Disclaimer: We're Sno Phoenix, a group of authors dedicated to writing to the best of our abilities and presenting our work to the general public. Symphonia isn't ours, we don't say it is, and all that jazz. However! The ideas presented in this story ARE ours. They belong to Sno Phoenix and all its members, to be used within the Sno Phoenix group only. So please read and enjoy, not plagiarize, all right? If you really, really must write something along the lines of what we've already written, to the point that you feel you may explode if you don't, ask us about it.
Announcements: Oh wow... They voted for my entry. So, if I'm the first, I guess that means I need to say hello. ... Hello! Twilight Scribe here, speaking on behalf of the group.
If you've already read about the Sno Phoenix Collaboration in our forum and have been eagerly awaiting the start, it's finally here. If you're totally new to our little project, then welcome. Like I said up there, this fic is being collaboratively written by the members of Sno Phoenix with each chapter being written by a different member. (Yes, there will be repeats, but not consecutive ones.) Full details about us can be found in our forum on BabyKatSnophlake's profile page.
It's good, AU fun for us and we hope it'll produce a killer tale.
Now, my personal, not-speaking-for-the-group author's notes: Remember that communicator thing Yuan had at the Iselia Human Ranch? That was a radio. They use mana-powered radios in ToS, and call them radios, effective now. They also have radio antennas. Yep. ... And I hope you like what I've done with your map, Valian. I figured a master of time and space like Origin wouldn't be content with a piece of parchment... Now, enjoy!
Prologue - The Fractured World
by Twilight Scribe
(With beta-reading by I.K.A. Valian and The Sage of Spirits, plus other assistance by Acriym, Baby Kat Snophlake, Dragon's Shadow, Li-chan0767, Mieu, Moonshine's Guide, and Salan Trong. Gotta give credit where credit is due, thanks guys!)
Regal was glad to be inside. His work was grim, but much preferred to being out in the monsoon that raged just beyond the window of his borrowed study. Peering through the water-slicked glass and sheets of driving rain he could barely make out the shape of the newly-constructed refugee camp at the city's edge. A haphazard collection of tents and other temporary shelters, set up just outside Meltokio's walls to house all those forced from their homes by the recent natural disasters. Now a truly miserable sight, completely waterlogged and sodden. Given the fierce storms appearing over the rest of the world, it was no surprise that Meltokio would also have its share of violent weather. However, no one could have predicted such a storm would last a week and still show no signs of abating...
Tearing his eyes from the window, Regal turned his attention back to the documents lying on his desk. Ecological surveys, weather reports, and data sheets charting the fluctuating mana levels across the new world lay strewn over the entire surface. Thrown carelessly on top of the mess was a note from Sheena that arrived just hours ago, tacked onto a stack of new reports from the field.
"Regal," Regal read aloud. "Weather in Mizuho really sucks. Wish the Summon Spirits could help, but they don't seem to be able to stop it for more than an hour at best. Then the disasters come right back. Your Lezareno boys are pretty helpful though. Wish we'd know this was going to happen when the worlds were reunited. We could use some more supplies here. Signed Sheena."
Helpful? For the past two months, ever since the almost continuous natural disasters began to occur and the world plunged into barely-controlled chaos, Lezareno Corp's best environmental engineers had been working around the clock to try and find a pattern to the destruction and some way to counter it. Their findings were informative, but they still failed to discover anything useful.
Though Regal had suspected that unifying the two worlds would have some unforeseen effects on the climate, what was occurring now was just too much. The storms and tornados, forest fires started by lightning strikes; earthquakes razing Iselia and burying Asgard under stories of rubble; tsunami that obliterated Palmacosta once again and flooded Altamira; and now the impenetrable blizzard that had severed all contact with those in Flanoir... All these disasters, all the destruction and loss of life, it didn't seem like the newly-formed planet was resettling itself into a stable state; it seemed like a world caught in its death throes. In the face of all that had happened, Regal couldn't help but believe that although their dream of reviving the Great Tree and reuniting the worlds had no doubt been successful, something was terribly wrong with their new home.
Sitting alongside the environmental reports was a stack of more urgent papers, the requisition forms detailing what supplies each of the three refugee camps were in need of. Tents, beds, food, fuel, medicine... Regal closed his eyes, hoping to steal just a moment of peace. It was all so frustrating! Despite his best attempts to use Lezareno Corp's resources to supply at least the basic essentials to the displaced population, to give them some semblance of comfort, there just wasn't enough to go around and the shortages were getting worse each day.
Scrawling a quick signature on the bottom of each page to approve all the shipments of supplies to the camps in Luin and New Mizuho, Regal tucked the forms into an envelope and looked to the grandfather clock standing against the opposite wall. It was almost time to head to the Martel Cathedral, and the temporary clinic set up within, to relieve Zelos. The Chosen would no doubt be thankful for a break from healing the endless stream of injuries and illnesses that passed through. Retrieving his heavy rain cloak from the rack by the door, Regal steeled himself to face the storm once again and sincerely hoped that his comrades in Luin and New Mizuho were faring better than he.
-- -- -- -- --
Luin was enjoying its first sunny day after almost a month of overcast skies and rain. The light seemed to melt away all the troubles of the past weeks and grant the largest of the three refugee camps a very welcome opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves. From her high vantage point on top of the inn Raine could see for miles across the flat grasslands, but her focus was much closer. She watched as groups of refugees moved about the tent city, taking advantage of the good weather to play with their children and socialize for the first time in days. Some people had brought out an assortment of musical instruments and off in the distance several brightly-colored kites floated through the sky, swooping dramatically with each new gust of wind.
