35. Meet the Maker

Chapter 35

Meet the Maker

            It was very early in the morning when Nel stirred from the sound of wood clacking gently on stone. She slowly opened her eyes to find Adray examining the runic chess statues. As more of her awareness came back to her, she found that she was still resting comfortably against Albel and that he was beginning to stir as well. One glance across the room told the spy that the others were still asleep.

“This ruin must’ve been created by our ancestors,” Adray eventually boasted, being careful enough not to disturb the others. “Runic chess was an invention of ours in the days of the first queen of Aquor- the game is in our blood.”

Nel blinked a little until she realized that he was talking to Albel. As she thought back on it, it made perfect sense that the game came from Adray’s ancestors, seeing as how Clair was an undefeated champion at it. But she just couldn’t envision the aged runologist having the patience or ability to sit still long enough for a match.

“Then maybe you heard of its relation to the gods?” Albel asked, hoping to find a connection between Elicoor and 4D space.

The elder man glanced back at him before he shook his head. “Not a clue. The only link we have to the gods is our knowledge of the ancient runes they have given to us- anything built for whatever reason was never discussed or passed down for our knowledge. Though it does bother me to see evidence of my ancestors here in a place that’s supposed to be the origin of everything.”

“What?” Nel whispered, thinking that she misheard him. She then sat up and inquired, “Where did you hear that?”

“It’s a story passed down in Surferio- I heard it from that little guy’s folks,” he replied, gesturing over to the small Menodix that was currently snoring away. Apparently the humanoids believed that everything began and will end in the Mosel ruins because that was where the gods arrived and left. It matched up with what the Aquarian scriptures believed, but without the speculation of it being the ‘origin’.

It was well established that the 4D beings created their universe and the powers that enable them to survive, but it seemed that there was something more about Elicoor than what other planets had. Why were they the only ones with a special ID? Why did they have a gate similar to the Time Gate? Why was their religion named after the project that governed their galaxy? In some aspects, it seemed Elicoor was special, but at the same time, why were they so limited?

One would think that if they were the first world created for the purpose of testing the aspects of the galaxy, then they would be more advanced than they were now. Then again, Fayt did mention that Aquaria had rather strange advancements for their level of technology- and he said that Greeton seemed to be slightly further ahead than her kingdom was. Was there a reason for that? Or was it also a possible intervention from the ‘gods’?

“Anyway, enough with that,” Adray continued on as he waved his hand before his face and then sat down cross legged in front of them. “Do I really need to ask, Nel?”

It took a moment for her to figure out what he was asking about. She had to recall the conversation she had with him before he left on his mission. Adray had asked her if she loved Albel and could see herself being happy with him. The aged runologist also left saying that everything had better be resolved before he returned, but she didn’t think he was going to push that issue so soon- after all, he didn’t really finish his mission yet.

“Do I really need to say anything? I would think it’s obvious,” she replied with a tiny shrug. She wasn’t ashamed to admit that she was happy with Albel, but at the same time she shared his views about intimate declarations. Why repeat something that everyone knew? She felt her answer was for Albel’s ears only, as he was the one who mattered.

Adray closed his eyes and tried to keep his booming laugh down to a small chuckle. “I see- you’re too proud to admit it. Very well. I’ll give you both my blessing once you tell me how you will make this arrangement work. Our kingdoms are not yet at peace and Nel informed me that neither one of you intends to leave the service of your country.”

“Bah, why do we need your blessing?” Albel inquired as he shook his head.

Adray gave them a grin as he leaned closer to them. “An Aquarian and a Glyphian in high positions in the military need all the support they can get. Don’t forget that many commoners and soldiers will not accept your union that easily- they would view your love as a betrayal.”

He had a point. It wasn’t enough that the king and queen had to accept them because of ancient laws and it didn’t mean that they would like it, either. Even her own troops didn’t really believe that she was in love with Albel- all the rumors they made up were under the speculation that she was having a temporary fling with him, not a permanent relationship. It was a different story to sleep with a man to steal information and take advantage of the fact that he was attractive, but being in love with him implied choosing him over the country.

When no one offered an idea, the aged runologist stroked his beard before suggesting, “If you are both willing to do what it takes for peace, then you should volunteer for an arranged marriage. At least then, your union would help bind the peace between our kingdoms- and Apris never said it was wrong for a couple to be married to each other twice.”

“I refuse,” the Wicked One said with a growl. “All that would prove is that we would have to be forced in order to live together.”

He was right- while an arranged marriage would help them be accepted by their countrymen in the union, they would still be wary of the other side and assume that they were only together out of duty. It was no way to prove trust.

“Also, if there was an arranged marriage, one of us would be expected to live with the spouse. That’s not a good idea if we want to continue to work for our separate courts- and I don’t think anyone would want Albel to live in the castle with me anymore than me living in Glyphian borders where they would worry that I would steal information,” Nel added, showing her support for Albel’s reply.

“I see your point, but Nel, you’ll have to live together eventually in order to have a family. You both need heirs,” Adray reminded them sternly, picking up the implication that they would be living separately.

But that was how it was going to be for a while- she couldn’t live away from Aquaria while going on missions for the queen anymore than Albel could live away from Airyglyph. She just wasn’t ready to settle down and have children yet.

“It’s too soon, Adray. We don’t need heirs immediately and I don’t think I can give up my career right now. There’s still too much I have to do for Aquaria before I can commit myself to having children.” Not only that, but they never really decided who was going to stay home and care for offspring. Both she and Albel came from two different cultures were the roles of men and women were opposite from each other. If it had to be her, then she wanted to make the most of her role as a Crimson Blade before she took on motherhood.

The elder man thought about it for a while, not looking too pleased with her answer. But after a while, he started to chuckle again as he shook his head. “Your father said the same thing after he was married. He didn’t want to give up being a Crimson Blade in the prime of his life and thought your mother would be able to take on the work of raising you while he was away. She was, after all, a Glyphian immigrant who was used to maintaining the household.”

This was actually the first Nel had heard of it. Her mother died shortly after she was born and she was immediately placed under the care of wet nurses until she was old enough to stay with her father. She had no memories of her and no one went into that great a detail about her when she asked for stories. When she thought back on it, she did have a few vague memories of elder Aquarians teasing her father about being the main provider in the household. She thought they were actually berating her for not stepping up and taking over as the surviving female of the family, but it could’ve been in jest to the past.

