A/N: Even though I don't currently have either game in my possession at this time (friends are borrowing them), there are always videos and the synopses, which are marvelous if I'm forgetting details.
Part XXI: All Will Be Well
Emil had been soaking his feet in the river early morning the next day. It was quite chilly, but would warm up as the day advanced, and in his memory of Palmacosta, he had done this quite frequently, except in the fall and winter, when bitter cold beset the city. He had a frown, though those memories were tangible and as real to him as the feel of the wind and the sun on his skin, the earth underfoot, the feel of his own pulse, they were fake. They were memories forged of magic, of Ratatosk's power touching upon the minds of the human Emil's family when he took Aster's form.
The real Emil died. He had perished in Decus's Blood Purge of Palmacosta, using Solum's core to pin the blame on Lloyd, to discredit the Chosen and the Church of Martel. To give the Vanguard precedence, power. Vaguely he wondered. When they went to Sylvarant—as they would, four Centurions' cores rested there at various altars—would they meet the true Emil, as they might meet Marta and her family? Palmacosta was a large city, so chances were they might not even meet at all, but it was certainly a possibility that should be kept in mind.
A few splashes in the crystal clear water.
Ugh, you're brooding over this again? Why not devote that thinking to more important subjects—such as the cores, or why Kuchinawa attacked us yesterday?
Emil frowned grimly, splashing around once more. The movement was so familiar, so repetitive, so ingrained into him, like breathing or blinking. He just did it without thinking about it. He knew Palmacosta like the back of his hand—hell, he even remembered the time Lloyd had attacked the Desian Grand Cardinal Magnius in the town square!
How would you feel if you knew that your life was a lie, just some fabrication to protect your true identity, which wasn't even known to you at the time?
I think you know the answer to that already.
And so he did: Ratatosk wouldn't care. He was made for and lived for greater things, like managing the distribution of elemental mana across the world. Ratatosk would just accept the facts as they are and plow forward from there. He would blaze, cut, a new trail for himself and his Centurions to follow. He would let no wall, no barrier, no person, and certainly not a figment of his spiritual mind stop him.
I'm sorry that I still slip into these thoughts. But I can't ignore it so easily. It was such a shock; no wonder he didn't recognize me …
Neighbors, hah. They had never been neighbors. Never seen one another, never met until that day in the Dynasty Ruins. Nevertheless, he heaved a sigh, attempting to humor his other half.
Okay, then … so why do you think that Kuchinawa attacked us yesterday? Is it because we're related to the Summon Spirits somehow?
A summoner from this village failed to control Volt, and thus a great many people died. This much we learned yesterday. It's certainly possible, but we're so different from the Summon Spirits that somehow I don't think it's it.
Hmm … why else? Even if he believed us, what does he have to gain by eliminating us, or taking us out of commission, or whatever?
The only immediate answer I can think of … he might be somehow connected to Cruxis. Cruxis first bound Ratatosk and his Centurions into dormancy. We are causing Cruxis trouble just by being awake, never mind going around and collecting the cores.
Ugh, who isn't connected to Cruxis in this era?
Ratatosk laughed then, though the matter at hand truly wasn't funny, and a grim truth rang in those words. They had no proof of Kuchinawa's possible affiliation with Cruxis, all they were going on were guesses. Their enemies were certainly clearly cut: wild monsters, the Papal Knights, the angels and Desians of Cruxis. And, of course, anyone else that attacked them or otherwise stood in the way of their objectives.
Emil stood then, putting his shoes back on after he shook his feet dry. He ventured back to the village to find Aster and Richter, to plan the next stages of their journey, specifically whether either scientist knew anything about the Temple of Darkness other than the neccessity of the blue candle, to light Shadow's darkness.
He found Aster back at the unoccupied house Vice-Chief Tiga had directed them to the day before, sleeping soundly. Richter was awake, looking over sheaves of paper, notes and monster grimoires. He was eating a bowl of rice, along with a broth of egg noodle. He looked up briefly to see Emil come inside before returning to his task.
"Hey, Richter. Whatcha doing?"
"Looking at the grimoires and Aster's notes. Some are for his thesis on the relationship between monsters and mana. I don't know how he can have such neat handwriting, it's as if it were typed!"
"Heh. That's Aster for you. So, what do you plan to do today? We know what Aster's doing." Emil indicated Aster's snoring form on the futon with a slight nod of his head. Richter cracked a small smile.
"Well, rest, obviously. But maybe not through sleeping. I'm shocked that the people of Mizuho don't seem to mind half-elves as much as the rest of Tethe'alla."
"They're in hiding themselves; they might identify with you for being shunned by other Tethe'allans."
