The hallways outside the sitting room were quiet as the young prince made his way through them. He liked to believe this was because his mother preferred quiet. It was a much better thought than the possibility that people stayed out of her vicinity due to fear. As he approached the entrance to the sitting room, he found a familiar figure standing before the doors, speaking in hushed tones to one of the guards standing to either side of them.
Admiral Gregorio caught sight of him immediately, leaning away from the guard he'd been speaking to and straightening himself as he greeted his liege. "Prince Enrique. I hope you are faring well this evening." He said with a slight bow of his head.
Enrique felt himself smiling already at the sight of the old admiral. "Uncle Gregorio. It's a pleasure to see you." He glanced towards the doors as he approached. "Though, I'm a little confused as to why you're here."
Gregorio nodded slowly. "My apologies, young prince. I was speaking to the empress about matters pertaining to the armada. I have a few concerns about the military's direction of late."
The smile on Enrique's face grew strained. "You too?"
Recognition flashed in the admiral's eyes, and he hesitated a moment before replying. "Well, yes. But my concerns are best not relayed here, and I would not wish to delay you. If, however, you do share some of my concerns - perhaps you ought to come speak with me while I remain in the palace. I'll be here a few days while I attend to business."
Enrique nodded his understanding. "Thanks, Uncle. I'll be sure to come find you."
Gregorio bowed his head once more before turning to depart, leaving Enrique with the pair of royal guards still flanking the entrance to the sitting room. Enrique watched him go, then turned to the guard the admiral had been speaking to. "What sort of a mood is my mother in?" he asked.
The guard seemed a little flustered. Perhaps he wasn't used to being questioned by so many important people in one day, the prince mused. "Oh… about average. Maybe a little calmer than usual?" He looked sincerely worried that someone would chop his head off for even speaking about the empress where she couldn't hear it.
The prince gave him the best reassuring smile he could muster. "That's good to hear, thank you. Please, keep up the good work." He offered, before opening the doors and heading inside.
His mother was seated on a lavishly comfortable-looking couch facing a hearth on the far side of the room. She was faced away from him, but her voice carried across the room to him all the same when the doors shut behind him. "Gregorio? I thought you'd said all you needed to say."
Enrique instinctively shook his head, before remembering she wouldn't see it. "Uhm, no, Mother. It's me, Enrique."
She was silent for several seconds, leaving him to awkwardly stand by the entrance as he awaited her response. "So it is. Come, Enrique dear. Sit with me." She said, waving a hand above the back of the couch without turning to look at him.
Already this was uncomfortable. He sighed and trudged the rest of the way across the room, walking around the couch to stand before it. His mother reclined comfortably on one arm of the couch, staring into the fire with a tea cup held in one hand. She finally glanced up at him when he continued to stand there without moving. "Well? Don't just stand there like a stupefied simpleton. Sit." Her voice carried the imperious tone of one who never questioned her own authority.
Enrique nodded and sat down on the couch, staying near the opposite arm so as to leave space between them. Teodora's brow furrowed in consternation. "Have you grown so wary of your own mother?"
"You know why I'm here, Mother."
Her eyes returned to staring into the fire. "I do, but you can't fault an old woman for hoping her suspicions are incorrect." She gestured to the teapot that sat on the table between them and the fireplace. "I don't suppose you'd like some tea?"
"Mother…" Enrique's voice was exasperated.
Teodora closed her eyes with a long-suffering breath. "Fine, Enrique. Say what you must."
Already, Enrique was losing hope of this conversation going anywhere. But he couldn't give up on her, not yet. "I think Valua has become too warlike. The armada is massive, and every other day I hear reports of our warships prodding at the Nasrean border…" He clenched one hand into a fist, raising it. "It's madness, Mother. So many people were lost in the last war. Why try to provoke another?"
Teodora didn't reply as she leaned forward, taking the teapot in her free hand to refill her cup. She lifted it slowly to her mouth, took a sip, and set it down before speaking. "Don't you ever get tired of saying the same thing over and over, Enrique?"
Enrique's face set in a scowl. "I can't stop myself as long as Valua continues to seek unnecessary conflict with other nations!"
The empress's eyes suddenly lit with anger. "And I cannot halt my plans as long as you fail to appreciate all I have done for you!" Her voice was wrought with fury, an electric intensity that left Enrique frozen where he sat. "Everything, everything I have done for this country has been for you! I mean to leave you a legacy of power and prosperity, Enrique, and I will not have you squander it!"
Enrique didn't respond right away. Teodora took a deep breath and closed her eyes as she composed herself, and when they opened again they carried not rage, but calm certainty. "I understand, my son, I really do. You are young and hopelessly romantic about the world. You think everything can be won with words, with kindness. But that is not the world we live in." She scooted closer to him across the couch, cupping his cheek in her palm. "I will never see you safe while you continue to harbor these delusions."
He stared at her for several long moments before shaking his head and brushing her hand away. "You're wrong. This world may not be perfect, but... that doesn't mean more death and destruction is the answer. A world subjugated by force is one that is destined to stay in turmoil forever."
Teodora looked disappointed as her hand fell to her lap once more. "One day you will come to see things as I do. I pray it will be soon. I do not want you to have to suffer as I did to understand this."
Enrique's face fell slightly. She looked genuinely hurt. "Mother…"
He was interrupted as the doors at the other end of the room opened once more. "Your highness!"
Teodora twitched once in irritation, before lifting her head and looking over her shoulder at the member of the royal guard who'd spoken. "Yes?"
The guard looked like he already regretted entering the room, but carried on anyways. "Ixa'taka… Ixa'taka has fallen. They summoned a gigas, and the first and fifth fleets were forced to retreat."
Enrique stood up immediately. "A gigas? In Ixa'taka?!"
A nod from the guard confirmed his fears. "These are… just the initial reports, of course. Admirals De Loco and Alfonso are being debriefed, but that's what they've said so far."
