Belated Merry Christmas! Although I'm pretty sure it's still Christmas somewhere out there. Oh well. Final chapter!
The eleth shimmered around her in an agitated dance. The heat was unbearable, and the air eleth whipped around her so frantically she couldn't even hear her voice. And in its final moments, Gern- the shadow; the monster- turned his gaze upon her, a leering laughter in his red eyes before his form collapsed. A crashing wave plowed itself into her, sweeping her along with the tide. Sophie had only seconds to pull up a shield, but even then, she already realized that she was inevitably trapped; caught in the beginnings of an eleth explosion.
And then a bright purple light pierced the darkness. She saw a glimpse of Lambda's red eyes before he pulled her close, shielding her from the maelstrom around them. The sound of the howling eleth raged in her ears, and she felt the fire searing her skin, threatening to engulf her. Despite all her efforts, the eleth refused to listen to her, and instead, tore at her angrily. It felt as though the eleth that formed her body was pulling apart, wanting to escape into the wave of darkness around her. And in that moment, she wondered if the luck that had kept her alive over the span of the last couple of the days had finally ran out.
She had tried so hard, so long to keep her feelings at bay. But now, facing inescapable death, she felt a welling of emotions. They had fought so hard, and they had won- both Brind and Gern were gone, but victory was bittersweet. And even though she knew that her friends would be safe, that no longer would Windor face a war, that the world would no longer have to fear being destroyed by a power-crazed monster, none of those thoughts proved any comfort.
She wished she had more time. She had wanted to watch Asbel and Cheria grow old, to see Alton succeed as Lord of Lhant. She wanted to travel the world with Pascal and Hubert on board the flying ship, to spend lazy Barona days with Richard, to sit by a fireplace listening to Malik's tales. She wanted to chase the sopherias' blossomgales, to run across Ephinea's wide, green fields. She had wanted to spend one more day on Lhant Hill, with Lambda's hands interlaced with hers. She had wanted all of these things, but none of that would ever come to pass now. And instead of fear, the feeling that enveloped her was one of deep regret.
If there was any consolation, she thought, at least they were together at the end. Lambda's arms felt tight around her, and she could hear the beat of his body's heart. It soothed any fear she held, as if the sound gave her something to hold on to; something to remind herself of the better days that they had lost. But soon, she couldn't hear it above the raging storm, and suddenly she found herself utterly lost- and utterly alone.
The whirlwind of eleth soon grew deafeningly loud, buffetting her with such force that she couldn't feel her limbs. She tried to scream, to drown out the roar, but the sound was lost in the winds. The howling storm and searing pain seemed to go on for an eternity, and the only thing she wished for then was for everything to just stop.
And just like that, it did.
It took some time for the ringing in her ears to stop, and for her to register that the only sound she heard was her own breath. Gone was the solid thud of Lambda's heart, and no longer could she feel his arms around her. A heavy silence had descended upon the battlefield, even though the air still sung with power. But she didn't move, didn't open her eyes; afraid that, if she did, the horrendous howling would start up once again.
But instead of the wind or a scream, the only sound in the interminable silence was a single, rasping instruction.
"Run, Protos Heis."
Her eyes flew open at the familiar voice, only to be greeted by complete and utter darkness. An expanse of black lay stretched out before her, completely still, completely silent. If she focused her senses, she could see the eleth suspended in the air, as if frozen in time. There was no sense of space or colour, no semblance of light or sound. It was as if she had found herself trapped in complete oblivion.
It was his voice she heard; she was sure of it. Yet there was no sign of him anywhere about the darkness, even though he had been right next to her when the explosion occured. When she tried to sense his presence, she found herself bewildered- he was everywhere around her, and yet, nowhere at all.
"Run," the voice insisted. In front of her eyes, a glow of purple formed out of the darkness. It was an indescript orb with waves rolling off its core, pulsing with pure eleth; pure power. Anyone else would have thought that this was what she should have been running from, but the moment she laid eyes on it, she knew.
"Lambda," she whispered.
Her body ached as she got to her feet. Her clothes were torn and tattered, her skin laced with burns and cuts. Her legs wanted nothing more than to give up and collapse, and it felt as though her limbs were nothing more than heavy weights, dragging her down. Her heart and mind were exhausted, but she forced herself to move. She was confused, exhausted and injured, but when she saw him, the only light in the darkness, she wanted nothing more than to stand beside him. Maybe then, everything would be okay.
"Stop." The eleth waves pulsed strongly, pushing her away, even though his voice was a stark monotone. "You must leave. I cannot hold off the explosion forever."
The stillness in his voice harmonized with the darkness all around them- empty, devoid of emotion. Something caught in her throat as she paused in mid-step, and she felt a pang of fear. She knew that voice well enough now; and every time he used it, he had been trying to hide from her- push her away. But just as frightening were the words he said.
At first, she hadn't been sure where they had ended up, or whether they were even alive. Now she realized that the eleth around her were arrayed in a pattern that looked as if they were highly agitated- the way they would look at the start of an explosion. The threat hadn't ended- it had merely been paused, frozen in time by a singular command. The will that could control the eleth in such a manner was something that went beyond anything she could achieve; yet somehow, Lambda had done it.
"Please. Protos Heis."
