Pain and Comfort
“Clair, I entrust this to you,” Nel said as she gave her friend the signed document.
Once she had informed Fayt of what happened in the mines and of Kimmel’s suggestion, he decided that heading through Arias would prove to be less of a hassle. Luckily for the spy, Clair had returned from her business in Peterny in time to order a few soldiers to help distract the townspeople so that the party could pass through with Albel in tow. Nel decided that it was as good time as any to pass on the important agreement between the kingdoms on to the tactician since she could deliver it straight to the queen.
“You can count on me,” she replied with a nod before she glanced over to the party. They were waiting for Nel at the northwest gate. Her eyes fell on Albel for a brief moment before a small grin came to her face and she leaned toward her friend. “If you ever happen to be alone with Albel, maybe you should show him what Aquarians could do to their men.”
“C-Clair!” Nel nearly shouted in a shocked tone with a small blush. She knew very well what the grey haired woman was referring to. Most men (both Aquarian and Glyphian) often fantasize about women in the Aquarian military because they’re known to be quite skilled in bed. Like with Glyphians who served their country, most women in the Aquarian army also sought pleasure where they could get it. This made them a bit more experienced and bold.
Not only that, they were also rather talkative about their nights with others. There were several interesting tips that Nel picked up from them (most of which she wished she had never heard), so she knew how to tease men in theory. However, all of that knowledge was previously useless to her- at least until now. She couldn’t really let Albel take charge in bed all the time, but at the same time she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to participate.
He was the one who came to her and ended up pulling her into a permanent relationship. Some part of her was being petty, but she would rather make him do all of the work. Why should she give him anything? It wasn’t like she chose to be with him. But then, who was she kidding? Even Nel was curious about the male body sometimes, but she never was interested in experimenting. She was far too busy to care before.
Clair pulled back, the small grin still in place, before she inclined her head slightly. “Consider that revenge for trying to avoid answering my question.”
Nel closed her eyes and shook her head. It was almost as if Clair had been talking to Astor and they were both working together to kept her flustered. The tactician had asked her what happened that night she received her family rune because she had forgotten most of the conversation due to the alcohol. All she wanted to know was if she had said anything strange or embarrassing. The spy reassured her that she didn’t and claimed that they didn’t have much time to talk, which the latter was true, but Clair caught on to the lie and apparently wanted to punish her a little.
Unfortunately for Nel, she did remember that the spy carried the bridal rune and was more than happy to push her in his direction. From the little intelligence she had of him, she knew Albel could be a good match to make her friend happy…so long as the war didn’t surface again. …And- Clair knew Nel too well. She knew of her secret tendencies that made her select dangerous missions. That’s why she was always so worried about her friend. But she felt that Albel would protect her from being reckless and that thought made her feel better.
“Honestly!” the red haired woman scoffed, dismissing the entire thing as a joke, “I think I preferred your worrying better.”
Clair let out a small chuckle as Nel turned on her heel and headed over to her friends. “Be safe Nel. I have confidence that you and the others will succeed. May the grace of Apris be with you.”
It wasn’t often that Clair was so relaxed that she would limit her ‘worry speech’ to just ‘be safe’. But considering that she was with the powerful off-worlders and Albel the Wicked, even Nel felt confident that taming the Marquis could be possible.
The spy wasn’t even halfway to her companions when a loud noise came from the top floor of the mansion. Nel glanced up in time to see that a window had been shattered and that a large blurry figure was flying out. She could only blink as the gigantic mass landed beside her with a heavy rumble to the ground and rushed off towards the party with his sword drawn.
“Father!” Clair yelled in both concern and anger.
Albel was able to sense that he was the target and unsheathed his sword in time to clash with the runologist’s. Nel couldn’t believe Adray would risk ruining the alliance just for the chance to fight a Glyphian. She ran over to them, along with Clair, in hopes to break up the fight. Fayt and the others were too stunned to react at first, but then they also joined in at shouting for the older man to stop.
But their cries went ignored as Adray took a better look at his opponent. “Huh?”
All of a sudden, he backed away from the Wicked One and quickly sheathed his katana. “Sorry, you looked like someone I once knew.”
“Father! What are you thinking?” Clair scolded as she reached them. “Albel is a representative of Airyglyph in a joint operation to fight the celestial ships. We cannot afford to break this truce.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill him or anything. I just wanted to see him up close,” Adray muttered defensively as he boldly turned his back to his previous target. Albel was given a clear view of his Dragon Rune and his eyes briefly widened in recognition of it. The Wicked One then let out a grunt before he sheathed his sword.
“Wasn’t trying to…” Fayt echoed incredulously before he walked over to the aged runologist and waved his arms around in a panic, “People don’t attack others just to ‘see’ them! You could’ve hurt someone!”
Adray closed his eyes and crossed his arms as he tried to justify his actions. “There’s no need to be concerned. He saw me coming and reacted appropriately. No harm done.”
“Huh, so you’re a Lasbard…” Albel muttered before Fayt could react. Unlike Adray, he knew the surname of his distant cousins, but he didn’t know them by face. Had Albel not caught a glimpse of the dragon on his back, he probably wouldn’t have known.
