26. Chapter 19: Darkness Rising, Part 2

Chosen | By: | Genre: Fantasy, Drama | Rating: M | Series: Evangelion | Status: Complete | Tags: Crossover, Alternate Reality | Summary:

An elsewhere story. Evangelion fantasy style!

Under a broken archway stained with blood, the shadows there seemed to harden to opaqueness. A moment later a single dark elf stepped through into the ruins of Tokyo.

Armisael listened carefully but detected no signs of humans nearby. As promised by Tabris, no one sensed her intrusion. To her senses the air with thick with the bite of fires, blood, and decaying flesh. She looked around at the devastation that surrounded her. So close! They had done so much damage to the humans, come so close to victory!

She forced her mind away from the past, instead pulling out four skeletal birds from the bag she was carrying. She placed a drop of her blood on each bird's skull and focused. A dark aura formed around the dead animals. "From blood to bones, stave off the chill of the barren grave. I enslave thee to mine will; beasts of the sky, you may not rest. Rise, dead things, and give your undeath to my command. Animate!"

Jerkily, the skeletons of the birds stood up before their master. Taking out four gems, Armisael placed one in each bird's beak. "Now fly, slaves. Search the city and be my eyes. Find me what I command of you."

Violating the natural order, the featherless, skinless birds rose into the air and spread out through above the city.

CHOSEN

An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX

Co-written and Directed by Alain Gravel and Darren Demaine

CHAPTER 19 - Darkness Rising Part 2 - Into the Dark

An unpleasant surprise was waiting for the Wind Chosen when he arrived back at the shattered royal palace. High Mage Gendo stood there, obviously waiting for him. Shinji repressed a growl at the sight, the wonderful sense of relief he'd felt at Hikari's actions immediately disappearing behind a wall of dark rage that surged up inside of him. The entry way was eerily silent, as if the tension between the Chosen and mage was a physical thing that drove others away.

"Come," was all the High Mage said before turning and leaving.

Silently Shinji raged at the man who dared to order him around so, but followed nonetheless. The man had ignored him for almost two decades; for him to come himself meant this had to be something important.

Besides, while cathartic, maiming him in public probably wasn't the best choice. Probably.

And so, Shinji followed his father down into the ruined castle, sinking lower and lower into the structure's depths and long since leaving any sign of other people behind. The mage said nothing, just continued to lead his son down further flights of stairs.

Finally Shinji could stand it no longer. "What do you want?"

The High Mage surprised him by answering. "To teach you control over the berserker within you."

Shinji stopped in his tracks. "What?"

Gendo however didn't stop, and Shinji was forced to catch up. "Can you really do that? Can it be controlled?"

"Yes," the mage answered, frustrating Shinji with his minimal answers.

"How? And why didn't you show me sooner?"

"It was too early."

"What? Why?"

The mage ignored the outburst and left the stairs as they reached the bottom. Growling, Shinji followed.

Reaching a stout door, Gendo swept past it into a fairly large circular room, probably the mage's personal office Shinji thought. Both the ceiling and floor were covered in softly glowing runes, the only illumination here. The whole place looked as gloomy as the mage. The door closed behind them as they entered and both finally came to a halt.

"Enough dancing around the issue: spit it out! This is obviously your little sanctum, so I'm pretty sure no one can hear us. So talk! And no cryptic or half-assed answers!"

"As I said, I didn't show you how to control your berserker half before because it would not have worked before," Gendo answered, surprising Shinji. "While you may think otherwise, I kept an eye on you, when I could spare it." Gendo waved the staff in his left hand over a crystal globe standing on the large wooden desk at one end of the room. Images flashed in the globe, which Shinji recognized as some of his fights against the various enemies he had met until now. The Wind Chosen was stunned: he'd been spied on the whole while?

The flash of images stopped at one event that had occurred only a few blood and terror soaked days ago. He saw himself and his friends lie unconscious under the power of a frail elderly man. But this was no man, Shinji knew, this was in fact a Kagenoshi. One who had attacked their minds with terrible visions and mind-rending phantasms. He still had nightmares about it.

"You saw your berserker then, didn't you?" asked Gendo.

"Yes," whispered Shinji, the memories coming back and making his shiver and sick once again. "While under the Kagenoshi's trance I had a dream... a nightmare, really. It... it had killed everyone. All my friends. And then... it tried to kill me..."

"What you saw was more than a mere dream."

Angrily Shinji turned to the mage. "What do you mean?"

"The image of your friends' deaths was an illusion, but your berserker self was not. Though the Kagenoshi initiated the trance, that event facilitated the berserker within you to grab hold of your mind and drag it down to the place where it itself dwells: what you saw was nothing more than the darker realms of your own soul."

Shinji's mind reeled at the words and he had to grab the heavy desk for support. What he'd seen... had been his own mind, his own soul?

"Are you saying... I'm the one who imagined the death of my friends?"

"Light and darkness exist within each of us. It is a blessing and a curse that Lilith has given us. The ability to envision hope and despair... and to choose our own path," explained Gendo. "But in our case, for berserkers; our dark half, our baser nature has been empowered unlike other men. Our berserker side is a fragment of our own persona, the darker, more primal beast within. Yet, to control it, it is important that you recognize and accept this very fact. You can not master yourself if you embrace illusions about your own abilities or your own nature. The beast within... is yourself."

Reluctantly, Shinji nodded. He had known. Of course he had known this. After all, why had he been so afraid of himself? Of what he could do? But... but...

"It talked to me! Even now, I can hear it whispering to me! Are you saying that it's my own voice I'm hearing?"

The mage nodded. "It is your own violent nature, mystically augmented and given its own sense of self. This sense of self has been growing, taking over more and more parts of your soul. But in the end, the berserker is you. What you hate, it loathes. What you love, it lusts for."

It was difficult to accept, either the words or the man saying them, but Shinji knew the truth was being spoken here. He doubted he would ever really trust Gendo... but the fact remained the man was a berserker himself, as well as being his... father.

"What can I do?"

"It takes a certain amount of time for a berserker's persona to fully form within a person. Until then it can not be defeated as it is merely a cauldron of emotions. But this," Gendo gestured with his right arm before seeming to remember that it lacked a hand. He instead used the staff in his left to motion towards the image in the crystal ball. "This shows us that you've reached a tipping point. Though initiated by the Kagenoshi, you were able to meet and interact with the berserker on a level of equals. It has gained a kind of sentience and stands at the cusp of fragmenting your personality. Now, you must go back, confront it, and break it to your will."

"It nearly killed me the first time! It probably would have if not for the Kagenoshi!"

"True," Gendo said gravely. "This is why most berserkers ultimately lose control and die in an orgy of uncontrollable violence. Nevertheless, there is no other choice. You must face it and dominate it. Otherwise the next time it boils to the surface it will consume the rational part of your mind. You shall become a mindless beast and such a thing could never defeat Tabris."

Tabris! Shinji growled at the mere mention of the name! And then he realized what Gendo had meant. Even the thought of him had sent the blood pounding in his temples and his heart thundering like a war drum.

"What do I need to do?"

"Sit here," said Gendo, gesturing to the center of the glowing runes carved into the stone floor. "Once there I shall put a spell on you that will mimic the trance the Kagenoshi used on you. You will meet your berserker side and you must subjugate it."

"And if I can't?"

"Then the circle will restrain you long enough for me to kill you."

Following the mage's instructions, Shinji sat in the middle of the magic circle and saw the runes around its edge burn brighter. He felt the mental weight of a mystic barrier settle over him.

"One final thing: if you die in your mind it will mean the death of your psyche and mindless rage will be the only thing left to you. And while the berserker is hateful rage, it is part of you and a tool you are attempting to master. Kill it and you will be weakened. Perhaps fatally so."

Grimly, Shinji nodded. As the mage raised his staff, Shinji struggled with himself and finally forced out, "If... if something should happen to me, tell... tell Mother... I... I forgive her."

Gendo looked at the young man before him for a long moment, his expression unreadable. "Is that so?"

"Just between you and me, no, I don't know if I forgive her, or you, or even if I ever will. But if I die she loses her child. If I can spare her some of that pain..."

Father and son looked at each other for a quite some time. Finally, Shinji closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The mage started to chant his spell and Shinji found his mind falling down into its own darkness.

x o x

Feeling angry, frustrated, and a little impotent, Kensuke stalked through the ruins without a clear direction in mind. After leaving Mayumi he'd headed off with a vague idea to find the remaining Chosen and stick with them, see the whole thing through. But after a few hours of searching he realized his heart really wasn't in it. He just couldn't focus, kept returning to the injustice of Mayumi's situation and what had happened.

