Chapter Nine- What Is Expected

Don spun the wheel and felt the deck shift under him. Before now, the Delphinus had never seemed to be a big, ponderous Valuan battleship; its engines were top of the line. The submergence drives, though, were a different story. They weren't vulnerable to damage in the heavy pressure of Deep Sky, but were weak compared to a conventional engine. They also ate fuel like mad, but that was probably the least of his gripes at the moment. After all, he was currently locked in a death grapple with an enemy flagship hell-bent on sending him to the bottom.

"Evasive maneuvers are really hard when I still can't clear this fucker's firing arc," The slightly plastered Esperanzan murmured to himself as he tugged with all his strength on his controls, as though that would force more performance from the ship. The hull rattled as another concussion shell burst close enough to buckle their armor plating.

"Main batteries, fire at will," David hollered down the pipe. The gunnery crews didn't really have things any easier than the pilot, though. They were working from radar signals without any personal targeting, and the conditions of Deep Sky adjusted the way a shot arced in the air.

Working with mechanical loaders, the beefy Nasrian gunners loaded shell after shell, etched with enchantments and tipped with a variety of warheads. Unfortunately, the ship hadn't stocked up on anything much past the standard direct-impact High Explosive stuff, which would require a direct hit. Khazim found himself cursing his lack of foresight, but at this stage, the only thing to do was blaze away.

The ammo started to click into place, and the huge main guns spoke out. Roaring and flashing, they tossed fire against the enemy, to a great display, but little effect. All of the shots went wild and struck darkness; certainly, none hit their mark.

"Well, at least this is our chance to rid the world of this psycho, assuming we win… Torpedoes?" Vyse looked over towards the Valuan prince and heir, shaking his head. He wasn't really disappointed in this kind of accuracy- it was to be expected. He would have preferred to hit DeLoco a lot more, though.

Enrique shook his head and cursed his useless control panel. "There would be no point to firing a salvo like this. I couldn't hit the Chameleon if he got right against our nose." While the enemy had given away their general position with their surprise attack, it was still difficult to get a fix on them.

"Vyse, charging the Moonstone and Yelite cannons to fire is going to take several times longer than usual. We don't have enough power…" Fina and Aika glowed with a light separate and defiant against the green of electronic screens. They were both pouring magical energies directly into the ship around them, an exhausting task.

The captain nodded and patted both of them on the shoulder. "Do what you can, and we'll figure out the rest. Uh, somehow." Not terribly Swashbuckler of him, but he was thrown as off-guard by the attack as anybody else. The situation was not a positive one. He turned towards the map and plotted the location of the great vortex, their easiest way back up from Deep Sky. Through the sickly light and long shadows, he was able to determine that it was directly behind them. "Don, backpedal with everything you've got and get us out of here."

Their pilot nodded and began to pull back on the throttle. "You got it, boss," He replied, reaching with his free hand for his small canteen. A sip or two helped calm his nerves and focus his flying. "Leaf on the wind, shit. Brick in the air."

Desperate to keep pace with the Delphinus and prevent its retreat, Admiral DeLoco's flagship broke partial cover near a large hill on the surface, giving a much clearer signature for the radar. At least forcing the enemy to move would give the gunners something to fire their next volley at, and, indeed, Vyse started seeing scattered hits among the Blue Rogues' return fire. The Valuans had evidently come to this fight loaded out with concussion and burst warheads specifically to fight in heavy pressure, but the pirates' magic warheads weren't anything to take lightly, and Naomi was pleased to report a few nasty spells on the enemy that helped slow their movement and short out their electronics.

The air between the two combatants lit up every so often as explosions ignited and revealed the world beneath the clouds. Neither side could see the strange and often horrifying things that the gunfire revealed, though, trapped in their warships and hunkered down to fight. They traded several more salvoes of cannon fire, and although the Delphinus groaned and rumbled, it bore up well against the assault.

"We can outlast this guy, if nothing else," Vyse said, some confidence returning to his voice. "As many times as this ship's been upgraded, we know it can take a pounding and keep going." Of course, something like a pressure collapse would, as he understood it, be a pretty sudden thing. Either the superstructure could hold up as designed, or it would crumble inwards and, consequentially, crush the crew. It was incredibly disconcerting to think that the entire ship could cave in upon him at any particular moment it felt like.

As though he didn't have enough to worry about, a beam of brilliant green energy scythed through the air just to the starboard of the pirate ship, sheering and melting layers of armor in an instant and sending the ship tumbling towards port. Many of the crew aboard were tossed about by the sudden force, once again taken by surprise thanks to the mad admiral they faced. "What was that?" Don called out in something approaching panic as he struggled to regain control of the helm and even out the ship.

Everybody took hold of something for support and the girls interrupted their continuous casting, which caused the lights and instrument screens to flicker for a moment. The bridge was already claustrophobic enough in the grim darkness, but threatening the loss of their last lights was terrifying. The crew always went into battles with the possibility that they could die, but their dark surroundings seemed to impress a seriousness about this encounter.

"Looks familiar enough to me," David grumbled, shaking his head to clear it. "And it looks like we've got more trouble on our hands, Vyse. He's even managed to copy our Moonstone Cannon."

Vyse nodded. Well, the ship had originally come from a Valuan shipyard, even though its builders would scarcely recognize it anymore, and nobody could deny DeLoco's brilliance; only his sanity and ethics. "Looks like. Don, zag and zig like I would be if I was as drunk as you." They had to avoid a direct hit from that Moonstone Cannon or their pirate ship might find itself gutted. For all the armor plating ever did for enemies on the receiving end, Vyse wasn't confident in their ability to take that kind of hit. That meant that the sooner DeLoco's Chameleon was destroyed, the better.