Adray opened one eye as he turned and grinned back at the dark warrior. “If you know that, then you must be his son- the son of the man I confused you for. You look a lot like him, but you’re scrawnier than I’d thought you’d be.”
He narrowed his gaze before he started heading out the gate, “I have no interest in discussing the past with you, worm.”
Adray let out a bellowing laugh as he agreed. “Well said! We don’t have time to talk about the past. We need to focus on the challenge before us. Let’s go!”
“Uh, go?” Fayt inquired in confusion when he noticed the old man was also heading out the same gate. Nel suppressed her groan while Clair suppressed her sigh of relief. Adray was coming with them…
“I hear you are to tame the Marquis. You cannot expect me to miss out on that!” he explained jovially as Cliff and Maria shrugged and went with it. Maria wasn’t against having more party members so long as they were useful and Cliff appreciated having another man to drink cider with. Fayt didn’t mind too much either so long as Adray didn’t insist on forcing him through endurance training again.
But Nel was a little worried about leaving Albel and Adray alone to talk. Now that the aged runologist knew that he was his relative, he could ask a few rather personal questions. He knew Albel marked his mate and she was terrified of Adray asking about it and finding out that she was the one he marked. She glanced over to Clair almost desperately, but the silver haired woman could only shake her head sadly and give an apologetic look.
It wasn’t as if Adray would listen to an order from his daughter. Nel was just going to have to take her lumps and hope that he wouldn’t be too adverse or overbearingly happy with the news. If she were lucky at all, Albel would either remain silent or answer vaguely enough that Adray would never be able to figure it out. And if she were extremely lucky, no one else in the group would have to learn about it. She sighed before she prayed to Apris and followed after the party as they were leaving.
They had no trouble traveling through the mountain pass from Arias. It wasn’t until they passed the entrance to the Bequerel Mine when they noticed three armored men on dragons. They were hovering almost over the middle of the path as if to block them off, but there was still enough space for them to pass if they wanted to. The question was were they going to let them pass?
Nel had studied the Dragon Brigade long enough to know that there were different ‘ranks’ among air dragons, with the lower ranks being more manageable. Only powerful dragons could be ridden by whom they deemed worthy and she was aware they had a special ceremony to establish that bond. But as for the rest of the soldiers in the brigade, they only needed basic training to ride a lesser air dragon. She heard that it was no different than riding a lum…a flying lum anyway.
Still, she could tell by the size of the dragons that the men were nothing special. The fact that there were only three of them was also encouraging. That meant there weren’t many left who wished to hinder them. All they had to do was eliminate them and hopefully all resistance would go away…at least until the Vendeeni were driven off. Whatever happened after that would depend entirely on the Glyphian king.
But were they really the ones responsible for the collapse of the mines? Nel supposed it was possible since the act seemed like nothing more than vandalism. From her vantage point, neither man seemed that bright.
“Think they’ll let us pass?” Maria wondered as her hand inched closer to her blaster.
“If they won’t, they’ll regret it,” Cliff replied as he slammed his fist in his palm. Fayt glanced over to them and bit his lip. He seemed hesitant to want to start a fight. Even after what Airyglyph did, the blue haired boy was reluctant to hurt anyone, no matter what kingdom they were from.
“Hmm… maybe we should talk with them first. It’s not a good idea to beat anyone up now that Airyglyph agreed to cooperate with Aquaria,” he said as he glanced back at his friends.
Nel crossed her arms and gave a slide glare at the dragon knights. He had a good point, but that didn’t mean both sides really agreed with their sovereigns. The war propaganda on both sides made sure the commoners and most low rank soldiers had a very bad opinion of the other side. Furthermore, Vox was very popular amongst his men. They adopted his ideals for their own and would do anything to avenge his death.
“Even so, don’t let your guard down for a moment,” she warned as Adray scratched his head and appeared a little annoyed.
“I don’t understand what’s the problem here. If they try to stop us, we destroy them. It’s not that hard.”
And while Albel didn’t say anything aloud, it was clear that he agreed with the runologist’s words. Nel was a bit surprised how well they were getting along already. Their logic seemed to be rather similar and she wondered if that had anything to do with whatever family lessons they were taught as children.
“But still…” Fayt protested before Albel’s patience wore thin. The Wicked One was getting tired of his hesitating and decided to act.
But it seemed that he knew more than he let on when he approached the three. The knights snickered amongst themselves as they watched him. They seemed to be unafraid of Albel and the others.
“You were given orders to provide transportation from Airyglyph to here. Where were you maggots?” he ordered in a cruel tone. The men laughed before the one closest to him decided to respond. He seemed to be the leader of that small group.
“Why should we listen to a traitor? We only follow orders from Duke Vox and his successors and we refuse to help Aquarians. We can find a way to defeat the celestial ships without their help.”
“What did you call me, maggot?” Albel growled dangerously as he glared at the soldier through his bangs.
“I called you a traitor, you Aquarian sympathizer,” the man declared with an air of superiority. Vox must’ve been calling Albel that in front of his men before he died. The Wicked One briefly wondered if the duke had also been telling them about his Aquarian mate. He wouldn’t be surprised if the duke knew and exposed it to further harm him. He was going to have to be careful about leaving Nel on her own around other Dragon Brigade members.
