It was something of a surprise to discover that he could open a plothole into the Library Arcanium. Then again, Zero supposed it shouldn't have been—if the safeguards on the portals were coded to DNA, it would have been impossible to make the distinction. Save for some minor differences in appearance, for all that computers (and, in fact, most magical energies) knew, he was the Librarian. It kind of made him wonder if he could also pull cool tricks around the Library, like opening up rooms or levitating books.
On a whim he faced a nearby shelf and lifted his hand, not sure what else to do. Predictably, nothing happened. Maybe book-levitating had more to do with being a mage than being Librarian? Zero didn't feel like digging through his memories to find out. Coming here was a bad idea to begin with, for more reasons than just the risk of getting caught, but... curiosity is a powerful thing.
He strode lightly down the deserted corridor, half exploring for the sake of exploring and half wondering where Valerie's room was. Not that he wanted to snoop, of course. Just for future reference. Hell, the entire layout of the Library would be useful if he was able to just pop in like this, although he wasn't quite willing to go that far just yet. He still had his suspicions about a lot of things, primarily Runoa's intentions. It kinda seemed preposterous that she didn't know he could do this, so why had she never mentioned it?
There was a pop sound and a small draft across his skin, and Zero turned from idly staring at book titles and thinking to notice, whaddaya know, he did have company. Fantastic.
Hovering before him was a tiny, golden dragon with the bluest of blue eyes. She hissed warningly at him, and he took half a step back.
But before he could do anything else, she lunged, and their eyes locked, and -
The first thing he sees is the face of his creator, the face of Creation itself. Herself, he realizes after a moment. He registers a veritable mountain of tumbling brown waves and curls that perfectly framed a delicate, elfin face and sparkling emerald eyes, light, ethereal clothing that sways in the breeze, and the overall demeanor of a beautiful, environmental, fun-loving yet health-conscious genki girl (as physically fit as any Mary Sue could expect to be, but otherwise entirely reliant on the powers her sketchpad enables her; deprive her of that and knocking her out would be simple). She looked like every starving artist wannabe's irrational fantasy of what a real Bohemian was supposed to look like, what they dreamed that they could someday be if they could only get out of this damn flat and get recognized, and for a moment all he can think of is how cliche the whole scenario is.
He has just literally been drawn to life by the combined result of a pre-teen girl's fantasy and a deal with the devil, and not even an original idea at that. The knockoff creation of an unrealistic cliche, who in turn was the pawn of an even bigger cliche, if one of the tyrannical kind.
The juxtaposition of such polarizing ideas might have struck him as funny, but his strict policy of always finding things to laugh about wouldn't come until later. Much later.
Creation looks upward at Runoa for approval (clingy and dependent, and constantly seeking external verification for her work, as artists tend to do), and after a long moment of examining him up and down, Runoa nods.
"Not precisely what I had in mind, but I suppose he'll do."
Creation practically sags in relief, and he sort of wonders what it is that these women imagine he'll "do" (a weapon is fine, a puzzle piece is fine, but this is how she'll make that bastard hurt -), until his thought process is interrupted as Runoa speaks once again to her subordinate.
"You may erase the other attempts. They're of no use to me."
A shiver passes through him, but it will be a long time before he understands why.
I'm holding onto white balloons
Up against a sky of doom.
Tell me you see them.
She has been following the girl for some time now, on and off, for years. She never does anything but watch, or occasionally pull some antics to amuse. The child is only nine, but the follower knows the girl can feel her presence, even see her sometimes, though what she sees varies considerably from day to day.
As the girl grows older and her abilities begin to develop, a rudimentary form of communication becomes possible. The follower sends out emotions for the girl to pick up and interpret, and the girl sends her images and ideas in turn.
The first day the girl begins to understand actual words in her mind, the follower asks her something she had been waiting many, many years to ask.
What is my name?
The girl is puzzled. "You know what your name is. You've just never told me it."
Yes. But what is my name?
