Any line marked with a "-" is under construction, or just a framework to write the rest on. Heavy beta and opinions are welcome here; I've never written anything this immense in one sitting before.
I'll be taking a break from it a while now. 8P
Chapter Four of + Ange et Diable +.
+-- équité --+
There was polite knock, followed by a polite query from a stolid voice that seemed sinister for anyone else.
Boing. Etna bounced upright from her casual repose on her Prinny throne, twisting about with an eager smile to face her bedroom door and the demon youth she knew stood dwarfed beneath it.
"So! Did it kill 'em?"
"Not yet." Aramis averted his eyes, and the frustration only she was allowed to see creased his brow and edged his words. There were few things he hated as much as answering her with a no when she was expecting a yes; one of those was answering no when he was expecting a yes, too.
Etna's merriment didn't falter, though. "Awww...." she drawled, shrugging her shoulders as her gloved nails furrowed into the Prinny's sweat-slickened stitches. She threw in an encouraging wink. "Always next time, and next time's always more fun."
"They say there isn't going to be a next time." his eyes remained lidded, and his voice returned to the inscrutable drone, emotion diving back into the deep of a becalmed sea. "They say they're not Laharl's vassals anymore."
A look of delight greater than the news of their deaths could have brought danced across her lips. "Oh, really...?"
Just another reason to ridicule the demonized human. If she had a chest like that, Etna would have been Overlord by now, and Laharl would have been sobbing in a corner sucking his thumb. Instead, Prier was turning tail and running like some Mid-Boss bimbo.
Only goes to show, T and A has nothing on I and Q. Her tail corkscrewed with amusement.
"I sent them to the Sea Of Gehenna for a part, to keep me quiet about the escape." Aramis looked up then, hoping to see some approval on her face for that news.
He was richly rewarded. "That's my zombie master."
-Kitties aren't there when Prier and Katie look.
-Look around more
-Marjoly and lackeys surround the camp
-Marjoly thinks they were sent by Laharl.
-Prier and Culotte say otherwise
-Marjoly glomps Culotte
-Crowdia is there
-Offers to help them hide while Prier and others do the Underworld thing
- How to find Charon?
"Y'all 'ave ta knows t' be lookin' fer 'im, ma'm'selle." a suety voice informed her.
-Charon the Ferryman, a pallid demon that looks much like an Infantry-
"Yet, nae un ov ye iz damned. WTF."
- Ferryman's dialogue a mishmash of all kinds of languages gleaned from souls.
-Choosing of Katie and Palmer over the others; Culotte wants to go to get away from Marjoly; Prier thinks it's funny to leave him there.
"I don't kill people! But I do get revenge..." Some things never change, Sister Alouette.
- Charon is easily bribed.
- Nae thing iz vit'out price.
-Marjoly offers to hide the others with her while they're gone
-"Ye goin' straight tae z'e top o' d'e bottom, ja?"
The Underworld was not for the living to even visit. Malevolent heat broiled the breath from them; Prier thought the fearsome rusty liquid Charon guided them over had to be lava, but it reeked of blood.
The fetid air crawled over them like a live thing, sloughing endless agonies moaned in infinite tongues. That keyed Katie to such a fever pitch she did not resist Palmer's hands tightening on her shoulders, his hooded face pressed to her back, as both vassals wrestled the deadly instinct to jump to escape that was not there. Prier stared ahead, willing herself to focus only on the Underlord's castle.
If it was called that; it seemed a pyramid turned on its top, brown as old bones, vast enough to be seen from the farthest edges of this land of nightmares. It vaulted impossibly high to vanish into the choking black mass that served as a sky. Monolithic columns curved like great fangs seemed to serve as supports at the four corners.
She couldn't suppress a shiver as the thought occurred to her the fangs also seemed ready to swallow it down.
Charon was unfazed, even arguing some of the keening wails as he rowed on, in whatever language was necessary. He was either insane, or the sanest of them all.
-"Don't leave that boat." Prier's hand halted the Red Skull in mid-step. She
-"Yes, Master Prier."
-Palmer stays behind w/Charon
She startled to see a message carved in the stone beneath her boots.
Abandonnez tout espoir, vous qui entrez ici!
Katie saw the words in the severe script of demons, but the message was the same:
Abandon all hope, you who enter!
But enter from where? Close inspection revealed no doors, no hatches, no portals, no hidden switches.
-Ask Charon; not his job to know. He's just the ferryman.-
"Ugh! I give up!"
-w00t, there it is :D At that, portal spun slowly into existence before them, a sinister, toothless maw yawning into the blackness beyond.
-Charon: "It'll take you where you need to go" with a chortle.
-how to get to the throne room?
-The snaking hallway burned with ice as all outside burned with fire.
-Taking a breath for both of them, Prier swung the heavy doors wide.