“…That’s what I thought you said…” The Wicked One muttered before his claw hooked into the man’s upper knee and yanked him down. The soldier let out a pained cry from both the fall and the talons of Albel’s claws digging into his skin. Since he was riding a lesser air dragon, the beast had no particular loyalty to the rider and only expressed annoyance when the rider fell.
The laughter died off on the other two and they froze for a moment as they tried to figure out what to do. They wanted to help their comrade, but stopped when they noticed Nel and Adray ready to draw their weapons. It wasn’t long before the off-worlders joined in, hoping to intimidate, but not attack.
When the man sat up, Albel seized him by the neck and held him up so he could glare into his eyes. “I would think well when deciding to call someone a traitor. Working with the Aquarians is the only way to save our kingdom from the celestial invaders. What was it I heard about that maggot, Vox? That only half of his body was recovered and the rest was turned to ash? Even the mighty Tempest fell to the light the enemy possessed. Are you trying to tell me that you somehow have the power to withstand what killed your precious captain, worm?”
“N-n-no, sir!” the solder rasped out as he desperately hung onto Albel’s claw to keep from choking. The dark warrior only had a firm hold on him, enough to restrict breathing, but not enough to choke him completely. His talons were also carefully placed so that nothing vital was being cut as he held up the insignificant maggot.
“Then that means you are either for Airyglyph or against her. If you impede on the success of this mission, then you are a traitor to our kingdom and I will deal with you personally,” Albel growled maliciously as sinister grin appeared on his face. “You know very well how I deal with traitors. Ever been choked by your own entrails, maggot? It’ll be the last thing you’ll ever see before you die.”
“…Gross,” Cliff mused, appearing slightly amused while the bluenettes and the remaining two soldiers grimaced. Nel shook her head slowly, far too used to hearing his threats to take them seriously, while Adray chuckled and praised Albel for his imagination under his breath.
“I-I’m not a traitor, L-lord Albel! I apologize for what I’ve said. P-please have mercy!” the soldier stuttered as he squirmed in his grasp. Nel’s nose wrinkled in disgust as she noticed the dark spot forming on his pants. Albel had frightened him to the point of releasing his bladder…
The Wicked One also noticed and tossed him away before the smell could reach him. The soldier’s back slammed into the nearby mountainside and he slid down to a sitting position as he coughed and recovered from the blow. His claret eyes soon trained on the remaining men, making them flinch.
“The same goes for the two of you as well,” he threatened before he received respectful confirmation that they understood his words.
“Y-yes, sir!” they shouted in fear.
“Good,” he nearly purred before he frowned again, “Now go retrieve enough men to compensate carrying our entourage. You are to remain here, day and night, until we’ve tamed the Marquis. If none of you maggots are here if we come down for whatever reason, I will introduce you to so much blood and pain that you’ll be begging for the release of death.”
“A-at once, Sir Albel!” one of them squeaked before they flew off to do his bidding. The soldier Albel had pulled limped over to his dragon and quickly mounted so he could catch up with his companions. Once they were gone, Albel tossed a smug glance over his shoulder at Nel, as if he expected her to be impressed.
The spy just rolled her eyes as she straightened up from her defensive pose. They were only grunts in the Glyphian army. She could’ve killed them faster than what it took for him to intimidate them. Fayt let out a disappointed sigh and decided to hold in his displeasure at how Albel handled the men. He didn’t think it was necessary and truly believed they could’ve just talked to them.
Maria noticed his expression and explained to him that talking wouldn’t have done anything for arrogant glory-seekers like the soldiers they had just encountered. Sometimes a little humility was needed to bring men like them down a few pegs. Nel agreed wholeheartedly, but she knew that wasn’t why Albel did what he did. The Black Brigade didn’t have large egos like the Dragon Brigade and yet he mistreated them all the same.
Fayt still couldn’t accept that, but he didn’t have the courage to confront the Wicked One to tell him off, either. He ended up sighing again before ordering everyone to move on. Albel waited until the party passed him before he followed, making sure that he was behind Nel at all times.
They walked up the path and were soon in the territory of the Mountains of Barr. Of all the mountains in the range, Barr was the tallest and had the most caverns. It was rumored to still be an active volcano, but there hadn’t been any eruptions for several centuries. It might’ve had something to do with the presence of the Marquis. Everyone paused to glance up at the sky where numerous air dragons flew about in droves.
“There’s an old legend that says that people used to live in these mountains with the dragons,” Nel stated as she glanced up with the others. There were thousands of stories, actually, many of them being Glyphian tales that she picked up while she was an undercover maid. There was even a story that the Barr Mountains was actually the legendary ‘Dragon Road’ that the first king traveled.
The spy risked a glance at the quiet Glyphian behind her. If that legend was true, then it was Albel’s ancestor who walked this path to impress a dragon. He probably knew the truth behind those old tales, but he wasn’t volunteering anything. When he caught her staring at him, he just puckered his lips in a mock kiss to deliberately annoy her. Nel glared at him before she faced the front and listened to Fayt as he guessed that the people had some way of communicating with the dragons.
