For a moment she wonders who Nasch is calling, in that tone he normally reserves for her, and then she shakes her head and remembers her own name. Something about it had seemed wrong to her, the consonants too harsh, Nasch’s voice too low, too powerful. She had looked at Nasch and seen someone else superimposed over his face, his face that she had known from the day she fell from the sky, a frozen star, and was born.
For a moment Merag is somewhere else — is smaller and softer — and there are warm hands in the small of her back pushing her out of the way, there is something falling, there is a warm embrace. This is nothing like anything Merag the Barian Lord, the Sword of Ice, has ever known. Bodies are hard, touch is rare, love is in the way Nasch can never bring his lance up to block her sword fast enough.
And if that is the truth, then why does she keep looking at Nasch’s face, and wondering why it looks wrong?
“Do you ever wonder,” she says, because there is no need to lie to Nasch, “if you are someone else? Not just Nasch, but…someone else.”
“Someone smaller?” he asks. She nods. “You feel it too?”
“Of course,” she says, and then it occurs to Merag that there is no reason why it should be so. She has always trusted Nasch. Always known him, from the day they were born — but why is it so? “Nasch?”
“Why are we here?” Merag asks. Nasch frowns, his crown bending slightly in displeasure; he does not know.
So they decide to find out.
“There was blood.” Merag says. She traces the constellations with a fingertip; she and Nasch have retreated to the cliff tops, where Vector hates to be, to talk privately. Vector’s behavior has been stranger than usual lately. “You were there. You pushed me.”
“It was probably your fault.”
“No, it was definitely yours.” She nudges him. “What else?”
“I saw your face.” Nasch shifts, his body scraping loudly against the stone. “You’re a human. A small one.”
“A child.” Merag compares that to the visions she’s had, and it feels right to her. How odd, that there is another her, a child her in another world who is connected to her only by illusions. And another Nasch, it seems. What happens to one of them always happens to the other.
“I think we’re twins.” Merag says aloud. As soon as she does, she knows it must be true, and Nasch agrees. Twins, that makes sense, doesn’t it? Born at the same time. Stars fixed side by side in the same constellation. They lie there for a long time, trying to parse the meaning of the visions that sometimes dance before their eyes, trying to remember their other selves’ names.
“What is a Barian?”
“We’re Barians.” Nasch replies. But he knows what she means, and Merag huffs at him as she joins him on the edge. Their legs dangle over the abyss.
This place is a hole in their world, a tunnel into the unknown. A dangerous place. The fall would be fatal.
Merag knows this because after she saw Vector lurking around, she came back alone and threw rocks into it until she was sure they were never coming out.
“But to just…spring forth, fully formed…that’s not normal, is it.”
“No.” Nasch is looking at his hands. “Maybe we’re the illusions, then, and those human children are real.”
What is there to say to that? Merag leans over and looks down into the swirling portal. There is only one way to tell if she is real or not, and it is not something to be attempted lightly. But Merag hates not knowing.
“I have an idea.” Merag rolls her shoulders in anticipation. “But you won’t like it.”
Vector’s hands on her disgust her, and Merag has to fight the urge to freeze him to nothing, to throw him over the edge, to blast him to bits. His mocking voice rings in her ear as he taunts Nasch. Always Nasch, of course. Vector does not quite see her as a threat, for some reason.
But that suits her just fine. Merag calls herself Nasch’s sword, and the others might take it as a sign of subordination. They might think that she is Nasch’s weapon, to be wielded by him. They are wrong. Merag is the Sword, the killer, because sometimes Nasch is too soft. Sometimes he needs someone with ice-cold cruelty to step in.
Today is not one of those days. Vector is pushing her towards the edge, and Merag wants to twist around and snap him in half, but at the same time from the deep dark hole into which she is about to fall she feels something. Someone is calling her back. A child’s high voice is asking where she has gone. The truth is there.
Merag believes in her own instincts completely. And so she lets herself be tossed over like trash, lets Nasch follow her into the abyss. They are plummeting through light and darkness, until they are heavy and dying in a beautiful blue ocean. A god is there. He holds out his hands to them and offers them a way back.
Vessels, Abyss calls them, and he is not wrong; they are half-full children, still growing, waiting to be filled. She takes Nasch’s hand as they die, and hope she’s right about them being twins.
She rubs her eyes; it is dark in the room. Her penguin nightlight just barely lets her see Ryoga’s face as he stands awkwardly in the middle of her bedroom. He’s wearing shark-patterned pajamas and he’s crying.
