Title: excruXiation

Author: trickssi

Rating: T

Pairing: Zelos/Sheena, hints of countless others

Disclaimer: I own neither the characters not their scripted antics in Symphonia, Rodeo Ride Tour, and Dawn of the New World. Oh, and I did edit this chapter before uploading it, so you're allowed to mock me for mistakes I've made!

Description: Coming to terms with oneself is not an easy task, especially with distractions like the Ratatosk upheaval, relationship problems, and friends going berserk. But in order to move forward, Zelos has to destroy an integral part of his past. In this chapter, everyone takes a field trip to the Ginnungagap. Some will not return.

Warnings: Major spoilers for ToS, the Japanese radio drama Rodeo Ride Tour, and Tos: DotNW.

Author's Note, 10.6.12: If you haven't read this in a while, I've gone through and edited, wait for it, the WHOLE fic. Might still be a couple errors here and there, but damn does it feel good to have done it. That being said, this is the last "chapter," but please stick around for an epilogue with bonuses in honor of the last ep of the OVA. Tiny shout out to mel-tokio of tumblr, whose rec for the fic I found while searching ToS tags today! (Can you believe it? I didn't even pay her to say she thought it was good!) and spinx, whose awesome, lengthy review came in just minutes before my posting this. (Don't worry, I'll answer your questions!) Thank you all for accompanying me on my multi-year journey. Again, reviews are appreciated, but what I'd appreciate even more are recommendations to get this story out. Part of me hopes it'll spring back like Firefly. Stay tuned for the after-party!

12. And Here I Am

Winter devoured the space in the air. The falling snow was now so gentle that it disrespected the blizzard that had come before it. It must have snowed for days straight. There was an accumulation of at least four feet of the stuff sitting around on the streets of Meltokio, leaving every soul hard-pressed to venture outside. The city folk considered it bad luck; the king of Tethe'alla considered it a blessing. At least with this much snow, the evidence would be covered.

Mylene Wilder was dead. You know the story. She shielded her four-year-old son from a magic attack and fell bloody and thankless to the snow below. Then, she told him that his existence was useless. They dragged him away before he realized it was the last time he'd ever see her.

Four-year-old Zelos Wilder was kept under lock and key in his room. They'd tried to console him, but every servant of the Church that tried to visit ended up getting bitten or bruised or worse, so the easiest solution was just to let him have his tantrum until he was ready to communicate with words.

There's a saying in Tethe'alla that people used when they doubted an outcome, the equivalent of the Sylvaranti "when pigs fly": "when red snow falls." The notion of red snow sounded so impossible that it was used in colloquial metaphor. Surely, the inventor of the phrase never anticipated that Zelos would interpret the red flecks of blood bursting into the sky as the proverbial red snow. Not a soul could convince the boy that the world wasn't about to end.

Not a soul, of course, except for one blue-haired angel.

It was a scene from the tale of Spiritua, who was a Chosen of long ago, back when Tethe'alla struggled rather than thrived. When Spiritua's day of Oracle came, a blue-haired angel led her through her trials. And now, a blue-haired man with wings descended upon the Wilder Estate. At nightfall, when one or all of the guards had presumed Zelos to be disarmed while sleeping, the blue-haired angel crept through the corridor on the second floor and awakened the boy gently.

"Quiet," the angel advised when the boy stirred. "You must wake up and listen to me. I am Spiritua's guide."

The boy was fascinated with the glowing purple wings that trailed behind the supposed angel. He seemed nice enough, or nicer than the guards or grownups had been. So Zelos clapped his hand over his mouth obediently.

"Do you wish to escape this place and live a life from the fairy tales?"

Zelos nodded, his hand awkwardly following the movement of his chin.

"You must trust me. I'm going to pick you up and we will fly to the land of the angels."

The land of the angels was a heavenly metaphor used in the Church of Martel. Zelos had heard it a hundred times. Perhaps his mother was there now, he thought. When you die, if you're good and you didn't deserve it, you went to the land of the angels. That was that.

Only the "land of the angels" was Welgaia on the rock Derris Kharlan; the blue-headed man was Yuan; Spiritua was another failed vessel for Martel; and, of course, this was a kidnapping.

Or, a kid, napping, since Zelos slept for most of the flight. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was a carpet the color of emeralds. And then he saw the gray, mechanical walls. Heaven wasn't the bright-light, clouded, free range of the stories.

He was guided by Yuan to meet Pronyma, a higher-up official, and some of the Grand Cardinals who just happened to be convening a meeting regarding the state of some strange-sounding town. Pronyma didn't much care for the reticent redheaded child, believing that if he wouldn't talk now he'd soon start keeping secrets from everyone. She would be right, but not for that reason. She took it upon herself to train the boy when the time came.

At long last, they approached the chamber of the Cruxis leader, Lord Yggdrasill, a man who was so beautiful he could have been a woman. What a strange shiny suit he was wearing, Zelos thought. Even at that age he had seen so many officials' vestments that he knew when something was foreign to him. But this was the realm of the angels.

Every puzzle has cracks in between its pieces. There's a part of this story that Zelos never remembered, which was between meeting "Lord" Yggdrasill and waking up in a cool, bright room. Perhaps there were tests done, blood drawn, mana signatures written out and saved in dozens of locations. And when all was said and done, somebody with a clipboard said, "Yes, it will be him. We must start him early."

Despite the horrors he'd undergone, on the morning of the next day, when the sun peeked from the clouds and set the snow ablaze with light, Zelos awoke with a smile on his face. He opened his own door and began to tell the servants about how he had seen an angel last night. Some of the women tearfully listened to the story, thinking that he'd simply longed for his mother; they would be the first women to give him so much attention. The ones that weren't touched were simply grateful that he wasn't kicking and screaming and might have given him an extra treat when he left them without scars.

When Pyrios Wilder heard the story, he maintained that his son would not be out of anyone's sight, and hired his personal butler full-time to see to the demand.

The butler cared for Zelos with his wife, the Wilder Estate cook, until she left one day out of the blue. The butler also had to take care of the father when he got too drunk and mean, which happened, sometimes.

Then, the father left one day, too. Too dragged down by rumors, the gray-haired ladies of the court would tell him. What a shame. Poor little you, youngest we've seen yet.

Instead of kicking and screaming as before, seven-year-old Zelos Wilder was wise enough to sit by himself and speak when spoken to; which was often, since many had come both to grieve Pyrios's death and to congratulate the Chosen of Tethe'alla on his new and grown-up duties as the head of the house Wilder. It was then that he also had to meet his half-sister, about whom he had previously not known.

Seles Valz was brought to Zelos handcuffed and led by a nun. She looked enough like him, he guessed. Same eyes and all. Her hair was even reddish like his. But her ears had a strange little point at the top. Not quite half-elf, but not quite human, either. She was very well-mannered for a five-year-old and didn't even pull his hair or hit him like the other kids did sometimes. But she was clutching the nun's arm tightly and looked pale as a sheet.

"You didn't ask to be here either," he told her. Then he looked the nun square in the eye. "She's my sister, right? Why isn't her name Seles Wilder?"

Neither butler nor nun could answer without stuttering like a liar. The nun said something like, "By blood, she is only half-related, Chosen One."

"So is my mom, if I have a mom and a dad. Make her have my name," he ordered. Although it was a selfish demand of a seven-year-old, somehow the change was made. Seles left the funeral no longer tied to the name of her murderous mother but sadly, still handcuffed. The grownups stayed out of his way after that.

That night, after Pyrios's funeral, the angel visited him again, and the cycle of conditioning truly began. Zelos was old enough to know how to lie, so he told nobody of the fantastical world he visited after bedtime, not even the butler.

