Sunday, August 31, 2014

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 21: Moving On

Chapter XXI
Moving On


-LILAC-

I took Phenix's place on the battlefield, standing against my father. Thanks to an injury he sustained from his previous battle with North and Kavik, he couldn't see and I disguised my voice so he wouldn't know it was me. I didn't plan on fighting him for long before revealing myself, but I needed to see how strong I'd gotten since I left home, and no one else on this earth could have tested me as well as he could.

He stood at the ready, waiting for my first attack. He always did that, he said that if you let your opponent strike first you can parry their attack and catch them off guard. I knew his fighting style down to the last detail, for years he would drag me into the yard and force me to fight him, often times leaving bruises and cuts that would sometimes require pretty extensive medical treatment. Of course he didn't see it as a big deal, he said I was alive so why was I complaining? I have to admit, there may have been an element of anger in my motivation for fighting him.

I dashed at him quick as lightning. Since unlocking Majesty's potential my speed had drastically increased, it was a heady feeling. He heard my footsteps and swung his sword horizontally to attack me, keeping me from dodging left or right so I just jumped over it instead. In retrospect, ducking would've probably been safer, but it also would've been less cool, so that's a pretty fair trade-off.

I hit the ground and dashed behind him in the blink of an eye, striking him with a bolt of electricity. He shrugged it off and moved his foot, causing a pillar of grey stone to assault me from under the ground. I just barely managed to evade it but was knocked off balance by my clumsy dodge.

He turned around, far quicker than one would expect from a man of his size and weight, and slammed his weapon into the ground, just barely missing me. It would've been easy to blame that on his lack of sight but I had a hunch something else was going on. I pointed my blade at his head, or rather his upper torso since he was more than twice my size, and readied a charge of electrical energy.

"You knew." I said softly, letting my sword arm fall limply to my side. "For how long?"

"You think I wouldn't recognize my own daughter's scent?" The man scoffed. "You did quite well. I think that's the closest you've come to beating me! Granted, you did get some help."

"Nah, I would've floored you even without these guys softening you up." I said teasingly, despite that statement being blatantly untrue. I was miffed that he knew it was me all along, but despite that I was really happy to see him. It'd been too long. "I missed you, old man."

"I missed you too, princess." He dropped his weapon and embraced me in a bone crushing hug, lifting me up into his arms. I didn't resist, despite him not really knowing his own strength, it felt good to get a hug from him. Besides, I was used to him hurting me 'by accident'.

"How did you get free from Xaviera?" He asked as he put me back on the ground. "And why did that bitch kidnap you anyway?"

"It's a long story." I chuckled nervously. "Or... well, I really don't know why she wanted to kidnap me." I figured it would be best not to tell him that it was about him. Maybe that was the wrong decision, I don't know, but I knew him and I knew he would try to pick a fight with the other Commander if he knew, and that was exactly what we were trying to prevent. "I think it was just a misunderstanding. I went to jail and got released the night after, maybe they thought I'd escaped unlawfully."

"You went to jail?" Dad looked down at me and arched an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Um, hey dad! We should really get your eye looked at!" I said, cheerfully changing the subject and grabbing his big ol' hand to try and drag him. "I have a friend who can fix that up for you!"

"Nice try, princess." He took his hand back and patted me on the head somewhat condescendingly. "Now tell me what happened."

I looked down at the ground and blushed, feeling really embarrassed. I wasn't proud of what had happened, in fact I was quite humiliated by it, and I didn't want him of all people to know. Hell, I didn't want to tell anyone. But he was my dad, how could I not tell him?

"No." I said as I came to realize something. "Dad, I'm an adult. I don't need to tell you everything. It was a minor infraction, I was let go the night after and everything was taken care of, but it's my business and that doesn't automatically make it yours." I stared up at him intensely, despite knowing he couldn't actually see me. My legs were turning to jelly as I waited for his response. And when he finally did say something, after a couple torturous seconds of contemplation, he laughed.

"You've really grown, haven't you?" He said, beaming with joy. "Wow, after all these years you've finally gotten a backbone! I'm so proud of you, Lilac!" I honestly thought I had heard him wrong at first, it took me a second to register that he actually said that to me.

"Tha-thank you." I stuttered, holding back tears. I knew how much he disapproved of crying and I didn't want to ruin the moment.

"It's no problem, princess. You've earned it." Dad said sincerely, putting his big strong hands on my tiny frail shoulders. "You're in good hands, aren't you?"

"I really am." I nodded, biting my lip to stop the bawling from happening.

"Well then I'm gonna leave ya be. You don't need this old man hovering over you anymore, do ya?" He asked.

I shook my head and said "No, I don't."

"Well then..." He grinned wider than I'd ever seen before. "The next time we meet, we'll have a real, honest to god fight. What do you think of that?"

"I think you need to get your eye looked at." I said laughing, wiping tears from my face. I really didn't know how else to respond, I was both over the moon excited and brick shittingly scared by the idea but the fact that he'd say it at all to me was more than I could really wrap my head around after everything else that'd happened.

"You're right." He chuckled, dipping his fingers into the blood on his face. "But I don't need one of your sissy doctors, I'll get treatment from my own crew. I know I left 'em around here someplace." He began to wander off to find his comrades before turning back for a moment to say one last thing. "Oh, Lilac. When you talk to your blue friends again, tell 'em that I said that it was a fine fight."

"Will do, dad." I saluted instinctively.

"I love you, princess." He said cheerfully before heading back on his way.

"I love you too, dad." I said weakly. As soon as he was finally out of earshot, I fell to my knees and broke down crying.

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 20: Savior

Chapter XX
Savior


-AIDEN-

I awoke in a misty garden during midmorning, a beautiful blue lake to my right with a gorgeous waterfall pouring into it and what must have been a thousand lilacs planted around it. My first thought was god, this is beautiful and my second was oh crap, I'm dead aren't I? I was not pleased by that second one.

"You're not dead, Aiden." A clear, soft masculine voice cut through the mist and spoke to me, instinctively putting my heart at ease pretty much immediately.

"Who are you?" I asked, looking around for the source of the voice, and becoming increasingly perturbed when I couldn't find it. "And how did you know I was thinking that?"

"Because I know you quite well." The voice chuckled. The man it belonged to appeared to me, sitting on a large flat stone that stretched out over the lake. He was a proud and dignified man, wearing a pale blue luxurious robe. I recognized the type, it was a yukata, something I'd always wanted to own for myself but could never afford. The man himself was a Fionbri like me, with the exact same fur colors in fact. Naturally it didn't take long for me to put the pieces together.

"Yeah, I'll bet you do." I said dryly with a wry grin on my face. "So let me guess, you're supposed to be 'me'?"

"Something like that." The man said as he rose from the stone and approached me.

As he came near me my first instinct was to cringe and back away but I forced myself not to, knowing that was a response born out of fear and that there was absolutely no need to fear this man. After all, I wasn't afraid of myself, was I? Okay, bad question.

"Here, take this." He handed me a ring, a beautiful gold ring with a lustrous orange stone in the center. It was so simple yet elegant at the same time and I was flattered to even be holding it, much less receiving it as a gift.

"W-why?" I stammered as I took the ring and held it up to examine it.

"You've earned it." The man chuckled. He wasn't being condescending, although that's what my mind first jumped to, it was more like that laugh that a parent makes when their child says something only a child would say. "At least I think so."

"What exactly... is it?" I put the ring on my left ring finger and immediately felt a rush of emotion. Love, lust, passion, anger, excitement, joy, peace... there was so much that I almost took the ring off but I didn't. Despite being overwhelmed, I didn't want to be separated from those feelings. They all felt right to me somehow. It was like I was feeling my own life, my own future, but in fast forward. It was both amazing and slightly horrifying.

"It is your Testament." The man... the me... the guy... whatever the hell he was said. "And if you can tell me its name, you may keep it."

"That's easy." I laughed in his face. Even before he handed me the godda-, I mean the amazing thing I knew its name. I knew its name before I even knew Testaments existed, ever since I was a freaking child, somewhere deep in my heart, I always knew the name that I called out to, and that called to me in return. "Savior."

"Well done." The older me said with pride and put his hands on my shoulders. "Now get back to that dank smelly cave and kick some serious ass with this thing." What do you know, he was starting to sound like me after all.

"You don't have to tell me twice." I smirked, watching with astonishment as the ring transformed on my hand into an orange and gold archery glove. "That is freakin' cool."

"One more thing before you leave." The other me held up his hand and I nodded for him to keep talking. "You'd better take damn good care of her, you hear me?"

I made an embarrassingly audible gulp and the look on my face was priceless I'm sure. I was at a complete loss for words, yet again.

"Will do." I sighed resignedly. What else could I say? There were so many thoughts filling up my brain space as soon as he said it that I almost went into processing overload.

Whatever, the other me laughed and waved goodbye and I gave a salute as the vision began to fade. I didn't know where exactly I'd wind up when I awoke or what condition I'd be in, but if I were already dead this vision would've been totally pointless so I was pretty sure I'd be okay.

The last thing I thought before regaining consciousness was I will make damn sure I take care of her. Her and everyone else.

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 19: The Scent of Rain

Chapter XIX
The Scent of Rain


-PHENIX-

Seeing Judas again put me in a rather foul mood. My last encounter with the strange being didn't go terribly, but the bastard beat up my friends and I couldn't forgive it for that. Despite that though, something inside me warmed up when I saw Judas, like I was relieved to see it or something. But maybe I was just expecting worse company in the depths of the Ravaged Lands and was glad to see something I felt I could manage.

"Judas..." I growled, not really knowing what else to say. The shrouded creature in the white expressionless mask simply stared back at me.

"You again..." Judas responded wistfully. Its voice was a horrible gestalt of what sounded like random mechanical noise thrown on top of its words, but through that I could still sense its tone, and moreover, I could feel its energy. It felt... depressed. "Get out of my way, I have a job to do."

"I won't do that." I scoffed. Did it even think that would work? "I can't just stand by and let you kill people."

"Then I'll kill you." Judas stepped toward me, reaching for some unseen weapon hidden in its shroud.

