Round Two

Stage 27 - Kaminejima


Shikinejima

Philippine Sea

October 2, 2017 a.t.b.


In the dead of midnight, Jeremiah found himself confronting a real life nightmare. The witch swept into the room with the closest thing he’d seen on her face to distress or anger. “Where are they going?” she demanded.

“Who?” Jeremiah asked innocently. “If you mean Their Highnesses, they’ve already retired for the–”

“Do not test me.” C.C.’s voice dropped from cool to frigid. “You will not enjoy it if I must rip the information from your mind.”

Jeremiah gulped. This left him in something of a dilemma. He could prevaricate, in which case the witch’s patience would rapidly grow short. He could shoot her and hope he had enough bullets to keep her down until the morning, to which she would likely respond by breaking his mind once he ran out. Or he could immediately capitulate and save everyone a lot of trouble.

“Kaminejima.”

“Those fools!” C.C. muttered. “How do I contact them?”

“You don’t,” Jeremiah replied plainly. “We scouted the island out in advance with drones and then in person, but they still felt it safer to go completely off the grid.” Excepting short-range radio for operational communications, of course. “They’re not even alone. I don’t see why–”

C.C. had already spun toward the door. She dragged Jeremiah out with her by the arm and demanded, “Prepare a boat for me. Something fast and small.”


Kaminejima

Philippine Sea

October 2, 2017 a.t.b.


Kaminejima. The island certainly fit the name. Littered with caves, dense forests, sheer cliffs hidden amongst the trees, and treacherous, rocky waters, the land was unsuited to human habitation. A single misstep could lead to disaster. A lapse in judgement, death.

Yet the island held a breathtaking beauty to it, dangerous and magnificent in equal measure. It’s mysteries invited the imagination. The surrounding islands told tales of ancient priests making the difficult journey up the mountain to its waterfall for ritual purifications. Those who’d returned unharmed carried with them stories of gods and spirits. Those who did not, demons and monsters. Yet both spoke as though they’d pierced the veil between this realm and that of the divine.

For them, it’d felt like an intrusion to step on soil so unmeant for man. For others, it confirmed what they already knew.

At a careful crawl, Kallen navigated through the turbulent and misty waters. She pulled her and Lelouch’s boat into a secluded cove hidden by the surrounding cliffs. It led into a cave system with an exit not far from their ultimate destination. No one would find them there without intimate knowledge of the island and even then only after extensive searching.

The cove had no easy place to disembark, water meeting land at a rocky overhang that simply could not be scaled from below. But they were not the first ones here. Kallen identified a suitable place to moor their boat and then helped Lelouch jump from ship to ship until they reached the rope ladder leading up onto land.

Kallen sent Lelouch up first to be safe. When he reached the top, he accepted Shinobu’s assistance to get over the ledge to safety. Once he had, she went up after him. They both offered her a hand and pulled her up over the edge as well.

“Welcome to the Island of God, Your Highnesses.” As much as she tried to hide it, a wary edge had nonetheless infected Shinobu’s voice.

Kallen had already known what the island’s name meant but had neglected to inform Lelouch. “How appropriate,” he said. “I’m inclined to treat the local folklore more literally than I typically would. Has anything unusual happened?”

“A few of us have been hearing voices recently. Whispers. Not often, but it’s…unsettling.” Obviously, Shinobu numbered amongst the ranks of those who had.

Kallen exchanged a look with Lelouch. She shook her head in answer to his wordless question. She’d not heard a thing. Not yet. “I think it would be best we not rely on my magic here,” she suggested to which he immediately agreed. Perhaps they should have brought C.C. even at the risk of word of their expedition getting back to the emperor. Not that they could turn back now. Tonight was their only opportunity to explore the island personally without being missed.

“The ruins?” Lelouch asked.

“Only a short walk from here. Please follow me.”

As they left the cove behind, the sound of crashing waves faded away. Soon only the dripping of water and the echoes of their uncertain steps remained. A chill grew in the air, something they should have expected and dressed for. Regardless, they pressed on with the occasional shiver.

A soft, green glow appeared not far ahead of their group. When they neared, Kallen realised the light came from some exotic material placed on the walls. The cave split into several directions where it laid. “If we get separated,” Shinobu explained, “your torches will cause the markers to fluoresce. Follow them to move forward or return to the boats.”

Directions only our people can easily utilise, eh? That sounded like a good idea. Kallen hoped it proved unnecessary.

The three continued their trek through the cave with Shinobu guiding their path. Between the low ceiling and the uneven footing, it took them far longer to traverse than it should have. Through the twists and turns, they eventually emerged outside onto the island proper. With no wind to blow it away, a light fog hug over the land.

Stop!”

Kallen jumped in surprise. Her hand leapt to the hilt of her sword as she scanned the area for threats. Lelouch looked at her strangely while Shinobu wore an odd mixture of sympathy and unease.

Understanding dawned upon her without any relief. “Oh wow,” Kallen said with a forced laugh. “You weren’t kidding about the voices.”

Shinobu said nothing while Lelouch frowned. He turned to gaze further into the island and the fog. After a few moments, he asked to borrow Kallen’s parrying dagger. Bemused, she handed it over and watched him carve a series of random squiggles into the bark of a nearby tree. Once done, he traced a finger over the grooves with a satisfied nod.

