Asura had never seen Shiva cry—or express much of any kind of emotion, before. Shiva was true to her nature: cool, aloof; a literal ice princess. Asura stood back, silent and unmoving as to not yet announce her presence, and watched her Summon-daughter sob uncharacteristically into her hands.
All the monsters were under considerable stress, lately. Rydia had left them, adult-grown and fully trained, not long before. With a war waging above, Asura knew that Rydia's rejoining the mortal realm would mean near-constant battles and desperate summonings. The queen had been right; not a day passed without one or more being called to the green-haired girl's side. Shiva was no exception. She performed flawlessly, but what could have provoked her to such extreme emotion?
"Shiva?" Finally, the queen spoke, unable to bear the tragic sight much longer. Shiva's head snapped up, eyes full of surprise, and immediately began wiping her face. It had little effect, however, as her tears were already frozen to her cheeks. Asura stepped forward, placing a hand on Shiva's shoulder: intending comfort. But the ice-summon only shrugged away.
"I'm fine." The perfected icy tone was back, Shiva's movements smooth and flowing as she moved from the queen, "I'm fine, so just leave me be."
Concerned, but silent, Asura watched Shiva glide away.
(In prior weeks)
Time flowed differently in the Underground. Oh, no, not in the very literal sense, though Rubicante was very aware of the field of energies surrounding a few of the caves, how time stood abruptly still then sped forward, all in the same breath. While that was true, the whole of the Underground felt different, too, in that things simply moved at a stranger pace; everything was speeding ahead above him, while the world below held its breath. He wondered if the days felt longer simply because there was no sun or dual moons to judge the days by.
It was one of the reasons he was drawn to this place. With all the planning on Golbez's part, all the preparations and the silent assault on Baron's king, Rubicante felt like they all stood on the brink of something epic, something far too large for the sum of them all—and things were too close to spiraling out of control. He could forget that in the Underground. With the dwarves entirely unaware of their presence, he would work in peace and quiet without the worry of being caught.
It gave him more time, too, to seek out and enjoy the heat of this place. The flowing lava and distorted time loops of the caves called to him in a way he couldn't really describe.
And then he saw her.
It was a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. Falcon would have passed over it, without consequence, if Rubicante had been distracted or properly paying attention to the airship's flightpath. Instead, he watched the lava below, letting his mind drift onto aimless thoughts, when he felt a ripple of disturbance, a fluctuation; a drop in temperature below. It was unusual, in this world of near-boiling heat, something so cold to live and maintain itself. Assuming it was nothing more than one of many flukes in this strange, hot world, Rubicante motioned to the ship's captain. It might have been nothing, but his curiosity demanded satisfaction.
The ship was too loud, though, its rough landing sent up dirt and debris everywhere. He caught only a brief glimpse of shimmering blue, but when the the dust settled there was nothing but lava and rocks.
"What! Why have we stopped!" A grating, high pitched squeak of a protest came fumbling out of the Falcon's main cabin. Dr. Lugae, furious and scrambling to keep his white jacket on in face of the high winds caused by Falcon's descent.
Rubicante was half way down the ramp, when Lugae's shriek sounded again; following, "This isn't Babel! We have no time to waste on nonsense side trips. Lord Golbez is waiting for us and our progress report."
A cave, however, caught Rubicante's interest. With sprawling vines barely covering the cave's bottom, heated magma still bubbled up in places, the only warning for hapless travelers. The distortion of heat had passed here, he knew, and was disappearing further into the cave.
He would have explored further, followed it, but Lugae cleared his throat, once, twice, then a third time. With that short display of subtlety over, he stomped his foot in the recently settled dust. "Are you quite through?"
Reluctantly, Rubicante only nodded, but promised himself that he'd return, and to perhaps discuss Lugae's dismissal with Golbez. The doctor had no respect at all.
While he wasn't successful in Lugae's termination, Rubicante did return to the cave. He came alone, landing the airship on the north face of the island, away from the cave's mouth. Assured by his stealthy landing, Rubicante kept close to the lava's shoreline, attempting to blend into the fields of reds and oranges that was so very similar to his own appearance.
