Tree of Life

Ariana Aislinn

Author's Note: This Grandia fanfic takes place between the first attack on J-Base and the very end of the game. If you have not finished the game, you risk having the ending spoiled for you. That being said, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. ^_^

It should have been a quick death; merciful blackness should have enveloped her soon after the giant maw closed on her, teeth ripping, shredding, and crushing her body. Yet consciousness lingered, each second an agonizing eternity as her bones were shattered and the breath squeezed from her lungs. All about her was the red-tinged darkness, suffused with the light of her magic at first, until it died away with her fading strength. The crushing jaws slowly halted as the thing went still, immobilized by the magical light, yet there was to be no salvation for her; she had known there would not be. Not a breath of air could reach her still and shattered form, lying broken and bleeding in the unspeakable depths of the creature that was the destroyer of worlds.

It was funny, Leen reflected, that time had slowed almost to a stop. She was fully aware of the pain that was quickly replacing what little life remained to her; she could feel how something seemed to be pulling her life force from her, the pain mingling with an odd numbness, as if the ruined remains of her body were gradually turning to stone. Then even that stopped, and as her thoughts grew fuzzy, through the pain she felt a terrible sense of agonizing loneliness. She could not remember who she was, why she was dying, or how she had come to be here. A faint image of a face, intense green eyes and a mass of blond hair, floated in her mind's eye before dissipating like mist, drifting away on the last fading wisps of her thoughts. A tear trickled from her sightless eyes.

And then, mercifully, she died.

There was darkness, and absolute stillness. Nothing more, for the longest time...simply an eternity of silence, floating gently in oblivion.

After a time, however, awareness returned. Leen's consciousness stirred softly, unfolding slowly, like a flower to the light. Yet there was no light - only darkness, constant and unchanging. She could feel nothing, see nothing, hear nothing; it was as if she were the only thing that existed anywhere.

Time passed - how much, she had no way of knowing - until she could feel a soft warmth enveloping her. A dim, green glow lurked at the corners of her mind's eye, and she could feel herself being wrapped in calming, soothing, peace. After a while, she felt her body - she still had a body? - lying motionless, numb and heavy; no sensations reached her from her broken, crushed limbs, but she knew they were there. Another eternity slipped by, and she stirred, eyelids fluttering open.

First she saw stars, swirling constellations that were clearer than anything she had ever seen in her life. They shifted, never staying in one place for more than a few moments, and she had to wonder if, for all their clarity, they were really there at all. The green glow was there, as well, wrapped around her like a warm blanket. She tried to move, but her limbs would not respond; shifting her gaze, she saw why. Some part of Leen's mind recoiled, but she felt strangely calm, looking at the crushed and bloody remains of what was once a human form. Not human, said a voice deep in her mind; Icarian. You are an Icarian; that is why you died.

She surveyed the damage. Parts of her body were barely recognizable; her rib cage was a shattered wreck, and one leg was sickeningly broken and bent. Shards of bone and flesh were all that remained of the other. She supposed she ought to be upset by the sight, but she felt nothing, only the lingering sense of peace. There was utter silence. Suddenly, she blinked; she could not even hear the sound of her own heart. Her heart was not beating; nor was she breathing.

Of course; I am dead, after all. But if that was so, where was she? Why was she here? And for that matter, why was her soul still tied to this shattered wreck of a body? Was she to remain this way for all eternity? That didn't make sense. Of course, no one knew what happened after death, but some instinct deep inside told Leen that this was not her eternal fate.

She looked down again and was startled to see that she looked different. Her broken leg had straightened, the bones shifting back to their original positions; she saw a muscle writhe momentarily in her arm, its movement almost undetectable as it slowly knit itself together again. Suddenly she was afraid. What's happening to me...? Her thoughts grew more frantic, and her eyes darted about wildly, trying to see where she was, what kind of a place she had landed herself in. None of this made any sense. Even the endless darkness of oblivion had to be better than this, her soul trapped in a bloody, writhing wreck, unable to move or speak. She screamed mentally, battering at the invisible walls that kept her enclosed in her own mind.

