// Gapra Whitewoods// Story: Twilight the Traveler// by ilbgar//——————————//
The three of them carefully made their way to the entrance of their next objective, the Gapra Whitewoods. Lightning had her gunblade in gun mode, and Twilight had her pistol and a second-tier fire spell at the ready in order to snipe any guards. She stifled a yawn, she was up half the night keeping watch and trying to work on the counter-spell, but having no success with the latter, she had decided to switch her attention from removing it altogether to either removing the Focus in such a way as to give them infinite time, or removing the timer component so as to prevent cie’ethification from ever happening in the first place.
“You awake enough for this?” Lightning asked. She was a liability if she couldn’t stay alert.
“Yeah, I’ve pulled all-nighters before, I’ll be fine.” Twilight responded, this was technically true because she used to do them all the time in her own world, but she hadn’t done them much at all in this world or body, so she was struggling to stay awake if not in the middle of a fight. They hurried in, dispatching the guards with ease and the necessary speed to keep them from alerting those inside, hacked the terminal controlling passage through the gate, and got in, only for a security protocol to cause the door to close with a metallic grinding noise almost as soon as they were through. Lightning carefully watched for guards, then gave them the universal ‘all clear’ signal.
“I still can’t believe being l’cie makes a person this strong, this fast. We made it in almost scarily easily.” Hope said, perturbed that a place supposedly crawling with Sanctum forces was so easily to get into. If it were this easy for a trio of l’cie to make it past the Sanctum’s defenses, an army would smash right through. Their current surroundings were a cyborganic forest with more feral versions of the bioweapons running around. This was where they were trained and augmented into their domesticated forms, so that made sense.
The trees here were significantly stronger and hardier than their organic counterparts, and were capable of limited growth and self-repair without supervision. This made them perfect for containing the wildlife. In theory the military maintained a pretty strong presence here, but in practice the animals were all but free to roam within the borders of the forest. The military mainly just contained their future bioweapons here unless they were about to enter training or be augmented.
“The door closing will slow down pursuit.” Lightning said. True, but they’d force it open one way or another.
“But aren’t there troops on this side? We can’t relax yet.” Hope asked. Also true, but there weren’t that many in comparison.
“This would also appear to be where the bioweapons are trained/domesticated, so we’ll have to deal with them too.” Twilight said. That particular piece of information was not exactly public knowledge. At least it wasn’t supposed to be but it was leaked intentionally to keep people from snooping around in the area. Still, best to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“Right… We press on. I’ll take point, you two watch our backs.” Lightning said.
“Actually, why don’t you let me take point?” Hope asked.
“Sure you can handle it?” Lightning asked.
“Point is the most dangerous position.” Twilight said carefully. None of them were in a particularly good place emotionally. Last night’s outbursts had merely been the result of restrained stresses breaking through the emotional equivalent of a dam. A major shock could send them right back there.
Hope moved over to a few feet in front of Lightning. “It’s not always a question of can or can’t, there are some things you just do.” he said in a fairly good imitation of Lightning’s tone when she said much the same thing.
Lightning smiled. “Now you’re learning.” Hope smiled in return and turned to start on the path to Palumpolom. “Keep your eyes front, we’ll watch the rear.” she reassured.
“Point’s already dangerous, don’t do anything too reckless.” Twilight advised.
“Got it.” Hope responded.
They encountered only the native and pre-domesticated wildlife and the very occasional drone at first. The Behemoths proved little challenge when the three of them struck together against one. However, that wasn’t to say they escaped all of the battles unscathed, a trio of Behemoths and at least a dozen wolf-like pre-bioweapons surrounded them once. They were very nearly killed that time, second-tier spells were only useful when they could actually be used and third-tier spells took even longer to cast, not to mention that they’d blow themselves up too using spells of that magnitude at close-range.
She thanked any deities that didn’t consider them pawns or hate their guts that she’d learned the second and third tiers of the Cure spell-chain. Spell-chains were simply the basic spell and it’s upper tiers, each with successively more power and efficiency, but a longer casting time. It had already saved their lives a few times. Though a spell to bring fallen allies back would be useful as they were only fine if nobody died. Considering how many things were trying to kill them, well… they’d been lucky so far. Hopefully all the horrible things happening to and around them made the universe feel it owed them some good luck.
