Thanks, Idolizingly. No worries, I'm far from done with this story.
Today's update is the first of the side chapters, wherein the leaders of Hoenn get to tell a portion of their story. I'll be releasing one of these after each of Virgil's encounters against the leaders; hopefully, they'll add some colour and background to these antagonists.
Side Chapter I - The Foundations of Sin
The green-robed monk pours my tea and sets the tray of sandwiches by my elbow. I don't need their human food but it is simpler to accept these tokens in silence than to attempt an explanation of our fundamental physiological differences. I despise their servitude - their bowing and grovelling and idolatrous worship - but at least the humans in this realm refrain from spilling their blood over stone altars or burning animal meat to appease their "Oracle". Weighed against the fanatical stories I've heard, I can tolerate an offering of cucumber sandwiches.
His work is done but the human lingers. I'm practiced at blocking out distractions but this one breathes through his mouth in the most annoying manner. It's him, I think, and when I turn around the antenna hair confirms my hunch. Barky, or some similar name - the human I personally escorted from that maze of a forest; the worshipper who clings to me like mud on my boot. "That is all," I tell him. Your goddess is satisfied with your work, now leave her alone. The round man beams like a star and toddles off, content that I am content.
My human face snorts. Damn the relocation teams for dropping him outside the perimeters, and damn my bleeding heart for taking pity on that mewling soul. I'll never understand what blasphemous pleasure Steven derives from mingling with the humans. There are boundaries that must be maintained between our species and I am no nursemaid to be coddling wounded livestock; my responsibility is system maintenance. I plunge myself into the data records: sea alkalinity stable, atmospheric gases stable; tectonic movement is within reasonable parameters so that nuisance of a volcano will remain dormant. The realm continues its well-ordered operations. Excepting that one blasted tic. Grid Omega-26 - the sensors continue to pour in a stream of null data.
I've endured this incompetence longer than necessary. With the recorder in hand I transmit myself through the realm to grid Beta-30 where the realm's unusual governor has seated himself upon a rocky beach with his latest pupil. Steven's projection is stripped to the waist and folded into a meditative pose to optimize concentration. A blue-haired human mimics Steven's stance but lacks the celestial's calm. His face is trembling with anger, threatening to break apart in a scream. Two standard minutes and twenty seconds later the human storms to his feet, hurls an insult at his mentor and kicks pebbles in Steven's face. The boy storms away, radiating fury.
Wretch, I hiss, and record the human's statistics for a future Purge recommendation. Steven, meanwhile, continues his meditation. His position is unchanged but his aura has taken a sombre tone. This pupil will not speak with him again. How is he moved so profoundly by these specks of dirt? Steven smiles as I approach; perhaps pleased that I am leaving the Entralink facilities of my own violation. "The sunrise is magnificent, isn't it, Roxanne?"
The time is 0745 hours. From these coordinates the system's star has been visible for a half-hour and the atmospheric gases hum in bands of orange and red. I've detected no solar flares or radiation bursts so I suppose one could define this stability as 'beautiful'. My commentary is irrelevant, of course. There is work to be done. "The sensors in the south-eastern archipelago continue to malfunction."
"A blind spot," Steven summarizes, rising to his feet and updating his projection with human garments - a fanciful collared shirt, neckpiece and jacket. He flips through the blank pages that indicate a week's worth of inactivity. "Any reports from the field?"
"Anthony was dispatched one star cycle prior." An inaccuracy - it was 23 hours and 45 minutes - but Steven has no appreciation for precision.
"Of course," he nods. "And since you're emerging from your cocoon that means you've already tried calling him and sent a second party to recon." Steven awaits response but as there are no statements to correct I maintain my silence. "Right then," he sighs. "I'll go have a look. Anything else to discuss, Roxanne?"
There is. Why have you structured this realm so abnormally? Why do you insist on housing all equipment in the human construct? Why do you, the Power of this realm, insist we interact directly with individual humans? But I maintain my silence. I have to be better than the humans, better than those animals whose anger breaks and bursts so readily. Steven, however, is intent on ending my passive-aggression by any necessary provocation. "I received your latest request for transfer. It's been denied."
"What!?" The cry slips through my defenses - he'll kill me for speaking out - but Steven's eyes invite me to continue. There is no going back. "Forgive me. What I meant to say is that my skills and personality are ill-suited to the needs of this particular realm. I am unable to comprehend why I must remain."
"Because our kind needs to change, Roxanne. Because I want you to see the humans in a new light. What is the purpose of this realm?"
"Redemption," he corrects. "We are on a mission of mercy and guidance. The souls that enter this realm, they are not numbers to be recorded or inventory to be itemized; they are lives. They are lost children to be redirected towards the Creator."
I gesture to the footprints of his departed pupil. "By allowing them to exhibit such gross disrespect?"
"If it kept them from lashing out at one another, yes, I would gladly accept the hatred of all these humans. Or celestials," he adds. "You are a capable administrator, Roxanne, but you lack compassion. The true worth of a celestial is in how she treats her lesser."