Teodora nodded her understanding. "Very well. You may leave us."
The guard looked terribly relieved as he shut the door behind him. Teodora looked up at Enrique. "Do you see now the cost of weakness, Enrique?"
Enrique gave his mother an irritable look. "One does not have to be weak to struggle against a gigas, mother." He hurried for the door. "I need to go."
"Do not forget what we talked about today. Only pain lies down the path of peace." the empress warned him.
Enrique ignored her as he stepped out, past the guards and into the labyrinthine hallways of the grand palace. He needed to see Gregorio.
Normally, Alfonso might have felt at home in the meeting room at the top of the Grand Fortress, but not today. The way lord Galcian and lady Dulcinea stared at him expectantly as he entered made him intensely uncomfortable. He'd felt confident in his decision to withdraw back in Ixa'taka, but since then he'd been wracked with doubts. He'd left De Loco hanging. As insufferable as the fifth admiral was, he was a technological genius. Could he have won the day if Alfonso had stayed?
Having Jedin with him for the debriefing was only a small comfort. He wasn't sure why they'd asked her to come along, and the not knowing only made him more concerned. He knew why they might come after his head, but did De Loco's ire really extend to his vice captain as well?
All these worries broiled in his head as he waited at the end of the long table for either of his superiors to speak. Dulcinea sat in her usual spot halfway along the table's length, whilst Galcian stood behind her, to one side of her seat. Both their gazes bored into him.
"Lord Alfonso." Dulcinea said.
"Yes?" Alfonso couldn't keep his voice from wavering.
"Please relay to us your account of the events preceding the fall of Ixa'taka."
Alfonso blinked. They were willing to listen to his side of the story? After everything that had happened? He wasn't sure whether to jump for joy or worry even more. "Well, it started when Vyse and his pirates attacked moon stone mountain. They stole one of the prisoners and brought him to king Ixa'taka."
"We know this part." Dulcinea said. "What happened afterwards?"
"Admiral De Loco reported you both missing after the attack on the mine. Where did you go?" Galcian's deep voice rattled in Alfonso's ears.
It took him a moment to compose himself and speak again. "We, ah, went after the pirates. We pursued them in a small ship under the assumption that they were looking for Rixis, too."
"It was my idea." Jedin chimed in. "I just dragged Alfonso along for the ride. He seemed so… helpless?" She said, an awkward note to her voice.
Alfonso had half a mind to snap at her, but not in front of Galcian. He bit his tongue as Dulcinea stared at him with a bemused, almost disappointed smile. "Helpless. I see." Her expression quickly smoothed back into a mask of neutrality. "And you did find the city of Rixis?"
Alfonso nodded hastily. "We did! We explored it a bit, and eventually we found the resting place of the green moon crystal."
"Why, then, was the gigas able to be summoned by the Ixa'takans?" Galcian questioned.
Alfonso froze up again. "Well… it wasn't there when we got there. The Ixa'takans beat us to it."
"And then they summoned the gigas…" Jedin added, sounding pathetic.
Dulcinea sighed and closed her eyes as she recounted the facts. "You left your post at the moon stone mines to go on a wild goose chase following the pirates, then beat a hasty retreat as soon as the gigas appeared. Am I correct?"
"W-well, I wouldn't put it like that…" Alfonso mumbled.
"Your decisions were rash and careless, motivated by a desire for personal glory, and then your own safety." Galcian's voice was cold. "These are not the decisions of an admiral of the armada."
"Honestly… we expected better from you." Dulcinea said, shaking her head. "Especially after you got sent to Ixa'taka in the first place for less than this."
"In light of your continuing failures, Alfonso, consider yourself grounded. You may not leave the imperial capital, and your duties as admiral will be divided up amongst the remaining admirals until such time as you are deemed fit to return to duty." Galcian explained.
Alfonso felt a chill in his chest. There was no way it was this easy. "So… what, am I out of the armada?"
Dulcinea shook her head. "Nobody who knows what you know leaves the armada. You'll either shape up, or you'll end up in chains."
Alfonso didn't know what to say. He ended up staring at his feet. Galcian and Dulcinea, meanwhile, turned their attentions to Jedin. "As for you, captain Jedin," Dulcinea said, "Your association with Alfonso cannot be ignored."
"You don't need to punish her for my mi-" Alfonso was cut off by a glare from Galcian.
"Be silent. Captain Jedin, until Alfonso is deemed fit for service once more, you will be in charge of his rehabilitation. You, too, will be confined to the capital."
"You'll be given assignments suitable to the task of fixing your priorities." Dulcinea explained.
Now both Jedin and Alfonso stared at the floor. "Be grateful, Alfonso. Were it not for the influence of your family, you might already be imprisoned in the lower reaches of the fortress." He narrowed his eyes at the blonde-haired ex-admiral. "Dismissed."
A shiver ran through Alfonso as he nodded and turned to leave. Neither he nor Jedin could think of anything to say to one another as they each returned to their quarters.
Ramirez didn't know about Ixa'taka yet. He had been out of the capital for most of two days now on a special assignment: whale hunting.
Arcwhales in particular. They were normally quite destructive beasts, but the one that had been spotted over the Valuan mainland recently was particularly massive and frightful. More to the point, this arcwhale was familiar to Ramirez.
He still remembered that wave of cold washing over him, the controls freezing up and plunging him into the depths of the dark rift. That hateful creature had more than earned its comeuppance, and Ramirez was determined to deliver it.
So it was that he'd been patrolling the skies over the mainland in his flagship, the Monoceros. Thus far, he'd only sighted the arcwhale once, and it had beat a hasty retreat soon after his opening barrage.
Whatever else this arcwhale was, it was an exceptional member of its species. It was far larger and hardier than any arcwhale he'd ever seen, not to mention a bizarre shade of purple. But what was most strange about it was the fog that constantly hung around it like an aura. It was bitterly cold, and it limited visibility in the already murky Valuan skies to the point of near blindness.
