Nel awoke to Albel tending his arm. Even with the prosthetic, he had to take care of it to make sure it didn’t rust or get other surface problems. All he needed to do was oil the outer casing like he would with a blade. As for the inner core, it needed to be maintained once a month to make sure it continued to work as it should.
The spy stretched before she got out of bed and started to put on her clothes. Usually she didn’t like waking up to a quiet setting, but she was rather content with it this time. There wasn’t really anything that needed to be said and she didn’t feel alone.
When she was done dressing, he was pulling on his claw and securing the straps around his neck. He stared back at her for a second before he uttered the first words.
“Are you ready to face this new world?”
She still didn’t want to dwell on it, but she considered her answer before replying. She had no clue what they would find or what the correlation was between the Creator and her god, but she vowed to protect Fayt, Maria, and Sophia. It was better to focus on that over everything else.
“More or less,” she responded with a nod. “Even if I wasn’t- it’s not like I could stay here.”
“But would you get in the way? Don’t forget- we could be killing the god that created us,” he reminded her, making sure she truly was prepared to face the worst.
“Hmph, that’s a first- are you finally admitting that there is a god?” she queried with a dry laugh.
“I’ll believe what I see with my own eyes. Either way, I won’t let some being, god or otherwise, destroy me without a fight,” he said as he grabbed his katana and secured it to his belt.
“I won’t get in the way. I’ll focus on protecting Fayt and the others with my life and if I can keep up with fighting 4D beings, I’ll do everything I can to help. I didn’t come along just to sit back and watch everyone else do all of the work,” she said, answering his prior question. Suddenly his good hand cupped her cheek and made her look up at him.
“You’ve improved greatly since we’ve left that boring world of ours. I have no doubt you’ll handle yourself- just don’t get yourself killed,” he told her with a serious expression.
Had she improved? She hadn’t really noticed since she was too busy trying to keep up and stay alive. But she was still touched that he believed she was still useful. A small smile graced her features before she responded, “Same to you.”
It was almost eerie how they developed such a strong understanding between each other. They still had some cultural clashes every now and then, but when it came to achieving goals or planning a course of action, they were on the same wavelength. Out here, there wasn’t anyone Nel could trust more in battle (except Clair, but she wasn’t with them). It was hard to believe that they were once enemies and that he was responsible for the deaths of many of her friends.
It was so easy to forget about Elicoor and the kingdoms while out in space. Someday she would have to return home, but would she still be able to proudly say Albel was a close friend and comrade? She knew Clair, Adray, and the queen might accept that, but Lasselle and many other war-weary Aquarians might not. Only so few would be able to forgive Airyglyph for Vox and Arzei’s crime and Albel wasn’t exactly the nicest person around to convince the people that most Glyphians were not evil.
Suddenly, the commodore’s voice sounded from above and both warriors craned their heads up to listen.
“We’ve arrived in the sector surrounding Styx, but there’s a problem. Report to the bridge, please.”
Nel nodded to Albel as a signal that she was ready. He let his hand drop before he turned on his heel and headed out the door. She followed after him once she finished gathering all her things.
When she made it to the bridge, she heard announcements that they were approaching the planet and that the Executioners detected their presence. The commodore sighed over the news before he turned to Fayt.
“I am sorry, but it seems we will not be able to transport you down to the surface,” he said in a grim tone.
“You want us to give up?” Maria inquired in an almost shrill tone. Nel walked past Albel and stood beside Sophia as she waited to hear Wittcomb’s reply.
“Please, I’ve said nothing of the sort. You’ll go to Styx by shuttle before the Aquaelie enters orbit.”
Nel could tell by the way the man was standing and how he chose his words that he was planning to sacrifice himself. He wanted to spare that information from the boy, but Fayt had to ask.
“…We will use the Aquaelie to lure the Executioners away from you,” he explained, his voice very calm despite what should’ve been a difficult thing to say. It wasn’t just the commodore who would be sacrificing himself- his entire crew would go with him. For Nel, it was easy to take on a job by herself and keep others away. But she couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for taking several lives with her.
“You can’t! That’d be suicide!” Fayt cried, clearly against the thought- just like how he was against Tynave and Farleen’s sacrifice when she first met him.
“Unfortunately, there is no other way. I apologize we are unable to take you all the way. But don’t worry. We won’t sit here helplessly, waiting for our destruction,” Wittcomb said before he put on a determined, battle ready face. “They shall face the greatest power the Federation has.”
“But-” the boy protested as he tried to find the words to disagree. Before Nel could stop herself, she moved forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. Fayt quickly turned to look at her and his eyes saddened to see her nod her head in agreement with the commodore’s words.
