That was the thought on Rei's mind as she looked up at the stars. Up here in the mountains, they seemed to shine with a brilliance unequalled elsewhere. The smoke from human fires marred the sky in Tokyo, and the protective trees of her native Kelethin kept the night sky at bay. Even the Northern Wastes appeared to darken the sky, shrouding the light of the stars in some smothering blanket of darkness.
But here in the mountains... they appeared bright and sharp, more numerous than Rei had ever allowed herself to see before. With a twinge of regret, she realized she rarely let herself enjoy simple pleasures such as stargazing. Frivolous thoughts such as this only hampered a warrior.
Somewhat guiltily, she allowed herself this moment. She told herself she wasn't wasting time, but instead using this peace to replenish her mana reserves. Restoring the seal around the evil source had greatly depleted her energies.
Indeed, she was laying back, floating serenely in a small brook near Darnk. Barely deep enough to reach her thighs if she stood, the current was swift and excited. The flow of liquid rushed by her body, rushed through her soul. She exerted a small measure of mana to hold her place in the stream, letting the living spirit of the brook fill her with more energy than she expended. It was so soothing to be here, knowing she was experiencing a small piece of a bigger cycle.
Humans generally thought of water as still or going in one direction, down, but for her it was a complex and eternal dance. Rain and snow and dew came down from the sky, joining together into brooks and streams and rivers. Rivers flowed down joining into the greatness of the ocean, mixing and becoming one. The sea, swaying gently with the winds and influence of the Moon, hid powerful currents that flowed unseen underneath. The Sun evaporated the water, sometimes in huge amounts sometimes only just a little, sending it skyward and completing the cycle. No beginning, no end; only transformation.
For her water was alive, filled with spirits and life and reasoning. It was a unique kind of life. Not alien, just... different. The water spirits could feel on levels those with physical bodies couldn't comprehend. They flowed around her, enjoying the feel of her body as they caressed it. They made her hair dance and gave way to her form, embracing her in a manner of total, gentle contact.
Despite the serenity, a single thought of importance kept her from complete peace: the Earth Chosen had been found. And that meant only one thing: the Prophecy was in its final stages. Forces of light and dark would be marshalled and thrust together in the final battle. Killing, death and destruction were on the horizon and soon she would be in battle again. No power anywhere could stop it. She would walk forward and take her place on the line, and her small role in the greater events would be played out as destiny instructed.
And so she sought a moment to forget it all, a moment to herself. She welcomed the numbness of the cold mountain stream, hoping that for a moment, she could have true peace.
As if it had been reading her mind, a putrid force suddenly raced through the mountain's woods. The sensation was so sharp it broke Rei's concentration and her body was dragged downstream for a moment before she could get a foothold and stand up. A shiver ran though her body, and it wasn't because of the way the suddenly cold wind blew against her wet, exposed skin. The evil presence grew while at the same time she could feel the forest... diminish. Leaves turned brown then fell from trees that withered before her eyes. In the stream, lifeless fish suddenly began to float to the surface. The songs of the forest, be it night bird, animal or insect, were brutally silenced.
"It has begun."
In truth she was shocked by the enemy's sudden presence. They had just found the Earth Chosen and already battle was joined. This Kagenoshi must have been trailing them for some time, cloaking its presence, trying to figure out their destination. Now that they had arrived and made contact with the fourth of the Goddess' Chosen, the time to strike was here.
Rei tightly gripped the Water Crest in her hand. This was just a reminder that there could be no rest for her. Not until it was over. Not until she was done.
She could now see the Kagenoshi's form through the unnaturally emptiness of the forest's canopy. It was a still uncertain shape off in the distance, a dark miasma of swirling black and purple clouds, the sensation of unholiness thick in her throat. Up high, the only clear features were two sickening eyes that pulsed with malevolence.
For a moment Rei had the impression the thing was looking at her, but then realized that its gaze had swept past her as if she was nothing. Suddenly Rei realized what had captured the Kagenoshi's attention: the evil source, the taint that had been poisoning Darnk. While not prone to panic the elf did feel her heart speed up a little as she realized what would happen should that thing reach the taint and draw its power into itself...
It would not be allowed.
In a flash of blue light, Rei disappeared, her body now replaced by that of a metal giant. There was no rest for warriors. Only battle, until death would claim her.
An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story
Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX
Co-written and Directed by Alain Gravel and Darren Demaine
Proof-readers and Gaffers: Jeremy Mullin Alex
Muse and Costume Designer: Myssa Elaine Santos Rei
CHAPTER 16 - From Dusk to Dawn
Part 1 : Earth Chosen
They stopped in a small clearing in the forest. Shinji saw several broken trees scattered around as well as signs of a vicious struggle that marred the landscape. Giant pillars of stone from the ground were also present. He wondered if this was the place where Touji had battled that Onigumo person he'd mentioned.
Myssa didn't seem to pay attention to their surroundings, but instead turned to face him. Lowering her hood, she looked at him with a certain quiet intensity that left him feeling somewhat intimidated. It wasn't quite like one of Rei's piercing stares, like she was looking right through you, but there was something serious about her gaze that made him uneasy.
"Myssa, what is it?"
"Shinji... this is where we part ways."
Shinji could only gape at her while his brain furiously worked to grasp what she had said.
"What... what do you mean by that? You're leaving us?"
"I suppose you could say that," said Myssa. A sad smile crossed her face. "But I didn't want it to end before talking to you. Before I could thank you."
"Thank me? For what?" Shinji couldn't quite understand what she was doing. Myssa was leaving them? Why? Now that they had found the Earth Chosen they would be returning to Tokyo where the promised reward in gold awaited her. Or... maybe that was it, he realized. Maybe she was afraid to go to Tokyo. After what had happened in Niigata maybe she didn't want to risk the big city. She'd been careful to keep her hood up during the past month, but maybe she was tired of hiding, of living a lie.
"Ever since we met, you always defended me," said Myssa as she slowly approached Shinji. "When I was injured and helpless, you prevented the Water Chosen from killing me. While the others gave me the benefit of the doubt, they were still wary; you offered nothing but complete trust and kindness." Her voice caught a little, it seemed this admission was taking a lot out of her. "When I was captured in Niigata, you came to my rescue... you protected me, just like you promised. Like my very own knight."
She took another step, erasing the distance that separated them. "And so... before we part... I just... I just want to say thank you..." With a soft motion, she leaned forward and ever-so-gently pressed her lips to his in a fleeting kiss.
The touch was ethereal, but still left Shinji with a heady rush. Myssa stepped back, her smile... sad? What? Was he that bad a kisser? And what did it mean that she kissed him? He was about to say something when he noticed that she was no longer looking at him. Her gaze was focused over his shoulder, and up. She appeared... resigned. Confused, he turned as well.
And gasped. Off in the distance he could see a towering presence. It was horrific and gross, and he knew at once that it was a Kagenoshi. He felt a burst of power and noise, and suddenly a bright blue flash revealed the Water Holy Armor.
Rei! Shaking his head Shinji reached down to grasp the Wind Crest and summon forth Fuujin. His heart began thumping as he realized they were about to go into battle again, but with all the Chosen here they might just...
His blood ran cold. The Wind Crest was missing
"I'm sorry, but I can't let you interfere."
In disbelief Shinji turned to look at Myssa. She unlatched her cloak letting it fall to the ground. In one hand she held her drawn sword, while the other held the Wind Crest.
"Myssa! What are you doing?! I've got to go help Rei!"
The half elf sadly shook her head and then slid the Wind Crest down her partially exposed cleavage.
"If you want this, you'll have to kill me Shinji," she said, staring at him with cold, deadly eyes. "But that won't be possible, because I will kill you first."
And then she struck.
o x o
Kensuke watched over the pot as the stew inside slowly bubbled away. He was rather proud of his rabbit stew, he considered it to be one of his better talents. He hadn't had a chance to show this off yet, Rei and Asuka usually dismissing his existence as trivial and Shinji being the one who seemed to be assigned cooking duties. But with everyone else doing something, he might as well prepare supper. Though it was very late in the night, none of them had dinner yet, so he figured they'd probably be pretty hungry by now.
Taking his eyes off the stew, Kensuke turned towards the corner of the main room where Mayumi was sound asleep on a mound of faded fabric that probably served as Touji's bed. With all she had done, Kensuke doubted Touji would mind and had told the princess so. Mayumi had only feebly protested before dozing off. She had probably drained herself, pouring all of her healing energies into Princess Hikari.
Kensuke could still hardly believe this story. Certainly he couldn't have imagined something so far fetched himself. Who could have ever believed that the princess would one day end up in the lost Earth Chosen's home, in a far away village decreed by the Church as cursed? The odds were abysmal. This just might make one Kensuke's best stories. A fateful meeting, an epic romance... Now, if he could just get away with singing it without Touji threatening to tear his head off... Of course, Touji would probably protest against the romance part, but the way Kensuke had seen him look at Hikari... Lovesick didn't even begin to describe it. This did cause Kensuke to worry about his friend though. What if the feeling wasn't mutual? And then there was the fact that Hikari was a princess and Touji a wanted thief. They certainly made the most mismatched pairing Kensuke could think of. He really hoped that Touji wouldn't get hurt because of that. The big guy certainly had his share of suffering by now.
He was about to taste his own culinary masterpiece when suddenly the ground shook with terrible violence. The bard nearly burned his hands as he almost pitched into the fire while the house shuddered and rocked around him. The sudden shaking and booming noise that rolled over the place woke Mayumi with a start.
"I'm not sure," said Kensuke. "Maybe-"
The bard wasn't given the chance to continue as the ground shook again. And again. And again. In a fixed rhythm, which seemed to be getting closer and closer. This certainly wasn't an earthquake. As he saw Mayumi suddenly pale, Kensuke suddenly had a good guess what was going on.
"Don't tell me..."
"Kagenoshi," was what Mayumi barely breathed, answering Kensuke's question. The bard hurried outside and immediately had visual confirmation of his fears. Indeed, there was a Kagenoshi outside, heading for the village. It was gigantic! It was bigger than anything he had seen before, previous Kagenoshi and Holy Armors included. Its body was mostly orange, seemingly made of bulky chitin plate, not unlike an insect. On each plate were black, yellow and green patterns that looked eerily similar to eyes, which only added to the creepy feeling the thing generated. Though what was truly scary was the malevolent intent one could feel from its real eyes, which glowed with purplish dark power.
"Wha'z going on?!" Touji demanded as he burst in from the back room where he's been watching over Hikari.
