The tour guide leads the group into the next room. He smiles in an effort to re-engage the attention of some of the more distracted members; since they are ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the ceiling, he takes the time to explain the baroque ornamentation.
He addresses himself primarily to the small group at the back—two Japanese girls and an older woman, strikingly tall and elegantly dressed. That little subgroup, at least, seem to be paying attention. The others are barely listening, though, he knows; as he speaks, he is inwardly cursing the others for their lack of proper appreciation and respect. This is not a new feeling: with each passing year, the crowds seem more and more uncouth. Even as he smiles and speaks smoothly, he simmers inwardly with rage day after day, week after week, month after month.
And day after day, week after week, month after month, the Daemonia inside him have divided and divided, awaiting their moment.
The small boy in the front of the group who has been obviously chewing his gum the whole time blows an enormous bubble. It pops, splattering the front of the tour guide's jacket.
The moment is at hand.
Seira hefted the wooden sword, the unfamiliar weapon heavy in her hands as she circled the edges of the training ground.
In the centre, the blindfolded Akari stood stock still, listening for the slightest sound that might give away Seira's presence. Seira trod as lightly as she could, every footstep delicate and poised.
Suddenly, Akari lunged forward; Seira sidestepped out of the way just in time. "Missed me!" she said lightly, unwilling to let Akari know how close she had been.
Akari didn't allow the teasing to break her concentration; she simply retreated back into the centre. Seira took a moment to admire her discipline, her fortitude as she resumed circling around her. The Akari she had first met would have undoubtedly taken the opportunity she was offering of some light banter; indeed, the Akari she had first met would not have stayed behind to train further while the others went out to see the sights of Vienna. But then a lot had changed; Akari was far more focused now, determined that they would find a way not to just to defeat the Daemonia, but to save the people they had possessed. Their tour of the different Sefiro Fiore branches was as much an opportunity for Akari to persuade the other directors that the cause was worthwhile as it was a chance for the quartet to deepen their understanding of their tarot powers.
Almost imperceptibly to one who was not watching her intently, Akari's eyebrow twitched above the cloth wrapped around her eyes. Seira froze in place, waiting to see what would happen.
And then, it was happening: Akari was dragging the tip of her sword along the floor, building up to a run. Even though it was only a wooden training sword, barely more than a toy, in that moment it seemed as fierce and deadly a weapon as Akari's elemental sword was when they battled the Daemonia.
Seira began to sprint away but Akari turned; Seira dodged back, only to realise that Akari had anticipated the move, and she felt the sword thud heavily into her side. If the blade had been sharp, the stroke would have cut clean across her torso, she had no doubt.
She lay where she had landed, Akari standing above her. Still blindfolded, she said, "Do you yield?"
"I yield," Seira said.
Only then did Akari break into a grin, as with one hand she whipped the blindfold away from her face, and offered the other to help Seira up. Seira took it, pushing down deep the feelings that always arose now whenever there was some reason for them to have even the slightest direct contact.
"So what do you think?" Akari said. "Am I getting better?"
"Your form was a little sloppy, that last but one time," Seira said. It was true, but it was also a way of teasing her, and of keeping the right distance between them: she could hardly say what she had really felt as she had watched Akari fight.
"Well, you try doing it blindfolded!" She started muttering about not really understanding why Madame Hesperus wanted her to train this way in the first place.
"Ah, but the sword is not my weapon," Seira said.
"So you could shoot an arrow blindfolded, is that what you're saying?"
Akari's tone was light, but there was still an implicit challenge in it. Seira walked over to put the sword away and pick up her bow and arrow instead. "Let's see, shall we?"
Akari stood behind her, and Seira suppressed an unbecoming shudder of delight as she got close enough to tie the blindfold around her eyes.
"I'll set up the target," Akari said.
"You'll have to tell me distance and elevation."
Silence for a moment, then Akari giggled. "Silly me, you can't see me nodding. Yes, I will."