There truly was no other way- Fayt, Maria, and Sophia were vital to the mission and they must arrive on Styx safely, no matter the cost. The spy knew that very well and would’ve gladly taken the commodore’s position if the situation were different. She knew it wasn’t an easy choice to make and she knew the boy was going to feel guilty that lives were sacrificed for him. But he was important- the universe’s hope for survival.
“The old man’s right. There’s no other way,” Cliff said as he shook his head.
“I’m afraid so…” Maria agreed sadly.
Nel let go of Fayt’s shoulder when he glanced down at the floor. There was a long moment of silence as everyone reflected on what must be done. It was over when Fayt raised his head, his eyes taking on a determined look. Wittcomb bowed to them before the boy bowed back. When the party turned to leave the bridge, Albel was the first to go.
Nel remained in place as the others passed her. She stared at the brave soldier before her with respect and empathy. Truly, this man was a hero and she would never forget his sacrifice. For Wittcomb, she bowed deeply to honor him and his courage. He deserved no less than utter admiration. In a way, he briefly reminded her of her father.
When she straitened up, her eyes locked on his and they shared a silent bond of comradeship. The quiet words of ‘be careful’ and ‘thank you for everything’ were passed between them before the spy finally turned and headed out to catch up with the others.
Before the doors hissed shut, Nel caught Wittcomb’s final words. “I’m counting on you. You must survive…”
It was almost enough to make her tear up, but she easily held in her emotions. The commodore was placing a lot of trust in them, even though there was no real guarantee of success. They had no clue what was in 4D space, let alone if they could even get there. There was a very likely chance that the crew of the Aquaelie would die for nothing. But then, if nothing were done, they would end up dying anyway by the will of the Creator.
This time the transporter took them to the hangar where a few shuttles were docked. Maria chose the one named ‘Calnus’ and gestured for everyone to get on board. Nel lingered behind everyone as she heard Wittcomb make an announcement with the communication system.
“Attention all crew members: The fate of the galaxy rests on the impending battle…”
The spy found that the voice even carried on inside the shuttle as she headed in and picked a seat in the back with Albel. Maria and Cliff started the warm up procedures as the commodore continued.
“…Let us prove here and now that the Aquaelie’s crew is the best in the Federation!”
Fayt shook his head in despair as his hand slammed down on his armrest while Sophia tried to wipe a few tears that threatened to fall from her eyes. Peppita seemed distracted with her thoughts as usual, but her features weren’t as cheerful as they normally were. Cliff and Maria continued to stoically work on the task at hand while trying not to think about it. Even Albel made a face at the situation. Nel caught the look of guilt in his eyes before he closed them and tried to appear disgusted and angry. He didn’t like sacrifices, but he knew when they had to be made.
“…This Creator has sentenced us all to annihilation. Let us all stand together against him, and live!”
This left a bad taste in the spy’s mouth. She understood what Wittcomb was doing and knew what he was probably feeling deep down, but Nel was used to being the one to face the danger alone. It was different being the one protected- true she still had a job to do that was equally as dangerous, but she couldn’t stand knowing that all these proud men and women would be rushing to their deaths. Unlike with Tynave and Farleen, she couldn’t go back and save them- and she wasn’t even sure if her actions with Fayt and the others would prevent more deaths.
Was this how Clair felt every time Nel went on a mission with little chance in success? It was true that she always came home, but that didn’t mean it would always be accurate. It would be a miracle if the Aquaelie managed to survive this.
No wonder why Clair worried so much about her- this feeling of powerlessness was nauseating and she felt like she could cry. Just waiting for news of the spy’s death or success must’ve been maddening. And- now that she thought about it, Clair didn’t know where she was now. She did kind of disappear from her planet without telling anyone where she was going. Maybe she was starting to suspect that Nel finally met her end by now.
But what could she do about it? There was no way to contact Clair or anyone from Elicoor and even knowing how much this hurt couldn’t stop the spy from volunteering herself on these missions. …She just wished there was some way she could apologize to her friend for all the grief she put her through.
When the warm up procedure was done, the shuttle began to rise up and prepare to be launched. The doors slowly opened to reveal what appeared to be a calm, starry sky, but they knew the enemy was lurking somewhere in the darkness.
“Onward, my faithful comrades!”
Once they were launched out, they lagged behind the Aquaelie so that the Executioners would pay attention to it. Everyone save for Cliff and Maria stood up and watched the battle unfold. When it seemed the enemy was completely focused, the shuttle edged closer to the planet, unnoticed. At least the Aquaelie took out almost all of the ‘gods’, but one got away.
