Hello everyone and- *dodges various projectiles thrown at him for the humongous waiting time* -welcome to chapter 16 of this story. Now, I'm sure everyone is wondering what the H happened for there not being an update in so long, and to be honest there were a number of factors, more on those in the author's notes. First and foremost, I was very busy with my graduation from university, and I'm happy to announce that I am finally done studying forever :)
That aside, writing thios chapter was actual hell. It has gone through SOOOOOO many revisions that at times I had so many drafts that I was no longer sure which one was the most recent one to work from. I had originally planned this to be a double chapter, but with the amount of time gotten into it and me already being way past the general content size of a chapter I decided to upload what I had so far anyway, also to gauge how many people would be interested ins eeing this story finished (3 more chapters or so). A large part of why I continued was because I received many requests to do so, even if the last one was a while ago. So, sorry for the long wait.
Disclaimer: I do not own tales of vesperia.
It was a busy night in Aspio.
Yet, from the darkness of her room, Estelle heard little of the activity outside of the inn.
Here, in the commercial district of Aspio, the restaurants and cafés were filled with students who had just finished their courses. Every so often, fragments of the louder conversation made it in, sometimes accompanied by an inviting tune from one of the establishments. She imagined that many people were having fun just outside on the streets, and the prospect of exploring the city wasn't an entirely unpleasant one.
But right now, all she really wanted to do was going back to sleep.
She was exhausted; the return trip from the ruins had been an ordeal of its own, with Sodia and herself somehow having managed to keep Flynn alive long enough for the doctors here to take over. It had been a rather quiet and sober affair; everyone with any medical knowledge present at the exchange had known that he was going to die. Too many areas of the brain had suffered irreparable damage, among others the central cortex and large parts of the brain stem. Without those, he'd never regain his ability to move or, perhaps mercifully, his consciousness.
There was something both sad and ironic that, in the end, Flynn had been done in by his 'friends', who had turned out to be not so friendly to him in the end.
Had justice been served? She didn't know, but she had tried. Now, it was out of her hands. Maybe, just maybe, she could begin to forget everything...
But she couldn't, and it was all that prevented her from getting her well-deserved rest. While she had managed to fall asleep once, even her dreams had been uneasy; they all featured a young boy, cheerful and full of hope as he told her about how he was going to change the world. It had been just that at first, but it had been followed by the same boy being cut down right in front of her.
And suddenly, it had been her holding the bloodied knife, with everyone else watching her in either disgust or horror. She, in turn, had watched in apathy as they died to a faceless enemy in equally horrible ways; first Sodia, then Rita, Karol, Nan... and finally Yuri.
No, sleep didn't come easily the second time around.
Now, as she sat on the bed, she stared at the Aque blastia, contemplating what exactly she was supposed to do.
On one hand, it all seemed so easy. This was what she had come for, and now she had it. She had fulfilled everything she had agreed to do, and she knew that if she left now and said her goodbyes, no one would stop her. She would have her meal, buy some new clothes and hair paint and would find another inn to stay at until the morning. Then, she'd buy a horse and leave the town. No one would recognize her in her new disguise and she'd be back in Zaphias in a week. After that she'd disappear completely by taking a ship to Capua Nor, and from there to Guild territory.
It was a reasonably safe path, and at the very least it would get the blastia to Zaphias safely.
On the other hand, leaving wasn't as easy as she'd have liked it to be; she had become a bit too attached to a number of members of their strange troupe. With the recent fighting and her nightmare fresh in her memory, she couldn't help but wonder about their fates.
How would Sodia and the rest of the soldiers cope with the loss of their leader? They had just suffered the first real casualties in years, and their morale had seemed pretty low as it were now.
And then there were Karol and Nan; would they stay with the others now that they'd seen what exactly they were up against? If they did, would they be all right? In the end, they were just children, after all...
Strangely, thinking about it now, she didn't really look forward to saying goodbye to Rita, either. While the two of them hadn't really spoken a lot, their last conversation before the fight had forged some kind of bond between them that might have become an actual friendship, given time.
But all of that paled in comparison to the complications that the last person brought.
She sighed. Yuri; what was she going to do with him?
That scene by the underground lake; had that really happened? This prince, possibly the sole heir to the empire, had just appeared out of nowhere into her life. Two weeks later, he had both given her an absurd amount of gald, but more importantly, had also flat out told her that he liked her in a beyond-friendship kind of way.
Hearing it had both been extremely frightening and somewhat flattering at the same time. After overcoming the initial shock, she had realized that it was a proposal so impossible that it could only end in failure, and that it would have been best to shoot it down right away.
And she had; they would go on one date, assuming Yuri would remember amidst the crisis and find time somewhere in the next day, and that would be it.
...but somewhere in the back of her mind, there was a nagging feeling of doubt. Was even that going too far?
So far, she had mostly listened to what the rational part of her mind had told her.
However, there was also a less rational part, remnants of a girl that still believed in fairy-tale like romances, that asked her if it wasn't worth giving it a try; wasn't love all that really mattered?
While she had initially done it off as a hopelessly immature thought, she wondered if maybe there was a bit of truth to it; maybe she was looking at this the wrong way. Sure, if she wanted to give it an honest attempt, she'd have to at least feel attracted to him as a person. But if she did, did his social status really matter?
After all, wasn't how well they went together something far more important than material matters? And if it... worked out, couldn't they find a way to overcome the other problems?
Estelle chuckled as she realized that she was indulging some childish fantasy and was getting far ahead of herself. She was definitely not in love...
... for now? Did Yuri deserve a real chance, as a person?
Her mood sobered instantly as she realized that all of this thinking was pointless unless she decided to stay.
But IF she stayed, how would she ensure that the aque blastia reached Zaphias? And if she were honest with herself, could she expect to even survive? If their enemies were so powerful that they controlled the large majority of the army, along with Guild allies so strong that they were able to personally take on Flynn, who was probably stronger than her, things didn't look very well.
Staying would require large amounts of courage, creativity, naivety and also some stupidity. It was a very dangerous course that action that put both the blastia and her own life at risk, in return for her participation in an expedition of which she had serious doubts that it would end well.
