Author's Warning: Well, first, Thank you all so much for reading and your continued support! It really does mean a lot to me, especially since this is such a long project. Anyway, I thought I should warn you all, this is sort of a scary-type chapter... I have no idea if it's actually something that you would find scary since I wrote it and I'm a bad judge of that sort of thing, but just in case, you have been warned. It's also the longest chapter to date, so, duly warned. Anyway, Please enjoy!
A shower of sparks erupted from the broken neck of an assault model nasod as its head tumbled into a patch of crackling, withered reeds. Landing easily on her feet after delivering a brutal roundhouse, Rena held her stance and kept her eyes fixed on the nasod's body as it groaned and slowly fell to its knees. After confirming its death with an arrow through the gut, Rena turned round to her right and raised her hand, waving briskly.
"Eve! There's another three over here!"
With the morning sun peering out from over her shoulders, Eve glided over the Rena's side, kneeling down and thrusting her hands into the headless nasod and extracting its heart. While she worked, Rena searched the ground for her bandolier, finding it buried in the undergrowth where she had tussled with a pair of nasod during the most recent ambush.
"Ah~ The buckle's broken off..." She held a tattered leather strap between her fingers and sighed. "I really liked this bandolier too..." Disheartened, she pulled a small metal clamp from her pack and bound the two ends of her bandolier together before slinging it back over her shoulders. The morning hadn't started in a particularly peaceful manner; After Aisha's nervous panic had subsided, they set off across the plains only to find a roaming nasod patrol laying in wait for them. Even though no one was injured and they were able to deal with their attackers in a matter of seconds, the ambush had set everyone on edge and put them on their guard. Starting the day with a full course of Adrenaline was unsettling to say the least, and Rena got the feeling that the coming hours would be some of the longest and most nerve-wracking of their journey thus far. They were rapidly approaching "enemy territory" as Eve had termed it, and as a means of avoiding the legions of weaponized nasod on the plains and to generally save time, they had made the decision to head through an old transporting tunnel that cut across the edge of the island. So far, everything had gone remarkably well, and that impossible good fortune was more than enough to make Rena anxious. Once Eve had stored the last of the pulsing hearts in a small hollow, Rena headed over to join her.
"Eve, do you remember when you said that you might have an idea about who was manufacturing the nasod for combat?"
"...Yes." Eve stood against the bitter wind, the fiery glow of the sunrise gleaming in her golden eyes. "I am fairly certain now... perhaps..." Her voice trailed off into the breeze, stolen away by a sharp, sudden chill. "...I will explain once we return to the others."
Rena opened her mouth briefly but held her questions for the moment. Smiling softly, she nodded and looked across the field toward the outlines of Raven, Aisha, and Elsword.
"It's okay, if you don't want to talk about it. It doesn't really matter who's responsible, after all. What's important is getting the El back and stopping them from making more weapons, right?"
"That-" Eve paused, a vague distress falling across her face. "...No. I will explain everything. It may be necessary for everyone to know, in the event that I am unable to continue..."
"Continue? What do you-" Realizing what Eve meant, Rena frowned gently and poked Eve in the forehead. "Talking like that isn't allowed, okay? If you're going into a dangerous situation, you need to have a really strong will to live, especially if you're going to rebuild an entire empire on your own." She smiled and winked at Eve, leaving her more than a little flustered.
"Y-you are correct... perhaps..."
Giggling, Rena placed her hand on Eve's shoulder and gave her a gentle smile. "Come on, let's get back to the others."
A strong gust whipped across Rena's back as she accompanied Eve back to where everyone waited for them. Far behind them, beyond the shore and above the sea, a dark, rumbling tide of swirling storm clouds spilled across the sky, the thick fog of hail and lightning spreading through the air as though it sought to engulf Altera in its ravenous maw. At best, they had a few hours before the storm was upon them. Acknowledging the need for haste, Eve led the way toward the transporting tunnel as soon as everyone had gathered together.
"We should be able to avoid the storm in the tunnel as well. It will probably be our last chance to rest as well, since there will likely be a larger concentration of activity as we approach the Core."
Raven glanced aside as they marched down a long, gradual slope. "Are you sure they're not guarding the tunnel too?"
Eve kept her eyes forward and leveled off her voice. "I cannot be certain." She paused, tapping her foot into the ground for a moment before righting herself and returning to her original pace. "However, I do not think the one responsible for this would see any value in guarding it."
"Have you figured out who it is then?" Aisha sent her question out to Eve, but kept her eyes turned toward the shoreline and the oncoming storm. As the sound of their feet landing across the crisp, brittle reeds chased away the silence, Eve steeled herself and turned back to face the others.