Unfortunately, the survivor was more than enough to take down the great battleship. The party could only watch in horror as red symbols surrounded the Aquaelie and made it disappear- much like how Fayt’s power eliminated the Vendeeni ship.
“…I’m no longer picking up the Aquaelie,” Maria announced sorrowfully, confirming what they had seen.
It was very hard to watch such brave soldiers fight to their deaths. Nel prayed that they would be successful in their mission so that their sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain. Only Fayt, Sophia, and Peppita appeared depressed over the loss, while those who were more battle hardened held in their emotions.
“We’ve got a job to do before we mourn anyone!” Cliff reminded them before he started typing on the console in front of him and set out the coordinates so they could land.
Styx was a desolate place with low visibility from dust in the air. It didn’t appear to be a place that could sustain life, and yet the atmosphere was breathable and comfortable enough for them to walk on the surface. Nel was reminded of tales of the underworld and she thought this place certainly fit the description. In fact, Fayt once mentioned that ‘Styx’ was the name of a river from an old myth in his culture and that it took souls of the dead to the underworld.
Was that what they were doing? Following this trail to a portal to the ‘underworld’? If 4D space was the land of the gods, then maybe the dead were there too. …But did that mean Nel could see her father there? She decided to abandon that thought just as it came. There was no telling what would happen until they arrived there- and she didn’t want to get her hopes up.
Out in the distance, even though it was hard to see, there was movement, proving that they weren’t the only living things on the planet. It soon became obvious that the masses out there were actually several Executioners.
“They’re everywhere, as I expected. Everyone ready?” Maria asked as she glanced back at everyone.
“Let’s hurry to the Time Gate!” Fayt urged, forcing some good cheer and determination so he could move on.
“Yeah!” Sophia shouted, mimicking his attitude.
“Let’s go!” Maria assented.
“Leave it to me!” Cliff called out as he slammed his fist in his hand.
“Right behind ya!” Peppita chirped.
Maybe it was contagious, or perhaps Nel was trying to cope like she always did when it came to losing comrades, but she found herself joining in with the same mood. “I’m with ya!”
“Hmph, don’t fall behind,” Albel added with a glance towards Sophia. The girl’s eyes drifted to the ground as she appeared apologetic for already getting in the way. The Wicked One was only warning her to be careful, but she mistook his words as a scolding. Nel was torn from comforting the girl or berating Albel for his choice of words, but the brunette quickly sprang back to her resolved outlook and followed after Fayt.
Nel sighed as she decided to let it go. It wasn’t as if he was trying to make the girl feel bad and it was out of the question to try to force him to act differently to others- it was just who Albel was. At least Sophia seemed to be okay.
At first, Nel had a difficult time with the Executioners, but soon she began adapting to their patterns and learning their weaknesses. It was possible to defeat them- and thankfully Fayt and Maria’s power seemed to have made it to where she could adjust. There was something about them that helped them become stronger- she was sure of it.
It seemed the closer they got to the Time Gate, the less monsters there were in the area. The spy thought that was odd considering it was supposed to be a portal to their master’s lair. Shouldn’t they be protecting it more? Or perhaps they didn’t think there was any reason to. The idea of entering this new world sounded complicated and unheard of.
The Time Gate itself wasn’t as impressive as the other marvels Nel had seen on her travels, but there was an air of mystery about it. Somehow, it reminded her of the Sacred Orb- simple in design, yet known to wield great power. Everyone stared up at the device before they glanced at Sophia. The brunette shrank back, intimidated by the stares.
“Sophia, Dr. Leingod said you have the gene of Connection. You should be able to create a path to 4D space from here,” Maria told her, helping her to understand what they were waiting for.
“Yeah, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do…” she muttered in embarrassment as she nervously hugged herself.
“Well, that’s understandable,” Cliff replied in a reassuring tone, but it didn’t help ease the girl’s discomfort.
“Don’t say that. There’s nothing to apologize for,” Fayt said as he patted her shoulder.
“But I’m letting you all down,” she responded in a broken tone. She seemed to be on the verge of crying and she didn’t look like she was feeling well. Nel couldn’t help but feel bad for her- she clearly wanted to help, but had no clue how. A lot was riding on the ability she didn’t know she had and the poor thing had no confidence in her self.
For once, Maria was sympathetic towards the girl and didn’t push her. She knew there was no point in scolding her for something that was beyond her. Maria knew very well that their powers were hard to control.
“Well, we won’t get anything accomplished just standing around here; let’s check out the gate,” Fayt suggested, hoping to pull attention away from the brunette so she could calm herself.
