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.hack//Reparation

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Sunken City Schrei der Seele, they called it.

Soul's Cry, mused the blonde Adept Rogue as he made his way through the twisting corridors of his guild's @HOME, eyes the color of a springtime sky passing disinterestedly over scenery he'd seen a thousand times before. It's apt, isn't it? A place like this...it certainly seems to scream for someone. He chuckled humorlessly to himself and paused as the corridor branched off on itself again, a moment's hesitation overcoming him before his feet moved again and carried him down the left-hand path, feet making dull tapping sounds against the marble-like flooring for a short time and leaving echoes in their wake that suggested millions of sleeping spirits suddenly waking and following his journey. Even when he stopped again, this time before a door made of old and splintering wood, the echoes continued, dying away only when he put his hand to the dark planks and the door swung outward to reveal the scenery beyond.

Soul's Cry, indeed. The city had crumbled to nothing but dust, a lonely, hollow facade of itself, lit dully by the light of a fading sun that seemed to want to keep its warm gaze away from the tortured reality below. Perhaps at one time it had been beautiful - grandiose, even - but those days were long gone, and he stood just beyond the doorway and overlooked the desolate lifelessness from a ledge high above. It was depressing, true, but at the same time this place held notes of hope; it had drawn him there, after all, as it had drawn so many others with kind hearts and good intentions...and most of all, how it had drawn her, the girl who had brought him here.

"Enoki," came a gentle, softly accented voice from behind him.

He turned, met moon-silvered eyes. "Aspera," he said in the same tone, and bowed his head.

"You are remembering again, how you came to The World." It was a statement, not a question, and as the petite girl in a shrine maiden's outfit moved to his side with her night-dark hair swishing about her knees, he marveled to himself at how she could so easily know what anyone was thinking. That, he supposed, was what had made her such a successful guild master in the first place, bringing so many lost souls that she took neatly under her wing and raised into the kindest and strongest of players; she had done the same for him a long time ago, and when he proved to have the same skill as she in nurturing gentleness and strength, had appointed him the position of guild master whenever she was away. Lately, it seemed that was more often than not, but he never questioned her - that would be impolite, and the last thing he wanted to do was to upset the girl he had grown to think of as a sister, who had turned him into what he was today.

He turned his eyes back to the crumbled city.

"Yes," he whispered, and the breeze caught his voice to whisk it away. "I am."

~*~

"Enoki." The redheaded girl spoke the name to herself, turning it around on her tongue as if gauging its worthiness. "Enoki." She smiled, and turned her eyes to the printout on the table beside her; it was perfect, almost too much so - the drape of the silvery-blonde hair, the no-nonsense curve to the pale blue eyes, and the red crescents that traced along high cheekbones were just similar enough to the image in the printout, the black Adept Rogue she had decided to base her PC on for the sheer perfection of his design. She flicked her gaze quickly back and forth between the screen and the printout, tweaking the minor details until the forms were the same, until the time came to apply the textures to the green polygonic mesh that was her character's base form.

There, she differed.

A shirt, like so - almost like a tabard in design, silver with red at the collar and hem, three belts firm round the torso to keep it pulled snug against his slender sides; black pants that clung to his form, offset only by the thin gold chains that draped themselves over his hips in an attention-grabbing X-shape; thick-soled boots in a shade of red that briefly made her think of dried blood and caused her to nudge the color slider down till it darkened sufficiently as to not creep her out. A pause to look him over, and her breath caught - yes, this was perfect, exactly what she'd wanted to design.

"Enoki," she said once more, typing the symbols into the input box, finally giving him his name.

The first login was surprising; she felt as though she, Karen Karasaki, ceased to exist, and suddenly her world was that which she could see through the eyes of Enoki. It was strangely beautiful, drawing her deeper and deeper in, and in time she found herself playing the game not to focus on its programming - which had been her original intent - but to appreciate it for what it was, an ephemeral mirage suddenly turned tangible and real and right there at her fingertips to enjoy. She had quickly made friends there, two girls named Shino and Atoli, who she found herself spending more and more time around; slowly, she came to know their circle of friends, and that was when she had met the boy from the printout - the black Adept Rogue, the Terror of Death, Haseo.

