The Path Homeward

Part Two: Threshold

"Liberation"

It would be their last appointment, their last meeting, as project and observer, for he intended to end all of this tonight. Most of his last day had been spent simply attempting to unwind from his confrontation with Yggdrasill, who had not yet contacted Kvar about Kratos' apparent defection from their organization. For the time being, at least, he still had his rank, and that would be enough to allow him to do what he wished until the time came.

That morning, he had sent a transmission to Noishe with orders to await them at Lake Umacy not far away, where he had established a checkpoint and the Desians could not so easily pursue him, not efficiently. He would bring the girl, and then he would run with her, hide her away, using all his strength to prevent the Age of Inorganic Beings … Perhaps then he could begin to atone for what he had allowed.

As it was, he currently sat in an examination room with Anna and her handler, who had explained to him before their session had began that Anna had lost her closet companion in the Ranch but a few days ago. It would explain how grim she looked, how very old and tired she seemed to him now, for grief, as he was well aware, sloped shoulders and made ordinary life far harder than it ever had been before. But there was new determination in her eyes, a resolve that he believed may be to escape and see the world beyond the Ranch walls.

It was a good thing and would make convincing her easier than it would have been otherwise.

Even if she did not trust him, she would allow him to offer her freedom, of this he was sure.

"You keep giving me that look," Kratos' eyes focused and he straightened in his seat, looking at Anna, who was frowning up at him, her green eyes guarded.

Kratos' eyes flickered to Adrus, who was standing at the doorway, watching them. He had to be careful what he said in front of the other, for he could not reveal his plan, and he was already certain the other was suspicious of him. Perhaps he should have been more careful in his line of questioning last week, though he must admit he was grateful that Adrus had not yet revealed any suspicions he had to Kvar.

He had to wonder at the reasons, however.

"I do not know what you are referring to," was the answer Kratos eventually settled for, prompting Anna to snort and cross her arms firmly over her chest.

"Like hell you don't," she sighed and tried to explain, motioning her arms before glancing toward Adrus for help. "Have you noticed what I'm talking about?" Adrus (wisely) didn't say anything, just sighed, leaving Anna on her own. The woman frowned more deeply. "It's vacant. Like you're staring through me, but thinking about me anyway."

It was Kratos' turn to snort, shaking his head slowly. "A012, I am simply thinking. It is not necessarily about you."

She frowned at him but really couldn't say anything, turning her face away to stare at the wall before looking back toward him a moment later. For some reason, he had the feeling she was attempting to interrogate him, though he was not really sure what she was getting out of it. Perhaps a distraction from her grief?

He could not begrudge her that.

"So why did you come back?" She asked him, pulling her legs to her chest as she sat in her chair. "I've been thinking about it and I couldn't figure out a reason. You were here to spy on Kvar, right? But you already reported on him, so why did you come back?"

Kratos noticed Adrus suddenly paying more attention, Anna voicing suspicions he himself must have.

He simply shook his head in response before taking a moment to gather his thoughts. "Lord Yggdrasill still requires information on the Angelus Project. It is very important to a future plan of his," he explained, making sure to be as honest as he was able with the information without giving too much away. "It is related to a goal he and the Desians share."

"The Age of Half Elves."

Kratos looked to Adrus, nodding curtly before turning his attention back to the woman in front of him. "Yes. He is interested in … Creating an even playing field, so to speak. The Angelus Project is therefore the means to an end."

"An even playing field?" Anna asked.

It was Adrus, not Kratos, who answered, speaking before he could explain to her what his words had meant. "Lord Yggrasill seeks to bring Half Elves out of the dark and give them the rights and power they've never had. He seeks to make up for thousands of years of oppression and suffering."

Kratos shook his head, but did not have to answer, watching Anna clench her jaw, her green eyes blazing as she stared Adrus in the eyes. "And to justify it he kills hundreds of Humans? Some boss you two have."

If only she knew how short her estimate of the people he had allowed to be killed truly was.

"It's for the sake of a better world," the Lieutenant was obstinate. "For the sake of making up for all the bad things done to us, sacrifices have to be made. But it won't be this way when we win. We're going to be better than what was done to us, and we're going to make the world a better place. The Goddess is on our side."

