"Oh, he's waking up!" quivered a small voice.
Lloyd fluttered his eyes open to catch the blue gaze of Mithos, their half-elf sea captain. When the recognition that he was lying on one of the couches in the lounge room of the sail boat cabin came to him, so did the agonising pain in his stomach regions. He yelled in agony, making Mithos gasp and quickly hover his hands over him. The pain quickly subsided again.
He found Sheelos with her arms around him a second later. "Oh darling! I'm sooooooo happy you're alright!" She squirmed against him.
He laughed and tried to struggle out her her grip. He felt pretty restricted though and once she let go of him he saw the bandages that were tied around his midriff and chest. "What happened?" he asked any of his friends, trying to smile through the throbs of pain. Nobody said anything right away. He glanced up at Colette, who was leaning over the back of the couch to look at him. She shared a glance with Sheelos standing behind him.
Mithos stood suddenly, the stall he'd been perching on falling over backward to the floor. They all looked at him. "If you don't mind, I need some fresh air," he explained. His voice sounded pretty moody. Lloyd wondered why. "Excuse me," Mithos added, walking through the gap in the right angle the two couches in the lounge created. He left for outside, the door slamming shut behind him.
The loud sound cleared Lloyd's head and everything came back with sudden clarity. He gasped and scrambled to sit up, only to regret it a second later when the pain came creeping back with a vengeance. He was forced to rest his head back on the pile of blankets he was using as a makeshift pillow. "Where's Gesea?!" he questioned, his voice croaky until the stabbing pain in both his stomach and now his back lessened to more bearable levels.
Sheelos moved to Mithos' overturned chair and put it right side up so she could sit on it and look at him. Lloyd turned from her to a worried looking Colette, and back to her. At this point they didn't really even need to answer his question. He remembered what had happened earlier.
He'd failed at protecting Gesea.
She'd been taken by the claws of a dragon and carried off to who-knew-where. The Noishe figurine still safely placed in a pocket of his pants felt like lead instead of wood suddenly.
Sheelos started to talk. "We didn't want to talk about it too much in front of Mithos." She stuttered on her words. "No," she corrected herself, "I suppose it's more like we couldn't."
"What do you mean?" he asked cautiously.
"Sheelos said we have to keep the Renegades a secret," Colette chimed in to answer before Sheelos even got a chance to open her mouth. "It sounded like it could hurt Mizuho's relationship with them."
"Not you as well Sheelos," Lloyd couldn't help but groan. He didn't understand all the apprehension Yuan had been showing for Mithos. "Why don't you trust Mithos? What has he ever done to us?"
"It's not about trusting the kid, my beautiful brunette," Sheelos quickly pointed out to try and settle his frustrations. "It's just as much about protecting him as it is about protecting the people of Mizuho from a political uprising."
"A political uprising?" Lloyd and Colette asked together. Lloyd glanced at her and she gave him a sweet smile. Sheelos hadn't told her as much as he thought she had. He was glad he wasn't the last one getting all the news.
Sheelos nodded. "It's when figureheads of a society compete for the top position of power. It usually involves war and bloodshed. We have to be careful who we involve in anything any of our people do. Mithos is no exception. We have no idea where he stands on political matters."
"He's a half-elf though," Lloyd reasoned, though he wasn't sure why that even mattered.
"That's not enough to assume anything." Sheelos shut him down and looked over past him and Colette to the bridge control room door. "I asked Mithos to set a course for the snow region of Flanoir. Before we can help Gesea, we need to get the rheairds. It'll be a lot faster that way."
"Flanoir?" Lloyd felt the familiar excitement he always felt at the idea of exploring somewhere new bubbling to the surface but just as quickly felt guilty. "Just how much does Mithos know, then?"
"We had to tell him that Gesea was kidnapped," Colette explained, "and that Yuan headed the dragons off on his own rheaird." She looked sad. "I felt bad for lying but Sheelos told me we had to do it."
