34. The Return of Familiar Faces

Chapter 34

The Return of Familiar Faces

            It was a chilly morning, but it was nothing like the notorious freezing cold that made Airyglyph the bane of all early risers. Nel awoke to find that it was not yet sunrise and was pleased to discover that her internal timing hadn’t been messed up since traveling in space. This was the first time in a long while that she got to wake up in Elicoor where there would be a sun that signified the beginning of the day. In space, all she had were clocks and alarms to determine the duration of a ‘day’ and when she should sleep.

It was absolutely refreshing to get up on her own, without some device telling her to. She was also looking forward to feel the first rays of Apris on her skin. She frowned a little at her stubborn habit to refer to the sun as ‘Apris’. Technically, it was known as ‘Elicoor’ to the off-worlders (with her planet being Elicoor II) and it was merely a star that provided means for her planet to thrive and sustain life. There was nothing ‘godly’ about it… but the name should bear no meaning to her.

Apris had always been the ‘sun god’ to her and there was no shame in naming a star after him. What was important was that she was aware of the truth and that she didn’t continue to worship and depend on said god for miracles she could accomplish on her own. As for her habit- it was harmless enough so long as she didn’t let terminology and her former beliefs bother her.

The spy stretched a little against the warm body beside her before she wrapped her arms more firmly around him. It was the right kind of weather for morning cuddling- as opposed to clinging for life to keep warm. She glanced up at Albel’s face to see if he was awake and found that his eyes were still closed. That didn’t tell her much- he could be faking sleep to catch her off-guard or to see what she would do.

Nel decided to test and see if her theory was correct as she moved the hand that wasn’t trapped under his body to the center of his chest. She grinned a little as she gently rubbed between his pectorals and watched closely for any indication of a reaction. So far it seemed that he was still asleep, but she wasn’t willing to believe it yet. She kept the tip of her finger firm against his skin as she gradually trailed down in a straight line to his abdomen.

She almost thought she heard his breath catch, but she didn’t see any change on his face. Still, she continued the procession to the south while letting her other fingers lightly tickle his abs. It wasn’t until she reached the coarse hairs near his groin when she finally caught something. It was very faint, but there was a ghost of a smirk on his lips and some strain on his jaw that proved he was trying hard not to make an expression. It was all the confirmation she needed.

Her finger was only a hairbreadth away from the base of his shaft and she knew he was waiting to see if she would go that far. Nel hesitated for a brief moment as she contemplated her next move. Her grin turned into an evil smirk as she blazed a feather light trail over the length of his groin and then fisted the covers above them. Then as fast as lightning, she rolled over out of the bed, taking the sheets with her.

Albel’s eyes quickly snapped open when he felt cold air on his skin and glanced over at her in shock. The smile was still on her face as she wrapped the material firmly around her and then went through the process of locating her clothing. Sure, they had time for another round, but she had other things to focus on. They needed to get back to Aquios as soon as possible and wait for word on where to find the Creator. It was important to concentrate on the upcoming battle because if they lose, then she wouldn’t have any more mornings like this one with him.

Maybe it was a little late, but she had come to realize how precious these moments were. It was hard to stop her self from climbing back in bed and try to lengthen the alone time she had left with him, but she remained firm in her decision. She wasn’t going to cave in her to desires until everything was settled and the galaxy was truly saved.

Albel tried not to let his disappointment show as he casually watched her get dressed. He didn’t seem to care about the fact that he was exposed and half hard as he rested his arms behind his head. “What’s the rush, woman? You know Leingod won’t be up until noon unless we douse him with cold water.”

“I just want an early start is all,” she replied before pulling on her tunic. She had long since let go of the sheets and let them pool around her ankles. When her head was through the material, her eyes narrowed a little as she added, “The sooner everything is over with, the sooner we can continue on with our lives.”

“Oh?” he prodded in an interested tone. “Do you have plans?”

“Yeah… I realize that I’ve been neglecting my duties lately. While I’ve been off trying to save the galaxy, Clair and the others have been taking over my work for me. Adding that with the peace treaty and the monsters that have been showing up, I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for them. I need to make it up to them and start protecting my country like how my father would’ve wanted.”

