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Chapter 1

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2003 by Aaron Berman.

Akari Grigor was not given to teenage fits of temper. She prided herself on being a level-headed, intelligent young woman, always bringing a sense of logic and common-sense to any given situation….

But this… but this….

This was just too much for her to bear.

Looking away from the broad expanse of ocean that dominated her window, Akari studied her mother for a moment. Meiko Grigor was tapping away on her old-fashioned computer, probably working on some formulae for her new job, or perhaps just jotting notes to herself, or maybe—

Well, whatever she was doing, it certainly wasn't paying attention to her only daughter's growing ire. Akari scowled as she shifted her gaze to her father. Richard Grigor was singing along to some pop band on the radio as he monitored their flight path, and he was hitting enough off-key notes to make the teen grit her teeth and wonder if he was doing it on purpose just to annoy her.

She cleared her throat loudly.

When that didn't get her any attention, Akari did it again, this time much louder, and stated, "I still don't see why I couldn't've stayed in Tokyo. It isn't as if this is a century ago; I'd be perfectly safe living there by myself. I'm sixteen, by the Goddess; I can take care of myself!"

Without looking up from her screen, Meiko said with a distracted note in her voice, "We've already been over this, dear. I'd like to keep the family together as much as possible until you reach your majority. If you'd've wanted to divorce us, you could've done that when we first told you that we were moving out here."

Akari felt like screaming, but she stopped herself with what she considered a masterful effort, and said slowly and calmly, "I love both of you and I didn't want to do anything rash like that. But all my friends were back in Tokyo. How am I going to make new friends in this school? All of the kids in my new school are Gifted, and… and…."

She started to feel her throat close down on her and tears prick at her eyes, and Akari stopped talking as she fought the urge to cry.

Richard looked back at her, and Akari saw in one glance that he understood what she wasn't saying, and what she was really upset about; which was pretty obvious, she had to admit to herself. Ever since she'd found out what her parents were, and what she'd never be…. It was like an old scar that Akari couldn't help but pick at.

"Don't worry about it, Akari-chan. Look, the news exaggerates the ratios of the kids at that school anyway; I know for a fact that only about half of them are Gifted. People without magic are accepted there. I mean, you're smart, you're beautiful, and you smell good too. Gifted or not, you'll have to beat the guys off with a stick!"

"DAAAAA-ad…." Akari glared at her father, but her heart wasn't in it any more, and a smile forced its way onto her face. Suddenly, she felt an invisible hand sliding across her ribs, tickling at just the right spots, and she squirmed and squealed. "DAD! Stop it! I'M NOT KIDDING!!"

Meiko looked up from her computer and frowned. "Yes, please do stop. I'm trying to…." She jumped and squealed too, uncannily like the way her daughter had, and she glared at her husband even as she laughed. "Okay… getting ambitious, are you? Think you can take both of us, do you?"

She slid her eyes over to Akari, who nodded as she vainly tried to fend off a hand that wasn't really there, since it was merely an extension of her father's will. Tears leaked from her eyes as her lungs started to ache with the effort to stop laughing long enough to breathe.

Akari felt the hand suddenly disappear just as her mother waved one hand in the gestures she used to focus her magic. Not letting a single second go to waste, Akari launched herself at her father through the haze of tears that still obscured her vision. She slid under one of his flailing arms and got him in a headlock from behind, his efforts to resist hampered by the reversal that her mother had worked on his own spell.

After administering a swift noogie, she considered justice done, and released her grip. "There, I hope that taught you a lesson!"

"What, to not meddle in the tickling of women, for they are subtle and quick to anger?" Akari greeted the misquote with a playful punch, which her father ducked swiftly; then he lost his footing as a fresh bout of laughter convulsed him. "Okay, okay, I surrender… Besides, we're coming to the shore! I've gotta go back to 'piloting' this thing."

Akari returned to her seat with a smile, and while her funk didn't come back full-force, it still greeted her with a sneer and a snide comment as she sat down.

Why do I have to be mundane when both my parents are Gifted? It's just not… not… fair!

In the slight hope that banishing such glum thoughts could be as close as a window away, Akari stared out the one next to her.

Flying a mile overhead, descending rapidly, gave her a breathtaking view of the small town where she'd be spending the next few years, Akari had to admit. The whole thing was sheltered in a river valley, with so many old trees growing among the houses that made the whole city look almost as if it had sprouted from the forest. The mountains towered over the town, seeming to protect it with their strength and age. The whole thing would have been peaceful and idyllic, except for….

Almost unwillingly, Akari's eyes slid away from the town and towards what her history books had called the Breach. It was… surprisingly innocent-looking, only a crater perhaps a mile or two wide, with a stir of air moving the dust and dirt over it visibly in a circular motion.

"Doesn't look that dangerous, does it?" Akari almost jumped as her mother spoke over her shoulder. She looked back, but Meiko's attention was focused solely out the window. "And yet—" she cut herself short and sighed, a faraway look in her eyes.

Meiko sighed, and Akari reached out to touch her arm. "Hey, Mom, why do they need you now? I mean, why did they have to call you away from Tokyo University?"

Akari almost didn't notice her mother's slight hesitation. "They haven't really told me anything specific yet, just that my work on early stages in Gifted development is vital. I can't really say anything more than that for sure."