When they were about to use an elevator to move to another level, Hope asked Lightning. “Have you ever been here before? On duty, I mean.” The Whitewoods had several levels, the canopy of the trees, the trunks, and the floor of the forest around them. Any wildlife that was scheduled to be turned into a bioweapon was moved into holding areas on the ground, with specialized lasers that prevented the wildlife from moving beyond the area. They would deactivate if there were no more readings of hostile wildlife, so they were forced to seek out the animals and put them down in order to advance, rather than simply out of self-defense. She really wasn’t that bothered by it, as they were not thinking beings. The humans she’d killed, on the other hand, were leaving her wracked with guilt. She kept it to herself though, the others had plenty of problems already.
“No, unfortunately, I haven’t. This area’s under the Woodlands Observation Battalion’s jurisdiction.” she turned to him. “You scared?” she asked.
“Not really. I’m ready to fight if I have to, it’s not like I really have a choice if I want to see tomorrow.” Hope said.
Lightning held a small survival knife out to him hilt-first. “To keep you safe.” she said simply. Hope examined it. “I’ll want it back.” she added.
“Lightning.” he called, causing her to stop in her tracks towards the elevator. “I’m glad I followed you. By myself, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“You know, with the way you two are acting, I’d almost suspect you both have a thing for each other.” Twilight thought aloud, accidentally causing them to choke as they swallowed wrong. “Sorry, forget I said anything.” she said sheepishly. She blamed the lack of sleep for her lack of tact.
Lightning cleared her throat. “Let’s get a move on.” she said, deciding to ignore that. They moved over to the elevator and rode it up.
After a few minutes, Hope glanced upwards suddenly as they were walking down one of the paths. “What is it?” Lightning asked.
“We need to hide!” Hope pulled them behind some foliage. A trio of Sanctum soldiers riding in hovercraft flew by, on patrol.
“Isn’t it kind of weird how they just passed us by?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah, they didn’t even seem to be looking for us. I mean, we’re l’cie and we’re on the loose.” Hope said in mild confusion.
“Psicom must be keeping it all under wraps, they don’t want their failure publicized. Obviously they think it’s better to lose us than their pride.” Lightning explained.
Twilight shook her head. “They’re willing to endanger millions of people all for the sake of pride?” she asked incredulously. “That’s incredibly… it’s not stupid exactly, that’s not quite the right word.” she said, struggling for the best way to phrase what she was trying to say. “Suicidally self-destructive! That’s the word!” she said snapping her fingers. Seriously, pride wasn’t going to prevent Cocoon’s destruction, which, as far as the Sanctum knew, was their goal. Inter-service rivalry was just going to get more people killed.
“Then again, that means the other soldiers don’t know about us. Right?” Hope asked.
“Right, they don’t know anything at all about any fugitives.” Lightning said in a tone that spoke volumes of her contempt towards Psicom.
After several more sets of enemies, they came upon a door blocked by beams of electricity.
Hope sat down to take advantage of the opportunity to rest as the girls tried to figure out how to open the door without getting fried by the intense energy blocking their path as there wasn’t a control panel on this side. She couldn’t hack something without some way to access it, and there wasn’t an access point. “Wonder how the others are doing?” he asked.
“You mean Sazh and Vanille?” Twilight asked as she contemplated on whether it would be a better idea to fry the circuitry with lightning, melt it with fire, simply teleport the group to the other side, or use a more mundane method such as hacking at the door’s inner workings. There seemed to be a minor fal’cie in charge of this door (as it was this door), so she had to be careful how she approached this, though they’d beaten a fal’cie before. They didn’t want to alert any of the fal’cie, because it would quickly reach Eden, then they’d have the army come down on them like a tsunami.
“Who knows? But even if they ran, they’ll get caught eventually. Then they’ll have to choose: Fight or surrender.” Lightning said.
“Surrender… Do you think he’s still alive?” Hope asked.
“You mean Snow?” she sighed. “He’s far too stubborn to die. And that’s his best quality, he’s arrogant and chummy from the get-go. He thinks he’s everybody’s pal. Never liked him much. He leads around a bunch of kids- this gang called ‘NORA.'”
“I happen to be the instructor on swordsmanship there, so I resent that just a little bit.” Twilight deadpanned.
“Where’d they get the name ‘Nora?’ Hope asked.
“It’s an acronym. ‘No obligations, rules or authority.’ Not normally my thing, but someone has to make sure they don’t get themselves killed.” Twilight said. That was the second reason she’d joined the group. The first being that the founders were friends of hers. She hoped they’d all survived the Purge. She’d been a bit out of touch with the group for a couple weeks as she’d been busy setting her affairs in order before leaving this world. That was one of the reasons she hadn’t been with them during the Purge. That and simply not being able to find them.
The barrier suddenly over the door went down. “It’s irresponsible.” Hope said as he walked past.
