Avalon:Volume 1 Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - Dreams of Perfection
The dining hall was the very definition of utilitarian -- white walls of chipped, fading paint stood atop a bare ceramicrete floor, occupied by two rows of simple, folding tables; even more basic, stamped-steel chairs flanked them, bare metal exposed without even the decency of colorful dyes.
Everything about the room offended his sensibilities. His mind longed to redecorate the room, as it presented elaborate plans that overlaid atop the imagery from his eyes like Augmented-Reality. His soul pleaded to remake every object, for their crude existence was an affront to civilized human culture.
Yet he could not. His direct supervisor and ultimate boss -- who also happened to be his adoptive mother -- expressly forbade it.
Sometimes life just wasn't fair. But at least he could take refuge among the blessed individuals who sat within the dining hall. They weren't all as handsome or as beautiful as himself, of course; expecting that would be greedy.
A dozen pairs of eyes turned as he, Colonel Kayeten Hans-Rudel, the Lancet Centurion and Commanding Officer (CO) of the Avalonian Republic 3rd District 36th Assault Legion, stepped over the threshold and into the room.
His brilliant smile was as immaculate as ever, infectious and charming even without his favorite sparkling spell. His emerald-green eyes brimmed with energy atop a boyishly handsome face, accentuated by golden hair neatly-trimmed in a short bob-cut. With youthful maturity exemplified by his one-eighty-six (6'3") tall and firm Scandinavian build that struck the perfect compromise between strength and grace, Kayeten appeared just a bit over twenty despite being thirty years of age -- a courtesy bestowed by Longevity treatments.
With his lunch tray in one hand, Kayeten waved happily with the other. Nearly three-quarters of the room's occupants were female, and therefore pretty by natural order, insofar as his opinions went. The gender imbalance highlighted the heavy casualties his Auxilia squads took during the last battle, but it would be a sin for him to impose such worries upon the fair maidens.
Most of them, anyway. The leaders could not avoid such concerns. It was part of their responsibility as the stronger minds.
Kayeten walked over to the command team of the Moonlit Eclipse, a quad of young ladies from the religious paramilitary group composed of Mahayana Buddhists and Shinto-Buddhists. It was no surprise that they were predominantly Oriental in ancestry. With his plate of instant noodles and Swedish meatballs on the table, he gracefully sat down on a spot in-between all four of them.
Being surrounded by beautiful maidens of integrity is a blessed opportunity from heaven itself, he concluded, seizing the moment with gratitude in order to not offend the higher beings.
His left-side neighbor was far less amiable as she shifted away.
"How do you eat that stuff?" Midori stared at his food with disgust, clearly unhappy about its proximity.
Midori Touka was the Moonlit Eclipse's Wayfarer -- their teleportation expert. She had long, mint-green hair tied back in a ponytail with a white, embroidered handkerchief. Her small East Asian lips and soft nose would look quite pretty if she simply smiled more, but she seemed intent on keeping her distance with a pair of piercing, grass-green eyes, usually full of wariness that bordered on hostility. Her thin figure was average for a girl of twenty-five that looked eighteen, with a height of roughly one-seventy-one (5'7"). She wore the Japanese shrine maiden outfit that the Eclipse treated as its casual uniform, with its loose white robes and long hakama skirt -- red in her case to contrast with her hair.
[ She was also Touka Midori, because no one knew which name was her first and which was her last. Kayeten only met her days ago, when she introduced herself as 'Touka'. Her annoyed, squinted glares made her displeasure towards the name 'Midori' clear, but everyone called her that anyways. Kayeten braved the question once, and was told in reply that 'Midori' -- which meant 'green' in Japanese -- was "''the most inexcusably lazy and generic name any parent could have bestowed''" upon her. ]
"With one hand, one fork, and one mouth," Kayeten replied nonchalantly with his usual handsome smile -- usual when he wasn't in battle or being angry, at least.
"It looks like roasted fat and gelled grease," Shirayuki joined in.
Kannon nodded in consent as well, over a second late.
"And it tastes good." Kayeten winked back before digging in with his fork and twirling up the noodles.
If divine favor was a requirement for leadership, he would vote for Shirayuki without hesitation after just seeing her profile. As the leader of the Moonlit Eclipse with the self-styled title 'Miko-Hime', Shirayuki Kaguya's name literally translated to 'Lunar Princess Snow White'. She was a lady of barely one-sixty (5'3"), with a thin frame and small body wrapped by white robes and a mint-green skirt. She looked no older than seventeen, with the prettiest appearance just short of mature beauty: 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.
