Hitomi moved soundlessly through the halls of the Zaibach compound. A haze of darkness preceded her path. The hall was lined with closed doors, but through each one, she could see masses of darkness. She probed the clustered darkness with her Sight and was able to discern distinct forms inside. There were inhabitants of various ages and species in most of the cells, but one at the end of the hall caught her attention. From what she could tell, it contained only children, lots of them. Some of them didn't seem to have been infected with the darkness yet, but all of them felt scared. As Hitomi turned to continue her search, she felt a familiar life force not far away. She reached out to investigate and felt the sickening tug in her gut that meant her time to explore was over.
Hitomi still hadn't gotten used to the shock of finding herself back in her body. When she wandered as her sight, all her other senses dropped away, like in a dream, but upon waking every sensation was amplified. The hard, cold slab under her burned her skin, and the lights overwhelmed her vision. Every time she was relieved to feel the needle in her arm that would send her into unconsciousness and save her from the intensity of her senses. She had become grateful for the darkness of her cell when she awoke from the sedative. The feel of the concrete was familiar and reassuring. She didn't know how much time had passed since they first brought her here, but she had counted fifteen different sessions so far in the bright room with the burning serum that sent her on her walking Visions. She was always exhausted afterward.
She lay on the cold concrete, breathing deeply to center herself and tried to recall this last walking Vision in as much detail as she could. She had found children. That, she was sure of. Over the course of the sessions, Hitomi had become sure that the wrongness that she found in many of the compound's inhabitants had been placed there intentionally, or rather, that those who had it had been altered in some way that made the wrongness happen. Some of the people felt like they were almost completely made of the wrongness, while others barely had a hint of it. None of the children in the room she found had been completely converted yet, and some had no wrongness at all yet. She wondered if she could only get to them, could she prevent them from suffering that fate? She still had no idea what it was the Zaibach sorcerers were doing to them that caused the wrongness. Were they doing it to her? She couldn't sense any of the wrongness in herself, but that didn't mean it wasn't there.
Hitomi remembered the other familiar life force she had felt. She used her vision to search the building around her to see if she could find it again. Using her vision while awake now felt like groping through the dark compared to her walking Visions while under the influence of the Sorcerer's serum, but it was still much clearer than it used to be. The life force wasn't in any of the adjacent rooms, so she expanded her Vision further.
There it was, halfway to the other side of the compound. Now she knew why it felt so familiar.
"Van..." she voiced weakly. He was here. He was also captive. Van, she said in her mind, trying to push the words into his mind. She was worried he may have been unconscious. She didn't get any response, so she tried again, putting more power behind her inner voice. Van!
The response came weakly, but it came. She could feel it in her bones. Hitomi released a breath she didn't know she was holding. Her body relaxed as she eased into their connection.
Van, I'm in a cell nearby. Are you okay? How did you get here?
I came to get you, he responded. Hitomi could feel his defeat. Are you alright?
I'm fine, Hitomi reassured him. They have been doing some kind of experiment on me, but it's helped me understand more of this compound. She tried to press into Van's mind the mapped images she had managed to understand from her explorations.
Are you really okay? he asked after a pause.
I am, really. Just tired I guess. I feel a lot better talking with you. Listen, Van, they are doing something to the people here. I don't know what it is yet, but they are changing them somehow. That's where the wrongness I mentioned before comes from. It might be like what they did to Eriya and Naria, but I'm not sure. Hitomi tried to send the feeling of the wrongness to Van, and she felt him recoil away almost immediately. I'm sorry! she said. I forgot how intense it can feel.
It's okay, he said. You feel this all the time here?
Yeah. It's not as overwhelming as it used to be. I passed out the first time I woke up here.
We have to find a way out, said Van.
Van, Hitomi said slowly. I want to find a way to get the others out too.
Van and Hitomi spent all of their time in the cells plotting and planning ways that they could escape the compound. Hitomi used her time on the Serum to look for possible exits and weak places in security, while Van tried to trick Dilandau into giving him information. Hitomi had to turn her vision away any time Dilandau inflicted his torture upon Van. She could feel Van's pain too distinctly. She could feel the wrongness of Dilandau too. She hadn't felt that in Celena. Something had definitely changed in Dilandau since he had come back.