"So it's okay to just up and kill some people who have done nothing to you personally just because some people a long time ago did some shit to you? That's such crap," she turned away from him, and Kratos could see the pain in her eyes. "And that's such a load of garbage. The Goddess is sleeping. She can't be on anyone's side, and even if she were, you Desians are the ones who caused her to sleep in the first place!"

"That's not true. Humans put Martel to sleep when they started treating Half Elves with disdain. Their hatred drove her to slumber. We only do what we do to help revive her," Adrus was surprisingly calm, though Kratos could not help but detect a note of condescension in his tone, as if he were teaching an ignorant child some life-changing truth.

Watching the exchange with some interest, Kratos found himself feeling oddly satisfied that they appeared to have forgotten his existence. It gave him leeway to watch the exchange without being noticed, which was something infinitely valuable to him.

He found it fascinating to watch Anna argue, to watch the fire of her idealistic spirit blaze, the flames of her passion licking from her eyes in an attempt to singe Adrus. There would be no victor, could be no victor, and he would break their fight up soon, but he felt as if he were learning something of her simply through observation.

"That is enough. This is not the time for a theological debate," Kratos said finally, just as Anna was about to retort. "Adrus is correct. It is Yggdrasill's aim to create a world in which no discrimination exists and to revive the Goddess Martel. He has never been an enemy of The Church."

Only an enemy of the people.

"So basically the Desians are a twisted religious cult," Anna muttered. "It all makes a lot more sense now. I guess that's why they started the War in the first place, then, because they disagreed with the true believers."

"That's not what happened at a –"

Adrus began to speak, but Kratos held up a hand to silence him. "I said enough. Allow her to believe what she wishes and take her back to her cell. I have a report to write."

There was a pause, a hesitance, as Adrus reached down for the shackles hanging from his belt. "Lord Aurion … May I visit you in your office later on tonight?"

Kratos almost refused; however, he had to keep up appearances. He would have to make the final preparations for his plan sooner rather than later, but he would go through with acting the part until the last moment.

"Very well, Lieutenant Adrus. I will be waiting."

XxX

All she could do was stare at her wall and feel frustrated, running her hands through her hair before sitting down against the wall, not on the cot. She didn't know what to do, because for the first time she felt truly trapped here. Even those two years ago she'd had hope that this would end, that someone would save her and take her away, even when she was wallowing in the grief of losing everything. But this time, when she really wanted to escapes, how much work that would actually take hit her like a cartload of bricks.

There were so many obstacles, so many things standing in her way, that it almost made her lose faith … Almost.

Pulling the ring out to look at it, Anna ran her fingers across the cool surface, her face reflected in the burnished gold. This ring represented a lot to her – Eren's dying wish, her past, her future, and hope. She had to get out of here, had to find Grace and give this ring to her to tell her about what had happened to Eren. And then she had to find the rest of her family and help people who were victimized by the Desians as much as she could.

Because a better world was possible, it just wasn't the world Adrus dreamed of.

Feeling emotionally drained, Anna glanced to her cot, and from the floor saw something stuffed underneath it that hadn't been there two days ago when she'd left the room. Frowning sharply, she crawled across the floor on her hands and knees, leaning low to reach beneath the bed, pulling out the package with a slight grunt.

Frowning, she realized she probably shouldn't open it when the camera was on, but looking up she found the little yellow light that flashed when it was recording was dead. Her brow furrowed further and she looked down at what she clutched tightly in her hands, which, now that she looked at it, was a dagger in a leather sheath with a letter tied to it using twine. With shaking fingers, she unfastened the twine and unfolded the letter, which was written on very pristine looking paper.

It was hand-written, printed instead of written in cursive, in small, neat looking letters with a slight slant to them. Anna was confused, because no one had written her a hand-written since she'd received her last letter from Troy in Luin over two years, but had no idea what this would be doing here, under the bed in which she slept.

She figured the only way to find out was to read the letter.

"Miss Irving," the letter began, almost immediately alerting her to the author of this note, even without glancing to the bottom of the third page, where his name was written in nearly illegible cursive; she supposed that's why he'd decided to print the note.

"I am sure you are wonder why I have written to you. To be honest, I myself debated upon this course of action, however, I inevitably decided on this path when I realized that I would not have a chance to explain my plan to you otherwise, and if I did not explain, you would be hard pressed to listen to me. And so, though I am perhaps more terrible at communicating through text than I am face to face, I take this path as my last recourse."

