"I can't believe it! How dare they make us wait a week?!"
While the older man seemed completely unfazed by his younger companion's temper tantrum, he would be the first to say that it was in fact an acquired skill. Experience had taught him well.
"It can't be helped, Asuka. Very few sailors dare sail the seas of Japan, and with good reason. Many dangers lurk beneath the sea once you've passed the barrier."
Asuka snorted. "Cowards, all of them."
"If they die, who will feed their families?"
The redhead had nothing to say to counter that argument.
"Look at the bright side," said Kaji, giving her one of his trademark Lady Killer smiles, which usually turned the Princess into mush. "If we hadn't found a mage capable of mass teleporting, we would be *months* away from reaching our goal."
Asuka's temper flared again at that comment. Kaji grinned internally. The best way to keep the Fire Chosen in control was to keep her emotions unbalanced, between anger and joy.
"Don't remind me! That bastard..."
"Come on, it wasn't so bad..."
"What?! He grabbed my ass!"
"It was all very innocent," Kaji suggested airily.
"That's exactly what this is about! That man stole my innocence!"
Kaji couldn't help but chuckle at the girl's overly strong statement. True, the payment the mage had asked had been odd. He had only asked to be able to touch the young woman's ass. Still, it was a rather good deal, even if it had taken a lot of coaxing to finally convince Asuka of the necessity of this.
"He only took a quick feel..."
"So what!? You're the only man that I'll ever allow to touch my body!"
Kaji gave her a mock bow. "I'm honored, Princess."
The German woman seemed disappointed for a moment, before a predatory smile showed on her face.
"I'm serious you know," she whispered to him in a warm, sultry voice.
Despite himself, Kaji couldn't help have some feelings rise within him, but only for a moment. The princess was a very beautiful young woman, and he knew just as well that she was actually serious. She had done pretty much everything a woman could try to seduce a man, save actually try to take advantage of him while he was sleeping, and she'd probably only not tried that because she knew just how dangerous surprising him in his sleep could be. When someone did the sort of work he did, you had to learn to be on guard, even when sleeping. Truth be told, the more time he spent with her the more like a younger sister she seemed to him.
And... his heart was already taken.
"Save me the usual speech!" fumed the young woman. "'You're too young for me, Asuka.' 'You're a princess and I'm a mercenary, Asuka.' 'You're lovely, but you deserve better, Asuka.'" she quoted. "I've heard it all before, so cut the crap!"
On that, the girl stormed off. Kaji almost went after her, but let her be. If he tried to comfort her it probably would only make things worse.
He sighed. He wouldn't tell her, but he also wished the boat were there already. The sooner the two of them reached Japan, the better. Both for her and himself.
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
Pre-read by Jeremy Mullin Alex Churchill
CHAPTER 8 - Water Warrior
Tabris walked the familiar maze of underground corridors leading to the chambers of the dark elf leader with a grin on his face. More than manipulating the foolishly prideful woman, Tabris enjoyed playing with her as would a cat with a mouse. No, more as a hunter and a tiger. She was prey, but dangerous prey and that made it all the sweeter. Her current confused state was utterly delightful. The high elf knew of course that it was a delicate path to tread. After all, the female had her uses and as much as he hated to admit it, he needed her resources... for now. But the rewards were worth the risk.
Tabris put up a neutral expression as he sensed the growing presence of one of those risks capable of jeopardizing his plans. Very soon, the shadows revealed the imposing form of Neriak's Weapon Master.
Nearly seven feet tall, he towered over the rather lithe form of the high elf, despite having to bend forward in order to walk through the underground corridors of Neriak. Not intimidated in the least, Tabris considered his bulk as a blessing; the warrior preferred to spend most of his time above ground, so their encounters were far and few.
"Ah, Bardiel! Nice to see you. I gather you were just visiting your mistress. How is Armisael today?"
Bardiel shot him a glare that spoke volumes of the hostility he harbored toward the high elf. Tabris could see clearly in his yellow eyes the desire to rip him apart with his bare hands. A threat Tabris had no doubt the Weapons Master would put into action with great relish if the high elf didn't enjoy Armisael's protection.
Created by Armisael's father, Bardiel was a chimera, part dark elf, part ogre and part troll. His bulk and bulging muscles showed well his ogre heritage and Tabris had no doubt his mighty hands would be capable of snapping his spine in half without effort. With the troll's regenerative abilities and a dark elven mind, Bardiel was a most dangerous adversary and only his unshakeable loyalty to Armisael kept him in control. Tabris had seen for himself what happened when Bardiel's abilities were let loose. That heavy war scythe the beast favored was an odd weapon, but a fearsome one in the hands of one who swung it with the power and grace of an artist.
As much as he hated the way the Weapon Master tried to counter his influence on Armisael, Tabris knew that he had to wait for the right time before taking care of that problem. With any luck, the Chosen might actually manage to take care of it for him. He smiled at the irony of that thought.
Eyes locked, the two of them crossed paths, one burning with cold hatred and the other with taunting arrogance.
As each went on his way, Tabris looked even more forward to his meeting with the dark elf woman than before. How he wished he could see the look on Bardiel's face when his dearest mistress moaned in pleasure the name of the person he loathed the most.
- - -
Shinji seemed to have lost his voice as his eyes attempted, futilely, to take in every detail. He found it difficult, almost impossible, to see where the forest ended and where the elven city began. Walkways of spiraling branches twisted and curved with a beauty that only nature could provide, disappearing within the thick canopy of leaves, leading his eyes to follow a different branch. Every now and then he could see a figure darting across these walkways, with the same grace and elegance as his elven companion.
As they drew closer Shinji began to distinguish living habitations that stood high in the mighty trees, so masterfully crafted that he had been unable to separate them from the forest around them. More elves were also visible now, a small but active populace. At that sight Shinji could only think of one word: warm. There was an unmistakable warmth that emanated from the city and its inhabitants, a strong, vivid life, in harmony with nature itself. The contrast with the bigger and colder city of Tokyo was evident. Now that he had seen Kelethin with his own eyes, Shinji could well understand the unease Rei had felt toward the holy capital.
At Shinji's side, Kensuke shared Shinji's awe. He had heard stories, many stories, had met many men and elves who had spoken of the wonders of Kelethin, but the words paled to the reality in front of his eyes.
Following the young men, Mayumi also took in the sights of the elven city. She had been here before a few years ago, and thus wasn't as impressed as her two companions. However, the beauty of the city woke in her a sweet nostalgia and she couldn't help but feel tears of joy at the memories of happy days spent in this place.
Walking behind Mayumi, Rei also had a soft, fleeting smile on her face, missed by all. Despite mixed feelings, she was home.
Shinji was roused from his contemplation by the sudden appearance of two elves, one that looked as old as himself and the other seeming a decade older. They were armed, but held their weapons at rest. The older one made to speak, but then noticed Rei standing with the others. Shinji and Kensuke watched with interest as the two new elves bowed.
"Erol. Tanis. It is good to see you again. You are as dutiful as always."
"It's an honor to be the guardian of the city," replied the older of the elf, obviously not using Elvish for the humans' benefit.
"One that you greatly deserve."
"If I may be so bold..." hesitantly began the younger guard, "what brings you back home, Milady Rei?"
The one Rei had designated as Erol gave his younger companion a hard stare.
"Your curiosity is justified, Tanis. The Wind Chosen and I are on our way toward the Water Shrine and are seeking refuge and rest before we continue our journey."
Shinji gulped as the eyes of the two elves widened and they looked at him with newfound respect and awe. Awkwardly, he bowed at them.
"Um, hi... I'm Shinji..." he said, blushing under the stares.
"Well met, Sir Shinji," said the older of the elves. Then he turned his attention to Rei again. "I am certain that the Revered Lady will want to meet you and the Wind Chosen. I will have her informed of your arrival at once."
"Very well, Erol," said Rei with a nod.
With that, the older elf was off, leaving the younger one to escort the group to the city.
"Milady Rei?" asked Kensuke, curious, as they followed the guard.
"As Chosen of Lilith, I am considered a holy warrior, thus I inherited a title that would equal that of a knight in your culture."
"Damn!" cursed Kensuke. "I'm jealous of you, Shinji! You're a knight here!"
Shinji didn't know what quite to reply to that. While he had gotten somewhat used to the reverence people had given him in Tokyo, it was still somewhat overwhelming and hard to believe. He, a knight?
Yet as they climbed circular stairs that wound their way up into the upper layers of the city, Shinji could feel the stares that focused on him. Evidently word had somehow spread of their arrival and he could see recognition of his position and respect of him in the eyes of the countless people he passed. Because he was all-too-aware of this adoration, he noticed that it didn't last long.
The people's expressions changed as they noticed Rei. Respect was still there, but he could feel unease from these people. At times, even fear. As he gave a glance toward Rei, he could see that she paid no mind to the way people looked at her, being her usual cool and composed self. Too composed, Shinji decided, for someone who had just returned home after being away for the first time in her life. What could have happened to elicit such a reaction from her own people? Knowing that now wasn't the time to try to ask Rei, he simply followed her in silence.
Eventually they reached a large wooden building that stood on a huge platform held between four great trees. Rei stepped up to a pair of doors which had the image of Lilith carved into their surface. She spoke something softly in elvish and the portals swung open.
As the door opened, Shinji was greeted by a smiling female face. The priestess, who Shinji identified by her robes that mirrored Mayumi's, looked no older than Rei but had long blonde hair and eyes of the purest blue. What truly caught Shinji's attention, however, was the tone of her skin, which was closer to that of a human, and her shorter pointed ears. A half-elf, he deduced.
Silently, Rei handed her weapon to the priestess who accepted it with a bow. The priestess turned to turned to Shinji and paused, expectantly. Understanding dawned on him, and he hurried to unbuckle his sword belt then hand it over to the girl. She accepted them with a smile and a wink, which caused Shinji to blush.
As the others handed their weapons to the half-elf, Shinji followed Rei into the main room of the temple. There he saw a feminine figure kneeling in prayer before a simple mahogany altar that was located at the foot of a massive wooden statue of Lilith. As the companions came to a halt behind her, the figure seemed to finish her prayers and rose to her feet, turning to face them as she did. Shinji couldn't help a small gasp at the sight, while Kenuske's jaw just dropped. Despite the longer hair, a few laugh lines and more mature curves and features, the filial link to Rei was still unmistakable. And yet... while Rei had a serious and distant air about her, this woman seemed to generate warmth and love. Just looking at her made Shinji feel at ease.
As her teeth flashed in a warm smile, Shinji couldn't help but feel horrified at his poor manners from a moment ago. Rapidly he knelt before her, aware of Kensuke awkwardly mirroring him.