"So... the elephant in the room first," Kayeten continued, "have you figured out what to do with him?"
Everyone stared at Shirayuki. Then, while the leader was still pondering, it was Kannon who managed to respond first:
"We're taking him with us."
The glare Midori sent across the table left the air sizzling.
"Kannon, did I forget to tell you that I'm the leader of the Moonlit Eclipse?"
Other superiors might have been offended. But Shirayuki teased while grinning in amusement.
Kayeten looked at the time-display panel and counted the seconds while Shirayuki awaited Kannon's reply. If he didn't know about this slow trait of Kannon's, he would have thought that she was caught speechless. It made carrying a conversation with her... a bit awkward.
"...You asked me to be your tactical officer. But after reviewing all your personnel files, I came to the conclusion that your organization is full of spellswords and support casters. I'm your only tactician, except I'm on maiden experience and can't fend for myself... yet. I think I'm correct in that we need someone to do the actual operational commandeering on the front lines, rather than just plunging headfirst into the enemy every time, no offense."
"She has a point, with offense," Kayeten nodded quasi-seriously before he ate another forkful. "I've studied your operations. Your solution to almost every problem is to just take it down yourself. It's nice to be so awesome, but one of these days it's going to get you injured or killed and put your entire team in serious jeopardy because they're used to relying on you. A single point of failure is--"
"Are you two calling us idiots!?" Midori's icy voice almost exploded. Her open palm was about to come down hard on the table before she suddenly froze...
Aurora, the last of the four, had held her silence until now. She had kept her serene smile on and her eyes unopened as her lithe fingers gracefully spooned off another chunk of silken tofu, soaked in an odd mixture of diluted soy sauce, tea leaves, chopped spring onions, and diced preserved eggs.
Abbess Han Rong, the vice-commander of the group, had the nickname 'Aurora' -- the literal translation of her courtesy name 'Jiguang' -- because Chinese names were notoriously hard to pronounce for most people raised in a society that accepted English as the primary language. At one-seventy-eight (5'10"), Aurora was the tallest of the Moonlit Eclipse officers. Her cream-white hair flowed past her thin waist, which only added to her white robes, wispy figure, and pale, beautiful complexion; she would almost look like a snow spirit had not for the red hakama skirt.
But now, one of Aurora's usually-closed eyes was half-opened and staring at Midori. Her iris was dyed a bloody-red; her pupil almost glowed crimson; her gaze was hard enough to petrify.
Even without being its target, Kayeten felt at least three' shivers running up his spine... simultaneously. If someone told him that Aurora could kill with just a glare, Kayeten would have believed it.
Then, as quickly as it came, Aurora closed her eye. The frigid atmosphere warmed back towards normality as the sounds of others in the room returned.
"They're also right." Aurora's voice carried the serenity of an angel, but her words were blunt and merciless: "We've always relied on our magic to make up for our failures in coordination and tactics. Now that the war has began, further ignorance of such shortcomings would only lead to extinction."
"Aren't you deciding for him too quickly though?" Shirayuki asked Kannon. "I doubt even he knows what he wants."
"...I was a management major. Making decisions beneficial for my subordinates is part of the basics. Since he probably doesn't know, it becomes my job to pick a good direction for him."
Kayeten almost forgot that Kannon was just a college student until days ago, before getting wrapped up in a mess of events that propelled her here. The young girl was still lacking in maturity and experience, but he couldn't help but grin at how Kannon already classified Arkadi as an underling.
"Also, he's a warlord-type. He'd make a great mentor for Kannon -- as long as you keep a watchful eye," Kayeten added before taking another mouthful. His feelings turned to a jumble of annoyance and anger whenever he mentioned Arkadi, but beneath it also laid nostalgia and gratitude. It was a volatile mixture that he didn't know how to interact with, except to bury it under staunch professionalism and a humored smile; although he felt pretty sure that Kannon already saw through him.
"...Warlord-type?" Kannon shifted her gaze to Kayeten, puzzled.
He instantly switched on his serious face.
"The Centurions --- the Republic's front-leading, high-ranking, combat-ace officers program --- rate its members by five types: Champions, Strikers, Warlords, Magelords, and Archmages. The warlord-type are tactician-strategists with an emphasis on combined-arms coordination and enough personal combat skill to fend for themselves. Alternatively, I'm a Striker Centurion; piloting and armored-spearhead tactics is our specialty. Shirayuki here would be a Champion if she joined--"
"No thanks," the paramilitary leader, assassin, and terrorist, depending on one's point of view, replied instantly. Her voice sounded uncaring, hiding the dripping acid behind it.
