Vahn ran a hand through his cerulean hair, forcing himself to take a deep, steady breath. As the three of them stalked through the empty passages of Jette's Fortress, he couldn't help but harbor the feeling that someone, or rather, something was watching them.
Only the sound of their soft, determined footsteps could be heard. The comforting noises drifted along the massive stone walls, bouncing off their impenetrable barriers before colliding with each other in the air and echoing all about the wary, tired heroes. It wasn't long now before they'd reach the final Mist generator. Every hardship they'd endured came down to this moment. It was just another obstacle; not too far away from their reach. It should be a piece of cake, right?
"Vahn, please calm down. You're giving me a headache."
Vahn almost smiled at the friendly voice in his head, but the current situation brought about too many feelings of hopelessness and terror.
"Seriously, Vahn. You have me. We can get through this together. Just like with everything else. I'm never leaving your side, okay? Just focus on the objective in front of us, but try not to worry as much."
This surprised Vahn. Meta was usually so solemn, just as he was. For Meta to think so optimistically must have meant that he was being more grim about things than he believed. Vahn almost outrightedly snickered.
"Meta, I know you feel what I do. There's something evil here. Something more than Jette, which shouldn't make sense, considering I just ran him through with my sword. And I'm not talking about Juggernaut back in the lake."
Meta's next thoughts were incoherent, too quickly formed and processed for him to read. Deep down Vahn knew that he was right, but it seemed like his Seru-friend was trying to choose his words carefully, attempting to convey the truth and still alleviate some of his charge's terror. He contemplated said thoughts for the next several moments, and Vahn managed to sneak a glance at his two fellow companions. Their youthful faces were smooth and concentrated, devoid of emotion for the time being as they themselves were also having silent conversations with their inner souls. Vahn's eyes skipped over Gala's, but his eyes couldn't help but linger on the striking beauty of Noa's face…
She was only a few years younger than he, but there was a maturity – a beauty about her face that couldn't be described as childlike. Other than that of her rose colored lips, her skin was fair, a pale ivory that could only be achieved by the many years that it had been hidden from the sun. Her jaw rested in sharp angles that matched her petite yet sturdy stature, and her crimson hair always made Vahn's hands clench, as if he wanted nothing more than the stroke back the tendrils of it that pooled around her neck. He studied her for a while longer, until her astonishingly emerald eyes met his, forcing him to drop his gaze. He always felt so self-conscious with her. He's never felt like he did with any other girl than her before. Not even Mei…
Oh, Mei. How she adored him. It would have been a perfect love story, if he was being honest with himself. They had been child hood friends, spending every waking moment in each other's' company; even through the awkward phases of their pubescent years. It was only fair to realize that she had fallen for him at such a young age, an age where Vahn knew nothing of the subject, other than that he was far too inexperienced in it to dabble among such things. Sure it had been a little weird, seeing her turn pink every time he looked at her, but he had continued being her friend, of course. Nothing could dispute the bond that they would always have, but Vahn had never felt such fire in his belly until he had met Noa.
"Oh, right, and I'm only the one who allows you to hold heaven-scorching flames in your hand, right?"
Meta's voice nearly scared Vahn out of his wits. A gasp unexpectedly escaped his lips, and his whole body tensed, as if for impact.
"Done thinking, are we?"
"Vahn? Are you okay?"
Vahn suddenly realized that they had stopped walking. Noa's eyes were peering into his face, hot emerald clashing against arctic sapphire and he hesitated for the slightest of moments, too caught unawares as her cool breath brushed against his cheeks.
"Vahn?" A worry line creased the smoothness of her forehead.
"What? Oh… sorry. Meta and I were talking and he said something that… well…" His voice started to trail off and he cleared his throat to fill the awkward silence. Somewhere in the back of his head, Vahn was vaguely aware of a chuckling sound that could only be Meta's.
"Oh! Terra and I were talking too! We were just saying how creepy this place is. There's something bad here, Vahn." A frown tugged at the corners of her lips, filling Vahn's chest with a desperate ache that panged against his ribs. She could feel it too.
"I told you, Meta…"
As if she could read his thoughts, Noa suddenly grasped his hands, squeezing them enthusiastically. They were much colder than his own, he noticed as he stared down at their interlocking fingers. She had delicate hands for someone so fierce…
"Everything is gonna be okay, though! I have Terra, and you have Meta… and Gala has Ozma! Nothing can ever tear us apart! Right?"
"She's always so positive, Meta."
"She is. You should take some lessons yourself."