"You should not kneel before me, Child, for we all stand
equal in Lilith's heart. I can only hope to carry out Her will as
well as those She has Chosen will."
Her voice was soothing and peaceful, beautiful and warm. Shinji looked up to her, entranced.
"It's an honor to meet you, Revered Lady Ayanami."
The priestess chuckled, while Rei groaned, unnoticed by the others.
"I assure you, Child of the Wind, I am but a simple servant of the Goddess, just as you are. There are greater honors in life, such the one of being a mother." As she said those words the high elf woman turned towards her child and opened her arms. "It is an unexpected, but pleasant surprise to see you again, my daughter. I missed you." The High Priestess' smile twisted into an affectionate grin. "Now come give your Mommy a hug."
Shinji could only stare in fascination as the older elf embraced
her daughter in a hug, Rei's expression softening for a moment in her
mother's arms. The daughter said nothing, but Shinji felt that words
were not necessary. The priestess seemed to read directly from her
Letting go of her the Water Chosen, the priestess addressed the entire group.
"Please enjoy the time you will spend in Kelethin. The road is hard and your duties heavy. The least my people can do is help you forget the weariness of your charge, if only for a moment."
"Thank you," said Shinji, sincerely meaning it. While he didn't want to run from his duties, he felt a certain apprehension when thinking about what awaited them in the Water Shrine. They had only fought bandits on this mission so far... yet even that had shown him his limits. What awaited them at the Water Shrine?
"Well, then," said the High Priestess as she clapped her hands twice. At the sound, two priestesses entered the room from another door, bearing trays upon which were sweet smelling bread and cups of warm, herbal tea. They put the trays in front of their superior, then left without a word. Once they had departed, the High Priestess sat down on the wooden floor and invited the young adventurers to do the same. "Why don't you tell me of your adventures up to this point?" she said as she distributed tea and bread to her companions. "I am most curious to hear about it. I believe the entire kingdom has heard of the attack on Tokyo, and I for one am anxious to know what is fact and what is troubadour embellishment."
Shinji had to fight off a laugh at Kensuke's embarrassed look. It took him a moment to realize that everyone's gaze had settled on him. With a slight tightening in his chest, he realized that he was the only member of the party who had been there for every event. Shifting uncomfortably he began speaking, starting from the arrival of Misato and the attack of the first Kagenoshi. At times, Rei spoke, either to make some corrections, or to add some details.
The priestess listened with interest, while Kensuke listened with rapt fascination. In fact, Kensuke had somehow pulled a thin leather book, a quill and a small bottle of ink from somewhere and was furiously taking notes. At first, Shinji had been uncertain about saying everything in front of Kensuke, but none of the ladies seemed to worry about it, so he figured it was all right. And besides, Kensuke had come this far and didn't seem about to change his mind about following them, so Shinji guessed that he was entitled to know what he was getting into.
It took some time, Shinji not used to talking and having difficulty turning events into a story, but eventually he concluded his tale with them leaving Tokyo on their present journey. The High Priestess sat quietly for a moment after he finished. "A most... dynamic tale," she finally said. Turning towards Rei, she continued, "So you believe that you are ready to awaken the Water Holy Armor?"
Rei nodded. "With the aid of the Wind Chosen I should be able to reach the Water Shrine, even if the Enemy has sent some of his brethren to seal it. I see no other path to take at this time. While in Tokyo, I consulted their archives and found no trace of the Earth Crest, beyond what little we already know. Furthermore, I was assured by High Mage Gendo that while the Fire Crest and Chosen were on the way to Japan, it may be some time before they reach our shores. The only remaining path before us is reviving the Water Armor."
Shinji blinked at Rei's words. He hadn't realized that Rei had been so active in Tokyo, while he had waited for Misato to let them leave.
"And Lady Ritsuko sent you to watch over the Chosen, correct?" asked the High Priestess, her red eyes boring into Mayumi.
"Yes, your Holiness. Her Ladyship was most concerned that the Chosen fulfill what is expected of them," answered the priestess, the full meaning of her words lost to Shinji.
The High Priestess shook her head sadly. "Prophecies are only tales of what may be. The future is not a rigid thing, and the destiny of man is something for man to forge and give birth to. She should trust her fate into the hearts of her fellow men and the Goddess, not in words spoken long ago."
Mayumi chose not to comment on that, obviously not comfortable in taking a side between either one of Lilith's High Priestesses.
The lady then turned her red gaze toward Kensuke. "And you? What will be your role in the fate of man?"
"All adventures need someone to chronicle the events, your Holiness," Kensuke replied, taking a serious and solemn air for moment as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "And I trust none other to do this properly! I intend to record a saga that, in years to come, will make the exploits of Kaworu the Brave pale in comparison!"
The priestess chuckled at that. "Just be certain not to make your tale too unbelievable."
The pure laugh of the priestess was soon joined by Shinji and Mayumi, then Kensuke. The priestess took a last sip at her tea, then rose, inviting the others to do the same.
"I am certain that your are eager for the comforts of fresh clothes and warm baths." Clapping her hands again, the two priestess appeared again. "These young ones will lead you to our guest chambers. Please try to feel at home while you enjoy our hospitality."
"We will," answered Shinji. "Thank you."
Following the priestesses, the companions received their weapons back from the blonde half-elf. Shinji barely noticed, however, as it seemed that Rei was staying behind to talk further with her mother. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but he did catch the elder Ayanami fondly ruffling her daughter's hair. That was all he caught, as the group was then led from the temple back into the tree city, heading towards a few small huts. Mayumi was guided towards one, while the second priestess led the men to another hut. The chamber inside was small, but felt warm and the beds were soft. A set of elven clothes had been laid out for each to wear. After changing out of his armor, Shinji decided to take the High Priestess' advice and settled down to catch a quick nap.
- - -
After being led to her hut, Mayumi had tried to relax, but had found her mind churning with thoughts and feelings. Putting on the elvish clothes, she left her lodging behind and returned to the now empty temple of Lilith. She walked to the statue and stared up at it in silence for a long, long time. No matter how hard she tried, her own troubled features could not mirror the image of inner calm the dark face above her expressed. Without thinking she fell to her knees and clasped her hands in prayer. Her soul felt torn between the orders given to her and the feelings she was developing for her companions. If the prophesied events came to pass, would she be able to carry out her task? She would have to. For the sake of them all, she would have to.
She gasped, as she felt two soft arms encircle her in a warm embrace.
"Your heart has grown so heavy since the first time you came here," said a soft, warm voice.
Mayumi didn't really know what she wanted to say. Despite herself, she felt comforted by the embrace. As her head was laid against the older woman's shoulder, she could feel the steady heartbeat and smell a sweat scent of flowers.
"Such an innocent heart should not have to carry a burden as this."
"It's my duty."
"Are you truly acting under the will of the goddess... or the will of that woman?"
Mayumi found herself searching for an answer. "Is... is Lady Ritsuko wrong?"
She felt the body holding her release a sharp sigh. "I cannot say. She has been right about many things; things I prayed would not come true, but did. Things we survived because she had foreseen them. Having seen so much happen that I hoped never to see, my faith is stronger because the dawn returned after those dark times. Her faith, I think, has suffered from seeing too much darkness. She has had trouble letting the light warm her again. Her heart is torn, and therefore she uses this prophecy to express her resentment towards him."
"I don't understand..."
"It does not matter. What matters is for you to have faith in the Goddess and her choices. For they are all for a reason, but we can't always see it."
Mayumi had her orders. If she didn't obey High Priestess Ritsuko...
"Believe in your heart. And believe in the Wind Child. For if you do, if all of you do, there will be nothing to fear from the anger that lies within him."
With a touch of sadness, Mayumi felt the elven priestess breaking her embrace and getting up. Mayumi looked at her, her eyes desperate to find an answer to her inner struggle.
"Do not use the song of destruction," said the High Priestess as she left the temple. "No good can come from it. And remember... if you need it, you will always find a home and refuge in Kelethin."
And the young priestess found herself alone again, more lost than ever.
- - -
In the life of a bodyguard and spy, sensitive hearing was a
necessity. To hear hushed conversations behind closed doors, or note
the muffled footsteps of an adversary is what separated the living
from the dead. For that reason, dark elves excelled at such tasks.
Centuries of living underground or in the middle of a dangerous and
untamed wasteland had sharpened their senses to an unnatural
keenness. A dark elf's hearing was to an elf's what elven ears were
to a human's.
To them, hearing was life.
There were times, however, when it was an inconvenience. This was such a time for a certain half-dark elf lieutenant. Silently, Myssa cursed having inherited such skill from her dark elf blood. The couple behind the door she guarded made no effort to be discreet and every moan and scream of passion from her mistress was like a dagger stabbing her heart.
It wasn't the first time the young half-breed had found herself standing guard at her mistress' door while she was engaged in intimate relations. While it was unlikely anyone would actually be able to reach her room uninvited, one could never be too careful. And like in everything she did, Armisael gave her utmost while performing such activities, which could leave her vulnerable should one choose such a time to try and kill her.
Normally, to hear her mistress in the midst of her passion was a... rather frustrating ordeal. But today, the sole thought sickened her. To hear her mistress moan *his* name... to imagine *him* defiling her with his high elf touch... The half-elf shuddered and fought off a wave of nausea. For decades, her mistress had told her of the evils of humans and elves. While she could understand the need to use that monster as an ally, to know that her mistress would go this far to keep him ensnared in her web...
The end justified the means, her mistress had often told her. The half-elf sighed. Would she be capable of similar dedication of it was required from her? She didn't know.
"Poor, poor Myssa... all alone while her mistress plays..."
The first word hadn't even finished when the half-elf dropped into a shoulder roll. Pulling out her thin sword as she spring back to her feet, she drove the point where the sound had emanated from. But the adamantite blade bit only air.
"You hate it, don't you? You hate knowing she shares her bed with such filth..."
She listened to the voice, trying to blot out the words. Lunging forward, her sword flashed out and this time she felt the blade slice fabric, but not the drag that indicated a cut into flesh. Her sharp eyes caught a shadowy form flicker before her, but it was gone before she could recover.
"Show yourself, bastard," she hissed between clenched teeth.
"I wonder, is it the idea of their coupling you hate? Or perhaps you are envious?"
"Arael! I'd rather die now than be with *him*!"
She froze, as she felt a strong arm encircle her waist, and strong, sharp nails brush against her throat.
"That could be arranged..."
Myssa's mind raced, trying to find a way to break away from this unwanted embrace without losing her life in the process.
"But then, your mistress would make a big deal out of it, which would be bothersome..."
She felt the nails scratch their way up her chin, then a soft palm caress her cheek. Despite herself, she felt a measure of relief, even though the thought of him touching her in such a way was humiliating.