Even if it was only a temporary reprieve, Raine was glad to see the life return to these people. Humans and half-elves alike, many of whom had been her patients in the not-so-distant past; these were people she had only seen suffer before, but seeing them now... Watching them smiling and having fun warmed Raine's heart. This was the reason she was a healer.
"Professor, there you are! What are you doing up here on the roof?" Raine looked back over her shoulder to see Colette floating a few inches above the shingles, her wings fluttering lazily behind her.
"I'm just enjoying the sun while it lasts. Am I needed somewhere?"
"Oh, no." Colette dismissed her wings and walked down the gently sloping roof, taking a seat next to Raine. "I just wanted to ask you about Lloyd. I'm worried about him. It's been a week since he left for Flanoir and we still haven't heard anything from him. Do you think he might be in trouble?"
Raine paused, collecting her thoughts before answering. She had been quite worried about her student as well. The blizzard that cut Flanoir off from the rest of the world was exceptionally fierce; when she first heard that Sheena sent Lloyd off to brave the storm alone, Raine's immediate impulse was to jump on a Rheaird, fly to New Mizuho, and... Inform the new chieftain of her error. Fortunately for Sheena, Raine couldn't abandon her patients, so the summoner escaped her wrath, but only narrowly. And now after a week of waiting... Raine sighed, there wasn't much she could do except keep an optimistic attitude and believe in Lloyd.
"I'm sure he's fine." She said at last. "Lloyd is resourceful and strong enough to take care of himself." Colette nodded, but didn't look convinced. "Don't forget, he also has the Eternal Sword with him. No matter what dangers he may face in Flanoir, I doubt they can stand up to that sort of power. Lloyd will be all right, we just have to trust in him." Colette hesitated, then smiled.
"You're right, Professor. Everything will turn out okay, just like before."
Raine returned her smile and looked back out over the city, watching the kites soar on the breeze and tried to banish all the negative thoughts from her mind. She didn't want to accidentally upset Colette again by seeming so tense. Still...
'Lloyd, be safe...'
-- -- -- -- --
It took several centuries for it to happen, but eventually Yuan had grown accustomed to saving the world from behind a desk instead of on the field of battle with a weapon in hand. He was at it once again, directing his Renegades and volunteer forces in rebuilding the cities demolished by the recent disasters. It was tiring work, even in the Flanoir Base half a world away, made worse by the inclement weather and the many little issues that added up to one giant headache. One of the most pressing crisises was that the recovery team he sent to Altamira to salvage valuable materials was late, very late.
They were late and being behind schedule, even by a half hour, meant the outgoing shipments would be delayed as well and then, without the fresh building materials they required, at least half of the reconstruction projects would grind to a halt. If the projects stopped, then a new timetable would have to be drafted and doing that made Yuan want to tear his hair out. He was right on the verge of doing so when the radio transmitter on his desk let out a burst of static, followed by the voice of the officer in command of the exceedingly late delivery. It gave Yuan a sort of malicious pleasure to hear that the officer sounded distressed.
"Lord Yuan, my men and I-!"
"Had better have a convincing explanation for why you are so inexcusably late!" Yuan could hear the officer gulp.
"We found a person as we were flying over the Otherworldly Gate. We believe it's Lloyd Irving."
Instead of berating the officer again, as he had been planning, Yuan fell silent. Lloyd? What was he doing at the Gate? He was supposed to be in Flanoir...
"I see. Let me speak with him."
"I'm sorry, but that's not possible, Sir..." A sour feeling started to twist in Yuan's stomach. Something was wrong. "He was unconscious when we found him and he's in bad shape. I'm- I'm not sure if he'll live long enough to make it back to base."
All thoughts of vengeance and timetables vanished from Yuan's mind, replaced by one question: What the hell happened? None of this was right. What could possibly be dangerous enough to put Lloyd, the one who'd beaten Mithos, in critical condition? He needed to find out what was going on immediately and only Lloyd could tell him. Yuan knew he wasn't a genius healer like Martel or Raine, but he had a few tricks up his sleeve. If he could just stabilize Lloyd until they reached the base, then they could throw him in a Refresher and all would be well. If it was to work, he would have to hurry.
"Lord Yuan? Are you there, Sir? What are you orders?"
"Give me your current coordinates, then continue on a straight path to base. I'll meet you en route."
-- -- -- -- --
Thanks to an efficient staff of custodial Raybits, the infirmary was practically spotless. Aside from some dull reddish stains that still lingered inside the Refresher, there was nothing but the sheet-covered form of Lloyd Irving lying on the operating table to suggest something had happened in the room recently. Not a single hint that every medic and mage with a First Aid spell the Renegades had, even Yuan himself, had frantically worked to resuscitate and heal the boy after he stopped breathing on the way to the base.
Yuan couldn't believe that even after he poured well over half of his own considerably large mana stores into Lloyd, the boy still insisted on dying. And worse, dying without telling him what happened! Lloyd did murmur some delirious last words, but Yuan doubted they meant anything.
He crossed his arms and heaved a sigh. Remarkable... Whether it was an Exsphere or information it seemed Lloyd would never give him what he wanted. And now, Yuan supposed, the duty of informing next of kin fell to him. Certainly not a task he was looking forward to...
