Chapter 5: Cheria's Resolve; Lambda Falters
It had been quite some time since Cheria had set foot on Fodran soil, but even if she came here every day, she doubted she would ever quite get used to seeing the barren planet. The empty city of Telos Astue was haunting and even with the handful of humanoids that still functioned here; they couldn't dispel the eeriness that infiltrated the abandoned structures.
"Things certainly have changed here," Richard remarked, offsetting Cheria's thoughts. She turned to her friend and saw him staring out at the rocky wasteland that spread out below the shuttle bay.
"I don't know," Cheria commented. "It always feels so… empty here. I don't think I'll ever get used to it."
"The air isn't as stuffy as I remember it being," Richard commented. "Just as the sky seems clearer. This area still appears barren, but if I'm not mistaken the Arcadia gardens have spread somewhat since we were last here."
"You're right," Cheria agreed. She hadn't noticed it until Richard spoke it aloud, but it wasn't as hard to breathe as she remembered. The air that had once been heavy and weighed down her lungs only left her mildly uncomfortable. If she didn't think on it, she didn't really notice it anymore.
"That's because there's way more eleth around than there used to be," Pascal commented.
"Is that because Fodra's core is functional again?" Cheria inquired.
"Exactly! It's the core's job to distribute eleth all over the planet, so it makes sense to see things slowly start coming back to life now that it's working again."
"It doesn't seem to be working very well," Cheria commented, stealing another glace back at the rocky wastelands below.
"That's cause it's only been a few years. We're talking about restoring eleth to an entire planet that's probably ten times Ephinea's size. Something like that is going to take a century or two."
"What's important is that it's begun," Richard provided. "Now perhaps it might be best if we begin our own mission."
"Yes," Cheria agreed. "We need to see about finding where they kept all their medical records. I imagine they'd be in the records room."
"If they were here, you'd probably be right."
"Um, Pascal," Cheria stopped in her tracks. "The records room is up on the second floor, why are you headed that way?"
"I said they'd be in the records room if they kept that stuff here in Telos Astue, which they probably don't."
"What makes you doubt they'll be here, Pascal?" Richard asked.
"Medical records can be sensitive, and I get the vibe that most researchers here wanted to keep stuff all hush hush from everyone. I can't see them keeping things like that in an archive that just anyone could access. Emeraude, on the other hand seems to have had access to all kinds of things so I'm going to check through her stuff first."
Richard followed silently behind the girls as they entered Emeraude's room, swallowing the flood of bitter feelings he felt surfacing. Ambitious and ruthless, Emeraude had been a woman committed to her goals who didn't seem to care who or what she destroyed in the process. She had never seen Lambda as anything more than an object, a mindless beast and for years she had tortured him in her experiments, eventually trying to destroy him when she'd no more use for the being. After killing the single person that had ever cared for Lambda, she created Protos Heis, Sophie, to continue chasing Lambda all the way to Ephinea. While her actions had eventually led to her own death, it had done little to appease the centuries of agony she had wrought upon him. While Lambda had been able to put much of his pain behind him, that was a scar that Richard feared may never completely heal.
The room was silent as Pascal flipped through the data on Emeraude's terminal, broken only by the tapping of keys as the Amarcian continued her search. Cheria wandered casually, observing the various machines that glowed despite the lack of someone to operate them. Richard too, allowed his gaze to wander about the room. The last time he had been here, he hadn't particularly noted his surroundings. It had been probably the first and only real fight he'd ever had with Asbel, his attempts at destroying the world non-withstanding. They had gotten into an argument because Asbel had wanted to allow Lambda control of his body, and Richard had rejected the idea vehemently. At the time all he could think about was what he and Lambda had done, and he was so drowned in his regrets that it was the only possible outcome he could see. Looking back, even then Asbel had complete faith in Lambda, and Richard couldn't even fathom the strength something like that must require. It was a level of strength Richard himself couldn't dream of, of that much he was sure.
"Are you alright?" Cheria's voice drew Richard from his thoughts.
"I am, why do you ask?"
"No reason, you just..." Cheria trailed off, her voice swallowed by hesitation.
"It's nothing," Cheria dismissed waving her hands in front of her. "Never mind."
