After death, Belenus discovers that his life was more complicated than he imagined it to be.
His lady had summoned him from his rest, as she often had, and he had expected to emerge into a battlefield, a dungeon full of fierce demons. The calm beauty of the scene before him was a surprise to him, and a very pleasant one. He stood in a field under the shadow of mountains that he did not recognize, under a sky tinted with red and gold from the setting sun. A single maple tree grew in the meadow in front of him, its leaves as orange as flames and just beginning to fall in the gentle breeze.
It was beautiful, yes... but it was also puzzling. He finally turned to the Valkyrie who stood next to him, and saw her looking thoughtfully at the sky above. "Is something wrong, Lady Valkyrie?" he asked.
She looked back down at him, her eyes unreadable. She would have been a handsome woman, had she been mortal; as a goddess she was something else entirely, strong and ethereal in the ornate blue armor that marked her as a battle-maiden. "I summoned you here to ask you that question myself, mortal."
He frowned slightly. "To ask me?" he echoed. "I don't understand, my Lady."
She nodded. "I summoned you to ask if you were prepared to leave this world. You are a mighty warrior, Belenus, and your skill and power would ensure your welcome in Odin's halls... but there are other things to consider. Something in your soul still longs for this place, for Midgard. If that bond is not severed, you will be unable to complete your journey."
Belenus found that he understood. He couldn't deny what she said, although her assessment of his skill filled him with pride. But the thought of leaving Midgard for good left him cold. He knew what an honor it was, and yet...
Was it really his destiny, to travel to this place far from where he had lived - to fight battles there, and to quite possibly die? The concept of destiny, in and of itself, had always been a comfort to him in trying times - when his mother had fallen from her horse and broken her neck, or when his father had suddenly fallen ill, it was the thought that those things had been meant to happen for some higher purpose that had allowed him to keep going. But things had changed, since then. Maybe things were not as simple as he had imagined, then.
"Tell me, Lady Valkyrie," he said suddenly. "Was I destined to sacrifice my life for Asaka?"
She said nothing at first, and then when she did speak she seemed to carry a great sorrow in her heart. "I am sorry," she said, "but it it not my place to answer that question."
He turned away. "I see," he said quietly. "Forgive me for asking such a meaningless question." But it stayed in his mind, worrying him like a dog would worry at a bone. He found himself wondering if Asaka had been destined to die. Had he saved her and sentenced her to a life of uncertainty, forced to forge ahead without even the comfort of knowing that her life was determined by fate?
He had done his best, at least, to see that she would be comfortable. He had named her as heir to his estate, caretaker of all of his holdings, since neither he or his wife Helene had left behind any family. The reading of his will had surely made his peers raise their eyebrows and question his sanity, but he didn't care; it had been the right thing to do, and he knew it. Asaka had a good head on her shoulders. She would take care of his old home.
Old predjudices were difficult to break, however. He couldn't help but worry that she woudln't be accepted by his peers, even though he knew that there was nothing he could do. He couldn't stay with her, couldn't save her -
"I see now," the Valkyrie said quietly beside him, her voice interrupting his thoughts. "It is your worry for her that holds your soul here."
"Yes," Belenus acknowledged, and closed his eyes. "I suppose that it is."
"Would seeing her again ease your mind?"
"I can see her again?" He opened his eyes and turned to her, his heart lifted by a new hope. "I can speak to her?"
"You may see her," said the Valkyrie, "but only as a ghost, unable to touch or speak to any mortals. But through me you would be able to see and hear them. Thus you could learn your beloved's fate."
And it was enough. It was more than he had hoped for. "Please," he said. "If I could see that she was well, I could leave this life behind."
"So be it, then."
For Belenus, only an instant passed between closing his eyes and opening him again; he did not dream. But when he found himself standing on the busy streets of Lassen again, the sun was high in the sky.
He was standing on the street, but no one saw him. No one even batted an eye as they walked past him, and even through him, as if he was not there at all. But the Valkyrie stood beside him in an elaborate woolen dress, and they saw her well enough; a few of the more courteous men bowed to her as they passed, and she acknowledged them coolly. "How is it that they cannot see me, but they can see you?" he asked.
She did not turn to him, and her lips didn't move when she spoke to him. You are a mere spirit, she said in his mind, it seemed, and not a part of their world. I am manifest here, but you are not, because I do not choose to allow you to materialize through my will.
"I see," he said. It was just as well.
