Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Author's Note: So...don't ask me where the inspiration for this came from. I can't remember now. This has been in the making for about a year now.


"We relish news of our heroes, forgetting that we are extraordinary to somebody too."
-Helen Hayes


He saw her first when he was five years old. He remembered that much. It was his birthday. (The last he ever has with his family, he remembers that) They were poor and he shared a bed—barely because his brother was broad-shouldered and whipcord strong from working on the docks—with his brother and his sisters shared the other bed and they were all in one tiny room where you could hear every breath, but it helped keep them warm in Sybak's icy winters.

He couldn't sleep, had padded to the window and climbed out onto the emergency stairs just outside. He liked being out here and he liked trying to see the stars through the sliver of the sky visible between the buildings.

That was when he saw her. Pretty with her hair braided down past her waist. Her dress was threadbare, its hems worn and there was a patch or two on the skirt. She smiled when she saw him staring at her. (Mama used to be pretty, or so his father says. But a hard life has drained most of that beauty away and this woman is the prettiest he's ever seen)

"You can see me?" Her voice had a weird accent and it echoed in a weird way, but she sounded so happy. And her smile made her face light up like a lantern.

"Yeah…"

"Oh, I…suppose I'm scary, aren't I?"

Aster shook his head. "No. Just different."

She gave him a strange look before she chuckled a little. She crouched down so that they were both at eye level. "I'm Martel."

He grinned big. "Like the goddess!"

Her eyes went a little sad. "Yes, like the goddess. What's your name?"

"'m Aster."

"Aster." Martel rolled the name in her mouth. "That's a nice name."

"I ain't never seen you before."

"I'm…not from around here."

"Good," Aster said suddenly and she seemed surprised.

"Why good?"

"Any place gotta be better than here."

"Not necessarily." She moved to sit beside him. "What are you doing out here this late? You should be sleeping."

"'m brother snores. Gets annoyin'."

Martel had different smiles, Aster noticed. She had the happy one, the lantern one. She had a little sad one that matched the look in her eyes. And this one looked different, sweet and familiar. (She remembers her brother's snores in the night too, his head in her lap as they traded watches)

"Yes, brothers can be that way. But you should cherish him." Aster's face scrunched in confusion. "Cherish means love," Martel added.

"I do love him." His nose wrinkled. "But I love sleep more sometimes."

That made her laugh, the sound echoing strangely through the alley. Aster liked making her laugh, liked that she listened. (His parents never listen. They think he's strange for liking stars and stories more than playing outside. His brother is always busy working and his sisters…they're hardly a year old, sweet with identical faces, but they're not old enough to know him)

-/-/

He never stopped seeing her. She was there the day that his parents traded him for a purse of gald, was there when he cried and then stubbornly tried not to cry.

"It's okay to miss them," Martel murmured. "They were your family."

Aster shook his head. "No. Family doesn't—they don't do that!"

She pressed her lips together. "…No, no they don't. You're right. Family should...stick by each other. No matter what." (She feels guilty sometimes because she hasn't spoken to her little brother in centuries, in millennia, maybe. Her beautiful, broken little brother. She hasn't spoken to her husband either and she wants to, but she feels like he's managed to let go a little and she doesn't want to bring it all back. And Kratos…she doesn't know about him, doesn't know what to do with what's happened to him lately)


The things that the Academy did to him made her sick and angry. Aster knew by the look on her face and the concern with which she studied the bruising and the Exsphere they attached to him, just like he was a machine. She watched, sometimes, but her expression only scared him. Her face was tight with white, silent fury.

She was there when the Academy noticed how smart he was, how much potential was being wasted with his being in the Angelus Project. (It makes Martel sick. Her brother ordered this to be done, indirectly, perhaps, but it's his fault. Or is it hers for not being strong enough to fight those humans off?)

She was there waiting when he ran into the room, laughing because he was free. He could study, he could experiment, could walk outside, could do anything. And she laughed with him.

