I don't own anything!
Author's Note: Trying out a new alternate universe in which Mithos dies instead of Martel. It would affect things greatly, so I think Yuan would still be quite loyal to Martel, if not Cruxis, and would be the double agent in the party and Kratos would be heading the Renegades after Anna's death. Therefore, Lloyd would grow up in the Renegades, and would go to Iselia at around age thirteen or something to integrate there and keep an eye on the Chosen. Of course, Lloyd being Lloyd, he genuinely makes friends and loves it there.
I don't have many details for this universe yet, and I expect I'll play around some more with it, but this is my first foray into it. Let's see how it goes.
When they told her her story was
written in the stars,
She went to the heavens and
crushed each one with her bare
Stars have no power over her,
the night sky is hers now,
and she will carve it with
constellations of her own.
-never tell a goddess her fate by K.S.
They'd rescued her in Ozette. Tears on her face and skittish of humans. Not that she could be blamed—Ozette was horrific to half-elves. When they asked her for her name, she'd just said, "Martel."
"Like the goddess," Lloyd beamed. It was a fairly common name, but Lloyd had never actually known someone with that name. "The one who hid the Hero away in the sky."
That was the story, after all. After the Hero Mithos sacrificed himself to end a terrible war, the Goddess Martel decreed that he had earned his place among the stars. And when the world needed to be saved, the Chosen One simply had to make her way up the Tower of Salvation, which led all the way to Hero's star, and if they had proven themselves worthy, the Hero and all of the Goddess' angels would soar down from the heavens to regenerate the world.
Martel was quiet, for a while. At Altessa's house, Raine looked her over for injuries, but found nothing worse than smoke inhalation and dehydration. "Genis—he's your son?" Martel asked finally. She hadn't spoken more than to answer Raine's questions on her health.
"My brother, actually."
"Sorry—I didn't mean to offend. I can imagine how the reverse would sound if someone asked me that about my son."
"You had a son?" Martel looked young for that, but Raine had never been a very good judge on things like that. And besides, half-elves aged differently than humans. While she and Raine appeared to be similar in age, she could be much older.
"I married young. I was very impulsive back then."
Raine's eyes were all too knowing. "What happened to him? Your son?"
"Ozette isn't kind to half-elves."
"All of Tethe'alla isn't," Raine added gently. She didn't need more elaboration on the story. She had known firsthand the cruelty of humans. "But you're safe now. Among friends."
"Is it true, what Genis said back in Ozette?" Martel kept her eyes on her hands, gently twisting the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. "That you and he are friends with the humans in your group?"
"Yes. Colette, Lloyd and Genis grew up together. I was their teacher. And the others—well. It's been quite a journey."
"You must tell me the story sometime." Martel's smile was soft-edged and not entirely genuine. Raine found it rather impressive that she managed to smile at all. Perhaps she was like Colette, powering her way through with hope. "It sounds like a doozy."
(It hurts to see Genis. He is like Mithos very much, in his dry, childish humor and his bright laughter when he, Colette and Lloyd are huddled over the table talking. And Lloyd—he reminds her so much of his father. Of when Kratos' smile was shy-bright and his voice warm. Of when he and Yuan would wrestle and argue playfully, and when he would hoist Mithos up onto his shoulders to watch the fireworks that came with the end of the war. It has been a long time since Martel has been with her boys, and she finds that there is a fierce ache for them in her gut)
"I'm sorry about your parents," Martel said in Palmacosta.
"Nothing to be sorry about," Raine said shortly. She eyed the mug of tea that Martel held out before accepting it. It was becoming autumn in Sylvarant, though it was mid-spring in Tethe'alla, and the ocean breeze brought a chill to the otherwise warm night. The inn had one of its windows half open to entice the breeze—apparently they appreciated the coolness after their hot days.
Martel took a seat beside Raine in the lobby of the inn. After being woken in the middle of the night to search for Raine, who had found the place where she and Genis had been abandoned, and to now be in Sylvarant where it had been afternoon when they crashed into the soil—it had made all of their sleep schedules run a bit wild.
"I'm not sorry because you lost them. I'm sorry that they were the type of people who would abandon you. I—I can't imagine ever abandoning my son."
Martel spoke with a frankness that Raine rather appreciated. No circling the topic, no vague questions or mincing words. It made her a bit easier to talk to, much like Regal. "And I can't imagine doing that to Genis."
"I think it's pretty incredible," Martel began slowly, eyes on the empty fireplace. "How people can become more than what they were born as. Or born to."
Raine finished a sip and asked, "How so?"
"…One of my best friends growing up—his dad. Well. He was a monster in a person's skin. I remember…when his wife learned that she was pregnant, my best friend came to me, so afraid that he was going to be the same as his father was."
Martel's smile was a faint, fond thing that didn't quite match the sadness in her eyes. "No. He was…a wonderful father. I always admired him for that—for becoming more than what society believed he would be because of his parentage."
"You have an odd idea of cheering people up."
"Is it working?" Martel's smile shifted into something sly.
"…A bit," Raine replied honestly.
(The thing is, Raine has never had a friend her age. Not one that knows Everything. In Iselia, while she had been friendly with most everyone, she hadn't had anyone close to be friends with. Her time had always been spent with Genis or with her students. She and Genis had been invited to dinners every now and again, but they had always been in hiding. Raine knows how even the kindest people can turn when they find out the truth.
But Martel. They are like funhouse mirror images of each other. So similar in their experiences, and at the same time, not the same at all)
"I've never heard pipes like that before." Sheena was used to rising early—training began at dawn in Mizuho, and the habit had never quite left her—and she'd come down to find Martel sitting on the sea wall outside the inn.
Martel stopped playing abruptly. "…They were my mother's. I don't know where she got them."
Sheena peered curiously at the flute. A pale wood, tied together with braided strands of colorful twine. "They're beautiful. And you play excellently."
"Thank you. Do you play any instruments, Sheena?"
Sheena shook her head. "Not properly. I can pick out a tune on a piano, and I know some songs on traditional Mizuho drums for ceremonies, but I wouldn't call myself a musician."
Martel propped her head in her hand. "The only stories I ever heard from Mizuho were scary ones to keep us from staying out after dark."
"Yeah, I bet." She smiled crookedly. "Am I as terrifying as you imagined?"
"Oh yes," Martel said dryly. "I'm shaking in my boots."
Sheena's laughter echoed in the early morning. "I strike terror into the hearts of men! Flee before me!"
"Well it's a very good thing I'm a woman," Martel laughed. "And therefore, am not so easy to strike terror into."
"Ah, you found my one weakness," Sheena sighed. She tilted her head, sniffing. "I smell breakfast. C'mon, O brave-hearted musician."
"You make me sound like a character in an old story." Martel pocketed her flute as she stood, following Sheena back into the inn and through to the kitchen. The stoves and fireplace made the room much warmer than the cool outside.
They managed to beg some eggs and toast from the cook, and were already finished eating by the time the others came down. Martel was fun to talk to, Sheena decided, with a dry, sardonic humor that was kind of unexpected in someone like her. Sheena wondered how she was even able to laugh and joke after Ozette's destruction; it took a strong type of person to do that.
The others came down in odd intervals. Regal's hair was wet from a shower—he was often up at or before dawn for training too—and Lloyd was, predictably, the last one down. Sheena mentioned Martel's music as she passed Regal the butter.
Zelos waggled his eyebrows at Martel. "Well, y'know, I'm not a bad pianist myself. You and I could make one sweet duet."
Martel raised her left hand, where her wedding band glinted. "Nice try."
Neal found them at the inn and though he declined their offer of breakfast, he told them of his suspicions of the Palmacosta Ranch returning to operation.
