Genis was the only one who didn't stiffen at the kunoichi's declaration, having not heard the earlier conversation. Adding to that, the woman's cruel smile that slowly lit up her face in a black mockery of glee disturbed even the mercenary, Kratos.

Raine's protective older sister instinct was going haywire at the moment, her hands gripping her staff until her knuckles turned white. Her urge to stand in front of her brother to metaphorically and physically shield him from harm was burning in her heart, exacerbated by the dark excitement making its way known on the redhead's face. She remembered all too clearly the declaration the woman had made about 'eliminating the threats to the Chosen's safety'. Would this be considered a threat? She didn't know and such a fact burned her in its own way.

She was a professor; it was her job to know things. The unknown rarely held benevolence to those it revealed itself to and it was her job as the older sister and the only family Genis had to protect the child from anything malicious, whether it was a splinter stuck in his finger or an apparently psychopathic killer-for-hire employed to protect the Chosen.

Colette, likewise, was caught in her own dilemma. The knowledge that Lloyd was in danger pricked at her in a way unfamiliar to the blonde. She was struck with a frighteningly ferocious desire to ransack the Desian base and retrieve her friend, something completely unheard of for her, the Chosen. She disliked the title of 'Chosen'; it reminded her all too clearly of the eventual ending of her Journey, whether she was successful or not.

Regardless of this fact of her being a prophetical messiah in the flesh, she was struck with a searing anger at the Desians. How dare they make her quest more stressful by kidnapping her childhood friend? Lloyd and Genis were two of the few in the small town of Iselia who looked at her and saw a human. They saw Colette, the sometimes ditzy, blonde klutz. They saw her, who she had grown up to be. They didn't see 'The Chosen', the messiah in the flesh who was supposed to save the world and for that simple fact they had her loyalty a thousand fold.

This desire to rescue her friend clashed with the knowledge that Tayuya was her guardian for the time being and a heroic rescue of a prisoner of Desians would put Colette in danger. It would be a threat to her safety as the Chosen of Mana. Tayuya was instructed to counter or eliminate all threats to her safety. Would the woman let her rush off to her friend? The blonde wasn't sure, but she prayed with all her heart that, even if they did rush off to save Lloyd, the redhead wouldn't be too harsh on him for becoming a threat to the safety of the Chosen.

Oddly, Kratos was the least affected by the knowledge. He knew, due to mercenary policy, what was about to take place.

After a few moments of fantasizing the tortures she would implement against her sentient foes, Tayuya's malicious excitement diminished and she broke out of her apparent daydream. Her expression gradually returned to impassivity as her tactical mind took consideration of the facts they knew.

'Lloyd was captured by the Desians. Desians do not want the Chosen to succeed in her quest. Colette, Chosen, childhood friend of Lloyd, most likely wants to rescue him. Lloyd was taught to fight by me, not to resist torture and interrogation. As if the dwarf would want me, let alone let me teach him that. If we leave him, he will likely be tortured and interrogated as to the weaknesses of the Chosen and her location, thus putting her in danger. If we save him, we're going to put her in danger. Oh, the decisions…'

The kunoichi knelt in front of Colette, much to the surprise and bewilderment of three of the companions. Kratos hid a smirk as he knew what was coming next.

"Chosen, you are my client. It is your decision whether we retrieve Lloyd or continue the mission. If we attempt retrieval, you will be placed in danger. If we do not, he will likely be interrogated about your whereabouts and weaknesses, thus putting you in danger further along in time. Both scenarios hold danger for you, and therefore it is your decision."

Colette was a little confused as to the wording of the statements, and privately wanted to ask Tayuya to simply call her 'Colette'. However, the safety of her friend took precedence in her mind. She unconsciously stood a little straighter, her blue eyes bright with determination.

"What's the point of saving the world if I can't save the people in front of me? Let's go save Lloyd!"

Tayuya stood without a sound, raking her eyes over the group as she assessed the possibilities.

