(Most people do a "Chapter that isn't a chapter just a big long-ass note that I can't be bothered to continue or whatever" thing… I'm not. Get ready for MASSIVELY LONG Author's Note.)

From previous chapter: '...Anyway, thanks for sticking with me. I've got a lot of things to do, but I'll try to get the next chapter up ASAP. Let's just hope my health decides to remain on the 'high' level.'

HA HA. I love my optimism.

Seriously… I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am about how late I am with this… really. I feel dreadful keeping you in suspense. So many things happened to me, so I will try to list them without boring you half to death or anything. It's contains the reasons why I haven't updated for so long and also some back-story into my life in general.

Be warned, it's long; it IS a full explanation.

Well, to start off I had to get a new computer. My old one was lagging out so badly that it would take about forty minutes just to start up… and eventually just quit. Luckily, I moved all of my stuff to my memory stick so it was saved, but I had to get a new laptop and sort things like Skype, MSN and other such things out on it. Then, SOMEHOW, it got a virus that's been going around via e-mails and photo sharing on Skype. I had already practically finished Chapter six by this point, so that was the first thing I moved onto my memory stick (along with many other things) before I did a complete system restore. The virus had gone from my computer.

Turns out it went to my memory stick… and corrupted the entire memory stick. Everything was gone – my voice acting stuff, my pictures, my writing (not just of WP, but of a ton of other things I had done) and a load of important documents. Safe to say, I was peeved. I got my mojo back a bit at the beginning of June, but then I had to go off on holiday to Scotland for my cousin's wedding. I came back during July and got sick with a bad cold so I couldn't think straight. After about a week, I felt better, fully revitalized and ready to write. I got on Skype to some friends, opened a word document…

and my lung split. No joke; a blood vessel in my lung actually tore in half… somehow. It's also not the first time it has happened. So, back into hospital with MORE BLOOD coming out of my mouth from my lung… I was in for maybe a week and a half, but I lost all of my writing mojo and I've been feeling so icky recovering that I haven't been able to write. It was only a few days ago when I saw two reviews asking for me to come back. Finally pushing my sickness aside, I am back and here with you once again.

End of Explanation.

But as I said, I'm back with you guys for more Withered Petals! Do not fear; I would never think about NOT finishing it! I've come too far to stop now, and do you know why?

It's because of all of you. Most people just thank their reviewers and readers without a second thought, but… you guys mean a lot to me. I know it may not seem much from all of the time I've been away, but… you guys are the greatest. Thank you so much for putting up with me.

And so, to commemorate… here's the semi-final chapter of Withered Petals! I KNOW, I'M NEARLY DONE. HECK YEAH.

This chapter contains… ah, I'm not giving anything away! That'd be spoilers!

Disclaimer: Chapter one, I'm too lazy.

-/-/-/-/-

Withered Petals

/-/-/-/-

As if we didn't have enough of a problem. It turns out that Zahaal, in attempts to pro-long our time in getting to him, had used some of his power to make the sea currents to the south of the island un-crossable. This meant that, much to our frustration, we had to back-track the way we had come all the way to the Northern Mountain range, meaning we had to cross two entire continents. It was a long journey, but most of the towns that we had passed recognised us (or certainly the Fatal Hounds at the least) and had offered to lend us coaches, horses and the like. We were all grateful for this because as Alph put it; 'the faster we get to Zahaal, the better!'.

As we went, I was bombarded with questions as to what happened during the fight with Kingston; where the armour had come from, why I had two lances, what had prompted the plan and so forth. I answered them as best as I could along with Iris, who seemed to be getting accustomed to people not being able to see or hear her. However, some of the questions that were directed at us neither one of us could answer; questions such as, "Is Iris' body still alive?" or "how can you two combine your powers?". Although we answered the best we could, we had no real answers for some of them. We simply stuck with the normal answer of 'we'll find out eventually', which was given to me via Iris.

The Witches seemed especially interested in what had happened to me. Mavi and Vanessa tested my physical capabilities whilst Claire and Cecille tested Iris' magical capabilities. Although our strength was pretty much the same as before I had transformed, we found that we could combine some of our attacks; mostly involving electricity in my spears or parts of my body, like my foot when I had kicked Kingston during the battle. Our power, as Claire put it, was very intriguing to all of the Witches.

"It's a lot like the power of a Witch and a Rym…" Claire had told me, tilting her head as we had sat opposite each other one evening in the rented carriage; "However… you and Iris share a bond that is the same, yet different. You love her?"

"Yes."

"She loves you?"

"Of course…" I heard Iris confirm in my ear, which I repeated to Claire. Claire tilted her head to the other side, squinting a little before consulting her book.

"…The only thing that I can suggest is that it must be to do with the spiritual connection with the two of you. There is nothing in my book about it, and since Mother Lapis is gone, I cannot ask her…" Claire's hand reached up, tapping the Krystonan lightly at my neck. Iris gave a light gasp before letting out a soft giggle in response, the flower glowing slightly as she did so. Claire leaned back, smiling and looking pleased with herself.

"It seems that you two have come across some kind of unknown magic. We'll have to research into this when Zehaal is defeated. …I-I mean… if you both don't mind…" She quickly added, looking down at her hands as she closed the book. Glancing to the side, I imagined Iris sitting next to me in my mind's eye and nodded slightly.