It took Akari a moment to wrangle the archery target into position from where it waited at the side of the ground. If Seira was any judge, from the sounds of dragging and scraping, Akari was setting it up about twenty metres away.
"Twenty-two metres," Akari announced. "Dead centre." Seira drew back her bow. "Wait! Let me get out of the way first."
"I'm not going to shoot you," Seira said.
"OK," Akari said a few moments later from beside her, "whenever you're ready."
Seira released her arrow instantly and heard it whistle through the air, followed by the satisfying thunk of it striking home. She used her free hand to pull the blindfold away, but Akari's delighted response was already enough to tell her she had hit the bullseye.
"Let's try again with a harder one," Seira said.
But before Akari could even nod her agreement, the alert siren began to wail. Seira removed the blindfold fully and she and Akari shared a look. Madame Hesperus, who used the Chariot card, had accompanied Luna and Ginka on their tour, and so they were the only two card users here; one thing they had soon learned as they began their travels was that most Sefiro Fiore branches functioned mostly as observation stations, calling in help as needed. The concentration of card users in Nagataki had been a consequence of not only the patterns of inheritance but also the organisation's foreknowledge, imperfect though it was, that something was destined to take place there.
They raced inside to the Chasm.
Another surprise that had awaited them when they began interacting with other branches was that each had its own unique methods of interfacing with the Astralux. Marie, one of the Parisian familiars, had been rather disdainful of their surprise at finding that there they had to hurry their way through a shifting maze at the start of each mission, as though it should have been obvious that it would be different to the Tendo sisters' giant astral clockwork at home. Here in Vienna, though, they simply had to fall, leaping into a seemingly bottomless pit buried underneath the "Analytical Institute" building. At the top of it was a telescope—inverted, so that it pointed down, rather than up. Most of the time this telescope was how Keller—a construct of hard planes of differently coloured light, intersecting at odd angles, who served the same role here as the Tendo sisters did back home—maintained his vigil over the Astralux, but in emergencies it became something rather different.
"I am sorry to interrupt your training," Keller said, his planes back and forth dancing nervously, "but I believe Madame Hesperus and the young misses are in danger."
"You mean—" Akari began.
"Indeed, the Daemonia just happened to emerge at Schloss Schönbrunn, where they were visiting." Seira and Akari exchanged a dark look—what if it wasn't a case of something "just happening", but some new active malicious agent sowing trouble? If Cerebrum could develop free will, who was not to say that other Daemonia might not also? "I can still read them through the Astralux," Keller went on. His planes blanched to white for a moment as he said, "But only very faintly."
"There is no time to waste," Seira said. She held out her hand for Akari to take—there was no time, in this emergency, to think about the warmth of it, or the feeling of Akari's skin against her own, though she knew that part of her was already filing away the memory to obsess over later—and they jumped together.
They fell, and fell, and fell, their hair streaming out above them, their clothes billowing. Fell for far longer than should have been possible, until, finally, Keller aligned the co-ordinates and activated the telescope's secondary mode, projecting instead of receiving light—Seira had still not been able to work out whether this was some sort of extension of Keller himself, or just something utilising the same strange magic or technology that he himself was constructed from. A bright violet beam seared past them, and below them the Chasm lit up, filled with violet light with only two small gaps in it, just large enough for them to fit through.
Akari released Seira's hand at the last possible moment as they fell through—
—and now they were flying, not falling, the change completely instantaneous yet not in any way disorientating.
"There!" Akari said, pointing ahead.
And indeed, the Daemonia was unmissable. Looming above them, its body was constructed of architecture, each joint surrounded by golden ornamentation. Around it, paintings hovered, like strange shields, or blunt weapons waiting to be used.
And below, three prone forms—Luna, and then, wrapped in some form of tentacle, Ginka and Madame Hesperus. Looking at the Daemonia itself, there seemed to be no sign of them having even scratched it. How had it felled them so quickly?
