Seravine - Chapter Nine

Author's Note: Well, on the bright side, it isn't quite 2007...

Only one more chapter to go after this. Hard to believe, actually, that I've made it through a chaptered sort of story, as this was my first venture in that type of writing. Think it turned out pretty well, actually. : ) Usual complaints about this chapter in particular apply, I suppose. I don't hate it, surprisingly, but there's a few aspects of it that throw me off, the most important of which I'll mention here: yes, it ends somewhat abruptly/terribly, and I apologize for that, though I'm of the mind it's the best way to go about things. You'll see what I mean come next time I update, heh.

I hate to have to do this, as it's entirely my fault that updates aren't very regular, but I'd recommend rereading the previous chapter before delving too much into this one (or, to be more specific, Lloyd's chat with the Storyteller) - it isn't mandatory, of course, but you might be better off for it...

Review responses:

callan - My thanks for the glowing review. : ) Here's chapter nine, hopefully for your enjoyment.

Phoenixfire1389 - No, I'm not going to leave it there, as you can see. : )

LuxDragon - You know, I actually didn't play Warrior Within. I was a huge fan of the original, but after hearing that the Prince's personality all but evaporated for the sequel, I never bothered to pick it up. Hmm. Might want to reconsider that.

: ) - I'm glad Colette was suitably creepy. Rather enjoyed writing that part. Uh, just a warning, you may be slightly disturbed by Chapter Ten..

FireEdge - I can't complain about late reviews when I'm terrible at updates myself. : ) I'm glad you enjoyed the last chapter! Hopefully you'll derive a similar entertainment from this one. I'm also pleased that you appreciate Seravine's history - I have pages upon pages of notes concerning the blasted thing, all possible theories as to its origins and nature. Thankfully, I've settled on one that seems to fit the bill, so expect to learn more of it in...the future. Ahem.

Tetra-Slash - Mysteriousness gone, you say? Hmm. I'm afraid things are going to get much worse. : )

Im that one guy - Heh. Kudos, my man. Those were pretty nasty. As for my dog, well, no, he died of old age, though I have to give you props for deeming my story black enough. Wee!

As for your prediction, well, I shan't say a word. Would ruin the fun, after all. : ) Glad you appreciate the back-history; it's really quite insane, how detailed I've gone in my notes, a fact which will nonetheless pay off in..the future. Ahem.

Ilvinaeda - I meant, actually, to send you an email of thanks for such a nice review, so please accept my apologies for being an utter jerk and completely forgetting. That said, however, you have my thanks for the compliments on my writing. Ego boosts are always fun. : ) I'm relieved the plot hasn't been very predictable, to be honest, as there's still quite a bit of mystery and drama to go. As for Colette..hmm. To be honest, I'd have to disagree regarding her appearances - I can name at least three off the top of my head, so I'd say she's gotten a decent amount of exposure. Regardless, however, you've my thanks for the honesty. I'll know for future projects to more carefully monitor each character's 'screen' time.

That looks to be it. Can't say I have anything else extraordinarily exciting to say, so I'll let you get straight to the chapter. Expect Chapter 10 sometime in 2007!

And on a completely unrelated note, was anyone else disappointed by the Half-Blood Prince?

oOo

You may not survive.

Slowly, Lloyd opened his eyes.

There was the smell of bone - of blood, of dust and darkness, of stale light and smoke as a single lantern danced and swung overhead. The gray-stained glass threw its warmth to and fro across the corridor, carving a lone set of stone steps from the shadows, pushing the darkness away for just the moment to follow his footsteps as he made his way at once down the staircase. He had the vaguely unsettling feeling that he had been here, once before, back when things had seemed that much simpler, though the notion only dwindled as the stairs plummeted forward and downward into the distance, sinking to a depth that brought a certain chill to his lungs and a hint of cloud to his breath.

Are you coming back?

