4. The Reason for Fighting

Chapter 4

The Reason for Fighting

            Thanks to her talk with Clair, they were a little late in leaving and had to stay the night in Peterny. Nel decided to use that time to reflect on the day and try to get over it. She knew that once she was back in Aquios, she would be too busy to even think, and she didn’t need visions of Albel haunting her in the back of her mind. Once she was finally alone in her room, she took out the note and read it again.

It still sounded like him being an ass to her, though she was a little disturbed by his declaration that she was his, as if she were property. But, as much as she wanted to deny it, he did have intentions of wanting to take her again. She wasn’t quite sure exactly how he could accomplish such a thing with the distance between them. …But he did manage to successfully separate her from her party before by knocking them out. Apris, did that mean he would infiltrate Aquios just to get to her again?

Nel shook her head to clear away that ludicrous thought. No, that was impossible for someone like him. …Come to think of it, what did she know about Albel the Wicked? All she knew was from her own observations from battle. The most she did in her spy work was gather intelligence for the war only. She didn’t breach anyone’s personal space to find out what they did in their personal lives. …Not unless they were targets for assassination.

The only time she ever saw him as ‘wicked’ was when he’d torment his own soldiers and when he addressed people he viewed as beneath him. But she also saw him merciful to his enemies. He wasn’t particularly nice about it, but he was honorable to others. He also did keep his word and let her subordinates go. And he let her go even though he could’ve easily defeated Fayt and Cliff back when they were too weak to fight. Nel could concede that ‘wicked’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘heartless’, but it also meant that her knowledge of him was lacking. He could be a completely different person than what she was led to believe.

She closed her eyes for a brief moment and an image of him came to her. It wasn’t a usual scene of him fighting or glaring venomous daggers at any who got too close to him. Instead she remembered that look her gave her when she tried to touch his arm. For a brief moment, he appeared vulnerable, something that Nel never would’ve expected to see on his face. There was a story behind his damaged arm, one that could probably explain why he acted the way he did. Though, she hadn’t even known that he’d lost use of his arm. She always thought the claw was only just a weapon.

How many people got to see that pained look? It couldn’t have been many considering that people were too scared to be close to him. If he ever showed even an ounce of weakness to anyone, then less people would be afraid of him. So why did he let her get so close? Why did he trust her even though he knew she was his enemy? He had to have been foolish to trust her… or maybe he was actually that strong, that he could allow others to see his pain and still destroy them later.

Nel glared some as she banished both the thought and the image. Maybe he could’ve just been a sex-starved soldier who was desperate for female interaction. The Glyphian army didn’t have any women, so they had little contact with the fairer sex. He could’ve chosen any woman, maybe even one of her subordinates, if they weren’t injured. …Then again, he said that he wasn’t interested in other women. He told her that he was only interested in her and that he would’ve taken her as a wife if he could.

And then it came to her… that was why she stopped resisting him. He acknowledged that she was a soldier and a spy and that she wasn’t suited for common noblewoman duties. He accepted her for who she was and still viewed her as a worthy bride. Nel didn’t really have any use for a husband or children, but she couldn’t deny that she was lonely. Even soldiers needed someone to love and comfort them between battles, but there were no men in Aquaria that would offer such comfort unless she gave up her lifestyle. Clair only offered her some comfort, but not the kind of intimacy that she wanted.

That was why she willingly went with Albel. It wasn’t that she wanted to love him in particular, but that she wanted that feeling of being loved and accepted and he was offering it. She was taking advantage of the fact that he seemed to want her in a romantic way, just so she could at least experience it once. And she appreciated how he could make her feel like a woman without having to treat her like one.

At the very least, her revelation comforted her. What went on between the two of them wasn’t exactly ‘meaningless’ sex, but nothing lasting could come out of the union. Albel wasn’t using her or treating her like some cheap woman with no morals, and technically she was the one taking advantage of the situation. That was a lot better in her mind than believing that they were just having sex because they felt like it.

So that was one mystery solved, but still so many other unanswered questions. She still didn’t understand why he chose her of all people. She understood that he didn’t want a weak woman, but someone who could support herself. Well, she wasn’t exactly the only one who fit that category. There were several women in the Aquarian army who were good fighters and could support themselves. Clair was one of them. So what made Nel different from all of them?

The other problem she had was how Albel acted as if he knew a lot about her. He somehow knew her by face, which wasn’t good for a spy. Nel had full confidence in her spying abilities, so there should’ve been no way for him to know her by face. Unless… She did recall staring straight at him during the surprise attack on Arias. It was only for a brief moment that their eyes met before she had to focus on fighting other Glyphian soldiers. That shouldn’t have been enough to get his attention. She didn’t have a direct confrontation with him. In fact, he called a retreat before she could try to reach and fight him.