-- -- -- -- --
He jammed down on the Rheaird's throttle, pushing it faster than he'd ever flown before to get out of the storm. While it was calmer than the almost impassible blizzard he had to navigate before, flying in the snow still wasn't fun. If it wasn't for the heavy parka and snow pants the Mayor of Flanoir lent him, Lloyd was sure he would have frozen solid days ago while fixing the city's radio antenna. He winced slightly at the memory. That job was such a hassle...
What happened was the blizzard knocked the city's radio antenna down, disrupting the transmissions. It wouldn't have been that big of a deal normally, but the antenna was so cold that the brittle steel shattered when it fell off the roof of the inn, turning a task that would have taken a few hours to fix into a major ordeal. Lloyd ended up having to build an entirely new antenna from random bits of scrap metal and the remains of the old one, using nothing but the few tools he managed to convince the jeweler to let him borrow, then go mount it back on the inn's roof in the freezing cold. It was a project that Lloyd was sure even Dirk would find daunting. He definitely didn't want to do it again anytime soon.
As he cleared the glacier-capped mountains on the edge of the tundra, Lloyd cut his speed. Racing at full throttle through the maze of tiny rock islands that surrounded Flanoir was always a bad idea, especially in weather with such low visibility. Everyone was probably worried sick after how long he'd been gone, he didn't want to upset them more by crashing his Rheaird. Besides, the snow was slowly letting up the further south he flew. It wasn't getting any warmer though. In fact, the temperature seemed like it was dropping off as the snow thinned out. Even with his warm clothes, Lloyd's fingers were numb and his teeth were starting to chatter.
'Maybe', he thought, 'it would be a good idea to find somewhere to go inside and thaw out for a while.'
-- -- -- -- --
Finding the Renegade base in the snow wasn't easy, mostly because after the worlds were reunited Yuan turned off the huge, shining dimensional transfer field that Lloyd had always used as a beacon, but despite the difficulties he made it. Coasting to a stop in the heated hangar, Lloyd hopped from the vehicle, pulled off his ice-encrusted polar gear, laid it over the seat of his Rheaird, and had a look around.
The hangar was eerily quiet. He knew it was because most of the Renegades were spread out around the world working on reconstruction projects, but the absence of the techs and mechanics that were usually in the hangar still gave Lloyd the creeps. He had never seen the place so abandoned. Parked on the other side of the hangar was another oddity. Seven Rheairds that looked just like- No, they were the ones his friends drove, with the dents and scratches in the paintjobs from when they crashed on Mt. Fooji and everything. What were the others doing up here? A tinge of nervousness crawled its way up Lloyd's spine. Did something happen while he was away?
Lloyd jogged further into the hangar, heading for the heavy steel and magitechnology door that lead into the base. Locked, of course. He punched the "Guest" code that Yuan gave everyone into the security keypad and waited for the door to slide open. The view from the base's highest level was impressive, as always, but looking down at the greenish, empty halls Lloyd couldn't help but worry. How he was going to find everyone?
Since the Renegades weren't enemies anymore he didn't have to hide from guards, fight security robots, work around traps, or steal those stupid keycards to go where he wanted. It was cool to have practically free reign of the place, but then it also meant that the Renegades wouldn't come to catch him and bring him to Yuan like they used to... Which would have actually been convenient for once. The base was definitely designed with the Desian aesthetic of "unreasonably big and convoluted" in mind. Lloyd had always needed a map just to find the bathroom...
As he stepped onto the lift outside the hangar, Lloyd ran through a checklist of places his friends could be. They weren't in the hangar, hopefully weren't in the infirmary, and probably weren't in any of those weird little rooms that had nothing but chests in them either... What were those used for anyway? He would have to ask about that sometime. Maybe they were in Yuan's office, that would make sense. And it was one of the few places in the base he knew how to find.
When the lift touched down, Lloyd hopped off and headed for the second one that would take him to ground level. If he remembered correctly, he needed to work his way through all those halls filled with laser beam traps- Traps which Lloyd was very glad to know would now automatically shut off when he approached and let him pass- Then he needed to go past the control room in the central chamber and down the western hall. He hurried down the familiar path, wracking his brain for any reason why everyone would be in the base. Something had to have happened, but what the hell was it?
The door to Yuan's office, first one on the right, stood before him. At least Lloyd hoped that's whose door it was. If not, he didn't know where he'd go. Like every other door in the base, it slid open as he walked up to it, revealing a room furnished almost identically to its counterpart in Triet. The same right down to the bookshelves and potted plants. Yuan's office, he made it! Even better, everyone was inside with Yuan, just like he guessed they would be. From what he could see, everyone was a little disheveled, but it looked like they were all okay. All of them here, nobody hurt... What a relief.
"Hey guys, what're you all doing here? I hope you weren't too worried about me." Everyone in the room froze, their hushed conversation coming to an abrupt end. The expressions of shock and horror on his friends' faces startled Lloyd as much as his presence seemed to have spooked them. "Ah... Why are you guys staring at me like that?" No response. "Seriously guys, what's wrong-? Whoa!" Lloyd leapt to the right, narrowly dodging the blast of brilliant blue mana that hit the office door, right where Lloyd's heart would have been. "What are you doing, Yuan?!"
"Just who the hell are you?" Yuan snarled from behind his desk, another sphere of mana swirling in his palm, ready to be fired.
"It's me, Lloyd!" Lloyd slowly sidled closer to Regal and Zelos. He would need their help if Yuan decided he was mad enough to start an all-out attack, not that Lloyd had any idea what the seraph was mad about. There was no way Yuan really didn't recognize him. Maybe it was something else- The slithering sound of a blade being drawn, followed by a swift arm lock that forced Lloyd down onto one knee and a cool touch of steel on his neck immediately wrenched his attention from Yuan to the two warriors he was counting on to back him up.