There was a quaver of emotion in his voice as he said her name, so minute that she almost didn't hear it. But in it, she could sense his sorrow, his pain- and beneath that, his fear. In that instant, Sophie came to an awful realization.
"You're not coming." Her voice felt heavy when she spoke, a fist clenched tightly around her heart.
The orb's light seemed to dim at that, and Sophie had an impression that he was trying to hide himself even further from her gaze. Then, softly, with the most amount of emotion she had heard from that voice since she had awoken in the pitch darkness, he whispered, "I cannot."
"What... what do you mean?"
The orb hesitated, the waves it was emanating folding in on itself, shrinking away. His voice, echoing from all directions yet none at all, asked brusquely, "You can tell, can you not?"
Her throat felt dry as the realization dawned upon her. She had sensed it, but she hadn't thought it possible; didn't want to acknowledge it. The reason why she felt his eleth all around her was precisely because that was where he was- in the eleth that comprised of the darkness, the explosion. That alone was explanation enough- in order to prevent the eleth storm from destroying them both, he had fused his will to the particles around him to force the storm to stop. But she could tell, too, that it was only temporary- he barely had the strength to hold the flow of power as it was. Once it gave way, he would not have the strength to escape.
"Oh Lambda," she whispered in dismay. "What have you done?"
It was as if a curtain had lifted- and now she could feel his grief pulsing all around her, his thoughts echoing distantly. It felt as if their minds were touching, just like they did when she spoke to him on Fodra, the night before they entered the planet's core. What startled her was how fragile his mind seemed, how it was being held together by the barest of threads. But just like she could feel his sadness, she could sense his determination- this was a choice he made willingly, knowing the full weight of the consequences.
He did not respond, but he didn't need to. It was ironic- back then, she had thought it impossible to understand Lambda's motivations. However, once they became friends, it was never hard to discern his thoughts and his feelings. If it weren't for the doubts she held, Sophie realized, she would have seen him for all he was: afraid, and yet, trying to protect the people he cared for from himself. Now, she didn't need to touch his mind to know what lay beyond his facade; didn't need to guess the reason why he went to such extreme measures.
He was giving her a chance to escape with her life- to return to her family, her friends, her world. The only price for that was himself- a price he would gladly pay.
"Leave." His voice sounded so distant, so emotionless, even though she knew his heart was anything but.
"I will not." The words flew out of her mouth without thinking, before she could stop them. Even though she knew her death would render his sacrifice pointless, she could not bring herself to turn away; could not force her heart to abandon the man she loved, not like this. She wished she had more time to tell him everything, but now, it seemed that this was all they would have.
A shudder ran through the air, and briefly, Sophie could feel the heat of the explosion ghosting her skin.
"Stop." Sophie squeezed her eyes shut. "Stop it. That's not my name." If this was the last conversation they would ever have, she didn't want to hear that name on his lips- the name that Emeraude used; that the Fodran researchers used; that he had used, when they were nothing more than enemies. It was a name that reminded her all the more of the distance between them, of how he was out of her reach. And the last thing she wanted was for him to die, thinking that she hated him.
There was a small pause, and then the eleth rippled again. "There is no more time." Then, the darkness whispered, "If you do not leave, you will die."
"I will not leave you," she shot back fiercely.
There was a pause, as if he was watching her for a moment. And then suddenly the dull violet of his light changed into a brilliant, blood-red sheen. Suddenly, it was as if something had snapped within the sentience, and she was assaulted by such rage; such hate- his hate. The hate he bore for a thousand years towards her, a hate that hadn't dimmed, hadn't faded-
"And why not?" His voice was harsh, like thunderclap in her ears. "Would not the world be at peace without if people could not vie for my power? Would Protos Heis not rest easy, knowing that she need not sacrifice her life if I turn against her; knowing that her eternal foe is dead, that I would no longer threaten the peace she treasures?"
Sophie flinched at the words.
"Stop it, Lambda," she said, her voice barely audible over the increasing sound of the eleth around them.
"Why?" he asked. "Haven't you entertained such thoughts? Didn't you once believe that your world would be safe once I was gone?"
"I was afraid!" She protested, trying to force the words out of her mouth. "I said things- I-"
"Were they not true?" His voice was a deathly whisper then. "I am nothing more than what you see, Protos Heis. I am not human. I am a threat. Is that not why you attacked me?"
Visions of burning villages, of people screaming, of Richard, of the dead Lhant men filled her mind's eye- Lambda's doing.
She choked at the sight. "You killed-"
"Yes," he exulted. "I kill. I lie. It is what I've done for a thousand years; what I will continue to do for eternity to come."
"That's not true! You're not-"
"I told you once. The Lambda you thought you knew never existed."
"No," she said then. "The Lambda I knew is exactly who you are."
"You do not know me!" There was a strike of eleth across her arm. For a brief moment, the furious anger around the orb wavered, and he seemed to withdraw, as if in shock.
And as she lifted her eyes to watch the glowing orb, as she felt him tremble with the realization that he had hurt her again, she knew. Beyond the anger, she could sense the horrendous pain that he was trying his best to keep hidden. All at once, it was too clear what he was trying to do- if she hated him; found him unworthy of being saved, perhaps she would leave. Perhaps, if he played the monster one last time, if he let himself die as the villain she always fought against, she would be safe.