"Don't worry your pretty little head about it Colette," Sheelos said, standing and stretching before heading to the bridge. "I'm sure it eased a little of Mithos' worries."
When Sheelos disappeared and it was just Lloyd and Colette in the lounge room, Lloyd felt his feelings getting the best of him. He actually wished Colette would leave him alone. Unfortunately for him, she only made herself more comfortable. For her, he did his best to hide his emotions.
Colette leaned closer to him. "I'm so sorry Lloyd."
He wondered whether she'd seen right through him. "What're you apologising for?"
She leaned back and kicked her legs under the stall while holding her hands together. "It's just.. I couldn't do anything to help save Gesea. I couldn't even get close."
Lloyd shook his head. "You dork. You don't need to apologise." He reached for the Noishe figurine he'd made for Gesea and pulled it out. It still wasn't totally complete but it was almost done. "We're going to save her no matter what, I promise. We still have to give her this present!"
Colette smiled and nodded. Now it was his time to see right through her. She was smiling with her mouth, but not her eyes. He recognised that look very well. It was the same face he'd practised so many times in the mirror at home. Since having an outburst at the children in Iselia who hadn't wanted to play with him because he was the Chosen, he'd tried to always put on a happy face whenever anyone spoke about him and his duties as the Chosen.
People in Iselia that didn't understand that a successful regeneration meant his death always talked about how disappointed they were when the Oracle didn't come at the end of the year. He would just smile like Colette was smiling at him right now and agree, then apologise. The people accepted his apology as though it was owed to them. He realised once again that Colette had been through the same thing. She knew what it was like to grow up as the Chosen and be raised by a dwarf.
He realised he'd been staring. Colette tilted her head in question and reached a hand out to his forehead. "Oh! You have a fever. I'll get a cold towel for your head."
On a mission, she stood and excused herself. Lloyd sighed to himself. Colette was just like him in some ways, but in other ways she was totally different. The parts of him that had become less prominent had become a defining part of her personality. He found his eyes closing as he started to wonder how she had been in his body and why they'd spit. He didn't get very far in his thoughts before he succumbed to exhaustion.
Gesea bit her lip and gave Rodyle her most venomous glare. The spiky haired man laughed his signature cackle despite her efforts to intimidate him. He slipped the key crest he'd been holding up to show her back into a pocket in his robe.
"Now then. I think it's about time for a test, little girl!" He covered his mouth when she growled at him. "Oops! I keep forgetting that you're not a little girl!"
That was as much as she was going to take from him. She readied her kendaxe and gripped it tightly with both hands. She'd done this before with her bare hands back at the Triet Renegade base, so she could easily do it again with her weapon. With a yell, she spun her axe around in a circle, the contact with metal sending shivers down the handle of her weapon and into her body. She stopped when she faced Rodyle again.
At first it looked like the bars around her hadn't been affected. She kept eye contact with Rodyle so that she could see his reaction to what she did next as she un-summoned her weapon and gripped the bars. Calling on the strength she'd recovered from falling asleep in the dragons clutches, she lifted the cage up from the point where she'd cut. She threw the cage at him, knocking him backward and toward the edge of the sky platform. The lantern in his hand shattered on the ground. Fire would have been a problem if it weren't for the damp wind that snuffed it out before it got out of hand.
After her small fit of rage at the man responsible for the Angelus Project, she stared. She needed the rune crest back. Pushing him over the edge would not have been a preferable means of getting what she wanted. She could almost hear Kraine scolding her.
Just as she lifted her legs over the jagged edges of the now broken prison, a dull throbbing sensation on her chest startled her. She touched just under the middle of her collarbone where the Angelus Project protruded out of her skin. It felt hot to touch. That didn't seem like a good sign. The throbbing gained rhythm as she freed herself from the cage and re-summoned her kendaxe. As she lifted it, ready for retaliation from Rodyle who was getting up from his spot, the searing heat from the crystal seemed to move up the bones of her collarbone and toward her back. Her vision blurred a little.
"No!" she cried aloud, shaking her head and fighting through the pain. "I wont rest until I've avenged Annalicia!"
