Facing the Past
Nel had a suspicion something was wrong the moment she jumped off the dragon. It wasn’t anything grand- just a tiny cramp in her lower abdomen. The last time she felt that uncomfortable (but not painful) sensation was back when she first started her monthly cycles. As she grew older, all she received was a momentary tightness in her lower belly before the bleeding began. But with the way her body was acting, she felt that she needed to check to make sure.
As Fayt had hoped for, they found and retrieved the glowstone long before sunset and they had plenty of time to climb the mountain trail before it got too dark. They reached the site where they camped the first night and began setting up. Nel decided that this was her chance to sneak off while it was still light out. She only informed Fayt of her whereabouts and told him she wasn’t going far. He accepted that and told her to be careful.
The spy continued on the trail, making sure that there were no dragons nearby, and stopped when she found a boulder near a tree. She glanced back at the bend where the campsite was, no more than twenty yards away, and deemed it a safe enough distance. After checking her surroundings one last time, she ducked behind the boulder to where she would be hidden if someone happened to walk into the area. She then pulled down her underwear.
She grimaced when she smelled evidence of blood and knew that it was definitely menstrual bleeding. Since her panties were dark, she couldn’t really see the evidence, but she knew that there wasn’t much on there. She was only spotting for now. Nel let out a sigh when she realized that she didn’t have any linens on her. Usually her missions required her to be in or near a town so she didn’t have to worry about being caught unprepared. But since she was out in the Barr Mountains…
The spy checked her belongings and found the same cloth she had used to clean up earlier. She had it folded to where the combined mess her and Albel made wouldn’t get on her other things, but the heady smell of it couldn’t be trapped. Deciding it was better than nothing, she pulled out another pair of panties and proceeded to change. Just as she positioned the folded cloth on the crotch of the underwear, she could hear movement in the distance.
She froze in place to listen better and discovered it was a set of footsteps and it was getting closer to her position. Nel relaxed a little when she was able to identify the person. She knew it was Albel from the way he tended to stalk when walking. His feet could be rather quiet despite his weight, but he still managed to create a little sound from scraping the tip of his foot on the ground. One had to be very quiet to hear that, though.
She managed to pull up her panties just as his head peered over the stone and he looked down at her with a bored expression. “What are you doing?”
Albel then proceeded to mutter how she wasn’t good at hiding because he could see her hair over the top of the stone before he walked into her little space and settled himself against the nearby tree. She watched his every move and wondered where he obtained the idea that she invited him to sit with her. But then it didn’t really matter. He had seen all of her body before and there was no point in getting flustered if he managed to catch her in the act of changing.
Instead she tilted her head and considered telling him the truth. While the subject of a lady’s monthly cycle wasn’t something to discuss with men, he still needed to know about it. No need to let him find out the hard way should he want to play again.
“I’ve started bleeding,” she eventually admitted with a sigh, “But I don’t have any extra linens. I’ll need to go by Arias tonight and pick some up.”
The cloth should be enough for overnight, but she was going to need more- at least enough for tomorrow. There was a high chance that they would be facing the Marquis tomorrow and if they succeeded in their mission, they would be back in Aquios shortly after. Nel winced when she caught the smirk on Albel’s face. It was almost as if he was delighted to hear what she told him.
Please Apris, let Farleen be wrong when she suspected that he had a blood fetish, she prayed as he rummaged through his travel pack that he still had on. She decided that she was being ridiculous and dismissed the thought entirely. If he had a blood fetish, she would have cuts all over her body from it. Furthermore, he didn’t need to see blood to get aroused. Simply taking off her clothes was enough.
Nel was pulled out of her thoughts when a roll of linen bandages was tossed onto her lap. She glanced up at Albel questioningly as he smirked.
“Use that. I have more than enough to spare,” he explained, his grin still in place. She blinked at his charity and wondered what he was up to. She knew he used them for his arm and he probably needed extras in case of an emergency. And- the fact that he seemed happy to share was making her nervous. But at least it would save her the trip. While Arias wasn’t that far, it would’ve still been a long enough walk to take away a few hours of sleep.
It wasn’t until she thanked him when she discovered his ulterior motive. His eyes darkened some before he added, “I want that back when you’re done with it.”
She almost sputtered in reply. “Are you sure? I can wash them, but there’s no guarantee that there won’t be stains.”
“That’s fine. Get as much blood as you can on them- it’ll be like the ancient times where the old dragon knights of Aquor wore the blood of their lady to battle.”
Nel grimaced at the history reference. He would be the type to like something like that. He was apparently interested in the intimacy it symbolized more so than any sexual implications. He already wasn’t disgusted at the sight of blood and guts from his enemies so naturally he wouldn’t be disgusted with the byproduct of a woman’s cycle. With that in mind, she decided to set some rules. All because he didn’t cut her didn’t mean a secret fetish wasn’t still there. She didn’t want to take any chances.