He returned the dagger to Kallen and signed not to trust their ears but that their eyes and sense of touch – for the moment, at least – appeared fine. Their code language, something they’d never explicitly shared with anyone, wasn’t easily faked. They could trust in that.

Seeing that Shinobu already understood the general gist of what Lelouch had said, Kallen nodded and signalled ‘lost’ and ‘enemy’ in return. He shrugged in answer to the question. Magic only worked on humans. That’s why they’d sent in the drones first. They should be alone. They shouldn’t have missed any potential hostiles during their initial inspection.

Not that such meant all was well. Perhaps the team in charge of combing the island had been infiltrated or otherwise compromised. They counted Anne as a friend, but no one had ever claimed her magic was unique. The enemy magic at work wouldn’t even need to be puppetry. There were an infinite number of possible explanations when geass entered into the equation.

But then most of those explanations were unlikely. They’d taken no small measures to ensure this excursion went well. The simpler hypothesis might actually be more straightforward if somewhat dotty. They were, after all, approaching spooky, ancient magical ruins. They should expect spooky, magical things to happen.

Indeed, they hoped for it. In all honesty, that was the entire reason they were here. They already had video footage of the actual site and pictures of everything that mattered. They’d just expected more than what they’d found. The emperor surely hadn’t expended so much effort to bring the ruins, one after another, under Britannia’s control for a mere few pages of text. The information could have been much more easily acquired through espionage.

“Shall we?” Kallen asked, and they set off.

As they climbed, the fog thinned. The forest tapered off into rugged slopes. Once they’d attained a high enough elevation, Kallen glanced back at the route they’d taken. It was just a sea of green and white, not a single landmark to be seen. Even after the sun burned away the mists, she doubted she could retrace her steps without relying on pure memorisation.

Up ahead, they ran into a group of Shinozaki who’d come to escort them the rest of the way. One of them, Kallen noticed, jumped in surprise as they walked. Her head moved in rapid, jerking bursts as she scanned the area before returning to rest with a quiet sigh.

They really were hearing voices. Kallen didn’t know whether to count that as a promising sign of discovery or a bad omen.

“The entrance is just around the corner,” Shinobu said, pointedly ignoring the incident.

Kaminejima was a volcanic island. Nothing underscored that quite as well as the entrance, if it could be called that, to the ruins. Made of plainly igneous rock, the ragged opening was wide enough for two knightmares to comfortably walk abreast through it. Whoever had constructed these ruins hadn’t built them beneath the mountain. No, the volcano had buried them.

Yet despite the millennia, despite a million pounds of molten rock flowing over and hardening above it, despite rock slides, despite the rain, despite the wind, despite everything, the ruins’ basic structure stood immaculate. Not even a single blade of grass had split the stone in an attempt to grow. Only moss had found any purchase in this temple.

And a temple it was. The ruins reminded Kallen of the Parthenon but with walls. The massive columns supporting the ceiling definitely had a Greek influence despite being half the world away.

No. That’s backwards. It was a strange thought, but it had a ring of truth to it that Kallen couldn’t deny. Ancient Greece had a geass influence.

Illuminated at the far side of the temple was a raised dais with a set of five sizeable steps leading up from the ground floor centred at its front. Atop the platform sat a small square pyramid that rose no higher than Kallen’s chest. Inscribed at its centroid, surrounded by as yet untranslated text, was the silhouette of a bird in flight, the symbol of geass. If that were not telling enough on its own, the original builders had also carved the pattern into the back wall of the temple largely and prominently to draw the eye. Within the confines of an ornately sectioned off rectangle, straight lines emerging outward from the symbol in an almost fractal pattern, splitting at sharp, precise angles. A set of four circles, one in each of the cardinal directions, embellished the design.

To Kallen, at least, that section of the wall gave her the distinct impression of a door. One nearly ten times her own height without hinges or gaps, certainly, but a door nonetheless. Not unlike the grand double doors one might find in the more ostentatious sections of the Imperial Palace, now that she thought about it.

Kallen took her first step into the temple proper.

“–n’t tou–”

The second time wasn’t as shocking as the first, but Kallen still found her hand halfway to her sword’s hilt. She breathed a long sigh as she forcibly relaxed herself. It wouldn’t be so bad if the whispers at least came from somewhere. Like feeling with a fifth limb or seeing with a third eye, her brain didn’t know how to properly process sound that had no origin point. The only other time she’d experienced such a phenomenon was when she’d contracted with C.C..

“Remarkable,” Lelouch mused as they strolled toward the back of the temple. “Completely intact. Even if someone is maintaining it, there should be at least superficial damage. Signs of repair. Rediscovering this material could be more important than magic.”

It certainly could be, but materials engineering was neither their field of expertise nor the reason they’d come here. Kallen ascended the steps to the dais with Lelouch following a half-step behind.

“–hear me?”

Kallen paused when they reached the top of the steps and let Lelouch walk by her. He went to investigate the pyramid, eyes passing over the text as he circled it in curiosity. Upon reaching the reverse side, he looked up and noticed her dithering.

“I believe this is your show,” said Lelouch. “You’re the magical girl here.”

“Hmph.” Kallen would let that go for now. “You know those horror films where an archaeologist is excavating a mysterious ancient ruin despite all the signs that it’s a really bad idea? And then the monster is unleashed when they touch something they shouldn’t?”