Nel didn’t regret leaving the planet and at the time she wasn’t needed for anything particularly important. She couldn’t have known that things would’ve happened as they did- though her mission with Fayt and the others ended up being far more urgent. The idea of ending her journey soon did sadden her, but she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she continued to abandon her country for a selfish desire of being able to see new worlds.

“…You do have a point- I suppose it is time to start planning for the future of our kingdoms once this is over,” he agreed before he let out a sigh. “Pity that things will get boring once the maggots leave.”

Nel stifled in a chuckle as she searched for her armor. Some part of her didn’t think he would agree to end his journey soon after the mess with the Creator was resolved. But, they’ve already used up their first excuse- they traveled out to space and seen all sorts of things that could potentially threaten their planet someday. They were now aware of the dangers and capabilities invaders could have should they decide to visit. All they had to do was figure out how to use that information to their benefit and it could only be done by staying home.

Of course, once that was done, he would be back to doing whatever monotonous task he had before. Come to think of it, what did Albel do outside of the war? All he seemed interested in was finding a worthy opponent and going out of his way to donate to the hungry. With the fighting over, he wasn’t going to have much to do.

“Don’t worry about it- I’m sure you’ll find something to occupy yourself with,” she eventually reassured him. “If you find yourself bored, then you could always go challenge Crosell on your own.”

He scoffed at that and rolled his eyes. “After the trials I’ve been through, that overgrown worm would be too easy.”

This time she couldn’t suppress the light laughter. She wasn’t sure if he was being overconfident or simply insulting the Marquis. Still- it was good to hear him in a jovial mood.

“In that case, I’ll just have to find ways to entertain you myself,” she offered, knowing he would have something to say about that. She was a little surprised to hear only a short ‘heh’ from him before he fell into a contemplative look. “Albel?”

“Hm? Sorry… I just had a thought- about something else,” he explained, refusing to elaborate any further than that. He soon started to roll out of bed and began dressing himself. The spy decided not to pressure him, assuming that whatever ‘thought’ he had wasn’t clear or coherent enough to be voiced out.

…Though little did she know, the small idea that flitted through his head was the beginning of something that would change her life. When they were done preparing for the day, Nel snuck out of the room through the window and met up with him outside in the streets of Kirlsa. After that, they retrieved Fayt from Astor’s home and set out to borrow some dragon knights’ mounts.

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

            When they returned to the Aquarian capital, they were instantly directed to go to the throne room where the others were waiting. It seemed Blair contacted Sophia not too long ago and they now had an idea of where the Creator was.

“Great, let’s leave immediately. We’re running out of time,” Fayt announced once he heard the news. Nel was relieved that they were able to make it back in time for the news. They could’ve been delayed another day if they hadn’t made the effort to return quickly.

But Fayt’s enthusiasm wasn’t shared as Sophia briefly glanced at the floor to give the next set of news. “The thing is, to go there, we’ll need a gate.”

The Sacred Orb itself wasn’t enough to get them to the Creator- it was more of a key that unlocked the passage to the space. They had to find the location of the gate- and thankfully they already had a clue of where to go.

“Based on what we have heard, we believe that the gate you seek is located in the Ancient Ruins of Mosel. According to our scriptures, it is the place where the gods have left our world and where their children gather to meet. Lady Elena suspects that the gate this ‘Creator’ has used could be the very same that our gods have used,” the queen explained, bringing up a rather interesting topic.

Initially, the spy was a little concerned on how much information the queen knew, but she seemed convinced that the Creator was someone who was trying to usurp the gods. Nel felt that it was for the best if Romeria remained ignorant to the idea that Apris was nothing more than a team of ordinary people who fabricated their world through code. But the idea came from Lady Elena- and the spy thought that was rather odd. The researcher was more interested in runology and runological weapons, so theology wasn’t in her repertoire. As far as anyone knew, the ruins of Mosel didn’t interest Elena because it had no evidence of technology or runology (outside of what powered the large runic chess pieces).

More importantly- there seemed to be a strong link between the origin of those runes and the 4D beings. The spy wished she could talk to Blair to find out why, but unfortunately she was out of her reach. All they could do was go there themselves and see if the old legends were true.

