15. Team Disharmony

Chapter 15

Team Disharmony

            The path on the left fork also seemed to lead nowhere. All that awaited them there was some undead dragon that resided in a graveyard. When they defeated the creature, they discovered a dragon’s windpipe when it made noise against the wind.

“I’ve heard that flutes made from these can produce special sounds,” Nel commented as she stood up from her crouching position.

“Hmm…”

Everyone glanced back at Albel after he made that contemplating noise. He had been rather quiet all morning (as opposed to his usual baiting of Cliff or insulting Fayt) and even seemed to be in a more relaxed mood. Only Nel knew the cause of his behavior, and she was taking that secret with her to the grave.

“What is it, Albel?” Fayt wondered innocently, thinking the Wicked One had something to say. Surprisingly- he did.

Without a snarl or a glare of any kind, he glanced away from everyone and muttered, “…‘Dragons seek nothing more than their favorite sound’. It’s a saying I heard a long time ago. Turning that windpipe into a flute might actually prove useful.”

A helpful suggestion… It was the first time Albel actually contributed something to the team since coming to the mountains. Fayt desperately tried to hide his smile. He was happy that the dark warrior was finally coming around. Cliff moved to retrieve the windpipe from the dragon skeleton as Maria took on a thinking pose.

“That workshop we passed by yesterday should have the tools we need to craft one. We might as well head back there,” she suggested, earning a nod from the blue haired boy.

“Right. Then after that, we should try it and see what happens. Maybe even that relief painting might respond to it,” he replied as Cliff stood up.

With their treasure obtained, they filed out of the graveyard, walking past Albel. Nel was the last to leave, making sure to brush up against him playfully before she grabbed the chain of his collar and pulled him down long enough for a quick kiss. He was surprised with the action, but not against it.

“What was that for?” he wondered bemusedly, when they separated.

“A reward,” she answered in a casual tone as she walked off to catch up with the others. “Every time you’re nice to the others, I will reward you for it.”

That was how she functioned in the army. She gave incentives to those who worked hard and did their best on missions. Her subordinates were loyal to her because of that trait. Though- the kissing thing was something only for Albel. Her subordinates usually received something like extra vacation time (when possible) or other favors as compensation. Furthermore, the reason for the Wicked One’s good mood was because of what she did for him last night. She didn’t see any harm in trying to keep him in that mood if he was going to attempt to be more helpful.

…That was her excuse anyway. She didn’t really want to admit it, but flirting with him was also putting her in a good mood. She found that if she focused on him, then she was less worried about the current situation. And while she couldn’t completely forget the Vendeeni, her performance on and off the battlefield had been improving without that nagging feeling of fear in the back of her mind. Plus, she didn’t really believe he was going to be nice that often.

Albel grunted a little before he trailed after her. “Seeking to change me for the better, then? I thought you would be above that senseless drivel.”

“No, I’m only encouraging good behavior. You were nice to the others of your own free will.”

Deep down, Nel knew there wasn’t anything about Albel that needed to ‘change’. He was a good man with a fierce loyalty to his kingdom- the problem was that he put on some kind of act in front of others and treated them badly. In the end, however he coped with the world was his business and she didn’t care. What was important to her was a person’s true character.

The spy was cut off from her private thoughts when she felt a sharp tug on her scarf that forced her to fall back against his chest. Albel’s arms wrapped around her briefly as he pressed his lips against her jaw.

“Then I’ll encourage you to be naughty and reward you for it,” he whispered hotly in her ear before he let her go and walked past her on the trail.

She felt her face heat up as she smirked behind her scarf. She could only imagine what ‘rewards’ he had in mind. But she knew she didn’t have to worry about him going through with his promise. She didn’t intend to try anything while they were working. Nighttime, however, was a different story…

*******************

When they made it back to the workshop, Fayt was eager to start crafting the flute. He had Maria and Cliff help him while Adray, Nel, and Albel sat back and watched them. As they waited, the Elicoorians had a conversation that Nel didn’t anticipate. The aged runologist happened to catch a glimpse of one of the celestial ships and pointed it out for Albel.

Maria mentioned that it was one of the scouting ships and they were trying to pinpoint Fayt’s location for the main warship. So long as they couldn’t find the boy’s whereabouts, they still had time before a potential attack could happen. It still didn’t stop the spy from holding her breath nervously as she watched the metal ship sail slowly through the sky. They were positioned rather high up- most likely watching out for that shaft of light that Fayt summoned before.

Nel was a little worried that the scouting ship could somehow detect them in the mountains, but she allowed herself to breathe once again when the vessel flew higher and disappeared from sight. She wasn’t sure if their technology did find them, but as long as they weren’t landing or firing their weapons, she didn’t care.