The teenager sniffed. "Fine, then. I can see where this is going." The tried-and-true sour grapes ploy came to her aid, and she added, "Guess that I didn't really want to know anyway." Akari turned back to the window, only to find that the Breach had moved out of sight.

Now they were circling into the landing port, and she watched the ground move at a velocity that made their speed of a few minutes ago look like a snail's pace, although she knew that they were slowing down. For some reason, the illusion that flying high gave of the planet moving majestically beneath while the flutter or airship was just standing still, waiting for its destination to appear, made Akari feel awed, and she was always saddened when she had to come back to solid ground.

The landing was only a slight nudge, and the feeling of deceleration was quickly compensated for. Once they pulled the flutter into a bay, Akari hopped out of her seat, eager to set her feet on the ground again. "Finally!"

Her father beat her to the hatch, though, and was already talking to a young man when Akari stepped outside. "Yes, of course. My wife should be out momentarily." He motioned to the teenager, who was doing some hamstring stretches. "This is my daughter, Akari."

"How do you do?" Akari offered her hand to the man for a handshake, and was surprised when he raised it to his lips and gave it a kiss.

"I am Donald Angio, and it's my job to make sure that your first few weeks in Guardian City are as seamless as possible. We're still a small town, and we'd like for newcomers to have as few problems as possible." He sketched a small bow. "It's a pleasure to meet you!"

Meiko had just closed her computer and was about to step out of the open hatch when her phone rang. She pulled it out and snapped it open, putting it to her face. "Professor Grigor," she stated briskly, unsure of who was on the other end.

"Ah, it is very good to hear your voice. Have you arrived yet?" A thick Russian accent flavored each of Yuri Vorolov's words, and the background noises of an active laboratory filtered in. Meiko grinned at the sound of her old friend's voice.

"Yes, I have. I'll see you tomorrow morning, after I've moved into my new home."

"But… but… Oh, very well." Yuri didn't sound very well as he added, "He has started to stir, and we need your advice soonest."

Meiko didn't bother to ask who. "Dammit. I can't get there any faster; not without making Richard and Akari suspicious. I can't afford for them to suspect the nature of—"

He interrupted her. "As I said, very well. Tomorrow it is, my friend." A click signaled Yuri's usual abrupt ending to conversation, and Meiko sighed.

"That idiot must learn some tact. Jerk." Despite her harsh words, a fondness in them stole the harshness away, and a smile curved her lips. I've missed him, that's for sure…

Akari swung the door to their new home open, a feeling of excitement suffusing her. Despite all the events of the last hundred years, Tokyo was still a crowded place, and this house was nearly twice the size of their old home. As she looked around the empty living room, she whistled softly. Where are we gonna find the stuff to fill up all this space?

"Where are we gonna find the stuff to fill up all this space?"

Akari looked over her shoulder as her mother spoke and grimaced. "Mom, would you stop reading my mind, please?"

"I wasn't… I would never…" Meiko looked almost hurt, so Akari hastened to reassure her.

"I was just kidding! It surprised me that you said the same thing that I was thinking, that's all." Akari stuck out her tongue. "Hey, where's all the stuff that we sent over?"

A walking hill of boxes appeared from the kitchen door, and Richard's voice came from it. "Wow, we sure had a lot of boxes! Anyway…" The small hill dropped to the carpet of the living room, revealing Akari's father. "…I suppose I'd better get to ordering some furniture!" He whipped out a tape measure and started moving about the room in a flurry of hyperactivity. "Let's see… a good sofa in a dark red would match this wall… we need an entertainment center… a loveseat and an easy chair would go here… a couple of paintings for the wall… no, this carpet will have to go…"

Akari watched alongside her mother, identical beads of sweat rolling down their heads. "You've made him into a good little hausfrau, haven't you, Mother?"

"I had nothing to do with it. He came like that right out of the box, no assembly required."

The rising sun cut long shadows in front of Meiko as she drove slowly through the quiet morning. She was dawdling, and she knew that she was doing it for several reasons. Partly, her pace was slow because the morning just seemed too… peaceful to tear down the street at her hoverscooter's top speed. Partly, it was because she really didn't want to find out why Yuri had decided it was so vital for her to come here.

But mostly, it was because of the complete and utter lack of people.

The scientist and magician, who had seen sights to drive men raving mad and created glorious wonders which had changed the world forever, couldn't help but gawk at the fact that there was not a single human being in sight while she drove.

Meiko had always been a city girl, and aside from a few school trips and the occasional sojourn as a part of her career, she'd never left the streets of Tokyo. Throughout her entire life, not once had she ever been in public without there being another person — or, more likely, hordes of people — nearby.

It seemed, for some reason that she couldn't quite analyze and honestly didn't want to, almost… naughty.

Suddenly, her reticence left her, and Meiko almost whooped out loud as she opened up the throttle all the way and blazed through the empty street at nearly a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. Archaic brick buildings which looked almost two hundred years old — and probably were — flashed by so suddenly that she barely had time to think that they were what passed for a downtown in her new home. The thought made her laugh, the wind tearing it away from her from her mouth, and suddenly, nothing seemed to matter but this feeling of pure and unfettered joy that flooded her entire body.

All too soon, however, she had to slow down as Meiko realized that she might pass the signs which could guide her to her destination. The feeling left as suddenly as it had come, leaving her feeling slightly drained.

