As he stumbled out of the makeshift teleport portal, Touji knew they almost hadn't made it. Magical travel wasn't exactly his forte but during the eternally long second he'd been in the portal corridor he surmised something was wrong with it. Any form of travel that worked as intended shouldn't make one feel as if all their toes were attempting to violently escape their body via the ear. Dizziness and disorientation he'd expected, but having his eyeballs show him a picture of the front of his brain was not a pleasant sensation.
Once ejected from the portal he tried to look behind him but just moving his head caused everything to blur and a wave of nausea to rise. However, he could make out the portal fizzling out.
Yep... this was a one way trip.
Closing his eyes, Touji tried calm down and find his focus. He doubted they could stay still like this for very long. He took a couple of deep breaths and opened his eyes.
Neriak. The dark elf stronghold. It was different from what he had envisioned. He'd imagined... well, something out of a nightmare; gothic castles, gargoyles, crow cages, monsters and blood-splattered dark elves armed to the teeth. Not something this... empty.
As far as he could tell, they were inside some kind of rocky canyon. The narrow bit of sky he could see between the rock walls was roiling and tumultuous. Off in the distance to the west, he could see huge wooden gates isolating the canyon, while to the east oversized metal doors were set into the rock face, sealing off a passageway that looked to go underground.
It was a clever location he realized. The natural stone walls were uneven and sheer, making the far wooden gates the only connection to the outside. No wonder no one had ever found the place: normally settlements were built on a water source or utilized more open spaces. From outside, there was almost no way to know a city was under your feet unless you walked right into it.
On either sides of the canyon Touji saw openings carved into the stone; windows and doors by the look of things. More than a hundred by quick guess, habitations for soldiers? No, probably farmers he realized as he looked at the ground around them. Between the gates and the doors were plots of rocky fields. The farmer in him recognized attempts to grow things in the harsh earth.
Wait... did the dark elves even have civilians?
Where were the people anyway? He had expected that he and Shinji would get jumped by the entire dark elf army the moment they crossed the threshold. Where they in hiding, waiting for the right moment, spying on them through those openings in the rock face? Or was it possible that the dark elves had committed the bulk of their forces in their attack of the capitol?
No, at first glance Neriak didn't seem malevolent, just unusual. Despite that he could sense there was something wrong: he could feel... death. The air felt dry, as did the soil beneath his feet. A simple look could tell that whatever crop had been planted here, most of it wasn't healthy. What few things he saw growing were withered and sun-baked. The ground was rocky, seeming without any healthy black soil. There was something in the land. Something dark and cloying, but also grotesquely alive, ravenous and bubbling, intent on defiling whatever it could touch. The last time he had felt something like this had been back in his home village: that sense of foul corruption that had permeated everything before it had been cleansed. But this... this was much, much worse. He could feel himself falling into it like black tar, weakening him, encroaching and infusing his own body as it had the land here.
It was only as he suddenly lost the contents of his stomach that Touji understood the danger of his situation. Back in Darnk, Mayumi had explained to him how his channelling of Earth magic had protected him from the village curse. As he explored his Chosen abilities he had come to realize that unconsciously, he was always channelling the prowess of the earth to fortify his body. It was why he could swing his huge sword for example. But here, in the Northern Wastes, as the name so aptly indicated, the earth had been polluted by Adam's power. And just as Touji was channelling the power of the earth, he was taking in Adam's energies as well.
With a conscious effort, Touji forced himself to sever his connection with this land. It wasn't easy as he was fighting something that had become instinctive. Fortunately, Rei had foreseen this problem, having visited the Northern Wastes before, and with great effort had taught Touji to release the elemental bond. Weakened, but no longer taking in dark energies, Touji vowed to thank the elf once they had freed her. Even gone she had managed to save his ass.
"You alright?" asked Shinji, surprising Touji. The way the Wind Chosen had been distraught by the abduction of the elf, he hadn't been expecting him to pay attention. Yet, there he was giving him a concerned look.
"Yeah," lied Touji. The truth was, he could still feel the dark energies he's taken in unintentionally. Which made him think about his sister; was this how she'd felt all those years while afflicted by the curse in Darnk? "We should get movin'," he added as he tried to get up without looking too weak. "Dunno where da dark elves are, and I'm not in a hurry to find out."
"Several of them are in that direction," said Shinji, pointing to the wooden gate on one side of the canyon. "From what I can read from the wind, they are fighting off beasts trying to invade the city. Things... don't feel right."
"Ya, I could see that."
"No," said Shinji, shaking his head. "I've been in the Wastes before. The land was always filled with dark power, but... not like this. It's like the power is boiling. And it's driving the wildlife mad."
"All the better for us to find da elf and then get gone."
Shinji's eyes darkened and Touji could see again the steel focus he's seen back in Tokyo.
"Yes, let's find her."
