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Disclaimer: Still own nothing.
Anna glared, wiping sweat from her brow. She'd tried to shake off her annoyance, but it was hard, especially as Kratos looked at her with his smoothly impassive face. The man could be so infuriating sometimes.
Still, she took a deep breath and concentrated, trying to empty her mind of all thought. The sounds of birds and the rustle of nature faded very slowly away until her mind was blank. Continuing to focus her mind, she reached deep inside herself for the faint flicker of energy she could feel just below the surface of her skin, intertwined into her blood. Gripping that sense of power she tightened and imaginary fist around it and grit her teeth.
"Guardian!" she shouted, flinging that mental handful of power outside of herself, imagining it surrounding her like a shield, a solid tangible shield that would keep her safe.
A thin green forcefield erupted around her, flickering and wavering, but remaining solidly in place. Kratos frowned thoughtfully, studying its depth and its stability.
A bolt of lightning shot down from the cloudless sky and struck Anna's shield. The shield wavered horribly and Anna's hair stood on in from the proximity of the lightning, but the shield held.
"I did it!" Anna cried triumphantly. The shield vanished and she jumped in place in her excitement. "It held that time. I didn't get hit by the lightning!" She stopped jumping for a moment as a thought struck her and she turned to glare at Kratos. "You threw lightning at me!"
Kratos raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather I have used Judgment?"
"No!" Anna shot back. "I'd rather you stick to bullets or knives. You could have fried me, you self-important a—!"
Kratos cracked a small smile. "Anna, do you really think I would have done it if I didn't your shield would hold?"
Anna rolled her eyes. "Probably not, but you don't know for sure."
"Of course I do," Kratos said. "I believe in your abilities. I knew you could do it."
Anna blushed looked away from the smoldering look that accompanied his words. Looking down at the ground, she rubbed the back of her neck, unsure of what to say.
Kratos took pity on her and chuckled. "Shall we call it a day or keep going."
Anna looked up at him ruefully. "I want to say keep going, but you're going to try to lecture me on the necessity of know when I am exhausted aren't you?"
"You learn quickly."
Anna shook out her stiff limbs. After an hour of holding her meditative stance her body had protested, but it became easier to hold with each passing day. Kratos was teaching Anna how to harness her unusually strong level of mana and use it as a shield. Her progress, while slow at first, was rapidly increasing.
In the three months following their frenzied flight from Palmacosta, Kratos and Anna had finally settled in a small house just outside of Izoold. It was completely encased by forest, so much so that Kratos couldn't even fit through the gaps in the trees, he had to fly over. Anna and Noishe just barely fit themselves. It was a small two story shack near a tiny creek. It wasn't much, but it was home, the only one they had.
Not that they had spent their time hiding out in their fragile place of peace. True to her declaration those weeks ago, Anna and Kratos had been working to undermine Mithos's election as President of Sylvarant. This had ranged from peaceful attempts at handing out leaflets to more violent attempts, such as liberating convoys heading for the human ranches. So far they had only attempted this once and had successfully saved about twenty people and escorted them into Tethe'alla.
The stakes rose ever higher as Mithos gained more and more support. His plan for the Sylvarant human ranches had been met with vociferous approval from the Tethe'allans and the governing body of Sylvarant and were already well established in this short time. They were promoted as camps where convicts and lawbreakers were sent to churn out everyday products as a source of cheap labor, and they did turn out goods such as string, leather, cloth, and minimal machine parts. However, the term 'lawbreakers' now encompassed more minor offenses, such as speaking against the government and human ranches, protesting, practicing any religion other than the church of Martel, and other basic rights. It was all glossed over by the police force, which was slowly being overrun with Desians, but the public hadn't quite caught on yet.
And when they did, it would be too late.
Kvar looked up from the glare of his computer screen and scowled at Pronyma's interruption. He had just gotten two new shipments of test subjects and did not have time for her petty concerns.
"Kvar, your progress has been minimal on the Angelus Project," she said, her deep throaty voice full of equal parts mocking and glee at his failures. "Lord Yggdrasill grows impatient."
Kvar rolled his eyes. "My human ranch is turning out more expsheres than any other ranch combined. It is hardly my fault that the Cruxis Crystal is too powerful to be hosted by these inferior beings."
"Your daughter could have hosted it," Pronyma retorted with a smirk.
