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Do not worry.
Do not be anxious.
Do not regret.

Your choice is the right way.
Your heart is righteous.

(Captain of the Knights, Lu)

-X-

The news comes in the form of a red scroll and an impersonal Cavalry soldier.

“Celine and Seru? We offer our condolences...”

And then they're thrown out.

-o-

Shade Woods is a land of eternal night and dreams. Shadows creep beneath thorny brambles and lurk in the spaces between leaves. Tree branches are blurred under layers of fog, a silvery-white blanket that no amount of sunlight can ever hope to penetrate. And buried in the heavy, moist compost of this land are the dead bodies of their parents.

They do not go to the cemetery. The wooded paths that lead to their graves are haunted by the pale slivers of old souls, faded spirits weighed down by the spider web tangle of the canopy looming above them. Aimless. Restless. In their drifting forms the Ghosts spin Fog Spathes in a never-ending dance, sluicing through the hazy film of mist to ensnare unsuspecting passerby in the tango of their bygone years.

They seek quiet, Celine thinks. In the ringing cacophony of hacks and slashes and screams, the clash of angels against demons settles thick and heavy in the hungry shade of trees. Instead of trailing after ghosts, they become ghosts themselves, flitting upon the outskirts of scene after scene of skirmishes, pockets of shadows that have temporarily been picked clean of beasts. For their part, the Divine Cavalry pretend not to notice. They are like ghosts. Celine coaxes silence out of Seru like palming the sap of trees from bark.

“Hush,” she murmurs, wiping Seru's dribbling face with her sleeves. It's a gesture with minimal effect. Mud streaks both their faces, collecting thick beneath their nails, cool mist compounding grime and dust like a second layer of skin. There are thin red scratches and splotches of black blood and the stench of something rotting. It feels as if the fabric of her clothes have never been clean. Regardless, she buries Seru's head in the crook of her neck. “Shhh. It's alright. Everything will be alright. Don't cry, Seru. Don't cry.

“This is a land of dreams," she says, hand brushing over the curves of his closed eyelids. "You should get some sleep.” He doesn't.

Children are meant to be sequestered and sheltered in times of war. Instead, they're left forsaken out here, two carved-out hollows huddled close together: soft palms clenching and molding into each other's dips and curves, knees sinking into moss and soil. Too young to be doing anything else, eyes bright and twinkling against the barren night sky. Dirt dusting eyelashes. Skin pale and veins blue.

War teaches them how to pray.

-o-

They make it to the sluggish waters of a lake's edge, lily pads floating aimlessly atop liquid darkness. Seru is weak and shivering and delirious with fever, head lolling like a discarded doll's over the corners of her bent elbow. She pulls his minuscule body closer to hers, at the same time as she dips her hands in lazy cool waters and lays her palm over his beading forehead. Hot or cold? She doesn't know, doesn't know how to deal with the fever, bundle him up and let the fever break or bring his temperature down before his brain completely overheats and—?

This is how the swarm of Dark Bats and Evils creep up on them: her hovering form over Seru's, frantically trying for some futile compromise over two directly conflicting choices. It is the clicking of sharp incisors that snaps her attention at last, a high-pitched screech of delight fluttering by her ear that makes her spin and shove Seru onto a lily pad, arms instinctively flinging themselves outwards, splayed like a flimsy small shield.

The pale reflection of harsh edges—plaque-yellow fangs, venomous green scales—seems to make a mockery of the gesture. Blood-red tongues snake out and run hungrily along the curves of monstrous grins. Celine's arms fold, collapse to her chest, fingers twisting together; and she bows her head over clasped hands, eyes squeezed shut and praying praying praying, because...

Great Creator, please save us. Save Seru. Please. Not death like this. Not like this. Please please pleasepleaseplease—

Golden lights sear across closed eyelids. In spite of herself, she opens her eyes, twin slivers of crescents tearing up as sparking brightness burns into her retinas. It engulfs the Unique Monsters, and the unnatural beasts squeal before blinking out of existence.

Celine stares. Her head turns, autonomous, and Seru is staring back, whimpers gone silent in the fledgling renewed silence.

-o-

The ground rises, a steady yet treacherous slope for their wavering strength. Each step up is a treatise on slow, torturous, pain; languid and poisonously sweet, the acidic burn of spastic muscle tremors and breaths tugged in fitful bursts from lungs. They’re climbing up towards the sky and yet the ground opens up to swallow them whole, until it becomes a paradox—sinking as they gain elevation, blades of grass tickling their noses and leaving a bitter taste on tongues. Water from the haphazardly scattered ponds of the wood’s edge seep into their clothes as they drag themselves across the marshy landscape, leeching away warmth and leaving behind trails of sludge and slime. Celine grasps the slick palms of Seru’s hands tighter in her own, and wearily tugs him up the slippery steps that will let them break free from the looming shade of trees.

It’s like a leap into a different dimension, and they immediately collapse into a tangle of knobbed limbs and sharp angles. Even filtered through the dark palette of the night, the Lorela Riverside seems to glow exuberantly in comparison to the haunted tones of its neighbor. The flow of water is stronger, up here in this wide-open space, and Seru’s burbling plea for foodhomeCelineparents is answered by the susurrus of the river, sparkling black and silver in the moonlight.

Still, this is little respite. They cannot continue on like this. It is a child driven to the edges of sanity by sheer exhaustion—wretched, frenetic, despairing—that automatically seizes the fluttering edges of a blue cape at the break of dawn, acting as a pile of dead weight to force the first Divine Tribesman that strides past them to a stuttering halt.

“Brat, what do you think you’re d—”

Clenched fists tremble in their stubborn, twisting grip, bird-boned fingers and wrists threatening to shatter under the strain. Vicious tongues of liquid fire well up in the churning boiler chamber of her heart, spinning into coils of scalding ether and engraving incendiary channels from chest to palm, spurning itself outward outwards outwards in furious, leaping arcs. Light flares forth like river water in spates, drowning out sheer midnight blackness and engulfing the sunshine yellow grass at their feet, a nova’s blast in intensity if not size.

“What—”

Celine’s world fades to white.

-o-

“If I was one of those demonic filth, I would have died,” a dry voice remarks. “Thank goodness I am not.”

Celine wakes up by the river’s edge, eyelashes fluttering in bleary motions as she brushes the smothering military blanket away from her chin. She turns her head aside to see Seru peaceably asleep, head pillowed in the lap of a stranger and draped in a cobalt blue cape for warmth.

Celine’s eyes narrow. “Who…are you?”

“I think I should be the one asking that,” the man huffs, “especially considering that stint you tried to pull.” His stare drills into her own, sharp-blue and assessing. “How did you do it?”

Her gaze falls back to the simple rise and fall of Seru’s chest. “How is he?”

The soldier—for this is what he is, all glinting armor and heavy bracers and sword hilt jutting out his back—grits his teeth, swinging silvery white locks of hair over his shoulder guard with an irritable flick of his head. “This brat will be fine, his fever has broken. I have a medical pack on hand. Standard supply gear.”

Celine sits up with a sigh, shuffling closer to her brother. It is sunset, and the last dregs of orange light seem to suffuse into the leaves of scattered treetops. Save for the tinkling and lapping sounds of the water, the riverside is utterly quiet.

“There aren’t any Unique Monsters.”

A snort. “Purification tends to do that.”

“Purification?”

“The powers that you used to make all the monsters in the vicinity cease to exist,” he says, placid tones doing little to belie his avid desire to continue this line of discussion. “Judging by your consequent fainting, it was an overflow of power that your body couldn’t keep up with, in its present condition.”

Celine blinks. “It’s not really controlled. I just relied on instinct.”

The man frowns, eyes sliding shut in thought. “The Holy Powers have not been seen or used─not since our fall to Midgard.” His gaze lands on her again, equal parts stern and contemplative. “You understand the significance of this.”

“Not really, I’m afraid.” Her lips curl into a wry smile. “I’m just a teen with her younger brother, thrown onto the streets to fend for ourselves.”

A lull in the conversation—he has the decency not to pry. “I was heading to the Town of Delfoy,” he starts, but abandons that trail of thought. “Purification,” he murmurs. “Nothing like that has been thought possible anymore, for over a century’s worth of time. And not for a lack of trying.”

He shakes off his musings, voice regaining its firmness as he formally introduces himself. “My name is Luxferre, General of the Divine Cavalry. This is something I must report to our leaders in Paramanon. Do you—” he falters, grimacing as his gaze flickers between her and the boy dozing in his lap. “Do you and your brother have a destination in mind?”

“…No. Our chances of—I just didn’t give it much thought.”

He gives one single, curt nod of his head as he hears this, dying sunlight shining a faint halo over his brilliantly white hair. Snap-quick, like the resounding crack of ice, and his mind is decided.

“Come with me, then. If nothing else, at the Great Temple, we can sort your affairs into order.”

-o-

When Seru wakes up, it is to the fresh radiance of a late morning. Aureate light sweeps them up in a motherly embrace, and Seru drinks it up like a tender green vine breaking away from shadows.

But newly recovered, Seru’s health is still a frail, flighty thing, so it is not long before Luxferre is crouching down and letting Seru clamber onto his heavyset shoulders. He bounces the little boy once as he moves to stand upright, and the child shrieks with laughter, pudgy fingers balling into fists as he seizes Luxferre’s hair hostage. Celine is just mildly surprised that the General of the Divine Cavalry is so willing to demote himself to baby vehicle.

They’re skimming along the squishy grounds of the riverside, and from his mighty perch up high, Seru looks down to this world of floral sunbursts with a hawk’s eye. “Hey,” he calls, instinctively yanking at white locks like pulling at reigns. Luxferre stops with a wince, and Celine glances innocently up.

“Yes?” She inquires.

Seru beams, squirming as he leans forward and points with chubby forefinger. “Over there,” he says, and Celine’s gaze follows the length of his outstretched arm to a few paces further down the river, chocked full with long reeds and tropical foliage. “There’s lots and lots of flowers! They match the color of his hair.” He tugs again, as if for emphasis. Turning his eyes to his older sister, Seru’s gaze turns wide and imploring. “May I have them?”

“Sure,” Celine says. “I don’t see why not.” Luxferre’s mouth falls open—probably to voice a protest—but Celine gives a simple shrug of her shoulders before dashing off to fulfill her brother’s request. She returns in the span of bare minutes, arms filled to the brim with a giant bouquet of orchids as they resume their ambling walk to the Lorela Upstream.

Seru stretches his hand out again, palms up, a gesture of silent demand. She obliges, pulling a few stalks from the pile and placing them in small hands. His smile morphs into a grin as he wraps his fingers securely around the orchid stems.

“Don’t move your head around too much, okay?” He orders, turning back to talk down at Luxferre. Without skipping a beat, Seru echoes: “Okay.” Face drawn into the focus bestowed by great resolve, he briefly withdraws both hands. In the next blink of an eye, lithe little hands lash out, sinking floral claws into the tresses of Luxferre’s hair.

“O-oi, brat, what do you think you’re doing?” Luxferre bristles, attempting to jerk his head back to glare at Seru, but the boy yanks again and his head is locked in position. Casting a glance at Celine in askance, he hisses from the corner of his mouth: “Do something to control your mad little brother!”

“It’s alright,” Celine assures him, voice perfectly mild. “Seru’s a good kid, he won’t do anything extreme.”

Luxferre’s eye twitches, thoroughly unconvinced. Grumbling under his breath, he squares his shoulders and stalks forward, adamantly ignoring Seru’s weaving fingers and the steadily dwindling cluster of flowers in Celine’s arms. To his credit, he does an absolutely fine job of accomplishing this, up until:

“I’m done!” Seru cheers, pumping his fists in jubilant victory. “Celine, Celine,” he calls, eyes glimmering with pride, “I’m finished! How does it look, sis?”

“It looks—” and then Celine gives up, doubling over and clamping palms over her mouth as giggles of mirth bubble over her lips. Luxferre’s hair looks like a frazzled, over-laden bush, knotted tangles of hair curling clumsily around innumerable flowers in full bloom, like a basket overflowing with plump fruits. The soft, frilly curvature of elegant orchid petals clash horribly with the hard, firm line of Luxferre’s jaw, and the end result is the most ridiculous, ill-fitted headdress she has ever seen.

Hearing this hysterical laughter, Luxferre stiffens. It is a resplendent day at the Lorela River, golden sunbeams dancing across diamond-faceted waters in the picturesque beauty that this terrain is hailed for. In the next instant, Luxferre is charging towards the riverbank, crouching down on his knees to peer over the edge into his watery reflection.

“AAAAAIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKK!!!!!!”

It is a resplendent day at the Lorela River, riverbank brilliant and sparkling with the clarity of a thousand sharply cut gemstones, and the indignant shriek of the almighty General Luxferre, too, is sharp enough to pierce glass.

-o-

“Who is it—General?” The stout, burly man takes a step back, eyes widening as they rove over his form—or, to be more precise, his hair. “Why, Luxferre, I never knew you were—”

“Not me,” Luxferre grits out between his teeth. Jabbing a jerky finger up at Seru who’s still seated upon his shoulders, he says waspishly, “him.”

“Ah, I see.” The amused, upturned corner of the man’s lips persists. “It is unlike you to abandon a mission for anything trivial. Who may these two children be?”

“I found these two at the Lorela Riverbank,” Luxferre begins to report. He pauses, eyes sliding to meet Celine’s, before continuing on with, “this girl is in possession of one of the lost Holy Powers.”

The man’s attention is caught. His grip over his staff tightens momentarily as he straightens his back, and the air around them becomes frozen solid. Celine recalls the blustering snowstorm beyond the doors of this ornate temple that they have just emerged from, and she thinks, this is the eye of the storm. It is one of those nervous, temporal silences wherein everything hangs in the balance, she knows instinctively; and with all eyes in the room fallen onto her, she feels like a convict waiting on the verdict of a judging panel of Gods.

The man loosens up, discarding his formidable stance and slowly stepping forwards. Carefully, he crouches down to meet Celine at eye level, sparking staff placed benignly in repose across his kneecaps. “Child,” he murmurs. “There is nothing to fear, we will not hurt you. Would you care to share your story with this old man?”

Celine clamps her hands together, fingers pressing into skin and bone to prevent her arms from twisting themselves in anxious knots. Her eyes flicker to Seru’s blank, wide-eyed gaze, to Luxferre’s calm demeanor and messy orchid headdress, then back to this adult waiting patiently before her. It should be alright, she thinks. It should be alright. A General who tolerated the ridiculous antics of her little brother, and his level-headed superior—they should be trustworthy enough. In this dazzling, high-ceiling hall brightened by the mosaic of tall stained glass windows, they are two stolid, immovable leaders ready to take on the world. This is a place sealed from starvation and monsters, candle lights eternally puttering away to banish the despairing dark.

Her gaze flickers back to Seru. Ragged and squalid, they are two insignificant minors on the brink of fading into nonexistence. They have nothing more to lose, anyway. Celine inhales, sharply, and with her next breath, she sets their story free.

-o-

“Child of the Stars,” an ancient voice croaks, “I have been waiting for the day of our meeting.”

The man that led her deeper into the halls of this sacrosanct temple—Chief Temir—gives the humpbacked elder a low bow. Then, turning to Celine, he says, “This is our tribe’s Chief Priest and reigning Pontifex, Shaman Lewiel.” He backs up a few steps—“I’ll leave this child to you, then,”—and departs.

“Um.” Celine stutters in the impending silence, shuffling into an awkward bow. “My name is Celine. It’s an honor to meet you, Pontifex.”

The Chief Priest remains unmoving still, as if she were a figure hewn from marble; stiff knees propping her up on the primary prayer cushion placed before the altar. Bones creaking with rickety movements, she waves Celine over with a rattling shake of her hand.

“Come beside me, child.” A pause. “Our People address me as Shaman Lewiel, but you may drop the title, seeing as how I will train you to become a Shaman in your own right.”

Celine jerks. “Me? A Shaman? Wha—why?”

“I am the receiver of oracles,” Lewiel says. “And this is the Fate that the Gods have decided to bestow upon you. Child, do you accept your Fate?”

“Well,” Celine begins uncertainly, “it sounds like it isn’t something that’s really up for question. I suppose I don’t have much of a choice in the matter, do I?” Celine shrugs.

“Indeed, little one. But before we begin, it is prudent of me to tell you that…”

-o-

Shaman Lewiel tells her many things. Stories of how the Divine Tribe was like before they fell out of the skies, verbal paintings of the beautiful landscape that was once the Heavenly Realm. She speaks of the Creator, the birth of Humans, of continents being created and sunken, of Spears of Thunder that rend the universe apart. She speaks of the Tree of Life, of the original purpose of the Divine Tribe, of a millennium war that persists to this very day.

“The Divine Tribe was created to protect the great Creator resting within the Tree of Life,” Lewiel says, scratchy voice etching out tales of time immemorial. “But the war stretched and stretched beyond the horizons, farther than any eye could see, until the Gods decided to have the land crumble beneath everyone’s feet.

In our failure, we have descended to Midgard. And beyond the reach of any Devil or Divine Tribe, the Tree of Life is safer now than it has ever been.”

Shaman Lewiel tells her many things. She places thick, heavy scrolls of Scriptures in her hands and listens as Celine recites them all into the dead of night. She tells her, at first, to sit at the temple’s wooden benches during the day to observe how she conducts prayer service, and then gradually, gradually reels her into assisting around the Great Temple until she can manage all tasks smoothly on her own. She tells Celine to accompany her on a trip to Tarshen, and supervises as Celine dresses wounds and practices forgotten healing spells in the hastily constructed infirmary tent. She beckons Celine to meditate with her, and wrings the effects of praise out of Celine’s ego like wrangling a soaked towel.

“Our kin will look up to you for hope and salvation,” Lewiel says one day, merciless and blunt. “Know that you will never live up to their expectations. You must learn humility and compassion, because Purification is not a power borne from kindness.” Lewiel’s gaze, clouded with years and milky with cataracts, is not sharp at all, but Celine feels as if she’s been flayed raw by it all the same. “You should know this, seeing as how Purification takes its toll on the user as well. A star burning until it collapses unto itself.”

Shaman Lewiel tells her many things. Celine’s life becomes a busy one, but molded into the patterns of regularity that—while not peaceful, per se—makes for some semblance of normalcy. General Luxferre and Chief Temir drop by at frequent intervals to check on her little brother, and they are constant company for her at the Great Temple. It’s not unlike a makeshift family, and greatly contrasts with the brusque way the adults in Delfoy had forced them to leave. It isn’t perfect by any means, but at least she and Seru are no longer cast aside to die, and they have a life to look forward to, now.

That is, until Pontifex Lewiel, eccentric as ever, up and decides to quit her tenure as Chief Priest of the Divine Tribe, and Celine’s rose-tinted view of the world shatters.

-o-

“Is that how it is? Abandon orphans like tossing out trash, and the moment you discover they have a convenient use—”

“—With the background that you and Seru have—”

She scowls, cutting him off with the whiplash of her words and abrupt swing of her hand. “If you are implying that I should somehow feel indebted for this, then think again, because there’s no way I’m going to be beholden to an adult that makes kids pull all their weight!”

“You misunderstand,” Temir says. “I do not mean to scorn you for your misfortune. You know how it feels to be utterly powerless—”

Why, thank you kindly—

“—You are intimate with the knowledge of your weaknesses, and your ability to work from that is your greatest strength. No one can match it. You are the one most suitable for this position.”

“Oh, how flattering,” Celine remarks dryly, “so this is about the potential of the young? Of course we haven’t tapped into our abilities, how does this excuse you? What kind of miracles do you expect from us?

“I am a man past his prime, Celine. Back in the Heavenly Realm, I was a leader renown for the might of his spells.”

One of her eyebrows raises itself almost involuntarily, arms folding passively over her chest, thinly pressed lips curling down imperceptibly at the edges. “And?”

Temir sighs. With the creak of his armor and abrupt slouch of his shoulders, he is an old thing that has wrinkled in the passage of seconds. “I am a man fallen from grace, child. Since our fall to Midgard, it has been as such.

But with you, that is not the case. With your powers, Celine, our people have a chance of returning to the old ways. To old times.” He smiles, a weather-worn line of nostalgia stretched across his face. “It is a step closer to home.”

You will never live up to their expectations, Lewiel’s voice echoes in her mind, heavy as a toppled gong. Celine tilts her head up. The difference in height is insurmountable, but the gesture still imparts all the disdain she feels for the situation. “So that’s how it is,” she says, voice falling back to deadly calm. “Luxferre fights your war, I pray for the ease of everyone’s minds, restore the injured, and—what? What do you do, most exalted Chief of Paramanon? You are so eager to let inexperienced children decide the fate of the tribe.”

Temir’s face pinches briefly, before the expression flickers away. Still, he is slow to respond, as if every word laid bare is a physical blow to his person. But Celine is adamant in her silence, and this time it is Chief Temir who caves.

“Here, in Midgard,” he begins, “every fight I partake in is a reminder of my new limitations. I call on powers I once had firmly in my grasp, and the Gods do not answer.” The smile returns, tainted with a freshly bitter tinge. “Senility makes me stubborn, unwilling to acknowledge the weaknesses that now define me.

Do you understand? You scoff at the idea of undertaking this task because you are well aware of your limitations, but in battle it is the overestimation of one’s own abilities that ripens a man for downfall. I am not like you, or Luxferre.”

“It’s not like you can’t change,” Celine mutters. “You just choose not to.”

“Certainly. But since our coming to Midgar, my son has went to such lengths to train and retrain himself. I am proud of him as a father, but I cannot match that sort of vitality. So I opted for a different path. I delegated to myself the task of building Paramanon Great Temple instead, so that our people could have a place to call home again.”

“I know it was important to build a base of operations as soon as possible,” Celine says, biting her lip. Unsaid words weigh heavily in the back of her throat, and the feeling of swallowing one’s own tongue, she decides, is a distinctly uncomfortable sensation. “I don’t mean to brush aside everything that you’ve done for us. But why stop there?” She shakes her head, blond hair fluttering against pale cheeks. “There’s still a lot more to be done. You aren’t like Shaman Lewiel, who receives oracles and resigns herself to the Fate she Sees. You aren’t—so I don’t understand.”

Low, barking peals of laughter rumble throughout the room, shattering the heavy tension hanging in the air. “No, we’re indeed quite different,” he chuckles, “and I certainly plan to keep it that way. At ease, Celine. I will be a meddlesome old man for awhile yet.”

He sobers, then, and the returning silence gains a distinctly sharp-edged quality. Blades of light broken by high stained-glass windows cascade down their shoulders, wickedly winking tips hovering at the dips of their collarbones. Celine shuffles, unsure what to make of this.

“The Receiver of Oracles is the one closest to the Gods,” Temir says, at length. “But I think you will discover that if there is any one, singular similarity binding all the living things of this world together, it could be nothing else but this:

Souls have a bad habit of defying Fate as decreed by the Gods.”

-o-

To say that they are barely hanging by the skin of their teeth would be a melodramatic exaggeration, but weariness has a friction of its own, rubbing away at bone until everyone is grinded down into the dirt. Celine sees the date displayed on the calendar before her bedside table every morning, and the moment she turns her head away, the date is forgotten. Every day is a repeat of the one previous, solemn prayer chants swelling within the walls of Paramanon Great Temple during the day and an influx of wounded Cavalry bursting past tent flaps in the night. On occasion, when the Devil Tribe deploys a wave of Unique Monsters too great to handle, Luxferre frantically pulls her to the front lines, and her passage of time is marked by the searing of veins that happens with every cast of the terrible, terrible light of the purging Purification spell.

The Devil Tribe fights back tooth and nail to return every blow dealt, with neither party giving or taking an inch of land. It is a war of attrition that will run everyone into the ground, Celine speculates; but then one day, Luxferre comes across a bit of news that may potentially break this stalemate.

“There is a mysterious stranger who has been vanquishing a great number of Unique Monsters at Delfoy.”

“Oh.” Delfoy, being securely nestled away at the far West of Midgard, had not been the center of their attention for a long time, waved off to the peripheral of their considerations. Craning her neck to see the reports, Celine asks, “How do you know it isn’t just the Divine Cavalry doing their job?”

Luxferre shakes his head. “There’s no way the population of Unique Monsters could dwindle to almost nothing without outside assistance. My men handle themselves well enough, but they are not that powerful.”

Celine leans back against the desk, crossing her arms in thought. “Have there been any sightings of this unknown fighter?” She purses her lips. “Or group of fighters?”

“Unless they specialize in stealth—and judging by the messily strewn corpses, they do not,” Luxferre muses, “there’s probably only one. Either way, I’ll be heading out in search of this mysterious helper.”

Celine smirks cheekily. “And if he doesn’t want to be found?”

