Author note: It's been a while since I last wrote anything substantial, so this may have a tendency to waffle and not get to the point. I apologise for that; still trying to get used to the world and putting words together in proper sentences. But, I needed to do this and get it up as it represents a pretty massive sticking point for me; it's only taken me nearly 6 years to do this one chapter!
So bear with it. I'm hoping it'll get better.
It was raining. He hadn't felt rain in so long, he doubted any living thing on the planet had for years. He had to resist the urge to close his eyes, tip his head back and just let it wash over him; let it wash away everything that he couldn't let go of. There was no way back, he knew that now, but even if there were, he wouldn't take it. She was waiting for him. He wanted to go to her so much; every second he was apart from her, the pain in his chest grew and the missing part of his soul seemed to grow more and more jagged. But he had to finish what she'd started. He had to do what she asked. He had to swallow his pride and his desire for revenge. Not long now. They'd be together soon.
He idly wondered how long it had been since someone had last walked along this road. Not since the Fall, he supposed. He couldn't stop the involuntary shudder that shot down his spine as he thought of that. He knew they were safe, that they were at peace, but still he shook at the thought of the Fall. Long held associations took a long time to shake free.
(Have you found it yet?)
He paused where he was, steel gray eyes surveying his surroundings. He had been walking around the ruins for hours now, searching for any sign of life and then snuffing it out.
'I don't think so,' he murmured. 'But I'll find it before they do,'
(She is coming.)
He knew that. He knew what Aki knew; what she felt; what she thought.
(Do not let her distract you. The Restoration will do what you could not.)
He sighed, feeling shame burn across his face. He had done nothing but fail so far. She had given him wonderful powers, brought him back from death, given him hope and purpose, and all he had done was let her down. He let his hands tighten into fists. Not this time. This time he would make her proud.
He wouldn't fail.
The trip to San Francisco was silent, for the most part. Neil tried some muted mumbling with Jane, but gave up when it became apparent that the mage didn't want to talk. Aki could feel Gray staring at her, could almost hear everything he wanted to ask her, but she was glad for the silence. She had no idea if she was even doing the right thing. The guilt and the pain of knowing that everyone else was putting themselves into mortal danger because of her was almost too much for her to bear. She hoped that she was wrong, she hoped that the vision of Hein in the ruins of his former home had just been a hallucination; just a reaction to the stress and the horror of the last week. But deep down, she knew it was the truth. She and the general were inexplicably connected now. She just had to try and stop herself from taking his path.
'We should be there in ten minutes,' Sid's voice was low, but the sound was like a thundercrash through the silence. Gray nodded swiftly, sitting up in his seat. Neither scientist had mentioned much about why they were headed to San Francisco, and neither of them seemed to have a plan. If he had to lead them through this, then he would.
'Is the next spirit here?' he asked quietly, directing his question at Sid while keeping an eye on Aki. Her jaw tightened slightly as he spoke, but she otherwise didn't move. The older scientist tapped a few buttons on the console before him.
'I haven't been able to perform a detailed scan on the area yet, so we really have no clue,' Gray let himself frown slightly.
'If you're not sure, then why are we here?' Sid gave a weak smile.
'We have to start somewhere, Captain,'
'We're here because Hein's here,' Gray had opened his mouth to argue with Sid, but had stopped dead when Aki spoke.
'That can't be right,' Jane started. 'You said he was on Zeus when it blew,'
'He was,' Gray murmured, his eyes on Aki. 'He couldn't have survived that, Aki,' She shook her head, and he suddenly noticed she was so much paler than he remembered. The shocks of the last few days would have been enough to knock a normal, healthy person off their feet. He had no idea how she managed to cope while infected.
'He didn't survive,' She spoke quietly, but they could all hear the tremor in her voice. 'But it brought him back,' Gray moved from where he was to sit in front of her, taking her hands in his.
'Aki,' he started softly. 'He's dead. He has to -- '
'He's alive,' The anger suddenly in her voice was surprising. 'I can feel him. He's searching for something, something important,' She shook her head, staring back down at the floor. 'I don't know what, but it's here and it's important and we have to find it before he does,' There was an uneasy silence at that, punctuated only by the soft beeps of Sid's machine. The older scientist let out a sudden exasperated sigh, shaking his head as he looked at the results of the scan.
'I think I know what he's looking for, though how he knows it's here is beyond me,' Aki stood, breaking contact with Gray to read the results for herself.
'The seventh spirit is here,'
It didn't take long for them to land, though they weren't able to position the ship as close to the weakened signal from the spirit as Aki would have liked. Decay had set into the ruins with relish, and there was just too much debris for them to get the ship within a mile of the spirit. Aki and the three Deep Eyes had taken their weapons and decided to head to the signal on foot, while Sid kept the ship out of harm's way so that he might be able to extract them quickly once they had the spirit. Aki couldn't shake the horrible, cold sense of foreboding that swept over her as they crept through the ruins. She had lived in this city when she was younger, she had known people who had died here; whole families who had been wiped out when the city Fell. She had never wanted to come back here, the feelings and sensations were almost too much to bear.