“So that’s what we’re up against…” Albel muttered with a frown. Since he wasn’t present at the last battle, he never had the chance to see the enemy before. Though in Nel’s opinion, there was a difference in actually seeing the enemy up close rather than catching a glimpse of their flying vehicle in the sky.

“It’s a very formidable foe- one we cannot reach and they slaughter indiscriminately,” Adray explained with a grim face as he glared in the area where the ship was last seen. “Had young Fayt not summon the gods’ power, Nel and I wouldn’t be here today.”

“Gods’ power?” the Wicked One echoed as he glanced at the old man with a look of disbelief. Nel wasn’t sure if he reacted that way because of the fact that he didn’t believe in any gods or if he had a hard time believing Fayt managed to destroy a celestial ship.

Nel shook her head some and explained the story a little. Adray had stayed behind in Arias, so he didn’t know about Fayt and Maria’s powers. The runologist was stunned to find that the shaft of light and the creature within was actually part of Fayt’s power. Whatever praise the old man already had for the blue haired boy only increased ten fold after learning the truth.

But Albel just shook his head slowly and glared at the off-worlders. “If that fool was able to destroy their ship, then why are we here? Why can’t he just use his powers again?”

“Because he and Maria have no control over it. It was sheer luck that he was able to use them during the battle and- he wasn’t aware that he had them until Maria came along,” Nel defended a little tersely. Secretly she was hoping Fayt or Maria could activate their powers when the Vendeeni came again, but the chances of that happening were probably low. It frustrated her to no end to know that there wasn’t much she could do against the new enemy other than cling to a slim chance that their Thunder Arrow would work.

“Even if it was based on luck, I am still grateful for what he did,” Adray added as he crossed his arms and closed his eyes, “Had he not stopped that celestial ship, it could’ve gone on to destroy Aquaria…perhaps even Airyglyph too.”

Nel bit her lip to keep from thinking about it. Her eyes drifted over to Albel when she heard a slight chink when he fisted his claw. She caught the look of concern and fear in his eyes before he lowered his head to hide them behind his bangs. She already knew he was worried about his kingdom, but he didn’t really know how bad the situation really was until just then.

This was the situation as the Elicoorians understood it- without the complicated babble of the off-worlders. They were up against an enemy that was more advanced and powerful than they were and they had no definite means to defend themselves. Either they were going to die, or Fayt’s plan would work. It was highly disconcerting for the three warriors to find themselves utterly helpless in the face of it all.

And maybe it was that conversation that brought about the silent camaraderie that developed between them. For once, the two Aquarians and the Glyphian were truly equals- neither one had the power to save their kingdoms. The only real use they had left was to assist the off-worlders. In fact, Albel didn’t even use his degrading nicknames when speaking to her or Adray. But then Nel had to give him some credit- he didn’t really have the opportunity to call them anything. He was still most likely going to call Adray a worm and refer to her as the ‘death seeker’ when he got the chance.

“It’s done!” Fayt announced in excitement as he held up the newly crafted flute. The ivory bone had been smoothed into a thin cylindrical shape and had small holes lining the center. Apparently there had been a set of blueprints left behind in the workshop for them to go by. There was also a sheet of music with different melodies to play.

“Try it out. Let’s see if it works,” Cliff suggested as he picked up the music sheet and held it up for Fayt to see,

The blue haired boy nodded before he studied one of the melodies. When was he done looking, he placed his fingers over the right holes to make sure he would get the correct sound before blowing into the instrument. Soon a sweet happy sounding melody came forth and echoed throughout the area.

Then, in an almost comedic twist of fate, a dragon’s cry was heard in the distance. Everyone tensed up, expecting the beast to show up and fight them, but they didn’t anticipate an attack from the skies. Before anyone knew what was going on, a large black air dragon swooped down and captured Fayt in its claws. The boy let out a surprised cry before he was carried off over the mountains.

“Fayt!” Nel called out with worry, taking a few steps in the direction the beast flew off in.

“He is such a damsel in distress…” Maria scoffed softly before her features showed concern and she held her fist under her chin in a classic thinking pose, “…Oh what are we going to do? We need to save him.”

“He’s a strong kid. He could probably handle that one dragon…but if he’s landed in a nest of dragons, I’m not so sure,” Cliff replied before he stared walking ahead, “We gotta rescue him, pronto! He might buy himself some time by hiding, but not for long.”

“But how? You saw where he went. We already know there are no paths that go through those mountains,” Nel said as she shook her head.

“We’ll climb over them if we have to!” the Klausian responded jovially as he slammed a fist into his palm. Maria consented.