That fog had been hanging over the continent on and off ever since Ramirez had started his hunt, and though he would never admit it to anyone (except maybe Galcian), it was beginning to unnerve him. Occasionally he would catch wind of the beast's distant cries, but still there would be no sighting. Over the last two days he'd had more flashbacks to his first encounter with the arcwhale than he'd had in the seven years prior.
"Admiral Ramirez!" The voice of his vice captain brought him back to reality.
"Yes?" He asked, maintaining his gaze on the windows of the bridge.
"Some of the troops manning the port side cannons report seeing flashes in the fog to the east."
Ramirez gave the well-meaning soldier a flat look. "You do realize we're in Valua, right? Lightning storms are common."
The vice-captain stiffened. "I mean… they think it looks a bit like cannonfire."
Cannonfire? "Is someone out here with us?" Ramirez wondered aloud. It was worth a shot. He turned his attention to the soldiers positioned around the bridge. "Take us to the east. We should investigate this."
Though he heard no voices of assent, the view from the windows slowly swiveled to the left before the Monoceros began slowly cutting through the thick fog that had begun to blanket the area once more.
Sure enough, within a minute could be heard the sounds of cannonfire in the long distance. And then, something else. The arcwhale cried out - and this time, it sounded like it was in pain.
"The fog! It's clearing!" Someone called from below him. True to the soldier's word, the fog seemed to be parting in front of them. Ramirez was not ready for the sight it revealed.
A massive harpoon had embedded itself in the arcwhale's side. The harpoon was attached by a lengthy cable to an old-looking green fishing boat, which was using its makeshift tether to track the whale and bombard it with cannonfire.
Ramirez knew that ship. It looked almost exactly like it had back when it had broken out of the grand fortress. "Is that…?" The vice captain muttered off to his side.
"Move in close and prepare to bombard the ship." Ramirez ordered.
"Sir?" The vice captain seemed uncertain.
"They're pirates and known fugitives of the empire. Take them out of the sky." the silver-haired admiral snapped.
His tone brooked no further protest, and he received none as the vice captain quickly relayed his orders. The Monoceros began to follow the fishing boat, quickly beginning to catch up to it with its superior propulsion. He felt a small vibration run through the floor beneath his feet as the first cannon fired.
A ball of fire hurtled through the air to tear into the fishing boat from behind. Struck, the boat wobbled dangerously back and forth as flames began to lick at its stern.
Another shot soon followed, tearing into the smaller ship's main mast and lighting the deck ablaze. "They're not disengaging from the whale, sir…" Someone reported from nearby.
What on earth were they doing? Ramirez was baffled. They didn't stand a chance of avoiding cannonfire while they continued to shackle themselves to the whale. They weren't even going to put up a fight?
"One more shot." Ramirez instructed. Moments later, yet another ball of fire went sailing towards the fishing boat, now close enough for him to make out some of the details on the deck. It didn't look like anyone was out there. The fireball tore into the front of the ship, splintering wood and sending fire everywhere.
"They're done for, sir." The vice captain reported. Sure enough, the fishing boat seemed to be on its last legs as the fire spread and its hull buckled. Still they persisted in hanging onto the arcwhale with their oversized harpoon.
"Sir! They're deploying lifeboats!"
No fight, then. They were just going to run away and hope to be spared. A flicker of anger surged through Ramirez, and it grew hotter by the moment. They would appeal to his leniency after taking Fina from him? After interfering with lord Galcian's plans?
Piastol's face briefly flashed through his mind, followed by Fina's. He bit down on the feelings that threatened to well up in his chest, drowning them out with his voice. "Fire upon the lifeboats! I want no survivors!"
"Y-yes sir, admiral." The vice captain seemed as uncertain as ever, but the gunners heeded his commands. The Monoceros rattled underneath him once more as the main cannons rained fire upon the little lifeboats that slowly drifted away from the burning wreckage of fishing boat. "One hit…" The vice captain reported, "...and two. They're going down, sir."
"Excellent. Get after them." Ramirez commanded. The engines hummed farther back in the ship as the Monoceros spun around to change course in its pursuit.
Then the arcwhale roared, and the fog closed in once more. Visibility dropped to a hundred meters, then fifty, then ten, until all that could be seen through the windows of the bridge was white.
"Sir! We've lost visuals of the lifeboats!"
"Stay on course, damn it!" Ramirez snarled.
"W-we're trying, sir, but… there's nothing to follow…"
Ramirez grit his teeth as he clenched his hands into fists. They were not going to escape him again.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His mind filled with white as he drew upon his training to calm himself. Their lifeboats were doomed. There was no way they were going to survive. "Very well. Bring us to a stop. We'll find the wreckage and their corpses once the fog clears."
And if they didn't find any corpses, Ramirez reckoned, he was liable to make some himself.
30 years ago
Galcian woke up to an empty bedroom.
He sat up in bed as he realized right away how quiet things were. A glance to one side confirmed that nobody occupied the room's other bed. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers as a headache already threatened him. "Okay, think. Maybe she just went to get some water."
Or maybe she's run away because she doesn't trust you. The voice in Galcian's head was convincing indeed, and he swung his legs over the edge of the bed before standing up and grabbing his things in a hurry, grateful that he'd been tired enough to fall asleep in his clothes.
He hurried down the stairs to the entrance to the inn, hastening over to the counter. "When did the girl with the white hair leave?" He demanded of the woman behind it.
The woman stared at him in surprise. "What? I never saw anyone like that leave. Are you sure she's not still up there?"
She never trusted you. She was lying when she said she could heal you.
Galcian closed his eyes with a sigh. That confirmed that she wasn't doing anything innocuous. She'd likely have gone out the window, then. "Thanks anyways." He said, not bothering to explain himself before whirling and heading out the door.