And that was before you added in the dark feeling in the back of her mind; the one she knew didn't belong to herself. She could feel him watching, she could feel him listening. She had no idea how to stop him, and no idea how to do the same to him. It seemed like he had so much more control over their "connection". He seemed to be able to look into her mind at will; he wasn't subject to the random and sudden shifts in reality that she was. She wondered if it were to do with his acceptance of the infection within, but she quickly changed her train of thought as she felt a tiny smile in that dark place. Stay out of my head! she thought, her eyes flicking down to her tracking device. Though they had landed a mile or so away from the spirit, it seemed that their route was a fairly straight and easy one. She hardly needed to consult the device at all. The dark little feeling merely continued to feel amused, but it didn't change any further. She let herself scowl and tried to shake all thoughts of him from her mind.
'You alright?' Beside her, Gray had noticed her internal struggle, but he couldn't interfere. What could he do? Aki wouldn't talk to him unless he forced her, and even then he didn't get anything. He never knew what he had done to make her not trust him. So much had changed.
'I'm fine,' she said, a little colder than she intended. 'He's here though. I can. . . feel him,' Gray nodded, keeping his eyes on their surroundings. He honestly had no idea what they could do if Hein did show up here. The man had single-handedly taken on four squads of troops and had only been injured when he let himself get distracted. Gray had full faith in his soldiers, but he had seen the thing that Hein had become. He had no idea if they were just walking to their deaths.
It didn't take long for them to reach a small clearing in the rubble. There were a few rotted benches on the far side, beside a great, gnarled stump of what had been a tree. Gray guessed this would have been a park before the Fall. Not a big park - space was at a premium even in big cities like San Francisco - but a nice space to come and relax in. That was part of what he hated about being outside the barrier cities. You could see the devastation first-hand. Sometimes it made him wonder if there was anything left to save.
'Have you found it?' He, Jane and Neil had taken up points in a triangle around Aki, who had knelt down by a patch of stubby, tired-looking grass. There was no sign of any danger, but he was feeling increasingly uneasy the longer they stayed here.
'You're a little too late, doctor,'
They all whirled towards the source of the sound, Aki allowing herself to grimace as she saw Hein stood there, the dark little sensation in the back of her head flaring suddenly. She steeled herself against the pain; she wouldn't show weakness in front of him. His appearance had almost returned to normal; though his eyes were different; darker, and he still had that red glow outlining his form. The edges of his clothes were beginning to get ragged, and the skin on his right hand was looking blistered and sore, and his spirit. . . There was still the tired blue and the angry red, but they had started to merge somewhat, giving his spirit a dirty, painful purple tinge. Something about it made her feel nauseous when she looked at it; it was just inherently wrong. She couldn't help but wonder if he still had the same abilities as before.
'Don't you dare move, general,' Jane snarled, her fingertips flexing menacingly. Hein kept staring at Aki as though none of the others even existed.
'You're looking for this?' He unfurled his clenched left fist to reveal a flower; a tired, tiny white lily that had obviously been ripped from the ground. Aki gasped slightly as she stared at the flower through her headset; it's spirit was a blazing blue, showing no ill effect from having been taken from the ground. Somehow, he had found the seventh spirit. Somehow, he knew.
'How did you. . ?' She couldn't help but ask the question. Hein smiled slightly.
'It hurts. It hurts us. And if we kill it, then you fail,' The smile grew wider and took on something of a fanatical twinge. 'And then the Restoration will occur, and I'll see her again,' Aki shot a look over at Gray; the soldier taking the hint and signalling subtley to the others to get ready. We need that spirit, Aki thought, slowly reaching for the new piece of equipment Sid had prepared for her. Realising that the process of collecting the spirits was becoming too slow, he had found a way to quickly copy the spirit and insert it directly into her chestplate, where it could be uploaded to the main research hub later. This meant that not only did she not have to take the spirit samples with her, thereby wasting precious time that could be spent running away from threats, but she could also take the sample at a distance. She just had to stop Hein from destroying the sample first.
'This is the beginning of the end,' Damn him, Aki thought bitterly. He sounded almost glad. 'The end of suffering and the end of pain,' And with a pained but triumphant look on his face, Hein brought his right palm up to his left, intent on sucking the spirit out of the flower, and destroying Sid's plan once and for all. She would be proud of him, finally.
