Author's Note: I update too slowly! Dammit all! At least it's here. Please save the angry mutilation of my fragile body until after you've the chapter. It's all I can hope to ask for.
Disclaimer: Tales of Symphonia does not have the terrible, terrible misfortune of being owned by a mongrel like myself. The plot within this story, however, was not as lucky.
The girl continued to snarl, yet Dan's gaze remained impassive as energy radiated from what seemed like every pore on his body.
She lashed out, causing strands of light to spurt towards him.
He dashed forward towards the space directly under her, rendering the attack useless as it harmlessly struck the ground he left behind.
Dan unsheathed his katana and pointed it above him, before releasing its top half once more with a squeeze of the hilt.
The partial blade, empowered with a swath of crackling energy, struck the machine strapped to the girl's chest with precision. It became promptly obliterated, and flecks of scrap metal were strewn across the floor.
"He actually pulled it off!" Emil yelled, grinning as he saw the device rend apart before his eyes.
Dan's eyes, however, widened when a column of light descended and speared his shoulder.
He gritted his teeth and violently shrugged away, tearing the light away from his flesh before it sunk in any further.
"Wh-What?" Marta exclaimed.
"Damn," Dan ground out.
"I-I thought she'd go back to normal if we removed it!" Selena stammered.
"It seems as if," Dan said while grimacing. "Removing it shall not be enough. It's not like an on-off switch. It most likely activates once, stimulating the wearer's innermost instincts of survival, before shutting off for good."
"So..." Emil growled, through gnashed teeth. "So she's stuck like this?"
Dan leapt backwards, narrowly avoiding another lucent barrage.
"Perhaps..." was all he uttered in response.
Emil made a move towards them, but halted as Dan swiveled to face him.
"No. Do not interfere. You'd likely make things worse."
"And you won't?" Emil bristled angrily. "What can you do by yourself?"
Dan turned back towards the source of the blazing radiance.
"Just trust me."
And with that, he jumped back in the direction of the girl, rapidly ascending to her position.
Spotting him, she shrieked once more and had blades of light converge upon his person.
Without batting an eye, Dan unsheathed his katana, swiped it once to neutralize the entire attack, causing the blades to revert into thin wisps, before hurling his weapon away to the side.
Marta witnessed this in confusion.
"He threw his...weapon away?"
Dan drew up, level with the girl, before firmly grasping both her shoulders with his palms. He locked his gaze with hers.
She roared, however, and coated her entire arm with light, before plunging it into his stomach, using her fingers as makeshift daggers.
Dan winced, and a dribble of blood bubbled from the corner of his mouth. However, his gaze remained steady, and he glared at her.
"Come back," he uttered.
The girl seemed to not heed his words in the slightest as the pair succumbed to gravity and dropped to the ground like pebbles.
Both of them landed on their feet, with the girl's hand still encased in Dan's flesh. Nearly overwhelmed, Dan wobbled in place.
Yet, even as he was panting in pain and fatigue, Dan continued to stubbornly look into the girl's eyes, which were glazed golden, bereft of pupils.
"You...moron," Dan whispered. "I said, come back."
The light in the girl's eyes seemed to flicker, before her mouth opened in what seemed to be confusion.
She growled, and thrust her hand still deeper, causing Dan to grunt in pain.
Not yielding in the slightest, however, Dan gritted his teeth, between which blood now seeped through, and fixed her with a stare of such intensity it made her flinch.
"It's finally become a time when I can be the one to help you, a time when I can even begin to pay back the debt I owe," Dan spoke, his grip upon her shoulders tightening.
"Therefore, if you deny me this chance, so help me God, I swear I will never forgive you. Not within this eternity. So..."
The glow in her eyes flickered at a more rapid pace than before, akin to a ruptured light bulb.
"Come the hell back! This instant!" He snarled, with ferocity rivaling hers.
She seemed to struggle for a moment, almost choking. The next instant, she faltered, nearly stumbling, but when she regained her balance and raised her gaze once more, her eyes had melded into a bright emerald green.
She gasped, in what appeared to be agony, as sweat dribbled down the sides of her face.
"Wh...Wh..." she managed to wheeze out, utterly disoriented.
"What's going on here...?"
It was then that she took in her surroundings, noticing that she lacked any clothing save for the tattered black cloak draped over her shoulders and that someone was directly in front of her, in a slouched position.
"H-Huh?" was her confused query as she realized that her hand was stuck in something moist.
She heard her own sharp intake of breath as she suddenly froze, horrified.
"Oh...my G-God..." She withdrew her hand at once, not without a sickening plunging sound as her hand exited Dan's stomach. She let out a soft yelp, nearly collapsing in mortification at the sight of her hand slathered with someone else's blood.
"Are you okay? There's so much bl-" she broke off and trembled. "D-Did I...? Oh God, what have I done? Please...Please say something!" she yelled frantically, lightly slapping at Dan's cheeks, due to the fact that his eyes were closed.
They opened, much to her relief, and he smiled.
"I'm fine, already. Glad to see you haven't changed in the slightest."
At his statement, she paused, before a questioning look made its way onto her visage.
