a NAKED elven girl, touching his body in ways he hadn't even ever dreamed of. It was something he had never experienced before, something he had no idea how to react to. While the feeling was sweet, he knew that something here was wrong, and that feeling found itself confirmed by the fact that a previously wilted part of him had now risen in response to the sudden contact.
The second impulse he felt was strictly dictated by lust. While he
had no idea what to do, a part of him screamed at him to turn around,
face her, drink into the sight of her sweet nakedness and do
something about it. The young man's mind was nothing but confused,
So in the end, Shinji found himself act on pure survival instinct.
Overwhelmed by utter panic, Shinji ran away from the girl and out of the river, his hands clutched to his groin. Only once he had reached the soft ground and hidden behind a large tree did Shinji realize that he had a new predicament.
"Oh no... my clothes are on the other side..."
A quick peek from his hiding place informed him that the elven girl had resumed bathing as if nothing had happened. Even if he could cross the river at a higher or lower point, there was no way he could reach his clothes without her noticing. There was no choice but to wait for her to be done.
"Why me?" groaned Shinji, as he sat down to wait and tried to find a way to focus on something, anything else, than the scene right behind his back.
- - -
Shinji stood in front of the elven girl, feeling meek and subdued. Not only did the previous incident make facing her an embarrassing and awkward task, but it had been clearly and painfully demonstrated to him how inadequate his almost none-existent social skills were. As were his fighting skills.
"Again," commanded the elf.
Shinji raised the freshly carved bokken Rei had given him from a guard position and tried to attack her. Lazily the girl blocked his wooden weapon with one of her own, and then with one swift, elegant move, struck him hard in the chest. Shinji winced at the sharp pain.
"You move too slowly, and you are holding your weapon too high. Try again."
Shinji did so, with predictable results. Although this time it was his cheeks that were stinging. The elf had slapped his face with her bokken four times this pass, two on either cheek. Shinji growled, embarrassment slowly giving way to frustration. Again and again the elf girl made him attack her, and each and every time, she blocked and struck back.
Shinji yelped in pain as she struck again at a sore spot he'd been trying to protect. The pain flared brightly and for a moment, anger shoved all other feelings aside.
The elf's red eyes opened wide as she realized that Shinji's crude lunge was much faster than anything she had seen from him so far. She missed the very faint green flow along the tip of the wooden blade until it was almost too late. She narrowly dodged the strike as something exploded behind her. Both of them looked on in disbelief as a tree right behind her had a large hole blasted through it. The plant shivered, then the remaining wood cracked under its own weight bringing the tree to the earth with a crash.
Shinji lost his bokken, as realization of what almost happened dawned on him.
The elf, on her part, seemed unphased. If anything, she seemed proud.
"Interesting. It seems that your latent powers over wind elemental magic is surfacing. It is almost unheard of someone untrained being able to channel such raw energy. Fascinating."
"Fascinating? I almost cut your head off!" shouted Shinji, shaken by that latest turn of event.
The elf seems totally unconcerned.
"But you did not. It appears that I shall need to give priority to your channelling of magic rather than swordplay."
Shinji found himself unable to speak, as the elf red eyes fixed his own. Her gaze was hard, as if reprimanding him.
"I... I'm sorry..."
Her expression softened some, and with a finger, she indicated the edge of the river.
"Your apologies are accepted. Now, let us sit down and rest for a while. You must be feeling sore from all the strikes you received, and your mind needs some respite."
Shinji nodded and followed her example, gingerly lowering himself to the lush grass. Although he still ached from far too many locations, he couldn't help but relax as he saw the elf lie down and close her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her pale skin.
"Why did you run earlier?"
Shinji gave her a puzzled look, which went unseen, before he realized what she exactly meant.
"Oh... I... well..."
"Did my touch repulse you? Because I am not human?"
While her tone seemed as neutral as usual, there seemed to be a certain edge to the question.
"Uh? What? No! I liked your touch!" realizing what he had just said, Shinji's cheek burned again. "I mean... well... I... No... it's not that..."
Her head tilted to his side and inquiring eyes looked at him.
"Well... It's... well..." Shinji's mind raced, as he tried to find some reason to explain his action. How to say that he panicked and ran, without it being interpreted the wrong way? "It... it's not really proper... I mean.... for a man and woman to bathe together..."
The elf blinked at that.
"Oh... so human males and females bathe separately. I did not know. I will be more considerate in the future."