“Oh, from one warrior to another, I probably won’t settle for anything less than him joining our forces,” He half-jokes. Opening the largest desk drawer, he tosses the paperwork inside. “I’ll be back in a couple days; pray that all works smoothly.”

“Yes, yes, as usual,” Celine sighs, shifting to wave him out the door. “Well then, good luck. May the Gods be with you.”

-o-

Days turn into weeks, but in one of the regular meetings she has with Pontifex Lewiel and Chief Temir, the heavy doors of the Great Temple are thrown open, and Luxferre struts in with the cocky manner of a man who has just emerged from a hard won battle. Trailing behind him is another man cloaked in a nondescript brown cape, faint glow of blue hovering behind his hooded head. A wingless man, Celine notes with confusion, but Luxferre would not dawdle away weeks only to pick up the wrong man.

“Luxferre!” Temir calls, voice layered with both relief and admonishment. Eyes drifting over to the silent figure, he asks with the barest hint of reservation, “May I be so bold as to inquire the identity of this special guest?”

Luxferre bows before his audience of three with a flourish. Sweeping his arm to the side, he gestures for the mysterious stranger to step forward. “This,” he announces, “is the great warrior who was helping the Delfoy division of the Divine Cavalry suppress the Unique Monsters. I introduce you to the noble Negir.”

Taking his cue, the man throws his hood back, revealing rough, tanned features and a head crowned with pale green hair. The blue glow bobs up and down, then flutters closer to them as well, and Celine’s eyes widen in shock. Fairy. Who are these two?

“This is Rina,” Negir says, voice deep and slightly hoarse in the way of a throat parched for an extended period of time. “She has been a great asset in all my battles.” Then, as if in afterthought: “Luxferre told me he would bring me to the leaders of the war effort against the Devil Tribe.”

“You are speaking to them at this very moment,” Lewiel voices at last. Celine swiftly stands at her side to support the Pontifex by the elbow as she rises from her seat, and Lewiel hobbles forward to shake Negir’s hand in a cordial greeting. “Thank you both for your troubles. It seems the Creator has deemed us worthy of His favor again at last.”

“You are an Oracle,” the Fairy intones flatly. Rina looks every part the picture of apathy—messily cropped hair swept over one shoulder and curled absently around her pinky, coal black eyes surveying them all dispassionately like panes of obsidian glass. She looks ready to flit away in the blink of an eye, leaving nothing but a faint after-image of blue to impart the impression in their minds that she had ever existed in the first place.

Lewiel’s beady eyes shift to the hovering Fairy. “So I am,” she admits neutrally. “Pontifex Lewiel at your service, and former Chief Priest of the Divine Tribe.”

Temir traces Lewiel’s footsteps to meet the two as well. “Welcome to Paramanon Great Temple,” he says genially. “I am Temir, Chief of this town. Please make yourself at home here.” Negir dips his head in acknowledgement.

Celine brings up the rear. “Celine,” she says succinctly, pointing to herself briefly before dropping her hands neatly before her. “Ordained as Shaman upon Pontifex Lewiel’s recent retirement as acting priest. I hope Luxferre’s been treating you all right?”

Negir lets out a small snort, lips working into the barest traces of a grin. “I survived,” he says, evidently amused. His eyes trail to the General, whose posture had just translated into a huffier stance upon hearing Celine’s recent jab. “Though I won’t deny, he has quite the dogged spirit.”

“Hey,” Luxferre bites out, indignant. “Pot calling the kettle black. The only reason this expedition of mine took so long to begin with was because of someone’s amazing stubbornness.”

“These two make for an absolutely insufferable pair,” Rina bemoans out of the blue. “Hey girl,” she calls, propelling herself in front of Celine, “I heard a lot about you. Be a dear and let me take a breather from them for a while?”

Celine takes things in stride, winking playfully at Negir’s Fairy. “Look at who I keep for company,” she chuckles, “It’s only fair we both finally found someone to form a tag team with.”

“I think,” Rina says, face breaking out into a smile. Her eyes are still unnervingly depthless, but the curve of her lips feels easy and natural. “I like you already. We will get along most wonderfully, you and me.”

“I will make living arrangements for Negir and Rina,” Temir announces, abruptly leaving for his office. Lewiel nods at the rest of them and says, “That’ll be all for today, children. Dismissed.”

“You heard them,” Celine says. Clapping her hands together, she herds everyone out the door. “C’mon, I’ll show you two around town. And Luxferre—Seru has been constantly whining about how it’s so boring without you—you owe it to us to bring him along and play catch up with us. You know how he gets.”

Luxferre groans. Seeing this reaction, Negir queries, “Who is Seru?”

“My adorable little brother—”

“A horrible little monster—”

Celine’s smile turns sly. “Did the great General here ever get around to telling you guys about the story of our first meeting? We were at the Lorela Riverside, and there were plenty of orchids, and—”

“Oi, brat,” Luxferre says, gesticulating frantically for her to stop. “Not that. Don’t you dare talk about—”

Rina gives him a shove on the forehead. “I so need to hear this,” she says. “Forge ahead, girly, I’m all ears.”

Celine’s grin is stretching ridiculously wide, now. “Well, it begins with Seru, perched on Luxferre’s shoulders, pointing out the cluster of flowers, and—”

Oi!

-o-

It is spring-turning-summer, the air humid and heavily saturated with blinding possibilities. Luxferre points out the duo waiting for them at the edges of Shade Woods—Rina waving like an energetic hummingbird, Negir saluting them more sedately. Seru windmills his arms and rushes off in a running sprint, Luxferre and Celine laughing and moving swiftly to follow.

They meet up at the halfway point of the Lorela Riverbank. The meadow grass at their feet are overwhelmed by the feathery heads of multitudinous dandelions, and their mad dash across the field has kicked up a storm of wispy seeds, spinning lazily as they float up on a warm zephyr.

“Hey, you,” Rina winks saucily as she pinches a dandelion seed between her fingers. “We meet again, across a field filled with wishes.”

Celine tilts her head in slight confusion; nonetheless, a soft smile stretches unfailingly across her lips. “A field filled with wishes?”

Rina smiles in turn. “A long time ago, in Ruminia—the sunken continent of Humans—there was an old saying.” She gives the dandelion seed a lazy flick of her forefinger, and watches as it drifts up with the rest of its kin. “That dandelion seeds were Fairies. Wish upon a Fairy, blow on a dandelion, and the Fairies would fly off to grant your wish.”

“Awww,” Celine says, “that sounds nice.” She fondly looks on the scene of Seru pouncing on Negir’s back and swinging off his shoulder blades, of Luxferre and Negir serenely catching up on the events that occurred since their separation. “Lazy, too,” she continues. “But still, it’s heartening to know that Fairies do exist.” Her eyes return to the Fairy in question.

Rina’s cherry red lips morph into a smirk. Feathered seeds tangle themselves briefly in the uneven side-swept cut of her sky-blue hair and dance past translucent wings that glitter under the radiant sun. The frosty glow of her rune sparkles like the tinkling river, and like this, she looks exactly like the elusive carrier of wishes spun from half-forgotten myths.

“But of course,” Rina says, lips rising up to form a coquettish smile. “Whatever would you poor babies do without us?”

-o-

“Well well well,” Luxferre says slyly, jabbing Negir’s side with his elbow. “You wouldn’t believe the tales we heard about a certain someone. Should’ve known you had it in you.”

Celine laughs, walking up to his other side and chiming in with a sing-song voice: “Someone has a lady admirer now.”

“Enough, you two,” Negir says gruffly, batting aside Luxferre’s offending arm. “There was a wave of Unique Monsters attacking. You know I am in charge of defenses here. End story.”

Undeterred, Luxferre gloats, “You even gave the lady a parting present.” Clapping Negir on the shoulder, he nods solemnly and says, “I am proud to have such a gentlemanly friend.”

“Although,” Celine cuts in, thoughtfully tapping her chin with her forefinger. “It would have been even better if you added a flower in for the finishing touch. You know, even though Shade Woods is such a gloomy place, there’s actually a very beautiful native blossom, the Azalea—”

“Oh, Celine, Negir dearest still has a lot to learn about the fairer race,” Rina says, fluttering away from Negir to alight on Celine’s shoulder. “He’s such a shy man. I’ve been telling him for ages to go visit the poor love-struck girl—Kalivia, was it? Adorable pigtails—but noooo.” Rina leans closer in and cups a small hand to Celine’s ear, diabolically mock whispering, “Men. Without the aura of mystery, they—”

“Stop!” Negir shouts abruptly, and everyone’s gaze zeroes in on him. “Stop! Yeyare!

Unanimously, heads turn as they blink owlishly at the historian cum journalist. Yeyare’s beaten notepad is hovering inches from his scrunched face, pen scribbling furiously over its smooth surface. Negir growls, and slaps him not so gently on the back.

“Ow,” Yeyare yelps, fumbling with his glasses which were knocked askew due to Negir’s rough treatment. “Ah,” he says, after collecting himself and fumbling with pen and paper until they are being clasped securely by the hands behind his back. “Yes, sirs and madams? Is there anything I can do for you?”

Negir scowls. “Yes there is,” he grunts. “You can start by not recording this conversation.” He moves to snatch the notepad away from Yeyare’s clutches, but with a loud tearing rip, Rina snags the incriminating page first.

“Ah ah ah,” she says, wagging a finger in Negir’s discombobulated face. “Even the most mundane tales can have their historical significance, you never know.” She smiles winsomely, hovering just out of Negir’s reach. “So I’ll be holding onto this.”

Luxferre and Celine exchange grins; Negir and Yeyare sputter; and Rina, smooth as you please, folds the paper into small quarters and tucks it in the bosom of her dress.

-o-

The tents of Tarshen, built purely for practical purposes and not as any nostalgic mirror of the Heavenly Realm, are bare and sparsely decorated. Even the largest war tent is simply furnished with a round table and wooden chairs; diagrams, charts, world maps, and shift rotation schedules the only posters to grace the room’s walls. The atmosphere in Tarshen’s tent is as compressed and snug as Paramanon Great Temple’s is airy and expansive.

“The Gods say it is not the time for such a bold assault,” Pontifex Lewiel proclaims gravely, beginning this session on a severe note. “I cannot condone this plan.”

Chief Temir’s expression is taut, exasperated. “Are you blind, Shaman Lewiel? Do you not see the circumstances laid out before you?” He waves a chiseled hand to the room at large. “Things have not tipped favorably for us for so long. Why would you have us squander this opportunity?”

“We cannot continue this war of attrition anyway,” Luxferre drawls. “Every year, the number of recruits for the Divine Cavalry decreases, and the population of wingless grow. As far as their strength compares to ours, Negir proves himself to be an anomaly of his kind.”

“I suppose we were never meant to stay in Midgard for so long,” Celine sighs. “The Divine Tribe will die out like this.”

“I think we are ready to conduct a frontal assault,” Negir says, calm voice diffusing the tension of the room. “All three towns have been stabilized, and most of the Divine Cavalry have recuperated. In their recent wave of attacks we have learned more about the tactics and moves of the Dark Generals. There is no time as good as now.”

“The Gods deem otherwise,” Lewiel says sharply. “Making overtures for a peace treaty would be the more prudent course of action.”

The shocking impact of Lewiel’s words ripple through the air like concentric waves on disturbed waters. There are no words, no exhalation or inhalation of breath, as every particle of being buzzes and vibrates with utter rebellion at the thought. Celine has never disagreed with her teacher and mentor so strongly before, and the clawing sensation working its way in her chest is—not betrayal, but something else, something she will have to meditate and reflect upon later.

“Oracle,” Rina says, and it’s like the trickling grains of an hourglass making time flow in reverse. Bottomless pools of obsidian glass, window panes into an empty void, glowing cold, cold, frigid blue without any traces of a single smile. “Back up your words with valid reasoning like the rest of us, or refrain from speaking up in this war council at all.”

“The Devil Tribe would sooner think any attempt at peace a lie,” Negir remarks, “and they would stab us in the back at the first opportune moment.” He shakes his head. “No. They would never agree to a treaty in the first place. They made it clear enough already — they want the Divine Tribe, winged and wingless, gone.

Therefore, I still stand by my statement. We should storm Nifel Castle.”

“As do I,” Temir, Luxferre, and Celine echo. Lewiel’s weighted gaze falls on each and every one of them in turn. Celine’s stomach continues to churn. Then, slamming her staff on the floor in a reverberating beat that resounds with finality, Lewiel says, “I see I cannot persuade you all to see right. So it shall be, then.” Addressing Negir and Rina, she says, “I want to speak to you two in private.”

