❯ .hack//SIGN – Walk By My Side ( Chapter 1 )
Grey light filtered through the high, ornate windows of the cathedral, leaving a quiet and forlorn aura about everything it touched. All was still but for a few dust motes here and there, shimmering and dancing in the weak light, and even they moved in slow motion. This place had stood virtually unchanged for millennia, and would do so for many more; there was no need to rush.
Walk by my side…
The silver-haired girl sitting perched on the altar, staring idly up at the high, vaulted ceiling, did not so much hear the voice as imagine that she heard it. Its endlessly repeated promises were whispers at the back of her mind, nothing more.
But it was always here, it had been since the first time she entered this place. She might have thought she was going crazy, but for the fact that it was only here that she heard it, or imagined it. It would fade into silence as soon as she left the building. It always did. And even if she could not truly hear it… she nonetheless knew who it sounded like.
As she had since the first time she entered this place.
* * * * *
She pushed open the door, and went inside.
The building was as grand on the inside as it was on the outside. For a moment, Tsukasa wondered if she had been mistaken, if perhaps this was not Lost Ground at all; the place was in perfect upkeep. The stone floor glistened as if it had been polished only yesterday, so that she could actually see her reflection in its gleaming surface. The columns of long benches to either side of the central aisle looked as if someone had cared equally well for them. No dust was visible on them; no scratches that she could see marred their dark, shining wood.
Perhaps it was Lost Ground, after all, she thought. Surely this place could not have been in such pristine condition, had people actually made use of it.
At the end of the aisle was an altar of plain grey stone. Tsukasa walked towards it, still in a half daze, her footsteps ringing loud and strange in the empty silence.
Words had been carved on the front of the altar, but here, at least, was some evidence of time’s passage — they were so worn and faded that most of them were illegible. Those that could still be made out clearly were written in a strange script; Tsukasa had seen pictures of it in a few of her schoolbooks, but it had gone out of use centuries ago, at the latest. Nonetheless, after staring for a long moment, she realised that there was at least one word here she recognised. Or rather, at least one name:
* * * * *
It had never seriously occurred to her to tell anyone what she had found. For one, that would have meant telling someone that she’d gotten through the Gate alone in the first place — and why. Besides, telling would mean that this beautiful, solemn, lonely place would soon be overrun with people, and that thought was nearly unbearable.
And then, of course–
* * * * *
A low, kind laugh sounded from somewhere she could not see, and echoed from the rafters.
And here you are at last. Welcome, child.
She started, and stared around herself warily, wondering if she had truly heard the words. « Who are you? »
Again the sweet laugh. Who do you think I am, child?
Belatedly, she stiffened as if struck. That voice.
Unable to believe her ears, she whispered, barely audible, « M…Mom…? »
* * * * *
That had been three years ago, now. She had never gotten a straight answer about the strange Voice’s true identity; for a long time she had pressed for one, but each time the question had either been directed straight back at her, or ignored entirely. When she kept it up, though, the Voice had eventually begun to grow quieter in her mind, and then she had stopped, fearing to lose it entirely.
Even after that it had faded in and out for a time, though. For a while she had barely been able to make out one word in three or four. But it was getting louder again, now, and it spoke of safety, and shelter, and friendship, and family.
You need not be alone in the World, not anymore. You need me, child, just as I need you. Join me. Walk by my side.
As long as you walk by my side, I will protect you.
Leaning back to watch the dust motes dancing in the air, it suddenly came into Tsukasa’s mind that the Voice always said this, and there was something she had never said in return…
« I will. » It was no more than a whisper.
Thank you, my child.
At the words, an overwhelming sense of peace filled her mind, and a strange lethargy began to creep over her. The silken sweet voice went on:
I knew you would come to my side, in the end. You will not regret it, I promise you that. I protect all those who walk by my side, always. I promise I will never leave you… never again.
Tsukasa’s eyelids started to grow heavy, and she found that she did not have the strength to keep them open, nor the energy to care very much one way or the other. She was tired, and darkness beckoned.
She followed it, and then, for the time, there was nothing.
* * * * *
Day to day, Sora made a pretty decent living on money borrowed from other people’s pockets and purses, usually without said people’s knowledge.
He thus could not help finding it a little ironic that the one time he got ‘caught’ had to be the one time he was actually keeping his hands to himself, and had in fact only stumbled into his supposed victim completely by innocent accident.