'Moons, I bet the son of a bitch would be chatting up a storm, too,' He thought to himself. Their ship-to-ship radio was staying firmly off until the bastard was sunk; he'd had enough of the Admiral's ramblings in person the last time. 'Mwahahah! Prepare to feel the wrath of my upgraded moonstone cannon, you foolishly foolish fools!'

Aika and Fina resumed their magical infusions, but Vyse's usual knockout punch, and his new, if ancient, surprise, were still out of his reach for the moment. He felt a sickening realization that, for all of his confidence, his tactics had become far too reliant on such tools. 'Dad would have chewed me out good for that kind of mistake.'

Both airships reached the edges of the gigantic storm above them, and began their ascent, careful to match each others' course and speed. They seemed almost linked together as dance partners, even as their guns furiously flailed away. At least DeLoco seemed to be experiencing power management issues, as well; he didn't hit the Blue Rogues with a second dose of his deadly energy cannon before they entered the eye of the swirling storm.

To Khazim's dismay, one of their main radar cones cracked and split apart against a direct impact from a Valuan shell. If both vessels had been wildly maneuvering but the gunners had retained low visibility, then the Delphinus would never have landed another hit; as it was, their guns were zeroed in on the general area the enemy was in.

Another blow came to Vyse's confidence when he heard a loud metallic groaning, punctuated by a loud snap. "Oh, Moons…" Fina murmured under her breath. "The pressure and the concussion shells…"

David leaned forward in his bed, letting out a sharp breath as the deck shook once again. "Bastard doesn't even need to hit us to crack our armor open. I'm not sure she'll hold until we surface from the storm, Vyse." It was clear that, although several debuff spells had hit the enemy, the pirates were taking more real damage than they were dishing out. "The plating was designed to resist a constant level of pressure, not sudden spikes… we're well past specifications on this one."

A groan punctuated the vice captain's last statement and knotted Vyse's stomach up tightly. "Fina, if I only wanted to fire the Yelite cannon, could we do that now?"

"Yes," She replied, voice strained with effort. "It may not have maximum effectiveness against the enemy's armor, though. The weapon has an EMP property alongside its regular damage."

He grinned through his stress, his face contorting into something more than a little menacing. "Great. I've got a crazy plan. Don, I want us moving all ahead full. Put every bit you can give me into this, and ram the bastard." The helmsman turned to look at his captain in surprise. "Yeah, I know. But being in the eye of the storm heavily limits his options for maneuver. He's going to need to take it or leap out into the great storm and dash his ship." Neither combatant could survive long outside the relative calm of the eye, especially in deep pressure. It was a death sentence.

"That also means that if he does dodge us on this, we could go careening right out of the eye ourselves," Aika objected, looking up momentarily from her efforts.

"True. I guess it's all up to you, then, Don." The Esperanzan locked eyes with him for a moment. "If we keep letting him hit us with those damn concussion rounds, we might not make it anyway. And if we do get into open sky, that Moonstone Cannon of his is a grave threat. Let's end it now." While the rest of the bridge was in shock, Don slowly nodded and turned back towards his controls, gunning the throttle and hearing the submergence drive rumble in response.

Vyse moved to one of the tubes on the central console. "All hands, brace for ramming. As soon as we hit, I want every gun on this ship firing." Don quickly figured out what his captain's plan was; he was going to use the heavily armored prow of the Delphinus like a drill, except they were going to be drilling armor, not ice, this time. Even a partially successful ram would split the enemy open and reveal their vulnerable internals. Their guns, firing point-blank, couldn't fail to hit something important.

DeLoco saw the move coming as the Delphinus heaved forward, straight towards him with barely any energy spent on dodging. Instead of moving to evade, he waited, and completed the charging for his cannon. Without visual cues, the Chameleon's shifting armor couldn't serve as a warning sign, and the Blue Rogues weren't able to tell what was coming.

When the Valuans had lined up and sighted in, they opened fire, first with their conventional guns, followed by the copied Moonstone Cannon. Fortunately for the pirates, however, the bursting shells hitting point-blank forced the Delphinus off-course for a moment, its weakened engines unable to compensate and sending it careening sideways just as the beam fired, causing it to miss completely. Even Don was barely able to figure out what they'd just avoided, and let out a whoop as he spun the wheel and brought them back on track.

With little room left, the Chameleon took the brunt of the impact, going nose-to-nose with its foe. Armor plate met and clashed together with a terrible bang, the sheer force tossing both crews to the deck and filling their ears with rending metal.

Vyse smashed the back of his head against the floor and nearly blacked out immediately, flooded with pain and groaning weakly. He slowly started to move, however, forcing himself to look up and see the rest of the bridge crew. Most were down, and David had been thrown from his bed and laid crumpled up against the wall. The consoles all flickered and then, suddenly, plunged him into a darkness so absolute he couldn't see his eyepatch.

He only knew that he hadn't passed out because he heard, through his ringing ears, the superstructure of his ship crying out in agony. A lifetime of instincts aboard ships told him, on a primal level, that if he laid down and gave into his fatigue now, he would never reawaken, and his ship would be destroyed utterly. Through sheer determination, he forced his arms and legs to move, shambling to his feet even though the ground continued to move and shake.

From his memory, he knew where Aika and Fina and their controls were, roughly, and he started in that direction, putting one foot in front of the other and making slow progress. It seemed to take forever, but eventually, he hit his foot against something unexpected. It was probably a body, possibly one of his two lovers, but he couldn't tell even as he collapsed over it and hit his hands on the console. Nothing in the world mattered as much as reaching up and finding one specific lever.