Satisfied, Nel decided to get up and take a bath before retiring for the night. Now that she was able to pinpoint why she went off with Albel, she didn’t really care about the rest. It simply didn’t matter. After all, the only way she was going to get the answers was if she went to Airyglyph and asked him herself. What was the point in getting those answers if nothing more was going to happen in their (for a lack of a better word) relationship?

As much as Albel liked the idea, there was no way for them to get married. She wasn’t interested in a marriage with him and no church or government would allow it. Regardless of what his letter promised, she was certain they were empty words that he wrote to comfort himself.

But it wasn’t until she was nude and in front of a mirror when she noticed something wrong. There, on the very shoulder that Albel relentlessly attacked was a new rune that she had never seen before. She stared at the new marking, stunned, before she hesitatingly raised a hand to touch it. The area was still tender, but it was the place where he bit her and teeth marks were almost gone under the swirls and patterns of the new rune. Was it really a runological mark? And was Albel the one responsible for it?

The only thing she did know was that it wasn’t there before her last encounter with Albel…

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

What was supposed to be a night to reflect and forget ended up backfiring on Nel. Now she couldn’t get Albel out of her mind. The new mark on her both made her worried and curious. It appeared to be a rune of some kind, but she didn’t feel any new powers, nor did it seem to have any obvious traits. When morning came around, it was a full-fledged rune and had even morphed colors to match the ones she already had on her body. Albel’s teeth marks had long since disappeared.

She was more bothered by how it appeared. If Albel was the culprit, then how did he do it? Only runologists could use or create runes and Airyglyph didn’t have anyone with the skill. Surely Albel the Wicked didn’t have any knowledge over the craft? If he did, she never once witnessed him using it in battle. He didn’t even have any runes on his limbs or belly. She would know since she had the opportunity to see him completely exposed.

…But, considering the rush they were in to get straight into the act, she didn’t really have the chance to explore his whole body. There could’ve been something tattooed on his back as that was more of a tradition for male runologists. Of course that was assuming that he was some kind of runologist. There was no way that he could be. Airyglyph had no knowledge of runology because that was a power bestowed to Aquarians from Apris and the other gods.

There had to be an explanation somewhere. Maybe some random dragon in the mines cursed her and what she had was actually a curse mark. That was a little more believable. But if that was the case, what curse was it and what would it do to her? She felt fine at the moment, but there was no telling when the curse could activate. Nel decided that it was imperative to get to Aquios soon and ask one of the scholars of runology about it. There could be a way to get rid of it if she knew more about what it was.

She made sure to get a quick sketch of the pattern before she finished getting dressed and stored the scrap of paper inside her armor. It was better to show it on paper than on her body, as she would prefer to not alert anyone that she had it in case it was something lethal or (as far-fetched as it sounded) that it really came from a Glyphian.

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

When they arrived in Aquios, things got busy fast. The moment they entered the gates, Fayt spied a woman crouched on the ground and had to inquire if something was wrong. Nel was privately annoyed that he was getting distracted when they were expected at the castle for a report until she discovered that both he and Cliff knew the woman.

Nel didn’t know that they had a third companion traveling with them on their strange lump of metal they called a ‘ship’. She could understand why they separated seeing as how it prevented the woman from getting caught and tortured by Airyglyph, but Nel was a tad bit offended that they didn’t mention the woman to her at all. After all, if she had known there was a third member to their party, they could’ve sought her out and made sure she was protected from danger…even though the blonde woman appeared rather capable of taking care of herself.

Nel decided to forgive and forget. It wasn’t like she was making good-natured requests of them when they first met, so she could understand if they were suspicious of her and didn’t want their companion to get mixed up with Aquaria either. Besides, she didn’t have time to reflect on it or ask for an introduction when they discovered the girl that was cradled in the woman’s arms.

“Ameena!?” Fayt cried in surprise when he was able to recognize her.

“What?” Cliff called out, finally tearing his eyes away from his female companion.

Nel crossed her arms and wondered, “What is she doing here?”

She wasn’t really expecting an answer. She was only wondering because the last time she had seen the sickly girl, she was too weak to get out of bed. How on Elicoor did Ameena find the strength to travel this far away from her home in that condition? But Fayt’s temper seemed to have been short and his mistook Nel’s question for an accusation that he knew everything about the girl.

“How should I know?” he shouted harshly, but then quickly took on a worried tone, “We gotta get her help!”

Nel forgave his tone, knowing that he was only concerned over Ameena. She gave a single nod before she pointed over to the inn.

“Take her to the inn and I’ll go summon a doctor,” she ordered before she ran off towards the castle.

“Please hurry!” Fayt shouted back at her.

Nel could admit that she was worried about Ameena too. Even though she didn’t personally know the girl, she did have some sympathy for her. Ameena was yet another victim of the war and it was Nel’s job to aid them. Not only that, she did kind of owe the girl for helping Fayt decide to help Aquaria.

