Chapter Three: Rising Again
Lloyd rolled with the impact of the blow, but not by choice. This creature, which he would eventually identify as a Lobo (assuming he lived that long) was well beyond strong enough to take Lloyd apart by sheer exertion, and looked like it might try that when it got bored. In the meantime, it was going to break as much of him as possible.
The wolf-giant didn't seem to move, but Lloyd could have sworn even the push of the impact didn't take him any further out of its killing range, and another long arm smashed Lloyd before he could even rise to his feet. Okay, that wasn't going to work.
Lloyd lay almost still, hoping to convince the Lobo that he had suffered a crippling injury. Whether it worked or not, he didn't know, but the beast certainly didn't look suspicious as it extended its claws and lashed out, straight down.
A set of daisho were waiting for it, held close to Lloyd's body. He had to tilt his head sharply to avoid getting mauled by the dagger-like claws, and got the breath smoten most thoroughly out of his lungs, but the Lobo doubly gashed its own arm. Lloyd was willing to take what he could get right now. Unfortunately, its recoil and snarl of pain didn't signal his victory, not with Colette standing disinterestedly ten feet away.
He didn't know what kind of standoff she had been in with the creature when he had put his foot directly into the proverbial it, but he was starting to feel like someone had been slamming a proverbial door into that same foot over and over again.
The swordsman did his best with hit-and-run tactics to wear the Lobo down, but every time he slipped up, the beast's successful attack knocked the breath completely out of his body. By the third slip-up, Lloyd was on his back, having just rolled into the base of a tree and almost certain that his right leg was fractured.
"Colette!" he wheezed, desperate for help. "You have to… stop it… somehow… Colette!" She took no notice of Lloyd's shouts as the Lobo approached him. Lloyd couldn't tell if it was being mocking or was actually cautious, thinking that he might be faking his helplessness. That'd be nice.
"Hey, deerbreath!" A red spark flared in the night, and while Lloyd couldn't imagine why anyone would be modifying the EX gems attached to their Key Crests at a time like this, hearing Zelos' voice was good enough for him. "It's just as well the little angel isn't awake enough to complain about the mistreatment of dogs, because you're about to get crushed. Ahem.
"As if wearing fur weren't already way out of style, you're about as likely to come up with a brilliant strategy out of this battle as I am to become a monk – if brains were Exspheres, you could just about power a fork – your prospects are blacker than the fur of your little wolfie minions – the only reason you're out on the plains to begin with is because you're tired of getting beaten up by bunny rabbits – I've met more appealing gargoyles than your blue snout – the last time you caught a squirrel it said 'Good game, now I'll chase you' – and in conclusion, you're one ugly son of a–"
"That's enough, just do it!" Raine commanded, somewhere in the darkness.
"Go!" Genis shouted, and his kendama flared like a star – he was calling on the others' Exspheres to attack in unison. "Ice Tornado!"
"Lightning!" Zelos added.
"Punishment!" As the three spells rained down on the Lobo, Presea charged in to gash at its thick hide with a spinning cut. Then she and Zelos shone again with shared power, and the spin continued with an electric storm swirling around it with thunderous power. "Here I go! Lightning Punishment!"
When their onslaught was over, the Lobo disintegrated in a purifying nova and Lloyd remembered to breathe again. "I can't decide what part of Taunt EX gems I like best– the part about how it gathers power to harmonize Exspheres to attack in unison, or the part about how it requires you to insult the enemy in the midst of battle."
"One day maybe someone will care," said Raine, who had spotted Lloyd in the light from Presea's electric pillar and was in a hurry to see to him. "Until then, leave it for the bored philosophers. First Aid!"
"Ungh…" Lloyd groaned as he stood up, one hand on the rough tree-trunk and the other on Raine's shoulder. "Thanks, everyone. …Especially you, Zelos."
"The Chosen comes through every time," said Zelos, twirling his Hydra dagger. Even when standing still, his subconscious reflexively showed off.
"What was Colette thinking?" asked Genis, staring at his second-longest-time friend. She didn't acknowledge him any more than she had noticed Lloyd, but her red eyes were as alert as ever. "I know she used to like dogs, but now…?"
"I expect it was her new prioritizing system." Raine looked up from sealing the last long cut on Lloyd's leg and saw that no one had any idea what she meant, except maybe Presea, who was bored by everything. "In her current state, Colette instinctively seeks out the greatest threat in the area. But since it wasn't attacking her, she didn't strike it either."
