Description: The attack on the Syndicate crime lord's fortress had failed. Though they acted with stealth, Duke proved that he was not so foolish as to leave his holdings completely unguarded. In the aftermath of that terrible clash, Renka awakens to discover that their escape had not come without an unexpected cost.
A peaceful calm exists among the trees, a tranquility that remains largely undisturbed by the chaos that has run rampant throughout the city. Relatively few people were slain within its borders during the devastation of the initial assault, owing largely to the assault going down during the middle of a busy workday. As such, heavy scent of blood and rotting meat that permeates the abandoned streets is mostly absent here, the foul miasma of death warded away by the heady aroma of blooming flowers and fresh leaves.
Tucked deep away within the maze of the park's vast greenery, a lone cherry tree stands tall at the center of a small clearing. The ancient tree's gnarled boughs, heavy with the bright pink leaves for which they are so famous, offer a wide carpet of shade to protect against the blazing touch of the midday sun. Though this beautiful tree has proven a popular attraction throughout its long life, today there are but two weary souls that take shelter beneath its outstretched arms.
"Wolves asleep amidst the trees,
Bats all a-swaying in the breeze..."
A soft haunting melody drifts out to disturb the quiet, an eerie tune carried gently on the wind as it flutters through the trees. The young woman's voice is gentle and whispy, almost ephemeral and cloud-like, as if she is a ghost whispering ancient secrets. The strangely spooky nature of its tone does little to distract from the beautiful lilt carried in each note. Like a siren's song the sound is both alluring and disturbing though there is no one nearby to whom she might lure to their doom.
"But one soul lies anxious, wide awake,
Fearing all manner of ghouls, hags, and wraiths."
The only other person whom she might seek to enrapture already lies within her grasp. Another young woman, this one sporting the obvious features of a dark stalker in a pair of fox-like ears and several bushy tails, lies silent and prone upon the ground. The singer rests with her back to the thick trunk of the cherry tree with the fox-girl's head nestled carefully in her lap. The soft pale fingers of one hand idly stroke through the creature's golden hair as she sings, brushing the tips against her ears with the gentle care of a mother humming a lullaby to a sleeping child.
Unfortunately, such a comparison bears little resemblance to the truth. The fox's body is all but soaked in blood stemming from dozens of cuts and wounds suffered at the hands of an overwhelmingly powerful foe. The black-clad singer's right arm hangs loose and limp at her side, the flesh already beginning to swell and bruise around broken bones.
"For your dolly Polly to sleep has flown,
Don't dare let her tremble alone."
Despite the incredible suffering that she endures, Katarina's demeanor remains outwardly calm and relaxed. The zipper over her mask has been pulled shut, hiding away the macabre grimace of raw gums and teeth. Only her lone uncovered eye offers a glimpse at her thoughts and at present it merely stares with a distant glassy idleness at the sky above.
"For the killer, heartless, cold,
Paid in coin of gold,
He comes, he'll go, leave naught behind,
But heartache and woe...
he albino's gaze drops to the unconscious form cradled in her lap. Her fingers drift away from the dark stalker's hair, moving down to trace one of the many wounds marring her body. Bright red blood smears the tip of her fingers as she drags them across the surface of the cut. The mage's eye closes and she inhales deeply, savoring the pain that her touch must bring to the helpless creature even in her sleep. Such incredible suffering brought about by such heroic deeds. The taste is almost too sweet to bear.
Deep, deep, woe..."
When first scooped from the shattered lobby floor of Geese Tower, the damaged body in in the Librarium Officer's arms had more akin to a corpse than anything one would mistake for living. Eyes closed, deathly still, she was dead weight in the young woman's grasp. It would have been easy to miss that she wasn't breathing in the journey to the picturesque retreat the two now rest in. But beneath the tranquility of the ancient tree's blossom laden boughs, when the fox-eared demon was laid out, her head resting in the lap of the Duodecim scion, the complete placidity of the fallen soldier's state would have been obvious.
For minutes, there were no signs of life. No rise and fall of her chest, no groaning in pain, even the blood at her wounds showed no sign of an underlying pulse. When making contact with the unmoving creature's skin, there was a sense of coolness accompanied by a tingling numbness barely perceptible.
Bit little by little, all of that changed. In the quiet moments afforded by the abandoned park, the masked young woman would have a chance to witness it - that undying nature so common to demons, that deathlessness that set them apart from mortal humans, that sparked the imaginations and fears of those who witnessed it throughout the ages. Beneath the dust, grime, and blood, the darkstaker in her lap slowly but surely was recovering from seemingly lethal internal trauma. It was slow enough to be questionable at first, but once her lungs resumed their solemn duty of circulating air in and out of her body, the evidence of the fox spirit's recovery was unmistakable.
She had almost emptied her reservoir of soul power in her battle against the Demon at the Tower, leaving nothing to recovery, to sustaining herself. If not for the bite she stole in her brief moment of contact with the mysterious Syndicate enforcer, if not for the touch of the deadly young woman who had leveled so many threats against her in the past, there would have been no energy left to regenerate her form.
Where Katarina once had a lifeless figure in her lap, now there was something very much alive. The wounds visible on the surface seemed no better for the passage of time, but the evidence of change was there all the same. Slowly breathing, showing subconscious reactions at her touch, a wince here, a twitch there, a movement of eyes beneath eyelids, color and warmth returning to her features as whatever supernatural physiology she possessed worked furiously at bringing the inhuman creature back into the world.
In a sea of azure fire, Renka drifts along, face skyward as she stares unblinkingly at swiftly moving constellations above. Each star a mote of foxfire blue, each pattern a unique figure. A sharp tongued human woman, her hatred palpable even though her star-formed lips make not a sound. A looming specter with a time slaying blade, another a ragged beast of a man, the stench of his befouled blood bringing back memories of a harrowing night on duty. A quartet of vexing cats or a menacing wolfish brute, his breath hot against her face. Hundreds more patterns of blue stars come and go, each looking down on her from above, their judgments heavy against her chest.
A young man's voice, gentle, tender, his fingers running through her hair, pausing to toy with her upright vulpine ears. The sea of fire gone, replaced with fields of green. She lays on her back still, head in a lap, the pink petals of a cherry tree in bloom overhead.
She thinks a smile. She would like this to last forever, knowing it never could. Whatever cruel fate condemned mankind to the inevitability of the grave would see to it. Her mind's eye flicks upward, trying to take in the sight of him, but finding only a foggy silhouette of his form.
"Yes," she whispers in Katarina's lap, voice soft, faint.
The form holding her runs a finger along her bare shoulder - the contact should be a gentle caress yet elicits sharp burning. Renka winces, recoiling with a slight twitch at the pain, before becoming still again.
"Why?" she asks the man, was it something she had done?
It's another thirty seconds before she blinks her eyes open, squinting at first against the brightness of day, at the bleariness of her vision. Had she fallen asleep in his arms? Why did she ache so? Her eyes flick toward the face of her 'caretaker' but there is no recognition to be found there. She shifts slightly, a soft groan escaping her lips, eyes closing for a moment of concentration as her mind struggles to reconcile the differences between reality and dream.
She opens her eyes again, once more seeking the face of the one holding her head in their lap. The slow but inevitable dawning of dread is plain to read in the kitsune's features, however, as she takes in the mask. Her mouth opens slightly, eyes widening. Has her dream become nightmare? What other reason could there be for such a visage?
Too weak to move still, Renka lays paralyzed with mute fear, mouth slightly agape, lips trembling as they attempt to form words, eyes widened as she looks up into the single-eyed gaze looking down at her.
The lack of visible life in the body she had hauled out of the shattered lobby might have driven a regular person to believe that the kitsune's time had come to an end. It would have been a heroic death, of sorts, a valiant attempt to bring down a vastly superior foe despite the obvious power he possessed and the fact that better resources could have been allocated to the efforts if the architect of their 'surprise' attack had been less incompetent. But Bela's foolishness aside, Renka had proven herself to be both bold and loyal and such traits are not resources to be thrown aside lightly.
The World-Song had spoken the truth to Katarina, as it always does, peeling away the lies created by her own mortal shortcomings. Though her eyes could discern no color to the demon's skin nor her fingers find traces of a pulse flowing through her veins the spark of lingering soul hidden beneath the surface yet sang its soft quivering tune. There was life yet in her annoying fuzzy companion and until such time as it has been fully expended in the service of the Imperator she has no intention of allowing the creature to slip away to the peaceful embrace of death.