The urgency of the situation successfully cleared her mind and made her forget about Albel and the rune on her shoulder. She quickly ran inside the castle and headed straight for what was supposed to be her office. The leaders of each branch had one, but Nel barely used it since she was more of a field operative than a deskwork person. The offices were clustered together in one area of the castle and were right next to the infirmary where she could find a doctor.

But just as she approached the infirmary, one of her many subordinates caught sight of her and rushed over.

“Lady Nel! I have an urgent report from Airyglyph!” she announced as she gave a salute. By the look on the young brunette’s face, Nel knew that it was serious, but she couldn’t stop what she was doing just yet.

“I will hear your report in a moment,” she told her calmly as she strode over to the door and opened it.

“But Lady-”

Nel didn’t give her a chance to finish her protest as she stuck her head in and ordered loudly, “I need a doctor to report to the inn in the city. A girl has collapsed and she is in immediate need of medical assistance.”

Several heads shot over to where she was standing, but only one of the doctors replied. “Y-yes, I will head over there right away, Lady Nel.”

“Thank you,” she replied gratefully as the dark haired doctor started gathering her supplies. She knew she could trust her to go there on her own without delay so she turned back to her subordinate and gestured for her to follow her.

Considering that she was most likely holding sensitive information, Nel decided that it was a better idea to go to her office. She let her subordinate in first before she closed the door and walked over to her desk to sit on the edge of it.

Every now and then, Nel would assign someone to do the paperwork for her and they would work in the small space. But even then, the place was too clean and orderly, like no one ever used it. The papers that were currently out (assumedly the full detailed report of what her subordinate was about to tell her) were stacked neatly before the chair behind the desk and waiting to be notarized. But other than that, her desk was spotless.

“Okay, I will hear your report now.”

“Yes, but first, I must tell you that I had to report to Magistrate Lasselle because of the nature of the report,” she began in a slight apologetic tone. That meant it was so extremely urgent that her majesty needed to know about it. Nel inwardly cursed in the back of her mind for returning so late. Had she been here on time, her subordinate would’ve reported to her and she would’ve gone directly to the queen. Lasselle, while he meant well, wasn’t the type rush out and listen to lowly soldiers. Furthermore, not many spies in her command liked dealing with the magistrate because he could be so arrogant and demanding.

“Was her majesty alerted to the news then?” Nel inquired, hoping that Lasselle took the report seriously. She hid her sigh of relief when the younger spy nodded.

“Yes, he went to her straight way. Now for the report: Many operatives in Kirlsa have been all but chased out due to an increase of knights in the area. We were able to uncover that they are indeed gathering for a full-scale invasion. Tynave and Farleen have long since returned to active duty and have been seeing campsites forming in the Kirlsa-Aire Hills border. This further proves the intent of an invasion.”

Nel stayed stoically calm as she heard the report, but deep down she felt a cold dread. Thanks to Demetrio, she was well aware that the enemy knew about their weapon. Of course, all but Albel had been slain as they tried to escape with the copper so there was a good chance that he was the one who reported him. While that was to be expected, Nel couldn’t stop the brief feeling of betrayal from coursing through. Albel had no obligations towards her and he was loyal his kingdom. She couldn’t expect him to not say anything to his king when he knew full well that her kingdom planned to endanger Airyglyph with their new weapon.

“I see… I suppose they intend to destroy us before we finish the Thunder Arrow,” she muttered, successfully hiding her inner emotions.

Her subordinate nodded, “Yes. That is what we suspected as well. All three brigades are attending this battle and Vox is spearheading it all. He has taken control of the Black Brigade and half of the Storm Brigade. Woltar and his remaining men are staying back to defend Kirlsa and to prevent us from invading through the mountain pass.”

Nel slightly quirked an eyebrow over the news. Vox took command of Albel’s brigade? From what she and her other spies witnessed from the many public disagreements between the Wicked One and the duke, it would be a cold day in the Urssa Lava Caves before Albel would ever trust Vox with the lives of his men. Something…wasn’t right about that report. She didn’t really want to ask, but she knew she had to.

“…And what of Albel? Will we have to worry about him in the frontlines?” she inquired, keeping up with her business-like attitude.

“Albel the Wicked has gone missing ever since he returned to Airyglyph. None of our operatives have seen him around. We suspect he may still be recovering from his fight with you and the engineers. It seems to be very likely that he will not be participating in this battle.”

The words ‘Thank Apris’ passed through her mind and it took her a moment to realize exactly why she was relieved. She wasn’t just glad that he wasn’t out there to pose a threat on the battlefield, but that he was also out of the way and safe from being killed. …But why did she care? It would only complicate things if he stayed alive…

After her initial relief faded, another knot formed in her stomach as she remembered that there was still something wrong with Albel not participating. She knew first hand that he wasn’t all that injured. By all means, he should be fully healed from whatever wounds Fayt and Cliff may have put on him and ready to fight again. There had to be something else keeping him back. Then again, the report was only speculation on his actions because they hadn’t seen him in a long while. He could show up at the last minute.

