AN: Notifications are working again, so in case you missed it I posted chapter 19 in November, be sure to check it out if you haven't read it yet. Now onto the chapter:
Chapter 20: Consequences
For a second, she almost forgot how to breathe.
The dark sky was pushed back by the light of the explosion, and for a couple of minutes, it was like a miniature sun had descended upon the world.
She had never seen something so beautiful, yet so terrifying at the same time.
That explosion was caused by an artifact of the Sirens; just how much destruction would it have caused if it was detonated not in the sky but in a city full of civilians? How many lives would have been lost in a single instant?
How could they ever match something like that?
"Her Grace needs to know about this." her companion said. Her red eyes were also glued to the giant ball of light, and while she appeared calm, tiny drops of sweat fell down her temple.
"Y-yes." She stammered, pushing those intrusive thoughts away from her mind. "We must quickly return to-"
"Not yet. We must ascertain the situation first." The horned shipgirl interrupted her. "The Sirens wouldn't willingly destroy one of their cubes just to show their might, something, or rather someone must have forced them to do it."
"Those shipgirls wearing black and white! They must be crazy powerful to push the Sirens this far."
The horned shipgirl didn't answer; she wasn't entirely convinced about that.
They had followed them for a short while before they entered that building, and even if they looked strong, she was sure they wouldn't be a match for someone like Zuikaku or Shoukaku.
However, something about their group was indeed strange. She wasn't completely sure; but she could almost swear that a human male was among their ranks, a human that could follow them despite the fact they were jumping over buildings.
"I suspect there is a lot we don't know yet." She moved her black and red long scarf to cover both her mouth and nose. "That's why we must find out everything about this 'Royal Navy' as soon as possible and determine if they are a potential ally… or an enemy."
The masked shipgirl understood immediately what her companion was suggesting.
"D-do you want us to infiltrate that b-building? But what if they discover us?"
"We are Shinobi, Akatsuki, not fighters. As long as we stay in the shadows, our enemies will not be able to catch us." A short blade appeared in her hand. "But if we do have to fight, then be sure that Her Grace will guide our blades, as always."
Formidable fell on the floor and finally managed to bring air to her lungs.
"Ah… ah…. ah." She brought her hands to her neck instinctively. She could still feel Zero's fingers sinking on her flesh; if she hadn't released her grip, then she would have surely suffocated to death.
But why? Why had the Siren let her live?
Formidable raised her gaze only to find Zero's figure frozen in the place, still retaining the posture she had when she was gripping her neck. She stood up and prepared to continue fighting, but Zero still didn't move, it was like her body had stopped functioning altogether.
But then Zero's body began to flicker, like dead pixels in a broken image, parts of her body became white static and started to flicker, disappearing and returning quickly and erratically, all of this accompanied by strange electrical sounds that reverberated through the room.
Despite being in that unnatural state, Zero managed to lower her arm and move her head to look at her, yet every single one of those moves was unnatural, as she came to abrupt stops in her movements in an erratic rhythm, almost like she was under spasms.
Once her eyes finally were on her, she talked in a strange voice. "The cube." The words that came out of her mouth were distorted, as if several different types of voices spoke at once, yet she spoke with a far more robotic tone than ever before.
And so she turned back, apparently having lost interest in her, and started walking away until her figure disappeared completely, leaving a confused Formidable behind. But she couldn't afford to worry about Zero; something far more important occupied her mind.
She rushed, arm missing, beaten and exhausted but undeterred to where her Royal Navy comrades lied drenched in their own blood. They were still alive, but their wounds were severe, and they needed to be treated as soon as possible.
Formidable cursed at herself; no matter how powerful she was, she couldn't do anything to help her friends; her power only served to kill, to make her enemies defenseless against the barrage of her planes; she had no way to heal them.
"Ahhh!" She hit the floor with force, feeling worthless.
She had done this to them, it was her fault and she couldn't do anything but to watch them bleed out to death.
"Bleed…?" No, that was wrong, she could do something. She had never tried it before, but she damn well was going to try. "Don't move…an inch." She weakly raised her hand and activated her power.
Even if it was only a little, stopping their bodies should delay their bleeding a little, but that wasn't a solution. She had to find a way to heal them for them to survive.
That was when she heard steps coming from behind her back. She turned around to find a dozen of human soldiers, led by a red-haired woman in a black uniform marching towards her.
"What's the meaning of this?" She asked, her fierce gaze directed only at her.
I fell on my rear, completely exhausted.
It was finally over; I had destroyed the cube and hopefully stopped that Siren. I could only hope it wasn't too late for Elizabeth, Warspite, and the maids.
While I released a couple of deep sighs, my eyes naturally found the hole Purifier's shark had made in the ceiling. Although I hadn't been able to see the explosion of the cube, I did hear the blast, so I could bet it had been one of considerable proportions.
