Okay, after much trial, error, and begging, it's finally here. The trial and error was with the fight scene. The begging was when I was getting the file back from my sister.
ANYWAY. Enjoy. I don't know about editing. It's, like, eleven o'clock here and I have work tomorrow morning. This was a stupid idea. Stupid brain. Smartmaking should be done at better hours...!
Edit: I added 'elf' somewhere further down, and also this is the ideal moment to say that I have a map uploaded. If you go to my profile, you can find a link to it there. Happy trails!
Chapter 17: Snap Your Fingers
Standing at the end of the walkway was a figure in a pale blue battle shirt lined with gold. Hanging low off his shoulders was a similarly styled cloak in green, fastened beneath his collarbone on both sides by two simple golden broaches, and falling in a wide two point style to behind his knees. Separate from the cloak but attached by the same two broaches was a long, pointed hood, and from underneath fell locks of molten silver. His boots were over the knee and fastened by buckles around his mid- to lower-thigh, made from brown leather and reinforced with an additional layer down the front. Strapped to his lower legs was a pair of strange shin guards, made of a variety of materials and sporting a scaly brown fin on each outer side.
Bright blue eyes stared them down, an amused smirk alight on his pale features as he looked from one to another. Stepping before Sam, Claudia reached for her sword. When her hand met thin air she blanched, realising she'd left it down below where the serpent had pulled it from her grasp earlier. Well, hopefully he wasn't looking for a fight.
"Anything we can do for you?" Valanoir stepped up instead to fill the pressing silence, smiling politely in greeting, but his grin turned devious. Not a word passed his lips, and Valanoir exchanged a wary glance with Claudia, who shrugged with a bemused hum.
"Uh... hello?" A little more sarcastic than originally intended, the eldest of the three waved a flimsy hand, before looking at her companions again. "I don't think we'll get a reply-"
"Claudia!" Valanoir slapped her arm and pointed to the nameless figure in distress, and when Claudia looked back she realised he'd raised his arms into a fighting stance, with one foot forward.
"W-what? What are you doing?" exclaimed Claudia, feeling bare without her weapon at hand.
He leapt forward with lightning speed. A kick had been aimed for Claudia's head, which she only thought of defending against when someone else already had. Valanoir had jumped in front of her and stopped the hit with her arm. It was still barely inches from making contact, and the half demon was having difficulty keeping it back any further. She pushed him back and tried a few strikes of her own: two punches to his chest and a roundhouse kick to the arm similar to the one he'd just attempted. But each one was blocked, brushed aside like they were nothing. A frustrated growl made its way from her throat as she bared her little fangs. She tried another three punches with little success, before her arm was caught in a vice-like grip. Yanked off balance she was hit hard in the gut, and hoisted like a sack of rocks over his shoulder.
The only warning he had for another attack from behind was an angry yell. He swept Claudia's fist away as easily as a drunken flail, catching her arm and twisting it up her back. Forcing her to her knees he aimed to knock her out, but the third member of the small group had leapt to his feet and was charging uneasily across the walkway. Claudia fell to the ground when she was released and Sam barrelled by, but instead of being caught like his companions the nameless opponent stepped out of the way. Sam fell past with a helpless grunt. The man seemed a little dumbfounded, but not distracted enough to be caught off guard by Valanoir. Vaulting over her fallen friend she aimed a kick at the man's chest.
Claudia was shoved against the wooden planks as the stranger's hands were slammed into her back. Above her, Valanoir was caught by a foot against her sternum and thrown over them both. Their nameless attacker landed perfectly after a quick back flip as she was thrown against the trunk of a tree at the end of the walkway. The resulting collision was enough to shake a few leaves loose, and left her falling to the floor with a groan.
The cloaked man was facing Sam and Claudia again, the latter of which was helping her friend off the floor, keeping a harsh glare on their attacker. He was still smirking.