He wasn't sure what he expected to find—perhaps some strange ice monsters, coming out of the cave; or only a strangely dressed adventurer; maybe even the location of one of the Crystals. He used the last to justify his time and effort spent here, and settled in to watch the cave.
When he saw her, finally, it stole the breath from his chest. Later, he'd blame her icy nature for that effect, but in that moment it was genuinely the shock of her beauty. She was long and graceful, moving like liquid from the cave's mouth, bared legs and arms, and only binding strips of cloth circling her torso and midsection. Somehow, it was elegant instead of scandalous, the length of her many braids hanging past her chest and down her back. The most unusual thing, however, was the glow of her blue skin. Blue wasn't an accurate word, though: both icy and translucent, like silk, the color of a thousand diamonds trapped within the hue of her skin.
She spotted him immediately. Without a change in expression, she looked suddenly offended. With a sharp inhale—a gasp—and a hand at her chest, Rubicante instantly felt like a caught peeping tom. That by simply being here, watching her, he was being lewd and inappropriate. Without thinking, he averted his eyes.
By the time he looked back, mere seconds, really, she was gone.
Rubicante was a patient man. With his curiosity properly piqued, he found more excuses to come to the cave. This time, not with the intent of catching her unawares-- that would be rude and ungentlemanly to attempt again. Instead, he found little trinkets to leave by the mouth of the cave. A red jeweled barrette, a tiny spinning time-piece that unfortunately went haywire once he neared the island, a length of shiny wire twisted into the shape of a many petaled-flower. He thought about bringing real flowers, but the intense heat of both the underground and his own presence generally killed the plant before even leaving the airship.
Whether taken by her, or someone else inhabiting the cave, the gifts were always gone on his next visit. He decided to be optimistic: this was a good sign.
The next gift was a length of braided silver chain, long enough to loop around a small waist. It was simpler than his previous offerings, but he imagined with a vivid clarity how it would settle around her hips, how it was stand out the very blue of her skin, and couldn't resist that mental image.
This wasn't a trap, he told himself, he didn't lay in wait for her to come back, for her to come for the gift, to catch her off guard again. So he was suitably surprised when he heard a small voice from the cave as he turned to leave.
He froze. He was hesitant to move, to turn around or even glance over his shoulder, afraid to startle or upset her again. He heard her movement, however, light footed steps that brought her closer.
"I thought it was you," she spoke again; there was a simple but perfected beauty to her voice that Rubicante couldn't really describe as anything other than chilly elegance. "They're beautiful, really—but why?"
You're beautiful. He almost said it out loud, but restrained himself. Instead, he made the mistake of turning around to face her, and was struck as speechless as before.
Maybe it was the look on his face or the ridiculousness of his silence, but the ice-woman suddenly laughed. It shattered the serious expression she wore, brightened her face and voice. He thought of the phrase 'breaking the ice' and burst into laughter himself.
When they were both done, he extended a hand, "I'm Rubicante."
She smiled. It looked strange at first, but suited after the tight line of her mouth relaxed, "I'm Shiva."
She took his hand, and then screamed.
In all the time that Rubicante would know Shiva, he never saw her as uncomposed than in that one, brief moment when their hands touched. It was an explosion of hurt for him too, searing and so terribly cold; they both pulled their hands away; her, with a screech, and him with a yelp.
"What are you?" she cradled her hand against her chest, the only remaining sign of distress in her strained voice.
"What are you?" Rubicante retorted back, not really angry but in enough pain to sound edgy.
"An ice summon," she stated, matter-of-factly, and he was disappointed to see a frown cut into her mouth, "And you?"
Rubicante hesitated. She was obviously a creature of power. Could she be under employ of the the Dwarven Kingdom, or one of its smaller settlements in the Underground? Revealing himself and his nature might put Golbez's plans in danger—was Rubicante willing to risk that for the sake of a woman, regardless of how astounding she was?
He decided to go with a partial truth: "I'm... not certain what a summon is, lady, but I believe we share similar qualities. I'm a being possessed of an element, like you. But fire is my gift, not ice."
Understanding blossomed on her face, the harsh lines softening. "Oh." She paused, apparently considering what that meant, and took a sudden step back, "Oh. We shouldn't... We shouldn't be near one another, it could be dangerous."