"That's a Kagenoshi," Kensuke quickly blurted out, shoving his feet into his boots with much haste. "We've got to get out of here! I don't know if it'll attack the village, but we don't want to be here if it does! We need to get everybody to some kind of shelter."
Touji seemed shaken by he news, but kept his wits.
"Go get Mari! I'll get Hikari!"
Kensuke nodded, understanding both Touji's reasoning and also the trust his friend was putting in him. Mari was probably the thing most precious to Touji in all the world, but his friend had also quickly assessed his strengths would be better used in carrying the heavier Hikari. At first glance most people seemed to think that Touji was rather simple-minded, but in fact, his friend could be brilliant when he put his mind to something.
Racing upstairs, Kensuke found Mari wide awake and shaking in her bed. Relief was obvious on her face when she saw a familiar face bolt into her room.
"Big Brother Ken! What's going on? The house is shaking, and there's this noise..."
Kensuke hurried to grab the girl who held on to him without hesitation. The poor thing was shaking like a leaf.
"There's some big monster attacking the village," said Kensuke, figuring it was no use lying to the girl. She'd see the Kagenoshi once they came out, anyway. "I have friends that will beat it, but for now, we have to leave the house and find shelter."
The girl nodded against his chest.
Quickly, Kensuke left the room to find Touji joining him with an unconscious Hikari in his arms, while Mayumi grabbed what she could of their bags.
"Any idea where we can go?" Kensuke asked.
"I might have an idea," answered Touji, leading the way.
o x o
Asuka fell through the portal landing in a shoulder roll. Twisting to her feet she raised her sword to face... darkness. All around the Fire Chosen was an empty blackness that stretched. So barren was this place she could actually feel as it hurtled away from her, the very emptiness causing her eyes to strain as they searched in vain for something to focus on. Moving the Fire Sword in front of her face, Asuka noted that she could see the sword without difficulty, along with her hands and body. So she wasn't blind or lacking light, this place was simply... empty.
Even as her senses railed against the perceived vastness of the place, the black environment seemed at the same time to crush down against her lungs and make the very intake of breath a struggle. Turning slightly she glanced behind her to see... even more of the same nothingness. The fact the portal had vanished did not surprise her. "So you like to play games?" she demanded of the void, knowing the sound of her own voice would give her courage.
There was no echo. Her lip curled up in derision.
"You think such things are going to scare me? CINDER!" She blasted forth a ray of fire from her free hand. The hot red beam streaked off into the darkness, a bright beacon in the night... then the light of a torch, then a candle, a firefly, a spark, waning star, then... nothing. More darkness.
And silence. All Asuka could hear was herself... her own breathing, her heartbeat, the movements of her body. Each was loud, unnatural. Labored.
"Why did you bring me here?" she demanded. She had to do something, even if she wasn't expecting an answer. Somehow the darkness had to be beaten back, show it who was the master.
"Sweet thing... I merely opened the door. You brought us here."
Despite herself Asuka jumped at the voice. It was whisper-soft and sweet, silk-smooth and mocking, and it approached and caressed from all corners of the void. And it was horrible and cold. But she welcomed it. "Show yourself!" The voice had given her focus; her poise was back, her tone strong. Breathing felt good now, deep and healthy. Not strained like it had just a moment ago.
"Ahh... but I can't show you my beauty, my succulent creature. Not yet. Right now, all you can do is gaze into the mirror before you."
"I don't see any mirror. All I see is darkness," Asuka huffed, trying to find the direction the strange voice was coming from. There was no direction, no pattern. She twisted around and fired off a blast behind her, then blindly to the right. Finally she let loose a blast straight up, as creatures of darkness liked to hide in places mortals often didn't think about. The beams were smothered by the void, quickly becoming miniscule and irrelevant. Then nothing.
A soft chuckle emanated from the very air surrounding her. "That void is what you reflect, luscious morsel."
Asuka growled. "RAIN OF FIRE!" Her fire sword blazed forth and a phoenix rose from the blade to rear above her, protectively. The firebird spread its wings, then detonated explosively throwing lances of flame in a massive circle around the Fire Chosen. The noise, heat, light and violence of the blast flashed once over Asuka's senses... then faded away into the blackness.
In the aftermath, Asuka listened to the sound of her own breathing. Harsh, uneven, a little faster than she was comfortable with. "Focus!" she silently demanded of herself. This entire scenario was a set up to rattle her, to unnerve her and undermine her skill. She would not fall to this thing's plan. She would triumph. She would!
Ignoring her own body, she focused her senses on the environment around her. There had to be something, some tiny clue to discover and use. She bent her will to the surroundings and explored the void. Feeling the darkness, tasting barrenness... listening to desolation... sensing the vacuum that surrounded her...
For a horrific moment she considered breaking into a run but ruthlessly smothered that idea. There was no target to move towards, and at least here she knew a portal could be opened. A way out, a chance to escape this dark, suffocating pris-
Asuka realized her breathing was becoming frantic. Mercilessly she clamped down, forcing her lungs into a more natural rhythm. She would not break down by being alone here! She didn't need anyone! She could live by herself! Besides, Feuervogel was with her, in spirit if not in...
Feuervogel! She couldn't feel his presence! Where he touched her in her mind, she felt nothing! Why?!
"Because all this... is your mind, succulent mortal."
For a brief flicker, Asuka felt glad that the voice had not abandoned her... then hated herself for that weakness. "What do you mean, my mind?"
"The portal you so... bravely... no... foolishly... jumped into was a thing both mystical and spiritual, delicious maiden. Through the powers of a shadow step, I could spirit your body away from your comrades. And so too could I open a gateway into your mind as you availed yourself of my portal. If you choose to play with my toys, loveliest of conquests, I exact a price."
Asuka's eyes narrowed dangerously. Glaring she looked around for where this thing was speaking from. "If this is my mind, then I reign here! My dominion is not about to be usurped by some rotten corpse that is too stupid to realize that it is dead and gone."
"Oh this is your mind, greatest of my play-things, but you are so radiant in your ignorance. For what else is harder to understand and exert mastery over than one's own mind? It is the place where all illusions and self-deceptions originate. It is the one place where all we are is not under our rule.
"As an example," the honeyed voice continued, "your metal mount, the holy armor has a place here in your mind. But you have trapped it, caged it to a small portion of your thoughts. And because it is limited you can not see it, blinded you are by the magnificent barrenness that your mind truly is, my sweetest supplicant."
"Feuervogel!" Asuka screamed out into the darkness that surrounded her. There was no echo.
"Please continue, queen of my victims. Cry out all you wish. Here there is only you... I... and your mind."
"Sounds like I outnumber you."
"Not so, beautiful slave, not so. Your mind is not your ally here. I am able to wander through it, to gaze upon what makes you the desirable creature I have before me. All is laid naked and prostrate before my eyes."
An unpleasant chill ran up Asuka's spine as the voice continued. "Your memories and your body are a feast for my senses. And it is such a lovely bouquet you present to me, captive flower. The way your body aches, the cramping of your muscles-"
"-and the smell of your blood marking you a woman. Mmm... the sweet scent of life's red river flowing from your most intimate of places. Your sensuous body; preparing itself for a man, weakening you even as your mind seeks out one for you to lay with."
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"
"This Kaji person... he has no desire to awaken that which lies within you. He is a cause lost to another... one more a woman than he could ever see you become. He is a fool."
"And then there is this Shinji..." There was a slight pause, and when the voice came back it was no longer honeyed, but rather... perplexed. "Exactly what do you see in this one, anyway? I mean, really, you should aim for something more than just a... 'skinny assed wuss', I believe you called him."
"Get out of my mind!"
Furious, the Fire Chosen grasped her sword tightly and focused her will upon it. A bright red light began to emanate from the weapon and her body. As one, the light pushed the darkness back from her body, freeing her lungs and easing her breathing. A surge of warmth and confidence flowed into her soul.
"Ah yes," the voice continued, now as honeyed and smooth as before. "The sacred sword. Your key and bond to that lost little girl that claims godhood. How you acquired the blade is a story in itself, isn't it? Why don't we let your own memories remind us of it?"
"NO!" Asuka demanded. She had no desire to go over that again. She focused her will and prepared t-
o x o
To the eleven-year old crown princess Asuka Langley, the current season just wouldn't end. Sighing, she stalked down the corridors of her ancestral castle. Lessons were horrifically boring since she was certain she was smarter than those fools her father had instructing her. Father never understood that she was further along than others her own age. He was always too busy to find out. He never had time for her. Mother had understood. Mother had spent time with her and helped to teach-
With a brutal mental shove, the girl slammed the door to that part of her soul. Mother was gone. There was nothing to be gained by thinking about it.
Instead, she crept down the corridor towards the main hall. Father was entertaining some of the realm's most noble families right now, and having all the different families around was at least somewhat interesting. Especially the looks of amazement she received from the nobles when she listed from memory the historical triumphs of their particular house better than they could themselves.
A grin stretched across her face. Of course, that look of amazement always paled in comparison to their looks when an eleven-year old girl began listing their scandals and embarrassments in even greater detail than their triumphs. She was the crown princess, and someday Germania would be hers. It was important that the nobles remember that.
Nearing the great hall from a back corridor used by the royal family, she could hear voices coming from the throne room, including her father's. Sliding open a side entry just a bit she could see into the throne room, and more importantly, hear quite well.
Her father was sitting on his throne, the ancient Fire Sword mounted rampant on the wall behind him. He was looking down at one of the nobles whom she recognized as the old Duke Von Dreck.
"I trust your Majesty has considered my proposal," the duke was saying.
"We have." Asuka rolled her eyes. Her father had a liking for the royal 'we', something that the eleven-year old girl just couldn't help but find stupid. "And the future prosperity of our kingdom is ever in our mind."
"It is a slender thing to place the future of the realm on one single young girl." They were talking about her! "Her lack of royal siblings is a troubling thing for the kingdom."
Asuka's father bared his teeth at the none-to-subtle poke at his inability to produce more heirs. By his new queen or any other woman if the gossip Asuka had overheard -- and sort of understood -- was to be believed.
"Yes. Because of... events as they are, it is imperative that Princess Asuka be wed as soon as possible." Asuka's eyes bulged out. What?! Had she heard right? Her father was thinking of having her married!
"Of course, your Majesty," Duke Von Dreck bowed his head. "Your decision to betroth my son to the crown princess will ensure the strong continuation of the kingdom."