A few minutes later, she spotted the first sign directing travelers towards the — and Meiko laughed again, this time with a respectful note in her voice, as she read the name that the base had been given — Stryfe Observation Station. Did he appreciate the irony? Does he even know about it? Heck, is Heinrich Stryfe even still alive? She shook her head at that thought sadly. Old heroes shouldn't just fade away, but….

The outer defensive ring of the base was unobtrusive to those without eyes to see it. Meiko had helped design some of the elements which were now commonplace in modern magical defenses, so it was with pride that she watched them note her and send warnings ahead to the guards waiting for her at the gate.

When she got there, and the solemn-faced guard reached one hand out silently, the other firmly grasping his weapon, Meiko's pride evaporated as she remembered exactly what this base was guarding. She pulled her identification out and handed it to the guard, who ran it through the small scanner he kept at his belt. His eyes never left her, his motions automatic and smoothly practiced as the scanner beeped its affirmation of her ID. He handed it back to her, and the gates swung silently open.

The scientist guided her hoverscoot through the gates, feeling a slight tingle as she temporarily breached the magical seal still invisibly warding them, and drove straight towards the building that Yuri had told her to meet him at, the building he'd said concealed the true reason for this base's existence. Studying the long-term effects of the Breach was a worthy cause; trying to harness the energy that manifested at the Breach was a potential goldmine; but preventing the Breach from being used as its creator had intended….

Important enough that fifty magicians had bound their blood into the circle around the base, binding their power and their lives to the singular effort of keeping it sealed forever.

The grim speculation that it might not be enough, that nothing could ever be enough, kept her mind occupied until she spotted the entrance into her destination's parking lot.

She parked her scoot next to a car she easily recognized as Yuri's hover-remake of an ancient Dodge Charger — such remakes had been in fashion about twenty years before — and walked into the humble-looking building.

Appearances were, of course, deceptive.

Yuri greeted her at the door with a smile and a bear-hug, which wasn't the only thing bearlike about him. Meiko's forehead was ground against his bristly brown beard, and after he released her, she staggered for a moment, trying to get her balance back. "It is good to see you again!"

Meiko smiled broadly as she looked up at his twinkling black eyes. "And the same goes for me, old friend. So, tell me…."

He held up one finger. "Ah, not here. This area is not shielded properly." The professor swung one massive arm in the direction of a nondescript door labeled Cleaning Supplies.

"Ladies first, as always."

Meiko swept by Yuri with a nod and a playful elbow to his ribs. She'd spent nearly three years in post-graduate school working with him, and she knew that he expected a certain amount of violence done to him in familiar jest.

After opening the door, which turned out to be a not-so-well-hidden elevator, Yuri stepped in behind her. She cocked an eyebrow. "This reeks of bad spy novels."

He grinned. "Yes, indeed, it is the worst-kept secret in the world that we have a secret elevator… after all, who would want to come down here?" His face grew grim. "It's what might want to come up that is the problem…." he trailed off.

Meiko spoke very bluntly. "Why haven't you just destroyed it?"

The bearlike professor held up his index finger, the light flashing from the engraving on a ring that encircled it. "One: The Goddess has forbidden it. Two: His essence resists dissolution by any means we possess. Three: Who knows? We may need him yet."

He stayed quiet after that, for which Meiko was half-grateful, half-resentful. What do we wizards find so damn appealing about cryptic, annoying half remarks?

Fortunately, the ride wasn't much longer, and when the wall slid aside to reveal a short corridor apparently hewn out of solid rock, the walls rough and crumbling, Yuri hastened out, with Meiko following closely. She chanced a glance behind, and gasped when she realized she couldn't tell the difference between the elevator door and the walls around it.

They quickly came to a room that had about ten people bustling about, looking through books, reading papers, browsing computers, and drawing odd-looking computations across a board in one corner. When Meiko stepped into the room, all of them looked up at her, as if sensing a stranger. Yuri waved one hand idly towards her.

"This is Meiko, whom I have told you about before. She will be consulting with me." All of the people shrugged and continued about their business as if the door had never opened. Meiko smiled slightly at the mood here.

Yuri strode to the far side of the room, which was dominated by two glass windows and a heavily-set door. With a gesture that seemed almost… meek… by the way that Meiko knew him, he motioned her to look through the window. "This is the Endbringer."

Her first glance broke every expectation she'd ever had of him.

He was kept in what looked like a fairly standard setup for guarding a being of his danger; an eightfold circle — with enough overlap to keep an Elder God busy for weeks — surrounded a crystalline growth of orichalcon mixed with adamantine, and upon this growth was literally crucified….

A young boy.

He looked no more than seven or eight, and a small seven or eight at that. His tousled blonde hair was long enough to almost obscure his closed eyes, and his head was resting against his slender chest. Blood dripped from his wrists and legs, where spikes had been forced to grow, piercing his body and pinning him to the soulprison.

Meiko suppressed an involuntary shudder and said, "I see him. What makes you think he is the Endbringer?"

His grim glance never looked at the boy directly. "It's the third verse of Endbringer the Never-Born."

Meiko grimaced. "You know that I can't stand Eibon. He was just trying to fuck with anyone who was fool enough to look for prophecy in his songs…."