Rodyle was away from the edge now, standing still and watching her with a mocking expression on his stupid face. "Well well," he said, sounding amused. "I suppose I should not be surprised that it has grown in strength regardless of that key crest. Still.." He shook his head and tisked. "So much lost potential for growth."
"Be quiet!" Gesea yelled, running at him again and swinging her weapon behind her head to put more weight behind the attack when she reached him and swung. Rodyle was surprisingly fast. Just as she swiped at him, he jumped back just out of her range. He was toying with her. He was enjoying this. He was sick.
"Now now," Rodyle laughed as his aura glowed. He reached a hand out toward her.
Gesea only had a split second to look down at the magic circle forming at her feet before lightning shocks sizzled upward from the ground and danced through her body. Her skin crawling and starting to go numb, she swung her kendaxe around to the ball and cup side and concentrated as she started casting.
"Guardian!" she yelled a few seconds later before the magic at her feet had a chance to deliver its final, more powerful pulse that she could feel building in the air as the circle at her feet shone brighter. The magic from it emerged and bounced around her energy shield.
Rodyle quickly did the same movement with his hand, not yelling the name of the magic like the cheat he was. Fireballs flew at her from above this time. She kept concentrating on her kendama but she knew the protective field wasn't going to last much longer before she had to re-cast. Her weapon was starting to feel a lot heavier with each passing second too, and the throbbing from her un-crested exsphere made it even harder.
The heat that had started in her chest and moved to her back was now slowly creeping around to her front again and down her arms. A white-hot stab of pain jabbed at her wrists unexpectedly and she let out a cry. The forcefield of guardian magic around her disappeared and she dropped to her knees, letting go of her weapon to clutch the source of the problem. She couldn't take it off. She'd turn into a monster just like marble if she did- she was sure of it. At least this way she had a little time.
She waited for some more magic to hit her while she was defenceless. Nothing came though. Instead, she heard the tapping of Rodyle's feet on the ground as he approached. "Get up. Unless you'd like to be eaten, that is."
She managed to tilt her gaze up to him in time to see him put his fingers to his lips and let out a whistle. A few seconds passed until Gesea heard the air-popping sound of flapping wings. This time it was different though. The beating of the wings seemed to repeat much quicker with very little respite in-between. Before she had time to worry at the realisation of what that meant, the slumping sound of something large moving sounded from behind. She rose to her feet, temporarily forgetting about the pain coursing through every ounce of her body. Swallowing in fear, she turned her head back to look behind herself. She was definitely in trouble now. Very big trouble.
"Nice kick," Yuan complemented when he and Kraine had successfully knocked out a Renegade soldier without him seeing them and slipped into the largest room they'd faced so far. "Just watch how much force you use. The Renegades aren't monsters, unlike the Desians. They don't deserve to be killed with blunt force trauma."
Kraine decided to swallow his thick irritation at that and gazed upward to the roof. He could see a high platform that looked to require an escalating device to reach normally. "We need to proceed upward, I take it?" When Yuan nodded, he sighed and unfurled his wings. "It seems that woman is toying with her intruders; building a tall room like this that is extremely time consuming to traverse without the ability to fly." There were all sorts of puzzle devices around, many of which involved the use of the lightning sorcerers ring device and manhandling foam blocks to block laser beams.
Yuan spread his own wings. "If I'm not mistaken, you sound slightly impressed."
"You are mistaken," Kraine answered. "Or have you forgotten that I am your enemy?"
Yuan didn't answer him and took flight toward the back end of the room where the solitary blue-grey platform stood much higher than anything else. Kraine followed, observing the treasure chests sitting in small crevices below them. He wouldn't have been surprised if they let out some kind of toxic gases for their openers.