The girl thinks. Considers. Mulls it over on and off for days and days. It is a good sign, the follower thinks, that she does not immediately dismiss the question. She understands that this is not something she is supposed to guess, but to remember. She understands this without ever having been told of the true significance of remembering, without ever having been taught the true nature of the world around her and her place in it. Yes, the follower thinks, It is a very good sign.
It is almost two weeks later before the girl returns with her answer.
"I don't know your name," she says, "but would it be alright if I just called you Ari?"
Ari sends the feeling of a smile, but inwardly, in her true self beyond the stars that is not this tiny projection to a child's mind, she is celebrating.
She has finally found the one to whom she owes her life.
'Cause what's inside of me
Is invisible to most,
Even in clear view.
The first day is primarily one of confusion. There were people around, but almost none of them spoke to him unless it was a cursory greeting or an order - and orders were always spoken very slowly and clearly, as if they were just as unsure of what to do with him as he was of them (a new element in their midst; where does he fit in their pitiful little hierarchy and what threat does he pose if the social order changes?) (what they don't understand is that nothing changes; stagnancy is part of the very definition of their being).
Passion leads him to a room in one of the below-ground floors. The walls are stone, and there is no door, only a number next to the doorframe.
The Sovereign catches him staring. "Hm?" he says, still sounding bored (easily driven to mental instability when bored, combined with high creativity; approach with caution, and cater to his whims whenever possible), "Oh, the number? Yeah, you were actually the first one Creation made for your job, but then she started making a bunch of different versions and put them all in rooms with numbers. You took so long to wake up, we all thought you were broken or something." Passion laughs a little. "Turns out she got it right the first time, because those other ones were way defective. Sorta like... this!"
Passion throws a sucker punch, and he reacts instantly, simultaneously sidestepping the blow and twisting Passion's arm behind his back and digging his fingers into a nerve bundle at the shoulder. Then his eyes bulge out slightly (caution, dammit, caution!) as Passion elbows him hard in the gut, harder than one would have thought possible with his slight physique, and twists out of his grip.
"See?" the Sovereign cheers, "None of the others could pull that off even after days and days of training." Passion grins broadly at him. "Patient Zero my ass. You're no zero, man, you'll fit in great here. Maybe we could play some games together, hey?"
He blinks once, then steps into the room marked with a "0", lays down on the bed, and waits until he hears retreating footsteps before closing his eyes.
The next morning, when he asks the others to refer to him as Zero, it raises a few eyebrows (who would want to be known as nothing?), but everyone complies. Most of them assume it is simply some kind of in-joke. They are half-right.
I'm sending out a signal to
The possibility of you,
'Cause right at this moment...
It has been years and years and lifetimes since the death of a friend, a very dear friend, and Ari is no longer sure what to do with herself. The war is over, though the scars on the land and the people remain. Keeping day-to-day affairs running smoothly takes up her time, but recovery is primarily a secretarial job, easily delegated to subordinates. More often than not she finds herself wondering what will come next.
Later, new intelligence comes in: the war has not ended, it has simply moved.
Many of those who are politicians by trade rather than soldiers panic. Others argue about the proper course of action. Is this evil truly their responsibility anymore? Might they be left to recover from their battle scars in peace, or is their fight not over yet? Do they have the right to give aide to a world so deep in the spiritual dark ages, or should they put forth the effort and finish what they started?
Ari does none of these things. She simply goes where she always goes for answers: home.
Eadoin meets her there, ever-willing to help. With his band of friends and their combined talents, it isn't long before they find what they're looking for.
"Domhain Dorcha," she breaths, and it's all she can do to keep the fear out of her voice. The dark world, the world the elders always spoke about in hushed, disquieted voices. The one they actually knew so little about, that was really full of such potential and light, hidden away beneath the surface. They would be easy pickings.
Easy pickings, but also firm and numerous allies, if the right messengers could be reached.
...I know you are connected to a part of me
That I don't even know myself.