Without another word Shinji hurried towards the metal gates at the end of the canyon. Touji didn't bother asking him if he knew where he was going. Somehow he had the feeling that Shinji just knew where she was. There was a strong bond between those two, even if they didn't seem to see it.
An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story
Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX
Co-written by Alain Gravel and Darren Demaine
CHAPTER 20 - The Dark God
From her vantage point that was the only way Myssa could describe the sight of Neriak's front gate. It was almost as if half the denizen of the Northern Wastes had decided to gather there... and now wanted in. Her people had managed a desperate defense so far... but looking at the mass of creatures trying to crash through the gate, it was clear it was a merely a matter of time.
The half elf had to fight the blinding impulse to join the fray. It would be such a glorious battle! But the human half of her held her back. Her presence wouldn't make a difference, assuming she could even reach the gate before being torn to pieces first.
Instead, like the trained dark elf warrior she was, she focused on the goal. She had to get into the city and talk to Lady Armisael. If it wasn't too late already, which she was starting to doubt looking at the horde of monsters in front of her.
The main entrance was out of the question. But as Lady Armisael's second, she knew of other hidden passageways. Those were sealed, but she knew the spells to unlock then. It was risky, as those were designed as escape routes. If a beast caught her scent that route could become compromised.
Her options, however, were limited. She could do nothing, admit that the situation was already out of control. Or she could take the chance, enter the city and talk to Lady Armisael.
But would that even work? Would Lady Armisael even listen? Surely, she knew the gates were about to be overrun. The inner gates would hold... for a time. But not indefinitely. And not against such relentless assault.
Neriak would fall.
Immediately, Myssa chased away such thought. She would talk to her mistress, try and explain what she had learned about the world, about herself, during her time with the humans. And if she was still alive after that discussion, she would try to find a way to help her people.
X x X
Touji studied the large gates in front of them. Sturdy gates alright, reinforced with that dusky metal the dark elves seemed to fancy.
"Big gates," said Touji.
"Big gates," repeated Shinji. "Think you can bring them down?"
Touji shook his head. "Don't think so. Dat dark elf metal is pretty strong. I could take out the rock-face around the gate... but there's no way people wouldn't notice."
Touji hoped Shinji wouldn't ask him to do it anyway. So far, they had somehow been lucky enough to get all the way here without alerting anyone. If they could avoid attracting attention a while longer he certainly wouldn't mind. Not to mention that such a feat would tap heavily in his energies reserves, which he hoped to keep in case they got into trouble.
"You're right," Shinji agreed. "Once we give up stealth, we can never get it back." Touji saw him look up. Over the gates were two openings, like eyes over a closed mouth. Probably guard posts, though they appeared unmanned right now. "The guards probably went to defend the outside gate. We might find it pretty empty inside."
"Pretty high though," said Touji. The gates were at least four times their heights. Getting there would take some fancy climbing.
"Not a problem," said Shinji, giving him a feral grin that didn't reassure Touji one bit. The buildup of wind magic Touji felt right after didn't help either.
Zephyrs begun to swirl around them, faster and faster. Touji begun to worry and was about to tell Shinji to stop before someone noticed when the winds reached their peak and slammed into Shinji. The Wind Chosen flew like an arrow straight for one of the two openings. Almost as soon as Shinji was in, Touji saw him reappear and start to move his hands in a circular motion towards him. Immediately, air currents begun to swirl around him.
Touji didn't have time to object as he suddenly found himself thrown into the air. But unlike Shinji, his flight was not so elegant. Touji didn't even make it all the way to the top of the doors before the winds failed and gravity came calling. He found himself falling, then a second gust of wind slammed into him, propelling him forward again, followed by a third one.
Even then Touji barely made it. He was sure he'd fall, when Shinji lunged down and grabbed one of his arms. He heard his companion grunt with effort as he tried to pull him up and Touji felt for certain that Shinji would either fall off or let him go. But then Shinji's expression changed and Touji felt a chill as he found himself staring right at the feral gaze of the Wind Chosen's berserker alter ego. Shinji's grip on him became like steel and Touji was sure he was going to be killed.
Instead the berserker hauled him up with a bestial roar, before the two slumped down. Touji sprang to his feet, but Shinji's expression was back to normal. If anything, the other Chosen looked pretty winded.
"Man, don't do dat again," said Touji, still a bit weary of his companion.
"Didn't think you were that heavy," was Shinji's answer between two breaths.
"Must be my thick skull," grunted Touji.
Shinji smirked. "I don't think Hikari meant that as a compliment."
This made Touji feel better. If Shinji was capable of cracking his version of a joke, then he supposed he wasn't about to be gutted or something. Still, he had to voice his concern.
"So... dat berserker thing... ya got that under control now?"
"It's more like we reached a mutual agreement really."
"Ah..." said Touji, not really sure how to take that. It certainly didn't sound reassuring.