Luxferre and Celine look at them in askance. “We will be fine, do not worry,” Negir murmurs, then walks away to shadow Lewiel’s footsteps.

“Yes, don’t worry your pretty little heads over us,” Rina calls out. “I’ll be seeing you all in a moment, bright as sunshine!”

The ironic thing is, they never see Rina again, after that.

-o-

Time after the meeting is spent in frenzied preparation, as everyone moves to double and triple check all the finishing touches. News of this plan of attack spreads from captains to troops to civilians speedier than wildfire in a dry autumn afternoon, until at the turn of every corner, there are excited whispers of the final battle, end of the Holy War, and return to the Heavenly Realm at last.

Negir returns via the southern exit of Tarshen one day in the midst of this energetic pre-war phase, a solemn and brooding figure contrasting against the onslaught of nervous excitement. Celine and Luxferre ask him about his sudden disappearance, but he simply brushes them aside with turns of phrase like “scouting out the path to enemy territory” and “Rina will continue to scope out their base”.

Negir’s quietness is quickly overlooked and forgotten, smothered by the overwhelming hubbub manufactured by such a large-scale operation. There are a few more meetings after that, all brief and to the point. Easier to disguise as a wingless, it is settled that Negir will infiltrate the Castle first to open the steel doors to them from the inside.

On the day of their departure, the feelings of the Divine Tribe crescendo to an all time high. The legions of Divine Cavalry led by Luxferre, Celine, and Negir march out of Tarshen to the whoops and cheers of a wild crowd, already intoxicated with the thought of imminent victory, as if the luminescent staircase to the Heavenly Realm is already unfurling at their feet. At Celine’s nod, Negir pulls ahead to accomplish his additional task.

When they reach the barren land of granite rock, they are an unstoppable wave, weapons polished to a brilliant shine and wingspans stretching out like victory banners. Luxferre leads the charge, Celine circles behind to the last line of their troops, and like this, it is finally happening, there will finally be closure, Celine will finally be able to see with her own eyes the Heavenly Realm which her parents, Lewiel, Temir, Luxferre all speak of so wistfully—

The heavy steel doors gyrate, revolving inwards, opening up to—

Commanding General Tariq. The four royal bodyguards—Plopin, Pluto, Angfiez, Scylla—, and a horde of Unique Monsters never seen before on the overland continent of Midgard.

-o-

—Betrayal. Luxferre's forces, hundreds upon hundreds of helmeted faces, nonetheless ripped asunder like orchids torn from their roots. Skin curling, blackening, sloughing off from bone like shriveled petals from a heart, a meadow of flowers razed in the scorching fury of hellfire's flames. Sweetness of vanilla coated by the acrid bitterness of ash settling on tongues. A dream of perfection shattered, rainbows reflecting off broken glass edges.

“Fall back,” Luxferre roars. “Retreat! All soldiers, retreat!” Past Nifel Fortress. Past the Historic Site. Past Tarshen. Past Kanak Canyon, past Elraum Valley. A tattered wreath of soldiers, flung all the way back to Paramanon, broken stems cast adrift in a tumultuous sea. And at the head of their army, sweat-soaked locks drift in the wind, limp like the droopy petals of a storm-battered white orchid, even as his silhouette stands as tall as it ever had.

-o-

It is a quiet night, the sort atypical to the dead of winter, though Celine, dazed and drained, does not feel peaceable at all. Dark clouds blanket the sky, and powdery snow falls to the ground—soft, soft, like a gentle caress to buffer away nightmares, though of course it fails to do any such thing. Lewiel is standing outside when she beckons her over, staff glowing with a soft yellow orb of light, and Celine treads through the snow to reach her.

“The stars in the sky have plummeted into the moon,” Lewiel greets. “A sign from the Great Creator. It is now my time to depart.”

Celine sends her a tired look of consternation. She is in no mood to solve riddles. “You’re leaving?” Then quickly, with a crash, the implications of Lewiel’s words dawn upon her, and she throws propriety aside to seize the elder’s shoulders. “You’re resigning? Quitting on your job as Pontifex just as how you foisted the duties of Chief Priest onto me? At a time like this?”

“This is the will of the Gods. I have already—,” a pause, “—discussed this with Temir. He is now Pontifex.”

“It is always about the will of the Gods, with you,” Celine retorts bitterly, releasing her former superior in abject disgust. “Well? What then? Where will you go, now?”

“Do not be so quick to anger,” Lewiel chides gently. “I will be bidding my time in Upper Elraum—though I’d ask of you to refrain from telling others of this particular detail, my child. I must wait there for someone.”

“And who could that possible be,” Celine asks dryly. “The prophecy proved itself to be a lie.”

“The prophecy is not over yet,” Lewiel says. “Enough. I must go. As child of the Stars, you will be the first to meet this person.”

Lewiel turns away to walk out of Paramanon, legs working in rusty, limp movements. With a sigh, Celine falls into the habitual motions of falling to her side in support. At last, at the northern gate, Lewiel deigns to speak again.

“I trust you will know what to do when the time comes.”

-o-

“About Negir...” Celine begins uncertainly, threading fingers through her hair. There are tangles, but vanity and low mana reserves are small prices to pay for the recuperation of each and every member of their tribe. Speaking to the traumatized, as it were, was more difficult than dressing physical wounds. The advent of Negir’s betrayal lingers like a dark cloud, and all Celine can muster up against it is the one thought: where did we go wrong?

“There is nothing to discuss,” Luxferre states calmly. His level gaze lifts from the stack of incoming reports to meet hers. There are dark shadows under his eyes, naturally. Dealing with the aftermath of their failure has not been easy on anyone, them least of all. In addition, Pontifex Temir was bound to talk his General's ear off, if he hadn't done so already. A scroll—the roster of the dead—, a lengthy dissertation of the implications of their already dwindling numbers, the carelessness of his recklessly rash judgment, the funds that would need to be funneled in due to this heavy setback—never mind that he was an advocate for the attack as well; Luxferre was the one who brought Negir before all of them first. This is how it works. This is how logic always works, the futile cycle of blame.

“I made an error of judgment," he continues, lips thinning momentarily. "Rest assured, it will not happen again. I apologize—”

“Don't,” Celine cuts in. “...Don't. You weren't—I was also at fault as well. We—many people pinned our hopes on him. There's no point in everyone saying sorry to each other.” The one who should be apologizing isn't here.

Luxferre's gaze flickers back to the page in his hands. “Have you seen Seru yet?”

“No.” She frowns. “He's probably sleeping, by now. I didn't want to disturb him. And there were all the injured to tend to, after all.”

He sighs. “You might as well let him know you're alright. Don't bother staying in the Temple tonight.”

Celine nods, a sort of vague thanks, before her eyebrows pinch together, hair twisting in her fingers. The question still hovers in her mind. “I wonder why Negir turned traitor,” she whispers.

Silence. She darts an upwards glance, catching the slow turn of his solid frame, the harsh cutout of a side profile. His face is drawn into forced blankness. Eventually:

“On the battlefield, hunting for extraneous information leads to death. The 'why' is irrelevant, in this case. What matters—,” and his face hardens, then, “—what matters, is that he chose to leave.” What his words imply is left the Divine faction and what Celine hears is left us.

Her breath hitches, stuttering in her chest for an awful second. “I'm sorry.”

Luxferre waves a dismissive hand, a kinetic reflection of her earlier don't. “Go. Prayer service will resume tomorrow, for certain. I'll knock when you're needed.”

She leaves. In this cordoned off private altar-turned-office of the Paramanon Great Temple, in-between the transitional phase of one door opening and closing, this is what she sees: a brief shudder of shoulders, callused fingers reaching up to pry off a cobalt blue headband. Eyes screwed shut, mouth twisted in a grotesque line, and a single line of words wrenched out like an inwards sigh: wrong of us to foist our burdens on an outsider and

I'm sorry.

-o-

Of course, it was only a matter of time until dissent erupted into waves of havoc. The wait did not last long.

Luxferre's voice is a commanding roar even above the swell of angry voices and senseless pillaging. He barks orders at his captains to suppress the maddened civilians, sending another elite squad in the direction of Northwest Elraum Valley to supplement Delfoy's forces in case of riot there as well. Guards are posted at the entrance of Paramanon Great Temple, and behind glamorous shut doors they engage in an impromptu meeting of a distinctly different sort.

The newly inducted Pontifex collapses into his seat with the heavy thunk of metal armor, large chiseled hand coming up to rub wearily at his temples. He leans back in his chair with a sigh. “The situation is grave indeed." Two hands clasped at the head of the table. "How are our wingless brothers faring now?”

“...Confused,” Celine ventures. “And distraught. The failure to storm Nifel Castle has raised everyone's stress levels.”

“That's not all,” Temir mutters, gaze clouding over and lowered to his intertwined hands. “No. They are more upset by the news than the rest of our heavenly brothers.” His gaze is sharp, now, piercing through the two of them, flaying flesh from bone. “Am I incorrect?”

“Since the wingless ones cannot join the Divine Cavalry, they were especially proud of Negir—hailing him as their representative leader at the frontlines.” A faint frown crosses Luxferre's features. "His betrayal is probably more disappointing to them than anyone else."

Celine shakes her head. “It's not that simple. They were his greatest group of supporters, yes, but that just means they were hurt most by this recent turn of events. At least half of the people outside right now are winged dissenters. Pontifex,” she says, “What are you trying to say? We need to hurry in order to minimize damage.”

“Not that simple...yes, you are right.” Temir closes his eyes, grim features set over a drawn breath. “Seeing as how they were most loyal to him, there may be more traitors within their ranks. The depth of this betrayal is unknown, and we have no time now to do a close investigation.” His eyes open. “It is time they left the folds of our wing. The...degenerates were never meant to exist to begin with.”

“No!” Celine launches herself from her seat, only stopped short from drawing herself to her full height and slamming palms flat on the table by a sharp tug at her right. Luxferre's hand is clamped down over one of her wrists, but his eyes are focused straight on the Pontifex, expression as closed off as he can manage. The captain of Pontifex's personal guard lays his unsettling gaze upon the two of them, and she attempts to shoot back a discerning glare past the shuttered visor of his helmet.

“That is ridiculous,” she hisses. “They're the same as us! What can they possibly do to hurt us?” The curved line of Luxferre's lips tighten at the corners, and he subtly tugs down on her wrist again. She refuses to relent, eyes incandescent with indignant rage. “Please reconsider.”

“Such sympathetic hearts,” the Captain says silkily. “One would perhaps think that the two of you...” She can literally feel his eyes roving over them, the curling of lips into a sarcastic smirk. “...are also attempting to undermine our Holy Tribe's efforts.”

Luxferre tugs again, and Celine falls back to her seat this time, jaws welded shut like a vice. “You do not have the authority to question your superiors,” he retorts, voice just a dash sharp. “Don't be so eager to overlook our own contributions in the war.” He turns his head to face Temir again. “Pontifex, while the situation is severe, such drastic measures are not yet—”

“—But it is necessary,” Temir stresses. “What use have they served us? We cannot continue to carry the baggage and grief of the Degenerated Tribe. Tarshen is lost. The majority of our forces require healing, and we will be hard pressed to defend Paramanon, Delfoy, and the lands in-between.” The Pontifex forges on, voice a steady beat in the otherwise thick silence. “You know we cannot afford any more mistakes. Dissenters. Civil war—no, simple upheavals of unrest—will destroy us right now, before the Devil Tribe even musters a counter-attack in return.”

“Degenerated or not,” Luxferre argues back, “not everyone is meant for recruitment. This is too utilitarian. Father—”

“You are stepping out of line,” the Pontifex thunders. Luxferre stops an incomplete wince.

“They cared more for their beloved hero than our ultimate goal. Let everyone refocus their energies on removing this tumor, and we will be able to gather ourselves together again.”

“They want to return to the Heavenly Realm as much as we do!” Celine shouts, unwilling to bottle and discard these sentiments. “Some, even more than us winged ones!”

“Enough!” Pontifex booms. “There is no other way. It must be done.” He prepares to rise—

—but Luxferre cuts in. “The separation may be inevitable, but their deaths are not. We only need to make the announcement, and have the wingless leave.”

“Oh?” Pontifex asks, settling in his chair again. “Exile of the Degenerated Tribe, then. The purpose?”

