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The movie concludes and the worlds of Phoenix and Terminus regain their bearings. They make casual contact, asking the usual questions, and everything goes seemingly how it will after a film is shared with a friend. Terminus reaches out to Aura with a question, a tendril of silver light extending from his Halo. Aura looks up, considering the question, and responds in kind, expressing vulnerability and explaining the reasons for it. And then Phoenix and Terminus make eye contact—they look at one another, into one another, in the dimness of the room… and keep looking.

The Luminaries sit around the table in the meeting hall, smiling, idly chatting, and connecting subconsciously when need be, as the blanket of night envelops the sky. Nymphaea is the first to notice. Terminus' Halo slowly but noticeably begins to glow. It always glows, in a way, but the light is soft, sweet, and somehow more. Nymphaea catches her breath and touches Solanaceae's wrist. Solan glances at her, and her eyes are instantly redirected to the light in the sky. The Halo's glow begins to expand, grow, and pulse as the other Luminaries slowly catch on. The two Avatars never look away, just blink slowly.

Phoenix's eyes begin to swim and blur after finally having removed her glasses, so she occasionally shifts position slightly or tilts her head to see Terminus clearer. Briefly she wonders why they're doing this, but the thought is quietly shrugged off. They're doing it because it feels right, because when everyone else would turn away after a comparably short stare, they refuse to.

Solanaceae continues watching the Halo swirl and finally she can take no more. She stands after some contemplation, dress swirling open about her hips, and takes flight through the skylight onto the balcony. Calm and determined, she walks to the railing, basking in the light of the Halo, and softly begins to play her harp.


Phoenix pushes herself up from the position of lying on her stomach, and moves to sit right past the middle of the couch. She beckons Terminus over, and as he sits down on the opposite end of the couch, she extends her arms out in front of her, urging him closer for a hug. He acquiesces, moving forward, and they both readjust before wrapping their arms around one another. Phoenix rests her head gently on Terminus' shoulder and their fingertips grasp tighter at each other's backs. Their embrace doesn't last as long as their stare, but it certainly seems that way.

Solan continues to play her beautiful tune in contentment as the other Luminaries gather on the balcony. They can all sense something changing in the sky. "She's not stopping," Ignis says, watching Solan glow a royal purple hue.

"No," Aura says, smiling in acceptance. "She won't. A part of her can't, not until he does."

Finally Terminus loosens his grip and they separate, but otherwise hardly move, retaining their positions on the couch just a few inches apart.

Solanaceae stops playing her harp and takes a step back appreciatively. Eosphoros, Aura, and Nymphaea take turns sending their energy to the Halo, and a line of communication: truthful, vulnerable, and intimate, is opened between the worlds.


*****

Within the Soul World of Terminus, things are very different. Moments earlier, Moralus had triggered the vortex of Phoenix. Energy freeflowed between both worlds. Memorius' body began to glow. The Archives began to glow. A connection was established, and the vortex of Phoenix flashed slowly, like a pulsar of softer light and nature.

The Council let themselves get lost in the connection. It’s so rare that two people can connect in this capacity. Only a handful of times has the Soul World had an interaction like this...with Imaria, with ES, with Leya...and now with Phoenix. If the calm tranquility of a Christmas morning could exist in the Soul World, it’s moments like these that make it so.

Though the moment brings a sense of calm tranquility that blankets itself throughout the Soul World, there is an icy chill to the night’s air.

Domina is the first to turn towards the Lake, her trance by the vortex broken. "Shit." She says moving her hand towards the hilt of her Gunblade.

Moments later, Black Perfection joins her: "It was only a matter of time before we had to deal with this. The transgressions we committed may be ours to bear, but so is the instigator of them. Exanimous was changed, replaced, and you were born. Through the breakdown of Exanimous, we lost many so-called friends. The digital stars in the Sky became much less numerous. Except one. And that star made its way into our everyday Sky, something NO ONE else had ever done. It's natural we’d have to deal with the consequences of that."

Moralus hovers next to them, exhaling slowly: "Exanimous was a mistake," he says coldly, swallowing hard, his voice shaky. "A mistake that we never rectified and just kept ignoring and ignoring hoping that we would drift away from the guilt."

Black Perfection turns to Moralus and puts a hand on his shoulder: "That we stand here today brother is a testament that that did not happen. And now...we have to deal with the consequences: of connection, of not being able to give to someone who gave us so much…"

"We committed a sin against her. We de-prioritized her so much, unable to be the friend she needed when she had placed us on her first Tier." Moralus says making fists.

"I'll take care of him." Domina says gripping the hilt of the Gunblade.

"No. This is MY burden. This was MY mistake." Moralus says.

Lusos steps forward, quietly, head lowered: "It was mine. I accept full responsibility."

By now, the discussion has gathered the attention of the others. Memorius steps forward, "No. None of you are going to face this alone. Exanimous was Terminus' fight, it was OUR fight. It was the epilogue to the most devastating civil war of our time. It was on ALL of us." Memorius says.

"There's so much guilt feeding into Noxias," Moralus says.

Memorius nods: "That is of no consequence to us. We do this as we always have… together."

Domina turns to the others, her heart racing, her chest rising and falling with deep breaths. "I can't believe I'm fucking nervous." Domina says shaking her head.

"Not many have a chance to come face to face with the conditions of their birth; especially if they may have originated from something less than ideal." Black Perfection replies.

At that moment, there is a roar of energy. Noxias is triggered at the Lake. A beam of energy shoots out from the Lake, hitting the vortex of Phoenix, the energy between the two worlds is disrupted. Dark clouds spread from the area around the vortex, as fog expands outward from the Lake. Shadow and blackness take hold around the Lake as the guilt threatens to encompass the Soul World.

Domina turns to the others and takes out her Gunblades: "That's it then… it's time."

"Together." Memorius echoes.

