Chapter Fifteen- Postlude/Impossible

Well! Looks like Where Loyalties Lie is now officially complete. We're halfway through the story, folks, and forgive me for the 'finish the fight'-ish cliffhanger at the end. Heh. I honestly hoped you enjoyed reading this latest installment, it's been a joy to write, and all your support has been overwhelming.

Hugs, kisses, and Gilder plushies to my reviewers: Desert Lynx, Arcon1, Lord Elecian, majinbuu7985, Traiden, Valglory, SoraHyrin58203, Hondo-Okami, and Greki, who has reviewed nearly every chapter I've written in the entire fucking series, and therefore gets a Clara plushie as well. Everyone, remember... Comments support, support faster updates - I would never be so base childish as to demand a review quota before I update, but I really love them reviews nonetheless.

Well, I hope you have me author-alerted to get the next book: Skies of Arcadia Legends: A World Unending, wherein the crew visits the lands under the blue and purple moons, Piastol learns a secret, and dark forces begin to stir... until then!

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The rumbling of cannon-fire shook the sandy, arid ground of the desert continent. The skies above were fill of the puffs of explosions, as two forces dueled for supremacy at the lower end of Nasr. Rusty-red Nasrian frigates were trading explosive volleys with a squadron of prototype Valuan Auriga-class Defender Cruisers. Their flagship, HMS Auriga itself, watched from a safe distance, the hulking Admiral Gregorio observing from the bridge of his flying fortress.

Another of the foreign airships suddenly burst into flames, shaking in the air as shattered bits of armor plating fell limply to either side. Black cannons and unfortunate crewmen slid off the deck, also plummeting to the burning sands below them. The Potencia de Fuego's main engines failed, and a minute after that it slid out of the sky, marking the fifth of it's kind to be eliminated by hostile fire.

It was akin to a slaughter. Gregorio shook his head and sighed. He had not been seeking engagement, but a task force of nine enemy frigates had appeared off the coast heading for his slower squadron and opened fire, leaving the old Valuan no choice at all. His enhanced Defenders were rendered almost impenetrable, even to the mighty Nasrian cannons of the Grenadiers, while the Valuan cannons rained down effective counter-fire and employed advanced defensive tactics.

Since the conquest of their capitol, the Nasrians had ratcheted all their aggressions against the Armada up by orders of magnitudes- occupation forces set up at Nasrad had been obliterated by their armed forces, and now they were actively patrolling their own skies again and hitting anything that looked Valuan. Such a valor in the face of total superiority was something he would admire, but not condone, were they not his enemy.

An impossibly lucky shot struck abeam of Gatekeeper, the Defender shaking slightly as smoke began to drift out from a molten hole in the armored form of the ship. He winced as he saw the Valuan ship turn to it's other side and continue the attack, ripping to steel shreds yet another enemy.

He sighed. You fools, all of you are going to be destroyed in a matter of minutes... just run. I do not wish to prolong this engagement... "Pull back the force and prepare to continue our course to Cape Victory, Vice Captain."

The young officer looked over at him, confused. "My Lord? We have crushed all but one of the enemy ships. It's fleeing, but it's already taken on significant damages, and I think we will be able to sink it before it can-"

"We are not here to conquer these forsaken sands, merely to recover our wayward sovereign. Continue the course at once." When Admiral Gregorio repeated his order, it was final. The Vice Captain nodded and turned back to hunch over the radio console he worked at, issuing the orders. The Defenders ponderously turned, reforming around the Auriga and following the flagship's lead further south.

Prince Enrique... Gregorio spared at look at the slowly reddening skies above them that housed smatterings of clouds. I'm coming, to save you, if needs be, from yourself.