(She imagines this reaction for her brother, for all her people. This is what they'd wanted, but on a larger scale. But, she supposes, this is a start. Somehow)


He had never been very good at making friends. He was good at talking to people, at being friendly, but no one had ever actually returned the favor of caring or of companionship beyond the necessary. His only real friend, after all, was a woman four thousand years dead. (Not that he knows that. He knows she's been dead a while and he knows her name is Martel, but he can never guess the full truth)

He was working in the Director's office, transcribing the scribbled notes into actual, legible sentences so that there could be a report later. Martel was sitting by the window; she liked doing that, watching the world, watching people. Aster had been there since that morning, engrossed in his work—not that the work itself was fascinating, but the notes were—he didn't hear the knock on the door.

"Hello?"

Both of them looked up, but the person at the door—one of the half-elves from the basement—didn't even glance at the lovely woman that only Aster could see. The half-elf was small, skinny, with too-large glasses that were constantly slipping down his nose.

"Um, can I help you?"

The half-elf held up a thick stack of files, large enough that it almost seemed to keep him off balance, but still didn't meet Aster's eyes. "P-professor Davis asked m-me to deliver these."

Aster stood to take the files from him. The half-elf legitimately looked like he was going to fall from the height of the files. "Here, let me get that. Thanks for this." With some difficulty, he set the files on the desk before turning back to the half-elf. "I'm Aster, by the way."

A flash of green as he glanced up before his bangs fell forward to hide his face again. "R-richter."

Aster caught Martel's movement forward, instinctive and quiet and she stopped right before reaching him. He wondered if Richter reminded her of someone. (Aster can't possibly know how much she aches for her boys at that moment. Because Richter reminds her of them, of all three of them. This awkward age is Mithos, too-long limbs and sharp angles. The way he's hiding behind his bangs, yet peering up through them is Yuan, when he's shy. It never happened often, but Martel knows her husband as she knows herself. And he looks something like Kratos, back when they first met. Small and a little hunched, afraid of the world, but there's a good core to it all, somewhere in all that and she wants to hug him, wants to kiss her husband again and feel Mithos' forehead on her chest and see Kratos grin sideways at her. She misses them so, so, so much…)


"Why are the half-elves in the basement?" Martel asked one night, still sitting by her spot in the window. She faded, some days, until she was nearly transparent, but her voice was always audible like she was right beside him. Today was an inbetween day. She wasn't looking solid, but rather, thin, as though time was beginning to wear through her.

"They're at the bottom of our society in Tethe'alla," Aster explained. "It's—it's a caste system."

Her lips pressed into a tight line. "Are they slaves?"

"Technically? No."

He'd never seen her angry before, but he thought he was seeing it now. It wasn't an open, loud thing, like a lot of people's. Hers was subtle, hard, all in the eyes and the set of her jaw. "Why are they treated like that?"

"I don't know." Aster didn't approve of it, but that was the way the system worked. It's the way the world was. And you couldn't make changes that big. It just didn't happen to regular people like him or like any of the other researchers here, or the students in the university. They were all too ordinary for this. "The Pope of the Church was the one that started the laws."

"The Pope?" she repeated. "Of what Church?"

Aster stared at her in confusion then. "The…Church of Martel? The only Church?"

"He made those laws?"
"Yes. It was—early when he got into power, I hear, but that was before I was even born. He advocated hard against half-elves, even got the Chosen to back him on the issue. It was sudden. Before that—the half-elves were—well, they weren't great, but they were well-treated." Aster remembered the history books that he'd had to study in school, had read the chapters on the Half-Elven Subjugation. He remembered the grainy photographs of families being ripped apart and stubborn, sad eyes staring at the cameraman in silent defiance. "The only reason that they're not officially slaves is for public image. The Pope—he hates them. They have almost no rights, but the rights that they have are enough to keep the image of a rightful caste system alive."

(He's seen it all, has seen it since he was a child. Has seen that the way half-elves are treated and he doesn't like it. He's seen how people accept it, don't question it. Some of the older people do, people who remember a time before there even was a caste system, but there aren't enough of them to make a difference)

"Why don't you fight it?" Martel's eyes burned directly through him, anger and passion making her look more solid.