The first time Dilandau came to torture Van after Van and Hitomi found each other, Hitomi hadn't turned her vision away. She wanted to be there, to be something Van could focus on, but she could feel his pain. Dilandau used some sort of electrified device to shock Van when he wasn't compliant, and Hitomi felt it through her own body. She could feel Van's resolve to not give in to Dilandau's punishments. He hid his pain from both Dilandau and from her as much as he could, but it was in vain. She felt the weakness in his muscles, the shaking of his breath, and the fear in his mind. She cried that first time. Tears streamed down her face in the dark as Dilandau pushed Van to the edge of consciousness, and Hitomi realized that Van feeling her repulsion at the scene wasn't going to help Van at all. There was nothing they could do to escape Dilandau's torture yet, but Hitomi could be spared the shared experience. Van preferred it that way, and Hitomi wasn't going to argue.
Hitomi located the cell holding all children in relation to her own cell and walked the path between them in her mind as frequently as she could. She wanted it so committed to memory that no matter what else was going on when they finally mounted an escape, she would still be able to find it. She mapped the halls from Van's cell as well and tried to imprint it on his mind. He was not able to walk it the way she was, but she was confident that if he needed to, he would be able to find his way.
They spent another ten cycles of her Serum sessions this way. That was the only way they were able to mark the passage of time, that and visits from Dilandau. Neither of them knew how often either happened, but it was at least something that could anchor them. Hitomi noticed Van was starting to weaken. They weren't feeding him enough. Dilandau didn't want him to die yet, but he only needed to be strong enough to withstand the torture. More than once Van was knocked unconscious by one of Dilandau's methods, and Hitomi waited anxiously for him to wake up again, only calmed by the sense of his life force still there. She never knew if this time would be the time it stopped. Her captivity had almost been easier when she was the only one she had to worry about.
Hitomi sat curled up against the wall focused on the faint life force of Van after a particularly brutal session with Dilandau. Her breathing was shallow and she was close to tears while she waited. Van had never felt this faint before. Dilandau was pushing him too far. Hitomi wondered angrily what it was Dilandau was trying to do. He wasn't trying to get information from Van. They weren't experimenting on Van. It seemed that Dilandau was only doing it for his own perverse pleasure. Hitomi couldn't imagine anyone, not even Dilandau, being so devoted to causing pain for no other purpose. It just didn't make sense.
Hitomi felt Van begin to stir.
Van, are you awake?
Yeah, he said, thinley.
I was afraid - Hitomi choked on the rest of her sentence.
I'm sorry, Hitomi. I don't know how much more my body can take. I -
Don't, Hitomi stopped him. Don't start talking like that. You don't get to give up yet.
I'm not giving up, he said. I'm... Hitomi, if I don't get to see you again -
I said don't talk like that! she shouted in her mind. She could feel him drifting. Stay awake Van! Sit up, do something!
Hitomi, I want to tell you something.
No! Hitomi was starting to get frantic, but there wasn't anything she could do. You can't let Dilandau break you! You can't! You aren't allowed to give up!
There was no response from Van this time, but Hitomi could still feel his life force. They were running out of time. If they didn't find a way out soon, Van might not survive the next session with Dilandau.
Hitomi began searching the halls of the compound. There were still guards everywhere. In their time planning, they had never found a time when the guard was reduced. Neither of them had figured out how the doors were locked, and neither knew how far they were from the outside walls of Zaibach, let alone the border. Hitomi was beginning to feel hopeless. If only she could just get to Van perhaps they could teleport together like they had before.
She searched outside the compound with her vision. There was another building beside them with many people inside, but very few with the wrongness of the compound. She needed to be able to walk in her Vision with the Serum so she could see what was inside. It had been some time since her last session. They must be coming for her soon.
She was correct. The door to her cell opened and she was taken to the room with the cold slab and the bright light. She had long since stopped wondering what they were doing to her while she was walking in her Vision. She lay on the slab, they injected the Serum and it burned through her veins. Soon she was walking the halls of the compound freely. In this state, she was able to walk through walls. She had gone to check on the children and on Van multiple times in this way. She ran to Van's cell now. He was still strapped to the slab in the middle of the room, his head limp to one side. He was unconscious but she could still feel his life force. He looked terrible. Her room was dark, but his they kept fully lit all the time. He was gaunt, and his skin was grey. He had burns and lash marks on his arms and chest, and one eye was blackened. He hadn't looked good when she had visited him before, but this was the worst he had appeared. She couldn't do anything about it though. She reached out to touch him and her fingers went right through. She wasn't really there, only her mind was. She turned her attention to finding the building next door. She walked through the walls until she was outside.