"So this is Judas?" August asked, stepping beside me with Faith already in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. I nodded. "You didn't tell me she was a woman."

"What?"

Judas and I both replied in unison. All the mounting tension between the two of us was suddenly deflated by that comment as we both turned to August incredulously, waiting for an explanation.

"I... I am not..." Judas stammered.

"Your denial is just more proof." August shrugged and flicked some ashes to the ground. "Your body shape, from what little I can see of it past your shroud, the way you carry yourself and the way you walk are all distinctly feminine. You're a woman behind that mask."

"Are you sure?" I asked. I trusted his judgment.

"Absolutely." August nodded, dropping his cigarette on the ground and extinguishing it with his foot. I don't know how he did that, it looked like it would just hurt to me.

"I am NOT a woman!" Judas yelled angrily, extending its... her arm aggressively toward August, like she was trying to choke him with her mind.

"Why are you getting so angry?" I said awkwardly, trying in vain to diffuse her rage. Suddenly it felt much more important to me not to get into a fight with her.

"Maybe she's on her period." August remarked indifferently.

Judas let out a piercing shriek and a wave of black energy came flying at the two of us. Thankfully we were able to dodge it but it took us both by surprise.

"Just shut UP!" Judas screeched, her shroud flailing erratically around her body. I couldn't tell if she was talking to me and August or voices inside her own head. Honestly, it might have been a little of both. "You beasts need to get out of my way before I kill you both!" I guess she didn't notice Luthian behind us. Just as well as he didn't seem to want to involve himself in our confrontation.

"We can't..." I sighed, frustrated at the seeming futility of ending this without a fight. "What are you even doing here? And why?" I stepped cautiously closer to Judas, keeping my sword drawn but pointed away from her to show I wasn't planning to attack.

"That... doesn't... matter..." She growled. Her words were accompanied by strange noise, odd even for her, that almost sounded like a machine breaking down and putting itself back together again.

"If it doesn't matter, then why are you willing to kill us for it?" I asked. I looked back to check on August and Luthian, who seemed content to stay back while I talked to Judas.

"It doesn't matter to you." Judas said, stumbling backwards a few steps. "You wouldn't... understand."

"Try me." I said, smiling earnestly. I didn't know where I'd get from being so polite, but it was the only way I knew how to be, and it couldn't have hurt things worse than being aggressive and hostile would have.

"We're making a better world." Judas explained. The sounds surrounding her voice were less loud and piercing and became more cold and hollow, like her words themselves were drowned in cold, still darkness. "To make something, something else of equal value must be given. It is the way of the world. For our goal to be completed, some lives must be spent."

"That's wrong." I was pointing out what I thought was obvious. "You don't need to kill people to... how does that even work?" I was starting to get irritated again, but not at Judas, more at whoever it was that was feeding her these lies. "How can you make a better world by killing innocent people?"

"I told you that you wouldn't understand." Judas sighed, which sounded like nails scratching down a glass pane, and shook her head. "Now please leave... before you get hurt."

"No. Explain it for me." I was worried that I was losing her. It occurred to me then that I didn't know exactly what would happen if we had to fight. She defeated Kavik, Elin and Tel, I wondered if me and August were even strong enough to take her. And worse still, if Luthian stepped in I didn't know what value, if any, he placed on her life.

"To bring our vision to life... some people will die." Judas whispered. Her voice was quiet but her words pierced right through my ears like I could almost hear them resonating in my own skull. "That is simply a fact. And that's okay... because it will be worth it. Maybe you'll see... it will be better this way."

She pulled a red curved blade and a similarly curved green knife from her shroud, holding the red sword in front of her as little drops of what looked like blood fell from it onto the ground.

"This is your last chance to flee..." She said coldly, her voice ethereal like a ghost. "Please take it."

"I can't." I readied my own weapon and took a calming breath. The fact that I had no powers to use pressed heavily on my mind but I'd already decided I didn't need them and I was determined to stick to that notion.

"Then you'll die..." Judas growled harshly.

The drops of red began to shift and grow, forming into masses of goo that converged together and took on a solid shape. August rushed up beside me to help fight whatever was about to attack but his face became noticeably pale as soon as he saw what we were faced with.

It was a Nichts, tall and frightening, with reddish brown skin and a face that looked like it was made of stone and wood, a permanent scowl of pointed teeth permanently etched onto it. It wore a red robe and hood and held a blade of black and copper steel almost as long as its own body in one hand.

Seeing this thing scared me to death. Though physically I was fine, I could feel blood coming out of my ears, nose and eyes and could taste it filling my mouth. All I could smell was death and decay and a stabbing, shrill noise shot straight through my brain.

I had no idea how she did it, but Judas had summoned Fear against us.

"Kill them, Fear." Judas walked right up to Fear, putting her hand on its back as she talked to it like it was completely normal. Her gesture looked almost motherly. "Destroy them, and don't even leave their... their carcasses behind."

After finishing her command Judas ran, leaving Fear to fight August and I on its own. I was overwhelmed by the panic that came from being less than three feet from this monster but I felt compelled to stop Judas from fleeing, I needed to.

I dashed to catch up with her and Fear extended an arm to try and stop me but I just cut it off at the elbow and kept running. I still felt the panic and anxiety that the creature put over me but I wouldn't let it stop me, there were just more important things to me than fear.

I felt immensely guilty for leaving August behind, but I knew Luthian would take care of him. I felt in my soul that August didn't need my help, but Judas did.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 18: White Knights

Chapter XVIII
White Knights


-AUGUST-

Noble led our party further into the Ravaged Lands through, shockingly, more nondescript wastes full of fog. It was extremely irritating to be in this place again, and it was wearing on the entire group's mood.

"Where are we going, Noble?" Elin griped. Even she was at her wit's end at this point.

So soon after the battle with Sorrow, we were already deep in the Ravaged Lands, with two of our allies kidnapped by the Disciples, who we had thought were on our side. Aiden especially was upset, with the woman he cared about and his best friend being the two who had been captured.

"We're almost there, Elin." Noble remained remarkably upbeat despite the rest of us being angry and frustrated. "Trust me."

Elin sighed grievously, but relented. I offered her one of my cigarettes, not knowing how else I could comfort her. She politely turned me down but thanked me for the offer. Aiden was lagging behind the rest of us, deep in thought judging by the intense look on his face. I suspected he was furious right now with the Disciples, and I wondered for a second if he had what it took to kill someone if he needed to. I quickly let that thought go however, not seeing its relevance.

Phenix looked dazed, like he wasn't entirely awake or focused and his thoughts were elsewhere. He had been acting like that ever since we arrived in Aulburn and I was beginning to get concerned. Kavik looked his usual calm and happy self, and he probably was just thinking about how many Nichts he would get to kill while he was out here. And North of course appeared to be completely calm, but that was utterly unsurprising as almost nothing fazed him.

As for me, I was simply tired of walking, as I had a fairly weak physical constitution. My attitude was that I would do whatever it was we were here to do, but that I wished we could get to it sooner rather than later. As if in answer to my silent wish, Noble stopped in his tracks and we could vaguely see a small silhouette through the fog.

"Gentlemen, Elin." Noble announced proudly. "I would like you to meet Sir Luthian the White."

The mysterious feral stepped forward and it was indeed Luthian, the indigo lion Fionbri with the white helmet that helped me out before. I was startled to see him here, and even more surprised at just how happy I felt to see him again.

"It's been too long, Luthian." I said uncharacteristically warmly.

"I quite agree, Saint Augustine." Luthian replied. His voice was tranquil and ethereal, like he was operating from some higher plane of existence. The calming effect his voice had on me made me completely overlook the odd words he chose to use. "I am pleased to formally introduce myself to the rest of you as well, although I admit I am crestfallen by the absence of your two companions."

I could tell the others didn't know what exactly to make of Luthian, or his odd speech patterns, which was to be expected. I couldn't figure out how I felt about him at first either and I knew they'd warm up to him eventually, like I had. That said, it was weird actually hearing him speak this time around.

"I must confess, I am especially delighted to meet you, Elin." Luthian said. We couldn't see his eyes but it was obvious that he was looking right at Elin, practically even through her. "I have heard much about you that endears you to me, before we have even met."

"Me? Really?" Elin said perplexedly. "Why me?"

"You are an oddity amidst this group." Luthian explained. "You are the only one among your ranks to have not been personally chosen by me."

"Wait, hold on." Phenix interjected. "I thought it was Vatra who sought us all out."

"On my orders." Luthian answered, stating what I figured was obvious at this point. "I gave Vatra the authority to operate under her own judgment, as I trust her instincts, and told her that she may deny any one of you the opportunity to join the company we were assembling if she had deemed thou unworthy of following through on the task that we would present to you."

"So basically, she had final say." Kavik said, Luthian nodding in response. Unsurprisingly, Kavik didn't really have the patience for Luthian's drawn out speech. "Well what about me? Vatra didn't pick me out."

"I had intended for her to do so." Luthian explained. He sat almost totally still as he spoke, moving only his head occasionally to look straight at whoever he was talking to. "I was not yet aware that you had left Caldera, and it was just good fortune that led you and Noble to cross paths. When it was relayed to me that thou had rejected Noble's proposal, I sent Garu to further persuade you. It seemed to work out positively."

"My head hurts just from hearing you talk." Kavik sighed, rubbing his head.

"I apologize, we are wasting time." Luthian said sternly. "We must discuss the mission."

"To save Lilac and Tel?" Aiden asked eagerly.

"If I was under the impression that Lilac and Tel were in any immediate danger, I would already have had them rescued." Luthian said. "They will need to stay in the location that they are for now, as we cannot afford to attract suspicion whilst we are present."

Aiden growled angrily, frustrated and unwilling to accept that our two friends would simply have to wait.

"Noble, I trust Vatra has gone to their side?" Luthian asked.

"Yes sir." Noble nodded.

"So what's the mission then?" Phenix asked curiously, his tone and body language signifying that he was very much on edge. He wasn't taking it well either that the others had to wait. "If we're not just here to save Lilac and Tel, then what are we doing?"