The Underlord was not the skeletal, trident-wielding devil of ice and fire pictured in the Holy Book to frighten the faithful. Seedle was decidedly flesh and bone, lean and leonine, his angular frame shrouded in the startling length of his colorless hair. The devil remained, however, in the hard curve of the arrogant smile he wore, cruel as the whitened scar torn across his breast; remained in the derisive, predatory glint of his single eye. A misshapen lump of foul, stained rags huddled at the the side of his high-backed seat of bone and stone, held at the hidden neck by a heavy chain of iron, holding in turn Prier and Katie's ill-concealed interest. The undead.
"Huh. Well, well. What have we got here?"
It stirred at its master's voice, lifting unblinking, hollow eyes to stare at them from beneath a matted tangle of sooty forelocks.
Prier's sharp breath caught in her throat.
"Noir." she whispered at last.
His parched lips fell open, dully mouthing the shape of her name, if not the sound. The familiar voice shattered the certainty he was either in the fragile delirium of sleep, or somehow freed from his senses by unexpected madness. He had sworn to himself he would remember her, the words she had spoken in his final mortal moments. He never imagined he would hear her again.
With supreme effort, his thoughts struggled from the depths of then to break into now. Why was she here?
Everything else about her had changed. How long it had been, he hadn't the concentration to guess--the passage of time in this place was measured only by spans of agony and regret. Her hair had darkened from the careless color he'd known to the color of wine, crowned by spiralling ivory horns; slender, leathery wings mantled her hips. Demon...? She wore so much black, and the everpresent holy symbols were nowhere to be found.
Almost everything. Her eyes were tinged by a bloody sheen, but they were still clear and bright.
He could not no longer meet them.
"Small Underworld, huh?" Seedle rasped, leaning back. "You knew him?"
"I know him." Those eyes were unable to tear away from the wretched sight of him. She had prayed so hard for Noir then, for the mother he mourned with his last breath; prayed long after the last battle softened to memory, prayed when she discovered the true nature of the Prinnies in the Dark World.
How could Poitreene be so merciless as this?
"Knew him." Seedle repeated. "The damned haven't got names. Only their sins, and their punishment." he jerked hard at the chain, and Noir buckled listlessly to it. "He's my dog."
Prier tensed at that, and Katie's hackles rose in turn. The Overlord was beginning to smell human again.
"Knew a damned...." the Underlord mused on, "....you must be a bad girl."
"I'm an Overlord. My name is Prier. I can be bad if I have to be." her baton twirled in emphasis, and her lips pressed thin.
He only chuckled at the display, a cold sound like the splattering of mud on stone. "So what do you want? I don't remember inviting you."
"I want him."
-Noir's surprise/establish he is at Seedle's throne only because the Underlord wants him for a lackey, something he refuses to do.
"Heh." Seedle slid back into his throne with a humorless smirk. "He's down here for a reason. Tough. Get yourself a new boyfriend. Can't be that hard." the last would have been said with a filthy wink had he both eyes, Prier was certain. She wanted to jab a finger in the remaining one.
"Everything has a price." she echoed Charon's words instead, relenting just once that they may be true, down here. "So what do you want?"
The Underlord rose, sinuous, shaking away his pale mane, a cobra spreading its hood. He circled casually around her; then again, measuring her with his flinty gaze. "Say please."
Just hearing the word rankled; saying it to Seedle was torture in itself. She never thought there could be worse things than Laharl and Etna. "Please." she uttered finally, crisp and unmistakably insincere.
His breath was hot against her tapered ear abruptly, as he leaned in from behind. "I like it when a bad girl asks nicely."
One hand slid around her waist. The other aimed a bit lower.
Prier leapt back, parting her lips, but the hoarse voice that spat her outrage was not her own.
Seedle reeled with a grunt as the heavy iron chain of his servant's collar was looped and tightened around his own throat. At his back, Noir strained to crush the breath from him with what strength he had, red eyes slit and burning. For once, Prier was too stunned to act.
Seedle was not. His right hand left the chain to grip the hilt of his massive katana, single eye glittering in satisfaction. He'd wondered if there were any nerves left to hit. "Heh.....bad dog."
With a powerful wrench, he turned about, driving the blade into the damned with a vicious arc from throat to gut that nearly cleaved him in half. Before Prier could even move, he'd stabbed it through again, twice, three times. Four.
"NOT IN THE HEART!" Katie yowled in dismay.
Prier moved at last, with a boot squarely where Seedle needed it most but expected it least; a Coup de Grace of Coup de Graces. The Underlord hit the opposite wall with a force that seemed to rattle the room, then slid to the floor in a tight-curled heap; Katie's brisk pawfoot in his face guaranteed he stayed there long enough to get the job done. The Elbacky whirled about to her Overlord, who only stood rooted before the mangled slave as he sprawled in a spreading pool of his own innards. Her claws flexed in anticipation of orders to do the dirty work.
"Let's get it and get out!" her tail lashed with the snap of the demand.
How can he die again...?
He should have. He couldn't. Undead....Prier watched in horror as Noir twisted his ruined neck to focus bleary eyes on her, thier color draining away with his blood. "Prier...."
"Just be quiet. You're coming with us." she grabbed up the slack of the chain and pulled it taut experimentally, cursing when it did not give way to her best efforts. "Katie, come here."