"--Best at personal combat, but also experts in close-quarters tactics and small-unit command. Kadi may not be a Centurion since he was black ops, but the skill level is definitely there."
"...What type should I aim for then?" Kannon half-joked.
"None," Kayeten responded in all honesty, his serious emerald eyes meeting her single lapis-blue orb while his head nodded in apology. "Sorry, but you're not suited for front-line command. The biggest reason Centurions are elevated from aces isn't because of the prestige, but because average officers don't survive for long on the battle line. They're priority targets."
He watched the faint light of disappointment fade from the girl's opened eye. Kannon was a pragmatist who acknowledged her lack of athletism, so he wasn't putting her down much. It still felt bad, but it was better than getting her killed through false hopes.
"You both make a lot of valid points," Shirayuki came out of her reverie. "But... even aside from the fact that I can't trust him, the Eclipse is an all-girls--"
"All-women," Kayeten cut-in casually, only to wince in pain as Shirayuki silently stomped on his armored boots under the table. He thought she was wearing Japanese-styled sandals under those robes, which meant she just used an mentally-recited, armor-piercing, non-lethal spell just to kick him.
Seriously, isn't that bit overkill for a response... even if it's my fault.
He forgot to switch thinking modes: it was Western cultural thinking where girls wished to be acknowledged as older and therefore more mature. Women of Oriental descent often preferred to be seen as younger, best described by the old Japanese phrase forever seventeen.
Meanwhile the aggressor continued without pausing, as though nothing happened:
"--Organization. I don't really want to set a trend of exceptions."
"Why are you so insistent on the gender-bias anyways?" Kayeten asked, still grimacing over his throbbing toes.
"To counterbalance social inequality," Shirayuki replied with a condescending, this-is-obvious look. "The old saying goes men are loved for their successes, women are loved for their failures; well to durians with that. I'm..."
"Durians?" Kayeten's face fell flat, unamused. This wasn't the first time Shirayuki replaced a blasphemy with a food.
"People who eat those things smell like they've been french-kissing their two-decades-dead grandmother. Good enough representation," Shirayuki said as if it was a perfectly logical synonym for 'hell'.
Everyone else suddenly turned two shades greener as the words passed through their imagination.
"As I was saying, I'm making sure that the girls, my sisters, are recognized for their own accomplishments here, not as some sidekick to the men they partner up with -- which society, history, and all their gender police have a tendency to do."
Midori's eyes were now sparkling as she gazed at Shirayuki with unadulterated admiration.
Kayeten was about to refute the Miko-Hime before he remembered that his opinions didn't represent the majority, the same populace who claimed that "a woman is most beautiful when they show weakness". But then, the opposite held true as well. Whereas women were expected to show weaknesses, men were expected to reveal none and seek perfection -- any man who failed was deemed 'not manly enough' by male peers and female companions alike.
Nobody said the world was a fair place.
"I take it that's why the Moonlit Eclipse is structured like a sorority?" Kayeten inquired.
"Nah," Shirayuki waved it off with a wide, opened smile that felt more like a silent laugh. "The reason for the sorority structure is because little-big sister relationships are awesome..."
Kayeten felt split between his personal urge to clap in approval and his professional urge to facepalm.
"Now, the other reason for it," her grin turned almost hungry, "is because female psychology can nullify emotional trauma and justify needed action -- like killing those who deserve it -- when we're protecting our family and loved ones. We can be demons, but we're demonic only on the battlefield."
The fact that was probably true only made it more chilling in Kayeten's opinion. He quickly decided that one, it was good that they now fought on the same side and two, even topics of uncertainty were warmer to think about in comparison.
"Well, either way, you should just consider Kadi a temporary adviser," Kayeten suggested. "After all, you've already made room for one. I'm guessing Kannon here is neither Buddhist nor Shintoist."
"...I'm an Agnostic-Theist. My parents encouraged me to find faith on my own," the youngest girl clarified. Then in surprise: "But I thought Buddhists are supposed to be all-welcoming?"
"Which part of religious paramilitary didn't you understand?" Midori quipped back. "We're mages. You can't cast a faith spell if you don't truly believe in the omnipresent enlightenment and walk the path of Buddha; or devote yourself to the path of universal liberation from suffering for all beings."
"...I can do the latter just fine by having this faith called 'humanity'," Kannon shrugged it off. "But yes, you're right about the former."
