Admiral Belleza Alegria Aguilar had been fascinated with geography even as a small child. She'd devour books in frenzied sprees in the rare moments she received them and listen to her father's stories about sailing in Emperor Mateo's fleet. She had always been resentful of Valua's perpetually dark skies, and the struggle her family endured to make ends meet growing up. That there could exist a world beyond the lightning-charged hell that was Valua's Lower City was the only thing that kept her going during the harshest years of her life, those where she was left to fend for herself. She'd held on to the words in books and the words of her father, which faded more and more each year after his death in the war. Maps had been holy places of refuge; they were something she could melt into and study. Wind currents, merchant pathways, borders and patrol routes. When the time came and she was old enough to join the Armada, she didn't hesitate. It meant moving beyond the fantasies of books and maps and aging tales; it meant sailing out from Valua's dark clouds and into blue skies.
Belleza had turned her soldiery into an artform. So devout was her service, so cunning were her observations as an officer, and so ingrained was her knowledge of cultures and trade and history that her rise through the ranks had been meteoric. Like an angel rushing upward into the very heavens. Frankly, it was easy. So many of the soldiers joining the military following the Valua-Nasr War were doing it with thoughts of renewed conquest and battle. They were hyper focused, as all good Imperial citizens were, on avenging their fallen Emperor and bombarding Nasrad into dust. But where Belleza shared their ardor, she also knew that the truce was likely to hold for some time. To climb ranks in the post-war Armada wasn't a matter of showing valor in grand battles—even if there were still plenty of rebels to dispatch and pirates to cross swords with—it would be in applying the right amounts of pressure to certain parts of the sky in order to benefit the mainland. A stray patrol that just "happens" to discover insurgent routes, a weapons demonstration whose cannon blasts echo just far enough. The war wouldn't come the way most men thought because it was already being fought under their noses. Movements on the map that were all but invisible to those who hadn't truly studied their enemies. Through guile and wit, charm and sabotage, Belleza ascended higher and higher until one day—the finest day of her life—Lord-Admiral Glacian called her into his offices and offered her admiralty of the Fourth Fleet. She had only been twenty-one years old.
She was twenty-eight now and her knowledge of the invisible war had only grown, as had her various tactics. While she'd made plenty of enemies with her appointment, she'd eased them with a charm so practiced that no one ever mistook her for a Lower City citizen these days. Oh, what friends she had managed to make! Both home and abroad, Belleza had leveraged her charm and knowledge into a sprawling network of dear "friends" who were always eager to tell her every little thing that was happening. From Ixa'taka to Nasrad to Cape Claudia and the homeland, there was little that happened without Belleza learning about it. Because she was good to her friends; she rewarded them, she listened to them. And in that listening, the grand game had only become more complex and more rewarding to play. The only person in all the skies that could outplay her, whose movements and motions surprised her as much as they enthralled her, was Lord-Admiral Galcian. Everyone else was so easily knowable.
Even the most brash air pirates or sweetest of Silvites…
The map in her personal quarters in the palace covered most of the wall it was draped on; it was a bit ostentatious but useful all the same. A variety of routes and important points of interest were marked by small magnets that could cling to a sheet of steel placed behind the map. The result was an ever changing array of pieces shifting around her "board," and in configurations that only she understood the true meaning of. Some were clear to the observer, yes; for instance it was easy to find the positions of any Admiral's flagship on the board but there were stranger pieces with purposes known only to Belleza as well as a few decoy pieces meant to mislead anyone who beheld the map. She smiled as she observed it, recalling the time that Lord-Admiral Galcian had called it "art."
For the moment, she swirled a glass of wine and stared at the tangle of pieces on the map and their underlying position. A stray swirl of her deep auburn hair fell across her eyes and she idly tucked it behind her ear for the time being. Though she wasn't alone in her quarters, she wasn't trying to impress the onlooker that had stumbled in. In fact, she'd done little more than give him to most curt of nods before turning to regard the map once more. Her mind was focused on one question: if she were the Silvite, where would she go next? That train of thought was interrupted by a chuckle behind her; deep and overly-familiar.
"You've been staring for almost ten minutes," Admiral Vigoro said, spread out a bit too comfortably in one of the quarters' arm-chairs. "Care to share your thoughts or am I supposed to be impressed by your ever-so-forced air of mystery?"
Belleza sighed. "You somehow managed to stay quiet for those ten minutes," she noted without even turning to look at the ex-mercenary. "Can't you manage it a while longer?"
"And if I use that time to sit here and stare at your ass?" Vigoro asked, a rise in his voice making it clear that he was trying to goad his fellow admiral into dropping her calm demeanor. "What then?"
"Then stare," Belleza said. Her eyes darted from continent to continent on the map. There were only a few options that Fina could take, especially if she had elected to stay with Dyne's son and that washed-up fisherman. "You wouldn't be the first man to do so and you won't be the last." "Seriously?"
"You've only ever had to be yourself, Vigoro," Belleza noted calmly. Her eyes settled on Meridia and Windmill Isle. Victor Dyne's home base; likely the Silvite's first stop before moving onwards unless they'd spirited the rescued pirates away to a secondary location. Possible but even if they did, it would hardly affect her read of the situation. There was no way such a devout young girl and her adventurous pirate friends would elect to delay their own quest for the Moon Crystals.
"I have to be a dozen different people every day," Belleza explained to Vigoro with the barest hint of annoyance in her voice. The tiniest sign of injury in an otherwise confident alto. "One of those is "a woman" surrounded by men who think they are clever. I'd rather them keep their gaze and ambitions low instead of pretending to be on my level. If that means they stare at my rear, so be it."
Vigoro shrugged. He clearly didn't care about whatever social games Belleza dealt with on a day to day basis. "Well, it's a nice ass."
"I make sure of it," Belleza said with a sip of wine. She tolerated Vigoro because Galcian tolerated him. If anything else, he'd proven himself a good tactical commander even if he was a lustful fool otherwise. "Is that what you came here to discuss?"
Vigoro pushed off from his seat and sauntered towards Belleza, picking up a magnetic piece in the shape of a skull from the collection on her desk. He walked up to the map and snapped it atop Windmill Isle with a clack! Arms spread, he looked at his fellow admiral.
"Why exactly are you mulling things over so hard?" he asked with genuine annoyance. "They need to return to their base. Is there any reason that we've decided to hold steady and not dispatch any one of us to blast what remains into bits and reclaim the girl?"
Belleza sighed once more, reaching out to remove the skull marker from her map. "Because I've convinced the Lord-Admiral that we should take another course,' she said with a little too much admiration in her voice. "And he's agreed to let me tend to the matter for the time being."
"Okay, so why are you wasting time here? They have to deal with their wounded," Vigoro insisted. He leaned on Belleza's desk and began to think aloud. "We know they'd do anything for their friends. We can leverage that. Even if the girl and the others are gone, we could blockade whoever's left. Starve them out until that kid and the Silvite surrender instead of letting folks suffer on their behalf."
"Not the dumbest thing you've said," Belleza offered with meager charity. "But it's not the best move we can make. We need to take the course of action with better results."
She started to trace her finger from Windmill Isle upwards and to the east. Towards Nasr. Vigoro scratched his nose for a moment before replying. "You don't care about where they are now because you want to figure out where they're going …"
"My, my. Catching on, are we?"
Vigoro looked at the map and pointed about. "Only four reasonable options," he said plainly. "Meridia, Nasr, coming back here to Valua, or going all the way to the Green Continent."
"Three options," Belleza corrected. "According to Admiral Plata, the Silvites already have their crystal.."
Vigoro chuckled. The plan was dawning on him. "You don't just want the girl," he said with awe touching his voice. "You want whatever crystal they're going to fetch as well.."
Belleza took a final sip of her wine and turned around to face Vigoro, placing the glass on her desk with a plinking sound. She smiled at the man; an affected gesture with the slightest amount of genuine surprise. Vigoro was a blunt instrument but even the most unruly dog could learn a few tricks.
"Admiral Vigoro Tellez," she said dramatically. It was like the Empress herself was bestowing the title upon him. Powerful and patronizing. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say that you were thinking for once in your life."
"Name a battle I've lost," Vigoro countered. It was clear that he wasn't taking Belleza's teasing in stride. Why should he after all? When he'd earn such distinction as to be granted the post of admiral even if he wasn't even part of the Armada before Galcian extended the offer.
"If this was to be a battle," Belleza began. "Then you might have a leg to stand on but you don't. My specialty is avoiding unneeded bloodshed. And so now we ask where the Silvite will go.."
"Not back here," Vigoro mused, rubbing his chin. "We're far too alert at the moment. Probably wouldn't even bother with the spectacle if we caught that pirate boy. We'd just kill him on the spot and take the girl."
"That boy is Victor Dyne's son," Belleza said knowingly. She gestured at Valua on the map; it was awash in ship markers and other pieces indicating heightened defense. Too dangerous, even for some as daring as that boy.
"His name is Vyse and his troublemaker friend was Aika Nassar, the daughter of Dyne's old quartermaster. Records show he and his wife were killed shortly after the war; caught smuggling supplies to Nasrean holdouts. They're young and impulsive but I also agree with you…"
"So they either head west or into Nasr," Vigoro said plainly. "But the latter's only so much benefit to them; the truce is in place but we could catch them en route if we wanted."
"Realistically, it's their only option," Belleza replied. "So they'd need to risk it. The only reliable way to the Green Continent is through the South Ocean…"
"Which only some of our own ships can handle due to the winds," Vigoro noted. "They're retrofitting the Draco right now; I couldn't even head that way until they finish."
Belleza pointed to the map with a white gloved finger and traced one route. It followed up from Meridia and towards the established shipping lanes before the Southern Dannel Straight.
"A normal path," she indicated with some skepticism. "Blending into the trade lanes, perhaps posing as fishers, and going through the Dannel Straight. The most obvious way into Nasr airspace."
"You don't sound convinced," Vigoro said. "So what's the play?"
She brought her finger back to Meridia and proceeded north but made a harder turn through a series of rock rifts and out towards a more remote desert outpost: Maramba. The admiral turned around to grab the skull that Vigoro had arrogantly placed before and snapped it atop the outpost. She looked at Vigoro.
"This is where they will go," she said confidently. "Because if they're still traveling with Cold Steel Drachma Gealbhan—we identified their escape ship as belonging to him—then they're traveling with a means to bypass rock rifts. The harpoon cannon they procured in the Lower City allows passage; knocks the rocks aside. Which means they don't need to go the obvious route."
Vigoro shook his head. "Let's assume you're right," he granted. "There's nothing out there. What makes you so confident that they'll head to this… Maramba?"
Belleza gestured to the east of the outpost where a marker in the shape of the Moon rested above a scrawled image of grand ruins. "This is the Temple of Pyrynn," she said, voice level like a history teacher. "One of the grandest remnants of the Old World, and some sort of holy site to the Ardites when they still existed…"
"Some ruins," Vigoro said dryly. "You think the Moon Crystal is there?"
"I do," Belleza said with a nod. "Local legends talk about an inextinguishable fire that dwells within the temple. Doubtless some Nasrean hogwash that's actually referring to the crystal without realizing it."
Vigoro gave a groan of annoyance. "Then forget about the girl and send some men to the temple. Retrieve the stone and be done with it. No need for the cloak and dagger."
"No," Belleza started. "We wait for them to do it for us. No one who has ever entered the ruins has left. Some of the world's finest archeological teams and treasure hunters have gone in and never returned. Which means that we wait…"
Vigoro chuckled. "For them to rush in and get themselves killed. Good thinking."
Belleza laughed, walking around the desk to pour herself some more wine. She looked for one of her more recent bottles; a gift from Lord-Admiral Galcian. Uncorking it, she let the white vintage flow into her glass. "That's not the plan either," she said coolly. "We're going to help them. I have an agent in place that will ensure they reach the temple and retrieve the crystal."
Vigoro raised an eyebrow. "We're going to help them? Who's this agent?"
"Someone I trust," Belleza said as if that explained it all. She took a sip of her wine; crisp and with just enough floral touches. Galcian knew her well. She had to thank him for stocking her quarters with such a fine vintage.
"You see, the plan is rather simple. Separate them from their captain at which point my agent will assume the position of… caretaker and help guide them to the temple. Once they retrieve the crystal, we will seize it and them."
Her fellow admiral shook his head. "Seems like a lot of work," he said with uncertainty. "When we could just blow up the temple and get what we need in the rubble."