"What!?" Now it was the Elbacky's turn to go rigid and bug her eyes.
"....Prier." the faint croak was strangled on blood. "....only he can break the chain. ....get out...."
Prier scowled down, then across to Seedle. She stomped over to the unconscious Underlord, wrenched the katana from his grip. "Since when did I ever listen to you?"
She slashed down on the chain with such force it showered sparks and scattered links.
"See? He broke it."
The sword clattered back to Seedle's side as she gently lifted Noir up, cringing at his agonized gasps of protest, cringing at the streaming fresh blood soaking them both and the wounds it gushed from. Now couldn't be the time for too much gentleness, though. "Katie, come on."
"We're taking the WHOLE THING!?"
The hallway seemed to have changed shape, undulating in directions neither women recalled on their way up.
-the escape; deciding to stop and heal him
"Shh." she tried to soothe, knowing words were useless. "I'm going to heal you now, okay? .....even if you can't die, you're making a mess out of us both, and you're leaving a red carpet for your former master to follow."
The unintelligible groan of resistance rose to a sharp cry of pain as her palms pressed against his chest.
Was it still a miracle, when performed by a demon? That was a question Prier had decided required no answer. It still worked.
Katie stalked about warily as her Overlord bowed low over the slave and shivered with the effort of pulling him together. It was times like this Prier stunk entirely of human. The Elbacky's breath was a rolling flow of growling. So much for asking if she could eat the leftovers.
-Prier wilted as he stirred with her borrowed strength, trying to push away from her.
"Shut up." Just the whisper made her vision lurch and recede. "Katie...? .....you're going to.....have to carry us both...for now...."
The quick escape on swift pawfeet was stretched by a long ranting lecture on how a heart and an Overlord would have been a lot easier to carry, and how Prier wouldn't have needed to heal a heart in the first place.
-where is the exit?
-ohfcuk, one way! D:
"Yeh sure thou ain't 'iding naught else unner z'at hood?"
Palmer chuckled, laying his cards down between the stacked gold he'd accumulated. "Just my brain."
"Ach, d'at's v'at ah git f' playing a body wiv z'e poker-face built in." he threw up his hands, his own cards scattering and sizzing into the seething tide below them. "I'm out!"
-And so was Katie, in a screeching blur as the boatman's words reopened the gate. "GO! GO! GO!!!"
-Palmer startled as a third party was dumped limply in his lap. "That's the undead...?"
-"'ere, 'ere! Fare wast fer three! Trois! Un of yer out!"
-"I'll row back myself, and use you for a paddle!" Katie roared.
Palmer's grip tightened on Noir's shoulders as Charon seized them. "Call this your wager instead?"
The ferryman paused, then needle teeth seemed to split his face in half.
-Seedle already waiting for them when they get out
-Noir pissed Prier saved him for fear she damned herself.
"You! You're the Gatekeeper, how could you let him leave!?"
"Tch. 'course ah knows v'ut ah am, y' silly bastid. Ah ferry lost souls onna un-vay trip, aye? But d'is'uns bin found. Capice? Habla? Eh-an-dre-com-prend-ve? Verstechen sie, samurai-boy?" he finished up by a complicated signing with his bony fingers, then a much simpler gesture with just the index one. Before the Underlord could react, Charon vanished like mist rising off the morning tide, still leering behind the single-digit salute.
"I'll take you back myself, then." Seedle turned to the party with a slow, murderous smile that mirrored the sharpness of the blade he unsheathed. "You're mortal again, up here. I'll remind you of what it's like to die, dog. Your bitch won't save you this time."
Noir staggered forward, fists clenched. Prier recognized the formidable aura that pulsed from him, seeming to magnify him; she'd felt it when he first took his demon form. But it was as unsteady as his step. He was still too weak....like she was....
So she tried to puff up as well, pointing her baton at Seedle. "You keep this up, you're gonna have to spit to pee, creep!"
"I will not be your servant." Noir snarled. "And you will not touch her again."
"That bitch is MY vassal."
"So, set your sight lower, cyclops....unless you want to be the bitch next. ♥"
Prier would never have believed she could feel relief hearing those bratty voices. Laharl and Etna appeared at the cliffs above them, and with them, the army she and Culotte had dreaded.
-"Prier!" Culotte and company
-Seedle's smile hardened as he tested the flow of power positioning against him. The fools thought they were strong because they were Overlords. Too thick to realize he was the Underlord of a realm that encompassed all their sorry asses.
-Let them believe it for now, he decided. That much better when he shows them the truth.
-"Heh....I'll see you all again....one way or another."
-:D; When Noir finds out why they were down there....reaction?
-Laharl - "What were you doing, pissing off the Underlord too?"
-"They still owe me the undead's heart." Aramis
-Prier- >O You ratted us out!
-Aramis - I didn't tell Laharl.
- Etna: >3 He told me.
"But he's not undead!" Flonne cried, cupping her mouth.
"They promised." Etna replied smugly. She wondered how far that jaw could drop before her tongue mopped the ground. "What about keeping your word, you noble little Celestian assassin, you?"
