Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Insert Jaw-Dropping Reveal Here (part 2 of 5)

"I'll say it to be proud:
'Won't have my life turned upside down,' 
Says the man with some gold-forged plan 
Of a life so incomplete, 
Like weights strapped around my feet. 
Tread careful—one step at a time."
—Globus, "Orchard of Mines"


"Why do you do this?" She stood over him as he was laid out on the bed, bandaged all over and his arm in a sling, and attempted to stem the bleeding from a cut across his forehead. Head wounds had always made her slightly panicky, so she was working a little less gently than she ought.

"Isn't it obvious?" he asked. "To protect people." He winced as the iodine on the cloth seeped into the wound.

Her hand stopped and she bit her lip. "No, I mean why do you do it, Adrian?"

He fell silent for a moment. "Because it's there. Because I can't stand to see innocents suffer. Because I made a deal with the Powers That Be and this is all I got. Because I'd be bored as hell otherwise." A shrug. "Pick one or all—they're all right to varying degrees."

She sighed heavily and smiled wryly at him. "You've gotten used to debating with me, haven't you?"

He smirked. "I ought to have by now; our conversations are some of the best intellectual stimulation I've had in centuries."

"That's saying something since, generally speaking, said stimulation usually ends with me winning or a tie." He mock-scowled at her, and she stuck her tongue out at him, and then proceded to bandage his forehead more calmly. When she was finished, she kissed his wounded forehead lightly and smiled. "Same goes for me, ke'chara."

Wait a second... she thought as though in a fog. I think I remember this...


Valerie woke with a start the next morning, burried under a pile of books, her laptop on standby on her desk. What on earth...? She sat up, eyes darting around as she tried to conserve every detail of that dream. Ari, she said silently, what was that just now?

It took a moment for her guardian to reply; Ari was already digging methodically through Valerie's mind. Something that's been going on for a while now, she said, sounding a little distracted. Though it's definitely a sign if you're finally realizing you've been having these visions.

She blinked. "A sign of what?" she said aloud.

That's what I'm trying to find out. Give me a moment.

You never knew how long a "moment" could last in mental time, so the healer busied herself by making a quick sandwich out of the PB&J she always kept in her rooms—she got cravings for midnight snacks often enough, and was too lazy to go down to the kitchens (not to mention too embarrassed to potentially offend Rhia with her picky-eater issues)—and stacking up the books she had been paging through last night. There had been interesting theoretical ideas about fractured souls in every one of them, but nothing that Valerie hadn't already read about or disproved. Howevr, the actual nature of a soul depended on what fandom or universe you were in, so nothing could be tossed aside. It was with all this information swirling around in her head that Ari finally reappeared.

Valerie, this way.

A path appeared before her mind's eye, lit with dark purple beacons on either side of it. Valerie sat down on her bed, closed her eyes, and followed the trail.

Down and in


"You've certainly taken a lot of punishment this time, Adrian..."

"I'm used to it," he replied, leaning back in his hospital bed like he had a thousand times before under her care. "And I'm just glad you and Phoenixia were able to patch me up."

From her place inside herself, Valerie smiled sadly. I remember this conversation... she thought. It always used to amaze me that he could just get up and keep walking after each beating he took, but he always laughed it off when I brought it up. Something about Death kicking him out of being dead for being too obnoxious...

She shrugged. "It still surprises me to see you like this over and over again. Most people would have at least passed out or something, but you just keep on going, even if it's one step at a time. How do you do it?"

"That's a good question." He looked at her sharply. "How do you think I do it?"

The inner Valerie blinked—Huh? What...—and so did the outter one. "I'm... not sure..."

"Really? Are you a hundred percent on that?" His violet eyes stayed locked on her. "You're a smart girl. Think on it."


And abruptly she was kicked out of her mind and back into the real world. Slowly, Valerie sat up and took a deep breath. Her heart was beating rather fast.

That was the end of the one you awoke from this morning, Ari said. You just woke yourself up in the middle of it accidentally.

Probably the reason I remembered it in the first place, Valerie thought to herself. "What were the others like? You said this has been going on for a while."

Ari's response was very carefully worded. They were... important... in ways you subconciously picked up on. So far you've been doing everything you've needed to.

Valerie knew that tone of voice, but chose to press Ari for more information anyway. She swallowed. "I don't know about the other ones, but that last one was definitely a memory. I was in that time and place before, it was only a few months after I met him. But in the dream it happened differently."