"She's really forgotten us…" Watching Lloyd stare forlornly at the Ill-Fated Girl, Raine kept herself from commenting on his tendency to have to face facts several times before he could believe them, as had happened in the Renegade base after they learned the Desians worked for Cruxis.
"Are we going to sleep tonight?" asked Zelos. "That'd be really nice."
"Adrenaline elevations will make resting difficult and inefficient," Presea noted.
"We might as well keep on going for the Bridge," said Genis.
"I hate twelve-year-olds and their ability to not sleep…"
"I agree," said Raine.
"With me?" Zelos asked hopefully.
"With Genis," she replied sternly. "Lloyd, can you walk all right?"
"Yeah, sure," he said immediately, and then dropped to one knee. "Ooh, ouch. What did that thing do, de-bone my leg?"
"Lloyd's not going to be moving quickly, but we can probably make some headway now and rest during the day. If one of you Tethe'allans can find a constellation and tell us where north is, we'll go."
Genis looked up at the sky, turned around a few times, and found that no matter what he did, everything was familiar. Tethe'alla and Sylvarant really were right next to each other, then, if the stars hadn't changed at all. "Raine? It's just like home."
His sister looked up from her patient and realised that Genis was right. "Oh. …That makes things easier."
"This is really what the sky looks like from Sylvarant?" Zelos asked. "…Doesn't seem like you should get to share a high-quality vista like this on such a low-class planet…"
With all of them looking at the starry sky, only Presea was paying attention to their surroundings, and she was unfortunately less than talkative. "Danger," she intoned.
"We already took care of the big blue lunk, rosebud," Zelos reminded her. "Remember? Pillar of raging lightning with you in the middle? It was pretty awesome."
"Large numbers approaching," Presea went on.
"What?" Raine snapped, shaken out of her observations. "I don't see anything out there…"
"Night Raid wolves evolved for nocturnal attacks. Their black fur makes them invisible at long ranges." Genis' admiration for Presea grew even more as she explained how they were doomed without so much as a quiver in her voice. Keep in mind that they didn't know about the Crystal growing in her yet. And that Genis, like most infatuated males, was pretty thick when it came to Presea-related matters.
"So what you're saying is…?" Zelos trailed off, walking slowly backwards toward the others.
"We are surrounded."
Luckily for Raine and the red-headed Chosen, they swore at the same time, and it was impossible to tell what either one had said. Lloyd snatched his swords from where they had fallen when he was struck, and immediately fell to one knee from the lack of support.
"We can't run. Can we distract them, ward them away, anything? Wolves in Sylvarant don't like fire, surely these can't be too–"
"Fire Ball!" Zelos and Genis chorused, launching a half-dozen flaming orbs into the dark. They burst in a series of flaring puffs, but elicited nothing more than a snarl from the unseen enemy.
"Black wolf pelts are flame-resistant," Presea added.
"I don't think I can cast enough Ice Tornadoes to get rid of them all…" Genis said, now backing up until he was flat against the tree. Unfortunately, climbing wasn't much of an option – they were out in the wider field, and this tree stood alone on the plain for some distance.
"Photon is too focused to be of use, and even Presea can be overwhelmed by numbers," Raine mumbled, unable to stop herself from pointing out how helpless they were.
"Yes, you guys can run," said Lloyd, breathing hard. "Leave me here. Save Colette."
"Lloyd!" Genis yelped.
"I said I wasn't going to make any more mistakes! What would you call holding my friends back from escaping and surviving?" he demanded.
"You're not holding us here. We're just not leaving," said Raine.
"Um, technically, I don't really know you well enough to be counted as a 'friend', per se," Zelos pointed out, but before he could finish his excuse, a pinkish radiance warmed the encroaching night, and everyone turned to see Colette, hovering off the ground.
The Chosen's wings were out all the time now, but they glowed even stronger, and more celestial feathers were rising from the ground like sparks from a beacon-fire. Her face was disturbingly puppet-like, eyes still glowing in soulless red, but her lips moving as though in the midst of heartfelt prayer. Lloyd could see the words they were forming – after the first time she had spoken them, fighting off an army of wraiths in the Tower of Mana, he didn't think he would ever forget the incantation.
Thy power floweth purely, ever unwavering. Accept my soul into thine embrace. Sacrifice!
A deep blue seal burned in the ground below her hovering feet, and light spiralled up from it like a fountain in a cyclone. A glowing wave flashed from her wings, healing the others, and then a storm of shining rays enveloped the giant wolf pack ringing the tree. Stars exploded all around the human and elven travellers, shredding the dark beasts.