The soft blue light of the Aque blastia held no answers or advice.
She sighed and tried to get some sleep again.
Just as she was finally feeling drowsy, there was a knock on her door. She ignored it the first time but whoever was outside was persistent.
Her annoyance spiked as she wondered if people couldn't leave her alone to her well-deserved rest for once. A wave of vertigo immediately assaulted her as she tried to stand up and forced her to take a moment to steady herself. However, that wouldn't stop her from telling this person off.
She had almost torn open the door when her self-preservation instincts told her that she was about to make a number critical mistakes:
First, she hadn't asked who it was.
Second, she wasn't armed in case it was a trap.
Third, she wasn't wearing any clothes other than her underwear.
Ok, that last one might not exactly be a critical mistake, but would turn out to be awkward in case it was any male visitor...
"Estelle? I need to talk to you. It's important."
She sighed. Like Yuri, for instance. Of course; things weren't complicated enough as they were.
"Yuri? What do you want?" she asked bluntly, sleep-deprivation making her a bit more moody than she normally was. She sighed. "Sorry, I'm just a bit tired. Maybe you could come back later?"
Yuri, ignoring that suggestion, got straight to the point. "It's Flynn. They've... given up on him."
'Yes, I know that. Anything else?' was the first thing that came to her, but she found that she couldn't say it. There was a distinct... emptiness to his voice which told her that sending him away now would probably be a very bad thing to do.
"...Give me a moment," she replied. Since she hadn't really had a chance to wash her normal clothes yet, she settled on one of the thick and modest bathrobes that were supplied by the Inn. After a quick splash of water, she looked at least somewhat presentable.
"Come in," she said as she opened the door. Yuri hesitated for a moment before entering, but he accepted the invitation. She could see Repede laying himself down on the ground outside as he entered, obviously to keep watch.
The prince looked around the dimly-lit room and grabbed one chair as she sat herself down on the bed. Absently, she noticed that something was definitely 'off' about him; Yuri had always radiated a kind of energy; an intensity that was now missing completely. For a fleeting instant he almost looked... old, or perhaps just more mature than his usual self; she wasn't sure which.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence in which they stared at each other. She absently noted that he hadn't changed or repaired his damaged leather armor yet, meaning he'd probably stayed with Flynn's body until he'd heard the news.
Now... what was she supposed to say? And why had he come, she wondered? Did he expect her to comfort him or cheer him up? He had to know that any sympathy she'd show over this would be false. Still, for Yuri's sake, she decided to feign at least a bit of it.
"I'm sorry," she settled on. "I know he was a good friend to you."
"He was more than that," Yuri replied, quietly. "Flynn was... 'real'; one of the few things that kept me sane in the middle of all the groveling and bootlicking I had to endure every day. Whenever he was around, life in the castle was bearable; I wouldn't die of boredom. If he hadn't taught me how to fight properly, I wouldn't be here now."
He chuckled humorlessly and stood up. "Heh, listen to me... talking about him in the past tense. Flynn is still alive and I intend to keep it that way. So, I want you to do for him what you did to that tree in Halure."
They way he brought it made it seem as if he considered it the most natural thing to ask for in the world, and it caught her completely off-guard.
She froze. "Yuri... I-I don't remember any of that. If I'd had that kind of power, don't you think I would have used it already? I did what I could for him. That... whatever it was in Halure, was a fluke."
"A fluke?" he repeated dismissively. "More like a miracle. I don't think anyone would disagree with me on that, especially the inhabitants of the village."
"That doesn't change the fact that I don't remember it," she countered, ignoring a jolt of irritation. "You've asked me that before."
"But you do have some sort of special power."
"I cannot feel it or use it," Estelle scoffed. "Have you ever considered that maybe, healing that... whatever was holding down the tree could have been done by anyone? It's just that no one tried."
Yuri didn't waste any time bluntly disregarding that argument. "No. You have that power, no one else. It's just that I think you choose not to use it."
"Yuri, I don't have that! I can understand if you're upset; I've seen many patients act like you do when I tell them bad news, and like I always tell them; I cannot heal everything. If you're going to take it out on me, please leave; I'm really not in the mood for more childish antics!"
There was a certain finality to her tone that made Yuri pause and step back. But just as she thought he might have given up, he spoke again, colder than she'd ever heard him do.
"Estelle, I don't like what I'm about to say, but I'm afraid I don't really have a choice."
"...What do you mean?" Estelle asked slowly, eyes narrowed.
"Repede told me that when Flynn fell, you just stood there, watching him until it was too late. Is that true?"
A vision of the ruins came to her; the exact moment of when said man had been cut down. And, just like in the dream, she had watched in apathy. Regardless of the moment of shock and her hate for the man, that itself was definitely true. But what to say? At that moment, staring down Yuri, she honestly had no idea.
"Is it true?" he repeated slowly.
Even in the dim light Yuri's eyes were distinctively cold and dark. They seemed to pierce right through her; what was he thinking? What was he going to do? Just how angry was he? Did he consider her expendable, in the end? Were all those moments of friendship and his proclamation just... false?
Then, for the first time since they had met, Estelle considered him as a threat; a very real threat, one that somehow fought the person who had beaten Flynn to a draw, even if he'd had help. He was dressed and armed, and she was in a bathrobe with her sword laying next to the bed, which meant she'd never get it in time if... if...
...It was like Flynn; a betrayal that shattered all her beliefs of good and righteousness. For the second time.
Estelle's mind was consumed by anger. "You- you wake me up... to threaten me. After everything we did? I thought that you - that we -"
She was lost for words.
"Then it is true," Yuri concluded. "You were actually content with letting him die. I… didn't want to believe it at first; I thought you'd be above such sentiments."
"How… how dare you," she hissed. "You have NO idea what you're talking about!"
"Of course I don't: no one ever tells me anything about the past," the prince replied airily.
Estelle barely restrained herself. "That's for your own good."
"I seriously doubt that. But sure, make me understand then. Why does Flynn deserve to die?"
"Maybe you should ask Cumore; his 'best friend' from a few years back!" It was out before she could stop it.