It was then, talking to Richter, that Emil knew: he was never, could never be, like any of his friends, whether they were human, dwarf, elf, or half-elf. Always and forever he was a part of Ratatosk, always and forever he was Lord of Beasts, administrator of the world's mana, spirit of the first Giant Kharlan Tree. He had said before, he wanted to be human. He still did. But that was a bitter wish that tasted like ash on his tongue, never to be fulfilled.
He was Ratatosk. He was meant for greater things than the lives of meager mortals.
He sure didn't feel like any great cosmic entity. He felt what he looked like—human. He could sense mana, he could communicate with monsters, make pacts with them, he could do various other things that normal people couldn't, no matter the race. His concerns were the state of the world, the mana, the Centurions, the monsters, the Giant Tree which was his host and home. He had heard—or rather, the human Emil had heard—that tree spirits died with the trees. Apparently this was not the case. Was this because of the core that made up his being? Were spirits simply independent of trees, because of the difference of mana? He couldn't tell.
"Perhaps." Richter replied. He didn't scorn it, the people of Mizuho could easily turn him out for being a half-elf, the same as any other human. But they didn't. Like Altessa, they let him be. However, he had to hope that the people of Mizuho wouldn't turn around like Altessa had.
Emil sat at the table, across from Richter.
"Have you ever been to the Temple of Darkness?" Emil had, of course, but he couldn't let either Richter or Aster know that. He made a mental note to feign igorance of the paths of the temple when they arrived. Which, even with the aid of the blue candle, might not be so terribly difficult after all.
"I never got to leave the Academy whenever I wanted to," Richter began, and within Emil's mind Ratatosk let out a mighty groan. Here it began, the ever sorrowful and pitiable tale of a half-elf kept in chains and irons at the laboratory, never allowed to leave, little better than a prisoner, valued only for the unique mind he held as being the child of two races. Mana wasn't just more important to life than water, it was life itself. And yet, humans existed: beings who could neither sense nor use mana.
Deplorable as humans' treatment of half-elves was, Ratatosk expected it from them. And he grew ever tired of hearing Richter complain most vehemently about it, although he was no longer imprisoned in the Academy anyway, so why bother continuing to talk about it? Closure, Emil would reason. Although Richter no longer labored in the Academy, it still didn't feel quite real to him. He had to remind himself, that he was well and truly freed.
It was just more mortal thinking that Ratatosk simply couldn't understand.
Horrifically, even as he labored on his thesis, Aster found himself less interested with the relationship between monsters and mana, and increasingly fascinated with the subject of the fabled Giant Kharlan Tree: Ratatosk and the Centurions proved it was no mere myth, and elves, who were around longer than humans, would not lie about such a thing. Small wonder elvish culture was so largely characterized by revered trees and forests.
The ship rocked. Sneaking onto it from the designated pier hadn't been overly difficult, and they had the assistance of a certain cadre of Mizuho villagers. To the Fooji continent, where the mountains of the same name resided, within that same rocky range rested the Temple of Darkness. The Temple of Darkness, where the Centurion and Summon Spirit of Darkness resided: Tenebrae and Shadow.
Shadow would not see freedom anytime soon. The Spirits were bound to their altars, whereas for Centurions they were merely places of rest, so Emil had explained. Places of rest, not prisons. The temples had apparently been constructed on top of the Centurion altars, effectively making their own homes prisons.
Suffering from a violent bout of seasickness, Richter groaned in his corner behind a box of Ozette wood.
"How can you think at a time like this? I can barely see straight."
Aster shrugged, he had always had rude good health and possessed a strange imperviousness to a great deal of things that would throw most people off. He shrugged, speaking once more; he hoped to distract Richter from his seasickness. If he were well enough to complain, he wasn't truly very sick was Aster's opinion anyway. "How do you think the Giant Kharlan Tree sustained itself? It sustained the world by giving off infinite mana, but what kept it alive? It must require mana itself …"
Richter snorted. "Sunlight and water, and how do you think plants keep themselves alive? Sunshine, water, and they make their own food. That the Giant Tree made mana is probably all it took." It was a rather obvious conclusion, but Aster had thought since the Giant Tree was unlike other trees, it might sustain itself differently. But there was no denying the sense the obvious conclusion made.
Then there was the matter of the distribution of mana. That had been Ratatosk's charge, from the time the elves came here from Derris-Kharlan. Centurions were made for that, and for that express purpose they made the monsters. They were required because this world originally had no mana, had no life. Like a bacteria sample cultured in a petri dish in the Tethe'alla Royal Academy in Sybak, it had been nutured, and cared for, made to thrive.