"Besides... I know that it isn't your mistress that you're envious of. But rather of... him."
The words throwing ice into her gut, Myssa twisted her free hand into a fist and slammed her elbow back. Pain exploded up her arm as it felt like hitting a frozen carcass. The hold was released however, and without thinking about the pain, she swung around and thrust her sword forward. She felt the sharp blade thud into his belly and her force carried the strike all the way down to the hilt.
Breathing heavily she stepped back, releasing her sword and
looking at Arael. He had often taunted her before, but never had she
been able to pin him down.
His skin wasn't as dark as that of a dark elf, nor did it have the chocolate brown texture of Myssa's skin. Neither did he have the paler shade of humans, or the almost milk white look of the elves. Rather his skin looked grayish, clearly showing that the man who had once been dark elf was now one of the undead, a vampire.
Myssa avoided looking at his red eyes, remembering the warnings of her mistress, but rather focused on the point where her sword had hit him. The blood that trickled from the wound was almost black and seemed thicker than that of a living creature. The half-elf's eyes opened wide in surprise and pain as a gray hand seized her throat and lifted her off the ground with inhuman strength.
"Not bad," commented Arael as he removed the sword form his body with his other hand, "but such a wound could never kill me."
With a flick of the wrist, he sent the half-elf crashing against a wall as if she were a mere rag doll.
"Such fearsome skill, yet you would have died," the vampire sing-songed. "Such a pretty face, keep it forever, by my side."
Despite the pain that flared through her body, the half-elf looked up at the dark elf vampire, eyes burning with hatred.
"I'd rather be with *him*, than become one of your undead whores."
The vampire gave her an almost sad smile.
"They would be so hurt to hear you say that. Each in their own way they try... but in the end they die, die, die. Death seems to take out the best in them. In life, this one is too fragile... in death, this one too dull. But you, my dear... you'd be just right."
Bile rose in the half-elf's throat as the vampire glided closer, gently placing her sword just a finger's breadth out of reach to mock her. "Once I'm rid of your mistress, you'll be coming to beg at my door."
Gritting her teeth, Myssa flashed him a grin. "Then kill her, or go away. Either way, stop wasting my time."
For a moment she felt an icy wave of hatred wash over her body. Arael's eyes blazed in his sockets, then with an almost animalistic cry he turned to shadow and faded into the darkness.
No strength left, the half-elf crumpled against the ground, humiliated and defeated. If her mistress hadn't spellbound the vampire to be her servant, she had no doubt that he would have put her under his power. Or worse, he could have walked right into her mistress' room and killed her. The last thought that ran through her head as she lost consciousness was of her failure to her mistress.
- - -
"Sir Shinji? Sir Shinji? Wake up."
Shinji's eyes fluttered at the soft voice and gentle, but insistent, rocking. Groaning, his eyes finally opened to focus on a blonde head standing over his.
"Sir Shinji? It's almost time for the banquet now."
Shinji blinked twice. That head was familiar. Where had he seen it before? Ah, yes... the half-elf priestess from the temple of Lilith. Oh, right. They were in Kelethin now...
"A banquet?" he asked, his words echoing his thoughts.
"Yes," nodded the half-elf. "To honor Lilith's Chosen."
Shinji groaned again, but this time it had nothing to do with reluctance to wake up. "Your people didn't really need to do that..." he said, frowning.
The blonde chuckled. "If you stay here long enough, you'll learn that we like to find any excuse we can to have small festivities."
Shinji's frown melted at the sight of the girl's warm smile.
"Alright," he said, then blushed as his stomach rumbled.
"Well, at least part of you seems to be enthusiastic about this," said the priestess with a small laugh.
"I guess," said Shinji, chuckling himself. He found it hard to remain irritated at the sight of his companion's smile. "Umm... could you...?" he added, remembering his state of undress under the covers.
"I'll wait outside."
Once the half-elf was out, Shinji got out of bed and reached for the clothes that had been made available for him, a gray tunic and a forest green pair of pants. He found himself amazed by the fabric. It felt as smooth as silk, yet kept his body warm and comfortable. For a moment, Shinji contemplated putting on his scale mail, but decided against it. He doubted there could be people more trustworthy than the people of Kelethin. He also left his weapons behind, their presence obviously not needed.
Exiting the hut, he was greeted by a warm smile and a motion to follow. Shinji gulped as he did. The priestess had traded her long white robes for a rather short, sleeveless pink tunic, exposing enticing long legs and hugging the curves of her body in a most fascinating way.
"Thank you for guiding me," said Shinji to the half-elf girl as he tried to focus on something other than the girl's assets. "I probably would have had a hard time finding my way. This city is beautiful, but it's rather confusing to me."
The girl nodded. "Yes, it's hard for newcomers to see all the paths of the city, even more to remember where everything leads. So it's our duty to make sure that our guests can find their way around," the half-elf said. "And I'll admit, it's a pleasure to escort such a cutie around," she added with a wink.
That caused Shinji to get closer to nature by walking into a tree.
"I'm Cilinya," she continued with a smile and a warm giggle as he struggled to free himself from the foliage. "If there's *anything* you want while you're in Kelethin, let me know."
Shinji gulped. He wasn't sure what to make of those words. And that look she gave him. Shinji didn't have to dwell on that for too long, however, as another person joined them. He sighed in relief at the sight of High Priestess Ayanami.
"You can go to the banquet, now, Cilinya," said the head priestess softly. "I need to talk with the Wind Chosen."
The half-elf nodded and bowed to the blue haired elf. She then looked at Shinji and winked.
"You owe me a dance!" she said, waving as she ran away.
To Shinji's side, the high elf chuckled. "It seems that this young one has taken an interest in you. I cannot blame her. You are a rather pleasant looking example of a young man. In fact, if I was not married and so old, I might be as bold as her."
"Your Holiness!" said Shinji, blushing even more.
Lady Ayanami chuckled again. "I am sorry. I did not mean to embarrass you. And please forgive Cilinya. This child was raised outside of Kelethin and is more carefree than most. The ways she has known for most of her life are those of humans. But perhaps it is for the best."
Shinji nodded, then looked at the High Priestess. "You wanted to talk to me?"
"Yes. Follow me please."
They walked for several minutes, Shinji glad that he had a guide to follow. After numerous twists and turns around the trees that supported the elven city, Shinji had hopelessly lost track of where he was. Finally they reached a large platform, holding a wooden structure of similar size to the temple of Lilith. Despite the obvious care lavished on the building, just by looking at the rich, dark wood Shinji could feel the weight of the ages pressing on him. This place was ancient, old in a way that seemed out of place with the elves. The people of Kelethin were old in a timeless fashion, seeming to hold the promise of youth despite years. This building was crushing the effects of time, the slow, grinding passage of years that bent all to its will.
Even though he shivered upon seeing it, Shinji couldn't help but be awed at the majestic power it presented.
"This is the Hall of Heroes," said Priestess Ayanami, pride obvious in her voice. She moved forward and opened the Hall's twin wooden doors and invited Shinji to follow her.
The large room was lit by four flames, one in each corner of the room. The flames burned bright, their colors shifting with the movements of the flames, flickering from purples, blues and greens. Along the walls, on each side of the room and in the back stood life sized wooden statues. As he looked at the closest statue, an elven male, Shinji could only stare in marvel at the realism. Care and detail had been put into the carving of the figure. It almost seemed as if it would step down off the pedestal. Along the bottom there were engravings, but Shinji found himself incapable of reading them.
"This Hall is dedicated to the memory of the heroes of my people. People who fought for goodness and freedom and who, unfortunately, too often lost their lives in doing so."
A place dedicated to the respect of the memories of the heroes of the past... Shinji wondered about his own people. Was there a similar hall in Tokyo? Or were the heroes of mankind forgotten as time went? Would he ever find his place in such a hall one day? Shinji shook his head at the silly thought. He was nothing of a hero.
As he looked around the room, Shinji let out a surprised gasp as he noticed one of the statues in the back of the room. Approaching it, he realized that there was no doubt possible. Clothes aside, it seemed to be an exact replica of Rei.
"This is Rei Ayanami," explained Lady Ayanami, "our ancestor of ages past and one of the first of Lilith's Chosen. Do not be surprised by her resemblance to my daughter. For they are the same."
"Yes. My daughter Rei holds the reincarnated soul of our ancestor. A soul that had been cursed by destiny to be reborn again and again, until the day where it could finally finish the task it had begun three millennia ago."
Shinji's head spun. Rei was one of the original Chosen? It seemed so far fetched, yet... it seemed to explain so many things.
"Is this why she acts the way she does? Why some of the people here fear her?"
The priestess nodded. "Rei has no memories of her previous lives. But in a strange way, she has always been aware of who she is. Who she was. The nature of her destined purpose. For that reason she had always distanced herself from others, focused only on what she believes is the one and only reason for her existence."
Shinji shook his head in disbelief. It felt so wrong, so sad...
"I, too, believe that there is more to Rei's destiny than facing Adam once again," said High Priestess Ayanami, as if sensing Shinji's thoughts. "This is why I must ask a favor of you. Not as a priestess of Lilith, but as a woman and mother." Their eyes met and Shinji could see just how important this was to the woman. "Please protect her. There is no doubt that the Enemy will know who she is and will act accordingly. Protect her from the darkness, but also, protect her from herself. For I fear that she may one day be driven to acts of desperation by her obsession with the past. And more importantly... be there for her. Not just as an ally, but as a companion, a friend. She has too few of those."
"I'll do the best I can," said Shinji. Truth be told, he would have done so even without the elder priestess' request. After hearing about Rei, Shinji wanted to try and befriend her more than ever. He could sympathize with the elven girl. He too knew what it meant to be an outcast. "But..."
"You doubt your ability to protect her," said the
priestess, again as if reading what was on his mind. It was true. He
could barely defend himself in battle. Rei had a far greater
understanding of magic and swordmanship than he would likely ever
have. Besides... he himself could turn out to be a risk to the elf's
The priestess approached him, and Shinji stiffened as she softly cupped his face with her hands. Her touch was warm and gentle however, and he soon relaxed.
"Your heart is heavy, your soul filled with anxiety. I have sensed it the first time I have laid eyes on you," continued the priestess. "This is why I have asked you to come here."
The elf let go of Shinji and indicated a statue close to that of Rei Ayanami with her hand. It represented a human man in his mid twenties. He was taller than Shinji, and also had a bigger build. His hair seemed short, but wild. With a critical eye, Shinji noted the size of the sword that was strapped on his back. It was as long as Misato's Murasame, but the blade was at least three times as thick and wide as a bastard sword.
