Sunday, June 30, 2013

Insert Jaw-Dropping Reveal Here (part 1 of 5)

"Drink up, baby doll.
Are you in or are you out?
Leave your things behind,
'Cause it's all going on without you.

"Excuse me. Too busy. 
You're writing your tragedy. 
These mishaps, you've bubble-wrapped when 
You've no idea what you're like..."
—Frou Frou, "Let Go"


"Huh. So you're Valerie."

The healer's voice shook, her expression halfway between a scowl and that of fearful hope. "Who are you?" she demanded.

The man before her chuckled. "I know. I look just like him, don't I?"

Not really, she thought. "That's not an answer."

"...I don't really have a name, to be perfectly honest. I could tell you what the others called me, but"

"That's not an answer either," she said again. Loudly.


"You could start," she added in a tone that left no room for argument, "by telling me why your signal on our computers is identical to Adrian's."


Valerie's new search was both easier and harder than her last. Though she no longer sat in the monitor room 24/7, just because she didn't give off the appearance of working didn't mean she wasn't. Every moment of every day (even during what little sleep she could catch) saw her extending her empathic senses as far as they could reach, searching for the specific mental pattern that was pure Adrian. Until she or Kuroneko got any more solid leads, that was all she could do. And that fact made Valerie alternately feel helpless and furious. At least before, with her systematic search, she could blame bad luck if nothing positive came up. When everything was intuitive, she could only blame herself and her own inadequacy.

"So it was the Reality Marble?"

A mental nod from Ari. The little dragon had recovered enough that she was no longer confined to Valerie's head, but she still couldn't take on a physical presence. The Eiran seers confirmed it. Adrian died while inside it.

"And what can they tell us about our new 'friend'?" Valerie asked.

A pause. He was telling the truth about his backstory, they could tell that much.

The healer nodded. She hadn't told anyone about the anomolous signal that had shown up that day, not even Kuroneko. Particularly not after she found the source of the signal. Valerie had been right about one thing, however: the fact that their signals were identical wasn't a coincidence. But there was also something there that shouldn't have been, and for the life of her, she couldn't figure out what it was.

"But...?" she prompted.

...But you're right. There's something funny about his resonance pattern.


She spoke the name he gave her aloud, trying out the sound in her mouth. "You're right," she said finally. "That's not a name."

He chuckled again, and Valerie had to wonder exactly what was so funny. "Fitting though, given my status, don't you think?"

No, she didn't think, but she wasn't about to go into that. They looked similar, they acted similar, but the resemblance was only vague at best - instantly identifiable, but quickly forgotten in leiu of their vastly different minds and experiences. And yet, for some reason, they felt exactly the same. Their identical biological signatures (what the computers picked up) could be explained, given his history, but the feel of his mind and emotions baffled the healer.

He looked at her suddenly. "I've seen you before, in my dreams. No, not like that!" he added at her furious glance his way, "Just memories and things. You and he talked a lot, didn't you?"

She frowned and didn't answer. Despite his openness and general friendly attitude, she hadn't quite decided to trust him just yet.

Another sidelong glance. "Though, now that I actually meet you in person, I kind of wish it was those kinds of dreams..." Valerie's astonished expression only drew another laugh out of him... at least until she stomped on his foot. Hard. "Yep," he muttered through his clenched teeth. "Definitely Valerie..."

By the time he shook it off, said empath was already walking away. "Feel free to visit sometime!" he called after her.

Without looking back, she lifted her hand in what could have been a wave or a bird. At that distance, he couldn't be entirely sure.


Valerie sat with her knees drawn up, head bowed, and hands touching her temples. There was nothing particularly symbolic about the position; she was simply trying to shut out the world and focus on that strange, inner calling—the only lead she had left.

What am I missing?

The obvious, of course. The mental voice didn't belong to Ari, but hearing extra voices when meditating was nothing new. Besides, when Valerie was concentrating this hard, any and all disbelief was suspended. Besides, the voice was right: only something hidden in plain sight could cause such a mental roadblock.

Start with the basics then. What is a soul?

The Soul is.

Exactly. So how could it get lost?

The Soul drops the body during sleep/coma/prolonged meditation, but remains tied to it. In death, that tie is severed, and the Soul snaps back to the All.

So could a Soul become disconnected from the All?

Can't be. That's the definition of hell.

Adrian always maintained that he would probably wind up in hell someday, Ari interjected.