"We'll take a look," Lloyd assured him.
(There are moments when Lloyd reminds Martel so much of Kratos as he had been growing up, full of passion and stubborn ideals, full of kindness and love for other people)
"I don't know what a ranch is," Martel said slowly. "But it sounds dangerous."
"It shouldn't be," Lloyd said. "We destroyed the ranch, the last time we were there. We just want to make sure."
"We is too many people, Lloyd." Sheena tossed a look at Raine. "Raine likes that the ranches come with a self-destruct option."
"It's just being thorough!" Raine protested.
"Regardless—" Martel slipped her pipes out and handed them to Raine. "Please, take this with you. It's become something of a good luck charm. My mother always told me to play it if I ever felt in danger. I used to think it was a silly thing, but—just in case."
"We can't take that. It's too precious," Lloyd protested.
"Then bring it back to me. Call it insurance."
Raine nodded. "Alright. We will."
"That was very brave of you to come after us," Regal told Martel. He had a gash on his leg from one of Rodyle's dragons that Martel was tending to. She'd insisted that Raine shouldn't be using Healing artes, that she needed to rest and that none of the injuries were serious enough that she couldn't take care of them.
"…It was nothing," Martel said. Her stitches were neat and careful.
"When we were going to rescue Raine, at the Otherworldly Gate, your argument to come was that you were a doctor."
Martel's lips quirked a little. "Did you think I was lying?"
"I considered it a possibility. A female half-elven doctor in Ozette? The odds are rather long."
"The half-elven community in Ozette wasn't what it was thirty years ago." Martel leaned away to reach the bandages, wrapping his leg in smooth, practiced motions. "We were too small to be picky. I trained under the doctor in Ozette before he retired. None of us ever learned much magic though, so I can't Heal like Raine can."
She finished tying the bandages and sat back. "Okay. You're all done. Try to keep the weight off that leg and sleep with it elevated for the next few days. It'll help reduce any swelling."
"Thank you, Martel."
Though Regal's balance was incredible, trying to stand while in handcuffs and favoring one leg is a difficult thing, so Martel offered her arm as a handhold. Regal was surprised at the strength in her arm, solid and unwavering as oak when he pulled himself up. Then again, she was likely very used to this with her patients.
"Are you good to walk?" Martel asked.
Regal nodded. "Yes, I should be fine."
Raine was next after Regal. She'd been watching Martel do her work with a careful eye. Martel was an efficient and tidy doctor, and when Lloyd had tried to wiggle out of his stitches, Martel had only had to give him a Look before he sat still.
"I'm sorry about your flute," Raine said, holding out her arm. The burn wasn't bad, but it did cover from her mid bicep down to a little bit past her elbow. The flute had been broken in the fighting, though Raine hadn't discovered it until they were nearly back in Palmacosta.
Martel began crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. "It's alright. It was quite old."
"Still. It was precious to you."
"The important thing isn't the object. It's my memories." After adding half an apple gel to the herbs and continuing to mix it until it was a proper salve, Martel turned to Raine. "I can still remember my parents, so that's okay. And I can always find another set of pipes."
The salve was cool on the burn, and the apple gel would certainly help fight against infection. "Once we're all healed up," Raine began. "We're going back to Tethe'alla. Do you know Altessa, the dwarf?"
"Yes, he made many things for Ozette."
"We were going to talk to him about letting you stay for a while. Until you get back on your feet." Raine didn't know what Martel would do. She had no home, no family left. Would Martel want to start in a new city? In Sylvarant, perhaps? She was an excellent doctor, and people always needed those.
"I suppose I am sort of dead weight in comparison to you guys."
"Our journey doesn't have much room for passengers."
"Yes, well. I suppose I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
Raine frowned a little. "We can drop you off somewhere else if you like."
Martel shook her head, setting her salve down and grabbing bandages. "No it's stupid. I'm not a fighter, or a Healer. I'm just a doctor. I just feel a bit useless sitting put, but I'll find a way to make it work."
"Doctors are far from useless."
"I know that. It's why I became one in the first place. I thought I could make a difference. And now—what you guys have all told me about Cruxis, and the Church? Just makes me think how much bigger the world—worlds—are than what I thought they were."
"It's a big readjustment. It will take time," Raine said as Martel finished wrapping her arm.
"Mm. I've always been a little bit impatient."
Altessa was more than happy to have Martel stay with him, despite her protests about imposing.
"It's just me and Timothy in this house. Believe me, we have the space."
Timothy was a bit off-putting. A beautiful boy with blonde hair that was kept in a very short ponytail. His sky blue eyes were empty, and he spoke in abrupt, mechanical sentences. Despite the fact that he was perfectly polite, it always felt a bit strange to be around him for very long.
Martel got along well with them, helping out by cleaning the house which left Timothy the time to help Altessa with his projects. She went fishing for dinner, and once, came back with a few rabbits as well.
"I didn't know you could hunt," Altessa said as he helped her skin them.
"I'm no master at it," Martel replied. "But I know a few snares. I thought it might be a nice change from fish all the time. Going to the market in Ozette was…a risk that I preferred to avoid if I could."
"Ozette was not kind to outsiders. Even so, I am sorry for the part I played in its destruction."
Martel was silent for long minutes, her long hair tucked up into a messy half bun to keep it out of the way as she cooked. Finally, she said, "…I'm not. Sorry, I mean. Goddess forgive me, but—I'm glad the village is gone. I wish my son could have escaped with me, but—I'm glad they're gone." Her next smile was flicker-fast and almost ashamed. "That's a really horrible thing for me to say, isn't it?"
"You are grieving, child. It is natural."
Martel didn't look at him, setting aside the fur—perhaps she could make a pair of gloves with them, or line a coat collar—and began efficiently removing the organs. "No one has called me that in a very long time."
"We are all still children from time to time."
"Master Altessa." The dwarf looked to Timothy, which is why he didn't see the white-knuckle grip Martel suddenly had on her knife. "I have finished welding the pieces together. I believe they are ready to be inserted into the machine."
Martel hooked a smile on her face and shooed Altessa away, saying that she would finish up with the rabbits. "We're having stew tonight, although I've been considering your garden, and it's rather sad honestly."
Timothy hadn't left the room, and his blue blue eyes were still on her. "I have remarked upon the garden to the Master in the past before. He believes that dwarves are not as good at growing things from the soil as they are at making things from it."
"Well, I can help with that."
And she did. Altessa's little garden, on the rocks outside his house, was given new, richer soil that she brought from the outskirts of Ozette, and the plants replanted properly to give their roots room to grow.
Altessa came out one day to find Martel on her knees in the dirt, weeding. "You certainly have a green thumb," he said, looking over the small garden.
"It started out as a necessity, but I found that I rather like gardening. It's calming to work with your hands."
Altessa's smile deepened the lines that age had carved into his face. "Yes, it is."
Whenever the group would return to Altessa's, Martel would click her tongue at any of their minor injuries—at least, the ones that Raine dubbed too minor to heal with magic. After all, if the body became too accustomed to being healed with magic, it stopped learning how to heal itself—and she would dress the wounds as they told her of their adventure.
They told her of the village full of Katz that they found, and of how a town called Luin was rebuilding.
"It's pretty incredible to see," Lloyd confessed as he brought in carrots and potatoes from the garden. They were still rather scrawny, but they looked better than they used to. "Those people are so strong to keep moving despite all the things they've been through."
"It sounds incredible," Martel said. Sheena peeled the potatoes while Martel scraped and chopped the carrots. "Perhaps, when it's rebuilt, you can take me to see it? It would be a fine sight, I imagine."