“I bleed for three days,” she warned him with a glare before she pushed his arm away in a threatening manner, “Keep your distance until then.”
He only grabbed her wrist before she could withdraw. Then with a devilish smirk, he brushed his lips against her knuckles. “I make no promises, woman.”
Even though she was a little vague with her warning, he had no trouble picking up her concerns. It wasn’t until he started laughing and let go of her hand that she began to suspect that he was only joking. She seriously hoped he was joking.
“An’ what are the two of you doing here by yourselves?” a new voice wondered above them. Nel held back her groan when she realized Cliff had managed to sneak up on them. Did Fayt forget to tell everyone she wanted to be alone for a few minutes? Albel was fine, but Cliff was another matter.
“We’re discussing the ancient history and customs of our common ancestors- nothing you would understand, maggot,” Albel replied casually, not missing a beat. Cliff had no clue about the Aquorian Knights or that Airyglyph and Aquaria had the same ancestors, but he didn’t need to know about it to have his suspicions about the two warriors.
The Klausian narrowed his eyes down at them as he grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure you are…”
“What does that mean?” Nel snapped at his sly tone.
“Oh nothing…” Cliff said innocently before he leaned against the boulder. “It’s just that I find it a little …odd that you guys need to leave the others and squat behind some stone to discuss something like that.”
Nel tried not to make a face. What could she say to that? Her only other option was to tell him the truth, but the last thing she wanted was for him to know about her monthly cycle. Thankfully, Albel had something to retort with- even though it was something that nearly gave the spy a heart attack.
“And what do you think we’re doing, maggot? Fornicating?” he wondered, feigning an incredulous tone.
Cliff opened and closed his mouth several times, surprised that the Wicked One would inquire so bluntly. But while that was the Klausian’s suspicion, there was no proof. They were both fully clothed and sitting too far apart to be considered ‘caught’ in any suspicious act. They were actually having an innocent conversation …this time. Nel thanked Apris that Cliff never snuck up on them when they really were being intimate.
“I guess you have a point,” he mumbled to himself as he rubbed the back of his neck. Nel was upset that her private time was interrupted and didn’t want to spend another second where she was. Cliff was getting too close to figuring out her secret relationship with the dark warrior and she didn’t want to give him any more clues to make him think they were in one.
“I wanted to be alone, but since this area is rather popular, I’m leaving,” the spy announced as she gathered her things and stood up. Albel only shrugged and acted as if he didn’t care while Cliff appeared a little apologetic.
“Sorry, Nelly, I didn’t mean to chase you off. I was only checkin’ up on ya,” he muttered in defense.
Nel wasn’t sure if it was her hormones that made her snap or the fact that Cliff had the uncanny ability to try her nerves at times, but she couldn’t stop herself from scoffing and muttering, “I’m sure you were.”
He was most likely only there to prove his hunch about her and Albel and that made her mad for some reason. Why was it his business what she did with Albel? She couldn’t stop the glare that came to her face when she stepped over the Wicked One’s legs and passed the Klausian.
“Scar-ee,” the blonde man muttered before he turned to Albel, “She must be on her period or something…”
In the back of her mind, she somewhat agreed with him. Nel could control her anger better than what she was attempting at the moment. But hearing him point it out only made it worse and she reached for her dagger in a threatening manner.
“Okay, okay! Sorry. Sheesh!” the Klausian apologized when he noticed the flash of metal. Satisfied, she pushed the dagger back into the sheath and stormed back to camp. Once she had her sleeping gear out, she immediately began cleaning her daggers to help calm her self.
It was true that she tended to have a short temper when it came to serious missions, but she was rather calm when off-duty. There was something making her more cross than usual- perhaps one of those mood swings Maria had warned her about. This wasn’t the first time she decided that she hated her monthly bleedings…
It was fairly late at night when the spy felt something approach her. The first thing she did was reach for a dagger that was hidden under her makeshift pillow. By the time she had it out and her eyes were open, she found a metal claw gripping the blade so she couldn’t attack. Her eyes followed the claw up to the arm and all the way to the eyes of its owner. Albel had a knowing smirk on his face as if to mock her for her predictability. He knew she would attack if disturbed from her slumber.
Nel scowled a little after he let go. It didn’t matter if she was predicable. It was a matter of survival and she didn’t want to be caught off guard should a real enemy appear. He waited for her to put away her weapon before he whispered for her to follow him. She could only watch with bleary eyes as he silently stood and walked out of the campsite. It was then that she remembered that he wanted to talk to her. With a quiet sigh, she rubbed at her eyes before getting up and trailing after him.
She found him sitting at the same place the first night they went off alone. It wasn’t as bright out as usual since Erinia was entering its first phase of the month, but there was enough light from Irisa and Palmira to see. When Albel noticed her, his good hand moved to unhook his claw from his arm. Nel tilted her head as she wondered why he called her out for that. Did he want her to stand watch while he tended to his arm?