Emil, meanwhile, weathered the boat ride better than Richter was, but he looked uneasy, so far away from his monsters. Those were entrusted to the mysterious Katz guild, who promised the delivery of their companions on the Fooji continent as soon as they disembarked. He had to wonder how the Katz did it, but there was no denying the results they produced.
"I wonder how much longer …" How much longer until they might climb the mountains, how much longer until they reached the Temple … reached Tenebrae.
The name brought to Emil a strange feeling of comfort and foreboding. The first Centurion that he had ever met, the Centurion that served him best, the Centurion that had been one of his best friends in his previous life—for that life was now forever gone, beyond his reach. In everything Tenebrae had counseled him, supported him.
The depth of his joy to see Tenebrae again after so long was unmistakable. The depth of his shattering realization that it was not his Tenebrae was even greater. This was Tenebrae, merely servant of Lord Ratatosk. Merely the Centurion of Darkness. Merely a servant.
Not a friend.
Emil thought he had accepted it, the full scope of the changes between this era and the next, separated by such an insignificant span as two years. Seven hundred and thirty days. In seven hundred and thirty days, so much had changed Sylvarant and Tethe'alla. Changed him. He looked over his shoulder, to Aster, to Richter.
Aster had been long dead.
Richter would have undoubtedly met the same fate.
And Emil, sitting as reluctant guardian of the Ginnungagap, may well have been dead, too.
He had not accepted it. At that moment, he wanted everything back—Tenebrae, Lloyd and his friends, the life he thought he would live as a human—and most of all, Marta. Had Ratatosk known when he assumed a human form, human emotions and attachments would go with it? Or, only a core, had he not known, and done so in ignorance? Merely out of instinct of self-preservation?
But it wasn't just Marta he missed most. Shocked at himself, he missed Richter, the Richter of that time. The Richter that gave him courage. The Richter that taught him how to fight. The Richter that swore they were enemies from the day Emil was "born." It was still so very strange, the Richter that knew him so well, knew him not at all now. Even stranger, to see Richter wholly without Centurion Aqua.
It took Emil a few seconds to realize Solum watched him from the shadow of another stack of cargo. He jumped in place, surprised. The Centurion of Earth, slightly amused, tilted his head to the side, curious.
"What is it that disturbs my lord so?" He asked, reaching within Emil's mind. This troubled him, what the Centurion wished to discuss was not for Aster or Richter's ears. Reluctantly, he answered.
The past. The future. The excruciating pain of the in between.
"What do you mean by that?" Solum inquired. "You are without a doubt Lord Ratatosk, but you are … different. More. Other. What you are … is impossible; for I was previously bound to Lord Ratatosk. How can you and he both be Lord of Beasts?"
Of course. Centurions weren't stupid. They may have been deathly quiet save Tenebrae and Aqua, but that did not mean they were fools. Fooling Aster and Richter and Lloyd along with his friends was hard enough … fooling the Centurions who served him was infinitely harder. Would he believe? He had no choice but to believe, as Solum was bound to Emil. But would he accept it? Rebellion was entirely possible, Aqua proved it two years—ago? From now?
Martel, it was so complicated, this business of literally living in the past.
Emil wasn't sure if he should tell Solum everything. But he deserved to know how there were two Lord Ratatosks, and what made this particular Ratatosk different from the one who even now slumbered fitfully beneath the Otherworldly Gate. This entailed nothing more than this tailored explanation: he had been defeated, taken on a human form to survive, and the human remained as a separate mind within a mind, which was Emil. They headed to the Otherworldly Gate, were thrown back in time—and for the sake of the future which could be changed to be brighter, ripped the Centurions from the past Ratatosk and into the service of the new one.
He waited, not with eagerness, for Solum's response.
"It is not unlike you to think always of the welfare of the world above all else, Lord Ratatosk … or am I talking to Emil right now?" He gave a mental shrug, went on. "I am your Centurion and of course will serve you as well as I am able … that is not to say that the other Centurions will abide by this."
Centurions that proved too willful or rebellious could be destroyed, new ones made. This much Ratatosk made clear. But Emil wanted to avoid that if was possible. For the sake of the world, he might have the right to kill a Centurion—just as he claimed the right to wipe out an entire race. Emil swore not to be like that Ratatosk, and so would do everything in his considerable power to ensure that it did not come to pass.
I know, Solum, I know, believe me.
