Destroy and Rebuild

Chapter Thirty: Departure

Disclaimer: I don't own Radiata Stories or any of the characters in the game; they are the property of the brilliant minds at Square Enix.

Authors Note(s): Words in '' indicate a thought. Words in "…" indicate spoken words. The first thing to note is that this story is a sequel. The characterization and storyline contained here are based on the characters and events that occur in my first story, Sever All Ties. Everything that happens in this story will make a lot more sense if you have read that one, so I recommend reading the first story before reading the sequel. With that in mind, the story picks up where Sever All Ties left off, and tells what happens after Aphelion is defeated and Jack and Ridley return to Radiata. I hope you enjoy.

The door to Jack's bedroom closed behind Gil, and he stepped out into the hallway with the young lady from the house staff that had been assigned to guide him through its long, winding corridors. The light elf had come to meet his friend for the walk over to Lupus Gate, and their departure for the challenges, but Jack had not been waiting in the kitchen as they had agreed. It was not unlike Jack to be late, usually it was because he overslept or was hurriedly packing, but neither he nor his things were in his bedroom. Gil, absorbed in conversation with a nobleman about his vineyard, had not seen Jack leave the ball, though he had been told that Alicia had left with him around 11:00. Pausing for a moment to think, the light elf came up with an idea.

"Perhaps we could look in the training room," he suggested.

His guide nodded her head, and they did an about-face to return to the first floor. The house was full of long hallways, and the path that they followed made no sense to Gil, who was used to the open walkways and smaller buildings of the City of Flowers. The enclosed feel of human architecture had never felt right to him. They chose to hide themselves from nature as if it was an enemy, rather than live closely with its beauty. Living in their city for the better part of a month had given him an appreciation for some aspects of their life, Radiata Castle's gardens were very beautiful, but he could not understand their preference for heavy stone buildings and streets, living in close proximity to one another, and artificial lighting. As they drew near the steps to the basement training room, they walked past a beautiful painting of a pond and he could not help pausing to admire it. Surrounded on all sides by lush, green grass and mature trees, the bright blue of the water reflecting the sunlight and clouds was stunning. The image seemed to have been perfectly captured, and the smooth brush strokes were a testament to the quality of the artist. The flowers and tree branches all bent slightly with the wind, and even the birds on the pond looked lifelike.

"It's beautiful," Gil said, ignoring the stare from his guide. "Where is this, and who painted it?"

"I have been told that the pond is at the main Rothschild Estate, though I have never been there myself," the girl replied. "The picture was painted by Lady Freya's mother."

"I must make a point of visiting both the place and the artist," the light elf said. This brought a frown from his companion.

"I am afraid that Lady Freya's mother has been dead for nearly five years now," she said. Gil frowned at this.

"I see," he said quietly, lost in thought. "Though your lives are so fleeting, humans produce such great beauty to mirror that of nature. Please, excuse my musings, we do need to find Jack."

The entrance to the training room was just a few doors down the hall. Seeing the door open and the light fixtures on the wall illuminated, they began their descent with Gil in the lead. Walking down the circular staircase, they began to find even more evidence. Jack's dress shoes from the previous evening, abandoned on the stairs, were the first hint, and they found his his shirt and jacket discarded not far after. His pants and belt together completed the cast-off ensemble. Next, they saw a pair of lady's shoes, claret-colored heels that matched the dress that Alicia had been wearing the night before. When they saw her gloves and dress, the young lady behind him gasped. The light elf wore a neutral expression, not looking forward to the awkward situation he might be walking into. The bottom of the stairs in sight, he suggested to his guide that she wait a moment as he continued down to the brightly lit training room floor. His eyes quickly scanned the open space, looking for his two teammates. When he found them, Gil could not help laughing.

On the left-hand side of the room, sprawled out on the floor, was Jack Russell. Wearing his familiar dwarven armor, the former guild sergeant was snoring softly. He had not even removed his boots or the coat from his armor, and was sleeping a mere foot away from his unsheathed sword; sweat was still visible on his forehead. Alicia, meanwhile, was sleeping on one of the benches that were pressed up against the wall, her right arm dangling to touch the floor. She, too, was dressed for combat, though she had managed to take off her boots and helmet, and even sheath her sword, before going to sleep. Thankfully, both had packed their bags for travel, which were sitting on a second bench next to the one where Alicia slept. Gil signaled to the young lady that it was all right for her to join him, and prepared to wake them up. With a smirk, he sent a gust of wind magic in the direction of each. Alicia's back being pressed against the wall kept her from falling off the bench, but Jack was pushed several feet across the floor. Both of them were jolted awake, reaching reflexively for their weapons and trying to determine what had happened.

