She could feel it. That which had laid dormant inside her for so long... slowly it began to awake. With consciousness it brought awareness... knowledge. Knowledge that left her cold.
Knowledge of what she really was, knowledge of how she was entrapped. Now she understood, now she could see the chains.
She wanted to run, run far away. Run before she hurt the people around her. Run so hard that the thing that beat within her would tear itself from her chest.
It could not be though. What awoke within her would not let such a thing happen. What beat within her chest would not acquiesce to her wishes. Her own heart had been lost, long ago.
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-reader and Gaffer: Jeremy Mullin
Muse and Costume Designer: Myssa Elaine Santos Rei
CHAPTER 18 - Downfall
Part 1 - All good things....
The group of friends that staggered through the still devastated outer city of Tokyo bore little similarity to the focused teams that had departed from this place so many weeks ago. They had traveled hundreds of miles, endured assaults by men, monsters, and servants of the dark god, Adam. The journey had left them physically and mentally wounded, had taken something from each. But now they stood before the massive gates of Tokyo, the capital city. All around them common citizens moved with the bustle and pulse of a community. There was a sense of grim fatalism in the air, but human existence around them was a welcome relief from the days of hard travel.
And it had been hard. The Kagenoshi's attack had robbed them of their wagon and mounts, forcing the group to carry their meager supplies and their wounded companion. Princess Asuka had not stirred, growing neither better nor worse since she had been discovered comatose. They had barely been able to force food and water down the woman's throat and lived in fear of her unknown condition deteriorating. Mayumi had been unable to help, the mere act of speaking sometimes reducing her to tears. Unable to call upon Lilith's prayers she retreated into herself, turning away attempts to talk. With their main healer incapacitated Rei and Hikari had to take over the burden but their skills were nowhere comparable.
Neither was completely fit either: Hikari still not fully recovered from her life threatening experience in Darnk, while Rei was burdened by her unresponsive arm and the injuries caused by the berserk Shinji. As such it was actually a small wonder they'd kept Asuka alive so far. Their only good fortune was Touji having 'acquired' a new wagon and mounts. Their need had driven home just how difficult some of Touji's earlier moral choices must have been. Still, thanks to that their trek had been shortened by days. Upon seeing the great white walls of Tokyo rise up as they grew closer, it provided a measurable sense of relief to wash over them all.
The group's relief was short lived, however, as they were greeted by the unbroken face of Tokyo's great wall. The gates that allowed passage through those magnificent defenses were only open a narrow crack, allowing a mere trickle of closely watched travelers through. But that was not the only sign of increased vigilance; they could make out soldiers manning the white battlements with bows at the ready and sorcerers looking down upon them with staffs raised in preparation. A detachment of guards stood at the foot of the gate itself, their halberds held with determined conviction.
"State your name and business in Tokyo or be off with you," growled an older guard, a corporal by the uniform.
The friends shared a worried look. Tokyo's security had been tight before, but this? This spoke to fear and unease in the capital. What was it like inside? Nervously Shinji looked down at the comatose Fire Chosen in the wagon. If she were awake Asuka would have no doubt taken affront at the man's attitude and sent back a blistering rebuke. Shinji found himself feeling even more glum that the foreigner was not able to stamp her unique personality on events.
But that depression only hindered him, he realized. Asuka needed help, and needed it quickly. "I'm... I'm Shinji! Wind Chosen of Lilith! I travel the Water, Fire and Earth Chosen as well. It is urgent that we enter." For a moment he faltered, but then pressed on. "Open the gates!"
He could feel the surprised and worried glances his friends were directing towards him, but he ignored them. Instead he faced the guards, trying through dint of mental effort alone to make them see he was telling the truth. Some part of him recognized his story might be a hard one to take.
He no longer looked a hero: grimy peasant clothes was his armor now. After hearing how his armor had deformed into something monstrous during his last berserker episode, he was terrified to summon it forth. What would happen if it was... tainted by his fury somehow? Could bringing it forth trigger another episode? He could feel the beast inside him now, feel it waiting, and it was closer to the surface than ever before. He had worn the armor when the beast took control, could its foul touch have imbued the metal with its dark essence? He was too frightened to find out.
So instead of a heroic figure in shiny scale armor and dashing green cloak, he was a nondescript young man with haunted eyes and dirty clothes. Only the twin swords belted at his hips suggesting anything more.
The guard looked hard at the group, his eyes narrow and hard. "A bold tale. Can you provide proof for your words?"
"Dame Misato, or an officer of the royal guards can identify us. Please hurry though, my friend desperately needs medical attention."
The guard motioned to one of his soldiers, who nodded and retreated through a small door in the great gate.
Letting out a relieved breath, Shinji felt the knot in his shoulders ease and the beast in his head quiet down.
"Some of you," he motioned to Rei, "match the descriptions I've been given, but honestly all elves look alike to me. Some of you I don't have any orders about. Who are those three?" he motioned towards Touji, his sister and Hikari.
"The man is the Earth Chosen," Shinji replied. "The little girl is his sister, the other is..." In a moment of clarity Shinji realized that claiming the lost and murdered princess was here as well would be too tall a tale for the already suspicious guard. But what to say? He had to think fast. "The other is... his girlfriend?"
"WHAT?!" both those in question shrieked, before looking at each other, heat coloring their cheeks. The guard's eyes narrowed and Shinji gulped nervously.
Noting the guard's suspicious look, Kensuke stepped forward. "Forgive them, sir, those two are still in denial. You know how it is: boy meets girl, boy screws up in front of girl, girl really can't stand the fool but sticks around anyway, boy-"
"Enough!" the guard snapped, visibly irritated. "I'll take your word for it. Assuming you really are Lilith's Chosen, of course."
"Of course," nodded Shinji. As the corporal retreated to his troops to discuss things, Shinji felt a hand on his shoulder. A strong, heavy, hand.
"My... my girlfriend?! Couldn't ya come up with something else?" Touji harshly whispered in his ear.
"Improvise better next time!"
Shinji sighed and nodded as he massaged his now hurting shoulder. He really wished the gates would open soon...
o x o
It took a good half hour before the gates finally rumbled open. The companions had grown fairly jittery while they waited, especially Touji. For someone like him who usually fled when guards made an appearance, being stared at by archers ready to pincushion him at a moment's notice was a distinctly unnerving sensation. It was only the reassuring touch of Hikari's hand on his that allowed him to refrain from doing something foolish. Of course he also tried to ignore the implications of that simple fact. She wasn't his girlfriend! She was just a girl. Who was his friend. Nothing more. Right? So what if she was cute? Or that he felt himself turn to mush every time his gaze crossed hers? It was probably just a side effect of their weird link.
Touji was spared further progress down that line of thought as the gates swung wide to reveal a veritable army waiting on the other side. Instinctively he reached for his sword. Was this a trap? What was going on here? He'd heard Tokyo was a fortress city, but he'd never expected to have to stare down an army!
Shinji's thoughts mirrored Touji's. Security of the city had been significantly fortified since they'd left. He'd tried to ask the guards about it, but they had not been forthcoming. His worries were alleviated, however, as he noticed a familiar form amongst the soldiers behind the gate. For a change she was wearing her longer, heavier uniform, but the long purple hair and unique sword on her back made her unmistakable. For the first time in a long time, Shinji allowed himself to smile. It would all be okay now.
The royal guard captain approached swiftly, hauling the young man and the elf bodily into an affectionate double hug. "I'm so relieved to see you guys again! Mayumi! Kensuke! Glad to see you too! Where's Princess Asuka? Who are these three? Did you guys pick up some groupies or something?" The knight's grinning face suddenly went slack as she took a good look at the young woman climbing down from the wagon.
She'd hoped for the princess' safety, prayed for it even. But to see her now, to see that she was truly alive... It was like a huge weight had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders. True to the meaning of her name in the ancient languages, the sight of Hikari was chasing away the darkness that had filled Misato's days.
"Princess Hikari!" repeated the White Knight, this time with joy. Humbly the knight knelt before the younger woman, hoping that doing so hid the tears of relief wetting her eyes.
Whispers started to rise amongst the soldiers and nearby civilian traffic. The princess? Alive? Was the White Knight losing it? Or was she just drunk again? Silence replaced the whispers as the young woman moved towards the knight, an almost palpable sense of majesty suddenly radiating from her.
"Dame Misato. It's so very good to see you again." She extended her hand and Misato reverently kissed it.
The silence continued for a few more seconds, then a hue and cry of "Princess! Princess Hikari is alive!" rose up through the soldiers like a roaring wave. It lasted for a long moment before the entire crowd of soldiers, and indeed the civilians standing around, all sunk down to their knees before the princess. For the group it was a crashing reminder of her true identity: this was not just their traveling companion and friend, this was their future monarch.
For Hikari, the crowd hailing her return brought forth a moment of utter terror. The Kagenoshi's nightmare resurfaced... these people would follow her into ruin... she would lead them into misery, into death... and there would be no one to blame for it but her...
Fear was then replaced by another, more subtle feeling. A sad... unpleasant feeling. Looking behind her she saw Touji, a melancholy expression on his face. Seeing her looking at him, he averted her gaze.
