Chapter One: Glorious Adventuring
Leaving the capital city, Lloyd finally put a name to the bizarre queasiness that he had been feeling for the last three days. It had become the most noticeable when he and Genis took off to reach the Tower of Salvation, but at that time the young swordsman had guessed it was just airsickness from the wildly manoeuvring dragon. Or walking on a bridge over a column of swirling caskets, or the sickening shock of being betrayed by Kratos, someone he had just been starting to like.
Lloyd was thinking about more than one thing at a time, and it was giving him a severe headache. If the journey of world regeneration was a lie, then was it even possible to restore Sylvarant, or had the mana always been strengthening Tethe'alla and leaving his homeland? If it could be reversed, was the only way to do it to go along with Cruxis? If it was, could Lloyd bring himself to aid the same people who had killed his mother and father? Could he let them have Colette?
Was there any of Colette left to be saved?
"What's wrong, Lloyd?" asked Genis. He glanced back at the rest of the group, since their party had trailed out as they crossed the plains. His sister was too far back to hear. "You didn't let Raine test her seafood stew on you, I hope."
"Nah, I'm just… I'm fine, I mean," said Lloyd. He heard a strange, grumbling wheeze, and whirled about as his swords seemed to leap from their scabbards. "What was that?"
"Try looking down," Genis suggested, and Lloyd did, finding that the strangely glassy gaze of Presea was on him. "I think she scoffed." The taciturn girl moved on, dragging her axe the way a normal child her size might carry a stuffed animal.
"What was that about?" Lloyd asked, baffled.
"I don't think she believed you," Genis replied.
"What would she know?"
"Hey, Presea's a lot more insightful than you think!"
"And since when have you had a thing for pink hair?" Lloyd went on, happy to be onto a different topic.
Further back on the trail, Raine was trying desperately to read a short treatise on hypoallergenics, but nothing in the universe seemed to want to help, especially their newest ally. Zelos had discovered that the only thing Colette ever seemed interested in was hurling him into trees, bushes, or rocky ground (if nothing else presented itself) when he got close, and temporarily given up.
"So she doesn't talk at all?" he asked.
Raine wondered what the chances were that she could convince this idiot that no females in Sylvarant spoke, and then sadly recalled talking more than once in his presence back in the city. "No, she doesn't." Raine, who was not one for unnecessary cruelty, looked ahead to make sure Lloyd was out of hearing. "She may have no self left to understand speech, or she may simply have been sealed inside herself and lost the ability to control her own body, but Colette is, for the moment, not exactly alive."
"Not alive?" the Chosen of Tethe'alla repeated. "That's madness– she nearly gutted me with her bare hands!"
"Colette's current persona, whatever it might be, is solely focused on self-preservation." Raine closed the book and pocketed it, the better to turn a double Photon-Tempest-like glare on him. "So the real question is: what were you trying to do?"
"Calm down, sweet lady!" Zelos yelped, leaping back and raising his hands. "Are all girls from Sylvarant like this?"
" 'Calm down'," Raine repeated sarcastically. "Don't mess about with angelic people who have been shaped into a vessel for the incarnation of a goddess, and you might be dealt fewer waahhhhTCHOU!" Raine bent over double with the force of the sneeze, and was in the midst of fumbling for a handkerchief when a black-gloved hand dangled one in front of her. The letters 'ZW' were monogrammed in gold thread on every corner.
"That was forceful," he remarked as the professor snatched the offering. "Keep it, I have dozens."
"It's the local flora, I'm sure of it," Raine said, her voice muffled by the cloth.
"Flora? Right, I know her. Waitress at the Frothing Otter, unless I miss my–"
"I mean," said Raine, "the plants of Tethe'alla are not what I'm used to, and I'm allergic to some of them. Violently allergic. If you take my hint."
"Seems everyone in this party wishes to make adventuring as boring as possible," Zelos lamented. "I don't like to use my best tricks early on, but perhaps it's time I chose nicknames for everyone."
"Please," Raine muttered sarcastically. "Don't."
But she spent the next few hours, as the capital shrunk into the distance and sunk over the horizon like a wonton into green tea, fending the red-haired man off with lectures on the Asgard Ruins, the evolution of dragons, the theory of mana, and –more than once– her new Ruby Staff. Finally, when the rolling hills and forests of Tethe'alla started to annoy rather than fascinate everyone but Raine, she was given a respite from the aggravating man.
"How much further do we have to go?" asked Lloyd.
"There goes his excitement again," Raine remarked quietly, but she was quite happy, because it drew Zelos away to defend the glory of his homeland.