Everything was... wrong. This wasn't what he wanted, wasn't what he had expected when he'd joined up with the Chosen on their quest.

His whole life he'd loved to hear stories. Happy accounts, sad tales, inspiring stories, passionate yarns, it hadn't mattered. Those spellbinding words had always made the earth seem larger, more vivid, more impressive than what it actually was. In their haze of narratives and half-truths had been the keys to finding greater truths, and in writing the story of the Chosen's adventures, and he would finally *know* the real truth. No distortions, nothing censored, just the honest, actual truth.

But having reached this place in his journey, he had come to realize that this was not what he had expected. He kicked a small piece of broken stone from his path and looked around at the survivors huddled here inside the remains of the Great Cathedral; his aimless wanderings had eventually led him back here. The massive structure still stood mostly intact. Holes had been blasted in one side and the decorative outside had been heavily damaged. The two silvered double doors at the front had been wrenched clean off by something during the invasion and lay broken off to one side. A massive bloodstain still desecrated much of the entryway where invader and defender had died. But the building and what it represented lived on.

This place, where Mayumi had been tortured had survived. The organization that the branded her a heretic, had survived.

And now the broken cathedral had been turned into a shelter for survivors who had nowhere else to go. Uncountable numbers of shattered families occupied thin blankets spread out on the floor, while hollow-eyed, exhausted looking priestesses moved from group to group.

The organization that had branded Mayumi was offering succor and aid to the miserable and the destitute. The place where she had been tortured now protected those who had lost everything.

Angrily he raked a hand over his skull. In such a world, what was the truth? What was the right thing to do? Would this confusion and despair ever end? He felt like he was Homura in the story of the Great Lady Madoka, She Who Made A Contract For Our Sins.

Emotionally drained, he plopped down beside a piece of the ceiling that was now on the floor and put his back against the broken masonry. Nearby a group of mismatched, dirty children had gathered in a pack, talking amongst themselves in low voices. He ignored them and closed his eyes.

Maybe he'd been chasing stories his whole life because in stories things were simpler. Good, bad; right and wrong: beginnings and clearly defined endings. A tale of adventure and daring wasn't as... messy as the real world. In song, suffering had purpose and was the growing pains of worthwhile results.

Had he'd been searching for the truth? Well, the truth...*his* truth, was that underneath it all, maybe he'd preferred stories because they offered more sense to him than the world did. To suffer and gain felt... noble, heroic even. Worthy to sing about, something to hope that you could achieve. But to suffer and lose... to walk away older and poorer... for the innocent to bear injustice and be unable to rectify it because it had already happened...

He recognized this sensation that clawed in his gut: despair. It was the same as what he had felt in that Kagenoshi's nightmare. Being left behind, being nothing in the grand scheme of things, being unable to make a difference. That was what truly frightened him. He hadn't been able to help stop the invasion. He hadn't been able to keep Mayumi from having her clerical powers sealed off. So, what could he do?

The sound of one of the children starting to cry made him open his eyes. He looked over at the pack of children, seeing them sniffle and cry.

"I envy you," High Priestess Ayanami had told him long ago in the elven city of Kelethin. "For you have the ability to ignite the flame of hope in people's hearts."

Kensuke pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the crying children. They quieted down as he got closer, giving him the hollow-eyed stare of war survivors.

Could he really do that? Could he really give hope when he himself was barren of it?

"Let me tell you the tale of the paladin Alice Malvin and her pet flesh golem, Randel Oland."

The children exchanged wary glances with each other. Then one small girl looked out from behind her brother's arm. "Was this Alice beautiful?"

"Very, but what most remember about her was her determination."

"Was this Randel guy tough?" an older boy asked.

"Nearly unstoppable, but he was also very gentle. And together they brought justice to those in need of it."

Kensuke told his story to the children. As he continued speaking, more and more young faces joined the group, their hollow-eyed gazes softening as the tales continued. At times they gasped in terror, at others they nearly broke into tears. But at the end, they smiled.

They asked for another story, and then another after that. Adults turned from their thin blankets to listen, and weary-looking priestess stopped by for a moment's respite. For a brief moment, this broken community inside a shattered city shared something more than despair. His words didn't end their pain, but for awhile at least, it put the hurt to rest.

x o x

Armisael gasped, a savage joy blazing inside of her. They were alive!

Gazing down from the gem her undead puppet carried in its beak, she looked at the sight of her people in some human prison. Guards patrolled the internment camp, and wards chained them there. Whatever their eventual fate, it did not appear the dark elves were being executed right now. She felt wonderful joy at this knowledge; she had feared in the dark places of her soul that she would arrive to find her people already butchered and their desecrated remains fed to the crows. But now... she still had time! They were imprisoned, no doubt suffering and cruelly tortured, but her people were alive!

For a moment everything swam before her eyes. She wanted to go to her people, walk among them, share their fate. Or walk past the sentries unseen, and speak to her kin. Bring hope to her clan that they were not forsaken, that she had a plan that would free them from this bondage and slay their foes.

But she was afraid. They had given so much, had sacrificed so many because it was her command. Could she stand before her people after all that had happened? They might hate her for bringing them to this, and she couldn't take that. She had to save her people, had to make things right. Pride had kept the dark elves alive when all else had failed them, and she would see all the world burn before she would give up on that.

Let the humans have their victory. Let them sing songs of triumph and plan the slaughter of her people. By her will and her hands, she would deliver her people from this subjugation and slay all that had robbed her kin of the world that rightly belonged to them. She would do it... she had to. She couldn't face the gaze of her people until she had succeeded.

She bade her servant to fly on. She still had to find her target.

x o x

Shinji opened his eyes to a sight he hadn't wanted to see again. All around, death surrounded him. Broken corpses littered the ground like autumn leaves, blood and ichor making a mockery of rivers while the stench of decay was thick in the air. Some of the corpses he recognized from the people he had met, but others, Shinji either didn't know or weren't whole enough for him to identify. Many of them had once been human, but there were also elves and dark elves, as well as many kinds of beasts Shinji had encountered in the past.

It was a terrifying sight, one that had haunted his nightmares. And now he was back. It wasn't a dream, but it wasn't real either. It was however, a part of his mind.

And it was here he would find it.

Shinji didn't even have to try to do so. With a simple look around, he located the berserker. He stood over a pile of corpses, one made from the bodies of his friends and family, hands dripping with blood. Its gaze, full of hatred and madness, locked itself on Shinji, but the Wind Chosen didn't even notice it. Instead, Shinji's eyes focused on something else entirely. Mana's severed head, which was being crushed under the berserker's foot.

"WEAKLING! YOU DARE STAND BEFORE ME AGAIN? YOU WILL DIE!"

It moved fast. Faster than anyone should have on such unsteady ground. It charged at Shinji, fist ready to punch through Shinji's face. But instead the berserker hit the harder bone of Shinji's skull as the Wind Chosen moved his head at the last second. Shinji's left hand shot up and caught the berserker's right forearm in a vice grip, and finally the Wind Chosen looked the berserker in the eyes.

"From what I understand," Shinji said blankly, "you're supposed to be my darker side. My own monster made up of my own negative emotions. Well, you know what? I don't think that's completely true. Because let me tell you: right now, there's still a lot of anger in me."

The berserker grunted in pain as Shinji's own fist hit it square in the face. The beast snarled in rage, only to be viciously kicked in the guts. It was driven to the bloody soil, only to cry out again as this time Shinji's foot crushed its chest.

"I couldn't save Mana!"

Shinji kicked it in the ribs, the sound of bone breaking clearly heard.

"I couldn't protect Asuka!"

The berserker rolled out of the way to avoid another hit, but wasn't successful, as Shinji kicked it in the face this time.

"Hikari is hurting because I couldn't kill Tabris!"

The berserker managed to avoid the next hit and jumped back to its feet, but was not quick enough to avoid Shinji's fist hitting its jaw.

"And all this time, you keep screaming in my head!"

The berserker spat blood and stared murderous eyes at Shinji.

"I'LL KILL YOU!"

"Try it if you can!"