"This man was called Kyo the Unyielding," explained Lady Ayanami. "At the end of the Black Wars, what elves had been perverted by Adam were chased away into the dead lands of the north. Fearing that we would become the same the humans then turned against us. Many of our people fled toward the main continent, but most of us attempted to find refuge in this forest. Our kind might have been destroyed in those days, if it hadn't been for one man who had grown attached to an elven maiden. Single-handedly, he fought and won over a group of over one hundred men. That man was your ancestor."
Shinji gasped in shock at the news. "You know... do you know something about my family?!"
The elf priestess shook her head. "I can feel that the blood of Kyo flows through your veins, along the blood of my people and the blood of yours. Other than this, I am uncertain."
Shinji nodded, disappointed, but still interested about what the Lady had to say. Finally, to learn *something* about his origins...
"Kyo had been severely wounded in the battle, but with the care of our people he quickly recovered. The rumors of his strength kept humans away from the forest and gave us the time to organize ourselves and learn to better tap the powers we were blessed with. In the span of ten years, we had established strong defenses and learned how to use weapons. Kyo had married his elf maiden, and been blessed with a daughter, one of the first children in the new city of Kelethin. Kyo, however, was fated to fight, and eventually fell while defending our city from one of the many human attacks that occurred against us, until a treaty was finally signed between Kelethin and Tokyo."
Shinji could only stare at the statue. To think that such a hero was one of his ancestors...
"You and Kyo are very much alike," continued Ayanami. "He too was swept away by the tides of those times and forced into a situation he couldn't escape. He too feared himself, but fought for what he believed in nonetheless. He too was a berserker."
Shinji gasped at that. "He... he was a berserker?"
The Lady nodded. "Yes. In fact, he was one of the original berserkers. Before Adam rose and tried to destroy the world, Kyo had been a soldier in the wars waged all over Gaia. Along with a few chosen, the wise men of those times put upon him the curse of the berserker, in order to make him a weapon of destruction. He was never expected to survive, but yet he did."
"You mean... people made him... made us... that way?"
"Yes. Humanity in those ages had grown to believe that it could act as if they were gods. And their folly was punished accordingly. Even after three thousand years, we are still paying for their foolishness. After the birth of Kyo's daughter, my people had believed that the curse of the berserker would be no more. They were mistaken, as they realized after the birth of Kyo's grandson. The curse, it appears, only affects males."
Shinji could only stare at his hands, wide eyed. Was he just a mistake from a distant past?
"Do not think less of yourself, Shinji. One's weakness can also be one's strength. Your ancestor Kyo learned to control the spirits of rage that dwelled within his heart and gained great powers that he used not to destroy, but to protect his loved ones. I am certain that you can do the same."
Hope rose within Shinji, but only slightly. Could he really do it? Control the anger? There were times he had barely been able to suppress it...
"Do not fear your weaknesses. And do not fear to rely on your comrades for strength. That is the mistake *he* made."
Shinji followed the gaze of the priestess to a statue standing aside the one of Rei Ayanami. It represented a male elf, of the approximate same age of Rei Ayanami. He had a soft, warm smile. In a moment of insight, Shinji understood that this was a statue of Kaworu the Brave. The smile aside, he didn't look different from the many male elves he had seen so far. In fact, he didn't look all that different from Shinji, the two having a rather similar build. This was truly the legendary hero? From the tales he had heard, Shinji had expected a more imposing look. Maybe Kensuke's ramblings about Kaworu the Brave were right after all...
Shinji felt a hand on his shoulders and looked up to see the priestess smile warmly at him.
"Believe in yourself, and believe in your friends."
Shinji nodded. He would try. He would do his best. He had no other choice but to do so. For failing was not an option.
"Come. Our presence is awaited at the banquet."
- - -
The banquet had not been exactly what Shinji had expected.
Led by Lady Ayanami, the two had descended to the forest ground level. There, several huge wooden tables were set, filled with food and surrounded by hundreds of elves, half-elves, and humans. All were seated and the whole scene lit by fairy fires.
At the appearance of the priestess and the Wind Chosen, the crowd burst into a cheer and musicians began to play in earnest. This was far from the more solemn banquets he had had to attend in Tokyo both when living at the temple and after his victory against the Kagenoshi. Here, people simply wanted to eat and celebrate, just for the sake of it. The priestess led Shinji to his seat, beside Kensuke and Mayumi, and before he could blink a mug of elven wine had been thrust into his hands. Remembering the consequences of his last time drinking he warily eyed the offered beverage but eventually drank some, finding the taste to be light and fruity. Still, he made sure to moderate himself.
Normally, Shinji disliked crowds. However, his usual apprehension stood no chance against the elven folk's cheerfulness and joy of living, as well as the moving and upbeat melodies created by the bards. He even allowed himself to be dragged away by Cilinya and join a group of elves that were dancing to the music.
Yet, something felt wrong and as Cilinya went to fetch herself a drink, Shinji took this opportunity to lose himself into the crowd. It wasn't that the half-elf was bad company, even if she seemed rather... aggressive in her obvious flirting efforts. Normally Shinji would have appreciated the fact that a member of the fairer sex had taken an interest in him... even while Cilinya's boldness was scaring him out of his mind. The way she'd moved in the dance, her arms surrounding his body, pressing herself against him... Though his mind was preoccupied with other things, he knew his face was blazing red.
Among the musicians, Shinji noticed Kensuke. The bard seemed to be exchanging stories and tales with several of his elven companions, if Shinji was to judge by the passionate look on the troubadour's face.
Shinji took note of Mayumi, still seated at one of the tables, who
seemed to be in conversation with several other priestesses. At least
she was, until a handsome elflord held out his hand to her with a
smile. Mayumi shot to her feet, either in agreement or just to bolt
away in fear, but the elflord didn't give her a chance. Capturing her
hand he converted her sudden movement into a graceful spin and the
two of them were swallowed up by the dancing crowd.
No matter how much Shinji scanned the crowd, he saw no traces of Rei. Even before, when everyone was eating, he hadn't seen her.
The young man heard the faint call of his name, but he ignored Cilinya's voice. He could only think of what High Priestess Ayanami had told him. Had Rei cut herself off so much from even her own people that she would avoid such a happy celebration? Was the void between her and her kin so great that none had noticed her absence, even when these festivities were supposed to celebrate Lilith's Chosen?
Walking away from the elven magical fires, Shinji entered the shadows of the great forest of Kelethin. It didn't seem right for one such as Rei to be alone like this. He knew loneliness far too well and this wasn't something he wished anyone to experience. Especially not someone like Rei.
It was wrong...
As he walked further into the forest, Shinji felt something. A very faint familiar impression, togging at the edge of his mind. He might not have noticed, had he not been in such a contemplative mood. Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on it.
Yes... he knew this presence. It shone in the darkness, a beacon for him to follow. Guided by his senses, he headed toward the presence.
He found her, jumping on poles sticking in the middle of a river, unknowingly watching a scene very similar to the one that had greeted Misato the first time she and Rei had met several years ago. Shinji watched in rapt admiration, noting Rei's perfect grace and fluidity. In a long, gravity defying leap, Rei jumped to the edge of the river, and then turned in Shinji's direction, sheathing her weapon.
"Why are you here?"
Shinji hesitated to answer. Why indeed?
"I noticed that you weren't at the banquet. I... I just thought that you might be lonely."
The elf's eyes widened briefly at those words, as if surprised that someone would actually care about her. It was just a fleeting display of emotion, however, and Shinji found himself wondering if he hadn't just imagined it.
"Come," said Rei simply, motioning for Shinji to approach her. Shinji did as she asked and the two of them stood at the edge of the river. Shinji gulped, hoping that he wouldn't find himself pushed into water again, like she had in their last training session. But his fears were unfounded, as Rei removed the glove that covered her right hand, then raised it, palm opened.
"Take my hand," she commanded him and again, Shinji did what she wanted of him, although with a hint of blush on his cheeks. Rei's hand felt soft and warm in his hand, a complete contrast to the mask of indifference she wore.
He saw the blue haired elf close her eyes, and the Water Crest on her collar glow in a soft blue light. Around them, mist began to rise from the water and through the hand Shinji was holding, he felt the power that was coursing through Rei's body.
"Close your eyes," she said. "Feel the power. See it within your mind's eye."
The young man closed his eyes, focusing on the feeling he could feel with his hands. It was familiar. That power had guided him to Rei. He had also felt it before in the battles he had fought with Rei, had sensed it the first time they had met, in Edo. With his mind, he focused on it, saw it coursing through Rei's veins and flesh, growing in strength. He could see how the elf's skin seemed to call in the water in the air, how the power of the water soaking the soil seemed to flow toward her feet, how the river seemed to answer to the call from her heart and soul. The power moved within her, like waves on an ocean.
"To most, magic is about bending a source of power to one's
will. Mages rely on spells as a guide to tap into that power. Spells,
however, are unnecessary. If your desire is sincere, if you do not
abuse the trust Gaia offers, then the power will come to you. And
once it does, the only limit to its use is your own heart."
Shinji felt a shift of a fraction of the power within the elf. He felt it answer to the elf's will, flowing out of her, taking shape and form. He could see, without even opening his eyes, a ribbon of water that circled around them with a life all its own.
Understanding dawning on Shinji, he looked within himself, focused on the feelings he had felt when he had first put the Wind Crest around his neck. He felt the power awaken, calling for more. A breeze rose as the air itself seemed to answer to the call, freely offering its strength to Shinji. Shinji let the power grow, then redirected it outward. Winds began to spin around them, making the water ribbon circle faster and faster. As the two elemental forces danced together, Shinji began to feel something different. The powers touched, slightly melding together and for a moment, just a tiny moment, Shinji felt the will linked to the water. To Rei's very essence. It was such a shock to the both of them that their concentration broke, the spells going haywire, water and wind lashing out at the ground and trees around them. When they opened their eyes, ice covered the plants and the river as well.
"What... what just happened?"
"I... I do not know..."
Shinji looked at Rei, and he could tell that the elf seemed shaken by what had just occurred. She seemed however to quickly regain control of herself and Shinji saw the Water Crest glow once again. Soon, answering to Rei's will, the ice had melted and either evaporated, or returned to the earth and river.
"It is late. We should rest," Rei said, obviously not wanting to remain on that subject any longer.
Shinji looked at the night sky. "What the...?"
The moon was no longer where it was supposed to be.
"We can't have been doing this for this long... could we?"
"It would appear so. We had better take rest if we plan to reach our destination tomorrow."
Shinji nodded. If they slept too late, it would just delay them further.
"Umm... Rei..." Shinji began hesitantly, as he looked all around him. "Do you know the way to Kelethin, and then how I can get to my room?"
Rei stared at him for a moment, then sighed.