"Oh good, you're awake," Gil said, wearing a mischievous smile. Jack and Alicia were momentarily stunned, and the girl with him stifled a laugh. "We're in danger of being late, so I suggest you grab your things quickly."

"Gil," Jack sounded exasperated, grabbing his sword. "What time is it?"

"7:25, we're due at Lupus Gate in 35 minutes at the latest, so you can talk on the way if you like," he turned around as the two of them hurriedly grabbed their things, to speak to young lady that had been so helpful. "Would you please make sure that the clothes they left on the stairs are taken care of? And, it would be nice if there were no ugly rumors about this incident."

"Of course," she nodded in acquiescence. Without waiting for Alicia or Jack, Gil began walking back up the stairs to the first floor. As he turned to walk in the general direction of the front entrance, the two of them caught up.

"I trust you can guide us to the entrance of this labyrinth," the light elf said to Jack, who nodded. "Good."

"Thank you for coming to wake us," Alicia said, still adjusting her helmet so that her hair did not come tumbling out.

"I was supposed to meet Jack at 7:00 to head to Lupus Gate," Gil said, letting a little irritation seep into his voice. "But apparently a little extra training time was more important."

"I told Jack the day that he and Lady Ridley defeated my Triton Squad at Lupus Gate that I would want a rematch so that I could prove I was stronger," Alicia explained. "I asked last night for that rematch, so any blame should be mine."

"There is no blame if we are on time, and it belongs to all of us if we are late," Gil said, quickening his pace as they walked through the main entrance to Rothschild Manor and stepped outside into the cold, windy, morning air. "Did you at least beat him?"

"It's not fair, I'm still recovering and you know it," Jack quickly interjected before she could answer. Both he and Alicia had put on thick cloaks. "If you just wait until…"

"Jack seems to think that his opponents are just going to wait until it's convenient for him to fight them," Alicia interrupted him. Gil smirked as she continued. "We sparred for several hours, I won more than I lost by a pretty good margin. He's not so special without the Falvern in his hands."

"You know about the sword," the light elf was surprised by her words.

"The Chief told me," she said, shrugging her shoulders.

"So then you know how much of a disadvantage I was at," Jack tried to keep the conversation focused on their overnight sparring session. "If I even beat you once, then I should…"

"Give it a rest, I won," Alicia was reveling in his agitation.

"Let's pick up the pace," Gil had tuned out their banter and had begun to focus his mind on the task that they would soon be facing. "After everything we've been through to reach this point, being late isn't an option."

The morning sunlight shone brightly upon Lupus Gate, yet its brightness seemed to have been stripped of all its warmth. The glowing orb could not seem to penetrate the chill of the winter morning, and the wind that whipped around the stone bridge into the city made it feel even colder. Natalie was wearing a thick, fur-lined cloak and scarf that shielded her from its cutting gusts, but she could not dispel the cold. Everyone was dressed in warm layers, except for Lord Zane and Elwen. The Guild Leader's armor might keep her warm, but Lord Zane's robe did not seem designed to be worn in cold weather. In spite of this, he appeared less bothered by the temperature and the wind than she was.

Only five members of the team were present, and their departure was drawing ever closer. A quick glance at the watch she wore around her neck showed that it was 7:45. Sir Aleks, Alicia, Gil, Jack, and Nocturne were all absent. Natalie had seen Gil retire to the room in the castle that had been provided for him after the ball, but she knew nothing about the rest of the team. Her guards had confirmed that Nocturne left early after dinner, and Sir Aleks had left quietly with Adele Russell a while later, which was an interesting development. Jack and Alicia had not been seen since she absconded with him following Princess Belflower's display at the ball. Natalie liked the Princess, and thought that what happened was innocent enough, but even with her limited understanding of politics she knew that the girl's lack of propriety would have repercussions. Princess Belflower was still struggling to learn that her station demanded things of her, and that she needed to exercise some forethought before acting.