Kvar got to his feet, slamming his palms down flat on the desk, upsetting his mouse and keyboard. "May I remind you that the blasted girl disappeared on YOUR watch just as much as mine? And we don't need her. I will ensure that the Angelus Project is a success. I have come closer than any of the others. Instead of sniffing around me like a b in heat, why don't you go see if Rodyle will throw you a bone? He clearly isn't doing much at his ranch except sucking up to you."
That wiped the hateful grin off of Pronyma's face. "You forget yourself, Kvar. I am the leader of the Grand Cardinals, advisor to Lord Yggdrasill and Lord Yuan. You cannot talk to me like that!"
Kvar sat backs down. "Then leave and let me do my job."
Pronyma glared a moment longer before leaving in a huff. Kvar tried to return to his work, but it was no use. He couldn't stop seeing his worthless daughter slipping through his grasp. Little did Pronyma and Yggdrasil know, he had dispatched several squads in attempts to find her. His efforts at the Angelus project were minimal at best. He wanted Anna, he wanted her to suffer. But most of all he wanted the ending of her life to be the key to his ascension into the top ranks of Cruxis.
He would find her. He was in her blood. She could never escape him.
Kratos returned from the creek, slicking back his wet hair and carrying a load of damp clothing. Rounding the side of the small shack he found Anna pinning up the rest of their laundry, her own hair damp from scrubbing as Noishe snoozed at her feet. He paused for a moment, admiring the way she cheerfully undertook the task, humming softly with a light smile on her face. Despite everything set against them, she remained cheerful and optimistic, never letting the harshness of the world consume her like most people in her shoes would. She was so perfect and so beautiful.
"You're staring," she said, not looking up from her task.
Kratos chuckled quietly before reaching for a set of clothespins and joining her in her task. "Can't help it," he replied. "You're too beautiful."
Anna blushed and Kratos grinned to himself. Although she had not yet returned his sentiments, she had not rejected him either. She allowed his compliments and would occasionally brush against him, lean on his shoulder, small touches like that to let him know that she did care for him. But she stood firm: until she had made her peace with the past, she wouldn't allow herself to just let go.
"Kratos, I think the time is right for another convoy sabotage." she said, pinning up her last set of clothes and turning to look at him. "There's one in three days at the Palmacosta Ranch." Kratos kept pinning his own load and said nothing, which made her glare. "And don't think I can't read your silence. Just because I nearly got caught last time doesn't mean—."
"Nearly?' Kratos said, turning towards her with a glare of his own. "Anna, that Desian had you in cuffs and was towing you toward the getaway vehicle. If Noishe hadn't bit him, you would have been hauled away!"
"But Noishe did bite him, so I was fine." Noishe's tailed thumped as through in agreement.
"But what if next time you are not so lucky?"
"You can't keep thinking like that!" She cried. "You promised. We would do what we have to do, no matter the cost. Even if it is our life."
"And how would you feel if something happened to me?" Kratos challenged. Anna winced and Kratos nodded knowingly. "See, not so easy."
"But it has to happen."
"I say we wait."
Anna looked down at the ground. "Kate is on this one," she said quietly, her voice full of guilt.
Kratos froze. "How did you find out?"
Anna shifted uncomfortably. "The list was posted in town this morning. One of our contacts phoned it in." They had developed a very small network of associates through Sylvarant that reported in on developments within the cities: political attitudes, Desian activity, human ranch inventory. All members on the network had been instructed to look for Kate's name after Kratos failed to find her once she had been arrested. After three months of searching, this was the first sign they had of her whereabouts.
The problem, however, was that the Desians new Kate had helped Anna escape so they would be prepared for a rescue mission. It was a great risk, one Kratos was fully prepared to forego, but he knew Anna would try it, with or without him.
Kratos rubbed his forehead. "I suppose any attempts to stop you would be…"
"Futile, yes," Anna said, looking up with a glare.
"I see." Kratos sighed heavily. "Very well then. Call in the network."
Anna's face lit up with gratitude and she launched herself at Kratos in a fierce hug. "Thank you Kratos. I promise we'll be safe. I promise!"
Because it was such short notice, Anna and Kratos were only able to recruit their spies from Izoold, Palmacosta, and Luin, a total of four people plus themselves and Noishe. Convoy liberations were risky and violent. Not only did it involve some very noticeable grand theft auto, but it also required the murder of every single Desian lest word of who was behind this mess reach Mithos and Kvar.
Not that they didn't know of course.