My gaze then moved towards Purifier, who looked somewhat pained, but kept her unmistakable smirk on her face. I didn't want to think too hard about it, but she might have saved my life just now.
"We are even." She said as if reading my mind, with satisfaction written all over her face.
I could only stare at her. Maybe she did save me, but that didn't mean we were allies. "Why didn't you say it would explode?"
"You were so excited about destroying it; I didn't want to burst your bubble, you know?" She laughed.
I definitely couldn't trust her.
"You two seem to get along so well." Before I could react, Observer was already beside us. "It almost makes me jealous."
I quickly stood up and put the shield in front of me. However, Observer looked significantly weakened; her figure was slightly hunched over, and she clutched her chest tightly. She didn't seem to be in any state to continue fighting.
"Don't worry; even I know when to concede." Even her breathing was irregular, showing a clear hint of exhaustion. "You defeated me, Fujimaru Ritsuka. The victory is yours."
"After everything you have done, you are just going to surrender?" I asked with distrust.
"Surrender? No, I am afraid that's not an option for us." She smiled. "Isn't it, Purifier?"
"The Sirens don't surrender nor do they ask for mercy when defeated." Purifier slowly got on her feet. "It's not a matter of pride or dignity, it's just that we were not created with that possibility available." She looked at me and grinned. "The only way to make us stop is killing us."
I stared at her. Was that a challenge for me? Was she asking if I was ready to end them by my own hands if it was necessary?
"And even if we die, nothing would really change." Observer interceded. "Purifier and I are just a couple of cogs inside a bigger machine, one that will continue moving even after our deaths. Neither you nor we can stop it, Fujimaru Ritsuka. It will continue moving until humanity evolves."
"You keep talking about evolution… but what do you mean by that? What is the Sirens' objective?"
"I have told you already, no? We want nothing more than to save this world."
"That's bullshit. Which part of saving the world involves attacking this country? What part of it demands me to kill a man!?"
"Causality is a difficult concept for humans, but I assure you, everything so far had happened for a reason. You just aren't able to see the bigger picture yet, Fujimaru Ritsuka." Observer moved her hand, and a series of holographic screens appeared beside her. "After all, who do you think gave humanity the ability to defend themselves against us?"
The first screen showed a series of pictures of what appeared to be huge craters. Different kinds of people, of widely different eras, some prehistoric, others ancient or medieval, and even modern; everyone gathered around those craters no matter the time or ethnicity. And all of them appeared to be fascinated with the strange glowing particles found in them.
"Who do you think pushed them to start working again on a project that had been abandoned after the discovery of nuclear fission and the Second World War?"
The second screen showed people working on labs in what appeared to be more recent times. People in white coats tested that glowing material, exposing them to all kinds of stimuli. With each passing picture, however, pretty much all of those particles started to increase in size and began to take cube-like shapes.
"And who do you think gave them an 'incentive' to at last finish the project and create the ultimate weapon?"
The last screen showed pitch-black warships with red symbols on their hulls firing their cannons against cargo ships and commercial planes; destroying fishing boats just by crashing against them and killing the survivors that managed to jump to the sea.
"It was us, it was always us!" Observer cheered. Despite the differences, the common factor in all those pictures was that there was always a person with yellow eyes among the people in them, never in the spotlight but in the background, like unfocused shades in a blurry picture. "We were always there, working to ensure that humanity stayed in the right path, the path of evolution."
If I were to believe those images, then that meant that the human order of this world has been carefully led to this conflict for a long time.
"But why? What do you desperately want this 'evolution'? What does evolution even mean to you all!?"
"Isn't that obvious? It's-"
Observer's speech got cut as she suddenly fell on her knees. Her smug exterior disappeared in an instant as an invisible force pushed her to the ground, as if gravity had increased tenfold only for her.
"Hahahahahahaha! She has come at last! Took you long enough! Zeeeerooooo!" Purifier exclaimed before she too was forced onto the floor.
I tightened my grip on Lord Camelot and began to scan my surroundings, searching for this unknown presence.
"You are far from your origin." A cold voice reached my ears. "Otherworldly human."
"…!" I turned around to find her, an almost wholly white figure standing in the corner of the room. She wore what appeared to be a big white cloak decorated by blue flowers; her body was hidden inside it almost entirely except for her face.
"You are… no, you must be a Siren."
The short hair covering one of her eyes immediately reminded me of Mashu, but the aura that surrounded her was completely different. I didn't know how to explain it, but it was as if there was no life in her, it was like watching a machine pretending to be human, and failing.
"Denomination: Observer." She shot a glance towards Alpha, and the Siren finally fell completely on the floor with a loud thump like a puppet whose strings were cut. "Zero." She added as she looked back at me, with a somewhat disgusted tone.