If he was in that sort of "hell", Kuroneko would've found him, Valerie replied, her distaste for such a ludicrous notion as divinely assigned eternal torment clearly evident in her mental voice. But maybe there's some sort of middle ground we haven't thought of yet...

Let's look at exceptionalities then. Aster doesn't have a soul.

Debatable. Aster's soul does not currently inhabit/control her body, but she did have one at some point. Presumabely, it's still out there somewhere.

Just like Adrian's?

Adrian's body is dead. Aster's still has volition, emotion, even a personality. Her body clearly still draws on her soul, though that might be because of the numerous other Asters out there. Similar cases, but not similar enough.

Let's not dismiss it though, Ari said thoughtfully. What else do we have?

The idea of a Reality Marble itself. Supposedly it was "soul made manifest," or so Adrian had said to her, once.

A form of trancendence, then. The Soul's true nature and power revealed and put to concious use.

Not all of it though, said Ari. But only a handful of individuals in the entire history of the multiverse have managed that. Adrian got pretty far though, according to Eadoin.

Valerie's mouth twitched into a smirk. I thought Eadoin was a Bard, not a Seer.

Had Ari been in human shape, she would have been the picture of slightly rumpled dignity. He's a man of many talents. Don't change the subject or you'll lose your train of thought.

Train. Yes. Did it jump the tracks? Had Adrian's plans jumped the tracks?

Clearly, unless he planned to die.

Highly unlikely, though that last letter suggested that he knew he was going to die, even if he didn't want to.



Right. The Reality Marble. What happened in there?

He fought past his limit. The Marble broke.



An incomplete trancendence. Using the power of the Soul as a weapon. Dying with that power still coursing through him, connected to him. At that moment, the power was him, and there was no dividing line between body and Soul.

Was it possible that the Soul could be broken?

"Val! Valerie!"

A panicked voice and a panicked mind startled the healer out of her reverie, and her eyes snapped open to see Chrys stumbling through the Med Ward's main door. She was stumbling because she was carrying an unconcious Aster on her back. "Please, there's something wrong with Aster. She's not waking up!"

Valerie immediately sprung up and helped the hanyou with her burden, easing the unconcious fae onto one of the beds and checking her vitals. Aster was barely breathing and her heartbeat had slown down dangerously. Her eyes were half-open, and the pupils were heavily dialated and only gave the merest of half-hearted twitches when Valerie flashed a penlight over them.

The healer was only half-listening to Chrys as the frightened girl babbled about how she'd been sleeping for longer and longer periods before finally slipping into this death-like state. Carefully, she sent a small probe into Aster's mind, trying to get a general idea of the problem. Almost immediately she hit a wall of some sort, and a quick scan told her that the wall encompassed almost her entire mind. It was shoddily constructed, and Valerie knew she could break into it with ease. But she could also see the roiling maelstrom on the other side of the wall, and knew that this would have to be done carefully.

"This is a serious case," she muttered, almost to herself. She shook her head and turned toward Chrys. "You'd better leave her in the medical ward. There's only one thing I can do, and it may take hours."

The hanyou gave a fearful squeak, but was obedient. She gave her friend one more reassuring squeeze on the hand, and left the two of them alone in the ward. Valerie, meanwhile, selected a book off one of the shelves above the cabinets. There was only one way she would've missed the warning signs of something this severe, and that was if there were no warning signs at all. No emotional ones anyway.

Valerie had read about this condition several times over the course of her career as an empath/healer, and knew exactly what caused it. "Inversed emotion," they called it. It was basically the result of intense emotional upheaval having no outlet, and thus being forced to turn back on itself—no emotional output, nothing for an empath to sense until it was already too late.

'Emotion made to turn back on itself, and not leading to any thought or action, is the prelude to insanity,' Valerie recited to herself. We've all been dealing with our grief in different ways, but how the hell did I miss this? If I hadn't been so caught up in my own issues I could've cut this cycle off before it had gone this far!

But there was no point in beating herself up now; she had a job to do. With a small flutter of paper, she finally located the page she needed. The first thing to do was to get Aster stabilized. Following the instructions in the text, Valerie manipulated the fae's body into something resembling a fetal position, but with the legs bent a a slightly wider angle. Next, she drew up a chair and situated herself facing Aster's back. The healer held up her hands in front of her, thumbs spread but not touching, and fell into a trance.


"You really must admit, she's got a lot of skill."