0-0

This time, they crossed directly over the desert, their ship a fully air-conditioned and contained environment that made Vyse infinitely grateful for the Valuan prince's defection. He nodded to Lawrence and walked over to the viewport of the bridge, looking down on the deck, where Khazim and Belle had their crews out drilling and cleaning cartridges and shells. Marco was vainly attempting to repel the hordes of rippling sand from accumulating onto the steel floor. Enrique was still pathetically hunched over the railing, quivering. Poor bastard.

After a week of constant work, Brabham had declared the Delphinus was now operating at a hundred percent of it's original capacity. Bulkier armor plating covered every section, the engines now commanded almost twice their previous impressive rate of speed through the skies of Arcadia, and the royal purple stripe had been replaced by one of ocean-blue. The fins and sides received a similar treatment, along with a noble engraving of Fina's banner.

Vyse couldn't say he was honestly surprised by Gilder's disappearance- the clever man seemed to have a problem with staying in any one condition for too long, even one so 'fun'. He sighed. Still a damn shame to loose a pirate of his quality... I wonder how much longer it will take. We've been over Nasr for a good number of hours now.

"Ship sighted," The talking-tube declared in the voice of Aika, who was taking the current watch up on the high tower-cone position above the bridge that afforded the ship's lookout a view for kilometers around the ship in all directions. "Hey, Vyse, looks like a Nasr boat... it's damaged, too. Coming straight for us."

Vyse blinked. "One one damaged boat? What's up?" He walked over to the radio and tuned it towards the standard naval frequency for the air force of the Red continent. "This is the Delphinus to Nasr warship. What is your status? Do you require assistance? Over."

Several seconds of silence over the line were disrupted by the gruff voice of a man, speaking in an accent. "This is Espada Roja to Delphinus. Our ship has taken damage but we're still moving under our own power. Our squadron engaged a number of unknown Valuan ships. Their defenses were like nothing we've ever seen, our fire had very little effect at all on the enemy. They simply wiped us out of the sky. We are the only survivors. We must return to our base at once and radio Command about this development."

"Understood, Espada Roja. We're headed for the port of Esperanza... if Admiral Karzhai can send any information about this unknown ship type, have him do so at once."

"Esperanza? I don't know why... most people steer clear of the entire Cape Victory area. There's nothing for it... either way, good luck on your quest, Sir Vyse." The way Vyse was bestowed knightly titles just for saving their nation's capitol from tyranny still made the teenager a little bit uneasy, but he did not object totally.

He looked over to Lawrence, shutting off the radio. "Lawrence, let's adjust our course so we run over the middle of land as long as possible. Sounds like that Valuan force is still around, and I don't want to look for trouble we don't need right now."

"We'll avoid the coast until we have to pass the Cape's mountain covers," The helmsman replied. "I'll get on it, Captain. We're about an hour or two out from the edge of the Continent, by the way."

The door creaked open with it's metal hinges, and Vyse saw David emerge into the bridge. "Captain Vyse," The Vice Captain said, "What's the story with that damaged frigate?" The two ships passed each other through the air, the smoking older rust-red Nasr ship headed back north while the pristine royal flagship continued their southerly course.

"They got knocked around by some new Valuan squadron of unknown ships," Vyse replied. "We're going to take the shortest possible route to Cape Victory and try to avoid that. Normally I'm all for a good fight but we can't get caught up here any more." We're already slow enough getting back on track as it is.

David sighed. "I suppose that's best... I already miss Gilder. The guy's too antsy for his own good... or the good of anyone else, for that matter. Either way, he told me everything he learned about Esperanza through various channels, and I figure I better give you the full briefing before we dock there." He walked over to the maps table and swept his hand over the one showing the west side of Nasr, bordered by the enormous black lines of the Dark Rift.

"As you know, the Dark Rift is the effective border to all travel. Any ship even approaching the storm is ripped asunder, with no exception at all. Impossible. Fina claims that there are more lands on the other side of this rift... conventional thought says that even if we survive the trip, we'd just fall off the side of the world.