Sheena smiled across the table. She was planning on making some fried potatoes to go with the chicken that they'd brought. Since Ozette had been where Altessa got all of his supplies, they didn't have much out here to work with. Sometimes a trading caravan from Sybak would stop by, but it was rare. "Luin was one of the most beautiful cities in Sylvarant before the Desians got ahold of it. I think it'll be even more beautiful now."
"And it is rather inspiring," Regal said, holding the plates while he and Zelos set the table. "To see survivors working together like that. Even people who weren't from Luin have come all the way out to help them."
"You sound like you're thinking of a plan," Martel said.
"I am thinking that perhaps Tethe'alla has been too close-minded about their possibilities. For a world under a monarchy, we are rather divided in how we think of ourselves."
"You don't have to be afraid of saying 'Ozette'." Martel slid the carrot slices into the pan, the sizzle satisfying. "I won't break."
"My apologies. That was not my intention. But I found the difference in reaction a bit shocking. When Luin was destroyed, while it took a while for the word to get passed around, the people of Sylvarant banded together to try to help. Other villages or farms took in the survivors. The Tethe'allan government, however, hasn't even acknowledged that Ozette is gone."
Martel hummed. "Welcome to the world, Regal. We've never had any illusions that the King or the Pope cared about any of us."
(Martel is something of a mystery to Regal. Sometimes, when she speaks, she is shockingly bitter and starkly realistic. But there are other times that she sounds brighter, likely similar to the woman who had lived with her son, before Cruxis came down on them)
As soon as Lloyd stepped onto the pale blue glass surrounding the Eternal Sword, he was thrown backwards. Zelos and Sheena managed to catch him so he didn't go sprawling on the ground, but it was a close thing.
"You don't have the right."
They all looked up at Yggdrasill. Her golden hair fell over one shoulder to spread across the ground like a cloak, and she was casually sitting on the level above, one foot dangling. She leaned on a staff made of dark wood and tipped with a spiral horn. Her wings, bright a pink as they were, were hardly visibly from this angle except for the glow they emitted.
"The Eternal Sword cannot be touched by those who lack the right."
"She must be talking about the pact with Origin!" Sheena realized. "That's the Sword that Yggdrasill tricked Origin into giving her."
Her lips tilted into a smile. "Took you long enough, I suppose. Not that it matters. Origin is under Yuan's seal. Either way, it's impossible for you to wield that Sword, and without the Sword, you can't reunite the worlds. Sounds like a futile effort to me."
"You're the one making futile efforts to bring back the dead!" Lloyd retorted. "What does splitting the world into two even have to do with that?"
"The worlds are still in existence only because I split them into two," she replied, almost lazily.
"No. It's because they're split into two that there's not enough mana and everyone is suffering."
(He has his parents' courage, and Martel debates about whether to reward that courage or not)
"Stop and think about it for a moment. Why is there a shortage of mana?" Her eyes—a terribly bright green—went to Genis and Raine. "What do you two think?"
"…Because the development of magitechnology resulted in a large consumption of mana?" Genis answered hesitantly. He was trying to be brave, but bravery wasn't the easy thing that the old stories would have you think.
"A gald for the smart boy. Yes. That magictechnology led to a great war. War consumes an abhorrent amount of mana."
"Don't change the subject," Lloyd snapped. "There's a mana shortage because you won't let the Great Seed germinate."
Yggdrasill didn't even look fazed by his anger. "It's not changing the subject. Even if the Tree were to be revived, another war would just make it wither away and die. Wars are caused by two opposing forces, so therefore, I just isolated the two powers that caused the Kharlan War."
"By alternating between prosperity and decline, the development of magitechnology is subdued. Right?" Raine said.
"Very astute. Although at the present time, Tethe'alla has been prosperous for a little too long."
Lloyd stepped forward, chin inclined, shoulders back. "You're lying. You're sacrificing the Great Seed just to save Mithos."
"That's right." Yggdrasill stood, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. "Just like you abandoned the declining world of Sylvarant to save Colette. It's exactly the same; there's no shame in the decision of choosing someone you love over a world who couldn't care less."
"You're wrong!" Genis had finally found his voice. "It's not the same at all. Lloyd is looking for a way to save the world and Colette. You're just a coward who gave up!"
"No, it is the same," Yggdrasill said gently. "I am trying to create a world without discrimination. People fear and hate what is not 'normal', they are afraid of those who are different." She spread her wings, an iridescent false goddess. "Therefore, the solution is to make everyone the same. Exspheres eliminate the gene differences between the races and therefore, everyone will become the same lifeless beings. Discrimination won't exist, and therefore, peace. That is the great dream that I aspire towards."
"Everyone…will be the same?" Genis repeated. (He will never forget the manacles on his wrists, how defeated Raine had looked, being marched across the bridge. Kate's pale face in the lab, rarely coming aboveground.) "People would stop treating us differently?"
"Genis, don't fall for it," Lloyd reminded him sharply. "Remember how the Exspheres are made. They're at the cost of someone's life. Like Marble's. Don't you see what's wrong with that?"
"Revolutions require sacrifice." Yggdrasill smiled, a terrifyingly gentle thing. (That's the scariest part about her. That she is so very gentle. They all know how to handle violence. It's kindness—even just the veneer of it—that they don't know what to do with) "I'll give you a chance to leave. Leave the Chosen and go back to your world."
They all moved protectively in front of Colette. (Yggdrasill had not expected them to act any differently. She, more than anyone, understands loyalty and love) "You're not taking her."
In a fraction of a second, Yggdrasill was less than a foot away from them. "You don't get a choice," she said.
Yggdrasill's spells were blindingly strong, Holy Lances and Rays slicing with incredible accuracy. Raine's Barriers could hardly hold up to such directed force, though it kept them from losing any limbs. And even when Lloyd, or Regal managed to get in close, she would stab forward with the horn on her staff, or be a whirlwind of powerful strikes to knees, ribs, temples. Sheena would distract Yggdrasill temporarily so that Zelos could drag Regal out from a strike that dislocated his knee.
It took long moments to realize that Colette had collapsed. Sheena noticed first because she went for one of their combination attacks, and she wasn't there. Lloyd noticed second, having been thrown to the floor in distraction and he followed Sheena's eyes across the floor. "Colette!"
The distraction was enough—Mithos' vessel couldn't be damaged—and Yggdrasill didn't have time to react to Genis' Fireball. She cried out, hunching over the injured side.
"Lord Yggdrasill!" Genis froze as Pronyma stalked towards him. "You vermin! You may be one of us, but you will pay for your treachery!"
The next thing Genis knew, he was stumbling backwards after being shoved away, those bright pink wings in his face and Yggdrasill's hand had an iron grip on Pronyma's wrist. Yggdrasill's voice came out icier than the depths of Celsius' Temple. "Why are you here, Pronyma?"
"Ma'am—the, ah, there has been new activity on that certain matter—"
"Understood." When Yggdrasill dropped Pronyma's wrist, there was a burn there in the shape of her hand. Yggdrasill looked back at Lloyd, chin inclined, imperious as a queen. She reminded Genis of the paintings of the Goddess, in the Cathedral in Meltokio. "There isn't always a way to save everyone. Remember that. The path you're searching for, Lloyd, is nothing but an illusion."
She and Pronyma teleported away, leaving a ringing silence behind.
Raine watched how fidgety Martel seemed to be. She felt the broken remains of Martel's flute in her pocket, a flute she had found on the floor of the Tower of Salvation after their fight with Yggdrasill. The others were making dinner, but Martel lingered near the door to the spare beds where Timothy and Altessa were curing Colette.
