Levianta’s four ladies have been chosen. The deadly game of survival for the sake of becoming Ma has begun.
Elluka shivers, clutching at her elbow. The hand holding the utility knife—more a last-ditch effort at self-defence than any killing intention, really—threatens to drop the blade with its trembling. The temple’s open-air architecture leaves its inhabitants exposed to Levianta’s strong winds, and the nights are turning longer and colder by the day.
She sweeps her eyes over the scene in front of her, taking in the other three women standing within the temple. Ly has her mouth set in a smug smirk, while Milky’s painted lips are curled in a lecherous leer. But Elluka’s focus isn’t on them—sky blue dead set on earthen brown.
Contrary to her expectations, Irina looks lost and forlorn, the red-haired mage gazing at Elluka with something strange, something… unfamiliarly familiar, glimmering in her brown eyes.
Not the expression of pure hatred she suddenly wishes is there instead.
“So,” Ly drawls, regarding the others with a haughty expression. “This is it, huh. A runt of a mage, an ex-priestess in disgrace, and a lowly cheap whore? I can’t believe any of you managed to become candidates for Project Ma.”
“Excuse me?!” Drawing herself up to her full height, Milky spits out with a voice full of venom. “Watch your mouth, bitch. You were chosen only because your family kept throwing money at the senate~!”
The two women bristle at each other’s comments, obviously incensed. Elluka listens to their barbed exchange quietly, but keeps her eyes on Irina’s.
Something is wrong.
Somehow, this entire scene feels all-too-familiar… but the sense of déjà vu passes as quickly as it came, and she’s left with nothing but an empty ache and the phantom pain of a knife in her heart.
Abruptly, Irina turns on her heel and runs out of the temple, having caught Elluka’s piercing gaze. The three remaining women watch her go with blank faces, before Milky and Ly break out in barely-muffled snickers.
“What a scaredy-cat,” Ly mutters with a toss of her head, her smirk turning into a wide grin that bares her teeth. “Can’t even handle facing us here, let alone in battle.”
“Coward,” Milky simpers, hiding a wicked smile behind perfectly manicured nails. “It’s probably the fact that she’ll probably be killed by her own sister-in-law… isn’t that right, Chirclatia~?”
Elluka wants to agree, or to disagree, or something, but the ache of emptiness intensifies further and she lets out a soft gasp, bringing her hands to her chest and nearly impaling herself on her own blade.
Instead, the knife clatters uselessly to the ground, echoed by the laughter of Ly and Milky.
“Weakling!” Scowling, Milky stabs the tip of her flamberge into the polished floor and crosses her arms with a huff. “It’s no fun if they just give up… I don’t get any thrills this way~!”
With an icy stare, Ly looks Elluka up and down, trying to figure out the other blonde’s intentions, before shrugging and returning the twin blades in her hands to their sheaths.
“For once, I agree with you,” she sneers, enjoying the dark look on Milky’s face at somehow earning the noble’s approval, let alone agreement. “There’s no point in striking them down now. And it’s not like we have to finish it here…”
“Hm… then,” with a smile crawling back onto her lips, Milky giggles. “Meeting adjourned, I suppose~! Ooh, I can’t wait to see what favours you’ll try to pull in order to win this game, Li~!”
“And I’m just dying to see what kind of underhanded tricks you’ll have to resort to, Eights.” Ly snarls with no small amount of spite. “Long live the queen.”
“Long live the queen.” Milky echoes with a hiss, slinking away into the shadows as Ly struts out of the temple grounds with her head held high, leaving Elluka alone.
“…Long live the queen.” Elluka sighs, bending down to pick up her knife. The black blade doesn’t make for a good mirror, but Elluka can still catch her own expression on its reflective surface. “Long live Ma, the mother of gods.”
Something is wrong. Something is terribly, horribly, very, very wrong.
And the ghost of guilt that plagues her heart might just be the beginning.