And the two sides of the Wind Chosen each landed a punch to the other's face.

x o x

Slipping through the broken remains of the city unseen, Rei tried to use motion to suppress a sense of unease that had gripped her. The city had always... troubled her. She didn't hate it, hate was too strong a word, but she certainly had never felt at peace in the human's overgrown and walled village: too much forcefully shaped stone, not enough greenery.

But now she was even more uneasy with the place. At least before there had been a lot of humans. A crushing press of humanity and all their furious emotions and rushed lives, but life nonetheless. Now even that had been reduced, horribly reduced. The stench of death was still heavy in the air, and almost every street still had broken bodies draped over shattered stones or lying in doorways. A platoon of soldiers lay where they had made their last stand; the gnoll pack that had finished them lying broken when reinforcements had arrived to crush the monsters... but too late to save their friends. Whole tribes of goblins, their bodies filled with feathered shafts, lay near families of civilians, massacred. There were simply too many dead to clear away and too many needs the still living required. Eventually the corpses would be removed, but for now it seemed to the elf like she was walking though a necropolis.

The stoic elf slipped from shadow to shadow, unnoticed by the few humans that still dwelt within the wrecked buildings around her. Ever since her conversation with Shinji, she felt troubled, unable to find peace within herself. The possibility raised by the Wind Chosen, the chance that her people may have made such a grievous mistake... But there was more than that. There was something in the air, some half-felt sense that the world was holding its breath... This was why she was out here, lurking through the ruins of the fallen city. She could almost feel it...

She leapt over a mixed group of human and dark elf corpses, landing with her inherent elven grace, only to be suddenly forced to spring away as a rotting arm reached out from the pile of the dead with blood-stained claws. Her sudden leap carried her near a group of humans who were huddled together, talking in low voices. The men and women cried out in alarm as - in their point of view - an elf suddenly appeared out of nowhere before them. The men reached for weapons. Ignoring them, she turned her cool gaze to the pile as five... no six... figures rose from the group of the dead.

Their bodies showing horrific wounds that did not bleed anymore was all that Rei needed to identify them. It was all the humans needed as well. "Undead!" someone screamed. The humans broke, grabbing up what they could before hurtling themselves away from the walking dead.

Shuffling slowly, the undead monstrosities - zombies, the elf thought dispassionately - lurched towards her. Without any visible emotion the elf raised a hand above her head and pressed her will against the world. The Water Crest at her throat glowed a soft blue, and ribbons of water streaked in from the world to form a globe of water that hovered there above her palm, mocking gravity. The nearest zombie reached for her and she brought her hand down, the water globe breaking into six thin streams of water that shot out like trained snakes, each one striking an undead creature in the chest, drilling into dead flesh and forming a connection between her and the foul things.

A moment later the water threads all glowed a bright white, and the zombies jerked violently. Each corpse shone with a brilliant light that emanated from all their open wounds. Then with a cry that sounded almost thankful, the bodies stopped moving and dropped back down to the earth, truly dead once more.

The high elf pulled the water streams back, covering her left arm in a watery bracer up to her elbow. That could only have been-

"An impressive display, using a water spell to pierce through my things and then sending a burst of holy magic directly inside them. Efficient and clever."

- a test.

Turning, she expected an attack, but instead watched as a figure nonchalantly strode out of the shadows. Seeing who it was, Rei's eyes narrowed slightly. A dark elf woman, a pure blood probably at least two centuries older than her. She had thrown open her cloak, the fabric now haloing the woman in blackest midnight. Tall leather boots, lots of shapely leg visible above them. Sleeveless, high collared tunic braided in golden trim. A cut to the tunic that arrogantly displayed an extraordinary amount of an admittedly impressive bosom. Dark, chocolate skin, brilliant white hair and eyes as red as the devil. While the White Knight drunkenly wobbled the line between professional and inappropriate clothing, this woman left the line and never looked back.

Yet Rei could see the blackened iron bracers at the woman's wrists and the twin longswords belted at her waist. The belts holding the scabbards were each covered in a number of small pouches.

Sizing her up, Rei recognized the dark elf dressed as she did because the thoughts of others were tools to be utilized. Lust was another weapon in this woman's arsenal.

"Still, I'm disappointed," the dark elf continued. "Coming here, all on your own, without your other Chosen friends? Or at least an escort of human soldiers? Such ego will get you killed, young one."

Silently Rei drew her rapier. The two women stared at each other, their burning red gazes never leaving the other's face. Then, suddenly, both moved.

x o x

A punch. A kick. A jab.

In the hell of his own mind, the two sides of Shinji's psyche pummeled each other. Each hit Shinji took he gave back with interest. Both of them were covered in blood, bruised, battered, and exhausted, but neither seemed ready to stop. Yet as the two of them head-butted each other, Shinji felt his vision blur and his legs betray him and he fell on his backside. Blinking to regain his focus, Shinji looked up at the sky and with shock realized it had changed.

His anger... was gone. Not totally. It would probably never fully go away. But right now, despite the sorry shape he was in, Shinji felt peace. Through his fists, he had been able to finally unleash all the rage that had plagued him for so long, had finally found the one person he could afford to lash out against without causing anyone else harm.

Himself.

He'd been able to give voice to his anger, let it loose... and now he could let it go.

"YOU!"

The berserker jumped at him, but this time, Shinji avoided the attack and didn't counter it. The berserker pressed on, but Shinji didn't fight back. He avoided, blocked, redirected blows, but didn't trade them back. And if felt... easy! So easy!

The berserker rushed at him, all his might in a punch that never connected. Barely avoiding it, Shinji found himself only a hair away from the berserker as he moved past him and just gave him a little push, which sent him tumbling into the grass.

This was the danger of the berserker, Shinji realized. It was strong, powerful... but reckless. It was its weakness.

It was his weakness.

"So, that it," said Shinji as he watched the berserker get up and face him. "That's it, isn't it? I don't need to beat you. I never did. I just have to keep you from winning."

"KEEP ME FROM WINNING! YOU CAN'T! I'M INSIDE YOU! I'M YOU! ALL OF YOU! I'VE BEEN WITH YOU FROM YOUR VERY FIRST BREATH! YOUR FIRST WAIL WAS MY BATTLE-CRY!"

"But that's the point," Shinji said, the weariness bleeding from his body. "You've been with me this whole time, but only a part of me."

"I'M YOUR CORE, YOUR CENTER, WHAT MAKES YOU! I'M ALL OF YOU!"

"No, you're a part of me; not the whole me. You want blood and murder and death, but despite that, I... I found happiness, and friends, my family, and things worth protecting. You are only an incomplete sliver of me and that makes you... less than me." Shinji felt light, felt stronger than he had in a long while. The realization was almost making him giddy.

The berserker snarled and lowered itself into a bestial crouch. "YOUR WORDS ARE MEANINGLESS. I'M INSIDE OF YOU! I WILL ALWAYS BE! I CLAW AT YOUR WILL, TEAR AT YOUR PSYCHE. ONE SLIP AND I WILL HAVE YOUR MIND. YOU'LL NEVER BE FREE, NEVER FIND PEACE!"

"Maybe. But how's that different from Mayumi's struggles with her songstress powers? She struggles with her demons, but holds them back."

"THE GIRL IS STRONG! BUT YOU ARE WEAK! YOU KNOW IT!"

Shinji didn't seem to hear the berserker's words and swallowed painfully. "Or... Or Mana." He closed his eyes as tears started to appear. "She had such pain inside, but somehow found a way to cling to what gave her happiness, what she found important."

"YOU KILLED HER! YOU MURDERED HER! AND YOU LIKED IT!"

"She did it. She held onto what was important despite it all."

"SHE WAS CONSUMED BY THE DARKNESS! SHE BROUGHT YOUR CITY TO RUIN!"

"She saved me, prevented the gate and the invading army from killing me. She never gave in."

"AND YOU KILLED HER! IT'S YOUR NATURE! OUR CALLING!" Finally, Shinji looked up at the berserker.

"I killed her, because I couldn't save her... I could only free her. She had already saved herself. She made the choice when she held on to what was important despite all the pain, all the hurt."

The berserker's eyes went wide.

"She showed me the way; what I have to do."

With a scream of primal rage, the berserker launched himself at Shinji. The Wind Chosen raised a hand and put power behind two words.

"Binding winds."

Just before he could reach him, the berserker's body suddenly found itself immobilized by a miniature tornado, small wind currents swirling all around him, imprisoning him. The berserker stared at Shinji in disbelief.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?"