It also explained why Nel was so open-minded when it came to viewing the enemy. Her father never showed any animosity towards Airyglyph and so she never picked up the blind hatred of the other side. Now that she knew, she wondered more about her mother and why she decided to move to Aquaria. Since women usually kept their surname after marriage in Aquaria, that meant Zelpher had to be a Glyphian name- or at least an ancient Aquorian one. Still, despite her curiosity, it wasn’t important information and she needed to focus on the subject at hand. As far as she was concerned, she was born in Aquaria and served faithfully in her army, so she was a full Aquarian like her father.

“But,” Adray continued in a more serious tone, “you can’t wait too long on this- you never know what the future might bring. Having heirs soon would mean a new generation to carry on your memory should something unfortunate happen.”

“Do you honestly think we’ll go to war again?” Albel asked as he stared at the aged runologist. “We’ll play our roles like good soldiers and openly work together. Sooner or later the maggots will follow us through our example. We’re both needed as influential figures in our kingdom and I wouldn’t want to risk bringing more potential soldiers into this world to fight another war.”

The spy was starting to get used to his bursts of philosophical insight and wasn’t that surprised with his reply. They had discussed something like this before, but never to the extent that was insinuating. Nel recalled their talk at the Kirlsa Training Facility where they agreed to ‘trade favors’ and solve the problems of both kingdoms away from politics, but she didn’t imagine they would be entering an open partnership where everyone would be aware of what they were doing. That kind of exposure would show their commitment to peace, but it could backfire if everyone knew they were lovers. Then again, if they could prove that everything they were doing was for the good of both countries, then everyone could overlook that.

Adray rubbed the back of his neck and let out a sigh before he conceded to Albel’s view. “When you put it that way… I suppose it’s for the best. Since you’ve entered this recklessly, it would only be right if you plan out the rest of your lives in a more responsible manner. I’ll give you my blessing and my support.”

“Thank you, Adray,” Nel replied, relieved that the conversation ended on a good note. He was just a fiercely loyal to Aquaria as Nel was, but he was also a little more stubborn. What they decided wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he was willing to make a compromise as long as he saw progress. Though, had Nel been Clair instead, he wouldn’t have settled for anything.

Adray soon left to return to his spot after making them swear to keep their promises. Once he was gone Nel settled back against Albel and waited for the others to awaken.

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

            It took a bit of searching, but they eventually decided to check out the room where the peace treaty conference took place. No sooner than they appeared, a golem burst through the back of the room, destroying the barriers that covered the stair well. It was no doubt another guardian of the ancient ruins that was driven mad by the Vile Wind.

Once they defeated the monster, they headed up one of the stairs and found a small pedestal-like altar positioned before a large stone relief. The altar had a round groove on the top- the perfect shape to fit in the Sacred Orb. It looked like it really was the place and decided to give it a try. If it failed, they would simply have to look elsewhere.

Sophia timidly stepped forward with Fayt and Maria following behind her for support. The brunette gently placed the Orb on the pedestal and the room soon began shaking. The stone relief began to separate in the middle and revealed glowing light behind it. It appeared much like the gate to the beyond, as described in the legends.

“Let’s go…” Fayt ordered after everyone recovered from the initial shock. “Luther’s in here somewhere.”

Fayt, Maria, and Sophia were the first to cross over, followed by Cliff and Mirage. Then Peppita and Roger went through before the remaining Elicoorians trailed after them. The inside was almost similar to the Sphere Corporation’s building with the mechanical walkways and glowing walls. It was nothing new to the party, but Roger and Adray’s eyes were alit with wonder. That was understandable since this was their first time being exposed to 4D technology.

“I see! So this must be the passage to the gods’ realm,” Adray guessed as he took in all the detail. “All we need to do is cross through this to reach the false god that threatens our world.”

“Er, yeah. Something like that,” Cliff muttered as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Actually, I thought this was the place where we’re supposed to find him.”

“Hmm… Hey Nel, are there any legends about gates that lead to other worlds in your culture? I’m not sure if any of your people made it this far, but I would imagine some 4D beings passing through here might’ve told some stories,” Maria suggested, hoping to piece together enough clues on what to expect.

The spy crossed her arms as she thought back on the scriptures and on what Adray mentioned earlier about the stories passed down in Surferio. “I do remember hearing one version of the legends where Apris and his wives had to go through great trials in order to cross over. Perhaps this place is something to prevent ordinary people from getting through.”

“Oh, there you are,” a familiar voice called out. Everyone turned to find Blair materializing in thin air before she landed on the ground.

“Blair!” Sophia called out in surprise before Fayt inquired why the programmer was here.

“I wanted to help you,” she explained as she approached them, “I wish I could’ve come here in physical form, but it wasn’t possible. The best I could manage is in this projection.”

“Blair, what is this place? Can we find Luther here?” Fayt inquired, earning a headshake from her.

“No… He’s not here. This is a passageway linking 4D space and the different servers of the Eternal Sphere. All program is transferred to the Eternal Sphere through here and that portal is the doorway for the entire Milky Way galaxy,” Blair told them as she gestured to the bluish-white glowing screen behind them.

“So what does that mean? That Elicoor II is the main point of entry for anything from 4D space?” Cliff inquired sounding a little surprised. If he hadn’t said anything, Nel certainly would’ve asked. This seemed to be yet another piece of evidence of the connection between her world and theirs and she wanted to know why.

Blair hesitated for a moment, casting apologetic looks to Albel and Nel (since she knew it was their home planet) before she informed them more about the ‘point of origin’, as it was called in her lab (and seemed to catch on in Surferio). Elicoor wasn’t the first planet formed and she didn’t go into detail about what planet was the first and what race first began thriving. For the longest time, the point of origin was simply an area of space because there was no need to hide it.

But once other races began to leave their planet and explore the galaxy, the Elicoor system was formed to hide and protect the entry point. It and all Elicoorians were held back in evolution so that they would remain an underdeveloped planet to take advantage of the UP3 and deter other planets from finding any use in them. It did explain a lot and also pointed out how important their planet was, but there was something else Blair wasn’t saying that was glaringly obvious.