Shinji found itself at a loss at what to say to that. He didn't have to, as the elf spoke again.
"Your music. Could you play it again? I would enjoy hearing it again very much."
Shinji blinked, then smiled brightly.
From his pocket, he pulled his harmonica and brought it to his lips. While the music he had played that time, near another river, had been haunted with sorrow and worries, this new melody was more bright, carefree. Rei smiled slightly in contentment, and the music gained in joy, as Shinji found himself amazed at just how beautiful she was when she smiled.
- - -
"My, what a cozy setting!"
Shinji jumped up as he heard Misato's voice. After a long period of playing, he had laid down beside Rei and had actually found himself drifting off, rocked by the soothing sounds of running water. Misato's cheerful teasing had shattered that however.
"Lady Misato... It's... it's not what you think!"
Misato grinned. "Oh, and what should I think? That you two are resting after a long and arduous love making session?"
"Boring little boy," she just said, winking at him, while Shinji fumed. "In any case," she continued, "I wanted to inform you that I'm feeling rested enough and that I'm ready to go now. If you two are done with your naps, of course."
Rei nodded as she got up.
"Very well. If we walk at a steady pace, we should reach the village of Aisa at nightfall. The night should help us avoid prying eyes and we should be able to find a inn there, and horses to use the next morning."
"Aisa?" said a bewildered Misato. "I didn't know you had taken us so far north. How did you manage that anyway?"
"We have established several havens located in different regions of Japan. One can teleport to them with the right spell. This one was the closest to Tokyo."
Misato nodded. "I see. I should have expected something like that. Neat trick."
"Ah... So, is that's how we escaped the Kagenoshi?"
From the sudden silence and serious expression on both women's faces, Shinji made the obvious assumption that it hadn't been the case.
"What's going on? What are you keeping from me?"
Misato closed her eyes and sighed.
"Better tell him, Rei. He'll end up learning about it eventually. Might as well be now, instead of too late."
The elf nodded... and began her tale.
- - -
Rei watched in helpless horror as the boy began to run toward the Kagenoshi.
"He is going to die."
Then her eyes widened in amazement as the boy's aura increased to a blinding glow. His sword shone brightly as well, then ribbons of mist encircled the weapon, melding with it and extending the blade till it was nearly the length of the White Knight's weapon. The boy began to swing the weapon before him, the slashes nearly impossible for her eyes to follow. She gasped when she realized that the slashes were creating great arcs of wind in front of the boy. The arcs of air leapt from the sword and slammed into the giant monster. No longer protected by the Absolute Terror Field, the giant staggered as deep gashes were blasted open all over its body.
"Is he... the Wind Chosen?"
The elf watched in awe as the boy made an inhumanly tall leap, sword held in a two-handed grasp over his head, about to strike the Kagenoshi. But the blade never struck and the elven girl choked on her breath as the monster swatted the incoming Shinji aside, slamming the small mortal into the ground.
The elf shuddered as she felt the ground tremble with the bone-crushing impact of the boy's body. Blood was running into one of her eyes, blurring her vision, but she stared at the place of impact, hoping to see some sign of life.
Sachiel also watched the boy's broken body. Those hits the boy had inflicted had drained much of his strength. The cuts were deep, the pain, great. He wasn't sure he would have enough strength left in him to heal his wounds. Anger drove him now, a cold and all-enveloping rage that distanced him from the pain of his wounds. He watched the boy, watched for any signs of life from which he could gain energy from as he crushed the boy's soul from his body.
Seeing no sign of movement from the boy, Sachiel's rage began to fade. With its retreat, the pain and agony slowly came forefront. His eyes cast around, searching for something to take its place, take the edge off the knife driving into his body. There! The elf girl! Crushing her would bring him power, the energy of her departing soul would help cure him of his aches.
Rei watched in both fear and resignation as the monstrosity began to move in her direction. Focusing, she forced her mind to concentrate on the healing spell she cast on herself. Even as she felt the white hot pain fade under the warmth of the Goddess' touch, she knew she'd still be too weak to move for several more seconds. And in those few seconds, the Kagenoshi would crush her fragile shell beneath its putrid body.
So she lay there, unable to move, and prayed to Lilith to forgive her for her failure. Over a hundred years of her life had been dedicated to preparing her role as the Water Chosen and this was how she would meet her end? It was quite vexing.
