Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 11 Old
Chapter 11 - Legacy of a Utopian Dream
I groaned as my eyes opened to yet another dark, unfamiliar room. But before I could focus my blurry vision, the irritation in my throat sent me into a coughing fit.
...And the lights flicked on in response.
I blinked the tears out of my eyes and regained my sense of the surroundings. I 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 my black uniform hanging neatly from it.
It took several seconds of blank staring before realization sent panic through my mind.
Looking down, I discovered that someone had changed me into a white blouse with pink ribbons that could be adequately described by one word: frilly. My long hair which scattered around me 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 Even the chrome communication ring had been replaced by a platinum white ring with floral pink patterns engraved -- probably serving the same function as before but with a different network.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 my left wrist. My eyes traced it to the left side of my 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 my lips as some semblance of relief came to me; but with it also flowed... disgust, nausea, loss, and sorrow.
Memories of the battle that took place before being knocked out flooded back to me.
The taste of bile filled my mouth as the gruesome deaths of Haidar and Korey replay themselves once again within my mind. I bent over the bed's left side and covered my mouth with both hands, desperately trying to force the content of my stomach back down even as my eyes watered and dropped tears onto the bare floor below.
Anxiety overtook me for a moment; but in the end I managed to push it back down, leaving the most disgusting taste in my mouth.
It was the last emotion that I should match their memories with, and it only made me feel worse.
I knew that they were soldiers, that they were special ops. I knew that we had only met a few days ago, and only out of a desire to make use of my knowledge. But they were also two of the people I had bonded with, whom I had shared smiles and laughter and worries and danger with since my arrival in this foreign world.
Perhaps even more importantly, I had become their comrade, their teammate. I had accepted Arkadi's offer, a responsibility, and now... a guilt.
I was supposed to coordinate, to watch their backs.
I could only plead to my conscience as more tears trickled out from my eyes.
Two pairs of soft but clear footsteps resounded from the hallway beyond the thin door, and I hurriedly wiped my face with the fluffy comforter that still covered my lower half. My 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 my mouth as my eyes laid upon the bright apple-red hair that registered in my final memory before fading out last night.
She 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 quite 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 my eyes in like no other.
Yet it wasn't just her appearance. It was more than that, an instinctive answer which came from deep within, a realization even more obvious than the last time I saw her:
We were the same kind of people. We were alike.
It was a decree I could not ignore, even though I had absolutely no clue just what we shared in common. But none of that changed the one fact I did know:
Her name was Shirayuki Kaguya, the Crimson Spectre who brought Korey's death.
----- * * * -----
I tied the pink ribbons on the shoulders of my blouse, two on each side, together as I 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 green hakama skirt, straightened out from their folded posture and reached towards her 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 her entrance nearly an hour ago, I had barely gotten a word in before she released me from the bed and rushed me into the bathroom just outside with a smiling but imperative order to 'thoroughly cleanse' myself.
Not like I had much of a choice. Captured scenarios didn't offer many options to a character. So if an antagonist demanded a fresh captive for dungeon interrogation while I had no plan of action, it would be foolish to deny her, however much enmity there may be between us.
...Except I felt none of that coming from her, which had left me thoroughly confused instead.
Shirayuki stood up and invited me 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."
My hands slowed in the middle of uncoiling the starsteel chain from my left arm, where I had wrapped it around for convenience but was hardly a comfortable solution. My eyes blinked as I stared at her in continued bewilderment...
(I'm supposed to be her enemy! What's with the friendly gestures? Or the amiable, almost playful tone?)
"That's right... I haven't properly introduced myself yet, although I believe we've already met at the Brest Gateport," She folded her hands together 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," I responded after bowing back reflexively. "I'm sorry but do we--"
"Yes, I know you," Shirayuki interjected, her eyes widening 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--"
My confusion grew by the second as I 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?"
My sight bounced between focusing on her brilliant peridot left eye and her beautiful pink right eye, both of which felt like they could pierce straight through me. It was a rude thing to do. I knew that personally, but I still couldn't help it as surprise and disbelief spread through my thoughts.
How did she know? And what did she mean by Arvitor Scion? That couldn't be me -- I had only set foot in this world recently. It was outright impossible for me to have received genetic modification from their ether technology before I was even born.
"Nod for yes, shake for no~" Shirayuki teased with a playful smile.
I 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?"
Her words were embellished, but not wrong.
(Still... my attributes?)
Was I really stuck inside a game now? She was even spot on.
Bitter memories bubbled up, and the insults of school-kids who acquainted slowness with stupidity resurfaced for a brief moment...
I returned my focus to Shirayuki in haste and nodded again.