"Or he didn't even know his own Gift, and he just—"

"There we go again!" She put a finger in the bearlike professor's face. "It was arguing about Eibon that led us to breaking our friendship before. I won't let that happen again."

"Very well." It was Yuri's turn to grimace. "Will you at least hear out the song? Our predictions place a 96.638 percent probability that this song relates to…." He nodded in the direction of the glass.

"Oh, very well."

Yuri ambled over to the central table, upon which was placed a very nice stereo system, and pulled out an ancient CD case which he handled reverently, almost as if it were a tome of magic…. which it was, in a sense. He cracked the case and placed the CD inside into the machine, moving the track to seven.

The first strains of a low bass guitar, thrumming out a slow, almost mournful line, filled the room. Then, suddenly, a crackling rapid techno beat broke in, and while the bass continued the line through, an electric guitar started wailing away. When the instrument line was well-established, a man began singing, his deep voice blending into the mournful bass line with ease, making him difficult to understand; but Meiko bent her attention to comprehension anyway.

His lyrics were as nonsensical as any rock musician's, written almost as if to fit the music rather than for any real purpose… until you heard them for what they were: raw prophecy.

The problem with prophecy is, of course, filtering the dross from the gold.

Life we name him
Death we name him
Endbringer we name him
Hopebringer we name him

Man never born of woman,
A madman created by madmen in the name of madness,
Dying in pain and blood thrice,
Rising each time with plumage of flame

A damnation we gift him;
Salvation will only be offered too late.
A fulcrum we declare him;
The world is linked to his fate.

A hope we grant him;
The future may be saved with his hate.

Yuri reached out and moved the fast-forward button, nodding apologetically to one of the lab techs who'd started head-banging. "We think this is the part where he begins to reveal what may happen soon."

…dbringer we name him
Hopebringer we name him
In this, his evil is innocence,
Brought for redemption, it is not himself he will redeem;

The light he must find for another.
In loving arms he must be kept
A damnation we gift him;
Salvation will only be—

Yuri switched it off.

"C'mon, dude, I was listening to that!"

The tech's protest was answered by a tired groan that echoed from everyone in the room and a barrage of paper balls, and despite herself Meiko smiled again. It seems I've stumbled into a running joke….

His wad of paper thrown with great accuracy, Yuri said, "'His evil is innocence' is related to his current appearance, I believe, but as for the rest…."

Suddenly, the lights turned red, and a wailing alarm filled the room as a blue flash came from the direction of the Endbringer. Technicians flew to consoles, typing rapidly, as Meiko and Yuri turned away from each other and watched in horrified fascination as the little boy screamed, raw power erupting from his mouth in a fountain of cerulean.

"Soulprison integrity falling!"

"First circle overwhelmed! Second circle will fail in thirty seconds!"



Everyone in the room clutched their heads and moaned at the agony being thrust onto them, writhing as one with the being who tore at the soulprison entrapping him both physically and spiritually. The spikes pinning his body began to drive themselves further into the boy as a response to the power he was trying to use, and his mouth began to move with the words that ground into Meiko's mind.


For the first time, Meiko looked up and met the Endbringer's eyes.

If they had been blue, like the energy still building around him, Meiko would never have done what she did next; as she said later, "A boy with blue eyes and blonde hair is just too innocent-seeming; I never would've trusted him." But they were a dark brown, wide in honest terror and pain as he struggled frantically.

Meiko moved to the door into the Endbringer's containment room, fighting to stay upright with every new wave of agony flooding from the boy. She wasn't surprised that the door's lock was relatively simple from this side; it hadn't been designed to keep anything out, after all… a quick charm opened it, and she stepped through.

"What are you doing?!" Yuri grabbed for her, but the door slammed shut.

Each time she stepped across one of the still-glowing circles, a tingle swept across Meiko's body, but her eyes were fixed on her goal. Suddenly, she stopped between the fourth and third circles as a terrible thought occurred to her. Has he charmed me? Did he weave a spell that would make me release him?

Meiko glanced down and realized that the fourth circle had been of Clarity, and when she'd breached it… She quickly wove a combined probe/counterspell that she thought would be sensitive and powerful enough to find anything tampering with her mind.

It didn't.

She was doing this of her own free will.

Suddenly, Meiko realized that the boy had stopped lashing out in agony and was watching her, slight sniffles still hitching at his chest as he struggled between curiosity and renewed terror.

She reached out with one hand as she stepped through the final circle. "Don't be afraid, please…. My name is Meiko…"

Through the speaker in the glass partition, which she could see from the corner of her eye Yuri stationed at, Meiko heard the panicked shout of "Soulprison integrity has failed! Soulprison integrity has failed!"

Yuri shouted out desperately, one hand slicing through the air sharply, "Do not release countermeasures!"

The boy tore his arms free of the soulprison and reached out to Meiko, a desperate expression on his face, the wounds on both wrists healing over as soon as the spike slid free of his flesh, and Meiko brushed his cheek with her hand. "You're just a lost little boy, aren't you?" she said softly.

She gathered him into her arms carefully, heedless of the blood all over his body, and he clung to her without a moment's hesitation.

"What are you doing, Meiko?"

Meiko turned to the glass, looked Yuri in the eye, and said levelly, "I'm taking him home with me."

Yuri stared back for a moment, than whispered unbelievingly, "You… can't be serious…."

