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The Place You Belong

Chapter Text

It was an old, worn path that led to the caves, ill, windy, and hard to see among the dense litter of the woods. Still, as none of the locals dared go with them, it was the only guidance they had.

The assignment this time was really Maya's alone; he and Apollo were only here to offer protection if need be. (Trucy had decided to tag along last minute since there was no true danger expected, though he had been initially reluctant to let her come.) Their task was to investigate and exorcise the spirits haunting the cave west of Fern Valley, the town hiring them. According to a report from the town council, the cave had been inhabited by these spirits for a good three or four decades now. The townspeople had long known to keep their distance from them, but last week, a poor girl had strayed too far and gotten herself killed. She wasn't the first casualty, though she had been the daughter of a wealthy curator and merchant. This curator was the primary funder of their current recruitment, and quite honestly, the whole reason they were here.

They arrived, now finding themselves before a low-arching entryway of moss, limestone, and entombed roots.

“Do we know for sure if this is the place?” Apollo asked.

“I'd imagine so,” he replied, “They said due west at the end of the old miners' road, and we followed the road.”

“Well, there's only one way to find out,” Maya said, her eyes shining with excitement, “Let's go in!” Without waiting for a response, she rushed into the mouth of the cave.

“Ah, wait, Maya!” Phoenix sighed, realizing this was very much something she would do. They had no choice but to go after her.

She couldn't get far. The cave became impregnated with darkness soon after entering, blacker than night. Phoenix held out his hand and used his power to ignite a small flame over his palm so they could see.

They found Maya clinging to the curvature of a wall, making a face. “Nick, I think I stepped in something wet.”

“That's what you get for running inside blindly like that,” he said, slowly revolving his fistful of flame around to examine the surroundings. Dark, almost bluish limestone enclosed them on all sides, its surface layered by thick moss, though the moss tapered off the further you went in. Here and there there were large ponds and small puddles in the low-lying areas. The ceiling and ground were both uneven, sloping and contouring in large mounds, following no pattern at all. Some places were chasms; others were bottlenecks. The way before them was tortuous.

“Whoa...” Trucy came up behind him, grabbing onto his arm to steady herself. Her voice was quiet and full of reverent wonder. “This is cool. It's like we're underground!”

“Well, we are underground,”Apollo said, coming last, “Technically.”

Trucy stuck out a quick tongue at him. “You know what I mean. This place is like a whole new world and just seems... magical.”

“I agree,” Maya said in perfect accordance, “A cave like this one just screams exoticness and mystery, chalk full of hidden surprises. The forest and sun are all gone, now there is only rock, ponds, and darkness, and you don't know what will jump out at you just around the next bend.”

“Maya, please don't freak me out before we even see any of the ghosts.”

“Oops, sorry. But you know, Nick, I don't think the spirits will appreciate being called ghosts.”

“Can you sense where they are?” Apollo asked, “Sorry to push, but it's cold and damp and smells like must and wet earth, and I rather not be here for long. Plus, I can see a bunch of faint cracks in the ceiling.”

“...You and Nick get scared by the same things, don't you?”

Apollo visibly deflated. “Just tell us where to go.”

“Actually, Aunt Maya,” Trucy spoke up, playfully hitting her head in that self-deprecating way of hers, “I'm a little spooked out too.”

“Hmm...” Maya looked them over thoughtfully. “I guess it's understandable, considering I'm the only one that can deal with these guys.” All of a sudden, she clapped her hands together, giving them an assured smirk. “Fear not, everyone! The lovely, beautiful, powerful Aunt Maya is here to keep you safe from all yonder underworldly fiends!” Someone had been watching too many Metal Warrior reruns lately. “You need but follow her lead, and--!”

A biting chill swept over their small group without warning, putting out Phoenix's flame. Perhaps it should have been expected-- was a bit cliché even-- but if that paranormal force of nature had meant to grab their attention, it had worked.

He lit another flame without delay, larger than before. “Stay behind me,” he whispered to his daughter, “remember not to do anything rash, and above all don't--”

“I know, I know. You tell me all the time and made me promise, remember?” Trucy hissed back.

He winced. But that was far as their conversation would go.

There was a burst of yellow light from their left, right where Maya was standing. It flashed brighter, illuminating the whole space and momentarily blinding them--

And then it was gone.

In its place were the outlines of sudden, translucent figures-- the spirits, more in number than he had expected. They appeared remarkably human, yet were not human, were not even tangible. They were the souls of the departed, and yet their features were vague, were all too similar.