"I am… but it's up to you, Iris."

"…" Iris seemed to hesitate before opening her mouth slowly; "…Will you be working on… us… for your research…?"

"…That's a point," I muttered, reaching out and stroking where her hair was in my mind's eye. Her face seemed to relax a little, and I felt light pressure on my body as she leaned against me, closing her eyes; "After what happened at the Round Table Council, tests aren't really a thing for you, are they?"

"It's okay…" Claire said quietly, nodding softly at us; "I… I promise we'll do as little as we have to do, and I guarantee, as the leader of the Witches, that I won't let any serious harm come to either of you."

"…I… I trust you…" Iris said softly after a few minutes, looking up at me; "Heath…?"

"I trust that you'll keep your word, Lady Claire." I reached my hand out and shook hers gently. As I did, Iris placed her hand over my own, joining in on the handshake; "Now… I must get some sleep. We'll be passing Gamarr and Dotruvar tomorrow, so I must be awake to make sure that we keep to the path. I know the route well."

"Of course," Claire stood up, dusting herself off and smiling at me; "I bid you goodnight, Sir Heath…" As she turned to leave however, another thought struck her and, giving a light giggle, she turned her head back around.

"…Goodnight to you too, Iris."

"Goodnight Lady Claire," The two of us replied simultaneously. Once she had gone, I stood and headed outside and towards our tent. Quickly saying my goodnights to Kai and the others, I rested inside of my tent, closing the flap and beginning to remove some of my armour. As I did, I could see the faint, slightly translucent silhouette of Iris on the other side of the tent, her outline framed by the soft glow of the orange fire from the campsite. She was staring out at the fire from within the tent, facing away from me. As I pulled the blanket up over my body, her head turned and, even as a silhouette, I could see her bright blue eyes staring at me through the darkness. She had a slightly worried expression on her face, and I could tell that something was wrong.

"…Iris?"

"Yes?"

"What's the matter? You seem… distant."

Iris' head hung down for a moment before she looked back over at the fire; "…Heath… I want to ask you something."

"Go ahead."

"When we defeat Zehaal…" her voice trailed off for a moment before she looked back over at me, as if trying to help string her words together; "…Heath… when we defeat Zehaal, I… I may not be able to get my body back. I may have to face the possibility of never having a true body again. It… makes me really worried to think that I could just be some kind of spirit that follows you around for eternity, not really having any purpose," her eyes rested on me, her face looking very sad; "…What would you say if that were to happen? I mean… well…"

"Iris," I spoke calmly, reaching out to touch her. To my surprise, I felt my fingers brush against the silk-like fabric of her robe; "Whether you get your body back is something that we'll have to think about in the future. Right now, we have to focus on defeating Zehaal. You shouldn't let thoughts like that pull you away from our goal."

"But—"

"Also…" I added in a softer tone, stroking her arm gently; "Just because you're a spirit doesn't mean that I don't still love you. Even if you remain a spirit forever, Iris, that won't change anything. Even when you became the Steel Witch and now as a spirit, you'll always be Iris to me; I'll love you no matter what. Please don't forget that."

"I… I won't," Iris smiled gently, looking away and her translucent face turning a shade of pink that was visible even against the reddish-orange glow of the fire in the background; "Thank you, Heath. I… I, um…" She began to look away a little sheepishly; "I should… sit outside the tent and keep watch…"

"No, it's fine. Saki and Leon are on guard duty tonight; let them do it. You rest up." As an indication, I moved over and patted the space next to me on the blanket laid out as a mattress. Iris' eyes widened almost comically and she shook her head repeatedly and very rapidly.

"N-no no no no no! I… I couldn't! H-Heath, I… but…!"

"Iris, rest…" I commanded and, before she could respond, I grabbed her hand and pulled her towards me, dragging her onto the blanket. The girl gave a loud squeal of surprise, babbling incoherently for a few seconds as I pulled the second blanket back up over the pair of us, holding onto her tightly. After a few moments of attempting to struggle free, Iris simply remained motionless, lying down awkwardly and not making eye contact with me. Smiling lightly, I rested myself down on the blanket with her, reaching up and stroking her hair just like I'd done earlier; "Relax, it's alright. You might be a spirit, but you still need rest."

"But… with you…?!"

"Why not?"

"W-well… when a guy and a girl… you know… um… sleep together…" Iris looked away and, with a sudden start, I realised exactly WHERE her mind was going; "V-Vanessa was telling Alph and Lucia to share the same bed tonight and—"

"No more, Iris," I interjected abruptly, placing my hand over her mouth; "I'm going to have a very heavy word with Vanessa tomorrow; there are kids around like Theo and Mel who should not be hearing things like that. Just forget what she said; its fine for people to like each other and just rest together."

"…Promise?"

"Promise."

Iris seemed to consider the facts for a moment, but then simply relaxed and moved a little closer to me, sighing gently; "…Alright, I trust you Heath. I'll rest, like you said I should."

"Good," I smiled gently, patting her head; "We'll need all of our energy for travelling tomorrow and for when we finally fight God. You should rest up as much as possible until then."