"Ex-Excuse me, but...do I know you?"
At her words, Dan's smile froze in place.
"What?" was all he seemed able to say.
"U-Um, forgive me, but...who are you? Have we met before? A-Are you perhaps talking of our Centurion's Cores?"
Dan lowered his gaze, eyes downcast.
It's almost as if he's more injured by her words than his wounds, thought Marta, as she looked upon the scene with wonder.
Almost immediately, he raised his head once more, with no change in expression from before, and turned in place, facing away from the girl.
"No. My mistake. For a moment, you looked remarkably similar to someone I once knew." Little to no emotion was present within his tone. "Now, let us hurry. I will explain everything to you later, but for now we must escape, before they catch on to the fact that we've reverted you from your feral state."
He began walking away, but nearly tumbled to the floor with one step. As it was, he landed on his knees, gasping softly as pain threatened to overtake him.
The girl scurried over to his side at once, kneeling once she reached him, attempting to hold him steady.
"P-Please wait! You're hurt b-because of me; if you move around too much, it'll strain your wound..."
"I told you," he panted. "I am fine. I do not require any...assistance."
The girl bit her lip.
"You're obviously not 'fine'! L-Look, I...can vaguely remember what happened, though it's all one confusing blur. I was confined in that awful tank for who knows how long, and then they set off some sort of...trigger. W-Well, it's sort of a huge blank after that, but I can guess what occurred. You...saved me, didn't you? I thought that once I became a-" She broke off for a moment, before shaking her head and continuing.
"...A monster, there wouldn't be any going back. But you risked your very life so that I could regain myself. Please...Please let me at least return this one favor," she implored.
He glanced at her, before bitterly smiling.
"Such irony. Now you're the one saying that you owe me a favor."
"What...?" she said, bemused. "A-Anyway! You're not going to move about freely in that state, whether you like it or not!"
With that, she hoisted one of his arms over her shoulder and heaved him up.
It was then that she finally noticed that other people were present in the room as well.
"Oh...d-did I injure you all as well? P-Please forgive me!"
"Yeah, yeah," Emil grunted. "We're alright. It's the fool you're holding that's in real trouble. Like he says, we'll ask questions later. For now, we gotta get out of here. Though there's one thing you might wanna tell us, you know. We can't call you 'you' forever."
The girl blinked, before catching on.
"Oh! O-Of course. My name is Vamalia. Sorry for not mentioning it before."
"Pleasure," Emil said offhandedly as he himself glanced around the room. He clicked his tongue in annoyance as he acknowledged to himself that the walls of steel were airtight.
"Dan, help me out here," Emil gestured towards him. "I can't break these things by myself."
"Wha-What are you saying?" Vamalia bristled, indignant. "You can't honestly expect anything like that out of him now with how hurt he is!"
She folded both arms over Dan protectively, as if to shield him, glaring all the while.
"Relax," Emil deadpanned. "He's pretty messed up, yeah, but that doesn't really hinder his ability to release energy from his Centurion's Core. He didn't use much of it while fighting you, after all. Besides, it's either that or we're stuck here 'til they decide to check up on how we're doing and we're all sunk anyway."
Her feeble retort was cut off as Dan spoke instead.
"It's alright. I can manage that much more, at least."
Vamalia frowned as she noticed that whenever speaking to her, he would never look her directly in the eyes.
Dan lifted his hand and fired a condensed vortex, composed of black and blue energy swaths, at the wall in the front of him.
Right as it impacted the thick metal, Emil aimed his gunblade at the same spot, before vigorously pulling the trigger.
"Lucifer's Gospel!" He roared. A humongous compact sphere flashed crimson as it erupted from the end of his weapon and collided with the wall, conjoining itself with the attack Dan had already unleashed.
The energies meshed and melded, convulsing against the wall, before the pressure built up and tension finally shattered the steel from which it was composed. Specks of glinting metal scattered away from the radius of the ensuing blast.
"Hurry, please!" Emil had reverted back to his gentler self, but was nonetheless urgently gesturing for everyone to escape through the opening he and Dan had created.
Marta noticed Vamalia determinedly hauling Dan along with her. She was surprised to see that she didn't seem to find Emil's dynamic personality to be abnormal.
Come to think of it, Marta mused, Selena didn't so much as blink when she saw him change, either...
However, she shook herself out of her thoughts and followed closely behind the others.
Breathing heavily, Vamalia paced as fast as she could without dropping Dan, keeping his arm firmly hooked around her shoulders.
"Are we...safe, yet?" she wheezed.
"We've reached the outer rim of the forest, in a different direction from whence we came," Emil patiently explained. "I wouldn't say we're completely in the clear, since we're still dangerously close to their headquarters, but as long as we keep up the pace, they shouldn't be able to catch up to us."
Dan's breaths came out hoarser than before, to the point that each one he took was a more of a gasp instead.
"We...We can't keep going like this!" Vamalia exclaimed, gazing desperately at the others around her, the fear in her voice evident. "He's lost so much blood already, and if we don't stop to rest, he'll die for certain!"
Emil glanced back, causing her to stiffen involuntarily. However, she stood her ground.