"Because that won't reignite the war with Nasr," Belleza said dryly. "You're a good commander, Vigoro, but you're also a moron. The sneaking and the tricks? I do it to avoid bloodshed and get the best result possible. That takes time, planning, and knowledge."
Vigoro paused. "You said you'd need to split them up from their captain," he noted. "How do you aim to manage that?"
"That old man is a pathetic mess," Belleza said with a hint of actual sympathy in her voice. "One of the oldest names on our bounty list, you know. Added when he started to attack our ships to steal weapons… because he's on a hunt. All I need to do is utter a few words, and he's completely off the board."She smiled. It was all coming together perfectly. In a few days time, the Silvite and a fresh moon crystal would be in Valuan hands. And she would have Lord Galcian everlasting respect. Perhaps, she dared to think, she might even finally earn his love.
Drachma sat within the captain's quarters of the Little Jack , heavy frame held up by a wooden chair that, like the man it bore, had seen better years. More importantly, he was hurt . Something about this moment, this pause before sailing onwards, hurt in ways that were both familiar and frustratingly foreign. There were the customary pangs of loss; that sense that a revenant was hanging over his shoulder and calling out with that same refrain he'd heard for the last few decades: "don't let go." The old man had heard it in his dreams, in his waking moments, and even lingering on the wind. A wavering voice that called to him. Please, please. Don't let go. You can't let go. And as he heard that whisper in his ear, there was a pain that shot through his arm. His metal arm. Not real, of course, but for an imagined pain it was as vibrant as the day his arm had faltered and snapped and torn. He'd lost more than an arm that day. So, so much more. And while he'd spent the years since sailing the skies and seeing all manner of astounding things, the thing that astounded Drachma more than anything was how keenly he felt the pain of his losses even after all these years. Weren't these things supposed to fade away? Wasn't it supposed to get easier?
Don't let go..
Moons, he could hear the screams. He always heard the screams. Every moment of every day, he did his best to push them aside but they were ever-present at the edges of his awareness. Noise. So much noise. The whispers, the screams, the horrible yearnings for lost days. Sometimes, he managed to feel close to normal but more often than not it was like trying to ignore a stabbing of driftwood in your skull; no matter how much you focused on something else, you felt the splinters in your mind. And right now? Drachma was feeling it. The old man had no clue why he'd agreed to ferry that young girl and her snot-nosed pirates pals on their misadventure. He'd made the offer without even thinking it through. There was nothing but guilt snaking through every one of his veins now. It was like a rot and he knew that if he didn't act fast it would calcify into something terrible. Because he'd made a promise long ago to never "let go." To hold tight. He'd failed in keeping that promise when it mattered most; what would happen to him if he allowed himself to break it one more time? What would it mean for Cold Steel Drachma to finally let go?
"No," he growled to himself before repeating. He was all but yelling. "No! Moons be damned, I won't!"
His gaze fell to a portrait on his desk; a younger woman with auburn hair and soft eyes. The last time he saw those eyes, she'd been laying in a bed and fading away. She'd looked right through him, as if he wasn't there. As disease set in and death circled around. To picture it again even for a moment tore a fresh rift in his heart. Or perhaps it was more fitting to say that the hole that was made when she'd died seemed to widen a bit more. The mere recollection of what was gone made the present less bearable.
"I said years ago, I said…." Drachma took a breath, his voice seizing in his throat. He thought of her. He thought of the boy. Fingers slipping through each other. "Swore to ya that I'd keep 'im safe.. 'An iff'n I cannae do that I ken at least make sure there's blood paid and yet…"
He didn't want to admit it, and he never would to any of those troublemakers but there was a part of him that felt light for the first time in ages. Vyse was a brat and a damned arrogant sight to behold but he was honest and he believed in things. Impossible things. Hell, somehow they'd wandered into Valua and bloodied the nose of the greatest empire in the history of the world and all thanks to that daft rogue's insistence that they could. There was something to that, Drachma reckoned. The infectious honesty of a fool. No, no… He wouldn't. He couldn't. The old man's gaze moved further along the oak table to a place where a small box sat undisturbed. He reached out with his good arm, hand nearly touching the smooth wood of the box before he pulled away as if scorched by a flame deeper than any under the Red Moon. The voice whispered louder in his ear.
Don't let go… Don't let go…
Rhaknam. He'd been chasing the beast so long that his pursuit had become a story unto itself. He should have taken that fact as an indication that things had gone on too long; whatever he was before, the only thing anyone had known him as for some time now was "that madman chasing the arcwhale." How many bets in how many bars were running? How many scoundrels favored the whale's chances of survival? Was there a soul alive that was willing to bet he'd slay the bastard, and did they really believe in the possibility or was the gold too good to pass up? Maybe it didn't matter. All he knew was that a part of him really did want to stop but knowing something wasn't the same as being able to act on that knowledge.
No, he was trapped. Trapped in this chase that would end with someone's pitiful death be it the whale or his own. He believed that in his bones. And what galled Drachma more than anything was the fact that each second he spent around Vyse, he believed in the inevitability of his vengeance less and less. The lad had given him the tiniest sliver of something most affecting and torturous: hope. Like opening the box on the table, all he needed to do was reach out and take it. But he couldn't. He wouldn't let go.
Drachma heaved a sigh, sinking into his chair and sitting in silence for what must have been ten whole minutes. Eventually, he spoke up again.
"What'n the Hells am I doin'?"
Nothing had gone according to plan and nothing of the surface world was like Fina expected. The young woman stood by herself at the top of Pirate Isle's small spit of a lookout and while she felt calm gazing out at the light blue sky there was also a part of her that had to acknowledge how much the situation had deteriorated from what she's expected and what the Elders insisted would be the case. It was meant to be simple: Ramirez would scout ahead of her and assess the current state of the world and Fina would eventually follow to seek the Moon Crystals in earnest. They were going to be a team. The warrior and priestess on their pilgrimage to ensure the continued safety of the world. Enough time had passed since the Rains of Destruction that the Gigas might return; it was of the utmost importance to remove that situation from the pattern of probability. She'd trained every moment of her life for it. The Elders had molded her—yes, that was a good word for it—into the perfect Silvite priestess and charged her with a sacred duty. She recalled the day that Elders Prime and Halos had told her the enormous burden ahead of her; she hadn't felt dread but instead was overcome by pride. If that was her duty, she'd do it gladly.
Then she'd arrived on the surface and everything had fallen apart. Rami was not waiting for her; the only thing that had awaited her was cruelty and the bellowing blasts of Valuan cannon fire. She didn't understand the feeling that had spread into her veins during those moments but she understood it now. It was betrayal; Rami had betrayed her. Sold her out to new masters who sought the Moon Crystals for petty dominance. Even after Doctor Ortega's accounting of the Aquila 's journey and the ways in which Mendosa had broken her friend's heart, she couldn't understand it or entirely forgive it. Forgoing his duty in such a manner wasn't just wrong, it was Elders had been clear in their instructions. And yet…
The clouds billowed in the sky and a lone butterfly fluttered outside her gaze. It was enough to remind her of what she'd said on the Little Jack 's deck. The Elders had been wrong. The surface world had darkness and greed; the Valuans that Rami now served embodied those traits so strongly that she could hardly understand what could drive a nation to such a violent bloodlust. But the world was also beautiful and for all the danger, she had found astounding warmth. The Elders had called surface dwellers savages; they had said they could not be trusted with anything. They were liars and thieves and killers.
It wasn't true.
Vyse and Aika were not cruel or untrustworthy. On the contrary, they were the best people she had ever known. When she was spirited away into the heart of Valua, they had thrown themselves headlong into the belly of the dragon to save her. That was goodness. That was kindness and self-sacrifice. Qualities that the Elders insisted could not be found on the surface. Qualities that Rami—no, he was Ramirez now—seemed to believe could not exist in earnest. But they did and her friends were the proof.
Who am I? Who am I to them, that they would risk so much?
It seemed to extend beyond friendship. There was an indelible connection between their souls that Fina could not deny or even explain. But she could see it. That was one of the curious gifts of her people and partly why she'd made her way to the lookout to seek solitude. The people on the surface could not see the magick around them but she could. Her mind caught the passing thoughts of those around her. Her eyes could see the souls and spirits of the world. Everything made noise and everything had a shining glow to it. There were ways to push these extra senses to the back of her mind but she could not dismiss them entirely. Which was why she could see the ways in which Aika and Vyse's souls burned brighter than everyone around them. It was also how she was aware of the way their spirits and energies were already starting to intertwine with the same intensity she'd shared with Ramirez. They were connected and each passing moment, the strands that reached from soul to soul were weaving together into something stronger. She feared it; she loved it.
"Are you alright?" A voice called behind Fina and jolted her out of her reveries. The Silvite didn't need to turn to know it was Aika. "You disappeared for a little while. Are you nervous about the trip? I know I am."
Fina turned to look at her friend. Aika looked as ready for adventure as always; tunic sharp and pouches brimming with refined moonstones that Fina could sense the magicks of. Her hair was pulled back into her usual braids and she looked ready to swing down from the lookout onto the deck of a Valuan ship. There was a quality to her gaze that Fina hadn't noticed until now; they glinted with an energy similar to Vyse, where they seemed to be looking forward towards a future that Fina couldn't begin to imagine.
The Silvite smiled but her answer was modest. "I am mostly alright," she admitted. "It's just a little loud today and I needed some time to clear my mind before we leave."
Aika looked confused. She raised a hand to her ear as if to listen to the village down below. There was the creak of the windmill and a few stray noises: Pow's barking and the children's laughter as they went about whatever new play-adventure they'd concocted. The whistling of wind and even the most telltale sounds of construction from somewhere deep in the underground. But it wasn't particularly loud.
"Doesn't seem any different than usual," Aika noted before taking a closer look at Fina. "Not used to so many people still? This is a pretty small village but I guess where you're from didn't have so many people.."
"It didn't," Fina said cautiously. "Growing up it was mostly myself and Rami. There weren't any families. Just the two of us and the Elders."
Aika hesitated. "What about your parents?"
"I never knew them," Fina admitted. "Nor did I ever really ask about them. Things simply were as they were. And you're right that it was quiet but not in the way that you mean."
"Can't say I follow ya," Aika replied. "Something else is bothering you?"
Fina paused for a moment as she considered how much to share but given that she'd told Aika so much about her mission and given all her friend had done for her, the notion of too many secrets seemed like a waste of their time. It wasn't that she was ready to explain everything to the other woman but she wasn't going to hide everything either. The way she viewed the world was fundamental to how she behaved. Once, before the Rains, it was how many people viewed the world; a tangle of magick and souls. Aika had natural talent when it came to spell-casting. She'd demonstrated that on the train in Valua quite dramatically. If anyone on Pirate Isle was attuned to the invisible web of magicks around them, it was Aika. It seemed obvious to Fina that there was nothing wrong in sharing a portion of that private world with her friend. So she smiled and shook her head, beckoning the redhead forward.
"It's not what you might imagine," Fina said warmly. "Remember how you asked me, during Doctor Ortega's story, if I had been reading everyone's mind while I've been here?"
Aika looked at Fina nervously. "You said you hadn't," she noted. "Were you not being honest?"
"No! I was telling the truth," Fina replied quickly. She didn't want Aika to feel uneasy. "But the way I perceive the world isn't the same as you or anyone else here. It's like… a tangled web of thoughts and colors and lights. So many lights. I can usually manage but since leaving my home, I admit that it's been overwhelming."
"I dunno if I understand," Aika said, drawing closer to Fina with some concern. "Does being around us make you uncomfortable? Is it too much?"
"It's different," Fina stated plainly. "But I'm quickly learning that different is not the same as bad. The skies here are teeming with life and colors. It was scary at first but I'm starting to find it beautiful."
The Silvite turned and extended a hand towards Aika. A soft gesture and one that Aika didn't quite know what to make of. It stirred something in her heart; she wanted to grasp it tight. To interlink fingers and watch the world pass them by. Like how she sometimes did with Vyse when they came to watch the sunset.
"Would it be alright if I showed you what I meant?" Fina asked. Permission was crucial. As much as she wanted to share this with Aika, she'd be taught that surface dwellers had a certain superstition to older magicks. Sparking a fire was one thing. Altering how you viewed the world was another.