"Are you here to kill me?" I asked while preparing to step back.
She shook her head.
"The cube was destroyed; I no longer have anything to do here besides punishing the foolishness of my subordinates." She narrowed her eyes. "However, your actions have not gone unnoticed, otherworldly human." She slowly made her way towards me. "Your role has finally been decided."
"My role? I am not interested in playing any part in this plan of yours."
"Run, hide, struggle, it will not matter because he has noticed your presence in this timeline." She got closer and closer until we were centimeters apart. Her dark blue eye gazed at me directly, as if she was looking straight into my soul. "You are bound to this world now; you cannot escape the purpose assigned to you."
"I'll be the one to decide my purpose!" Her words made a chill run down my spine, but I stood my ground. "Goetia thought he could control humanity's destiny just because he was able to see the future, but he was wrong, and so is your kind, Siren."
"So you say to yourself, but everything will fall on their rightful place in the end. Every one of us will fulfill its role. You will understand that with time." She finally put some distance between us. "Now, I will tend to my subordinates, and you too shall do the same with the ones who have come to rely on you."
Did she mean…?
"What have you done to them!?"
"Nothing, they are alive." She directed me one last look. "But if you don't do anything now, that might no longer be true."
Damn it! I was so focused on getting answers that I completely disregarded the Royal Navy. Who knew what could have happened to them while I was here wasting my time!? I forgot about the Sirens, turned around, and sprinted towards the main room of the military base.
Hopefully, it won't be too late.
Please, don't let it be too late.
"I told you he was special."
Zero gazed at Purifier; the mad Siren would have been dead by now if looks could kill.
"Don't look at me like that, Zero. You know what I mean." Despite being practically crushed on the ground, Purifier still managed to have a winning smile on her face. "He is the one; I knew it from the moment he destroyed my arm. He will be the one to command Azur Lane, and he will do it like no one has ever done before!"
"Perhaps." She narrowed her eyes. "But your recklessness resulted in the loss of a black wisdom cube, something that will delay the next phase of The Creator's plan for a considerable amount of time." Zero closed her eyes; her weariness could be felt in her words. "I do sometimes wonder why he decided to give you emotions."
"Are you questioning his will, dear Zero?" Observer managed to ask. "If the Arbiters hear that, then even your own position could be at risk."
"I am not; everything happens and will happen for a reason; even you two disobeying the protocol was something he must have surely foreseen."
"Right? I was actually serving him all along!" Purifier exclaimed happily. "Now, can you let me go, please? I want to go talk with Ritsuka, we haven't seen each other in quite a while so-"
"However." Zero's cloak moved to reveal a pale and cadaveric arm. "You still betrayed your kind, and helped to destroy the cube." She moved her arm upwards, and Purifier's body started to float in the air until she was face to face with Zero. "Your actions will not go unpunished, Purifier."
"Wait! I am sure we can talk about this-"
Purifier couldn't finish, because Zero sank her hand deep into her chest, just in the place where her heart was.
And she took it.
Black blood poured from Purifier's mouth as her still-beating heart was forcefully removed from its cavity, leaving a gaping hole and broken bones in its departure from her chest. She tried in vain to grab Zero's hand before stopping moving altogether; her body continued floating in the air even though there was no life left in her, it had disappeared alongside the light of her normally bright eyes.
The smile on her face had finally vanished.
"Sleep." Zero opened her bloody hand, and the vital organ quickly changed shape into a black cube, similar to the one destroyed by Ritsuka. "You are not needed." Then she closed her hand, and the cube disappeared.
"Did you know? Aversion is also an emotion." Observer commented, with irony.
"Alpha." Zero looked at Observer. "You are still useful; otherwise you would share her destiny."
"But of course, someone has to overview the simulation while you are still holed up eighteen hundred meters into the ocean, right? I wouldn't trade that place with anyone."
"Return, then." Zero moved her hand again, and Alpha could no longer feel that immense force weighing on her shoulders. "And prepare for what's to come."
With those words, Zero disappeared, as if she had never been there to begin with.
"Your wishes are my command." Alpha answered to no one, and her body began to be consumed by a black smoke cloud that covered both her and the lifeless body of Purifier until they too disappeared.
When I finally arrived, I was welcomed by a complex situation.
On one side was the woman the Royal Navy fought, 'Formidable' was her name if I recalled correctly. She was standing among my fallen comrades, her hand raised in front of her and a spectral black and grey clock with roman numerals behind her back.
She looked different from how I remembered, though. Her skin had lost that paper-white tone it once had; turning into a more natural pale, her grey hair has adopted a more ashen-like color and, more importantly, the golden eyes that once glowed with disinterest now had a certain crimson color, accompanied by a startled gaze.
She was no longer a Siren, at least in appearance.