"There are a small number of tasks that require this group's attention." Luthian said. It's hard to describe Luthian's actions since he barely moves and his tone is always so... not monotone necessarily, but it doesn't change from that tranquil, almost water like, drawl that he has going on. "We will need to separate temporarily, are you all prepared to handle that?"

The group looked around at each other and nodded collectively, assuring Luthian that we would do whatever was necessary. No one wanted to be here for even a minute longer than we absolutely had to, and after the Fortress of the Damned we felt prepared to handle anything. How much worse could things have gotten than that, right?

"Alright then." Luthian continued. "North and Kavik, you two will follow one of my portals back to Aulburn."

"So wait, that portal was your doing?" Kavik interrupted. Luthian remained silent but the answer was obvious and Kavik shut his mouth. I couldn't blame him for thinking that Noble had created the portal before, or for being angry at him if he did. Noble's self-professed lack of teleportation ability was something that got on both mine and Kavik's nerves before.

"As I said," Luthian continued "you will both return to Aulburn. There, you will meet a contact of mine, you should know her when you see her, and you will prepare for battle."

"So this has to do with what the Disciples are gearing up for after all?" North asked.

"It is related." Luthian replied.

"Is it the Nichts?" Kavik said with a battle-ready smirk.

Luthian paused for a moment before speaking. "There is no way for any of you to predict the opponents that you will be forced to face today."

"You could just tell us." Kavik said drolly, glaring at Luthian with bemusement. I found the interaction between the two of them incredibly amusing, the type of person Luthian appeared to be was exactly perfect to press Kavik's buttons at every opportunity and seeing Kavik on the receiving end of that for once was glorious.

"Unfortunately it is not that simple." Luthian tried to explain, although I presumed he had figured out, as I had, that Kavik wasn't really interested in however he chose to justify himself. "There is so much that I am aware of that I cannot share." Kavik just rolled his eyes and shrugged it off.

"So we just go back to the city and prepare to fight?" North clarified. "Will we be on the side of the Disciples?"

"You will return to Aulburn." Luthian repeated. "Steel yourselves for a fight, because the opponent you face will drive you to your knees in an instant if you give it even a moment's opportunity."

"Well..." Kavik grinned excitedly. That warning was the first thing Luthian had said that Kavik was glad to hear. "Today's gonna be a fun day."

North took in a deep breath. He seemed to be slightly angry at Luthian's obfuscation of the details and I presumed he was already on edge from being in the Ravaged Lands, even if he didn't show it. He didn't ever let his anger get the better of him though, which is something about him I greatly admire.

"Now then..." Luthian resumed speaking. "The rest of us will head to a ruined building not far from here. I will enlighten you all to the rest of the plan at that time, but we are wasting time simply sitting here and we may already be running late. I realize that my robust manner of speaking is partially responsible for our belatedness, and for that I sincerely apologize."

"Well at least you own it." Kavik snickered. Luthian didn't even fidget as his magic tore open a portal in space behind our group. "Kavik, North, I present your means of egress."

"Arright, let's do this." Kavik cracked his knuckles and gave a wave to the rest of us. "See ya later, guys. Don't get killed."

"God bless, my friends." North saluted us as he stepped toward the portal. The rest of us waved or saluted or said goodbye in whatever manner we felt appropriate.

"See y'all later." Kavik gave a half-hearted salute as well. "And Phenix, you better be heroic as all hell today! Or else!" He stuck out his tongue teasingly at Phenix, who simply bowed and smiled in return.

The two of them vanished into the portal and it closed behind them, Elin reaching out to them helplessly as they disappeared, a disheartened look on her face. She began to well up and Aiden and Phenix both stood closer to her and tried to comfort her.

"What's wrong, Elin?" Aiden asked, rubbing a crying Elin's shoulder.

"We're splitting up again!" Elin sobbed. "We're a team, we should do things together! Why do we always have to split up?!" Elin began bawling, falling to the ground and rubbing her eyes.

I stood watching her with a forlorn frown on my face, desperately wanting to comfort her somehow but at an utter loss for what to do. It was like whenever I saw a woman crying my mind just shut down and went into 'keep your distance' mode, and while that may have been a useful defensive tact when I was fifteen, if my math was correct I was not that age anymore so I really needed to grow out of old, obsolete habits. I just didn't know how.

"Don't cry, Elin." Phenix said soothingly, kneeling down and gently grabbing her by the wrists. "We'll be together by the end of the day, and then you know what time it'll be?"

"Vacation time?" Elin sniffled

"That's right." Phenix said cheerfully, raising his right pinky finger. "We'll all go on vacation together, you'll see."

"Yay!" Elin threw herself onto Phenix to hug him, catching him completely off guard and knocking the wind out of him a little, and then sprung to her feet with startling enthusiasm. "Let's do this!" She drew her pink blade from its scabbard and sliced into the air a few times excitedly.

I was really impressed by how Phenix dealt with Elin, he made comforting someone look easy. I wondered if it was easy for him and if I was just broken, or if he was just very good at it. Honestly, it was probably a good deal of both.

"Then let us spend no more precious time lounging around here." Luthian said, a white portal of light appearing in the air beside him. "Let us make haste."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 17: Against the Disciples

Chapter XVII
Against the Disciples

-PHENIX-

I was eating a rather delicious bread loaf by myself in the dining room of what I'm sure was one of Andras' finest inns. The floors were dark and old, and the walls a moss green before becoming a more tannish brown partway down. It was homely, certainly, but it had a cozy charm to it that I quite liked.

As I was enjoying my bread loaf, and I do enjoy saying the word 'loaf', Vatra walked up to me and took a seat across the table.

"Help yourself." I cheerfully said to her, tearing a piece of bread from my loaf and putting it on a plate before her. Loaf loaf loaf.

"Thank you kindly, Phenix." She bowed and took a small bite out of the bread. "I need to speak with you though. I'm afraid it's rather urgent."

"What's the matter?" My face became slightly pale and I felt a knot beginning to form in my stomach. Vatra's tone was quite worrisome to me, I had a feeling I wasn't going to like what she was about to say.

"I need to talk with you about your powers, Phenix." She said, looking at me with a thoughtful frown on her face. "The ones you've been using that make you so incredibly strong. You know what I'm talking about, yes?"

I nodded. Of course I knew what she meant. Those powers had saved my life and the lives of my friends, I think twice at this point. I felt like a different person when I used them, but also more like 'myself'.

Hmm... that doesn't make sense. It's hard to explain, but after releasing them in the first place back at the first fort, I felt like I needed to use them when I entered combat, otherwise I wouldn't stand a chance.

"You need to stop using them." Vatra said bluntly.

Are you frickin' kidding me?! I hung my head, nearly planting my face onto the table

"I see." I rose my head quick enough to nearly give me whiplash and smiled politely, almost choking on another piece of bread. "Why exactly?"

"They're killing you, that's all." She replied drolly. "I mean, it's not like every time you use them you cut your lifespan or anything like that, but you've been using them so much lately that it's beginning to take a serious toll on your health, physically, spiritually and mentally."

I hated to admit it, but I knew she had a point. I was still tired from the battle at the second fort, even two days and a complete physical recovery later.

"What do you suggest I do instead then?" I asked tensely, trying not to scratch at the table. I wanted to hear her argument, but I was afraid that without those powers I would be completely useless to my friends.

"You don't need to use them in every battle, Phenix." Vatra said, biting off another small chunk of bread. "Worst case, you can let the others handle most of the physical work for a short while, but I don't even think that will be necessary. You're a strong man, even when you're not using those powers."

"It doesn't feel like it." I whispered, mostly to myself.

"That's probably just because you're listening to your head too much." Vatra said casually, tearing off another piece of bread, tossing it into the air and catching it in her mouth.

"What do you mean by that?" I asked, grabbing for more bread myself. It was really good bread, it was like addictive!

"I imagine you hear a lot of 'you're too weak' and 'you'll never be as strong as, y'know, whoever' in your head." Vatra was rudely chewing while she talked, much to my irritation. "Am I wrong?"

"No, not entirely." She was completely right of course. When I saw people who were exceptionally good at their craft, I became depressed because I felt like I would never be as good as them at anything myself. Honestly, I had no idea how that came to be my default thought process, but that's how I felt.

"You gotta start hyping yourself up." Vatra continued. "Start telling yourself what a badass you are, and eventually you'll become just as badass."

"Does that really work?" I asked.

"Not on its own, but it's a good place to start." Vatra smiled widely and I could see there was bread stuck in her teeth.

"Thank you, Vatra." I bowed politely. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Just remember the other thing we talked about." Vatra said. "With your powers and everything."

"That's fine." I took a deep breath. "Because I don't need those powers!" I said, trying to muster up some enthusiasm and failing miserably. "I'm like, a total badass... or something."

"See?" Vatra chuckled. "You're getting it already."

-AUGUST-

Noble and I were having breakfast in the dining area of the old, wood paneled inn that we had stayed in, when Elin came up to our table and, without saying a word, laid a map of continent on the table.

"Um... good morning, Elin." I said, moving my bowl of cereal out of the way of her map.

"Good morning to you too, August!" She said cheerfully. "And good morning Noble! Are you guys enjoying breakfast?"

"Hello, Elin." Noble smiled sincerely, despite that Elin had just thrown her map on top of his eggs. "I am, and thank you for asking."

"Um... sure." I added after Elin looked to me for an answer. I didn't really have the heart to tell her that I could barely taste food anyway and that I only ate because I had to. "Anyway, what have you got there?"

"I was thinking of where we could go on vacation and I wanted some help with it!" She said, crossing her arms with a thoughtful look on her face. Well, thoughtful for Elin at any rate. "There are so many cool places that I don't know nothin' about, I just couldn't figure out by myself where we could go!"

"Do you have any destinations in mind, Elin?" Noble said, examining the map.

"Nope, not really." Elin shrugged and started looking weary and defeated. "I was thinking something outside the Republic, since that's where most of us have spent most of our lives anyway. How about you, August?"

It took me a moment to answer her. I had never seen a map of the world before, so I was quite enthralled by what I was laid out in front of me. In the center of the map was a large black spot marked "Ravaged Lands", with several small checks in it to designate small towns and forts, like Aulburn or the fort we fought Fear at.