Lelouch rolled his eyes. “If there were a big scary monster here, the emperor would have already let it out or posted a guard. Not sure which.”

The entire situation felt wrong, but the logic felt right. Kallen doubted this was an elaborate trap to get them both killed. The emperor wouldn’t need to set up some convoluted scheme if he wanted them dead. There hadn’t even been a mild deterrent to coming here beyond the difficult terrain. Maybe he needed a geass bearer to activate these ruins at some great personal cost, but if so, he had far more expendable options than herself, she was sure.

With a sigh, Kallen stepped forward. “If I unleash Yog-Sothoth, I’ll make sure the entire world knows you’re to blame.”

“I accept your terms,” Lelouch said, clearly humouring her.

“Right, then. Pyramid first, I guess.”

Kallen reached out with a hand and placed her palm flat against the open space in the centre of the geass symbol on the stone. The entire pyramid immediately lit up in the same red colour as her geass, filling the temple with a warm glow. The pattern of lines on the wall behind it did the same.

And then the world fell away. For an instant, Kallen felt her mind brush against another’s before it forcibly ejected her. Without that anchor, the current of power swept her away to a greater state of being. The universe itself whispered to her in a language of pure understanding too alien to put into words. As her consciousness spread, she felt it touch other minds. Entire beings laid open before her to explore. She only had to–

Without warning, Kallen abruptly fell back into herself with a gasp. She felt a hand on her shoulder. Following it back to its source, she saw Lelouch looking at her with worry in his eyes. She next saw that she’d been pulled away from the pyramid. “You weren’t breathing,” he explained.

“I–” Kallen didn’t know how to put everything she’d just experienced into words all at once. She felt constrained working with nothing now but her tiny little human brain. “I don’t–”

Lelouch led Kallen to sit against a nearby support beam, quietly telling her to just breathe and collect herself.

She did. After nearly a minute, she finally found the words to satisfy the many curious ears around her. “It felt like when I contracted with C.C.. There was someone… I think it was someone very old and male. He kicked me out of his mind, and then I just…drifted. I… I don’t know how to describe it. I – I touched the universe. And then I touched other minds. I don’t know how many. More than one, but less than…a million.” She didn’t really have a better guess. “I don’t know. I might have been able to tell you in the moment, but not now. I–” Once more she found herself faltering for words. “This island – I felt like a goddess.”

“Island of God indeed,” Lelouch mumbled. He went on to say, “I think you tried to intrude into my mind. I experienced something similar to when C.C. unsealed my memories.”

Kallen didn’t need a reminder on how unpleasant of an experience that had been. She looked from Lelouch to the gathering crowd. Most of them showed some signs of distress on their faces, although a few less so than others. When she noticed Shinobu numbered amongst the latter, she assumed those who’d been hearing voices were less affected. “What about all of you?”

A series of concurring opinions followed until no one had anything new to add.

Lelouch hummed to himself. “So distance matters.” It seemed a fair conclusion. It wasn’t as though Kallen had brushed against every mind in the world, just all the ones nearby. “I wonder how far away people were affected. And how many explanations we’re going to have to give.” Everyone in the room had already been informed of the existence of magic, but there were more people currently on Kaminejima, and some of the nearby islands were none too distant either.

Having no clue how far her mind had reached, Kallen shrugged. Perhaps it would be best to simply inform the entire Shinozaki clan. It wasn’t like they ever unintentionally leaked information. She just hoped she hadn’t brushed against the mind of someone who would report to the emperor.

Run, you fool!”

Kallen’s eyes shot wide open. That message had come across not as a whisper but clearly and completely. She even recognised the mental voice. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

Seeing the urgency in her eyes, Lelouch nodded and helped her to her feet. He gave the command for everyone to stand at the ready as they withdrew from the ruins as a group. “Please tell me we didn’t actually awaken Yog-Sothoth.”

Now recovered, Kallen unholstered her pistol and drew her sword. “Remember Anne told me C.C. had a telepathic link with Marianne?”

That was enough for Lelouch to fill in the blanks for himself. A muttered, “Fuck,” escaped him as he drew his own gun. They climbed down the stairs together, and he asked, “Is she coming?”

“No idea.”

An ominous red glow blazed behind them. Kallen’s geass reacted immediately as did she naught but an instant later. She placed herself between the light and Lelouch before bodily leading him toward cover behind a column. No warning. Assume an immortal is orchestrating this. Geass basically useless. Not good. As she turned to face the threat, she scanned her allies. A couple still had eyes on the temple’s entrance, but most were ready to act with her at her signal.

The red light faded away to reveal atop the dais two boys, one no older than ten dressed in regal clothes with a matching imperious air about him, the other perhaps fifteen in a simple beige shirt and black shorts. Both had a hand on the back wall that Kallen now felt confident naming as a portal of some variety. The two were, if not unarmed, then at least not ready to fight.

Kallen stepped out and aimed to fire. “Don’t make any sudden moves!”

The younger boy spoke, his voice dripping with delight. “Oh?” He ignored the warning and moved toward the stairs at a leisurely pace. “Or else what?”

“Or–” Kallen’s brows furrowed in intense thought. It seemed a simple question. She should know the answer. Why didn’t she know the answer? “Or you’ll regret it,” she bluffed.

“Ooh, how terrifying.” The boy took his first step down the stairs. “But I believe I’ll take my chances.”