“Good idea,” the blue haired girl agreed before she and Cliff started to approach the Time Gate.
Nel stayed put, preferring to remain next to Albel. She had no clue what to do at this point but stand guard with him. The soft ringing of bells soon alerted her that Peppita joined her. The spy wasn’t sure why she chose to be near them, but she sickly suspected that they were congregating together simply because they shared the same lack of understanding for the situation.
“Hmph, birds of a feather, I suppose,” the spy mused in her mind.
Sophia meekly complained of random pains as the others examined the device. She felt bad for pointing anything out, but Fayt was being very attentive to her like a good brother figure and insisted that she wasn’t getting in the way. Nel noticed that the girl seemed to be getting worse and was about to volunteer a healing spell to help her feel better, but a rumble sounded and the Time Gate began to move.
“This is how it normally operates,” Maria informed everyone to calm them down. A blue transparent screen began to form in the middle of the two hollow squares before several images appeared within it. They seemed to be random pictures of planets, people, and events.
Nel found herself walking closer to get a better look. It took her a moment to realize that she wasn’t the only one- Albel wanted to investigate, too, but Peppita seemed to be following her. She almost felt like she was hiding behind her. The spy paused in her steps to glance back at the circus girl, only to discover she was clinging to the end of her scarf.
Peppita didn’t seem to be doing it out of fear- it was more like she was doing it out of habit. Or perhaps it was her way of refraining from wandering around. The girl gave her a sheepish smile before she let go and ran ahead of her. Nel shook her head and smirked behind her scarf when the circus girl carefully grabbed the end of one of Albel’s hair wraps and stayed close to him. She made sure not to tug so he wouldn’t notice.
Suddenly, Sophia let out a startled cry as she held out her hand. “It’s hot… What’s happening? …I don’t understand!”
“She’s manifesting,” Maria stated in wonder as symbols circled around the girl’s hand and arm.
Everyone could only watch as the circles around her arms began spinning faster and glowing brighter. Soon a beam of light shot out from the palm of her hand and headed to the Time Gate. Sophia then fell backwards before the strange spell slowed and ended.
“You okay?” Fayt asked frantically as he rushed over to help her up.
“I think so,” she replied.
“Whoa!” Cliff called out when the Time Gate flashed. The light soon gathered in one place, obscuring the images in the lower portion of the screen, before it revealed a strange building within.
“What the…” Albel muttered beside the spy, shocked at what he was seeing.
“What the hell is that?” the Klausian nearly shouted as he took a step closer.
Nel could only stare at the opening in awe. It appeared to be a doorway, but at the same time, it looked like yet another image on the screen. The setting within was so bright and clear that she was convinced that it could truly be the land of the gods. “Amazing…”
That’s…that’s 4D space,” Maria said, sounding a little uncertain.
“It might be,” Fayt assented before Sophia confirmed with a confident, “It is.”
Cliff raised an eyebrow before he glanced at the three teenagers. “How do you know?”
They suddenly began to act rather strangely as they tried to describe why they felt that it was the place they were searching for. It was like they were in a trance and Nel had to wonder if it was a side effect from their powers. It was a little unnerving to see them act like that and she was somewhat relieved to see that the others thought so, too. Peppita tilted her head and frowned a little while Albel mimicked Cliff with a similar eyebrow raise.
The Klausian appeared like he regretted asking them before he shrugged and commented, “If you all feel that way, it must be.”
That seemed to snap them out of it, but they didn’t appear as if they were aware of their odd behavior.
“Say, can we even exist in 4D space?” Fayt wondered before anyone could decide to head in.
Nel didn’t really understand the difference between ‘dimension’ or ‘world’. She knew there were places like the Daemonium that where not accessible through normal means (‘normal’ being space travel), but it was possible to ‘exist’ there. After all, how would anyone know about it if they couldn’t go there? But what would it mean if they couldn’t exist in 4D space? Would they not be able to pass over? Or would they be destroyed upon trying?
“Hey… There’s no use thinking about it! Let’s just dive right in!” Peppita shouted, speaking for the first time in a long while. For once, Nel completely agreed with her. They couldn’t turn back at this point- there was nowhere they could go while in the middle of enemy territory and they would most likely die if they gave up.
“Well, there you have it. Decisiveness is a virtue,” Cliff said, also in favor with the circus girl.
“You’re right…” Fayt muttered before he raised his chin high and faced the new path. “Let’s go, everybody. Let’s find and defeat the Creator!”