"There's nothing more we can do," Raine told her. "They're the only ones that can put together the Crest." Raine had described the instructions, had repeated them several times to Altessa until he'd confirmed that he understood. But her worrying in the room wouldn't help his concentration, he said, and had sent her outside to wait with the others while he worked.
"It does make one feel awful useless, doesn't it?" Martel said softly. Sometimes, she would go to move, and then—almost imperceptibly—she would flinch and return to her previous position. The wounds from where Martel had been injured protecting Timothy from the falling rocks had been fully healed a week ago. "It's the worst feeling in the world, in my opinion."
Raine's fist clenched in the pocket of her coat. What a wonderful actress Yggdrasill was. After Colette was cured, she would find an excuse to look Martel over, just in case it honestly was just that her older injuries were still having small relapses. Then, when she knew for sure, she would tell the others. It was the only way.
Raine didn't get the chance, scrambling awake from a drugged sleep. The world swam when she stood up too quickly, and she could hear murmured voices outside. Genis steadied her, the drug having gone through his system quicker. He'd been too worried to eat much.
They made their way outside to find Yuan and Kratos standing near Lloyd. But all of them were staring at Martel.
"Quite the clever scheme." Martel's eyes were that queer cold that Yuan hated. The woman he'd fallen in love with hadn't had eyes like that. "It's hard to believe that you would betray me too, Yuan. Even if it is with Kratos."
"So it is true."
Martel looked over her shoulder at Raine and Colette, standing on the doorstep. Genis stepped out a moment later. "That what was true? You should have trusted your instincts, Raine—because I didn't trust you either. I'm almost disappointed that you didn't figure it out sooner."
From behind them came Altessa and Timothy. Martel's temper flared at the sight of the soulless doll and a ball of light flared from her hand, aimed directly at the both of them.
And then there was Timothy's voice—small and mechanical and still sounding too much like Mithos. "…Martel….saved me…Martel…save…me…"
Raine stared at her, horror still in her eyes. (It could have been Genis that Yggdrasill went after and then it would be her little brother lying there, dying) "How could you do that? You risked your life to save him!"
"Timothy," Martel scoffed and seeing those cold eyes in that kind face was jarring. "That doll looks so disturbingly like him. A failed vessel that couldn't accept Mithos' soul."
Lloyd's eyes narrowed, looking more like the Kratos of the present than the one from Martel's dusty memories. For all that he had been raised a Renegade, he had an instinctive trust of people that hadn't broken yet. The first Demon Fang he sent her way hit her—faster than he had ever been—but he pulled the second one at the last moment as Genis and Yuan both stepped between them.
"Lloyd, stop, please," Genis said and oh, how he sounded like Mithos then. Too small for the mission he was so hell-bent on. "She's still our friend."
He was sweet. More trust than any of the others, save perhaps Colette. Even after understanding that Martel had been lying to them since the beginning, he was still willing to give her a chance. A rare trait.
Martel felt the mana gather before the magic circle appeared, Pronyma shortly following. "Lady Yggdrasill, your wounds are not yet healed. Please, leave this to the angels."
Martel's eyes went narrow and sharp, reminding Pronyma that she knew her limits perfectly well, and that she didn't need to be uninjured to take every single person in the vicinity out. She glanced back at Kratos and Yuan, bloody and battered and she clenched her fists, the pressure of her wedding ring painful. (She can't stand to be there another minute, not with their eyes on her, regret and pain and grief almost palpable)
"Alright," she agreed. But she stopped, looking directly at Lloyd, who stood near his father, guarding him from the approaching angels. "'No life should be born for the sole purpose of dying.' That's what you said, right? I suppose you haven't stopped to think about what those Exspheres of yours are."
She saw the flash of rage in Kratos' eyes, watched anger twist Lloyd's face. He resembled his mother too, with his open face and strong nose.
"You're right, of course," Martel said softly. Her voice still carried out here, in the echoes off of the stone, and the stillness of the night. "In a perfect world, no one needs to die for nothing. But these worlds, the way they are now, the way they always have been—they're not perfect. Not remotely. That's why that perfect world needs to be made. Which is what I'm doing. Think about it."
That night would not be Martel's first sleeping away from her husband.
It was the first night sleeping without him and knowing with a grim certainty that he was never coming back.
It took him a week and a half to come to Derris-Kharlan. He looked tired, Martel thought. The skin around his lovely eyes was strained, and there was a tightness to his mouth that hadn't been there before. He came to the doorway of Mithos' room, where his always too-still body lay sustained by the Great Seed.
"Forget something?" Martel asked, voice as icy as she could make it.
"No." Yuan stood at the threshold, not quite stepping in. "But I believe I owe you an explanation, if you want it."
"Traitors don't get chances to speak in their defense."
"What about husbands?" He took a step inside. "Martel—hear me out. I understand that I betrayed you. That I've betrayed everything we worked towards for four thousand years. I need you to understand that it is not because I don't love you anymore. Because I do. I've loved you every day since we met. I don't think I know how to stop doing that, and I never want to."
"So why betray me?"
"Because this has all gone too far, Martel. We've become what we hated so much."
"It's for Mithos."
Another step closer. Yuan was close enough that they could touch other, if they wanted to. "Think about the things we've done. You do understand that they're horrible, right?"
Martel met his eyes unflinchingly. (It is something he has always admired about her. Her courage, her unwavering determination) "I'm not insane. I know perfectly well what I'm doing."
And that was probably the worst part.
"Would Mithos have wanted us to do it? All of this? All of the families we've torn apart, the suffering we've caused. All for him?"
"He can't tell us what he would want because he was killed, Yuan. Murdered in peacetime because people couldn't let go of their ridiculous hatred. And people aren't able to let that go. Not ever. Until we take away what makes us different."
"You're right logically." Yuan leaned his hips back onto a console, looking at her. It should terrify him, how they hadn't changed in four thousand years. But that wasn't the terrifying part, and that wasn't right. What they had become, they were monsters. "But people don't run on logic. Are you going to make everyone look exactly the same? Sound the same? Because even then, I think people will find a way to hate what they see and don't understand. The way to fix this isn't through making them the same, but teaching them to appreciate the differences."
"And how long will that take?" Martel asked. "How many more children like Mithos will be sacrificed on the altar of hope? We've tried to teach them. They don't want to learn. I'll take the sure vote over the possibility of one."
(This both is and is not the woman Yuan has known and loved for most of his rather long life. The woman who had traveled with them, had helped the peace treaty come about, had dreamed about the quiet days after the War—for there is only ever one war of distinction in their minds, despite four thousand years of discord in the worlds. This is the other part of her, the harder one with flint in her eyes and steel in her spine. The woman who had been a girl chased out of her home village with a little boy—hardly more than a toddler—on her heels. The woman who had defended the both of them, had stolen, and wounded and had become whatever she needed to be to make sure her little brother is safe)
"I can't agree with that," Yuan said quietly. "Not anymore."
"…Did Kratos finally convince you?" She wasn't blind. The Renegades were a powerful organization, in both worlds. In Sylvarant, there wasn't the resources to build such an organization, and in Tethe-alla—well. That world wasn't as united as Sylvarant was, despite what they liked to think. Someone on the inside had to have organized it. Kratos was the only logical choice, after the tragedy with Anna.
"His son did, actually. Kratos tried. Perhaps he got the idea started, but seeing Lloyd fight the way he does, for everyone—I think he can do it. This generation is different from all the ones that came before and that's the way it should be."
Yuan waited, watching her. Could she be persuaded too? But he saw her hands clench, saw the steel resettle itself in her spine and he knew she wouldn't be. Nothing and no one could change Martel Yggdrasill's mind when it had been made up. He'd hoped this would be an exception.