"It... most likely, is at least partly my fault." She tried to meet everyone's eyes, but she found her own unwilling and eager to avoid their gazes. Most of all, she couldn't bring herself to look at Raven, who stared suspiciously as he awaited her explanation. Raising her face, she pushed aside the erratic tangle of her thoughts and continued.
"In the process of restarting the Core, I found that it could not support prolonged or complex routines without frequent maintenance and supervision. In other words, I had to appoint a successor, since my body would be used as the point of conversion for El energy flowing into the Core. While I was asleep, he would have been the only one who could have tampered with the Core and altered its programming..."
"If you created this guy before you went to sleep then, why did he suddenly start making weapons?" Raven stared harshly, his voice wavering as he restrained himself and tried to keep his bitterness at bay. After a moment, his eyes softened and he breathed out slowly as the sting of his wounds faded.
Unconsciously, Eve reached across her stomach and held her right arm with her left hand. "Most likely, I made a mistake when I programmed him... or perhaps someone interfered and altered his programming afterwards. I cannot be certain. Regardless, if he is to blame for this, then I-" Eve's voice caught in her throat as guilt and anxiety filled her eyes. Before she was able to complete the indictment against herself, an unexpected relief issued out into the sharp, frigid breeze.
"So?" Elsword gave a stern yet reassuring glare. "It's not your fault if your kid's acting like a stupid brat."
Aisha and Eve both turned to him and stared, confounded.
"My... child?" Eve's concentration shattered and she lost herself in thought, staring off into the distance.
"I don't think that's really how it is..." Aisha glared awkwardly at Elsword. "She's way too young to have children, you're reading way too much into- Ah, look, you broke her!" Aisha waved her hand in front of Eve's face rapidly, hoping to elicit some sort of response. At the same time, Raven walked over to Eve and stared straight through to the back of her eyes.
"It doesn't matter how you put it, child or creation or machine or whatever." His eyes narrowed and his brow hardened as Eve broke free from her distraction and met his gaze. "If you're right, then in the end, we'll have to face him. Are you alright with that, even if it means we might have to kill him."
Elsword and Aisha stopped their bickering, stifled by the oppressive atmosphere of Raven's gaze. Despite the gravity facing her, however, Eve answered promptly, her voice free of any doubt. "Of course. I will end this without hesitation."
Raven nodded, walking past her and continuing down the hill and toward the large steel door buried in the side of the earth just a hundred yards away. Calling after him to wait, Elsword and Aisha followed along quickly, leaving Rena and Eve to bring up the rear. As they continued their march down into the shadow of the small, artificial valley surrounding the tunnel entrance, Rena slowed herself to match Eve's pace and stole a glance at her.
"Are you really sure? If it turns out that your successor is the one who made the nasod into weapons, I mean. Are you really sure you'd want to kill him?"
"If he can be salvaged, then it may be avoidable..." Eve opened her console as they approached the tunnel doors and typed out a string of commands as she walked. "However, if he was not tampered with, and if there is no error in his code... then he has willingly disgraced every nasod that has ever lived, and for that alone I would never forgive him."
Rena smiled faintly, an errant concern lingering in the back of her mind. "Hopefully it won't come to that then..."
As everyone waited anxiously, Eve slowly coaxed the doors to the tunnel open. Their thick, rusted surface groaned and shrieked as an ancient engine growled and hissed, peeling the thick, blunted teeth of the gateway apart and revealing the thick fog of darkness that lay beyond. A sudden screech filled the air as the doors lurched apart and the engine driving them seized up, causing Aisha to jump and Elsword to wince at the grating noise. Warm, moist air poured out of the narrow opening, carrying with it the subtle scent of rust and clay from the depths of the underground. Despite the warm, inviting breeze, an eerie chill ran down Aisha's spine and wrapped around he neck.
"Busted?" Elsword kicked the doors and scowled. "Whatever. Let's just get going before the storm gets here."
One by one, all in a row, Elsword, Raven, Rena, and Eve filed into gaping jaws of the transporting tunnel, leaving Aisha alone in the frosted sunlight. Stubbornly, her feet refused to move forward, held back by the invisible ice that had chilled her nerves and clutched her throat. A dull, creeping terror settled in over her, and beyond all explanation she soon found that her very next step, just a few feet from the daylight into the shadows, was the most frightening step of her life. Before anyone could turn back and urge her onward, she clenched her jaw and pulled her feet from the ground, dragging herself into the tunnel and forsaking the safety of the plains. If only she hadn't been so brave, then perhaps their expedition into Altera's long forgotten underground might not have ended in such abject horror.