Beyond the veil that separated the Astralux from quotidian reality, they could see frightened civilians cowering as the Daemonia rampaged. At this rate…
"Seira!" Akari yelled. "I can't hear it. Why can't I hear it?"
"We have to be quick," Seira said. "It's already dispatched three of us."
Akari nodded, drawing her sword out of her card. At the same time, Seira summoned her bow, and loosed three arrows simultaneously. Akari sprinted behind them, ready to strike at the first possible moment.
Suddenly, she felt an intense pain in her belly and fell backwards, doubled over. Looking down, she saw crimson blood spilling forth from an open wound, sliced clean across underneath her ribcage.
Dread filled Seira then. She had tried to inflict damage on the Daemonia, and instead it was she who was wounded. Was this, could this be, a Daemonia powered by her counterpart card?
"No, that's not what this is!" Akari said. Looking across at her, Seira saw that she had three wounds: one a gash on the side of her neck that she was holding the blindfold she had still had in her pocket to; the next, a pinprick over her heart; and the last, in the side of her torso.
Exactly where I aimed my arrows.
"And I can hear your thoughts, not its," Akari said. "I don't know how, but it's rebounding our abilities onto one another. And look at the others." She gestured to where their comrades lay. "The bindings on Ginka and Madame Hesperus—they're Luna's vines." She was right.
"So, what do we do? Not fight?" Seira looked out at what was happening amongst the civilians, scattering in panic. "We can't leave them to die. And we have to rescue the others."
Akari took a deep breath. "I think…I think we have to fight each other."
Suddenly, without warning, Akari swung her sword. It connected with Seira's neck, and she was knocked sideways.
But it was the Daemonia that screamed in pain. "It's working!" Seira said as she clambered back up from the floor.
"Aim at me," Akari said.
Seira drew back her bow, but found herself shaking. How do I fire at the one I love?
"Seira! Emotions are not weakness." Seira desperately battled to keep her thoughts under control, suddenly acutely aware that Akari had said she could read them. But, like trying not to think of an elephant, doing so only brought them closer to the surface, even here in this desperate situation—everything from that initial frustration with Akari, which now seemed to her like the grit that had made the pearl of her love, to the way in which it was Akari who had finally made her feel part of a team, to the late nights they'd spent working out, Akari listening patiently to Seira's explanations, and the way her dedication to the exercises had gradually made her grow even more attractive, both mentally and physically, from Seira's point of view—
"We can talk about everything later," Akari said, gently. "But there will only be a later if we do this now, Seira." She managed a grim smile as she pointed to the wound in her chest, from which blood continued to spill forth, staining the front of her outfit, just as the blood running from her head wound seemed to add an extra lock to her hair. "Your aim is better than mine."
"I— I can't." Seira began to lower her bow. "I'm not going to shoot you."
"Yes you are," Akari said. "Close your eyes."
Seira didn't understand, but complied anyway, trusting in Akari.
But why was Akari backing away? Seira could sense that she was, even over the screams of the bystanders around them and the demented howling of the Daemonia.
"Twenty two metres, dead centre," Akari said when she had stopped moving. "Take the shot, Seira."
Eyes still closed, Seira drew back her mystic bow, loosed her arrow. She knew that it had struck true, even before she heard the sound of Akari being driven backwards, and the Daemonia yelling in fury as the wound was transferred to it. Did it—could it—know what was happening?
"Keep your eyes closed!" Akari yelled.
Seira thought that she was going to be calling out another shot, from her new position, but then she heard the scraping as her sword ignited against the stony ground, and Akari's battle cry that became, more than ever, a cry of pain as well as rage as she approached, until finally her sword sank deep into Seira's chest, straight through her sternum.
How doesn't this hurt? Seira wondered. She could feel that it was there, but it wasn't causing her any pain. Nor did it seem to be doing any further damage to her; it was the existing wound across her torso that was responsible for her starting to feel faint.
