Chapter Forty-Two: Homecoming

"We need to stop in Sybak," Will said the next night as they came to the road leading to the city.

"Are you kidding?" Genis asked. "We got arrested there! We need to keep going straight to Gaoracchia Forest! We need to meet up with Colette!"

"But I only have one sword," Will reminded him. "If we're going to be crossing a dangerous forest, I'll need to be able to fight."

"We don't have any money for a sword," Raine said. "And it's the middle of the night, so no stores would be open."

It was indeed the middle of the night. After sleeping all day after getting off the boat, they'd decided to start traveling by night to avoid being seen by other travelers during the day. Being on the run from the law was no fun at all. Will just knew that after a few days of this his sleeping cycle would be majorly screwed up.

"I'll steal one," he said. "Actually two because they need to be identical and I doubt I'll find an exact copy of a sword from Luin here."

"Lloyd!" Raine said. "We're already branded as criminals; we don't need to make it worse for us!"

"We already stole a boat," he pointed out. "Look, I really need a weapon. Like you said, we're already criminals. Stealing a couple swords won't make it any worse for us."

Raine frowned, then closed her eyes with a sigh. "Alright." She opened her eyes again and gave Will a hard look. "Genis and I will stay here, because sneaking around with three people is much harder than just one person. However, I want you to promise me you'll be careful."

"I will."

"No unnecessary risks."

"I know."

"You get your swords and come right back here. No side trysts."

"I know."

"Be very careful."

"You already said that."

Raine quickly pulled him into a hug, and said, "Don't get hurt, Lloyd. Genis and I will be waiting right here."

"I'll be back soon."

He turned down the road to Sybak, waving goodbye to Raine and Genis. "I'll be fine," he called back at Genis' worried face. Then he looked ahead, and wondered how exactly he was going to do this. He had no experience with breaking into a store and robbing it, and despite what he'd said to Raine he didn't really feel very good about being a thief. He knew he had to, but...it was just wrong. He didn't want to be a criminal.

Luckily, Sybak wasn't protected by a huge thick gate at night so it was a simple matter to stroll into town. He had to be careful, though. Here at the scene of his 'crime' they'd be more likely to already have a description of him.

He walked into the deserted main courtyard area and looked around. It was very dark and quiet. What the hell? This was supposed to be a college town! There should be mad drunken parties every night! No matter how academic they may be in class, college students were still college students. Unless he'd just gotten used to his brother's idiot friends. It seemed everyone was at home sleeping or studying at this time of night, though. Well, this early in the morning might be more accurate.

However, it was true that this was a college town. When he'd wandered through in the other day, he'd seen plenty of bookstores, uniform stores, and school supplies stores, but it was rather lacking in the weapons department.

'I think there's a weapons store around the corner,' Lloyd said.

Will walked across the square towards a side street, hoping the weaponry store wouldn't be too difficult to break into. He also hoped that the owner of said store wouldn't catch him, or that the owner was not very skilled with the weapons he sold. He reached the street and saw a wooden sign with a sword on it, and walked towards it.

He passed a building, and there was a public notice board. It contained ads for used textbooks on sale, study groups, and missing items. What took up most of the bottom, though, made Will give it a second look. A poorly drawn caricature of himself was glaring back, with slanted eyebrows and an evil scowl. All it was missing was a curling moustache and a goatee to make it pure, comedic, over-the-top villainous. If it wasn't a wanted poster for himself he would have found it hilarious.

'This isn't good,' he said to Lloyd, looking over at the other posters of Genis, Raine, Zelos, Colette, and Presea. All of them were drawn to look like murderous thugs, and Will had to admit the effect was hilarious on Colette.

'Well, the drawings really don't look that much like you,' Lloyd said. 'If we're lucky no one will recognise you.'

'Hopefully.'

He continued towards the shop, and when he reached it he looked at the darkened windows and locked door in befuddlement. Now how was he going to get in there?

'Are the windows locked?' Lloyd asked.

'Why wouldn't they be?'

'Sybak is a really peaceful town. It's almost all academics here. I think Professor Raine said they don't even lock their front doors during the day. I bet no one bothered to lock the window.'

'Sweet.' He got his fingers on the lip of the window and pushed it up. It was stiff, but rose without too much resistance. Once it was up, he crawled through and dropped to the floor on the other side. He slowly got to his feet, looking around in the dim light. Moonlight shone through the window, but it was hard to make out the small details in the shop. There was a staircase and some rooms upstairs, and he worried that the owners lived above the shop. He would have to be very quiet.

He saw some shining blades, though, and started towards them, hoping to find a nice matching pair. Will reached the sword rack and scanned the blades. Most were individual swords, and he slowly walked around the display, looking for the pairs.

Suddenly, his foot came down on something soft and a loud screech shattered the silence. Will jumped back and nearly crashed into the sword rack as a black cat hissed at him from the floor. Stupid cat! What was it doing sleeping on the floor?

A door above creaked open and as fast as he could Will dived behind the rack. He saw someone's silhouette in the doorway and a groggy female voice called, "Oliver? Is that you?"

The stupid cat mewed in response and the girl said, "Go back to bed, Oliver."

Oliver prowled around the sword rack, straight towards Will. The damn cat started doing figure-eights around his feet, purring and swishing his tail around his knees.

"Go," he whispered as loud as he dared. He tried to nudge it away with his foot, but Oliver just became more determined to give him attention. The girl was still standing in the doorway to her room, looking down over the shop.

Will pressed against the rack of swords, wishing the moonlight would go away so he'd stop feeling so vulnerable. Oliver was getting too close for comfort, and though Will rather liked cats almost as much as dogs, he needed to get this thing away from him. He gave the cat a hard shove, kicking it away from him.

Oliver gave a high-pitched scream again and ran into view of the girl, mewling piteously.

"Aw, Ollie, what's wrong?" the girl said, and to Will's horror she left her room and started down the stairs. The wooden steps creaked with each of her light footsteps, and Will tried to take deep breaths to calm his racing heart. It was just a teenage girl. Even if she did find him, he could take her. He knew he was stronger. At least...he certainly hoped he was stronger.

The cat ran to her, and through a gap in the sword rack Will watched it leap into her arms. She was a pretty young woman, with slightly curly blonde hair and a pink nightdress. She held the cat in her arms, and Will was certain he saw the cat glaring right back at him. Stupid cat.

"Can't sleep, Oliver?" she asked.

"Mew."

She smiled. "Why don't you come up with-" she froze, staring off into space it appeared. She wasn't looking at him, though, so what-?

"Oliver," she whispered fearfully, "why is the window open?"

Will followed her faze, and wished he'd closed it. But it hadn't seemed necessary at the time, and it was too late to do anything about it now.

There was a soft shink and the girl pulled a rapier off of a stand, letting the cat leap to the floor. "Who's there?" she called, holding it out in front of her. Her hand visibly shook, and her face was pale as she glanced nervously around the room. "Show yourself!"

Crap, she was shouting. If someone else was home, they'd probably wake up and then he'd really be screwed. He didn't want her dad or something coming down and catching him.

The girl came closer, and Will pulled out his single sword as quietly as he could. He had a wide array of swords behind him, but trying to fight with two completely different swords would probably just be more difficult than working with just one. He knew he couldn't hurt the girl, but maybe he could scare her off.