The damp, musty air clung to Aisha's skin as she stepped onto the stone floor of the transporting tunnel. Hurrying to catch up to everyone else, she lost her footing and slipped, falling flat against Elsword's back.
"Oof- Hey!" Elsword stumbled forward, scowling over his shoulder. "What're you doing?"
Pushing herself away, Aisha felt a strange softness beneath her feet and she looked to the ground. "I tripped on- what the heck is that..." As she raised one foot into the light, a small glob of sickly green slime dripped from her heel and splattered against the cave floor.
"Is everything okay?" Rena turned back toward them and checked Aisha over, grinning slyly to herself. "You know, there's a time and a place for things like that. I know it's dark and all, but this might not be the best place to start pouncing on one another."
"What are you talking about?"
"I didn't do it on purpose!" Both of them blushed, professing their innocence and shouting over top of one another. Experience had taught them, however, that not even a million denials would dissuade Rena and her mischievous grin.
"Oh? Really? Well, the light's pretty dim in here... It kind of looked like pouncing to me~" Rena smiled casually and hummed as she turned back and rejoined Raven and Eve.
"H-Hey, that's not what happened!" Elsword glowered fiercely, turning to Raven in an attempt to appeal to a neutral party. "Raven, you saw right?"
A faint chuckle rang out through the chamber and Raven smiled slightly. "You're putting a lot of energy into denying it. You know how that looks, right?"
"Ugh-" Elsword winced slightly, realizing that he'd come off as more than a little defensive. Beside him, Aisha was fuming and opened her mouth to speak when the dim light peeking in from the plains vanished.
"Wha- Ah, hold on..." Aisha held out her hand and a small, swirling flame gathered in the air overhead. Immediately, everyone turned to face the door, their eyes growing wide as their blood chilled. For a moment, there was only silence. After everyone had taken the time to confirm the sight before them, Raven gave voice to their collective shock.
"How... How the hell..." The doors they had passed through, the very same doors that screeched and groaned so violently, had shut tightly and without a sound.
Eve's fingers raced across her console, typing furiously as she tried to reactivate the tunnel doors. "This should not be possible. The engine burned itself out trying to open the partition. It could not have closed it behind us."
"Well, I'd prefer that explanation to any other..." Rena glanced around warily, drawing her bow and studying the shadows that flickered across the walls. "If it wasn't an accident, then we might not be alone down here..."
All the while, Aisha stood as still as possible, trying desperately to reign in her racing heart. As she spoke, her voice cracked and quivered slightly. "That's not it. It doesn't matter how it closed. Listen."
Eve stopped her fingers and everyone stood, waiting to hear whatever it was that Aisha had noticed. After almost a minute, Elsword crossed his arms and scowled.
"Wait, I don't get it, I don't hear anything..." The moment he spoke, he finally understood what everyone else had realized just seconds before. The doors hadn't closed silently, it was just that their shrieks and moans could never reach into the cavern, and for a very simple reason; within the transporting tunnel, there was no El. Somehow, even though the air outside was brimming with the light of El and the island itself was surrounded for miles, this dark, abandoned passage had been completely forsaken. It was only now, in the dull light of Aisha's fire, that they were each aware of the faint sphere of breathable air that surrounded each of them.
"This isn't right." Rena frowned, moving to the front and facing down the darkness. "With all the stolen El on this island, there's no way this place isn't within its range. Even the deepest tunnels in the village were completely covered in El... something is very wrong here."
"For the time being, it would be best if you all remained within three paces of me." Eve tapped the large El gem embedded in her forehead and it began to glow faintly, spreading its light out for several meters and easily filling the corridor. At the same time, she raised Remy and Moby into the air and they both flickered and flashed, shining brightly and cutting through the shadows with ease. "There appears to be a limited supply of oxygen in this area. Using fire as a light source could make it difficult for you all to breathe."
Aisha drew her hand down and extinguished the glowing flames overhead, her gaze fixed on the writhing shadows ahead. "Let's just get to the other side as quick as we can. I'm starting to wish we'd gone around even if there is an army of nasod up there..."