So he reached down for her left hand and raised it, pressing a lingering kiss to her knuckles, the metal of the wedding ring cold on his jaw. He squeezed her hand once before letting it fall and leaving the room.
(Someone, a very long time ago, tells Kratos and Yuan as they drill with dull swords in their hands—"It is better to break your own heart than your honor."—but they are too young to understand what a herculean effort that is. They have not yet had the threat of love being torn from them, have not yet seen how people change. They do not understand the difference between love and honor, do not understand how loving someone can be a bad thing.
They will learn.
Walking away from Martel—his wife, his partner, his confidant—is one of the most difficult things he's ever had to do. The hardest thing? Not going back to her that night after Altessa's)
Raine's first thought when they entered the chamber of the Great Seed, when she saw the boy in that machine was that he looked like Martel.
It was logical, of course. Siblings usually resembled each other, even if only a little. Look at her and Genis. But somehow, Raine hadn't expected to see Martel's likeness in Mithos Yggdrasill's face. He was young, but not as young as some would expect. Older than Genis anyway, old enough that he had begun growing into his limbs, and his face didn't quite have the childish roundness to it.
It was around the eyes, largely. Their shape and the arch of the brow. The high cheekbones. Even the nose, a bit. The Yggdrasill siblings had very elvish faces, long and lovely.
And Martel was right. Timothy did look disturbingly like her brother.
Martel was a ferocious fighter. They'd known this before, about Yggdrasill. Applying it to Martel somehow made it different. The quiet, strong woman that they'd found in Ozette—it was a powerful juxtaposition to this fighter, to the spells she wove so easily.
They should've known that she was simply stalling.
Martel stepped away from a killing blow—and it wasn't the first of this fight, of this day. Raine wondered if she was even comfortable killing up front like that. Killing and letting people die were two separate things.
"You're too late. Mithos is awake."
Pronyma crawled forward; there wasn't much left of her intact. One leg broken, the other most likely the same way. Deep burns and lacerations. That kind of determination was…incredible. "Lady Yggdrasill…Martel…please…"
Ice slashed across Martel's face. "You don't deserve to call me that name." Without a word, with hardly a thought, light burned in Martel's hand, and through Pronyma until there wasn't anything left of her. Not even ashes.
(That answers Raine's question. It shouldn't have been a question. She knows that Martel has survived a war. Has committed genocide on a mass scale. Horrors, documented and undocumented, for four thousand years. Martel is a Healer, like Raine is, but Raine doesn't think she can ever be capable of any of those things)
The pod opened and Colette stepped out. Except it wasn't Colette. She walked differently, carefully, like she wasn't accustomed to the length of her limbs, to her height.
"Mithos, you're back." The warmth in Martel's voice was almost too much to bear.
The voice that came out of Colette's mouth wasn't hers. It sounded too young, and terrified, and with the same lilt to the vowels that Martel had. "…Martel? What's—what's going on?"
"You're alright, Mithos." Martel took steps forward until she was right in front of Colette—Mithos. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Colette's hand went to her midsection, frowning in places that she never did. "I—it hurt. They hurt me."
Raine felt the flash of anger rather than saw it since Martel was facing away from her. "Yes, they did. You died, Mithos. Do you remember that?"
"…it was dark, where I was. I remember your voice. And—Kratos' too."
"Yes, we were there. A lot's happened and it'll take some time to explain."
Colette's eyes roamed over Martel, catching on the cuts and bruises they'd managed to leave. Nothing terribly threatening. The expression in those eyes wasn't Colette's. It was too sharp, too knowing. (Mithos is Martel's sister in more than name and looks and blood. He is her sister in that incredible intelligence, in the discerning mind that had created this technology, that had figured out the gene combinations for the mana signature)
"They hurt you," Mithos said, voice soft. It wasn't a question.
Raine stiffened as she felt a swell of mana. Even with the angelic spells, Colette couldn't summon it like that.
Nor had she ever been able to perform spells like that.
They had to move fast to avoid Indignations and Thunder Blades, cast as easily as if they were a kid's first Fireball. It was both harder and easier to fight the two siblings. Mithos didn't seem to be comfortable in his new body yet, and didn't quite know what to do with the chakrams, but his spellwork was viciously masterful. Martel's Barriers were iron solid and she kept up with them, defending her brother from the close-range fighting that he couldn't do.
They were losing. Badly. They'd been holding their own, but Sheena was out of commission, and Zelos was on his way to being the same way. Raine felt the familiar mana before she saw him. Yuan knelt by Sheena, a large magic circle glowing beneath them.
"Quickly!" he called, and Raine grabbed Genis' hand as they ran for the circle.
"But—Colette!" Lloyd hovered in indecision.
"You can't save her if you're dead," Yuan hissed, and Presea gave Lloyd a good push until he stood in the circle.
The instant they were all within the circle, Yuan's mana flared and the next moment, they were standing by the dais for the Eternal Sword. "You need to get out of here," Yuan told them. For an immortal angel, he seemed to have aged a thousand years in a few short weeks.
(They had been young, Raine realizes. She has known this logically, but now is the first time that she sees it. How old had they been when all this had happened? Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? Not much older than she is, at any rate)
"What about Colette?" Lloyd demanded.
"I don't know if there is a way to reverse the process," Yuan said.
"The longer he stays in there, the worse of a chance we have to bring her back, though." Lloyd wasn't stupid. He wasn't book-smart, but he was far from stupid.
"Getting yourselves killed doesn't help anyone," Yuan told him sharply. "Go home, Lloyd. The Renegades will hide you until you regain your strength."
"And then what? The seal for Origin is based on your life."
Yuan snorted a little; Kratos had managed to raise a good man, somehow. A man with his parents' stubbornness and his mother's goodness. What were the odds of that? "I've lived long enough, I think."
(Yuan has seen the boy grow, has been there for the awkward questions and the bright smiles. It is cruel, to ask him to kill him. To tell him that even if he doesn't do it, someone else will and he would have to watch. A good man wouldn't ask that of him, but it has been a long time since Yuan was a good man)
The Renegades took them in with ease, their Healer stitching them up and closing the wounds with a brisk ease and disapproving frowns. Lloyd just gave her a crooked, endearing smile. "You should see the other guy?" He wouldn't let her heal him, however, saying that the others needed the help more.
It was well after dinner that Regal sat awake, watching the fire. He could feel the aches in his bones, not just the muscles. Barely middle-aged, but his body was that of an older man. He tried to treat it well, tried to make sure that his martial arts didn't take the full toll they would, but there was no cure for age.
Yuan sat near him, a bottle of wine and two glasses. "Would you like some?"
Regal accepted gratefully, the warmth of the fire settling into his limbs and the warmth of the wine soaking his insides. "I have a question for you."
Yuan simply took a sip, waiting expectantly.
"Why did you continue to help her? What was it that you saw in Martel?"
For a long minute, Regal believed that Yuan wasn't going to reply. "A long time ago, I made a vow to support and love her for all of this life and the next."
Regal's eyes went to the ring on Yuan's finger. He and Alicia had never gotten that far. He'd hoped for it, one day. He dreamed of it, some nights, and he was never sure if he was grateful for those dreams or not. "Is a marriage vow enough to forgive her for all she's done?"
"Not a marriage vow. I thought love was." Regal found the distinction between love and a marriage interesting, made more so by the man making the distinction.
"She's not the woman you loved anymore?"
Yuan's hand clenched around the wineglass. "The problem is the fact that she still is. From the moment I met her, Martel Yggdrasill was—a force of nature." His lips quirked briefly in some far gone memory. "I have never doubted that Martel would have done anything for the people she loves. None of this was a surprise."
