Disclaimer: I don't own anything!
Author's Note: I was watching Fiddler on the Roof when I got the full inspiration for this. I'd had pieces of it floating around in my head, but now it's all together.
"I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand and the Eskimos had 100 words for snow. I wish I had 1000 words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me when you sleep and there are no words for that."
The first time Richter ever sees anywhere outside of the little half-elf community on the outskirts of Ozette, he is seven years old and they're being forced out. The people of Ozette have always been suspicious of them, but this is the first time that Richter can remember ever seeing something like this.
All of his neighbors are packing their meager belongings and hitching up the few pony carts that they had. He remembers tugging on his mother's skirt. "Where will we go, Mama?" he remembers asking.
His mother had been the most beautiful woman in the world to him. They had the same eyes, green like the color of the leaves that have always been over their heads. His mother had squatted beside him and brushed his bangs away from his face. "I don't know, sweetling. But wherever we'll go, the Goddess will be watching over us. You have to remember that."
He remembers the day that they'd all been prepared to leave. He remembers seeing his friends all standing with their families, all staring out at the rundown shacks of homes that had been theirs for so long.
Where would they go now?
They had traveled for so long, sleeping under the stars and on hard, cold ground. The light out here is so bright that it hurts Richter's eyes. Mama says it's because he's only ever seen the dim light that filtered through the canopy. But one day, some people from the government had come through and asked everyone questions. Richter cannot remember why.
The next thing he remembers is being torn from his mother's arms.
The first time Richter ever sees another town other than Ozette, Sybak seems looming and large and so cold. There are few trees here and people watch him be taken up to a large collection of buildings as though they think little more of him than the dirt on the ground.
The place he's shoved into before the door is slammed closed behind him is dark, blessedly so and it is the first place he's been that doesn't hurt his eyes. Someone kneels beside him and pushes his hair out of his face like Mama used to do. He turns towards them.
He doesn't know this woman, but her pale blue hair is pulled back into a tail and she has eyes that look like pieces of the sky. "Where am I?"
"You're in Sybak." That name means nothing to him. "In the basement of the Research Academy."
"Where's my mom? I wanna see her!"
The woman looks pained. "I'm sorry, but…you'll probably never see her again. We don't leave this basement. Ever."
That's the first time Richter ever knows the feeling of being truly trapped.
They found glasses for him. They're too big and are constantly slipping down his nose, but they tell him that he'll grow into them. They say that his eyes have been damaged from the dim light of Ozette and the transition to the brightness of the outside world. Richter wants to argue that Ozette's light had been perfectly fine before all this.
Richter learns to read here in Sybak (The name still means nothing to him). He finds that whenever he doesn't have to work, he'll take a book, not matter the subject, and he'll curl into a corner with good light and read for hours on end. It lets him forget this small, cramped basement.
The first time Richter sees Aster is also the first time he ever leaves the basement. It's brighter out of the basement, but it isn't the harsh light of the day. He's sent to deliver a message to the Director. He's only told to go up the big staircase in the entrance and go through the door on the far left.
He keeps his eyes glued to the carpet, occasionally glancing up through his bangs and over the top of his glasses. The people here take no notice of him. They bump into him, knock him over sometimes, but Richter keeps a tight hold on the message in his hand.
He climbs the staircase and finds the door that reads DIRECTOR. Tentatively, he knocks. After hearing no reply, he knocks a little louder before poking his head through the door.
The office is as large as the basement, with tomes stacked in bookshelves and on the desk. There is a boy standing before the desk and he looks back at the door opening. The boy can't be much older than himself and he has pale blonde hair and eyes that remind Richter of new plants poking out of the forest soil.
"What is it?" the director snaps.
Richter holds out the message, hand trembling a little. "I-I was asked to-to deliver a message to you, sir."
The director snatches the message from his hand. Richter stays where he is, awkwardly staring at his shoes. "Boy, what are you still doing here? Get back to your work!"
Something in Richter wanted to rebel, wanted to say no. But he only nodded and said, "Y-yes sir."
The door to the basement opens and every half-elf looks up from their work. No one ever opened the door for them.
The person at the door is the pale boy from the Director's office. He's standing a little uncertainly on the threshold before going down the steps. "I'm looking for the boy who delivered a message to the director the other day."
Glances abound through the basement before they rest on Richter. "He's there," someone says.
The boy comes closer to Richter, studying him with intelligent green eyes. "What's your name?" the boy asks.
