Author notes: It only took me almost three months. Yeah, I know is too much and I'm working on it. Well, I hope that at least the length makes it up for it... A little at least.

Anonymous Reviews: None


EPISODE 2: THE JOURNEY OF DEGENERATION

Chapter 27: The seal of water


Thoda Island

A group of tourists were watching the geysers in front of the mountain while the guide gave the pertinent explanation.

"A geyser is a spring characterized by intermittent discharges of water followed by a hot steam. The formation of a geyser is due very specific hydrogeological conditions that only are found in a few places of Aselia. In fact, here on Thoda island, you can find a third of all the geysers currently known."

"The cave that you can see behind the geyser when it recedes is the entrance to the ancient Seal of Water where it's said that Undine, the summon spirit of water, resides." The guide blinked, suddenly looking past the crowd, not believing what he was seeing. "What the—"

Noticing this, all the tourists turned their heads to follow their guide's gaze. There was a girl in black clothes approaching the island. It was something thing that would seem normal enough, except that she was literally walking over the sea, the water freezing under her feet.

Her hair was white like snow and her red eyes looked empty and lifeless.

As she neared the geysers everyone stepped back, intimidated by her mere presence, and giving her clear passage through the crowd.

Alice smiled proudly, and although something told her that her facial expression was bordering on maniacal, that part of her was just another useless part to be discarded. This was what she wanted: For people to cower in fear as she walked by, for the thought of challenging her to be as unthinkable as challenging the sun itself. Once the last Sylvaranti seal was closed, no one would be able to stand against her. No one would ever be able to hurt her again. The whole world would tremble before her. Once the last seal was closed she would finally have what she had always desired: Unyielding power.

"She looks like that girl from the Vanguard," someone in the crowd whispered.

"Yeah, she looks like Alice."

"It can't be her. She had gold eyes and blonde hair."

Alice ignored the social commentary and continued on her way to her destination. The tour guide group ran and intercepted her and stopped her grabbing her by the shoulder.

"I-I'm very sorry miss, but you can't keep walking. It's far too dangerous. The vapor is scalding hot and—"

"I'll be the judge of that, weakling," she replied.

The geysers erupted again but before it had even reached halfway to its apex, it froze completely solid, leaving a somewhat jagged path right up to the cave entrance. The guide just stood there, completely gobsmacked.

"How— How you did that?"

Alice ignored him and walked to the cavern entrance.

"Hey! Wait you go in there without—"

The guide tried to lift his arm but it was completely numb. When he looked at it, he noticed that his had hand was developing severe frostbite. The guard knelt and began to scream in pain as a thin cover of ice crystals began to climb through his arm.

The tourists began to run away to the boats in fear while two men took the guide with them.

Alice closed her eyes as she entered into the cave and smiled at how effortless it had been to freeze the blood in his veins until it had expanded. It wasn't her fault though. If he wanted to keep his left arm, he should never have touched her with that filthy hand of his.

Life was good. And it would only get better from now on.


Near Thoda Dock

"Lord Emil, if I may, why am I bothering with this impertinent dreck? Need I remind you of the atrocities he committed as a member of the Vanguard? How many times did he try to kill you? Three, four?" Tenebrae complained as he readjusted Decus' limp body on his back to keep him from falling.

Marta bit her lip. The Centurion of Darkness had been complaining about his situation since they took Decus unconscious form two hours ago. She was one comment short of exploding like a superheated potato.

"He weights a lot. I have more than five thousand years behind me, this cannot be good for my back," the Centurion complained again.

"Also, Raine told me that you don't have a spine, or at least not as we know one. You can't hurt your back," Emil pointed out, "In fact, if she's right, you couldn't hurt back even if you tried."

Tenebrae grumbled something along the lines of, "Why was this the sort of thing he remembered and not how many times the weight on his back had tried to chop him in half."

"For Martel's sake! Shut up! Just shut up Tenebrae!" Marta shouted making Emil and the Centurion both jump. "You've been complaining for two straight hours now. We get it already! You don't want to carry him! We! Don't! Care!"

There was an uncomfortable silence. Marta was breathing heavily while her two companions eyed her in shock.

"Well, that was a disturbing reaction," Tenebrae responded as his composure returned to him. "I read something that said that females of your species can become more irrational on certain days of the month. Is this your designated time?" the centurion asked, seeming concerned.

To nobody's surprise, his apparent concern didn't seem to be perceived as such by the brunette, who suddenly tried to jump the Centurion like a rabid dog. Luckily for Tenebrae, Emil was faster and grabbed her wrists before she could beat him into whipped cream for his inappropriate comment.

"Calm down Marta! He didn't mean it in that way!" Emil said trying to calm down his

"Let me kill him! Let me wring his neck! Just a little! I promise you he won't suffer too much!"

"I apologize, Lady Marta. Did I say something to upset you? I'm afraid that I do not understand the severity of your reaction. Perhaps I underestimated the hormonal effects produced by human females on said days of the month. Are they actually worse than I have been lead to believe?"

"Gyyaaah!"

"Tenebrae, you're making this so much worse!" Emil yelped as he struggled to hold Marta back. A somewhat distracted part of him made a note that he would have to remember what day it was today. Specifically the next time he got the urge to tease Marta. He certainly didn't want to upset her if this would be the result. "And Marta, please, please calm down. You know how…er… blunt… he can be."

On the other hand, he thought, she was having a pretty bad day today. What with accidentally revealing an embarrassing story about herself, and Tenebrae's constant tactless remarks, which were already stirring her up before he even started complaining.

"You never show me proper respect," Tenebrae complained.

Though he didn't loosen his grip on Marta's arms, Emil let his shoulders fall into a slouch. He just stood there with a slack-jawed expression on his face, and for a moment, he toyed with the idea of just letting go of her so that she could rough the Centurion up a bit. Or a lot. And so, he vocalized his decision:

"Okay, Tenebrae, I can't tell whether you're suicidal or just plain masochistic," he groaned, "but the next time she gets like this because you won't stop provoking her, I'm letting her pound you until you look like you've been through an automatic meat tenderizer."

"Wha— what's going on here? Where am I?" Decus suddenly asked, sounding positively frantic as he regained consciousness with a jolt.

Everyone went still as statues. Tenebrae's mouth was open as if he had been about to respond to Emil before Decus had derailed the conversation. Nobody moved, and nobody made so much as a peep. The Centurion observed that he probably could have heard a pin drop, and that would have been impressive considering that they were in a mildly sandy field close to the beach.

Emil actually was moving, though he was trying to be discreet about it. He had pulled out a small pad of paper, wrote down '26th of Ragnome,' folded the note up and stashed it back in his pocket.

"Owww… My aching head…" The purple-haired swordsman tried to rub his forehead with his left hand, but when he tried he noticed that his right hand was being pulled along with it. "What the…? Why am I wearing Alice's handcuffs?"

He finally noticed that he wasn't actually on the ground, but draped haphazardly over an object floating over it. "Hwaugh!"

"Oi!" Tenebrae plucked Decus from where he hung, holding him by the head in his hand-shaped tail and forced him to look directly into his eyes. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble," he grumbled irritably, "Please stop moving around. I assure you that I am not enjoying this any more than you are."