On the other side, there were about a dozen of human soldiers wearing military garments and pointing their guns towards her, no doubt they had come to investigate the situation with the Admiral. Among them was another woman I recognized: Marcia Haydes, the former commander of the shipgirls.
A fight seemed about to start between them when I came into the scene, and for a moment every single gaze in the room fell on me as if I was an intruder.
"Ritsuka Fujimaru?" Marcia was the first one to talk, apparently perplexed by my presence.
"Commander…?" Formidable asked; exhaustion could be heard in her voice. "You are the Commander, right?"
"Commander!?" Marcia turned her gaze to the shipgirl, understandably confused.
This was a complicated situation, one that could easily turn into a blood bath if I said the wrong thing.
I wasn't exactly on the best terms with Marcia and the military, and after what I had done to their superior, I doubted they would receive me with open arms. On the other hand, I didn't know anything about Formidable or why she had apparently returned to normal; could it be because I had destroyed the cube?
Regardless, one thing was clear: if I wanted to save the shipgirls, then I had to defuse this situation.
"Drop your weapons! The Sirens were defeated already!" I shouted towards Marcia and the soldiers, trying my best to evoke authority. "There is no need to continue fighting."
My sudden declaration seemed to have taken them off guard, so I took the opportunity to slowly walk towards Formidable, preparing to raise Lord Camelot at the first sight of aggression.
"H-hey, don't take another-" One of the soldiers tried to warm me, but Marcia stopped him, she wanted to see where this was going.
"Commander, I… I…" I didn't see animosity in Formidable's eyes. Instead, I saw sadness and guilt in them. "I could not…" She tried to say, but her words died in her mouth as the grey clock behind her suddenly shattered into thousands of pieces and she began to fall.
I moved quickly, thanks to the reinforcement in my legs, and managed to catch her.
"Are you okay?" I asked when I noticed something as I held her in my arms: apart from the multiple wounds on her body, she was completely missing an arm.
Just what had happened here?
"Commander, I… tried to stop their bleeding… with my power." She said, panting. "But I could only… delay it. If we don't close their wounds soon they would…." She stopped and grabbed the collar of my shirt. "You have to help them…." She desperately pled to me. "Help them, please."
I couldn't believe that the 'Siren' that had almost killed the entire Royal Navy was now in my arms, making such a devastated expression. I didn't know anything about her or her relationship with the Royal Navy, but it was clear that she cared deeply about them.
She was probably used as a tool by the Sirens, just like the Admiral. In the end, they were both victims of their machinations.
I looked down towards the fallen shipgirls. Belfast, Sheffield, Dido, Sirius, Edinburgh, Warspite, Elizabeth, all of them had severe wounds all over their bodies; some were especially severe, particularly Dido and Sirius, who seemed to have received the most damage.
My first instinct was to use healing magecraft on them, but that posed a problem: Would I have enough magical energy to cure all of them? The answer was most likely no. To begin with, my magical reserves weren't even that big, and I had been using reinforcement even since I left the subterranean base, there was no way I was at my full capacity.
I could try distributing my magical energy equally between them, but that wouldn't be enough to heal any of them completely, at most it would buy them some time, but it was not a definite solution.
In other words, I couldn't save all of them.
At least not by myself.
"There is something I can do, but I can't do it alone." I took Formidable's hand. "I know we hardly know each other, but I need your help, Formidable. I need you to trust me."
"I...will do whatever it's necessary to save my precious friends, Commander." She didn't doubt even for a second, her resolution was clear. "I swear in the name of her Majesty the Queen."
"Then follow my lead, and I promise we will save them." I helped her get on her feet. "Can you stand by yourself?"
"Yes… I think I can."
Once I helped her stand, I turned toward Marcia and the soldiers.
"Marcia Haydes, as the Acting Commander of the Royal Navy, I have a proposition for you."
"Acting Commander…." Marcia repeated his words, trying to fully understand the implications behind them.
Fujimaru Ritsuka was an unstable person, someone that could stay quiet for hours only to explode in rage when you least expected it. However, he was also someone who knew more than he said or appeared to. So even if she wanted to believe that his ramblings were nothing more than a madman's talk, she couldn't, especially when that unknown prototype was clinging to him like that.
Just how could he have won her trust that quickly when it took months for her to even speak normally with Belfast?
"Will you hear me out?" His words brought her back to reality.
Marcia looked at the man in front of him, she definitely didn't trust him, but the situation didn't allow her much choice.
"Hold your fire until I say so." She whispered to her troop as she passed by them.
Fujimaru Ritsuka did the same with the prototype, and they met in the center of the room. Their eyes were locked in each other as if they were trying to decipher the other's intentions.
"Tell me what happened with Admiral William." She firmly stated, not wanting to get caught in his pace. She won't hear anything he had to say until she confirmed the Admiral's whereabouts.