She was about to turn around to give him privacy, but he stopped her. “Come here. I want you to see this time.”
She was visibly stunned. He was always so sensitive about the subject of his arm and she didn’t think he would be ready to let her see it this soon. She was under the impression that it was due to something rather traumatic from his past and that it would take him perhaps months before he would be willing to trust her with the knowledge.
“Are you sure?” she inquired to make certain he was really ready. She didn’t want him to force himself or think she was pressuring him. His claw carefully slid from his arm to the ground and his fingers hesitated over the bandages on the top for a moment.
“…Yeah, I’m sure. If I can’t tell you about it now, then I certainly won’t be able to face part of my past tomorrow,” he replied before he began unraveling the linen bands.
Nel nodded in understanding before she approached him and knelt down at his side as the bands came off layer by layer. She was able to piece together that the Marquis somehow had something to do with his arm and figured that tomorrow was going to be hard for the Wicked One. He needed some kind of support to help him move on.
Albel paused for only a brief moment when he reached his elbow before he slowly undid the rest of the bandages. What lay underneath was nothing like what she had ever seen before. Like with most of his skin, it was near blackened and missing most of its flesh. But what made it truly horrific was the fact that she could see some surviving tendons and blood vessels exposed closer to the hand. If it weren’t for the fact that most of his arm was numbed, she would imagine that it was very painful.
But it was a wonder how he gotten so used to caring for such a delicate appendage. Without the bandages and the metal casing of his claw, it was a vulnerable part of him that was easily prone to further severe injury or infection. And- Nel couldn’t help but notice with a near shudder- it looked as if one wrong move could cause his veins to easily sever and sustain massive blood loss.
He was silent for a long while as he let her look. After some hesitation, he let her touch his arm. Nel gingerly held it up, one hand supporting the elbow and the other holding up his charred wrist. She couldn’t hold back the grimace as she examined his arm up close. The thought of even touching his veins made her stomach lurch, but thankfully Albel had turned his head sharply away so he couldn’t see her expression. She closed her eyes to gather her thoughts and tried to say something to let him know she wasn’t disgusted with him.
“Where’s the cream? I’ll put it on,” she offered, thinking it might help show that she accepted him. He only shook his head and tried to hide a sneer.
“Don’t bother forcing yourself. Your face says it all.”
She winced as she realized that he still caught a glimpse of her face before he looked away. It was her turn to shake her head. “You probably misread my thoughts. Your arm is pretty bad, but it’s nothing to be disgusted over. I don’t mind putting cream on it- it’s just that I feel nervous of causing damage to your arm if I’m not careful.”
He turned his head slightly to glance at her and determine if she was telling the truth. She held his gaze with a serious expression. After a long and tense moment of silence he eventually moved by lifting his arm out of her grasp and sharply pulling away. He then rested the limp appendage on his lap and reached for the medicine.
“I will put the cream on… You can wrap my arm up when I’m done if you want to help so badly,” he muttered as he gathered up the white colored substance on two of his fingers. Nel nodded with the barest hint of a smile on her face. If he was willing to let her help at all, then that meant he was okay with her touching him again.
She watched closely as he deftly smeared the medicine over the top part of his arm and worked his way down. When he reached the critical area, he was much more cautious. It was a rather jarring sensation to watch him dig his fingers under the veins to reach the inner areas of his arm.
“You know…” she began as a thought came to her, “…you might not want to hear this, but you’re probably better off if you had that arm amputated. One of these days, it could get severely infected if you’re not careful. I’m frankly amazed how you got away with it for so long.”
He paused over his work as he considered her words and decided not to view it as criticism. He heard enough from Woltar about how he was ‘lucky’, but Nel seemed to be only offering advice. She didn’t think he was incapable of taking care of himself- that much he knew.
“I could… but if I did so, then I wouldn’t be able to control my claw. I have no other way to survive without it,” he replied calmly before he reached for more cream. He had already explained how his claw worked before during one of the many short breaks they had between battles and she was aware that the claw wouldn’t work any other way without the muscle spasms in his arm.
“We have technology in Aquaria that could enable prosthetic limbs to respond to a body’s nervous system through runology. We could easily craft you an arm that would work like a normal one and you would still be able to use a claw over it,” she explained earning a thoughtful look from him.
“And how do you propose I go about getting one? Our kingdoms are not exactly on good terms with each other yet,” he pointed out, sounding only mildly interested in the idea.
“I can arrange for it. It would be easy enough to convince Her Majesty to authorize it all as a gesture of good will.”
That earned her a scoff as his features soured some. “I don’t need charity.”
She rolled her eyes some at his remark. Some part of her saw that coming. He was definitely a man who was against receiving handouts, fearing that accepting them would make him dependant on others and weak. But he needed a prosthetic- otherwise he could end up losing more than just his arm later on. And it wasn’t like her kingdom wouldn’t be taking a risk if they did offer him one. He could end up using the arm they created against them should war ever start up again,
“Then don’t think of it as charity. Think of it as payment for watching over me during the mission. You didn’t have to protect me or take care of me when I was ill-” He cut her off with a glare.