His dreams are immediate and profound -
a narrow cliff jutting out over the sea against a setting sun, and planted blade-first at the tip of cliff is hoshikuzu, adrian's pendant dangling and swaying off the crossguard in the wind while the pages of the codex of index, which is leaning against the blade, flutter back and forth
standing in darkness and his eyes widen as the darkness lashes and twines around him, threatening to drag him deeper as he struggles vainly against it, his hand reaches out in desperation and a hand reaches down, grasping his tightly and the darkness recedes
the healer leans forwards and gently blows on the sphere in her hands and it flares with light, growing larger and the librarian mimics her actions and he watches with a surprised, happy smile on his face as the two spheres grow in size and launch into the sky, dancing and spinning around one another as their combined light drives the darkness away
- and he has no idea what to make of them. So he simply watches, and takes every new piece of information like a puzzle piece and coolly analyzes them with a mind programmed to do exactly that. Zero rebuilds the idea of the person he was based on and wonders if being like him should be a goal of his.
Even after months of consideration -
a bubbling laugh that is both horrifying and joyful in all the worst ways, there has been so much, too much for memory to hold, and when he breaks, as all know he will someday, the explosion will be a truly spectacular sight to behold for as long as he lets you live to see it
- he is still not certain. And the more he sees, the less certain he is.
Then again, you could never have said Zero to be sure of anything that wasn't a total impulse. If he wants to do something, he does it, and if Runoa or Creation or practically anyone else wants him to do something, he does that too. And that strikes Zero as being altogether too similar to how Adrian functions in relation to the Powers That Be, and look where that got him. Did he never once just do something he wanted to do? (or worse, was everything exactly what he wanted, death and all?)
Zero doesn't know what he wants, but there is a curious freedom in ambivalence that he decides he likes.
The changes in me
Are likely to be like the weather:
Stormy and clear,
Strength into fear, bound together.
It is the No-thing that holds the Every-thing, the dragon teaches her. The All and the Parts, the Beginning and End, all wrapped together in a pure, shining singularity. That is the nature of the Soul.
Ari's wanderings go on for years, sometimes in the dragon's company, but most often not. Like the elders of Ari's homeland, the dragon is very set in his ways in addition to being very, very old, and he prefers not to travel very far from his cliffside cavern home. Ari is always saddened to have to part with her new friend and mentor, but each time they meet again is a new joy. (This too, is one of his lessons, as she will realize in the years to come.)
"To travel a circle is to traverse the same ground over and over," Ari intones softly, almost as though thinking aloud the experiences that led her to finally understand this lesson, like so many lessons before it (and her elders would be proud, for what else is an adolescent journey for?). "To travel a circle wisely is to traverse the same ground for the first time."
And when you realize at last that you have circled back to the starting point, the dragon prompts her, you understand...
In only a few short years, Ari has circled the globe. She has come to love this world, with all its expanses, all its variety, and always more to learn or explore or understand. Even with the chosen ones missing and a war brewing, she cannot help but feel a sense of childlike giddiness and wonder, in such contrast to the solemnity of her youth. But she is still a youth yet, she knows, and though introspection and exploration were two very different paths to wisdom, both were paths indeed. If she had wanted to, she could have learned everything she needed to without moving at all. The power, the memory, the experience was always with her. It merely needed to be brought to the surface, just as the elders always said.
Ari's eyes light up. "You understand that your only destination is where you have already been!"
The dragon smiles at her. And always were.
But I'll break my silence
If I believe that you and me
Could ever be more than just
What's been behind us.
He meets Death only once. It is a very short meeting (if bone and sinew grow continually from nothing, then nothing is what he shall be, and zero told him so), punctuated by harsh words, sucker punches, and one brief, hastily bitten off scream in the voice of the man they were both imitating. Acknowledgement, Zero thinks angrily, is what marks the difference between them. Acknowledgement of truth and lies, of grounded fact and baseless desire, and the strength of character to understand what your place in the world is. This will shape Zero's personality and outlook far more than either of them initially realize.
