Gasp for Breath

Pressure, pressure building up in him, his head, his entire body feeling like it was going to explode outward. Clutching his head, he felt it—that sudden primal fear, knowing he needed air or he was going to suffocate. He was going to die.

'Die? Die, die, I don't want to die! NO!'

And with a jolt, the water parted, his muscles became his own, breath entered his lungs.

Whipping his head out of the stream, he choked and coughed up water, his fists clutching the dirt in the streambed. As he struggled, red wisps of air circled around, gathering together to form a human shape—Romero—as he appeared, grinning.

"Harder to break than we thought… excellent, you will make a good vessel…" Romero purred. Albel's red eyes glared as his body heaved with breath through the droplets of water trickling from his bangs. "What… are you doing to me?"

Romero's own dead eyes narrowed as he carelessly approached. "You still think I'm doing this to you?" Punctuating his remark, Romero slammed his heavy boot into Albel's face, sending him once more into the stream. "Heh… you truly don't know your own weakness."

His own weakness… weak… weak… the weakness of Albel Nox… killed his father… no one left… the freedom to move! Ah, it felt so good again, finally, to have his body again to do whatever he wanted—'NO' his mind screamed, warm blood trickling down his face, what weakness, the armies rising up, rising up against those who wronged him, fight them, tear down the gods… Nel's gods, no, he didn't believe in them, but she believed, they were there, and now they were here, standing before him, Romero smiling. Romero smiling as he pushed Albel's head underwater with his foot.

'You should just die… die, you failure. You have failed me in every way. You can't protect anything. You don't stand for anything. What's the point? Why do you even exist?'

The water, so cold, running up his nose, running down his throat, running through his body… his body becoming water…


Pushing upward, another burst of strength, he flung Romero off of him. The world was blurry around him, his body trying to reconnect with the earth on which he once lived. Blurry…

"Persistent. Ironic, since you've failed to succeed at anything." Romero was irate. "I apologize in advance."

Romero kneeled down over Albel as he whispered in the gasping man's ear, quick and pointed in his delivery. "Do you remember how the rest of them treated you? Do you remember how they spat on your name? Do you remember him, the strongest one, defeating you in every way? Don't you remember?"

Albel's body involuntarily twitched. Everything shifted in and out of focus. Remember? He remembered the feeling…

"Don't you remember her? Her long hair? Her laugh? Don't you remember her lips and her words and her love?"

The softest thing he had ever touched… her smiling up at him. His heart knew it, but he didn't remember her face…

"Do you remember her glancing over you, like you never existed? Like she was using you? Do you remember what you were to her? Do you remember that feeling? Do you remember her with him?"

Nel in a beautiful dress… she is beautiful… her hands running over his shoulders, his shoulders, Fayt's shoulders. They are perfect, and she is kissing him, he is kissing her, they are kissing, he has her in his arms, she will never leave him. They are perfect. They are getting married. She can't see me anymore. She thinks we should stop this. This. WHAT IS THIS?

Crushing him, pulling him under… losing himself, lost in these strange, but familiar, violet eyes…


Finally. His breath steadied, growing deeper, the muscles in his shoulders settling into themselves. His movements grew slower, more at ease, and he drew himself up to standing. Romero bowed down.

"Finally, master, you awaken."

"Yes…" Albel's lips twitched towards a smile. "I'm awake now." His gold eyes swirled satisfaction.

She watched as the city crumbled.

Mothers cried for their children in the street. Young boys took up rusted arms to fight the scourge. Innocence was trampled in the street.

This was no longer the place of Amber and Kigan's childhood.

'Kigan…' Amber was reminded, stepping out of the doors—no nurses to hold her back this time. This time, she was on her own. This time, she would find Kigan herself.

Her heart would lead her to him.

The blood lead her to him.

She crashed through Duggus forest, her clothes catching and ripping on branches, the Crimson Scourge gleaming red with the blood of beasts that crossed her path. She had followed the trail of upheaval that she guessed would lead her partner.

She had returned to the rented room to find everything in place but Albel, as well as an open window. Still breathless from her flight, she grabbed all the belongings she could find and immediately crashed through the window herself. She wasn't going to lose him again.

The dirt and blood marking her skin, the twigs in her hair—Nel didn't doubt that she looked truly crazy right now. That is, if Fayt and Cliff caught up to her.

'Crazy… no, I'm not crazy!'

She could have sworn she heard the blade chuckle in her hand.

She wasn't crazy. She was protecting someone—someone the whole group cared about. Someone she had traveled to other dimensions with. That kind of comrade was rare. She wasn't going to let go of him.

And what if Cliff wasn't okay? Did she just sacrifice one partner for another? No, he would be okay… Fayt would make sure. And yet, why was Nel so frantic over Albel in particular? Why couldn't she just trust in him to be okay like she did Fayt?

'Because he's not going to be okay,' she mused.

Though she would never let him know it, Albel could not take care of himself. Nel had no doubt he would spiral out of control without the regiment the Black Brigade enforced. He was self destructive. He needed someone outside himself to keep him together, at least until he could be alright with himself. Nel could be that person.