The street was crowded with people walking to and from the market square, laden with all manner of goods. He recognized a few of them - noblemen and their servants, mercernaries from many nations, and a few that hid their faces behind tinted glasses that he was sure were slave dealers. There would be slave auctions in the market that day, and couldn't surpress a sense of dread at the thought. He had been forced to deal with the slavers on several occasions... especially after he'd found Asaka. Men in black had come to his door almost all the time, asking if they could purchase the little girl that he'd found and meeting his refusals with thinly veiled threats. They had left him alone only after he'd managed to lay his hands on more money than she was worth, money to pay the ransom on her life. And now he had left her alone and vulnerable in that city, where the money from the slave trade could buy a great deal of silence... she would have to keep her wits about her.
He looked again at the sky; it was nearly noon. The market would be busy, then. "She will surely be at the market," he said. "If we follow this road, we should find it."
Very well. She began to walk calmly through the streets, and Belenus followed her. The ones who brushed past her treated her as a lady - she looked the part of a noblewoman from the north, cold and proud. As for Belenus, no one saw him, or even felt him as they passed. At first the people who passed through him were a distraction, but he grew accustomed to the strangeness of it soon enough.
He knew the street very well; he had walked it with Asaka, the day before everything had fallen apart. A shiver went through him as he realized that he had been unconsciously scanning the sides of the street, searching for one of the flowers that his beloved had plucked.
There were none there. Rationally he was not surprised; they bloomed only in the springtime, and would have long since faded away. But he could not help but be somewhat depressed at the thought, as he realized how much he'd hoped to see one of them in bloom.
He saw her as soon as they arrived at the edge of the market; he knew her at once, even though her back was turned. It was the way that she stood, the curve of her shoulders. She turned a bit as he approached, so that he could see her in profile; he was immediately struck at how much more solemn she was, how much older she seemed. She wore a simple black dress under one of his old coats, heavy black velvet with faintly yellowed lace at the cuffs and collar. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun.
Belenus felt himself go cold as he realized that she was standing in front of the slaver's pens... but she didn't seem to be in any trouble. In fact, she seemed to be negotiating with a big man in black, a man who made quick and unfriendly gestures with his hands. She listened to him with a calm and serene look on his face, sometimes nodding, sometimes shaking her head. As he approached her, he saw that there were two young women near her - both very frightened, dressed in dirty grey shifts. They were both of Yamato blood, with dark almond-shaped eyes and tan skin, and they clung to each other in fear.
Twins, he thought at once. Asaka had told him legends about twins before, the legends that her mother had told her before she'd been taken away. Twins were special, and it was supposed to be very bad luck to separate them. She was negotiating for them, perhaps -
A long, loud howl of rage interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to the source of the sound in shock. A man had leaped to his feet in a nearby cage, and now he was flinging himself against the bars and rattling them. He was short but stocky and powerfully built, and his face was fierce, with unreadable black eyes and a deep scowl. And he was staring directly at Asaka, who had turned to face him at once. Belenus grabbed for his sword, and had almost drawn it before he'd remembered that he could do no good with it there.
The man screamed at her in a language that Belenus did not understand, but he didn't have to know what he was saying; anyone could've seen that the man was hostile. Asaka went pale as he spoke, but she did not seem to fear him - not like the twins who cowered behind her. She answered him in the musical language of their people. The argument lasted for some time, with the strange man growing more and more wrathful, and through it all Asaka kept her composure. Belenus felt very proud of her; he'd chosen his heir well.
"What are they saying, Lady Valkyire?" he said softly.
After a short pause, Belenus heard the voice in his mind again. He calls her a traitor, she said. He says that the people of Yamato would sooner die than acknowledge her as one of them again, and that she brings shame to her people by purchasing their lives, as a foreigner would.
"How does she answer such a heavy accusation?"
She says that she purchases them only to set them free, as a good man once did for her. But he says that her own freedom was bought with too dear a price. To many of the people of Yamato, death is far better than such humiliation.
He didn't answer, but watched as Asaka finally turned away from the screaming man. Another slaver walked calmly to the warrior's cage and struck him through the bars with a sturdy wooden rod, and the prisoner shouted in pain. But Asaka kept going away from the market, guiding the twins with a steady hand, and she never looked back.
I have alienated her completely, Belenus realized. She was never accepted by my race because of her blood; now her own people have disowned her because of my gift to her. He closed his eyes for a moment, overcome by it. Forgive me, beloved.
Asaka was almost out of the market when Belenus opened his eyes again. He rushed to follow her, at a distance - he knew that the Valkyrie had told him the truth, that she couldn't see him, but he couldn't bring himself to get too close to her on those busy streets. He followed her as she walked through the streets in a roundabout way, and didn't realize until they were halfway there that they were going back to his old home. They had taken a more direct way when he had lived, he thought sadly.