The boy smiles a little and it seems to light up the basement. "Do I have to say it just like that?"
Something akin to anger uncoils from somewhere inside Richter. "No one ever said you had to like it!"
The boy blinks at him in surprise and Richter feels the same surprise mirrored inside him. He'd never raised his voice like that. The boy's smile grows. "But I do like it. I like it a lot. My name's Aster by the way."
The name, at first, means as much to Richter as Sybak does. It's only later at dinner—which is little more than canned beans and potatoes—that the other half-elves are talking about the boy that one of them mentions the fact that Aster is an elven name. One that meant star.
"W-what do you want?"
Aster tilts his head thoughtfully. "It seems I'll have to make you angry more often if that's the only way that you don't stutter."
"No it's not!"
Aster's smile curls into a smirk. "Then prove it."
Aster proves to be infuriating and kind and intelligent and Richter finds himself looking forward to the days that Aster sneaks down to spend time with him.
Aster makes all the half-elves laugh. He's friendly and likes to ask questions. The questions can range from what they're working on to their home villages. He asks Richter about where he came from one day, sharing a biscuit that he'd stolen from the kitchen.
Richter picks at his half of the biscuit. "…Me and Mama only had one pot and pan. Our broom was falling apart. People would pass through our home and never know they'd been through there. We were always hungry and poor, but it-it was our home. Ours. And they took us from it. But you would know everyone that you met on the street." Richter hesitates before confessing, "Sometimes, I still look for their faces. Even if I know I'll p-probably never see them again."
Aster leaned his head back against the wall. "…My mom and dad sold me."
Richter stares at him. "What?"
"They sold me. We weren't poor, really, but we weren't much better. I'm the youngest in the family. They sold me to the Academy after the word got put out that they were looking for researchers."
"Did they know you were so smart?" It was only recently that Richter had learned that Aster was a genius, even if he doesn't act much like one.
Aster shakes his head and tucks a lock of blonde hair behind his ear. "No. Originally, I was gonna be for the Angelus experiments."
The anger roils and writhes within Richter's stomach. What kind of parents sold their own child? Among half-elves, it doesn't matter how poor you are or how badly you need the money. Family is family. "That's…" Richter can't find words for the anger.
Aster's lips tilt into a faint echo of his usual sweetheart smile. No one has ever been angry for him like this. "…I think I'm okay with what they did."
"How could you be?" Richter is on his feet now and snarling as he paces. He's sputtering now, his anger not allowing the words to come out properly.
"Well…if they hadn't…I wouldn't have met you, would I?"
Richter stops in his tracks and stares down at the blonde. "But you'd still have a family."
Aster's shoulders lift and fall in a shrug. "They weren't much of a family anyway." He still misses his sister, but she'd be better off now.
"Family's still family."
Aster looks around at the basement. The half-elves here, even in the short time he's known them, have become familiar and they're welcoming and teasing and he loves them. "Somehow, I think I like this family better."
Aster is the more physically affectionate of the two. He's constantly touching people, even if it's so simple as a hand on the shoulder as he leans in to see what they were working on. At first, Richter isn't comfortable with it, but he soon gets accustomed to it.
When Richter brings it up one day, Aster says, "I thought half-elves were naturally affectionate."
"Usually, yeah." But that doesn't change the fact that Richter had never really liked touching people.
Aster's lips curve into a smile. "You're a freak."
That word used to be yelled by the people in Ozette at them when they walked the streets. It used to hurt. But when Aster says it, it's with a smile and in that gently teasing way of friends, so Richter finds himself not minding.
The first time Richter really gets to live in the outside world is after Aster convinces the director that he needs an assistant. It's the first step, Aster says, to getting all of the half-elves out of the basement. Richter has never seen any ten year old stand so confidently.
But Richter is his assistant in name only. Technically, Richter is supposed to sleep on the ground, but Aster refuses to let him and Richter refuses to let Aster sleep on the floor. The floor is cold and hard, especially during Sybak's icy winters.
So they share the bed. And Aster doesn't complain about the way Richter hogs the pillows, tangles the covers, sprawls over his share of the bed and growls at everything and everyone until he has his first cup of coffee.
And Richter doesn't complain about the way Aster hogs the blankets, sometimes cuddles too close, makes funny noises in his sleep that isn't quite snoring that wakes him up and stops the instant Richter is awake and the way he tends to be overly cheerful in the morning.