He crept to one end of the rack, peeking out around it to try and get a better view. Where was she...? Dammit, he'd lost sight of her. He'd been hoping to jump out at her and scare her, but –

Something sharp pricked the back of his neck and he froze as a cold female voice said, "Drop your sword."

He'd tell people he surrendered without even a fight because he didn't want to hurt a girl. Yes. That was definitely it.

But wait a minute! He wasn't going to get taken down so easily. He was way more practiced with a blade than this girl was! He could take her. He could practically feel the blade trembling in her hand.

As fast as he could, he whipped around and slashed upwards, knocking the blade out of the way. She kept an iron grip on the handle, though, and in a flash brought it back around. Will's sword flew to his face to block the blow, and she grit her teeth as she tried to overpower him.

Will was much stronger than her, though, so it wasn't hard to push her back. She stumbled a few steps backwards, and Will could see a fear on her face that reminded him forcefully of himself. She was terrified, convinced he was some murderous thief that was going to slaughter her.

He lowered his blade and said, "Calm down. I'm not here to hurt you."

"I recognise you from the wanted posters," she said, taking a deep breath. Will clenched his teeth, knowing that that complicated things a bit.

"We're just trying to save my friend," he said. "It was all a misunderstanding."

"Is that true?" she asked.

"That is was a misunderstanding? Yes. We were set up."

She bit her lip and thought for a couple seconds. Finally, she said, "If you were really a criminal like they said...you would have killed me by now."

"Probably."

"But you didn't."

"I don't want to hurt anyone."

She glared at him and said, "So what are you doing in our shop?"

"I just need a weapon," he said. "We're going to pass through Gaoracchia Forest and I need to fight with two blades."

"Gaoracchia Forest?" she asked, eyes going wide. She lowered her sword hand and said, "Are you insane?"

"We need to get to Ozette," he said. "Do you know of a safer way?"

She shook her head. "Most people go with a caravan, but the last one left yesterday and there won't be another for a month."

Caravan. Damn, that'd be useful. Of course, wanted criminals probably couldn't get away with that... Still, might be useful knowledge in the future.

Will sheathed his sword and the girl put her blade down on a nearby table. She walked hesitantly up to him and help out her hand. "My name is Coralie," she said.

He shook it and replied, "Lloyd."

She let her hand drop, then pulled her arms up and stood with them folded across her chest. "I always knew Zelos couldn't be a criminal. The Chosen would never betray us like that. And if he's innocent, his 'accomplices' must be too."

"Thank you for your confidence."

"Though I'm a bit ticked off that you broke into our store."

"Er... yeah," he said, giving her a sheepish grin. "Sorry."

"No matter," she said, waving her hand. "I mean, I understand why you had to, but it's a bit unnerving. And Oliver doesn't like you."

"Well, I did step on him."

Coralie giggled, then said, "Do you have any money to buy a weapon?"

"Um...no."

"Hm..." she frowned. Then she walked over to the cash register at the counter, slid it open, and pulled out several coins. She held them up between her fingers, then said, "I'm loaning you this money. You need a weapon if you're going to fight to clear the Chosen's name." She put the coins right back where they came from and said, "Pick your blades from any that we have."

"Won't the owner of the store be angry?" he asked, glancing uncertainly at the gleaming swords.

Coralie laughed again, a pretty little tinkle-y laugh. "The owner is my father, who is currently out at a bar, I believe. This money would go to me as my allowance, and then I gave it to you, and then it goes back into the till. We're just skipping a few steps."

"Ok then." He looked over the swords available, trying to remember the things Kratos looked for when buying him swords. He'd never actually done this himself before, but then he'd never broken into a store before either.

He found a pair of simple, unadorned swords. The hilts were blue and the blades shining silver and quite sharp, and they were just the perfect length to fit in his sheaths. He picked them up and held them in his hands, testing their weight. Perfect. "I'll take these."

"Good," Coralie said, coming over. She reached out and took his hand, and pressed some Gald into his palm. "Take this as well."

He looked down at the several hundred Gald coins, and shook his head. "No, I can't take this."

He tried to give it back, but she shook her head. "I will give anything to clear the Chosen's name. I have complete faith in Zelos, and I know I'm not alone on this. I'm sure you can find plenty of others throughout Tethe'alla who will help you."

"Thanks," he finally nodded, putting the money away in his bag. "For everything." He started for the door, trusting she wouldn't let him use the window this time, when she grabbed his wrist a few seconds later.

"Wait."

He looked up at her, and she handed him a lantern. "If you're crossing Gaoracchia Forest on your own, please be careful." He took the lantern and hung it from a clip on his bag, glad that they'd have some light in the forest.

"I will."

"You mustn't stray off the path, or you'll be lost forever. And keep a light on at all times, because the monsters in the deep woods fear the light." She paused, then looked at the ground with fearful eyes and added, "I used to live in Ozette with my mom. When I came to Sybak to live with my dad, I passed through the forest. So I know... I know some things about it."

"Is there anything else I need to know?"

She nodded. "Around halfway through, the path will split. Both paths lead to Ozette, but you must take the north path. There's an old signpost, but don't listen to it."

"If both lead to Ozette, why does it matter?" he asked.

"The south path is shorter," she said. "But...people who take the south path...don't come back. The north path will loop around and take you to Ozette."

Will shivered a bit involuntarily, and thought of Zelos, Presea, and Colette. Would Zelos know about the dangerous south path? And Zelos hated walking, so there was no way he'd voluntarily take the longer route. He just prayed that Presea, growing up in Ozette, would be aware of the dangers of the south path and insist on the north one. "Thank you," he said. "I'll remember that."

She gave him a weak smile and said, "Please be safe. Don't let the Chosen get hurt in the woods."

Zelos, Zelos, Zelos. Was that all women in Tethe'alla talked about? Stupid good-looking Chosen...

Will waved goodbye to Coralie and left the store, leaving behind his old sword. His new swords were a slightly different weight, and it would take a little while to get used to the new feeling.

The lantern thumped against the side of his bag as he made his way out of Sybak. It was a short walk back to where Raine and Genis were waiting, and they both jumped up when they saw him.

"Lloyd! You made it! And you didn't screw up!" Genis shouted.

"Of course," he said. "New swords, and I filched a lantern too."

"Good thinking," Raine said. "Now let's continue on to the forest. We should reach it in a couple days."

"I hate this forest," Genis said a couple days later. "We've been walking through dark woods for over a day and we keep getting attacked by maniacal pumpkins and stupid flowers. Seriously, who gave those flowers boxing gloves?"

"You're just upset because you got punched in the face by a flower," Will said. He stared straight ahead, bored and tired and not at all interested in this conversation.

"I hope Colette was ok coming through here without us."

"Genis, Colette could easily take both of us down with her eyes closed without breaking a sweat. When you combine the fact that Zelos has been training with a sword for years and Presea is a heartless killing machine, I think we're the one who should be worried."

"I'm still worried about Colette," Genis said, crossing his arms and pouting.

"Well you shouldn't be. She's a lot more capable than us."

"Than you, maybe," Genis said with a smirk. "My magic, though, is really strong."

"You're short and you take forever to cast."

"You charge in like an idiot and invariably get stabbed or something."

"If you run out of TP, you have to resort to bashing people on the head with a children's toy."

"You go through swords so fast you're likely to be weapon-less anyway."

"You are weapon-less; a kendama is not a 'weapon'."