Pronyma snatched him night after night, bribing him to study the Angelic language and learn about history so that he'd be smarter and better than the parents who left him. She congratulated herself for creating such an efficient machine. Every time the boy didn't learn something as well as he should have, or misbehaved in any way, she instilled in him a sense of guilt. He was, after all, shaping up to be the worst Chosen in the history of all Chosens, she'd say. They could kill him and the sister he irrationally loved if he'd rather just get it over with. Or they could make it a whole lot worse. But he wasn't ready for worse just yet. The organization under Mithos decided it would be best to antagonize his success, not to quash it.

Later, when Zelos hit the edge of puberty, he started to realize that teenage girls and women alike were going out of their way to talk to him. Little girls came calling to his house, their mothers asking for play-dates and study sessions. The girls in school even stopped pulling his hair and started playing with it. Once, he even met a weird foreign girl who lived at the Elemental Research Lab. She talked about seeing spirits, which sounded almost like his angels. He was glad he didn't tell her everything about them, though.

When Zelos bragged about this to his mentor Pronyma, she demanded that "Lord" Yggdrasill meet with the boy. "If you let a woman get too close to you, she will start to change who you are. Better to keep them at a distance. You ought to learn about the true nature of human beings." It seemed silly, coming from an angelic being who was, obviously to Zelos's eyes, a woman herself.

It was time to tell Zelos about how manipulative humans could be. They only wanted him for his influence and power. Being a Chosen had gotten him into this mess, hadn't it? His mother's murder, his father's suicide, this strange and frail half-sister of his whom he never saw, the way people asked him for favors, the way everyone pretended they cared when in fact they would be happy to see him die and his sister take over. He was worthless as a Chosen. After all, what had he done for Tethe'alla?

Pronyma would further urge the boy to conceal the knowledge given to him by Cruxis and offered him a deal. If Zelos would just aid Cruxis in its mission for a few years more, he would be relieved of his status as the Chosen forever. The Cruxis Crystal on his chest was there to give him strength and remind him of his ultimate goal. It would help him revive the goddess and her grace would ensure that he lived the rest of his life without the clawing hands of people on Tethe'alla and the connected world, Sylvarant.

But in order to activate the protection of the Cruxis Crystal, there was a little process they'd have to put him through, you see. The pain would only last for a little, but he'd be a warrior fit for "Lord" Yggdrasill's right hand when it was all over.

They gave him a little injection of some glowing red stuff one day. He stopped sleeping. He stopped being hungry. He stopped having a sense for the world around him. He stopped talking. And then, when he came back to his senses, he started training with a sword. First, he only trained with Pronyma, but later he was allowed to apprentice at the Coliseum, which ended up earning him yet more unwanted admirers. At least their patronage allowed him to practice his magical swordsmanship to its utmost.

Eventually, he began to "thank" the young ladies that supported him by inviting them to parties, where the girls would prove to be shameless underneath their expensive gowns. Zelos always managed to get back to Welgaia in time to be chastised by Pronyma, though. She'd caught on to his game and reminded him that this was the beginning of Pyrios's story, as well, and the reason Pyrios offed himself was because he fell for one of the women who flocked to him instead of the woman who was going to pass on the mana signature of Martel.

So Zelos stopped inviting individual girls and started forcing them to surround him in groups, where he knew they'd fight if one got more attention than the others. Of course, he didn't tell the fools that he didn't want their attention in the first place. That would have been too easy.

The Cruxis Crystal had activated something deeply painful in him, and it was a self-loathing that would haunt his every decision. He truly shouldn't have been born. If his father only hadn't made those horrible mistakes, there would be no reason to hate that Zelos would be the Chosen heir. He'd better learn to carry the weight of dead Chosens that resided in his heart, the only reason he'd had so much strength to bite and kick and injure as a young boy. Perhaps the only way to bear it would be to share it with the only other person qualified to learn the ways of Cruxis in his stead.

After the angel status was official, just before his eighteenth birthday, he switched his Cruxis Crystal with Seles's Exsphere secretly, so that just in case he died while serving Cruxis, she would have a way of getting what was rightfully hers.

And that was that. He learned to have a warm face but a cold heart, especially when attending the King's court. He learned to talk back to Yggdrasill when he could get away with it. He learned that Yuan wasn't telling the whole truth about Yggdrasill's plan, and so decided to pitch in with the Renegades.

This was the part of the dream that kept coming back even years after the Journey of Regeneration showed him that some people aren't all that bad, really. There was Yuan, next to the roguish Botta, with the halo of ceiling light creating fragments of shadows around them. "You will serve well as our pawn."

A pawn. It made him sick. That's what the power of the Crystal had reduced him to.

In his sleep, this scene played an endless loop, getting hazier and hazier and he feared he would wake choking on empty sobs if he couldn't shake himself of it.

"ZELOS," Yuan's voice boomed suddenly in the dream. "YOU'LL KNOW WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT WHAT YOU MUST DO."

What must I do?

"YOU WILL SEE THE SACRIFICE." Another voice. A different voice. Mithos?

Oh no, not again, he thought. That wasn't the road he wanted to go down. Oh well; at least he tried to get some answers.

But ends would be tied up. It wasn't three years ago. He wasn't alone anymore. And while Emil was not resigned to die, Zelos would still risk putting the Cruxis Crystal on him and hoping that the spirit of mana would work itself out. He had to be rid of it. He had to be rid of these dreams and headaches and memories of feeling worthless and the endless, endless questioning of the public. Maybe when they saw him without his Cruxis Crystal, they'd wise up. Maybe they, too, would stop feeling like they needed to get his attention and just give him theirs. Like Lloyd. Like sweet, innocent Colette.

This one, too, for instance. Why, she was resting with her head on his chest and looking through the window in silent awareness, waiting for him to wake. His breathing pattern inevitably changed as he resigned himself to quit the memories that plagued his dream. If Sheena was awake before him―which was a rare occurrence―it was past 7:30. But well-earned.

"Urnggh," Zelos groaned, lurching and gently repositioning Sheena to the side of him.

"It's past nine, sleepyhead," she said softly.

"No wanna wake uuup," he whined.

"You have to sooner or later."

He blinked and drew his face closer to hers. "Nooooo."

Sheena squirmed. "Your breath stinks."

He closed his eyes. "Your face stinks."

She hummed a brief note. "You don't mean that. You're still sleeping."

"No I'm not." Zelos stretched his spine and writhed to get comfortable again.

"Then you're hung over."

"Uh-uh. I had a weird dream," he confessed. Sheena rolled to her stomach and propped herself on her elbows, head tipped in interest. "The one about Cruxis, again."

"Weird."

"I know. It was. I think my brain is trying to figure out weird… shit. I dunno. All I know is that I'm too pretty to miss out on this beauty sleep," he mumbled.

"Well, I want you to go brush your teeth. Or do you want the maid to make up the bed with you still in it?" Sheena warned.

Zelos seized the covers and threw them over his head. "Yes."

Sheena wrestled the blankets away and exposed him to the chill, unfamiliar air. "Ack! It's friggin' freezing in here!" he yelled. Sheena giggled at her victory, but only until Zelos pulled her down to him. "I need a new blanket!"

Awkwardly latched into place, Sheena yelped sarcastically, "Oh boy, I hope it's me. That would not be uncomfortable in any way."

"SHH," Zelos hushed, putting his entire palm over her face, "you're going to wake the children with your demon shrieks!" His other hand tickled her sides, and she laughed hard.

"Oh god, make it stop!" she plead, as though that might actually stop him. She twisted out of his grasp just long enough to sit up and away from him. "You jerk! You're such a dork."

"But I'm just so darn lovable," Zelos added with all the persuasion he could muster. Sheena rolled her eyes and leaned down to kiss his forehead.

"I hate you."

"I hate you too, hunny." He leaned up and barely pressed his lips to hers when she recoiled.

"Ew, no, stinky breath," she reminded him.

"Yours is, too!"

"No, it's not. That's yours. I brushed mine earlier when you were sleeping."

"Fine. Will you give me a real smooch if I go brush my teeth?"

"Maybe," she said, and covered herself with the blankets after he left the bed. "I bet the others are waiting for us."