“Hmph, we’re also your experiments, aren’t we?” Albel stated with a grunt at he stared at the grey haired programmer. Elicoor had a lot of dungeons and various different monsters- also, their affinity with runology and runological force was something no other race possessed.

Blair’s features appeared guilty as she briefly turned away from them. “…I’m sorry- we did use your planet as an in-game laboratory to test new layouts and species. But we did stop our research once we realized that you have developed your own thoughts and feelings.”

Hearing that didn’t make the spy or the warrior feel any better. They could tell Blair was truly remorseful, but there was no excuse for what had been done. Several people lost their lives to those experiments and there was a likely chance that there were other evidence of interference that affected their way of life. Furthermore, they couldn’t completely blame the woman since she was previously unaware of it all.

She didn’t know much about Elicoor until she looked up past reports from her predecessors. Her only contribution to the Elicoor portion of the Eternal Sphere was an NPC she created in her image when she was first starting out on the Apris Project. That character later on invented Runic Chess- meaning that Blair was behind one of Adray’s ancestors. As the spy thought about it, it did fit considering Adray, Clair, and Blair shared the same hair color and a similar surname…

“This is why we must reason with the Owner,” Blair continued with a determined expression as she faced them. “If we could get him to listen, then we can sever all ties with the Eternal Sphere and allow you to live in absolute freedom. It is my wish to have you all to live how you want- without our intervention.”

That was directed at everyone- not just the Elicoorians. Blair truly did care about them and believed that they had their own reality. The entire galaxy would be spared from further damage or interference from her kind if they could just get the Creator to recognize their existence.

“Right,” Maria agreed with a nod as she glanced at her team members. “This is more than just a fight for our lives, this is also a fight for our freedom.”

“Yeah, we have do our best,” Sophia added beside her as Fayt nodded, too.

“Let’s go, everyone! We have to find Luther!” the boy ordered as he began walking.

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

            The ‘firewall’ (as Blair called the place) was a rather complicated labyrinth with traps similar to what one would find in the Shrine of Kaddan. There were also annoying monster programs that had the ability to turn everyone into pumpkins or bunnies for a short while. …Though Nel had to admit that it was rather funny seeing Albel turned into a pumpkin, but the humor was short lived when it happened to her as well.

At first, the spy had to calm down Adray and Roger from their initial bursts of excitement and answer most of their questions about the strange new world they were in. It really should’ve been Sophia or Peppita’s job, since they were more knowledgeable and eager than Nel was, but she was the only one who could translate the unusual terms into something they could understand. They understood well enough (or rather ‘claimed’ to understand in Roger’s case) what the mission was and what was at stake, but there was no easy way to explain the concept of other dimensions or the nature of the ‘gods’ that Aquaria worshiped.

Nel decided that it would be simply easier to call all technology ‘godly artifacts’ and explain Blair off as a ‘lesser god in a simple human form’. They both bought her improvised story without question.

When they reached the access point to the space where the Creator was hiding, another security device activated and attacked them. It was some kind of flying mech that was hard to target and in the few times it flew low enough to hit with melee weapons, the outer casing was too hard for her weapons to pierce. For the first time in a long while, she had to rely solely on runology to lure it down and focus more on healing others when it was close enough for the others to attack.

By the time it was over, everyone was fairly exhausted. Fayt wanted to continue on despite that, but Roger and eventually Peppita protested. Since they were the youngest in the group, they didn’t have the endurance the adults did.

“I know everyone is tired, but we’ll have all the time in the world to rest once we face Luther,” the boy promised, earning groans from the kids.

“Well said Master Fayt!” Adray praised before bestowing a giant grin. But even though the aged runologist advocated the concept of toughening up, he didn’t have the heart to force children to push themselves. He scooped up Peppita and Roger and let them ride on his massive shoulders. It would be difficult for him to fight, should they be attacked again, but at least they were getting a rest- and they could always jump off for battles.

The most Fayt would allow was a short break to recover and eat. Nel simply ate enough to replenish her mental energy before she went off to check the stubborn members of the group for any injuries they could be hiding. Adray and Albel still had too much pride in that area. When they were ready, they went on the transporter to reach their next destination. Sophia and Blair were the last to cross through.

It was called the Spiral Tower, though Nel didn’t see anything that resembled a tower. There was no ceiling or walls- it was simply endless space and they were standing on transparent platforms with glowing crystals providing light. It almost felt like they were in outer space, but she was told that it wasn’t possible to survive without protective gear. The party began to march on, preparing to conquer what they hoped to be the last challenge, but a cry of surprise stopped them.

“Blair!” Sophia called out in worry as everyone turned to face her. There was no sign of the programmer anywhere- she was no longer by the young girl’s side.

“What’s going on?” Fayt demanded as he made his way over to his childhood friend.

“Something’s happened to Blair! She just vanished all of a sudden,” the brunette explained worriedly as Maria inspected the area. It didn’t do much good since there was nothing visible to determine the nature of the disappearance.

The blue haired girl crossed her arms and muttered, “Someone has it in for us.”

“This is terrible… We’ve gotta hurry up and help her!” Sophia exclaimed, looking to Fayt and waiting for the order to start searching. Of everyone present, it seemed the brunette was the closest to Blair. Even though they hadn’t known each other for very long, they had grown to be fast friends. Of course, everyone liked the programmer because of the support she offered and her willingness to help despite the danger.

“No…” the young leader eventually replied in a grave tone as he thought it over. “Blair can take care of herself- and we’re running out of time. We should stick to the plan.”

It actually surprised the spy to hear that from him. For once he was being practical and had his priorities in the right order. It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to help Blair, but she completely agreed with Fayt on this. It was true they could benefit with the programmer’s help, but they couldn’t stop their mission or give the Creator reason to believe that Blair was that vital to them. It would only burden them to go out of their way for her. Nel could tell that it was hard for Fayt to make the order, but she was proud of the progress he made as a leader.

Sophia wasn’t happy to hear that, but she didn’t argue. She simply nodded and tried her best not to worry too much over Blair’s whereabouts.