He had been walking a little unsteadily the last couple of days. A dragon had recently taken up residence nearby; Sora had never seen a dragon before, and had been very eager to have a look at this one, and more importantly at its treasure hoard. Unfortunately it had been sleeping on top of its treasure hoard, and had woken up before Sora had quite finished admiring how nicely some of the larger jewels fit into his knapsack, and things had more or less gone downhill from there. Being very quick, it turned out, would only get a person just so far when they were stuck in a cave with only one exit, which was being blocked by a bloody great fire breathing lizard with armoured skin, eighteen-inch claws, and a temper. He’d had to give everything back — and what money he’d had in his pockets — and even then, he hadn’t gotten out uninjured.
Some people had no sense of humour. Some dragons, too.
So now, yes, he was limping a bit, and had stumbled on an uneven cobble, and was having a good deal of trouble trying to keep his mouth shut on the observation that had he been trying to steal this idiot woman’s purse, he’d have been a heck of a lot more subtle than to run headfirst into her. He wasn’t completely incompetent, thank you.
And now — oh, wonderful. She was calling for the guards. That did it — time to be leaving. He twisted out of her grip with ease, getting ready to run.
Her hand shot out and caught his collar–
Sora, in these situations, usually didn’t bother stopping to think things through. Where he’d grown up, if one hesitated, one generally wound up either dead, or wishing they were.
Later, he would wish that he had paused to think about this one for a second or two. But it had been a long few days, and he was tired, and old habits took over.
There was a faint, metallic click as a blade snapped out of his sleeve, and a brief blur of movement — and then his assailant had let him go and was stumbling backwards, screaming and clutching at a deep, bloody gash on her arm.
He raised his other blade for the kill — and then, too late, a small, helpful voice at the back of Sora’s mind mentioned that this wasn’t the Slum, and that passers-by here, seeing a fellow citizen attacked in the street, were not so likely to shrug it off as an everyday occurrence and hurry on past, looking the other way in studious silence. One, two, even three opponents at once, he could probably manage, even injured. Half a town was another matter. And this is why we don’t pull knives on people until after dark, the voice sing-songed, and out of public hearing, at that. How many times have we been over this?
Right. Now it was time to leave.
Sora took two hasty steps, felt a heavy hand land on his shoulder, and turned to find himself face to face with an entire battle-squad of Cobalt Knights.
* * * * *
Morganna shook her head as, in her mind’s eye, she saw the boy go down fighting. Foolish indeed, child. Sora really shouldn’t have been out in broad daylight to begin with, not when he was injured, not in this town. Fort Ouph and its environs were kept under even tighter control by the Cobalt Knights than Mac Anu was kept by the Crimson, and the Cobalts were well known for their extremely narrow views on certain subjects. The shade of the boy’s eyes, a dark red scarcely ever seen in ‘normal’ people, would be enough to label him, in the Knights’ minds, as demon-blood — someone whose ancestry was, to put it politely, not quite all human. The best for which anyone so accused could hope from the Cobalts was a quick death.
After an obscure fashion, Morganna quite liked the Cobalt Knights, or at least found them very amusing. They were exceedingly zealous in their self-appointed mission to protect humanity, and unfailingly incompetent when it came to working out who and what they ought to be protecting it from — and, as such, usually wound up lashing out instead at the first innocent bystander to look at them cross-eyed.
Sometimes, though, they managed to hit the right target through sheer statistical error. When that happened, they could prove inconvenient.
This was looking like one such time. Sora, despite this most recent slip-up, was growing up to be a talented little killer indeed. (And in a way, even his current situation spoke well in that regard. Three knights had fallen before the rest had managed to subdue the boy, and of those, at least one would not be getting back up.) She had long since decided that Fate had plans in store for the boy.
Well — sometimes, perhaps, Fate could use a little help. It was lucky for Sora she had looked in on him when she had; her thoughts had been elsewhere, lately.
Lucky in the short term, at least.
She pondered the situation for a moment. She would prefer not to intervene directly, in such a trivial matter, but perhaps there was someone about who could be… persuaded…
Her vision wandered across the town, seeking some likely-looking would-be champion of justice.
And then she smiled. Ah. There we are.
* * * * *
Subaru stared at the hastily scribbled letter in her hands. It had been delivered by a message-runner from one of Fort Ouph’s outlying villages, only a few minutes ago. Normally these things went past one of her secretaries, first, but on this occasion the boy had flat-out refused to leave until he had seen the note directly into her Ladyship’s keeping.
You may shortly be getting some questions from the Cobalts, regarding a boy called Sora. If you do, please tell them he’s been wanted in Mac Anu for some time, for whatever reason you care to make up. It’s a bit of a long story why, but the short version is: They picked him up for attempted petty theft, but now they’re claiming he’s demon-blood, and you know how they are about that kind of thing in Fort Ouph.