Sophie knew then what she had to do.
"The Lambda I knew loved his children." She seized her chance, forcing a step forward despite the pain. "He loved the people around him. He loved the feel of the rain and the smell of the sopherias in bloom."
"Mere delusions!" he cried.
"The Lambda I knew spared my life and risked everything to save Alton," she continued. She pressed a hand against her chest, where her heart felt like it was being pierced by a dozen arrows. "The Lambda I knew- he was angry, but he was also kind and gentle. And he was always so scared- so scared of hurting the ones he loved."
"'Love'?" he roared furiously. "The very concept is foreign to me. I never cared. I played you, Protos Heis, for my own freedom and survival!"
"Is that what you believe?"
There was a pause in his tirade as she lifted her eyes to meet the sentience. It stung to listen to those words, even if she believed them to be false. He spoke without hesitation, and she had to remind herself that Lambda was an accomplished liar and actor- that he would do anything to achieve his goals; anything to make sure she left him to die. And despite what she told herself, it felt like her heart was being crushed by an anvil.
Yet, in his desperation, he had slipped up.
He didn't seem aware of it. "Yes," he snarled. "You- you are nothing to me."
Quietly, she whispered, "Then why are you trying to save me now?"
She could see him freeze, could hear his thoughts choke. The anger he held dissipated in an instant; the illusion he had conjured vanishing, pierced by an question his face could not answer. He was desperately trying to cling to the anger, trying to put up the mask of the monster- but he was also crying. She could sense his pain, how the words he forced out hurt him just as much as it hurt her. How he knew he had failed, and that she would inevitably pay the cost of his failure.
"You promised." She was trembling, trying her best to hold her tears at bay, even though her throat was raw from yelling. "You promised you'd stay."
"I promised many things." There was no way she could mistake the regret in his voice, despite how hard he tried to hide it, nor the loneliness that rolled off him. "But none of them are worth the cost of your life."
Hearing him say those words shattered any doubts she had. How could she live with herself, knowing that she turned her back on him now? How could she smile, knowing that he had exchanged his life for hers? She wanted to live- and once, she had thought that was only possible with him gone. Now though, those thoughts was secondary- because a life without him suddenly seemed far bleaker than a life where she survived alone. She came to Castle Brind to bring him home, and even now, even with the odds hopelessly stacked against them, she knew she had to try.
The violet-haired girl pushed against the remaining eleth that held her away. It was like struggling through mud, forcing against a weight twice that of her body. But he was so close, and if she just reached out her arm, she could almost touch him. The warmth of his soul radiated out from the darkness like a flickering candle, about to be snuffed out by the harsh wind. She redoubled her efforts- she had to get to him before it was too late.
"Why?" He sounded astonished, desperate; a crack in his facade. "After everything I said- why-"
"You told me you wanted to live!"
I do, his thoughts screamed around her, even as he continued to force her away. Yet the barrier was much weaker than before, and she could feel him wavering.
Outwardly, he snarled at her attempt, every inch the evil creature; the monster. But his voice no longer sparked images of the tall shadow with crimson eyes- only that of her long-lost friend, and a ghostly silhouette in a flower meadow.
"I am doomed. You cannot save me."
"I can try!"
"This isn't something that you can simply fight!" His voice was dark, threatening. Lambda pressed his will against hers, and despite how fractured his mind was, he still had strength enough to halt her tracks. "Even if I tried to escape, my mind cannot hold this much power. It will shatter if I tried to absorb it- what makes you think you will fare any better?"
The wind began to whip up around her once more, and she could feel Lambda's mind shaking at the weight of his burden.
"I don't." It took all her effort to say those two, simple words. "But I have to try." She was only a few feet away from the glowing light of the sentience, and the force against her was intense. She could sense his frantic fear as he struggled to get away, even though he was entrenched in keeping the world around them stable. Despite the power she felt, thrumming all around her, in her mind's eye, she could only see Lambda as he had been- a boy lost in the flower field; a person so alone that he feared harming the ones he loved. He had taken her hand then, but now, he was pushing her away with all his might, trying to save the one thing most important to him.
"You must not!" He roared, and his feelings swept over her like a wild wave- a heart-wrenching mix of emotions infused with sadness."Leave! There... there remains no purpose for you to stay! And I- I cannot bear-"
Another shudder ran through the world, far greater than the last, and Sophie could only watch as the fracture split open. Lambda screamed in agony, the glow of his light flashing madly bright before dimming, dropping with a dull thud to the crystalline floor. Light started pouring in, the eleth around them freeing themselves from his control. The wind began to pick up, and she could feel the fire licking at her feet.
But through it all, the only thing that mattered was the sentience that had collapsed in front of her.
"Lambda!" The eleth that held her at bay disappeared as he dropped, and she was taken over by a terrible dread. Without care to her wounds, she ran towards him, picking him up in her arms before his form faded. Eleth sang at her touch, and she could feel his thoughts- disorganized, rampant with emotions, too weak to sense anything but her. Any attempt at appearing as her foe had vanished, and all she could feel was an overwhelming regret.
If he had a human form, he would have been smiling then, his eyes half-closed as he breathed his last gasps.