"Cumore? What does he have to do with anything?" Yuri pressed.
"Why should I tell you? I'm sure that the mighty and resourceful prince Yuri can find some way to figure out the rest by himself!" She challenged.
Yuri sighed. "I don't believe this... even now, when my best friend could die over whatever happened, you refuse to tell me? I'm tired of all the vagueness!"
"Well excuse me for not bending to your every command, Your Highness!" the healer replied sarcastically. "Now if that's all, please leave. I have plans to leave this city within the hour."
There was a long period of silence in which they stared the other down, both refusing to back down.
Finally Yuri closed his eyes and sighed, holding up his hand as he did. "Wait… wait, just - wait. Look, If you feel so strongly about that then it's your choice to keep it to yourself. I respect that. But, Flynn, whatever he did, is still my best friend. Not only that, but he's a very capable soldier, one of the only ones willing to openly fight against the corruption in the empire. I need him with me to succeed. As the leader of this… expedition, I need to try to do everything I can to at least keep everyone alive. Can you understand why I'm asking you to try one last time?"
Estelle had to admit that despite his insistence otherwise, Yuri did have a certain knack for diplomacy. "Yes. And the answer is still no; I'd just prolong his suffering even if I could do anything."
The repressed anger instantly resurfaced in Yuri's expression. "But you're the reason he-!"
"Stop it, Yuri! He's gone and I won't change that!" Estelle harshly said.
"No, he's still alive and you're his last chance! Why are giving up on him? Is your petty grudge worth that much to you!?"
The healer took a deep breath. "You're naive and childish, Yuri. Do you really think I'm able to fix all of the world's problems for you? Do you think I like being your go-to person whenever an impossible situation comes up? Remember, I never asked for any of this!"
"I'd rather be naive than to give in to despair! You haven't let me down once, so why would this be any different?"
"Because no one has ever been able to do what you're asking me? I'm a normal girl, Yuri, not some freak who can perform miracles!"
The prince had been about to retort when he suddenly hesitated. "...You're afraid of yourself, is that it?" he asked in an infuriatingly calm manner. "You're afraid that you're not 'normal' because of what you did in Halure, and that you're going to expose yourself if you would do something like that again. Is that why you're hesitating?"
Estelle, taken off-guard by the sudden change in topic, was unsure how to respond.
"Look, I can't offer you advice on what you should do," Yuri continued when he didn't receive an answer. "But if I had some... unknown power that allowed me to save anyone I cared about, like Flynn or you, I wouldn't hesitate to use it. I wouldn't give a damn about who knew."
"It's not even remotely fair to say that," Estelle pointed out. "You've always been a center of attention and you've always had both your title and guards nearby to protect you. Neither of those apply to me."
"You're with us, aren't you? With those knights in the ruins gone, you're at least relatively safe for the time being," he reasoned.
That proclamation made her laugh humorlessly. "Safe? With people like Zagi and that other assassin, and who knows how many other soldiers to replace the ones who fell? And you ask me to do something that, if it even works, will leave me weakened for days as it did back then?"
The sheer seriousness etched on his face was all that stopped her from diagnosing him as 'clinically insane' right there and then. She didn't want to do it: she hated Flynn but had already given it an honest attempt despite her feelings. Also, she really didn't want to stand out or weaken herself with dangerous enemies on the lose. She had done far more than what had been asked of her, and apparently that wasn't enough for Yuri?
At this point, running as soon as possible seemed a far more attractive and wise option than sorting out whatever feelings she might have developed for this man.
Thus what remained of her patience ran thin. "Yuri, just stop it! No means no, all right? Now please leave me alone; I'm tired and I just want to sleep!"
"Estelle, calm down-" The prince began as he placed his hand on her shoulder, but was cut off as Estelle reacted and slapped across the cheek with enough force to make him topple sideways; if he hadn't held on to her sleeve at the last moment, she probably would have even knocked him to the ground.
The healer wasn't sure exactly why she'd done it. She was tired, angry, out of patience and surprised by the sudden physical contact. However, she couldn't deny a strange pang of guilt as she watched him while he kept his gaze averted.
The silence stretched out while she tried to figure out whether to scold him again or apologize.
"... Do you feel better now?" Yuri finally asked.
"Please, just... get out," Estelle repeated.
"I can't. I'd be a horrible friend if I did," he explained, still not looking at her. "Look, you may hate me for it and I'm not sure if I could blame you. I don't like picking sides between Flynn and you, but above everything else I want you both to be all right. If your roles had been reserved, I'd have pressed Flynn until he'd agreed to do it. I owe you both that much."
It was then, finally, that he turned to her again. There was something about his eyes, she realized: They could hold both a cold and threatening stare at one moment, but now, she saw that they could harbor equal amounts of compassion and determination just as easily. For the briefest of moments, she genuinely wondered how she could have thought his intentions had been anything but good and if this entire argument had been her fault alone.
"So please," he continued. "I... No, we-"
There was an ever so slight shifting of his eyes downward before the pause, which was all the warning Estelle had that something was very wrong.
Following his gaze, she saw that, to her horror, the robe she had been wearing had opened on the top end following the movement she had made to hit him. It was enough to reveal a part of her undergarments, but to her, that hardly mattered. She knew that what had really caught his attention was the horrible scar just above it; a very poorly healed and disfiguring wart on her otherwise unblemished skin.
And in that instant her trust in him was broken.
"What-" Yuri began, which was as far as he got before she roughly shoved him away.
"Get away from me! Now!" Estelle screamed as she scrambled for and consecutively unsheathed her sword.
"Wait! I didn't -"
"One word!" she warned, breathing heavily while pointing at him with her sword. "One word from you and I'll leave you all without looking back! I swear it!"
Yuri slowly closed his mouth and just stood there in bewilderment, hands held up in surrender.
There were a number of hurried footsteps outside, followed by a knock on the door. "Estelle?" came the voice of Hisca from just outside, "Are you all right? Do you need help?"
The prince let out an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes at the intrusion, but didn't talk.
"N-No," Estelle spoke towards the door while keeping her voice as steady as possible. "But thanks. He was just leaving anyway."