When Elluka makes her way back to the Clockworkers’ house, the empty ache and phantom pain have both receded to a dull throb. Pulling open the door and wincing at the audible groan it emits, she steps into what she presumes is an empty home, since Kiril had mentioned that he would be out buying supplies, and Irina…
Irina, seated by the dining table with both hands holding out a knife poised right above her heart, gasps and loses her hold on the blade in her shock.
“IRINA!” Elluka all but screams, lunging forward as time seems to slow to a crawl.
The seconds tick cruelly by.
The knife that should have plunged into Irina’s chest instead meet the barrier of Elluka’s hands, scoring lines of angry rust that bloom into full-blown red flowers as Elluka grips the blade tight with trembling fingers.
As if awakened from a dream, Irina jolts, her widened eyes widening further at the sight of rusty red dripping down her sister-in-law’s arms.
“Elluka! Gods, Elluka, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Irina numbly cries out, repeating the apology like a broken record when Elluka hisses and drops the knife, moving to cradle her hands closer but changing her mind at the last second. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so—“
“It’s fine,” Elluka mutters through gritted teeth, even though it’s clearly not. “Just… we both don’t know any healing magic, right? Get the first aid kit.”
Irina stands there, lips still moving in unspoken apologies, trembling hands hovering uselessly above bleeding ones. Elluka sucks in another breath, willing herself to refrain from lashing out.
“Irina. First aid kit. NOW.”
As if triggered by the harsh tone in Elluka’s voice, Irina jolts again, then scrambles away to retrieve the first aid kit from the bathroom, leaving Elluka to gather her wits and take in a few more calming breaths.
Warily eyeing the discarded bloodstained knife, Elluka wonders why she feels like she’s seen it before, brushing off the strange sense of déjà vu yet again as she bends down to pick it up and place it on the dining table, wincing at the sight of the bloody handprint left on its handle.
Soon enough, Irina returns with the first aid kit, and the next few minutes are spent in awkward silence while the shorter girl carefully treats Elluka’s wounds and bandages her hands. Irina wavers and winces whenever she presses a little too hard, earning a grunt of pain or a strained gasp from Elluka, but finishes the job well enough.
Then, for a good few moments or so after that, Irina holds Elluka’s hands in her own, lightly intertwining their fingers together and brushing her thumbs over Elluka’s palms.
“…Irina?” Elluka mumbles, moving to pull her hands away. “Are you okay? What were you thinking?!“
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” sniffling, Irina pulls away, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms. “I don’t want to hurt—you, myself, anyone, everyone—anymore…”
Elluka’s eyebrows rise up in confusion, before realization washes over her in a stroke of insight and suddenly, everything clicks and the pieces fall into place.
“Anymore…?” She asks, reaching to rest her hands on Irina’s shaking shoulders, wincing slightly. “Irina, you…?”
“Why?” Irina sobs, the tears truly starting to flow. “Why me? I just—I just want—friends, a family—”
Stunned, Elluka stares at the crying girl in front of her, before pulling Irina into a crushing hug, ignoring her startled gasp and the stinging pain of her bandaged hands.
“Irina… aren’t I your friend? Kiril, isn’t he—aren’t we your… your family?”
They stay like that for a few excruciatingly long seconds. Then, with a choked noise, Irina returns the hug as fiercely as Elluka initiated it, burying her face into Elluka’s shoulder as she lets out a wail, memories—decades upon centuries upon millennia of memories, some familiar, some not, all of them hers—bubbling to the surface of her mind and bursting free through the warmth of her bitter tears.
Not knowing what to do, Elluka simply rubs comforting circles on the younger girl’s back, brushing her fingers through red hair and murmuring false reassurances and empty promises that she knows she can’t keep.
“It’ll be alright,” Elluka whispers, but her words only cause Irina to cry harder, the tears coming faster and faster. “Everything will be fine; I know it will…”
Even her own reflection in the mirror across the room doesn’t seem convinced by her own words.
The nature of HER is to spread malice and to destroy everything related to the gods.
Elluka knows that. It’s the main reason she cured Kiril of the syndrome the first chance she got. Even though she was expelled from the temple, Elluka’s loyalty to the gods is still strong enough for her to know that it was the right decision.
Now, though, she isn’t so sure.