Shhh. Peace wrapped about her again, the soft green light creeping close around Leen and cradling her as gently as a mother's arms. Time ticked past - seconds, days, years, she could not tell. Slowly, the panic inside died down, and she huddled against the light, seeking comfort. Hush. Patience. Peace. Still and silent, healing.

After a while, Leen struggled to open her eyes again. A great deal of time must have passed; her body looked almost whole. As she watched, flesh and bone melded and knit to become her right hand. Skin closed over the wound without leaving the slightest scar. Scanning herself, she noted that she was lying on some sort of stone slab, criss-crossed with green lines. It reminded her vaguely of the Spirit Stone, now that she thought of it. She was unclothed, but she felt no discomfort; she was not cold, and there was no one to see her, so she had no need to be ashamed of her nakedness.

The stars that had swirled above had disappeared, lost in what was now only empty blackness. She had the sense that there was a ceiling up there somewhere, far above her, but she could not see it. Around her she could see walls, stretching in a faceted circle to create a kind of room. There were carvings on the walls, depicting strange scenes. Some looked familiar to her eyes - images of a pair Icarians, holding a stylized Spirit Stone together...images of Gaia's evil light beating down a kneeling, naked Icarian form as she wept. Leen looked sharply away from those images, turning to gaze at the other facets of the walls.

There was a great deal more, and it seemed almost to shift as she looked at it. They were carvings created by human hands, from a wide variety of cultures - some Angelounian, some later, and some unrecognizable images that could have dated from pre-Angelou times...or even the future, now that she thought of it. Two Icarians with feathered wings stood before Gaia, laughing in the face of their own deaths. A war between nations, being fought with a mix of steam-powered vehicles and Angelounian weapons. A small island whose inhabitants went about the business of simple, day-to-day life, set apart only by their pointed ears and the use of magic in their everyday tasks. A great tree, with four huge branches like ferns, or perhaps wings, spreading to shelter half a continent. A vast desert, at its center a cave that led deep into the earth. Gaily-dressed people danced and sang joyfully against a background of misty mountains and waterfalls. A party of eight adventurers set sail toward a distant horizon, hand in hand with anticipation, fear, and excitement as they faced the setting sun. That last one made her smile; it reminded her of her sister Feena, and Feena's newfound companion, Justin. They, too, faced unknown dangers. What were they doing now? Would they succeed? Would the time Leen had bought them by sacrificing her own life be enough? And if it was not, or if they died in their efforts...would she at least be able to see her sister again, to apologize for the years she had not been by her side, to apologize for how blind she had been all this time? She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the need to cry, but knowing her lifeless body could not produce the tears to release her emotions.

Anxiety rose in her heart, and again the voice admonished her. Shhh. Let the world of the living take care of itself. You have done your part; you have earned your rest. Let those for whom you have given your life make use of your gift.

Leen opened her eyes. There, right above her, floated a glowing, green Spirit. Her worries vanished like mist on the wind, and she stared in fascination. She had seen Spirits before, of course, even summoned them to aid her, using the Icarian magic granted by her accursed wings. She had called upon them in her last act, when Gaia closed its horrible maw on her, opening itself to her magic in the process. Yet Leen had never felt so close to a Spirit before. She suddenly realized that the voice that was speaking to her was coming from it.

Not exactly. One Spirit is all; all are one. What one wills, all will to happen; what one sees, all observe. The Spirits are connected.

Welcome, Dear One. We have waited long to meet you.

Leen blinked in confusion. I? What is happening?

This is the Spirit Sanctuary, outside time and within it. It is a place of waiting and dreaming.

What is supposed to happen here, then...?

For you? Rest. Healing. For others...? A new era - a time of rebirth. The new Spirit Stone has been created and granted to the Embodied One. The cycle may yet be broken.

Leen stared in bewilderment - very little of that had made sense to her. Yet hope rose inside her. You mean...the new path? The one I saw for Justin and Feena?

Yes...the new path is being sought. It may yet be found, before the cycle repeats.

Leen was silent for a while, lost in thought. Then she again rose her eyes to the Spirit that floated above her. She could see other Spirits now, floating here and there in the timeless room where she lay. Why am I here?

As you have been told - to wait, to heal. Have patience, Dear One. Now, sleep. Worry not, dream not. There will be time for dreams when the danger is past - time for a new world, where the future holds endless possibilities. But for now, rest, and leave the worry to those who continue in your stead.