As she had warned, there were many paths to take and most of them were dead ends that led to some hidden treasures. Fayt once again chose to take lead and ended up leading them almost in circles. Since they didn’t have a map, Nel could forgive him for that, but unfortunately for the blue haired boy, he already had a reputation for getting lost. Cliff was joking about it yet again, causing the boy to get more frustrated. But it seemed Albel wanted to torment him more than anyone and made his voice known for every wrong turn and every dragon they had to encounter.
The Wicked One traveled in the back unless they were facing a dragon. He would rush ahead with his sword drawn before the creature could even roar. Adray was never that far behind him. Because they were always ready, Nel found herself anxious and ready to fight along with them. When the battles were over, they would resume walking with Albel lurking behind them.
“Argh…” Fayt growled when they reached yet another dead-end. He quickly turned on his heel and walked back the way he came before Cliff or Albel could open their mouths.
Maria let out a sigh once the boy was out of hearing range. “This is getting ridiculous. Everything looks the same so I can’t tell if we’re going down the same path or actually getting anywhere.”
“This is true. Perhaps we shouldn’t give young Fayt such a hard time over this. He is trying his best to lead,” Adray suggested, feeling a little bad over the treatment the boy had been receiving. Cliff rubbed the back of his head sheepishly and appeared a little remorseful.
“Yeah, I should knock it off. He just makes it too easy to pick on him that I couldn’t help it.”
Nel glanced up to get her bearings. The main peak of the mountain was obviously their destination and it was the only guide she had at the moment. She could tell that they had made some progress, but it was very slow at this rate. She sighed before she looked at the ground.
“What we need is something to mark the paths so we would know we’ve been here,” the spy said as she kicked at a stray rock to see if it would be the kind to mark with. It would reduce the number of accidents if they could tell the difference in paths.
“That’s an idea,” Maria agreed before she reached into her pack and pulled out what appeared to be a pen, “We can use this to mark the rocks near each path.”
Nel examined the tool with interest. It looked like a pen, but it was made from a strange material and had a removable top. Even more curious was the fact that it seemed to have ink inside it, eliminating the need for an inkpot. Cliff also glared down at the little object and almost seemed to pale.
“That isn’t Mirage’s sharpie, is it?” he wondered with dread. The blue haired girl smirked a little and shrugged.
“Yeah, don’t tell her I have though. We’re about to ruin this one.”
“I don’t know…” he muttered as he ran a hand through his hair, “You know how she is about her sharpies. She’s probably been looking for that one nonstop.”
“…Then I’ll tell her I found it in your room,” she replied casually as she headed back to the main path.
“Hey! That’s low!” the Klausian protested.
“I learned from the best,” she retorted with a grin. As Nel thought about it, there were a few traits Maria expressed that reminded her of the blonde man. She didn’t really think about it until now, but it was a little obvious Cliff and Mirage had some influence on her character.
It wasn’t until they began heading back down the path that they realized Albel was gone. Fayt had wandered off as well so they assumed that the Wicked One went off to assist him. But that idea was dashed when they found Albel waiting alone on the main path. He was while leaning against a large boulder and acted bored. Nel glanced around as she wondered where Fayt had gone.
“The fool went back that way. Seemed to have forgotten we’ve been there already,” he explained in an annoyed tone.
“And you let him go by himself?” Nel found herself shouting incredulously. She hadn’t expected Fayt to travel that far without them, but she was upset to find that Albel had followed him to a certain point and let him go off on his own. Even though the boy could handle himself in a fight, a dragon was difficult to fight alone.
“…The maggot will be fine,” he grumbled, proving that he really didn’t care about the boy. Nel wasn’t sure why Albel seemed to despise Fayt more than anyone, but he was just being petty right then. It was almost as if he wanted Fayt to get hurt or worse.
Adray and Cliff were about to rush off and check on Fayt, but he thankfully came back after wondering why everyone wasn’t following him. His cheeks burned with embarrassment when Albel ‘graciously’ pointed out that he was going the wrong way (while adding the word ‘fool’ to his sentence). Nel glared at the dark warrior, but it did nothing to make him take back his words. Instead, she busied herself with reassuring the boy that he wasn’t the only one who was lost and told him what she and Maria came up with to fix the situation.
Albel didn’t like that. In fact, she could practically feel his ire spike when she touched the boy on his shoulder. She quickly let go as soon as she felt it, thinking they were under attack, but she only found the Wicked One glaring at her and Fayt. It was then that it clicked. Was Albel actually jealous that she was close to Fayt? She leveled her own glare back at him as if to call him an idiot.
It wasn’t like her gesture was romantic and the man didn’t have anything to fear. She had no romantic feelings for the boy and Fayt felt nothing outside of platonic love for her. Even though Albel probably wasn’t aware of Fayt’s sexuality, it didn’t give him any right to react that way. All because she was his wife didn’t mean she had to love him back. She made a mistake when agreeing to sleep with him and she was taking responsibility for her actions. She wasn’t leaving him no matter how badly she wanted to.
“Okay, here we go,” Maria muttered as she busied herself with marking the boulders close to each branch with the ‘sharpie’ (yet another new word Nel learned). She just put down simple ‘X’s large enough to be seen before she walked across the path to mark another rock with an arrow to signify which direction they should be heading in. Cliff winced with every mark that was made.