Just a friend, he reminded himself. After all, she was a princess. She could never be something more.
Her smile leaving her, Hikari decided that she would need to have a talk with Touji. But this was neither the time, nor the place for it. Right now, certain things needed to be done.
"Dame Misato, please stand. There are things that must be done, and done quickly."
These words immediately roused the captain. "What's wrong, Princess?"
Hikari spoke softly, so that only the White Knight would hear. "The Fire Chosen has fallen ill. She needs to receive the best care, right away."
Misato nodded, her eyes serious. Turning towards the crowd of soldiers she spotted two familiar officers.
"Tsuguru! Touma! We're going to the castle and I need an escort on each side! The rest of you! Make way and get back to your posts! And someone close those gates!"
With skilled precision, the soldiers executed their orders. The Chosen and their friends found themselves flanked by an escort of troops that quickly started to move, pushing their way through the now cheering crowds. As they passed through the gates, Touji and Mari both rocked back slightly. "What was that feeling?" Mari asked, curious.
Hikari looked down at her and smiled. "It's the power of the three Sentinel towers." Once they cleared the wall, she pointed out the three spires that rose above the city rooftops. "See them there? The powers of Water, Wind, and Earth from those towers combine to form a shield around this city. They create a mystic barrier that keeps out bad people."
"Earth? You mean like the power my brother has? He's been protecting this city even while he was watching over me?" Mari asked, grinned proudly at her sibling.
"Yes. He watches over a whole city but keeps an especially close eye on you." Hikari glanced over at Touji, but he didn't meet her gaze. The princess' smile slipped slightly.
Now in the city proper, the group and their escort proceeded towards the castle at the city center. It was fortunate they had their escort, as crowds formed when word of the princess' miraculous return spread throughout the city. People left their jobs and homes as rumors reached them. Hikari, safe! The crown princess, alive! The people had to see this miracle, had to know if such a thing was possible in these dark times. Before long the streets were filled with throngs of stunned and cheering citizens. It took a concerted effort by their escort to keep the people back and the group moving forward. So focused on the growing crowds no one noticed that a number of armed men blocked their path until the progression encountered them.
"What the heck?" Misato asked as she looked at the obstruction. It was a group of paladins from the Church, a pretty high order of knights, by the look of things. Her officers had their hands full with the citizens so she marched forward to the white armored men.
Touji saw the group of armed churchmen and tensed. First guards and now the Church! Man, what a day. While Hikari and Mayumi had shown him that not everybody involved with the Church was a rotten bastard... it didn't mean he was exactly thrilled to see so many.
Kensuke, too, looked at the churchmen with confusion. What were they up to? Why was a militant order blocking their path? He looked over at Mayumi, and his eyes widened as he saw she was trembling and unshed tears glistened in her eyes.
As the soldiers held the cheering crowd at bay, the rest of the companions joined Misato as she stood before the knight commander. "What's the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"Important Church affairs," came the cool reply from a familiar voice. "We shall be done and out of your way in a moment, Captain."
"Ritsuko," Misato said as her old friend stepped out from behind her holy knights. The high priestess bowed her head respectfully to the crown princess, but didn't appear surprised to find her alive. This obvious display of the Church's intelligence gathering only deepened Misato's annoyance. "Can't this wait?"
"I'm afraid not, Misato." The high priestess drew herself up. She turned a strangely triumphant gaze towards the Wind Chosen. "Men, seize the person known as Shinji."
"What?" screeched Shinji, his friends echoing the question.
Four holy knights moved to apprehend the young man, but Misato's battle-trained reflexes had her great blade Murasame out to block their path.
"Stop right there!" she shouted over the yelling of the crowd, most of them blissfully unaware of anything beyond Hikari's return. "No one is taking anyone! What is going on!?"
"Like I said, Misato, this is a Church affair. It doesn't concern you."
"No way I'm letting you lay a hand on Shinji unless I know exactly why!"
The two women glared at each other for a long time while the noise of the crowds flowed over them. Finally, High Priestess Ritsuko's mouth twisted. "Very well. The person known as Shinji, identified as the Wind Chosen, has been accused of heresy."
"What?! Heresy?! He's the Wind Chosen, for Lilith's sake!"
"I know. That makes this matter all the more serious."
"High Priestess!" Hikari commanded. "Explain yourself!"
"I'm sorry, your Grace, but this is not a matter of the crown."
"He defends the kingdom!"
"With the powers provided by Lilith," Ritsuko calmly countered. "If they are misused, it is a matter for the Church."
Misato growled. "What are the charges?"
Ritsuko paused for an instant. "He is suspected of being an agent of Adam. It has been witnessed that he allied himself with the dark elves against his fellow humans. He attacked and injured soldiers and clergy with the goal of freeing a dark elf prisoner."
Misato looked surprised. "Shinji, is that true?"
"What? No!" It suddenly dawned on him where these accusations had come from. "If you're talking about the fight in Niigata, it was all a big misunderstanding. We were forced to fight to save Myssa from the villagers. They would have killed her if we hadn't stopped them!"
"Who's Myssa?" Misato asked, but Ritsuko cut her off.
"So you publicly admit to helping a dark elf against dutifully appointed members of the Church?"
"Myssa isn't one of them!" Shinji shot back, feeling the heat and the rage building up inside of him. How dare this woman -- this bitch! -- attack Myssa that way. The thought enraged him, infuriated him, but he had to fight it, had to hold down his anger, or he would... he would...
He clenched his fists painfully. "She's not a dark elf, she's a half-elf. And without her, we would never have made it back from the Northern Wastes! She's a good person!"
"Nevertheless... I have a written accusation from Priestess Michiru of Niigata. She is quite... firm in her conviction of his guilt. Church law dictates that this matter must be dealt with."
Suddenly, the previously silent Rei stepped forward. "High Priestess," her voice barely audible over the noise of the crowd, "is Priestess Michiru present here in Tokyo?" A line formed between Ritsuko's brows as she looked at the elf, then shook her head.
"Then I state that Shinji has in no way acted against the greater goals of Lilith. According to the Document of Authority for the Church, part thirty-seven, paragraph four, a member of Lilith's Chosen has administrative authority equal to a regional high priestess. That means Regional High Priestess Michiru and I are in disagreement. And following precedent outlined in the Articles of Church Judiciary, section fourteen, in cases of disagreement between clergy of equal rank, they shall both present themselves in person to defend their position. Until that occurs, the situation that has caused the disagreement shall be given limited weight before the Church assembly."
Ritsuko looked shocked. Rei's face never changed, she just stared at the High Priestess with that same unreadable expression she always wore. Finally Ritsuko frowned. "How do you know about the Document and the Articles? Those aspects of Church law are over three hundred years old!"
"My mother wrote them."
Ritsuko winced. "Elves," she muttered. Looking at the White Knight, Ritsuko pressed her lips together in a tight line. "Look, Misato... there's more going on here than I can say. You have to believe me."
"Not until you explain what's going on!"
Ritsuko shook her head. "No, not here. Not in public. I... just can't."
"Then I can't turn Shinji over to you. And I don't think he is going to go quietly. Do you think your knights can take three Chosen and my guards?"
Ritsuko's gaze passed over the White Knight, the Chosen, their companions, the royal guards, and the cheering crowd still blissfully unaware of anything save the princess' return. Her face turning even more grim, Ritsuko glared at her old friend.
"I pray to Lilith we don't all regret this," she muttered just loud enough for Misato to hear. Then she squared her shoulders again. "Very well. Shinji is free... for the moment."
Slowly the companions lowered their weapons. "Good," Misato said grimly. "Now, if you'll excuse us-"
"Knights, take Priestess Mayumi into custody."
Ritsuko's glare was cold. "In this matter, Dame Misato, there is nothing you can do. Priestess Mayumi is a member of the clergy under my jurisdiction, and as such you have no right to interfere."
"No way!" Kensuke shouted, hand on his sword once again. "You won't lay a finger on her!"
"Stand aside or share her fate."
Kensuke suddenly found himself flanked by Shinji and Touji.
"Can't let ya take away Mayumi, lady. By the way, I'm da Earth Chosen. I'd say it's nice to meet ya... but I'd be lying."
The high priestess didn't seem impressed. If anything, her gaze became harder.
"Take the girl. If any of the Chosen resist, you are authorized to subdue them. Just don't kill them. If others help them, do what you wish."
Touji swore, while Shinji grasped his swords. Damn it! They were finally back in Tokyo. Things should have been looking up!
"Misato! Protect Mari and Hikari!"
It looked as if things would come to blows, but a single act stopped the violence before it could begin. Sliding forward, Mayumi slipped past the people holding weapons in her defense and stood meekly before Ritsuko, her gaze cast down at her boots.
"Mayumi!" Kensuke cried out, lunging forward, but two burly holy knights held him back. "What are you doing?"
The girl raised her eyes and looked back at him. For a moment it looked like she might say something, but then she clamped her mouth shut, tears forming in her eyes. She put up no resistance as two other paladins firmly grabbed her by the arms.
Kensuke was nearly beside himself. "What's going on? What are you doing?! Why are you doing this?! I don't understand!" She merely shook her head and dropped her gaze again.