Leen could not respond; her eyes drifted closed again, and she floated in blackness. Sight and sound had returned, but she still could not feel her body, so she drifted gently, wrapped in the warmth and light, as her consciousness faded once more.

There was no gradual awakening for her this time. Leen's eyes snapped open, and she took in her surroundings. They were unchanged to her eyes, the walls still covered with the carvings of untold ages, the stone slab beneath her the same, and here and there a floating Spirit. Yet there was a kind of anticipation in the air, a wild and wonderful energy that made her want desperately to move her lifeless body, to rise and run somewhere, anywhere, to go and make things happen.

Spirits began to drift closer, clustering in a circle around Leen, floating gently, yet charged with the same energy she felt, just below the surface. She eyed them a bit nervously, but she felt that something was about to happen, and her restless mind welcomed any change at all. The time for rest and healing was over. What came next she did not know, but whatever it was, she was ready for it.

It is time. The voice, if it could be called that, came not from any one Spirit, but from all around her. The crisis has been averted. A new future now begins. It is up to humanity to map that future. And shall be a part of it.

Leen frowned, confused, but she had no time to ponder the meaning of that statement as a Spirit detached itself from the group clustered around her, approaching and floating straight above her. She looked up, watching it. The Spirit descended, touched her with its gentle light, and suddenly dove into her body, melting deep into her heart. It did not hurt, but it was like being doused with icy cold water; Leen's eyes went wide as the shock of energy spread through her. Her heart thumped; her chest rose and fell. She gasped, taking in a halting breath as her heartbeat raced and then steadied.

I'm alive, she thought in wonder. I died. But now I'm alive. Spirits, I'm alive. That's why my soul was tied to my body still. But why...?

She had no time to think on it further. Soft cloth touched her flesh, and she found herself clothed in her Garlyle uniform, which she had been wearing when she died. The soft green light flared, growing brighter as the Spirits began to swirl around her. All became lost in the light. There was a bright flash, and Leen was gone.

* * *

The kite took off from the ledge, climbing in the sky and heading west to join the main group. Mullen glanced at the pinnacle of J-Base from his seat in the back of the kite, his thoughts spinning. Four forms, growing smaller as he watched, ran up the stairs to a rift in the ancient stone wall. Justin, Feena, Rapp, and Liete were about to enter Gaia, to fight it from the inside. To tell the truth, he did not envy them their task. He was grateful for the reprieve, and although he felt somewhat ashamed of his relief, he also knew that dying a futile death inside the beast was not his fate. He was in his element, now, in command of the military attack from the outside. Well, if he must accept that he had been wrong all along, he would take on his new role gracefully and do his best to defeat the monster that threatened them all...the creature that had destroyed Leen.

He shook his head to dispel the sudden wave of melancholy; there was no time for that. Looking up, he saw the kite spiraling downward to land amid a cluster of tanks, kites, and soldiers. All were at attention as the aircraft touched down; Mullen climbed out of his seat and jumped to the ground, nodding solemnly as they saluted. It was time to do their part; quickly he began calling out orders, directing troops and ordering the placement of their larger weaponry.

Fifteen minutes later, Mullen stood behind a makeshift barricade that would act as a shield for their artillery, peering through a pair of binoculars at the strange, insect-like beast that towered over the remains of J-Base. It had been deceptively still for some time now, distance preventing them from seeing its movements ever since that final transformation and the scattering of its spores. A niggling worry touched Mullen's mind, but he pushed it away; if Gaia was defeated as they hoped, the spores would be no danger. They had to concentrate on defeating the main body.

Movement was beginning now, however, and Mullen could see the writhing, leaping shapes of tentacles as they approached the shielded wall they had set up. Dropping the binoculars, he turned to those at his command. "Begin the attack!" he shouted. The order was relayed into several communicators, and a moment later the tanks were rolling out, and the kites zoomed toward the main body of Gaia, weapons blazing.

Soon Gaia was shaking, an odd, inhuman rumble echoing through the air. It looked as if the kites were hitting it; good. They had to concentrate on keeping it occupied, so it would hopefully not notice the supposedly insignificant beings that were entering to destroy it from within. Mullen's troops would also serve as a defensive line, preventing Gaia's tentacles from reaching any more civilians; at least, that was the plan.