Yuri looked at her for a few seconds before he slowly made his way over to the door. "I didn't want to see that. I hope you know," he said as he went.
"You didn't?" she demanded. "Well you did, didn't you? You know, I can't believe that just before you got here, I was seriously thinking about...!" Estelle continued, but abruptly shook her head. "No. I'm gone. You will not be there to see me off, either! Now get out of here!"
Yuri didn't look back as he opened the door. "I'm sorry you feel that way. Really, I am. Goodbye Estelle... and thanks."
Hisca and two other soldiers outside made room for him as he went, obviously unsure of what to say or do. The other healer threw her a sympathetic look, then closed the door.
When the dim lighting of the doom replaced the intrusion of light from the hallway, Estelle slowly placed herself back on the bed. Feelings of anger and shame took the last of her self-control and she cried softly into her hands.
Yuri's footsteps thundered in the silent hallway. Even now, an hour after he'd left Estelle behind, his blood felt like ice. He wasn't sure whether it was fear, self-loathing or anger. Then again, it didn't really matter for either his state of mind or what he was about to do.
* Woof! *
In a stark contrast to the lower levels, the upper echelons of Aspio were deserted at this time of night. It made sense; most of the structures here were either part of the school or belonged to wealthy and important. It felt like a cruel echo of Zaphias; the poorer lived lower.
Well, except for one detail; there were very few guards out and there was no wall he had to sneak past. Tonight, that suited him perfectly. Normally he might have wondered why that was, but tonight he would just-
* Munch *
Yuri shifted his glare towards his companion. "Repede. Let go of my leg." His voice was cold and hard. For a moment, he seriously considered kicking his companion off of it.
* Growl *
"I'm perfectly fine."
* Snort *
"Well what was I supposed to do!? You heard everything; I didn't say anything wrong, did I?" Yuri shouted, not even remotely caring if he drew attention to them.
* Whine *
It took all of his willpower to calm himself down and admit that his companion was right. Multiple emotions suddenly burst forth and threatened to overwhelm him.
"Flynn… Flynn's going to die, damn it!" he cried, smashing his fist into the stone walkway to the side. "I-I failed him, just like I failed all the other dead soldiers, and now Estelle as well…"
Repede watched him silently, his purplish fur almost blending into the shadows of the upper caves. In a way, he was the most stable character still around him; never wavering, always honest and without complicated histories or hidden agendas.
"I can't help them anymore. But I can offer them justice, or something like it, at the very least."
'Cold blooded murder, more like' he inwardly corrected himself, steeling himself for the deed. He had killed numerous beasts and assassins along the way, but this would be something different. It would be an unprovoked attack, something on the very edge of morally acceptable even for him. Try as he might, he couldn't quite force down the feeling of doubt.
He was nervous, he realized as he made his way to his target, sometimes darting from shade to shade to hide from the sporadic guards. And as he often did lately, when he was nervous his thoughts found themselves inexplicably and inevitably drawn toward Estelle. If she knew what he was about to do…
'It doesn't matter anymore,' he told himself. 'I forced her away, didn't I?'
For what felt like the hundredth time, he went through the entire conversation with the healer. Where had he messed up? Hadn't he been patient enough? Hadn't he been as considerate of Estelle's feelings as he could have been? And hadn't he stressed enough just how vital her help was?
Was it that he's seen her skin? No, that couldn't be it; not by itself... or was it? Perhaps there was some sort of special significance to that scar on her chest? That had been the thing that had really pushed her over the edge, but it could just as easily have been just the drop that made the cup run over. No, it was probably more likely that she had acted that way because she had been very angry with him beforehand.
Hmmm... or maybe it wasn't really his fault, but Estelle's? Had she been unreasonably uncooperative with him? From his point of view, maybe, but what things were going on behind the veil of the past?
The soldiers obviously believed the fault lay with him; he hadn't needed the constant glares and inquiries of Hisca and her fellow soldiers to remind him of that. He supposed he couldn't blame them; if he'd been in their places and saw a relatively scantly dressed Estelle pointing a weapon at someone while in a clear state of distress, he'd probably have done a lot more to that person than stare accusingly; all things considered, he'd probably gotten off easily.
...Or maybe they were just both tired. Then again -
"Damn her!" he whispered, frustrated. "I can't even get my own thoughts straight!"
* Woof...?* Repede tried, tentatively letting go.
"No," the prince answered immediately. "I am past the point of caring! She let him die, no matter the reason. And you heard her, she's lost to us. Even if I could ask her back, I don't want a backstabber with us and I'm sure the others don't either."
Repede locked eyes with him, then looked away. * Whine *
"No, it wasn't a mistake," Yuri admitted, glancing towards destination. Even though the upper level was fairly large and his structure still half the cave's length away, there was no mistaking it. A set of three huge interconnected circular buildings, the walls of each lavishly decorated with a set of banner-flags and some runes, the meaning of the latter completely lost to him. It was by far the most impressive structure with the sole possible exception being the headmaster's office.
That wasn't the most remarkable feature though; there were no gates nor any guards to be seen nearby. The sheer arrogance of it made Yuri's anger spike even higher.
'Garista Luodur,' Yuri summed up as he snuck closer, easily avoiding the few patrols in the area. He had missed being unseen; travelling in a large group made him feel less safe and secure than out here by himself. 'An internationally renowned blastia researcher and Professor in the field of creative blastia Formulae. Also ex-military mage and advisor to both Niren Fedrock, the man who had trained Flynn, and Commandant Alexei in a later stage. Had been credited with the recovery of more new blastiae than any known scholar in the last century and was viewed by many as the obvious choice for headmaster should the old one pass away.'
It was an impressive resume, just as spotless as it were false. In the end, none of it really mattered compared to the most important bit; if this man had really made the blastia used to kill Flynn, he was, as far as Yuri were concerned, just as guilty as the actual assassin.
And Yuri wasn't feeling merciful.
* Woof. * Repede remarked vainly.