Hr grabbed, and pulled downwards, struggling for a moment with the object and then falling back on his rear as he heard a set of loud clicks. 'Yelite Cannon, fire,' he thought dully, his energy spent even as he felt movement against his legs and then heard a great hissing noise.

His ship had exhausted every ounce of its energy upon the attack, though, and moments after he had fired, to an effect he couldn't know, the ground fell out from under him.

0-0

The Chameleon's internal decks, already collapsing from heavy pressure, were smashed with an incredibly powerful electromagnetic pulse that caused every electronic device aboard the ship, including her submergence engines, to simultaneously explode and flash-cooked most of the crew in the twinkling of an eye. None of the other pirate guns spoke out, their operators down and stunned or passed out, but that one devastating hit was enough to end the fight.

The crippled and lifeless flagship, full of a lifetime's genius and madness and staffed with one of the proudest crews in the Valuan Armada, fell as gravity demanded it must even as its decks continued to crumple up and metal rolled upon metal, flatting everything in between. The Admiral himself died, alongside his men, crushed horribly by the power of an entire world.

Delivering such a blow with its transplanted ancient technology was too much for the Delphinus, however. Even as the two ships came apart, they fell together. The submergence drives aboard Enrique's stolen flagship could not sustain ton after ton of metal, crew, and cargo anymore, leaving them in freefall as they plummeted downwards at terminal velocity.

Most of those who had weathered the impact of the collision were taken by surprise by this second assault. Young and fit sailors as well as older, weaker personnel were tossed asunder like so many ragdolls. Down in Engineering, those who would be capable of actually repairing the engine and stopping the descent were all down and out, except for the Yafutoman builder, Kirala. She had avoided hitting her head, although she felt her left ankle twist heavily when she hit the deck for the second time, and when the lights began to flicker she tried to spring into action.

"Oh shit, main power's offline!" Emergency backups were failing to cut in, too; only a few dull last-resort lights illuminated the great cavernous engine room. "Guys! Hans! Where are you? We need to…" She trailed off, and heard nothing in reply except groaning and a murmured curse. Well, and the walls groaning ominously.

She hadn't grown up as a shiphandler, although Hans had been giving her some training in the machinery and components; she could tell they were falling, fast, but couldn't even estimate how long they had to effect repairs on whatever went wrong. It was obviously not going to be very long, though. If Hans was down, their best talent with the engines was out of commission. "Please don't tell me I have to get up in those huge turbines…"

With no other option, she got to her feet, and started walking, every step on her left foot a fresh agony to shoot through her. It was bearing her weight, though, even though the deck wouldn't quite stay still under her, and she made it over to the console Hans had fallen nearby. She could just barely make out his prone form from a nearby lamp, and reached out towards him as soon as he was close enough. "Hans! Shit, Hans!" She screamed, panicking and shaking him with all of her considerable strength. The young boy did, after a moment, begin to stir, though.

"Ow," He replied to her, getting up much slower and leaning against the builder. "What… the lights… oh. Oh, oh. Oh shit."

Kirala nodded. "Yeah, oh shit is right. We need to get the sub drive online, now." She motioned in the general direction of the innovative technology, which revealed itself with occasional sparks and lightning dancing across its great bulbous shielding. "Power must have cut out when we, fucking shot that Yelite gun."

Hans groaned, and not just in pain at his bruised shoulder and back. That ancient gun had guzzled more power than even he had predicted; he'd given the green light to fire, though. During tests, this had never happened, but it had never occurred to him to test the gun while under combat maneuvers with the sub drive. The combination of reduced output and greedy ancient tech was enough to really screw his ship over. That also meant that, in a way, this was all his fault. "Yeah. We need to kick in the auxiliary before we hit the ground."

"How?" She asked, desperately. Each second that ticked by, she imagined, could be their last. The groaning and buckling armor and superstructure were certainly a problem, as well, but those noises had almost sunk into the background compared to this. If they didn't fix this problem, now, it was all over.

"Manual startup. Shovel some stones into the furnace. Go." Using the raw, inefficient burning of a few moonstones, he could kick the secondary generator to life and thus revive the submergence engine. The generator was full of fuel already and could definitely last long enough to limp out of Deep Sky and kick in the main drives. He waited at his controls, glad that the designs still incorporated physical backups for critical functions, since all of the electronic panels and keyboards were obviously dead.

Kirala fumbled for a nearby shovel and got a single good load of green moonstones, a suboptimal material for engine use but certainly good enough for the task. She dumped them into the furnace, hit the button, and watched the door slam shut even as countless, mysterious energies began to release.

The moment Hans had power, he slammed the emergency valves and levers, reciting a few classic engineer prayers and engineer curses he'd learned despite the efforts of his gentle, reasonable father. After a tense second, the lights came back on, partially blinding him. He did hear the turbines start again, though, a whisper of life for them all. "We're in business! Sub engine, all stop!" One of the other engineers, on her feet after the first crisis was resolved, hit the engineering backup controls and cut in the submergence engine.

Stopping the ship all at once was just as bad as allowing it to slam into the surface, but they could slowly work against their fall until they'd stabilized things. Hans counted his heartbeats as the ground stopped shaking and, far too slowly, the Delphinus regained her balance and caught herself mid-air. Hans laughed and smacked the control panel with his wrench. "What a fucking ship!"

"All stop confirmed, sir," The engineering assistant said, reaching for a few more valves. "Where are we?"