'I guess that explains her attraction to Jack Russell pretty well,' the General smirked to herself at this thought. A few moments later, she heard footsteps and turned around to see Sir Aleks Sterling walking up to join them.

"I hope that you will forgive my relative tardiness," he said, stifling a yawn. The group had agreed to keep their departure time between themselves to avoid fanfare from everyone, and because no one was perfectly clear on what was going to happen. 7:45 was supposed to be the latest that they showed up, which meant that four of their members were late.

The sound of Jack's voice announced his approach before she saw him, and Natalie glanced over to see Alicia and Gil with him. Jack was loudly protesting his disagreement with something one of them had said, and from the look on her face it appeared to have been Alicia. The guild sergeant was shaking her head in disagreement, and looked ready to interrupt him at any moment. Gil seemed deep in thought, and was a few steps in front as the three approached. Jack and Alicia's argument was suspended temporarily as the three of them joined the group. Alicia drifted over to Elwen, while Jack seemed unsure if he should do the same or join Lady Ridley. Instead, he stood awkwardly between them and glared at Sir Aleks. Gil walked over to Lord Zane, and Natalie noticed that the elf assassin was also without any additional layers to protect himself from the cold. While trying not to stare, she was watching closely to see if either gave any indication of being bothered by the temperature.

Natalie saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and quickly turned her attention to a spot just a few feet down the bridge from where the group was standing. Lenneth had appeared, and was walking leisurely toward the group. Morning sunlight glinted off of her armor, and her boots crunched on the snow. The General quickly turned around, looking for any sign of their final member. Several others were cognizant of Nocturne's absence and were nervously glancing through the gate and into town. When she reached them, the Valkyrie stopped several feet away from the group, wordlessly studying them. No one spoke or moved, and Natalie wondered what she was waiting for. Finally, the silence was broken.

"The Vessel is here, and so is the Disruptor. I also see at least two non-humans, which fulfills all of the requirements. You must be quite confident if you are only bringing nine," Lenneth wore a curious expression, as if she thought she had missed something. "Maybe you were unable to convince anyone else that you could succeed? That must be it."

"No, that's not it," Nocturne's voice from behind her caused Natalie to turn around. The Void warrior's clothes were disheveled, he appeared unsteady on his feet, and he had not packed a bag, but he had made it. He looked as though he had gotten very little sleep, and his right cheek was red and swollen as if he had been punched. "Gerald was unable to convince me to call it a night."

"Tardiness is not a good sign of a reliable team member," Lenneth shook her head. "Still, your inclusion will do little to affect the team's overall chances for success. Well, if this is the team you have chosen, then the time has come for us to depart."

Natalie felt a strange sensation, as if her body was being pulled in every direction at once, and her vision blurred. An instant later, the group that had been standing on the bridge was together in a large white room. The floor and walls were made of marble, and intricate patterns of criss-crossing lines adorned everything. Bowl-like fixtures on the walls emanated a soft glow that provided light to the room, which was complemented by the warmth coming from a large fireplace. In the center was a large wooden table, with 10 chairs surrounding it. A series of plain wooden doors lined the walls, 14 in total, that were spread out evenly. The Valkyrie watched silently for a moment as the group began to disperse.

"This will be your base of operations for the next three weeks, or however long it takes you to fail," she said, drawing the group's attention back to her. Gesturing to the appropriate locations, she continued. The common room is here, there are 10 identical bedrooms, a training room, kitchen, and bath. Pay attention to this part: the last room is the access point for the challenges. The access point will be open for five minutes after it is activated, at which time anyone can go through it. After five minutes, it will close and remain closed until the challenge is either passed or failed. Each challenge will have a limit on the number that can go to attempt it at once, and bringing any additional team members will result in their being eliminated from not only that challenge, but all challenges. Are there any questions?"

"Which room's mine," Jack blurted out. Natalie frowned at the triviality of the question.

"They are all identical, Disruptor. Are there any other questions? In that case, we can get started," Lenneth gestured for the team to leave their bags and seat themselves around the table. Her gaze shifted to the members of the team one at a time before she continued. "For the first four challenges, you will take a team of up to four to face an elemental dragon. Defeating the dragon is the only condition for passing the challenge. However, you may also select one member of the four-person team to face an individual challenge before facing the dragon. Ignoring or failing these challenges will not count against you, except in the loss of time and team members."