The cost, of course, was nearly all the mana in Colette's body. Her pseudo-incantation complete, the angelic vessel lost her glow and tumbled back down to the ground. Lloyd scrambled over to her, now mostly recovered by the angelic healing power, but still exhausted. "Colette? Professor, you've got to do something before–"
"I know," said Raine. Her eyes were starting to water again, suggesting that the adrenaline rush of battle was fading under the onslaught of her returning allergies. The professor knelt over Colette, murmuring the words of revival. "ResurreeehhTCHOU!" Raine covered her face with both hands, and then let out a long, extended groan. "I don'd have the stregth for id, Lloyd. I'm sorry."
"Colette…" Lloyd pleaded, leaning over her. The Cruxis Crystal in the hollow of her neck was glowing intermittently, as if its power was failing. "Why did you do that…?" He watched the flickering light slow down, expecting it to fall dark at any moment. But after a full minute had passed, Lloyd realised that it was now pulsing in time with a faint beating in his ears. The Crystal shone in time with her heart.
"She's in bad condition," Raine observed. "We'll have to be careful, but I think she's stable."
"Near death isn't stable," Zelos muttered. Genis, too tired for subtlety, leapt on the arch of the Chosen's foot with all his weight.
"Even if we can't sleep, we should at least rest for the night," Raine decided as the Chosen screamed in the background. "I want to check over everyone, in case one of us has been poisoned or injured without noticing."
"…Okay," Lloyd said at last, still staring at Colette. "Professor, why did she do that?"
Raine sighed as she forced Lloyd to sit against the tree trunk and began checking for broken bones. The Lobo would have spread him across the countryside before dawn if they hadn't arrived. "I can't say for certain, Lloyd."
"What? What are you smirking for?" his teacher demanded.
"You're as bad as Colette. She does her fake giggle when she lies, and you always try to wriggle out of it with words. So tell me what you can say that's not for certain," the young swordsman asked.
"I can't decide if you're a periodic genius or a complicated fool," Raine muttered. "Well… Colette's current state is devoted to survival without thought of the costs or any real ability to plan ahead, so it's possible she didn't realise what the result would be until the last moment–"
"I don't think that's it at all," said Lloyd, his words slightly slurred. "I think she's still there…"
"You can't hang on to that too rigidly, Lloyd… Lloyd?"
"I'll take first watch," he murmured, and slumped against the tree, forcibly claimed by sleep.
Raine smiled wearily, having finally decided that Colette's Sacrifice had healed whatever remaining injuries the group had received. She communicated to Zelos silently (Raine was fluent in Meaningful Glare) that he should take watch for the first few hours, and then settled in by the fire Genis had already roused, wondering if she would ever sleep.
Presea stood facing the newly risen sun, holding her axe at her side upright, like a pillar of support. She didn't flinch, even in that brightest light, but watched diligently for the approach of any potentially hostile creatures toward their camp. It seemed the remaining wolves of the region had learned that this prey wasn't worth it; her weapon hadn't been necessary since those last desperate battles.
She was also aware of Genis standing a few feet behind her, though he probably didn't realise how sharp her senses were. He had been there for some minutes now, alternating between staring, quivering, and half-turning away before summoning a new store of courage.
"Genis," Presea said at last, because he was starting to distract her.
"Ah!" the little mage yelped. "...H-hi, Presea." She didn't say anything. Apparently more greetings weren't necessary. "Don't you want any breakfast?"
"I will remain functional without food for many more hours."
"I… I was just thinking maybe it was because I forgot about the beef again…" Behind them both, Zelos was attacking sausages with the sort of intensity he rarely attained against monsters, while Raine and Lloyd fed with a little more patience.
Presea didn't say anything.
"So I made this," he said abruptly, and held out a small wooden bowl. "It's for you," he added unnecessarily.
It was lucky the head of her axe had sunken into the ground, because Presea's right hand grabbed the bowl before she was even aware of it. Genis probably hadn't noticed, but he did freeze as she tasted the bacon omelette.
Until she was finished, they both stood like their feet were stuck in the ground. At last, Presea turned to face Genis, the first real move she had made since they started talking. Even if emotions were totally foreign to Presea now, even if she didn't fully understand the idea, the Cruxis Crystal hadn't yet suppressed all her memories. There was a gesture that matched this scenario…
Settling on it, she leaned in and briefly touched her lips to Genis' cheek. He turned flame-red as the ax-girl watched in what almost looked like curiosity. She turned back to the sun, which hovered just above the horizon, while Genis floated back towards reality. Eventually he realised that she was back 'on duty', and wandered away.