But there was no time to wonder; she could hear now that the Daemonia was screaming, a scream fit to tear down the walls of reality forever. She opened her eyes; behind Akari, the Daemonia's Diablos Tarot card was fully exposed; the combination of their attacks on each other had transferred to it exactly as planned, and it was near defeat.
But, strategically valuable though that information was, it was the sight of Akari herself that commanded most of Seira's attention. She was standing with both hands on the hilt of her sword, that was driven into Akari's chest, and weeping. "I didn't want you to see me do this."
"Its card is ready to be destroyed," Seira said. "You have to finish it. Just a little further…"
"No!" Akari's reaction was instinctive, Seira could see, but she tried to marshal arguments for it. "What if the effect wears off once it's dead? What if I can't wake Luna in time for her to heal you?"
Seira gripped the sword between both hands, not caring about the way that its flaming edge was charring her skin. She pulled with what remained of her strength, to force it further in.
"All right, then," Akari said. "Together." She knelt down next to Seira, one hand still on the hilt, and brought one of Seira's hands up to meet it.
Then, as they drove it downwards together, Akari bent down and kissed her.
For a brief moment, it was, all at the same time, the most terrible and most wonderful experience of Seira's life, taking place to the surreal accompaniment of the dying wails of a Daemonia.
And then she passed out.
There were fragments of consciousness. She heard whispered voices discussing her condition, saw different qualities of light streaming in through the blinds of the Institute's infirmary—bright daylight sunshine, twinkling starlight of night time—from one subjective moment to the next. She didn't know how much time had passed since the fight, or was passing as she lay there.
What she did know was that every time she managed to open her eyes even a fraction, she saw Akari sat at her bedside. If Akari noticed, she would leap to her feet, hold Seira's hand, and start to talk, but as soon as Seira attempted to reply, consciousness slipped away from her again.
Finally, she awoke properly. She felt a dull ache across the top of her belly—Akari's sword, slashing at the Daemonia, but affecting her instead—and a much sharper one in her breast—the sword, plunging into her to defeat it—and her palms were wrapped with bandages to protect the skin that she could almost feel regrowing—her hands, gripping the sword even as it burned them, to help Akari find the resolve to drive it home.
Akari held her hands, smiling through tears but still not saying anything.
"How long has it been?" Seira asked. Her own voice sounded alien in her ears.
"Six days and six nights," Luna said. "You've been very ill. Luna did everything she could…"
Seira slumped back into the bed, astonished. She'd taken some heavy licks in battle before, but she'd never been out for so long.
Akari's expression was hard to read; obviously, she'd been concerned about Seira, but there seemed to be more than that, something that still weighed on her even though Seira was now recovering. "Akari?" she said softly.
"There is something we have to talk about," Akari said.
"I would think that there's a great deal," Seira said, hating herself for sounding as hesitant as she did. This was not like her. "After what you must have seen in my mind."
Akari laughed, briefly, but then her eyes went wide with despair. "That's exactly it." She gripped Seira's bandaged hands in her own. "That's what we need to talk about. It's all anyone else has been talking about, anyway."
"I don't understand," Seira said.
"While you've been…asleep, the whole organisation has been very busy trying to work out what happened."
"The whole organisation? Then—"
"We're not sure yet whether it's that the situation is so dire that the familiars have been allowed to share more information between branches, or whether they're defying orders." Akari looked pained. "It was through defying orders that I found out, and now everyone knows. But I wanted to make sure I told you, before you heard it—"
"Akari, just what is it that you are talking about?"
"We've been trying to work out how the Daemonia we fought deflected our attacks onto one another," Akari said. "Whether it was messing with our elemental powers in some way, or…something else."
"It worked on my ability to hear them, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Seira said ruefully.
"But that isn't an elemental power. So you see, it was a clue, an important clue I've been told." Akari looked happy for a moment, but then became stricken again, and Seira couldn't think how to console her, because she had no idea what was wrong. "In a way it's similar because it's also my inheritance, but it's a very different sort of inheritance."
