The day that they departed from the Tower of Mana, it started to rain. Anna spent the entire journey back through the Northern Mountain range feeling damp and cold and uncomfortable. The rough, rocky terrain became plastered with mud that threatened to suck Anna's boots right off her feet. On one occasion, she actually stepped right out of one of them and tripped, landing on her knees in the muck.
Kratos was infuriatingly unsympathetic throughout the entire ordeal. Worse, he had the nerve to complain about all the time they were losing. Anna wanted to point out that she was the one who was literally dying to find a key crest but she knew that would be a cheap tactic. Instead she brushed it off.
"You've been acting distracted," Kratos said later, after the stretch of quiet that followed. It was unlike him to break their silences.
"I'm fine," she told him.
She was distracted, though. Kratos had asked her whether or not she was going to go with him to the Remote Island Human Ranch and she still hadn't been able to give him an answer. Kratos had no sympathy for her in that regard either; he was decisive in his own actions and expected the same from others.
Four days in, the rain finally stopped. Anna spent the better portion of it stumbling over rocks and tree roots, too caught up in her own circular thinking to pay much attention to the perilous path beneath her feet. Having Kratos looming over her at all times didn't help matters. He had agreed to give her time to think things through, but it was clear that the question was on his mind as much as hers.
At nightfall, after they'd made camp, Anna decided to take a walk on her own, to clear her head. Kratos had given her a worried look when she told him, perhaps remembering the first time she'd gone for a walk on her own. But he made no move to stop her. He never had.
The choice to stay or go had been hers all along.
The area where they'd stopped was wild with all manner of growing things and so she had to pick her way through the steep terrain, carefully, careful not to let her spear get caught up in a tangle. The earth was still soft and wet from the earlier rains and the air was heavy with a scent like electricity and freshly turned soil.
Anna found a small cluster of trees where the ground was both even and fairly dry, sheltered, as it was, by a dense canopy of leaves. It seemed as good a place to stop as any. Her legs were tired after so many days of walking, so she sat down against a wide tree trunk, letting her spear rest across her lap and leaning back. Doing her best to think of nothing at all, Anna closed her eyes. She focused on the sounds around her; the tiny noises of little animals here are there, the soft rustle of leaves overhead.
Strange, that there did not seem to be any wind.
When she opened her eyes again, Anna saw that the leaves above her were moving all on their own. The tree trunk behind her back trembled and creaked. One of the tree's limbs flexed and then dropped suddenly towards her, branches spread wide; clawed fingers flexing, twitching, poised to strike.
Anna rolled out of the way just in time, feeling her exsphere flare to life with the adrenaline, feeling the strength it gave her and the courage that came with it. The near miss should have frightened her, but it didn't. Everything seemed suddenly clear – clear and simple. Fight. Survive. Kill.
The great, gnarled hand crashed down into the earth, mere inches from the spot that Anna had occupied moments before. Its fingers left massive gouges into the earth where it struck. Anna brought the head of her spear down on the creature's wrist, smashing through the hollow bark of its disguise with her enhanced strength. The thing wailed but it wasn't finished yet.
There were more of them. Around her, the monsters that she'd mistaken for trees lurched to life, groaning and shaking, unfastening their roots from the uneven terrain, one after the other. Red eyes stared out at her from dark hollows, revealing the monsters hidden inside.
Anna was boxed in, heavily outnumbered and she'd never tried to fend off so many opponents at once. The grove around her became a flurry of flailing limbs and it was all she could do to fend them off.
"Anna!" Kratos came charging towards the sound of the skirmish, Noishe hot on his heels. "Stay down!"
The fire spell he cast passed so close to her that Anna could feel the heat of it rolling through the air in a wave, tingling with magic. One flailing, burning monster collided with another and in a moment the second one had started to smoulder, still-wet wood sizzling in the heat of the blaze.
All at once, the not-trees scattered in fear of the flames. Anna, Noishe and Kratos were left standing alone in a rather bare patch of mountainside. The only foliage left – the two monsters that had been caught in Kratos's spell – were left thrashing on the ground in a pathetic, slowly smouldering heap.
Kratos watched it writhing there, impassively, until Anna finally could not take it anymore.
"I'm putting it out of its misery," she said, more to herself than to him. She hefted her spear and brought it crashing down in a shower of splintered wood.
Kratos was staring at her now.
"What were you doing out here?" he asked.
"Oh, you know," she said. "Just looking for some dry firewood. Looks like I found some."