Aika's response didn't come right away. For a few moments, she looked at Fina's outstretched hand. It felt leagues away and yet there it was and without completely understanding what she would see once taking her friend's hand, it was clear that something about her life would change in taking hold of it. Fina watched Aika carefully; she worried that her offer was too bold for even the fiery redhead. A gust of wind blew, refreshing and bright. Aika finally nodded.
"Okay," she said with a smile. "I trust you."
Fina beamed. "And I, you." Their hands connected and Aika's world grew beyond her imagination.
How can you explain color to someone who has never seen it? Can you ever explain pitch to someone who has never heard? Perhaps with enough time and metaphor, you can establish what these things feel like. You could find the middle ground of your individual perceptions and experiences to form some type of understanding but that is never the same as experiencing these things for yourself. Aika had assumed that the world before her eyes was the world as it was. When she looked at the sky, she trusted that what was there was all that was there. She knew now that she was wrong. There was something more. There was a greater whole that she'd never been aware of and Fina—Moons, bless her—had made it visible.
It was like looking at the night sky and all of the stars. The world had a haze to it, a soft and comfortable silver glow that filled it like water in a cup. Aika could feel against her skin; brisk and invigorating like the wind she and Vyse loved so much. That alone was astounding to understand: there was magick on the winds. There was magick everywhere. It was the lattice weave that held everything together. For Aika, it was completely overwhelming to behold. This was how Fina saw the world? The silver mist of the world was brimming with light and emanating waves. A school of sky sardis passed before the two women and Aika could see them. She could see the energy that comprised them and allow these particular fish to fly when others were confined to ponds and lakes. She felt deeper presences around her and gripped Fina's hand more tightly, locking her fingers with her friend as if they were the only solid thing in the universe.
"Is it too much?" Fina spoke quietly. A whisper that Aika heard rippling in her mind and heart.
"No," she replied, even if it was partly a lie. "I just… Can't imagine seeing the world like this all the time."
"Yet you touch on this reality, this underlying truth, whenever you cast a spell," Fina said comfortably. "Which is something you do more easily than others. You're not as removed from this truth as you think."
The pirate exhaled a shaky breath, turning around to look at each of the strange "stars" she saw in this new version of the world. "These are… people? Everyone shines like this?"
"Everyone," Fina answered. "Even the worst of people, the ones with pain and darkness in their hearts."
Aika looked at her friend. Truly and deeply looked at her through the mist of magick and time that she was being permitted to experience and saw that while there were many lights, Fina burned like the sun. It was the only thing that she could compare the Silvite to: beautiful, bright, and life-giving. To her amazement, she could sense another glow with nearly-equal strength and turned to look down towards the village where another star blazed with life. She gasped at the realization that some of that light was funneling towards her. Shimmering and shining like the wake of a freshly burning moonstone engine. Her recognition was immediate and brought a wide smile to her face.
"That's Vyse!" She laughed more happily than she'd ever laughed in her life. "That's Vyse! Look at him!"
Fina giggled. "You catch on quickly," she said. "Each and every person is unique; they have their own balance of magicks and energy. No two people are alike so if you focus carefully you can tell who they are. Particularly if they have a connection to you."
Aika ran her hands through the strange mist of energy that trailed from Vyse's "star" to herself. She noticed that glow passing through her and onwards to Fina as well. "A connection?"
"Think of it like how having a moonstone in your pocket slowly imparts knowledge about how to use it," Fina said evenly. "Certain people, certain souls... resonate with each other. Friends and lovers. Family. Their energies intermingle to form everlasting bonds."
Aika looked at Fina once more and nodded before realizing that the Silvite's light was trailing off further into the sky. Far in the distance of her new perception, Aika could just notice a star that burned with a shaking, almost angry flicker. "Who is that? Off in the distance?"
Fina hesitated. Her heart contracted with a flash of pain before she spoke up. "That is Rami," she finally said. "If you look very closely, you might see the fraying line between him and Doctor Ortega.."
"You always know where the other is?" Aika was dumbfounded at the notion. Ramirez was almost certainly back in Valua, leagues and leagues away.
"We only had each other growing up," Fina explained. "The resulting bond is strong. I imagine both of us being Silvite has something to do with it as well."
"You can't ever truly hide from him," Aika said nervously. "No matter where we go, Valua could follow. It must have been how they found you that night when you arrived.."
"Yes and no," Fina said sadly. "Originally, he was supposed to meet with me at those coordinates but we know what happened instead.."
Aika sighed. She could only imagine how much her friend was hurting. Yet, something pulled on the edge of her own perception again. A whisper of a voice, a sentiment of worry and affection that was floating in their mutual direction. She paused. Lacking the skill to hear the words entirely, she still understood them as focusing on herself and Fina. Her eyes narrowed.
"What's that?" she asked. "That.. whisper?"
"That's Vyse again," Fina said softly. "You won't hear the specific thoughts unless you focus but the sense of being thought about ? That's harder to avoid. A part of the noise I mentioned before."
"He's thinking about us right now?" Aika's voice shook with a newfound appreciation for her friend.
"He often does," Fina explained happily. "You're usually at the center of his thoughts. Sometimes, it's myself or others. He's almost never thinking about himself; he's always focused on the world around him. I find it rather inspiring. For the moment, I imagine he's worried about our journey."
"Often… thinking about us," Aika repeated. Her face turned red at the information. The flutter in her heart somehow made her hold Fina's hand more fervently. "That silly doofus..."
"He cares very much for others," Fina replied, her eyes settling on Aika. "As do you. It's nice."
Aika sighed comfortably, observing the weave of lights and spirits around her. Without thought, a thumb moved to idly stroke at Fina's hand and while the Silvite stiffened for a moment, she relaxed quickly. The two of them watched and felt as the world twirled around them in a ballet of interconnected radiance, a symphony of warmth and beauty that defied all words and logic. A warmth shared between the two women as they understood themselves as both singular people with their own hopes, dreams, and worries… and as something else. Something less specific and isolated which twisted and mixed with everything around them. It was a gift beyond anything that Aika could have expected her friend to give, and that Fina had shared it so willingly endeared her to the Silvite even more. Moons, how lucky she and Vyse had been to find her.
This is nice," the redhead said quietly.
"It is," Fina hummed in agreement.
They stood there for a time, basking in the beauty of the world and each other. Their journey would be a difficult one; they both understood that the road ahead was bound to be dark and twisting at times. But they would have each other and they would have Vyse. That seemed more than enough to deal with whatever trials awaited them out in the open skies.
Johanna Dyne always knew her son would leave for the open skies some day but like any mother, the prospect of an empty nest was troubling to her. She'd expected Vyse and Aika to sail off on some small misadventure or even try to take after Victor and start a small crew of their own. Maybe that would come in time. For now, her son had signed on to the far more daunting task of saving the world. She would have worried about her son regardless but the sheer enormity of his newfound quest was enough to fill her heart with an entire village's worth of worry. Fighting as part of Victor's crew was one thing; sailing off with a mysterious captain to find magickal rocks was something else entirely.
To ease her mind, she insisted on packing her son's bag. The satchel was packed with spare clothes and as many sacri crystals as she could manage to enchant overnight. It wasn't much but it was something. If Vyse was going to save the world, the least he would need was a few healing supplies and a good pair of socks. Of course, she'd suspected that her son had a few less than noble intentions for leaving. He had a good heart and she didn't doubt that he wanted to stick it to the Valuans but he was also a glory hound. Victor had never wanted to admit it but she could see it clear as day. Adventure was an addiction for her son ever since he'd jumped out of the village's apple tree at age four and broken his foot.
He hadn't cried; he simply laughed. The pouting started once she explained that he wouldn't be able to run and play with Aika until his foot had healed up. Johanna recalled her son's expression so clearly that she might've traveled back in time. His eyes had been dark and cheeks puffed out in frustration. When he'd healed up, the first thing he did was jump out of that tree again with Aika at his side. Rushing off to find these "Moon Crystals?" Well, it wasn't much different than jumping out of that tree. Packed equally with fun and danger, the two things her son couldn't get enough of. He'd been chasing an invisible something all his life and tried to reach it with bigger and bigger risks. It was only natural he'd say yes to something world-shaking. But there was, of course, another matter…
Johanna saw how Vyse looked at Fina and the upturn to his lips whenever she entered a room. He sometimes managed it for Aika as well before some other impulse slipped him into a more comfortable and less suggestive gaze. He was smitten with the girl. Johanna could see it plain as day and saw how Fina spared her son the occasional glance in turn. The three of them—Vyse, Aika, and Fina—all seemed to find something in each other beyond mere friendship although they were too young to properly realize it. Whether it was genuine affection or the fickle fire of a teenage heart remained to be seen but Johanna was not quite so blind as her husband as to what was playing out before them. Vyse was eager to play the hero, desperate to chase his next adrenaline rush… but most of all he'd decided with astounding swiftness that Fina was one of the most important people in his life. Victor had started bar fights back in the day when someone even so much as bad mouthed her owns looks; Vyse had opted for the more dramatic gesture of waging war on the largest empire the world had ever known. A war that Aika was more than eager to sign up for too. It was a tangle of emotions and thoughts that Johanna hoped the three might manage. Whatever it all meant in the end.
"Here we are," Johanna said as she deposited the packed satchel on the table in front of her son. "Socks, a spare lens for the goggle-patch, four whole sacri crystals, and three jam sandwiches. One for you and one each for the girls."
Vyse rubbed the back of his neck embarrassedly. "It's not that I don't appreciate it," he started carefully. "But you know I'm going to be traveling all around the world, right? I'll probably go through this stuff in a flash."
"Not if you're careful," she countered with a wagging finger. "Just because you're off 'saving the world' doesn't mean that you can be reckless! If I hear you jumped into the belly of some arcwhale or dueled some admiral with so much as your boots unlaced, there will be hell to pay. Got that, mister?"
"Okay, okay," Vyse replied before opening up the satchel and reaching for one of the jam sandwiches. He could just smell the strawberry scent before his mother gave his hand a teasing slap.
Vyse was about to protest but was stopped as their cottage door creaked open and Luke stepped inside. The raider wasn't much for manners but offered Johanna a prompt salute worthy of her husband, the gesture's whipping snap making a tousle of his ruddy red hair flap over his eyes. Much of his face seemed recovered after a strong night's worth of magickal tending, leaving a rather dramatic slash diagonally down his face. That was the modest way to describe it at least; an inch or so deeper and he might have faced a grim end in the Valuan coliseum. For all of that, he seemed in good spirits. Vyse assumed that was Mabel's doing. The raider turned to look at his friend.
"Should listen to your ma," Luke offered. "Though I understand the temptation.."
"You tried to steal this sandwich from me plenty of times when we were kids," Vyse said with a smirk. "Shame I was always a little faster."
Luke shrugged. "Never stopped me from trying," he said. "Captain's kid needed to learn some humility."
Vyse rolled his eyes. "Like you could ever teach me," he joked back. "Always bragging about kills after a raid. Puffing out your chest like some bird so Mabel'd pay attention."
Johanna turned towards the pantry where she began to gather the necessaries for making Luke his own jam sandwich. "Can't you two ever play nice?" she asked. "Not everything needs to be a competition."
"Not here to cause trouble," Luke said kindly to Johanna. "But I do have business with Vyse."
"You do?" Vyse asked curiously. "Because I figured you'd be resting up after everything you've been through. No one would blame you for it."
The raider sauntered towards the table and took a seat next to Vyse. "When we were coming back from Valua, I was sleeping in the Little Jack 's crow's nest," he explained. "Woke up in time to hear Fina explain a whole lotta things to you…"
Vyse hesitated. "It's some dramatic stuff," he conceded. "But I believe every word given all the lengths the Valuans were going through to get her. Besides, she'd never lie."
Johanna sawed some bread for the sandwich before gathering a smear of jam with the knife and spreading it on each piece. She smiled at Vyse's defense of his friend. "I don't think Luke was suggesting she was lying," she said. "No one on the entire island would accuse Fina of that."
Luke pointed at Vyse's mom as if that settled the matter. "Not trying to impugn your girlfriend's honor," he said. "I just wanted to talk about what I heard for a second.."
"S'just a friend," Vyse muttered. "But that's hardly the point. What's got your clouds swirling so much?"
The other man paused for a moment, which was just enough for Johanna to deposit his sandwich before him. He offered another kind salute before taking a bite of the sandwich to buy himself further time. When he swallowed, it felt a bit like he was also swallowing some of his pride.
