In hindsight, this probably wasn't the best idea.
Fifteen-year old Alton Lhant gulped as he stepped away from the ruffians that ringed around him. They were big, brawny men; their eyes hardened by years of battle. Even though he was armed with a sword, the young man felt utterly outclassed- despite his father's training, he wasn't sure if he could handle so many people all at once. And as they approached his position, he couldn't help but notice how dark their eyes seemed- as if the prospect of murdering a random boy meant nothing to them. A quick glance around showed him that each of the men wore a similar band around their shoulder, marked with a crude drawing of a boar.
Of course. He had heard the rumors- that the vicious band of thieves, the Spine Boars, had been said to be lurking in the area. They had ransacked the poorer regions of Fendel, before wreaking havok in Lhant. Three villages in northern Lhant had been attacked, with gald and supplies being stolen, and people murdered in their own homes. His father's men had been chasing them for months, but just as quickly as they had appeared in Lhant, they had vanished from view. For months, nobody had seen hide nor hair of them, and most people had thought that the Boars, choosing not to push their luck, had returned to Fendel.
And yet here they were, in front of him, blades drawn and arrows trained on his position, and all he had in his defence was a single sword.
"What are you doing here, boy?" one of the men asked, but there was no concern in his question- only greedy opportunity.
"Lookit him," said another. "Ain't he the Lhant kid?"
Well, wandering around with the Lhant crest emblazoned proudly on his cloak was probably not the best idea, and inheriting his father's red hair and blue eyes hardly helped matters. Alton tried to keep his sword grip steady, but in truth, he was terrified. He had never bargained with stumbling into the camp of bandits, nor did he envy his chances- an untried youth, against ten bloodthirsty battle-hardened thugs? Captain Malik, his father's old teacher, had always told him to choose his battles wisely, but even escape didn't seem like an option- he had trouble enough wandering this far into the wilderness; these men would probably outrun him before he reached safety.
He cursed the fact that he ever came here.
It had been just simple curiosity. When Uncle Hubert had come visiting but a few days ago, Alton happened to eavesdrop a conversation between him and his father. They had been speaking about how the Boars had evaded capture time and time again. It was a simple enough discussion, and as their conversation turned to other matters, Alton almost lost interest. But as he was about to leave, he caught a mention of an old, familiar name: Sophie.
The name of Alton's long-dead adopted older sister, who had sacrificed her life in an epic struggle against Lambda, the monster of legend who had kidnapped him as a child and almost destroyed Ephinea. Alton and his sister had been raised on stories of his sister's heroism, and even though it had been a decade, sometimes he would have fleeting recollections of her, standing in front of a nightmarish monster, protecting him.
The name of a person currently living just a fair bit away from Lhant, if what he had heard was to be believed.
That had been a few days ago. Alton wondered if it had been simple coincidence- Sophie wasn't an uncommon name, after all. But the way his father and uncle had spoken made it sound like it was a personal matter to both of them; that they had actually been talking about his sister. It was impossible, he had told himself. If his sister was truly alive, she would still be living with them in Lhant- there was no reason for a hero like her to hide, after all. He had dismissed it as wishful thinking- some nostalgic hope that the girl he vaguely remembered from his early childhood still lived. Yet, the thought had stuck at the back of his mind.
It had resurfaced when he was running an errand for his grandmother. The spot was on his way back to Lhant, and he had plenty of time- the delivery had been surprisingly quick, and nobody would expect him home before dinner. It was an impulsive decision, really, but it seemed harmless at the time. Just a quick look-see, he told himself. He didn't expect any trouble and he certainly didn't put much stock in the rumors that the Spine Boars would lurk so close to Lhant.
Evidently, he was wrong. Alton grit his teeth in frustration- these men had the upper hand, and they knew it. They smirked at him tauntingly, and even their stances seemed relaxed and loose, as if they expected no threat from him.
"We could capture him," one of the bandits said. "Ransom him to Lhant for safe passage."
"Or we could kill him and ransom the body," suggested another.
"My father will see you hanged," Alton shot back as he stepped closer to where the trees provided him flanking cover.
The first shot him a withering stare. "Your father will have to catch us first, and he hasn't gotten any luck with that, has he?"
Alton gulped. He knew they wouldn't let him escape, and he knew that these were the same men that had killed babes resting in their cradles. He had met a man similar to these people as a child, and the Boars reminded the young noble of him; of Lambda. Despite the unpleasant feeling of anger in his gut, Alton couldn't stop the bout of helplessness that accompanied it.
