Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 11

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Chapter 11 - Legacy of a Utopian Dream

Kannon groaned as her eyes opened to yet another dark, unfamiliar room. But before she could focus her blurry vision, the irritation in her throat sent her into a coughing fit.

...And the lights flicked on in response.

She blinked the tears out of her eyes and regained her sense of the surroundings. She was in a soft, twin-sized bed in the middle of a plain bedroom -- small and squarish with a simple closed wooden door. It had no windows, and only two pieces of utilitarian furniture: a long folding table and a clothing rack like the kind found in department stores, with her black uniform hanging neatly from it.

It took several seconds of blank staring before realization sent panic through her mind.

Looking down, Kannon discovered that someone had changed her into a white blouse with pink ribbons that could be adequately described by one word: frilly. Her long hair which scattered around her had also returned to its natural blossom-pink color. Even the chrome Communication Ring had been replaced by a platinum white ring with floral pink patterns engraved -- probably serving the same function as before but with a different network.

The starsteel chain, however, was still connected to her left wrist. Her eyes traced it to the left side of her pillow, where the other end was wrapped around one of the headboard's fading brass bars and secured in place with a padlock.

Well, at least this is no interrogation room... yet.

A sigh left her lips as some semblance of relief came to her; but with it also flowed... disgust, nausea, loss, and sorrow. Memories of the battle that took place before being knocked out flooded back to Kannon.

The taste of bile filled her mouth as the gruesome deaths of Haidar and Korey replay themselves within her mind. She bent over the bed's left side and covered her mouth with both hands, desperately trying to force the content of her stomach back down even as her eyes watered and dripped tears onto the bare floor below.

Anxiety overtook Kannon for a moment as her face paled. But after several minutes of determined struggling, she managed to push it back down, leaving the most disgusting taste in her mouth. It was the last emotion that she wanted to match their memories with, and it only made her feel worse.

She knew that Korey and Haidar were soldiers, that they were special ops. She knew that she only met them a few days ago, and only out of a desire to make use of her knowledge. But they were also two of the people she had bonded with, whom she had shared smiles and laughter and worries and danger with since her arrival in this foreign world.

Perhaps even more importantly, she had become their comrade, their teammate. She had accepted Arkadi's offer, a responsibility to coordinate, to watch their backs, and now... a guilt.

I'm sorry.

Kannon could only plead to her conscience as more tears trickled out from her eyes.

Two pairs of soft but clear footsteps resounded from the hallway beyond the thin door, and Kannon hurriedly wiped her face with the fluffy comforter that still covered her lower half. Her instincts seized the opportunity as the perfect reason to push unwanted thoughts away.

One set of footsteps stopped some distance away. But with a turn of the old-fashioned doorknob, the other walked gracefully in. A soft gasp escaped her mouth as Kannon laid her eyes upon the bright apple-red hair that registered in her final memory before fading out last night.

Before Kannon was a petite girl of around seventeen, but probably twenty-ish given the Longevity treatments. Although the immaculate features of her almond-shaped face hadn't fully matured into the realm of true beauty, they were certainly pretty enough. Small feminine nose, silky white skin, cute mouth with a hint of cherry lipstick, and two large vibrant heterochromic eyes, peridot-green left and blossom-pink right, all of which framed by her pristine red hair, forming a presence that pulled Kannon's eyes in like no other.

Yet it wasn't just her appearance that took Kannon's breath away. It was more than that -- an instinctive answer which came from deep within, a realization even more obvious than the last time Kannon saw her:

They were the same kind of people. They were alike.

It was a decree Kannon could not ignore, even though she had absolutely no clue just what they shared in common. But none of that changed the one fact she did know:

The redhead's name was Shirayuki Kaguya, the Crimson Spectre who brought Korey's death.


----- * * * -----


Kannon tied the pink ribbons on the shoulders of her blouse, two on each side, together as she stepped out of the bathroom.

"Fresh, clean, and so much better~!"

Shirayuki beamed cheerfully as she sat up on the bed's edge. Her hand waved across the air, presumably to close her AR windows. Her legs, clad in pure white stockings under a mint-green hakama skirt, straightened out from their folded posture and reached towards two strappy sandals on the floor. Pure white robes also covered her upper body, in similar design but stark contrasting colors to the black outfit she wore at the gateport.