His hands never touched; there was a sound like crystals tumbling over each other and he found that his wrists were encased in a block of ice, holding them apart from each other. He looked up and snarled; the female soldier was already preparing another spell, Edwards was closing the distance between them and Ross was fumbling with an unfamiliar piece of machinery. The scrawny soldier was nowhere to be seen, but Hein couldn't let that trouble him. He snapped up a quick shield, before focusing his sudden anger on the bonds around his wrists. The trick was to free himself without setting himself on fire; a difficult task at the best of times, but worse now that he was under attack.
(We shall help you.)
Gray was so busy concentrating on closing the ground between himself and the bound general that he almost didn't notice the inhuman hiss coming from one of the ruined buildings beside him. He span around and held his sword up in defence, just in time to stop a set of phantom tentacles from sinking into his chest. His eyes narrowed reflexively behind his helmet, but he had no chance to question what was going on. He immediately put himself between the Phantom and Aki, hoping to God that this was the only one.
'Captain!' The yell from Jane told him all he needed to know, and he swore under his breath and he began to move back towards Aki. He could see more now climbing up from underground; he had known that the news of their disappearance back to the Leonid crater had been too good to be true.
'Form up, protect Aki,' he ordered through the comm. There was a soft buzz from above; what he hoped was the Black Boa and Sid coming to rescue them. But he couldn't think about that now; a quick glance back at Hein showed that the general had melted the ice cuffs that Jane had trapped him in and he was now advancing on the small group with a disconcertingly calm expression on his face.
'You keep on trying to escape, again and again,' There was a faint trace of humour to Hein's voice, but nothing else. Gray felt a shiver run down his spine, despite his training. 'You're so stubborn, all of you. Terra offers you peace, and all you want is pain,' The groups found themselves trapped in a corner, nothing but sheer dark walls behind them, and a horde of Phantoms before them. Strangely though, the Phantoms weren't attacking; they had stopped close enough for the soldiers to have nowhere to go, but far enough away that Gray couldn't reach them without moving forward a few steps himself. Hein had stopped just at the head of the Phantom group, his eyes still on Aki.
'What's Terra?' Aki asked, despite herself. Hein laughed, a short, sharp bark of derision that never seemed to sound amused.
'All the answers are available to you,' he said, tapping his head. 'But you don't listen. You don't listen to anything even resembling sense,'
'You're not exactly in a position to lecture about sense,' Aki shot back. Gray let his grip on his sword tighten as he saw the sudden flicker of anger on Hein's face. Where was Sid, or Neil, for that matter? 'They murdered your family, general, right here, in this city!' The flicker returned, a little longer and a little stronger this time. The aura around Hein was fading, and even the Phantoms were looking a little weak.
'They weren't murdered, they found peace,' he murmured, though he didn't sound too sure about it. Aki let herself snort, her eyes flicking up momentarily. Gray followed her gaze, noticing Neil on the roof of the building on the other side of the clearing. He was messing with some device, but he gave a brief thumbs-up to them. Gray let himself smile under the helmet. Trust Neil,
'Do you really believe that?' Aki's voice was harsh; she was remembering something Elliot had told her in the brief time she'd been able to talk to him after Zeus. He had mentioned that he'd been able to snap Hein out of whatever kind of state of mind he was in, though only for a moment. That moment might be all the time they needed to turn this back to their advantage. 'You've felt it, general. You know what it feels like to have your spirit ripped from you,' He wasn't looking at anyone now; his eyes were on the ground in front of him, fists tightening.
'Shut up,' he whispered. The Phantoms still hadn't moved; they had even started fading slightly. It wasn't the same kind of invisibility that Gray usually associated with the Phantoms; it was really like they were disappearing.
'Do you really think that leads to peace? Do you really think that their lives ended in peace?'
'Shut up,' Hein said, a little louder this time. Aki ignored him and took a tiny step forward.
'Your family died in pain and in fear and completely alone. They were murdered by something they couldn't even see; and now you're helping their murderers to kill everyone else on the planet,' Gray flicked his eyes up again; Neil had disappeared once more, but he could just see the device he had left behind glittering in the weak sunlight.
'Shut up!' Hein thundered, looking up now with fire in his eyes. 'You know nothing! You haven't seen them, spoken to them, felt them!' Gray saw a tiny shimmer of something in front of him, but didn't have time to react as Aki shook her head and yelled;
'And neither have you!' Hein let out something closer to an animal yell than a human one and all of a sudden, the whole world seemed to be on fire. Jane was working on building some kind of ice barrier around them, but Gray didn't think it would help to stop the massive wall of fire approaching them. He could do nothing more than hold his breath and hope that fortune was smiling upon him today.
The searing pain of fire never reached him, however, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the wall of flame disappear a few feet in front of them, not even reaching the ice barrier Jane had made.