Cheria sighed, watching her friend as he returned to his casual observation of the room. The truth was Cheria wasn't entirely sure what the matter was. Richard just seemed… off somehow. There was an edge to him that hadn't been present before, a desperation even, and it left Cheria worried. She had taken comfort in his support, but she hadn't once stopped to think that inside he was just as worried, that he was fighting all the same feelings. The difference was that he was doing it while trying to be strong for their sake. It couldn't be healthy for him to keep all those emotions bottled up.
"Ha!" Pascal called out triumphantly.
"Did you find it?" Cheria inquired.
"Nope!" Pascal chirped a bit too happily given her reply. "But I was totally right about the medical records not being here in Telos Astue."
"I assume the reason you're pleased is that you've uncovered where they are?" Richard commented.
"I sure did! It looks like there's a medical facility attached to the Eleth Research Lab. If we're going to find anything on Asbel's condition, I'm willing to bet it's going to be there."
"The Eleth Research Lab…" Cheria repeated. "That was the place where they were researching Fodra's core, right?"
"That's the one!" Pascal affirmed.
"If that's the case, then there's likely to be some powerful monsters there," Richard pointed out. "We'd best be on our guard."
While the rest of Fodra may have been slowly coming back to life, there was nothing different about the ancient laboratory that Cheria and her companions found themselves walking through. The place was just as desolate as she recalled with its sparse lighting and scattered machinery. Much of the institute's security system still lay in shambles from their previous adventures and save for the odd humanoid that still wandered about, they were alone as they travelled through the lab.
As soon as they'd set foot here, Pascal had put herself to work and pulled up a map of the entire structure. The medical wing was on the building's eastern edge, an area they hadn't explored previously and the familiar surroundings hadn't taken long to fade to foreign ones. Pascal seemed unfazed and continued to lead them along the path she had previously traced. Cheria hurried along after her, leaving Richard to quietly bring up the rear.
Richard had barely spoken a word since leaving Telos Astue and every time Cheria glanced over her shoulder she found him lost in thought. The feeling that had begun to bother her in Emeraude's room had only intensified over the past couple hours. The more she thought on it, the more uneasy it left her. She had tried to find a way to speak to him about it, but each attempt ended in failure. He seemed the same, his smile, his words were all what she'd expect of him but somehow each try made things seem that much worse. Now… Cheria couldn't quite explain it, but there was something in the aura about him that made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was just the heavy air on Fodra getting to her. Cheria wanted nothing more than to find Asbel's cure, get back on Ephinea and put this entire chapter of their lives behind her.
Could they accomplish that? Cheria was beginning to wonder if this was bigger than they were capable of handling. Each time they found a lead, it only brought them somewhere else and each step felt further and further away from their goal. If they were really working towards saving Asbel, then why did she feel like they were moving backwards?
"Pascal," Cheria jogged a few paces to catch up with her friend, paying special note to the stray pipes scattered on the floor. "Do you really think we'll find a cure for Asbel here? I seems like this place is nothing but a mess of broken equipment."
"We won't know until we look," Pascal pointed out. "Come on, Cheria, have a little faith!"
"Blind faith was always Asbel's department, I'm afraid."
"Well we're not going to give up after coming this far!" Pascal stated. "What's the matter Cheria? This isn't like you."
"Really?" The statement caught Cheria off-guard.
"Yeah, what happened to the Cheria who was so stubborn she got me to take a bath twice a week?"
Cheria couldn't help but smile at Pascal's statement. The warmth lasted a brief moment, but it fled as quickly as it had come and Cheria felt an icy hand reclaim its hold on her heart.
"I'm just…" Cheria began hesitantly. "I'm afraid. I'm so afraid of losing Asbel I can't even think about it. I don't know what I'd do if he doesn't make it past this. I can't do this by myself… I can't raise this child without him. Just thinking that this baby might not ever get to meet their father is enough to make me want to stop breathing. I can't handle that… I just can't… I don't want that!"
"None of us do," Pascal replied solemnly. "Especially not Asbel. Don't count him out of this just yet Cheria!"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Remember when I said that his eleth was so low I was surprised he was still breathing?"
"But he is still breathing, Cheria," Pascal pointed out. "Asbel is fighting too, in spite of everything that's happening to him, he's trying to fight back. He's trying to come back to you."