When his old manor came into his view, Belenus stopped and stared. The place looked horrible, as if he had died ten years ago, not only months, and as if no one had cared for it at all. It was shabby and dingy and dark, like something out of a nightmare, like a ghost story...
He stared up at it. "It can't be," he said softly. "Asaka, you would never have allowed..." He shook his head, unable to believe what he was seeing. Asaka was in front of him, speaking softly to the twins. "I have to go inside and see, My Lady."
Then go, but be careful. He turned and saw the Valkyrie walking up another street, unhurried. She had known exactly where he had been, even though he had been out of sight. Something is odd here... I will remain here, to ponder what this might mean.
"Odd?" Belenus frowned. He felt nothing... but he could not doubt the Valkyrie's judgment. "Very well. I will be cautious."
See that you are, she repeated. She stood next to the gate and stared up at the house, eyes narrowed.
He nodded and left here there, and hurried to follow Asaka as she opened the door and ushered the twins inside. He followed them in, and they didn't even flinch as he passed them. The inside was even worse than the outside; dust, grime and cobwebs were everywhere, and every piece of furniture that he could see looked as if it was about to collapse from dry rot. It was unthinkable; Asaka had been very good at keeping a house, and although she couldn't be expected to do everything herself, she would've never let things get this bad. And even if she had, would it have all fallen into disrepair so quickly?
He watched Asaka lead the twins into Maria's old room, when she had been alive - and she closed the door behind them very gently, after giving them a few more calm words in her quiet voice. Then she climbed the stairs, stopping in front of the door to his old room. His heart hammered in his chest - did he even have a heart anymore, he thought absurdly, or a chest? - as she reached for the doorknob and opened it, and he almost stumbled as he followed her inside.
At first glance it did not seem that Asaka had touched his room since he had died, except to make the bed the way he'd always preferred she make it. It was largely clean and dustless, miraculously, although it seemed very cold to him. But then he turned and saw where Asaka was standing, in a space next to the door which had once been empty. Asaka had moved a table into that corner, and on it sat a few tall white candles in his old silver candlesticks; one of them had been lit, and with it she busied herself with lighting the others. But that was not what had surprised him most.
The light from the candles illuminated a picture of him. He remembered sitting for the portrait on his thirtieth birthday - gods, had it truly been ten years ago? He hadn't changed much, he thought as he looked at it again, although he had not had nearly as many wrinkles ten years ago. And he realized something even stranger; the arrangement of the candles reminded him of a shrine of sorts, an altar. An altar to him, he thought, and his mind reeled.
Asaka finished lighting the candles and set the first candle aside, then knelt in front of the low table and bowed her head. "My Lord," she said softly, "I am here."
He started. How could she know he was there? The Valkyrie had said that no one would see him! "Asaka, what -"
But she continued as if he had not spoken. She looked back up at the painting, staring into the face that smiled from the canvas - it had been one of the very few portraits he'd had done as an adult in which he'd allowed himself to smile. Then she bowed again, averting her eyes from his; she'd done that often enough to make him worry about how he saw her, and he'd asked her not to do it many times.
"I've just been to the market square, my Lord," she said. "The slavers where there today... and I decided that I must purchase slaves from my country." She paused for another moment. "I have meditated upon this choice, and I have decided that I was childish when I refused to purchase them before. Even if so many more must suffer, it is good that I can care for these few. Mai and Hina are good workers, and they will help me care for your home."
She paused. Her eyes were still closed, and suddenly she looked very tired and wan, and much older. Belenus felt a tugging in his heart, and felt tears coming to his eyes. "I am sorry, Asaka," he said softly. "If only I could have done more for you."
"I am very sorry, my Lord," she finally continued. "I am sorry for allowing your home to fall into such disrepair. It seems that no matter how much I care for it, nothing stops the damage from getting worse.. I cannot seem to keep it from falling apart. The twins will help me, no doubt, but I fear that their help will not be enough - there are so many things broken, and things missing that I cannot explain. The townspeople whisper that the gods are against us. Perhaps they are... but I have searched my soul, and I cannot find a way to appease them."
"It cannot be," Belenus whispered. "Not after all of this. Why would the gods punish you?" He hoped for an answer, but there was none. The Valkyrie's voice was silent in his mind.
After another long pause. Asaka looked back up at the portrait and smiled. "My Lord... I wish that I could better repay your trust in me. I sometimes dream that you are still here, that you never truly left this world. Even now I dream that you are watching over me. But I know that those are only fantasies..."