With the energy of the Council stirring, the Secondary Archons have already sparked to action, calling on the Armada and the Archangels as well. The tinted windows of the Council Chambers fade and vanish. The heavy winds outside blast inward.

Hatrus lets out a roar. And with the full might of the Armada, the Secondary Archons, and the Archangels behind them, the Council charges towards the Lake where darkness awaits...

Then Terminus asks Phoenix his burning question. WHY? Why forgive him for lying about his identity? Why continue on after experiencing unreciprocated romantic love? Why keep correspondence going despite long lapses in communication and his obvious detachment to the relationship? Why fight to see him after eight years?


*****

Back in the Soul World of Phoenix, the Halo flickers in an odd way, suddenly seeming to reject the golden energy of Eos. The tendrils of light emerging from it are neither quick nor aggressive, but rather questioning, probing. They glow and dim warily, not marked by anger, but tinged with sadness. Eosphoros stops trying to connect, biting her lip in confusion.

"He doesn't understand," Esoterra says simply. It seems obvious, but the other Luminaries are caught off-guard. The pursuance of the relationship, of a meeting in-person has come rather naturally and seamlessly to Phoenix. The Luminaries just did because… because it was what they were supposed to do. They stopped questioning the WHY years ago; the novelty was abandoned to instinct.

A sudden flash of white light behind them beckons the entrance of Phoenix. They turn in time to see the silver phoenix dissipate to be replaced by their Avatar. "Why did we?"

"I… I can't… I don't," Aura stumbles over her words. "It just became native after a time. We haven't thought about the underlying reasons in-depth for so long."

"But there were known reasons originally even if they became integrated into the system after a while. We have to look. Find them," Phoenix responds, the last two words more forceful than intended, if only because she is desperate.

Aura breathes deeply and accesses the archives. Every interaction, every touching moment, every uplifting sentence spoken rushes through her mind. Finally after sifting through eight years of emotion, she begins to find what she's looking for.

Aura still looks distraught, and shakes her head as if to scatter the images. "That's well and good," she exclaims, "But how do we communicate that?! If we could show him these things," she trails off in a huff, wondering how to get her bearings and what to say to him next.

Phoenix has been standing silently, but at Aura's words, an expression of interest crosses her face. "But… what if we could?" she says slowly, measuring the weight of her words.

Phoenix's suggestion dawns on them all and Esoterra is the first to respond. "That was only a dream," she insists, practically. "It's something you always fantasized about, perhaps, but only a dream. It's never happened before, unless of course, you count…"

"Don't. Count. That. Bitch." Ignis speaks through gritted teeth.

Despite Esoterra dismissing the idea, Phoenix still looks hopeful. She looks up at Terminus' Halo. It has darkened significantly, tainted by his rampant thoughts. Clouds move in the sky and partially obscure it. Phoenix takes one determined step after another until she stands at the railing, on the precipice of the balcony, and on the possibility of something big. She speaks, looking straight up into the little light left, connecting, or at least attempting to, directly with Terminus himself, not from the outside, but from within. "This is probably wishful thinking, but…" Phoenix realizes then that she doesn't even know how such an exchange would work. "I wouldn't make you forget, even if I could, because you deserve to remember, but I think you've been deceived. Things are not as bad as they seem, and if you could see through my eyes, I think you would know that too."

Nothing happens at first as Phoenix and the Luminaries stare with bated breath. Then the outer ring of the Halo retracts as the inner ball of light darkens into near blackness. Phoenix digs her fingernails into her palms painfully. But then a tiny pinprick of light appears in the center, barely visible while squinting. It shimmers that way momentarily, as if considering her proposition, but suddenly expands outward, filling the Halo with a blinding silver light, sweet and welcoming. The light temporarily consumes the sky and dies down to a gentle glow, revealing something behind? no, within, it. A room with white marble floors, and frames tinted in pastel colors…


*****

Domina slices through the shadow armies that have taken hold in the area around the Lake. With the Archangels around her, she cuts, hacks, and slashes through them.

"Fuck! Who knew there were so many of them!?" She yells through the link.

In the distance, Memorius, Hatrus, and Lusos are clashing directly with the massive form of Noxias. He is much faster this time, but also much larger. Roots still anchor him in place, but they also make for significant turbulence and distraction in the Sky.

The guilt of the interaction with Phoenix gave Noxias access to a very specific kind of guilt: a breakdown of Terminus' own integrity and morals. Something he promised he would never do to anyone, he did to someone very important.

Domina feels the weight of a fist across her face. She goes falling back. Angrily, she throws a gunblade at the source landing another perfect hit. Quickly getting up, she charges forward, grabs the gunblade, dislodges it from between the eyes of one of the shadows, and uses it to swing against several more.

Black Perfection and Moralus are on opposite ends of Noxias. Waves of Lake water are crashing towards the City, and with arms outstretched, both are struggling to hold them back.

Roots flail in every direction. Hatrus, Memorius and Lusos are like small gnats compared to Noxias' towering form. The roots struggle to catch hold of them. Hatrus launches a fireball of raw energy at Noxias' roots. Noxias cries out and a series of roots focus on Hatrus. Before they can reach him, Lusos flies by and burns them away. Still, more roots take their place.

"How are you doing down there?" Hatrus yells through the link.

"We're making do! We can't get through the shadows!" The sound of an explosion can be heard in the distance. Bodies go flying away. Then another flash of light above as Noxias unleashes beams of energy at the Armada fighters.

"Now he's using our own abilities against us!" Hatrus cries out angrily.

Domina grits her teeth. She can sense the fatigue that's kicking in, but presses on: "We have to do this! We won't get a chance like this again!"

Memorius' body begins to glow, her energy lessening the weight of the fog that is draining everyone's energy. The fog fights back, trying to push back against her.