They tapped down on the platform and Yuan walked up to the small key card device next to an electronic door. He took the cards on the keyring he'd gotten from the undercover Mizuhoan out and swiped a red one first. The device lit up to three different choices of what looked like starts to a sentence. Yuan quickly input "THE LIGHT OF" into it. It beeped and turned off. Not seeming vexed, Yuan swiped a blue key card next. The screen lit up again with three different types of words that seemed to belong to the earlier part of the sentence. He input "MANA IS" this time. It beeped off again. Lastly, he swiped the green card and selected "THE RADIANCE OF LIFE".
A hopeful click sounded from the electronic door in front of them as the device let out several beeps in a row before turning off for the last time. Yuan cocked his head back at Kraine. "Are you ready? She'll be waiting for us in the next room with Botta." He shot him a stern look. "Do not kill either of them. Do we have an understanding?"
"Your need to protect the people who are making your supposed journey more difficult with the Chosen and their companions is perplexing," Kraine stated. Yuan didn't respond, simply waiting for an answer. He gave in and habitually reached for the pommel of his sword. "She was once my friend. Despite our seeming clashing motives currently, I believe she is deserving of a fair trial."
Seeming satisfied, Yuan steeled himself and headed straight through the doors. As expected, the rheairds were in the middle of the hangar that now faced them. He quickly met the green gaze of Martuan and watched her pull a knowing grin at him. On the opposite side of the room stood Botta.
"So you've come," Martuan started, summoning a quarterstaff from the next dimension.
Yuan nodded. "Like moths to a flame, it seems."
For a moment, they seemed to have forgotten they were enemies. Kraine accidentally found himself sharing a glance and a raised eyebrow with Botta. When he realised what he was doing, he cleared his throat. "Stop spouting such nonsense and explain yourself at once, Martuan." He unsheathed his sword and pointed it at her. "Is it true that you are the leader of the Renegades?"
"Come now Kraine," Martuan said, her pitch condescending and irritating. "You know better than to ask a moot question." She nodded to give him an answer though. "Yes. It is true. I have led the Renegades and stopped the world regeneration ritual for many years."
Kraine glared. "Very well then. It seems I have no choice." He charged into the fight and met her, sword for battlestaff.
Yuan looked toward Botta. As expected, he'd jumped away from the battle and started to cast a spell instead. He quickly closed in on him. "Sorry," he muttered, meeting Botta's repaired red sword. Botta's thick black eyebrows furrowed in confusion, making Yuan grin even more as he playfully exchanged blows with him.
"Why are you here?" Martuan asked, ducking under a kick of Kraine's and attempting to trip him up with a swipe of her staff to his shins. Kraine jumped over the assault. "Shouldn't you be protecting the kids and secretly rebelling Yggdrasil somewhere?" she asked.
"Why are you trying to take the Angelus Project?" Kraine interrogated back. "The world is on the cusp of finally being allowed its change." He furiously swiped at her. "Why are you trying so hard to change what we have worked for all these years!? Are you simply being petty?"
"Splitting the souls of people is not the answer!" Martuan hissed as they levelled their weapons again. "Just because Martel might be one of the souls inside me, it doesn't make it right to take the very foundations of life and rip them apart. Mithos' ideals are twisted!"
"Be careful what you say, Martuan," Kraine mumbled, jumping away from her and glaring. Yuan and Botta retreated from their sword fight to observe the situation.
Martuan ignored Kraine's warning. "You only just barely got away with that lie of yours, y'know. Telling Mithos that you didn't know where the Angelus Project ended up." She shook her head at him. "I never knew you had it in you, you sly butterfly."
Kraine remained silent, a calculating look on his face as he waited for her to say her piece. Yuan stood at the ready in case either of them decided to attack while the other was burdened with emotional weakness. Martuan stepped closer to Kraine until she had to look up a little to maintain eye contact. "Nothing will stop Mithos from actioning his plan now he knows he does not even need a vessel. All he needs is the Angelus Project." She looked over at Yuan. "The Cerberus was acting alone, but I believe he was trying to prevent Colette's soul from leaving the exsphere. Colette's condition was your sons only protection from Mithos.. and from me."