"At least I've got a backup if I lose my magic."

"At least I'm not a scrawny midget with no physical strength."

"At least I'm not clumsy idiot with no tactical skills."

"At least I'm not going grey at the tender old age of twelve."

Genis gave him a face and said, "It's silver."

"Yeah, well your face is stupid."

"Clearly you've never seen a mirror."

"It's a good thing you haven't; your face would crack it and you'd have seven years of bad luck."

"You insulting skills are bad and you should feel bad."

"Yeah, well-"

"Boys," Raine finally snapped, turning her bad back to look at them. "Would you please stop your insipid argument? I do not want to have to listen to the pair of you bicker through this entire forest."

"Sorry!" they chorused, sheepish grins on their faces.

They walked in silence for a couple more minutes, Will and Genis casting each other furtive looks as they trudged on along the path after Raine. The trees were thick here, blocking out most of the sun and keeping the forest chilly. Roots and vines snaked over the narrow dirt path as they snaked through the forest, and Will found himself once again glad that he was fully covered in clothing as Genis swatted mosquitoes on his arms and legs.

'Hey, by the way,' Lloyd said. 'Today's August first, I think.'

'Oh, ok.'

'Do you know what's on the sixth?'

'Um...around the start of World War I? The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending World War II? Hey...I never noticed that they were the same day. Ironic, isn't it?'

'Yeah, whatever. But more importantly: it's Genis' birthday!'

'Is it?'

'Yup! He's gonna be thirteen! You need to get him a present.'

Will raised his eyebrows and looked around at the twisted tree trunks. Low-growing ferns, and prickly weeds lining the path. 'Right. I have such a large selection available to me here. How do you think he'd feel about...a stick?'

'Uh, no, that's not what I was talking-'

'Oh wait! Look over there! It's...a rock covered in moss! Wow!'

'...Just buy him something nice in Ozette. Calorie gave you that money.'

'You mean Coralie, right?'

'That's what I said!'

'Heh, whatever. Anyway, yeah, I'll get him something in Ozette. Rather, you pick something out for me. It's supposed to be from you anyway.'

'Got it.'

"Hey. Lloyd," Genis said in an undertone.

"Yeah?" Will whispered back.

"You're an idiot."

Will smirked at Genis' grin, and he whispered back, "Brat."

"Doofus."

"Shrimp." They were getting progressively louder, and Will was sure Raine would turn around and snap any second now.

"Mor-" Genis walked into Raine's back as she suddenly froze.

"Professor?" he said, taking a few steps forward. "What's..." They were on the edge of a charred clearing. The smell of smoke was still in the air, and all the trees in the area were blackened and dead. Sunlight shone hotly down from above as the canopy above had been burned away, and the dirt ground was dry and devoid of life, not even a weed or insect left alive by the fire.

"What happened here?" Genis asked as they walked slowly into the charred clearing.

"It must have been the fire," Will said, looking around from his position in the middle. "That one Zelos and I saw the other day."

"Wow," Genis said. "I wonder what sparked it."

"What's this?" Raine suddenly said, walking across the clearing towards a rock. Will saw her bend down and picked up something long and red. He quickly followed Genis over to her and looked at the thick red string in her hand, the ends frayed and unravelling. When he looked closer, he could see there were two shades of red on it, the base colour of the thin rope and something darker that was flaking off. Dried blood.

"That's..." Genis said.

"Sheena," Raine completed.

Will stared at the red thing, suddenly seeing it clean and fresh wrapped around her waist. His eyes went to the rock on the ground, and he saw more telltale red stains. "Sheena was here," he said. "And by the looks of it, she was hurt pretty bad."

"But where is she now?" Genis asked. "And was she here before or after the fire?"

Raine bit her lip and looked around the clearing. "Sheena showing up injured here and a freak fire occurring here cannot be a coincidence. I believe the most likely explanation is that whatever events caused the fire also caused her injuries."

"What could have caused it though?" Genis asked.

"There's no way to tell from here," Raine said. "We must continue on to Ozette."

"Wait a minute," Will said, not needing prompting from Lloyd. "Shouldn't we search for her? What if she's in the area? If Sheena's lying hurt and unconscious nearby, we can't just leave her!"

"Think, Lloyd," Raine said sharply. She pointed to the rock, "She clearly was lying here for some time, so either she was well enough to get up and continue on her way or someone else found her and took her back with them. In either case, she's beyond our help for now. We must meet up with Colette and the others."

Will sighed. "I suppose you're right."

"But Lloyd's right!" Genis said. "Raine, we can't just do nothing! Sheena's our friend; how can you just abandon her like that?"

"I'm not 'abandoning' her!" Raine said, giving Genis an angry glare. "I'm saying we don't have the resources to scour the entire forest for her on the off chance she's still here! Maybe we can find out something about it in Ozette."

"But-"

"No buts." She grabbed Genis' arm and pulled him to the path that continued on the other side of the charred clearing. Will followed, giving the area one last look before moving on. He really hoped Sheena was ok.

'The Wonder Chef said Cruxis was involved,' Lloyd said.

'I know. I was just thinking that.' It looked like Sheena had been attacked by Cruxis, so had they taken her back with them? Is that where she went? Aw, man... If Sheena was being held prisoner at Welgaia, what possible motivation could Cruxis have? Using her as bait? But then shouldn't there be a ransom note or something? Argh, this was confusing.

"I hope Sheena's ok," Genis said, staring at the ground. "I hope she didn't get, like, eaten or something."

"Eaten?" Will asked, giving Genis a weird look. "By what? Everything we've encountered in this forest so far is salad."

"Humans eat salad," Genis said. "So doesn't it stand to reason that given sentience salad would eat humans?"

"Hm..." Will said. "That's a good theory. Like a Venus Fly Trap, only with boxing gloves."

They were silent for a moment as that image sunk in, and then Genis said, "Tethe'alla is weird."

"Sylvarant's not much better, really," Will mused. "I mean, look, we've got grasshoppers that are big enough to eat you, lady bugs the size of basketballs, and demonic bunny rabbits. Do you ever get the feeling that everything in the world is trying to kill you?" Seriously, video game worlds were whack. If it wasn't random encounters with possessed wild animals with an insane bloodlust and hunger for human flesh, it was crazed adventurers who wanted to kill you for some reason. And then afterwards you searched their bloodied corpses for gold and items. Morality was obviously not much of an issue in video game worlds, and Will was quite glad that the real video game world of Symphonia was a bit more realistic. He had yet to be given Gald upon defeating every random monster in the field.

"Sh!" Raine suddenly said, throwing up her arm to stop them. Will and Genis froze, looking around for the danger. Will heard branches and leaves rustling to his left, and started to reach for his swords. Hr faintly recalled there being zombies in these woods, and he hated zombies. He didn't even want to know why the forest was so full of reanimated corpses in the first place.

The leaves to the side of the path rustled again, and finally burst open, allowing a...a bunny. A frickin' bunny hopped out onto the path. The rabbit looked up at them with cute little black eyes, nose quivering back and forth as its ears twitched.

"Oh, thank goodness," Raine said. "I was afraid it was another monster."

The rabbit decided to leave them alone and continued across the path to disappear into the vegetation. "Wait," Will said, pulling his swords out regardless. He stared at the foliage the rabbit had just jumped out of, and said, "It's never the cute fluffy animal."

