The morning fared much better for the pair, as the sun made itself known through the treebranches. Splinters of light caught Elly's hair as Fei struggled to stay awake in the muggy weather. He had the most curious idea of familiarity with her, as if maybe he had known her in another life. Elly kept quiet, staring at the path ahead as they tramped through the underbrush. The forest was dangerous, and they were easily ambushed more than once by particularly destructive monsters. The creatures around the world seemed to become more and more aggressive each year.
Elly found herself falling behind Fei, and after quickly dispatching a pair of dark elves, she stopped and posed him a question.
"Fei," she said. Elly walked quietly towards him. "Yesterday you said your life was worthless. What did you mean by that?"
Fei scratched his chin and tried to look confused. "What are you asking?"
"Why? Yesterday you looked like you had a death wish. You think it wouldn't make me wonder?" Elly sighed inwardly, fixing some imaginary place on her soldier's garb. "Say, how did you get stranded in this forest in the first place?"
"I should ask you the same question," Fei huffed.
"Huh, well...I..." Elly stretched for a reason, quite unconvincingly.
Fei walked a little distance a way from her, into the trees. Elly didn't follow, just watched his lean body move softly among the leaves. Elly couldn't quite understand how someone so muscular, someone who looked so powerful, could carry themselves with such a grace.
"I...ran away," Fei admitted. He tugged at his ponytail then crossed his arms. "I ran away from my village, or what's left of it."
"Village...you don't mean!"
"Lahan. It was a small village that existed between this forest and the mountain range. I ran away from there."
"It was a nice, peaceful village," Fei said. "Everyone there treated me like family. Then, last night, a group of Gears suddenly appeared and started fighting right in the middle of the place. The village was engulfed in flames. I couldn't just stand there and watch Lahan be destroyed. So to try and save the villagers, I got in an empty Gear...without even knowing how to operate it. I just thought maybe I could do it, no, it was more like someone whispering to me.
"Someone whispering to me...telling me to do it...But it was a disaster! The village...!"
"Was it destroyed by the Kislev army?" Elly asked tentatively. Her curiosity was building.
"No," he sighed. Fei tried to find a way to say it, but the pain was still so real that it burned him. He scrunched his face up tightly, his hands steel fists. "No. The village was destroyed by me. It was me who destroyed Lahan!"
"What do you mean you destroyed it?" Elly tried to understand. "I thought you were trying to help save the villagers?"
"I did try to help. I actually took out a few Gears," Fei tried to explain. "But then I came under heavy fire from a new group of Gears. Then my friend Timothy, he was hit by a hail of bullets...Then I lost it. Everything just went dark. I don't remember anything after that. The Gear I was in went out of control...at least that's what Doc said.
"When I came to...the village and everyone in it was..."
Fei stopped for a moment, taking a deep breath. He tried to stay meditative but felt nothing but pain. Everything was being swallowed in a cold darkness, and the memories of it were just too recent. The hatred of the village was still fresh on his mind.
"Alice. She was such a...Alice and Timothy...Oh god!" Fei cried out. "Everybody! All such good people..."
"Went out of control? The Gear?" Elly was confused. She knew the power of Gears all to well, but she had never heard of a single pilot taking out an entire troup of militant Gears AND destroying an entire village by itself. "What about the village?"
"Fei?" she asked.
"Yes! The Gear!" Fei shouted excitedly. Elly took a step back. Suddenly her own painful memories were coming back.
"Damn them...they're still giving chase!
"We've entered Aveh territory.
"I'm not giving up now.
"This Gear's too important!"
The night sky lit up as Elly piloted her gear through Aveh's militant territories. Her wingmen flew with her, the pale orange sky of dusk setting the scene. She surveyed the surroundings, trying to find the best way through the airspace. Before her sensors could pick up the danger, however, it was upon them. The Gear to her immediate left burst into a cloud of black smoke and billowing flame, falling to the ground below.
"That's done it!
"I'm at a disadvantage now!
"Van Houten! What's wrong? Respond!"
Elly cursed under her breath as a white-hot pain erupted throughout her body.
"Shrapnel!" she cried out, barely keeping at the controls. "In my back! My thruster output is dropping, I can't maintain altitude!"
"Dammit, Everyone land now!