Lelouch drew in a tight breath. “I recognise him,” he whispered. “He hasn’t aged a day.”

In the privacy of her own mind, Kallen swore in every language she knew.

Shinobu moved to stand in the boy’s way. That proved to be a mistake. He withdrew a gun from his robes and shot her with a casual indifference. She crumpled to the ground without so much as a whimper.

Kallen’s geass hadn’t even warned her.

She’s alive. She’s alive. She has to be alive. Bullets aren’t instantaneous. She’s alive. She has to be.

But for how long?

Through clenched teeth, trembling and barely restraining herself even if she wasn’t entirely sure what exactly she was restraining herself from, Kallen ordered everyone else to retreat back behind cover. She had no idea how to handle this situation, but she would resolve it herself.

Kallen glanced up and noticed the physically older boy typing on his phone. A few seconds later, reinforcements teleported in and made a bad situation worse. There were now five additional people of varying ages but all dressed similarly to the boy standing atop the dais.

But nevermind them. Kallen had a more immediate problem. The youngest approached. “Hmm, now what should I do with you?” He looked her up and down with an evaluating eye too young to have more revolting intentions in mind. “I would certainly love torturing a miniature Marianne to death, but seers are so terribly rare.”

That might as well have been a signed confession. As she shifted to keep her enraged prince behind her lest he make this situation even worse, Kallen could practically feel Lelouch’s glare boring through her back. For lack of any better option, she decided to stall whatever was about to happen as long as possible. C.C. was coming to rescue them. Or so she hoped.

Kallen spat at the boy. “As if I would ever work for you.”

“Charming.” The boy shot her. To his visible displeasure, Kallen staggered in place, dropping her sword to put pressure on the abdominal wound, but remained standing. “If you want to live, move.”

“What kind of wife would I be if I let my scrawny little husband face you himself,” Kallen bit out. She laughed inwardly at the feeling of Lelouch’s anger shifting onto her. Good. The more annoyed he is with me, the cooler head he should have. “Who even are you?”

“Your master or your executioner.” He shot her again. This time Kallen wobbled in place unsteadily. Her knees shook. Adrenaline could only do so much. “Pick one.”

From behind, Lelouch used his own knee to force Kallen’s to bend. He caught her as she fell and deposited her on the ground. When he spoke, his voice was ice cold. “It’s impolite to leave a lady’s question unanswered.”

“Ah, the whelp at last. With you in hand, perhaps now the bitch will behave.”

A moment passed.

What? But we checked Marianne’s… Kallen looked from the boy to Lelouch who obviously had come to the very same conclusion. Then…he was right?

The boy let out his cruel and mocking laughter. “You really didn’t know, did you? Your mother gave you everything. Her home. Her wealth. Her connections. Protection. Freedom to marry. Everything.” He paused, a smirk crawling up his face. “Except the truth.”

A red glow drew Kallen’s gaze to the back of the room. Another wave of five reinforcements appeared from nowhere. The one who’d arrived with the horrid boy who’d shot her hadn’t moved. He merely stood in place and scanned the room. But the other five had set about disarming and doing who knew what to the Shinozaki. They’d shot the first who moved to act in the leg, after which Kallen had managed to signal them not to resist in the hope that C.C. could undo whatever befell them. She assumed all the newcomers were sorcerers. While Lelouch distracted the immortal, maybe she–

Without warning, all of the enemies sorcerers moved a few feet further along their paths in a blink. Except, of course, for the one boy at the back who’d still yet to move. For whatever reason, he seemed to have locked eyes with Kallen. The spell broke a moment later as he glanced down at the pile of weapons building up a few steps from him next to the portal. She blinked a few times and shook her head. Must have blacked out for a moment there. That can’t be good.

“–where you heard about Thought Elevators.”

“As I said, from Father.”

“Don’t lie to me, you mongrel! Charles would never do that.” Kallen didn’t know what pissed the boy off more, the answer or the reminder that Lelouch was the emperor’s son through Marianne. It seemed he had a sore spot that Lelouch had picked up on while she’d been out. “Hmph. Fine, I can be patient. We can do this after you’ve been reprogrammed into my slave.”

The boy called over a trio of his reinforcements – slaves? – with one clear intent upon his mind. Was that what they’d been doing to the Shinozaki? Kallen’s eyes snapped toward the few who’d already been ‘processed’. They did look oddly docile. Her breathing grew shallow as she realised the boy had meant the decision he’d put before her earlier literally. He’d either kill her or remake her into his ensorcelled slave. That was a fate worse than death. She couldn’t allow that to happen to her or Lelouch. How could she get out of this? She couldn’t run with her wounds. Even if she could, the boy would just gun her down. But then maybe that was for the best. Go out in a blaze of glory. Better that than be twisted into a cruel parody of herself.

A shot rang out.

Silence fell. Then the immortal fell. Blood leaked out of the open wound on the back of his skull.

In the next moment, another shot fired. Kallen now recognised the source as the boy who’d not moved from the portal. He downed his own allies with precision according to a haphazard order only he seemed to know. When he ran out of ammo, he discarded one weapon and picked up another. Every second or third shot went to the immortal on the ground.

While this happened, another shooter joined him. This one came from the temple’s entrance. When Kallen turned to look, she found C.C. moving in, never once firing at the same target as the other boy despite the utter lack of communication between the two.