Valerie looked to her right. "A-Adrian?"

He looked back at her. "Don't you agree?"

The empath looked foward again, and found herself watching Aster spar with Danielle using staves. "I don't know if 'skill' is the right word to use," she found herself saying. "She never works at anything because she sees it all as a game." Except it wasn't a game, not anymore. It had already gone much too far, and they were left fighting for their lives.

Wait... she was fighting for Aster's life, right?

Adrian glanced back at the sparring match. "All the more reason she'll make the perfect weapon when the time comes."

She looked at the Librarian, shocked. "You'd use a little girl as a weapon?"

"Why not?" he asked, continuing to watch the fight. "She has little or no fear of death, nor any qualms about killing. She'd find nothing I told her to do to be morally reprehensible. Certainly it would work for what I'm trying to do. Why shouldn't I do it?"

Valerie felt dizzy. There was something very wrong with this picture. In fact, a picture was all it was anymore; Aster and Danielle were frozen in time around them, fading off into the distance as Valerie's eyes grew wide.

Adrian took her by the shoulders. "Valerie, answer the question," he said. His voice was suddenly very loud, and the look in his eyes was almost fearful. "Why shouldn't I do it?"



Valerie opened her eyes a crack. Aster's breathing rate had gone up considerably, but still on the lower edge of the safe zone. She also noticed that Chrys was back, and sitting with her was a girl Valerie didn't recognize.

"I have her stabilized for now, but it's only a temporary fix. What she needs is an invasive bypass to break her out of this loop she's under." Valerie took a deep breath as she attempted to explain. "Conditions like hers don't need a lot of time to escelate to near-uncontrollable measures. Right now there's a wall surrounding most of her mind, and everything inside that wall is in absolute shambles. Thing is, the wall used to encompass a much smaller area, but it's been growing as her condition worsened. It's even growing now."

The new girl, whom Valerie assumed was Akai, Aster's other friend, tilted her head slightly. "What happens if the wall thing grows to surround her whole mind?"

Valerie bit her lip. "One of two things can—well, are happening. One is that, since everything inside the wall gets torn to shreds in that emotional storm, eventually all the normal body functions in her brain would get overrun, resulting in a permanent vegetative state or... or death. The other option is that she manages to survive the first option, in which case the wall would continue to expand until her mind can't hold it any longer and the storm bursts out onto the rest of us—sort of like popping an overinflated balloon," she finished lamely. Likely the girls had no idea what she was talking about, but it looked like they were beyond caring. Valerie swallowed. "The best thing you two can do for her is to stay here with her. Try not to move her much, but let her know you're here. I'm going to have to do it soon."

Chrys gulped. "And you have to dive into that?"


"...How long will it take?"

"I don't know."

The healer looked over the unconcious fae. Aster was breathing properly now that the wall was more or less stablized, but some of the color was starting to leave her lips, which meant her body wasn't processing the oxygen properly. Her brain function was starting to deteriorate.

She ran mental fingers over the barrier once again. It wasn't in danger of collapse just yet, but if she were to break into it, she'd better fix the root of this problem in a hurry. Therefore, the best course of action was to analyze as much of the problem as she could see from outside the construct, so as to take immediate action once inside it. It was translucent enough that she could almost see what was going on inside...


Aster shifted. Chrys yelped and jumped up. "Aster!"

And suddenly the wall was gone.

"Ah—" Valerie's mouth opened and closed with no noise coming out of it, but immediately took the fae's pulse. The storm had vanished with the wall, and all her vitals were rapidly returning to normal. "Sh-she's back..."

With a loud squeal, Chrys made to glomp her friend, and Valerie grabbed her by the collar of her shirt. "Waitwaitwait! She might not be ready for that just yet."

Aster gave a loud cough and blinked sleepily at them. "What'd I miss?"

And there was no restraining the gleeful hanyou after that.


It wasn't until almost an hour later that Valerie finally pursuaded Chrys and Akai to leave the med ward so she could finish her examination. In the meantime, news of Aster's miraculous recovery had spread like wildfire, but the ward was temporarily off-limits to everyone but Valerie and her patient.

"What happened in there, Aster?" the healer asked. "You were on the brink of death back there. People don't just recover from that."

"Umm..." the fae appeared to think about that. "Well, I'm here, so I must be alright, right?"