“…I think that may be our best bet,” Nel muttered to Fayt as she thought it over. “I recall a report that a hole developed around the region when those beams of light destroyed the Vendeeni ships. I believe there is a connection between that and the attacks.”

She ignored Albel when he quirked his eyebrow at her. Of course he was the one who noticed, but she didn’t think he wanted to be put on the spot and have to explain what he saw. Since he didn’t speak up, she assumed that she was right in thinking that. The others appeared rather stunned to hear such a thing and wondered why Nel kept that bit of information from them the entire time.

“A hole? Really? I suppose we were too stunned at the time to really notice- and it does seem to match up with what Commodore Wittcomb showed us back then,” Maria commented before adding, “Still, I agree that a lot of Elicoorian mythology seems to fit with what we know. The story of the ancient ruins can’t be a coincidence.”

“All right. Let’s go check out the Mosel Dunes,” Fayt decided, agreeing with the logic. It was, after all, their only clue.

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

            As much as she wanted to, Nel couldn’t avoid going through Surferio. The old capital of Aquor had the only passage to the Mosel Dunes for humans- and it was the hometown of one Roger S. Huxley. They were lucky enough to have missed running into him the first time they came through and she hoped that same luck would follow them. Though during the time of her first visit, she was more focused on the protection of her queen to be bothered with the idea of seeing the Menodix again.

Her first meeting with the rather obnoxious brat was in the Duggus Forest when Fayt wanted to find and rescue Ameena. Roger offered to help them in exchange for rescuing him from the bandits that captured him. They spy initially thought it was a good idea to enlist his help since he seemed to know his way around the forest, but his antics easily destroyed his usefulness.

Nel could tolerate all of his talks of ‘being a man’ and his skewed idea of how a man should act, but she had to draw the line over his ‘admiration’ of women. The spy ended up having to glance behind her often to ensure the Menodix wasn’t behind her. If left unchecked, he could attempt to cop a feel or simply stare at inappropriate areas of the body. He proved to be too much of a problem and a true burden.

In hindsight, Nel probably shouldn’t have reflected on it at all. Perhaps if she didn’t think about Roger, he wouldn’t have appeared before them as he did. Just as they were about to cross the last bridge and reach the land on the other side of the waterway, the small tailed boy stepped into their path, appearing high and mighty.

Since he was standing on top of the stairs, he was almost even with Cliff’s height and he decided that it was enough to look down on others. He rested his hands on his hips and smirked down at everyone. “Well, well, if it isn’t my henchmen? I heard you were in my area before and you didn’t come to see your boss!”

…Wonderful- he was still under the delusion that she, Fayt, and Cliff were working for him. The Klausian and the boy both seemed shocked to see the Menodix again, but Nel simply shook her head and sighed.

“Wha-you!” Cliff managed to get out before Maria and Sophia moved closer to get a better look at the creature.

“Who’s this?” the blue haired girl inquired to Fayt before the brunette cooed about how cute the Menodix was.

It was, perhaps, a secret blessing when Roger’s gaze shifted to the other girls. Almost instantly, his cheeks reddened a little and some drool escaped the corner of his mouth as he glanced from Maria to Sophia, then to Mirage. After that, the spy was certain he turned back to stare at Sophia’s well-endowed chest. As cruel as it was, Nel would rather have the Menodix distracted by the others rather than with her. She had more important things to worry about than feeling tiny hands on her thighs.

“Hey,” Peppita whispered beside her as she gently tugged on her scarf and pointed at the small boy. “What is that?”

“He’s a Menodix- a humanoid creature that is indigenous to these lands,” the spy explained patiently while hoping she didn’t catch the brat’s attention.

The circus girl chuckled a little as she glanced over at him with a fond expression. “A Menodix, huh? He reminds me of my babies- except he looks a little more human…and he’s less ferocious.”

It took Nel a moment to realize the girl was referring to the animals she trained for the circus and not actual children. Fayt was just finishing his story to Maria and Sophia about how he met Roger when the Menodix tried to look condescending.