Near the tip of Nasr, the Cape Victory which is our current destination, invading Valuan forces discovered not only a handy place to put a base to beachhead the southern part of the continent, but also a strange formation in the rift. It looked like an aperture, and decoy tests proved the ship could safely enter the first layer of the storm before it was lost. Shock waves filled the Empire, news spread, and thousands of crews from all over the world came to the base. Eventually the Valuans withdrew from Esperanza Base, but the natives kept calling it that, and now it's a city for sailors.

The City of Hope's long past any golden age it had. Rust, decay, are in the city's walls, their boats, their buildings. Nobody cleans it up, nobody repairs anything, the people just rot away like their city around them. They've lost their hope. After so many people died trying to ford the Dark Rift... eventually, everyone just stopped trying. Their dreams smashed, the survivors all congregated, and now they live out their lives, only waiting for it to all end.

Not a pleasant place at all. Getting any help from the people there is going to be a real challenge- most of them will meet our mission with nothing but ridicule. However, if anyone is likely to have the slightest clues to help us, it will be there." David shook his head. "It's very different than any place you've been, so be prepared for it."

"OK." Vyse nodded, with his charismatic smirk. "Thanks for the info, David."

"That's what I'm here for." He shrugged, his expansive red tunic and cloak flapping around him in the controlled climate of the bridge. "So, I guess now all we do is wait until we get there."

As they made their way further down, the skies began to take on a reddish hue which only increased over time. Vyse blinked. "What's going on? It can't quite be sundown yet."

"Every time is sundown for this region," Lawrence replied stoically. "Effects of the Dark Rift. The skies are always like this." The sandy ground under them began to climb drastically, and they looked out of the bridge's view ports right up at a cliff. The Delphinus definitely did not have the ceiling to make it over the peaks of the jagged mountains, and so the pilot turned them and started a course parallel to the solid rock face.

Hugging the edge of the cliff, they slid out into open sky and turned, following the curve of Cape Victory. Vyse slipped out from the bridge, headed up for the crow's nest tower. Climbing a long steel shaft with a solid ladder, he emerged from a trap-door onto the large rectangular platform mounted on the fin above the bridge. Looking around, he was slightly surprised to see both Fina and Aika.

The girls were gently embracing, looking up at the foreboding bloodied skies and the passing formations of desert rock in silence. Alerted to his presence by the creaking of the hatch, Aika looked back to him. "Hey," She called out quietly.

"Hey," He replied with a smile. "So that's where you two were. According to our maps we should be seeing the city any minute now. Mind if I join you?"

"Of course not," Fina nodded, smiling at him. Even now her gentle affection made his stomach pleasantly flip around as if in a ship battle, and he walked over, joining the two girls. "Esperanza... it means 'hope' in Nasrian. I wonder why the Valuans would name their city after an enemy's language."

"Who knows." Aika shrugged. "All Valuans are bat-shit, I figure." She cast a glance down to the speck of Enrique down on the deck. "Well, there's one good one, I suppose... one or two, if you count that little red-headed boy. Poor Enrique. He really hasn't been looking too good... for a few weeks now."

"It'll pass," Vyse assured her. "Remember, I was airsick for over a month before I finally got my 'legs'." He winced at the very unpleasant memories, but Aika giggled. "Besides, we can stay a while on land to let him recover a bit. I doubt even a successful trip through the Dark Rift is going to be a fun ride."

Bypassing a particularly large rock outcropping that formed a natural harbor area, they spotted a distant speck of metal, which could be nothing but the cliff-mounted city. Aika leaned over to the talking-tube and opened a valve, allowing the air through. "Hey, we just spotted the city," She announced.

"Come on," Vyse said, walking over to the hatch. "Let's take the Sacres out, and leave the Delphinus out of sight. A lot of ex-Valuans are here, and even if David's right one of them might be tempted by the huge bounty on the 'thieves' of this ship." He led them down into the airship's insides again, heading first up to the bridge, where several of the crew had gathered and more were entering.