Or so she would have rationalized, had she been in full control of her thoughts. Yet another lie peeled away by the Song. The truth was that she had been thoroughly impressed by the fox's courageous stand against their foe. Even among the ranks of the Duodecim such valor was an uncommon treasure; more so the fact that her posturing hadn't been merely empty bluster. Renka had dealt terrible damage to the guardian of the tower. Perhaps if they had been slightly more prepared the battle might have ended differently.
It is this newfound admiration for the dark stalker that proves to be her salvation in the face of a brand new sort of threat. The slender wisp of a young woman upon whom her head rests shares many familiar traits even if her freshly roused mind cannot immediately spot them. Yet despite the similarities there are obvious differences between Katarina and the being that stares down at her now.
The long silver hair of her commander shimmers with an almost crystalline sheen in thin rays of afternoon light that manage to filter through the rich canopy of cherry blossoms causing it to sparkle with tiny motes of color as if laced with glitter. The woman's cyclopean eye, normally a dull shade of red, now glows with a faint crimson hue. Flecks of black flotsam drift across the eldritch iris like tiny bits of rock on the surface of a pool of lava, visible stigmata of the greater corruption currently gripping her soul.
The mask largely conceals Katarina's features though with a few moments to properly study the shape of her face anyone familiar with the scion would have little trouble placing its owner. The nylon skin-tight body suit is likely the most out-of-place element of the ensemble. The lieutenant is almost never seen in public without her infamous black greatcoat covering her body and even her hands are normally clad in thick plate gauntlets.
For the moment, however, it seems as if Renka's ability to notice the familiar aspects of the masked woman are clouded by her fear. The woman's eye slides open as the fox pushes her way back to consciousness, meeting the horrified wide-eyed stare with a calm gaze. The mask seems to contort in an unnatural way, its surface bending as easily as if it were a part of the silver-haired witch's face as she gives the paralyzed creature a warm smile in return.
"Birds are silent for the night,
Cows turned in as daylight dies,
But one soul lies anxious, wide awake,
Fearing all manner of ghouls, hags, and wraiths."
The masked lady gently continues to sing her eerie melody with an angelic voice that until normal circumstances might have been soothing. Coming from the corrupted creature before her, however, the effect is nothing short of chilling. Carefully, she withdraws her hand from the bloody wound on Renka's arm and moves it over to rest a pair of fingers on the fox's lips as if to silence her lest she find her voice once more and unleash the scream struggling to escape. The sharp coppery taste and smell of her own blood rushes up sharply into the beast's powerful senses.
"My dear dolly Polly, shut your eyes.
Lie still, lie silent, utter no cries."
The scion's baleful stare shifts up towards the vast stretch of open grass surrounding their refuge beneath the tree. She slowly scans the edge of the forest, deliberately taking her time as if trying to make a point.
"As the killer, brave and bold,
Paid in coin of gold,
He'll chop and slice you,
Cut and dice you,
Eat you up whole..."
Turning her face back down towards Renka, the masked woman's expression softens into a gentle smile once again. She withdraws her fingers from the soldier's mouth and leans down, bringing their faces within inches of each other. Carefully, she wraps the palm of her hand around Renka's cheek, cradling the demon's face with an uncomfortable amount of tenderness as she whispers the final line to her song.
"Eat... you... whole...!"
The sight that greets the kitsune as her vision slowly solidifies is a macabre cocktail of familiar and alien. Her sense of smell overwhelmed by the strong scent of blood, she's left to process her surroundings by only what she sees, hears, and can comprehend by a mind addled by a painful throb and swiftly fading dreams.
The position she finds herself is an echo of memories from bygone eras, of time spent with those she possessed feelings of trust or more, yet the same fondness is not felt here and now. Instead she finds herself staring up into the visage of someone that bears so many similarities with her commanding officer, yet... it doesn't seem possible.
Renka's mind races, trying to rewind time to account for her circumstances. The mission, the Gatekeeper, the fight... pieces come back to her in rapid flashes, but none of them explain why she's now staring up into the harrowing, one-eyed mask staring down at her now.
The wounded Corporal blinks, squirming as she tries to force vigor back into her numb, unresponsive limbs. Every part of her wants to disengage, to get free, to put distance between herself and... whoever, or whatever this is, but the strength simply isn't there yet. Her heart beating rapidly in her chest, her breaths are halting as her eyes flick from side to side, trying to get her bearings, and perhaps just trying to avoid meeting that unnerving staring eye longer than necessary.
Her mouth opens, taking in rush of air, clearly on the verge of crying out when the figure's bloodied fingers touch her lips. At that point, she has the fox's full attention, eyes locked on the mask as pieces of the mystery begin to slam together in her mind. While she can't be absolutely certain, especially without her keen sense of smell to rely on, the aspects of this stranger overlap too strongly with the woman who had been her commander and off times tormentor for over a year now.
There can be only one conclusion.
As the young woman leans forward, bringing her face inches away from the incapacitated soldier, Renka chokes out a handful of words through struggling gasps for breath.
Her tone conveys a sense of horror, not just for her own circumstances, but for another, as the only possible explanation cements itself in her mind.
"- did they -"
Her right arm still rests boneless and mangled, but her left arm begins to find its strength, the fingers of her left hand tightening into a small fist. How long had she been out? How long had they tormented her Lieutenant to turn her into this... this thing?
"- do to you...?"
Katarina's presence lingers for several seconds, her face hovering inches above the horrified kitsune as she puzzles out the truth before her eyes. Renka's response to her cryptic musical warning is clearly not what the woman had been expecting. Her corrupted eye opens wide in surprise for a few moments and then slides closed as girlish laughter begins to bubble up from inside of her. The sound is both beautiful and haunting, seeming to echo supernaturally through the fox's mind as if it is a byproduct of her imagination rather than a perceptible sound.
"Oh my poor little Polly..."
The masked mage leans backwards, relaxing as she sinks against the sturdy tree trunk with a wistful sigh like an old woman finally resting her bones in a favorite rocking chair. Her hand pulls away from Renka's cheek and moves to the demon's forehead, gently brushing some stray lockes away from her eyes with blood-stained fingers.
"So brave... so loyal... so caring..."
Katarina's hand shifts to the kitsune's ears once again, stroking them with feather-light touches as if afraid that fox might shatter like glass. A warm glow of power radiates into her body with every touch feeding her thirsty soul with little sips of energy. The brief nature of the contact seems almost intentional, teasing her instinctive desire to feed upon the life force being offered but pulling away before anything of substance can be taken.
"To throw away your life for an arrogant girl who could not recognize your value. So foolish..."
With a bit of effort, the mage manages to coax her right arm into motion. Though she is aware of the pain that wells up from the movement, it is separate from her, belonging to the slumbering girl that has been submerged beneath her own consciousness. The broken limb is hoisted up above Renka, bruised purple flesh dangling uselessly at the elbow as she wiggles it back and forth a few times with another giggle.
"You see? We are the same, you and I. A pair of broken dollies cast aside with no regard for our true value."
The arm is lowered back to the ground and Katarina puffs out another soft sigh as the tension bleeds out of her body. She continues to stroke Renka's hair, steadily feeding her bits of her own vitality as she has done for the past several hours. Though battered and broken, her own injuries are relatively minor compared to the demon who had nigh exhausted her spiritual reserves in an effort to complete her task. She has the vigor to spare for such a loyal servant, particularly one who offers her such delightful agony to bask in.
"What tragic fools are we..."
The reaction her strained question provokes seems to leave the darkstalker speechless. Laughter? What about anything that has happened to them in the last... unknown amount of time... merits laughter? For that matter, since when has she ever heard laughter from the mouth of her commanding officer?
Renka closes her eyes briefly, feeling rather than watching the young woman holding her lean her back against the tree behind her.
Memories of the fight are still hazy and she can only just begin to guess at what happened since then based on the scant information she's gathered since opening her eyes. They assuredly lost at the lobby of the enemy's tower, the gate keeper was too much for them bring down. It's in the aftermath that the true mysteries lie. Other than the injuries incurred in battle, she doesn't seem any worse off. But Katarina?
Only when fingers trace across her forehead, leaving small streaks of crimson as they brush aside bangs matted with blood, does the darkstalker blink her eyes open again. The touches to her ears are like droplets of water to one dying of thirst. Each taste of that life a tantalizing sample of what she could wrest for herself if only she had the strength to grip hold of the young woman.
A feral need rises in her as every ounce of her energy is dedicated to repairing her damaged form, mending her mangled arm, and restoring her lost blood. A hunger that cares little for ranks, titles, or rules. Her upper lips draws back slightly as her breathes start coming quicker.