He could not take any more. He turned and walked out of the room, stumbled down the stairs blinded by his tears. He walked past the gate, past where Lady Valkyrie still studied his home intently. He had to get away from there. He couldn't listen to it, not now...
He finally stopped near a pair of men by a low wall. His legs were shaking, and he couldn't seem to stop. He was very proud of Asaka, that was true, of her grace and her fortitude... but he was terrified for her. She still spoke to him, even now... was that the only way she had of making her life bearable? To speak to his ghost? He had not expected any of this, and it threatened to overwhelm him.
Again he started and looked up, expecting against all logic to find someone staring at him. But there was no one there. The two men standing near him were speaking to each other, he realized quickly, and he had heard his name. "Aye," the other man said, the one with the fine clothes and the gravelly voice. "I've heard. If you're going to gossip like an old fishwife, I suggest you find something new to tell me."
The first man, who wore the simple clothes of the town guard, laughed a bit. "Just trying to make a bit of conversation, old friend," he said. "War hasn't reached us this far south, so there's not much else to do."
"Aye, well, I admit that it was a tragic thing. Lord Belenus was an upright sort of man, after all. After he died under such mysterious circumstances... well, it does make one wonder."
"Yes, sir. And that slave of his!" The guard shook his head. "You would expect such things from a younger man without thinking twice about it. But a respectable gentleman, and one so recently widowed?"
"What are you saying? You can't possibly think that there was an affair!"
"Well, I do think that the man was cuckolded by her, affair or no affair. Anyone could see that when he looked at her. And then his last wishes were read, and he had given her everything - what other reason could there be for such foolishness?"
Belenus turned away, feeling dazed and a bit ill by the rumor. Yes, he'd loved Asaka. He'd loved her with all of his heart, had dreamed of her by both day and night. But his love had been chaste, from beginning to end. Even after Helene had succumbed to disease and wasted away to nothing, he had done nothing that might dishonor Asaka. He had left his estate to her so that she could live comfortably, and so that she could care for it the way she always had.
He had been so sure that she could have cared for it properly; now he'd started to wonder. No, he did not doubt Asaka's abilities, not for a moment. Even so, the house was falling apart, and it made no sense.
He walked away from the gossiping men, deep in thought. What else could he have done? He couldn't have done nothing, let the slavers take her again. He'd done his best to protect her, but there was little comfort in that; she was suffering now, because she believed that she was failing him, and he could not stop it. He had always imagined himself as a knight in the old epics, forever battling dragons and demons out of pure love for chaste, lovely Asaka. He had played through that scenario a million times in his mind, putting his life in danger over and over, just to be allowed to touch her perfect hand and kiss her lovely cheeks. If only reality had been so simple...
He sighed and turned back to his estate, where the Valkyrie waited. "I am sorry, Lady Valkyrie," he said to himself. "I should not have come here. We should leave this place." But she did not answer. Suddenly confused, Belenus hurried back to the gate, saw her still looking at his house in total concentration. "My Lady, is something wrong?"
I fear that there is. Something - a dark presence - hangs over this house. She frowned. Already I have defeated one such presence, but compared to this, that one was weak. I feel deep sorrow and undying rage in this one...
A curse! He stared up at the house, as if seeing it for the first time. He should have known. What else could've caused such damage? "But why would this house be cursed?" he asked, trying not to sound too anxious - he should not sound anxious to learn this, even if it meant that his trust in Asaka had been well-placed.
I cannot tell, not in the light of day. The nature of curses is weakened in daylight; only by night can such things be seen clearly. I must return tonight and learn its nature, and destroy it. It is good that we have come here.
"Then let me come with you, please," he said, the words out of his mouth before he could rethink them.
She turned to him. Her face was cool and unreadable. This is a powerful enough curse in daylight, she answered. During the hours when curses are given strength, it will be devastating. You would be in great danger, mortal.
"I know," he answered. "But I will never be able to lay my doubts to rest if I cannot end this curse. I cannot live with the knowledge that Asaka was in danger again, but I did nothing."
Very well, then, she said. She nodded to him. You will act as my instrument. This shall be your last and greatest test.
"Yes, my Lady," he said gratefully. "Thank you."
The dark magic was stronger at night. Belenus himself could feel it as he materialized, and he could not help but shudder at its touch. It covered him like a black, damp misk - a cloud born from deep rage and hidden sorrow, so potent that it chilled him to his very core. It felt as if a wind had blown from Nifelheim, carrying with the cold misty air of that land of the dead. He wore his armor now, and his sword was at his side... but even with them, he felt poorly armed and afraid.
"This is a powerful curse," said the Valkyrie beside him, clad now in her familiar blue armor. "Are you sure that you wish to battle against it, mortal?"