Valerie heaved a sigh. This was about the fortieth time they'd gone through a variation of the exact same exchange, and she still hadn't gotten any information out of the girl. I suppose the only way to find out is from the inside then... "I'm still going to have to check you over. Is that okay with you?"


"Good. At least I don't have to enter forcibly this time," she added under her breath.

Aster sat up straight on her bed and Valerie laid her hands gently on the fae's back. "Try and relax," said the empath. "You're a little bit tense."

"Oh, sorry." The blue-haired girl slouched a little bit.

Valerie closed her eyes and sent in a gentle probe. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, exactly, but there had been a subtle sort of shift in Aster's energy pattern the moment she woke up—almost like a couple of jammed gears clicking back into synch. That alone wouldn't have removed the storm or the wall, but it might have broken her out of the loop she was stuck in. And, if she was lucky, it might also have given the emotional backlash that caused the storm in the first place somewhere to drain off to, which would allow her to remove the wall on her own. If that was the case, though, then it was in everyone's best interest for Valerie to try and find what caused the original problem, so that it wouldn't ever happen again.

Aster's mind was messy, but not uncommonly so. Valerie explored rather easily, brushing past memories that were none of her business and heading straight for recent emotions—"recent" being no older than a month or so. As expected, it was much more cluttered than the rest, everything being simply piled on top of itself.

In the real world, Valerie frowned. It was a pile alright, but not nearly as haphazard as one might expect from memories of insanity. In fact, they seemed very deliberately packed together, almost as though to hide something. And the closer the healer looked, the more she swore there was a glimmering violet light peeking out from between the cracks...


"What's the answer, Valerie?" Adrian's grip on her shoulders was almost painfully tight, and his desperation for her answer—any answer—was evident in the increasing panic in his eyes. "Why shouldn't I do it? Tell me!" It was almost overwhelming, but Valerie swallowed and stood tall.

"Because... Because you don't want to."

Adrian stared at her for a long moment, then closed his eyes with a shuddering sigh. "At last," he said quietly. "Now we can begin..."


Valerie stumbled backward as though struck, breathing hard.

Aster turned around and blinked at her. "Valerie-chan? Is something wrong?"

For a long moment, she couldn't think of a single thing to say to that. "Aster..." she said slowly, "you... you just wait here a sec. I'll be right back."

"Okay," the girl replied, and started humming the theme of Lucky Star to herself, swinging her legs a little.

The healer watched her for a moment as she slowly walked out, reinforcing the idea with as much of what little projective empathy she had as she could manage. And the moment she was outside... Valerie immediately bolted down the hallway.

It took less than five minutes to find Kuroneko (though Valerie suspected the Library was helping her somehow), and even less time to explain her suspicious to her. "I can't be certain until I get Danielle to look at her though," she finished, breathless. "She's the only one here who can confirm it."

Kuroneko paused to consider all this. "How much to you trust her discretion?" she asked finally.

Valerie didn't hesitate. "She's flighty, but she knows how to keep her mouth shut. Particularly when it's something important." To herself, she added, Particularly after all the time she, Stacey, and I have spent together. If Danielle can keep that secret, she can certainly keep this one.

After another long pause, the cat-girl finally nodded. "I'll go find her then. You stay with Aster and make sure she doesn't destabilize again."

"Got it."


Valerie blinked and shook her head, confused. She was back in the medical ward with Aster, who was chattering away about her favorite Haruhi Suzumiya shipppings to fill the time. Before she had to endure much more of this conversation topic, however, Kuroneko burst in with Danielle in tow.

"Val!" said the redhead as soon as she caught sight of her friend. "Mind telling me what the hell's going on?" She caught sight of Aster on the bed, still obliviously daydreaming. "Did you need my help with something?"

Kuroneko must not have told her anything yet, thought the empath. "Well..." she began hesitantly, "for starters, do you remember what color Adrian's aura was?"

Danielle tilted her head quizically. "Adrian's...?"

"Yeah. Did you ever catch sight of it?"

"Plenty of times. It's not like he ever hides it. But why...?"

"Just answer the question," Kuroneko interrupted, staring at Aster as though trying to see into her soul.

"Uh..." Danielle thought for a moment. "Violet. Lots of violet. Some tan underpinnings too; I don't recall the exact combination, but I remember it was a really unique one. But the violet was the main thing, a really bright shade."

Valerie nodded thoughtfully. I thought so... "Okay. Now have a look at Aster and tell me what you see."