“Stop. I did those things because I wanted to- because you are my wife. You owe me nothing,” he snapped in annoyance. She didn’t anticipate her words offending him like that, but she was able to see his point. He didn’t force himself into her life for compensation and offering some was only an insult to his intentions.
But her patience was running thin and she hated having to explain herself. She didn’t want him to think her offer was made for shallow reasons.
“Just think about it,” she retorted back in a cross tone, “You don’t have to accept it and the only ‘charity’ in it would be to the lucky Aquarian who gets to chop off your arm. There will be plenty of volunteers for that if I don’t personally decide to do it.”
It was a mild joke on her part since she didn’t particularly want to cut off anyone’s limb- even his. It wasn’t exactly her idea of a fun hobby…though she wouldn’t be surprised if it were Albel’s. The fact that he was amused by her words proved it. He chuckled as he finished up and held out his burnt arm for her to wrap. She grabbed the roll of linen that was nearby and started at his near skeletal hand. She took extra care to cover his palm and fit a band between each finger before she began the process of wrapping it around his wrist and up his arm.
“Alright…” he finally said after a while, “If you arrange it, I’ll get the prosthetic- on one condition. I want you to be the one to cut off my arm. I’m not about to trust just any Aquarian maggot for something like this.”
She wondered if he only agreed to it because he thought she would back down. But after thinking about it, she realized he would request something like that. She couldn’t blame him for having trust issues when it came to an amputation surgery. For all he knew, he could have made enemies out of some doctors during the war. Still, if that’s what it took, then she would do it. She may have not owed him anything, but she couldn’t deny the fact that she wanted to help him out at least once.
When she was done wrapping his arm, they fell back into a comfortable silence. Talking about getting a prosthetic distracted him enough to where he temporarily forgot what he wanted to tell her. It wasn’t enough to just show his arm. He needed to tell her how he got burned as well. It wasn’t easy for him to gather the words. His nightmares made sure that he remembered every detail of his past vividly- making it to where it felt like he lost everything just yesterday instead of nine years ago.
He examined the bandages on his limp arm and noted that she did a much better job than what he could attempt. The layers were straight and even, instead of the sloppy, but efficient mess he made every time. Though it wasn’t as if wrapping himself with one hand was easy. Still, the first part was over. She had seen his shame and didn’t turn away from him- she even wanted to help him instead of feel sorry for him. Perhaps she would understand him too. The only way to find out was to try.
Albel let in a deep breath before he held up his arm and replied, “I lost this arm when I failed the ceremony- the Ascension of Flame.”
Nel glanced at him from the corner of her eye before she pressed her lip together out of habit. There wasn’t much she could do or say so she decided to remain silent and just hear him out.
He turned his head to look at her before he wondered, “You don’t know much about the ceremony, do you?”
She shook her head. “All I know is that it’s some kind of ritual for a human and an air dragon to bond.”
“That’s right. The chance of success is actually low and those who fail are killed by the dragon’s fire. One has to be strong and confident to take the ceremony.”
She glanced up at him curiously. “Then how are you still alive? …Sorry, you don’t have to tell me.”
The reason she relented was because she caught the pained expression on his face.
He shook his head slowly as he tried to control his emotions. It hurt to remember and his guilt was heavy enough to crush him if he thought about it for too long. But he steeled himself to say his next words and ended up speaking in a subdued and emotionless tone. “It was because of my father. …He died in my place.”
That was all he could manage to get out. He feared that if he said anything more, he would end up screaming in rage or pain. But Nel didn’t need to hear anymore. His father sacrificed his life to save him- she understood that all too well. Maybe she didn’t get to see her father die right before her eyes, but she knew he ultimately died so that she would be safe. She couldn’t come close to understanding the depth of Albel’s guilt, but she knew what it was like to feel that empty pain.
Now that it was out, the words began building up to the point where he couldn’t hold them back anymore. His guilt caught up with him and his voice became a little harsher. “It was all my fault. If only I hadn’t been so weak and arrogant! I could’ve-”
He stopped when he felt her fingers on his lips. The move stunned him and doused some of the fire behind his self-loathing.
“Don’t go there,” she muttered in a dark tone, “The last thing I want to hear is self-pity from you. I know it hurts but asking ‘what if’ and mutter ‘if only’ just makes it worse. It accomplishes nothing and no matter how much you try, it never brings them back.”
“Think I don’t know that, woman?” he sneered in frustration when she moved her hand away. His good hand ran through his bangs in agitation, but he didn’t stay annoyed with her for long since he could sense that it was upsetting her as well. It was clear she was speaking from experience. Nel had to stand and hover over him in order to silence him. Now that she had accomplished that, she slid back down to settle on the ground between his legs. He used the minor distraction to calm himself.