"Regroup on the ground! We'll have to engage them!"
Elly's Gear landed violently in an expanse of farmland just outside of a small village. Wounded and bleeding, she immediately evacuted her Gear just as her pursuers hit the earth behind her. Without hesitation, the enemy Gears opened fire, tearing Elly's Gear into shreds. She ran for cover, the shrapnel in her side rubbing against her muscles. She stifled a scream as she moved as far away from the Gear as she could, the pain almost blinding her.
Fei rubbed the back of his head, seeing that Elly was lost in thought.
"If they had never come to the village, never started fighting there, then I wouldn't have tired to pilot that Gear. It's their fault...not mine! They're the ones to blame. If they'd never come, none of this would have...if not for them!"
Fei began punching one of the gnarled trees near him, his fist quickly becoming bloody from hitting the rough bark. He just shouted over and over, trying to drown out the scenes that played endlessly in his mind.
"Them!" Fei screamed. "Them! Them!"
"Enough of that!" Elly shouted. Fei quickly turned to look at her.
"You're a coward!"
"A coward?" Fei was taken aback. "Me?"
Could it be possible that this crimson-haired soldier was on to something? Fei shook his head.
"Yes, you're a coward. All you're saying is 'them, them, them,'" Elly said. "Don't talk as if you had no part of the blame, as well!"
Fei peered at the nothingness of space in front of him. He tried to see past his own angst, and let Elly's words pierce his heart. For some reason, it was difficult. Her voice was very soothing to him.
"I'm to blame?"
"Yes, that's right! Of course the direct cause of the battle was that a Gear made and emergency landing in your village. But all Kislev wanted was the Gear, right? They weren't invading or out to destroy Lahan. The real damage occurred because you climbed in a Gear and tried to fight back!
"Whatever made you get into that Gear? Not just anyone can pilot them! It takes training! There is no way a civilian could hope to pilot one! Besides...you should have been helping the villagers flee to safety instead! How can you blame the damage on a Gear when it was your decision to fight in it in the first place?
"Why don't you take some of the responsibility yourself? Why are you putting all the blame on others? That's just running away! That's what makes you a coward!" Elly shouted, quickly running out of breath. Somehow, yelling at Fei was making her feel better for her own indiscretion. Her own part of the blame was crumbling under her selfish redirection.
"Well, if you put it that way. Yes...that's right, I'm a coward! I didn't realize my own strength and have been blaming what happened as a result of my foolishness on everyone else. I'm a pitiful excuse for a man. But...
"I just felt this rush of blood in me and I couldn't help myself! Couldn't help myself, or help others..."
Fei collapsed, grasping his hair and pulling his face tightly into his chest. He shook quietly against the trees, wanting nothing more to do with the world as it was.
"Fei, I-I'm..." Elly was at a loss for words. She didn't dare move, didn't go to Fei in that moment. She just stared dumbly at him, her arms at her sides.
"Shut up!" Fei screamed at her. "What do you know? When I cam to I was surrounded by piles of rubble...I didn't know what had happened or what I had done. I remembered absolutely nothing. All I knew was that my hands could still feel what they had done. The only things that penetrated the Gear's barrier were screams. Screams accompanied by the stench of blood, the sound of crushing bones, and my own curses.
"Look! Look at my hands! Can you hear their voices? Can you understand this feeling? The feeling of having destroyed your own village, with your own hands? Of not being able to do anything for the children left behind? Now they have nothing. I have nothing. I have nowhere. No one.
"I didn't want to get in it...I had no choice. There was no other way."
Elly moved away from Fei, not knowing what else to say to him. He was just a crumpled form now, a defeated and broken man that couldn't come to terms with being a murderer. Fei didn't move, didn't breathe, just sat against the rough bark of a tree that was bloodied with his own fists. Elly started at him, wide eyed, then slowly walked further into the deep woods.
"Why did I go and say that to him?"
"You talk as if it's not your responsibility!"
"No...I didn't do anything.."
Walls of pure white plunged into depths of crimson as the blood of innocents flows towards murderous hands...
"They died because you had to pilot the gear and start fighting!"
"It wasn't me! Can't you understand?"
The bodies lay around her still form, their blood pooling infinately against gloved hands.