Briefly, an image of a shadow with red eyes flashed through his mind, and an overwhelming fear gripped him. Once, he had stood in the presence of the ultimate evil, who had tried to destroy everything he loved. It was an old memory, one that he had spent many years trying to forget- but now, he couldn't help but remember: how Lambda, the villain of old, had captured him and betrayed his family; how he ended up killing his sister. His parents had tried to tell him that Lambda had been co-erced, but Alton couldn't believe it; not when he could still remember the cries of the dying around him as he was pushed through Lhant; as he stood in a room where a shadow watched him with evil eyes.
Lhant had mourned for many years for the deaths that had occured that day, and Alton knew it was men like Lambda- like those around him- who had caused such devastation.
They approached him, and the youth found his back to a tree. He tensed, knowing that he had to remain calm despite the danger he was in. Yet his grip on his sword trembled, and even though he knew he couldn't make the first move lest he lose any chance of escape, he wanted nothing more than to run away as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Put your sword down, Lhant," one of the men said. "Wouldn't do you good to hurt yourself with it."
"I know how to fight," Alton snapped back, brandishing the blade at the speaker. "The only ones who'll be hurt will be you."
"Brash boasting," the thief replied. "Your knees are shaking."
In hindsight, it was a stupid, stupid move. But Alton couldn't stop himself from letting out a battle cry and lunging towards the first bandit. Immediately, he felt the parry, and suddenly his sword went flying out of his hand. Before he could react, he found himself staring down at the very long blade of a sword.
"First lesson: Never let go of your sword," the Boar said. "Second lesson: Know when you're outmatched."
Alton kept quiet. A bandit kicked away his sword, far from his reach. He was entirely at the mercy of these men, but even then, he knew he couldn't show his fear. He was the son of Asbel Lhant, and he would not submit to ruffians like these, not without a fight. Quietly, he waited for an opening, trying to see if there was any way he could disarm his captors and make a break for it.
But before he could, there was a low rustling of leaves, and a stirring of eleth in the air.
"This was certainly not what I expected." The voice that spoke was unperturbed, echoing through the evening air like a haunting shadow; a forgotten memory.
The bandits turned, and as they parted, Alton could make out the figure of a young man- probably just a few years older than him- standing in the clearing of the camp. His clothes were unusual- undescript, white robes that flowed to his knees- and his posture betrayed no surprise, nor any semblance of fear. In fact, he seemed utterly relaxed. But what caught Alton's attention was the way that the man looked utterly inhuman- his eyes were a shade of red that was beyond nature, and his hair was a light teal in colour. And his body- if he looked carefully, his body resembled some of his Aunt Pascal's machines, metal glinting underneath the voluminous folds of cloth.
He eyed the bandits calmly even though he held no weapon, and the sense of wrongness Alton felt intensified. Something about this man seemed naggingly familiar, but he couldn't place it. And then those red eyes landed on him, and for a fraction of a second, Alton saw them widen.
"Alton Lhant?" he whispered then. His voice was deep and old, clashing with the appearance of the youth that stood before him. It was his voice that sparked old memories- feelings and sensations of trust and kindness; of utter betrayal and fear.
"Lambda." The word came to him instinctively, and suddenly, Alton felt a chill down his spine.
He could only watch as those red eyes hardened in anger, and before anything could be said or done, Lambda acted. He didn't move, didn't say anything, but Alton could sense the incoming attack from the look in the monster's eyes. He lifted his arms to shield his face even as he prepared for his inevitable death, trying to steel himself against the pain. The only thought that ran through his mind was abject fear and horror- the monster that his family had fought for years still lived, and he would be its next victim.
And before he knew what had happened, shadows leapt out all around him, striking the bandits down without a second's hesitation. They had no time to scream- the shadows moved far quicker than his eye could follow, and within seconds, the men all around him lay still upon the forest floor. Alton couldn't even question what had occured when Lambda stepped towards him, face and stature poised as he stepped over the fallen men around him.
He picked up his sword from where it had lain, pointing it directly at the mechanical doll's face. "Stay back!" he warned.
Lambda paused, staring at the sharp point of the blade. Alton wondered how ridiculous this must all seem to him- after all, this was the creature that had effortlessly taken down ten men without lifting a finger; in comparison, he wouldn't stand a chance. Slowly, the creature lifted its gaze to his face.
"You would strike me down?" Lambda asked then. The red eyes softened- in sadness, a part of him whispered, but Alton didn't think this monster capable of it.
"I would! After what you've done to my family, to my sister- I won't let you kill me!"
Lambda watched him carefully. "So that's how it is."
With a sigh, he turned away from Alton and began to pull the bandits from the ground, securing their hands behind their backs with dark eleth.