"Ah," he said then, to himself rather than her. "So this is what... I felt... all those years ago."
A brief sensation passed through their bond- of a bright warmth that drove away the dark, a feeling he was once completely unfamiliar with. When he first felt it, an age ago, it scared him; confused him. But now it brought a bittersweet happiness, a reminder of all the things he had unwittingly thrown away.
Hearing her name, whispered on a breath, brought a fresh burst of tears. She couldn't find the words to say, and instead held him helplessly in her hands. Weakly, she felt something touch her face; and pulsing all around her, she felt his regret.
"You see?" he whispered. "All I do... is hurt you."
"No." She shook her head. "You brought me great happiness."
"I?" Perhaps he was too weak to understand the true meaning of her words, but there was a small burst of joy in his heart. He treasured it; this feeling that was to be his last before he died. "Please. Leave now. While I still have the strength."
"I won't," she said fiercely.
"You cannot protect me," he told her softly. "And very soon, I... will be unable to protect you."
"Then we'll protect each other," she told him. "Together."
"'Together'?" There was a stunned awe in his voice as he considered her proposal.
With a weak smile, Sophie pulled him close. She could sense his thoughts and his mind, could sense his heart beating next to hers.
There was a spike of fear. Despite everything that she said, he still remained afraid. What she proposed required their minds to work as one. Yet, it would let her see him for all he was- the monster, the killer. If she faltered, their minds would get swept up in the mass of the storm and they would cease to exist. He couldn't allow that- not while he could still persuade her to leave-
"Trust me, Lambda."
She met his fear with her own resolve, opening her thoughts to him. No secrets, no fear- only acceptance of who he was, in all his entirety. The good, the bad, and everything in between. It was an extended hand, telling him to not be afraid; to finally stop walking alone. Because she needed him by her side, to weather the eternity of loneliness and sadness. She didn't want to be Protos Heis, the hero who didn't feel. She wanted to be Sophie, the person capable of laughing, of living, and there was nobody more suited to remind her of that than he.
"Alright." It was a whisper in her thoughts, a reverence of what she had told him. There was the touch of his mind, lighter now with a mix of relief and a strange joy that finally wore away at the pain in his heart.
They let the eleth roll on over them, a storm of brightness and light that devoured their consciousness. But he was there, holding her hand, their minds supporting each other as he absorbed the brunt of the storm. She could feel his mind trembling under the weight of the burden, weakened from his trauma. She held him tight, pouring her strength to support his, and forced all her will into slowing the flow around them. The explosion was far greater than anything she had ever experienced, but she felt no fear, standing by his side. It tossed them around, tried to pierce the gap between their minds, but they never faltered, never wavered.
There was pain, but after a while the very idea of a physical sensation felt foreign to her. An eternity of pure brightness stretched out before her, cold and piercing, trying to drag her into oblivion. But through it all, she felt his presence anchoring her, telling her not to go. A warm feeling of complete peace enveloped her, shielding her from the forces around them.
It was a strange feeling- to sense his mind, linked with hers. It was something deeper than simply sharing a mind with someone else like he did with Asbel and Richard- in those cases, their thoughts were separate. She could see Lambda's memories, hear his thoughts and feelings. It washed over her, images that were not quite whole thanks to his shattered mind. Yet, she could still sense his pain from the Fodran experiments, the unimaginable suffering when Emeraude tried to kill him. She felt Cornell's death through his eyes, felt his fear as he beheld her for the first time. She felt an age of hatred and anger, where the people he possessed taught him to be cruel and manipulative to get what he wanted, where he felt utterly alone.
And then, too, she felt the budding hope and surprise when he spoke to Asbel, his growing protectiveness for the small band of humans that had spared him instead of dragging him down with hate. She felt his fear for her still, tempered with time, but beyond that, a mild curiosity and respect. And then after so long, as he stood at the precipice of Fodra's core, she felt his joy at keeping the people he had grown affectionate for safe, even her.
The last seven years were a whir of emotions, far greater than he had ever experienced. He had wanted to live- and now, he knew that he had. Nothing could replace the joy he felt as he watched a baby Alton, swaddled in cloth, touch his hand. Nothing could stem the feeling of peace he felt as he watched her tend to her sopherias, the surge of happiness when he knew she was safe. But just as there was light, there was darkness- pain from watching the people he had grown close to threatened by the shadow of his past; the doubts of his own being, his own faults.
She had kept that at bay, and he didn't want to lose that. In his misguided attempt to protect them, he had only ended up hurting everyone he loved so much more. And there was such hurt from that, such guilt. He now realized all he was trying to do was to protect himself, because he didn't want her to look upon him with such fear as she did once.
An image of a woman in green, vaguely familiar, sparked in his mind. Sophie could feel the tears rolling down his cheeks as he watched Fodra- his mother- disappear, as the full weight of who he was finally sank into him. And so he fought Gern, knowing he might not be able to leave, knowing that he might very well die. She felt his acceptance- that it didn't matter to him whether he was hated or feared; alive or dead- as long as everyone he loved remained safe. Even if it was without him.
And in the midst of the eleth storm, she wrapped her consciousness around him and told him that it was alright; that she knew him for who he was. That light and dark, he was still her Lambda.