“I know I can’t change the past…” he eventually muttered after a while, “But I want to get stronger so it won’t happen again- so that people won’t needlessly sacrifice themselves because of my incompetence.”
“Is that also why you push away those around you?” Nel inquired, earning a nod from him. “And you think I wouldn’t sacrifice myself for you?”
Albel’s eyes widened in surprise for a brief moment. She wouldn’t, would she? It went against her nature to allow herself to act rashly for one person if many lives were at stake. “Why would you? You know better that to waste your life on someone like me. My life wouldn’t save others.”
“…No,” she agreed as she glanced away from him, “But I wouldn’t abandon you either. You’re the least likely person to ever be a burden. If there were ever a scenario where you would have to risk your life, I would probably be there by your side and die with you. I am a death seeker, according to you.”
She added the last part in a bitter tone, but it still brought a slow smirk to his features. Dying with her didn’t sound so bad. In the end, what hurt Albel the most after his failed ceremony was the fact that he lost someone he loved and was forced to be alone. As long as Nel was alive and by his side, he could learn to cope with everything else.
He slid down from the rock and plopped down on the ground with her before he pulled her against him with his good arm. It felt good to talk to someone who really understood him …but he was just now realizing that it might prove to be a mistake later on. He had already resolved to kill her if he had to for the war, but the moment they just had made his resolve waver a little. He wasn’t sure if he could let her go that easily if she died before he did. However, he still felt it would be different if he were the one who had to slay her.
But just as those doubts surfaced, a new plan began to form in his mind. He wouldn’t have to worry about losing her if there was no war to worry about. If he could prevent the war from coming again, then he would ensure peace for Airyglyph and Aquaria and be able to live peacefully with his mate. The only question was how he was going to accomplish such a thing.
He decided that it could wait for now. There was no point planning for the future until he was certain there was going to be one. They still had to face the Marquis and get rid of the Vendeeni. For now, he just wanted the comfort of a warm body beside him. Somehow he felt a little lighter now that he had confided his secrets to her. The pain and guilt was still there, but it wasn’t as bad as before.
In all honesty, he didn’t anticipate Nel being able to help heal his old scars. He didn’t even drag her into his personal hell to do so. All he wanted was company and someone to share the pain with, but it seemed she intended to help him move on. But what surprised him most of all was the fact that he was willing to accept her help.
“So am I right to assume that your ceremony was the last one the Marquis ever attended?” she inquired, the side of her face pressed against his chest. The whole reason they were talking was so he could make sure he would be able to face the grand dragon tomorrow. There had to be some relation between the dragon and his past.
“Yeah…” he replied before he rested his head against hers, “I’m not even sure what happened at the time. I was badly injured from the dragon I was trying to impress and I was trapped under my father’s burned corpse, but I remember seeing Vox rush forward to slay the dragon.”
It was suddenly much easier to tell her the story, though he still needed to stop every now and then to control his emotions. The details were still so vivid in his mind and he didn’t want to admit the fear he felt back then, but he knew he didn’t have to worry about her judging him. It wasn’t as if she was immune to fear either.
“Everyone thought the worm was avenging my father, but I knew he had no love for him. I still don’t know what his motives were that day. The Marquis was furious when the dragon was slain and attacked everyone in the cave. …Somehow Woltar managed to pull me out of there and that’s how I survived. From that day on, the Marquis swore he would never help a human again.”
Vox again. Even after his death, Nel still heard his name. Come to think of it, the king had mentioned that Vox tried to subdue the Marquis before. Was that before the incident or after? Did it really matter at this point? Regardless of the situation or how the great dragon felt, they still needed his help. Nel was confident that with the off-worlders’ assistance, they would be able to handle the Marquis. Albel knew this too- his problem was that he was going to face one of his darker memories in the process.
“I see… I think I understand you a little better now,” Nel said before she pushed herself up to gaze into his eyes. “Do you think you’re ready to face him now?”
He held her stare, looking more tired than anything else before he shook his head and let some of his hair obscure his vision. “…I don’t know. I suppose I will find out when I see him again.”
It wasn’t as if he could run away. His pride wouldn’t let him and he still had to fight for the sake of his kingdom. Either way, Nel knew he would still fight regardless of his feelings. As long as he was feeling a little better, there was no point in dwelling on it more.
“We should head back to camp and get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow,” she suggested before she started moving away from him.
“I guess so…” he muttered halfheartedly as he reached for his claw to put it back on. She moved to assist him and ended up getting close enough to pick up a faint mutter of ‘thanks’ from him. It took her a while to realize that he was thanking her for listening to him.
When they returned to the camp, he sat closer than usual to her bedding and for once she didn’t mind if anyone noticed.
The next day, Nel heard more bits and pieces of what little Albel knew of the Marquis as they made their way back to the lava caves. Since the dragon was still considered a powerful beast, many Glyphians wanted to conquer him and have him as their mount. But one had to be very strong to impress the Marquis.
