Rami squinted as he held the mast between two fingers, poised just above a small slot in the deck of a model ship. With careful precision, he inserted it until it could stand on its own, before pulling back with a sigh. Another one complete at last.

He leaned back into the comfort of his chair as he surveyed his work. It was the third model airship he'd constructed this year, this time a pirate ship. He'd long been fascinated with the world of Arcadia, and this was just one of many ways he indulged his curiosity. He rolled his shoulders to get some of the tension out as he looked around his room.

Like every other domicile in the Great Silver Shrine, it was largely stark white, with alcoves cut into the walls that could be exposed or hidden at will. In one corner was the desk he currently sat at; In another, a thin screen suspended from the wall currently displayed a live image of Arcadia taken from somewhere on the Shrine.

He rose from his seat with a sigh, approaching one of the walls and pressing his hand against a small indentation there. It glowed with a soft blue light as it recognized his touch, and a portion of the wall slide away to reveal a small compartment lined with well-preserved books. He looked over their spines for a moment before selecting the one he was looking for.

He flipped through it until he got to the pages that included pictures of old ships, and eventually reached the one he'd modeled. "Ship - Pirates - Blue Rogue." He read aloud as he looked back and forth between the page and his creation until he was certain it was perfect. Then he closed the book and set it on the desk before sitting down again with a grin.

"I wonder what it's like to sail the world in one of these?" He said to no one in particular. As always, he was alone in his room. He'd spent just about all seventeen years of his life here on the Great Silver Shrine, and in all that time he'd only ever known one other person outside the elders, who he rarely spoke to.

And while that one person had brought him endless joy since she'd come into his life ten years ago, he still could not escape the occasional bout of boredom. He'd long since discovered that his favorite way to combat that ennui was to learn about the world below.

To him, the floating world of Arcadia was a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He'd read about each of the lands blessed by a different moon, about the people who inhabited them, and about the things they did with one another. The elders always insisted they were not to be trusted - but he couldn't help being intensely curious about them.

He was just in the middle of reading a passage about how the modern Valuans had begun to harness moon-stone energy to create electricity when a loud beeping sound caught his attention, drawing his eyes to the screen that normally showed him the world he was so infatuated with. He quickly rose to his feet and stood in front of it, just as the image changed.

In its place was the face of an old man with long silver beard. His eyes glowed silver-blue, and they pierced Rami to his very soul as they looked at him. "Rami. I believe it is time." The old man said.

Rami felt some of the blood drain from his face. He froze for a long moment before replying. "Are you certain, Elder Prime?" He asked quietly.

"I am always certain. The danger we face now is too great." Rami knew what was coming, but still, he distantly hoped the elder would never finish his thought. "It is time for you to descend to Arcadia and retrieve the moon crystals. We cannot allow the young to harness the power of the Gigas."

They'd told him this day would come, but a part of him had never quite believed it would. Rami nodded slowly as he processed what all this would entail. "Yes, Elder. I'll do as you say."

The Elder's expression didn't change - they never did, frozen as they were in the crystal prisons that kept them alive - but he could sense a hint of satisfaction from the old man anyways as his voice reached the younger man again. "Good. A ship is waiting for you at dock C. Do not fail us." With that, the image disappeared, and the view of Arcadia returned.

Rami stared at it for a long time. He'd always been curious about that world, but now that it was finally time for him to go there, he was frozen with doubt. He'd spent all his life on the shrine. Was he really ready to leave behind the only life he'd ever known?

The worried expression slowly faded from his face, to be replaced with something cold and distant. He straightened up and turned around. Of course he was ready. He had been ready the moment the Elder gave him his orders. He would do whatever was asked of him. He briefly glanced at the silver bracelet around his wrist as it sent a tingle through his arm.

Then he stepped out of his room through the only door. His perception of space briefly blurred as he was transported away from his room inside the shrine to the docking bay, on the underside of the structure facing the planet. As he glanced up, he thought for a moment that he could finally appreciate just how massive Arcadia really was.

He'd dispelled his doubts - but there was still something he had left to do before he could leave. He paced to the center of the ring from which the rest of the docks extended and circled it until he reached the corridor he was looking for, then tracked down the only active door. He'd been through it dozens of times since it became the home of the station's only other occupant besides the Elders.

The world blurred again as he stepped through it, to find himself in another stark-white room just like his. Unlike his, however, this one was not completely silent. A gentle, music-box-like melody drifted from the screen in the corner, and in the middle of the room a young girl with platinum-blonde hair played with a curiously-shaped doll while she swayed slowly to the rhythm of the song.

She didn't notice him at first. "Fina…" Rami said softly as he took a few steps forward and knelt beside her. She gasped and turned around to face him, before a bright smile turned up her lips.

"Rami!" She said delightedly as she immediately hugged him, her doll briefly slapping his back as it came to rest there. "Welcome back!" She said as she nuzzled into him.

He returned her hug, staying that way for a long moment before pulling away. "Thank you, Fina. It seems like you're still having a great time with that doll Elder Prime had made for you." He observed with another grin.