Almost the entire western province, save the southwest, was designated "The Humanitas Republic", marked with several evidently large cities, such as the one we were currently in. The southwest was my home country, the Lunar Kingdom, which spanned most of the south except for a small pocket of tiny islands in the southeast designated "Neutral Territories".

"What are the 'Neutral Territories'?" I asked, looking at Noble. I figured he'd know better than Elin.

"Not all towns and cities are too keen on being ruled by a higher power." Noble explained. "Even a benevolent one such as the Kingdom can make many rather wary of them. These small islets are a collection of towns that are independent, and not under the jurisdiction of any formal government."

"It seems like someone would've tried to take them over by now." I scoffed, my comment mostly just an expression of cynicism, and not to be taken seriously.

"Both the Republic and the Kingdom have tried, actually." Noble chuckled while also poking his nose under the map to get to his food. "But the territories' small size and remote location makes them both difficult to conquer and not worth the effort. And they have refused to negotiate with the Kingdom, who of course would never dream of invading them."

"Of course not." I said slyly, smirking at Noble, who had an obvious bias toward his home country.

"Blah, blah, blah!" Elin suddenly said. "What about our vacation!"

"Well what about this place?" I pointed to the northeast of the map, a location marked "Seidai Chiiki".

"That won't do as a vacation spot, I'm afraid." Noble said nervously. He became visibly jittery at the mention of the place. "Seidai is a country that has remained completely outside the Demon War for its entire thirty year duration, mainly due to being wracked by a series of civil wars within its own borders and a totalitarian hatred of any on the outside of its walls."

"So why would we not want to vacation there?" I said drolly. "Sounds like fun."

"I don't want to go to anywhere that's ruled by the Disciples neither." Elin said huffily. "Their rules are stupid and dumb." I was slightly surprised by Elin's dislike of the Disciples, I hadn't really noticed her bring it up before. Obviously she had spent time under the Disciples' rule, but I didn't want to press the issue if she felt uncomfortable discussing it, and I didn't know enough about how the Disciples' rules even worked to really make any conclusion about her statement.

"I guess that just leaves my home country." I said, a displeased frown on my face. Save for St. Augustine, which was nice, I wasn't exactly beaming with pride to be from the Lunar Kingdom.

"Ooh, what if we went to your hometown, August?" Elin suggested excitedly, putting her hands on the table and leaning over it to look me in the eyes, which I clumsily avoided.

"Yeah, I don't think so." I said coldly, rising from my chair, cereal bowl in hand.

"What about your actual hometown?" Noble interjected. "The place you lived before Dalo?"

A scowl appeared on my face as I considered the notion of returning to Balmora. How long has it been since I was there before? I thought. Only a week? I sighed harshly and lit up a cigarette, putting my bowl safely out of the way of my smoke that I breathed toward the ground. In truth it had only been ten days, yet it seemed like so much longer.

"Where did you live when you were younger, August?" Noble asked. "Before you were taken in by Scarlet's family?"

I growled angrily. I didn't appreciate Noble bringing up my history in front of Elin, who seemed more than eager to hear about my backstory. I hadn't told anyone else about my stepfamily to my knowledge and I honestly didn't want anyone else to know.

"Maybe we should just go back to St. Augustine." I said, ignoring Noble's question.

"Nah, we go there all the time now." Elin said, pouting. "How about... this place?" Elin placed her finger on a random city on the map, coincidentally landing on Balmora. The irony was so palpable I could almost vomit.

"Don't the others have family we could visit?" I sighed, smoke filling the air around me. "I'm sure we could just go to one of their hometowns. How about yours, Elin?" I knew as I was speaking that I shouldn't have suggested that, but by the time I realized what a mistake I was making, the words had already left my mouth.

Elin was silent, with a scowl on her face and an angry look in her eye. It was quite unbecoming on her, and very surreal to see from someone normally so upbeat. It was even a little intimidating.

"That's not happening." She growled, her voice barely above a whisper.

"I'm sorry." I bowed my head apologetically.

"It's okay!" Elin sprung back into her usual cheery self, playfully batting her paw in my direction. "Don't worry about it!"

I just stared at her for a moment, somewhat bewildered. Elin clearly had some issues that she needed to deal with. But you know what, I kinda wished I could change my mood so easily.

-LILAC-

It was early morning, the sun barely rising above the clouds, as I was released from prison. Aiden was still asleep on the ground in front of my cell, even after being pushed out of the way by a guard. The warden told me they would send him away as soon as he woke up but said, with an adoring twinkle in her eye, that she didn't want to disturb him. This simultaneously answered my lingering question of how Aiden managed to get in to see me past visiting hours. Really, I should have guessed as much.

On my way out the warden handed me back the embarrassing outfit I had discarded before my arrest and directed me to the dressing room. I sighed as I begrudgingly took the clothes from her, admitting that they were at least better than the prison rags I was wearing.

I decided to head back to my old home instead of try and find the others or where they were staying. I had barely slept at all the night before and I was dead tired, plus I was so embarrassed by how I behaved that I didn't really want any of the others to see me at the moment, at least not before I got a good night's rest. I was pretty sure I still had vomit in my hair, for God's sake.

I walked up the steps to my porch and put my hand on the wall to allow myself entry to the place. As soon as I stepped in the door I felt a nagging gut feeling that I shouldn't have been there, but I dismissed it in part because I was so tired and in part because I passed it off as just dreading to run into my mother, who I'd assumed was still in bed by this hour.

When I walked into the living room however, I saw the reason for my feeling of wariness. A wolf man was sitting in the room on the couch, his fur a putrid shade of olive green and an eye patch over one eye. He was wearing old, worn leather armor that had the mark of the Disciples of Clarity crudely stitched onto the chest. I couldn't tell if he was actually a Disciple simply not wearing his usual armor or if he was only pretending to be one.

I felt a throb in my chest as I saw my mother in the room as well, in her underwear, bound and gagged on the easy chair beside the couch. She cried out muffled pleas for help and struggled against her bonds but it was obvious she wasn't going anywhere soon.

"Top of the mornin' to ye, Lilac." The man's voice was gruff and he spoke with an odd accent I barely understood. He took a swig from a bottle of ale after speaking, sighing contentedly as he finished drinking. "As ye kin see, me en yer mum have gotten on rather well, wouldn't cha say, darlin'?" He winked at my mother and grinned, causing her to squirm away from him as much as she could. Most of the man's grisly yellow teeth were decayed and I could practically smell the stench of his breath from the other side of the room.

"Who are you?" I asked intensely, reaching for Majesty before realizing in alarm that I had left it here in the house before going out last night and thus didn't have it with me. "What are you doing in my house?"

"Me name be Darshaska, m'darlin'." The man bowed his head in mock politeness, grinning again and showing me more than I wanted to see of his rotten teeth. "I be a member o' the Disciples o' Clariteh, and they sent me 'ere to collect ye."

"Why?" I growled, carefully taking a step back. I considered bolting and trying to find one of the others but I didn't know what he'd do to my mom if I left her alone with him. "Why me? And if it was just me, why'd you tie up my mom?"

"Mainleh to keep 'er from runnin'." The man shrugged. "But Ah have ta admit, she's quite a bute."

"You make me sick, and you need to get the hell out of my house." I really didn't expect that to work at all, but it was worth a shot.

"Oh a'course Ah will, now that ye've asked meh so poloitleh." The man scoffed, choking on his ale as he tried to drink and laugh at the same time. "Na, Lilac, ye'll be comin' wit meh."

"You're going to have to drag me with you by force." I said defiantly. In retrospect, not a great choice of words.

"If ye insist." Darshaska cackled. "Honestleh, Ah was 'opin' yeh'd say that."

The man stood up, drunkenly wobbling as he got a head rush, before leaping over the coffee table that stood between the two of us, his surprising athleticism taking me completely off-guard. I didn't have my runic bracelet on me either so I was at a loss when it came to combat. I tried to shove the man over, thinking all the alcohol in his system would make him off balance, but he was as sturdy as a stone, not even budging as I pressed into him with all my strength.

He grabbed my arms and forced them behind my back, making me turn around as he did so. I could see a bright light in the corner of my eye behind me and suddenly my hands were tightly bound with rope. I struggled against them for a moment before the man put his hands on my shoulders, forcing me to my knees under his weight and strength.

How the hell is this drunkard so strong!?

He tapped on the back of one of my ankles with his foot and used his magic to tie my feet and legs together as well. I wriggled on the ground, futilely trying to undo my bonds as the man kneeled down next to me, using his magic to tie me up even tighter, tying my arms to my chest both above and below my elbows. After he was done casting spells, Darshaska grabbed a sock that was resting on a nearby end table, I recognized it as one of my mother's, and tried to stuff it in my mouth. When I refused to open my mouth he held my nose closed until I had to gasp for breath, shoving the sock inside and then wrapping a cloth over my mouth to gag me.

I was afraid, angry and most of all humiliated as the man stood over me, proudly drinking the last of his ale and laughing at how easy it was to capture me. I still had no idea what he wanted with me, although I tried to calm myself and not assume the worst, but there was no question that I was utterly at his mercy.

-PHENIX-

I found myself walking aimlessly through Andras. It was a beautiful morning, but the cool air made me glad I had a jacket on, not to mention my fur. I headed toward the shore, to a spot covered by tall trees, their golden leaves falling from them and sprawled all along the ground. To my pleasant surprise, I saw Kavik there, skipping stones off the water.

"Kavik?" I asked timidly. "May I please speak to you a moment?" I felt I needed to talk with someone, especially after my conversation with Vatra, and with what was on my mind I figured Kavik would probably be the best person for me to talk to.

"Yeah sure." Kavik threw one last stone, the rock barely skipping at all before loudly splashing into the water, before he turned to sit on a tree trunk. "What's up, Phenix?"

"I wanted to ask you something..." I sat on a bench across from Kavik as I pondered the best way to phrase what exactly I wanted to ask, my fingers rhythmically tapping my knees as I did so. "You seem very... disaffected, by most things, yes?"

"I guess so." Kavik shrugged with a calm and cheerful smile on his face, more or less proving my point. "Why do you ask?"