“Irina,” she breathes, cautious, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
The two of them are standing in the middle of the temple once more, like when they had faced off against each other as candidates of Project Ma just a few weeks ago.
It’s only been a few weeks? Elluka thinks to herself. It feels like ages ago… when Milky and Ly were still… alive…
Irina stands with her head held high, though her face is twisted with many indescribable emotions, all of them none-too-happy to see each other. In her hand is the same knife she had tried to commit suicide with, now cleaned of blood. But the both of them can still see the memory of red along its edge.
“I’m sure,” Irina answers quietly, dropping her gaze. “Please, Elluka. It’s either this, or… or that.”
The hand holding the knife trembles. Elluka turns her eyes away, still unsure.
“It’s too dangerous. I don’t know if it will work.” The ex-priestess admits, shaking her head. “It worked on Kiril because he wanted to get better, wanted to be good, for my sake. Out of love. Irina, I don’t think—you might be—“
“Too far gone, I KNOW!” Irina blurts out, her grip on the knife turning white-knuckled with tension. “But you have to do it. I killed them, Elluka! I killed Ly, I killed Milky… who knows who might be the next one.” Her voice drops to barely above a whisper. “I know for sure who the next one is. It’s you. Even right now… I can feel HER in my blood. Calling out to me. It’s so strong, I can’t go against it. I’ll kill you. I know I will.”
Silence looms over the two, heavy and suffocating.
Irina takes a single step forward, reversing her grip on the knife. For a brief moment, Elluka panics, thinking that Irina will try to stab herself again, before Irina grabs hold of Elluka’s arm with her free hand and pushes the knife onto her open palm, closing Elluka’s fingers around the handle.
“If it fails,” whispering, Irina looks up at her sister-in-law with glittery eyes, “Then. Do what you have to. To protect yourself. From me. And… take care of Kiril for me. Please.”
“I won’t fail.” Elluka assures her, gently bumping their foreheads together. “Kiril’s counting on me to succeed, after all. He’s… he’s confident that I can do it. He loves his little sister, you know that? I love you, too. You don’t have to do this; we can figure out something else. There has to be another way.”
“No, I want this. Come on, Elluka, it’s your duty, isn’t it?” Irina smiles, closing her eyes. “And let’s not keep Kiril waiting. He’ll get lonely.”
“—Alright.” With a sigh of resignation, Elluka pulls back and places the hand not holding the knife on Irina’s forehead. Bright light shines from the palm of her hand, a soft glow that grows into a blinding white. "I won't let you die, Irina. I'll save you."
The words taste like ash on her tongue.
“I… I love you,” someone says, before breaking into tears.
Somewhere, a three-beat melody echoes.
Elluka brushes her fingers over the smooth surface of the ark, her thoughts a muddled, chaotic mess.
Almost six months have passed, yet the ghost of guilt that plagues her heart only grows stronger, more insistent, with each passing day.
She had failed, of course. She could always pin the blame on something, someone else: Irina’s too-strong attachment to HER, Kiril’s misplaced confidence, the gods for even allowing the damned syndrome to exist in the first place.
But Elluka knows, deep in her heart, that the only thing to blame that day was her wavering resolve and faith.
The fear of failure, aggravated by the fear of Kiril’s disapproval of her failure, and compounded by the smallest sliver of a selfish what-if—what if she succeeded? What if she managed to cure Irina of HER? What then? Would Kiril… abandon her—?
She knows better, now. Kiril wouldn’t do such a thing, too deep in love with her to even consider such a thing, even if she failed. And he had forgiven her, despite everything—or maybe, because of everything—for her catastrophic failure.
Yes. Her pride and despair that day was what caused her failure. Irina’s death.
If only—but no. A wish of “if only” won’t be granted now.
Elluka had won the survival game, and won the right to become the Queen of Levianta, the Mother of Gods, Ma.
But did she deserve it…?
Ever since that day, Kiril had stopped working on something special. Something that was meant to tie the three of them together, a symbol of sharing their joys, pains, and sins together.
