It took the better part of the day for Emil and Marta to arrive back at Meltokio from the Otherworldly Gate, so rather than seek Zelos Wilder out in the waning sunlight, they decided to check into an inn for the night and go out when they had a better chance of locating the Chosen of Tethe'alla.
In their room, Emil rested his arms on the windowsill and stared out at the night sky. He hadn't seen Zelos or any of the others since defeating Richter six months ago; he wondered how they were doing. Lloyd and Colette he knew were getting married, and Regal had returned to running the Lezerano Compnay. Sheena presumably went home to Mizuho. Genis had mentioned studying in Palmacosta, so he guessed he and Raine were there. Zelos and Presea seemed to have dropped off the map in the intervening months, but Tenebrae seemed certain that Zelos was here in Tethe'alla's capital with his sister, Seles, in their manor. Emil had always the red-head would be out chasing women, but maybe there was more to him than he thought; he had only know Zelos for a short time, after all.
Thinking about his friends inadvertently dredged up some rather unpleasant memories along with them. Tonight was one year since the Blood Purge in Palmacosta; one year since the night he had died – one year since the night he had been born. As he witnessed a shooting star, he spoke to Ratatosk.
Ratatosk? You there?
'Course I'm here, you idiot: we share the same body.
Oh. Right. Ratatosk, who was I before I was me?
That's the stupidest question I've ever heard, phrased in the most nonsensical manner possible.
You know what I mean!
Ratatosk sighed. You weren't anybody, kid. I created you from the body of Aster and the memories of the real Emil Castagnier to be a persona that would protect me while I recovered my form.
Well then I was somebody! Emil protested. You just said so!
Dead! Both of your composite humans were dead. There was silence. You weren't supposed to exist.
Emil shut the Lord of Monsters out of his thoughts even as he latched onto those words: You weren't supposed to exist. That's not true, he lied to himself. It can't be true. I exist for a reason, just like everybody else. I –
"Emil?" Marta said sweetly. "What are you doing?"
Emil realized his hands were gripping the sill and released them, feeling his tense muscles struggle to relax. "Thinking," he said.
Marta frowned behind his back. She didn't like it when he said that; it always went back to Ratatosk and the night of the Blood Purge. It pained her to see him grapple with his own identity like that; she loved him for who he was now, not whoever he had been – so she reminded him every time. He always thanked her and said it helped, but she knew he was lying.
Rather than touch on that subject, she asked what had originally been on her mind. "Why do you think Tenebrae sent us to find Zelos? Shouldn't be go after Raine, or Lloyd, or someone more…intelligent?"
"Zelos is the Chosen of Tethe'alla," Emil said slowly. "Church or no Church, he still holds a lot of clout with the royal family." He looked back over one shoulder. "You know more about this than I do."
"I know, but…Zelos?" She smiled a half-smile. "He's not exactly the first person I would go to in a pinch, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah," he replied with a laugh. "I do. But I trust Tenebrae."
"Me too, and I can see what he's getting at, as well. If we can convince Zelos to talk to the king, and convince him that the Heartless threat is real, then we've just prepared half the world; Slyvarant will be trickier because they still don't have a central government." She shook her head. "They might listen to Colette or Lloyd, but…"
"They'll believe, Marta; why wouldn't they?"
"People have a hard time seeing something they don't want to, even if it runs up and smacks them in the face. Especially if it's the truth. Lies – nice, cozy lies – are more desirable than hard facts. For a while, the world was divided over whether or not Lloyd was a hero or a terrorist, even though anyone that knew him didn't believe he was a terrorist."
Even though he had faced up to that fact a long time ago, Emil still retained the memory of Lloyd murdering his family. Of course it wasn't his real family, and it wasn't really Lloyd, but still.
"Right, well, let's not worry about it anymore," he said, spinning around and drawing her into a tight embrace. "Okay?"
"Okay." Marta practically melted into him then, as she did whenever he put his arms around her. "I'm tired, so I'm going to bed." She looked up at him. "What about you?"
"No. Not yet."
"Alright then." She reached up to kiss him. "Night."
"Good night." He watched her climb into bed; then he went back to watching the stars. Marta fell asleep watching him, worrying about him.
The survivors of Mizuho arrived at the dwarf Altessa's house late into the night. When the stout craftsman answered the door, he saw Tiga and Orochi supporting Sheena between them, and a mother and her young son behind them. Even if he hadn't recognized Sheena, he would have ushered them inside without a second thought. No consideration was given to the idea that they might have been followed.
Dwarven Vow #2: Never abandon someone in need.
"Quickly, inside," he said in a hushed tone. Out of habit he turned to ask Tabitha to put on some water, but checked himself. "In the back, there's a made bed I keep for guests. Put Sheena there. I'll get another made right away for you," he said to the mother.