…But Nel didn’t believe that was the case. She couldn’t explain how or why, but she felt like something bad had happened to him. She had no clue what, though. Unfortunately, she had no way of finding out either. She was the only one who could infiltrate the castle and get inside information safely. Her other subordinates were in charge of gathering intelligence on the streets of the city and outside of the castle walls. The fact that he was considered ‘missing’ to her subordinates disturbed her greatly. He had to leave the castle eventually, so where did he go?

Nel closed her eyes and thought through the situation. The queen knew about this, so surely she was about to give the order to send available troops to Arias. She needed to tell Fayt and Cliff about it soon because she should be out there on the frontlines as well.

“Good work,” she praised with a nod, “Is there anything else you need to tell me?”

“Yes, I just received a missive from Lady Clair. She is requesting for any available runological weapons to be sent to Arias to aid them,” the brunette replied as she held up the rolled up parchment.

“I see. I will inform Her Majesty now. Order all spies on Airyglyph’s border to go into hiding and just observe from afar. The knights will probably be restless and paranoid enough to catch and destroy anyone attempting to spy,” Nel ordered as she accepted the missive.

The soldier saluted to her, “Yes, ma’am! Right away!”

Nel waited for her to leave the office before she let out a sigh. So much to do and so little time…just how she liked it. It was better to keep busy than to worry about someone she shouldn’t even care about. With the missive in hand, she immediately headed over to the second floor to inform the queen about the request. After a brief recap of what was happening close to Arias (since Lasselle missed a few details) the queen soon ordered that the researchers begin gathering all available supplies and weapons and head to Arias. Nel immediately volunteered to give the order on her behalf since she intended to visit Lady Elena on the way.

She knew she needed to let Fayt and Cliff in on what was happening, but she also figured that they were too worried about Ameena and her condition to be bothered yet. The doctor would probably take a while in examining her anyway.

Dion was happy to see her when she entered the research facility, but his good cheer faded when she gave him the news. The researcher mourned the fact that they wouldn’t be able to use the copper they’d obtained, but promised that he would try to get as much work as possible done on the trip to Arias. He then began commanding the other researchers to begin loading everything that was needed.

Knowing that he would be fine without her, she headed next door to the one researcher who wouldn’t be leaving. She knocked on the door a few times to announce her presence before she entered. Elena was lost in her research books once again and had a large pile surrounding her on the floor and on her desk. For a moment, Nel almost couldn’t see her from where she was standing until she walked closer to the desk.

“Lady Elena, may I speak with you?” she requested politely, hoping that the she wasn’t too far-gone in her little world. Sometimes Elena could get so engrossed with her books that no one could reach her for several hours. Thankfully, she was aware that Nel was in her study and briefly glanced at her as a signal that she could speak.

Nel reached into her armor to pull out the scrap of paper before she shoved some loose papers out of the way and placed it on her desk. “I was wondering if you knew what this was.”

Elena’s eyes drifted briefly from her book to the sketch. Something apparently caught her attention since she had to double take and glance at it again. Her eyes widened in surprise as she put down her book to examine the pattern on the paper.

“My goodness! Wherever did you find this crest?” she wondered in amazement before she stared up at Nel.

“There was a rune that looked like it on some woman’s shoulder,” she replied smoothly, not missing a beat. Elena wasn’t trained like she was so the researcher didn’t have ways to tell that she was lying. Though technically it was true. Nel just didn’t mention that she was that ‘woman’.

For a moment Elena glanced up at her like she didn’t believe her, but then she returned her attention to the crest.

“Hmm, I did not think I would ever see something like this again,” she mused with a smile before she explained, “I do not know much about it, but I do know that this rune was part of a tradition that was started by the royal family of Aquor. I cannot recall what this particular rune symbolizes, but it represents a status or a kind of union that is still recognized today in both Aquarian and Glyphian cultures.”

So it wasn’t a curse… That eliminated the dragon theory, but it also brought back the possibility that Albel did it. But why did the rune appear to be dragon-like? The central piece of the pattern had a thin serpentine body that resembled the beast, though it wasn’t the same type of dragon that she faced recently. Still, Nel had heard of a ritual where dragons bonded to humans and that was how Glyphians came to depend on them as war companions and as transportation. Though being branded by a dragon because it thought she was worthy was as far-fetched as a Glyphian knowing runology…

Nel inquired as to why the pattern resembled a dragon and Elena was more than happy to explain.

“Yes, the dragon depicted in this rune is the same one that represented Aquaria I and her family. This type of rune is something that is only passed down in the family line, and the few descendants would be the only ones who would know what this represents. Because it is still practiced with those certain clans, Her Majesty must recognize the authority of the runes. Actually, you know one of the descendants. You should ask him about it,” she offered before Nel stiffened. She knew of one? Why did she get the feeling that she was about to find out something horrific and earth shattering?

