Tides of Darkness

Part three of Trilogy, part 1 = New Age, part 2 = Reign of Chaos

By Sh33p, CultofSh33p@aol.com

Chapter 14

The Gathering

The final of this great trilogy. Hope you got airbags, 'cause this is going to be a crashing end. Tim Seltzer, seltzer@seltzerbooks.com

Sh33p Disclaimer: Only crap I own are the original characters, and even then I don`t own five of them in full. Consider this disclaimer valid for the whole story.

Foreword:Soundtrack below.

Scene One: E.S. Posthumus - Antissa
Scene Two: KoRn - All Alone I Break
Scene Three: Guns 'n' Roses - Welcome to the Jungle
Scene Four: Zoids - Zoid Eve's Theme(The End of Confucious... I think)
Scene Five: .hackSIGN - A Stray Child
Scene Six: Gundam SEED - Wheel of Destiny
Scene Seven: Evanescence - My Immortal

It felt like an eternity, but at long last, the clock hit seven and Harry Champ could almost feel time shifting and creaking over to late afternoon. He hadn't slept since... Well, it had been at least yesterday. Somewhere in-between barking out orders, screaming at Sarah, running down a hallway of civilians, having his back set on fire, going into combat and detonating a pair of ballistic missiles right on top of his head, he had kind of lost track of minor details like sleep, going to the bathroom, eating, not breaking an arm, a leg and several ribs...

But hey, why lose track of life by getting caught up in useless details like that?

At present, Harry was laid up in a hospital bed, as opposed to being flung onto a floor and given quick fix medical help. The people who'd carried him to the in-fortress hospital wouldn't tolerate letting him wait, and while Harry would've preferred to either wait it out like a common grunt, or get chucked into one of the all-too-expensive healing tubes right off the bat, he really couldn't help but enjoy the prospects of getting to lay there and be a blob of human flesh for once. The past months, even without the added havoc of last night, had taken a toll on his body and mind that probably would've crushed most people into a fine bloody red powder.

In that regard, Harry was glad that he only had a few broken limbs and some ribs to contend with. Not to mention the burns on his back. Those would probably scar in a bad way, but at least it was something he could brag to Leena about and-

The door in cracked open.

"Speak of the devil," Harry thought with a ragged, dumb looking smile on his face as a protesting nurse showed the way in for his first, and probably only, real visitor. The only people allowed in right now were family and anyone with a rank approaching that of what he'd handed to Sarah Obscura. That Leena had managed to get in without blowing anything to Hell and back was a true testament to how far she'd come since they had first met.

"I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong," she pointed out breezily, causing Harry's stomach to sink. "I ended up having to put a hand through a desk to make them let me in."

"... Well, it beats shooting someone," Harry replied with a sage nod. At least nobody had been maimed. Terrified perhaps, but not maimed. That was always a good thing.

"That was brave of you, Harry," Leena commented without even batting an eye in his direction. Instead of sitting down on the edge of the bed, snuggling up alongside him and being a tease or a flirt, or a cute little wench who would drive him insane with joy, Harry Champ's girlfriend simply stood beside his bed and stared right over him. She was looking almost expectantly out of the window. "Stupid, suicidal and desperate, but also brave. At least this time, you got blown up for something worth while," she said, smiling a little. It was only thanks to the orange and red light of the setting sun that he actually noticed how many scars had been etched and fried into her face. The fact that she was wearing a CDF jumpsuit and combat boots didn't exactly help for how aged it made her look.

Though the glasses certainly helped cuten her appearance dramatically. If Harry had thought Leena to be cute in that 'I'LL RIP YOUR FACE OFF AND USE IT AS TOILET PAPER!!!' way before the scars and the glasses, he now thought she looked cute in the more traditional 'Fringe' kind of way.

"I thrive on being blown to smithereens," he replied after a few seconds of staring. The old Leena probably would've butchered him for looking at her like that. The new one just rolled her eyes in a joking way.

"I noticed. You have to be the biggest masochist I've ever met," she commented amusedly.

"Why not have a seat?" Harry asked abruptly, changing the subject without a second thought.

"Because I'm waiting for something. Or someone, whichever comes first," Leena answered with a far away look in her eyes. Harry almost automatically felt a tinge of jealousy for whatever it was, but he also had the maturity to push it aside.

"Who or what is it?" He asked, using his unbroken arm to grab the bed controls and incline it enough that he could sit up.

"I'm not quite sure. It's just..."

One of those melodramatic pauses he'd become accustomed to experiencing while speaking to other people. One that Leena herself almost never had at all.

"Lately... I've been noticing things. Patterns, you could call them," she explained, pausing again and then speaking up once more. "Well, not really patterns since there's no true order in them. It's chaotic, but if you look closely enough-"

Something reflected off of her glasses. A distant twinkle of silver, tinted orange at the edge thanks to the sun's glow. At that, whatever Leena was going to say, she dropped like a stone. Instead, she sighed.

"Whatever it is, Schubaltz must've noticed it too. Probably sooner than I did. Either way, it's a moot point and fate's calling," she said, finally looking down on him with the teasing smile he had been expecting. The one she'd often give him when she had wanted money from him.

"Don't break anything else while I'm gone, ya bum," she ordered sternly, just before doing an about face and leaving.

Stunned, Harry couldn't even muster up the energy for a proper WTF Look. Instead, he just shook his head.

"I'll probably never understand you," he thought. "But I guess I don't even have to either."

He had gone to a rec-room. He had laid down. He hadn't moved from there aside from the odd urge to get food, and the even odder compliance of his body to get and eat it. It wasn't that food was alien to him or anything - he wouldn't be fifteen going on sixteen if it was. It was more that he just hadn't felt like eating, drinking, sleeping, being awake or... Very much at all over the past week or three. Sure, he'd had his uppity moments, but for the most part, the only real reason he hadn't wasted away was because others had been around to keep him going.