Her hands clapped 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, everything just came together and clicked~!"
Why did the hair factor in? She 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," I raised my 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 to gaze straight into my eyes, her brows frowning.
"The true Arcane Servitors, the original Arcane Servitors, the Scions of The Imperium Project -- ring a bell?"
I shook my head.
"Nope, not a single one."
"You mean... did your parents never tell you whom you were?"
They told me I was the 'scion' to the Reginbrandt Corporation and the daughter of a dynastic family line in commerce; but none of that had any meaning in this world.
Shirayuki sat down besides me and continued as my confusion was all the answer she needed:
"You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, Eternal Chronicle."
Surprise ended up saying the words out loud for me.
"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--?"
Panic, dismay, dread, and denial... feelings I hadn't felt together for a long time rushed into me at once.
Voices of disdain and mockery followed behind -- memories of words said that I had long since banished to the forgotten depth of my mind.
(She's mistaken. She had to be!)
I could feel my pulse spiking, my breath quickening...
(There's no way that's true!)
My hair color wasn't abnormal at all, and neither was my eyes. Just as mother once said, they were just rare traits, part of me that made me a unique person. The fact that I had them didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't imply that I was amongst some branch of civilization from another side of the galaxy that the world didn't even consider human!
(That's impossible, definitely impossible!)
Even discarding the fact that it was simply absurd for me to be modified by their technology before my birth, I was still a normal human, normally born and raised!
"...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...
But weren't they just dreams and hallucinations brought on by fatigue? It was unusual that the details just happened to be right, or at least matched what truth I do know. But weren't they mere coincidences? Or details conjured by the subconscious? Or, given the awakening of my magic, simply signs that highlighted some affinity?
My breath was shortening out as though water poured into my lungs...
Everything had happened too quickly in the past few days, events rushing by so fast that I didn't even have time to seriously consider many of them. I had accepted those hallucinations because they had helped me, and because I really didn't have time to waste glossing over them.
But still, I 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!
"Weirdo!... Freak!... Go back to your fairy woods! We don't want your kind here!"
Voices called out from the darkest corners of my mind; overwhelming fear washed over my senses in an instant.
My shaking hands grasped the blouse over my chest...
"No, no, you're wrong. I'm a normal human being. T-they're just hallucinations, or natural div--"
I realized that my breaths were failing me; but even then my reactions insisted on denying her, on declaring the impossibility of her words...
"Well, they are natural divination, in a sense of the term," Shirayuki answered with perplexed eyes that grew more worried by the second. "They're natural to you because it's your inherent ability. After all, you're the most powerful diviner ever created by humankind--"
"--You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, the 2nd Scion of The Imperium Project--"
"No! I-I'm not!"
"--With perfect hindsight, you're able to access universal information past and present..."
I could hear my voice shaking uncontrollably. I could feel my sweating hands covering up my ears, my rapid pulsing gasps that failed to pull in any air...
Shirayuki's eyes suddenly widened in horrifying realization as she watched me hyperventilate.
"That's... just not...!"
She suddenly leaped back...
"Burst Aura Emanate, Tranquility!"
Magical light, the same apple-red color as Shirayuki's hair, washed over the room. Within an instant, I could feel it sweeping aside my agitation and fear, calming my emotions and returning my thoughts to a steady state. My mental focus doubled its efforts with the help, crushing down upon unwanted thoughts with an iron fist.
My lungs gradually slowed down as her hand gently stroked my back...
(There's no way I will accept something so absurd...)
(There's no reason for me to listen to it.)
I took my time to inhale deeply, several times, several minutes, before my breath smoothed out once again.
"Feeling better?" Shirayuki asked with a still-worried voice as my eyes returned to meet hers, where a genuine mix of concern, surprise, and regret still shone.
I nodded slowly.
"Y-yes, I think. Thank you. 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 me. "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."
She had absolutely zero belief that she could possibly be wrong.
(But she can't be right.)
I forced a faint smile back onto my face and nodded to accept her apology. She was right about one part -- we could deal with all that another day, and I felt sure that the results would prove her wrong... mostly.
"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.)
I would be lying if I claimed that my emotions were completely under control again; but there was a pressing sense of curiosity that I could not ignore. Even more importantly, I had an inexplicable desire to find out more about her and others alike.
(After all, it was her who killed Korey...)
...That excuse failed to convince even myself.
(Heh... 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. Basically, it 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 my forte, but I knew the acceptance that no methodology was anywhere near perfect in those fields. Combining multiple models to round out the weaknesses was common practice.
But to merge 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?)
