Like usual, they split up to explore and promised to meet at the gates at a certain time. Fayt wandered over to where Astor lived while Maria, Sophia, and Peppita went off to the stores in Kirlsa to stock up on healing items. Cliff went to the tavern and Albel headed over to Woltar’s manor to see how he was fairing.
Nel intended to search for the nearest contact, but she hadn’t expected to run into Kimmel of all people. He was quite different without his armor on, appearing much thinner. Even though he was more brain than brawn, she could see that under his civilian wear that he was in good physical health. That was probably due to moving around in heavy armor all of the time. Of course, Nel also heard that Albel vigorously trained his soldiers for war, so he most likely exercised a lot as well.
“L-Lady Nel?” he called out with wide eyes. He seemed so shocked to see her that he took a few steps back. When he recovered, he adjusted his glasses on his nose and gave her a stern glare. “Where have you been all this time?”
She was taken aback by his attitude. Why was it his concern where she had been? But, as she thought about it, she suddenly vanished from Elicoor without a word to anyone. She wasn’t sure why a Glyphian would care about her whereabouts, but it was certain that Aquarians were worried.
“To the stars with Fayt and others. Albel went with me,” the spy replied as she pointed up at the sky. She knew he was aware of the celestial ships and where they came from better than the commoners, so she knew he would believe her.
Kimmel paused and considered her words as he rubbed his beard. His features took on a calculating appearance. “I see… that would explain it. When you and Lord Albel set off for the Training Facility and never returned, many feared the worst. I and several other strategists searched every corner of the area for evidence of how you disappeared.”
The strategist went into great detail about how he found traces of a fight and what seemed to be day old blood splattered on the roof of the facility. But he couldn’t see any indication that anyone left the building- the tracks he found only went as far as the kitchens and back. He even joined forces with Aquarian and Sanmite agents to determine that she and Albel hadn’t left the continent either.
“…At the very least, we had proven against the rumor that you and Lord Albel fled to Greeton to elope,” he finished before Nel slowly shook her head. It seemed that when everything was over, she needed to perform a search and silence operation against those who had started that asinine rumor.
True, Nel had gotten to know Albel well enough to like the idea of being his life partner, but she would never agree to elope with him. Doing so would imply that she would also be willing to leave behind Aquaria and everything she had ever fought for. If they were going to be together, then they were going to have to make others see that their union would be for the good of both kingdoms.
“Honestly, who would believe we would run away to be together?” she wondered to herself in disgust as she rested her hands on her flanks. Kimmel quirked an eyebrow at that.
“Most of your troops, actually, but… are you implying that you are in a relationship with Lord Albel?”
Okay, Nel had to admit that she fell into that one. She had gotten so used to the freedom of being out in space that she had forgotten to be careful about her relationship status. After all this time, it seemed petty to deny anything, but at the same time, she had to consider the still budding peace treaty.
She shifted to cross her arms and glared at him while the rest of her face hid behind her scarf. “I am merely making a point. I didn’t fight against your people in the war just to abandon my country for a man who was once my enemy.”
“I understand- you need not be so defensive,” he replied, hiding his amusement. The spy closed her eyes and tried to calm down. She hadn’t realized she was using a threatening tone until he mentioned it. It was still something of a sore spot that anyone would assume that she would simply forget about her kingdom for someone she supposedly loved. Just as Albel was willing to place his kingdom above her, she was ready and willing to serve Aquaria first before loving him.
“Listen, I don’t have much time- we are only visiting before we head off with Fayt and the others for another mission. Could you tell Clair that I’m still alive and doing well for me?”
A flash of hurt came to his grey eyes before he turned away and denied her request. “I would love to, but I fear I had worn out my welcome in Arias.”
“What happened? Have tensions between the kingdoms started up again?” the spy inquired with concern. Surely she hadn’t been gone long enough for something bad to happen. She hid her sigh of relief when he shook his head.
“There are some stirrings with the remnants of Vox’s followers in the Dragon Brigade, but they’re lost without a strong leader. No, I am referring to myself- I believe I had done something to upset Lady Clair,” he replied, with a calm expression. His eyes showed some pain, but he seemed to be holding in his feelings so he wouldn’t focus on them.
“Really?” Nel was shocked- Clair wasn’t the type to be easily offended. “Are you certain there was no misunderstanding?”
“She…” Kimmel paused for a moment before he decided to tell her what happened. “She was really distraught over your disappearance. Of course, she wouldn’t let that show to the others and she never let her personal feelings stop her from doing her job, but anyone who looks closely enough could see that she is clearly broken on the inside.”