"What are the charges against her?" asked Rei.
Ritsuko just gave the elf a twisted smile. "This is an internal affair of the Church. While I'm obligated to assist you regarding your duties, I have no obligation to discuss Church matters with you. I think you'll agree that is my right under the Articles of Church Judiciary, section... nine. I'm certain your mother must have taught you that as well."
"Our group requires an experienced healer and guide."
"True. I will appoint Second Priestess Maya as your aide. Her skills should more than suffice. She will be a most worthy replacement."
The elf did not reply.
Shinji wasn't about to let them take Mayumi away. He couldn't! This injustice infuriated him... the beast in his head howled in agreement. Hands reached for his swords, intending to grab Mayumi, fight through the Church knights and make a run for the castle. He could do it so easily, he had the power...
But then he looked at the priestess again... and saw her shake her head. Shinji let go of his swords. There was something in her gaze, something resolute. If he freed her now, she would merely go back to the Church of her own volition. She felt she had to do this... for everyone's sake but her own.
How he knew that feeling.
As the Church guards led the girl away, the remaining companions had a quick huddle. "I'll talk to my father," Hikari said. "Legally, the influence of the monarch on the Church is limited, but he might be able to make something happen. Mayumi saved my life. Even High Priestess Ritsuko won't be able to ignore that fact."
"Ritsuko and I are going to have a long talk," Misato growled. "There's a lot here she didn't explain, and I am not going to just let it sit." She glanced around once more. "But we can't do anything standing in the middle of the street here. Everybody get back in the cart and I'll get the troops moving again."
There was nothing else to do. While unhappy, the group acknowledged this was the best thing for the moment.
o x o
While it had appeared huge from far away, Touji had to admit that up close, Tokyo Castle was simply humongous. Ridiculously big. A country boy at heart, he'd still traveled to a few towns on thieving missions. He'd seen a few lords' manors, several large inns, even one of the outlying cathedrals. They'd all been impressive to him at the time, but things in Tokyo just seemed to put his previous experiences to shame. And the castle was just on another level entirely.
"Man, da thing's huge," he looked over at Kensuke to ask him a question, but blinked, realizing the bard was gone. He must have skedaddled while Touji was busy gawking. Damn! It'd been obvious that Kensuke had an interest in Mayumi and had taken her arrest hard, but he'd hoped Kensuke wouldn't do anything stupid. After all, the bard was supposed to be the smart one. But then again, women did tend to bring out the worst in men. He himself knew he'd never allow a woman to mess with his judgment.
Part of him had wanted to go after him, but in the end, he had figured that Kensuke could probably manage on his own. Besides, and it shamed him to admit it, but he was in no hurry to leave Hikari's side. Turning to her, he was that she seemed lost in thought as she watched the castle's gates open. He supposed it was expected. She was coming home, after all.
Although it had only been a few months, Hikari felt as if years had passed since she had traveled through the castle's gates. So much had happened, so much had changed... so much had been lost. She had left here thinking she was going on an adventure to learn about her people and her realm, get a better understanding of her responsibility and her role in the world.
She had learned... at the cost of her escort and her dear friend and cousin. "The price of wisdom is innocence," the old saying went. She had thought she understood before. Now she did. And she wished she didn't.
She shook off her dark mood and looked around in confusion. The inner courtyard was practically empty. Considering the mobs that had lined the streets she had expected something similar here. Could it be word had not reached here yet? As soon as she asked herself that she rejected it. Rumors, she knew, flew on swift wing.
As if in answer to her question, a group entered the courtyard from the castle proper. A phalanx of royal knights, a team of priests and priestesses, and two familiar figures. One was Makoto, lieutenant to Lady Misato, and the other...
Touji could feel a strange kind of pressure and knot of stress emanating from Hikari, but even he was kind of taken back at how quickly she scrambled from the cart. Everyone else was dismounting as well so he did too, even while casting a wary glance at those clergy coming up to them. He hadn't liked the Church before and after that blond...
However, the religious types appeared to be holding back so he decided to ignore them for now. Standing in front of them was a soldier wearing glasses and a uniform similar to that Misato lady. The other was an older woman, dressed in what he thought was a rather elaborate blue gown. She had a kind, friendly face he thought, and sort of... an elegance and grace. Wasn't too bad on the eyes either.
It was only then that he realized Hikari had stopped in front of the woman and knelt before her. In fact, so were Misato, Rei and Shinji.
Huh? Why would the Chosen and this White Knight chick be kneeling to her? And Hikari? She was a princess, for heaven's sake! The only woman a princess should be bowing to was-
Touji was hardly someone who would bow, let alone kneel to anybody. Actually, in retrospect, he had never even showed Hikari the respect she was due. But this... Touji dropped to his knee like his life depended on it.
Maybe it did.
Head down, Hikari found she couldn't lift her gaze. "I've returned, your Majesty," she said, unsure of what else to say. How could you talk to your mother, knowing she had believed you dead for weeks? How could you look at her, knowing people had died because of you? Her throat felt tight.
Hikari's vision was filled with her mother's shoes and the hem of her dress. Then she felt a hand touching the top of her head, caressing her hair in a manner long remembered.
"Welcome back, Hikari," Queen Yui said quietly, warmly.
Hikari's gaze immediately shot up. The Queen was smiling softly at her. The princess felt her eyes burn with tears. "Mother... I..."
Yui reached for her daughter's hands and pulled her to her feet. "Hush dear. You're home now. That's all that matters."
Forgetting dignity, forgetting protocol, Hikari hugged her mother, crying freely against her chest, while the Queen gently returned her embrace. Touji smiled at the reunion, ignoring the longing ache in his own chest at the sight. Family was important, and despite everything that had happened -- and still might -- bringing Hikari back to hers was worth it.
"You're the Queen!"
All warmth Touji had felt at the sight of mother and daughter reuniting fled at the sound of the youthful, exuberant voice. With so much happening, he'd forgotten about Mari. She'd been quiet just a moment ago, gawking at the sights in silent wonder, but now was up on her feet in the cart, smiling and pointing right at the Queen.
"Touji! She's the Queen!" The youngster had needed to convey to her big brother the importance of this fact. "The Queen!"
"Yeah, I know," he nervously told his sister. Please quiet down now... please... Turning towards Hikari and her mother, he gulped to see that the happily reunion was now over and that the Queen was staring at him. "Ah... sorry about dat, yer... your Majesty. She... I..." Now seeing Hikari staring at him, Touji decided to shut up and hope that the incident would be over with that.
But instead he began to sweat as the Queen approached the cart. Hikari had always been a bit prickly about... what was the word?... propriety. And she was just a princess. What would a full-on queen be like? He wouldn't let anyone hurt Mari, but then again this was the Queen: therefore untouchable. And Hikari's mom: even more untouchable.
Dumbfounded, he watched as the Queen reached over the side of the cart and lifted the young girl down to the ground with the practiced motions of a mother. The Queen patted the girl's head and Touji sighed in relief.
"Yes, little one, I'm the Queen. And you are a cute little girl."
Mari was all smiles. Then her expression turned serious, making Touji worried. She looked at the Queen, then Hikari. Then the Queen again. Then Hikari. And her big smile was back on her face.
"You're the Princess!"
Touji groaned, while Hikari let out a chuckle.
"Yes, Mari, I am."
"See, Touji! I told you the Princess' name was Hikari!" The girl was clearly proud of herself.
"Yeah, Mari. Ya did," he admitted, giving her a little smile. Let her bask in her glory he thought. What harm could it do?
A lot, he realized, as she started to talk again. "I'm Mari!" she said brightly to the Queen. "And my brother Touji is the Earth Chosen!"
The Queen gave Touji an inquisitive look.
"The Earth Chosen, really? Your brother must be a very important person then."
"Yes! And he's got that big magical armor to fight giant monsters!"
"He does, doesn't he? Your brother seems very... brave."
Touji frowned. Why had the Queen hesitated there? Well, okay, maybe he didn't look like much. Still...
"He is! He even saved Hikari from the bad orcs and stuff!"
The Queen did nothing more than slightly turn her head and glance at him, but suddenly Touji found himself paralyzed. That gaze... there was something about that gaze that made him feel very... uncomfortable. And the oddest sensation that while she had been looking at him, she had also speared her daughter with that very same gaze. Certainly the Princess appeared just as paralyzed as him.
But fortunately for the both of them, Hikari regained her sense of balance very quickly. "Mother," She said with remarkable control. "We should let the priests do their work. Princess Asuka's condition is grave and Lady Rei still has yet to fully recover from her injuries."
"Yes, of course. Please, come in. It's good to see you all again..." The Queen turned her attention to the others, smiling at Rei and scrutinizing the Wind Chosen almost fondly.
Touji let loose a deep sigh as Hikari followed her mother into the castle proper with Lady Misato. That had been harder than he'd thought it would have been. Meeting royalty sure took a lot out of a guy.
Maybe he should have followed Kensuke after all.
o x o
Seated behind her desk, High Priestess Ritsuko awaited what was coming.
A knock at her door signaled the start of things. A young acolyte opened the door and bowed, motioning her guest in and closing the door after her. No sooner had the wooden door shut then the guest exploded.