Gahh! The 'younger' Von Dreck was at least thirty! He was so into himself and seemed more interested in his own pleasures than of any service to the crown. Sure the Von Drecks were rich and powerful, but that certainly didn't mean she planned to let this happen. She had a duty to her realm, but there was more to it than just being married off at a young age. She had plans, ideas and goals to make Germania strong. And she couldn't do it if she was some chained to some idiotic nobleman. Father was being stupid.
"We look forward to presenting our children to each other soon, officially."
"Yes, your Highness. And with a marriage you may expect strong grandsons to bless your Majesty soon after. Girls mature so quickly these days."
That was it. Asuka silently closed the door and gathered up her skirts in hand. Launching herself down the corridor she bolted for her chambers. Even as she did so however, her mind was racing.
Father was an idiot. Of course, this wasn't the first time, she rationalized. Because he'd married Asuka's mother to become king he didn't really understand how this affront to Queen Kyoko's daughter would enrage people. She'd give him some time to think it over. Her grandmother was at Steiner castle right now. She'd pack a few things from her room, get together a travel bag and ride out before anyone knew she'd gone. Her father would come to his senses in a few days, and hiding out with Grandma was always fun.
Bursting into her room she hurried over to her closet. Tossing a few things over her shoulder, she hastily made decisions about what to take. Traveling light was the key, and Grandma was sure to have- The sound of the door to her room slamming shut caused her to spin around in surprise.
Leaning against the far wall by the door, Oenik Von Dreck had pushed the door closed and was smirking at her. So focused on getting her things, Asuka hadn't even noticed that he'd been waiting in her room. The thought of what had been done to her caused rage to boil to the surface. "Get out!"
"Now is that the way to speak to your future husband, and your future king?" Oenik asked as he pulled himself away from the wall, walking to the middle of the room. He came to stand at the foot of her bed, his muscular frame between her and the door. "I take it from your expression you've heard the news." He shook his head in a kind of bemused amazement. "When my father told me about the talks he was having with the king I couldn't believe it. But he was confident that today the king was finally making a decision. My father and yours are probably putting the final touches on whatever betrothal agreement they work out. I thought I'd skip the boring stuff and take a look see at the girl that will become mine."
"I am not yours! And I never will be!" Asuka was furious. How dare this creature presume such things. "You disgust me with your arrogance! Now leave!" She waited, but he made no move for the exit. That only made her angrier. "I said leave!"
"You don't give the orders here," Oenik said, taking a step towards her. "A wife must be ever subservient to her lord and master." He smirked and his eyes roamed over her body. "Subservient in all things."
Furious beyond words, Asuka shoved him aside and stalked towards the door. If she called a Holy Flame knight, the warrior would throw this arrogant twit out. At least they remembered their oaths to the Langley family.
As she pushed past him, his hand caught her arm. "Let me go! I command you!"
His grin got wider. "You don't command here any more. Best to learn your-" He let out a sharp grunt as the eleven-year old girl let loose a furious assault of remarkably painful -- and surprisingly dirty -- strikes.
"Lilith damn your soul!" she cursed. "You bastar-"
Growling, Oenik grabbed the girl by both arms and easily pulled her off her feet. Twisting around he tossed her on the bed. Before she could get her limbs under her, he loomed over the girl and placed his thick arm directly against her chest, holding her down. His face twisted and mean, he glared down at her with a strange light shining in his eyes. For the first time Asuka felt cold to her core.
"You're going to be mine," Oenik crooned at her, his voice very quiet and forceful. "All mine. If you grow to look anything like your mother, then I'm going to enjoy myself immensely." Slowly, menacingly he pulled himself over the struggling girl. "And I don't mind 'em so young. It makes taking them so much more fun..."
Terrified, Asuka struggled, crying out, clawing, trying to bite, to kick. Her attempts were futile however, the man simply too heavy, too strong. His hands were rough, his breath foul. Her desperate attempts were simply overwhelmed by his greater strength. She couldn't deal with her failure, the betrayal of her power. She was weak! She took in a breath to scream, but he slapped her hard, causing stars to burst before her eyes. His hands were inside her clothes... against her skin... touching her...
Very weakly, with tears pooling in her eyes Asuka whimpered.
She felt a warm wave of heat brush over her outstretched hand. Without understanding why she reached that hand out, something hard and comforting filling her small palm. With a yell, she pulled her arm back and struck at the beast upon her.
With a loud crack something slammed into Oenrik and the man went sprawling to the floor. Shaking, Asuka rose from the bed, her eyes on the Fire Sword of the Langley family clutched in her hands. No longer mounted above the king's throne, the blade filled the young girl's hands, its bright flame shining protectively from the metal, the magic shielding her from the searing heat.
Bleeding from the ear, Oenrik screamed some vulgarity and drew himself up before the mere slip of a girl. He didn't know where that sword had come from, but she'd see what happened when-
Holding the blade before her like a talisman Asuka took one look at her attacker, then stepped forward and skewered him on the flaming metal.
Oenrik's screams went on for long moments as the flames slowly -- very slowly -- ate his body. Asuka was only vaguely aware that other people were now bursting into her room, some screaming, some yelling, some demanding, but she didn't care. She was focused on Oenrik as he thrashed, struggled, and slowly, slowly burnt. Finally he gave a last little scream, seemed to sag-
And Asuka forced some power down the blade and had the charred remains detonate explosively.
After a few moments, she turned to face the people standing there. It didn't quite feel natural. In a way it was like she wasn't really there, merely observing. She recognized one of the people there was her own father. Slowly, she raised the still burning sword up before her. No one said anything.
"I," Asuka said, finally breaking the silence. Voice hard and cold, there was no sign of fresh tears in her eyes. "Will be moving to another room."
o x o
Gasping, sixteen-year old Asuka Langley bent over nearly double. Her throat felt raw, her hands shaking, her eyes stinging. Merciful Lilith... she'd just relived that moment as if it had just happened! Clenching her mouth tightly she fought back a wave of nausea. After a moment she glared up at the darkness around her. "You're... you're going to have to do better than that. I won. Do you hear me! I won! I killed that bastard!"
"Yes," the voice agreed. "You won that time, my delectable songbird. The goddess' gifts are truly blessings." Asuka took a few more deep breaths. Focus. She'd been victorious. She'd prevailed. It was in the past. It wasn't anything that she couldn't- "But I wonder," the voice continued, "and so do you... what would have happened without the largess of Lilith? What horrors has your mind hidden away? Hmm?"
"NO! I won! I beat that-"
o x o
"You're going to be mine," Oenik intoned at her, his voice very quiet and forceful. "All mine. If you grow to look anything like your mother, then I'm going to enjoy myself immensely." Slowly, menacingly he pulled himself over the struggling girl. "And I don't mind 'em so young. It makes taking them so much more fun..."
Terrified, Asuka struggled, crying out, clawing, trying to bite, to kick. Her attempts were futile however, the man simply too heavy, too strong. His hands were rough, his breath foul. Her desperate attempts were simply overwhelmed by his greater strength. She couldn't deal with her failure, the betrayal of her power. She was weak! She took in a breath to scream, but he slapped her hard, causing stars to burst before her eyes. His hands were inside her clothes... against her skin... touching her...
Very weakly, and with tears pooling in her eyes Asuka whimpered.
The harsh sound of his breathing and the feel of his hands against her skin answered her plea. Anguish, agony, horror... all rushed up and filled her soul. Inside she began screaming.
And never stopped.
o x o
Asuka was on her knees. Head buried in her hands, her body shook as it... experienced those memories. "Nein! That didn't happen! That didn't happen!"
"Of course it didn't happen, diamond of all my slaves, but the human mind knows no limits to the self-deception it practices. It is here, in your mind, that your fears are the most powerful, the most unyielding of opponents. Here... you can not tell fact from darkest fantasy."
No! It wasn't real! It was an illusion! False! Rage filled her. She would strike this thing down. She would kill it, dismember it, desecrate its remains. It would fall to her sword and die by her-
Her sword! Where was her sword?!
Frantically, she looked around. There was no sign of the Fire Crest sword anywhere. But it had to be here, it had to be! It had protected her before, why wasn't it here, now?!
Horrified, a thought came rushing in to banish the rage. Her sword wasn't here... what if it hadn't been there... when she was eleven? Which was real? Which was the truth? Which?!
"Ah yes," the voice purred. "Now you see the power I hold in this place... and how weak you truly are, desirous mortal. The sword to slay your enemies does not exist. In the contest between your doubts and the truth, it is obvious which will win. And the armor that you have around your beautiful body... are you sure it protects you?"
"It does! It does! It does!"
"I think you are confused. Let us see... ah yes. That time you foolishly took on a patrol of gnolls in the Black Forest. You slew them completely. Most glorious. But... consider this... Had your armor not absorbed that mace strike from their leader, you would have been taken captive by the monsters. And we have heard stories about the horrific lusts of those man-beasts, haven't we? Let us observe what might have been..."
"NO! I won't look! I won't l-"
But she did. And it was just the beginning.
o x o
Predictably, the Kagenoshi decided to take the most direct path towards the curse's source... straight through the village. It mattered very little, though. Rei was certain that even if the Kagenosh had taken another path, once it had fed off the source it would have come back to annihilate the village. This thing wouldn't pass up the opportunity to feed off the lives of innocents.
But she would ensure it never had the chance. Focusing her powers through the Water Armor, the elf caused the very moisture in the air around the beast to condense. A moment later she pushed more power through the link and the condensed water solidified, huge slabs of ice forming around the Kagenoshi's limbs with a cracking noise. The dark thing howled as it found itself immobilized and in pain from the numbing cold. Rei raised her hands and made a pushing motion, the action adding emphasis to magic attack underway. Soon the Kagenoshi found itself completely encased in an immense pillar of ice.
Panting with exertion, Rei watched as the villagers fled, those not afraid of the now frozen Kagenoshi afraid of her own gigantic form. But, she had bought them a few precious moments.
And a few moments was all there was. She felt a spike of evil against her senses, and there was an explosive burst from the Kagenoshi that shattered its icy prison. Rei used her powers to vaporize all the shards of ice, keeping them from becoming lethal missiles against the villagers. Now free of confinement, the thing turned its burning gaze towards Rei.
Good. She had its attention.
With a bestial scream that hurt her ears, the Kagenoshi charged. The huge thing struck a fist downwards with unforeseen speed, Rei barely able to get Tsunami away from the strike that cratered the very earth. Up close she could truly appreciate the size difference between this Kagenoshi and her Holy Armor. It was at least twice Tsunami's size, and moved with a grace that was horrifying to observe.