For whatever reason, he had finally found himself giving in to hunger that he hadn't even noticed before. That alone was cause for curiosity.

"It's not like I didn't ask for it," he reasoned blandly. The flash of his hand plunging through his other self's chest went before the thought, and again after it, this time from a different angle. It was a visual he hadn't been able to escape whenever he slept, and by now, the shock value had worn off. For that matter, so had the guilt. Anymore, the only thing that bothered him about it was that he had done it at all. It didn't wear on his conscience and it didn't numb him at the core, it just left him somewhat disturbed.

"I smell like three week old sock," he thought a few seconds later, having finished his meal a full five or six minutes earlier. The rec-room was empty. Nobody had come in or left it since he had arrived, and given the state of the locals, it was doubtful that anyone would be coming anytime soon either.

He should've bothered taking a shower. After all, there wasn't any harm in doing so. He wasn't really needed by anyone right now. He didn't have anything else to do. So why not grab a towel and wander off for a nice, warm shower?

Because something itched at his spine. It didn't feel like when Will was around either. It was more like a nagging feeling that he needed to be somewhere else. Somewhere open. Without walls. Only belatedly, he realized that he felt trapped in here. He couldn't see the sky, the air smelled stale and the lighting sucked.

"No point in showering," he concluded at last, feeling the urge to run outside and gasp for all the fresh air he could get. Even then, the rational part of his mind followed the first conclusion with a second: "Everything around here just smells like soot, blood and gunpowder. Not like anyone's gonna notice if I have some B.O. going on or anything," he thought. In an uncharacteristic manner, he actually relished going so long without cleaning himself up. It felt like he had shrugged off a few of his older obsessive habits - like cleaning things until they all but sparkled.

No amount of scrubbing was going to make this city sparkle again in his lifetime. Granted, Jamie didn't expect to see his next birthday with the shape the world was in right now, but he had a hunch that even if he grew to be a hundred, Champton, and all of Zi for that matter, would still be wearing scars from the reign of chaos it had endured so far.

"I'm gonna go outside," he said aloud, even though there wasn't anyone to actually hear him say it. Pausing long enough to pull his white gloves off and casually fling them onto the rec-room table, Jamie was soon headed for the door without a second of hesitation.

Like so many doors in his life were supposed to, this particular door swung open without any difficulty. It was ironic, in a detached way, that Jamie had always expected the hard parts of life to be physical. Instead of having to beat a door into opening with his fists and a tool he probably would've had no clue how to properly use, he had always found himself struggling with doors that weren't even real. He had strained, and almost died, in the bid to open the door to becoming a good pilot, and in doing so, he had simply unleashed his own antithesis in the form of the Wild Eagle. He had struggled against that door for a while too, and then when he had broken it down...

He had lost purpose. Now he had opened the door to purpose, but it wasn't enough. Love was a joke - aside from that failed bid at a serious relationship with Leyla, he'd never had any luck with that kind of thing at all. He was probably lucky that he wasn't going to die a virgin. Helping others was nice, but it left little of the personal and intellectual gain he craved. It was like dumping a cup of water on a campfire every few hours and expecting it to go out.

Regardless of his internal strife, or even more serious lack thereof, Jamie had eventually strolled his way out of the rec-room and into a lobby, never noticing the fact that the elevator doors behind him were opening. He also failed to notice the girl in the jumpsuit who had arrived only a few moments before him.

"MRS. OBSCURA!!!" Someone screamed out loudly over the blare of the thirty or so alarms that happened to be within earshot of her. At some level, even as she outwardly cussed like a sailor on shore leave, Sarah had to feel thankful for the sudden escape from having to personally show the General and his rotten family around the fortress as she'd offered upon his arrival.

Everywhere else though, her profanity basically summed it up. Without even bothering with the formality of telling Schubaltz that she was, very obviously, needed elsewhere, Sarah had bolted for the nearest door with the screaming officer in tow. Within three seconds, said-door had flipped open, both of them had passed through it and afterward, it had slammed shut so loudly that she could almost hear Schubaltz's wife calling her an unsophisticated brute with a shoddy command style.

That alone made the alarms worth while.

"What is it?" She demanded now that they had gotten into a hallway that lead directly to an air-traffic command room that could double as a makeshift central command post. They had already begun walking towards it when the door they'd come through flung open again to reveal that Schubaltz was following them. Without guards. Either the man was nuts or brilliant to try tagging along at this point, but that didn't matter right now.

"There's an incoming... Something from up-north, ma'am," the officer stated at an almost frantic, nerve-addled pace. "It's shooting down from what looks like low-orbit at... Shit, we can't even tell how fast it's going since the scanner pings on it aren't consistent but-"

"I get the picture. Have you tried shooting it down?" She asked abruptly, even as Schubaltz caught up with them and flanked the officer's other side.

"We tried, but none of the leftover missile systems could get a lock and the only Zoid we've got airborn right now is an SCO-class Pteras that's only got its nose gun," the officer replied. Judging from the fact that he was almost sweating bullets, Sarah was willing to guess that they had definately tried everything to gun it down by now, and had probably only come for her when they'd run out of options. After all, it wasn't really prudent to interrupt a meeting like that one she'd been in if it could be resolved without her.

Assuming that this could be resolved at all.

A few seconds ticked by before the trio practically blasted through the open doorway and into the air-traffic control room, which still had a few of its windows missing and a couple holes in the ceiling from the nights before. Bloodstains were also burnt into the floor, but the machinery in it - computers, communications systems and the like - was all still fully functional.