"Don't worry. I understand him a little better now. He respects strength and you're an ally. So he probably won't try to kill you."
"Probably," repeated Touji.
"Yeah," said Shinji, looking sheepish.
Touji nodded and decided to drop the subject. Until they found Rei Shinji was the only one he could count on, so he had to trust him. If Shinji thought he could control the berserker within, then that would have to be good enough.
Touji took a better look at their surroundings. The two of them were standing on a platform over the gate entrance, with wooden ladders descending on each side. With Shinji's effort to get him in, they'd almost gone over the lip and fell. Touji doubted the fall would have killed them, but it certainly would have hurt. With a nod, the two of them decided to press on.
Down the ladders, the two found themselves in a large circular chamber, carved from the earth by who knew how many hands, big enough to fit a hundred warriors. Touji had to be impressed with those dark elves. It must have taken a lot of time and manpower, or impressive earth magic to carve this through the mountain rock. And from the five passageways he could see disappearing further into the earth, this was probably just the beginning.
Shinji didn't hesitate to take the right most passageway. Touji followed without question. Shinji seemed to have a pretty good instinct regarding the elf girl. Besides... whatever the dark power he was feeling... it seemed thicker in that direction.
The place was eerily silent. For all intent and purposes, it seemed deserted. So Touji almost jumped out of his skin when Shinji spoke.
"What are your feelings about Hikari?"
"Wha-" Touji just stopped at the unexpected question. "Why ya asking dat now?!"
Shinji shrugged. "Just act as if everyone didn't already know already and humor me with an answer."
"Wha-" Touji really had to wonder of Shinji had finally lost his mind. Nevertheless, Touji contemplated the question and sighed. "Fine, I like da girl, okay? Can we leave it at dat and keep going now?"
But Shinji didn't move, and the look he gave Touji was of... relief? "That's good. Look, Touji... when you get back... take good care of her." Touji wanted to protest this as Not Being The Time For This Talk... besides, why did Shinji care? But Shinji waved him off. "I mean it. Your sister isn't the only one waiting. So... whatever happens from now on, you make sure you come back alive from this."
Touji scowled. He didn't like this conversation at all, now for all new reasons.
"Ya think things are dat grim?"
"I'm not sure how close the dark elves are to reviving Adam... but it's possible that we're already too late. I can feel something vile in the air."
Touji couldn't object to that.
"What about you and da elf?"
"I'm fairly certain she's alive. I think I would know otherwise."
"Ya love her."
Shinji paused for a moment, then continued walking. "Yes, I do," he said, sounding almost surprised. "So I'll do whatever it takes to get her back."
"What if dat gets ya killed?"
"I'll do whatever it takes to finish this."
Touji narrowed his eyes. No, he didn't like this conversation one bit. It had this... bad feeling about it. "Rei might not want ya to sacrifice yourself for her."
"If needed, she would sacrifice herself to destroy Adam," said Shinji. "So I'll do my best that she doesn't get the chance."
There was no denying that Shinji believed in what he was saying. Touji could see the resolve on his face.
"Dat's kinda selfish of ya."
"Since I was born, people decided the path my life should take. I think I'm allowed some little selfishness."
Touji nodded, before putting his hand on his companion's shoulder. "Right. But Shinji... don't think we won't care if ya die. 'Cause if ya do, yer wrong."
Shinji smiled. A heartfelt, genuine smile.
"Oh... what about you and redheaded fire chick?"
Shinji stumbled as he missed a step. "Ah... er... I... uh... that's... uh... now's not the time for that conversation! We've got to hurry."
Touji smirked. "Wuss. Whatever, let's go get yer girl."
An embarrassed Shinji nodded and the two continued on.
X x X
Inside the Grand Cathedral, even one of the many prayer rooms had not escaped the violence of the recent invasion. The door leading in lay wretched off its hinges and a streak of blood marred the white floor. A number of the wooden pews had been broken to lean drunkenly against each other. Away from the violence of the entryway, near the statue of the Goddess a priestess sat, her head down. But it was not in prayer.
This side of the chamber had been spared physical destruction but another kind of violence had been visited upon its occupant. She sat in silence, hunched over her knees, letting time pass with horrible slowness.
Alone, the woman sat there for she didn't know how long until the sound of footsteps finally broke the isolation of the prayer room. Closing her eyes the priestess ground her teeth. Hating herself for wanting one specific person to come... who never would. Hating herself for wanting someone - anyone! -- to come. Hating how needy she had become. And hating how truly alone she felt right now. With a heavy sigh she raised her head and looked towards the shattered door.
Both she and the newcomer blinked in surprise as they saw each other. It faded rapidly.
"It figures. Out of all the prayer rooms still usable you'd walk into mine." Ritsuko dropped her head back down, resting her elbows on her thighs and hunched over. "I suppose I can't expect even a smidgen of mercy, can I?"