“By the way, what’s this I hear about you guys going on an adventure? How come you guys didn’t come and get me? You know you need me to lead you guys! I am, after all, a man among men,” he boasted proudly as he finally climbed down the stairs and approached Fayt. Albel had been standing in the back next to Nel and Peppita the entire time with a bored expression, but he quirked his brow upon hearing the last part. The idea of something that small and weak-looking being a man was a laughable concept.

“Oh man, don’t tell me you’re comin’ with us? Give me a break,” Cliff muttered in exasperation as he covered his forehead with his palm. Roger glared up at the Klausian and fisted his tiny hands.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You need me and you know it!” the boy snapped before a smug look appeared on his features. He then crossed his arms and pretended to stare at something else, away from Cliff. “Men who can’t accept help when needed ain’t too popular with the ladies, you know.”

“Heh, stop trying to give advice like you’re some professor of love, yah little squirt,” Cliff jeered as he leaned down to meet the boy eye to eye.

Roger straightened up to meet the challenge and yelled, “Quit yer yappin’, yah big lout!”

Nel and Fayt sighed as Cliff and Roger entered yet another shouting match between each other. The others were either stunned or amused by the display as the two fought each other like an old married couple.

“Stinkin’ brat…” the Klausian muttered before the boy countered with, “Who’s a brat? That’s Mister Roger to you, oaf!”

“Sure,” Cliff agreed with a haughty look as he stood up and crossed his arms. “But you’ll have to call me Lord King Super Cliff, in that case.”

The Menodix mimicked his posture. “Heh. Not impressed.”

“Well!” Mirage called out suddenly, drawing attention to her self as she clapped a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “I’m relieved that you found a playmate for yourself, Cliff. Now we won’t have to worry about you while we go off and conduct adult business without you.”

Mirage blended so well into the background that it was almost always a shock when she spoke out. In the few times she did talk, it was usually something about technology or how to rein in Cliff when he was going overboard. She seemed to be an expert on how to control the male Klausian, as he was quick to apologize for his actions. At times, Nel had to wonder exactly who was the leader back before Maria took over Quark. With the precision and strength the woman possessed in battle coupled with the sheer wit she had made her clearly more superior as a commander than Cliff. And yet Mirage willingly followed and obeyed him when he gave orders.

“Wha- oh come on! I was just kidding around!” the Klausian protested as his female counterpart walked ahead. Roger snickered and made a conceited face.

“Heh. Some man you are- your woman has you on a tight leash.”

“Ah, shaddup,” he grumbled as he followed after Mirage.

Fayt cleared his throat before he glanced over at Roger. “Anyway, you said you ‘heard’ about us going on an adventure. What did you mean by that?”

“It’s just as I said- someone told me about you guys. He’s been waiting at my house for you to show up,” the boy replied before he gestured back to his dwelling.

“Someone’s waiting for us?” Maria inquired in shock as Sophia tilted her head curiously.

“I wonder who it is?”

Nel was also curious about this mysterious person. She couldn’t really pinpoint it, but she had a rather bad feeling about it- almost like they were about to run into someone they really didn’t want to see again. But when Roger started describing his guest, the bad feeling lessened, but she began to grow more cautious. It couldn’t possibly be him

“He’s some big guy from Aquaria,” the Menodix responded casually before he gestured for everyone to follow him home. “He’s actually kinda cool- more manly that this oaf, anyway. I’m thinking about enlisting him as another henchman.”

“Hey!” Cliff snapped at the insult when he realized the boy was calling him an ‘oaf’ again.

They didn’t even have the chance to enter the house- it was easy to hear the thundering sound of a heavy body with wooden shoes against through the walls of the wooden home before the door flung open. Soon a familiar figure came into view and ginned widely at the sight of them.

“There you are!” the voice boomed before the giant man jumped from the door to just inches in front of Fayt. The poor boy was soon face to chest hair with Adray Lasbard.

“A…Adray,” the blue haired boy said as he meekly raised his head to see the elder man’s face.

“I’m glad I made it in time- how dare you visit Aquaria without stopping to pay your respects?” he scolded jovially, not really that upset since he knew they wouldn’t have found him in Aquios.

“How could we? You were supposed to have been on that mission to the island in the north. When did you get back?” Nel countered before she could stop herself. She couldn’t help but add in her mind, “Or did you even go?”