“Really?” she muttered with skepticism, “Who?”

Elena’s smile was pleasant as she replied, “Adray Lasbard. His direct ancestor was a brother to the last queen of Aquor. He knows his family traditions, but he has yet to pass them down to his daughter. Though considering the ridiculous war and Clair’s promotion, he is hardly to blame.”

…That actually was a pleasant surprise. For a moment, Nel thought Elena was going to say… On second thought, she didn’t want to think of that scenario. With the word ‘him’ so many possible candidates floated past her mind: Lasselle, one of the creepy old noblemen who liked flirting with younger ladies… Even Albel came up, and that would’ve been a huge and cruel twist of fate.

But, if Adray was a descendant of the royal line of Aquor, then that meant Clair was too. Nel had to wonder if her friend even knew. She hoped not, otherwise Nel would have to wonder why Clair never said anything before. As surrogate sisters, they were supposed to share all secrets with each other. Nel had always admired Clair and hoped to be a great as she was in runology and battle. She even once had a slight girl crush on her when they were younger, but that faded away once she took on her father’s career and she obtained an identity of her own.

Now that Nel knew her friend’s lineage, it was no wonder why the other Crimson Blade was such a powerful runologist. They say those with purer bloodlines to the first Holy Mother have greater runological force. But at least Nel could take pride in the fact that she could almost surpass Clair in fighting ability. She just had to train a little harder, and maybe one day she could beat her in a sparring match.

“Really. Too bad he is off on a mission. I’m quite curious about this rune,” Nel stated as she retrieved her sketch and secured it back in her armor. Elena hid her disappointment that she couldn’t see the rune anymore and quickly went back to her book.

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Once Adray gets wind of the coming invasion, he will rush back to defend us. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was already on his way,” she added before Nel could excuse herself.

A smile managed to grace her lips. That was very likely. He didn’t like to miss major battles. Adray himself had always been a good friend to her family and he even took it upon himself to act as Nel’s surrogate father when hers went missing and was later assumed dead. Even though her father’s death wasn’t all that long ago (what was it now, five years?), she still appreciated the support the aged runologist gave her.

“Then maybe I will have a chance to talk to him. Thank you very much, Lady Elena,” she said respectfully as she bowed to the lady.

Elena glanced at her one more time and nodded, “You are welcome, but good luck weaseling any information out of him. He can be surprisingly tight lipped about his family secrets.”

That meant Lady Elena once tried to learn of Adray’s heritage. Since they seemed to have special runological symbols, the researcher was naturally interested.

Nel left the research facility only slightly satisfied. At least whatever was on her wasn’t some deadly curse and she wasn’t about to worry about what else it could be until the war was over. She could always hope to run into Adray the after the battle and talk to him about it later.

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

With her minor chores complete, Nel decided to check up on Ameena and inform Fayt and Cliff of the situation. She also needed to ask them on behalf of the queen to help fight in the war. She knew her majesty wouldn’t come out and say it, but she did want Fayt to participate. She was certain he was an Arrow of Apris, and Nel knew she would feel at ease if he would go.

As she climbed the stairs and approached the room Ameena was staying in, she overheard the conversation that was going on. Apparently they had the means to cure Ameena, but their supplies were back in Airyglyph where they had to leave their ship. But Cliff had to point out how difficult it would be for them to get their ship back at this point.

“But Ameena… She’s running out of time!” Fayt said hysterically. Nel opened the door in time to see Cliff place a hand on the boy’s shoulder to calm him down.

“I know, but what can we do?” he reminded him.

“I’m sorry,” Nel interrupted as she entered the room, “We’re running out of time ourselves. Her Majesty requests your assistance.”

“Is something wrong?” Cliff wondered as he turned to glance at her.

Nel crossed her arms as she gave a brief description of what was currently happening. Soon, Ameena’s problem was nearly forgotten as Cliff shook his head and Fayt grew worried over the development. She could see the tired look in their eyes and knew that the information and whatever additional worries they had were taking their toll on them.

“So they’re trying to end it all in a single blow?” Fayt inquired once she was done.

“It looks like that. At any rate, Dion will head to Arias with every completed weapon at our disposal. I don’t know how much he will be able to accomplish-”

Suddenly Nel was cut off when a weakened voice called out Dion’s name. She turned to find that Ameena had awakened and was trying to sit up. Fayt immediately rushed over to her and tried to keep her from getting out of bed.

“Fayt?” she seemed visibly surprised to see him there.

“Why did you push yourself so hard to come here?” he asked her in a mild scolding tone.