“We don’t have much of a choice. Fayt’s well being is our top priority. I can’t let him die here,” the blue haired girl explained before she rushed off to follow Cliff. But before they could get far, they were stopped by an opposing argument.

“Speak for yourself, worm. That accident-prone fool is neither my priority nor my concern. I didn’t come with you maggots to baby-sit that child,” Albel protested with a growl. Even though the Wicked One was well aware of Fayt’s age, he still believed the boy to be naïve and immature. Though it wasn’t as if Albel was any more ‘mature’ than Fayt was…

Cliff seemed a bit annoyed as he turned to glance back at the Glyphian. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to Albel’s issues with the matter and decided to remind him in his own way as to why the man was traveling with them. “No, you’re only here as a tour guide. How about you make yourself useful for once and try to figure out a way to Fayt’s location?”

Suddenly, Nel’s back was pressed against a nearby stone wall as Albel moved her aside so he could storm over to the Klausian. The Wicked One put on a rather intimidating façade as he nearly got into the blonde’s face. Albel was a fairly tall man, but Cliff was still a few inches taller. But that didn’t stop the Glyphian from glaring up at him threateningly.

I’m here as a representative of Airyglyph and I only consented to cooperate under the agreement that you maggots would work to help save my kingdom from those Vendeeni creatures. I don’t care what happens to that fool, my priority is taming the Marquis for the sake of my kingdom.”

Maria, sensing that a fight was about to happen, quickly placed herself between the hot heads and pushed them apart. Albel snarled at the contact of her hand at his chest and shoved it away with his good hand. The blue haired girl stood her ground, facing Albel while keeping Cliff behind her. She knew that while the Glyphian was a violent man with a love for battle, he wouldn’t strike her unless she angered him personally. She was an effective barrier to keep the two men away from one another.

“If you wish to stay behind and continue to find the Marquis on your own, then I won’t stop you. Fayt still has the flute, so you’ll have to go back and make another one yourself,” Maria warned with a calm tone, “You’re welcome to come with us if you change your mind, otherwise, we’ll try to catch up with you once he’s safe.”

“Fine by me, worm,” Albel snarled before he turned on his heel and headed back toward the trail that would lead to the dragon graveyard. Cliff and Maria also turned and headed toward the cave where the dragon flew over.

For a while, all Nel could do was just stand there as Albel passed her again. He was so angry with Cliff’s words and his attitude that he wasn’t thinking about anyone but himself. Once again, he succumbed to his rather childish ways and probably ignored her because he thought she would choose to rescue Fayt over coming with him.

Neither side was intending to change their minds so the division in the group was set. Albel was free to leave if he really wanted to. But… Nel couldn’t easily accept that. She didn’t particularly care what Albel wanted (as his actions were clearly to prove that the Marquis was more important than Fayt more so than his concern for the mission’s success), but he still brought on a good point. The spy’s morals and sense of duty was indirectly brought into question and she had a hard decision to make.

Nel didn’t like the choice she ended up making, but her personal priorities were set in stone. With a quiet sigh, her feet began to move and she followed her chosen path. Cliff sensed something was wrong and glanced back in time to see her.

“Huh? Hey, where are you going, Nelly?”

Albel paused in his step and looked over his shoulder to see that Nel was indeed following him and not the other maggots.

“Sorry…” she muttered in a dismal tone. “I care about Fayt, I really do, but the lives of my countrymen are also at stake. I can’t abandon the mission for Fayt. I’m…going with Albel to find the Marquis.”

No matter what she felt about Fayt, the mission and her kingdom were more important than his life. And while the thought absolutely sickened her, there was a chance that the Vendeeni would go away if their target happened to die in the mountains. She knew he was main reason the invaders were here, but they still needed the means to defend themselves should they come for the Sacred Orb again.

Nel hoped the boy wouldn’t have any hard feelings over her choice. He knew she would even abandon her own subordinates if they were a threat to the mission. She truly believed deep down that Fayt would be fine. He was strong (as Cliff pointed out) and the others could go rescue him. But it was still going to be a delay they couldn’t afford. Someone had to find a way to the Marquis and she didn’t think Albel could do it alone. …Though she did sickly suspect that he had an idea of where to go, considering how confident he was about going off on his own. In fact, he seemed to know a lot more about the Dragon Road legends than he was willing to admit aloud.