"Like I said before, this is between the two of us," Yuri whispered, patting the dog. "None of the others would react well to us killing him. Sodia's got too much on her mind, Rita probably took lessons from the guy, Karol and Nan- " He paused briefly. Could he really say that Karol and Nan were too innocent? Killing was their job just as much as it was that of the soldiers he traveled with. "-are too young, " he decided anyway. "And Estelle-"
He forced the myriad of mental images and emotions away until all that remained was ice.
* Woof. *
"A trap? Frankly, I don't care; the more of them are there, the better. It would save me the trouble of actually having to find evidence. No, I have to do this. This is revenge, plain and simple."
'And maybe it was extremely stupid to think we'd make it to the end without casualties,' he thought idly. 'If only it hadn't been Flynn…'
Yuri took a quick look around and fell out of the shadows. He hoped that no guard would care enough to come and inspect him should they happen to see him standing there inside the complex; the floor wasn't forbidden terrain by any means. He just had to make sure that no one could identify him afterwards and the stolen mage robe he wore took care of that, mostly. At least it would from a distance. Hopefully.
In front of him was a door just as magnificently carved and decorated as the rest of the mansion.
*Woof-* Repede began, but the prince had already activated the blastia next to the doorway, which emitted a melodious sound that had carried far into the structure.
Yuri shook his head. 'Funny, really, how masses of people in the lower quarter have just one blastia that provides everyone their basic vital needs, while everyone here has them for such mundane things. Seems completely fair, right?'
For a while, nothing happened. He was about to activate it again when, ever so slowly, the door opened inwards. It revealed an impressive hallway laying behind it, the walls of which mostly hidden behind bookcases filled with books. There were a number of imposing trinkets and blastiae on display, either openly, or in the latter case, behind glass casing. Paintings of formulae, Garita himself and some none-blastia related matters hung generously among the walls. Vividly colorful carpets with intricate patterns covered the entire length of hallway, all apparently spec-clean.
Everything here was obviously designed to impress whoever visited, and Yuri had to grudgingly admit that it did a pretty good job at it, even if he had seen worse displays of what he considered as vanity back at the castle.
But the hall itself didn't even compare to it's inhabitant.
Halfway along, almost exactly in the middle of it, stood a single man dressed in mostly purple and golden robes. He wore non-distinctive glasses, behind which gray eyes gazed on them sternly. There was a certain... aura he had, one that spoke of intelligence, power and cunning, which immediately informed Yuri that bluffing his way to what he wanted would never work.
"I don't have any appointments scheduled for this evening," the man stated calmly, though the intonation gave it a clear second meaning: 'You will immediately state your business with me or things will not end well for you'.
The realization that this man was probably responsible for Flynn's death was almost enough for Yuri to forget the entire plan and run him through immediately, regardless of the consequences. His current mood made resisting that notion even harder, and it was only with every inch of willpower that he was able to force himself to say the correct words.
"Indeed. Please forgive me for disturbing you, but I have a lucrative proposal ," Yuri answered. "I take it that you know who I am?"
"Of course I do, although I would have expected someone of your stature to have been in better company than that of a dog," Garista replied neutrally, glancing towards his companion. "I must say that the robes suit you, even if a bit unexpected. You are not known to be a studious type."
Repede stiffened in anger and Yuri knew he was on a very short clock before he exploded; Repede was a prideful creature and didn't take very kindly to direct insults.
'Keep it together and act the part of the spoiled noble brat. Don't mess up!'
"Please allow me to correct you; that 'dog' has a name, and it is 'Repede'. As is the case for all members of my house, he is my bonded guardian and has been my most trusted servant ever since he was given to me upon birth. He has been trained to the limits of physical and mental perfection and is perfectly capable of understanding human speech," Yuri countered evenly. "Though, if you mock my intelligence by insulting those with me, I believe that this conversation is over. I am certain I can find someone other than you who would be willing to listen to my words in a more polite manner. Truly, I am almost appalled by such behavior from someone of whom the headmaster spoke so highly."
Yuri knew he was taking a risk, but he counted on the greed of the man to come through for him. Someone who had achieved this much wealth, and was so set on displaying it, had to be open for opportunities to increase it further, especially when they came from rich individuals such as himself.
If he had glanced to the side in the short pause that followed, he'd have found that Repede was given the mage an unflinching stare.
"Indeed, I suppose that I am forgetting my manners. Forgive me, your highness. I am still a bit tired from my lectures this day. Perhaps we can discuss this more at length in my personal chambers. I do prefer sitting to standing after a hard day of teaching." There was an ever so light grin on the man's face as he gestured for them to enter further, one that the prince didn't even remotely like.
Yuri ignored his instinct to run and calmly entered the building. Repede did the same, eyeing the surroundings warily. Then he suddenly barked.
Even though Yuri's knowledge on Artes was limited, he knew that there was only one realistic way Garista's scent didn't come strongest from the direction of the man he saw in front of him.
The door behind him closed and instinct told him that he wouldn't be able to open it if he ignored the image's invitation. He was in a trap. Again.
But he supposed that it really didn't matter; this would have ended in the man's death one way or another.
He would have seen to it.
The infirmary of Aspio was a horrible place.
It wasn't that the staff wasn't friendly; in fact, from what she'd seen of the other doctors, they were both knowledgeable and treated her with collegial respect. It also wasn't that it had an overly depressing interior, either, nor that it lacked any facilities to properly take care of anyone.
No, it was horrible because the structure reminded Estelle of her work in the field hospital during the war; there was something about the longish and narrow makeup of the structure combined with the posting of numerous guards from Flynn's unit throughout it that kept bringing up images from that unpleasant time.
Why exactly had she come here, again? Was it guilt? A need for closure? A twisted sense of undeserved loyalty towards someone who didn't deserve it?
She had been that close to making a break for it, had even packed and left the exit from Aspio, until she had ran into Karol and Nan training outside. There had been something so... nostalgic about that image, of a boy and a girl, one good fighter helping a lesser one. It was almost exactly the way Flynn and her had been when they were children; an image with an effect that no grand betrayal or insane prince could really undo.
She still might have gone, If Karol hadn't spotted her and asked where she was going.
It had stopped her dead in her tracks. Seeing the two Guild members, who were going to stay while she was leaving, made her wonder what she was doing. Was she leaving a couple of children to die? And what about Rita, Sodia, and the others soldiers?