Wasting no more time on words, Eve set the most direct course available through the tunnel's winding halls and led the way. For nearly an hour, the unnerving warmth of a harsh, acrid breeze brushed against their skin and slithered through their hair. Though the very same question was on everyone's mind, they knew it would do no good to ask why there was a breeze without El, or where it was coming from within a sealed tunnel. They had descended into a world of uncertainty, a groaning chasm in the earth where the silence itself was moving, breathing, and waiting in the shadows. As they traveled deeper into the cavern, every darkened corner seemed to squirm and tremble, finally growing still when the light of the El fell upon it. It wasn't long after that the stinging breeze carried with it a faint green mist.
"I'm going to increase my static field to three meters. It may hurt slightly." Eve threw her hands out to the side and a small pulse of electricity shot through the air, repelling the ghastly cloud that crept toward them. Elsword squinted briefly as the shock passed over his skin and pierced the side of his jaw.
"It's great that we're not breathing whatever the hell that stuff is, but- Ow!" His shoulder twitched as another small jolt arced from his armor and onto his arm. "You got anything less annoying than this?"
"You'll have to bear with it." Raven gripped his sword tightly as a light shock skipped across his hands. "You get used to it after a while."
Hesitating for a moment, Elsword's eyes narrowed and he clenched his fists, casting aside his complaints. Perhaps it was because of how much had happened in the past few days, or perhaps because of how different Raven seemed at present, but Elsword had nearly forgotten the image of Raven laying on the ground, crippled by the agony of a massive, relentless electric shock. Compared to that, he suddenly felt like he had no right to complain about mere discomforts. Rounding the corner ahead, the walls retreated abruptly, revealing a vast, endless abyss of shadows and a treacherously steep pitfall on either side of their narrow path. Steadying his hand against the last inches of the wall, Elsword leaned over and peered into the sea of toxic mist. For one single instant, he would have sworn that there were a pair of eyes glaring back at him, burning brightly in the dark, but once he blinked and looked again, he saw nothing but the veil of pitch and poison that surrounded them. It was in that moment that he slipped. His hand slid across the slick surface of the jagged stone, tearing a gash into his palm as he toppled over into the void below. Time slowed and nearly stopped as everyone turned to see the fading outline of his form falling into the darkness, illuminated only by the tiny El gem wrapped around his wrist. Then, as everyone rushed toward the ledge and Elsword tumbled through the air, the El around him began to shrink, disappearing as though it were being eaten away by a gluttonous beast. Reacting immediately, Aisha swung her wand out and teleported through the air, grabbing Elsword around the waist and teleporting back just as the aura of his El nearly collapsed around him.
"What... What the hell..." Elsword and Aisha sat against the ground, panting as they stared at the ground, eyes wide with disbelief.
"Your hand! Elsword, give me your hand!" Rena rushed over and pulled a vial of spirits from her pack, jerking Elsword's hand from the ground and dousing it thoroughly. He winced as the alcohol stung his skin and washed away the faint black stain from his palm, though a light scratch was the least of anyone's worries now.
"Elsword! You idiot!" Aisha leaned forward and shouted, her composure shattered and her voice desperate. "You almost died! Why were you standing that close to the edge!? Are you trying to get killed!? Idiot!"
Elsword scowled for only a second before he met her eyes. Panic, terror, and a resolve as frail as glass spilled across her face, leaving Elsword breathless and unable to argue against her. Soon, he realized that it wasn't only the strength of her shock that kept him from speaking. The small, shallow cut on his hand began to throb violently and his vision began to fade. When he tried to stand, he fell forward and nearly hit the ground before Aisha and Rena caught him.
"Elsword, are you okay? Answer me!" Rena shook his shoulders and raised him to his feet, holding him upright as she checked his pulse. Slowly, his eyes fluttered open and he rolled his head to the side.
"Unnn... yeah... I'm fin... ugh, god my head hurts..."
"Hey, wake up! You're not allowed to die right after I saved you!" Aisha scowled and fumed while Rena reached back into her bandolier and pulled out a small, delicately folded leaf, holding it up to Elsword's mouth and pressing it against his lips.
"Here, eat this. Come on, you've got to open your mouth."
Still not even half-conscious, Elsword slowly opened his jaw before drifting off again. Rena forced the herbs into his mouth and, after gasping for breath, he finally managed to swallow the bitter medicine.
All the while, Raven and Eve had noticed an equally disturbing development. Looking around quickly, Raven took two paces out from Eve, reaching the furthest extent of their El a full meter earlier than expected. Just as the light around Elsword had faded, the light of Eve's crystal was slowly crumbling around them, dissolved by some unknown agent lingering in the air.
"We don't have long if this keeps up. How far is the exit?"
Eve raised her console and checked their position. "Within eight minutes, if we run. However, based on the deterioration of the El, we have only two and a half minutes left. For the time being I will-" A spark of inspiration interrupted Eve's explanation and she turned back to Aisha who was busy bandaging Elsword's hand.