"I can't abide them running through my library." Nesting in the Rustburo facility like vermin, dressing them up in green costumes like house pets. "Then you demand I modify the lower levels to allow human access. I thank the Creator they haven't broken anything yet!"
"These humans have so much to teach us, Roxanne, if we only treat them as equals."
Again with these delusions of brotherhood and harmony. I don't need to learn from the humans; I can't even stand to be in the same space with them. "I just want to monitor my system in peace," I say, at my limit.
I should be punished for my insubordination but Steven only looks at me with a profound sadness. "Right," he sighs, "off to Ever Grande, then." Like a stubborn stone I refuse to budge and Steven is made of too much kindness to force me further. He summons his familiar - the biomechanical arachnid - and mounts his steed in order to inspect the system anomaly.
"Self-transmission would be more efficient," I say.
"Physical travel will allow me to assess the situation from a distance," he counters. "And it is such a magnificent sunrise."
It will be the last sunrise Steven is able to enjoy. I return to my Library and find it in flames. Someone has remote accessed the communications wing and shut down the coolant systems. The equipment is beyond repair. We are cut off from the Entralink and war has begun.
Star cycles pass. Steven has not responded to communications since our meeting in grid Beta. Sensor arrays are disabled in quick succession, radiating outward from the root damage in the archipelago. I dispatch archangels to assess the damage. None return.
While I struggle to contain system failures the humans take advantage of my blindness and begin fighting each other. Refugees stream into Rustburo: human females and their adopted brood who cry of war and invasion. A man from the east has declared himself Emperor and is swallowing whole cities into his new dominion. I care little for their political squabbles - more coal for the Fire - what I need is intelligence as to the source of the data loss; field reports from the teams I have dispatched. I delegate the immigrants to the monks and retreat to the library, scanning the records for some root cause of this chaos.
After four lunar revolutions my solitude is broken when Steven transmits himself into the Library. Wherever he's come from he had to leave quickly - his human body materializes two feet off the ground and collapses in a mess of blood. His clothes are torn, hair askew and his upper-left appendage has been removed. 'Hacked off' as humans would say. "Taken Petalburg ..." he mutters feverishly. "On their way..." Then he cries and surrenders to the pain.
For once my silence is a genuine loss for words. Steven is a Power, least of the Second-Borne but nigh-omnipotent nonetheless. His fire and fury could consume a dozen trained archangels but now he can barely lift himself off the floor. It's not simply his human guise that has been damaged. Our enemy has dug wounds down into Steven's very core. To be reminded that even one such as Steven is mortal - the sight shakes me.
Noticing the terror in my eyes, Steven makes an effort to sit up and laugh. "Sorry for intruding," he coughs, and glances at his empty shoulder socket. "I'm really falling to pieces today."
I have to do my best to play along, to maintain my professionalism. I begin the debriefing, selecting a record of my most recent dispatch orders. "Steven, I've been unable to contact the following operatives. I need you to confirm the status of-"
"I haven't finished."
"You don't have to. The answer is 'gone'. Anthony and Julia, Nathaniel; everyone. Roxanne, they're all dead." Steven's eyes grow teary over the losses and I am stunned by my own indifference. I'm shocked, of course, and confused, but the names of the departed are a list of strangers. I never knew them. Never spoke to them beyond dispatch orders; never bothered to learn more than their names.
"Steven, the humans have been reporting a war within this realm." How simple I have been, pegging their squabble as a mere riot - the idiot masses taking advantage of a blackout to indulge in their vulgar pleasures. No, this has been a cold and calculated insurrection. "Steven, you have to tell me, has this Emperor been targeting celestials?" I am not worthy to proceed on my own, but only say the word and the Creator's will shall be done. "Has this Emperor murdered my kin?"
Skin white as death, Steven's eyes meet my own. "Roxanne, he's using the humans. Filling their hearts with hate and sending them to massacre both Man and Host."
Yes. I've recorded our conversation. I have my evidence and I can proceed, faultless. I leave Steven to his misery, speaking my assessment aloud. "The humans have taken celestial life. They have fallen beyond redemption." I can feel my soul burning and I let its light blaze blue from my chest. "There is no forgiveness; there is only Fire." I burn away my human skin; let my wings and talons rejoice in their freedom.
Oh, but even a Power cannot stop me now. I smash through the Library walls and shriek over the city like a bird of prey. Self-transmission would be more efficient but now I want to take Steven's advice and admire the scenery - to drink in the human's terror as I swoop over the rooftops in all of my horrible splendor. An army has trampled through the forest and is approaching our walls. Beautiful, I think. They can all be purged in a single blow.
I soar up to the golden shrine held above my Library, ripple through the selectively permeable walls to call forth our greatest weapons. I can feel the black box calling for me. "This is the Day of Judgment," I breathe, "and we who stand upon the Throne of God shall cleanse the damned in hellfire!" I don't just open the casket, I rip it apart - unleash the maelstrom!