... and Yuri? Knowing him, chances were that he had already gotten himself into trouble again...
She repressed the thought and sighed. 'I care way too much. I really should just take the money and open a clinic somewhere on the other side of the world...'
The healer made her way through to the room she had been appointed to as quickly as possible. Surprisingly, no guard had posted herself right outside the door.
Once inside, she saw the body of Flynn at the far end of the room, attached to a number of blastiae. One, she knew, was an air-type blastia which created and consequently forced air into the lungs, making them function. One other was a very weak version of a water type which created and infused water into him through a hollow needle, and a third one was positioned over his chest but had no discernable purpose.
Yet for all the advanced tools the doctors here had at their disposal, Flynn was in an even worse state than he had arrived in yesterday; the unhealthy blue tint of his body had only intensified and even a weak scanning arte from this distance told her that his heart-rate was weak and erratic, just one step away from a completely deregulated rhythm which would certainly lead to death.
It was so easy to walk away and do nothing. The higher powers, if there were any, knew she'd tried.
"Estelle, is that you?"
The healer jumped at the sudden voice to her side her and whirled around to find Sodia sitting in the far corner of the room. The soldier had been writing in a journal she was holding, a now-interrupted venture as her green eyes met Estelle's emerald ones. While she gave off a reasonably relaxed appearance, Estelle knew that the spear situated by her side was no coincidence; she'd jump in to defend her helpless commander at a moment's notice if needed.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," the orange-haired woman added.
"Ah, don't worry. I guess I should have expected it when there was no one outside."
The soldier glanced to her commander. "Most of the others in the unit have already said their goodbyes. Some others just refuse to believe it's actually going to happen. Not many actually want to be here to see it when... well..."
The healer tilted her head to the side and frowned. "Except you?"
"Flynn isn't the only one that will be buried today," Sodia answered while closing the book. "I've... been to the others as well. It's just that this will be the last one. He's just making us wait a bit longer -" she threw the man a jesting look - "like usual."
'Those soldiers we left to guard the ruins... I wasn't there, nor did I even think about who would take care of the burials.'
If at all possible, she felt even worse about everything that had happened this day.
"I'm... so sorry. I don't know what to say."
The other woman shook her head. "There's not a lot to be said; it comes with what we do. Or at least, that's what I'm supposed to think. There were all good people; it's very poor compensation to know that most of those responsible are dead as well."
'Except the one who actually killed Flynn, perhaps,' Estelle reflected darkly. After all, they hadn't found his body.
"So what brings you here? Did you come to," she took a deep breath, "see him one last time?"
The sad smile on her face made it impossible for Estelle to tell the truth. What was she supposed to say; ''No, not really. I'm here only because of Yuri and because there could be some truth to his claim; if I'd helped Flynn sooner, he might have been all right.' ?'
She averted her gaze downward. "Yes, that's... exactly it."
The next moment Sodia placed a hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to be embarrassed. No matter what happened, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
The healer felt even worse than she had before as she allowed herself to be led to the bed. Twin scars in Flynn's neck region seemed to greet her amiably.
'Horrible and disfiguring. Fitting, but still horrible.'
"At least he stopped stirring, and he doesn't gasp for air anymore," the woman next to her said as she picked up a wet handkerchief and wiped his forehead with it. "The docters gave him a potion of some kind. With it, he... seems at peace."
The sight of it was almost too much to bear. The tenderness of the way Sodia said those words and took care of Flynn combined with her own feelings of guilt broke through her emotional barrier, and for a moment she came dangerously close to crying again. If the past had turned out slightly differently, wouldn't it have been her standing where Sodia was now?
But damn her if she was going to openly show it; she'd done enough of that for a lifetime. She only had to envision a younger version of herself sitting in a dark and empty house, crying as her world had just been destroyed, to remind herself of that.
What Estelle needed was a distraction to help her resist it. "Sodia, can I ask you something?"
Inquisitive eyes met hers. "Um... sure, I guess?"
"Ok... what was it like to actually be in Flynn's unit? And how did you end up here?"
She realized how misplaced this particular question had to be immediately after asking it and mentally kicked herself for it. Sadly, it had been the first thing that had come up in her mind.
Sodia, in turn, was silent for a while, only staring at her commander's unmoving body. Estelle wouldn't have blamed her at all if she just flat out told her that it was a sensitive topic that she had no wish to discuss right now.
"Hm... I suppose that all that's left is to wait, and I wouldn't mind a bit of conversation to help pass the time. However, I think it's only fair that I'll get to ask you something in return," Sodia replied, after which she sat down and grabbed a second chair.
"All right, so long as it's not something that I really don't want to discuss," Estelle said. "No means no," she added, remembering Yuri's methods earlier.
The soldier nodded. "I understand. So what do you want to hear?"
"How about the beginning?" Estelle suggested as she made herself slightly more comfortable by sitting down.
"There's not much to say about it, I think. It was somewhere near the end of the war with the guilds; if you're familiar with how thing went, you probably remember that it turned out to be a trench war in which both sides didn't gain much ground."
"Yes, I'm... quite familiar with the stories," the healer said. 'And with the reality, too.'
"Well, some of the higher ups on the Imperial side had suddenly acquired information on enemy troop placement, and it turned out that they had a weak defensive position somewhere near a mountain pass. Since we were still recovering from a recent large attack from the guilds, many units were being still being reorganized. A lot of us common soldiers didn't think that we could attempt a large offensive at that time, but it was stressed to us that this could be the one break we needed to finally deal with the Guilds."
"...And that's where you were paired up with Flynn?" Estelle surmised.
"Yes. We ended up in the same unit, but we didn't really talk much at first; there were forty of us and were made up of three smaller units that had all just suffered losses. It was only when things went bad that we were really introduced to each other."
"So it didn't go as well as the higher-ups had hoped, then."
Sodia let out a humorless chuckle. "No, not really. It was a trap, plain and simple. There were just enough Guild members posted there to make it seem as though we had actually broken through the breach... but they had an assault force of their own that broke through our weakened lines at the same time. After that, those circled around to attack us in the back while their real defensive forces came from the front; they effectively had us surrounded."