"Magic," simply replied the Wind Chosen. "We're in my mind. Why couldn't I use magic here?"

Shinji approached the berserker, and stared at it in the eyes.

"We are in our mind. You said it yourself. You're inside of me. You're a part of me. You're me. But I could never accept it. To admit it, would be to admit that I'm a monster."

"YOU ARE!"

Shinji nodded. "You're right. I'm a berserker. I have within me the power to take countless lives. To kill friends and foes alike. But only if lose control."

"YOU WILL!"

Shinji shook his head. "I won't. Not anymore. Because, as much as you're inside me... I'm also inside you. You took control before. You could have killed my friends, you could have killed Rei if you had wanted to. But you didn't."

For once, the berserker had no reply to offer.

"I accept you!" said Shinji. "I accept that you're a part of myself! And I'll use your power! Together we'll crush our enemies and protect what's important to us! We won't let a friend die again!"

"YOU'LL REGRET THIS! SOONER OR LATER, YOU'LL LOSE CONTROL."

"I won't," said Shinji, and with that, he dispelled the wind barrier.

The berserker stared at him for a moment, ready to jump at him. But instead, he just laughed.

"FINE! BE A FOOL!"

And with that, the berserker turned and stomped away.

Acceptance. Shinji doubted that this was what his father had intended for him to do, but it was fine with him.

x o x

A corner of a building exploded, and through the dust Rei shot out, flipping around to place her boots against the wrecked statue of an old king across the street. She was there only for a heartbeat before she pushed away from the stone, the king's head shattering as a dark blast slammed into it.

Like a bad habit, Armisael followed, her hands enveloped in dark energy. From those hands cold blasts of sickening force shot out, seeking out the light elf ahead of her. Almost as if she was dancing, Rei moved her body in ways that defied the natural world, evading dark beams and slipping just out of the effect of vile curses. Where the dark magic touched, stone burst apart explosively and wood violently shattered. Rei gave ground before the dark elf, leaving a new wave of destruction through the already battered city.

Not that Rei did not contribute to the destruction. Sharp spikes of ice were thrown at the woman following, driven with enough force that they punctured through walls. The woman easily bypassed them with a darkly beautiful grace. Waves of water were called forth to sweep down streets, only to bend and shatter upon touching a flickering mystic shield lined with dark runes. Rei used steams of water to apply thaumaturgic hydrokinetic energy to blocks of rubble, throwing them at her opponent. But her adversary either cut them apart with shadows honed to a razor's edge, or else was simply not there when the heavy stones reached her position.

And the two non-humans didn't limit themselves to only destroying things at ground level. They treated walls as ground that simply went in a strange direction and darted up buildings to throw destructive magic at each other from storeys above where mortals walked.

Reaching the top of one building, Rei shot up above it as the place she had just placed her boot twisted and detonated with a strange green flame. Arcing up, Rei focused her desires and poured power into her Water Crest. "Icicle blades," she incanted, and a rain of frozen javelins shot down past her towards her rising foe. Twisting around, Rei changed the path of her flight and followed her spell down.

The older woman made a shooing motion with the back of her hand and the deadly icicles shattered into harmless shards. Rei's rapier that arrived an eye blink later was another mater. There was a crash of metal, and the two fell back down to the ground.

Both landed gracefully. Rei eyed her foe with a blank expression, although her chest was heaving with exertion: never had she faced someone able to deal with so many of her attacks. But now at least, the woman had drawn her swords. Although longer than the Wind Chosen's blades, Rei was intimately familiar with the two weapon style from training with Shinji. She would surrender no advantage to the dark elf woman. In fact, with a weapon in each hand it would make spell casting harder for the other. Rei would take advantage of that fact.

"Arctic barrage," the high elf invoked, throwing her hand forward; as she did she broke into a run. The beam of water shattered halfway to the dark elf, becoming a small blizzard of ice shards. Armisael stylishly ducked under the barrage, then came up to meet the high elf's darting blade with one of her own.

There was a metallic *clink*, like utensils touching, and the two warriors backed off. A second later they thrust, cut and attacked again. And again. Spinning around a central point, the two non-humans circled and cut, dove and struck, twisted and lunged. They did not stand and trade blows as a human might, instead they faded and feinted, advanced for fleeting position and surrendered ground in an instant. Weapon touched weapon with almost gentle caresses, the soft ring of metal upon metal giving a kind of music to the dance.

Beautiful as the display was, it was also completely, utterly deadly.

Rei tried to use her free hand to send water spells, but Armisael was too crafty to fall for them. A thin pool of water flash frozen to a patch of ice was easily sidestepped, the dark elf twisting in mid-stride to avoid the follow up rapier strike. A bolt of cold caused a man-sized bolder of spiky ice to appear, but Armisael rode out its expanding volume to flip away from the danger. A moment later the ice melted and thin streams rocketed off after her. Armiasel wielded her blades with precision however, slicing into each ribbon of water at the point needed to interfere with its physical/spiritual connection, shattering the control effect and allowing gravity to drag the water back down to earth. A second later the water boiled, then exploded in a cloud of scalding steam, but once more, the dark elf had long since vacated the danger zone.

Rei summoned up a shard of ice and threw it like a dagger at her opponent in front of her. The older woman jumped back into the shadow of building... and right before Rei's eyes was swallowed up by the darkness.

The Water Chosen didn't hesitate. Instantly she dove and rolled forward. From behind her she heard the whistle of a sword cutting through the space she had just vacated. Coming back to her feet she turned and faced Armisael, who stepped out of the shadows that had been behind the high elf a moment ago.

"Oh very good, child. All those self-indulgent gifts Lilith has bestowed upon her sniveling sycophants haven't completely dulled the wits an elf should have."

Rei centered her mind and her body, focused on breathing deeply and evenly. Use any moment of peace to recover and prepare. The words of the abomination were wasted air.

"But good is not good enough."

Armisael darted forward, swinging her swords. Rei moved her body, getting out of the way of the sharpened steel, but was worried. Something about that strike was wrong. The other had made every other strike a perfect thing, deadly and focused, but this strike was one that she could easily have--

Blistering pain exploded across Rei's forehead. The high elf gasped as she instinctively recoiled from... something. It was enough.

Armisael's booted foot caught the pale elf in the gut, lifting the smaller woman off her feet and throwing her into a wall. New pain raced up Rei's back as the unflinching stone took her impact. Now breathing raggedly, Rei blinked away tears as she looked up. The pain from her forehead was gone, like an illusion, but the pain in her back was real. What sort of magic had that been?

Standing a good five feet away, Armisael made a cut with her sword. Rei couldn't understand why she would--a second later she understood, as once more her forehead was torn open by terrible pain. Crying out, the high elf pitched to her knees, her free hand coming up to her head, futilely trying to hold the pain out. How was she being attacked? How?

Through the haze of pain, Rei searched. With all her elven senses she pressed towards understanding what was going on. The noises were no different than before, humans huddling frightened in the surrounding buildings, the swish of weapons cutting through the air, the sound of the combatants moving and breathing. The air tasted the same, the same sharp tang of sweat and steel, of blood upon the wind. Her red eyes took in every detail, looking for something that was new, something that had changed since the pain had started. What was the dark one doing differently?

Armisael stepped to one side and thrust her sword again. Follow the sword's path, Rei told herself. See what it does, what it touches, how it becomes part of the environment. Every instant of its existence is different from the moment before. Catalogue the differences, list them, look for things now that are different from the times before--

More pain exploded in Rei, this time from her throat. It felt as the sword had rammed through her slender neck and she collapsed to the ground, hands coming up to clutch at the unmarked skin and the crippling pain that defied reality.

What had been different? The sword's cut? No. The sword's weight? No. The sword's sound? No. The sword's path? No. What the sword had touched? No. What the sword's shadow had touched? Yes.

That was the key, she realized. The shadow of the sword had crossed over her shadow at the neck. And there pain had appeared. Twice before the sword's shadow had touched her shadow on the head, and from there, both times, pain.

Could she defend herself and her own shadow? No, she realized. It was taking all she had to protect her body from the dark elf's skilled blades. Attempting to defend her shadow as well was beyond her. So she had to remove this weakness.