You can't heal evil.
The streets were already busy with people despite the early hour, and he wove his way through the crowd looking to get a glimpse of white hair anywhere. When he saw nothing after a solid minute of scanning the area, he decided it was time to get desperate. "Lila!" He called, not caring who heard. "Where the hell are you?"
"Would you mind keeping it down?" A man complained from a stall next to him. "You're going to scare away my customers!"
Just like you scared her away.
"I don't give a basallish's bum about your customers!" Galcian growled, slamming a fist onto the counter at the front of the stall. "Did you see a girl with white hair run by here?"
The shopkeeper flinched, backing away to the rear of his stall at the younger man's outburst. "Okay, okay, calm down!" He pleaded. "Yes, I saw a girl like that. She ran off to the north, in the direction of the dhabu stands…"
"Tch…" Galcian fixed the merchant with a glare before turning and running off towards the north. The heat of the red moon beat down on him running around like this, but he wasn't going to let Lila disappear on him this easily.
The dhabu stands came into sight, and Galcian hurried to the top. The jovial man who normally stood at the top looked a bit out of it in the early morning hours, and Galcian considered simply hopping on a dhabu and starting his search. Still, he'd need-
"You should be wary of crossing the desert on foot, traveler. Under the light of the red moon, heat exhaustion can quickly become deadly." Galcian turned his head to stare, unamused, at the dhabu handler.
"Did you see a girl with white hair head out into the desert?" He asked, impatient.
"Why are you in such a hurry? There's no need t-"
"Did you see her?" Galcian leaned close and glared at the man through his glasses.
"Yes! I saw her. She took a dhabu and went north. You should really consider slowing down once in a while, sir. Haste makes waste when you live in the desert." The attendant said.
"To hell with slowing down." Galcian hopped onto one of the dhabus that waited by the stand. "Slow people die quick."
"You're one impatient guy…" The handler mumbled to the younger man's back.
Impatience is all that you are.
Galcian ignored the nagging voice of doubt in his head as he marched his dhabu past the city limits and out onto the searing sands.
The heat was even worse outside the city limits, and Galcian was sweating within minutes. Almost immediately he regretted not refilling his canteen before setting out. A bitter part of him reflected that the dhabu handler may have had a point about his haste. He could only hope he'd find Lila before the consequences caught up to him.
The horizon in the distance was starting to grow hazy, and Galcian was fairly certain that he was going to start hallucinating any second now. He wondered what he would imagine. An arcwhale surging up from the desert sands? Beautiful women? Three wise men? He couldn't hazard a guess, but at least the idle thoughts kept his mind off his discomfort.
Eventually, his imaginings gave way to questions. Why did Lila run? He'd thought that they'd come to an understanding. He'd thought she was starting to trust him, that he wasn't just wasting his time, the way he had been ever since he'd first gotten sick.
He thought she'd understood.
Perhaps you deserve to be lied to.
Galcian grit his teeth as he tried to think of some way to convince himself otherwise, but nothing came to him. He'd willingly made a monster of himself, thinking his days were numbered. Why wouldn't someone like Lila run from him? Was he even right to be looking for her?
The shimmering horizon slowly gave way to the blue of open sky, and Galcian realized he was reaching the edge of the island. A gentle breeze stirred his hair, bringing him some much-needed relief from the heat and stirring him from his pitch-black thoughts.
And there, on the very edge of the island, was a lone figure draped in white, standing atop a slightly elevated mound of stone. Galcian narrowed his eyes as he tugged on the reins to slow his dhabu down. "Easy there." He murmured, and the beast took it slow as together they approached the ledge upon which Lila stood.
He glanced tentatively downwards as he brought his dhabu to a stop. He'd heard rumors in town that the sands on the islands grew so hot as to burn the feet of unlucky travelers. Normally, he didn't put much stock in folklore, but considering how bad it was already...
To his great relief, his feet did not immediately burst into flame as he dismounted. His boots did grow uncomfortably warm, however, and he picked up the pace a bit as he walked the rest of the distance to where Lila stood. "Lila! What the hell?"
The white-haired woman didn't respond as he drew nearer, and he stopped a few feet away, watching her. She was staring down, past the edge of the island towards the abyss of the clouds below. Loose strands of her white hair stirred in the restless breeze.
"Lila?" He said, less angry and more confused this time.
She turned her head to stare at him. "What?" Her voice was cold, and her eyes looked emptier than he'd seen since he'd met her.
"Why did you come out here?" He asked, taking a step closer.
"Why do you think?" She asked bitterly, before turning her attention back to the view below. Up this close, he could see her body shaking subtly.
He'd had his guesses as soon as he saw her here, but with the way she looked right now, he was fairly certain he knew why. He'd seen someone in this state before. He'd been that person. Oftentimes he still was. "You came out here to die." The relief he felt at that realization only made him feel worse in the moments afterwards. My lucky break.
She nodded in a tiny, jerky motion. "Of course I did. I'm an abomination."
Galcian frowned as he took one more step closer. "You don't look like an abomination to me. You don't act like one, either." He felt a nasty little twinge of amusement as he added, "I'm pretty sure more people would be likely to call me an abomination than they would you."
He saw that tiny, fake smile of hers appear on her lips. "There you go again, presuming to know me. To know what I am."
Galcian gave her a long-suffering look. "I tried to ask you, but if you remember last night, you kind of backed out of that deal."
"Indeed." She said, matter-of-factly. "It seems I am incapable of keeping any of the promises I make." She gave the abyss one last lingering look before taking a few steps back from it and turning around to face him. "Even the ones I make to myself." Her pale eyes shimmered as she stared at him, hopeless.
"Maybe you shouldn't make such stupid promises, then?" He offered, taking a shot in the dark.
She blinked. It took her a moment to reply to him, and when she did her voice was confused. "What?"
