An unlikely pair of birds flew alongside one another over the seaside town of Palmacostaa robin and a sparrow, winging over the sea, which sparkled blue and so beautiful that even the rays of sunlight seemed to hurry down to Sylvarant for their chance to play upon the cresting waves. Seagulls circled above the marketplace less aimlessly than the robin and the sparrow, scouring for the docks' newest bread crumbs, and one gull swooped and landed only two steps ahead of Colette Brunel, the Chosen of Mana. Its off-white feathers were just a touch cleaner than her boots, which had trod no small share of mud in her travels, and the gull paid her no heed as she smiled and stepped gently out of its way.
Indeed, many ordinary people might have claimed it a perfect day in Palmacosta, and Colette herself would say so as wellbut she was no ordinary person. She wore a blue-edged white dress, long-sleeved and hanging to just over her black legging-clad knees, and though her dress was otherwise modest, it had been designed to showcase the center of her neckline and her gold amulet with a rare red gem hanging down: a Cruxis Crystal, the marker of her status as the Chosen. Despite the earnestness of her smile, the hope of salvation for the world of Sylvarant rested upon the shoulders of this young blonde-haired girlupon her and the four people surrounding her, namely her childhood friends Lloyd Irving and Genis Sage, her professor Raine Sage, and the group's hired mercenary Kratos, all undertaking the Journey of World Regeneration to restore Sylvarant's flow of mana.
They'd seen horrors and encountered obstacles: Desian ranches where humans were raised as slaves, a warrior named Botta who'd challenged the limits of all in the group but Kratos, a fire-clad guardian beast at the Triet Ruins, and Colette's collapse after leaving those ruins. That adventure in the ruins had marked the first of several trials for her as she began her transformation into an angel; the sudden change in her body had struck her with temporary weakness.
Even on the group's way to Palmacosta, the trouble hadn't stopped; a would-be female assassin had attacked them, though they'd thwarted her. Through it all, though, Colette maintained her smile and even mentioned that she had gentle eyes, and when they encountered her one more time Colette asked for her name: Sheena. Lloyd admired Colette and even the older Kratos respected her, because she carried herself with an unwavering optimism, as if her troubles were over already. And a wind swept through town almost in confirmation of her faitha westerly wind, a spirit-refreshing wind, exactly that kind of wind one might hope for in the warmth and sunlight of spring.
But even on this perfect day, even in the town limits, problems could be found all around. Colette and her friends had encountered a gang of travelers impersonating their partyand a third sighting and subsequent escape of Sheena near Palmacosta's docks hung fresh in the group's memory. And it was a town in love with rumors, whether severe as impending militia action against the Desians, mysterious as sickness caused by approaching the city's lighthouse, or annoying as peeping toms at the inn. At least Raine had negotiated a discounted price for their stay that night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Though her clothing looked out of place, lightweight blue ninja garb unlike anything else in Sylvarant, nary a person cast a glance toward Sheena as she leaned against a wall in an open area of town, thinking over her next move. Palmacosta was busy, bustling, and well known to forge forward, and that day the people sounded particularly excitable as they spoke amongst each other:
"Did you hear? They say the Chosen is in our town right now!"
"I wonder what she's like. I have to meet her at least once!"
"Word is some people spotted her at the town square just an hour ago. Maybe she's still nearby?"
"I heard she's with a group of three or four others."
Lucky! thought Sheena. I'll probably be able to track the Chosen down again if I follow the gossip. I just have to be more careful this time...
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Palma Potion?" Lloyd read aloud, lifting a display bottle from a store table. It held a brownish liquid inside, which sloshed about as he peered at it. "I don't know, this doesn't look like any kind of 'potion' I've ever seen. I wonder how it tastes." He offered the bottle to his friend. "Would you like to try it, Colette? We can buy one and see."
She offered her best smile. "No, but thank you, Lloyd."
"Okay," he said, and lifted the bottle to his eyes and squinted. "Yeah, I'm not sure I'd want it either!"
In truth, Colette hadn't experienced thirst or hunger since they'd left the Triet Ruins and didn't like forcing herself to eat anything. She hoped that her condition was only temporary; but even so, she wanted to go back to the inn already. She wanted to pray alone. She'd already decided to hide it from the othersso it would be best to withdraw from the group for now. Her hand retreated toward her Cruxis Crystal and she ran her finger over the red gem as she considered how to ask without drawing suspicion.
"Still, how astute of you to notice, Lloyd," Raine was saying. "I'm surprised, but you're right. This 'Palma Potion' is actually..."
"Um," said Colette, lowering her head. "I think I want to go back to the inn for now."
"Sure, Colette," said Lloyd. "You should rest if anything's bothering you again."
"Yeah, and we'll be there soon," said Genis.
"No, I'll go with her now," said Kratos. "It's dangerous to leave the Chosen alone for any length of time."
"It's okay," said Colette. "The inn isn't very far."