"Can't be helped," Zelos agreed. He ducked down to retrieve his neatly-sloughed clothes.

"Although, I bet we would have woken up earlier if someone had shown up when everyone else did last night."

"Hey, you could have woken me up!" Zelos sifted through his small travel pack for his toothbrush, which he then pointed at Sheena.

"I―That's not fair! That's your job." She sat up and defensively drew her knees up to her chest.

"I thought my job was to be the handsome, dashing, talented―"

"Some job!" she scoffed.

"Hey, your job is getting dressed now," Zelos ordered. Brushing his teeth in this hotel bathroom was beginning to feel too familiar, no thanks to the many nights they'd stopped here on their journeys. He was in a daze until he spat and rinsed out his mouth. No time to take care of this junky day-old stubble on his chin, though. It could wait.

When he returned to the room, Sheena had already put up her hair and dressed mostly. She held out her long pink obi. "Wanna tie this for me?" Aw, man, Zelos was weak for that. Whenever she let him take care of her outside of the usual physical expectations, he had to remind himself to do it with reverence and not desperation. "―Don't mess it up, though. If it comes undone in battle, I'll kill you."

He grinned widely and snatched the obi from her. "Oh my, in front of everyone? They'd think you cared about me or something."

Sheena lifted her arms so that he could wind the fabric around her, and adjusted the robe's closure in front. "Well, I'm pretty sure all of this would fall out, and you'd make some perverted remark, and then it'd look like you were an idiot after all."

"Gee, I never knew 'tying the knot' would be so stressful," Zelos groaned sarcastically.

"Y-you're making the bow, though, right?" Sheena tried to turn her head to see.

"Stand still! It's almost done." He pulled the last bit through its loop and saw to the evenness at the bottom. "I'd say it's my best work yet."

Sheena inspected herself in front of the mirror. "That's actually not bad. You could still use some lessons from Mizuho, though."

"Tch. As if they'd want me to learn about tying obi this way and that. They'd think I was a pervert who learned how to put them on so I could take them off without anyone knowing the difference!"

"And that's different from this, how?" she asked pointedly. Adding the red sash to the front, she double-checked the obi's tightness.

"... So, when you went to Mizuho," Zelos said suddenly. He received a blank stare.

"So, what? I finished my business there. Paperwork." She set to securing the bag containing her cards.

Unsettling; Sheena almost never talked about the paperwork, he knew. "Weren't you going to talk to your Grandpa about something?"

She glared. "That's strictly Mizuho business."

"Whaaa? Does this mean nothing to you?" he dramatized.

"No, it's just that I'm not allowed to tell you! Are you ready to go? Emil's probably worried enough as it is…"

In no hurry to hustle to the door, Zelos stood with his arms crossed. "I'm not going until I get what you promised," he said. Sheena's face froze for a moment before she tilted her head in confusion. "My kiss, you dummy."

"Oh. That!" she laughed falsely. She moved from the alcove by the door back to where he was standing.

"Make it count, princess."

She reached out and put her hand to his cheek before closing the space between them, and he held her gently at the waist. His mouth met hers with a yielding fervor, which, for a moment, reminded him why he was choosing his mortality over the gifts of the Cruxis Crystal. So, yeah, he guessed she'd have to deal with the fact that he intended to bother her, flirt with her, and take her on random tours of the world until the end of his days. He just wasn't going to tell her that until this battle was over.

"Mm. Remind me again why we have to go downstairs?" Zelos muttered against her lips. She pushed a final peck before relaxing back on her heels.

"Because the world will be engulfed by Niflheim if we don't?"

"Aaaaall right. We'd better get a move on," he lamented. He let her go with a smile and grabbed his sword and accoutrements.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A large platform descended and revealed a vast underworld of the Otherworldly Gate. The group, encircled around Emil and Marta protectively, scanned the scene. The air in front of them was misted through in every direction, with strange tendril-like columns twisting this way and that. It was not wholly unlike Derris Kharlan.

"This place seems different from the other places we've been," Marta said through the thick of the fog.

Across the circle, Colette screamed.

A flash of white light engulfed her, and she was gone faster than a Mizuho ninja in a cloud of smoke.

"What?!" Genis squeaked before he, too, disappeared.

"It's a tr―!" Raine began. Gone.

"Aaah!"

The time that it took Zelos to turn his head toward Sheena felt like an eternity. She was disappearing, too. Every fluttering millisecond vividly revealed that the white light was some barrier being wrapped around her body and sealing her away before the vanishing moment. He couldn't help but shut his eyes from the flash, although his hand jolted out as though he could somehow reach her through the invisible barrier. It felt― "No way!" he muttered in shock. Then he was grabbed by the force of the light and forced into some impossibly heavy space.

Teal towers fizzled into black in his field of vision. As though his eyes were closed, Zelos's brain was compressing the space in front of him into a dimensionless blob of darkness. But he couldn't actually close his eyes. He couldn't even feel the tiny muscles around it, and no matter how hard he forced himself to think about blinking them, he was unable. His body, too, was immobile. And then, the squeezing; from his head to his toes, he felt gravity seize the life force in his veins and force it down.

The disappearing, the heaviness: it was all consistent with something he'd felt in their last journey. In Derris Kharlan, the key Lloyd held that swept the rest of them away like jacks; it was the challenge laid by Mithos in his vain attempt to shut out the world. In doing so, Mithos had also trapped the intruders within their worst fears. Zelos couldn't forget the uncanny, robotic expressions of a fake Seles trying to convince him his life was worthless. Although he'd defeated a corporeal manifestation of his nightmare that day, earning him a small, gold half of a spider token, the fact that he'd been sucked into Mithos's trap at all revealed just how powerless he'd been.

Then, the black space filled itself in, pulsing a bright red light around him and revealing two petrified figures. They looked just like Sheena and Raine… Raine? If this was another test of will, why would Raine be there as well? He still couldn't reach out to them and they certainly couldn't respond, either. He couldn't tell from the landscape whether or not they'd actually been transported anywhere.

This wasn't so bad at all. It was nothing as trying as the Derris Emblem. That was like running a marathon. Granted, if he had to stand here for more than a few hours, he'd likely go insane in his conscious. But Emil wouldn't let that happen. Right? Emil and Marta couldn't possibly have been turned to stone, because they weren't in Welgaia that day some years ago. They were smart enough to figure this out, right?

Suddenly, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of a teenage girl and a raging Summon Spirit didn't sound like such a good idea. Zelos wondered if Raine and Sheena were thinking the same thing.

Well. If he was going to be there for a while, restricted to the entertainment in his head, he was going to have to find something to think about other than how agonizing it was to be looking at Sheena and knowing that she was stuck facing the other way. What if it were an eternity spent here in stone form while Marta perished and Emil returned to being a Ratatosk core while Tenebrae wasn't paying attention?

No. Mental math time, Zelos forced. First, add up everyone's ages. 14 plus 16, 30, plus 16, 46, plus 18, 64, plus 19, 83, plus―does Presea's age count for 30, or for 14?

Would Mithos count for 14 or 4,014? I wonder if he built Welgaia after seeing this dreary place.

Zelos went back to putting numbers together, but his mind wandered unbidden to memories of Mithos. While his Cruxis edification involved a lot about the establishment of the Church of Cruxis, it had nothing to do with the details of the inspiration. Before Mithos had decided to build his lair on Derris Kharlan, had he traveled to this very place? Yuan, and Kratos, especially, would never speak of the days before Martel's sickness. It seemed unfair that Richter and Aster had more education on finding the Ginnungagap than Zelos, the golden boy of Cruxis, had.

In fact, he still had no idea where they were within the Ginnungagap. How far back was the door to Niflheim? And how long had this trap been here?

Then, a creeping sensation of warmth hit his shoulder and spread down through his arm and across his back, and up across the nape of his neck. The white light came back, and he blinked his eyes to find the scenery hadn't changed. Oh, aside from the fact that he could blink his eyes.