'Infiltration and retrieval. We'll need to be quiet and avoid surveillance to retrieve him…'

The woman turned to Genis and scowled in irritation as he looked to be stunned at the current events.

"Brat, you know where the base is, correct? Take us there."

The boy broke out of his reverie, glaring at her for calling him a brat. Though high on adrenaline, the child still looked tired. Most likely the emotional trauma from seeing his friend taken away from him was exhausting him.

"We have to hurry! He was taken almost an hour ago, and Noishe had to run all the way here!"

Tayuya snorted in scorn, speaking with condescension.

"Just point the way, brat. He's not in danger for another seven hours, give or take an hour."

Frustrated by her nonchalance when his friend was in danger, possibly going to be executed, he pointed the way and went over to hug his sister, drawing comfort from her presence.

Tayuya looked up at the sky, calculating the time to be around early afternoon. Judging by the speed of the 'dog', their trip was going to take around five hours, leaving them somewhere around two hours once they got to the base to retrieve Lloyd.

Annoyed at the situation, the kunoichi turned to the group.

"You all are going to have to learn something from me on the way there."

Kratos looked upon her with interest, wondering what token of information and skill she was going to relinquish to the mismatched group. The woman was incredibly stingy with information, and to offer to teach something was quite…unusual. She apparently felt the need for the teaching to be required for their rescue mission.

"You're going to have to relearn how to walk."

That…was not what he was expecting.

Raine was the one who voiced her curiosity.

"Learn how to walk? Lloyd's in danger and you want us to walk?!"

The kunoichi glared at her and did something. Kratos felt a foreign pressure in the air for an instant, something that caught him off guard. Raine apparently was the target as the woman stiffened and her eyes widened in horror and fear. Tayuya spoke, her irritation becoming known.

"You're going to relearn how to walk because I can't stand to hear you clunking around in a fucking desert and the way you people walk is going to get us killed when we're infiltrating a metal box, you dumbass."

The elf glared heatedly at her, fear forgotten as her own anger made itself known.

"And what of Lloyd? Do we leave him there in the base for hours while we walk through the desert?"

Colette was wringing her hands in anxiety, wanting her companions to stop fighting so they could focus on saving Lloyd.

Tayuya's teeth were gritting in her frustration, finally releasing the information to make them complacent with the required teaching.

"If the Desians aren't completely incompetent shitheads, then they know that forcing a knocked out civilian into consciousness isn't going to get any good information out of them. They were stupid enough to knock him out to capture him, apparently thinking him a threat, and now they have to wait for him to wake up before torturing or interrogating him if they don't want him fucking high off of whatever they think of using to wake him up. It's annoying as all hell and you can't get any information out of people that way. Now you're going to relearn how to walk so you don't make noise or we're all going to die because your feet are clunking around metal hallways with half-elves having better than human hearing, thus bringing the entire base around us while Lloyd is still unconscious."

Raine relented with a huff after that, pacified by the knowledge that Lloyd would be safe for the time it would take to trek through the desert. She hadn't quite thought the redhead's monologue through, having been infuriated by the woman's apparent lack of compassion, and didn't catch the rather telling details in how she had phrased the information.

Kratos, on the other hand, had been able to able to understand what had just been said and was unnerved at the implications.

The walk was tense and quiet, the silence only being broken as Tayuya instructed them on how to walk like an assassin so as to leave little to no noise. The trick was to roll the foot from heel to toe in a fluid motion, not putting pressure on one spot in particular of the foot. In this way, the weight of the person was dispersed cleanly throughout the foot through the entire motion of the step, drastically lessening audible 'thumps' from the impact of heel or foot on solid matter.

Colette was able to grasp it the fastest, her cloth boots and slim figure giving her much less mass to disperse and more shock absorbent material. Genis was the second to catch it, his analytical mind being able to do the training in smaller steps, perfecting each part of the movement before combining it into one fluid motion. Kratos was able to do it as much as he could when wearing metal boots and Raine had a lot of weight to distribute due to her larger pack than the rest of the party.