"He'd damned anyway. I thought they were supposed to suffer."
Laharl rolled his eyes. The little Love Freak was unarmed in a battle of wits. Normally, he'd gloat over it....but there was something much more important at stake than the skinny stack of rags Prier hovered over like a harpy. He glowered to Etna. "The hell they owe you. Who died and made you Overlords?"
Etna's smile was honey, her voice a sting. He expected no less. "No one, yet. ♥"
"Hmhm. Except I'M the Overlord now. And I'm ordering both of you to leave them alone. You wouldn't accept me as Overlord if I didn't catch your damn zombies? Fine. I won't accept you as vassals if I hear you chopped out that--" he paused, nose wrinkling as he pointed to Noir, "--thing's heart. Or anything else. Understand?"
"It's half-human anyway." Aramis's interruption was cold as he regarded Overlord and damned with disdain. "I wanted something strong."
Noir returned the bitter stare.
I still can't believe the "powerful undead" Aramis wanted was Noir. I can believe Prier went through so much to take him anyway, though. Even after everything that happened....even I'd hoped Poitreene allowed him to rest with his mother. ....how could She be so cruel...? Sister Alouette....maybe I have more questions than I want to admit. I hope you can forgive me, if the Goddess can't....but I have to ask them.
Marjoly said she knew I wanted to gain more power to earn her love, and that she would wait no matter how long it took. ....uh, okay. Now I think I might understand how Croix felt....
She gave us five of her vassals to help.
Arale Soroban is a Great Trader. The Traders are a funny class, down here; they live for the numbers, and everything is the business of furthering their boss. They're bred and raised at a place they call a Firm, and only Traders with outstanding records are allowed to continue their family lines. I hope she never really meets Flonne....
Callador was one of her cooks. I'm afraid to see what happens when he and Prier both want to make the next meal....or when he tastes what she burns.
Ulli is a mercenary. Jack of all trades, master of none. "Demon mercenary" seems to be asking for double trouble, but he seems nice enough. Can't be any worse than the vassals who deserted us for Laharl.
Katsuo is a Cat Kid; in other words, a Katie in-training. Like we needed more than her....at least he seems a lot less prone to want to beat me up.
Nazarov is a mechanic. He's pretty upset she turned him over to Overlords who don't even have machines to fix.
Marjoly also gave me her "pet", since it seemed to attach itself to me almost as much as she did. I don't know what to make of it. It looks like a snowball, only made of something smooth and shiny and really hard. Not stone, metal, or glass. It's cute, though. It says "Hani", and it loves rolling on my horns.
Laharl relented that Prier had won our freedom; at least, he said he didn't want a lunatic in his Castle. So, here we are....a fresh start, in more ways than one.
-"Of course I know what I did." Prier glared. "Do I look stupid to you still?"
-"....you....will share my fate--"
-"Because I choose to." she rejoined hotly. "You think I give a damn about rules when I see something like that? Did I ever?"
-"Don't thank me." Another frown; not at him, now, but at whatever thoughts haunted her eyes. "I was the one who put you there, remember?"
She was remembering, then; for him, those memories were an anguish he felt compelled to contemplate, though Seedle's blades were kinder by far. He shook his head. ".....I put myself there." he corrected. "No prayers can repent for me....no matter how selfless. And I will not repent."
She stopped, and the stormclouds behind her eyes were wholly for him now. "If you're going to start arguing with me again, I swear I'm going to make you think that pervert Underlord was a schoolboy!"
"I still curse the gods who allowed my mother to die for the love they preached. They have earned nothing more from me. But...." he preempted the angry rain of judgment he knew was about to pour down on him, "....I will not become as they are, as I once tried. No more damning good and evil alike, human or demon. I have regretted the suffering I brought to innocents. I will repent to them. I will repent to their memory. But I will not regret or repent to the gods. Does that satisfy you?"
-She wanted to rail against it, hearing a hint of the sneer he wore in those days; instead, she found she could not do so truthfully. Not now. Not to him. " ....hm. And here you said we were incompatible." she muttered instead.
-He was sure she would elaborate on that in time; she was never reserved in her thoughts. For the moment, despite his surprise, he was too weary to wonder further.
"Grr.....what NOW, NOIR!?"
"....you can put me down now."
"Oh." The chances grasping zombie hands would scrabble from the earth for his ankles were slim now. "Good! You bled on me enough!"
He couldn't help but chuckle as he was deposited on his feet; a painful sound, and a painful sound to make even with the warmth of the healing lingering still. "Please accept my apologies."
-The vassals spread out around the scattered camp, grateful for the chance to sit now.
"That's the last time you do that, you hear me?"
"Now she sounds like EVERYONE'S mother." Culotte muttered, immediately regretting it as Noir froze as though struck. His wide eyes flew to the other man's.
"I....I'm sorry...." he stammered, wishing he was choking on his tongue instead.
-"She could be down here now." Noir whispered rather than replying, the quiet fierceness in his eyes belied by the tremor behind the words. "....damned in death for loving a demon, even as she had been in life."