Still, Rei was a warrior and would not let such things stop her. She jumped back away from the village, and away from the beast's arms. As the thing came towards her she reached out behind herself and touched the spirits of the stream she had been immersed in only a few short minutes ago. Answering her call, a legion of giant icy spears broke from the surface of the water and slammed into the Kagenoshi. The impact broke the thing's charge, but Rei noted that they had only inflicted surface injury to the beast.
In retaliation the Kagenoshi blasted forth beams of energy from its eyes. There was almost no warning, only a sudden premonition of danger, then the air between the two giants was filled with unholy fire. Rei barely managed to twist Tsunami to the side, the beam grazing her Armor's left shoulder and making her own shoulder throb painfully. Leaping away again, she looked back and saw the impact crater was filled with flame and smoke.
"Its ranged attacks are weak," Tsunami said inside her head. "A blast of that magnitude will not pierce my armored shell. It will however, push me off balance. I doubt I could recover my footing in time to avoid its follow up melee assault."
Rei acknowledged the information with nothing more than a mental nod. Reaching out through her Crest and Armor, once more she called out to the river. Although now broken like the land it flowed over, the water still obeyed its mistress. A thin ribbon of liquid shot up from the ground and swirling around Tsunami's open palm. A moment later the ribbon snapped out from there, forming a moving whip of water that danced and flowed at Rei's direction. Though fluid and flexible, when the whip struck it crashed like mace upon shield.
So armed, Holy Armor and mammoth Kagenoshi circled one another, ready to fight once more.
o x o
Seeing Touji and his companions bugging out, many villagers decided that the young man might have a good thing going. So Touji was currently leading a group of thirty or so people through the rough woods just north of Darnk. The sounds of titanic battle taking place behind them kept the group motivated and moving. After a few minutes they reached a clearing in the trees and the old, worn down building located therein. The place obviously had been abandoned for years, its state dilapidated and nature beginning to reclaim the clearing with high grass and a few young trees.
"A temple?" said Kensuke, visibly surprised. "I didn't know there was a temple here!"
"Yeah, I never told ya."
The bard gave his friend a hurt look.
"Why?! This place looks so ancient! In fact, it look pretty similar to the temple in Niigata. Don't you think, Mayumi?"
"It looks similar," agreed Mayumi. "Though... The feeling is different. Just like the temple in Niigata, I can feel magic here, but it's more faint... as if it was suppressed. And... It's not the same. It's nothing like I ever felt before."
"Doesn't matter," said Touji as he approached the temple, then kicked the doors open and carefully settled Hikari down. "We ain't staying here too long." The wooden floor was covered in dust and dirt, but it would have to do for now. Only when Hikari was safely down did he turn to Kensuke, as the bard was still holding his sister. Reaching out he took Mari into his arms. "Taking care of this place was one of my mom's duties. So after she died..."
"Mom came here?" Mari asked, her fearful trembling stopping for a moment. That moment of peace didn't last long however, the sounds of war returning with shocking suddenness. Touji frowned. The battle sure sounded close, but what could they do? Run for the mountains and the old mines there? Odds were that the continuous earthquakes from the giants' footfalls would collapse the tunnels.
In fact, Touji was starting to realize that, before the awesome might of such power, there might not be any safe place.
"Yeah," said Touji. "But only now and then. She was too busy in the village to come too often."
"Considering all the care the Church is taking with the temple in Niigata, it's strange that they only sent a single priestess here. Well, before the curse, I mean," a perplexed Kensuke noted.
"Who cares what da Church thinks?!" Touji then quickly remembered Mayumi's presence, who was currently quickly checking on Hikari. "No offence," he told her.
Mayumi gave him a sad smile.
"I understand what you mean. Even to me, the orders of the Church can sometimes seem... strange." She then approached Touji. "The princess doesn't seem to have been harmed by our forced escape. May I check your sister? Perhaps I'll be able to do something for her, even if it's only providing temporarily relief."
Touji hesitated a moment. Old instincts told him to be wary of anyone related to the Church. But this girl had saved Hikari...
"Alright," said Touji. "Hey, Mari, want to let the lady here take a look at you? She's a priestess, but a good one."
"Alright," said the little girl, as she let herself be laid down besides Hikari. "What's wrong with big sister Hikari?" she asked as she looked at the unconscious girl.
"She's very tired right now," said Touji. "She's been really sick, but she's getting better now that the lady here is helping her."
"I see!" The little girl then smiled at Mayumi. "You're a really good lady, then!"
Mayumi blushed. "I try."
Touji watched for a moment while the priestess waved a white, glowing hand over Mari, then turned to head outside. Once there, he saw Kensuke and the rest of the villagers looking back towards Darnk; he could understand why.
Both that horrific monster and what Kensuke said was a Holy Armor were still locked in terrible battle. With all the urgency he hadn't had a good chance to look at the things, but now that he had a moment to spare... he found he couldn't stop shivering. These things were really enormous. If the Chosen hadn't been here he doubted anything he did could have even slowed that giant. They... the villagers, Touji, Mari, and even Hikari would have been crushed and killed.
Right now he could see many people were down on their knees, praying to Lilith to protect them. They'd been abandoned, persecuted, and left for dead by the clergy, and yet now they prayed for the Chosen to save them. He wasn't sure what he thought of that.
Kensuke quietly moved over to his side. "This isn't good," he muttered.
"What ya mean? Da Chosen's thing is doing pretty good."
The bard shook his head.
"Rei can't seem to do any real damage to that thing. I've seen her fight and right now she's mostly focused on defense."
"But I thought da Chosen's Holy Armors were supposed to be able to beat those things?"
"Normally, yes, but you see, Rei's element is water. I think the local stream got vaporized in the fighting, so she's not fighting at full capacity. It would be like asking you to fight an orc using only your bare hands."
Touji grunted. "Done that before."
Kensuke shook his head. Somehow, he wasn't surprised.
"But I get what ya mean," continued Touji. "Pretty hard. Say, where are da other two?"
"Good question. They should have been helping Rei by now. Heck, with the Fire Armor, this thing would probably already have been beaten. Something must have happened."
Touji frowned. "Like what?"
"I don't know. And that's what worries me."
o x o
It was the quick reflexes that Rei had drilled into Shinji during the training sessions that saved his life. That and a bit of luck. Myssa's first strike had been aimed low to pierce his armor and give him a horrific belly wound, but that let him block it with a half drawn blade. Had she gone for a neck strike, he realized he probably would have been killed before ever realizing what had happened.
While Rei's brutal training had just saved his life Shinji quickly realized a distressing fact: Rei had been going easy on him. While the high elf had been increasing the speed of her sparring, he was shocked to discover that Myssa was fighting with skill and at speeds he had never yet faced. All he could do was block, evade, and give ground as the half-elf closed on him and struck again and again. She was fast, deadly and not joking around. Only a few seconds into the fight and he was already bleeding from a number of shallow nicks on his limbs. The pain from them and the thunder of his heart in his ears made it very clear that his life was very much hanging by a thread right now.
With painful clarity Shinji realized just how dependent he had become on the Wind Crest. While still able to touch the Wind, without the Crest he was unable to coalesce its power swiftly and Myssa's relentless attacks were not giving him any time to focus. A nasty cut to his armpit had been the price of that attempt. It was his blades and the skills he had developed over the past few months against Myssa and the four decades of experience living in the Northern Wastes had instilled in her.
Simply put, Shinji was screwed.
Which was why he'd thrown himself into a denser part of the forest, despite his skin being torn by the brambles and thick branches. With her longer blade Myssa was at a slight disadvantage here in the foliage. Still, it did very little to even the odds and she followed him in without delay. Up close neither could get their whole body behind their blows, the whole contest becoming brutal. Crossing his blade in a move he copied from Fuujin, Shinji blocked Myssa's sword, then powered into her. Lifting his leg he kneed her in the side, forcing her to gasp and stagger back a bit.
It was fighting dirty, and he felt kind of bad for hitting a woman and a friend like that, but Shinji realized that she would kill him unless he did everything possible to survive. The fact she was doing this, was attacking him, betraying him... it made him feel angry. The rage pounded at the inside of his skull, made his muscles burn and his blood boil.
In the background he could hear the clashes between Water Holy Armor and the Kagenoshi, but a nasty cut to his cheek had taught him the folly of turning his eyes away from his former ally. Still, Shinji was worried: Rei appeared to be fighting alone. Where was Asuka? Had Myssa done something to her as well? He could hear the thundering of his raging heart beating in his ears, drowning out all sound, leaving naked rage in his mind.
And there lay another problem for Shinji. He could do it, he could surrender to the blaze of hate in his mind, let the fury of her betrayal, of the pain she had inflicted upon him eat away rational thought. He would become a slayer and Myssa would lay dead at his feet in moments. He would crack open her body and scream with primal joy as her lifeblood drained to feed the hungry earth. He could do it, it would be so easy.
But... he didn't want to.
No matter the fact that rage clawed at the back of his eyeballs, Shinji couldn't bring himself to believe that Myssa was truly doing this. Despite the attacks, despite the cuts across his flesh... on some level he knew she didn't want to do this. She could have betrayed them dozens of times, stabbed him while he was sleeping, poisoned their food... and yet she came at him, blade to blade.
The rage inside him demanded blood for this betrayal. The human inside him agreed... but was also confused.
"Why are you doing this? I thought we were friends!" he asked her, dodging behind a tree.
"I can't let you interfere any longer!" With a twist of the wrist Myssa changed her blade's trajectory, switching from a slashing strike to piercing thrust that would have connected if somehow Shinji hadn't blocked it with the flat of his left blade.
"We don't have to fight like this! I don't want to fight you!"
"Then die already!"
Myssa lunged at Shinji, taking opportunity of an unobstructed path towards her target. Shinji parried her strike; mostly. Another shallow cut was still torn into the skin of his flank.
"Do you have any idea how much we had to sacrifice for this? How many lives were lost?" she shouted, taking his momentary distraction to wince at the pain of his new wound as a chance. She feinted high, then used her sword like a lever to get in between his legs and swipe his feet out from under him. He crashed to the mossy earth, losing grip on his swords. A moment later Myssa was there, tip of her blade placed directly at his throat. He froze. For a moment the two combatants were still, the only signs of movement their heaving chests as they gasped for air.
"I don't know," admitted Shinji. "I don't know what you sacrificed. But... but why? Why do this? Why do we have to fight!? Surely there is some other way!"
