The Imperial ship shifted beneath their feet, the drop in their stomachs the same as when an elevator begins its descent.
Noctis looked up from where he was leaning against the partially cleaned crystal. His three friends stirred as well from where they'd been resting.
"It appears we have arrived." The Chancellor announced.
"And where would that be?" Ignis questioned in a politely aggressive tone.
"What's with all the suspicion." The Chancellor sighed, "I've done nothing except help you. But, if it will make you feel better, we should be touching down not far from a quaint little chocobo post."
"If that is true," Ignis began stiffly, "then you will have our thanks."
"Oh please, it's the least I could do."
The Chancellor acted like Ignis had just seriously thanked him. Noctis could not wait to be done with the man.
"Once we land, what do you plan to do with your crystallized woman?" Ardyn asked, knowing they would have a hard time moving it. "Carry it yourselves?"
The four younger men exchanged looks. They hadn't wanted to discuss it in front of an enemy, not wanting Ardyn to overhear their plans. But moving the green crystal was going to be an issue. Not only was it heavy, but it also was very conspicuous.
Noctis especially did not want the Empire to get their hands on the crystal. It was most likely a gift from Titan. Perhaps it was even intended to help them win the war against the Empire. Or perhaps it was part of the prophecy to destroy the scourge. Would every god give Noctis a coloured crystal with a person inside?
Noctis hoped not.
"Why should we tell you?" Noctis asked.
"No offense." Prompto added.
Very much offense meant. Noctis thought.
"Well, given that out of all of us only one has the means to transport her…" Ardyn trailed off meaningfully.
"No way." Noctis shut him down.
"Chancellor." Ignis cut in, "you promised us safe passage. Are you altering your offer already?"
"No, no of course not." Ardyn impatiently waved their reasonable concern away. "I just worry for you, transporting something so large and obvious will only increase your odds of getting found by the military. And what will you do if you're forced to flee? How can you protect her if you can't protect yourselves?"
Noctis hunched into himself a bit at the words. They were all true, which just made him feel even worse. But he refused to lose the new crystal the gods had gifted to him.
"We'll figure something out." Gladio confidently crossed his arms. He was more worried about the Chancellor reporting their location to the army with the intent to steal the crystal. Alone like this the Chancellor couldn't forcefully take it from them. However, there was also the worry about what was waiting for them when the hatch opened. Would they find themselves in the middle of a Niff base?
"What, like bury her in a bush and hope no one finds her until you have a means of conveyance?" Ardyn swayed slightly with the ship as the familiar sounds of a landing procedure began.
Ignis, Prompto and Gladio all stumbled at the abrupt deceleration, leaning against the crystal to keep their feet.
"I'm sure we'll be able to fashion some means to move the crystal." Ignis answered, slightly annoyed that one of the options he'd been considering was so casually stated and dismissed.
"Well… we're here." Ardyn pressed a few buttons on the wall to open the hatch.
The four Lucian's tensed for the few moments it took for the gears to turn and the ramp to lower. All of them obviously expecting to be greeted by a sea of magitek troops.
When they all visibly relaxed at the sight of a grassy clearing and a dense forest Ardyn scoffed, barely converting his amusement to mild outrage. "No trust at all in the youth these days. Why in my day when a man swore safe passage to a monarch their word was taken for the bond it was."
The four ignored the older man's lamenting and turned to each other.
"So… how are we gonna move her?" Prompto asked, stumped.
"For now, rolling her down the ramp is our first order of business." Ignis said, moving to the far side of the crystal.
"Right. And I've got a few ideas once we hit the dirt." Gladio told them. They were techniques for safely moving an injured companion but they might work for a heavy rock as well.
"Oh good." Noctis leavered himself to his feet. He hadn't wanted to leave her behind unguarded like the Chancellor had mocked but it had been the only idea he'd been able to think of.
A sigh behind them had them all glance over at the Chancellor, who was stepping towards them. Before Noctis could think to place himself between the suspiciously helpful Niff and the crystal the man was beside him and gazing down at what their earlier cleaning had revealed.