The tanks were approaching now, heading off the tentacles as they came onward, but they could not stop all of them. Mullen watched as several of the things approached, washed in that eye-wrenching yellow-purple light. That light was what they had to fear, the power that leeched away life and Spirit energy. They had to attack now, before the light reached them along with the tentacles.

"On my mark, fire!" Mullen watched a moment longer, then dropped his arm, signaling the attack. Guns and lasers exploded around him, a combination of ancient and modern technology, barraging the tentacles. Still half a mile away, the closest one shuddered, slowing to a half and writhing frantically as an Angelounian laser cut into it. Another fell to a barrage of Talachian missiles; a steady stream of Garlyle bullets immobilized another. More tentacles came, but their steady attack managed to keep them back at a safe distance.

The kites and tanks did not fare so well. Closer to the tentacles and the main body, they suffered most of the damage; as Mullen watched through his binoculars, he saw a tentacle sweep into the side of a tank, overturning it. Four soldiers jumped from the hatch and tried to run; two were turned to stone before they had gone three steps. The third was hurled into the air by a tentacle, crashing into the ground twenty feet away from the tank wreckage, where he lay, unmoving. Several kites went down, more tentacles reaching up to knock them from the sky. One formation managed to get close to Gaia's single red eye; the entire upper portion of the creature shuddered and howled as missiles exploded into it. Reeling in outrage and pain, Gaia counterattacked; that awful light flashed, and then a rift seemed to open up in the air, cutting through one of the kites. Mullen could see the half of the kite touched by the rift begin to change, its shape distorting wildly. His stomach churned as he watched the kite turn itself inside out before it was sucked into the dimensional rift. Other kites went out of control, some crashing into J-Base, others into Gaia itself, engines flaming as the kites hit, their pilots killed or incapacitated. Mullen did not want to think about what the dimensional rift could do to a human pilot after what he'd seen it do to the kite.

Despite their losses, they held their own. Mullen thought of little outside the task at hand, his military mind trained to focus only on the battle. Still, as time wore on and the conflict continued, he began to grow mentally weary. Though he still concentrated on the battle, a part of his thoughts drifted. How were Nana, Saki, and Mio faring? And the civilian volunteers who had joined them, such as the Mogay elder and the Lainian woman? He shivered slightly, hoping they were not victims of the dimensional attacks. No; he would not think about that, much as he had refused to think about Leen's death ever since she sacrificed herself to make this attack possible. There was no use dwelling on what he could not change.

A tentacle suddenly dodged a laser attack, then darted forward with amazing speed. A ray of light formed around it, shooting forward. Mullen's eyes widened, and he dove at the gunners to his right, knocking three of them to the ground behind the shielded barricade just as the light sliced above them. A few scattered shouts assailed his ears; looking up, he saw some of the troops blinking in shock at a handful of suddenly petrified bombardiers.

Mullen stood, helping the stunned gunners to their feet. Turning to his troops, he shouted encouragement. "On your feet; man that artillery! Stay alert and we can prevent another attack from getting through! We can do this, men; stay focused!"

They recovered quickly. It was always a shock, seeing comrades felled by Gaia's bizarre power, but they were well-trained troops, and letting yourself be distracted by another soldier's death was a good way to ensure your own. The attack resumed at full force, the artillery repelling more tentacles as they snaked closer.

Mullen lost track of time as the conflict continued, but it might have been several hours later when the cycle of attack and defense was broken by a change in Gaia's behavior. Raising his binoculars to look, he saw Gaia shudder violently. The tentacles halted spiked lengths curling in upon themselves. The kites retreated a ways and regrouped, watching to see what would happen; the tanks formed a wall in front of the tentacles. Mullen signaled the artillery to cease their fire as he waited to see what would happen.

A commotion sounded from Mullen's communicator. Unhooking it from his belt, he flipped it open and spoke into it. "Front line, report."

The communicator crackled to life. "Colonel Mullen, this is front line kite Artemis. We have sighted the beastman and the Lady of Alent climbing down the outside of J-Base, apparently escaping from Gaia. Your orders?"