"Fight what? The Pope? The entire Tethe'allan government? By myself? What makes you think I'd win? That I would ever even have a chance?"

"Not by yourself," she added quietly.

"Right. Me and a ghost. My bad."

"Don't be so cynical," she snapped. "Are you really going to just stand by and let this keep happening?"

"I can't make things happen. I'm not—not politically powerful or influential. I can't motivate people."

"Have you ever tried?"
"Martel, look at me. I'm not exactly inspiring."

"It doesn't matter. What matters is that people see you. If one person can get that kind of bravery, they see that. They see that they can do it too. It's when people sit by and do nothing that those governments win."


Richter and Aster began working together during a terribly humid summer. The air conditioning was out—of course—and they kept the windows open in hopes of inviting in an ocean breeze. Martel would peer curiously over their shoulders—or around Richter, in his case because he was way too tall for his own good. When Richter wasn't around, she would ask questions; Martel was a curious sort.

But a lot of her time these days was spent wandering the Academy. Particularly the basement. Aster wasn't sure if she hoped the half-elves down there would see her or what, but she always went.

Once or twice, when they needed supplies, Aster would go down there—Richter refused. He wouldn't go back down there if you paid him—and he'd see her, often curled in a corner, watching them with infinitely sad eyes.

(Things had been supposed to get better. Her boys—they promised her. But this—this is almost right back where they started…)


Aster wasn't surprised when she materialized on the roof. It had been disconcerting, once, how her hair didn't move in the wind, but he got used to it. "What do you know about the Great Kharlan Tree?" he asked.

She stiffened and hunched over, just a little. "Why?"

"These earthquakes and the lightning storms that have been happening lately?" The earthquakes in particular had been hitting Sybak rather hard. They hadn't caused a tsunami yet—thank the Goddess—but it had weakened the foundation beneath one of the sea walls and there were neighborhoods beginning to flood. "We think it has something to do with the Summon Spirits."

"Uh-huh." Martel could feel it, in a distant way. The mana felt stronger in some places, not as thin.

"We know most of the Spirits. Gnome, Volt, Shadow, Celsius and the like. We even know about Maxwell—well, Richter doesn't seem entirely convinced he exists because there's been no proof of him in something like a couple thousand years." A little under four thousand, to be exact. The last time Mithos had spoken to Maxwell had been to hold the ruins of the capital he tore apart in the sky, as a safe haven for half-elves. "But there is one thing I've found mentioned in a couple of old elven texts that mention a Spirit at the Great Tree."

Martel thought about the Spirit they'd met, not friendly exactly, but roughly charming. Thought about how he'd sat with them for the few nights they stayed beneath the cover of the dying Tree—still magnificent—and would sometimes jump into the conversation.

"…I know that it died during the War." She knew they called it something different these days. The Kharlan War. But in her memory, there had only ever been one War. "I know that it did have a Spirit attached to it."

"Do you know the Spirit's name?"

"…Ratatosk. Guardian of the Great Tree and Lord of Monsters." And depending on which title he was using, he could be in turns quiet—not docile, exactly and never polite—or be all power and terror.

Aster looked sideways at her, green eyes questioning. He'd turned into a handsome young man, her new boy. Never tall, but with a heart-shaped face and a fierce passion for his work. (He reminds her quite a bit of Mithos, when he had been younger than Aster is right now. All pale hair and bright eyes with too much genius and she misses her little brother more than ever) "Is he still alive?"

"In a manner of speaking."

Aster blinked. Martel sounded almost…angry. "What does that mean?"

"The Great Tree died. And with it, I think, a piece of Ratatosk."

"That makes sense, I suppose, if he was the Guardian of it." Aster couldn't tell why it made her so upset, didn't understand and he didn't know how to phrase the question to find out why.

(The Tree is dead because people can't see past anything. And she hates it. Hates that nothing's changed. Hates that a friend—for Ratatosk had become that—had to be hurt for it. Hates that her brother has the only chance the world has…)


The world was shattering apart. Or, that's what it felt like.