He didn't shirk from her words. If anything, the last remaining walls that he held seemed to fall apart at her touch, and slowly, his weakened mind pulled back together under her gentle guidance.
The eleth around them seemed to swirl in a gentle waltz, like leaves floating in a calm summer day. With him by her side, Sophie had never felt stronger, never felt more determined to finish a task. They had always seemed to know one another in a way that nobody else could- and she knew then that no matter what, she would treasure Lambda's presence in her life for all it was- because there would be nobody else that could stand beside her the way he did. He was her opposite, but that wasn't necessarily bad- if anything, it gave her heart, her love, all the more vigour.
Love. She could feel him tasting the word on his lips.
Yes, she told him then, in the midst of the fire and light.
He paused, surprised, as he slowly turned the word over in his head. Her feelings and thoughts were an open book to him- and she could feel the awe he felt as he realized all that it meant. The feeling was something precious and beautiful, something he didn't think someone like him would ever have- that he couldn't believe Sophie would entrust him, after he almost ruined whatever friendship they had. But she did, and he wanted nothing more than to protect it- this fragile thought, this empowering warmth. Yet, he hesitated. Just like it was warmth, so too was it was vulnerability- to trust another person, to admit that he was afraid.
It's okay, Sophie told him. I'm afraid too.
You don't have to be. He held her then, warm and safe; reassuring. And softly, tenderly, he whispered, Thank you.
And in the eternal brightness, she could feel his genuine happiness.
She didn't know how long they stood there, their consciousnesses intertwined. But slowly, the storm seemed to fade. When the scorched stones of Castle Brind finally reappeared from the blankness of oblivion that had been the explosion, Sophie found herself bewildered. If not for the stinging cuts and burns and the ache in her legs, she would have assumed that she had woken from a very strange dream.
But there was a gentle pressure on her hand, and when she turned to look, she found herself meeting the soft gaze of a pair of crimson red eyes, framed by soft teal hair. He looked no worse for the wear, hale and whole, his white robes fluttering gently around him as a gentle breeze blew through the room from the broken windows. For a moment, the lack of his presence in her thoughts startled her, but then he smiled.
"We did it," he said, his familiar, low voice sounding like music to her ears.
"Yes." She smiled, restraining the urge to throw her arms around him.
"Thank you, Sophie," he murmured. There was a look of genuine joy in his eyes. "If you hadn't-"
The violet-haired girl shook her head and gave his hand a squeeze. "You risked your life for me. I couldn't let you one-up me."
He laughed then, his voice echoing through the empty chamber.
It was the best sound she had heard in a long, long time.
Scarcely had a few minutes passed when Lambda heard the sound of multiple footsteps approaching through a corridor. He didn't need to turn to tell who it was- his strength restored, he could easily sense every speck of life around him for miles around- but he did so anyway. He could never mistake the pulse of Asbel's eleth, a feeling he always associated with security and acceptance; happiness. Yet, as he met the redhead's eyes, he felt that happiness dim a little.
The last time he had actually spoken to Asbel, it had been a quick exchange in the corridors of Castle Windor before the lord was ushered away by prison guards. Back then, he had been horrified by the cost the lord paid for his safety, only just realized the trouble he had wrought. Now, he felt glad, knowing that the redhead was safe, but at the same time, he was unable to hold Asbel's gaze.
Even if Asbel had never asked him specifically to watch out for Lhant, the responsibility of what had occured still lay with him. There was nobody else to blame- Gern and Olbrick were both dead, after all. And it was his actions that had made Asbel unable to do anything to protect his own people; his actions that had killed those people to begin with. Lambda felt as though he had failed the lord- not only as an ally, but as a friend.
It wasn't just Asbel. The sentience could feel the others peering at him with a mix of nervousness and worry. Lambda wondered if they still saw him as a friend rather than a threat. After all, he had no contact with them since the attack on Lhant, and while they were quick to cover his back during the battle with Gern, he knew things couldn't go back to the way they once were.
But he wasn't alone. Sophie's hand still held his gently, a constant reminder of the very reason why he had almost lost them all to begin with. He couldn't hide behind his facade of strength forever- and especially not in front of his friends.
"Gern is dead," he stated. It was a safe enough opener- at least to explain what had occurred within the room. "He was destroyed by all the eleth he absorbed."
"And you?" Lambda made note of the quietness in Asbel's voice, the wariness in the blue eyes that had once watched him with unguarded ease. His hand stayed close to his sword, but he did not draw it. Yet, the sentience couldn't fault him for his actions; couldn't blame the redhead for being angry or feel betrayed after what had happened.
The sentience hesitated. He was fine- more than fine, even- but there was so much unsaid in that question. He wasn't sure what the correct response was, or whether it even existed.
Sophie, however, held no such qualms. "Lambda saved us," she said adamantly, stepping protectively in front of him. "There was almost an eleth explosion and he," she paused then, glancing over to him, "stopped it."
"You stopped an eleth explosion?" Richard asked, curiosity and disbelief in his voice. Of course the king would know that there was more to the story than that- he knew Lambda's limitations and powers better than anybody.
"Not alone," he murmured in reply. He felt his gaze drawn to Sophie's. In her gentle, expectant smile, he found the strength to finally look at his friends. "I know it is a small matter compared to my sins, but I did what was necessary to ensure Sophie and Alton's safety."