They did not look happy. *What do you want with us... Daughter of Mediums...?* It was impossible to tell who was speaking, or if they all were. *...Why have you come here...? What do we have to do with you...?* It was a voice that sounded like the wind, rebounding off the cavern walls. *Leave us... Leave us... Let us be...*

“I can't do that,” Maya responded, as serious and resolute as he had ever seen her, “You've killed too many people. You killed a poor girl just eight days ago. This is why I must intervene. Why are you plaguing the living? Why haven't you moved on?”

*It was her fault... her fault... Their fault... Their fault... She came here... so we killed her...*

Maya shook her head sadly. “This cave belongs to the World of the Living. She and the other townspeople are free to come here as they please. Each of you may have bound yourselves to this place, but that does not mean you own it. Nor do you own anyone's lives.”

*We are angry... We rage... Our grievance is not satisfied... Not yet... We haven't killed enough... More... More... We ache with our anger...*

“Why are you so angry?” Maya lifted a hand to lay it over the glowing Magatama hanging off her neck, as though laying it over her heart. “...It has to do with your death, doesn't it?”

*..................* A weighty silence *.............We were once miners... a long, long time ago... We were once like them... We were once living... This cave was our backyard... We knew this rock, this water, this moss and air... We toiled in grime and sweat day in and day out to bring bread to our tables... And then we died.*

“What happened?” Maya gently coaxed.

*...A collapse. The cave we knew so well crumbled, blocking our way back and trapping us inside... One by one we perished... starved, cold, wet, and miserable... No one came for us... Not our family... Not our friends or neighbors... No one... We had been abandoned...*

Maya chewed on her bottom lip, but she went on: “How do you know they didn't try? They were your friends and family, right? Maybe it took them some time to notice your guys went missing, but I'm sure they tried to rescue you. It could have been that they couldn't find you, or they couldn't reach you through all the rubble--”

*We understood... We understood this cave more than anyone else... We knew we could be saved...... Even if they tried and failed, it doesn't matter... We were made to suffer for many, many day... It can't be forgiven..... Their fault... Their fault...* The otherworldly voice took up chanting, repeating those same two words over and over again.

“Maya,” Phoenix intervened, keeping his voice low, “I don't think talking things through with them is going to work.”

“Yeah,” she whispered back, “They've been fixated on their grudge for so many years that they can't think straight. Poor Vera wasn't even born yet when all that happened to them, and her family moved here from somewhere else.

“What are you going to do?”

“Hmm...” She didn't answer right away, facing a direction apart from both them and the spirits. “I think... we'll need to go to where they died.” She looked back, giving a faint smile of optimism. “If I can purify their deathplace, I might be able to release them from some of their pain. It's worth a try; don't you think, Nick?”

He smiled back. “You're the expert here. Whatever you choose, I trust you.” Maya had come a long way in the time he'd known her. When they first met, she was still in training, with little to no experience under her belt, but now, she was a full-fledged necromancer, the best of her clan, surpassing even her older sister. (Granted, Chief diverted most of her energy to running their organization nowadays, but it was still remarkable.) It was about time she let the last of her stubborn insecurities go.

“Got it.” Apollo drew forward, looking on ahead at the meandering trackways of the cavern. “I need to find a caved-in room or a pile of rubble at the end of one of these paths, right?” He appeared to focus, touching a hand to the sizable bracelet around one of his wrists.

It wasn't long before he found what they were looking for: “There. There's a collapsed cavern some ways past that bridge.”

“Well done, Sharpshooter,” Maya praised in a low, all-important tone, clapping him on the shoulder.

Apollo crossed his arms, grinning. “'Sharpshooter'? I like that.”

“Lead the way.”

But they were stopped: *No.... Leave us be... Stay back... Stay back....*

There was a sudden rumbling, seeming to come from the roof, as though it was ready to fall apart.

“Run!!!” Maya shouted.

They took off for the bridge, no sense of leading or being led. The rumbling grew louder, angrier, manifesting as discordant crackles and pops overhead.

“Watch out!” It was a holler from Apollo, sounding out before-- *BAM*-- a falling rock shattered above them. Phoenix quick threw out his arm, summoning firepower to decimate the fragments.

It went on in that manner. Apollo detected the crumbling rocks as they fell, shooting them on the spot, and he incinerated the remainder. They continued to run.