"I want to know how I can be that too." I said coyly, looking to the side bashfully.

I was slightly embarrassed to ask Kavik, or anyone for that matter, about this. I always figured, and was told by my parents, that issues I had with myself needed to be handled by myself, that I shouldn't involve others with my baggage. But I'd been trying to get around this issue a lot recently, and I was getting nowhere, clearly I needed some help.

"How come?" Kavik put his elbow on his knee, balancing his muzzle atop his hand, and gave me an oddly disappointed looking frown.

"I feel out of balance." I sighed quickly through my nose. "You've seen the way I normally act, right?"

"Yeah, I guess yer kind of a pushover." Kavik shrugged. "That's not that big a deal, right? Yer a nice guy, so you put other people first. What's the problem?"

"The problem is..." I groaned and scratched my head fluff furiously. I didn't know how to express what I felt without sounding completely stupid. "You've seen me in fights, haven't you? When I get all glowy and fiery and my voice gets all growly and stuff, right?"

"Yes, and that is exactly the way I would phrase it too." Kavik stuck his tongue out teasingly.

"I feel like there are two different people that I'm trying to be, and that I need to pick one." I said, ignoring his snide remark. "And that one's the only one that gets anything accomplished, so I should be that person all the time. Right?" Clearly I'd taken Vatra's instructions to heart.

"Um... no." Kavik said bluntly. I was a little surprised he didn't agree, it made perfect sense to me. "Phenix, yer a really nice guy, I'd even go as far as to say yer a total sweetheart, and that's a good thing! If the fact that yer too nice and people walk over you is really bothering you, then that's a different problem you need to deal with. Don't just try and get rid of all those good qualities you have because you don't think that they're 'useful' or whatever."

"So what do I do?" I asked.

"Well..." Kavik pondered, crossing his arms and closing his eyes to think. "In a perfect world, would you want to be the growly, fiery guy twenty four seven?"

"No, not really." I shook my head. "I don't like how I feel when I'm that person. I just... I need to be that person to fight. I'm too weak on my own."

"Nonsense." Kavik opened one eye, dismissively waved his hand and scoffed. "That power you wield doesn't come from some 'other person' inside you, it comes from you. You need to figure out what kind of person you want to be, and then just take steps to be that person. Even if they're baby steps at first."

"I think I understand." I said, wearing a wistful frown. I may not have believed in 'god', but I could tell when the universe was trying to drive a point home.

"So what kind of person do you want to be?" Kavik asked cheerfully.

"I want to be a great hero." I responded proudly, my hand on my heart and smiling brightly. "One who is chivalrous, protects others, fights for what's right and vanquishes evil! I want to be a proud hero that others can look up to, someone who children can aspire to be like when they grow up!" I gesticulated quite grandly while I spoke and was now standing above the bench, pointing into the sky.

"That is all kinds of cheesy and awesome." Kavik laughed. "Way to go, Phenix."

"But that seems nearly impossible." I said sadly, slumping back down onto the bench.

"Who cares?" Kavik scoffed. "All the best ambitions are nearly impossible. That's part of the appeal. And if there's anyone that can achieve that dream of yours, it's you. It is your dream after all."

"Yeah, I agree." I said happily. I already knew what Kavik was saying in my soul, but hearing it from someone else made it feel more tangible. "I shouldn't run from my dream just because I don't see how it could happen. Dreams are a beacon to guide us on our path."

"Exactly." Kavik said, pointing at me. "Don't let your dreams be dreams. Don't let them disappear when you wake up."

"Thank you, Kavik." I said, rising from the bench and bowing my head. "You've really helped me gain some perspective."

"You're welcome, Phenix." Kavik said proudly, saluting me. "Come back anytime when you want more advice from a cool guy like me." He chuckled.

"Will do, Kavik." I laughed as I waved goodbye.

-TEL-

I stretched my arms in front of me with a smile on my face as I rose out of bed. It was great to spend a night in my own home for once, it'd been way too long. I took a moment to take in the feeling of the place and the smell of the old natural oak that made up my walls, I hadn't realized just how much I'd missed it.

I headed to my closet to get dressed and as I opened it I felt a small pang in my chest. Since I just threw my clothes from yesterday on the floor, and mom already had my outfit for the dinner laid out for me, I hadn't been in my closet since I returned and I forgot how... eclectic it was.

There were two shelves in my closet, tucked into the corner on the left hand side, that were devoted entirely to female clothing. Mom never bought these for me, in fact I tried to hide them from her, but I think she knew anyway. I walked into the closet and pushed past some hanging shirts that helped hide the shelves from view to take a look at my girly clothes.

I picked up a dress and held it in front of myself, doing a quick twirl with it before putting it back down in disgust. There was a part of me deep down that really wanted to give this a try but I knew how uncomfortable it made people. Aiden especially seemed repulsed by the idea when I mentioned it to him in passing one time.

Despite that though, I still knew in my gut that I wanted to dress that way someday, at least for a little while. I'd even bought two different wigs for the occasion. I took the dress and held it in front of myself as I looked into the mirror on the back wall of my closet. I'd look good in this, I thought. Mom would probably freak out though. And geez, what would the others think?

I sighed and put the dress back on the shelf again, preparing to neatly fold it and tuck it away where it wouldn't be seen. Then I wondered something, did I really care what the others thought? Yeah, I did. Their friendship was really important to me, especially since I'd never had friends before. I didn't know what I'd do if they stopped being my friends because of something so insignificant as me crossdressing. Then again, what kind of friend would abandon someone over something like that anyhow?

"People have done worse things for dumber reasons." I sighed, burying my face in the clothes.

Oh well, I thought, might as well give it a try.

I put the black dress on and wore a silver colored wig to go with it. I looked absolutely ridiculous, but that didn't really bother me. As I saw myself in the mirror dressed that way I couldn't help but smile. I didn't look too great but I felt good.

I suddenly heard my mom scream for help and I rushed out of my room to get to her, grabbing my sword and runic bracelet as ran, a dreadful feeling of worry rising up in my chest. I was still wearing my feminine clothes, likely because the universe thought it would be funny, but I didn't care about that as long as my mom was safe.

I made my way into the living room where I found Swann, the Disciple we met back in Aulburn, waiting for me. I was curious to know why she broke into my house and then I saw my mom was bound and gagged on the floor, still in her nightgown, wriggling and crying out behind her gag for me to run away. She must've yelled for help while Swann was gagging her.

"What the hell are you doing?!" I yelled, equipping my bracelet and gearing up for a fight. "Let her go!"

"You..." Swann said, sounding rather distressed. "You are not Lilac."

"No, I'm not." I was slightly bewildered by her response, it certainly wasn't what I was expecting. "Now let my mom go and get out of here! Or I'll throw you out!"

"I'm sorry... ma'am?" Swann looked at me confusedly and I blushed, admittedly a little flattered that she thought I was a girl at first. Swann sighed and agitatedly ruffled her hair as she walked toward me. "I'm sorry you had to get involved in this, but now that you've witnessed my unfortunate shady dealings, I'm going to have to take you hostage."

I didn't respond, although I had the urge to make a clever retort, and just summoned a wave of magic water to get Swann away from mom. The soldier brushed the hair out from in front of her eye and stared at the oncoming attack, suddenly dissipating the water into steam with a flash of red light.

"H-how did..." I shook it off and lunged at her with my sword. There wasn't any furniture between me and her and if magic wasn't going to work on her, I would need to try a more direct approach. I didn't care if this woman was a member of the Disciples, I wouldn't lose to someone while my mother's safety was at risk.

Swann deflected my initial attack as she drew her own sword, quickly going on the offensive and pushing me back further until my back was against a wall. I held her at bay with my sword and she smiled at me, her face showing a mixture of remorsefulness and pride, like she knew she was about to win but was sorry she had to fight me like this.

There was another flash of red light that came from her right eye, and now that I was closer I could see that her eye was not human at all. It barely looked like it fit into the socket, with a bright red solid pupil and iris, with black sclera and dark veins surrounding it.

As I witnessed the light I could feel my body getting heavier and I was forced to drop my weapon, falling to the ground myself shortly after. Swann dragged me back into my bedroom and gently threw me face-down on my bed, putting my hands together behind my back and using magic to bind them together with rope.

"What are you doing?" I asked what was admittedly an obvious question, but adrenaline and worry has a tendency to mess with one's higher brain functions.

"As I said before, I'm afraid I have to take you hostage." Swann said apologetically. "Although I must admit, you are by far the cutest prisoner I've ever taken. I'm rather going to enjoy seeing you in your cell all tied up."

I was rather perturbed as I heard the sound of her licking her lips as she finished her sentence, and tried to struggle against my bonds, my arms already tied to my chest behind me. I was beginning to feel like I could move again but my arms were bound really tightly and I couldn't escape, and it didn't take long before she had my legs bound as well.

"You know, Darshaska's probably gotten Lilac by now, so we probably have a few minutes to spare." Swann said perkily. "Maybe I should just stay here with you for a few moments, and we could... get to know one another." Swann turned me around to face her and smoothly moved her finger across the nape of my neck as I struggled to get out of those damn ropes, to no avail.

"Let me go!" I said angrily, both as sort of an instinctive thing and also as a way to reject her unwanted advances.

"Eh, it's just as well, I suppose." Swann groaned, brandishing a couple of cloths from the pack on her belt. "Commander always says not to get attached to the prisoners." She forced my mouth open and stuffed one of the cloths inside, wrapping the other one around my mouth and tying it behind my head to gag me. "But I can't help that you're so darn cute!"

Swann's perky attitude, along with my natural optimism, made her difficult to truly 'hate', but I was afraid of what she would do to me or my mom if we had to stay around her. I made a couple of wasted pleas from underneath my gag before making a pitiful moan and looking up at my captor with a look of surrender in my eye as I realized she had me completely beaten.

"Please don't make sounds like that, dear." Swann sighed tetchily. "You're not making this any easier for me."

-AIDEN-

I left the jailhouse early in the morning, a mite disappointed that Lilac was already gone. I thought about finding her so I could talk to her again but remembered that I'd been really vulnerable with her the night before and I didn't want things to be weird between us. I figured she probably needed her rest anyway so instead of trying to track her down I took a seat on a bench by the side of the road in order to collect my thoughts.