But the decoy crumbles in my grip like black sand and the air is silent. "Were you looking for this?" Steven asks, fully regenerated and holding the obsidian box in his hands.
"Give it to me, Steven! They are lost!" I spread my wings over the room and raise my serpentine neck, bathing the room in red and white plumage. I'm ready to strike, a tiny part of me realizes. I'm ready to kill him. Steven, in his puny human form, is unfazed, ignoring my battle posture in favor of the box and its glowing symbols.
"You were prepared to unleash this horror?" he asks. "On guilty and innocent alike?"
"I'm prepared to do what you cannot," I hiss, "and cull a diseased livestock!"
"You've learned so little," he whispers. Wrapping his hands around either end of the box, Steven presses his palms together and compresses our last hope out of existence. My roar coincides with a battle trumpet from the army, and we both look through the shrine walls at the field of soldiers assembled to take Rustburo.
"We are lost," I snarl. "This realm is lost!" The Emperor stands at the head of the invading army, and I can smell the aura of a celestial cloaking him like a dead animal's pelt. I don't know what ancient artifacts he unearthed or by what means but they have granted him power beyond human worth, and when he learns to use them beyond petty slaughter no soul will be safe.
"Nothing is lost," Steven insists. "Without the library - the control center - they can do nothing."
Oh you deluded fool. "Why do you think I haven't called for reinforcements? We've been severed from the Entralink! They've hacked the system once; even I won't be able to stop them again!"
Steven looks out on the assembled army, the swarm of hatred. "Then you need a better firewall," he says, and with a blink he teleports us both. I am cast down into the Library, wrapped again in human flesh. My legs wobble and topple to the floor. He's cast a binding protocol. I can't move! I can sense Steven's aura from outside the city, crackling against the Emperor's stolen energy. My arms still function and I drag myself to the nearest shelf, clawing out a random book so I can access the sensors outside the city. I may be lame but I won't be blind. Steven, what are you up to?
The governor of Ream 724+ stands between the city and the army of black and gold. A sea of spears, shields, horns and claws thrashes before Steven, waiting for the signal to drown him in blood. It would be a fair fight, I think, licking my lips and waiting for Steven to obliterate the infidels. But the Power only wipes his nervous brow, straightens his tie and drops to his knees, palms open and outstretched. I scream. The Emperor and his personal guard ride up to meet this humbled negotiator. "I surrender," Steven cries. "On the condition that you spare this city. Set no foot in Rustburo and there will be no further opposition. I am all that remains."
The leader of this uprising is no fool. "What about your flying beast," the Emperor snaps. "The woman you call the Oracle?"
"Who, Roxanne?" Steven laughs. "Please - she's a Principality; little better than a human. She's no harm to you. I'm the one you want and here I am, on my knees and waiting to be chained. Spare the city; there's no profit in further slaughter."
Steven offers his hand to shake and the Emperor weighs his options. Can he sense the aura emanating from Steven, I wonder? Does he understand what opposition Steven could raise if he chose to fight? The conquering king apparently holds some ounce of wisdom because the man finally dismounts his fire horse and accepts Steven's terms, shaking hands and offering a serpent's cunning smile.
Then Steven clasps his remaining hand over the Emperor's, and a network of glowing sigils lights up over the Power's skin. The man is on his knees and howling with pain. "Naturally," Steven grins, "I've no faith in your word."
The guards surround Steven, strike him to the ground but they are too late. Already I can sense the blood oath activating; the barrier of invisible energy rising over Rustburo City. The Emperor calls on his servants to attack, and as the first foolhardy waves reach they explode back in heaps of burning flesh. None shall enter the sacred city - not the Emperor, nor his soldiers. We are a sanctuary.
Once the Emperor comprehends the rules of our new order a withdrawal is called. The horde retreats into the forest, carrying off Steven's unconscious form. Not that he could struggle if awake. Unconditional surrender for absolute safety. Those were his terms.
The humans of Rustburo murmur to each other, confused. First the threat of invasion; then a strange, winged dragon erupting from my library, and now the sounds of retreat. I'm the only one who saw the sacrifice, I realize. Once the binding over my legs dissolves I march for the city gates and raise my hand to touch the outside world. Smoke hisses from my fingers the instant they cross the invisible barrier. Steven's blade strikes with two sides, I realize, and none may exit.
A group of monks has shadowed me to the gates and the littlest one cries out at my injury. "My Lady, are you hurt?" he asks, and in rushing to attend to my wound, the antenna-headed monk steps outside the city boundaries. He is unharmed. Blubbering in fear over my hand but unconsumed by flame.
Steven. Even at our darkest hour you insist that I love and learn from these humans.
The library systems are mangled - I can read only scattered fragments of the outside world. The realm could undergo an ecological meltdown and I would be powerless to avert disaster. The celestials I would have dispatched to perform my grunt work are dead. I have nothing left.
My penance is set.
I turn to the assembled monks. "You - the round one. Barky?"
"B-Barlcay, my Lady."
"Barclay," I repeat, committing the name to memory. "I need your help."