The two of them followed the course of the river for a few minutes, until they reached a great tree. Shinji noticed immediately the way the branches had been arranged to make a natural stairway and looked up to see a hut that stood on the top of the tree.
"Rei, is this...?"
"It is my home. You can stay here tonight. It will be faster than having to lead you back to the city," confirmed the blue haired elf.
Rei swiftly climbed to the top of the tree, followed a few moments later by Shinji. She opened the door to the small wooden hut and invited Shinji in.
The house was built around the trunk of the tree, and was of an approximate diameter of five meters. One area seemed dedicated to Rei's studies. On the floor and on bookcases were dozens of books and scrolls. To the left of the books, several weapons were mounted on the wall. Long swords, bastard swords, rapiers, daggers, katana, axes, lances. Shinji couldn't help but wonder if she had trained in the use of all those weapons. Finally, he noted the last element in the room, a single person-sized cot.
Already slightly on edge with the thought of staying the night with Rei, Shinji immediately understood the implications this last observation meant. Without giving Rei any chance to protest, he installed himself on the floor, close to Rei's collections of weapons. The high elf gave him a curious look.
"This is your room. You should be the one to take the cot."
The elf looked at the cot, then at Shinji again. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to her that there wouldn't be enough room for two.
"Thank you," breathed the elf, as she removed her cape, and covered Shinji with it. Shinji smiled at her, and was surprised to see her actually softly smile back at him for a moment. His smile was soon replaced by a shocked expression, however, as he saw the elf removed her weapon, bracers and boots. Despite his desire to keep looking, he hastily turned around, to look at the wall. This was not lost to Rei.
"Do you want me to remain clothed?" she asked, as she stopped removing her tunic.
Did she even realize how tricky that question was?
"It... it would be more proper to... to keep your clothes on..." stammered Shinji. He didn't want to lie to Rei, but surely couldn't admit either that part of him wouldn't mind at all having her remove her clothes.
"I see. I will remain dressed then."
Shinji sighed in relief. He turned back toward her, to see her lie on her cot. He gulped at the way her naked legs appeared in the moonlight, and how her tunic rose up and hugged her body as she turned to lie on one of her sides, her red eyes gazing at him.
"Thank you for coming," she simply said, before closing her eyes.
Shinji smiled at those simple words, seeing Rei in an entirely new light. Pleased with himself, Shinji easily found sleep.
- - -
In front of Kensuke stood what the elves called the Great Library. It was an imposing wooden structure, comparable in size to the temple of Lilith, which was said to hold all of their written records. Normally, being in such proximity to an archive of millennia old knowledge would have excited Kensuke to no end, but as things stood he could only frown suspiciously at the sight. The small amount of effort it took to uncover directions to the Great Library had been the first hint that something wasn't quite right here. The lack of guards in front of the imposing wooden structure was the second. Such lore simply couldn't be available for all to see. No, something was definitely wrong in this picture. He had long learned from the few adventures he had shared with Touji that the easier a job seemed, the uglier it could get.
Gently, Kensuke stroked one arm of his glasses, activating their magic. He screamed in pain and shock as he was blinded by the eldritch display of lights his glasses displayed before his eyes. The glasses fell to the wooden platform he was standing on, but fortunately didn't break.
"Oh crap!" said Kensuke, blinking as his now blurry vision slowly came back to him. "The magical protections on that place are insane! No wonder there's no guard. There's no way I'll be getting in. Damn!"
"Are you harmed?"
Kensuke froze as he recognized the soft and warm feminine voice that belonged to the blurry shape that had just moved in front of him. He saw the shape bend down, then felt soft fingers delicately put his glasses in one of his hands.
For once, the usually voluble young man didn't have anything to say.
Tentatively, he put his glasses back on, having making sure that they were deactivated first. He gulped as his now improved vision greeted him with the smiling face of High Priestess Ayanami. While he hadn't technically done anything wrong, he couldn't help but fear her reaction. Yet, she did the last thing she expected. She chuckled.
"Have no fear, young troubadour. I am not in the habit of punishing young ones for being too curious for their own good. It should be no surprise for you to learn that you are not the first who sought to enter the Great Library without authorization."
With someone else, Kensuke would have tried to lie about his intentions, but something told him that lying would disappoint this lady. And as with her daughter, he felt it was a good idea to make sure those red eyes had no reason to be upset with him.
"I would rather give you some advice, if I may," continued the High Priestess. "Young Kensuke, there are times when the past is better left buried."
"But... but... it's not right!" Kensuke finally managed to blurt out, his words fueled with the strength of his convictions. "People deserve to know the truth! Not the half-truths made up by the Church!"
The priestess softly shook her head.
"You are probably right," she admitted, which made Kensuke grin in triumph. "But what people *need* is not the truth, but rather hope."
Kensuke's grin faded.
"You should know, as well as any other, how life in this world can be hard in its harsh reality. Many are those who have to struggle daily to build for themselves a life that is beyond mere survival, to grasp some happiness and offer their children a future. To these people, hope has more worth than any amount of gold. To live a decent life, they need to have faith, to have hope in something."
The priestess' words shook Kensuke to the very core. "But... but... the truth..."
"Can sometimes do more harm than good. Tell me, what would the people gain, for instance, in knowing that their most revered hero failed them, that now evil threatens to destroy all their lives because he couldn't destroy it? It would only cause them despair and anxiety. Listen Kensuke, legends and heroes are necessary for those people. To some, it gives them models to try to equal. To others, it provides them with a sense of security, for they are comforted in the belief that a hero will rise to protect them, should something beyond their capacity to fight arise. A hero is a symbol of hope and belief."
Kensuke fell silent, not knowing what to say or think.
"I can see in your heart that you know what are the consequences of people losing hope."
Yes, he knew. He had seen it for himself in Touji's village. People who barely survived, only due to the efforts of a few rare people like Touji. Touji who himself slowly lost his own will to fight, like a candle slowly burning itself out.
"I envy you," said the priestess, breaking Kensuke's train of thought. "For you have the ability to ignite the flame of hope into the people's hearts."
Kensuke's eyes lit up at those words, as if a new understanding of his art suddenly dawned on him. He clenched his fist and grinned at the priestess.
"I understand. But I still want to learn the truth. For myself."
High Priestess Ayanami smiled at him. "Like I said, some need hope more than anything. Others want the truth. I think that if you truly are searching for one, the other might be found along the journey. Follow the path you have chosen. Your companions should lead you to what you seek."
Kensuke nodded, and bowed at the priestess.
"Thank you, your Holiness."
When he rose his head again, the high elf was gone.
Still smiling, Kensuke returned to the banquet, lute in hand. He suddenly had the urge to play.
- - -
Shinji groaned as he turned away from Kensuke. It wasn't because of the fact that the bard was mostly naked, removing the elven clothes that had been loaned to him so he could dress in his usual, more colorful attire, freshly washed by their hosts. Shinji was used to the sight of naked men from years of use of the public baths in Edo. It was simply a futile effort at ignoring the troubadour.
"Come on! Something *had* to have happened!"
"I *told* you, Kensuke! We slept, we woke up, and Rei guided me back here. Nothing more!"
The more Shinji insisted, the less the bard seemed to believe him.
"Shinji," the bard pressed as the Wind Chosen put on his scale mail. "A woman invited you into her home. Not to drink tea, but to spend the night. And you want me to believe that nothing happened?"
Exasperated, Shinji turned toward the bard. "Exactly! Nothing happened!"
Only then did Shinji notice someone standing behind Kensuke, annoyance clear on her face. Oh dear... He couldn't help but grin, which was interpreted by Kensuke in an entirely different way.
"I knew it! Shinji you old dog you! So, how is she?" Shinji opened his mouth, but Kensuke kept on going.
"Is she the shy, quiet type? Was it a long, slow build up; the kind where you uncover the mysteries she offers in a night that lasts a thousand years?"
Shinji could almost feel the temperature drop several degrees.
"Or maybe she lets go of her inhibitions completely and is like a wildcat in bed? Someone as repressed as that needs to cut loose *somewhere*!"
Shinji was sure frost was forming on the nearby leaves.
"Come on! Everybody knows the elves are perfectionists, and they want to be the best at whatever they do. They've got *centuries* to think about stuff like that. I can only imagine what skills they've developed in that regard. Of course, if you tell me, I won't have to imagine it, I'll have-"
"She's right behind you," Shinji answered, an evil smile on his face. Kensuke blanched at that.
"Ah... ah... oh... L-lady Rei... hi..." his lame attempt at conversation was cut off as the blade of a rapier poked through the front of the loose fabric where his pants came together in the middle. Shinji snickered as a mouse-like squeak issued from Kensuke's ashen lips.
"We can leave whenever you are ready," the elf announced. Shinji nodded, then winced in sympathy as Rei increased the upward pressure on her blade, which made Kensuke whimper in fear and pain. The elf slid closer until her front was touching the bard's back. Her lips came up to his ear so he could feel her hot breath against his skin. "Do not speak of things you know nothing about... Nor are likely ever to."
Satisfied, the elf left a shaken Kensuke and laughing Shinji behind. The Wind Chosen knew that he shouldn't be laughing at his friend's plight, but really, Kensuke had asked for it.
"Don't worry, Kensuke. I'll get Mayumi. She can use a healing spell on you."
Shinji doubted that Rei had really harmed the bard. She had obviously only wanted to scare him. Still... a little more humiliation couldn't hurt. Oh yes, Shinji couldn't wait to see Kensuke try to explain to the priestess how he had injured himself *there*.
"No! Don't do that! Get some elf priestess instead! Shinji!!!"
- - -
The group met again at the southern edge of Kelethin. Rei was already there along with three male elves, putting the final preparations to their mounts. The horses seemed refreshed, eager even to go back on the road. Shinji noticed with a certain amount of satisfaction that their provisions had been replaced with fresh ones. He felt the weight of the world off his shoulders now that they didn't have to worry about relying on Misato's rations. Too bad they couldn't stock up on elven bread...
From the corner of his eye, Shinji noticed a now-subdued Kensuke avoid Rei's gaze.
As they reached the horses, Shinji saw two figures walk down the steps of Kelethin. The young man gulped as he recognized the half-elf that was accompanying High Priestess Ayanami.
"I see that the young adventurers are ready to leave. I hope that your stay in Kelethin has helped you rest for the second step of your journey."
Shinji nodded. "We are grateful of for your hospitality, your Holiness. It's only a shame that we could only stay for so little time," said Shinji, meaning it. It had been short, but he had already grown to like the forest city.
"It is the least my people can do. Be safe in your travels, and may the Goddess be with you."