The lyrical words of the masked woman are barely heard over the thrumming in her head that demands she take what she need to repair herself no matter the cost to another. Just a little more, a little more strength, enough to move - she would just need to lunge, to grasp with her still-working arm, and then all of that restorative life would be hers to-
The kitsune sucks in a breath then, squinting her eyes shut, shoving the beast within deep, down to depths where she could no longer hear its cajoling invitation to save her life regardless the cost to the injured human speaking to her.
A slow exhale is followed by slow breaths as she regains control, eyes opening again to stare up at the NOL officer's ruined arm as she swings it back and forth. A soft gasp of breath, Renka finding her voice again, "We need... to get you care." The damaged limb seems severe but NOL medics are miracle workers. Surely they could help, right?
She can feel her own strength returning at the prolonged contact, in amounts so small as to not be noticed individually but rather detected in the way she feels vigor returning to her limbs, the way her fingers begin to curl closed.
Steading her mind, she shoves aside her questions, her fears, she pushes down the hunger, represses the pain reminding her of the encounter with the Syndicate's own demon.
Instead, she pours her resolve into her next words, brow furrowed slightly, eyes focused up, breaths under control.
"Take-" the Corporal darkstalker gasps, wincing a moment, regathering her strength.
"Take off that mask."
The surge of deep primal hunger that wells up from within the kitsune as she grows more and more coherent does not slip the notice of her masked caretaker. Katarina's fingers dance and play across the surface of the demon's hair and ears allowing the ravenous beast to nip and snarl at the tiny motes of essence she offers it. Each time that it seems as if Renka's control is about to falter, that she will be overcome by her desperate instinctive need to replenish her lost reserves, the hand withdraws with a delicate flourish. Once her composure has returned so too do the fingers, the twisted mage playing a game of matador and bull with the famished youkai's soul for seemingly no reason other than her own amusement.
Which is at least partially true. Despite her honeyed words, the dark entity born from the Music Box's corruption is fully aware of the deep disdain the mage holds for such creatures. In many ways, she is far closer to the 'true' Katarina than the disciplined and refined noble woman that wields control over this body most of the time. She is an amalgamation of every deep vile thought, every spiteful grudge, every hateful desire, all of the depraved lusts, and decadent longing for things that modern society holds abhorrent; a twisted reflection of the woman's soul without all of the trappings of modesty, restraint, or dignity to get in the way.
The black surface of the mask twists into a faint hint of a smile as she toys with her subordinate, thoroughly enjoying the expressions of agony that play across her bloodied face as she fights to control her own true nature. Such a loyal beast that it would willingly starve itself when an easy prize lies within reach. All it need do is turn and snap closed its jaws, dig those wicked talons into the soft supple flesh beneath the flimsy leather and bleed her dry, body and soul. She wouldn't have the strength to resist much right now, not after hours of dripping what power she had left into the empty cup of Renka's soul. What a delightful creature.
The mage's haunting laughter drifts across the surface of the kitsune's mind like a dozen little spiders dancing on her brain as she attempts to bring reason into the conversation. As if the woman were somehow unaware of the very injuries she had just brought to the creature's attention! Even while lying motionless and battered herself the loyal little hound thinks only of her master. How adorably misguided.
If only she knew! If only that cute little nose could smell the oceans of blood swirling around the mage's imprint in the Boundary, the endless streams of dreadful possibility that her very existence heralds! If only she could hear the elegant and demented melody of Truth that filled the very air around them like a thousand orchestras spitefully playing discordant notes all at once!
If only she could understand.
What then, Katarina wonders. Would that loyalty evaporate like morning dew on the grass? Would the faithful hound turn to bite the hand of its master that it so diligently fought to protect? Or would it prove itself as worthy of love and devotion by remaining at her side? Would it have the potential to be an ally for the one being capable of embracing the truth of this false world?
The command from her cute little fox comes as something of a surprise. She blinks, shifting her gaze down to the kitsune in a silent stare for several seconds. This is the first time that she can recall that the beast has had the audacity to demand anything from her. That she would do so now in a position of such weakness is quite baffling. In much the same way that Renka could turn upon Katarina and overpower her if she wished, the mage could just as easily snuff out the life of the wounded demon with a little effort. It would largely be a contest of who chose to act first.
Ah, but perhaps she is being a little hasty here. The poor darling must be frightened! This is her first exposure to the dark secrets lurking behind the Librarium's veil of order and discipline. It's only natural that she would recoil in fear. After all, she is little more than a beast, a dog that has had its paw burned by innocently stumbling into an open flame.
"And why would I do that, little Polly?"
Katarina's expression relaxes into a loose smile once again, the unnatural slick surface of the leather contorting to match her face almost perfectly. Her hand stretches out, reaching for Renka's face. The mage's thin fingers clasp firmly onto her cheeks as she covers the kitsune's mouth with her palm creating a facsimile of the mask that she wears onto the demon. The solid contact with her subordinate's skin offers the creature the chance to take the largest bite out of her essence that it has been given thus far, a big juicy morsel dangled in front of a starving predator.
"We all wear masks, demon. We all have something...to hide."
Crimson light flashes behind the mage's cyclopean eye as she draws seithr into her body, siphoning power directly through the Music Box to fill her hand with an ever more tantalizing treat.
"But this mask is special," she says, whispering seductively. The mage leans forward bringing her face down close to Renka's once again. "It is unlike any other, you see. Instead of hiding things away it brings out the truth that was lurking deep inside."
The pressure of the girl's grip intensifies drastically as she seems to gain strength from the steady surge of power. Katarina pushes down hard on the fox's face, driving her head down into the valley between her thighs to prevent her from wiggling away from the seductive smell of raw magic. Her voice takes on a hard edge as she speaks, the whispers becoming needy and insistent. Her eye opens wide into a baleful stare, the magic running rampant through her body lighting it up like the beacon of an eldritch lighthouse.
"How long can you keep your mask in place, little Polly? How long until you open up and show me what's really inside of you?!"
The fox-eared darkstalker seems taken aback by the question her request prompts. Why? The idea that there would need to be a reason to do away with the wretched thing sends her mind spinning again. Isn't it obvious? Why pull your hand away from the hot flame? Why avoid running your finger along a sharp knife's edge? Why keep your arm out of a whirling wood mulcher? Certain things are abundantly self-evident and ripping that vile mask off and hurling it as far as her weakened strength could seems to fall within that category of self-preservation to her.
The soldier's mouth opens as the hand reaches for her face. "Becau-" Renka's retort is cut short as pressure clamps down over her lips. Green eyes blink at first, a new wave of confusion joining the endless sea of disorienting, conflicting information her senses continue to be bombarded by. The curious thought at why she's being prevented from speaking hits her first. That complicates the process of answering, after all.
But such traces of consideration are quickly scattered when awareness of the feast being offered her famished body forces its way into her foremost thoughts. Just by the touch alone, a small amount of energy is transfered - the passive theft is something the fox spirit can do nothing about even if she wanted. But against a victim putting up no fight? She could rip their life away in a flash of gluttony the likes of which she hadn't enjoyed for a century or more. And here it was, all but shoved into her mouth.
The kitsune's eyes widen as she starts to squirm under the pressure, focus locked on that single judging eye studying her from above. Her shoulders shift a little, left one rising slightly as if trying to twist out of the hold on her, though the initial efforts prove too feeble to change the situation any. Soft grunts of protest never get any further than her throat as her attempts at resistance become more frantic.
She had forced it down before - that hunger that demanded she replenish her well of soul energy above all else. But why fight what is freely offered, the beast within challenges. Does she not need her health back, is not her arm still in a state of ruin? Gorge and mend away her injuries, renew her vigor!
The kitsune's legs shift, her torn skirt parting over her thigh as she tries to dig her left heel into the grass and get leverage against her tormentor. The hunger would not be denied indefinitely. Her left arm, mostly intact from the barbaric battle the two survived, suddenly snaps up, grabbing hold of the wrist of the hand pressed harshly against her mouth. The limb trembles as she seems locked in indecision, neither trying to pry the hand away, nor entirely trying to hold it in place either.
The NOL Lieutenant leaning over her is not her friend, she reminds herself. She is not her ally. The long gauntlet of insults, demeaningly menial orders, and ways the Duodecim scion treated darkstalkers she encountered flood back into Renka's mind as reminders. Each a stark warning that whatever Katarina is doing, it certainly can't be for the sake of the wounded fox, can it?
Somewhere in her tumbling thoughs, she wonders if this is some convoluted way to trick her into attacking her superior officer - the consequences of which would be dire indeed. But an echoing understanding counters that if Katarina wanted to ruin her, she hardly needed to go to lengths such as this to do so!