"Are you speaking ill of this fair land?" he demanded, marching at a purposeful double-time to catch up with Lloyd. "Though it is evident that the ladies of Sylvarant are as perfectly crafted–"
"Perfectly what?" Raine demanded, torn away from her book again, but no one noticed.
"–As those of Tethe'alla, I won't have any adventurers from a world in decline saying that my home is in the slightest harsh, inhospitable, or unsightly!" Zelos snapped.
"I wasn't saying it was ugly," Lloyd corrected him, leaning towards the second Chosen aggressively, "I was saying it was boring. And very big, probably so you can fit all the boring into it!"
"If you say one more thing against this world that I was Chosen to protect, I'll spread your remains from the north to the south of all Meltokio!"
"What in blazes is wrong with the two of you?" Raine demanded. The troupe had stopped walking, mostly so that Zelos and Lloyd could be hostile without watching their path.
"He's maligning the countryside, sweetheart," said Zelos. "And to be honest, not only does his outfit clash with the scenery, the whole kid clashes with any universe that's pretty enough to have me in it."
"I can see about fixing that part," Lloyd grumbled.
"This is inefficient," said a voice in the sort of monotone that doesn't even have the decency to be bored. Presea had come back to find out why the group had stopped marching, and was now standing at a sort of attention, though her hand still gripped her axe firmly. "Vocal disagreement is allowable for the resolution of conflict, but halting motion is unacceptable."
They stared at her for a moment. Why on Sylvarant (or Tethe'alla, if you were Zelos' thoughts… assuming he has them) did she speak like that, anyway?
"Coming from Presea, that was practically a speech," Lloyd remarked.
"Anything for you, little rosebud," said Zelos, flipping a ridiculously thick lock of hair over his shoulder nonchalantly.
"You may also continue progression, then," Presea decided, and started away from them again. They all shrugged –excepting Colette, of course– and followed the miniscule warrior's lead. It worked for a few moments; the only sound was Genis talking to Raine about what a natural peacemaker Presea was, and then Lloyd snorted just a little too loudly.
"What?" Zelos demanded.
"Rosebud?" Lloyd repeated. "She's about half your size and a third your age."
"Watch it, scruffy," Zelos snapped. "And just how old do you think I am?"
"Not dead yet," Lloyd countered, "but I'm giving you a life expectancy of about five o' clock at this point."
"Pfeh, you're just jealous," said the Tethe'alla Chosen. "What's your problem, anyway?" This remark was born of such an outstanding concentration of obliviousness that it froze the Sage siblings in mid-step, and Zelos seemed to be able to feel their unbelieving stares, for he looked over his shoulder uncomfortably. "What?"
Raine and Genis moved with the inhuman (or in-elvish, or a mix of the two, as the case may be) synchronicity that people were gifted with in such times, looking at Zelos, then Lloyd, then the empty vessel that was Colette trailing behind the group. The cycle repeated several times.
"You could at least give me a hint," said Zelos, scratching the back of his head in confusion.
"Will you just tell us how much longer we're going to be walking?" asked Raine, whose eyes were reddening and turning slightly watery. "I can't stand the boredom Lloyd starts projecting at times like this."
"Don't pay any attention to him," said Zelos, sidling up to the professor. "Not when you've got–"
"Zelos," said Lloyd flatly.
"That's right, kid," said the Chosen, not taking his eyes off Raine, who was trying to hide behind a scroll on the construction of the Sorcerer's Ring without sneezing it blurry.
"No, I was getting your attention," said Lloyd. Zelos turned, just slightly, to make eye contact. "Tell us how far it is to this Sybak place or I'll shave your head while you sleep."
"ARGH!" Zelos yelped, tripping over his own feet in an attempt to freeze in panic and flee at the same time. "Don't say that sort of stuff. We'll get to the Grand Bridge tomorrow morning if we walk all through the night –and it's not like I'll be sleeping anyway, now– or tomorrow afternoon if we camp."
"Capbvvfvfphh!" Raine sneezed. Even Colette turned to look at her, thinking that the sound could not possibly be anything other than a charging, trumpeting bull dragon of some sort. Her blue eyes glared at the gawkers over top of Zelos' kerchief. "Camp," she said again, thickly.
"I'll stand all the watches while you sleep the sleep of angels–" Zelos began chivalrously.
"Just once!" Lloyd shouted, leaping forward to take a swing at the red-haired man. As he passed Colette, however, she reached out with one arm and dealt a hammer blow to Lloyd's chest, sending him sprawling to the ground.
"Why thank you, little beauty," said Zelos, bowing theatrically.