"I was talking things over with May," he started to explain. "And what you're doing is noble as some storybook knight but we both agree that you're in over your head.."
Vyse scoffed. "I just snuck into Valua and broke everyone out from under the Empress' nose."
Luke took another sloppy bite of his sandwich. "Which we're all grateful for," he replied. "But that doesn't change how either of us feel about this. So… I, uh… wanted to ask that once she and I've had some time to heal up more and figure some things out.." He stopped. Somehow it felt hard to continue.
"What is it?" Vyse asked. His voice once again held the familiar weight that his father often managed when speaking with his crew. "Never seen you like this in my life."
Johanna looked at Luke as if he was her own child. "Go on," she said warmly. It wasn't hard to figure out what he was about to say. "You'll be fine."
"When you're able, we want you to swing by here again," Luke finally admitted. "So we can join up with you and lend a hand. Figure it's gonna take a little more than you and the ladies to save the world.."
"He's got a point," Johanna said happily. The two boys were friends but Luke always seemed to work so hard to stand on his own two feet. It wasn't a small thing for him to ask permission to join Vyse's adventure. "Even if that stuffy Captain Drachma might fuss about it.."
Vyse looked at his fellow raider for a moment and saw him in a new light. He was crew and that made him family to an extent but they'd always had a playful competition that sometimes left the two at arm's length. Even if it was a friendly arm's length. This felt different than any of the times they talked. From their hopeful childhood chats to heated debates about who got to lead the charge onto a deck. Luke was changing and Vyse, although he couldn't explain it, felt a change forming within himself. Maybe it was the fact that they were growing into more and more responsibilities, maybe it was the way in which both of them cared openly for their closest companions. Whatever the case, Vyse saw himself in his friend but also saw a fortitude belonging entirely to Luke. An earnestness beyond anything he'd expressed before.
His lips curled into a smile. "Alright," he said finally. "If we haven't managed to save the world by the next time we swing through Meridia, I'll make sure you and Mabel can join the fun."
Luke exhaled and Vyse was taken aback by how grateful he sounded. Luke really wanted to help and knowing that he could seemed to lift an immense weight off the man. "Means a lot to know that," he said quietly. "Because this nonsense you've signed up for? It's a lot.."
"I know," Vyse said seriously. "But we need to do it. Valua already came too close to winning when they took you and everyone else away. When they took Fina…"
"You best look out for everyone," Luke replied with a grin. "If I hear that even a hair got disturbed on anyone's head while you were lookin' out for 'em, I'll have more than a few choice words for ya."
"As if I'd let it happen," a bouncing voice called from the doorway. Vyse and the others turned to find Aika standing there with a curious grin on her face. "Because we all know I'm the one who'll need to look out for him."
Vyse looked at Aika with a playfulness in his eyes. "That so?" he asked. "Even if we find some shiny treasure?"
Aika brought a finger to her chin as she dramatically thought about the matter. "I suppose if there was something very shiny…" she joked before walking over to ruffle Vyse's hair.
"Dummy. I'd never."
A friendly punch teased into Aika's arm as Vyse got his revenge for the sudden hair tousling. Aika had a pep in her step that, while characteristic, seemed different than usual. He could sense that much even if he had no clue what had placed her in this mood. "What's got you smiling so much?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she said with a wink before leaning over him to snatch the remnants of Luke's jam sandwich from the table and shovel it into her mouth. The raider gave a shrug.
"I guess I can worry less," he said slyly. "I forgot you always travel with your guardian angel."
Aika finished her bite of sandwich before focusing on Vyse once more. "It's time," she said. "Captain's calling for us to head down to the dock. Says we need to stay ahead of the sunlight."
Vyse stood up and stretched his arms upwards, doing his best to look casual for everyone in the room even as his heart leapt with excitement. "Guess I'm off to find some magick rocks," he said confidently. "Try not to get captured by the empire again, okay?"
Luke chuckled although it didn't quite have the same mirth as before. It was clear his time in Valua had left him with a lot to think about. "Yeah, I'll make sure Mabel doesn't flip off any Spectres ."
A resigned sigh rippled through the cottage as Johanna, who'd been content to watch the conversation, finally let her emotions out. This was it. The moment she always knew would come even if she never imagined it would happen quite like this. One day, Vyse would walk out the front door and out into the skies. That was never in doubt. He and Aika would sail off somewhere. Would they be searching for gold and riches? Drawn into some conflict like what happened to Victor during the Valua-Nasr War? Would it be something softer and sweeter; sailing off to make a home of their own? It hardly mattered because the result was the same. Her boy, her sweet and kind boy, was leaving.
Without a word, she walked over and embraced her son tightly. For all she knew, it would be her last chance. Vyse would never want to admit it but he certainly knew the enormity of the moment. Nothing was certain anymore except for uncertainty. Each day would bring new adventures. Vyse would meet them without reservation. But his mother? She would be left to imagine the journey and pray that her son would return. Be it through some shared intuition or simply because she was a good person, Aika reached out to place a hand on Johanna's shoulder.
"I got him," she said. It was just above a whisper but the words eased Johanna. She stepped away and smiled at them both. They'd grown so much in the last few weeks.
"I know," she said happily. "I know…"
Vyse held mother for another moment before finally taking a step back. "We'll be back before you even realize we're gone," he said with a grin. "Easy as falling asleep. Valua's got nothing on us."
"Go on then," Johanna said. "Misbehave."
The departure drew nearly everyone from the island down into the docks. Not all knew of Vyse's next mission but the weight of expectation was on the air. The last time he'd left the island, the young man sailed straight into the heart of Valua and did something that should have been impossible. Which meant that a question burned in everyone's mind: "what's next?" What could be so important that Victor Dyne's son and his friends would sail off so quickly with a strange captain? Whispers abounded between those aware and those who were speculating. It was a war against the empire. It was a magical quest with Fina back to her homeland. It was world-shaking and world-saving. Bigger and more "impossible" than before. All of it was true. For the journey ahead was both war and pilgrimage, misadventure and discovery-cruise. Once again, Vyse could feel the burning gaze of dozens of people. Each glance was full of expectation that he drank in as much as he could. Not out of a sense for glory but as a grim reminder of what was to come. Of course, there were hugs and cheers. There were salutes and handshakes and secret whispers.
A father chided: "Son, remember everything I've taught you…"
A broken heart assured: "I'll save Rami. For both of us."
A boisterous adventurer teased: "We'll have so much gold you'll be able to swim in it!"
A would-be hero swore: "I'll make you all proud."
When the Little Jack sailed off into Meridian skies, it did so on the back of cheers and waves and a mother's tears. The only one with any complaint was Captain Drachma, who offered a silent prayer that no one else could hear to a spirit he didn't believe existed. The day was fair and the clouds pleasant even if the work of sailing was never easy work. Vyse turned the ship eastward and each passing league left his home further and further behind. Drachma kept close watch as the young pirate helmed his ship, which had transformed—at least for some—from a mere fishing vessel into the manifestation of their hopes and dreams. The Little Jack was none of those things. It was mostly a rusty ship running on spit and spite. Aika worked to keep the engines running fast; Fina even lended a hand by channeling extra energies into the reserve moonstones. The result was a renewed pace towards the horizon.
The destination was partially familiar; the rising heat and surmounting burn of the sun wasn't unknown to the crew after their battle with Baltor outside the Dannel Straight. That didn't make the heat easier; Fina particularly bristled as each passing moment warmed the air even as Cupil charged himself with purple magicks to put her at ease. It also didn't mean everything was the same or that their approach to Nasrean airspace was free from anxiety. Their destination was an unassuming outpost called Maramba. Captain Drachma, eager to make port, guided Vyse on a course that would avoid Nasrean checkpoints. They were a handful of leagues out when the Little Jack ran close to a rock rift: a wall of boulders, miniature islands, shoals, and debris that most ships could not pass without risking extraordinary damage.
However, the Little Jack wasn't most ships. Her hull was reinforced, her engine powered with highly refined moonstones and a Silvite's incantation, and the bow bore the Harpoon Cannon's powerful point. Drachma gave a grunt as they approached the rift; this was all part of his plan. Cutting through meant avoiding prying eyes and arriving in less than half-day's time but also ran the risk of a battered ship without the right hand on the wheel. With his guidance, the Little Jack confidently sliced through the rift, cannon tip cutting through the clutter until all that was ahead of them were heat-filled Nasrean skies.
Vyse had never seen this deep into Nasr and was astounded to find most of the land covered in nothing but sand as far as his eye could see. As the Little Jack pressed on towards Maramba, the land's vast emptiness became all the more apparent. The widest landmass in view extended further than a dozen lakes but there was nary a drop of water in sight. Nothing but a seemingly endless expanse that shimmered under the blazing sun. It was terrifying, amazing, and everything else he could ask for.
"I think your dad might've been right about people's hair catching on fire," Vyse said to Aika as she walk up from the engine room and onto the bridge. "I've never seen anything like this. Or felt heat like this!"
Aika looked over the sand dunes down below. "Is this what his home was like?" she asked herself. "There's nothing but sand! No wonder he came to Meridia!"
"S'a desert," Drachma explained with a huff. "Plenty 'o land where what's nothing but sand but them's villages and places what water can be found in the ground. Ain't impossible t'live here."
"I've heard sailors talk about desert before but it's my first time seeing one," Vyse noted with awe. "Stories of ghosts in the dunes. Seeing things in the heat."
"Ghosts?!" Aika stammered. "Maybe we should turn back…"
"Mirages," Drachma grunted. His metal arm reached out to tap Aika on the head. "S'all in here. Something about the sun bakin' the noodle such that men see things that ain't there. Mistake sandy pits fer water or what have ya."
Fina walked onto the bridge and wiped sweat from her brow, which had accumulated in spite of Cupil's efforts to fan her with waggles of his tail. "The stones that fall from the Red Moon radiate a great deal of heat," she explained with a gesture towards the heavens. "It's too hot for most plants to survive."
"Which means there's not much besides rocks and desert," Vyse concluded with a nod.
"Pretty sure I saw a waterfall that was actually a sand fall," Aika exclaimed. "Just a ton of sand falling down on top of more sand!"
"The Red Moon Crystal is out there somewhere," Vyse said with some hesitation. Suddenly, their task seemed far more difficult than he'd imagined. "We're not going to go diving into those dunes, are we?"
Fina shook her head. "There won't be a need," she noted confidently even as the heat continued to clearly hound her. "Part of my training as a priestess included study of other Old World cultures. I know where many of the crystals were taken in the days before the Rains."
"That's a relief," Aika said with a grin. "Because the last thing we needed was to walk in the desert and go bonkers like the captain mentioned. Start seeing ghosts or whatever.."
"Mirages," Drachma repeated with some annoyance. "But aye, least the girl knows yer bearing."
"So where is it?" Vyse asked. His eyes scanned the sea of sand before him. In the distance, the smallest hint of a ramshackle outpost came into view. Modest but marked by strangely large signal fires; he imagined they were similar to the lighthouse on Sailor's Island. Red magick beacons for guiding ships.
"It is buried deep within the ancient Temple of Pyrynn," Fina said, as if everyone knew what the ancient Temple of Pyrynn was. Cupil meeped at her side, rippling with red energy at the temple's name.
"Ancient temple?" Aika asked, voice lifting with excitement. Vyse rolled his eyes. He knew what his friend was about to mention. "I bet a place like that has all kinds of treasure in it! Gold and gems and magic stuff! Oh, man! If we find some of that, we'll be rich! Totally set for the journey."
Drachma grunted. "Ye've a one track mind, lass," he intoned. "S'always about the haul with ya. A pirate's pirate iff'n I heard one speak."
"Thank you, Cap'n!" came Aika's cheery reply. Drachma seemed unimpressed. He looked her over with a slow gaze and sighed.
"I'm too old fer this," he grumbled. "S'more t'a life than glimmery gold and shinin' silver."
Vyse continued to guide the ship onwards but spared a glance at Fina. "What's so important about this Temple of Pyrynn?"
"In the Old World, the lands you now call Nasr were ruled by a civilization called the Ardites," she explained. Her graceful hand gestured towards the land ahead of the Little Jack . "They say the Gigas War started when the Fulmarians attacked the Ardites."
Cupil blipped and bobbed back and forth, shifting his hue from red to yellow as he moved from one side of the bridge to another in what was clearly meant to be a pantomime of war. Simple but it got the point across.