"What was that about?" Raine asked, briefly between sausages.
"Just delivering some food to our night watch," said Genis, airily.
"More like dawn watch," Lloyd corrected, his mouth half-full, and had to dodge a swing from Raine, who had a thing about manners. Zelos didn't risk bringing the professor's wrath his way, but gave Genis a look that said he had seen what the others apparently missed. The little mage slipped away before he could be called in for a good advising.
When they started toward the Bridge again, Colette still lagged behind the group, but over the first hour Lloyd found he was able to drift closer to her without setting off any threat alarms and receiving a chakram to the teeth.
"I don't like this place, Raine," said Genis, too quietly for the others to hear. In any case, Zelos seemed to get bored away from approachable women, and Presea was busy leading the way. "I mean, it's bad enough that half-elves are such a big threat in Sylvarant, but here everything's turned over onto itself. Mixed blood goes at the bottom of society."
"We don't have to worry about that," said Raine. "As full-blooded elves, we might not be welcomed as warmly as humans, but no one is going to try anything. I think Heimdall is in this world, and that means elves have a much bigger presence."
She sighed again –life seemed to be making her do that with increasing frequency– and looked down at her brave little brother. "What do you want to do? The Rheairds can't take us home. And it's not like anyone suspects us. Just try to keep things that way. …I have to admit, it doesn't seem right to keep secrets from Lloyd."
"We can't tell him! He's the only friend I've got left!" Genis hissed. "His mom was killed by half-elves!"
"She was killed by Desians," Raine corrected him. "I have faith in Lloyd to believe in us no matter our blood. …But let's not do that test any earlier than we have to."
"Okay," Genis agreed, and tried to start thinking about what to make Presea for lunch. Raine, instead, focused again on the boy to whom everything seemed to keep focusing on. Lloyd had been invaluable throughout their journey in Sylvarant, had even fought Kratos when the time came, and had been the only real reason the Renegades had saved them from Cruxis.
She slipped to the back of the small group, where Lloyd was walking with Colette. "What are you doing? It's dangerous to be near her."
"I'm okay," Lloyd insisted. He kept stumbling in their long march, too focused on the Chosen's red eyes and not enough on the ground at his feet. "What if she's in there, all alone, and just can't tell us? How do we know there's nothing left of Colette but her body?"
"There's no reason to think that," Raine said, perhaps too harshly.
"Yeah, there is," Lloyd insisted. "A shell wouldn't have saved us with Sacrifice last night."
"What do you mean? It was tactically in her favour to protect those who were in danger from the wolves, because she was still aware of our ability to then save her. Just because I didn't have the power and her Cruxis Crystal had to do it instead–"
"Professor," said Lloyd, softly. "She could have just flown away."
Raine froze in midsentence, and fell behind a few steps as that simple realisation sunk in. She ran to catch up, but still her mouth worked silently, not finding any words to follow Lloyd's. "Then what do you believe?" she asked at last.
"I think we have to work to save Colette as long as we can, because no matter what this Cruxis Crystal does to her, she's still Colette. Nothing can ever change the way she sees the world."
"What's this?" asked Zelos, appearing from nowhere in particular, like a smug cat. "My dear professor, you look startled. Perhaps in the morning light my features have struck you to their full effect, and you wish to–"
"HAAACHOU!" Raine bellowed and then looked miserably at her hands. "What? I could hab sworn id was going away," she moaned. Then a thoughtful look came across her face, and she sniffed the air. "…Whad is thad smell? It's sort ob… lilac…"
"Oh, you noticed my cologne," said the Chosen brightly. Raine stopped again, and spun on him like a gargoyle on a turntable.
"Your…" the secret half-elf began, and Zelos could have sworn her pinkish eyes were turning as fiery-red as Colette's. He started to back away. "…Cologne?" Raine produced her long staff from wherever she kept it and began stalking toward him, breaking into a charge when Zelos turned and fled down the road.
Lloyd watched them go with a smile. There was something deeper than a voice in all people, more definitive than memories and far more important than blood. He didn't know what it was, but Colette's was still alive, and he was going to save it.
Tentative but determined, Lloyd slipped his hand into hers as they walked toward the sun. "I'm here, Colette. And I'm not letting go."