"And that's precisely why I can't initiate you as a formal member, sorry," Shirayuki sent an apologetic look before smiling lopsidedly. "Funny though, seeing as you were named after Bodhisattva Kannon."
"Ah well... don't worry about it. I'm still baffled myself over how you religious-affiliated groups manage to work together so well. I mean we're cooperating with the Order of the Golden Cross here; they're a knightly order of the Christian Church of the 2nd Reformation right?" Kannon paused until Kayeten nodded. "I'd have thought the ability for each religion to cast faith magic -- which basically equated to divine signs -- would only increase inter-religious conflict."
"Actually faith magic is the product of channeled, shared belief," Midori commented dryly. "It does not come from the spirits, or the gods. We create it through the strength of our conviction -- hence why it's called faith magic and not miracles or divine magic."
"One of the best legacies left behind by the Dominion-era government is the Universal Tolerance Act," Shirayuki kindly explained with an appreciative smile. "It outlawed any organizational prejudice against other humans due to their culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. This didn't mean the church had to accept nonbelievers, but they couldn't just slap the declaration of gratuitous sin on everyone else, since that would be encouraging prejudice. The law is the second major factor that led up to the Great Religious Reformation, which forced all Abrahamic religions to remove that--"
"Nonbelievers are damned for eternity clause from the official biblical interpretation," Kayeten interjected.
"--Their conversion rates actually shot up after that, since the pragmatic-atheists and agnostics no longer felt threatened by what they called 'the tyranny of god'."
"Don't know what those Christians were thinking back in the day, holding belief of the afterlife over people as hostage," Midori complained. "All it did was give religion a bad name."
"Probably from hallowed antiquity," Kayeten shrugged. "Ancient civilizations didn't have the education and information availability we have today, so intimidating others into following morals was probably more effective than trying to teach them philosophical wisdom."
"...Are you a 2nd Reformist?" Kannon asked in curiosity, to which Kayeten nodded back. "Then... is the reformed church Catholic, or...?"
Kayeten shook his head with a proud smile: "No, just Christian. Pope Celestine the 12th is easily one of the greatest saints in the history of faith. He actually seized the 2nd Reformation as an opportunity to abandon Papal Supremacy and de-centralized biblical interpretation enough to mend the Great Schism. The resulting Christian Church of the 2nd Reformation unified our Roman Catholic Church with nearly half of the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant ecclesial bodies within the Avalonian Republic. The sheer mass of the 2nd Reformist Church would entice many others back into the fold over the years. Although the strength of the church did bring other issues..."
"As much as I support theological discussions," Aurora chimed in with, ironically, the voice of a descending angel. "We're straying far off topic."
"Sorry," Kayeten replied first as both Kannon and him looked apologetic. "Then, as I was saying, since you already have Kannon as a non-member advisory officer, why not consider Kadi in the same way?"
Shirayuki felt distant as she stared at Kannon: "I... really don't want her to get overshadowed as well."
"...I don't mind," Kanon replied evenly. "Does it really matter who gets credit for it as long as both the individual and society benefits from it?"
Kayeten shrugged with his best what-did-you-expect expression and Shirayuki sighed softly before ending in a defeated yet pleased smile. Competitiveness wasn't an emotion Kannon could ever understand -- the original planners specifically removed that psychological tendency from her DNA.
"There's still the allegiance issue though," Shirayuki pondered aloud, more to herself than anyone else.
"...He doesn't have anywhere else to go, and... I'm sure I can turn him. If you want, I'll vouch my life for him until he decides one way or another," Kannon declared with intent eyes. "Just like you did for me when we formed the alliance with Marshal Sidika." She nodded towards Kayeten, as the Marshal of the 3rd District was his adoptive mother.
Shirayuki bit her lower lip for a second, a demeanor completely unnatural to the usually carefree leader. Then:
"I still don't like it. But I'll allow it."
"Ah! Okay okay, now I'm jealous!" Kayeten expressed with envious eyes. "That bastard gets to join up with an entire organization of pretty girls as like, the only man there? All my dreams, taken up by a loser who can't even properly appreciate the beauty of women."
Midori and Shirayuki both glared at Kayeten like he was some kind of worthless bacteria, then declared:
"You're the worst."
Kayeten playfully stuck his tongue out at them.
Kannon couldn't help but giggle (still a second and half late). She tilted her head and supported it with one arm on the table. With a gentle smile, she stared at the Colonel's handsome face as he continued to eat.