Aster is a dreamer. Sometimes he'll shake Richter awake and start on a long rant that it takes Richter a few minutes to wake up enough to understand properly. And sometimes, Richter doesn't understand it all, but he stays awake and listens, even as Aster pushes a mug of coffee in his hands.
They stay up until all hours of the night researching on every topic under the sun. And they find just as many topics to argue about. But it's the good kind of arguing. The intellectual, friendly kind that, at some point, will have one of them working to hold in chuckles and then someone will say that one thing that makes the laughter explode out of them.
It's a good life, out here, even if it is a little too bright sometimes.
The first time Richter travels outside of Sybak, he's been fourteen for three weeks and he's being shoved awake again. Richter rolls away as much as he can from Aster, even if it presses him almost entirely up against the wall. "Go 'way." Richter mutters sleepily.
Richter is rolled away from the wall and promptly sat upon. His eyes snap open to Aster's smiling face. "Up, sleepyhead. Come on, or we'll miss the caravan."
"Caravan?" Richter asks, voice and mind muddled from sleep. "Where we goin'?"
"You'll see. Now come on. Grab your bag."
"I didn't pack," he says, searching for his glasses on the bedside table as he swings his legs out of the bed.
"I know. I packed two bags. It isn't like we don't share clothes half the time anyway."
Richter yawns as he pulls on clean pants. "What about coffee?"
"We'll get it on the way. But if we're late, we won't have a chance. Will you speed up for coffee?"
They're stuffing their feet in their shoes and sprinting down the stairs, taking them two at a time with their packs bumping their backs with every step. They slip into the kitchen, where Aster had long ago charmed the ladies into giving them some free coffee before they're out the back door and running across the square to get to the outskirts of the city.
There is indeed a caravan there. A few covered wagons with warriors sitting astride proud horses and watching the area warily. A woman sees them and smiles. "You two coming with us?"
"As far as Ozette, yes."
Richter stares at Aster. Ozette? That's where they were going? "I never said I wanted to go," Richter says quietly enough so that only Aster can hear him.
"You didn't have to."
Ozette is both different and exactly the same. It's been so long since Richter's smelled its air, the one that smelled of damp soil and tree bark. Everything is as dim here as he remembers, but he stumbles on the inclines.
Once he and Aster at the top of one of the small hills, he looks back down at the bottom. "This hill used to be bigger."
"Your legs used to be shorter," Aster reminds him.
"That explains a lot." This isn't even a hill really. Just a small rise where the land came to meet the nearby mountain range. It's still in Ozette's boundaries and you can see the entire village from here, including the half-elven community that is on the outskirts.
"This place is beautiful," Aster says. "It's a shame about the people."
That's something else that hasn't changed. The people still don't trust half-elves. But the community where Richter had grown up has a few more people living there again. But there are none of the people he used to know. He is a stranger in his own home village.
"Hey, I came from here!"
Aster laughs, his eyes sparkling brightly in his sweetheart face. "I know."
Richter wrestles him to the ground and it's playful and they both yelp when they roll down and are caught by a rather unyielding tree whose roots are digging into their sides. Aster's elbow is digging into his side and Richter's bony knee is lodged in the hollow of Aster's hip, but they're laughing breathlessly and Richter can feel Aster's breaths on his collarbone. When Aster levers himself up on his elbows, smile still on his lips even as he opened his mouth to say something, it's entirely natural to just lean up and kiss him.
Richter pulls away the next instant, already fearing that he had just broken what they had. But Aster only tilts his head in that thoughtful way of his. "What was that?"
"Aren't you supposed to be a genius?" The teasing comes naturally to Richter and he isn't sure when he stopped stuttering in his friend's presence. But that doesn't change the nervous hand clamped around his heart. "It was a kiss."
"I know that. Why'd you do it?"
Richter listens for any anger or disgust in Aster's face and voice, but there isn't any. Richter is beginning to think that those emotions don't exist in Aster's emotional palette. "I don't know," he replies honestly.
A smile tilts Aster's lips. "Spontaneity, from you? The world must be ending." Aster leans close and says, "But I'm okay with that." Before he kisses him.
The first time Richter kisses someone, it's his best friend and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Aster nearly falls out of bed in his haste to find out what all the roaring outside their room is this early in the morning. Richter is sitting up, looking around blearily, squinting without his glasses. "What in Martel's name…?"
A part of Aster's mind insists that he can't go charging out of the room wearing nothing but his skin, so he grabs a pair of pants hanging over the back of the desk chair and tugs them on as Richter gropes for his glasses and pants.