"There are a lot of families in Lhant calling for your blood now," Malik murmured then. The older man stood behind his pupil, arms folded across his chest.
"I expected as such," Lambda admitted. "I know... that I would no longer be welcome in Lhant. Perhaps even all of Windor."
"The price of your actions should be more severe than simple banishment." This time it was Hubert who spoke. Asbel's younger brother had always been much more strict and unrelenting than his sibling when it came to punishment, but there was no disguising the sadness in his voice. "It would not do for an accomplished murderer to simply walk free once more."
"Wait," Sophie protested. "You can't mean-"
"No. He speaks true." Lambda pulled the girl back. He could see the fear in her eyes- how she didn't want to lose him again. Instinctively, he pulled her close, trying for a moment, at least, to protect her from their imminent separation.
"You were co-erced!" she cried. "They forced you to-"
"Yet it was my hand that killed so many, not theirs," he said gently. "Do not be sad, Sophie."
"You were the one who stopped Gern and Olbrick," she retorted. "You stopped Windor from falling into a civil war-"
"A war I caused in the first place." Her protests stopped at that, even though he could see the desperation in her eyes. Gently, he pressed a kiss onto her forehead, and before she could stop him, he turned to face his friends once more.
"The nova monsters, Alton and Pascal." The sentience glanced at Asbel. "They are safe?"
"Yes," came the lord's curt reply. He held Lambda's stare. The redhead was not a good liar, and even as wary as he currently was, Lambda knew he spoke the truth.
He smiled then, thankful. "Good."
"You know that the nobles of Windor call for your capture?" Richard's question drew his attention. He found the king standing a distance away, his eyes shrewd. "They seek to experiment on you, to understand- and perhaps duplicate- your abilities."
"It will take them a millenia," Lambda replied.
"If I did not know better," the sentience murmured, "it seems you seek to dissuade me from this."
The king looked away, flustered. "I would not want to see my old friend put through such suffering again."
Lambda felt touched. Once, sensing such weakness, he would have pounced and took his chance to flee. Now, however, he forced himself not to back away. "Is it not a sovereign's duty to put his people's concerns over those of his friend's?"
Meeting his gaze, Richard was speechless. Lambda didn't need to be bonded with the king to understand his feelings- relief, and gratefulness. Quietly, the blond stepped up to him.
"Once, I called you selfless." The king's green eyes were inscrutible, yet piercing. This was no longer the child he had saved more than a decade ago- now he was the man who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders, who had to put aside his own personal feelings in order to do what was right.
"You were wrong." Lambda lowered his gaze. "It was my selfishness that brought such ruin to your country."
"But it was your selflessness that saved it. And I will do my best to ensure that no harm comes to you."
The sentience was stunned by the gentility in Richard's voice. The king gave him a small smile, and somehow, Lambda knew that, at least on a personal level, he was forgiven.
He felt relief wash over him. Even though he told himself that it wouldn't matter, that he would face the consequences for his actions, he was glad. Because despite his transgressions, despite everything he had done, at least he hadn't lost this precious friendship.
"I only wish," the king said sadly, "that there was another way."
"What if there was?" Asbel walked up to them, his eyes solemn. Unlike Richard, Lambda could feel the hesitation and worry that clung to the redhead. After all, this would be the second time that Lambda had caused him to feel the pain of betrayal- and while he might have been forgiving of the first, the second instance exacted a much heavier toll on him.
"What do you mean, Asbel?" Richard asked, surprised by the tone of the normally easy-going noble.
"What if... Lambda died?" The redhead fixed the sentience with a look. For a moment, Lambda wondered if he had somehow managed to push Asbel over the edge; if somehow he would be to blame for yet another soul tainted with darkness. Yet, he sensed no malice in the lord's words, nor any ill-intent. Only sadness. Deep, unrelenting sadness.
And he understood.
"Asbel?" Hubert seemed caught off-guard by his brother's sudden call for blood.
A quick glance showed Sophie moving to intercept, to protect him from her own father if the need called for it- but she stopped her approach when Lambda shook his head. The sentience managed a thin smile as he met the redhead's gaze.
"You wish to fake my death."
The redhead nodded. "It isn't right. You being treated like a test subject won't bring back the dead." He looked away then. "And I remember... what happened on Fodra. I know you're not as strong as you look."
Lambda looked away. It was true- deep down, he was terrified. Of being a thing, of being something to be used and thrown away. He would survive, he told himself, and it would be for the better. He would hold on to the memories of the good times, of Sophie, and hopefully it would be enough to while away the darkness, but even then he feared losing even that. It seemed that Asbel still knew him well enough to know how his past experiences still haunted him.
"And how would letting him go free serve the world any better?" Hubert asked incredulously.
"It would." Asbel let out a deep sigh, as if he had been turning the idea seriously over in his head. Finally, he turned to face his brother. "There are still eleth shortages around the world, and bands of marauding nova monsters still lurking in Strahta and Fendel. Lambda's abilities would serve more practical use on the field, rather than having researchers waste time trying to glean anything from him."
"It would take a thousand years," Richard supplied helpfully.
