He couldn't believe it. Everything that had transpired in the past two days had finally culminated to this moment.
After crossing the desert basin and destroying a few Behemoths along the way, Ripley finally got his father back.
But there was something different about him.
He didn't look like the blacksmith that raised him and helped him train in the art, with hair that could easily be mistaken as fur and garb that was rugged and weather-beaten over time. Instead, his hair and face were trimmed, giving him a clean yet imposing look, and his clothing resembled a military uniform, which gave an air of experience.
The man looked more like a high-ranking officer rather than a lowly tinker, but Ripley didn't care.
His heart swelled with emotion, tears welled in his eyes, and his feet burst with renewed fervor as he rushed towards him. He embraced him tightly, fearing that he will lose him again, not eager to let him go another time, though he knew that was highly unlikely in a subterranean mining shaft with minimal security. Besides, the only people present were people he knew.
Except that when he made contact with the man, his hands simply slipped through the air and clasped the nearest possible object, which was the other man. The young smith didn't notice this, and so, continued to bawl in front of the surprised group.
Only after a while did Ripley's sobs subside, and he finally noticed that something was off. He looked up to see not his father's face, but the chief's.
"Easy there, little one," he chided, a mix of care and bewilderment in his voice. "Hey, Earl, I didn't know you had a son!"
The one who was shocked the most by this was, actually, the man who was supposedly Ripley's father.
"I have a son?!" he shouted, seemingly perplexed by the notion. Yet there he was, right in front of him.
However, when Ripley heard his response, he immediately stood up, his face contorting with an unexplainable emotion. But while he didn't know how he was feeling, he knew why he was feeling it. For a brief moment, he had this immense sense of relief, that their journey had finally come to an end, and yet somehow, that precious bit of happiness was taken from his very eyes.
"Are you really my father?" he stared at the man.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said with biting force.
"Then, how are you even here?!" Ripley said, adding force to his voice. He felt insulted that the man he had sought after didn't even recognize him.
"Ripley, this isn't the best time to break down and cause a mess," Marlowe warned.
Ripley hurriedly inched closer to the man, who looked like he was going to back away. He stretched out his hands to touch him, but they touched nothing. They simply passed through the man, whose image simmered before him like a film of oil on water.
"You're not real," Ripley muttered.
"What are you talking about? Of course I'm real!" the man scoffed. "As real as everyone in this very room."
"Are you playing an elaborate joke on me?!"
Before trouble escalated, the mercenaries created some distance between the supposedly father-and-son pair.
"Well, this didn't turn out to be the reunion I was hoping for," Lou remarked, pushing Ripley away.
"I'm sorry if this came as sudden news to you," Silt fanned the flames down. "but try to relax yourselves. Both of you!"
"You're not really helping them calm down with that tone of voice, Silt."
"You're not helping with them quips either! Are you trying to make me mad?"
Ultimately, it took the combined effort of the remaining people to diffuse the situation.
"Silt, what is this?" the man asked. "Mind explaining what's going on here? I thought I told to seek answers, not add more questions!"
Ripley nodded in agreement. For once, the source of his growing disappointment had the same thought as he.
"Umm, why don't we all head outside and let some steam get out of our system?" Hoen suggested.
"Yeah, best if we explain everything from the beginning," the chief added, "especially with what Earl's been involved with."
And so, all seven of them made their way back to the main tunnel and headed outside, navigating their way through the labyrinthine passageways of the industrial complex. The overcast sky was starting to give way to dusk, prompting the citizens to activate their star lamps by waving their hand towards the glass receptacle that contained a mixture of aether and other inert gases.
The chief did the same as they arrived on an alcove overlooking the vastness of the busy metropolis. The cave entrance to the gaping chasm was visible from here, as well as the massive gate that kept outsiders at bay. It was a perfect place for someone who runs a city as massive as it is, to be able to observe a proper working society.
"So, where do we even begin?" the chief offered as the group looked for a place to sit. "Introductions. I'm Johannes Termina, but you can call me Joe. I run this place from top to bottom, but not without the help of Earl here, who acts as my advisor. You've met my daughter, Hoen. She's my second-in-command while I'm busy digging the lower levels. There's Lou Garramond, one of the youngest Magic Knights, and Siltrainn, one of our best scouts. So," he clapped his hands, "I take it all of you have taken the tour?"
A cacophony of replies burst forth all at once.
"No need for us," Lou reported. "We already know the place inside and out."
"Skip the formalities already and get to it!" Silt protested.
"She already did, sir," Marlowe answered, finger pointed towards Hoen. "Rather, she's still giving us the tour."
"And who are you supposed to be?" Joe asked.
