For a big guy, Bardiel was pretty fast. That was the first thing that Touji remembered as he avoided the colossus' opening strike. Fortunately their battleground was quite different from their last battle. Open ground, like the arena they were in, provided a lot more freedom to evade than the narrow passages of Tokyo Castle.
And more importantly, Touji didn't have to worry about avoiding collateral damage.
Of course, that also gave more space for Bardiel to wield that freakish scythe of his, but that was the way of battle: it was rarely perfect.
From his pouch Touji pulled out a pebble that he threw at the feet of the oncoming dark elf. The warrior reacted immediately, jumping out of the way just as the ground exploded in smoke and debris that pelleted his armor. Touji had also been quick to react and had flicked a second pebble at the elf's landing spot, this time catching him in an explosion that propelled the giant backwards. Bardiel did not fall but had to use his scythe to lever himself upright, which gave Touji an opening. The Earth Chosen jumped at the dark elf with sword raised, but his blade only met stone as his opponent rolled away. Touji moved back himself, not even cursing this lost opportunity. He raised his guard, awaiting the immediate counter-attack.
To his surprise, Bardiel did not advance. In fact, he just stood there, studying the ground, then Touji, then the ground again. He ignored the shrapnel cut on his forehead, and Touji was annoyed to see that it really wasn't bleeding all that much.
"I see," said Bardiel. "You overcharge earth magic into stones to create an unstable magical destructive charge. As the casting effect is simply it being expelled, it can't be disrupted, impeded, or deflected. Clever." Touji silently cursed. He had hoped to at least score one significant hit before the large elf noticed. "However, the mystic catalysts required cannot have been readily accessible. Your supply must be quite limited."
Touji smirked. Bardiel was still trying to rattle him; that meant he was worried. Each second Touji delayed him was increasing their chance at victory.
"Maybe," said Touji. "Or maybe thanks to your lessons in magical theory last time, I've learned how to create lots!"
For emphasis, Touji threw another pebble, which caused the ground at Bardiel's feet to explode engulfing him in stone dust and debris. Touji took the chance to move out of the way, just as Bardiel dashed forward, scythe swinging. As expected, the seasoned warrior hadn't stood still.
Truth be told, Bardiel was right. Touji's supply of earth imbued rocks had come from the wreckage of the Earth Sentinel Tower, and since most of that had been used to forge the Lance of Longinus in the invasion, there weren't that many left. But as long as the dark elf warrior didn't know for certain, he would remain cautious in his attacks. Fortunately, that wasn't Touji's only card.
Having predicted Bardiel's charge, Touji swung his own blade. The dark elf's weapon was deadly but its size gave it a momentum that couldn't be easily changed. Touji knew all too well from his own experience wielding large blades. Bardiel wouldn't be able to block. It was his chance.
Except that he was underestimating Bardiel's battle instincts. Though he couldn't block the attack with his own weapon, the dark elf let go of it with his right arm and used his armored forearm to shield himself. With a clash of metal, Touji's blade met adamantite armor. Touji barely avoided Bardiel's counter attack, as the warrior carried through with his spin faster than Touji could have imagined, nearly cutting his throat open. The Earth Chosen only avoided the scythe's blade due to the fact that the elf was only using his left hand to hold it. Still, the blade came close, much too close.
To Touji's surprise, Bardiel didn't follow up with this attack. Instead, the dark elf backed away and had a stunned look on his face as he looked at his right forearm. The armor there had been sliced open and was now crimson with blood.
"I see you've sharpened your blade, Touji from Darnk. A bit more and you might have cleaved my arm in half."
"Wasn't aiming for yer arm."
Touji tightened his grasp on his blade. Honestly, the ability of that dark elf to see though his tactics was ticking him off. With the help of the Earth Holy Armor, not only Touji had sharpened his blade to rival the edge of Shinji's swords, but he had also fortified the weapon using the pieces of the Earth Tower he hadn't turned into bombs. The blade was literally packed with earth magic. The very magic Touji was using up rapidly to stay in the fight.