Kratos ran a mental checklist of the possible dangers of her trip. Most of Palmacosta had been fooled by the impostor Chosen and her tag-alongs, who admittedly dressed the part and looked more battle-ready at a glance than their own group. Two teenagers in Colette and Lloyd, a little kid in Genis, a teacher in Raine, and one mercenary wouldn't be recognized as a band of warriors and experts at magic, and Colette probably wouldn't be noticed unless she revealed herself. Among their group, only Kratos himself might catch the attention of dangerous eyes. He'd be able to protect her, but if he went with her too often, as he'd always done and intended to continue doing, the others might become suspicious of his attachment "Alright," Kratos said at last. "Be careful."
"I willI'm just tired," said Colette, and paused. "I'm sorry." I hate to keep lying like this...
And then she stepped outside while Raine educated Lloyd about the physiological effects of alcohola discussion Kratos found interesting enough, for his personal reasons.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Back at the inn, Colette knelt by her bed, eyes closed and hands clasped in deep, concentrated prayerso much that she didn't take notice when three female thieves, the supposed peeping toms, slid into her room through her window. On the face of it, they seemed like a colorful and unthreatening trio not identifiable as anything but everyday townspeople: each one dressed in slim tanktops that matched their respective red, blue, and purple hair, white shorts on Red and Purple and a white miniskirt on Blue, and all of them wearing soft-soled brown boots looking as familiar as any leather could. And, indeed, reconnaissance was their forte, their raison d'etre and their primary advantage over males in all manners of thievery. Smaller, lighter, and more flexible, they could manage heists that no man could pull off without being seen or heard.
The three girls surrounded Colette from behind, footfalls silent in their hunting boots, and then pounced in a flash, a perfect execution of simultaneous movements: Blue snapped a pair of shackles onto her ankles; Red crossed her wrists behind her and locked a single larger shackle around them; Purple clamped one hand over her mouth. "Don't try to resist," advised Blue, just as Colette opened her eyes, and the other girls pinned her arms and legs for emphasis.
A spell of dizziness hit Colette. Not now, she thought, not another effect of the angel trial. Her muscles slackened into the hold of the other girls, and even as they warned her to stay silent and as Red waved a dagger in threat, she could only faintly nod before her eyes fell shut against her will. "Open your mouth after I let go, and don't scream," said Purple, with a gravely solemn voice that had never spoken a joke, and Colette listened. Something was being put in her mouth, she feltwhat was itthe texturesmootha cloth, was it, yes, definitely a cloththen another layer of cloth, and they were being wrapped arounda gag, she realized, and with a struggle she opened her eyes to confirm it. The thieves applied third and fourth layers of cloth, this time over her lips rather than inside, and finally tied them off behind her head.
Red let her dagger drop to her side. "A good job as always, girls," she said, standing, and the others stood too, "but we're not out of it just yet. You know the drill."
"Of course," said Blue, standing behind Colette. "Girly, do you know who I am?"
Colette's body slumped.
"Hey! Turn around when I'm talking to you!"
She mumbled behind her gagI'm trying to, she wanted to say. But just as she thought of it she could feel a little of her strength returning, and turned a bit to face her captor.
"Kirana," Blue whined to Red, stomping her foot, "this isn't how it's supposed to work!"
"Psychological warfare," said the purple-haired girl.
"Shut up," said Kirana. "I think we put her in shock, and you've already ruined my introduction, but let's do it anyway. Ready?" After the others echoed their sure, sures, she threw her knife in the air, the shiny silver flipping in circles through the air, spun twice on her heel, and caught it between her fingers, by the blade. "I'm Kirana," she said, "leader of the world's greatest thieves. We make money and nobody gets hurt, not even you, as long as you'll cooperate."
"And I'm Zeffy," said the girl with the blue hair, offering a curtsy in her miniskirt. "They say I talk a lot, but I think you'll come to love meor at least I hope so! We could have been friends."
"Iris." The girl with the purple hair didn't move as she said it.
"See," Zeffy whispered to Colette, leaning in close, "what Iris means about the psychology stuff is, see, normally, you're supposed to turn to each of us as we say who we are, in like horror and stuff, while we, like, freak you out since, I mean, you've just been captured and all. Sorry, though," she said, kissing Colette's gagged cheek, "we're not untying you for a do-over!"
"Shut up, Zeffy," said Kirana.
"And stop kissing our victims if you're going to say all that. It's going to make us lookquestionable," said Kirana.
"You're a real killjoy, you know that? ...whoa, hey, did I seriously just say 'killjoy?' Where'd that come from?"
"Stop, just stop," said Kirana, flipping her dagger hilt back into her hand. "Let's get what we came for."
Zeffy pouted, but nodded, and Iris said nothing. The group had long understood that her silence was taken for agreement.
Colette felt half-recovered and had been testing her shackles as her captors argued. With her hands bound behind her and her feet bound under her as she still knelt after her prayer, she couldn't see how strong the restraints werebut with every pull she made against them, they didn't yield a mite, and each experiment at freedom reaffirmed her helplessness. One large steel ring held her wrists together tight, but her ankle shackles had a moderate length of chain between them for some reason, as if
"Now here's the deal," said Kirana. "We've got four hooded robes lying outside the inngo get them, Iris," she said, and so Iris jumped from the window, swift and silent as a cat, "and we're going to toss them over our clothes to disguise ourselves as monks while we walk you to our hideout. You might be wondering why four, right? We're dressing you up too so nobody sees your gag or your little shackles and comes to save you. And be careful about walking! We'll take it nice and slow, so don't try to run with your feet in chains, because" Kirana knelt down and looked into Colette's eyes. "you can't. Just walk slow like we do. Got it?"