Moralus throws one hand up in the air, telekinetically blasting away the clouds from the vortex of Phoenix again. Moments later, clouds gather again. He repeats this several times before crying out in frustration: "He's too fast! I can't keep the clouds away!"

"We NEED that vortex to remain open." Black Perfection yells out. "Go! Tend to the vortex. I will hold off the Lake waters."

"Alone?"

"I've been through worse!" Black Perfection shouts back. Hovering in the air, he takes a deep breath and focuses on the Lake water. It crashes against the telekinetic barrier that Black Perfection has forced up. His arms shake as he struggles to hold the guilt at bay. Turning to Moralus, he yells: "GO!" again.

Moralus nods and shoots up in the Sky. Black Perfection watches as almost immediately, shadowy figures also charge up, pursuing him.

Lusos watches Moralus go, seeing his pursuers. Without hesitating, he unleashes a beam to try and take some of them down. Then he charges at the others, hoping to clear the path for Moralus.

Domina dodges and weaves in and out from the army of shadow which has now started to launch projectiles at them. Whatever they're throwing, appears to be completely incapacitating. The few that get hit on her side immediately stall, or fall over.

The moment of distraction almost costs her to get hit. An Archangel jumps in the way, taking the hit instead. Domina shakes herself out of the distraction, angrily looking up at Noxias: "Now I'm pissed." Arms outstretched, Domina pulls the triggers on both gunblades. A stream of bullets bursts out, taking down several lines of shadow ahead of them.

From below, a root reaches up and grabs her by the wrist. Domina's aim is thrown off as her wrist is forced down. Domina tries to pull against the root but it pulls back. With the other gunblade, Domina slices the root, but another takes its place, knocking one gunblade out from her hand.

Then she feels a sharp pain as whatever projectiles are being thrown at them hits her hand. She looks down at a black sludge that seems to solidify around her hand. "Fuck. YOU!" Domina cries out activating her hover boots. The root that had her hand is torn from the ground.

Domina continues the fight with one gunblade, but from where she is, looking below, she realizes there are just too many shadows all around. The fog has now thickened to a point where she can barely see the others, but for a few glows in the distance, and the faint sounds of explosions.

Domina grits her teeth as several of the Archangels with the ability to fly join her. Domina points with her Gunblade: "There." And they charge back into battle.

The fog continues to thicken...


*****

Phoenix is too busy standing, mouth agape, to say anything, so Aura speaks in her stead. "What on earth is that?" she asks.

"The Hall of Mirrors," Esoterra replies, "Terminus' to be exact."

Aura scowls briefly. "I know that! But the Hall of Mirrors is never visible. It is within the Cloud, or Halo in this case, never open for the whole sky to see."

Nymphaea smiles warmly. "I believe those are his walls coming down."

Esoterra nods in agreement and Phoenix finally finds her words, or at least one of them: "Go." It is a simple command, but one that is instantly understood by her Luminaries.

Wings shuffle and they take flight, following Aura to the exposed Hall. Each of the six frames around the room once held a mirror, but they now stand empty, allowing unfiltered light in from the other side. Solanaceae walks carefully to her frame and crouches down in front of it. There are a few shining shards of glass littering the marble floor: the only remnants of her mirror left, broken and fallen when Phoenix and Terminus finally met in-person. The sight makes her tear up and smile, but Aura places a soothing hand on her shoulder. She allows Solan to look at the fragments for a few moments longer before sending a stream of air at them. They disintegrate into miniscule particles and finally disappear altogether.

Solan stands and turns resolutely to the opposite end of the Hall. "So is that…?" she asks, still too cautious to say what they were all thinking. The Hall was usually fully enclosed, but now, in addition to the opening created in Phoenix's sky, there was no solid wall on the other side either. There was something, but all they saw was a bright haze obscuring it.

"There's only one way we can know," replies Aura, moving closer to the haze. Instinctively, the others take up a v-formation around her. Walking forward, they find they must close their eyes through the haze—the light was not blinding, but powerful. They squint and blink rapidly to clear their vision after the light fades from behind closed lids.


*****

Memorius feels the weight of the fog all around her. Noxias has completely isolated her from the others with the fog, leaving her in total darkness. Try as she might, she can't seem to push back the fog. Closing her eyes, Memorius tries to anchor herself to the Spire… but finds nothing but static guilt overruling the channel. She frowns. "This is a problem."

Moralus struggles to reach the vortex, the fog having blocked his abilities to completely trigger it. The fog, his pursuers, and the damn roots clawing to get him have made it difficult for him to complete his mission. Each time he pushes the clouds away, more take hold.

Hatrus and Lusos have a coordinated attack against Noxias. But they can both feel their palms and extremities cooling over. Were it not for their naturally radiant bodies, they'd have frozen in place by now. Hatrus grits his teeth, surprised by how much harder this was becoming. Noxias knew exactly what to channel to completely overpower them.

Guilt. A fundamental weakness of the Soul World. In a world that is so intimately connected with the people around it, the guilt and shame of having hurt someone who cared for them had proven to be much more powerful than expected.

Hatrus can feel the beams of flaming energy being pushed back. The roots don't dare to reach out to him, but once his energies have been extinguished, or frozen over, they will be coming for him.

He frantically attempts a supernova, but the fog blocks it.

Below, Domina has been pulled to the ground. With the Archangels struggling to flank her and defend her, she finds now that both of her arms are encased in whatever black goo had hardened. Without her open hands, she couldn't summon her gunblades. Roots had gripped her by the ankles, holding her firmly in place. The Archangels form a circle around her, trying to push back the oncoming shadows.

Domina beats her encased fists against the roots, hoping to injure or damage them. Nothing works. In the distance, the glows of the others are also fading. They can barely be seen. Domina can feel the shadow creeping up on her.