"Wha-what are you doing?" He kept his sword trained on Lambda. Yet, even with his back turned towards him, Alton didn't strike. He knew, somehow, that the monster was letting him live.
"Securing them," Lambda replied simply. "They're not dead, but they can wait till Asbel sends his men to collect them."
Alton frowned. Despite himself, he couldn't help but ask, "What do you mean?"
Consternation filled him as Lambda pulled out a device- one of Aunt Pascal's communicators, if Alton had to guess- and a message pigeon buzzed out of it, floating off towards the direction of Lhant. It puzzled him why Lambda would even have one of those- his aunt did not freely give out those communicators, but just like his body, it pointed towards something that Alton couldn't quite believe.
"Your father requested my help," Lambda said. "I simply followed through."
"My father?" By now, Alton's head was full of questions and doubts, warring against his natural precaution towards the man before him. "Why would he do that? You- you killed Sophie!"
Lambda froze then. For a moment, Alton wondered if he had mis-stepped, and if the vaguely amicable façade Lambda was presenting him would drop. He remembered the towering shadow of his nightmares, of how shadows dragged him across stone floors, while that familiar, deep laughter rang in his ears.
But the moment passed quickly and Lambda continued to attend to the bandits. "I wonder," he murmured softly then.
Alton knew he should run now, while Lambda was distracted. Despite everything he hadn't done to him, this was still the monster of legend that had torn the world asunder, that caused his parents unimaginable grief. He still recalled the nights when he would catch the sad smiles on his parent's faces at the sound of Sophie's name, or the collection of graves in Lhant of the slain from that terrible night, oh so long ago.
Yet, now too, the old memories of his early childhood returned to him. Vaguely, he had impressions of a teal-haired boy that watched over him as he played, that caught him when he fell, that he associated with laughter and safety. Lambda had betrayed his family, but before that, he had been Alton's caretaker- and the noble boy couldn't help but notice the gentle way that Lambda spoke to him now, like he once did; a way that Alton had, for ten long years, dismissed as merely his imagination.
As he finished with his task, Lambda stood. For a moment, he remained silent. Alton wondered what passed through his mind now: Was he plotting to kill him? Or was he truly in league with his father? Nothing made sense, but something told Alton that he couldn't run; not now.
"Sophie lives." The words were quiet, but as Lambda turned to face him, the young noble knew he could never have misheard those words. It was in his instinct to distrust such wild claims, but the warmth in Lambda's gentle smile gave him pause. He was telling the truth.
Alton struggled with himself for a moment before finally lowering his sword. "How?"
The mechanical doll that housed Lambda lifted its head, studying the skies. "It is late. You must be hungry."
"Knows you are with me." Lambda didn't offer a hand, didn't seem remarkably welcoming at all. Yet as he walked off into the darkening forest, Alton knew he was meant to follow.
He hesitated. Despite what his parents had told him, Alton had always believed the stories- that Lambda was evil. But after everything he had witnessed today, he wasn't sure what exactly to believe. And when he saw that face- the face of the man who was almost his brother- Alton couldn't help but wonder if the tall tale his parents told him as a child was, in fact, the truth.
"I will leave you behind if you do not follow," Lambda's voice echoed through the clearing.
Trusting his gut, Alton sheathed his sword and followed.
Despite the lack of any clear trails through the thick forest, Lambda led him through the wilderness with the ease of an expert. Eventually, they ended up in yet another clearing, where a small wooden lodge stood. It was a quiet place, but Alton could see the signs of habitation- clothes hung out in the yard to dry, while beds of saplings surrounded the structure. Alton recognized them as sopherias, the same flowers that blossomed in the gardens back at home.
Sensing his confusion, Lambda replied, "We thought it best that we had somewhere to call home. Lhant was always our choice."
"'We'?" Alton echoed.
As if in response, the door creaked open, and even though he could only make out a silhouette of a woman, Alton knew that he could never mistake who it was.
"Lambda?" Sophie asked. As she stepped out of the light, Alton could see that she was exactly the same as in his memories- slender, with purple hair descending down to her ankles, her features untouched by time. She seemed confused as she turned to him, but almost immediately, her eyes lit up in recognition.
Awkwardly, he raised a hand in greeting. "H-hello."
He hadn't actually thought that Lambda was telling the truth, but when Sophie hurtled into him, crushing him with a tight hug, all of a sudden, he knew. The secret that his parents had been hiding, the stories that had been told- none of that mattered now; not when he finally knew the truth.
"Oh, look at you," she cooed, putting him at arm's length. "You're all grown up!"
"That's what ten years does to a guy," Alton replied.