In mere seconds, the spectacle ended. At last, the boy left his perch and approached. He descended the dais with a gun trained on the immortal only to stop halfway at a corpse. He kicked the body over, eliciting a low moan from it. Seemingly satisfied by that, he set his gun down, covered the not dead woman’s right eye, and pried open the left. A moment later, he jumped as if startled.

And C.C. shot him in the head.

“What the fuck?” Kallen shouted, although in truth she more wheezed the words out. “He was helping us!”

“And now she is,” C.C. replied.

Indeed, the woman who had been down and out fumbled about for the gun the other boy had placed on the ground. She found it whilst muttering a very colourful choice of words and clutching at a not yet lethal wound near her heart. And as might be expected from C.C.’s words, she shot the downed immortal again.

I… Okay. Kallen had no idea what was going on, but whatever. I guess that’s as good a way as any to restrain an immortal. She awkwardly slid herself along the ground until she could reach her sword. With that in hand once more, she stood ready to respond if necessary without wasting ammo.

And now that she thought of it, Kallen explicitly noticed that she could respond now. She turned her eye from the immortal on the floor to the boy, now dead, who’d come in with him. An anti-violence, AoE geass, I guess? That explains a lot.

All this seemed to snap Lelouch out of his own shock. He gestured to the woman on the stairs that he would happily take over her duty to shoot the little bastard at his feet every time the immortal so much as stirred. Even if Marianne was alive, the boy had still taken her from the family for years. Indeed, it was his fault, if indirectly, that Kallen’s own parents had died. She took her own perhaps unnecessary turn to stab him.

Meanwhile, without a word, C.C. set about gathering the Shinozaki who’d been ensorcelled and ultimately paraded them in front of the woman barely clinging to life. She, Kallen assumed, undid whatever sorcery had been placed upon them.

“Everyone,” Lelouch began, “pack up and clear out. Shoot anything that comes through the gate. We’re done here. Get Shinobu out first.” He turned a questioning eye onto Kallen.

“I’ll be fine until we get back so long as I get bandaged up.”

With a nod, Lelouch called over their field medic to perform first aid. It didn’t ease the pain much, but it did stop most of the bleeding.

“So this is what a deus ex machina feels like,” Lelouch commented, earning a few strained smiles and a bit of weak laughter from those nearby. “I appreciate the rescue, but I’m not a fan of the suspense.”

Another burst of gunfire filled the temple. The woman who’d switched sides fell limp to the ground and tumbled down the stairs.

“Sorry,” Kallen said as an aside to Lelouch, “but I must be a little low on blood or something. Explain to me what’s going on?”

Lelouch gestured to, if Kallen remembered correctly in her state, Shinjirō Shinozaki, who was occupied with stretching his body. “Our puppeteer.”

“Oh.” That explained very nearly everything. “Then he’s – no, she’s–”

“Most likely.” The strain of the day made itself known in Lelouch’s voice as he stared at what was very possibly his mother.

“Hey.” Kallen tugged on the leg of Lelouch’s trousers until she got his attention back. “Help a princess to her feet?”

With one last glance at Anne in Shinjirō’s body, Lelouch let out a long breath. He shot the immortal at his feet and then leaned down to help Kallen stand with an indulgent, “As you wish, Your Highness.” She wrapped an arm around his shoulders once up and leaned more heavily on him than she would like to admit.

“So what about him?” Kallen went to kick the immortal bastard on the ground before she thought better of it. “If I’ve learnt anything from C.C., it’s that you don’t touch immortals without permission. How are we supposed to transport him?” She had a mind to skewer the runt and hope for the best, but that probably wouldn’t work.

“You don’t.” Lelouch’s eyes snapped up to Anne’s as she approached with C.C., but Kallen kept hers squarely on the threat at their feet. “We’re leaving him here.”

Kallen felt Lelouch’s body tense at the words. “And why should we?” he asked, a dangerous mix of emotions in his tone that even she had trouble deciphering.

“Because if we don’t,” Anne explained, “the entire Geass Order will abandon its plans to come after us. Revenge goes both ways, Lelouch, and you two are so far out of your league right now it terrifies me.”

“But he–”

“–is not worth it,” Anne interrupted. She and Lelouch descended into a staring match, sparks flying between them.

In the midst of this battle of titans which Kallen wanted no part of, she saw the subject of their debate twitch. So she stabbed him. That broke the contest of wills with Lelouch relenting.

“Yes, Mum.”

Anne flinched at the tone but didn’t deny it. Instead, she avoided Lelouch’s eyes and turned to Kallen. “How are you holding up, Poppet?”

“Ah…” What was Kallen supposed to say in this sort of situation? “I’ve had worse?”

Marianne – it just had to be her – offered Kallen a wan smile in return. “I’ll hitch a ride out with you then if you don’t mind. If it gets to be too much or you need a break, let me know, and I’ll take over.”

“That’s…fine with me,” Kallen said. With her permission given, Anne’s geass appeared in both of Shinjirō’s eyes for a brief moment before fading away entirely. He stumbled in place once free and seemed entirely unaware of what had happened during his possession. On her end, she didn’t feel any different.

Penny for your thoughts, Poppet.”

Ah, there she was. In hindsight, Kallen wasn’t entirely sure how comfortable she was with having her mother-in-law in her head.

Relax. I’ll teach you how to avoid projecting your thoughts to me on the way to the hospital.”