After Shirayuki's entrance nearly an hour ago, Kannon had barely gotten a word in before the redhead released her from the bed and rushed her into the bathroom just outside with a smiling but imperative order to 'thoroughly cleanse' herself.

Kannon knew she had no choice. Captured scenarios didn't offer many options. So if the antagonist before her demanded freshness for dungeon interrogation while she had no plan of action, it would be foolish to deny, however much enmity there might be between them. Except... Kannon felt none of that coming from Shirayuki, which had left her thoroughly confused instead.

Shirayuki stood up and invited Kannon to sit down in her place.

"You'll have to forgive me for being too bludgeoning last night, but circumstances didn't warrant a lengthy exposition."

Kannon's hands slowed in the middle of uncoiling the starsteel chain from her left arm, where she had wrapped it around for convenience but was hardly a comfortable solution. Her eyes blinked as she stared at the other girl in continued bewilderment...

I'm supposed to be her enemy! What's with the friendly gestures? Or the amiable, almost playful tone?

"Oh, that's right... I haven't properly introduced myself yet, although we've already met at the Brest Gateport," Shirayuki folded her hands over her lap and bowed before continuing the self-introduction with her rapid-fire speech in Japanese. "I'm Shirayuki Kaguya ~ Miko-Hime of the Eclipse, Arvitor of the 6th, also known as Aura Dominion by my friends and Crimson Spectre by my foes."

"...I'm Kannon Reginbrandt, Guardian of Otherworldly Knowledge," Kannon responded after bowing back reflexively. "I'm sorry but do we--"

"Yes, I know you," Shirayuki interjected, her eyes widened just a hair in surprise but quickly turned to that of amusement. "Or I should say that I don't know the real you quite yet but I do know your template--"

Kannon's confusion grew by the second as she moved to sit down on the bed...

"--Although I was quite puzzled why an Arvitor Scion was working for the Black Hand. The answer came obvious though ~ you're the girl that came through the wormhole and triggered all the recent commotion, aren't you?"

She found her gaze bouncing between Shirayuki's brilliant peridot left eye and the beautiful pink right eye, both of which felt like they could see right through her. It was a rude thing to do. She knew that from personal experience, but she still couldn't help it as surprise and disbelief spread through her thoughts.

How does she know? And what does she mean by Arvitor Scion?

Kannon knew it couldn't be herself -- she had only recently set foot in this world. It was outright impossible for her to have received genetic modification from their ether technology before she was even born.

"Nod for yes, shake for no~" Shirayuki teased with a playful smile.

Kannon began to nod...

"...I-I am from the other side... but I think you're mistaking me for someone; I'm just a normal college student."

"Mmmh~ I guess the records weren't kidding when they said your attributes don't normally process information very fast. But let me guess -- the Black Prince in shining armor rescued you from the demonic fortress Hadrian just before he blew it up so you didn't have a choice but to tag along?"

Shirayuki's words were embellished, but they weren't wrong.

Still... my attributes? Am I really stuck inside a game now? She's even spot on.

Bitter memories bubbled up in Kannon's mind, and the insults of school-kids who acquainted slowness with stupidity resurfaced for a brief moment... before she returned her focus to Shirayuki in haste and nodded again.

The other girl clapped her hands together in excitement, extruding an aura of innocence completely unnatural to her occupation.

"I knew it! The moment Ikram leaked to me that the intruder from across the wormhole was a short teenager girl with unusual hair and eyes, everything just came together and clicked~!"

Why does the hair matter? You didn't even see my real hair color at the gateport.

"Sorry, but... could you start from--"

"Right right, I forgot, you probably don't have much info about me or the other Arvitor Scions over there." Shirayuki began pacing around the bed in quick steps. "Le'see~ where to start..."

"Actually," Kannon raised her forearm and waved. "I do know whom the Arvitors are; but I'm rather lost on what you mean by Arvitor Scions."

Shirayuki promptly spun back around, her brows frowning as she gazed straight into Kannon's eye.

"The true Arcane Servitors, the original Arcane Servitors, the Scions of The Imperium Project -- ring a bell?"

Kannon shook her head.

