A not-so-chosen fate
A not-so-chosen fate
Lloyd followed Sheelos out of Ozette and into what felt like a different region. The trees that had surrounded them in the quintescent village became less and less common until they emerged fully from the forest and faced an enormous range of grassy rolling hills. He could see a signature dwarven house carved into the mountanside where the grass separated and the yellowish tint of the sandy soil under their feet could be more prominently seen. He hurried along toward it, falling in pace with Sheelos.
"How did you know where to go, Sheelos?" he asked. The group had grown quiet on their way out of Ozette and inbetween the "don't bother me, I'm thinking" faces of Gesea and Yuan, and the usual silence Colette provided, he was starting to feel pretty lonely. Sheelos, being Sheelos, was the only one talking as though she were taking them on a guided tour of what she called the "Boondocks".
"I'm so glad you asked, darling!" she cried with a wink at him. "But I can't tell you!"
Lloyd raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"If I told you, then it'd reveal things!" the red head replied, putting one hand on her hip.
"Does it have to do with your home town? Mizuho?" Gesea asked. "You said Mizuho was a village in hiding."
Sheelos' mouth dropped open. "You're too smart for your own good, you know that?"
Lloyd grinned at Gesea and she grinned back. He looked at Sheelos expectantly and she sighed. "Fine. I travel around this area to get to my village."
"Where is your village?" Lloyd asked.
Sheelos scoffed. "If I told everyone where my village was, we wouldn't be doing a very good job at hiding, would we?" When Lloyd looked incredibly down at her response, she felt a bit sorry for him. "I guess I can tell you what it looks like though."
"You can!?" Lloyd's eyes sparkled with interest.
She couldn't help but laugh at his enthusiasm. "All you need to know is that it's a village where all the houses are made of gold."
"Wow really!?" Lloyd imagined it. "It'd be hard to look at in the sun."
"That's why we're a village of ninjas," Sheelos explained. "We move at night so that we don't hurt our eyes from the sparkling gold."
"Wow!" Lloyd voiced again. Next to him, Gesea slapped her hand to her head. He looked from her expression and to Sheelos. "Wait. Were you lying to me Sheelos?"
"Why would I lie to you, darling?" she asked innocently. "Men like you are called 'Samurai' in my village, and girls like Colette and Gesea are 'Maiko'."
"Wow," Lloyd cooed once again for the third time in a minute. "I'm a Samurai?" He looked at Gesea. "You're a Maiko! That sounds really cute."
Gesea's features turned almost as red as Sheelos' hair suddenly at his comment. He laughed and put one arm over her while using the other to give her a noogie. "L-Lloyd!" she exclaimed through laughs, trying to escape.
"We're here," Yuan interrupted as they stepped foot onto a small cobble path that led to the door of the dwarven hut.
Lloyd raced down the path and was first to the door. He was about to knock when he thought better of it and looked at Gesea, busy putting her hair back the right way after he'd messed it up. "Are you sure you're ready?"
"Yes," she answered shortly.
"Alright then." He rapped on the door three times and listened for movement inside. He could hear footsteps, but they weren't as easy to hear as he wanted them to be. He was about to knock again when the door creaked open ajar and a green haired girl wearing a plastic dog-eared hat answered.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"Excuse us," he started, a bit lost for words temporarily. The girl sounded so strange and emotionless. "We've heard that there is a dwarf living here. Is there any chance we could see him?"
The girl didn't even blink or look like she was thinking. "You desire a meeting with Master Altessa. Please come inside."
She opened the door up fully. Lloyd instructed Noishe to stay before trampling inside, the party following his lead. The moment he glanced around the area, a homesick bubble formed in his stomach. Low chairs stood against the wall in front of a stone fireplace and a low table sat in the middle of the living area. Some glowing lanterns hovering above the table lit the room up. The whole place smelled of the earth, wood and stone. He loved it instantly. Yuan nudged him to keep walking and to follow the girl and his friends down a slight hill to the left side of the house and toward what he immediately recognised as a drafting room.
Several tables with books, paper, protractors, rulers and pencils strewn on them stood against sturdy looking pillars on the right and the main wall of the house on the left. Lloyd could see the hanging lanterns of the living room through the gap in the pillars. The drafting room brought back memories of the Noishe figurine he had made and been working on for Gesea, and he had the sudden insatiable urge to finish the project. It passed quickly at the realisation that he had given the figurine to Kraine when he had thought the Professor was his friend. He shook the thoughts out of his head and focused on the dwarven man that had his back turned to them at present.