By the time Richter and Aster get outside, the hallway is packed with bodies in various stages of dress. There's some snickering and Aster tries to push past a few people and gets a sharp elbow in the stomach in retaliation.
"What's going on?" he asks, standing on his toes to try and see over the crowd. He is still just a little too short and it annoys him, but it doesn't look like Richter's having much luck finding out what's happening either.
Rilena ducks under a few people's arms and is sent nearly barreling into Aster. "What's going on?" Aster repeats, catching her.
"There are people here who say they're from Sylvarant."
"What? Sylvarant?" The words are repeated all through the crowd. They'd all heard the rumors of course, from Kate and from their friends in the Meltokio branch of the Research Academy, but no one had really believed that there was another world.
"Yeah, and they've got Raine Sage and Regal Bryant vouching for them!"
Everyone in Tethe'alla it seemed had heard of those two. But Aster and Richter had never actually seen them so they are once again on their toes, trying to see. There's a shift in the crowd and they're pushed forward, the banister digging into their bellies. But they can see.
Raine Sage is beautiful, but in the way of splintered ice and hailstones. It is a cold beauty. Her silver hair is cut short in the practical fashion that so many female researchers favor and she has piercing blue eyes that show that she won't be treated as lesser by anyone. When she turns to speak to the Director, also in pajamas—which is what the snickering had been about—her hair shifts and the tips of triangular ears poke out. A half-elf. A half-elf is standing up to the Director of Sybak's Research Academy.
The man beside her is tall and muscular, but the way he carries himself is a little strange. His shoulders are back and spine straight like a noble, but his stance is that of a martial artist. His blue hair is combed back into a ponytail and his voice, what little they can hear of it, is deep and calming. Regal Bryant, head of the Lezareno Company in Altamira.
The people that are with them look world-weary and are carrying travel packs. They look like simple farmers.
Raine's eyes swept over the crowd. "Listen! The things you have been told until now about the Church of Martel are almost all entirely lies."
There are murmurs of outrage and curiosity.
Raine goes on to explain about how the world, originally one, had been split into two by a man named Mithos Yggdrasill who was the Hero from the legends and who was also the leader of an organization called Cruxis who had been manipulating both worlds from behind the scenes. He had used the Eternal Sword, which had been made special for him by Origin. They had brought down Cruxis and the worlds had been reunited. There is a new Great Tree in the place where the Tower of Salvation had once stood and it had a guardian. They had to care for this new world and were trying to create peace between the races and the places that had been separate for so long.
After her story, more murmurs break out, theories and stories already forming, but the Director raises his voice. "Back to your rooms, the lot of you! There's work to be done in a few hours and I won't excuse you for falling asleep at your desks!"
There's grumbling, but everyone shuffles back into their rooms. Aster is sure that no one will be going back to sleep.
"It sounds a little crazy, doesn't it?" Aster says, his mind now too awake to be lured by sleep.
"Everything 's been sounding crazy these days," Richter says, throwing himself back on the bed. "Doesn't change much."
"I've always thought you were crazy, but this has to be sheer proof!" Aster sits cross-legged beside him on the bed. "The worlds have been reunited! And apparently, what we know of the Goddess Martel is all a lie! But if that's the case, then what really did happen and what did we do before this Mithos took over and-"
Richter's lips brush over his for a moment before he pulls back. "You were rambling," Richter tells him.
"So you're telling me that had nothing whatsoever due to your attraction to me and everything to do with shutting me up?"
Richter laughs. "It worked, didn't it? And I heard no objections."
"Well of course not," Aster says, stretching out beside him.
They're both quiet for long beats and Richter is very nearly asleep again when Aster says, "But if Cruxis was guiding the world, why didn't anyone know about if before and-"
"Aster, for the love of all things holy, go to sleep."
When Richter wakes, he's surprised to find his arms empty and Aster's half of the small bed cold. Richter shivers a little, wondering whether the pathetic machine that the Academy called a heater is out before he sees that the window is open. Richter stuffs his feet into some socks and pulls on a jacket, making sure to grab one for Aster who, being the idiot he is, had probably gone outside without one.
Richter had been right. Aster is sitting on the roof of the Research Academy, an electric lantern right beside him as he sketches and studies.
"What the hell are you doing out here?" Richter asks, throwing the jacket at Aster's head. "You'll freeze."
Indeed, Aster already looks half-frozen. His skin is paler than ever and he's shivering a little as he pulls on the jacket. "I thought of something and didn't want to wake you. You haven't been getting much sleep lately."