"No, no." Rubicante was quick to move, settling down on the rocky ledge that sprouted as a continuance from the cave, "No, don't go. We just won't touch one another—that will be all right, won't it?" He motioned to the space next to him, with a brief pat of his hand. "We can just talk. I'm curious about this place. About you, more importantly. Talking won't harm either one of us."
He saw her hesitation fade as she smiled again, "No harm at all."
"You're not like Ifrit, at all."
She told him of the other beings like her. Powerful summons, she called them, of every element, of destruction and healing. How, beyond the cave, they lived in their tiny kingdom, under the protection of a king and queen—also summons. Truth be told, he had little interest in the others.
It took a full week to encourage Shiva past her modesty, to show him a display of her magic. Even in this heat, she drew cold out of somewhere, manipulated it between her hands, and built a pretty display of upward pointing icicles. He inadvertently revealed his own powers shortly afterward, as the crude ice sculpture promptly melted under his curious touch.
He didn't come every day, but he tried. Some days, she couldn't make it either. But on the occasions where they both came to the mouth of the cave, they'd sit together, watch the rolling lava and simply talk. It was a dangerous situation, being so close to her. He could feel the chill of her leg next to his, and knew she was troubled by the intense heat of his own presence. Still, they ignored the conflict of their opposite natures, and talked for hours.
"Ifrit is a fire summon, correct?"
"Mmhm," she murmured, kicking her bared legs out, letting them dangle off the ledge, "but you're nothing alike. He's explosive, prone to fits of anger. Violent." The last word animated with the widening of her eyes, as if recalling one such incident, "Not particularly pleasant."
"That, my dear, is an unfortunate stereotype of my chosen element. Granted, there's quite a bit of raw, unfocused power. And that, as you said, can be explosive. But that kind of power is erratic, uncontrollable, and ultimately unreliable. If one can manage to refine the energy, harass and control it--"
"You get someone like you," Shiva offered, with a half smile.
"Yes." Rubicante resisted a laugh, "Yes you do."
"Ifrit isn't too fond of me, I'm afraid," she seemed suddenly uncomfortable with their close proximity, probably remembering the very reasons why a fire-inclined creature wouldn't be tolerant of her presence.
"As you said, I'm not like Ifrit at all." He was relieved to see her relax again.
Later that evening, Dr. Lugae was waiting for him, as Rubicante returned to the Tower.
"Where have you been!" There was no polite question posed here, but a rough demand.
With his white hair in a comical white puff around his skull, glasses askew, and white coat covered in Gaia-knows-what green stain, Lugae cut the most unrefined figure Rubicante had ever encountered. He wondered if this was Golbez's private little joke, placing the unstable, power hungry scientist in Rubicante's hands.
"Out." Rubicante replied stiffly, brushing past the little man with nothing more than that.
Lugae stomped his feet, obviously unhappy with the curt reply, "There's four crystals to be found and you're out playing vacation! I need supplies, more men, more funding, and Lord Golbez needs progress before he grants any of that! What will you tell him!" With his outburst, Lugae's face was as red as Rubicante's.
"Tell him I'm making progress, then. The Underground is absolutely minuscule compared to above. Once I know where the Crystals are not, I'll know where they are." Deciding that was the last word, Rubicante continued onward into the Tower, ignoring Lugae's further mumblings.
"Thinks he's so great because Lord Golbez put him in charge. I'll show him. I'll show him all right."
Unfortunately, Lugae had a point.
Above-ground, the pieces were being put into play. The kingdoms with the Crystals were proud enough to boast of their possession, so while it wasn't a problem of locating the four, it was a more complicated matter of taking them. But with Baron's King disposed of, and Cagnazzo in his place, it was only a matter of time before Golbez found an opening. Whether by coercion or brute force, Mysida, Fabul, Troia and Damcyan wouldn't be able to hold up under the weight of mighty Baron.
Days past, and Rubicante was left consumed in his work. He thought of going to the island, to see Shiva and tell her what was going on. But what could he really say? The less said, the better. Every time he thought about seeing her, he told himself -- tomorrow, tomorro, he'd go and at least partially explain himself, and his absence. But each day brought him closer to one of the Crystals.