Even though they were resolved to continue with their journey, they still came across Blair after quite a bit of exploration on the level they were on. Or rather- they came across someone who looked like her. The woman seemed to be in the middle of casting a spell as they approached her. When she was done, a triangle shaped platform showed up over the center of the room. At each point was a colored crystal and below the light appeared to be another transporter.

Nel quickly picked up the vibe that something was wrong when ‘Blair’ refused to answer them. She reached for her blades as the creature laughed and announced that she was simply a program made in Blair’s likeness. It was obvious what was happening here- with the real Blair gone, the Creator hoped that they would fall for the imitation and lower their guards.

…But something was off. If this was simply a trap to fool them and catch them by surprise, then why wasn’t the program putting up a more convincing act? It immediately told them what it was rather than attempt to play its way into the party. Did the Creator think they were that weak or stupid?

The fake Blair sounded like a bigot as it declared them ‘infections’ and ordered them to die. The ensuing fight wasn’t that difficult, though it wasn’t that easy either. They over estimated the power of the program and eventually weakened with only a few minor injuries to themselves. It was rather shocking to Nel since she was expecting tough opponents to try and stop them.

Then again, perhaps this wasn’t the only ‘Blair’ running around. They didn’t need to be powerful if there were dozens of them to encounter. Sheer numbers could tire them out and it would make it harder for them to trust the real Blair, should they happen to find her.

As Fayt, Sophia, and Maria tried to interrogate the rapidly fading imposter, Cliff and Mirage approached the device she activated. Nel kept her guard up and checked her surroundings in case there was another attack, but she also listened in as Fayt and the others tried to get the real Blair’s location from the fake. Naturally, the program was uncooperative and disappeared with maniacal laughter like some cheesy villain.

“Hey, this looks like it might be a problem,” Cliff called out to everyone as he waved them over. The team gathered around to look at the device as Mirage examined it further.

“What’s wrong?” Maria inquired when the female Klausian was done analyzing.

“This seems to be similar to the transporter we used earlier and could be our way to the upper levels, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I believe whatever she put up here is disabling it,” Mirage replied as she glanced from Maria to Fayt.

“Hmm… Isn’t there any other way?” The boy wondered aloud.

“We have no choice but to keep looking. Maybe we can find another transporter,” Maria suggested with a shrug of dismissal.

“It’s probably our best bet,” Cliff agreed before he glanced around the room. “Looks like there’s three ways to go. Let’s pick one and see where it takes us.”

“Right.” Mirage nodded before Fayt took lead and began heading for the one behind the teleporter.

“…I hope Blair’s okay,” Sophia added in a concerned tone as she followed after everyone.

Nel was the only one who didn’t move at first as she took one last look at the device over the transporter. Three crystals and three exits (not counting the entrance they used to get into the area)- there was a connection, wasn’t there? If there were three separate switches to activate the transporter again, then it was going to take up a lot of their time to go to each one and activate it.

Suddenly she felt a gentle push from behind and found Albel urging her along. “Don’t dawdle, woman. You’ll get left behind.”

“Right,” she answered hollowly before she quickened her pace to catch up with the others.

There probably wasn’t any guarantee that was the case, but it was worth mentioning. She intended to get Fayt’s attention and tell him her idea, but by the time she caught up with the rest of the group, something caught Roger’s eye and he ran off ahead. This left everyone no choice but to follow, lest the boy ended up in some kind of trouble on his own. When they found him, he was staring up at a pillar of light that was surrounded by similar colored crystals as the ones on the transporter.

“Blair!” Sophia called out when she noticed the figure within the column. The woman appeared to be in a sitting position and she lifted her head when she heard the girl. Almost immediately she expressed relief at seeing them.

“You’re all okay! What a relief.”

That did sound rather genuine, but was that the real Blair or an improved copy? She appeared rather confused when Peppita asked the question out loud, but then slowly realized what had happened.

“Ah… It must’ve been that programmed life form Luther created. She was the one who trapped me in here,” she explained before she made a disgusted face. “He makes such hideous things…”

It almost made Nel smirk despite the situation. Blair was making fun of herself by insisting that a programmed copy of her self was ‘hideous’. The imitation was a little crazy, but she was acting as if the physical appearance of it was something unappealing. The spy caught a faint trace of a smile on the programmer’s lips and figured out that the woman was making a small joke. No ‘programmed life form’ created by someone else would have a human-like sense of humor. This had to be the real Blair.

“I believe you. So how to we get you off there?” Nel inquired as she took a few steps closer to the small trap. There was no point in leaving her behind now that they knew where she was- and it was for the best to have the true person with them so no other copies could try to ambush them.

“I’m not too sure…” the programmer answered in a mildly frustrated tone. “I think these crystals have something to do with this light. Did you see any more of these on your way here?”

“Crystals, huh? We did see some on the transporter. Maybe if we find the ones controlling these crystals, we’ll get Blair free and be able to get to the next level,” Cliff theorized before Maria sighed.

“Maybe, but it’s going to take up a lot of time.”

“…I’m sorry,” Blair apologized, thinking the blue haired girl was blaming her for the mess.

“No, that wasn’t directed at you,” she clarified before she turned to Fayt. “I’m sure this was done intentionally to prevent us from being able to continue on. We should hurry.”

“Wait a moment,” Nel called out before anyone could move. “There were three paths and they most likely lead to the three crystals we need. Wouldn’t it be faster if we split up into three groups to check it out?”

“That’s a good idea. How should we arrange the groups?” Sophia said before she turned to Fayt to make him decide. Before the boy could even speak, Nel felt something digging into the top of her armor from behind before she was pulled back to stand beside Albel. It was his not-so-subtle way of saying ‘you’re with me, woman’. The Wicked One didn’t care whom Fayt chose to go with them so long as the boy didn’t contradict his first choice.

“Hmm… I think I’ll go with-”

“Cliff and Adray,” Maria and Sophia interrupted him with knowing grins.

The boy flushed as he turned back to glare and his surrogate sisters. “I-I wasn’t going to say that! I’ll go with Albel and Nel.”

“Hmph. You make it sound as if we’re the worst possible choice,” Albel muttered with a scoff. The fingers of his human hand were still wedged between her armor and back in a near intimate gesture, but no one could see it since he was standing close beside her. Fayt was quick to deny that as he nervously scratched the back of his head.