An encircling ache had latched on to his leg, biting with every step he took, to the point where he gradually found himself stumbling down the slick steps at a pace that was so safe and so slow and so absolutely infuriating. He was wasting time and his friends could be in danger and he felt a particular twinge of anger at being so weak, at being so utterly helpless, at being unable to do anything more than place his hand along the wall and push forward, watching his breath curl and leap away into the patchwork darkness. There was the temptation, somewhere in his mind, to slide Seravine out of its pouch and let it carry him the rest of the way - but the jewel was writhing in its bag, madly, almost straining against the seams, and Lloyd couldn't dare ignore the unease stirring in his heart at the peculiar gray fire he had seen rolling just beneath its surface.

Curse?

Perhaps it is too late...

The words rung through his mind, even now, making him doubt and wonder and worry, knowing the question bothered him far more than he would ever care to admit. There was something infinitely terrifying that came coupled with the thought of losing himself to darkness - of pushing everything away and embracing the shadows he knew were moving with a measured pace right beside his footsteps. He remembered, when he let his thoughts wander for just the moment, Abyssion, and the nightmare that had taken hold in the depths of the Temple of Darkness; he refused, however, to entertain the chance that he might become something of that sort, instead finding only a dangerous motivation to put everything right, to save his friends and be rid of the damnable jewel and settle back into the times where things weren't such an awful shade of grey.

He was tempted, admittedly, to just toss Seravine itself, to watch it tumble down the steps, falling to shadow, but still the thought came that perhaps he could never be entirely rid of it, that perhaps he would actually need the accursed thing in the last encounter he knew was just beyond the horizon - just beyond these steps, just beyond this staircase slinking further down into the depths of the earth. Lloyd himself knew he had never been much of a dreamer, never much the type to sit with his head in the clouds, and it was strange and amusing all the same to think that he was so entirely focused on what was just beyond his reach, what lay only a sword's length away. The future, he had decided, was that much nicer than the present, especially when he allowed himself a picture of happiness - of sitting back in Iselia with his friends and just watching the sun slip from the sky.

You fight for yourself.

No - that wasn't necessarily true. The Story Teller's words were wrong, yes, though a tad right, and still Lloyd couldn't really decide and still he already knew his answer - already knew that there was really no need to curb his usual manner of thinking. It had been his friends first, always, and he was bent on keeping it as such, having already made the promise to himself not so long ago to do everything in his power to ensure their safety. A question, however, was slowly creeping to mind, one that seemed carried on the frozen air, one that had hardly seemed to be of any importance at all until Seravine had stolen him into the darkness and carried him to where he needed to go.

What exactly was his power? He could remember in only the plainest words the sheer strength and sheer power that came only when the jewel should raise him up; the thought was frightening and new and, inexplicably, exciting - rather as if there was some small side to him that enjoyed moving along the winds and unleashing the curious fire that ran through his veins. Lloyd immediately pushed the thought aside, banishing it to some other grey corner in the depths of his mind, not wanting to think too deeply on the matter and opting instead to thread back for a hint of his old optimism. He convinced himself, with little ease, that it would be only a little longer - one step, two step, darkness - before he would find his friends, before this damnable staircase would finally draw to an end, before the air should plummet any further and cast the temperature to somewhere far below. The lantern-light had long since faded and he was traveling nearly blind, now, wincing at the terseness in his muscles, feeling his way with caution down the steps and keeping his eyes locked forward from the crimson smears his groping fingers could feel on the wall.

Blood.

It was everywhere, really.

He stopped, so suddenly, his feet almost sliding along the stone, wrenching his hand from the wall and trying not to shake as a peculiar rush of fear latched deep into his veins. His vision was flittering and fading in the darkness of the corridor, and, for one silent moment, his hands were no more - they were dark and long and clawed, stretching forward, and there was a fresh terror in the way everything had changed - and then just as suddenly everything was back to normal; breath came to his lungs in short and violent gasps and he was flexing his fingers, immensely relieved to see the familiar red gloves, almost falling to his knees as that particular fear was swept so quickly away. He wasn't quite sure what had happened, yes, what exactly had occurred, there, but he knew now that he could only move forward, could only keep pushing down the steps, gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg and keeping his hands firmly out in front of him as he started back down into the darkness.