This wasn't her first trip outside the building, but she didn't usually have the time to go far, and she didn't usually have a goal beyond coming up with an escape plan, but she needed more information now. She hadn't felt an abundance of people in this adjacent building until now. She walked through the walls into the main hall. It was full of people. These were not the sorcerers of Zaibach, and they didn't dress like the Zaibach people either. She recognized clothing from Freid and Basram. What was this? She turned around in the room and she was almost knocked back into her body by the shock when she saw Dryden. He was in full royal Asturian regalia. Beside him stood Allen, Daniel, and Gaddes. What were they doing here? What were any of them doing here?
A bell was rung and everyone in the room turned to look behind where Hitomi stood. She turned and saw a balcony above her. A Sorcerer stood on the balcony with the bell in his hands.
"Welcome, esteemed leaders of Gaea," he said in a deep voice, "to the meeting of the minds."
There was some applause in the audience, but it quickly died. Hitomi made her way over to the Asturian group.
Dryden was leaning close to Allen, whispering.
"I know, I don't know if we'll find much support at the moment," Allen responded under his breath.
The Sorcerer on the balcony rang the bell again, and a full regiment of guards stepped out of doors at the side of the hall and surrounded them.
"Looks like it really was a trap," muttered Daniel.
"You had a doubt?" asked Gaddes.
A trap. Hitomi had to get a message to them somehow. She had to show them her mental map of the compound somehow, then they might actually stand a chance. She couldn't fathom why they would willingly walk into a trap, but it wasn't the first time any of these men had done something reckless she didn't understand. She began trying to force her image of the compound into Allen's mind. She was always more powerful while she was in this state with the Serum, so perhaps it would work. Of any of the four, she was sure he was the one her mind could reach. She pictured it as clearly as she could and stood directly in front of Allen, looking him in the eye. He looked right through her, but for a split second, it seemed to her that their eyes met and he actually saw her.
Allen sucked in a sudden breath in shock, then was looking through her again. He looked around like he would be able to find her, but composed himself quickly. He leaned over to Dryden and whispered something Hitomi couldn't make out. She hoped she had been successful. She felt the usual tug at her gut and prepared herself to be pulled back into her body.
The first thing she did upon waking from sedation was try to talk to Van.
Van, are you awake?
She felt him listening, but he didn't have the strength to respond.
Allen is here, with Gaddes, Daniel, and Dryden. I'm not sure why, but I think they knew they were walking into a trap. I tried to put a map in Allen's mind and I think it worked. They may come to get us. You have to be ready when they come, okay?
She waited for some kind of affirmative response.
Van, we're going to be rescued. You won't have to endure it anymore.
Van, if you can hear me, if you get out, get to the room with the children.
I hear you, she heard him say distantly. That was all she needed to hear. She sank to the floor in relief and stretched out her mind to watch where Allen was.
Allen watched the sorcerer on the balcony warily. It was going to be hard to find a moment to slip past the guard. They were going to need a distraction. Zaibach seemed to be prepared for everything, though. They hadn't been left alone since they got on the airship. There was always a guard nearby, and these guards were impossibly quick. There was something unnatural about their movement. They hadn't had a solid plan for what would happen once they were inside Zaibach, since they had no idea what to expect. None were allowed to carry weapons into the great hall. Allen felt naked without his sword. He had spent two years without one like it was nothing, and now it felt like a piece of his body was missing.
Allen was formulating a plan. He knew where Hitomi and Van were. He wasn't sure how Hitomi had done it, but he was sure it was her. He knew where every guard post was inside the neighboring compound. The building hadn't looked like much of anything when they passed it on the way into the great hall, but now it was the most important building in Zaibach. If they could orchestrate a distraction, Allen and Gaddes could steal swords off of one of the guards on the way out. Getting into the compound would be the easy part. He knew every entrance, and he knew where the guards were posted. Once he had a sword they would be a breeze. It was getting them all out again that he hadn't figured out.
He didn't have time to figure it out.
Across the room, one of the entourage from Ezgardia began making a fuss. He was yelling about being forced to leave his kingdom for this, if this was a meeting of leaders, get on with it, and if it was a trap he wouldn't go quietly. Some of the other factions began chiming in, some on his side, and some trying to get him to be quiet for fear he would ruin the whole affair for all of them. It soon broke into a shouting match, and the guards began to move to subdue the quarrel.