He meets the legendary Willowe Foxblade only twice, and the second time is because she asks to see him personally. She tells him what she knows of the man she killed (as his killer, she likely knows him better than anyone, better than even his lover), and he tells her of his dreams, a little. Before she leaves for the Real World, she warns him of the dangers of complacency, warns him with a kind of desperation in her soul (he looks like him, acts like him, and maybe it would all be worth it if she could save just one more), so he nods, and she smiles her very last smile.
A misused comment at Order quickly earns him an enemy, and Zero learns to keep interactions with Sovereigns to a minimum after that. Passion and Harmony are kind, Wisdom and Elegance seem to find him entertaining, and Creation looks upon him with a kind of prideful ownership, similarly to how a craftsman may look upon a fine table she has made. When Zero thinks about it, he understands, and does not hold it against her, but it does grind against him sometimes.
Runoa visits Zero daily, to ask him questions or for demonstrations of what he's learned that day. Eventually he points out that he has not technically "learned" a single thing since he got here; everything he knows is merely something he has remembered. Remembered from Adrian? she asks. Remembered from me, he replies, not sure why she hasn't yet picked up on something so obvious. She asks him if there is yet more to remember. He says he doesn't know, but that he would be disappointed if there wasn't.
(it is interesting, he thinks, to watch the expressions that trail across her face as they converse: surprise, disagreement, the barest flicker of tightly-controlled malice, finally smoothing over into smugness and pride -
"Excellent work, Zero. You may just be exactly what I've been looking for."
- but it is not him that she has pride in.)
I tried and left.
I came and went.
I got rejected out again.
No one believes me.
Exploration is encouraged in all Eiran children. A boy called Eadoin is her most loyal partner in these endeavors - he is curious, like her, though not so bold as to directly defy the elders' edicts. (Not by himself, anyway.)
They are at their most dangerous during those precious few moments at the waterfall, as far down the chute as they could go before they risked falling into the ocean miles and miles below. It is freezing, nothing like the ensorcelled warmth of the valleys above them, but they reach as close as they dare to touch the rushing icy water. They have both been taught that this waterfall, which plummets from the bottommost tip of the Eire into Gaeya's northern ocean, is the endless fount of wisdom for those who choose to live below, giving life to the land and giving love and wonder to the people. But the water is hard and bitingly cold, and Ari can't help but wonder what would happen to a poor soul caught directly beneath the force of all of this "wisdom".
Not long afterward, she requests to go on her adolescent journey. The elders comply to her request as is custom, and outfit her with everything she will need, that she might return home safely.
Her adventure begins, as many do, on the night of a storm.
Many days later, when she is huddled in the cave that is the home of the dragon who rescued her and listening to his story, Ari will realize with all the subtlety of a roar that nothing will ever be the same.
I've worn a hundred faces
Of the character replacements, and now
Nobody sees me.
He is hiding in one of the castle's service corridors, grinning at the fact that the heretofore unmentioned service corridors actually existed and became accessible as soon as he had need of them, almost as though they had been conjured into being just for him. Being a Stu, dangerous though it is, is actually quite fun, but only as long as there is some way to give his abilities direction; he wants none of the stagnant complacency that plagues all but the most insane in Runoa's castle (runoa herself knows this to be true).
He discovers a highly convenient hole in the wall that is camouflaged by a highly convenient portrait on the other side. It is difficult to see through it, but Zero can make out Creation scribbling furiously on her sketchpad, frequently crossing things out or even tearing out entire pages. He cannot see Runoa from this position, but it's not difficult to deduce who Creation is talking to.
"Why can't I find him?!" she finally shouts, moving over to the area of the room that Zero cannot clearly see. He hears a loud thwap sound and thinks that Creation has probably thrown her sketchbook to the ground, or against a wall. "He is my drawing!" the Sovereign screams (desperate and raving, beyond even her need for approval now, because runoa cannot give her what is already gone), "My creation! I should be able to find him anywhere and do whatever I like with him! Even erase him from existence if I want! So why can't I? What's blocking me?!"
The loud smack of a slap to the face can be clearly heard, followed by pregnant silence.