Colette nodded weakly.
"And don't worry," said Zeffy, waving her hands as she spoke, "it won't be too hot under that robe. It's a super beautiful day out there. I even saw a robin and sparrow, flying together, do you knowI mean, how likely is that!"
Kirana stood and shot her a glare. "Look, I'm not going to say it again."
"Sorry!" The blue-haired girl pouted and her hands retreated to her thighs as she poked the ground with the toe of her boot. "I just thought she might be worrying about getting too hot is all. I know I would," she said, tugging at a corner of her skirt.
Zeffy bowed her head.
Colette's energy was returning by then, but she already knew the chains wouldn't give and she didn't want to test the limits of her gag. Her eyes caught a flash of movement at the windowIris had returned, carrying the promised clothing, and moments later the girls plucked Colette to her feet and dressed her in the ankle-length robe, disguising her from head to almost-toe. She could see her captivity would continue, but her mind wasn't set on resisting.
Her thoughts swirled around and she knew she was on the verge of understanding something about them, understanding their identities, their real selvesthis group of careful thieves, so very careful, who could chain and cover her and be silent and swift about it in such a way that she'd never been hurt, never even felt hurt. As the girls tied a rope about her waist and got in position to lower her down through the back window, Colette knew one thing: all of their touchesthe quickly-applied chains, the robe to disguise her, the rope to see her safely to the ground outside the innreminded her of Sheena's eyes. Not malicious, but gentle.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ugh, a false lead, thought Sheena, a perfect ninja hiding in shadows behind a crate in the marketplace and observing the group of impostors, who had ducked into an alley and were putting away the costumes that they'd worn while pretending to be the Chosen and her followers. How can this world be so backward that the people don't even know what their Chosen looks like? How can they have hope in her without knowing who she is? She sighed. Then again, I'd have more hope in our Chosen if I didn't have a clue about him... Still, I have to find them some other way now.
Sheena glanced at a group of four passing through the marketplace in loose and lengthy brown robes, their steps slow and shuffling. Their faces were hidden under hoods and their arms were invisible; the robes had holes for sleeves, but the group kept their arms inside and might well have passed for ghosts. I haven't seen druids in Sylvarant before, she thoughtjust a passing thought. She wouldn't have given them another moment of consideration if Palmacosta wasn't a town in love with rumors.
"Oh, it's those wandering monks again."
"Has anyone ever asked where they came from? Not our church, that's for sure."
"Who cares? They're not harming anyone."
"I did ask, actually. They said they collect and give out money in secret because they want to be holy but not famous."
The monks were just reaching the forefront of marketplace gossip when a sudden commotion rose up. Sheena looked over: one of them had tripped and was trying to say something in a decidedly female tone, but her voice was muffled heavily, as if her hood had gotten caught in her mouth when she fell. "Kirana, she tripped!" said another one. "What do we do? Kiraaaaana!" Sheena shrugged, but the marketplace erupted into an uproar.
"Hey, that one is chained at the ankles. Just who are these monks?"
"I bet they're Desian spies!"
"That cover story was a big lie, wasn't it?"
"Those Desians are probably too afraid to attack Palmacosta head-on with Dorr in charge, so they're kidnapping people one by one!"
"I think he's on to something."
"This is unforgivable!"
And suddenly dozens of people around the market were taking up wooden poles and fishing nets and any other tools they could find, screaming threats at the group of monks. Sheena turned her eyes to them again; when the fallen girl had tripped, her robe had shifted just enough to expose exactly what the townspeople had noticed: her ankles were indeed restrained with shackles, glinting steel chains over white boots. Sheena focused her attention and made out what one of the group was saying over the din and chaos. Another female voice: "Iris, just pick her up. We'll head there for now!"
One of the monks' arms suddenly emerged from her robe's sleeves and she swept up the fallen girl with ease in a show of strength. The girl tried to call something out as she was cradled into her arms, but her voice was still muffled. It's not her hood; they have her gagged under there, the ninja realized, watching as the group made a mad escape, cutting a path through the marketplace with several merchants and other civilians trailing them. But this is a brave town and they look like they have things taken care of. I still need to track down the Chosen
Sheena began to walk away from the marketplace: one step, a second, a third and a fourth. Seven steps, each slower than the one before it, but then the girl ninja stopped herself and turned, biting her lip. No. No matter what my mission is, I can't ignore this!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"She isn't here either," Raine called, rushing downstairs from the inn's second floor with the the wooden steps creaking under her weight.
"It was a mistake to let her come here alone," said Kratos, scowling. "We need to make a plan and search this town for the Chosen immediately."
"Maybe Colette just went for a walk," said Genis.