"ETA?" Sarah demanded without even blinking as the officer stumbled behind and Schubaltz assumed the ever annoying 'hey, I'm really an UNASSUMING MILITARY GENIUS! FEELFREETOCONSULTME!!!' pose somewhere behind her.

"Thirt- fourt-... Shit... Ten sec- Eight," one of the radar observers sputtered out in a failing bid to keep track of the incoming object. Without even looking at the poor girl, Sarah had stormed over to a window, looked out and spotted it herself.

It was like watching some sort of hybrid between a comet, a lightning bolt and a fireworks display on acid all at once. With grace, speed and precision that, quite frankly, should've liquified the internal organs of any human pilot, the thing halted suddenly in mid-air. Then it bolted sideways, straight down and back on course, leaving the SCO Pteras to fly right through its former path with its nose gun blazing and its oversized Radome spinning madly.

"Open fire!" She shouted out, even though common sense ruled that it was futile. None of Gyran's remaining air-defense guns were positioned properly to track it. None of the missile systems could track it and no amount of manual aiming was going to stop it.

A second later, it was over.

Sarah felt her heart skip at least three beats. Her breath caught in her throat and one could probably see a few hairs on her head turn as white as snow.

The object, a bright silver streak of light, came to within spare feet of the landing pad at speeds that should've sent shockwaves throughout the landing zone.

And then it stopped. Not only did it stop, it warped. It coalesced first into a shining, sparking and spinning sphere of what looked like silver lightning, then molded into the shape of a hammerhead. A few seconds later, the glow faded out entirely to reveal the shape of a completely ordinary, utterly plain Hammerhead II that had Stigma Stoller's company logo plastered on its side in faded red-and-purple.

"... What in the hell?" Otto sputtered out from behind her, having stepped forward by now. Sarah didn't know why, but her heart skipped another beat as she stared at it.

And then, as Otto spoke out for the second time, the realization hit her.

"That's Vega's transport..."

A lesser woman would've screamed and fainted on the spot. Sarah simply whipped into an about-face and took off in the fastest run that her legs could ever hope to manage. Without so much as a word, she headed through the door and made a break for the nearest elevator to ground level.

"We're here."

A simple two-word sentence, composed of four syllables, eight letters, a space and a period. In peaceful times, it was the kind of statement usually said by exhausted parents with the word 'finally' included. Said-parents would've been exhausted by hours, maybe even days at a time, spent driving through the deserts both on and off of the highway, with the additional toll taken by their children asking whether or not they had arrived, how close they were and when they would arrive. Typically, these questions would come on the order of every two to fifteen minutes. Occasionally, it would precurse shouting matches, temper tantrums and threats of pulling over.

Instead, the statement made by Lars Torson had been greeted with a nonchalant, almost lazy looking shrug. And then, as the mechanic-turned-transport pilot had wiped his eyes, yawned and started trying to contact the local air traffic control network in order to avoid being bombed on the landing pad, Vega had left him. He'd stood up from his chair, turned towards the door in and out of the bridge room and he'd left. With Specular in tow, as always.

Normal children were supposed to ask those questions. He didn't. He didn't do a lot of the things that normal eleven, twelve and even thirteen year olds do. He didn't cuss excessively, didn't live on soda and sugar and he didn't try to act five years older in the interests of seeming cool. Instead of all of that, Vega Obscura seemed to carry himself like someone who was ten years older than he was, with the clouded and shadowed eyes of someone decades older than that. He didn't act more mature, he really was more mature.

In some ways, he had to wonder whether or not that fact was starting to disturb his former team-mate. Maybe it even frightened him to an extent, but Vega couldn't really say. Not because he couldn't just find a way to yank the information out of him, but because he had the decency not to.

Regardless, it had only taken the pair a minute or so of stalking down a narrow hallway, turning once and coming to a stop before they had arrived at their next destination. It was a plain door, unmarked and presently shut. Without Vega even lifting a finger though, it had opened in the snap of a finger.

He found himself facing the collarbone of a man he'd once looked up to almost like an older brother. The months and the violence had humanized the blonde now, made him less unbeatable and more real. The joker's gleam in his eyes, the one that took nothing seriously enough, was gone now. It had been replaced by something even more bland and weathered than his own. To an extent, he still looked up to the man standing in front of him, but only as far as he had to lean his head back to make eye contact.

"We're here," Vega stated simply.

"I know," Bit replied with an empty tone of voice and the blank look to match it.

"They're expecting us," Vega pointed out.

"I know," Bit replied again.

He still hadn't even bathed since the carnage in Nyx. Granted his actual body was clean now, but his clothes were still all but dyed red, black and brown in human blood, Hell's ash and his own dried up vomit. The stench had been so bad that it had practically canceled itself out.

"Aren't you going to come and meet everyone?" Vega asked. By now, a gold-edged silhouette with green eyes had appeared behind the blonde pilot, towering over him like some kind of monster. If it wasn't Zeke, he would've been afraid. Vaguely.

"Why bother?" Bit asked in return, his hands slowly edging up to his pockets. He didn't bother giving a reason.

"I'll drag you. Kicking and screaming. Again," Vega stated as a fact, as opposed to an idle threat.

For a long couple of moments, he could practically feel the pressure of Bit's eyes sizing him up. Physically speaking, he had the presence of mind to know that he would've been killed in the opening blows if he tried the direct approach of beating the blonde senseless. Outside of that though, both of them had the presence of mind to know that it would've been mutually fatal, considering that Vega had the Micro-Sworder trump card lying around and a willingness to use it.

Finally though, Bit shrugged.

"Fine," he said.

With that and nothing else, the two of them, with Zeke and Specular bringing up the rear, had made a byline for the nearest exit. Another minute ticked by before the sound of the door's pressure locks gasping open hit his ears. Another few seconds after that, the door had expanded outward, its hinges squeeking before it finally flipped open all together. With a clang, it swung into the side of the ship to reveal the landing pad and the inside of Gyran Fortress' ancient walls at sunset. The stairs were already unfolding by the time that the doors of the building in front of them had slipped open.