"It sounds to me like you have a bad habit of making promises you don't want to keep." Galcian explained. "Where to begin, even? You promised you'd get those crystals for your masters when you didn't actually want to. You promised you'd tell me the truth about yourself when you didn't trust me in the first place…" He stepped forward and kicked a small rock off the edge of the island, watching it plummet through the clouds below. "And you promised you'd kill yourself when it's obvious you're not ready to die."
"I…" She began.
He whirled on her, arms outstretched as if to show her the whole world at once. "Let's face it, Lila. You're not some promise-breaking monster that can't be trusted. You just suck at doing things you don't want to do, just like everyone else."
She looked away from him, her expression irritable. "That is not the only reason I believe myself to be a monster."
"I don't doubt you still believe that." He rolled his eyes. "But I'm willing to bet the rest of your reasons for believing it are stupid, too."
He saw her twitch. "You are terrible at providing comfort."
"I'm terrible at very few things, Lila." He leaned close to her, peering at her face despite her attempts to avoid his eyes. "You don't look like you're crying anymore."
"No." She admitted, blinking her eyes a few times. "Now I just want to punch you."
"So punch me. I dare you." Galcian said with a smirk.
Her fist collided with his cheek faster than he could see.
"Augh!" He cried as he clutched at his face. "How are you so fast?" he slurred, fairly certain it was a miracle that he'd not lost teeth. Despite the pain, though, he was almost glad she'd taken his offer literally. He'd probably deserved that one.
"I was designed to be fast." She said, once again in that matter-of-fact voice. He heard a sigh as his vision continued to flash red. "Come here." Her voice was softer now. He didn't have enough pride left to object at that moment, so he just stayed where he was.
He felt her hand draw his away from his cheek before her soft fingers came to rest against the sore flesh. "Moons, lend me your aid." She murmured. He felt the gentle warmth of green magic flowing into him, and gradually the pain subsided. Eventually, everything stopped spinning, and he realized Lila was staring at him expectantly from a few inches away.
"I'm… I'm okay." He clarified. She nodded her understanding before taking a single step away, her hand leaving his cheek along the way.
Silence reigned between them for most of a minute as Galcian simply stared at her in awe, and Lila stared at her feet. Eventually her voice broke the silence. "I'm sorry for hitting you. And for leaving you like that. Both were rude of me." Her voice grew much quieter as she added, "I didn't expect you to come after me…"
Galcian sighed. He didn't know what to say to that. "Yeah, well, you can make it up to me. Somehow." He wasn't ready to talk about the healing again. He didn't want to find out it wasn't real.
She gave him a deadly serious look. "It is a debt I plan to repay in full."
"Great." Galcian said, before glancing at his dhabu. "We should get out of this desert. It's hot out here." He gave Lila a sidelong glance. "What happened to your dhabu?"
"I chased it off, since I figured I would have no more need of it." She admitted. For once, she looked a little embarrassed.
Galcian groaned. "I guess you're riding with me then." She nodded, and she climbed onto the beast just behind him once he'd mounted up again. Her arms went around his waist once he'd grabbed the reins.
She leaned over his shoulder. Her hair tickled his neck as he turned the dhabu around. "What is our plan of action?"
He ignored the added warmth of having her pressed against his back as they rode back towards the town. It was distracting in a different way than the oppressive heat of the red moon. This was a warmth he wouldn't mind feeling in different contexts. "We're going to find a ride to Sailor's Isle. From there, we'll track down the Mastiff, wherever it's gone to. We're sure to find a lead there. Maybe even a ship we can buy. Or steal."
He could feel, rather than see her nod as her hair brushed against his neck once more. "I approve."
The captain had proclaimed the Firebird to be the fastest ship in mid ocean. Galcian had been skeptical, but the price had convinced him. If it was the cheapest ride to Sailor's Isle, he didn't care if the captain was a dirty liar.
Galcian leaned over the railing on the deck as the ship set a course for Sailor's Isle. It had only been a day since he'd last set foot on the Mastiff, and yet it felt like a lifetime had passed. His face contorted in a scowl as he considered all the horrible things he would do to Ayden once they caught up to him.
"You scowl too much. It makes you look ugly." Lila chastised him as she appeared, leaning against the railing next to him.
"I've got plenty good reason to scowl." Galcian muttered, staring out into the seemingly endless blue that divided Maramba and the Nasr desert from mid ocean.
Her finger lightly poked his cheek. "Maybe so, but surly expressions will avail you naught in the grand scheme of things."
He turned his head to squint up at her, a little confused by her playfulness. "Yeah? And what would you suggest I do instead?"
She shrugged at him, giving him a bemused expression. "I don't know. You're the Arcadian. What do you do for fun?"
Galcian scratched his head. "Uh, drink. Fight. Dance, sometimes."
Her expression grew concerned. "I cannot picture you dancing, Galcian."
"It takes the right kind of music. Or a lot of loqua." He grimaced at the mere thought of it while sober.
"There you go sulking again." She mused. "Such a melancholy creature you are."
"I can't help it! I've got a lot to think about!" He protested.
Her eyes sparkled with mischief, though she didn't quite manage a smile. "Then think about something else."
He pursed his lips as he regarded her dourly. "Were it so easy."
The playfulness slowly faded from her body language as silence settled between them. "Do you really think we will find the lead you need on Sailor's Isle?"
In truth, Galcian wasn't sure. "We better. I can't imagine that lot wouldn't make enough noise to get noticed once they got their ship back."
"I'm still not sure I understand why you want it back…" She murmured.
"Now, now, what is an exotic pair like you two doing headed to Sailor's Isle?" an unfamiliar voice said. Both of them turned to find a slightly older man man in a red coat approaching them. His hair was a light brown that fell to his shoulders, and his handsome features looked like they'd only matured with age. Galcian guessed he was in his early thirties.
"That's not your business." Galcian warned him with narrowed eyes.