The swordsman blinked twice. Everything was happening so fast. He didn't have the first clue as to what was going on. And what the heck was this weird floating dog talking about? Of course Tenebrae didn't notice. Nor did he care about any of the possible scenarios playing themselves out in Decus' mind. Therefore, he released the young man's head from his grip, and let him fall unceremoniously to the ground about three feet below.

"Tenebrae!" Marta and Emil complained in unison.

"What is it? Don't blame me for this! We all knew that this was going to happen eventually."

Marta and Emil picked Decus from under his arms, and manoeuvred him into a standing position.

"Damn… That hurts. But the pain in my body is nothing compared to the pain in my heart," he said with a tone of melancholy, "Thank's kid, you too Marta."

Something clicked in his head.

"Wait-a-minute! You guys are my dual nemeses! What the hell's going on?"

Decus shook himself free of their grip and scrambled backwards, taking up a defensive stance. Or at least, as close to one as he could manage with his hands and feet in shackles.

"Start explaining this to me. What are you doing? What do you want? If you think taking me as a hostage will benefit you for any possible reason, you're gravely mistaken! I would die before betraying my beloved Alice to you. Nothing you could do to me would ever make me tell you where she is."

"Calm down Decus," Marta said, shaking her head vigorously. "You're not our hostage."

"Then why am I stuck in these handcuffs?" he shouted, waving his hands right in Emil's nose.

"Perhaps they've taken some protective measures?" Tenebrae answered rhetorically, "The last two times we crossed paths with you, you tried to kill them. I'll admit however that you were nothing but courteous when we saw you in Hima."

He blushed in shame, "Oh… right, of course. To be fair, I have nothing against you but… but…" Decus choked, tears welling up in his eyes. "Alice-e-e-e." He knelt on the floor and began to bawl like a character from a poorly written romantic pulp novel. The Centurion of Darkness puffed out a long breath. This nutcase was unbelievable. He had met his fair share of idiots, maniacs, and lunatics over the years, but never had he met someone as erratically emotional as Alice's eccentric admirer in his entire lifetime of over four thousand years.

"I am so sorry, Alice. I truly love you." he bowed and began to beg. "I should never have betrayed you. Forgive me Alice, please, forgive me."

"I hope you realize that you haven't a prayer of getting your words to reach her ears," Tenebrae noted irritably.

That lit the powder keg that was Marta's frayed temper explode and she slapped the Centurion hard in the face.

"Stop being a such a jerk Tenebrae! Can't you see he's suffering?"

For once Tenebrae did as he was told. "I suppose I deserved that one."

The girl knelt at his side, embraced him and patted his back reassuringly. She knew he was an enemy, that he was dangerous, unpredictable, and that he had indeed tried to kill them on several occasions, but somehow, she couldn't be angry at him at this particular moment, a testament to her strong empathy. Maybe it also had something to do with her romantic view of life and the fact that Alice never returned his feelings no matter how hard he tried.

"Calm down Decus. It's alright."

"No, it's not. Alice hates me! I betrayed her. I'm filthy, vile, putrescent, repulsive scum."

He had mentioned that a moment ago. That he betrayed her. She remembered hearing him say that he had betrayed Alice earlier as well, just before he had fainted. Emil couldn't imagine Decus betraying Alice. What had really happened?

"You keep saying that you betrayed her, but I really doubt that. Could you tell us what happened?"

Decus swallowed and did his best to explain the whole situation to them. And when he did, he poured his heart out, letting everything he had into the outlets that sat with him.

He told them of how he and Alice had discovered the power of Cruxis Crystals, how Alice's body changed every time they closed a seal, and how despite gaining more power each time, she only felt angrier. He told them how Alice's behavior grew more and more violent, and unpredictable each time they closed a seal.

Finally he told them about what happened before they had found them. About his so-called 'betrayal.'

"I really wanted what was best for her, I swear! But when I tried to remove the Cruxis Crystal, she woke up. It was almost like it didn't want to come off and made her stop me. And when she saw me, she accused me of trying to steal her power. It was nothing like that! I just wanted to help her! Something's wrong with her. She's…different from how she—"

"Yeah, we know, you've gone over this bit already, but you were almost finished I think," Emil prompted him, "Could you finish telling us what happened?"

Decus nodded. "She decided that I was just another enemy right then and there. She didn't even think about it. She just left me behind. That awful thing is doing this to her, I'm sure of it! I… I just I need to get that damned crystal off of her before it changes her for good, or worse."

Emil and Marta had both heard the stories of Colette and Presea, and how their Cruxis Crystal and exphere respectively had changed them, gradually losing their humanity until they were reduced to emotionless puppets, becoming almost completely inert. It was possible that Alice was going through something similar, and that Colette's Cruxis Crystal had begun to affect her mentally as each seal was closed and lost its link with the chosen.

"It's not your fault Decus, you did what you thought was best for her." Marta said comfortingly.

"Yeah, don't worry about a thing. We'll help you, we can do this! 'Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality.'"

That last quote hit Decus head like a slap to the face. He had always tried to play it cool with everyone, even with his enemies, but that redheaded egomaniac was a different story. He positively resented him.

"Don't ever say that again." The purple-haired swordsman warned, "Not in front of me."

Maybe it was because he couldn't stand his pretentious attitude, or maybe it was because Alice always seemed to be more interested in Richter than in him, but end result was the same. He'd ended up despising that guy.

"Don't try to win me over with his cheap inspirational quotes."

"Cheap inspirational quotes!?" Emil asked indignantly.

Richter was the man who had given him the strength to fight for himself and for what he believed in. The words 'courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality' had been the ones that had pushed him forward and give him the ability to push forward in the face of overwhelming odds. He didn't care who they were, he wasn't going to let anyone insult his mentor.

"Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality isn't cheap! It's—"

"Total bullshit." Decus interrupted him. "It's a bundle of lies wrapped up in a pretty looking box to influence impressionable people."

"That's not true!" Emil countered, "If Richter had never said that to me, I'd be—"

"Look, I'm sorry to trample on your ideals—seriously kid, I mean it—but I don't even think he believed half the crap he said."

"How can you say that?" Emil shouted. "Courage was what made me into the person I am today! It literally did make my dreams come true!"

"Emil, calm down." Marta said, effectively switching roles with him from only a few minutes prior.

"Yeah suuuure." Decus drawled sarcastically. "And that's why he tried to make a deal with the demons; because they'd have given him courage in exchange for opening the gates of Hell."

Decus' reasoning shut Emil up instantly. He had never thought about it in that way. Though it wasn't quite the same thing.

"Face it kid. He did the same thing to you that he did with everyone: He just came up, tossed that meaningless suggestion at you like he did with everyone else, and you bought it hook, line and sinker. He was quite good at making himself look impressive." Decus grumbled as he remembered his days in the Vanguard. The conversations that he had with his beloved Alice…It only served to infuriate him further. "Alice and I were his allies. Did he even ask about us when you faced him at the bottom of the Ginnungagap?"

Emil wasn't able to contradict Decus. It was true; he didn't seem to care about his allies. Not even Aqua, despite everything she did for him, including betraying her master.

"Hell! I'd even bet that he didn't plan on keeping his end of the deal."

Again, true. Richter never had the intention of opening the gates of Niflheim. Of course, that was a good thing. On the other hand, his callous behaviour toward the people he claimed to be in charge of was rowing apparent the more they discussed him. He was beginning to understand why Decus harboured all this anger towards him.