“…Yeah, you would say something like that,” Cliff admitted while rubbing the back of his head. His anger sobered some as he gave the spy a sympathetic look and sighed, “Do what you gotta do. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

It didn’t escape her that they were more accepting of her decision to stay behind. It was probably because she was nicer about it and they knew she wasn’t acting out in defiance. Cliff already knew her position from the time they escaped Airyglyph and Maria just accepted her story without prejudice. Though- the spy caught the Klausian’s smirk and that knowing look in his eyes. He was probably wondering why she wasn’t too adverse with the idea of going off with her former enemy, regardless of the priorities.

She could tell he was trying to hold in a comment or two about it since they needed to hurry and find Fayt soon. Nel resolved in her mind to dispel any suspicions the man may have had about her and Albel when they met up again. The spy then nodded to them before facing Albel again and walked over to his side. The dark warrior waited for her and began walking away once she caught up.

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” a voice bellowed, followed by the sound of a heavy man’s footsteps. There was a pained snarl and a startled yelp as Albel and Nel were yanked back by hair wraps and scarf (respectively) and forced to face one angry Adray. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves! How could you call yourselves warriors and yet leave one of your brothers in arms behind?”

“What’s it to you, worm? Just go with the others if you care about that fool so much,” Albel growled, furious that someone had the audacity to pull his hair like that. Nel was a little more forgiving since she was angry with herself for turning her back on someone she had grown close to. But she couldn’t let herself falter. Sacrifices had to be made for the greater good.

“Please Adray, we don’t have much time. Aquaria is in danger and if we don’t accomplish our mission…” she trailed off and flinched when the aged runologist gave her ‘the look’. It was something he picked up from her father and it still worked. Though it also brought on a fresh wave of pain over the memory of her father making that face.

“It is true that time is of the essence, but we do not know for certain when the enemy will attack, nor do we know the whereabouts of the Marquis. From what I’ve heard, he stopped attending the Glyphian Ascension of the Flame ceremonies nine years ago and was never seen again. You can expect finding him won’t be so easy. For all we know, Fayt could be closer to his lair where he is,” Adray said, bringing on a very good point.

Nel could hear Albel sharply draw in his breath before he growled quietly at the old man in front of him. There was something about what Adray mentioned that angered him and she suspected that it had something to do with the ceremony. But there was truth to what the old man said. The only reason they were traveling the Dragon’s Road on foot was because the air dragons had become unruly and intolerant of other humans to allow members of the Dragon Brigade to fly in.

Apparently, this started nine years ago due to some incident that angered the Marquis. Ever since that time, the Ascension of the Flame was no longer held in the Barr Mountains. All high-ranking dragon knights had to bond with powerful air dragons that were raised in captivity or brave the mountains on their own. Albel must’ve known what the incident was and what caused it…

Adray grinned widely at their silence before he decided to deliver the ‘killing blow’. “If only your fathers could see you now. They would’ve never left a man behind no matter the circumstance.”

For a moment, both appeared like they had been slapped in the face. It was a low blow to use the memory of their fathers against them and it only proved how desperate the aged runologist was in wanting to win the argument. Albel was the first to recover before he snarled and appeared ready to attack.

“Don’t you dare act as if you know my-”

“Be silent!” Adray commanded before he swiftly flicked the Wicked One on his forehead. Almost immediately, Albel’s eyes widened and he was literally stunned into silence. Nel was reminded of the almost similar gesture wolf tamers would use to calm the beast. Come to think of it, Adray used that move on Clair once when she was really little.

Despite the urgency, Cliff and Maria had been rooted in place to see the outcome of the argument. They were initially stunned by the runologist’s outburst, but then decided to stay in case Nel and Albel could be convinced to help them. Cliff let out a short whistle before he leaned over to whisper to Maria.

“Adray sure has their number,” he muttered, highly impressed.

“Seems so,” she replied back in a lightly amused tone.

“Splitting our forces now is useless. You are both coming with us whether you like it or not,” the old man insisted before he pulled both warriors forward and made them march in front of him over to Cliff and Maria.

Nel was a little humiliated to have been scolded by Adray, but she was secretly grateful for his insistence to go rescue Fayt. It lightened her conscious some to be forced away from her duty to her kingdom, but still she hoped that the aged runologist was right and that by going out of their way for the boy would prove helpful in their search for the Marquis.

Albel was initially livid for having lost the argument just because the old man used an ancient calming technique on him. Long ago, his ancestors discovered a small spot on the forehead that told the body to calm down if set off with a quick amount of force. At least this was true to those of his race. He wasn’t sure if the off-worlders had a similar trait.

The last time anyone ever did that to him was when he was a child. His father often flicked at his forehead when he was being a little beast. But as he stewed it over in his mind, his anger vanished and he decided to forget all about it. If he had continued to think, he would only start reflecting on his not-so-fond memories of his past and work himself into having another nightmare later on.

