A/N: It's been almost a year since my last update, which is crazy. I was reading through the last chapter to make sure there wasn't any issues with continuity for this chapter and I realized that... But it's been a hellish year. My grandma on my mom's side passed away on Valentine's day then my grandma on my dad's side passed away March 23, a few days before my birthday and several days before my father's birthday. That was terrible enough, coupled with many projects on that side of the semester. Then a great friend of mine moved back to her home country, which was difficult. Then, my mom was rediagnosed with cancer over the summer and the family and I had to help with struggle through a rough patch of chemotherapy and other complications due to the nature of her cancer. Those are the highlights among other things that have really made this past year the worst in my twenty two years of existence. There are only two positive things that have happened over the course of the year: 1) I didn't commit suicide because of my depression. Nope. A big thanks to my sister, depression medicine and lemon essential oil for that. 2) We recently found on on my mom's 100 day check (post chemo) that she's in remission. She's even further into remission than she had been after her first round of Chemo. So that was welcomed news after a year of terrible happenings. So, yeah... Tough stuff. I'm sorry for not getting this updated. Because of the crap this year, my writing mood was really shot. And that was terrible, because writing is usually how I cope and I just... couldn't. But, I'm here! That's also good news.
Sorry for the length you all had to wait for this update. Thanks to all of you who have followed, favorited and reviewed. A select few of you sent me supportive messages encouraging updates and that really lifted my spirit and helped me finally work on editing this chapter. Thanks to all of my fans for sticking with me. You guys are truly the best.
Till next time,
Previously... Lloyd has been infused with Origin and was rescued from Yggdrasill's clutches by the previously thought dead, Yuan. Now, Lloyd is with a man he doesn't recognize within the Gaoracchia forest, evading capture. Meanwhile, Zelos has learned of the missing Sheena's location, and is reluctantly working with Yuan. Sheena and Colette, who had been missing in action because they'd been captured by Desians, managed to escape and are on the run. Through all of this, Yuan is attempting to bring together some sort of 'plan' that involves Zelos gaining followers in Sylvarant... Things are getting more twisted, but soon enough, things will come together... for better or for worse.
Chapter Thirty Nine
Lloyd shuffled uneasily. It wasn't easy to remain sitting for so long. His legs were numb, being folded under him as he leaned towards the ground, arms tightly wrapped around his stomach.
He was hungry, tired and confused.
The forest around him buzzed with noise, the morning rising slowly over the glistening green tops.
He and the other man had been running through the winding forest all night, seemingly getting nowhere. After what felt like the hundredth circle they'd gone in, the brunette's legs had finally given out. The man hadn't been pleased, a frown set on his panicked face, but he'd allowed it.
Lloyd had tried to catch his breath, to regain his energy, but it felt like it was being sapped from him. It was almost like he'd hacked away the limited energy he'd possessed and he was now struggling to keep himself going.
The man had probably come to the same conclusion.
It'd been a couple of hours ago, when the darkness had still smothered them, when the man had left Lloyd, saying he'd be back with a plan.
What plan, the teen didn't know.
So he'd waited, unable to move his body even to get into a more comfortable position.
His muscles were protesting loudly now, constantly reminding him of the pain he was in. At first, it'd only been a wave of agony followed by a brush of calm. Now it was just a screaming banshee in his brain.
What the hell do I do now?
The idea that some terrible creature had eaten the man resurfaced in Lloyd's mind, but he pushed it away. He couldn't think like that, no matter how increasingly likely it was
Instead, he attempted, once more, to shuffle into a more comfortable position. His stiff body didn't allow for much movement, pain echoing through his limbs with each little shift. More annoying was the increasing loudness of the wilderness.
As the sun brought warmth to the world, it also seemed to bring life.
Something moved through the brush to his right, rattling the greenery and snorting as it trotted by. Whatever it was hadn't noticed him or didn't care. Moments later, there was a rustle in the canopy above him, dozens of squawks followed, birds flying off towards the morning light.
A slower creature grunted, shuffling through the underbrush as it made its way past Lloyd's left. Its breathing was heavy, as if it was having a hard time managing the energy to move…
Kind of like me, the brunette mused humorlessly.
Closing his eyes, he tried to relax his aching body. Willing his thoughts back to the past, he tried to remember what exactly had happened to warrant such a strange trek.