Even turned around, he could tell that Altessa had a long beard. His whiskers reached past the shape of his head and pointed upward. He turned around and Lloyd smiled. Not only did the dwarf have a beard he knew his dad would probably talk about for months, he also had large bushy eyebrows. He was older than his dad- how much by, he didn't know- but it was obvious just by looking at the wrinkles and frown lines on his balding forehead.
Altessa looked over them all, his bushy eyebrows slowly furrowing into a hard frown as he did. Gesea frowned back at him. Lloyd wondered curiously if she was remembering something else. "Who are all these people Tabatha?" Altessa asked bitterly, looking pointedly at the green haired girl, Tabatha. He clearly wasn't pleased to see them.
Lloyd couldn't help the amusement he knew was probably plastered on his face. Altessa's attitude reminded him of his dad and his dislike for the unexpected company of anyone that wasn't him or Noishe. He stepped forward when he realised Tabatha didn't even know their names to introduce them. "My name is Lloyd. We've come in regards to our friend Colette. We heard about you from Kate in Sybak and that you helped our friend Gesea." He stepped out of the way and pointed to Colette, and then to the pinkette half-elf. She stuttered, having suddenly been put in the limelight.
Altessa looked stunned as his eyes fell on Gesea, but the look quickly faded and he abruptly turned away from them. "..Leave!"
"What?" Lloyd blinked.
"I want nothing more to do with Cruxis!" Altessa growled angrily. "Get out of here!"
"Please follow me," Tabatha instructed, mechanically ushering them out of the drafting room and back to the lounge area.
"What was that about?" Lloyd questioned, trying to look past some pillars and downward from where he was standing to see the dwarf.
"I apologise," Tabatha said, her face straight. "Master does not wish to get involved with the operations of Cruxis any longer."
"Why?" Gesea asked, sounding snappy. "Doesn't he care if Colette dies?"
"It is not that." The doll-like woman shook her head defiantly. "Master lost everything to Cruxis and almost his life. I am afraid that if your request is for him to make a Rune Crest, you will need to find another dwarf."
"Another dwarf?" Lloyd shook his head. "We don't have time. Colette will die if we don't do something!"
"Before finding another dwarf, you must first find inhibitor ore," Tabatha continued, as though she hadn't even heard him.
"Aren't you listening Tabatha?" Gesea asked, starting to sound as frantic as Lloyd felt on the inside. He remembered the words of Kate. If she was right, Colette's days were numbered- at best. He didn't want to know what would happen if she became consumed by her Cruxis Crystal and turned into a monster. He didn't know if he could fight her and end another life. He had to save her.
"Where is the inhibitor ore located?" he asked, trying to remain hopeful.
"It is mined in the mountain range that extends between Altamira and the Ymir Forest," Tabatha recalled.
Lloyd looked at Yuan and Sheelos to translate what that meant in relation to their current location. Sheelos was the first to react. "It's across the sea." She tapped her foot in thought. "Even if I had some contacts in Meltokio that might make it possible to travel over the sea, there's no way we can cross the Grand Tethe'alla bridge the way things are at the moment."
Lloyd looked at Colette. "We have to try."
"No, Lloyd," Yuan said firmly. "Do you wish for us to all be captured and executed by the Papal Knights? Because that is exactly what will happen if we rush across the bridge while they are all still on guard."
"Colette will die if we don't!" he reasoned. "Dwarven vow number two-"
"-Never abandon someone in need," came Altessa's voice as he finished the vow for him. The group turned their heads to see him hobbling up from his drafting space using a gnarled walking stick. He looked at Lloyd once he reached the top. "You were raised by a dwarf?"
Lloyd nodded and turned to face him properly. "My dad's a dwarf. Dirk, from the Iselia woods in Sylvarant."
"Lloyd!" Sheelos exclaimed in horror at him. The twin-swordsman gaped, realising that he had probably just revealed a little too much to the dwarf. He hesitantly looked back at Altessa and noticed he didn't seem surprised by it at all though.
"You are travellers from Sylvarant?" He looked over all of them again. "I see. I had long wondered if this day would come. Is the Chosen of Mana among you?"
"You're looking at him," Sheelos grimaced, poking Lloyd playfully. He stuttered as Altessa's eyes bore into him further at that. "And yet the girl, Colette, is suffering the effects of the parasite?"