Emil walked past him and quickly placed his palm on Sheena's forearm and Raine's hand. Both women were slowly drained of their petrified pallor. Now that Zelos could, he turned his neck to see his companions awakening as well.

"Man, I can finally move," he remarked, settling back into his muscles.

"You were conscious?!" Lloyd exclaimed. He rushed over from where he'd been standing, next to Marta and Tenebrae.

"Wh… How long were we out, Bud?"

"It was like I was in a straitjacket for eternity," Presea muttered.

"Everyone I could see was petrified, so I assumed you would be, too," Colette told Lloyd.

Emil's shoulders drooped. "I'm sorry, everyone, this was my fault."

"Not at all," Raine said. "You couldn't have foreseen this. But it looks like everyone's all right now."

"Yes. We should move quickly," Tenebrae noted.

Sheena took a step toward Zelos. "What did we miss?" she asked Tenebrae meekly.

Emil looked to Tenebrae, then to Marta, then back to the platform at his feet.

"We didn't want to," Marta said softly, "but we had to kill Alice and Decus. They weren't going to hurt my Emil."

The thick silence that followed revealed a swooping, buzzing sound emanating from the environment around the group. It was not unlike the sound of a machine run by Exspheres.

Alice and Decus, huh? Zelos couldn't say he liked them, since Alice was a gigantic bitch to Seles and Decus was the one who got Lloyd in such trouble in the first place. But they were so young. What could they have accomplished had they spent time atoning for their wrongdoings? Who could they have been without the overwhelming national divide? And all the bigotry, and all the racism, and all the pacts, and on, and on. They hadn't stood a chance.

Marta reached out for Emil's face, where a small welt had risen. Colette gave a small whimper.

"Unfortunate," Regal said.

"But they could have chosen a different path," Genis added.

"I feel the spirits howling. May I request a moment of silence?" Presea asked. The buzzing sound cut through the empty space.

After a little, Lloyd looked over to Presea and she nodded her head. "All right."

"Let's go. It's time to kick some ass," Sheena said. Zelos had to hold back a laugh at how incredibly strange it sounded following what was close to a funeral for two wayward kids. His attempt didn't go unnoticed. "What?"

"Ah, nothing. You're just starting to sound like me," Zelos gloated. He tugged on one of the loops in her obi.

"Yeah, right. I'm nowhere near as bad as you." She swatted his hand and kept a coy distance.

Lloyd, who had been giving orders to Genis and the rest, suddenly turned to the pair. "You could say that again!" he joked. Zelos was still shocked at how Lloyd could go from stone-faced to jolly these days.

"Pipe down over there!" Zelos barked in response.

"Don't worry, Lloyd. That Idiot Chosen's just upset that he's not getting attention," Genis said offhandedly. Marta giggled, and Emil looked like he'd been caught in the headlights of a Rheaird. Zelos tch'ed the half-elf and rolled his eyes. He'd say it wasn't true, but what with all the attention being on dead or soon-to-be-dead kids and/or Summon Spirits, Genis had a point.

Everyone began to follow Lloyd and Tenebrae down a winding bridge, where the light fog from before deepened, and the red runes on the platforms they walked burned magenta. Suddenly, Presea held out her axe to the side, signaling that the group should stop. Her detector for ill tidings never swayed; but she allowed Tenebrae, Emil, and Marta to pass.

A white spirit appeared before them and hovered just in front of the portal to the next area. Tenebrae seemed to recognize it. "Centurion Aqua!"

The spirit, which must have been called Aqua, did not open its mouth, but Zelos could hear its voice crying out to Tenebrae. It seemed to be a female, and it seemed to be barring the door.

"Is that spirit another one of Tenebrae's kind?" Regal asked Raine.

"Hm… I suppose it could be a Centurion called Aqua after all," Raine mused. "Yes, I believe so. But I can't translate what it's saying."

Zelos turned to Raine. "That's nuts. You really can't hear that, Prof?"

"Oh, I hear it," she replied, "I just can't translate its language. I've never heard it before."

Zelos shook his head. "No, no, it's no different…"

"You must be having a different experience than we are," Regal said.

Zelos impulsively scanned Colette to see if they'd been sharing some sort of Chosen-y moment, but the girl seemed engrossed in the scene as she stood next to Lloyd, wide-eyed.

"It would not surprise me if there were some way Zelos and Colette could understand the conversation, given that their Cruxis Crystals are packed with many souls akin to Martel's mana signature," Raine concluded.

"Only one way to find out," Zelos said. He skidded down a steep angle before stopping himself behind Presea.

"I want to help Master Richter avenge his friend!"

Yes, it was clearer than the bell in Meltokio's Church of Martel. The Centurion was speaking to Tenebrae and Emil. Zelos was rapt to listen―just what had Richter been up to down here, anyway? And what would he be like once they got to him?

The Centurion continued, "Master Richter and Aster first learned about Lord Ratatosk through their research of Summon Spirits. They found me and told me to advise Lord Ratatosk about the Centurions' losing control. I brought them here, to the door just beyond this seal. But Lord Ratatosk simply refused to what Master Richter and Aster had to say, and instead lashed out at them because of his hatred of mankind. Aster… When Master Richter survived the ordeal, he searched for the power to bring his partner back to life. The power of the demons. Master Richter will open the door leading to Niflheim."

No wonder Richter had been crazy about collecting rosemary when he ran into Zelos the second time. Rosemary was an herb symbolizing unrequited love. That meant―!

Richter wanted to make the ultimate sacrifice so that his beloved would live.

Sounded romantic and all. It would probably be the most loving thing anyone in the world had ever done, aside from trying to save their sister from perishing by turning her into a false goddess. Zelos wasn't the type to crush others' hopes and dreams, but in this case, Richter was about to crush everyone's everything. Opening the door to Niflheim would mean the demons' flowing out and devouring the planet. Just when they'd made it nice and unified, too. This would have been the only time Zelos would have been happy to see Mithos, and that was based solely on the fact that while Mithos was incredibly thick for thinking he could resurrect his sister, at least he was smarter at going about it than Richter.

And Richter had created a dual-motive collective of minions, too, but it wasn't nearly as lasting or influential as the entire cult of Martel. It dissolved too quickly for Richter's master plan to have been well-planned. And the world was not going to end because of one half-elf's insipid idea of l'amour. (Again.)

Zelos wanted to say something, but realized his brain couldn't process how to get through in the strange Centurion's language. He tried to think up a way to translate what he meant. He held the words in the front of his mind: "Are you serious?" When the Centurion didn't respond, he tried to change the order. "Serious-are-you?" "Serious, you?" He was overwhelmed by how frustrating it was to think something without saying it. Eventually he tried his combinations again while settling into his hip, one hand on the sheath of his sword.

That must have been the key. The Centurion shook with rage directed right at him. "You are the ones who are wrong! Lord Ratatosk ordered us to annihilate mankind. Do you think helping him would be to your benefit? He even had the gall to take the form of Aster when appearing before Master Richter. He, the one responsible for Aster's death! No one is going to make Master Richter suffer any more. I won't hesitate to kill Lord Ratatosk himself!"

Without warning, a hydra morphed into the space surrounding the Centurion and enveloped her.

Zelos sprinted up to the rest of the group. "Quick! She's gonna try to kill Ratatosk!" He didn't stop to explain before hopping his way back down and dashing to the front line.

Behind him, Marta and Colette had already begun casting spells. He had to trust that he'd dodge them by chance; he was going in toward an unguarded opening on the beast's left flank. Infusing his sword with light elemental and all the rage he had for Richter's pity party, he thrust upward under a scale. Greenish slime covered the blade, but the beast didn't flinch. In fact, the hydra didn't hesitate when it swooped a head of horns to where Zelos was lunging and knocked him into the air.

"Holy Song!" Colette cried. Her cast crashed around the party, and Zelos was able to flip back and break his fall with a burst from his wings. He stood, readjusted his stance, and prepared to run again.