Pascal's words struck Cheria so close to home that she stopped in her tracks. Cheria couldn't believe how foolish she had been. All this time she had been so focused on her own feelings that she hadn't even considered the fact that Asbel was struggling just as hard as she was. She had allowed herself to believe that she was alone in her fears and doubts, even though her friends were right there beside her the entire time. No wonder she had felt so hopeless, she would never be able to protect anyone like this! Asbel was fighting for his life, and Cheria wasn't going to insult him by doing anything less. She knew that he would never give up, and so she wouldn't concede either, not until her last breath. Even though they were apart, they were still both fighting for the same future, and Cheria refused to let it slip through her fingers.
"Thank you Pascal," Cheria finally managed, meeting Pascal's grin with a smile of her own. "I think I was letting my fears get the better of me. Let's do this and save Asbel."
"You got it!" Pascal cheered.
A huge crash startled the Amarcian and sent her scrambling towards Cheria with a small shriek. The walls of the open chamber shattered, cracks raced down their lengths sending a rain of debris down from the ceiling.
"Watch out you two!" Richard dove in, striking a stray piece of debris into the adjacent wall.
"Thanks Richard," Pascal offered.
"Don't thank me just yet."
From the newly blown hole in the eastern wall a giant monster emerged. In the form of an eagle, the creature easily dwarfed its opponents. Green feathers spread across its body, each stiff and sharp as a razor, offsetting the hooked beak and talons that looked ready to tear each of them apart.
"The medical wing is just up ahead," Pascal exclaimed. "If we can get past this thing, we should be in the clear."
"Alright then," Richard answered, swinging his rapier and brining it to a sharp stop that left the air whipping behind it. "I hope you don't take this personally, but we've a friend who needs saving and you're in our way."
"Don't forget about us," Cheria stepped up beside Windor's Monarch. "We're not going to let a little thing like this stop us. We're going to save Asbel, no matter what!"
As if sensing their resolve, the monster shrieked in protest, swooping down on its opponents. Barely allowing them time to recover it swung around and made a second pass. Ready for it, Pascal swung her shotstaff up, cutting the bird's trajectory and several shots went astray. The creature diverted its target and made a pass at Richard, forcing him to abandon the arte he had been amidst casting. Swinging his rapier out, the blade connected but left no more than a scratch on the monster's hardened surface.
Sensing the arte Cheria was trying to cast, the monster targeted her next. Anticipating the strike, Cheria sidestepped the attack, managing to avoid the worst of the damage but blood still ran down her arm from where it grazed her. Richard stepped in and attacked again, his rapier drawing attention away from the injured caster long enough for her to quickly mend her wounds.
Pascal fired off a series of shots, knocking the bird off balance just long enough for her to expertly follow up with a cryas arte that struck the monster point blank. Unfazed by the strike, it took a swipe at the offending Amarcian and Pascal was knocked from her feet, crashing painfully into the floor. Curses! Richard dashed forward, reaching his companion just in time to deflect the ensuing strike but his retaliating blow had little more effect than the rest of their attacks.
"What the heck?!" Pascal exclaimed, scurrying out of the monster's attack path. It swooped upwards beyond their reach before firing several of its razor sharp feathers down on them in a rain they all scrambled to escape from. "We're not even putting a dent in it!"
Pascal was entirely correct, and for all that they were slowly wearing down, Cheria could still see their opponent had yet to slow. It already had the advantage of flight, and with only Richard to try and distract it when she and Pascal were casting, they were already at a loss, even without accounting for the creature's unusually tough exterior. Dodging the bird's strike, Cheria fired her knives at it and as anticipated, they bounced off the monster as harmlessly as had she thrown them at the wall. Where was Asbel when she needed him? He was always the one to find a way to pull through in a pinch like this.
But Asbel wasn't here, not this time, and Cheria knew that if they couldn't find a way to pull through then he never would be again. She missed his presence, his ever re-assuring smile and ridiculous belief that everything would work out in the end. Perhaps she had begun to take for granted just how much she relied on his support, even in battle. Even so, she wasn't going to let that stop her. For once she would be the one to support him, she would be the one to protect him and no matter what it took she would return to his side. He had risked everything to build a world that they could live in peacefully and it was finally time that she could return the favour, then things could finally return to how they'd been… just like before.
Wait... just like before?
