She recognizes this ground. That’s the first coherent thought that forms in her numb mind when her eyes open leisurely; she recognizes this ground and these symbols, all too well.
The second thought that slowly takes away the clouds in her head is that something must have gone wrong, terribly, terribly wrong for her to be able to open her eyes, to be able to feel the cold, hard stone of the Empyrean’s throne under her.
She tries to get up, rising her cheek from the floor and putting her right palm on the ground and then her left and then—
She screams. There are not bandages covering her left arm, and instead of finding the unnaturally blackened skin marked with red that she has come to know, she sees white, pristine skin, like nothing ever happened to change it, like it has always been like this.
The realization makes the task of getting up easier, as she tries to get away from such sight, which cannot be anything but a mirage. But the fake arm follows her and stays attached to her, even though she knows it shouldn’t, because it can’t be hers.
She forcefully tears her gaze away from the arm and takes on her surroundings. The temple is as she remembers it and it’s not. It’s like she’s seeing an old, crumbling painting of it; the white stone has been darkened by the pass of time, the carefully craved symbols smooth away with rain and wind and some of the imposing, thick pillars are falling apart.
It’s not the first time she has been victim of illusions, so this, she muses, must be another one, a lie spread to make her doubt. She imagines only Innominat could pull this off, but she cannot fathom why or how.
And then, she hears her name.
She turns, adopting a battle stance immediately, realizing that she doesn’t have her gauntlet, or any clothes on for the matter, and that if a fight arise she will be at disadvantage.
The person calling her name is one she doesn’t recognize, she frowns and bares her teeth, as a warning, hoping that she won’t have to fight like this.
But the young man calling her walks to her with confidence and without fear. She shouldn’t look much like threat, anyway.
“Velvet…” he says as a whisper “You’re Velvet Crowe.”
She squints her eyes at him, wary of his intentions. She doesn’t know him, and she doesn’t know how he could know her. As he closes the distance between them Velvet notices the man is a malak, his brown hair becoming white and yellow at the tips; he’s also wearing what seems to be a ceremonial white cloak with intricate patterns embroidered in black, and has a ceremonial looking sword hanging in his right hip.
“Velvet,” he calls again, stepping in her direction. He hasn’t stop advancing.
“Stand back!” she yells at him, stopping him immediately “who are you and what do you want?!”
He looks at her with a dumbfounded expression for a moment, like he didn’t expect her to react like that. He quickly composes a reassuring and sincere smile:
“Sorry for startling you,” he says, truly apologetic and a little sheepishly “I’m Sorey and I…” he pauses, and his smile wavers for a second “…I was the Shepherd.”
Velvet’s frown deepens at his words. The mention of such title puts her on edge and her whole body twitches on its place, almost attacking him. She resists the urge, because she doesn’t really know what’s going on and the man in front of her is a malak and obviously has his freewill, so it’s unlikely his words are a trap.
Still, even though she decides giving him the benefit of the doubt, if only because he may hold information on what’s happening, she doesn’t drop her guard.
“The Shepherd,” she repeats with utter disdain, trying to prompt him to talk.
Sorey opens his eyes a little, like he just remembered something. The sheepish smile returns to his face.
“I’m sorry,” he says again “all this must be really confusing, please follow me, I’ll explain everything or…well, Maotelus will.”
He turns and starts walking in the entrance direction, expecting her to follow. She watches him go for a moment, his relaxed demeanor making nothing to soothe the worries racing in her mind. She looks around, considering getting out of here, but the scenery around the throne is not as she knows it to look like; she remembers green pastures extending in the distance and now the throne is surrounded with low, steep hills. If this is an illusion she may find an obstacle on her scape that wouldn’t let her leave the area, but if this is not an illusion, and she can’t see how it couldn’t, then she will be on unknown territory, naked, with no blade and no daemon arm.
She decides the best course of action is to do how the malak, Sorey, says. She starts walking with bare feet over the cold stone, her steps light and soundless. When he gets in front of the huge doors he turns to look at her, making sure she’s there.
Velvet stops a few meters behind him, waiting for him to open the doors. Sorey looks at her for a moment, his face appearing suddenly somber, very much unlike the smiles he showed him not so long ago.
The grim look comes and goes quickly, way too fast for her to know if it really was there.
“By the way, aren’t you uncomfortable?” he asks, referring to her bare body, though he seems unperturbed by it.
“It’s not like I have much of an option.” She answers. In other time she may have care about a man seeing her like this, but right now she couldn’t care less; she’s more worried about finding a blade instead of clothes if she’s honest.
“Still…” Sorey muses, looking at her “Here!” He says, like he just got an incredible idea “Put this on, at least. The wind is cold here.”