"I'm dead serious," Meiko said, then suddenly wished she hadn't used that choice of phrasing. "You heard the prophecy as well as I; 'in loving arms he must be kept.'" She held the boy a bit closer. "I may not love him yet, but…"

"Prophecy isn't that simple." Yuri looked at her levelly. "Put the boy down, and leave the circle. It won't hinder the exit of a human…."

Meiko stepped out of the first circle. "That's why it will let both of us leave. This boy may well have be Endbringer, but if you leave him in here, that's all he'll ever be. The future isn't fixed; that's the first tenet of prophecy that you taught me." She stepped through the second and third circles together, wincing in anticipation of pain, and when none came she sighed in relief. "We all have choices, and right now I'm giving him the choice to be something other than a prisoner of his own past."

The bearlike professor grinned suddenly. "The Goddess was hoping you'd say that." He pressed something off-screen, and the door to the room swung open. "That was why she asked that you be sent here; none of us could be what this boy needs. With your training and your—"

Meiko cut him off. "You mean that this was the reason I was transferred? Just so you could trick me into adopting this boy?"

Yuri grimaced. "No tricks. It's of your own free will. We didn't stage his sudden awakening, although we've been anticipating it for weeks; and as far as your response…."

For a moment Meiko stammered incoherently, then spluttered, "You-you— BASTARD! I should slap you, then fly to Jamie's home and sl— er, give her a piece of my mind!" As she stepped out of the door, she glared at Yuri. "But… I won't. Does anyone have anything I can put this boy in until I buy him some real clothes?"

The first day… Akari pulled her uniform sweater over her head, because it was a chilly morning. …at a new school… She brushed her hair back behind her ears, pulled it together into a ponytail, then tied it with a blue ribbon. …when you don't know anyone…

"Is a pain in the ass," Akari finished, grimacing at her reflection. At least she looked fairly good for her first day; although she didn't know what the school uniform regulations were like, she couldn't go very wrong by wearing her old one until she got a new uniform.

She bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen. When she only saw her father there, puttering around the stove, she stopped in the doorway. "Where's Mom?"

Without looking up from his pan, he said, "She left really early, because she wanted to check out her new job as soon as possible." Her father grimaced. "You know how she is with work."

Rolling her eyes as she slid a chair out, Akari nodded. "If only she'd figure out that sometimes, you don't have to be to work two hours early."

Then, they both looked at each other and chorused, "But that's what we love about her!!" A quick laugh later, Richard slid a plate of scrambled eggs and a small bowl of rice already covered in soy sauce to her.

"How can you stand those two things together for breakfast?"

"C'mon, Dad… you know you want to try it… come to the Dark Side of Breakfast…" Akari poured ketchup on her scrambled eggs before scooping her rice onto the plate, stirring it all together into one mess before taking a massive forkful and….

Her father turned away and made subdued retching noises, which Akari ignored with dignity as she continued eating. After washing it down with a glass of apple juice, she asked her father, "Did you unpack my bike?"

He didn't look up from his notebook. "It's in the garage."

She hopped up and skipped around the table to give her father a quick peck on the cheek. "Thanks, Dad!" After a quick stop at the computer to make sure she knew the proper route, Akari got her bike out of the garage and started off.

While she rode down the street, she watched what she thought might well be her fellow students. They were of every age, which reminded Akari that her new school had all the grades on the same campus. It was an odd idea, she admitted privately, but not necessarily a bad one.

At first, she made very sure to sit down on her skirt carefully, but when she topped the hill that overlooked the — no, her — new school, she stopped and stood up on the pedals, balancing easily as she took a good long look.

At her first look, it reminded her a lot more of a college campus than the high school she'd just come from; years of tradition meant that all the schools in Japan looked… well… the same. Her new school, however, had spread more out than up, with three buildings that were nearly the same size, and four others scattered between the green sports fields and the larger buildings. With the students walking between the buildings, visible from where she stood, it looked like a very peaceful place indeed.

Until the first sharp BANG! echoed across the landscape, and she saw the slight blossom of fire rise above one of the school's fields. Even from a distance, she could see the two figures facing each other, moving rapidly around as flashes of multicolored light and other physical manifestations of spells flew around each other, though she couldn't tell who'd thrown that first explosive spell.

Akari sighed in a mixture of anger and regret, fleetingly wishing for the ability to do that, then she shook her head and grinned forcibly. "No good thinking negatively; just let all that anger GO, GO, GO!"

With that, she started pedaling full-tilt down the hill, letting her hair and her skirt stream behind her in the wind as Akari pushed herself, trying to leave behind everything but the feeling of exhilaration that spread through her muscles as she tried to break herself, the bike, or the sky; whichever came first.

As it turned out, it was the ground that had broken.

She hit a small pothole that she hadn't noticed. Ordinarily, it wouldn't have even given her a moment's trouble, but she had to suddenly compensate for it, and as she steered wildly for a moment, her wheel found a large rock that she couldn't avoid and she lost control, somersaulting off the bike.

As the ground flew away from her, then grew closer, Akari closed her eyes and braced for the impact—

Which was much softer than she'd been expecting.

Not to mention quite a bit warmer… and very comforting…

She unscrewed her eyelids and found herself looking into a pair of rather beautiful blue eyes that regarded her with an amused expression. "That was a bit of a close one, wasn't it?"