Lloyd rolled onto his back and looked up at her dead, blood-red eyes in fearful confusion. "Colette…" She took no notice of either man's reaction to her action.
"It's all right, Lloyd," said Genis, walking over and helping him up. "You just got too close… she – whatever's controlling Colette thought you were dangerous."
With help from his friend, Lloyd stumbled to his feet, still agape at her passionless strike. "Yeah… I guess so…"
Presea had materialized again. "Are we camping here for the night?"
At Raine's frantic nodding and Lloyd's total lack of noticing the rest of the world existed, let alone protesting, Genis nodded to the unusual girl, too intimidated to get any words out. Presea's gaze cast about them; the party had stopped in a wide, clear stretch of the path from Meltokio to the Grand Tethe'alla bridge, but before the land rose up into mountain ranges keeping them in on both sides, a thick forest sprang up like a buffer between flat lands and pointy ones. She set off toward the nearest region, a hundred yards away, with the sort of look that makes trees tremble in fear.
Genis sat beside the ring of stones that held back their cooking fire and stirred the meat stew. It was a good one, he knew, but the little mage couldn't quite bring himself to enjoy the cooking process this time. It helped to be surrounded by happier people.
Colette was sitting, cross-legged and upright as a board, relatively near the fire to benefit from its warmth. She was freaking him out. Lloyd was sitting on a rock, staring up at stars that kept looking like they were going to be familiar but weren't, somewhere between wretched and sulking. Raine was searching the tall grass patches desperately for whatever kind of plant could be making her so miserable, clearly intending to Photon it into oblivion (first taking the time to make a careful sketch so she could recognize and destroy others of its species, too). Zelos didn't bear commenting, he was himself.
And Presea was starting to drive Genis completely mad. In some ways it was a good mad, and explained a lot about why Colette and Lloyd were always around each other back in Iselia. In other ways it was a combination of terror and torture. Every ten minute or so she arrived back in the faint light of their camp –darkness had set in– with more wood to stoke the fire, then vanished again. Once her axe had something that Genis sincerely hoped wasn't blood on it.
"Hey, only one of us can be the brooding one at a time," said Lloyd, and when Genis turned he saw the swordsman smiling half-heartedly. "And I've got more experience at it, so you might as well let me take the lead."
"So what am I going to be? The cheerful sidekick?" ask Genis, adding more onion to the stew.
"Works for me."
"Funny thing is, Lloyd, I know that whatever you're worrying about now isn't the same thing you were worrying about before. What's with you?"
"I'm thinking a lot. And before you try to be funny, yes, it does hurt," said Lloyd. He had gone back to looking at the dark blue sky. "Hey, those stars over there sort of look like Mjollnir. Dad used to point it out to me all the time."
"What are you thinking about now?" asked Genis. "It's not like I've got anything better to do until this comes back to the boil."
"She just hit me, Genis," said Lloyd. "Colette. She's never hit me in her life. There have been times she's intentionally fallen onto rocks rather than trip and hit me."
"You caught her anyway, as I remember," said Genis.
"Well, yeah, when I was quick enough. Sometimes Colette…" Lloyd almost choked, but he made it sound like he was clearing his throat. "Sometimes she needs to be saved from her own good intentions."
"Hey, Presea!" Genis yelped, leaping to his feet.
"So do you, I might add," said Lloyd to the receding elf.
"Presea!" Genis called again, catching up with her.
"I have not moved since the last time you obtained my attention," she informed him. She was dragging a chunk of log that probably had as much mass as Lloyd, but had indeed stopped, still in blue shadow. Genis blushed, thankful for the dark.
"Try this!" he said abruptly, raising a large spoonful of the stew. Presea observed it for a moment and obediently tasted the mixture.
"I will eat it," she decided.
"But do you like it?" Genis asked.
"No," Presea responded, clearly unaware of the effect this had on the elf.
"I do not enjoy beef."
"I merely require nourishment. You will supply the food, a useful task. It is unnecessary to enjoy a vital substance."
"Okay…" Genis said, because if he didn't say anything he had the feeling his face would catch fire. "Uh… I don't think we'll need any more wood tonight."
"That is good. The beetles are excessively belligerent."
Presea seemed to decide that the conversation was over, dragged the last chunk of wood to lie with the others, and vanished into the darkness again for purposes unknown. Sighing, Genis returned to the fire, sat down sharply, and gave the stew the most vicious stirring of its life. Lloyd watched in amusement.
"What are you doing?" he asked, curious about the industrious elf's actions.
"Trying to drown out the beef with more onion," said Genis through gritted teeth as he sliced one of the vegetables and resisted its eye-watering fumes.