"Love won't put you down here." Palmer murmured with a dismissive wave of his hand, tone blank as the sewn-on smile of his hood. "That's human talk. We don't hold much with that emotion in the Netherworlds." he reached down to coax flames from the spent campfire with his magic. "Sounds like....you've seen why...."
Silence was the only answer the man would return, drooping his head until his haggard face was veiled beneath his hair.
Palmer shrugged, nonplussed. "It's what you do for it that'll get you down here. Or lower."
Kali giggled, plopping alongside Culotte. "And then what good does it do?"
"But....what about Laharl...?" Culotte blurted; he instantly sagged into his high collar like a turtle seeking solace in its shell, keenly aware Kali's snickering was aimed at him now.
"Only time I've heard of that, Master." the Skull continued, considerately ignoring his lord's reddening cheeks and wriggling. "See where it ended, too...."
"We're cool with lust!" Kali grinned with a wink.
"Eh-hah..." Culotte was almost relieved when the attention briefly shifted to Noir, as the tall man rose abruptly and ducked away into the darkness beyond the camp.
Being with Palmer and the others for so long, it's really easy to forget they're demons most times. When they remind me, though, it usually keeps me up a couple nights.
Callador heaved a massive breath, fanning the air. "Damn, but that one stinks like zombie, at least."
"Marriages down here are business arrangements. 'til in the red do you part. You humans are walking liabilities....I don't even want to get into your idea of courtship.....what you spend on a dress could run a commoner household for half a year....and those honeymoon things....!" Arale's eyes widened further and further still the longer she spoke; but then she shuddered hard in distaste, squeezing them shut before they popped out. "Ack. Marriages are still rare down here. Best left to Overlords who are somewhat less than strong alone, and Traders who can write a lot of fine print."
There was a very pregnant pause.
"Overlord Prier, Overlord Culotte, do you need me to scout for suitable matches, perhaps? Overlord Culotte, your choice is quite clear."
"I'm going to go check on Noir." Prier leapt to her feet, and Katie's screech as the Overlord dug a heel into her tail on the way out ended the discussion.
Remember when she said I was only good for carrying luggage, Sister Alouette?
"Master Culotte needs to sow some Makai grass first." Kali poked her tongue between her teeth mischievously, leaning over to nudge an elbow in his churning stomach.
He didn't quite know how to thank her for that rescue.
-He would have to pick the high rocks where the Nyankos had hidden. Prier felt the crawling cold sweat of exertion return as she clambered toward the colorless rags fluttering high above.
"Don't wander off too far! I don't want to have to go through all that again to get you back!"
The barest shifting of his unkempt hair was the only recognition he gave her as she reached the top.
-He remained silent until she caught her breath. "Yes?"
-"....I'm sure....she's not down here." she said at last. She wished she could feel as sure as she tried to sound.
He searched the swirls of ash roiling in the void overhead wordlessly, face unreadable even if she had found the courage to look. In his long years, he had never understood how the gods could be called merciful when they did not allow a beloved one who had gone on to speak with those left behind, even a little, if only once.
After he came to himself again amid the scoured ruins of his village, there was nothing he would not have given the gods to hear just one whisper of his mother's voice in his heart; just one that was not merely the desperate echo of a memory. His faith, his soul, his life, whatever, however. Just one whisper, just one word, telling him she was safe. He prayed to the Goddess; how he prayed. He even prayed forgiveness for his rage that had taken her murderers, though he felt no remorse for them. He begged in tears until he had none left to shed, then begged again. His heart continued to scream helplessly when his throat grew too raw to give it voice.
Only silence, terrible, final silence, met him; and the memories were drowned by his anguish, his guilt, and his fury.
Did the Goddess hate him now? Did his mother?
Or was he just alone?
The demons had come then; having felt a release of power so potent it had torn a Gate between worlds, they were seeking its source, be it opponent or opportunity. When they found such might in such a tiny, shaking form, they openly considered killing the terrified child on the spot for the human blood they could smell in him.
Instead they asked him, with jagged smiles, what had happened.
The shocking news of Sister Aime's pregnancy out of wedlock quickly became the favorite feed for the matriarchal old hens of Emaner. Even girls in the service of the Goddess got in trouble; not praying enough or praying for the wrong things, they sniffed, bemoaning the decline of the Church and civilization this surely heralded. Rumors that the father was anyone from old Father Miel to the unhappily-married Mooboo rancher in the neighboring town were scattered daily and hungrily pecked up.
Aime answered the rare direct questions about his identity, subtle or blunt, with the same smiling eyes and enigmatic reply. "He's the man I love."
Whoever he was, he never returned to her; and somehow, as their child grew within her, the village gossip grew protective of the girl. Surely proof of the devotion the Goddess prays for, they sniffed, wiping away pious tears with their aprons. No matter the young men who blushingly proposed to do the honorable thing in his stead, she was only for her unnamed beloved. Bachelors at the tavern alternately wept into their ale over how lucky that man was, or beat their mugs against the counter cursing him as a motherless scum of a fool for abandoning such a sweet angel.