"William…" Fujimaru looked away as if he was ashamed of something. "Admiral William is dead." He looked straight to her this time. "I killed him."
No one said anything for a while; a mortuary silence filled the room.
A single gaze from Marcia to her subordinates was enough to stop them from doing anything reckless. Even so, it took everything off her to remain composed; that man had just confessed having killed her superior straight to her face, and by doing so destroyed any kind of possible bridge between them.
Perhaps she was wrong after all; maybe he was nothing more than a madman.
"He was being controlled by the Sirens." He added. "I had no choice."
"I don't believe you." Marcia was having none of it. "You allied yourselves with prototype 02 and staged a coup, and now one of the most prominent military figures of the country is dead. Even a fool would see the connection right away."
"I joined Elizabeth, yes, but to stop her from the inside." He continued. "I came here with them to make sure the Admiral would survive..." He shook his head. "But I was too late; when we arrived, he had already become a puppet of the Sirens." Marcia could detect guilt in his words. "I know how it sounds, but you don't have to believe my word if you don't want." He pointed at one of the cameras in the wall. "You only have to look into the recordings, all the proof is surely there."
Marcia didn't say anything for a while until she turned to one of her subordinates.
"Go look at them." She said.
"Yes, ma'am!" The man left running.
"Let's say we find that footage and he was really being controlled." She shot an intimidating gaze at him. "Then what? Do you expect me to say 'good job' and let you go? Do you expect the high command to look the other way as you pretend to be a commander with the prototypes? Because that's impossible, we can't let you run free with everything you had done, Fujimaru."
"I understand, but I won't run away anymore." His gaze didn't waver this time. "I have seen what the Sirens are capable of, and I can't possibly stay idle while humanity is in danger. That's why I want to collaborate with you."
"I know we had our differences in the past, but our enemy is the same: The Sirens." He shook his head. "If we continue fighting among ourselves, then they will surely win. We can't let that happen."
Marcia thought carefully about it.
"I don't trust you, not one bit. How can I know you won't betray us?"
"Because I need your help." He took a step to the side to show Marcia the fallen shipgirls, that seemed to be barely still alive. "You created them, right? So you must have a way to heal their wounds."
Marcia couldn't help but to direct her gaze towards the motionless figure of Belfast.
"Even if we…" Marcia sighed; it was the first time that Marcia felt she was losing control of the conversation. "Even if we have it, I don't have the authority to-"
"She went against Elizabeth's orders to save you."
"She had to choose between her duties and you, her friend." Ritsuka turned towards Belfast. "I am sure you understand how difficult it was for her to go against her Queen, all of the maids have this deep and almost irrational loyalty towards Elizabeth." He turned to Marcia again. "But in the end, she chose you over her. So now it is your turn. Will you go against your orders to save her? Or will you let her die?"
Marcia clenched her fist with force, she wanted to save Belfast but…
"And wasn't that your original plan? You came here with only a few soldiers after all." The man saw right through her. "If you wanted to kill us, then you would have brought at least one shipgirl with you, but you didn't. You always wanted to resolve this peacefully."
"I can't let it happen again!" Marcia finally shouted. "A lot of people have died already because of the prototypes! If I help them and they decided to turn against us again then…!"
"I'll stop them." He interrupted her. "It wasn't in the best circumstances, but I accepted to be their Commander, so I intend to take responsibility for all of them, including Elizabeth." He put his hand on his chest, close to his heart. "I swear that as long as our truce stands, they won't harm a single human ever again."
"And what can you do!?" Marcia exploded. "What makes you think you can control them when everyone else failed!? What makes you so special!?"
"I'll show you." He stepped back and went to where the shipgirls were. "I'll show you what I can do."
As he passed by the unknown prototype, he directed some words to her.
"I'll leave the rest to you, make sure they have a safe arrival and are treated with respect."
"I trust you, Formidable."
Once he had said that, he nailed the enormous shield on his right hand into the ground, and kneeled beside the shipgirls.
"By the way." He looked not only at Marcia, but to her soldiers as well. "Telling anyone about this may cause you to be persecuted and killed, so let's keep it a secret, shall we?"
Then, he spoke in a language they didn't understand; a bright green light came to life, which enveloped both of his hands.
Before Marcia's eyes, he went one by one placing his hands on every shipgirl, and something unbelievable happened: the life-threatening injuries on their bodies began to disappear, or rather; they began to heal with an unnatural velocity; cut tissue started to regenerate, bruises were no longer there, even the blood that stained the floor seemed to come back to their bodies.
Marcia wasn't familiar with the method of "fixing" the prototypes, but she had heard that even light injuries could take weeks to heal. Even so, that man had healed such severe wounds in an instant and with no other tool apart from his hands.