"There isn't!" Myssa's arm shook and Shinji felt the sword tip scratch his throat. "You don't know what it is to be hated and feared, Shinji! For three millennia your people and the elves have rejected us! Feared us! Demonized us! Hated us, tried to kill us! But we survived! Do you hear, we survived! Even if we had to become the demons you cast us to be, we survived by every means possible. But survival isn't enough. My people are dying, Shinji. We sit in our dead lands and every day we become more like that land. Every battle, every struggle that makes us stronger also saps away a bit of our souls. We become hard and cold and evil, and much more and we'll be nothing more than the demons and animals you think we are. So we have no choice. Either we free ourselves from the prison to which you banished us, or we die."
Shinji tried to stay calm, tried to keep both the fear and rage from him. He could feel blood running down his neck and realized she must have poked him. Odd... he hadn't even felt it. Still, she was talking to him, and he grasped at that slim hope.
"There... there has to be some other way, Myssa," he said with conviction. "We can't go on killing everybody. So many will die, needlessly! Maybe if I talked to the King and Queen... they might listen to me. I'm the Wind Chosen, after all. And if you talked to your people-"
"Don't you see, Shinji? It can't work! Even if by some miracle we manage to convince our leaders to sign a peace treaty, it won't change anything! Have you forgotten Niigata? Have you forgotten what they tried to do to me? Our people can't coexist!"
"What about you, Myssa? It's not just dark elf blood that flows in your veins. Half of you is also human! Aren't you proof that we can coexist?"
"Proof? If I have any proof, it's that we can't! My own father tried to kill me because of my blood and the color of my skin! When he learned the truth about my mother, he rejected us, tried to kill me and in the end, caused her death! Humans are only capable of fearing and hating us!"
"I don't hate you, Myssa."
Myssa's eyes widened at those words.
"You don't hate me?! Well, you should. I joined your group as an assassin. It was my job to kill you. From the very beginning I've been lying to you, waiting my chance to strike. I've been biding my time till I could get you alone and cut you open! What do you have to say to that?"
"You're my companion. My friend. I care about you, Myssa. Even now."
Her stunned expression quickly turned into one of pure rage. She pulled her sword back, ready to kill him this time.
She brought her sword down... but just then one of the gigantic combatants slammed into the earth, setting off a furious tremor. Myssa stumbled, her sword shaving a few hairs off Shinji's head but otherwise not hurting him... aside from a terrible scare.
Mentally tossing the Goddess a huge thanks for this miracle -- intended or not -- Shinji swept the girl's legs out from under her and jumped to his feet. Grasping his swords on the way up he bolted deeper into the forest.
He'd tried talking, but it looked like that option was done for now. Either he found a way to physically stop her, or, he acknowledged with cold certainly, she would kill him.
o x o
Rei scowled to herself as she struggled to hold the line against the Kagenoshi, attempting to find and exploit any weaknesses. This creature was strong, well armored, and very skilled. Their enemies kept getting more and more proficient the closer they came to Adam's revival.
But what truly concerned her was the fact she was fighting alone. There was no way the others could not have detected the taint of darkness that poured off this abomination. Even if somehow they were blind to such things, the violence of the combat between Holy Armor and Kagenoshi could be heard and seen for miles around.
While she had... difficulties... with the human girl, Rei acknowledged the Fire Chosen as an eager combatant. She would not avoid a conflict like this.
And Shinji would not leave her to face this alone. Of that... Rei knew that to be truth.
The only answer was that the enemy had struck at her companions. In some method she, Rei, had been blind to the enemy's actions and they had cut down her allies... her... friends.
She was the oldest, the one who had prepared the longest, trained the hardest... and she had failed to protect those around her. It was her fault.
The half-breed. It was the most obvious explanation. Rei had no idea how she had done it, but she was probably the one responsible for informing the enemy of their discovery of the Earth Chosen. Never had Myssa done anything to warrant Rei's suspicions, but now the high elf realized that she had probably been waiting for this very moment. To follow them until they found the Earth Chosen so that the enemy could crush him before he was ready.
Rei had taken her focus away from that traitor only for a moment, and this was the result.
Distracted by her own guilt and thoughts Rei's defence finally failed, and she took a smashing uppercut from the Kagenoshi. The impact sent Tsunami high up into the air, and then down in the direction of the old temple.
o x o
"Oh shit! Get out!"
Despite Touji's command, there was simply no time to react. The Water Armor crashed to the earth before anyone could do anything, and it was only through sheer luck that it missed the temple by a few precious meters. Nevertheless, the impact rocked the ground around them and Touji quickly realized the old structure was starting to groan and buckle under the abuse.
"Out!" He repeated. "Kensuke, get Mari!"
Kensuke scooped up Mari and bolted out of the temple, fleeing along with the others. Touji was picking up Hikari when the groaning changed into the thunder of breaking beams. Wood fell everywhere and Touji did his best to shield the unconscious girl. To his horror, he saw that the partial collapse had blocked their way out.
Touji quickly looked around, trying to find another way out. But even as he did so, he could hear the heavy timbers above him snap, the huge weight of old beams falling free and the roof tumbling in on them. All he could do was to futilely cover Hikari with his own body... and deep inside pray for a miracle.
Unnoticed, the bracer on his right arm began to glow brightly.
Outside the temple, Kensuke watched in horror as the temple collapsed over his best friend. Mayumi let out a choked gasp, while little Mari squirmed in Kensuke's arms, trying to get free.
Then, the remnants of the temple suddenly exploded.
A large wooden beam just missed Kensuke and Mari by a few inches, although Mayumi wasn't so lucky. A broken ceramic tile hit her squarely on the head, knocking her glasses off. She fell down, a bloody gash visible on her forehead.
Kensuke was about to check the priestess when he stopped at the sight that now stood before him as the dust of the temple's explosion cleared.
Where the temple once stood, a gigantic black metallic fist thrust out of the ground.
o x o
Rei had also seen the giant fist which had burst up from beneath the temple. And like Kensuke, she had a good idea of what it was.
"My brother awakes," Tsunami confirmed in her mind.
Rei nodded, now focusing her attention on the Kagenoshi once again. It had been somewhat distracted by this sudden twist of events and the elf wouldn't waste that chance. If she couldn't beat the Kagenoshi on her own, then she had to buy as much time as possible until she got help.
Difficult in practice, but Rei was confident. She knew to keep distant from the thing's enormous physical strength, and had the timing down for the beast's ranged attacks. She herself was armed, her water whip not a devastating weapon but one that could control the nature of the fight. All other Kagenoshi had fallen to the combined might of the Chosen; this one would be no different.
However, the elf had not counted on the Kagenoshi deciding to ignore her and charge the awakening Earth Armor. Apparently it had decided to eliminate the Armor before it could become a threat. The thing lumbered past Tsunami and jumped, obviously wanting to crush the Earth Armor beneath its massive girth. Rei's arm shot out, the ribbon of water following suit. The end of the water wrapped around the left leg of the Kagenoshi and Rei hauled back with all her might, her muscles and the immense power of Tsunami straining as she pulled. Still in mid-air, the beast of darkness was yanked backwards and slammed into the ground a dozen meters short of the Earth Armor's location.
Panting, Rei gritted her teeth and pulled back her whip; that had been unpleasant. She had almost dislocated Tsunami's shoulder doing that.
The Kagenoshi rose again, its malevolent eyes fixing themselves on her. It seemed she was again its main target. Good.
With that, Rei launched herself into a blur of attacks. Relentlessly she struck at the thing with her water whip, dancing her Armor around as swiftly as she could to avoid counter-attacks. Again and again the weapon struck hard against the creature of darkness. While it failed to crack the Kagenoshi's thick armor the impacts were now showing slight marks on the target, which only made Rei redouble her efforts.
Suddenly the Kagenoshi launched itself at her. The elf barely sidestepped the assault and leaped away, cracking her whip. The Kagenoshi raised its left arm to block the strike, and Rei knew at that instant she had made a mistake.
In the air she had no control over her motion. The water whip wrapped around the thing's forearm, and the beast gave a huge tug. Rei relaxed her control over the water and it lost its semi-solid state, falling like rain, but was a heart-beat too late. Tsunami was yanked back towards the Kagenoshi, canceling out her backwards flight. For a moment the Water Armor was stationary.
That was all the Kagenoshi needed as it rammed into Tsunami. The beast's enormous hands grabbed the Water Armor's outstretched right arm just below the shoulder.
The stoic elf screamed in agony as the Kagenoshi's hands crushed the Holy Armor's right arm, then gave a hard yank and completely ripped the limb from the shoulder. Purely by reflex did Rei jump, avoiding a follow-up strike from the Kagenoshi. She landed a distance away, but stumbled and fell to one knee when she touched down. With her left hand she reached out for her own right arm, the Holy Armor mirroring her motion. She could see her arm and feel it in her left hand, but the pain that raced up from her right arm was telling her brain that the limb had been severed. The incongruity between her touch and eyes and her brain was... disconcerting.
Fighting up through the pain, she raised her head to the enemy. She had just enough time to see a foot heading towards her face. There was a thunderous moment of pain, then her vision, already clouded by tears, went black.
o x o
Touji didn't know how long he had blacked out, but was glad to find out he was able to wake up alive and apparently in one piece. That relief was short lived however, as he realized he was no longer in the temple. In fact he appeared to be floating in some kind of darkness, unable to see anything aside from a uniform brown around him and the body of Hikari floating serenely nearby. He was glad to see she appeared okay, if still unconscious.
Then he realized he was glad she was unconscious. For aside from the bracer enclosing his right forearm, he was stark naked. If she were awake it might cause... problems. A lot of different problems.
But he couldn't focus on that right now. In fact, it was probably best he focus on something other than Hikari, lest some of those problems arise...
"What's goin' on here?! Where am I?!" he shouted, hoping that somehow, someone would provide an answer. "Where's my sister?! Where's everyone?! Where's dat damned monster?!"
The darkness was suddenly partially lifted as bright symbols appeared in the dull brown around him. They were like nothing he had ever seen before, coming and going before he could get a good look at them. His bracer, the Earth Crest itself, suddenly began to glow again and Touji screamed as he felt his head explode in pain. It felt like something was trying to push its way into his brain, crawling inside, looking, searching. It was horrific pain but Touji reacted like he did to all situations: he fought back.
He tried to force it out, tried to resist, tried to overcome. And then after a terrible minute the pain vanished, leaving him panting heavily and feeling distinctly nauseous.
The next moment Touji found himself bathed in light. In fact, he seemed to be floating in the middle of a sphere of light, Hikari floating along the edge. A strange sensation crawled over his skin and before his eyes another bracer materialized on his left arm and metallic boots formed around his feet.
"Pre-activation sequence finished. Unit activation in sixty seconds."