Mayumi's fingers trembled as the older woman spoke. For so many years Ritsuko had been a huge presence in her life, holding the young girl's fate in her hands. That kind of influence did not easily leave one's manner.
"Come to gawk at the fallen? Come to rub my face in my own failures? Laugh at the old hag who bet it all and lost?"
"It really doesn't matter, does it? All my years of hard work, of sacrifice, of giving to the Church... It's all going to be for nothing as the only thing people will remember is that I screwed up."
Ritsuko's voice filled with venom. "And do you know what? I could survive all that, bare the shame, the ridicule... except that he didn't once look at me! For all the time in the chapel with that vampire and that elf, he never once looked at me! I could have died there and he wouldn't have cared!"
Ritsuko bolted up at the scream, looking at the younger woman. Trembling, Mayumi clenched her fists to keep her shaking under control. "Is-is that all you can think about? Yourself? You were so sure, you had to make sure Sir Shinji didn't betray us... but he never was going to, was he?! But you had to be right about the whole thing! When that didn't work out, it couldn't be your fault, could it?! You had to make someone else responsible!" Tears streamed down Mayumi's face as she yelled. "I gave my life to the Church! Freely! Gladly! I *liked* being a priestess! Even though I could never truly be one with the others, I enjoyed it! You took that away from me! And I don't even really know why! And here you sit, feeling sorry about yourself! Don't you have anything to say to *me*?!"
Ritsuko pressed her lips tightly together and turned away. For a while she said nothing, staring down at the floor, then let out a bitter sigh. "And what could I say? What could I possibly say to make this any better?"
Mayumi also turned her gaze to the floor. "... I don't know."
"I should feel bad for what I've done, for all the hurt I've inflicted upon you, the Chosen, how I've probably messed up the entire world... but you know what? All I can think about is that one man didn't care about me. I though he did, I told myself he cared but couldn't show it, but I was nothing to him. All I had was nothing more than my own delusion. You want me to suffer? Want me to hate my life and wish I were dead? Well, you've got it."
Mayumi closed her eyes. "That's not what I want."
"What we want... Have either of us ever really gotten what we wanted? Or are we both just cursed to never have what we truly want?"
The two were silent for a time before Ritsuko spoke up. "I take it the sealing didn't seal away your Songstress abilities? I thought so," she said at the shake of Mayumi's head. "I doubted it would be that easy."
"You knew I'd still have such power and yet you still tortured me?"
Ritsuko wearily shrugged. "I've watched you since you were brought here as a little girl. I thought you wouldn't lash out, even under such provocation. The fact I'm still talking seems to suggest I was right."
Mayumi remembered the nightmare the Kagenoshi had forced her to live, the horrors she'd seen herself unleash in that phantom realm... remembered also what she'd almost done during the invasion. "... don't feel too smug."
The bottle-blond woman sighed heavily. "Do you hate me? For what I did?"
"I... I should. In a way I do, but not as much as I want to." Mayumi's shoulders slumped. "I've seen what I can be like when I hate something; the depths to which my rage can take me. I... don't like that person. I'm going to have to fight every day for the rest of my life not to be her. If that means I don't hate you as much as you deserve... it'll be just one more sacrifice for me to make." Her voice turned bitter. "After all, I'm used to making them."
For a while there was no sound in the chamber, then Ritsuko spoke again. "...I... I really screwed this up, didn't I?" She asked, her voice breaking. "No matter what other sins I accomplished, I cost this world a better priestess than I ever could have been."
X x X
The two male Chosen entered a vast underground chamber. No, not just a chamber, Touji corrected himself, but something like an arena or coliseum. Although it didn't show he could feel the blood that had been spilled in this place. It infused the very stones themselves. With a push, Touji chased the thought from his mind. Focusing on the feeling would reconnect him with his element and even though the taint was a lot less palpable here than outside, it was still present. Maybe lessened taint was one of the reasons the dark elves had dug so far underground.
He and Shinji descended to the arena floor from one of the entrances. Across the open space was a double staircase leading up to a platform at the other side. They were most of the way across when Touji reached for his sword. He saw Shinji tense and do the same. It figured their luck would fail them in a place like this.
Touji swallowed hard as an impressively large dark figure appeared out of the shadows filling the platform and stood over what Touji guessed was the throne perched there. As much as his pride begged for a rematch, this was probably the one dark elf Touji really hadn't wanted to see again. The immense dark elf looked as menacing as ever, clad in his black metal armor and black scythe easily held in his right hand.
To his side Touji could see that Shinji was ready to jump the giant warrior. Not good; the Wind Chosen had no idea who he'd be facing. Sure, that whole berserker thing might work with Kagenoshi, but this guy... he fought smart. He had strength, skill, and more intelligence than either of them... if the berserker didn't win in the first pass it never would.