"You're Lloyd? You don't really expect us to believe that, do you?" Lloyd turned his head to see it truly was Zelos holding a sword to his throat. The memory of the ex-Chosen, wings out and sword drawn, mocking him and the others in the Tower of Salvation flashed through Lloyd's mind. Zelos... Could he be betraying him again? No, that couldn't be it! Regal would never help him do that.
"You can't be Lloyd." Presea? No, not her too. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her next to Genis, axe held ready at her side.
"How dare you use that name, imposter!" Twisting around as best he could, Lloyd looked back over his shoulder to find Regal wearing the deepest scowl he'd ever seen. Lloyd couldn't remember his friend ever wearing a more severe expression, not even when they fought Vharley. However, Lloyd didn't think Regal actually planned on breaking his arm. He was just holding it- And the rest of the body attached to it- at bay, but it sure felt like if he wanted to break it, he could. What in the world was going on? What had gotten into them?
"Imposter? Regal, you aren't making any sense! It's me! I'm me! Who else would I be?" Lloyd turned his head, staring across the room to where the rest of his friends stood watching. Why hadn't they stepped in to stop this yet? "Somebody tell them to let me go!" None of them moved. He waited for one of them to do something, to speak up for him like they always did before on their journey, but they all stayed quiet. The nervousness he felt in the hangar was back, stronger, curling into a knot and nestling down in his chest. Why weren't they saying anything?
"Professor? Genis?" Neither half-elf moved or even looked at him. "Come on guys, this- This isn't funny." Before Lloyd only sounded confused and surprised, but now his words carried an edge of desperation too. "Colette?" She looked like she was crying, but didn't respond either. "Sheena, please, help me out here!"
Sheena met his gaze, her eyes glistening, on the verge of tears as well, and started to take a step towards him; but when she stopped herself and silently shook her head no, Lloyd felt what vague hope he had trickle away. He didn't know why his friends were acting this way, or what they planned to do, but it looked like they weren't going to help him.
There was a sword at his throat! Lloyd was very aware that in his position, just a twitch of Zelos' wrist would be enough to kill him. If it was someone else holding the sword, Kvar or Pronyma or Forcystus, would they still be acting this way? Would they still not care? Maybe that would have convinced them to try and save him, but... After everything they'd been through together, all the times he defended them, spoke up for each of them and fought when words weren't enough... Why weren't they willing to do the same for him?
He didn't want to believe it. Refused to believe it. Lloyd knew his friends would never betray him, never! There had to be some explanation, but even so he could still feel the bitterness and despair he usually associated with the Tower of Salvation creeping into his heart, only this time there was no one to bear the burden with him. Hanging his head as much as he could around Zelos' blade, Lloyd didn't bother to try hiding the pain in his voice.
"Why are you doing this? D-Did I do something wrong? If I did, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. Please, just talk to me!" Lloyd lifted his head and stared directly at Raine. Even if appealing to her didn't work before, he still had to try. The Professor was always the cool, logical voice of reason in their group. If anyone would realize what they were doing and snap out of it, it would be her.
This time Raine looked up, practically radiating regret. The fact that she even acknowledged him brought back a tiny glow of Lloyd's hope. From what he could read in her face and posture, she was nearing the end of a fierce internal debate.
"Regal, Zelos... Let him go." Those five simple words made Lloyd's heart leap. He knew it, his friends wouldn't really betray him! Once his arm was released and the sword removed, Lloyd stood and rubbed his sore shoulder. "I think we may have made a mistake. This Lloyd might be the real one."
The real one? This Lloyd? What was she talking about? Glancing around the room at his friends' faces Lloyd saw that while they all looked relieved at Raine's proclamation, they still had their suspicions. Especially Yuan. Poor Colette seemed just as confused as he was.
"There's one way to be certain that this is the real Lloyd.' Raine crossed her arms in front of her and faced Lloyd. "Show us your wings. No imposter could do that."
"Okay..." Cool as they were, his wings- Mithos' wings, weren't something Lloyd used often. He knew how to use them, Colette taught him to fly and everything, but they were a huge drain on his mana and tired him out too fast to fly very far. They attracted a lot of attention too, so he mostly kept them in reserve. This, he realized, would be the first time he used them in months.
Focusing on his Exsphere and the essence of Mithos' Cruxis Crystal still lingering inside it, Lloyd could feel the weird oozing sensation of mana welling up between his shoulder blades as his wings unfurled with a soft chime; flapping slowly behind him as he hovered a few inches off the ground. Once he set back down there was a moment of absolute silence before the whirlwind of apologies hit. Almost faster than he could register Colette, Genis, Sheena, and, to his surprise, Presea raced across the room and- The girls at least- Wrapped Lloyd in a rib-bruising group hug; all the while telling him how they couldn't believe it was really him, how happy they were he was alive, how sorry they were about before... It was it overwhelming. Lloyd blinked back a few tears and tried to swallow the knot in his throat as everything went back to the way it was supposed to be.