"No way… just… who are you…? No, what are you?"
Ritsuka didn't answer until he had finished healing everyone, and the light of his hands disappeared.
"I am a mage." He said with a somewhat melancholic smile on his face, only to close his eyes immediately after and fall on the floor, motionless.
When I opened my eyes again, I found myself in an unfamiliar place.
I was lying on a white bed in a predominantly white room, aside from some wooden furniture like a couple of chairs to my sides and a wardrobe. A machine next to the bed made a couple of "blip" sounds every ten seconds or so, and it showed a series of changing numbers which I presumed were my vitals.
More importantly, however, was that I wasn't alone. That woman, Marcia Haydes, was beside the window, looking at the bright day sky with a lighted cigarette on her lips.
"You know, you can't smoke in a hospital."
She turned to look at me, her eyes showed a mixture of distrust and curiosity.
"True, but this is not a hospital, it's a research center." She said that but still put out her cigarette on the stool of the window. "This is the only place where our scientists can start healing the prototypes."
"I see, so you have accepted my proposition."
"It's not like you gave us another choice." She sighed and sat on a chair next to my bed. "She wouldn't take a 'no' for an answer."
"Formidable? Where is she?"
"With the rest of the prototypes, I tried to convince her that the process would take some time, but she was adamant on staying with them no matter what."
"And how are they?" I asked while I sat on the bed.
"Stable but not yet awakened, and we intend to keep it that way for a while."
"What do you mean by that...?"
"Calm down, we are going to awake them one by one." She must have seen my reaction because she immediately added. "If I can personally guarantee their loyalty, then we are going to continue waking them; that's as far as the high command is willing to compromise in this matter."
As much as I would have liked to say that it wasn't a good deal, the fact that just one shipgirl was capable of killing hundreds of human soldiers if she wanted to put them at a clear disadvantage.
"It's not ideal, but I understand your position." I conceded, somewhat reluctant. "As long as you end up waking all of them, I won't complain."
"As for you, Ritsuka Fujimaru…" Marcia sighed and brought a palm across her face. "You are a real pain, you know?"
"I have been told multiples times that I am a meddlesome person, yes."
"There is no way the high command will let you run free after killing the Admiral." She ignored me. "Even if you can prove that he was being controlled by the Sirens, your knowledge and your… 'abilities' are far too dangerous." She ranted."You would be thrown in a cell at best and experimented with at worst."
So she said, but I suspected there was a catch from her tone
"If that's the case, then why aren't they doing any of that?"
"Because I didn't tell them anything about you."
"My report of the incident doesn't mention you, and sadly the recordings you provided were mysteriously erased after I checked their content, which means no one besides my subordinates and me knows about your involvement in this."
I was speechless for a couple of seconds.
"And what do you want in exchange for that favor, Haydes?"
"The truth." She firmly stated. "I want to know what's your relation with the Sirens, the nature of that shield you wield, how you managed to gain the trust of the prototypes so easily, and of course, why do you possess such 'abilities' despite being apparently human. I want to know everything."
"I see…." I thought carefully about it. "I don't mind talking about the Sirens and even about my 'abilities' as you call them, but bear in mind that some of my explanations may be a bit difficult to believe."
"More than living weapons taking the form of maids clad in uniforms?"
"More or less. Have you heard of magic and the mage association before?"
"I am already regretting this." She pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Told you so." I couldn't help but release a slight chuckle. "Regardless, I do think we can work together. So what do you say?"
I extended my hand towards her, but she looked at it with doubt.
"Just so you know, I still don't trust you. If you ever try to do something strange or if something happens to me, my subordinates have express orders to give all information of you to the high command. If I fall, you will fall with me, Fujimaru."
"That's fine; I don't plan to do any of that. I just want to stop the Sirens, and you want the same, right? As long as our objectives align, I'll be your ally."
She looked at me for a few seconds and reluctantly shook my hand.
"I truly hope this is the right decision."
After saying that, she walked towards the door.
"I won't disappoint you."
"You better not, for my sake and for yours." She said and exited the room.
After a couple of minutes in which I made sure that Marcia wasn't coming back, I released a deep sigh.
"That was tiring." I leaned my head against the back of the bed. "Things were far easier in Chaldea; I didn't have to walk on eggshells every time I talked to Roman or Da Vinci."
Regardless, the deal was already sealed; it only rested to see if Marcia was going to fulfill her part. I wanted to believe there was a good reason for Belfast to care about her of all people, that perhaps she could end up being an essential ally in our war against the Sirens.
I got out of bed and began inspecting the room more carefully. I failed to find anything that would tell me the current date, but I presumed I had slept for quite some time; I had run out of magical energy after all.