Apparently, what brought the girl here was a rumor that a childhood friend of hers was in Aquios. Nel started to have a sinking suspicion who it was when she mentioned that the friend worked in the research facility. It didn’t take much to figure out that the first name she uttered when she had awakened was the same Dion that was about to go to war. Fayt, however, didn’t make the connection until much later when Ameena finally said the name of her friend.

“What? Dion is you long-lost friend?” he called out in surprise. Cliff didn’t appear all that surprised so it seemed the blue haired boy was the only one who couldn’t figure it out before then.

But Fayt’s reaction brought hope to the young girl and she one again tried to get out of bed. “Do you know him? Then that means Dion… He’s…He’s really here… I’m going to see him.”

She seemed determined to move, even though her body was protesting. Nel was stunned to see her feign so much strength over the thought of seeing her friend again. But before Ameena could succeed in getting the blanket off her, Fayt stopped her and the female engineer, shook her head.

“No, wait, you’re sick. You have to stay here,” she insisted, earning a desperate look from the sickly girl.

“But…”

“Ameena, you can’t move in the state you’re in. Look, I’ll bring Dion here to see you,” he volunteered as he patted her arm gently.

Normally Nel would’ve discouraged him from getting involved when they should be heading out to Arias as soon as possible. …But even she didn’t have the heart to keep two childhood friends separated from war away from each other. Especially not after the effort and danger Ameena was putting herself through. Plus, Dion was about to go to war. His safety wouldn’t be guaranteed should something happen to the Aquarian army. As much as she didn’t want to acknowledge the worst-case scenario, it was best to allow Dion this chance to see her. After all, it could be his last.

“Fayt…” Ameena began to protest, but he shook his head.

“Ameena, listen to me. I don’t want you running around and collapsing again!” he shouted with worry. This time she relented and rested her head back on her pillow.

“Okay.”

Fayt then asked the blonde woman- Mirage -to watch over her before he turned to Nel and inquired where Dion was.

“I’ll be right back,” he announced once she confirmed that he was still in the research lab. Cliff let out a chuckle over the breakneck speed the young boy used as he ran out the room and off towards the castle.

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

Nel felt like she was left in an awkward situation ever since Fayt left to retrieve Dion. Nothing was said in the room as Ameena went back to a light sleep. Nel stayed by the window to watch for Fayt’s return, but her eyes kept traveling back to the two blondes who where were also left in the room. As much of a flirt Cliff was, she couldn’t believe that he seemed to be in a relationship with the female engineer.

Every now and then, she would catch him with his hand on her shoulder or trying to skim his fingers down her arm teasingly. Nel could almost swear she saw him trying to nuzzle her near the neck in the corner of her eye. But when she turned her head, Mirage would give him a friendly shove as if to say ‘not in front of others’. She didn’t miss the sly and coy smiles they both had on their faces when Cliff backed away.

For a moment, Nel felt envious of them. She wished she had someone like that. Clair wasn’t enough, since all she could offer was comfort and someone to tell her secrets to. She wanted someone she could be intimate with and someone she could spend time together with. True, Clair could fit that role, but Nel didn’t feel comfortable seeing herself intimate with her like that. It wasn’t like women in her country couldn’t be in a romantic relationship with other women, but the thought of being with Clair like that didn’t feel right with her. She just couldn’t envision her filling that void in her.

But…who could? Seeing Cliff and Mirage like that was only reminding her that she was alone.

“Hey, what’s wrong Nelly?”

She was pulled out of her thoughts when she realized that Cliff was talking to her. She glanced up and him and saw him gesturing to her shoulder. “Your shoulder still hurtin’ you?”

When she dared to look down, she found that her traitorous hand was rubbing the rune that was hidden under her clothes. She had been doing that a lot lately. She couldn’t figure out why her body seemed to move of its own accord when she became deep in thought like that.

Nel shook her head and managed a smile, “No, I’m okay. I think this is just becoming a nervous habit.”

Cliff inclined his head. “I suppose that makes sense.”

He then glanced back to Mirage, before he whipped his head back to Nel when a thought occurred to him. “Oh! Come to think of it, you guys haven’t been introduced. Nel, this is Mirage Koas. You could say she my partner in crime. Mirage, this is Nel Zelpher. She’s like the head spy around here.”

Mirage leaned forward in her chair to acknowledge Nel, “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” she responded back with a nod.

“I do hope Cliff has been behaving himself. He does have the tendency to cause trouble,” Mirage stated with a smile, earning an offended look from the man.

“…Hey!”

Nel chuckled and shook her head, “Not at all. Both he and Fayt have been a great help to me.”

“I’m glad,” she replied before she shifted her gaze back up to her companion, “You be sure to stay on your best behavior.”

It was rather comical to see him rub his neck and meekly reply, “Yes ma’am…”

One moment, they were acting like a couple who couldn’t wait to be alone together, the next, she was acting like his caretaker. Though…Nel could agree that someone needed to keep the man in line.

“Ameena!”