Renka's eyes narrow, her struggles subsiding, regaining their focus as she bites back panic.
So this weird human wants to see what's inside, does she? Well, she'll get her glimpse then, she'll get what she's asking for.
There would be only a moment's warning - it would be seen in the soul vampire's eyes that she's done struggling to resist the tempting offer. The grip of Renka's hand tightens slightly.
Then she feeds.
It is far from the the subtle, passive trickle of energy she leeches from those around her nearly all the time. A deeper answer to hunger normally kept in check.
She is done laying there like an invalid if she can help it, she'll restore her health and strength. Then she can start calling the shots here, then maybe she can get to that wretched mask, then maybe she can finally get some answers!
Katarina's grip shifts as the demon in her lap tries to struggle free, the creature strangely fighting her natural urges to feed. Even with one arm, the mage seems surprisingly strong for such a slender waif of a teenager. She had never shown herself to be possessed of particular physical might, always more inclined to delegate menial labor and rely on speed and cunning in battle. Was that mere a ruse? Perhaps the kitsune is simply so drained that even this frail girl can overpower her.
Ah, what a miserable fate! Being reduced to such an embarrassing state must tear at her pride so! The once powerful demon, ancient and wise beyond any human, is now being lectured to while pinned down by some pretentious noble child! Yet another in a long line of indignities forced upon the fox. Perhaps her decision to play the obedient dog was not the right one. After all, it would be a simple matter to take the life force so foolishly offered by this arrogant human and do precisely what she asks.
The mask contorts even further as Renka's hand snaps up to grasp at the girl's wrist, twisting into a nightmarish grin. The stretching fabric causes the zipper across Katarina's mouth to shift slightly, revealing a flash of bright red gums and pristine white teeth hidden behind the jagged metal.
"That's right, little Polly."
Katarina's melodic voice dances through her mind once again, gently encouraging her to take what is offered. If this is a trick it is a very strange one. As Renka is quick to realize, her commander need not go to such lengths to frame her. The word of a scion would be more than enough to see the dark stalker burned at the stake. That's why she's been willing to grovel at the feet of such an odious woman in the first place, after all, right? To accept the insults and demeaning chores clearly heaped upon her for no other reason than petty bigotry. The not-so-subtle threat of the terrifying might of the Librarium at her back had been enough to keep the soul-taker on her best behavior.
And yet, the Librarium is not here, is it? Their mission to attack the tower had been one carried out in secrecy; a last minute plan concocted by a disgraced fool. Katarina had dragged Renka into the heart of an unknown foe's den and the both of them had paid the price for her arrogance. Now that very same child dares to taunt her with the aftermath of her loyalty? It must be insufferably aggravating!
"Let go of all that meaningless restraint. Take what is meant to be yours!"
It doesn't take a lot of convincing for her prey to take the bait. The hand around her wrist grips more tightly, a fish unknowingly biting down around the hook concealed inside of a fat wriggling worm. Katarina's eye gleams with bizarre delight as she feels the faint tug at the power flowing through her arm blossom into a roaring vacuum.
The sensation of being fed upon by the hungry demon is almost indescribable. The corrupted touch of the Music Box had long since acclimated the mage to the sensation of having her soul toyed with but that subtle omnipresent erosion of her will was nothing compared to this.
Katarina lets out a sharp gasp of surprise, taken off guard by the sheer voracity of the fox's unleashed hunger. Yet, what should have likely been a horrifying experience seems to bring nothing but pleasure to the masked human. Another soft pant escapes as her body shudders against the waves of intense sensation that ripple through her. The glowing baleful iris rolls upwards until naught but a sliver of it remains visible, the girl's eyelid fluttering erratically as she shivers in the clutches of the demon's appetite.
The open conduit between herself and the grimoire provides an almost infinite supply of raw magical power as the seithr around them floods into her like water rushing to fill an empty void. For every chunk that Renka takes out of her soul, fresh tantalizing magic rushes to take its place, humming with vibrant plentiful vitality just for the taking.
And yet, as she feeds, it would quickly become apparent to the fox that something is not right here. As an ancient connoisseur of souls, she will no doubt have become quite familiar with the taste of human essence. The flavor or feeling of Katarina's magic is quite unique and unusually enjoyable, offering far more savory sustenance than any other she's ever experienced. Even the taste of it seems to be exceptionally tantalizing, flooding every little recess of the demon's needy vessel with pleasure to rival the most intense of narcotics.
The difference is subtle, at first, almost unnoticeable behind the deluge of intense enjoyment that comes from finally satiating herself on the hateful officer. Then, as the raw intensity of the experience begins to wane and sense returns to her mind, the oddness of the experience starts to become more apparent.
As if somehow realizing that the jig is up, Katarina's gaze focuses suddenly and intently, her eye shifting back down to regard the hungry demon. Her grin widens even further, the zipper on the mask moving of its own accord to reveal a nightmarish lipless mouth full of wet gums and shining teeth.
"Do you like it, little Polly? This is my gift to you, my faithful little pet. Hear the Music and see the truth!"
The outflow of energy into Renka suddenly ramps up, even more so than her own ability to siphon it out. It is as if the nozzle on a fire hose has been completely removed and powerful blast of scathing water is being forced down her throat. Katarina's grip intensifies once again, maniacal hysteric laughter pouring out of her as a tangible physical sound for the first time in their conversation. Dark corrupted power rushes into the fox, attempting to bully its way into her depths and flood her with more of the twisted malignant energies. As it does so, the sound of distant music starts to play out in the back of her mind, a wild chaotic melody akin to dozens of orchestral performances all vying against each other to sound the most awful.
Even starving for energy, the demon should have been able to control the extent of her feeding. Famished, mind fevered at the assault of that melodic voice speaking from within, and weakened from injurious battle, she still should have had enough of her faculties to consume the proffered essence responsibly.
All thought of planned restraint goes out the window as she gets her first taste.
'That's right, little Polly.'
It must be right - no feast memory provided could compare to what she was taking in abundance now.
'Take what is meant to be yours!'
The hunger agrees. A ravenous need combined with dizzying bliss overcomes any attempts at self-moderation as her grip tightens to the point of threatening to set bone to creaking beneath the pressure. Maybe this will prove fatal to this vexing human, but can she truly argue that it isn't what the NOL scion deserves?
The kitsune had in bygone times sampled the taste of humans in touch with magic - it added a potency to their soul that was hard to find elsewhere, a seasoning that enhanced the experience, but never had she pulled from someone with so direct a connection to the seithr surrounding them. Eyes clenched closed, she senses rather than sees any evidence to the flow of power pouring into the human conduit. The savor of this girl's life is intoxicating, clouding over all ideas of playing this safe.
Katarina hardly needs to force the fox-eared demon to keep her hand pressed to her mouth - if anything, it would prove more difficult to pull away with each passing second as the creature's strength surges in response to the unprecedented meal. A mangled ear repairs itself before her eyes and the ruined arm at Renka's side begins to straighten, fingers clawing their way into the grass as the essence vampire starts to push herself up slightly against the hand against her mouth. Before long, only dried blood, matted hair, and torn clothing provide any evidence that she had been in a fight at all - all injuries erased as if they had never happened.
The kitsune's eyes open, ablaze with azure flame as the emptiness within is beyond filled. Still she gorges, the idea of being satiated at this divine meal beyond comprehension.
She's blind to the shift in her source's expression. Only when that voice returns, with its singsong taunting edge, does any concept beyond eating enter Renka's mind. The pressure applied back to her forces her head against the gifted mage's lap, eyelids blinking rapidly as the fox tries to regain her focus. Her hand tries to shove aside the spellcaster's palm at first before a torrent of nauseating miasma pours into her, forcing her body to curl up then thrash.
Music so cacophonous as to inflict pain resound in her mind as a blackened, vile corruption floods into her soul. Her cries are muffled against the oppressive hand against her mouth as Renka starts to twist and turn, her entire world going black as her senses are overwhelmed by darkness and a song of pure agony.
Finally, with a violet twist of her neck, torso, and prying of her arm, Renka rips herself free of the fire hose, tumbling onto elbows and knees. She is there for only a brief moment, black ichor spilling from her mouth as a choking gasp rattles in her lungs. Then, tapping into renewed strength, she launches herself backward to land on hands and knees, twin fox tails raised up behind her back, their blood-blotched fur bristled. Greeting teeth, face lifted, Renka glares back at Katarina with a look of betrayal, tears forming at the corners of her eyes, mouth opening as if to bark back at her tormentor.