Grabbing Shinji's shoulder, Touji tried to silently calm is fellow Chosen. Shinji growled, but stood still. Good. Frantically Touji tried to think of a plan, something to get them out of this mess. Maybe if they fought him together? No, he could feel Shinji chomping at the bit: he would be too reckless and thus play to Bardiel's strengths. And more importantly, they couldn't waste time. Shinji wasn't going nuts yet, so he was pretty certain that Rei was fine for now, but fine might not be enough. Not with the whole Adam-soon-to-be-reborn threat.
In desperation, Touji borrowed a page from Kensuke's book: if you can't fight a superior force, bullshit until you can come up with a better plan. Besides, Hikari had asked them to try to parlay with the dark elves.
"Yo! Bardiel! How's it hanging?"
Okay, so he wasn't quite the conventionalist Kensuke was, but he thought Hikari would appreciate his diplomatic attempts.
With relief, Touji saw that it did have the effect of making the dark elf warrior stop in surprise.
"Human. You are unwelcome here. Leave now, and you shall yet live."
"Believe me, I don't really want to be here. Kinda gloomy and all. But yer people took one of us, and we really want to get her back. So, whadda y'a say? Ya give her back to us and we don't do to yer city what ya did to ours."
There. That hadn't been so bad. He'd been a veritable fountain of diplomacy. Touji tried to ignore the look of disbelief Shinji was giving him.
"Why don't ya go get yer leader so we can talk? Princess... I mean, Queen Hikari is willing to..." Touji paused a moment to try to recall her exact words, "offer yer people sanctuary and their own lands, in return for peace between our two peoples."
Yeah, the dark elf warrior was most definitely surprised now. But it was short lived as his gaze turned hard again.
"Peace? After your people unleashed some terrible spell upon us at the end of the invasion? Did any of them survive?"
"Survive? Dat spell didn't hurt squat. Healed us, and 'em too. I think they're cooling their heels in prison or something."
"I talked to them," Shinji spoke up. "Ma... Makinami knows about the offer of peace, and is considering it."
The huge elf looked at them intently for a long time. "I... believe you. I am... surprised."
"So what'd say, big guy? Peace?"
"You present an interesting proposition, human... but far too late. My mistress will not be disturbed. This is my final warning, leave now."
"Oh, come on! This is a peace offer!"
"I did not think I would ever hear those words from a human. But I am a soldier. I have my orders."
Touji sighed. So much for that. At least he had bought some time and had managed to come up with a plan. A stupid plan, but a plan nonetheless.
As Bardiel leapt down the arena, Touji grabbed Shinji by the collar, and using all the strength he could muster, launched the Wind Chosen into the air in the direction of the exit. Neither Bardiel nor Shinji ever saw it coming. Bardiel had no chance to intercept the human projectile while Shinji, screaming like a little girl, barely managed to use a gust of wind to stop him from crashing into the looming wall.
"Touji! What in the Goddess' name?!
Touji wasn't listening. He could see that Bardiel was already turning to rush up the stairs and pounce on Shinji. From a pouch, he pulled a pebble and threw at the bottom of the stairs in front of the dark elf. As it impacted the rock there exploded, covering the tall warrior in dust and stone debris.
"I'll hold this guy here! Go get Rei!"
Shinji gave Touji an uncertain look, but resolve replaced doubt and Shinji ran into the open corridor in front of him. Silently, the dark elf leapt from the dust cloud Touji had created and rushed to follow Shinji. But just as he was about to reach the archway leading out, two stone pebbles landed right in front of him. The ground exploded again, collapsing the passageway.
"Sorry big guy, but my friend got ta go save his girl."
Touji didn't think he'd ever seen Bardiel look so infuriated. "Fool. There are other passages. This won't stop me for long."
"Yeah, I figured dat. So I'll have ta keep ya busy. Ya know... fight a delaying action. And then we win."
Bardiel shook his head sadly.
"You are brave, young man, but foolish. You will die."
Touji smirked as he raised his ridiculously large sword.
"I'm not dead yet."
X x X
"Oh, what to do, what to do? There's so much that needs to be done and so little time to do it in." Traipsing around the luxuriously appointed chamber like a nervous young man before his first date, Arael fluttered from place to place with unchained energy. A double pair of well-dressed servitor vampires stood at rapt attention along the walls watching their master. Their faces marred with a hungry eagerness, they longed to jump to his aid if ordered to and primed to flee should a sudden rage take him.
But the master vampire ignored his petty spawn, his attention directed instead towards great schemes. "I must bring this about quickly, for time grows short. Imagine that, I, who will live forever, feeling the pressures of time! How barbaric! How mortal! Oh! I feel I might faint!" Fluttering with needless drama the vampire pressed the back of his hand against his forehead. "It's all that dratted elf's fault, that Tabris, for his quite tacky plan about bringing back Adam. True, it will involve an interesting amount of death, but it lacks the personal touch I find so necessary in keep work interesting. Why, I should rip him open simply for the insult he lays before me!"