"Because he is a Gary-Stu, you nitwit," Runoa finally says. "Of course he isn't going to react normally." (runoa herself knows this to be true, programmed the urge into him-)
Creation cannot keep a small whine out of her voice. "But he's mine," she says softly, almost accusingly (but never rebelliously). "He was made with my power, and I'm supposed to be able to unmake anything that's mine if I want to. You said-"
"I gave you your powers and I know their full extent," Runoa interrupts sharply. "Believe me when I say, Sovereign, that Zero is acting exactly the way I programmed him to."
(runoa herself knows this to be true, programmed the urge into him, understands him, and knows exactly what zero is seeking when zero himself does not, and yet does not tell creation this because-)
Zero backs away, turns, and starts running. As far away as he can.
The changes in me
Are likely to be like the weather:
...Cloudy at best.
It is after the third time they caught her peering through keyholes and sneaking into council meetings that they bestowed upon her a name: Ari.
The word itself has no meaning, but there is a similar name, Aari, that is supposedly the name of one of the Goddess' feline companions, one rumored to have an abnormally keen interest in the affairs of mortals.
Many, many years later, when she meets her namesake for the first time, Ari will be proud of the legacy she inherited. She will understand that the elders meant it as a symbol of elevation, of acknowledgement that she was destined for greater things than they, though her true destiny would turn out to be much smaller than they imagined - a critical but nonetheless minor role in the proceedings, and perhaps that's appropriate, for what curious cat draws attention to herself as she hunts for new places to explore?
Now, though, right at this moment, to Ari's wise but nevertheless childish mind, the name feels like a gesture of rejection. You are not one of us. You are otherworldly. Take your difficult questions elsewhere, child, for we refuse to answer them.
That night, when she returns to her dwelling, Ari chooses to sleep on the roof rather than in her bed. Under the stars, she dreams of cat whiskers and dragon wings, and worlds far beyond her own.
Angels lift me.
Are you with me?
I'm holding onto you
Like I'm holding onto white balloons...
He had not thought before he left that dodging Silri would be an issue - she never once paid him any mind at the castle, and he saw no reason for that to change - but apparently it is (insanity is not a good look for her, and he does not even agree with her quest or the one who assigned it anymore -), and it is more difficult than he originally thought. Calming her down is even moreso (- but he can't help but empathize in a way nonetheless), but worth it, even if the alliance is temporary by its very definition.
Neither of them has a side to be fully loyal to, so why not?
After their little rescue operation, they part ways. She attacks him twice more in subsequent weeks. Both times Zero has to remind her that he is not, in fact, Adrian, and both times it takes him pinning her to the ground before she would open her eyes and look at the clear difference in his. The second time, she slashes at his side anyway, and as she leaps away once again, Zero decides that he'll keep the scar.
He is therefore surprised when he does not hear from Silri at all after Adrian's return. In a way, he is surprised that he is surprised, because there is no confusion now. She was the only one who couldn't tell the difference, and perhaps it's for the best -
But then another portal opens, and another familiar girl steps into view (long brunette hair billowing in the breeze, and he can see why adrian felt attraction to her once, but she never made a move, never reciprocated in that way, and adrian moved on to other things), and Zero can't help the broad grin that appears on his face.
Carry me away!
I hope that you don't break.
The first thing she sees is the people of her homeland, this misty paradise in the sky. The other children of the Rite - actually a large group this year, all born of the largest and most diversely populated Beltanne festival to date, and all therefore special in ways not yet determined - play in the green meadows dotted here and there with stone fences and wildflowers, but she sits in a treetop by herself. She can hear a few adults below her, watching her, wondering to themselves why she is so introspective at such a young age (not even twenty, barely finished being a toddler). They whisper of strange events foretold in their Telling Pools, of dark times ahead in both the Land Below and in the opposite world. The Domhain Dorcha, they called it. She listens to them, and they continue to speak as though she is not there, and she wonders how to describe the feeling of frustration that wells in her heart.
Later, she will find a good word for it: hypocrisy.