Lloyd had the distinct feeling that he was running out of time.

As if on cue, the staircase gave way, at once, to a long and dank passage, and he found himself hurrying along it, pushing his legs to a painful sprint and steeling himself for what he felt was just ahead. It struck him strange, then, how everything was so dark - how his eyes had little chance of adjusting and how the cold stone all around him seemed to only roll forward forever into shadow. But he was close, so close, and then this quiet warm promise was coming to mind, a sense of reassurement that he had found himself desperately needing in the overwhelming black.

I'll always be there.

He could so easily remember - could never forget laying on the grass, under the moonlight, and then the fire-touched chaos in Iselia, and the old classrooms and the old buckets and all of the old memories that seemed so important, so precious, and yet so damnably far away. But he had made that promise, not long ago, and it was still close, and, really, little else truly mattered - for even in this gaping darkness, the words still rang true.

The long passage ended, then, coming to seemingly nothing, to a quiet and black little room shrouded in dust and shadow. Lloyd skidded to a halt, abruptly, his swords already drawn, eyes scanning the area, feeling a curious crash of relief and disappointment to find that there simply was so little there - a large coffin, yes, situated in the middle of the room, and a plain grey mirror, too, certainly not what he had been expecting to find at the base of the stairs. Taking a long breath, he padded forward, carefully, stepping along the cold stone, turning every so often to sweep his eyes fully across the room. A thick sort of unease had stretched out across his stomach, training his ears for even the slightest sound, such that he could have sworn there was something there - something moving and watching in the way the shadows curled around his ankles.

He came first to the coffin and ran a single finger along its edge, frowning as the glove came away with nary a mark; no hint of dust or dirt marred the stone surface, leaving it with the impression of being well-tended, an utter contrast to the near decrepit state of the rest of the room. Lloyd watched it for a moment, waiting, hardly knowing what to expect, though there came only the silence and the gathering darkness, and, eventually, he moved onward, coming at last to the mirror situated on the wall nearby.

His first response was surprise - he hadn't, admittedly, given much thought to his looks as of late, what with everything that had happened, and it was a fact that shone clearly in the black shades beneath his eyes and the dried blood laced along his skin. He pushed it aside, though, turning his mind back to the task at hand, feeling not the first bit of disappointment at having apparently come to a dead end. There was something quite strange, yes, to that coffin, but there was still the thought that maybe Seravine had lead him astray - had brought him to somewhere entirely different from where he actually needed to be.

Lloyd was just turning away, swords falling loose to his side, when he felt it; the pouch at his waist was shaking more so than before, almost jumping, and with a frown he lifted it free of its clasp, undoing the top and dumping its contents onto his palm. Seravine was writhing, in a way, the jewel shaking and quivering against his glove, the dark fire in its cut snapping to life with a growing ferocity. Curious, he glanced back towards the mirror, where the gem seemed to most react - and fell back a bit when the reflection was changing, rapidly, shifting black and blue. He had a single glimpse of his own face, for that moment, of his shadows and the pale white of his eyes, and Seravine, too, but the jewel's image had changed, entirely, now glimmering a powerful white, a color entirely strange and foreign and so soon lost in the mirror's coiling glass.

All at once the buzzing began, the static roaring anew, and Lloyd almost crumbled to his knees, finding the screaming and the words almost too close to bear. He knew he should recognize the voice and he knew it was just on the tip of his tongue but it seemed too late, then, as the roaring rang out against his ears, the crackling that seemed curiously in time with Seravine's rolls against his palm. Desperate, he stumbled back, thinking to seal the gem back into its pouch, but his eyes again fell to the mirror - and the breath was torn from his chest as the reflection fell again into the expected, into the normal, of this very same room and of the mass of bodies piled beside the coffin -

"NO!"