People were coming to greet them. He'd expected as much.

With a casual wave that was as energetic as he could muster, Vega began to step down the stairs and towards the pad below with Bit not far behind him. Only a small number had come to see their arrival, but he knew at a glance that every single one of them was here for some kind of reason that they themselves didn't even understand.

It was a moment of transition. That was the only way he could really have thought to describe it.

"The gang's all here," he thought, but didn't say, with a passingly amused look.

Jamie Hameros, the Tauros family, Pierce Summers, Sarah Obscura and Leyon Martin. Of the group, only Pierce seemed even remotely out of place since she wasn't exactly related to anyone present by a decade or more of friendship or a blood connection of some sort.

"So where's Stoller?" He asked at the instant his feet hit the ground, even as a tingle on the back of his neck informed him that another person had popped up to see what was going on. A blonde woman in a half-tattered jumpsuit, watching from a suitable distance after having exited a nearby hangar.

The convenience of this was so astounding that he wanted to wring someone by the neck.

Unfortunately, the silence of everything was also so heavy that nobody seemed willing to break it after he'd spoken. His mother was on the verge of running up and screaming at him while simultaneously breaking his midsection in a bearhug, the current and former members of the Blitz Team were all gaping at their blood encrusted comrade and Leyon was looking at the descending Organoids with eyes that bordered on having pink hearts in them.

By now, a second tingle had alerted him to another new arrival. Another woman, no less. This time, he distinctly recognized her as being Naomi Fluegel. She'd probably been passing by in much the same way as the woman before her, not even aware of whatever force it was dragging her towards the gathering that was taking place.

"Where's Brad?" Bit finally asked. Nearby, he could practically feel Naomi tensing up, and he could see something unreadable flickering through the eyes of both Jamie and Leena. He, of course, already knew.

"Brad's dead," Vega answered without even turning to face the Liger pilot. "I'm just glad to see everyone else is intact," he forced himself to say, even though he actually meant it.

Whatever their individual reactions to the news were, the silence that hung overhead completely shattered after that. Vega, to no small surprise, wound up being grabbed into a near body-breaker of a hug by his mother, accompanied by a horde of questions that made him want to shrink back into Specular's insides and bolt for the Fury. Bit wound up scratching the back of his head with a vacant look and trying to gauge everyone else.

Leyon seemed unphased. Pierce just laid a hand on Leon's shoulder to try and distantly console him. Jamie looked on the edge of either throwing up or laughing his head off. Leena didn't even show a sign of surprise beyond a grim headshake and Steve just rubbed his eyes. Nearby, Naomi had sighed aloud and without even stopping by, walked off.

After all, it was just further confirmation of what a dead man had already told her.

It took a few minutes after that for the center of attention to break apart and shift in every direction. Steve and Leyon took to harrassing the bewildered looking Organoids(who refused speaking to them), Leon and Pierce wandered off, Jamie took to the edge of the group and somewhere, in the midst of it all...

Leena wound up wrapping her arms around Bit and hugging him. There wasn't anything romantic about it. It was just a hug. It was almost sibling-like in a way, and it was the first time since Nyx that Vega'd had a firsthand view of Bit starting to become emotional.

It hadn't been pronounced. Just a few series of trembles and an increasingly taut face. The blonde hadn't even hugged her back either, but he'd tolerated it and that was a start.

"It's okay now," she had said to him without prying into whatever it was that had dyed him in blood and grime. "Whatever it is, it's okay now. You're among friends and you can start healing now," she assured him, always speaking too low for anyone else but Vega to hear. Micro-Sworders were useful like that.

"No," he had replied in about the same voice, though he was staring right over her. Right over everyone, in fact, given that he was staring straight up. "It's not."

"We've got a lot to talk about," Vega had finally managed to cut in before things could get too emotional. Leena seemed to either take the cue or have a pre-planned cut-off point, because at the exact moment that he'd said it, she drew away from Bit and nodded to him. They seemed to be the only ones paying enough attention to realize that the blonde was like a powder keg right now. Too much contact when he wasn't ready and someone might end up dead.

Sarah seemed utterly disappointed. Even a bit offended, given that he wasn't even addressing her when he'd spoken.

"What've you been doing since I last saw you?" She finally asked him, clear and blunt like a commander addressing a soldier. Oddly enough, or perhaps so normally that that was what made it feel strange, this drew his attention to her more so than anything else.

"Organoids. Kale. Nyx. Vilhelm Rommel. Zoid Adam. Asmodeus," Vega replied with a series of well-picked keywords.

Almost on cue, everyone but Leena seemed to pale a few shades. Bit in particular. Leyon and Steve were only a few steps behind him.

"Like I said... We've got a lot to talk about."

It was odd. Once upon a time, the dark hadn't scared him. He had thought himself to be brave, talented, smart and all those things that stupid little braggarts aspired to. The dark hadn't frightened him. Then, for a while, it did. Where once, as a boy, he'd been able to laugh at the dark and mock any who feared it, time had brought change. Change in mindset, physiology and understanding. For a while, the dark had terrified him to the point that his mind started to break down under its own weight, even as he sat, huddled in the corner of a bare cell.

Then he stopped fearing it. He stopped fearing it because he stopped realizing it was even there. Anymore, he could see in the dark as if it were daylight. For whatever reason, it brought no shifts to his normal vision either. Shadows didn't exist anymore, because he could see right through them like they weren't there. It was almost blinding at first, but with all the stress built around the change, he hadn't even noticed well enough to put much consideration into it. By the time he finally did stop long enough to think about it, he'd adjusted so well to the change that it became irrelevent to him in an instant.