It hadn't been an easy choice for the young man. His sword had been one of the only things left by his father. To change it to this extent... But deep down, Touji had known this moment would come. He would have to face Bardiel again, and he would have to win. He had people to protect.
"Nevertheless, you impress me. With every exchange of weapons I find myself impressed even more. Though I do wonder, how long will you be able to use that blade of yours? I have felt the weight of it. The strain should be too much for the body of a human. How long can you last using your powers to strengthen your body in these lands, with its taint slowly poisoning you?"
"Why don't ya find out?"
To Touji's surprise, Bardiel nodded.
"Very well, Earth Chosen. I shall honor your spirit by killing you before the tainted land can destroy you from the inside. For such a warrior as yourself, I can provide no other honor."
X O X
Hikari tried to focus on the discussion. Truly, she did. But her mind kept circling back towards one thing: the Earth Chosen. Touji. The big lug. In her mind she could see it all again. Him walking through the portal to Neriak... then fading away. He hadn't just physically disappeared, his presence had also almost completely left her. She could still feel him, in her mind, but not as well. The land there... it was dark... polluted... corrupted. It was hurting him. But beyond that... she couldn't clearly tell. It all seemed to be behind a thick veil of darkness.
It wasn't surprising, really. After all, if all had gone well, the two of them were far apart. She didn't exactly know how Mayumi's bonding ritual functioned, even Mayumi herself hadn't been able to explain it properly, saying that she had been forced to improvise, but surely distance played a role. It wasn't just Touji's mind that the Queen could no longer feel. His vitality, the strength he had been providing her with, she could barely feel it as well. His departure had left her strangely empty, but fortunately Hikari still felt healthy. Her condition was stable, which left her to worry about Touji more than herself.
"What about Keel? Has he been seen since the battle?"
The High Mage's question piqued Hikari's interest, pushing away her thoughts of the Earth Chosen for the moment. Freeman Kaji had been giving a report on the state of the different factions of the capital. Captain Misato, also present in the throne room for the war counsel, showed interest in the sensitive question.
"Not since then," said Kaji. "There's no evidence of his demise, so it's too early yet to know whether he fled with the flower of our nobility or if he's dead."
"The man's worse than a cockroach," grumbled the White Knight. "It might be safer to believe he's hiding in a hole than hope that he got blown away by a Kagenoshi attack."
"Then who is leading the Seele Syndicate in his absence?" asked Hikari, earning several looks of disbelief. There was a long moment of silence before the Queen spoke again. "My father prepared me to rule, he made sure I read his notes. Though perhaps his information was not as complete as yours, he knew enough to identify some of the more pressing threats to the kingdom. So, I will ask again. In the aftermath of the dark elf invasion, is the Syndicate still active?"
The unshaved man shook his head. "As far as I could tell, Highness, they've pulled away from the city. That Kagenoshi and the Holy Armors did their dance over a lot of the Syndicate's territory. Their few known hiding places have either been completely destroyed, or emptied."
The Queen nodded. "Good. Priority should be given to immediate help for the populace, then, if the end of the world doesn't come in the next few hours, to rebuilding the city."
"They will be back," said the High Mage.
Hikari stared at the man. "And when they do come back, I want the information about it. All of it. No shadow dealings or personal crusades. Is that clear?"
"Of course, your Majesty," said Kaji, with that annoying smile of his. At least Lady Misato had the decency of looking embarrassed. Hikari stared at the High Mage, who simply stared back. He was intimidating, as he had been all her life, but that was before all she had faced recently. Hikari was about to ask the question again, when she felt it.
When they all felt it.
The first pulse made her choke on her breath. The second brought a wave of dizziness. She'd felt it before: a terribly familiar darkness. One she felt in Darnk. One she felt each time she'd been in proximity of a Kagenoshi... only this was so much stronger, so much more intimately vile.