“The most critical point at this juncture is the power vacuum in Kanak Canyon,” Luxferre says. “With the current state of affairs, the Devil Tribe have a clear path to the Midgard Bridge. As you have pointed out, Pontifex, defending the road to Delfoy is a top priority, lest our men be left completely stranded.”

“I am well aware. How do you propose we connect these two issues and resolve them, then,” Temir inquires, elbows braced on the table and hands forming a steeple across half his face. Luxferre makes a meaningful pause before laying out the schematics of his strategy.

“Thus, we send the Degenerated Tribe off towards Kanak Canyon. They'll be isolated to prevent any future betrayal on their part, and their reach into the valley will make it easier to re-establish some tenuous control. They'll be our first line of defense. With enough time, we could even extend ourselves and rebuild a small outpost at Tarshen.”

Celine's fingers curl over the edges of the table, nails close to gouging out wood. “You're forgetting how strong the Unique Monsters are out there,” she bites back acidly.

“They cannot be made to settle between Delfoy and Paramanon,” he refutes blandly, refusing to look at her. “And either way, the passage of Kanak Canyon cannot be ignored. This would better serve the interests of both tribes. Together, they have enough numbers to control the population of Unique Monsters in that immediate area; moreover, to our advantage.”

Pontifex gives pause to the thought, callused fingers stroking through the knots in his dark beard. “Interesting─yes. That is a fair point, Luxferre. It's decided, then. Let us go.”

Scapegoats, Celine thinks scathingly. This, then, is the mechanism of sacrifice: lives balanced on a mind's precocious scale, people pigeon-holed into groups and tallied as numbers on paper, the shaving of parts in favor of the whole. The burning of bridges, feasible until there's nothing left to burn and no more places to retreat to.

“Miss? Lady Shaman,” the Captain calls. “The verdict must be announced to the people.”

Her eyebrows furrow. She gives one last, harsh squeeze to the cold edges of the table, and rises to meet them at the entrance, the pristine gates that had opened into an illustrious shrine—once upon a time. It has been an age since the Divine Tribe fell to Midgard. But here, like this, hands fisting and trembling at her sides as she walks out the door, Celine can’t help but think that, in truth, they had never actually stopped falling.

-o-

The Captain of the Guard stands at the foot of the crystal staircase, together with his semi-circle of men and their wall of spears. She and Luxferre flank Pontifex Temir's two sides at the height of the raised dais, she half a step further behind. The abrupt, ringing silence of the throng of people below drowns out the raw sound and words of Pontifex's booming voice in her mind. The eternal fall of snow weighs cold and heavy on her skin.

She chances a glance at Luxferre, observing the way his gaze flickers over the frozen deluge of people. At this moment, he resembles an automation more than any living thing, frigid blue eyes systematically picking out and filing away with brisk efficiency the groups of wingless that he will soon be ordered to evict from their homes. His mind is noting effective positions, calculating the matrices of available units down below, mapping out the pathways that his soldiers must march to bring about the desired solution to the encrypted line of success.

Temir's condemning speech draws to a close: she knows not by the cessation of the low timbre of his voice, but by the way Luxferre's gears throw him into motion, thrumming with precise mechanical purpose. She watches, distantly, as he cleaves his way through the crowd with iron will, and his captains and vice captains leap into action like well-oiled parts booting under the binary orders of a system's mainframe. He and an assembled team make their way to the northern exit en route towards Delfoy, and she steps down from red-carpeted stairs to walk blankly to the small temple sheltered at the northeast corner of town.

Winged members of the Divine Tribe shuffle inside. “Everything will be all right,” she tells them, before conducting the belated prayer service. Opening the palms of her hands, she closes her eyes in concentration. A flicker and shower of golden light sparkles within the walls of the hall, beautiful in its blinking transience and banal in its superficiality. “We must have faith in the Creator and Tree of Life.”

Afterwards, when the halls are swept bereft of people and she hovers alone at the altar, the wooden doors are suddenly flung open. Her little brother comes barreling down the marble aisle and bowls over into the curves of her thin arms, little hands fisting into the fabric of her dress. The brown eyes that look up into hers are achingly honest in their confusion.

“Will we be forced out again too?” Seru's voice is the questioning ring of bell chimes, and it makes Celine feel lightheaded and eviscerated all over again.

“No,” she says, thumbs sweeping two mirrored fans over his cheeks, moving on to tangle fingers into brunet locks of hair. She buries her face into Seru's sharp shoulder and sobs. “No,” she chokes out. “You won't.”

Thus, in the bow of her back and the thrumming of his veins, the mathematics of loss are laid bare: a thousand wronged names and a thousand anguished faces, all falling away before this single visceral sensation beneath her, the trembling vibrations below her finger pads and the beating of blood that pounds in her ears. The Divine Tribe, she tells herself. The Heavenly Realm. Shaman and healer and one of the leaders of her tribe, indeed, but here she is simply a little girl with an even younger brother, a child clasping the hand of a toddler's beside the rushing waters of an endless river in the dark.

-o-

Months and months later, Tarshen is restored. It is a hollow victory, marked by little fanfare. Celine oversees the construction of the new outpost, flitting from here and there to fix up dislodged shoulders, grazed skin, blistered hands. Meanwhile, Luxferre reorganizes his squadrons to determine the skeleton crew that will remain to hold down the fort.

“Laciel,” Celine calls. He is another young face shielded by the anonymous darkness of his armor and helmet, but Celine remembers him as the newly minted vice captain that is now being promoted again too soon, too fast.

“I will be alright, Lady Shaman,” he says in return. “This is the least I can do to serve, after all you have done for us. I will do my utmost to live up to the task.”

“That is all that I ask,” Luxferre interjects. “I have faith that you will do well. If anything urgent comes up, send your speediest messenger to us post-haste.”

“Understood, General.” Laciel salutes, and they bid their farewells.

-o-

The past does not always stay in the past. Celine wants to forget some things, to look past the rot of old strife—because for beings that live as long as they do, that is how things should work, should it not? Time flows unerringly like a river, carrying in its currents the sediments of years. But sometimes, instead of old wounds scarring over, they fester like a sore oozing pus, and like it or not, want to or not, its sour discharge must be confronted once again.

This is how Celine feels when she opens the doors to the Paramanon Great Temple to see five wingless—no, Degenerated Tribe is their new moniker—kowtowing at the feet of Pontifex Temir. Luxferre is standing at his shoulder, sword hanging in hand and expression carved from stone.

“Please, I beg of thee,” their leader beseeches. He himself is only another young lad; brown-dusted work clothes, off-white headband tied around upright spikes of vibrantly purple hair. “Dark General Angfiez of the Devil Tribe has taken over the Roku Mines, and is abusing us as slaves. Please, your Excellency, we could drive them out if only you would graciously lend us a bit of your aid.”

They know of this. Laciel had sent out a report of a party of Devil Tribe led by Angfiez that snuck past Tarshen. Luxferre had told him not to engage. There is a moment of considering silence, and Celine comes to a standstill, not daring to step into the temple and shatter this fragile quiet. Carefully, carefully, she shuts the door behind her. For a few seconds, there is a trembling bud of hope. For a few seconds, old wounds are mended.

Then Pontifex Temir heaves a sigh, and everything blows over. “You were all expelled from the Divine Tribe,” he says, “and have the audacity to trespass the holy grounds of Paramanon to pitifully beg like this?”

The boy jerks his head up. “No! We meant no offense, Pontifex, but—”

“Enough,” Temir booms. “Your request will not be granted. Luxferre, throw them all into the dungeons. See if any Degenerated Tribesmen dare attempt to return after this.”

“Yes sir,” Luxferre says, and then all Celine can hear are their distraught screams as they are driven out at sword point. This is how it feels to kick the already downtrodden—Celine wants to scream alongside them, but she feels she may sick up if she stays here any longer, and turns around to flee through the door.

-o-

“I never thought you could be so heartless,” Celine says, voice dead.

“Once such a decree is made, we must stick by it,” Luxferre says, “no matter how merciless. We cannot afford to look indecisive, and besides; the damage is already done. We would be stymied by the rest of the Divine Tribe if we helped them now.”

“Derision for them has warped and developed at amazing speeds,” Celine acknowledges. “I wonder why that is?” This, at least, would be something that batty old Lewiel never would have allowed. She was vague and unreasonable and mystifying to a fault, but at least she upheld her principles. Strange that Celine would miss her now.

Luxferre wearily shakes his head. “I will let you see them,” he says, stepping aside. “But I cannot offer any more than that. Even if it’s distasteful—”

“Despicable would be more accurate,” Celine cuts in. “But I will not say anything. You know I cannot. If we sink, we will all sink together.” Not waiting for a response, she glides down the stairs to the musty underground level of the dungeons.

The good thing is, if one is to discuss such pittances, is that the five do not sport any fresh wounds from Luxferre’s manhandling. But they all have that ill-fed look of deep-seated exhaustion, and their skin is marred by scratches, bruises, and such patchworks of half-healed injuries marked by heavy toil.

Celine stands at the edges of the jail bars, sets her medical kit down and beckons them to come over. Working her hands through the bars, she silently cleanses and dresses their innumerous wounds, using healing spells to heal the damage she cannot reach. These wingless kin of hers do not make any attempt at conversation either—or even eye contact, for that matter, heads bowed and eyes remaining downcast, looking at nothing but the corners of their cells. Shame has a way of permeating minds, even when by all rights it should not be staining them at all.

At the last cell of this dungeon floor is the one she heard speak for the group during the day in the temple. Unlike the others, he holds his head up high and stubbornly maintains eye contact. Celine mutely points to his injured right arm and waits for him to stretch it out.

Eventually, the boy tires of this oppressive silence. “My name is Gwyjar,” he says quietly. Then, voice wavering with uncertainty: “Are you the Shaman?”

Celine blinks, then shrugs. This information, she can afford to impart. “I am.”

“Pontifex Temir said we had to leave because we were distracting you from your prayers,” he spits out vehemently. “That’s not true, is it? We didn’t do any such thing, right?”

She freezes briefly, observing the way his fiery temper makes muscles tense and coil. After seeing that he will not strike out with this fresh wave of viciousness, she continues on with her work and says, “No. But the true reason does not matter.” Debating with herself for a few minutes, she decides it would be best to be blunt and banish any lingering false hope, in this instance. “The Pontifex has cut all ties with you, and he has no plans to reconsider his decision.”

Gwyjar grips the bars with his hands, face scrunching in pain and teeth biting down hard on his lower lip. “God dammit,” he mutters. “God dammit! Why does it have to be this way? Why must everything be so unfair? We lose our wings—and then—and now—this—this—” His breath hitches, and Celine takes a step back away from the bars, regarding him warily.

“Y’know, the Pontifex, the original Pontifex, the one who ruled before Temir, Shaman Lewiel—you know her, yeah?” Celine nods her head. Gwyjar rambles on. “She would never allow this to happen. She worked so hard to keep everyone together. She knows that it’s not our fault we lost our wings. Not our fault. Not our fault.

“I know,” Celine says softly. “And I’m sorry I can’t do anything to help.”

Gwyjar tosses his head back and laughs, voice scratchy and off-key. “No, you’re good,” he says. “I bet neither the Pontifex or the General ordered you to come down and treat our injuries, right? You came down yourself. That’s okay. That’s more than what anyone has ever done for us since.”

Celine moves back up to finish mending his wounds. He has more injuries than the rest, probably volunteering himself to ease the workload of the less healthy. “I admit it was sort of stupid for us to come like this,” Gwyjar continues spurting his monologue. “But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try, you know? The Devil Tribe is everyone’s enemy, and a common enemy makes for friends, or something like that.” He laughs bitterly. “Then we ended up here. It’ll be really ironic if they set up a concentration camp for us here too.”

“I’m finished,” Celine says, tidying her medical kit and rising to stand. She pauses awkwardly, wanting to say some sort of parting word, but not sure of which one she should use. Goodbye would sound ridiculous, knowing he won’t be faring well in here at all, and the same goes for farewell. See you later would be a lie, because she will probably never come down here again.

“Hey,” Gwyjar interrupts again. “Could you do one more thing for me?”

“What is it?”

Gwyjar gives her a lopsided grin. “I heard a whole bunch of stories about how you, the current Shaman, have one of the Holy Powers. One of the real powers, I mean, that were lost when everyone fell to Midgard.”

Celine blinks. “I could,” she says, eventually. “But nothing remarkable would actually happen if I do it in here. Not the right circumstances.”

“Do it anyway,” Gwyjar says lightly. “That way, if I ever get out of here one day, I get to boast to all my friends that I saw the holy power in action up close.”