"Nope, not a single one."

"You mean... did your parents never tell you whom you were?"

...They told me I'm the 'scion' to the Reginbrandt Group and the daughter of a dynastic family line in commerce and technology; but none of that had any meaning in this world.

Shirayuki sat down besides Kannon and continued as the younger girl's confusion was all the answer she needed:

"You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, Eternal Chronicle."

Kannon's mind went blank as she stared at the other girl... then stared some more...

Excuse me!?

Surprise ended up saying the words out loud for her.

"But, but that's impossible! I can't be an Arvitor! I'm not even from this side of the galaxy!"

"And you think that it's perfectly normal for humans to grow pink hair? Or that heterochromia of yours--?"

No.

Panic, dismay, dread, and denial... feelings Kannon hadn't felt together for a long time rushed into her at once.

No...

Voices of disdain and mockery followed behind -- memories of words said that Kannon had long since banished to the forgotten depth of her mind. The hurtful bullying of children as they copied malicious words from their parents; the evil whispers and dark glares from adults around the corner:

"...Weirdo!... Freak!... Go back to your fairy woods! We don't want your slutty kind here!..."

She's mistaken. She had to be!

Kannon didn't believe her hair color was abnormal, and neither was her eyes. Her mother once taught her that they were just rare traits, parts of her that made her a unique person. The fact that she had them didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't imply that she was amongst some branch of civilization from another side of the galaxy that the world didn't even consider human!

There's no way that's true!

Even discarding the absurdity of her being modified by their technology before her birth, Kannon knew for certain that she was still a normal human, normally born and raised!

That's impossible, definitely impossible!

"...That alien bitch can't even age like a real human being... Trying to make her daughter the family heir? She needs to learn her place..."

Kannon's pulse spiked. Her breath quickened. Her pupil dilated as her eye widened. A faint tremor began from the tips of her fingers and quickly spread up her arms. But...

Shirayuki did not heed a single one of these signs as she began to pace back and forth, searching her mind for more evidence to convince the refusing girl before her eyes.

"--What about strange visions and things that you shouldn't see? Your inherent ability should have awakened since your magic aura is active..."

Across the wormhole, during the skirmish in space, and even just two day ago... Kannon couldn't refute what she saw, not when the memories were still fresh. She had set them aside as dreams and hallucinations brought on by fatigue. She ignored them as mere coincidences that just happened to match the right details, conjured by a desperate subconsciousness or the awakening of some natural magical affinity.

Images of the Arcane Core aboard the Somerset drifted into her mind: Arvitors who were no longer human, who weren't even treated as human, mere parts in a magical reactor.

Her countenance grew deathly pale. Her breath shortened out as though water poured into her lungs...

Everything had happened too quickly in the past few days, events rushing by so fast that Kannon didn't even have time to seriously consider many of them. She had accepted those hallucinations because they had helped her, and because she really didn't have time to waste glossing over them. But regardless of that, Kannon knew she was just a normal girl born into a high class family -- with an above average magical affinity according to Arkadi -- there was nothing unusual other than that!

Voices called out from the darkest corners of her mind. Overwhelming fear washed over her senses in an instant. Kannon remembered that when the words ended, when those who cared proved to be out of earshot, that's when the vicious began their worst: ramming her at corners, kicking her under tables, tripping her near stairs, and on rare occasions -- outright beating her.

"...She's just like that worthless gold-digging whore of a mother who spawned her..."

Her head shook slowly as her eye quivered. Her shaking hands grasped her blouse and crumbled it over her chest...

"No, no, you're wrong. I'm a normal human being. T-they're just hallucinations, or natural div--"

Even though Kannon's breaths were beginning to fail, her reactions insisted on denying Shirayuki, on continuing to declare the impossibility of those words...

"Well, they are natural divination, in a sense of the term," Shirayuki answered as she finally stopped in one spot and turned towards Kannon with perplexed eyes. "They're natural to you because it's your inherent ability. After all, you're the most powerful diviner ever created by humankind--"

"N-no! I-I'm not!"

"--You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, the 2nd Scion of The Imperium Project..."

"T-that's impossible!"