Nel wasn’t sure what Maria’s motivation for Cliff’s torment was (though she doubted it was done for Fayt’s sake), but she felt she had to add something to avenge the blue haired boy for the trouble he had to endure. She walked over to Cliff’s side and crossed her arms, a smug look was hidden behind her scarf. She didn’t really understand what was going on, but she had picked up enough of his relationship with his blonde partner to know why he was upset.
“Mirage is going to kill you,” she stated before the Klausian groaned and covered his eyes.
“Shaddup…” he muttered tiredly.
With every dead-end marked, they were making much better time than before. But after a few hours, they noticed the sun was starting to get closer to the horizon and that they had to set up camp soon. They had a fire going and all of their sleeping gear set out before the sky started changing colors. They had eaten a quick dinner of something that Nel made in the workshop and went about their own private business.
Adray and Cliff were enjoying some bottled cider while Maria tinkered with some device called a ‘force field’. The blue haired girl tried to explain it before, but most of it went over the Aquarian’s head. All she could understand was that it had the ability to protect them over night so that they wouldn’t have to worry about monsters and so no one would have to stand watch.
Nel busied herself with cleaning and caring for her father’s swords. She was giving them much more attention than any blade she ever had in her possession. For the most part, she only half listened to the others around her, preferring to stay in her personal space. She knew Fayt was trying to talk to Albel again, but decided not to interfere again. If the Wicked One decided to run the boy through with his sword, then she knew the others would stop him before she and Adray attempt to destroy him for it. Plus, some part of her wanted Albel to figure out on his own exactly why Fayt wouldn’t leave him alone.
Though she had to admit she was rather impressed with his restraint when he stood up and simply told him to shut up. Fayt was a little annoyed with the rude ending of the conversation and even went as far to ask what the Wicked One’s problem was, but he didn’t receive and answer as Albel gathered up his travel bag and announced that he was going to scout the area and make sure there were no nest of dragons nearby. Fayt also stood and blocked his path before he could leave.
“You can’t go alone! That’s dangerous!” he shouted before adding, “You need to take someone with you.”
“Don’t bother, fool. I’m not going out there to fight- just scout and observe.”
“Even so, there’s no guarantee that a dragon won’t find you. It’s better to go with at least one other person just in case,” Maria insisted as she stood up and joined in the debate. Albel growled lightly in annoyance before he muttered ‘fine’ and stormed over to where Nel was sitting.
“Let’s go, Zelpher.”
Her initial reaction was to question why it had to be her, but she held her tongue as she figured out the answer to that. This had to be some kind of ploy to get her away from the others so they could be alone.
“Can’t you see that I’m busy?” she muttered as she held up a dagger to closely examine it for any nicks or other blemishes. Some part of her wanted to go, but she was still upset with how he acted earlier. Nel had no use for children, let alone overgrown ones. She took secret delight to feel his frustration rise from her dismissal.
“They’re clean enough and you shouldn’t need to use them,” he replied curtly before Adray approached them.
“I will go with you. I don’t have anything else to do,” he offered, hoping to spend some time with his Glyphian relative. Albel shook his head and declined almost politely… Well at least he didn’t sneer or yell at him.
“I would prefer stealth, worm. You are too loud.”
The aged runologist let out a short laugh and conceded to that point. Even he knew that he wasn’t the type to sneak around or sit still long enough. Personally, Nel was surprised that he didn’t take any offense to being called a ‘worm’. She let out a sigh and stood up so she could secure her blades to her armor. If she didn’t agree to go, then Adray would just keep on insisting until Albel caved in (if that were possible). She didn’t want to risk Adray trying to ask about Albel and his ‘mate’ while scouting.
“Let’s be quick about it,” the spy muttered as she headed off in the direction they have yet to explore.
They didn’t really need to go far. All they had to make sure of was that they weren’t near anything dangerous that would fall into the range of the force field when it was enacted. Nel was given a rough estimate of what that distance was and said nothing when they went far beyond that point. She thought she knew what he was up to, but was surprised when he signaled to stop and sat down on a nearby rock off the path.
“I really did want to go alone, you know,” Albel revealed as he started rummaging through his bag, “…But I trust you enough to mind your business.”
It was then she started to understand what his real intentions were when he started unhooking his claw. He wanted to be alone so he could tend to his arm. She quickly turned to give him his privacy and kept her guard up to make sure nothing snuck up on them while Albel was vulnerable. Though she had to wonder if he really was ‘vulnerable’. He intended to come out on his own like he could handle anything without his claw on…
“So what’s your problem?” he wondered as he started unwrapping his arm. He easily picked up that she was upset with him, but she was surprised that he couldn’t figure out why. Did he really think she would forget that heated exchange they had earlier? Of course, now that she thought about it, there were other times he expressed jealously today, but she dismissed them as something else. He probably didn’t think she caught on to his issue yet.
“Depends,” she countered casually with a shrug. “What was your problem earlier when you had to insult Fayt?”
Albel quickly grew silent at that. Nel felt a smirk tug at her lips. If he answered that, then he would have to admit that he was jealous over nothing.