“Did you have a nightmare?”
“Yeah.” Ryoga crawls into bed beside her. She pulls the covers over their heads, so Ryoga will know no one can him crying, and he won’t be afraid. She holds his hand. “You were in it. But you didn’t have a face.”
“That’s weird.” Rio has the same nightmare sometimes, but she doesn’t tell Ryoga that. He might cry again. “Go to sleep.”
They curl up together. Rio holds his hand until he starts to snore, and pushes the stuffed penguin she sleeps with into his arms.
They are imperfect.
The others are more compliant; Alit and Gilag are easiest to influence, and Vector is a perfect host, and Durbe and Misael do not question. And they were weaker. Don Thousand knows he can strip them of what he has given them at any time. They are not threats.
But Merag and Nasch are flawed. Their powers are too strong, their minds wander from the purpose he laid the seed of in their minds; their souls are not corrupted entirely by hate just yet. They have retained something Don Thousand meant to strip away, and their position as the leaders of the seven is dangerous.
They must be removed, for things to progress. The plan cannot succeed if they begin to remember. The plan will not succeed if they wake up.
He still doesn’t know how they did it, and it drives Vector crazy. Nasch and Merag, so carefully killed, after centuries of them being supremely annoying — and then they come back, just as they were before. Boring, full of stuffy ideals and an obnoxious morality. And they are strong.
Not as strong as he is, with Don Thousand’s power flowing through his body, but strong enough that they merit his attention. Poor Durbe, panting after Nasch all those years! He is already on the ground, life points at zero, having sacrificed himself so nobly for Merag and her raging tempter. He’s reverted to that human form, blood trickling from a wound on his head.
Don Thousand has taken his powers, and once Merag dies and Nasch is drained, both of them will be fleshy and helpless. He wonders if they have realized yet that their precious Chaos Over-Hundred Numbers are just reflections of Don Thousand’s power.
“Vector.” Merag hisses through a clenched throat. Her voice is shaking with anger. Vector loves it — struggle more, he thinks — it will only make his victory all the sweeter. “I won’t allow you to live this time.”
“Brave talk, coming from one who I’ve already killed twice!”
“Don’t misunderstand, Vector,” Merag sneers at him. She raises her hand like she’s going to attack. “That was just part of our plan. You could never have killed us unless we allowed it.”
Vector doesn’t believe her for a moment, but his throat is blocked by Don Thousand’s phantom hand. He can feel the god’s sudden interest in the duel, and Merag’s words must mean something to him, because he reappears behind Vector in a shadowy form.
“You wanted to die?” Don Thousand asks, and Merag smiles terribly with her mouthless face.
“When my life points are below 1000, I can use Ragna Infinity as the material and rebuild the overlay network.” Chaos Numbers 103 glows brightly as it ranks up, dissolves, sinks into the glowing spiral of Xyz power. “I summon Chaos Numbers 103: Ice-Empress Ragna Eternity!”
Don Thousand is surprised for a moment, and then he is gone, completely, gone, leaving Vector back in his own body, a body that is crumbling without anything to hold it together. Snow swirls across the field as Ragna Eternity spins her two scythes.
Impossible, Vector thinks, and then there is nothing. He is frozen. He is shattered.
“You want me to what?”
Merag nearly smacks Nasch for the idiocy coming out of his mouth; only his injuries make her refrain. What does the hell does he mean, stay behind and look after the others?
“I’ll fight Don Thousand.” Nasch repeats. “Go with Durbe and Alit. None of them have regained their powers yet. They’ll need you.”
“I can still fight.” I want to be at your side goes unspoken.
“I’m in better shape than you are.”
He’s not wrong. Merag despises the truth, but there it is: Merag is hurt, and Nasch is not. Logically, he is the only one left who can take Don Thousand on.
But battlelust is still hot and heavy in Merag’s veins. She has no desire to wait while Nasch risks his life.
“I’ll wait for a little while.” She tosses her head. “But if you don’t return quickly, I’ll have no choice but to come and rescue you.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Nasch clasps her shoulder, and she feels the power still dormant in him. She reminds herself that her twin is strong. He won’t dare lose to scum like Don Thousand. “I’ll be back soon.”
“You had better,” she growls, and she picks up the unconscious Durbe and carries him to safety, looking at Nasch’s vanishing figure over her shoulder the whole way.