She wasn't sure who had whispered the named. Maybe it was her. But as they all looked at each other, she knew that everyone in the room had recognized the feeling, and come to the same conclusion.
"The time has come," said the High Mage. "As expected, Adam is rising. We must prepare."
Touji. If Adam was reviving, then it meant they either had been too late or had failed. Peace couldn't be achieved after all. He would have to fight a god! Prophecy be damned, he would have to fight a god!
Hikari chased all pessimistic thoughts from her mind. There was no time for this. She would have to believe in the Chosen. In Touji. She could still feel him. He was alive, so he would fight. In the meantime, she had to protect her people. To make sure that when the Chosen came back victorious, there would still be a home for them to come back to.
"High Mage, what can we expect?"
The man stared a moment at where his right hand used to be, before giving her an unreadable look through his strange glasses.
"Your worst nightmares walking."
"It'll be fine," said Kaji, surprising everyone with his lighthearted tone. "We just need to buy the Chosen some time, right?"
Misato nodded. "I must go now, your Majesty. The battle awaits."
Drawing Murasame from its sheath the White Knight turned and headed out of the throne room, the huge doors rolling closed behind her with a shuddering bang.
X O X
Shinji grunted in frustration as his blades failed to cut through the black stone golem in front of him. He had to jump back as the stone construct swung a thick arm at him, barely missing.
"Get out of my way!"
Slipping through the golem's defence Shinji pressed his left hand against its torso and summoned a windstorm, throwing the animate against a wall. The golem finally broke up, the impact causing the earlier damage to spread and finally destroy it. His opponent gone, Shinji fell to one knee as he gave himself a moment to catch his breath. It was the third golem he'd encountered since he'd entered the passageway he'd found. He really wished Touji had been with him, earth magic aside, heavy weapons and a blunt end were better for hurting stone rather than thin slashing blades. Even mystically hardened and able to cut into rock, his swords were not ideal weapons. He was tiring himself out with all these guardians.
Nevertheless, Shinji's opposition gave him hope. He was on the right way. The golems were protecting something, something important. The darkness was thicker, stronger in that direction. And within it he could feel Rei's faint presence. Here the air was unmoving, almost stale, yet Shinji could still feel her, just as he could feel Touji's presence where the two had parted. Ever since he and the berserker had found balance, his senses were sharper, keener, as if he no longer had to fear trusting his instincts.
Getting up, the Wind Chosen proceeded further. He couldn't afford to rest for too long. The darkness... he could feel a change in it. It was gaining in strength and that couldn't be good.
He had been fighting another golem when it hit him: a wave of dark energy that was unmistakable. Within him the berserker howled in anticipation of battle. Adam. It was reviving.
He had to hurry.
X O X
It hit her in the soul with unimaginable power. Hurtling down a corridor, Myssa was racing towards Armisael's chambers when the wave struck. It was like the blackest night poured into her veins.
She staggered into a wall, her eyes wide. Her Lady had done it! Adam was waking!
Her limbs shaking from - the exhilaration? - the terror? she pushed herself back upright. This only made getting to Lady Armisael more important.
She had to hurry.
X O X
Pain. Rei wasn't unfamiliar with pain. To fight meant to give as well as endure it. That dry fact didn't mean, however, that she was insensitive to it. And so the elf screamed as pain violently brought her back to consciousness. It coursed through her body, from the tip of her hairs to the nails of her toes, assaulting her with the strength of a raging storm.
"My dear Armisael, I would appreciate it if you would please refrain from killing our esteemed guest. A sacrifice, in essence, implies the use of a live subject."
"Don't worry, this spell is designed to hurt, not kill."
Recognition. Rei knew the voice. It was that of the dark elf she had battled in Tokyo. Though her thoughts were still mumbled from her forced awakening, she could sharply recall what had happened.
Shame. Rei had lost to that woman. Thought the fight had hardly been fair, that was to be expected of a fight between magic users. What some would call a dirty trick, others called a clever technique. Rei had simply been over-matched in terms of skills both with blade and art. To one who had dedicated her all to her cause as champion of Lilith such a loss was bitter.