"What are you talking about?" Genis asked, as he and Raine gave him funny looks.

"In stories and stuff," Will said, keeping his eyes on the side of the path, "whenever there's a rustling in the leaves or something, and a cute fluffy animal hops out, a big scary one comes out just afterwards."

"I'd say you read too many stories," Genis said, "if I didn't know you don't read."

Will shot Genis an ugly look, but quickly returned his vigilance to the undergrowth. Genis and Raine may scoff, but any second now a giant monster was going to come lunging out after the bunny. It always happened. Always.

About half a minute later, Raine said, "Ok, Lloyd, can we go now?"

"No!" he insisted. "As soon as we step forward it will arrive!"

"You're being ridiculous. A rabbit hopping out onto the path does not mean a formidable enemy will appear directly after."

"Yes it does," Will insisted.

"Even if that were usually the case," Raine said, "correlation does not necessarily imply causation."

"What?"

'What?'

Raine clarified, "If two events – a rabbit appearing and a monster appearing – usually correlate to each other in that they often come right after each other, that does not mean that the rabbit's appearance causes the appearance of the monster. It's merely a coincidence, and I think we've waited here long enough."

"Well...ok," he said, and warily let Raine and Genis step forward. He followed, eyes still scanning the brush for movement. He felt kind of silly for holding them up, but really, the sweet innocent creature in the big scary woods really was always followed by something scary. This must be a fluke.

And so they kept walking. A fiendish monster never appeared. Will's faith in television shattered.

They continued along the path, and Will was just glad they hadn't run into any major problems. Coralie had warned him to stay on the path, so hopefully the dangerous things stayed off the trail.

"You know, Lloyd," Genis said about fifteen minutes later, "this reminds me of that story you were telling a while ago."

"Which one?" he asked, looking around at the thick trees.

"That one about the dwarves and the magic ring. They went through Murky-Wood Forest or something and got attacked by giant spiders."

"Oh yeah!" Will said. "The Hobbit. And it was Mirkwood Forest."

"Whatever. They're both creepy dark forests that most people are too afraid to enter."

"I just hope there aren't any giant spiders in Gaoracchia." Oh god, that would be the worst thing ever. This forest already probably had zombies, but giant spiders too? How many more horrors could this forest throw at him?

"You never finished that other story," Genis said. "The one about Frodo."

"Oh yeah," he said, remembering telling The Lord of the Rings to Genis. "Where was I?"

"Something about the Mines of Moria."

"Have they gotten in yet?"

"Nope."

"Ok then. So, the Fellowship of the Ring was sitting around outside the Gates of Moria, trying to figure out how to get in. Gandalf said that the engraving over the door said 'speak, friend, and enter' so he tried using the password but it didn't work..."

Genis listened with rapture as he spoke, outlining the groups fight with the giant squid-thing and the realisation that Moria had been ransacked by goblins. Raine tried to hide it, but she was listening too. He wondered if maybe their favourite part was the fact that Elrond, leader of Rivendell and a greatly respected member of the elf community, was a half-elf.

"Lloyd, stop," Raine suddenly said a little while later.

"'...Gandalf, for I much desire to speak with-' what?"

The path in front of them split in two directions, with an old, mouldy signpost in the middle. One arrow pointed to the path to the left, with faded lettering reading 'To North Beach' while the sign pointing to the right said 'To Ozette'.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Raine said. "Look at the post."

Will looked closely at the wood, which was barely staying upright as it was. He thought he saw funny brown streaks on it, and looked closer. Oh, ick: dried blood. He wrinkled his nose and said, "I think we should take the north path." This must be the area Coralie had warned him about.

"What?" Genis said, giving him a funny look. "Lloyd, we're trying to get to Ozette, not North Beach, wherever that is."

"I know," he said, "but I've got a bad feeling about the south path." He didn't want to admit meeting and speaking with Coralie, because there was no way Raine would let him live if he did.

"I too have a bad feeling," Raine said, "however, we need to reach Ozette so we will have to risk whatever dangers this path presents."

He shook his head. "No. This path is too dangerous. I just... I just know, ok? I bet the north path will loop around to Ozette eventually."

"We can't risk it," Raine said. "We will with all likelihood end up woefully out of our way, and then how can we help Colette?"

"We can't help her if we're dead!"

Genis put in, "We've gone through dangerous areas before. And this time we only have a bad feeling. I agree with Raine."

"Of course you do," Will said, rolling his eyes. "Guys, I really don't think we should go this way."

"You're being paranoid, Lloyd," Raine said. "We have no tangible reason to believe this path leads to any more danger than any other path in this forest."

"But-"

"Stop. We're taking the south path."

"This is a bad idea. Seriously, guys."

"Lloyd," Genis said, "the last time you were certain of danger we spent five minutes waiting for an imaginary monster to pop out of the bushes."

"This is different!"

"Stop arguing and let's go," Raine said, starting down the south path.

Will followed, looking over at the signpost with Coralie's warning ringing in his ears. Although, really, Genis was right. They'd gone through things probably much more dangerous than this. Will recalled quite vividly being totally unarmed and at Kvar's mercy, and he'd managed to pull through that in one piece. Surely the terrifying horror of this path couldn't be any deadlier than things they'd faced already. Strangely, that thought failed to comfort him.

"So, Lloyd," Genis said a few minutes later. "What happened after the elf asked about Gandalf?"

"Huh?" he looked up from staring down the path, hyper-aware for danger to come lunging from any direction.

"In the story."

"Oh, right. So, Legolas explained what had happened and... do you guys hear something?" He jerked his head from side to side, certain he heard a low muttering from up ahead.

Raine shook her head. "You're unduly nervous and hearing – wait. Wait, I think I hear it too."

"Oh man, what is it?" Will asked, giving the bushes nervous looks. It sounded like soft chanting in some language he couldn't understand. But where was it coming from? Oh man...oh man... He drew his swords and darted his eyes around, looking for the source of the ominous chanting. Genis and Raine slowed to a stop, Raine instinctively pulling Genis close as she wielded her staff threateningly, turning around slowly and peering into the leaves.

Maybe it was just his imagination, but Will was certain the forest was darker in this area. The air was thicker and sort of... heavier. Creepier. Will heard the snap of twigs as heavy footsteps became audible.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Genis said as the chanting got louder.

"Why don't people ever listen to me?" Will grumbled. "I told you guys we should go this way. Didn't I say that?"

"Yes, yes, you're very smart," Genis said, rolling his eyes. "Now what?"

"Let's turn around," Raine said. "Lloyd was right. I don't think we should risk taking this path."

They made an about-face and started back down the path towards the signpost. Before they could make much progress, though, the dense leaves at the side of the path parted and a human figure emerged. He was clothed in a mangy brown cloak, with a hood that cast dark shadows over his face so that all that could be seen were glowing yellow eyes. If Will wasn't so freaked out, he'd make a Jawa comparison, but getting faced down by some demon monk with a giant coffin strapped to its back was no time for a Star Wars reference.

"What is that thing?" Genis asked, his voice shaking and cracking a bit. The leaves shuddered and even more, identical to the first, emerged. The chanting was reaching its crescendo, emanating from under their hoods although Will couldn't see any lips moving.

Raine gave them a terse glance, and said, "Turn and walk the other way as quickly as you can. They don't look too dangerous, and with this coffins they can't be that fast."