Suddenly, there is a flash of light as something in the Sky appears to go nova. At first, Domina thinks Moralus has succeeded. But then she notices against the backdrop of light that Moralus is struggling against roots himself.

The flash of light continues to brighten and beams of energy pour through the vortex of Phoenix. The beams push through the fog effortlessly.

Moralus senses something, a change, almost immediately. Within moments he understands. Throwing his hands out to either side of him, he practically welcomes what is coming.

Memorius can see the glow above her as several beams of energy rush by her. For a fraction of a second, something… no, someone touches her.

Memorius smiles as the presence of a kindred spirit, a counterpart, fills the area around her. "Eos," Memorius whispers.

Eos stares ahead, as if willing her amber eyes to penetrate the fog. "I saw that long face." She turns to Memorius, smiling brightly. "It’s not for us to worry, hun. Our job is to keep charging ahead, blissfully ignorant to any possible negative consequences. To believe that everything will work out for the best, because it has to."

Memorius returns her smile and nods, the glow of her body returning to full force. This is exactly the kind of distraction and support that they need to combat the fog. Perhaps the most powerful weapon against a guilt like the one Noxias was hosting, was the power of compassion, and forgiveness… and the gift of letting go.

Hatrus' fingertips have already frozen over, but he is still struggling against the icy backlash. Suddenly, the ice melts away and Hatrus can feel a warmth approaching. He feels a burst of heat and he can sense his own strength returning, the icy energies pushing him back start to lose ground. He turns to stare at a woman clad in maroon leather, with violent red hair jutting out from under a hood.

"What took you so long?" Hatrus throws out, playfully.

"Me? We weren't the ones waiting outside for the door to open!" Ignis replies, tugging the hood off her head.

"Well thanks for breaking the doors in; we were having trouble with the locks." Hatrus says as his palms begin to glow with hot energy once again, and a beam of fire bursts out. Ignis withdraws her weapons, one a traditional dagger, the other a stiletto, and places them in the beam of fire. They begin to glow vibrantly.

"Time to take the fight to Noxias…" Ignis says with a smirk.

Moments later, a low rumble of thunder is heard as a figure with black hair and deep violet eyes appears next to Lusos. She stands momentarily in a long dress before armor appears, covering her entire body except her right thigh and a sliver of skin on her upper chest.

Lusos looks over to Hatrus. "I see you’ve found a hand too?"

Hatrus nods.

A brilliant flash of light makes contact with the ground next to them. Three shadows had been charging the group but a lightning strike caused by Solanaceae promptly destroyed them. Lusos looks a bit confused, expecting a loud crack. "There was no sound?"

"I can still blast your eardrums…" Solan says nonchalantly, "But I figured you'd still want to hear after this."

Lusos' eyes widen as he catches the double entendre. He opens his mouth slightly as if to reply, but decides only to slowly nod in response.

"Well!" Ignis exclaims, "It's feeling a little tense over here!"

"It must be this stifling fog," replies Hatrus.

"Must be." The two stare at Lusos and Solan for a moment longer, smug and bemused, before sharing a grin, looking as if they know nothing less than a secret the whole world wants to know.

Below, Hatrus and Lusos can sense their Secondary Archons springing to life again as blinks of red and green begin to glow.

The four of them charge straight for Noxias.

Ignis begins to fly lower and Solan glances down to see what she's after. Solan beats her electric wings more powerfully and bolts of lightning crash down on the shadows below, clearing a path. Ignis lands and gathers up Domina's gunblades as several shadows press down on her. She disappears in a flash of fire, leaving only a flurry of ashes in her place, and reappears right next to Domina.

Ignis' dagger, still glowing brightly after being superheated by Hatrus' beam, slices easily through the black mass restraining one of Domina's hands. A gunblade loses itself from Ignis' grip and flies right into Domina's palm. Using it, she shatters the second encasing.

Ignis points the gunblade directly at Domina, but then turns it, offering her the hilt instead. "Not time for your coup de grâce just yet." She opens her wings again and forms a protective ring of fire around the pair. Approaching shadows balk at the flames.

Domina looks up as the Archangels charge forward again. With the ground taken care of, Domina activates her hover boots again and flies up alongside Ignis, gunblades at the ready.

Moments later, they are joined by two others, Memorius and Eos, all flying towards Noxias.

From above, a powerful beam of energy, surrounded by an intense spiral of wind that only enhances it, crashes down onto Noxias from the vortex of Phoenix, guided by Moralus and Aura. Noxias cries out angrily as the beam actually does damage, the wind shredding into his skin.

Moments later, he feels sharp pains as beams of energy and forces of nature assault him. The others have finally broken through his defences, combatting him head on.

At the edge of the City, Black Perfection finds he is better able to hold the waters at bay, but he is still inundated. A figure flies down next to him with waxy green wings like the surface of a leaf. Black Perfection turns to face her. At first, he is alarmed by the presence of another within the Self. But something about her piercing green eyes bring him comfort. Black Perfection smiles: "Please, make yourself at home."

"Catch your breath," Esoterra says simply, seeing sweat trickle down his forehead.

"I can't—" Black Perfection looks at the water, surprised. Instead of raging at his invisible barrier, it is still, calmly contained behind it. He lowers his arms cautiously, fully expecting to be caught up in a flood, but the water remains still and confined.

Esoterra's eyes dart up to the Sky and Black Perfection follows them with his own. Nymphaea hovers above them, her fairy-like wings flapping gently. She represses the deluge effortlessly because she is not willing it back with a blockade but controlling the water itself. Black Perfection sighs with relief.

Esoterra kneels down and puts two fingertips to the ground. A crack appears in the ground and small pieces of sediment fall into it. She thrusts her palm and remaining fingers flat to the ground and the crack grows quickly, elongating, but still just a sliver in width. After a time, she lifts her hand, palms facing one another, and slowly separates them. The earth groans beneath them as Esoterra forces it apart.