It had been awkward, that first time, trying to explain away the similarities between their PCs, until Karen had simply decided to tell the truth - she had received the printout from a friend who played The World, but had quit shortly before she herself had joined, and the design had intrigued her so that she desperately wanted to have a character with the same form. It had sounded strange, Enoki's voice ringing flat and embarrassed in her ears, and a silence trembling with tension had stretched out for what seemed like eternity before Haseo smiled and grasped her - Enoki's - hand. "Welcome to The World," he had said then, in a voice that sounded as if he were echoing words said to him a long time ago, locking his eyes to Enoki's in a way that wouldn't let him look away. "We'll help you become strong."

That they had done well, and that strength had led Enoki to Aspera.

He had just reached level 23. The field he was training in was a gloomy area, rain pouring down and thunder ringing in his ears, but the solitude was welcome after the crowds of Mac Anu. He was practicing with his job extension, having recently moved from his first choice of Blade Brandier to the scythe-wielding Flick Reaper, and he was just beginning to get the hang of handling the Death-like weapon when he'd heard a scream, rising thin and wavery above the sounds of the ever-present storm; without thinking, he drew himself upright and strained to pinpoint the sound, realizing before long that it was coming from the direction of the secluded island in the midst of the area and immediately setting off at a dead run. There was only one way to access that island, and he only hoped he could make it around the spiral of the area in time.

He arrived there to find a fragile-looking girl, drenched with the rain and shivering in fear, staring up at a huge treelike monster bearing down on her; a few feet away, what was presumably her weapon lay in pieces, shattered beyond repair and fading into nothing even as Enoki's feet touched the grass of the small island. He didn't think, simply launched himself at the monster with a fierce swing of his scythe, beating it relentlessly back until it finally faltered and fell and dissolved away into data. Only then did he turn to the girl, who he had been very careful to keep behind him during the fight to lessen the risk of her getting hurt, and extend a hand to her as he softly asked, "Are you all right?"

Wide moon-silvered eyes stared back at him, glistening with frightened tears beneath sodden black bangs, but slowly the girl breathed in and nodded and took Enoki's hand, letting him help her to her feet. Standing, she looked even more frail, clothed in the red and white of a historic shrine maiden with midnight hair that fell to her knees, but there was a strength in her face now that took his breath away. "Thank you," she told him in a voice that held a hint of an unrecognizable accent, and suddenly brought up her other arm to cup his hand in between both of hers. "You are strong," she said, and her lips moved into a smile. "Strong and kind. My guild would most certainly benefit from a player like you. Will you join us?" The question was accompanied by a small headtilt, and Enoki found himself unable to answer, simply watching her for a long moment before he dared to break eye contact and dip his head in the smallest of nods. "Yes," he whispered; his voice cracked, and he swallowed to wet his throat. "Yes, I'll join you."

She smiled again, and released his hand. "Come with me, then, to the Soul's Cry."

Enoki followed her, but it occurred to him suddenly to say, "What's your name? I'm Enoki."

A pause, then moon-silvered eyes met his again, and she was still smiling. "Aspera, of the Wandering Souls guild."

He realized then that he knew of her, and his breath was stolen away all over again.

~*~

From then on, Enoki's life had become very busy, and he could barely keep track of the days that had passed, events all blending themselves together into a fuzzy mesh of barely-there memory - his second job extension, this time to Harvest Cleric to assist the guild more easily; his promotion to secondary guild leader; his meteoric rise to level 125, at which point he ceased training so strongly except to keep his skills sharpened - things like that became his daily routine, and he grew comfortable with it, though worry soon arose when Aspera began to disappear for days on end without any forewarning. It wasn't as if he thought she couldn't take care of herself, but he still couldn't help but wonder what it was that made her disappear, that stole her away from any contact save for sporadic emails that seemed somehow off in a way. There was something going on, he was sure, and without knowing what, he felt helpless.