It seemed Kimmel did everything he could to console her. He explained Clair’s state of mind and described how she was prepared for the day that Nel might not return, but despite that, the loss still shook her. Before he knew it, she began to shut him out and distance herself. It made sense- of all the people Clair had ever lost, Nel was the closest friend she had. Losing her would mean losing almost everything.
“I wasn’t trying to replace you,” he continued, trying to reassure the spy that he had no ill intent. “I just wanted to keep her from breaking completely, but I fear she misread my intentions… or perhaps there was really nothing between us.”
He muttered that last part so softly that she nearly missed it.
“You love her, don’t you?” It was more of a statement than a question, but Nel had to know the answer. While it was none of her business what people Clair chose to associate with, the spy felt better when knowing the reason why a man wanted to be with her.
“Unconditionally,” he replied while looking straight into her eyes. There was no hesitation or fear of retribution in his tone- he was completely honest and very serious about his feelings. It stunned her that a Glyphian would willingly and almost proudly admit to being in love with an Aquarian, but then she had to remember that Kimmel was just a commoner. He didn’t have a public image to worry about.
Clair did, though Nel highly doubted that was the reason she started pushing Kimmel away. It could’ve really stemmed from her disappearance- or rather, more likely from the reminder that anyone could die. What was the point in getting close to someone who could be sent off to their death in a skirmish tomorrow? Only Nel understood the guilt and torment that Clair went through- not only had they both killed others, they had knowingly sent their own soldiers off to fight in a hopeless battle. More often than not, the soldiers themselves knew that they might not be coming back.
This was different than what a lowly soldier like Kimmel would feel- or any of her troops for that matter. Being a commander of an army ate away at the soul and slowly turned one from a compassionate human being into a hollow shell ruled by cold reason. Nel had escaped that sort of damage when she decided to spare her subordinates and take on the dangerous missions herself, but Clair didn’t have that freedom. She was very important as a leader and couldn’t sacrifice herself as Nel did.
Really, only Nel and Adray had the ability to draw out her humanity from time to time. If Kimmel truly wanted to be in her close inner circle, he was going to have to work for it. Backing off this quickly was a sign of a person who lacked initiative and spirit. Adray despised men who didn’t have those qualities- not that he would ever like the idea of a Glyphian courting his daughter.
“Don’t give up if you’re serious. You should know how hard it is for us soldiers to be able to find happiness. We all bear the guilt of blood on our hands,” Nel advised, surprising herself. She wasn’t sure if Kimmel would be good for Clair, but she did want her friend to be happy. It was up to him to take her advice or leave things as they were.
The strategist gave her a bitter smile before he walked past her. “My feelings for her will never change, but I know when to back off. I’m being reassigned to the Chiron Military Outpost, so I couldn’t see her if I wanted to… but should she ever write to me, I’ll write back and I’ll go see her the first chance I get.”
…Chiron. That was an outpost on the other side of the Traum Mountains- very far away from Arias. Why would they send him there? Kimmel didn’t seem to know himself, but he suspected that he was deemed useless to his superiors and was being sent there so he wouldn’t be a waste of resources. Had Albel still been in charge, that wouldn’t have happened.
But what he said made the spy pause for a moment. He wasn’t trying to force Clair- he wanted to give her time to breathe and contact him when she was ready. But if the tactician already has it in her mind that it would be better to sever all ties, then there was no hope. She was as stubborn as her father in that respect.
“I wish you luck, then,” she replied with a shrug. She wasn’t sure if she said it in regards to his reassignment or to the possibility of him having a relationship with her friend. In the end, it didn’t matter- Kimmel was one of the few Glyphians she could come to tolerate and he was rather hard to hate.
But before she could let the man walk away, she turned to face him as a new decision came to her. “If you can’t deliver a message to Clair, then could you at least tell Albel that I’m heading to Arias? He should be in Lord Woltar’s manor.”
If Clair were really that distraught, then a simple message wouldn’t make her feel better. Nel had to see her friend in person and make sure she was doing well. The spy wanted to go easy on Kimmel and send the message to Fayt, but she wasn’t sure if he knew the boy well enough. Furthermore, even if she trusted the strategist to a certain extent, she wasn’t about to reveal her connection to Astor, since that was where the boy was at right then.
“You’re going to see her after all? I’m glad,” he responded in a relieved tone. “I can manage a message to Lord Albel. Is there anything else you need me to tell him?”