Armisael thrust her sword again, but Rei rolled hard and dodged this one. Springing back to her feet, she held her hand up above her head, once more calling in the spirits of water. Her Water Crest glowed and ribbons of twisting water shot in to form a globe of water above her head. When it was about the size of a melon, she focused, and poured holy energies into the liquid. Like it had when fighting the zombies, the water turned a radiant white, bathing the local region in a brilliant light, and since the light was right above her, it banished her shadow to nothing more than a single spot, safely beneath her.

Focusing Lilith's energies through her sacred element also had the effect of cleansing the hurts from the phantom attacks. Her back and gut still ached, but the unnatural pain was quickly fading from her body.

Armisael narrowed her eyes. "Very clever, young one. A good use of those unclean holy energies Lilith likes to toss around." Rei spared her no attention, instead using a thin ribbon of glowing water to grasp her dropped rapier and returning it to her hand. "I never thought one would use light to negate my shadow strike."

Rei froze. That... didn't seem right. Using light to defeat shadow was one of the most basic of literary themes. Magic and storytelling had so much in common, how could she not have--

The dark woman smirked.

"Traitorous companion," Armisael invoked. The high elf felt a cold touch of power flow over her, and Rei realized she'd made a miscalculation earlier in the battle: unlike her, her opponent needed no free hand to cast powerful spells.

Beneath Rei, the one spot her shadow existed rippled. The elf maid's shadow suddenly expanded hugely, defying the light she held above her and all laws of nature and optics. She tried to jump, tried to get away, but in a heartbeat the dark stain touched Armisael's boots. At that instant, the necromancer plunged both her swords down into the high elf's shadow.

Horrible agony burst up all throughout Rei's body. She screamed, control over the water globe held above her shattering. A wave of water fell over her, drenching her in an instant. Somehow she kept on her feet, but doubled over, clutching her belly. Armisael looked up at the younger elf and poured magical energy from her soul into the physical world. "Cold moon's dark grip."

Shadows surged up around the Water Chosen and fell upon her. Given weight and substance by Armisael's will, they slammed into the girl with the force of a warhammer, driving her against a nearby wall and pinning her there.

x o x

They both heard it. It was like a single heartbeat, like a whisper in the wind. Yet they both heard it. And while Shinji's felt his blood chill, the berserker screamed in rage.

"Rei..."

Shinji heard her scream of agony. No, he actually felt it. He didn't know how or why, but he felt it. And from the reaction of the berserker, he knew he hadn't imagined it.

Their eyes met and Shinji knew that he and the berserker shared the same single thought. They had to help Rei!

"I'll be using your strength!"

"WHATEVER! JUST GO!"

Shinji nodded... and was gone.

Alone in the Wind Chosen's mindscape, the berserker howled in anger and frustration. Someone had hurt his woman. They would PAY!

x o x

High Mage Gendo was almost surprised when the boy awoke and a sudden surge of magical energies ripped through his barrier like it wasn't even there.

Almost.

Raising his staff, the mage focused on a swift barrier to shield him from the winds now howling around his sanctum. The loss of Adam's fragment had weakened him, left him bereft of much of his power. But still, he was the High Mage, and even weakened he was more dangerous than most men at their best. He could deal with his son.

But, as he locked gazes with his child, he realized it would not be necessary. There was anger in those stormy blue eyes, but purpose and control. The boy had won.

"I've got to save Rei," the Wind Chosen said, before directing the winds towards the room's door which simply ceased to exist as an unbroken object. The near vacuum of his departure almost knocked Gendo off his feet.

Recovering his footing, Gendo stared for a moment where Shinji had gone. Several scenarios ran through his mind, but all reached one conclusion.

Their short respite was over. The enemy was on the move. He would have to adjust his plans.

As quickly as he could, the mage tried to catch up with his son.

x o x

Slowly, Armisael walked towards the bound Water Chosen. Lazily she kicked the High elf's dropped rapier out of the way. The two non-humans stared at each other with loathing.

"So this is all you are capable of? For centuries my people lived in fear of the mighty Chosen and how they would scour us from the land. Fear kept us weak, kept us frightened and shivering in the Northern Wastes. Fear that if we acted, Lilith's mighty champions would rise and smite us." The dark elf's eyes flashed. "What a sick and twisted joke. Your people drive us on to barren lands and then chain our souls down with a legend to keep us small and frightened." The woman leaned forward and grabbed a handful of the other's hair, pulling her head up.

"Well hero, legends die in the cold, harsh gaze of the truth. And the truth is: you weren't good enough. For all your tricks, all the blessings your goddess showered you with, you are weak. Weak!"

Hatred swam through her veins. The high elves had kept her people down for elven generations, and she could do so much by ending one of their great heroes right here!

"Weak because you didn't push yourself far enough. Weak because you rely on outsiders to provide you your powers. Weak because you wouldn't drown what remains of this street and what ever miserable humans are unlucky enough to be around in an attempt to kill me. Weak because you limit yourself with morals and principles. And because you are weak, you will die."

The Water Chosen made no reply, only stared at Armisael with that same, cold expression. The lady of the dark elves grinned, indulgently. "Die yes, but not before Adam finds a use for you."

Now the high elf's eyes widened. There was stark terror there, Armisael realized. The girl started to struggle in her bonds, her movements frantic. The metal crest at her throat started to glow. With a roar, a rogue wave of water ripped itself out of a broken fountain and rolled around the corner and closed on the two women.

"Pleasant dreams," Armisael said in Elven, before placing a hand on he girl's face. A dark globe of energy formed around Rei's head. "Night's embrace," incanted the necromancer, and Rei's consciousness shattered into a dark dream.

The glow from the Water Crest faded as the elf's consciousness left her. The wave behind them fell victim to its own weight and collapsed as magic no longer overpowered physics.

From one of her belt pouches, Armisael pulled out the ring Tabris had given her. The metal band's magic had been recharged, and merely awaited her command. Slipping the ring on one of her fingers, the dark elf was about to grab hold of the unconscious woman when she suddenly sensed something approaching. Something that was approaching very rapidly and with a lot of excess magic power.

Reacting before thought, she jumped back just as something fell from the sky and slammed right into where she had been standing. Dust and debris filled the air but the dark lady moved a bit away to assess the new threat. The dust cleared, revealing a silver armor clad human. In his hand he held twin short blades, and wind magic swirled around him.

"Wind Chosen," spat the elf as anger almost overtook her. Almost. This was the boy Myssa had volunteered to kill. But she'd had not heard of her prot?g?e since, and the Wind Chosen obviously stood in front of her very much alive. It could only mean one thing.

Nevertheless, Armisael ignored her anger. The survival of her people was at stake. There would be vengeance aplenty after Adam's rebirth.

The Wind Chosen looked at the bound Water Chosen, then looked at Armisael. His eyes narrowed and the boy growled at her.

"You hurt Rei. You're going to regret that."

The Wind Chosen's following strike was so fast that Armisael barely avoided it. To Armisael's dismay, she found herself forced to take the defensive. The human was abnormally fast for someone weighed down by the heavy armor he wore. In fact, he was abnormally fast even for an elf! Even to her elven senses he was almost a blur of motion. But she could just make out his trick: he was channeling his wind powers to aid his movements, speeding his motions. His cuts and lunges were incredibly fast, yet precise. He really was a vicious brute.

Had the situation been different, Armisael would have gladly fought him. Despite her hate and loathing for the human, he had the potential to become strong, something she could respect.

But the survival of the people was at stake, and no piddling human hero would prevent her from achieving that.

x o x

From his position atop the ruined Earth Tower, Touji had sensed the clash between high and dark elf. He'd already been on his way to help, but, at heart, he was a country boy. The city, even in the mostly-destroyed state it was in, had gotten him turned around and lost more than once. He could kind of feel Rei's use of elemental magic, but still learning how the whole mystic thing-a-ma-bob interacted with each other resulted in him not being able to pin down exactly where she was. Shinji's sudden arrival on the scene gave him the directions he needed: the loud crash and huge dust cloud of his arrival was hard to miss.

Hustling, Touji sprinted around the shattered corner of a building. A ways down the street he could see a white figure that he guessed was Rei and as he moved closer he could see the elf was being mystically held against a wall. Not far from her, he saw Shinji, or at least he guessed it was Shinji, from the feeling of Wind elemental magic surrounding him fighting with a shadowed figure. Both moved so fast it was hard to make out their actual details.

"We just can't catch a break, can we?"

Pumping his arms, he sped up. The cloaked figure jumped back and stopped, revealing herself to be a dark elf babe -- a smoking hot one!