"Not anyone can pilot those machines you know! Why won't you take responsibility?
Why are you trying to put the blame on others?"
A still light focuses on Elly's unsure frame. She stares listlessly into the heavens...
"You're a coward!"
"That's right! I'm a coward!"
"Yes...that's right. I'm a coward," Elly sighed. She walked through the grasses slowly, unsure of herself.
A frightening noise split the air, and the very trees around her seemed to shake. Just as she moved deeper into the browning woods, an enormous beast burst towards her, mouth agape. It's rows of razor-sharp teeth threated to slice her to ribbons, and it leapt forward. Elly screamed.
"Oh no!" Fei shouted, hearing Elly's voice. For some reason, her being in danger triggered something deep within him and he was momentarily shaken out of his stupor.
"Elly!" Fei yelled. A gargantuan scaled beast was towering over her, some kind of primevil monstrosity. It's poison saliva slipped easily from between it's fangs, and upon seeing Fei, it garnished all attention on him.
"Elly, are you alright?" Fei cried. "Darn, she's unconcsious!"
Fei backed up slowly, readying his body for combat. There was only one thing he could do, and even if he died trying, he was not going to stand idly by while even one more person was hurt. He steeled his resolve and pulled his figure quickly into a fighting stance, his fists transforming into deadly weapons. He hopped foot to foot, waiting for the beast to strike him.
The Rankar Dragon simply ignored Fei's pathetic boasting, and made a quick strike for him. It slapped Fei hard with the end of it's tail, sending him into a state of near-unconsciousness. Fei felt crippled and defeated, and lay low to the ground.
It was just then that a sound pierced through the trees. A mechanical noise, something that made Fei think of doc and his machintions, the sound reverberated between the edges of the forest.
"Fei!" A voice cried out.
An unwieldly machine hung suspended in the sky above both Fei and the dragon. Citan waved at Fei earnestly from where he stood perched on the machination. It had two rotor-blades that spun incessently, keeping it hovering in the air. Most importantly, the machine was carrying a large and looming object: the Gear that Fei had earlier piloted.
"Fei! I have been searching for you! Here, you can use this!" Citan shouted over the noise of the spinning blades. He pressed a few buttons at his control, and the dark Gear dropped to the forest floor.
"Hey! Hold on a second! To tell me I can use it is one thing..." Fei protested.
The dragon quickly made a turn for Elly, seeing the disruption come between it and Fei.
"Elly! Damn it!" Fei cursed. "Doc, I have a favor to ask! I will defeat this monster! But, if it looks like I'll go out of control like last time, then shoot me!"
"Fei...Let us pray that that won't happen!" Citan morbidly agreed, flying off in his heli-porter.
Fei jumped into the Gear, immediately becoming one with the controls. The fact that the death-machine felt so familiar to him was unsettling, but he pushed back all thought and concentrated on killed the Rankar Dragon and saving Elly.
Inside the Gear, Fei made quick work of the monster. He pressed hard at the controls, aiming for speed over power. He opened all the fuel ports, greatly increasing the hast of Weltall at the expense of a dangerous fuel leak. It was enough: Fei's well placed kicks inside of Weltall caused the dragon to fall within a matter of seconds, falling to it's side in death and defeat.
"Fei! Are you alright?" called Citan.
"Yeah, I guess so," ansered Fei.
"That fight with the Rankar was remarkable. An ordinary Gear could not defeat that onster. And you certainly keep yourself in good shape."
"Why did you bring this here, Doc?" Fei asked, turning towards Weltall.
"This...you mean Weltall?" asked Citan.
"Weltall? This is the Gear that destroyed our village. Why dd you bother bringing it here? I never want to see another Gear again..."
"I understand how you must feel, but in order to protect yourself you need a certain degree of strength. Even more since we are being pursued."
"I agree that a certain degree of strength is needed for self-defense," conceded Fei. "And if it weren't for this Gear here, Elly and I'd be in that Rankar's stomach right now. But its power goes beyond what is necessary. Does one really need the power to destroy everything?"
"I don't need that kind of power. I just hate Gears."
"Fei, using power or being used by power...is that not a problem of the heart? If humans do not use their power for wrong it an be a good thing. I believe such power can help us. In that respect, I know you will be fine. It sure helped you out this time. Am I right?" Citan asked.