Kokkol the smithy was well-renowned in the Underground. In Rubicante's short time here, he'd heard more than enough about the legendary weapons the dwarf crafted. To be honored with such a sword or ax was the highest achievement a soldier could attain. The dwarven king himself, Giott, was said to carry a double bladed ax at his side during the few battles of his reign. It was rumored, also, that the blades themselves were imbued with the power of a fire god, whose flames tempered the weapons.
Local legends held little interest for Rubicante, however, the possibility of an elemental source of power was too coincidental to be ignored.
"You can't go in there!" Kokkol could do little more than shout his disapproval. Though well-muscled by years of work at both smith and forge, he was powerless against the monster-mage's spell, which held him pinned against the wall of his own workshop.
Lugae cackled at the sight, his hands clasped together in obvious glee. Rubicante couldn't look at the dwarf, and only passed by him, drawn by the heat of the interior forge. Kokkol's apprentices and attendants had all but disappeared; there was no one to stand between Rubicante and the rolling waves of power.
He knew of the Crystal shrines above ground, how each country had constructed a room of thousands of tiny glass panels, polished clean and bright, to send reflective light dancing all around the Crystal's altar. Kokkol had no such religious homage, only a great forge; blackened with soot from recent and long term use. Even without all the glitz and lights, the red Crystal shone brightly against the brick, as hot as any bubbling fire might have been.
The Fire Crystal. Rubicante couldn't help but smile. Of course.
Seeing Rubicante with the Crystal tucked under his arm, Kokkol's struggle change to one of desperation, perhaps only now realizing the impact of this theft. His voice hit a strange high note as he shouted after Rubicante, "Thief! You can't have that. That's a family trinket of no value to you. Take whatever weapons you want, more than enough to outfit your men and then some. But leave an old dwarf a sentimental piece of glass!"
"I know what you have here." It was only now Rubicante looked at the dwarf. He felt somehow empowered by the Crystal, or maybe cowed by it; overpowered and drowning in its presence. He flip-flopped between the two extremes, and struggled to make his voice firm, "And I know what it can do. I'll not be bargained with."
Kokkol went limp against the spell's constraints, "I won't resort to begging. But if you take that, I'll have nothing."
Rubicante paused, then gestured for his mage to release the smithy. Kokkol fell gracelessly to the floor, but was quick enough to pull himself up; stocky and solid, he braced against the wall, perhaps prepared for a death stroke.
"I won't be killing you. You may think all your success is vested in this Crystal, but I think you have a talent that will thrive in spite of the Crystal's absence," the Crystal seemed to speed his thoughts, making connections that, alone, he could only begin to grasp at, "Come with me. I'll see you outfitted with a proper forge and competent assistants, if you in turn make weapons and armor for my Master's army."
He considered it, genuinely. Rubicante could see the process of thought play out across Kokkol's crinkled, bearded face; weighing his options on life without the Dark Crystal to inspire his forge. There was a moment Rubicante believed he would agree, but his eyes caught the mangled form of the monster-mage.
Kokkol shook his head, slow and defiant in the simple motion, "No. I'll never make another weapon. Not for anyone, but especially not for a dark lord."
Later, Lugae muttered his disappointment, wondering aloud why Rubicante simply hadn't brought the smithy and his apprentices back to the Tower, with or without their consent. Master Golbez wasn't ready to provide the doctor with live subjects to experiment with, so why shouldn't he find his own?
Rubicante simply shrugged Lugae's rambling complaints aside, and turned his focus to finding the next Crystal.
The second was in a cave not unlike Shiva's own, with the same vine-covered, dangerous magma floors. Tiny faerie like creatures guarded the Dark Wind Crystal here, and fought pitifully against Rubicante's forces. Again, Dr. Lugae opted for the test subject or killing idea, and again, Rubicante turned him down.
It was a spy within the dwarven ranks that informed them of the location of Crystals three and four. One in Giott's castle itself, hidden in plain sight behind the throne. The other in a forgotten, isolated cave, whose entry was guarded by more magic than Golbez could overcome right now.
