Keterburg never really seemed to change. Despite the dark secrets from its past that lurked just beneath the surface, it still remained a picturesque little scenic village nestled up in the mountains and forever frozen in an eternal blanket of snow. Yet, regardless of its innocent seeming atmosphere -assuming you didn't account for the casino- and the knowledge that really bad stuff had gone down here in the not so distant past, Luke still couldn't figure out where the hell that distant sound of jingle bells came from. He'd looked in every feasible nook and cranny the last time they had passed through Keterburg, but hadn't found a damn thing. Eh, maybe the place really was haunted. It would stand to reason.
"I want to see Ion," Anise whined petulantly for the umpteenth time that day.
"I'm sorry, Anise, but we're all exhausted," Tear said with a sigh, her own legendary patience having been sorely tested by the events of a very long day. "Don't worry though, we'll head to Daath first thing in the morning."
"Man," Anise grumbled, her bottom lip sticking out in an irritated pout, "We should have already been there by now."
"Well, you know who to blame for our unfortunate delay," Natalia piped up in blatant, insincere cheerfulness before turning a pointed look in Luke's general direction.
"Hey! I said I was sorry!" Luke shot back defensively. It's not like they didn't have a say in where all they went. They could have said no at any point during the journey. And besides, Natalia was the very last person who should admonish him for chasing after Spinoza. She had been all for it, if only for the chance to see Asch again. It wasn't all his fault! Well... okay, maybe it was all his fault, but they didn't have to rub it in.
"Now now, children," Jade said blandly as he began to unobtrusively herd the snarly group towards the hotel, "Let's settle down and go check in to the hotel. You can rip into each other to your heart's content tomorrow morning."
"Really, colonel, you make us sound so... so... so uncivilized," Anise grumped as she began to climb the stairs that lead up past the casino.
"Heaven forbid." Jade smiled knowingly as he trailed up after the young Oracle Knight.
Luke rolled his eyes and shook his head as he tromped up after them. Sometimes he really wondered about those two. He'd never met two people with such a glaring age difference who teased each other quite as comfortably as those two did. Then again, he'd never really bothered to ask about how they'd met much less how long they'd known each other. Old friends? But that didn't quite fit, Anise was only thirteen years old after all. Then again, she was a thirteen year old Fon Master Guardian, so it was still a feasible explanation.
"You've really made quite a nuisance out of yourself, boy."
Luke froze in mid-stride, his foot hovering just shy of grazing the next stair step. That voice... it couldn't be... He glanced behind him, but there was no one there. But surely...
"Luke? Are you coming?"
He whipped his head around and blinked owlishly up at Tear. She stood above him, at the top of the stairs, one eyebrow arched in what Luke guessed was her way of showing slight consternation. She was still rather irritated with him, not that he could really blame her all things considered. It had been a rather pointless goose chase.
"Uh, yeah... uhm," Luke mumbled as he continued his aborted movement and trudged the rest of the way up the stairs. "Did you just... I don't know... hear something... or somebody?"
"No," Tear murmured, her brows scrunching together in mild concentration, "Just the colonel and Anise poking fun at each other, as usual. Why, did you hear something?"
"Nah, nevermind," Luke shook his head and smiled weakly, "It was probably just my imagination playing tricks on me."
"If you say so," Tear said uncertainly, shrugging her shoulders a moment later when it appeared that Luke wouldn't be more forthcoming. "Let's get to the hotel, it's starting to get dark."
"Yeah, let's go." Luke smiled again, this one not quite as forced, and motioned for Tear to go on ahead of him. His smile vanished the instant her back was turned. He was certain he had heard that. It had been Master Van's voice, and he had sounded... extremely annoyed, and somehow resigned. But why would he be hearing Master Van in Keterburg of all places?
And why did his right wrist ache so badly all of a sudden?
"Hey Luke, are you all right?"
"Huh?" The aforementioned redhead looked up absently from where he had been studiously rubbing circles into his wrist, anything to alleviate the horrible ache that had only grown worse as the night had progressed. It hadn't been so bad at dinner, but that wasn't to say it hadn't been great either. Did he sprain it somehow without even knowing it?
"Are you all right?" Guy asked again, enunciating his words as if he were talking to someone who was half asleep. He hadn't acted as if he were all that annoyed with Luke's little side trips, at least not as much as any of the others had been. He'd even accepted Luke's numerous apologies with his usual carefree smile. He was probably too used to Luke's general stupidity to really get pissed off about the little things. Still, if Guy was asking about whether Luke was all right or not, then he hadn't managed to hide his discomfort nearly as well as he'd hoped. Crap.
"Oh, uh, yeah, I'm fine." Luke smiled warmly up at his best friend, desperately hoping he could hide the fact that no, he really wasn't all right and that he just wasn't sure why he wasn't. What the hell was wrong with him? He hadn't done anything exceptionally stupid of late, asides from fruitlessly chasing after an old man. And boy, that hadn't gotten him anywhere or won him any favors. Geez, how boneheaded could he get?