She would be his knight in shining honor. Like he would let that happen if he realized…

Up ahead, she could hear voices in a clearing—the sound of the running river covered what they were saying. She slowed, prowling through the remaining plant life around her… and there; there was Romero, shouting down at a figure in the water—Albel.

She broke through.

Both men before her snapped their heads to see her standing, bloody and untamed, before them. She held the Crimson Scourge away from her body, poised and ready to strike. "Romero…" she hissed, before plunging towards him.

Immediately he was gone—teleported a few yards away. Running her sword through this new space of air, he disappeared again. Playing with her. How patronizing.


"Heh heh heh… have you thought that maybe I'm afraid to hurt you?"

Nel spun around to find Romero grinning down at her, his cold, dead finger tracing down her chin. "After all, you need time to think about what you've done… and my Master and I do have forever!" He patted her lightly on the head, "Though I hope you two work it out before then."

As abruptly as he appeared, Romero became a cloud of red smoke blocking Nel's vision. Once it cleared, she could see Albel, his head down, a ways away as Romero floated behind him, grasping onto his shoulders. "I think he's ready for you…" The Lord of the Dead purred before vanishing again.

The Crimson Blade dropped her sword and ran towards him. "Albel! Why did you leave? …Are you okay?" She tilted his head up so he would look at her. His golden eyes pierced her own, staring ravenously at her.

"If I remember correctly," his rusty voice crooned, "you're the one that left me."

This wasn't right. This wasn't Albel. Nel jerked away slightly, caught by his cold hand as he grabbed her chin. He violently turned her head so he was whispering in her ear.

"Why did you do that when you know you're mine, Dirna?"

Her head was spinning. She could feel his dead-cold lips against her jaw, her neck, her ear. He was kissing her, but the typically loving gesture felt violent, like he was trying to rip her very skin off. She shoved him away, yet he caught her by her forearms, forcing her against him, forcing her to face him. She was afraid.

"Who are you?"

Something stirred in his eyes—something she couldn't read. "You don't recognize me?" he asked, disbelieving. Pulling her closer, he growled in her same ear. "You're lying. Say my name. Say my name like you used to say it…" He hissed the word like it was a secret.


Nel froze. She looked into his eyes… feeling the same cosmic fear she had once felt watching her entire world become a spec of data ready to be erased. She was limp in her God's arms.

And something in him changed.

He looked at her, Nel, she is so beautiful, her in shock, her in shock, staring back at him, Nel Zelpher looking at him terrified. She wants him to be okay. 'She wants me to be okay.' …Wait, 'I want her to be okay.'

"Nel…" his voice was corroded—not his own. "Get out of here." He growled at her. Something in that voice convinced her in an instant he was deathly serious, and she ran. Despite his words, his fingers clutched to her as long as they could. She was tangled. She pulled away hard so she could be free. He lunged, trailing her, his cold fingers grasped around her ankle, yanking it out from under her as they both toppled into the stream below them. Sputtering frantically, Nel tried to drag herself up, but Albel held fast, his eyes that unfamiliar shade of gold once again.

"Why are you always trying to leave? Why don't you want to be with me?"

The crazy voice was pouring out of him again, and she knew he wasn't there. She mentally apologized to her true comrade before kicking him in the face, forcing him to release his grasp. Stopping only to grab the Scourge and glance back quickly at the blood pouring out of the Captain's nose, she disappeared into the forest.

The further she ran from him, the further Folstar seemed to drift from Albel's consciousness. He lay in a state of confusion, still on his side in the stream. The cold of the water seemed to help clear his mind, and he was afraid if he got up that he would slip back into that uncontrolled chaos of Folstar's coming.

Afraid. This thing made him afraid…

'Bah… what am I doing? Who do I think I am? Here, Albel the Wicked… acting like some worm, letting the Aquarian wench kick me in the face… LITERALLY. How far the mighty have fallen…'

But as Albel raised himself up to his elbows, his vision became fuzzy once again in the bright, warm light that seemed to envelope him. His eyes rolled back as rough hands lifted him up—familiar, somehow—and consciousness escaped him once again.

The sound of the wind—soft, blowing fragile stems and petals against her skin—lifted her awake. As she squinted into the bright sky above her, seen through an opening in the trees, she tried to place herself…

And jolted up.

The last Nel remembered, she was running through the forest, and then… what? Nothing? What had happened?

Her once relaxed body tensed and shot up, quickly scanning the area around her. They was in a field of flowers… they?

And sure enough, Albel Nox lay a ways off, sleeping soundly curled up into a ball, dried blood still on his face.

Nel stared up into the sky breathing a sigh of relief, her lips moving in a prayer to Apris more out of habbit than devotion. Her muscles releasing once more, she crossed through the impromptu garden, reaching down to spread the snorer's eyelid open with her index finger and thumb. Red. Good… back to normal. And with that she sat back down, examining the flowers around them a bit more thoroughly.