Please, let Martel give him someone to believe him, someone to whom he didn't have to lie …
Opening the shutter of the lantern, Aster lit the blue candle. Instantly, the heavy curtain of darkness in Shadow's lair was lifted, if not completely, at least enough to see by. Emil marveled at the temple's interior; it had not changed much at all from when he knew it. Richter, having been here once before on an expedition, led the way. The monsters trailed behind them, and though Aster could use more experience directing his own, the temple was immensely dangerous, and so only Emil's were traveling with them at this time; the rest were cared for by Katz.
Titan hovered over them like a huge guardian, sniffing the air occasionally, lifting his paws with care, pointed ears swiveling to detect the sounds of danger. The temple's mechanisms were much less complicated than a person would intially expect, especially Aster, who had never visited this particular temple before. Still, it felt like hours upon hours upon hours as they delved their way deeper and deeper into the building, seeking, seeking, seeking …
Monsters seemed to impede them at every corner. These were disposed of, sometimes easily, others with more difficulty. Emil, with pretenses to sensing Tenebrae's core because of his bond with Ratatosk, at last found the section of wall behind which the Centurion's altar rested. Borrowing the Sorcerer's Ring from Aster, he found the appropriate mechanism, and the door fell away.
There was the bridge, as he remembered it, stretching off, lined with glowing red crystals, into an infinite dark beyond, like the depths of the night sky, only absent of moon and stars. Richter led the way, and for a moment, bitter memory lingered in Emil's mouth, slathered all over his tongue, a kind of hazy mist clouding his eyes. How the Richter of two years ago—from now—had managed to reach Tenebrae first, Emil would never know. As this Richter approached the altar, he saw that Richter, hands held out for the bud-shaped crystal that was Tenebrae's core, the blur of blue that was Aqua hovering beside his ear as she always did. The Centurion supported Richter in everything.
Even this. Even the murder of her own kin.
All for Master Richter.
For a moment, Emil stood still as a statue. He watched, with morbid fascination, as Richter once more stood at the altar, admiring Tenebrae's core. Any second, he expected the red haired half-elf to take up his axe, and smash the core against the cold stone construct. He would turn, and avow Emil dead if he continued to serve Ratatosk as his Knight. Ratatosk's ingratiated laughter, half crazed with a strange delight, as he attacked Richter. Dumb, utter shock, as the half elf managed to turn the attack back at him.
Marta, darting in front of him. Marta, taking the wound for herself.
But the bridge they stood upon did not collapse. Aster, who was without a doubt alive, stood at Richter's side, examining this core with a scholarly curiosity and fascination. They both turned, to look at Emil who still stood dumbstruck. They had green eyes, the both of them, although Aster's, whose eyes mirrored Emil's own, were the green of the leaves on a springtime tree. Richter's were darker, and at times, looked more like venom. Their voices echoed in unison, in a repeating sound that threatened to cave Emil's skull in.
"Emil? Are you okay?"
Emil walked, put one foot before the other, made himself go forward. He had to rip Tenebrae away from the Ratatosk of this time, bring him into his own fold. The others did not have Ratatosk's protection—Aster might be able to try it, but an unhatched core, it was too risky.
As Emil hatched Tenebrae's core, Aster observed the clashes of complex, deep emotions in his face. So strange, to see his own face twist and contort so. Among the emotions he identified a handful of them: frustration, desperation, inexplicable longing for something that could not or would not be named, and most of all, fear. Aster felt his brow quirk. Wasn't this Emil's idea? Aster had begun the journey, but Emil had decided its purpose. Wasn't this, regaining the Centurions' cores, awakening Ratatosk, wasn't this exactly what he said he wanted to do?
Tenebrae's core hatching, glowing, and a swath of darkness clothed the jewel as the Centurion manifested. Awakened, brought to Ratatosk's will. There was the strangest look on Emil's face as he looked on to the Centurion of Darkness.
The second Centurion they had awakened. Six more to be found, six more to be awakened, to be bent to his will or crushed.
Emil was only acutely aware of Richter and Aster staring at him, at the wildfire expressions on his face. His attention was focused on Tenebrae, who was confused, rather like Solum was, but faced with someone who could not be anyone other than Lord Ratatosk, gave his allegiance.
Are you sure? Emil found himself asking. He knew how loyal Tenebrae was.
He was answered: "I exist to serve Lord Ratatosk, and you are Lord Ratatosk. What more could be said?"
Truth, all of it. And yet so unlike the Tenebrae he knew. He kept waiting for the Centurion to crack a joke. None came.
All the relationships he had possessed in his previous life, would have to be sought, found again, and built from the ground up.
It hurt, Martel, it hurt, more than anything he had ever experienced.