Akari blinked. "Wha—?"

Suddenly, Akari felt her feet hit the ground, but her rescuer kept one arm supporting her. "Yep, you would've wrecked that cute face on the hard ground if I hadn't've been here."

Akari gently pushed her rescuer's arm away and tried her own two feet. They seemed to work, so she kept using them. "Thank you so much!" she said as she took a closer look at her rescuer.

He (no, it was a she, definitely a she) was tall and slender, with the muscular definition of a runner or a fencer. She had on a simple black t-shirt and a pair of tight-fitting shorts that only accented her build. The only jarring note was the officer's cap from some military uniform or another crammed on her head at a rakish tilt.

Overall, it definitely gave her the air of a hero; or at least so it seemed to Akari's still-dazed sensibilities.

She grinned. "My name's Rebecca Chronos, but I'd prefer it if you called me Becky. What's your name?"

"A-a" Akari stuttered for a moment, then steadied herself. "Akari Grigor."

"The new student from Japan whose mother is a powerful magician but she isn't Gifted herself?"

Akari stared at Becky for a moment, shocked beyond all of her sensibilities at this sudden neat encapsulation of her entire life in less than twenty words. What made it worse was the almost conversational tone in which she'd said it… as if there wasn't any real malice intended whatsoever. "Wha… wha… wha…?"

Suddenly Becky looked abashed. "I'm sorry, I really shouldn't have just spurted that out like that. Entropy's information about new people tends to be a little… well… cold. People take it with a grain of salt, so don't worry about what we might think of you." She grinned disarmingly. "We tend to judge a person by their actions, anyway."

"Who's Entropy?" After she asked the question, Akari walked over to where her bike had landed and bent down to pick it up.

"He's the, um… the school's rumormonger and newsman. He tends to pick up a little bit of information about everything, and he's always looking for new bits to put out to everyone." As Becky talked, she started walking towards the school, and Akari moved to keep up. "He's always honest to a fault, and doesn't pull any punches; we've already decided he's most likely to be either lynched by an angry mob or become the most famous newsman of our generation."

Suddenly, something that glittered silver in the sunlight flew through the air and hit Becky in the side of the face. Slowly, she turned away from Akari. Akari looked in the same direction and saw a girl with long black hair standing there, looking as if she were about to cry.

"This is the last straw, Rebecca. I've tolerated your ways before, but this time I mean it. We're through!" The girl turned and ran for the school, tears glittering in the air behind her.

"Wait, Ami!" Becky reached out, then seemed to think better of it. "I just don't understand women." She sighed and bent down to pick up the object that the girl had hit her in the face with before running away in tears. As she did, her military cap slipped off, revealing—

"Oh, shit." Becky scooped up the cap and held it in one hand as Akari stared, wide-eyed, at the tangled mess on top of her head. "This is why I've been wearing hats the last two months…" She looked half-amused, half-embarrassed. "I shouldn't've let Ami cut my hair, but I never could say no to the girl… she says she wants to give me a trim, next thing I know, there's four pounds of hair on the floor."

Becky stared cross-eyed at the bare beginnings of bangs creeping down her forehead and stuck her tongue out for a moment. "I'm just glad it's finally starting to grow out."

Akari snapped out of her surprise long enough to ask, "Who was that girl? And why did she say that it's over? What's over?"

Becky waved one hand idly as she used the other to screw the cap firmly on her head. "Don't worry about it! I'll leave her alone for a week, then go sing romantic songs under her window, she'll throw something heavy at me, I'll get knocked unconscious and bleed for a while, she'll carry me up to her room, and when I wake up, we'll… make up!" She tossed Akari a wink. "Love is a strange and mysterious thing indeed."

"You understand what you have to do, then?"

Richard nodded, watching the blank 'phonescreen intently. He knew the person he was talking to, of course, as the person knew him. They were brothers, in deed if not in blood, but for something of this importance, too much security couldn't be enough.

"Yes. I ask that you give me at least three weeks to verify your information for myself."

He waited, letting none of his inner tension show on his face. For five long seconds, no response came….

"Very well. You have been one of our best agents up to this point. Perform on your own judgment… but if you should find that our information is not flawed…." The 'phone speaker gave a slight click, then began giving the slight beep that warned of having no signal.

Richard reached out slowly and turned his own phone off as he sighed. It isn't easy having secrets, especially from your own family, but—

The front door suddenly opened, and he heard his wife call out, "Darling, I have a shock for you!"

He turned from the 'phone and walked into the front room. What he saw standing next to his wife, looking at the floor, was….

A skinny little boy, clad in clothes that were obviously brand-new. His blonde hair fell away from his face as he looked up at Richard, and the older man suppressed the sudden chill of fear and hatred that shot up his spine.

Camael— It is you, isn't it? You bastard.

"Who is this, Meiko-chan?"

"Oh, this is…."

The little boy interrupted her. "Kameieru."

For just a moment, he stared at the little boy, shock written on his face. You have the gall to use to your old name, just because you think everyone who knows it is dead? Even mispronounced… just like a Japanese would? He looked at his Japanese wife and almost lost control. Did you drain her memory??

Richard recovered himself. I can't afford to do anything with her in front of me, even if she is controlled. "That's an interestin' name, kid."