The pink dress the mysterious woman wore ended a little bit past her knees, revealing the sturdy brown hiking boots Prompto had complimented earlier. She also wore a red half-jacket that covered her upper arms. Long brown hair framed her face while what looked like the tail end of a braid peaked out from behind her back. All of her clothes hung on her as if she'd been standing upright when she'd been encased in crystal.
They all wondered if she'd been praying to Titan with her eyes closed and head bowed when she'd been encased in the crystal.
Ardyn kept his face relaxed as he stared down at the mystery woman. He had to wonder what game Titan was playing to introduce a new player like this. Though his suspicion was in line with the boys' that this was a messenger sent to aid the chosen king in his task.
A tiny part of Ardyn was bitter at how out of their way the gods were going to help Noctis when they'd all left Ardyn to fend for himself.
"Well, here's hoping you find that car of yours." Ardyn attempted to rest his hand on the top of the crystal as he talked, covertly trying to get a sense of its power. "You'll need it to move something so-"
"Ah!" Ardyn cried, a comical look of surprise on his face.
As soon as Ardyn's bare fingers touched the crystal, his hand sunk in. The surface rippling like the surface of a pond, not a rock hard crystal. It had the resistance of water too. Before he could pull himself back he found himself sunk up to his elbow.
The others all froze at the unexpected development, gaping in shock. Especially because they had all just been touching the crystal.
Ardyn's other hand darted out to halt his fall but he pulled it back just in time, worried it too would get dragged in. What ended up stopping him from falling right into the crystal and allowed him to regain his balance was the resistance offered by the woman's clasped hands.
He froze, marvelling at the smooth feeling of her skin, and the sight of her much smaller hands dwarfed by his larger one.
A foreign, tingling sensation hit his submerged arm and, for the first time in decades, he felt the stirrings of fear. Ardyn immediately tried to pull his arm out. He'd had nothing but bad experiences with mysterious otherworldly crystals and wanted nothing to do with this one.
"The hell dude!" Prompto cried, finally finding his voice.
The crystal had a viscous-like resistance when he tried to pull his hand out. His arm fell into the crystal so easily, but now that he was trying to pull out it refused to release him.
He couldn't stop the embarrassing cry of alarm when the hands he'd touched moved, gripping his own like a vice.
The boys around him were yelling at both him and each other but he paid them no mind, determined to free himself from whatever designs the girl and crystal had on him.
"What did you do!?" Noctis yelled from next to Ardyn. He summoned a blade and pointed it at the Chancellor's thoat.
"Be silent or help me, it's," Ardyn grunted, "trying to pull me in."
Noctis hesitantly lowered his sword when it became obvious the Chancellor was telling the truth.
With a nod to Gladio, Ignis tentatively reached out to feel around where the Chancellor had sunk up to his elbow.
"It feels no different from before." The advisor marveled at the firmness of the crystal.
When Ardyn realized the boys wouldn't be much help, he was forced to subtly use his not inconsiderable strength to reverse the pull. Were he anyone else, would he have been absorbed led into the crystal?
Ardyn planted his boots and heaved.
The crystal resisted him, the woman's hands tightening even further on his own. For one long second, he actually began to worry he wouldn't be able to free himself. At least, not without revealing more of himself to the prince than he was ready to.
"Are you going to help or not?" Ardyn snapped at the gawking idiots.
It finally galvanized the other four to move to help the trapped man. Gladio and Ignis grabbed Ardyn's shoulders and pulled, while Noctis and Prompto tried to prevent Ardyn's arm from sinking further.
"Holy shit." Noctis breathed, unable to believe this was happening.
"Careful or we'll pull his arm from its socket." Gladio warned Ignis.
Slowly, bit by bit, the rest of Ardyn's arm came free. The pull towards the crystal lessened. But as it lessened, the mysterious woman came closer and closer to the edge of the crystal.
