Away, Away, to the Isle of Shadows

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Away, Away, to the Isle of Shadows
Date of Cutscene: 19 November 2021
Location: Arx Zenith; Hidden Continent
Synopsis: The most outrageous man Lilian knows delivers even more outrageous news.
Cast of Characters: 6895

For Lilian Rook, "performance review" always meant one of two things.

One was to arrive in the private council room of Nova Heliosanctus and seated at a table surrounded by her professors, to be told once again that her work is wonderful; perfect, flawless, without compare; that there are no criticisms to be made, and only endless prying questions and not-so-subtle suggestions about what she intends to do with her no-doubt brilliant future.

The other meant to be stood at attention in a single private office on the topmost floor of Arx Zenith, surrounded instead by digital windows in gunmetal walls and warm electric lights overhanging the ancient desk, seat, and shelves, that are a single man's only reminders of former London. And it meant enduring an hour of talk with the one man in the world with no fear whatsoever of pushing her buttons.

And so, as was his habit, DSF Major General Gerart took his place in his great grandfather's armchair; a behemoth of hand-chiseled oak added to his office against staff protest for being the only seat around able to comfortably handle his stature. An officer's coat draped over the back hadn't been moved in weeks, by now having accrued a thin layer of dust. Instead, as of today, Gerart had conducted all four reviews over both Lilian's years in Arx Zenith wearing what she assumed was the same button down undershirt. The one that he never bothered to try and roll down his enormous biceps. Better, apparently, to simply fold them over his broad chest, and stare at her from an intimidatingly seated eye level, waiting for her reaction.

"I beg your pardon?" Those were words Lilian had never uttered in this room before, or, in fact, in front of Gerart at all. Yet the absurdity of what she was hearing had finally demanded them without thinking. Never any of the other utterly insane things that the red-haired giant across from her had put her through. Just this. But Gerart only stirred to lift one meaty hand and impassively scratch his jaw.
"Did I stutter, Lilian?" he replied, in his typical, impatient baritone. It was always 'Lilian' in this room, never 'Miss Rook' like it was beyond the door. "In December, you graduate from second year, and start your sixth and final year here. Congratulations, Officer Commander."
"No sir." Lilian groaned. "I'm begging your pardon for implicitly needing to know what in God's name possessed you to make that kind of decision." she said, not to be dissuaded. Not this time, at least. Her hands balled by her sides, she continued, "Is this even allowed? It's certainly never been done before; I know enough of the program's history to be sure of that."
Gerart's hand returned to the crook of his elbow, and proceeded with a weighty shrug. "Yeah, well, you weren't in this program before. And I'm the DSF; I can allow whatever I want. This academy is my kingdom and everyone damn well knows I'm the only one who can run it."
"Permission to speak freely, sir." Lilian barked in monotone through a tensed jaw. "Granted." grunted Gerart. And no sooner were the words out of his mouth than Lilian's hands both slammed down hard enough on his desk to send the shock into the floor.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing? Are you crazy? Did an old injury rattle your brain?" yelled Lilian. Though every sentimental piece on the shelves rattled, Gerart didn't even blink. Behind closed doors, this was the other half of their relationship. Besides Lilian's older sister Katrina, the head maid Cecilia who had raised her, and Tamamo no Mae after years together with her, this man was the only person alive who knew most of the truth about Lilian, and, with the wisdom of a two hundred year-old veteran, he had deliberately carved out these little spaces of truth, in defiance of the Phantom Circle's every culture of respect and status.

Her reply was the squeak and groan of the baroque wooden frame and antique cushions, as Gerart leaned back into it, and then: "What's your problem? You're an overachiever by nature. You should be glowing at being such an exception, right?"

Lilian hissed. "Don't try to blow me off, shithead. You were the one who convinced me to come here. You told me things would be different. That it could only come from here. And now you're screwing me out of half of it! Are you trying to set me up to fail?! Is that it?! Or am I being 'unfair' to the trainees my age? Do you think this is funny or something?! What the fuck is the point of all this if I don't get the benefit of an entire three years of it?! What happened to all that shit about it being 'life and death out there'?! About 'humanity's finest'! 'The best we can make you'! How is this the best?! You're half-assing it and you're doing it to spite me!"