Then he remembered what Richter had said to him after teaching him the words that would become his motto.

'A human with a few screws loose taught me that.'

"Decus. Richter isn't the one who came up with that particular line."

"Oh, this'll be good," he replied sarcastically.

"I'm serious! The one who did…well, you could actually say it was me, to a certain extent. A man named Aster who worked with him at Sybak. Ratatosk killed him before he created me, and used his body as the model for mine."

"I'll be honest, that's pretty morose," Decus replied, looking somewhat disgusted.

"Well, it is creepy. But if I lived my life thinking that I was some sort of walking corpse all the time, I'd become more than a little introverted, don't you think?"

The man didn't have an answer for him this time.

They stood there, not saying anything, nothing but the sound of distant marching disturbing the silence. At first Emil had wanted to keep Decus with them so that he could ask him a question, but now he wasn't so sure. He would be lying to himself if he said that he wasn't afraid to hear the answer.

In the end though, he didn't need to ask. Marta did it for him.

"Why did you do it? Why did you kill all those people?"

Decus was surprised at her question. Didn't he already answer this question before their battle in the Ginnungagap?

"I already told you. I did it for Alice."

"Was it even Alice's plan?" Emil asked, a little skeptical.

"What!? No, of course not! I was following Brute's orders." Decus clarified. "Alice wanted to know everything about everyone when she and I joined the Vanguard, so I began to spy on Richter. It didn't take long before I had figured out that Richter had his own private agenda. Naturally Alice wanted to know every detail. She blackmailed him and threatened to reveal his plans to Commander Brute." Decus explained.

Marta was surprised that Decus could have obtained all that information from someone as painstakingly cautious as Richter without being noticed. On the other hand, Decus was the leader of the espionage division in the Vanguard, which meant that despite his eccentricities, he was likely very good at what he did. Considering that he constantly was making desperate and, more often than not, embarrassing grabs for Alice's affections, it was hard to believe. Apparently he was a more intelligent spy than she gave him credit for.

"With all the information I gave to my dear Alice, Richter had no other option but to tell her everything. She saw an opportunity for obtaining immense power, and when she joined him, I followed, naturally. Unfortunately for us, it wasn't long before your friend Lloyd decided to stick a wrench in our plans…or a sword, I guess. Eventually, we unanimously decided that we needed to create a distraction in order to keep him busy. That's when he started telling Brute about the Centurion's Cores and that they could somehow be used to further his painfully unattainable goal of restoring the old Sylvarant Dynasty…er…" Decus glanced at Marta but she didn't seem to mind his comment so he continued. "Anyway, Richter told Brute about Solum's Core and its properties. Your great hero conveniently forgot to tell either of us about the side effects that Centurion's Cores had over humans. With Solum's core in his possession, Brute decided to attack Palmacosta using someone disguised as Lloyd. I was ordered to lead that attack. They said that the psychological tests I took before joining the Vanguard revealed that I was 'morally flexible,' or something like that, and apparently that made me the perfect person to do it. I assume you know the rest."

Decus looked at his feet in shame. "Look, if I hadn't done it, someone else would have. I'm not trying to excuse my actions but…"

"I understand." Emil said, keeping his voice from shaking.

Emil's worst suspicious were true, Richter was directly involved with the massacre in Palmacosta. Deep down, he had always known, but whenever the thought occurred to him, he denied it. He didn't want to believe that the man who inspired him to become a better person was the instigator of the Blood Purge.

"My apologies for interrupting this genuinely interesting conversation," said Tenebrae with a surprising amount of honesty present in his voice, "but we appear to have company."

Before they even realised what was happening, a unit of heavily armored knights had completely surrounded them. Emil and Marta drew their sword and spinner respectively and stood back to back. The one who seemed to be the leader of the group began to clap them and removed her helmet, revealing cold eyes and a shock of blonde hair. It was Alexia, the leader of the Pope's Templars.

Emil and Marta sheathed their weapons and sighed with relief. At least it was someone they knew.

"Excellent work…Emil and Marta if I'm not mistaken. I see you've captured this murderer," she said resolutely, "Turn him over to me. He must be punished for his crimes."

The Commandant took another look at the group of teenagers. "Just as I suspected. She is no longer travelling with him. This confirms that Alice is the culprit behind the murders at Thoda dock."

"She did what!?" Marta shouted in shock. Why? Why was she doing this? Couldn't she see that she was just digging her own grave? Alice was not making this easy.

"She killed two unlucky bounty hunters as well as a person we have yet to identify. The corpse was found in the nearby House of Salvation, if you can even call it a corpse. There was virtually nothing left of the victim aside from a stain on the floor. We also found a girl entangled in what looked like an ice sculpture of a rosebush, complete with needle-like thorns. She survived, and was still alive when we left, however she has lost a great deal of blood and I cannot ensure she will not die of her wounds." Alexia explained all this with practiced calm, and seeming eerily unaffected by what she found. "We suspect that Alice is heading to Thoda Island. I knew I made the right choice when I sent a legion of my knights there."

Decus frowned. Alice must be well on her way toward closing the last seal. If she succeeded, well… he preferred not to think about what would happen if she closed the Seal of Water. He knew what he had to do; he had to stop her, for her own sake. Unfortunately, being the kid's captive was something of a setback, and if the Papal Knights captured him, he could say goodbye to any chance of saving her. Before he could even think of a plan however, Alexia gave the order:

"Soldiers! Retrieve the prisoner!"

"Yes, Madam Commandant!"

Decus took a halting step backwards. "Dammit! Come on, Decus, think… Think!" he hissed to himself, "Think of something and think of it fast!"

Apparently it was his lucky day.

Not because he had thought of something, but because he really did get a lucky break.

Right as the soldiers went to apprehend the violet-headed swordsman, Emil interposed himself between the knights and Decus, holding his arms out to the sides in a universal gesture of 'do not pass.'

"What are you doing?" Alexia demanded, her icy calm finally giving way to the aggression that boiled beneath the surface. It was easy to see that she wasn't pleased at all with the boy's interference.

"I'm sorry, but I have to know what you plan on doing with him," Emil answered, trying to sound brave, or at least sure of himself. While he certainly wasn't a coward anymore, standing up to this woman was extremely difficult. There was no denying that Alexia was very intimidating.

"The Pope commanded me to find and execute the criminals Alice and Decus for killing the King of Tethe'alla." she recited impatiently. "Now stand aside and let my soldiers take him."

"Obey the commandant's orders, impertinent boy," said one of the knights as he took Emil by the shoulder and tried unsuccessfully to shove him away.

"No!"

Emil pushed the knight back, with considerably more success, and again kept himself between the knights and Decus.

"Can someone please explain what's going on?" The captive in question asked. Why was the kid defending him? He knew he was his fan, but going this far to defend him? Maybe the kid had really fallen in love with him after all.

"Poor kid. I'll have to break his heart again."

"Emil?" Marta said his name inquisitively. She had to admit that she was a little surprised by his attitude. She wanted to help Decus too, but going so far as to risk one's life to defend him after all he did? She knew he wasn't the only participant in the Blood Purge, but that didn't make him innocent, and even if part of her wanted to forgive him, she just couldn't forget his crimes. She was in Palmacosta when he did it after all.