"Rot, human. With all your filthy kind." Saying so, the white-haired woman raised her hand and held up her open palm towards Shinji and the arriving Earth Chosen. A swirl of sickening color formed in the air in front of her. "Obsidian death."

The space around Touji darkened and turned syrupy. He could feel the very air start to become putrid and foul. Energies inimical to life thrust themselves against his body, clawing for his soul. The sensation checked his charge, halting him in his steps, and Shinji was forced to retreat for safer ground.

Beyond the fetid space, the dark elf grabbed the unconscious Rei by the hair, while on one of her fingers, a ring started to glow with power.

"NO!" Shinji shouted. He gathered a gale in his hands, but before he could throw, Touji took a deep breath and bulled through the wall of darkness. The foul energies greedily fell upon his body, but the soul draining magic impotently shattered against an iron will that was just too stubborn to die. It hadn't been pleasant, but Touji burst through to the other side.

It was however, too late. The two women were gone.

Touji looked around, fearful the dark elf was hiding somewhere, but Shinji yelled, "No! Not again! I won't lose anyone else!"

"Whoa! What's going on here? Rei lost? How did de elf lose to dat elf?"

"I won't let it happen!"

"Shinji!" The Earth Chosen called out. Shinji didn't appear to hear him, his eyes focused on the spot Rei and the other had vanished, his hair and cape blowing around him as the winds picked up. Touji felt a presence forming, like a thunderstorm rolling in. "Shinji! What da hell ya doing?" He could see the shadow of a huge giant overlapping with Shinji's body and knew the Holy Armor Fuujin was about to appear. Nearby buildings creaked and rumbled as something magical was about to displace the natural world. "Ah man!"

*Whap!*

"Ow!" Shinji cried out, clutching the back of his head. The coalescing energies vanished, and the wind storm faded. Angrily, he turned to face his companion. "What was that for?"

"Yadda've crushed me if ya'd brought in the big guy right here! What were ya doing?"

"She took Rei! I have to get her back!"

"I knows that! But how? Dem Holy Armor dudes only come out for a fight, don't they?"

"..."

"And where did dat smoking dark chick take Rei, anyway?"

"..."

The two remaining Chosen looked at each other for a long moment before Shinji turned away. Touji put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I know ya want to do something. But we gotta know what it is we doing before we do it."

"But she took Rei! We have to help her!"

"I know. But before we can help her, we gotta know where she went."

"Neriak, the dark elf capital," came a new voice.

Touji turned to see the old guy he recognized as High Mage Gendo.

"Why there?" Shinji demanded.

"If they wanted the Water Chosen for some purpose, as opposed to just slaying her, then their capital would be the logical place to take her. Whatever remaining forces left to them would be concentrated there. With their army broken, they can not project much power elsewhere."

"Ya say it's da dark elf capital. So dat be in the Northern Wastes, right? Dat's not a fun place to visit."

"No, it's not." Shinji agreed. He'd been there before, and had no desire to ever see those lands again; and this time without Myssa as a guide. But if that's were Rei was...

"Ridin' take forever, and da Holy Armors won't pack-mule us there," Touji noted. "How we going? Tele- tele- teleportal?"

Shinji looked at the High Mage.

Do you know where Neriak is?"

"Not with the accuracy needed for a teleport spell. We could get the information from the prisoners... by employing certain methods."

Touji took a step back at the glare the Wind Chosen through the older man. For a moment, he could have sworn Shinji would hit him. After a moment, the mage continued. "However, I believe there is another option."

"What do we do then?" asked Touji.

The mage pushed up his strange glasses. "Follow me."

Touji gave Shinji a confused look, but the Wind Chosen ignored him, already following the mage. With a shrug, Touji followed suit.

x o x

Armisael fought a wave of dizziness as reality folded on itself and left her standing in the middle of Neriak's coliseum. She would have preferred to teleport directly to her laboratory, but Tabris had insisted that the magical wards surrounding it be reinforced. Gathered, the power of Adam's fragments was potent, even in a dormant state. Extra precaution would have to be taken to avoid enemy scrying.

The sight of the empty coliseum brought back bitter memories for the dark elf leader. She could still remember the sight of it filled with her brave followers.

Armisael glared coolly at the unconscious Water Chosen prostrate at her feet. She had fought well, and despite her words, the dark elf acknowledged the girl had posed a real danger in their fight. This Water Chosen was a great addition to her race. Gifted, loved, blessed, and living a carefree life in verdant lands surrounded by living things: all the more reason to hate the little bitch. She couldn't give into her spite and kill the white-skinned runt, Tabris' plan had need of her. She hoped what followed was needlessly painful.

"My Lady."

The dark skinned woman turned towards the familiar voice of Bardiel. One of their remaining mages had probably felt the ripples of her teleportation spell and alerted him. Armisael noted an edge of worry in his voice, though his expression was as stoic as ever. If her warlord was surprised by her trophy, he paid it no attention, which spoke of dire events.

"What's the matter, Bardiel?"

"The situation in the Wastes has worsened during your absence, my Lady: the beasts outside the walls have been driven into some kind of frenzy. They seem to be drawn here, killing each other and trying to breach our walls. These events are affecting our people as well: troops have noted a magically induced rage building in our minds."

Armisael could feel the waves of power emanating from the center of her stronghold. The desire to fight, to triumph, to kill! If such power could affect the dark elves so, it was no wonder the less evolved of the Wastes would be drawn to it and driven mad. Everything within the land had been touched with Adam's power, after all. The All-Father was calling his children to him, and they struggled to prove themselves worthy in his gaze.

"Can you contain them?"

"For now," the warrior said. "But as you know, we have almost no forces left. Once the more dangerous beasts from the deep Wastes arrive, the walls will fail."

"Order all non-combatants and the breeding stock to the Southern caverns. That will give us a few more hours, and that will be all that is needed. If we can hold out, we will finally destroy our enemies and save our brethren held prisoner."

Bardiel was silent for a moment. "There are survivors?"

Armisael nodded. "I was as surprised as you, my friend. Give me the time I require to free them, Weapons Master."

The giant elf knelt in front of his master.

"As you order, my Lady. You will not be disturbed."

"With you on guard, I know I shall not be."

Bardiel moving off, Armisael picked up her prize and turned towards her citadel. Time was of the essence, now more than ever.

As she entered Neriak Citadel and ventured within its depths, the presence of Adam grew ever more powerful in her soul. Something had changed since she had left, and though the wards still shielded her laboratories from scrying, they would not last much longer against such energies. All this, all this massive power that threatened her wards and affected minds dozens of miles away was merely cast-off energy; a by-product of the attempt. What would it be like when the Dark Father was truly actualized?

She smiled grimly. It would be like the end of the world for those who had hurt her people.

Entering the laboratory where she had left her dubious ally, Armisael was shocked by what greeted her.

"Tabris! What happened?"

"Oh, Armisael!" the high elf said cheerfully, as if nothing was wrong. "Good, good! I was beginning to worry."

She glared. He was key to bringing back Adam, so he better have a good explanation of what was happening. "Explain what happened to you."

The high elf shrugged as if was a minor matter. Which it obviously wasn't: considering his right arm had been completely torn free from his body. Bandages, stained with a strange kind of orange blood covered his shoulder. The skin of his face was cracked, the beautiful face ruined and bleeding that same orange ichor. His left eye was tightly clenched shut, and trickles of orange fluid seeped out from under the lid.

"Oh, this? Turns out I didn't have as much time as I thought. Just after you left, the fragments started to resonate with each other much more than I expected them to. Nearly blew me to pieces." With his remaining arm he pointed to the centre of the room where the fragments of Adam floated free, humming with power. They were in the middle of a horribly complex magic circle inscribed on the floor in orange-tinted blood. "I'm lucky I only lost the arm."

"The fragments! Is Adam waking?"

"No, they are still dormant, but their proximity without being shielded in a host body is resulting in them feeding back on each other. While the energy builds, without the proper catalyst there is nothing to regenerate life. But that's not important: I see you brought the catalyst, and you kept her in one piece. Good, good. Let's get started then. I'm afraid there's not much time left before this body of mine completely falls apart. It's time to revive Adam."

Revive Adam... Yes, it was time to put an end to this once and for all.

x o x

Once again, Shinji found himself standing in the middle of the ruined remains of the Castle Gardens. Somehow, he found himself unsurprised by this fact. If there was such a thing as karma, then this place was probably swimming in it. Or maybe it was just the Goddess' way of testing his resolve. Either way, he didn't care. He'd made his peace with what had happened here. Now, all that remained was to get Rei back before something happened to her.