"Sure thing…" Iris mumbled as her eyes closed, resting her face into my chest; "Goodnight Heath… I love you…"

"I love you too, Iris…" I replied gently, leaning down and kissing her hair gently. Iris moved as close as she could and, even though she was still a spirit, it felt like her actual body was right there next to me. She felt so real, so light, so gentle… so fragile. It felt like if I let go of her, I'd lose her forever. Instinctively, I held onto her a little tighter, closing my eyes as well.

No… I wasn't going to lose her. Not this time.

I'm going to keep my promise.

-/-/-/-/-

The next day, we found ourselves making good time. We had passed through Gamarr already and had stopped for an early lunch on Leastre Bridge. To our surprise, Priel had woken up after her several days of recovery and had now become a staple, albeit slightly quirky, member of our group. Although she could be a little loud, she gave us some information on what we might expect whilst fighting Zahaal and although she didn't know many life skills, she offered to help many of the group out with tasks that morning. Although it was a nice gesture, many of the group seemed to still be a bit wary of her presence, which seemed to dampen the angel's mood. She seemed to be keeping her distance from several members of the group however – namely the Witches, but she also seemed to be avoiding Alph and I as well. I wasn't sure why, but we had both caught her staring at us both on repeated occasions. Whenever we did look however, she would quickly turn her gaze and occupy herself with something else.

"I think she likes you both!" Iris had joked at one point, which had almost made me spit out the water from our separate water jugs and had acquired me some very strange looks from the others by doing so. I kept this information from Alph, though – if Lucia had found out, it wouldn't have been pretty. The Dawn Witch was quite volatile anyway; I didn't want to provoke enemies within the group.

As we cleared up our lunch and began to head onwards, I found myself staring over the edge of the bridge into the water below. Memories began to flood back into my mind of long ago; when I had first found Iris in the field of flowers on the bank of the river, taking the crystal clear water and dribbling it into her mouth, taking her back to the barracks…

"Heath… I know what you're thinking…" Iris spoke gently into my ear, making me jump a little; "You want to go back to that field of Krystonans… don't you?"

"Yes… you don't mind, do you?"

"I was actually going to ask you if we could…" Iris giggled a little, and I felt something brush my cheek lightly; "It's fine with me, but… the others want to leave to fight Zehaal."

"It won't take too long, Iris. Only a few minutes." I turned to face the carriages, walking back over as the supplies were loaded; "Alph, hold on a minute!"

Alph, who was getting ready to climb inside one of the carriages, turned around to face me after stepping down and walking towards me; "Hm? What's up, Sir… I mean… Heath?"

"Is something wrong?" Theo asked, leaning out of the carriage and looking over at me; "Sir Heath?"

"Iris and I would like to make a brief stop nearby, Alph. Will this be a problem?" I questioned, folding my arms and jerking my head slightly to the side to indicate Iris next to me, which they obviously couldn't see. Alph looked inside the carriage, whose occupants had heard the conversation and were looking back over at us; "I promise we won't be too long."

"…No, it's not a problem. Where are you planning on headed?"

"It's very close by. Just down towards the river a little. You can all come if you wish for it; it's not a problem…" I glanced to my right; "Right, Iris?"

"Of course not," Iris smiled, nodding back at me; "It's probably better if they come; we could run into monsters…"

"…Alright…" Alph nodded as several members of the group got off of the carriage, following us towards the route down that I had known so well.

As we navigated our way down towards the river, it struck me how different the path looked to me. The grass had become brown and bristly, the trees had become old and overgrown and thorns lined the sides of the pathway, catching on clothing and armour in some places. Using my spear to cut through some of the overgrown foliage, I felt something strange inside of me… as if my heart wanted to rise at the memory of the place and yet sink at how much it had changed.

Finally, we made it to the river bank and began to make our way back to the clearing that I had first encountered Iris in. As we approached it however, my heart really did sink as much as I thought it would. The entire area was void of all but a few tiny flowers and the banks of the once crystal-clear river were now muddy and dark. Walking to the middle of the clearing, I stopped and glanced to my right. Iris had a similar expression to me; her head hung low and her eyes cast downwards to the grassy ground. As the group came up behind us, I turned around to look at them.

"…It's here."

"Wow!" Theo chimed, looking over towards the river with some of the other group members; "What a beautiful river!"

"When I first came here, the river was so clear that you could see the pebbles at the bottom," I informed them, gesturing to it; "The banks weren't muddy either; they had grass right down to the river's edge. I guess the people who kept it that way don't do it anymore…"

"I remember this…" Kai spoke from a few feet next to me as he walked over; "This is where we used to patrol. From Gamarr, down the river… then across the bridge further down and over to Dotruvar, correct?"

"Yes," I nodded in agreement as I lifted my arm and began to stroke Iris' head lightly, turning back to the group; "Long ago, when I was… maybe eighteen or so… I remember coming here and seeing a field of white flowers. They covered the entire patch of this bend of the river…" I gestured to the field we were standing in now before letting my arms fall to my sides and staring back at the ground.