The Four Fiends sat gathered around an especially long table; Milon and Cagnazzo on one side, Valvalis and Rubicante on the other. Golbez shared space with no one, sitting tall and very stiff at one end. He wore his armor, as a formality, and though his voice and expression were disguised, Rubicante could still sense his displeasure at the lack of further progress in the Underground. It was no fault of Rubicante's, granted, but it was still a failure nevertheless.
Cagnazzo still wore the guise of the Baron King. He had settled into the role of doppleganger fairly easily, given his more liquid nature and ability to take shapes of containers; a person's body was no different. He spoke, still using the King's voice, "The Mysidians refuse to trade their Crystal. I can sense it, I feel it calling through the Devil's Road, but no amount of coin, land, or ships will convince them."
"We have little choice, then," Golbez spoke, his voice low but carrying purpose. He had little need to yell, having so much power behind quiet words, "Baron's military is unmatched. Its Red Wings has a new captain, young and eager to prove himself. Send the Dark Knight and his fleet to Mysidia, and we'll take the Crystal by force. Perhaps this will send the proper message to the other kingdoms that surrendering their respective Crystals is the best option."
Cagnazzo-as-Odin nodded, visibly relaxing at the decision finally made, "I know the boy. He'll do what we need."
Golbez's unseen gaze swept to the other side of the table, the turn of his helm the only indication that he now looked at Valvalis and Rubicante, "You two won't be idle. You'll be busy with your own invasion. Eblan sits too close to the Tower of Babel to overlook our upcoming activities. We need to be able to enter and leave the tower without anyone alerting the rest of the world.
"Given Eblan's isolated geography, and the xenophobic nature of its people, it'll be weeks, months even, before anyone notices the destruction. Rubicante,"--the Fire Lord sat up straighter, hearing his name-- "I want you to campaign this. Vavalis will be helping me where I need her, so this is all yours. Do not fail me again."
"Never, my lord." Rubicante replied promptly, knowing the threat when he heard it.
"Good." Golbez sat back, letting his attention encompass the rest of Fiends, "We'll strike simultaneously, in two weeks hence."
With everything prepared, poised to strike, Rubicante thought that the world held its breath, waiting for the major upheaval to take place. With a week before Eblan and Mysidia's invasion, and his current search for the remaining Dark Crystals at a standstill, Rubicante was able to let his thoughts turn to the island, and Shiva, once more.
He couldn't ignore the guilty weight in his stomach any longer.
Against Lugae's loud protests, he took the Falcon out.
He didn't expect to find her. Truth be told, he didn't expect much anything. Any kind of note she might have left would have been destroyed within hours because of the heat. After the way he had left her, he didn't deserve even that. Still, he held his breath in hope as he landed Falcon.
Miraculously, by some unknown deity or the very Crystals he coveted, she was there. Perched on the very rock he'd left her, exactly the same way he left her; icy blue and liquid limbs. Excitement started to show on her face when she saw him, but then, remembering her anger, her expression smoothed out. She looked like chilled glass; still and perfect. Beside her was a tied bundle, anonymously wrapped in brown paper, to protect the contents inside.
"Shiva. Shiva, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"I don't know what's worse. That you'd show up after all this time, or that I'm still here waiting for you." Not a line in her face changed as she spoke. Her voice alone chilled him to the bone.
"You have a thousand apologies and more." He dropped to a knee, wanting to take her hand as he asked for her forgiveness, but felt the icy aura around her and stopped.
She looked to his outreached hands, saw their hesitation and pull back, and the cold expression melted away. Her forehead wrinkled with concern, "I was worried sick. Asura, my queen, says there's a war coming. That powers are gathering, that the world is primed for change. I didn't want to believe her, but then you disappeared. You're not just a fire-monster, no more than I'm a simple ice-beast. Rubicante, I know that. You're involved in this change, aren't you?"
He couldn't lie to her; not with her gaze cutting into him, her eyes so blue and honest. He could have lied, and maybe she'd believe it, but he didn't have the heart to try.
"The world is about to change, you're right. We're on the brink of war and I'm behind the force causing it." His voice was soft, hands folded together to resist the urge to touch her, "I haven't been honest with you, and for that I'm sorry. But I didn't have to think about that when I was with you, there was no war, no plots and scheming, no master to answer to."