“Yeah, this isn’t way too convenient or anything.” Twilight said once again in deadpan as she followed him. The door was re-energized behind them. She smelled a rat, but she couldn’t do anything about it right now. It was always possible that they’d happened by just as the door went through some kind of self-check that required rebooting the system, but nobody was that lucky.
Some time later, they stopped for a short rest. Hope was angrily opening and closing the knife Lightning gave him. “What’s eating you?” Lightning asked.
“It doesn’t take an empath to tell you’re upset about something.” Twilight added.
“Is it the l’cie thing?” Lightning asked. Hope gave no response save a metallic shink as the knife opened. “It’s Snow isn’t it?” Hope froze for a second, letting them know Lightning hit the mark that time.
“What happened?” Twilight asked.
“You wouldn’t understand.” Hope said.
Lightning walked over and knelt down next to him. “The three of us are partners Hope.” she said.
“My mother was killed. Because of him.” He outlined the events of his mother’s death during the Purge. “It’s his fault. And he needs to pay for it.” He unsheathed the knife and held it in front of himself. “I’m not ready yet, but I will be. Soon.” he sheathed the knife.
He stood up as he said, “That’s why I followed you two.” He started forwards. “Snow dragged us all into this. You two, Light’s sister, me… He’s gotta pay.” Hope finished.
Twilight felt she should defend her friend, but at the same time, there was some truth to Hope’s claim that Snow seemed to have dragged them all into this to some degree. When he’d decided to challenge the fal’cie, they’d ended up joining him, and now they were l’cie.
He needed to take some responsibility, if he was in fact responsible. She decided to say nothing until she had a better idea of the situation. Preferably when she’d heard Snow’s side of the story. She could defend Snow once she learned the exact details of what happened that night with Hope’s mother. Hope was still influenced by grief and anger, so she couldn’t rely only on what he’d said. Besides, no one forced them to fight the fal’cie with him. They could have run off at any time before actually instigating the fight. Then again, Snow should have known that she at least would have followed him, and if he understood Lightning at all, he’d have known she would want revenge.
They found their way blocked by a pair of tree branches. Lightning took out one with her gunblade, Twilight incinerated the other with Fira. It was a rather large branch, she didn’t just do it to burn something and take out some of her frustration on something that wasn’t a sentient being.
“Could I use one of those?” Hope asked, it was unclear if he was referring to the gunblade or the spell.
“Bit too heavy for you to use properly.” Lighting said as she sheathed her weapon.
“You’ll have to adjust to a far larger drain for the higher tiers.” Twilight explained, Hope was improving though, he could use all of the first-tier spells without a problem, even spells of opposing elements in succession, which was extremely difficult for your average mage to do.
One or two of the better students from her school in Equestria might have been able to fire off the second-tier spells they had some affinity for, but almost none had the versatility to use spells of opposing elements so quickly after each other. The energies simply didn’t hold together. Then again, the brands might have something to do with that. Certainly her control seemed to be keeping pace with her power increasing without much in the way of exercises to prevent the power boost from shooting her control in the foot. That was the downside of an increase in power. If you didn’t work at it, you suffered a loss of precision. Eventually, you’d just be throwing huge amounts of energy around without any structure or finesse. Alternatively, you could have a person with very little power, but great precision. Their stamina would be garbage, but they could do a lot with what they had. Having both power and precision was best.
“Okay.” Hope pulled out the knife, unsheathing it, then walked ahead. It seemed he was taking a third option.
After a moment, Lightning said “Serah, I should have listened to you.”
“Did I miss something?” Twilight asked, sensing a story here.
“Nothing, let’s keep moving.” she responded. Definitely a story here, but Lightning wasn’t the talkative type, if she didn’t want to say anything prying would get her nowhere.
They soon found a trio of Sanctum troops either knocked out or dead, it was hard to tell with their full-body armor, but they weren’t bleeding as far as she could see. “What happened here?” Hope asked.
“Bad luck.” Lightning said after a moment’s examination. “They came looking for us, and found something a lot worse.” Likely a Behemoth.
Hope began to bend over, reaching for the soldiers, “We can’t just leave them like this!” He said, before Lightning shoved him back. Twilight stopped mid-cast of her Curaga.
“Don’t touch anything!” Lightning reprimanded him. “Control your emotions. If you want to survive, forget about sympathy.”
“But, isn’t there a too-far point?” Twilight asked, attempting to think of some way to convince Lightning that they should heal the soldiers. She wasn’t expecting them to miraculously see l’cie in a new light or anything, but didn’t basic decency demand they prevent people who weren’t trying to kill them from dying?