Shirayuki's examining gaze took in a girl who trembled as uncontrollably as her voice, whose sweating hands covered her eyes, whose breathed through rapid, pulsing gasps that failed to pull in any air. The redhead's eyes suddenly widened in horrifying realization as they watched Kannon hyperventilate...

"That's... just not...!"

Without hesitation, Shirayuki crouched down to envelope Kannon into a warm, but not too tight embrace.

"Burst Aura Emanate, Tranquility!"

Magical light, the same apple-red color as Shirayuki's hair, washed over the room. Within an instant, Kannon could feel it sweeping aside her agitation and fear, calming her emotions and returning her thoughts to a steady state. Her mental focus redoubled its efforts with the help, crushing down upon unwanted thoughts with an iron fist.

"Breath, slowly."

Kannon's breaths gradually slowed, lungs inhaling deeply as Shirayuki's hand gently stroked her back...

There's no way I will accept something so absurd... No way...


----- * * * -----


Neither of them knew how many minutes, or dozens of minutes, passed before Kannon's breath smoothed out again.

"Feeling better?" Shirayuki asked with a still-worried voice as Kannon met her gaze, where a genuine mix of concern, surprise, and regret still shone.

The younger girl nodded slowly.

"Y-yes, I think. Thank you. B-but... just so you know... calming me down isn't going to make me accept your rushed presumptions."

"Right, right," Shirayuki sighed as she sat back down on the bed next to Kannon. "My apologies. You're right, I could be wrong. It's only a theory after all. I can't prove either result until we perform some serious DNA tests on you."

Liar.

Kannon could tell easily: Shirayuki held absolutely zero belief that she could possibly be wrong.

But she can't be right.

Kannon forced a faint smile back onto her face and nodded to accept the older girl's apology. She agreed with Shirayuki about one part -- they could deal with all that another day, and she felt sure that the results would prove the redhead wrong... almost certain.

"Do you still want to know about the Arvitor Scions then?"

Well... as long as we have that understanding, I still want to know what she's talking about.

Kannon knew that her emotions weren't completely under control yet. But there was a pressing sense of curiosity that she could not ignore, an inexplicable desire to find out more about Shirayuki and others alike.

"Yes, please."

After all, it was her who killed Korey...

Kannon instantly realized her miserable excuse failed to convince even herself.

...Me, revenge? Who am I kidding.

"I'll explain from the start then."

Shirayuki took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second before launching into her monologue:

"It began as a part of The Imperium Project, which was a magical genetic engineering project started during the final years of the Avalonian Dominion. House Sylvestris, one of the Nine Archmagi Families, started it when they realized that the social problems plaguing the Dominion could not be solved without a major structural reform."

"The project's ambition sought to bring forth the ancient idealism of Philosopher Kings into reality as a counterbalance to the flaws of shortsightedness inherent to Representative government -- since bureacrats voted by popular election mostly cared for immediate results to boost popularity during their term years, ignoring social and infrastructural projects that pay slow dividends but are invaluable to long-term growth. Basically, the project was a vision to create what they hoped to be the 'perfect form of governance' by merging the visionary decisiveness of Enlightened Absolutism with the balanced moderation of Representative Republics, hoping to bring out the best of both."

Philosophy and politics were hardly Kannon's forte, but she knew the accepted belief that no methodology was anywhere near perfect on its own. Combining multiple models to round out the weaknesses was common practice.

But... merging democracy with dictatorship? How would such a contradiction work?

"In addition to House Sylvestris, the project was assisted by six other branches of the Nine Archmagi Families. After decades of work, they gave birth to the original seven Arcane Servitors, named so because they were supposed to be the ideal set of advisers to both select and support a truly enlightened monarch. Amongst them was my mother, the first Aura Dominion and Arvitor of the 6th."

Isn't mother's maiden name Viviane Sylvestris?

Kannon quickly pushed the thought aside -- they had already decided to tackle that at a later date.

"Then the term Arvitor--"

"It came from us. All the others were just magical-genetically modified humans, which the public shortened to Genies; although even from the start it was used derogatorily. Almost all human descendents in Avalon were genetically altered one way or another to survive the initial colonization effort. Why does it matter whether the modifications were magical or not?"

Shirayuki shrugged off her rising agitation before continuing on.