Luckily for Kratos and Anna, the road leading to the ranch was densely wooded with tall trees and thick underbrush. This made surprising the enemy a little bit easier. As the best shot and the strongest, Kratos held a position closer to the ranch, his hard won sniper rifle perched on a sturdy branch in front of him. About 500 yards further, the four spies border the road at intervals of twenty feet. The first two spies were solely in charge of getting the Desians out of the driver's seat and driving the vans of prisoners away to the rendezvous point about five miles away. The second pair were to give covering fire, with assistance from Anna and Kratos. Kratos would move forward immediately after sniping the drivers and Anna would make it her sole duty to find Kate.
"Is everyone in position?" Anna's voice crackled through the Bluetooth headset at Kratos's ear.
"Eagle one in position," he responded.
"Eagle two in position."
"Eagle three confirmed."
"Eagle four confirmed."
"Eagle five, awaiting go."
Anna took a deep breath. The scheduled time was one minute away. Noishe was positioned a mile down the road, trained to let out a quiet woof when the convoy was in sight. The first time she had done this, all Anna could think about was not getting caught. In a way that made it easier, she only had to worry about her own head. Now however, she had to ensure the safety of a person she knew, a person who was only here because of her. It was ten times more nerve-wracking. Kate seemed so fragile and yet…she had stood firm in the face of danger and had not given Anna up.
Anna swallowed hard. She couldn't leave Kate behind. Not after that.
The forest was quiet, not even the wind disturbed the leaves on the trees. The early spring air was still chilly and woods were shrouded in mist, giving them the extra bit of cover they needed. No one passing through would suspect that chaos was about to ensue.
The sound of engines almost immediately followed, disturbing the silence. "Target inbound. When you're ready Eagle one." Wait for the shot…wait for the shot…wait for the shot.
Kratos had the convoy in his sights: two vans followed by truck with four additional Desians in it. More than they expected. But his job was to take care of the drivers. He'd have to trust the others to do their own duty. He looked through the scope, adjusting his aim for distance and speed. Deep breath…and pull.
The crack of the sniper rifle was the only signal the spies and Anna needed. They erupted from the woods and Anna counted the shots as she raced towards the backup car. One…two…three…five. The sound of squealing tires and the crunch of metal on wood let her know that at least one truck had crashed. Breaking out of the trees she absorbed the entire scene in a second: one truck smoking, its front bent and twisted and fused with a surprisingly unruffled tree. The second truck was nose first in a shallow ditch, its back tire rotating slowly.
She didn't have time to think about that though. The smaller truck with the rear guard had stopped and four Desians were heading right for her, not even bothering with the vans. That threw her for a second. Why would they not bother with the vans? She leveled her own gun and released a hail of bullets, dropping two of them. One raised his gun, but the other smacked him sideways.
"We need her alive!"
Anna froze. They didn't bother with the vans, but rather made their way right for her. She fired again, dropping the two Desians in an instant before shouting into her headset. "It's a set up. Everybody run!"
As if in confirmation of her words, the doors on the back of the vehicles burst open and soldiers jumped out of each of them, a verifiable army of Desians who were solely intent on capturing her. Voices shouted through her headset, her spies' fire tapering off as they confirmed their retreat, but she was more focused on the impending doom in front of her because just when she thought things couldn't get any worse, one Desian stepped forward and threw a body on the ground.
"Kate…"Anna breathed. The girl lay huddled on the ground, curled in on herself as if expecting a kick or a blow to her face. She was horribly thin and pale and covered in bruises. A dried line of blood streaked along the one cheek Anna could see and her breathing was labored as though she were in pain. Anna's stomach twisted in guilt and shame. This is because of me. She's like this because of me…
"A012, surrender now and we release the girl."
Noishe appeared at Anna's side, growling and hackles raised. "Down," she order firmly. Noishe looked at her and shook his head, continuing to advance. "I said DOWN!" Noishe froze and did as he was told, planting himself solidly in front of his mistress.
"I have them in my sights," came Kratos's frantic voice in her ear. "Run. I'll cover you."
"There's too many," she said, more to herself than to him.
"Anna don't…don't even think about it. Just get out of there."
Anna shook her head, staring down at the dozen of black rifles aiming at her. It was amazing actually. She always feared getting caught, always feared being returned to her sadistic father…but now that capture was imminent, all she could think was that trading her life for Kate's was a fair trade.
"If a surrender…you will let her go?" she asked the leader.
"Yes," he replied. "Though I don't see where you're in much of a position to bargain." The soldiers beside him laughed.