Belenus hesitated, but not for long. "Yes," he said, thinking of Asaka, at the look on her face as she spoke to his image - the shame that she felt over failing Belenus. No, he couldn't let this disaster stay on his estate, couldn't let her feel that way.
She nodded. She did not seem surprised by his decision, although Belenus thought he saw a hint of concern. "Hurry, then. I will not interfere unless you are in grave danger, but I will be watching."
He nodded and drew his sword, and walked slowly up to the door of the estate. For a moment he stared at the heavy oak door - he was sure that it was securely locked - and at the now-forbidding walls of what had once been his home. Such a horrible thing... not all of his memories of home had been good ones, but even the worst ones were not so forbidding.
An unexpected movement drew his eye back to the door, and he watched in astonishment as it opened without a sound, turning on its brass hinges. It was as if something was beckoning him in... but that was impossible. Nothing could see him, could it? Not if the Valkyrie did not wish him to. Except for the one who had brought this curse down on his beloved... yes, that had to be it.
It was hastening its own demise, then, he thought with his fingers tight around the hilt of his sword. For a moment he was that white knight of his fantasies, ready to do battle for the lady that he had long loved from afar. He would destroy it in Asaka's name, even if she could never know that it had died by his hand.
He walked inside. His footsteps were unnaturally loud on the wooden floor, and the chill in the air grew ever deeper. His fingers shook even as they gripped his sword tightly. He had known fear, but nothing as deep or as strong as this - it was an unnatural sort of fear. It had to be part of the curse.
"What manner of evil is this?" he demanded as boldly as he could manage, shouting a challenge into the cold, empty air. "Come out and show yourself, monster!"
He was answered by a long, wordless wail, a horrid screech that seemed to come from everywhere at once. It battered his heightened senses. The howl carried with it more rage than he had ever heard before in his life. But it would not stop him. He would see this thing through. "I am not a child, to be cowed by cheap tricks!" he shouted again. "Stop hiding and show your face!"
The wail swelled for a moment, then dwindled to nothing. The air in front of him seemed to swirl and thicken and brighten; ghostly light gathered and formed into a human shape. It loomed before him, amorphous and terrible, and then suddenly shrank, took on its shape and solidified - and Belenus staggered back as he saw a face that he knew very well.
It was Helene, pale and ghostly and as thin as she had been in the last days of her life, as the disease had left her drawn and weak. She wore her ornate white wedding gown, decorated with lavender blossoms as it had been on the day of their wedding, but the softness of the satin and the delicacy of the lace only sharpened the hate in her eyes. They burned with fury and pain and horrible anger. Belenus stared at her wordlessly. He wanted to speak, to say something, but he couldn't; the bare sight of her had struck him dumb. He had expected some unholy demon, but this... In the back of his mind he could hear the Valkyrie speaking, warning him to be wary, that this was not as it seemed, but he was too stricken to pay attention to her.
"So, you have nothing to say to me now?" Helene finally said. Her lips curled into a disgusted sneer. "After all of your brave words?"
"Helene," he finally managed. "What are you... how...?"
She smiled coldly. The expression was ghastly on her skull-like face. "How very typical. You make such lovely speeches, but when things don't work out as they would in your fantasies, you're just another dumb fool."
"What are you - " Then it finally struck him, and he cursed himself for being a fool. Everything started to make sense, too much sense. "It was you," he said. "You summoned that... that creature to kill Asaka!"
"Of course," she said, and for a moment her features blurred into something monstrous. "I paid for this dearly, husband. I died for it, and gave up my soul itself, just for the moment that I could know that you had suffered as I had. But you had to be noble to the end and save the girl, and cheat me of even my revenge!"
"You did that because of me? You slaughtered an innocent girl out of spite?"
"I killed her because you wronged me," she said, flaring brightly. "Oh, it's an old and amusing tale, isn't it? An old fool, seduced and cuckolded by a slave girl -"
"I never touched her, Helene! I never broke my vows before the gods!" he protested. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, tried to regain some measure of composure. "Helene, neither of us chose this union. It was chosen for us, and we had no choice but to accept our families' wishes. But I have always treated you with dignity and respect!"
"Dignity? Respect?" the shade of his wife echoed incredulously. "Did you really think that was enough? That I would relish being treated with cold detachment by my husband, deprived of even the simplest pleasure of marriage? And all the while I watched you pine silently over that slave girl for years, and knew that even though I'd done nothing wrong, you would cast me as the evil witch in your own insipid fairy tales!" She laughed bitterly. "You may not have broken your vows, my Lord, but you certainly never kept them!"