"What are you doing, Emil?" Alexia inquired in a threatening voice.

"Yes, Lord Emil, what are you doing?" Tenebrae asked. "Or rather, what in the world are you thinking?! Why are you defending him of all the people? Stop wasting time and leave Decus to his fate. Do I have to remind you what's going to happen if Alice closes the last Sylvaranti seal?"

"I know, I know, but killing him isn't going to solve anything."

Alexia drew her poleaxe and pointed the blade at him, the polished metal gleaming dramatically in the sunlight. "Listen, ignorant boy, I have absolutely no time for this. If you refuse to turn Decus over to us, we won't hesitate to take him by force."

"But you'll kill him! What good can possibly come of this?"

"What should we do then? Forgive him? He is a mass murderer! Give him to us this instant!" She shouted furiously, "Step aside this instant or I will label you as a hostile, and if I do that, you have minutes to live at best."

"If you want me to offer him up on a silver platter, then I'll do it when you explain exactly how killing him does anything other than lower ourselves down to his level!" Emil said, suddenly feeling incredibly confident, raising his voice with each sentence until he was shouting right back at the Templar Commandant, "Won't that make us murderers too? Does execution of a criminal mean it isn't just another murder?! No good comes from revenge! I learned that lesson firsthand!" Emil explained, panting from having screamed for so long. Unfortunately, aside from Tenebrae, Marta, and possibly Decus, no one else seemed to care for his arguments. In fact, if anything, Alexia looked more outraged than she had before.

"I have no more patience for this," she whispered, but that whisper launched her into a roar, "I've had enough of you and your grotesquely idealistic view of the world, and I've had enough of listening to your pathetically naïve notion that you could possibly know better than the Pope, and by extension the Goddess Martel herself!"

"I never said—"

"I'm done with this," Alexia snarled. She then drove her halberd into the ground, looked toward the sky, placed her right hand over her heart, and her left on the haft of her weapon.

"In the name of the Goddess Martel, and by the power invested in me by Her messenger the Pope, I declare you all traitors to Meltokio!" she declared, "Surrender now and we'll offer you a fair trial. Try to hinder us, and you will force us to execute you!

"This murderer will face Martel's divine judgement, even if it means we have to step over your corpses to get to him. Just know that it was you that forced my hand."

"What!?" Emil and Marta exclaimed in unison. Was she really going to attack them? And she was blaming them for their own potential murder at her hands?!

"Soldiers! Take them all! If they resist, don't hesitate."

"But we aren't traitors! We're trying to help! We're trying to save Meltokio from an impending disaster, and you're standing in our way, not the other way around! What you're doing is insanity! You have to stop! Please!" Emil begged walking slowly backwards.

His hand was shaking nervously over the sword's handgrip. He didn't want to use it, but he had to be ready to defend his companions if necessary.

"You are responsible for this. I gave you fair warning!"

"You didn't leave us any other option!" Marta complained. "You're demanding that we let you kill a person in our custody. It's neither fair, nor necessary."

"Welcome to the real world Marta." Decus noted.

He knew this situation very well. He lived through something similar a few years prior when Alice was attacked by a violent mob. The town's residents had accused her of being a Desian spy. It was the first time he killed a person. It was an accident; he had swung his sword to keep the mob at bay, but some of them still tried to attack Alice. The man had charged right into the arc of his sword, and died instantly. It took him a few seconds to come to grips with what he had done. Alice had grabbed him by the arm and practically dragged him away from the astonished, and terrified mob. That day changed his entire perception of the world as he knew it.

"Once you decide to do what's necessary, the rest of the world will steal your right to do what you want," he added.

Emil looked worriedly at Marta. He suddenly felt responsible for getting her into a real mess of trouble.

"Fine, Madam Commandant," he said, his voice spiteful with defeat, "But leave Marta out of this. I'm the one who—"

"Don't worry about it Emil," said Marta, her face a mask of confidence, even though she didn't quite feel it. "I'm with you. And I'm not about to let these fanatics get their way. You're no different than the Vanguard. The only difference is that you're from Tethe'alla. By your reasoning, that alone means you get to pass judgement on anyone."

"How dare you!" Alexia's face was turning red enough to give the Pope a run for his money.

Meanwhile, Decus was staring at them, positively envious. "Hey, lovebirds! Could you please give me the keys to the handcuff?" How he wished his relationship with Alice could be like theirs.

Emil hesitated. "I don't know…"

"C'mon… Aren't we on the same side now?"

"I'm not 'on your side!'" Emil complained. "Just because I don't want to see you get killed, doesn't mean I suddenly want to be friends."

Decus sat and crossing his legs and sighed. "Don't worry, it's cool. Now just convince them about that," he grumbled sarcastically, pointing awkwardly at the squadron of armed knights approaching them with what was very likely murderous intent. There were already three knights pointing their weapons at Emil and Marta.

"In the name of the Church of Martel, drop your weapons and surrender!" the three proclaimed in unison.

"Can't we talk about this?" Emil asked, his voice trembling. He really hoped that his smile was disarming.

If it was however, it didn't get the job done.

"Drop your weapons now, or I will order them to attack." Alexia warned.

"Pft… weren't you going to do that anyway?" Marta muttered under her breath. "Look, we can't be arrested! Alice is about to—"

"Aha! I knew it all along! You are allied with her!"

Decus rolled his eyes, "She just can't cut the bullshitting can she?"

"You didn't even let me finish! She's about to—"

"Silence! You three," the blonde woman pointed to three of the knights, "Eliminate these traitors!"

As soon as she gave the order, the three Templars broke from the circle and attacked.

Tenebrae's eye twitched. As much as he preferred to be a bystander in combat, he refused to let this continue.

"This is idiotic! Alexia, we should be working together to fight our common enemy, not trying to kill each other!" the centurion shouted.

"You became our enemies when you decided to side with that heathen murderer. You are traitors to Aselia."

"Traitors to Aselia?" Tenebrae asked, sounding genuinely curious, though the passive aggression in his tone was evident, "Now why would that be? Is it because we disobeyed you? Or is it because we disagree with your ideals, your refusal to accept that dictates that anything you can't understand must be destroyed?"

"How dare you claim to understand the reasoning of divinity, unholy beast! You know nothing of gods!"

"I know more than you would believe. No one can give you the right to—"

"The Pope can, in the name of the Goddess Martel! And he is the only—"

"Well, Ratatosk was the former guardian of the Giant Kharlan tree, and Martel's personal ally. I am a Centurion, one of his guardians, therefore I overrule him! And do you really believe that His Eminence has what's best for the world in mind? You don't need to do very much digging to learn that he has only one priority, and it is not to lead your faith; it is, and has always been to use religion as a means to get power! And don't you see? He succeeded weeks ago, thanks to your blindness! Or have you just not noticed that the Pope has been publicly issuing royal degrees? As I recall, the punishment for treason is—"

Alexia screamed as if in physical agony, when she looked back at Tenebrae, the look in her eyes was murderous.

"Blasphemy! I will hear no more of your heretical preaching! You will burn at the stake for this!"