"But… now they've all been eaten by monsters, so there are only a few left that I can see…"

"That must've been, like… really nice to look at…" Priel said softly from behind me. As I turned to look at her, she quickly averted her gaze and became thoroughly occupied with a blade of grass nearby, not looking back at me. With a smile, I walked over and rested a hand on the angel's shoulder.

"It was. If I'd known you all at the time, I would have taken you all here…"

"What exactly IS this place?" Alph asked, still not seeming to be too thrilled with the scenery. I opened my mouth to answer, but the words caught in my throat for a moment. Glancing to my side, I saw Iris give a slight nod towards me.

"Tell them," She said gently, taking my hand; "It's about time that you told them the whole truth, Heath… and, um…" she fiddled a little with her robe, giggling a little; "I… I'd like to stay with you here for a few more moments."

"…" I stared at her for a few seconds before looking back at Alph and the others, clearing my throat a little to catch the attention of the others; "Well… the reason we wanted to come here was because…" I took a gulp of air to prepare myself before letting the words out.

"…This is where I first met Iris."

Everyone besides Kai and Iris jumped at this remark, all of their attention coming to focus on me. Alph himself gave a genuine step back in alarm before blurting out; "Iris? You mean the Steel Witch?"

"Alph!" Lucia snapped, smacking him across the face; "Don't be so rude! Not to mention she's here listening to us as well! Don't be so inconsiderate!"

"Ow…" Alph rubbed the side of his cheek gingerly before shaking his head; "…Sorry Sir Heath… you too, Iris. I didn't mean for that to come out; I was just so shocked… I didn't mean to insult you both."

"No, he's right… I am the Steel Witch…" Iris said sadly from next to me; "I… I can't change that; it's become part of who I am…"

"…There's no denying you're the Steel Witch, Iris…" I said gently, stroking her head again; "But as I said yesterday, that doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that you're Iris, and that's that," with that, I turned back to the group at large and cleared my throat again; "It's true that Iris was… and still is… the Steel Witch. We're not going to pretend that it never happened, but… it wasn't always like this…" I turned, looking back out at the river.

"…When I was eighteen, Kai and I were on patrol here one day when I decided to head off for a walk. When I came to this clearing… I found Iris passed out amongst the flowers…" With another look towards Iris, I continued on with an encouraging nod from her; "…she was faint from hunger and dehydration and had passed out in the field from walking for three days straight. Her parents had been in a dreadful accident up on the mountains and had both passed away. Iris came here and passed out in the flowers, which is where I found her…" Sighing, I sat down in the grass, looking up at the sky.

"I found her and brought her back to town… I nursed her back to health in the barracks before offering to let her come and live with me. I taught her as much as I could… about what was right and wrong and… she became an irreplaceable part of my life. I couldn't imagine a day going by without making sure she was okay and hearing her kind voice…"

"H-Heath, stop it…" Iris giggled, her hands over her cheeks as she sat next to me; "You're making me blush!"

Giving a light laugh, I took her hand and looked back at the group; "She loved the flowers that grew around here. They were white flowers…" I lifted the one from my neck to show them all; "Like this one. It's called a Krystonan flower. They used to grow in this field."

"I see…" Alph said slowly, sitting down near me, being followed by the rest of the group; "So this is where they came from."

"Yeah…" I responded lightly, nodding at him; "They were really beautiful flowers… I'm not ashamed to admit that I liked them myself, along with many other plants and flowers that Iris taught me about from the years we spent together… but no matter what flower she showed me, the Krystonan remained a staple for the two of us. It was where I found her, and the flower stuck with us as a symbol of our love towards each other…" I lowered my head slowly, staring down at the grass.

"…Iris once told me… that if she ever truly died… she wanted to be surrounded by these flowers… and I would have to agree…"

"Heath…" Iris whispered, moving closer to me and taking my hands lightly and resting her head in my lap. Nobody said anything for a moment as I simply sat there, holding Iris tightly to me, the rest of the group just sitting staring at me in silence. After a few moments, I heard a slight rustling behind me, and I glanced around to see Priel leaning her arm towards me, her fist lightly clasping hold of two or three flowers that were unmistakably Krystonan flowers.

"…Are these the flowers you were talking about?"

"Y-yeah…" I said, quite surprised; "Where did you find them?"

Priel gestured to the trunk of a tree not too far away. Near its base, I spotted a few specks of white scattered here and there; "I, like… picked them just now. Maybe I shouldn't have, like, done that…"

"They're really pretty!" Theo chimed happily, looking at the flowers; "They're reflecting the sunlight! They're like a bunch of little fireflies!"

"Yeah…" I spoke gently, holding them close to me; "It's a shame that only a few of them are left."

"Then, once we beat Zehaal…" Mavi spoke up, looking back over at me; "How about we organize something to grow the flowers back in this area? Nature deserves to be beautiful, especially with flowers like that."

"Hey, yeah!" Leon chimed in, grinning; "I'll help too! If it's to help Sir Heath, then I'm all for it!"

"When did you ever want to do gardening, Leon?" Cecille teased him, causing the rest of the group to laugh, lifting the mood a little. Somehow though, I wasn't feeling too cheerful and continued to stare at the flowers in my hand. Iris turned her head slightly to look up at me, a curious look on her face.

"What's wrong, Heath?"

