Chapter 20

By: Zosocrowe

Disclaimer: I do not own Star Ocean: Till the End of Time
I have merely borrowed a couple characters to createa silly fan story.
I have no money either.


Nel stared at the glyph on the wall, gazing at the crudely etched runes. In her hands she rolled the two pieces of the strange stone she and Albel had taken. Remembering the pendant, she recalled that those stones had been refined and polished. Great care had gone into setting them into the silver clasps. She wondered if that would have any bearing on whether or not these primitive stones would work.

She gazed at the wall for a moment longer and sighed. They really didn't have much choice. Turning to Albel, she took his hand and dropped one of the shards into it. Carefully, she closed his fingers and said, "Hang on to this."

He glowered at her before jerking away. "I'm not some brat," he muttered.

No time for arguing semantics, Nel turned away and stood directly in front of the runes. "So, they said they were going to Citobor?" she asked, wanting to be certain. If that was the case, this portal would save them considerable time. If not…

"The answer is the same as the last four times," Albel snapped. "That's what those two thieving maggots said." Losing his arm had made him crankier. Beneath all that hostility, he was nervous. Despite having his sword, he was still vulnerable--especially if any demons decided to show up and play their deadly tricks. Nel didn't blame him, she was worried too.

"I just find it odd that humans would call Citobor their home," she said. "The Rock folk rule this country and Citobor is their capitol."

Albel gave an irritated shrug. "Humans and Rock folk have worked together in the past," he said. "I don't see why it's so surprising."

"The Rock folk work with people who are talented, Albel. Scientists, mechanics, geniuses. People like Fayt, Cliff, and Maria interest them the most. They have little interest in commoners," she replied, tapping a finger to her chin. "Why would Kefi and Rika's people be of any concern to them?"

Albel growled and stalked close. "Who cares! It's not our problem." He poked her in the chest with a finger. "Don't go getting us wrapped up in things that aren't our business. We have enough trouble already."

Nel batted away his hand, glaring at him. "I know that," she snapped back. "I'm just pointing out that we'll probably end up involved anyway. We have to get your arm back, and my weapons. And that means finding Kefi and Rika. Better to think things through than rush in blind. If we can understand…"

Baring his teeth at her, Albel touched the sword at his hip. "I don't have to understand anything, Zelpher. They betrayed our trust, stole our equipment, and left us in a dirty hole. That's all I need to know. Whatever reasons they have--I don't give a shit."

Narrowing her eyes, Nel frowned. "You could benefit from a little thinking, Nox," she said between her teeth. "Especially when it comes to thinking about someone other than yourself." The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them, but pride kept her silent.

Albel stared at her, his dark eyes tightening and his narrow mouth thinning into a white line. "I'll remember that the next time I rush to save you," he said, his voice cold.

Nel bit her lip as he turned his back to her. She shouldn't have said that. It wasn't true, and they both knew it. Albel was an arrogant prick, but he had shown her many times that he did consider the safety of his companions. Albeit, he the way he went about it was often rough and unconventional, but that didn't negate the fact that he was conscientious. She really was no better than any of the other ignorant people who stereotyped him as single minded and narcissistic.

But it didn't have to be that way. He cultivated the thinking of his peers and let them believe the horrible things they said about him. So wasn't he partially to blame? If his attitude wasn't so piss poor…

No. Anyone with eyes could see through Albel's rough and obtuse personality. Actions always told the truth, while words often lied. He talked mean and cared little about offending those around him, but as clouded as they were, his actions always held a purpose. He was a bit self centered, but when the time came, he easily put that flaw aside and focused on the getting the job done. That was what mattered. It wasn't his fault people were too busy being stunned by his efficiency or nursing hurt feelings to see the truth.

Nel now understood why Woltar favored the brusque solider. The old man saw him with eyes wide open. As did the Glyphian king and the men that Albel lead. She also suspected that Fayt understood too, which explained why he had always treated Albel with respect, even when the two of them vehemently disagreed.

She owed Albel an apology. Admitting she'd been wrong had always been tough to do, but her behavior was inexcusable. Swallowing her own ego, she cleared her throat. "Albel, listen," she started.

He waved a hand at her over his shoulder, not bothering to turn back around. "You're wasting our time," he growled.

"I'm trying to apologize, stupid," she snapped, instantly angry at his easy dismissal. Honestly, the man made it impossible to feel sorry for him, let alone feel bad about hurting his feelings.

