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Downward Ascent

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She vented the moisture from her battlesuit for the dozenth time and waited for it to re-establish a comfortable temperature. While she waited, Yoori wondered — not for the first time — if she was still entirely of her right mind. 

 

There wasn't really any good reason she should be out here in the frozen, ravaged wilds of the planet's surface when she could have been warm in her bunk back on the Yggdrasil with a straightforward and heroic life laid out ahead of her. No good reason, just... the same unceasing marrow-deep drive that had pushed her forward all her life, demanding that she chase after the only thing that mattered: strength. 

 

Perhaps she could have gotten a little stronger eventually if she'd stayed, yes. Perhaps she'd have encountered things she hadn't foreseen and grown even more than that. Nothing was certain, after all.

 

Yet she was certain, without evidence or reason. She'd known the moment the White Empress had met her eyes that she'd found the next step on her quest. The decision had been made for her long before she'd had any time to actually think it through.

 

Bits of decades-old wreckage dotted the landscape into the vague distance all around her, jutting dark and forlorn through the heavy layer of tainted snow. Her HUD told her it was currently -36C with windchill outside her suit, cold enough that even its advanced adaptive tech couldn't fully stave off the chill creeping into her bones. Dusk was still an hour away, but there was no sunlight left at all through the ever-present brooding cloud cover. It was miserable out here. 

 

It was miserable everywhere, really, but she wasn't old enough to remember how much kinder and more beautiful the planet had been before the war. Everything was relative. The poisoned and mutated equatorial jungles seemed pretty nice to her, especially around the edges, where it wasn't quite so hot and humid. 

 

Where was that base? The Pallid Cross had hidden it well, but not so well that Academy heroes hadn't found it before. There were still camera traps hidden around this whole area, watching her slog through the snow on her way to betray everyone she knew. The Academy's forces wouldn't get here in time even if they chose to scramble, though, and she doubted they would. Not for a student without much in the way of compromising intel to give away, even one at the top of her class. Trying to hold her would cost them more than letting her go. They'd just kill her on the battlefield at their next opportunity and that would be that.

 

Not that she intended to make it easy for them.

 

Suddenly, she stopped, not sure why but on high alert all at once. There was... something, tickling around the edges of her mind. She scanned her surroundings, but neither her eyes nor her suit's sensors picked anything up. Her ears couldn't get anything through the steady glacial wind, either. Where was it? What was it?

 

Closing her eyes, she focused her mind on chasing it down. She had no real psychic talent, nothing strong enough for the Academy's tests to pick up, but she did have a suspiciously keen sense for when someone was observing her. The trap cameras? No, she'd passed several of those and had no trouble picking them up. This felt different. Almost like it was coming from—

 

Someone's in my head, she thought, instantly and instinctively furious. She hated psychic tactics. It wasn't that she was particularly susceptible to them; she actually had fairly robust natural defenses. It was that this was an area in which she knew she could never attain or achieve real strength, and it galled. Just sour grapes, essentially. She knew that about herself but found the unjustified rage useful in defending herself anyway.

 

She should've really expected this, though. The White Empress herself was a powerful psychic, and Kagura Mai had trained at her knee. Yoori wouldn't be surprised if the Pallid Cross specifically recruited for psychic talent, given that, leaving the still-brained chaff to the Black Lord and his Silent Cross proper.

 

With a hard mental shove, she tried to throw the invader out of her mind. 

 

The invader hardly seemed to notice, registering faint surprise when it realized what she had tried to do. 

 

Even angrier now, she screwed herself up, focused hard on the psychic resistance rituals they'd drilled into her at the Academy, and shoved again, hard enough to make her head ache. 

 

This time something budged, and the surprise intensified, accompanied by something like interest. Something tugged at her mind, not seeming to be trying to pry her further open but simply suggesting a direction to move in. 

 

That... seemed like an invitation to Yoori. Her rage dissipated in a blink, no longer useful. 

 

This was exactly what she'd wanted. 

 

Still carefully walling off the rest of her mind, she followed the tugging on her mind westward around an icy hillock, finding a sheer wall on the other side rather than a slope. Most of it was curtained with spears and runnels of ice, but there was a shadow near the bottom that looked like it might be a hidden opening. Hauling Ghroth off her back, she unceremoniously bashed the ice down until there was a hole big enough for her to pass through.

 

Sure enough, there was a door there, and it was unlocked. Invitation indeed. She gratefully passed through it into a white-walled passageway, and was intensely relieved by the sudden cessation of the wind. It wasn't warm inside, or even close, but she wouldn't die of hypothermia quite as fast in here. That was something.

 

The passageway curved vaguely downwards in a loose spiral, so featureless that Yoori found herself fighting disorientation almost immediately, counting her steps and keeping the tips of her fingers along the wall to anchor her perceptions. 

 

Again, she caught herself second-guessing the wisdom of this course of action, but it was far too late now. She'd come looking for destiny and it seemed to have found her back.

 

Sure enough, the deeper she went, the stronger the presence in her mind became, and the more recognizable. Yoori wasn't cold anymore, but she shivered under that serene, amused regard. 

 

The air continued to get warmer as she descended, until it reached a comfortable neutral room temperature and stabilized. The passageway began to branch off here and there, but destiny guided her steps. 

 

There was almost an incident when she met the first of the base's actual personnel. Evidently word hadn't reached them yet, and the knight drew on her, but she stood her ground and left Ghroth on her back. 

 

"I have an invitation," she said calmly. "I can wait here if you want to go confirm."

 

The knight opted to call a compatriot and have them go check in his stead. Yoori waited patiently, standing in parade rest, looking past the knight and ignoring the weapon trained on her. She knew the kind of damage those could do, she'd been on the receiving end plenty of times over the years since her first formal deployment, but she wasn't worried this time. Nobody was going to stop her today, least of all some knock-kneed mook. 