David looked over. "Alright. We should keep this visit discreet and small." He looked over at Enrique, who was leaning on the map table for support. "I also think we should get him to land before he passes away on us. Vyse, Doc's boat is big enough for a few other crew to come with you, if you'd like."

"I think everyone but you ought to stay with the ship," Vyse said. "David, you're knowledgeable enough where we could use you down there with those veteran sailors. Lawrence, you're in command until I get back. If you spot those Valuans, get to the harbor and send word at once."

"You got it," The mercenary nodded.

Enrique groaned loudly. "Ugh... land... sounds rather nice about now. Let's... go." Fina worriedly went to his side, helping him walk down with Vyse, Aika and David to the lifeboat hanger, where they took command of the sailboat and unfurled the large sheets that flapped loosely in the still air of the bay.

The metal doors to either side opened up, admitting the light roar of the wind and a moderate breeze, which gave the sails new life. Vyse gripped the helm, glad to be back in direct control of a sailing ship. Having a pilot's all well and good, but sometimes you just gotta do things the old fashioned way. Turning on the ship's engine, he felt the familiar rumble under the deck and the fins around the long wooden hull began to flap, lifting them up off the electrical track.

They backed up slowly out of the stationary flagship, then turned and pointed for the distant city. "Sacres, full speed ahead," The teenager whooped, kicking the throttle into action. They soon noticed something entirely apart from their destination, out towards the direction of the band of swirling deadly black that noted the Dark Rift.

"Look at that..." Aika stared out at the enormous storm system. "That is way worse than any sky rift I've ever seen before... it looks like it could chew up the Delphinus and spit it out." She looked over at Vyse, who was glowering at her. "... although I'm sure everything will be just fine," She finished lamely, chuckling in nervousness. A large vortex in the middle of the wall became visible, looking like an obvious entrance into the otherwise impregnable rift. As they drew nearer the city, their attentions reluctantly turned on the rusted hulk.

Esperanza certainly looked more like a fortification than a civilian city. The entire town was covered by tall metal walls, putting Vyse in mind of Nasrad, with out of repair turrets topped with cannons spread around like vigilant old sentries. A large set of metal docks supported by steel scaffolding and walkways were all but abandoned,and only a few dock segments were in a state to land at anyway. Few other ships laid anchor in either the open-air docks or the hangar facilities. It's central courtyard was dotted with buildings that looked like tin cans, which also spread out among the other armored sections of the city. A gatehouse on the other side of Esperanza led up to a small open pavilion where a crashed ship laid at rest.

Vyse smoothly brought them between two metal platforms in the harbor, and the girls helped David to secure lines out to the ground and lay the anchor, to keep the ship floating in it's position. Locking the controls, they grabbed their equipment and debarked.

"Thank the Moons..." Enrique knelt, literally kissing the dirty metal floor in pure thankfulness, still quivering from the horrifying effects of his airsickness.

"Not sure if that's very sanitary," Aika giggled. "Hey, at least you're doing the right thing, right?" She got no response but a few more groans. "Um... you want to just stay here a while, Enrique?"

"Yes," The blonde replied. "I'll join you...eventually, but for now... I just need to recover a bit..."

Fina looked worried for the prince. "I would like to stay with him and make sure we'll be alright," She said. "You three should go into town and see if you can find any information." Cupil chirped next to her, gently patting the lopsided purple beret still mounted atop the Valuan's well-groomed golden locks.

A few people were milling around the docks area, watching their ship come in. The dim blanket of apathy pervaded everyone's faces, and their physical appearances were certainly not regularly maintained. Man and woman alike just spared a few glances over to the air pirates before continuing on their way, not seeming to care at all. David stepped forward. "Excuse me," He said to a man in a partial Valuan pilots' suit. "Um... can you direct us to an Inn or Tavern?"