"...Damn it all!" She tried another punch, springing to her feet with an angry yell as she aimed for his face a second time. Caught just as easily as before she had no chance to use the other fist: thrusting his open palm against her stomach a surge of green sparks escaped from the point of contact between his fingers. In a heartbeat a cutting wind threw her back against Sam in a fierce funnel of energy. The twisting gale carried them in a horizontal spiral of air all the way to the other side of the walkway, where another tree stopped them from going any further. Bark flew in all directions upon collision, and with a pained moan Claudia lifted herself up and rubbed her aching back. With a gasp she quickly grabbed Sam by the arm and hoisted him out of the way.
Ducking behind the trunk they cowered as a jet of water peeled away another layer of the tree without mercy.
"What's this guy's problem?" seethed Claudia, not daring to peek from the safety of their hiding place.
"How's he using magic like that?" Sam gasped in a small voice, clinging helplessly to his friend's arm as she stared back dumbly.
"What... w-what do you mean?"
"You need to concentrate... focus mana, to use spells and actually make something from it. But he's not even bringing up a circle...!"
"Oi!" There was a yell from down below. Poking their heads around the trunk they found Valanoir down on the half crumbled island again, the abandoned whip blade in hand as she stared down the hooded assailant with hellish determination. She pointed to the ground with authority, flicking the whip back into a single blade.
"Fight someone with challenge, yeah?"
"She can't fight with that!" hissed Claudia, before looking at Sam with a frown. "... Can she?"
Regardless, their attacker jumped down from the walkway and landed opposite Valanoir, feather light on his feet and in his starting stance again. They stared each other down...
... And the cloaked man moved first. With an incredible burst of speed he unleashed a flurry of kicks, armoured shin guards clanging harshly against the sword. Three spins followed by an upward crescent kick he landed a few yards back. Valanoir finally took a chance and struck back. With elegant steps she led with a swipe of the sword and followed fluidly with a sweeping roundhouse to his ankles, which he hopped back to avoid as easily as the rest. But as she rose Valanoir swung the sword again- not at him, but over his head. It flew through the air and landed with a clatter on the wooden walkway, skidding across the planks and almost dropping off the other side when Claudia grabbed it by the handle. Jumping down from the walkway she landed crouched before the unnamed man, and stood up with her sword raised.
"Why are you attacking us?" He looked from one to another: despite being surrounded he looked no worse for wear - the smirk gone from his face made him look a little bored. But still he didn't reply.
With an upward kick he had Valanoir in the air, and after three fierce hits he sent her crashing to the ground again. Claudia aimed to slice his head, but he quickly stopped it with his foot and set her flying back with another Air Blade attack. On her feet again Valanoir tried to rush him as his back was turned, but with a wide sweep of his arm a spout of water threw her into the branches above. When Claudia regained her footing she approached him again, using her whip to try and strike him as she kept her distance.
It didn't work as well as she'd hoped: lifting his hand in a sharp upward motion a spire of dark stone shot up in front of him, and the whip scratched pathetically against it before another four surrounded Claudia. Trapped, she waited helplessly for whatever spell he had next, but the hooded man was thankfully distracted when Valanoir bombed him from above. The rocks vanished back into the earth as he defended himself, but with the advantage of height Valanoir managed two solid hits to his chest. Landing back on the ground she struck him hard enough beneath his chin to launch him. He was thrown towards the water. Both girls stood side by side on the shore, ready to continue if he managed to crawl back out.
But their victory was short lived. The still waters churned and rose up in a wave, and instantly froze in an enormous curve. A simple flip and he'd righted himself, landing on the ice and sliding across as naturally as if he'd been walking, heading for the upper walkway in an elegant glide. The wave melted as he leapt onto the path, where Sam had been watching as he knelt near the edge. Backing away as best he could he stared fearfully up into cerulean blue eyes, his friends' desperate yells lost in the background as the assailant loomed.
The man suddenly looked up and jumped out of the way as a white and blue broadsword cut through the leaves, wielded by none other than Kratos. Landing before Sam he drove the cloaked man back: his strikes were quick, merciless. In no time at all he had the attacker pinned against the trunk of one of the trees.