"But the revolutions brought an end to the Dominion before the project's scions even grew up. With the destruction of the Nine Archmagi Families and the rest of upper magical society, the entire project met a premature end. However, all seven Arvitors were said to have survived the war. Since our genetic modifications were designed for dynastic passage, our lineages will continue."

All genetic engineering passed down, but the gene pool diluted most of them within only a few generations. Kannon figured that either this one didn't, or simply not as quickly...

"In addition to having tremendous magical affinity, built-in longevity treatments, and purposely enhanced mental pathways, each of the Arvitor's magically conductive nerve circuitry was manipulated to form a special spell array. It provided an inherent magical ability equivalent to a Grand Sorcery -- leading to a powerful magical affinity -- that should, in some way, support the executive order of governance. The Eternal Chronicle, for example, is our strongest diviner."

Kannon almost rolled her eyes in disbelief.

"So... don't tell me, is Eternal supposed to have foresight or something?"

"Foresight?" the redhead raised an eyebrow. "How is that supposed to be useful? Congratulations, you finally broke the time barrier -- which is taboo, by the way -- and discovered one of countless possible futures forged from infinite permutations of choices in the upcoming decisions; your knowledge is now more likely to spark the wrong assumption and lead to a fatal mistake... No. What you... Eternal has is far more powerful given any well-applied intellect: it's called Perfect Hindsight."

Seeing Kannon's frown, Shirayuki gave a knowing smile:

"Yes, I know 'hindsight is twenty-twenty' and all that. But comeon, what's the most powerful, most valuable resource in the galaxy?"

"Information." Kannon didn't even blink before giving the answer any business-woman knew by heart.

"Precisely. Now consider if one can access any information in the known universe as long as it's in the past -- four microseconds old is past too -- as long as one can connect two of who, when, where, and has the capacity to observe and comprehend it."

Shirayuki paused to let her explanation sink in. Her amused smile grew steadily as Kannon's eyes widened like she just solved the riddle of life.

The availability of information is a fundamental restraint in every field of study; without that...

"Oh we still have limitations," Shirayuki added as though reading Kannon's thoughts. "Like I said, capacity to observe and understand: stars are always visible, but merely staring at it never taught anyone the secrets of fusion. There's also the fact Eternal's magic is fueled and limited by her ether supply, just like the rest of us. Eternal Chronicle's magic is just a more efficient means of acquiring information; it's not omniscience."

Kannon almost felt disappointed... almost. As tempting as omniscience was, she had no doubt that Shirayuki's last sentence could easily be exchanged for 'Eternal Chronicle is just a tool...' As a normal human being, there was no way she would want to inherit such a role.

"Information, communications, relations, direct operations, etcetera, each of us brings an important role to create an ideal leadership team. The path of kingship is lonely and isolated individuals are prone to err, but that's what we're here for. Aegis Paramount, Eternal Chronicle, Infinite Junction, Holy Judgment, Duality Order, Aura Dominion, and Spirit Nexus..." Shirayuki listed as she counted them off with her fingers, "that makes all seven of us."

Impressive sounding set of names, prophesied to become the merry band of adventurers that will save the world, no doubt.

"There is a legend among our people which claims that whoever unites the seven Arvitor Scions and gain their support will re-unify the Avalonian Republic." A smile stretched across her small mouth as her eyes sparkled. "What they don't know is how close to truth they actually are~"

"And you just accept it that easily?"

Shirayuki shrugged.

"For those with goals and dreams, having special abilities and carrying responsibilities is always better than not. We all seek to refine ourselves. In war, to uphold our beliefs. In peace, to live out our desires. Only those without true goals, true meaning in their lives, would seek mediocrity and normality."

Shirayuki spoke so casually, as though her words were natural, common sense that anyone would say without a doubt. Yet they also pierced Kannon's thoughts like needles.

I'm normal... right?

But normality did not necessarily equate mediocrity. Kannon worked throughout her life so her skills and achievements could stand above the crowd and speak for themselves; that was special in it's own way.

Then... can I take that extra step to accept some more?

"Mediocrity and powerlessness is the worst frustration one could feel, and I've cursed my birth far more than I could count for not being born elite, with the opportunity to do something about it all."