Shinji bowed to the priestess, as did his companions. The priestess then gazed at Rei and smiled at her, opening her arms. Shinji could see Rei stiffen, not wanting to answer her mother's unspoken request in public, but the older high elf let her no choice, as she caught her daughter in a hug and fondly ruffled the girl's hair. Shinji would have smiled at the sight, but he was distracted as someone stalked towards him with what looked like dire purpose in mind.
"Umm... Cilinya... hi... Sorry for leaving last night..."
Shinji found himself stunned, as the half-elf took a step forward and he felt soft, warm lips against his cheek.
"You should be," she whispered at his ear, her warm breath sending pleasant shivers along the young man's spine. "I had some very... pleasant... plans for you."
Shinji gulped and looked at her eyes wide, his hand touching the spot where her lips had met skin, not really believing what had just happened. The girl winked at him, and smiled.
"Once you're done saving the world, you know where to find me, cutie!"
None except Lady Ayanami noticed the way Rei's eyebrow twitched at the half-elf's display. Mayumi could only stare at Shinji and Cilinya with a faint blush on her cheeks, while Kensuke seemed to find some of his spirit back.
"Oh yeah! Way to go Shinji! I knew you had it in you!"
"C-come on! Let's go!" Shinji ordered, trying to prevent his embarrassment from showing.
Rei took that opportunity to free herself from her mother's embrace and she and Shinji were soon on their horses and ready to go, followed by Kensuke and Mayumi. Shinji couldn't help but smile at the waving Kelethin priestesses, then the group was off again on their journey. Silently, the priestesses watched them go, and only when Rei was out of hearing distance did Lady Ayanami finally speak.
"Well done, Cilinya. Although, you surprised me with that kiss. I thought you were bolder than that."
"I thought he should get his first real kiss from someone he cared for," said the younger priestess with a shrug.
Ayanami nodded in approval.
"I still don't understand why go through all this trouble though," admitted the blonde. "Your daughter is not the sort who would get jealous."
"Maybe. Maybe not. There is only so much I can understand about my daughter myself. Nevertheless, if anything, it will have done the child some good. Such a fine young man deserves to be paid some attention. Besides... I can tell that you would not have minded if this had gone further than simple flirting."
The half-elf smiled sheepishly. "Well... he is a bit too shy, but he's sweet. And rather good looking too. And really, a girl could do far worse than a Chosen of Lilith." Cilinya then shook her head. "But he seems to genuinely care for Rei."
"Yes. I can be in peace now. I am certain that she will not have to face the trials that await her alone."
Silently, the two of them returned to Kelethin, deep in thought.
"He could still grow attached to that priestess instead of your daughter, however. And we still don't know who the two other Chosen will be. One of them could be female."
The High Priestess nodded again. While her ancestor had been the only member of the fair sex out of the four original Chosen, there was no guarantee that history would repeat itself. The goddess appeared to enjoy messing around with things. Only the soul of Rei Ayanami had been cursed to be reincarnated, after all.
"Indeed. But even if that happens, at least I can be certain now that my daughter has a friend. This is really all that matters to me. There are still a few years before I have to worry about her coming of age."
"Assuming we all survive..."
The Lady gently squeezed her apprentice's shoulder. "We must have faith in them, and pray to the Goddess for their well being."
"Now on to other matters... Did Tylas seem jealous when you were dancing with the young Chosen? I swear, if how you were carrying on with Shinji didn't get his nose out of whatever book he was reading, I'm not sure what to do with the boy."
- - -
The young woman awoke to the feeling of the sun warming her skin. Having grown used to sleeping within the underground passages of Neriak, this sensation was one that the half dark elf didn't normally experience. It didn't mean that she wasn't familiar with it. She had, too often for her tastes, woken up in such a setting. Opening her eyes it only took a quick scan of the room to realize she was, indeed, lying on Bardiel's cot. Myssa winced in pain as she tried to get up. Her left shoulder hurt, but not as much as her left side.
"Don't move. You have broken ribs."
Myssa obeyed the deep, serious voice. She had learned from experience that one usually paid dearly for not following Bardiel's instructions. From the corner of her eye she saw the massive form of the Weapons Master, easily recognizable by the black armor he always wore. Bardiel came to the side of her bed and lifted a steaming mug to her lips. The smell was horrible, reminiscent of decaying flesh.
Myssa took the offered vial and emptied it into her mouth. Immediately a wave of nausea rolled up from her belly and she tried to spit the vile concoction out. Before she could a massive hand pushed her jaw closed and fingers pinched her nostrils shut. For a moment she struggled, but her body eventually surrendered to the inevitable and with a shudder she swallowed. After her throat muscles had carried the foul liquid down, the hand released its grasp and
she fell forward, gasping.
"Quiv onwa! Your potions are worse than what they're designed to cure!"
"You will recover from the potion. Without the potion, you may not recover from your wounds."
Myssa glared at Bardiel, but knew he was right. Her only comfort was that even her mistress wasn't immune to the foul taste of his concoctions.
The half-elf tired to get up, but was pinned to the bed by a heavy, immovable hand that held her prone while the potion did its work fixing her injuries. While white magic users in Neriak were rare, the dark elf race had developed potent skills in alchemy. Not only was Bardiel a master in the art of war, but he was also very knowledgeable in plants, roots and minerals. The medicinal brew he had developed over the years was very powerful and well appreciated by his students, save for its taste.
"The Lady is unharmed."
Myssa finally allowed herself to relax at this bit of news. Still, she couldn't help but worry. This wasn't the first time that Arael had come to torment her. It was something the undead enjoyed immensely. However, this was the first time that he actually dared touch her. Obviously, his patience was wearing thin.
Two decades before she had been born, Arael had attempted to make her mistress one of his slaves. Due to her training in the Dark Arts, Armisael had shown exceptional resistance. The battle between them had been terrible, but in the end Armisael had managed to acquire some of Arael's blood. Using a dark curse, she had inverted the bonds of compulsion and bound the vampire to her will. The curse used was a formidable one that would slay its target should the victim attempt to injure or kill the caster. From what little Armisael had been willing to say, it had been a dangerous gamble to cast the spell, but one of the few things that could bind those beyond death.
Even with the curse a chain around his neck, Arael was a cunning adversary. Myssa worried that sooner or later he would attempt to kill Armisael without being involved himself.
Personally, Myssa wished that her mistress would destroy him once and for all. But even she couldn't deny Arael's talent for information gathering. A number of his slaves were scattered all over the kingdom and through his link with them, he could know all that they knew. Few were those who could resist his hypnotic gaze and hide information from him and he had learned her mistress' Shadow Step technique from her blood, making him the ideal interrogator and spy. He could be as useful an ally as he was a fearsome foe.
"Let me go, Bardiel! I need to talk with Lady Armisael!"
The chimera shook his head, keeping the small woman pinned to the bed.
"It will have to wait. The Lady has left with... him... to awaken a Kagenoshi."
From the sound of Bardiel's voice, Myssa could tell that Bardiel shared the same opinion she had of Tabris. She could also tell how the idea of yet another Kagenoshi awakening disgusted him just as it did her. A man of the sword, he relied on his strength alone, and found the concept of using those ancient servants of Adam to be a cowardly way to do battle.
Her reasons were different. To awaken a Kagenoshi required considerable power. Power that, so far, had been fueled with the lives of very promising young half-elves. She knew, of course, that the role of those tainted with human blood such as herself was to serve the dark elf collective, with their sacrifice if needed. Very few were as fortunate as she had been to be raised and tutored by one such as Lady Armisael. In other circumstances, her role in life would have been to act as servant to an appointed dark elf soldier and give him as many children as possible. Children that would be of purer blood than those born from the breeding camps.
She wouldn't admit it to anyone, but she knew herself to be very fortunate.
With that mindset, she couldn't help but feel a certain kinship toward those young ones who were to be sacrificed for the rebirth of Adam's ancient guardians. It felt like such a waste. Two Kagenoshi had already been destroyed by the Chosen, the so-called "champions of Lilith". How many lives would be wasted this way? How much unrecognized potential would be lost forever?
What was *he* planning?
She clenched her hands in frustration. In her opinion, he was as trustworthy as Arael was. And probably even more dangerous. At least, Arael made no efforts to hide his intentions. She could hardly believe that her mistress would let herself be played with in such a way.
"Do not worry for the Lady," said Bardiel, guessing what sort of thoughts ran through her mind. "She will not be fooled by the likes of him."
Myssa would have liked to believe so, to share Bardiel's unwavering faith. But she knew that her mistress, despite all of her talents and abilities, was not infallible. If she were, she would have no need for one such as herself.
"Rest. Weakened, you are of no use to her."
The half-breed nodded and closed her eyes. She forced herself to find a calm. She would do her duty as best she could. She would show her mistress that there were more ways to achieve their goals than by relying on that elf. She would serve well, and when that high elf showed his true colors, she prayed her mistress would allow her to dispose of him.
- - -
"It's so beautiful..." breathed Mayumi, as she gazed with admiration at the ocean that spread before them, down below the cliff where they stood.
Only marred by the presence of a few small islands, the vast watery expense seemed tranquil on that sunny day. Coastal birds flew in the sky, sometimes dropping down into the lazy waves to catch a fish or crustacean. The faint breeze that they could feel on their face was fresh and humid, carrying the scents of sea.
To Shinji, who had lived all his life in a farming village, it was also a new sight and he wished he could enjoy it as Mayumi did. But ever since they had left Kelethin, a feeling of dread had steadily grown within his heart. He could feel it, hear it in the wind. Something was on the move, something was coming. And he knew, deep within his soul, that whatever was out there, it would strike soon. The fact that they had traveled so far without being bothered just added to his anxiety.
Turning to Rei, he could see that she shared his unease. Her face was a mask of indifference, but ever since that incident in Kelethin when their power had touched, it seemed easier for him to see past that mask. Noticing his gaze, her head turned slightly toward him and she nodded discreetly.
"So, you've never seen the sea before, Mayumi?" asked Kensuke, visibly amused by the shy priestess' almost childish fascination with the sea.
The maiden shook her head.
"No. All I've really known was Tokyo. We studied geography and maps, but with the exception of the pilgrimage to Kelethin, we were never allowed to see the sights of the kingdom with our own eyes. This is my first assignment outside of the city."
The raven haired girl seemed thoughtful for a moment, then sad.
"I... I may have seen it when I was very young. But... if I have, I don't remember."
Curiosity ate at the bard, demanded he pry further and get to the truth behind the priestess' change of mood. However, Lady Ayanami's words fortified his conscience and he let it drop. Instead, a smile crossed his face.
"You know, this is the perfect setting for a good, pleasant meal. Since we're here, why not enjoy ourselves a few moments? It's about time to eat anyway."
