Disclaimer: I do not own .hack, nor do I own any characters of the .hack franchise that may appear in this work.
A/N: This work takes place on December 23rd, 2014 - roughly four months after the events of the anime.
"Where the heck is she?"
As his legs hung down from the canal wall, Shugo tapped the heel of his brown leather boots against aged stone. It was a rhythmic strike, much like the footsteps that passed behind him - cadenced beats from fellow players as they went about their business. Mac Anu was always bustling, especially at this time of day. When the sun hung just above the horizon, all sorts of people would come out of the woodwork, from clueless newbies to the veterans of older times. Oftentimes (as was the case right now), the crowds would become oppressively large; one could get lost in the torrent of bodies, wandering amid the flowing masses aimlessly - like a gondola lacking an oar, adrift in the city's waterways, its destination and fate always determined by the water's flow.
Maybe that was the case here, too. It wasn't like Rena to miss one of their meetings, but real life had a habit of sending unexpected surprises their way. It certainly wouldn't be the first time they had been forced apart.
They had both known that there was trouble. It was impossible to ignore the words that had been said over the years. But, perhaps naively, they had come to the consensus that everything would work itself out. Arguments were just arguments, after all. Everyone had them. It was just a normal part of life.
But, when their mother took Rena and slammed the apartment door behind her, that 'normal life' went along with them.
Half of his family - gone overnight. It had been torture to accept it, but there was nothing he could do. It was what it was. Neither of them could change things. It wasn't their fault. Rena had told him that, too, whispering it in his ear over the sound of screams and shattering plates, holding onto him in the darkness as they looked towards the outline of light against the closed bedroom door. She was his little sister, but she always seemed to have a better grasp of it than he did. But maybe that was because he didn't want to understand it. He just wanted them all to be a family again. And if that made him immature, he didn't care. It was what it was.
Looking up to the orange-hued sky, Shugo let out a sigh, his slightly redder hat shifting over the teal locks of his messy hair. At least there was a bright side. The constant e-mails had given way to phone calls, and though, at times, the visits could be tense, his mother and Rena still stopped in at the old apartment from time to time. The breakup had been less than amiable, but they still had the chance to see each other in person.
And then, of course, there was The World.
Shugo's head whirled towards the sound, turning to face an arched bridge several meters down the canal. Among the passing figures stood the silhouette of a young female Heavy Blade, her arm waving in the air, the sun at her back. The glare was too strong to make out her features, but, to Shugo, she was unmistakable.
"Hey! Rena!" he called back, jumping to his feet and waving back frantically, laughing. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth, giving an echoing shout of "Stay there!" before plunging into the masses taking up the walkway. Stumbling through them clumsily, he danced and dodged around the surprised cries and angry shouts, slipping through the bodies as he made his way to the bridge's edge. His hurried footsteps pounded up the wooden planks, climbing them by leaps and bounds. Finally, he reached the crest, stopping abruptly, doubling over with his hands upon his knees, panting as Rena looked down at him with a smile.
"Sorry I'm late. I sorta got sidetracked," said Rena, leaning forward with her hands cupped behind her, peering at the face hidden by his hat. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah... I'm fine..." wheezed Shugo, still trying to catch his breath. He raised his head, and his eyes ascended from her long white boots, speeding up the rest of her outfit, coming to rest on her face. "Did Mom have you running errands a-"
Shugo's mouth dropped open as he noticed the huge, hulking figure standing just behind her. Heavy silver gauntlets hung like wrecking balls from his sinewy arms. The tips of the metal spikes lining his shoulder pads gleamed in the evening rays. The head of the giant serrated axe slung over his back was big enough to blot out the sun. He was a behemoth, towering over both of them, looking so menacing that, at first, Shugo mistook him for an ogre that had somehow made it into town.
"W-w-who are you?" exclaimed Shugo, instantly taking a step back, his hand trembling as he pointed at the massive warrior. Rena blinked in surprise, turning around and staring up at their accoster.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't introduce you," she said, taking a step out from between the two as she motioned to the smaller. "This is my big brother, Shugo!"
Before Shugo could react, one of the behemoth's giant hands fell onto his head, making his knees buckle and nearly sending him to the floor. Wincing from the weight, he looked up with one open eye, finding a hazel pair staring back at him among rugged features. The man's face was like the exterior of some great fortress, filled with crags and crevices, strong enough to withstand any blow regardless of its age.
"So this is the one I've heard so much about!" he bellowed, laughing heartily as Shugo struggled to keep his footing. Upon removing his gauntlet from the boy's crown, he found an annoyed glare aimed his way. "A fine looking young man! Fine indeed!"