"Really? I almost can't believe that the forward commanders allowed themselves to be caught like that."
"Not everyone agreed to the plan, but yes, those in charge made a very bad call. I can only assume they were desperate, or really convinced of whatever their source was telling them was correct," said Sodia, looking away. "Anyway, once we were on to what was happening, it was more or less an all or nothing battle of breaking back out through their flanking units while we were being attacked from all sides."
"I really don't want to think about what kind of a slaughter that would have been. If it's too sensitive, you don't have to talk about it."
"No, that's all right," Sodia assured her. "Back then, many of us were scared to death, and more than a few others panicked. Especially once our squad leader died, most of us were on the edge of breaking. That was when Flynn decided to take command."
She took a sip of water from a cup on a nearby table and paused to think. "I remember him shouting to all of us, but I don't know what exactly he said; something about us needing to get our act together and to stick to certain formations. Then he picked a direction and moved to attack the guildsmen there. We followed his orders since it was the only real plan we had."
Estelle watched Flynn and tried to imagine a somewhat younger version of him rallying a unit in such chaotic circumstances; it almost seemed an unreal, super-heroic thing to do. It was something that really didn't fit her current image of him. Of course, that had been before that incident...
"Unfortunately, while we managed to slip through the enemy encirclement, we ended up too far to the northwest and got trapped behind their lines," Sodia continued, smiling a little. "It took us two weeks to finally sneak through and rejoin the reorganized imperial defensive line. Since we didn't come in until long after the bulk of the surviving knights had arrived, they actually thought we were Guild spies and refused to let us enter."
"Typical of the knights, I guess," Estelle commented. "Sorry, I mean no disrespect to anyone here."
"None taken," Sodia replied dryly. "In the end, we managed to talk them into accepting our story anyway. We had arrived just in time for the imperial withdrawal to start. That was when Flynn... suddenly left us for a while. He said there was something really important he had to do, and it was the last time I saw him until the war was over a few weeks later. He never really talked about what he had been doing either, just that some 'task' had been assigned to him and that he had carried it out..."
'Trust me, you don't want to know.'
Sodia put up her hand in a sign of apology. "Sorry, I'm trailing off. Anyway, the next time I saw him was at the general debriefing, where groups of squads were congratulated and honored and whatnot. Flynn was there on the platform, where he received a promotion to sergeant for his 'exemplary actions'. I remember that he didn't look too happy to get it, but that was the official start of the Flynn brigade. Most of the survivors from our group that didn't resign, including me, volunteered to serve under him out of respect for his leadership and because of the bond that we shared."
It made sense, Estelle supposed, but there was one thing she still wondered about. "That's quite a story. But... how did you end up being the second in command?"
"What; are you implying that I'm not cut out for the job?" Sodia asked, eyes narrowed.
"Uh, no, I mean, yes! Wait... um... no. Yes, that's it! Gah! I'm just curious, since I thought that you'd have been chosen for some specific reason," Estelle hastily explained.
The soldier's face suddenly slid into a grin. "You can relax: I'm only joking, you know."
"Oh. Well, that's a relief," the healer replied in embarrassment.
"Honestly, I'm not sure why he picked me. I think that in retrospect, I was a bit more level-headed than the others, and I did talk to him more than most during those two weeks in the wilderness. Also, both of us were very serious individuals at first, even though that changed the longer we were around Yuri."
"I see," she replied, and threw a long and hard look at Flynn. 'So basically, there was no compelling reason. Did you pick her as a replacement for me? If so, that was a pretty low thing to do, but I guess I can see some similarities between us.'
'On the other hand, maybe he just valued that enough to make it a logical choice,' another voice said.
"All right, I think I've said enough. Now for something that I want to know," Sodia continued, re-grabbing her attention.
Estelle tensed. "Yes?"
"Tell me a bit more about yourself, and how you knew Flynn. To most of us, you're a bit of an enigma. You've obviously had military training and you knew the commander in the past. You suddenly show up out of nowhere as the sole guard traveling alongside Yuri. You don't really talk too much about yourself, and we respect that. However, If you're going to go, I'd still like to know."
The healer considered it for a moment, but saw no harm in it. "All right. I've... known Flynn since childhood. We were friends as long as I can remember. Both of us came from the lower quarter, but growing up wasn't so difficult; there were plenty of good people looking after us. My father was a doctor there, and I could have just stayed to take over from him. But... Flynn had this dream of joining the military and making them respect us lower-class citizens. I allowed myself to get caught up in it and enlisted at the same time he did."
"Really? But he never mentioned you at all," Sodia commented, though not very surprised.
"We had this... fallout near the end of the war. After that, I resigned and distanced myself from him," Estelle explained, sidestepping the issue.
"I... understand. So does that mean you two were... close? As in, closer than friends? I can understand if that's too personal."
"It doesn't matter much now, I suppose," she replied, glancing at Flynn. "We were always close; first we were friends, then we were best friends, and during our time in training, we were also rivals. I can remember that during the war, when I was posted at the field hospitals, I wanted nothing more than to see him again. I think that maybe, if things had turned out differently, we could have ended up together but I try not to think about it. Besides, he seems to have enough of an entourage without me."
"Please don't consider us like that. Everyone with us is a capable soldier who has fought bandits and monsters with us for months or even years," Sodia stated.
"I know. I guess it's just my way of making a joke," Estelle countered, grinning slightly.
Sodia blinked, then laughed. "Hah! Such a shame that you're going. I could have gotten used to your sense of humor," she said, lightly patting Estelle on the shoulder. "But you know, that does explain a few things," she continued in a more serious tone. "I can remember that Flynn was very... stiff and reckless after he came back. He never wanted to talk about what had been bothering him, but am I correct in assuming that it had something to do with you?"
The mood sobered even further as Flynn's body suddenly jerked and went into a rasping cough. Both Sodia and Estelle were up instantly, the former in an attemping to calm while while the latter immediately started a diagnostic arte. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately depending on how you looked at it, it gradually passed away and the stillness returned.