Kannon didn't think too much about Korey's words at that time. But now his voice replayed itself in her mind, bringing back ill feelings once more.

"...And let me guess -- you want me to join you?"

"Correct~"

I can't believe what I'm hearing...

Annoyance and something akin to anger flared within Kannon as she continued.

"Even though I'm not the Arvitor you're looking for?"

"There is a chance of that. But even if you weren't, we could still use your expertise from the old world."

The nerve of her to ask immediately after...

"...And what make you think I would join someone who just murdered my comrades one night prior?"

Shirayuki froze at the younger girl's challenge, caught completely off-guard. Then, her surprised eyes hardened as her firm voice responded:

"I have no regrets for ridding the world of terrorists who cared nothing for human lives."

Kannon knew she needed to calm down. That showing this level of hostility in her position was like asking to get killed. But her emotions didn't care for that a bit as they plowed on.

"Aren't you the same?"

Anger flashed in Shirayuki's eyes before she forced them close and sighed.

"In the eye of the beholder, I guess... But charades and pretensions aside, I don't believe you have much of a choice, milady."


----- * * * -----


Kannon took a slice of wood-fired strawberry jam 'pizza' and a bowl of winter melon soup from the counter. She gave thanks to the cook and promptly left the kitchen for her room.

It would be easier to just eat at the large, adjacent dining room, but she wasn't in the mood for further introductions today; nor did she wish to deal with the murmurs and stares of the other Ecliptic Mikos who also ate there.

Some data browsing taught her that the 'miko' were Shinto shrine maidens from old Japan -- priestesses of a pagan religion, to be more exact. Shirayuki's 'Miko-Hime' wasn't a historical title though; it meant something like 'shrine princess', but there really wasn't a mirror word in English. It was the reason why the Comm Ring didn't translate ranks half the time. Unless a direct translation was available, cramming exotic ranks into common ones was likely to cause confusion later in regards to identification and responsibilities.

In either case, Kannon didn't dislike the Ecliptic Mikos or their leader. She hardly had any rights to preach ethics when she was involved in a black operation herself merely hours ago. Besides, they were an organization who focused mostly on military targets while striving to free their own people, the Arvitors, from slavery... Anyone could sympathize with such a noble goal.

She understood that Korey was also a terrorist, and that Shirayuki was also a soldier. She had killed an enemy on the battlefield with all the swiftness of a professional. There was nothing personal about it.

But Korey was a comrade and a friend, and Kannon couldn't help but direct her contempt towards Shirayuki.

Yet despite Kannon's open hostility, Shirayuki still treated her kindly. The Miko-Hime even allowed her to freely roam the compound as long as she didn't try to escape. Shirayuki had guaranteed her safety while Kannon... thought her options through.

Options? I have any?

Kannon thought about how much of a farce her request was.

But even if she was to agree, Shirayuki's offer was based upon the certainty that Kannon was the 2nd Arvitor...

Since there's no way that's true, will her decision still hold once we confirm the facts?

Kannon couldn't but help wonder if Arkadi had assumed the exact same thing... Was that the real reason why the Captain continued to protect her, to entrust her with responsibilities, to hold faith in her future even after he realized that she was but a college student?

The answer felt obvious. She had merely been avoiding it.

For the Captain who didn't bat an eye when he killed his teammate, who didn't show the slightest misgiving for nuking an entire city block, who spoke of genocide without an ounce of hesitation...

Everyone in the world was just another disposable tool. Everyone... including himself.

Kannon saw how Captain Arkadi treated his subordinates with respect and took it upon himself to minimize the risks. But in retrospect, even that was more like 'treasuring capital assets' than bonding with comrades. He took care of them the same way one would maintain critical equipment. But when the situation called upon it, decisions would always fall back on one simple rule -- equipment, no matter how valuable, could be discarded and replenished later. In the end, even the members of his own, personally-lead team were no more than sets of numbers, attributes, and skills.

...And those under his command knew it as well, if Haidar's disgusted glare aboard the Hadrian was any indication.

Yet, Kannon couldn't blame Arkadi. How could he be expected to form human bonds, to seek camaraderie when he saw even himself as just another sacrifice in the overall plan?