I still couldn't wrap my brain around why I just didn't try to sleep with her and I kept hearing Kavik's voice go through my head. "You're in love with her, Aiden. Nyeh nyeh nyeh." I let out a loud groan and put my face in my hands as I tried to figure out what to do about her, since I was driving myself crazy.

"Are you okay?" I heard North's voice speak to me and opened my eyes to see him standing beside my bench.

"I've been better." I said in a self-mocking tone with a wry smile painted on my face.

"Anything I can help you with?" North asked.

I pondered that for a moment. I'd been chasing myself in circles trying to decide how to deal with Miss Lilac and my feelings towards her. Perhaps what I needed was an outside perspective, which often helped me deal with problems. I hadn't spent much one on one time with North before but I knew the others all looked up to him and he seemed trustworthy enough to me.

"Sure, sit down." I said, making space for him on the bench.

"What's the matter?" North asked as he sat down, resting his elbow on the arm of the bench.

"I'm afraid I find myself infatuated with a peculiar woman." I sighed, twitching my thumbs together agitatedly.

"Why is that an issue?" North said. "Tel's told me about your reputation. It seems a woman would be the least of your problems." He said teasingly.

"Of course he has." I chuckled, rolling my eyes. "But this is different. She's special somehow... I just..." I growled irritably and poked my forehead as I couldn't find the right words to use.

"Are you in love with her?" North asked.

"How the hell can I be in love with her?" I replied tetchily, abruptly taking a defensive posture. "I barely even know her, that doesn't make sense."

"Love doesn't make sense, Aiden." North shrugged, smiling calmly. "We can try and understand it all we can, but the fact is that love doesn't play by a set of 'logical' rules. It just is."

"Have you ever been in love?" I asked grumpily, not entirely soothed by that answer but accepting it begrudgingly.

"I haven't." North frowned. "I often pray that the first woman I fall in love with will be the only one, and if that's the case and my prayers are answered, I have no problem being patient for as long as it takes."

"Wow, you're a lot more mature about this than..." I thought about it for a second. "Than I think anyone I've ever spoken to ever."

"Thank you." North chuckled.

"So what would you do if you did meet this girl and you fell in love with her at first sight?" I asked. I kinda hoped North would take that as a purely hypothetical question, but I knew he could see right through it.

"Hm, if it were me..." North pondered, tapping his nose a couple of times before continuing. "I would tell her."

"What, are you serious?!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Why would you ever?!"

"Because I couldn't bear to lose her through inaction." North explained. His tone and body language became subtly more intense, he took this question very seriously. "I would rather run the risk of losing her than never have a chance to be with her in the first place."

"I guess that makes a lot of sense actually." I sighed and crossed my arms in a huff. I knew what I had to do but I decidedly did not want to do it. "Damn it, North, you're a jerk."

"I'll take that as a 'thank you'." North chuckled. "You're welcome."

"You're a very mature man, North." I said as I rose from my bench, stretching my muscles that were still stiff from sleeping on a stone floor. All the stress I was putting myself through over Lilac didn't help either, mind.

"I try very hard to be, so thank you." North's contemplative reply helped me realize something about him. The others saw him as a fairly carefree and relaxed person, but I could tell by the way he spoke and carried himself that all of that was very intentional, like he was trying to project an air of maturity that didn't come natural to him. I wondered what North would be like if he didn't feel like he had to be the one responsible for everyone else, how different would he really be?

Oh well, no time for that now.

I finished stretching my weary bones and bid North a farewell, heading to the inn to talk to Lilac. As I headed that way though, a thought occurred to me. I surmised that perhaps Lilac wouldn't return to the inn, instead maybe she went to her own home. I knew she had issues with her mother but I didn't know if that would deter her from sleeping in her own bed and I had a gut feeling anyway that I should check there.

It wasn't hard to locate her home, as it was by far the nicest building in town. It was more of a mansion than a standard home in fact, not entirely unlike the mansion that sat above the orange room where the cultists hung out in Caldera. At least that's what it reminded me of at first glance. Nicer garden though, I must admit.

I nervously walked up to the front porch and got ready to knock at the door, fighting the seizing feeling in my gut and the desire to just run for the hills.

No. I thought. I need to do this.

I took a deep breath and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I felt the urge for a moment to take that as a sign and just leave, but I shook that feeling off and knocked again. I had decided I was going to do this and when I set a course I don't turn back.

I knocked on the door a third time, starting to get annoyed, and there was still no answer. I concluded that she simply wasn't home and sighed as I walked back down the porch steps, when I suddenly heard cackling laughter. I looked around to find it before turning my eyes to a sea green feral Fionbri sitting atop the house's roof.

"If yer looking for Lilac, y'ain't gonna find her here." The animal said. I couldn't tell by its strained voice whether it was male or female and it grinned down at me with a row of sharp, pointy teeth.

"Where is she?" I wasn't immediately trustful of this creature, but there was no point in being confrontational. "And how do you know she's not here?"

"Because I saw her get taken away." The creature smiled smugly. "She's in Aulburn, as a prisoner of the Disciples of Clarity."

My eyes widened in shock at the creature, unable to believe what it was telling me.

"If you don't believe me, ask yer friend Noble to find her for you." The creature said.

"Who are you?" I needed to verify where this information was coming from, and how it knew Noble.

"I'm just your ordinary, friendly feral Fionbri." The creature said in a mock, sing-songy tone. "My name is Garu."

"What are you doing here?" I asked, getting fed up with being taunted by the creature.

"Yer wasting time." Garu scowled at me, evidently bored by our conversation now. "You should really find Lilac before something bad happens. They took another one of yer friends as well, by the way." Garu cackled again and disappeared in a bright green light.

It was right though, I was wasting time. If what it was saying was true, hell, if there was even a chance that it was true, I needed find Noble as fast as possible.

-AUGUST-

Aiden had yanked Noble away from our breakfast to talk to him and he sounded extremely urgent. I had a bad feeling about what was going on, and I could tell Elin was feeling it as well, and it only got worse when Noble and Vatra called our group together for some sort of emergency meeting. I wasn't told the specifics, but when we all showed up in the town square and I noticed Lilac and Tel were suspiciously absent.

"Alright, everyone's here." Vatra said, her tone heavy.

"But where are Lilac and Tel?" Elin asked concernedly.

"In Aulburn." Vatra said morosely.

"W-what?" Elin stammered, losing her balance and shambling backwards a few steps. "Why are they in Aulburn?"

"Because they were kidnapped by the Disciples of Clarity." Noble explained. I could practically see sweat pouring down his brow and his voice was weak and strained. "I'm sensing their location now, they are in Aulburn."

I for one wasn't sure how to take that news. It just felt surreal that two of our friends suddenly weren't here with us anymore, even more so that the Disciples, of all people, kidnapped them. I'd heard conflicting opinions on the morality of the Disciples and hadn't made a decision on how I felt about them for a while now, not wanting to cast judgment on them until I had enough information. All I could think was that they'd better have a damn good reason for taking Tel and Lilac because this didn't look good for them at all.

"And we're going to go there and rescue them!" Aiden said angrily, pounding his foot on the ground.

"Of course we are." North put his hand on Aiden's shoulder in an attempt to calm him down. "But why would the Disciples kidnap our companions?"

"Who cares?" Aiden scoffed, brushing North's hand off of him. "Let's just go there and get them back!" For someone who was usually a rather rational, sometimes even worrying, person, Aiden was awfully cavalier about such a dangerous idea. Which made sense, considering who it was that was kidnapped.

"Aiden, you need to be calm for a moment." North said soothingly, but his words didn't seem to have an effect on Aiden's roiling emotions. North remained level-headed as always though. "We can't just barge into Aulburn and demand they return our friends, and we certainly can't pick a fight with them."

"Why can't we do that?" Kavik chuckled, reaching for his swords.

Kavik didn't seem at all perturbed by the Disciples kidnapping our friends but I could see anger burning in his eyes. He was using his casual, aloof attitude to hide the fact that he was completely furious so that he didn't make any stupid decisions out of anger. It was a fairly sound method of dealing with his emotions and it surprised me to see him acting so smart. It made me realize that I'd underestimated his intelligence.

"Well for one thing, they'd likely kill us." Phenix replied drolly. "There are a bunch of them and only six of us."

Phenix seemed rather calm but I could by the way he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other that he was nervous and simply trying to hide it. Elin on the other hand was wearing her emotions right on her sleeve and was shaking like a leaf.

"So we'll need a subtler approach." I suggested, lighting a cigarette. "But we are going there, and we should go there immediately. We'll be able to formulate a more solid plan if we're on the premises and we understand more what's going on down there."

"August is right." North said. "There may be variables that we are unaware of right now."

"You're both right." Vatra said. "Good call, both of you." North and I nodded appreciatively.

Without wasting any more time, Vatra lead us to an alleyway where we wouldn't be seen and gathered us all in a circle to teleport us to Aulburn.

-LILAC-

I groaned as I woke up, feeling far more rested than I had previously. At first I thought I was at home in bed but I quickly realized that my fight with that Darshaska person wasn't just a bad dream. Thankfully I wasn't gagged anymore, but I was lying, still tightly bound by ropes, on the floor of a jail cell, making this the second time in twenty four hours I'd been in prison. I was startled to see not only my mother lying on the floor as well, but Tel and Starla too.

It seemed that I was the only one awake and I struggled to get myself upright, feeling vexed as I realized I was still in my terrible outfit from the other night. I looked around to gauge my surroundings. The place was stark white, everything from the bars on the cell to the walls, ceiling and floor, down to the furniture had the same pale white hue. It was all high quality material, whatever it was, but it had the distinct feeling of being completely soulless. While the conditions here were much nicer, I honestly felt more uncomfortable in this cell than the one in Andras, and not just because my limbs were free in that one.

I saw two Disciples standing guard outside our cell, seated in white chairs on either side of the bars and barely visible, although I recognized who they both were. One was Darshaska, to my dismay, and the other, to my surprise, was Swann.