“Yes, tell him I’ll be back as soon as I can and to tell Fayt where I am.”
The spy didn’t want to leave town when they could be leaving at any moment, but this was important. She couldn’t leave to face the Creator until she knew Clair would be okay in her absence. She waited for Kimmel to confirm her message and headed off once the strategist said his farewells to her. She vowed in her mind not to take too long, but she wasn’t sure if that was possible. Still, she knew Fayt would understand- family was important.
She ran as fast as she could. Nel knew Clair was a strong person, but what Kimmel said had worried her. The more the spy thought about it, the more she realized the impact her disappearance had done to her country and those around her. In a way, it was like the time her father never came back from his mission.
No one wanted to believe that he was dead and waited for him to return home. It took nearly two months for everyone to come to terms with the idea that he was never coming back, and then the mourning began. When it finally hit Nel that she was going to have to live without him, it really hurt her. She knew what it was like to lose someone very important and Clair was most likely going through it right then.
Nel had to stop history from repeating itself. Clair could very well go down the path she did to cope. Then again, maybe not- Clair’s mother had died in a skirmish and yet she managed to overcome the grief fairly well. The spy assumed it was because Adray was still around at the time to comfort her, but maybe it was Clair’s own strength that enabled her to move on. Still, better not to take chances.
The soldiers stationed at Arias saw her coming and informed everyone that she was still alive. The moment Nel passed through the gates, several villagers and soldiers gathered, staring at her in shock and relief. Of all the people who had gathered, Clair wasn’t one of them, but she was sure the tactician had heard the news.
With some maneuvering and announcing that she had to make a report, Nel managed to slip past the crowds. She remembered someone telling her that Clair was in the boardroom near the back, but her feet were already guiding her there. Just as soon as she opened the doors, she caught sight of the grey haired woman. She was already standing, looking at her with an unreadable expression.
But that was the last sight the spy saw. With speed that could put both Albel and Adray to shame, the tactician was before Nel and had her in a crushing hug. It took the spy a few minutes to recover from the shock and numbly wrap her arms around her friend.
When they pulled back, Clair held onto her shoulders and looked her in the eye. It was then that Nel could see just how tired and worried she was.
“Where have you been?” the grey haired woman nearly shouted, but managed to keep her voice calm.
“I’m sorry, Clair. I didn’t mean to make you worry like this,” Nel replied as she held onto her friend’s wrists. The spy watched as Clair’s second in command wisely left the room to give them privacy.
“Nel, you were gone. What was I to think?” the tactician whispered, barely able to control her tone.
Once they were sitting down and got more comfortable, Nel filled Clair in on what had happened since she had left for the Kirlsa Training Facility. She mentioned everything from the war between the Executioners and the Federation to the Creator and his goals. But she didn’t have the heart to tell her friend about the nature of 4D space or the idea that Apris could just be an ordinary person- not yet anyway.
Nel wasn’t sure what to think about that yet. She couldn’t really confirm who Apris was or what he was like. There was a slim chance that he could really be like what their religion described, but there was also the dreadful conclusion that their religion was a sham. She wasn’t ready to confirm or speculate anything to Clair until she was sure herself. But the existence of the Creator did throw the grey haired woman off to the point where Nel had to reassure her that Apris did exist and that he had nothing to do with the coming crisis.
“I have no doubt in my mind that our god exists- this Creator is more of a person who created the means for other gods to create worlds,” the spy explained to clear up confusion. Technically what she said was true- the only thing that was debatable was if their god was truly a benevolent entity.
“I see. So he has decided for almost no reason to destroy us all? Are you certain you can fight against such a foe?” she inquired calmly, hiding her concern. She seemed to be taking the news well, but Nel could tell she was working the new information in her mind. It could be a while before everything really sunk in.
“Yes. With Fayt, Maria, and Sophia’s power I believe we can. We have defeated 4D beings before so it is possible. And we can’t just sit back and let some entity slaughter us. We have to do something,” the spy insisted to justify her reasons for going.
Clair stared at her for a long while before a small, relieved smile came to her face. “You’ve changed.”
Had she? The spy didn’t think she was acting any different. In fact she had no idea what was giving the grey haired woman that impression.
“You’re more optimistic,” she explained after Nel gave her a questioning look. “You speak like you’re going off to fight and win. Used to, you would only reflect on the outcome of death and that there was no other choice. You also seem much stronger than the last time I had seen you.”
