"Excellent work. You're not half bad, you know that?" Nia said as she strode onto the black metal deck of the ancient ship that, just a few minutes ago, had been brought to the surface of the cloud sea. The Gormotti driver's comment was directed at one of the salvagers responsible – the only one she'd cared to talk to, the boy named Rex.
"I do this for a living, remember?" Rex replied, just a small hint of smugness in his voice. Truth be told, Nia had been very unimpressed when the chairman of the Argentum Guild, Bana, had introduced Rex. He was just some dumb kid, how could he possibly be one of Argentum's best salvagers? But apparently, the oversized Nopon knew what he was talking about, because Rex had done his job well.
"All teams, proceed inside when ready!" barked a voice to Nia's left, cutting her off from further conversation, not that she had anything else to say anyway. Other salvagers began to scramble across the deck of the ship, attending to various tasks. What all of them were doing, Nia didn't know, and she didn't really care either. Behind her came the sound of heavy footsteps, and she could already guess who was approaching.
"Right then. Let's get moving." drawled Malos as he strolled past. Yep, that was pretty predictable. Malos was anything but subtle – huge, imposing, dressed all in black, you'd usually know when he was nearby. Trailing behind him were his Blade, Sever, along with Jin. As Jin passed by Rex, however, he stopped.
"You. With us." the white-haired swordsman ordered, his eyes boring holes into the young salvager from behind his mask. But then, his eyes did that all the time. Jin was just... like that.
"Me?" Rex asked, his eyes widening in surprise. Nia understood the feeling.
"You're going to drag the kid along? Seriously?" she demanded irritably. Yeah, her opinion of Rex had improved considerably – between him proving perfectly competent at his job, and their conversation about Elysium the night before... but that didn't mean that Nia wanted to put up with him tagging along with her everywhere. Especially when she had no idea what might be waiting in the depths of the ancient vessel. "Why would Jin want him? He's not even a bloody driver." she thought.
Jin didn't even bother to respond, turning and continuing to walk away. Not that Nia had expected to get anything out of him anyway, Jin wasn't exactly the most talkative man she'd ever met. That honor probably went to Mikhail, who thankfully wasn't here right now. Hearing the exchange, Malos had stopped and turned back to face Nia and Rex, the look on his face just irritating Nia further. She could already tell that, whatever he was about to say, it would make her want to punch him.
"Guess he thinks you need all the help you can get." he said in that casually smug tone of his. Nia's eyes narrowed, her catlike ears flattening against her head, as she grunted in indignation. The sight of it simply caused Malos to belt out a malicious laugh before going to follow after Jin.
"Nia..." Rex started, a note of concern in his voice, but whatever he was planning to say was cut off when the Gormotti's glare turned on him.
"Ugh! Don't just stand there! You've got your orders!" she snapped angrily. Unable to retaliate against Malos, her frustration was directed onto the nearest available target instead – which happened to be Rex. She actually felt a little bit bad as he turned away, the concerned look on his face replaced with a confused, slightly offended one. "Come on, Dromarch..." Nia muttered to the enormous tiger-like Blade at her side. Dromarch had been there the entire time, but remained silent for the whole exchange. Nia was fine with that, though, she really didn't need any of the Blade's commentary, not now. Together, she, Rex, and Dromarch followed after the others, towards the massive doorway that led into the depths of the ship.
The inside of the ship wasn't really that different from the outside – all dark metal, constructed in a style that Nia didn't recognize. The sound of rain battering against the hull was omnipresent, leaving the Gormotti wondering whether the storm outside was getting worse, or if it was just the echo. And it was humid. So humid, in fact, that clouds of fog rose from the floor and rolled around their feet as they walked. The dampness in the air permeated everything, and Nia felt like it was weighing down on her, seeping into her clothes and hair, a sensation that she found rather unpleasant. Especially since she was wearing a baggy jumpsuit. "Wonder how bad Dromarch's got it, with his fur 'n all." she mused. But if her Blade was at all bothered, he didn't feel the need to show it.
"My lady, I must admit, this vessel is simply fascinating." Dromarch commented, looking around with a hint of wonder on his otherwise-stoic face. Nia gave a small hum of acknowledgment, but said nothing. Fascinating wasn't exactly the word she'd use to describe a bland metal hallway with flickering ether lights, but then, Dromarch was always more interested in this old stuff than she was. And apparently, he wasn't the only one.
"I'll say!" Rex chimed in, sidling up alongside them. Nia had to suppress a chuckle when she saw the intrigued look on his face. "Never salvaged anything like this before... D'ya know how old it is?"
Dromarch hummed in thought. "Master Rex, I'm afraid I couldn't begin to tell you." he admitted with a small sigh. That answer just seemed to make Rex even more interested, though.
"If only Gramps were here, I bet he would have some idea." he said brightly, and this time Nia did chuckle.
"There you go with your gramps again. You really look up to him, don'tcha?" In the brief time she'd known Rex, he had seemed to like bringing up his so-called gramps. The one who'd taught him to fight with arts, the one who helped raise him after his parents died. Clearly, whoever he was, he'd had a big influence on the salvager.