A vague mental nod. It's that difference that you're meant to pay attention to.

Valerie considered this. "Not that I'm complaining about getting hints or anything, but where are they coming from? If you knew something was happening, why didn't you say anything?"

Because when it comes to your own mind, I can't tell you anything you don't already know.

There was a long silence. This was something that Valerie already knew, of course, but she had yet to find an appropriate response when it was said.

...Aren't you supposed to meet Kuroneko with your findings?

Valerie took a moment to reply. "...Yeah. Stupid late-sleeper habits... Just let me stack up a few books and I'll head out."

Ari hesitated. If I could do more, you know I would.

"Yeah, I know..." The empath straightened her shoulders and put on a smile. "Don't worry, I know you have only my best at heart."

And she did know. She knew that more than she knew anything else.


"Judging from the relative size of the piece inside Aster," said Valerie, "I don't think there are very many pieces altogether. Assuming all the pieces are the same size, anyway."

"That's a pretty big assumption," warned Kuroneko.

"Not as big as you'd think. In most fandoms, any fragment of a soul gains all the functions and capabilities of a complete soul almost instantaneously. It stands to reason that, since the Library exists everywhere, the laws here would follow the majority."

The cat-girl rolled her eyes. "That's only the majority of known fandoms, Valerie. We don't know everything of what's out there; no one does!"

Valerie raised a finger to her lip in thought. After a moment, she said, "Well, there are no guarantees in anything, we all know that. But if I have to take a leap of faith, I'd rather take the one with the most likely chance of being right."

Kuroneko leaned back into the sofa she was sitting on. "Sadly, the one with the best chance isn't always the one that's easiest to clean up after if we're wrong."

For a while they both sat in silence, trying to think of a way out.

"We need to find another piece," said Kuroneko. "If we could find even one other one, we could compare the circumstances surrounding the two and come up with a halfway decent theory. The actual number doesn't matter until we know that much."

"Well for now we only have the one," Valerie said softly, "so we're gonna have to take risks on our maybes." She paused for a moment. "What is it about Aster that drew that fragment to her?"

"She has no soul of her own," said Kuroneko. "Adrian's soul could've just taken the path of least resistance."

Valerie bit her lip. "I keep getting the feeling that it's something else though..."

The cat-girl leaned forward. "No, I think that might actually be it. She was a ready-made vessel for any pieces that drifted this way. If—"

"Kuroneko," Valerie interrupted, "you underestimate what I had been doing before you told me about all this. I wasn't just running scans for Adrian's biological signature; a scan for his soul's resonance pattern was tied to it. And just in case his soul and body had somehow separated, I had the two scans run independantly, and cross-reference each other with every item scanned." She smirked. "Why do you think it all went so slowly, with the kind of technological power we have at our disposal? It wasn't just the sheer vastness of the multiverse slowing me down—it was a complicated search engine."

Kuroneko tilted her head. "You thought of a lot."

Valerie glanced off to the left. "Not enough, apparently."

Another long silence passed between them. No brilliant deductions or sudden epiphanies came to either woman.

Finally, Valerie spoke. "I think you're right about Aster's soulless state being a qualifier, but there has to be something more to it. If a lack of a clearly defined soul was all that was needed, then soul fragments could be sitting in tin cans and televisions, or even in bits of air for all we know. There has to be something we're not seeing."

"The obvious, obviously," Kuroneko said with a humorless smirk.

Valerie glanced at her oddly, then shrugged it off.

"Okay," said the cat-girl, "how's this for a leap of faith: what if they're all people? People that Adrian knew, and was close to?"

The healer considered this. "Given how well-travelled he was, that doesn't narrow our target market by much. And even if we just started with people in the Library, that presents its own set of obstacles. Not the least of which being that the first person I can think of is—"

"—Tash," they said simultaneously.

"And we can't let her know until we're certain we can pull this off," the empath finished.

"Well," Kuroneko tried again, "who else can we think of that Adrian was especially close to? You, and me, and Aster, and Michael—"

"—And Ossa, and Chrys, and Emily, and Marcus, and Tyler, and Phoenixia—"

"I think we can safely rule out Phoenixia," Kuroneko chuckled.

Valerie rolled her eyes slightly. "Regardless, even within the Library's walls, there are dozens of people Adrian was close to."

The cat-girl responded with a light shove in the arm. "Obviously a close friendship is not the only qualification. Something about Aster pulled that fragment in, and we decided it was the fact that she was, ah... vacant. Hosts for other pieces must have something about them too. We just need to look at this one step at a time."