"It's a long story," Lloyd replied. He hoped he didn't have to explain what that meant. He still wasn't exactly sure himself.
"Hm.." Altessa stroked his beard. "Son of Dirk, Lloyd was it? Come with me." He turned and hobbled away back down to his drafting space. Gesea and the rest of the group went to follow, but Altessa stopped suddenly and grunted "only Lloyd."
Lloyd gave his friends an apologetic look joining Altessa down in the drafting room and following him through a low door at the back. A workshop full of hammers, tongs, various vices, an anvil and a coal pit forge greeted him. He gaped. It was the most beautiful room he had seen in his whole life... or it would have been, save for the disappointed feeling he got when he looked closer at some of the hand tools. They looked like they hadn't been used for some time and were covered in cobwebs and dust.
"Do you like it, boy?" Altessa asked, standing beside him. He nodded enthusiastically, trying to hide his mixed disappointment and curiosity as to why the dwarf didn't create any more. He clearly had a great love for it, as his dad proclaimed most dwarves did. Altessa crossed his arms. "What are ye' waitin' for? The Key Crest ain't goin' ta make itself."
Lloyd couldn't hide his startled reaction at the familiar dwarven accent he had grown up with and tried his best not to imitate. Altessa laughed heartily at him. "The secret to smithing is relaxation. I wanted to test whether hearing the accent would help. I don't usually speak it because young Tabatha does not understand me if I do."
"The Key Crest won't make itself?" Lloyd repeated. "Does that mean you'll help me save Colette?"
Altessa turned from him and walked to the forge. He pressed a button on the side of it and the fire inside roared to life. "Save may be too strong of a word. Delay may be better. Delay for long enough that you can find the inhibitor ore and seek the help of your father to make her a Rune Crest."
"Okay," he agreed. Delay was better than nothing. He still wondered why he had to ask his dad to create a Rune Crest instead of Altessa, but he didn't want to ask and risk changing the dwarf's mood. "Tell me what I need to do."
Some time later, Lloyd wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and put the smithing hammer down to admire his handiwork. He lifted the chain and dangled the pendant in front of his eyes. It was circular with a hole carved out in the middle to accommodate for the Cruxis Crystal. When around her neck, it would sit around the gem in theory just as a normal Key Crest would. Altessa had allowed him to use an old Key Crest from a large trunk of scrap materials, and he had added to it to turn it into its current state.
Just as he was imagining his dad telling him that the detail in the necklace was lacking and the craftsmanship basic at best, Altessa grumbled from behind him. "It is lacking in detail, basic at best. However, it should serve its purpose." He turned his back to him and hobbled out of the workshop. Lloyd followed and watched as his friends stood up from their chairs when they saw them coming. He dangled the pendant to show them all what he had done before approaching Colette. "Hi Colette. I made you a present. I hope this helps you." He unclasped it and put it around her neck. "It'd be great to finally meet the real you."
After attaching the circular Key Crest necklace to the Cruxis Crystal that sat on her neck, then adapting the chain length for the perfect fit, he stepped back and waited with his friends for a response. "…Colette? Can you hear me?" he asked after a few seconds of nothing.
The angel girl didn't show any response. Lloyd looked over his work again. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting it to do, but he'd been hoping something different would happen. "How is it?" Gesea asked.
"It doesn't look like it's working," he replied disappointedly.
"It appears that we may yet run out of time," Yuan said. The odd grin on his face didn't suit the mood in the room at all. Lloyd went to scold him but was interrupted when the loud rapping of fists on metal rang through the house from the front door.
"This is the Papal Knights. Under orders of the Pope, please allow us to search your premises."
Everyone froze. Yuan cursed under his breath. "Somebody must have recognised us from Meltokio or Sybak while we were in Ozette."
Altessa grumbled something under his breath and lifted himself from the chair he had just seated down on. "Follow me."He led them down, albeit frustratingly slowly as far as Yuan was concerned, through the drafting room and into his workshop. Beyond a thick layer of cobwebs and dust, another door stood in the wall. Lloyd hadn't noticed it while he'd been working. Altessa pulled it open with a grunt, revealing a dark and narrow passageway. "Well? Don't just stand there," the dwarf muttered. "Hurry up and go!"