Shinji looked at Rei. She nodded again.
"Sure," he said, trying to smile. Kensuke was right. They should relax while they still could. Whether they worried or not wouldn't change the trials that awaited them.
- - -
The group had not made any cooking fire, as per Rei's request. Shinji could understand it, still feeling on edge, despite his best attempts at ignoring his instincts. Even Kensuke's music had been no help in calming his agitation.
Even if cold, the meal had been enjoyable. Elven bread and cakes far surpassed in taste the usual traveling rations. Shinji could tell that Mayumi and Kensuke had noticed the growing tension at the prospect of soon attempting to reach and revive the Water Holy Armor. He appreciated the fact that they didn't try to go out of their way to cheer him up.
With the day slowly ending, the group set up camp after they were done with their meal. Since they couldn't travel further by foot, it seemed the most reasonable course of action to take.
Reasonable wasn't a word that could be applied to Kensuke, however, when Rei announced that she would only take Shinji with her.
"WHAT?! What do you mean we've got to stay here?!" asked an outraged Kensuke, indicating himself and Mayumi.
"Taking everyone would be a considerable strain on my powers," explained Rei. "Further more, only Lilith's Chosen will be allowed to enter the Water Shrine."
"Oh..." To say that Kensuke looked disappointed was an understatement. He seemed utterly devastated, as if he had been told he was dying or something equally tragic. "It's not fair! I really wanted to see the legendary Water Shrine!"
Sympathetically, Shinji patted his companion's shoulder. "We'll tell you everything, Kensuke. Don't worry."
"I know... still, I would have liked to see it..."
As the bard began to sulk, Shinji approached Mayumi.
"Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid, like trying to follow after us."
The priestess nodded.
"May Lilith be with you."
This said, Shinji joined Rei, who was waiting for him on the edge of the cliff.
"So... what do we do now?"
"Hold my hand and do not let go under any circumstances."
Shinji took the elf's gloved hand into his own, trying to ignore Kensuke's cheers behind him. At least, he didn't think he was overly blushing this time.
"So... what now?"
Rei's answer was to jump off the cliff, dragging a screaming Shinji with her.
- - -
Born in an inland village and without anyone caring enough to teach him, Shinji had never learned to swim. It was a fact that he had never really worried about. The few rivers that were close to his home village were shallow enough for him to stand on his feet. Even now that his life had changed, there hadn't been any situations that warranted worrying over that fact.
As Rei dragged him into the ocean, instinctive fear took over the young man's mind. Screaming in fright, he found himself convinced that he was falling to his doom.
The fact he found himself hitting a mass of solid water did wonders for Shinji's sanity.
With certain disbelief and apprehension, Shinji realized that he and Rei were sinking into the sea. But neither of them was even wet. Shinji could feel his feet touch water, but it felt solid, allowing him to stand. Looking around, he noted that he and Rei were standing in a sphere free of water. Looking at the power pulsing from from Rei's Water Crest, Shinji guessed that Rei was somehow keeping the water away from them, while at the same time making them progress through the sea.
Shinji still found himself tightening his hold on Rei's hand. Just in case.
"S-So..." Shinji began as fear slowly gave way to simple unease, "do you know where we must go?"
"I can feel strong water magic. I am heading toward that power," answered Rei. Shinji took note that she kept looking forward and seemed intently focused. No doubt their underwater traveling was a drain on her powers.
As he began to relax, Shinji took a good look around them. Fish swam around them, and Shinji couldn't help but be fascinated by the different shapes and shades of the underwater life. Under them, he could see a sandy bottom, on which aquatic plant life sprouted here and there. But the most disconcerting was the area where they were heading. Standing before them were old ruins.
Most of the structures seemed to have collapsed over time, but some still stood precariously, almost eaten away by time and water. Yet, this devastation of the works of man served as a haven for local wildlife. Through the gaping open windows and around the broken walls swam uncountable numbers of fish of all sizes. Where before there had been the bare walls of a building, they had been transformed in destruction, now covered in a tapestry of living creatures. Gentle branches and leaves made it look as if a forest was growing all up around them. Rough rock-like material covered many things, their rich orange and yellow colors vivid in the crystal blue waters.
"Yes," answered Rei, guessing Shinji's unfinished question. "Those are the ruins of a city that was swallowed by the waters in the Dark War."
Shinji shivered. So much life here, but in a place that now seemed to reek of old death. What had once been a testament to a civilization that had stood three millennia prior, now was a haven for the alien life of the ocean, as well as being a graveyard for its human inhabitants.
"This place is a testament to man's folly," continued Rei in a voice lower than usual, as if not to waken the spirits of the dead.
Shinji nodded. While he could understand the need to fight to defend oneself and others in need, he couldn't understand why man seemed to thirst for war and violence. War was such a waste in life and resources and only brought pain and suffering in return. It just seemed utterly stupid.
Shinji's musing about mankind's ways were cut short as a feeling of imminent danger made itself known. Rei seemed to have noticed too, if he were to judge by how tense she looked.
"let my attention stray. Be on watch."
On edge, Shinji kept watch for anything suspicious. He could already see that something was wrong. The water seemed to have darkened, the only fish Shinji saw were dead ones. Death was out there...
The Wind Chosen almost missed the threat. He had only looked up to follow the sight of the corpse of a particularly big and dangerous looking fish, when he saw a gigantic mouth with sharp teeth heading toward them. Death promised.
"REI! Above us!"
The high elf was quick to react and increased their speed, avoiding the promise by mere inches. The mouth continued on its set path and Shinji could only stare in fright at the gigantic fish-like body attached to it. The aura of power that emanated from it, however, had nothing to do with a creature of the sea.
Shinji saw the underwater Kagenoshi turn around and head toward them, intent on swallowing them whole.
"I... I cannot..."
Shinji gave the elf a worried look, and noticed how hard she was panting, and how dangerously the light of the Water Crest was flickering. She was obviously pushing herself to her limits.
"Left!" ordered the human, as he saw that the Kagenoshi had gained on them and was about to try to get its teeth on them.
Rei did as told and they avoided being bit by such a slim margin that the air pocket Rei was holding hit the side of the Kagenoshi's face. Due to its momentum, the Kagenoshi swam past them, giving the duo a very short respite. They would have very little time. So Shinji made a decision.
"Rei. Can you make it to the Water Shrine?"
The elf shook her head.
"No... I cannot. Even if I can, it will follow us..."
Shinji could understand what she meant. Reaching the Water Shrine would be useless if the Kagenoshi destroyed it before Rei had awakened the Water Holy Armor.
"Rei... It's my turn to buy you some time."
Before Rei could say anything, Shinji pulled his hand from hers and raised it up.
"Wind Holy Armor Fuujin! Come forth!" the Wind warrior called, as he slipped from the safety provided by Rei's powers and into the cold and dark water.
There was a flash of green and the ensuing shockwave propelled the elf's pocket forward at high speed, away from the Kagenoshi threat and further toward her goal.
- - -
Shinji found himself inside Fuujin. He was clad in the grey-green armor pieces that allowed him control over his Holy Armor. The chamber was dry, the walls showing the darkness of the water surrounding the armor. In the distance, the blur that was the Kagenoshi could be glimpsed. The armored giant hummed with eagerness.
Shinji turned his head and spat out a stream of water, along with one very annoyed hermit crab.
"I'm not pulling a stunt like that ever again..."
He knew, however, that there had been little choice. There was no telling how Rei would have been affected if he had called for Fuujin while standing right beside her.
With its weight, Fuujin promptly sunk at the bottom of the ocean. From the corner of the eye that Shinji shared with the Wind Armor, he saw the new Kagenoshi heading straight toward him. He grinned. That was fine with him. He wouldn't need to go look for it. The fish had taken the bait.
Shinji grinned and opened himself up to Fuujin's power. Instead of the rush that would fill him with energy, merely a weak breath of power flowed across the link. His smirk evaporated as he realized that he could barely feel the connection to the wind in this place. The wind blades would not form in the giant's mighty hands, his will merely causing the water to churn slightly around Fuujin's fists.
Taking a deep breath, Shinji let it out slowly. Okay, so the magic of Fuujin was not available in this alien place. No matter. The Holy Armor was still a fearsome mount, and he would use brute strength against the Kagenoshi. Even if he couldn't manage to kill it that way, he only had to keep it busy until Rei awakened the Water Holy Armor and helped him finish it.
Shinji's eyes widened with horror as he realized he could barely move. Since he had never learned to swim, it had never occurred to him that movement underwater was more difficult. And how could he have known that water pressure increased with depth?
The Kagenoshi's mouth opened, ready to bite him in half.
- - -
Rei's eyes fluttered open. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was drifting with an undersea current and to remember how she had ended up in this situation. Fortunately, while she had been temporarily stunned by the shock of displacement caused by Fuujin's summons, Rei's spell had held, and now she was free of the strain of protecting another.
Closing her eyes, the elf focused her senses to assess the current situation. Immediately the sea answered her, carrying to her the information she needed. A certain distance away, she could sense the motions and powers of the Kagenoshi and Wind Holy Armor. The Wind Armor aura, however, was extremely faint, muted. She frowned as she realized that while submerged, the Wind Chosen and Armor were nearly cut off from the source of their powers.
There was little she could do about this, however, except hurry on her mission. While her powers in the water were maximized, her body still had its limits and this Kagenoshi was too strong for her to defeat as she was. Judging by the amount of dead corpses she could see floating around, she hazarded to guess that the Kagenoshi had absorbed the life force of the undersea life in this area to strengthen itself.
The Kagenoshi were getting wiser since the first one they had fought.
Without wasting more time, Rei focused on the other source of power she could feel. It was nearby now, almost overwhelming her senses.
She hurried toward that destination.
- - -
Shinji strained to keep the Kagenoshi's gigantic mouth apart. In a desperate attempt to keep from being bitten in two or swallowed whole, he had caught the Kagenoshi's massive jaws in Fuujin's gauntlets. The Kagenoshi, however, was increasing its jaw's pressure and Shinji found it harder and harder to hold on. Fuujin's feet were digging into the ground under it and his hands, feeling what Fuujin experienced, flared with pain. The beast's sharp teeth were digging deeper and deeper into the armored hands that held them apart.
With a primal scream, Shinji gathered all his strength and pushed off with Fuujin's legs. The Wind Armor jumped up in slow motion, carrying the fish Kagenoshi with it. Arching its back, the Wind Armor twisted its body and used the momentum to throw the Kagenoshi against the ground. The impact threw up a cloud of dark mud, but failed to hurt the dark beast in any way. The injury was delivered as Fuujin's heavy body sank down to the Kagenoshi feet first and slammed it back down to the ocean floor. Knowing that it would recover quickly, Shinji pushed again with the Wind Armor's powerful legs and leapt forward, away from the mud cloud and the fish monster.