He fell back, having no defense against her anger. His objections faded as he listened to the words that summarized his secret daydreams so well - the things that he had thought that no one else knew. He had daydreamed both as a boy and as a man, even when he had become the master of his estate - he had imagined himself as some tragic romantic hero, an adult version of his childhood games of make-believe. He had thought of himself as a man eternally separated from the one that he loved by fate's cruel curses, though he would be with her always... and what must his wife be, in that scenario? A closed, forbidding iron gate, or a dragon that guarded his beloved's tower? Or something far worse?
He had never mentioned any of this to Helene, had never shared his dreams with her. But she had known... he had never given her credit for her perceptiveness, or for anything else. But why hadn't she told him? "Helene... if you had ever -"
"If I had ever done what, /husband/? Thrown myself at your feet, begged you to love me? Why should I have to beg for what should have been mine by right?" She laughed, a harsh and grating sound. "Why shouldn't you drive that sword into my chest and be done with it? Slay the despicable monster and free the dear maiden from its grasp!"
"Even though I have wronged you, if you are a monster it is by your own choice! Asaka was not the one who mistreated you - and yet you seek to drive her to her grave even after I am gone!"
"Blame yourself for abandoning the girl for your dear Valkyrie, then. If you had only lived to bury her, my anger would be sated -"
"And Asaka would be dead!"
"Yes..." She laughed again. "But this is much better, in a way. Now you know that she will suffer for the rest of her life, and the day will come when she will curse you for saving her."
"Never!" He lifted his sword again. This creature might bear a human face, but its behavior was inhuman. He had to act. "This hate has tainted your soul too completely. You leave me no choice!"
"Look to yourself," she hissed, and drew herself up higher, until she towered over him. "Demons in this world aren't quite so feeble as the ones in your foolish fairy tales!"
Before his eyes, she began to change again. Her eyes flashed with red flame, and her entire body seemed to grow and distort into something inhuman. Her white gown tore and darkened until it was blood-red, and the lavender garlands began to burn -
Beliza! the Valkyrie said urgently in his mind. This is no mere spirit, Belenus, but a soul sold to a great demoness. You must be careful!
The hideous thing that had been his wife laughed, as if she had heard the Valkyrie speaking. Her face was no longer quite human - it was a ghastly caricature of humanity, twisted perpetually with rage and envy. She lashed out at him with hands that were like claws, great long talons that swiped at his stomach, and he leaped back and cursed as they narrowly missed him. He could feel the strength in him, the Valkyrie's blessing that made him more than a simple mortal - it was the only thing that would save him, in a battle like this - but even that did not avail him as he desperately tried to avoid her attacks, dodging and parrying as fast as he could. Each finger was like a blade, sharp and thirsty, and she laughed wickedly as she attacked, each blow swifter than the last.
Beliza has possessed her soul completely, the Valkyrie said grimly in his mind. She is much more powerful than I had imagined. This may be too much for you alone, Belenus.
Belenus gritted his teeth, but did not answer. Despite her blessing, he felt tired and weak and ill at ease. He was faster than she was, but that was his only advantage. She attacked quickly and with great force, and her swings were wild and difficult to dodge. His only hope was to turn her strengths to his advantage.
He ducked under one swing and then slashed upwards as her arm passed over him, and saw the edges of the sword strike what seemed to be flesh. The sword flared with energy, and the monster that had been Helene pulled back her arm and shrieked in pain.
It was his best chance, and he took it. He lunged forward, and his sword pierced her chest, where her heart would have been.
Now her scream of pain sounded less like a monster, and more like a human scream. Her body seemed to shift back into human form, and her face was normal again, contorted with suffering... and he wanted to pull back. Demon or not, this shade had once been human, and -
You must not! Valkyrie screamed in his mind. You must not show her mercy. The demon in her knows no mercy!
Maybe that was true. But Belenus was only human, and he did not see a demon; he saw his wife's face, twisted and in pain, deep within a demonic shell, and the thought scared him. He wanted to pull his sword away, wanted to let her go; he had already hurt her enough, hadn't he?
Beliza is trying to trick you. I must come and finish what you have started, she said. There is no shame in this, Belenus.
And that would be the easy way, Belenus knew - to allow the Valkyrie to enter into his conflict, to watch as she purified the evil from his twice-dead wife with such ridiculous ease. But...
He thought of the last night of his life, of the time when he'd watched that Vampire come and kill Asaka as easily as he might've picked a flower. He remembered crying over the woman he'd loved, feeling powerless, unable to do anything but blubber out his love for her as the Valkyrie stood over him; if she had not taken pity on him, Asaka would have died, and Belenus would have been left alone. Alone, because he had not been able to protect her.