The memories were foggy, pain accenting each moment. Even as he tried to clear his thoughts, they remained covered.
Flashes of emotion flickered through his mind, but nothing definitive. Blurs of faces, something crimson-
The teen jumped, screaming in his mind though nothing left his mouth. As he jolted, his body sent electric pain through his nerves, making him screw his eyes shut and take several deep breaths.
"Are you alright?"
Lloyd managed to turn his head to see the man from before, his eyes filled with concern as he regarded the brunette. Nodding, he watched relief cross the man's eyes before a serious expression took its place. Carefully, he reached an arm out and helped pull the teen up. It took a bit of effort, but Lloyd was on his feet after a few minutes.
Sighing, the man said, "I found the way out."
The teen nodded again.
The man continued, "I'll help you, but we must hurry. Angels have come into the forest."
How'd they find us?
Almost to answer the question, the man muttered under his breath, "I shouldn't have gone looking through the forest before I woke you…" He shook the thought away, wrapping an arm around the brunette's waist.
Lloyd slipped his arm over the man's shoulders, ignoring the shooting pain that went through his system. If he'd really found the exit, then he needed to keep going. It was a chance at escape, at freedom… from an enemy the teen remembered nothing about.
"Come on," the man spoke, carefully taking steps forwards. It was painstakingly slow, but they managed to start a steady pace as they headed towards the exit.
Kratos walked with his son, hand in hand. The little boy toddled forward, eyes wide with excitement. He smiled and pointed to many colorful things, his father returning the enthusiasm with a smile.
His mind, however, was on darker things.
He was supposed to check on the research being done into the eternal sword.
The auburn had to admit, it seemed like a foolish thing for humans to be studying. Since the sword was in the realm of fiction and folklore, it seemed ridiculous that people would even consider spending time investigating it.
Regardless, there had to have been some progress to rile Yggdrasill so much.
Depending on what the humans had discovered, Kratos knew it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that he'd have to kill them. What he'd do with his son during that time, he didn't know…
"Daddy!" Lloyd pointed towards a shop, tugging the auburn from his thoughts. Russet eyes followed the young boy's excited pointing to see a large window exposing the insides of the shop.
A toy store.
"Do you want to go in there?" He asked the child. He watched as the toddler pondered it, staring between the store and the crowds of people that surrounded them. Kratos wondered why his son even had to think that hard about it.
Toys were toys, right? All kids loved toys.
Finally, Lloyd nodded, "Yeah! I want to go inside!" He nearly ripped Kratos' arm off with the force he used to tug him forward. He nearly skipped into the entrance, the auburn smiling as the dusty smell of the store greeted his senses.
Sunlight glittered over all of the sparkly toys, warming his skin as he waited near the large window as his son searched the store, apparently looking for something.
The owner glanced towards the auburn with a broad and friendly smile, "Hello good sir. Can I help you find something?"
"No thank you. We're just looking… well, my son's just looking."
The owner laughed, "That's how it usually is. So, what's your reason for being in Meltokio. I haven't seen you before."
"We're on a pilgrimage," Kratos lied easily, "and my son's birthday is coming up so I decided I'd let him pick his present."
"Ah, a pilgrimage," the owner nodded, "he's a bit young to go on such an extensive journey, how's he handling that."
The auburn gave a genuine shrug. He didn't know how Lloyd handled things. He seemed perpetually happy, the small child seemingly unaware of the turmoil that brewed around him. "He's handling it well enough. He actually wanted to go on it. My wife died several months ago and it was Lloyd's idea to travel."
The owner gave a sad smile, "To honor her memory?"
The store grew quiet, a solemn moment shared between the two adults. It was when the toddler tried to reach something on a taller shelf, causing everything else to tumble down in a loud crash, that the peace was disturbed.
"Lloyd?" Kratos ran over to the noise, fearing the worst. To his relief, the small child was fine. He sat, staring at the pile of fallen objects, tears starting to pool in his eyes.
Hiccupping air, Lloyd looked up to his father and then back to the pile.
"I'm sorry, daddy…"
Kratos squatted to his son's level, ruffling his hair, "It's fine, Lloyd. It was an accident. Are you alright?" He got a nod and continued, "Then do you want to help me and the owner put up all of the toys?" Getting another nod, he smiled lightly and helped the child up.
The owner smiled at Lloyd, the young boy somewhat shying away behind his father's leg.