The pilot looked them over. "Visitors?" His voice was a little dry and crackly. "Alright. We've only got one Inn, it's right in the middle of town. However, we got about a dozen different taverns. Loqua is useful for making you forget... Leave quick. You'll be glad you did." With that, the man trudged on without any semblance of consideration or polite conduct.

"Lovely," Aika sighed sarcastically. "Man, everything about this place just saps you of energy... let's get moving." They climbed several flights of walkways, up to the main gates of the city, finding them wide-open and admitting them to the first walled district of Esperanza. Exploring around, they talked with several other people, and each time the inhabitants produced similar answers to their inquiries.

Converging in town square, the three of them exchanged bewildered looks. Vyse let out a long sigh. "Nobody would believe I'm serious, or if they did take me serious they informed me how impossible it was and how gruesome my death would be. Either of you get anything useful?"

"I'm a fool," David noted calmly. "According to a few dozen sources. Other than that, nada en absoluto." He looked over to the towering metal walls, his eyes tracing the patterns of rampant rust all through the unkempt defensive structure. "Come on. Up the hill is the last tavern, and the Inn we're looking for, as well as a Nasrian ship parts dealer that we can check out." They climbed the small dirt hill to the second section of town, and turned the corner, entering the drinking establishment which looked about as abused at the others.

The inside was no better. Stark and old metal surfaces were everywhere, the few patrons at misshapen tables and wooden chairs refused to speak to them at all, and a tattered Valuan ship flag hung on one of the walls, gouges and scorches all over it's weathered surface.

"Sir?" Vyse turned to the last man sitting in the corner. He had surprisingly well-maintained chestnut brown hair in a traditional Valuan style, and wore an old sailors' tunic and jacket, with gloved hands and a large curled mustache over a thin, taught mouth. His eyes were slightly fogged over but still retained a sharp, bitter intelligence that surveyed the air pirates critically. "Can we ask you a few questions?"

He looked up at Vyse over his bottle of Blue Loqua and sighed. "You kids aren't from around here, hm? Pirates, I'd bet." He paused. "Ask your question and be on your way, kid. I'm Don."

It was a fairly rude thing to say, but it constituted more progress than he had found with anyone else in the entire city, and was enough cause to make the teenager grin. "Thanks. We were wondering if you could help us cross the Dark Rift." This made the Esperanzan cock his eyebrows in surprise, and with a rustle, David and Aika noticed all of the patrons and the young bartender were all now looking at them. It made the redhead uncomfortable.

"... What?" Don said lowly. "Cross... cross the Dark Rift, you say?" Without warning he burst into a drunken laughter, mockery etched on his features. "What can you do, the world's still full of fools..." He spared a glance to the broken window into the red sky, then looked back at the Blue Rogues. They reacted with confusion to this, looking around.

The tavernkeep, a bronzed young lady, spoke up from her cleaning rag over a glass mug. "Are you kids serious? You're trying to ford the Rift?"

Another sailor, seated at the bar, chuckled. "They don't stand a fuckin' chance. Somebody better go and tell their mommy where these kids are... hey, shaggy," He addressed LeCroix's hidden face, "These your children? You better stop teachin' em bedtime stories before they get into trouble."

David offered no response. The man seated with his back to the flag sighed. "Listen, kid. That ain't no ordinary sky rift." He took a long swig from his bottle and brought it down to the metal table violently with a dull scraping noise. "During the War, the Empire set up this forward base for an invasion of Nasr... but things didn't pan out. They found out that, although the War was over, this place was near 'the Portal', the single formation that would allow a ship to enter.

But this place is the edge of the world. If you try and go farther east, you'll be killed, or you'll fail and wind up right back here, no better off. Hundreds of men, good, quality men have died tryin' to ford the Dark Rift. But a few people every year don't heed the warnin's. The Rift usually claims em. The best sailors in the world tried to cross it... men from Valua, Nasr, Sailors' Island, North and Mid Oceans.