Black Perfection watches her work. She is tactful, her motions smooth with purpose, focus, and will behind them. For the first time in a long while, Black Perfection feels like he is completely understood. Focusing his own efforts, he hovers up and pushes the waters down into the chasm that has been opened up. The waves crash and fall right where they came from: deep into the Thought World.

Just before all the water is swallowed up, Nymphaea retains some. Ribbons of water twist their way around Esoterra and Black Perfection. "Think of it like a living shield. It will respond and protect you when necessary," Esoterra explains.

"Fearus will turn it against us," Black Perfection replies worriedly.

"No. Look closer."

Black Perfection stares into the water and notices it shimmering, as though glitter had been suspended in it. He squints at Nymphaea again and notices a small bottle hanging from a gold chain around her waist.

"It's water from the pool in our Sanctuary. She keeps it with her always. She's connected to that water from within, so as long as it's mixed with the Lake water, it all belongs to Nymphaea. That's why she doesn’t have to consciously control it to defend us."

"Just in case a situation like this arises, you mean?" Black Perfection laughs.

"Quite. Shall we join the others?" Esoterra nods her head in the direction of the fighting. They take flight and Nymphaea follows.

Meanwhile Aura and Moralus hold back the roots as the others engage Noxias in a more direct attack. Despite their fight being mostly on the ground, Aura keeps her wings open as she fights, each beat buffeting back shadows, leaving them tumbling over one another. Aura stops momentarily and looks at Solan, noticing she's still wearing the feathered garter on her bare thigh. "Solan!" she yells, "Who are you fighting for?!"

Solan looks up in exasperation. "Phoen—" she stops when she realizes what Aura means and touches her garter, eyes glinting. She notices the long red feather normally adorning the front of Ignis' armor is gone and Aura’s feathered upper arm cuffs are nowhere to be found. "AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN'T GET THIS MEMO?" Solan shouts indignantly. She bends down and shimmies the garter over her boots and off her leg. Glancing at Lusos, she smirks and tosses it his way. "Catch!"

Lusos looks surprised but catches it carefully to avoid crushing the feathers.

"Keep it safe for me!" Solan calls gleefully. In a moment Lusos sees why. Sparks of electricity form, encircling her wrists, and all across the battlefield precision strikes of lighting cause the shadows to drop like flies. She absorbs the deafening sound of those impacting the immediate area, but thunder can still be heard in the distance.

Domina cuts down shadows with ease, her burden significantly lessened by the new arrivals. Suddenly a tendril of water weaves its way around her. She narrows her eyes, imagining Fearus is toying with her, and slashes angrily at the water. It moves away quickly, allowing the blade to embed itself in a nearby shadow. Domina looks around, finding she can now see all her comrades again with the fog completely cleared. Black Perfection and Esoterra have both joined the fray and Archons and Luminaries alike are all surrounded by a similar tendril of water that reacts to their movements, swats away projectiles, and forms a shield against enemies. High above the ground, Nymphaea surveys the battlefield. Domina realizes then that whatever this water is, it's on their side.

"Noxias, I have to thank you," Nymphaea says. "Without all the moisture in the air from that fog, I never would have been able to make effective shields for them all."

Noxias manages to look away just long enough to see they've all been afforded extra protection. His ooze simply clashes with the water instead of landing a direct hit. The shadow army has been decimated, the wave of lake water taken care of, and the roots are being attended to.

Noxias turns to stare at Nymphaea, a slight panic in his eyes. Moments later, the panic dissipates, and a smirk crawls up his cheeks. His eyes narrow, focusing on hers: "Must be difficult standing here in this world of all places. A world that you had to fight tooth and nail to get to. A world belonging to a person who would not give you the time of day despite your many efforts. And then to have someone as despicable as ES so easily manage to enter, and later invade." Noxias looks over his shoulder to Aura, and adds: "How did you manage to hang on all those years in the sidelines while you became secondary… and while this Soul World had declared you adrift? To whom should this Council REALLY be grateful to?"

The air around Noxias begins to cool, becoming calm. Memorius can feel a chill and can sense what is happening. Before she can step forward to address Noxias, it is Nymphaea who speaks: "For the same reason Terminus told Phoenix she was worth it."

Nymphaea finally lands next to Noxias. She wears no armor like the rest, only a simple blue dress. "It has been difficult for Phoenix," she begins. "She is incredibly vulnerable with him. Her emotions are in blinding, vibrant colours. It scared no one more than her that he had any potential to be special. So much so, in fact, that she had no choice but to ignore Phobos until he no longer impacted her relationship with Terminus. She had to become intimately in touch with her emotions to understand them, temper them, and know when she was ready. One could waste away in worry wondering why things are the way are."

"It was always Aura's right to continue contact or call it off. But the rest of us would have been fools not to see the obvious. So we made a choice. Every one of us. And now? Phoenix has no fear. No misgivings. No guilt. And no regrets. Not where he is concerned. Aura made the call to keep speaking with him every single time because we all saw great potential. These two have a mind to change the world. Their relationship has finally overcome its boundaries, and they are better for it. All because of potential. Phoenix's love, as encapsulated by me, as displayed by the Halo, is a response to revelation. As is Memorius. What flourishes between these two worlds in the future will be owed to one thing. Not because of who she is. Nor because of who he is. But because of who THEY are. Together."

Noxias stares at Nymphaea: "What hopes? What memories? What are you hanging onto? There should be nothing left that is worth preserving. You speak volumes, yet you lack the conviction." Then he smiles. "You're bluffing."

Aura's eyes narrow and she scowls, spreading her arms to either side. A wall of wind knocks everyone back, but they all manage to stay on their feet. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," she says to Noxias, stepping forward. Noxias redirects his attention, intrigued by her proposal. "I'll show you why we're here." By now she stands directly in front of him and extends her arm.