"I want to believe that. But something is holding me back. This Gear...Well Whatever. At least Elly is safe now."
"She seems to have come to," Citan said, giving her a quick glance-over.
"Huh...?" Elly moaned.
"I am Citan, a friend of Fei's," Citan said, introducing himself. "You almost did not make it. If Fei had not helped you, I hate to think what may have happened. But I was not too pleased with his rashness in trying to take on that Rankar with just his bare fists."
"Bare fists?" asked Elly.
"Well, I am glad that you were able to find a use for what I brought you."
"Let us just say that we are borrowing what the Kislev army left behind," Citan chuckled.
"Oh," Elly nodded. "Thank you, Fei. This makes twice now."
"Don't mention it. I'll just put it on your tab," Fei said, smiling at her.
"It is getting dark. Let us make camp now and start out early tomorrow. The both of you look tired and I need to make some repairs to our friend here."
Citan set himself hard at work on Weltall, while the crackling fire played warm color across his aging face. He gave the gear a quick checking over before coming to an unfortunate conclusion.
"It is no use. The knee actuator and bypass circuit are both ruinied. The actuator can be fixed, but the circuit needs to be replaced," Citan said. He hopped off of Weltall and walked toward the fire.
"Oh, having trouble sleeping there?" he asked, seeing Elly awake.
"I imagine you would. You have had quite a day. This is the machine Fei used when the village was attacked. There was another machine left sitting on the outskirts of the village," Citan said. He eyed Elly closely. "Nil bayer dars legus?"
Elly jumped out of her skin at hearing Citan talk to her in her native tongue. It was yours right?
"Just as I thought. The missing pilot from the Gear that made an emergency landing in Lahan, and the mysterious woman found wandering in the forest, they are actually one in the same person. Judging from your uniform, I would also say you are with the military, correct?" Citan asked.
"How...? Who are you?" Elly was thoroughly confused and intrigued by Citan.
"I checked the ID tags of the soldiers who died in the attack on Lahan. The design on their tags and the design on your uniform are the same.
"Do not worry, they were given proper burials. But, they may not have been too pleased to die in a foreign land," said Citan.
"Maybe," Elly conceited.
"Does Fei know about you?"
"I don't think he has realized yet."
"Most likely. Fei knows nothing of the world outside of Lahan."
"I see. So how come...?"
Citan cut off her question. "In any case, it is best if we do not pry into each other's pasts anymore."
"Let us just say that I know a little more about the world than most do. Anyways, Elly, I have a favor I must beg you to do."
"What is it?"
"Go straight ahead and you will come to a road. Then just keep going," Citan said, kicking at some loose coals in the fire. The heat was radiating against both of them, and the menace in Citan's cool tone was crystal clear to Elly. "Would you please leave us while Fei is still asleep?"
"Unfortunate things keep happening around Fei. I would like to protect him if possible. I do not want him caught up in any vain struggles. I am also saying this for your benefit. Elly, you do not belong here. Go back to your family."
"Um...I..." Elly sighed, finding herself at a loss of just what to say to Citan.
"Do not worry. I will not tell Fei what your true identity is. I will...just tell him you went to meet up with your family."
"No, it's not that! I did something terrible to him. So, I want to apologize..."
"Something terrible?" Citan asked.
"Fei told me it was our fault your village was destroyed. Fei kept saying 'if only they hadn't come.' Then I called Fei a coward because he was trying to escape from the responsibility. But in fact it was me who was trying to escape from taking the blame. If I hadn't crash-landed there, they would all still be living peacefully now. All those innocent people wouldn't have been caught up in that tragedy. But I accused Fei..." Elly buried her head in her hands, her crimson hair cascading in waves across her shoulders. The fire really brought out the color, making her appear as a fiery-headed raven in the night.
"You are a rarity. I did not expect your people would ever think like that. To your people, surface dwellers are nothing more than domesticated animals, are they not?"
"'The Shepherds, Abel, took control of the surface dwelling Lambs, possessing the right to give life and death unto them as they see fit."
"Exactly. Yet, you seem to feel responsibility towards Fei and the villagers. Why is that?" Citan asked.
"I don't know myself," Elly admitted. "At Jugend I was taught that surface dwellers were stupid and base...and that is why we have to control them. But..."