"Where the hell did you come from?" yelled Claudia, but Kratos was more interested in the hooded man, looking closely at his face. If he weren't so young, he could've easily been-
Another spout of water struck Kratos from the side and knocked him off the path, distracting everyone as the cloaked man leapt up and vanished between the branches.
"Kratos!" Valanoir and Claudia were either side of him in seconds, and he wiped wet hair from his face as he sat up. "You alright?" the younger of the two asked, voice full of concern, and he nodded as he stood up.
"It took me by surprise more than anything..." he mumbled in reply, his gaze drawn up into the branches. Sam was staring vacantly through the leaves as well, looking confused more than anything, before sighing in fatigue.
"I think he's gone..."
"Geez, what was his problem? He came out of nowhere...!" Claudia grumbled begrudgingly, sliding her sword back into its scabbard with a shaking hand before bringing it gingerly to her shoulder. "And he was relentless...! Was he trying to kill us?"
"Seems like it..." mumbled Valanoir, arms around her middle as she winced. "Hurtin' bad now..."
"Same here. It's getting really late, too." Claudia looked to Kratos instead, who was still watching the canopy in uncertainty. "How much further to Heimdall?"
"There's a place a little further back where we can climb across the branches..."
He finally focused on them again, and found both girls watching him in concern. Casting one final look through the branches he eventually pointed across the water.
"It's not far from here. After that, Heimdall won't be far."
"Great. I could do with sleeping in a bed tonight." Claudia headed up the walkway towards Sam. "You sure picked a brilliant time to leave, Kratos. Everything went to hell the moment you disappeared!"
"First was a big snake beast: almost ate us all!" Valanoir explained to Kratos with an exaggerated sweep of her arm as they followed Claudia, who was arguing with an exhausted Sam and trying to get him to agree to a piggy back.
"I was attacked as well, but it made an escape when I managed to harm it."
"Ah: was wondering why it was already bleeding... But it healing too. Cuts started disappearing like we hadn't done anything! Lucky Sam used magic, though..."
Head hanging, the half elf she was speaking about clearly couldn't walk any further. It wasn't hard for Claudia to pull his arms around her shoulders, hands behind his knees before she lifted him off the ground.
"...Wasn't right. He said 'Photon', but more like big ball of light than a spell. Felt..." She was making motions with her hands like she was holding something round, and wiggled her fingers with a frown. "...Untidy. Out of control, yeah?"
"Yes... You can sense mana?" he asked, and with a proud smile she nodded.
"Yeah: magical being! All beings using mana can sense! Is why you can sense too, yeah? You use magic."
"Geez, how much do you weigh? You sure you're not carrying rocks in your pockets or something?"
"Don't worry Claudie, we here now!" Just as Valanoir said this the wooden arch appeared between the leafy branches, framing a population beyond and guarded by two elves in armour just like at the entrance of Ymir. Red faced, Claudia carried the half unconscious Sam down the worn dirt path, led on by Kratos and encouraged by Valanoir. It had been a gruelling hour walking with horribly aching bodies, always fearful of the serpent lurking below, but with no other choice other than to continue they forced themselves onwards. Twilight had descended and the forest was quickly turning black.
Approaching the guards just as stony-faced as the last two, Kratos was quick to strike up a conversation- or rather, they were eager to speak with him- and in a heartbeat they were crossing the threshold into Heimdall. Valanoir huddled closer to Claudia and Sam, while they all followed as close to Kratos as they dared. The town spread wide, filled with beautifully built wooden houses webbed with climbing ivy, and elves in elegant dress were out enjoying the evening air. Lamps lit the streets with flickering pools of warm light, enough to guide them in absence of the moon's glow.
"Why they all staring..?" There weren't many people out, but those that were watched the group of four pass by with uncertain expressions, which were obvious enough for Valanoir to point out in a small voice.
"It's not often they get anyone other than elven kind here," explained Kratos, but he had a hard time convincing himself. They didn't seem all that pleased with something.
Guiding them between the buildings he eventually stopped outside one raised on the bank of the river, a small set of steps leading up to a porch and door. Valanoir was handed a fistful of glad.