Ever since her near death experience with the Vendeeni attack, Nel had reevaluated her life when she wondered why she was still alive. She didn’t really think much after that, but it felt like her new role fell into place not long after that. She found purpose in life- to protect her people from the dangers they couldn’t fight themselves. If she were to fall, then who would be left to defend them? Albel might, but he was more loyal to Airyglyph than her country.
“I guess I finally realized that I’m needed for a greater purpose. I can’t just throw away my life and leave everyone behind. I’m fighting for Aquaria, like I always have, but now I intend to serve for a long time- not ‘until I die’,” the spy replied after a while. Of course, she still accepted the idea that she could fall in the line of duty, but that wasn’t her main focus anymore. She still had so much to do with her life.
Clair let her smile grow before she nodded in approval. “I’m glad. It means I shouldn’t have to worry about you anymore. I used to think you wanted to go out there and die on purpose- that’s why I tried hard to convince you not to go.”
“Clair…” she whispered, feeling terrible for what she had done to her friend, “I’m sorry for making you worry like that. But I’m better now- I will return.”
The grey haired woman stood up from her seat and walked over to Nel. She then turned the spy to face her before she placed her hands on her shoulders. “I know you will. Go out there and do what you must. We will wait to hear of your victory and welcome you home.”
“Thanks, Clair.” She was grateful for the support and for Clair’s understanding. Her friend then straightened up and backed away before she turned and faced one of the windows.
“Now, while you’re away, I’ll make preparations with Airyglyph. Sooner or later, these ‘Executioners’ will be coming to our planet and I do not want us to be caught off guard. Based on what you described, we might not be able to defeat them easily, but together with our allies, we should be able to hold our own until you succeed.”
It didn’t occur to Nel that they should be warned of the threat. She had been so caught up with her apology to Clair that she barely registered the fact that Elicoor seemed to be safe for the time being. It was a good thing she convinced Fayt to come- they could’ve been attacked without ever knowing who it was or why it was happening.
“Good idea,” she agreed as she stood up as well. “I must be leaving before Fayt and the others worry about my absence. Please inform Her Majesty of what’s been going on and tell her that I’m sorry for leaving unexpectedly.”
“I will. May the grace of Apris be with you.”
Nel froze at her words. It was such a common saying that it easily left their mouths by habit. She caught the wince on Clair’s face, proving that she was also beginning to doubt Apris and their religion.
“And to you as well,” she replied as she began heading towards the door. She knew Clair meant well, even though the ‘grace of Apris’ might not mean much anymore. It was better not to dwell on it until she had reason to turn away from her beliefs.
“Oh, Clair?” Nel called out before she could leave. It really was none of her business, but she felt that she needed to say something. “I ran into Kimmel in Kirlsa. He says he’s being reassigned to Chiron. I’m not sure what happened between the two of you, but don’t need sever ties with him on my account. You deserve to be happy, too.”
Almost immediately, the tactician’s features turned a little sullen before she leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cold glass of the window. She seemed rather tired just thinking about him.
“I am aware of where he’s going and I know how he feels about me, but… I don’t think I can give him what he wants. He deserves to be happy- with a family of his own and I can’t… I don’t want to…” She moved back so she could shake her head and organize her thoughts. “I do not believe I can provide a family for him- not now and possibly not ever. He shouldn’t have to wait for me when he could find someone else.”
Did he ever give any indication that was what he wanted? Nel decided to leave it at that. She couldn’t speak on Kimmel’s behalf and it was really up to Clair if she wanted to continue relations with him. Nel could appreciate that Clair was the only friend she had that didn’t force her to listen to her love stories- she mostly kept to herself about her what few relationships (intimate or otherwise) she had.
“Think about it, then. I have a feeling that man would wait for you regardless,” the spy said, thinking about his confession of ‘unconditional’ love. Come to think of it, he probably had to say that because he realized that was what really drove her away. Perhaps he did try to have a conversation about the future with her and it backfired.
Still- it wasn’t her concern and she wasn’t about to play matchmaker. That wasn’t in her talents or her interest.
“Hmph… It might be a rather long wait,” Clair muttered cryptically as the spy headed out.
Nel didn’t mean to put her in that mood, but she knew she would bounce back with preparing for the Executioners’ arrival. They all had their roles to play in the coming crisis- anything else could be dealt with much later.
The spy quickly headed out just as fast as she arrived so that she could make it back to Kirlsa in time. But as she approached the boarder, she was stunned to find Albel and Peppita waiting for her. She slowed down to a walk and eventually stopped before them.