"I'm half-Daemonia," Akari whispered, looking down at Seira's hands, still clasped in hers. "The man my mother fell in love with…he was infected, though no one knew it at the time. And so it was passed on to me. That was the only reason Cerebrum's scheme could ever have worked." Seira sat up, finding it more difficult than she imagined. Before she could say anything, Akari carried on, "I'll understand if this changes the way you feel about me. If you think it makes me…weak."
Seira gripped Akari's hands tightly, fighting the urge to wince as the new flesh under her bandages bent like that for the very first time. "I think it makes you strong." She let out a laugh, then. "You've had the darkness inside you all your life, and never succumbed to it."
Akari blinked away the tears that were forming in the corners of her eyes. "Do you really mean it?"
"Have you ever known me to say anything I didn't really mean?"
Akari smiled. "No, no I haven't." She leaned in then and kissed Seira, gently at first then increasingly insistently.
Seira returned the kiss enthusiastically, only realising when they finally broke for air how hard her heart was beating. "I may need to rest after that," she said with a smile.
"I'll stay with you until you fall asleep," Akari said.
"You were here while I was asleep too," Seira said. "I remember, the times I nearly woke up."
"I stayed as much as I could," Akari said. "I didn't want to lose you, when I'd only—we'd only…"
"I—" Seira began, then stopped to marshal her thoughts. "I had no idea you felt the same way. I thought… I don't know what I thought."
"You shouldn't be surprised," Akari said. "All those nights we've worked out, and all the help you've given me… And you're so strong, and…well, there are other aspects to it too—it has given you a great body."
Seira came as close as she ever had to blushing, then, and said quietly, "So do you."
Akari giggled then, but didn't try to deflect the compliment.
Seira lay back down. "So…tell me everything I've missed."
"Luna is…well, she's been worried about you, like everyone. Ginka has discovered 'fondue' and has barely eaten anything else for the last—"
Seira smiled at her. "I'll find out all of that for myself soon enough. I meant the big picture stuff."
Akari paused for a long moment. "Keller's latest research suggests that the Daemonia are…evolving. I think the Tendo sisters and the others back home agree. Cerebrum may have been only one example, developing free will one way for them to defend themselves. We may be dealing with someone else like Cerebrum, or the Daemonia we fought may have had that ability entirely…instinctively."
"Evolving? Defend themselves from us? You're saying, we are applying selection pressure?"
"It means the fight is going to get harder."
"It means it's a fight we can win," Seira said fiercely.
"I hope you're right," Akari said. "But…you know I don't just want to win. I want to work out how we save the people who've been transformed. Even if we'll never bring back everyone who's been forgotten, if we can save people in the future, it will mean their sacrifices weren't in vain."
"I know all that," Seira said. "It's one of the reasons why I love you," she added quietly. "And there is hope. You are the hope."
"What do you mean?"
Seira turned onto her side, so that her whole body was facing Akari. "Don't you see, it's not just the Daemonia who are evolving. If what you told me is true, that you're really half-Daemonia yourself, then you are something entirely new among the users of the Elemental Tarot. Maybe whatever it is that has enabled you to remain uncorrupted can be reproduced, or extended, if we can understand what it is."
"I hope you're right," Akari said.
"I know I'm right," Seira said. "And I'll stay by your side until we win, your way."
"Stay by my side forever," Akari said.
The words shocked Seira, not for Akari's boldness in saying them, but because she had never imagined the idea of living beyond the threat of the Daemonia. She had assumed for years that she would die in battle. The idea of forever stretching beyond some final victory—no, not a final victory, something altogether more splendid than that—was unnerving.
But sleep was claiming her now, the extent of her injuries and the sheer exhaustion engendered by having been out for nearly a whole week overcoming the racing of her thoughts until they dissolved into incoherence. All of it could wait for another day. They had forever, after all.
The last thing she saw as she closed her eyes was Akari, smiling at her. "Forever," Seira said, trying to grasp the idea as it flitted through her mind.
"Forever," Akari repeated. "Dream of forever, my love."