They spun around again, only to discover their path blocked by even more undertakers who had snuck up behind them. "Oh crap..." Will said as they started closing on, chanting getting louder and louder. "Professor, I believe they're probably weak against light."

"Right," she said, and immediately started casting. Genis did as well, but there were about ten of the creepy coffin guys and Will didn't think they'd be able to take out that many with just magic, and they might not even have time to finish casting before they were trapped. Will had a bad feeling he was going to be alone in crazy melee again.

"Hunting Beast!" the burst of energy hit the undertaker directly in front of him and knocked it over, and Will ran forward with a swing of his sword. The undertaker he was aiming for attempted to get out of the way, but he managed to swipe it across the stomach. Will was certain he'd hit flesh, but no blood welled up around the slash in the robe. Not good!

"Photon!" Will had a moment of relief when Raine casted, but then realised she was aiming for the undertakers on the other side, trusting Will to take care of these ones. Aw crap. And when Genis shouted 'Eruption' a few seconds later, he saw that Genis was following the same strategy.

"Sonic Sword Rain!" Will tried, battering the nearest monk-thing with his blades. The undertaker fell, the front of its robes sliced to ribbons and revealing mottled grey flesh beneath. Ick.

"Ugh!" One of them punched him hard in the back and he staggered forward, before spinning around to face his assaulter. "Demon Fa-" something thick and muscled, sort of like a tongue, wrapped around his ankle and yanked him off his feet. With a surprised yelp, he fell to his face, luckily still clenching his swords.

"Photon!" he heard again, but Genis and Raine weren't looking at him and were more concerned with attacking the undertakers closing in on them. Genis used Fireball, ditching power for speed.

He wriggled over onto his back as the thing around his ankle started dragging him across the floor, and he saw with disgust a long, thick tentacle reaching out of the coffin of the nearest undertaker and dragging him towards the open door.

"Hya!" He swung his sword around and tried to slice through the tentacle, but only managed to cut about halfway. That was enough, though, as the tentacle twitched in pain and he kicked his leg away. "Gross!" Why were so many enemies in Symphonia disgusting? Well, this wasn't as bad as that blob of goo back in the Water Seal. Or the spiders. Yuck, the spiders.

Why were these monks even here, anyway? He drove his sword through the stomach of another one, and couldn't help but wonder their purpose. Were they some kind of weird freakish cult? And where did the coffins come from? And what was with the tentacles? Oh, never mind.

He looked over at the Sages again, just in time to see an undertaker off to the left turn around and open its coffin. "Genis!" he shouted. "Look out!"

Genis spun around, just as a pink tentacle lashed out at him. The half-elf spun around and the fleshy arm wrapped around his waist. Genis shouted and Raine turned around, but before she or Will could grab him Genis was pulled kicking and screaming into the coffin. The lid thunked shut, and Raine immediately abandoned her spell to run over. Will wanted to help as well, but was a bit more concerned about all the undertakers closing in around him. He was certain there were more than there had been before, and they just seemed to keep pouring out of the woods like ants from a hill.

"Dammit!" Will swore as he thrust his sword through another undertaker. It didn't matter how many he took out, because as soon as he killed one two more took its place. It also didn't help that he had a feeling they were zombies or something, and he hated zombies. They were almost as bad as spiders. Oh lord, zombie-spiders? That would be the worst thing ever.

Ok, back on track. Raine was kicking and pounding on the coffin door even as the undertaker holding Genis started to walk away. It paid her no heed even as she slammed the coffin with her staff, determined to get her brother back.

Will couldn't focus on her for too long, though, seeing as he had a small army of creepy coffin dudes to take care of by himself now. He spun in a circle and took down two of them, and when he stopped to right himself he saw a coffin door open up behind Raine. "Professor!" he cried out, but the tentacle reached her before she could turn around.

'No! Dammit, Professor!' Lloyd shouted. 'I can't believe this! You have to go after them!'

'Sure, when I have a free hand I'll get right on that,' he replied, trying to fend off the swarming undertakers as he watched Raine and Genis get carted away out of the corner of his eye. This was not good. Not good at all. He really wished they'd listened to Coralie. His experience in video games was that when helpful townspeople gave you advice, you should listen to their frickin' advice.

"Oof!" an undertaker punched him hard in the stomach and he bent over a bit, clinging tightly to his swords. Before he could do anything else, a fleshy tentacle wrapped around his waist and yanked him backwards. He flailed around, trying to hack at it with his swords, but this one was thicker than the one from before and he didn't do much damage to it.

Then the walls of the coffin were closing in, and he tried to jam his arms and legs around the side to keep from getting pulled in but the tentacle gave another firm jerk and his limbs slipped. A heavy wooden lid slammed down above him, and then he was trapped in pitch blackness.

It was then he started screaming. "Oh my god! Argh! Get me out! Help!" He didn't know what was going on and he wasn't even claustrophobic, but something about the all-encompassing darkness pressing in on him as the tentacle continued to squeeze him tightly around the middle really, really freaked him out.

He continued screaming, and although he thought he was in a tiny box he didn't hear an echo. It was like he was in a void, and there was no way out because he didn't know where the lid even was anymore. He could feel the rough wood of the coffin beneath him but there was nothing around him, nothing, oh god, where was he? How long had it been? He couldn't have been in this coffin for more than a minute, but the pressing darkness made it seem like so much longer. How was he going to get out? What if he didn't? Oh god, what if he was stuck here forever, oh god...

'Will, calm down.' Lloyd's voice cut through his panic and he did indeed calm down for a moment. 'Ok, now take a deep breath.'

Will tried to follow Lloyd's instructions, but when he took a breath it was icy cold in the pitch blackness, the pitch blackness that went on forever because there was nothing else out there just blackness until the end of time and he was trapped –

'Will!'

So dark and cold. He wanted to reach out to Lloyd's voice but even that seemed distant now. The tentacle around his middle felt like his only link to the real world, his only link to something real and tangible, even though it was squeezing too tightly so that that it nearly cut off his air.

'Will, snap out of it.'

He couldn't snap out of it! There was no way out of here! Was he just supposed to lie down and relax and hope someone saved him? No! He had to get out of this hell! The only way he could think to do that was to kick and scream and flail as much as he could.

'Stop it! Calm down and get a hold of yourself!'

Was Lloyd's voice even real? Was he just imagining it? Was it part of the dark nightmare trying to get him to submit? He had to fight!

'You're just making this worse!'

Will screamed and tried to kick out at the coffin lid, hoping it was in front of him somewhere even though he couldn't see a thing in this darkness, not even his hand in front of his face.

'That's it, I'm taking control.'

Will felt Lloyd trying to force himself into his mind, and instinctively fought back.

'Let me through! I'm trying to help, dammit!'

He pushed against Lloyd, and Lloyd pushed back. It was much harder to fight than the time in Palmacosta even, though. Will's mind felt fuzzy and confused and he was panicked and freaking out, and he couldn't keep Lloyd from breaking through and taking control of Will's body. Er, Lloyd's body.

He fell back against the rough wood, taking deep breaths. Will didn't have any control over what he was doing, although it was similar to the instance in Palmacosta in that he could still feel the cold air burn his lungs. He wanted to panic again, but had no control over his movements.