"Shugo, this is-"
"Oh, there's no need for that, miss. I'm certainly capable of introducing myself," he interjected, giving a wave of his gauntlet as he stepped forward, the pieces of his heavy armor clanking against each other as they shifted upon his frame. Suddenly, he pointed towards the sky, looking to the heavens as he let out a loud declaration. "I am Lantus, treasure hunter extraordinaire, delver of the treacherous corridors of the deepest dungeons, seeker of the rarest and most valuable items, World-renowned and respected by all!"
Shugo gawked at the blowhard, eyebrow twitching as the hand aimed towards the sky swung down to point at him.
"And you have the privilege of joining me on my next adventure!"
"Wh... What?" stammered Shugo, looking up dumbly at the presumptuous grin upon Lantus's face.
"Can you believe it, Shugo? We get to explore a super secret area no-one else knows about!" exclaimed Rena, holding up a clenched fist with a gleam in her eye.
"Secret area?" replied Shugo, raising his eyebrow in confusion.
"Oh, that's right. I guess I should explain. Before you logged on, I was doing some training at a special spot of mine. That was when a huge group of Skull Heroes attacked me! They came out of nowhere!" Rena switched to a fighting stance, looking around to show off the hopelessness of the situation. "I was completely surrounded... but, out of the blue, Lantus showed up, and we fought them off together! It turns out that he just discovered a brand new field, and he's looking for a group to help him clear the dungeon. And of course I said 'There's no way I'm going without my big brother Shugo'. But, I was the first person he asked, so we can all go together! Isn't that great?"
For Rena's sake, Shugo forced a smile. "Yeah... Great..."
"So we're in agreement!" declared Lantus, swinging around and pointing to the far-off Chaos Gate, his axe nearly taking the head off of a passerby as he turned. "Then let us depart! Fabulous riches are only three words away!"
"Right!" said Rena, taking a few enthusiastic steps after him, following the trail of loud laughter down the bridge. Suddenly, she stopped, looking over her shoulder in confusion. Shugo still stood in his previous spot, unmoving as he stared off towards the Chaos Gate. "Shugo? You coming?"
"Huh?" replied Shugo, blinking out of his daze. A reassuring smile popped onto his face. "Yeah. Right behind you!"
Rena smiled back before breaking into a run towards the Chaos Gate. Shugo, on the other hand, hung his head and sighed before giving chase.
Now that he thought about it, there was one thing he didn't like about Rena.
Her ability to attract 'knights in shining armor' was uncanny.
Δ Desolate Silent Remnant.
The field certainly lived up to its name. As the golden gate rings vanished from around his body, the first thing that Shugo noticed was the lack of anything to notice. The area was a barren marsh, devoid of all signs of life. A thick mist veiled the landscape, wrapping it in sheets of wispy grey. Aided by the moon against a pitch-black sky, he could only distinguish the stalks of the knee-high grasses surrounding him.
And that truly was all that surrounded him, for there was no-one else around.
"... Rena?" he said, looking around, the reeds brushing against the legs of his orange trousers, a muted wind chilling his neck.
He fully expected that, in a second or two, she would teleport in beside him. Even when changing areas in a party, it was very common for one person to arrive at a new location before the others. Her absence was probably the result of a server hiccup.
But after a half-minute of silence, it was clear that something was wrong.
"Rena! Where are you?" he shouted, his eyes scanning over the curtain of fog as he spun in place.
"Shugo!" came a distant, echoing call from behind him.
"Rena?" he exclaimed, turning back towards the direction of the distressed cry. Instantly, he was sprinting through the marsh, pushing aside the plants as he scrambled across the damp ground. Puddles of mud splashed as he tore over them, and the haze in front of him seemed to turn into a funnel, swirling past him as he bounded into unknown depths. After what seemed like dozens of yards, a faint silhouette suddenly came into view.
Unfortunately, Shugo hadn't considered that, while sprinting in zero visibility, he might not be able to stop in time for a figure only a few feet away. He crashed right into it, sending both himself and the startled Rena to the marsh floor.
"Uwaaa! Get away!" cried Rena, struggling against the weight on top of her, her hand searching desperately for an object lying at her side. Out of the corner of a shocked eye, Shugo saw the flash of moonlight off the metal of Rena's giant sword.
"W-wait! It's me!" he blurted out, terrified.
Rena's eyes blinked open, staring up into teal irises. Shugo was sitting on top of her, hands upon her shoulders and knees sunk into the ground, straddling her waist and holding her down against the soggy soil. As he closed his eyes and sighed with relief, Rena's surprised look turned to one of annoyance, and she tightened her grip upon the hilt at her side.
"Mind getting off of me?" she asked, her eyebrow twitching.