Quickly, he spun, sweeping his eyes around the room, and there was nothing there and he was having trouble catching his breath and immediately he fell back around, latching his eyes onto the mirror. It was the same scene and then it wasn't - some terrible mockery of what Lloyd could touch and feel in the shadows behind him, some horrible picture of his friends crimson and black and dead in a careless pile behind the glass. Lurching forward, he brushed his fingers against the cold surface, wretchedly, one hand still clutched tightly around the throbbing gem, and as the mirror's surface shattered and cracked around his touch, somewhere, in the back of his mind, Lloyd knew that everything had gone terribly wrong.

oOo

"Lloyd!"

Slowly, he opened his eyes. Then came familiarity - a breath of recognition and a breath of fire that ran and clutched at his skin. It was hot, much too hot, and already he knew where he was, knew where he was standing, and knew he had never wanted to see this damnable place ever again. No, no, not this place, not this house, not this mistake; he didn't want to see it, didn't want to step forward, wanted to just fall back and lay down and let the fire wrap itself around his skin.

Dirk?

But he was moving, already, with care, picking his way amongst the debris, mindful of the flames soaring all around. It was quite curious; this place seemed so much different, now, so much simpler, such that he knew at once what would be waiting for him at the base of the stairs, such that he knew what sort of pain he'd have to deal with the moment he turned his eyes towards the past. He truly didn't want to - but it had already happened, and the tears were already collecting in his eyes.

Dad...

The dwarf was bloody and quiet and black amidst the flames. Lloyd stood a few feet away, watching, feeling again that usual misery, tears pushing at his eyes and a slow sweat trailing down his skin. He couldn't help but wonder why it had turned out this way - why he'd lost someone he needed, someone who genuinely cared for him, someone he could call his father and not have to let his eyes slip up towards the skies. He had to wonder, on the other hand, why he was here again, seeing this, feeling that familiar pain, knowing this had happened so long ago - a lifetime, perhaps - and that absolutely nothing could change what was written in blood and bone before him.

"You understand, then."

A figure was stepping from the shadows - from the fire and the darkness itself. Lloyd had seen this man, once before, and the memory came to him in an instant, taking him back so far and for such a long second to the depths of night and the pale cold fire he had seen claiming the depths of Abyssion's eyes. The name, though, evaded him, and he stepped back, instinctively, brushing at his eyes and watching as the strange familiar figure stepped in front of his father's corpse, stealing from view the way the fire danced along the dwarf's skin.

"You've made mistakes, haven't you?" The voice was quiet and plain.

"Yes," Lloyd said, softly, unable to tear his eyes from the way the shadows seemed to writhe beneath this stranger's fingertips. "But not anymore," he continued, jerking his face to the side, letting his eyes roam across the crumbling woodwork, relieved still to find his determination sitting just beneath the surface of his mind. He would not forget his promises - he would not forget his words, his emotion, the strength to his voice not so long ago - I'll never give in

"No," the stranger said, and there was a hint of a smile in the sound of his voice pushing against the fire-rimmed walls. "No longer. You see only the future." He moved, slowly, raising a hand, a black hand wrapped in shadows with fingers that stretched forward and out like the claws of a demon befitting the highest levels of hell. "Do you see these flames, Lloyd?" He swept his talons easily around the ruined home. "They're yours."

"Mine?" Lloyd asked, quietly, slightly dazed and yet finding that somehow the thought made absolute sense. These fires - this pain, this destruction - were his and his alone to handle, his and his alone to manage; it had been his fault, after all, this chaos, this death, this loss and this havoc and all of those other words that didn't mean a single damn thing in face of this comforting darkness. He decided, then, that he had to move on, that he had to push this nightmare away, and he wondered why the realization came only so suddenly amidst the shadows writhing beneath his father's corpse.

"Yes," the stranger agreed, his words soft, the darkness at his back spreading, slinking out and stealing all that the fire touched from view. His hand was still thrust forward, waiting, and his eyes were trained on Lloyd's alone, the look honest and intense. "You have the power to move on. To never feel this loss again. These mistakes? They shall be no more. Accept this, Lloyd, and you will never fear failure again."