Beside her, Albel groaned and kicked his feet in his sleep, decimating the flowers below him. Nel rolled her eyes and shook him awake.

"Albel… Albel, stop!"

And with that, Albel was up, his arm shooting out for Nel's neck, only to be smacked away by her flower-bearing right hand.

Opening his eyes, Albel could barely see a very blurry, very annoyed Nel Zelpher, but that was all he needed to know he shouldn't have gotten up. He fell back onto his back, breathing out sharply.

"Alright. What happened."

"I have no idea, Nox. I was hoping you could tell me."

He scoffed and kicked some more flowers. Nel watched him with a disapproving look as petals drifted back down around them.

"They are yupa flowers… used to make the Wreath of Erinia."

"And why are you telling me this, woman?"

A finger rose to massage her temple and keep her patience in line. "We make them before battle, and they are supposed to protect us under the Goddess Erinia."

"Heh… 'supposed to'."

"HEY, watch yourself," she snarled, causing Albel to jump slightly. Then she settled back into the bed of flowers behind her. "Of course they don't really do anything… I doubt there's a real Erinia in the first place… but if it's something that raises my soldiers moral, of course it's valuable and should be respected." Turning her head slightly, she locked eyes with the soldier beside her. "Who are we to take that away from them?"

Captain Nox broke the contact, struggling up to his feet. He felt uncomfortable talking about war with Nel now… he knew the wreaths because he had ripped them off her very same soldiers before slitting their throats. Not something he wanted to bring up in light conversation.

"Tch, so these flowers protected us, if that's what you're implying."

"UGH!" The Crimson Scourge moaned from the ground, and was promptly ignored.

She leaned her head to the side, thoughtfully. "Well I don't think it's that, I mean, I don't think it's flowers that saved our life of course. But the point is, we're okay. We're alive and we survived another Folstar episode. That's something, isn't it?"

Albel glared at a flower. Since when was mere survival his style? They still had no idea what was going on, no idea how to fight it, no allies, no supplies… no control. Albel was only alive due to mercy somehow. He was living on pathetic borrowed time and still there was no favorable end in sight. And yet, even with all that against them, they still managed to slip away every time. She was right. Ugh, he wished optimism weren't such a relief.

"Hmph… well, it's something. But I'd rather have something more to stand on." A smirk grew into a twisted smile, all the way to a full grin up at the sky. "Strange, I feel… positive." Even in his good mood, Albel spat out the word as if it were some insect, having mistakenly crawled into the seeming cave of his mouth. Nel rolled her eyes, laughing with disbelief.

"Don't sound so excited about it, Nox. But yes… I do too."

She turned her dazzling smile to face him resolutely, imparting her plan as if it was exciting gossip between young girls.

"We'll head to Peterny, get a new claw fitted for you, and ask Osman the Sage about Folstar. I'm sure there's something in all those old religious texts about this."

She grabbed the Scourge and bounced up onto the balls of her feet, rejuvenated by her mental map of events and ready to set out, but the flurry of her motion stirred something darker in the soldier behind her. The soldier's high spirits had already descended into doubt as he carefully stood, his deep, untrusting eyes never leaving his blade grasped tightly in her palm.

"Zelpher—" His voice shot through the air like a dart landing straight in the guilty party's back. She knew what she was in trouble for as she turned slowly around to face him.

"My sword." He held out his hand, ordering her compliance, "Give it back. You've toyed with its curse enough."

The guilt on her face only showed briefly before her default—sarcastic judgment—was back in full force. Her hands flew to her hips. Albel recognized this stance well.

"I was just carrying it, Nox, and I can take care of myself."

If this had been before his journey into the stars with her—maybe even before this new one that had plunged them into the sea—he would have fought back. Albel was not to be tamed by some woman. Albel was always the one with the last word. Sometimes, though, his logical sense sounded louder than his pride in his battlefield of a mind… and his logical sense knew that sometimes, it was better to let Nel think she had the last word. When it came to the verbal war between them, he had to let a few battles go. Or go insane.

So he "Hmph"d and lightly snatched the sword as he paced by her, his annoyance dissipating slightly from the surprise of skin contact as their hands lightly brushed. More surprising to Albel, though, was how easily Nel let go the second his hand was on hers, as if she had suddenly forgot that she was holding it in the first place. It was easier than expected…

'For an addict…' he couldn't help but mentally add as he vaguely heard her begin to follow from behind him. He made a note to make sure she didn't so much as touch the Scourge again.

Slightly dazed, Nel brought a wrist to her forehead—she felt strangely lightheaded for a moment. Shaking it off, she kept her focus on Albel's back as she trailed after him towards Peterny; towards her home.

a/n: shorter than normal, and didn't edit for shit, but this is where i could break and i just needed to get it OUT, since this has been dormant for so long. the writing's shoddy, i know i know, ill inspire myself to try harder, but i just want to get the story out now haha... also in my ideal world, i plan on fixing all the older chapters because i hate them, but whateverwhatever doubtfulllll