It’s not my business, I know, but the kid’s only about nine, and I’d rather not sit back and watch what happens to him. (Besides, as always, I like ‘not my business.’) And I doubt anybody else is going to step in. So I’m going to do what I can to get him out of there, but the Cobalts aren’t really known for listening to reason, and I don’t really want to have to hit anybody, so it may prove my best bet to tell them you folks have prior claim on his head. That, at least, they’ll probably understand.
I realise we aren’t on the best of terms these days, and I know you don’t like to lie to anyone, but please — this isn’t for my sake, after all.
I hope this finds you well.
Your devoted servant, always,
Ginkan stood a few feet away, radiating silent disapproval. His feelings regarding his former commander were well enough known, and Subaru thought that it would probably be for the best if he did not see the note’s contents, for now. He would probably not approve.
If it came to that, nor did she, not entirely. The Crimson Knights had always gotten on reasonably well with the Cobalt, and Crim was right about one thing — she was not a liar.
But it was also no secret that the Cobalt Knights — though Subaru firmly believed them to be well-intentioned — could be very quick to judge, and harsh when it came to meting out justice. They had guarded the cities of Fort Ouph and Lia Fail since time immemorial, and certainly, for the majority of the population there were few places safer or more peaceful in the known World… but she had to wonder, sometimes, how much that cost. And if it was really worth it.
The message-runner coughed quietly. He had been watching her with thinly concealed impatience for some minutes, now. « Er… begging your pardon, milady, but I’ve got to take a response back, you see? He said you haven’t even got to write anything — a yes or no’ll do. »
She was quiet for a moment longer, and then said, « Tell him… I shall do what I can. »
The boy nodded, clearly relieved, and left practically at a dash.
After he left there was another moment of silence, this one substantially more awkward than the previous. At last Ginkan began, « May I ask, milady– »
« You may not. »
His shoulders stiffened, but he replied only, « As milady wishes. »
Inwardly she sighed. Ginkan had been a great help to her over the past three years, and she valued his assistance and his friendship, but sometimes his views were as rigid as the Cobalt Knights’ were. They would only argue, if she told him what Crim had asked, and she was not feeling quite up to that at the present time.
« Thank you, » she said quietly. Eager to change the subject, she went on, « Tell me. How goes the search? For the young girl who’s gone missing? » A student from one of the city schools had disappeared a couple of days earlier — stepped through the Gate, and not come back.
The warrior grimaced. « Not well. We’ve yet to find any real, useful lead. There are some… strange stories, filtering in from some of the villages — people claiming to have seen her — but those have come in from over a dozen different places now, and to reach them all she’d have had to come back through the City Gate as many times. »
« In which case the guards would have seen her, at least. »
He nodded. « We’ve been searching those places thoroughly, of course, but so far no sign of her — it’s likely most of the reports were just people hoping for a share of the reward. Still… » His face darkened. « It’s some hope. The other possibility, of course, is that she stepped through the Gate and didn’t come out anywhere, and… » He trailed off, reluctantly.
« And that’s a conclusion, » Subaru finished for him, « which nobody is going to reach until they must. »
He bowed, and said firmly, « Not until we’ve scoured every inch of the World twice over, Lady Subaru. »
And he meant it, she knew. That was the thing, she reflected, which she admired about Ginkan. He had his faults, to be sure — but he never gave up on anything, however difficult. « I should be out helping in the search, » she told him softly. « Not sitting here, doing nothing. »
« Lady Subaru, » he hastened to protest, « you are the ruler of this city. Your duties lie here. »
And that’s the thing, the treacherous little thought occurred, which you hate about Ginkan. Always trying to shelter you. « My duties lie with the people of this city, sir. Of whom this girl is one. » Crim would not have argued, not about something like this. She squelched that thought firmly, before it could go any further.
He sighed. « Milady, we have over a hundred men and women out looking for the girl, at present. If she is anywhere to be found, we will find her — one more person will make little difference. Whereas there is only one ruler of Mac Anu, and that is you. If anything should happen to you– »
He was right, she knew, but that made it little better. « At the very least, I should go talk to her family myself, assure them that every care is being taken in the search. »
« Ah. » Ginkan coughed. « That… might not be such a good idea, milady. Her only family is her father, and he… is not a pleasant man. She boards at the Academy, on city funds — apparently the two of them have barely spoken in years. »
Subaru closed her eyes, briefly. « I see. I — her friends in her class must be very worried for her. »
The knight’s mouth twisted into a regretful, ironic smile. « What friends would those be, milady? We’ve asked around extensively. »
No family, no friends… Subaru hoped that the girl was well, and that the Knights would find her, but despite her earlier insistence that they would not think her dead until all other possibilities had been exhausted, a sudden shred of doubt began to creep into her mind.
She had not realised, before, just how lonely this girl Tsukasa Shouji might be.