She breathed; a long inhale and held it, as if deciding whether to hold on to her steely resolve and stay mad, or believe him. Finally, she released the breath, and the rest of her deflated with it, shoulders dropping forward.
"Oh, Rubicante. I haven't been honest with you, either."
In that moment, he realized how very little they knew of one another. She didn't know where he went when they parted, what he did or what manner of beast he really was. And he had absolutely no inkling as to what summons actually did – were they simply creatures of fancy, wielding incredible magic for no apparent reason, or, was there a purpose for their power, and to what cause?
Shiva wasn't looking at him, but to the waves of lava in the distance. He wanted to know what secret was so grand that it darkened her eyes and made the chilly field around her waver and dim. He wanted to know, but didn't press her. Rubicante, after all, was a patient man.
Finally, she spoke.
"There's a place up there, Mist, where the ground is fertile with magic, our magic. It's somehow connected to my kingdom, and these humans who are born and reared on that land – some of them have the ability to call us to their sides. They call themselves summoners. But my brethren and I? We call them Master."
"Shiva. We all have Masters to whom we must answer. Myself included."
"Yes, but." She stood, abruptly. The action startled him, and he stood with her, struggling to keep his hands at his sides, "But you have one master. You mostly know his agenda, his plan, don't you? You choose to serve him. Humans are dear but foolish beings, mostly well-intentioned, but foolish nevertheless. And I answer, without choice, to any who might call upon me. Do you know what that means?"
He didn't want to, not really, and shook his head in reply.
"If there's a war going on, and we're on opposite side." Her arms crossed over her chest, holding herself in a very un-Shiva like way, perhaps to comfort herself, "I could be summoned against you. My heart couldn't bear it."
"Shiva, that won't happen. I won't be directly involved, I won't be fighting--"
"But if you are." It was so odd, so terribly wrong, to hear her distressed, and being unable to do anything about it. Rubicante felt helpless. "I couldn't live with that. Not now, not ever. I made you something, so it won't ever happen." With a fluid gesture, she motioned to the package lying forgotten at their feet.
Confused, he knelt beside it. When she nodded for him to continue, he slowly pulled the tie, and pulled the brown paper away.
Inside, red fabric spilled out. Soft but weighty in his hands, designs of orange and yellows swirled around in countless patterns. Some he recognized as runes, different spells literally stitched into the cloth. He stood, pulling the garment with him. It dangled near to his feet, a hood and looped cord flopped lifelessly at the top.
"You made me...?" he left it unfinished, confused as to what purpose this served. He felt the magic pulsing at his fingertips as he swept his hand over the stitching.
"I made you protection. Put it on, and I'll show you." She said, suddenly closer to him, dangerously nearby at his elbow.
Curious enough not to ask questions, he pulled the cloak over his shoulders, tying it closed. When nothing happened, he looked to Shiva expectantly.
"Now," a smile warmed her face, "touch me."
"Touch me, Rubicante. It'll be fine."
Even without the weight of the cloak at his back, heavy like reassurance and humming with magic, he would have complied. Pain or otherwise, all he ever really wanted to do was touch her and be chilled all over, whether it killed him or not.
Still, he hesitated, his fingers brushing her hand.
She winced. He expected that, and took his own sharp indrawn breath, in anticipation of his pain. When nothing happened, he released the breath, awaiting a delayed reaction of some kind. Only coolness, spreading from his fingers down his wrist, and up to his arm.
Delighted, he gripped her hands with both of his, covering them, and only then saw the strain on her face. Like a scalded cat – only it was her that was burning, right? He let go.
"Oh, Shiva. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to – I didn't want to hurt you."
"No, no. It's only a little shocking at first." In a bold move, she reached for him, grabbing his wrists, "It only hurts a little now, you see? But, you see – the cloak? It protects you from ice. I'll never hurt you. No creature like me will ever hurt you."
He would have let go of her, afraid that he really was hurting her, but Shiva held on to him; perhaps to prove her point, or because she really didn't want to go let him go.
Rubicante hoped it was the latter.
"Tell me if I hurt you too much, will you?"
Shiva looked confused, her face comically scrunched, "Why?"