Tenebrae nearly laughed at the bizarre image of himself being tied to a plank of wood and set on fire. "You intend to kill a Centurion? Do you even realize that this is physically impossible?" he sighed, and floated into the air beyond the reach of Alexia's halberd. "I give up. I tried to get through to you, but this is obviously a waste of time. Lord Emil, Lady Marta, finish up with these imbeciles quickly so we can continue."

"Easier said than done!" Emil grunted as he used a Phoenix Rush arte to strike at two of knights, who promptly switched targets and went after his companion. He had to parry the third's spear before his feet had touched the ground again.

"We could use…a little…help…Tenebrae!" Marta complained while she dodged a pair of spears.

"Very well. Give me one moment," the Centurion agreed, drifting back a ways. Fortunately, only Emil was able to see the black runes spreading out around him.

"You know, I could help you out if you just gave me the damn keys to these things!" Decus reminded them, shaking the cuffs vigorously and jangling their chains.

At the head of the knight mass, Alexia took a deep breath, and let it out vigorously. She repeated this process, then repeated it again. Four breaths. Five breaths. Six breaths. Seven breaths. Eight breaths. She was okay. She would not let the lies of that demonic dog break her. She needed a calm mind to retain command, and she needed self control if she wanted to fulfill his duty with the expected diligence.

Meanwhile, Emil was beginning to seriously consider Decus' offer. Alexia's Templars were frighteningly stronger than Meltokio or Papal knights. The training he had been witness to on her flagship paid off in full. He wasn't sure that they'd be able to hold them off even if Decus did enter the fight. He needed help right away, but could he really trust Decus with his life?

As if in answer to his dilemma, one of the knights broke his guard and jabbed him in the solar plexus with the blunt end of his spear. He would have doubled over but his attacker spun his spear and knocked him into the air.

Not one to ignore her boyfriend, Marta noticed him getting overwhelmed and slashed his attackers aside with her Swallow Waltz arte.

"You okay, Emil?" she asked hurriedly, using her spinner as a shield as two of the offending Templars tried to bring their spears down on her head.

"I'm fine," he said, looking at the third knight who advancing on him, spear at the ready. Looking past him, he saw the entire squadron of Templars watching, waiting for the orders to attack. The decision was made for him. "Looks like I'll have to take the risk."

"Please, don't make me regret this," he told Decus sternly. Digging the key out of his pocket, he held it up for the other swordsman to see, and tossed it to him. While Decus made a valiant effort to catch the small metal object, the handcuffs thwarted him in his endeavour. Even so, it was the last time that they would hinder him that day.

Taking the cuffs off was a relief, but he wasn't given much time to feel it.

"The traitor finally showed his true colors," snarled Alexia spitefully. "You lower yourself to the criminal's level not by executing him, but by freeing him. I'm sorry, but I warned you repeatedly, and you ignored me. You have left me no other option," her voice, hoarse from shouting held a desperately sad tone, "All Templars kill them!"

"Because they weren't trying to kill us already?" Emil mumbled with almost cheerful sounding sarcasm, followed by a heavy sigh. "This won't be good."

"Do not hold back. Do not take prisoners. These criminals will face Martel's justice." The blonde woman continued.

The circle of knights closed in on them, and the attack began. They struck without hesitation, their attacks stronger, and their movements more fluid. Emil was doing his best to defend himself, but two against twenty wasn't exactly a fair fight to begin with. If he added the fact that they also possessed a real amount of skill, the outcome didn't look very promising for him or Marta.

"Gyaah," the girl in question shrieked as she was struck to the ground.

"Marta!"

Emil turned momentarily to check on her. Taking advantage of his distraction, one of the knights struck Emil's sword with all his might, sending the weapon flying. He had no time to react. Another knight whacked him in the head with the haft of his spear, leaving him disoriented and allowing for one of his companions to drive him to the ground. A thin line of red began to make itself visible on the back of his head where the spear had hit him.

They didn't waste so much as a second. One of them approached Emil. And drew his spear back, to deliver a fatal blow. However, he was met with considerable resistance when he tried to thrust his weapon forward.

"What?"

The knight looked to see a hand on his spear. His eyes followed it up its arm until he saw the face of the man to whom the hand belonged.

It was Decus. The purple-haired swordsman waved, and smiled casually. The knight tried to shake the spear out of his grip but it was useless. It felt like he was tugging on a spear held by a statue.

"Good afternoon, nice to see you. Sorry about the interference, but I kind of need him alive right now. Come to think of it, so do you," Decus explained with a cheerful expression.

"Let go of my sp–Oomph!"

Decus punched him in the face, flooring him instantly.

The other Templars looked up from what their targets, to see their companion on the floor. They couldn't believe it, not only was their companion unconscious, but his helm was dented. Exactly how strong was this guy?

With a barked order from Alexia however, they were back in formation. They recomposed themselves and looked Decus, who was pointing at one of them with his finger, his face dead serious.

"You're next on the list," he said coldly.

However as cool as he wanted to look, the reality was that he was beginning to notice a blinding pain in his hand.

"Oh my goddess, that hurts like hell!My hand!Gaaaaah! I must have broken something! That helm was much harder than it looked! Ack! Damn that hurts! Holy crap! Hold on a sec, folks."

He continued cursing while the knights looked at him skeptically.

"This doesn't matter," Alexia said sternly, "Templars, you have only one more opponent to fight! You have the advantage. Six of you against three of them!"

"Actually Madam Commandant, we outnumber you five to one." Tenebrae said matter-of-factly.

"What kind of nonsense are you spouting, devil?" the Commandant said, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. He couldn't possibly be serious, "Where on Aselia could you have possibly have received thirty men from?"

"Please, don't insinuate that I would stoop so low as to call in human reinforcements. But don't you worry, reinforcements they are, and they will answer to me once they are here."

"Then by all means, tell me where they are."

"Very well." Tenebrae grinned "Just look up."

Alexia did as instructed, however there was nothing in the sky. To flock of hippogryphs, or pack of manticores. No hoard of artificial demons. Absolutely nothing.

"Ha! You're all talk. I knew you were just—"

She was suddenly cut off by a powerful tremor that made the ground shudder as though the land itself feared whatever was approaching.

"Whoops," Tenebrae said euphemistically.

Marta turned the head nervously. "Whoops? What is 'whoops' supposed to mean?"

"I knew it was jamarka esta simpatesda, not endesta sinkofalia," Tenebrae thought aloud completely ignoring Marta's question.

"What have you done?" Alexia, Marta and Emil all asked at the same time.

"Oh, this is very funny, hehe!" he answered, accidentally revealing his lack of control over the situation with a nervous laugh. "I might have misspelled a small section of text in the summoning circle during the ritual. And I might have summoned the wrong creature."

"What!" Marta shouted. "What the hell have you summoned?"

As if on cue, the ground gave a massive shudder and an enormous black and red worm-like serpent violently broke through the ground, roaring in a display of raw power and tossing the knights to the air like toy soldiers as it emerged.

"A Jormungand," Tenebrae answered, looking at the monster, "I'll be honest, I'm not sure that I can properly control it. It's not a creature that I hold any sway over."

Alexia stared at the creature before her with incredulity. The monster had three pairs of eyes on each side of its head and the mouth was filled with five rows of sharp fangs. It was without a doubt, a creature from the very bowels of hell.

"Scatter!" she shouted just as the monster attacked to the knights.

The knights immediately let their initial targets go, now far more concerned with the immediate threat.