 

She wasn't sure how long it took. At her best guess, less than ten minutes, but time stretched out so strangely when she was battle-ready and alert like this. 

 

The knight's compatriot did not return. Instead, an escort came for her, in the form of an obviously higher-ranking female warrior who seemed almost robotically detached. She hardly said two words to Yoori on the entire walk through the complex, and then only to guide her. 

 

That was all right. Yoori wasn't here for grunts or subordinates. 

 

"Here," grunted the warrior at last, stopping before a door that looked identical to every other door they'd passed on the way. 

 

Yoori didn't think she'd needed the escort to guide her at all. Those pale fingers still rested on the surface of her mind, drawing her ever closer. She would've known this door with her eyes shut. 

 

She paid almost no attention as the warrior turned and marched off, eyes fixed on the door and mind on what lay beyond it.

 

The touch on her mind turned slightly impatient, saying without saying, Are you coming in or not?

 

She... was. Of course she was. She'd had no other choice since that day on the battlefield.

 

Steeling herself, she slid it open and went inside. 

 

Here, at last, things looked distinctively different. There were a lot more soft edges, white fur rugs and linen curtains and white upholstered furniture and even a white four-poster bed, three times the size of a regulation bunk. The small luxuries afforded to a faction leader. 

 

"Welcome," said the woman sitting in a high-backed chair beside a faux fireplace burning a strange, deep shade of warm red. 

 

Yoori realized where she'd seen that colour before the moment she met the woman's eyes. 

 

Those eyes.

 

Without thinking, without needing to think, Yoori shifted Ghroth to a diagonal and went to one knee. "Your majesty."

 

The White Empress' touch lifted slightly from her mind, then returned a bit stronger, as if she'd reached out to put the fingertips of both hands on Yoori's temples. "I remember you," she said, her voice as deep and unusual as her eyes. "I've seen you several times before, Academy whelp."

 

Despite the insult, she didn't sound angry at all, or even scornful. 

 

"Yes, your majesty," Yoori said. 

 

"What are you doing here, little Hero?" the Empress asked then, rising from her chair to sweep across the room's spotless snowy floor to stand barely a meter away. 

 

Yoori watched the artfully scalloped hem of her white dress brush the floor as she approached, and dared not raise her head. She was not embarrassed to be kneeling, not embarrassed to be afraid. Pride had little meaning at the feet of real power. 

 

"I want to defect," Yoori said simply. "To you."

 

She could feel the Empress cock an eyebrow through the touch on her mind. She was so close now, so close there was barely any separation at all. Any further and she'd practically feel like she was inside Yoori entirely, walking around the archival halls of her memories, browsing through her thoughts and feelings.

 

It took her a moment to realize that those long, pale fingers were touching her from the outside too, now, tipping her chin upward to meet the Empress' inhuman eyes. 

 

"Why?" she asked, leaning on Yoori just a little psychically to remind her that she could not withhold the truth even if she wanted to. 

 

Unblinking, Yoori stared upward into her face. "I want to be stronger," she said. "I need to be stronger." 

 

Again, the Empress tilted her head and asked "Why?"

 

Yoori faltered. "I... don't know, your Majesty. I'm sorry. It's been with me so long that I can't remember how it started. I just do."

 

The Empress drew her to her feet by her chin, holding eye contact, coming even closer. There was little warmth to her, ice queen that she was, but at this distance Yoori could feel it smouldering under her snowy skin. The Empress seemed to be thinking. Considering her. 

 

Yoori had no cards to play, no leverage to offer. She only had herself, and she'd put that on the table already, so all she could do now was wait to learn if it was enough.

 

It was. 

 

"I believe you," murmured the Empress, curling a hand to brush her cheekbone with the backs of her fingers before letting go entirely and stepping back. "You interest me, young Hero. If you wish to swear loyalty to me, I will accept your oath."

 

Though she knew she would break it in a heartbeat whenever the next step on her path arrived, just as she had her oaths to the Academy, Yoori swore with clear eyes and a clear heart. She had never hidden her goals or priorities. If anyone wanted to trust her despite that, she let them.

 

The Empress smiled when she was done, cold and hot all at once, and Yoori felt a shiver course through her once again. 

 

It shouldn't matter who she used to get closer to her goal. It had never really mattered before, however fond she may have gotten of some of her classmates at the Academy. Somehow, though, she suspected that disentangling herself and moving on might be more difficult this time. Even if she found the resolve to go, would the Empress release her? Had she walked into a dead end here?

 

If she had, she thought to herself, she would just have to get strong enough to break free again anyway. Anger was useful sometimes. Anxiety was almost always detrimental. She wouldn't entertain it.

 

"I'll have a squire show you to the barracks," the Empress said after a long, strange moment of intense silence. 

 

Yoori bowed. Then, impulsively, she reached out to catch the Empress' hand and kissed the air above her knuckles. Just a moment, a gesture so brief one could almost miss it, but the Empress didn't. 

 

Her eyes, regally cold yet promisingly warm, told Yoori she understood. 

 

Yoori allowed herself the most modest of smiles and backed respectfully out of the room, knowing she would be back sooner rather than later.

 

She was compelled to be forever climbing, but there was nothing in her unbending set of internal rules that determined she couldn't ever enjoy herself on the ascent, so long as her feet never stopped moving. 

 

The ground had vanished into mist below her, and the summit ahead was still heavily shrouded, unguessably distant, but she was on the right track. She'd chosen rightly. All would be well in the end, if she survived to see it.

 

She would sleep well tonight.

 

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