"Aisha, burn the air around us! Quickly!"
Already beyond hesitation and questioning, Aisha tied off Elsword's bandage and thrust her wand into the air overhead, igniting the edges of their shrinking sphere of breathable air. Almost instantly, the light of the El grew and spread out in every direction. It was a small victory, but with their lives now in clear, apparent danger, it was the most significant victory they'd had in weeks. Dragging Elsword along, Aisha and Rena huddled around Eve as they regrouped and took a moment to rest.
"That stuff... it's eating the light from the El!? Eve, what is this place?" Aisha glanced out into the pit below as a foul, bitter breeze rose from its depths.
"...I am no longer certain. I only heard of it in records, as a tunnel constructed to bisect the island and move raw materials quickly from the outer plains to the core. When I was born, it had already been sealed for several years..." She turned aside and a shroud of guilt fell across the shoulders. "...I should not have brought you all here. I-"
"It's not your fault." Rena reached over and rested her hand on Eve's shoulder. "You're the only reason we've made it this far in the first place. Now we just need to get out as fast as we-" A shrill whistle cut through the air as something moved withing the range of their El and Rena pushed Eve to the ground, leaping back and drawing her bow. "Everybody get down!"
Aisha frantically dove to the ground with Elsword tumbling on top of her as Rena took a knee and Raven crouched alongside her. With the shadows still and the air silent around them, everyone stared anxiously, searching for any sign of movement. The moment a faint glimmer shone in the distance, Rena released a rapid volley into shadows and tore through the approaching object as it entered the edge of their El. Sputtering and dropping to the ground, a small drone, covered in thick, mossy slime sparked and finally settled into silence.
Eve brushed herself off and rose to her feet, leaning forward to examine the battered drone. "...This... has no heart..."
"What? But, how was it moving?" Aisha looked back as she pulled Elsword up off the ground, raising his head just long enough to steal a glimpse of the broken drone.
Raven scoffed and moved to the front of the path, raising his sword and taking a wide stance. "I doubt asking is gonna get us any answers. It was moving even without El, and the stuff it's covered in looks like the stuff floating all around us."
"...Aisha, please burn it." Eve turned away, her aversion concealing the painful distress carved into her face. Putrid grey smoke rose from the melting drone and everyone hurried away from its mangled corpse before its toxic fumes could taint their scarce supply of breathable air. As they pressed forward into the uncharted reaches of the transporting tunnel, the seething, gaping maw of the pit groaned and poured its caustic breath over the narrow path. Fleeting glimpses of a writhing, twisting mass in the void below sent a crisp chill across Aisha's back as cold sweat poured down the side of her face. Every once in a while, Elsword would cough and stumble for a moment, supporting himself for a few steps before falling back against Aisha's shoulder. Looking to Rena for reassurance did her no good, the ever present smile that seemed to never leave her face was nowhere to be found. At the front of the group, Raven's eyes shifted anxiously as he took each step with deliberate precision, his entire body tense and waiting for the next attack. Even Eve's hands were beginning to tremble as the path descended further into the cavern, bringing them closer to the squirming shadows below. All throughout, silence. Footsteps faded quickly and the lack of El smothered every echo, leaving only the muffled roar of flames to break the deceptive calm each time Aisha chased away the deadly spores. After pausing a moment to pull Elsword's arm over her shoulder again, Aisha felt a slight tickle at the back of her throat and she began to cough. When she pulled her hand away from her mouth, a stream of blood trickled down across her palm.
"W...what..." Her breath froze and face went pale as a drop of scarlet fell against the ground. Seeing the horror on her face, Rena hurried over and studied Aisha's hand, searching for a wound and finding none until she looked up and saw the thin line of blood seeping out of her mouth.
"Aisha, what's wrong? What happened?"
"I don't know, I just coughed and-" She swallowed hard, the faint taste of iron lingering at the back of her throat. "...I breathed, when I went out to save Elsword, I breathed in the poison..."
A wave of unrestrained sorrow washed over Rena's face, even if only for a moment. "Eve, hold Elsword for a minute."
Eve headed over and awkwardly pulled Elsword away, holding him up by his shoulders while Rena rifled through her medical kit. As she sorted through her supply of vials and sachets, her mouth turned down and her expression hardened. Coming up empty, she reached forward and held Aisha against her.
"Sorry, that was all the medicine I had. This'll have to do for now."
