Author's Note: This chapter turned out to be a little longer than I intended, but I think that's okay... I hope... anyhow, the next chapter will undoubtedly contain one of the biggest spoilers of the game. Actually, two of the biggest spoilers. So, if you haven't finished the game or anime yet, it's not for your eyes. Pretty soon, this fic will divulge from the actual plot... you'll see what I mean.
The state of Akzeriuth was far poorer than any of them could've imagined.
The miasma had managed to seep through the cracks in the earth beneath the town, filling the atmosphere with hazy purple. Countless people had grown ill because of the substance's presence, and were now either dead or struggling to stay alive. Those who were healthy were busy nursing the sickly, though amongst even these people, the hardened truth of death laid in their future. Evacuation was the proposed plan by both Duke Fabre and King Ingobert, but once the group had taken in the condition of the people of the tiny mining town, they were beginning to reconsider. It would be impossible to save everyone at this rate, with the suffering masses so greatly outweighing those able to assist in a relief effort. Akzeriuth truly was a sad sight: the picture of misery and lost hope.
Luke's party made their way down the steep, stair-like terraces carved into the rock walls of the town. The ground shifted beneath their feet, aftershocks from the most recent earthquake still causing frequent tremors – the red-headed ambassador almost fell twice on the descent downward. Still, it did not take them too long to reach the mine's center; here, there laid only a few buildings, most of them having been recently converted into makeshift medicine-houses. Those who were not assisting in the recovery process seemed to be talking in a small circle near one of the elevator shafts which led further down into the mines.
"This is simply awful… I never expected it to be this bad," Natalia whimpered, head turning from one depressing scene to the next. "And this purple gas… it this the miasma?"
"Yes," Tear answered, a sullen look accompanying the single word. "The miasma is deadly poison gas, produced by the planet's core."
"W-wait, poison gas?" Anise stuttered, glancing at the female mage beside her. "Does that mean we'll get sick too?" She looked down at her hands, knotting them together in sudden worry. Tear attempted to smile back at her, a failed attempt, but a reassuring gesture all the same.
"As long as we don't inhale a large amount over a long period of time, we'll be fine." Anise seemed a bit more confident after Tear's answer, and moved up alongside Guy to examine the buildings.
"We should talk to whoever's in charge," Natalia suggested. "If we get everyone on board with our plan, we should be able to evacuate the majority of citizens successfully."
"That's true, but what about those who no longer have the ability to walk?" Tear exchanged a nervous glance with the Kimlascan; she simply bit her lip and shook her head, refusing to allow such grim thoughts to cross her mind.
"We'll have to take extreme care with them, and have others who are able move them from the mines." The princess straightened, nodding once in affirmation of her own proposal, and then began to walk in the direction of the cluster of miners. One of them looked up, waving at the others as he left the group.
"You guys go on ahead; I'll catch up with you later. It looks like we've got some newcomers." The man was taller than Natalia, with a thick mustache and an even thicker accent. He was muscular, though it seemed as though the recent situation had drained much of his strength. And that wasn't too surprising, really. He carried with him a dull smile, tired eyes refusing to open more than half-way, despite the way he eagerly sauntered toward the group.
"Are you the one who's in charge?" she asked, pushing the quiver upon her back more firmly onto her shoulder.
"Yes, I am. My name's Daniel." The man smiled a bit wider, an attempt at a friendly greeting respite the crumbling world around him.
"Good to meet you, Daniel. I am Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, princess of Kimlasca. I am here on a mission to offer aid on behalf of my kingdom." Daniel's eyes widened slightly, and he suddenly looked quite uncomfortable. "And this," she continued, gesturing to Luke, "is Luke fon Fabre, heir to the throne of Baticul. He is our goodwill ambassador."
"I don't think she knows the meaning of the word 'discreet'," Anise whispered to Guy. The blonde sighed, but nodded, watching the scene play out before him.
"Uh, yeah, I'm Luke," the redhead confirmed. "And you don't need to speak for me, Natalia. I can manage on my own just fine." He crossed his arms, turning his chin up as he came to stand beside her, facing Daniel. The man was, by now, shaking where he stood. The colonel at the rear of the group frowned, stepping forward to offer the man a more suitable option than pointless trembling.