"Right," Guy drawled back, obviously not believing a word Luke had said. Tilting his head slightly and cupping his chin in that thoughtful way of his, the noble turned servant eyed his friend appraisingly. Time for a different approach. "Okay, so what's wrong with your wrist then?"
Luke froze for the second time that day. Of course Guy would notice it, he could be exceedingly observant at the most inopportune moments. Now how to get out of explaining something Luke didn't have any possible explanation for. Nibbling on his bottom lip nervously, he answered rather lamely, "Well, I'm not really sure. It just aches. But I'm sure a good night's rest will fix whatever the problem is, so don't worry unnecessarily on my account!"
"Uhuh," Guy grunted back, still obviously not believing a word coming out of Luke's mouth. Damnit.
"Oh do quit that," Jade said wearily as he entered the room, interrupting any further grilling on Guy's part. "It's obvious that Luke isn't too keen on explaining his odd behavior tonight. Leave it alone for now. If it continues in the morning then by all means torture it out of him if you find it necessary; but in the meantime, I, personally, would like to get some rest as I'm quite sure Anise will be banging on the door at first light."
"Yeah, I guess," Guy murmured, giving his friend one last disbelieving look that spoke volumes before turning to get ready for bed. That look easily told Luke that there would be dire consequences in the morning if he didn't tell him what the problem was.
The problem with that, of course, was that he didn't know what the problem was. The only voices Luke ever tended to hear was Asch and he certainly didn't sound anything like Master Van.
Wait a minute.
Asch. Maybe there was an explanation after all. What was that bastard up to anyway? Shouldn't he be off somewhere still chasing Spinoza down? Then again, they never really did know what Asch was up to until well after the fact. Hmm, it was something to think upon in the morning, but for now, Jade had the right idea. Sleep would be most welcome and maybe his wrist would feel better in the morning.
Just what had he done to it anyway?
The agony of bone grating against shattered bone was nauseating but bearable. The stab wounds were worse, but he could deal with them as well if he could just breathe. Trying to escape a noose with one hand completely useless was a daunting task to begin with, perhaps even impossible, but he would do it. He wouldn't give that bastard the satisfaction of killing him. Not here. Not now. Not ever.
But he was so tired...
Luke blinked. Those weren't his thoughts... and where was he? He had been in bed, lulled to sleep by the distant, if bizarre, sound of jingling bells. But now, where was this? It was dark. And cold. And... raining? Luke looked up, squinting against the water splattering steadily across his face. He was outside, and this was- A brilliant flash of lightning lit the sky, painting a eerie picture of rising stone columns and endless shadows: a resplendent cathedral.
Daath, this was Daath. They were supposed to go there in the morning. But this wasn't morning... how had he gotten here? And for that matter, he wasn't all that certain of where exactly he was in Daath. It was a courtyard of some sort, that much he had gathered in the brief flashes of light, but the angle to the cathedral was off... He was behind it? But why... what was-
Another flash of lightning split the sky and any thought of where he was instantly fled Luke's mind at what he saw in that moment. There was a tree at the center of the courtyard and there was something... hanging from it. No, not something, someone. What the hell? He tried to step forward then, because whoever they were they were struggling -weakly- against whatever was holding them there. A rope. But he couldn't seem to move. Why couldn't he move? Someone needed his help. Why couldn't he move?!
Another flash of light, brighter and harsher than before and then nothing mattered anymore. Because he had seen. In that moment he had seen hair the length his had once been, hair the color of blood. Why was he here? This had to be a dream, a nightmare. He couldn't be here. Neither of them could. This wasn't real. This wasn't happening.
A sudden jerk and he was free, falling and landing awkwardly on the hard ground below, too awkwardly. Pain, sharp and intense shot out and Luke too was falling.
This wasn't real. It couldn't be real.
Well, that's one more broken bone to add to the tally.
It wasn't raining anymore. He wasn't cold anymore. But he was still falling and now there was someone screaming. Shrieking and sobbing. Please, stop. Shut up. Please please please. Make it stop! He couldn't deal with this, none of this was real. Nothing was real. It couldn't be. He wouldn't let it be real.
"Luke! Luke, come on, wake up." There was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently, trying to get through. But he couldn't help it, he flinched. It hurt. Everything hurt. He hurt. "Luke!" And just like that, the screaming stopped. No. It didn't stop, he stopped.
Luke opened his eyes and craned his head back. Guy was standing over him, looking frantic with worry, one hand extended as if he were going to touch him but was afraid what would happen if he tried to again. Guy, it had been Guy shaking him, trying to wake him from his nightmare. Luke looked around, his eyes glassy, as if he wasn't really there. But he wasn't, was he? He was back in Daath. No. No! He'd had a nightmare, that's all it was, all that it could be. He had fallen out of bed. Screaming. Why did everything hurt? And where was that odd light coming from? Shouldn't it still be dark?