“…You coddle that fool,” he eventually growled out after thinking it over. She had to give him credit for not accusing her outright of being ‘unfaithful’ to him. He was trying to insinuate something else to hide what he was really thinking. Nel wasn’t going to let him off so easily…
“You think I have feelings for him, don’t you?” she accused, feeling rather smug when she heard his breath catch in his throat.
“Well? …Do you?” he inquired rather impatiently as his good hand tried to work faster.
“You really are a pig,” she retorted as she crossed her arms. She could smell the herbs of his medicinal cream and knew he was already trying to treat himself as quickly as possible. It was a little comical for him to admit that he was worried about that possibility of her already being in love with someone else, but she was also a little disgusted over his belief that she completely belonged to him.
Yes, she was married to him by an ancient ritual, but that didn’t mean she had to love him back. He even admitted that he would accept the fact that she might not ever return his feelings. So why did the thought of her being in love with someone else bothered him? She was his and she couldn’t go off and marry anyone else. What more did he want? …Or did he really not care about her happiness at all?
Nel shook her head. She was being rather cruel. Albel was in love with her. Of course it would hurt him if he thought her heart belonged to another. It was only human nature to react like that. But she wasn’t in the mood to be so forgiving. There was a bitterness still lingering within her at the reminder that she was his wife.
“And what would you do if I said that I was in love with Fayt?” she inquired darkly, not yet ready to confirm or deny his suspicions. She could hear a lot of rustling as he put his bandages on in record speed. When he was done, he immediately stormed over to her and forced her to face him.
“I will kill him,” he growled venomously as he stared deeply into her eyes.
“Why? It won’t change how I feel and it would only put me through despair. Is that what you want?” she challenged, hoping to find out exactly how much he loved her. Was it only a selfish love where he didn’t care about her? Or did he really want something to happen between them? She belatedly realized that she was putting Fayt’s life on the line with her hypothetical questions, but she didn’t intend to keep Albel in the dark about her true feelings for the boy.
She held her gaze against his as he thought it through. His frown soon melted away into an impassive face and he backed away from her as if to respect some invisible boundary she suddenly put in place. Even though he wouldn’t say anything, she could see the pain in his eyes and had her answer. He may have said that he didn’t care how she felt about him, but he wanted to be loved. Nel had dealt a cruel blow with her words and hurt him badly. She didn’t think it was possible to hurt someone like Albel the Wicked.
All at once she regretted her words and actions. The spy let out a slow sigh before her eyes drifted over to his burnt arm. Because of his haste, the bandages were uneven, but they covered enough to do the job. He forgot to tuck in the end under his shoulder and it was starting to come unraveled. She reached out to fix it, but he flinched away. Determined to make things right, she took a step forward and gently wrapped her arm around his mangled one so he couldn’t back away easily.
“Do you honestly believe that I’m in love with Fayt?” she asked in a deadpan tone as her free hand rearranged the top part of his wrapping and properly tucked it to where it wouldn’t come loose again. He was already tense from the breech of personal space, but he almost jumped when he heard her. She gave him a small smile as she glanced up at him, earning a slight blush from him as he sharply looked away. When her task was done, she let go of him and didn’t spare his arm a second glance.
“If you’re not, then that was a compelling performance,” Albel muttered, torn from feeling relieved or betrayed.
“Fayt… He’s grown on me as more of a younger sibling. Ever since he crash-landed here, all he wanted to do was find and rescue his father and I felt somewhat responsible for dragging him into our war. I have no romantic feelings for him. In fact, I’m not in love with anyone. You have yet to earn the privilege,” she paused some before she slightly bowed to him as an apology. “I…I’m not sure why I decided to make you think that I was romantically involved with someone. Forgive me.”
He didn’t say anything for a long while. He wasn’t even sure what to say until he decided to let the whole thing drop.
“…Don’t do it again,” he warned before he headed over to his supplies and started to put his claw back on. Nel followed him to assist in securing his metal appendage. She knew she was forgiven by the subdued tone in his voice and vowed to exercise better control over her emotions next time. She seldom could control herself when angry and often caused arguments and misunderstandings because of it.
The trip back to the camp was silent and they didn’t make any type of contact with each other. Even though silence was a typical trait of his, she was unnerved all the same by it. She felt like she needed to say something to him, but she couldn’t think of anything. Some part of her was scared of saying the wrong thing.
“Hey, you two were gone for a rather long time. What happened?” Cliff wondered when they came into sight in waning light.
“The death seeker panicked upon seeing a lesser dragon and attacked it. We had to fight it off,” Albel replied smoothly, earning a glare of indignation from the Aquarian. She was a little disturbed to hear him call her a ‘death seeker’ in front of her friends, but she figured they would dismiss it as his morbid sense of humor. Still, even though they needed an excuse without revealing the truth, she didn’t appreciate being the one to take the fall.
“Is that true, Nel?” Fayt wondered with concern.
“It attacked from behind,” she answered through gritted teeth to back up the Wicked One’s lie, “We had no choice but to fight.”
She hated lying to them, but Albel didn’t want them to know about his arm and she had to retain some dignity after that mild attack on her character. Since she sounded annoyed, everyone believed her.