There had been rumors flying around from other warriors besides Vox who had taken on the dragon and miraculously survived. They say the Marquis spared them because they were so pathetically weak and the dragon had no interest in foolish creatures. Nel couldn’t help but think of Albel’s arrogance when she heard that. It seemed the Glyphian and the dragon was more alike than the Wicked One would admit to.
Still, in the years the Marquis had shunned humanity, he had grown an incredible ego along with his distain. That was also going to be a hurdle she would have to cross in convincing the dragon. She knew deep down they were going to have to fight him to get him to listen, but Fayt wanted to at least try to reason with the dragon. She promised that she would do her best to negotiate, even if she didn’t think it would work.
Nel noticed a significant change in Albel’s behavior after their talk. Or rather, she noticed that he was acting more like himself. It was actually a subtle change that only she could pick up. His daily arrogance had more confidence and it lacked the amount of biting insults towards everyone. When she really thought about it, Albel had been acting more and more serious the closer they came to the Marquis’ dwelling. Perhaps telling her his past was enough to help him come to terms with the looming encounter.
And- his lack of insults probably came from the fact that the Wicked One was finally starting to warm up to the others. It had nearly been a week since he started working with them and his opinions of everyone had changed. He respected Fayt and Maria and obtained a tolerance to Cliff and his antics. But the person he warmed up to the most (openly, since Nel preferred their relationship to be a secret) seemed to be Adray.
The elder Lasbard never once took offense to Albel’s insults and even jokingly helped him make up new ones. The fact that they were both raised by similar traditions most likely helped them get along as well. If the spy didn’t know any better, she could almost see Adray trying to ‘adopt’ Albel, too, and become a new father figure to him. But she didn’t think the Wicked One wanted a new ‘father’.
When they returned to Vanilla’s home, the bunny was delighted to see the glowstone and promised to get to work immediately. He said it would take about an hour or more. With that in mind, Fayt decided that it wouldn’t hurt to take a rest while they waited. They knew where the entrance was and once they had the ring in their possession, they intended to face the Marquis immediately.
Adray immediately knew how to pass the time. He pulled out a bottle of cider and claimed that everyone should have a drink before the final battle. “There’s nothing like having a warm buzz in your veins when facing a tough opponent- but don’t drink too much. You’ll be useless if manage to get drunk! Have some Master Fayt! It’ll put hair on your chest!”
“Uh…” The boy stared curiously at the mug as it was pushed to him. He never had anything with alcohol in it before…even though it was only a small amount. He curiously took a sip and decided that it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t long before Cliff and Albel had their own mugs before Adray glanced at the girls.
“What about you, Nel? I know you can knock a few back like the best of them,” he said with a grin as he swirled the contents in the bottle. She glared at him for his comment and crossed her arms. It was true that she could handle her liquor, but that didn’t mean she was a drunkard. He didn’t mean to, but that was what he was implying.
“I don’t drink during missions,” she insisted firmly before she faced Maria for second, “Besides, Maria and I are going to try out the hot spring.”
“That’s right. No peeking Adray,” the blue haired girl confirmed before she added as an afterthought, “The same goes for you Albel.”
She didn’t need to warn Cliff since the Klausian had no interest in seeing his ‘adopted daughter’ in the nude and he knew Nel would kill him if caught. Fayt was also excluded because of his preferences. In fact, the girls were considering inviting him since he was trustworthy, but they decided that it would put him on the spot with the other men. All because he was gay didn’t mean he would keep silent to the curious men as to what he saw.
Nel was a little upset that she wouldn’t get to fully enjoy the hot spring since she was bleeding, but at least she could dip her feet in the steaming waters. Adray waited until the girls disappeared from behind the curtain before a gleam came to his eye.
“Now that they’re gone, let’s get down to business. We can freely talk about other pretty women without their death glares.” He chuckled before Cliff picked up a similar sly look.
“Sounds like an idea, but we should keep it down. I hear Nelly’s on her rag and she’ll murder us if she finds out,” the Klausian added with a smirk, earning another chuckle from the aged runologist and a smirk from Albel.
“…I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Fayt protested some as he shook his head worriedly. “It’s not exactly…an appropriate time for this, don’t you think?”
The boy was hoping to change Adray’s mind without making it obvious that the subject of admiring women made him uncomfortable, but the old man was determined.
“Nonsense! It’s only inappropriate in the company of women. Come now, Master Fayt, don’t you have any stories to share? You seem like the gentleman type- one that would start slowly and make sure she’s satisfied first. Women love that!” He chortled some while trying to be careful not to get too loud. Fayt’s cheeks flushed badly as he tried to find some way to excuse himself. Oh how he wished he were talking with Nel and Maria instead…
“Please!” Cliff scoffed, coming to the boy’s rescue. He decided not to make his sexuality known to the runologist and tried to turn the conversation over to himself, “This kid’s too wet behind the ears to have anything good to hear! But I have had quite a few misadventures in my day, if you know what I mean.”