Luke glanced down at his hands in a daze, horror slowly slithering its way up his spine. They were glowing. Soft and gold. Hyper resonance. Not a dream. He couldn't help a sob then. A nightmare, a real nightmare. The pain wasn't his. Wasn't it? Why was this happening? What had happened? Where was he?
You know where.
He struggled to his feet, swaying in place, barely registering a steadying hand on his shoulder and voices, concerned voices echoing in his ears. Not here. There. He had to be there. That was where he was. That was where he needed to be. "Wait for me," Luke muttered mournfully, his words barely above a whisper as he reached inside and beyond to the golden glow he knew would be there. It was always there.
But he wasn't anymore.
It was still dark and cold in Daath. And it was still raining. But only an empty rope hung from the tree in the courtyard.
Where are you?
"What the hell?" Guy stared aghast, his hand grasping at empty air where just a second ago it had been holding onto his best friend. "What the hell?" he repeated again, his brain unable to process what had just happened. He had been shocked awake by screams, Luke's screams. He had never seen him like that before. Akzeriuth had been bad, but it had been nothing compared to this. A dream? A nightmare? What kind of nightmare could produce that level of hysteria? And Luke had flinched when he had touched him, as if in acute pain. Why? What had been going on in his head? And now he wasn't even there anymore, he had just vanished right in front of them. What the hell was going on?
Guy looked up then, lost, unable to find any explanation and instead found Jade standing behind him, a dark, thoughtful expression on the older man's face. Jade... surely he would know what had just happened, he always knew something. But even before Guy could form any sort of question the door crashed open, Anise stumbling in with a mace held ready in hand and a dangerous glint in her eyes.
"All right, where's the fire? Who's attacking? Let me at 'em!" she snarled, brandishing the mace and god help anything that got in her way. Natalia and Tear stood behind her, each leaning against opposite sides of the doorjamb, weapons in hand and ready for anything. But there was nothing to fight, at least, nothing here.
"I'm afraid there are no dragons present for you to slay, young knight," Jade said calmly, too calmly as he reached up and massaged the bridge of his nose. "It seems our hero has gone on ahead to battle, one that we cannot join in."
"But-" Guy started, not sure of what he was going to say, but he had to say something. This was Luke, after all.
"But what, Guy?" Jade interjected smoothly. "We have no idea where he has gone. And even if we did, whatever it is that he has gone chasing after would be over by the time we got there. There is nothing we can do." He shrugged then, as he always did when events seemed inevitable. "I suggest we all go back to bed and get what sleep we can. We still have a long journey ahead of us in the morning."
"No buts, Guy," Jade ordered, his tone growing chill and hard, "We will go to Daath. It is where we are supposed to be going and he knows that. If he has enough sense left after he is finished with whatever it is that has called him away, then he will head there to meet us, or send word at the very least."
"Don't worry, if there's anything we've learned about our dear, precious Luke, it is that he is remarkably resilient," Jade said softly, his tone still hard but now somehow comforting as well. "You will see him again, and soon no doubt."
Anise blinked at them blankly throughout the entire exchange, her mace drooping bit by bit as it became glaringly obvious that there was nothing present for her to beat up. "What the hell is going on here? And where the hell is Luke?"
"Yes, about that..."
He staggered, his shoulder slamming abruptly against the alley wall, and bit back a curse as spears of pure torment worked their way up his side. Stupid of him to get caught like that. Too little, too late and Van had not been pleased with him. Not in the least. He shuddered as he dragged himself along the wall for a few more steps. His insubordination had gone beyond intolerable, it seemed, and even the promise of eventual cooperation had bled dry. Hope sprang eternal, until even the insane had their fill of it. An example then. Hell if he would serve in that capacity. That fucking bastard could go find himself another martyr for that lunacy he called a cause.
He coughed raggedly, blood choking around what little air he could get in. His body seemed to be behind the times, remembering the ghost of a rope around his neck preventing breath, but he had escaped that. Hadn't he? Just breathe, damnit. If he got caught here then he might as well have just let himself die back there. And he'd be damned if he'd let that bastard have the satisfaction.
He staggered again, biting his lip until it bled as bone ground against bone. Stupid stupid stupid. Stupid to get caught. So careless. Disarmed, his wrist shattered before he even had a chance of fighting back. And then there had been the anger, that terrible, implacable anger. It was something he couldn't fight against, something that he could never escape from either. Van had made very sure to prove that point many, many times over in the torturous hours that had followed his capture.
But then, what did it matter? What was the point? It had always been his fate to die. He sighed soundlessly in defeat and slid down to the ground, resting his cheek wearily against wet brick as the rain poured down over him. Even if he escaped, even if he survived, Van would just find him again. This would happen again, and the next time it would be that much worse. Next time he would die. So why even bother? It's not like anyone cared anyway.
And he was so very tired...