"But upon meeting Fei, something about him made you feel differently?"
"Yes. He's no different than we are...in fact he seemed more powerful. He possesses something. Something we don't. He also risked his life to save me, twice."
"Most of your people would feel ashamed at receiving such an act. Yet, you are grateful to Fei."
"It's probably because of my father. He had an open mind to surface dwellers. My nanny was a surface dweller, a Lamb. No one knew about her, though. Besides, I am the same as Fei."
"No, Nothing, Nevermind."
"Hmm. I think I understand. I am sorry. After just saying we should not pry...It is my nature, you know? My wife says I am too persistent and that I talk too much. But, personally, I do not think I talk to much," Citan laughed. "It is probably best if you return home to your country. You really should not be here."
"I'll return to headquarters. But then what..."
"You are worried."
"Worrying is natural. Even I used to worry once too, you know?" Citan tried to smile.
"Oh, Citan," Elly giggled. She was taking a liking to his strange doctor, dressed in his even stranger robes. She kept her eye on Fei, willing him to stay asleep.
"Anyway, let me handle what to tell Fei. You had better go now."
Elly nodded, simply stood, and left. Her shadow did not follow her as she made her way quietly through the trees and out of the forest.
The morning was kinder to them, but still dark. Fei had arisen to find Citan already up and staring at Weltall. Elly was nowhere to be seen.
"Has Elly gone yet?" Fei asked.
"Oh, so you are awake?" Citan replied.
"Yes, I woke up midway, so I only heard part of what you two were discussing. Elly, so that's what she is?"
"Fei, she is..."
"I know. It's not Elly's fault. What happened to the village is all my fault. I took out all my pent up feelings on Elly. I'm the one who should apologize."
"Fei, do not blame yourself. It was not your fault either. You were just trying to protect the village."
"Thanks, doc. By the way, how is everyone from the village doing?" Fei asked.
Citan adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, and ran a hand through his jet-black hair. He kept his eyes trained on Weltall, mysteriously.
"Do not worry," he said. "Yui is taking care of them. I told her to leave soon and take them all to a certain place. They should be safe for a while. So you just worry about yourself for now."
"Now to think what we should do next. Shall we leave this forest and head for the desert town of Dazil? We may learn what Aveh and Kislev are up to...not to mention getting some parts for Weltall. The leader of Aveh is not going to sit back and let the other night's fiasco go by unpunished!"
Fei and Citan continued to move through the forest, find an exit opposite where Weltall stood. A loud noise erupted from overhead, and Fei looked up to see a rather large ship flying in the sky above them.
"What is that?" Fei asked.
"I would assume it is an aerial battleship from Aveh..."
"An aerial battleship? I've never heard of Aveh having anything like that."
"Of course it does not come from Aveh originally. Most likely it belongs to the Gebler forces stationed in Aveh."
"Special forces from the Sacred Empire of Solaris, known as Gebler. I am sure you have heard something about them. They are an organization providing large scale military aide to the Kingdom of Aveh. They showed up in Ignas several months ago. Until then, Aveh was being routed by Kislev. But with Gebler's help they have managed to regain half their losses. They are now expanding their territory and gathering resources buried in the ruins."
"I've heard the village elders talk about it. Is Elly part of that?"
"Quite possibly so. Their own group has superior technology and power. It is rumored they are here solely to get the resources in the ruins. I am surprised they are using something as powerful as that ship. It must be to surpress the recent border skirmishes."
"So they are fighting the Kislev Empire?" asked Fei.
"Yes. It seems they have found new ruins on the northern edge of Aveh. Those ruins are under a five-hundred-year-old temple. Three weeks ago Kislev took over those ruins. Most likely they are fighting over that."
Fei nodded, although not quite understanding, he now knew that Doc would be very handy to have around. Though he had never questioned Doc's knowledge before, Fei now wondered how it was that this mysterious man seemed to know so much of the world, when even the village elders of Lahan didn't seem to be that involved. It was something that Fei knew he was going to have to keep an eye on, that maybe Doc wasn't everything he appeared.
Most of all, Fei was beginning to think more and more about the mysterious soldier, Elly. Why did she feel so close, almost like a sister? Maybe even more?