One by one, they all gave it a go. One by one, they all got killed or were spat out back to here. The winds will either repel your ship completely, that's if you're lucky, but usually it sucks you in. And there's no escape, you'll be ripped to shreds in minutes. My crew and I lost our ship, and almost our lives, too. Nobody comes here anymore.

Know why? I'll spell it out for you, Air Pirate. Crossing the Dark Rift is impossible." Concluding his monologue, Don stared at the ground and sighed, taking another swig out of his bottle.

"Some things just can't be done," Another sailor said from the other side of the tavern, shaking her head. "Get your head out of the clouds before you get yourself and your crew killed."

David could no longer contain the rising emotion inside his mind, and he turned to take in the entire bar. "What is wrong with you people?!" He demanded in a display of his flammable temper, usually reserved for Gilder or the Valuan Empire. "You've thrown your whole lives away, just because you got pushed away by a sky rift."

"Don't you care about anything?" Aika added, imploring them all. When nobody answered her, she turned to Vyse and David. "Guys, let's get out of here. We're just wasting our time in this shithole."

Vyse took a step closer to Don, looking down on the hopeless drunk with a mix of his all-confident resolution and contempt. "Thanks for the info," He said severely. "We'll be going now. I'd just like to tell you before we leave that this is the sorriest sight I have ever seen in my entire life." He looked over to address the others. "If you loose sight of one goal, make another. Think about what you could have done in all the time you've been sitting around here, uselessly. What, you can't win the first time, so you just give up? Nothing is impossible, nothing. There's a whole world out there to see! Don, don't you have any desire at all to sail again?!"

This gave the Valuan pause, and he stared silently up at Vyse for several moments, his drunken face an enigma as emotions swirled about just under the surface. David sighed. "Whatever. You can rot, like this whole place is doing already. Come on. Let's hit the ship dealer next then get a room at the Inn." The Vice Captain led the teenagers back out of the tavern, and Don watched them go. Nobody spoke in the establishment for several moments, each of them in a deep and sober contemplation at Vyse's words.

The Air Pirates were also quiet as they climbed another hill and exited the walled part of the city, heading towards an old sailboat deeply embedded in the sandy ground. In front of it was laid out a variety of technology and gear, personal weapons as well as airship parts and components, and seated at it was a man in traditional Nasr robes.

"Hola. Buenos noches," The man said, then switched to a fair Valuan. "Welcome to the only ship parts dealer in the city. You were the ones that came in on the skiff, correct?"

"Yes, but we have a larger ship out waiting for us," David replied. "We're looking for components and weapons compatible with the newest generation of Valuan warship."

The merchant cocked an eyebrow. "Modern Valuan tech? I do have a few recent pieces, but most of the current generation has been locked down tight by the Empire, because they don't want other nations gaining their weapon systems." He thought for a moment. "Let's see... I have a set of 10' Cannon Coils, excellent secondaries which can fire multiple shells without reloading, as well as a set of upgraded Valuan torpedo launchers, ammunition for both..." He leaned in. "I also have a prototype destroyer-class cannon, more powerful, I hear, then even Prince Enrique's flagship would have been, if it hadn't been stolen before it was finished. That one is probably a little too pricey, though... 4000 rhira, although I will accept 9,500 gold pieces."

"Hm..."

"Vyse! Vyse!" Everyone turned, to see the small form of Marco darting up the hill at a respectable speed. The Valuan urchin gasped for breath, looking up at them all. "Look!" The Delphinus was in the skies, approaching Esperanza. "I came here on one of the skiffs with Doc and Luke. A lot of shit's going on, Vyse!"

"I see." Vyse crossed his arms. "Calm down, Marco, and tell us what's up." Lawrence broke our cover... they must have sighted the Valuan ships, or something.