Rounding a rusted railtrack, splintering off in a side tunnel, splashing through puddles, kicking up mud, they managed to reach their destination unharmed.

There was a mountain of rubble alright, though surprisingly, a good portion of it had been shoveled away, leaving a gaping hole and entryway behind. They fled through there.

“Mr. Wright.”

“Yeah.” Apparently Apollo had noticed it too. “Maya, that hole back there wasn't natural, and the bodies that were supposed to be here are missing. You understand what that means, don't you?”

Maya looked to him, blinking. “So the townspeople came to retrieve the bodies, after all?”

“That's what the evidence says,” Apollo agreed.

“Then that means...” She trailed off, bringing both hands to her Magatama, closing her eyes. “Everyone step back. I'm gathering the spirits here.”

They didn't need to be told twice. No sooner did the three of them touch up against the edges of the cave than were semitransparent, diaphanous forms swiveling into being before them.

*Oooh... Leave us be... Leave us be... We've done nothing wrong...*

“That's right.” Maya spoke loudly, eyes again open and determined as she addressed the specters. “You didn't do anything wrong. You died and suffered unfairly; I understand.” The Magatama under her neck shone brighter. “But neither did the villagers, your friends and family. Did you forget? Look around at your deathplace.”

*Nooo... Leave us be... Leave us be...* The specters grabbed their heads, whole bodies convulsing, looking on the verge of falling apart. *Ooooh... Ooooh....*

“Why are you trying so hard to forget?” Maya went on, “Why do you want to hold onto your pain? Let it go. Open your eyes and see. Unstop your ears and hear. The truth will set you free.”

*Nooo... Ooooh.... Noooo...*

“Your corpses are not here where you left them. You all remember, don't you? The day those from your hometown came to retrieve them. They labored for many days-- maybe even weeks to find you--”

*Ooooh.... Stop.... Oooooh...*

Maya's voice rose: “They definitely came! They were late, but they came! They came and took your bodies home to be properly buried... You see? Your end may have been unfair, but it was no one's fault. You were never abandoned!”

The moanings of the spirits changed to screeching. Their forms blurred in and out, showing glimpses of concrete features and expressions. Some were crying, some had shut eyes, some stared at nothing at all. Sixteen miners. Sharing similar ethnicities, clothes, and grunge, yet individual and distinct from each other.

The golden light before Maya flickered to red. Phoenix saw she had taken out the Magatama of Parting. She held the light up, and for the second time, they were blinded by a flash.

And just like that, the screeches were gone. The residual silence was deafening.

The power in Maya's Magatama at once died down... and soon, only his flame was left for light. “Is it finished?” he carefully asked, “Are they gone?”

Maya nodded, though her expression was somewhat dispirited. “I sent them to the Twilight Realm... I just hope I was able to help them move on a little.”

He drew close to her, touching her upper arm. “You did the best you or anyone else could do,” he said sincerely, “and for that, you should be proud.”

Maya brightened. “Thanks, Nick.”

“No problem. You deserve it.”

All at once, she leaned into him, practically falling against him. “Maaan~ I'm exhausted. Carry me out of here, Nick.”

He half-pushed her off of him. “I'm sorry this job tired you out, but that's not happening.”

“But you can fly.”

“Not in the way you're talking about. And definitely not inside caves.”

“Pleeeeeeease.”

“Maya, you're twenty-si--”

They were interrupted by Trucy: “Can I ask you something, Aunt Maya?”

Maya quickly straightened. “Sure thing. Fire away!”

Trucy pulled at her gloves, her expression thoughtful. “Um, you could have exorcised those spirits anytime you wanted to with the Magatama of Parting, right? Is the reason you did it here and not at the entrance have something to do with what you said about helping them move on? Is it like trying to give them peace of mind?”

Maya smiled. “You got it. I can send the dead to the Twilight Zone whether they want to or not with the Magatama of Parting alone, but though that solves our problem, it doesn't really solve theirs. Spirits that remain attached to the World of the Living after they die almost always are troubled by something. Whether it's a powerful experience or an emotion they can't let go of, they become incapable of moving past that and get stuck, even though they're dead and can't do anything about it. That's why, they may have been good people when they were alive, but when they stay behind as spirits, all they can do is torment themselves and cause problems for the living. It's better to break the chains they have on their souls here and give them peace of mind, like you said, then to throw them into the Twilight Zone while they're still tormented like that.”

“That makes a lot of sense.” Smiling happily, Trucy began bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It was awesome watching you. I'm glad I got to tag along this time.”