"Those monsters won't leave us in peace after this," he said. "We'll have to move camp."
There wasn't much light left, so it took time to find and pack all of their things. They worked in silence, while Noishe looked on, watching with worried eyes. Once they were finished, they traveled quickly, in terse silence. Anna struggled after the sun set, unable to see the ground in front of her.
It was a long time before Kratos deemed that they'd put enough distance between themselves and the incident – enough to sleep peacefully, at least for a few hours.
In the dark, there was no way to make camp. Anna would have settled for a blanket on the ground, but without light, she struggled to even find that much in the depths of Kratos's wingpack. She fumbled with it for a while, anyways, knowing it was a lost cause, thinking all the time how stupid she'd been, to sit down in the middle of a nest full of monsters.
Finally, Kratos lost patience.
"Give it here," He put out his hand. Anna gave him the bag and then watched him roughly rummage through it, a dark, thunderous silhouette against the inky blankness of the night. His movements were erratic and it was clear that he was still angry.
Anna's exsphere had been a persistent itch, a steady heat all through her bones, ever since the fight in the clearing. It was getting warmer now, as Kratos's irritation became apparent. She tried to ignore it.
"You should have been paying attention," Kratos told her, unaware of her silent struggle. He was too caught up in wrestling her bed roll out of their bag, yanking at the end of the rough cloth so hard she thought it might tear.
"You don't need to rub it in," she tried to sound calm, but her heart was pumping so hard and fast it was almost painful. "It was a mistake."
Kratos wrenched the wad of fabric out of the bag and tossed it in her general direction. It landed in the dirt – still wet – and he went back to rummaging around for his own. Anna had never seen him use it, but he always laid it out under the pretense that he would, long after she'd gone to sleep.
"There are no room for mistakes, Anna. If you knew what was at stake…"
"I don't," Anna cut him off. "You won't tell me what you're really after, so I don't."
"I told you. It's better if you don't know."
"Better for me or better for you?" she asked. Then a thought occurred to her. A paranoid thought. "You're worried I'll talk, aren't you? If your plan to break into the Human Ranch fails and we get caught, you're worried..."
She remembered the book he'd been reading in the Tower: Of Mana and the Human Spirit, the grim technique described within its pages.
"Of course I am," he said. "You're only human."
Anna supposed he'd meant it as a confession, but she'd suspected he was a half-elf all along. That wasn't the secret she was after.
"How can I stay with you if you don't trust me enough to tell me anything?"
There was silence for a moment. Then at last he said, "Does that mean you won't?"
Exasperated, Anna turned her back on him, snatching up her bed roll – if it could still be called that, all unraveled and damp – and stomping away, looking for a place to lie down. Let him be the one left without answers, for once.
She fell asleep to the unsteady vibrations of her exsphere; like a swarm of insects buzzing between her ribs.
Cut into the hard stone face of the southern mountains, what remained of the Old City of Asgard made an impressive memorial to the people who had once lived there. Anna had only visited the ruins once before, and then she'd been very young. She only vaguely remembered her mother leading her by the hand as they made their way up the crumbling steps to the highest point in the city; the stone dais where – the older boys at home had delighted in telling her – young girls had been sacrificed, in ancient times. Anna wouldn't have been brave enough to go if her father hadn't been there too, ambling up the steps behind them, whistling a cheerful tune.
What Anna remembered, most of all, was her mother, pointing out one landmark and then another, telling her, with an air of authority, about the summon spirits and the people of Balacruf. Anna had believed everything her mother told her, back then.
When they reached the dais at the top of the hill, Anna had been amazed at how small the world looked when you looked at it from way up high. Thinking about that view, now, Anna was reminded of those brief moments she'd spent on Kvar's Rheiard with Kratos. She wondered what it would be like to travel like that when she wasn't in a panic – when she could stop and appreciate the sights. How much smaller would the world seem with an invention like that in her possession, all the time?
Down on earth, near the base of the mountains, new buildings had been erected; built up to accommodate a steady flow of tourists, drawn to the mystery of the ancient ruins. People came from far and wide to take in the sights, so Asgard was always filled with an interesting assortment of people: humans and half-elves, the rich and the poor.
When Anna, Noishe and Kratos arrived, they found that the City was even more crowded than usual. Colourful banners and decorations had been strung up from the rooftops of all the modern buildings and some of the more entrepreneurial citizens in town had set up food stalls and blankets where they'd laid out their wares. Everywhere, the city buzzed with excited energy. It looked like there was a festival underway.