The other four weren't as physical in their reactions, but Lloyd could tell they were just as relieved. Raine smiled, holding a hand over her heart as if the whole ordeal tired her out and she was trying to catch her breath. Regal pulled an apple gel out of his pocket; intending to give it to Lloyd, for his no doubt aching arm, along with a full apology after he was released from his hug. Yuan dismissed the ball of mana he had been carefully aiming at Lloyd's head and stepped out from behind his desk. The fact that he didn't look grumpy or smug for once was a little disturbing... And Zelos crossed his arms and muttered a weird little phrase he always said whenever Lloyd used his wings around him. Something about size and how you use them... Lloyd never quite understood what that saying was all about, and he still didn't, but hearing it meant that Zelos must be back to his old self.
Through it all, Lloyd tried not to let his train of thought be diverted. While it was comforting to know his friends had regained their senses, there was still one detail he was unclear on...
"I-I'm glad to see you guys too, but will someone please tell me what's going on?!" The newly happy atmosphere started to deflate, letting some of the previous tension seep back into the room. "You were talking about imposters before... Does this have something to do with that group that was impersonating us before, during the Journey of Regeneration?"
"No." Raine's voice sounded oddly strained and Lloyd recognized her almost brooding expression as the familiar one she always wore while trying to find the best way to explain a difficult concept. "Lloyd, come with us to the infirmary. There's something you need to see."
-- -- -- -- --
Flying usually worked to clear Lloyd's head, but not even the gentle hum of the Rheaird's engine could take him mind off that- That thing Raine had in the Wing Pack. What was it? The Professor said something about it being a replica, but Lloyd had been too distracted to pay attention. When he first saw it lying on the operating table back in infirmary at the Renegade Base, his immediate thought was "That's me." It looked exactly like him, right down to the tiny fading scars on his fingers. Marks Lloyd still had from when he first learned to carve as a kid and occasionally slipped with the knife. It was wearing the same clothes as he was too. They were torn and shredded in places, but they still looked like they were made from Dirk's pattern... The thing even smelled like he did! And according to Yuan, it had a mana signature identical to Lloyd's as well as an Exsphere that matched the properties of his Angelus Project Exsphere.
Lloyd's brain felt like it was about to explode. The only thing keeping him from banging his head on his Rheaird's controls was the fact that doing so would honk the horn and startle everyone else. They were worried about him enough already. Lloyd pretended he didn't notice his friends casting quick glances between him and Raine, or more accurately Raine's Wing Pack, as they flew. He didn't blame them at all. If something like this happened to Genis or Colette, or even Yuan, Lloyd knew he would be concerned about how they were handling the situation too.
He didn't blame them for attacking him back at the base either. How could he? They thought he was dead, they even had his "corpse" to prove it, then he just walked in, alive... That thing was so similar to him, seeing it lying there... Lloyd shuddered. It was horrible, but that thing was almost enough to convince him that he might be a ghost.
But he wasn't! He wasn't. Lloyd shook his head. He was alive and whatever that thing was, it wasn't him.
That thing had the same mana signature as him, even though everyone's signature was supposed to be unique... Did that mean it actually-? No. He was him and as long as he was him there couldn't be another him running around. There could only be one him and he was it! Just thinking about the alternatives was starting to give him a headache. Good thing they were almost to Heimdall. Lloyd took a deep breath and tried to think about something, anything, other than his dead doppelganger.
Once they got to Heimdall they could ask Origin about it. Origin would know, it was his job as Lord of the Summon Spirits to keep track of that sort of thing. Until then, worrying about exactly what that thing was and how it got to the Otherworldly Gate would only make him more confused and paranoid than he already was. Lloyd knew that, but he still couldn't stop peeking at the Wing Pack strapped onto the back of Raine's Rheaird.
Maybe, he thought, he could just rest his head on his Rheaird's controls. That probably wouldn't set off the horn... He hoped they reached Heimdall soon.
-- -- -- -- --
Deep in the heart of Torent Forest, Origin's clearing was peaceful. Nothing disturbed the cool, misty air. It was calm. Almost eerily calm. The normal sounds of birds calling back and forth across the canopy and small creatures rustling around in the underbrush were absent. Even the roars of monsters that usually echoed for miles through the trees were missing.
The party fanned out as they approached the moss and lichen-encrusted slab of stone that marked Origin's seal. Colette and Presea placed the stretcher carrying Lloyd's doppelganger on the ground in the middle of the clearing then moved back to join the rest of the group as they waited for Origin to appear.
"Lloyd. Sheena. You who possess the right of the pact, why have you come here?" Origin's voice preceded him, echoing through the clearing as he materialized in front of them.
"We wanted to ask you about this." Lloyd gingerly pulled back the sheet covering the body to reveal his double's face. Looking at it still creeped him out, a lot, but this was what they were there for. "Who or what is this thing, and why does it look like me?"
"Please Origin, what's going on here?" Sheena asked. "If anyone can tell us, it's you."
Origin scrutinized the half-elves and humans gathered at his seal, his gaze lingering the longest on the two Lloyds. Origin's attitude, downtrodden and seemingly on the edge of the despair he was mired in when they first met him, suggested that he did indeed know what was wrong and that it was exceptionally bad.
"I had hoped to keep this from all of you a little longer, but I see it is not to be..." Origin's voice was low, resigned. "Treat that body with care. The remains of a hero like Lloyd Irving deserve respect." Lloyd leapt back, away from the body and summon as if Origin's words attacked him.
"W-What do you mean? Lloyd could feel his heart racing in his chest. That wasn't the answer he wanted. "Origin, are you saying...?" Raine broke into the conversation, saving Lloyd from having to ask that horrible question himself.