Maya grinned. “I'm glad you came too. It's like I always say, the more, the merrier. You're welcome to come along with me for jobs like this any time you want.”

Phoenix felt he had to intervene: “Except things did get dicey for a second there...”

Maya only looked to him, unruffled. “What are you talking about, Nick? You and Apollo were with her the entire time. Nothing was going to happen.”

“Come on, Dad.” Trucy had her face twisted into an annoyed pout. “It already stinks that I'm not allowed to do anything. At least let me come and watch.”

Phoenix sighed. He had never been good at playing the bad guy, nor did he want to. “I'm sorry, Truce, but you know your circumstances, and I did promise both your parents that--”

“Don't bring my parents into this!” His adopted daughter looked miffed. “You know that's dirty!” She turned to scurry over to where Apollo was standing and grabbed his hand. “Polly and I are going ahead! See you at the entrance, Aunt Maya!” She tromped off, dragging a bewildered Apollo after her.

He sighed louder than before. “Great. Now hates me.”

“It won't last long,” Maya reassured, coming to his side, “This is Trucy we're talking about.”

“That doesn't mean I have to like it...”

They started off, following after the younger pair. It really did seem true that Maya was exhausted; she didn't make a single peep their entire trip back, allowing him to brood on how to broach an apology with Trucy.

However, in the end, when they got to the entrance of the cave, all his planning turned out to be for naught.

There was an unknown specter where Trucy and Apollo were standing, right before them. Alarmed, he and Maya ran the rest of the way-- “Trucy, stand back!”

Trucy swung around in alarm. “Wait, Aunt Maya! She doesn't mean any harm!”

They both slowed down awkwardly, a little perplexed. Phoenix took a good look at the ghost-- and was surprised to see a young women crouched near the ground. At the moment, she was frozen in place, timidly looking up at them, though it was clear she had been etching something into the sodden earth with a stick.

“We think she's the girl the council was talking about,” Trucy said quietly, putting a gentle touch on her brooch, “You know, the one who died...”

“It's alright,” Apollo reassured the spirit, “They're with us. You can go on.”

The translucid young woman blinked back a few times, seeming to consider. Slowly... she lowered her gaze and took up drawing again.

As they watched her work, Apollo from time to time would give a noise of encouragement or confirmation. At the end of it all, he appeared to have an understanding for what was going on: “I see. So you are the Vera Misham we heard about.” He crouched down to join her. “But why did you come all the way out here when you knew they forbid it in town? This old mine is a far walk from your home.”

Vera ran a hand over the wet ground, smoothing it over, beginning to scrawl anew.

“........Hmm? Is that a... skull?” A pause. “...'The Devil'? What do you mean?” Another pause. “..................WHAT?!!!” Apollo nearly fell on his behind, shouting all too loudly. “SOMEONE TOLD YOU TO COME HERE?!!” Vera was visibly startled by his volume, nodding hesitantly. Apollo immediately looked abashed, rubbing the hair-horns on his head. “Ah, sorry. I didn't mean to scare you.” He dropped his hand. “It's just, if what you say is true, then this is serious.”

That was an understatement. What they had was essentially a murderer on their hands. But... what could they do about it? This was outside their job description and domain to act now.

The spirit went on writing, in big, loopy, cursive letters. Even he could read the end product: 'Beware the Devil'.

Then, she erased it. She looked up, pointedly directing a meaningful stare at Maya. She looked down to write once more: 'Thank You for saving Them.' She went on to draw a picture... showing a complex doodle of several miners.

He was stunned.

“Are you sure?” Maya tried to reply, “Weren't they the ones that...?”

Vera stood. Something was wrong. Her form was receding-- was fading. The drawing stick fell through her hand.

And then she smiled-- an incredible smile full of gratitude.

That's when she disappeared entirely.

 

⁂⁂⁂

In the end, all they could do was convey Vera's warning to the town council. After all, they had no information on who this 'Devil' was, no evidence for what he or she had done. It was better to trust the proper authorities without getting too involved in their affairs and hope for the best.

In the meantime, the council handed over the second half of their payment, as was promised. They only had to wait a short while for the runner to verify that their job had indeed been completed.

And even still, Phoenix didn't leave right away. "Um, would you mind if I ask you something?"

The two at the entry desk shared a glance, a woman in green vest, braided red hair and an overall-dressed man with uneven shave. The man spoke, "What is it?"