"Hnh," Kratos was not taken in. "It looks like we've arrived at a bad time."
Anna, on the other hand, was grateful for the distraction. She'd been worrying in circles for days on end.
"I think it looks like fun," she told him. Then, remembering some of the gossip she'd heard back in Luin, she wondered out loud, "Do you think it has something to do with the Chosen's pilgrimage?"
"All of the vendors here are going to inflate their prices by half," Kratos was determined to be a stick-in-the-mud. "And since when do you celebrate anything the Chosen does? I thought you didn't believe."
"I'm not banking on any kind of salvation coming to Sylvarant any time soon," Anna countered him. "That doesn't mean I'm not curious. Now that she's been declared the Chosen's successor, this might be the last time anyone sees her outside of Iselia. Unless the Day of Prophecy comes."
"It's morbid," Kratos said, unexpectedly. "All of these people, celebrating."
"They're just making the best of things," Anna disagreed. She'd been disillusioned by the church, but she didn't begrudge those who relied on its comfort, either. In a way, she envied them. "And who knows? The Chosen might survive this time, if she's called."
"The Chosen never survives. Not, really." Kratos told her, cryptically. Anna wondered what he was driving at. "Come on. Let's see if we can't find a place to stay."
Usually, in Asgard, a weary traveller could find more than a dozen places to lodge for the night. Even if every room in every inn was occupied, the locals were usually willing to offer a spare cot or a warm place in front of the hearth in exchange for a bit of coin.
For once, though, it seemed that the city had all of the visitors it could hold.
"We could try that one," Anna eyed a large, two story building with a healthy dose of skepticism. It was impeccably decorated, all the signs were freshly painted and the gardens were well-tended, all of which led Anna to believe that it was probably expensive, as well. Even if they found a room, the modest amount of money she'd saved in Luin would barely cover half a room, let alone a private one, for herself. Not if she wanted to buy food and have funds left over, for the road.
"Hnh," Kratos had a whole range of different grunts for different occasions. This one was non-committal, with a healthy dose of disbelief.
The Fair Wind was aptly named, with a large open foyer and windows that let in the sun and fresh air from outside. Though not excessive in its décor, the furnishings were fine and polished, the decorations and draperies, elegant. It all seemed outlandishly luxurious from where Anna was standing. After weeks on the road, she thought she'd pay any price for a clean bed and a hot bath.
Oddly enough, the establishment was also largely empty. Anna saw a few patrons here and there, dressed in smart, city fashions, but compared to the other bustling establishments they'd tried earlier in the day, the Fair Wind seemed like an oasis, calm and undisturbed.
Anna approached the front counter and jangled the bell. A man emerged from the office in the back, dressed twice as finely as any of his customers. He took one look at Anna, then Kratos and then, finally Noishe and his expression went from long-suffering to positively livid in an instant.
"We don't allow animals in here," he didn't even try to sound polite. "Or monsters. Or whatever that thing is."
"We'd like a room," Kratos gave the man his coldest, deadliest look. He could be very touchy where Noishe was concerned.
"We have no vacancies," the steward told him, too self-involved to realize he was staring into the eyes of a stone-cold killer. "Now get that thing away before it tracks mud all over my floor!"
"You don't look that busy." Anna didn't like his snobby attitude either. If the man thought he was too good for her patronage, then she was going to give him a piece of her mind.
The man flushed.
"NOW SEE -" The other patrons cast their eyes his way and he lowered his voice. "See here! I don't know what sort of rumours you've been listening to but, I can assure you that there is nothing for you here. No rooms, nothing!"
His speech might've been more convincing if, at that moment, an aproned woman had no burst from one of the rooms on the second floor in an excited panic.
"Sir!" she grasped the banister at the top of the stair, threatening to bound over it in her excitement. "There's a procession! It's just come through the city gates!"
The man stared at her, then at Noishe, and then at the muddied floor with grim determination.
"Dorris," he said, "fetch a pail and a mop. Phyllis!" he shouted this time into the back office, "the flowers! And you!" he brandished an accusing finger at both Anna and Kratos. "Get out of here before I throw you both out!"
Anna didn't let his words bother her – it was clear now why he was in such a snit. Instead, she walked back to the entrance of the inn and stuck her head out the door. Down the road, she saw the procession in question, a small cluster of men and women with carts and wagons rolling behind them. There was nothing particularly fine or special-looking about them. Nothing save Martel's insignia, flying high for all to behold.
The Chosen of Mana had arrived.