Noxias considers for a moment longer before lifting his arm level with hers. They grasp one another's forearm, establishing a connection. Aura's hair whips back and her pupils constrict until her eyes are filled with white.

Nymphaea smiles down at Eosphoros. "This is something everyone should see, no?"

Eos catches her meaning and nods. Nymphaea gathers water and forms one large wall. Eos puts both hands out in front of her and moves them in a fan motion. A ray of golden-white light emerges from her palms and shines on the water wall, with Noxias and Aura directly in the path of the beam.

Eos looks at Memorius. "Go ahead," she says, nodding toward the light, indicating Memorius should step into it as well. "Just tell us the truth." She smiles encouragingly.

Memorius nods and walks into the light. Images begin to be projected onto the water wall. The images on the wall shoot up into the Sky and are also reflected there. Phoenix's and Terminus' memories…


*****

An initial contact spurred by Lusos. The building of a friendship at a time when ES was slowly feeding into Repercussus. A time when the Soul World was left broken and unsure how to proceed after the Second Zero Hour War. The breaking down of the Exanimous mask. A time after Kitkat, the building of the Armada. The building of an even stronger friendship, one which had been rocky at times. Despite times changing, Terminus changing, difficulties arising, Phoenix had stayed persistent and true as a friend. She too had grown significantly, until Terminus could no longer deny her wisdom.

And then, the images of the Archons which had been drawn by her. Not as a way to get his attention, but 'just because.' An act of kindness that had shot open the floodgates. Gates that had been repeatedly opened and closed a crack for so long, allowing just enough energy to get through, without coming face to face with what it stood for, what it could flourish into. And part of it had been Noxias, slowly growing into a gatekeeper: presiding over a very specific kind of guilt that had finally reached a point of no return where a single act of 'just cuz' kindness had burst the dam.

"Fine. But I'm going to tell you the four words that will haunt you for the rest of your life… YOU ARE WORTH IT." Words typed out by Terminus to preserve whatever self-love Phoenix may have had left. And returned to Terminus eight years later for a different reason.

"You're worth more than Cineris would ever claim," a simple statement texted by Phoenix that worked to ward of Cineris until Terminus could get back on his feet. The first time she felt useful to him.

Sadness, disappointment, jealousy: a gut reaction to a photo of Terminus and OceanEyes. But the longer she looks at it, the more she sees. Silliness, exuberance, happiness. OceanEyes is making him happy. And Phoenix realizes that her desire to see that happiness, that smile, is worth more than petty self-interest. Jealousy recedes and Solan evolves into her current iteration.

Phoenix walks through campus, upset and crying over one thing or another. Thoughts flood into one another like a sea of dominoes set up just so and threaten to overwhelm her. But then she thinks of Terminus, realizing her would want her to be happy. Just like that, the negative emotions disperse. Happiness is not left in their place, but they are gone for a time. Long enough, at least, for her to get home and have a restful night.

And then the Palace appears: the Soul World of Phoenix. Just months before their meeting, Terminus had asked why she kept so many old conversations and she was forced to confront that reason herself. It was then Esoterra had noticed a wisp of deep, disturbing blue within Terminus’ cloud. The last fragments of Phobos' influence, fragments which should have been long gone. Solanaceae stood on the edge of the balcony and yelled for Phobos. The sky darkened to shades of purple, blue, and black as he emerged from the forest. Nymphaea and Solan fought furiously for the physical interaction that suddenly seemed so much closer than before. Phobos gained the upper hand and Solan was left on the ground, fallen back. Nymphaea was ready to defend, but stopped as Phobos started to speak…

"You’ll ruin everything." His voice came in a threatening whisper that penetrated their ears. "Nymphaea can still fall as hard as ever and if they meet, there’s nothing stopping her. This magic notion of a fearless, no holds barred, completely open and honest love is something created to excuse what you really feel. And you, Solan…" He scoffed. "There is no rationality within you! Terminus' words, his discomfort, his request be damned! You still always come back to him. YOU. DESIRE. HIM. And how will you react when you finally get your physical contact? You’ll ruin a friendship because what you can have won’t be enough. One overtly flirtatious comment from you will cause a breakdown and both worlds will be left with less than they have now."

Solan's face went from injured to offended to angry as he spoke. By the time he was done, her body began to flash purple and her wings emerged and wrapped around her. She stood, armor replaced by a floor-length gown and translucent veil covering the lower half of her face. Her harp began to change—the frame turned into a handle and the strings morphed into a whip. The veins visible under the thin skin of her wrists and forearms seemed to be composed of lightning themselves. Her essential form, seen only once before. "I DAMN WELL WILL NOT." She brandished the whip at the end of the sentence and lightning flashed, the resulting thunder adding to the loud crack.

"What do you think I am? A magic fucking 8 ball? Personality. Intellect. Wit. Physical attractiveness. Fine. All fine. Signs point to yes. But even you are not foolish enough to think I can make a call, as you insinuate, in absence of physical contact. Of chemistry. Chemistry that has been absent for at least SIX YEARS, and whatever chemistry did exist, did not in this impending context." She stepped closer and closer to Phobos, her knuckles white on the handle of her whip. "Anyway, say the 8 ball ends up being correct. I am allowed to have thoughts and not act on them and if it comes to it, I will do just that."

"And, lest you forget, I am a Luminary of the other. Underestimate me all you like, tell me I'm doomed to failure, but don’t you dare insinuate his first instinct to me overstepping my bounds would be a catastrophe."

"I deserve this. I have gotten the raw end of this deal. But you, you have no fucking right to be infecting his Cloud now. It has taken years of growth, of self-improvement, of fine-tuning to come to this point. We are stronger now than we ever were. Confidence in others, the confidence I control, begins with confidence in the self."