An ungloved hand palmed softly at the smooth and lifeless steel wall beside him. Though the stains had long since faded, he could still feel traces of blood. Though the scent had long since been washed away, he could still smell the fresh odor of blood. Though the survivors had long since moved on and buried their dead, he could still see echoes of them huddled in panic on the floor. He didn't know what era they were from - they could've been a collection of images spanning a hundred years and he would've been barely able to tell the difference - but they weren't exactly recent.

Which was a shame, considering that one of the women was actually quite the looker.

Pushing that random thought aside, he had turned his attentions straight ahead. The corridor came to an end soon, he could feel it reverberating from the walls. It was a subtle vibration, something overshadowed by the feeling of some great event playing out all around him. It would've been easily missed, and in all honesty, it probably should have. The feeling that overwhelmed it was one of near reverence. It was almost like feeling the excitement from competitor announcements at a Royal Cup, magnified a hundred times over, but somehow forced into a quiet and calm that only he and a select few others could feel.

The future players were being put in place even as the current cast and crew winded down to their finish.

In a way, it was actually infuriating. Like wanting to tell someone a secret but not knowing how to word it in any way that made sense.

Soon though, thoughts and considerations of the feelings he had were put aside. Quietly, he drew his hand away from the wall and watched the echoes fade into nothingness, taking with them every sensation they'd brought. It was like having one's senses dulled by a slow moving shock of cold, but the effect was only temporary. With that, he put his glove back on and tightened it a bit.

A few seconds later, Bill Chapman looked up from his hand to see a hulking figure bundled up in a corner, its back turned to him. It was colored differently than he remembered, and were his vision anything like a normal person's anymore, only the red parts of its body would've been visible at all. Even with his vision, it seemed to radiate a kind of pitch black that effected the mind more than anything else. A dark more oppressive than any shadow, and infinitely more opaque.

A dark echoed with the sounds of two voices hiccuping and crying in unison, even as the figure itself trembled with emotions beyond reading.

"Strange to see you down here," Bill said aloud, holding no pretense of the silent conversations of thought that the others relished in.

GO TO HELL!!! Both voices shrieked at him in a tone that made his brain itch. His vision briefly rattled at the intensity of it all, and a few seconds later, he felt a trickle a blood slide down from inside of his left nostril. He wiped it off on his glove without even feeling discomfort from it.

"I've already been there," he replied calmly. "And by the look of things, you're dealing with it too."

YOU DID THIS TO ME!!! The voices cried accusingly. At the same time, their owner jolted out of his corner with a hissing roar, shimmering tears streaming down the side of its snout. The fearsome teeth in its jaws failed to find flesh though, and instead of attack, it halted less than an inch from his face.

"You changed last night. I just put the finishing touches on," he pointed out, gazing into a red optic and a deeper, more malignant blue one.


"Stop screaming," Bill ordered bluntly, again wiping blood from his upper lip.

Then what... Do you... Want me... TO DO?! The Organoid demanded irately. Through what remained of their increasingly fractured link, Bill could feel little more than confusion that flew between every human emotion and a hundred thousand others that he couldn't even comprehend beyond knowing that they were there in the first place.

"Keep living," Bill replied simply. "There's an Organoid here now who's had a similar experience to what you've been through. Try-"

FUCK ZEKE! Came the less-than-sociable reply.

At that, Bill let out a sigh and shook his head.

"You've felt it, haven't you?"

At this, the Organoid froze.

"Something big went down somewhere in the far North. I don't know what, and I don't really care either," he said, and to an extent at least, meant it. "All I know is that I'm going to be one of the people whose fate is to try and fix it. So will that girl from earlier." He was rambling now. He didn't have much of an idea as to how right or wrong he was, only an impulse to go on and nothing else.

"The point is that you're tied to both of us," he said abruptly. "Pick a side and stick with it. You've got the power to help change the world, do any less and I'll make this morning look like a walk in the park."

You don't scare me, Borealis replied, inching forward bit by bit. His body had changed, and so had almost everything else. While he still embodied confusion, it was less now. He looked a bit larger, though still every bit as slender and graceful as he had always been. One eye had turned a darker shade of blue, but the other was still as red as ever. His body reflected a more obvious change though, as the parts of it that were supposed to be blue were now a solid black that didn't even shine reflectively under what little light actually reached reached them.

"I scare everyone," Bill shot back with a ghost of a smile. At that, Borealis drew away by a thousandth of an inch. It was the same as if the creature had jumped back and slammed into the wall.

"Be seein' ya," Bill said while turning around.

A few seconds later, he was gone.

"Judging from the data given to us by Vega, the Asmodeus is... It defies-"

Leyon raised his voice from the table's edge.

"Hello! Do I have to spell it out for you?!" The pointy headed whacko shouted out, standing abruptly. "For god's sake, man... Look at it!" He ordered. Vega's mother almost audibly grimaced as everyone in the room turned their attention to the center of the table, where a hologram of Asmodeus preparing to fire was being shown.

"What about it?" Mrs. Obscura asked blandly. It was the kind of blandness one expected more from an overworked schoolteacher in a kindergarden class than the stand-in leader of the last neutral city on Zi.

"Look at it," Leyon shouted again, jabbing a finger right at the hologram. "It's a fifteen mile long serpent that shoots out white hot beams of death! How much more phallic can you get?!" He shouted, spraying several people with spit in the process. Lars was glad that he was on the opposite side of the table, just out of range.

"... What in the fuck does that have to do with anything?" Sarah, along with about four other people in the room, responded with a matching look on her face.