But his leg wouldn't budge. Was it poisoning? He glanced down. No―it was a spell card around his calf.

"Zelos! You can't just rush in there," Sheena shrieked at him. She was preparing another set of cards.

"And why the hell can't I? I'm no good stuck here!" he called back. The battle continued, and the hydra smashed its heads on the ground, flipping Lloyd over and causing Emil to run back along the edge of the platform.

"You can't just dive in there without thinking, either!"

"Sheena!" Zelos worked to rip the card off his pant leg. "You have to trust me! If we don't kill this thing, Richter's―!" Lloyd had stumbled back into Zelos, who caught him by the strap on his back.

Zelos stopped to spot-check Lloyd for injuries, but Lloyd punched his chest. "Get in there! You've got this round!"

Before he could look to Sheena for approval, Zelos found himself being slingshotted by Lloyd's arm back into battle. The hydra had turned its backside and fin toward him, making it really easy for him to run up the fin and onto the tail itself. He quickly broke off two scales and stabbed them into the beast's back, which made for an easier hold while the thing thrashed around in pain.

Genis's thunderbolt cast fried the air. While the beast was distracted, Zelos took a stab at the tail. Then another slash along the spine. Then, he hoisted himself up higher to try and get to the thickest part of its body was, but the hydra spun and knocked Zelos off again.

Lloyd was already running along the sidelines near the beast's right side.

"Tag!" Zelos shouted toward Lloyd.

But the swordsman was mid-Double Demon Fang, and the resulting green globs of blood flying toward him probably distracted him from hearing the request. Meanwhile, the Chosen jogged to the far corner of the battlefield. It seemed that Presea and Regal were taking on one head each for distraction, and Raine had already set about healing Marta, who received quite a gash from the aftershock of the head-smashing.

"Zelos, here!" Sheena shouted. Zelos turned his head just in time to catch a small gel that she'd thrown his way.

He was startled that it was lemon-strength, but even more startled to find that his gloves were soaked on the sides with blood from the sharp scales. He popped the gel in his mouth and forced it down whole. "Thanks, babe!"

"Thank me later!"

Sheena flew forward and swiped a Purgatory Seal on the hydra's fin as it doubled back around. When its head took a tilt toward her, she gracefully backflipped and landed on her feet. Zelos had to admire how she could do that with the smallest preparation when it took him ages to get back up on his feet when he only had sliced arms.

Lloyd stepped in front of the hydra, which roared as he held both swords out to the side like a crucifix. That was the signal.

"FALL IN!"

Without question, the Regeneration group sprung into action in their familiar pattern. Raine and Genis took opposite sides of the field, casting. Regal went for the beast's webbed feet. Colette flew into the air and distracted the heads with her shining wings, careful to keep her distance. Sheena would duck in every now and again to place a seal, then dart away to watch its effects and set the next one. Lloyd, Presea, and Zelos were all assigned to their various blades, although if Genis was casting a particularly lengthy spell, Zelos would hop out and try to match the timing and double the power of the damage. Marta served as a decoy, running around the edges of the field when Colette was no longer interesting to the Beast.

All the while, Emil had been slowly sneaking behind the hydra and waiting for the right moment to strike. But instead of taking out its back, as intended by Lloyd, the boy crawled underneath the enemy's belly and shot his sword straight up into it. He muscled into his sword and ripped a gaping hole where the Centurion had melted into the hydra's body. The hydra screeched and struggled, and finally slumped to the ground. When its figure dissolved into the air, the Centurion was trembling on her knees.

Zelos wiped his bloodied sword on the tail of his surcoat and sheathed it. His gloves were still damp with blood, but it seemed like the wound itself had healed. Though the lemon gel was potent, having the real Cruxis Crystal on him in battle always sped up the healing process.

Colette landed beside him gently while the Centurion conveyed something like shame. "It's almost time," she said.

"Pity the next battle's gonna be the last one we use these suckers," Zelos replied, gesturing to his Cruxis Crystal. When he looked down, the jewel rose and fell as he breathed, but didn't sparkle.

"Not too loud. I didn't tell the others," Colette whispered.

Centurion Aqua transformed into her core form, a slight, glowing, blue rosebud held in Emil's hand. But instead of lobbing it into the air and making a pact, Emil just stared at it.

"Aren't you going to make a pact with her?" Marta asked. Her words echoed in the vast void of the air.

"I think it would be cruel to hatch her and form a pact with her right now. After all, she loved Richter," Emil reasoned. Marta held his hands in hers briefly, and took the core for safe keeping.

After a silence, Tenebrae said, "I must admit, wasn't aware that Centurions could love. However, just as cores may affect the hearts of people, a strong will may also affect the cores."

Zelos looked to Colette, then Lloyd; he would have spoken, except Emil was already taking the chance.

"I guess Richter's will was a lot more powerful than anyone imagined."

"But, you know, sometimes people's emotions affect you even when you don't realize it," Marta said. "So we all have to try and spread positive energy while we're at the door to Niflheim, right?"

Tenebrae nodded and looked to the group. "Indeed, the door to Niflheim is just up ahead. If everyone's affairs are in order, we should hasten to it."

Colette gave a steady look at Lloyd and responded, "I think me and Lloyd are ready."

"Wait, I've got a cut on my forehead. Raine?" Presea asked. The Professor healed Presea's scrape as well as a few other bruises.

Sheena shook out her bangs, which were wet with sweat from running for much of the fight. Zelos recalled her previous request. "Hey," he called to her, "I'm thanking-you-later."

She scrunched her eyebrows. "I didn't mean it literally! It was the least I could do."

"But it would have sucked if they had to amputate my arms up top," Zelos joked, looking to the space above as though it were the atmosphere of the world. He reached out and displayed his hand for her to take it.

She did, but hesitantly. "What's with you being so sentimental? We're gonna get through this just fine. We're the best team."

Was he acting that sentimental?

"You know, Colette and―"

"Ready to go?" Lloyd asked them. It looked like everyone else was prepared to cross the threshold between this area and the door. Zelos and Sheena followed, trailing behind.

When Richter's back appeared before them through a mustardy haze and blindingly orange fusiform columns, Zelos clutched Sheena's hand.

"I'm going to do it, you know," he uttered quietly. "On the other side of this battle, Colette and I are getting rid of our Crystals."

But Sheena's response wasn't anger or confusion, perhaps because there was little time for such things. She just caught his seeking glance and said, "I understand."

"So don't do anything stupid, 'kay? I need a good reason to get rid of this thing." Zelos sighed and used his free hand to brush his hair behind him.

It was almost too soft to hear: "I love you too, you idiot."

"What?"

Zelos saw the edge of Sheena's troubled face before she wrenched her hand free and turned away. "Y-you're an idiot―so―so don't you do anything stupid, either. Come on, we're wasting time!"

No, but―what did she just say? It was like her to try and say something meaningful, but storm away embarrassed at her own emotions. But this wasn't the time. Zelos caught up to Emil and Lloyd, standing just beside them. He knew Sheena would be nearby, too, trying to cover her reddened face with a combative sneer at the enemy.

Richter turned.

"Richter," Emil addressed.

"You're too late, Em―Ratatosk. You see, I have already summoned more demons."

"Aqua already told us everything."

Richter balanced himself and turned up his nose. "Did she."

"I understand that losing your friend was agonizing for you, even heart-breaking. But turning the entire world into Niflheim just to resurrect one single person, one single life, is not right!" Emil choked. "Do you really think that Aster would be happy to come back to a world ruled completely by demons?"

Richter clenched his fists tight in their leather gloves and a wave of flame engulfed him. "You dare condescend a plan you do not comprehend? You, who wears Aster's face? You, who murdered Aster in cold blood―!" The fire rose around him and flourished ever higher. It seemed that the flame was not burning him, but rather transforming him into a demon-facaded version of the human he was before he began to make pacts with the underworld.