"I'm sorry." Regal was a bit surprised at how genuine that came out. He'd murdered the woman he loved. Yuan hadn't, but Regal wasn't sure that he could've chosen to do so had it not been for the situation. He remembered the Martel that had traveled with them, quite sane in all respects, sorrowful and clever. He could see someone loving her, could see Yuan loving her.
"So am I."
Lloyd went to hug his father, but hesitated, remembering his injuries from Altessa's. Kratos reached out and tugged him close, pressing a kiss to his hairline. "Are you alright?" Kratos murmured.
Lloyd had learned a long time ago that his father knew when he was injured better than he did, and that lying didn't help it at all. "Some burns. Lot of bruises. But I'm okay."
"Sit. Are the others with Noana?" Kratos asked. The Renegades' chief Healer wouldn't be happy about the injuries being brought.
Lloyd began to unbutton his jacket and shirt, careful not to try and aggravate any of his injuries. "Yeah. Sheena was unconscious until about two hours ago, but we didn't want to stop. Something was wrong with Regal's leg—he wasn't walking right—but they're the worst off."
"Raine couldn't Heal them?"
"She tried. Everyone's low on mana though."
Kratos made a sound of acknowledgment as he checked the burns and bruises, pressing gently against Lloyd's ribs for any signs of breaking. Nothing. (He is grateful. Incredibly grateful. Martel could have broken Lloyd, could have sent her magic through him and shattered him apart. But he's still here. His son is here, alive)
After a minute, Lloyd said, "…She did it. Colette's still up there."
That made Kratos go still. "She succeeded in transferring Mithos' soul?"
"Yeah." Lloyd studied Kratos. For as long as he could remember, his father had been a bit distant, not entirely sure how to go about raising a child, but Lloyd had never doubted he was loved. He'd always thought his father a good man, even after he'd been told the truth about Cruxis when he'd been eleven. "…Are you happy about it? Even a little?"
Kratos was quiet for a long moment, closing the burns over with First Aids. "…Yes. A part of me is happy that she succeeded."
"Even though you know it's wrong?" Lloyd pressed. "After everyone that's suffered for it?"
"I'm not proud of it, Lloyd," Kratos said.
"…What was it that you saw in Martel? Why did you help her do it?"
"She was a close friend, more like family to me. Isn't that enough?"
"So you'll forgive anything someone does, no matter how horrible, just because they're your friend?"
Lloyd knew he'd taken it too far when he saw the tension in his father's shoulders, the pull of grimness at his mouth. "No. Not anything. I don't forgive Martel for a lot of things."
"…But you still love her?"
(How can Kratos explain it to him? To a boy who'd been raised among the Renegades, with such a large family? Kratos has never been good at getting close to people, has never had Lloyd's magnetic energy, his effortless friendliness. How can he explain how alone and timid he'd been, before Yuan? How shy he'd been around people before Martel? Mithos had been a little brother he'd never had, had never even known he'd wanted. His family since the time he'd been ten years old has only ever consisted of one person. And then it widened to three. That's all he's ever had, until Anna. Until Lloyd)
"Yes." That was something Kratos knew for sure. He didn't agree with Martel, could never follow her ideals again, but he still loved her.
Lloyd took a long, slow breath, not meeting his father's eyes. "…Am I good to go?"
Kratos nodded, unable to do anything but hope that Lloyd didn't hate him for his admission.
(Yuan goes back up to see him. Mithos. Kratos wants to join him, but his place is with his Renegades, helping his son. Martel hesitates before allowing Yuan access into the deeper reaches of Derris-Kharlan, remembering that Mithos is his family as much as he is hers, that Yuan won't hurt him.
The sad part, Yuan thinks, is that if he hadn't known better, he could say that Colette really is a Yggdrasill sibling. With the same sunny hair as Mithos, her eyes a touch too blue, but with Martel's roundness in her face. The arranged marriages and gene pooling have worked well.
Colette's face lights up with Mithos' smile at the sight of him as he crosses the room to hug him. Yuan can't help but return the hug, listening to the half-forgotten cadence of Mithos' words—because he had always been talking. Talking about the future, his dreams, the world, the last book he'd read. Everything.
For a moment, Yuan considers just—giving it all up. Staying here, with his wife, and her little brother. Mithos is alive. Their theory, their research, their technology—it all works. They can be happy again.
But then he remembers the staggering numbers of the dead at the ranches, remembers the reports on the experiments. And he remembers Anna, and how her death had broken his best friend. Remembers Kratos' grief, remembers how he'd hurled accusations at Yuan, a chilling fury in his eyes while his son slept in the next room having cried himself to sleep.
Too much has been sacrificed for this. And Lloyd is right. No one should have to sacrifice themselves for someone else. Exspheres are unnatural things. It shouldn't have taken the fight becoming that personal for him to have left Cruxis.
So when Mithos asks him what's wrong, that familiar intelligence in Colette's eyes, Yuan doesn't lie to him. Asks him what Martel's told him. And she's been honest, he knows. The Yggdrasills always tried not to lie to each other. But there are pieces missing. So Yuan tells him.
Mithos' eyes go to the floor, and Yuan can hear the mental cogs turning at a hundred miles a minute. "…Martel doesn't like to hurt people," he says.
"No, she doesn't." She never has. Martel has never been a violent woman. Just a very practical one. "But for you? She would do whatever she needed to. And she did."
Yuan finds the files easily, but Mithos is the one who scans them, who draws the connections. Yuan is clever, but the Yggdrasills have always been on a different level entirely. He can't always follow their leaps in logic.
"She did all this for me?"
"Yeah," Yuan says quietly.
Mithos reads the experiments and Colette's hand comes up to cover her mouth in horror. "They—all these people?"
Mithos looks over at Yuan, studies him. "Is this why you left her?"
Yuan doesn't ask how he knows. Mithos is intuitive and empathetic, and he knows his sister better than anyone. "It took me a long time to do it, but yes."
Yuan doesn't fight it. He just stands and places a kiss on top of Mithos' head, an action from a funhouse mirror; he used to do it quick and playful and often it would start the two of them play-fighting, much to Kratos and Martel's laughter. But there's a very good chance that Yuan will die tomorrow and there won't be time to see Mithos again)
Raine hated Heimdall. Hated the humidity, hated the damp soil that squished underfoot—Heimdall had only two seasons, wet and dry, and 'dry' was a relative term. Hated the memories of her father reading with her, spread out on a blanket in the sun, of her mother casting little spells to dazzle her daughter and make her giggle before mimicking her.
The worst part was how much the elves looked like her.
The only reason Raine and Genis had been able to get away with their lie of being full-blooded elves for as long as they had was a trick of genetic luck. There was very little of their human father in their features. In Sylvarant, there were very few, if any, elves left. Raine had become very used to not seeing the pale eyes and hair, the elongated features on anyone other than Genis and her own reflection.
They moved out of the way for Yuan. This annoyed Raine even more. Yuan looked elvish in the subtle ways—the angles of his face, the shape of his ears, the compact muscle since elves didn't get bulky like humans did. But his hair and eyes were too dark, his jaw too square to pass for full-blooded elf.
And they still moved out of the way. They didn't quite welcome him, but they were respectful at least.
It was likely because he was an angel, the holder of Origin's pact. If it weren't for those things—as if they were such common titles—they would have treated him like dirt again.
(Well, Raine mentally snorts, they would try. Travelling with Yuan has shown her that he is a proud man. Not in a vain way, but in the unyielding way. It's one of his few admirable qualities)
Genis tugged at her hand. "Is something wrong?"