"We're not on the ground," Kirala said. "That's good enough for me." A part of her didn't even want to know how close they'd all come to death. A set of shockwaves rocked the ship, however, but they weren't powerful enough to be coming from the interior or the armor plate. If they were close enough to feel the Chameleon's ammunition and engines going up, then she definitely didn't want to know. "Thank the Moons."

0-0

Naomi bent over and examined Vyse, first checking for obvious bleeding and then bruising. He was still conscious, barely, but looked like he'd just gone fifteen rounds with a monster, gasping heavily and still laying atop Fina. "We're alright?" He asked, slurring his words.

"Yeah, Captain," She replied, grinning. "I didn't think much of your plan. Still don't. But we're all here in more or less one piece. Guess that means we win." Vyse laughed a bit, and the Yafutoman soldier checked his lovers, next. To her relief, neither seemed to be too badly injured, although both were out cold. She pulled a small Sacri crystal from her pouch and shattered it near the two of them, watching the healing light scatter into both and begin to correct any damage.

She got to her feet, heavily favoring her right leg, and got herself over to David, who she'd already put back in his bed. He had made it through the trial awake, but his heart was beating too fast and she'd ended up having to put him under Slipa, one of the few spells she knew, being a devoted soldier of Yafutoma. She reached out and brushed his hair from his eyes. As the crewman most often charged with seeing to his needs and taking care of the ornery cripple, she'd grown quite attached to him. 'At least his heart didn't explode. Doc will be happy to hear that.'

There was still work to do, unfortunately, and she slowly abandoned him after making sure he was laying comfortably, heading back over to the control panel. "Engineering, this is the Bridge. We're not sure what happened but good work with the power. That was close." Leaning against the console, she let out a long sigh. "Too close." Most of the bridge crew was still down, but Don, of all people, was up and more or less about. He was busily helping David back into his bed.

After that, the helmsman made his way over to a different talking-tube. "Doc, you up? We've got people hurt on the Bridge. Ha, probably got people hurt everywhere." He supposed this was probably better than being sunk by DeLoco's cannons and dying on the surface. Probably.

"He's resting for now," Piastol replied, her voice unusually quiet. "I'm not injured badly enough to need help, though. I can bring everybody into medical and get them treated." At the very least, she was competent to perform first aid and check if somebody would need serious healing that went beyond a simple Green magic spell.

"Yeah, go for it. I think Vyse and Aika might have hit their heads. Fina and Marco are out too, but they're all breathing." The pilot glanced over at Enrique, who was casting what simple medical spells he knew to help with everybody's bumps and bruises. It looked like the dainty prince had actually gotten through the ordeal better than most of the others.

The ship shivered yet again and the drunkard winced. "I think I'd better get us out of here. I'm amazed this big girl is still afloat." He rapped his controls with a fist and then reached for the steering wheel and throttle. "Never let us down yet." Gingerly, he started climbing again, pouring on the power a little at a time and stopping at barely thirty percent of full.

His thoughts quickly turned, yet again, to the Great Rift. He hadn't even been a part of the crew when they'd plunged into that abyss, but he had gone through more than a few crazy missions in his life near it. Most Esperanzans knew about what it was like in there, even though few ever returned. 'It seems like this is much tougher on the ship, though. Add in the damage from our scrap... we definitely couldn't cruise for days. I think we might have broken her back already.' Every mission that the Blue Rogues went through seemed to put the Delphinus back in the yard for repair. 'And we keep getting lucky.'

Now that the immediate emergencies had passed, the noises that his ship was making were grating a lot more on his mind. He wanted to gun the throttle and get out as quickly as possible, but that would only put dangerous stress on the airframe as well as the engine. It seemed to take forever before the pressure started to lighten, and the ship slowly emerged from Hell.

When they did finally emerge from the enormous vortex, sliding upwards, the ship's groaning subsided, although Don could occasionally hear worrying noises if he concentrated. The danger of sudden collapse was still gone, and he hit the controls to release submergence mode. The secondary sheets of armor around the hull and critical systems started to retract, revealing regular hull, although it showed dozens of spider web fractures.

Most heartening was the sounds coming from Engineering, where the main engines finally sprang to life and gave Don some of the power he was used to. Now the Delphinus didn't seem to cling barely to its altitude; even with the frame damage, her pilot could move about more or less normally. He did make sure to leave a little bit of throttle in reserve for caution's sake as he turned the ship and consulted his maps. "Thank the Moons, we're finally out of it."

Many of the crew who weren't too badly hurt quickly took the opportunity to go up to the top deck and breathe in some fresh air. The sun was setting, bathing the sky and the clouds in red and orange hues. The beauty of nature looked like a painting to tired eyes. Familiar sights, such as the great reefs of rocks suspended in the sky and islands dotting the area, were also welcome.

Even Enrique, most of his sickness gone through sheer stubbornness, went out upon the deck and leaned against the railing. "Princess, I'm glad to see you weren't hurt," He said to Moegi, who turned towards him and bowed deeply. "What a final mission! I've never felt more afraid… or alive."

She nodded and met his eyes. "Battling against the Armada out here is a worthy enterprise, but the time has come for you to return home. Perhaps together, we can show your mother that it is possible for Valua to work together with the other nations." She reached for his hands and held them, feeling her face warm up quickly.

"Yes, of course. I… I am glad you wish to accompany me. It will be dangerous, but having you with me, I think…" He coughed and looked away for a moment, out towards the open skies. "I hope we can end this."

Although she hated to mention it, especially during such a beautiful moment, she couldn't help but wonder something. "Even so, your mother may not listen to us. What will you do then, Enrique-san?" She remembered the fight for her homeland well, when Valuan aggression and traitors within her own people nearly put them all to death. An alarming number of people had supported the usurper and his son over their rightful rulers, and there had been blood in the streets before the issue was settled. She was now all too familiar with the mentality of a civil war, often the most brutal of conflict.