Danielle frowned. She was far from an idiot, and knew exactly what her team leader was implying with that question, but looked anyway. When she was finished looking, she closed her eyes for a moment in thought, then opened them again and looked the healer straight in the eye.

"Aster's aura is normally barely visible unless she's in fae form," the redhead began, "probably because of her lack of a soul. When she's a fae, it's blue with white undertones because that's the color of her power manifestation. But as a regular girl, her actual aura is mostly yellow. A decent amount of lavender underneath it, but yellow is definitely the primary."

Kuroneko looked at Danielle impatiently. "But what about—"

"Aster, would you excuse us, please?" Valerie interrupted. Aster, who was tilting her head curiously at them, nodded, and the three of them left the medical ward.

Valerie shut the door behind her. "She's not as dumb as she seems sometimes," she explained. "Okay, Danielle, go ahead."

"Aster is..." the redhead began hesitantly, apparently unsure how to word her observation. "She has—well... a different aura now. Adrian's aura."

Kuroneko bit her lip in thought while Valerie muttered softly, "I knew it..."

"But," she hastily added, "it's not really an aura, per se, because an aura surrounds the body and marks off where individuations split off from the whole. This thing was completely contained within her, and..." she struggled to find the words for this, "not an individual at all. A fragment."

"'Fragment?'" Kuroneko repeated with a deeper frown.

"Does someone want to explain what's going on?" Danielle's eyes were very wide.

The healer bit her lip. "I'll tell you when I'm certain what it is." At the redhead's look of annoyance, she added hastily, "I will! I promise! It's just that I don't know what the deal is either. Thanks to you I now have a vague idea, but it absolutely cannot get out until I'm one hundred percent sure, or it'll cause all kinds of unnecessary trouble."

Danielle considered this for a moment. "Well... what's the idea? Maybe I can help."

"I'm certain you could but... Please, just trust me on this one." Valerie put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "It's not that I don't trust you, I do. And as soon as I have confirmation either way, you will know. But for now, anyone could be listening, and the fewer people who know about this, the better."

"In other words," Kuroneko interjected, growing impatient, "mind your business and keep your mouth shut."

"Kuroneko," Valerie warned.

Danielle glared at her. "I'm not an idiot, Val. I know who you've been searching for on the monitors these past few months. You can have a dangerously one-track mind sometimes."

Valerie didn't break her gaze. "Please."

It didn't take long. When the empath was this serious about something, there was no stopping her. Danielle rolled her eyes and sighed. "Fine. But you are going to tell me sooner or later."

The healer let out the breath she'd been holding. "Promise," she nodded. With a wink and a half-hearted salute, Danielle jogged down the hallway back to her room.

"Well," said Kuroneko after a moment, "That was amusing. So now what?"

"One sec." Valerie stuck her head back in the door of the med ward. "Aster," she called inside it, "you can go now. Just make sure to stay where I can reach you easily, got it?"

"Hai, Valerie-chan," the fae called back, though the healer wasn't entirely certain she had heard.

Together, Valerie and Kuroneko began walking in the other direction towards the theology section. Valerie pinched the bridge of her nose. "A fragment of Adrian's aura," she muttered. "A soul shouldn't be able to shatter like that, but his circumstances were admittedly different from most cases." She chuckled suddenly, recalling a line from The Princess Bride. "Maybe we should just take him to see Miracle Max..."

The cat-girl shook her head with an amused smirk. "Oh, he's been all dead for a while; the mostly-dead excuse isn't gonna work here. In fact," she paused and looked up thoughtfully, "from what we just learned, one could argue that he's even deader than most wind up to be, because there's no chance of reincarnation with a shattered soul."

"Some kind of limbo then?"

"Already looked in all the limbos I know of."

"Yeah, but if he doesn't have his soul with him, there'd be nothing for you to find, would there?" Valerie paused for a moment. "But it is different than we originally expected. We've been operating under the assumption that it was a single soul we needed to find. Instead, we're left with—"

"Fragments," Kuroneko finished grimly. "And we have no idea how many we're talking about here."

"Or where they could possibly be."

There was a long silence as each of the two women contemplated their options. Finally, as they reached the gilded doors of the theology section, Kuroneko spoke. "Let's split up for the evening and research anything we can about the behavior of fragmented souls. Where do you want to meet?"

"How about the teen vampire romance novel section? No one from the Society ever goes there unless they're forced to, and if they are forced to, we'll hear them complaining about from a long way off."


They parted ways.

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