"You're right," he sighed. "We'll have to take the risk and stay put for a bit. Marta, do you still have that sack of supplies we got from Luin?"
As Marta nodded, Vamalia visibly relaxed as she slid Dan carefully onto the base of a nearby tree, noticing that he had already fallen into a slumber, albeit a restless one, if his strained panting was any indication. She blinked, however, when Marta suddenly tapped her shoulder.
"Here. There were some clothes in the bag. They're not the best fit or the most comfortable, but I figure you could use something to wear other than Dan's mussed up old cloak."
Vamalia stared at the offered garments, brown in color, for a few moments, before blushing faintly.
"Th-Thank you. I hadn't even realized since I was a bit preoccupied..."
She took the proffered clothes gratefully, before tiptoeing behind a tree to change into them. She mentally remarked that they were more like over-sized, shoddy rags than actual clothes, but she supposed one couldn't be picky in her situation.
She emerged and noticed Marta tending to Dan's stomach wound with bandages and ointment obtained from the sack. She watched silently for several seconds, before speaking.
"So...i-is that his name?"
In the middle of tearing a bandage with her teeth, Marta looked up.
"Pardon?" she said, after removing the strip of cloth from her mouth.
"Before...when you mentioned his cloak. You said that his name was 'Dan'."
"Well, it's at least what he told us to call him. I'm Marta, by the way. I guess with everything that's been happening, we haven't had the chance to introduce ourselves. The one standing guard over there's Emil, and the little girl is Selena."
At the mention of his name, Emil looked in their direction and treaded over to them.
"Is he going to be okay?" he inquired softly.
"Well," Marta began. "If he were normal, there would've been almost a sure chance that he'd die from an injury like this. But...I suppose that being a host allows him to take hits a lot worse than regular people could. In fact, the wound's already starting to patch itself up. All I could do was bandage it up and disinfect it, but his body's regenerating itself under its own power."
"Having two cores makes that possible. I still can't believe that one individual can house two spirits within his body, in addition to his own."
He turned towards Vamalia, his eyes suddenly crimson.
"Alright, then. Let's cut to the chase. What's your story? And for that matter, what's his?" He pointed to Dan.
"Wh-What? How would I know anything about-"
"You said before that you didn't know him. But is that really the case? He sure as hell seemed to recognize you."
Her gaze was downcast. Her lip trembled.
"I...even if I did, it's no use. Other than the knowledge that comes with my Centurion's Core, I have virtually no personal memories to speak of. My past life, my previous home, any friends I might have had...the only thing I can remember is my name. All I know is that I was somehow captured by them, and then my life, or whatever remained of it, became a living hell. In that container...my feelings became numbed, my mind had been broken, my thoughts were in shambles, and I had nearly no concept of self anymore. Pain was all I could feel, and I'd already grown used to the constant agony. But then..."
She glanced at Dan, a trace of fondness in her features.
"Something shook the foundations of my figurative prison. You all came to rescue me, and when I woke up, I saw him. Of course, it...it was horrible, with my hand in his stomach, but at that moment, I...felt reborn. My mind had cleared and I was a whole person once more, just like that. I finally had an identity to grasp hold of. And it was all because of him. Because he saved me."
She bit her lip, her anxiety evident.
"And yet...and yet...I hurt him. He's like this because of me, as a result of saving me, and...I feel like I can never make it up to him."
"You can start," another voice cut in. "By not blaming yourself for every little detail. If you start doing that, I really will become angry."
Vamalia gasped, swiveling to meet the glaring eyes of Dan.
"You're...awake. Um, did you hear everything I said, D-Dan?"
He pulled himself up into a slouching position, so that the tree didn't need to support him as much.
"Is my name difficult to pronounce? You hesitated while saying it."
"I-I, um...sorry. It feels a little...uncomfortable calling you by name."
"Why?" came his half-demand.
She looked away, her expression unsteady.
"...I don't know."
"Although I would like nothing better than to continue this fascinating conversation..."
Simultaneously, Marta's eyes widened and Emil's head snapped up.
"...It seems we don't have the time to fritter about. What we do have is unwelcome company."
Emil growled and unsheathed his gunblade, while Marta ushered Selena behind her.
Dan struggled to bring himself into a standing position, one hand gripping his bandaged wounds.
The foliage around them burst as Empire soldiers swarmed into the clearing.
"I can't tell you how relieved and glad I am to see you once more, Aster. I've been waiting for this chance for a long time now."
Emil's eyes widened, and became scorched with an unprecedented ferocity. His face tightened, his body trembled, and his fists were clenched tightly in fury.
"For the goddamned last time," he seethed.
A man with hair akin to flames was the last to emerge from the clustered thicket. He pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose, wearing a small smile as he did so.
"...My name's not fucking Aster!"
Author's Note: Three guesses who it is there at the end. Not like it's not easy to figure out. Anyway, the chapter's a bit short, but otherwise, I like how it turned out. Review to inspire me to update faster! Gawd, I'm shameless.
Random quotation of the day:
"I will protect my friends!"
-Nearly every single anime known to man.