As one of the guards pushed passed Allen, he slipped the secondary sword from the guard's sheath. In the commotion, the guard didn't seem to notice. The guards were all moving in towards the quarrel, and none were left behind them on their side. One of the side doors was left open. Luck was on their side. Perhaps some residual effects of Dornkirk's Fate Alteration Machine had left their mark on Zaibach. Allen didn't care. This was their only chance. He nudged Gaddes, and they began to sneak out. He looked back to get the attention of Dryden and Daniel. Dryden, shook his head and nodded towards the hall. He intended to stay and do his duty. Daniel stayed at his side. Allen nodded and he and Gaddes slipped out the side door.
It was dark between the buildings and there weren't many guards wandering between. It seemed their forces had been concentrated on the great hall. Allen saw the door he needed not far away. He knew no guard would be posted inside. He motioned to Gaddes and the two men slipped across the dark space between the two buildings.
The halls inside were brightly lit, but they all looked the same. It would have been impossible to navigate had it not been for Hitomi's ability to show him the way. He silently thanked her and wondered if she could tell.
He and Gaddes moved silently through the halls, up stairwells, through more halls, until they found themselves in front of what Allen was sure was the door to Van's holding cell. The door was nothing more than a rectangular depression in the wall. The seam around the door was so finely machined that it may not have been a door at all. There was no handle and no buttons to push to open the door. According to Hitomi's map, this should be the right place. Allen was at a loss for what to do.
They heard footsteps coming down the hall. Both men quickly rounded the corner and listened.
"Let's see what faces Van can show me today," said a voice. Allen knew that voice. He peered around the corner to see Dilandau standing in front of Van's cell. A guard in a Zaibach uniform stood beside him. Allen's insides reeled. Celena was right there, only it wasn't her. It didn't even sound like her. All he heard was the terrible voice of Dilandau, but it was Celena, his sweet sister, that he saw standing there in Zaibach armor.
Dilandau held his arm up to the door and it slid open on its own. "Stay here and stand guard," he ordered the guard. "We've a lot of guests at the moment. I don't want to be interrupted."
Allen pulled back around the corner to hide as the guard turned around and took his place outside the door. Allen's heart pounded in his chest. He couldn't face Dilandau now. The moment they were discovered they would be swarmed with guards, and there would be no chance of escape. Allen wracked his brain for what they could do.
He turned to Gaddes and whispered, "there is a trick to the door. Once Dilandau leaves, we won't be able to open it again."
"Leave that to me," Gaddes whispered back. Allen and Gaddes silently switched places so Gaddes could see around the corner. Allen pressed his back against the wall, closed his eyes, and breathed deep to try to get his heartbeat under control.
It seemed like they stood there forever. Every so often Allen could hear a muffled scream from inside the cell, and the faint maniacal laughter of Van's deranged torturer. At least there was no doubt they were in the right place.
Allen heard the door slide open.
"Let's go," ordered Dilandau.
Gaddes pulled a large ring from his finger and rolled it silently along the ground around the corner, and pulled himself back against the wall. Allen heard the door shut and footsteps fade off down the hall. Gaddes looked around the corner again.
"All clear," whispered Gaddes.
The two men came around the corner to stand in front of the cell door again. This time there was a black perceptible edge along the stark white frame on the right side of the door. It was just enough space for Allen to wedge the edge of his sword blade into, which he did, and pried the space open some more. He was able to get his fingers under the edge, and he slid the door fully open.
Van was strapped to a panel in the middle of the bare cell. Bright light emanated from the ceiling. He was very pale and his head hung limply to the side. He was bruised all over, with deep burn marks on his chest and arms. Allen began unhooking the various restraints that held him down. Gaddes helped. Eventually, they had most of the straps undone. Gaddes released the last one and Van fell into Allen's arms.
Allen put his ear to Van's mouth to listen for breath. It was shallow, but his breath was there. He was still alive. He mouthed the word to Gaddes who relaxed perceptibly. Allen patted Van's face to try to wake him up.
A weak cough escaped Van and his eyes opened slightly. They widened upon recognizing Allen.
"Can you walk?" asked Allen in a whisper.