“Hey, that’s fine by me. I’ll just go with Mirage since we work well together,” Cliff replied, seeing an opportunity to team up with his long time partner.

“In that case, Sophia and I will make up the third team,” Maria announced, earning a nod of agreement from Sophia. Soon all eyes fell to the remaining three as they wondered how to split them up.

Sophia quickly enlisted Peppita before anyone else could while Mirage suggested for Adray to come along so that their team would have a reliable healer. Roger was the odd one out, but Cliff allowed him to come along while pointing out that the Menodix was nothing more than a ‘talking lump’ on Adray’s shoulder.

“Let’s go,” Fayt said to Albel and Nel as Cliff and Roger began bickering once again.

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

            The monsters that were around the level were fairly strong, but small in number. It was easy for Fayt, Nel, and Albel to avoid most of them as they searched for a switch or some kind of crystal to deactivate the mechanism. They did up find something at the end of the path they had chosen and Fayt volunteered to tinker with it to see what would happen. All it took was the barest touch before some monster was summoned to attack them.

Just the fact that the device was guarded gave proof that it was important. Once they dispatched the beast, Fayt quickly worked on shutting it down before anything else came. Nel breathed a sigh of relief when the power faded and nothing else raised up to challenge them. It seemed they managed to accomplish their small mission without any more problems.

“I hope the others didn’t have too much trouble,” Fayt commented as he turned away from the switch.

“If they did, they’re more pathetic than I thought them to be. This was far too easy,” Albel commented with a confident look on his face.

“Don’t get too cocky,” Nel warned as she crossed her arms. “If there are more of these monsters, we could get worn down by just the number of them.”

“Feh.” Even though he acted like he ignored her warning, the spy knew he was listening.

“We should hurry back to Blair and see how the others are doing,” Fayt urged them, trying to prevent a fight from happening. There were many times when it seemed an argument would start between the two, but they never amounted to anything. As of late, Nel understood Albel too well to jump to any conclusions or let her usual hotheaded tendencies get the better of her. That wasn’t to say that they would never argue again- it was just unlikely to happen due to miscommunication. Still, Fayt didn’t want to take any chances while they were separated from the others.

They knew the path and where most of the monsters were so they were able to travel at a more relaxed pace. It was a silent trip until Albel decided to take advantage of the fact that he had both Fayt and Nel alone. There had been something plaguing his mind ever since entering the firewall.

“Hey, Leingod, I have a question,” he began, earning a look of surprise from the boy. Fayt was in the lead, Nel was in the middle, and Albel was in the back so both the young leader and the spy glanced back curiously at the dark warrior.

“What is it?”

“How important is Elicoor to those Federation maggots?”

Nel’s eyes narrowed at the question- just what as he getting at? Why would their planet have any importance to anyone other than themselves? She knew Albel was well aware of what underdeveloped planets were and how they’re supposed to be left alone.

“What exactly do you mean by that?” Fayt countered, picking up the implication that he had a good reason for asking.

“That bothersome wench went into great detail in explaining how my planet seems to connect our galaxy to her world. It sounds as if we have a very important role- and we seem to carry objects that are valuable to other, more advanced races. How is it that we haven’t been invaded before now?” The Wicked One stopped and draped his claw over the hilt of his sword as he waited for an answer. Nel and Fayt paused in their tracks as they began thinking about that, too.

Nel had always suspected that there was a reason behind why it seemed her planet had so much 4D influence, but she was somewhat satisfied after learning what it was. She didn’t really think that far ahead to wonder why they never received trouble before. The only time they ever had a problem with forces outside of their world was when Fayt and Cliff crash-landed in Airyglyph and the Vendeeni came for them. It wasn’t until the alien ship crashed down to the ground when they discovered the Sacred Orb’s presence and tried to claim it.

“I believe this Federation protects planets like ours. Is that what you were trying to ask about?” The spy inquired with a slight shrug.

Albel shook his head and revealed his concerns. “No- if that were true, then what’s to stop those who are against that organization? These so-called gods of ours may be useless when it comes to serving each individual, but they must’ve been protecting our planet from discovery this entire time. What will become of us when we obtain this ‘absolute freedom’ that that wench promised? How long will we have before other races take notice of us and invade?”

That’s when it hit home- there was a price to cutting all ties with the 4D beings. Blair had admitted before that the Apris Project was behind shaping the lifestyle of Elicoor so that they would be ignored by the advanced civilizations. Without them, any nation against the Federation and their UP3 could infiltrate their planet and destroy lives just to obtain their treasures.

“So what are you trying to say? Do you want to quit and just let the Creator destroy everything?” Nel asked sharply. She didn’t mean to get angry at Albel’s line of questioning, but the idea of being suddenly defenseless worried her. Not only that- she didn’t like how he was bringing it up now, as if he was having second thoughts.

“Don’t be stupid, woman,” he growled with a sneer. “I want to know how much time we will have to prepare after this is over. You think I’m going to let some off-world scum destroy our kingdoms after all the trouble we went through to save it?”

Nel quickly relaxed upon hearing that. That sounded more like what the Wicked One would say, but she wasn’t sure how they could go about protecting themselves. All they had was Crosell and the Thunder Arrow- and even with their combined efforts, there could be too many enemies to handle. They were still not on friendly terms with Greeton (which possessed far more advanced technology than they did) and they had no alliances with the island nations to the north.

“I wouldn’t worry- everyone will be too busy rebuilding from the damage the Executioners caused to be concerned with Elicoor II. It could easily take up to a century before anyone remembers to check up on the status of all underdeveloped planets,” Fayt reassured them before he started walking again.

So they had a considerable amount of time- beyond their lifetime, in fact. So long as their kingdoms were made aware of the possibility, they could slowly work on a way to build up their defenses long before anything might come. However, would they really get that chance? A war could start up again with Aquaria and Airyglyph and even if they did agree to a full peace treaty, there was still Greeton to worry about. Anything made to protect the planet could end up being used against their neighbors.

Nel slowed her strides so she could walk beside Albel. “I understand what you’re saying, but I think we should focus more on our own countries. We’re still recovering from the war and there are still others who would seek to take advantage of that.”