"Ritsuko! What the hell do you think you were doing?!"
"Always one to get right to the point, eh, Misato?"
The White Knight snorted. "Considering the times we live in I think I have reason to be snappy. Especially when someone attempts to arrest one of the people who is supposed to save us!"
"Save us from Adam and his legions, yes? Well, among his legions are the dark elves. You of all people know that better than anyone."
Uncomfortably Misato rubbed her sternum, recalling the scar there and the dark elf that had disfigured her.
"And now I find out that one of the Chosen ?- --one of our great heroes! "" attacked his own people in order to rescue an enemy. The very people he's suppose to be fighting he spends his time saving! You're a soldier, you know you don't provide aid and comfort to the enemy."
"Yeah, yeah, I talked to Shinji and Rei about that. Turns out the half-elf fled the dark elves and was living with some human pirates. She actually helped them survive in the Northern Wastes. Risked her life to help them several times, and then got abducted by some nutso priestess in Niigata. Almost sacrificed too. I don't remember blood sacrifices being part of the curriculum while we were in training."
Ritsuko frowned. "I'm not exactly thrilled with what I've heard about Michiru's behavior, nor the fact that she only decided to formally accuse Shinji after hearing about Princess Hikari's supposed death, but there are bigger issues at hand. The fact is we're at war with the dark elves. They're murderous, predatory killers, and in league with our greatest enemy. They're skilled, but lack the numbers to face us on the battlefield. It's not beyond them to use deception and misdirection to probe for weakness. We can't take the risk that this wasn't just some elaborate ruse they constructed. If he helped one of them, then that's treason."
Misato looked uncomfortable and unhappy. "I'm not saying I agree with what he did, but I doubt he meant it as treason. He tried to save a life. Maybe he was just doing the right thing."
"'Doing the right thing?' We're not attempting to instill virtues into first year acolytes here! You know what's at stake Misato: the whole world! If Adam isn't stopped we're looking at another Black War, and I doubt anybody will survive this one. We don't have the luxury of being soft, or coddling the weak-willed."
"Why just him? Rei helped the dark elf too... I think. Asuka as well, although Lilith knows what's wrong with her now. Why persecute Shinji?"
Ritsuko looked glum as she stared at her old friend for a long moment. Finally she reached into her desk and pulled out an ancient book, placing it before the White Knight. "How did you know where to look for Shinji to begin with?"
"Gendo told me where to look. He said the Chosen Prophecy suggested it."
"Yes, the Prophecy. The whole reason we put our faith in those young ones." Ritsuko put her hand on the book. "This is the most complete copy of the Chosen Prophecy ever translated. There are whole passages that don't seem to make sense, and others that I don't claim to understand, but there is one that is of importance here." She opened the worn cover and flipped to a page noted with a bookmark. "Read."
Misato leaned forward and attempted to decipher the archaic characters. "The elements are fickle," she recited. "Their forces unpredictable. A relationship that is neither certain nor stable.
"A little slip,
Will lead to the doom of all.
The elements are powerful, their strength unmatched.
But the strong can be undone from within.
Shall damn everything,
From meek to mighty."
After a moment, she read the rest of the lines on the page.
"One of the Chosen will succumb to the night,
Giving the Enemy the power to revive Adam.
And the world will be plunged into darkness."
Silently Misato read the lines again. After a moment she looked up, consternation and anger on her face. "How come I never heard of this before!?"
"Tell people their greatest hope is actually their greatest danger? Let it out that those who should save us might just damn us instead?"
Misato leaned back, rubbing her temple. Damn, but she needed a drink. "And you think this means Shinji's the one? The one who will fall?"
"Think about it, Misato. 'A relationship that is neither certain nor stable.' Shinji had a relationship with our enemy, enough to fight against our own people. Relationships between human and dark elf can be neither certain nor stable. 'The strong can be undone from within.' If he questions his role, questions the need to fight because of some infatuation with this dark elf, then yes, he shall damn everything! Maybe even switch sides and fight against us!"
"That's a pretty long stretch, Ritsuko. It's quite a leap from helping one exiled half-elf to siding with Adam."
"But can we risk it?" Ritsuko leaned forward. "You've seen how powerful the Chosen are, seen what they can do. He's powerful, a hero, supposedly beyond reproach or suspicion. What better weapon could the enemy wield against us than our own savors? I can't take the risk of him going over to the darkness. I won't allow it."
"He's a good kid!" Misato snapped out. "I've seen what he's like. I trust him. The others trust him."
"What about that rage he had inside him? '...the strong can be undone from within.' What happens if it takes control? What if the darkness he falls to is internal?"
Misato glared. "He's fighting it. He's not about to forget all the friends he's made and all the hard work he's done. I trust him. I certainly trust him more than some vague prophecy in some damn book."
Ritsuko looked at her friend. "Misato... hand him over to the Church. We can't risk it."
"No. I can't let you have him. Prophecy or not, we don't have the choice but to trust him and support him. Asuka can't fight right now and who knows what that Touji kid is capable of. If I hand over Shinji that'll leave Rei the only one we can trust, and that would be suicide! Besides, assuming I gave you Shinji, what would you do? Take him to that chamber of horrors in the basement and try and 'reeducate' him?"
"There are a number of wards and spells we can use to mitigate any risk of his loyalty," Ritsuko began. "I can promise you, he'll not-"
"No! I'm not going to let you brainwash him! Who knows what could go wrong?" Misato rubbed her forehead, grimacing. "Look... maybe I'm wrong. But maybe you are. It could be a mistranslation, even an error. Even if it's not, it doesn't say who is the one. Are you sure you're not just fixated on Shinji for another reason?"
Ritsuko frowned. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Aren't you just using him as a way to get back at his father?"
For a moment, Ritsuko just stared at Misato, completely speechless. "What?! Of course not! We don't even know who his father is!"
Misato snorted. "Oh come on Ritusko, you're usually better at lying than this. If I can see it, you certainly can. It's in his face: the shape of his chin, his cheekbones... his training has removed the baby fat he started with and left him lean and looking suspiciously like someone. Someone you know pretty well."
"Wha- What are you trying to insinuate? I've never..."
The impact of Misato's fist against her desk shut her up.
"For Lilith's sake! I know Ritusko! I know about you and him!" At the words the High Priestess' face went chalk white.
"It's not what you think--" Ritsuko tried, her voice cracking slightly.
"Not what I think? You and he were nowhere to be found that night, then you looking almost happy the next day, right before we descended into that hellhole? No one should have been happy walking into that house of death."
"Never mind that," the High Priestess said, her voice still brittle. "What I... do is my own business."
"It was done to help with his berserker urges, wasn't it?"
"How did you-?"
"When I learned of Shinji's condition, I did some research," Misato explained. "It's difficult to do anything with a berserker aside from killing them -- if you can -- but it is possible to distract them. They are men after all."
"So you know."
"I suspected as such for a long time. Though I was never sure of it, until I met Shinji. After all, the berserker condition only transmits through ancestry. And even then, I wasn't completely certain. But you just confirmed it now."
Ritsuko didn't reply, her face grave.
"I don't know exactly what happened back then, and quite frankly I don't think I want to know either. What I do know is that before we went on that mission to Yamayumi Peak, I could tell you were a little sweet for him. And now his son by another woman is before you, and damn it, that's gotta hurt." Ritsuko's lips tightened, but Misato pressed on. "Fine. Be pissed at him. He probably deserves it, but that's no reason to use Shinji as revenge."
"Like I said, this has nothing to do with the matter with Shinji!"
"Maybe. Or maybe not. In any case, instead of putting all your faith in that old book of yours, I want you to put your faith in me. I'll make sure that Shinji knows where his loyalty lies. As for his berserker problem... I've already asked Rei to keep an eye on it."
"Misato! That's crazy!"
"Not really. Besides, it won't be a problem. Shinji's always been able to come back to his senses all on his own. I know that he'll stay in control."
"This is a lot of trust you're asking for, Misato."
"Have faith," the White Knight replied, sarcasm heavy in her voice.
Ritsuko was silent for a moment, then grimaced. "Very well. But he will be kept under surveillance. If he slips, or shows signs of questionable loyalty... I won't be asking for permission next time."
"You better hope there won't be a next time."
"Is that a threat?"
"More like a warning. You're treading on thin ice, you know."
The priestess raised an eyebrow.
"Bottom line, we need all four Chosen to fight Adam. If you try and harm Shinji, Rei could take that as a threat to her mission. She's got a pretty one-track mind when it comes to duty, and High Priestess or not, I don't think rank will matter much if she decides a Holy Armor assault on the Cathedral is the most expedient method to get him out." Misato paused, letting her words sink in. "And then, there's the matter of that Mayumi girl."
Ritsuko shook her head. "That is an internal Church matter. Sister Mayumi has violated the conditions of her probation, and is currently under censure for her actions."
"Is this because she's a songstress?" Misato threw at her old friend. "It came as a great surprise to hear the Church was keeping one of them so close." Ritsuko didn't answer, and Misato shook her head. "So what were her orders? To spy on the Chosen for you? To use her abilities to stop them should one of them, namely Shinji, go rogue?"