"Wait inside. I need to speak with the Elder."
"W-what? But-" Claudia started, but Kratos guided them towards the steps regardless of her complaints.
"The elves will help you with whatever you need. I'll be back later."
In three hundred years Heimdall hadn't changed much, only grown. It was as if it'd been frozen in time, ever since the war, and was the place Kratos felt the greatest familiarity towards. The landscapes may not have changed much, but seeing somewhere like Heimdall, a thriving civilisation and one of the few constants for four thousand years, was a comfort. He was back. Back on the planet he was born on, and had spent several hundred lifetimes doing his best to keep in order. It may not have been the right order, but it had kept the world as a whole alive and surviving with what little it had, and kept the people living on it from destroying it with overdeveloped magitechnology all over again. For a planet learning to support itself again with such a meagre power source, it was doing well.
Guided by the guards outside the Torrent Forest he eventually found himself outside the Elder's house. Rebuilt long ago after the collapse of the Tower of Salvation it appeared to be a little bigger than before, raised from the ground with a little path disappearing beneath the porch and around the back. Approaching the door he rapped his knuckles against it, and waited.
"Who is it?" an elderly voice called from inside, before the door opened and revealed a hunched old elf standing inside. Bowing his head in respect Kratos managed a small smile: the Elder was the same elf, but his age was clearly showing as he gripped the staff that supported him in a brittle old hand.
He squinted up at Kratos with tired, yellowed eyes half hidden behind busy eyebrows, before recognition sparked in his wrinkled features.
"Kratos! I've been expecting you! Where have you been for the past three weeks?"
"I've been meaning to ask about that-" The Elder bustled him into the house, which was lit by a collection of candles around the room and a small fire in the grate.
"Come, come: I'm sure you have many questions." Offering a seat by the fire the old elf wandered towards the table, picking up a battered old kettle and two mugs. "Would you like a drink?"
"No thank you-"
"Suit yourself." Bringing one mug he soon had the kettle hung over the fire, and settled himself with a long, weary sigh in the seat opposite Kratos. "Now... to bring you up to speed.
"As you have most likely seen, Aselia is in a fierce stranglehold. These soldiers- the 'Eques Scientiae', as they call themselves- are running rampant, claiming to be upholding the law. The Vanguard was much easier to deal with than these fools..."
"Vanguard?" Yuan had mentioned them before, when Derris Kharlan was still close enough to allow communication, but he'd quickly been sidetracked when he found out they'd found Ratatosk and the Centurions. The Elder jabbed the fire with his staff, a small shower of embers trying in vain to escape from the stone grate with little success.
"Silly group. Fighting for the 'liberation of the Sylveranti', if I recall correctly. They turned up along with peculiar weather patterns, but that was only for a year or so. The Eques, on the other hand..." He shook his head gravely. "Run by the two Kings of Meltokio and Palmacosta, to uphold the law and prevent rebellion. When they were first introduced they did just that: kept civilians safe by catching thieves, cheaters and murderers. But over the past ten years they've started arresting everyone for the most mediocre of things and sending them to prisons set up in what I believe are old human ranches near Palmacosta, Luin, Meltokio and Sybak. Another has been built in the Triet desert, to put off escapes and any 'outside help'.
"Searching for escaped prisoners is their excuse to tear apart any town they see fit, and they have the power to do so granted by the kings themselves! But no one has the strength or influence to stand against them: everyone is in danger, especially those with the Decay."
"What do you know of the Decay?" Only the Eques had called it by that name before now. Thinking of the half elf lying unconscious at the inn Kratos enquired, perturbed by the Elder's solemn expression.
"Oh, it's a terrible thing..."
The kettle started whistling, and with his staff the Elder lifted it from the flames and brought it to himself to fill his mug.
"The Decay, named thusly for the way it rots the flesh, is an affliction that only takes those of elven blood. When the body fails to correctly process mana it overcompensates: the magic expelled is wild and without form, has no fixed power, and takes its toll on the physical body. With constant use of mana the Decay spreads through the system by poisoning the blood, slowly eating through vital organs until they deteriorate, and the victim dies."