"Name's Marlowe, and this is Ripley," he introduced by tapping his shoulder. "We actually come from the south part of the desert."
"Well, fancy that! Desert deserters!" the chief stroked his beard. "And pretty young ones, too! Judging from your closeness to Earl's son, you must be his brother!"
"Nope," the blonde was quick to reply.
"His sister, then?"
Marlowe shouted, "Why would you think that?! Just because I said no to the previous statement!"
"Sorry about my friend Marlowe," Ripley stopped him from causing more trouble. "He gets ticked off easily. Anyway, I have something, no, a lot of things to ask."
"Right you are, young man," said Ripley's father. "I'm as stumped as you are. Tell me, do you know of anyone by the name of Cassandra Colton?"
"N-no, I don't know, sir. Who was she?"
"I'm sorry for asking. You just happen to remind me of her, since you share that same look on your face. Poor Cass. If only she could see you now…"
Upon hearing that, Ripley assumed in his mind that he might be talking about his mother. Unfortunately, memories about a motherly figure elude him. As far as he could remember, he only knew one parent: his father. Just remembering him was enough to send him visions of what transpired from a few days back, when the Behemoths destroyed his only home and the Blue Army soldiers took away the only family he ever knew.
But the man before him doesn't seem to recall those recent events. Like he hadn't experienced them at all, as if they were merely phantasms conjured from the young smith's playful mind.
And yet, there was a tether, however thin it was, that didn't allow Ripley to denounce him as a stranger posing as his father. The glimmer in the man's eye when he scanned the boy's features with a piercing gaze was enough to show this, and Ripley stared back, scrutinizing him in return.
"What are you, really?" Ripley's query dispelled the silence.
"Allow me to explain Earl's, uhh, special circumstances," the chief's daughter began explaining. "At first, I couldn't believe it myself. What you see before you is an information body, an amalgamation of a living being's internal frequencies, thought processes, and data stored inside an activated mana cloud. In other words, a fragment-"
"A fragment of a soul," Ripley finished the last bit. "His soul!"
"No wonder he went through him like it was nothing!" Marlowe exclaimed. "But that's taboo! You could be excommunicated for that!"
Ripley knew all too well the implications of soul research. Tampering with it, as Marlowe had said, was extremely dangerous, as mind and soul are closely interlinked, and ripping off one's soul could lead to grave consequences. The Bulwark Kingdom's Church officially recognizes 'fiddling with one's soul' as a sin tantamount to questioning the Goddess' authority, which was punishable by excommunication or even death.
"Well, he did it anyway," the chief shrugged. "Said he wanted to challenge something. We were young and reckless back then, very curious too. That's why I never stopped him. I, too, wanted to find out." He slumped down a seat after picking up a cold bottle, taking a sip before he continued. "Actually, I volunteered to have my soul extracted. I was depressed. Couldn't handle the pressure of going to war, but he insisted. It was his idea, and he knew more about the subject than I did, and so I let him. And as you can see, he succeeded. Partly, of course."
"I agree," Lou nodded. "If he'd gone all the way, you'd be left with nothing but a husk of flesh that would slowly waste away and die. How'd he even do it anyway?"
"Hell if I know!" Joe quickly snapped. "I told you, I don't know stuff about magic and stuff. That's stuff foreign to me."
"And here you are, running the largest mana supplier on the planet," Earl off-handedly remarked.
"Hey! You don't need an advanced education to know how to run business! You're the one who's supposed to rule here, you know! You helped build the place, for crying out loud!"
"Emphasis on 'helped build', and that's two things. One, that was in past tense. And two, builders don't make great managers. I was never a people person to begin with, Joe. You very well know that. Anyway, shouldn't you be down there reinforcing the fortifications?"
"Shit! You're right! I forgot!" Joe hastily headed for the door. "See? I told you you were the better man!"
For a moment, Ripley couldn't tell who the real leader was, as the man in uniform seemingly lorded over the supposed chief of the Refinery City, and just as his daughter was about to head out and follow her father, the man had sternly said, "Hoen, it's best if you stay here and help me explain things to our… less-educated guests, as you have such a clear grasp of it."
Earl then turned to the others, stood up and started talking.
"So yeah, seeing as Joe's a busy man, it's up to me, and Hoen, to explain what I really am. But before I tell you exactly how it impacts us, let us get one thing out of the way. Has my main body ever taught you magic, if any, at all?"
"O-Of course!" the young smith quickly replied.
"How about everyone else?" Earl asked. "Lou's a Magic Knight, that's obvious enough, and Silt already knows a mix of Shorin and Bulwark rituals. Hoen, I personally tutored."