“What are you doing here?”
“The fool suggested for someone to head over to your disgusting Aquarian town to check up on you, but I figured you needed some time with the Lasbard worm,” the Wicked One replied in an irritated tone. His eyes were closed and his arms were crossed like he was very annoyed and it only took Nel a second to discover why. Peppita wasn’t letting go of his hair wraps and didn’t care if he noticed.
“Okay, I understand why you’re here, but why Peppita?”
“Tee-hee! I wanted to see more of your world! I’ve never been to an underdeveloped planet before,” she explained with a slight twirl. She somehow managed that without pulling Albel’s hair in the process. The Wicked One scowled further, but did nothing to reclaim his hair. He probably already made several unsuccessful attempts before and decided that there was no point in trying to stop her. She was at least making the attempt not to yank.
“The tiny maggot followed me even though I told her not to,” he muttered before she playfully stuck her tongue out at him. Peppita must’ve figured out that Albel would never dare strike a child and used it to her advantage.
“I see,” Nel replied before she fully regarded the circus girl, “Unfortunately, there’s not much to see here since it was once a battlefield. Maybe we can show you more of our world another time- after we’ve defeated the Creator.”
“Fine by me! I can’t wait,” she commented before she grabbed the end of Nel’s scarf with her free hand. At this point, the spy was getting used to it and allowed it. Sophia was the only other person who noticed the girl’s behavior and called her a ‘dangle-fiend’ for it. Apparently Peppita had a fixation on things that ‘dangled’ and had to grab them.
Albel and Nel must’ve been quite a sight walking side by side with a child attached to their hair and scarf behind them. Thankfully, Peppita decided to spare them the humiliation and let go before other people saw them. Nel didn’t think she would care if they were caught- she didn’t know a villager alive who wouldn’t accommodate for a cute young girl. No one could bat an eye at her for being nice to someone like Peppita. Albel’s reputation, however, could’ve probably gotten a sizable dent if any of his soldiers had seen him.
Once they reached the gates, they found the rest of the party waiting for them.
“Is everything okay, Nel?” Fayt asked, before a tint of pink appeared on his cheeks. “Astor said that everyone thought you were dead, so I understand why you needed to see Clair.”
Nel had to wonder why Fayt was blushing while mentioning her cousin. Did he do something to the boy? Or perhaps Fayt’s crush on him was renewed upon seeing him again.
“Yes, things are fine now and everyone has been alerted to prepare for any Executioners that might show up,” she replied, choosing not to call him out on his bashfulness.
“Actually, I’m kinda surprised the Executioners aren’t here already, but I guess that’s a good thing,” Cliff commented as he began walking ahead in the direction where the portal to 4D space was. “I’m not so sure this planet will be able to defend itself from a full scale invasion.”
“All the more reason to hurry and defeat the Creator,” Maria replied as she followed after the Klausian.
For some reason, Nel felt optimistic that the Executioners wouldn’t be too much of a problem for Clair and the others. She did think they were coming eventually, but she couldn’t imagine them sending much. She couldn’t really explain it, but she felt there was some special connection between her planet and 4D space. Perhaps they really were blessed by the 4D gods.
“All right then, what’s next?” Cliff inquired once they were back within the terminal room in Gemity.
“I think it would be fastest to go to the Sphere Company- the group that developed the Eternal Sphere. Everything that matters will happen after we get there,” Fayt replied before he started heading toward the transporter behind the terminal.
“Sounds good to me,” the Klausian intoned as he followed after him.
“Welcome back,” the Eternal Sphere attendant greeted when they appeared. The door that will return you to the real world is right behind you. Please visit again soon.”
Nel felt like scoffing at the mention of the ‘real world’. What was real anymore? She found it hard to believe that this boring dimension with people who were provided for was considered more ‘real’ than her own world. But what was it Maria said before- ‘you have your would and we have ours’ and ‘if we see something as reality, then isn’t that reality for us’?
As far as she was concerned, she was real and what she did in this dimension mattered. Once they stopped the Creator, they would be free and they could go back to living their lives without his interference. Sure there could be a few 4D beings that wanted to play in their world, but she doubted they would have the same power or ability as the Creator.
Besides, nothing was proven yet- there could still be gods that protected her people and there could be someone out in this dimension who was willing to help them. Regardless of the terminology, she could still see 4D space as the ‘land of the gods’- even if the ‘gods’ were not as she would expect. She was here as a representative of Aquaria and she was going to do what it took to save her world.