He takes off his ceremonial-looking cloak and walks towards her, extending it in one hand. Velvet takes the offer without much thought, it’s better than nothing after all. And the wind, she notices suddenly, is indeed cold here.
She puts it on, and it certainly doesn’t offer much cover, since she’s still naked from the waist down. The back of the cloak is dived in three however, so she takes the two parts at the sides, letting the middle one to cover her behind, and ties them in front of her, effectively if not practically, covering her womanhood.
Once she’s ready she nods at him and he nods back, returning to the doors and opening them.
The old, worn down stone of the doors moves little by little. It takes a while for Sorey to open a crack wide enough for them to pass.
“C’mon” he says, and hurries inside.
Velvet gives it a one last thought and with a sigh she goes in.
She wonders, while submerging in the darkness of the temple, where the others could be.
The interior of the Throne is, just like everything else, not quite as she knows it to be. It’s very dark and cold, it feels abandoned even, but in some measure it’s also welcoming. The Throne has now a tranquil atmosphere to it, almost warm despite its creepy looks; Velvet remembers a Throne basked in the white light of reason and righteousness, a place of judgment that didn’t allowed just anyone inside.
Now, in spite of its enormous size, it looks almost humble.
Sorey walks in front of her unafraid of the dark and sure of his steps, like he knows this place like the back of his hand. Velvet stays at the entrance.
As a daemon, all of her senses were highlighted, and darkness became an ally in her misdeeds instead of a handicap. But now, she realizes a little horrified, she can’t really see: everything that lies beyond the beam of light from the crack on the door are just amorphous shadows, and she’s unable to see what lies at the very back of the enormous room.
She opens and closes her fists repeatedly, trying to see if something in her left arm will change. Nothing happens.
Sorey stops, the echo of his steps suddenly missing, but she can’t see him. She just hears the quiet “oh” he exhales and suddenly there’s light.
Several meters in front of her, Sorey is looking in her direction a small ball of lighting resting in his palm: He’s holding a piece of the stormy sky in it, illuminating the place with irregular but constant light.
Velvet looks at what he’s doing and has a moment to think she hasn’t met a malak that can control lightning, not like this.
More than ever she needs answers, so she resumes her way and walks towards him. He continues too.
Soon enough they arrive to the back of the area, at the stone throne with the big Innominat symbol behind of it. Thanks to the illumination provide by Sorey’s lighting, it all looks strongly supernatural.
“Maotelus,” Sorey calls at the throne, at the symbol, at the air “Maotelus. She is here.”
Nothing happens for a while. For some long minutes the stillness of the place is almost unbearable, but Sorey is still looking at the distance, awaiting something Velvet cannot see, so she waits too.
She has so many questions hiding under her mutism. She doesn’t know who Maotelus is supposed to be or why they would be here. She guesses they’re a malak, but that doesn’t explain they presence on this place. Worse of all, apparently this Maotelus was awaiting for her.
On top of the throne a light appears. It starts as a little mote in the middle of the dark and it slowly grows in size, until the point Sorey doesn’t need to keep illuminating the area and until it becomes almost intolerable to look directly at it, but Velvet holds her gaze as steady as possible, squinting but no closing her eyes, not wanting to miss anything.
“Sorey,” the light speaks, though the sound doesn’t seem to really come from it, echoing in the wide room with an ethereal quality. The voice is powerful but gentle, too. “Sorey, leave us alone, please.”
Velvet gets on edge hearing the request.
“Of course. I’ll be just outside if you need anything.” He says, with a gentle smile in her direction, and heads for the door.
Both Velvet and Maotelus stay silent until the sound of Sorey’s steps gets completely lost.
“Who are you?” Velvet asks, her voice hard but conveying no emotion besides annoyance.
“I think you know.” The light responds, and before Velvet can say anything to that, it starts taking shape.
The circle of light slowly starts taking a humanoid form, but it’s small, like a child. Watching it transform Velvet’s stomach drops, getting a bad feeling from all of this. It starts becoming solid, taking color and details.
She sees a white rope, black stockings and brown shoes. She sees blonde hair and rebel lock standing up in a peculiar manner. She sees, with her eyes sharping, her palms sweating and her fist tightening, she sees the boy in front of her open his forest-yellow eyes and smile.
“Hi, Velvet.” Laphicet says.
“Phi?!” She questions, with disbelief.
She doesn’t understand what’s going on and the only explanation she finds is that this must be some kind of trick. Who is playing with her mind once again is of little importance at the moment, but Velvet has the utter certainty that this cannot be real.
She decided to seal herself with Innominat so Phi could live, so everyone could live, so the world and the people that she had hurt so much could live and get the second chance she didn’t think herself worthy of. She should be sleeping, eternally embraced with the god that stole her brother’s face, keeping the balance of the world after she had threw it into chaos.
