I'm sorry for the impromptu hiatus! And sorry if you think this is scruffy, but I literally bashed it out yesterday in,like, two hours.


Chapter 21: Early Birds

All night Kratos' thoughts had been unintentionally focused on his last journey around Sylvarant and Tethe'alla. All this discussion of Exspheres, coupled with seeing familiar names scattered about the city, made him recall all that he could about it despite his best attempts at pushing it all from his mind. The people, the places... When wandering the distant alleys of his memories his hands would usually be occupied by a small brass locket, kept around his neck for the better part of nearly two decades, but since passing it on before he'd left on Derris Kharlan it left him fumbling at the collar of his shirt instead. Often he found himself curious as to where it might have ended up over the years: had Lloyd kept it, or did the chain break once too often? Was it long lost, rusted and unrecognisable, the picture inside faded and so speckled from age it was just a scrap of dirty paper? Or maybe it was safe and hidden away, forgotten amongst memorabilia but otherwise protected until rediscovered by some hapless rummager? Not that it would mean much to them either... He sighed softly, letting his hand fall away. Wishful thinking, but it was nice to do so every once in a while.

The city started to stir with the dawn, and as a young man wandered by him sitting by the fountain in the Memorial Garden Kratos knew it was about time to return to the inn. They had a long walk ahead of them to Moria. Merrywether had expressed her desire to leave early yesterday, meaning he would need to get back to stir his three charges before long. Goodness knows how long they'd sleep in otherwise...

"Leaving so soon?" He paused as he was about to get to his feet, picking up a voice from nearby - so painfully familiar, right down to the teasing tone of the words. He looked around: the only place nearby he could possibly hear it from was the building high on the wall at the back of the garden, and spotted an open window on the second floor. The house was like all the others in the aristocrats' neighbourhood and had the light inside been extinguished when he'd looked around he wouldn't have thought twice, but the soft flicker of a candle had been enough to catch his eye. The same voice let out a purr of a chuckle. "Don't look like that."

"I told you everything relevant, now I'm going to Sybak. I said I'd meet them there tomorrow." There was a second voice that snapped a disgruntled reply along with the shuffling of books and maybe a bag, shadows moving about the room and making the candle flicker.

"You think he knows about...?" the first voice trailed off, a tense pause falling between the two, before there was a sigh and footsteps.

"No doubt, but they haven't met yet. After Heimdall he could be anywhere."

"He's travelling with three kids right? A half elf, a demon, and a human?" Kratos' attention had certainly been snagged by now, and he stared relentlessly at the window. Slowly getting to his feet he snuck around the low fountain wall, his boots crunching ever so slightly in the gravel. The voices paused a second time, before the same rolling chuckle came forth again. "He might be closer than you realise. I saw those kids with one of the scientists today, going into the Laboratory." "Did you see him with them?" the second voice asked accusingly.

"No, but-" "Then I doubt he's here. Probably smart enough to avoid an Eques stronghold after the incident on the boat."

The gate behind him clanged, the sound sharp in his ears after he'd spent so long listening hard to the hushed voices, and a glance over his shoulder revealed that the cleaner had thrown them open and latched them in preparation for visitors later in the day. By the time he focused on the window again the candle had been extinguished and the voices were gone, and he quickly looked along the wall for the nearest way up. Maybe if he was fast enough he could catch one of the mystery voices- either would do. The first, though clearly older than the last time he'd heard him, sounded uncannily like Zelos, and the second knew plenty about him and the 'three kids' with whom he was travelling. He would have realised if anyone was keeping an eye on them in any way, yet this sudden intrusion into their privacy had caught him by surprise. To have known about Heimdall meant the man must've been there, and mentioning that he was headed to Sybak made Kratos recall what the Elder had said about Genis. But the voice was too young for him: despite being part elven the passage of time would have been obvious in his voice, and had they met in Heimdall surely he would've made himself known? Something certainly wasn't adding up.

Rushing up the nearest staircase to the upper ring Kratos took the steps two at a time, though as he rounded the corner he came face to face with Merrywether and Lloyd. They gaped in surprise at their near collision, to which he mumbled a brusque apology.