"When the war started to turn, the Qawiun ordered the priests and other holy men to gather at the temple," she continued. "So that they could summon the Red Gigas and defend their homeland."
"The Qwwaaaazzat?" Aika repeated. "Who were they?"
"The supposed god-kings of the Ardite civilization," Fina elaborated, although from the tone of her voice she clearly found the idea of a "god-king" laughable. "The Temple of Pyrynn was a holy site that only they and their chosen servants could enter. Part magickal sanctuary, part tomb for the most revered of their ranks. It stood on powerful moonstone deposits that allowed them to refine the moon crystal. "
"What happened?" Vyse asked. He didn't have any sense of Old World history. Hell, even the finest scholars could only guess at matters. Fina knew .
"The contest between the Fulmarian Gigas Yeligar and the Ardite's Recumen shattered the land," she explained. "The Qawiun hid in the temple, protecting themselves with magickal wards as their subjects burned in the fires of war. The battle only ceased when Silvite mages were able to subdue Yeligar."
"Is that something you'd be able to do?" Aika asked curiously. "Subdue a Gigas?"
"That knowledge was lost during the Rains," the Silvite said sadly. "Other Gigas remained and ravaged the land. In the end, no one could forestall the Moon's judgement."
Vyse looked at the desert again. The miles of sand and the many different islands and rifts took on a different context. Older and more terrible than before. Could Arcadia as he knew it ever grow to match the Old World? Or would everything he knew also one day rest underneath the sands of the time? It was an idle thought at most but one he took seriously. At the very least he knew that if the Valuans got the Moon Crystals, the strange song of "history" would repeat an all-too-familiar and destructive chorus.
"I wonder what it was like back then," he mused. "Was it a bit greener here? More bearable? Shining cities and magick winds? Seems a real shame we lost something like that."
"Whatever it was like in those times," Fina started softly, impressed that Vyse's imagination and empathy could extend that far back. "It rests below the sands and has for centuries. That's where greed leads any civilization. The Old World craved more and more; consumed more and gave into their lust for war. All they did was destroy the lands."
"If there's gold left in the ruins," Aika started happily, tossing her arms over both of her friends' shoulders conspiratorially. "Then I'm not complaining. You can carry it all though, Vyse. Wouldn't want us ladies to break too much of a sweat. Especially since we're already sweating.. "
"And if there actually are ghosts?" Vyse teased. "Gonna have me and Cupil handle it all?"
The agenti meeped once more, transforming his body into a replica of Vyse's cutlass and wiggling dramatically. Woe be to all ghosts who encountered the world's most adorable sword. Fina giggled, calling him over. Cupil shifted purple again before sliding on her wrist in an attempt to once again protect her from the heat. Aika crossed her arms.
"I'd never run away from a fight," she said seriously before reaching over to tug at Vyse's ear. "Everyone wants to talk about Vyse the Doofus and his escapades in Valua but we all know who the brains of the operation is here."
Vyse slipped somewhat in the direction of the tug, the Little Jack 's wheel turning as well. The ship swerved to port and the entire crew slipped sideways. Drachma slammed his metal arm against the nearest wall.
"Cut yer daftness! All of ya!" he ordered. The three would-be adventurers stood up straighter before he clomped over to Vyse. "Firm hands on the wheel, boy. We're just about there. Bring 'er up to dock. I've business at the guild 'afore ye ken even think of yer shenanigans!"
Vyse nodded. "Aye, sir," he acknowledged before turning his focus towards Maramba. The Little Jack listed towards the guide torches and ramshackle outpost port; a dusty haven in the middle of endless heat and sand. It seemed such a small place and yet Vyse couldn't help but feel a tug at his mind. Perhaps it was nerves but he had a feeling that once they docked, things would become much more complicated.
The Little Jack came into dock sure enough, Vyse's steady hands having grown accustomed to the fishing vessel's subtleties. Drachma was content to watch. There was something approaching pride in his gaze as the young pirate managed to handle the Jack with such ease. When they met, Drachma had taken the boy for a fool. That had been entirely correct but Vyse was also a talented and lucky fool. Which was maybe the most dangerous type of fool in the history of foolery. The old man grunted, offering no words to the tagalong world-savers he'd somehow taken aboard his ship. The less he thought about the situation, the better. Eye forward, focus on whatever the hell came next.
As the trio rushed excitedly off the gangplank and onto Maramba's dock, Drachma felt a pain swell in his chest. He'd spent decades shuffling from one port town to another—Lower City, Maramba, Cape Claudia, and even Esperanza—in search of Rhaknam. He'd hunt, grab what spare fish he could in his travels, land, sell them, eat some food, and sail off. It wasn't often he spent more than two days in a port. If he did, it was only to rest his bones. Drachma had no trouble admitting he was an older man but what did trouble him was that he was getting much older. Life was an hourglass and if you were lucky, you got to watch the sand trickle down. It was a fine thing, excepting the times someone bumped into the metaphorical table and nearly shattered the glass. Some would look at Drachma and say that he'd live a full life in the skies. Especially in days past, when things were far from what they were now. After all, he was here. But Drachma didn't feel grateful. He felt alone, and he felt distinctly aware that his time was running out. So while Vyse, Aika, and Fina chattered away about whatever nonsense they wanted—Nasrean heat, moon crystals, merchants to visit—Drachma kept his mind focused on one task.
It wasn't the task that he'd ostensibly brought everyone to Maramba for. Because deep down, Drachma didn't care if the world ended and he didn't much care who owned the damn skies be it Blue Rogues or Valua. The sand was falling downwards. So much that it could fill the desert in his heart. Each passing moment meant another he could never get back; which is why the mission he cared for was the same mission as always. Rhaknam. It always came back to that damned arcwhale. Heaving away from the Little Jack, Drachma spotted a modest stone-walled building baking at the end of Maramba's dock. The sign bore the telltale anchor sigil of the Sailor's Guild. Just what he needed to find his bearings.
Drachma pushed open the doors and did little more than nod in greeting to the guildmaster, a dark-skinned man with a powerful beard. What was his name again? Asim? Asad? The fisherman couldn't remember; he never spent more time in Maramba than was needed to peddle some of his catch and restock moonstones. No, what he needed were up to date air current charts and what meager meteorological speculation the sky-watchers had managed. Clear skies and heat presumably. Or at least that's what an untrained eye would see. Drachma had been sailing for longer than most, hunting a more particular prey than most. A good fisherman could look at a current chart and speculate on where the sardis might gather or sunfish streamed but he could peer at it and determine the telltale signs of Rhaknam's passing. Chase anything long enough, study anything for decades, and you became more than an expert. You became an obsessive, a rival, an honest to Moons hunter. Which he was.
He had expected nothing. Even as his heart burned with possibility, a part of him hoped he would spy nothing. After all, he hadn't come to Maramba on the hunt. It took a moment to spot through the slices of warm currents cutting from Nasrad and eastward towards Maramaba but the old man gave an involuntary gasp as his eye found something else. Something important; a predicted sand squall further east. Hardly natural. It would be more than a dust squall; it would be a storm. Of wind and cold and magick. He paused and examined the chart more closely; the marking on the map was recently made. He knew in his gut that's where Rhaknam would be.
"Are you sure of this?" the guildmaster's bold baritone broke Drachma out of his study. "There's indications of headwinds but you are suggesting something else entirely. And very far from Meridia."
A young woman, perhaps some type of dancer or entertainer by the look of her revealing outfit, was speaking to the guildmaster with a look of terror in her eyes. She lean forward on the table, as if getting closer to the man would impress the seriousness of her claims upon him.
"I swear it," she said emphatically. Her voice was a fine alto albeit one shaking nervously. "I was picking up some goods from the capital and circled far down the Razorback Ridge. Turbulence, cold…"
The guildmaster rubbed his beard. "Would be as the stories say," he noted. "And you're certain it was also heading south? Into the desert and further by? Would explain the coming squalls.."
"Did ya see it?" Drachma said. He hobbled over with stomping steps. "Did'ya see the cause?"
The woman looked at him nervously before nodding. Flicks of her brown hair fell before her eyes, which she dismissed with a flip of her head. It was only then that Drachma noticed how scared she looked. Was it of him or what she witnessed? But there was something else which Drachma could not explain. The smallest flicker that hit her eyes for a moment before disappearing. Recognition? Amusement?
"It was like an arcwhale," she said, trying to find her composure again. "Except far bigger than any I've heard tell of. Massive. Pressing onwards. I'm lucky I made it back home to Maramba."
Drachma's perception of the world slowed to a snail's crawl. A devil's hand grasped his heart and squeezed. Here? Rhaknam was here? Had the bastard really become so bold as to fly into Nasrean space? It wasn't typical of the beast but perhaps something had driven him this way. A run in with the Armada, a spiral of whatever strangeness tugged the arcwhale from point to point. He started to calculate all sorts of scenarios in his mind. Drachma knew how fast the whale was and knew that the Little Jack could catch the beast with enough moonstones in the tank. If Rhaknam were close, he could strike. His mind lingered on the Harpoon Cannon, thinking of the raw damage it had done in Valua. Nothing would survive a hit from that, not even the dread whale. All he needed to do was sail and fire true. Then, the work would be done. However…
There was the boy and his companions. The daft would-be thief queen and the kindhearted lass. They were good people and they were counting on him. Their journey, their mission was beyond his petty revenge quest. If what that girl said was true, those crystals would change the world one way or another. So for a moment Drachma Gealbhan, the dread hunter of Rhaknam, hesitated. But it was only a moment before screams danced in his mind and the dead whispered in his ears. Simple words. Important words.
Don't let go… Don't let go… Dear god, please do not let go..
That was enough. There was no debate to be had once those voices snaked into Drachma's heart. Without sparing even a glance to the woman or the guildmaster, the old man barged his way towards the door. Deep down, from foot to toe, the spirits of the fallen slipped about underneath his skin. The loss of years and the threat of even more lost time mixed with a fool's hope: that this time would be different. That this time, he would kill that damned beast and make it pay for all the pain it brought into the world.
No, not that. Drachma didn't care about the world, after all. What mattered was the pain Rhaknam had brought to him. The losses, the deaths, the blood and sweat and especially the tears. He heard the voices again and muttered a promise before stepping out to the docks.
"I ain't lettin' go," he whispered. "Not today.."
Vyse stepped up and down, feeling the crunching dirt of Maramba's docks under his feet. Tough sand and long-lived wood planks met with the leather soles of his boots. It was a comfortable sensation. The young sailor hadn't really turned the gesture into a ritual by any means but there were times when reaching new ports that he took a moment to truly appreciate where he'd arrived. Maramba was not like anything he'd known. The burning heat and oppressive sun was all the more apparent, causing some sweat to slide down his forehead. Looking about, he saw worn and tired trade vessels on the meager dock alongside a few small ships clearly meant for personal travel. What buildings dotted the landing were hearty stone affairs that could stand up to whipping winds and blowing sand. It was a far cry from Sailor's Island. That place has been dirty, loud, and entirely haphazard. Maramba was many things but it was neither loud nor was it cavalier. The docks were mostly empty, without the hustle and bustle of the larger port.
"It's hard to believe people live out here," he noted as Aika and Fina walked up next to him. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Drachma make his way towards what he assumed was the Sailor's Guild.
"No offense to anyone here," Aika said, which usually meant something offensive was going to follow. "But it's a bit of a dump, yeah? Raw deal living in the middle of nowhere; I'd be out of here as soon as I could."
"Wasn't your dad from Manamba?" Vyse countered. "That's only a little less remote than this."
Aika shrugged. Her heritage was a tricky matter. For whatever bits of Nasrean culture her father had been able to teach her before his death, she never felt in touch with that part of her bloodline. "Sure," she allowed. "But he didn't stay there long. First to Nasrad and then eventually off with your dad."
"Didn't really sit around much," Vyse mused. "Explains a lot about you."
"As if," Aika scoffed. "I can focus plenty when I want."
Fina sidled up to the pair, looking a bit red in the face despite Cupil's efforts. "And if I told you that we could take all the gold in the Temple of Pyrynn?" she asked teasingly. "Bags and bags of trinkets?"
"Well, I suppose we wouldn't be sitting here too long," Aika replied with a wink. "I'm sure Captain Drachma would understand that our mission demanded extreme haste."