"AND, here's the icing on the cake of your tedious monologue. You really think that I, Luminary of independence, of self-betterment, of attraction and seduction, would go down as a mistress? I have my own principles and they do not involve encounters that end with overwhelming guilt and self-hate. No, that encounter would be fan-fucking-tastic. And if it's not, someone's holding back."

One last image appears. The Luminaries gather and Aura readies herself to delete the conversations. Phobos appears and lands on the balcony. Solan speaks without looking at him, still bitter from their last encounter. "And why are you here?"

"He trusts her," Phobos says shortly.

"And?"

"It’s refreshing," he continues. "I watch all the clouds so carefully, but his… it appears I don’t have to interfere. I admit to being intrigued."

Solan smiles silently.


*****

The bodies of the Archons of Terminus and the Luminaries of Phoenix begin to glow. Noxias stares at the images in the Sky, hovering back. The roots recoil at their blindness. Looking around in a panic, Noxias watches as both Archon and Luminary completely indulge in the memories. And that's when he realizes that compared to what had been built over the years, he may, in fact, be nothing.

An anger unlike any floods Noxias' mind. "I. Will. Not. Be. Ignored," he mutters under his breath. Making fists, Noxias roars and the calm air is shattered. The images in the Sky flicker. Roots burst from the ground tearing it apart.

Two roots surge forward, charging towards Aura and Nymphaea. "YOU have no right to be here! YOU have no right to be strutting in here like this is your home. You are GUESTS at best—GUESTS that should NOT have been!"

Before the roots can hit their mark, Hatrus and Domina dive in the way. Domina slashes left and right, reducing the roots to bits, while Hatrus burns them alive. Noxias cries out, angrily again, and the storm worsens: "This is MY world! MINE!" A thick fog, much like ooze, blasts out from Noxias' body, again aimed at Aura and Nymphaea: "Hope and generic love shall NOT best me. YOU shall NOT best me! You know nothing of guilt, of pain, of suffering!"

Aura and Nymphaea start flashing white and blue, respectively, and their wings wrap around their bodies, just as Solanaceae's had done in the projected images.

Lusos and Memorius now jump in the way, forming a wall between Noxias and Aura and Nymphaea. Noxias grits his teeth: "You would defend an aspect of OTHERS above the SELF? YOU who of all people are aware that the reason I exist around HER, is BECAUSE OF HER? I will break each and every single one of you!" Noxias roars as the Volcano erupts in the distance.

The sludge and fog around Noxias begins to take shape as shadows replace them. Domina makes fists: "Fucker doesn't know when to STAY DOWN!" She yells out, charging at the shadows. Moments later, the calm is completely broken and the battle has restarted once again.

By now Aura and Nymphaea stand not in their armor, but in the outfits of their essential forms. Nymphaea detaches the flute from her waist and it elongates into a staff topped with a glazed, blue water lily. Aura turns to the other Luminaries. "Let's make a storm."

"What kind?" Ignis asks, eyes glinting.

"A perfect one."

"What are they doing?" Black Perfection asks Esoterra. He holds a hand up and Esoterra turns in time to see a few shadows go flying.

"We don't really create storms," she replies, extracting a jagged rock from the ground. "We create the conditions necessary for them." She uses her makeshift shank to stab a shadow.

Black Perfection watches as Aura moves her hands in wide arcs, pushing the air upward and downward. Nymphaea had gone skyward to the cloud layer above, as had Eos. Ignis stands still and focused in the center of the chaos, wings outspread. Parts of her armor glow and it is obvious she is radiating warmth.

"Nymphaea's combining water droplets in the clouds…" Esoterra's remaining hand goes claw-like and bunches itself into a fist. Roots creeping up on Black Perfection wither and lay limp at his feet. "Eos'll be absorbing heat from the lowest cloud layer, and Ignis is keeping the temperature in check here on the ground. They're creating the perfect environment for…" she holds her arm out, palm open and catches something as it falls.

Black Perfection looks at her hand a sees a small lump of ice in it. "Hail," he finishes for her, smiling.

They all watch as hailstones beat down on Noxias and the shadows, conveniently avoiding everyone else. The hailstones grow larger and increase in number as the Luminaries work. The storm assaults him viciously until he can focus only on dodging hail. The roots and ooze relent as his attention shifts.

After several minutes, the shadows are once again on the defensive with the Council and Luminaries having pushed them back. Aura and Nymphaea dispel their hailstorm. Clouds dissipate as Nymphaea absorbs or divides the moisture. Ignis and Hatrus melt the small mountains of hail that had accumulated and Eosphoros returns to ground with the others.

Noxias' body is trembling with rage, frustrated at his ineffectiveness. With the Luminaries in the Soul World, he is unable to lay an effective psychological blow against the Council.

"It's over Noxias." Black Perfection says. "Just… let it go. Let this go." He says, palms outstretched, ready to push back anything else telekinetically.

Noxias stares at Black Perfection, angrily: "Betrayal… by own kin. You're all fools. You're all blind." Suddenly, he turns to stare at Memorius, and Moralus. Their bodies begin to glow, but instead of their hopeful light, it is a crimson black glow.

"I WILL TELL YOU WHY HE LINGERED FOR SO MANY YEARS! Because of ME you little shits! Because of ME and ONLY ME!"

Memorius' and Moralus' eyes widen as suddenly they struggle to breathe. From their bodies, a dense fog pours out, dissipating the water that had previously been protecting them. Luminous liquid turns to black fog.