Phoenix licked his lips and swallowed. "Have you heard of a man with silver hair, stern features, and intelligent eyes passing through? He's about my age and height."

"Silver hair? I'd think I'd remember that," the woman answered in lieu of her companion, "I would say no, he hasn't been here. Why? Who is he?"

He didn't react to the news; he'd heard it so many times before. "Ah, just a... dear friend who went missing some time ago."

"I see. Sorry I don't have any information for you."

"If you don't mind, would you contact our organization if he ever does show up here?"

"Sure thing, hun." Hun, huh? He was more than sure they were around the same age.

"Thank you."

As they left council hall, Maya put a sympathetic hand to his should, saying nothing.

There was nothing to say. How many times had he been through this already? Hundreds? Thousands? It had been seven years since Miles Edgeworth had disappeared from their lives. By this time, he wondered why he kept asking for extra job assignments-- kept wandering through different lands and searching whole cities through. Did he still maintain hope of one day finding him, or was he simply going through the motions? He didn't know, or more likely, he didn't wish to find out.

In a way, it was worse than if Miles Edgeworth had died.

Maya broke him from his dismal thoughts: "We're meeting up at the fountain in the market place, right?”

"That's the spot.” He forced himself to focus on the here and now. "I hope they wrap up their shopping soon. Apollo is particular about his ammo, and Trucy can window shop for hours."

However, contrary to his expectations, the younger duo were already there by the time they arrived. Maya heckled him. "Oh, you of little faith."

They were on their way again, heading back to their base-- heading home. It was going to be a bit of a trip; they had to leave both the woods and the southeastern territories behind. Fortunately, their bellies were full of grub, it was a beautiful sunny day, things were normal between him and his daughter again, and all was well.

They got no further than the outskirts of town. Someone came out to meet them on the road. Surprised, they stopped. "Excuse me." It was a polite, demure, benevolent-looking man, if Phoenix had ever seen one, smiling graciously, beautifully. "Would you four happen to be mercenaries? The very mercenaries who are said to have solved our ghost problem in the old mine to the west?"

Phoenix blinked, momentarily thrown. "Ah, uh, we are mercenaries, and we have just completed a job in a mine to the west, yes." Well, that wasn't embarrassing. He practically just restated everything the guy said.

The stranger smiled all the more, as though pleased. "Then I'm fortunate not to have missed you. My name is Kristoph Gavin. I'm a verderer who lives in a humble cottage not far from here. I have no claim in your job assignment, but as a tax payer of this town, I would like very much to express my gratitude to you all. Do you have time to stop by for some tea and refreshments?"

"Yes, of course we do," Maya immediately agreed, never one to refuse an offer of free food no matter how recently she had eaten, "We love to meet with those we have had a hand in helping." Something sharp and elbow-y jammed into Phoenix's side. "Don't we, Nick?"

He had to cough. "W-Well, Chief hasn't sent us any word, so there's no rush to head home..."

"Wonderful." Looking closer, Mr. Gavin had on one of those gentleman smiles that didn't quite reach the eye. It didn't necessarily mean it wasn't genuine; it was just polished, refined, one put on for show. He made a quarter-turn, the coil of blonde locks on his shoulder bobbing along smoothly with his neat movements. "This way, if you please."

They were led away from the road-- away from the beaten path completely. It seemed Mr. Gavin lived in mild isolation, as would be expected of a commissioned officer in charge of guarding the woods.

"To tell the truth, I have a personal interest in the exorcism you carried out today," Mr. Gavin explained as they walked. It was only a slight movement, but as he inclined his head forward, the reflection of the mid-afternoon sun on his glasses obscured his eyes. "I lost someone dear to the terrors of that old cave."

At those solemn words, Phoenix forgot all about half-rimmed frames and missing pupils. Apollo spoke for him: "Was that person a child? A girl?"

"No, I'm afraid it was my grandmother. She was the verderer before me, you see."

"O-Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

"Don't be.” Mr. Gavin raised his head, smiling admirably. “It's all in the past now. What matters is that there will be no more victims, all thanks to you four. I am more than grateful for that."

“The one you really should be thanking is Ms. Fey,” Apollo said, “She's the one who did everything. We're only here in case things went wrong.”

“Ah, a Fey. Would that be you?” Mr. Gavin asked, turning to Maya, “I don't think there's a single soul in the southeastern territories that hasn't heard of your family's fame.” He half-bowed. “What an honor. I shall always remember this day and hold my gratitude to you until the hereafter. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“Um, y-you're welcome, but don't worry about it,” Maya replied, looking somewhat out-of-place, “This sort of stuff is my family's responsibility. I mean, the spirits were suffering too; all I did was give them a push in the right direction.”