The place had changed since the last time. Previously desolated, it was now filled with small knots of mages. These groups were softly chanting, drawing magic sigils on the walls and floor, or reading from thick, ancient-looking books. Shinji guess it was the work of his father.

"What's your plan?" he asked the mage directly. It seemed the best way to get answers of the old man.

"A door once opened may be opened again. It is possible to force the door ajar and travel back along the route the dark elves used to invade."

"A portal to Neriak," said Touji.

"Or at least close enough," said Shinji.

The high mage nodded.

Shinji frowned. "When did you start this?"

"Does it matter?"

"You started this after we talked didn't you? While I was talking about trying to end the hostilities, you went ahead and started planning an invasion of their capital, didn't you?"

"Tabris is in possession of all Adam's fragments; taking the fight to their capital is unavoidable. The loss of the Water Chosen merely accelerated the timetable."

Shinji gritted his teeth. The old man... his father... was probably right.

"Alright. Fine. But what about Rei? Why would they want Rei?"

"Irrelevant. We must have Chosen to fight Adam, and they have her. So you will go, correct?"

"Yes," growled Shinji.

"Then their reasons matter not. Your only goal is to stop them." He turned to look at the unformed portal, showing that this line of discussion was ended. "This portal will take you there, but not for long. The dark elves had the power of a Kagenoshi driving their portal, we lack anything remotely similar."

"Will it work?" asked Shinji.

"Yes," said the mage with his usual cold confidence.

"That's enough then."

The High Mage nodded and approached an older blond man with a curved staff. The man turned to the high mage, then took notice of the two Chosen and bowed to them.

"Master Slayn. What's the status of the portal?"

"The portal should be functional High Mage, but I have some bad news for you."

"And what's that?"

"I don't have enough magic power available to me to reinstate the portal for very long." He motioned to the people around them. "The invasion targeted the Wizard Guild quite hard, and most of our instructors were killed when the Kagenoshi blasted the guild tower. I brought the most talented of those who survived, but I'm afraid it won't be enough to keep the gate open for any length of time."

"So how many ya think can pass through?"

"Two, maybe three at most."

Shinji nodded grimly. Somehow, he'd expected as much. The news didn't seem to phase Gendo either.

"It will be enough. Prepare the final rituals. Time is of the essence." The head caster seemed surprised, but nonetheless complied, turning his attention to a dark haired mage nearby.

"Tohsaka! Begin the ritual!"

"Right, Master Slayn!" The girl with the twin-tails nodded and started barking out orders to the casters nearby. "Howl! Align the mana flow. Kazuma and Ayako! Stop snarking at each other and stabilize the entrance field. Fatina! Magnify the tunneling invocation. Tanarotte! Suzuho! Stop fighting over Takuto and let him actualize the gate formula. Negi! Herd your students and get them to work maintaining the bleed-off feeds within acceptable limits. Ihrie and Fam! Work on isolating the spell matrix from outside influences. Louie! Smooth out any fluctuations in the prana lines."

Tohsaka shook her head. "Too bad Lina and Hayate are away on assignment. We could have used that raw power here. Hamel! Put down that violin and get casting! Aburatsubo, stop feeling up Takakura and help him get Sae, Nanaka, and Akane focused on the first stage stabilization enchantment. Louise, Tabitha, Kirche! Cast the buttressing transmutations!"

Ignoring the nearby commotion, Gendo turned to Shinji. "You understand what this means, correct?"

Shinji nodded. "Yes. Touji and I will go through alone."

"Ah man..." Touji let loose a long breath. "So it all comes down to just us two Chosen. Against who knows what at the dark elf capital, at da blackest heart of the Northern Wastes?"

"Yes."

Touji sighed. "Da Goddess don't make it easy, does she?"

Shinji clenched his jaw. "Is there anyone else you'd trust to do this?"

"No... and I guess that's da thing. When it comes down to it all, if someone's got to keep Hika-... I mean Mari safe, it might as well be me."

Shinji nodded. He had to do this for Rei, but also, as Touji was reminding him, for everyone else. If they failed, then his family and friends would die. In a few more minutes, the portal would open and then...

"Shinji! What the hell is going on?"

Shinji winced at the sound of the familiar voice. Shinji turned to see the familiar form of the White Knight coming his way. She didn't look particularly happy.

"I have reports of you breaking through several castle walls, then fighting in the city. What are you trying to do, get what's left of the castle to crash in on our heads? And what the hell is this?"

Shinji groaned. Misato certainly had a terrible sense of timing.

"I was in a hurry and I didn't hurt anyone. Rei was in danger and now I'm off to save her. Ask him," he said pointing to the high mage. "He'll explain everything."

"What do you mean, 'off to save Rei'?"

"Indeed. What does that mean?"

Shinji felt a headache coming. Apparently Misato hadn't come alone, as Queen Hikari and their mother followed her inside the ruined gardens. Touji seemed to pale a bit and Shinji could swear that Gendo looked a bit uncomfortable. He suddenly realized that the high mage had been keeping this plan to himself and was now getting caught with his hand in the mystical cookie jar.

Somehow, Shinji doubted the portal would just open and that he'd be able to grab Touji and jump right in.

"Rei got attacked and taken to Neriak. Touji and I are off to save her... and probably the world as well. That should sum it up."

Hikari gave Shinji a grim look, then turned to Touji.

"Is this true?" Touji nodded. "Then, does that mean we can assume the dark elves have rejected our peace proposal?"

"No!" Shinji blurted out quickly. In the wake of what'd happened, he hadn't even thought of that. "I'm certain that the dark elf who took her wasn't aware of the peace proposal."

"I see," said the young queen. "What are your intentions then, Wind Chosen?"

"I'll go to Neriak," Shinji said with determination. "I'll save Rei and put and end to those who are trying to use Adam's powers against us."

Hikari nodded. She then straightened up ever-so slightly and Shinji realized he was being addressed by a Queen. "Very well. Then, Chosen of Lilith, we give you an additional task. If the opportunity arises, bring this message to the dark elf leadership. Tell them we are willing to offer them sanctuary and their own lands, away from the Northern Wastes, in return for peace between our two peoples.

Shinji nodded.

"Should they refuse and continue in their attempts to bring more destruction," Hikari continued, her voice stiffening. "Then... eliminate their leadership."

Shinji blinked, while Touji gaped at the girl. "This opportunity will never come again. The dark elves are in a position where fighting is not in their best interests. I... we want them to take this opportunity, to see they can exist without fighting us." Hikari's grip on her specter of office, the device that had killed her father, tightened. "We will give them a chance... which is more than what they gave us. We will not have this taken from us... all of us... by those who are unwilling to give up on meaningless hatred."

"Holy sentinels!" called out Master Slayn from the center of the room. "The portal will open in one minute!"

Shinji and Touji shared a glance. It was time.

They turned to go, but were promptly stopped.

"Wait!" shouted Misato. "Be careful you two! And may the Goddess be with you!" At her side, Hikari's rigid mask of rulership had faded, to be replaced by a look of worry. Behind Hikari, Shinji saw his mother give him a mournful look. Shinji gave her his best smile, hoping it would be enough to reassure her. Then turned and walked towards the center of the portal.

Touji was about to follow suit, when - to everybody's surprise - Hikari's demeanor changed and she ran up to him and clasped him into a tight hug.

"Be careful, you big idiot," she said, before causing everyone an even bigger surprise by pressing her lips against his. Touji himself was so stunned that he couldn't even reciprocate the kiss before Hikari had taken a few steps back, cheeks red. "Come back alive, and we'll do this again," she promised. Touji just stared at her for a couple seconds, before grinning back at her.

"Ya better keep yer word!"

And with that, Touji was at Shinji's side, just as the portal opened.

"Let's go," said Shinji.

"Yeah," said Touji. "Ya save Rei. I'll cover yer back and see if anyone wants to hear Hikari's message."

Shinji nodded. And without wasting further time, the two Chosen jumped into the portal.

x o x

On a dusty road a fair distance from the shattered capital, a long figure staggered onward. The person's tunic and shift had once been white, but had been stained by the flight from Tokyo. Now torn and grey with dirt, the once pristine fabric also had bloodstains upon it. The figure's hair was a wild mess of red tresses, and the only thing she carried with her was a dull red sword.