“Do go on!” Adray urged, sounding genuinely interested. Albel already knew what the old man was trying to pull. He was testing the worms to see if they could be worthy enough for his own daughter. He wanted an heir to the family line and he wanted to make sure the Clair-worm ended up with a good husband. The old man was out of luck. One was gay, the other was an idiot, and Adray knew he couldn’t ask Albel because it was important to keep the two clans separate. Considering both clans were small in number, it was far more important to attempt to expand and multiply so the ancient customs wouldn’t die with them.
Cliff had his fun retelling a story that involved two women from his younger days. When the Klausian went into explicit detail over his encounter, Fayt’s face grew pale and he appeared ready to pass out from embarrassment and disgust. Albel rolled his eyes at the end of the tale. He didn’t particularly care about other women- his woman had better tricks up her sleeve than the ones the blonde obviously made up. Then again, the Wicked One was beginning to doubt there were two present.
“Hey, what was that for, hotshot?” Cliff wondered when he caught the eye roll. “I bet you never bothered to have any fun with the way you always sneer about ‘weak people’.”
Adray guffawed before he slapped Albel on the shoulder (hard enough to nearly make him spill what was left of his drink). “I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Nel told me that he has a wife.”
The runologist then winked at the dark warrior. “She said she saw a woman with the bridal rune and I knew she had to be yours since you’re the last of the family line who can make the mark.”
His comment went over the others’ heads, while Albel pondered his words. “Is that so? I wonder why she would say it like that?”
He knew she didn’t want the off-world maggots to know about it, but was she also trying to keep it a secret from a fellow clan member, too?
“Wait a minute…” Cliff interrupted, more concerned about the other piece of information, “You sayin’ Albel is actually married?”
“It’s through an ancient custom started by our common ancestor, but yes, upon leaving a mark on a mate, that does mean he is wedded,” Adray answered in the Wicked One’s place. Cliff didn’t particularly care about how people on Elicoor II got married- he was just stunned that Albel of all people had a wife.
Fayt stared at the dark warrior for a long time with a slight frown. If he was truly married, then why did he threaten him to stay away from Nel in Peterny? He acted as if he was in love with her and wanted to make sure no one tried to flirt with her. How could he have a relationship with Nel and yet be married to another? That didn’t make sense to the boy.
“Well I’ll be,” the Klausian muttered after a while, “I didn’t think you’d be the type to settle down. Guess I had ya figured wrong.”
Albel only shrugged before he finished off the rest of his drink. “It’s a duty to my country and to my family line to marry and have heirs.”
“Well said!” Adray cheered proudly before he leaned closer to the dark warrior and grinned. “Nel didn’t say much about her. Who is she? Is she beautiful? She better be worthy of the family line.”
“Rest assured, she is worthy- and she isn’t that bad in bed either,” Albel replied with a smirk, feeling the need to upstage the Klausian some. His response earned a laugh from the muscled men while Fayt’s glare worsened. Wasn’t infidelity wrong in their culture? Nel told him about her religion, and while Albel didn’t believe in her gods, Fayt thought both kingdoms observed the customs. Plus, he didn’t think Nel would willingly betray her beliefs since she was obviously aware of this ‘wife’ of his.
“What about Nel?” the boy found himself blurting out before he could stop. Never mind about the morality of it- how was this not hurting the spy? …Of course, the boy didn’t really know if Nel had feelings for him. He only knew about Albel’s feelings for her. Still, Fayt was close to Nel- almost like he was to Sophia and he didn’t want to see her get hurt emotionally.
“What about her?” the Wicked One inquired casually with a shrug, sounding as if he didn’t care about her.
“Oh yeah… Poor Nel. For a while I thought the two of you were secretly together or something,” Cliff muttered with a sympathetic look.
Adray was confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, they’re always going off alone- ‘specially at night. And you guys always seemed to be on such friendly terms with each other,” the Klausian listed as he glanced over at Albel apologetically. It wasn’t often that his hunches were wrong and he did feel a little bad about accusing them now that he knew the truth. But he was also starting to suspect that they could be having an affair-which was of a more serious nature that he couldn’t joke about.
“There’s nothing wrong with two warriors speaking alone,” the aged runologist argued before he gestured to the dark warrior, “Once you have a wife, you can’t stray.”
…But Cliff and Fayt weren’t sold on that. They came from cultures where cheating on spouses were fairly common.
“What?” Albel taunted with a grin before he briefly glanced at Fayt, “Are you insinuating that I’m unfaithful to my wife? Unlike you worms, I am loyal to my obligations.”
Albel studied Fayt with interest. Since the boy knew about his feelings for the spy, he knew the ‘wife’ thing would throw him off. As dense as the boy was, the Wicked One was curious to see if he could figure out that it was Nel he was married to. But he didn’t particularly care if Fayt never figured it out. It wasn’t his business and there was nothing he could do about if he did think he was being unfaithful to Nel.