Neither of them had, but Richter's not about to argue that point. "There is such a thing as a desk inside, you know."
"I needed to see the sky."
Aster tugs him down to sit with him and points to his sketches, many of which are constellations. "The constellations are just to verify some theories, but you know the legends of a twelfth Summon Spirit?"
"There isn't one. Everyone knows that. There's nine Summon Spirits, one for each element, along with Origin who's the King and Maxwell, who's more rumor than anything else. I may not have been to a Temple in a long time, but I remember the stories."
Aster looks at him. "Did you really used to go to Temple every week to worship the Summon Spirits?"
"Not to worship them. It was to learn. Kind of like school. We believe in the Goddess Martel, same as everyone else. And it wasn't even a Summon Spirit's Temple, like the rumor was that it used to be like. We just went to the wiseman's house and learned."
"Huh. That's fascinating."
Richter shrugs. "If you think so."
"I do think so." Aster has always been fascinated with half-elven culture. "But the elves have recordings of a twelfth Summon Spirit. One who was the Summon Spirits of the Great Kharlan Tree."
"The Great Kharlan Tree withered and died because of the Kharlan War." Richter reminds him. "That's basic knowledge. A hero's life was sacrificed in order to take its place. The Goddess was so grieved with the loss, that she disappeared unto the heavens and left the angels with the edict that they should wake, because if they didn't, the world would be destroyed. And it was the angels who bore the Chosen One, who is to climb the Tower of Salvation that goes up to heavens and that marks the regeneration of the world. Or, so they told us before people discovered that it was apparently all a lie."
"And that's true, but the Giant Kharlan Tree had a Spirit! I came upon it during some reading for Rilena's research of the Earth Temple. Listen to this, it's a journal entry. 'In my travels, I came upon the Great Tree, for it is here that I have pilgrimaged to. There is a creature here, one who is dark, but not evil. Its visage is forever shifting, as though my mind could not hold onto its image. The way it moves, the way its red eyes look at you, the way it mocks and knows, all are impossible to describe. A monster came past me, a hulking beast that nearly made my heart explode from the fear, but it came to this creature, who caressed its muzzle and spoke to it.
"'I asked if this creature had a name and the creature laughed. I do, he replied. I am Ratatosk, Lord of Monsters and the Summon Spirit of the Great Kharlan Tree. But who are you to ask this of me?
"'I told him, for the creature's voice is most certainly male, my name and he asked me why I had come here. I told him I was on a pilgrimage. What for, he asked. I told him for knowledge and for peace. For some reason, my answer made him laugh. You believe that simply by traveling and learning that there will be peace, he asked me. I told him yes and he—' It becomes illegible after that. It's several centuries old, at least."
Richter takes the papers carefully, reading through it again. "But how has no one heard of this? A twelfth Summon Spirit?"
"I don't know. But if he is the Spirit of the Great Kharlan Tree, then he would control the flow of the world's mana, wouldn't he?"
"I'm sensing one problem in your theory, Aster."
"And what's that?"
"The Great Kharlan Tree has been dead for centuries. No one alive has ever seen it. And if it's dead, it's likely that this Ratatosk is dead too."
"Can a Summon Spirit die?"
"There's never been any record of that."
"Then maybe he's still alive."
"How can a Summon Spirit be alive if what they protect is gone?"
"I've no idea." Aster was silent for a minute, green eyes scanning the rooftops and skies as if they would give him the answer. "Raine Sage said that there was a new Tree. Perhaps Ratatosk got revived with it. But think about it, Richter. We could make the world healthy again."
"You have a hero complex, you know that?"
"But we could! With enough research, we could find where Ratatosk's…Temple or wherever he lives is. He could help bring back the mana that the new Tree can't produce yet because it's so young."
"…We could," Richter admits slowly. "But the part I don't understand is why you had this sudden epiphany in the middle of the night."
"That's what makes it an epiphany, Richter," Aster says, amused. "It's out of the blue."
"And they come in your dreams?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"You're insane. Certifiably so. And it probably hasn't gotten any better thanks to this damned cold. It probably froze your brain cells."
Aster chuckles and gathers all of his papers before making to stand. "Come on then. Let's get inside."
"'S still cold inside," Richter mutters. "I swear, the heater's broken."
"Relax," Aster says, dropping down onto their windowsill. "I'll keep you warm."
Richter snorts as he mimics him. "Who needs a heater?"