Vyse chuckled with a quick glance back to the Little Jack . Drachma was ambling back on, having returned from the Sailor's Guild and apparently set on making sure the ship was in good shape. "With all the energy we saved thanks to Fina's incantation, I don't think we'll need to stay here long."
Aika stretched, thinking the matter over. "Still would want to prepare," she noted with a shift into a more serious train of thought. "No clue what we'll find and the last ruin we delved into had a living rock monster with a fire-spewing arm."
Fina gasped, regarding her two friends in abject shock. "You encountered a fortis automaton?" she asked in disbelief. "How are you both alive?"
"Is that what that was?" Aika asked. "Didn't really know it had a fancy name. I guess that was a Silvite shrine after all…"
Vyse rubbed the back of his neck. "We shoved an electres crystal in its blasty… arm.. thing."
"The feedback surge would have left all other systems vulnerable," Fina noted with some thought. "But really, that's astounding. Most people would have been killed."
Vyse shrugged. It didn't feel that special to him. "Whatever the case of that, Aika's right," he said. "We don't know what'll be in the temple so a day's worth of prep here could be good. Might even barter for armor or…"
He was about to continue when a voice cut across the docks; a young woman speaking with well-practiced venom. There was something familiar about it that Vyse could not place but he knew it meant danger.
"I found you! Turn and face your demise, Rupee of the Larso Clan!"
The trio turned towards the other end of the dock, nearest a staircase that lead up to the village proper. A small child with glasses that made his eyes look three times their true size was trembling behind a large man with a powerful mustache. The boy could not have been more than nine or ten, barely fitting into his blue-trimmed robes and oversized turban. The impression was someone acting at being an adult although his quivering demeanor held no such confidence. He was just a small and frightened boy hiding behind a much larger man. That man, presumably a guardian of some kind, held a firm stance in front of the boy. If he were a castle, it would take the mightiest cannons to knock down the walls of his being. He towered over his charge, bare chest puffed out and hands raised at the ready in a powerful fighter's stance that made him look almost more beast than man. His gloves showed the near-imperceptible signs of what appeared to be moonstones weaved where his knuckles were. Vyse could tell that whatever threat was at hand, he would give everything and anything to protect the boy. As for the threat…
It was not what Vyse had expected. A young woman about his age stood before the two with an almost aristocratic rearing. Tall, proud, confident. She wore an outfit of tight leather; pants and a top that left her toned midriff open for all the world to see. Her boots had steel fixtures on them not dissimilar to talons or claws. Vyse imagined that getting kicked by them would be quite the painful proposition. Because it was clear this woman was dangerous. Of course, there was another very obvious indication of this: a frightening scythe with a blue moonstone blade held firm in her right hand. Her other hand pointed towards the young boy.
"Don't try to hide, pirate scum," she spat coldly. It was as if all the hatred in the world danced upon her lips. "There's no place for you to run. No amount of bodyguards or minions that my blade cannot cut through. The Angel of Death has come for you, Rupee Larso. Surrender and I'll make your death painless."
The boy peered out from behind his hulking companion. "You don't understand!" he yelled, voice shaking and stuttering. "I'm not… I mean… I don't want to… I'm trying to…"
"Say nothing else, Master Rupee," the towering man said. He glared at the woman. "You're the bounty hunter, then? The one called "Angel.." Here is my counter offer to you: walk away. Otherwise, I will shatter your bones for ever daring to speak to my master this way!"
The young boy, apparently "Master Rupee," shook his head. "Barta, please stop! We don't need to fight!"
Vyse's eyes narrowed, as did Aika's. They felt what was coming before it even started. Whatever negotiation the boy wanted, either to beg or bribe his way out of trouble, was an impossibility. This "Angel" character was entirely set on killing him. Barta, massive form casting a shadow over the sand, seemed to glow red with anger and determination. To Fina's eyes, he has the heat of a star about to explode and all of it seemed to channel into his hands. She understood the magick at play and found it both impressive but horribly unrefined. The man was more than he seemed; he was not a brute but a battlemage. The energy in his body gathered into his fist, where she saw the heat of refined moonstones. His spell? A strange concoction of rudimentary pyri magick and the fortifying increm spell, known for its ability to breath strength and vigor into any soul it mingled with. He was going to strike and strike hard.
The bodyguard held his burning fist aloft. "I give my all for you Master Rupee! Now behold the pinnacle of Larso Clan bodyguard techniques, passed down for centuries: ULTRA RAVING PUNCH!"
The man dashed forward with all the speed of a racing vessel, his fiery fist rushing towards the scythe-wielding killer before him. The burning passion of his heart was on display for the world to see, the depth of his amazing devotion to his master empowering him with a strength that no one could hope to match. His fist lurched fowards. Then, there was a flash.
It took a moment for everyone gathered to realize what had occurred. Instead of a flaming fist smashing into an overly brash bounty hunter, Angel held her weapon aloft. She'd clearly cut at Barta but instead of drawing blood, small chunks of sliced red moonstones rested on her blade. With a single stroke, she'd intercepted the bodyguard and cut the stones from his glove. She flicked them to the ground where they exploded with a fiery snap. Barta looked stunned for a moment, clearly shocked at the idea that a technique "passed down for centuries" could be defeated so easily by some small girl, before he hurled a wild haymaker at the bounty hunter. Angel slipped under it and snapped her le upwards into a standing split kick that smashed her steel-taloned boot into the man's chin and set him tumbling unconscious to the sandy ground. Without any ceremony, she walked towards the small boy.
"It's a tough break," she said with a hint of remorse in her voice. "I'd rather not kill someone so young but you can blame that on the misfortune of your birth. End of the Larso Clan, end of another slew of air pirates.."
"If you have an issue with pirates, you'll have to deal with us!" Vyse cried out, rushing with Aika and Fina to fall in between Rupee and the bounty hunter. "Because there's no way in the Moons I'll sit by and let you harm this kid."
"Blue Rogues face any challenge," Aika said with a grin. She pulled her boomerang from the sheathe on her back as Vyse also brandished his cutlasses. "Not that you look challenging." She finished the statement by sticking her tongue out at the other woman. She and Vyse fell into their familiar combat stances before Angel.
"Fina.." Vyse said quietly. It wasn't to warn the woman off but rather to goad her into action. Not that there was much need. She had already knelt in front of Barta's unconscious form, keeping close to Rupee as she began to weave green magicks into his bodyguard.
"Who are…" Rupee could hardly keep track of anything that was happening but calmed as soon as he saw Fina's smiling face.
"We're friends," she said warmly, mentally directing Cupil to fall into place before Rupee and form a shield. The Silvite turned to Vyse and Aika. "You need to be careful. There's something about how she's moving. An energy that she shouldn't have!"
Angel leaned backwards with laughter. It started small but turned into something bitter and blood thirsty. "You're all very confident for a bunch of corpses," she said with a smirk. "Don't you know who you're dealing with? They call me the Angel of Death for a reason…"
Vyse looked at the woman before him more closely. Piercing blue eyes dominated an unmarred and fair-skinned face. They glared at him with undiluted animosity, peeking out from under snow white locks; the rest was pulled back into three shockingly styled tufts of blue dyed hair. Her leather ensemble, while leaving little to the imagination, was also reliable and firm. Perhaps there was moonstone in the weave or other protecting elements but Vyse could tell that cutting it would pose issues. Which meant aiming for her exposed stomach. It bore no scars. No one had ever managed to scratch this "Angel" in any meaningful way before. She held her weapon high.
"I had no quarrel with you," she explained. "Until you confessed you were air pirates."
Aika huffed. "What's wrong with that? Better than being some Valuan stooge or bounty hunting bimbo!"
A flicker of hate ran over Angel's features before she spoke. "I cannot sit idly while air pirates fly the skies and do as they please," she said. "That boy is the leader of one of the largest pirate clans in all Nasr. He needs to die. And so do you."
"Good luck with that," Vyse said, his cutlasses ready. "Because if you take one more step towards this boy, I promise you're gonna regret it."
"Well," Angel said with a chuckle. "I believe you'll try to stop me…"
There wasn't another word said. Angel blasted forward as if she was bolstered by the most potent of quika spells, closing the distance before Aika could even hurl her boomerang to intercept. Angel made a sweeping cut with her scythe that Vyse met head on with both of his blades in a cross-shaped guard. He hoped that by occupying the enemy, Aika could find an open spot to attack. However, as Aika slipped downwards in hopes of cutting her boomerang up at their enemy, Angel was already rotating her weapon. With a push, she forced Vyse back and caught Aika's attack with her scythe's pommel. One strike blocked, another deflected. Angel moved as though she'd killed hundreds of pirates.
Vyse cast a glance at Aika. Maybe an old classic would work. Within moments, the red head was hurling pryi spells at Angel's feet. The bounty hunter twisted and moved with dancer-like grace to avoid each attack, hardly concerned for the magical display. Vyse waited for Aika to hurl her strongest spell, which blasted against the sandy docks with a sharp snap. Red heat and bright magick light shone, which Vyse could see through easily with his goggle. He lurched in for a stab but found that Angel simply twisted to the side and cracked him in the face with a spinning elbow. His world grew white for a moment and it was only a mixture of intuition and experience that allowed him to bring a cutlass up to grind against Angel's follow up slash. Moonstone sparked against moonstone, red and blue blades resonating into a swirl of heated wind that burned even brighter than the world around them. Vyse's vision returned quickly and he pressed hard against Angel's weapon. They stared into each other's eyes and saw something familiar.
The cutting blue eyes of a terrified woman lashing out at the world. The deep brown of a boy far too decent for where he was. Neither could place how they knew it but both of them knew there was history in their exchange. Vyse gritted his teeth.
"Gonna need to do a bit more than that," he mocked. "Because last I checked, I'm still breathing."
They disengaged. Angel leapt back, facing the group before her. Aika and Vyse once again fell into formation, Fina in the back and ready to protect Rupee however she must. The bounty hunter nodded.
"You've some skill, I'll admit," she offered. "But it won't save you either…"
The words rippled in the air and once more Vyse felt the stirrings of something familiar. Less familiar was the silvery glow that gathered around the woman. It was all too similar to the magicks that Fina employed and yet also much more raw and vicious. A simmering of argent power that held a mysterious control of the world around them. Aika shifted at Vyse's side.
"I don't like the look of that," she said. Her weapon was held at the ready but was feeling more and more insufficient by the moment.
Behind them, Fina gasped. It was the lead up to a wild and barely controlled eternes spells. She could feel the malice, the life-sucking energy contained within the light. Angel was going to cast old magicks. Death magicks.
"That's advanced Silver magick! How is she….?"
Angel opened her palm and revealed a finely cut silver moonstone. "I knew someone a long time ago who wielded this power," she explained. "The power of life and death… I've spent years and years studying every hint of it I could…. And now…"
"Fina?" Vyse called back to his friend nervously. "What's going on?"
'The end," Angel answered. "For all of you!"
A shimmer of silver light gathered in her hand and she tossed it upwards. A rippling orb hovered above them until it began to spit out hastily formed but undeniably deadly shards of silver magick that began to gather like so many spikes ready to drop. Fina spared a glance at Rupee and smiled before standing up and rushing in front of Vyse and Aika. She pulled deeply on the magick in her soul. There was only one way out of this.
"Now, die!" Angel closed her fist and the shards began to fall. But they did not hit their targets.
A burst of silver light shimmered throughout the dock until it shone above everyone and coalesced into a shield that rose up to meet the onslaught of magical death looming above. Strike for strike, the shards shattered against the shield. It took a moment for all gathered to realize what had happened. It was Fina. Arms outstretched and magick powers focused keenly, she had summoned a wondrous barrier to hold off Angel's assault. Fina winced in pain from the effort, as if each strike was connecting with her own skin, but nevertheless held firm. She stood tall and in that moment, the fight was decided.
"Go!" she said to Vyse, voice strained but confident. Immediately, the pirate knew what to do.
Angel could not believe her eyes. She didn't think there was anyone else in the world that could manage Silver magicks so easily besides him . Her own studies had required obsessive focus and a great deal of black market trickery to get her hands on a proper stone. There was no way that anyone could…
The thought was cut off as the hot blade of her foe's cutlass slashed across her chest. Not deep enough to kill but more than enough to draw blood and send her stumbling backward. Her spell ceased, the final silver shard smashing against the barrier and she braced herself against her scythe in order to keep standing. In front of her, in the blazing heat of the Nasrean sun, she saw them. A bold pirate and his redheaded friend. And her heart skipped a beat.
