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The past, the unwanted country

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Several weeks after saving the world, Emil, Marta, and Tenebrae found themselves on another journey, albeit a more personal one. They had heard a rumor that a nearby ruin might have something about how long a summon spirit could stay summoned without a summoner, and had immediately set out on an expedition to find it. Emil had expected the ruin to look old, like the ruins they had found on their quest to find the Centurion cores. The truth was quite a bit different.

"I don't understand," Marta said as she looked around with a puzzled frown. "We're not near anything. Why would you have a Desian base here?"

"I guess that's why," Emil said absently. "No one would find it here."

He could see why Marta thought it was a Desian base, though it didn't look anything like the ones they'd visited. The walls were sleekly metallic and the lights overhead were cold and clinical, quite unlike the wood or stone buildings of the rest of Aselia. The equipment too, from what he could see, looked a bit like the machines in Tethe'alla except far more intricate and complicated. He could feel the hum of energy underfoot, and was not sure if it was powered by exspheres or something else.

But the difference, he thought, was in how the rooms were arranged. This room was large, with the equipment all clustered near the door and no suggestion of what occupied the rest of the room. That was an inefficiency that he hadn't seen in a Desian base before, but also familiar in a way he didn't understand. The space had to have a purpose, so he took a tentative step inside and frowned.

"What's wrong?" Marta asked from where she was shifting from foot to foot as she studied the machine closest to her.

"Parts of this place seem … familiar?" He shook his head to dislodge the feeling of deja vu. "I must be mistaken."

"Maybe you've been here before when you were Ratatosk?"

"Maybe," Emil agreed with a half-shrug. "I don't remember it though."

There was something strange about the way the light reflected on part of the floor, shimmering in his vision as he tilted his head to study it at an angle. He drew closer, and could see that it was a metal shape inlaid into the floor itself. It made his head spin to look at it, and though he quickly closed his eyes he stumbled forward a step.

That half-step was all he needed to trigger a trap. He was frozen in place by a spell of some kind, struggling to breathe as the spell exerted more pressure on him. Emil managed a wheezing gasp, but that did nothing to ease the feeling of suffocation. And then —

— Uncle Alba raised his fist and took a step towards him. Emil flinched away, his arms protecting his head from a blow, his cheek stinging from the previous strike.

"You'll get another one if you talk back again," Uncle Alba snarled. "Don't you know that Lloyd's the only reason your aunt and I didn't die two years ago?"

Maybe that would have been better, Emil found himself thinking bitterly, and then was sickened that he would think such a thing. His aunt and uncle didn't have to take him in; he was an orphan in a world full of orphans and he should be more grateful to them —

— a blond boy with delicately pointed ears smiled at him, bright and fractured, before reaching out his hand. Emil found himself drawn to him as if summoned, and he stood by the half-elven boy's side.

"I know I made a vow," the boy said, "but I need you to sleep now so I can make the world right again. So that no one has to suffer like I did."

"No," Emil said, and then "I won't let you!"

It didn't matter. The boy commanded and he had to obey. His hands, deceptively delicate, forced Emil down as he fought, covered his nose and mouth and waited while Emil struggled in vain to free himself —

— Richter's too-hot hands cradled his core, pouring mana into him like a summer squall over parched earth. Emil took it because he could do nothing else, because the world needed him to be alive to hold the gate to Niflheim closed and rewrite the world's laws. He refused it when he could, because Emil needed Richter to be alive and could not bear to have his blood on his hands.

"Don't you dare give up," Richter growled as he shoved more mana into Ratatosk's core, even as he fell to his knees. He made no attempt to catch himself, his hands wrapped around the core as if he would press mana through his palms if he could. "I will not have you die and have Aster's death be in vain."

Richter's will was always indomitable, even at the precipice of death —

— he was dying, dying, dying at the hands of a mere human, a child of an experiment and a traitor, and there was so much left undone. He hadn't done what he needed to do, the world still would not accept him, and he would not die here. He would come back and he would do everything he had left undone —

— and Emil forced himself to breathe, because he could sense that the gate to Niflheim remained shut. Whatever had trapped him here didn't want the world to be overrun by demons. He was on his knees, and didn't remember falling. His breathing was ragged, his mouth wet and heavy, and everything sounded underwater. It took him a long time to understand that Marta and Tenebrae were calling his name, and he thought by their panicked voices they'd been doing it for a while.