"Right," Lloyd agreed. "Thanks Uncle Altessa! I'll see you again someday." He ran into the passageway, Colette, Gesea and Yuan right behind him. Sheelos hesitated for a second when she saw a spider weaving a web in one corner but quickly ran in when Altessa looked like he was going to close the door regardless of what she did. The dwarf pushed it shut after Sheelos and turned to Tabatha.
"Shall I let the Papal Knights in, Master?" she asked.
He nodded. "If we don't, they will break my door again."
"As you wish Master." The girl left him to go and welcome their 'guests'.
Altessa turned back to the passage door. "Hmm. Raised by a dwarf near Iselia, but not a dwarf yourself? Consider this my apology to you Lloyd, for not being able to save your mother."
Lloyd pushed a trapdoor upward and climbed out, squinting hard until his eyes adjusted to the light. The area outside was a short way away from Altessa's house, close to the entrance of the forest that led to Ozette. Noishe gave a soft bark and ran to him from out behind a group of trees. Colette caught her boot on a stone as she lifted herself out of the passage and tripped. Lloyd caught her quickly, having been very aware of the stone himself thanks to the fact that he would have usually wound up tripping on it himself. Gesea giggled at the sight as she helped herself out of the tunnel. "Colette sure seems clumsy without her wings."
Lloyd agreed and looked at the blonde. "Is that something unique to you, Colette?" He thought about how he'd been much clumsier before the tower. He felt different and had changed. The twin swords at his sides felt right despite the fact that he was yet to actually use them together, unlike the dual weapons he had always preferred. The chakram he had used was now safely stored away in his backpack. "I wonder.."
"Earth to Lloyd?" Gesea called, waving her hand in front of him. He blinked and looked at her, realising he'd been spacing out. Sheelos and Yuan had left the tunnel and were waiting up further ahead, looking at them as though to ask "what are you doing?!"
"Heh, sorry," he apologised and started running with her to their friends. He looked back behind himself as he left the hills and Altessa's house behind. A group of Papal Knights were standing outside the house and the door was open, showing that some of them must have already been let inside. When his shoes started crunching on thick beds of leaves, he decided to make sure he kept his eyes in front of himself. Colette had drawn her pink wings again and started hovering above the leaves, and he was sort of relieved that he wouldn't have to watch her as well to make sure she didn't trip.
"Where are we going?" he asked after a short time, looking between Sheelos and Yuan and hoping one of them had an answer.
When they looked at one another and then back ahead, saying nothing, he started to worry. "We're going somewhere, right?"
"It will be perilous wherever we go," Yuan stated. "Perhaps Gesea's house in Ozette?"
"No!" Sheelos gasped at him. "Y'know, you can be pretty cruel sometimes Yuan."
"Well if you have a suggestion, let's hear it," he snapped back at her. He whirled around an instant later and summoned his butterfly blade. Before Lloyd could even unsheathe his swords at Yuan's unsaid warning, the half-elf had left his spot. A flash of auburn, white and blue fell from the trees above and the clash of steel for steel rang out through the forest. Lloyd stared at the sight, not quite able to believe his eyes.
Yuan kept his ground and grinned at his assailant as he quickly jumped away. "What's wrong Kraine? You usually put up more of a fight than that." He laughed mockingly under his breath when Kraine said nothing and just trained his eyes on him. "I see. You haven't come here to fight. How does Yggdrasill feel about that?"
Kraine said nothing and moved his gaze to Gesea, who was staring at him. "Gesea. You went to Ozette?"
She nodded slowly, still speechless as she looked at her brother. Lloyd couldn't blame her. Kraine looked completely different now. Instead of his robes, he had donned a white and blue tunic suit with about a million golden buckles criss-crossing everywhere. It wasn't a stretch of the imagination to imagine him with wings in clothes like that.
"Still.." He clenched his fist and stepped in front of Gesea. He didn't dare go too close; Yuan was already glaring at him to stay back while he stood in front of Colette. "Prof... uh, Kraine! The others have told me, but I want to hear it from you. Are you really our enemy?"
"I should think that is obvious," Kraine replied nonchalantly. He slid his sword back into its sheath. "Regardless of which, I did not come here to fight you. I only wish to speak with Gesea."
"You've gotta be joking!" Sheelos spluttered, readying her dagger as she glared at the seraphim. "Do you think we'd forget the part where you betrayed us, turned into an angel, and threatened to kill us?"