Let him be damned to the lowest depths of Nifleheim, he swore, if he did not take action now.
He gritted his teeth and drove the sword in deeper, and the screams intensified - they grew louder and louder and louder. Along with them came a sound that he'd heard many times before, something that he can only describe as a strange wind rushing from the deepest parts of the Worlds. Light rose from below, engulfing the vengeful spirit in its glow. The agony on her face was sharp and even more painful, but he did not try to pull away again; he saw Asaka's dead face in his mind, the blood on his hands as he'd held her, and he held fast.
The light seemed to shear the wickedness away; he could even see it, floating away from her like a red fog. The wind roared and roared, until Belenus thought he would be lost in it...
Enough! the Valkyrie said, sounding tired and almost human. Belenus wondered how much it had taken out of her, battling to purify the demon from the woman's ghost. It is done!
He pulled away, and slid his sword back into its sheath. The light of the spirit in front of him - had it really been a spirit? Its blows had been horribly solid - had dimmed greatly, but he could still see the barest remnants of a woman there - kneeling on the floor, bony and thin in a plain white nightgown. Helene looked now precisely as she had in the final days before she had died, exhausted and haggard and frail.
She stared up at Belenus with tired eyes, and he could see no reason to fear her now. He knelt down beside her, trying to meet her blank, steady gaze. He did not try to touch her; she was just a spirit, and he was sure that his hand would go right through hers.
"Husband... what have I done?" she asked, very softly. "What sort of monster had I become?"
He could not bring himself to answer. She was dead, and her spirit would soon vanish, lke all of the others he'd helped the Valkyrie to purify. But he couldn't bear to tell her that she had become a monster. Somewhere in their years together he had made the decision that she was less than a woman, that she did not deserve the same affection as Asaka. She had been bitter, yes - but had she always been that way, or was it because of how he had treated her? If he had loved her, what sort of woman could she have been? "You were right about one thing, Helene," he said instead. "I wronged you, though I never saw it."
She seemed to sigh, a long, windy sigh. "Belenus," she said, the first time that she had called him by his given name in so many years. "Can you ever forgive me?"
"I will try, Helene. But I must ask for forgiveness as well."
She did not answer, just looked up at him in her exhaustion. Then she smiled a bit and closed her eyes, and he watched her spirit slip away as if she had fallen into a pool of water.
The manor was utterly silent, and no longer so dark or so threatening, there was still a great deal of dust and peeling paint. Presently a cricket began to chirp in the darkness, then another, until the air was filled with their quiet song.
He felt something strange, a shimmering in the air, and turned his head to see that the Valkyrie was standing next to him now. "You did well, Belenus," she said aloud.
"No," he said, and shook his head. "I was as responsible for this as she was. I deserve no such praise."
"That is not true," she said, frowning. "She fell to dark temptations, while you rose above and sacrificed your life for another. You must never forget that."
"Perhaps." And maybe that was true, he thought sourly... but he had certainly fallen to temptations of his own. They were far more subtle than the ones that had taken Helene, yes, but that only made them more dangerous. They were the sorts of temptations that made a man ignore reality and live his life in a carefully-crafted imaginary world.
"Do not grieve too long for her," Valkyrie said, "for there is no reason to grieve. She will be reborn, once she has atoned for her dark acts."
Belenus did not know how to answer her. Before he could think of something to say, he heard a sound - a door creaking open. "Asaka," he said at once, turning to where he had heard the sound...
"She cannot see or hear us, mortal," the Valkyrie reminded him, "unless I permit it."
Indeed, when Asaka moved quietly into the room, she did not gasp in recognition as she saw the two below. She seemed to see nothing but the empty room... but her lips moved quietly, shaping words that Belenus couldn't understand. Finally she shook her head. "I thought..." she said to herself, then stopped. "No, it could not be him."
Belenus gasped in astonishment. The Valkyrie nodded approvingly beside him. "She would have served me well," she said. "She is quite perceptive..."
If she said more, Belenus did not hear it. He was already on his way upstairs, following her as she walked down the hall.
He followed her to his old chambers again, found her kneeling and lighting a single candle at his makeshift memorial. She stared at his face with less solemnity now, but with something more like hope. "My Lord," she said, her voice quavering. "I.. I had the oddest feeling... for a moment, I thought that you were here with me."
He wanted to tell her that he had been, wanted to tell her that he was watching over her... but he could only stare as she walked back to his bed and reached under it, pulled out a rough wooden box. She opened it quietly and took out what looked like a loose bundle of papers, holding it as if it might crumble if she was not very gentle.