Setting the medical kit down at her feet again, Celine raises her hands obligingly to comply. For a few stuttering seconds, darkness is expelled from the cool dungeon, flashing lights flickering and crashing against muddy stone walls. It’s rather unpleasant, how her magic seems to cast a spotlight down on the prison, throwing all its ugly features in sharp relief; but Gwyjar’s smile turns wide and cheerful all the same.

“Thanks!” He says. “Guess you should be going now, huh? See you around!”

The thing about war is that it turns its participants into monsters. The physically wounded are wrapped in bandages like an army of mummies, while the ones who break through wrap themselves in a different sort of cocoon, so that the metamorphosis happens and by the time they re-emerge from their chrysalis the realization occurs too late. Luxferre's ignoble pride and iron clamp servitude to the Pontifex. Celine, wrapping her days in a gauze of ceaseless prayers, selling gilded light shows as a cheap currency of hope. They are monsters.

“See you,” she echoes hollowly, and sweeps herself out of the dungeon. It is as she predicts—she does not ever go down to see Gwyjar and company again. Time buffets them all mercilessly onwards, and in a few days she will not have any more leisure time to pay them respects as is their due.

-o-

Midgard Bridge burns. Baked stones shudder and sizzle into the crystalline depths of the Lorela River, and the crisp air becomes choked full with the sour tang of atrophied flesh.

Midgard Bridge burns, and the Devil Tribe lay claim to the Lorela Riverpeak. The Divine Tribe retreat to Northwest Elraum Valley, and communications are cut off from the Town of Delfoy.

“Our greatest fear has been realized,” Temir declares. “Luxferre, Celine, you must go to Delfoy immediately. I will see to Paramanon’s security myself.”

“For how long?”

“I do not know. As long as need be.”

She frowns. “And Seru?”

“Celine,” the Pontifex admonishes. “Seru will be safer here, where we have more reinforced architecture and greater forces to deploy. I do not want to separate you two, but there is little choice in the matter. You must continue with your prayers at Delfoy as well.”

“When do we leave,” Luxferre asks, “And how many soldiers of the Divine Cavalry will we bring to accompany us?”

Temir shakes his head. “Just the two of you, I’m afraid. The Delfoy division is largely intact; you must make ends meet with the numbers you have there.” Temir sighs. “And be sure to protect Celine, considering how they especially target her now.”

Luxferre grimaces. “I suppose,” he ventures, “that it will be easier to stealthily bypass their Lorela outpost with fewer numbers, but…”

“I’m sorry, son,” Temir says. “But you understand the extent of damages this time. Every able man is needed here. The Devil Tribe has succeeded in pushing us into a passive stance with this battle, and our primary goal for the foreseeable future is to hold onto what we can.”

“Understood,” he says briskly. “Goodbye for now, then, father. Celine—let us go see Seru as well. Hopefully this separation won’t last too long.”

Celine runs her lower lip through her teeth, but with a reluctant bow she resigns herself to following Luxferre out the temple and treading south to her home. Seru is a solemn eyed child by this point, and when they come to the small house to break this news to Seru, he barely lets loose a couple sniffles as Celine embraces him in a tight hug.

“It’ll be lonely here without you, sis, Luxferre. Take care, okay?”

“I should be saying that to you,” Celine says with a sad smile. They bid their goodbyes, and then spin away to Delfoy. Their teamwork has been fractured as of late, but they will both do all in their power to return as soon as possible, she knows. They both have family waiting for them here.

-o-

Soon morphs into three years. Three years and the date of their return is still a pending affair. The towns have regained a sense of tranquility in the way a bubble swirls and shrinks, and the days bleed together, liquid and amorphous.

The Unique Monsters act as if hotwired to attack her the moment she steps foot out of the boundaries of town, so the bubble draws itself ever tighter around her person. Not that she has much need for travel, anyway—the current chapter of her life is spent in constant prayer, conducting Mass during the day and clicking away at rosary beads well into the night—but it does quash any chances of her taking a couple days of leave to sneak her way to Paramanon and see Seru.

As with all bubbles, beyond the perception of idyllic calm is the tenuous nature of their pseudo-peace. Luxferre deploys small teams of the Divine Cavalry to keep the monsters at bay in the background, and he spends his days as silent sentinel to guard over Shaman Celine, just as Pontifex Temir had ordered. With each dip of the sun another uneventful day comes to leech away at speech, until idle banter evaporates in its entirety and a stiff sort of formality sets in. Dry husks, Celine thinks. They—she and Luxferre, along with the rest of the Divine Tribe—are all becoming hollowed shells of their former selves.

Then one day, as Celine passes by Edirakin, she catches the whisk of brown cloak and green hair from the corner of her eye. The skip of a beat—and then the urgency that had been scooped out of her comes back in torrents, pulsing through her veins again as she charges out of town.

“Shaman—Celine! What are you—”

She ignores him. Running past an ensnaring tangle spat out by a Fog Spathe as she shoots Purification sparks at it in retaliation, she chases after the shadow dashing up the bridge to Akun Temple. Slow. He is purposely slowing down. Celine is no athlete, and she knows she could never keep up with Negir if he did not want to be found.

Negir is a traitor. This is a trap. At this point, Celine is beyond caring. “Get out of my way,” she shouts, and floods the entire square clear of the corrupted Temple Guards. In retrospect, this is the unwise move to crown all unwise moves, because as she flies north to the dripping wet level of the submerged Central Akun Temple, the floor tilts at her feet and her lungs are burning and—

Celine screams, yanking and twisting her arms furiously. “No!” Not like this, not when she has lost sight of Negir again, not before she can wring him by the neck and demand some sort of explanation—“No!”

Two temple guards cross blades at her neck, and Celine completely freezes. “H-help,” she pleads to deaf ears, half-deranged, eyes closing desperately shut. “Someone help me!”

They drag her back to the entrance, and Celine recovers her bearings enough to start tugging again as they drag her to the Akun Temple Altar. Where are they trying to take me, her mind shrieks, is this what Negir lured me out for? “No—go away! Get away from me!Is he also responsible for the monster’s targeting of me?No!

The gates are pulled up, and she is tossed into the watery nest of a gigantic monster. The beast smacks her with one humongous tentacle, and then Celine knows no more.

When Celine opens her eyes again, it is to the image of a blond boy her age, brownish-red eyes wide as dinner plates—wingless and with Fairy in tow.

-o-

“Look!” The Fairy’s shout bounces off the walls, light blue locks of hair swinging like an angry whip as she spins. “The Divine Tribes are all the same!”

Chael sighs. “Let’s go, Runa.” Once they have departed, Celine turns back to face Luxferre, dropping the pleasantly polite expression as her mild glare shifts back into place.

“Why are you acting so hostile.” It comes out as a statement, not a question, because she can probably guess the reasoning herself—such are the ways of old comrades. It has a little to do with the general prejudice they have enforced on the wingless, and a lot more to do with—“Chael isn’t Negir.”

“Obviously,” Luxferre drawls. “Compared to Negir, he is ignorant, inexperienced, and obstinately foolish. That does not mean he is not a danger, though. Refrain from associating with the boy.”

“Of course he’s ignorant, if he’s human,” Celine retorts. “It’s not right to just abandon him like this.”

If he is human—and do not forget who the Devil Tribe have on their side, now. You cannot place your trust in someone who is so easily beguiled, and you have your duties as Shaman, Celine. Don’t let him distract you.”

Duties, duties, duties. Celine thinks that at this rate, soon she will know nothing but duty. Chief Kalz had ordered the eviction of two helpless orphans, years and years ago, and now she has returned only in the capacity of Shaman. Luxferre acclimating to this impersonal form of address is the greatest indicator of this.

“If we gain his trust, he’ll have no motive to seek out the Devil Tribe,” Celine says. “Your paranoia is unfounded and extremely unreasonable.”

“The boy is simply not worth the risk,” Luxferre stresses. “Remember the price we paid last.”

“You’re letting the past cloud your judgment too much,” Celine hisses out through clenched teeth. Folding her arms, she gazes, hard, as if conducting a scrutiny. “I didn’t know that Negir got the better of you that—”

“If Negir ever appeared before us again, I would strike him down myself,” Luxferre cuts in. “Do not doubt my resolution. The brat is not worth jeopardizing yourself, so don’t. I say this as someone who has erred thusly before.”

Celine sighs. This conversation is going nowhere, as seems to be the norm with all their sparse discourse as of late. She will have to think of workarounds to help Chael herself, then. With the coming of the second child of prophecy, the time to remain idle is over.

“Alright,” she says in a tone that she hopes sounds placating enough. “I’ll return to my prayers, then.” And in accord, she immediately ascends the staircase again, for what will probably be the last time. Three years, and this effective banishment will finally draw itself to a close—she will see to Chael’s escape, as she will her own.

-o-

In the Ekinard Cave, Runa absently drifts away from them, and Chael trails her fluttering path with a befuddled gaze. “Runa,” he calls, “Where are you going?” Receiving no response, he wades deeper into the water after her. “Runa? Luxferre? Hey, wake up!”

“Is he…dead?”

Hearing this, Celine rushes to Chael’s side, and there’s Luxferre, limp form lying prostrate in the cool waters. “Luxferre?” She looks on in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” Did you actually follow me out this far?

“He has wounds all over his body,” Chael observes. “He must have fought monsters along the way; we need to treat him.”

Runa snarls at this proposition. “Let’s just dump the bugger,” she says. “Think back to how he treated us!” Then, as if it were a matter of grievous insult: “I don’t like his name as well!”

“Let’s take him back to town,” Chael says in an attempt to mollify her. “All lives are precious. Father told me to offer help to anyone who needs it. Don’t you agree, Celine?”

Be thankful that Chael was raised by such a kind and understanding man, Luxferre, she mentally directs at him. I’m sorry, but I must accompany them to Paramanon. Celine gives a slow nod of her head, voicing her agreement with Chael.

When they return to the emerald treetops of the town of Maru Tribe, they meet Rherican and entrust Luxferre with him. But as they are preparing to leave for the Cloud Plateau after receiving directions from the Patriarch of Maru, Luxferre, restored to full health, bursts into the room.

“Shaman!” He stomps up to Chael and growls out, “You worthless human! What have you done to our Lady Shaman?”

“What are you talking about,” Chael yells back, voice indignant, clenched hands settling at his hips as he leans forward to engage in this verbal spar.

“Stop denying it,” Luxferre raves, continuing his flinging of baseless accusations. “You’ve persuaded her with your filthy mouth and have kidnapped her!”

This is rapidly devolving into an utterly ludicrous quarrel, even by Luxferre’s worst standards. Runa beats her wings furiously and sends him a dark scowl. “You’re accusing us of kidnap,” she asks acerbically. “I knew that we should’ve trashed him back in the cave!”

“Shaman.” Luxferre moves to stand before her. “We must return. They’re enticing you into their wicked plan!”

“Stop it,” she implores, eyes darkening in pain. Did you not heed what I said to you back in Delfoy?

“You have more important matters to attend to,” Luxferre shouts.

Celine’s eyes narrow. This again. Have I told you nothing? “Please,” she says, in a tone that brooks no argument. “Stop.”

“Shaman!”

She’s tired of this. She’s so tired of this. Is this what they are, now? Should she only be referring to him as General, General, General as well? Years of camaraderie on the war front, and they are now reduced to being nothing more to each other than their titles? “Please,” she tries again. “I’m not the Shaman that you refer to me as. I just wish to be left alone. I’m just an ordinary member of the Divine Tribe.”

A surge of raging ether courses through boiling veins, and she sinks nails into the palms of her hands, eyes lighting up in long pent-up fury. “Pray! Pray! Pray! Do you think all these prayers will be answered by the Creator who is deep asleep in the Tree of Life? Answer me, Luxferre!”

He trails off weakly, temporarily stunned by her incensed tirade. “Constant prayer will…”

“Do you know how long it has been?” To begin with, I was coerced into becoming Shaman by Lewiel and Temir. “How much more must I endure,” she demands, “You’re suffocating me and I want out!” Then, more sedately: “I’m exhausted, and it has been three years since I last saw my brother.” Stop getting in the way. I don’t want to make enemies with you.

Chael sighs. “Celine.” With this, the boy has realized her deception, but it is a minor fault line in their new acquaintanceship that she can mend later, all things considered.

“Don’t look for me anymore,” she tells Luxferre. “I’m going with Chael.”

Luxferre’s eyes widen. “You can’t be serious,” he says through ground teeth.