"Don't worry about it," the man said, "It happens all the time."
That almost seemed to relieve the young child, who hurried to the pile and scooped up toys in his arms. He didn't have an idea where they went, but he seemed bound and determined to fix what he'd broken. Giddily, he put red wooden air planes and fluffy stuffed bears back onto the shelves that he could reach. When he was done, shoving the last multicolored wooden train onto the shelve, he looked back at the owner, smiling broadly.
He was obviously very proud of himself.
Kratos felt his soul lighten as he watched his son, the child enthusiastic and happy. He was so innocent, so pure…
"Very good job," the owner said, reciprocating the smile.
"Yes, Lloyd," Kratos pulled himself from his thoughts; "You did a very good job."
"Thank you," Lloyd said. Then, he darted through the store, giggling again as he looked at all of the toys.
"He's a very sweet boy," the owner said, glancing at the haphazard shelving of the three year old boy. He seemed to suppress a laugh, and regarded the auburn, "And you're a very good father. I've had similar instances, an honest mistake on the child's part, and the parent explodes. I always try to tell them that it's okay, but the parents go ahead and scream at the child."
Kratos smiled, only a little, "Thank you. Parenting is hard though. There's no right answer in something so complex… I've made my share of mistakes, too."
Russet eyes followed the brunette boy as he weaved through the aisles, disappearing for a heart skipping second and then reappearing. The toddler stared at everything, eyes wide; as he tried to pick the toy he wanted. He was detached from the chaos of Kratos' real life. He didn't know how horrible Mithos was or why he should fear the blonde man.
All Lloyd knew was trust.
A trust Kratos was scared would be abused.
Soon after, Lloyd scooped up a stuffed lion, snuggling with it as Kratos paid for it. The owner waved them goodbye as they left, the toddler carrying his new purchase snuggly between his arms. He looked adorable hauling around a yellow and orange lion that appeared far too big to him. There was a happy hop in his step, the lion's tail dragging on the ground.
"So you like your new toy?"
Lloyd nodded, "Thank you, daddy!"
Kratos smiled towards his son and then set his eyes on the horizon again, "You're welcome, Lloyd. What are you going to name it?"
"'He'? That's a strange name."
"No, daddy, my lion. He's a he."
"Oh." He'd forgotten that children were oddly specific about inanimate objects' sex. "I'm sorry, then. What's his name going to be?"
"I don't know yet."
Now heading in the correct direction for his assignment, Kratos made sure his son stayed close as he strolled past the place he was supposed to infiltrate. He'd decided for an evasive approach. He'd sneak in and figure out what they knew by looking through their documents. If there wasn't a whole lot, he'd leave them be.
If they had a lot of information, however, things would become more complicated…
His eyes trailed over the brick path, to the large black gate that rested in front of the establishment and to the white walls that encased the intelligent workers. The outside read 'Imperial Research Academy', the steel letters hanging above the entrance.
Continuing to walk past, however, they weaved through a few narrow side streets, finding a quaint hotel. The rustic green colors that painted the outside seemed to contrast the modernly colored exteriors of the surrounding buildings.
The door, a solid wash of gray green, opened without squeaking as Kratos and Lloyd entered. The young boy took immediate interest, talking softly to his stuffed lion about the look of the place.
Leaving Lloyd to his wanderings of the lobby, Kratos approached the front desk, giving a curt nod to the young woman that sat behind it.
She seemed incredibly tiny, her entire build almost falling in on itself as she spoke.
"Welcome to Country Inn, how can I help you?" She swept a sandy blonde strand of hair from her eye, blinking at Kratos with too much interest. He supposed she just liked her job.
"I'd like one room, please."
"Just one moment," the woman said, looking down at several stacks of paper. Just bending her head down made it seem like she'd disappear, her ugly pea green dress the only thing apparently left of her. During his musings, Kratos thought he heard Lloyd say something like,
"No, lion, you don't eat paint."
But disregarded it. His son was certainly strange some times.
Soon, the woman reappeared, her body taking shape in her ugly dress as she handed him a room key, "That'll be one hundred gald."
The exchange of money and keys occurred, Kratos giving her a nod and then finding his son. Lloyd had made his way around the entire room, now staring at a plant as if he'd never seen greenery before.
"Come on, Lloyd. We have a room."