I hadn't noticed because I was too focused on my conversation with Haydes, but that feeling I had after I broke free from the Sirens' illusion was still there. I felt that all I needed to do was to extend my hand and…
A sudden pain assaulted my arm as my circuits activated without my control; the shape of the shield was drawn in the air with a blue light until it manifested itself in my hand. I didn't even need to focus on it; just the desire of having it in my hand was enough to bring it to me despite being kilometers away.
And there it was, Lord Camelot had come back to me again.
"Wha-!?" Out of nowhere, I could hear a high-pitched scream, followed by a loud thump as if someone had stumbled on something. And it came from the most unsuspected place: the wardrobe in the room.
I looked at it for a few seconds, trying to understand the ridiculousness of the situation. Did Haydes really make one of her subordinates hide inside the wardrobe to spy on me? I honestly couldn't believe she would resort to such dumb tactics.
"I know you are there, come out." I ordered, but I got no response. Did he really think I would just forget about him being there and continue as if nothing had happened?
I sighed. I quickly moved towards the wardrobe and opened it.
"Now, what are you…?" I couldn't continue, because whoever I was expecting to be inside the wardrobe was utterly different from the actual person in it. To begin with, it was not a man, but a girl wearing a weird costume, which included a short sailor shirt, detached sleeves, pants that for some reason didn't fully cover her thighs, and a black scarf. However, those details weren't that noticeable compared to the skull mask she was using to hide half of her face; its somewhat fierce exterior contrasted with her actual expression, which was one of complete fear. "Who are you?"
"H-hi…?" She said, raising a trembling hand in a terrified salute.
The room was in complete silence, not even the occasional cheeping of the birds or the sound of the wind moving the leaves of the cherry blossom trees outside could be heard, just as how she liked. She was sitting alone in that quiet room, her eyes closed and her mind occupied by the recent events. Her small figure was hidden by a thin paper wall, the dim light of the old hanging lamp cast her shadow on it.
However, the silence she adored so much was broken by steps on the tatami floor, as a couple of figures approached her.
They stopped a few meters before her, close enough for their voices to be heard, and finally sat on their knees.
"Souryuu, Hiryuu." She acknowledged the two of them but said no more.
"Nagato-sama, we have come to report the status of the envoys." Said the younger sister, Hiryuu.
"Ayanami has successfully reached the American continent, while Akatsuki and Kuroshio have made visual contact with what we presume are the shipgirls from the United Kingdom." Added the elder sister, Souryuu.
Their report seemed to end there, but there was still more.
"Kirishima." She said. "What happened to Kirishima?"
Hiryuu couldn't help but to bite her lip upon hearing that name, while Souryuu looked downwards and adjusted her glasses, searching for the proper words to talk to her faction leader.
"We have lost contact with Kirishima." The shipgirl clad in green finally answered. "Her last communication was a week ago, when she was about to reach the capital of Germany. Given the place of her disappearance, it is safe to assume that she was either captured or killed."
"I see." Nagato was solemn.
"If I may, Nagato-sama." Hiryuu interceded, her tone contained a certain repressed feeling. "Kirishima is a tough one, she wouldn't go down that easily. If you let me lead a rescue squad then I am sure-"
"Kirishima knew the risks of this mission, if she indeed was captured, then we can't do anything for her." Nagato cut her. "Instead, we should reinforce our defenses; what happened to Kirishima might be the final proof of something we have suspected for a long time: the Sirens might not be our only enemy."
"Yes, Nagato-sama." Souryuu was the first to answer.
"...yes, Nagato-sama." Hiryuu repeated, Nagato didn't miss the reluctance in her voice.
Then both sisters stood up and left the room; the silence returning to the room.
However, Nagato, the leader of the Sakura Empire, no longer felt as comfortable as before. She knew that something like this could happen when they found out that some nations were developing their own Kansens in secret, but she wanted nothing more than to believe otherwise.
Reality has proven to be harsher, however.
"Another war is approaching." She thought, the errors of their past still haunted them.
Kirishima tried to breathe, but even that had become difficult as she lacked the strength to move even a finger; her body was extremely weakened, and she would have surely fallen on the floor if chains weren't forcefully binding her arms and legs to the wall.
"Are you going to talk now?" The woman in front of her asked with a pleasant smile on her face. "You won't, are you? You are just too loyal."
A fist was directed to her stomach, which made her split blood.
"How sad, if you just talked to me this could be done in an instant, but you just refuse to do it. YOU ARE FORCING ME TO DO THIS." Another punch hit her, this time in the face; she could feel how one of her teeth broke.
"Why don't you scream at least?" She forcefully raised Kirishima's head by taking her from her hair. "It's been a while since I heard your voice, SO WHY DON'T YOU SCREAM!?" An uppercut this time, Kirishima's vision was beginning to darken. Her eyes didn't work correctly anymore.