Still smiling, Mr. Gavin gave a shake of his head. “Hmm, modest too. What a remarkable young lady. I'm glad we had this opportunity to meet.”

The conversation continued on in this manner. The verderer asked after all their names, getting to know them one-by-one. There was no end to his compliments. He was a charming guy through and through.

Before they knew it, they had arrived. At first glance, the cottage was no more than a log cabin tucked into the corner of an obscure clearing, though the overall impression it gave was one of comfort. Looking closer, one could see the property was well-maintained, with the nearby shrubbery cut back and all weeds removed. Above all, the place was quiet, peaceful, the woods charming and inviting.

They were ushered inside.

“Please make yourselves at home,” Mr. Gavin said, “I shall get some water boiling, and the refreshments will be out momentarily.”

He disappeared into another room, allowing them a chance to examine the surroundings. Phoenix had the same impression of the inside as he did the outside: simple, cozy, unpretentious, yet loved and well-kept. The myriad of furnishings boasted the contribution of several generations, some of which must have been priceless heirlooms. Their small group sat in the individualized chairs of the round table, the latter set with laced cloth and porcelain dishware. There were exactly five.

Mr. Gavin returned with a tray, setting it down upon the table. He made another trip to bring back the platters of custard and powdered pastries. He began pouring their drinks. The mercenaries were amazed; they had never before known what it was like to be waited upon, much less by such a kind and caring host. Maya was ecstatic and had to be held back before she devoured everything.

“Did you make all this yourself?” Trucy asked, shooting Phoenix several 'why-don't-we-ever-do-things-like-this' and 'why-can't-you-be-more-like-that' looks.

“I confess to having had some help,” Mr. Gavin answered, handing Apollo his tea, “A good friend and neighbor of mine gave me some instruction and assistance.”

*crash*

Apollo's chair shot back as he clambered to his feet. The tea cup he had just been holding was on the ground before him, shattered in a pile of near-clear liquid. He looked spooked.

“Oh my. Are you hurt?” Mr. Gavin took up a cloth napkin and reached out--

But Apollo hastily drew back from his touch. “'The Devil'. I saw it... You're the Devil, aren't you?!”

For the first time, Mr. Gavin frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Polly, what's wrong?” Trucy jumped up to come by his side. “What are you saying?”

“It's him, Trucy!” Apollo exclaimed, never looking more convinced, “The one Vera warned us about! He's the one that told Vera to go to the mine and got her killed!”

Phoenix quickly stood, along with Maya. “Are you sure?”

Apollo glared. “Yes. The proof's on the back of his right hand. The scar there looks just like the picture she drew for us in the mud.”

“How unexpected.” Mr. Gavin spoke, voice low and detached, a hand rising to push up his glasses, concealing his face. “.....To have one's plans spoiled by the dead.” There was a laceration scar on that hand, traversing its bones and sinews. But Phoenix could not see what Apollo could. “Your eyes are even better than what I've heard, Mr. Justice.” The hand dropped, revealing that carefully crafted smile. “I'm afraid that makes me want them all the more.”

They heard the footsteps at the same time unknown shots rang out. Phoenix spun around-- but it was too late. Figures in full-body suits and goggle masks were at the door, at the windows, inside, tubular guns in hand-- More shots were fired, making strange buzzing sounds--

He only had that split-second to react, shielding himself with a hasty wall of flame, scorching the floorboards-- It was then he realized what it was that was being fired--

There were cries around him-- No!!-- All three of his companions had been struck by the darts, undoubtedly tranquilizers--

He raged, blazing while flinging himself towards the leader of this ambush, intent on striking down the phoniest mask of them all--

Kristoph Gavin's smile faced him fully, unfazed and unafraid.

*BAM* This last shot was different-- far louder than the others-- Phoenix made to shield himself again--

It was useless. A solid, metal harpoon phased through the flames without difficulty-- striking him with such force as to fling him backwards-- *BASH*-- He cried out at the impact, now nailed to the broken logs of the wall through the abdomen-- His cry was broken by his own coughing, some blood came out--

Just like that, in a matter of seconds, the band of mercenaries had been subdued.