Albel turned around this time, his face impassive. "Apologies," he said in a low, cold voice, "only benefit the transgressor. However, if it'll make you get your work done faster, go right ahead." He crossed his arms and stared at her.

Nel stood, openly gaping at her comrade. She'd never had someone directly turn down an apology before she'd even given it. She'd never had anyone turn down an apology--period. The stupid buffoon. How dare he insinuate that she wasn't sorry. How dare he presume to understand her feelings.

"You're right. I feel much better," she snarled, jabbing a finger in his direction. "I actually was sorry, but now I'm not, you ignorant dumbass. You can go straight to hell and rot there." She smirked at the surprised look on his face, then turned back to the runes. Let him gnaw on that bone for awhile. Maybe some people apologized only to pad their own guilt, but she wasn't one of those.

He should know that about her and it only made her angrier that he didn't. He really was an idiot. Fuming now, Nel reached out and touched the glyph with a lightly trembling hand. When it flashed, she tried to jerk her fingers away, but something icy had her in its grasp. Panicked, she turned to look at Albel, who appeared to be just as stunned as she was.

A brilliant light, pale blue like wild lightening lit up the room. The wall opened up, fading into a spiraling vortex of black and midnight, and a heavy wind rushed past Nel as the air was sucked into the void. She tried to break free, pulling with all her might against the current but it was useless. The last thing she saw was Albel leaping towards her, his dark eyes wide with fear and surprise.

Albel stood inside the eerily quiet cavern, his arm outstretched and fist empty. The jagged grey wall in front of him banked his vision, as solid as it had been only minutes before. What the hell just happened? "Zelpher!" he shouted, bruising a fist against the still warm stone. "Damn you, you stupid woman!"

Remembering his shard, he looked about madly in the dust, trying to find where he'd dropped it in his panic. He found it near the center of the room, right where he'd been standing with Zelpher had touched the runes. He scooped it up in a handful of dirt and peoples, and rushed back to the glyph.

He touched the glyph, but it had no reaction other than a faint glow of blue light. He tried again, mimicking what he'd seen Rika and Nel do, running his fingers over the circular form in a counter clockwise motion. Still nothing. "Shit!" he snarled hitting the wall with a closed fist. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" Furiously, he pulled his hair away from his face in frustration and stepped away from the wall.

She was gone.

It was his fault.

"Gods be damned!" he raged, his voice echoing in the silence. His eyes cut back to the glyph on the wall, which still glowed slightly. Rage overcame him and he drew his sword, slicing the stone in one narrow, diagonal cut. The pale stone shattered, and the glyph clattered to the floor in a shower of broken pebble.

His entire body quivered as he stood in the cave. What was he going to do now? He had to get to Citobor--and quickly. Standing around wasn't going to get him very far, he decided. He sheathed his sword with a shaky hand and started for the pathway he assumed would lead him out of the cavern.

This was something they hadn't anticipated--becoming separated. It was a careless oversight on both their parts. There was no back up plan, no pre-destined meeting place for a case such as this. Nothing. He would have to search for her in a city full of hostiles. To make matters worse, he lacked suitable weapons, shoes, supplies, a map, and money--Rika and Kefi had taken everything they had except his sword.

He would cut them slowly. Then he would hang their still breathing bodies on pikes along the roadside. He would leave the buzzards to pick at their barely breathing carcasses.

That was assuming he could even find them. A thought chilled his heart. What if he couldn't find Nel? He was assuming she would be with them, but what if that black vortex hadn't taken her to Citobor? He wouldn't even know where to begin looking. A sick feeling washed over him and he stopped walking.

"Hell fire and dragon spit," he muttered, wincing when he stepped on a sharp stone. He had to stop obsessing over the might be's and start focusing on the need to's. First, he needed to re-supply himself. That meant getting himself some shoes, and a new arm if possible. Boots would be easy to come by; he'd steal them if he had to. But the arm would pose problems. It was doubtful there was a mechanic suitable enough to prepare a decent arm for him. Not only would it take days, but it would cost money too--which he didn't have.

He'd have to do without for the time being. When he was with Nel, he hadn't been overly concerned. A bit nervous, yes, but he trusted her to back him up. Now she was gone and he was alone, preparing to infiltrate an enemy's home. He'd be a lair to say he wasn't troubled.