Aime had known from the start he could never truly stay with her. That was part of a secret she held more carefully than his name.
The Tenjin had long since gone to dust in those days, but there were still many who fearfully or opportunistically worshipped the shadows of their skyborn kingdom; Calamity had spoken far more eloquently through their war-clouds than Poitreene had through the sermons of Her own followers.
The landbound nations continued the fighting that had ended the Tenjin, never realizing the lesson they left behind.
Aime had been among the many Sisters of Poitreene struggling to staunch the mortal wounds of a holy war. Eglise had been a fair city of vining flowers and bells said to sing with the voice of the Bright Goddess; the fighting with their northern neighbors in Royaume gutted it to a stark wormwork of mud and blood.
Even then, she did not know the name of the man she would come to love, at first. To many among the battered ranks of Eglise, he was La Equilibre, turner of the tides in many battles. He was a simple soldier who came to them from the farmlands with a simple wish for peace, and a consummate skill in healing that was worth far more than his meager knowledge of swordplay.
He guarded the lives of the Sisters as they fought to save others on the field of battle with medicines and his magic. Aime tended the injuries he bore in their defense.
The eternal rain over the devastation seemed the Goddesses' tears as Her dark Sister plowed a poisonous harvest of hate and fear. But Poitreene also sowed seeds of Her own, and amid the ruthless thorns Aime and La Equilibre slowly twined together toward the sun.
It was then he confessed himself to her. Those sensitive hands--which had spared so much pain and saved so many lives--disguised the claws of a demon. Red eyes searched her own, and it was then he confessed his love.
The revelation of his true form meant nothing to her. In the long years of conflict, of the demons and angels within her own kind, she had learned the lesson the Tenjin left behind. She held those hands close, and smiled into those crimson eyes.
Amid the ruthless thorns, Aime and La Equilibre bloomed as one of the Bright Lady's most beautiful roses.
When Aime's time came, Mother Piete was unnerved by a terrible dread as she delivered the child into the world; the infant's tiny wails as his mouth was cleared made her shake so badly she nearly dropped him. The very real warmth as Aime took her son to her breast for the first time could not erase the awful coldness that chilled the older woman to the marrow.
Aime named the babe Noir for the striking color of his eyes, and the whisps of hair that promised to match them. Born in the human world, the child showed none of his demon heritage, only a tender blend of his parents' features and his father's thoughtful gaze. Father Miel would hear none of Piete's private concerns, and made a great game of fussing and tickling the infant to squealing like a proud grandfather. He did, however, take her counsel that Aime be given leave of her duties to raise the child, and moved the young mother into his scarce-used chateau.
As Noir grew, Piete came to wonder what devil's madness had overwhelmed her at his birth. A clever, well-mannered child, he had a sweet voice that only rose when he sang the praises of the Goddess in services. He seemed best at ease around his elders and the mysteries of the Father's extensive, dusty library; he was not an unfriendly boy, but the rambunctious children in the village were bored easily with dreaming and not doing, just as he was bored with doing and not dreaming. Father Miel speculated quietly Noir may succeed him one day. Mother Piete chuckled that the youth already had the old man's same lazy life of books, except Noir actually read them.
"Maman....was Papa a....a bad man?" the ten-year-old finally managed the courage to ask, even if he did so hiding beneath his tousled bangs as though he'd just uttered a vulgar word.
Aime had to smile; the old rumors must have sprung anew in the children, planted by their parents. She knelt down to ease her son, but his chin only dug further into his chest. "No, Noir. He was a fine, proud man."
"Why did he go away?" he whispered then; unable to stop himself, hating himself for the sadness he knew would shadow his mother's eyes at the question. He bit his lip hard.
Sadness she knew her son shared, yet he thought most for hers. She drew him in close. "Sometimes, we can't always be with those we love in the way we would like best." she smoothed his unruly hair back to meet his eyes at last. "But never doubt that he does love us both."
One day, he would know the truth entirely. The secret was hardest kept from her beloved child, who seemed so much more like his father each passing year. But he had to know himself, first; the shape his spirit gave him, rather than his blood. He, too, needed to learn the lesson she once had.
Aime had no doubt that he would.
Noir gripped at the hem of her skirt, hiding his face in its pleats instead. He knew his mother was right; life was not always kind in Emaner, and he had already been called upon the last winter to sing a funeral lamentation. He felt sorrow for all the pain he saw then, behind black veils and beneath black-ribboned hatbrims; he sang it over their cries, but he never wanted to understand it.
Aime's soft caress at the nape of his neck soothed the question she knew he left unspoken. "Those that you love never leave your heart, Noir. You are part of one another." she coaxed him to look up, coaxed a tremulous smile from him with her own. "My heart is yours. Your heart is mine. Right?"
The boy answered with a tight hug.
Unlike Father Miel, Noir was given to seek his solitude outdoors, in the forests further up the mountain his mother had raised him to love. Summertime the next year, solace was proving to be a difficult commodity, though; for somehow, he had caught the curiosity of one of the other village boys.
Cruton, the smith's son, was almost his age, but it seemed to Noir he asked at least twice the questions the older boy ever had.