But rather than words, only sickly, wet coughs spill forth as Corporal Kaneko's body is wracked with violent spasms. Folding forward, sinking to sit on her shins, her hands lift to press against the base of her neck All the while, deep, violent convulsions and a sound somewhere between coughing and retching shakes her body. With each sickening heave of her body, the polluting contaminant is ejected from her mouth, spilling forth as thick, black, cloudy fluid before becoming dark mist as it splashes against the ground beneath her face. The creature's body was capable of purging the contaminants even if the process was beyond unpleasant to experience.
After several seconds of incapacitating coughs, her hands move from her throat to the sides of her head as she shakes it back and forth, eyes squinted shut, trying to fight her way through the deafening pain within.
"Get-" she hisses, more black fluid oozing through her teeth. "Out!" Another coughing fit takes over - so severe as to be suffocating if her physiology required oxygen to survive.
Katarina's wild laughter continues to fill the air as the hapless kitsune struggles to free herself from the horrendous corruption. The scion seems to take devilish delight in her suffering, her expression a mask of murderous bliss as the youkai squirms and writhes in agony at the touch of the toxic energy burning its way through her insides. All of the strength that she had recovered from her eager feeding struggles to compete with the inhuman power locking the girl's arm to her face, the raw sorcerous energies granting her terrible strength.
Oh, how tragic! What she had thought to be a chance to enact her revenge against a petty tyrant turns out to be little more than a devious trap! For an ancient trickster to be so thoroughly deceived by a mere human child, it must rankle her spirit so. And yet it was her own greed that saw her eagerly accept what was given without a second thought, a base desire to feed and consume overwhelming her better judgement in a moment of weakness.
Which stings her pride more: having fallen for such a basic ploy or knowing that she did so blindly?
The answer is largely academic for the outcome is the same. Her suffering and pain, both the physical and spiritual, is a sweet nectar to the twisted creature that holds her fast. Katarina's shrill maniacal laughter blends into the cacophony of warbling orchestral chaos that bombards her. The music is both hideous and yet somehow enrapturing, a corrupted ghostly echo of something that was once unimaginably beautiful and orderly. Now, however, every discordant note is a blast of pure chaos that seeks to tear away at the very fabric of her being, to shred her essence into little more than ragged bits of flotsam that melt into the malignant flow of ether pouring into her.
And yet, despite the overwhelming and oppressive wave of nauseating power, the creature manages to tear herself free of the endless void. Katarina's grip loosens as her subordinate wrenches violently, the fox finally summoning up a burst of strength capable of pushing her arm aside.
The mage blinks with obvious surprise for a few moments, her laughter dying away as she watches the kitsune stumble away. A smile returns to her masked face and she slowly rises to her feet, leaning heavily on the rough surface of the tree for support as she stands. Whatever magics were empowering her moments before seem to have faded and left her no better off than she started; if anything, she seems even worse off than before, her breaths coming with slow labored efforts. The swollen lump of her shattered arm continues to hang loose and useless at her side as she cautiously pushes away from her crutch, staggering towards the struggling form of her little pet as she chokes and gags on the foul aftermath of her experience.
"There, there...", she coos, her voice once more brushing across Renka's mind like a gentle breeze. "Don't cry, Little Polly. The truth can be difficult to swallow..."
The freakish raw smile of the mask twists upwards slightly at this small pun at her expense, the mage clearly finding her torment amusing. Nearly a decade now she has fought against that same weathering erosion of her soul, struggling to hide the utter horror of losing herself piece by piece. It feels strangely cathartic to see someone else experience that same misery and take it much worse. Though, to be fair, she didn't get deluged by it all at once. It started as a tiny trickle, a faint and pleasant melody at the edge of perception. Only after many years did she learn the horrible truth and the dam start to crack. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a couple of decades to ease her cute little puppy into the deep end. It's sink or swim.
"But, it's for your own good!
Dropping heavily to her knees a few feet away, Katarina tilts her head back and stares up at the sky with a vacant look for several long moments in silence. When she lowers her gaze back to Renka, the dark blotches of inky corruption can be seen clearly drifting across the crimson pool of her exposed eye. Her 'voice' drops to a faint whisper, taking on an ominous and foreboding tone.
"Everyone's eyes are clouded by this false world's siren song. But I see the truth hidden behind the veil."
Her expression softens into a comforting smile and she reaches out with a lightly trembling hand to try and stroke Renka's head between her pointy ears.
"And soon, so will you. You all will. And then everything will be as it should."
Coughing up stray pollution now and then was nothing new to the fox-eared demon. When one sustains themselves on the life energy of humans, in all its wide array of flavors, one is bound to get some bad with the good more often than not. But what the kitsune as enduring now was beyond anything she had ever experienced before. A gourmet, magic-infused banquet quickly became a vile cocktail of poisoned infection in an instant.
Whatever internal filtering process the creature's body possessed was working overtime to combat the contamination. A dead patch in the grass was quickly expanding beneath Renka's face, where the black pile was being expelled with each racking cough.
And through it all, that voice in her head - distressing in spite its light, seemingly innocuous touch. The truth can certainly be hard to swallow if what she's experiencing now is any indication. She doesn't visibly react as the mage works her way up to her feet with the help of the tree. The fox's hands have returned to her throat now, eyes squinted shut, perhaps oblivious to anything beyond the unending war taking place in the chambers of her soul.
But in spite the setback of the poisoning, she is different from when she first came to in the tainted magic user's lap. Other than the blood and tattered clothing, traces of her injuries are gone. And though she spent a lot of the fresh surge in energy in vomiting the dark influence from her system, there is still a respectable amount in reserve from her upsetting feast. And more importantly, her mind is cleared of much of the haze that obscured her thoughts when she first awoke. In spite the voice, in spite the near injurious music ringing in her ears, she was finally able to think clearly. With her immediate hunger sated, she could turn her thoughts to other things... like that infernal mask!
As her coughing fit lessens slightly, Renka's watering eyes open and she lifts her face toward the 'promising' NOL officer. Her eyes were sharp now, the black motes in her Lieutenant's eye more than easily visible to her as Katarina's gaze returns to her.
Unaware of the subtle, insidious corruption the white-haired girl has been coping with for over half her life, the only thing Renka can hold responsible is the far more noticeably menacing mask. That has to be the source of this madness, isn't it?
But then her mind races down another thread... when she first set eyes on it, she thought without a doubt that the mask was something the Syndicate inflicted on Shimotsuki. Some kind of torture conducted in whatever hours Renka had not been conscious. But with her recovered mind, the time of day alone is enough for her to tell that far less time has passed since their battle than she initially imagined. There wouldn't have been time for any such 'torture' or interrogation by those bastards in the Syndicate. It doesn't add up.
Blinking her eyes once, forcing more tears down her cheeks, she stares at Katarina, unsightly, black ichor seeping from the corner of her mouth as her expression takes on a combination of alarm and epiphany at once.
If the Syndicate didn't apply the mask... then the mage must have put it on herself. But... why? There is only one possibility - a last resort weapon. Renka knew she had fallen, failing to take down the cloaked Martyr of Might at the gateway. Katarina was on her own. She must have had it on her all along - a reflic from the Librarium that, like nearly all such items of power, promised great strength in exchange for a terrible price. The reason Katarina was wearing it now could only be because she was willing to pay the price... to save them both!
Renka gasps, a small spattering of black falling from her lips, the realization nearly stunning her into inactions as the magic user drew nearer.
"I understand now..." she whispers, her voice hoarse from her ordeal. "But you don't need to pay the price any longer..."
When Katarina reaches for her, Renka acts. Resolve can be a powerful thing as the kitsune goes from docile to aggressive in a flash, left hand backhanding away Katarina's outstretched arm before the Corporal launches herself at the NOL officer. "You've already done enough!"
There isn't a lot of grace or technique to Kaneko's attempt at tackling Katarina onto her back. Grappling and unarmed hand to hand were never her strengths. But it doesn't take a lot of dexterity to try and bowl someone over and plant herself on their stomach, knees pressed over their upper arms and shoulders to keep them pinned, which is exactly what Renka tries to do to Katarina in that moment!
"The fight is over! Let me help you remove it!"
Oh, if only the young mage could see into the thoughts of this foolish creature. So blind, so naive, yet somehow strangely loyal to the person who is responsible for most of her present day misery. Despite all of the humiliation and indignities heaped upon her, not to mention the agony she is currently experiencing, her cute little subordinate yet strives to find some explanation for the mage's insane actions that paints her in a more heroic light. The sentiment might almost be enough to send honest pangs of remorse into the tattered remains of her withered soul.