"This… can't be… happening…"
Vyse stood before her with his weapons ready to attack again but for his part he simply glared at her. "Yield," he ordered. "I won't ask again. Step back and leave this boy alone."
"You might want to listen to him when he's like that," Aika said with a grin. "Because he's being polite. If I were right up there with ya, it wouldn't be so nice."
Angel brought her hand down to her side and when she brought it up, blood trickled on her hand and over the silver moonstone in her grasp. "How could this be happening? Who are you people?"
Vyse slipped into a grin, even if his eyes were locked on Angel. "If you're really mad about it, you can find me in fifty years or so. Maybe I'll be ready to keel over then."
The bounty hunter slowly brought a hand to her pants pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. She tossed the bloody parchment at Vyse. When the young man picked it up, he saw that it held a single black ink spot. "What's this?"
"Black Spot," Angel said with a pained chuckle. "Means I've marked you. Upon my name as the Angel of Death.. I swear that I will find you again and hunt you down. Until your life is just another in my ledger."
Aika gave the woman a one-fingered salute. "Good luck with that," she said petulantly. "Now get outta here and leave this kid alone!"
Angel merely grinned before bringing her moonstone up once more. With a lashing snap of her wrist, she conjured a blast of silver light that obscured everything from view until, by the time it subsided, she was nowhere to be found. Vyse exhaled, sheathing his weapons before looking at Fina. The Silvite was in good shape but seemd drained from her magickal display. He placed a cautious hand on her shoulder and she stood up a little taller.
Fina nodded. "So long as everyone is safe, I am more than alright," she said through tired breaths.
The trio turned towards the initial cause of the dispute: Rupee and his bodyguard. Barta stirred slowly, rising from unconsciousness before looking around in a panic. He was about to stand up and reassuming a fighting stance when Rupee, tiny lad that he was, tugged at his massive bodyguard's arm to keep him from moving. "Master… Rupee..? Are you safe?
Rupee nodded, the large turban on his head threatening to topple off. "I am," he said. "Thanks to the intervention of these nice folks."
Barta's face took on an overly passionate grief. "I can't believe I let you down," he said. "As head of the Larso Clan, you have every right to execute me…"
"I'm not going execute anyone," Rupee said emphatically. "I don't wanna fight anyone! I hate blood! There was blood right now and ugghhhh…. I just… I just…"
Aika took a step forward. She looked at the young man in disbelief. "You're the head of a pirate clan?" she asked. "You can't be more than, like… seven."
"I'm ten!" Rupee said. "And yes, I am head of the Larso pirate clan. Which is why tha scary lady was after me… Dad died and that meant I took over but I hate it!"
Barta managed to push himself up to kneel devoutly before his young master. "Don't say that," he insisted with deep fervor. "The Larso Clan is a proud and ancient pirate clan! We need our leader to be strong!"
"Barta, you never listen," Rupee said sadly. "I don't want to pick fights.. I don't want to be a pirate…"
The bodyguard seemed incredulous. "Don't… want… Why, what would your father say!"
Vyse sighed, smiling sadly at the young boy who had so much thrust on his shoulders. He empathized deeply. Whether it was being tasked to save the world like Fina was or taking over a pirate clan, it seemed that the older generation was far too happy to place undue burdens on others. Vyse was more than happy to meet the challenge with Aika and Fina at his side. But Rupee didn't have the look of a pirate lord about it; he hardly looked like someone who could walk to the other side of the village without getting lost. He was so small and so helpless. The weight of his new role would crush him, Vyse knew it.
"I don't think it matters what his father thinks," Vyse said cautiously. "If you force this kid to grow up into some pirate leader, he's gonna get his ass kicked.."
Barta bristled. "How dare you! Master Rupee, give the order and I will punch this man's head clean off his body."
Rupee hesitated. Vyse took another step forward and looked at the boy. "Can I ask you a question, Rupee?"
"W… what's that?" the boy moved to hide behind his bodyguard again.
"What do you want?" Vyse replied.
It was such a small thing to ask but judging from the shocked expression on Rupee's face, it might have been the first time in his life that anyone ever asked it. There was a deep surprise and appreciation that spread over the boy's features and they seemed to lighten from nervousness into an all-abiding appreciation that someone, anyone would finally ask what he wanted to do. He smiled.
"I wanna stay with my mom and make carpets!" he said happily. "In fact, my mother told me that the carpets I made sold quickly and people are asking for more of my designs!
Aika did a double take. "You want to make… carpets?"
Barta sputtered in disbelief. "But what would happen to the Larso Clan? What about your father's legacy?!"
Vyse ignored the blubbering bodyguard and looked at Rupee seriously. "Is that you dream?"
Rupee nodded. "It is."
"Then do that," the young pirate replied. "Whatever you do, it needs to be your choice."
Rupee sniffled a little, holding back appreciative tears. "You.. you really think so?"
Vyse nodded. He looked at Rupee but it wasn't a teenager looking at a pirate or even one air pirate looking at another. It was, somehow, one man talking to another. Both shared similar backgrounds as the son of pirate leaders, both of them felt their own burdens and responsibilities. And so, for Vyse, it was deeply important that he be honest.
"I'm the son of an Air Pirate too," he explained proudly. and I'm sure if I didn't want to follow in Dad's footsteps, I wouldn't have. But, this is the life I chose . Rupee, if there's something you'd rather do, then do it. If you don't, you'll probably regret it for the rest of your life.
Aika smiled. "You get one crack at life as far we know," she said with a burst of wisdom. "It ain't worth living any other way than how you want. That's what it means to be an Air Pirate."
The boy laughed. "So I can go back to the carpet store and make carpets with my mom?"
Vyse chuckled in turn. "Absolutely," he said. "Nothing is more important than your dreams. Live the life you want."
Barta took a booming step forward, as if he was ready to pick Vyse up and toss him off the dock. "You cannot be serious! Master Rupee has responsibilities to the clan! We have a reputation! We have flown these skies for ages!"
Aika glared at the man, stomping her food. "Look here mister!" she yelled. Barta froze immediately. "If Rupee wants to make carpets, he's gonna make carpets! We saved your lives and that's what Vyse says so you better listen!"
Fina cleared her throat. "Um… that's right," she managed boldly. "If you want to serve your master well, you should make sure he's happy."
"It'll be fun!" Rupee declared with a smile at his bodyguard. It took a moment but Barta smiled back and nodded. The young man seemed to consider something before fishing in his robs and offering Vyse a strange looking coin. It held the sigil of the Red Moon with crossed swords underneath.
Vyse took it. "First a black spot and now…this. What is it?"
"That'll tell anyone in town that you are a friend to the Larso Clan," Rupee said with a rising sense of confidence and maturity. "It won't cover everything but you should be able to get some meals and maybe a roof over your head."
Aika chuckled. "That's kind but we're not staying here long," she explained. "Once we're restocked, we're sailing off on our ship."
Rupee tilted his head. "What ship?"
Vyse, Aika, and Fina's collective stomach dropped as they realized what Rupee was saying. In near unison, they spun around to where the Little Jack awaited and found nothing more than an empty docking space. There was no sign of Drachma or their vessel. Only the scant few merchant ships and other rickety boats that originally lined the dock. Aika rushed forward to where the ship once was, Vyse and Aika on her heels. She stopped at the edge of the docks and looked off in the distance where a familiar green-hulled ship sailed away. The Little Jack was gone. In the middle of the commotion, Drachma must have slipped onto the ship and sailed off into the evening sky. Aika gave a roar of frustration.
Hey!" she yelled out into the uncaring skies. "Come back here, you eye-patch wearing freak! You rusty old man!"
Fina froze beside her in disbelief. "This is… bad," she concluded. "What do we do?"
Vyse looked at the Little Jack, watching as it sailed off. It didn't seem like the brave ship he knew it could be; instead, it looks like it was running away. Did Drachma fear the enormity of their task? Did he fear the responsibility of helping them on their voyage? Or was it simply that his hate for Rhaknam burned hotter than his care for the rest of the world? It hardly matters. He was gone now, and that left Vyse to step up and make sure that he and his companions could press onwards. The young man sighed.
"There's nothing we can do," he said seriously. He felt both the black spot and Rupee's coin in his hand. "Except explore the city and see what we can do. Gather supplies, find a ship.."
By this point, Rupee had wandered up to the group. He frowned. "I don't know what's happened," he said." Not entirely. But you'll be welcome here in Maramba after all you've done for me. I promise."
Aika looked at the boy. "Can we have a ship?"
The young would-be lord hesitated. "You'd need to ask around," he said. "But the sun is setting. You might want to find some food and rest. There's a nice place on the other side of the village.."
Fina managed to smile. "So young and yet so wise," she teased. "Thank you, Rupee."
Vyse laughed, burying his anger under a mountain of cheer and any other emotion he could gather. He'd deal with Drachma and everything else later. For now, all he could do was focus on making sure he and the girls were safe. Food was a fair enough start. Ship or no ship, the Moon Crystal was waiting for them.
"Might as well try some local cuisine," he teased. "Can't save the world on an empty stomach, right?"
Venturing to Rupee's suggested tavern was a miniature adventure unto itself. Maramba was a relatively unremarkable outpost with a variety of ruddy stone homes and compact shops packed with merchants selling gear that was at least five years too old. Vyse spied a particularly old cutlass from the war that seemed worth examining but once held in hand it was clear that while it was once a fine blade, the years had dulled. That was a good word for Maramba: dulled. It wasn't without pride or hearty citizens eeking out life in the middle of the desert but it was clear that the intervening years after the war—which had led to more regularly patrolled skies, an increase in Black Pirates, and harsher border control—had left Maramba on something of a downswing. It was still beautiful in many ways; a testament to hard work and human tenacity but the only meticulously maintained thing in the entire outpost was the water well. Everything else had cracks and marks of the passing years. Years of heat and sand storms which gave the village an inescapable heartiness. Or perhaps it was stubbornness.
Vyse couldn't help but wonder how many folks were born here and only ever knew a quiet life in the desert. Aika imagined a world where the Valuan Empire hadn't choked Nasr quite as hard as it did during the war. Fina quietly marveled at just how brave and enduring the people beyond her home actually were. Even without technological comforts, they pressed onwards into the future. She smiled as they explored the outpost, happy to be amazed that the world was still turning so well even after Old World squabbles and divine judgement had shattered continents and left entire civilizations as little more than memory. If these people could endure here, in the middle of the blaringly hot desert, then surely there was hope for humanity to thrive anywhere and everywhere. Each of them saw a different sort of strength: the strength of honest work, the strength of a proud people, the strength of a recovering world. Though their predicament was dire, the trio decided that even though they'd been stranded, they were at least fortunate to be stranded among amazing people.
What made the journey to the tavern so perilous was the sand. Vyse had almost wandered onto a length stretch of sand between one half of the outpost and the other before a local very politely but urgently stopped him at the last second. The heat was too much, they insisted. It was enough to burn through the soles of Vyse's boots and scorch his feet. A few steps would mean painfully scaling his feet. No, no. The best way to cross towards the other side of the village would be to ride a dhabu. Nothing else would survive the trek, even across a short distance. Vyse had shrugged. If that's what it took, that's what they'd do.
Dhabu, however, were perhaps the strangest creatures he'd ever seen. Judging by Aika's strange stares, she also found them bewildering. It was as if a skinless rat could stand using the hind legs of some type of sturdy frog. Pink skin draped over the beast's entire body but for all the exposure, the sun didn't seem to bother the creature at all. It merely snorted a honking snort, which blursted from an elongated snout on its face. Half ship's horn, half sneeze, and entirely too much snot. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the creature was a pair of vestigial and entirely useless arms on its upper body. Too tiny to grasp anything and lacking any real claws to slash with. To hear it told by the locals, dhabu spent most of their time lumbering through the dunes and lazily plopping their snouts deep into the sand to suck up water deposits. The excess was stored in their large humbled backs. It was part of what made them such useful beasts of burden—beyond their ability to walk on the hottest sand. For creatures in the middle of the desert, they were easy to feed, mellow in disposition, and able to endure exceptionally large treks.