"Why would we take on the extra work, then," Nocturne asked, sounding irritated. The Void warrior was holding his head as if it hurt.

"Because completing the individual challenges will make subsequent challenges easier," the Valkyrie's frown indicated she was not pleased with being interrupted. Natalie leaned closer as the explanation continued. "Each of the four elemental dragons possesses a weapon connected to their power. The short sword Jinn belongs to Cepheid, the Wind Dragon, the war axe Behemoth belongs to Baade, the Earth Dragon, the great sword Efreet belongs to Parsec, the Fire Dragon, and the spear Leviathan, belongs to Kelvin, the Water Dragon. Having the magic contained in these weapons will be a great help to you in the remaining challenges. Something to think about."

"So, which dragon is first," Sir Aleks drew Lenneth's gaze with his question. "Today counts as the first day, right? We should get started."

"Today is your first day, that's correct," she replied. "You will first face Baade, the Earth Dragon. I should warn you that here, the dragons are not bound by the limitations that your world puts on their powers. Here, you will fight them at their full strength."

"That's fine, we can handle anything they've got," Jack said confidently, clenching his right hand into a fist. Natalie was unsure if it was false bravado or if he really was that self-assured. Lady Ridley and Alicia were both smiling at Jack, while Gil was smirking at the Valkyrie.

"If you say so," Lenneth smiled back, hers looking like a predator sizing up her prey. Jack did not wilt under her gaze. "I should mention that the weapons must be used by the one who completes the challenge. Consider who to send carefully. You have one hour to get things in order, then the contest officially begins. I will be checking in with you periodically, and of course, will oversee all of your attempts at the challenges. Plan wisely."

"Everyone stay seated," Elwen said as the Valkyrie turned and walked away, fading into thin air in a way that Natalie still did not understand. "Before we start unpacking, we need to discuss protocol for the next three weeks, and select the team that will face the first challenge."

"What do you mean by that? What kind of 'protocol' do you have in mind," Lady Ridley sounded uncharacteristically skeptical of the Guild Leader.

"We need to establish a schedule for facing the challenges," Elwen answered. "Some flexibility may be possible, but we should have a general idea of when we want to face them."

"There are 10 challenges and 21 days, the answer seems obvious," the General chimed in. "We can just face one every other day."

"No," Lord Zane shook his head. The light elf leader looked around the table, continuing to explain. "The challenges will almost certainly become more difficult as we progress through them, which means that we must devote more time to recovery between the later ones than the earlier."

"Precisely," Elwen said. This gave Natalie pause. She listened intently as the Guild Leader explained. "The challenges can be attempted by teams of four, and we have 10, which means that we can rotate through our number to get through the first few as efficiently as possible. My plan is for us to face the first four challenges in four days, utilizing the High Priest's healing powers and downtime so that members of the team can have time to recover. This way, we can take more recovery time later and make sure that we have the right team for each challenge."

"Is it wise to have such a rigid plan? We have no idea what the challenges will be like, and trying to stick to that sort of schedule may run us ragged," Natalie was worried about forcing constraints upon the team.

"The High Priest will not be fighting, he is here specifically for healing abilities," Gil spoke up. "We can send a team of four one day, and a completely different team the next. A rotation of that sort, combined with the High Priest's powers and possibly some healing from Lord Zane and I, will provide the best chance of being successful. If we cannot maintain that sort of schedule for the first four rounds, then we have no hope of doing so against the later ones."

"Equally important, knowing who is facing each challenge, and when, should eliminate the possibility of too many or too few of us entering," Elwen added. "I want to remove any chance of our being shorted or having one of our number eliminated through a miscommunication. The team to face each challenge will be formed in a meeting involving everyone, and the time for departure will be established, so that everyone knows and there is no confusion."

"This is the sort of rigor that we will need," the High Priest gave his approval to her plan. "We must maintain this level of structure if we are to be successful. The Guild Leader has my support."

"And mine as well," Lord Zane said. Everyone around the table seemed to agree, so the General did not pursue her objection. She was surprised to see that everyone had come to agreement so quickly and easily, but the plan did seem to be put together well.

"All right, everyone take 30 minutes to settle into your rooms, and then we will reconvene to plan for the first challenge," Elwen instructed. "I want to be ready to start as soon as we get the opportunity."