"W-what are you doing?" Aisha blushed lightly, the color returning to her face as she heard Rena's rapid heartbeat. "I'll be fine, it's not-" Another cough, this time more violent. As Rena pulled away, Aisha saw the ghastly red stain splattered against her chest. Forcing a light sigh, Rena smiled as best she could, uneasy and still uncertain of their prospects for survival.
"Don't worry. Everything will be alri-"
From the silence, a long, spindly metal arm reached over the edge of the pit and grabbed Rena's leg, instantly dragging her down into the darkness. Without a moment's pause, Raven dove after her, calling out her name as he hacked away wildly at her attacker. All too late, Aisha reached out and called after them, her voice arrested at the edge of the El's faint glow.
"Wait, Raven! Don't-" A coarse growl rose in her throat as she stifled another cough. Beside her, Eve set Elsword on the ground and opened her console once more.
"Do not worry. Raven's left arm is powered by a core of El crystals. They will be able to survive so long as they can keep the toxins at bay. We need to focus on finding a way to rescue them now..." Eve's words rang hollow in her mind even before she spoke them. With Elsword mumbling and incapacitated and Aisha's condition worsening by the second, Eve knew that saving Rena and Raven, and in fact, saving everyone, may very well fall to her and her alone.
Down at the base of the cliff, Raven stood clutching the arm of a skeletal nasod in his left hand with his sword plunged into its chest. Next to him, Rena scrambled to her feet and plucked the string of her bow, blasting the poison mist away with a burst of air. Just as Raven turned to ask Rena if she was hurt, a soft warmth fell against his back.
"Ah, sorry..." Rena wheezed and panted, failing to suppress a violent cough. "... I gasped right when it pulled me down, so I've got a lot of poison in my lungs..."
Raven turned, ignoring the blood dripping across his back and steadying Rena with his right hand. He wanted to reach out and check her temperature, to ask if she was alright, to tell her that this was nothing compared to what she'd been through in the past, but at that moment, surrounded by the living silence, none of that seemed to matter. Instead, he turned his back to her and knelt down.
"Get on. We've got to hurry back to the others."
Rena chuckled anxiously. "I was actually thinking... to tell you that I might not make it that far... so just take my El and climb back up..."
Raven scoffed. "Carry it yourself. I can't be bothered."
"See? I knew it wouldn't work..." She smiled, her skin pale and her hair in disarray as though she'd just fallen through the sky and been dragged through the sea. Finally accepting Raven's offer, she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck as he rose to his feet and headed off through the black morass.
"Wait, no... set me down... I'll walk from-" A fit of coughing interrupted Rena's protest and Raven carried on undeterred.
"You're starting to get delusional, probably from the poison. Try not to talk."
Rena reached around and drew back her bow, releasing a feeble breeze that scattered the encroaching spores. "Now you're just being stubborn..."
Raven reached out and caught a flying drone with his nasod arm, crushing it quickly and tossing it aside. "If that's what it takes." He scoffed again. "Offering to stay behind... there's no way I'd even let you consider that. You're the strongest out of all of us, it'd be stupid to let you die just to save me.
Turning her head, Rena hacked and coughed across her shoulder, spraying a fine crimson mist into the air. "You seem... to be think I'm a strong person... that's not..." Another cough cut her off abruptly. Scowling, Raven continued to trace the edge of the cliff, stepping over the unnaturally mangled remains of ancient nasod.
"How many years have you been fighting? I've been a soldier for thirteen years and I've already seen more of my comrades die than I could ever count. If you can spend that many years watching the people you fought alongside and cared about die around you and still smile the way you do... You're a lot stronger than I've ever been."
"No..." Rena buried her face in the back of Raven's neck, her voice cracking as a flood of memories surged through her mind. "I can't be... because, you're strong enough to carry someone who's been wounded and not leave them behind..."
"...Worry about that when we get out of here." Sensing her growing distress, Raven hastened his pace and ran along the wall without pause until a bright, shimmering light appeared overhead. Holding his ground and raising his guard, Raven glared fiercely and waited for the one, impossibly short moment when he could strike. Fortunately, striking proved unnecessary. Floating slowly toward them, Eve and Aisha held Elsword between them as they searched the impermeable darkness for their companions. As they landed, Raven noticed a slow, lumbering shadow approaching from behind. He called out to no avail, realizing that his voice could never span the minuscule distance between them. Even as he rushed to their aid, he realized that he wouldn't make it in time.
Creaking into view just behind Eve's shoulder, a broken, moss-covered nasod raised its arms and prepared to strike. Just as Raven reached the edge of their El, however, the nasod tumbled backward, its legs crushed by the edge of Elsword's blade.