Zelos almost jumped at the sound of Emil's sword clanking out of its sheath.

"Very well. I'll just stop you by force!"

Emil floundered, sword-first, over to Richter, but Lloyd didn't follow and made the rest wait. At least, until the first draw on Richter's part.

The two spirits shouted wordlessly at each other but maintained eye contact through each part of their choreography. Surely the rest of them were missing out on what was said, but if it had anything to do with Richter's one-sided heartbreak, Zelos could understand why it was kept secret. Their personal battle continued for some time before Richter appeared to concede, stepping back from Emil.

"I won't be distracted by your appearance any longer!" Richter growled, finally aloud. He threw down a red casting circle, the sign for impending hellfire. Now that the odds were against Emil, it would be wise to intervene.

"Scatter!" Lloyd instructed.

Zelos, still winded from the last battle, honed in on Richter with sprinting speed. Perhaps a distraction would allow Emil time to get far enough away.

"The pain will only last an instant!" Richter yelled.

It was too late. Zelos lunged at Richter, but the demon was slicing Emil's chest and before long, the kid―certainly no Summon Spirit in his moments of weakness―fell to his knees. Richter raised his sword upward as a power surged through him.

Nearby, Lloyd kicked himself into the air for a Rising Falcon attack, and ended up catching Richter between the maws of his blades, distracting the spell. Marta and Raine fled to Emil and armed him with a few gels, but soon retreated to attempt their own casts. But now Richter was focused on Lloyd. They exchanged a few blows of metal on metal until Zelos could wedge himself in and go for the demon's weak points. Lloyd was freed, and running toward the blurry members of the team for backup.

Richter suddenly paused his attacks to laugh, though Genis's Prism Sword was primed to strike overhead. "You think you can handle me, pathetic Chosen?"

Don't let him get in your head.

"Shut up! I can't stand people like you who think they're some tragic figure who's entitled to a private pity party!" Zelos shouted in Richter's nearly unrecognizable face.

"Be gone!" Richter slashed his sword in the air with a gust of scorching wind. That sent Zelos flying backward yet again, and the both of them rolled to dodge Genis's attack completely.

Beside him, fleeting footsteps rushed in. Presea hacked, axe-user to axe-user, where she knew she'd make Richter stay in one place. Emil was back, making quick passes and wounding where he could.

The bouncing pink ribbons caught Zelos's eye from the left, and Sheena was throwing a couple of seals Richter's way. But the seal burst into flames when it got close to Richter's body, and the flames jumped onto her hands.

"What?!" Sheena cried. She batted her arms against her sides to put out the fire.

"HYPOCRITES!" Richter howled back. He locked eyes with Zelos, then smacked Sheena back with the butt of his sword. When she slumped, he made sure to give her back a good slash to send her all the way to the ground. She was splayed out on her front, her head to one side and purple robe stained dark in a neat slash.

"Sheena!" Zelos called, running to her. He began a healing cast as fast as his words could manage, but it was hard to concentrate. The slice on her back―that was right where Richter had gotten him the first time he let his guard down. But who would have known about the seals? They'd never burned before.

While the magic circle worked through Sheena's body, Zelos looked up at the other fighters. They seemed to be fighting with renewed vigor after Sheena went down, and even Colette was hurling her discs into the utmost fray. But there was one oddity.

Richter was able to counter the attacks that aimed at his front, but currently nobody was behind him. In fact, he'd stayed backing the edge of the platform the entire time. And then Zelos knew. No wonder Richter was so intent on actually stabbing people in the back. His weakness was behind him; what a very romantic notion, especially in the realm of demonic evil.

Sheena lifted herself to her knees and checked her split and smoldering clothing. "I can't believe he's so powerful!"

While it would have been nice to stay and get a thank-you for his troubles, Zelos had to get to Colette.

"COLETTE! Fly behind him and push him into the middle!" he shouted. Whether or not Richter heard was unimportant. The game was on, and he knew the secret to defeating the demon for good.

Colette's pinkish purple wings soared her high over the platform, then back around to Richter, where she had the sense to push him with not her knuckles, but the sharp sides of her battle discs. Richter stumbled forward.

"EMIL, HIS BACK!" Zelos directed again. He stayed just far enough out of range that he didn't feel guilty for not being in on the maneuver himself. But it was not his job to kill Richter.

"AIN! SOPH! AUR!" And, Emil barrel-jumped and stuck his sword down into Richter's ribcage with enough magical infusion to break bone. Richter was down.

The group waited tensely for a moment to see if any more spells were conjured in clouds above them, but they didn't appear. So Emil―Ratatosk, now―activated the cores in the door beyond.

Suddenly, a sickening punch tore at the translucent door. It was a fist of black, a terrifying accumulation tick-tocking at the door and threatening to break it down.

Tenebrae edged up to Lloyd and squinted in the direction of the awful sound. "The demons are trying to open the door with all their power!"

Richter, kneeling over his sword in defeat, lifted his left hand to reach into the back pocket of his belt. His fingers caught on the closure but, fumbling, he raised a radiating block of stone; his swollen eyes were steadfast. "Here, use this."

"What the―That's the Sacred Stone!" Lloyd exclaimed.

"That's right. The stone that turns the mana in your body into flames," Richter replied. It made sense now, why his blazing strikes seemed not to burn him in any way. "Mana is a toxic poison to demons. It will help keep the door closed for a while."

"But… why do you have it?"

Richter sniffed a breath from his nose. "I sent someone out to the hidden village of the elves to get it for me. If you use it along with the Cruxis Crystal held by the Chosen, it's possible to seal this door without Ratatosk's being present."

Zelos's eyes darted to Lloyd. Aside from everyone in the Regeneration group, Kratos included, there was only one being still on the earth that would have known about Heimdall's location. Given that nobody in the realm currently would have stood for Richter's mad quest, it had to have been Yuan.

Yuan knew all along what Richter was trying to accomplish―!

Zelos should really have seen this coming. The way Yuan threw Lloyd off to nab the cores away from the Vanguard before Emil got there. Well, Ratatosk, really. Was there a reason for Yuan to antagonize Ratatosk? Was there some bitterness in his heart from when Martel chose to become a Summon Spirit instead of dying her mortal death underneath the old tree? It didn't make sense for Zelos not to cooperate by giving his Cruxis Crystal to Richter to seal the door. Though, that would mean that there was no strict need for using it...

Unless.

Unless Yuan was telling Zelos to wait in case Richter really wasn't just trying to seal the door on his own. That in turn would mean that Richter might have been deceiving the demons into believing they'd be free, especially if he'd had the materials to close the door himself; and spare Ratatosk, or Emil, or Aster's body, the devastation of doing so.

He saw now. This was the "sacrifice." Richter wasn't going to sacrifice the world for Aster's life; he was going to sacrifice his life for Aster's world. If Lloyd would just let Richter go through with his tragedy, there would be no reason to be alarmed by Ratatosk's lack of presence.

"… The Chosen's Cruxis Crystal has the ability to stop its host's internal clock and grant them eternal life," Lloyd added after a pause.

Of course Lloyd would know.

"You were willing to burn your own body's mana for all eternity and become a human sacrifice in order to guard this door?" Zelos challenged.

"Yes, because that way, Aster could come back to life, Ratatosk could die, and the door would be protected. The world would be saved," Richter explained. His voice was thready as he squinted through a hard blink. "But in the end, I wasn't… able to defeat Ratatosk."

Zelos was overwhelmed with empathy for the devil. Had Zelos been in that position, he, too, may have deceived everyone until the bitter end. But that was no longer his place. He wasn't a traitor or a sacrifice. He sure as hell wouldn't have created the Vanguard as a front for his operation, although he might have used it, like the Renegades. Maybe Richter had it harder than all of them for choosing to keep all those secrets within his admirable shell of self-loathing.

The demons of Niflheim continued to batter the door in a cloud of black smoke, only it was a quieter thud.