"Well at least it has decided to attack them and not us," Tenebrae thought with a sigh of relief. There was a difference between summoning a monster and controlling it, and Jormungands were quite reluctant to obey anyone. In fact, there was an expression about them that went: "You don't tame Jormungands, you just teach them to eat something else," It was typically used when you saw someone doing something that you knew would have an unpleasant outcome. Among the centurions, it was used literally. Solum had even added to it: "And even that really depends on whether you can survive long enough to teach them that."

Even as the monster attacked the Templars, Decus was still yelping in pain, clutching his wrist. "Augh! Why did I punch him on the face? I'm an idiot! Oh my goddess, I must have shattered my knuckles!"

One of the knights lucky enough to have gone unnoticed by the Jormungand glanced at his unconscious companion out of the corner of his eye and gulped with mild trepidation.

'How can such a goofball be so strong?' he thought, 'Well, unnatural strength aside, he can't avoid an attack that he doesn't see coming, especially while he's unarmed. You don't scare me, murderer! As long as the Goddess is with me I cannot be defeated!' He proceeded to sneak toward the distracted purple-haired man.

"Uh, sorry, I'll need to borrow that for a minute."

"What the—Ghaah!"

Not only had Decus noticed him, he had grabbed him by the wrist, twisted it in a direction that it definitely was not supposed to go in, and wrenched his spear out of his now feeble grip. "Thank you, I'll return this to you in a minute, providing you're still alive. You might want to get that looked at by the way. Dislocated hands hurt a lot."

The knight tried to attack him with his armoured fist, but Decus dodged the punch easily. "You really should have stayed at home today."

The Templar gulped, then choked on his saliva as Decus flipped him over his head and planted him face down in the dirt.

Meanwhile the monster that Tenebrae had summoned continued raging at the soldiers. The wyrm reared back and shot a jet of sizzling green acid at one of the soldiers from somewhere in its mouth. Luckily for him, Alexia pushed him out of the way before it could hit him, and likely reduce him to molten slag.

"Be more careful soldier!" Alexia ordered angrily without taking her eyes off the monster.

The man gaped from beneath his helmet at the trail of smoking and melted grass, which the substance had hit instead of him. If it hadn't been for his superior, he would have suffered a particularly gruesome and painful death.

"Ye-yes ma'am!"

Emil and Marta were fighting for their lives against a single particularly tough knight. Decus stunned him with a sharp kick to the side of the head and Marta slashed him across the backs of his knees. He fell to the ground, knocking Emil over in the process. Even so, he sighed with relief as Decus offered him a hand and Tenebrae drifted toward them.

"Thanks," he said, taking his hand. "It took you a while."

"Had to apply my cologne," the purple-haired swordsman explained hurriedly as he pulled Emil to his feet.

"I take it that my monsters are to you satisfaction, Lord Emil?"

"I even doubt you can control that thing," Marta interjected.

"What! Of course I can control it! Can't you see it hasn't even attempt to attack us?" Tenebrae shouted in defense. "The truth is that he hasn't attack us because it saw them first. If they don't kill it we are going to be its dessert."

"Yeah, sure..." said Marta, arching her eyebrows, "Did you just say you were putting on your cologne Decus?"

"Of course. I never go anywhere without a bottle of it."

"Darn it!" she swore.

"Huh?"

"I thought I got rid of it all!"

"What!? Why would you do that!?"

"You wouldn't understand," Emil sighed, "we've tried explaining it to you multiple times already anyway, but it doesn't really matter now."

"Do you have any idea how much I paid for that set?"

"Ten thousand gald too much?" Tenebrae supplied.

"Actually it only cost me about six thousand, but that's still a lot!"

"Then my point is still valid. You still paid ten thousand gald too much for that noxious brew."

Decus groaned. It would take days to place another order.

The gears started turning in Marta's head, and she guessed that he was probably thinking about buying more by mail order. She decided not to depress him further by informing him that Eau de Seduction was, thank goddess, no longer in production, or on the market. Still they both felt kind of bad for him. Especially after he had just saved their lives.

He actually saved their lives.

Emil grinned. Maybe Decus wasn't that bad after all.

"Thanks for—"

Before he could finish, Decus punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and forcing him to the ground again.

"That's for attacking Alice back in the Ginnungagap!" he snarled, suddenly very angry. "What the hell was that? She was attacking you with a toy rapier! Yeah, go and attack her with a real weapon! That seems like a sane response!" he shouted sarcastically.

The purple-haired swordsman's temperament had gone from amicable to outrage in a split second. 'Loose cannon' didn't even begin to describe this guy.

"I— I-was… I… def— I-was…defending-myself…" Emil gulped out airlessly, barely able get enough oxygen into his lungs to speak coherently.

"She was attacking you with a novelty item!" Decus continued ranting, pacing back and forth in a short line in front of his audience. Emil desperately wanted to reply, but needed most of his energy to keep breathing without suffering additional pain. "A goddamn toy! Did it really sting so much that you had to attack her with a sword! What the hell is wrong with you!? You could have killed her!"

"I-I'm sorry."

"I can't believe you! How do you justify something like that?"

"Decus!" Marta exclaimed. He was too busy raving hysterically to notice her slide in front of him and use her unopened spinner like a low hanging wall applied to the forehead. To his discredit, he practically charged into the metal disc.

She was easily able to drop her opponent in an instant and he lay on the ground in a daze. Again to his discredit, he had underestimated the fighting prowess of the teenager girl.

"Cut it out! Lay off him now, or else!" she growled menacingly, revving up her spinner.

"Uh, what?" he answered, deadpan, "If you're really considering killing me for shouting at him, you may want to check in to see a psychiatrist when you go home."

"Err…" she said smartly. Moments later she realized that the correct response would have been 'you're one to talk,' but he was already speaking again.

"Do I look like I plan on killing him? No," he explained, as he picked himself up off the ground and looking at Emil with contempt. "But that doesn't mean I just can leave him unpunished after hurting Alice. Now that he's gotten what's coming to him though, I can leave without regrets."

"Wait—I need to—" Emil stammered.

"But—"

"Let him be Marta," Tenebrae warned in a serious voice. He was expecting this to happen sooner or later. At the very least, he predicted that Decus had no murderous intent. Mostly though, he just wanted him gone.

The brunette had been about to tell him that it was she who had wounded Alice in the Ginunngagap a month ago, but after what he had done to Emil she decided to follow Tenebrae's advice. It would be better if she let him be and resolve the issue when he was calmer.

She ran towards Emil, helping help to his feet after he had recovered, and they fell into step behind Decus, who had retrieved his iron maiden.

They didn't go very far. Alexia stood in their path. Though the Jormungand had soundly beaten all of her soldiers, all of whom were now unconscious or dead on the ground, the great serpent itself lay dead as well, split in two lengthwise behind her.

'How did she do that? It's not natural! Did she kill it on her own?' Tenebrae silently wondered, 'She must have used some kind of arte. I should have paid more attention to their fight. Well, at least that thing is no longer a threat and neither are her knights.'

She looked each of them in the eye, one after another.

"It serves him right for trusting someone like you," she said with a grin of satisfaction cleaning the sweat over her forehead. "However you'd be delusional if you thought I would just let you leave. I've spent a lot of time and resources tracking you down, and I absolutely refuse to lose you again now that I've finally found you."