Alas, the ability to read her faithful hound's mind is a skill that the scion does not possess. Nor, it seems, can the fox accurately surmise the true meaning behind her commander's words. One would think a creature of myth known for delivering cryptic wisdom would be better prepared to decipher the bizarre message. Maybe she needs a few more tails to get that super power.
With her wild misunderstanding of the situation guiding her plan of action, Renka's sudden lunge into an aggressive tackle seems to catch the babbling mage off guard. Katarina's eye widens in surprise as her hand is batted away, recoiling instinctively at the unexpected dismissal. The corruption had been purged and far faster than she could have anticipated, at least enough to allow the dark stalker to regain her senses.
Katarina offers no resistance at all as her inhuman companion tackles her to the ground roughly. For the first time, the young woman seems to visibly register pain as Renka's knee comes down on her busted arm. The mage spasms in obvious agony, a sharp exhale of breath escaping the grotesque mouth of her mask. Her eye rolls up, the polluted crimson orb twitching wildly as the girl struggles to maintain consciousness through the unexpectedly indelicate assault.
Several long seconds pass before she manages to regain her wits. The mage's cyclopean eye half shuts into a pained squint, her breathing heavy and labored against the strain of the raw agony coursing through her body. Surprisingly, the longer she endures the torment the more she seems to relax, perhaps growing slowly accustomed to what should be debilitating pain; or maybe she simply doesn't have the strength left to even react. Eventually, she summons up the focus to project her thoughts at Renka, the soft gentle whisper strained as if her suffering is such that it even warps her thoughts.
"Understand...? N-no, little Polly... you've yet to see... the Truth. If... if you had... you'd know..."
Katarina's expression softens into a gentle smile as she looks up at the dark stalker. The leathery mask twists to accommodate her expression, the open zipper flashing those uncanny human-like teeth at her. If she could move her arms, she would have reached up to place a hand on the foolish creature's face and offered her a comforting touch. So old and wise and yet so blissfully ignorant.
Not that her growing fondness for the fox would mean anything. Not that any of her sentiment or suffering matters. Not the hate or the love or the jealousy or spite. In the end, nothing does. It's all just fever dreams and shadowy reflections in the corner of some capricious cosmic eye.
The mage's eye slowly closes as what remains of her strength begins to wane. She starts to sing again, once more using her physical voice to vocalize the sound. The words are soft, almost inaudible, as she struggles for the energy to conjure them forth amidst sporadic twitches of terrible pain.
"Emptiness is... filling me...
To the point of... agony...
Growing d-darkness, taking dawn...
I was me... but now... she's gone..."
There is a certain ruthless indifference to the way the fox-tailed swordswoman holds down the severely wounded human. She's seen enough to not give deference to the crippled arm now brutally pinned beneath one knee. Before, when fully within the thrall of whatever outside influences coursed through her mind, the human had shown remarkable immunity to the pain that must assuredly exist. Now, the determined darkstalker isn't about to let her own guard down.
Whatever warning labels came with this mask clearly weren't in bold enough print. If it isn't destroyed after this, at the very least, it belongs sealed deep away within the Librarium's archives. This is not a tool for loyal if misguided officers to use.
With the mage pinned decisively beneath her now, Renka turns her attention to the removal of the offending relic itself. With her hands free from having to hold the scion of the Duodecim down, there is little to distract the kitsune from her objective.
Both hands reach for the disturbingly form-fitting mask, not exactly certain how to go about removing it, or for that matter, how it was equipped in the first place.
The voice in her head gives her pause, her eyes flicking slightly to stare at the covered, macabre version of her officer's face. She doesn't understand? What is it she's missing? She hesitates for a moment, brow furrowed, eyes narrowed at the certain declaration that she's not grasping the full picture. Are these the words of a clearly mind-controlled victim of the wretched mask? Or something else?
If she even understood the slightest of the darkness within, would she try so hard to save the girl? The idea that the mask serves more as an applifier rather than the source of the corruption that assaulted doesn't seem to cross the Corpoeral's mind as she grits her teeth.
"All I understand... is that you shouldn't be wearing this thing," she growls back, shifting her focus back to her primary objective, right hand reaching out to rest against the covered cheek of the young woman.
As that singular eye closes, Renka reaches for the mask. With no resistance, removing it is all that matters now. Then she'll need to carry the young woman to help. Her own comms device was destroyed in the fight with the Martyr of Might, but with her vigor largely restored by the violent infusion, carrying the slender young woman will hardly be an issue.
The barely whispered words are easily picked up by sensitive ears though their meaning continues to be lost on the creature that seems to barter in loyalty and duty more than mischief and deception. "Rest now," Renka replies, not really expecting her to own words to be heard by the seemingly delirious mage. If the human is lucky, maybe she'll pass out completely. It would be a small mercy until she can be tended to by the Librarium healers. And she isn't sure what kind of pain will be inflicted by removing the mask itself. "We'll have you all back to normal soon."
There is the slighest catch in her voice as she tries to offer the soothing council. WILL she ever be back to normal? Is there coming back from whatever insanity she saw in her officer's face, the madness in the words whispered to her, the mania that drove her to force a firehose of corrupt energy into her?
Time will tell.
Oh, if only she knew. The true origins of that mask would likely strike terror into the heart of this ancient beast for she would surely understand the disturbing nature of the being that conjured it forth. There was a time when gods and spirits walked the Earthrealm regularly, some benevolent, others decidedly less so.
How would she react, the mage wonders, if the name of one of those ancient forces of destruction were to spill from her lips? Ah, but that would be letting the cat out of the bag! She's been entrusted with a secret, a dark and terrible truth that only the worthy and the faithful can be expected to appreciate.
Sadly, her cute little minion has rejected her attempt to pass that enlightenment to her through the filter of the World Song. A bit of a shortcut, admittedly, and not a particularly pleasant one. It's no surprise that she turned away from the raw horror of the Truth. It took decades for Katarina to fully embrace it, tiny bits of her resolve slowly chipping away under the unrelenting pressure. Not matter how strong her soul there was no denying reality. She'd hoped the psyche of a creature of legend would be better able to withstand the strain of that revelation.
Alas, it is not to be. Not yet.
Battered and pinned, Katarina has nothing to offer in response to the attempt to deprive her of the mask save the whispered song. Renka's hand cautiously reaches forward, resting against the black surface of her cheek. Though it appears to be leather in nature at a glance, the surface of the mask proves far more disturbing to touch. It gives way beneath her fingers, flexible and spongy like living flesh. A foul oily substance clings to her skin as she brushes it across the surface of the mask. It stains her finger tips, leaving them cold and numb.
As if its corrupted touch were not enough, the mask offers further annoyance to the attempt to remove it by failing to have any obvious points of attachment. The foul covering seems to almost adhere to the woman's face as if a part of it, offering no visible seams or fastenings to unlatch in order to free her from it. The patch over her eye extends a thick strap up and around her head, disappearing into the thick mess of snow white hair. Down at the bottom, the rubbery flesh completely encapsulates her neck like a protective sheath, extending all the way to her collarbone.
Simply pulling it off seems out of the question. Whatever magics empower this artifact seem to have bonded it with the mage in some fashion. Perhaps the fox's concern about the permanent change wrought by Katarina's decision to don the magic mask is more pertinent than she first realized.
A soft sigh escapes from Katarina, suddenly, her eye opening slightly to peer up at the dark stalker. It would be a terrible shame if this gift were to be discovered by those who would fail to understand its significance. Much like Renka, her superiors were mostly in the dark about the true nature of their master. A powerful artifact such as the one gifted to her by the forgotten god would almost certainly raise all sorts of unfortunate alarms were it to fall into their hands. Such an outcome might even be considered a failure on her part to uphold his command for secrecy and Katarina would rather die than disappoint her Goddess in any way if she can help it.
"If you... insist... little Polly..."
Casting aside the mask proves as difficult as always. It's raw power is intoxicating like nothing she has ever experienced before, more potent than any wine or narcotic that exists. Yet, even in her current state, Katarina's mind is a well-oiled machine over which she has the utmost control. Layer by layer, she peels her desire and lust away from the corrupted touch of the artifact, separating it from her essence until they are two distinct entities once again.
As she relinquishes her command over it, the mask's properties change before the fox's eyes. It shrinks away from her the mage's flesh, the various extremities retracting into the face-plate like slithering tendrils. The zipper pulls itself shut, sealing away the disturbing facsimile of teeth. Even the patch over her eye withdraws, leaving nothing but a hardened leather shell akin to a ninja's face covering resting loosely over her mouth and nose.
Plucking the dormant mask away proves simple enough. The foul magic that had permeated it before seems almost completely gone, only faint lingering traces of humming power lurking quietly within.