What happened next became mostly a blur in Rubicante's memory. However unclear, he visited the thought often, remembering the few but sharp details of the way his mouth burned on hers, how she almost literally melted beneath him, and how their touches when from childishly hesitant to fevered and frantic.
The cloak between them to protect him from her, and vice versa, he held her. "I'll find you, when the war is over," he whispered, not quite touching her ear, "It'll be brutal, but short. The humans' forces will crumble easily. They're not organized enough to hold up much defense."
"Stay alive," was her only reply to all of his promises, "Avoid the fighting. Avoid the summoners, especially." She smiled, despite herself, in a poor attempt to find humor, "I want to see you soon, but not too soon, hm?"
"Do you hate them, the summoners?"
She shook her head, eyes thoughtful as she looked away, "No. It's simply my lot in life. If I'm made to fight for their personal gains, it can't be helped, can it?"
Leaving Shiva was one of the hardest things Rubicante ever did, but with a few more searing kisses, he did.
Nearly a day had passed since Rubicante's departure for the island, and Lugae was understandably upset when the fire elemental returned.
"I don't have time for your nonsense, doctor. I have to see Lord Golbez immediately." Rubicante's reply to the doctor's sputtering were as brisk as usual.
"I'll show you, one day, I will!"
While his mad ramblings typically did nothing to provoke Rubicante, today seemed somehow different. He spun, abruptly, cloak swirling dramatically with the motion, "Will you? Today is that day. Go ahead."
"... What?" For once, Lugae was speechless.
"I said, show me. You've been wanting to overpower me and take over from day one. I'm saying, do it now." He pulled the heavy length of the cloak up close, to cover his face.
Flustered, but unable to resist this opportunity to not only attempt a take over, but show off his experiments, Lugae fumbled in his pockets. Withdrawing a small vial, he didn't hesitate chucking it forward.
As it broke, a thousand or more tiny crystals exploded outward. If Rubicante had to guess, this would have been the equivalent of a black mage's high level ice spell. Who knew that the crazy doctor was capable of actually creating something of use? Braced for pain, for a deathly chill, Rubicante was just as surprised as Lugae when nothing happened. Still, he kept his face composed and stern, not wanting to betray anything to Lugae.
"... Are you done?"
Wide-eyed, mouth open in shock, the doctor only managed a vague nod. Rubicante couldn't help but laugh.
It was only after Rubicante had left Lugae, alone and speechless, that the doctor pulled a notepad from his pocket, and began feverishly scribbling while mumbling: "Ice, ice, no good. What happened. Try something else. Impress Master."
"Are you saying that there are more Elementals, as you and the other three?" Golbez sat opposite of Rubicante, the same wide wooden table between them. Golbez leaned forward, and while his heavy mask still hid his expression, his interest was clear in his voice alone.
While Rubicante's residual failure to gather the remaining Dark Crystals still wasn't sitting well with Golbez, it was temporarily forgotten in light of this new information.
"No, not quite. They're... monsters, though I do use the term lightly. Highly intelligent, but bound by magic to these humans in Mist. They call them summoners, as they can call the monsters to their side during battle." Rubicante frowned, despite himself – Shiva was anything but a monster.
"Oh. Really." A single drum of fingers on the table, "Do you think we could persuade them to our cause?"
"If we had more time, Master. But..." his frown creased further, "Truly, they pose more of a threat than help. With Baron poised to attack Eblan and Mysidia, do we really have time to rethink our plan with unstable allies? We have the power we need. Now, we simply have to eliminate this wildcard threat."
"What would you suggest?" Golbez stood, his arms crossed, "How do we destroy this immense power you speak of?"
"Send Baronian soldiers. Mist is secluded enough, and fears nothing from the outside world. Why would they expect an attack of any kind? Strike quickly and withdraw, before they have time to cast their spells and summon the beasts to their sides."
Rubicante held his breath after he finished, watching the pace of his Master back and forth, matching the length of the table. They both spent several long minutes in this silence, Rubicante uncertain and his Master considering the scope of it all.
Finally, Golbez spoke.
"... I think, perhaps, I may have an idea."