One step at a time... Valerie found herself thinking back to the previous night's dream... vision... thing. It really was more of a memory than anything else, but something had instigated it, and she wanted to know what it was.

"Is individually checking our agents really the only thing we can do here?" she asked.

Kuroneko sighed. "It's better than doing nothing."


After a moment, Valerie spoke up again. "Let's test Michael first."

Kuroneko tilted her head. "Any particular reason why?"

"That's a good question." He looked at her sharply. "How do you think I do it?"

"Just a feeling I have."


Before anything else, Valerie had, with permission, delved into Kuroneko's mind to see if a fragment was hiding there. No such luck, unfortunately, but as they made their way to the training rooms where Michael usually was at this time of day, the two women ran into a problem with their plan: how to get Michael to allow Valerie to probe his mind without explaining everything to him.

"Y'know," the cat-girl said softly, "it'd be easier if we could just get Danielle to look at these guys..."

"If it were that simple, don't you think I'd have called her back down by now?" Valerie retorted. "She said herself that soul fragments are burried deep in their host's mind. The only reason she could see it on Aster was because Aster didn't have a soul of her own to conflict with it." Which is probably why Aster reacted to it so badly, the empath mused. It's like living for months on bland oatmeal and then suddenly be given sugar. Good or bad, the reaction will be strong. "I have no doubt that Danielle's been scanning every person she comes across just to find out what it is that we're hiding," she continued, "but since she hasn't come to us with any new information, one can assume either that there's no one else in the Library with a soul piece, or that she can't see fragments in people who already have souls of their own. She might be able to confirm the existance of fragments if I went in and found them first, but—"

"But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Kuroneko sighed. "Sheesh, your brand of magick comes with some picky rules, doesn't it?"

"Not so much 'rules' as 'moral guidelines that would render my powers moot if I didn't follow them'," Valerie deadpanned. "And I maintain my earlier protest: I will not, should not, cannot enter a person's mind on a lie. It's just not possible."

The cat-girl pondered this for a moment. "Well... they all trust you here, right? If you said you couldn't tell them why it was necessary, they'd still let you do it?"

The healer glared at her. "That's just lying by omission."

Kuroneko crossed her arms and glared right back. "Time to get your priorities straight, Valerie."

"No, it's not that—normally I have no problems with lying for a good cause. It's just that intention has power when you're inside someone's mind—"

"I know that," Kuroneko interrupted. "I've lived a lot longer than you, healer-girl; I know my noetic psychophisics. But that doesn't change the fact that we have a job to do."

It's just like with Danielle, Valerie, Ari offered. You will tell him eventually, regardless of the outcome. Right now you're not lying to him, you're just asking him to trust you. And it's not even that you're doing anything dangerous that requires that trust; it's just a routine probe...

The empath bit her lip, obviously conflicted. He... He'll want to tell Tash if he finds out. I know him, Ari, and he cannot, will not ever keep something from her.

It took a long time for her guardian to reply. Valerie... she said finally. You can either be afraid of making the wrong choice and never make the right one, or you can risk being wrong and have a chance of being right.

Kuroneko watched Valerie as she weighed her options. The girl was an open book most of the time, and it was painfully obvious how hard she was thinking. Hell, just by interacting with her over the past month, the cat-girl had learned quite a bit about the Society healer's motives—possibly more than she wanted to.

Finally, without a word, Valerie hopped the low fence surrounding the salle and approached Michael, signalling him of her presence before she got within reach of his rapidly-swinging sword. Kuroneko hopped the fence as well, but did not follow her, merely leaning against a post and watching the two from a distance.

Michael saw the healer approach with a grim expression on her face, and lowered his weapon as she drew near. "Michael," she said when she reached him, "Can I speak with you? Privately, I mean?"

"Uh, sure," he said, wondering what this was about. He looked around briefly, and then pointed to a secluded corner of the training area. "Over there okay?"

"That's fine," she said quickly, and began walking briskly toward the indicated corner, checking occassionally to see if Michael was following.

"You alright?" he asked when they got there. "You look like you've seen a ghost or something."

"Fine," she said. And it was true, mostly. "I just... I need your permission to enter your mind."

He frowned. Permission for that wasn't given lightly, particularly when he had secrets of his own. "What for?"

"I can't tell you what for. You just have to trust me. I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't a matter of the utmost importance."