"You should talk to him." Aster said, dropping a few logs into the heap of firewood that would become their campfire for the night. Richter's axe was certainly handy for a great deal of things. Richter, who was fumbling with matches—never one to squander resources, even magic—looked up, slightly annoyed. Usually not a hair was out of place, tonight, almost every single strand was out of place.
"He looked like he wanted to be alone, I won't interfere with that."
Aster braced his hands on his knees, bending at the waist to look into Richter's face. "Do you really think that will help him, being alone? He was alone from the moment he came to Tethe'alla through the Otherworldly Gate. You know what that's like, being so alone." He finished with a sigh. "I really hate seeing Emil depressed like this. It's not like him."
Richter handed Aster the packet of matches. "Fine, but I promise nothing. I thought he would be overjoyed we finally got another Centurion." He stood, leaving the campsite, seeking Aster's twin in image if not blood.
Emil was standing by Titan, absentmindedly petting the huge ice wolf. The look in his eyes Richter had seen in his own mirror all too well. Deepest loneliest, searing, agonizing pain, paralyzing fear. Whatever had happened between Mizuho, the Temple of Darkness and now had struck him deeply. But without knowing what it was, Richter could not begin to hope to even see where the damage began, and where it ended. This was much harder than healing a broken wrist, and Richter could not even do that much.
Bah, this was what Aster wanted, so for Emil to feel better, so for Richter to get more social interaction with someone else besides him, even though Emil looked exactly like him. But none who knew them could ever mistake the two for one another, they were too different in their behaviors, their habits, their words. He cleared his throat.
"Emil? Are you okay?"
Knees quivered, Richter thought with alarm for a moment that Emil would collapse. But he did not. He gave a stiff nod.
"Yes, I'm fine. Thanks for asking."
The response was not there, it had no heart. Richter circled around, wondering if he should face him … but maybe it was easier if Emil could not see him. "You sure? You looked really pale, in the temple and you look white as porcelain now." White as porcelain, and just as fragile. His prowess in battle could not be denied. His strength of will was another matter entirely.
Maybe he is mad. Richter reflected on the time he knew Emil Castagnier. He tells me when we first meet that I would flood the world with demons, that we were enemies. He still says things that don't make sense to us, when he thinks we're not listening.
The name of the Centurion they had claimed came to him abruptly. Tenebrae. Tenebrae, where had he heard that before … the old elvish word for 'shadow,' certainly, but there was this feeling that nagged at him … he shook it off, it can't be that important. For now he had to make sure Emil was well and truly all right.
"Fine." Emil still spoke, albeit haltingly. "It's just … Tenebrae … I suppose I can't expect him to, right away … he doesn't trust me." Richter quirked a brow at that.
"But aren't you Ratatosk's Knight? Shouldn't he trust you?"
A blond head, bowed to hide the face in Titan's black and blue fur. "I'm his Knight. I'm not Ratatosk himself." Emil thought he would lose his mind in all the half-truths that he might very well soon start believing himself. Tenebrae did not trust him. He had made it clear in the Temple of Darkness.
"You are Lord Ratatosk, and so I serve you in all things, but I do not trust you. There can be no false Lord of Beasts, and so both you and my former master are Ratatosk … I will serve, I will obey, but forgive my presumption, my trust you will have to earn."
Tenebrae couldn't very well refuse to be bound into his service. If he did, Emil had no doubt that this Ratatosk would see him destroyed. To him, Centurions were nothing but pawns, vessels he created to carry forth his will. In a way that was true. But to Emil, they were more than that. Tenebrae was, had been, his best friend. To have that ripped away from him even as he ripped the Centurion from the past Ratatosk was more painful than he would admit.
Richter shrugged, he didn't see the cause for distress. "Then earn his trust. At the least, you have me, Aster, and Solum, isn't that enough for now? I know you're no longer in Sylvarant, all your friends and family are there … but you do have us."
And that was no small thing. Emil found his hurts eased, somewhat, as he realized the truth of Richter's words. He did have them. Aster, who had supported him from the day he was brought to the Imperial Research Academy. Richter, who had grown to trust and perhaps even like him. Solum, who never doubted his authority, and spoke to him as friend, even as the Tenebrae of the future-past had. At last, Emil began to feel better, even haunted by his memories, bogged down as if he tread through quicksand, threatening to suffocate in their bittersweet images.
"I … thank you, Richter. I can't do this without them. Without you."
Yes, Richter could see that much was plain. It wasn't as if Emil were incompetent, but one man could not accomplish everything. But he was infinitely more surprised when Emil turned around, approached him, and gave him a quick hug. Only Aster had ever dared such close contact.
"Courage, after all," Emil continued with the ghost of a smile, "is the magic that turns dreams to reality."