"Of course I do." Rex confirmed, nodding his head. Then something seemed to occur to him, as he shot a sidelong glance at Nia. "Is that a problem?" he asked, his voice taking on a slightly defensive tone, and Nia had to resist the urge to sigh. She wasn't even trying to be confrontational this time.
"No, not at all." she replied immediately, giving a small smile to show that she was sincere. "It's kind of sweet, actually." Though of course she wasn't ever going to admit to thinking that. Thankfully, Rex seemed satisfied with her response, as the conversation trailed off into comfortable silence... for about five seconds.
"If you brats are done yapping, then hurry it up!" Malos's voice barked from up ahead. Nia, Rex, and Dromarch all shared annoyed glances, but nobody felt the need to say anything. It seemed they were all united in their feelings about Malos as they hurried to catch up to him and Jin. Nia still wasn't sure exactly what they were looking for in the derelict ship, but apparently they'd know it when they saw it. Must've been something pretty important to be worth all the trouble, though.
A door. Malos and Jin had insisted on Rex coming along... so they could make him open a door. An unusually fancy door, which almost looked out-of-place compared to the rest of the ship, but a door nonetheless. According to Jin, it would only open to one of Rex's people, but Nia wasn't sure what he meant by that. She knew Rex was Leftherian, but there wasn't really anything special about them that she was aware of... they were just humans like any other, right? She'd known Jin long enough to realize that trying to press him for answers wouldn't work, though. Not that it mattered, since Rex was busy doing that anyway.
Malos let out a growl of irritation. "Hurry up and do it! We're not paying you to ask dumb questions!" he bellowed, and Nia flinched beside him.
"What the hell... You can't treat your hired hands this way..." Rex muttered, and Nia didn't blame him. Malos was always short-tempered and impatient, but he was being especially bad about it today. Either whatever was behind that door was a really big deal, or else he was just feeling cranky. Probably both.
The Gormotti and her Blade both watched with interest as Rex walked over to examine the door, pondering to himself about how to open it. After a few moments of mulling it over, he reached out to touch the symbol emblazoned in the center of the door – which Jin had identified as "Addam's crest". To the surprise of everyone except Jin and Malos, the symbol suddenly pulsed with blue light at the contact, and the door swiftly slid open.
"Most intriguing..." Nia heard Dromarch murmur beside her, and this time she actually agreed with his interest. Even if she would've preferred to call it weird. Nia ran to catch up with Rex as he strode into the hallway beyond the door, noticing that raw ether crackled around their feet as they went. There was something powerful here, she was sure of it now.
"Wait." commanded Jin from behind her. He hadn't even raised his voice, yet somehow it carried through the room even better than Malos's shouting. Nia stopped for a moment, glancing back. "Open that one too." and she realized that he was talking to Rex, no doubt about the other door at the end of the hall, which had the same crest on it. Another touch, another glow, and that one slid open too.
For some reason Nia got the feeling that she should hang back, let Malos and Jin go in first... but she ignored it, rushing ahead until she was standing alongside Rex. Malos snorted as she went, but didn't stop her, so she figured it was fine.
"Whoa... The hell's that...?" she gasped as she and Rex peered into the huge, foggy chamber. Before them sat a small pedestal, with a shiny red object sticking out of it. Behind that was a large glass tube, holding what looked like a humanoid figure. Rex started taking a few steps forward, but Nia stopped him with a hand on his chest – silently saying "let me go first". The salvager didn't look entirely happy about it, but nodded. A small part of Nia noticed that Jin and Malos sure were taking a long time to walk down the hall.
As she walked up to the object, it became obvious that it was a red sword, glowing green ether lines running through it, with a similarly-green gem embedded at the hilt. Nia recognized it as a Blade weapon, though not quite like any she'd seen before. Which meant that the girl in the tube – for it was indeed a girl, with red hair and rather revealing clothing – must have been a Blade. "Okay. This is too bloody strange." For some reason, something about the sword tempted Nia to touch it, and she hesitantly raised her hand.
"My lady?" asked Dromarch from right behind her. She'd almost forgotten that he was following her for a moment there. Still, she didn't feel the need to respond. Maybe it was the raw ether emanating from it, maybe it was her imagination, but the sword seemed almost... entrancing. She reached out, barely even aware that she was doing it.
"Damnit Nia, don't you even think about touching that!" roared Malos's voice, shocking the Gormotti back to reality in a way that Dromarch's smooth tones couldn't... but a moment too late, as her fingers curled around the sword's grip. And then... nothing. She'd been expecting a flash of light, or an alarm, or something, but the sword didn't react at all. Nor did the comatose Blade in the tube. A heavy silence hung over the room for a few seconds, before Nia looked back.