"Unn... guys... pay more attention..." Just as he raised his sword to strap it onto his back, his senses failed him once again and his head fell against his shoulders, blood trickling out of his nose and mouth as Aisha hurried to prop him up. Once she saw Raven and Rena, she opened her mouth to speak and promptly covered it again as a splash of blood leaked out from between her fingers and fell across her chin.
Preempting the obvious questions, Raven headed over to Aisha and turned so that she could see Rena safely on his back. "We're both fine, but Rena breathed in a lot of the poison along the way."
"Yup, see, fin-" Rena spat up a bit of blood and tried to force a smile. "Maybe not fine. Eve, how do we get back up?"
Studying her console, Ever shook her head slowly. "No, we cannot get back to the upper level. Moreover, it would take too much time to do so. There is another exit nearby, it will lead us farther away from the Core than expected, but we have little choice. Also..." Her voice darkened and she stared into the writhing shadows ahead, "There is a large heat source up ahead."
Aisha pressed her hand against her head as it began to throb and burn, wincing as she glanced over at Eve. "Like a fire or something?"
"No." Eve closed her console and pulled Moby and Remy to her side. "Most likely, a large organism... Regardless, we will have to pass by it to reach the exit."
"That..." A heavy, humid gust swept the words from Rena's lips and Aisha raised a curtain of flame to fend off the torrent of toxic spores riding on the wind. Raven and Eve were the only two left who weren't coughing up blood and drenched in sweat, but Raven was quickly showing the signs of fatigue from being on constant guard, and amplifying her El crystal seemed to be wearing Eve out rapidly. Despite their anxiety, despite their fears, the only option left to them that ended with their survival was to press on. Slowly, they trudged through the sea of shadows and toward the great, groaning creature that guarded the exit. As they neared, the screeching, moaning symphony of shambling nasod rang out around them as claws and drills lunged out of the darkness and thrashed about wildly. Raven and Aisha fended off their attackers with quick jabs and small bursts of magic, but their confined quarters and intense exhaustion made it difficult for them to do much more than push back the wretched horde closing in around them. As Eve send Moby and Remy flying into the heartless, reanimated nasod, the light shining from them illuminated a grisly scene; each of the ancient nasod marching toward them was mangled, maimed, and twisted into an unnatural state, the tattered remnants of their bodies covered and filled with the iridescent glow of a slick, slimy green moss. Eve's countenance wavered, her eyes growing wider with every step they took and each nasod they pushed away. Soon, her feet began to drag and she noticed that Elsword had gone completely limp at her side.
"Aisha! He is not breathing!"
In a moment of sheer panic, Aisha ran back to Elsword and did the only thing she could think to do: She punched him square in the chest. "I told you you're not allowed to die!"
Blood sprayed into the air, spilling across Aisha's face and dripping onto Eve's shoulder as Elsword gasped and finally began breathing on his own. As it happened, that distraction was just enough to give up all the ground they had gained against the nasod and a swarm of flailing, frantic arms reached out toward them from every direction. Smashing and punching as quickly as he could, Raven was only able to clear a narrow path ahead. In a desperate attempt to push back the nasod, Raven grabbed a large armored worker drone with his left arm and swung it out broadly, sweeping away the others and tossing them off to the side. For scarcely a second, his right side was exposed and a razor sharp claw swiped out from the shadows and cut into his shoulder. As he cringed and staggered back, Aisha rushed over and blasted the nasod with a burst of dark magic, panting and coughing as she stumbled forward. After an excruciating three hundred yards through the moaning horde, they reached a small corridor that led off to the surface.
At the very moment when their spirits rose and they could see the exit with their own eyes, a deep, oppressive silence fell over them. The nasod retreated. The breeze subsided. Standing within sight of the tunnel gates, everyone froze as surely as if they were bound in steel. Slowly, a pair of great, gleaming eyes began to open just above them. Further, broader, wider than any eyes should have been able to open, piercing the pitch black as though they could cut through the very silence itself and scream louder than sound itself. As the eyes blossomed fully, it was obvious that they weren't part of a creature at all but a flower, two massive, ghoulish flowers each bigger than a house and waving gently in the absence of El. Their glowing eyes shifted quickly, darting across the cavern before settling on Eve, their lurid bulk heaving with a vulgar groan and spewing out a dense cloud of toxic spores. Gleaming in the light of the massive eyes, over a thousand shambling nasod stood as though waiting for instruction, their gruesome, decaying faces locked in the agony of their dying breaths. It was a sight that Eve hadn't wanted to see, and she would later regret having seen it at all, but as she stared out at the mindless horde of heartless corpses, her abject terror melted away, replaced by a solemn sense of duty.