“I know that this must be really confusing.” Phi says, his voice as sweet and caring like it always was when he talked to her “But I assure you, this is no trick or illusion. Please sit with me, I’ll tell you everything.”
Phi sits cross-legged on the floor and pats the cold stone beside him, inviting her to do the same. She thinks of attacking him, because this isn’t right, this isn’t how things are supposed to be.
She thinks, however, of the state of the Throne, old and abandoned, hardly a place of constant worship. She thinks of her intact left arm. She thinks of Phi and his eyes that look old and tired and where is the sweet innocence that always shone in them?
Velvet sits down, slowly.
“I think I should start from the beginning.” Phi says. The place is still dark and he is no longer emanating light, but somehow she can see him perfectly. “What do you remember, Velvet?”
Everything, she thinks, she remembers everything and why wouldn’t she remember—
“I’m sorry,” Phi says interrupting her thoughts “It’s just…it’s been a long time, you know?”
His voice still rings in the high notes of a pre-teen, his face has the chubby roundness of childhood, but he sounds so different.
“Has it?” is the only thing that she can say, tightly, her mouth dry.
“Yes,” Phi answers immediately, staring in the distance, at the blackness around them. “Yes, it has.”
Once he begins his tale, he doesn’t stop.
Sorey is sat right outside the doors, his back laying against the one he didn’t open. From here, he cannot hear the voices of Maotelus or Velvet, but is not like he needs too. He knows already what Maotelus will say to her, what he will ask of her.
He occupies his time browsing with little mind the Celestial Record. The old, tattered book has somehow survived all this time; Maotelus said it was probably imbued with mana during the purification, just like his clothes and himself, and that’s why it has manage to make it here, after all these years.
He knows the words in the book by heart, could practically rewrite it without having to look at it, could redraw its old, inaccurate maps with his eyes closed.
While his hands pass the pages with familiar, comfortable ease, he remembers the fascination, almost reverence he felt towards the book, so many years ago, when he was a human. He looks within himself for the same feeling, chasing the memory of the endless wonder that used to fill him when he read the book, even when he already knew its every secret.
Unsurprisingly, he finds nothing. He closes it with finality, sighing, deeming his search for old feelings hopeless.
He looks at the sight around him, scanning the old ruins that have become his home for the last months. He knows he will have to leave, eventually, go the world that his human self was so desperate to protect and see what his sacrifice obtained. Maotelus’ domain is still growing, it has yet to reach every corner of the world but most seraphim should already know that the he’s awake.
And for certain seraphim, it also means that Sorey should be awake.
No one has come looking for him and for the time being, he would like it to stay that way.
He gets up. The other’s conversation will probably take all day and he has nothing to occupy himself meanwhile. He has been spending his days talking to Maotelus or exploring around the ruins, never too far away.
They’re relatively close to Elysia and though Sorey doesn’t know if the village is still there, he doesn’t want to risk being seen by someone who might recognize him. In the opposite direction of the seraph town, passing one of the mountains, there’s a small human settlement; Sorey has gone there a few times, trying to figure out the state of the world from there, but the village it’s small and its people doesn’t seem to know about the Throne.
If he gets moving immediate he will be there a little before sunset and be back late at night. Going to the human town is as good distraction as anything, and maybe he will be able to get some clothes for Velvet. If what Maotelus told him about her still holds true, she won’t mind much what he gets her.
Phi starts with part of the story she knows, of their fight with Artorius and Innominat. He talks of her sacrifice with great sadness but easy resignation. He then tells her about the Four Elemental Empyreans, about how Innominat being seal away would bring imbalance to the natural forces of the world, about how they needed another one to fill his place.
She doesn’t say anything, her questions and her reproaches getting caught in her throat, putting the pieces together and…
“And I did live, Velvet,” he says, like he can tell what she’s thinking, “I lived to watch over the world, to learn about the people that inhabit it, to see them grow, and learn or to see them fall…and I chose it on my own.”
Maybe it isn’t really there and Velvet is hearing things, but there’s something like recrimination in his words. Her decision hurt him greatly, she knows, and it was probably selfish of her to choose her own, personal way of punishment, to choose her self-loathing over the possibility of living with him, with all of them.
But everything she did has always been selfish, and even now she can’t bring herself to regret doing as she did.
And so, she can’t bring herself to recriminate him, either.
“Why am I here?” she asks then.
“We’ll get to that, you need to know certain things before.”
He continues to tell her about what happened after their final battle but, she notices, he leaves out whatever came to be of their companions. Instead, he speaks of the world, of the changes that came to be when he took the place of the Fifth Empyrean and gave the Sacred Flame to the world.