The stranger adjusted his delicate-looking spectacles with a disarming smile. "Ah, but I think you'll find that it is more my business than you think." He inclined his head slightly towards the two of them as he winked in Lila's direction. "My name is Stader. I'm an information dealer."
"Still not your business." Galcian repeated, not letting up.
"I might have the information you're seeking." Stader offered, apparently unperturbed. "Besides, it's just you two and me on board, aside from those oafs on the crew. Don't want to get bored, do you?"
"So you're an eavesdropper on top of being unwelcome." Lila observed. She turned to Galcian. "Still, if his information is good, it might be worth investigating."
Stader flashed her a grin. "Finally, a voice of reason."
Lila glared at him, and hers was a match for Galcian's. "That does not mean I trust you."
The information dealer shrugged. "Fair, fair. But please, tell me what ails you."
Galcian was considering the man's offer when yet another voice interrupted them. "We're about halfway to the stone reef, so I think it's about time we collected our fees from you three." The ship's captain said as he strolled over to them, flanked by two burly crew members.
"Fee?" Lila asked. "You were paid when we boarded."
The captain scratched at his scraggly beard as he regarded the three of them. "Oh, aye, you did. But this route is fraught with danger. All manner of pirates could come after us. Considering the risk, we've reassessed our terms. We'll be needing an additional 8000 gold from each of you."
Stader crossed his arms, arching an eyebrow at the captain. "Or what? I never agreed to that."
"Unfortunately, anyone whose fee we cannot collect will necessarily be classed a security risk and promptly tossed overboard." The captain said, smiling jovially as he gestured to his muscular cohorts.
Galcian was unimpressed. "So you're con artists."
More crew members seemed to be taking an interest, eyeing the trio and drawing nearer as voices raised.
"I prefer 'enterprising businessman.'" The captain said. "Sounds a lot better."
Galcian drew his sword, twirling it once. "I'm not paying your 'fee'".
"Nor am I." Stader said. He seemed to produce a pistol from nowhere, letting the end of the barrel stop just shy of pointing at the captain.
Lila said nothing, but as two silvery swords materialized in her hands, her response became clear as well.
The captain stared at Lila's swords for several moments before wiping the confusion off his face. "Now, now. This is just impolite." He turned and whistled to his crew. "Boys, please escort these pirates off the ship."
The crew of the Firebird ringed the trio now, drawing swords of their own. The captain disappeared behind them as his crewmates formed a wall that trapped them against the deckside railing. All-in-all, Galcian counted seven of them.
"I'm warning you. I'm not afraid to use this thing." Stader said, pointing it at the nearest crewman to him. The man in question gave him an amused look as he stopped in his tracks.
"Look out!" Lila called. Stader took a step to the left as someone dropped down from the bridge, aiming a descending swing of his sword for the space the information dealer had been occupying moments before. Stader whirled on him, the barrel of his gun tracking to the newcomer.
The crewman he'd been previously menacing took the opportunity to charge him. Galcian was on his way to intervene when Stader slid a knife from the sleeve of his coat, ducking under the incoming swing and driving the smaller blade into his attacker's leg. The man let out a startled cry as he stumbled forward and crashed into the ship's railing, just barely avoiding falling over the edge.
"I changed my mind, Stader. I like your style." Galcian's voice broke the tension holding everyone in place. Two crew members came after him, trying to pin him against the railing for an easy kill.
"Tch…" Galcian could quickly tell that neither of them was very good with their weapons. They were sluggish and imprecise with their attacks, and he made a game of seeing how many times he could evade or deflect them before deciding it was time to show them what actual swordsmanship was about.
He caught the next swing of a sword on the blade of his own, before producing his own hidden dagger from his sleeve and driving it into the unfortunate attacker's gut. He ducked under another attack from the other one still pressing him as the first man stumbled back, and he yanked his dagger free only to drive it into the other one's wrist before he could retract his sword arm.
His sword clattered uselessly to the deck, and Galcian once more yanked his dagger free before kicking his hapless opponent back. He ended up tumbling into the would-be assassin who'd cornered Stader, leaving them both on the floor. "Stay down or I'll put a bullet in you." the information dealer snarled as he steadied his pistol with both hands.
"Heh." Galcian's momentary feeling of self-satisfaction faded when he heard Lila cry out from the other end of the deck. He turned around to find that she'd attracted the attention of the remaining four crew members, and they'd just about pinned her to the opposite railing. How she'd managed to get over there, he had no idea, but by the strain he caught on her face between the frantic motions of the men trying to contain her, he knew she wasn't faring well.
A surge of anger rushed into Galcian's chest, making the hairs on his arms stand on end. He rushed forward and ran the closest attacker through with his sword before he knew what he was doing.
The man let out a surprised gurgle before collapsing. Galcian didn't bother to pay him any more mind as he whirled on the next nearest crewman, who'd turned to face him after hearing the commotion nearby. "Why you…" He growled as he took a lazy swing in Galcian's direction.
Galcian's counter sent the man's sword flying, and the crewman was left clutching at his bloodied fingers in shock for a moment before a kick to his chest sent him tumbling over the railing of the ship.
Galcian was on his way to his next victim when a burst of wind radiated outwards from Lila, knocking both him and the remaining two crewmen off their feet. Lila grit her teeth as she stepped forward to loom over the both of them, menacing them with the threat of her swords lest they try to get back up. "Thank you… for the help." She said through heavy breaths as she glanced in Galcian's direction.
He felt a little of his bloodlust clearing up, and he blinked a few times as he stumbled to his feet, looking around. Everyone who'd attacked them was either dead or pinned down by Lila or Stader. Galcian turned his attention to the helm, hurrying up the steps. He found the captain cowering by the wheel, and he pointed his sword in the sniveling man's direction once he drew close enough. "So much for that fee of yours." Galcian sneered.
"Please! Take whatever you want, just don't kill me!" The captain pleaded.