"Hello?" I wondered if the guards would even listen to me if I tried speaking to them but it was worth a shot. "Um... Swann, was it?"

"Are you hurt at all?" Swann asked me, getting up out of her chair and standing in front of the bars.

"No." I shook my head. Honestly I was surprised at how good I felt, especially considering I was still bound. "A little disoriented though. What am I doing here?"

"You and your mother are officially POWs of the Disciples of Clarity." Swann explained. She seemed genuinely remorseful, but I guessed that she wasn't exactly going to let us go free regardless. "Your friends there are just collateral, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Y'meen dehr 'ouse?" Darshaska chuckled, a bottle of ale visible in his hand.

"It was the wrong time for them to be in their house, shut up!" Swann barked, obviously flustered by her mistake.

"What's a POW?" I asked, feeling a little dense. "And why am I one?"

"Prisoner of war." Swann replied. "And I don't know, I'm just following orders."

"From who?" I asked.

"Commander Xaviera." Swann said, her voice becoming uncharacteristically cold.

I went a little pale, as I was not expecting her orders to be all the way from the top. I didn't know what I expected her to say, but the fact that one of the Disciple Commanders not only knew who I was, but also purposely kidnapped me, was a little frightening.

"Should I be scared?" I said, trying to hide that I was already terrified. "Of dying, I mean."

"I doubt it." Swann said, her soft tone returning. She was obviously trying not to put me on edge. "The Commander specifically requested we bring you back unharmed, so I wouldn't think she'd want you dead after that."

"I hope so." I whispered mournfully.

"Don't worry, Lilac." Swann said cheerfully. "We'll take care of you as long as you're here."

I was surprised by Swann's kindness towards me, given that I was her prisoner. I wondered if it was because I was specifically wanted by the Commander or if Swann was just a nice person, but either way it helped me calm down.

I thought about the rest of our group and wondered what they would do when they heard me and Tel were missing. I wondered if they'd even find out, at least before it was too late. I wondered what Aiden would do. I knew him and Tel were friends, but would he come for me? I hoped so. Getting rescued by him would make this all worth it, I thought, and then embarrassedly blushed at that stupid notion.

Tel grumpily moaned as he began to wake up, letting out a harsh sigh as the situation dawned on him. I hadn't noticed until he was sitting upright that he was frickin' wearing a dress and a colored wig. My mind had to do something of a paradigm shift as I realized that and I briefly wondered if Swann dressed him like that before kidnapping him. That would be kinda creepy.

"How are you feeling, sweety?" Swann kneeled right next to the cell door as she spoke, a bright, cheery smile on her face.

"I'd be feeling better if you'd let me go." Tel grumbled before turning to me, blushing and refusing to make eye contact. "They caught you too, huh?" I nodded sadly. "Anyone else?"

"No, just the four of you." Swann answered. "Can I get you anything, cutey?"

"My name is Tel." Tel said bemusedly, glaring at her. "You can just call me that."

"Okay, Tel!" Swann said joyfully, springing up to her feet. "So what can I get you? Food, drinks, smokes, anything?"

"I could go for some drinks." My mother said drearily, still half asleep.

"Ah think Ah moight loike dis one, Swann." Darshaska laughed.

"Please be quiet, Darshaska." Swann sighed, giving her compatriot a look that was a mix of anger and sadness. "As for the rest of you, let me know if you need anything. Y'know, within reason."

"I'm guessing being released isn't within reason?" I said with a bright smile. Swann just rolled her eyes with a smile on her face and returned to sitting beside the cell as she had been.

I inched up to Tel, away from our mothers, mine who was still barely waking up and Tel's was still unconscious, and whispered to him.

"Do we have a plan?" I asked, intentionally sidestepping the whole 'dress' thing for his sake.

"We'll think of something." Tel replied, giving a cheerful nod to show his optimism. "But I'm sure the others are on their way to rescue us."

"I hope so." I sighed, starting to feel anxious about my future. Whatever it was that Commander Xaviera wanted me for, there was a snowball's chance in hell that it would be good news for me.

-AUGUST-

Our group landed just south of Aulburn's gates, getting into the town proper with no issue. It was far busier than the last time we were here, with many Disciples rushing throughout the city with grave expressions on their faces instead of the tired, almost lazy atmosphere the place had before.

The eight of us squeezed into a cramped alleyway and Noble began using his magic, ostensibly to locate Tel and Lilac. The rest of us just watched the busy soldiers hurriedly running by us.

"It looks like something big is going on here." I stated, feeling incredibly anxious from all the frantic energy and dying to light a cigarette. I felt like that would bring too much attention to us, but honestly I was probably just being paranoid.

"Yeah." Kavik said, an unusual pang of dread in his voice. "These guys're preparing for war."

"With the Nichts?" Elin said worriedly, hiding behind Phenix and me.

"No, that's just it." Kavik shook his head and I could see the worry in his face. "They're not doing the regular procedure when they're preparing to fight demons. It looks like they're getting ready for a human attack."

"Rebels, maybe?" Phenix suggested offhandedly. I could tell something was bothering him all of a sudden, and it wasn't the bustling soldiers either, as he seemed to be paying little actual attention to what was going on.

"Doubtful." Vatra said. "All the rebel camps, at least the ones that are well known and have the manpower to actually assault the Disciples, are farther east from here. Aulburn is too out of the way to be a tempting attack target."

"Well then who are they expecting?" I asked, a bit unnerved, especially by Kavik's out of the ordinary behavior.

"Who cares?" Aiden snapped. "We need to find Lilac and Tel, and hurry! Maybe we can get out of here before whoever they're planning on fighting even gets here."

"Aiden is right." Noble said, coming out of his magic-induced trance. "And I know what we're doing." He shot a look at Vatra, communicating something to her without words and she reacted with shock.

"I see." She said, and her eyes and voice became colder, more determined and serious.

"What's the plan?" Phenix asked, trying to give Vatra and Noble his full attention but I could tell something was still preoccupying a small part of his mind.

"I am going to go be with Tel and Lilac." Vatra explained. "I'll stay with them for as long as they remain in captivity, and if things begin to go south I'll simply teleport them out of there."

"Why can't you just teleport them out right now?" Aiden growled, stamping his foot on the ground near Vatra.

"Because we have other priorities here now." Noble said sternly, glowering at Aiden who took a couple steps back. "We've just received telepathic communications from one of our comrades, who is in the area, and there's a lot more going on here than we had anticipated."

"So we need to deal with it." North concluded, understanding the direction this conversation was taking.

"Correct." Noble said sadly. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." I shrugged, reaching for a cigarette. "It is our job after all to help out."

"Do these 'other priorities' have anything to do with the battle these people are preparing for?" North asked.

"It's entirely possible, and honestly quite likely." Noble replied. "But we don't know all the specifics. One step at a time, and all that."

"But what about the others?" Aiden asked tetchily.

"I'll take care of them, don't worry." Vatra reassured him, wearing a confident grin. "We don't want them to suddenly disappear and alert the Disciples to our presence here. We'd like this mission to go as smoothly as possible."

"Fine." Aiden sighed, accepting the importance of our task, whatever it was. "So what are the rest of us doing?"

"You will all follow me." Noble said, leading us further down the alleyway as Vatra disappeared. "I'll lead you to the person who will be in charge of this mission, and we'll receive our next orders from him." He created a portal on the wall of a house using his magic.

"It sure is convenient that we just happened to fall into this area all of a sudden when we were needed." I pointed out, lighting my death stick. "What an odd coincidence."

"There are no coincidences, August." Noble said, smiling. "Just destiny."

-TEL-

I didn't like how things were turning out. We'd been locked in this cell for about an hour, or at least that's how long I'd been awake for, and my mom was conscious now and on the verge of having a panic attack.

"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Lilac asked her comfortingly.

"Mm-hmm." She nodded nervously, obviously holding back tears.

I felt really awful that she of all people got involved in this. I knew my mom didn't have the heart for this kind of dangerous business, which was why I didn't even want her to know I was involved in it, or how good I was becoming at it.

Well, hopefully she'll see that latter very soon, I thought to myself, sighing to release my own nervousness. I needed to get mom out of here as soon as possible so I tried to come up with an escape plan, attempting to think like August or Aiden. They'd know what to do.

I saw that one of the guards, Darshaska, had fallen asleep and while I had idea when he'd wake up, I presumed he'd be out for a while thanks to all the alcohol he consumed. Seeing him dozed off though gave me an idea and I prayed that I could implement it successfully.

"Swann?" I whispered timidly. "Can I speak with you, please?"

"You want to speak with me?" Swann's face lit up as she looked at me.

"Mm-hmm." I nodded. I felt kinda bad for what I was planning for Swann, she didn't have anything against me, Lilac or our families, she was just following orders. But I needed to just do it, for my mom and the rest of us.

Swann entered the cell, closing the door behind her. She hunched down to speak with me, sitting in a squatting, perched position, one that I often sat in, truth be told.

"I've been very rude to you, and I wanted to apologize." I said, smiling tenderly. That was actually somewhat true, as I could feel that Swann was a very nice woman. It was a shame we had to be on opposite sides right now.

"Don't worry about that." Swann scoffed, flicking her wrist. "I completely understand why you would hate me."

"I don't hate you." I shook my head, and then blew against a strand of hair from my wig that fell in front of my face. "I admit I'm angry that we had to cross paths like this, but I don't hate you."

"Thank you." She said, blushing and holding her face with both hands shyly.

"You've been nothing but nice to us, for the most part, and I haven't been acting fairly toward you." I continued. "And I'm sorry about one other thing..."

"What's that?" Swann asked obliviously.

Moving quickly, I kicked Swann's legs out from under her. As she fell backward, Lilac brought her both her feet down on Swann's head, knocking her into the ground and likely giving her a concussion, knocking her unconscious.

"I really am sorry." I whispered, pulling the sword she kept at her side out of its sheath and cutting the ropes binding my hands with it awkwardly, nearly cutting myself in the process.

It took me less than a minute to cut all the others free and take the keys off of Swann's comatose body, taking a second to treat her injury with my healing magic. The four of us ran out of the cell, Daisy kindly carrying my mom, and quietly sneaking past the sleeping Darshaska.