"Pick them up and bring them to the defensive line." Mullen frowned. What did that mean? Had Justin and Feena failed? Were Rapp and Liete the only survivors, escaping while they could? Or did they bear a message? The only way to know was to question them. "No others were sighted?"

"None, sir. There has been no sign of the boy or Corporal Feena."

Mullen sighed. "Very well. Bring Rapp and Lady Liete here, and inform me of any more developments."

"Yes, sir. Artemis out."

Mullen closed the connection, then punched a few buttons to make a wide broadcast. "All units, move back to the next defensive point. Do not engage Gaia unless it resumes its attack."

Ending the transmission, Mullen reattached the communicator to his belt, then picked up his binoculars again to watch Gaia suspiciously. Something was about to happen, and he didn't like not knowing what. Had Justin and Feena succeeded or not? The fate of the world hung in the balance; if they had been killed without accomplishing their mission...

Suddenly the ground shook. Mullen staggered, trying to keep his footing; behind him he heard several exclamations of surprise from the soldiers. Gripping the barricade in white-knuckled hands, he watched as the black, roiling clouds, spinning sluggishly above Gaia, slowed and stopped. There was a huge flash of light; Mullen and the others cried out and hid their eyes for a moment. As the light faded slightly, Mullen lowered his arm from his face and peered out at Gaia in amazement.

Light was spreading outward from Gaia in green ripples, illuminating the artificial darkness that surrounded J-Base. Like the ripples in a pond after a stone has been dropped in it, the light flowed across the land in wider and wider circles. Mullen's eyes widened as he saw the wall of light approach. It was Spirit-green, and as the light came closer, he saw that it was made up of thousands, millions, of Spirits. They washed across the barricade, rushing past Mullen and the soldiers in a great wave. His eyes closed as he felt them pass, a mixture of warmth and coolness touching his skin, peace and calm settling over him like a blanket. His heart ached for a moment, and then the ripple was gone, though he could see the next one approaching some distance off.

Mullen stared at Gaia. The creature was still there, but something was happening to it. Its great, insectoid wings spread out above J-Base just as they had before, two on one side and one on the other, above what appeared to be the stump where the fourth wing had been broken off. It was not from an attack on Gaia; it appeared that everything about Gaia represented imperfection and corruption. But as Mullen watched, he could see the fourth wing beginning to grow from the stump, unfolding outward from the asymmetrical body of the beast. That was not all, however; as the fourth wing grew, tendrils of bright, multicolored light exploded from all four of Gaia's wings, points of light falling away through the darkness. Perhaps they were more Spirits, of every color of the rainbow; some Spirits were. Mullen remembered the lore of his people; there were Spirits in everything - in plants, animals, the soil, the air...even in stone. Seeing the sparks of light falling away from the tendrils that pierced Gaia's wings, he could believe it. For each color, a different kind of Spirit, a different kind of life.

The clouds above began to dissipate, and a ray of sunshine pierced the heavy black blanket to fall on Gaia's still and sparkling form. Mullen's eyes went wide. Gaia had changed. As the clouds faded into mist and revealed the blue sky beyond, as the green ripples of light washed over him again and again and gradually faded, as the tendrils of light disappeared into a slow shower of motes of light that sank into everything they touched, making the land glow with life...Mullen looked upon what had once been Gaia and gazed in wonder.

The giant, insectoid form with its razor-sharp appendages, dark secretions, and sickening hues was no more. In its place stood the strangest, largest tree Mullen had ever seen. What were once spiked tentacles had become gnarled roots, Gaia's body was a twisting trunk covered with bark, and its menacing wings were now four great, frond-like branches, covered thickly in fine leaves. Spirits danced around the tree, settling in its branches. A sense of peace radiated from the tree, as great as any of the menace that had spread from Gaia.

Mullen did not have the heart to enforce much discipline on his troops after that, so they were allowed to mill about, talking in hushed, excited voices with each other and with the civilian volunteers and a few refugees who had filtered up from the shelters to gape. He did manage to get a few kite pilots to fly surveys around the great tree, checking for any injured who might not have made it back to the main defensive line yet. One of these kites found Justin and Feena on a hill not too far away. Justin appeared to be unconscious, and Feena was in a daze, but when they hailed her, she smiled and waved a hand dismissively, so the kite left her there for the moment, assuming the two were fine for now.