No one deserved to serve a master they didn't choose. At least, for Rubicante, he knew and willingly chose to follow Golbez. If his tactics were a little... cruel, he knew how to make things change. Gathering the Crystals would open the way to limitless power, of which Rubicante would have a part. The ends justified the means, he decided, even if that seemed a little cold to the individuals hurt in the process. Perhaps Shiva was rubbing off on him more than he thought.
Oh, but poor Shiva, and her summon-brethren. They had no choice in who controlled them, what cause they fought for, whether they sided with good or evil.
This would free them, Rubicante knew. The destruction of Mist would ensure that he'd never have to fight Shiva, and that little would stand in Golbez's way. The sooner they succeeded in gathering the Crystals, in attaining that mighty power, the sooner he could return to Shiva, and figure out how to take her from that underground kingdom.
Once the war was over, they could be together.
And Mist stood in the way of that. No longer.
If Rydia had no reason to fear fire before, she most certainly did now.
For one brief, hopeful moment, she thought they wouldn't have to fight. The Fire Fiend spoke eloquently, without anger or hatred in his voice, like Cecil had described the other three. She felt ragged and tired, magically drained, and the Fiend replenished them all.
But that was the unfortunate end of the Fiend's sense of fair play. Now, he raged in flames, nearly scorching them all in one hit. Rydia screamed, more scared than hurt, really. She hated the childish fear bubbling up in her; wanted to be adult and strong for Cecil.
Rosa was at her side, soothing with a Cure spell, "Ice, Rydia. He'll be like the others, vulnerable to his opposite."
Nodding to the white mage, she lowered her head; whispering the incarnation as her hands moved in accompanying gesture. Power pulsed fiercely in her, fueled more so by her terror, and ice came cascading down on the Fire Fiend.
Rydia, and the rest of the party, held their breath; waiting for a yell of pain, for him to crumple to the ground, injured or mostly dead.
Instead, his cloak, pulled tightly around him, glowed bright.
Rosa was at Rydia's side, clutching at her elbow. "The summon – Rydia, try the summon! The ice spell isn't strong enough!"
Feeling hot panic in her throat – perhaps her spells weren't strong enough, period, Rydia began her spellcasting again. Would they die in this awful Tower, their corpses forgotten by the outside world, left to rot and be mocked by those that killed them? This desperation was put into the summoning, her hands moving rapidly with the pace of the spell.
With a light that nearly blinded all of them, Shiva exploded onto the scene.
They'd all witnessed Rydia's summoning before – Cecil grabbed both Rosa and Rydia, and ducked low, mostly shielding the two of them with the bulk of his armored form. Cain merely crouched down, his hands over his head, while Edge disappeared entirely, hiding behind a pillar. They held their breath and waited, for the explosion of ice shards.
Again – nothing happened.
"Shiva!" Rydia's head poked up from beneath Cecil's arm, "Please, attack! He should be weak to your magic!"
Shiva descended. Her feet brushed the floor, and she seemed suddenly less terrifying than any time before; not as big, not as imposing, not as powerful. Her icy stare pinned on the Fire Fiend, though she back stepped to where the Summoner crouched.
"Rydia, child," though she addressed Rydia, she spoke loud enough for Rubicante to hear, "I cannot penetrate his cloak even with my ice magic."
They were all vulnerable, exposed and unprotected by Shiva's ice warding. But the Fire Fiend did nothing.
"He'll kill us, Shiva! He'll kill us if you do nothing!" Rydia's voice was a high note in panic.
"She's right, Shiva." Rubicante spoke, for the first time during the battle. His arm dropped, the cloak swinging open, "I'll kill them if you don't stop me. It can't be helped."
They were at a standstill. Shiva stood between them. the five huddled, vulnerable bodies, one being the last connection Shiva and the other monsters would ever to the outside world, and Rubicante, the Fire Lord, his only protection bravely opened.
"Follow your heart, Shiva. I'll kill them if you don't stop me, they'll kill me if you don't stop them. Do what you must."
Her arms raised, and a shower of tiny diamond like ice shards came crashing down on Rubicante.
Shiva was crying.
Asura didn't follow Shiva inside. Later, she'd ask her daughter what was the matter, and push the question. Later, she'd find out what had broken that icy heart.
The teleport pad shivered with use, and five new figures stood inside the village. One, outfitted in familiar green.
Later – right now, Asura was being called.