She didn't remember how much had passed since she was captured, the torture had diluted her sense of time, but she knew one thing: the woman who was torturing her was a monster. She had not eaten, slept, or rested in who knew how much time; she only had been there, hurting her with nothing but her bare fists, drenched in red by her own blood.
"Have you finally broken, I wonder?" She took her by the face and started examining her. "Too bad, should I dispose of you already?"
She wasn't even trying to make her talk; she only punched her whenever she wanted, as if she was enjoying the sole act of hurting her. This was never an interrogatory for her, just plain entertainment.
"No reaction." The woman said disappointed as she readied her fist one last time. "So boring."
Instinctively, Kirishima knew that punch would be her end, so she brazened herself expecting the worst.
"Roon, my child." But the punch never came, a voice had stopped her. "It's enough already."
"Friedrich." The woman called Roon lowered her fist. "You didn't have to come." Her tone had suddenly become meek, like her previous display of sadism had been done by someone else.
"I was getting worried that you weren't coming back." Kirishima was almost blind at that point, but she could swear she saw a tall woman with long black hair and red horns hugging the person that had been torturing her as if she was her mother. "Have you been eating properly? What about taking a break every once in a while?"
"I am perfectly fine." Roon separated from her embrace. "I was about to end it."
"Oh no, you are tired, I see it on your face." The horned woman caressed her face. "Why don't you leave this to me and go rest for a while?"
From where she was, Kirishima couldn't see Roon's face, but she did see how her right fist, the one she had been using to punch her, started to tremble. Was it trembling because of anger or because of fear? Perhaps a mix of both? Kirishima couldn't know.
"You are right, I am feeling a bit tired." Whatever the case was, Roon seemed happy to accept the suggestion. "I'll leave this on your hands, Friedrich."
Roon walked past her and prepared to leave the room, but not before giving one last vicious stare; Kirishima wasn't sure if it was directed at her or at the horned woman.
Once they were alone, the horned woman started talking to her.
"I am sorry about Roon, it's difficult for her to connect with others by normal means, that's why she tends to be a bit… violent." The woman sounded genuinely sad about her, she truly was worried. "But where are my manners, my name is Friedrich der Große, and I am the leader of shipgirl faction known as Iron Blood." She made a small reverence. "Can you tell me your name and which faction you represent?"
Even if Kirishima wanted to answer, she couldn't, she didn't have enough strength to do it.
"You can't, can you? Roon really hurt you, my poor child." Friedrich hugged Kirishima's mangled body and caressed her head. "If only you weren't trying to spy on us, then I would have been able to do more for you." She separated from Kirishima. "Alas, I can't."
She took a few steps backward.
"I don't enjoy any of this, I assure you." A conducting baton appeared on her hand. "But sometimes a mother has to be strict with her children to protect them, even if it means hurting them a little."
She started moving her baton, and instruments began to sound around her as if an ensemble of musicians were with her.
"Now, let my song reach your ears and find its way to your very own soul." She moved her baton swiftly around her. "My song that is only for you, my child, my Sonata of Chaos."
Her music quickly reached Kirishima, and it was beautiful. She never cared about music before, but the sonata of the horned woman was astonishing. It was a bliss that almost made her forget the pain she was feeling.
Yes, she no longer felt pain, instead she felt... sadness.
The song that reached her ears was a melancholic song, it made her miss her home and her friends, it reminded her that she would probably die there and she would never see them again.
it reminded her that no one would come to save her, that she was alone.
Tears quickly began to fall down her cheeks.
"Ah... ah... ah!" Her resolution had crumbled, and her spirit was being broken with every note she heard. Even though she was ready to die for her nation a few moments ago, in that instant she could feel nothing more than a corrosive despair crushing her entire being. "Ahhhhhhhhh!"
Kirishima screamed and screamed, but the music didn't stop.
Her screams were the best accompaniment.
END OF CHAPTER 20
ARC 2: END
AN: Chapter 20 is done, and with it the second arc of this story (In case you are wondering, Arc 1 ended in chapter 6)
When I first started writing the story I wanted one thing: that Ritsuka becoming a commander made sense in the story. I didn't want him to just show up one day and immediately accept the job and I didn't want the AL characters to just accept him that easily. Funny that it took more than 100k words to reach the point I wanted.
Regardless, this arc is finally done and I am personally satisfied with it. Re-reading some old parts, especially the middle parts, made me feel that it was dragging a bit, but I really feel that these last 3 or 4 chapters showed how much I improved as a writer, despite the fact that the release schedule may have not been the best. (don't blame me, blame college)
Usual announcement; I have a Discord server where I posted periodic updates and we talk about dumb things: discord. gg / kvRCbruzaT (erase the spaces, obviously)
And I think that's it for now, see you guys in Arc 3.