But before Sachiel could make that last step that would have extinguished Rei's life, an inhuman scream tore the night. Both conscious combatants stared at the place Shinji had fallen, now illuminated with a bolt of green light that stabbed down from the sky. In the column of light Shinji was hovering above the broken and torn ground, his eyes burning a demonic purple which mixed hellishly with the green winds surrounding him. His clothes were in tatters and his right arm hung at an unnatural angle, yet he still held his now lengthened sword.
He screamed again, a sound that shattered any warmth from Rei's body, then disappeared in a blur of motion. A heartbeat later there was a monstrous explosion as something devastated the front of Sachiel's body. The giant hit the earth with a thunderous crash, a gaping wound cleaved into his chest. As the Kagenoshi fell, so too did Shinji, apparently his blinding attack taking as much out of him as it did the victim.
Knowing that this respite might be short lived, the elf pushed aside her mixed emotions regarding the boy and slipped inside herself. Freeing her mind, she reached beyond her senses and touched the aura of the world around her. She could taste the humidity in the air, hear the moisture in the few trees and patches of grass that were still intact, even see an underground water source, several metres below her. She opened herself to this part of her surroundings, taking in what was being freely offered. The Water Crest on her chest became softly luminescent as she drew upon her chosen element. The pure, elemental forces of water gently poured into her, replenishing her personal mana reserves.
Taking a slow breath Rei forced herself to her feet, wobbling for a moment. With a whimper of pain she removed the shrapnel of wood imbedded in the flesh of her arm and focused her magic again, calling upon more to heal the worst of her wounds.
As she looked back at the combatants, she noted that they too had painfully risen to their feet again. Shinji looked even worse than he had moments before. Apparently, only his rage was keeping him from losing consciousness. The Kagenoshi looked in equally bad shape, no longer so frightening. Its life force was so low that Rei evaluated that she could probably kill it if she used all the power she had left, which she almost did until her senses picked up another presence on the battlefield. She gasped as she recognized the person's aura, despite the fact that it had almost faded away.
For years, Rei had prepared to fight the darkness. But this was her first actual fight, at least against an enemy worthy of her attention, and suddenly her inexperienced heart found itself torn between duty and friendship. Thankfully for her, Shinji put an end to her dilemma, as he howled again and charged the weakened giant.
The elf didn't wait to see the outcome of what was probably the last clash between the two exhausted adversaries. She ran towards the prone form of the White Knight, her hand glowing with white healing power. She could feel Misato's life slipping away even as she closed the distance. Reaching the fading body, Rei slammed her glowing palm against Misato's chest just as the last rattling breath left the broken lips. Life energy jumped from the elf's body into the human's, and the purple haired woman's eyes and mouth snapped open as her heart began to beat once more.
"I'm up! I'm awake!" Misato spat out, before her eyes rolled up in her head and consciousness fled from her once again. Rei nearly fainted herself, having been forced to use not only magic, but a bit of her own life force to re-ignite the spark of vitality in Misato's.
While she trembled with pain, Rei knew she'd be fine with time. It was the first time she'd had to go so deeply into her healing spells, and the transfer had been more painful than she had been led to believe. It felt as if she had literally torn out a part of her soul. Still, one's soul could repair the damage when such a sacrifice was given for worthy causes.
Focused on saving Misato and dealing with the pain, Rei completely missed the fight occurring behind her. With inhuman speed, Shinji jumped to a flaming tree, only to leap off it as it collapsed under his weight. He landed on one of Sachiel's monstrous arms for a brief moment, then leapt once again. A swirling golden, green, and purple aura of tremendous power enveloped Shinji's blade just before he buried the enchanted metal between the two holes that served as Sachiel's eyes.
It was the shaking of the ground that brought the elven girl's eyes around once more. Breathing heavily all she saw was the shattered sight of Sachiel's body lying broken on the ground, the purple light of his "eyes" now gone.
For an instant, Rei focused on the monster. There was still a sliver of life burning deep within its gigantic body. It was so faint however, that the elf allowed herself a sigh of relief. It was unlikely the Kagenoshi would rise for a long, long time. For a moment, she wondered if she shouldn't try to finish it off, but the feel of Misato's cold hand in her own told her that there were more pressing priorities. Which reminded her...
Rapidly, her eyes scanned the ruined battlefield in search of the boy. She didn't have to search long as she heard something between a scream and a snarl. Her eyes locked on the boy and she felt a new cold wave of fear rise within her at the sight of his hate-filled stare. He was shambling forward towards her, his aura blazing a mix of green and purple that caused his sword to spark ominously. The long blade was held in his one good arm, the other arm and the same leg were shattered, dragged behind him grotesquely.