Earthquakes had become a fairly common occurrence these past few months. But this one was the worst yet. A few buildings near the already shaky ground of the sea wall had collapsed. Fires had begun breaking out. There was a rift running through the street in the arts district.

The ocean roared, thunder rumbling through what seemed to be Aster's very bones. He and Richter were scrambling to get out of the Academy, out of the very city. Chaos ran rampant through the streets. People trying to figure out what to do, where to go. The people who had already figured it out were trying to get the panicking ones together. It wasn't until they heard screaming that Richter and Aster froze in their tracks.

The half-elves in the basement. That door was kept locked from the outside.

With a glance, they started running. Aster typed in the code on the keypad and Richter shoved the door open all the way. A fire had started in the corner and Richter waded through the people to get to it. His knowledge of water magic wasn't great, but it would help contain it at the very least. Aster scooped up a kid to help them run.

He passed the kid off to one of the half-elves. "Get to the city gates," he told them.

Another shock shuddered through the ground. Everyone wavered, catching their balance. After a long, tense moment, the world settled, the waves calming a little. The storm clouds broke, rain falling and beginning to put the fires out. Aster was halfway down the stairs to the basement when Richter came out, exhausted, a fire extinguisher dangling from his hand. The half-elf grinned a little. "I figured this was a better idea than magic."

Aster laughed and it came out slightly hysterical. "C'mon. Let's get out of here."

It seemed like hours before they reached the city gates. Before Aster's legs collapsed out from under him, muscled shaking with exhaustion. Richter staggered to him, falling to his knees, wet hair plastered to his skin and in his mouth.

"Are you alright?" Richter finally asked.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. You?"

Richter pulled the locks of hair out of his mouth, nose wrinkling. "Pretty much. I'm gonna sleep for days though."

"Sounds like a plan."

(In all the confusion, Aster forgets about Martel)


It was a few days of confusion and cataloging what survived and what hadn't when Aster thought of her again.

"Martel?" he asked aloud, voice quiet. He was on his own in a smoke-damaged room of the Academy. She was a ghost. She couldn't have been hurt, could she?

There was no answer.


The next day, a woman named Raine Sage and the President of the Lezareno Company, Duke Regal Bryant, came to visit the Academy.

The president was there to help them take stock of the damages. He promised the mayor to help them rebuild.

Raine Sag was there to explain something impossible. The Church of Martel was a lie. A lie invented by a madman named Mithos Yggdrasill—the man who was also one of the Heroes of the Kharlan War—in order to create viable mana lineages so he could revive his sister, Martel. Sylvarant was not the moon. It was, in fact, another world, the other half of the world that Mithos had split into two.

It was absurd. Insane. Impossible.

But somehow, it wasn't. Something in Aster's mind believed her.


He dreamed that night. Vividly.

He saw a seedling, tiny and fragile. But overlaid upon it was a gorgeous, enormous tree, its branches thick as most trees' trunks, its leaves seeming to almost glow. Kneeling by the seedling was a familiar woman, pale green hair falling down her back. A whitewood staff was in her hand.

"Martel?"

The woman turned. It was both the Martel that Aster knew and it wasn't. The same features, but they were too perfect, too polished. She watched him for a moment, eyes too green. "…My soul knows you."

Her voice wasn't right. No accent tugged on the consonants and it was a little too high. "Who are you?"

The woman stood. She was tall and willowy, flowers and grass sprouting up with every step she took towards him. "My name is Martel."

"But not the one I know, right?"

Her smile was a little sad. "No. The Martel you know is just one of the many souls inside me. I am the Spirit of the new Tree."

"New Tree?" Raine Sage had mentioned something about that in her impossible story.

"Yes. The Tree is small," Martel the Spirit turned to the seedling behind her. "And it will take a great deal of time before it is able to distribute and control the amount of mana that the old Tree could."

"What can I do?" He was just a scientist. He didn't know how to do magic. He'd never worshipped the Spirits, as some half-elves still did.

"You are more powerful than you think, Aster."

"What? How?"