"I - I think," Lloyd murmured, casting about for the right words, grasping about for the perfect emotion in the blinding smoke, though there came instead a peculiar dryness in the back of his throat. He swallowed, once, and then tried again, suddenly mindful of the flames that had spread out behind his back, stretching along the woodwork. Would the house collapse, then, when it was all said and done, and bury him forever?

"Come." That black-tipped hand was still pushed forward. "You do not ever need to be afraid again." There was an odd tinge of grey in the depths of the man's eyes.

Lloyd was moving, slowly, lifting his own hand without a second thought, though there was this powerful voice in the back of his mind screaming to pull it away. He was confused - he couldn't decide, really, when there was so much darkness, when he couldn't see his father and when the flames were reaching from the walls to wrap around his skin. He had the oddest feeling that this was where things were going to change; it was a bit strange, really, to think there should be just any one moment where it all came together, any one moment that should dictate the rest of his life, but there it was, all the same, and his hand was sliding forward to meet it, until it was only a tear's width away.

Perhaps this was for the best, then. Perhaps he could finally have the answers. Perhaps he could at last understand just how he had lost everything - had lost his friends - in the space of one dark night.

"Lloyd! No!"

There came that terrible static and Lloyd was falling back, collapsing to his knees, hands clutched loosely at his head as the voice again rolled over his senses. It was painful and fresh and still he couldn't remember it and still it was close - and when it had seemed that the madness at last would push him over the edge there followed a most extraordinary sound, one of shattering glass, a powerful resonance that ripped its way through his mind and into the back of his throat. Even amidst the roaring flames Lloyd could hear his own screams, could hear the growl in his voice and the way the sob that stole free of his throat was as pale and as tired as the blood that ran in torrents down from the back of his hand. The Exsphere there was gone, entirely, destroyed in a moment, and with it he could feel his strength waning, could only feel a particular numbness as the static at last ebbed away.

"Lloyd..."

He looked up, gradually, only barely grasping to his consciousness, finding that the chaos and the fire had seemingly been frozen in place, looking for all the world like - like a picture, maybe, some sort of painting, one torn and blackened in the flames. The stranger was there, too, unmoving, his hand forward, and, somehow, when everything had slowed to an impossible stop, Lloyd could just see the ugly sneer that had flickered across the man's lips. He knew at once that he could never take that hand, could never give into that darkness, and felt a shaken disgust at himself for almost doing so not a few moments before.

"Lloyd."

He started, surprised, and glanced around, the breath dashed from his throat when a face so familiar and so very unlike his swung into view. It seemed almost surreal, then, how everything had turned out, how he was crouched here amidst the darkness, amidst the flame, the blood trailing along his skin, with his mother - his mother, the first time he had seen her, and she was right there - there, sitting beside him, looking tired and worn yet so very pleased to see him. "Mom!"

She smiled, warmly, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, blinking away the tears that had settled in her eyes. "It's wonderful to see you, Lloyd," she said, softly, and her voice was exactly as Lloyd had imagined it, something wonderful and comforting that he had never been able to know.

"How?" was all he could ask, still very much surprised, still very much in pain, yet already feeling a smile on his own lips and certain lightness to his heart that he couldn't have felt in face of the firelit darkness. His mother was here and - and he knew it couldn't be anyone but her, and even the pain in his hand was dwindling, was fading away in spite of the blood still trickling down his skin. Lloyd found, with little surprise, that where his mother took his hand, roaming her fingers along the remnants of the Exsphere, the sharp aching seemed to only slip away.

"I've been watching you for so long," his mother said, her eyes far and away for all of the moment, falling against the gaping hole in the back of his hand. "Calling you, reaching for you, when the darkness tried to steal you away." Her smile was tempered, now, with a plain sadness, the sort of misery that Lloyd had a feeling could never fully be erased. It was frustrating and unfair; Lloyd wanted her to smile, again, to truly be happy, to show him the same face she showed his father, so long ago, before the Desians and Mithos and - and the Exsphere laying in shards near his feet.