Michael's frown became one of concern rather than suspicion. "Am I sick or something?" Maybe this was the reason the Darkness had vanished. But how could Valerie have known about that? He hadn't told anyone, not even Claire...

Valerie shook her head. "It's nothing to do with you. I'm just looking for something, and you might not know you have it." At his further look of mistrust, she added, "You have my word as a healer that I will not touch anything that's not strictly related to my search, that everything that happens therein will be strictly confidential, and that the procedure will not harm you in any way."

He considered it for a moment, but it didn't take that long. He knew the healer well enough that she didn't go poking around in other people's heads on a whim. That, plus the general nervousness still on her face, told him that she was quite serious about this, that she really needed this from him. "Alright," he said.

The empath released a tense breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "Wonderful," she said. She then loosely held a hand at about eye level and bowed her head. "Just relax and try not to think of anything in particular. I don't want any biased results..."

He did so, and Valerie slid in a gentle probe, meeting almost none of the resistance that was common to most psychic readings. Of course... she remembered. Michael's already used to the Darkness' presence in his mind; he knows what a mental probe feels like.

Although, if that was the case, then shouldn't said Darkness have had something to say about her presence by now?

Putting the question aside for now, Valerie continued her exploration. As a fighter, Michael's mind was organized, but only selectively. Thoughts of romance, friendships, and stories were carefully piled into one half, while weapons, strategy, and the light floated haphazardly around in the other half. There were other sections as well, but a clear path divided these two, indicative of Michael's priorities.

He's random, Valerie thought with a smile, but not harmfully so. Not a prodigy at any single talent, but puts his all into whatever he sets his mind to and improves anyway. He's also a much better person than he gives himself credit for...

Glancing around, she started to wonder where she should start looking—she had, after all, only found Aster's piece by accident—but suddenly there was no need. Directly in front of her, straddled directly across the dividing line between love and war, was a curious and familiar warmth. As she drew closer, she began to "see" it as well as feel it. It glowed in a curious shade of violet and pulsated as though alive, radiating with fighting spirit.

Off to the left, another tug drew Valerie's attention. Outwardly, she grimaced in concentration. Ari!

This way!

The path appeared before her, lit with purple and paved with hunter green. She touched the violet glow briefly, then dove headlong into the dark.

She was unconcious before she hit the ground.


"Val! Valerie!" Michael shook the healer with increasing panic. He looked around frantically for someone, anyone, but the salle was empty; almost all of the other serious fighters in the Society's ranks lived in different time zones in Real Life, and thus operated on different schedules.

Suddenly, he saw an older woman approaching him—Kuroneko, he remembered. One of the Counter Guardians.

"What did you do?" she demanded. In the back of his mind, Michael was vaguely surprised to see her look worried—the expression didn't seem to belong on her face, almost.

"I don't know!" he cried. "She just collapsed right in front of me!"

Kuroneko made to lift Valerie up into a sitting position, but a loud hiss interrupted her. There, only semi-visible but definitely solid, was Ari. The little dragon crouched on the empath's chest, her wings flared a bit and her head held low. The message was clear: Do not disturb.


"It's your move. Are you just going to stand there?"

Valerie started at the sound of the voice and glanced around. She was standing in one of the reading rooms of the Library, but all the couches and tables were pushed to the sides, leaving a large clear space in the center of the room. A glance upwards revealed that the ceiling of the room was missing, leaving but a large white expanse.

A weight registered on her arm and she glanced down, blinking in slight surprise as she saw a duel disk strapped to her forearm and a hand of five cards in her hand. "So we're dueling this time?"

"Well, it's either that or you're practicing being a statue…" An amused voice drawled from across the room.

The healer lifted her head, surprise registering on her face as she saw who it was. "Adrian?"

"No, it's Johnny Depp with his hair dyed white." The Librarian was standing across from her, dressed in a fiery-red trenchcoat with a duel disk strapped to his own arm and a glimmer of mirth in his eyes. "Now, are you going to make your move or not? You just sort of froze up after drawing for the start of your turn..."

"What? Oh, yeah..." Despite feeling a bit strange about situation, Valerie felt something nudging her to play it out. It couldn't hurt... Lifting her left arm, she realized that neither she nor Adrian had any cards in play at all, while his life points stood at 5000 and her own at 3400. That's odd….did we clear the field somehow?

She glanced down at her hand. Crystal Beast—Sapphire Pegasus, Crystal Beast—Ruby Carbuncle, Crystal Rageki, Graceful Charity and Rare Value... I could summon my Pegasus and attack him directly, but that doesn't seem to be the right move for some reason...