"Kratos is right about one thing," said Lloyd. "We have to find her."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Ready?" Kirana asked as the lighthouse came into sight, and Zeffy nodded. Iris didn't respond, but only kept perfect pace with her comrades even with Colette in her arms. "If we're lucky, they won't figure out where we're headed," whispered Kirana, and tossed a blue orb at the ground behind them. It broke apart on contact and exploded into a thick layer of black fog which flooded through the entire marketplace. The mob behind the thieves were thrown into confusion as they lost visibility beyond a hand's length, and the westerly breeze sweeping through Palmacosta served the group particularly well, pushing the fog slowly backward and covering their retreat.
Since she'd become an angel, Colette's hearing ability had sharpened. These particular thieves had been so silent when they snuck into her hotel room that even she hadn't noticed them, but now she could pick up their every movement. Even on invisible ground, she could hear them running without having slowed down, not having lost a beat, and not having fallen out of step with each othertheir boots soft but just scarcely audible, their clothes folding and bending in perfect sync with each other. Colette realized they must have been to the lighthouse so often that they could reach it without seeing where they were going.
Just then there came the sound of a heavy door opening and shutting, a metal lock turning, and an iron bar being set in place. They had entered the lighthouse, and there at the very bottom the air was still mostly clear. From her position in Iris' arms, Colette could see a stone stairway leading to the topand the trio began its ascent, the fog becoming slightly thicker with every few steps as it trickled in through the top floor's window. As they were nearing the top, they passed a small open area with washcloths and buckets, which Colette regarded curiously, but the thieves proceeded onward. Shortly after visibility had reached the same non-existent level as the marketplace, there came the sound of another door being opened, and the group stopped walking.
"Iris, Iris, wait," came Kirana's voice. "Don't put her down yet. Her boots, they'repretty dirty, even for the entryway. Zeffy"
Colette felt her ankle shackles being detached and her boots were unbuttoned and slid from her feet, and only then she was set down to stand in her legging-clad feet on what felt like a carpeted floor. She couldn't see where her shoes were taken, but she heard the sound of robes being fumbled withand then off came her own, leaving her back in her familiar white dress, and it sounded like the whole lot of robes were being put on a coat hanger. Colette wanted to ask what her captors were doing even though her gag, but she felt two arms hook around her own and then she was turned to her left and led forward a few steps.
"Have a seatand make yourself comfortable," came Kirana's voice, "because we might be a while. The wall's right in front of you." Colette did as ordered and positioned herself to sit leaning back against the wall. "Zeffy, you know what to do. We'll ask questions later, but for now I want to think about our situation," said the thieves' leader.
Colette felt a shackle being fixed onto one of her ankles again, but this time only one, and she heard the end of its chain being pulled a short distance away and tied around something metal or steel, tethering her. "Hey Kirana, if we keep her for a while and she needs to sleep, her hands are gonna"
"I know," said Kirana, her voice coming from a different part of the room than before.
"Don't make this difficult," came Zeffy's voice. "We've already got your leg tied like it is, so even if you fight, you'll still be trapped anyway, right? Just let me do this, okay? I'm going to bring your hands in front of you because if you had to lie down, you'd be like, really uncomfortable after a while if I don't, got it?" Colette nodded and Zeffy drew a key from her pocket and did as she promised, unclasping the one shackle briefly, then bringing Colette's hands in front of her and binding her again.
An unusual thread rang through Zeffy's phrasing. She was always asking in questions. Colette's thoughts swirled anew: even more gentle touches...
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Kratos and Lloyd were the first to step out of the inn and into a Palmacosta tsunami. It seemed that the whole town was rushing about, crying of a mysterious attack from a mysterious origin.
"That smoke at the marketplacewhat is it?"
"Palmacosta won't ever give up! Pitch in and we'll fix this problem with no trouble!"
"Could this be an attack? Is it the Desians?"
Lloyd, Genis, and the others watched a few dozen people scrambling westward, a flurry of motion and confusion, indistinguishable blurs of bodies and windswept hair. "Hey Kratos," Lloyd said, "do you think that might be where"
"It's likely," said the mercenary.
Without another word Kratos began to follow the crowd, and the others fell in step behind him. They pushed through crowds of people running in the opposite direction, crowds of people running in the same direction, people carrying buckets of water in case there was a fire, people leading children away, people waving tools around and shouting that they'd have to speak to the Governor-General about this. Within minutes Colette's friends found themselves standing on the outskirts of something unfathomablea heavy cloud of black fog that blanketed half the shores of Palmacosta. Nothing within the cloud could be made out, and from the perspective of anyone not in the know it may have looked like the town of Palmacosta stopped just at that point and another world lay ahead.
"This fogthere was a marketplace here, right?" asked Genis.
The answer didn't come from his own group, but from a blue-clad ninja who also stood just outside the edge of invisibility. "There still is," she said, and even as she spoke Palmacosta's westerly breeze was slowly pushing the fog over herand toward Kratos, Genis, and the others. "Listen," she said, turning to face them and taking two steps forward into the light, "a girl was taken"
"You!" said Lloyd. "What are you doing here?"
"Are you responsible for this?" Raine cut in. "You escaped with something that created a puff of smoke last time we saw you."
The ninja in blue shook her head. "No, I don't have anything that could make so much smokeor fog, or whatever this is. I don't even know how such a backward place was able to create this kind of thing. But listen, a girl was taken before all of thisno, wait. All of you are here, but where's the Chosen?"