"Wanna climb a tree?" the boy repeated, rocking on his folded legs before springing to his feet and wandering the small clearing. Noir had lost count of how many times he'd been asked. He shook his head, turning another page in the book he'd chosen for the day. His climbing a tree couldn't possibly match the adventures of saints and heroes.
"Well, I do." Cruton hopped. Noir was nearly as sour-faced as his father after a day over the anvil. "How can you learn everything if you don't learn how to play?"
"In a little bit." Noir murmured, not noticing the other boy had already shed his jacket and was clambering up the nearest trunk.
Moments later Cruton tumbled back down with a cry, blanched and transfixed in terror by the branches overhead.
Yellow eyes like frozen flames burned down on the boys. The hellish beast behind that killer's stare crouched low with a hiss, then leapt.
Noir could not describe what happened next, even if he had wanted to recall it. A slipping of his very soul, and then blackness took him. Flashes of heat, the sharpness fangs and talons, the salt of blood, hideous snarls.
When the sunlight slanting through the trees led him back to the waking world, he found himself alone. There was no sign of Cruton, and the monster had been savaged and scattered to grisly pulp across the meadow. His pale face and hands were smeared with its blood, although his clothes were clean save for the skidding of grass. A foul bile clung in his mouth, and an awful heaviness pressed in his chest. The birds had all fled, or hid in silence.
Stumbling between the trees, the older boy could tell his companion had crashed heedlessly back down the path to the village; a shoe here, a bit of cloth the brambles snagged there. He breathed relief to see Cruton huddled among his usual cohorts in the square, then ran back up the mountainside to the spring. He felt unclean within and without, and what he retched at the water's edge was not breakfast, only sickening him further.
Cruton did not seek him again, nor did it seem he told anyone whatever he saw. Noir returned to the chateau, and did not leave.
Piete fretted the child was becoming ill, so suddenly aimless he had become, but careful examination proved his faint assurances that he was not were true. His mother tried gently to share the secret burden of his heart, but he buried it deeper still. It was not a weight she should bear.
Instead, time not spent on chores was spent shut in his room, hands clenched white in prayer.
Was it the work of the Goddess, to save them? It did not feel like the miraculous strength of the saints and heroes of legend. It felt like the mindless brutality of the evil they battled.
The Fallen, then? He choked back a whimper, and the bloodless fingers ground into his forehead.
His mother and Father Miel had taught him even in the darkest hearts there flickered light, and even the lightest hearts cast a shadow.
But what was in his?
Cruton's fear hurt, but Noir felt it himself.
The morning of the third day, Noir somehow remembered the book he'd borrowed from the Father; he'd left it up there, in the fateful clearing. Willing his fears to a corner of his mind, he concentrated instead on his responsibilities; numbly retracing his steps into the forest quickly as his legs would allow while the sun sank into dusk, when none would notice him.
The lingering stench of death nearly buckled him into the grass as he arrived. He tried to ignore the cloying reek, and see nothing except the book he had come to reclaim. It lay where he had thrown it when he dashed to Cruton's side; he sank down as he picked it up, shivering as he wiped at the dew-stained pages. He almost wished the boy was there annoying him again.
Strong hands dug into his shoulders, threw him back and pinned him. His head swam as he tried to focus past the stars winking behind his eyes to the scowling faces looming above him. It was Cruton, and his friends; the eldest at eighteen and the biggest, Moutarde, was the one crushing him down, while brothers Pepin and Miche clutched at knives swiped from their mother's kitchen. Cruton danced in agitation behind them, questions clearly answered at last.
"Show yourself!" Pepin's blade flashed across his cheek, close enough he could feel the chill of the metal over the hot breath of the demand.
"I'm not...!" he gasped. The sharp edge pressed a thin line of blood from his jaw, insisting otherwise.
"You are!" Cruton cried out, pointing to the foul decay and splintered bones scattered at their feet. "You are, you are! I watched you!"
"We have to warn the Father." Miche urged with a hushed voice, flinching to follow the younger boy's gestures. "The witch is probably planning to kill us all."
Noir stopped squirming to stare in horror. Moutarde felt him shake harder, and locked grim eyes on his.
"Confess, devil. Confess before you and your mother return to the fires of Hell!"
A piercing howl answered him.
When awareness returned this time, Noir's hands were crusted with gore and clawing deep into Moutarde's quivering remains. Staggering back in a whirl of revulsion, he saw the others dead; all save Miche. That one gibbered and scrambled away as the child's agonized eyes fell on him.
Noir ran then, too; frantically, mind empty of all thoughts save one.
Aime could only rush to her son agape as he stood paralyzed and bloodied in the doorway. "Noir! What did this to you!?"
"Th-th-they tried....M-maman, they.....they want to hurt you, Maman, you have to run!"
She pressed him close as shrieks and furious shouts erupted outside.
Neighbors who had smiled at her at market, sang with her and Noir at church, and blushed with offers of marriage became ghoulish distortions in flickering torchlight, twisted with fear and hate, shadowed by pitchforks and spears meant for her shaking child. Clutching Noir's hand, Aime stepped out to the street; she then stepped forward to shield him, arms spread. "Wait! Please! He was just trying to protect himself!"