Pathetic, Galcian thought. He had half a mind to cut the captain down just for thinking he could request mercy after showing none himself.
"Galcian! Did you find him?" Lila's voice carried from the lower part of the deck, and Galcian blinked once more as it dragged him the rest of the way out of his haze of anger.
"Yeah, I did." He called back, before turning his attention back to the captain. "We're taking your ship and your supplies and leaving you on the next island we pass. Be grateful you get that much."
"Y-yes, thank you! Thank you very much…" The captain said, looking miserable.
Galcian shoved him aside so he could get at the wheel, and the captain hurried off to find somewhere else to hide. He scanned the horizon as he tested the steering for a moment before charting a course. He knew these skies like the back of his hand. Once he was sure they were heading in the right direction, he walked to the railing that bordered the bridge and leaned over it to call down to Lila and Stader.
"We're dropping these con artists off at the next island and then heading for Sailor's Isle! Keep an eye on them until they're off."
Stader nodded in his direction. Lila looked up at him and gave him a faint smile. "Aye aye."
The rest of the trip to Sailor's Isle went by without incident.
"You know, it's not every day I get to see two people who fight as well as you do." Stader observed.
Galcian was busying himself inspecting the ship. "You helped, you know."
"I was mostly bark. You two had the bite." Stader protested. "I don't really pick fights like that anymore."
Lila arched an eyebrow. "Anymore? I thought you were an information broker."
"Yeah, well… I used to be a pirate." He admitted.
"How scandalous." Galcian snarked.
Stader glanced his way. "What, you too?"
Galcian smirked back at him over his shoulder. "More of a mercenary, really. But I don't think most people would be willing to honor the distinction." He stared up at the main mast. "You know, this ship's not half bad. Even if that waste-of-time captain oversold it a bit."
Stader eyed him for a moment before turning his attention to Lila. "What about you?"
Lila stared at the information dealer for a moment before slowly turning her gaze to Galcian. She stared at him for several moments more before replying. "I'm with him."
Stader followed her gaze with brow furrowed. "I… see." He sighed. "You know, that offer for information is still open. No charge, considering you helped me out."
Galcian turned around, finally finished with his inspections. "Have you heard of a ship called the Mastiff?"
Stader frowned at him. "Oh, so you were that kind of mercenary."
Galcian glared at him. "Have you heard of it or not?"
"Of course I've heard of it." Stader said, looking a little offended. "Are you looking for it?"
"Yes." Galcian said. "It was my ship up until recently, when a mutiny took it away from me."
Stader looked at him skeptically. "Why do you need it? You've got another ship of your own right now."
"I'm not sure I should be getting mixed up in all this." Stader looked uncomfortable. "I mean, I have a son now…" The way he said it made it sound more like an excuse than anything else.
"You owe us the favor." Galcian pressed him.
"Fine! Fine. I'll go looking for your pirate ship." Stader pointed at him. Galcian wasn't sure whether he was trying to intimidate him or not. "But you better be grateful." He looked a few years older as he walked to the gangplank. "Meet me at the sailor's guild tomorrow afternoon. I'll have answers for you."
Galcian and Lila watched him go. Lila glanced back to Galcian once the man was out of sight. "Do you trust him?"
Galcian was still staring after him. "I think he's more of a con than he lets on. But he'll be good for it. If he's not, we've got ways of accounting for that."
Lila shuddered. "I pray it does not come to that. I have had enough treachery for a lifetime since I came to Arcadia."
Galcian chuckled dryly. "Not all you hoped it would be?"
She gave him a long, thoughtful look. "Not all of it." She said cryptically, before smiling at him once again. "But some."
"...and you call it 'loqua'?" Lila asked, staring at the faintly blue beverage in her cup. Evening had fallen over Sailor's Isle, blanketing everything in dark blue gloom.
Galcian leaned back against the wall of the tavern they'd set up outside of. "Yup. Most popular drink in Arcadia. It doesn't spoil during long voyages, and since loquat berries change to reflect the moon stone content of the soil they grow in, there's a lot of varieties, too." he explained.
"And it gets you drunk." Lila added, giving him a quizzical look from her spot in the grass next to him.
"...And it gets you drunk." He admitted with a smirk.
"You mentioned drinking as one of your hobbies." Lila noted, staring at her loqua with a newfound intensity.
"Oh, my yes. I've got a tolerance few people can match. Normally during a shore leave like this I'd be drinking myself into a stupor, but I'm pacing myself because you're new to this."
Lila frowned at him. "So I am holding you back." She lifted her mug to her lips and took several swallows of the liquid inside before setting it back down on the counter. "It is… somewhat strong." She said, sticking her tongue out to ensure it had not turned blue. "Are you sure this drink is popular?"
Galcian rolled his eyes and drained his mug with a few swift swallows before setting it down again. "You're new to it. You'll get used to it."
Seeing him drink his entire mug in one go, Lila hefted hers and drained its contents, too, before setting it down with a sharp exhale and a shiver. "O-oh my."
"Now you're getting it." He said with a satisfied smile as he opened the bottle he'd bought for them and poured them each a new serving. "Want to try another?"
"I'm not certain I do…" Lila muttered, but hefted her mug all the same.
"We don't have to if you're not up to it." Galcian said with a grin of derision.
She narrowed her eyes at him before tossing back her mug's worth all at once. Another shudder ran through her, and she rubbed at her forehead with her free hand as she set her mug down. "Elders preserve…" She hissed.
"Is it really getting to you that badly?" Galcian stared at her for a moment before glancing at the bottle, trying to recall his first time getting drunk. It must've been a few years ago, when he'd first left home, but in truth, he couldn't remember it. Instead, he opted to lift a hand and pat Lila on the shoulder. "You'll get it." He offered her a wink before downing his second mug full.
He lifted the bottle to inspect it. "Looks like we've still got about half…" Lila groaned. "I promise the fun part comes soon."