Everyone faced the door as Dion appeared and then rushed over to her side. Ameena’s eyes fluttered open and the look of surprise and hope came to her face.

“Dion?” she whispered, as if she couldn’t believe her eyes.

The researcher immediately fell to his knees by her bedside and took her hand. “That’s right Ameena! It’s me! It’s Dion! Oh, you look so thin…”

Tears of joy fell from her eyes as she expressed how much she missed her friend. Nel soon realized that what they had was much more than a mere friendship. They were lovers, torn away from each other because of greedy officials who wanted to take over a kingdom. This was yet another example of what tragedies the war has brought on.

She approached Fayt, who had a softer look in his eyes and a small smile, and gestured for him to leave the room. Dion and Ameena needed privacy so they could try to recover some of the time that was lost between them. The blue haired boy offered no protest and quietly left, followed by Cliff and Mirage. Nel took one glance back at the scene in the room before she closed the door and followed the others to another room.

“All right, give me the dirt. Where do we stand on the battle front?” Cliff asked in a hushed tone.

Nel relayed everything she picked up from her subordinate and answered Cliff’s questions. She could tell that Cliff was disappointed to hear that Albel wasn’t going to attend. Ever since they had first met, the blonde man wanted nothing more than to pound the Glyphian general into submission. He was denied that chance when they met the second time because Fayt decided to be merciful. Of course, he was satisfied enough to insult Albel as they left so he wasn’t that upset with the news.

“…Well whatever. We’ll take on whoever they throw at us,” he eventually responded as he slammed his fist into the palm of his hand.

Nel was relieved to hear that he was ready and willing to fight. She felt bad enough already that she had been keeping them from their mission. After all, when she set out to rescue them in Airyglyph, she only intended to have them look at their weapon, but they went above and beyond her expectations. They willingly worked to ensure the weapon would be completed and even faced the enemy countless times. Now, they were going to fight in a war that didn’t involve them. But she couldn’t help but ask for their help. There were no other men or women in Aquaria, save for Adray and Clair, that had the strength and power these two possessed. Aquaria needed all the help they could get.

“I appreciate you saying that. And I know our leadership is counting on you-whether they come out and say it or not. Have no doubt; you will be a vital part of our defense,” Nel told him in a grateful tone. She meant every word and Cliff appeared very flattered.

“Well, it’s not like I can just let things go on their merry way now.” He then nudged Fayt, “In for a penny, in for a pound, right?”

But the blue haired engineer wasn’t paying attention. He had fallen into a somber mood since he left Dion and Ameena behind. He revealed that seeing them made them think of his own friend-and his father.

Nel could sympathize with the boy. Had she had the strength and ability, she would have gone to search for her father back when he disappeared. But she didn’t know the lands outside of Aquaria back then, and she had no clue where to look. All she could do was take up her father’s daggers and continue his work for him. That was the day she started to take her training very seriously. Not long after the war officially started a few years back, she was promoted to his old position as leader of the Secret Legion before she could even finish her training.

“It’s not really my place to say this but… I’m truly sorry. Sorry for keeping you here for so long. I know you want to go help your father.”

Fayt shook off her apology and told her not to worry about it. Nel couldn’t deny how desperately Aquaria needed their help, but it shouldn’t have come at the price Fayt would have to pay. All she could do was pray to Apris that he would someday find his father. Alive.

“I’ve said this before, but worrying won’t help. You have to focus-do what you can do now,” Cliff advised him. Fayt thought it over and finally agreed with his council.

“You’re right. All I can do is help this country… And figure out how we’re going to survive this,” he replied, feeling better about himself and the problems around him. Nel silently agreed with their thinking. That was how she coped with her father’s absence and got where she was today.

Dion soon joined them after they decided what Mirage should do. After hearing she was a good fighter, Nel was a little disappointed to hear Fayt ask her to stay with Ameena. But she had to concede that it was for the best. There was no need to drag even more people into the war-and someone needed to care for the girl while they were away.

She turned her attention to Dion and inquired, “Are you ready?”

“Yes… And we’ve no time to spare,” he responded. His features held a determined look as he pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. “I’m looking forward to having time to chat with Ameena once the war’s done.”

“That’s right… Another good reason to win this war,” Fayt agreed as a smile returned to his face.

“Yes, we’ll win this one. I promised Ameena we would,” Dion added as he mirrored that grin.

“Okay, let’s do it!” Cliff cheered in an effort to raise morale.

This was exactly why Nel was fighting: to end the war and give Aquaria peace. Aquaria had to win and she was going to win it for Dion and Ameena, for Fayt and his father, for all of the victims of war. And most importantly, she was going to win for her own father, who had died protecting the country he loved with all of his heart.

“All right, Dion, hurry up and finish your preparations,” Nel ordered before she turned to Fayt, “We’ll go on ahead to Arias.”

“Okay.”