"There is much I cannot explain to you because simply knowing it would put you in danger. However, I can tell you that something I have recently discovered, something revolving around the Angelus Project, has lead me to have second thoughts about all which I have allowed these many long years. With this in mind, I can no longer stay a part of this organization, an organization I would have already left long ago if it were not for certain circumstances that prevented me from leaving. But because even I have my limits, I have decided that I must leave, and I would like, if at all possible, to prevent the future Yggdrasill is dreaming of."

"And I suppose that this is the main point of my letter, Miss Irving. I would like to rescue from this Human Ranch, you and only you, and travel with you to prevent Kvar and others like him from furthering their research. Though I know the offer may seem selfish or cruel, please understand that at this point not much else can be done to destroy this system, and this is perhaps our only chance at dealing a blow to his empire."

"I ask that, if you accept, you not run from me. The Desians will pursue you, for you are not like a normal prisoner. Your Exsphere is special, and they will seek to regain it, and by yourself, no matter how many daggers I give you, you will not be able to fight them off. I seek to protect you, to help get you back on your feet. In any case, I recall you wanted to travel. This is a good opportunity for you to see the world."

"It is not your forgiveness I seek, Miss Irving, only your partnership. All I ask is that you trust me to keep you safe this one last time."

"Think about it. I will be there to fetch you on the night of the second day after my return."

"With the greatest sincerity …"

"Kratos Aurion," Anna placed her fingers against the page, frowning deeply before looking at the dagger.

She wished she could say she was surprised, that this shocked her, and she supposed that it did on a superficial level. Kratos was a Desian High Lord who had more power than anyone else, who could have killed Kvar without consequences, and here he was offering to help her escape from the Ranch. There were some strings attached, like she had to live with him for an indefinite period of time, but she was sure if she asked he would have a plan for that, too, that there was a way for them to go their separate ways eventually.

And to be honest, she couldn't get the image of Kratos the Knight out of her mind.

Something deep inside of her screamed "I knew it", while her head screamed that she was being an idiot for so easily taking him at his word, for believing that this letter was sincere when he had betrayed her once before … But … But something about Kratos Aurion was so ridiculously sincere you couldn't help but trust him, no matter how much of an ass he was, no matter how cruel or cold he seemed … There was always that part of him that was trustworthy, the part of him that made her want to believe that he truly hadn't meant for any of this to happen.

It had to be wishful thinking, though, she told herself. If being in the Ranch had taught her one thing, it was that fairy tales weren't real, and that life was give and take. Most people, put under pressure, would become wicked, and though it hurt Anna, she had to accept that Kratos was the same as most people.

Still …

Was she really in a position to refuse his offer?

There was no shame in taking advantage of him, was there? In allowing him to free her so she could pursue her goals? Find Grace, Troy, her family … And maybe make a difference along the way?

No.

She would refuse to believe that that was the wrong thing to do.

So, clutching the dagger to her chest, Anna smiled a grim smile.

She would accept his offer.

XxX

Adrus looked nervous, though Kratos could not really blame him. There was something on his mind, of that much Kratos was sure, and though he could chance a few guesses on what it was about he did not particularly feel like bringing it up himself. Rather, he waited, staring at the Lieutenant until he decided to speak.

"Sir … Lord … Aurion," he finally began, struggling with his words; Kratos sat back, allowed him to find them. "A012 told me of … Your prior meeting. Though I understand it isn't any of my business, I was wondering if, perhaps, that prior experience is … Interfering with your judgment?"

Kratos raised his eyebrows, and Adrus stilled himself by taking a deep breath, gaining confidence. "I don't mean to say that you're defecting or anything like that, I was simply wondering if the conditions she's been living in are conducive to suffering," hearing those words prompted Kratos to frown, and, mistaking it as displeasure with his words, Adrus elaborated. "I don't particularly think taking away all there hope is a great idea, Lord Aurion. I'm not like my superior and I believe that some hope actually increases the growth rate of the Exspheres because it makes the suffering seem keener, but … Haven't things gotten too easy for her?"