'We'll have to move quickly,' Aki said, her hand held out in front of her. 'I'm not sure I can make anything to withstand an attack like that anymore. We have to disable him or hurt him or something before he can summon the energy to do that again,' Gray shook his head slightly, gesturing to the space around Hein.
'The Phantoms,' Aki smiled ever so slightly, shaking her head.
'Look again,' He glanced back, and was shocked to notice that nothing else was registering on his scanners. The Phantoms had all gone. 'I think he caught them with his attack,' Gray grinned, altering his grip on his sword.
'Watch my back,'
Hein couldn't even hear the voice in his head as he surged forwards to meet the soldier head-on. He couldn't focus on anything except the pain and the anger that were coursing through him. He knew he had lost the guards that she had sent for him, and he could vaguely feel her shouting at him to stop, but he couldn't. He had to destroy the spirits and he had to make Aki take back every horrible spiteful word she had said. But most of all, he had to wipe away the memory that for one tiny moment, he knew she was right.
He dodged the first powerful slice from the sword, and countered with a sudden burst of ice that knocked the soldier back into the far wall of the courtyard, his sword clattering uselessly to one side. The next attack came from the mage; a searing ball of fire that threatened to burn him from even far away. She looked almost dismayed to see it splutter out harmlessly on his shield; she certainly didn't expect the counterattack he threw at her, a sudden gust of wind throwing her violently up into the air. He didn't wait for the thud as she hit the ground; his attention was focused on Aki. She had backed up against the wall, her expression defiant but her eyes so full of the fear he knew was there.
'You will not escape this time,' he hissed. To her credit, she didn't even look away, not even when he raised his arm to end this; once and for all.
He never quite got to her spirit; a sudden piercing pain in his back made him whirl around in pain. The third soldier was there, his gun smoking from the shot he had fired off, an active portable console discarded at his side. Hein snarled, Aki forgotten for the moment, and advanced on the soldier.
Suddenly there was nothing but pain. He felt himself fall to his knees, his hands flying to his head as his world exploded with agony. He tried to fire out some kind of spell; anything that could break whatever had suddenly trapped him, but nothing worked. He could barely hear her in the back of his head, her voice straining to reach him through the pain.
Aki let herself breathe again as Hein hit the floor, screaming in pain. Neil had jogged over to where Gray was picking himself up off the ground, wobbling a little woozily as he picked up his sword.
'Not what I was imagining, Neil,' he murmured, eyeing Hein. There were several yellow beams of light pointing down from various buildings around the clearing, all converging on Hein, who was now trapped in a sort of cage of bright, almost white light. Neil gave a tiny shrug, moving to help Jane up.
'God, that's a new one. I've never been taken out by wind before,' she muttered, hand to her head.
'I know you said explosives, sir, but I did some math and I figured that this would be a safer way for us to keep him occupied until we escape. Speaking of which,' He glanced up at the sky. 'Dr Sid on his way?'
'I'm thirty seconds away,' Sid said over the radio. 'The ship's autopilot took me outside the city borders when the Phantoms appeared,' Neil nodded slowly, glancing down at the console in his hand.
'Well, here's hoping you get here quick, cause that might not last much longer,' Already one of the beams had cut out, though Hein still hadn't stopped screaming.
'What did you do?' Aki asked, her gaze alternating between the fallen general and the sky. She could feel his pain in the back of her mind; if she let herself close her eyes for too long, she had a feeling she would be sucked right into that nightmare with him. Neil shrugged, tapping the console.
'Took some ovapacks, did some jiggery pokery. From what you told me about Zeus, he seems pretty immune to normal bioetheric weapons, but not to the more specialised kinds. I souped up some regular packs to give out the same energy signature as the captain's sword here, put them in brilliant places, if I do say so myself, so they all converged on him et voila; one trapped screaming psycho,' Jane raised an eyebrow.
'I'm impressed,' Neil beamed.
'So am I,'
Another beam had cut out before they heard the welcome sound of the Black Boa's engines overhead, and the penultimate beam had started to fade as the tow ropes lowered. Hein's cries had lowered to nothing more than a pained gasp, and though he had dragged himself to his feet and turned towards them, Aki could see that whatever the energy had done to him, it was going to take a while before he recovered.
They were all taken by surprise when he leapt forwards, out of the last beam before it cut, and grabbed at the first ankle he could reach, pulling the soldier down to the ground with him and practically throwing them to the ground.
'Neil!' Jane cried, letting go of her rope and leaping down after him.
'Not this time, not this time,' Hein hissed, his right hand clamped around Neil's neck, already the brilliant blue edges of the thief's spirit coming through.
No-one expected an explosion, least of all Hein, who was sent flying back to crunch sickeningly into a wall. He slumped to the ground and lay still, but all focus by then had turned to Neil, who was writhing on the floor and gasping for breath.