Instead he focused on his new, annoying task at hand. He glanced back at Adray as the party headed into the cave. “So how do you propose we get over the mountains, fool? You know that climbing would take too long.”

Nel had to hold in a snort. It seemed that Adray had been promoted from ‘worm’ to ‘fool’. Or was it a demotion? She couldn’t really tell which was worse out of being called an insect or an idiot. All she did know was that Fayt was the only other person who was called ‘fool’ and that didn’t happen often.

The aged runologist let out his usual chuckle to indicate how excited he was. “Heh, if all else fails, we could always tame a lesser air dragon and fly there.”

“It won’t be that easy, even with a lesser air dragon,” the Wicked One warned with a slight glare.

“Perhaps…” Adray began before his tone turned sly, “but I hear they respond well to force and violence. We should have no trouble.”

“That they do,” Albel replied as a wicked smile came to his face.

Nel sighed and rolled her eyes. Mention ‘battle’ or ‘violence’ and those two would start grinning like manic idiots. They really were related. She decided that the bloodlust had to be a male trait since Clair didn’t act anywhere near as stupid as they did. Though the ‘stupidity’ was merely her own opinion. Even though she herself resorted to violence and force for many situations, she didn’t think it was supposed to be ‘fun’ or enjoyable in any way.

Maria and Cliff had taken the lead. They were far enough to where they could easily ignore the conversation behind them, but close enough to where the chatter covered up other sounds. So when the moment both men stopped talking, they paused as a lilting sound echoed in the distance.

“Wait, did you hear that?” the blue haired girl whispered as she signaled for the Elicoorians to stop. Everyone froze in place and listened closely. It sounded like music.

“The flute…” Nel muttered as she recognized the sound, “It must be Fayt.”

“Heh, I guess he managed to find a way out on his own. Didn’t need us at all,” Cliff mused with a relived grin.

“Well, we still took too long to go find him,” Maria said with a dispassionate shrug.

“I won’t tell him if you won’t,” the Klausian quipped with a grin. The fact that the Elicoorians delayed them didn’t bode well for their rescue attempt. If Fayt knew how long it actually took them to get moving, he would think no one really cared about him.

“Agreed,” the girl replied curtly before glancing back at her other companions, “So where is it coming from?”

Albel was the first to reply as he headed over to the tunnel they were about to pass. “Over here, it seems.”

The Wicked One was now in the lead as they headed down another tunnel. The flute sounds were getting louder with each step. Before they knew it, they reached a dead end, but it was also where the melody was the loudest. The area seemed more like an alcove and there wasn’t much room for everyone to stand inside it. Nel and Albel were standing close to the center of it while Cliff and Maria was closer to the entrance. Adray couldn’t fit in at all and had to stand in the main tunnel outside.

They glanced around to figure out where the noise was coming from since it was obvious that there were no other areas to explore. Soon all heads tilted up as they realized there was no ceiling above them.

“Up there?” Maria stated softly before she placed her hand on the smooth stone wall.

Nel also placed her hands on the stone to see if there were any crevices or holds that would allow them to climb up. After finding none, she shook her head. “No good. We can’t get up there.”

“Maybe if we try shouting, it’ll get his attention and lead him here,” the Klausian suggested before Albel scoffed.

“And lure all of the dragons here, too? Think again maggot.”

Nel was about to point out that Fayt’s flute playing would’ve already attracted the beasts, but she didn’t get the chance. The sound suddenly grew louder to the point where she could swear it was just above her. Before anyone could react, the music stopped and there was a startled cry. Albel and Nel quickly separated and plastered themselves against the walls as a body fell between them.

“Fayt!” Nel called out as she reacted first. She quickly knelt down to inspect the boy. Albel just crossed his arms and nudged the body with his foot, eliciting a pained moan from Fayt.

“What a pity,” he drawled in mock disappointment, “He’s still alive.”

The spy glared up at him before she tried to help Fayt into a sitting position. But he couldn’t get even an inch off the ground before something else fell from above. The boy was forced back down and was winded as a cat-sized pink creature landed on his back. It made a cooing sound followed by a noise that was a mix growl and purr.

“What the heck is that?” Cliff wondered as his nose wrinkled in disgust. The Klausian had a long history when it came to the color pink. He knew it led to trouble, especially if a lady wore the colors. And while he had nothing against the small creature, he couldn’t help but be suspicious of it.

“It’s a baby dragon,” Albel supplied with a scowl. His distaste for the creature came from the fact that he hated all dragons equally.

But Maria was of a different opinion. She had a smile on her face as she bent over to get a better look. “It’s cute!”