So caught up in his own world Arael even disregarded his greatest possession. She stood beside his colossal bed, her body cleaned of the trials of the past few days and her hair combed and shampooed. She wore an expensive, perfect dress that embraced her in a caress of silk. A king's ransom in jewelry sat at her throat and hung from her ears. The only things out of place upon this vision of loveliness was a sword made of reddish metal that dangled in a reverse grip by her side and the expression on her face. While she stood straight and tall, her gaze was empty and vacant.
For Asuka, the past while was a vague, hazy memory. She remembered fleeing from Tokyo, the desperate flight against her failure and the terrible thing she had done to Shinji, and then a moment of utter terror as she gazed into that sharp face...
And then, blackness. Not a comforting embrace but a sticky, suffocating gloom, like a night without light from which to guide her. It was a darkness that possessed cold fangs and envenomed claws. It had been terrifying and horrible; and she had submerged herself in it.
From then she could only recall snatches of moments. Either flying - or was it teleporting --a great distance. Being washed and clothed, of having her hair done by people with false smiles and hands as cold as ice. Being feed, then a moment of rest before being called to stand in this room.
She couldn't recall how long she had been standing there, consciousness swimming to the surface for a moment then falling back into that razor-edged darkness. She didn't have to think there, didn't have to hurt. She hated it, hated it with all her soul, but still she willingly dove back into it. The beasts that stalked her mind, that fed on her failures, they couldn't find her in that gloom.
The gaunt, pale thing that was prancing around said some things but she did not pay attention. It was better to be detached, to be free from the world of hurt that surrounded her. After all, all things offered her pain. Even the room was cold. It was an uncomfortable chill that lingered over her skin like an unwelcome cloak. Only one part of her wasn't cold, but that hurt too. Best to submerge oneself and through retreat avoid the pain.
"No, no no. Tabris' death, while deserved, just, and proper - and something I will doubtlessly craft into a symphony that I will recall fondly for centuries --- must wait. While he plans to insult me in the time to come, I -- me, myself, I - have been grievously injured by a most despicable mortal who had the gall to die a coward's death before my true justice could be properly dispensed upon him." Arael paused, then his vampire servitors fell over themselves verbally.
"Absolutely, Greatest One!"
"A vile coward, Eternal Master!"
"A shameful creature, Dark Prince!"
"You were cheated, Night Lord!"
"So true," Arael continued, instantly silencing his chorus. "I give so much to this world, and yet put up with so much indignity from it. But still, I graciously permit the world to exist. The fact I allow it to continue so speaks to my munificence in all matters, no?"
"Of course, Supreme Artist!"
"You are a paragon, Exalted Sire!"
"Nothing is your equal, King of Night!"
"Tell us more, Unlimited One!"
"But even I - with my boundless largess -- even I must not let this insult stand. King Kozo may have sought a coward's death to flee my judgement, but I will have my revenge upon his spirit." The vampire sighed. "It is imperfect justice, I know, but one must accept the hand one is dealt. After all, what in this world is truly perfect?"
"Only you, Magnificent Lord!"
"No one but you, Faultless Liege!"
"I look upon perfection, Unconstrained Master!"
"You, and you alone, Midnight Sire!"
"Ah, but I do possess something so very, very close." With deadly grace the master vampire almost danced over to Asuka, looming over her. "You my dear; your pieces, your broken pieces. The shattered howling of your soul, the pains you suffered at my hands. What I made you into comes so very, very near to my own perfection." He raised a hand and cupped her chin. "I took that horrible, petty, tiny thing that you were and I broke it down, I tore it apart and remade it into something beautiful, something I could treasure. Oh, to give you such a blessing, how you must love me."
Love him? Asuka didn't think she did. In fact, she knew she didn't. Love was a feeling, and feelings were bad. They hurt, they caused her to cry. Like when she'd stabbed Shinji... no. Don't think of that; think of something else. Like the touch of the hand upon her chin; it was cold. Painfully cold, worse than the room, worse even than the other place upon her that wasn't cold but that still hurt.
But... Shinji had survived, right?
"And although you must long for nothing more than to spend eternity by my side, I have a mission for you, my luscious pawn." Away from herself, Asuka felt her head rise up to look into the vampire's deep, soulless eyes. "Yes, I have seen into that ugly, delicious thing you call a soul. I have seen that you have some kind of pitiful connection to the king's daughter. What is her name?"
"Hikari? Ugh. What a terrible, pedestrian name. I suppose the King must have chosen it. It would fit him to give such an appalling name to a child. No doubt the girl is as unappealing and as worthless as her name. Still, despite having to work with such inferior materials, I will go beyond myself and craft from her something that will no doubt be called a masterpiece."
"No question, Dark Sovereign!"
"Always, Great Terror!"