"Daddy, be quiet," the small toddler didn't face the auburn. Instead, he remained focused on the plant. The lion was also turned in such a way as to observe the green leafy life form.
"What are you doing?" Kratos whispered.
Lloyd whispered back, "Lion said we have to stare at the tree."
What his son was looking at certainly wasn't a tree, but he didn't argue about that. Instead, he looked at the fuzzy lion, its black eyes looking at the plant. It was squeezed tightly between the young child's arms, it's orange and yellow main fluffed out and framing Lloyd's face.
Waiting a few seconds, Kratos asked, "Is he done now?"
The toddler didn't answer right away. Instead, he leaned in a bit, as if staring harder, and then blinked. Large rust colored eyes looked up the auburn, "Yup. We're done now." He padded past his father and to the stairs, giving a soft scolding to his lion as he darted up them.
Something about not needing to take the tree because they'd probably have one in their room.
Shaking his head, he followed his son up the stairs. Kratos would use the available day light hours to have fun with his son. When the sun melted into the earth and the moon was born into the darkened sky, he'd head off to the Imperial Research Academy.
For now, he'd pretend nothing was wrong so he could spend some time with Lloyd.
The town of Luin looked about the same as always. It'd been a while since Zelos had last seen the lake front city, but from what he remembered, everything seemed in place… except, of course, the people.
"There's no one here," Yuan stated, his green eyes –Well, eye Zelos mused – falling over all of the empty winding streets.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," the red head sneered. He'd never cared for the half elf months ago, when all he'd known was that he was mixed in with Cruxis, but now he cared about the man even less. Zelos wasn't sure how that worked, but it did.
The man had disappeared for months on end, leaving the Chosen without any guidance, and then reappeared, making all sorts of commands. He didn't have the right, but he sure as hell pretended he did. More frustrating was the fact that he'd said he'd put Sheena in the ranch and yet, didn't explain himself.
It'd gotten them into a fair share of arguments.
Zelos had, in the beginning, been his normally elusive self. He'd dealt low blows and snarky comments behind eloquent words. He'd made all sorts of side comments that had gotten him quick glares while he sent the half elf a smirk but soon enough, the days had dragged on, and he dropped the pretenses. It was now a nasty brawl, the two going after each other in the open.
The red head didn't even try to paint his words with fancy language.
"I just thought that you'd like to be informed," The blue haired man snapped, "Since you seem to miss the obvious."
"Oh, are you running out of adequate insults?" The red head laughed obnoxiously, which got a sigh from the masses that were travelling with them. A rather large group of Renegades were accompanying them, all dressed in commoners travelling outfits. The collective sigh was ignored by their leader.
"No, I'm just getting tired of insulting you. I'm pretty sure there's a saying out there about attempting to insult stupid people."
"Yeah," the red head gave a short humorless laugh, "you're running out of steam. Not that I should scold you for it," he sighed dramatically, "You are getting up in the years."
That comment always seemed to irritate Yuan the most.
The blue haired man twitched an eyebrow, fury bubbling underneath his skin, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he looked forward.
Frowning, Zelos followed the half-elf's gaze. Empty winding streets spread from them like veins, snaring the dead city. It only made the obvious question more glaring. What had happened to everyone?
Stepping over to a cozy looking house, the red head peered into the window. Through the glass, he could see the darkened interior. Everything was as it should have been. The couch rested near a coffee table, the kitchen decorated as if it was ready for several guests to come over for a feast.
Moving to another house, he saw the same thing. Everything was as it should be.
Several houses later, Zelos spoke up, "What the hell happened?"
It was the ever mysterious Regal who responded, "I don't know. It doesn't seem like the Desians attacked or that the people were forced from their homes…" The blue haired prisoner's gaze fell on the Chosen, "This isn't a good sign."
"Tell me about it." Crossing his arms, Zelos glared around the city. It was pristine! Nothing was out of place, so where had everyone gone off to?
The last time he'd seen this city, it'd been a battle zone. The Desians were charging in, raiding every house and brutally slaughtering anyone their blades could touch. Now, it was peaceful, the inhabitants missing.
Yuan growled, "This isn't good."
Zelos called over the empty street, earning another heavy sigh from the group, "Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. I never would have reached that conclusion without you!"
"Chosen, why don't you act mature for awhile?"
"I'll act mature when you explain everything, including why you sent Sheena to some God forsaken ranch."