Lloyd took another deep breath and then clenched his fists tightly around the hilts of his swords. Will felt himself saying, "Beast Sword Rain!" and then felt his hands moving like lightning against the tentacle holding him, cutting it up until it twitched and relented, drawing back. He started slipping down the wood as he finished up with a powerful Beast, and Will saw a flicker of light as the lid was forced open a bit.

"Hunting Beast!" Lloyd tried again, and this time before the lid could slam shut again he yelled, "Rising Falcon!" and jumped up, smashing through the lid of the coffin. Then he came soaring down on top of the undertaker, forcing his swords through the back of its neck.

Will was still kind of out of it, dully watching Lloyd act through his body as he tried to pull his head together again. Now that he was out in the relatively bright sunlight of the path, he wasn't sure why he'd flipped out so much in there. He'd just panicked and if it hadn't been for Lloyd he probably would never have gotten out.

It was really nice to not have to think about fighting, though. While his mentally stability was still a bit...questionable, Lloyd was cutting through undertakers in a mad rush to get to Genis and Raine. Will was still amazed by Lloyd's skills, stringing techs together flawlessly and using moves Will didn't even recognise. It was incredible to think that he could feel his arms moving and executing these techs, but he had no idea how it was happening.

The surprised undertakers turned around as Lloyd raced through their lines, and he unleashed a Beast stronger than anything Will had been able to execute. The blue lion that burst forth was impressive in size and forced back several ranks of undertakers. Will glanced down at 'his' hands and saw a black glow emanating from his arms. Was this Overlimit mode?

Will could feel his face contorted in anger, and as his swords thrust forward with lightning speed and realised as incredibly angry Lloyd was. You do not mess with Genis and Raine around Lloyd.

He finally got to one of the undertakers that hadn't stopped to fight him and with another Beast slammed him to the floor. Lloyd then threw himself at the coffin and with a surge of strength pried the lid open. Inside, Will could see Raine, held by a tentacle. Her eyes were closed and her face was white, and Will felt himself reached forward and cut up the tentacle. Then he took Raine's arms and pulled her out, leaning her against a tree.

She blinked her eyes a couple times and looked around in a daze, while Lloyd blasted a few more Beasts at the undertakers. The swarms of them were retreating now, and Lloyd turned his attention to the sole undertaker still heading down the path. He ran after it, and by this time Will was feeling a bit more together. He hoped Lloyd got to the undertaker quickly, because he didn't know how much longer they had before Will slipped back into control.

Lloyd flew through the air in a Tempest and cut down the undertaker, following it up with Super Sonic Thrust to finish off the creature. Then he pried open the coffin, cut open the tentacle, and pulled a still struggling Genis out of the coffin.

His face was white and his eyes were wide, and he clung tightly to Lloyd's arms as Lloyd set him shakily down on the ground. "Are you ok?" Lloyd asked, and Genis nodded in a daze.

Will felt himself smile and say, "Good."

'I'm coming back,' Will said, unable to keep out any longer. Lloyd quickly glanced over at Raine, who was getting to her feet and walking over.

'Ok. Thanks for letting me, y'know...'

'Are you crazy? You saved my life.'

Before they could say any more, Will rushed back past Lloyd. He was suddenly in control of his body again, and his knees turned to jelly and crumpled beneath him as the blackish glow of Overlimit mode faded away.

"Lloyd!" Raine said, coming up to him. "What-"

"I'm fine," he said from the ground. "I guess I just used up a lot of energy back there."

Raine turned her attention to Genis, and while she was busy making sure her brother was alright, Will talked to Lloyd.

'Seriously, Lloyd,' he said. 'Thanks. I don't know what happened back there. I just lost it.'

'Don't worry about it. I got pulled into one of those things at the Temple of Darkness and almost went insane too before Zelos pulled me out.'

'Oh man, I forgot that they were there, too. Crap.'

'Don't worry; they don't swarm quite as much there.'

Will looked over at Raine, then said, 'Man. I have no energy at all. We really need to figure out a better way to do this.'

'Yeah.'

"Do you need help, Lloyd?" Raine asked, and he looked up and nodded. He took her outstretched hand and let her put her arm around him to help him walk. They started along the path again, everyone going as fast as they could and jumping at every sound.

"I wonder where they were taking us," Genis said a few minutes later.

"I don't think I want to know," Will muttered, dragging his feet and trying to get his energy back. If he remembered correctly, it would be at least half an hour or so before he was back in the game.

Then the bushes rustled again, and the trio froze and stared. Will really, really hoped it was another harmless bunny rabbit.

It wasn't.

They stared silently as a towering skeletal form emerged from the trees, sharp blades in all four arms as it loomed over them, a sickly grin plastered on its skull of a face.

"I – I thought we killed that back in the Ossa Mine," Genis said with a tremor in his voice.

"He's back," Will said, staring fearfully at the Skull Dancer. He couldn't fight in his condition, and Genis and Raine didn't stand a chance on their own. He wondered if maybe the undertakers were working in conjunction with the Sword Dancer to bring him victims. "Professor, we can't win this," he said in an undertone.

"I know," she replied. Then she snapped her head to look at Genis and said, "Genis, help Lloyd. You two make a run for it. Ozette can't be far away by now."

She let go of Will and he almost fell over before Genis grabbed him, but unfortunately the smaller boy wasn't quite as fit to be helping him. "Raine!" he said. "Don't be stupid! You can't fight it on your own!"

"I'm not going to fight it," she said. "I'm going to use a Force Field and hold it off long enough to give you and Lloyd time. I can run much faster than Lloyd can walk right now."

"But..."

"Go!" she barked as she started charging her spell.

"Let's go," Will said, taking a shaky step down the path. He kept a firm grip on Genis; shoulder and went as fast as he could, and both he and Genis kept glancing back at Raine. He didn't want to leave her, and Lloyd was shouting at him in his head, but there was nothing he could do.

They rounded a turn in the path as he heard Raine shout, "Force Field!" He trusted her to be able to keep it up long enough to keep the Sword Dancer from attacking. Hopefully. But they couldn't see her anymore, and Will realised that he'd somehow let their party dwindle down to just him and Genis. Yeah. Great leadership skills, Will.

"What's wrong with you, Lloyd?" Genis grunted as he almost tripped over him for about the fifth time. "You just suddenly collapsed."

"I don't know." That was probably more believable than any bullshit response he could come up with.

"I just hope you'll be ok."

"I'll be fine in a bit. Let's just get to Ozette as soon as we can."

"Yeah..." he looked over his shoulder again, as if he could still see Raine. "I hate leaving her like this. If she gets hurt..."

"She'll be fine," Will assured him, hoping he wasn't lying. "She's supposed to be looking after you, not vice versa."

"I know that," Genis said. "But she's still my sister and I still have to take care of her."

"Heh. You're a good brother." Better than his brother, at least. Will's brother's idea of 'take care of your sibling' was along the lines of going out with his friends when he was supposed to be babysitting and telling Will not to burn the house down or something.

About five minutes later another path joined theirs, probably the looping northern one. Will really wished they'd taken that path. Ten minutes after that, the trees thinned and they saw the wooden walls of civilisation as they reached Ozette.

"We're here!" Genis cried in triumph. "Finally!"

"Let's head to the inn," Will said. "It's almost bedtime anyways."