"Cruxis only wants the Chosen to complete the regeneration ritual," Kraine explained simply. "If you hadn't interfered, things would not have turned out that way and Sylvarant would have been saved." He looked at Lloyd. "Things however got a little more complicated, as you are no doubt now aware."
"Do you know what happened to me?" Lloyd asked, realising suddenly his desperation for some answers.
Kraine didn't answer, instead turning his head to gaze somewhere off toward the path leading to Ozette. Yuan also looked. "Damn. We stayed here too long!" He cursed something under his breath.
Lloyd started to hear the crunch of running footsteps, lots of them. He first saw the gleaming white and moss gree of their outfits, and then their spears, axes, and swords. Papal Knights emerged from the brush from all directions and toward them. The clearing where they stood became crowded. Lloyd drew his swords, Gesea did the same by summoning her kendaxe. Lloyd looked at Yuan, who was focused on observing the situation that was worsening every second. A knight wearing bronze armour and what looked like various badges of honour on his shoulders cantered out in front of the pack of Papal Knights on a white spotted black stallion.
"Go," Kraine said suddenly, redrawing his sword.
"What?" Lloyd blinked.
"I will not allow them to pass. Go." Kraine put extra emphasis into his words this time, as though his meaning hadn't been clear the first time. Lloyd still couldn't believe it.
Sheelos backed away closer to the rest of the group and looked at Yuan. "We're going to have to go to Mizuho."
Yuan looked stunned. "But-"
"I know," Sheelos said, "but if we stay here we're going to get captured. We'll be safe in Mizuho. The Papal Knights wouldn't dare to enter without the proper paperwork, even if they found us."
Yuan still looked like he wanted to disagree with the idea but Lloyd spoke up, nodding at Sheelos. "We can't do anything to help if we get captured here. Please take us to Mizuho, Sheelos."
"Anything for you, my dashing darling!" Sheelos replied, turning on her feet and hightailing it through some trees to the slight southeast of where they were standing. Lloyd looked at Gesea, who nodded. He put his hand in hers and they ran past Yuan and Kraine to where Sheelos was waiting for them to hurry and follow, Colette darting close behind and Noishe bringing up the rear.
"Shouldn't you also be going?" Kraine asked, glancing at Yuan as the Papal Knights charged at them and kicking the first one that got close enough away into a line of others that had been following the exact same path. Yuan did the same with the first knight in his radius, while simultaneously summoning lightning to his butterfly blade and throwing it near the stallion knight that had started its charge. It bucked and sent its rider flying and the blade boomeranged back to Yuan. "Hmph," he grumbled, catching it and standing back to back with Kraine to wait for the next assault. "Even you can't fight all of them on your own."
In perfectly timed unison, they both swept their blades around in wide arcs as the next wave of knights came into radius."Suzuet ste'!" Kraine barked when they resumed their back to back stance. Understanding his words, Yuan looked past the oncoming wave of Papal Knights and into the distance to see some had backed off and were trying to go around the battle field. He charged away from Kraine, and the Seraph from him.
"Should I cover my eyes when we get there Sheelos?" Lloyd asked as he and Gesea raced after her. Gesea was starting to look out of breath. He hoped they would be there soon.
"No need," Sheelos replied, sounding somewhat sullen. "We're here."
She pulled apart a tall bush to reveal... a village. It wasn't golden at all. Different, yes, but not golden. Gesea let out a breathless laugh at him when he slumped his shoulders in disappointment. "Come on Lloyd! You didn't really believe Mizuho was a golden village, did you?"
Before he could answer, a man wearing a garb that covered almost his whole body and only left a slit for his eyes and nose approached. "Sheelos! What is the meaning of this? How could you bring outsiders to the village?!"
Sheelos bowed her head slightly. "I'm prepared to accept my punishment. We were fleeing capture from the Papal Knights, Orochi. Let me go speak to the Vice-Chief. I've brought the Sylvaranti here."
"The Papal.." Orochi crossed his arms. "Just what have you been getting yourself involved in?" He looked at Lloyd, who couldn't stop himself grinning at him. Despite meeting Sheelos, he felt like he was meeting a real ninja for the first time. "You are from Sylvarant, the dying world?"
Lloyd nodded. "It sounds a lot worse when you put it like that though."
Orochi looked back at Sheelos. "Very well. Come with me to see the Chief, Chosen. Your friends will have to wait outside however."
Lloyd stopped grinning at Orochi and turned his attention to Sheelos. She gave him an awkward smile. "Uh.. Surprise?"