At some point a container of glass and metal had slammed around him, with a tapered base that almost gave him enough room to stand. It was unsettlingly like an upended glass, with Emil the hapless insect caught inside. He could reach out and touch the sides, though the thought of moving from where he fell seemed too much to bear. Besides, from the way Marta was pounding the glass on her side, the glass was too thick to break that way.

More alarming was the sensation of mana being drawn from him to the top of the container and then sent somewhere Emil could not sense. He felt wretchedly ill, and wanted to lie down until everything stopped moving, but now was not the time. He cleared his throat, breathed carefully against an upset stomach, and tried to speak.

"I'm okay." He sounded better than he felt, still rough-edged, but steady.

Marta stopped banging on the glass and stared at him. He managed a smile from somewhere, and she smiled back. Her smile was shaky, though he didn't think he had room to judge.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yeah." He forced himself to sound more lively, even as the effort made his head swim. "It just took me by surprise, that's all."

"I can imagine! When the glass went up, I didn't know what to do!" Marta laughed, a shedding of tension rather than finding it amusing in any way. She stood up from where she had been kneeling, her hands resting on the glass briefly as she pushed herself up. Emil started to move his hand up to rest on the other side of the glass, only to stop as his stomach flipped uncomfortably with the movement. He swallowed and reminded himself to stay still. He couldn't let Marta see his weakness.

It didn't matter, because Marta had already darted off to the strange machine in the corner closest to the door. He sunk back onto his heels, hands pressed to the ground next to his knees to keep him upright and noted, with dull amusement, that at least now he knew what the space in the room was for. He watched as Marta flipped switches and dials, becoming more frantic as she did so.

"I can't get it open!" Marta said finally, confirming what he already knew. She turned to Tenebrae. "Tenebrae, do you know what this is?"

Tenebrae floated over to where she was standing and studied the machine.

"It looks like a means of capturing a summon spirit. It may be simply misfortune that Lord Emil was caught in it."

Emil didn't think so, but appreciated Tenebrae trying to make Marta feel better regardless. It seemed to work, as she seemed to be less frantically tense now that she knew what it was.

"Can you get him out?" Marta asked.

"No, I don't believe so." Tenebrae paused, before commenting casually, "Perhaps Lloyd or one of his friends would know."

Marta looked up from her annoyed flipping of switches, hope dawning on her face.

"Yeah, Sheena's a summoner." She grinned. "She'll know how to get Emil out. And if she doesn't one of the others would."

Staying on his knees was starting to become very hard. Emil could feel himself start to shake as the sensation of weakness became more intrusive. He could see black spots in front of his vision, and his tongue was wet and heavy again. He swallowed and it burned.

"You should take Tenebrae with you," he said when he thought he could speak.

"What? Why?"

"There's all kinds of monsters here. You might need him."

Marta didn't look persuaded. Emil tried to smile but couldn't really feel his face.

"I'll be fine. It's not like anything can get in, right?"

Marta walked back to the enclosure and rested her hands on the glass, low enough that he could reach out and touch the other side of the glass. He did, looking up at her. The glass was cool against his hot skin. He wanted to rest his forehead against it, but if he did Marta would stay with him out of kindness. He needed her to go.

He'd lost the train of conversation. Marta was staring at him, biting her lip. He nodded dizzily, because it seemed like the right thing to do.

"You're right," she said reluctantly. "We'll be back as soon as we can."

She took off at a run, Tenebrae floating at her heels. Emil waited, using the side of the container for balance, until he could no longer hear her footsteps, before closing his eyes against a swell of nausea and letting his body slide to the floor. The floor was cool against his sweaty skin, and the rough stone offset his brain telling him he was lying on an angle. When he thought he could, he curled up on his side, arm pressed against his stomach, and concentrated on breathing.

It was a testament for how wretched he felt that it took him some time to realize he had an audience. He opened his eyes to see Tenebrae floating on the other side of the glass.

"You're supposed to be with Marta," he rasped.