She put the bundle carefully on the table, then gently unwrapped it. Within was something very pale and frail, something that he could not see clearly from even such a small distance away. "If somehow you are here, my Lord... then please, take this gift with you," she said. "Take this... and please, remember me."
She stood and turned to walk away, past Belenus's ghost, back into the hall with quiet steps. He could hear her breathe as she walked by, slowly and raggedly, as if she was about to cry. He stepped up to the little table and looked down at the thing she had left behind - a flower, dry and papery and pressed flat. It was the same sort of flower that she had picked that day before she'd died. Perhaps it was even the very same flower.
He just looked at it at first, afraid to touch it, afraid it would fade away. "Valkyrie," he said softly, as if in a dream. "Can I...?"
"It is a gift, given from the heart," she said from behind him; he had not heard her approach. "Take it."
He nodded and gently picked it up, afraid that it would crumble away. But it was stronger than it seemed, and did not break in his hand. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you, Asaka." He knew that it was useless, that she was gone and could not have heard him... but it would not have felt right if he had not spoken the words.
He turned around and looked at the Valkyrie. Again she had that strange expression on her face, as if she was troubled by what he had done. But she recovered quickly. "I already feel the taint of sorrow begin to fade from this place," she said. "You have done very well tonight."
Belenus nodded, but as he thought of his wife's empty eyes the victory seemed less meaningful than he'd imagined. It was one thing to slay a demon, an evil creature. It was quite another thing when he had helped create the demon himself. Still... Asaka was safe now. He had that much to be grateful for. For now, at least, she would be all right. "Will this happen again?" he asked. "Will Asaka be all right?"
"She has a chance now. I can make no promises." But the Valkyrie did not frown at the question; that had to mean something. "But there is nothing more that we can do for her. We shall depart."
"Valkyrie... may we return for one last time before I leave this place, so that I can see how she is doing?"
"If that is what you wish."He nodded, and did not resist as he felt himself fade again from the world, into that twilight existence that he had become accustomed to, the place where he waited for the Battle-Maiden to call. His soul was weary in too many ways, and he welcomed the rest.
Not much time had passed before he saw Asaka again, as the Valkyrie had promised. It was a bit colder, and the leaves had fallen from the trees.
He saw her only briefly - standing outside of the manor, speaking with a man that he recognized as one of the town's stonemasons. But her cheeks were no longer so hollow and pale. She looked serious, as she ever did, but the exhaustion in her eyes was entirely gone. He was very proud of her; she looked as dignified as he remembered.
Still... yes, perhaps he had saved her. But first he had nearly destroyed her, and all because he had not been able to abandon his daydreams. As a boy he'd always dreamed of fighting dragons and rescuing maidens, instead of concentrating on his studies... he had never realized how little he had changed over the years.
There were true demons in Midgard; Belenus had fought many of them at the Valkyrie's side. But he had imagined demons where none had existed, demons that had taken the place of living and feeling human beings; like Helene, and perhaps even his father. And he had never even known it before. He had been completely blind to it.
"Is there nothing more I can do to make amends?" he said, watching as she turned and called out to her servants. The twins ran to her, looking far more cheerful than before. He had known that Asaka would be a wise mistress. She still wore his coat over a plain black dress, but now she looked like a lady, not a former slave who clung desperately to the memory of her master. It was something in her bearing, in the peaceful look in her eyes.
Do you believe that it is your place to stay here and watch over her now? the Valkyrie asked.
He did not answer for a moment, just watched as Asaka spoke quietly to her servants. Then he shook his head. "No, Lady Valkyrie," he said. "I think that I have done all that I can. I must believe that things will be better now." Better... not perfect, not like he'd dreamed before. They would never be perfect. As the Valkyrie had said, there were never any promises. Happily-ever-after was another fairy tale invention, and had no place in this world.
You begin to understand, she said softly. But can you let this world go, knowing that you will not see her again?
He closed his eyes and thought long and hard about dreams, about demons and monsters and their real counterparts, and then he looked up again. Asaka was not looking at him - that would have been too much like a story - but she was smiling. That gave him strength. "Yes," he said. "I can let this go."
So be it, then. She looked at him, and there was the trace of a smile on her face. To Valhalla, then, with my blessings. Farewell, Belenus.
The vision of Lassen faded out, replaced by a light so bright that he could see nothing else, and the feeling of soaring through the sky, to his new home.
A/N: It took me a very long time to understand what the "romantic" trait meant, and why it was a negative trait in the game. Once I finally did, this idea popped up into my head, and I've been writing and rewriting it for some time now. Any comments and friendly critique are welcome, as always.