Touji jumped as the voice was heard directly in his head.
"Who's there?! What do you mean by dat?! Who are you?!"
A metal giant of black, brown, and dark green hues. Firm structure, impressive limbs, thick armor. Touji's mind instantly recognized that image: Kensuke had shown him that exact picture a dozen times from his book. The Earth Holy Armor.
"You're the Earth Armor?"
"Correct. That is the designation assigned to this Unit by your people."
Touji swore. He had promised himself NOT to get involved in this whole Chosen thing. Still...
"Ya saved me back there, right?"
"Do ya know what happened with my sister? Or da Kagenoshi?"
Two images appeared in front of Touji, who stared with awe and disbelief. One was of his sister crying while a worried Kensuke hovered over an unconscious Mayumi. The other was of the Kagenoshi beating up the Water Armor pretty badly.
"Unit activating, now synchronizing with pilot."
Touji felt energy surge through his body, healing all his aches while simultaneously making him feel more powerful than he ever had. Though he was still himself he could feel as if he was part of something else, something huge. He was floating half naked in that mysterious sphere of light... but at the same time he felt as if his body was buried in the ground, asleep for a long, long time. It had been comfortable and he had slumbered peacefully through many ages, but now it was time to awaken. This strange sensation was the Earth Armor he realized. He could feel it reach for the power of the earth it was surrounded by and the earth answering its command. The ground above and around him shifted, parted, and pushed the mammoth Armor to the surface. Soil and rock moved away and suddenly Touji was no longer surrounded by total darkness, but rather by the night sky he had seen just moments before. As he looked around he noticed the perspective was different. Everything was smaller. Looking down he could barely recognize the forms of Kensuke and his sister. Then he looked in front of him and saw the Kagenoshi. Though still bigger than him, it no longer seemed the gigantic horror used to be. It was staring at him now, the Water Armor down and beaten, and Touji knew that whether he wanted it or not... he would have to fight. His fist tightened and he felt strength fill every one of his muscles, the unbreakable strength of the solid earth beneath his feet.
"Fine. If I gotta fight, then I'll show dat thing not to mess with da people I care about!"
With a scream of rage, Touji charged the monster. The thing's eyes lit up and dark energy beams burst forth from them. Reflexively, Touji blocked the beam with his left arm, cocking the right one. With a mighty leap he closed the distance between him and the Kagenoshi and let his right arm go, hitting the Kagenoshi squarely on the head.
Raising his left arm, Touji looked at the limb. The armor there was smoking slightly and appeared scorched; his arm itself felt as if it had been stung, but there didn't seem to be any real damage. Grinning, Touji raised both fists. He could beat this thing!
o x o
Striding slowly forward Arael approached the Fire Chosen. He had put on his favorite shirt, an ivory colored thing with billowing sleeves and the topmost buttons left rakishly undone. It, and the loose trousers tucked into wyvern hide boots were his favorites; they felt so supple against his skin. The ensemble was completed with a cape of darkest cerulean, clinched around his throat by a short chain of golden metal.
Appearances were so important for creating a good impression. Especially when you came a-courting.
Asuka was sitting on the ground, her legs protectively drawn up to her chest with her hands clutching them tight. She had her head buried in her knees and that gorgeous face was hidden behind the curtain of her brilliant red hair. She sat there, not moving, not speaking. Naked.
Upon seeing her naked body, Arael let loose a happy sigh. It had been such loving work to break her. No, 'work' was the wrong word, for it had been a glorious labor of love. He had enjoyed it, thrilled to it, experienced such wondrous delights that he was surprised he could ever pull himself away from presenting more deceptive images before her. There was a certain expertise required to the art of breaking someone, and Arael considered himself an artiste.
But this, this creature would be his crowing achievement. Breaking her had been the most pleasing of wines, the most treasured of sweets. It made the darkness within him churn in a fashion that left him giddy. Mirth bubbled to the surface and he giggled like a schoolgirl. Once the spell had passed he regained control over himself and looked down his long nose at the girl. "Rise."
Glacially, the girl uncoiled herself from her protective cocoon and stood before him. Ahh... nudity was in its own way lovely, but when it conveyed a sensation of absolute vulnerability it was just the most exquisite thing imaginable. Her young feminine body was flawless to his eyes, and the trail of tears down her face only made her that much more appealing.
"My magnificent captive, I want you to know that I congratulate you for offering me the opportunity to experience the wonders I did making you mine." He sketched a bow before her. "You, out of all my pretties, had to suffer like no other. It was... exquisite."
Her lower lip began shuddering. "I...I am... I am not..."
Rapture! She still fought! He could feel it, feel it in her mind as she cried out, railed against this violation of her soul. Arael closed his eyes and luxuriated in the sensations. He could feed off this for centuries.
Leisurely he opened his eyes, still a small smile on his lips. "Ah, but you are. Come forth to me." Inside, he could experience her mind screaming. Externally, nothing more than fresh tears showed this conflict. Her body stepped forward to him and he swung his cobalt cape around her shoulders, taking her into his arms.
"Now," he breathed into her ear, sweeping the glorious hair off her pale, delectable shoulder. "We seal ourselves with a kiss." For an instant a tongue tasted the heady aroma of her skin, then twin fangs pierced into her neck.
Her soft whimper was lost in the ecstatic groan that the undead released.
o x o
Groggily, Hikari awoke to the strangest feeling ever.
She almost panicked as she realized this was no dream, and that wherever she was, she wasn't alone. Touji was standing in front of her... and a warmth of joy spread through her mind at the thought... replaced a moment later by the fires of a horrendous blush as she realized he was... he was...
WHY THE HELL WAS HE NAKED?!
Rage, embarrassment, fury and a little appreciation stormed though her mind and she was about to lay the thunder of heaven upon his ears. But suddenly a sharp pain flared in her guts. She grunted as she saw stars, her mind swimming for a second. However, she was conscious enough to hear that Touji let loose a pained groan at the same time as her.
"Bastard... ye're going down!"
Touji's arms moved, his hands tightened into fists, as if he was... fighting something. Hikari let out a scream as she felt something hit her in the face, then pain flared across her back. Fear gripped her. Something was happening to her and she had no idea what it was.
"Touji? What's going on? What's happening to me?"
Surprised, Touji turned to look at Hikari. He hadn't realized she was awake but was relieved to see she was finally conscious. However, that relief vanished as he saw the fearful look on her face and the tears of pain staining her cheeks
"Fighting now. Can't talk," he said, turning back to face front. Reaching out, he made the Earth Armor climb back to its feet. Damn, but that Kagenoshi packed a mean wallop. The darn thing had hit him good this time. From his link, he was certain that the protective shell on the left side of the Earth Armor's head had been cracked.
As if the Earth Armor decided to answer in Touji's place, Hikari's vision suddenly shifted, her eyes now able to see beyond the sphere of light surrounding them. Her eyes widened in fear and recognition.
"Is that... a Kagenoshi?!"
"Yeah," Touji grunted as he avoided a punch and grabbed the Kagenoshi's over-extended limb. With a grunt of effort he lifted the abomination up and tossed it away in a clumsy hip toss. Not wasting a moment he jumped, bringing the whole weight of the Earth Armor down on the Kagenoshi's chest, cracking the creature's protective shell even further. The thing responded faster than he would have hoped for, and he had to move away. "Long story short, we're in da Earth Armor right now and I'm fighting a monster dat JUST WON'T DIE!"
Hikari could only stare in disbelief. Surely, this was a dream, right? The naked Touji certainly fit the dream hypothesis. And if what Touji said was true, then being in the Earth Armor would make him... No. That just couldn't be.
And yet... her cheek still throbbed, the pain frighteningly real.
Touji avoided another punch and retaliated with one of his own before moving back. He knew his last strike hadn't really done any damage, but he just couldn't seem to land any telling blows on the thing: its endurance was sickeningly inhuman. It was like he was fighting Onigumo all over again. No matter what attacks he had used, the only real damage had occurred when his sword had been doing that weird glowy-thing. Fortunately this thing wasn't regenerating the hits that did get through like Onigumo did, but it certainly was resilient and tough. And worse: he didn't even have a sword this time. He growled. Hell, he didn't need no sword. What he had was a pair of fists and the Earth Armor's own strength. As soon as he could he'd crack that thing's head open.
Touji's confidence left him as he felt... something... weird from the Kagenoshi. Like it was gathering its strength to do something.
"The enemy is gathering energy for what is possibly an indiscriminate area attack." Touji heard the Earth Armor say in his head. "Damage to surrounding regions will be extensive."
Without thinking, Touji recklessly charged the Kagenoshi, fist raised. He had to stop it before it destroyed everything!
Suddenly, the energy spike dropped and at that moment, Touji realized he had been had. The Kagenoshi avoided Touji's punch and countered with one of his own. Touji screamed as the Earth Armor was thrown backward. The pain was intense. It felt as if that attack had just broken most of his ribs in one shot.
Touji winced, both from the pain, but also from Hikari's pained and frightened whimpers. He could handle sharing the Earth Armor's pain, but Hikari... She had barely recovered. If this kept up, who knew what would happen to her?
"Damn it! I need a weapon! Something to keep me away from his fists..."
Touji immediately recognized the monotone voice, though how he could hear it, he had no idea. Looking in the direction where the Water Armor had previously fallen, he saw it slowly get back on its feet.
"How am I supposed to do dat?" asked Touji, not sure the elf could even hear him.
"What controls the Earth Armor is your mind," was the elf's answer. "Imagine your needs, and the Armor will act accordingly."
That was pretty cryptic, but Touji had no time to ask for clarification. Relentlessly as ever, the Kagenoshi was coming for him again. In desperation he did as the Water Chosen had instructed. He focused his imagination and brought up a vision of his old sword. A long, large, heavy blade, somewhat dull, but ever reliable. With a rumble, the earth to his right suddenly begun to rise and take a familiar shape. The Kagenoshi was almost on him when Touji grabbed the familiar shape and swung. The Kagenoshi was hit squarely on the chest and thrown backward, while the earth right in front of Touji literally split from the impact. In disbelief, Touji stared at the weapon now held by the Earth Armor. Its body was still shifting, but Touji could recognize the form of his favorite sword taking shape. First made of rock, dirt and metal, it seemed to change and solidify, to finally make a single blade of dark metal, similar to the the Earth Armor itself. In the distance, Touji saw the Kagenoshi begin to rise once more. But this time, it didn't seem unscratched. A very large gash now split its chest in two, liquid oozing from the wound. Touji looked at his new sword again and smiled.
"Yeah! With this, I can do it!"