Suddenly she wished she hadn’t said anything at all when his attention was completely on her. There was a certain glint in his eye as he sidestepped Fayt and approached her. She had the urge to back away, but she stood her ground.

“It was an irrelevant investigation of remote lands- nowhere near important as your disappearance. Once I heard the report, I jumped ship and swam back to search for you,” he replied, causing a stab of guilt to course through the spy. He would do something like that and she wasn’t one bit surprised to hear that he was that worried about her.

“Y-you swam?” Maria repeated uncertainly before Nel could apologize to the runologist.

“Yes,” he responded, acting as if it were no big deal. “Took about three days, it did. The tide was going my way, so it took less time than I thought it would. Once I got back, I checked every inch of land for your whereabouts, Nel. When nothing turned up, I tried going north through the Mosel Desert, only to hear word that you were spotted with Master Fayt and the others.”

“You’re lying,” Albel stated immediately once he heard it. “No human can cross the entirety of the Mosel Desert without the aid of a dragon.”

“I didn’t have a choice- I tried enlisting the help of the Marquis, but he said he couldn’t be bothered with searching for ‘one lone human’. He also mentioned that he was still tired from catering to your silly whims,” Adray added as he crossed his arms and gave the Wicked One a smug look. That was more proof to the spy that the great dragon favored Albel over the others. She wondered what Crosell would’ve done if he knew the Glyphian was missing as well. Perhaps he would pretend that it didn’t concern him and search for him in secret. At least that sounded like something Albel would do…

Albel fisted his claw as he glared at Adray in indignation. “I’ll have you know that I was conducting a very serious investigation, fool!”

Nel quickly diffused the situation before it got out of hand. She placed her hand on the dark warrior’s shoulder and shook her head. “You can’t win against him with logic. Exaggerated as they are, there is quite a bit of truth behind the legends you hear about him.”

“Feh. We know all about those ‘legends’ don’t we?” Albel said with a scoff. She knew he was referring to religion and how it was based on made up stories- the same could be said about legends as well. But Nel knew that didn’t apply to Adray this time- she could tell his story checked out for the most part. She could see the sand that was still falling out of his clothing, meaning that he most likely came from the Mosel Dunes (and it would also explain why he was waiting in Surferio instead of Aquios) and he still smelled heavily of salt and brine- which would come from swimming in the sea.

To distract Adray from demanding an explanation, she quickly bowed to him. “Either way- I’m truly sorry for worrying you, Adray. I had to help Fayt and the others when they first returned from the stars and I ended up going with them. I’m sure you would’ve done the same if you were in my position.”

The aged runologist listened to her carefully before he reflected on her words and appeared a little sheepish. He then rubbed the back of his neck and laughed some. “Yes, you’re probably right- I would do the same! Hahahaaa!”

He seemed to forgive the spy, for now, and turned to focus on Fayt. He let out a grin as he planned his strategy for worming his way into the party once again. “Now that you all came back, that must mean something’s happening here in our kingdom, correct?”

“Yes, well…” the blue haired boy trailed off as he desperately tried to think of a way to dissuade him from joining. Nel discreetly shook her head slowly- Fayt was going to have to do a much better job than that if he didn’t want the aged runologist to get involved. Now that things seemed to be settled between her and Adray, she didn’t particularly care one-way or the other. Personally, she would rather have him join than Roger.

“Which means, you need all the fighting power you can get, correct?”

“Sure. We won’t deny it,” Maria admitted, earning a shocked look from Fayt.

“Maria!”

“What’s wrong with taking him?” the blue haired girl asked. The way she saw it, Adray was once involved before and he was fairly useful as an ally. Furthermore, they would be only wasting more time in trying to chase him off. “Besides, Fayt, you have poor negotiating skills. There was no way you could win against him.”

“Hey…” the boy muttered in offense.

Sophia let out a short chuckle before she bowed politely to the newcomer. “Thank you for offering. We’re glad for your help.”

“You too, Sophia?” Fayt inquired with a rather whiny tone as he ran his fingers through his shaggy blue hair.

“Well, you are hopeless when confronting men with large muscles…” she muttered back to him with an amused grin.