The prince knew where she was headed with this, and shook his head. "Oh, she must! We won't let it come to that, I swear it on my honor." If the matter couldn't be solved without violence, would he take arms against his own mother? It was such a horrible thought that he simply refused to contemplate the possibility, and instead focused everything on what hope he had left.

They spent some time in silence, watching the sun until it had gone down behind a reef barrier and the sky began to darken. Finally, she spoke up. "Enrique-san?"

"Hm?"

When he turned to look at her again, she leaned in, blushing heavily, and kissed him. It was an impulsive and outgoing act, especially given her upbringing, but the day's battle had taught her to appreciate each day she was alive and to seize a good moment. Of course, that didn't mean she wasn't terribly embarrassed, and soon she fled, back into the interior of the battleship, and leaving one very stunned boy.

Meanwhile, Don was still at his controls, conversing with Hans and Kirala, who had made their way up to the command deck. "All my guys who can still work are out canvassing the ship and checking out how bad it is," The lead engineer said gravely. "By the time Vyse or David are back in the action, we'll know. I think we can assume 'real bad', though. She's making noises I've never heard out of her."

"You were down there, I haven't been yet… anybody really hurt?" Head trauma was some of the most serious blunt injury a person could sustain, but both Aika and Vyse were young and extremely lively. The Delphinus had been carrying civilians as well, including people like Osman the merchant and Kirala's younger sister, one of their chefs.

Kirala shook her head. "Well. A lot of people passed out, a few broken bones. My sister made it through alright, she's a lot tougher than anyone would think." A smile crossed her face. "I should be a lot more scared from all that shit, but everyone made it out alive this time." That touched upon memories of the crewman who had died in the fight against Yeligar, Tikatika, and her face settled back into a frown. "Thank the Moons."

The helmsman turned towards his controls instead of continuing the conversation. Better, in his experience, to move on, at least for now. "I wasn't trained in the mechanical stuff but I can tell we're going to need to put in. According to our charts, we can be at Sailors' Island, oh, by midnight, even if we don't push it." They could avoid many of the hazards, such as storms, wind currents, and monsters, simply by flying higher or lower until they reached different cloud layers. That wouldn't put too much more stress on the ship, hopefully. "I guess I'm in charge until somebody more sober wakes up, so that's where we're headed. I'll get us to cruising speed."

"Good idea. Kirala, go ahead and take off if you want. I'll get back down to the engine room and make sure everything's okay." She nodded and patted Hans on the shoulder before he took his leave of the bridge.

He walked down the stairs and through the metal hallways, noticing a variety of cracks and bends in the support pillars as well as the walls. It really was amazing to him, to think of how much the ship had gone through; constant battles and refits, knocked down and picked back up time after time. She was his, and he felt nothing but pride in her, running his hand along the divots and cracks as he walked. "Yeah, good job," He murmured softly, as though in reverence.

He passed Lawrence, on his way up to the bridge, and nodded to him respectfully. The mercenary nodded back, and Hans found his eyes focusing upon the layers of white bandaging over his left arm. He'd always found the other pilot much more intimidating than Don, however, and so he kept to himself and continued on his way through the ship.

As soon as Lawrence made it past the hatch and into the Bridge, he took a look around, and only saw two people on watch. Pinata the kid, who had watched the entire fight from the bridge and avoided so much as a bruise, thanks to his odd little flying hat invention, was still just chilling out, enjoying a candy bar as he respectfully watched Dan work the controls. The older pilot only took his hands off the wheel to indulge in another sip of his good stuff, to help him come down off of all the excitement and settle in for the long ride overnight.

He noticed his counterpart, however, and turned to look at him. "Damn! What happened to you, man?"

"Drunk driver," Lawrence replied sardonically, walking over to the forward control panel. "You know, some days, I regret joining up with this quest. We were all nearly killed by that ramming maneuver."

"Yeah, I suppose we were," Don replied, chuckling. He seemed more sober than he really had any right to be. "It's weird. Sometimes I forget that's what the stakes are out here. Vyse and the others, those kids, they've all got this life about them. That boy's been across the world and never regretted any of it, the good or the bad."

The drunkard knew a thing or two about regret, after the years he'd spent at Esperanza watching good kids, like Vyse, toss themselves to their deaths. Even then, when he'd sworn off flying, he knew he regretted not taking to the skies again. Regret was a terrible feeling, especially given that it didn't empower you to change what happened; only to feel bad about it later.

"Well, you had your chance to jump ship, sell us out, and live like a king, back on Yafutoma," He continued, taking another swig. "No use crying about it now, right? Besides, if you do make it through these trials, you'll have some great stories to tell your kids about."

The mercenary shrugged. "Never really looked at it like that before." The very thought of settling down on some chunk of rock with a nice lady and building a family was almost amusing to him. "I think I'd have to get pretty old before that happens." Don laughed, his old belly shaking as he contemplated the cold, distant sell-sword living somewhere like Pirate Isle or maybe even, Moons forbid, a reputable village. "You were on shift for hours, before DeLoco jumped us. Go on back and get some rest. I can get us to Sailors' Isle."

Don looked over at his bandaged arm. "You sure, man? This wheel hasn't been getting more responsive, and you'll only have the one arm to teach it who's boss."

"Still do a better job than you can," Lawrence replied, hooking his good thumb back toward the hatch. Don laughed again and relinquished the controls. "I always hate being off-watch when the shit comes down, anyway. Maybe we'll get jumped again."