I’ll hold you to that.

More curious than angry or happy at the moment, Lelouch twisted to look into Kallen’s eyes. “Is she in there?”

“Yeah, she…” It registered to Kallen then that people had moved. And she’d already taken a couple dozen steps toward the exit. “Oh, I guess she already answered that.” She hadn’t even noticed Marianne taking over. She’d not even had the chance to resist. Magic was terrifying.

Which is exactly why you shouldn’t have come here. I explicitly told you you’re not ready to deal with V.V..”

V.V., eh? Kallen doubted that was the immortal’s real name anymore than C.C.’s was C.C.. And given how old she knew the latter to be, she had to wonder if the kid had copied C.C. in an attempt to make himself seem more adult or something.

Ha! Great minds think alike. I never got an answer. Even now, Charles doesn’t like to rat out his brother.”

“Brother?” Kallen glanced back at the body they’d left – apparently now tied up upon her inspection – on the temple floor. “That kid is Lelouch’s uncle?”

Officially, he never existed.”

At the same time, Lelouch said, “I imagined it would be something like that. It’s obvious he and I are related. Mum–”

“No.” Kallen put an immediate moratorium on that nonsense. “I – we are not doing that. If you call me Mum, I swear I will buy a couch for you to sleep on for a month.”

In her head, Kallen got nothing but uproarious laughter from Marianne. In the real world, Lelouch looked suitably chastised and nauseous when she glanced at his expression. They really needed to find someone else to put Marianne in before things got weird.

Well, weirder.


Philippine Sea

October 2, 2017 a.t.b.


Not long after they’d boarded their boat, Kallen had slipped into unconsciousness. With C.C. at the helm and perfectly capable of getting them back to Shikinejima, Lelouch thought it better to let her rest. Of course, that left him to deal with his mother in his wife’s body. A light touch of disgust ran across his face at the thought. Perhaps this was why man had invented alcohol.

“If you’re uncomfortable, I can jump to you instead,” Marianne offered.

“Thank you for the offer, but that would only make me differently uncomfortable.”

Marianne shrugged not at all the way Kallen did, but it was still her body performing the act. At times their movements matched almost perfectly. A result of similar comportment and training, Lelouch assumed. But he knew everything about how his wife moved, and this pale imitation unsettled him. It felt so wrong to see someone else jerking her around like a puppet so realistically at times before shattering the illusion with acts so utterly unfitting.

“I’m sorry,” Marianne offered. “This isn’t how I wanted you to find out.”

“Stop.” Marianne, visibly hurt, wilted, and that was not at all how Kallen made that expression. Lelouch looked away. “We’re not having this conversation until you possess someone else.”

Although obviously unhappy with the delay, Marianne said, “I understand.”

Leaving her in suspense felt only fair after eight years of absence, but Lelouch couldn’t find it in him not to clarify one thing. “I am glad you’re…alive.” He idly noted that Marianne smiled the same way as Kallen before turning his attention elsewhere.

The silence quickly grew uncomfortable.

“I’m surprised you arrived in time to help us,” Lelouch said to make conversation. “C.C. I can understand, but how did you get here?”

“C.C. contacted me, and I ‘happened’ to be near another Thought Elevator at the time. It was a close thing, but I managed to sneak in with one of the little troll’s goons.”

Lelouch heard those air quotes loud and clear but set that matter aside for the moment. Without asking, he knew something was very wrong in the relationship between the emperor, his mother, and his uncle. A lot of little clues over the years had fallen into place after today.

“What is a Thought Elevator?” From Kallen’s description of her experience and the name, Lelouch could guess, but that didn’t preclude asking for more information. Nor did his guess explain how a squad of sorcerers had teleported into the middle of his party.

Marianne gnawed on her – well, Kallen’s lip. “Before I answer that, how did you really find out about them?”

“As I told V.V., the emperor.”

“I see.” Marianne didn’t elaborate on that beyond stating, “I’ll be having words with your father, then,” not that she really needed to. It seemed perfectly in character for him to use them as bait for…whatever today had been. She should know that by now. “To answer your question precisely would require a deep dive into esoterica. If I’m to hazard an attempt at such, we should wait for Kallen. Speaking of–” She gave Lelouch a thumbs up and a smile which quickly turned strained. The sudden movement had agitated Kallen’s wounds. “–I approve!”

Lelouch snorted. “I’m well aware.”

“You two were so adorable together at your wedding. Oh, and the ceremony!”

For a minute or two, Lelouch tuned his mother out as she gushed over him and Kallen and how wonderfully everything had gone that day. After she’d gotten onto some tract about the wedding feast, expressing her lament about not getting to make a speech, an odd thought struck him. “You were there.”

“Hmm? Oh, of course I was. Remember, I was there as–”

Lelouch cut Marianne off. “No. You were there.”

Much of the excited energy left Marianne as she realised exactly what he meant. “Oh, Lelouch, I was there for everything. Sometimes I rode along with a maid. On occasion, I possessed one of your tutors when I felt you needed to learn something right. I’ve visited Nunnally and kept her company when I could. I even attended Kallen’s knighting with your father. You’re my children, and I love you. Not even death could keep me away.”

Lelouch turned his gaze out to sea and blinked the wetness out of his eyes. “As I said, we’re not having this conversation until you possess someone else.”

“I understand,” Lelouch heard, and this time the voice behind it didn’t sound nearly so pained.