His suspicions were confirmed. "We spotted five ships coming in pretty slow and forming a blockade, wide around the cape, and sealing us in to the harbor. It's those weird ships from before, and they're part of Admiral Gregorio's fleet!" He gasped. "That ain't all, though. They let a Nasrian messenger through, it must be from Karzhai."

"Wow." Aika shook his head. "Why would they let a Nasr ship through their blockade, then?"

"Apparently Gregorio's got some kinda message for Enrique," Marco replied. "Come on, we have to get to the docks, everyone's waitin' for us!"

David nodded. "Alright. Sir, I'm sorry, but it looks like we've got more pressing business to attend do. We'll be back later, have that destroyer cannon ready for us, please." The Nasrian man nodded, and, their business finished, they all beat a hasty path back through the walled city and out to the docks.

Enrique was standing upright on the walkways, and looked over at their approach. He looked like he had recovered some, but was using all of his willpower to bear himself in a professional manner. "Vyse, you should see this." Vyse walked up to the thin railing next to him and used his skyglass to zoom in on the distant set of dots on the bloody horizon. The ship in the center was largest by far, rust-red armor plating making the thing incredibly bulky and solid, and with an ominous set of metal spikes set into the front. The bridge was elevated in the center of the craft, protected by a solid dome of steel, and even the engine propellers were covered. The entire thing looked like a mobile fortress. The ships around it were simply smaller, spike-less copies, and followed in standard formation. "That is the flagship of the Second Admiral of the Valuan Armada, the Auriga. Admiral Gregorio, it's commander, is known as the greatest defensive tactician in naval history, and he's the oldest man serving the Empire. He's called 'Ironwall'."

The others walked up from the docks, Fina with Doc and Luke in toe. A Nasrian trooper followed behind them. "Vyse," Doc spoke up, "This is Major Kahil of the Nasr Army. Karzhai sent him with the reply to our message." The soldier silently handed him a roll of red parchment, which he unfurled.

The paper from the Nasrian commander-in-chief detailed all of his country's information about the new Defender-Class Valuan Cruisers, and also their designer, Gregorio himself. It included a picture, and the man in it exuded power, age, and honor, his eyes bastions of loyalty and intelligence.

Kahil produced a second piece of paper. "Prince Enrique, the Valuans would only let me pass on the condition that I deliver this message to you. It's from Gregorio himself." The parchment was white with gold trim, Valuan royal standard.

Enrique opened it up, reading aloud. " 'I hope this message finds my Prince in good health. I have been told you have experienced a change of heart, perhaps under threat from the air pirates of Vyse the Blue Rogue. My Prince's Mother, the crown Empress of the Valuan Empire, has dispatched me to escort my Prince to the Royal Capitol so he may recover. If my Prince refuses to comply, then regrettably, my fleet will begin firing upon the town at noon of the clock tomorrow. Signed, Your Loyal Servant, Admiral Gregorio.' Hm..." He spared a sickly smile for the message. "Uncle Gregorio is asking me to surrender..."

David paused. "Uncle Gregorio?" The Blue Rogue echoed.

"Oh, Uncle Gregorio was an Admiral in the Armada even before my Father... passed away. He helped to raise me, and he taught me the value of honor and righteousness. He's always been like family to me... Vyse, I know that he really doesn't want to fight, and would accept my surrender. But I can't go back... not after everything they've done."

"Enrique..." Aika said, looking at the prince with admiration for his resolve.

"Let's get some rest tonight," The Valuan prince suggested. "Gregorio is the most honorable man I've ever known. He'll keep to his word... we have until tomorrow. I think the Delphinus should lay in at the dock, even if we can't land her in a hangar."

Luke nodded. "Good idea." He clicked on his radio before anyone else could. "Lawrence, this is Luke. Let's anchor the ship down to the docks and let the rest of the crew on solid ground for the night."