"Eh. I've had enough excitement for one day." Don only stumbled a few times as he left, taking a few more swigs of his canteen before realizing, in disappointment, that it was now empty. He was just glad he'd brought that thing instead of what he'd been doing before, just carrying a big old glass bottle around. Being tumbled around with that in his coat wouldn't have made the experience any more pleasant.

The mercenary settled in, as he'd done so many times before, for the lengthy voyage to a friendly port. For having just been through Hell, the ship was holding up fine, in his professional opinion. Even the crackling and shuddering was getting less frequent.

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Slowly returning to consciousness, Vyse let out a soft groan. With his eyes still squeezed shut and his body feeling like pure lead, he heard voices around him. There weren't many, just a few, and with a bit of concentration he recognized Aika and Fina amongst them, along with Piastol. After he remembered that she had switched sides and become a valuable part of his crew, some time ago, that realization was much less alarming to him. Oh, his bed was so wonderfully soft, and he felt the urge to sleep forever.

He felt something press against his chest, though, and a half a scarecrow's worth of flaming red hair whapped him right in the face, bristles rubbing against his skin and provoking weak laughter. He coughed, desperate to spit it out from his mouth, though, and Aika backed up a bit, still hovering over him. "Well, he's still breathing. Awake, even."

When he woke up, his vision was thus taken up entirely by her pale face, inches above his own. She really had grown more beautiful. Back on Pirate Isle, thinking such things were pretty much off-limits, but he'd often found himself waking up and thinking that lately. "Hey, Aika," He murmured, so quietly that only she heard his voice. She looked almost on the edge of tears, but her face was split in a huge grin.

"Hey, Vyse. You overslept." She adjusted herself, sitting on the bed and leaning back against him. "Had us worried." She motioned past his field of view and Fina joined her, sitting on the edge of the bed and reaching out to gently touch his forehead, pushing aside wild, unkempt hair. If Aika was pale, Fina nearly looked like a ghost, especially with her white dress. That dress, like all good dresses, did little to conceal her assets, though, which was a reason he'd always liked it.

"Oh. Sorry." He slowly pulled himself up until he was sitting rather than laying, steadied by both of his lovers. "Uh. My head still hurts." He watched both of them share a glance.

"That's to be expected," The former Angel of Death's voice pierced their comfortable little bonding time, and he slowly turned his head to regard her. She wore a lab coat that seemed to fit ill on her tall, lanky frame, doubtless borrowed from Doc's collection. She hadn't necessarily abandoned the art of dealing death, but now she had tempered that, like Silver magic itself, with the giving of life. Or, at least, healing. "Pain isn't really a positive sign, but it's preferable to having no feeling at all. Try to move your limbs, Vyse."

He obeyed, moving his arms again. They tingled a little but that was relatively familiar to anybody who'd had a limb go to sleep before. His legs moved as well, shifting against Aika's ample rear and provoking a giggle. They felt weirder, but still listened to him. "All four, reporting in." Even he could tell that, in the back of his mind, he was still a little loopy.

"Good signs," Piastol nodded to herself and reached for a notepad. "I've just gotten a lot of experience with blunt injuries, trauma, and specifically head trauma. Doc isn't feeling up to much helping today, he took a bad spill himself."

"He should be fine, though," Fina assured Vyse. "With time, and magic, most wounds can mend. Piastol, you've done a very good job helping the crew after that fight." Under the Silvite's earnest praise, the former merc blushed a little and nodded in acknowledgement.

"I've still got a lot of atoning to do, I suppose." She shrugged her shoulders. "It doesn't feel like a burden, though. Joining your crew was the best thing for me, and now, I've got a family. A literal one, too." She nodded over towards the corner, where Maria was playing mutely with a doll. She still didn't seem to speak much, but just having her around had been great for morale. Vyse was relieved to see her unharmed, as well.

"Uh." He blanked for a moment and thought he'd like to go back to sleep, but something told him that he'd already slept quite enough. "So. How long was I out, then?"

The room was silent for a beat and Aika shook her head. "If we were still with your dad, he would have kicked your ass across the length of the ship. And then made you mop it all clean. We've already made it to Sailors' Island, and it'll be daybreak soon." Now that he thought about it, the deck was completely still, which only tended to happen when the Delphinus had set down somewhere. He could faintly hear banging as well as electrical noises, however. "We can get the ship patched up well enough to make it back home. Brabham is going to pitch a fit at what we've put her through this time."

"I'm just glad you didn't sleep longer, Vyse." Fina frowned slightly. "Everybody else has already been through treatment and the only others who are still sleeping are, well…" She looked up and towards a few of the other beds in the medical bay. "Khazim and a few of his gunners. When the ship fell, the ammunition racks suffered a malfunction. They helped shield Belle's girls from being badly hurt." Vyse chuckled. What a bombast; knowing Khazim was like meeting a character from the heroic stories pirate kids were told as children. Or maybe a living cannon.

"And Don," Aika chimed in, motioning towards the bed nearest to the door. "Although he's not really hurt so much as drunk. Really, really damn drunk. He stumbled in here after getting us out of that whole mess and told Piastol he couldn't find his room, and decided to take a nap here instead." More laughter from both of the girls. "I can't imagine how he handles the wheel so well when he gets like that."

"I allocated a few healing spells to his liver," Piastol chimed in, mood serious as usual. "I never learned how old that man is but it's not dying in an air battle that he has to worry about. That much is certain."