"I don't have time for you right now. We need to figure out what happened to Luin. Let's split up." He started separating groups of people, Zelos giving a huff quickly at being shut down. If that was how the half elf wanted to play it, then so be it.
Without waiting to be assigned, he marched off down a cobblestone street, arms crossed. It wasn't like he wanted to look around with anyone anyways. If he had to pick, it'd be Regal, but that man seemed so pro-Yuan, like it was a new fad or something.
Disregarding it, he let his thoughts wander. He hadn't been told what ranch Sheena was at, only that she was at one. It was more frustrating that Yuan made a point of saying 'help me and I'll help you'. Well, what did the blue haired man think Zelos had done all of those months ago? It didn't seem to matter that Sheena could be facing torture or something of the likes…
Growling in frustration, he took another turn, this one down a far narrower path. It weaved between houses easily; all of them set up nicely like the residents had simply gotten up to go for a quick walk.
"Damn it," he said to no one in particular.
It hurt like hell… not being able to help Sheena now that he knew she was alive. Part of him wanted to gallivant off and raid all of the ranches just to find her, but he'd always been a coward. He weighed every choice before he made it and logic dictated that he stayed with Yuan.
Sometimes he hated how weak he was.
Something shifting nearby caught Zelos' ear and instinctually, he reached for the sword at his hip. Blue eyes flicked around the entire area, but he didn't see anything. The noise came again, causing a roll of fear to course through the red head's veins. Whatever was around, there was more than one of them.
Drawing his sword, he backed up to a wall and listened closely to the world around him.
Everything seemed calm, not even the distance buzz of nature penetrating the bubble of silence he found himself in.
That only made each strange noise that much louder.
Glancing around again, he finally caught sight of what he'd been hearing. At first, his brain didn't register what he was seeing. It was like there was a disconnect, something being lost in translation. He had to blink several times, finally clearing away any doubt.
He almost dropped his sword.
There, standing in the alley, was Sheena.
"Babe," he managed, voice cracking a bit.
It didn't even seem like she'd noticed him, her amber eyes fixed on something else. It took only a second longer for Zelos to see what the woman was so worried about. Standing next to the dark haired woman was none other than Colette.
Both looked worse for the wear, bodies bruised and dirty, but undoubtedly, they were alive.
He found his voice again, "Sheena, Colette…"
This time, Sheena did notice. She was instantly on guard, eyes searching around till they fell on the Chosen. Then, they changed instantly. The previously hard and angry expression became passionate and happy. The stony exterior melted away and her eyes began to water.
"Zelos?" God, she sounded horrible. She sounded so broken, but at the same time, that one word made his heart soar.
"Sheena?" Finally, something told him to move. He dashed forward, pulling her into a tight hug. He felt her return the embrace, and for a second, he didn't care about anything else. She was alive and damn it, he was holding her.
It was Colette who spoke next, "Zelos! What are you doing here?"
Something made him pull away from Sheena, "I could ask you two the same thing. Where the hell have you been?"
The dark haired woman answered, "We were being held at Kvar's ranch. We managed to escape and we thought we'd come to Luin for some help."
"Sorry, babe, but no one's here."
"I noticed," she growled, something of her former self coming back, "we saw them leave."
"Wait, you saw everyone leave? Where are they going?"
It was Colette who answered this time, her voice somber, "They're marching on Palmacosta. They claim that they're going to rid the world of the Imposters once and for all."
He didn't understand, "What do you mean?"
"Apparently, there's another Chosen. The people of Luin, and apparently other major cities, believe that he's the true Chosen and that anyone who believes in the other should die." Her blue eyes fell to the ground, something unspoken on her lips.
Zelos didn't have a second to contemplate what she wasn't saying. Instead, his mind froze solid. That was why he'd been sent to Sylvarant, that was why Yuan had been so adamant about him getting followers.
Those people were worshiping Zelos.
Yuan's ties to Cruxis, his connection to the Renegades… it all made sense. He'd wanted the Chosen of Sylvarant dead, but not only that-
A connection was made in his brain and a flash of anger washed through him.
"Damn him," he growled, causing both women to jump.
"What?" Sheena gave him an odd look, but he didn't bother with it. Instead, he turned on his heel, intent to find Yuan. He heard the women give chase. "Zelos, where are you going?"
How could he possibly answer that?
Well, the answer was obvious.
He was going to fucking kill Yuan.