The Spirit's hands came to cradle his face, soft and hardly there. "You have the power of belief. You believe in something better, something more. And you have the intelligence and the courage to follow that belief to the truth."

"I don't understand."

She kissed his brow and—for a brief moment—her eyes flashed from green to his Martel's hazel. "You'll understand. But it's time to wake up."

"Wait—Martel" The Spirit turned back and it was his Martel again. "I-Is this goodbye? For good?"

"Well," And that is his Martel's smile, enigmatic and soft. "Nothing is certain. I can't say if this is goodbye forever. I certainly hope not. But this is goodbye for now."


When Aster awoke, his heart hurt and his eyes stung with tears. He hadn't known how much he would miss his ghost, his first real friend. Richter stirred beside him, squinting without his glasses.

"'ster?" the redhead murmured groggily. "Y'okay?"

Aster curled on himself, arms around his knees. "Just a dream."

Richter sat up all the way, leaning so he could see Aster's face. "…Must've been a pretty bad one."

Aster gave a watery chuckle. "Yeah."

Long, familiar fingers combed through Aster's hair. "Anything I can do?"

(People are wrong. About Richter. They say he's cold. Heartless. And yeah, he can get a little icy, can shut people out in a second if he wants, but Aster's never known anyone with a bigger heart)

The blond shook his head and gently pushed Richter so that he was lying back down. Aster burrowed his nose in his lover's collarbone, tangling their legs together before tugging the sheet back over them. He felt Richter relax beneath him and long arms wrapped around him. It took a long time for Aster to go back to sleep.

There were no dreams waiting for him. He wasn't sure whether he was happy about that or not.


"If there is a new Tree," Aster began slowly over lunch, stealing one of Richter's orange slices. Everyone's rations are low for now. "Then wouldn't it stand that there's a new Spirit to counterpart it, just like the old tree?"

There was a lot of fire damage to the city—the entire thing looked like it had been washed in ash and soot—but the Lezareno Company is good at finding workers to help rebuild. The problem came in with the flooding in the lower districts. The water hadn't receded yet and until it did, they couldn't get to the broken sections of the sea wall to rebuild and the ocean hadn't settled yet, so the water levels were rising a little at certain points of the day before they receded. One step forward, two steps back.

Richter swallowed down a hot gulp of soup. "I suppose. Why?"

Richter and Aster shared everything. Minus the fact that Aster had never told his lover about Martel. "I was thinking—what if all these weather and mana problems were because the new Spirit doesn't have the power it needs to distribute and regulate that mana yet?"

"Where are you going with this?"

"What did that manuscript you found say about Ratatosk?"

"He's Lord of Monsters and the Guardian of the Giant Kharlan Tree." Richter had an excellent memory—better than Aster's.

"So he holds both titles. The Giant Kharlan Tree died, according to Raine Sage." Most of the world was conflicted about whether they believed her or not. "And I believe her. If she's right, then Ratatosk would lose his guardianship of the Tree."

"With you so far."

"But monsters aren't any more abundant or absent than they were. They've always been pretty consistent as to species and location."

"Uh-huh."

"This leads me to believe that Ratatosk still exists in some form, as the Lord of Monsters. But there has to be a Spirit for the Tree, so a new one was probably born and is without the power and control that Ratatosk had."

"What's your point?"

"If you follow Freitmann's Theory, lineages keep power. The new Tree is most likely an offspring of the Kharlan Tree."

"Which would mean that half of this Tree's genes come from the old one." Richter was no biologist. He didn't even like biology, but he knew enough of the basics to follow through with Aster's thought process.

"Right. Ratatosk, as former Spirit of the Kharlan Tree, should, theoretically, be able to control at least some of the mana. Until the new Spirit learns how to."

"Aster, that's a very sound theory, but how exactly do you propose you find Ratatosk to propose this theory to him? He doesn't even have a temple, like the other Spirits do. Hell, most of the world doesn't even know who Ratatosk is."