He pushed the lot of it aside, though, for the moment, thinking back and watching as the pieces quickly tumbled into place. "Calling me," he said, thinking aloud, and suddenly it made sense - the static, the voice, the words he couldn't really hear but the ones that had been more than enough incentive to tuck Seravine back into its pouch. "You - you tried to stop me. Is it too late now?" He didn't want to ask the question, but there it was, already far out and away from his lips, lingering on the unmoving air.

"Yes," she said, softly. "I wish there was some other way, Lloyd. But I couldn't - I couldn't keep holding this back, not when you needed it to survive." Her eyes fell against his, still tired and sad and still the exact opposite of what he truly wished to see. "Do you understand? Do you remember, yet?"

Lloyd shook his head, bothered immensely with the idea of disappointing her. "No, mom. I don't think I do. What am I supposed to remember?"

His mother said nothing, at first, watching him, then simply switched her eyes to the stranger, to the darkness still frozen before them. "Do you know his name?" she asked, after a long while, an expression of intense dislike flittering across her face for the space of a long second.

"No," Lloyd said, plainly, but even as the word left his mouth he felt a peculiar coldness sneaking into his mind, a sudden rush of things he couldn't believe he hadn't managed to remember. "My dreams," he said, so gently, his eyes looking some place far away as the nightmares flashed to view. "I think I - " but the words fell away, even as his thoughts were only just beginning to collect.

"Think, Lloyd." There was a quiet urgency to her voice. "Do you know?"

There were so many things, now, so many memories and so many dreams that were coming, flooding into his thoughts, and he could easily place them, could instantly recall everything he had seen and the many different places this man had been - this man before him, frozen, unmoving, silent but somehow still dangerous in the way his hand was still reaching out amongst the smoke and fire.

"Do you remember?"

His mother's words were falling against his mind, soft and comforting, and he dug back a bit, finding the answer already shifting to the tip of his tongue. "Richard." He glanced up at the stranger, seeing the face truly for the first time, seeing the way the darkness seemed to curl around the other man's heart. "Richard Nebilim." The answer was much too obvious for his liking.

"Correct," his mother said, and, for a moment, there was only silence as she raised a hand to brush at her eyes. "You need to know this man before you make your choice. I couldn't protect you and not have you recognize Richard for who he is."

"I'll never give in," Lloyd said, at once, echoing his words from not a day before, and with the same determination, no less. "I'll never let them take me." It was such a simple thing to say - and despite his conviction there was still this stranger's hand jutting out into space, not a few feet from his own. "Not - not after everything that's happened. Not after they took everything away." He could feel the stirrings of anger scuttling about the back of his skull.

"I know."

He glanced at her, taking in the way her lips were curved slightly downward. "But - why are you sad?" It was a simple enough question, he thought, and an answer he dimly recognized he likely wouldn't want.

His mother sighed and moved to look him fully in the eyes, shifting so she could take his hands in her own. "I fear this is out of your hands, Lloyd. You have your choice, certainly, but I feel the decision was already made, long ago." She bit a moment at her lower lip. "I don't know why I think this. I only know that I do."

"I don't understand." He was truly beginning to hate those words - beginning to hate how many times he had to say them and how many times they would likely come up again.

"I know," she said, again, her eyes never once leaving his, her hands still holding his tight. "I don't either."

Her words were quiet and frightening. Lloyd said nothing, for a long while, just watching her, trying and failing and knowing that this was something he couldn't figure out just yet. "Why is this happening?" he said, at the tone of a mumble, sinking his head into his hands, mindless of the red stains along his gloves. Immediately he felt a pair of arms wrapped around his shoulders, and, biting his tongue against the tears that sprung unwanted to his eyes, he simply sat there, letting his eyelids gradually slip closed, seeing only a plain and comforting blankness.