I quickly pushed the thought aside -- we 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 were passed down, but the gene pool diluted most of them within only a few generations. Shirayuki probably meant that this one didn't, or at least not as quickly...
"In addition to having tremendous magical affinity, built-in longevity treatments, and specially enhanced mental pathways, each of the Arvitor's magically conductive nerve circuitry was manipulated to form a special spell array. It provided a powerful, inherent magical ability equivalent to a Grand Sorcery that should, in some way, support the executive order of governance."
"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 the 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?"
"For those with goals and dreams, special abilities are always better than none. 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."
Her words came out so casually, as though they were natural, common sense that anyone would say without a doubt. Yet they also pierced my thoughts like needles.
(I'm normal... right?)
But normality didn't necessarily equate mediocrity. I worked throughout my life so my skills and achievements could stand above the crowd and speak for themselves; that was special in it's own way.
(Then why not 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."
I didn't think too much about Korey's words at that time. But now his voice replayed itself in my mind, bringing back ill feelings once more.
"...And let me guess -- you want me to join you?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing...
"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 my challenge. Her surprised eyes hardening as her firm voice responded:
"I have no regrets for ridding the world of terrorists who cared nothing for human lives."
I needed to calm down. Showing this level of hostility in my position was like asking to get killed. But my 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 closed them 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."
----- * * * -----
I took a slice of wood-fired strawberry jam 'pizza' and a bowl of winter melon soup from the counter, gave my thanks to the cook, and promptly left the kitchen for my room.
It would be easier to just eat at the large adjacent dining room, but I wasn't in the mood for further introductions today, nor did I wish to deal with the murmurs and stares of the other miko who also ate there.
Some data browsing told me that the miko were Shrinto 'priestesses' from old Japan -- shrine maidens 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 any direct translation.
It was probably 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, it wasn't that I disliked the miko or their leader. I hardly had any rights to preach when I was involved in a black ops myself 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 that.
I 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 I couldn't help but direct my contempt her way.
Yet despite my open hostility, she still treated me kindly. She even allowed me to freely roam the compound as long as I didn't try to escape.
Shirayuki had guaranteed me that while I... thought my options through.
I almost snorted at how much of a farce my request was.
(Options? I have any?)
But even if I were to agree, Shirayuki's offer was based upon her certainty that I was the 2nd Arvitor. Since there was no way that was true, would her decision still hold once the facts were confirmed?
I couldn't but help wonder if Arkadi had assumed the exact same thing...
Was that the real reason why he continued to protect me, to entrust me with responsibilities, to hold faith in my future even after he realized that I was but a college student?
The answer was obvious. I 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.
Sure, he treated his subordinates well 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 upon 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 understood it as well, if Haidar's disgusted glare aboard the Hadrian was any indication.
Could one really blame him though? How could Arkadi 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.
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?
I couldn't answer that. It was not my place to debate upon ethics through the lives of others.
But what I did know, was that his plans had a disastrous flaw, one that any student of management and strategy could point out:
Arkadi sought to rectify the world through villainy, through fear.
Fear sustained nothing... least of all growth and improvement.
It was, at best, only a temporary suppressant. In 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.
Lead by example, not by force -- these 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 I shuddered to imagine how a society rebuilt through fear and anguish would turn out.
In the end, Arkadi was digging deeper into a hole that none could climb out from...
Having returned to my room before I even realized it, I laid my dinner tray onto the table and rushed back out.
I didn't understand why, but my worries over Arkadi kept popping back into my mind. It might be that I still had a debt to repay; because regardless of his motivations, he did save my life from hell. Yet there was still one thing I could do for him.
"This is your only chance to correct your mistake. Failure will not be tolerated."
Those words of Marshal Comorus were no mere threat, but a decree that threatened to close Arkadi's path.
A shiver went up my spine as I relived how blatantly, how stupidly I 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 -- forcing him to choose an alternative...)
I didn't know how, but I felt like my instincts knew which direction I could find Shirayuki in. It was time I gave her a reply, or rather, a proposal of my own.
I dashed up a flight of stairs, down a long corridor, and past several miko who stopped in surprise. My instincts led me to a gate at the end of the hallway. I commanded it to open through my implants, despite the presence of a blast door that signified the importance of the room beyond.
To my 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 me; the other in her twenties, with cream-colored 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 seemed to pass as the organization's casual uniform, which looked exactly like the traditional uniforms of the Shinto shrine maidens.
My breaths were short as I stopped. My mind rushed itself to finish preparing the words I 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 me with an encouraging smile.
"I take it you've reached a decision."
I steeled my 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 in response, beckoning me 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?"
I took one more deep breath before presenting my 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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