“I mean it,” she says adamantly. “I’m going to stay with Chael until he returns home.”

Chael sounds utterly perplexed. “Celine?”

“With him?” Luxferre’s voice is colored indignant and outraged. “Shaman! Have you forgotten why the Divine Tribe is stuck in Midgard?” A beat. “The humans! They are the cause of all this!” His glare redirects itself onto Chael. “Argh, it’s all your fault, human.” He unsheathes his sword, lifting its great weight above his head. “I shall eliminate you right now.”

“All of you,” the Patriarch interjects harshly, “stop it!” She makes a sharp swing of her forearm, and then Luxferre’s sword clatters to the ground, his own unconscious body following soon after.

Chael blinks. “What happened?”

“I used a sleeping fragrance to put him to sleep,” the Patriarch explains. “He’ll be in that state for quite some time. You should leave immediately.”

“That fool,” Runa curses. “Argh! C’mon Chael, let’s get out of here!”

“Celine,” Chael asks with another sigh, “what will you do?”

“I’ll follow you, Chael.” Tone contrite; hopefully Chael won’t spurn her for her false claim to permissions at Delfoy.

The boy proves to be as magnanimous as ever. “Then, let’s leave right away.”

They leave. As their group of three files out the stairs, Chael says to her: “I have many questions to ask, but my first priority is to leave the town.”

But of course, Celine thinks, staring rigidly at the path ahead of her. Things are more convoluted here than you could ever possibly imagine, and that is why I envy your human lifestyle so.

-o-

Celine comes before Pontifex Temir with her entreaty on Chael and Runa’s behalf, but this, too, quickly spirals downwards as Luxferre barges in while she presents their case. From there, it’s another derailment of wild accusations and heated rebuffs, until Temir slams his staff down on marble tiles and bellows for the cessation of clamoring voices.

In the ensuing silence, Temir’s gaze is evaluating as his eyes rest on this disorderly crowd they form before him. “Celine,” Temir says, “Is Luxferre speaking the truth?”

“No.” Celine returns eye for steely eye. “Certainly not.”

“Luxferre,” he asks in turn. “Are you telling the truth?”

Suddenly, doubt slides insidiously up Celine’s spine. Luxeferre’s claims are construed from distorted logic, as Runa said, but Luxferre is Temir’s son, and they have never had Temir mediate an altercation between them in the past. This…

“Yes,” Luxferre says, with equal invocation. Then, he proceeds to rise a step higher: “I give you my word. I’ll put my wings on the line.”

Those are all the words Pontifex Temir needs. “Take the wicked Degenerated Tribe and Fairy to the Prison Camp!” The two guards at his side step forth, one on each side of Chael.

“Why are you locking us up?!” Runa. Irate and livid and with every right to feel as such. Her small silhouette and blue hair is the pale shadow of another, but Runa’s temper is one that sings bright with crackling flames.

“Celine,” Chaels voice calls, laced with the melancholy of disappointment. “This is not what you promised.” She hears it too, in this Great Temple, between the clink of their armor and clang of their weapons—the death knell of all her expectations, her promises plucked and sliced open, laid waste in the open air. She hears it as well. There’s nothing to say.

“Filthy Degenerated mutant,” Luxferre retaliates, “Consider yourself lucky to be alive!”

Chael growls. “I’ll have the last of you,” he hollers back.

Take them!” Temir repeats. “And Luxferre! Take Celine back to the prayer room immediately!”

“Yes, sir.” Luxferre salutes.

“No.” Celine shakes her head furiously, involuntarily taking a step back. “No…”

How could you do this, Celine thinks. Chael, Runa, I am so sorry.

-o-

The moment Luxferre’s done dragging her down the halls to the isolated prayer room, Celine asks him this. “Luxferre! How can you do that to them? Why did you do this? Answer me!”

“Shaman,” he says, voice blank. “I have a bad feeling about them.”

Celine hisses in exasperation. So Luxferre no longer deems her worthy of his articulated reasons either? “That’s absurd! How can you make them prisoners based on your gut feeling? They were only looking for a way back home.”

It is easy to hate Luxferre like this. So easy to hate. So easy to become frustrated and fed up with this illogical incarnation of him, some unthinking mechanical pawn, rendered asinine by the musty decay of old betrayal. Incapable of seeing past that old film of dust, judgment completely hampered, inept and no longer fit to protect anything of import. So easy to hate.

Luxferre detects the undercurrent stirrings of her newfound loathing, but evidently chooses to continue standing on the opposing side of this chasm of strife. “You can hate all you want,” he says flatly. “My job is to protect you. Do not forget what your job is!

They’re locked up in the basement prison, never to see the light of day again. You should forget about them, too.”

Luxferre storms away. Alone in the prayer room, Celine places her head in her palms and chokes out between sobs, “Chael! Runa! I’m so terribly sorry.” How did it all come to this?

Praying. Such a useless, useless formality. She can’t bear to calm herself down and kneel at the altar again. Not when she is feeling so powerless and weak. Praying because she can do nothing else—

An ancient, papery voice rises unbidden in the back of her skull. I trust you will know what to do when the time comes.

Celine lifts her head from her hands, sobs abruptly ceasing. Rushing to retrieve pen and paper, she smoothes it over the flat surface of the small table, and starts penning her letter.

Dear Chael and Runa—

-o-

Celine leaves her letter with Seru when she goes to her old home to collect her belongings and move into the temple as ordered. When she walks up the crystal stairs and pushes the heavy doors open, Temir is waiting in the center of the great hall.

“Pontifex Temir,” she calls. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Celine,” Temir admonishes, “they are part of the Degenerated Tribe who has caused us great grief in the past. I am doing what’s best for the Divine Tribe.”

“Chael and Runa,” she starts, but trails off. Her eyebrows crease as warning bells sound off in her mind. It would be redundant to repeat that Chael is human, and—it was not the Degenerated Tribe that wronged them, it was the one hero who failed to deliver. As for the rest, they were the ones to deal the hurt first. Temir only takes such an officious tone of voice when he is about to do something—

Electric blue light sears her vision. Throwing her arm up, she jerks her head to see Temir’s staff aimed in her direction—and then streaks of lightning are raining down on her in bolts, and she collapses as her body gives away to the dual clash of fire and ice, nerves short-circuiting with the onslaught of jolts.

In the succeeding dimness brought upon by her fleeing consciousness and the reveal of this extensive betrayal, Celine hears his drifting voice as if it is travelling from worlds away:

“I’m sorry, you must forgive me. It’s for the cherished desire of the people…”

She had thought these words before—the Divine Tribe fell down to Midgard, but they have not ever stopped falling since. Like on a ship slowly sinking, they will all drown together, dragging each other by handfuls upon handfuls of white feathers.

This is the story of how she dies.

-o-

Harsh winds buffeting against skin, loose gravel weaving rough tracks through shivering feathers, warm sunlight beating down her bare neck—these are the sensations that bring her back to life, to tangible reality, ripping her away from that odd, suspended plane of existence (non-existence?)—a stuttering heartbeat away from death (except she had physically disappeared), a strangled breath away from life, and that yawning black void of nothingness that had settled in the pits of her stomach and grown and grown and slinked insidiously into the marrow of her bones and then expanded and consumed and—

Celine gasps, jaws wrenching open and windpipe forcing itself free, gusts of air tunneling in and filling up the aching emptiness of her lungs. She heaves, eyes snapping open in an empty wide-eyed gaze, wings fluttering erratically in estranged beats—

“il…ake…d…—ine.”

A slight pop! registers in her ears, and the returning rush of sound comes like a banner of triumph borne on a gale. She blinks—once, twice—as black spots gradually recede from her swimming vision.

“Celine, dear. Child. Can you hear me? Celine?”

“Yes,” she says, dazed. Mind working to brush away the film that has draped itself over her mind. “Yes, I can hear you. Shaman.” She blinks, head tilting up. “Lewiel.”

The wizened old woman nods, shoulders falling at ease. “Forgive me, my child, but I must go first. The Child of the Moon…it is time. I must hurry. This withered body is not as limber in movement compared to you youths.

“Come, once you recover. He is one of the Divine Tribe, lost soul though he may be, and you have your duties to enact as well.”

With a swish of orange robes Lewiel hobbles on her way. Celine blinks blankly after the elder’s shrinking form, but in the dipping arc of her head as she lowers her gaze to trembling hands scrabbling over grey stones, her eyes catch the way sunlight sparkles as it bounces off shining spools of silver.

In that instant, it’s as if time has stuttered to a stop once again, frozen in that fragile realm of suspense. The world falls quiet. She rises with knocking knees and walks, steps unsteady but persistent, unmoving eyes locked on to the sight sprawled before her.

It’s not an image that fits into any of her recollections. Messy curtain of pale hair juxtaposed against skin dark as shadows, features permanently fixed into a twisted scowl, eyebrows drawn together in grief. Dried blood coalescing along the course of jagged slash wounds, dark brown streaks clumping strands of hair to the surfaces of metal armor and stained cloth.

It’s not a picture she knows, but separate pieces leap out to her with startling clarity: the way silver locks blaze almost white, the red scar that runs through the center of his right eye, the matching steel blue of headband and shirt collar, the crimson sheathe of a sword so broad it could double as a shield, the arrogant curve of his brow. Black wings. Black wings adorned on the side of his head, when they should be white as his hair in the sun.

Yes. I give you my word. I’ll put my wings on the line.

Yes, no. Loyalty, betrayal. Pride, shame. Love, hate. Funny that she should only realize now, when she is blinking back from the shores of existence and another has departed, though the fact is that it’s been this way all along: Luxferre works in binary. Someone who steers himself so strongly based on his convictions cannot stand to hover in the zones in-between. He must topple—be it one way, or the other, like a brittle branch snapping in a storm.

Because language is a useless signifier. Unwieldy. Because the paths spun by words and arguments can never reflect ideas as clearly as the arc his sword travels as he swings. For him, one is a tangled curve while another is a straight line from point A to B, and it has always been engraved in him to seize the latter. The surety of his blade dictates the crushing strength of the warrior.

But the fact is, it is the complex turns of the mind that is the final frontier in war—and even if Luxferre leads the reigns of the physical and Celine the threads of the psychological, the disharmony created by considering the two separate is enough to make them crumble from within. She may be the Shaman, symbol of hope for her race, but even with the most persuasive preaching she cannot—could not—possibly manipulate and intuit the ways of Luxferre. Theirs was a doomed partnership from the start. As a leader, Luxferre was inadequate from the beginning.

Zephyrs carry a disembodied voice to her, heartbreaking in their anguish: “Well, the destiny that I choose is…”

Celine stiffens, forcing her body to terminate its pathetic swaying. This is no time for weakness. Staring down at the corpse lying at her feet, she closes her eyes and brings her hands up in prayer.

Great Creator, here is a spirit that was once created by you and faithfully served. Though he has since gone astray, please have mercy on this injured soul, and let him return to the great whirlpool of chaos.

Flickers of gold light dance in paler streams of sunlight, and Luxferre’s body fades out of existence. It is not enough, never will be enough. For all his shortcomings, Luxferre was once a loyal friend and comrade as well, a solid wall of support. She should say something at least, in memory of this. But it is late. It is always late, and she is needed elsewhere.

-o-

“Chael!” She shouts, lifting her trailing skirt in a mad dash to the boy with a foot hanging over the cliff. “No!”

He steps back, turns around, and gawks at the sight of her standing before him. Chael's voice drips with disbelieving incredulity, and awful as it is, she's oddly satisfied to hear it. “Ce-Celine...?”

Fingering the stitch in her side, she pauses for a gasp of breath. “Don't, Chael.”

“Are you...really alive,” he asks, voice inching over syllables in agonizingly slow motions like that of a worm's. “Is that really...you?”

“Yes.” Celine giggles, just a tad hysterically, a tear or two forming at the corner of an eye. “Yes. It's me.”

He blinks owlishly. “But, how...?”

“Child,” Lewiel's brittle voice calls. “When Antione died, Celine was freed from the seal. She returned to her normal state.”

Celine nods. “I'm back!” Lacing her voice with false cheer, she breaks into a lopsided smile. “So, don't you dare think about hurting yourself!”

“Now...”

The upturned corners of her lips abruptly fall flat. That voice. She knows that voice, throbbing like a dull ache in the marrow of her bones. She wants to turn, to see, to...but her nerves are paralyzed in the static rush of conflicting impulses that the voice brings to the fore.

“It must be my turn.”