“I would think combining our efforts against a common enemy would be enough, but I suppose that won’t work for those who haven’t seen the celestial ships,” he admitted before he conceded to her point. “You may be right, for once.”

She rolled her eyes and chose to ignore that jab. She then gently clapped her hand on the back of his shoulder in a friendly manner. “For right now, let’s just focus on saving the galaxy. We’ll talk about the rest later.”

Albel glanced down at her for a moment before one of his wicked grins appeared on his face. No matter what challenges they might face in the future, he knew he could count on her to be a reliable ally and an invaluable aid.

By the time they made it back to Blair, she was already out of her prison and the others had long since returned. Even though the programmer was free, it didn’t seem that the transporter was active. Thankfully, Blair was able to do something about that and they were soon on their way to the upper levels of the tower.

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

            When they found the Creator, it felt as though time froze around them. It was eerily silent in the room with only the ticking of a lone pendulum to prove that there was some form of time still moving. As far as the eye could see, there were floating monoliths with small, round pictures of star clusters and planets. They were, perhaps, maps of the entire Eternal Sphere.

Of all 4D beings Nel had encountered, Luther was by far different from what she had seen. He wasn’t as grand as the godly forms from Aquarian legends, but he was also not as average looking as Blair and the other researchers. When he turned to face them, there was the same façade of superiority and arrogance as she had seen from some of the 4D beings, but he also expressed shock and distain at seeing them there.

“Your defiance knows no bounds, my sister,” he said with an angry sneer as he glared at the grey haired programmer. Suddenly some pieces began to fall into place- Blair always spoke of the Owner with frustration, but never hatred, and she insisted to talk with him first before doing anything rash, like attacking. She didn’t see eye to eye with him, but the man was still her brother and she didn’t want him to be hurt.

Fair enough- but they couldn’t offer the same compassion should negotiations fall flat. Blair was well aware that they would have to do whatever it took to survive. The programmer stepped forward to argue her point that they should leave the Eternal Sphere alone and let them live in peace, but he insisted that they were simply data that didn’t deserve to be treated as individuals.

To Luther, all he saw was a collection of ‘zeros and ones’ that possessed no thoughts or feelings. He refused to believe that the beings created by his own hand had the ability to function as his equal. There was also a look in his eyes that Nel was able to translate as fear- the Creator was afraid of them. In a way, the spy could sympathize- if she ever wrote a story and the characters popped out of the book, she would be worried if they wanted to kill her and everything in her world. But, that’s where her sympathy ended- regardless if he was her Creator, he had no right to attack them and threaten to destroy everything and everyone.

“They didn’t appear in our dimension until you tried to destroy theirs. In my mind, they have done nothing wrong by coming here to stop you,” Blair pointed out, earning a scowl from her brother.

“What are you talking about?” he asked incredulously. “The very existence of entities like these is causing massive bugs in the Eternal Sphere itself. Tell me what’s wrong with eliminating flawed code?”

“Flawed code?” Fayt repeated angrily before he gave the man a piece of his mind. Luther was trying hard to act as if they weren’t there, but he couldn’t ignore Fayt as he tried to demand for the right to live.

No matter what they tried to tell him, the Creator refused to acknowledge their existence. He discredited the idea of them possessing thoughts and feelings.

“Luther! You still don’t get it, do you?” Blair shouted in frustration after he refused to listen.

“Shut up already, Blair!” he retorted in the same tone. “It’s you who doesn’t understand! Data should obey the will of their creator and submit to deletion!”

It was Sophia who reacted first as she held her staff out to point at him. “We won’t give up!”

“Don’t think everything will go your way! We’re not your toys!” Fayt added beside her as he drew his sword.

Nel had her blades ready and was preparing a spell when Luther decided it was time to fight back. Realistically, he had no chance against ten powerful fighters coming at him at once. He was no more powerful or stronger than his security team back at the Sphere Company. Thanks to the practice they had fighting the Executioners he created, they easily overpowered him.

The spy wasn’t sure if she should be disgusted or relieved when her maker fell over in pain and began muttering to himself in shock. It simply felt wrong to surpass that which created her, but at the same time, it was more proof that Blair’s words were true. They had evolved and were now the same as the 4D beings- this was a victory they deserved. She did feel a little bad when Blair expressed concern over her brother and rushed over to his side.

“Luther… Please stop this,” she pleaded in a gentle tone before she glanced up at them. “Hurry, everyone. Get the Eternal Sphere backup. I’ll try to fill in the gaps the best I can.”

Fayt nodded and was about to rush over to the console, but a glint came to Luther’s eyes before he stood up and knocked the boy over.

“Now I see…” he muttered in an enlightened voice. “It’s because I took the easy way out by only erasing the problematic data. If the viruses are working together to create their own data, then I should delete everything!”

“L-Luther?” Blair called out in concern as she tried to touch his arm, only to be pushed back as he rushed over to the console. Nel began to wonder if he might’ve hit his head during the fight as he began laughing in a crazy manner while giving his manifesto on how to fix the problem.

He was typing something down very quickly, putting Maria’s skills to shame. “It all ends now. No more of your silly tricks. I’ll delete the whole universe!”

At that moment, there was a hum and everything seemed to come alive within the room. Something was happening and the spy didn’t like it. Luther continued to laugh as glowing light surrounded him and lifted him into the air. Blair tried again to get him to stop, sounding very worried about his well-being, but nothing was getting to him. He proved that he was beyond the reaches of sanity when he revealed his new ‘armor’ and challenged everyone once again.

Luther then put up a force field on the console so that no one could mess with it unless he was defeated. Blair quickly warned them that they had something of a countdown before the deletion program began and everything would be destroyed.

It was by far the hardest battle Nel had ever fought. With the addition of the time limit and the fate of the universe, Luther was also suddenly vastly more powerful and faster than before. He was showing them the true powers of a creator. She couldn’t count how many times she was knocked out or when she thought she was going to lose her friends. There was even a point when she considered confessing her regrets to Albel during a quick healing session, thinking that they could very well die. But the Wicked One wouldn’t hear of it and quickly berated her for losing hope when they still had a chance in winning.