Halfway through the expedition, Tayuya declared them as 'adequate' and forced them to apply the movement to jogging and running.

As the sun descended past the horizon, blanketing the world in a cool shroud of twilight, the group came upon the metal walls of the Desian base. They halted for a break, drinking in much needed water after the incredibly sweaty expedition across the desert during the heat of the day. Normally Tayuya would have rested and moved during the night, but there was limited time for the mission and some sacrifices had to be made.

There were two guards patrolling the only entrance to the walled off courtyard of the base. Tayuya analyzed their movements and found them lacking; their walk was stiff and wasted energy, probably only having basic weapon training. They were merely cannon fodder soldiers that were but a statistic when fatalities were counted.

They would not be missed, but they had information.

The kunoichi searched the walls of the base with a piercing gaze, searching out the hidden cameras and security systems. To normal humans and probably even to half-elves, there would be nothing immediately visible. A trained shinobi augmenting their eyesight with chakra would be able to catch flickers of light as moonlight glinted off of camera lenses as they moved and swiveled.

It was worse than she thought; the entire outside of the base was watched, barring absolutely no exceptions. There were no blind spots. Henge (Transformation) was a useless endeavor against machines. This was because the chakra matrix of the illusion changed the way how people perceived the appearance of the user, changing how they looked but only to the eyes of the beholder.

Machines were infallible; all illusions about someone's appearance would be negated by the eye of the camera.

This…was about to get really annoying fairly quickly. The cameras would see them entering no matter what; having a group storm the complex would be far too risky. Tayuya dropped her small pack to the ground, holding up her hand in a universal signal to halt.

"Stay here, they have cameras looking at every inch of the outside. I'll retrieve one of the guards to question him about the layout."

Colette, showing amazing amounts of perception, spoke. Coming from a small village like Iselia, she probably didn't know what a camera was. However, she understood that the 'cameras' were 'looking at every inch of the outside' and thus pieced together that it was something to help watch things.

"But…doesn't that mean they'll see you?"

The kunoichi's mouth curled into a grim smile.

"I'll make it difficult for them. I'll only be a moment."

The redhaired woman drew her sword from the straps holding it along her spine on her back to protect her spinal cord from injury, holding the hilt of it in her teeth as her fingers maneuvered through a small string of seals. Her lips barely moved as a mumble of a name left her lips.

"Ninpo: Kyoumei. (Ninja Art: Resonance)"

The blade of her sword whined softly in a note higher than human vocal chords could attempt to recreate. The technique was forcing the molecules in the blade to vibrate so as to make it slice cleanly through even stone without harming the blade. This was why she needed a flexible metal for the blade; any other and it would have shattered in her grip the moment it started to resonate.

A dark smile spread across her face as she disappeared from sight in a blur of motion. Raine, her body more developed than her brother's, was able to follow her movements to a certain extent. She lacked the martial experience in movement tracking that was gained from a lifetime of fighting, however, and so it was Kratos who was able to see with clarity as the kunoichi sped along the top of the sand, feet making no mark in the shifting surface.

He watched as she sped past one of the guards, nothing but a stray breeze in the night air as she cut him down with the very sword he was teaching her to use, the vibrating metal sliding cleanly through breastplate and flesh as if it were nothing but water. The blood didn't even get to stain the killer's blade with its taint to remind her of the deed she had done.

He saw her slide the sword back into its sheath while not slowing in the slightest, shifting without stopping to move towards the other guard.

The small woman pinned the male guard's arms to his sides with a bear hug from behind. Her speed further increased when she disappeared from sight, reappearing several meters in front of the group with a struggling guard in her arms.

With practiced ease, Tayuya divested the guard of his armor while still holding him captive. Short, messy brown hair was revealed that settled around pointed eartips, blue eyes wide and frightened set into a face that clearly wasn't hardened by the brutality of warfare. His body revealed him to be near his mid twenties, though with half-elves and elves appearances were deceiving when it came to age.