Prompto and Noctis let go of the Chancellor's arm as soon as only his wrist remained. They leaned back when her hand followed his. They gaped at it, uncertain if they should keep pulling her out.
The two best friends exchange a glance. "Not quite how I thought we'd free her but…" Prompto trailed off.
"Yeah." Noctis glanced back at the grimacing Chancellor.
Ardyn tried to twist his hand free but the strange woman had a deathgrip on his hand. He probably could have succeeded in freeing himself if the two younger men hadn't then grabbed the clasped hands and resumed pulling.
"What are you-" Ardyn started to complain.
"Are you sure it's wise to pull her out?" Ignis let go of Ardyn and moved to grip her arm and support her head when it was free.
The crystal rippled around her. Ignis and Gladio both commented their surprise that she was dry as she emerged. The way the crystal moved around her they thought the inside was some kind of liquid. But her clothes, skin and hair was as dry as their own.
"Guess our transportation problem has been solved." Gladio moved to support her back while the others pulled.
As soon as her hips were clear the last of the resistance disappeared. Her legs were freed in one last pull that sent them all, except the Chancellor, sprawled onto the deck of the ship.
They quickly maneuvered her so she was lying on her back. Promto and Noctis kneeled on either side of her and looked her over for signs of life.
"She's breathing." Noctis informed them, noticing that her chest was moving up and down.
"Wow." Prompto sighed, a bit star struck. "Are all messengers of the gods this pretty?"
"Maybe." Noctis answered noncommittally.
"Amazing. It still just feels like smooth stone." Ignis said, running his hand against the surface they had just pulled her through.
"Now that we can easily move her, what should we do with the crystal?" Gladio asked, standing to join him.
"That depends," Ignis answered quietly, "on whether the Chancellor will let us go quietly now that this has happened."
Gladio grunted his agreement. "This feels a bit like a set up."
Ignis nodded at the quiet words and then turned to face the others. "Chancellor. I believe now is the time to tell us of your role in all this."
"Huh?" Ardyn looked up from where he'd been trying to free his hand. "My what?" He asked incredulously.
"I find it very suspicious that as soon as you touched the crystal for the first time," Ignis gestured at the woman, "this happened."
"You think I am responsible for this?" Ardyn stopped trying to free himself to adjust his fedora. "When you are the ones who insisted on bringing this strange phenomenon on board? Don't you think that's a bit of a stretch?"
Ardyn kept his voice light and mildly offended. But internally he was worried that Ignis was partially correct. Had Ardyn just inadvertently aided the chosen king by awakening this woman? If he hadn't touched the crystal would she have remained sleeping within it?
"Um," Prompto hesitantly spoke up, "If I hadn't tripped and fell, we never would have found-"
"That doesn't mean the Empire isn't responsible." Ignis frowned down at the younger man, slightly irritated to be contradicted in front of an enemy.
"Prom's right Iggy." Noctis came to his friend's defence. "Even if this is suspicious." He then glared at Ardyn kneeling near the woman's head.
A soft, feminin groan shut them all up immediately.
Ardyn grunted when his hand was unexpectedly jerked closer to her. Her clasped hands, with his stuck between them, settled back into the position they had been while she was in the crystal. Ardyn twitched his fingers when slightly chapped lips brushed against the back of them.
Ardyn watched in growing trepidation as the woman took in a deep breath. He really hoped he wasn't about to get outed to the prince as the host of the scourge. He hated not being in control of the situation.
Noctis stared down at the girl and held his breath. Anticipation temporarily driving away the crippling exhaustion he'd been feeling earlier.
"She's really waking up." Prompto squeaked.
Everyone crowded a bit closer. Between Ardyn crouched at her head, Noctis and Prompto on either side of her, and Ignis and Gladio standing at her feet, there was barely any room for her to move.
"Should we be so close?" Ignis whispered. "What if her awakening isn't peaceful?"
Before anyone could move or say anything else, green eyes groggily blinked up at them.