The Eire is stagnant, lifeless, frozen in time as its people become more and more convinced that they have cultivated the perfect lifestyle. The wars and petty arguments of the different nations in the land below do not interest them; they are emissaries to the gods, come straight down from the Palace of Stars itself. They are not privy to the farcical yoke that binds surface-dwellers of Gaeya and those ridiculously short-lived, short-sighted excuses for humans of Domhain Dorcha alike. They are above. They are different. They are better.
Do something! she will cry one day, tears in her eyes as she cradles an egg that will never hatch. Our ancestors came down from the stars because they wanted to live in this world, within the bounds of time, where each moment can be experienced and cherished! What is there to experience if everything is beneath you? What is there to learn if you already know all?
(Three times she will make this plea. The first time, they will give her a name. The second time, they will give her a quest. The third time, they will listen, but by then, it is almost too late.)
She will throw the egg she holds at her elders, frustrated and heartbroken, in a display of impulsivity completely unknown to the peace of the Eire. But the shell is hollow, empty inside, and will shatter in the first hand that catches it.
Now, though, right at this moment, she sits in her treetop while a particularly strong wind blows, and is grateful for the sturdiness of her perch.
I hope that you don't break...
Nothing changes, while Everything stays the same. It is a dichotomy that is invisible to most; only one soul in a thousand could ever understand Nothing to be a proper noun on the same level as its opposite partner. Nothing exists. Nothing has form. Nothing is exactly what it needs to be in order for Everything to continue in the way it always has.
Yes, Valerie, I know who you are.
I remember you quite well, actually, although you don't remember me.
And maybe that's for the best.
Though I've no doubt you could remember me if you tried.
I've always followed orders, but now I'm kind of at a loss.
I spent my life wandering, but with you I found purpose.
I'm not afraid of what the future holds, because
I can handle myself, don't worry,
but what about you? What will you do in the times to come?
but Runoa is more dangerous than any of you realize. No matter how much you prepare, you're not ready.
Runoa is practice compared to what's next. I've watched you prepare, but still I fear for the future.
will happen, and there's nothing any of us can do to stop it.
So no matter what happens,
I know that
I want to help you.
I don't know why, but
Our previous connection makes it so that
we understand each other.
And that's all anyone ever needs.
The connection broke. Snapped, really, and the little dragon reeled back before regaining herself and regarding Zero with a glare and a soft hiss. Zero, for his part, almost wanted to apologize. The more he thought about it, the more he realized Ari's little intrusion was probably a test of some sort, and reacting instinctively when you have such highly exaggerated abilities and resilience is almost never what you'd call safe.
He noticed her trembling slightly, as though having difficulty concentrating, and his eyes widened. "Oh shit, I'm sorry!" he exclaimed. He hoped he hadn't done any permanent damage; that would not be good for his standing with Valerie. "I've never spent much time around people who weren't, like, level 8 or better, and they all shrug off whatever anyone does like it's nothing, accidental or otherwise. Shit, are you alright?"
Ari stretched and shook herself as a dog might - for a brief moment she was a dog, actually, before returning to her preferred fire-lizard form - and regarded the Stu with a critical eye.
Zero didn't move.
It would be difficult to explain what transpired between the two on that morning, in that place where "morning" has no more meaning than the one you give it. One who was the hero of another story, the other who didn't really expect his story to go much further than it had. Neither of them were active participants in the battle against perfection, though both had rejected it in their own way. Both understood the dangers of complacency better than most. And both had found themselves, either suddenly or over a period of years and years and lifetimes, in full and unwavering support of the one girl who understood that, in order to achieve true perfection, you didn't have to change a thing.
Ari moved faster than the eye could blink, gliding past Zero's ear before vanishing. But it was not with the pop of displaced air that accompanied travel between. It was a relatively slow fade-out, visible and almost frightening if you didn't know she was vanishing from this world on purpose. The fire-lizard form, for all its versatility and astonishing parallels with her own abilities, was still nothing more than a guise, after all. Ari had places to be, things to prepare before time was up.
Zero gasped as she passed, eyes widening in astonishment as two words entered his mind, words laced with feelings of approval, understanding, and perhaps the beginnings of trust.