Raine shook her head. "Just thinking."
One day, Genis was going to ask her about Heimdall, if she remembered anything about it. He'd asked before, when he was very little, about their parents, about where they were and if they were coming back. Raine hadn't known what to say then, and had told him to wait until he was older. She wondered if he remembered that.
As it was, she saw the questions flicker past Genis' face, but he just said, "I don't think I like it here much."
Raine smiled at him. "Neither do I."
When Lloyd stepped up and told his friends that he needed to fight Yuan alone, he looked like his father. The determined line of his mouth, the way he walked with his swords. All of it. The worst of it was in his eyes, having aged decades in two short days. Too old, too full of knowledge for the young face.
Yuan wondered what Kratos had told him. Something had changed in Lloyd; he'd come to some kind of resolution with himself.
Not that it mattered.
Lloyd wasn't as fast as his father, but he moved more. Nothing unnecessary, no, but Yuan saw more than simply Kratos' fighting style in him. There was some of Zelos in the short, sharp thrusts and quick spins. Regal in how he managed to slip past Yuan's guard more than a few times. Sheena in a powerful leap over his head.
It was something incredible to experience, honestly. The child Yuan watched tumbling through his first steps was now moving so confidently, with such power. It had been a long time since Yuan had had such an honest, evenly-matched fight.
A good way to die, he thought.
He was four thousand and twenty-seven years old. Dying of old age had never really been an option, and dying young, well. He'd made his peace that the odds were against him when he was seventeen and it was the first time he'd watched someone he knew die from a mine.
But there were good ways to die, he knew, and this was one of them.
After all this time, Yuan should have known that no Aurion—whether they used the name or not—would just let him die like that.
Sometimes, Raine envied the fact that Genis couldn't remember their parents' faces. She hated the fact that she looked so much like the woman who had abandoned them. It hadn't been such a problem when they were younger, but now that she was grown?
The resemblance was enough that it took Raine a moment to realize that the image in the mirror wasn't her own reflection.
"Raine…my pitiful child…"
It wasn't quite the woman from Raine's memories. It was the woman they'd found, up in Exire. Mad and desolate. Mentally stuck in the time of her pregnancy with Genis.
Raine wasn't sure if that was better or worse.
"It's an illusion," she told Genis, more confident than she felt. Genis' hand reached to take hers and she looked to the mirror facing him. The Mayor of Iselia.
"It's because of you that I was chased from Heimdall. You and your thin blood."
Raine bristled, despite the despair coiling in her gut. "Then why bother giving birth to us?"
"There probably wasn't a choice," the Mayor said. "That's why you were thrown away after you were born!"
Like trash. Left to be forgotten in another world, if that. The Otherworldly Gate was a myth in Tethe'alla; there's no way Virginia had ever actually intended for them to make it out alive.
"You're wrong!" Lloyd's voice.
"No, they're not." Martel's face in the mirrors. "Half-elves are despised and discriminated against just for the 'crime' of being alive."
"But it's not the half-elves' faults. It's the people who can't accept those who are different who are to blame." Lloyd was so confident, so sure of his opinion. Being raised among half-elves would give him that, would give him the surety that there was a way for people to accept others. "It's because of their weak hearts!"
A crashing of glass. Raine and Genis caught Lloyd as he stumbled into them, cuts on his cheek from the glass. He wrapped his arms around them. "I came to getcha."
He hadn't forgotten about them. He could have left them to save the world, to save Colette. But he hadn't. "He's right," Raine told Martel. "I need to stop hating people's weakness. My hatred never changed anything. In order to change the world, I must first…change myself." She tossed her shoulders back and met Martel's eyes unflinchingly. "I'm glad I was born a half-elf."
Genis followed her example hesitantly, but honestly. Martel smiled sadly at them. "But is it a sin to be weak-hearted? Not everyone can be strong. Is that the kind of society you want? Only the strong survive? And who decides who is strong and who is not? Think of what you're asking of people, and think of the realistic possibilities of who will rise to meet your standards."
Martel vanished from the mirror, and Raine tugged Genis and Lloyd close. Her brother and her student. No, Lloyd was pretty solidly in the 'friend' category now. They would keep each other safe. They had to.
Raine stared at Colette's back. The Chosen's chin was tilted up in a defiant way that Colette never had.
"I know what you did. I saw the files."
"They were never hidden from you." Martel had gone carefully still before them.
"I don't know if that's better or worse. Martel—all those people. How could you do it?"
"I did what needed to be done. For you."
Mithos shook Colette's head. "No. You didn't need to create the ranches, to split the world apart, to make the entire hourglass system of mana."
"There hasn't been a major war in four thousand years. I wanted to make sure that the things that we went through, the horrors we did and had done to us—" Martel's fists clenched. "That no one would have to experience those things ever again."
"The problem isn't your intentions. I know you—you only ever intend for the best. But look at all this." Mithos gestured around, at Derris-Kharlan. "This isn't what we were trying to accomplish. You've become what we hated so much. That's why we were trying to teach them a better way. Do you remember that?"
"Of course I do, but that only works if people are capable of being better. Mithos—we tried. For centuries, we tried to teach them tolerance and acceptance. People can't change. I've learned that."
"You're wrong." Lloyd stepped up so he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mithos. "They can change. If you need proof, look at my dad. Look at Yuan." (Martel forces herself not to flinch at the reminder of her family, of how much she's lost because of this) "It can take a long time, but they're capable of it."
"That was your problem, Martel," Raine said. "You gave up on people, on all people."
"Whereas they never gave us a chance." Martel inclined her chin, proud and elegant as a queen. "We were savages to be captured and sold into slavery. We were cattle to be slaughtered on those battlefields and the gallows—for their sport." Martel spat the last word, and there were dark memories in her normally bright eyes. "Even after the War, we were shoved into ghettos and slums to be forgotten about. We were third-class citizens who didn't deserve the rights given so freely to those of pure blood. Yet no condemnations were given to the men and women who produced people like us, who abandoned them like all the other orphans of war. I'll ask you, Raine, how different is that compared to now?"
Raine remembered the numbers on Yuan's arm, like an old brand. Slavery, Martel said. "You think you've made things better? You've just given more reasons to hate half-elves because the Desians take their families to the ranches."
Martel's face hardened. (This is the warrior, the woman who had been in the heart of the worst war in history and come out alive on the other side) "You think I wanted to do that? It needed to be done for the sake of progress."
"No." Mithos pushed the long blonde hair out of his face. "It's not just about winning. The way you win matters. We could've won the War in a second with the Summon Spirits. But we fought to end it with peace on both sides because it was the right way to do it."
"That's great if there is another way. If I have to resort to becoming a monster to bring you back, to make sure that no one ever has to know what the word war means ever again, then it's worth it."
Raine stared at Martel, at this proud, unbroken woman who spoke with such passion and resolve that Raine had no problems understanding how, exactly, she had managed to do all that she had. How she had gotten two men such as Kratos and Yuan to follow her, how she'd managed to weave herself into the visage of a goddess.
"Please. Don't do this, Martel," Mithos pleaded softly. "You can do so much more for the world."
Her smile was wry and grief-stricken. "You didn't say 'we'."
Mithos shook his head. "I died four thousand years ago. There's no place for me here, and I won't steal someone else's life and body just so I can live. It isn't right. Just—Just surrender." His voice came out tight, a bit choked. "You have a husband who loves you. Be happy with him, start that family you always talked about."
Martel let out a bitter chuckle. "My husband doesn't love me anymore. Not after all this."
"Yes, he does," Regal said, surprising the others. "He told me so himself."