"Wait, you study magic, too?!" Marlowe stood from his seat, pointing at the innocuous scribe.
"I might not look the part, but yeah," Hoen flashed a proud smile, but sighed. "To tell you the truth, I always wanted to become a magician. Ever since I studied about the history of Refinery City, I was instantly captivated by the legend of the Goddess. Sacrificing herself to save Her people, giving us the lifeblood of magic. I wish to honor Her and thank Her by performing the sacred arts She taught us. But I can't find any textbook regarding that, and Dad has no magical talent. Good thing Earl was there to teach me the basics and everything in between. You?"
Marlowe shifted and turned in his seat, seemingly embarrassed. His face flared when Lou dropped a ball of truth.
"He can't cast. Must've been a result of him cutting himself and siphoning off his soul."
"Well, that makes things easier, then," Earl nodded. "Speaking of which, what's your understanding of souls?"
With at least three people in the room who knew magic, not counting the fragment of Earl's soul, there was bound to be a different takes on the concept. Lou thought of it as nothing more than surplus mana coursing through our bodies, a by-product of a mana-rich environment, while Silt argued with Lou's point and raised that it was more than just mana, but a combination of unintelligible energies give rise to each individual's unique mana signature.
Though both explanations were correct in some way, the man simply shook his head. In the end, Ripley's explanation won out.
Basically, the soul is what gives living beings the sense of being alive, though the mind can also fit that description. However, mind and soul are two completely different things.
Whereas the mind is the muscle that allows for a higher level of thinking and by extension the ability to cast magic, the soul is considered as the skeleton that supports the overall consciousness of a living being. It not only acts as a foundation, but also as a storage space for subconscious thoughts and memories, and this brings out personality and character of an individual.
"Wow," Hoen didn't notice that she had dropped her trusty slate. "That's actually better than I can come up with."
"No less that I would expect of you," the man mused. "See, this is the problem with most people who study magic. Only focusing on the practical parts. Not that making things complicated helps, but at least Silt gets that souls are complicated things, thanks to her Shorin background. So, yes, I am a fragment of Earl Nightjar's soul, and as such, I possess every thought, feeling, and character of Earl Nightjar at the time of the extraction. Which is to say, I am merely a snapshot of him from 23 years ago."
"So you're both my father, but at the same time, not my father?" Ripley felt weird asking such a paradox, but he needed to.
"For the lack of a better word, yes. While it's true that I do exhibit his qualities, the fact that I'm just a piece of his psyche means that I can't create new experiences because of certain limitations regarding my nature. But all the while, I'm not bound by physical ones either."
To drive his point further, the soul fragment literally drove his hand through an adjoining wall, which passed through without incident.
"So, if you can pass through walls, how do you explain yourself standing on the floor and talking to us like a normal human being?" Marlowe asked.
"That's because that's what our minds want us to think," Hoen offered. "Our physical brains simply can't stand the sheer amount of raw data a soul gives out. Thankfully, we have defense mechanisms that help us root our perception of reality."
"That, and Earl had some sense in him to nail a complex projection spell on me," the soul said. "Which actually bring us to another point. Hoen, could you please explain?"
"Y-yes," she sped through her trusty slate until she arrived at a certain point. "Ahem, this is actually taken from one of my personal researches, so don't blame me if I said something wrong. So, souls are being of intangible material made mostly of mana and a bunch of other energies…"
"I thought we had already established that," Silt made a wry comment.
"Oh, right. Sorry," she frantically flew through a few more lines. "Because souls are incorporeal beings, they cannot be perceived by the physical world, let alone manipulate it."
"Again, already established," the cat-eyed thief made yet another wry comment.
"And so, in order for beings of physical nature, that's us by the way, to perceive them, souls are bound to physical bodies, which enable them to exercise their will in the material plane."
When she finished, Earl gave a nod.
Now, Ripley was hooked. From what he gleaned from the discussion, it seemed that his father dabbled in soul research and gained fruit from it, which was now being continued by Hoen, his apprentice. But then, Silt also said she was taught by Earl. Considering her Shorin background, she too might have contributed to his current research using another viewpoint.
But what really gave him the jolt was how his father created swords. He not only imbues them with enhancement spells, but also imbues the customer's mana signature, ensuring that no other person besides them could use it.
Imbuing mana signatures? Could it also possibly mean binding souls?
And if that's really the case, then it might be possible that Ripley's father knew about the incoming threat. And he made precautions, ones that he might have not considered, but took effect nonetheless.
Maybe the clockwork hammer, despite being a weapon of the old gods, wasn't Earl's biggest secret after all.
And he might have been with them all along.