"Never stop fighting, Lloyd," she murmured, running her hands slowly through his hair, her fingers gentle and warm and everything Lloyd could have wanted from the mother he had never known. "I know you're confused. I know you have questions. But you have your friends - and your family. We'll always be with you."

"I know," he said, echoing her words, allowing himself a tired smile, eyes still shut. He was half-afraid that, open sliding them open, his mother would no longer be there, would no longer be holding him close. "And I promised them, you know. I said I'd always be there." A fierce sort of determination had settled beneath the words.

"Then go." His mother held him tighter, for the moment, then pressed her lips to his forehead. "I love you, Lloyd. I'll always be with you."

She was gone, in an instant, leaving him to the shadows, and suddenly everything was moving again and he could feel the fire and Richard's expectant gaze. Lloyd stood, slowly, mindful of the throbbing in his hand, his eyes coming open and falling on the red-rimmed shards still jammed into the skin. Biting his lip, he took a free hand to yank them out, wincing at the fresh wave of pain, though the worst of it had long since faded in his mother's company. He was a bit worried, for the moment, knowing that without the Exsphere he was no more than some mere human, though the thought was pushed away with the sound of quiet voice.

"Come, Lloyd." Richard was speaking again, and there was a glimmer of recognition just below the surface of his eyes. "Your protection has faded. You will come with me."

"No," Lloyd said, defiantly, standing his straightest and letting a tight smile settle across his lips. "My mother gave up everything for me - and I'm sure as hell not about to waste that." His voice was rising, still, amidst the flames, high and above the blackened rafters that looked all but ready to collapse to nothing. "No more, Nebilim. You have my friends." His hands fell to his swords, gripping tightly at the familiar hilts. "I want them. Now. I'm tired of your games."

Richard was silent, for a short while, before displaying a sharp smile. "You think I have them?" There was no trace of humor in the way his eyes seemed suddenly that much brighter in the gathering flames. "You still don't understand." He withdrew his hand, carefully, holding the fingers up before his face, letting his gaze travel with deliberate slowness over the way the skin was shifting and shaking; a coiling blackness had wrapped itself around the knuckles, forming delicate points that vaguely resembled horns.

Lloyd could only watch, feeling a particular tremor in his own heart, and inexplicably felt his eyes falling to his own fist, not wanting to and already watching the fingers unfurl and stretch out at his waist. For a moment, there was nothing out of the ordinary, only the pale skin of his hand, the white stained red with the former shards of his Exsphere; the seconds passed, then, so quickly, and his relief crashed into the pit of his stomach when the veins pulsed faintly with a powerful grey. Shutting his eyes, he quickly turned his head away, not wanting to see and not wanting to understand but already knowing just what sort of point Richard had been trying to prove in the echo of the other man's laughter.

"What - " he began, but the breath was torn from the throat in a painful gasp as he felt strong grip lift him easily from his feet and slam him back into the wall. Forcing his eyes open against the overwhelming pain, he glanced with some desperation down at the shifting black clamping against his neck, struggling and feeling the breath ripped from his lungs as the claws only tightened further. With a growing worry, he kicked out, moving frantically and biting his lip against the pain as the room was falling steadily darker and the echoes of his breathing were thin and remote amidst the sound of the blood pounding in his ears.

"Your strength is waning." Richard was much too close and Lloyd felt his eyes drawn inevitably forward, into the fire and the flame of the other man's smile. "Do not waste my time, Lloyd. You cannot delay the inevitable." He looked cold and - calm, perhaps, damnably confident in every word, seeming to take delight in the way Lloyd's struggles were rapidly dwindling. "Yes," he murmured, "please, keep fighting." A smirk touched on his lips as Lloyd continued to kick, straining against the hold and reaching for the swords that had fallen from his side.

"I will come for you soon," Richard said, almost as an afterthought, loosening his grip and letting Lloyd drop to the floor below. He moved, then, turning away, pausing for just the moment before he slipped back into the shadows. "Give my regards to your friends."

