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Velvet Labyrinth

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A female voice singing, as from a great distance. This place again. Minato opened his eyes. Above him, endless blue, like the sky immediately before sunrise, but no stars. And a face looked down at him, neither Igor nor Elizabeth, but – Ryōji? As if hearing his name, he smiled, pleased to see Minato before him again, and seeming human, as if he had never become the Avatar of Nyx that SEES had fought.

"It's good to see you again," Ryōji said. "After all, I've missed you. And it's been a bit dull, waiting here all by myself." He looked up at the not-sky. "Even if her voice is beautiful. Really, it always has been, hasn't it?" A smile, warm and familiar. "I'm sure you have questions. This place is all about answers, as I'm sure you know by now. But let's get you off the ground first." He extended one hand.

"I'm ... supposed to be dead," Minato replied, not accepting the hand immediately. "I remember dying." He had a clear memory of Aigis looking down at him, her green eyes all-too-human to him as the world disappeared around him. She must have wished to cry in that instant, but she did not have the capability. He had wanted to tell her not to fear for him any more, wanted to raise his hand and touch her face, but he had not had the strength in him to do that, then. There had been one more thought of how vast and blue the daylight sky had been, then —

Nothing. But nothing had not been the end.

"You did die," Ryōji said, his face sympathetic, "and so did I. But here we are, anyway. Except it doesn't really feel like the end of all that is, does it?" Again, that smile. It reminded Minato of Aigis, except ... old. Impossibly old. Not in a negative way. More like Ryōji had a soul too old for his body. Perhaps he did, at that.

"It's still the Velvet Room," Minato said, taking the still-offered hand and sitting up, a little surprised to see that he was wearing his SEES uniform, "it's not ... inside Nyx. At least, I don't think it is." He rose to his feet, finding strength in his body that he had not experienced since the ascent to the top of Tartarus. "What do you make of it, Ryōji? Do you know any more about all of this than you did before?"

"This is new to me," Ryōji admitted. "You've left your body, and all of your Personae have become the Great Seal that shields Nyx from the will of humanity." He thought for a second, as if reaching for unseen things. "My power lies beyond the Great Seal, too, since all that I was came from Nyx –" Another smile. "– except for this. Me. I guess I should say that it's the Avatar of Nyx that's on the other side of the Seal. What you see here is, well, Ryōji Mochizuki, all that's human about me. My essential soul, maybe. And that's what you are, too."

Minato looked around him. The floor, in the same pattern as the floor inside the Velvet Room, seemed to extend in all directions, almost merging into the sky as it approached the horizon. He looked to Ryōji, who anticipated the question.

"I think it's in the same place as the Velvet Room," he said, "the Sea of Souls, the human consciousness. Maybe it's the place where the elevator stops?" He mused about it for a second. "Nyx and the Great Seal are far above us, beyond this blue sky that you see. That much, I can tell you. And below us –" He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "– is something very much like Tartarus, something full of Shadows and extending down to ... I don't know where, but I'm sure there's an entrance around here somewhere, a way to get inside."

"Down into the Sea of Souls, huh?" Minato said, reaching for the sword at his side and finding it still there. "But, if it took all of my Personae to seal Nyx –"

"You'll be starting from scratch," Ryōji said, "and fighting your way down. You accepted Death." He placed a hand over his heart. "You accepted me. That was your answer." A genuine light gleamed behind his gray eyes. "But Death's not the end, is it? It's another journey, a long one. Is Orpheus not the one who braved the land of the dead in search of his heart's desire?" And, as if on cue, Orpheus materialized behind Minato, hovering there, summoned by thought alone.

"But he did it alone," Minato said. "You're here." A smirk, one that only a select few had witnessed on his face during his life. "There's got to be a reason."

"Well," Ryōji said, shrugging, "you know, as well as I, that I couldn't let you do it alone. Just because I've found my own answer doesn't mean that I can't go with you. After all –" He looked like Pharos in that instant, his smile changing from warm and familiar to alien and beatific. "– our destinations are one and the same. There's someone waiting for us down at the bottom. I can feel it. Can't you?"

A distant presence, promising answers to questions, comfort in sorrow. A motherly presence, concealing power overwhelming, and she waited down at the bottom of it all, beckoning, though so many Shadows cluttered the path.

"Yes," Minato said, taking a deep breath as Orpheus faded back into the hollows of his consciousness, "I can feel it, too." His turn to extend a hand. "Come with me, Ryōji. Maybe we can make up for lost time, talk about everything we wanted to talk about in life." He sighed. "There just ... wasn't enough time before. Maybe this is a chance to make up for that one regret, make everything right again."

"I'm glad you see it that way," Ryōji said, accepting his hand, "since that's how I feel about it, too. After all, in a way, I've always been with you. I don't see any reason for that to change now." He squinted into the distance. "A stairway?"'

They walked towards it together, still holding hands. It was easy to miss the stairs, but there they stood, winding down into a darkness so thick that it seemed endless. And, to either side of that black square, there stood two figures, each holding a white-flamed torch, and Minato recognized one of them immediately.

"It's been a long time," Akinari said, seeming as pale and slight of figure as he had in life, though his eyes had a strength in them that Minato had never seen before. "I thought it'd be a good idea to wait for you, and I wasn't wrong."

"It's good to see you on your feet again," Minato admitted, more touched than he had first realized to see Akinari again after being present for his death.

The other figure seemed unfamiliar at first, a shadowy person in a long, dark coat, but, the more Minato looked at him, the more a fog cleared away from a corner of his memory that had been locked away. "... Zen? Is that you?"

"You may call me that," Zen said, nodding. "You've earned the right." He looked at Minato, then at Ryōji. "Are both of you ready to go? There's a lot to do."

"There is," Minato said. As in life, he found himself surrounded by friendly faces, and death had not changed that. "I'm ready. How about you, Ryōji?" Once a part of him, then apart from him, and then by his side, a figure of unconditional love who, though representing Death, had brought the brightest light into his life.

"As long as I'm with you," Ryōji said, grinning. "So! Let's get going."

The four of them descended the winding stairs into the darkness together, beginning a journey towards a new and final Answer to all things.