"Eh?" replied Shugo, looking down at her, dumbfounded. In a flash, his eyes went wide, and he scrambled off of her, a dash of red running across his nose. From his seat of flattened reeds, he watched as she regained her footing, gulping as her eyes turned to her dirtied outfit.
"Great. The best way to start an adventure: get tackled into mud!" said Rena, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She wiped some of the wet muck from the fuchsia side plate of her armored skirt, but a slimy chill upon the back of her head turned her queasy. She ran her other hand through her matted lilac locks, letting out an angry cry of distress as she felt the goop. "And it's in my hair! Thanks a lot, Shugo!"
"Hey, it's not my fault!" said Shugo, hopping up from the brush, his pants caked in mud as well. "I couldn't see you until you were right in front of me!"
"Maybe 'The Legendary Hero' should slow down and watch where he's going?" retorted Rena drolly, still irritated.
"I thought you were in trouble! I was coming to protect you!"
"Protect me from what?"
Just at that moment, the sound of a snapping stalk emanated from behind Rena. She screamed out in terror, her tough act vanishing as she dove behind Shugo, putting him between herself and the unknown assailant. Shugo's blades were out in an instant, and he glared at the large approaching shadow, securing his feet in the murky landscape as Rena looked on from behind his shoulder.
"Easy, lad. You don't want to attack a party member."
Recognizing the familiar voice, Shugo lowered his weapons. Lantus's plated boots squished the wet muck underfoot, trudging through it as he lumbered into clear view. He looked around to survey the surroundings, raising a bushy eyebrow at the sight of the mud-soaked pair.
"It's a little late for that," muttered Rena, scooping the last mass of glop from her hair, glaring at Shugo from the corner of her eye. As he sheathed his daggers, Shugo grinned apologetically.
"Ready for action, are you?" said Lantus with a hearty laugh, slapping his gauntlet upon Shugo's shoulder and nearly sending him back to the ground. "Don't worry, my boy. There will be plenty in due time."
"Right..." Shugo agreed weakly, knees straightening as Lantus removed his hand. He looked up at Lantus questioningly. "Wait... So you were alone when you warped in, too?" Lantus nodded his head, puzzling Shugo. "That's weird. I thought we were all supposed to enter at the same place."
"We were," answered Rena, giving a shake of her head. "I don't get it, either."
"Indeed, this map contains many mysteries..." said Lantus, looking off into the mist-covered distance as he pondered over the situation. His eyes moved to a small pouch hanging from his waist. He moved one of his gauntlets down to the sack, using great dexterity to open it and carefully take a small item from within. Holding the closed hand out in front of him, he opened it to reveal a small crystal sphere. "Let us see in which direction we should head."
A small holographic projection rose from the Fairy's Orb, hovering in the air just above the item. Gathering around it, the three peered at the transparent, gridded square. It was a basic map of the area, and though the cerulean backdrop lacked much topographical detail, it still provided an accurate depiction of their own location and the dungeon entrance.
"No monsters?" said Shugo, noticing the lack of yellow dots upon the map.
"No monster portals," corrected Rena. "Fairy Orbs don't show any stray monsters on the field. I haven't seen many maps like this, though..."
"Mm. We should proceed with caution," added Lantus. He turned his head to the left, using his free hand to point towards some unknown location deep within the mist. "According to the orb, that direction should be north. We should depart for the dungeon quickly, before any other unexpected visitors head our way."
The pair nodded, a slight shiver crawling upon Rena's skin at the thought. As Lantus began the trek through the mist, she quickly took the middle position in the line, grabbing Shugo's wrist and dragging him along behind her.
"Geez, Rena, let go! I can walk on my own, y'know," said Shugo, wiggling his wrist against the death grip.
"Be quiet. I'm making sure we don't get separated," replied Rena, her eyes nervously scanning over the mist as she followed Lantus. "Besides, this place is creepy."
Shugo smiled and said nothing more. Instead, he looked to his surroundings, staring into the mist for signs of anything that it might conceal. Still, even after a few minutes of walking, he saw nothing. His attention turned back to his front, and his eyes traveled onto the smudges upon the sword slung over Rena's back.
Her entire frame was smeared with mud, actually. His wandering eyes noticed that rather quickly. For a reason not quite understood, he swallowed sharply, quickly raising his gaze, focusing on a clump of soil upon the back of the shoulder strap of her top. Without thinking, he reached out to brush it off.
And, once again, Rena screamed in terror, practically jumping into the air at the feeling of a hand on her shoulder. She cowered down as she whirled towards Shugo, stopping halfway through the motion as she noticed the dirt upon his raised palm.
"You still... had some on your..." said Shugo, trailing off and smiling nervously as her eyebrow twitched. Lantus charged through the mist behind her, stopping quickly, his axe drawn and held in both hands.