"While I am impressed by your ability for carefully crafted torture, nevertheless she is awake and we are short on time. So I'm afraid playing with her is a luxury we can't afford. You will have to wait after Adam's revival to sate your lust for revenge upon her kin."
Armisael let out an "humph" of frustration, but didn't protest otherwise.
Helplessness. As feeling returned to Rei's body she came to grasp how dire her situation was. Her clothes had been removed, leaving her skin chilled from exposure and now raw and aching from the effects of the dark elf's spell. Shackles imprisoned her wrists and ankles, hard metal biting into her flesh and keeping her immobilized and spread eagle. Her back was resting uncomfortably against a stone-hard surface, uneven and painfully rough; but the vantage was too high to be the floor. A slab perhaps? No, a ritual altar, she realized. Instantly her mind flashed to the vision that had been forced on her by that Kagenoshi of fear on their return from Darnk. Though she had tried to suppress it as just an enemy's mind trick, the elf had never been able to totally remove it from her mind. And now... Rei felt panic rise within her as she recalled what the male voice had labeled her: a sacrifice.
Fear. Her eyes snapped open as adrenaline surged. The room was dark, barely lit by glow globes that cast an eerie light. On the ceiling was carved a wide circle covered in spell casting runes, most of them unknown to her. A glance at the floor revealed that a similar circle had been engraved around her altar. First she saw the dark elf woman to her right, the blood-red eyes in that dark face burning with hatred and scorn, her form almost blending in the surrounding darkness. But it wasn't her that set Rei's heart pounding violently. No, it was the other one. The darkness in the room was so thick she couldn't sense him... there! Painfully twisting her head to look to her left, the muscles of her neck aching, she saw him standing there, staring, and her heart pained as she recognized him. He was badly deformed, his right arm missing, while the skin of his face was peeling off, but she recognized him nonetheless. Goddess, Shinji had been right!
This was Kaworu the Brave.
Despair. Standing where he was she was completely exposed to him. Yet as his one good eye stared right into her own, only then did Rei felt truly naked. There was something ancient, dark and powerful in that gaze. It felt as if he was looking beyond her, weighing her worth. The contact lasted for a moment before he smirked. He knew. He recognized that she knew who he was, but that such knowledge was useless. The time it could have profited her had passed. And just to prove that point, he raised his remaining hand where three dark crystals that she could feel were the pieces of Adam's heart floated. Around them circled smaller dark crystal slivers, which she guessed had been the animated forces of the fallen Kagenoshi. With a push of his will, they moved forward, past the magic circle that surrounded her slab to end up floating over her. The runes of the circle hummed with power.
"Rei Ayanami, Water Chosen of Lilith. We meet at last."
"You call yourself Tabris," said Rei quietly, evenly, as she attempted to hide just how terrified she was. To her credit, very little emotion bled from her usual monotone. "Why did you capture me? As long as I live I will seek to stop you."
"Oh, but you know why, my dear. You have foreseen it. You just want me to say it, in the hopes that as long as I'm monologuing, you'll be delaying the inevitable. Unfortunately, the untimely arrival of your little friends is forcing my to accelerate my timetable, so we'll be proceeding right away."
Hope. They were here? The other Chosen were here? Shinji was here? Rei clutched to that thought like a lifeline as she tried to not give into her very palpable terror. It didn't matter if he couldn't save her, but if he could at least disrupt Adam's revival...
"He won't make it in time," said Tabris, as if reading her mind. "There won't be any last second rescue, no last minute escapes, no heart-pounding heroics." Rei's eyes widened as the other high elf pulled something from his trousers. The water crest! He showed it to her for a few seconds, then with his fingers, snapped it in half! "It is time to accept the truth: there is no hope."
Doubt. Rei tried to hold unto the hope of her friends coming in time, but the vision of the water crest being destroyed before her very eyes was a powerful statement. Her fears returned as Tabris moved away from her and motioned for his dark elf companion to move forward.