"If I may interrupt this remarkable display of communication?" Jade stepped casually between the two Kimlascans and the head miner, earning a death glare from one of them. "My name is Jade Curtiss, I'm from Malkuth." He offered a hand, almost forcing the shorter man to accept the shake. "We are here to offer aid. Might I ask where we may begin?"
"Well," the man began, calming himself ever so slightly, "you all should probably check into the old inn. There you'll find some bunks where you can rest. Afterwards, head down toward mine shaft fourteen. That's where the recent explosion occurred, and there are still men trapped down there." He paused in thoughts, glancing at Natalia and Luke. "Then again… it's pretty dangerous down there. Maybe, instead, you could-"
"Nothing of the sort. We'll rest briefly and then proceed into the mine. Thank you."
With that, the colonel released his grip on the miner's hand, and began to pace off steadily toward the inn. Lyra followed, suddenly appearing at the head of the group with the red-eyed man. Jade took note of her presence, but did not speak to her, and instead continued moving. The blonde looked tense, wanting to speak, but not doing so. They reached the door of the inn together, and, perhaps out of habit, Lyra reached forward to open it for the colonel. He chuckled, and she was uncertain about how to react, but ended up holding the door for everyone else as well. Lyra entered last, shaking her head as she did so.
It didn't take long for Natalia to let her opinion on the issue of Akzeriuth known. As soon as the door to the inn's sole room had been closed, she spoke. "So now that we've arrived, we have to formulate a plan for our rescue mission into the mines."
"Look, we're not even supposed to be here," Anise complained, glancing sidelong at Ion. "And though I still disagree with the Fon Master's decision to stop in and witness the state of Akzeriuth and all, now that we're here… I do feel like we should help. But I don't think that 'formulating a plan' will get us very far. I mean, we don't even know what condition the mines are in, or what's down there!"
"What Anise says is true," Jade agreed. "In this case, Natalia, it may be best to simply traverse through the mines and help all who we are able to."
"How exactly can we help people?" Luke asked. The others, including Mieu, all glanced at him with mild shock. Well, apart from Jade, that was.
Tear made her presence known, speaking up from where she sat upon one of the lower bunk beds. "We heal everyone we can. Those who aren't able to be healed by a mere use of the seventh fonon will have to be escorted out of the town, before we assist those we can heal, or those who can exit the city of their own volition."
One of the two attendants of the inn walked over to the brunette, offering their party a wide variety of supplies for their task of descending into the mines. Tear took her time deciding which items they'd really need, and which were better off remaining at the tiny inn, now being used as a resting facility for the sick. The woman left them with a smile, returning to her patients.
"Ugh, that is such a pain," Luke whined, folding arms across his chest. "Isn't Master Van supposed to be here? If we find him, then I can… I…"
"What is it, Luke?" Guy asked, cleaning the blade of his sword.
"Nothing, never mind." The redhead cleared his throat, gazing out the building's sole window.
"Still, it is unusual that we haven't seen Van. I doubt he'd of gone into the mines without us," Jade reasoned, shrugging as Luke glared at him.
"Master Van can do whatever he wants. He knows what he's doing." With that, Luke turned away, refusing to speak to the colonel or any other member of his rescue party.
"We should all get some rest," Ion piped, trying to diffuse the tension. "Once we've all had a few hours of sleep, we need to go to mine shaft fourteen and help those people who were caught in the explosion."
"He's right! C'mon everybody, let's-" Mieu was cut short by Luke promptly punting him across the room. Thankfully, he landed in Tear's lap, be it quivering in shock from the sudden blow.
"Luke!" she shouted.
"Tch. Just shut up already."
Whereas Lyra had once been at the rear of the group, she'd now taken the lead, along with Jade. They stepped briskly along the path, taking note of cracked walls and shattered stone, both knowing all too well the dangers of being caught in a cave-in. Natalia and Mieu glanced around curiously, having never been a in mine before; Luke, on the other hand, was staring miserably at the ground, hoping desperately for them to run into Van. Tear and Guy flanked the group, weapons drawn, as they'd already encountered a few nasty monsters that wanted them gone. Anise remained in the back with Ion, helping the young Fon Master through particularly rocky areas with a lending hand.
It had not been long since their entrance to the mine shaft when the group found themselves interrupted by a man in silver armor. He trotted toward them from the way they'd previously come, bearing a spear in one hand and a scroll in the other. The clanking of the chainmail drew everyone's attention, though did not warrant the ambassador's interest; Luke continued along the path once everyone else had stopped.