It was likely that Arkadi had cast aside his humanity ever since that fateful day eighteen years ago -- the day when he walked into a restaurant intending to take revenge for his parents, but walked out as a pawn of their murderer. He had discarded his pride, his conscience, his past... He had betrayed his very self, all for an opportunity to a plan that would evolve into his own form of ultimate justice.

But...

Even if it was pessimistically realistic, even if the end really did justify the means, could ethical considerations of consequentialism and utilitarianism even hold up when applied to atrocities as heinous as genocide?

Kannon couldn't answer that. It was not her place to debate upon ethics through the lives of others.

But what she did know, was that his plans had a disastrous flaw, one that any student of management and strategy could point out:

Arkadi seeks to rectify the world through villainy, through fear.

Fear sustains nothing... least of all growth and improvement.

Kannon considered fear as only a temporary suppressant and deterrent at best. But the long run, fear, like all other negativity, could only undermine progress, reverse gains, and ultimately rip apart any organization, be it a team, a company, or a nation. It was basic managerial knowledge to utilize positive reinforcement to achieve lasting improvement, as reliance on negatives like punishment will only sow distrust and discord.

"Lead by example, not by force" -- the words of Sun Tzu, restated countless times over the centuries by generals, statesmen, and philosophers alike, highlighted the very foundation of guidance and leadership.

Society, like all others, could not be forced to take the right path. It could only be shown, and Kannon shuddered to imagine how a society rebuilt through fear and anguish would turn out.

Captain Arkadi is digging himself deeper into a hole that none could climb out from...

Having returned to her room before she even realized it, Kannon laid her dinner tray onto the table and rushed back out.

She didn't understand why, but her worries over Arkadi kept popping back into her mind. Maybe it was because she still had a debt to repay; because regardless of his motivations, he did save her life from hell. Yet there was still one thing she could do for him.

"This is your only chance to correct your mistake. Failure will not be tolerated."

The words of Marshal Comorus were no mere threat, but a decree that threatened to close Arkadi's path.

A shiver went up her spine as Kannon relived how blatantly, how stupidly she approached him later that same night.

The world is no fairy tale. Empathic words alone mean nothing. Belief must be applied alongside action and force -- me forcing him to choose an alternative...

Kannon didn't understand how, but she felt like her instincts knew which direction she could find Shirayuki in. She decided it was time to give the Miko-Hime a reply, or rather, a proposal of her own.

She dashed up a flight of stairs, down a long corridor, and past several Ecliptics who stopped in surprise. Her instincts led her to a gate at the end of the hallway. She then commanded it to open through her implants, despite the presence of a blast door that signified the importance of the room beyond.

To Kannon's surprise, the gate actually opened. A large, traditional Japanese-style room laid beyond, complete with tatami mats and shoji-decorated walls. In the center of the room, the three leaders of the Eclipse sat on their heels in formal seiza posture: Shirayuki plus two of her lieutenants -- a late-teens young lady with short spring-green hair whose sharp, grass-green glare instantly turned to focused on Kannon; the other in her twenties, with cream-white hair that descended down her back to reach the floor and a gracious smile under her closed eyes. All three of them also wore what passed as the organization's casual uniform, which looked exactly like the traditional uniforms of the Shinto shrine maidens except in varying skirt colors.

Kannon found herself short of breath as she came to a stop. Her mind rushed itself to finish preparing the words she would so desperately need in another few seconds...

Shirayuki herself hadn't even bothered to open her eyes as she calmly finished her drink. Her gaze then focused itself upon the teacup as she lowered it back onto the floor before shifting towards Kannon with an encouraging smile.

"I take it you've reached a decision."

Kannon steeled her best negotiation face and nodded.

"I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I'll accept your offer -- except I do have one condition."

Shirayuki nodded, beckoning Kannon to continue.

"I request your aid to save Arkadi Kernow... no, Arkadi Simarshall, now Commandant of the 1st District Black Hand special ops."

Surprise spread across the trio as eyes widened and eyebrows raised, but none of them voiced a single unnecessary word.

"May I ask just how you plan to achieve this?"

Kannon took one more deep breath before presenting her proposal to Shirayuki:

"Provide assistance to Kayeten Hans-Rudel of the 3rd District. Crush Arkadi's next operation and capture him."



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