"This monster!" Cheria shouted, the realization crashing over her. "It's the same as the ones we fought before, the ones that had evolved from Fodra's eleth."
"Of course," Richard shared her realization. "No wonder our attacks aren't doing any harm. Last time Asbel had already broken through their defenses."
"So does Lambda think he can help us out of this bind, or what?" Pascal shouted, fleeing from the monster's sharp talons.
Though Lambda did not reply, Richard felt a surge of power rise from within him. Concentrating on his hand, the energy rose until it swirled dangerously about his rapier.
"Lure it over here!" Richard called and Pascal skirted beneath the eagle's belly, forcing the monster to veer off course and shift its trajectory. Flying straight for the young king, he firmly took his sword in hand and lunged forward. Releasing Lambda's power sent a wave coursing through Richard's entire body as his every nerve resonated with the all too familiar feeling.
His sword ripped through the creature's strengthened defenses leaving a deep gash along the lengths on its back. Without giving it the slightest chance to recover, Pascal struck with her shotstaff, pushing the opening ever wider while light swirled dangerously around Cheria.
"Reveal the name that shines upon us," Cheria's song rang across the room as light gathered above them. "Not with rage or mercy, but with simple truth!"
The light crashed down from its gathering point, striking along the gash Richard's rapier had made. With one final screech in protest, the monster crashed to the ground, clawing one or twice at the stone floor before ceasing to move altogether.
"Alright!" Pascal cheered. "Way to go teamwork!"
"That was close," Cheria agreed as she let out her tension in a single breath. "I'm glad we were able to pull through."
"No kidding, you two were awesome!" Pascal exclaimed, tilting her head to the side when she didn't get any kind of reply. "Richard?"
"Yes?" Richard sounded startled.
"You were all zoned out there. Are you okay?"
"I'm sorry, you're right of course. We're very fortunate to have had Lambda's assistance."
Pascal only leaned in, a finger on her lips as she stared him down. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm fine," he insisted, shaking his head.
"If you say so," Pascal replied, eyeing him in a way that told Richard she didn't quite believe him.
Richard had to give her credit, she was far more perceptive than she let on and she was right not to trust his words. As Richard followed Cheria and Pascal forward toward the medical wing, Richard himself couldn't decide if they were true or not. He couldn't quite shake the feeling that had consumed him in the moment he'd used Lambda's power. Still the sensation lingered and it drew from deep within him memories of a darker power he had once drowned in. True he hadn't used Lambda's power in a long time, but it felt far too much like the old days for Richard to be comfortable, and that was enough to genuinely worry him.
'You haven't said anything in awhile,' Richard prodded mentally, trying to get some kind of reply out of Lambda. The being's silence was worrying in and of itself, all other matters non-withstanding. Richard felt guilty, he'd been so caught up in his own concerns that he hadn't even stopped to check how Lambda had been feeling.
We've discovered a great deal in past couple days, Lambda replied. I'm simply trying to sort through it all.
'What have you figured out?' Richard inquired, but this time he could sense that his words hadn't even reached the being. Contrary to how he'd felt over the past couple days, lately Lambda seemed… closed off, as if the world around him was suddenly a bother, and he was trying to force as much of it away as he could. Yet it also begged the question: was he closing himself off to avoid unnecessary distractions, or to keep something from coming to light?
'Did you figure anything out from what we've learned so far?' Richard asked again, forcing his thoughts through to Lambda who felt somewhat irritated at the contact.
Lambda's simple answer sent the same unease through Richard as his statements the previous day had. He was lying again. But why?
'For someone who hasn't figured anything out, you're thinking quite hard about it,' Richard pointed out. Though he'd meant it more as a joke, Richard was surprised by how sharply the words came across.
I'm merely trying to deduce how such a thing occurred when there were so many factors against it. Even in spite of Protos Heis… Lambda's musings trailed off.
'Wait, what does Sophie have to do with anything?' Richard asked confusedly but even in spite of his best efforts he could no longer get through to Lambda.
Richard's mind simply continued its cycle, thinking and rethinking everything that had happened in the past couple days. Until now, Richard had been content to accept Lambda's words at face value. After all, he trusted the being, and he knew that Lambda wanted to save Asbel. They both desired the same things, right? And yet, how was that any different than their thinking before? They had wanted the same things back then as well, and Richard was starting to seriously question just what was really going on. Despite his suspicions, until now they had been only that: suspicions; unfounded, and easily chalked up to the stress that these past events had sparked between everyone.