"Good work, Tel." Lilac said quietly as we ran down the halls of the building looking for an exit. "That was really smart."

"Thanks." I said sadly, feeling very guilty for having to hurt Swann and also slightly nauseous from the hideous ghostly pallor that covered every inch of this building.

"Let's just get out of here as soon as possible." Daisy grumbled, to the agreement of the rest of us.

We raced toward a door down the hall, opening it and seeing that it lead outside to a balcony, not at all what we expected or wanted. We had to be at least three stories up and there were no other exits off the balcony besides jumping. If I'd still had my bracelet I could've used my magic to soften our descent, but it was taken before we were imprisoned.

"This way's a no-go." Lilac growled, furiously throwing her hands on the lip of the balcony and digging her claws in. "Let's turn back, and hurry."

As the four of us headed back to the hallway, we saw a tall, white figure standing at the other end, almost blending in to the surreal white walls of the building. A sense of dread fell over us as we saw the figure slowly walking toward us.

With no other idea of what to do, I stood in front of the others and readied the sword I took from Swann. We couldn't run and the others had no way to defend themselves, so I had to fight.

"Put that away." The figure stated, her voice commanding and deep, but distinctly feminine. "You have no hope against me."

"I-I think I'll take my chances." I tried not to show that I was panicking on the inside.

"Tel, you can't beat her." Lilac said, her own fright made obvious by her tone.

"Listen to your friend, Tel." The imposing woman said. "Stand down now and I will still show you mercy."

I had no choice but to surrender, lowering my blade and starting to shake visibly. I had a hunch I knew who this woman was, and whether I was right or not she was profoundly intimidating. I felt like she could stare right into my soul with her frozen gaze.

"Who are you?" I asked, fearing the answer I would receive.

"You should already know." The woman said arrogantly as she stood in front of me. She was only maybe a foot taller than I was but I felt like she towered over me. "I am Xaviera, Commander of the Disciples of Clarity."


Phenix belongs to Whisski
North belongs to Silent_Hybrid
Elin belongs to Pand-ASS
Aiden belongs to Astreal
Lilac belongs to Auctioned Kitten
Tel belongs to Yuki Kitty
Kavik belongs to Sorrowful Woe
Noble and the Fionbri species belong to Falvie
August belongs to Silver Wolf

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Of Fear and Faith Ch. 16: In the Dark With You

Chapter XVI
In the Dark with You


-PHENIX-

I was walking around the lovely rustic city of Andras, the cobblestone roads illuminated only by the lamps above the streets. I was more depressed now than I was angry, most of my anger having been released on North the night before. I felt bad about the way I treated him, but I was just so upset about my failure at the Fortress of the Damned. But I was upset with myself, not with North, and it wasn't okay for me to lash out at him like that. I wanted to apologize, I just didn't know how.

I heard a familiar voice call out to me from a distance and break me from my thoughts. I turned around to see Elin running straight at me with no intent on stopping. Before I had a chance to get out of her way, she crashed into me and knocked both of us to the ground with her on top of me.

"Just like old times, huh?" She giggled.

"Please get... up." I didn't want her to make a crack about 'getting off' again.

Elin sprung up from the ground and helped me to my feet.

"How're you feeling, Phenix?" She asked in her usual cheerful way.

"Not well." I sadly admitted, brushing the dust off my arms. "But I'll be alright."

"Will you please talk to me about it?" She said, batting her eyelashes at me with a sweet and concerned look on her face.

I thought about it for a moment. I didn't want to burden her, but I really did want to talk to someone. I was also nervous about sharing how I really felt and was worried she might get upset with me about something I said, or yadda blah etcetera. There were at least a dozen reasons I could've kept my problems to myself, but I felt a needling feeling in my gut that prompted me to sit down with Elin and talk.

"Will you please not tell anyone?" I asked her as we sat down on a bench beside the road. "And don't make fun of me or anything?"

"Of course!" Elin said jovially. "I would never do those kinds of thing!"

"Thanks." I smiled bashfully and my ears laid flat against my head. I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts before speaking again. "I feel like a failure."

"Phenix, you're not though." Elin said comfortingly, rubbing my shoulder.

"And while I know that, it doesn't change the way I feel." I said, angry at myself. I hated that I couldn't have more control over my feelings and stuff. "Have you heard about the war hero Atlas?"

"Uh-huh!" Elin nodded energetically, practically lighting up at the mention of his name. "He was my mom's favorite, she even had his picture on her fridge!"

"Of course she did." I giggled at that a little. "Well he was my dad."

"Wow, that's really amazing!" Elin beamed, barely able to sit still in her excitement.

"I know." I nodded sadly. I was quite used to hearing that by this point. "And my mom was a doctor named Raven."

"Ooh, I know her too!" Elin said, joyously hitting my arm. "She came to my village one time when there was a mass food poisoning incident! She took care of my dad! You have the coolest parents ever!"

"I know." I sighed drearily. The memories I had of my parents never failed to make me sad.

"What's the matter?" Elin asked concernedly, holding my arm with both hands.

"All my life, I've never struggled." I explained. "I got into a fantastic school, I was never at a loss for money, and everyone in my home city adored me. Even after my parents were both dead, I still never struggled, at least not in the concrete things in life."

"That's... good, right?" Elin tilted her head.

"Yes, it very much is." I nodded, slightly embarrassed by how ungrateful I sounded. "I'm not trying to complain or anything, it's just that... I've always felt in the shadow of my parents. I want people to know my name and say it with the same adoration that people still speak of my parents with."

"That's really cool, Phenix." Elin said happily, patting my hand. "So what's the matter?"

"I could never find my place in my home city." I recalled. "No matter what I tried to do, nothing ever fit quite right. And I knew I could never become a hero with a small time job, but the Disciples of Reason wouldn't accept me because I didn't have any backbone. And when I showed them what backbone I did have, they said I was 'unstable', like that's even a thing." I finished my statement by sticking my tongue out, to get across that I was joking, I wasn't sure if that was clear.

"That must've been a fun time for the guys interviewing you." Elin giggled as she pictured it.

"They certainly weren't expecting it." I chuckled at that fun memory. "But as I was saying..." I took a deep breath to regain my train of thought. "When Vatra offered me a chance to go on this journey, I was scared at first, and a little skeptical. But when I eventually came around to accepting it, I did so because I thought I could finally achieve that dream of actually doing something important, that I could finally take control of my life and be the hero I always dreamed of being. But every encounter with the Nichts we face, that dream seems to slip further and further away."

"That..." Elin sighed disgruntledly. "That is bullshit!" She yelled, rising from the bench and standing over me, pointing her finger directly into my face.

"I'm s-sorry?" I stammered, taken completely by surprise.

"Phenix, you dummy!" Elin exclaimed, bonking me on the noggin for good measure. "You saved my life back in that first fort! Tel and Kavik, too! Not to mention all the coolness you pulled off on the front lines that I was told about! August and North both said that you were the only reason that none of those front line soldiers died that day! And you call that unheroic?! Are you mad!?"

"I, I just..." I didn't know what to say to that.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell." Elin calmed down, slightly out of breath. "But Phenix, you did amazing things on that battlefield. Heck, even in the fight with Sorrow, you kicked ass! You almost sacrificed yourself to save the others, right?"

"I guess I did..." I mumbled. "But after the fight with Fear, all anyone could talk about was how amazing North was that he killed Fear. And it was amazing, I'm not trying to discredit him, but it made me feel really small. I know that's stupid and I hate that I feel that way, but that is the way that I felt. And then he got all those people at the second fortress to follow him, after I tried so hard to get them out to safety and failed. I just..." I groaned and put my face in my hands, unable to finish that sentence in any way that wasn't completely inane and sefish.

"But Phenix, you aren't small." Elin said, getting on her knees and putting her hands on mine. "You saved my life. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."

"I know." I said, my voice lowering to barely a whisper. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to belittle you... I just... I want to matter. Not just to a few people, I want to matter to the world, like my parents do. I know that's selfish, but it's been my dream ever since I was little."

"It's not selfish, Phenix." Elin shook her head, like she couldn't wrap her mind around why I would feel bad for my dream. "But here's something you need to know."

"What is it?" I asked intently, holding tightly to Elin's hands.

"How many people did your parents save?" Elin said, answering my question with a question.

"I don't know. Thousands, probably." I shrugged. It was really hard to keep track of them all, even my parents couldn't do it.

"And how many people do you think they saved that you don't know about?" Elin said. "They didn't become world renowned heroes overnight, I'm sure they spent countless days, months, maybe even years saving one person at a time. I can definitely tell you that not everyone recognized their efforts, and it was likely a thankless job at times, but eventually people took notice. People understood what good folks your parents were and gave them the recognition and rewards and praise they deserved. And I know the same will happen for you, you just need to be patient and keep helping people. And don't ever lose faith that you will be seen as the hero of your dreams someday."

I was completely shocked by Elin's words, to the point I was even beginning to cry, although in my defense, so was Elin. I could almost feel my dream becoming more solid, more real. It was really amazing.

"Thank you, so much." I said, tears starting to stream down my face. "I've been being incredibly immature and selfish, but I won't be that way anymore." I shook my head, dried my eyes and stood up, helping Elin off her knees also. "I'm going to stand back up proudly, and be the man my parents raised me to be. Strong, selfless, heroic and kind, that's the kind of hero I want to be."

"You're that kind of hero already, Phenix." Elin said as she wiped away her own tears. "It's just a matter of time before everyone realizes it."

"I owe you, Elin." I bowed my head respectfully toward her.

"You saved my life before, so I'd say we're even." Elin said cheerfully, winking at me. "Now you need to apologize to North."

"You are completely correct." I nodded confidently. I was a little nervous to apologize, but I knew I was going to. Heck, I wanted to. "Please help me to remember the things we talked about today though, okay? I don't want to forget."

"No problem, Phenix." Elin gave me a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. "You're my hero."

"And you're my... knight in shining armor, Elin." Those words just fell out of my mouth, I don't know why I said them, and I didn't realize until later how meaningful that compliment was to her. "Now let's go talk to North."

"Yeah." Elin said, tearing up again happily. "Let's."