"I don't have to answer your questions, Misato."
"Maybe. But you might want to prepare some answers anyway. Word about her is starting to spread. Some people are not very happy about the idea of the Church hiding something like that from them. And then there's Princess Hikari. She's been very adamant about asking for the girl's release."
"And she can keep right on asking. Like I said, this is an internal matter for the Church. I don't tell the crown how to deal with state prisoners, they don't tell me how to deal with people undergoing penance."
"Maybe. But still, word is starting to spread. About how a so-called cursed songstress saved the princess' life. That fact won't be easy to ignore."
Misato raised an eyebrow mockingly. "Oh, you didn't know? Well, I suppose you only asked the girl about things that could be used to condemn Shinji. You see... it turns out that Sister Mayumi was instrumental in saving the Princess' life. No matter what other actions she might have taken, that little fact will be very hard to overlook. And I guarantee the Princess will make something out of it. You know as well as I how obstinate she can be when she has her mind set on something. Speaking of which..." The White Knight reached into her belt pouch and placed a sealed letter on Ritsuko's desk. "You are summoned to the castle at your earliest convenience to wait upon the pleasure of the royal family."
Ritsuko let out a silent curse. No, Mayumi hadn't volunteered that particular piece of information. Not that her interrogation had focused on much beyond a very specific line of inquiry. Ritsuko rubbed her temple, recognizing that the situation was not good. She'd have to change her plans.
Misato watched her friend frantically thinking for a moment, then sighed. "Look, Ritsuko... Just some advice. Don't do anything rash. As you said, we're facing another Black War, and we need to help each other, not be tearing each other's throats out. Don't let petty emotion cloud out your reason... you know what that cost your mother."
"I'm nothing like her!" the High Priestess spat.
Misato shrugged as she turned to leave. "Yet, somehow you both fell for the same man." Ritsuko went red. "Just... we're all on the same side. We all want the same thing. Don't forget that."
Misato walked out of the office, leaving Ritsuko to her thoughts... and her ghosts.
o x o
Kensuke felt like ripping his hair out. For hours he'd been drawing up plans and pouring over old scrolls, trying again and again to solve the seemingly insurmountable problem he was faced with. How did one enter the Great Cathedral without being detected?
First of all, he needed information; and the place to go for information in Tokyo was the Royal Repository of Learning. If any records on the Great Cathedral were kept by anyone outside the Church itself, the Repository would have it. Of course such documents would probably be tightly kept under lock and key, so Kensuke had expected to use a bit of charm, a little intimidation, and a whole lot of bribery to pry them loose. Rumors spoke that one of the keepers at the Repository, a certain Yomiko, was a near terminal bibliomaniac. He'd been prepared to sacrifice his ancient and priceless compilation of Black War legends to her if she could get him what he needed... but it turned out the girl was one of Mayumi's friends and had been horrified to hear what had happened to her. Before he knew it, Kensuke found himself sitting at a desk that absolutely groaned under the weight of the documents Yomiko had placed upon it. All relating to the construction, form, and security of the Great Cathedral.
Unfortunately none of those documents had had so far yielded anything but frustration for him, merely confirming what he had already feared. The Cathedral had only one freely accessible entrance, the main one. This was guarded without fail by the Holy Chain Knights, who were also responsible for internal security. Fifteen minute patrol patterns were laid down in Church doctrine as one old document stated. There were other, private doors in certain locations, but these were locked and protected by some rather nasty wards and holy glyphs. Windows were high up on the building and with the traffic around the Cathedral he'd be spotted if he attempted to scale the walls. Getting a mage to teleport him into the place was, according to one of the records he'd read, a very, very bad idea.
As for the sewers... apparently someone *had* broken into the Cathedral though there about seventy years ago. Problem was he'd be caught afterwards. After confessing he'd used his talents to secure the sewers from a repeat performance.
Kensuke groaned in frustration. Whatever option he chose, it would require very careful planning and planning took time. And time wasn't a luxury had had.
"You will not find the information you seek within those scrolls."
Kensuke jumped at the quiet voice in his ear. Spinning around, he almost had a heart attack as he found himself staring right into a pair of blood red eyes. As his heart rate returned to normal, Kensuke noted that while worlds apart, Rei and the dark elves sure shared a love of appearing out of nowhere.
"Damnit, Rei! What are you trying to do?! Scare me to death?!"
"It would be more merciful than your fate should the Church capture you," she calmly stated.
Kensuke stared at the elf for a moment. This had to be the first time she was actually conversing with him out of her own volition. Then his brain finished analyzing what she said and frustration took over again.
"What the hell am I supposed to do? Leave Mayumi to rot in the Church's dungeon?!"
"Efforts have been made to obtain her liberation."
"It won't work!"
"You cannot be certain of that."
"Oh, come on, Rei! You of all people should know better than that! Surely you know why Mayumi was specifically assigned to guide and assist you guys! Shinji might be clueless, but you..."
"She is a songstress," Rei said simply.
"Exactly! Mayumi is a songtress, working for the Church. And as you know, a songstress' ability doesn't obey the normal laws and rules of magic. So while you Chosen have a huge amount of raw power, if necessary she could probably take you down."
"But would she?"
"No," Kensuke shook his head. "And that's the problem! She's grown beyond what the Church wanted! She's one of us now, she's used her abilities to break into a temple, defy her superiors! She's stopped being a compliant little tool of the Church! And if they can't control her anymore, they'll make sure no one else could use her. And that means..."
Rei said nothing.
"I won't let them keep her in a dungeon." Kensuke said gravely. "And I'll be damned if I let them kill her!"
Kensuke stared at Rei for a moment. Did she really need to ask this? But... the question HAD been nagging his mind too. Why was he doing this? Why was he willing to go this far to save Mayumi? He could get killed!
"She's a friend," he simply answered. "Someone has to help her."
Kensuke sighed as he sat down. Suddenly he felt horribly tired, his gaze falling from the elf to the cold stone floor.
"I understand that you can't help. The war with Adam... that's what's really important, for the whole world." He smirked. "Remember what you said before Shinji, Mayumi, and I took on that vampire so long ago? 'Our goal and our lives are too important to risk on trivial matters.' And you were right... in a way. Mayumi and I would have died without your help; we needed you. And now the whole world needs you. They need you and you can't risk making an enemy out of what should be your ally. Because really... compared to the whole world Mayumi and I really are... trivial.
"But I'm not a Chosen, the world isn't looking to me to save it. I'm not needed, so I don't really matter." His head came up and he looked at the elf. "And if that's the case, then I'm the only one who can help her, so I'm going to try. Even if it kills me."
What he didn't mention was the dream... the dark nightmare from the Kagenoshi. He was *not* worthless. He wasn't! He didn't want become nothing, become nothing more than a footnote in the life of the world. He had to make a difference, had to be something to someone. The only other alternative... he shuddered at the thought.
Rei, however, wasn't looking at him. She reached over and opened one of books on littering the desk, flipping through its pages. "When the Grand Cathedral was being constructed," she said as if discussing the weather, "there were a number of clandestine passageways built into it." She stopped at one particular page. "For example, under this obelisk in the east gardens is a hidden entrance. It has remained unused for some time."
Kensuke blinked, but shook his head. "That's because it's guarded by a spirit. A ghost of justice by the name of Emiya or something that's supposed to cut down any not completely embraced by Lilith's light." He let loose a grim smirk. "Someone sneaking into the Cathedral is unquestionably disqualified."
Rei nodded in agreement, then reached over and placed two fingers against his forehead. She said something in Elven that the bard couldn't catch, but felt a rush of warmth and a glorious sensation fill his body. At the edge of perception he thought he could hear the sounds of heavenly trumpets blowing a clarion call. It was pure, clean, reverent, wonderful. It was hard to grasp, but he felt he had just been touched by... grace?
The elf removed her hand. "If you now attempt that which you felt you couldn't before, you may find yourself achieving remarkable things."
Kensuke gaped at her, the sensation of holiness still humming throughout his body. Rei was helping him get inside the Great Cathedral! Rei! Cold, stoic Rei, who had made no effort to hide the fact that she hated his guts was helping him sneak into the Cathedral. "Why? Why are you helping me?"
The elf's face remained impassive. "I am doing no such thing. I merely provided a blessing to a troubled soul. What one chooses to do with this gift is their choice."
That said, the elf left, leaving Kensuke speechless.
o x o
"Ya know, this isn't what I had in mind when I said I'd come to Tokyo with ya."
"Sorry," Shinji said as he sat with his elbows on his knees. "I didn't expect this to happen." Touji snorted.
"Why apologize? It ain't your fault."
"Humph." Touji looked out over the view of the city before them. The balcony they occupied stretched out from the side of the castle and provided a breathtaking view. Several stories up, they looked down upon the Holy City in all its beauty. One of the Sentinel Towers broke through the sea of rooftops, its soft light comforting even from this distance.
Still, neither young man was feeling particularly moved by the view. Touji walked over to the railing and leaned against it. "Any word on Mayumi?"