"My thoughts exactly."
"This is good news."
"What is?" Richter looks up from his own piece of their small fortress of books in the library. He can barely see the top of Aster's head, the piles are getting so tall.
"From what I can tell, Ratatosk had eight servants, each resonating with an element. Ratatosk may be Lord of Monsters, but he gave each of these servants a portion of his power and they control the monsters of their elements. They're known as Centurions."
"Centurions?" Richter repeats and he marks his place in his book before carefully toeing his way around the piles to find the blonde. "Where are you getting this from?"
"It's an old elven text."
"Just be grateful we didn't have to go all the way to Meltokio to get a pass from the King to see these." Since Heimdall was destroyed, the elves needed a place to put whatever they salvaged. They'd asked the Research Academies to hold their books and scrolls while their village was rebuilt.
"Since they work together with the Summon Spirits, it's likely that they can be found in their respective Temples."
"The Temples have been getting researched extensively since the world was reunited. Someone would have found something."
"Not if they don't know what they're looking for," Aster points out.
"So what's your plan?"
"I already told Rilena to be on the lookout for anything strange in the Earth Temple. The other nearest Temple is Volt's which Mizuho has some kind of monopoly on."
"Volt did kill a third of their population." Richter reminds him."And don't even suggest Celsius. It's freezing in Flanoir."
"There's Shadow, but no one knows how to get up there."
Richter had seen a few diagrams of Shadow's Temple. "On the outskirts of the Fooji Mountain Range, isn't it? I heard you have to be able to fly to get there."
"So that's out. We need one that's easily accessible."
"Undine. There are boats out to Thoda Island, I hear."
"Really? Because I heard that they weren't boats so much as washtubs."
Richter blinks at Aster. "Washtubs? Seriously?"
"They've been under Desian rule for centuries. I don't think they had the money for real boats." Aster, as a Tethe'allan, doesn't quite understand the Desians, has never been under their rule and still isn't sure what their purpose had been. But he knows that they played a contributing factor in their economic status. "But they might now and either way, it's accessible."
"Why not the Sylph or Luna and Aska?"
"The Tower of Mana was destroyed. We'll have no luck there. As for the Sylph, that's on the other side of the country. We should try Undine first."
Aster arches an eyebrow at the redhead. "Don't tell me you're afraid of water, Richter."
"I'm not! I just don't relish the idea of crossing the ocean in a washtub."
"If you say so."
The first town Richter ever sees of what was once the world of Sylvarant is Luin. The town, he's told, has been newly rebuilt after an attack from the Desians. Their air here smells fresh and reminds him a little of Ozette, but there are no great trees to grant the town shelter here. Only a large lake that shimmers in the sun.
Of course, the only reason they're there is because there have been no maps made of the newly reunited world yet, so they need to ask for directions. Naturally, most people don't know where they're going these days either, but they manage to get a good general direction and start walking.
"So you're a Centurion."
Aster and Richter aren't sure what they had been expecting, but a streamlined, slender woman with blue hair that morphed into a dolphin tail isn't it. The woman puts her hands on her hips. "Were you expecting something else?"
"No, not at all." Aster says, smiling as charmingly as he can. "It's just that…we've never seen such beauty before, so we thought you were an angel."
Richter resists the strong urge to roll his eyes. Aster is really laying it on thick. And apparently, the Centurion sees that because her lips curve in amusement. "Oh really?" she says dryly.
"We need your help," Richter says. If they keep beating around the bush like this, they'd never get what they wanted.
Her pale blue eyes look him over. "And what could you need my help for? Doesn't your world already have the Summon Spirits looking after you?"
"We don't need you to look after us. We need your help to find Ratatosk."
Her eyes widen before narrowing in suspicion. "Master Ratatosk? What could you want with him?"
"We want to restore the mana of the world. It's still unbalanced after all that Mithos Yggdrasill did to it."
The Centurion hisses and her body tenses with anger. "He betrayed us. He made us believe that he would use our powers to bring peace to the world, when all he did was abuse it in trying to save his sister."
Aster feels a pang somewhere in his heart. Mithos had lost his sister? That had been why he'd been so determined to change the world like this, because he wanted her back? As terrible as his actions were, Aster thinks that he can understand. After all, he knows what love is too, even if it's a different kind.
The men glance at each other. "We won't," Richter promises. "We won't abuse your power."
The Centurion floats closer. "Is that so? And what makes you think I'll believe that?"
"You have my word."