"Locrian Sergeant Tear Grants!" The man raised his arm in a salute, spear hitting the ground with a defined thump as he did so. Tear stepped forward, quirking a brow as she drew closer.
"Yes, that would be me. What is it that you want?"
"A message from Grand Maestro Mohs, regarding your current assignment." He thrust the paper into her hands, which the brunette accepted, eyes glazing over hastily scrawled words quite rapidly.
"I see. Is there no time, then?" Tear crossed her arms, suddenly giving the group a short, pitying glance.
"The Grant Maestro requests your presence at the site immediately." Another salute drew a sigh from the Locrian Sergeant.
"Alright." When the brunette turned back toward her companions, it was with a frown, her appearance being enough to draw Luke to a halt. He blinked at her, gesturing for her to explain. "I must leave you. I've received a message on urgent business from the Grand Maestro. I'll try to return as soon as I'm able."
"Understood," Ion responded, nodding once. "May Yulia protect you."
"Thank you, Fon Master." With those final words, Tear was sprinting back toward the entrance, the knight who'd contacted her at her heels.
"…who was that guy?" Luke inquired, an obviously delayed question.
"An oracle knight – one of the defenders of the Order of Lorelei," Anise answered, walking toward Luke with a largely confused expression. She buried tiny hands in the pockets of her tunic, frowning as she did so. "I don't understand what the Order would want with her at a time like this, though. Usually they'd be attacking us, so… what gives?"
"There is clearly a division in the Order of Lorelei, one that perhaps none of us understand just yet." Jade straightened his glasses, looking pensive as he led the group onward. Luke, perhaps the most confused of all of them, grumbled in complaint as their descent continued.
They passed countless examples of human suffering, people who'd paused for rest in their own journey toward the inner mines. These people were clearly in pain, clearly ill, and yet, they'd gone out of their way in an attempt to help those who were worse off than they. It was an admirable act, to say the least. Thankfully for Luke's party, no one in the group was too seriously affected by the miasma for the time being, so the journey to downward was a short one.
The sight at the bottom of mine shaft fourteen was far worse than anything they'd witnessed beforehand. There were at least forty people here, each of them lying down, or kneeling, or struggling to stand against the rocky walls. There was much coughing, much choking, and many ghastly displays of the miasma's fullest potential: people spitting blood, people bleeding from strange, burgundy blisters. Natalia seemed to go into rescue-mode instantly, quick to rush to the nearest individual and kneel beside them. Guy and Anise took Mieu and also departed to help those amongst the fallen; Luke, Jade, and Lyra stood at the entrance to the chamber, glancing from one person to the next in despair.
"What can I do here? H-how… how do I help?"
Luke's sudden question begged a strange look from both Lyra and the colonel, though he was uncertain of what he'd done to deserve it. Jade adjusted his glasses, pacing forward with Lyra just behind him. He turned to answer the redhead over his shoulder, looking more-or-less, quite solemn.
"You do whatever you can. You've healing supplies with you, yes? Use them."
And Luke simply stared down into his empty hands, as though trying to comprehend the military man's words. As red eyes disappeared from the teen's vision, he sank down against one of the chamber's rocky walls, until his gaze landed upon another passageway nestled between two strange looking machines. Quietly, as to avoid attracting attention from the two elders, Luke crouched, and began his investigation of the new pathway.
Jade, on the other hand, had by now found his way to one of the ill persons scattered about the room. He was a young man, with thin, black hair, and dull green eyes. The colonel laid a hand over his chest, feeling for the rate of breath, eyes scanning for abnormalities besides the lackluster features. What disturbed the man the most, however, were the strange blisters along the sick one's neck. They were a deep, reddish-purple, and seemed apt to begin oozing at any moment. He ran a gloved finger over one, and briefly, ever-so-briefly, allowed his scientist's persona a brief respite from its leash – let his mind wander…
I wonder what these blisters contain… perhaps the liquid form of the miasma, mixed with blood or pus? More likely blood, given their color. Still, the size of them concerns me… nearly as wide as my finger. If that much of the miasma has gathered inside of this individual, then his fate has been determined… therefore, there should be no harm in extracting just a bit of the liquid for research purposes, and-
"Colonel, what are you doing?"
Jade glanced up only to lose himself in the judgmental stare of his companion. For the single moment red locked with yellow, the colonel could feel a supreme lack of control, his mind suddenly reeling, remembering, gazing back upon a memory he'd hoped never to resurface…
"Colonel, what are you doing?"