Three years ago, Gerart had correctly intuited that encouraging this girl to keep secrets from him was about the worst thing he could do, especially if he ever hoped to make her into what he needed her to be, and he had just as instinctively recognized just how dangerous it would be to try and stop her. In this case, hearing vulgarity from Lilian was good. It meant she couldn't be hiding any of her feelings. At least, not meaningfully. His ego had never been so fragile as to be troubled by the outrage of a culture-shocked young girl.

Well, young woman, now. A man with eyes like his couldn't possibly fail to notice the difference that the year of training, two years of Arx Zenith, a year amongst the Paladins, and a time-compressed year inside Kamar-Taj in the mountains of Nepal, had made to Lilian. The short delay in his reply was solely for reflecting on the delicate little girl with cold and wicked eyes from back then.

"No, I'm reading the writing on the wall, Lilian." he replied. "But since it looks like you won't leave until you're convinced, let's go over the facts first." He finally unfolded his arms, just to turn up his palms and begin counting on his fingers; sheerly for emphasis.

"I know that on your last run of the Domum Fortiem Septem with your new friends, you scored all the way into the Station of the Black Sword. You were Crimson last year. Most of our graduates exit at Silver, and the ones who have gotten that far since took over a decade to do it. I also know you've kept it down low --you haven't even had your reception yet, right?-- but if I send you into year three to fuck around, your peers won't have anything to teach you; if anything, I'll only stall your progress. I also know you came out of all seven levels of the mentality trials like they were a light workout too. It was six last year. So there's no point in trying to train you like that anymore either. You're already 'immune', and we both know it's not just because of being strong-willed. I don't need to see any more tests after Sapient Heuristics couldn't stick."

Lilian opened her mouth to say something, but Gerart merely spoke over her. "Yeah. I read your sitreps and debriefings in the Paladins. You didn't think they kept me out, did you? I'm your sponsor, remember." Lilian closed her mouth again. He continued.

"I know you spent a year with the Sorcerer Supreme teaching magic to a loosely qualified demigod; by the way, that means you're turning twenty-three next month, so they're only going to be two or three years older than you. I know that in reality, you're already done with Nova Heliosanctus, with perfect scores, and they just don't know it yet, so I don't have anything to teach you about magic either. You've spent op after op taking command of not just Paladins Chevaliers, but people who aren't even part of their structure. Even though you don't have a technical rank there, people listen to you, and your tactics are sound, so why am I enrolling you in petty officer courses? And lastly, you're far stronger than two years ago. Ridiculously. And you know what Lilian?"

Lilian glared back. "What?" she replied.

"I know you're still holding out on me."

"I assure you--"

"Yeah whatever." The unhesitating dismissal briefly rendered Lilian momentarily silent in shock. Gerart continued. "I need to know your limits. I need to see them. Not this bull about peak efficiency and maximum leverage for minimum effort. The only way I can really know, for sure, how ready you are, is to see you stop fucking around and use it for real."

Lilian was silent for several, long seconds. Gathering herself up, she replied in the mechanical way of reciting verse. "Thou shalt not wear thy power gaudily. Tho do so is to sew familiarity, which reaps only content." Gerart merely waved it away.

"Yeah, that's your favourite, I know. Don't repeat it back to me; I was one of the pens on the page, remember? I know what it means. But come the fuck on. Megathirio? Hiromi? Navsegda Prizrak? That's not the time for the Ninth Code. You like my handwriting so much? The Eighth Code, Lilian. The First one. Are you going to keep being that goddamned stubborn if you really have to fight the Trinity of Ashes? The Orphenoc King? The London Terminarch? The Wedge of Heaven? What's it going to take, Lilian? Does someone have to die first?"

She knew those two by heart, of course. The Eighth: Thou shalt use the fullest of thy competence at all times, and thou shalt demand the fullest. Thou shalt not accept substitutes, imitations, or shortcuts, from thyself or any other. And the First: Thou art responsible to thy blood first above all else, both the blood of thy line, and the blood shed for thee. She knew perfectly well what the DSF was getting at too. And she had no argument. There was no logical way, even by the Code of Thirteen, for her to justify the fact that she put that false sense of noblesse oblige so far ahead that she'd gambled with the lives of her allies at those times-- even if they were very well-informed gambles, given her talent for precognition. But even though she strongly suspected that Gerart already knew the real reason, Lilian wouldn't say it out loud. That'd be tantamount to making it real.

But what she did say, after a second, tense wait, was: "I'm not ready for it."