"With my body in this shape, I'm afraid that the honor is all yours, my dear Armisael. Activate the ritual circle. Bring your father back to life!"
"Yes, Lord Tabris!"
Wrongness. Despite how critical the situation was, Rei couldn't help but observe just how wrong something was with the events taking place. The dark elf had this glint to her eyes. There was something more... And the way Tabris was smirking...
As the dark elf began to chant, Rei wanted to tell her to stop. This was wrong. Not just the awakening of Adam, but something was wrong with the ritual itself. Cold, vile, crushing... but strangely hollow. But she couldn't speak, couldn't move. She couldn't even breathe. The chant went on and on, driving a sickly sensation into her body and mind as something told her this wasn't right!
And then the spell activated, the runes engraved around Rei glowing with purple, malevolent light. A terrible howl of screaming followed... but not supplied by Rei, rather the dark elf woman! Armisael screamed in utter pain and terror as her body begun to convulse. Under Rei's very eyes, she saw the woman's blood begin to ooze from every pore, every orifice. Her very life was brutally expelled, as it floated like tiny wet crimson ribbons towards Rei as well as the three floating crystals above her. Rei felt her former adversary's lifeblood spatter over her naked skin and then slither with a life or its own, scrawling a pattern of bloody runes all over her. But the majority of the rich blood coalesced around the crystals, enveloping them in a crimson bubble. Then the former proud dark elf woman fell like a dry husk. There was nothing then but silence. That is, until the blood bubble begun to shrink, as it was absorbed by the crystals, until they reappeared, united as one.
A heart made of unholy stone. Powerful, terrible, alien. But terribly, terribly still. And the in the fading echo of the dead woman's screams, utterly silent.
"You killed your companion," stated Rei, not understanding what had just happened. Had Tabris hurried too much and failed to revive Adam?
Tabris merely nonchalantly shrugged. "Technically, she conducted the ritual, so she was the one who killed herself."
"You commanded her."
The white haired elf smirked. "So you could tell? Well, do the semantics matter? It was her purpose all along, why I saved her from death so many years ago. After all, you can't just glue something like Adam's heart together; a medium was required. Something rich, rich in both dark energies and just teeming with life."
"She was your companion," insisted Rei, though she couldn't figure why this upset her. Hadn't that woman been her enemy?
"What of it? She was a tool, nothing more. And now that her purpose is served, there is no need for her anymore. Surely you understand. I've watched you, you know, for longer than you realize. You have a goal, an objective that you must accomplish no matter the cost. And for that, you've cast away your emotions. All that matters is the mission and completing the task started so long ago. And if required to, you'd sacrifice your companions too."
"No. I am not like you. You are a monster, an abomination."
"And what are you, Rei Ayanami? Have your people ever bothered to tell you the secret behind your reincarnations? No, of course they haven't. Allow me to enlighten you, old friend. It's fitting that you know before the end of everything... since you were there at the beginning. You see, my dear, reincarnation is an abnormality of life. Nevertheless, your kin came up with this plan. As the original Rei Ayanami lay dying of old age, they created a ritual to transfer her soul into the unborn child of her own daughter."
Tabris laughed. A sinister, haunting laugh.
"Such a practice, however, was done so rarely it could never be perfected," he continued. "Two souls can't co-habit the same body. Either the two merge, or the dominant one consumes the other. In the end, the soul is changed. This is why your memories of the past are so fragmented. Which incarnation are you? The fourth? Or is it more? And the practice was repeated until today. Such disgusting spiritual incest. And you dare call me an aberration? I am what I always was, and I don't pretend otherwise. You, on the other hand, parade as a paragon of good while you are nothing more than the living sin of your people, trying desperately to make up for mistakes made thousands of years ago."
Denial. Impossible! He was just taunting her. He couldn't be speaking the truth.
"It matters little if you believe me or not. Look, it's starting."