She questioned the man outside of hearing of the group, hands frequently flicking weapons into view to frighten the man into speaking. The man's responses were not tempered with a calm demeanor, however, and his responses were easily heard by the rest of the group.

A flinch from the edges of Tayuya's peripheral view caught her interest when the name 'Lord Yuan' was spoken; Kratos might have connections with the Desian or have had a close friend named Yuan.

After giving her the information she required, the man started crying, pleading for his life, that he had a family back home with a wife and child and he just wanted to keep them safe.

The kunoichi leant down to his pointed ear, speaking softly in complete confidence that she was outside of Raine's elven hearing. Her breath cascaded over the half-elf's sensitive ears, causing him to whimper in fear at her proximity. Her voice oozed a malice that spoke of cruelty and brutality, both dealt and endured.

"I had a family, once. I killed them."

A twist of the kunai in her hand silenced the man, his heart pierced by the sharp knife. The man's mind screamed that he wasn't ready, that he had a family and he didn't want to leave them alone. Lord Yuan had informed them that they would die with pride for their work, to die knowing they had contributed to something great.

The man, nameless to his foe, could only feel bitter about dying in such a way and, to an extent, pitied his killer. When Tayuya had spoken for that instant before his death, he had smelled her breath.

Deep underneath the smell of what she had been eating last and the strong smell of his own fear, he smelled something. It reminded him of rotting fruit, the sickly sweet smell of decay as something breaks down into its component parts.

He pitied her for that scent, even as his heart caught in his throat at the knowledge that he wouldn't see his family anymore. He didn't even register her words.

The kunoichi didn't know why Kratos couldn't look at her in the eyes after that.

It was decided that Tayuya would go into the base and break out Lloyd so as to avoid the entire group being caught on camera. Colette and Raine would be prepared for medical assistance should Lloyd be injured, and Kratos would be ready to carry them both back to Triet if he had to when the alarms went off.

Inside the Desian Base…

There was something about this base that struck Tayuya as unusual. There were very few actual soldiers patrolling a base of its size. It didn't make sense; why make such a large base when the force actually inhabiting it wasn't that large? There were several possibilities; the force initially had been large enough for the base but had dwindled due to relocation or death. Or perhaps the base hadn't originally belonged to the Desians and they had staged a hostile takeover.

The second one didn't quite make sense, however. She had noted that, as opposed to Iselia, the base was technologically advanced. It actually surpassed Orochimaru's bases in technology, though she was quick to disable or tamper with any security camera along the way, knowing it would not do if her course to her destination was spotted on security systems. They knew she was in the base from the outside security systems, but they didn't know where she was going.

Camera technology was the highest that ninja technology in Orochimaru's ranks had progressed, the rest of the base making no sense to her. The Desians were very familiar with this technology, however, and thus it seemed to be 'Desian Technology' since the rest of Sylvarant had access to no such technology.

The foray into the base was blissfully encounter-free, having gotten knowledge of the patrol routes and times from the interrogated guard. She moved with a purpose, feet barely touching the ground as she descended through the complex to the prison.

She descended another staircase, finally coming upon the prison. The air was heavy with the smell of disinfectant, burning at the sinuses. The walls were pristine and white, most likely to unnerve any prisoners into jarring their mental state to a nervous one more prone to giving up information.

The only thing the ambiance was doing was irritating Tayuya. It reminded her of Orochimaru's labs, something that evoked feelings of rage and hatred from her. She drowned herself in these emotions, activating her adrenaline to pump through her body as it shifted into a fight-or-flight response mode. Years of mental and physical training were required to stay in this state without giving it away through body language. While Tayuya looked impassive, if annoyed, on the outside…she was surrounding herself with a cesspool of hatred and rage on the inside.

'Sick fucks use the 'white room' approach to their prisoners? Hmph. Unimaginative, if useful. Lloyd, where are you…? The longer I stay, the more I want to leave you behind, incompetent brat.'