With Genis' help, he hobbled over to the inn. Ozette was a nice town, shady and cool with bizarre physics-defying pathways, but he didn't have time to pay much attention to all that now. He was more concerned with lying down in a nice room. Or...well, they didn't have any money. So how was that going to work out?

They entered the inn, just in time to hear someone say, "C'mon, sweetie, take your break early and we can grab some dinner."

The young woman behind the counter turned red and stammered, "Uh, n-no thank you, sir. I need to finish my shift..."

"Evening, Zelos," Will said, setting himself down in a chair in the lobby.

Zelos jumped a bit, and spun around. Genis gave him a practiced death stare, and Zelos broke into a grin. "Hey, it's you guys! I was afraid you guys were dead or something! But where's the lovely beauty?"

"She's on her way," Will replied simply.

Genis bit his lip, clearly waging war with something in his head, while Zelos said, "Ok, here's the deal: on the way through the forest, we found Sheena-"

"You found Sheena?" Will said, sitting up a bit and actually pleased with a turn of events for once.

"Didn't I just say that? Anyway, I healed her up as well as I could, because she was pretty beat up. She's asleep upstairs right now with Colette. Presea ran off somewhere as soon as we got here, and as cute as she is I'm kind of glad because she was starting to get on my nerves. Wouldn't let us take the south path to Ozette and practically knocked me unconscious when I tried to take them that way. So we only just got here this morning because we had to loop all the way around."

Will decided now wasn't the time to explain to Zelos how lucky he was.

Genis finally spoke up and, with an expression akin to that of someone passing a kidney stone, forced out, "Zelos, I need your help."

Zelos slowly turned his head, a sly smirk creeping up one corner of his mouth. "Oh? And why should I do any favours for you, brat?"

"Raine's in trouble," he said. "I have to go back for her, but Lloyd's in no shape to go into the forest and I can't do it by myself."

"My gorgeous beauty is in danger?" Zelos said, dropping the smirk. "Of course I'll help her! Where to?"

"She's back in the forest, trying to hold off a giant murderous demon."

Zelos paled a bit, but said, "No demon can stand against the mighty Zelos, especially when he has a damsel in distress to save. Let's go."

Genis said a quick goodbye to Will and the pair stormed out of the inn.

"Wait, I still..." Will tried to say as the door slammed shut, "...can't walk."

He sat in the chair in the lobby, looking around the small room and twiddling his fingers. "Ok then. I'll just... wait for you to get back then..."

"Do you need some assistance, sir?" the woman behind the desk asked, coming out from behind her station to approach him. She didn't look very big, but Genis had been enough to help him so she should be able to help him.

"Er, I can't really walk right now and I'd like to go to my room..."

"Do you have a room?" she asked, giving him a sceptical look.

"I'm with the red-haired guy who was just here, who just went out with my friend. Can you just take me to his room for now?"

The girl nodded. "Ok sir." She took his arm and helped him to his shaky feet, then guided him upstairs to his room.


When Will opened his eyes what felt like several hours later, the first thing he saw was a sea of purple and cleavage. I must still be dreaming, he thought. That, or I died and am now in heaven. He smiled dully, but then a hand appeared and obscured his view, waving in front of his face.

"Are you awake?" a familiar voice asked.

Aw, dammit, he was not in a heaven full of disembodied breasts. He closed his eyes tightly and opened them again, trying to clear his vision, and looked up at Sheena's face. She had a large and ugly bruise on her face and red lines from healing wounds down her shoulders and arms, but otherwise she looked ok.

"I am now."

"Good," Sheena said, sitting cross-legged in a chair by his bed. "We need to talk."

Will pulled himself into an upright position and leaned back against the headboard. He glanced to the door of his room and wondered if Zelos, Genis, and Raine were back yet. He also just wondered if Raine was even alright after trying to fend off the Sword Dancer by herself.

"That sounds like a good idea," he said, looking back to Sheena. "We need to talk about what happened at the Triet Base-"

"No," Sheena snapped. "There are a few other things I'd rather talk about." Will took this moment to notice that she really didn't look too happy to see him again.

"Um...like what?" He was feeling kind of nervous under her angry glare, and beginning to understand the horror that was a woman saying 'we need to talk'. This was quite nerve wracking.

"I want to talk about why, at the Tower of Salvation, Yggdrasill had a perfectly good chance to kill, but chose not to."

Will bit his lip. Honestly, he'd been thinking about that a lot himself.

"I want to walk about why Kratos also chose to spare your life. I want to talk about why Kratos, a member of Cruxis, who was always so cold to the rest of us, always seemed to care about you, like he already knew you. I want to talk about why Genis and Raine keep saying you've been behaving so differently, almost like you're a completely different person. I want to talk about how I got ambushed in the forest, even though the only people who knew where I was going were your companions. But most of all..."

She was leaning forward now, and Will shirked back, terrified by the furious gleam in her eyes he'd only before seen in a ruin-happy Raine or his mother when he was in trouble. She reached into her ribbon and yanked out an envelope, which she held up to his face so close he couldn't even read the front of it.

"...I want to know why you're getting letters from Cruxis."

She dropped the paper and it fluttered to his lip. Will looked at it curiously, seeing a flowing script spell out 'Lloyd Irving' on a yellowing paper. He flipped it over, and sealing the envelope on the back was a purple blob of wax with a clearly recognisable Cruxis emblem in it. What the hell? Sheena asked a good question; why was he getting mail from Cruxis?

"Where did you get this?" he asked, not taking his eyes off the purple seal.

"A Desian woman ambushed me in the forest. Set the whole place on fire and I managed to summon Undine to put out the blaze before it spread too much. Anyway, this woman gave me that and told me to give it to you. Care to explain?"

He looked up at Sheena. "I honestly have no idea what this is about."

"Why don't you open it and read it aloud then?"

He hesitated. If Yggdrasill was sending him mail, there was a chance it would mention the fact that he wasn't Lloyd. He couldn't risk Sheena finding out about that. "I'd rather not," he said.

"Why? Do you have something to hide?"

He frowned. "I just... I'd just rather not."

Sheena ran her fingers through her bangs. "Dammit, Lloyd. I want to trust you. I wanted to be your friend. But Cruxis planted Kratos in our party as a spy, so who's to say they're not doing it again?"

"I'm not a spy for Cruxis," he insisted.

"I don't know what you are," Sheena said. She walked to the door, paused, and said, "But you're not being totally honest, that's for sure. I'll be watching you, Lloyd Irving. If I get enough evidence that you're working for Cruxis, I will kill you."

She slammed the door, and Will sighed. Yay, more problems. Just what he needed.

'Might as well read the letter, I guess,' Lloyd said.

"Yeah." He carefully pried open the wax seal, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of the envelope. He was quite glad Sheena hadn't tried to read it, as it started out with the line 'Dear William'. The handwriting was fancy and kind of hard to read, but he was able to make it out.