Kratos' eyes narrowed, and he stepped in front of the others with his arm stretched out, signaling them not to answer. "We have no reason to tell you that," he said.
The ninja frowned and bit her lip, looking uncertain of herself. "No, fine, it doesn't matter right now. A girl was kidnapped by these strange druids before this smoke cloud appeared. Something serious is happening here."
"Why should we believe you?" asked Raine. "You've been following us and trying to assassinate the Chosen. Is there any reason we shouldn't kill you right here?"
"Raine!" said Genis. "Now isn't the time for that!"
"Stay out of this, Genis," said his older sister. "We"
But even as she spoke, the ninja had already shook her head and retreated to safety within the cloud.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aided by the day's westerly breeze, the fog was beginning to clear out from the top of the lighthouse, sweeping away from the room. Visibility had increased a fair bit, and Colette could see various out-of-place furniture pieces: an oven and sink that made up a kitchen of sorts, two small beds in blue and red, a wooden table with a white and pink cloth laid over it and three chairs standing around itand Zeffy leaning back in one of those chairs, with her boots kicked off and her sock feet up on the table. She wore shorts under her skirt, but Colette didn't notice; seeing Zeffy sitting like that, she had already made assumptions and looked away to give her her modesty. As she looked down, her eyes caught on the chain around her ankle. It was tied to a steel post which had been set in the ground for no obvious reason; there were a total of eight posts in the circular room.
Taking in the rest of the lighthouse's peak, Kirana stood looking out the window with her back turned and her red hair waving slightly, and Colette noticed she too stood in her socks. Most of the room had a stone floor, as expected of a lighthouse, but the stones seemed smooth and polished and several colorful carpets had been laid down in various parts of the room; it seemed that they'd set up a house and intended to keep it immaculate.
Iris returned then, appearing in the doorway with a pair of pure white boots in handColette's boots, freshly washed and almost shining through the dim layer of fog that still hung in the air. She laid them down near the door and removed her own boots before stepping further into the lighthouse's lookout room and standing back against a wall with her arms folded. "I'm back," she said.
Zeffy yawned. "I'm a little bored in this gloomy fog," she said, looking at Colette, "so I want to tell you a story real quick before we ask you questions, now that we're all gathered here again. 'Kay? Alright, so, like, you know Kirana's knife? It's totally fake..." she said, and laughed.
"Hey, don't give away our secrets," said Kirana. "She's still our prisoner."
"Why's it matter, Kirana? We're probably not leaving for a while with all the fog out there and I want to have some fun."
But Zeffy had already resumed in her cheer. "So anyway, yeah, like, her knife can't even cut breadwell, unless you're Iris, but she's got so much muscle in there she could cut bread with a twig. But yeah, anyway, we were just scaring you a little earlier. We don't mean any harm!" Her legs swung off the table and her feet hit the floor decisively, and she smoothly stood and approached her captive.
"We just want some ransom money from your parents or boyfriend or whoever. So" Zeffy knelt down before Colette, reached for her gag, and began to unwind it. "Who are you?" she asked just as she was removing the last layer. "Whowait, even before thatand while I'm still thinking about it!were you trying to say something earlier after you tripped? I have to ask! I know I'd go crazy if I couldn't talk!"
Colette nodded. "Yes," she said, but her blue eyes were set directly on the stoic purple-haired thief leaning against the opposite wall. "All of you are really skilled, but I don't think you're bad people..."
Kirana didn't turn to face her as she asked, "You're a real sweetheart, aren't you?" One of the innocent types.
"She gets moody like this," Zeffy whispered into Colette's ear. "Don't pay her too much attention."
"But" Colette paused, then shifted topics. "I was trying to warn you after you said we'd go to the lighthouse, but I don't think we should be in here. The people in this town say it's not safe and people get sick when they come near the lighthouse..."
Too innocent, thought Kirana, frowning. She'sdisarming, that's the word for it. I'd almost feel bad, if we hadn't needed to use that tool because of her...
"This is our hideout," said Iris, nodding briefly toward the shoes left near the doorway, and Zeffy looked over with surprise. "We have chemicals that keep people from discovering us and send them into coughing fits for a few minutes. The town rumors are exaggerations; they don't know the truth because we've never been spotted coming in here. We still haven't."
"Whoa-oh," said Zeffy, approaching her comrade and patting her shoulder. "Someone's being social today! I guess you like this girl too?"
Iris didn't respond.
"But she is pretty cooperative," said Zeffy, and met Colette's eyes with a shining smile.
"So back to the question," Kirana said, her gaze still focused out the window. "Who are you?"
"Um I'm Colette. It's nice to meet you"
Kirana grimaced. Way, way too innocent. "I meant who are you because I need to know who we ask for a ransomno, forget that!" she cried, and whirled around. "Who are you to be so sweet?"
"Wow, don't scare her by shouting," said Zeffy. "What'd she do?"
But Kirana wasn't paying attention. "We're thieves! We're kidnappers! We're going to make money. We're not here to be your friends no matter what that idiot says," she cried, jerking her head in Zeffy's direction, "and we're not here to play nice. So don't be that way toward us!"