Ridley finished putting all of her things into the tall, wooden dresser in her room. The living quarters they had been assigned to were spacious, but sparse. They had each been given a dresser, an armchair, and a bed with a small table next to it. The walls were the same white marble as the common room, and were unadorned. She was pleased with the softness of both the bed and chair. It was not a luxurious place, but it was functional. With a sigh, she flopped onto the bed and glanced at the clock on the wall. There were still 15 minutes before the group was to meet and set the team for the first challenge. Although she could already hear some of them talking in the common room, she chose to remain in her room, reflecting on how quickly the challenges had become reality. After weeks of waiting and wondering, they were finally ready to begin, and she was unsure how to feel. She was anxious for it to begin, but that did not stop her from being nervous.

'Come on, get it together,' she thought to herself. 'Being nervous won't help anything. We have the chance to accomplish everything we wanted, so stay focused.'

This internal pep talk was enough to calm her nerves and focus her mind on the task at hand, at least for the moment. As the only member of the group who used an axe for her primary weapon, she expected to be chosen for the task of acquiring the Earth Dragon's axe, Behemoth. All of the weapons named by the Valkyrie were mentioned in the lore of Radiata as possessing great magic and strength, featuring prominently in legends and bedtime stories that parents told to their children. To think that they actually existed, and that she might get to wield one, was an exciting prospect. She was worried about the idea of facing the challenges, not knowing what to expect from the individual parts or the dragons themselves. Hearing that they were even stronger here than they were before was not encouraging, but she was determined to face whatever obstacles were put in her path. Ridley had never fought a dragon; the only one she had ever even seen was Lord Parsec, but that was in their meetings at Fort Helencia. The prospect of facing a dragon in battle was frightening and exciting all at once.

'Who will be on the team with me,' the young girl wondered. 'It would be nice to have Lord Zane, but if his strength is failing then he needs to be kept out. Elwen is strong, but will she put herself in this early? Gil, Natalie, and Aleks would be a good team.'

'Aren't you forgetting someone,' a second voice in her head startled Ridley so much that she jumped up from the bed. Unsure of what to do, she waited a moment in silence.

'Who's there,' she focused on the words, as if projecting them into her mind.

'It's me, Hap,' came the reply, an adolescent sounding voice. Though she was still curious, Ridley breathed a sigh of relief.

'Hap,' repeating the elf's name, she calmed down enough to sit on the bed again. She could feel the elf's soul inside of her just as she had before they left, and nothing seemed different. 'I've never heard your voice before. Why haven't we communicated like this prior to now?'

'Something is different about this place,' the elf sounded unsure of the details. 'I couldn't talk to you like this before, it was only after we came that I could. It must have something to do with the magic that's here.'

'So, you just know all of my thoughts,' Ridley asked, feeling rather uncomfortable with the idea.

'Before we came here, I could only feel your strong emotions in the same way that you felt mine, but the connection between us is much stronger here,' Hap sounded like he was thinking carefully about his words. 'I'm not sure what that means. Can you hear my thoughts?'

'I haven't been able to yet,' the human girl replied. She could already tell that the new arrangement was going to require both of them to adjust. 'What else can you do here that you couldn't do before we came? I don't want to have to fight for my body again.'

'I don't know the limits yet of what I can or can't do, but there won't be any more growing pains,' the light elf answered. 'Even if I could take control of your body, I don't want to. I want to work together so that we can both get out of this.'

'I'm glad to hear that, Hap,' Ridley smiled at the elf's words. A few moments of silence passed before he spoke again.

'Why did you leave Jack Russell off of your list,' Hap inquired. 'You know how strong he is.'

'Jack is weakened because of the Falvern,' she replied. The elf would not let her continue.

'I didn't sense concern in you, Ridley,' he said. 'I don't sense that you're angry with him. It started last night, and it got stronger this morning.'

'So now I have to guard my thoughts in my own head,' exasperated, she buried her head in the pillow. Moments later, she felt a strange reverberation, as if a part of her mind had suddenly become grey and sad. It was not what she was feeling, but she experienced it just like her own feelings. 'Hap. You feel bad because of what I said, don't you? Is this how you experience my emotions?'