The little dragon’s sea foam green eyes closed as a happy look appeared on its features. Apparently it could understand humans and was flattered by the compliment. Nel had to coax the baby off Fayt’s back so he could sit up. The boy let out another moan as he rubbed at his sore nose and blearily glanced at his savior.

“…Nel?” he croaked weakly before he turned his head and noticed the man standing at his other side. His eyes brightened quickly and he appeared happier when he noticed him. “Albel!”

The spy resisted the urge to shake her head. She could respect the crush he had on the man, but Fayt could at least give credit where it was due. She was the one who was kneeling by his side and was attempting to help him. Albel would’ve gladly left him where he was without an ounce of concern for his well being.

“Hey, you okay?” Cliff wondered as Nel worked on a healing spell to ease the pain Fayt had from the fall.

The boy nodded before he explained his experience after being carried away. But first, he raised the flute to inspect it for damage and found that it survived the fall as well. “Yeah, I was taken to a dragon nest that was filled with young dragons. They left me alone as long as I played the flute.”

The baby dragon had been standing in front of Maria in hopes to garner more attention from the girl, but he turned back to Fayt once the flute was mentioned. The boy acknowledged the small creature and gestured to him with a nod. “This little guy showed me how to get back here… but I didn’t see that hole up there until it was too late.”

“I see. So I guess the flute has a calming effect on them,” Maria responded before she reached out to gently touch the dragon’s head. The pink beast made another growl-purr and leaned into her hand. The girl smiled at the action before she pulled away. “I’m sure his mother is still somewhere around here. We better make sure he doesn’t follow us when we leave.”

Fayt had grown rather attached to the dragon, but agreed to her reasoning. Separating the young from their parents was wrong no matter what race they were. Once the boy was fully healed and able to move again, they headed off to continue their mission.

********************

The little dragon insisted following them no matter how hard they tried to shoo him away. Even Albel couldn’t come close to scaring it away… though if Fayt would allow him to draw his sword and really intimidate it, it would’ve been a different story. But, thankfully, the dragon refused to follow them any further when they reached the relief painting in the cave. Upon trying the bone flute, the mysterious structure disappeared, revealing a hidden passage that led into a more ‘dungeon-like’ place.

Whatever it was, it was obviously crafted by humanoid hands. The walls were lined with cut stone and there were what appeared to be runological torches hanging over doors and lining halls. They were nothing more than blue spheres that contained some kind of lighting rune. They cast a dull blue glow that gave enough light to see. It seemed to be more for ambience than practicality.

Nel couldn’t help but notice the crafted tile and stones that decorated the columns and doors. They were Glyphian knots- special designs that originated from Airyglyph. She didn’t see any coat of arms or anything to indicate any particular family once owned the place, but it was obvious that Glyphians had once inhabited here. Given the presence of runology, it must’ve been from the early years after Edyglyph left Aquor, before the knowledge of the craft faded from their culture.

Perhaps this was once a home for early dragon tamers after Airyglyph I bonded with his dragon. But that thought was quickly dismissed once they stumbled across what appeared to be a laboratory. The air was thick with the smell of rotting dragon flesh and blood. Nel could see random dragon parts floating in tubes and immediately noticed the table that was covered in dried old blood.

“Live together with dragons?” Cliff muttered incredulously, quoting what Nel mentioned the other day, “Is this what that means?”

Fayt’s eyes swept all over the room, his face was a mix of disgust and pity for the slain. “They entered the dragon’s lair, hunted them down, and then performed all kinds of experiments on them.”

“Seems so. If they were really living together, they wouldn’t mercilessly slaughter them like this,” the Klausian added before he started examining the nearby bookshelf.

Nel didn’t believe this had anything to do with the legend. The laboratory looked fairly new compared to the ruins. Plus there were indications that there had been someone here until recently. How recent, she couldn’t determine. Someone, perhaps not a Glyphian since they were fond of dragons, somehow managed to get into the ruins and used it as their stronghold to experiment.

But…the spy couldn’t stand to see creatures or humans being used for such things. Perhaps it stemmed from the many years she believed her father was tortured and killed in a dungeon, but she hated even the mention of torture. True, this didn’t count as ‘torture’, but she was sure the specimens in those tubes suffered all the same as their lives were taken for the name of science.

“How terrible…” she muttered before she could stop herself.

“Hmph.”

Nel turned to face the cause of that rather judgmental sound. Albel was leaning against a column close to the exit. He wasn’t looking around at all, preferring instead to glare at the floor and simply listen to the others as they talked.

“Something wrong?” she inquired in rather terse voice as she faced him with her hands on her flanks.

“Do you realize how many dragons we’ve killed so far?” he reminded her as he lifted his eyes to look at hers.