Phoenix grasped the harpoon with both hands, gasping against the pain. His power could only dull it so much, and it was all he could do to focus on what was happening around him. Trucy and Maya were slumped in their seats, upper bodies bowed over scattered plates, hardly moving. Apollo was prostrate on the ground, no better off. The masked figures-- six or eight in total-- loomed over them all around, now at rest.

Damn.... Damn it... Who were these people? He doubted the man who called himself Kristoph Gavin was the official verderer he claimed he was. This cottage probably wasn't even his.

There was movement. Gavin drew near to Apollo's crumpled body, arms crossed, looking down. Phoenix strained to hear the following words: “How unfortunate. If you had been good and quietly ate your snacks, the situation wouldn't have come to this. Now my cooking has gone to waste.” There was something about this devil in sheepskin that was disturbingly familiar, though he was sure he had never before seen him in his life.

“Was there...” Apollo's voice was weak, struggling to be heard. “...tranquilizers in the food, too?”

Gavin only smiled in response. “...There's no need to worry; I won't kill you. Nothing personal, you see, just business. You'd be astounded to learn how much highly-attuned sense organs like yours are worth on the black market.”

It was then that Phoenix realized; these people were collectors, bounty hunters who searched the world over for anything that would fetch a pretty penny, from bewitched talismans and cursed treasures to the paranormal and supernatural to the special abilities of powerful bloodlines. They were outlaws, living above the law, belonging to no jurisdictions. They had no qualms about killing and stopped short of nothing to get what they wanted... It was clear just how dangerous of a situation they were in.

“What about... Vera... Misham?” Apollo pushed against the floor, doing everything he could to raise himself, but failing. It was painful to watch. “Why did you....?” He couldn't finish; he seemed to be losing his strength by the second.

“Ah, Ms. Misham.” Gavin tapped a few fingers to his forehead, smile stretching only thinner. “She was an acquaintance of mine, a poor girl who was made mute by an unfortunate accident in the past. She had trouble facing strangers and was afraid to leave home. Her father came to me personally, asking me to be her therapist and help her open up to the world again... Well, that's what it seemed to the outside.” He pushed a stray fringe behind his ear. “Can you imagine? The local mine had been haunted for several decades, and yet it merely remained abandoned. Everyone in town knew about it; they knew to stay away from it, but from time to time, one got curious, another strayed too far. There was always a death every few years. And still, no one did anything. What do you think it took to get this sleepy town to finally act?”

“You...” Apollo wheezed, breaking off.

“Precisely,” Gavin said, again adjusting his glasses, “Surely the sacrifice of one rich man's daughter is more than worth the deaths of all those to come? Mr. Misham financed your journey here... and now we have the opportunity to meet.”

All according to your plan...

It all made sense. They didn't come here by chance. The job commission had been a trap. Vera truly had been sacrificed. Everything had been carefully planned, down to the last detail. Phoenix clutched the harpoon tighter, without the strength to yank it out. Even this spear-- consisting of an alloy that could not be melted without endangering all those here-- had been designed to pin him down. This Kristoph Gavin knew more about them than he was letting on. And for what? Was it all truly to....?

One of the masked figures came to Gavin's side, holding out a miniature black case, opening it. Gavin reached out to accept. Soon, he was seen pulling on immaculate white gloves, then he took up strange objects, looking like tools resembling a scalpel and a needle syringe. “I believe the tranquilizers have long since taken effect. You shouldn't be able to move, but nonetheless, I advise you not to struggle. The more you struggle the more painful it will be for you.”

Apo--!

“Polly!!” Phoenix froze, his blood congealing at the sound of that cry. Somehow, Trucy was moving, though sluggishly, and-- Trucy, no!!!-- Her form flashed, concealed whole by the light she was emitting-- Right under their very eyes, that light was metamorphosing, growing, stretching in different directions, and becoming something it wasn't before--

Until all that was left was the slender shape of a serpentine, sapphire-scaled dragon, filling the whole of the table and pushing all else off to crash to the floorboards below.

Trucy-- his daughter-- this mystical creature crossed the room in a single leap. She coiled around Apollo's limp form, knocking Kristoph Gavin aside. She was quick to act, taking Apollo whole and fleeing through the window, bashing anyone who got in her way--

“Shoot them down!” Gavin bellowed from the lower junction of the far-off wall, his hair frazzled and glasses askew, “Don't let either of them get away!”