A second later, she remembered to breathe. "I mean, I don't know if I'm ready for it. I don't know if anyone else is ready for it either. I don't think they are. The moment I do, things will . . . change." said Lilian, her voice trailing off into a hoarse whisper by the end.

Gerart leaned forward on his desk, the oaken colossus groaning softly under the weight of his elbows. "And you like them as they are. I know. I can tell, Lilian. I can't explain your brain, but I don't need to read your mind to tell. You've gotten better. So much better than you used to be that it feels like a dream. You've grown up. But you're getting too big for that nest, and at some point, you're going to have to try and fly."

Punctuating himself with a gravelly sigh, Gerart continued, "The way things are now, with those people, it can't last forever. Pretty soon, it's going to be too much, and it's going to turn you dull and soft. Maybe you'll be happier, but you won't be you, and you won't be what you need to be, and you won't be able to stay that way once something happens. When those things finally change, you'll fall and fall and never get back up."

Lilian, palms now sharing the desk with Gerart, met his stare with a twitching eye. "That's easy enough for you to say. The chance that it all goes wrong; that doesn't affect you, does it now? Spare me your shit about taking chances in war; that's not the same as this and you know it perfectly well." She gasped in frustration. "Why is it so bloody fucking important to you that I be this . . . that me, that you have in your head? What do you hope to accomplish by pushing for more than perfect? All I do is succeed and succeed, all the time, every day, and you still keep banging on about this! You want more and you still won't tell me what the fuck it has to do with anything! Do I get to know one of these days? Why does it matter so much to you, Gerart?"

As usual, instead of answering, the DSF cut right to hitting her weak point. It was predictable by now. He never answered this question. Lilian had even thought she'd learned to stop asking it.

Instead, Gerart said "Look at you. You're tired. And I don't mean tired of working hard. I can see that special fatigue on you. You know what you are, and you're exhausted with pretending you're not. Isn't that right?" Lilian breathed in sharply, and then kept her tense silence, so he continued.

"Every time they get in your way, every time they make it difficult, every time it gets harder than it has to be, it gets tougher and tougher for you to deal with, because inside, you're thinking that this could all be prevented if they had any idea. You're thinking about whether it's the right thing to let people get themselves hurt so much just to avoid hurting them in other ways. That feeling, that gnawing, that this time you really should just cut it off at the stem, that you stop these fires from burning. You think I can't tell? Shit, you might as well have big old bags under your eyes from it."

Before Lilian could even react, Gerart interjected over himself with a briefly apologetic tone. "Sorry. You might as well have lost weight; that better?" Lilian responded only by breathing out all at once.

Then, at Gerart's next few words, her heart skipped. Ice shot through her veins.

"You gave into it once already. You maimed that girl, remember? Did your worst fears come true? Did you see the abyss? Or did it solve everything, just like that? Was it like snapping your fingers and suddenly all that strife went away? Or was it not."

Lilian squeezed her eyes shut, still refusing to breathe, as if she could make this conversation go away by pretending hard enough that it didn't exist. Twelve full seconds later, she allowed that tension to relax, breathing out with the manual reset of her heart rate. She nodded, as slowly as falling asleep, and put her words together as if using too many might cause them to topple.

"Yeah. It was."

Finally, she pushed herself back up from her indignant hunch over Gerart's desk, crossing her own arms in fresh vexation. Gerart, invisibly, allowed himself to relax, judged by her return to her more usual, formal pronunciation.

"You're likely right, I suppose." said Lilian. "About things being different now than they were before. It's not fair of you to say it however; all that was an extremely niche and clear-cut circumstance. I'm not sold." Lilian said. ". . . But I'll take it under consideration. And one day I will make you tell me what this is all about." she added.

Gerart grinned, and his tone swung right back into the businesslike gruffness he'd started with. "Good. Finally. Maybe then I'll get to see the real world version of Lilian Rook before I go grey and fucking die. But, to make sure we're clear, until then, my decision is final."

"You're being accelerated to final year, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails. You'll put in your order for your custom combat skin, you'll receive your Commander rank equivalent, you'll begin training in the position of squad lead --don't worry, there are thirty perspectives enrolling in the Paladins this year--, you'll cease participating in supervised training expeditions and begin joining vanguard operations, you'll jump the OF-4 pay scale, you'll have to start taking on a wall quota, and you'll be relieved of your mana taxation obligations. Furthermore, you'll cease regular basic combatives training with your peers, and report directly to me. I'm no replacement for the Uncanny Knight, Master Aoibheil, but I'll fill in the gaps from now on. Additionally, you'll be part of the field prototype group for the Immunes Combat Synthesis Initiative, under project Cipher of Swords."