Bouncing away in his best imitation of a slow-moving frog, Shinji fled from Adam's minion.
- - -
Carefully, Rei approached the ruins from which she felt the power of the Water Holy Armor emanate. Like the other vestiges of the ancient sunken city, there didn't appear to be much left. Rei knew otherwise, however. What she could see was only a facade; the true complex where the Armor was kept had been designed to withstand an explosion from some terrible thing called an "N2 mine". In their folly, humans had believed that they would be capable of containing the wrath of the Water Armor should they anger it with their experiments.
They had never expected it to sink an entire island.
Such destructive power had succeeded in frightening even the men who lusted after its might. They had sealed the Wind Armor in a demi-plane, locking it away from the world. Those sent to the temple of the Fire Armor had been found, and the condition of their bodies had convinced others to leave the temple undisturbed. For the Earth Armor, its location had never been discovered, its existence only deduced from texts found within the Goddess' temple. A fact that would complicate their mission.
This was a truth only known by her people, and even then, only a chosen few.
Opening herself to the voices of the spirits of water, Rei let herself be guided toward an entrance into the complex. She moved through a maze of decayed metal corridors, never doubting the whispers of the spirits, until she reached an opening in the ground. The device that had originally permitted anyone who wished to go down the depths of the shaft had long ceased to be in a state allowing it to function, but that didn't bother Rei. As long as it was filled with water, she would have no problem going down. Summoning a low level light spell, she entered the dark depths.
- - -
Shinji laid on the ground, tracking the Kagenoshi's every move. Knowing full well that he couldn't face it head on, Shinji had hurried to retreat, then collapsed one of the ruined buildings over the Wind Armor to hide it. So far, the Kagenoshi hadn't seemed to notice him. Shinji could feel its presence above him, circling over the old ruins and waiting for an opportunity to present itself.
"Human... enough of this hiding. Show yourself!"
The voice of the Kagenoshi was more an evil thought in Shinji's head than a sound in his ear. He could feel the anger, the frustration, the thrill of carnage, the vile joy at experiencing the death of another-
He shook his head sharply to clear his mind. As he did, his senses prickled as a build-up of energy flared from the Kagenoshi. Before he could react, the ground shook and Shinji found himself and his concealment blasted free into the surrounding water.
The Kagenoshi had gotten tired of playing and from its mouth had
emitted a beam of energy that had destroyed the equivalent of an
Painfully getting up, Shinji scanned debris filled waters in search of sight of the Kagenoshi. Seems that he would have to fight it after all...
- - -
It took several minutes to travel down the shaft. It was fortunate that the destruction of this city had been so sudden. Had the humans had time to seal this shaft, it would have been difficult to reach the Water Armor.
Once she reached the bottom of the shaft, the elf found herself facing a giant set of double doors. She could tell that the Water Armor was behind them. Its power was now almost overwhelming her senses. Softly, the Water Crest began to glow, reacting to the Water Armor's proximity. As Rei pondered how to get past the massive doors, they opened on their own and an irresistible force drew Rei in. The elf found herself tossed through air to land roughly against a hard metal floor. Only then did she realize that no longer was she surrounded by water. As she got up, she looked behind her and noticed the doors were swinging closed, not a drop of water passing the open threshold. With a deep rumbling *boom*, the doors slid shut. Turning away, she faced the source of the power and found herself facing the gigantic form of the Holy Water Armor.
There were similarities between this and the Wind Armor, but each was clearly unique. While Fuujin was the color of silver clouds, the Water Armor was a deep, shimmering aqua. It had no visible mouth in its face, merely a gigantic, cyclopean yellow eye that stared straight at her. Like Shinji had described finding the Wind Armor, this Holy Armor was also in a sitting position. However, Rei could tell that the apparatus on which the Armor was resting had not been designed for comfort, but rather to restrain it. Not that the humans of long ago had ever succeeded at such a foolish endeavor.
"Who awakens me?" boomed a voice directly into Rei's mind, nearly freaking the elf out of her wits. It filled her brain, left no place in soul her untouched. Heck, she swore she could *smell* the voice! Shinji hadn't mentioned anything about that!
"I am Rei Ayanami, Water Chosen of Lilith," answered the elf, with as much confidence as she could. Inside, however, she was trembling under that unwavering gaze the single eye presented. The oppressive presence of the Water Armor, in the room and in her mind, intimidated her.
Rei could feel the gaze of the Water Armor, as it seemed to evaluate her. She couldn't help but wonder if an ant felt this way when gazed upon.
"A child of the Mother created by Man. I did not think that
the aberration that is your kind would persevere." The
disapproval was clear in the Armor's voice.
"We have," said Rei, matter-of-factly.
"Because you bear the blood of the Mother and my crest, I will let you explain yourself. Why did you disturb my rest?"
"I am in need of your powers," the blue haired woman explained. "Adam may be revived. The Shadow Armors are being resurrected."
"These are of no concern to me. Like your kind, they are the result of Man's folly and its responsibility. Leave now and let me rest."
Rei stood firm before the Water Armor.
"The Holy Wind Armor has agreed to aid us."
"Fuujin is a fool, too rash to make decisions, too wild. I care not for my brother's choices."
Suddenly, the ground shook and Rei nearly fell. On the floor, right in front of Rei, appeared a scene from what was occurring outside, which Rei could sense was projected by the Water Armor. Her eyes widened as she saw the Kagenoshi head straight for Fuujin and use its head as a battering ram, projecting the Wind Armor toward the ocean floor. Then the Kagenoshi's mouth opened and a beam of a energy flew from it straight toward the Wind Armor.
Rei looked up from the scene, toward the Water Armor.
"Will you not aid us?"
"Do you serve the Goddess?"
"Many serve in many ways, even the least of which may be
beyond your comprehension. If I help or if I do not, either way is to
the Mother's greater glory."
Rei nodded at the colossus's answer and headed toward the doors.
"If you leave this place now, the Shadow will sense your presence," noted the blue metal giant.
The elf nodded again. "I am aware of that."
"Why then risk your limited existence on such a foolish endeavor?" This time, the elf could feel something like curiosity in the Armor's voice.
"The Wind Armor is the only hope we have at the moment..."
Rei's words died, as she realized that she wasn't completely honest. She remained silent, trying to put her thoughts into words. As she thought back to the scene she had just seen...
"The Wind Chosen is my companion. I... do not want him to die."
As she was about to turn her back on the Water Armor, Rei's eyes widened as its gigantic form went into action. An enormous arm shot out at her and she found herself grasped by fingers as large as herself. For a moment she feared that the Armor would end her life then and there, but instead she was raised to the level of its sole eye. While its hold was uncomfortably tight, it wasn't bone crushing either. Despite the fact there was nothing elven about it, the elf felt the intensity of the metal cyclops' gaze.
"To come here requires courage. That alone does not impress me. Others have sought me out, but their courage flowed from a wellspring of greed and malice towards others.
"Your heart appears a fountain of courage for others, even to your peril. I have not seen such for many, many tides."
Although nothing changed, Rei could feel the single eye narrowing. "I, Tsunami, will aid you... This time."
- - -
Shinji coughed in pain. He could tell that this last attack had severely weakened the Wind Armor. He didn't think it could take another hit. His only hope was that the Kagenoshi had forgotten all about Rei by now.
The Kagenoshi opened its mouth, which glowed with power. With a sigh, Shinji closed his eyes.
"I hope you'll be alright, Rei..."
An explosion of power occurred, and the world exploded around him. But not due to the Kagenoshi. From beneath him, the sea floor exploded upwards, as a spiral of water shot up from the newly created chasm. Both Fuujin and the Kagenoshi found themselves caught up in this reverse whirlpool, carried in a dizzying ride towards the surface. As if from a trebuchet, Shinji broke free from the surface of the water and tossed into open air. The wind rushed across the body of Fuujin, and the power of the sky rushed into Shinji, making him gasp as he felt himself coming *awake*. Without even thinking, Fuujin's cape transformed into wings and the wind blades appeared in his hands. As he glided across the sky, Shinji caught sight of the falling form of the Kagenoshi.
"Oh no you don't!"
Shinji threw his weapons at the giant fish, which sliced through the Kagenoshi's grayish flesh. At the same time, the sea underneath it erupted upwards, impaling the beast with dozens of spikes of water, which then turned to ice, freezing its internal organs. The combined attacks proved too much for it, and the Kagenoshi died in a massive explosion of dark energy and rotten flesh.
Shinji watched, in surprise and admiration, as the form of the Water Armor slowly emerged form the sea and stood above the water, as if it was solid ground. Shinji felt Fuujin stare at the blue Holy Armor and through his connection with it, he could feel that something was exchanged between the two giants. A warm feeling... as if two friends separated for a long time were meeting once again. Then, both Holy Armors headed toward the shore in mutual understanding.
Once they reached land, the two Holy Armors faded to leave their human pilots behind. Shinji looked at Rei and noticed a few changes. Her bracers and shoulder guards were now of a metallic blue, and her wild hair almost completely hid a thin metal circlet of the same color. Greaves now covered a major part of her long white boots. Taking note of Shinji's examination of her, Rei raised an arm to examine the changes to her bracers.
"It would appear that we have convinced the Water Armor to aid us in our quest," she said simply. Before Shinji could inquire further, they were joined by Mayumi and an overly ecstatic Kensuke, who alternated between expressing how impressed he was with the Holy Armors and questioning them on their undersea adventure.
- - -
Standing on the beach further down the shore, Tabris bent down and picked up a small object that had been washed onto the shore by the sea. Looking at the dark crystal shard he held in his pale hand, he gave a satisfied smile. The smile faded as he pondered the new situation. He was surprised that the Water Holy Armor had decided to help the humans, considering its past experience with them. Tsunami had always been a recluse, withdrawn from the affairs of man.
Obviously, the high elf had managed to reach out to it somehow. Nevertheless, while it could become a complication in the future, he didn't think it would disrupt his plans.
His smile returned.
Pushing with his right hand, the elf shoved the shard against his left palm. The crystal broke flesh and blood seeped out of the wound. Pain flared throughout Tabris' body, the power of Adam fighting his mortal shell. His smile twisting, Tabris pushed the crystal into the wound, the pain spiking and making his eyes tear. A moment later, he could feel a flash of heat from inside him, and the wound in his palm sucked the blood back in and sealed itself behind the imbedded crystal.
The pain he had suffered would be nothing compared to what he promised the world.
Mankind would be annihilated, as they should have been three millennia ago.
The sea his only witness, the high elf let out a cruel laugh, as his smile twisted into a mad grin.