Shikinejima

Philippine Sea

October 2, 2017 a.t.b.


“Smugglers, you say?” Lieutenant Colonel Fayer, the officer in charge of the garrison stationed at Shikinejima, stroked his full beard thoughtfully. “The viceroy did announce her intention to crack down on the Refrain trade a few months ago. It’s been too long since I’ve been back to the mainland, but her policies must be working if the runners have been pushed out here.”

The tale might not hold up under scrutiny if Lt Col Fayer wanted to cause trouble, but it would serve its purpose well enough for now. Lelouch had needed a good story to explain why his group had returned from an impromptu caving expedition with gunshot wounds on three separate people. One might have been an accident, but all three together? As if anyone would believe that. Thus smugglers.

“Unfortunately,” Lelouch began, “they’re probably long gone by now.”

“Most likely. Still, I know the general feels strongly about the Refrain trade as well. I don’t believe she’ll mind if I alter our patrols to include Kaminejima.”

While Lelouch suspected the man had more interest in scoring points with his sisters than actually dealing with the drug problems in the colony, he gave the man credit for the initiative. And with any luck, it’d irritate V.V. to have a bunch of mundies roaming around the island that he couldn’t just get rid of without drawing attention.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t file the report until Kallen is back on her feet. Neither of us need three hysterical sisters taking the first flight down here.”

Lt Col Fayer laughed. “So long as I’m allowed to quote you on that in the actual report. The general runs a tight ship.”

“Of course. If Marrybell gives you any trouble, send her to me.”


Jeremiah fell into step right behind his liege as Prince Lelouch left Lt Col Fayer’s office. It was but a short walk to the military hospital housed in the adjacent building, this being a relatively small outpost in the area. He wasn’t yet clear on the details, but he did know Shinobu was at death’s door, Shinji had something wrong with his leg, and Her Highness had returned with multiple nonfatal gunshot wounds. It didn’t help matters that the local surgeons had an obvious preference to treat the royal consort in excess over the nameless number.

Once inside the hospital, Prince Lelouch first demanded to know how Shinobu’s treatment was progressing. Fortunately for the doctors, they’d gotten the message before and proceeded with all necessary procedures and so spared themselves his wrath. When they told him she had at best even odds of making it through the day, his hands curled into fists, but he said nothing. He merely delivered a tight nod and walked away. From his prince’s reaction, Jeremiah suspected Shinobu was lucky to have even what chance she did. Or perhaps unlucky might fit better. A woman of her skill was hard to put down.

The pair exited the stairwell on the third floor and started down the corridor to Her Highness’s ward. Or perhaps the entire floor might be more accurately described as her ward. The hospital here didn’t see much use these days, so most of the rooms were empty. Their people had assumed guard duty, of course, and only the hospital staff had unfamiliar faces when they made their presence known.

Except for one obviously out of place woman of roughly Jeremiah’s own age. She had long black hair, a slender frame, and wore a military uniform. When they approached, she twirled once in place with a cry of, “Tah-dah!”

Jeremiah felt he was missing some context, but the woman didn’t appear to be a threat.

“An interesting introduction, Miss…”

The woman puffed her cheeks out, pouting with an almost comical childishness. “Honestly, Lelouch, can’t you even recognise your own mother?”

His own mother? Jeremiah stepped forward ready to strike down this shameless impostor. “How dare you–”

His Highness spoke. “Relax, Jeremiah. It really is her.”

“What?” Jeremiah looked between the two in shock. It was impossible, but he’d never known His Highness to jest about such things. He must be under some sorcery. “Impostor!” he called out as he drew his pistol. “Release His Highness from your enchantment.”

Prince Lelouch placed a hand on Jeremiah’s and wordlessly commanded him to lower his aim. “This is Anne the Puppeteer, short for Marianne. She’s a ghost.”

That…was actually an adequate explanation. His Highness must not be under any–

A moment passed as Jeremiah now understood who stood before him. The woman in question waved hello with a lighthearted smile. He stared at the gun in his hands with horror. What had he done!

Immediately, Jeremiah fell upon his knee in genuflection, head bowed. “Your Majesty, forgive me. I did not recognise you. I will accept any punishment you desire.

“Ah, Jeremiah. I see my son hasn’t been able to break you of your eternal stuffiness. No matter. Thank you for looking after him for me for all these years.”

“I – I am unworthy of such kind words.”

“Nonsense. Your service has been exemplary.”

Jeremiah lost his voice, unable to respond to such praise he’d not once dreamt of hearing since his great failure.

“Now please excuse us.” Her Majesty linked arms with her son and pulled him toward Her Highness’s room. “We’re going to have a little family chat.”


Although she refused to admit it, C.C.’s glare was starting to make Kallen feel like a kid who’d gotten herself into trouble doing something reckless and dangerous and needed her parents to bail her out. She was grateful for the rescue, of course, which was why she hadn’t snapped at her witch yet, but how were they supposed to have known Lelouch’s heretofore unknown uncle could drop a hostile force into their midst with bloody teleportation? That didn’t even follow the established rules of magic!

Into the silence, Kallen blurted out the first question that came to mind. “Do you have a connection to the Thought Elevators?”

“Not this one.” C.C. offered no reprieve despite deigning to answer the question.