His tunic had been blasted away, leaving his thin but fit torso open to the night air. If his unsteady steps hasn't been indication enough, the sight of his uncovered skin clearly indicated he was seriously hurt. A discolouration on one of his sides suggested broken ribs. Gashes, some serious and some not, were plainly visible and much of his flesh seemed bruised. Blood trickled from his mouth and down his chin, droplets splattering across his chest. Aside from the struggle to remain standing however he seemed completely oblivious to his injuries.
Unable to ignore her injuries so well, Rei got wobbly to her feet. Her rapier, summoned via the magic of the Water Crest, appeared in her hand and she prepared herself to meet the impending attack. She pondered using magic but banished that thought as quickly as it had been formed. Her abilities were already taxed to their limits and she wasn't certain it would affect him anyway. She knew that berserkers could be unpredictable and she had seen with her own eyes how lethally strong this one could be.
He was exhausted, true, but if he attacked he wouldn't stop until either he or his target was dead. Casting a spell now might further provoke him. So she positioned herself in a defensive stance, ready to use all of her skill to defend herself and her old friend if needed be, but also determined to move only if necessary. She tensed as she saw him raise his sword and coil his muscles... and with a gentle gust the aura around Shinji's body faded on the breeze.
The instant the power fled, so to did the strings that held the boy upright. Still wary, Rei watched as his unconscious body hit the ground with a soft whump. Under her eyes she observed his weapon shiver slightly and the extra length of the blade hiss away as mist, leaving the original kodachi lying there.
She raised her sword to terminate the boy's life, but after staring at his unconscious form, for a few seconds, the gentle and soft features of his face, a complete opposite of the rage that had been possessing him moments ago, she lowered her blade, unable to do it.
She reasoned herself that it was because this boy might be the Wind Chosen.
"One of Wind, a child whose heart is torn,
Whose gentle touch is like the breeze,
Can become a whirling storm,
Whose yearning is to be accepted,
But whose past brings pity and scorn."
She quickly applied a healing spell to stabilize his condition, then sat down to catch her breath in relief. She was exhausted.
"The winds of chaos are upon us," mused Rei, as a breeze blew against her face. "But I wonder, for whom do they blow?"
There was no answer for her.
- - -
As Rei ended her tale, Shinji stood, shaken with disbelief, staring at his hands.
"I... I did that?"
"Yes," deadpanned the elven girl.
Misato sighed at Rei's response. The girl still hadn't learned the meaning of the word 'tact' even after all those years. Seeing the way Shinji was fearfully looking at Rei, she really wished the elf had skipped the part about him wanting to mindlessly kill her.
"I'm a monster..." whispered Shinji as he fell to his knees in shock.
Misato swore loudly and acted before it was too late. With a good slap, she got Shinji's attention, his previously unfocused eyes now looking at hers. She had seen men go mad on the battlefield before, retreating into a world into their minds where the horrors they had seen and done no longer existed. She couldn't afford, nor wanted, Shinji to suffer the same fate.
"Shinji! Listen to me and listen well! You are NOT a monster! You hear me? You aren't!"
His eyes... by Lilith, the pain she could see there...
"But... I... Rei... I almost..."
"But you haven't," said Misato flatly. "While I never fought one myself, I know about berserkers. They are the most feared warriors known to mankind. A berserker will never stop fighting, not until there are only corpses around it, or until he dies. A berserker will ignore all pain, will go beyond his limits and even beyond that. A true berserker does not feel exhaustion. He will fight, until every shred of stamina in his body has been burned. A berserker who would stop fighting because he was too tired to go on would have woken up as drained as I was after I used the spirit blade technique. Clearly, you never reached that stage. So I would like to think that you stopped on your own, that somewhere beyond the rage, that a part of you was still there, that it kept you in check."
The hope was evident in his voice. Misato smiled. She leaned down and hugged the young man, who seemed to find comfort into her embrace.
"I agree with this assumption."
Misato frowned at that. While Rei didn't elaborate further, she had the nagging impression that she knew more than she was willing to say. That in itself wasn't too surprising. Elves were known to be possess lore long forgotten by humankind, partly due to their longer life spans and also to the fact that they had managed to go through ages more or less undisturbed by outsiders. While human history was filled with blood and wars, elves had remained secluded in their forest, protected from the rest of the world with its worries and foolishness. Their city had remained intact and had flourished, while most human cities aside from Tokyo and been burnt down to the ground at a time or another, or simply disappeared with the flow of time.