"Is that it? Gettin' all worked up about..." she started to say, but cut herself off when she really caught sight of everyone else. Rex looked as confused as she felt, Dromarch was concerned, those were both to be expected. But Malos had a look of pure fury in his eyes which dwarfed his usual anger, though it almost seemed like he was looking past Nia to the mysterious redhead. Jin, meanwhile, had tensed up, and one of his hands was gripped tightly onto the handle of his katana, as if he'd been about to use it. "Jinnnn?" Nia dragged out nervously. The way he was staring at her was very, very unnerving. Slowly, as he seemed to realize that nothing was happening, he lowered his hand from his sword and crossed his arms, saying nothing. At the same time, Malos seemed to be calming down a bit too, putting on one of his normal glares rather than the face of raw hatred.
"Tch! Seems it won't respond to her... Good, saves us a bit of mess." the black-haired man growled, more to himself than anyone else.
"Respond? What'dya mean by that?" Rex asked, just a moment before Nia would've said the same thing. As usual, however, his questioning went unanswered. At this point, Jin and Malos barely even seemed to be aware of the fact that he was there. Fortunately, he was clearly smart enough to realize that it was a bad time to press the matter.
"Nia, get out of the way." Jin ordered coolly, walking towards her, where she was still holding on to the sword. At that moment, Nia felt a small spark from the blade, almost like a jolt of electricity, which she recognized as an ether current. With the way Jin and Malos were acting, however, she quickly decided not to mention it, simply releasing the sword and stepping away, next to Dromarch.
The beast-type Blade looked at her with obvious worry in his eyes, and Nia realized that he must've read the scene the same way she did – they'd stumbled into a situation that was far more dangerous than they originally thought.
"I'm fine, Dromarch..." she murmured, answering his unspoken question, as they both looked towards Jin, who had stopped in front of the sword. In a flash, he drew his own weapon and delivered a powerful slice onto the object before him, shattering it into tiny shards of metal. Rex let out a surprised gasp. Was he upset about a potentially-priceless bit of salvage being destroyed... or just shocked by Jin's speed?
Malos let out a hmph, sounding vaguely satisfied. "If we're done wasting time, then come on. Let's grab the Aegis." he said, his voice back to its usual level of smugness, as he strolled past everyone else, up to the encapsulated girl. Jin, meanwhile, had exited the room in his usual silence, his footsteps echoing down the hall. With a grunt of effort, Malos wrapped his arms around the glass pod and wrenched it from the wall it was embedded in, hoisting it over one shoulder once it was free.
"Whoa... That thing's gotta weigh a ton!" Rex exclaimed, to which Malos only scoffed in response. He gave a small jerk of his head, signaling Rex and Nia to follow him, as he too left the chamber. At this point, Nia was boiling over with about a million questions, and opened her mouth to demand some answers...
Only to be stopped when one of Dromarch's huge paws rested on her shoulder. "Perhaps we ought to keep our heads down for the moment." he cautioned quietly, shooting a quick look at Rex to tell him that he should do the same. Nia glanced at Malos's back, remembering his expression of unbridled anger, and gave a small nod.
"Yeah... maybe you're right. Come on, Rex, let's not keep them waiting." she agreed. "The sooner we're done with this job, the better."
The journey back out of the ship was far more tense than the trip in. Rex, ever the optimist, had tried to make conversation a couple of times, but Nia wasn't in the mood for it. She couldn't shake that nagging feeling that had bothered her ever since she'd grabbed the sword, the sense that there was something really wrong about the whole ordeal. Once they emerged onto the deck, she got her confirmation.
Malos had stopped, the tube still slung over his shoulder like it was nothing, as he glanced around at the various other members of the salvaging team. Nia had all but forgotten about them, she wasn't entirely sure why they still needed to be there.
"Nia..." Malos drawled, and Nia instinctively knew, what he was about to say wouldn't be good. "Put an end to the Leftherian brat and the rest of this rabble."
"What!?" exclaimed Nia and Rex in unison. "You don't mean..." Nia began, though she already knew the answer.
"The price for their lives has already been paid in full." Malos replied casually, not caring that Rex could hear him. "Now that we've got the Aegis... the fewer living souls who know about it, the better."
"Nia... You're not seriously going to..." Rex stammered, looking at the Gormotti with wide eyes. This situation had escalated from uncomfortable to insane in an instant. Nia hesitated for just a moment, not knowing what to do, but then she saw the shock on Rex's face, and her mind was made up.
"No way!" she snapped defiantly, her hands curling into fists. "I dunno what the hell's going on, what all this Aegis nonsense's about... But Rex and these people haven't done anything wrong!" Malos turned towards her as she said that, his gaze cold, and Nia couldn't help it. Her bravado faltered a bit and her knees started shaking. Having Malos and his imposing Blade, Sever, bearing down on her was incredibly intimidating.
"Standing up for some pathetic whelps, Nia? Have you forgotten why you're here?" he asked sharply. Seeing that she was still glaring at him, he let out a growl. "Fine! If you're just going to be a hindrance..." Nia didn't get a chance to respond to that before Malos's free hand smashed into the side of her head with tremendous force, sending her sprawling onto the deck, everything around her spinning.
That was the last thing she could comprehend before the world went black.