Decus continued his impassive approach, casually removing his sword from his iron maiden, holding it in one hand and the sword in the other. Only minutes earlier he had been completely unconscious, dead to the world, and he was already prepared for battle.

"In the name of the Goddess Martel, prepare to meet your end!"

And with that she stampeded toward Decus.

He tossed his iron maiden to the sand and took up an aggressive stance with his sword. He had a mission to fulfill, and nothing and no one was going to interfere. He was ready to repeal her first attack when suddenly Alexia fell to her knees and dropped her weapon.

"Uh, what?"

Decus wasn't the only one to be surprised by the sudden change in her personality; Marta, Emil and Tenebrae were equally stunned by what was happening. A second ago she was charging at him and now she was sitting in front of him, her face beet red.

'No… not this again…' she pleaded silently. 'How is this happening? I have to kill him! He has to die! Why? Why can't I bring myself to do it?'

His gorgeous face, his sapphire eyes, his elegantly styled hair, his perfectly toned body, and that positively entrancing aroma. She couldn't resist!

Decus didn't know how to react. He knew she was his enemy but attacking someone who was knelt in front of him disarmed and completely vulnerable just didn't feel right.

"Okay, you've made it clear to me that you want to cut me up like a scalloped potato, so I'm just going to ask if you're okay," he felt like an idiot for caring about the wellbeing of someone who had just sworn to kill him in Martel's name, but it was hard not to be intrigued; she seemed to have gone into some sort of strange trance. "Please tell me you are, because that'll make it a lot easier to know what to do in this situation."

'Oh my Goddess! He's actually concerned about me!'

"I…. I…" She tried valiantly to reply, but no words would leave her mouth. Something about the way he was looking at her…

'Does he feel the same way I feel about him?' she wondered, 'Wait! Why do I even care? He's a monster! …I wonder if he's seeing anyone.'

Decus arched his eyebrows. What could possibly be going on?

Alexia felt her ears burning and covered her face with her hands.

'I can't let him see me like this!'

"Just get away from me!" she shouted. Her heart was beating frantically, "I don't know what you're doing to me, but make it stop! Leave! Now!"

"Oh… Okay?" he said uncertainly. He took a few careful steps back, picked up his iron maiden, and stuffed his sword inside it. He turned his head to glance at the Commandant as he began to make his retreat. He was about to ask if there was anything he could do to help, but things had gotten weird enough already, and asking questions would just make the situation more awkward. Besides, he had to find Alice before anyone else did. Wasting this opportunity to make a clean escape would be incredibly foolish.

"Well… um… thank you?" Decus asked unsure. "Have a nice day and all that I guess."

"Too late for that…" she moaned under her breath.

When she looked up, he had broken into a run, and was heading for Thoda dock.

Alexia blushed, squealed, and slammed her hands over her mouth as she her mouth as she heard her voice reaching a pitch she never wanted to hear it at. Luckily for her Decus didn't seem to have noticed it. The same couldn't be said about the other trio however.

"I don't know what he did to her, but we should take this chance to escape," Tenebrae noted.

Marta nodded and put Emil's arm over her shoulders. He was still coughing trying to recover from Decus' punch.

Which is about the time they ran out of luck. As soon as they tried to leave, Alexia recovered and was brandishing her halberd again.

"Stop right there! Where do you think you're going, traitors!"

Tenebrae sighed. Of course…it was too good to be true.

"Shouldn't you be going after Decus instead?" Tenebrae pointed. "You accused us of defending him while we had him in chains, and declared us traitors to the entire world. Now you have let him escape completely. By your philosophy, you should now be a much worse traitor we are, wouldn't you agree?"

"Silence, devil! I don't need to explain myself to your kind." Alexia was redder than a cranberry. She couldn't believe that she had let him escape a second time. But she couldn't let them know that. "He must have used some sort of spell on me."

Tenebrae rolled his eyes.

"Marta… Do you think it could have been the cologne he wears?" he whispered.

"No way… I mean… You've smelled it yourself. Anyone who found that attractive would have to be crazy…" she justified, but the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to explain her sudden bout of split personality disorder. But it had to be impossible, right? "Do you think it really was?"

"What are you two whispering?" demanded the Commandant.

"Nothing, nothing… Anyway, I assume it would be too much to ask for you to let us go about our business without fighting?" the Centurion grumbled.

"Are you insane!? There is no way in hell that I would ever let three traitors to my kingdom escape!"

Tenebrae sighed. This woman's attitude was exasperating beyond belief. Well, if there wasn't going to be an easy way out of this, "Desperate times called for desperate measures."

"No, thank you Tenebrae, we will take care of her ourselves." Marta said pointing at the dead worm.

"I bet you are going to remember this little mistake all your life."


Renegade's base

A metallic door opened sliding up into the ceiling and Raine, Regal, Genis, Presea, Sheena and Zelos entered in the room.

"Well, that was easier than expected." Zelos said, turning on the lights, "This is the control center, right?"

The entire chamber was filled with computers and other informatics devices. It wasn't very different from the controls rooms that the Desians had in their human ranches. At least, the two that he had been at. It shouldn't have surprised him. The technology was identical after all.

"He always used the same password for everything: 'icandoitbetter,' no caps," Raine answered, a little ashamed of actually knowing his password. She really wished could change her past wherever he was involved.

"Wait, what?" Genis gasped, an open-mouthed grin spreading across his face as he tried not to laugh. "Does he even realize what he's implying?"

"Don't underestimate Nickolay, Genis. He's a certified genius." Raine warned with a hint of annoyance in her voice. She blushed faintly for a fraction of second before adding, "That said, he's certainly no language expert."

The professor sat down in one of the chairs, turned on the largest computer, and began waiting for it to boot up, completely ignoring everything else. Everyone shared a suspicious glance, but no one actually said anything.

"Well…" Raine began clearing her throat, opening up the base's security feeds and beginning a thorough search. "Let's see, let's see… Where are you, Colette…?"

"Raine, I doubt it'll be this easy for us to find her. That room we fought Nickoly's techno-exbeula wasn't here last time, and we searched this place inside out." Zelos explained.

She nodded. Tapping a few keys, she typed in some sort of code and the words "Vault Breached" appeared onscreen.

"Excellent. Thank you for the advice Zelos."

"You're welcome! Finally, some recognition. Now if I could just get that iced tea, everything would be perfect."

"Are you still hung up on that?" Sheena asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, excuse me for feeling like I'm dying of thirst!"

Raine rolled her eyes, and added the vault's cameras to the rest of the ensemble, giving them a good view of the all the rooms and corridors.

"Look over here! I may have found Colette!" Presea shouted pointing at one of the screens with an unusual enthusiasm on her.

Raine pressed a few keys and the frame that Presea was pointing at expanded until it covered the all-screens-ensemble with its single image of the room where Colette was.

The blonde girl was strapped to an operating table. She was mostly naked, and had a few bruises here and there, but aside from that, she looked more or less unharmed.

Everyone sighed in relief.

"Well, there's one worry out of the way. Our cute little angel's alright!" Zelos said.

Sheena slammed her good fist onto a nearby desk.

"When we take Nickolay on, I'm going to make him pay for each one of those bruises."