Mullen watched as the kites soared past, completing their survey of the area. As they returned to the defensive line to report, Mullen gazed toward the hill where Justin and Feena were. He'd wandered up here, above the troops and civilians celebrating, to see everything, to gaze at the people singing, dancing, and talking below and to see Justin and Feena for himself, to assure himself they were all right, and also to stare at that awe-inspiring tree.

He could have gone to talk to Justin and Feena, but he rather wanted to be alone, and he thought perhaps they did, too. As he watched, Justin stirred and sat up. He and Feena talked quietly for a moment, then both of them stood up, smiling and gazing in wonder at the tree that was once Gaia. Mullen watched them for a while, then sighed. The breeze ruffled his mass of blond hair, and he turned away from the sight before him.

"Well, Leen...we did it. You were right...there was another way." Mullen shook his head. "I was so sure that we could not count on the Spirits for help, that we did not deserve their aid. I believed that our sins required us to sacrifice innocent people in order to save humanity. It seems I was wrong. But...unfortunately, I learned the truth too late to save you. You were the sacrifice for my folly, Leen...and for that I am sorry." He looked up at the sky, watching wisps of white clouds floating against the blue. "But at least the future you desired has arrived. And while humanity may make more mistakes like mine, at least now I know that we can find the true path in the end, that the world will not have to suffer because of people like me." One more glance down at the troops celebrating below, and he turned to walk down the hill. There would be work for him to do, later, collecting the information from the survey teams and making an official report to the Joule Foundation. But after that...well, he would probably resign. The life he had worked so hard at was gone; Leen was gone. He had never really realized how much she meant to him until it was too late, and now that the crisis was averted and he had time to think, his heart ached for her. He didn't see how he could remain in the Garlyle Forces without being constantly reminded of her. Lost in melancholy, rather strange in the midst of so much celebration, it took him a moment to see the bright green point of light that fluttered close, circling him.

"A Spirit...?" His voice was a whisper; he had never seen one so close before. Awe and humility made him look down at his feet. "But why? What do you want with a fool like me?" He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but he could not. He eyed the Spirit skeptically as it floated close to his face, lightly bobbing on the breeze with a sort of calm joy. It floated slowly backwards, as if beckoning. Mullen frowned. "What is it? What do you..."

Then, suddenly, Mullen looked past the Spirit and saw what it seemed to be drawing him towards. Rays of soft green light radiated from a center point that grew brighter and brighter. The light thinned and expanded, slowly forming a shape...a human shape. Mullen's eyes widened in disbelief, and he only stared, certain he was imagining things. Then the shape solidified, hanging suspended and motionless in the air, before dropping to the ground gently. A gasp escaped Mullen's mouth, which was hanging open in shock. Slowly, he closed his mouth, a grin spreading across his face. Then he darted toward the bewildered figure that knelt on the grass. "Leen!"

Leen stared, perplexed, as approached. She looked around in confusion, then stumbled to her feet and faced him as he stopped, a couple feet away. His grin went lopsided, almost a bit shy, as he watched her uncertainly. "Leen?"

Shaking slightly, she gently touched her cheek, then pulled her hand back to stare at it, turning it over a few times. "I'm...alive..." She looked up at Mullen. "I'm alive." Slowly, she grinned. Mullen, still smiling self-consciously, hesitantly held out his arms. Leen darted into them, hugging him tightly. His arms closed around her, and he rested his cheek against her hair. The two of them laughed, hugging each other tight, then separated. Grabbing Mullen's hands in hers, Leen giggled and began to dance about the hilltop, spinning Mullen about. He laughed too, then glanced momentarily up at the tree that was once Gaia.

He dared not ask how Leen was back with him; he wasn't sure he really needed to know. It was enough that she was alive, that he had a second chance to show her how much she meant to him. They all had a second chance. The world had been reborn, and somehow, Leen had been reborn, too. Even Gaia had been reborn, rather than simply being destroyed as everyone had expected. As he gazed at the tree with Leen's laughter in his ears, Mullen knew...from this day on, Gaia would be Gaia no more, but the Tree of Life.