"I will not be here forever, Lieutenant," Kratos began. "I am sure you realize this. To be honest, most of what I am doing it to help her recover from what Kvar has put her through these past two years. I wish to extend the life of the project, and know full well what I am doing. Any rehabilitation I can provide so that she can withstand Kvar's treatment is worth it."

He watched as the Lieutenant's eyes widened and the man glanced away before taking a deep breath and nodding. Kratos could tell he believed what he had said, for better or worse, though he was certain that would not last for much longer.

"I respect you, sir. I always have. You've made the Ranch run more efficiently, and the many of the men here like you far more than they like Lord Kvar," Kratos snorted, for that was not saying much.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Lieutenant." Kratos replied, picking his quill up off the desk and examining it; he wondered vaguely if there was more of a point to this.

"If you're planning something, I'm going to have to report you."

Calmly, Kratos looked into Adrus' eyes, placing the quill back down on the desk. Though he had expected Adrus to be concerned about the Angelus Project, he had not expected this and found himself wondering what had tipped Adrus off. Interest piqued, Kratos was suddenly grateful that he was putting his plans into action tonight, deciding that he would need to be on high alert regardless of when the plan was going into action.

"And what makes you think I am planning something?"

"I'm not entirely sure," Adrus admitted after a tense moment, shaking his head slowly. "I tend to have decent gut instincts and something tells me that you're planning something." His prior nervousness was gone, which was both a curse and a blessing, allowing him to stare Kratos in the eyes. "Whatever it is, don't do it. You can do more good within the organization than from without."

Kratos said nothing, staring at Adrus for a long time, attempting to formulate a response. There really wasn't much he could think to say to chase away the man's worries and assure him that he was still loyal, for he was an honest man, perhaps to a fault. All he could do was wear the mask of High Lord and play that role to its fullest.

"I assure you, whatever decisions I make are for the good of Martel and the world," Kratos finally said. "I will not do anything to betray the trust of the Goddess, which you well know, Adrus, as you know the truth of who I am."

Shock, genuine shock, flickered across his subordinate's face before he nodded, the tension draining from his shoulders. "Of course. I have to admit, I don't know the workings of your mind, Lord Aurion, and I never could. I'm sorry for bothering you with this. It all seems rather silly now …" But his face looked distracted and worried, still, and Kratos was certain that he would later cause him troubles.

For the time being, however, the crisis appeared to have been averted.

"It is alright, Lieutenant. Your heart was in the right place, as I can tell it often is. Now if you excuse me, I am leaving in the morrow. I would like to file the last of my reports before packing my things away in preparation for my departure."

Adrus stood and bowed, crossing his fist over his heart in salute before retreating, leaving Kratos with his thoughts.

Once the man was gone, Kratos swooped down, pulled a package wrapped in brown paper from underneath his desk, and began to strip from his old uniform. After all, there was no surveillance camera in the office to spy on him, and he did not particularly relish the idea of getting his good uniform full of blood. The rest of his supplies were with Noishe, presumably somewhere around Lake Umacy by now, including a few things he would need to take care of Miss Irving, though they would still need to stop in Asgard for her to rest.

Garbed suddenly in something less conspicuous, Kratos pulled his heavy cloak about his shoulders and slung his sword into his sheath belt. Normally, he would not risk bringing Flamberge on a journey to this place as it stood out too greatly, but he would not be able to go back for it and did not have the heart to leave it behind. The sword was his constant companion, an extension of himself, of his soul, and to lose it without the chance of getting it back was almost painful to him.

Turning to look at his reflection in the polished metal of the walls, Kratos could hardly believe his own appearance. He had not dressed so normally since he had met Miss Irving two years ago, and before that occurrence, he couldn't remember another time when he'd worn such a garb. He truly did look almost like a normal swordsman, dressed in dark blues, violets, and blacks, eccentric colors that marked him as a tradesman, but not … Not so unusual.

This would have to do.

Spinning away, he laced his wingpack through his belt, drew his cloak tightly about his shoulders, and set off down the hallway, knowing full well that before the night was over, blood would be shed by his hand.

XxX

Her first thought when he walked into her cell was that at least he had made an effort to try to look like a normal person. Still, if he thought that would fool anyone into thinking he was really normal, he was wrong. Even she had known those two years ago that Kratos Aurion wasn't a normal man by any stretch of the imagination, so no one would mistake him for anything other than what he was, though she wasn't really sure that there was a word to describe him.