Lloyd's vision was spinning, rapidly, the fires fading, and even as he gasped for breath his eyes could not look past the pained expression carved into the shadows along Dirk's face.

Slowly, the world slipped away.

oOo

Lloyd shifted, gradually, coming awake, feeling a throbbing pain in his hand and in his leg and - hell, in every part of his body, enough that he wanted for that moment to just lay there and never move again. The mirror was there, too, right before him, cracked and shaped in a grotesque manner; he moved to brush a shaking finger against the surface, finding the glass cold and unmoving, and, finally, when he had collected his senses, he struggled to his feet, turning on shaky legs, though they nearly gave way once again when his eyes settled at last on the nightmare before him.

He had switched - somehow, he was on the other side of the glass, and Sheena and Zelos and Raine were there, quiet and cold, and his heart all but stopped in his chest and he was scrambling forward, desperately, tears springing unwelcomed to his eyes, his groping hands falling just short of the silence and the pain permeating Sheena's face. "No," he said, softly, grabbing her wrist, finding nothing even resembling a pulse, and, with an angry sob, he weaved the delicate fingers through his, sinking back onto his knees and knowing he had managed to make a mistake once again. He had been too late and everything was lost and he could only feel this biting sadness and an unnatural anger - a powerful rage rolling through his veins and causing his hands to shake with wild abandon.

Too late...

He sat there, for a long while, shaking, seeing nothing, mindful only of how bitterly cold Sheena's hands felt wrapped in his. This wasn't right. This wasn't right - he should have made it and there was so many things he had wanted to say and the anger was growing, still, in the pit of his stomach, stretching and clutching at his skin, until his entire body was shaking and he had the short faint thought that something terrible would happen if he couldn't find the bastard that did this soon. This wasn't right. This shouldn't have happened and it stilldidand they were dead and Lloyd could scarce hear the sound of his tears as they fell down his cheeks, mindful only of the silence all around and the ache in his chest and the realization that things would never be the same.

Everything was so dark, now, draped with the shadows that stretched across the room, and Lloyd was starting to think again, only slightly, not wanting to and already feeling a terrible guilt clutching at his mind. How could - how could he face them? Colette and Regal and Genis and Presea and Chocolat and - everyone, everyone he knew, everyone he trusted, everyone he had let down, so many faces and so many names and this still wasn't right. He had been through so much, yes, too much, and this wasn't how things were supposed to turn out, not the sort of happy ending he had been imagining before. He had fought for so long and bled for so long that all of this seemed a little surreal; he wanted this to be a joke, some grand, twisted joke, to think this was merely a game, to know that things would be better, if he would open his eyes and just see - but he knew what was waiting, there, a pale soft face, pink bow, black hair, painful smile, the hand he couldn't let go of and the hand that told him so plainly that every last second of this was real.

"Sheena," he said, lowly, gripping her fingers, bringing them with naked desperation to his lips, then falling forward and letting his head rest somewhat uncomfortably on his knees, too tired to move and too broken to shake the rigid coldness that had spread along her skin. There was hope, in the very back of his mind, that perhaps this was yet another dream, yet another nightmare, that he would awaken in a moment and find the lot of them safe and sound, but there was little denying the way his heart had seemed to all but stop and the way his friends had taken only the whitest of pallors. Too late...

I'll always be there.

He had failed. It had seemed so easy, then, to promise, and Lloyd hated the fact that it was even easier to watch it be broken.

Perhaps it is too late.

"No," he said, quietly, and then again, clenching his fists, welcoming the darkness, the powerful black he could see only when he closed his eyes.

This, I fear, will be your greatest battle.

Dimly, his ears caught the sound of laughter.

Only you, however, can decide what happens.

"Oh, Lloyd. You came!"

That voice - he was falling back, scrambling backwards, hands clutching instinctively his swords, the breath caught in his throat and his heart slamming against his ribs - and Sheena was shifting, slightly, to sit up, to watch him, to smile, her eyes as black as night.

It has begun.