All at once, they ran towards the Time Gate and into the portal. Nel couldn’t really describe the sensation of passing through, but it did feel like there was some kind of resistance and she had to push to go forward. When she crossed the barrier, everything became lighter and she felt like she was gradually speeding up.
She had her daggers ready and was in a battle stance the moment her feet touched the ground. But the party was stunned when a woman shrieked and several rather average looking people started to approach. They started talking amongst themselves, but they didn’t appear to be any threat.
They soon lowered their weapons when they realized that they were in the middle of what appeared to be a town. There were no Executioners, god-like beings, or even heavily armed guards.
“Wow, we made it here safely. What a relief!” Sophia commented cheerfully as everyone put away their weapons. Nel didn’t feel the same way. While she was glad to still be alive, she was still concerned about where she was and what was going on.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Cliff suddenly said, seeming to pick up the spy’s inner worry. “Isn’t the enemy’s home base supposed to be a little more…intense, usually?”
“You can say that again. What is this place?” she inquired in response. When she heard ‘Creator’ or thought about the possible ‘land of the gods’, she wasn’t imagining a simple town- or rather, not a ‘habitation’ (since the place was clearly too advanced to be tied to the word ‘simple’). The people who gathered around them appeared to be normal humans to her. They didn’t have any unusual markings or anything to indicate otherwise. They were most certainly not ‘gods’ nor did any of them remotely resemble the physique of Apris.
“But… This is definitely 4D space. No mistake there,” the brunette girl insisted in that same eerie, soft voice she used from before. The spy had to wonder how she was so sure. Everything looked over-the-top extraordinary to her (which was a typical sight for her since leaving her planet). For all they knew, they could’ve been transported to another world in their galaxy. Of course, Nel was unused to technology in general to be able to discern the difference in advancement.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Fayt muttered in frustration.
“Hey, did I hear you say ‘Executioner’?” a voice asked in reference to the blue haired boy’s inquiry after he realized there was no danger around them.
Everyone glanced down at the child that approached them. He was dressed in a similar manner to everyone else in the town and his hair was in an odd shade of green. There was curiosity and excitement in his eyes, and Nel knew from experience that that was a bad thing when it came to dealing with children.
“Who are you?” Maria inquired after Fayt numbly confirmed his words to the boy.
“Flad Garrand,” he simply replied, acting as if it was an obvious answer.
“That’s not exactly what we meant, kid,” Cliff said as he shook his head.
Flad seemed to be a rather observant boy as he was quickly able to pick up the vibes of distrust from the others. His features became a little more concerned as he tried to reassure everyone, “Hey, don’t worry. I’m not one of the bad guys.”
Ordinarily, when someone had to insist that right off the bat, they were most likely lying. Nel couldn’t stop herself from casting a suspicious glare at him. She knew very well appearances could be deceiving- all because he looked cute and innocent, didn’t mean that he was. He could easily be a decoy or a spy sent by the Creator.
“Hmph. You want us to trust you?” Albel said dismissively beside her, also not buying the kid’s admission.
He appeared a little hurt to hear that, but he quickly shook it off and made a ‘come here’ gesture. “Come to my house. I think you may find out what you want to know there.”
‘Think’? Nel wasn’t so sure she liked that uncertain word. It seemed this Flad was interested in them to the point where he would do anything to keep them around for as long as possible. Going to his home could very well be a trap- or maybe he really was trying to help. It wasn’t an easy call.
Everyone glanced at each other as they tried to decide if following him was a good idea. Cliff eventually shrugged and commented, “Well, he doesn’t look particularly dangerous.”
…All because he didn’t look the part didn’t mean he wasn’t. He could have minions waiting in the shadows for them. The spy didn’t like how paranoid she was getting over this, but she felt it was better to be prepared for the worst. No matter how ‘safe’ this place looked, it was not a good idea to lower her guard.
“We might learn something if we go,” Maria reasoned as Sophia nodded behind her.
Fayt thought it through before he agreed. “Right… Okay, let’s go. It seems like he knows something about the Executioners, and we’ve nothing to gain from staying here.”
…That was a valid point- they had nowhere to go or any idea what to do. Nel risked a glance behind her and found that the portal they went through was gone, meaning they couldn’t turn back either unless Sophia could make another one.
“It’s decided, then,” Maria announced before she turned back to Flad. The boy looked happy that they were coming and the spy couldn’t see anything to indicate deception. He seemed to be genuinely excited.
“Hurry up, or else Security will come!” he warned as he turned on his heel and started to run. “Come on!”
Security? So there were some kind of guards around here. Could they be minions of the Creator? Or did they happen to be the good guys? Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out: by trusting in Flad. She hoped this isn’t a trap.