Camael shook himself slightly and looked up at Meiko. "Isn't that my name, Lady? It feels right."

His wife sighed in a way that made Richard almost certain she wasn't Controlled. No one could be that exasperated with someone who was riding their minds… "I've asked you to call me either Mom or Meiko; either is fine. 'Lady' makes me feel really old, and I don't like that at all."

The boy appeared to consider that for a moment, then his solemn, almost grim face lit up with a grin. "Okay, Mom!" He turned to Richard. "Who is this?"

Richard forced a grin onto his face as he crouched. "My name is Richard, kid."


His grin grew slightly less forced. "You got it!"

"Reeshard-Reeshard-Reeshard!" The boy danced around a bit, seeming to revel in the sheer pleasure of simply saying Richard's name. Then he looked up at both Meiko and Richard. "Will I be staying here?"

It isn't easy having secrets from your family Richard shrugged as he looked down at the being he knew was Camael, and he fought the urge to wrap his hands around the monster's throat here and now. "Sure thing! For as long as you need us."

As he watched his wife go out to the car with the boy in tow, he finished the thought. But sometimes, a past can't remain buried, and it looks like mine has finally caught up with me. The sins of the father…. Richard looked at his hands, half-expecting to see the blood of millions well from them …cannot be avoided.

Akari stepped out of the door to her classroom at lunchtime, sighing in subdued relief. While no one else seemed to take her uniform as anything but another vagary of fashion — several girls had even asked her where she'd bought her outfit during breaks — she couldn't help but feel, well… odd among all the other students, because there wasn't a uniform code at this school.

Why didn't I do my research and check if they had a uniform code?

She was so caught up in her self-recrimination that she didn't notice the person walking towards her until they knocked each other down. Akari hit the ground with a thump, at least, so she knew that she'd hit the other person hard enough to knock them both down….

So when she looked up and saw the statuesque lady staring down at her, Akari knew that something was strange.

At first, Akari couldn't figure out why metal gleamed around one eye and from the entire forearm of the lady she'd hit, and then she realized that they were cybernetic replacements of some kind. Akari was shocked. Why doesn't she just have what she injured regenerated? It's easy enough, these days.

"Why did you bump into me?"

Right after hearing her voice, Akari knocked her mental estimate of the girl's age from as much as ten years older than her to the same age as her. The only thing that made her seem older was the way she carried herself like nobility, as if she owned the school and everything in its environs. "Um… it was an accident?"

"Of course it was." The girl ran metal fingers through her mussed shoulder-length hair, bringing out the stark contrast between the gleaming steel and her darkly tanned skin. "See that it doesn't happen again."

With that, she turned away from Akari, who stared after her.

"I see you've met Erin Dyne."

Akari turned her head to see the person that spoke. He was a tall man who had long hair bound behind his back in a ponytail, except for two strands that dangled in front of his ears. His simple grey slacks and dark blue t-shirt were subdued, and the elaborate mandala drawn in red on the front of the shirt stood out sharply in contrast. He wasn't pretty, not by any stretch of the imagination; but he was just cute enough to stand out from the crowd, and with the slight smile he had on his face as he watched the girl he'd called Erin walk away….

Akari fell in love with him at first sight.

He held out one hand to Akari. "Need a hand up?"

She took it, trying furiously not to blush. Get a hold of yourself! You just met the guy! "I… sure…."

He lifted Akari in one smooth motion. "My name's Ruben. What's yours?"

"A-Akari Grigor."

"The new student from Japan whose mother is a powerful magician but she isn't Gifted herself?"

She threw Ruben's hand aside and almost shouted, "Is everyone going to say that when I introduce myself?!"

He waved both of his hands frantically. "Hey, hey, hey! At least it tells less than mine!! 'The guy whose parents disappeared in a laboratory accident when he was two and has since been raised by his grandfather. He is potentially one of the most Gifted people on the planet.' Talk about blabbing my entire life's story to everyone!" Ruben's face twisted into an angry mask.

Torn between trying to comfort Ruben somehow about his parents, running away in embarrassment, and laughing at the expression on his face, Akari did none of the above and said, with an impish grin, "Oh, that Ruben… I've heard about you." She stuck her tongue out.

Ruben didn't seem to get it for a second, then he started laughing. "Touché!" He saluted with an invisible rapier. "So, got any plans for lunch? I'm sure that Beck and Link will be waiting for me to meet them under the tree, we always have extra slices of pizza, and we only mind two people visiting our lunch spot…." He nodded after Erin, as if to point out one of them.

Akari looked at the corridor where Erin had disappeared in the crowd of lunch-bound students. "Sure… as long as you tell me what her problem is."

Ruben started walking as he cleared his throat and started speaking. "'The daughter of a general, she lost her arm, her eye, part of her leg, and her mother to an assassination attempt by a Gifted during a rebellion eleven years ago. She has inherited her father's pathological hatred for the Gifted. See references to Brigadier General Dyne for more information."

"That General Dyne?" Akari's eyes opened wide, and she almost stumbled.

"Yes, he retired up here after he was pensioned out. Said that he thought 'The Breach is too damn dangerous to be watched only by those filthy Gifted,' or at least that's what everyone says he said."

She thought for a second. "That bit of information you gave me… more of Entropy's work?"