Having resigned from attempting to reject, Lilian moved on to at least showing some interest, and replied with: "Oh? It's ready? I'd only seen . . . well, between you and me, I read the black ink. You reviewed all of the competing contracts yourself, didn't you?"

Gerart nodded. "Damn right I did; I'm not putting anything in anyone's hands unless I picked it up myself and didn't break it. Cipher of Swords is selected purely from within the Concordat Orders and the Divine Winds. Since you're from the Gael Traditions, you'll be one of the few experimenting with a combat version of the first generation esoteria capacitor systems, on top of the standard ICSI powered arms platforms. I expect you to use that, at least, to the fullest extent you can" He paused. "Without trying to be subtle, got it?" Lilian nodded.

"And one more thing." said Gerart, leaving a bit of dead air for him to triply consider his words.

"I heard you were thinking about making the journey to Skye." he began, as plainly as he could.

"That's right." Lilian replied, slowly and evenly, waiting to hear the catch. Gerart's head bobbed in agreement with himself.

"This is the first and only time anyone has ever skipped three years. You'll have three weeks during the transfer of duties. Do it. Get what you're looking for."

Lilian answered him with a clearly leading tone. "That being?" But Gerart replied without hesitation.

"Nobody ever asked you why, did they? Why your card lists you as an Extinguisher and not an Adversary. It's not like you'd ever remind them, I know. But you're running up against your one weak point, aren't you? This streak of giant monsters, immortal regenerators, invincible mutants; in other words, those matches you hate so much. Nobody as ambitious as you would let themselves suffer that weakness forever, and I know you're not going to be content to rely on ordering others to make up for it. You're determined to stay with the Extinguisher path."

Lilian huffed. "Of course I am. But why does that compel you to suggest I gamble my blood on Skye for something like that?" She even thought it a valid question. If Gerart knew, he should know what sort of lunacy he was condoning too.

Gerart laughed. "You can't dupe me. Lilian Isabelle Rook would never go to Skye for that. I know you've already mastered most of the Cleasa o'Skye. There's only one reason you'd set your sights there." Gerart slowly folded his hands, staring over his fingers as he spoke.

"The Shadow of Dún Scáith. The Warrior Maid Scáthatch. You know where and when you'll find her, don't you?"

Once again, Lilian opened her mouth, and didn't get to say anything. The DSF talked over her. "Don't try to lie for my benefit either; you spent that year in Kamar-Taj, around the Eye of Agamotto. You had ample time and opportunity to divine it." said Gerart, continuing his tangent. "You're afraid of your own choices, but you're not afraid of what's going to happen when you get there? You're an outrageous woman, you know that?" he laughed.

Lilian couldn't help but let her own, resigned amusement into her voice. "You don't think I'll pass?" Gerart only barked his laughter louder. "Hah! If half of what I know is true, she'll figure out what you are in an instant! There's no way that person would pass it up! But she'd be ten times worse than I am! If you make it back in one piece, even the Uncanny Knight herself would be impressed! And no doubt she'll be happy to see that woman beat your father's bullshit out of you to boot."

Sensing a chance to bring this meeting to a conclusion, Gerart reclined back into his original posture, riding out the last of his self-satisfied entertainment with a few throaty chuckles. "Crazy girl. Giving me shit over a class advancement when you're chasing down the fuckmothering Shadow herself. I'm behind you. What you're doing now; wrap it up clean. Chase that dream. Get strong. Clear your head. Figure it out. And then when you come back, you're gonna have your own men and the Cipher of Swords waiting for you. That, and I'll be expecting you to make your last year as my student one to remember." He nodded to himself. "No more bullshit. You go out there and you stop pretending. You fix that shit for good, you hear me?"

Lilian's flighty and disinterested "Sir yes sir." was far too facetious to be real, but Gerart could tell it was also too genuine for her to not mean it. He had but one last, deep nod in response. "Excellent. Top marks in all categories. You're dismissed for now, Commander Rook." And then, after one more beat, he chuckled. "And get a picture while you're there! Withered old crone, or a solid ten? I have an old argument to settle! Hahaha!"

Only after Lilian had swayed out of the room, and the door closed behind her, did Gerart dare mutter the last thing on his mind. "Godspeed. A year might be all we have."