Asuka Langley, Crown Princess of Germania and Fire Chosen of Lilith pushed her aching body another step forward. Away from the city, away from the past, away from what she'd done.

"Nein..." she slurred, her voice low and broken. She thrust her right leg out in front of her, staggering another step. "Nein..." Now her left leg. She was so tired, but she couldn't stop, couldn't rest. Not again.

Right after that spell had burst from the King's sacrifice, Lilith's holy light had burned inside of her. It had not allowed her to hide away and had brought up how she had been weak, how she had failed. And it hadn't blamed her. It had only asked that she try again. That had been the worst part.

So she'd fled. She'd ran and ran and tried to leave the horror and the shame behind. She'd staggered out of the castle and through the broken city. She escaped through a hole blasted in Tokyo's walls and moved through the devastated outer town. Then she stumbled across a road that led away from the Holy City, and she took it.

She had no idea how long she'd lurched down the road, but she kept thinking, "I have to get away, I have to get away." It was the only thing she would allow herself to think about. One footstep in front of the other. Once more. Again. Another step. Another stride away from... from...

Eventually she had collapsed from exhaustion, and then the dreams had come. Horrible, dark memories of blood and assault and failure. Of her screaming and sobbing and no one coming to her aid. Of all the things she hated about herself, of how she was a small, worthless creature that could never be anything.

She'd awoken from those terrible dreams, only to find the waking memories were no better. The shame of her failure to resist, of how she wasn't strong enough, of how she betrayed her friends, and how she murdered... Getting to her feet, she continued her flight.

At some point ravenous hunger had forced her to break into a lone farmhouse, where she fell upon the foodstuffs inside like a starving beast. Her, a royal princess, blessed by the goddess, admired and desired by many, reduced to...

The only bright spot was that no one had been home at the time. She didn't want anyone to see what she had lowered herself to. And in some part of her soul, she wasn't sure what she might have been capable of if someone had discovered her.

Now she was back on the road, hiding from travelers when they appeared, but otherwise moving away from Tokyo with a single-minded purpose. Trying to flee her shame, trying to flee her memories.

"Nein..."

But it wasn't working.

Horrible memories of the assaults she'd suffered over the years kept returning to her mind, crowding out her thoughts and making her tremble with shame. Of all the assaults she'd suffered over years of failure and how disgusted everyone was with her. How that horrible man had assaulted her in her bedroom back in Germania and had defiled her and broken her and how he had died by her hands before he could actually do anything to her-

Wait. What?

That freak who had raped her in her own bedchambers. Her descent into failure had started with him. No, he hadn't raped her... she stopped him before he could. The Fire Crest sword had appeared in her hand and she killed him.

Confused, Asuka put a hand up to her face as she staggered another step forward. There were two images in her head of that terrible event. One of her broken, shamed, defeated... the other of her grim, scared, but triumphant.

Two memories, different outcomes? How could this be? And which was real? The first had to be real; she was a worthless failure after all. Like that time in the Black Forest, where she had been captured by gnolls and her body used to satisfy their animal-

No, that wasn't right. It had been close, but she'd defeated that patrol. That marauding, pillaging band that had been preying on her people, she'd crushed them and slew them all. She could remember burning them away as they fought her, the cheers of the villagers afterwards...

Lifting her sword she looked at the weapon and the ancient character for 'fire' engraved just above the cross guard on the ricasso. She had always carried this thing in a futile effort to appear strong, but it had always failed her, just a she was a-

No. It had always been by her side, but had been a symbol of strength, a tool to help her succeed.

What was going on?

She could recall a sharp, pale face. A dark figure, laughing uproariously at her vulnerability, drinking in her despair. Like some horrible ghost, his face was linked to all her terrible memories of failure and humiliation. His terrible gaze ran though her mind seeming to be everywhere, even where she stabbed Shinji and killed-

A soft cry escaped her lips. She'd killed Shinji! She did! She'd stabbed him with her sword! Cut through his belly and spilled his guts. In fact... despite herself, her eyes flashed down to her blade. She hadn't allowed herself to see it before, but there on the steel were the dried remains of his blood.

Screaming, she almost threw the sword away. All her skill, all her training, all her battles had been done so she could become a better fighter, and she'd used those skilled perfected in countless battles to murder the... the one... the one she... to murder her friend!

What good was the Fire Sword if she burned her friend to ashes! What good was she who would do such a thing?

But she didn't let go, couldn't let go. She clung to the sword, that horrible sword, as if it meant something important to her, something precious. How could it be, she howled? Like so many others, Shinji was now a pile of ash because of her sword! How could she not throw it away?

She staggered a few more steps, her breathing ragged and shallow. She could remember that last moment before she'd fled the chapel, where Shinji had been laid low by her flaming sword. How he had stared at her with eyes -such eyes!- as the horrible truth of what she had done had blazed across her soul. How he could look at her with such eyes when she'd burned to him to ash made her feel even worse!

How could she make up for such a betrayal? Was there anything she could do, or would she be haunted by the image of his gaze until it drove her mad?

She looked at the sword: hating, hating it. It brought her to this. It was the reason why she had burned him to nothing. Its power was vile, poisoned her very soul. She longed to throw the cursed thing away and escape from its power and drown herself in darkness to never, never rise again.

But something was wrong about the sword. Of course there was: it was evil, it was foul. It brought ruin and destruction to those she care- traveled with.

No, no! Her mind screamed. There was something *physically* wrong with the sword. What was it? What was out of place?

Her delirious flight carried her forward another few staggering steps, and then she had it.

The blood. There was dried blood on the blade.

Shinji's blood was on the blade. Of course it was there: she'd stabbed him, burned his body to ash. She had killed him.

But if she'd burned him, why hadn't the blood evaporated? Fire hot enough to turn his body to ash would have cleansed the steel of any fluids. The metal should be pristine, like it had been when she'd immolated those trolls who had attacked her homeland last year.

And if she'd burned him, how had he looked at her with his eyes -such eyes!- back at the chapel? Could it be... she... hadn't killed him?

No! She'd stabbed him, she could remember that much. The jar of her sword hitting him, the warm blood flowing out over her hand... but the burning?

Could it be... she hadn't?

Could it be that last image she had of him -on the ground and wounded, but bathed in a wondrous glow that healed the wounds she had given him- was real?

Could... she dare hope?

Something, some sense she wasn't consciously aware of made her raise her head and look up. Standing in the road before her was a tall, gaunt figure in expensive dark clothes. His sharp face was drawn in a mocking smile.

Luxuriating in his success at finding her, the vampire Arael gazed down possessively upon his wayward property. "Ah, my darling; you gave me quite the worry. Come, come, my dear; you look a fright. Is that any way to appear before your master?"

[To be continued...]

Author's note: So, after so long, another chapter done and only one left to go. Hopefully, we can get it out before the end of the world in 2012.

List of cameos used in this chapter:

Kanade: Angel Beats
Touma and Motoko: A Certain Magical Index/A Certain Scientific Railgun
Homura and Madoka: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Alice Malvin and Randel Oland: Pumpkin Scissors
Makinami: Mari Illustrious Makinami from Evangelion 2.0
Slayn: Record of Lodoss Wars
Tohaska: Rin Tohaska from Fate/Stay Night
Howl: Howl's Moving Castle
Kazuma and Ayako: Kaze no Stigma
Fatina: Tower of Druaga
Tanarotte, Suzuho, Takuto: Macademi Wasshoi (The Magician's Academy)
Negi and students: Mahou Sensei Negima
Ihrie and Fam: Ruin Explorers Fam and Ihrie
Louie: Ruin Soldier
Lina: Lina Inverse from Slayers
Hayate: Hayate Yagami from Magical Lyrical Nanoha
Hamel: The violinist of Hamel
Aburatsubo, Takakura, Sae, Nanaka, and Akane: The Magic Users Club
Louise, Tabitha, Kirche: The Familiar of Zero.

OMAKE:

Somehow, Shinji doubted the portal would just open and that he'd be able to grab Touji and jump right in.

"Rei got attacked and taken to Neriak. Touji and I are off to save her... and probably the world as well. That should sum it up."

Hikari gave Shinji a grim look, then turned to Touji.

"Is this true?" Touji nodded. The Queen sighed, shaking her head. "Well, what did you expect?"

"Highness?"

"What kind of half-assed, low-level noobs are you? You split the party: everybody knows you never split the party."

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