"No," Shinji sighed. "Misato's trying to talk to the High Priestess, but I don't know how that's going. Hikari said she was going to speak to the King, but I got the feeling that there were politics between the King and the Church that might complicate things. Whatever it was, she didn't seem to think anything would happen quickly. How's Kensuke handling it?"
"Don't know. Haven't seem 'im since Mayumi got snatched."
"Rei's vanished too," Shinji noted, feeling the absence of the high elf. While Rei often disappeared for long periods of time, today he really wanted her around. She had a way of making things seem... stable.
But she's probably scared of me, of what I did to her, Shinji realized. She doesn't want to be around me, and I can't blame her. Uneasily he rubbed his hands together, remembering the dream and the horrible feeling of fury. It was still there, eager for him to slip up as it knew he must.
Touji blew out an exasperated breath. "Damn it! Ain't we four suppose to save the world?! Or something?! All dem stories Kensuke told me had us riding off into some big battle that would end the darkness and bring back light and stuff! We're suppose to be the Goddess' knights... or something. Instead one's missing, one we can't wake up, one's moping, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do!"
"I... I don't know what to do, either," Shinji said. "We were so focused on finding you and the other Holy Armors that I never stopped to think what would happen after that fact. I guess... I guess finding out what's wrong with Asuka is the next step."
"No. The healers are as perplexed as we are. I just wish I could do something. I feel so... so useless like this." He looked up from his hands to stare out over Tokyo. "I mean... I know Asuka doesn't need protecting... I know she's tough... but I can't help but feel I'm failing her somehow."
"Don't beat yourself up," Touji said. "We got her to Tokyo, the best defended place in the whole country. And while the Church seems to be run by a bunch of dickless bastards, I reckon even they wanna survive. They'll find out what's wrong with the redhead. Even if it takes some time to fix her royal bitchiness, we can wait."
Touji turned to look out over the city again. "Ya know, I really wasn't all that eager to come here. But knowing that Adam and other things are real and out there, I'm relieved to 'ave brought Mari here. I mean, I'll always protect her, but I guess I feel a lot better knowing there's an army, walls, and some kinda weird magical barrier around too." He paused, then snorted. "Me... glad to have the army around? What a twisted joke."
The two young men were quiet for a few minutes, just looking out over the city. Their silence was broken as a page walked onto the balcony from the castle proper. "Excuse me, sirs," the young man said, bowing. "But I have been directed to escort you to see his highness."
"The King wants to see us?" Shinji asked, rising.
"I'm sorry, sir, but the summons was only for the Earth Chosen, Sir Touji."
"Sir?" Touji repeated, sounding confused.
"Yes, sir. If you would please follow me?"
Touji looked over at Shinji, but the Wind Chosen simply sighed and sat back down. Shrugging, the ex-bandit leader followed the page back into the castle. Alone now, Shinji hunched over his knees, feeling gloom settle over his thoughts. His friends: missing, hurt, imprisoned. They'd found all the Chosen, all the Holy Armors, but had suffered injury, doubt, and betrayal in the process.
Myssa had tried to kill him, had been an assassin all along. Asuka was hurt, unresponsive and unreachable. Mayumi had been taken by the Church, their supposed ally for reasons unknown. And he... he had tried to kill his friends, tried to kill Rei.
Oh, and he was also wanted by the Church for some kind of heresy or something.
He rubbed his face wearily. How could they hope to stand against Adam and his darkness when the forces of Lilith were divided so?
After a moment he reached into a pocket and pulled out his old harmonica. He fiddled around with it before putting it to his lips. A tune warbled up from the silver instrument, the notes desperate and almost pleading. He found he was able to release a small amount of the raw passion he could feel churning inside of him through this small act of creation. He didn't know how long he played, but he felt he had to. He wasn't sure when he could again.
After he finished, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
"That was beautiful."
Surprised, Shinji opened his eyes and looked behind him. Standing at the entrance to the castle was a girl in the simple uniform of the castle maid staff. She had short, bright hair and a smile that was filled with innocence. "Mana!"
"It's good to see you again, Sir Shinji," she said as she came forward, giving him a tight hug. "I'm glad you made it back safely."
Shinji shifted uncomfortably. She noticed and pulled back slightly. "What's wrong?"
"We... I... it's nothing," he lied. "It's... it's good to see you again. Are you enjoying your job here at the castle?"
"Oh, yes! I can't believe that I'm a maidservant to the Queen! And you! You brought back Princess Hikari! The things that happened after we thought she was dead..." Mana's smile faltered a bit, then returned. "But that doesn't matter! All that's important is that you're back."
Shinji nodded. "Yeah, I'm back." Looking out over the city, he still felt uneasy. Something was brewing, he could feel it. But it was an ethereal sensation, nothing he could pin down.
Mana looked at her protector, her knight. A question inside her worked its way up to the surface no matter how hard she tried to keep it buried. "So... you've found all the Chosen now?"
"Yes. I guess... I guess everything will soon be over."
Yes, soon. In her chest she knew it was coming, coming rapidly. She wanted to tell him, wanted to say so much...
"Sir Shinji? Would you... would you come with me for a while?" She couldn't tell him, couldn't stop it, but she could do something with the time she had been given. "There's something I want to show you, share with you."
o x o
Touji was hardly someone who could be intimidated. Quite the contrary, he was usually the one doing the intimidating. It was a skill necessary to keep a gang of thieves in line.
As far as Touji could recall, the only people he'd ever felt any awe for were his parents. He didn't remember his father much, but couldn't think of the man without a feeling of 'strength' coming to mind. His mother had been a kind, warm woman taken from her family far too soon. But he'd been a handful as a child and had learned -- many times -- that pushing her never ended well. He'd also come to realize that Hikari had that same aura of command about her. Warm and gentle, yet something about her simply demanded obedience. To disobey was to invite a wrath that could shatter strong men like spun glass.
Not that Touji would ever say it out loud.
As he knelt before King Kozo, Touji realized that she was truly her father's daughter.
Touji started to worry when he entered the throne room and realized he had no back up. It was him and the King, and nobody else.
Hikari's father, he corrected himself. He had to stay polite. Hikari had been really insistent on that point in the last few days.
Actually, she'd been insistent on that since they first met.
In any case, this was the King AND Hikari's father, so Touji figured he should probably make an effort not to screw anything up. Making sure he remembered what little bits of etiquette he'd learned, he'd politely knelt in front of the King.
Which was what he was still doing, a long, very long, minute later.
Touji could feel the man's gaze upon him. It was almost as if the King was weighing him, searching for weaknesses, deceptions. It was reminiscent of the feeling he had when Rei turned those haunting crimson eyes of her towards him. It made it uneasy.
Not that he would every say that out loud, either.
Yet, it was also so very, very different. Rei's gaze was cold, calculating, alien. But this man's... it was so very personal, so very human. There was something in it that brought to mind half-recalled memories of his own father's rarely seen fury, and a primal terror of being swept away despite all efforts. A ridiculous notion: after all, the King was an old man. One punch and he'd be out like a candle. Sure, the man commanded armies, but Touji commanded an ancient holy artifact that could destroy an army if he wanted. And yet...
Touji was really feeling intimidated right now.
"Please, rise, Earth Chosen."
Touji eagerly did so. Being able to at least look the man in the eyes made it easier. A little.
"How may I be of service... your Majesty?" Touji asked slowly, trying to recall all the lessons and admonishments Hikari had drilled into his head over the past while.
"My daughter has told us a great deal about you," the King began, which immediately made Touji's neck muscles clench. What stories had she been telling the King and Queen about him? No, wait. What stories had she been telling her parents? For some reason the second thought unsettled him more than the first. "She described you as a valiant warrior with heroic ideals about protecting those around you," the King continued. "About how you saved her from an orc band, and how you risked your life against a demon she had unwillingly helped awaken. Also that you were decisive in procuring victory against one of Adam's Kagenoshi."
Touji let out a sigh of relief. It looked like Hikari had spun tales that might make Kensuke envious.
"I only did what I had to do, your Majesty. And a lot of times, I got lucky things turned out right."
"Young man, as you get older you will discover that no matter your skills, no matter your power, there comes a time when the things you care about can no longer be protected as you wish them to be. When those times come, allowing yourself to trust in luck is one of the hardest things you can imagine." The King bowed his head towards Touji. "As a monarch, and as a father, I thank you that your luck was enough."
Speechless, Touji could only stare. The King had just thanked him? And bowed to him?
"Err..." Embarrassed and overwhelmed, Touji scratched his head. "Yer welcomed, yet Majesty. I mean... it was an honor. Yeah, it was an honor, your Majesty!"
The King looked amused for an instant, before giving Touji a serious look once again.
"Now, tell me Touji. My daughter also told me that you lived in Darnk. Is that correct?"
Touji stiffened in apprehension. So it had come to this. "That's right. I'm from Darnk," he said, defiantly proud.
"I see. Life must have been difficult. Difficult for you and your sister."
"I remember Darnk," the King said. "Before I took the throne, I visited it on a mission. I was probably even younger than you are now." The King smirked. "It was a bandit quelling mission, if I remember correctly. Those hills have always sheltered some kind of vagabonds." Touji's fists tightened in anger, guessing where this was leading. "But the village itself I remember as poor but honest. Friendly even. I was very saddened when, years later, I learned of a curse affecting the region. Even more so when I heard the Church declared it heretic ground."