The trip from one half of the town to the other wasn't long but it was exciting. With only so many dhabu to spare, Vyse and his companions clambered onto the back of a single "big-snouter." He wasn't going to complain. It was a chance for a unique experience and there was something to be said for trekking off into the sun with two lovely companions pressed tightly together with him in the saddle. Fina's face was particularly red, as she took up the "middle" of said saddle and wasn't quite used to so much close contact with anyone. Vyse chuckled, trying not to think too much of the moment even if his mind wandered forward in time to consider what other odd circumstances they might find themselves in. Surely, in time there wouldn't be any nerves. Those things hardly mattered with the world on the line. Right?
The tavern itself was a smokey den of flittering music and cooked meats. The owner seemed skeptical of the outsiders until Vyse showed Rupee's coin. The mood changed instantly as the trio was guided to a low table with cushions by the side. A pitcher of water was placed and they were given assurances that food would come in short order. A friend of the Larso Clan was everyone's friend.
Vyse grinned, sitting down on one of the cushions.
"I guess you sit down on the ground in Nasr," he said, reaching out to pour everyone a glass of water. "After everything that's happened, I'm just glad to be sitting at all."
"You're telling me," Aika said as she flopped down onto a pillow and guzzled some water. "Marooned, fighting off bounty hunters, on the hunt for treasure. Too much is happening, too fast."
Fina brushed off her skirt and sat as well. "We can take solace that we've done good deeds today,' she noted happily before grabbing her own cup of water. It seemed to fill her with fresh vigor. "Our fortune has not been entirely kind but I'm sure we can manage."
"I'm freakin' pissed," Aika declared. "I'm sure Drachma had his reasons, or whatever he thought were reasons… but leaving us here?! Ugh! I'll pull that mustache off his face! Now we need to find a new ship! Any ideas, Vyse?"
Vyse wasn't listening. After sitting down, his eyes wandered to a stage at the other end of the room. It was lit by dimly charged red moonstones; a dancer twirled upon it. She was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. She was somewhat older than he was but held a youthful energy and grace that made it hard to look away. Brown hair with a decorative red jewel, an outfit of purple sheer fabric that was almost see-through. A similar purple sash spun about her with each sweep and gyration as she made rapturous leaps on her barefeet before stopping to bend and twist her body in ways that Vyse had never seen. It was a rather toned body too. Her exposed belly drew attention, skin perfect and unmarred by the sun's oppressive rays. It was astounding and he was willing to admit—at least to himself—that the display was rather fetching. He caught movement in her eyes.
Is she looking over here?
"Hellllooo!" Aika's waving hand and near-shouting voice snapped him back to the real world. Vyse gave a startled jolt in place before looking at his friend. Her face was a monument to annoyance and envy. Eye wide and burning with admonishment.
"Have you heard anything we've been talking about?" she asked incredulously. "You're acting like you've never seen a woman before in your life."
Vyse nodded. "Yeah, uh… you were talking about the.. desert?"
Aika looked at him flatly. "Please pay attention," she said as if he was a hopeless cause. "Some of us are trying to solve our problems."
"I didn't want to insult her," Vyse defended with a chuckle. "You know, we're in a new place and there's new customs. It'd be rude not to watch."
"That's your excuse?!" Aika groaned with disbelief. "You were basically undressing her with your eyes. Oh, Moons. Were you zooming in with your goggle?"
Vyse shook his head. "No, no," he insisted. "But I could swear she was looking at me.."
Aika sighed, flopping further into her cushions. She turned an exasperated gaze to Fina. "Can you talk some sense into him?"
Fina blinked. "It is really hard to believe?" she said innocently. "Vyse is very attractive. I don't think it would be strange for that dancer to look at him."
Vyse looked at Fina with a soft smile. The Silvite caught his gaze too, returning the smile with fresh color to her face. Well, they had both been out in the sun for a long while. They were bound to be a little red. Aika, for her own part, didn't seem annoyed at her friend. The redhead smiled too. Fina's honesty was refreshing; it was nice to have a fresh perspective on things. And, well, she wasn't wrong about Vyse..
"Fair enough," she conceded. "But I don't think Vyse would actually want someone like that. Just imagine where she's been."
"All over the place and then some," a sultry alto voice replied. The trio turned slightly to see the dancer standing above them, sweating lightly before she sat down at their table and pour her own glass of water. "Just not in the way you think…"
Vyse chuckled, regarding the woman with a discerning eye. "You're a good dancer," he said kindly. "But, uh… what do you mean?"
The woman sipped at her water before smiling at the trio. "I'm an adventurer," she admitted surreptitiously. "Dancing's just another way to cover the bills. If I'm not here, I'm at the guild turning over what trinkets I can. Was there early this morning, in fact."
Aika looked at the dancer suspiciously. "An adventurer and a dancer.. So, what, you dive into ruins during the weekend and come back here to wiggle around for salivating dhabu herders?"
"Something like that," the woman replied. "I'm Sadiya, by the way. Sorry if I was staring, young man, but I was wondering if you were the outsiders involved in that ruckus by the docks earlier today."
Fina shifted in place. "Are we in trouble?"
"So it was you!" Sadiya said. She could hardly hide her interest. "They say you fought off the Angel of Death herself. But why are you here? It sounded like you're looking for a ship?"
Vyse nodded. "Our captain left us behind," he explained. "But we have some business out in the desert."
"We need to reach the Temple of Pyrynn," Fina explained carefully. "There's a.. treasure there we mean to recover."
Aika leaned closer to Sadiya, her suspicions about the other woman on full display. "And we heard about the treasure first so don't think about rushing off to grab it, Miss Adventurer. Dibs! I called dibs! It's a sacred right that you can't break!"
Sadiya paused, thinking for a moment. Her face alternated between a quiet amusement and a sort of big-sisterly worry before she spoke up again. "No one's really survived sneaking into the temple," she noted. "It must be a very important treasure if you're willing to dive into those ruins.."
"It is," Vyse said, fire in his voice. "More than I could ever explain."
The dancer paused to think once again. "Sounds like you need a ship and a guide," she noted. "How about this? I can sail you out to the temple and even assist with your little treasure hunt. You can keep whatever you're after but I get "dibs" on anything that catches my eyes. Not a bad deal. Right, Handsome?"
Vyse waved a nervous hand at the woman. "No need to call me that," he said before looking at Aika and Fina. "What do you think? Rupee's good graces mean a lot but it hasn't secured us a ship…"
"We shouldn't delay," Fina said seriously. She stroked at the "bracelet" on her wrist. "Each passing second means danger approaches. If we're not quick, there's a chance to have the crystal slip from our grasp"
Sadiya tilted her head at the comment and slowly started to put two and two together. Strangers, troublemakers, talk of danger approaching. "Wait a minute," she said with mounting awe in her voice. Her eyes looked at the trio in disbelief. "Are you the air pirates who escaped from the Grand Fortress?!"
The trio paused like cats with their paws caught in cream. It was clear that none of them had considered the possibility that someone would recognize who they were. Least of all in a backwater outpost in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, Vyse spoke up.
"You know about that?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. "It really wasn't much.."
Sadiya gasped. "It is you!" she intoned. "Of course I've heard. Maramba's nothing special but sailor's still come through her and bring stories. They were even whispering about it back at the capital when I was visiting. That was you ? But you're all so young!"
Aika crossed her arms. "You're so young," she said snidely. It wasn't much of a comeback. "And you're also very nosy."
Sadiya bowed her head. "I'm sorry," she said genuinely. "I'm letting my excitement get the best of me. If you need a ship, I'll get you where you need to go. Maybe take a gem or two if we find anything but other than that… I'm just glad to help anyone who could do something so impressive."
"Seriously?" Vyse said appreciatively. "That would be amazing. I mean, you barely even know who we are. You're sure about this?"
"Absolutely," Sadiya said proudly. "Let me help. It would be my pleasure.."
She held out a hand to Vyse. The young man reached it and gave a firm shake. "Deal," he said. "I suppose we'll ship out tomorrow if that's okay with you."
"Sounds like a date, Handsome," the dancer replied. "With your grit and my adventuring experience? We'll find whatever you're looking for. I'm sure of it."
Vyse grinned wide. "Sounds perfect."
Beneath the sheer veil on her face, Belleza—Sadiya for the moment—smiled back. Everything was going according to plan. Very soon, the Red Moon Crystal would belong to Valua.
Angel sat on her bed in the Sofía 's "captain's quarters," which was really nothing more than the other room besides the bridge. Her sloop was modest but it moved fast and was cheap to repair. That's all you really needed as a bounty hunter. The life was simple: go from one port to another, kill or capture the target, turn them in at another port, and spend whatever gold you scrounged on supplies. A lot of people liked to think it was a glamorous way to live but Angel knew better. It was a desperate one. She wasn't some pulp novel hunter; she was a vulture. Not that it bothered her. Any chance to kill air pirates was worth it. It didn't matter if they were Black Pirate or Blue Rogues; they all deserved her blade.
She couldn't help but frown thinking of the day's events. Not just because she was stitching up the cut she'd received at the hands of the nosy little kid's cutlass but because this was her first unsuccessful hunt in years. They didn't call her the "Angel of Death" for nothing. No one escaped her once she set her sights on them. Except now someone had. Rupee Larso, that would-be pirate lord, had survived. Part of her was relieved although she didn't want to admit it. Rupee looked to be about how old her sister would be, if her sister was still alive. The prospect of taking a life that young was unfortunate. But a deeper part of her burned. When the pirates attacked her family and killed her father, when the ship she called home sank into the sky thanks to Blue Rogue greed, her sister never had a choice in the matter. One life for another. If they could take Maria, she could take Rupee Larso.
Except she hadn't. Angel exhaled a ragged breath, touching her wound and feeling the fresh sting of her loss. It was unconscionable to think that someone could get in her way. She'd been invincible, untouchable. All who faced her died. Then that brash bastard and his red-headed cohort intervened. That strange woman stood firm and held back her magick without breaking a sweat.
"If you have an issue with pirates, you'll have to deal with us!"
Pirates. Too nosy and altruistic to be Black Pirates, she thought. The red head mentioned Blue Rogues. What the heck were they doing out in Nasr airspace? In some ways, Angel hated Blue Rogues more than any other kind of pirate. At least someone like Baltor had the decency to act like the son of a bitch that he was; Blue Rogues tried to act above it all. They claimed to sail for the good of the skies but Angel knew that wasn't true. She closed her eyes and her mind slipped back to think of past tragedies. A burst of fire, pirates running about the ship, a brief clash, and finally the bloody corpse of her father. Stabbed repeatedly, all of the guards on the bridge dead as well. She'd run and searched for her sister but never found her. She sighed, opening her eyes as something leapt onto the bed. A mangy looking feralisk death hound. His back was a mix of fur and sharp spines but she reached out to pet him anyway; the spines retracted to allow her hand access.
"Bad luck today, Edge," she said angrily. "But we'll pay them back for it soon enough. That bastard can run all her wants but he's been marked now.."
Who was she? And who was he? Angel's mind began to wander as she idly stroked Edge's back. She thought of locked blades and staring deep into brown eyes. No fear, no hesitation. That man had shown nothing but a familiar determination. She pictured him. Sharp face, goggle'd eye, and a scar … on.. his left cheek. Her eyes went wide with realization.
She remembered the night the Aquila burst into flames. She remembered the two pirates guarding the ship's stern. Her age, or maybe a bit younger. A boy with a goggle and a red-headed companion. Blades crossed, a dagger flew, and blood sprayed from his left check. Impossible. It couldn't be.
Angel stood up, causing Edge to leap into an attack position. She steadied him with a firm hand before walking to a small table where a pile of bounty posters rested. She flipped through them hastily until she found what she was looking for. The most recent bounty bills and the highest paying among the: Vyse the Determined, the would-be revolutionary that had broken out of the Grand Fortress. The sketch, shaky as it was, showed a young man with a goggle and scar on his face. Son of Victor Dyne, known accomplices including Whirlwind Aika Nassar and a blonde haired woman. Angel couldn't believe it.
"Son of a bitch…" she muttered.
Because she knew Vyse Dyne. Not well but she knew him better than most bounty marks. Because she marked him. The dagger was meant to strike that stupid little red-head but he'd dived in. Even now, his cheek bore the mark of her blade. Because he was there. He was part of the pirate crew that had burned the Aquila , killed her father, and changed the course of her life forever. He was there the night Piastol Mendosa died. The night she shed her old self and became what the world needed her to be. In spite of it all, Piastol smirked. Finally, she'd have revenge.
"You better run, Vyse," she warned. "Because the next time we meet will be your last day in these skies. I swear on my father and my sister. When we meet again, you're dead."