"Yes," Sophie murmured with a sad smile. He remembered his father's words just then- he was in the presence of two immortals, who would not age, and would live long after he was gone. But before he could comment, her eyes lit up once more. "Come," she said, dragging him as she went. "We're about to eat."
The house that Lambda and Sophie lived in was small, but not stifling- in fact, it felt warm and homely, the decor reminiscent of Lhant manor. Dinner was simple, and although it had been set for two, Alton found that there was more than enough to go around. In fact, he found himself unable to eat while his companions continued to devour the meal before them. Instead, he spent most of his time staring in awe at his not-dead sibling and her not-dead foe, the realization that they were actually alive not quite sinking in.
He didn't know what he had expected, but it certainly wasn't this. There was no animosity between them; in fact, it was almost quite the opposite. Though they made no overt displays of affection, Alton could tell that there was some deep bond between them- from the way they looked at each other, the way they seemed completely at ease in each other's presence. Then there was the gentility and warmth that Lambda showed when she was around, the tenderness in the way he spoke and moved.
In spite of finding himself in the presence of the two most powerful people in the world, Alton found himself strangely at ease here. He knew there was no danger here, and that even if there were, these two- his old protectors- would keep him safe.
Over dinner, they told him everything: How Brind had kidnapped him in order to force Lambda to turn against his family, how both of them had almost died trying to escape from Gern, how his family had devised a plan to keep everyone safe. And suddenly everything seemed to click into place. The furtive correspondence his father had with some of his 'agents', people who seemed to handle the most impossible of situations. The mysterious reports over the years of eleth-depleted lands miraculously recovering, and of nova monsters that protected humans instead of harmed then. Most of the townsfolk in Lhant had dismissed it as miracles from the heavens, but now, Alton knew: it was all their doing- Lambda's and Sophie's. Throughout the years, they had lived, and they had watched over the world they loved so much.
Gradually, Alton felt his fear of Lambda fade. The teal-haired man across of him wasn't his enemy; he was the man that would have given anything to keep him safe- who almost had given his life. And he found himself wondering about their lives, their various adventures- and more importantly, about them. The siblings he had forgotten, who had been so important to him as a child.
But he wasn't a child anymore, and they wanted to know everything about him. About his sword training, his dreams and ambitions for Lhant. About his younger sister, Asther, whom they had never met. About his life and his interests, his reckless childhood pursuits and his own inner fears and worries. They asked about his family and their friends, and spoke about little things from the past and their travels that he would never have seen.
The hours flew by quickly as he talked to them, and all too soon, it was time to leave.
They walked with him then, guiding him out of the forest and towards where the lights of Lhant flickered off in a distance. Gone was his earlier trepidation that he had, and as he walked side by side with the man that looked scarcely older than him, but bore the age of a world, Alton felt as though he was a child again- protected and safe in the presence of this strangely powerful figure. Yet, even though the sentience had answered his questions, as he promised, Alton couldn't help but feel more curious than satisfied.
"Why did you come?" Lambda asked abruptly, as they reached Lhant Hill- as far as the two would accompany him.
"I heard that Sophie was alive," Alton explained, his eyes shifting over to his older sister. "I got curious."
"I see." The sentience smirked then. "I suppose it was a boon that I arrived when I did, even if you did turn a blade on me."
Alton flinched slightly. "I didn't know-"
"As it should have been." Lambda stayed silent for a moment.
"You were young." Sophie sighed softly, her gaze apologetic. "It wouldn't be safe for any of us if you accidentally told someone."
"If there was another Gern." Alton nodded, fingering his cloak. Quietly, he admitted, "Dad tried to tell me. I didn't listen."
"I would not fault you for disbelieving him," the sentience said. "It would sound ludicrous, compared to what you saw. Even now, I wonder if we did the right thing."
"We wanted you to live a life without fear," Sophie explained, even as she took Lambda's hand. "Even if it meant we couldn't be there."
Alton lowered his gaze as he let the weight of their words sink in. "I think you did," he replied. "Dad always said... there are things we can't fix. And we just learn to live, to put it behind us."
"Thank you, Alton."
Lambda looked pensive then, sadness lingering in the corner of his smile, and Alton couldn't help but wonder. Compared to someone like Lambda, human lives meant nothing. And yet, he willingly let himself feel- let himself be hurt and found it within himself to smile. There was a certain strength in that, one that couldn't be measured on the battlefield.
"It's time." Sophie wrapped her arms around him tight in farewell, as if to make up for all the years she had not seen him. Despite their words, there was no mistaking the look of longing in their eyes- as if, given the chance, they would be more than willing to join him in Lhant. But that was impossible, given the circumstances.