"How can this," she gestured to the body, "be Lloyd when Lloyd is standing right here, alive and well?" Origin paused again, looking as if he had all the answers but was undecided on whether he wanted to give them away.
"They are both Lloyd, but not the same Lloyd... Many things have changed during the millennia I was sealed away, but one thing has not. This world that we call our home is not the only one. It is but one of many, many others. There are countless existences, branching and twisting past each other, giving rise to more realities, forever."
"Many worlds..." Yuan murmured to himself. That sounded familiar, maybe it was related. "When the dimensional transfer system was first set up for Rheaird travel between the two worlds, my men found multiple dimensional barriers beyond the one that separated Tethe'alla and Sylvarant, but they were massive. Too strong for us to breach. Origin, these other worlds, could they actually be different dimensions?" Origin bowed his head.
"I see I will have to start from the beginning... 'Dimension,' I suppose, is an adequate way to describe these other realities, but it is not that simple."
The clearing around them began to fade. Lush forest melting away into a dark, depthless void of inky black. Where Origin's stone monument was just moments before stood a massive web of softly glowing lines, sprouting from a single point in the darkness and forking apart in a dizzying number of paths that grew more slender and delicate the further they split from the thick pillar of light in the center. Growing at the tips of the thinnest strands were tiny bud-like bulbs that pulsed in brilliant shades of blues, purples, and bloody reds; making the entire web shimmer in a staggered rhythm.
"That- That looks like a giant tree!" Genis craned his head back, trying to look all the way up to the top of the web that stretched hundreds of feet above them. "Wow... It's got to be even taller than Mt. Fooji!"
"This tree is a map of sorts, for those who can read it, of all the dimensions that currently exist." Origin turned his back on the party to stare up at the glowing tree as well. "Each branch and twig represents the path of an individual dimension as it diverges from the trunk, the primordial world that was in the beginning of time. It is in a state of constant flux, changing so quickly that no one, not even I, can make perfect sense of it. Every time something happens in a world, an important choice is made or an event takes place, new dimensions are created to accommodate every possible outcome. Watch..."
A magic circle appeared under the party, warping them from the base of the map up to a cluster of branches near the lower edge of the crown.
"This branch is the one our own world exists in." The one Origin indicated was different from the others around it. The entire limb's glow was dulling, visibly growing dimmer as it grew further from the trunk. Compared to the brightness of the neighboring branches, their own seemed like a dark blight on the map. If Origin noticed, he made no sign of it as he pointed to a specific spot near the end of the branch; a fork where two slender twigs split apart, each bearing an intensely red bud. "This fork is the result of my choice to divulge this information to you. In doing so I created two more worlds, one where you know and one where you are still ignorant. They differ only in that single detail, but it is still enough to alter their courses and create a new reality."
"Fascinating!" There was a slightly manic lilt in Raine's voice, enough to signal the well-trained ear that she was just shy of a full-force ruin-mode rampage. Genis and Yuan, who were standing on either side of her, started edging away as subtly as possible. "If that's true, it means there would be versions of us in that other world that are effectively identical to us as we are now." She paused, glancing at the body that still lay next to Lloyd. "Is that what this body is then, a Lloyd Irving from one of these other dimensions?" Origin nodded.
"So he really is me..." Lloyd crouched down next to the body. "But he's a different me, so he's only kind of me? This is so weird."
"But Lloyd, you're still you too!" Genis put a hand on Lloyd's shoulder. "Just like you're always saying, right?"
"Yeah, just think of this guy as the dead twin bro you never knew you had!" Zelos grinned. He could practically see the sweat drop forming on Lloyd's forehead.
"That doesn't really help, but okay. Thanks guys-" A flash of pink out of the corner of his eye grabbed Lloyd's attention. Colette was hovering in front of their world's branch, taking a closer look.
"This branch... It looks sick. Origin, what's wrong with it? Why isn't it glowing like the others?"
The summon hesitated once again, deciding whether or not he should speak. Behind him the party could see the bud that represented their world flare once, then fork yet again into three new twigs, each bearing a new red bud and even dimmer than the branch before it.
"I tell you this only because you are already directly involved. This tree represents order, the delicate balance of mana shared between all the worlds there are. Each of these worlds has a set destiny, some ultimate goal it reaches towards from the moment it is created and cannot stray from. Our branch is darkening because our dimension's mana has fallen further and further out of that balance ever since our world deviated from its fate.
"This world was supposed to have ended with the Kharlan War and the death of the first Great Tree; to spiral though space, a blasted planet devoid of life, for all eternity. That was its destiny. Mithos managed to preserve it for four millennia by abusing my power and you, Lloyd, temporarily saved it by reviving the Great Tree once more, but both of your efforts have only caused more damage." Lloyd just shook his head.
"That can't be right. The Great Tree is what's keeping the world alive."
"Yeah." Genis spoke up, falling into his habitual I-know-what-I'm-talking-about stance as he stared up at Origin. "We'll never run out of mana now. There's been so much in the air since the Great Seed sprouted that it's hard to breathe!"
"And you don't find that odd?" Origin asked.
"W-Well, a little." Genis' voice shook slightly. It was easier to be brave when the Lord of the Summon Spirits wasn't focusing all his attention directly at you. "But that's what the Great Tree is supposed to do, right? Make mana."
"Right now the Great Tree is only a sapling. It is unable to produce the high levels of mana our world requires to survive and will be unable for years, possibly even decades, to come. The abundance of mana you are sensing is being siphoned, stolen, from other worlds to support our current existence. It is an unnatural process caused by your actions in saving this world that is warping realities and wreaking havoc throughout the rest of the dimensions.