Kraine glanced over at Yuan, who looked impressed as he raised his eyebrows at Martuan. "What makes you think that I had anything to do with it?" He blinked. "By the way you said that, it seems Colettte has awoken of her own accord?"
Martuan nodded and Yuan clenched his fists. "Damn."
Martuan turned to Kraine. "People are not meant to live forever. Many were born with two or three souls in them. It is only a matter of time before the age of lifeless beings Mithos wants to create comes into fruition now a means to split souls with minimal sacrifice is possible. Mithos' plans change nothing and only cause more suffering."
"This cycle of forcing people to breed with those they do not love is unnatural as well," Kraine muttered, not agreeing or disagreeing with her and simply adding to the conversation. "Luin is starting to gain ground in followers that abhor the W.S.P. If more people open up their eyes, perhaps it will not be needed some day."
"Some day is not soon enough," Martuan said seriously before actually smiling without malice and letting out a laugh. "You really did change once you got a family, didn't you?" She collapsed her weapon into the next dimension and looked to the entrance door when a beep sounded. The door whooshed opened a second later and a Renegade walked in. He startled back and seemed to very nearly collapse in shock at the full house eyeballing him. Stuttering her name, he handed Martuan a folded piece of paper. She dismissed him with a grateful nod and opened the paper to read it. Her eyes widened slightly as she reached its conclusion.
"What is it, Lady Martuan?" Botta asked, leaving his spot next to Yuan and approaching her.
"I have received some.. interesting.. news, straight from the Chosen of Tethe'alla to Mizuho." Martuan looked up at Kraine. "It seems that while Pronyma did not take the girl, Rodyle saw it fit to continue Gabriel's wishes and has taken her to the Dragons Nest."
Kraine's demeanour changed and everyone saw it before he could hide it.
"Gabriel's wishes?" Yuan asked as he stared. Kraine wondered what had surprised him so much. "That's... that's..." he couldn't seem to get his sentence out.
Martuan made a long face. "It looks like Gabriel wants to continue the experiment on her." She crossed her arms and put a hand to her chin. "I'll tell you what, Kraine. If you can keep that mouth of yours shut, I'll allow you to take a rheaird and go and rescue her." Her head shot over to Yuan. "You will stay here for the time being. There are some things I must talk to you about. Immediately."
"I see," Yuan muttered, amused. "You set a trap for me, knowing I would come. How devious of you."
Martuan shrugged and smiled like she thought she had outdone herself. "Kraine was an extra bonus." She glanced at Kraine. "So do we have a deal? Once you have saved the girl, you will report back to me and we will plan our next move. The rheaird's running on a charge I gave it with my own magic at the moment so it won't go very far, but it should get you there and back."
"I could agree regardless and leave to inform Yggdrasil of your treachery," Kraine stated. "Have you not considered that as an option?"
"Should I have?" she questioned back in usual Martuan fashion.
Kraine rolled his eyes. "You are as bad as Yuan. Or perhaps I should say he is as bad as you." He walked up to the red rheaird in the center of the hangar and slipped onto it. With a dull, hungry rumble, it came to life. Martuan pulled a lever just near the door to the hangar and a hole in the roof above them opened to reveal the starry night sky. Kraine rose up higher on the rheaird and looked back just before he went through the roof. Martuan grinned broadly and waved at him. He sighed deeply and left before she could spout any nonsense of him coming home soon or something.
Martuan turned to Botta, who nodded in understanding of her wishes. "I will make myself scarce Lady Martuan. Just call if you need me." He left through another door in the hangar close to where he'd been standing when Yuan had first entered with Kraine.
"Now then," Martuan said once the door closed and it was only the two of them. She flicked her hair out of her eyes and stalked closer to Yuan. "I think it's time you told me who you really are, Yuan Ka-fai."
Yuan gazed back, not intimidated at all and actually sort of enjoying the scent of flowers she seemed to carry with her. "Why should I waste my time when you appear to already know?"
Martuan abruptly stepped back. "So it really is true. You are the Yuan part of me?"