Her eyes went distant, her smile a self-deprecating slash of her lips. "Don't make me laugh."
A huff of air, a breathy imitation of a laugh. (His sister is, somehow, the same person he has always known. Still with too much heart, and too much bravery, and the kind of determination that would never stop. In a war, these are good things. After a war, a person of so much cannot be constrained to peace. Perhaps neither of them are meant to live with peace; it's not like they know how, anyway) "I should've known you'd be too stubborn to see reason. I'm sorry that I can't change your mind."
"You have nothing to apologize for—"
Colette never had a smile so sad. "This is goodbye, okay? I hope you find happiness, and that the world can return to what it should be. That's my final wish."
Mithos moved to stand on tiptoe to kiss Martel's cheek. "I love you."
Colette collapsed in a rush of mana. Martel stared at her body. "Mithos?" she repeated and there was a note of fear there, of something manic at the edges.
(Raine knows the look on her face and it drops something cold in her stomach. She imagines it would be her own face, if Genis is ever lost like this) "He's gone, Martel."
"Just—come with us. You can live in the new world," Lloyd said gently. "It's what Mithos wanted."
A slash of temper and any vulnerability on Martel's face was gone. She was sharp-edged steel, uncut diamond. "And be what? A prisoner? I know your opinions on the things I've done, Lloyd Irving. I refuse to be locked away for eternity."
"Living has to be better than becoming a lifeless being! Or dying!"
"Living at the cost of what war brings? You've never lived through it, any of you, and I intend that you never do. I can negate that kind of suffering by neutralizing the differences in our genes. It's the only way to eliminate discrimination."
"That's just a dream. Discrimination comes from the heart."
"He's right," Genis said. "It's the weakness of people's hearts that causes discrimination. Looking down on others while placing themselves too high."
"That's where you went wrong, Martel," Sheena said. "You'll treat other people like cattle as long as you can achieve your goals."
"Isn't that the same as what you've all done? Isn't that what everyone does? Working and caring for others is all well and good, but when someone gets in your way, well. All bets are off."
Colette stirred, pushing herself up on her arms. Lloyd crouched to help her to her knees, eyeing Martel, but the woman made no threatening movements. "Don't try and shift the blame. We're working towards a better world for everyone."
"The greater good, is it? If you only knew the atrocities people have committed under that banner," Martel sneered.
"You mean people like you?" Zelos asked icily as Colette wobbled to her feet and Lloyd drew her backwards. "You don't get to play the victim to try and justify the things you've done."
"Are you waiting for me to apologize? To get on my knees and beg for forgiveness? Because I refuse. I haven't come this far to give it all up now. Besides," Martel's smile was a terrible one that didn't suit her face, bitter and sharp-edged. "What have I got left to lose?"
The battle that ensued was long, and exhausting. Martel was like an old tiger trapped in a corner, vicious and dangerous, but she knew she couldn't last forever. Her magic snapped out, casually earth-shattering.
Lloyd managed to pin her once. "Would you really trade an entire world for your brother?"
"I don't expect any of you to understand." Her mana leaks from her, burning bright and hard enough that Lloyd backed off, burns on his hands where he'd been touching her.
Martel was viciously graceful with her wings, dipping and dodging, jabbing out with her horn-tipped staff. (It will only be later that Raine makes the connection, entirely too late. The unicorn that had cured Martel had given her the horn, just as it had given it to them. Except that, true to form, Martel had turned a moment of weakness and illness into something strong, a weapon) She broke Zelos' ribs with a powerful strike, and there were gashes up and down Regal's legs where the greaves didn't protect him. Raine barely had a moment to go on the offensive, constantly having something else to heal, to constantly re-cast the barriers. Even Colette, exhausted as she was, made her contribution, her voice singing out the angelic spells, chakrams whizzing past with expert aim.
Martel couldn't keep it up forever. Genis' Gravity Wells dragging her down, and Shadow's influence on their weapons balanced the scales enough that, slowly, they gained the advantage. It was Lloyd who got the final blow, his sword slipping through Martel's belly. Her body slumped to the ground, a puppet without strings.
Raine thought she was seeing things—the adrenaline crash hitting her fast and hard—when the apparition appeared from the Cruxis Crystal.
"It's just like Alicia," Presea said, breathing hard. "Her soul will continue to live on as long as the Cruxis Crystal exists."
"And, eventually, I will be taken over by the Crystal," Martel finished. She looked and sounded every second of her age, and it was made more horrible by her young face. She'd only been, perhaps, a few years older than Raine when Mithos had died. Raine sometimes felt too old herself, but those were rare days. Most of the time, she had struggled with being too young to raise Genis while having to grow up herself; had struggled with being too young to fight a world that didn't want them. Had Martel felt the same?
Lloyd was still standing by her body, but he was watching Martel, a silent conversation passing between them.
"I'm tired of playing your game of good and evil," Martel said. "Destroy the Crystal. Every second you don't, Derris-Kharlan will float further away."
A flash of temper. "Do it now! I choose to die as myself and nothing less."
Genis surprised Raine by being the first one to speak. "Lloyd, please…help her." When had her little brother grown up enough to understand that killing could be a mercy?
As Lloyd stepped up to the Crystal, he had never looked more like Kratos. Perhaps Martel thought the same, for her eyes on him were gentle and almost fond. "Farewell, little shadow. You who stand at the end of the path I chose not to follow. I wanted a peaceful world, so I don't regret my choice."
"Would you do it all over again?" Lloyd asked quietly. "If you could, would you do it the same way?"
A soft, surprised huff of a laugh, a faint echo of that silvery sound. "What a question." A pause. "…Perhaps not. Perhaps, in a different world, I could've lived out my days. But by that logic, anything is possible." Martel inclined her head, regal and proud. "I've made my choices, Lloyd Irving, and I will die standing by them."
Her Cruxis Crystal shattering sounded like windchimes.
Yuan's face was unreadable. "You brought her body?"
"She was our enemy, but she still deserves burial rites," Regal explained quietly.
"Thank you," Kratos said. "…and Mithos?"
"He chose to leave Colette's body. He tried to stop her, in the end."
"Ever the hero."
"There is one more thing," Regal said before they could turn away. "I believe Lloyd has someone you will want to meet."
A new Spirit. Lloyd and Colette stood before him, and they waved the others down into the epicenter of the Tower's wreckage.
The Spirit was…small, in comparison to the others. Short enough that Lloyd had a few inches on him. Long and lanky, but not quite proportionate, his limbs a bit too long, like he hadn't grown into himself. He was lovely, with strong cheekbones and expressive brows. Mischief hid in the corner of his mouth, like he was forever waiting to smile. Blonde hair fell past his shoulders, and his eyes were a constantly shifting green. He held a long whitewood staff that had runes inscribed on it, vines trailing down from the top.
He introduced himself as Mithos.
He shook his head. "No. Not quite. Mithos Yggdrasill is one of many souls inside me. I am mana, and I am the new Spirit of the Tree."
(Now that he says it, Raine can see it. In the sorrow lingering in his eyes, in the smile that breaks when Genis says something. Even in how he stands, how he places his weight. But Mithos Yggdrasill had died at fourteen years old. The body of this Spirit is older than fourteen, but perhaps this is what Mithos could have become, had he been granted a chance to grow)
He explained about the Tree, a little seedling pushing out of the ground. Explained that it was still too young to produce the mana the world needed, but that it would grow into what it needed to become. That it would take time, and love, and care.
Lloyd grinned at him. "We already told you we'd do whatever it takes."
The wry grin that played at the Spirit's mouth was something that reminded Raine, somehow, of Kratos, Yuan, and Martel, all at the same time. "I certainly hope so."