"So we all made it, more or less, in one piece." The girls nodded and he let out a sigh. "I'm glad. I probably should have come up with a smarter plan, but eh. My dad used to tell me 'any one you walk away from is a win'. So, we win." He actually heard his stomach rumble and groaned. "Oh, man, I regret putting off dinner when we found your ship, Fina."

Aika nodded. "We ended up sleeping in here, so we haven't had much to eat, either. Piastol, have you actually slept yet at all?"

She shrugged in response. "A nap here or there. Sorting everybody out was busy work. I'll probably indulge in a longer sleep after breakfast." One could visit the ship's mess at any hour and probably find somebody there, or at least the ingredients to fix one's self a sandwich, but Polly liked to serve breakfast early most days.

"Yet another person I'm glad we've recruited. If I'm okay to walk, let's all go down and see our chef about some food." Aika shifted out of the way and Fina stood up, getting behind Vyse and gently helping him to his feet. He wobbled a few times, but with some of his seemingly boundless willpower , he was standing again, stretching a bit and feeling sore muscles ache. "Nnngh."

The teenage captain remembered a time, not necessarily fondly, when he'd get lost trying to find places like the medical bay or the mess in such a large and seemingly labyrinthine ship. By now, though, it was as natural as breathing to find his way, leading the others, mainly so they could catch him if he fell. He felt his energy returning slowly to him, however, and had no problems reaching the ornate mess hall. Some of the fancy paintings on the walls had fallen in all the tumult, but otherwise the place looked remarkably intact. A fine chandelier threw plenty of light onto the large space, and he heard noises from the kitchen as well as a few glasses and plates tinkling from the tables.

"Hey, Vyse," Luke called out, and Vyse turned to see one of his oldest friends, a former raider under his father's command. "Glad to see you on your feet." Rodgers, seemingly inseparable from him now, was content to dig into her bowl in a feeding frenzy, waving to him with one hand.

"Thanks," He replied, stopping for a moment. "It's going to take a lot more than a bump on the head to get me down! … Much." He sidled up to the bar at the front of the mess but couldn't see anybody right away. "Morning, Polly," He called out.

Instead of Polly, Urala stuck her head out from behind the corner and bowed slightly. "Good morning, Captain, Aika-san, Fina-san, Piastol-san. Polly-sama is on the island now, I believe she took Robinson to see her old tavern." Ah, now memories of her recruitment were flooding back to him. He remembered specifically that one of the reasons Polly joined up was to find Robinson, and, against all the odds, she actually had, rescuing him from a miserable, shipwrecked experience. She left her only daughter in charge of running the place while she was out. 'One day, I'll find your father, Anna, and bring him back to show you what a fine daughter he has.'

"Good for them," Vyse nodded approvingly. "I only wish we could have made such a huge detour sooner, but Polly and Robinson threatened to mutiny if I did that." He was, despite it all, still quite hungry, however. "I hope we can still get something for breakfast, though?"

"Ah, of course." Urala giggled, bowed again, and retreated back into the kitchen. "I've been learning from Polly-sama all this time. I'll have something right up for you!"

They settled in beside their old pirate friends, and when Piastol moved to take her own table, Aika shook her head and pulled her along. Everybody still had a lot to talk about,, although, on the captain's orders, they avoided business talk until all the food had been finished. Especially, Enrique's departure as a subject was off-limits, except when Luke reported what Marco may or may not have seen the royal couple do on the deck, or amidships later. Kids tended to see a lot more than people expected.

"Back on the Albatross, Dad always frowned on 'fraternization'," Vyse mused, mouth still half-full. "Then again, most of the guys had wives back in the village, and Maribel was spoken for, so anything that did go on was of a purely masculine nature." Aika and Luke were in an uproar as they laughed. "Pretty sure the deckhand was, well." He glanced over at Fina. Bawdy humor aside, Air Pirates were pretty open with such matters, and he certainly didn't want to give the wrong impression about homosexuality. "Ahem. Never mind that. I'd say conditions aboard this ship are way different. Well, for one thing, I can't really have a 'no shacking up' rule."

Luke laughed. "Sure you could. You're the captain! Haven't you learned anything from the Valuans all this time, Vyse? Being in authority means you get to make the rules and then break them, too."

"I'd have a mutiny out of sheer envy if I did that," Vyse said, and Rodgers snorted into her bowl, nearly inhaling some noodles. "Not just one, but two of the finest ladies aboard the ship? I'd get left on that island we found near Esperanza, the one Domingo was telling us about earlier."

Aika paused after taking a long drink of loqua. "Come to think of it, Domingo mentioned he'd been cataloguing a lot of the weird stuff we've found in our voyages. He says it'll be worth a small fortune to the Sailors' Guild here when he turned it all in." Everyone agreed to toast to making a good profit. Pirates at heart, the lot of them, even Piastol now.

Talk of healthy profits seemed to naturally draw Osman to the mess hall, and sure enough, she quickly appeared. "Good morning," She called out to everybody, uncharacteristically happy. Ever since she'd joined up with the crew in order to rebuild her business, post-Nasrad, she had seemed to enjoy the ride for the most part, helping the ship to build a solid financial base and happening to make a very tidy sum for herself in the process. Like many other things, she reminded Aika and Fina of all the progress they'd made since their first meeting. Not that Aika would be likely to forget it, anyway.

The embargo on business talk went out the window. "Domingo has some experience with Discoveries, it's great to have him on our side rather than one-upping our efforts. He should be able to sell our logs and charts to the Guild for quite a lot. After we have that gold in our hands, we can plow it right back into the ship, with some temporary repairs and upgrades. Some of the dealers here might surprise you with their stock. Of course, I would be happy to handle all of this business on behalf of the crew, with a modest fee for my services."