There were two guards in the prison; one behind a desk looking to be playing Solitaire or a version thereof on the computer and one that paced relentlessly back and forth in front of the prison cells. The kunoichi's eyes gleamed with excitement bordering on berserk bloodlust. The objective was in sight.

Tayuya moved her hands in a string of seals, focusing her rage and hatred into a calculatingly cold loathing that shone through her face in an expression of cruel distaste, bringing to bear one of her most amoral of techniques.

"Genjutsu: Yuiga Ron. (Illusion Technique: Solipsism)"

The half-elven guard looked up from his post as a feeling of wrongness permeated the air. He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but everything just seemed…off. He shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the computer to continue his game, but his mind felt detached from the situation. What was it that was so strange? The feeling prickled at his senses continually until he wondered whether the feeling was real or simply his imagination.

It clicked. What was imagination? An altered perception of reality? But then what was reality if not for multiple imaginations portraying similar things? What was real and what was imagination? Was anything he was doing 'real' or was he simply a figment of imagination from another being? Was his whole life a lie? A game to be played with at someone else's leisure, to hold him under a microscope and laugh at his flaws and follies?

He dragged a card from part of the screen to another, adding it to one of the stacks. It still worked. Perhaps it was real? Or…or perhaps it only worked because he thought it worked, thus proving it was his imagination?

Time seemed to fly by far too quickly to be physically possible, only increasing the man's uneasy sense of philosophical thought. Did time only fly by when one thought it should fly by, such as when having fun? Perhaps others felt time fly by when they felt bored instead? Was time even a static concept, or did it change as well?

It seemed as if years flew by, feeling only like moments.

Perhaps he had caught onto the ruse and now he was being punished by some cosmic force? Did cosmic forces even exist if he didn't believe in them? Perhaps…perhaps that was the reality of the situation. Oh, the irony. The only thing that was real was what he perceived as real. His mind…his mind was the only thing that was real in a world of illusion.

His sanity fractured at that moment. Tiny webs of cracks spanned his metaphysical sense of self, a feeling that only furthered his feeling of isolation. After all, how could he even feel his sanity fracturing? Wasn't sanity simply a concept, not physical in origin? Or was his ability to know that his mind was the only thing real allowing physical damage to take place in his mind?

Time stopped.

Tayuya left the insane man to his musings, having left him in an illusionary world of an illusionary world. The technique was drawing upon the half-elf's own mana to perpetuate itself as he furthered his belief in the illusion, and he would die within several hours seemingly of his heart stopping for an unknown reason. Unless, of course, he could realize that he was in an illusion and break it of his own will. Such a thing was discouraged by the illusion, however, the chakra stimulating parts of the mind that dealt with fear and irrationality, coaxing him into a panic-striken sense of insanity where everything made sense because nothing made sense.

The technique itself was not one she preferred to use. Not out of a misplaced sense of compassion or pity for the people brought down by it, but simply because it was an illusion designed for assassination. Should she become recognized by that illusion, it would become worthless as anyone with an assassin out to get them would have heard about it and would figure out how to escape it.

A kunoichi was better at being an assassin than a shinobi, even if only by a small margin. Much like how shinobi were only marginally better at being demolition specialists. It was all in the chakra and how the individual molded it.

However, both demolition specialists and assassins knew that one should never become known for their techniques. Such notoriety would get them targeted or worse; they could be put into the Bingo book for anyone to look them up, one of the worst things possible as they would essentially be 'on the radar' of anyone who perused the book. Their work was best done from the shadows, pinning the blame or glory on someone else and evading perception.

The pacing guard was obscenely easy to take out; a simple throwing of a shuriken buried one of the star's pointed tips between his helmet and chestplate in the neck, cutting his spinal cord. She made sure to retrieve the weapon so as to not leave any evidence.