"Is something the matter?" asked Merrywether, looking him curiously up and down. He glanced once again at the building he'd been heading towards, the rooftop and upper floor just visible over smaller buildings between them, but eventually shook his head.

"It's nothing," he replied softly, before checking the time on the face of the town square's clock tower instead. "I doubt the others are awake yet."

"All the more reason to go and find them," she replied, before looking at Lloyd. He was carrying two fairly large bags, but seemed untroubled by them as he smiled. "Are you sure you're alright carrying them?" "If I left it to you, Merry, we'd still be at the house," he joked, adjusting the one he held on his shoulder. "I wouldn't offer if I was having any trouble." She still didn't look certain, but nodded regardless and turned back to Kratos.

"Lead the way."

-x-

As expected all three were still sound asleep in their beds when Kratos returned, to which he sighed before rectifying. Standing next to Claudia's bed he found her arm and shook it.

"Wake up," he ordered, doing the same to Valanoir. Both sat up, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and stretching tiredly, and Claudia grumbled irritably as she stood up.

"I never want to travel ever again..."

"Always so negative..." Valanoir mumbled back drowsily as she sat at the edge of her bed, brushing back her hair. Going to Sam's bed Kratos repeated the gesture, must to the half elf's chagrin, and pointed them all to the tray of food on the table that he'd brought up.

"You should already be awake..." he muttered softly in disappointment, shaking his head as they each sat at the small table.

"Yeah, but you normally wake us up on time," Claudia was quick to answer, tearing a bread roll in half and picking up some bacon. This did nothing to improve Kratos' demeanour.

"You shouldn't be relying on me in the first place."

"But you're always up so early..." Sam mumbled as he fought back a yawn, pouring himself a glass of water. "We just kind of expected it today."

"We not leaving now, are we?" Valanoir asked a little uneasily, ignoring her food for the time being and briefly combing through her hair, arranging it into her usual long pigtails in no time.

"No, but we need to make sure we have what we need to make it to the mines," he explained as he picked up his bag from the post of his bed, briefly checking the contents. He still needed a proper map and a compass. "Merrywether and her brother are waiting downstairs." "Already?" came Sam's incredulous reply, which once again didn't make Kratos any happier.

"They were expecting you to be ready by now," he said sternly, though he had to admit they cleared the food up rather quickly despite having only stirred from their beds a few moments ago.

"Who gets up this early? This is crazy..." he heard Sam mutter irritably once he'd stood up from the table, and rolled his eyes as they each started gathering their own things from around the room.

Greeted by Merrywether and Lloyd in the foyer Sam, Claudia and Valanoir were now more or less coherent, and were pleasant enough despite the reprimanding gaze Kratos kept on them. They expressed their apologies for sleeping in, to which Lloyd dismissed with an amused smile and Merrywether pursed her lips. Clearly she was of the same mindset as Kratos, in that they should've already been awake.

Both were dressed more appropriately for travelling now as well. Merrywether had shed the formal, corseted dress in favour for something shorter and a little more durable, with pale blue gloves that extended all the way to her upper arms to protect her otherwise exposed limbs. The same type of material covered her legs up to mid-thigh height, the occasional flash of pale skin visible where they failed to meet her skirt. Her long ringlets were tied up with a matching ribbon tied into a bow, and resting around her hips was a belt adorned with small pouches and a set of keys that jingled ever so slightly when she walked. Her overall image was very feminine, right down to the demure way her hands were folded and held against her abdomen.

"I suggest we make haste: at this rate we won't arrive at the checkpoint until tomorrow evening," she groused, pulling a small watch from one of her pockets and checking the time. "I really would rather we didn't camp near it, considering the circumstances."

"Don't worry yourself so much. We'll be on our way before you know it," Lloyd reassured her, looking around them all. He was wearing his Eques armour again along with a weathered old elven cloak, but there was distinctly less metal than before. It made him much less intimidating than he'd been the day before.

"So I take it we're going shopping before we set off, right?" asked Sam, and when Merrywether and Kratos nodded he sighed softly. "How about you just leave me here for now? Just wake me up when we're leaving."