"In a sense, I suppose," Yuan agreed. "It is a complex story."
Gesea couldn't believe the mess she'd gotten herself into. She didn't understand how she was still even conscious. Every single muscle and cell in her body hurt. "Lightning!" she cried when she managed to roll under a lunging attack from one of the two smaller dragons and point her kendaxe to the sky. The 'baby dragon' shrieked from the shock and slumped to the floor in a heap. She didn't have time to figure out whether it was just stunned or dead though. The other smaller dragon that Rodyle had once again saddled himself to was already coming in for another attack. She heard an angry growl from the 'mother dragon' and quickly turned her attention to it.
Her wings flapped up around behind her as she leaned over the edge of the platform and swiped at her. Gesea jumped out of the way of one swipe but was unlucky enough to get whacked square in the ribs by a quick second swipe. She could feel herself flying through the air, but she couldn't open her eyes.
Her body seared in pain- especially her back. The middle of her spine felt like it wanted to rip itself out of her body. In her delirious state, she actually imagined it happening. It would curl out from her back like a scorpion tail and catch the edge of the platform before she fell to her death. She'd then use it to propel herself back into battle and live to fight another day.
"Is this really the end?" she wondered as wind buffeted straight into her face and immediately chapped her already bleeding lips. She could feel the pressure of gravity pushing her downward and knew she was falling at a high speed. "Rodyle does not want me dead," she tried to remind herself. "That makes no sense." She screamed but found she actually couldn't hear herself aside from a muffled cry over the wind.
"It'll be okay!"
Everything went quiet and for the first time in a while the searing heat in her body seemed to calm. The darkness in her eyelids turned red as she heard a voice. Opening her eyes, she found all she saw was red. She couldn't see the sky or the ground, the platform, dragons, Rodyle or..
A young woman with short pink hair the same shade as her own appeared in front of her and smiled. She stared, recognising her right away despite the fact that she looked older than she remembered. "Annalicia!"
The moment she cried her sisters name and heard her voice, some common sense for reality came back to her. She tapped her head. "I must be hallucinating!"
"Or am I dead?" she wondered quickly after. Despite everything, that actually made the most sense. Annalicia, her beloved sister from her hazy memories, was standing in front of her.
"No," Annalicia corrected, her voice seeped in fondness. "You're not hallucinating, my dear sister."
Gesea didn't understand what that meant.
"I've been watching this whole time," Annalicia pressed on. "I was unable to do anything until now because the rune crest controlled the mana in your body. Let me save you."
"W-wait!" Gesea cried as her sister floated upward and vanished.
The first sensation to come back was the sensation of breathing. She'd missed the smell of the air.
Annalicia squinted for a second before fluttering her eyes open to see the scared face of Kraine. He'd only just been shaking her. He stopped when he realised she'd awoken. The red in his face from shouting Gesea's name quickly vanished. He turned pale and the scared look in his eyes vanished.
"A..A..An.." he stuttered, his eyes showing disbelief and a little bit of shock.
She smiled, glad that he realised. Despite the fact that she was seated bridal style in his quivering arms while the rheaird he sat on slowly floated toward the roaring sea below, and the fact she could hear the sound of the dragons that had wounded Gesea's body getting closer to their small hiding spot directly under the platform, she couldn't help but be happy. She reached her throbbing arm up to Kraine's face and he quickly entwined his fingers with hers.
"Annalicia..." he mouthed softly. "Is this truly happening?"
She couldn't believe how much she'd missed him call her name. Happiness buzzed in her chest and she felt like crying. "Master Bryant... my beloved angel," she whispered up to him, her voice croaky and her throat sore. "Please help me save my sister. This body... is giving up, but there's still time. We need to split Gesea."'
IMPORTANT A/N: Now, I wouldn't normally say things like this, but since I seem to have a trend of losing readers at this point of the story, I would like to say this: The key word from Annalicia in her last sentence is "MY sister," as opposed to "our sister."
Please do keep reading! This and many other important things are explained in the coming chapters!