"Guess that he can be something other than annoying, after all."

As Ruben held the exit door open for Akari, he grimaced. "He describes himself as: 'An antisocial person whose sole pleasure comes from the spreading of information. An introverted pervert that sits in front of the computer all day and would probably faint if he came within ten feet of a real girl.'"

Akari stared again, gape-jawed. "That's what he says about himself?"

Ruben nodded sadly as he let the door swing shut. "Yes. He's not really that bad of a person, but he's so hard on himself that he can't help but be hard on other people." He winked. "Don't take it personally, and everything will be fine."

When they got to the tree, Akari was surprised to see Becky sitting there alone, already munching on a slice of pizza. She waved and tried to mumble around a mouthful of pizza, then suddenly started choking.

Once she stopped coughing, Becky grinned and said, "Teach me to talk with my mouth full. Nice to see you again!"

Ruben looked from Akari to Becky. "You two… know each other already?"

"Yes, she saved my life this morning!"

Becky put one hand behind her head and laughed nervously. "Aw, it wasn't that serious…"

Ruben sat down cross-legged on the grass and cracked open the pizza box. "What, pepperoni again?" Despite his grumble, he took a slice and started munching.

Akari sat down next to him and took a slice for herself. "So, what does Entropy say about you, Becky?"

The young woman grinned as she stood up and posed, her slice of pizza held up to the shining sky! "'The granddaughter of Sir Chronos, her only ambition seems to be to inherit his title and become a Knight in Shining Armor.'" Becky grimaced for a moment, then continued as Ruben shot her an amused look. "'Her inability to say no to members of the same sex is legendary.'"

Suddenly, a smooth voice inserted itself into the conversation. "Which is really too bad; such a beautiful girl is wasted on only half of the human race."

Becky glared over Akari's head. "What are you doing here?"

Akari turned around and saw a very, very pretty young man standing there, absently stroking his black goatee. His hair was cut into long bangs and combed off to the sides of his head, and his sharp blue eyes stared at Becky intently. His clothes were almost determinedly fashionable, as if he studied the latest fashion reports religiously and bought new clothes to match….

"Nathan, go the hell away. We don't want you around." Ruben glared up at him.

Nathan looked down at Ruben. "So, Ruben, have you given any more thought to my… offer?"

Ruben looked disgusted. "Dream on, you… you… pervert!"

Nathan shrugged. "Suit yourself. I still say, though, that you should explore all the possibilities."

Ruben stood up, and a black lightning began to dance around one of his hands. "Did you come here just to piss me off, or is that just your teenage angst death-wish showing its ugly head?"

"No, actually… I saw you walking with a beautiful girl, and I wanted to introduce myself." He turned his attention to Akari, and suddenly—

There was no one else in the world for her. He was the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most wonderful man alive, and she would die if she didn't have him as soon as possible.

He bowed to her, and Akari almost swooned. "My name is Nathan Tyler Bedevere, and I'm at your service… for anything you want."

Then, something snapped right next to her ear, and Akari jerked back to reality in time to hear Ruben say, "She's not used to your Glamour, you bastard, so stop using it."

Nathan looked genuinely shocked. "I… I'm sorry." He bowed again to Akari. "I didn't mean to…" Without explaining himself, he turned around and almost ran away, his head bowed to the ground.

Becky looked over at Ruben. "You have got to figure out some way to counteract that damn Glamour of his permanently. I caught the fringes of it when he used it just now, and I almost tore his clothes off…" She shuddered in disgust.

"What Glamour?"

Ruben sighed as he sat back down. "He can make himself seem far more attractive than he is through illusion. Since he is the type that girls find sexy for some reason… that means he's almost irresistible."

Becky cleared her throat. "'A minorly Gifted pretty-boy, his ability to brag about his sexual prowess is matched only by his sexual prowess.'"

Akari stared for a moment. "Wha—?"

"Yes." Ruben grimaced. "He may talk big, but he also delivers big." After a moment, he added, "So to speak."

Akari closed the front door behind her, sighed, and said, "Hey, I'm ho— WHO ARE YOU?!"

The solemn little boy who was standing in the front hallway looked up at her and said, "My name is Camael. What's yours?"

"Um… Akari Grigor?"

For one morbid second, as he looked up at her and tilted his head sideways, she thought he was going to say, "The new student from Japan whose mother is a powerful…"

Then he smiled and said, "Welcome home, big sister!"

Akari heard her mother call out from the kitchen, "Akari, dear, we have a surprise for you."

The boy smiled as his puppet tucked him into bed. He really hadn't meant to Control her, but until he figured out how to undo it, she was useful. Even if he could revoke his manipulation of her emotions and perceptions, which he doubted, he didn't know if he wanted to.

She kissed him on the forehead. "Sleep well tonight… Have good dreams…" His puppet left the room and turned out the lights.

Suddenly, vague new memories popped into his head, as they had done all day. Unlike the others, which had whispered secrets of power into his ears, these memories screamed of fear and hatred and darkness all wound together; of never sleeping until he had to, because of what waited for him there….

He stared up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of his new home drifting off to sleep as he fought the exhaustion dragging down his eyelids. But, no matter how powerful he was, he was just a little boy.

His eyes closed, he went to sleep, and the demons of a past not his tormented him forever.


To be continued.

Chapter 2
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