"Is everyone all right?"
"Fine. My stupid brother thinks it's funny to play pranks," said Rena, shutting her eyes in aggravation.
"Uh, guys..." came Shugo's frightened voice. Opening an eye, Rena found him pointing over her shoulder. His face was locked into a terrified expression.
"Forget it, Shugo. I'm not falling for the same trick twi-"
"That's not a trick!" cried Shugo.
Whirling around, the two found a massive shadow - standing at least fifty feet tall - looming over them through the mist.
"Get back!" Lantus shouted, swinging his axe over his head, preparing to attack the gargantuan creature. Rena and Shugo wasted no time in obeying the order. They scrambled for their lives over the marshy landscape, only looking back after they had put a good number of feet between themselves and the monster.
And yet, strangely, the beast did not attack. There were no crashes or cries of battle. The silhouette of Lantus was not swinging its axe amidst the mist. No, instead, Lantus lowered his weapon, letting the axe's head touch the ground as he propped his hand atop the butt of the hilt.
"It seems that we've been fooled," he called, laughing somewhat nervously. "Come, come! You should see our attacker!"
Rena and Shugo looked at each other in confusion. Cautiously, they walked over to Lantus. The towering shadow became more distinct as they approached, its rough, rocky edges being revealed by the thinning mist. It was merely the face of a cliff - a sturdy rock wall covered by long, thick hanging vines. The pair let out a unified sigh of relief.
"I guess that's what they mean by 'jumping at shadows'..." joked Rena, sounding a bit nervous, her eyes scaling the cliff. It seemed to ascend straight into the night sky, its top edge giving the full moon a resting place from which to look down upon them. And yet, that breathtaking sight did not hold her attention for long, for a faint rushing sound caught her ears. She looked around in curiosity. "... Big brother... Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" replied Shugo, unsure if she was serious or trying to get back at him for his earlier 'prank'. Looking her way as she stared off into space, he raised one of the ear flaps of his hat, closing his eyes and listening intently.
"It sounds like the ocean..." murmured Rena. Her feet began to move of their own accord, carrying her towards the direction of the sound. Shugo and Lantus followed close behind her, still cautious of any dangers hidden amongst the terrain. As they made their way past a curve in the cliff wall, the ground beneath their feet gradually became littered with pebbles, and the mist ahead of them began to dissipate.
Suddenly, Rena stopped.
As he came to a halt behind her, Shugo opened his mouth to question why she had. No words came, though. He simply stood there with his mouth open, taking in the sight in front of him as the mist cleared.
They were on a small beach lined with rocks and cobblestones. It was the shore of a large, crescent-shaped bay - an inlet formed by the cragged cliffs that cut into the night sky. The ocean waves flowed gently onto the shore, lapping at their feet.
And out in the water, in the middle of the bay, a massive galleon floated amidst the waves, its sails torn and tattered, dimly lit beacons scattered amongst its deck, a thick layer of moss coating the side of its hull. The sound of creaking wood echoed through the air as it swayed.
"Whoa... That thing is huge!" exclaimed Shugo, gaping at the ancient vessel.
"I believe we've found our dungeon," said Lantus, grinning.
"That's a dungeon?" said Shugo in awe, looking back at Lantus and receiving a nod. His eyes traveled back to the ship, scanning over the bay. "... But... How are we supposed to get there?"
Lantus moved his hand to his chin, slipping into deep thought as he studied the area. His eyes moved to the cliffs surrounding the bay, gaze running over the steep rock walls. A portion close to the ocean caught his interest; the top edge of the area curved inwards over the bay, hanging out just far enough to form a ledge overlooking the ship.
"We may have to use the terrain to our advantage," said Lantus, turning and motioning for Shugo to follow. "Come. I have an idea."
Shugo nodded. Before following, he turned back to Rena, expecting to see her agree as well. Strangely, though, she hadn't moved at all; she was still standing in the exact same spot, her back towards him, looking out to sea. Puzzled, he took a few steps over to her side and peered at her face.
Her frightened carmine eyes broke their lock upon the ship, widening a bit, startled. Looking quickly to her side, Rena found Shugo staring at her, a look of concern upon his face. Her gaze slowly drifted down to the ground, watching as a thin layer of water washed over the soles of her boots.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea..." she murmured.
"Don't worry!" said Shugo, holding up a fist in enthusiasm, making Rena raise her eyes in surprise. "I'm here, so I'll protect you, Rena!"
Rena smiled, a bit of tension leaving her body. At times, Shugo could be annoying, but he always seemed to say the right thing when it counted. She watched as he rushed up the beach towards Lantus, giving him a nod when he motioned for her to follow.
The ominous vessel received one last look before she dashed after them.