As he charged the Kagenoshi, the monster dodged and backed away. Touji barely had the time to raise his sword to block an energy attack.
"The Kagenoshi will continue to stay away and use range attacks, now that you have a weapon. If you stop its movements then it will not be able to avoid your strike."
"How ya want me to stop it?!"
"Its feet are standing on the ground. Use the power of the earth."
Knowledge from the Earth Armor suddenly flowed into Touji's mind. He could use the same ability that had formed his sword, but differently. Touji had no clue how that was supposed to work, but didn't care. He knew that with the Earth Armor's help, it would work.
Focusing on the ground below the Kagenoshi's feet, Touji willed it to act. The ground there suddenly shifted and rocked, large pillars of stone breaking up the even earth. Surprised, the Kagenoshi suddenly found itself without solid footing and was forced down to its knees. It struggled to rise but Touji poured more energy into his will and the ground kept dancing beneath the thing's limbs, rocking it drunkenly. Holding his sword high, Touji let loose a massive yell and charged. Now down on three limbs, the Kagenoshi raised its head and looked at the charging Holy Armor. A dark purple light coalesced in its eyes. With his sword held for a strike, Touji couldn't block the beam.
However, just before the dark energy was fired a thin blue ray traced a line across the Kagenoshi's face. In its wake a thick crust of ice formed, encasing the beast's head. The eye beams struck this point-blank and the ice exploded, wreathing the Kagenoshi's head in flame and smoke.
It never saw Touji's blade descend.
In one strike, Touji cleaved the Kagenoshi in half, then jumped out of the way, just in time to avoid being caught in its explosion of dark energy.
Back at the destroyed temple, Kensuke and Mari stared in awe at the giant form of the Earth Armor. Planting its feet firmly on the solid ground, it raised its oversized blade high in victory. Behind it, as if to join in the celebration, the sun just crested the eastern ridge line.
o x o
The violence and fury of the Kagenoshi's destruction had been impossible to ignore. The Earth Armor pulled the damaged but still functional Water Armor to its feet and all Myssa could do was seethe with rage and frustration. More lives, sacrificed to give birth to this Kagenoshi, had died for nothing!
Shinji had also noticed the destruction of the Kagenoshi. Myssa appeared furious, but for the moment, distracted. It was his only chance. Using what control over the Wind he had, he summoned a small tail wind to assist him and rushed her. Myssa turned at the sudden change in local conditions, narrowing her eyes as she looked into the wind. Seeing him closing she set herself, her blade raised to skewer the charging human.
Her eyes widened as at the last possible second Shinji dropped both swords. His left hand reached out before him and grabbed the tip of her blade, cutting himself deeply as he forced the tip away from his body. His momentum carried him into her and he pressed his free hand against her chest.
The Wind Crest responded immediately. There was an explosion of Wind and the two fighters were blasted backwards. Shinji crashed hard into the ground and bounced end-over-end a few times. Myssa's flight was shorter, but a lot more painful; her motion was interrupted by her slamming into a tree with bone-crushing force. Horrendous pain burst up from her back almost making her black out. Bonelessly she crumpled to the ground, coughing up blood.
No matter how much her back stung like a hit from a dragon claw, it was nothing compared to her chest. Her leather tunic had been torn apart from the force of the wind explosion. Her dark skin was red, raw, and massively bruised. There were even numerous small cuts all over her front. Judging by how much it hurt to breathe, she probably had a few cracked ribs... if she was lucky.
Through the pain Myssa heard the sounds of twigs cracking under someone's foot. Lifting her head was agony, but somehow she got it up to look. She watched a similarly shaken Shinji kneel down to pick up the fallen Wind Crest, then do the same for his swords. He looked about as bad as she did, with his armor and tunic shredded and torn. She could see the fresh gash on his left palm where he had grabbed her sword during his reckless charge. But was really got her attention was that his entire right arm was now bare: the clothes there having been completely blasted off. The visible flesh was covered with lacerations and painful looking bruises all the way up to the shoulder.
It took a moment for her pain clouded mind to realize what that meant.
"Why did you direct most of the explosion towards yourself?" she demanded. "Why?! You could've easily killed me! Ripped my whole chest to shreds!"
Grimly, Shinji smiled at her. That infuriated her and she tried to rise, falling back down as her chest and back protested.
"Don't give me that look! You're my enemy! I tried to kill you! Kill you! Why don't you kill me already?"
Shinji shook his head, the grin slipping off his face. Instead his brow furrowed and he looked troubled.
"I... I don't know why you decided to attack me, but you're wrong. You say that there's no way we can coexist, that we're doomed to kill each other. I refuse to believe that. You didn't drive a dagger into my heart while I slept, and you risked yourself to save our lives a dozen times. You say you believe one side or the other has to die... I have to prove you wrong. You're... you're my friend. I don't know how to change the way people see the world... or even if I can... but I can fight to keep my friends alive."
Myssa could only stare at him. Her vision blurred as she felt something in her eyes she hadn't felt in years. Tears.
"You're an idiot... really... you're an impossible idiot..."
Shinji grinned sheepishly. "I guess I am."
"I'll still kill you," Myssa vowed, but even she could hear the insincerity in her voice. "Once these injuries heal, I'll..."
She was shocked as Shinji knelt before her. Careful not to let the gash on his left hand bleed on her, he brushed away the tears staining her cheeks.
"I'll try to find a way," he told her. "I don't know what I can do, but I'll try to find a way to end this conflict with as few casualties as possible. I'll fight to save my people... but I'll do my best to save yours if I can."
"You idiot... it's not possible..."
Shinji looked at her wounds, only now realizing the front of her tunic was completely destroyed and she was somewhat exposed. Myssa wasn't exactly sure what to think as he blushed and averted his gaze. "Umm... do you need any help?"
She closed her eyes. "Just... just go."
Reluctantly, Shinji rose to his feet. "I mean it. I will try. I will give you another option." Looking at her again, he gave her a small, sad smile. "Take care of yourself Myssa. I'll miss you. The others will too."
"Even the elf?"
Shinji winced. "Rei... Rei's pretty hard to read, but I think she was coming around. Slowly." With one last look, Shinji turned in the direction of Darnk and started to limp away.
"I'll kill you," she whispered, although even she wasn't sure she believed her own words anymore.
A soft zephyr tickled her ears. "Then you better not go easy on me next time," Shinji's distant voice came to her.
He knew. Somehow he had realized that she hadn't given the fight her all. That while he was good, her skills were superior and there had been openings she could have exploited but didn't. That she hadn't fought him to win... she'd fought him to be killed.
And he had known all along.
Myssa couldn't tell, however, who she was referring to. Cringing in agony, she got up and leaned back against a tree, resting. Her sword lay a few feet away but she couldn't muster up the strength to grasp it just yet.
All her life she'd been whatever weapon Lady Armisael needed her to be. She had served with loyalty, with devotion.
And now she'd betrayed her Lady... she hadn't fought with all her skill to kill the Wind Chosen.
And yet... in attempting to carry out her Lady's wishes, she'd betrayed those who had risked themselves for her...
... She'd betrayed friends...
Myssa looked towards the rising sun and tried to figure out what to do next.
o x o
There, it was done.
Arael smiled, praising himself for the absolute perfection of his handiwork. The redheaded beauty was unconscious, submerged deep into the dreams he had fashioned for her. Carefully, he touched her mind and temporarily sealed her memories of this past night and those he had implanted as well. While he had no wish to part with his sweet conquest, the vampire had made a deal with that loathsome high elf, and Arael was a creature of his word... when it suited him. His newly acquired puppet would play her role perfectly, then the two of them would retreat and revisit her sealed memories once more.
Arael licked his lips, as if seeking lingering traces of her sweet blood, looking at the slowly healing puncture wounds his fangs had left on her throat.
Yes, he looked forward to finally making her completely his, for all time.
o x o
The tired group dragged themselves back toward Touji's home. While the fight had taken a lot out him physically, the Earth Chosen appeared to be fine, clothed in the new vestments that he had appeared in when the Earth Armor vanished. He was carrying his sister in his arms and Hikari was walking by his side. All three of them were tired, but appeared emotionally energized as they were busy talking among themselves. Hikari was asking questions and Mari was filled with praise for her older brother. Touji seemed to be basking in the glow of attention from his two favorite women.
It was odd, thought Rei, but she almost felt as if there was something between the princess and the Earth Chosen. Something spiritual, a connection she wouldn't have expected to see anywhere short of between a long-married elven couple. Was that somehow related to how Mayumi had saved the princess?
She would have liked to ask Mayumi a few questions on the subject, but the priestess was still unconscious. Right now Mayumi was piggy-backed across Kensuke's back, his slim form bent under the weight but still managing to keep up. He'd refused all offers of help and had carried the wounded woman the whole distance. It wasn't much, but for once Rei acknowledged him with respectful silence.
However, part of her silence was from unease: neither Shinji nor Asuka had shown up during or after the fight. Also noticeably absent was the half-elf. In Rei's mind these events were surely linked in a manner that did not promote contentment. She was sure something had happened and was feeling the need to go out and look for her companions.
Before she could go, she needed Mayumi to wake up. The damage to Tsunami's right arm had actually affected her own: right now it hung limp by her side. The holy texts in Kelethin had mentioned this being a possibility from linking with a Holy Armor, a fact she hadn't shared with her allies.
Tsunami was back in its storage demi-plane regenerating the wounds from battle. If given enough time it would re-grow the severed limb. Not so for her. Rei was feeling drained right now and didn't trust her own ability to heal such a trauma without a full-fledged cleric for assistance. And if the half-elf had done something to her companions... then Rei wanted to be in fighting shape to take down the dark blooded half-breed.
"What the fu-"
Rei was shaken from her thoughts by the outbursts and looked for the source of the commotion.
The Fire Chosen was lying on the ground in front of Touji's house, seemingly unconscious... and apparently wearing nothing apart from her long, red hair. So surprised to see this Rei didn't move, but Hikari did. She gave Touji a swat on the head, -- "Hey!" he blurted out -- and despite her own fatigue rushed to her friend's side. Taking the foreigner's wrist she felt for a pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when she detected a strong, steady one.
Rei approached, looking the girl over while Hikari shook her gently and called her name. Neither could see any wounds, but no matter what they did the Fire Chosen did not respond.
"Asuka! Asuka! What's wrong with her?"
"I do not know," Rei replied. "Perhaps when Mayumi has recovered she can discover what had befallen the Fire Chosen." Rei reached out her good hand and prevented Hikari from trying a spell. "You still require rest. You will not help your friend that way."