Emil began to laugh the laugh that wasn't his. Marta approached him like a curious child. He grabbed her by the throat with one strong fist. Colette began to shake.

"Now nothing can stand in my way. Once I bind Aqua to my will, I will regain all of my power! HAND OVER AQUA'S CORE!" Emil bellowed. No; that was Ratatosk.

"I can't breathe! Emil!" Marta squawked, grasping at his arm.

"I said, hand it over!"

Marta began to go limp in Emil's grasp, but Richter slammed his feet into the ground and rammed into Emil with the remainder of his strength. Lloyd caught Marta as she fell.

"E-Emil! Why are you doing this?!" the girl choked.

Emil angrily slashed his sword at Lloyd, but Lloyd was quick to block him and push him back. Emil suddenly dropped the sword to the ground and appeared to be struggling with his own arm.

"It seems… Verius's protection… can't stop Ratatosk," Emil whimpered. Then, he turned on himself. "WHY WON'T YOU STOP INTERFERING?!" He shifted back, struggling again. "Help me, Marta! Please! You've got to turn me into a core and use me to seal the door."

Why wasn't Richter doing anything? Even so injured, couldn't he try to use the Sacred Stone to slow down the madness inside Emil?

"I… I will fight you, Lord Ratatosk!" Marta decided. "I'll fight you for Emil, and I will defeat you!"

Marta activated her spinner and begrudgingly went into battle with Lloyd as her support. Genis turned to Regal expectantly.

"Aren't we gonna go help?"

"It's not our place to intervene," Regal said.

"'Sides," Zelos added, "Lloyd's got it covered. I feel like the protection of Martel goes a long way."

Indeed, it didn't take long for Ratatosk to fall to his hands and emerge looking up through Emil's green eyes.

It was then that Marta knelt and offered Aqua's core. "I understand now. You really are Emil," she said gently.

Sheena repositioned herself and looked at Presea; perhaps another unnatural presence was making itself known.

"Emil… is that true?" Lloyd asked hesitantly. Colette had wandered over next to Lloyd and the two looked quite comfortable in the limelight.

"I'm so ashamed… I asked Verius to drown out Ratatosk. It's the same thing as killing him! I have no right to live a life of peace after what I've done," Emil muttered.

Marta reached out as though to embrace him, but quickly slapped her hand across his face hard and pounded on his chest. "You idiot!" she shouted. "You're such a stupid idiot! What are you thinking?! Is this what you meant when you'd figure something out? I thought that you… you'd accepted Ratatosk as a part of yourself."

"There's nothing to accept. Don't you understand? Once Ratatosk is sealed away, his being will be gone as well…"

"Then you have to find a way to merge yourselves!"

"But… once I combine our personalities, I could forget everything and set out to destroy mankind!"

Marta lifted her head. "I trust you, Emil. I trust both you and Ratatosk."

"She's right," Lloyd offered.

Zelos saw it now. Emil was trying to avoid total sacrifice by becoming a martyr instead. "Kid, what you were trying to do, have your own friends kill you, would only cause the people you care about the most to be in pain," Zelos said. He gave a swift look at Colette; Guilt of Martel.

Emil rose to his feet and swept his eyes across the whole group. "Thank you." He then closed his eyes to have a private reconciliation with Ratatosk.

Marta heaved out a sigh. The wait was a bit lengthy, but nobody, not even Richter, would wake Emil from his internal battle. When it was finally concluded, Emil opened his reddened eyes and accepted Aqua's core as the rest of the cores began to shine yet brighter.

"Don't worry, I won't annihilate mankind. However, I can't fully guard the door by myself," Ratatosk-Emil said to Marta. The ancient seal on the door appears to no longer be working since another being forced it open."

Richter stepped forward. "That would be my fault," he owned. "It looks like I'll go ahead with my original plan to use my own mana to seal the door."

"I'd be willing to assist you," Ratatosk-Emil negotiated.

"… What?"

"Yes. I will rewrite the natural law of the world as you guard the door. It will lessen your suffering as well."

Marta shared a confused look with Colette. "What exactly do you mean by, 'rewrite?'" Marta asked.

"Mana didn't originally exist in this world," Ratatosk-Emil began. Zelos felt a burning sensation on his chest, near the key crest. "The arrival of the planet Derris Kharlan and me, and the transfer of the Giant Kharlan Tree into this world resulted in mana creating life. So I will take mana from everything that comprises this world and use it as a seal… for the Ginnungagap."

Genis panicked. "But―but you can't! If you do that, the land will die! Mana is the source of everything, all life!"

"No, it won't. Not if I rewrite the law of this world. All life that flourishes on this land will no longer require mana to live. Humans, elves, every object."

"Summon Spirits, too?" Sheena asked hopefully.

Ratatosk-Emil frowned. "No. Summon Spirits are kept alive by the presence of mana. After all, we Summon Spirits are not native to this world."

They'd originated on Derris Kharlan, Zelos knew. That was one of his first lessons with Cruxis. Summon Spirits could only rule this earth because they were not tied to it, which is why Mithos Yggdrasill would ultimately need their aid.

"What happens to the Summon Spirits… when mana goes away?"

"The mana won't go away. I will simply guide it out of beings into the seal."

Sheena was still unsettled. Zelos stepped forward to be at her side before asking, "What changes, exactly, will come about to our world?"

"Once it's cut off from the protection of mana, the world will eventually decline and die. However, it will live out its natural lifespan and return to what it was meant to be. It may be billions of unfathomable years from now, but even I do not know for sure," Ratatosk-Emil explained. "Now, all of you need to go. I'm going to seal this space once and for all, so no one else ever approaches this door again."

Zelos motioned to Colette, who followed without question while Sheena looked on. They approached Richter.

"Chosen Ones… I apologize for my impudence. You could not have possibly known," the man said, his words breaking him.

"Just so you know, it didn't have to end this way. But don't beat yourself up about it," Zelos said. He winked as he stared Richter down, then took his hand and shook it briefly. "You've got courage, friend. Good luck with the door."

Colette took Richter's other hand, crossing their arms in a bizarre three-way handshake. "Mister Richter? I think that… to have that kind of love, deep down, you must have a big heart. I believe you're making the right choice to help the world."

Richter closed his eyes and thanked them solemnly. But when each of their hands left his, he felt the weight of something causing him to close his fists. Tucked safely in his gloved hands were both of the Chosens' Cruxis Crystals.

Zelos looked back just once to bask in the confusion of Richter's countenance. Then he approached Sheena to take her hand and walked toward Ratatosk-Emil. Richter knew, and it seemed that nobody else quite understood his and Colette's hiccup of a moment with him.

Patting Emil's back like a proud parent, Zelos said, "Goodbye, Emil. You got guts. And thanks for saving my sister." Emil stared right at Zelos's key crest, where during the final battle, Zelos had replaced his Cruxis Crystal with the fake one Seles had been keeping. The Summon Spirit boy didn't seem to notice the difference.

Sheena took Zelos's lead and presented her own farewell as they passed by, hand-in-hand. "I won't ever forget your kindness, Emil. You'd better take care of yourself, all right?" When Emil nodded, she gave a small, final wave and walked back with Zelos far, far away from the gate.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Richter gave a crushed laugh. "I can't believe… that now, even though I have the strength of two Cruxis Crystals, neither one seems to be working."

The Summon Spirit across from him smiled sadly. "Yes. I know. I asked for their power to be revoked long ago, when I first called upon Verius. It would have been cruel to know that any of my companions would have to live forever. Luckily for you, it also reduces your suffering to one thousand years. And, I suppose, that would make up for only about one-quarter of all the suffering brought on by those Cruxis Crystals themselves. But mana to mana, the cycle must go. Allow me to leave you to your work."

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

"It's so romantic!"

Marta continued to squeal a high-pitch frequency commonly known only among large whales.