"But you have been nice," said Colette, smiling. "You let me walk with you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You could have knocked me out and thrown me in a bag, but you let me walk. Maybe you think you're bad, but"
"Zeffy, gag her again," said Kirana, turning. "I can't listen to this anymore and I don't care who she is. We'll find out later, maybe when the air's totally clear. Yeah, maybe it's just the air ticking me off. I'm sure of it."
"I'm the Chosen."
"A girl like you is the Chosen? Sure." Kirana shook her head. "Zeffy, hurry up already. I'll be a floor down," she said, and left the room.
With a sigh, Zeffy approached Colette and said, "Well, I sure don't see why it matters if you're talking or not when she's not even here, but those are the boss's orders... I can't fight her and I know you sure can't. So, like, I feel totally weird asking this, but can you open your mouth again?"
Colette nodded. "Okay."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Kratos, Raine, and Genis had finished sketching out a map of Palmacosta and were talking strategy, determining the most likely locations where Colette would be held if she was still in the city. Busy centers like the marketplace and the area around the town hall and the church seemed unlikely, but the middle of the town seemed like a poor hiding place as well.
"Genis, sometimes after we beat monsters, you say they were 'All talk, no action.' So why are we standing here thinking? I get why Kratos and Raine want to do this, but can't you agree with me?"
Genis frowned. "Lloyd, you could really stand to use your brain for once."
"The smoke was in the marketplace," Raine elaborated, "but that doesn't mean Colette's captors are in that area. It may have been a distraction while they escaped in the opposite direction. We can't write off any possibilities."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sheena stood before the lighthouse door, assaulting it with her enchanted seals, one hand attacking and the other shielding her eyes as layers of heavy wood splintered and flew in all directions. Small progress, small progress. This location had been an obvious solution after she thought about it for a few moments. Someone of the townspeople should have found the captive girl if she and her captors were still in the areaunless they went somewhere nobody wanted to look. The lighthouse was it.
Obvious solution, but the unknown was the execution. She'd already seen one of the thieves' strength in carrying off the captive girl, so Sheena had wanted to recruit the help of the others in case these three thieves' fighting skills were top-notch as well, but instead she was going it alone. One thing at a time. One worry at a time. First, just smash enough of the door to jump inside.
But her thoughts were interrupted when a voice rang out from behind it. "Hey! No breaking our door!"
Sheena shook off her nerves. She recognized the voice: the same one that had given the command to pick up the captive. "Well, then, you had better open up! I know you're the ones who took a hostage!"
"Oh, I will. You're on! But you aren't going to destroy our home. I can tell through the peephole that you're not from around here. You'll be captured too in just a few seconds."
Sheena hadn't heard most of what the girl said; she'd fixated on a single word. Home? All her doubts cleared. She was dealing with amateurs.
The sound of rustling came from inside the lighthouse, then an iron bar being lifted, and the door swung open. Standing before her was no monk or druid, but a young twenty-something thief in a red tunic. She held a glass flask and wore a mask over her mouth
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Before Kirana could blink, her opponent had rushed forward and torn off her mask. Her eyes widened when she realized what had happened, but out of instinct she reached to seize her mask back. The other girl kept it away, but Kirana furiously grabbed at it several more times.
"I bet this is important to you. It's easy to guess. You can't use whatever that liquid is without it, huh?"
Kirana glared. She'd pegged her correctly. "Then I'll just take you directly." She withdrew her fake dagger, hoping that her foe would back away and she could get one of her comrades' masksbut instead her wrist was grabbed with lightning speed and the dagger knocked out of her hand. Kirana tried to pull herself free, but the girl's grip held her tight. "What are you?" she asked, wrenching her arm around and getting nowhere. This strength... this speed... "It's like you're not even human!"
"I am. But I have... advantages."
Kirana ran the emotional gamut in the next few moments: terror as the girl reached into her pocket, relief as she only pulled out a long piece of paper, and confusion when the girl stuck it to her forehead and she suddenly found herself paralyzed and slung helplessly over her shoulder. Or, at least, paralyzed from the neck down. "What have you done to me?" she asked.
"Defeated you faster than I expected."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Iris, Zeffy, and Colette sat in a semi-circle; Iris held her stoic expression as always while Zeffy eyed the others with suspicion. Colette avoided meeting their eyes and looked down toward her bound hands. If either girl was going to do something, she'd have to know how to respond. 5, 4, 3, 2... 9.
Colette passed her five cards to the dealer.
"Your whole hand, huh?" asked Zeffy, smiling and giving five new cards to Colette. "Well, everybody's luck has to run out some time. So I guess you'll be folding?"
But after looking over her new poker hand, Colette's brightest smile would have shown if she hadn't been gagged again, and she shook her head quickly.
"Thenthen you'll be betting?"
With her hands restrained as they were, Colette carefully kept her cards facing toward the ground and pushed her full pile of chips forward.
Zeffy squinted at her. "You're betting everything on this one?" she asked. And after she was met with a nod, Zeffy spun to face Iris. "She's bluffing. Iris, tell me she's bluffing! You're good with all that math stuff, right? She got a totally new hand! What are the chances?"
Iris didn't respond.