Vahn stifled a snort.
Realizing that she still waiting for an answer, Vahn allowed himself a smile to spread across his features. "Right."
Noa was absolutely delighted by this and swooped in, planting a brief and careless kiss upon his cheek.
"Lead the way, Vahn!"
A faint blush pinked underneath where her lips had just been, and he heard Gala's laughter echo along with Meta's.
"This way…" he mumbled.
"You should agree with her more often…"
"Apparently. Maybe I should just suck it up and tell her th—Wait, do you hear that?"
Distant rumbling sounded before them, like a constant stream of low thunder, or rather like a ginormous machine.
"The Mist generator!"
"Hurry!" Gala exclaimed.
The trio began heading for the death contraption at a fast pace, each stride of theirs long and perfectly synchronized. They crossed through several hallways, finally arriving at a dark cavern after they full out sprinted through a dark tunnel. The cavern was simply put, massive. More massive than any natural cavern could have been. It was perfectly sculpted by expert craftsmanship, it seemed. And in the middle of it lay the ultimate Mist generator. Operating with intricate design, thick and bulky streams of Mist poured out of its center, filling the cavern with its musty, mildew smell. It's core absolutely pulsed with an evil energy that sent shudders all along Vahn's spine. This had to be destroyed. Fast.
"I couldn't have put it any better, myself. Let's go."
"Ready?" Vahn's voice was low and gruff, and he received two nods of approval before their feet started carrying them faster.
"Well, well, well. I figured you three would show up sooner or later, though I'm still surprised you've made it this far."
A voice materialized behind them, silky, and all too familiar sounding.
"No…" Vahn heard Noa moan.
"Aw, you're not excited to see me, sis?"
Noa's cheeks flushed red as the trio spun around, and Vahn watched her hands clench and unclench in tiny size fists.
Noa's voice came out as a whisper, filled with despair and desperate longing. It made Vahn want to scoop her up in her arms, almost as much as he wanted to beat the living hell out of whoever was standing right in front of them.
If Meta hadn't recognized him immediately, it would still have been clear who the elegant and slender man really was. He was the prime example of a male Noa, disregarding the silver hair that brushed along his collar bones. She had his face - all of it, yet his features were somehow more razor -like than hers. They were so similar that it chilled Vahn's spirit. They could have been twins. Everything between their faces was symmetrical: the smooth, tip of their nose, their angular, perfectly shaped brows… even their full, adolescent lips, though this man was much older than he looked. Yet, the man looked so evil and Noa was so good…
The matter of the fact is, he simply radiated power, or perhaps given his royal blood, commanded it. It was obvious from the look in his face that there would be no possible way in which they would ever resolve things peacefully. Which meant another fight. Another time where his friends were in danger. And that infuriated him.
Vahn's jaw muscles started working violently, twitching in anticipation. They had come all of this way… and for, what? To lose it all, to him?
Noa stepped forward, her hands now shaking at her sides. "Why?" she repeated. " Why did you kill our parents? Mother… Father… they loved you! How could you do that to them?"
Prince Cort's muti-colored eyes suddenly dimmed, and for naught but a split moment, a trace of sorrow painted itself in his celestial irises. The trio could see it; the change from his haughty look. Something inside of him was broken, and Noa had unintentionally tapped into it. Vahn even thought that he saw color bloom in Cort's cheeks, though he had seemed to regain his indifferent composure in less than a second.
Cort's gaze swept over Noa, and the smirk disappeared, replaced by a sneer so angry that it made her cringe back in regret.
"Leave. Now. While I give you the chance," he muttered flatly. He gaged Noa's reaction as she processed his order, no sound of emotion traceable in his otherworldly voice.
"Cort…" Without realizing it she had outstretched her arms, somehow still reaching for him, if anything else.
"Noa, don't. Cort is possessed. He isn't himself."
Tears sprung to her eyes at the image of Terra shaking her head, and she felt herself started to plead with her friend. "But… he's giving us a chance to escape! If he was all evil he wouldn't do that, right? There has to be a chance that he's still in there…"
"Get out of our way, Cort," Gala ordered. His harsh, blue eyes met Cort's, and his tanned, corded arms flexed with power that was begging to be released. Cort noticed this and his palm started to glow, a ghostly silver color that harmonized with his hair. He brought it to Gala's chest.
Noa sprinted forward, hurriedly dashing towards her brother, using sheer willpower to fling herself towards the outstretch of his handsome and royal hand…
A flash of godly light filled the cavern, and Gala heard the sickening sound of his head collide with hard, cold rock. Black cloaked his vision then, and bright and animated spots of color danced around his peripherals. It took a couple of seconds, but after a while, Gala was able to be faintly aware of the scenario around him.