Dear William,

Greetings. I realise this must be awkward for you, seeing as we didn't leave off last time on the best of terms. You must understand that my stabbing you was entirely necessary. No hard feelings, I trust? The reason I am writing, however, is to give you a warning. I understand well the desire to redo things 'better', seeing as both of us know how the so-called 'canon' choices work out. However, you must realise that any changes you make can have dire consequences. It is in both of our own best interests – and the interests of this entire universe – that we do not constrict the flow of time. After all, time is a fragile thing and the ends of the circle must meet. Therefore, I propose a form of a truce. We must both agree not to let the story of the 'game' go too far off track, for failure to complete the circle could cause the entire Symphonia universe to crumble, and that isn't desirable for either of us. Obviously I will not promise to be defeated this time around, as that would entirely defeat the purpose of my redoing this. I, however, can guarantee that I will make no move to tell your companions of you or Ella's true identities, and you will make no hint that the Mithos you will meet in Ozette is actually me. On the grounds of our truce, I, Mithos Yggdrasill, swear to uphold the timeline to the best of my ability, and if you care at all about this world you will do the same. I have told Pronyma to deliver this letter to Sheena, and I am hopeful that she will follow orders and not make a big show of it. If she does insist upon making a scene, well, I am content with the knowledge that I shall eventually be killing her.

Best regards,

Lord Yggdrasill.

P.S. Destroy this message after reading. If it falls into the wrong hands, everything above will be a moot point. And remember to share this information with Ella when she awakens.

Will dropped his hands and stared blankly at the words on the paper. What...what the hell? This made no sense at all! It was just – but – how could – argh!

Never mind the supreme weirdness that was getting a friendly letter from Yggdrasill. The thing that bugged him the most was that Yggdrasill was such a goddamn hypocrite. How dare he lecture Will about preserving the timeline after his show at the Tower of Salvation? After turning on Kratos and Yuan and generally screwing things up, how could he go off on how canon couldn't be changed? Maybe Yggdrasill had somehow gotten his hands on a different version of Tales of Symphonia, because his idea of 'canon' was definitely not canonical to the game!

With a scowl, Will ripped the paper in half, then did so again and again until he was left with tiny scraps. He got up from the bed and threw these scraps out the window, watching them disperse in the wind and flutter away.

Goddamn Yggdrasill.

However, he had more important things to be worried about right now. Like bringing Ellie back. Despite all the crap going on, he smiled. Ellie was coming home.

He left the room and knocked on the door next to his room. Raine answered the door, and he continued smiling. "Professor! You're ok!"

She smiled and nodded. "Yes. Genis and Zelos got there in the nick of time. We didn't manage to defeat the demon, but we made it out ok. I'm pleased to see you're feeling better, too."

"Yeah. How long was I out?"

"A few hours. It's almost midnight."

"Ok. Where's Colette?"

Raine opened the door a bit wider, and Will saw Colette standing vacantly at the back of the room. "She's staying with Sheena and I – oh, you know Sheena's alright, right?"

He nodded.

"Ok. And you're splitting a room with Genis, who is currently out looking for Presea, and Zelos has a room for himself."

"Great. Can I, uh, take Colette with me for a sec?"

She gave him a confused look and asked, "Why?"

"I just... need to talk to her alone for a bit..."

Raine frowned and put her hand on his shoulder. "Lloyd, we've had this conversation before. You need to accept-"

He pushed her hand off. "I know. Just humour me, ok?"

She sighed. "Very well. Don't wander off, though."

"Right." He entered the room and gently took Colette's wrist. She followed him without argument out of the room, and then he led her back to his room. He closed the door and Colette stood in the middle of the room, staring at him blankly with her dead red eyes.

"I think you can hear me, Ellie," he said. "So if you can, I'm going to bring you back now. Be ready."

She showed no sign of comprehension, but Will hadn't really been expecting anything. 'Lloyd, are you ready?' he asked, raising his hand and looking at his Exsphere.

'Yeah. I promise I won't mess up.'

'It's ok. I trust you.'

'Alright. We're going to give this one hundred seconds, right?'

'Yes. Remember, we have to do it exactly in synch. Count, like, 'one Mississippi, two Mississippi...', ok?'

'Who's Miss Asippe?'

'...Never mind. 'One alligator' works too.'

'Got it. Are you ready?'

'Let's do this. Three...two...one.' He pulled his Exsphere out and started counting, swaying a bit as his Key Crest reined back the wave of Mana. One alligator...two alligator...three alligator...they couldn't afford to get off count.

He'd really need to thank the Wonder Chef, as it was his book that originally gave Lloyd and Anna this idea.

Six alligator...seven alligator...

He remembered reading the passage back in the Triet base, and not really understanding the idea that Exspheres act as doors to a global black space, and as long as you know where you're going, you can travel between Exspheres.

Thirteen alligator...fourteen alligator...

He held his hand over Colette's Key Crest, ready to shift it back into the correct position just as Lloyd had explained to him. The moment he corrected the position, it would kick into gear and restore her to normal. Ordinarily it would be Colette's soul coming back in this situation, but if Lloyd went there to hold Colette back, it would be Ellie's soul returning to the body. At least, that was the plan. But Will trusted Anna.

Twenty-five alligator.

He waited impatiently, but was careful not to speed up his counting. If he shifted the key Crest before Lloyd found Ellie and Colette, Colette would come back instead of Ellie. This required precise timing.

Thirty-two alligator.

He really should have locked the door. If someone suddenly burst in, they might distract him from his counting. He considered going over to lock it now, but that would probably mess him up just as much.

Forty alligator.

What was the difference between a crocodile and an alligator? It was something about being able to see the teeth, if he remembered correctly. And which one was in Florida? Crocodiles were in Australia at least, right? At least if he went by Crocodile Dundee, and they were the ones in the Nile, he was pretty sure.

Gah! Dammit! Fifty alligator! Or was it Fifty-five by now? Crap!

He was pretty sure it was fifty. Ok, keep going from there. Besides, it was safer for him to be behind than ahead. He just had to make sure he didn't get off track again. This was too important to mess up, because this was their one and only shot to get Ellie back. Screw up now, and it was over.

Sixty alligator. Stay focused now.

He was more than half-way there now. In less than a minute, Ellie would be with him again. But a minute never went by slower than counting out every second.

Seventy.

The first thing he was going to do was kiss her and tell her how much he missed her. Then he would prepare a huge feast because she could eat now. He'd get Genis to help, because Will wasn't so good at the cooking thing. On second thought, Genis could cook the entire thing and Will would help by fending off a well-intentioned Raine trying to 'help'.

Eighty.

Only twenty seconds left. Was he ready? He knew how to fix the Key Crest, right? He was certain he could do it, but now at the last second he was beginning to doubt himself. What if he did it wrong? What if it didn't work? If he shifted it the wrong way, would it just make things worse? He was already reaching for his Exsphere to call Lloyd back to check with him, when he put his foot down. He knew what to do. He didn't need to keep panicking like this.

Ninety.

Oh crap, ten seconds left. He could do this. Lloyd was the one with the hard job. All he had to do was fix the stupid Key Crest. His hand rested on the cool metal and he licked his lips, ready to put it back into place.

"One hundred alligator."

It was time.

He carefully adjusted the Key Crest so that it was securely fastened to the Cruxis Crystal and looked exactly as Lloyd said it should.

Please let this work.

He pulled his hands back and watched Colette for any sign of change. Then her body went stiff for a second, and her eyes closed. Will held his breath, heart pounding in his throat. This was it. The moment of truth. Had he managed to botch this up, too?

Her eyes opened again.

And they were blue. But who was it? Ellie or Colette?

She blinked at him a couple times, and Will still didn't let himself breath. Say something, he finally commanded. Something. Anything. Let me know who you are.

She looked down at herself, took a deep breath, and then back up at Will. Then she opened her mouth and said, "Alright. Who took my goddamn cape?"