Katarina glares up at her subordinate, her face immediately twisting into a grimace of pain and outrage, whatever buffer she had against the agony of her injuries seeming to vanish with the mask's power. She snarls at the fox, narrowing crimson eyes devoid of the polluted corruption at the corporal. Her teeth grind audibly and there is no trace of the musical lilt that typically elevates the enchantress's voice from pleasant to captivating as she hisses out a pair of sharp words.
It takes a couple of seconds of contact for the unsettling physical nature of the mask to register. The frown at her lips, the narrowing of her eyes is reaction enough to signal that she finds everything about the disfiguring face covering vile. Pulling her hand away after a moment, she looks at her fingers, rubbing the tips of them together to feel the substance only to realize that sensitivity has been lost in the process... Is that why Katarina feels almost no pain, she wonders. Is her entire nervous system afflicted by this numbing sensation?
Her careful inspection of the mask continues, now without touching it, as she discovers, to her confusion, that the vexing relic has no apparent means of removal or wearing. Realization comes a moment later that she's seen other garb within the Librarium's forces like this - uniforms that shift according to the circumstances of their wearers, changing from symbolic wear to actual combat gear in a flash of arcane energy given form. Perhaps this loathsome thing bears similar characteristics.
She's going to have to just move the young woman as she is, mask and all, she decidesIt looks to be very much beyond her means to remove... if separating girl from relic is even possible. Renka release a soft exhale of resignation. Maybe the NOL officer really did doom herself with this last-resort weapon. On any other day, she couldn't say she would be terribly broken up at the prospect. It would mean a new assignment, new superior officer, for sure, and it would be hard to go downhill from here... But the fox-eared soldier also knows that she is only here because Katarina carried her her. Whatever delirious motives might have been implanted in her head by the mask, she still brought the fox here, away from the demon's lair, and that means something to her.
She's about to shift off the young woman, to get into position better suited for hefting the slender spellcaster up, when the expression on the dehumanizing mask shifts and Corporal Kaneko pauses. Staring down at the eye that slowly opens to look up at her, she leans down slightly, listening to the quietly whispered words.
The struggle to break free of the mask's influence goes unseen to her. To the kitsune, the wretched thing just suddenly decides to be something else. Eyes flick around rapidly as she watches the thing slip away from covering the silver haired girl's face until it takes on the form of something perfectly mundane in comparison.
Lifthing her hand hesitantly, Renka lowers it slowly toward the mask, before snatching it quickly at the last second and dropping it immediately off to the side as if afraid it will either attack her, or change its mind about surrendering it's place as a fixture on the Lieutenant's face.
When she looks back down at Katarina's face having dropped the offending item, she blinks, eyes meeting her crimson irises, expression a curious blend of concern and befuddlement. Is she going to be okay? Is she back to normal? What lingers still from that mask's hold? What if-
The order brokers no counter argument, Renka suddenly leaping back awkwardly to fall into a seated position a few feet beyond Katarina's feet, eyes wide.
"L-Lieutenant, sir!" She recovers slightly, rolling out of her awkwardly seated position to her hands and knees, twin tails raised slightly up above her back as she crawls a foot closer, mouth opening.
She pauses for a moment, ears tilted forward.
"I'm sorry, I had to get that thing off you, it was..." she sounds lost for words for a moment, "It was doing terrible things to you. I wish you didn't have to use it!" She shakes her head quickly, "But now we have to get you to the healers!"
Katarina exhales slowly upon finding herself blissfully free of the weight pressing hard against her battered body. An involuntary shudder runs from the top of her head down to the tips of her feet, the ripple seeming to highlight every single ache, bruise, and pain along the way like a sonar wave picking out individual blips in an ocean of agony. Her eyes screw shut against a blinding wave of nausea as her body reacts to the trauma with far less dignity than she'd prefer, seeming to chaotically revolt in pure confusion due to a lack of other better options.
Renka's frantic scramble over to her side goes ignored for several seconds as the mage contends with this hellish new existence. This isn't the first time she's suffered terrible injuries while under the influence of the mask. Apparently, while it made her far more willing to act on her darkest inner thoughts it didn't come with any sort of assistance in being able to follow through on that. In previous scenarios, however, she'd been able to return to her home and see to her wounds while under the pain-dampening effects of the artifact and chased the experience down with a healthy dose of numbing medicines and ample rest.
After nearly a full minute of intense mental focus, the liquid magma flowing through her veins cools down to a more reasonable roaring bonfire. Forcing her eyes open again, Katarina peers up at the worried face of the fox, studying her expression. Her gaze shifts sideways after a moment to the innocuous black object lying in the grass and she grimaces.
Katarina sucks in a long slow breath, fixing the dark stalker with a stern stare. Her voice is softer than usual but the firm element of noble discipline and dignity returns as she speaks, her tone commanding and authoritative despite her injuries.
"What you saw here... was not meant... for your eyes."
Katarina grimaces, her eyes squeezing shut again. Speaking in full sentences is like touching a live wire to the base of her neck, white hot lances of electric agony shooting out into her brain with every word. But what she has to say cannot wait. Whatever suffering she must endure to protect the secret of the twin gods is a small price to pay for a lowly mortal such as herself to be allowed to be a part of their grand design.
"You saw... nothing," she gasps, forcing the words out. "Do you... understand?"
The mage's uninjured arm suddenly shoots up, her fingers digging into the front of Renka's shirt. Her grasp tightens in the soft cloth, using her grip to support herself as she lifts her head from the grass to bring it ever so slightly closer to the beast's face. Her eyes snap open and she locks eyes with her subordinate, her expression and voice taking on a pleading element that makes her look far younger and less domineering than her usual haughty self.
"Don't get involved... Intelligence business!"
Seemingly having expended what little strength she has left, Katarina slumps back into the grass. Her grip loosens but she manages to maintain her hold on Renka's uniform, staring up at her through half-lidded eyes while the fox processes that bombshell.
The Intelligence Division of the NOL is often regarded with the same respect and fear that most people would afford a particularly poisonous breed of spider. They're happy to rest easy in the knowledge that the terrifying creature exists and is doing its best to rid the world of troublesome pests - so long as they don't have to be anywhere near it.
Katarina's affiliation with the darker elements of the Librarium's power structure is hardly a secret. She even goes so far as to wear the black uniform of an Intelligence officer herself, a decision that has garnered her no small amounts of wariness from her peers. Yet, despite being her personal gopher and menial, Renka has never been given leave to assist the lieutenant in matters of such a sensitive nature. Perhaps now she may start to understand why.
%After several long moments of rest, Katarina gathers up the energy for another whispered command. As she speaks, she gathers up what magical energies she can muster, attempting to put an element of enchantment behind the words to lace them with an element of suggestion. Normally, the enchantress would hardly have to try to bend people to her will, seeming to radiate majesty like a palpable aura. This pitiful display does little more than to tickle the senses of the recently renewed kitsune, hitting her with all the emphasis of an exclamation point at the end of a sentence; noticeable but hardly mind bending.
"Hide it! That is... an order!"
The unseen hands of time tick by, Renka waits next to Katarina, hands and knees in the grass as she sinks down to sit on the back of her heels. Heart racing, she wrestles with the internal dilemma of what to do next. Should she already be hurrying off, finding some means of contacting the Librarium in hopes of getting relief support to the wounded officer as quickly as possible? While that might get help sooner, leaving the young woman alone and wounded in a city still in a stage of turmoil carries no small amount of risk.
Or should she risk staying at the Lieutenant's side until she can recover from whatever mind harming effects that damnable mask had on her? While her arm is in grievous shape, it's not about to be fatal within the next few minutes. And taking Katarina with her is preferrable to leaving her in the park, no matter how tranquil it may seem at the moment.
In the end, she lingers, muscles tense, thoughts eager to get moving, to get out of here, to deliver the founding family scion to those who can actually tend to her condition. Which is why she's still staring intently at the human when the NOL elite manages to force her eyes open once again, having situated herself right at her superior officer's side.
Leaning forward slightly to listen, eyes are wide with worry and adrenaline-fueled attentiveness, the fox clearly ready to jump to action given the slightest direction. She ignores the look given the inert mask at first, attention fix solely on the injured mage. Only when she explain in her still somehow dignified way that the Corporal has set eyes on something far outside her pay grade to know about does she flick her own eyes to the mask for a brief moment before focusing again on Katarina, as if afraid that looking at the thing for too long might invite renewed attack from it.
At the question, there is a brief hesitation, Renka's mouth opening, a word of protest forming on her lips. 'Saw nothing?' How can she possibly pretend something like that?!