Reluctantly Hikari agreed.
"Do you... do you think... she was..."
"I do not believe she was sexually assaulted," Rei said in an off-hand manner, apparently oblivious to the humans' discomfort with the possibility. It was almost as if her spirit had been imprisoned in the recesses of her mind. Had she fallen victim to a psychic attack? But if so, by whom? Rei frowned. Obviously, she had underestimated the abilities of the half-elf. No doubt this was her work, however she had done this. Removing her cape, Rei covered the Fire Chosen's exposed body. Not much would be accomplished if the males just kept starring at her. Rei was about to order Touji to get his sister inside, them come get the Fire Chosen, when she felt a familiar presence approaching.
In relief, she turned toward him... and froze.
"Woah, man! What happened to ya?!" said Touji, who had also noticed Shinji.
The Wind Chosen was in rough shape. Limping, bruised, battered and dripping blood, he approached the companions with a slightly vacant look in his eyes.
Rei was at Shinji's side before he fell down, having obviously used all of his strength just to come back. From how pale he was, it was obvious he had lost a lot of blood. Focusing her tired body, Rei projected what little mana she had left towards Shinji's.
Rei held her breath as she assessed each wound, tending them just long enough to stop the blood flow. He was a mess! His right arm was the worst off, crisscrossed with deeply bleeding wounds that cut deeply into the muscles. As she assessed his injuries she was relieved to see none were truly deadly, his biggest problem being blood loss.
"I'm glad you're alright," Shinji said in a tired voice. "I was worried when I saw you fighting alone."
"Do not speak," said Rei, noting that he was on the verge of losing consciousness. "You will only weaken yourself further." Rei then turned her attention toward the other males in the house.
"Touji. Do you have bandages?"
The tall man nodded. "Yeah, I got some. I'll go get 'em."
"Kensuke." The bard stared at Rei in surprise. She had never called him by his name before! "Get Mayumi inside, then help me carry Shinji."
The bard hurried to follow Rei's instructions. Once they were all inside, Rei focused her powers through the Water Crest and touched it to the Wind Crest. Shinji's medallion glowed for a moment, then the pieces of armor blessed by Fuujin faded from physical existence. They removed Shinji's blood soaked tunic, now able to see just how torn up he really was.
"Oh man. This is really bad! What happened?"
"It was... the dark elves," Shinji breathed. "They sent an assassin to stop me from fighting the Kagenoshi."
"That's what I was afraid of," said Kensuke. "What about Myssa? She was with you. And Asuka? Any idea what happened to her?"
Shinji shook his head. "Asuka? Did something happen to her?" He tried to get up, but his strength failed him and he sat down heavily. Apparently he hadn't even noticed the red-head wrapped up in the cloak lying on the bed. "Myssa... Myssa got injured as well," he continued, his voice weak but quite even. "She put up a better fight than I did. In the end, she thought there might be more assassins nearby. She... she left... to try and lead them away. Also... I think... after Niigata... she wasn't feeling as comfortable with humans anymore. She... she said she'll meet up with us again... someday."
A very small frown darkened Rei's face. Several of Shinji's wounds were indicative of a long, thin blade: the kind favored by the dark elves, true, but also the kind used by a certain half-breed. Although she was too tired to completely trust her senses, she felt there was something Shinji was holding back. There were, as she well knew, many ways to bend truth. Well, it didn't matter right now, as Touji came back with a roll of bandages.
"Ah, shit! He's really messed up."
She'd expended so much energy that she was at her limit now. She couldn't heal him, couldn't take away his pain. A strange sensation settled in her belly. She was unused to experiencing cold fury, but found that she quickly hated those who made her feel this way. Damn Kagenoshi and damn all dark elves!
The elf's frown deepened as she looked at the wounded Wind Chosen. Lifting her head she saw the unconscious priestess lying on the bed, and the comatose Fire Chosen wrapped up in her cloak. The enemy had dealt them a grievous blow with this assault. The Chosen had not failed in battle, but had been weakened. All because she had not killed that dark elf when they had first met.
"Rei." A soft hand touched her shoulder and the elf was surprised to see Hikari's smiling face. "I think he'll be fine now. You've healed the worst of his wounds. You should get some rest, I'll watch over him. Exhausting yourself won't help. Trust me, I know."
Rei nodded... and let out a sigh she didn't know she had been holding. Sitting down against a wall she let her eyelids close, and grudgingly allowed weariness to take her... though it did not chase away the feeling of guilt that rose up within her. Silently, she prayed to the Goddess for guidance... and vengeance.
o x o
Tabris stood in the middle of a charred crater. Trees had once stood here, but the destruction of the Kagenoshi had vaporized anything in the immediate vicinity. Even the Kagenoshi itself had been reduced to ashes. The release of the energy it had accumulated had been that great.
None of this matter to Tabris as he walked to the bottom of the crater, his upraised right hand glowing with fiendish purple energy. In the exact center of the crater, buried under a mound of ash, a similar sickly glow appeared. Focusing, Tabris called the object to him. A small crystal shard burst free from the mound and flew right into his hand. Closing his fist around the shard, Tabris gritted his teeth as the fragment pierced his skin, then joined with his body. There was a moment of vertigo, then a rush of energy as its power became his.
"Interesting," said a voice behind Tabris, light with amusement. "If I could even possibly comprehend a duplicitous nature, I might think you've been sending Adam's mighty children to their doom, simply so you could retrieve those crystal shards from their shattered corpses. For shame."
Tabris smiled as he turned to face Arael. The vampire was wearing a black cloak, his ash colored face barely visible through the shadows of its heavy hood.
"You're almost right," said Tabris. "These relics are only disposable tools to me, though I must admit that this last one lived up to my expectations. While it failed to defeat the Chosen, it did assist in giving them a crippling blow. Though, I must admit that most of the merit goes to you, as I expected. You performed your task magnificently. The girl was to your tastes I hope?"
The vampire sighed, longingly. "She is such a rare prize." Were it not for their deal, Tabris was certain the vampire would have tried to kill him rather than talk to him, just so he could resume his activities with the Fire Chosen.
"This is good to hear," said Tabris. "A little more patience and she will be all yours to play with for eternity. The pawns are almost all in place now."
"What of my darling Myssa's failure to kill the Wind Chosen?"
Tabris shrugged. "Disappointing, but expected. My true goal was to get her away from Neriak. The influence that this... human... had over Armisael could have endangered my plans. What happens next to her, I don't care."
Arael shrugged. "I was once intrigued by her, although for the death of me I now can't imagine why. She lacks that certain spark of my magnificent plaything. Maybe I'll turn her into a ghoul. Or crush her skull. Or give her to some gnolls to party with. So many choices."
Tabris laughed. "You truly are an exquisite creature, Arael. I had planned for your destruction once this is finished, but I've changed my mind. I believe I'll leave you free to do as you see fit."
It was Arael's time to laugh. "How generous of you," he said, before sinking inside a shadow and disappearing.
Yes, he would let Arael live, Tabris decided. It would be interesting to observe the immortal creature as it raged for eternity after witnessing the destruction of all his pets.
But for now, there were more pressing matters. Tzachquiel had indeed done a good job of weakening the Chosen. And now, Leriel was on his way to intercept them before they reached Tokyo. It would be interesting to watch.
o x o
Touji looked outside and sighed. That Kagenoshi sure had made a mess. There were broken trees and scorched vegetation everywhere. Just what Darnk needed, Touji thought grimly. To turn into a battlefield.
And it was all his fault.
Without anything better to do, Touji wandered the forest to clear his thoughts. Now that she was doing better, Hikari had taken charge of the situation and with everyone unconscious or asleep, just staying there trying to keep quiet felt awkward. Though tired, Touji couldn't sleep. Too much stuff on his mind. Like how he'd become the Earth Chosen.
He could deny it all he wanted, but even he had to recognize some uncomfortable truths. He had ridden in the Earth Armor. He had defeated a Kagenoshi, a creature of legend and lore. He was the Earth Chosen. And Touji had no doubt that this was the reason the Kagenoshi had attacked them here. It had probably wanted to stop him from awakening the Earth Armor. The village had been almost destroyed because of him.
That left him with very little choice. If he stayed, he'd probably risk the village's safety again. As much as he hated to admit it... he didn't have a choice. He had to go with the others and fight.
"I'll make those bastards pay for messing with me," Touji swore.
Touji was about to turn back for home when he stepped on something hard. Looking down, he saw a sword on the scorched grass under foot. Half hidden, it took him a moment to realize it was that foreign girl's sword. What was it doing here? He had no idea why she had turned up at his house naked, but who in their right mind would lose something so valuable as a clearly well-crafted blade?
Eeh... whatever the reason it was beyond him. And when the loudmouth woke up she'd probably kill him if he just left it here. Hikari would, too; she seemed to know the red-head. Still musing, he reached down for the hilt.
At the moment the whole sword suddenly erupted in searing flame.
Unnoticed to him, the Earth Crest on his wrist made a soft chime. A moment later it was answered by another chime from the Fire Crest on the sword's ricasso. As he watched, the flames quickly faded into nothingness.
"Weird," muttered Touji, immediately dismissing this new turn of events. Tonight -- or was it today already? -- had been strange enough, so a sword that burst into flames and then returned to normal was quite low on the list of things that had freaked him out.
"She better thank me later," he muttered as he picked it up. Somehow, though, he doubted it.
Returning home, he groaned at the sight. The elf was sleeping against a wall, with Shinji's head in her lap. The Wind Chosen was asleep, his battered body covered by a mess of now reddish bandages. There were puddles of blood on the floor and Touji really hoped that someone would get to them before Hikari saw them and tore his head off. Speaking of which, where was she? He checked the other room, finding that wounded priestess and the red-headed girl both lying in Hikari's old bed. In a corner Kensuke sat on a stool, his head leaning against a wall as he slept.
Not here. Following his gut, Touji headed upstairs. As he'd expected, he found Mari asleep in her bed, her arms tightly wrapped around a sleeping Hikari who returned the youngster's embrace. He smiled at the sight.
Still... Touji couldn't help but worry about tomorrow. And the promise of the new battles it brought.
With a shrug, Touji descended downstairs, trying to figure out where he'd sleep. Though it was morning now, he figured it couldn't hurt to take a short nap until everyone woke up. They'd probably have to leave as soon as everyone was in better shape, so he should take this opportunity to get some strength back. It was exhausting to find yourself a legend.
Bah... it was no use worrying. Whatever problems lay ahead, he'd just face them the same way he faced every problem in his life.
To be continued...