She snorts. "The word of mortals doesn't mean anything. You break promises to each other all the time. That was how the Kharlan War got started after all. And another War will break out. Maybe not in ten years, maybe not in a hundred, but it will."
"People are starving! They're being forced to leave their homes and are ostracized and nothing can change unless we have more to work with and that means mana."
"Humans don't need mana. The last time they had access to it, they created enough magitechnology to drain the Great Kharlan Tree."
"No, but the rest of the world does. Everything from the worms to the elves, even the Summon Spirits need it too." Richter eyes her. "And I'll bet Centurions need mana as well."
"You make a good argument."
"It can get infuriating when you want him to agree with you." Aster pipes up. He glances at Richter, who is half-glaring at him. "What, it is. You're stubborn as a mule."
"But luckily, he's more handsome than one." The Centurion drifts closer, studying Richter's face.
From the corner of his eye, Richter can see Aster's expression is somewhere between shocked and laughing fit to burst. The result is his lips pressed tightly together and his fists clenched in an effort not to laugh.
Finally, he manages to get a straight face, although his eyes look entirely too shiny. "So you'll help us? I mean, when is another handsome man going to make it all the way here to humbly ask you for your assistance? It's a once in a—well, not lifetime, but in a few hundred years at least—opportunity."
"Do I at least get the names of the aforementioned handsome men?"
"I'm Aster and this…this is Richter. Richter Abend."
"Richter." The Centurion rolls his name around in her mouth. "That's a good solid name. I am Aqua, Centurion of Water and I would be honored to be in a pact with you."
Richter feels Aster shaking. "What?" he asks, bewildered. He is sitting up against the headboard, Aster mimicking right beside him, each with their own research in hand.
Aster bursts out laughing, something Richter is sure he's been holding in since they'd left Undine's Temple. Richter waits until the laughter has died down to the point where Aster is having a little trouble breathing to repeat his question.
Aster tilts his head to look at his friend, a wide grin still on his face. "A Centurion has a crush on you…ah, it's priceless."
Richter is tempted to shove Aster off the bed. "Aren't you supposed to be getting jealous or something?"
Aster snorts. "If I was going to get jealous and you were going to bask in her attentions or whatever, I don't really think I'd stand much of a chance. She's about the closest thing the world has to a goddess these days." His lips twitch. "And really, who could resist such a wonderful catch?"
"You were waiting to use that one, weren't you?"
"I couldn't resist." Aster shifts so he's half-sitting against Richter, who automatically lifts his arm to put it around Aster's shoulders. "You should've seen your face though."
"It's both a gift and a curse, this face of mine."
Aster looks back at him. "I dunno…I'd call it more of a gift."
"Well, you're slightly biased, aren't you?"
"Just a tad."
The morning before they set out to go find Ratatosk is one like any other. They're half-tangled with each other, Aster's hair tickling Richter's nose and Richter's arms around him. The sun is slanting through the window—they're too lazy to put up curtains—and Richter groans and buries his face in Aster's hair.
"Turn it off," he grumbles
"It's the sun. I can't turn it off." Aster shifts in his arms, yawning. He is usually the more awake of the two in the morning. "What timzit?"
Richter squints at the clock on their bedside table. "No idea. My guess is it's too damn early."
Aster rolls over. "…It's almost nine."
"In the morning?"
"It's still too early." It takes another moment for the words to really sink in. "We're late!"
"For a very important date." Aster is scrambling out of the bed and they're searching for any clean clothes. Aster ends up in one of Richter's shirts, which are far too long because the redhead had gotten absurdly tall over the years and they're both grabbing their traveling packs and barreling down the stairs, past other researchers, for the door. They can't even slip into the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
The Lezareno Company had been working on installing trains to connect the different parts of the new world. So far, there are very few of them and they only go through the busiest cities. Meltokio had one that ran from there to Iselia, to Sybak and to Altamira. There was one that ran from Iselia to Asgard past Luin all the way to Hima, but so far, that's it. If you want to get anywhere else, you're on your own.
The whistle is blowing and the train already pulling away from the station when they get there and they sprint to try and keep up before making an enormous leap of faith to grab for the banister outside the last car.
It takes them a few minutes to realize that they're safely on the train and not splattered somewhere on the tracks. Aster and Richter look at each other and laugh that nervous laugh that said they'd gotten a little too close to death.
They'd never been on a train, the only one being in Altamira to get to the amusement park and to the main Lezareno building. The train creaks a little and sways strangely sometimes, but it wasn't enough to really be disturbing.