"I don't think that Nickolay did that." Raine corrected. "Back when I knew him at least, he went to outrageous lengths to take meticulous care of all of his test subjects."

Everyone directed their very prejudiced gazes toward the professor.

"What!?" she protested, her eyes fiery. Why were they judging her? She just stated a fact.

"Nothing, nothing!" Zelos said with a timid and hopefully disarming smile as a drop of cold sweat rolled down his forehead. That woman could be very scary when she wanted.

She cleared her throat, "Anyway, I suspect that those injuries were either inflicted upon her by Alice, or…" she trailed off.

"Or…?" Genis prompted anxiously.

Raine tilted her head to the side.

"She may have gotten them struggling to free herself."

"Oh. Whew… I thought it was going to be worse for a sec," he said, relieved, "Well, all things considered, I guess it could be a lot worse. Can we try find Lloyd now?"

"That's probably a good idea." Regal agreed.

Raine flexed her fingers and returned to the overall security feed, beginning to search the live footage for any sign of her former student.

"Oh…my…goddess! Look!" Genis gasped pointing at a screen.

This wasn't something new for them in any way, but they had never expected to see this particular phenomenon a second time: Raine adjusted the image so that it filled the entirety of the central screen. Lloyd was fighting against some kind of half-exbeula creature, and judging by his perpetually defensive stance and the various wounds on his body, it was easy to see who was losing. Lloyd's skill was being outdone by sheer muscle.

'Damn it Nickolay! You actually went and did it!' Raine cursed silently.

"What the hell is that thing!?" Zelos asked, looking at the bizarre creature attacking Lloyd in the display.

"That 'thing' is Nickolay." Raine confirmed.

"Why I'm not surprised?" Zelos sighed. "The mad scientist becomes a monster to attempt to defeat his enemy. It's just like Rodyle."

"You know, I try to see things from my enemies perspectives from time to time, but this guy is impossible! Every time I try to come up with a reason for me to sympathise with him he just proves that, no, he really is just a huge churl. I can't even give this guy points for creativity."

"Cliché or not, he'll be very dangerous in that form." Raine said. "And this isn't like Rodyle."

"What do you mean?" Genis asked.

"For one thing, while Rodyle couldn't change back, Nickolay can, at least if his results matched his hypothesis. He's using an incomplete Cruxis Crystal."

"And it turns him into that when he uses it? That is gross!" Sheena recoiled in disgust.

"Actually, no. It turned him into that, period."

"Isn't that what I said?"

"No. I said it in the past tense."

"I'm still not getting it," said Sheena, scratching her head.

"What I mean, is that that is his real body. The thing Lloyd is fighting, is what he looks like naturally now."

There was a round of various disgusted exclamations from everyone present in the room.

"I'm assuming his key crest acts as an inhibiter for the excess power." the silver-haired half-elf explained, pointing out the key crest lying on the floor in one of the footage boxes. "As such, this means that he can never take the crest off or he'll turn into…well, what you see here. Lloyd must have made him really angry."

"It's also likely that he can't just change back at will. Like an exbeula, he'll get angrier and angrier the longer he fights. At a certain point, he won't have the rational capacity to put the key crest back on, meaning the only way he'll change back is if he no longer has anything to fight, or is forcibly subdued."

"Then we shouldn't be hesitating," Presea decided, already on her way to the door.

"Presea's right!" Genis agreed, surprising even himself by his confidence, but somehow the fact that something needed to be done about the precarious situation made it easier. "Lloyd has to take him down, and take him down fast! He needs all the help he can get."

"Exactly," Presea added, "Will you be accompanying me, Genis?"

"Uh, y-yeah! Let's go!"

"Hey! Wait for me!" Sheena tried to catch them but Zelos grabbed her arm before she could leave. "What the hell are you doing? Let go of me!"

"You can't go with them. You're still wounded after the fight against that exbeula."

"Shut up! I still can fight!" Sheena protested twisting her arm in an attempt to break Zelos' grip.

"No! He's right. You're still wounded after the fight against Nickolay's very inaptly named Beauty," said Raine, "And we need someone to find Colette. You and Zelos should go look for her."

Part of Sheena still wanted to protest. She was just watching while her crush was being assaulted. By a mad scientist with claws, no less. Being unable to help him frustrated her to no end.

On the other hand, she knew that Raine was right. With her injuries, she needed a few gels and at least an hour before she could get back into the fight, and of course someone had to get Colette out of that operating room, and leaving Zelos to do that alone in her present condition made her uncomfortable.

"Fine… we'll go and find Colette," she conceded. She wasn't really excited about the idea, which wasn't to say she didn't want to help Colette either; Sylvarant's Chosen was one of her best friends after all. She just really wanted to help Lloyd.

"Have you noticed how we always end up together?" Zelos wondered aloud.

"I am in no mood!" she growled.

"Okay, okay! Don't hit me!"

They left, leaving Regal and the professor as the last people in the room.

The executive pulled a swivel chair away from one of the other consoles and sat down beside Raine.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, I've no reason to mince words;" she announced, her attention fixed on the computer, "I'm going to reduce this building to rubble."

Regal couldn't help but chuckle. "Speaking of clichés."

There was a buzzing noise and a red error message came up followed by a female, but obviously mechanical voice speaking over the intercom:

"Subject identity confirmed: Sage, Raine," it announced, "Species: Half-elf female. Age: Twenty-four years. The following protocols have been disabled until subject has vacated the premesis: Self-destruct protocol, mana distribution system."

The door opened up and the two other groups stepped back in to see Raine staring at the computer monitor, with a wide-eyed look of intrigue written across her face.

"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I for one think this is a nice change of pace," Genis said cheerfully.

"Me too," Regal said, dropping his elegance in favor of relief.

"Me three," Presea said, successfully keeping a straight face, and earning a laugh from both Regal and Genis.

"I'm going to agree with Genis here. You know, I'm not in the mood for big explosions right now."

All eyes—except for Raine, who still sat in stunned silence at the console—turned to Sheena.

"What can I say? I'm finding that faint electrical humming is actually kind of relaxing. Besides, this building is a marvel of technology. You'd regret blowing it up anyway."

"Well said, chief," Zelos nodded with gusto, "Let's get moving then."

"You really, shouldn't be all that surprised Raine," Sheena shook her head, "Yuan himself pointed out that you've always destroyed every stronghold we encounter. It's only natural that he'd install a defence system against you."

Raine continued to stare at the computer screen in amazement as the rescue teams for Lloyd and Colette finally got underway.


Thoda island: Seal of water

Undine appeared in front of Alice, who approached her with a malignant sneer.

"Your journey of destruction ends here," declared the summon spirit. She extended her arm toward Alice as though she were reaching out to her, and then closed her hand. A sword manifested from her closed fist; a smooth, flowing blade of glassy water, seeming to flow endlessly toward the tip of the blade. She brought her sword up to eye level, the blade facing forward, and summoned a condensed orb of water into her left hand.

Alice smiled sadistically.

"Once I dissipate you and close the seal, immeasurable power will finally be ours. You're just a raindrop in a volcano now. You haven't got a chance of stopping us!"


Author notes: Well I hope you at least found it enjoyable. Don't forget to click the review button and feel free to leave any comment. Oh! And if you like Decus&Alice I recommend you to give a look to a fic called: "Her Knight, His savior".

See you in the next chapter.