Hubert's gaze flicked over to Malik's, and it seemed that the two had come to some sort of conclusion. Looking at their skeptical glances, however, Lambda felt his heart sink.
"And you would send him out alone?" Malik arched an eyebrow. "Without supervision?"
"No, I..." Asbel hesitated, his gaze flicking over to Lambda's. He seemed to want to say something, but stopped himself at the last minute, glancing away.
"Even now, you still trust him." Hubert smiled wryly.
Asbel didn't respond, but it was all the acknowledgement the sentience needed.
"Nobody... can control Lambda," the lord said sharply then, his hand slicing through the air in a single motion.
His brother watched them calmly. "But after everything that has occurred, it would not be prudent to simply assume that Lambda will not endanger others again."
Nobody spoke. The sentience lowered his gaze, shifting slightly beneath the scrutiny of those gathered. Habits, he had learned, were a hard thing to break. Hubert's words, while harsh, were completely understandable, even to him. How could anyone journey with him in safety, given what he was capable of?
"Then I'll go."
All eyes turned to Sophie when she spoke up. Swiftly, she crossed the distance between them in seconds, protectively standing in between her gathered family and Lambda.
"Sophie-" Lambda began to protest, but the look in her eye stopped him.
"I'm the best choice," she said, facing her adopted father. Asbel's once stoic face was now twisted in surprise. "I know him- combat and otherwise- better than anyone. I can protect him and everyone else."
"Sophie," Asbel began. "I know your feelings, but you can't do this."
"And why not?" she cried incredulously. "Asbel- I have to do this. Because of my feelings."
Because she loved him.
"This isn't right," Lambda protested, resting a hand on her shoulder. "I cannot ask you to throw away everything for me."
"I'm not," the purple-haired girl lowered her head then. "I'll still protect Lhant. I'll still love Asbel and Cheria and everyone else, but I... I want to protect a future where you're here."
When Lambda looked, Asbel's eyes had softened. He could only imagine what the lord was going through- he had always been protective of the girl, even though it seemed that she could protect him more than the other way around. Yet, Asbel knew the pain of not being able to keep the ones he cared about safe, and the redhead was kind enough that he would never willingly inflict such pain on another.
"You realize what this means," Hubert said gently then, when Asbel said no more. "There's no point for someone who's alive to watch over someone who's already dead."
"I died in the explosion," Sophie caught on. "Along with Lambda."
Her adopted uncle nodded.
Quietly, Asbel asked, "Is there no way for me to change your mind?"
The girl shook her head. "Tell Cheria," she spoke haltingly, as if trying to hold back her emotions. Lambda slipped his hand over hers then, lending her the support she needed. She met his eyes and took in a deep breath before continuing. "Tell Cheria I love her. Tell Alton, and Kerri, and Frederic and everyone!"
A moment of silence passed between them. Lambda wondered what thoughts ran through Asbel's head- his face was emotionless, but the man he knew was anything but. If he had to hazard a guess, Asbel would be conflicted from everything that ran through his head- should he let Sophie go with the murderer or his people; his once-friend? Could he still trust Lambda? Would he even care?
They both knew it, of course- Asbel couldn't cut off their relationship as much as he could his own hand. After those seven years, Asbel had been the closest thing Lambda had to a paternal figure, and in a way, he had always treated him like a son. Even now, despite all Lambda had wrought, the lord still watched him with a fatherly look- albeit one tainted with the sorrow of realization and helplessness. It must have hurt, to look upon the dead of Lhant and realize it was Lambda's doing; to realize that even now, regardless of his choice, he would be unable to protect his wayward son.
A lesser man would have cast Lambda out, let him be torn to shreds by the scientists in their experiments. But Asbel was not that man. And once again, as he saw the decision in those blue eyes, Lambda could only admire the lord's bravery and strength.
"Take care of each other." He relented; releasing his clenched fists and letting his arms fall limp to his side. "I don't want to see either of you hurt again."
"You have my word," Lambda rumbled.
"We'll be fine," Sophie said. She pressed a kiss onto Asbel's cheek before giving him a weak smile, but even that seemed to do little to lighten the swordsman's mood.
"This isn't goodbye," Richard told them with a forced smile. "We'll keep in touch."
"Just try not to draw too much attention to yourselves," Malik reminded them. "Everyone will be on high alert after everything."
Lambda nodded. He watched as the two men walked away, seemingly satisfied by how things had turned out. He tried to fix their images into his memory- after all, this would be the last time he would see them for quite a while, and he didn't want it to be marred by the passage of time.
As Hubert turned to leave, he spared a glance in Lambda's direction. "Drop by Strahta when you're able. Pascal would be more than happy than to give you a spare body."
"Thank you," he responded. He had lost his previous shell in the explosion, but he hadn't expected Hubert- of all people- to offer such a thing. Yet, the blue-haired man simply flashed him a smirk before following the king and the ex-knight in their exit.
Which left only Asbel. The man was now watching them with a pained look in his eyes. Lambda couldn't imagine a life without this man's presence infringing constantly into his, where his guidance and kindness first showed him something beyond the darkness.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Asbel pre-empted him, saying, "If you're going to apologize, don't."
"Asbel?" Sophie looked up at him in consternation. It was the most un-Asbel-like thing either of them had heard him say.