"... I don't think I'll ever get used to this," Flynn's second in command said once he had calmed down. "If you die on the field, at least it's usually a quick death. This... I just wish it was over already, for his sake."
There was something about the way she continued to hold his arm and head in a half-embrace that confirmed some of the rumors Estelle had picked up. "Sodia? You... care about him quite a lot, don't you?"
"I suppose I do, yes, despite what I said earlier. I'm a bit of a poor example for my subordinates, conduct-wise," the other woman answered.
Estelle was about to counter that when she was cut off. "But don't worry," Sodia went on, "Flynn was always very closed off from advances of other women, including mine. I always thought he was just really dense, but now I'm not too sure anymore. Maybe he just never got over you and was uncomfortable with such an idea."
"That thought doesn't make me feel any better, really. Even though I didn't like him, I always thought he would have moved on by now. Plus, when we were younger, he was almost as dense as I was naive. I think that's the more likely reason."
"Haha. I'm sure you two made quite a humorous pair, then," the other woman concluded, after which she took her seat again.
There was a short lull in the conversation as the healer envisioned a few of her earlier memories. She wasn't quite sure what she felt toward Sodia for just admitting to being interested in the same man she had been interested in in the past. She liked her as a person though, and supposed it wasn't her business really.
"So tell me, Estelle, you said you worked at the field hospitals, right? Was this the kind of thing that you saw there all the time?"
She nodded, happy for the change in topic. "Not always, I suppose, but I still hated every second of it. At first, I felt like my talents were being wasted; I was a really good swordfighter and I wanted to be out there on the field, like Flynn. But as I kept on getting case after case of people for whom I could do nothing, it just got really depressing. I guess I eventually got lucky in the end; one day, prince Ioder visited the camp and brought a Guild child with him; a very weakened girl that would have died without medical attention. I decided to help by healing her, which got me dishonorably discharged."
"Sorry to hear that," said Sodia, returning to her chair. "I'm sure you did a lot of good work for us."
"All that really mattered to me was that I was gone from that place."
"I see. Well, just for the record, I do think what you did speaks well of you," the soldier remarked.
"So did the royal guards," Estelle replied. "They decided to take me with them as they left the front. For a while it worked out well, but then I got a letter..."
She put the thought out of her mind. "No, that's not important. I guess what is important is that it was the first time I actually met some Royal Guards other than their leader, who had been my instructor in the past. Now, a few weeks ago, the knights started some strange tax-collection scandal in the lower quarter that would have turned into a riot If I hadn't stopped it."
The orange-haired woman obviously had some difficulty believing this. "You stopped a riot by yourself?"
"Mostly, but I had some help from their commander; he actually seemed as if he didn't like his orders, either. To be honest, I'm still not sure how I managed to do it. I think I must have been insane to even try."
"Then I guess the crowd must have really loved you, for something like that to be possible," Sodia mused.
Estelle shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not overly concerned with how popular I am. I just try to help people who need medical care. That's pretty much all I've been doing for the last years."
It looked at if Sodia would have said something, but she reconsidered half-way. Her mouth slowly closed as her face fell into a mask of seriousness, and Estelle had the sudden idea that she was being carefully scrutinized over something.
"Wh-What? Please don't stare like that," Estelle said while backing off.
This seemed to bring the other woman out of whatever trance she had been in. "Oh, sorry, I was just... thinking. So, how did you end up here, in the end?"
Estelle frowned at the obvious diversion but explained anyway.
"And they sent no one else with you?" Sodia asked incredulously when she was finished.
"They told me that the fewer people traveled with us, the easier it would be to get here. It would be better if no one knew of my voluntary involvement, or something among those lines. At the time, it seemed credible enough."
Again the other woman didn't respond.
"Sodia?" Estelle asked eventually. "Is there something about this that I should know?"
"I'm... not sure what to say."
"Because I don't know enough to comment on it. I can only suspect. It feels really strange that they would entrust one of the sole heirs to an empire to just one stranger."
"Well, perhaps it's best if we stop here, anyway; we've been talking for quite a while, and I won't force you to stay here for the rest of the evening. I'm sure you can use some rest, since you were the one who took care of most of the commander's healing on the way back."
Estelle debated forcing her to tell what she obviously knew, but she didn't really feel like she had enough energy for it. "No, I can't leave yet. I'd like to stay a bit longer."
"Really? You look like you need rest more than anything else. The tear marks on your cheeks tell me you've not had an easy time either, even though it's none of my business."
The healer smiled sadly. "I'll be all right. For now, there's a favor I have to ask of you."
The soldier nodded.
"I'd like a moment alone with Flynn, it that's ok. There's something I need to tell him. It's a… goodbye of sorts and it's personal." At any other time, Estelle would have congratulated herself on managing to keep her emotions in check so well.
"I… Alright, I understand. I'll get a bit more water and wait outside," Sodia replied, pausing just a moment to pat her on the shoulder before she left.
Just as the door closed behind her, Estelle took a deep breath and slowly made for the bedside.
It was only after she got there that she realized Flynn's heartbeat had stopped.
On the first scene: It originally had a pure fluff content in which there wasn't any kind of fight, but I eventually rewrote it since that worked better and would be more interesting to work from. If anyone is interested in the original ending of that discussion, I'd be happy to PM it to whoever wants to read it.
On the second scene: This scene can burn in obligatory hell since it was an absolute horror to write. I cannot count the number of revisions on it and iut its probably trhe sole reason for the long wait by itself. Why was it so hard? Well, I originally had someone accompany Yuri, originally Rita, since I needed a blastia expert with him. However, the scene just didn't work with her. Then I invented a nameless blastia student hired for his expertise and silence, only to realize It was lame that way. EVentually I figured Yuri would be angry and nfrustrated enough to not entirely think this one through and forget it, and I made it a Yuri/Repede scene which kind of worked better (imho).
On the last scene: I'm sorry for the relative lack of action there, But I found the entire thing fairly easy and interesting to write. And chapter 15 was pure action anyway so a slight breather couldn't hurt imo.
I'm eagerly looking forward to comments from anyone :) They are my main motivator to keep going and are always highly appreciated.