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

They didn’t have much time to spare. Once Nel and the others parted ways with Dion and said their goodbyes to Mirage and Ameena, they gathered supplies and headed for the gates of the city. It was decided that if they kept a brisk pace, then they could make it to Arias by early evening. It should be enough time for them to receive their orders and prepare for the coming battle.

But before they could leave, yet another distraction was heading their way. There was a loud clacking sound that seemed to grow louder to the point where they couldn’t ignore it. The clacking sounded like wood hitting the cobblestone…

Nel tensed as she sensed a rush of power heading towards them. She turned and took on a fighting pose as the intruder drew closer. Fayt and Cliff grew concerned when they noticed a rather muscular old man was running towards them.

“Y-you?” she called out in a stunned voice when she realized who was chasing after them. Elena had warned her that Adray would be returning, but she hadn’t anticipated on seeing him this soon. She heard that Lasselle had sent him off to a distant island to investigate some king or whatever. Either the rumors about Adray being fast were true…or he never took the mission seriously and simply wandered the kingdom’s borders.

“Do you know him, Nelly?” Cliff wondered when she relaxed her stance.

“He’s Adray Lasbard. He used to be the leader of the Shield Legion and a Crimson Blade. He’s also one of the best-known swordsmen and engineer Aquaria has ever known. He’s not the man he once was, but even now there are many who think he is the best fighter in the entire kingdom,” Nel explained as the older man caught up with them. Adray was only winded for a brief moment and recovered almost instantly.

“I made it in time!” he announced in relief before he turned to Nel, “I have already reported to Her Majesty and that rat Lasselle. Can you believe I was sent to some land that was so far away it was not even on the map?”

Nel inclined her head and gave a cool look, “I’m sure the Magistrate had his reasons for sending you.”

For as long as Nel could remember, Lasselle and Adray had been at each other’s throats. She wasn’t sure what started the bad blood, but Lasselle made it very clear that he didn’t want Adray around when he retired from the Crimson Blade. That was why he sought for far away and impossible missions for Adray to go on in hopes the aged runologist would either get lost or go senile and forget what he was doing.

Adray let out a grunt. “Warriors should always be sent where their country needs them most. He should know that!”

“Well, I hope you gave him a piece of your mind,” Nel replied with a grin as she crossed her arms.

“And then some!” he boasted as he made a fighting gesture. Up until then, Fayt and Cliff had been staring at the newcomer with interest and respect. …That is until a small piece of information clicked in their minds.

“Wait a second-did you say ‘Lasbard’?” Fayt wondered in a stunned tone before he glanced at Nel, “Does that mean…?”

“Yes. He’s Clair’s father,” she replied with pride. Clair may have had her moments of embarrassment when her father was around, but she was just as proud of him as Nel was. Back in the day, he and Nel’s father worked hard for the prosperity of Aquaria. Everything that Nel and Clair were today was thanks to them.

But Nel was grinning for a different reason as Fayt and Cliff gave a deadpan stare at the aged runologist. One thing most strangers had a hard time believing was that Clair and Adray were related. In fact, it was harder to believe that someone like Adray was once married and had a child. Cliff leaned forward some to try to find some kind of similarity while Fayt squinted his eyes.

“Can’t you see the resemblance?” she prodded as she tried to hold back her laughter. Adray let out a giant grin that showed off his brilliant white teeth and made him look a little insane.

There was a long pause before both engineers muttered, “…No.”

“Ah well, Clair’s boundless beauty came from her mother, so it’s no surprise,” Adray admitted as he rubbed the back of his head.

Now that the joke was over, Nel turned to Fayt and gestured to the older man, “So what are you going to do, Fayt?”

“Do?” he repeated in a confused voice. The poor boy didn’t know that he was already Adray’s newest interest and that the runologist was going to follow him to the ends of the world.

“It’s obvious that Adray wants to come with us,” she pointed out, earning a look of shock.

“Whaaaat?”

Now that the old man knew the name of the blue haired boy, he leaned forward to smile down at him, “Ah, so you are Fayt! I’ve heard all about you! Let’s work together to drive out those Airyglyph weasels!”

“Uh…” A blush began to form on the boy’s face from the close proximity. He wasn’t expecting that someone would request joining their team and was thus unprepared to answer.

Adray wasn’t the type to take ‘no’ for an answer, so he pushed forward and struck while he had the opportunity. “Well said, m’boy! Together we can fight to protect this great land of Aquaria!”

Fayt looked like he was about to protest, but Adray wouldn’t give him the chance. He quickly spun the boy around and started pushing him toward the exit while insisting that they had no time to waste. Nel let out a chuckle before she shrugged and followed them. Cliff followed suit when he recovered from the random encounter.

And so the party gained a fourth member and Nel had a new opportunity to find out what the rune on her shoulder meant. The only question was when was a good time to ask?

To the next chapter

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