At that, the previously silent Doctor Tauros grappled Leyon's trench coat by the back of the collar, yanked him down into his seat and stood up. He looked thoughtful, well-adjusted, reasonable and a whole lot less like a crackpot than his colleague did. The moment he opened his eyes though, Lars could tell that he was probably even crazier. He just happened to be tempered by raising children.

"What Leyon is trying to say is that this thing well... It's not a serpent since it's got limbs and all, but that's irrelevent," he rambled briefly before downing a sip of coffee like vodka in a shot glass, then continuing. "This dragon, Asmodeus, was created with as much symbolism in mind as raw power. It was practically designed for the sole purpose of literally raping away the old vestiges of a predominantly female-oriented society and-"

"Yes, yes, whatever, Steve. Nobody gives a damn as to why it was made, we just want to know what to do about it," Sarah pointed out, cutting him off at the knees. While Lars found the whole thing terribly interesting, he still had to admit that the woman had a point. Killing Asmodeus was presently more important than theories about how it came into existence. He wasn't even a real fighter and he knew that much.

Back and forth, another exchange followed. This time, Schubaltz jumped into the frey. Behind him, he could hear Kyle and Katherine muttering things to each other while leaning back against a wall. They had somehow been dragged into the procession along the way to an older, less-used planning room. Neither had even noticed him, and for his part, he hadn't been in much of a hurry to acknowledge them either. The crush he'd had on Katherine had been forgotten since he'd seen Hell and experienced combat, and in all honesty, he had always found himself smothered by Kyle's mere presence. He held nothing against either of them, he just wasn't crazy or lighthearted enough to connect to them at any level anymore. For their part, neither was intellectual or, more to the point, geeky enough to connect to him anymore either.

Head leaned sideways onto a fist, he watched as Tauros and Martin, Schubaltz, Obscura and a few of the local military staffers spent minutes on end raging at each other about what to do, why such-and-such might work, whether they could do anything at all...

And all the while, he was flanked on either side by an Organoid and a pilot. One of the pilots was Bit, still looking like some kind of escaped mass murderer who hadn't slept in two months. The other was Vega, who seemed to be biding his time with an increasingly weary look on his face. Their Organoids seemed to stand behind each of them, leaving a clean gap behind him in the process. While he still found it awkward to deal with the things, he did like Bit and Vega. Sure, Bit was probably the single most insane person in the room at this point(and given present company, that was saying something), and Vega was only half his age with the tendency to zone out at random and mention something taking place a hundred or more miles away, but in their own ways...

In his own way, he felt that he had bonded to the two of them. If not intellectually, then simply because they had shared common experience as to what had gone on in Nyx. Them more so than himself, but even so.

He was their witness. The guy who could verify what they'd gone through. Even though Bit didn't show it much, Vega at least seemed grateful. That was good enough. It made him feel like an elite among elites. He wasn't a warrior, but he was still there. He had seen the Demon King rise from the bowels of Hell, gone in to try and save his friends and he'd come back out alive and virtually unscathed. Terrified, but unscathed.

He was stirred from his reverie a few seconds after that comforting thought had occurred to him. Bit chose that moment to abruptly stand up, with the gold Organoid having stepped aside ahead of time. If anyone planned on trying to stop him from leaving, a single sentence cut them off.

"Gonna take a shower. An' eat. Later."

With that, he had left. His steps had possessed an almost lethal intent to them, and as the door slid shut in his wake, Lars could've sworn that the blonde would've killed anyone who spoke up against his departure. Even so, his leaving was a herald to a few more.

"At this stage, I'm basically surplus to requirement here," the young blonde woman he'd identified as either Renee or Marry Champ(or was it Nicolette? He always confused them...) stated tiredly almost a full minute later. Where everyone had looked to Bit though, only Sarah and precious few others even looked ready to give her the time of day. With a curt nod, she exited not long after.

Following that, Kyle and Kat also left, agreeing to make a coffee-and-food run given that they were basically being put up for free within twenty-four hours of the most violent battle in Champton's history. Lars had made a request for donut sticks, and neither of them even recognized him when he did it. Unsurprising, since his glasses weren't on, he'd gotten a few shades paler, had a grey hair or six, bags under his eyes and hadn't shaved properly since he and Vega had departed from Garnhelm, but... Whatever. It was only stubble anyway. He had the no-beard-until-you're-senile curse. Probably always would. Until he was senile. Naturally.

It was in the ensuing pause that Stigma Stoller finally chose to speak up, almost as if on cue. He had arrived not long after the start of the meeting, and thankfully hadn't needed much cluing in. Considering that Sarah had actually deputized him as her own stand-in on the spot, Lars figured they'd either patched things up or, quite frankly, didn't give a damn about any past disputes right now.

Which was good. Holding a grudge in this situation was tantamount to ramming a sawed off down your pants and pulling the trigger.

"Considering that all we've got to go on right now is information gleamed from some kind of insect network translated into hard data, video and audio through the Fury's computer systems, it might be best to consult someone who was there," the man said in a gruff, hard-edged voice that Lars was well acquainted with. "Not only do we have the original source of that information on hand, but we've also got another witness on hand as well. Both happen to be sitting across from me, as a matter of fact," he pointed out, and both Lars and Vega nodded to him.

Technically, Bit and Madison should've been there too. They weren't. Bit had, obviously, at least given it a shot, but Madison had elected to stay on the Foe Hammer. She hadn't bothered giving a reason, and to be blunt, Lars was really glad to get the hell away from her. She scared the snot out of him for some reason.

"Right now, I put more trust in the data than-" Sarah was cut off.