"You will overcome, High Lord!"
"Show us your skills, Grand Visionary!"
"And so what you will do, my Queen of Misery, you will go back to Tokyo and bring me this... thing... called Hikari. You will bring her to me, and I think I will give her to you. Yes, I can't soil myself by touching such a poor specimen but it will be a good lesson for you. Oh, shush now," he said, placing a finger over Asuka's lips even though she had shown no sign of speaking. "I know, I know, Broken Bird. You fear your own weaknesses and failures, great as they are. You think the plans you have for hurting the girl won't be creative enough to please me, and that thought drives you to panic. No, no, no no; do not worry, for I shall guide you, I shall be inside your mind, inside your spirit. I will bathe you in my glorious ideals and you shall carry out these visions upon her flesh. In her terror and her screams you will learn of my joy and that will bring you the ecstasy you so seek." He released her and stepped away, his hands all-a-flutter. "Oh! Such visions I have of you two together! I must write them down, lest I forget them in the excitement."
"That would be a tragedy, Terrible Prince!"
"We cannot allow that, Twilight Master!"
"Please tell us now, Dark Ruler!"
"Give us a hint, Shadowed Liege!"
Now that he no longer needed her for the moment, Asuka tried to fall back into the cloying darkness. Away from all this; all this noise, all this confusion, all this cold, and all this hurt. And she hurt, the noise hurt her ears, the confusion hurt her mind, the cold hurt. One place on her body hurt most of all.
Even thinking hurt. Thinking about Kaji hurt. Thinking about Hikari hurt. Thinking about Shinji hurt. It hurt as much thinking about them as the worst place on her body hurt. She tried to retreat into herself, tried to get away from the pain, but it wouldn't happen anymore. Something about the hurt followed her, clung to her, preventing dark clouds from hiding her from the horrors of her world. It made the beasts that fed on her failures salivate.
And so she fought against the hurt, tried to make it let go, tried to make it loosen its grip on her, but it wouldn't. She was so tired of fighting it, but fighting was all she'd done her whole life. Even though all her battles had been meaningless and she'd never succeeded at any of them-
No. That wasn't right. She'd won lots of times.
Impossible. Her life was nothing but failures. The envenomed darkness in her mind was proof of that. It was protection, it allowed her to hide from the litany of disappointments that she was. It was a place she could seal herself away from the hurt.
But she couldn't get away from this hurt. It was stubborn, tenacious. It was a hurt she couldn't escape from. It pricked at her skin, drove a distracting pain into her. She needed to flee this hurt, needed to run away so she could sink once more beneath the crushing darkness. But to do this she had to make it stop hurting, had to face it one time. She didn't want to, she knew she would fail to defeat it, that facing it would make things worse. If she did so the claws and fangs that lurked in the darkness would reward her actions with suffering. But it had to end. Mentally whimpering from the pain she knew this would bring her, she turned to the source of the hurt.
Her right hand.
It hurt because it was hot. The sword hilt she held in her hand was uncomfortably warm, a terrible spot of warmth in this barren, cold room. She was so tired of it all, tired of being afraid. Almost inaudibly she sighed; time to finish this. Against the hungry howls echoing from the darkness in her mind, she mentally reached out and touched the hurt.
"You have nothing to fear, Child of Fire."
Surprised, Asuka's eyes snapped open. She found herself, not in the fabulously decorated but cold bedchambers of the vampire, but instead standing on a flat void, surrounded on all sides by threatening darkness. Before her stood the Fire Armor, Feuervogel, rendered by some magic no taller than herself. Its avian features were sharp and clear despite the blazing aura that surrounded him like a great bonfire.
This, Asuka realized, was her own mindscape. A place she had been once before when she had chased Arael and he had-
She could feel the beasts in the darkness, flexing their claws.
"Last time... you... didn't help me," Asuka intoned dully.
"I did not. I did not because I had seen your soul, the strength of your convictions, the power you possess and bring to all that you do. I knew you could win. I knew you would win! I wanted to exalt in your success, rejoice in your triumph! From the greatest trials come the most magnificent of victories!" Feuervogel managed to look somewhat ashamed. "I am known, however, to suffer from a slight case of overconfidence."
"I... probably would not have welcomed your help."
"And I was too late in providing it. Guarding your soul, my most sacred duty, something I am pledged to do beyond death itself... and I failed to fulfil it properly. We have both made mistakes, Child of Fire."
Asuka's shoulders slumped. Mistakes, more mistakes. Her life was nothing but one after another...
"NOT SO!" Feuervogel roared, startling the Chosen. "Mistakes are made, young one, but they are not blocks you carry to weigh you down! No! They are stones upon which you build stronger edifices! Always forward, bright champion, always forward!"
"B-but... everything I've done, everyone I've hurt... everything I've failed at... how can I keep going?! I'm nothing! I'm a failure! I killed Shinji!" She was sure she could hear the beasts in the darkness salivating at the thought of her blood, even though it was weak and pitiful. Like her.