Nel realized too late that he wasn’t really berating her in particular about her sympathy for the test subjects and had to act. Her body went into defensive mode and quickly pulled up an argument to explain her words. What they’ve done was nothing like what the researchers did.

“But we-”

“‘We had no choice’ is what you were going to say, right? Either way you look at it, there’s not much of a difference,” he replied, cutting her off. He closed his eyes and tilted his head downward again. There was something about his demeanor that told her he was hiding something. He didn’t want to look at the room, almost as if he was scared to see what was in it. Maybe it was out of respect that he didn’t want to lay eyes upon the dishonored remains of the dragons. But then he was acting as if he didn’t really care if a dragon was alive or dead…

“Even so,” Nel added, not wanting to end it there, “At least the dragons we’ve killed died honorably while trying to defend their lair. The ones here only died to satisfy someone’s curiosity.”

Albel let out a dry chuckle. “Maybe so, but dragons don’t really care about honor. Death is death. If someone is slaughtering their own kind, they must destroy them. I doubt the Marquis would spare us just because we let his kin ‘die honorably’.”

Suddenly she was beginning to understand what he was getting at. Maybe they didn’t intend to kill them like the researchers did, but nothing could change the fact that in the end, dragons were slain. It didn’t matter to the Marquis what the reason was, he had no reason to trust dragon-slayers and that was going to make it harder for them to convince him to help.

Cliff (not even listening to the current conversation) let out a pleased whistle as he flipped through some book with some rather erotic pictures, “What I’d give to make her acquaintance! I didn’t think this planet would have porn!”

Maria glared at the Klausian before she stormed over and kicked him in the shin. While that didn’t hurt the blonde as much as it would a regular human, it was enough to stun him so that she could rip the book out of his hands and stuff it back into the bookshelf where he had found it.

“Tch! Mini-Mirage.” He glowered before he skulked off to the exit. Though if Mirage had been present, Cliff would’ve received more than just a weak kick and a stern glare.

Deciding that there was nothing left to explore in the room, they filed out. Albel was the last to leave as usual. It wasn’t until they reached the next room and contemplated setting up camp for the night when Nel realized that she and Albel hadn’t flirted with each other for the entire day. They were both completely focused on the mission ever since they had seen that Vendeeni ship in the sky.

With Albel not trying anything, it was easy for her to fall back into her usual professional demeanor. Nel didn’t know him or his habits like he knew hers, but with what little knowledge she did have, it was easy to figure out that something was bothering him. There could’ve been a number of things running through his mind- like the threat of the Vendeeni or whatever issues he had with dragons. But it wasn’t like she could ask him about it. He was only willing to talk to her when they were alone.

Though it became clear that they wouldn’t have such a chance tonight. The ruins didn’t seem to have any monsters or dragons lurking about so there was no need to scout around. And until Fayt decided to play the flute and open the other doors, there weren’t many places for them to head to that were far enough away from the group. Albel probably wasn’t going to have the chance to tend to his arm that night either.

Once the force field was set up (just in case) and the bedding was laid down, Maria went over the inventory and discovered some bad news.

“It seems we’re getting low on supplies and we’re almost out of food,” she announced. The blue haired boy sighed in disappointment that they were already in need of a restock.

“I guess we’ll have to go back tomorrow and restock. Do we have enough food to eat tonight?” Fayt wondered as he lay back in his bedding.

“Not much, but I’ve brought some peanut butter with me. That should be enough to sustain us until we reach Peterny,” she replied as she pulled out a brown jar and a covered loaf of bread.

“Peanut butter?” Nel repeated curiously as she eyed the contents of the jar. She had never seen or heard of the food before. It must’ve been something the off-worlders brought along.

Maria confirmed her theory. “It’s an Earth delicacy made from crushing a certain type of legume. It has a lot of protein and is very filling so it can be a stand alone meal for situations like this.”

She also continued to add that it was one of the few foods that was still available completely natural- no synthetics or genetic engineering. Nel only nodded her head, half listening to the somewhat complicated explanation. All she needed to know that it was food and that it was safe to eat. It sounded a lot like the field rations that soldiers were given on the battlefield, but it was made of a creamy substance instead of a rolled-up sticky bar.

At first glance, the peanut butter didn’t look all that appealing to the Elicoorian. She wasn’t accustomed to eating things in that shade of brown. Most organic foods she was exposed to were green or red in color. There were some tree nuts that almost came close to the shade, but they were more golden colored.