"Than you put into your own son? I don't know about you, but I trust any account Vega gives us to be 100 accurate and consistent with the data he's given us as well," Stoller pointed out with the calm of a chess player. The look that Sarah threw at him would've probably sent any other man in the room(Tauros and Martin notwithstanding) running for their lives. To Lars, it was obvious that she was underestimating Vega. She was treating him like a normal human being. He wasn't. Neither was Lars. Both had seen Death himself. Both were still sane.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Vega replied evenly, not even acknowledging his own mother as he began to run through a list of what had happened on Nyx. With Bit no longer present, he pulled no punches about what had woken Asmodeus up, nor did he withhold any of the details that had been previously omitted. Almost at the same time, a steel cable had sunk into the table from Specular's chest and the hologram updated to reveal everything, from 'gun camera' footage taken in the Fury's cockpit to a full 360 view of the Asmodeus as it rose and proceeded to blast some obscure point in the distance without even noticing their own existence.

It was almost surreal to see it like this, but he figured that Vega had been able to watch it in this manner from the start.

With an articulate tone to his voice that went decades beyond his age, Vega calmly proceeded to go through the hologram, detail by precious detail, leaving his mother stunned into silence and everyone else hooked in like it was the first time they'd ever seen it.

Everyone except Lars. He had already seen it. He had been there.

What did they have that could amount to that?

It took her an hour, but she had found him. Far removed from the debates likely still raging like hellfire through the planning room. Far removed from people in general, since everyone with anything to do was busy doing that and everyone without anything to do was busy looking for something to do in the first place. Except for her, but she already had something she'd set herself to doing. Marry Champ wasn't a military planner. As time was passing, she found herself more and more inadequate for helping her family, and even her city, to keep it together. If that night where Rommel had shattered the world had never happened, she reasoned, she probably would've been able to recover and eventually take some in-city feifdom from Harry, live out her days as a socialite and die a happy old woman with a dozen grandchildren, most likely stemming from adoptions since she never saw herself as being the type to marry anyone.

If that hadn't happened, and if her parents hadn't been killed off in an accident before that, she felt that she probably would've ended up marrying some spoiled little snot-nosed son of a trillionare in order to help further solidify a corporate alliance or something. In all likelihood, her happiness would come from things outside of her family, she'd live in a scandal-ridden household and she'd die with twice as many grandchildren, almost all of whom were just as spoiled as their parents, who were in turn even more spoiled than their good for nothing father.

It was funny that neither option was available anymore. She was basically free to do whatever she wanted in the world now... If not for the fact that it was probably going to be annihilated in a few months tops, according to what little she'd had the stomach to sit through in the planning room.

She wanted to ignore that reality right now. She wanted to help someone. The key problem was that everyone she tried to help was already at the point that no matter how hard she tried, she simply burdened them further. On the battlefield, diplomatically, even in the office it seemed. She wasn't much of a pilot, her diplomatic skills had been honed outside of a militaristic setting during peacetime and her skills at all things fiscal had always been subpar compared to her older siblings. Granted, she'd always been better than Harry, but that meant little anymore with how much he had accomplished while she'd wallowed in self-pity.

In her own uniquely selflessly-selfish kind of way, she wanted to feel important and she wanted to benefit someone at the same time. She wanted to feel safe and she wanted to provide a safeguard for someone else. She wanted to be needed, even if it was only in passing.

She'd seen her chance earlier that day. When he had looked at everyone, she saw right through him. Beneath the caked blood on his clothes. Behind the dead look in his eyes. Underneath that bland tone to his voice. She saw past the psychotic looking freakshow that had stepped off the Foe Hammer and, underneath it all, recognized him as the dopish, hypercompetitive slacker who had piloted the white Liger against her. She hardly remembered his name at first, but after a while, it came easily enough.

Bit. Bit Cloud. Not a normal name, but not so unusual that it didn't fit. He had looked different back then. A lot healthier and a lot less insane, to put it mildly.

It took her an hour, but she found him at last.

He was sitting in the upstairs lobby of the airport's reception building. His posture was slumped, but he looked about three shades lighter. Marry quickly came to the conclusion that he had bathed and either swiped clothes from an open locker or somehow washed what he'd come to Champton in. Either way, the outfit he had on now looked the same as what he'd had on when he arrived, sans blood, bile and other forms of grime. He was alone, it seemed. No pillows, no blankets, no sleeping bag, just himself and the windows, staring out at the landing pad and the stars above with the lights out.

"Hello?" She asked after a few seconds, noting both the open door and the fact that he still had the appearance of someone who could kill a dozen people in half as many seconds and be so numbed by it that it didn't even bother him.

"Piss off," came the reply. He didn't actually move to try and make her, and he didn't turn around or sic that golden dragon thingy on her... In Marry's eyes, that was as close as she'd get to an invite. Suffice to say, she took it and stepped inside, feeling almost as if the entire world shifted a little as she did so.

She hadn't gotten very far into the room when she felt something brush past her ankles, turned around abruptly and found herself staring at the door as it slid to a close. Nervousness edged at her, but the mission remained clear and she didn't feel like running away now. Something in her gut told her that she wouldn't get a second chance if she did.

"I came to check on you," she explained matter-of-factly. It was so awkward that she didn't try to sound anywhere near as sympathetic as she wanted.

"Well, I'm not dead and I haven't ripped anyone's face off, so there's nothin' to worry about," he replied. A second later, his head swung up, Marry jolted back a step and found her heart pick back up after skipping a beat as the blonde pilot took a swig off of a bottle of something obviously alchoholic. Whether it was hard liquor or wine, she couldn't tell due to the low lighting.

A half-belch, half-hiccup followed. Bit lowered the bottle and returned to staring out into whatever zone it was that he had focused on.

"You're not okay though," she pointed out after a bit of hesitation.

She was close by now. Within a few feet of the back of his seat. It was a bench, with those fuzzy pads on the seat and back that she'd always loathed back before she realized how rare any kind of comfort was anymore. She was close enough to make out that his legs were spread in the typical lazy-stressed-guy posture, with one hand dangling over a knee. He was unarmed.