Van nodded, and Allen helped him to his feet. Van nearly collapsed as soon as Allen let him go, and Allen caught him under the arms. Allen pulled Van's right arm over his shoulder and nodded to Gaddes. "We have to go get Hitomi," he whispered to Van.
Van shook his head. "No," he rasped. "The children. That's where she'll be going."
Allen still didn't know how, but as soon as Van said it he knew exactly where they had to go.
Hitomi knew the instant Allen woke Van up.
He's here. Did he make it inside? she asked him. She was being taken back to her cell. There was a man holding each of her arms guiding her through the halls she knew well now.
Yes, he's here. We're going to the room with the children.
Van was barely there, but that was all she needed to hear. She had to get away from her two wardens. She could still feel the Serum boosting her vision. Not only could she see the things around her in her mind, but she could feel them as well. She began to push against the feeling of the men beside her. It didn't do much good, but she could feel resistance. She started pushing as much of herself into that feeling of resistance as she could. She could feel it growing around her, building, pushing back against her as it grew. When she didn't think she could push any more of herself into it she suddenly pushed it outwards as hard as she could. The air around her exploded outwards slamming the two men into the walls on either side of her. She staggered for a moment, her vision going dark. She forced the darkness back and forced her feet down the hall in the direction she had etched into her mind. She didn't need to think; her feet knew exactly where to go.
After a few moments, she rounded a corner and there they were, Allen, Van, and Gaddes. She ran to Van and put her arms around him, while Allen held him up. His skin was cool, but he was really there. She could touch him. He wrapped his free arm around her and held her as tightly as his strength would allow.
"Get them!" The yell came from down the hall. Dilandau was upon them. Allen transferred Van's weight to Hitomi, and he and Gaddes brought their swords up to meet the guards who rushed towards them. One of them went down quick.
"Let me down," Van said to Hitomi. "You need to use the guard's arm to open the door. There's a sensor somewhere in it. I've watched Dilandau do it in my room a number of times."
Hitomi helped him sit against the wall. She grabbed the arm of the fallen guard while Allen and Gaddes continued to fight off the rest. She held it up to the door but nothing happened. She couldn't lift the arm very high because of the weight of the guard it was attached to. One of the guards broke through past Allen and Gaddes and nearly slashed Hitomi in two. She instinctively sidestepped, and the guard instead slashed at the dead guard, leaving the arm free in Hitomi's grasp. Gaddes spun around to engage the living guard again and took him down.
Hitomi took the now free arm she held and ran it around the door looking for the sensor.
Hitomi heard a click and the door slid open. A crowd of suddenly blinded eyes looked up at her. There were at least twenty children in this room. Only a couple of them had the wrongness she had become accustomed to in this place. Gaddes and Allen were still battling off an onslaught of guards trying to get past them. Hitomi hadn't seen Allen look like the master swordsman that he was since she was back; now he did. He was magnificent. She looked back at Van. He was fading in and out while propped up against the wall. There was no exit near where they were, and both hallways were crowded with guards. There was no way out. They were trapped.
Dilandau was upon them.
"Don't let them escape!" he screamed. He brought his sword down into the fray and was met with Allen's sword against his.
"Allen Schezar. It's time to put an end to this."
"Celena, I know you're in there. Please, fight him," Allen pleaded at the grinning Dilandau.
Dilandau screamed furiously and brought his sword down on Allen. Allen couldn't get his sword up fast enough and braced for impact, but it didn't come. Dilandau stopped short. He screamed, trying to force his sword down, but it wouldn't budge. His face turned red from the effort and contorted in anger. His sword would not hit Allen.
"Allen! Into the room!" shouted Hitomi above the fighting. Hitomi pulled Van up from the ground as best she could and pulled him into the room with the children. Allen and Gaddes back into the room.
Hitomi could feel everyone in the room, despite not being able to see the children who hung back in the shadows. Van felt very faint beside her. Allen and Gaddes continued to fight off the guards trying to come through the door. The guards would keep coming. They would bring more than just swords. Hitomi saw a flash of liquid metal in her mind, snaking its way through her friends and the children she was trying to save. The vision cleared and she knew what she had to do. She held the feeling of everyone in the room in her mind and extended herself out to each of them. She pictured the courtyard of Palas as perfectly in her mind as she could. She imagined all of the life forces that she held there with her. She could feel the Serum boosting her senses.
She could feel the power when the pillar of light enveloped them, but that was the last thing she was aware of. Her last thought before she lost consciousness was just the word safe.