"Is there any way to stop it?"
Brow creased with a frown the Elder looked confused.
"A half elf I'm accompanying to Flanoir is afflicted with it. He's passed out with a fever at the inn." The old elf was grey faced, running a thoughtful hand against his chin.
"How far along?"
"Only his right hand, as far as I'm aware."
"Hm..." hummed the Elder, before slowly rising to his feet. His joints creaked and he grunted, but was soon ambling towards the door. "I'm sure there's something we can do."
The inn was silent as the grave when they entered, the keeper behind the desk reading by candlelight, though when she saw who had come in through the door she bowed her head respectfully and greeted them in a quiet voice.
"They're in the second room," she informed them, pointing down the corridor. With a nod in thanks they made their way towards the corresponding door.
Inside, Sam was fast asleep on one of the beds, with Valanoir and Claudia sat beside him on chairs pulled up from the table on the far side of the room. When Kratos and the Elder entered they barely seemed to notice, until the Elder himself was stood opposite them and looking closely at the unconscious half elf.
"He's been asleep for about an hour and a half," mumbled Claudia, resting her head in her hands with a despondent sigh. "I changed his bandages for now, but he hasn't had any treated ones since we jumped off the boat. His fingers are really stiff- like twigs or something..."
"Is halfway to his elbow, now," Valanoir added as she gestured to where she meant on her own arm.
"Has it spread to anywhere else?" They gave the Elder a bemused shake of their heads, and with another grave 'hm' he lifted Sam's infected arm. "Have you checked? To have reached this far in one place makes it possible that there's more elsewhere. Check his other hand, and his feet."
Doing as they were told they first removed Sam's other glove, instantly revealing bandaged fingers. Frozen with shock Claudia could only stare as she held the glove in her hand, leaving Valanoir and Kratos to pull off his boots. His feet, it seemed, were clear.
"Since mana is drawn from the earth and concentrated with a catalyst in the hands, or sometimes in the hands themselves, they are usually the areas affected first," he explained, sounding vaguely relieved. "Luckily for your friend, the damage isn't too severe yet."
"Seriously...?" Claudia whimpered in disbelief, and the Elder nodded.
"We have an herbal substance that should hold off the effects better than bandages, though your best option would be to visit the dwarves of Moria."
"Dwarves?" Kratos repeated, curious as to the reason just as Claudia and Valanoir were.
"There is a dwarven technology, very familiar to you Kratos, that is often used to enhance fighting and survival capabilities."
"Exspheres?" Surprised by Kratos' sudden outburst Claudia and Valanoir visibly flinched, before turning their perplexed attention to him. He was staring at the old elf in disbelief. "How...?"
"I don't know the details, but they appear to be the most effective method of keeping the Decay at bay at present. There are a small number of dwarves in Moria who will attach Exspheres for a price, but they are difficult to convince: maybe the fact your charge is afflicted will help sway them in your favour."
"There must be another-"
"I don't think this is your choice to make, Kratos," the Elder quickly cut across, before looking down at Sam again. "When he wakes, explain it to him and let him make the choice. Until then, I will do what I can to stop the Decay from spreading any further." With that, he bid them goodnight and headed for the door, but Kratos quickly stopped him. "What is it?"
"...Where are the Sage siblings?"
It was a stretch to think that the man in the forest was anyone he knew. With guards situated at the entrance to Ymir, and the 'beast' roaming the waters, having a separate force around to watch for intruders seemed excessive. Maybe that was why the man's features had caught his attention: for that single moment seeing one even vaguely familiar face would've been comforting, in spite of the reality surrounding him. But such a passing of time would've clearly shown, even on a half elf.
His hunched back remained to them, and after a moment's silence another old hum escaped the Elf Elder's throat.
"The last I heard, Genis was headed for Sybak to meet a friend: if you set off for Moria in the morning, you may meet him on your way there. I advise you pose any questions you have about Lloyd to him." And without another word, he left.
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