"You're bluffing," said Zeffy, frowning. "Iris, are you calling?"
"Well, I am!" said Zeffy, and pushed forward her own pile of chips. "Beat this," she said, and revealed a hand of three queens and two eights.
Colette revealed her own hand: a seven and four aces.
Zeffy pressed her face into her hands and groaned, her shoulders slumping. "Eesh, girly, you have the craziest luck I've ever, ever, ever seen." She sighed and peeked at her from between her hands. "But it's okay since we're not playing for real or anything," she said, then leaned forward and ruffled Colette's hair with one hand. "Still, I think I'm done. You just keep winning all the time and that's no fun."
Facing Zeffy directly, Colette pressed her hands together before her face and bowed her head.
"You're asking forgiveness?"
A nod, and a smile hidden behind a gag.
"I told you it's okay, silly!" said Zeffy. "I just need to think of something else we can do until Kirana comes back from her wi-i-i-ild mood swing. Hmm, there are other card games, but it might be hard for you to play with your hands like that. I really need to talk to Kirana about how we keep our captives"
Iris stood and went to lean against the wall again.
"Actually, there is something. What is this, anyway?" Zeffy asked, poking at the Cruxis Crystal on her neck.
"Mm!" said Colette, meaning to say Oh! She wanted to answer her question and explain what it meant and why they had to let her gosurely Zeffy of all of them would understandbut with her gag fixed on so tightly, there wouldn't be any point to trying...
"I can't tell what kind of gem it is, but I guess you can't answer right now... It's so very pretty, though!" Zeffy sang. "And it looks good on you. I considered stealing it, but we're just going to ransom you anyway, so we'll include it in the price." She smiled and ran her finger over the gem. "Speaking of ransom! That was some joke earlier about being the Chosen," she said. "You don't look like the lying type to me..."
Colette mumbled something and shook her head.
"Yeah, I know, your voice doesn't sound like the lying kind either. I guess it just popped into your head for no reason, right? That happens to me sometimes and I say things I don't mean. It's like"
Colette leaned forward and her proof flared out behind her: translucent and shimmering pink wings, wings that marked her success in her previous trialangel wings, ethereal energy detached from her body and hanging in the air.
Zeffy's eyes widened and she jumped backward at once. "Iris, are you seeing this? T-t-t-t-tell me you're seeing it too."
"Yes, I see her wings," said Iris.
"Kirana!" Zeffy shouted. "Are you hearing me? We've got a situation! I-I-I think we really did it this time. I-Ishe really is the Chosen!"
"I think she can see that," came an unknown voice, and Zeffy, Iris, and Colette all turned toward the entryway: it was the voice of a female ninja dressed in blue, carrying an immobilized Kirana with a paper seal pressed against her forehead. "But this is interesting. I've been searching for the Chosen through the city," she said, "and she's right here where I was headed for a different reason. It's almost too easy."
"What do you want?" said Zeffy. "Don't make us fight youwe're good, but even we have limits. We don't want to wreck our hideout, so if you'll leave quietly..."
"Are you as skilled as this one?" asked the ninja, setting Kirana down. "Then don't worry: there won't be a fight. I'll only need three seconds."
"She's not exaggerating," Kirana said quickly.
"I have business with the Chosen. I'm not worried about anything else you do, but leave this particular girl alone."
"Wait!" said Zeffy. "If you're saying you want her, pay our ransom. Like, yeah, special bargain just for you: only fifty thousand Gald. This is the Chosen we're talking about, but we'll cut a deal!"
The ninja grinned. "How about five thousand Gald and I don't beat you all up?"
"Hey, Iris over here is as strong as an ogre! You wouldn't want to face her, so"
"Strength doesn't matter without fighting skill," said Iris.
A pouty look crossed Zeffy's face. "You didn't have to call our own bluff! Even without her luck we'd still lose in poker..."
Iris didn't say anything more, but held Zeffy's arm and led her toward the entryway. She bowed to the newcomer as she did, and then knelt to pull the seal from Kirana's forehead. "I'll leave the money in the corner, so come back for it any time," said the ninja.
"You'd better!" said Zeffy, wrenching away from Iris' grip and pointing a finger. "And don't forget to take your boots off so you don't get our floor dirty, or we'll come back here andand, yeah, we'll come back! So there! And you'd better not do anything to this girl either, because I kind of like her even though she always wins our card games. And"
The ninja shook her head as Iris dragged a ranting Zeffy away and Kirana departed with them, but nonetheless she took courtesy to leave her boots by the doorway before entering. She approached Colette, knelt in front of her, and untied her gag.
"Sheena," said Colette, smiling. "I didn't think I'd see you here."
"And I didn't think someone else would almost kill you before I did."
"They weren't trying to kill me! They"
But Sheena wasn't listening, poking at one of Colette's shackles. "You can't break those things? You were hitting me so hard when we fought that I can't believe these are holding you."
"No, see?" said Colette, and gave her best tug at the shackle on her anklesbut when she did, the chain tethering her to the floor snapped. "Oh, huh? It's weaker than I thoughtbut I did feel faint a little while ago. But I really can't get out of this one," she said, offering Sheena her hands with a smile. "Can you take it off?"