But as she pulled away, Alton felt a strange sensation- like he was at a crossroads, and somehow, he knew what the right way was. Circumstances or not, he thought, he was the next lord of Lhant- and he would see to it that his family would be reunited again.
"I'll visit you." The words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. "Without getting swarmed by bandits, next time. And I'll bring Asther along, too!"
At his words, both of them froze. Sophie stared at him with surprise, and Lambda's eyes were wide, his mouth agape. Then, turning away from Alton, the sentience said with a faint smile, "We would like that."
Alton grinned then, and with a final wave, he dashed down towards Lhant. He knew his father would probably give him a stern talking-to and possibly force more sword-training lessons on him, but he didn't care. There was a lightness in his step, a bubbling joy that he couldn't suppress.
And he knew that a purple haired girl and a white-robed figure on Lhant Hill watched him till he was safely at the gates before they turned and walked away.
Lhant Hill remained the same as it always was. Despite the years, it felt as though time never passed here- the flower meadow blossomed in the light of the moon, and the giant tree that towered overheard was the same as when Lambda first saw it with his own eyes, nearly twenty years ago. Yet, so much had changed since he had first set foot here- and so much hadn't.
"Do you ever miss it?"
Lambda looked up from his ruminations to turn to the girl that stood nearby, her gaze directed towards Lhant. In the moonlight, Sophie seemed to possess a certain ethereal beauty, and he was all the more aware of how blessed he was, for someone like her to remain still by his side.
"Lhant?" He moved to join her, standing by her side in easy companionship.
"Mmhm." She leaned against him, her head on his shoulder, as he pulled her close. "Do you ever regret... listening to me, all those years ago?"
He frowned. "What brought this on, Sophie?"
She shook her head, yet her purple eyes couldn't quite meet his. "When we were telling Alton about Gern, I couldn't help but remember. He said that you wouldn't have suffered, if I never encouraged you to live."
He looked at her then. There was the faint hint of exasperation in her smile.
With a sigh, he looked at Lhant. The city looked familiar to him, but even now, he could see changes along its walls and buildings. One day, he thought, he would look upon this view and see nothing of the Lhant he remembered; the Lhant that Asbel ruled. The lives of so many would pass before him, and he would remain, carrying the memory of their names forever in his heart.
"I miss it," he admitted. "I miss seeing Asbel, and Cheria, and everyone else. But I would never regret listening to you, all those years ago."
"It'll just keep hurting," she murmured, pressing a hand against where his heart would have been.
"A wise woman once told me to hold on to the good memories," he said, smiling at her. "That I had to live, and not hide, to have something to hold on to."
"She was very wise," Sophie deadpanned.
Lambda laughed. "Very wise. My mother would have liked her very much."
"Perhaps we should visit Fodra one day," she suggested.
"If Asbel can keep his fiefdom from falling apart for more than a week," the sentience murmured. "It would be nice." He lifted his eyes to where Fodra was, a speck of light in the night sky. He had always planned to visit his mother- to tell her all that had happened and to see her again, to assure her that he would keep both her and Ephinea safe from harm, that she could sleep in peace in her core.
How strange, he thought. That he, the destroyer of Fodra and Ephinea, would someday become their protector.
"What are you thinking about, Lambda?" Sophie asked, catching the look on his face.
"Once, Cornell told me to live." The stars twinkled brightly in the night sky. Ancient humans once believed that they were the spirits of the long-dead, watching over their descendants. It was a foolish notion, but tonight, Lambda wondered that perhaps the old scientist's spirit was out there, watching him now.
"For the longest time, I didn't know what that meant. Until a foolish young man showed me how, and my oldest enemy- my best friend- told me I could." He looked at her then. "These past twenty years, Sophie- I could never have imagined them, could never have understood. And for everything that I have today, I am thankful."
Her eyes widened in awe, even as her cheeks coloured. Then, ducking her head, she punched his torso and muttered, "You silly goose."
He chuckled, pulling her closer as the evening breeze swept by them.
Once, he had seen nothing but darkness in the world. Cornell had wanted to show him a better way, but it took a thousand years and a life full of tribulations for him to finally understand- that living was more than merely existing; that it was everything and anything, from the good to the bad. And everything that lived, that loved, that laughed- all of that was worth protecting. And as long as he walked on that path, lived alongside the people he loved and cared for, Lambda knew- he would never be alone.
Somehow, out there, he imagined the scientist's star smiling kindly on him. Now perhaps, Lambda thought, his father's ghost could finally rest in peace, knowing his child would be alright.
This fic is dedicated to my two close friends, Meowp and Daidairo. Thank you for sitting this tumultuous year through with me and for telling me to write this story, despite my constant protests of not being able to write romance well.