“You’re stronger than this, woman,” he told her with a growl before he charged back into battle. She soon berated herself for having those thoughts. He was right, of course- this was the final battle and if they failed, they would die anyway. There was no point in thinking about life or death at this point. She picked up her blades and followed Albel back into the fray, giving it all she had.

Somehow, they managed to win without anyone on their side dying in the process. Luther was stunned, then worried when he began fading away. He still questioned their existence and couldn’t believe that he lost at all. Blair had a flash of hurt in her eyes as he disappeared, but she held in her emotions and quickly rushed over to the console as the force field vanished.

The spy struggled to catch her breath and let the adrenaline die down in her body as the programmer frantically began attempting to kill the deletion program. Suddenly a glint caught Nel’s eye and she turned to glance at the monoliths. One by one, the pictures glowed, then turned black. It was slow at first, but soon the blackened circles began appearing at a faster rate.

“Oh no,” Blair muttered in frustration as she listed areas that were disappearing, “The SNC, the small congulent economy, has been erased. M31, the andromadic galaxy erased. IC1613 erased. NGG6822 erased. At this rate, everything will be deleted.”

So that was it- they gave it their all and still failed. The entire universe as they knew it was going to disappear. Nel glanced over to Albel worriedly and found that he was already staring back at her. For once, the arrogance usually present on his face was replaced with concern and defeat. She was compelled to stand beside him as she waited for Blair to announce the end.

“I-It’s not over yet. There may be something I can still do, but I can’t guarantee that it will work,” the grey haired woman said as she briefly glanced over her shoulder. When she noticed that everyone was beginning to fade, she let out a panicked sound and faced them.

“It’s okay, we believe in you,” Sophia encouraged with a weak smile. Blair nodded and returned to her work with determination.

“Right, I’ll see what I can do.”

But at this rate, would she be able to save them before they were deleted? Nel glanced at her hands and witnessed the sickening sensation of being able to see the other side of the room through them. Her existence was fading and there was a likely chance that she wouldn’t be saved.

She felt very tired and she wasn’t sure if it was from the battle or the program. In a moment of weakness, she leaned against Albel, then decided to rest her back against his. To Nel, deletion was death and if they were going to die, then she couldn’t think of a more honorable one beside a noble warrior and with good friends. She only wished she had the chance to say goodbye to Clair and apologize for leaving her in a stressful time.

“I wonder what’s going to happen?” Maria inquired, feeling the life draining from her body.

“Just believe,” Fayt replied, trying to sound hopeful and encouraging. “Just believe we exist here and now.”

“You’re right. We’re not just mere data that someone created,” the blue haired girl said, feeling somewhat comforted.

Sophia had to force the cheer past her tired tone, but she also was enthusiastic with Fayt’s words. “Just because we were told to accept deletion doesn’t mean we have to give up!”

“That’s right, Sophia! Choose to live!”

All around Nel, everything faded to darkness and it soon overtook her. She let Fayt’s last words linger in her mind as she felt herself fade away. They shouldn’t rely on Blair to save them- and she didn’t sound that confident she could do anything at all. It was up to them to somehow survive and continue existing. …But could they really defy the will of their creator?

I knew you really exist- I never stopped believing. All I could do was provide you a universe, but everything else is up to you. Only you can decide your fate.

Was that Blair’s voice? Then again, it could’ve been a memory. Didn’t she say something similar to that before? Nel figured that it had to be just a memory because images began flitting through her mind. This must’ve been the famous ‘life flashing before the eyes’ that happened before death.

She saw her father, Clair and Adray, the queen and Lasselle, and her subordinates. She remembered the times when Fayt and Cliff first came into her life and the journey she went on to save the galaxy. Then Albel’s face came into view, followed by images of her country and the smiling faces of the people therein.

…She couldn’t leave that behind. There was still so much she had to do! There were promises she still had to uphold and debts she had to repay. She still had to fulfill that task for Albel to ensure that his country didn’t go to war with hers again. And- she still hadn’t had a chance to try out a future with Albel. She couldn’t let it end now!

Suddenly the spy took in a deep breath and let it out before she let her head lean back to rest more firmly against his upper back and neck. It was then that she realized that she could still feel Albel and his warmth. She also noticed that her hand was clasped tightly in his human one and that she could feel the life still in him. Albel still existed- and that meant she was still there as well.

As her awareness completely returned to her, she noticed that there was something cool and soft pressing against her side, almost as if she were laying on something. Nel finally dared to open her eyes and found that she was no longer in that dying space. A light breeze hit her face and caused the strands of her hair to tickle her cheek.

Stunned, she moved to sit up and examine her surroundings. They were outside, sitting on lush green grass. The sky was a vibrant blue with a few white, rolling clouds gliding with the wind. Nel quickly glanced behind her and found Albel starting to sit up as well, wearing a similar stunned face.

“It looks like…” she found herself talking in a near breathy tone, her own voice almost sounding foreign to her.

“Elicoor,” he finished for her as he glanced around. “The Sanmite region, if I’m not mistaken.”

Was this some kind of trick? Didn’t they get deleted along with everything else? She almost wanted to entertain the thought that they did die and this was some kind of after life, but she doubted the 4D beings would set aside such a world for them- not after the trouble Luther went through of trying to get rid of everything.

They heard a groan nearby and found that Adray and Roger were also with them and they were just coming to. Upon further inspection, Nel could see the others were just materializing further off. It seemed she and Albel were the first to arrive.

She accepted Albel’s offer of help when he stood up and she quickly discovered that she was no longer tired or in pain. They were fully healed and rested, as if they were never in a fight for their lives. The question on everyone’s minds was ‘what happened?’ and ‘was everything okay?’, but they had other worries before they could even try to answer that.

“Hey! Fayt’s not here!” Peppita pointed out worriedly.

“Damn! Don’t tell me that after all that, he didn’t make it?” Cliff inquired angrily before Sophia shook her head.

“No- he’ll be here. I’m sure he’s just late,” she said in a reassuring and hopeful tone. Had anyone other than Sophia said that, they would’ve received a sympathetic look before their delusions were shattered. But for some reason, the girl wasn’t as deluded as she let on and most of the hopeful things she relayed did come true somehow.