"Just look, the imbalance is not contained to our world's branch alone. It's spreading, corrupting other dimensions and wrenching them from their own destinies before our eyes." It wasn't until Origin mentioned it that the party noticed. The change in intensity was so gradual it was difficult to see, but other branches around their own were starting to dim as well, their buds shifting from blue to purple to red as they became unbalanced. All over the tree, sections of branches were going out. None were as dark as their own diseased branch, but it was more than enough to mottle the evenly glowing tree they saw when they first arrived. Origin was right; the imbalance was spreading alarmingly fast. "If the mana balance of those worlds is not restored, they will deplete their mana and cease to exist, just as we will."
"Well that's not good." Zelos' astute observation earned an 'hmph' of agreement from Regal. "But seriously, I thought we were done with all this 'vying for mana' crap when we reunited the worlds."
"What can we do to fix this chaos we've created? There must be something." Regal's tone suggested that he was already pondering ways he could bring his Presidently powers to bear on the problem.
"Another journey..." Presea muttered, quietly voicing what everyone else was thinking.
"If we really caused all this, then we can't just let those other worlds die in our place." Sheena looked Origin in the eye as the black void around them pulled back to reveal the sunlit Torent Forest once more. "How can we bring back the balance, Origin?"
"There is nothing we can do." The summon knew he had mere seconds before protests started flying, especially from Lloyd. He looked furious.
"What do you mean there's nothing we can do? You can't just tell us to give up, not when the lives of entire worlds are at stake!"
"The only way to save the other dimensions is for our own, the source of the imbalance, to die. When we are no longer consuming mana and causing disturbances, everything will go back to normal in the other dimensions. That is how balance is naturally maintained among worlds. This world is headed on a self-destructive path, regardless of what actions we take. The severe storms and disasters are proof of that." A pressure slowly settled over the clearing, an aching resignation transformed into physical force that radiated from Origin, growing stronger with each word. "Once our world rips itself apart, the mana imbalance will be gone and at least the other worlds will live on."
"No, I refuse to accept that!" Lloyd unfurled his wings and kicked off the ground, darting up to hover face to face with the despairing summon. "Origin, you agreed with me when I said no one should have to be sacrificed or suffer for the sake of others. Everyone deserves the right to live! That worked for Sylvarant and Tethe'alla, why can't it work for entire dimensions too?"
"This is different." Origin leveled a resigned stare at Lloyd and Lloyd glared right back. He was perhaps the only mortal brave or stupid enough to do so.
"No, it's not!" Lloyd's clenched his fists. He would deny Origin's fatalistic plan to just sit and wait for the end no matter what. If he could just convince him it was wrong, that there was a chance... "There has to be some way to save all the dimensions. They were in balance before, right? There's no reason why we can't set them back without destroying ourselves in the process!" For the briefest of moments Lloyd swore he saw a slight flicker of hope on Origin's face, but if so it was crushed too quickly to be sure.
"I wish that were true, Lloyd. I want so badly to believe in your ideals as I did before, but it is simply not possible."
"Why are you so set on dying!?"
Set on dying? Origin narrowed his eyes. He knew Lloyd could be naive and occasionally oversimplify what he heard, but did the boy really think he was looking forward to the apocalypse? To dying?! Never! Minutes, that was how long Lloyd had known about the existence of other dimensions. He had no concept, no way of imagining what the end of a world truly meant. Origin did. Complete and utter annihilation. He had seen it happen to other worlds before; their substance destroyed, converted to mana and absorbed into other dimensions in the web. Hideous and inevitable. The idea that he would enjoy such a thing- The destruction of all elves, humans, half-elves, dwarves, summon spirits, and every other living thing on the planet- was repulsive! Origin unfolded his arms, freeing all four hands as if he intended to summon his lances.
"You know nothing!" Origin roared. Lloyd jerked backwards, startled, but not relinquishing his glare. "Death is not something I am eagerly awaiting. If it were in my power to avert our fate once more, believe me, it would already be done and none of you would be standing before me asking these important, but ultimately pointless questions. But this is beyond even my abilities."
"You can say that all you want,"Lloyd shouted back, "but I still won't believe it!"
"Origin!" The strict, authoritative tone of Raine's 'Professor' voice brought the aerial shouting match to an abrupt halt. Lloyd flinched, remembering all the times flying chalk and blackboard erasers had followed the sound of that voice, as he flapped his wings and swiveled in midair to face Raine. "Lloyd is right. There may be a way to save all the dimensions, ourselves included." Origin gave her a skeptical look, but listened. Raine, unlike Lloyd, wasn't one to speak rashly.
"I understand that our world is the root of these problems, but it seems the real issue here is that other dimensions are also being swayed from their paths because of our influence. While we may not be able to solve the major cause of the imbalance here in our own world, there must be dimensions out there that aren't as radically warped as ours. Dimensions where we could set things right and make a difference, if we could only reach them.
"If I'm correct, then by fixing smaller imbalances in other dimensions we could, in theory, restore them to a balanced state and delay the necessity of our own dimension's destruction. If we're able to delay long enough, the Great Tree will begin producing enough mana to sustain us and this issue of mana siphoning and imbalance will be laid to rest forever."