Anna rolled her eyes. If she had nothing left now, she still had her attitude and her strength. She wouldn't go out quietly. "Nice try, but you need me alive. Don't think I don't know that."
The Desian smiled wider. "True enough but…" he held up a fist. As one all of the rifles that were aimed at her dropped to aim at Kate. "…we don't need her."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Anna said holding up her hands. "Ok, just calm down. Don't hurt her." Anna crouched and placed her gun on the ground. "I'll go," she said, taking a few steps forward. "Release her first and I will go willingly."
"Anna don't…" Kate moaned. "Run."
"I can't," she replied.
"Please," Kratos begged in her ear, the sadness in her voiced breaking her heart. "Please don't."
"Get Kate to safety," she replied. "Don't forget your promise."
The leader looked at the Desian to his left and nodded once curtly. The soldier rushed forward and hauled Kate to her feet. He fumbled with a set of keys and unlocked her handcuffs before shoving her away. Kate stumbled forward and Anna caught her.
"They need you for the Angelus Project," Kate gasped out. "They need you to get complete control. Don't surrender!"
"You're here because of me," Anna replied. "I can't just leave you. Run into the woods. There's a man there that will help you."
"Run, Kate and don't look back!"
"That's enough," said the guard, coming forward with handcuffs and two other Desians. Anna was ripped away from Kate and shoved roughly backward. The two guards twisted her arms painfully behind her back and cuffed them tightly. She said nothing, just looked each of her captors defiantly in the eye. Her brown eyes were filled with such confidence and such determination that her opponents couldn't even meet them. They had to look away.
"Kratos," she whispered as they started to relieve her of her weapons. "I just want you to know… I love—"
The Desian ripped her headset away before she could finish. Anna lurched forward, trying to get at the headset, she couldn't go with it left unsaid, but her guard smiled cruelly and crushed the headset under his boot.
"Take her away."
Kratos ran for all he was worth, exploding out of the trees as the two vans pulled away. He raised his sniper rifle and fired shot after shot after shot at the retreating vehicles, but he was so filled with rage and despair that they missed. The vans sped up and he started to give chase, but it was no use.
"No," he said to himself. "No, no, no, no." He unfurled his wings and was about to take flight after her when Noishe launched himself at Kratos, locking his jaws around Kratos's leg.
"Get off or I'll throw you off," Kratos roared at the dog as the van got smaller and smaller. Noishe growled and yanked on Kratos's leg, trying to turn Kratos around. "I said let-!"
He stopped mid-sentence as he saw what Noishe was trying to show him. Kate was huddled against the tree, looking terrified. He could see her eyes transfixed on his wings and knew that he was frightening her.
Kratos glanced once more at the retreating caravan and Anna's words came back to him.
"Don't forget your promise."
But he couldn't just leave her…not when she almost said…
Kratos fell to his knees. He had to let her go. He had to get Kate somewhere safe, just as he promised. He was trapped, trapped by the very person he couldn't bear to fail…but he had failed her.
"I know where they are taking her."
Kratos looked up. Kate was standing up a little straighter, pushing her battered glasses back up her face. She still look terrified, but determination colored her voice.
"To Kvar. I know," His voice was hollow as was his heart.
"Exactly," Kate replied. "That's where they took me. I was a scientist once and when I was captured, Kvar used me to proceed with his Angelus Project. I know the layout not only of the prison cells but of the command center and the labs. I can give you information to get her out. I can help you get back in."
"Why would you do that?" Kratos asked. "Why would you help when you were captured defending her?"
"The same reason I defended her in the first place," Kate replied firmly. "It's the right thing to do. I don't like what's happening to the world either. And I think Anna may be the only one who has a chance of stopping it."
Kratos looked at the young girl quizzically for a moment, but then he understood. Anna was the one who would make or break Mithos's regime. If he could get her back, he would deny Mithos his Angelus Project. That coupled with her stubborn determination…Kate was right, if anyone could change this world it would be her.
And he'd be damned if he left her at the hands of her father.
Kratos got to his feet. "Kate is it?"
"I'm Kratos," he replied.
"The wanted fugitive," Kate replied. "I know who you are."
"Then you know the penalties for helping me?"
"But you still want to help?"
"What do you need?" she asked.
Kratos had to make sure she understood. "They'll kill you."
Kate fixed him with a steely look in her eyes. "What do you need?"
Kratos nodded once and then looked at the road where Anna had disappeared. "Anna…I'm coming to get you."
Dun dun dun!(Dramatic music!) Hit the button for more plot development!