"I read your letter," she said as the door slid shut behind him.

"And have you made a decision?" There was something in the way that he stood that told her he had assessed her answer before she had even opened her mouth to speak, but Anna found herself answering anyway.

"I'll do it," Anna nodded and stood. "I can't help anyone staying here and I made a promise to my friend that I would escape, so if you're offering it to me, I'm not really in a position to refuse."

"Very well."

There was no sarcastic comment, no raising of his eyebrows or mocking of her decision in any way. He didn't even scold her for her reasoning; he simply kneeled down, removed the pack from his side to rummage in it, and threw something at her. "I will turn around, just get changed. We can't have you wearing that garb when we get into town. People will still know something happened to you, but it is better we not give them any reason to chase us out."

She blinked at him for a long time, but when he actually kept his word and turned his back (not that he would really want to see her naked anyway; she didn't even want to see herself naked), she pulled off the prisoner's garb and pulled herself into a pair of clean, but old smelling, pants, and an oversized shirt. Sitting down on the cot, she pulled on the boots and then tied the belt around her waist, only to find Kratos staring at her when she looked up.

"Let me help you with the dagger and take off that prisoner's collar," he said before leaning down and helping her to lace the sheath's straps through the belt so it hung at her left side.

Walking around to her back, Kratos placed his hands on the back of the collar and it fell away with a deafening clank onto the floor in front of her. Staring, she looked down to find that the pin that had been holding the two pieces together had been forcefully pulled away, though apparently it had been effortless.

Apparently he had super strength.

Why wasn't she surprised?

"Am I ready?" She asked, turning around, looking up into his eyes.

"As soon as you put on the gloves to hide the Exshphere," Kratos replied, handing her a pair of small, grey, fingerless gloves. "They will also help you to grip your dagger." The look she gave him must have been enough to prompt elaboration. "Sweaty palms," he explained.

Anna nodded.

"Before we go, I want to prepare you for what is going to happen," he walked away and went to lean against the wall, where he crossed his arms over his chest. "This is not going to be easy; as I am sure you've already figured out."

Anna only nodded again and went to sit back on her cot, pulling her legs to her chest and staring at him while she waited for him to continue.

"You must stay near me at all time, as close as you possibly can, and you must trust me to protect you. There will be Desians coming at us from all sides, but I am a professional swordsman and you must leave them to me, trusting in my ability to get us out alive, trusting my ability to know where I am going," his eyes were sharp, commanding, and though she didn't trust him to tell her the truth about really anything regarding himself, but when it came to fighting … That she trusted him to do well. "After we escape, follow me. We will be running for some time in an easterly direction. Do not worry, when you get tired, I will carry you."

Anna nodded.

"Which reminds me, there is one more thing I must do before you are ready to leave," he held out his own gloved hand. "Give me your dagger."

Frowning, she pulled it out of its sheath and handed it over, prompting him to frown at her. "Remind me to teach you how to hold a bladed weapon once we reach the lake."

She didn't comment, only watched him as he flipped the blade around so the blade was pointed outward, grabbed her long, dead, hair, and in one fell swoop, cut it away. She almost smacked him for it, but when she realized how much lighter her head felt, and that she would have had to cut it off for it to be healthy again anyway, she didn't mind so much.

"So where are we going after we get out of here?" she asked him, wondering if she was allowed to privy to his plans.

"Lake Umacy, where we will probably spend a few days resting and going over any cover stories we may need to use in order to live in various cities or townships for any amount of time," he explained. "And then Asgard. I am not happy about having to go there for the memories of Humans are not so short that they will have forgotten me, but the common people like me enough, and I have acquaintances there who will be willing to help us. We wills stay there while I attempt to find work, likely with a pilgrimage on a trip to Palmacosta, and then after that … I suppose we will have to discuss it when the time comes."

"So we'll be going from place to place a lot, right?"

The look he gave her told her that should have been obvious. "Yes."

"Good," Anna didn't elaborate, but maybe that would help her find Grace and Troy, and anyone in her family who was still alive.

Kratos gave her a long look and then straightened his back and looked toward the door. "Are you ready, Miss Irving? Once we exit that door there is no turning back."

Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, Anna stared at his back and then stepped to his side.

"I'm ready, Aurion."

The door slid open.