He set a kettle of water to boil and made up the bed while Sheena's wounds were finally dressed in the room next door. The mother uttered a meek thanks before dropping to the bed with her son; she was asleep in seconds.
The water boiled and he set to making some stew. About that time, Tiga and Orochi reappeared. They tried to explain the situation at once, stumbling over their words, and speaking at the same time, but Altessa silenced them with a swift wave of his hand. "Let me get some food in you before you get to talking; does no good to speak of ills on an empty stomach."
"Is that one of you Dwarven Vows?" Tiga asked lightly.
"Probably," the old dwarf admitted. "I'm afraid I've fallen out of the habit of using often. Oh, I remember the most important, but there's just so many, and my mind isn't quite what it used to be." He handed them each a bowl. "It is nice to have company, even if it is under such circumstances," he added following a look from Orochi. "Eat."
The two ninjas quickly drained their stew, not realizing how hungry they were; Altessa refilled each bowl without them having to ask. He refused their thanks saying it was his duty to his guests. When they finished, he collected their bowls and set them by the sink to wash later; then he returned to the table and said, "Now. Tell me what happened."
Altessa listened intently as Tiga and Orochi recounted the tale of Mizuho's razing, beginning with the missing children room a few days ago. With food on their bellies, they spoke much more calmly and without stepping on each other's words. They told of the appearance of the strange, dark monsters, of the slaughter, of Sheen's summoning Origin, and of the heartbreaking decision to abandon the village.
"Now," Tiga choked out, head in his hands, "we have no home. Those…things took it from us."
"What were they?" Orochi said distantly. "Mindless, savage beasts. Damn them! They took our own people and turned them against us. What kind of monster can do that?"
It was a rhetorical question, but Altessa felt compelled to answer it anyway. "They weren't typical monsters, Orochi. In fact, I don't think they're a monster at all."
"Then what were they?" Orochi demanded flippantly. "Things in this world are either human, plants, or monsters. That's it; there isn't anything else for them to be."
"I don't know, Orochi," Tiga said miserably. "I've seen monster. No monster attacks with that kind of frenzy, or has the ability to transform the dead. And that one." His voice dropped to a grave whisper. "The one with the sword. It was unstoppable; it took a Summon Spirit to kill it. A Summon Spirit, and the king of them, at that."
"Tiga!" Orochi gripped the vice chief by the front of his tunic and shook him. "Get a hold of yourself! You're a ninja of Mizuho. Time like these are when we should be at our most composed. Even in the face of absolute ruin, we do not falter!" Tiga's eyes focused briefly on Orochi, but spaced out again. Disgusted, Orochi dropped him back into his chair.
"You." He pointed an accusing finger at Altessa. "What are they then, if not monsters?"
"I'm not quite sure, but old dwarven stories from before the time when the worlds were split, tell of such creatures. In the old language, they are called hjerteløse, which roughly translates as Heartless."
"Heartless," Orochi echoed. "That does accurately describe them. Do your stories give any more details?"
"The legends tell that they are servants of the Nidhogg, the serpent which gnaws at the roots of the World Tree. They go through the worlds and seek the heart of the tree, after which they will steal it, and allow the Nidhogg to destroy the Tree, bringing the universe crashing down." He paused. "Some stories to mention being able to bring humans to their side by revealing the darkness within them."
"Superstition," Orochi spat. "Worlds don't have hearts." Tiga remained immobile and somewhere else mentally; the sight of his vice chief in such a state infuriated Orochi. Compounded with this talk of superstitious nonsense was almost too much to bear. Silently, he rose from the table and walked out the door, needing some fresh air.
Outside he stared up at the twin moons against the starscape and screamed.
Sheena was drowning in a sea of darkness. She tried to flail her arms and legs – to swim – but the pressure was too great, and she merely drifted along, feeling her heart beat slower and slower. This was it, this was the end. She had failed to save Mizuho, and now she would fail to save herself. Depressed even further now, she stopped fighting altogether.
Just when he had given up all hope of salvation, a light sparked to life within the darkness. It whispered a sweet siren song that called to her. The darkness restricting her movements lessen, and she was able to move around. The light grew brighter and she swam towards it, suddenly filled with hope again.
Behind her, the darkness gathered and chased after her like a tsunami approaching the shore. Ahead of her, the light flared to a blinding intensity, attempting to hold back the darkness, but under such force, the light faltered, and Sheena was drowning again. Only this time she did not give up, but continued to claw her way towards the light. Not to be denied, the darkness surrounded her again, reducing the light to a pitiful speck.