Fumbling to fill the silence again, Kallen said, “Oh. Well, I only ask because when I first connected to it, I touched an old mind. Not yours. It was male, I’m sure. But it felt, you know, heavy. Like yours.”

C.C. said absolutely nothing, but she looked marginally more…not upset, exactly, but like Kallen had committed a faux pas by commenting on some chronic medical condition.

“Uh, so is that how you do what you do? I mean, if you have a connection to a Thought Elevator, well, when I was connected to it, it felt like I could do some of the things you do. Does one become immortal by forging a permanent connection to one?”

Only dead silence met Kallen’s enquiries.

“So, ah, teleportation is a thing? I don’t understand how that incorporates itself into the magic system we have, but then it’s not like I understand how magic works well enough to judge. And your immortality is an anomaly as well, so it’s not like there isn’t precedent.”

No response.

“I think I understand the emperor’s endgame a little better now. Sort of. The more I learn about magic, the more incredible it all seems. It’s criminal that we don’t know how it works. We could do so much good with it if we did. And Anne – no, it’s Marianne. Marianne suggested to me that even if the emperor is an unfeeling monster, his intentions can at least be bent to ethical ends. Of course, given that she loves the guy for reasons I’ll never understand, she could be biased. Very much so.”

Someone shoot me already.

Lelouch chose that exact moment to enter the room with, Kallen presumed, Marianne on his arm in the body of some random woman. She sent him a silent thank you with a promise to reward him for saving her once she’d healed. He took the free chair on the side of the bed opposite C.C. while Marianne pulled over another.

“How are you feeling?” Lelouch asked as he took Kallen’s hand.

“Better than last time, but we won’t be dancing anytime soon.”

“The dance was never why I wanted you within these arms of mine. Rhythm for us is not in step or rhyme but in our beating hearts.”

With a healthy pink glow about her cheeks, Kallen protested, “Not in front of your mother, love.”

“No, don’t mind me. Please do carry on. You two are so sweet together.”

Kallen’s flush deepened, but Lelouch seemed unaffected. “You need to stop taking hits for me.” His grasp on her hand tightened. “You’re the sword, not the shield.”

“Swords break.” It was an argument they’d had before on many occasions. Their marriage did change things, but Lelouch’s life remained more important than Kallen’s own. She turned her attention to their most unexpected guest to avoid clashing on the subject yet again. “Marianne, in all the excitement, I think I forgot to mention how happy I am you’re, uh…”

“‘Alive’ will do just fine, Poppet. And if you’re comfortable with it, how about we try ‘Mum’.”

“Maybe,” Kallen demurred, a knot of conflicting feelings twisting about in her chest. She’d have to sort that out on her own time.

“Anyway, I hate to be insensitive, but V.V. is a twisted little prick. Considering where he shot you, I need to ask now before it might be too late.” Marianne leaned in closer to Kallen’s ear and lowered her voice to a whisper. “The doctors ensured I can still expect grandbabies, correct?”

For a moment, Kallen paled in shock. She hadn’t even thought of that, but she really should have. “They said I would make a full recovery.” And since an imperial consort’s primary duty was to produce heirs, she expected she – or at least Lelouch – would have been told otherwise if not.

“Excellent! I’ll await them eagerly, then.”

Kallen awkwardly cleared her throat. That was still a few years off at least. Lelouch, she noticed, looked on curiously but without any real understanding of what had just transpired. Children weren’t anymore at the forefront of his thoughts than they were of hers. “Perhaps we should move on?”

“Indeed,” Lelouch said. “I’d like to know what happened the night you di – the night you were disembodied.”

With a shrug, Marianne replied, “There’s not much to tell, really. V.V. and I fought. I lost. Sayoko showed up in time for me to jump to her and escape. I’d had her tailing him for some time before then. We made our mutual threats to each other and then went on our way.”

“I…see.” Lelouch sounded almost disappointed at the simplicity. To be fair, Kallen shared the sentiment. Mystery always had an air of, well, mystique around it which truth so rarely shared. “What did you fight over?”

Marianne snorted this time. “For all his years, V.V. is still a bratty little child who loves his brother and doesn’t want some woman to take him away.”

Oh, fantastic. We’re dealing with a yandere brocon. Kallen took Marianne’s explanation with a grain of salt, but that didn’t necessarily make her description of the immortal child inaccurate.

“You cannot be serious,” Lelouch said, appalled.

“This is why C.C. here doesn’t contract with children without extenuating circumstances.”

The woman in question glared at Marianne for some reason, but the latter just ignored her reaction. Lelouch, meanwhile, had a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Anyway, V.V. destroyed my body beyond repair which left me with few options. Without the clout that came with my identity, I had to pass the torch on to Cornelia and Schneizel. I’ve since returned to my work as the thing that goes bump in the night.”

“As an assassin,” Lelouch stated more plainly.

Marianne, however, disagreed. “I prefer to think of myself as your father’s problem solver. Besides, I don’t actually kill as often as the reputation I garnered during the Emblem of Blood might lead you to believe.”

“Recent purge of Area Eleven notwithstanding?” Kallen slyly asked.

“Yes, well,” Marianne began, flustered at the blatant contradiction, “that was well deserved.”

Kallen and Lelouch shared some light laughter over the reaction, and even Marianne cracked a smile in the end. It was so good to have a missing piece of their family back. Perhaps they would save all the heavy stuff and hashing out hurt feelings until tomorrow.