The King sighed. "It may seem impossible to fathom, young man, but those who sit on this throne are sometimes the most powerless of us all. Church and crown sometimes don't see eye-to-eye on every subject, and I must choose which battles to fight. I had little ground upon which to question the Church on a matter of faith, and so made a decision to forsake Darnk. It's a decision I've not been proud of and have regretted. Because of this, I'm partially responsible for all the ills that have befallen you and your people. Please accept my sincere apologies. Though it might not mean much after all this time, I'm afraid it's the only thing I can offer."
He was about to spring forward and cold-cock the geezer when a massive sense of weariness dropped over him. An apology hadn't made it all better, but he thought hitting an old man would? Maybe, after all this time, nothing would. He let his arm drop to his side.
"Yer right. It won't make things better," Touji said bitterly as he stared at the King. "But at least ya apologized. Which is more dat I can say about da Church. So fer that... ya got my respect. Even if I still feel like kicking yer ass right now, king or not."
The monarch nodded. "I admire your restraint, as much as I admire your frankness. Not many people would dare threaten a king."
Touji felt his anger freeze cold as he realized just what he had been about to do. "Well... it's not like ya can really execute one of Lilith's Chosen," he said with a nervous laugh.
"Assuming you survive the coming battle with the dark god, there's always after," added the King with a wry grin. Touji gulped. "Actually, your future is something I would like to speak with you about."
Touji let out a sigh of relief. "My future?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Indeed. Tell me, young man, what are your plans after you've accomplished your duties as Lilith's Chosen?"
"My plans..." said Touji, slowly. Truth be told, he hadn't thought about it. Everything had happened so fast that thinking about the future wasn't really something that had crossed his mind. No, it wasn't just that. For years Touji had been dedicated solely on trying to save his sister and the village. The daily struggle to survive had been the focus. The future, as far as Touji was concerned, ran only so far as to his sister being cured. That was the goal, the prize to strive for. Beyond that...
He was kind of stunned to realize that he'd never given thought to anything beyond that point. Even now, with the village alive once more and Mari on the path to recovery, thinking about tomorrow seemed an alien concept.
"I didn't really think about dat," he admitted. "I guess I'll probably return home. Now dat da curse is gone, there is a lot to do there."
The King nodded. "A reasonable decision. But tell me... what if the kingdom sent men to Darnk to help with the reconstruction? With the curse lifted by you Chosen the Church can be persuaded to lift their censure. Once the war is over, assistance can be sent."
"Ya'd do that?!"
"As I told you, I am partially responsible for what happened to that village. Helping in its reconstruction is the least I could do. So, I will ask again. If someone else is sent to help your village... what are your plans?"
Touji paused, judging the man. Though he was not the sort to really think things through, Touji considered himself a fair judge of character. He could tell that the man was honest. He did want to help the village. But at the same time... he seemed to expect something of him.
"What do ya have in mind, yer Majesty?"
Kozo gave a laugh. "You are perceptive. I like that. Very well, since you've been very frank and direct with me, then I will be with you. I wish for you to join the Royal Guards."
"Waaa....!?" was all Touji could say as Kozo's words rocked him. The Royal Guards? The elite division of the army? Him? "Join da Royal Guards? Me?"
The King nodded. Touji looked at him for a moment, searching for a sign of deception. He found none.
The King lifted an eyebrow. "I must agree with my daughter. You show great depth and a surprising amount of perception... despite what others or you yourself might believe." Despite the King praising his perception, Touji was unsure if he'd just been complimented or criticized. "Few would question an offer to join the Guard, and by doing so you show a great deal of maturity, despite your brash manners." How did he manage to do that, Touji wondered again. "As to your question, the answer should be self evident."
Touji pondered the question a moment. Why would the King want him to join the Royal Guards? Why him of all people?
"I'm da Earth Chosen."
"Indeed, it is one the reasons. As the Earth Chosen, you are one of the most powerful individuals alive. Though your powers are unrefined, it is possible that with time you could perhaps rival the legendary earth mage Toph herself. You also have access to a Holy Armor, a weapon no conventional army could hope to defeat. It would be foolish not to try and bring someone like you into my service. And you can be certain that I will not be the only one to make such a request. No doubt the Church will approach you. The Mercenary's Guild certainly will, perhaps even the Merchant's Guild. You may even receive invitations from less... honest... organizations... like the Seele Syndicate."
Touji had heard of it before. As a bandit group leader, he had in fact been approached by members of the Syndicate. His fist had given them his answer.
"Whether you want it or not, your power will be sought out. Though, that same power also gives you the possibility to refuse all of those offers. Still, there are those who will attempt to coerce you... maybe even use your loved ones to force your decision."
Anyone who would dare try and hurt Mari would pay dearly.
"All this said... this is not the main reason why I want you to join the Royal Guards."
Touji gave the King a doubtful look. "Why then?"
"The answer is simple. More than anyone else, you've been dedicated in protecting my daughter's life."
Touji was taken aback again. "I... I didn't do anything dat great... I just did what I had ta do..."
"And this is the kind of man I am looking for," said the King with a sigh. He shifted and leaned on his scepter of office heavily. "I am an old man, Touji. Life is many things, but most of all uncertain. Someday I will no longer be around to protect my daughter, and with no sons of my own she will ascend the throne. I could not leave the kingdom in better hands, but her rank brings unique dangers. There are many who have and will still try and woo her so they may become king." Kozo smiled. "I have no doubt she will see through them all and leave them shamed." His smile slipped. "When they realize it's futile, some will try and kill her and usurp her place. So I need someone... someone loyal and strong, who will be here to keep her safe when I am gone. From your actions... I believe you can be that person."
"I... I dunno what ta say..."
"It's alright, Touji. For now, just think about it. After all, this war is not over yet, and it may be some time before your sister fully recovers from her illness. In the mean time, think about my proposition. See if you could consider this place as a new home for yourself and your sister. Though I suppose a city of stone and steel may feel more cold than the open spaces of the mountains, there may also be opportunities for your sister here that she may not have elsewhere, should she be interested."
Touji had never thought of that. The King was right. Once fully cured, Mari would be free of the life she had lived until now. She wouldn't be stuck in a bed anymore. She would be free to explore the world, free to be alive. She could become a scholar. Or maybe an artist. Maybe a mage, after all magic was usually hereditary, so maybe she also had some affinity to earth magic. Or, though Touji was loathe to consider the option, she could follow in their mother's footstep and become a priestess. These were all things she would not be able to do back in Darnk.
If he decided to make a new home here, would she even miss her old one? She'd barely ever left her room. Did she even remember anything worth missing? Aside maybe the memory of their mother?
Touji realized he had just been give a great opportunity. And it would be foolish to dismiss it outright.
Besides... it would also give him a reason to stay close to Hikari. From the moment he had learned that Hikari was a princess, Touji had dreaded the moment where they would have to part ways. After all, she was a princess and he... well he was nobody. But if he took on the King's offer... It would be a new chance. He could put his old life as a bandit behind him and a new name for himself. And maybe, if he worked hard enough...
"Thank you for your offer, your Majesty," was Touji's serious answer. "I'll think about it."
"I'm glad to hear that, Touji." The King's smile returned, only this time a lot of teeth accompanied it. "My daughter seems to regard you as a friend, and her mother and I are eager to learn more about her new... friend."
Touji mentally swore. That king was a sly one. He probably already knew the answer he would give him.
Like father, like daughter.
o x o
When she left her room ,Armisael found Bardiel diligently awaiting her, his massive form dominating the stone corridor. Adding to his already impressive bulk was the adamantite plate armor he wore for battle, its dull metallic gleam unique among the dark elf soldiers who generally preferred mobility and stealth. The war scythe casually resting over his shoulder was so large no other soldier in Neriak could effectively wield it.
Bardiel was her warlord, Neriak's Weapons Master. Created by her later father in an arcane merging of a dark elven mind, an ogre's strength, and a troll's special abilities, he was as terrifying in battle as he was loyal to his mistress. He had slain all the enemies she had sent him to kill and had designed the training programs her troops used to reach the pinnacle of their abilities.
"Lady Armisael," he said, acknowledging her presence.
And today she would send him on the most dangerous mission he had ever required of him. The Lady of Neriak smiled. She had no doubts he would be victorious.
"All preparations are complete," replied the colossus. "The beastmasters have gathered the fighting slaves outside the city gates and prepared them for their role as shock troops. The necromancers have their legions organized. The rest of our warriors have assembled in the coliseum, awaiting your orders and blessing."
"Very well. Then we proceed as planned."
Inside, Armisael was almost trembling with eagerness with what was to come. Tabris had come to her and presented this plan, explaining his reasoning and outlining the options. At first she hadn't believed him... What he spoke of was ludicrous, a flight of fantasy. But he had shown her in measured steps such an unbelievable thing was not beyond his abilities. That the power of Adam and the Kagenoshi was at his command and would make a miracle for the dark elven people. She had been stunned, but had, for the first time in ages... felt real hope.