But before she gives voice to her response, the front of her battle-worn uniform shirt is grasped and Renka finds herself pulled in closer, face to face with the willful spell-weaver. It's the change in the young woman's voice that stifles all thought of protest. That tone... the urgency... the beseeching edge to it, and the utterance of Intelligence Business. Is she... concerned for the fox's well-being?
Renka blinks, mouth relaxing, all evidence that she was about to blurt out something other than absolute acknowledgment, her cheeks paling. The fox-eared demon nods her head rapidly, right hand lifting in response to her shirt being grabbed as if thinking at first to pry the girl's fingers out of the garment but then thinking better of it in an instant.
Her only personal brush with the Intelligence Division was working for the mysterious acting Major Hazama for the King of Fighters tournament the Librarium decided to participate in. That brief assignment alone was more than enough to cement in her mind the need to steer clear of anything involving the ultra secretive branch of the NOL. The only thing that could get a soldier's blood running cooler than the Intelligence Division was any mention of the 0th Division, the task force assigned to hunting down 'loose ends' within the force.
"Okay," she whispers back. Only now just recovered from the mask's hold on her, and this is what she wants to talk about before anything else? That more than cements the importance of the officer's instructions. "I understand."
There is a slight shift in her expression then, a reflection of the grave responsibility she feels within to the spellcaster no matter what their interactions have been up until now. "As long as you recover from whatever effects it had on you, I swear no one will ever know I saw a thing." Renka declares. The implication is clear - if she observes Katarina suffering any after effects of the mask's touch, her duty to the young woman's well being may eventually supersede her need to keep the secret. The look on her face suggests she isn't about to be badgered into any tighter oath of secrecy than that.
When the next order comes, the Corporal nods her head again, responding immediately to the command. She doesn't jump right away to grab the mask, not out of fear of it, though that certainly lingers yet, but because Katarina's hand is still on her uniform and she's not about to go leaping around and risk further injury to the mage. Her own hands, still covered with flakes of dried blood, close over Katarina's hand as she pulls it gently away from her shirt. "Yes sir," Renka rises up to a crouch, moving over to the mask where it sits in the grass.
Lips pressed together, she reaches down hesitantly with both hands, looking as if she's been asked to grab a live, sparking electrical wire. Holding her breath, she finally snatches it up with one hand on each side. Holding it for a long moment in front of her, looking as if she expects it to try something fishy. After several seconds, she releases it with one hand to pull open her tattered blue uniform jacket. In its condition, it is easy to find a large enough tear to slide the mask in between the coat's lining, putting it out of sight entirely.
Only when she determines it's snugly secured does she pivot to face Katarina again, eyebrows raised quetioningly.
"Now will you let me help you, Lieutenant, sir?"
Katarina's expression is one of momentary relief as her order goes unchallenged. She relaxes slowly, her eyes sliding shut once again as the exertion of her antics overwhelms her. A soft ragged sigh slips from her lips and she lapses into relative silence, issuing forth no more sound than the gentle labored gasps of her breathing. The hand is dislodged from Renka's uniform with no further resistance giving her the freedom to follow the order she has been given.
The mask proves likewise devoid of complaint when she moves to inspect it. Whatever dark power it commands seems to be completely dormant, no traces of the foul numbing corruption present on its leathery black surface. There is a brief moment of tension as, at her touch a pulse of energy radiates through the mask, a faint tremor of what might be excitement running through it at the prospect of being donned by a fresh user. But when it becomes obvious that she has no such intentions for the artifact the hum fades back into silence and it settles quietly into her jacket.
When she turns back to face the lieutenant, Katarina is staring at her intently, one eye forced halfway open to observe her actions. The young woman is silent for a few long seconds then nods her head gently, mollified.
"Good... good girl."
The praise might seem rather condescending, considering the wild difference in their age, but there is none of the usual edge of haughty arrogance in the mage's voice as she speaks. Other than the obvious strain inflicted upon her by the overwhelming amount of pain she's in, Katarina's expression seems much softer than usual as she regards the fox. She looks young and vulnerable, like a child suddenly being disabused of the youthful notion that they are invincible.
The offer of aid seems to make her recoil. The mage looks away from Renka, her expression not one of contempt or disgust, but shame. To be so thoroughly crushed that she has been reduced to this quivering pile of uselessness is a bitter pill to swallow. That she might need rely on the strength of someone she has so ruthlessly abused for months now is even less appetizing.
The lingering sentiments of her corruption-addled insanity play merry havoc in her mind as she considers how to respond. Though she was not in full control of herself during those moments, she cannot deny that the feelings stirred up by their strange interaction yet remain. Despite her own duplicitous actions, Renka had shown no desire for anything other than to see to her well being. Her sentiments were misguided, of course, but the fact remained that the fox had been utterly loyal when she could have easily fled and left the mage to her own fate.
"Yes... that... that seems the best course of action."
She swallows, hard. Turns out pride doesn't go down easily.
"A-and, Corporal? I..."
Katarina's mouth hangs open for several seconds, the words struggling to form. She closes it with a pointed effort, her eyes squeezing shut as she musters up her discipline. That it takes this much effort to get two words out might be an indication of her character but eventually they come. And for once, she actually means them.
At the words of praise, Renka's eyes narrow briefly, as if initially taking affront to the kind of compliment one might associate with a dog. But the moment slips by fleetingly. Katarina's quieter tone and the vulnerability in her expression go a long way to robbing the choice of words of any condescension. The brief defensive reaction melts away into a faint grin, the corners of her mouth pulling up slightly.
Upon asking her question, the fox waits. Given her history around people, there's no question she's aware of how hard it is for the NOL officer to respond to such a direct, unmistakable offer. After all, what else can she say? 'No, thank you, I quite like laying here in the grass with a mangled arm and battered body, why did you ever think to ask?'
But knowing she has no choice but to accept aid doesn't make the bitter pill any easier to swallow, it seems. And so Renka waits.
When the answer finally comes, the loyal NOL Corporal nods her head, pausing to take a look around the park to pick out the ideal path of egress.
But then the mage indicates there is something else and the kitsune glances back toward her, a questioning look on her face, her vulpine ears tilted forward slightly.
When the expression of thanks finally comes, forced out through sheer force of will, Renka is quiet for a long moment, her expression almost a neutral mask as if she had been caught off guard so much she's still reeling at how to respond to the gratitude from one who has been a source of no small amount of torment in her Librarium career.
Several long seconds tick by as she recovers, shaking her head then, a slight 'tsk' sound heard from her mouth as she walks back over to Katarina.
A light cough, followed by "If you don't mind me saying, sir, you must be in worse shape than I realized." Renka declares as she drops to one knee, getting into position to render aid.
"That sounds like a fever speaking."
Embarrassment floods through Katarina almost as hotly as the pain, tinting her cheeks a bright pink in hue. Her jaw clenches, partly to keep from letting out a whimper as fresh agony surges up in response, but mostly to keep from saying anything that will shame her further as her emotions flare. Her subordinate had earned that praise and she would not disgrace herself by tainting it less than a minute after it had come out of her mouth. Though it was shameful to have been put in need of aid from this creature, she needed it nonetheless, and the fox had come through for her.
"I... suppose we should hurry then," she manages after a period of moody silence, choosing her words with obvious care.
Sitting up proves almost impossible without help. The idea of standing on her own is completely laughable. Sharp hisses of discomfort accompany the effort to rise as the mage leans heavily on her inhuman companion. By the time they've managed to get her to her feet, Katarina's strength is all but gone, the girl able to do little but slump woozily in the dark stalker's grip.
Katarina mutters a few words of magic under her breath, attempting to call up a basic enchantment that will detach her mind from the pain but even that proves beyond her ability to muster. The attempt almost makes her black out.
Clutching at Renka's uniform again, the mage staggers and sucks in a sharp breath. Her vision spins like someone put the floor on a record player.
"Safe... in my office," she gasps. "One-one-seven... four-two-nine."
Her hand drifts down to the front of the kitsune's ripped jacket, brushing across the subtle bulge of the mask hidden within. While it might not be noticed as easily while dormant, the more she carries it around inside the Librarium's wards the more likely it manages to trip some sort of detection spell. The mage looks up at Renka, barely able to force her eyes halfway open.
Apparently tired of being abused despite its constant warnings, Katarina's mind finally pulls the emergency switch. Her eyes roll up, blackness enveloping her as she sinks into cold void of unconsciousness and the hopefully more gentle grip of her subordinate's arms.
Log created on 16:51:33 09/06/2020 by Katarina, and last modified on 00:18:21 04/29/2021.