The memory of Irina’s hurt expression clouds her thoughts. Irina’s crying face… shifting into Kiril’s visage, furious, beseeching. Disappointed.
The music box has stopped moving.
I believed in you, Kiril’s voice echoes in her mind. I trusted you. How could you?
Its music will never play now.
How could you kill my only family? How could you, Elluka? How could you?
Or that’s what she had thought.
I loved her, Elluka. My dear, precious Irina. Gone. Dead. She deserved better. Better than this.
But her ears can hear it.
“I’m sorry!” Elluka all but screams, clapping her hands over her ears. “I failed! I’m sorry! I killed her! I KILLED HER!”
Irina deserves better. Better than you. Irina should be alive. She should have lived. She should have become the Queen, the Mother, Ma. Not you.
A three-beat melody.
Tomorrow, Elluka would be injected with the seeds of god. She would become everything she’d always dreamed of being. She would save the world from destruction, from the Sin in front of her.
But there’s a way, isn’t there? You can bring her back. Bring her back to life.
No, it’s not a song.
Save the world from the ark, Sin…
Yes, Sin… Sin can bring her back. Sin can revive Irina. And if you can’t do it alone, we can do it together. You remember how to use it, right? The thing I taught you, the magic only I—only we can use. The Clockwork Secret Art.
It’s a voice.
Yes… she can still fix this. She can bring Irina back, and Kiril would be so happy. Kiril would be proud of her. And the guilt. The guilt would go away, right?
Yes, my dearly beloved. Hurry. The whereabouts of the miracle is, right now, in your hands. Take Irina and bring her to Sin. The gods will fix your mistake. The gods will forgive you. The world will forgive you. Levianta will forgive you. Irina will forgive you. But until you set right what went wrong, I will not.
Her own dearly beloved’s voice—
Tomorrow, Elluka will become everything she’d always dreamed of being, will become everything she doesn’t deserve to be.
You failed me back then. Don’t fail me again!
Tonight, she will erase her failure.
Unlocking the gates of the unknown, to the ark before your eyes…
Hey, darling, hurry up and put it in.
Its name is Sin.
Her body—drive it in there!
What is it that you wish for? What are you hoping to achieve?
Quickly, move quickly, you lazy fool, faster, do it faster, inside that…
Please, Elluka—don’t let yourself be deceived…
Blinding white envelops everything, a bright light that dims into a soft glow.
A lone sorceress walks through the devastated remains of her home.
“Gone… everything, everyone’s gone…”
The die has been cast; a miracle that definitely shouldn’t have occurred. The brutal act of she who had been manipulated by Sin.
The flowers, the people, the country, her—everything was swallowed up and dissolved, leaving behind nothing and no one.
Nobody but the single resurrected her, looking up at the sky with glittery eyes.
“Elluka, Kiril… I’m sorry…”
A three-beat melody echoes. Her chest aches with the ghost of guilt and the phantom pain of a knife in her heart.
Irina Clockworker stares up at the sky, listening to the memory of a music box as twin lights fall towards the forest.
This song you’ve heard somewhere; do you remember it?
Painful. It hurts. Nothing but. Pain.
Who is that man? A scientist? I don’t remember.
That thing in his hands, his burn-covered arms— didn’t I make that?
After this, you’ll be reborn. Today is your re_birthday.
A clockwork bluebird.
The man smiles. It’s so familiar. His face. Is so familiar. It’s like mine. His face. Is the same. As mine.
But not. His eyes.
Shall we begin?
Ah, the bluebird—is he. Giving it. To me? I can’t. Reach it. I can’t… reach…
My hands—my arms—my legs—it hurts—
What’s happening? What’s happening… to me…?
I won’t come back. This experiment… you’ll have to finish it by yourself.
That’s right, I have to—I have to continue. The experiment.
I have to. Spread “evil”, and. Destroy. All the gods.
Yes, that’s right, I remember—that girl, she—everything, she stole everything—everything!
Now, it’s your turn. Go forth, my beloved twin brother and first child. Your purpose awaits.
If the song changes, then I’ll change too.
This three-beat melody…
…The clockwork lullaby.