Then she remembered that she had the other five Crystal Beast monsters in her graveyard already and grabbed the magic card from her hand. "I activate Graceful Charity, drawing three cards from my and then discarding two!" She quickly pulled the three cards free and looked the over. Swords of Revealing Light, Waboku... Her eyes widened at the third card. Wait a minute, Rainbow Dragon? Wasn't it supposed to be Prime Material Dragon I drew on that turn?

However, despite her misgivings, the vision moved forward with or without her consent. Valerie grabbed the other two monsters in her hand. "I discard Crystal BeastSapphire Pegasus and Ruby Carbuncle from my hand!" Slipping them into the graveyard, she grabbed the last monster in her hand. "Because all seven Crystal Beasts are in my graveyard, I can special summon Rainbow Dragon!" A pillar of light rose up behind her and a massive white serpentine dragon rose up behind her, a bladed horn on its head and seven gem stones of various colors along its body. (4000/0) "Attack his life points directly!"

Adrian just smirked as the dragon reared back and the gemstones on its body glowed as it fire a blazing beam of light form it's maw. "When I'm attacked directly, I can special summon Legendary HeroKuriboh to the field to intercept the attack!" A little brown puffball wearing a cape emblazoned appeared with a big 'H' appeared in front of the Librarian with a pose, only to be incinerated by the attack. "So my life points are safe this round."

"Fine…" Val sighed slightly. I remember this duel now, she thought inwardly. Adrian blocked my attack with his Legendary Hero—Kuriboh, but I definitely attacked him with Sapphire Pegasus, not Rainbow Dragon... She glanced up at the beast. So why do I have this card now? "End turn."

Adrian smiled as he drew his next card. "Rainbow Dragon is indeed a powerful monster, but it's balanced out by its summoning conditions, I think. You need all the pieces in order to make it work." His smile became a wry smirk, and he tossed a card onto his disk. "For my turn, I summon Phoenix Swordmistriss!" With a burst of flame, a blonde-haired warrior wielding a fire-orange blade appeared, dressed in phoenix-shaped armor colored rich reds and golds, her blue eyes burning with life while a pair of wings of pure flame flapped on her back. (1900/1200)

Valerie's eyes went very wide, and not just because of the monster's impressive appearance and stats.

"You knew this was coming, right?" Adrian said softly as the Swordmistress' hair billowed gently in a nonexistant breeze. "You knew you'd have to face her at some point."

"There was nothing I could have done," the healer replied in a heavy voice. "You went in alone and knocked out anyone who tried to follow you. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent what happened."

He smirked slightly, but the humor did not quite reach his eyes. "Didn't stop you from blaming yourself, now did it? Tell me, Valerie: how much of your identity is wrapped up in your purpose?" He looked her directly in the eye. "And how much of that identity was shattered the day you found yourself unable to fulfill that purpose?"

The empath was silent for a moment; her duel disk hung forgotten on her arm. "Survivor's guilt plagued all of us," she said finally. "What matters now is that there is something I can do, if you'll let me."

"You mean if you let yourself."

Valerie looked up. "What...?"

"I play the magic card Soul Shattering!" Adrian lifted his hand, and a good-sized violet gemstone appeared in front of him. "This card's effect lets me pay Life Points in increments of 1000 to power up a monster or monsters by that amount. For this turn, I pay 3000 points." The gemstone cracked and shattered into five equal pieces. Each piece hovered over one of the monster card zones on Adrian's side of the field, and the one above the Phoenix Swordmistress abruptly dissolved into motes of light, which were subsequently absorbed by the warrior. (1900/1200—3900/1200)

Rainbow Dragon was stronger still, but Phoenix Swordmistress had an effect of her own—she gained 100 ATK whenever she attacked. And without waiting for a command, the warrior lifted her burning sword and took flight...

"Valerie," Adrian whispered in the curious silence, "You already know what you're looking for. All you need to do is find it."

The warrior and dragon clashed in midair, and Valerie threw up her arms to shield her eyes from the resulting light.


Valerie opened her eyes slowly, suddenly concious of several things all at once: the dirt under her back, the two pairs of eyes peering into her face, the invisible weight in her lap, the tears running down her face...

"Oh, God..." she whispered, pained to her core.

"Val, what's wrong?" Michael asked, clearly frantic.

Kuroneko, however, was more pragmatic. "Does he have it?"

The healer nodded. "He has it... And so does Tash."

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