"Oh, and one other thing, Captain; according to a contact on the island, the Valuans aren't having much luck recently in their wars. The Empire still has no plans to return to Ixa'taka, especially with DeLoco gone for good. Yafutoma is within their reach, but our efforts have left them strong and united. They have even slowed their offensive against Nasr; the Protector and his fleets are pushing back against them. I know that Galcian and his lot are planning something but from the way things are going, we certainly have some cause to be optimistic."

Vyse was glad for the good news, at least. "It probably just means they're winding up to unleash something else, but that's fine. We've been through it all before. Now that they can't get any of the Moon Crystals, the rest is up to their Admirals, and we've already beaten every one they have… except Ramirez." They didn't linger long on the other Silvite; any mention of him often depressed Fina.

After the hearty breakfast, Vyse, Fina, and Aika decided to go out on Sailors' Island and relax until lunch. Many of the crew had gone ashore and taken out rooms in a few inns, although others had elected to stay aboard the Delphinus; for one, Aika was happy to get out and do a bit of shopping. They talked with travelers from every part of Arcadia, and shopped for goods, local and exotic, including even some clothing. While Osman handled replenishing the ship's supplies until they were full to capacity, they procured a lot of personal items with their finances.

They found Enrique and Moegi and had lunch with them at Polly's tavern, a final hurrah for their friends. Everyone insisted that they would see each other again, but an undercurrent of tension ran throughout the meal and the light conversation. Enrique's plan to return home… well, Vyse couldn't really talk about foolhardy plans when it came to Valua, but he had a bad feeling about it. If the prince really could convince his mother that Galcian was the true threat, though, they could certainly benefit from Valua fighting itself.

"Moegi was able to secure our passage aboard a ship with legitimate business in the capital," Enrique said. "I thought it best not to mention my identity until we are past the security cordons and into the city; there is still a very, very high reward available for the 'Mad Prince'." Getting onto one of the few craft allowed through the choking Armada security, since the Grand Fortress' multiple breakouts, was by itself quite a feat.

"Well, at least you know that your mom cares about you," Aika said and he smiled sadly.

"I wish I could make her care about other people, though. When you get to such a high place, with authority over an entire empire… 'the people' get so abstract that they might as well not exist. It is very hard to get the message that a royal decision affects the entire population, and even other nations. It took me far too long, even." He frowned. "That is why I am determined to do this, before Valua cuts off all of its ties with the outside and Galcian carries out his plan to seize power."

"Without you, we wouldn't have gotten out of the Grand Fortress at all," Vyse said after the meal was done, as Anna went around to collect their dishes and cups. "We wouldn't have the Delphinus. Moegi, we would have gotten ourselves killed if you weren't there to help. We're going to miss both of you."

"If all goes well, we will return," Moegi replied, face and attitude stoic. She had resigned herself to follow Enrique, wherever he went, and to whatever end. "I am glad to have met you three, though. Our travels together have changed my life in profound ways." She was no longer a shrinking violet. Vyse looked into her eyes and saw only a familiar determination.

"I wish Fina had grown up so well," Aika said, putting an arm around her girlfriend and watching the Silvite shrink away and blush "I mean, compared with when we rescued her from Alfonso, she's a mad pirate, but she still has a long way to go."

"Thanks," Fina murmured, and escaped her grasp, turning to Enrique as they thanked Polly for the food and went outside into the cool afternoon air. "I have learned to trust my instincts, Enrique… is there no way we can persuade you from this course?"

The prince shook his head. "Gregorio was a servant of an evil Empire, but in the end he proved himself a true patriot. He followed the dictates of his conscience, even though it cost him his life. I'm not as strong of a man, but I can aspire to show that kind of fortitude and moral clarity. This is something I must do, Fina. I'm just glad I won't be doing it alone."

The group reached the gates of the island, leading towards the huge docks where the Delphinus was occupying, and paying for, four regular landing spaces. "Guess this is it, for now," Aika said, looking over the royal couple again. They seemed to match so well. "We've glued her together good enough to make the journey back to Crescent Isle, our supplies and gold are both high, and everybody's had a chance to do their business and get back aboard. We'll probably be setting sail soon."

"Good luck, to both of you," Vyse said, stepping forward and shaking Enrique's hand, followed by Moegi's. "Bring him back safe," He said to her, and she nodded silently.

"Oh." Fina gasped. "I believe I forgot to pick up something from the general store, they had it waiting at the counter. Go on ahead, I'll be back soon." She took off towards the store, and after a round of not-really-final goodbyes, Vyse and Aika went through the gates and down the steps to the underground hangar area, passing several teamsters and mechanics.

The Delphinus was there alright, still with a few scaffolding around her, but mostly ready to fly. Sitting on the ground like it was really helped Vyse put it into perspective compared with other ships and skiffs sitting around to either side. "She'll fly, no doubt," Aika said, crossing her arms. "I just… when we get back, Fina's going to be leaving too, isn't she?"

"Yeah," Vyse replied, pensive. "I get what you're thinking, Aika. Her mission's important, too. Probably way more important than anything down here. It's what we've been fighting for all this time…"

"But now that we're at the end of it, it'll be hard to see her go," Aika finished his sentence.

"Yeah. Things are a lot different than when we started out, and… I'm glad for the time we've all had together." He looked out upon his ship, and he could even spot some crew members boarding up the ramp or milling about. "Have to admit, though, this is probably the first time I can remember not being too excited about the sailing."

Soon enough, everybody had gathered aboard, the lines and scaffold were cast off, all the cargo was loaded, and the pirate ship set off into the sky, bound for home.