The light flared one last time and a hand extended into the darkness, a hand of light. It was familiar, but in her fighting state, she couldn't remember whose hand it was. She grasped it, and pulled herself towards the light…
"Lloyd!" Sheen jolted awake in a strange bed, wrapped in bloody bandages, and wracked with pain. The act of coming awake suddenly shot waves of pain through her weary body, which caused her to cry out. She gritted her teeth and tried to lift herself up, but the effort was too much, and she dropped back onto the pillow, gasping for breath.
Moments later, Orochi peeked in through the door. "Are you awake in her, Sheena?"
"Yes," she said, though it pained her to speak. "Where am I?"
He stepped all the way in and shut the door. "Altessa's house."
Orochi made fists with his hands. "It was completely destroyed. You saved Tiga and myself, don't you remember? You summoned Origin, and he…" He quieted when Altessa appeared in the doorway bearing a bowl of soup.
"Now, now, Orochi," he soothed. "Let's not trouble her just yet. She needs food or else she won't heal properly. Here, Sheena, eat this." Sheena once again attempted to lift her arm, but when she was unable, allowed Altessa to spoon the soup into her mouth; she avoided looking at Orochi the whole time. When she was finished, the old Dwarf retreated, leaving the two of them alone.
"I summoned…Origin?" she asked finally.
"Yes. It was only because of that that the few of us survived."
"How…few, Orochi?" He hesitated too long. "Tell me…who's left!"
"You, me, Tiga, a woman named Jenine, and her son, Balta. That's all that remains of the village of Mizuho." His hesitation this time was to allow Sheena to absorb the information. "What do you want to do?"
"You're still the chief, Sheena, even without a village."
Through pain-clouded thoughts, Sheena managed to make a decision not based on her raging emotions following the destruction of the only home she had ever known. Every fiber of her being screamed for vengeance, to hunt down and murder every last one of those monsters. But that would accomplish nothing. No, now was the time for level headed decisions, not spontaneity.
"We go to Meltokio, Orochi. There we might seek sanctuary until I can decide what to do next."
"Yes, chief." Orochi did a smart about-face and opened the door.
"Do we know what those things were?"
"No, chief. We have no idea. I'll leave you to rest."
Sheena thought she heard something off in Orochi's voice, but was too tired to dwell on it. She dreamed again of darkness, and of having to struggle for her life. This time though, she was not prepared to quit.
In the common room of Altessa's house, Orochi flicked his gaze from the old dwarf, busing himself in making a stew, pretending not to notice he was being studied, to the nearly catatonic Tiga. Tiga seemed to notice Orochi and turned his way ever so slightly. For just an instant, Tiga focused on Orochi – and frowned, a single act that conveyed a world of emotion – but then he returned to staring at the floor.
Orochi swallowed his anger and brooded.
In spite of everything, Aselia continued its daily rotation. Dawn came quickly for Altessa's house – and shortly after that, Meltokio. On the other side of the world, twilight settled on Iselia. Of late, Dirk had been alone in his home, with only Noishe for company. To fill his days, the middle-aged dwarf spent his time making figurines. The one we has currently working on was Lloyd and Colette together.
He set his tools down and wiped his forehead, and Noishe lifted his head. The protozoan dog growled, which lapsed into a high-pitched whine. That meant only one thing: monsters. Noishe hated monster – feared them, in truth. It seemed ironic for the large, green-and-white dog creature to be afraid of monsters smaller than it, but Dirk knew the reason. Noishe had protected a three year-old Lloyd from his monstrous mother after her transformation into an Exubula.
Sometimes Dirk suspected Noishe of only feigning fear to protect Lloyd, to keep him from going into danger. Tonight seemed to be one of those nights because after a moment, Noishe seemed to remember Lloyd wasn't there and jumped to his feet, baring his teeth. Dirk kept his eyes on the door while he reached for his oversized mallet, a distinctly dwarven weapon.
Cautiously, he opened the door, Noishe at his side. Pairs of glowing, golden eyes peered at him from the trees. Gripping the mallet with both hands, he said to Noishe, "Are you up for this?"
Noishe barked as if to say, "Of course."
"I knew I could count on ya." Noishe was much smarter than he appeared, which was something o be said for all the time he spent around Lloyd. Beneath the animal exterior was the intelligence of a human.
Something skittered forward.
Dirk was ready.
A/N: Another quick update; I'm kind of on a roll here. Don't worry, it'll pass, and I'll be back to my non-updating ways shortly. So don't you fret.
OhJay: don't Worry, Aster's Heart will be important later.
Leobracerstudios: You are entirely correct on one account, and completely wrong on another. I won't tel you which is which, because I like hearing your theories.
Cold-heart-Angel32: Yeah. Zelos. Yeah, slaughtered.