Sheena lifted Colette's hands into her own and looked for a clip to set her free, but
"You'll need this," came Kirana's voice from behind, and before Sheena had turned to look, a tossed key clattered on the ground beside her. "You're lucky I forgot something. Sheena, was it? Hate to interrupt, but I have a question for that girl while she's still here."
"What is it?" Colette asked.
Colette's earnest eyes shone and Kirana turned her head without replying, unable to look her in the eye. Sheena picked up the key and unlocked the steel ring around Colette's ankle and then the one around her wrists; the latter shackle fell and broke the silence as it landed hard on the smooth stones, and after another few moments Kirana asked, "You're really the Chosen, huh? A girl like you."
"Yep, the Chosen, that's me!" said Colette at once, smiling.
Kirana winced. "Because you act like that, Idon't know if it's hard to believe or if I thinkI think" She looked away and whispered, "If I think maybe there's nobody better suited."
"I said you tick me off! You never got scared and cried, never fought us or tried to get away, never even hated us for one moment! And now I see you snapping a chain and having wings, and you could have flown away the whole time. What am I trying to say?" Kirana shook her head and almost looked to be on the verge of crying. "It's likeit's like"
I know what you mean, thought Sheena. I tried to kill her and next time we met she was asking my name. So I felt that way too, like it was...
A look of surprise came over Colette's face, and she stepped toward the door and took one of Kirana's hands into both of her own. "I'm sorry," she said, though Kirana wouldn't look at her; the girl kept her head bowed, eyes hidden behind a curtain of red hair. "I didn't mean that. I would never make fun of you or your friends. You're so sweet and"
All those gentle touches...
"you were so careful with me this whole time that I'm sure you'd never hurt anybody. You make threats and say things, but you couldn't really do them. That's why you're thieves, right? You don't want to beat people up..."
Nobody would ever see it under her red hair, but for a short second Kirana's touched nerve showed in her face and one eye grew teary.
"Oh!" said Colette, smiling. "I didn't tell you before, but I'm a thief too. Well, umkind of! I can't really explain, but monsters just give me items..."
I can't take any more, Kirana thought, and closed her eyes and pulled free from Colette's hands. "I found out what I wanted. Have fun with her," she said to Sheena, and left right then.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Colette's friends stood in back of the inn, imagining where her captors might have gone. "Since no one saw her taken, she must have come out of the back," Raine summarized. "We know they went west from here into the marketplace. All of the townspeople saw nothing in that area, though. We're in agreement that it's illogical to go in the direction of the town hall and the militia, but it's a real possibility. One worst-case scenario is that they took her on a ship back to Izoold."
Lloyd sighed as Raine continued recapping. All talk, no action.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"I knew I was right," said Colette. "About your gentle eyes."
"W-what are you saying?"
"You came to save me because you were worried something would happen."
"No, that's not it. I didn't even know it was you who got kidnapped when I came here, and I just took care of those others because I had to start what I finished. That's all!"
"You didn't kill me when I was chained up."
"Yeah, wellI don't like unfair fights," said Sheena, looking away.
"You're not trying to kill me now either."
"Well, you were probably beaten or something and I don't use cheap opportunities or easy wins. Don't read anything into it!"
Colette couldn't help herselfshe burst into loud laughter that echoed from the walls and filled the room with a serenade of cheer for several seconds before she could bring herself to speak again to the flustered ninja. "I-I-I'm sorry," she said, with a few traces of laughter still in her voice, "but I"
"What are you so happy about now?" asked Sheena, frowning.
"I feel loved," she said, smoothing one sleeve of her dress. "Even my
'enemies' are really nice to me, like you and Zeffy."
"I'm not being nice, and you're too trusting. Don't think we're all on your side!"
"And one of them even gives me good advice because she cares."
"Yeah, welldon't forget. Next time I see you, you're dead!" Sheena tossed down a smoke bomb, as she had the last time they'd met, and she and her shoes by the door were gone when it clearedbut it was too late, because Colette had caught a last glimpse of her. She'd been blushing.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Colette arrived back at the inn just as Raine had finished summarizing the party's next course of action. Everyone except Kratos rushed to her side, flooding her with questions about what had happened, and it was a good ten minutes before she had brought them up to speed. She covered up several of the finer details as she explained the fog had been thick and she couldn't see where she was taken (but she didn't mention that she did know where), she was able to get out of her shackle (but she didn't mention Sheena's involvement in unlocking another one), and Zeffy and the others had mistaken her identity (but she didn't mention that they wanted to keep her captive even after they found out she was the Chosen).
"Well, we're just glad you're safe, Colette," Genis said after she had wrapped up her story. "You never know with so many crazy people out there like Sheena and those thieves"
They're not such crazy people, Colette thought to herself. And that's whyI will complete the Journey of World Regeneration. But she didn't say anything as she walked with her group in her pure white boots. A robin and a sparrow beat their wings in sync overhead for a few seconds before splitting into disparate flight paths, and their image was reflected in her Cruxis Crystal as it glinted underneath the bright blue sky, lit with sunbeams that seemed to hurry down to Sylvarant to dance upon the waves beyond Palmacosta's shore.