"It's not that romantic, when you think about it. I mean, I'm kind of creeped out a little. After all, he said Aster's name and I'm trying to live my life as a different person entirely…"

Emil was standing among the throng of travelers, just inside the gate to Altamira. Once the group had tromped into town and finally burst into tears, acceptance, or regret at Emil's decision to remain at the Ginnungagap, they turned around to realize what they thought had been a stress-ghost was actually Emil, in the flesh, separated from Ratatosk after all. They begged and pressed him for details as to how he escaped, and Marta switched between utter rage, joy, and confusion at all of the information. When the girl had finally run out of hot air, the group decided to rest on their laurels in the returning heat of the September sun.

Regal, at Zelos's begging and whining (and bribery), decided to put a no-holds-barred helluva celebration on the next day, inviting his entire company and everyone's extended family members. That included Brute, who was allowed to spend time with his daughter before being carted off to Meltokio Prison. Regal even proposed to the King that the day they'd sealed Niflheim become a holiday in the years to come, but the committee was still working on what to do without a Chosen.

But the "Chosen" of Tethe'alla was busy planning other things, as usual.

The sun was setting on the grand feast, now lighted by dozens of parked parade vehicles lining the blocks behind the Resort. Once the stars began to pop up in the night sky, Zelos found Sheena carousing with Colette.

"Hey, my voluptuous hunny," he purred, putting his hands on Sheena's shoulders as he caught her from behind.

"Oh! Zelos! You're just in time," Colette said cheerfully. "We were just talking about… that one thing!" She gave Zelos an effortful wink.

"I don't like it when you guys wink at people," Sheena laughed nervously.

"Well, I must apologize, my dear Colette. I must steal your friend away from you, for we have much to see!" Zelos chuckled.

Colette waved her hand. "Go right ahead, Zelos!"

"What in the world―" Before Sheena could protest, Colette had strolled off into the crowd, and Zelos was turning her in place.

"Just trust me. Come on!" He grabbed her hand and dashed to the shoreline, where the dimness of the new moon made the landscape chilled and invisible. When Sheena looked behind her, all the parade lights had gone out, although there was still a dull hum of chatter from the celebrating crowd.

"If you're trying to sneak away to fool around, I already told you, this isn't a good idea!" Sheena protested. "I don't want sand everywhere…"

Zelos sighed. "Just give it a minute." He moved her by her shoulders to face in the vague direction of the amusement park.

Another moment passed silently before Sheena complained under her breath, "It's pretty cold out here at night…"

SHHHhhhhhhhhhhhzzzzzzzzzzzzBOOM!

Both their eyes followed the sudden spray of lights in the sky. This one bloomed bright green. Zelos pointed to it excitedly.

"There! There! See it?"

"F-fireworks?"

Just as the green one crackled and fell to the sea, another pair of lights burst into the night sky, smoke trailing behind them. White with star patterns.

"This couldn't be… This isn't―" Sheena began.

"Ah, but it is!" Zelos said, shifting behind her and sneaking his arms around her waist. She was so distracted that she couldn't bring herself to fight him. "Remember that light show you wanted to see? Back on the journey? It's not the whole parade, but we've got the old floats out, and at least there are some fireworks left…"

Sheena turned her head to look into his eyes, where the fireworks were clearly outlined. "Zelos… You didn't do all this, did you?"

He smirked. "Well, not by myself. Regal had to round up a couple employees and okay the operation, but… this part's for you." When she continued to stare at him with those big, dark eyes, he said, "Look! Watch 'em, why don't you?"

She looked back toward the display. Both watched in awe as the lights exploded with a rainbow of colors, in sprays of all shapes and grandeur. Zelos secretly hoped that everyone who had retired from the party was crowding around the windows to see the lights, as he'd paid a pretty penny to coordinate all of this while the world had much business elsewhere.

Actually, it wasn't a penny that paid for the lights. It was the ring that Mr. Penguin had given him in Flanoir, the one with the high carat count and the diamond. Regal wagered that it was worth almost the cost of the light show, despite the fact that it was edging into autumn now and the amusement park hadn't been open for a few weeks. Sentimental at heart, the duke couldn't say no to a selfless display of affection.

When the last one faded and fell, Sheena turned to Zelos again. "I can't believe you remembered," she whispered, astonished.

"Aw. I was hoping you'd give me a little more credit than that," he whined. When she reached up to kiss him, he held back. "Wait, that's not the whole present."

"This is supposed to be a present? What did I do?"

"Well, you did break your promise of not running away from things, but you came back. So, in honor of that…" He reached into his right pocket and found what had been burning a hole there for weeks, now. Grabbing her left hand, which rested upon her stomach atop his left hand, he placed the thing on her third finger. "It's that thing you always wanted!"

Sheena wrestled her arm free and held it up to the star-scattered sky. She had to laugh: it was that stupid, cheap ring from the same journey as the one they'd been on when she'd mentioned the light show. Same green, plastic jewel and all.

"Oh, my god, you're an idiot," she chuckled.

He whispered in her ear. "Wanna go on another trip with me, a different one?"

Her heart jumped and she backed away from him, face more stone-serious than he'd seen it in a long time.

"I don't know. What… what would Mizuho say?"

Zelos breathed deeply. "I was worried about that." He searched her for a clue, but she was a fortress as always. "Look, I can't promise that it'll ever be what you expected, or wanted, but we could… agh, this sounds dumber than it did in my head…"

"I'm not saying no," Sheena interrupted, eyebrows uplifted. "I'm just… unprepared to… I wonder what the world would think."

He stepped backward a bit. "Is that really what you're thinking? Sheena, we made it this far being who we are. Can't you see? Nothing's dangerous anymore if I'm not the Chosen."

"Zelos…" She smiled, the glitter of tears once more in her eyes. "I'm… putting that on hold again. That's what I was doing when I was in Mizuho. I decided I wanted… something other than being the Chief right now. But Orochi says I'm still, y'know, welcome."

"You… what?" Zelos stumbled.

"I still have a lot of work to do as the Emissary of Peace, and they're gonna let me know the new location of Mizuho," she said sheepishly. "But… if I'm gonna have to build a new life anyway..." She held up her hand to the stars once more. "You are absolutely the stupidest, strangest, most wonderful choice I could ever make."

To stop her from doing anything silly, like crying, he held out his arms dramatically and wrenched his expression. "Will you be my number one hunny 'til the day I die?!" he exclaimed.

Sheena entered his embrace and held him tightly. "Only if there's no number two!" she sniffled, laughing. He dug his face into her hair in their curl around each other.

"But I do have to ask Grandpa," she added.

"Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way!"

"Then, okay. Yes!" she yelped, pressing her lips to his face, all over. She tossed her head back and laughed up at the night sky in an absurdly uncharacteristic way. "I'm gonna have a lot of explaining to do…"

Zelos snapped back. "I know! Can I tell Lloyd?"

Sheena blushed brightly. "What? No! Is that some sort of a sick joke?" She backhanded his arm, but lightly, since there was now a ring that might leave bruises.

"No, I'm serious! Can I tell Regal, then?"

" Why?"

"'Cause I need to tell someone!" Zelos shouted.

"Can we please not spread this around until it's a sure thing? My culture, they'd kill me if they found out we were, y'know, together without being officially together, and that whole swallowing-a-thousand-needles thing..."

"Fine, fine… How about Colette?"

Sheena sighed. "All right, Colette. But not Marta. She'll tattle before we can even make plans."

Zelos took her by the waist as they walked up the stairs and back to the grand hotel. "… Seriously, can I tell Regal? He told me if you said yes he'll give me a discount on those fireworks."

"Zelos!"

"What? You think I'd waste my riches when we'll be planning a bigger party than this?" he said, grinning madly.

"At this rate, it'd better be. You call that a light show?" Sheena joked. She stopped him before they took the first step up the stone stairs, where the parade float lights had finally illuminated a path. "Wait. Give me one last one."

His heart soared as he kissed her sweetly. But they'd get back to celebrating Emil's return, and he'd have to save their adventure for another day.