'I can sense yours, just like you can sense mine,' said the elf. His voice sounded melancholy. 'I'll try not to pry too much, but I've always been able to do this. The only difference now is that I can talk to you about it.'

'You know, I think this will be beneficial,' Ridley concluded. 'Working together can only improve our chances of succeeding.'

'Only if we're honest with one another,' Hap said.

'Yeah,' Ridley assented. A brief silence followed, and she felt impatience coming from Hap. It was as if she could see the elf's face, telling her to hurry up and talk. With a light smile, she continued. 'You're right. I know I don't need to tell you because you already know, but you're right. I'm mad at Jack and trying not to think about him. I haven't seen him in a month, and he left me all alone at the ball last night so he could kiss the Princess and do who knows what with Alicia. It's silly and irrational, and I'm trying to keep it off my mind by focusing on other things.'

'That wasn't so hard, was it,' the elf's tone was relaxed. 'I'll share things with you, as long as you share things with me. There's nothing wrong with being frustrated, but I'm glad you're trying to keep it in check.'

'Thanks, Hap," Ridley said, suddenly much more comfortable with the idea of having the light elf in her head. 'I do think that I should talk to Lord Zane about this, just to see if he has any advice.'

'He'll tell you to just talk to Jack,' Hap replied, simply. 'If he did something that bothers you, just tell him, he might not even know that he...'

'Not about Jack, about us being able to communicate like this,' Ridley interrupted the elf, amused by the misunderstanding. Looking up at the clock on the wall, she saw that the meeting was only a few minutes from starting. 'Come on, it's time for us to go back to the common room and get ready for the first challenge.'

Aleks Sterling yawned as he took his seat at the table in the conference room, having quickly and efficiently put his clothes and equipment away. He was still tired from the night before. His conversation with Adele Russell had lasted until the early hours of the morning, and it had been well after 2:00 before he went to bed, after first making sure that she was settled into one of the castle's many guest rooms. Only two years younger than he, Jack's older sister was both charming and intelligent, and he had lain awake in bed thinking about her before finally falling asleep. Although he knew such thoughts would only be a distraction, he could not help feeling anxious about the notion of seeing her again after they completed the challenges. Nevertheless, morning had come too early, and he was fatigued.

After being released for their half-hour break, he had quickly surveyed the layout of their home for the next three weeks. The 14 doors in the common room were spaced so that two walls had four doors and the other two had three. The training room, the access point for the challenges, the kitchen, and the bath were all grouped together. The Knight Captain had selected a bedroom on one of walls of three, and his quarters were perpendicular to the training room. General Natalie's room was next to his, and Nocturne was the last room on their side. Watching as everyone moved around, he saw Ridley leave the bedroom opposite the training room, which meant her room was next to High Priest Kain, who was across from the access point. Elwen's room was between the High Priest and Lord Zane of the light elves. She was across from the kitchen, and the elf leader was across from the bath. Along the final wall, Jack's room was between Gil and Alicia, with the latter being perpendicular to the bath. Aleks wondered to himself if everyone had chosen their room with some purpose in mind or if it was more random; he expected it was some combination of the two. As their break came to an end, the members of the team slowly their way to the table. When General Natalie was the last person to seat herself, Elwen stood up to speak.

"We now have half an hour before we can attempt the first challenge. The first thing we must do is decide who will enter the individual component and fight for Behemoth," she paused for a moment before continuing. "The answer seems obvious to me: Ridley should do it."

"Are you sure that is wise," Kain asked. When the attention shifted to him, the High Priest continued. "It is true that Lady Ridley uses an axe as her primary weapon, but if she is defeated then we fail completely."

"I know, but Ridley is the best choice. We have to send the best person to each challenge. Holding back will only hurt us," Elwen spoke simply. Aleks began thinking about the objection that Kain had made, realizing that the point was even stronger than it sounded initially.

"That would be a reason to send me over the General if the situation called for it, but that kind of thinking should not be applied to Lady Ridley," Aleks spoke up, drawing the eyes of all. He stood up before speaking again. "We are fighting for the fate of the world, and we run the risk of losing it every time she enters. There are no conditions on who enters, so we could go through all of the challenges without ever entering her. Why would we expose ourselves to that kind of risk?"

"Ridley is one of the strongest members of this team, and we will need her strength," Lord Zane interjected. He stayed seated and his voice remained level as he continued. "With her participating, we not only gain an additional person in the rotation, but her strength will make it possible to end battles more quickly than without her."