With the force field in place, everyone was safe to sleep as deeply as they wanted without fear of attack. The off-worlders and Nel had purchased bedding to sleep on, but Adray and Albel preferred to sit against nearby trees or stone and slept while sitting up. Even with the guarantee of no attacks, they were the last ones to fall asleep when their finely tuned senses were able to verify that it was truly safe.
Nel was rather comfortable and had no trouble sleeping until a few hours later when a pained howl echoed through the campsite. Almost instantly, the spy shot up and pulled a dagger out from under her makeshift pillow. It took a few seconds for her eyes to focus before another panicked groan was heard. The noise was coming from Albel.
He was thrashing in place with a tortured look on his face. Nel soon realized that he was having one hell of a nightmare and could only watch him shake his head and gnash his teeth at the invisible monsters that plagued his mind. Someone had to wake him up before he accidentally hurt himself. She was about to move when Cliff suddenly sat up, bleary eyed, and got up to storm over to the Wicked One.
“…Shut it,” he mumbled before he kicked him in the side and turned away. Nel’s eyes widened at the force Cliff had used in his kick that made Albel fall over to his side. The Klausian must’ve not really been aware of what he was doing because she didn’t think he would be that violent to an ally…even if he happened to have a grudge against him.
Albel awakened with a gasp and quickly pulled himself back up to figure out what happened. He was breathing heavily as his hand went to his side and touched the tender skin. He then noticed Cliff staggering back to his bed and glared at the man as he fell to his knees, then collapsed and promptly went back to sleep. It didn’t take long for the Wicked One to realize that he had been kicked.
“You bloody maggot-” he shouted before Fayt cut him off.
“Quiet…” the boy whined before he threw his folded blanket at him and fell back into his bed. The blanket hit Albel harmlessly in the face and fell into his lap. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased with that. The dark warrior growled again before he stood up and tried to leave the area.
“Sorry about Cliff,” Maria suddenly said, gaining Nel’s attention as well as Albel’s. “There are some nights when he’s so deep asleep that he doesn’t know what he’s doing if someone wakes him. He didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Bah…” he muttered as he continued to storm out of the campsite.
Nel let out a quiet sigh before she glanced back at the blue haired girl. She was also awakened by Albel’s moans, but didn’t want to get up until then. The spy was quick to notice that Maria only defended Cliff and not Fayt…though it wasn’t like the boy did much damage to the Wicked One. His action was only a soft blow to his pride.
“I wonder what guys like him dream about? It must’ve been really scary to make him cry out like that,” Maria mused quietly once Albel was completely out of hearing range. She only kept her voice down so that Cliff wouldn’t get up again.
Nel thought about it herself. Any warrior with half a heart was tormented with the images of the people they’ve slain. Even she had the occasional nightmare of the bloody faces of her targets and other Glyphian soldiers she had to encounter on the battlefield. Other times, it would be visions of her slain allies, which were even more chilling. But as for Albel, death didn’t really seem to bother him. He took delight in muttering about how to properly disembowel his enemies and scoffed at the bodies of his fallen allies. No… whatever he dreamed about had to have been worse.
“There is a saying that is passed down in my family. Those who have stared into the eyes of Folstar will be forever haunted by the memories of his hellfire,” Adray said, proving that he was awake as well. “Only those who have escaped death would know true fear.”
“Really?” the blue haired girl muttered with interest. She seemed fascinated with the subject. Even though Maria came from another world, religion seemed to interest her. She held a belief in one god, but didn’t discredit the thought of the Aquarian gods being real as well. In some way, Nel was comforted by the girl’s faith.
The aged runologist nodded in confirmation, his face appearing solemn in the light of the campfire. “In the end, no matter how far we have come and no matter how many lives we have taken, we still need a mother’s comfort to keep us sane. That boy has no one. It’s really no wonder he’s the way he is.”
‘Mother’ was a loose term. It didn’t even have to be a ‘woman’, really. The reason why Aquarians were mentally healthier than Glyphians was because they had Apris and his wives to turn to in their need. The Glyphians were godless and only had each other. But for those who lost their family members or didn’t have significant others, they were doomed to suffer alone.
And for whatever reason, Albel reached out to her. He was probably hoping she could pull him out of Folstar’s hellfire. Or maybe she was looking into it too much. Albel wasn’t a needy man. He survived fine on his own without her. …But, that didn’t mean he had to continue to live alone. If he was willing to reach out to someone, then what right did Nel have to slap his hand away? She should at least see if he was okay. Regardless of what he was to her, he was still her ally for the time being. Allies helped each other.
“I’m going to check up on him and make sure he isn’t doing anything stupid,” Nel announced as she moved to get up.
“Good idea.” Maria nodded. “He might’ve wandered past the boundaries of the force field. It’s programmed to let you back in if that’s the case. Just be careful though. Monsters could be lurking outside of the boundary.”
“Right…” the spy replied to confirm that she got the message. She then summoned a firebolt to use as a light source and headed out of the camp.
If it weren’t for the fact that he went in the direction they scouted in, Nel would’ve have a hard time finding him. He was sitting in the same area where he tended his arm. He tensed and reached for his sword when he noticed her, but relaxed when he realized it was her. Nel tossed her spell to the mountainside to let it die off and relied on the light of Irisa to help her see.