"Affirmative," The mercenary's slightly distorted voice replied. The airship floating overhead slowly turned, presenting it's side to the city and gently moving down with it's propellers until the bridge was about eye-level with them on the walkway, the main deck aligned with one of the dock sections. "We're laying out lines now." Belle and Khazim's crews of gunners tossed over grappling hooks securing the Delphinus to the sheer rock cliff on which Esperanza was mounted, and then dropped several anchors and set the engines to standard hover-keeping to save fuel.

"Good thing we're all gonna sleep on land tonight," Aika giggled. "It wouldn't be good form to let your Uncle Gregorio see you leaning over the side of the ship tossing breakfast in the middle of battle, Enrique." Several other people chuckled as well.

Enrique was suitably chagrined, and blushed slightly. "Oh, Aika, please, don't I suffer enough by having my stomach rip itself apart daily?"

"I hope the Inn can fit all of us," Vyse smirked. "Good thing this place doesn't have many guests, because our crew will fill all the billets."

0-0

Night had fallen like a blanket over the hopeless city, the blackness of the sky broken by the warm and strong glow of the Red Moon directly overhead. Almost everyone was asleep, but one man could not find any rest that night. Vyse was up on one of the fortified lighthouses of Esperanza, staring into the Dark Rift, which was visible even now, as, like Valuan airspace, it had an aura blacker than mere night could imitate.

Tomorrow is the battle. I feel just like I did that night on Sailors' Island before we left to save everyone from execution... I'm going to tangle with the fleet of a genius, and then we're going to try and do something nobody's ever done in history. Our chances of survival are not good, and I have a really bad feeling about this. With nobody around, Vyse wholly dropped his usual pretense of invincible confidence, allowing the inner doubt, uncertainty and fear bottled deep within to seep into his mind's sober contemplation.

His thoughts were broken by the sound of another climbing up to the observation deck of the lighthouse, and he was not entirely surprised to see Enrique. The blonde blinked in comprehension of his pirate friend in the low light, and he spoke up. "Vyse," He said. "Were you unable to sleep too?"

"Yeah," The teenager replied, sighing. "I might look like the last person in the world you'd expect this from, but my nerves are shot. I've got insomnia, like the night before the battle of Nasrad, and before I attacked the Grand Fortress."

"You mean to tell me you have emotions that aren't positive?" Enrique asked in fake shock. "I'm scared, really. I don't want to fight my Uncle... one of us might end up killing the other out there tomorrow in battle..." The prince shook his head. "Suffice it to say that I understand your anxiety. You don't always have to be the heroic leader."

"We'll see," Vyse replied quietly. "There's no other way for me to be, I suppose. I have to be a swashbuckler, because if I don't do it, nobody will."

"The entire crew stands behind you," The prince said. "I could never dream of such loyalty from the royal guards. Even Lawrence, a hired gun, is willing to stick it out with you. You're a great man, Vyse. There's no doubting that. I know tomorrow we'll make it through, somehow or another." He put his gloved hand on the other guy's shoulder.

Vyse chuckled morosely. "I thought I was the one who gave cheer and happiness to the crew. You better not steal my thunder, Valuan."

"Ah, but whose nation invented thunder, hm?" Enrique smirked.

He paused. "Enrique, you're a pretty good leader, yourself." He planted a very light kiss on his cheek and smirked at the blonde's bewildered reaction. "You'll make an excellent Emperor once you get Valua back on the right track. I'm gonna go back to bed, and possibly get Fina to cast Slipara on me. G'night."

"Alright. I'll be up here a while." The prince looked up at the moon, then over to the sky where he knew Gregorio was out there. Uncle Gregorio, are you looking at the moon right now? I hope you can forgive me... but this is the only path I can rightfully choose. You, more than anyone, would understand that...

Onboard the Auriga, Admiral Gregorio stood on the main deck of the ship, staring up at the Red Moon, his mind and heart heavy with the burdens of his duty. I must complete my mission... Enrique, what has happened to you? Why has it come to this? Please, Moons, forgive me...

It must be done.

TO BE CONTINUED.