"Noa! Wake up! Please, wake up, Noa!"
Vahn was kneeling, cradling Noa's limp form in his arms. No visible wound was left on her body, though her head fell slack over his left forearm, and her eyelashes fluttered, leaving her breathing harsh and erratic.
"Noa… wake up." He pushed her vibrant hair from her face and let his hand slowly trace down the soft, unbroken skin of her neck, realizing that he had just done what he'd been dreaming about for months.
"Not like this. I didn't want to do that like this…"
"Stupid girl," Cort murmured. Vahn's grief stricken face rose to see Cort, a cold, dead look festering within his eyes as he glared down at her frame.
Gala attempted to crawl his way over to his fellow comrades, his teeth snapping shut as he clenched his jaws together, softly grunting as his weakened body slithered along the grimy floor. As he neared them, Vahn wordlessly placed her in Gala's trembling arms, and he rose to his feet, measuring his steps as he stalked closer to the prince.
"Hm? What's this?" Cort appraised the silent leader with obvious enthusiasm.
"I don't understand it," Vahn spoke to Meta. "She's his own family. Why could he do that to her?"
Meta replied calmly, though there was sadness in his voice. "I'm afraid… that that is no longer Cort. His Seru has corrupted him beyond hope. I doubt there is a speck of humanity inside of him now."
"Poor Noa…" Court eyed Noa with no hint of remorse in his appearance.
"You bastard!" Vahn took an involuntary step forward; the hand where Meta rested above suddenly bursting into flames.
"It looks… as if little Noa has found herself a boyfriend. Isn't that cute, Rogue?" Cort spoke to his Seru, and he laughed a moment later at the silent retaliation.
Still on the ground, Gala shook his head in frustration, wishing he had enough strength to get back on his feet, at Vahn's side. Where he belonged, he thought to himself. However, Noa stirred in their embrace and Gala anchored a hand around the back of her skull, propping up her head so she could see him.
"Gala?" Noa's eyelids dragged themselves open, and she quickly squinted them closed, wincing at an invisible pain.
"Shh, Noa. It's okay. Can you sit up?"
"I think so…"
He allowed her to slink out of his arms, and watched as she slowly scrambled away from him, using her elbows to keep her upright. She felt unusually sluggish, probably due to Cort's spell, and it took her a minute of concentration to be able to shift on one knee.
"I'm so sorry, Terra. I never meant for you to get hurt."
Terra trembled in the corner of her mind, shaken, but still pulsing with energy. "No need for apologies, Noa. What you did was very noble. I'm proud of you…."
"You stay here. I'm going to help Vahn."
Noa's head snapped up at Gala's voice, and she quickly nodded, unthinkingly gazing into his somber, ocean eyes.
"Ozma, can you help at all?" Gala prayed.
"I… I think so."
A steady thrum of power rushed into Gala's veins, warming his injured skin and sustaining him long enough to push himself upright. His ribcage throbbed tremendously, however, and he had to put a hand on it to steady himself, slowly stumbling his way over to Vahn. He and Cort were silent, intent on staring each other down.
"How does it feel, Gala, to have a small, defenseless girl fight your battles for you?" Cort seemed to have turned his attention on him, now, and wicked grin flashed across his lips. He crossed his arms.
"She's hardly defenseless, Cort, in case you've forgotten. But next time, why don't you fight me like the hot-headed outcast that you are instead of using your little pet of a Seru, hm?"
"Why you little-"
"Enough!" Vahn shouted. Both men paused to glare at him.
"I'm tired of talking. I'm tired of looking at you." Vahn pointed at Cort. "Not only that, but I'm tired of you hurting people. You're pretty messed up, you know that? You killed your own parents, and you had just nearly killed your little sister. There is no reason you should still live."
Cort's silver hair seemed to shimmer around him, and his gorgeous features danced in the shadows that played upon the cavern. "If that's the way you feel…" He raised his palm once more, this time, however, using two fingers to beckon Vahn forward, instead.
"Vahn – be careful!" Meta exclaimed.
Vahn felt Meta's power churn inside him, fiery and hot and way too angry to be pent up. So quick that it was inhuman, Vahn unsheathed his sword, gripping the jeweled pommel with a fury that coincided with the heat within his eyes. Flames of red exploded all over his arms, and he charged at the lost prince, closing the distance in a single stride.