But Sophie? When had she been pulled into all this? What was her role in these events? No one else had spoken of her, no one else had even mentioned her in tandem with Asbel's condition and yet she was at the forefront of Lambda's thoughts. What did Lambda know that he wasn't sharing? Even if he'd somehow deduced something they hadn't thought of, why wasn't he offering the information he possessed? He wanted to save Asbel… right? Or did Lambda have other priorities? Richard couldn't shake the nagging doubts from his mind.
Just what was Lambda trying to hide?
"Aha!" Pascal's chirp drew Richard from his musings long enough to notice they'd reached a room full of various terminals. Though it was as poorly lit as much of the facility, the glow of the machines that ran across the room and up the walls gave them enough light by which to work. Several shelves were littered with discarded vials and medical supplies. There was the odd tome among them, but it seemed that books did not withstand the test of time as the Amarcian's records could.
Wasting no time putting herself to work, Pascal jogged across the room and immediately appropriated a terminal. By the time Richard and Cheria had followed her, she'd already gotten the ancient device up and running and she was furiously clicking away at the various buttons on the control panel.
"Does it look promising?" Cheria inquired.
"Oh yeah!" Pascal affirmed. "There's all kinds of information in here, and its all super thorough. It's just going to be a matter of finding the right stuff."
"Well that's a relief," Richard commented.
"Agreed," Cheria said with a nod.
"You know," Pascal spoke as she continued to scroll through a variety of words and symbols that flashed across the screen before her. "I've noticed something kind of weird."
"What's that?" Richard inquired.
"Hu almost never gets sick," she provided.
"Where did that come from all of a sudden?" Cheria asked.
"Well, I've been thinking. Cheria, you used to be really sick a long time ago, right?"
"That's right," Cheria confirmed. Though it had been years since then, Cheria could still remember the disease that ravaged her lungs as a child. She had barely been able to walk around Lhant without a fit of coughing, never mind running anywhere. She had hated every moment of it, every day that Asbel had left her behind to go play, every minute she had spent laying in bed feeling helpless, wondering if tomorrow would even come. She couldn't imagine living that way again. "I was sick when I was a child," she provided. "But then Sophie's particles healed me."
"Exactly," Pascal pointed out. "Now tell me honestly, between you, Asbel, and Hu, when was the last time any of you were sick. Not like overworked and stressed and such, when was the last time you just caught a cold?"
"Goodness," Cheria suddenly realized what Pascal was getting at. "I can't remember having a cold in the longest time. At least, nothing that's lasted longer than a day or so."
"I thought so," Pascal continued. "You see, Sophie's particles are totally amazing. Not only are they capable of regenerating damaged tissue, they'll actually seek out and eliminate just about any threat to their vessel. I mean sure you'd still catch the odd bug, and since you only have a few of them, you still have to worry about hurting yourself, but most of the time you're probably sick and better before you've even noticed anything."
"Lambda is much the same way," Richard confessed. "He's capable of maintaining and healing his vessel indefinitely so long as his own strength holds."
"That's exactly my point," Pascal stated, returning to the screens before her. "Between Sophie's particles and Lambda living inside him, how in the world did Asbel get sick? What's so different about this that neither of them can handle?"
At Pascal's conclusion, Richard distinctly felt his body resonate again. Lambda's power surged dangerously and it left Richard trying to swallow the bile that rose in his throat.
'Lambda, what's wrong? What's going on?' Richard demanded, getting no more reply than his earlier efforts had wrought him. If Lambda had even heard his words, Richard had become such an inconsequential consideration that he no longer merited an answer. Instead Richard could feel Lambda's thoughts swirl as they mulled over and over again, growing dangerously volatile with each cycle. Then everything came crashing down, as if he had suddenly reached a very dark conclusion.
"I think I found it!" Pascal exclaimed. "This sounds exactly like what's going on with Asbel! Low eleth readings… the body is shutting down it's own eleth supply… this has to be it."
"What was it?" Cheria asked. "What was the cause?"
"I'm getting there… the cause was… wait what?"
"What is it?
"The cause was contamination… from Fodra's core."