Adray let out a victory chortle before he took on a proud pose. “There you go. Once or twice, makes no difference. Stop arguing and just take me with you.”

Fayt slumped over and admitted defeat before he turned on his heel and urged the others to continue on. Nel almost felt bad for the poor boy- she knew he was only trying to keep everyone from getting involved because he believed that facing the Creator would be very dangerous. He needed to realize that it was better to fight than to sit back and wonder what would happen next. It wasn’t as if staying out of it was any safer.

Adray waited until the others moved ahead before he gave Albel and Nel a pointed look and rubbed the tip of his moustache with his thumb and forefinger. Both winced because they knew he had serious business with them.

“Once we have the chance, we’re going to have a nice long talk- just the three of us,” he told them before he finally turned and chased after the others. That was an effective threat, causing both warriors to cast uncertain looks at each other.

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

            Everything had been serious until Adray and Roger joined the team. It seemed Nel was sorely mistaken in thinking that Cliff was the comic relief in the party- he took everything seriously despite the occasional jokes. Adray wasn’t really that bad, as he only had his eccentricities to flavor his personality, but there was a bad influence among them that could turn him into a mischievous prankster. That ‘trigger’ was Roger.

The Menodix and runologist seemed to share the same ideals when it came to jokes or rebelliousness. The spy wanted to believe that they simply didn’t understand the direness of the situation, but Fayt and the others did give a brief and simple retelling of the events so far. She requested for everyone not to go into too much detail about the existence of 4D space and the people therein so that Adray wouldn’t get too confused.

He wasn’t as devoutly religious as others (in fact, Nel could admit to adopting his religious outlook on life when she was younger), but she could see him falling into the same depression she did if he knew the truth. It just didn’t seem right to let him get into that state. All he really needed to know was that the Creator was powerful and that he could destroy all life if they didn’t stop him.

As for Roger- he was a good fighter who could hold his own, but that’s where his usefulness ended. He first deemed Mirage to be the prettiest girl in the team and then decided that she wasn’t his type after seeing her dispatch a monster three times her size without breaking a sweat. After that, he promptly decided that he liked short haired girls better and alternated between harassing Nel and Peppita. Nel was honestly surprised that he didn’t pursue Sophia since she genuinely seemed to like him (in a cute stuffed animal way), but the spy figured that the boy dismissed her as an easy target.

Thankfully, Albel always trailed a few paces behind her, preventing the annoying Menodix from bothering the spy as they traveled through the dunes. If the boy so much as cut in front of him, Albel would either kick him out of the way or deliberately step on his tail before he could get too close to Nel.

By the time they reached ruins, it was getting close to dark. It was unanimously decided that they fortify the first room in the ruins with force fields and set up camp for the night. It had been the first time in a long while since Nel had to camp out anywhere. Unfortunately, no one was prepared for it and had no bedding to sleep on, but they did carry enough food that should sustain them for at least three days.

Most just used their travel bags as a pillow while others like Adray and Cliff just sat near a wall and nodded off. Peppita made sure to wedge herself close to Fayt and Sophia so that she could warm up with the extra body heat while Roger easily fell asleep on the cold hard ground with nothing. Albel had also chosen to sit against one of the walls and no one said a word when Nel chose to sit beside him.

She wasn’t surprised if everyone already knew about her relationship with Albel and she frankly didn’t care anymore. It was nothing to be ashamed about and it wasn’t as if the offworlders would care (at least not negatively). Adray already knew about them and he was willing to accept it so long as Nel didn’t end up betraying Aquaria. But that didn’t mean she was going to openly engage in little intimate acts (such as kissing or holding hands) in front of others- it was still too soon for either kingdom to get used to the idea.

For a while, they simply sat side by side and talked quietly as the others settled down. When it seemed that everyone was asleep, Nel gently rested her head against his shoulder as he wrapped his arm around her. They knew the action would catch Adray’s attention, but he didn’t move or make faces when he did glance their way.

He was probably going to save their little talk for the early morning- that way his mind would be clear and he could prepare what he wanted to say and ask them. That was fine by them, they were ready to face the old man and prove that the future they envisioned together is possible.

To the Next Chapter

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