"We agreed you shouldn't be left alone," Tenebrae said calmly. "That's not the first time you've lied to Lady Marta."

"I know," Emil agreed miserably.

"She's not happy with you."

"I figured," Emil said, and closed his eyes again. "I keep lying to her for her own good."

"And it's not because you want to be her knight in shining armor?" Tenebrae asked archly.

It stung because it was accurate, but he felt too pallid and washed out to protest.

"I'm feeling too sick to get annoyed at you," Emil sighed.

"Oh, I know," Tenebrae said smugly. He touched the glass with his front left paw, a delicate testing movement before drawing away thoughtfully.

"You shouldn't come in," Emil said quickly. "You'll get sick too."

"Yes, that does seem likely." Tenebrae settled on the floor, legs folded under his body, to be at eye height to Emil. "You really are a lot of trouble, Lord Emil."

That stung enough to cut through the queasiness that kept Emil on the ground, and he frowned.

"I don't think anyone could have known you could trap a summon spirit," he protested.

"Hm," Tenebrae said in the way he had that meant you should have, but I won't tell you why because it amuses me. Emil supposed he should know. Thousands of years of memories were lost when Ratatosk died and Emil was born, and though sometimes he remembered flashes he didn't understand what they meant. Right now, he couldn't marshall his thoughts to understand why these vestigial memories mattered. He pressed his arm against his stomach as if the pressure of his forearm could keep it under control. The waiting was the worst, because it meant that he was free to think of how ill he felt, and that just made him feel more sick. His thoughts kept circling around the topic, until he could feel the bile burn the back of his throat once more.

"Can you … keep talking?" Emil asked plaintively. And then, because it was just the two of them and Tenebrae had been with him through all things, "About anything, really. I just need to hear your voice."

"May I take this opportunity to tell you about the numinous qualities of darkness?"

"Okay," Emil breathed. "That sounds nice."

If there was something that Tenebrae could talk about, at length and with great enthusiasm, it was about the element that he was responsible for administering on Ratatosk's behalf. Given that he had spent several thousand years managing it, he was something of an expert, and apparently exquisitely sensitive to the subtle variations of shade and intensity of darkness. Emil understood none of it, but he listened to the way that Tenebrae's voice rose and fell as he spoke. He found himself breathing in time with Tenebrae's cadences, and only realized then that Tenebrae was deliberately modulating his voice so that Emil's breathing could slow down with it. It was a kindness that almost undid him.

"What did you think, Lord Emil?" Tenebrae asked at the conclusion of his speech. "Have you been persuaded by the superiority of the tenebrous element?"

"Yeah, I guess." He smiled though, briefly, to take the sting out of his words.

"How are you feeling?"

If Tenebrae being solicitous enough to help Emil settle his stomach was unexpected, his genuine concern did undo him. Emil sighed, and found himself being honest in a way he had resolved to not be.

"Sick," he confessed. "I've never felt like this before. I don't like it."

"A summon spirit, feeling nauseous? What a curious thing!" Tenebrae said lightly. Then, more seriously, "It shouldn't be like this. Perhaps it's because you're not just a summon spirit, but human as well."

Emil thought about asking Tenebrae what he knew, but let the thought go. Tenebrae wouldn't tell him anyway. At some point his eyes had drifted closed while he curled in on himself, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to persuade Tenebrae to do something he didn't want to do in such a state.

"I kinda wish I wasn't right now."

"Lady Marta will be back soon, so my servant says."

"Yeah?" Emil breathed.

"Colette should be with her. Though I do hope she doesn't call me Tenebie again."

"Colette?" Emil echoed, raising himself up with one elbow in surprise. "Why not Raine?"

"She was closest," Tenebrae said with a casual shrug. "I assumed you wanted to get out faster."

Emil sank back down, grimacing. The movement made him dizzy and shaky, and he closed his eyes as the world swam around him once more.

"You're right. Thanks, Tenebrae."

He took to counting his breaths, forcing himself to inhale and exhale slowly and carefully. He concentrated so hard on doing that and fighting the nausea that threatened to overtake him, that he was surprised when he could hear footsteps once. Just one set, but that made sense; Colette could fly, after all.

"Hi Emil!" Colette said from the doorway. She glided forward, her feet hovering a foot above the ground. "You don't sound too good."