But she did recall the time Maria introduced her to chocolate, which was of a darker brown, and she found it to be very sweet and delectable. At least the substance on her share of the bread smelled nice. Maybe it had a pleasant taste too. When she bit into the food, she found that it was rather good. It wasn’t too sweet and it had a creamy texture to it. Though she did find that it had a rather annoying habit of sticking to the roof of her mouth…

Adray was also cautious of the off-world food, but once he had a taste, he kept demanding for seconds and thirds. He was eventually cut off so that they would have enough for tomorrow. Albel initially turned his nose up at it when it was offered, but then he ate after everyone else had a bite and didn’t die of poison. Considering that he came from a country that lacked food, he wasn’t about to waste what was offered to him. But at the same time, he couldn’t completely trust everything that was given to him. His face didn’t betray his opinion over the small meal and he soon wandered off to sit against a wall and dozed off.

When everyone was done eating and packed up everything that didn’t need to be out, they, too, headed off to their makeshift beds to sleep. By the time Nel was laying back in her bedding, she started to feel a little nauseous. She initially thought that it was the food she had eaten, but everyone else didn’t seem to have the same problem. It had to be another cause, but she couldn’t figure out what.

The spy eventually dismissed it as indigestion (or perhaps a side effect from too much stress) and rolled over to her side to sleep.

About three hours later, she shot up as a strong urge to vomit awakened her. But as soon as she was up, the feeling had passed, though her stomach was still lurching in an unsettling manner. She knew then something was wrong. It felt like there was something sitting in her belly, as if her body was refusing to take in the food she put in there. But why?

As a precaution, she felt her forehead to check her own temperature. She wasn’t feverish, so she wasn’t sick. Other than the occasional wave of nausea, she didn’t seem to be having any other symptoms that would indicate illness. She tried to lie back down, only to get back up when her stomach protested again. Okay, she was obviously not going to get anymore sleep…

Nel glanced around to try to determine the time, but realized that it was near impossible to do while they were inside the ruins. Her companions were still sound asleep, but that wasn’t much of an indication of a time for her. It could’ve been the middle of the night- or it could’ve been early morning and everyone would be waking soon. She glanced over at Albel to see if he was awake and found that he was deep asleep.

She also noticed that he was frowning and that his arms were twitching slightly. He was most likely in the early stages of a nightmare. Taking advantage of the fact that he wasn’t that far from her, she carefully crawled over to him- pausing only once when she thought she was going lose the contents of her stomach. She knew waking him could be dangerous and sought to disarm him slightly by holding down his claw with her boot.

Once she was sure it was trapped under her weight, she held her hand to his cheek and gently patted it. His reaction was instantaneous. His eyes shot open and his right hand quickly gripped her wrist tightly. As she predicted, his claw tried to move, but it was successfully restrained. When he realized where he was and who was beside him, he relaxed and let go of her hand. She deemed it safe to move off his claw and settled herself against the wall next to him.

“You looked like you were having a nightmare,” she muttered quietly so that she wouldn’t disturb the others. Unlike the past nights, it was much quieter inside the ruins without the ambient noises of nature. The lighter sleepers of the group could easily wake up if they talked any louder than a whisper.

“…Yeah,” he replied as he ran his good hand through his hair. “…Thanks for waking me.”

It wasn’t often to hear genuine gratitude coming from him… at least none that wasn’t accompanied by a sardonic tone. For a long while, it was silent. Nel actually had a lot of questions to ask, but didn’t feel that he was in the mood to answer them. The last thing he would want to do was talk about what was bothering him, let alone talk about his nightmare. She let in a deep breath and slowly released it before she drew her knees up to her chest.

Almost as soon as the top of her thighs made contact with her stomach, another wave of nausea came as her body remembered that there was something wrong with her. She winced a little before she forced her legs back down and concentrated on breathing until the feeling passed. Albel saw everything and gave her a concerned look.

“Are you feeling alright?”

Nel was afraid to answer that. She felt that if she opened her mouth, something other than her voice could come out. She shook her head slowly as she forced air in and out of her lungs. Once she felt a little better, she finally said, “I feel nauseous. But I don’t think I’m ill.”

“…I feel fine, so it can’t be that off-world food,” he responded before he chuckled some, “Maybe you ate the poison that was intended for me.”

She realized much later that was intended to be a joke, but her current situation didn’t give her much room to find it even a slight bit humorous. Albel tried to pull her closer to him to comfort her, but she pushed his arm away.

“Don’t. I might really throw up and I doubt you want it on you,” she warned before her eyelids felt heavy. Now she was getting sleepy again? She knew Albel tried to say something to her in response, but she didn’t catch it. Her vision was getting blurry and her breathing was getting heavier. Nel rested her head against the wall behind her and let her eyes close.

She was out like a light seconds later.

To the Sixteenth Chapter (The Scare)

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