The masked figures rushed from the room-- but already, buzzing shots were flying-- far more than there should have been--

There's more of them. Seized with pure terror, Phoenix struggled desperately against the pin that held him-- It was futile-- The metal barbs had his flesh and wouldn't let go--

There was a frenzied clamor outside-- It seemed Trucy was making a mess of their forces outside-- However, she was still suffering under the effects of the tranquilizers, she was burdened with Apollo, she hadn't yet mastered her abilities-- And that wasn't all he was worried about--

Gavin was on his feet, a slight stagger to his step. His smile now was open, sinister, deranged. “A shapeshifter...” Though he was in such a sorry state, he looked far too pleased. “So that bloodline's still alive...”

The flurry of buzzing outside never stopped, only intensified, then--

An inhuman scream. His daughter's scream.

His vision turned white, his body reacting on its own-- *CRACK*-- He cremated the logs behind him, not caring if he caught the house on fire-- Thus freed, he used the power of his true form to speed to Maya's side, grabbing her in his talons-- He veered immediately for the open entryway-- passing by Gavin-- Their eyes met, no doubt with equally hostile stares-- But there was no time-- He flew outside--

Trucy!!!

The sapphire dragon was in a heap on the ground, tangled up with Apollo. Despite a full-fledged armor of scales, a number of darts had penetrated, poking out... There were so many, it was impossible to count.

He screamed, screeching to the high heavens. His unearthly cry startled the horde of collectors, allowing him to act before they had a chance to-- He launched through the air-- heading straight for his daughter-- descending upon her--

*whirl* *whirl* *whirl* The dart guns were firing again-- only to be burned to char by his flaming skin-- He magnified his size-- took up Trucy and Apollo along with Maya-- and flapped with renew vigor--

They were escaping. Phoenix fled through the woods, using all his strength to stay afloat. There was not much he could do to stay contained given his size, and before he knew it, he had a trail of flaming brush and trees on his tail.

At least it'll serve as an obstacle to keep them from chasing after us...

He flew as far as he could, which wasn't near far enough to make him comfortable, but he was long past smoldering at this point and he struggled to keep his precious load in the air. He had to descend to rest.

The four of them collapsed against a tree. As soon as he knew the others were safe on the ground, Phoenix reverted back into a human to conserve energy. His left hand absentmindedly found the harpoon he was still impaled on. Even now, he didn't know what to do about it. It seemed so much less important than everything else. He looked to his companions. Maya and Apollo both made low moans and shifted their limbs, if just a little. Though she had changed back to her original shape and form, Trucy alone was not stirring. In fact, her breathing sounded ragged, her pulse slow and weak. His terror was not yet over.

He shook her. “Trucy... Trucy, please wake up. Trucy...” He said her name again, again and again, but she would not come back to him.

The situation was as dire as it could be. He had allowed the two things that were never supposed to happen to her happen. He had failed her as her father.

“Trucy...! Trucy...! Trucy, please! Wake up!”

“Mr. Wright...” He jerked his head to the side-- and was shocked to see Apollo sitting up and slumped against the tree. He still looked incredibly weak. “Take Trucy back to base and leave us. You both need medical treatment ASAP.”

Those words jarred him even more. “Wha... What are you saying? I can't--”

“We'll be fine,” Apollo insisted, “If anything happens, I'll protect Ms. Fey. I promise.”

“You can hardly move...” he protested weakly.

“And you're exhausted and have a giant metal pole sticking out of your gut,” he returned, “If you didn't have your super-recovery powers as a phoenix, you might not even be alive. What good could you do by staying here?”

Phoenix stared at his staunch companion, subdued. “...They're after you, you know.”

“I know. That's why I feel partly responsible. Please leave this to me, Mr. Wright.”

He dropped his gaze, looking back to his daughter. She seemed so unnaturally pale, her skin slightly clammy. If he did nothing, she really was going to die. “That man knows, Apollo...” His voice came out as an unintended whisper. “He knows Trucy is a Gramarye. He's going to be coming after her next. No, it won't just be him...” He should have never taken her with him on this mission. Never.

“Then that's all the more reason to get away from here, don't you think?” Apollo firmly urged, “Mr. Wright, I don't want to lose Trucy either.”

“........You're right.” He took his daughter in his arms, carefully rising to his feet. He paused. “I'll definitely come back for you guys.”

Apollo smiled to the best of his abilities. “You better.”

That promise between them would have to do. Phoenix transformed once more, taking up flight. He hurried, racing against the clock.

He would save her. He would not let his daughter die.

Hang in there, Trucy...!