Silence. Lloyd floated to the ground and dismissed his wings, managing only a weak "Wow, Professor..." as he stared at Raine in awe. Origin, in a similar condition, said nothing as he focused on the idea. This plan... The theory was sound, though it wouldn't be easy. It was what he had been searching for himself ever since he saw their branch begin to dull, he'd just been looking in the wrong place. It was a lifeline. A chance. All they had to do was take it. The oppressive dread that filled the clearing started to lift.
"Way to go, sis!"
"That's our Raine for ya, all right."
"It... Is possible." Origin was picking up steam. "Yes, if the imbalances caused by our continued existence were countered, then there would be no need to remove us. Everything would ultimately be in balance once more." Then he did something none of the party expected. Origin smiled. "To think that you and your companions would once again restore my hope."
"So you'll help us save everyone?"
"Yes." Origin looked down at Lloyd. What an audacious human he was. To yell at him, a being who had the power to split worlds apart on a whim, then ask him for help just minutes later? Wonderfully audacious. "Our odds of success are small, but a slim chance is better than none. I will guide and aid you in traveling from world to world as best I can. You still carry the Eternal Sword, do you not? You will need it to bridge the gaps between dimensions."
"Yeah, I've got it. Kind of..." Lloyd's mind drifted to the two swords in his possession, the Material Blades Dirk and Kratos gave him. They were still imbued with the essence of the Eternal Sword. That counted, didn't it?
"Excellent. Then let us prepare for your next journey, Lloyd. There is little time to waste."
As they watched their fearless leader talk with the Lord of the Summon Spirits, the party started to get antsy. There was one detail Origin seemed to be forgetting as he focused on Lloyd: Them. Someone, Sheena thought, needs to speak up and say something before it was too late and Origin laid out all his plans. Might as well be her.
"Uh, hey. Hello? What about the rest of us?" Her words carried a heaping helping of highly caustic attitude. The sort she usually expended on Zelos when he did something to deserve it. Or did anything, really. Presea was right by her side, backing her up with a cool, determined gaze and a big axe.
"We will go with Lloyd."
"Crossing to other dimensions will not be as simple as passing through the barrier Mithos placed between Sylvarant and Tethe'alla. It will take a great deal of power. Until we are certain how many people the Eternal Sword can safely transport, I think it wisest for us to only send one across the barrier at a time." A logical argument. If safety was their concern, as Origin assumed it was, then it only made sense to be cautious at first. But that didn't mean they had to be happy about it. Genis and Regal weren't.
"So Lloyd has to go alone?" The little half-elf frowned and put his hands on his hips. "What if he needs our help?"
"I don't like the idea of sending anyone off to a strange world alone."
The possibility that his friends might not accompany him wasn't something Lloyd expected, or even considered. A journey without everybody else... It definitely wouldn't be the same. Could he even do it? The journey to reunite the worlds would have ended in Triet if he had been alone. When he really stopped and thought about it, Lloyd had to admit, going to another world- An entirely different dimension on his own, with no support, no friends to fall back on when he needed them... It was absolutely terrifying.
But then what was the other option, to do nothing? That wasn't an option at all! Lloyd put on his bravest face and smiled, trying to instill a confidence in his friends that he barely felt himself. If he didn't do this, he would lose all of them. Even if he had to go alone, he still had to go.
"Don't worry so much, guys. I want you all to come with me too, but I think I'll be able to do this myself. And I'll have Origin and the Eternal Sword to help me if I get in trouble." The others didn't look the least bit convinced. "Besides, we can't all leave at once. There are people in Luin, Meltokio, and New Mizuho who still need your help." They seemed to accept his argument, grudgingly. His friends' reluctance to let him go brought a wider smile to Lloyd's face, a genuine one this time. "And there's got to be somebody left here in our world to give me a funeral, right?"
"Don't even joke about that, Lloyd!"
It was one of those instances where Lloyd only realized the ambiguous nature of what he said until well after he had already said it and the Professor was already knocking him over the head.
"I-I meant that me! Not me-me. Him!" Lloyd explained quickly, desperately pointing down at the other Lloyd's body.
"Oh!" Raine promptly stopped shaking him and let go of the front of Lloyd's shirt, looking very embarrassed as he scrambled to get his feet back under him. "O-Of course."
"Be careful Lloyd!" The worried smile on Colette's face, another reminder of what he was about to do, nearly made him falter. "Promise me you'll be careful and you'll come right back after you've saved everybody, okay?" It took all Lloyd's willpower to keep his confident mask up.
"Hehe. Of course I will! I'll be back before you even miss me, promise." He flashed her a grin and a quick thumbs up before turning to face his new guide, the Lord of the Summon Spirits. "Okay Origin, where do we start?"
"We'll need to use the Eternal Sword; produce it and we will go. I already have our first destination in mind. It is a world not far from this one and in dire need of help." Origin said. Lloyd drew the two glowing blades given to him by his two fathers from their sheathes and glanced over their translucent surfaces, momentarily letting his imagination run down memory lane. Then, with a determined expression, Lloyd held the Flamberge and the Vorpal Sword up. The two blades flashed and in their place the Eternal Sword appeared. The long purple blade, radiating power like it was breathing, hummed as Lloyd gripped its hilt. He brought the sword down in front of him, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
"All right, here goes. Eternal Sword," Lloyd said. "Take me to that dimension Origin's thinking of." Without a whisper of sound or wave of air, Lloyd vanished
AN: AND THE REST OF THE EXPOSITION GOES IN THE NEXT CHAPTER RAWR!
But seriously, everything starts in earnest in our next chapter which... We haven't decided on what or whose it will be yet, but it will be fantastic. Promise. Until next time, happy reading!