Albel didn’t say anything as she approached so she took it as a sign that she could tend to the bruise that was forming on his side. Just as she reached out with a healing spell ready, he grabbed her wrist and shook his head.
“I don’t need your-”
“I don’t care,” she interrupted him as she let the glow loose on his wound. He wasn’t the type to take charity from anyone, but Nel wasn’t in the mood to argue. He was accepting her healing spell whether he liked it or not. When the bruise was gone, she examined his features in the dim moonlight.
Albel had let go of her wrist when he noticed that it was too late to stop her and resumed staring out at the scenery. He appeared very tired, but at the same time, sad. Nel crossed her arms and wondered what else she could do. In a way, she felt obligated to at least make him feel a little better. He did so for her earlier when they were in Kirlsa.
“Need a distraction?” she offered in good humor. It was how he helped her forget about losing her father. Perhaps it could also work in helping him forget his nightmare. Though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to make out with him in the middle of dragon territory.
He shook his head and raised his eyes to the stars above. “I’m not in the mood. …Just stay here and be silent. That’ll be enough.”
She raised an eyebrow at the unusual request, but then realized that what he envisioned in his sleep was much too traumatizing to just ‘forget’. He probably wanted to meditate and didn’t mind having her near as a calming presence.
Before Nel could really process what she was doing, she reached for his claw arm and lifted it up enough so she could fit herself against his side on the rock. Then she carefully wrapped the metal armor around her waist and let the sharp talons rest on her lap. Albel was stunned to see her do that and gave her a quizzical glance as to why she was willing to be close to his weapon, but she ended up leaning against him so she could avoid talking. She wasn’t even sure why she did it. It felt like the right thing to do at the time.
His claw was cold and heavy. It fit around her form nicely and she idly ran the fingers of her left hand over the steel appendage. Once it was covered in the blood of hundreds of Aquarian soldiers. Perhaps that could’ve been the reason why she wanted to get close to it. In a morbid way, she was close to those he had slain with that claw- her comrades that she couldn’t save. Albel was surprised that he let her stay there and touch his claw. He should have pushed her away, but he couldn’t stop himself from just watching her.
Nel was staring at his shame without sympathy, fear, or disgust. Even though she didn’t know the story behind the claw or his arm, he felt like she was accepting him. That was a foreign feeling that didn’t think he would ever experience again. For once in his life, he felt him self relax and pulled her closer to him with his claw. She blinked at the sudden movement, but allowed it, even as he rested his head against hers.
It wasn’t long before her senses caught up to her and she started wondering what she was doing. Why was she cuddling with him anyway? Was this really helping him or was he just taking advantage of her lapse of judgment? It was one thing to just sit next to him and comfort him, but this was something lovers did. It was wrong of her to allow this when she still wasn’t certain of her feelings for him. It wasn’t fair to Albel either.
But before she could move and excuse herself, she noticed that he was suddenly heavier and that his breathing slowed. He had fallen asleep on her! She was tempted to wake him, but decided against it. She wasn’t sure how often he had those nightmares, but she was certain that he rarely got enough sleep because of them. It wouldn’t hurt to let him have a few more minutes of sleep…
As she thought of that, her own eyes closed to nap for a few minutes herself. No need to lose sleep on his account. But what she intended to be a few minutes ended up being a few hours and when her eyes opened again, she found that it was early morning. She jerked up and glanced at the sky to determine exactly what time it was, her movements roused the Wicked One from his slumber. It was still early enough to sneak back, hopefully unnoticed by the early risers of the party (which was everyone save for Fayt…).
“Sorry…” she apologized in a low tone as she glanced back at Albel, “I meant to wake you sooner.”
“Perhaps I should be the one to apologize,” he announced suddenly before a wicked grin came to his features. “You willingly came to me and I didn’t even try anything with you. Heh, I must be getting old, you should be half naked by now…”
Nel glared back at him. Albel seemed to be back to his normal perverted self… She tried to push his claw off her so she could get up, but he refused to budge.
“Albel, please!” she growled as he lowered his mouth to brush against her cheek.
“Please what, lover?” he wondered in a deep tone, earning a shiver from her, “Want me to claim you here and now?”
“No! We need to get back before the others realize we were gone this whole time,” Nel insisted before he let her go with a chuckle.
“I suppose we shouldn’t give the maggots a reason to suspect anything about us. It’s none of their business anyway,” he agreed before he stood up and pulled Nel’s back against his chest. He kissed the outer shell of her ear before he whispered a promise to her, “I’ll get you alone tonight and have my way with you.”
Nel closed her eyes and appeared annoyed before a smirk came to her features. She wasn’t sure what came over her, but she felt the need to counter that.
“Or maybe I will be the one to have my way with you,” she threatened before she pulled away from him and headed back into the camp.
“Oh? Think you’re woman enough, Aquarian?” he challenged with a smirk as he followed after her. She decided not reply to that because she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to follow through with her threat or entice him to push her into doing it.
When Nel returned to the campsite, she was relieved to find everyone still asleep. With the grace of her assassin abilities, she quietly returned to her bedding without making a sound and pretended to go back to sleep until someone else stirred. She could hear Albel walk over and sat down not too far from she was. He watched over her for the rest of the morning until everyone was up.