"I…" I stared at the flowers gently in my hand; "I wanted to be here… with you, Iris… for you to sit with me and see the flowers again, but… now…" I could feel a lump forming in my throat; "All you can do is look… you can't touch or feel them… what kind of a life is that?"

"Heath…"

"Iris, I…" I looked away, staring at the grass; "…I thought that saving your life was the right thing to do, but…" I felt my voice break a little, closing my eyes slowly.

"…Heath…?"

"…you might have been better off if… you'd just passed away in this field of flowers…" I whispered softly, opening my eyes to look at her; "No pain from Kingston… not having to be dragged into this fight against Zehaal… if you had passed on in the field of flowers… at least you would have been peaceful…"

"H-Heath!" Iris sat up abruptly; "Don't say that!"

"Don't say that, Sir Heath!" I heard at the same time from next to me. Turning, I saw Theo sitting next to me, along with Alph and Cecille; "Of course not! I'm sure Iris was… and still is… very happy that you saved her back then!"

"Yeah!" Alph chimed in with his little brother, resting his arm on his younger brother's shoulder; "I know we can't hear or see her, but I know for a fact that Iris is grateful for everything that you've done for her! That's why she—" Alph's other hand flew to his mouth, quickly biting hard on it to stop his next words… that promptly lead to a slight yelp and a withdrawal of the now bleeding appendage. Obviously, he'd forgotten that he now had fangs.

"…" I stared at the two brothers for a moment before I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. Looking behind me, I was surprised to see Priel smiling at me; "…P-Priel… you too?"

"When I… attacked you guys, like, back at the Altar…" Priel looked down a little sheepishly; "I put all of my power into that attack. It was meant to, like, blow you guys to itty-bitty bits. But…" Priel looked back up at me with a genuine smile on her face; "If she, like… sacrificed herself to save you, that's a sure sign that, y'know… she really appreciates and loves you. That's, like… well… the impression I got, anyway."

"She's right!" Theo nodded, looking at Priel and nodding; "Iris put everything on the line for you, Sir Heath! It's because she loved you and wanted to protect you! She knew she was going to be hurt but she still put herself in danger to save you, meaning that she really must have been grateful for everything that you did for her!"

"Alph… Theo… Priel…" I whispered gently before finally turning my head; "Iris…"

"They're right, Heath. Every word of it," Iris smiled; "You really did teach them well… of course…" She gave a little giggle, taking my hand with the Krystonan flowers; "They were learning under the best Arc Knight in the land."

I gave a little smile and wrapped my free arm around her, pulling her towards me. Her hand gently tightened around the hand holding the Krystonan flowers as she closed her eyes, kissing me gently. As she did, I felt a strange wave of power fill my body, travelling from our hands and spreading throughout my body all the way to my feet and back up, finally to our lips pressed against each other. After a few moments, I opened my eyes to look at her, pulling back gently. Iris was smiling, her eyes still closed, but… something was different. She seemed to be a bit more visible; not as see-through and ghost-like. As I turned to the side, I caught Alph, Theo and Priel staring at us. Realising that I must've looked stupid kissing thin air, I let my arm slide from around Iris' shoulders and rub the back of my head sheepishly.

"Oops, eheheh… sorry. Iris and I were off in our own world…"

"…We noticed…" Alph said slowly, his eyes not moving from us; "…We can see her."

"What?" Iris' eyes snapped open, leaning away from me; "You… can see me?!"

"Yeah!" Theo chimed happily before another thought struck him; "We can hear you too! Iris!"

"But… how…?!" I asked slowly, staring at Iris; "She's a bit more solidified to me, definitely, but…"

"Um…" Priel tapped my shoulder lightly, pointing to my hand; "Are those flowers meant to do that?"

Looking down at my hand, I saw the flowers now with the same shimmering light as the one around my neck. Now the entire group had been drawn to us, all of whom seemed to be focused in on Iris' sudden appearance. As we looked at the flowers, Iris and I seemed to come to the same conclusion.

"…The Krystonan flowers…" Iris said slowly, looking at me; "If we have more, will I become more visible?"

"I guess so…" I said, looking up at some of the Witches; "Lady Claire…?"

"I've never seen anything like this…" Claire said quietly, scanning through her books; "I believe that, since you have such a strong link with the flower, Iris' spirit and magical potential will get stronger with the more flowers you find. I can only guess that her spirit being stronger allows for a more solid apparition; strong enough for even others to hear and see clearly. I don't think it will bring back her body, but the more flowers you have, the stronger her spirit will become."

"I'll go get some more!" Theo instantly stood up, running to the tree that Priel had indicated. He was later joined by Vivi, Mel and Priel who also began to search with him. As they searched, Alph turned back to look at the two of us, a quizzical look on his face.

"So… I guess that you got more power by holding the flowers and, uh… kissing each other…? So what, the power of love or something like that?"

"I don't think it works that way… it's a little different…" Iris said slowly, looking up at me; "D-don't get me wrong, I do love Heath… and he loves me… right, Heath?"

"Iris, I'm alive because of you," I said gently, wrapping an arm around her shoulders; "Of course I love you… and I swear to you – and everyone who has lost their life during this conflict – that I will punish Zehaal with my own hands."