The locking mechanism for the jail cell where the unconscious Lloyd lay was simple. Sure, it would probably be recorded into some sort of databank that she only opened one cell, thus showing that she had attachment to the particular prisoner. However, she was not on a mission to save anyone else and she did not have the time nor the chakra to act as a ferry for any other possible prisoners.

She picked up Lloyd in a bridal style, the particular style being the best to distribute his weight across her body so as to avoid lurching when moving at high speeds due to disproportionate weight distribution. They had disarmed him of his armor and weapons, though the gem was still set in a small metal ornament on the back of his left hand. He wore simple beige prisoners garments in a shirt and pants, his breathing steady if shallow and body immobile.

Small feathery patterns traced across his skin, a reminder of the lightning that burned him. It had conducted itself through the sweat on his skin from the desert heat and fried the water, creating small featherlike patterns of burns across his skin.

She quickly left the facility, pumping as much chakra as she dared into her legs. Any more and there would be possible ramifications like damage to the muscle, much like plugging a ten watt lightbulb into a socket that generated twenty watts.


The return to the group was silent, as was the return trip to Triet. Raine had tended to the lightning burns that spanned across the majority of Lloyd's visible skin, healing the minor damage and deadening the pain so that his awakening would be as comfortable as possible. He was still her student, after all, and she cared for him as much as she would care for her own family.

As they had only rented two rooms, they were forced to do a bit of switching around. Raine, Genis, and Lloyd took one room while Colette, Kratos, and Tayuya took the other. There were no words exchanged about the specifics, but the unsaid message was clear; Raine trusted Colette's safety to the mercenaries hired to protect her, but the professor trusted them about as far as she could throw them when it came to the rest of the group.

It was during that night that Kratos realized the significance of Tayuya's moving her bed fifteen feet away from his own. Due to the small size of the rooms, the redhead was unable to get fifteen feet away from the occupants unless Kratos and Colette were to share a bed, which was out of the question. Neither mercenary got any sleep that night; Tayuya would twitch violently for her weapons whenever she got close to nodding off and her senses picked up something in her personal space. Kratos was too busy 'keeping watch for Desians', though it was clear to both that he was keeping an eye on Tayuya due to her odd behavior.

The next day…

It was clear from the day's beginning that the Journey had just taken a slight turn in its course. It had been light-hearted and somewhat laid back, willing to take time to complete the objectives and enjoy the ambiance, cherishing the moments. Now that the Desians were actively hunting the Chosen and had kidnapped Lloyd at one point, their tasks gained urgency.

Lloyd was outfitted with light armor and pale colored clothing at the marketplace in Triet, his wooden blades being replaced with real swords. He had made a good recovery from his 'imprisonment', which was hardly a surprise given that he had not woken up in the prison. He had complained for some time about the lack of red, it being his favorite color, but he was quickly silenced when Tayuya had stated that the Desians only really knew him by his red clothing.

Thus, lose the red, become anonymous to the enemy. Good plan.

After the minor shopping trip, they set off towards the ruins they had been at the previous day, determined to find the Seal of Fire.

Author's Note: In which the story takes a sharp turn away from canon. Colette kept the Sorcerer's Ring in the last chapter, thus even if Lloyd woke up he wouldn't have been able to escape. The smell thing is meant to be both blatantly obvious and somewhat cryptic. It'll be addressed in the next chapter.

Sidenote: Solipsism is the philosophical belief in which reality is nothing but an illusion projected by one's mind, the mind being the only thing 'real'. I called the technique 'amoral' because it superimposed the philosophy onto someone else, driving them insane because they had not naturally progressed into the state of mind.

For a less wishy-washy analogy...say the guard's mind is a cold glass, one that is more set towards logic than abstract thought. She poured boiling water into it, cracking the glass due to the temperature difference creating a reaction. A person who gradually shifts from logic to solipsism would go from a cold glass and gradually warm to luke-warm or even hot.

I didn't understand why Lloyd didn't change his clothing in the game, honestly. The game has some costume changes in it already, would it be so much for the title character to change clothing so as to avoid being targeted by an evil organization out for his blood?