"He looks awful." Marta followed in Colette's wake, hands up to her mouth in shock.

Emil forced himself to sit up. He immediately slumped against the glass wall once more, and put his hand over his mouth in case his convulsive swallowing wasn't enough to keep him from being sick in front of an audience.

"Hi Colette, Marta," he said. "Sorry for the inconvenience."

"You don't need to apologise for things like that!" Marta retorted. "And you can apologise for lying to me after Colette gets you out of there."

Colette had drifted over to the machine that Marta had been fiddling with earlier, and stood half a foot away from it. She considered it from a distance, head tilting one way and then the other. Emil suspected that she wasn't getting too close because she was afraid of tripping and breaking it. Colette's clumsiness was famous.

"Hm. You're right, this does look familiar," Colette said finally, turning around to look at the three of them. "It's just like the altars where the summon spirits were kept. I saw them on my Journey of Regeneration."

"Oh good!" Marta said brightly. "You know how to get him out then?"

"Nope." Colette shook her head.

"But I thought you just said you recognised it!" Marta wailed.

"I do. But I don't know how to open them." Colette looked troubled. "It's a pity Professor Sage isn't here. She'd know what to do."

"Is she around?" Marta said.

"She is located around Flanoir, I think," Tenebrae broke in. "Emil would have to use the services of Glacies to obtain her assistance."

"He can't do that!" Marta protested. "He can't sit up, let alone call another Centurion to him! He's too weak for that!"

"It's okay," Emil interjected. "If that's what has to happen…"

"You don't have to lie, Emil," Marta said. "Anyone can see you're not okay."

"I can try to get there quickly," Colette said. "It's not that far, I just need to -- ahhh!"

Only Colette could trip over nothing while floating in mid air. She windmilled her arms as if that would stop her from falling, and as she fell her hands struck the controls of the devices and struck random switches and flippers. Emil shivered as mana stopped being siphoned from him, leaving him trembling and empty in its wake. The cage disappeared, to where Emil didn't know, and Emil caught himself on his hands and knees before he fell completely. He let his head hang as he gagged, swallowing convulsively. It didn't help.

"What did you do?" Marta asked.

"I don't know!" Colette said. "I just fell over and it opened! That happens a lot around me."

"That's some luck." Then, as Emil gagged again, Marta turned around. "Wait, are you okay, Emil?"

"No," Emil said wretchedly, and found himself vomiting for the first time in his life. He did not enjoy the experience. He vomited again, and then dry heaved because there was nothing left. Someone was rubbing his back as he heaved, a little too forceful to be comforting, but that was Marta all over. He sat back once he was finished being sick and leaned into her shoulder. He wanted to move, but he didn't think he could just yet.

"You okay now?" Marta asked.

"I think so," Emil mumbled. He closed his eyes and was reassured by the sensation of mana flowing across the planet. The gate to Niflheim was closed, and the Centurions were all doing as they should. The brief interruption hopefully had not done too much to Richter, but he'd have to ask Tenebrae later about that. "I had been feeling sick for a while."

"You looked pretty green around the gills when I left," Marta said. "I can't believe you tried to lie to me when you felt that bad."

"I'm sorry," Emil sighed.

"Don't apologize," Marta said. Emil was rather confused; she had wanted an apology for lying to him, and then didn't want it when he gave it to her. He would never understand her.

"I guess this is from just after the Great Kharlan War," Colette was saying. "We'll have to tell Professor Sage about it later."

"We'll write a letter once we know more," Marta promised. "But for now, let's get out of here."

She helped Emil get to his feet.

"But we didn't find the thing we were looking for …" Emil protested weakly.

"We'll do it next time," Marta said firmly. "For now, we're leaving."

Emil didn't protest too hard as Marta strong-armed him out the door. Now that he was on his feet, he wanted to be off them, and an inn would be a better place than here. He looked back at the machinery, licked his dry lips and told himself he was fine. It didn’t matter that he didn’t understand why someone would want to trap a summon spirit, and he didn’t need to know who the blond half-elf boy was or why he hated Lloyd so much. If he needed to know, he could ask Tenebrae later. For now, he just wanted to go home.