“Who is this wife of yours? How come we never met her before?” the boy wondered with suspicion.
Albel grin grew wider. “I can’t tell you that- it would put her in danger. I am Albel the Wicked, you know. But you have met her several times.”
“Hmm…” Cliff pondered and thought about all of the women he had seen in Airyglyph and Kirlsa. “She wouldn’t happen to be that hot waitress in the Kirlsa bar, would she?”
“Don’t insult me, maggot,” he replied with a glare. The last thing Albel would ever do was get friendly with women who worked in taverns. They weren’t the kind men would want a permanent relationship with.
“Most women we have met were Aquarian. Are you saying she’s an Aquarian?” the blue haired boy wondered as it suddenly started to make sense.
Nel would know if her subordinates were married to a Glyphian and perhaps Albel wasn’t cheating on her. Fayt remembered that the talk they had in Peterny was rather vague. Albel’s feelings for the spy could be platonic ones and he was only being protective of her because he knew Nel through his wife and was a good friend of hers. At least that was what Fayt wanted to believe. The boy knew Albel was an honorable man and him doing something so despicable didn’t fit with what he did know about the warrior.
“Perhaps. It’s not really any of your business,” he taunted, choosing not to mention anything more. It was one thing to admit to having a wife and teasing the maggots, but he wasn’t about to put Nel on the spot until she was ready to let their relationship be publicly known.
Suddenly Adray lost his good cheer over and his brows furrowed together. Even though Albel wouldn’t answer outright, the runologist felt that was the case. As a proud Aquarian, he supported his county and fought against the Glyphians zealously. The only reason he was on good terms with the Wicked One was because of the shared ancestors and traditions. All other Glyphians were nothing more than spineless cowards to him. The thought of an Aquarian and a Glyphian together didn’t bode well to the old man- not unless he could be sure that Airyglyph would never attack his kingdom again. Adray didn’t like the idea of an Aquarian being forced to change her loyalty to her kingdom because of marriage.
But for once, the aged runologist didn’t say anything. He decided to let it go…for now. He needed to speak with Albel in private and make sure he didn’t force someone to marry him against her will. Adray didn’t like traitors to the kingdom, so he wanted to believe that it wasn’t consensual. But at the same time, he couldn’t automatically believe that Albel was that ruthless until he knew the whole story. If the maiden was forced, it was Adray’s duty to set her free by destroying Albel- but at the same time, he would also be eliminating the last descendant of Edyglyph.
Adray knew this wouldn’t be an easy decision to make. Before he didn’t have to separate his loyalty to his family from his loyalty to his kingdom, but he also didn’t have to deal with his Glyphian cousins before. When dealing with Albel, he was going to have to choose which was more important and he was nowhere near ready to make such a choice.
“Sure, you say it’s ‘none of our business’, but you were the one who wanted to brag about your sex life,” Cliff muttered with a smug grin as he sat back in his seat.
“I did not brag, maggot,” the warrior retorted coolly, “I was merely pointing out my experience. Unlike Leingod, I would know your story was grossly exaggerated.”
“Grossly exager- Hey!” The Klausian yelled, feeling slightly insulted. “That was a true story, I’ll have you know! Where I’m from, beautiful women love to-”
“And what are you guys discussing?” Maria asked tersely as she and Nel returned. Both women had their arms crossed and glared at the Klausian.
The blonde scratched his head as he tried to make up some cover story, but then opted to shift blame elsewhere, “Hey, don’t look at me. Adray was the one who started this conversation.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Nel muttered as she pinched the bridge of her nose. She also cast a glare to the Wicked One, but he was too busy lamenting over the fact that his mug was empty.
The spy had her suspicions what the men were talking about while she was away and she felt somewhat bad for leaving Fayt behind with them. She wondered if the Wicked One was participating in the conversation, but decided that she was better off not knowing. For all she knew, the talking was strictly between the aged runologist and the Klausian while Albel just sat there and gathered up new dirty fantasies to try on her.
The fact that Cliff wasn’t taunting her about Albel or even making hints of his suspicions was proof to her that Albel had kept his mouth shut. Though she would find out later on what did happen and silently praise Albel for throwing the Klausian off in his annoying ‘detective’ work.
But little did the spy or the warrior knew was that Adray also picked up enough information from that conversation and it as going to sit in his mind for quite some time before it was going to come back to haunt them both…
After a bit more arguing between Maria and Cliff, Vanilla finally returned with a completed Ring of Disintegration. Fayt thanked the bunny before he ordered everyone to gather their things and be ready to move out. Now that they had the means of entering the Marquis’ lair, they couldn’t afford to waste more time.
“Let’s go,” the boy commanded in a decisive tone, sounding more like a leader than he had been since the mission first began.