"Thirty-two men died that night," he said. "More than twice that number were injured. Alton... seems traumatized by what happened. I can understand your actions, Lambda, but I can't forgive you. Not now. Maybe not ever."
He met the redhead's blue gaze, and held it. He could see the sorrow it took to prompt such words, and the sorrow caused by it. And through it all, Asbel never turned away from him. Quietly, he said, "I understand."
Asbel nodded. "There is... something else."
The redhead produced something from the folds of his cloak- a manuscript. It was a thin book, bound with leather. To Lambda's keen eye, it looked as if it were recently transcribed. "We found this when we entered the castle," the lord said.
Understanding dawned on him. "Surely you can't mean-"
The older man nodded. "Take it. I understand... something about distant fathers."
Lambda's throat felt dry as he took the book. In between those pages were the words Cornell wrote- the thoughts of the man who raised him, the feelings he held. Softly, the sentience asked, "Did you read it?"
Asbel coughed, a faint blush on his cheeks. "I... skimmed."
"I see." Lambda couldn't help but quirk a smile, yet that failed to disguise his trepidation.
He found his gaze drawn to the book's cover, trying to imagine what it was like, to see Cornell's words written in a hand that wasn't his; to hear the thoughts and feelings that he had hid from the world- and from him. Fodra had told him who he was; but that didn't matter. Even though Cornell was long dead, Lambda didn't want to think that the old researcher had only used him just like all others. It was an innocence, he thought, that he didn't want to see shattered; one of the few he had left.
So engrossed was he in his thoughts, he nearly jumped when Asbel laid a hand over his. Surprised, his gaze shot up- only to see a familiar smile from an old friend.
"He loved you." The lord's eyes were kind as he spoke. "Originally, he thought of you... the same as Emeraude did. But when he spent time with you, when he saw beneath what everyone else told him you were... he grew to care. And in the end, even though it went against his orders, he just wanted you to be happy."
Lambda had a feeling they weren't just talking about Cornell anymore.
"Thank you, Asbel." He found himself smiling, even though he felt like he was watching Fodra disappear all over again.
At his words, Asbel's stoic facade cracked, and suddenly Lambda found both himself and Sophie enveloped in a crushing hug. Lambda never felt such warmth towards his friend as he did in that moment. This was the mortal man that had protected them for as much as he could despite his own shortcomings, his own mortality- driven only by a friendship that would never have made sense if not for his heart. And now, he was overwhelmed by all the feelings he had been keeping at bay- by the relief, and the sorrow, and the pride.
"I couldn't protect you-" Asbel began.
"No," Lambda insisted. "You did."
As he pulled away, Lambda knew he would never forget the gratefulness in the lord's eyes. How much this must have burdened him; to know that these words might be the last he would ever say to either of them. Asbel, of all people, knew of the fragility of life- and despite his desire to protect that, he also knew: sometimes, to protect the things you loved most, you had to let them go. And he watched Asbel's eyes, Lambda couldn't help but remember their first meeting.
"You're... a good friend, Asbel Lhant," he murmured.
"No," the lord said softly, running a hand through his hair as he let out a wry chuckle. "I'm just a fool."
Those were the last words he said, before he gave them a small smile and turned away. Lambda knew then that he would never forget the bittersweet sting of their parting. Silently, they watched his retreating back disappear down the corridor, and Lambda felt his eyes prick with a stinging sensation. Sophie's gentle palm slid into his, a reminder to be strong. It was just one chapter of their immortal lives drawing to a close- and even though the whole future existed in front of him now, Lambda couldn't help but feel sad.
Human lives always felt so fleeting. It was but a blink in his millenia-long lifespan, yet these feelings that were inspired by humans felt so important to him; so precious. They were even shorter than those human lives, and yet they felt as though they could last longer than even his. It was these fleeting moments of happiness, of sadness, of feeling that he so treasured.
The sun was setting, casting an orange glow into the empty room, long shadows stretching out around them. It was a perfect blend of light and dark, of cold and warmth. It was a moment that hearkened the end of all the suffering of his previous life- and the start of a new one. Endless possibilities, a wide world all around him, and an eternity of life to understand; to live.
"I love you," he whispered, turning to the girl that stood beside him.
She smiled knowingly at those three words. And in the midst of the ruins of a once-glorious castle, in the light of the setting sun, they shared their first kiss.
To the people who have read up until this point, thank you! This is the first longfic I have ever completed, and your support for it really contributed to it's completion~ It was really hard to write this mind-numbing 100,000+ word monstrosity while trying to maintain some semblance of a plot (what is plot) while keeping true to ToG. When I first started this fic a year ago, it was originally supposed to be a oneshot, written on a whim because my best friend supported my crack ship and wanted to see it written. I had no idea how to write romance/anything long, and despite all the planning and constant research I did, I was probably under-experienced for this task. Still, it has been a great joy to write for the sake of writing something, and it has been a real learning experience for me. Given hindsight, I would probably go back and fix a LOT of things, but eh, I'm still kinda proud and glad (and going YESSS IN YOUR FACE WHEE) for finishing this.
So a big thank you to everyone who has read/reviewed/gave concrit/told me my story is awesome! Of course, there's still the epilogue and stuff, so it's not completely over yet!
Last but not least, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!