Madness. The ritual hadn't been a failure, as Rei had first thought. The effect has simply been delayed as the heart was repairing its damage. The first beat of the reborn heart felt like thunder as it nearly deafened the helpless Water Chosen. Though each subsequent beat lessened in intensity, each one projected a wave of darkness and malice that Rei knew would be felt in the entire kingdom, if not beyond. As the crystalline heart beat with renewed life, its dark intent spread further and further. But beyond that, there was something fundamentally wrong with it. There was life, and certainly an inherent darkness to it, but Rei felt no will, no consciousness. Something was missing.
Understanding. As Rei's eyes moved from the heart to Tabris, everything finally fell into place. Her original assumption had been wrong. Kaworu the Brave had become more than a mere Kagenoshi.
"You are Adam," she barely dared breathe.
"Ah! So you understand! Splendid! I'd clap, if I still had two hands. Yes, my dear, I'm Adam. Or at the very least, the part of myself holding my consciousness. When Kaworu cut into me so long ago, I had to separate my mind from my powers: it was the only way to keep the pain from killing me. While my heart shards received my power, my mind imbedded itself into my attempted murderer; what an irony. So when I said two souls can't co-exist, I know what I'm talking about. It took me centuries to finally extinguish that stubborn soul, and the time needed to find all the pieces of my heart... well, that's a tale I'm afraid we don't have time for. But in a few moments, I will rejoin myself. It's a pity you won't witness it, but I'm glad you understood before the end. Do you realize that my very own children never actually suspected it? Makes me kind of disappointed in my own offspring."
"You used the dark elf for your revival. What do you need me for?"
"You? I couldn't care less. Though an imperfect copy attempt by humans birthed during the run up to the Black Wars, your race is what we could call the closest to Lilith. So I intend to use it to gain access to her shrine and then... I will consume her. Once her power is mine, I'll be able to remake this world into a far superior place. I would have used this shell, but as you can see it's very long past its expiration date: holding it together requires quite the effort now. It wouldn't survive the stress of my power, let alone Lilith's. Yours, however, is youthful and still of pure blood, as well as trained to channel massive magical energies. It will do nicely. The fact that I also get to finish what I started three thousand years ago is simply a bonus. And besides, I've grown used to having corporeal flesh. Returning to my old form would be... lacking." Tabris laughed. A mad, sinister laugh. "You should rejoice. Part of you will become the mother of my new world."
Revulsion. Rei shuddered. The visions his words brought to her mind filled her with disgust.
"I will not let you take command of my body."
Adam stepped past the now-deactivated runes and stood over her. "My dear, this isn't something you will have any power to affect, I'm afraid. Taking over Kaworu the Brave was an emergency measure on my part, I hadn't expected him to destroy me. Consuming his soul took considerable time, so I'm not going to repeat the process with you. I'll just kill you, and take your body after. You should rejoice. The cycle of your unholy rebirth will finally come to an end. But enough chit-chat, your little human pet is getting closer and will be here soon. As much as I'd like him to watch me kill you, I can't take the chance of him interrupting me. Goodbye, Rei Ayanami. I'd like to say you won't suffer... but really, this should be quite painful."
Agony! Despite his deceptively weakened body, in a swift move Tabris' left hand plunged into her chest and broke through her sternum. The pain inflicted on her by the deceased Armisael was nothing to what she felt now. Rei couldn't even scream as blood filled her mouth as he tore open her chest cavity, exposing her lungs and beating heart. Her vision faded and she knew she was one step from forever losing consciousness, yet the elf held on. She had to! A few more seconds, a few more moments! The pain was blinding but she fought back, fought hard. As long as she lived, Tabris wouldn't take over her body. If she could just buy Shinji enough time...
"Still alive? How resilient! But I'm afraid you won't live without this for very long."
Emptiness. As Tabris pulled his hand out and showed the elf her own heart, Rei could feel death claiming her. Her vision blackened. She was long past pain, past feeling. She had failed.
Regret. She couldn't even call his name. Shinji...
[To be continued...]