"Hmm? Oh, it's you."
Jade stared blankly up at the teen, an off-color lack of amusement upon his face. Leon took a step back, awkwardly groping at the sheath of his sword; the colonel's smile flickered back into place, if only for a moment, as a due reaction.
"Yes, just me. You've spent a very long time out here, sir. It's about time to be heading back to camp, don't you think?"
"Oh, is it? I hadn't realized the time."
The Necromancer placed his tools back into his bag, stepping away from the body he'd been examining. It truly was a sad sight to watch all of the corpses go to waste, but Peony had been trying to wean him off of the experiments. Unfortunately, the emperor had found marginal success; Jade's urges had been under control for a while now, but…
"Colonel, is everything alright? You seem apprehensive."
"No, no. I'm sorry to have troubled you, Leon. We'll go back now."
"Sir… are you certain?"
The caring tone riddled within the other's voice was not something Jade was accustomed to. The blond's mouth hung open slightly, hazel eyes displaying obvious concern for his commander, but, why? 'Why?' thought Jade, 'when there are plenty of other, more important things to worry about? Why me?'
"Are you worried about me, Reyson?" Jade asked, not knowing what else to say.
"Well, of course, colonel. It's only natural for a chief to be concerned for his commander's well-being."
'Such honesty,' Jade thought, taking a step back. 'How can that be true? Is that really a custom?'
"Is that so?" Once more, Jade's voice carried with it the mild note of surprise. Never much, but there was some emotion imparted upon those words…
"Err… yes, sir." Leon smiled at him – a genuine smile – and this only further confused the colonel. Perhaps he could teach the man a few things… then again, perhaps there were a few things Jade could teach the chief as well.
"I've something to ask you," he began, taking a scalpel from the bag at his side.
"What is it, colonel?" the chief responded, nervously sidestepping upon finding the object in his commander's hand.
"Have you ever heard of… fomicry?"
"No sir, I haven't."
"Well… pay attention, Reyson, and maybe you'll learn a thing or two."
"Colonel?! Colonel, snap out of it!"
Lyra's more frantic voice was enough to rescue the man from his musings, her face suddenly much too close to his. Jade froze up, not knowing what to say or do, because there she was, with that same concern in her eyes, that same awe-stricken terror, and she was murmuring worriedly into his ear, trying to bring him back from his nightmarish thoughts, even though he was Colonel Jade Curtiss and why on earth are there rocks falling around us?!
Jade was momentarily thankful for the distraction of the rocks, though they soon became more bothersome than the female's hot breath at his ear. He pushed himself up, and Lyra backed away as to avoid touching him, which the colonel found odd considering the situation a mere moment ago, but still… there was no time to be concerned with such things now. There were flashes of light from the passageway just behind Lyra, and the colonel tensed upon feeling what could've been another earthquake starting beneath him.
Another female's voice: this time, Tear's.
"Colonel, it's the Vanguard! Van's here!"
"Van?" Jade asked, having only recently been recused from his thoughts. And then, not an instant later, there was the God-General, Asch. He drew out a thick steel blade, thrusting it through a monster which had gotten in his way, and then turned toward the colonel and his ex-chief.
"He's going to use that dreck to cause a hyperresonance! There's no time to explain; we have to get to the Sephiroth before he goes through with it!" And then Asch and Tear were sprinting away from him, leaving Jade with all too vivid an image of what was about to happen.
"Colonel…?" The blonde glanced from the passageway to him, and back again. "What's going on?"
"It doesn't matter, we need to stop Luke… come on!"
And then they began to run, together, toward the door leading into the Sephiroth. They passed the multi-colored remnants of Yulia's seal, and the colonel might've actually cursed, but that too would go unnoticed. And there, Jade noted, was where Ion had fallen – the others had probably started making their way down here as well. As their descent came to a sudden end, Jade felt his joints lock once more. For there, standing in the center of a glowing platform, was Luke, a ball of compressed fonons being shot from his hands and into the core of the planet storm…
"Colonel… what just happened?"
For some strange reason, Jade found himself unable to tell the ex-chief that they were both most likely going to die.
Most of you probably know what's about to go down. Yeah... I'm sorry if this contains any terrible typos or whatnot... it's too late to do much of a thorough edit, but I promised a chapter today, so here it is...