"Hmmm? Like--" He quickly swallowed the flirtatious joke. She is so off limits.
"I just thought... despite how you refuse to go see him, you really do still care a lot for him, don't you?"
"Ah... well that's classified," Kayeten shrugged with mixed feelings, "especially to you girls who don't understand guy-guy relationships. Besides, he already owes me enough favors. I think it's about time someone else started taking credit, and I figure getting involved with you would be good for him."
Too good for him, in fact, he left the words unsaid.
Like any good Christian, Kayeten believed in offering forgiveness. But just because his once best friend and sworn brother deserved a second chance, it didn't mean he automatically forgot about all those men, those friends he lost at the hands of Arkadi Simarshall the 'Black Prince'.
Yes, parts of him were still angry, mad, pissed. He was still human, after all.
Meanwhile, Kannon's face flushed three shades of scarlet. Fidgeting in her chair, her lapis eye immediately returned to stare at her own food.
One glance at the innocent blush chased away half his dark thoughts. His emotional control then asserted itself to drive off the rest, leaving his expression with only a simple smile.
Men might strive for perfection, yet they were also fragile creatures. They wore their pride like layered plate armor, always boasting of egos several times too large. They hid their heart deep down, not merely because of social demand, but also as self-defense. A single chink could wound their esteem; an open gash would irreparably damage their psyche. The result was a monster who merely appeared strong, who tore at the world in fits of rage over their hideous scars.
Kayeten's adoptive mother, Marshal Sidika, once told him the tale of Ekaterina 'Kato' Svanidze. The first wife of the Joseph Stalin, Kato died of tuberculosis within her husband's arms at merely twenty-two years of age. At her funeral, Stalin gave the eulogy "this creature softened my heart of stone; she died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity". Sure enough, Joseph Stalin would rise to dictatorship over the Soviet Union. He industrialized the nation and modernized healthcare to raise standards of living. But he also ruled with inhuman cruelty and sent tens of millions to their death -- atrocities far worse than those of the notorious Adolf Hitler.
Love triumphs isn't just a cliche. Without the beauty of feminine compassion, satan's lure will end us all.
The bigger question, in Kayeten's opinion, would be whether Arkadi still had the courage and the fortitude to save himself. Otherwise, all the helping hands in the world couldn't save a drowning soul who refused to reach out.
Distracted, neither of them noticed the look of concerned disapproval on Shirayuki's complexion before she shrugged it off, masking it with her usual amused smile.
"Oh, before I forget," Kayeten reached into his pocket and took out a crystal data chip. "Here's all the info you requested that mother could access at the moment. She'd talk to you herself but she's still being overwhelmed with situational damage control, remotely and less efficiently, while we're still stuck on this planet."
Kayeten pressed the chip into Kannon's offered hand: "Between that and the power of Eternal Chronicle, you should be able to figure out everything you need."
Kannon turned back around and brushed her long, blossom-pink hair back behind her ears. She then asked Shirayuki with an earnest yet anxious eye:
"How do I use Eternal's ability anyhow? I don't exactly have actual spellcasting training."
Shirayuki smiled like a young mother realizing her child's growth. It had only been two weeks since Kannon came to this new world from the old, non-magical Terran society, and just a few days ago when Kannon completely denied her abilities out of fear...
"Just zone everything else out and focus. Preferably while you're lying down and in a nearly-asleep state since you're not used to it yet. The ability is inherent and natural to you, so once your consciousness focuses enough it will activate by instinct."
The smallest girl nodded.
Kayeten had read all information the 3rd District had available on the Imperium Project. He knew exactly what Kannon was, what her traits were, and what her purpose was. She might still be naive and inexperienced, but she also belonged to the most powerful diviner lineage created and born to human civilization. As one of the seven genetically-engineered mages -- known as the 'Arcane Servitors' or Arvitors -- of the highest caliber, her ability Eternal Chronicle offered the gift of perfect hindsight. In essence, it allowed her to read the history of the known universe like an encyclopedia, as long as she knew what the search terms were and had the means to understand it.
It was not a gift without the burdens of responsibility.
Kannon, like Aura Dominion Shirayuki Kaguya across her, were originally meant to be the a set of seven that formed the 'perfect advisory team'. They would be able to select and support an Utopian dream -- the ideal sovereign, the Philosopher King, set to take the executive seat and counterbalance the shortsighted elective legislature in an Authoritarian Representative Republic.
[ STOP! Not ready for beta-read! ]
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