"That's a lie!" Miche shouted; the shame of fleeing the hellspawn that butchered his brother gave him a vengeful courage now. "I saw everything! He turned into a demon! She's a witch!"
"He killed my son and his friends!" Volonte roared. The blacksmith was a massive man, and the spear he brandished was one of his deadliest works. "That's all I need to know!"
"Death to the demon!"
"Death to the demon's mother!"
Aime's eyes did not leave them, but she stepped back a pace as they advanced, whispering calmly over her fear. "Noir....you must escape."
He shook his head wildly, seizing her skirts. "Maman....!"
"Remember, Noir....just as there are good and bad people, there are good and bad demons." she blinked hard, wondering if he ever could forgive her. "Your father was a demon. But he was a fine, proud man. Never be ashamed of your powers."
She looked down to him then, with the same tender smile that had comforted him so often. "Noir...be a good boy."
Volonte's spear left no time for more. The young mother was past hearing her son's screams as she slid to the cobblestones, past feeling his arms around her neck.
"Yes! We killed the witch!"
"Next is the demon child!"
The heat of her blood seemed to immolate him.
Father Miel and Mother Piete remained silent behind the locked doors of the Goddess. Poitreene's will was absolute in such a tragedy; they would not question Her judgement. They would only pray mercy for the poor girl.
Neither of them could know their own judgement was on them, on all of Emaner, with a consuming surge of darkness and a child's sobbing shriek.
The demons knew nothing about his father, the fine, proud man that he never knew; though out of earshot, it was their opinion he was a perversion best off dead. They led the child into their world, and there he stayed for centuries.
They hoped he would become the Dark Prince of fearful history, Noir realized, as they carefully trained him in the limits of his powers. He already knew that could not be possible.
Only the Fallen could have guided the mindless hunger of that demon in the clearing, just as only Poitreene could have guided the barbarous villagers with their righteous judgment. He hated them both, as he hated himself for losing his mother's life in their pitiless game.
His hellish guardians only saw what they wanted to see, and that was all he showed them, feigned behind an obedient smile. He allowed them to believe he was part of designs, all the while spinning a far grander one of his own. By the time the demons saw he was not their fated harbinger, he had surpassed their teachings, and none of them could ever hope to kill him for a halfblood again, had they wished. Instead they followed him, so occupied with guiding his strings they did not feel their own pulled.
When he returned to the mountain of his birth, he found the city of Marees at the foothills. None lived that remembered Emaner, save in the vaguest of stories mothers told their children to keep them in bed.
They said the Dark Prince had destroyed it. The townsfolk believed the young man bowed his head in solemn reverence.
He bowed it to conceal his sardonic smile.
When he joined the clergy there, he immediately exemplified himself. His sallow face seemed ageless throughout the careful posturing and study that etched away the youth of his peers; more than once it was whispered in envy that surely Poitreene was granting grace to Her most devoted servant.
Many years and many titles later, he was asked to head the Goddess's interests in Paprica.
He named his edifice there The Church Of The Divine Mother. Though he never called the Divine Mother by name, his flock of sheep blindly assumed it was Poitreene.
Following their faith so blindly they would kill for it even as they preached its selective mercy.
No mercy was the only way to rid the world of such savagery. No mercy by impaling them all on their own ignorance and hate.
It had taken Prier's strength to prove that he, too, had become blind.
And now, from the jaws of Hell itself, she delivered him again.
"I will believe you, then." he lowered his eyes at last.
-"You better!" she . "Because you're stuck with us."
"Because I choose to be."
-She ground her fists in her hips, staring at him in exasperation. "Ugh, can you just shut up and nod this one time!?"
"That's more like it."
-+----+ NEXT EPISODE +----+-
Lost an eternity in the Seventh Circle Of Hell, Noir is found overwhelmed by the dewy chocolate-eyed divinity of his rescuer's well-fed charms! The very girl who sent him to judgment--only the miracle of her angelic love can purify his sinful past!
MY BUTT'S NOT BIG!
Demon Overlord Prier cannot go on without those healing hands tangled forever in his greasy mane of blackest jet and whitest lice! Drunk on the manly stench of the Damned, she valiantly vows to kiss everything and make it better! Her light can only shine brightest in his darkness!
....you do need to take a bath.
Finally, the fiendish truth of Love Freak Flonne's sinister agenda is shockingly revealed: to produce a child who can destroy the very fabric of reality with the ultimate light and dark powers of SACRED SQUEEGLES and PROFANE PERFECTION! All shall adore her and despair!
Th-that's not my agenda!
Next, on Mischievous Peach-Blossom Maid Matchmaker Etna, Chapter One: Valentine's Day Massacred! Such passion can know no penance! Demon Overlord Prier and half-blood freak Noir, it's 1000 years of Hail Mary-Sues for you!
....I'd like to go back to Seedle now.
Oh, I'm sure he could swing that way, if you do. ♥