"Raven. Please lead everyone to the exit. It will become very dangerous here very soon." Eve propped Elsword against the wall and held her hands out before her, strengthening her static field even further as she stepped away from everyone else. Small flashes of electricity flickered in the air around her as she faced the fascinating, terrifying monstrosity above. Before she could head off to face it, Aisha hurried after her, picking Elsword up and stifling a cough.
"You- You'll be right behind us, right?"
With her eyes cold and her face firm and stoic, Eve glanced back over her shoulder and nodded. "...I promise."
Aisha didn't answer, instead staring straight at Eve with a powerful determination in her eyes. Turning to Raven out toward the gate, she pulled Elsword along as quickly as she could, constantly glancing back at Eve as she raced off toward the giant, gleaming eyes.
As Eve approached, the flower's eyes followed her every movement, studying her as though they were keen to learn all that they could, or perhaps tracking her as a predator hungry for its next meal. Unmoved by the clattering of the reanimated nasod around her, Eve gazed sharply at the great, unnatural eyes that shifted in the silence as its caustic, garish breath swirled around her, forced back by her static aura. As the haze of poison cleared, Eve addressed the beast with ice on her tongue and fire in her eyes.
"I do not know what you are nor what your purpose is, but you have disturbed the rest of the ancient nasod, and you have caused a great deal of pain to my companions. For their sake, and for the future of the nasod race, you will have to die."
Eve waved reached down to her side and drew out a small, slender device, holding it steadily as it expanded and folded itself out into a massive cannon. As she tampered with its settings and released all safeties, the swarm of nasod suddenly rushed toward her, lashing out recklessly as they charged in defense of the silence. Leaping back sharply, Eve hurled her cannon directly into the giant eyes, a massive gravity well erupting and tearing apart everything in its path as Eve flew away and just scarcely escaped the resulting chain of explosions. As its petals burned and its flesh burst into flames, the monster in the tunnel let out a single, deafening screech that rippled through the silence and made the very ground shake. At the end of the nearby corridor, Eve could see a small fragment of light, the open path to the outside world. Gliding faster than she thought was possible, she hurtled through the air and out of the tunnel, tumbling outside and nearly slamming headlong into Aisha. As she finally emerged, Raven forced the gate shut and twisted its handle, ensuring that no one would be able to open it easily from now on.
Relieved beyond words, Aisha and Rena slumped over on the grass as the cool, fresh air filled their lungs and they finally breathed easily. Slouching against an embankment, Raven finally caught his breath and checked over his wounds, still glancing back at the tunnel gate to make sure nothing tried to follow them out. Nearby, Elsword finally raised his head and coughed a bit, gasping for air and opening his eyes wide.
"Gah...! What... What happened... Where are we?" He tilted his head back and looked around, so grateful to see the sky that he flopped back onto the grass and smiled wearily.
"What happened?" Aisha spoke between gasps, still panting and clearing her lungs of poison. "We almost died a hundred times, there was a giant monster plant that controlled dead nasod, and I had to carry you almost the entire way through cause you kept passing out..."
"Eh!?" Elsword blinked. "I... ugh... sorry... I kind of remember now..." He held his forehead, hoping to suppress his pounding headache.
"Actually, It's completely fine." Aisha stared up at the swirling clouds overhead. "Considering all the other stuff, having to carry you wasn't really such a big deal..."
Rena giggled alongside them. "Ah... this is one of those times... you know... where nothing at all can be better than just being alive..."
"Heh..." Raven chuckled lightly. "Yeah, I know this feeling. It's kind of sad that we're there already when we've still got so much ahead of us though."
Eve looked around, her eyes finally softening and the tension fading from her gaze "...We should be safe here. I... would like to take a break."
Needless to say, there were no objections.
Deep underground, beneath the rotting carcass of the giant, toxic flowers of the transporting tunnel, a long, slender vine slithered and sulked across the ground, weaving between piles of fused metal and broken nasod and crawling across the ground. Soon, it happened upon a small puddle, something warm and thick and as yet unknown to the squirming plant. Opening its mouth carefully, it slurped up every last drop of the deep red liquid, shuttering as it savored its bitter taste. A few moments later, a low, rumbling groan resounded through the tunnel and a fresh cloud of toxic spores poured out from a fissure in the ground as more than a hundred bright, gleaming eyes burst open and stared out into the silence.