He also didn't reply to what she'd said. It was, again, probably the closest she was going to get to an invitation.

A few seconds later, Marry had made her way around the bench and sat down near him, though she had the sense to not plop down right next to him or anything along those lines. Desire to help didn't supercede desire to keep breathing. Much.

"You've been through a lot, haven't you?" She asked softly, looking over to him. His reply, at first, was an iced over half-glare that made her blood run a few degrees cooler than normal.

"You've got no fuckin' clue what I've been through," he growled out, still with the sidelong attempt at a glare. The bags under his eyes were almost sickening to look at. Assuming she wasn't imagining them. He had shaved and cleaned up, but he obviously hadn't slept enough in far too long. Even so, with the urge to run and hide boiling in her gut, Marry pressed on.

"Then why don't you tell me about it?" She asked, still as soft as before. This time, he actually turned his head to look at her. The feeling of blood gone cold intensified. It almost made her head hurt, but her nerves felt as though they had been forged from steel. "If you don't tell anyone about it, how can you expect to heal from it?"

"I don't expect to. I don't deserve to," he replied bluntly.

"How can you be the judge of that if nobody else knows?"

"People already know."

He was starting to crack. She could see it. Not obviously, but something about him was starting to give between the pressures of guilt, alchohol, sleeplessness and her own relentlessness. That was either a good sign or one to start running. She couldn't tell, and even if she could, it wouldn't have made much of a difference to her.

"But none of them have tried to comfort you about it, have they?" She guessed. A shot in the dark, really. At this, he turned away again, looking straight forward and taking another swig.

This brought Marry to advance further, scooting sideways and a bit closer.

"You're not alone, you know," she offered up, reaching out and slowly, methodically putting her hand on top of his free one.

"Don't. Touch. Me."

She didn't move her hand. Instead, she squeezed his.

"It's okay, Bit," she offered again, scooting a bit closer still.

"You don't get it," he replied.

"What's there to get? I can't help if you don't tell me."

"There's nothing to help with," he bit out.

"Then why are you tearing yourself apart over it?" She asked calmly.

To this, he had no real answer. Some stuttering, but no answer.

"I can't tell you that you'll feel any better about whatever it is you're hurting over, but at least you'll know that someone still sympathizes with it. I know I'm not the only one, but I'm still here," she said, now close enough that their shoulders were pressed against each other.


A pause. Marry felt something building up beneath the surface, but waited patiently.

"... Don't feel like talking about it right now," he replied. Awkwardly.

"You don't make a good liar," Marry shot back with a vague smile. At this, Bit let out an almost deranged sounding laugh. The kind that was so hollow it bordered on mechanical, and so lifeless that it probably would've reduced small children to tears. Marry winced, but managed to suppress any of her other reactions to it.

"I don't wanna talk about it," he said again, still giggling nervously. His whole body was starting to shake. She squeezed his hand once again, but remained quiet. At the rate he was going, he was just a few seconds short of cracking up all together. "Who in the fuck would wanna talk about what I've been through?" He asked, twitching, laughing and interrupting himself with gasps for air every few seconds. "Nobody can relate an' nobody is gonna understand..."

"Does it matter if anyone can relate from personal experience, or understand perfectly?" Marry asked, choosing that specific moment to make her move. It was almost like playing a chess game with someone who didn't even know the rules.

Bit's only real response after that was a jumble of words and a last crack of laughter before he threw the bottle into the floor and broke down all at once. He didn't shoot to his feet screaming, didn't whip out a gun and blow her brains out and he didn't swing around that Z-shaped knife at his side. Instead, he literally broke down like a car that had run out of gas. His body practically deflated, and his shoulders slumped. His eyes burst into tears that, quite frankly, no man should've had to cry. His voice cracked up to the point that she could hear his vocal cords scraping and in a period of five seconds, Bit Cloud looked as if he had aged twice as many years.

Marry reacted in the only way she, or anyone else with a shred of sympathy could have. She reached out, drawing her hand from his own and tucked an arm around his shoulders before tugging him close enough that his head laid against her shoulder. Then she just kept quiet, occasional words of comfort not withstanding. It was all she could do until he was calm enough to speak without laughing hysterically.

It was a long night, from beginning to end. She sat with him, and he continued to break down into a million pieces, finding an emotional outlet that he hadn't had in months. Somewhere in the midst of it all though, an equal exchange took place at a level neither of them had been familiar with in quite some time. It wasn't physical, because outside of talking and gestures, nothing physical happened. It was emotional. Somewhere along the way, Bit Cloud began to feel relief, and Marry Champ...

Well, she achieved what she had set out to do.

She felt needed again.

Tomorrow was going to be the brightest day in a long, long time.

Author's Note: ... I just realized that this is the single most relationship-heavy chunk of TOD thus far o.o Appologies. That said: HALLEFUCKINLUJAH, BABY! XD The Marry-Bit scene is something that's been brewing in my head since before I reintroduced the Champs in TOD. The song may not entirely fit it, but trust me, I used it for a reason. I set those two up for a reason. Stew on that.

And I'd also like to say this much: That scene was the single easiest romantic-ish scene I've ever written. Ever. In my life. It gave me a cavity or five by the time I was finished, but it was still the easiest I've ever done. I didn't even have to stop and think of actions or dialogue.

Aside from that, Leyon's phallic-Asmodeus comment is something that's been brewing in my head since Renegade Mad Scientiest Powwow XD And Lars and Bill were also some of the most fun scenes I've written since the end of the Doom Siege. Lars especially since everyone has a tendency to forget him in everything, even me. It felt nice to give that little bastard some development.

That all said: Sh33p out. Look for review-replies in the usual place.

Tides of Darkness by Sh33p

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