Aster looks around at their compartment. "I think I like trains."
"They give me a chance to catch up on my sleep at least." Richter says, stretching his lanky frame out on the seats.
"You sleep too much," Aster tells him. "And how could you sleep with this incredible view?"
"Who is it that keeps me awake at night?" Richter reminds him. "And simple. I'll see it on the way back."
He never does and his first time riding on a train is also his last.
"You're Ratatosk, Summon Spirit of the Giant Kharlan Tree, correct?"
Richter wonders where Aster had gotten that steel in his backbone. Anyone else would have been terrified, especially in a place like this, but Aster is still standing strong.
"Ratatosk, the current balance of mana in the natural world is in a state of chaos," Richter says. "We believe your power is necessary to restore the correct balance."
The man who had written that journal entry had been frighteningly accurate in his description. Ratatosk shifts and morphs, never staying in one state for long. The only thing that stays the same was his eyes, red as the surrounding area. His voice echoes, but Richter isn't entirely sure that it's because of the architecture of this place that Aqua had helped them find. Ratatosk's voice simply has a strange cadence, as though many voices are trying to speak at once.
"Even if I adjust the mana, the world will die without a tree to sustain it."
Richter can already hear the questions churning away in Aster's mind. Why a tree? Why had Ratatosk stayed hidden for so long?
"We have heard that a new tree has been born," Aster tells Ratatosk. "But, as far as we can tell, the Summon Spirit of the new tree doesn't possess your power to control the flow of mana."
Ratatosk chuckles, and it is a dark sound that shivers down their spines. "So?"
But Aster has never been one to back down from anything. "So please use your Centurions to restore the balance of mana! If you do that, then the world will be saved!"
Ratatosk studies Aster for a moment before his voice thunders with a command. "Awaken, Centurions! Restore your bond with your monsters and repair the mana of the world! And then, go and eradicate mankind who destroyed my tree!"
Their hearts are suddenly dropping. "What are you doing?" Aster cries.
"You wanted to save the world, right?"
"Yes, but you don't have to kill everyone to do that!"
Ratatosk comes a little closer, the vibrating energy that he gives off suddenly powerful and electric. "Who destroyed the Giant Kharlan Tree, hm? It was the humans and the half-elves!" (They betrayed us! Abused our powers…) "That's why they deserve the same treatment themselves!"
"But a new World Tree has been born!"
"And it's just a matter of time before you humans and half-elves destroy that one as well." This boy, this Aster…he reminds Ratatosk of Mithos. They both had that same idealist look, that same determination. They even look something alike. "Don't you understand? You 'people' are nothing more than parasites on this world."
"No! That's not true!" Aster protests and Richter wants to tell him to give it up, so they can just get on the train to go back home. But his tongue isn't working, try as he might. "Humans and half-elves are-are a very important part of this—"
"Silence!" The room glows brilliantly white tinged with purple and the next thing Richter knows, Aster is rolling away from him and is crumpled on the ground that looks almost like glass and he looks terrifyingly fragile for the first time.
"Aster!" As much as Richter shakes and searches for a pulse, there isn't one and the light's already gone from those lovely green eyes of his and dammit, won't Aster just sit up and complain about how he was getting too old for this?
Ratatosk's voice makes Richter tense. "And there you have it. See? The world is no worse off without that parasite."
The next thing he knows, he's rushing at this, this not-being, this thing that can't keep a steady form and everything is a red red haze after that.
He remembers things in flashes. He remembers having to go to the director and tell him the news. It seemed as though the entire Academy had gone silent when he spoke those words. (Aster…is dead.) He doesn't tell them the complete truth. He doesn't tell them that Aster was murdered defending everyone.
He can still see Aster's body, sweetheart face so still and so unsmiling in death, his eyes void of light. The rage is still there. The rage at what had been done to him, at his helplessness of the situation, at his mind for bringing the memories every night.
He leaves the Academy, unable to stand being there anymore because he sees ghosts of what used to be there, can sometimes hear Aster's laughter echoing through the halls or his words by his ear. Right now, no one sees him. Then again, no one had really seen him before, and even after, Aster. No faces register in his mind. He is without censure, beyond judgment. There is no law, no right or wrong because if there was, Aster wouldn't be dead.
He is Vengeance and he stops counting firsts.
"And thus you forget the past, the countless lives that were lost and the pain of those that suffered. Crimes must be met with punishment."
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