He would definitely kill those two when he caught up with them.

He began walking. Up and up and up. Alone with nothing but the silence to magnify the thoughts in his head. He was anxious. It was a feeling he didn't like. That numbing ache in the pit of his stomach wouldn't be sedated, fueled only by the guilty thoughts in his head--it was all too familiar. It was his fault. Nel had apologized, but he'd dismissed her because his stupid sensitivities had been hurt. Why couldn't he just let things go? If she was hurt because of him…

"You're brooding again," a voice said from further up the dark tunnel.

Albel drew his sword, slowing to a stop. The only light in the place was from the low burning torches spaced along the walls. They cast long, moving shadows around his feet, making it difficult to ascertain what was real and what wasn't. He stilled, readying like a wolf to pounce, and waited for the intruder to show themselves.

The temperature in the corridor seemed to drop, and pin prickles raced along Albel's flesh. Abstract shadows flickered wildly as the torches dances in some unknown breeze. An unnatural trepidation settled like a blanket over him like a blanket as he squinted into the darkness beyond.

"You've come too far to lose ground," the voice said. "Don't disappoint me now."

Annoyed, Albel waved his katana in the direction of the words. "Who are you?" he snapped.

A laugh. "Your worst nightmare."

Nel woke up on to an insane itching sensation. She bolted upright, sputtering straw, and found herself inside what she believed to be a barn of some sort--except that it was underground. All around her were more stone walls and over head a solid ceiling of granite. Behind her, etched in the stone was another glyph, though not quite the same as the one she'd come through.

It took her a moment to remember what had happened, but the recollection hit her full on and she scrambled to the runes on the wall. Albel was still back there! He hadn't made it through. She remembered his face, so surprised and afraid as he reached for her, but he'd been too late.

She'd have to go back and get him.

She was still holding the crystal chip in her palm--so tightly it had cut her hand. She ran her fingers over the crude runes, feeling the stone pulse to life. However, the glyph only glowed faintly, then went dead. "Dammit," Nel whispered, staring hopelessly at the carving. It only went one way, apparently. As inconvenient as it was for her, it did make for good security. The people who created them weren't idiots.

But Albel had a stone of his own. He should have followed her by now, but obviously, he was no where to be seen. Was there some reason the magic didn't work for him? He could wield some support magic, but knew nothing about runes--not as she did. Maybe a person had to understand rune magic to use the portals?

She shook her head. No, runes didn't work like that. All he had to do was mimic what she or Rika had done and the glyph should have worked for him. The stone was the key, much like the runes on her body were the key to her magic. There had to be something else.

Nel looked over her surroundings, studying the makeshift stalls and dusty tack hanging from poorly carved stone hooks. She scratched her head and closed her eyes. Apris, this was a mess. If she was really in Citobor, Fayt was waiting for her. He was her objective and the objective always came first. However, Albel was alone, with nothing but the clothes on his back and minus one arm. It was her fault he was involved in this mess. She couldn't just abandon him.

She wouldn't abandon him. The objective did come first, but that only meant she had to free Fayt and then go find Albel. Albel was a seasoned solider, he could take care of himself. In fact, he'd probably be angry if she came for him first, seeing it as an insult to his abilities as a warrior and as a man. He'd be fine on his own.

Wouldn't he?

Would she?

Self doubt was something Nel had little use for, but now it was eating her from the inside out. Having Albel with her had given her a sense of security. He was a powerful comrade--and she knew he would take care of her if there was trouble. Now she was planning on leaving him to his own devices while he was vulnerable. It made her sick to think about it. And of course, the demons were lurking about, probably waiting for an opportunity like this one.

She knew she wouldn't stand a chance if they came at her now. Nor would Albel, and he was more likely to be the target. Her choice could sentence him to life or death. That was a responsibility she didn't wish to bear.

"What would he want me to do?" she murmured.

For a long while she stood in the barn-cave, mulling over her options. Finally, she came to a decision. She knew what he would want her to do. Tucking the stone into her pocket, she cast a backwards glance at the dead glyph.

"I'm sorry, Albel," she whispered. Her heart heavy, she made her way through the cave and disappeared into the darkness.

Sorry for the long delay. Sometimes life takes you for a wild ride and these past couple months have been quite the roll coaster indeed. It's not over yet, so I'm not sure how frequent updates will be. I apologize. Thanks for sticking by me though. You're all great.