"What? The meat's the only reason I've been bothering to learn how to make that stuff."
"Well tonight it's going to be different," said Genis. He picked one of the strips of beef out of the stewpot on a long fork, gave it a one-shot tenderizing with his kendama, and dropped it back into the red-brown sauce.
"…Right. I'll… go talk to Raine or something." Lloyd left the short fanatic cook to his work and wandered around their camp, such as it was. The fire was central, and everyone had taken the opportunity to drop their travelling packs, but he didn't exactly have to navigate a forest of tents to find the elf sage hunched over a large tome. One hand clutched the kerchief to her face, the other was frenetically turning pages, searching for a hint to which plant was assaulting her so badly.
"Hi, Lloyd." Raine looked up at him blearily. "You don't feel anything?"
"I'm doing fine, Professor."
"Nod eben a tickle?"
"Nothing, Prof Sage."
"Lugcky litdle– hwachou!"
"Um… you know, Professor, you might want to try magic or something," said Lloyd, drawing back from her a bit. "If Recover can cure all those poisons, it's got to be able to fight off some pollen."
"Yu'd thignk," Raine agreed. "But eben if I could get the igcantation out right, I don't thignk the elbes designed these sbells with Tethe'alla Hayfever in mibd." She blew her nose and tried to blink her eyes clear, the better to see Lloyd's expression. "What's bothering you? Wait, let me guess. Colette."
"No wonder you're a professor," Lloyd remarked, collapsing again in angsty exhaustion. The stars had been a lot more comforting back home, when he could see entire dwarven legends unfolding overhead like they had for all his life.
"That must have been quite the blow she dealt," Raine prompted him, knowing it hadn't been.
"That's not really it." The swordsman sighed. "It was so unlike her, I'm just afraid that there's no Colette left to save."
Raine was silent for long enough that Lloyd found himself shifting uncomfortably. And if the ground couldn't make him uncomfortable enough to already be moving, it would take a lot to get even a twitch from him. At last, thankfully, she exhaled in a way that told him she was about to say something.
"I suppose, Lloyd, that would depend on what you believe it means to–"
The sound of marinated beef striking the back of a half-elf's head at very high speed is, to say the least, not one known by most inhabitants of the universe. This is unfortunate, because it's an amazing effect, especially with properly prepared meat. Raine turned, her hair dripping a reddish-brown sauce, to dispense another glare to Genis.
In response Genis, who was similarly coated in a tangy marinade, held up one hand that glittered strangely in what remained of the firelight. "Sorry. I burned myself a little. Wasn't paying attention."
"And the explosion?" Raine demanded. Her tone was enough to keep Lloyd cowering in the long grass.
"Well… I got a little emotional when I touched the hot metal–"
"I think it started long before that," Lloyd muttered.
"You didn't let your magic get out of control, did you?" Raine asked sternly. "I thought we had dealt with this."
"It was just one Air Thrust!" Genis insisted. As
he spoke, the last of the stew dripped out of the upturned pot and doused the
flames. In the new darkness, Genis added "I cast Icicle intentionally, to suppress the
"Well, at least that was a good idea," Raine admitted, starting towards her brother to check his hand, but Zelos arrived back at camp first.
"What the hell just happened?" he demanded.
"There was a problem with the stew," Raine replied coldly.
"No kidding, I nearly lost an eye," Zelos told them. "But I saw magic, too. What are you doing casting those sorts of spells? Out here in the wilderness? At night?! And coincidentally hurling meat in all directions?!"
"Ah, shut up, Zelos," Lloyd told him.
"None of you have the slightest idea, do you?" The Chosen of Tethe'alla looked up at the sky. "This is what comes of travelling with peasants from the declining world. It really is." Then, setting his face into a determined expression, he started barking orders. "Find Colette, find Presea, and pack up– we're leaving. Make sure you keep all the food well covered and out of smell."
"You mean sight?" asked Lloyd, confused.
"No, I don't," Zelos replied. "I don't want the monsters who were just attracted by the repeated use of mana and an explosion of meat out here in the middle of nowhere to be able to track us even more easily while we flee for our lives. Now will you get going?!"
A wolf howl rose out of the darkness to the southwest, and two more answered, each one shaking the adventurers even more. "That sounded a lot like they're all around us…" Genis said slowly.
"They are," Raine said, trying to sound implacable, and failing when she had to fumble yet again for Zelos' handkerchief. She gestured for Genis to get the wood burning again, and he quietly prepared a Fireball.
"I hope everyone's ready for a long night," Zelos said, turning to try to see through the black night. A long, low growl answered him, and eyes flashed in the light of the new flames.