"I think," said the man known as Albel the Wicked in his deceptively soft voice, "That I would like to hear you scream."

Disoriented, weakened and reeling from the tribulations he'd only begun to bestow upon her, Nel could only lift her chin in defiance of his words, ignoring the despair and the fear that were even now threatening to drown her. What mattered, she knew grimly, was that she showed him she wasn't cowed by his presence, by his power over her; she would die before she gave him that pleasure. An instant later she realized that there was a very good chance she would die here, restrained by chains and subject to the man before her. She met his eyes then, and her lips thinned in resigned, somber resolution.

She would die before she let him know how much she feared him.

"Impertinent," Albel remarked idly, reaching out his gauntleted hand towards her face. She shrank backwards, the chains affixed to her wrists and neck clanking with the movement. The proof of what those metal-encased, claw-like fingers could do was evident along the front of her body; he had sliced through the thin leather of her cuirass as well as the simple cloth tunic she wore beneath with ease. The dank air of the dungeon seemed colder to her exposed skin, and it made the deep scratches running up her ribcage—testaments to the sharpness of the thin razor tips of his fingers—sting with every breath she took. With the unyielding stone of the wall at her back she could retreat no further, but she turned her head evasively to the side as he reached for her again. The metal of his gauntlet against her flesh was almost painful in its iciness; she sucked in a sharp breath as his fingers, capable of easily peeling the very skin from her face, carefully cupped her chin and forcibly turned her face back towards his own.

Reluctantly, she met his eyes again, able to read absolutely nothing in the glittering mahogany of their depths. And after a moment of silent, intense scrutiny, she saw the ghost of a mocking, cruel smile flicker about his lips, and she knew then that the true trial was about to begin. He released her abruptly, surprising her; he turned and paced a line to the wall across from her, his steps resolute and predatory. He came to halt, facing away; the ankle-length twin tails of his hair—bound in the manner of Airyglyph nobility—swung about and twined together with the momentum of his stop. "How much pain would it take, I wonder, to make you tell me where the other worms have gone?" He looked back at her over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised as though in inquisition, and then added as though in afterthought, "You will not break easy, will you?"

Nel pushed herself away from the wall and straightened with bitter, resigned determination. An unfriendly and mirthless smile twisted her lips as she lifted her head proudly and stared unblinking at the captain of the Black Brigade. He watched her for another long moment, noting her stance and the defiance it heralded, and then he nodded before turning around fully to face her. The silence of the dungeon became suddenly more poignant, almost expectant in its undisturbed stillness; Nel took a deep breath and swallowed hard against the knot in her throat, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. The chains fastened about her wrists clanked gently with the movements, a partial distraction—

He came for her with a swiftness that was startling; even though she'd expected it it was disconcerting all the same. The hand free of armor came hurtling towards her jaw, and she lunged as far to the side as she could to evade the blow. Too late she realized it was only pretence; he struck her backhanded with his other gauntleted arm, and the blow knocked her back hard against the unrelenting brick of the wall. She had no time to recover; his flesh and blood hand fisted in the collar of her soft leather jerkin and hauled her upright. Fingers of metal wrapped themselves about her throat—above the collar of her chain restraint—and began to relentlessly squeeze; she started to struggle in earnest as her very breath was denied her. His hold was iron, and so she lashed out with her foot, missing twice before landing a glancing blow against his shin. His breath left him in a hiss and he exerted even more pressure on her throat, driving her back as he did so that she came up flat against the wall. He pressed himself against her, eyes burning malevolently into her own as she choked, as her hands clawed at his hold on her throat. Her vision began to swim when finally he released her, but he didn't move away. Instead he remained where he was, pinning her tightly to the wall, and he inclined his head before he began to speak.

"Where have they gone?" he asked, his mouth hovering over her ear. Nel shook her head, inciting the chain fastened to her neck to rattle. He shifted slightly and she tensed, knowing what was coming—

His fist drove into her abdomen, knocking the wind from her even as he stepped away. She fell hard to her knees, bent over in an effort to draw air into her aching lungs. He waited as she fought to breathe, as she slowly and painfully unfolded herself and got back to her feet to face him once more. This time when he came for her she braced herself and caught his fist before it could connect with her face. She saw the flicker of something indiscernible in his eyes as she shoved his arm away, at the same time raising one leg and kicking out soundly to strike him midsection. He staggered back with a harsh, angry sound but leapt for her a flashing second later, and this time she did not react fast enough. The sharp metal of his fingers raked a burning diagonal line from one shoulder to the top of one breast; he reversed the stroke, turned it into a brutal slap that knocked her skull against the stone behind her with enough force to leave her dazed and breathless.

"Your resilience is almost admirable, worm," he said, leaning so close that she could feel his words along the line of her jaw. Blinking the haze from her eyes she watched him sidelong, tensing suddenly as she felt the touch of his bare fingers tracing the claw wounds he had just bestowed upon her. "Other women—other worms—they would not stand against me. They would not fight back. But you—"

He broke off suddenly, and in a mercurial shift there was suddenly nothing inimical in his expression—it became utterly blank. It was unnerving; fearing the absolute worst Nel's breath stilled in her throat as she stared at him expectantly, awaiting the next burst of malevolence made physical. It never came; his strange eyes, which had been holding captive her own, flicked about as though marking her face so that it could be recalled. A heartbeat later he stepped back, and she loosed a great, silent sigh of relief.

"Intriguing." He said, but uttered nothing further, and she wondered a little wildly just what he found to be so. In silence they regarded each other before finally he smiled, a slight curving of the lips that was both insidious and enigmatic; he turned then and strode to the heavy wooden door of her dungeon cell, and without a backward glance he went through. As the door swung shut with a booming echo Nel slumped back, only the chains on her arms and neck keeping her upright. Her jaw ached terribly from the blows he had so unerringly delivered, and the back of her skull was throbbing with enough force to make her tightly close her eyes against the agony. Her upper body was a series of hurt—the wounds made by his clawed fingers stung acutely, and there was a heavy, persistent ache in her side where he'd struck her. Already she could feel the side of her face beginning to swell; she tried to smile grimly as she realized that this was only the beginning of her suffering.

With morning Albel would return, and this would all begin again.


Author's Note: This is my first attempt at Star Ocean fanfiction; I've had this story lying around since I first finished the game but I sort of abandoned and forgot about it. Just found it again and decided to finish it, and I kind of like how it turned out. I would like to continue it, but that all depends on whether I am able to stay inspired or not.