Even now, he still didn't know what it was that made her disappear so often, but he'd grown to accept it. It was a mystery, yes, but so was Aspera herself - he'd long since given up figuring the enigmatic girl out, and things just seemed better that way. Even so, there were moments that he couldn't help but wonder what exactly went through her mind, especially when she would get that distant, wistful look on her face and simply stare off over Schrei der Seele, as if she could see something at the horizon that no one else could. She was doing that now, in fact, and he kept his eyes on her for a long moment before touching her shoulder with a gentle query, "Aspera?"

She shuddered, took a breath, her eyes clearing. "I am...sorry, Enoki. I was merely thinking."

It was the same answer she always gave, the same answer that always left Enoki unsatisfied, but he nodded and let his hand drop to his side. "The city seems sad tonight," he said in lieu of pressing the issue, lowering himself to sit on the ledge's rim, letting his feet dangle down into the emptiness below. "You see it, don't you, Aspera? Does it make you sad too?"

Aspera opened her mouth, hesitated, closed it again and sat beside him, leaning her head onto his shoulder. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I am saddened too." And hearing that, Enoki wondered - not for the first time - what it was that his guildmate saw; he said nothing, though, hesitantly putting his arm over her slender shoulders and drawing her a bit closer to him in a protective sort-of embrace. They sat like that for a while, just staring out at the morose reddish rays of the perpetually sunken sun, and Enoki had just begun to think Aspera might have fallen asleep when she suddenly looked up at him, and moon-silvered eyes were filled with grief. "Enoki," she said, "I have to leave again. This time, I may not return. In the event that I cannot return to the guild and to you, you will receive one final message. I beg of you, Enoki; read it carefully, and become the true master of this guild." Tears were in her eyes again, like when they had first met, and she dashed them away with the edge of a sleeve.

Enoki's face wore stunned pain. "Aspera, you...you're quitting?"

She shook her head, touching his hand and rising to her feet, so lithely and quickly that she herself seemed like one of the spirits that many said roamed the halls of Schrei der Seele. "No, Enoki. Please understand. But I must take my leave now." Uncertain, she hovered there, then bent and touched her lips to Enoki's forehead before she whirled, dashing off down the corridor with a clattering of her wooden sandals; frightened now for some reason he couldn't explain, Enoki touched his skin where she had kissed him, and wondered if her lips had always felt so cold.

Become the true master of this guild...Aspera, what's going on?

Feeling suddenly numb, he rose and went back inside, following spiraled hallways and half-crumbled staircases up to the master room, the door opening silently and easily at his touch; here, there resided the Moon Circle, a system not unlike that once used by Yata and Project G.U., and he held one white-gloved hand out over the controls to make the screens all around him spring to life. Monitoring things around them was one of the guild master's jobs, and with Aspera gone (he shivered, fearful again), the responsibility fell to him to do so. Eyes flicking over the images before him with practiced ease, he suddenly paused, zoomed in on one screen and leaned a bit closer.

Become the true master of this guild...

There was a girl there, a Harvest Cleric from the looks of her PC; she was frightened, crying, as a group of players wielding malicious-looking blades closed in on her - he found himself making a fist in anger, but his fingers spasmed back open in surprise when suddenly a Chaos Gate opened behind her, a figure clad only in black quickly pushing her through it to safety and turning to face the attackers as it closed. Another Harvest Cleric, this one with a rare, shimmering wand and a look of perfect calm - Shino, he realized with a start, and shook his head sharply. The situation there wasn't something he needed to worry about now, Shino could take care of herself. But that girl...something told him to find her, and he found himself on the verge of doing exactly that.

Become the true master of this guild.

"You would do the same, wouldn't you?" he queried the empty air, and opened a trace circuit.

Within minutes, he was on his way to the Lost Ground Indieglut Lugh.