"I'll fight with you all, then…" Iris said with a smile; "For Heath… and the planet… like a Witch should."

"…You know," Nikolai spoke up, a glint in his eye; "Maybe the kiss was the deal to increasing their power… if that is the case, I would gladly be a test subject for any of my lovely Witches wishing to be—OOMPH!" The red-head promptly doubled over, clutching his gut after the hard punch that Vanessa had given him; "Or… ack… maybe not…"

"Nikolai has a point…" Iris said suddenly, causing us to look at her; "If it was, we need a test subject to make sure…" A slight smirk crossed her face; "Oh Alph… maybe you and Lucia should be our test subjects…"

"What?!" Alph cried out, staring at Iris as his face went scarlet; "C-come on, Iris! Why would I want to kiss Lucia?!"

"Come on Alph, be a man!" Leon grinned; "Iris is right!"

"Go for it, Lucia," Mavi added with a smirk; "We all know how much the Dawn Witch and the Rym love each other…"

"Knock it off, Mavi!" Lucia's face was equally as scarlet as Alph's was, turning to glare at the older Nature Witch; "I… I don't love him!"

"Lies! All lies!" Leon called, causing the group to start laughing. As they did, I smiled down at Iris happily, who looked up at me with just as happy of a look.

"Iris… are you ready to finish this?"

"More than ever…" She replied, taking my hand; "Even if I'm just a spirit… I've felt more alive than I have in years."

"Same here, Iris… the very same here…"

-/-/-/-/-

It took us several more days to head to the North, and then even further North over the mountain range. Iris and I were invigorated by the new-found knowledge that more flowers made Iris' spirit stronger and more visible. By the time we had left the field on that day, the group had found enough flowers for a small flower necklace that sat around my neck. In turn, Iris was now almost as visible as a normal person; it was almost impossible to tell that she was a spirit despite the fact that her voice echoed slightly and, if you focused very hard, you could see through her.

As we collectively began to reach the portal, we could tell the portal was nearby. The scene changed from a snowy hillside, sloping down into almost a desert; nothing but sand and withered trees as far as the eye could see. Even from a distance, the portal was visible up on the hill; a blue speck of light amidst a sea of brown and yellow. It was like some sort of arid plain that stretched for almost a mile and a half in radius from around the portal.

"The portal to the heart of the planet…" Lucia spoke softly after a short while of walking down rugged, rocky hillsides, reaching the final flat surface; "I… never expected it to be a place like this…"

"So the God we used to worship lives just ahead of us…" Alph muttered, looking towards the portal calmly; "…We're nearly there. It's been one heck of a journey."

"It sure has," Leon admitted, his arms behind his head; "Never did I think we'd team up with the Witches of all people."

"You regret it?" Mavi growled, glaring at Leon. In return, the Swords master backed away, shaking his head vigorously in his defence.

"No, no! Not at all! It's just…" Leon turned to look at me and the other members of the Fatal Hounds; "We were always told that the Witches were evil. We followed the Church's every word… even you, Sir Heath. But now… we've found that the Church has been using us to try to resurrect and even control God. The Witches were the right ones all along. I'm still confused… just a little… but I'm not angry. Not anymore;" Leon grabbed his sword and held it up; "Now I'm ready to take down Zehaal with my Dad's blade!"

"Well said, Leon!" Cecille chimed in, smiling at him warmly. As Leon flushed a little and rubbed behind his head, I noticed Nikolai give a glare to Leon's back and rolled my eyes.

"But… can us…" Theo bit his lower lip, still looking and sounding rather worried; "Can we really defeat a God?"

"Listen up, kid," Vanessa tapped Theo's shoulder and glared down at him; "We don't really have a lot of choice here. Either we win, or everything – and EVERYONE – dies!"

"Although I find myself disbelieving my own words… I agree with Vanessa…" Mavi nodded and looked over at Theo, but without as much anger or vigour as Vanessa had done; "Listen, Theo. We need to completely destroy God this time; we need to obliterate his actual SOUL. You got me?"

"…Okay…?" Theo looked a little confused for a moment, and it took me to realising that Theo was the youngest in the group and probably didn't really get what was going on as well as the others did. As I began to try to figure out a way to explain it to him however, Mel hurried over to him and walked alongside Theo.

"Hey Theo, put it this way!" Mel cried, wagging her palm leaf over her head; "It's like… there was an ENORMOUS egg-salad sandwich about to rot and destroy the planet! The bread is fine – which represents the world – but the egg right in the centre of the salad is icky and mouldy! How would you save the sandwich?"

"Oh that's easy!" Theo smiled happily; "Just take out the egg before it messed up the bread and either put a good egg in there, or don't eat the sandwich!"

"Precisely!" Mel grinned happily, patting his arm; "Kinda like that! Zehaal's the evil rotten egg and we gotta remove him from the world's giant sandwich!"

"I got it!" Theo cried happily, nodding at Mel; "Thanks Mel!"

"That's, like… one way of putting it…?" Priel muttered from behind me, looking just as confused as the rest of us. There was a long silence as we began to close the distance between us and the portal. As we walked, it obviously showed that it was a longer walk than we had all anticipated.