"Hell no. If I have to go shopping, you're coming too," Claudia retorted, ignoring his pathetic groans as she shoved him towards the door.

The streets were still mostly bare when they left the inn, though as they approached the main street it was clear many businesses were already open for trade. And just like them, it seemed the majority of people visiting at this time were adventurers, setting off bright eyed and bushy tailed despite the early hour. One or two even greeted them with a brief 'good morning', which only made Claudia glower at them.

"Why is everyone up so early...?"

"They're all most likely hoping to make good time on their travels before the height of the day, when the sun will be at its harshest," Merrywether answered brusqly, casting a sharp look at Claudia over her shoulder that made the latter falter slightly in her step. Pouting like a scolded child she hung back behind Sam and Valanoir, but said nothing more on the matter as they entered the general store. The man behind the counter greeted Merrywether and Lloyd with a pleasant smile and saw to them straight away, leaving Kratos to watch over Sam, Valanoir and Claudia wandering curiously around the shop and looking at what was on sale.

"We stocked up in Heimdall. What else could we possibly need?" mumbled Sam, poking through a small basket of dried herbs.

"It never hurts to be prepared," Kratos replied, his tone alone enough to keep Sam from nosing through anything else. Like Claudia he hung back and moped, hands shoved in his pockets in a grump as they stood shoulder to shoulder.

"I'm regretting the decision to come to Meltokio more and more..." he whispered sarcastically to Claudia in a hushed voice, to which she nodded dismally in reply. She was about to reply when they realised Kratos was still watching them sternly, and once again they fell into scolded silence.

They left the city limits with the sun still low in the sky, following a clearly marked dirt road north west. Unlike the hike from beyond Altamira to Heimdall, full of steep climbs and winding pathways through mountains, the walk to Moria looked incredibly simple. Their view of the distant mountain was only occasionally obscured by forests, but otherwise the road led straight towards it without trouble. It hardly looked more than a stone's throw away, but Merrywether had warned them that the entrance to Moria itself was a fair distance within the mountain and so they'd packed accordingly, prepared for a few nights camping at least. She took the lead with Kratos and Lloyd only a few steps behind, whilst Sam, Claudia and Valanoir brought up the rear in a tidy line. Each one had their bag filled to bursting, the only one not carrying anything nearly as heavy being Merrywether herself: other than a small over-the-shoulder satchel, Lloyd still seemed to be carrying everything. But he didn't seem troubled by it, still smiling pleasantly as they walked and seemingly with more energy than the three at the back combined.

Pulling her bag a little higher on her shoulder Claudia seemed a little bothered by something, frowning at the three walking ahead of them. Spotting this rather quickly Sam quirked an eyebrow.

"What's wrong?" he asked, and she sighed softly.

"I don't know..." she eventually mumbled a little awkwardly, her hands wringing the strap of her bag before she nodded at Lloyd. "Doesn't it seem a little unfair he's carrying all that stuff?"

"He don't seem to mind, Claudie..." Valanoir pointed out from the other side of Sam, watching the young man herself. But she still didn't seem particularly happy.

"Shouldn't we help him?" "If you want to help anyone, you can carry my bag. I think I'm carrying at least eight full water bottles at the moment," said Sam, jostling the strap of his own bag with purpose which made Claudia scowl with a smirk.

"I carried you halfway through that Ymir Forest place. Don't think I'm doing you any favours for a while."

"Aw, Claude...!" he moaned pathetically, receiving only her teasing cackle in reply quickly joined by Valanoir's chiming little snigger.

Ahead of them Kratos was only vaguely aware of what they were discussing, managing the slightest of smiles at their enthusiasm and energy despite their destination. Even if it was only because they'd pushed the thought of the Exspheres to the back of their minds for the time being, it was better than walking the whole way in silent misery. The same did not hold true for himself: the conversation he'd heard earlier that morning still weighed heavily on his mind. Were they truly being followed? If that was the case, how hadn't he noticed sooner? If their discussion was anything to go by though, the man from Heimdall wasn't following them anymore, but even then that was a difficult statement to believe. Even by boat Sybak was at least two days travel... Nothing was adding up, and it was all weighing terribly on his mind. Well, at least he wasn't lost in memories any longer