"That strength won't matter if she just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets taken out," General Natalie offered her opinion. Aleks could see the team members considering his words carefully.

"I can do it," Ridley stood up as she spoke, determination set on her face. She sounded frustrated, but took a calming breath before she continued. "I'm right here, someone should ask me if I can do it. There is a lot of pressure on all of us, and we must all share the burden. I can do this."

"Your determination is not in question, Lady Ridley," the High Priest spoke again, nodding toward Aleks. "Nor your strength, and this is not personal. The same logic would apply no matter who was in your position. The only consideration is what happens if you fall. We may even be winning the fight, but if you fall then we have doomed the world."

"Ridley is going to be integral to our success," Elwen said, seeming to have dismissed his objection. "I know the situation we are in, and it is a consideration when putting her in, but we cannot give ourselves anything less than our best chance at winning."

"At least hold her out from the first challenge," Aleks insisted. "The Valkyrie said the dragons are stronger here, and we have no idea what to expect from them. These individual challenges are unknowns too, keep her out of those."

"I understand your objections, Sir Aleks, but this is what I have decided. We cannot simply try to get through these challenges without losing. We have to try to win," Elwen's helm obscured her face, but he could hear the intensity when she spoke. "It will take everything we have to win, but the only way we can get out of this is by matching strength with strength.

"I agree with the Guild Leader," Gil spoke up, and Aleks saw that most of the group appeared to support her as well. With a curt nod of his head, he sat down. The Knight Captain was frustrated that the team did not see things his way, but continuing to argue was unlikely to produce the result he wanted.

"Okay," Aleks conceded. "Who should go with her?"

"The team will consist of Ridley, General Natalie, Gil, and Lord Zane," Elwen replied. Before anyone could react, she spoke again in a stern tone. "This is not the ideal team for the challenge we are about to face, but I want to make something very clear from the beginning: I do not want a repeat of this morning. Jack Alicia, Sir Aleks, and Nocturne you all showed up tired and tardy, and so will not be participating in today's challenge. I expected all of you to be more responsible with regard to the task we have been given, and I do not, under any circumstances, want anything even remotely resembling this behavior to happen again."

"Excuse me, Guild Leader," General Natalie spoke as the conversation paused. "I believe that Gil was with Jack and Alicia when they arrived late this morning."

"You are correct, General," Elwen nodded as she answered. "However, Gil's tardiness was caused by Jack and Alicia failing to meet him at their agreed upon time. Rather than leave them, he found them and made sure they all arrived together, which is the spirit of teamwork that I want all of us to have. Have I made myself clear? Good, then you are all dismissed. The four who are facing the challenges should all get ready, you have approximately 15 minutes before we will activate the access point. I will be available if you need anything."

Vegeta26: Okay, so technically they didn't start the challenges, but establishing the rules for the challenges and getting everything in position was important. Now we're going to have all of the real fun. Thanks for being patient, and I hope to hear from you in the reviews.

MattMC3: I'm having a lot of fun writing Gil, and I feel like his personality really is as rounded as it appears here, adding a level of depth to the whole story. Aleks isn't meant to be a unidimensional character either, so be careful of forming simple opinions. Jack's dealings with the other characters, especially the opposite sex, are going to factor into the how the story develops from here, I promise it'll be entertaining. Time does fly, and there's still a lot of good yet to come; looking forward to hearing from you.

The Flying Frog: Jack is still just a little oblivious when it comes to female companionship, but I guess that's a part of his charm. Lenneth is absolutely going to make things interesting before it's all said and done, but the first challenge is going to be about some of the others. Let me know what you think.

Lazy guy: Aleks and Adele will almost certainly see each other again, but you'll have a little while to wonder about it. Jack's interaction with the other ladies around him is definitely going to come up later as well. the scene with Freya and Zane is one that I wanted to write to flesh out both her character and some of the story about Cairn and Gawain from before the start of the game. I'll be interested to hear what you thought.

SkyRune: I think the armor in the palace is just an easter egg stuck in the game by Square Enix, not that there's any real story about King Jiorus wearing it or anything like that. It might be a fun story to write, but I don't know that I'm going to have a lot of time for it. Hope you'll let me know what you thought of this chapter.