“How can I explain?” Lightning asked, walking forward a few paces, then turning around and kneeling down in front of Hope. “Think of it like a strategy. Focus on your ultimate goal, and shut out everything else. Still your mind. Move on instinct.” She got up and turned towards the far end of the path. “Let doubt take over, and despair will cripple you.” she finished.
“Strategy. Good. I’ll take anything to help me get through this.” he walked a few paces in thought. “I’ll call it ‘Operation NORA.'” he said decisively.
“NORA?” Lightning asked.
“My mother’s name.” Hope answered.
“Your revenge?” Lightning asked.
“Yes.” They started to speak, but cut off when Hope said. “Don’t tell me. I know getting revenge on him won’t … bring her back. I know that!” He looked as if he were about to cry. “But ‘sorry’ won’t cut it either.” After a tense moment, he started up the path.
“Snow didn’t kill your mother. The Sanctum did.” Lightning said.
“Whose side are you on?!” Hope snapped at her.
“The side of the truth.” Lightning answered.
Hope pulled out the knife and unsheathed it. “Fine. I’ll fight the Sanctum with you. I’ll learn to survive.” Hope finished, turning towards and starting to walk up the path
Twilight noticed a camera near one of the soldiers as she turned to follow him. “Ah,” she blinked, then her expression cooled. “well crud.” she hurriedly electrocuted it. “Looks like we’ll be running into soldiers from now on.” she said, holding up the cameras remains.
“Gee, that’s great.” Lightning said sarcastically.
Hope took the camera and began to dismantle it. “At least this way we can be absolutely sure it won’t be able to transmit, these sort of things aren’t useful for what they’re made for when they’re in more than a dozen pieces.” He pulled out a few parts that had survived the frying and dropped the rest of it over the side of the metal walkway into the yawning drop just to be absolutely sure. He integrated the new components into his boomerang. Twilight hung back slightly and used Cure on each of the soldiers. Not enough to wake them up immediately or even guarantee their survival if they didn’t wake up before another predator showed up, but enough to give them a chance.
They began to encounter soldiers within minutes of moving on. Finally, at the end of another elevator ride, they all got the ‘boss fight’ feeling, as they’d decided to call it when they felt a sort of instinctive urge to prepare themselves for a difficult fight, at the same time. They unsheathed their weapons and preemptively applied buffing spells as they cautiously made their way forward.
Another type of bioweapon called Aster Protoflorian jumped out of seemingly nowhere. It had four limbs and a blue bulb on it’s back. It began making odd trilling noises.
“This is it. Operation Nora!” Hope charged at the beast with his boomerang in one hand, the survival knife in the other. He and Lightning hammered it with physical attacks to attract it’s attention while Twilight used the opportunity to cast Libra on it.
“Careful! It can change it’s elemental weakness!” she called. She took advantage of her knowledge of it’s weaknesses and blasted it with whatever it happened to be weak to at the given time with one hand and fired shots from her pistol from the other.
She was content with a cover-fire role as Lightning and Hope seemed to be doing fine, with only occasional need for healing. Though the thing’s vine attack was unpleasant.
After they defeated it by a particularly vicious group attack alongside their Eidolons that severed the vines it was trying to defend itself with at the time, Hope said. “Operation Nora, Stage One complete.”
“You did well.” Lightning said.
“Nice job you two.” Twilight said.
They went through the door the bioweapon had been guarding and found themselves on a cliff overlooking the sea. On the other side of a bay was a city.
“That’s it. Palumpolpom.” Hope said.
“That’s where you live, right?” Lightning asked.
“What say we stop in when we get there?” Twilight asked.
“No. We’re l’cie now, and no one’s there but my dad.” Hope said shaking his head.
“Hope, you’ll have to tell him what happened sooner or later.” Twilight said gently. She wasn’t going to force him, but his father deserved to know.
“Hey, there they are!” a soldier at the head of a group of soldiers similar to the one they encountered in Vile Peaks, but with two platoons this time shouted.
“I’m getting real tired of being interrupted in the middle of a conversation by attacks.” Twilight said in annoyance. They called their Eidolons back out and dispatched this group, though they only just barely won as their Eidolons disappeared mid-battle, drained from their earlier fight. It seemed like this group was better-trained and better-equipped than their counterparts in Vile Peaks. Considering they were getting nearer to the capitol in a way that made their goal obvious, this made sense.
They walked a little closer to the city, found a small, well-hidden cave and settled down for the night. Unless they started carpet-bombing, they shouldn’t have to worry about the Sanctum. She set up a couple alarm wards before she went to sleep though.