Phi talks to her about centuries and centuries of history that he has seen unravel before him. History doesn’t know about Velvet Crowe, but it held the name of The Lord of Calamity and passed it down with warning; Artorius, the Abbey and their goals are also buried under the years and what remains of them are half assessed truths and the title of the Shepherd, passed down with reverence.
He explains the system that got implanted then, about the Shepherd and their squires, the Prime lord and their sub lords; about how when a daemon deserving of the title Lord of Calamity, the Shepherd appear to vanquish it. It was a cycle, he said, since malevolence was inexhaustible but so was humanity’s hope.
He also tells her about how, eventually, something went wrong. He doesn’t give her much details about how or why, but he got tainted with malevolence and couldn’t give his blessing to the world, and this was thrown into chaos once more. And Sorey came then, in an age and time when malakhim were but a legend, the Shepherd a fairies’ tale.
“He slept too,” Phi says looking at her “for a very long time, serving as my vessel so I could be purified. He slept for a long time and in fact he just woke up, just like you.”
Velvet stares at him for a long time. She doesn’t know how much time they have been here, sitting in the dark, but she cannot longer see the light coming from the door. It’s a good story, this tale he has tell her, but she still doesn’t believe him at all. She closes and open her left hand, feeling her body: she doesn’t feel the hunger she felt as a therion, and her arm doesn’t transform when he tells her to.
“Why am I here?” She asks him, closing her eyes tightly “How am I here?”
Even at the end of her journey, when she had come to terms with herself and her goals, when she found peace on her revenge, Velvet still felt desperate most of the time. There was, in the depths of her heart, a lingering feeling of desolation, rage, desperation, of all the emotions that ultimately made her a daemon. Rokurou was the same, he had told her about it one of their first nights together after they escaped Titania; she hadn’t told him of her own emotions back then, but he hadn’t need her to talk, anyway.
If she focused on those feelings she would start generating more malevolence and it was easy to get lost in them.
Now, when she looks for them, she doesn’t find them. Or at least, not in the way she remembers it; they used to consume her, to make her physically hurt, they made her head spin and her heart bleed and now…they’re there, still, but they’re as the coals of a bonfire in the early morning, burning barely and waiting patiently for her to put them finally out.
“What am I?” She hears herself say, hidden behind the dark of his eyelids.
“Being honest…I’m not so sure how you’re here” Phi decides to say after a solemn pause. “When I regain conscious of myself, a little before the purification was over, I felt a change on Innominat. Since we are basically the same being, I think he was corrupted with malevolence too and when I was purified so was him…and for some reason, we end up together. He is inside me, as we speak.”
Velvet opens her eyes and looks at him. Phi has a serious look on his face, the concentration on his features could be adorable if it wasn’t for the grave, old look of his eyes.
“Is he…?” She’s not sure what she’s asking, so she silences herself.
“He wasn’t your brother, Velvet he—”
“I know,” she interrupts him “Laphi was dead…he is dead.” It doesn’t weigh as heavy on her heart as it should and she wonders why.
She knew Innominat was not her brother, despite wearing his face and calling her sister and crying on her shoulder like Laphi used too. At the end of the day Innominat was an ancient deity that held inside him the soul of Laphicet Crowe, and she could’ve been many things but she was never delusional enough to believe that he was, truly, her Laphi.
“Is he sleep?” She questions then “Is Innominat sleep inside you or…?”
“I believe he isn’t a separate being for me anymore, in the same way I would’ve just fuel his power had he devoured me, now he’s just a fraction of mine.”
“But then how I…?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Phi says with a sigh “My guess is that you got purified too, and were brought back here but I don’t know how or why.”
He stays silent for a moment and then, in a very quiet, child-like voice, he says:
“I don’t know why…but you’re here, Velvet. You’re here.”
When Sorey comes back from his little errand, a child is waiting for him at the edge of the innumerable stairs outside the Throne. He hasn’t see him before but recognizes him as Maotelus all the same, his energy unmistakable after spending so many years as his vessel.
Maotelus is sitting at the steps, looking at the stars with an unreadable expression on his too young face.
“Sorey.” He greets him while Sorey climbs the stairs. He answers with a nod.
“I went to the human village not far from here.” Sorey explains “I went to get some clothes for Velvet…where is she?”
“She is inside, sleeping. All of this has been a real shock for her.”
He doesn’t say anything after that but Sorey has the impression he’s not done talking, so he sits beside him and looks at the firmament too. It’s a nice, fresh night with a cloudless sky.
“She cannot stay here,” Maotelus says after some time, and then he looks at Sorey “and you can’t, either.”
“Why not?” is the first thing that comes to his mouth.
Maotelus doesn’t grace him with an answer, because Sorey already knows.
“You won’t be alone, at the very least.” Maotelus says.