"…You know…" Cecille spoke up after several minutes of silence; "Ridding this world of God's spirit will not be an easy task… we may need to use Lucia's new power…" At this, she glanced at Alph and Lucia a few feet from her, causing them to look up at her.

"Overflash…" Alph muttered under his breath. There was a brief silence as we all let it sink in further. When we had rested at the top of a ridge coming down, the Witches had discussed a move named 'Overflash' or 'The Spear of Dawn'. It was an attack that only Lucia could use and, apparently, was known to be the strongest magical attack in existence. It was, as the Witches put it, their last-effort attempt at getting rid of Zehaal.

Last effort… as in the price for using it was Lucia's own life.

Obviously, Alph had protested instantly. However, Claire had spoken that the Dawn Witch's Rym – AKA, Alph – could use an ability called 'The Eternal Shield' that could protect Lucia from being damaged by the attack. He still seemed unsure of it, but he knew what the stakes were. It truly showed to me how much Alph had grown up over the time I hadn't spent with him.

…Not just Alph… all of the group. Everyone had changed so dramatically. I felt in a sense like I, too, had also changed.

"I…" Lucia looked away for a moment before solidifying her resolve and turning back; "…I'm ready to use it if the time comes."

"Then if it does…" Alph turned to look at her; "I promise to protect you, no matter what!"

"Alph…" Lucia looked startled at the sudden determination in his face, but then quickly averted her eyes downwards, her face going pink as she gained a smile to her features; "…Thank you, Alph."

"Witches, dragons and humans have all come together once again…" Claire spoke up, attracting all of our attention for a collected moment. We also have every single one of the Lapistier; Light, Dark, Fire, Water, Thunder, Nature and Wind. It may look like we have everything going for us – and, indeed we probably have – however… this doesn't mean we should take Zehaal lightly or back down. Defeating God will definitely not be an easy task… however; this may very well be our one and only chance to defeat him. Everyone!" Claire spoke up, snapping her book shut and, finally, she seemed to be certain of knowing what she was doing and being a leader; "Let's take back our planet so nobody can live in fear of Zehaal again!"

A collective cheer from the group rose up as we stopped to take a rest and make final preparations for our battle against Zehaal. As I went to sit on a small hill with Kai and Iris, the three of us looked up at the sky together, taking in everything around us. It was very hard to believe; we had all been innocent people until we'd taken up arms against God. We were considered as traitors… but now we were on the verge of being heroes. It was… an odd feeling, to say the least.

"Heath."

I glanced to my left and saw Kai staring at me for some reason. As I shifted position to speak to him, Iris leaned forward and rested her head on my arm, watching Kai also; "What is it, Kai?"

"…I never really thought that I'd say this, but…" He looked back over at the portal before a very faint ghost of a smile crossed his face; "…I envy you a bit."

"…How so, Kai?" I asked quietly, actually a little surprised at his sudden comment. Kai shifted his position also before leaning back, resting on the sand. I went to join him, and Iris did the same on my other side, resting up against me. For one brief moment, I felt like I had stepped several years back in time; times of when Kai and I would lean back and stare at the clouds to pass time on lunch-breaks during our duties, or the times when Iris and I would go and lie down in the flower fields together, simply dozing off. It was a fantastic feeling and, somehow, I didn't feel so worried about the battle anymore.

"…I once asked Alph what he believed to be his reason for fighting…" Kai said slowly, looking at the sky; "It was also something I discussed with the Euros Knights on occasion during our training exercises and occasional scouting missions. They answered the same; they fought for their country and for the Church. I used to think that was all people fought for, and I also began to believe that victory in itself was the only reward…" He turned his head to me and I noticed a strange look cross his face for a few seconds.

"When… I met Alph, however… he spoke differently. To me… he said that he fought for Lucia… but not just for her. He fought for all of his friends and the satisfaction he got was not of victory from winning the battle, but satisfaction from knowing… he'd protected people he cared for. When I asked him about that answer, he told me something interesting."

"…That was?" I asked, interested now and propping myself up a little. Iris twisted her body a moment, looking at Kai's face intently.

"…He said it was what he had been taught." Kai responded calmly, looking back at me. For a split second, I thought I heard a soft, husky noise that sounded like a laugh; "You really did teach them well, Heath. That's why I'm envious of you; you have people to fight for; people who are precious to you… like Iris."

"Heath is precious to me, too…" Iris smiled softly, placing her head on my chest lightly; "But… you are too, Kai-san. I protect Heath because I love him, but… you're like family to me too."

"Same for me," I responded, laying back; "Kai, I know what you mean… and I see you as the brother that I never had. Not just to me, but… also to the children. You helped them back when I couldn't, and you really took a load off of my shoulders. Thank you… brother."

"Heath… Iris…" Kai looked a little surprised, and Iris began to giggle a little, continuing to watch his face; "…What's so funny, Iris?"

"You don't need to be shy, big brother!" Iris poked at him cheekily, causing Kai to hide his eyes behind his hair and my face to turn into a wide smirk as I resisted the urge to laugh; "You know you love us really!"

"Iris, cut it out."

"Pleeeeeaaaase?"

"Stop it—"

"If you say it, I'll give you a flower!"