Aster sucked his teeth. He hadn't thought of that. "…You make a good point." He played with the orange rind as he thought. "…I can't even imagine where he would be. We could try thinking of it logically." The blonde grabbed a napkin and fished a pen from his lab coat packet. He sketched out a rough map of Tethe'alla. "Okay. So. The Temples."

"Volt is one the islands off our coast," Richter pointed.

Aster put a dot, labelling it. "And Celsius is on the Flanoir continent." No one knew where, specifically. Conditions were too extreme for many scientists to make it out there.

Another dot, another label.

"Gnome is on the Meltokio Peninsula." Dot. Label. "And Shadow?"

"Somewhere in the Fooji mountains." Dot. Label."

"And Origin is in the elven lands." Dot. Label.

They both stared at the map. "You notice something?" Richter asked.

"What?"

"Origin, the King, is almost in the center. And the others almost—encircle him. Except for the east. And for nothing to be on the King's right hand?"

"The only things out there are Altamira and the Lezareno company mines."

"Officially, yes." Aster was good at following logic. Richter could put pieces together like nobody's business. "But did you ever hear about the Otherworldly Gate?"

Of course he had. It was a commonly told story to get children to obey their parents. "Yes."

"It's rumored to be near Altamira somewhere. And what if the Gate leads to Ratatosk's Temple?"

"That's great and all, but how do you propose we find the Otherworldly Gate?"

"It's been scattered all over history. We should be able to trace its location somewhat accurately."

Aster ran a finger over the map. "There is a slight problem."

"What?"

"This isn't accurate anymore. And no one knows this new world well enough to get us to Altamira. And what if the Otherworldly Gate's gone?"

"Then my theory's wrong. And there are people who know it well enough. The Lezareno Company has been going around, helping rebuild the cities that were damaged. They should have a decently reliable map." Richter stood. "I'll get a message to them. Can you find out more on the Gate?"

"No problem."


The Otherworldly Gate existed. Aster shouldn't have been as surprised as he was when Richter told him. After all, the Heroes of the New World had to have had some way of going from world to world.

And they weren't wrong. It was near Altamira.

"And you still want to go out there?" Richter asked as he came back from a shower, squeezing the water from his hair with a towel.

Aster, reading old reports on the Gate and ancient manuscripts that they got from the elven library when the elves brought their books to Sybak while Heimdall recovered from the Tower of Salvation's collapse, glanced up. "Well, yeah. We can't just sit here and do nothing."

Richter sat on the edge of the bed, Aster's thigh a warm point of contact between them. "When did you turn into a hero?"

(…and you have the intelligence and courage to follow that belief to the truth…)

Aster shrugged a little. "I dunno. It just—I feel like I have to be the one to do this, y'know?"

Richter gestured for Aster to move. The blond scooted over so that Richter had room to lean against the headboard and stretch out his long legs. "I don't, but—I'm with you."

"…You don't have to go. You know that, right?" Aster told him. "If you want to stay here and research and stay safer—"

"Are you deaf?" Aster turned his head to look at Richter, who was setting his glasses on the nightstand. "I'm with you. Now, is it possible to put that stuff down so we can get some sleep?"

Aster couldn't help the grin that threatened to overtake his face. He set the books on the windowsill. "It is. But I have a counteroffer. " Aster swung a leg over Richter so he was straddling his hips. "Something better than sleep."

"Well, when you put it like that…"


Aster never dreamed of Martel again, the new Spirit or otherwise. But he did dream of that Tree he'd seen. But it was different. Larger. And there was a person there—nut brown skin, autumn leaf hair with green eyes, green like the leaves on that Tree, a green that glowed gold on the edges—who sat beneath its enormous roots.

But even as he watched, the Tree rotted, twisted and the person shifted, changed. Sometimes into another person. Sometimes into another species. Sometimes it was a slow transformation, other times, it was flicker-fast. But the part that stayed the same was the newly red eyes. Red like sunsets. Red like rage. Red like blood.

Aster woke up almost screaming from those red red eyes.


"You're Ratatosk, Summon Spirit of the Giant Kharlan Tree, correct?"

The red red eyes flickered in interest. (No one's called him by that name in a very long time. Some four thousand years…) "Some have called me by that name."