Some twenty minutes later, they'd emptied the bottle, and Lila tilted her head back against the wall of the tavern to stare up at the sky. "My limbs feel warm and my head feels... funny." She murmured, confused. She turned to stare bleary-eyed at Galcian. "Is this the fun part?"
Galcian smiled at her as he let the warmth of intoxication wash over him. "For me it is."
"I feel very… very…" Lila gestured up to the sky again. "Cloudy."
"That's the first time I've heard it described, uh, quite like that." Galcian muttered, momentarily picturing his white-haired companion riding a cloud.
Lila suddenly lurched towards him, shifting onto her hip as her expression grew concerned. "Galcian." She said, narrowing her eyes at him.
Galcian flinched, blinking at her sudden intensity. "What? Is something wrong?"
Lila's head swayed slightly as she seemed to consider her words. "You… you are still sick, aren't you?" She asked, sounding a little sad.
He had been trying not to think about it since he woke up that morning. He still didn't know if Lila had been telling the truth about her healing abilities last night, and he most definitely did not want to find out she had been lying. He wasn't sure he'd be able to handle it if she had been. "So I am." He admitted. "I have been for years."
Lila stared at him, as if trying to read the truth from his eyes. "I promised to heal you."
"But can you?" Galcian felt a pit in his stomach as he asked. Perhaps she could read his doubts from his expression, however, because she chose not to answer him. Instead, she somewhat clumsily straddled his legs and set her palms against his chest.
He heard her softly beseech the moons for aid, and then the soft warmth of her magic radiated to him through his shirt. Galcian blinked at her, more distracted by her position than by the feeling of her magic.
Lila had her head down and her eyes closed as she leaned toward him, her face an expression of concentration. "I… know you're probably full of doubts and worries right now, Galcian. But I want to talk about something else right now. I want to tell you about my home." She murmured, still swaying slightly. He wondered if she might've toppled over onto her side were she not bracing herself against his chest.
Galcian took a deep breath. His chest rose and fell under Lila's hands. "Sure." He said, feeling some of his stress melt away. Her touch was a powerful thing that he still didn't fully understand. But he knew that right now, he needed it. "Tell me about your home."
"My home is a place far above the clouds. Above the lands of the silver moon. You might call it the last temple of the silver civilization." She explained. "It's presided over by a council of elders. They're survivors of the old world… maybe the only ones to survive the rains of destruction." Her expression grew sad as she mentioned the rains, and her magic briefly faltered.
But the interruption didn't last long. "They created me. To serve as their agent. To do what they could no longer do in their advanced age. They sent me to Arcadia to do their bidding."
"I… see." Galcian felt terribly stupid saying something so simple in response to her confession, but he was worried even the slightest interruption would make her change her mind. He'd been waiting for her to open up since he met her.
Her fingers curled and clung to his shirt as she continued. "I was alone there. Aside from the elders, all I learned came from books and machines. They prepared me to come to Arcadia for their mission. Taught me to fear and mistrust your kind, lest I be led astray."
She finally lifted her head and opened her eyes. They looked wet. "I hated it there, but I only realized it when I got to Arcadia. I heard birds singing, felt real warmth on my skin, saw a blue sky above me, and… and…" her lower lip quivered once. "And I met you. And I wasn't alone anymore."
Galcian still wasn't sure what to say to her. "No, you're not alone." He still felt like a simpleton saying things like that, but maybe it was what she needed to hear.
The flow of her magic abated, and she tugged at the fabric of his shirt as her fingers balled up into fists. "I don't want to go back. Tell me that's not why we're chasing the mastiff. Tell me you won't send me off in my ship once we find it." Her breath came out ragged as she blinked away tears. "Tell me I belong here. Even without the crystals."
Was that what she was worried about? She'd been worrying herself sick thinking he wanted to get rid of her. He almost wanted to laugh about it, but instead he set a hand on her shoulder. "You belong in Arcadia, same as anyone else, Lila. I was never planning to send you away." He gave her a slanted smile. "I'm surprised you thought otherwise."
Lila trembled once before letting herself collapse into his chest, hugging him against the wall as her cheek rested above his heart. She was very warm, and Galcian was suddenly terribly grateful that he was drunk enough not to react overtly to that fact. "Thank you." She said.
He let his hand fall through her pale white hair. It was soft and silky still, despite all the chaos they'd been through in the last few days. He'd seen other guys do that to women before. Maybe it would comfort her.
He guessed it must have, because he felt her breathing slow as she rested against him. He didn't bother saying anything. He wasn't good with heavy situations like this. He was just grateful he hadn't somehow made things worse.
Lila lifted her head, locking eyes with him. She looked curiously vulnerable, and Galcian found himself staring. "Lila?"
She leaned forward before he could respond. Her lips pressed against his as she kissed him. Galcian blinked several times as he tried to process what was happening through the rush of hormones that went to his head.
She wasn't a very good kisser. Probably inexperienced. He wasn't kissing back, likely out of sheer surprise. And she was very, very warm and soft and curvaceous and drunk as she pressed against-
Galcian set his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her away. She looked surprised, then embarrassed. Her eyes left his as her cheeks turned pink. "Sorry." She said, her voice almost too quiet to pick out.
He exhaled sharply with relief as he felt some of his senses return to him. It had taken all the willpower he could muster to push her away. "Why… why did you do that?" He asked.
Lila bit her lip as she stared at the floor to one side of them. "I thought you might like it."
And here I was thinking that you wanted to get rid of me.
Galcian could feel a stress headache coming on. There were far too many voices at the back of his head complaining to him about what he just did. "I did. Or, I would, just…" he closed his eyes with an exasperated sigh. "Not like this. Not drunk, and not out of desperation."
He shook his head, and she quieted down. He opened his eyes and gave her his best smirk, ignoring all those nagging voices. "You can kiss me again as soon as you're sure you want it."