"I'm not interested."

"You're so mean!" Iris pouted, shifting herself and sitting on my lap as I sat up; "Heeeaaath, big brother's being mean to me!"

"I got it…" I said, nodding at her. Before Kai could react, I reached over and bopped him over the head with my free hand; "Bad Kai! Stop scaring your little sister!"

"Not you too, Heath…" Kai groaned, shaking his head and rubbing his skull where my hand had struck him. After a few seconds, Iris began to giggle, which was soon joined by myself and Kai chuckling softly. Spending time with these two really brought me back to when I had first met Iris and to when I was raising her to grow up into a beautiful woman. I once felt like all of these memories were a thing of the past, never to be returned… however, with a bit of trying and with help from some friends, it came to me; they were in the past… but not out of reach.

"You know…" Iris muttered quietly after a few minutes, catching our attention; "…What will happen? I mean… after we beat Zehaal?"

"Hm…" I thought for a moment, starting up at the sky; "Well… Kingston, Grand Cardinal Johannes and Provost Hugo are all dead… and once we get rid of Zehaal, I doubt the Luminous Church will have no reason to exist."

"True," Kai nodded his head; "The entire planet will be sent spiralling into chaos, however, if there is no order."

"That is also true…" I mumbled, shaking my head before speaking up; "…If someone were to make a new Luminous Church… one that re-writes the laws and corrects the historical records… maybe it might not fully collapse. It will take time, but… I think it's possible."

"Anything can be accomplished if you try hard enough," Iris added with a smile; "Maybe after all of this, it won't really matter who or what anyone is; human, dragon, Witch, machine…" she trailed off, glancing at herself sadly. I reached over and stroked behind her head gently, looking over at Kai.

"…Maybe, since we're the last two commanders left… it should be our job to sort out the Luminous Church… at least for a while."

"I was thinking the same thing…" Kai looked back with a knowing look; "There will be no more need for war once the God is slain; he will no longer have the power to create the beasts to destroy the lands and towns. We should focus mainly on rebuilding the Luminous Church and keeping a stable government."

"Right," I nodded in agreement, standing up; "Now we have to defeat Zehaal to see that we sort out the Luminous Church to make a better future for everyone."

"Right!" Iris chimed happily, taking my hand as she stood, along with Kai; "Then let's do this!"

"Alright!" I agreed firmly and, after a nod and a grin from Kai, I took charge; "Kai, go and ask about to see who's ready for this. I'll keep an eye out with Iris to make sure nobody strays too far from the portal."

"…" Kai turned without a word, heading towards Claire and the other Witches. After a few steps, he paused and turned back, a faint smile on his face; "…See you in a minute… brother. Sister."

"Kai-san…" Iris smiled gently as I felt a smile of my own grace my lips. After he'd walked out of earshot, Iris turned to look up at me with a genuine smile; "…Heath… you're ready for this?"

"Of course," I responded with a smile, wrapping my arms around her and resting my chin on her crown; "…If I'm with you, I'm ready for anything, Iris. I promise to protect you, no matter what."

"Thank you, Heath…" Iris smiled gently into my armour, before moving back a little to face the portal with more of the other members of the group heading back towards us; "I promise to protect you too."

"Then…" I turned slowly to face back towards the portal; "…It's time."

The two of us looked at each other quietly, sharing one final look of courage as the rest of the group surrounded us, with Alph and Lucia taking the lead. With a collective cry, we all broke into a run, diving straight towards the portal.

"LET'S GO!"

-/-/-/-/-

Alright! I think that's a decent cliff-hanger to leave it on, don't you? The conversation at the end was a little bit of kudos to the original pre-ending conversation that Alph and Lucia had. Not to mention that I felt that Heath, Kai and Iris didn't really spend more time together as the three of them so much… I wanted the "family" back together for a while.

Also, this note is a small thank-you to a friend who gave me the ideas for the first two scenes; the evening with the pair alone and Iris' spirit becoming stronger with the flowers. Especially the second bit; it really helped out with fitting in the cut-scene from the side-quest which I had almost completely forgotten about. I'm a moron, sorry. XD

Anyway… whilst writing this chapter, I had a thought. I couldn't decide, so I'm going to leave it up to you all to decide for me since this story is for you as much as it is for me; should I put the final battle AND epilogue into the next chapter as a whole chapter, or should I make the final battle and epilogue two chapters in themselves?

I'll take a small vote on it and read when I check up on this story again. (Which I actually do quite regularly, even if I don't update it. I like reading through it, but also seeing all of your comments.)

Anyway… again, I cannot apologize enough for what's been going on. It's been one fatal error after another and I want to find some way to make it up to you all.

So, here's something for you; Go onto "deviantArt" and type into the search bar "Heath Iris". If you do it correctly, one of the options that will pop up is a title page for Withered Petals that a very talented friend drew for me. Go show your appreciation to her and say how good her drawing is for me.

Again, also… thank you all for being so patient with me. We are nearly done… I promise you that, as much as I can. I don't know when I'll get the next chapter up, but I'll definitely try to start on it as soon as possible.

Anyway, all of you; keep watching, waiting and stay tuned to find out what happens in the final countdo—I mean battle!

+Regiinator+