The other mortal—a half-elf, by the looks of those triangular ears and the mix of human and elven features—spoke up. "Ratatosk, the current balance of mana in the natural world is in a state of chaos." (Do they think that he can't feel it? That just because he's a broken half of a Spirit that he can't still feel the thrum of mana?) "We believe your power is necessary to restore the correct balance."

"Even if I adjust the balance of mana, the world will die without a tree to sustain it." (And he has no Tree. Not anymore)

Aster remembered the seedling, remembered Martel's too-perfect face. "We've heard that a new Tree has been born." The eyes flicked to him. "But as far as we can tell, the new Spirit doesn't possess your power to control the flow of mana."

(Of course she doesn't. He is mana. Do they think monsters can exist without mana? That the Tree is the source? It is merely the conduit. But the world is no longer his problem) "So?"

"So please, use your Centurions to restore the balance of mana! If you do that, then the world will be saved!" Aster was shaking. He didn't know if Richter could tell, but he was. He was terrified. How had the Heroes of the New World done this? Stood up to Spirits, to immortal beings? To angels? Where had they found their courage?

"Awaken, Centurions! Restore the bond with your monsters and repair the mana of the world!" Ratatosk's voice thrummed with power. Aster had never been able to feel mana like Richter could when he cast spells, but when Ratatosk spoke, he could. It was in his bones, his very veins. "And then, go and eradicate the mankind who destroyed my Tree!"

"W-what are you doing?" Martel had said something about Ratatosk. About after the Great Tree withered and died. (The Great Tree died. And with it, I think, a piece of Ratatosk…) Was the Spirit mad now?

The red red eyes burned cold and vicious. "You want to save the world, right?"

The indignation came after the shock settled. Perhaps brave people found their bravery only because they got over their shock before other people. "Yes, but you don't have to kill everyone to do that!"

"Who destroyed the Giant Kharlan Tree? It was the humans and the half-elves! That's why they deserve the same treatment themselves."

"But a new World Tree has been born in the world!"

"And it's just a matter of time before you humans and half-elves destroy that one as well. Don't you understand? You people are nothing more than parasites on this world."

"That's not true!" Richter was staring at him. Aster could feel the familiar eyes burning on him in confusion. Where the words were coming from, he didn't know. But they could no longer keep silent. (…when people sit by and do nothing that governments win…) "Humans and half-elves are a very important part of—"

"Silence!" The world flashed white, the air trembling with power. Everything spun.

He didn't want to leave. Not with Richter still there, by himself. He wanted to see Sylvarant. Wanted to see the new Tree with his own eyes.

A familiar woman appeared before him. His voice wasn't working. Why? It was working fine two minutes ago.

She knelt beside him, green hair falling over one shoulder. There was no smile on her face, but there was a terrible solemnity to the green (Hazel?) eyes. "Hello, Aster."

He wanted to smile, wanted to say, 'Look, we did manage to see each other again.' He couldn't.

But maybe she heard him anyway. Her hand came to his forehead, brushing hair from his eyes. "I wish it were under better circumstances. I wish this wasn't happening."

His body felt far away. Maybe it wasn't his anymore? Did he have a body? He must have. He remembered feeling things. Remembered Richter. Remembered hands and lips on him, remembered cold because the Academy's heater sucked. Remembered how heavy he'd felt after the earthquakes.

'What happens now?' he thought. Was there a heaven, as the Church of Martel preached?

"I never told you all that I was," Martel the Spirit said. "I am the Spirit of the new Tree. But I'm also the Spirit of the souls that were sacrificed for it. Of everyone that got caught in the middle of this war of hatred."

'I don't understand.'

"You're coming with me, Aster. You don't deserve this. I'm sorry." Her power wasn't a flash. It was a glow, gentle and overwhelming.

He wasn't sure where he ended up next. But there were other people there. He heard them. Heard them talking, crying, laughing. There was only one familiar voice. His ghost. His friend. He couldn't see her and he wasn't sure if she could hear him.

But hey, at least he wasn't alone, wherever he was.