"These two….THESE TWO! Your hero and heroine of empathy and compassion and hope and love for OTHERS were nothing more than MY puppets! YOU ALL WANTED TO DISCONNECT! This entire Council wanted to disconnect! But it was guilt that kept you going. It was ME. ME! ME! ME that kept you connected. I am the one you should all be thanking for the chance for both of you to sit here today and have your worlds finally interact in person! Without me, Terminus would have disconnected, he would have discarded YOUR WORLD. Luminaries, he would have discarded YOUR FRIENDSHIP, he would have ended things. But because of me, he extended an offer that he was hoping you WOULD NOT TAKE. The masks came off...and you didn’t do what he had been hoping. YOU ACCEPTED HIM. And over the years it was ME who kept things going! Were it not for me, Memorius and Moralus would NOT have been able to function in connecting with Phoenix! You said it yourself, Terminus, empathy does NOT work as well online! Empathy never worked between the two of you! Only GUILT did!"

Black Perfection rushes towards Moralus, trying to access a core that linked the two of them ever since he made his sacrifice in the Second Zero Hour War. But despite his efforts, Moralus is no longer accessible. Black Perfection can only stare in horror as Moralus' eyes plead to be saved.

Next to him, Hatrus furiously pounds at the fog and sludge that has encased Memorius. He can feel her essence fading, every bit of hope replaced with nothing but guilt and anger.

Noxias turns to stare at the Spire, screaming frantically, as the storm rages once again, this time overpowering Aura and Nymphaea. The energies are different. This isn't an attack on them, this is an attack that draws from Moralus and Memorius, corrupting their essence and using it as a weapon. "YOU OWE ME TERMINUS! AND YOU, PHOENIX! YOU OWE ME EVEN MORE! THIS UNION OF TWO WORLDS IN FRIENDSHIP IS MY DOING! YOU DO NOT NOW GET THE CHANCE TO FIGHT AGAINST ME! YOU SHOULD BE THANKING ME!" Noxias yells stabbing a finger at the Spire as fire, lightning, and ice seem to be crashing around everyone.

The others have completely focused their efforts on trying to break Memorius and Moralus free. Nothing is getting through to them, and they are now the epicentre of Noxias' power as the reality of Noxias' words has changed everything to his favour.

The guilt had been eating away at Terminus. Why he was worth it was not even the biggest source of guilt, but rather that the connection between the two had been built on a bridge of guilt from the very beginning with Noxias using Moralus and Memorius to mask his own ambitions.

Black Perfection turns to the others in a panic as the Sky above darkens, blocking the light from the star of Phoenix. The air becomes dense, thick, and suddenly the Archons and Luminaries feel as though the air is suffocating them all. With the darkness above, the energy to sustain the Luminaries cannot shine through. With the storm raging the way it is, the Archons are unable to push through.

Noxias' relentless assault continues: "Who do you think kept the friendship going just enough to allow things to continue? ME! Who do you think was triggered when those images entered the inbox? ME! This is MY victory! I will not allow this victory to be snatched from me! This is mine! YOU ALL OWE ME!"

"HEY NOXIAS!" Comes one voice, that of Domina's. Noxias pauses for one moment, turning around to see where Domina is. "YOU WANT RECOGNITION? HERE!" And she fires once. A glowing bullet slices through the fog, the storm, the wind, the roots, and hits its target.

The roots fall, lifeless. The form of Noxias breaks apart almost immediately, shattering into a rain of sludge and ooze which spills mostly into the Lake, but also on everyone else. The storm completely dissipates with an anti-climactic exhale.

Memorius falls into Hatrus' arms as the crimson glow fades. Black Perfection catches Moralus and they hover slowly onto the ground below. Memorius coughs up black ooze. Black Perfection turns to Aura and Nymphaea. Both nod without hesitation, knowing exactly where their places are.

Nymphaea hovers next to Moralus and places a hand on his chest. The water lily on her staff glows a soft, pale blue. The signs of Noxias' infection begin to disappear as forgiveness and love flow from Luminary to Archon. "Where even a sliver of love exists…" Nymphaea starts.

Aura hovers next to Memorius and does the same. A gentle breeze whips up around the pair, restoring and reestablishing hope. Memorius and Moralus slowly open their eyes as the others gather around. "The thinnest of hopes has room to grow." Aura finishes, reciting one of tenets of their world.

The Armada and Archangels form a perimeter around them, a perfect sphere facing outward in case there is anyone else to deal with.

Black Perfection exhales, wiping the sludge from his face. He turns to Domina, raising an eyebrow. "What in the name of Terminus was that?"

Domina lands gently next to them, casually returning her Gunblade to its holster, and completely ignoring the fact that she is almost entirely covered in sludge, having been closest to Noxias when he collapsed. "I realized that Noxias was right… but that it didn't fucking matter. The fact remains that although we dropped the ball on our friendship for so many years, even if that ball was held by a thin string of guilt, we owned it." Domina turns to Aura and Nymphaea: "And they forgave us. Phoenix forgave us. Past be damned. In the here and now, these two worlds are together and connected by a friendship that both are fortunate to have. The rest of it doesn't matter. Nymphaea said it best."

Black Perfection gets up from kneeling next to Moralus: "And?"

Domina shrugs: "Nymphaea said it best… but I think Noxias didn’t really understand her words. Noxias wanted recognition, he wanted thanks, so I gave him thanks."

Black Perfection stares at Domina. Everyone else turns to her, still not fully understanding. Domina turns to them and adds, "He got a bullet with the words 'Thank You' on it. One word for Memorius and Aura, and another for Moralus and Nymphaea. I hope you don’t mind me speaking on behalf of all of us?" Domina asks putting her hands on her hips.

"In the end, yeah, thanks to his guilt, we are here today." Domina says motioning towards the Luminaries. Looking up into the Sky, now clear, allowing energy to flow forth, Domina adds: "It shouldn't have been there in the first place. But I guess the road to heaven is sometimes paved in shitty intentions, eh?" Domina says chuckling at her moment of punny brilliance.

Memorius looks up at Aura. "I have a feeling that after today, Noxias won't be able to touch the connection between these two worlds."

Domina nods. "Next time he'll get the words 'Fuck You'!"
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May 2017

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