“Negir,” Chael acknowledges, though it is unneeded confirmation.

“Well done, Chael,” he says, sounding completely unperturbed and unfazed. As if hey, he didn't just casually waltz out then walk back into her life in pivotal, shattering moments. But at the present, his focus is not on her. Celine tunes her ear to the conversation. “In return, I'll tell you the answer that you have been seeking.”

Chael opens his mouth. Negir continues, and he clamps it back shut. “The answer lies within the Spirit Stone. It will allow you to create a door which will take you to another realm.”

“Spirit Stone?” Chael parrots. She never heard of it either. Looking at Lewiel in askance, she notes the grandmotherly figure's unruffled expression. So she knows. But how? And why...

“The Spirit Stone was formed using the flesh of the Fairy.” Celine reels—and as her mouth drops open, her eyes finally deem themselves fit to take note of the missing piece to Negir's image. No flitting, sky-blue glow. No quirky side-line commentary. No winning smile. No Rina. “Fairies, of course, were originally equivalent to the Gods...Thus, the Stone contains a special power which will allow you to cross dimensions.”

Oh, Celine laments. Negir, you didn't.

“Wow,” Runa says. “How did Fairies gain such strength?” She hums in thought, before quipping with: “I'm a Fairy...Let me try. Abracadabra! Open sesame!” She grumbles. “Hey! The doors didn't appear!”

Negir blinks very, very slowly, then proceeds to send her a very flat look. “Not all Fairies can utilize the power.” Dismissing Runa entirely, he turns to face Chael again. “You'll need to link the power of the Spirit Stone to the Altar of Ritual to open the route to Heavenly Realm.”

She finally finds her voice again. “Really?” Celine recalls a prophecy transmitted to her ears by a crackling voice, ancient like a page that has grown golden. A foreigner accompanied by a Fairy, destined for the warrior's path. Once, she thought that person to be Negir, and then briefly once again, with Chael. A third person who would join her and Luxferre at the frontlines to bring about an end to their war-torn days. And all along, this was what their return to the Heavenly Realm hinged upon? A Fairy sacrifice?

She recalls a melodic voice, spiraling upwards in a field full of wishes: But of course, Rina had said. Whatever would you poor babies do without us?

Celine feels ill, all of a sudden.

“Woohoo!” Runa cheers. “Yes! We can finally return home!” She performs two flips and a twirl in the air, fist pumping in excitement. “Chael! We're finally going home! I can smell those apple pies already! Wait,” she hovers to a stop. “Let me count how many apple pies you owe me. One, two, three, four...umm. I've lost count. Chael! How many was it?!” No response. “Chael...?”

“How can I go back home...?” Chael breathes a sigh, bleak eyes downcast. “I have too much blood on my hands.”

Celine raises an eyebrow at this. Chael was hardly bothered by the act of spilling blood of the Devil Tribe, even when he first rescued her from the clutches of Unique Monsters at Akun Temple. Then she recalls the flash-quick, clouded snapshot of another blond haired man, and her mind mentally tacks on the flickering image of another prostrate body—a fallen general marred with deep gashes, skin unnaturally dark. Then, she thinks: ah, I see how it is.

"They're all dirty blood!" Runa is quick to snap back. "It was the blood of evil monsters!"

Chael furiously shakes his head, hair fluffing with the motion. “I don't have the courage to live there...Father is dead, and that place is filled with happy memories with father and Frey. I—” and his voice breaks, splintering like wood folding beneath shrapnel blows. “I don't think I'll be able to handle it.

“Don't cry, Chael,” Runa says in a subdued tone. “You're making me all teary.”

“Chael.” Celine's own voice trails off weakly. Because—what is there to say? She is master of empty platitudes and consolations, but it is for this very reason that she knows there is absolutely nothing she can say. Band-aids on gaping wounds. She is done with those.

Because it is the only olive branch she can extend: “Let's all go to the Heavenly Realm.” Scattered minds snap to attention, and she is the focal point. “Lewiel said that you were originally a Divine Tribesman. Come with me to the Heavenly Realm. All the others will welcome you, as well.”

Chael pulls his eyelids down like blinds snapping shut, eyes wrinkling at the corners. “My real home? Heavenly Realm?”

“You might find greater happiness beginning a new life up there,” she tries. “This could be your ultimate destiny.” And right after the words are out, she knows they're the wrong thing to say.

“My ultimate—” He breaks off abruptly with a forced exhale, rubbing furiously at his face with his hands. “Ha,” Chael laughs dryly, throwing his hands down. “Ha ha ha! How can I be happy? What happiness could those damned Gods bring me? Answer me, Celine!”

She forgets, sometimes, when she is with Chael. Forgets that she is from the Heavens and he is from the Earth, both barely grown into their teenage years in terms of physique, but wildly divorced in terms of genuine age, of their separately distilled experiences and memories. They share similarities on two bare-boned points of technicality—the genetic component of the Divine Tribe, and the vague parallel of brief stints as castaways. Past that─two vastly differing storybooks, drawn up by the mythos of wildly differing Peoples. The river current of their lives had branched off even before their respective times had begun.

Negir's quiet voice breaks in, smooth ripples on water. “Do you want another opportunity?”

Celine blinks. Chael unwinds, like tension leaking from a silver coil.

“Negir!” Lewiel's voice is colored a rare shade of agitation. “What are you talking about?!”

Negir's gaze on Chael is unwavering. “I'm only giving this boy...another shot. A chance for him to determine his own fate.”

“An opportunity to determine my own fate?” Chael echoes, clamoring with the distant reverberation of tentative hope. His eyes clear, riveting over the features of Negir's face, as if they could unearth all the secrets behind that stoic mask with a simple skimming survey.

“I didn't mention the final power of the Spirit Stone.” His gruff voice is tinged with the smirk that is left unmatched on his face. “It has the ability to turn back time.”

“Negir!” Lewiel repeats. “Stop it immediately!” Celine wonders just how much information her former teacher has withheld from her, but it is a fleeting thought, irrelevant in its tardiness.

“Stay out of this, old lady,” He growls. “This is between me and Chael, stuck in the horrid destiny prepared by the Gods!”

“Do you understand the magnitude of your implications?” she screeches, pounding her staff to the ground with twisting, gnarled hands.

“To turn back time...?” Chael looks thrown into a daze by this reveal, and Celine can hardly begin to blame him at this point. Negir is popping revelation after revelation like an unstoppable, cascading waterfall, and—how long did it take him to mine all these secrets? What kind of hardships did he face, in those adventures he embarked on alone? Rina. If she still held suspicions concerning Negir's persisting good-will, then it would've been cast aside at this moment. She knows, now: Negir may have went on a detour for personal reasons, but his heart was always with them. If only Luxferre could have known.

“It can take you back...far back to when you first arrived in Midgard,” he elaborates. “When destiny first took control of your life.”

“If I return,” Chael begins cautiously. “Will that allow me to change my destiny?”

Negir's shoulders shrug beneath his heavy cloak. “I can't answer that question. Your life may end up the same as now,” he concedes. “But, you have an opportunity to change it...a chance.”

He pauses, scanning Chael's bruised, grimy form with a critical eye. “I believe that you are capable of changing your future.” I believe you are capable of changing ours.

Chael sucks in a sharp breath. He turns imploring eyes to his fairy. “Runa...Will you travel back with me?”

“Phew,” Runa gives her wings a resigned flutter. “We might have to do this over again. It could be too much the second time around...But, if you're going, I'll come with you.” Her eyes narrow in a mean squint, and her mouth twists into a pout. “Double the antes on the apple pies, though!”

Even now, Runa can wring out a laugh. Celine smiles behind her hand.

“Thanks Runa.”

But Lewiel interrupts again. “Celine!” She jerks, spine snapping straight in the deeply ingrained way of her apprenticeship days, whirling to face the old Shaman. “You must stop them! We might never return to the Heavenly Realm!”

Lewiel's crabby hands are scuttling all over the wooden length of her staff. Celine—she can't stop them, right? Things are finally drawing to a close, but the turnout seems so cheap. So many unfair wrongs scattered in their entwined history, and here presenting itself is the chance to right Chael's. Lewiel is the fortune teller, the one who sees all possibilities unfolding in the lattice-work of stars. Surely she must see. “Lewiel...?”

Hurry!

Celine bites her lip. Chael's voice calls, and she spins around again.

“Celine.” A command and entreaty and question, all rolled around into one. Negir's patient silence, Lewiel's seething agitation, twin pairs of reddish brown eyes bridging the gap between them to stare. This is the crux of things, then: after feeling helpless for so long, she gets to be the dealer of cards in this final round of fate. The possibility of a complete reset for Chael, and a partial one for them.

Things could be better. Things could be worse. With a reset, there is no guarantee. It is a naive hope at best, and a teetering catastrophe at its worst. They have lost things and have earned things, but if time is reversed all of this will be cast aside. Mechanisms of sacrifice, mathematics of loss; in the concave walls of her skull, she can hear the echo of the Pontifex's stern commands, Luxferre's stiff admonishments, Lewiel's sage advice. Wrong of us to foist our burdens on an outsider. Life goes on...you have to keep on moving.

But then, but then, her mind is tossed back to a picturesque riverbank, shrouded in the bright watercolors of a tropical haze. There was no significance in the orchids woven into Luxferre's hair beyond the gleeful fits of giggles that they had elicited from Seru. They were Divine Tribe members fated to great tasks, and this moment should have been discharged in the diffusion of the mundane, though they had especially remembered it for being as such. A moment in no need of justification beyond its own existence, with the winding Lorela flowing beside them a clear river-water of purpose. They have come so far since that time of possibilities shimmering in quicksilver currents, that it is hard to imagine a repaint of it somewhere in another dimension.

No significance. No grafted meanings. A place wherein there is no such thing as fate. Orchids, hardy and tenacious and wild, blooming triumphantly along the Lorela River in complete disregard to the obtuse languages that men have clumsily assigned them. No Gods, no destiny, no schemes. Just the orchids and their roots and their stems pushing out of fresh soil, unmoving and sated with the concept of their own existence. A glazed reflection of perfection so beautiful that it can only be conceptualized as something ephemeral: that is what it should mean to be divine.

She steps forward, closing the distance between them, taking Chael's hands in her own. “If you return…” Celine ventures waveringly. “Will you rescue me again?”

“Of course.” He does not break her gaze. “You're my precious friend.”

Then...She tilts her inquiring face up. “Runa...will you be my friend when we meet again?”

She huffs. “Meh! I'll think about it.”

Palms flip over, and Chael's deceptively strong hands squeeze hers in return, a final gesture of reassurance. “Celine,” he pipes up, “I promise to take you back to the Heavenly Realm when I meet you again.”

...Yes, Celine thinks. Perhaps they could all stand to benefit from a rewind. Some things would never change—Negir's sacrifices for the Spirit Stone, Luxferre's bullheaded personality, the murky eddies of muddled loyalties, but Chael—human and outsider and bearing foreknowledge from a prior run─would be a catalyst, and who knows what changes he'd wrought that their past selves had overlooked the possibility of?

She wants to seize this chance, desperately. Celine has all her Divine years laid ahead of her still, century layered upon century of a future in unwashed colors, but in a way she cannot put into words, she realizes that she wants this just as badly as Chael—thirteen and confused and despairing but hopeful all the same.

“Thanks, Chael.” She winks. “I won't ever—”

“You fool!” Lewiel cries. And she is, she is a fool for grappling onto something shimmering with such wistful frailty, but—“I will not let you use the Spirit Stone for that purpose! 'Ehona Arseus Jibiserios'—”

“Arrr! Old lady!” Negir growls, in that very frustrated and very earnest and very no-nonsense way of his. “Chael, hurry!”

He fumbles in his pack for the glittering gem, hastily drawing it out with white-knuckled fingers. “Spirit Stone,” Chael's quivering voice begins. “Can you turn back time for me?” Then, gradually mustering strength: “I'll change the future...I'll change my destiny...And...”

An indomitable cry of defiance, now, the flare of kicked coals: “I won't accept something as ludicrous as fate! I won't abide by your will! I will change the path of my destiny! I'm...”

“Your fate is in your hands!” Negir's return call, a steadying note in the freshly sprung darkness.

“You can't change God's fate!”

“Chael.” Celine claps her hands together, eyes fluttering shut in one final prayer. “Please...”

After all, a river's course never did run perfectly straight.

-X-

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
but later proves to be alive.

(Pablo Neruda, "Keeping Quiet" from Extravagaria)

-X-

end