It seemed to be the case this time as Fayt began materializing near her feet. Everyone rushed over to him, some hiding the relief they felt as they gazed down at the boy and waited for him to awaken. He was just as happy, shocked, and relieved as everyone else when he realized where he was.

They did have their theories as to what had happened. Maria mostly proclaimed that their minds were real and that everything was simply a perception. Cliff proposed that Blair managed to save them in time and Nel secretly wondered if anyone else had heard the programmer’s voice when they were in the void. Chances were that both theories were correct. Either way, philosophy was not her favorite subject and she was just eager start living the life she fought to have.

“In any case, this means we won,” Albel assented also wanting to end the speculations.

“Yeah, does it really matter? Haven’t we taken care of everything? If we have, then let’s just leave it at that,” Cliff suggested so that the bluenettes could stop trying to think so hard on it.

Fayt nodded then before he let out a smile. Actually, everyone was smiling- even Albel. “Good point. We exist here, and so does the universe. And that’s enough… Let’s go. Let’s go back to where we belong.”

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

            It was the second time Nel had to say goodbye to her off-world friends, but this time there were promises to see each other again. Peppita swore that she was going to find a way to get her troupe to perform on the planet while Sophia promised that she would try to visit, if possible. As for Fayt- first he wanted to find his mother with Sophia, then he had plans to come back to Elicoor and settle down.

After Maria mentioned that she was considering disbanding Quark, Cliff announced that he was going to continue to roam around as a third party mediator like he did before Maria took over and Mirage was going to follow him, as always. The blue haired girl wasn’t sure what she was going to do afterward, but she promised to command the Diplo for a little while longer so she could transport everyone until they were all settled.

The Elicoorians stood on the field, staring at the sky long after the off-worlders were transported back on the ship. It was Roger who moved first, saying that he wanted to go home and tell his friends about how he ‘single-handedly’ saved the universe with his ‘henchmen’. Adray soon took the hint and left after the Menodix, giving what he thought was a sly wink as he did so. The aged runologist claimed that he was going back to finish the mission he was originally on.

It wasn’t long before Albel and Nel were alone on that field, left to their own devices. Nel wanted nothing more than to find the nearest bed and rest for the next few days, but she knew there was one more order of business before she could do so.

“I suppose now is as good a time as any to discuss what to do now,” she began as she rested her hands on her flanks and leveled a cool gaze at Albel. “In a few days, after some rest, I think I will see Her Majesty and tell her about our marriage. I believe it’s time she is made aware of it.”

It was a bold thing for her to say- after all, she was taking the next step and risking her relationship to become public knowledge. Deep down the spy knew her queen would forgive her at that point, but there was still the issue of the commoners who were under the influence of wartime propaganda. In order to strive for peace, she was going to have to brave them sooner or later.

“It’s for the best,” the Wicked One agreed as he eased into his relaxed stance and rested his claw over his sword hilt. “But before you do that, there is something I must tell you. It’s something that’s been on my mind for quite some time.”

It was actually several disjointed thoughts that combined into one idea over the course of the last few days. Starting with an idea of what to do for the rest of his life and ending with planetary defense, Albel the Wicked came up with a plan that addressed all points and paved the way to solve them.

“We’ve been going about achieving peace the wrong way. Eliminating the issues that could lead to war is one thing, but you and I are prideful and arrogant- and we have comrades that are worse and more stubborn than we are. So long as we are Aquarians or Glyphians, we’ll never view each other as equals.”

He had a point- Nel was proud of her kingdom, even despite the false religion the people clung to- and it was obvious that he loved his country with the way he worked so hard to protect it. The whole basis of their relationship was dependant on peace between the kingdoms and they agreed to separate and fight should war manifest again. But as her feelings for Albel grew, she was dreading the idea of having to fight him on the battlefield. She would do it for her country, of course, but it wouldn’t be easy killing someone she loved.

“So what do you have in mind? Do you think there is a way to make us ignore national pride?” she inquired, patiently waiting to hear what he had in mind. If there was one thing she picked up since becoming his mate, it was trust in his decisions. His ideas could be cold and calculating at times, but they were for the good of everyone. So long as it involved an equal opportunity for her country to receive the same benefit, she could agree to whatever he had planned.

Albel closed his eyes for a moment as he gathered his words, as he knew they were not what she would want to hear initially. “There is a way, but it won’t be easy. If you are with me, then you must abandon all notions of Aquaria or being Aquarian. What we should focus on is the one thing our countries have in common: our ancestral Aquor.”

What he was suggesting was a slow assimilation into one country- he wanted to resurrect the ancient kingdom of old. It definitely wasn’t going to be easy, but he pointed out that if his king took on an Aquarian bride, then it could pave the way for a single monarchy should her queen fail to have an heir or choose to step down. Another issue would be the vastly different customs observed by the two kingdoms, but that could disappear with time. Albel wasn’t insinuating that everything would happen overnight- he believed that it could take the next generation to adapt to the new ideals and create new traditions.

“To be honest, I’m not sure if it will work, but I do know that it begins with us,” he finished before he stared at her expectantly, waiting for her answer.

Nel paused as she thought on it. The fact that it would be difficult and that he wasn’t even fully confident with his plan wasn’t exactly reassuring, but it wasn’t as if attempting it would cause any harm to their kingdoms. Not only that- it would give them something to do. She needed missions to focus on and he needed battles to entertain him.

Had this come up back before Fayt and Cliff had shown up, she would’ve scoffed at the idea of working with a Glyphian, let alone Albel the Wicked, but now… She valued the journey she went on and was happy to have gotten to known him despite the rough start they had to their relationship. It was possible for her people to get along with his- they just needed time and the chance to get to know each other.

There was a smile on her face that was almost hidden by her scarf as she took one more step closer to him and replied. “I’m with ya. Let’s work together to protect the lands our fathers died for- and what we risked our own lives for.”

His grin was smaller and there was a hint of relief in his eyes that she agreed with his idea. He also moved closer, making her tilt her head up to meet his eyes.

“Then…from this moment on, we’re Aquorians, striving for the prosperity of Aquor.”

It was a decision that Nel never once regretted. Now that they were free from the gods, it was up to them to shape their futures as they saw fit. Together they can change their world for the better.

THE END

To the Epilogue

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