Of course, elves have had their share of problems, having from time to time to fight back human or dark elf attackers, but Kelethin itself, and its secrets, had always remained untouched. Even if someone actually managed to go through the barrier surrounding the forest, Misato could recall some buildings with seals so strong that it would have taken several sorcerers and hours of casting to break them. An almost impossible task to accomplish when surrounded by hundred of elves, all attuned to the forces of nature and magics.
Elves knew of many lost secrets and were very privy about them. Even more than the Clerics of Lilith. Misato could vividly recall unsuccessful attempts of trying to pry some of that lost lore out of her friend. As she looked at her younger looking friend, she could tell that she was holding back something and that was something they would need to talk about when they would have the time. The situation was too important for potential vital information to be kept secret.
Then again, she knew that she could trust Rei's judgment. Perhaps it was better to let things as they were.
Still, she couldn't help but be curious. Information about berserkers was sparse at best. There was very little cases known and most was more of the realm of legends than actual facts. One had more chances of ending up against a dragon than a berserker, although some did claim that the end result would be pretty much the same. It was said that they were like a tornado: swift, strong, and leaving nothing standing in their wake.
Misato wondered for a moment if the analogy to the furious forces of the wind were mere coincidences.
If anyone other than Rei claimed that their companion wasn't a berserker, Misato wouldn't have believed it. The fact that they were alive seemed to contradict what little was known about them. But that fact seemed also to confirm Rei's words. If the Kagenoshi had indeed risen after her use of the spirit strike, and she had no reason to doubt Rei on that, than it seemed to be the only likely explanation for their survival.
Rei was good, she was better than good, but water elemental magic was the weakest of all four elements, when isolated from a nearby water source. Earth magic could be tapped from anywhere in Gaia and wind magic always ran strong if one was outdoors. By its nature, fire was an explosive force, easy to create, even if wild to tame. But the forces of water required a much deeper level of control. Despite all her training and the Water Crest in her possession, Misato was certain that Rei would have been unable to finish off the Kagenoshi. No, something else had done it and the only option left was Shinji. But untrained in both swords and magics, the boy would normally have been hard pressed saving his life, let alone defeat such a powerful foe.
But Rei's words, Shinji's tale about his violent outbursts, as well as Misato's own remembrance of a few occurrences such as his reaction when attacked by the werefox, did suggest that he was no ordinary boy.
And if legends were true, he was no ordinary berserker either. If he was, she wouldn't be alive to ponder that question. If that was the case, then what was he? Another type of berserker than those known? Or perhaps that the slip into the berserker state was a progressive one? If so, would each episode be worse, until the day where reason would leave him forever?
She didn't know. And it scared her. But there was no other choice. She would have to trust him and Rei. And pray Lilith to help him.
Misato let go of Shinji and helped him get to his feet. "Come on, let's go! If we hurry, we might be able to sleep in Tokyo tomorrow. All we need to do is find some good horses in Aisa." Her face darkened for a moment. "And if I ever find that %#@* horse thief..."
The young man gave her an uncertain look, before his eyes seemed to gain in resolution.
"Yes. Let's go."
The White Knight smiled. He was a brave kid. There was hope for him, she was certain of it.
"Alright then! Off to Aisa!"
"Aisa is that way," corrected Rei, as she indicated the opposite direction Misato had been pointing at.
".... I knew that..."
- - -
From her chamber, she could hear someone heading in her direction. She could tell who it was, the sound of the regular steps of his boots, the rhythmic sound of the end of his staff hitting the floor with each step precise like clockwork. She knew those well.
He didn't need to announce himself and the both of them knew it. He entered the room and bowed before her.
"My Queen," the words were uncommonly warm, carrying more than simple reverence. A tone he could only never use in ordinary circumstances.
"What are the news, High Mage?"
He got up and looked at her, his eyes looking down to lock with her own gaze.
"He'll be here tomorrow."
He didn't need to say anything else. That was all she needed to hear. While she had been expecting it, the news still caused a maelstrom of emotions to wage within her. She felt herself crumble under their onslaught and had to seek support within his arms. For once, he actually allowed himself a breach of etiquette and held her in a warm embrace.
"Finally... after seventeen years... I can finally see him..."
And Queen Yui wept tears of joy.