"Did you now?"
Asuka looked up at her Holy Armor, her features twisted into a horrible mass of confusion and self-revulsion. "I... I... did... no... I didn't... I... I... I don't know..."
"To many, fire is destruction and violence. It is a force that feeds upon the world and claims only victims. These people are fools."
Feuervogel's voice took on an almost gentle tone. "What they often forget is that fire is also a symbol of courage. It is what allowed your kind to venture forth into places that they would not otherwise. Where angels fear to tread, humanity used fire to show there was nothing to fear. The land held monsters, but no beast of flesh and blood could ever be as terrible as what the mind conjured up when it could not perceive the truth. Fire banished these fiends, being a beacon and a guide when it was needed most."
The avian-themed armor raised a gauntleted hand and a tiny wisp of flame danced in its palm. "This much water will not cure your thirst, this much air will not allow you breath, this much earth will not support you. But this much fire will light a candle, and with that you gain a guide in the night, armor against your fears, and a sword to slay illusions. It is an illuminator: with it by your side, a person can be as great as they can see themselves being." He extended his hand towards the human woman. "For lack of a better term, it is... hope."
"Yes, a fickle thing, easily lost, easily wavering, but it can give the meekest untold strength. Hope, dear child, is a fire: too much of it is destructive and will lead you to ruin, but in careful hands it opens up the world."
The Holy Armor still had his hand extended towards Asuka, the flame in his palm dancing there hypnotically. Asuka could feel the monsters in her mind waiting, ready to leap out and break her, crush her, hurt her for her arrogant presumption. The flame beckoned.
Asuka sighed. "I'm so tired of hurting... but I'm tired of the fear, of the confusion, of not knowing who I am." She extended her hand, but then paused. "Will this hurt?"
"Hope often does." The beasts in the dark loomed close.
"If your fear is strong, then how much stronger must you be, if you overcome it?"
The hordes in her mind swelled up in number and gathered to drown her beneath their taloned feet... and Asuka reached out and took Feuervogel's hand.
A terrible blaze rose in her body. Fire, painful fire blasted out from her and instantly turned her mindscape as bright as day. Shadows fell over themselves as the screaming light blasted forth, revealing the demons and monsters that had hidden behind the veil of night, waiting for the chance to rend the foolish girl. Revealed now, Asuka saw the beasts of her failures were-
"Nothing. There's nothing there. There's nothing there! THERE'S NOTHING THERE!"
"I did say fire was the illuminator, didn't I? Wipes away illusion and all that. "
In the bright light of the intense fire she could see the thin scars on her bare arms, and recalled how she had received them. They had been earned, earned as the result of honest conflict and challenge, mementoes of hard fought victories.
"I DIDN'T LOSE THOSE FIGHTS! I DIDN'T FAIL ALL THE TIME! I DIDN'T... okay, I did stab Shinji, BUT I DIDN'T KILL HIM!"
"I know you are the Child of Fire, but really now, I think you're taking the 'carrying a torch' thing a little too-"
"Yes, yes, yes! I think that will do. A rather stupendous plan of action I have come up with, if I do say so myself."
"Of course, Victorious Lord!"
"No doubt, Imperial Sire!"
"No one could do better, Majestic Prince!"
"It is beautiful, Perfect Artist!"
Asuka blinked, finding herself suddenly back in the cold chamber with Arael and his flock of sycophantic vampires. The master vampire rubbed his hands together and turned to face his greatest prize with an indulgent smile on his face. "Now, Precious Slave, I believe it's time for you to bring that little speck of a girl to me. Chop, chop, now! We've got so much to do!"
"Du arschgefickter Hurensohn."
Arael blinked, somewhat confused at the soft words she'd spoken. There appeared to be something a bit off with the connection to his toy. If he didn't know better he would have thought she'd just called him a- "I'm sorry, Plaything? I must have missed that."
He didn't miss what she said next. Asuka raised her hand towards him and shouted "Reign of Fire!"
A man-sized phoenix made out of nothing but flame burst into existence in front of her fist and with an ear-wracking cry, shot forward lighting up the room and banishing the cold as it did so. It was only by virtue of centuries of existence, multiple layers of magical protection and a boatload of dark luck that Arael managed to get his body out of the way of the phoenix. One of his vampire sycophants was not so fortunate and took the firebird to the chest; it passed through the vampire, leaving nothing behind, not even ash, before slamming into the far wall. The rich tapestries that covered the bare stone were instantly converted into a gas by the terrible heat, and the bird drilled a good seven feet into the stone wall before it no longer had the energy to convert solid stone into liquid.
Fury in her eyes, Asuka reversed her sword to a proper grip and lifted the now-blazing blade. "I. Am. Going. TO! KILL! YOU!"
[To be continued...]