The high elf was helping her people so! Even she had trouble believing that Tabris could do such a thing... would do such a thing. But here he was, offering her a way to end centuries of slow decline and death for her people. That the high elf would get something from this was unquestionable and the risk was great, but if it worked... if it worked...
Of course she still didn't completely trust Tabris... even if the thought set her teeth on edge. No, once the plan was underway the undead would go first, followed by the goblin and orc fighting slaves. If they made it, then the half-elves would follow. Finally, if all went well, she would then commit the bulk of her pureblood dark elf army, leaving only a handful of troops back at the rear with her.
She was risking all -- almost the whole of her race -- on this one shot. But the goal was worth it. "Watch, learn, then act decisively," she had drilled into Myssa. And now was the time for action.
"My Lady? Is such a drastic move necessary?"
"It is," she answered firmly. Bardiel was an unstoppable warrior, but also a cautious planner. It was part of what made him so dangerous. "The last fragment we require to awaken Adam our Father is kept within the confines of Tokyo Castle. The presence of the Chosen, the White Knight, Royal Guards and Church would doom an infiltration team. To say nothing of that thrice-cursed barrier that keep those of our blood out of the city. So we will do the one thing they can't possibly expect. In one bloody night we will crush the Chosen, the Church and the royal family. The human kingdom will be leaderless."
She looked up at her warlord, her voice cool. "And then we will have Tokyo. A walled city, a fortress in the heart of the human lands. From there we can strike out to take farms and timber. The humans will lack leadership and fall to squabbling amongst themselves. In one stroke we will escape from the prison of the Northern Wastes and have gained ourselves a stronghold from which to claim the lands we need to survive."
Bardiel nodded. "I apologize for asking, my Lady."
Armisael started to walk, Bardiel falling in behind her. "I understand, Weapons Master. I too am apprehensive: this battle will decide our future. If successful we decapitate the leadership of the humans, plunging their nation into chaos. If things fall our way we may not even need to summon Adam at all. But if something goes wrong our troops will be cut off, deep in hostile territory. That's why I'm remaining here with our non-combatant women and children. If you fail they will be all that remains of our people."
"Then I will not fail, my Lady."
"I expect nothing less from you, Bardiel."
No more words were exchanged between the pair until they reached Neriak's ancient coliseum. Until not too long ago, it had been a place where the champions of the dark elf clans had wasted blood in useless fights against each other in ultimately futile internal squabbles. Now that Armisael had united what remained of the dark elves, it stayed mostly empty, save for the occasional challenge of honor fight. But today...
Armisael's pride swelled at the sight that greeted her. Arrayed before her stood nearly three hundred dark elf warriors and mages, dressed and ready for battle. Their dark armor clung to them like protective shadows in the eerie purple and blue glow of the magic torches. Behind them, around a thousand human/dark elf hybrids stood at attention. In their eyes, she could see as much courage and resolution as in their pure blooded brethren. Cries of acclamation and triumph rose as she appeared and Armisael let herself appreciate the moment, the last of her own doubts disappearing in the face of such conviction. They were the very best of the dark elf nation. They would not fail her. She would not fail them.
"My brothers!" she cried out, high and loud. "Today is the day we have long struggled for. Today is the day we claim our birthright, outside these accursed and dying lands that have entrapped us! Today will be the last day of the era of the humans. Today, we strike at their corrupt hearts and repay them for banishing us to die by inches in empty lands! We have let our fear of them chain us to these dying wastes for too long! Now it is they who will fear! Fear our revenge! We will show no mercy! We will destroy those who oppose us! We will escape our prison and take what is rightfully ours! Today... today is the first day of our rebirth!"
Joyous cries answered her, thundering through the coliseum and making the very rocks of Neriak shake with their power. They would win this fight. Now, Armisael knew in her heart, was the time for decisive action.
o x o
"Pretty, isn't it?!"
Shinji was by no means a flower person. Despite coming from a small village that focused on farming, his knowledge of plants fell into two categories: 'those you eat' and 'weeds'.
This did not mean he couldn't appreciate the sight before him. The cavernous room they had entered was filled with many different kinds of flowers, bathed in the fading light of dusk that shone in through the tall windows that made up the back wall. It seemed as if all the hues of the spectrum danced before his eyes, and a sweet scent filled his nose. The room was peaceful and quiet, the soft sound of running water from a handful of enchanted fountains like gentle background music.
Mana stood in front of him, a wide smile on her face and looking at him expectantly.
"It's... it's nice," said Shinji, returning a soft smile of his own, which seemed to delight her.
They had retreated here after a disastrous attempt at a castle tour. Mana had attempted to show Shinji the castle and the places she worked, however starting in the servants' quarters had been a mistake. Upon seeing one of the Chosen among them, discipline among the staff had collapsed. Some had fallen their knees in reverence, others begged him for a blessing, still more had pestered him with questions. Maids had bombarded him about his role as Wind Chosen, the plans of the Goddess, his relationship with Mana and/or the other Chosen girls... even questions about his sexual life, or offers to improve it! Mana had appeared as freaked out as he was and had tried mightily to drag him away from the others. It had taken some time but eventually they fled to these gardens.
Sighing in relief, Shinji immediately appreciated the calm and quiet of this location. An oasis of peace, he thought. It gave the same kind of atmosphere of serenity that he had felt inside any one of Lilith's shrines. Perhaps this was one of the places Rei would frequently disappear to. He could easily picture the elf finding solace in this pastoral setting, opening herself to the natural world and the energy of the gently flowing fountains.
Kneeling in front of a bush decorated with white and red flowers that Shinji could not have named, Mana took a deep breath, inhaling the fragrant aroma. "After I came to the castle, my first assignment was to work here." Her exuberance vanished as her gaze darkened. "It would seem I have the opposite of a green thumb. It... was almost as if I killed things by being nearby."
"When I was back... home..." said Shinji, hesitating on the word, "I never took care of flowers, but I wasn't too bad with a garden. Our melons were pretty good, actually."
"The Knight with a green thumb? Who would have thought?" said the girl mockingly, her good humor quickly making a comeback.
"Don't ever repeat that in front of Kensuke. Who knows the story he would make if he heard of that."
"My lips are sealed, Sir Shinji."
Shinji's smile faded. "Don't call me that. I don't deserve the title. I couldn't even protect a friend," he said, eyes downcast.
Shinji was shocked as Mana suddenly threw herself at him, encircling his body with her surprisingly strong arms and burying her face in his chest. He froze, surprised at the sudden intimacy but also how much he ached to have this, have someone comforting him. It was what he had longed for his whole, empty life. But now, when confronted with it, it made him uneasy, strained. Inside he could feel the berserker howl at the stress and he fought to keep it down.
"You saved my life," whispered the girl, and suddenly the berserker had nothing to hold onto and dropped back into the depth of his soul. Mana lessened her hold and raised her head to lock her eyes on his. "Before I met you, I wasn't really alive. But you... when you found me it changed me into something I hadn't been before. Thanks to you I've been living a life that's been like a dream. A sweet fantasy I shouldn't be allowed to have. So please... don't talk about yourself that way. Don't berate yourself. Don't hate yourself. You are Shinji the Wind Chosen of Lilith. You are the savior of this city, the savior of this country... my savior."
"But... I couldn't protect Asuka... I couldn't protect Mayumi... Myssa..."
She raised her arms up and cupped his face in her hands. "Listen to me: you can't save everyone. You just can't. But what you can do... what you've already done... is give those people something to cherish and hold dear. Their lives have been better because you were in it. I know, because mine has been."
"Even if I find a way to help them, there's something... inside me... Someday I'll hurt them. I'll hurt Rei. I'll hurt you."
"You won't," Mana said with a gentle smile. "You won't have the chance. Because no matter what others say or think, no matter what you yourself believe, you are the one who saved me. You are my knight."
The maid interrupted him by pressing a finger against his lips.
"Don't say anymore," the girl requested. Shinji nodded, and she gave him the strongest smile he could ever remember seeing on her. But there were tears in her eyes and a tremble in her smile. "I'm glad we could have this moment," Mana said, her hands once more tenderly cupping his face. "There is something important I want to tell you. Sir Shinji, I... no... Shinji... I... I..."
Shinji watched, uneasy, confused, yet strangely eager, waiting for her to continue. She was trembling all over, he noticed, her tears now flowing freely. So much emotion, he thought, wondering how a single person could keep it all inside without flying apart. But as the moment wore on, he came to realize that something seemed off. There was something... wrong. Mana's trembling, her tears... They weren't due to emotion. She was holding back pain. Terrible pain.
"Lilith... no... not just... yet..." breathed the girl. Shinji's worries increased as he saw a trickle of blood escape her mouth at those words. Now visibly shivering and shaking in pain, the girl managed to raise her head and look Shinji in the eye. "R-run... run a-away..." she managed to gurgle before going completely limp in his grasp.
"Mana!" He barely managed to get her name out before a massive energy wave slammed into him. He screamed as the force blasted into him with a freezing cold. Ribbons of dark energy seemed to explode from the girl's body, flying around the garden with violent speed. Mana's body gave a convulsive twitch and another wall of power slammed into Shinji, driving him down into unconsciousness.
TO BE CONTINUED in Part 2...