Fina's smile widened as she held up the doll proudly, as if to present it to the silver-haired young man before her. "It's the best! She's like a whole new friend!" The young girl declared.

Rami reached out and gently ruffled the girl's hair. "I'm glad she makes you happy. I know you were getting a bit lonely between my visits." He said.

The girl's smile fell just a little as she nodded. "Yeah… but I understand that you need to train. What the Elders say, goes, right?" She said with a solemn tone that didn't fit her youthful face at all.

The young man heaved a sigh as he nodded, too. "It's the truth. But… on that note, I might be gone a little longer than usual this time."

Fina's smile finally faded completely as she stared at him. "Are you going somewhere?" She asked.

"I'm going to Arcadia." He explained.

"A...Arcadia?" She echoed him, clearly baffled. "Why would you ever go there? The Elders told me it's full of monsters and bad people…" Her eyes started to look a little wet. "What if they hurt you, Rami?"

"Fina… Don't cry." He said seriously, forcing himself to smile. "Why do you think I spent so much time training? They won't be able to touch me." He leaned forward to press his forehead against hers. "I'll come back to you safe. I promise."

She stared at him for a long moment before closing her eyes. When she opened them again, the unfallen tears that had been there before were gone. Slowly, she made herself smile again. "Okay, Rami. I'll be here waiting for you when you get back."

"That'll be enough to keep me going." He said with surety before reluctantly pulling back and rising to his feet again. He glanced briefly around her room once more - just like his, but so much more welcoming than his own, somehow - before turning towards the door. "Goodbye, Fina. I'll see you again soon."

"Goodbye, Rami!" Her voice followed him out the door, only cut off when he appeared back on the docks. He took a deep breath as he turned towards dock C and began making his way there.

Now that he'd gotten his goodbyes out of the way, all that was left to think about was the journey ahead. Slowly, excitement began to well up within him. What was he afraid of? He was finally going to see the Arcadia he'd long wondered about. Sure, the people were supposedly wicked and cruel - but they wouldn't stop him. This would be an adventure, for sure.

Rami's ship was small, but fast. He wondered how long the Elders' androids had taken to build it. A translucent hemisphere flickered into view around the largely open cabin as the little ship flew out of the shrine's airspace. Or perhaps it wasn't quite airspace, yet. Better, he thought, to just call it "space".

Ordinary airships couldn't fly this high. They needed an atmosphere to stay airborne. The silver civilization had long ago discovered how to create machines that could operate in the void of space; the Great Silver Shrine was their greatest testament to this achievement. As far as he knew, the silver civilization was the only one to remain after the rains of destruction annihilated the old world.

He went over what he knew in his head as his ship descended towards the world below. He needed to reclaim the five moon crystals - one for each of Arcadia's moons besides the silver, which the silvites already presided over. These ancient tools had been created by the people of the old world to control the Gigas.

And the Gigas - he'd never seen any of them before, but they featured prominently in his history books. Weapons of mass destruction, modeled after living things. They were the ultimate expression of the warlike tendencies of the old world, and they'd very nearly destroyed civilization on their own by the time the rains of destruction came.

The rains of destruction, however, he knew little about. They came one day out of nowhere - showers of thousands of moon stones from every one of Arcadia's moons. They pulverized the cities and warships of the old world, eradicating their mighty civilizations over the course of just a few weeks.

The silvites had only survived thanks to the Great Silver Shrine. Once it had left Arcadia, it was safe from the rains. And so the Elders - who, as far as he knew, had been alive since the old world - watched over the people of the world, and did their best to keep anything like the Gigas from causing havoc again.

Rami could feel the wind beginning to stir his hair as the ship broke into the atmosphere. The translucent shield that had protected his air supply gradually began to fade as he descended further through the sky. Gradually, he caught sight of land, and clouds, and a few of the pernicious sky rifts that wreathed the world of Arcadia.

He pressed a button on the console before him, and a map of the world flickered to life in the space before him. This was mid ocean - the land of the silver moon. As far as he knew, there were no major continents here, only scattered islands. And there was certainly no silver crystal here.

It looked like the closest place he could begin searching would be the desert kingdom of Nasr, to the east. He slowly turned his ship in that direction and stopped descending. He would stay in the upper portion of the sky, where monsters were fewer, for now. It also helped that most of the native Arcadians' ships could not fly this high. It would give him a degree of stealth.

Now that he was finally on his mission, his training was really beginning to kick in. He knew just how to operate his ship. He knew how to navigate the world, and how to stay out of sight. The last of his fear melted away. He was ready. All that would stand before him was the size of the world - The crystals were well-hidden, and it might take him a long time indeed to track them down.

The wind blowing in his hair grew warmer as he flew into the lands of the red moon - the kingdom of Nasr, full of deserts, and trade towns built on oases. As he began to fly over the desert proper, he scoured the area below him for ships or landmarks. He could see neither of those things, and so he began to descend.

He began to appreciate just how vast the desert was as he drew nearer to it. It seemed to stretch on forever. All the measurements his books had given him seemed useless as he squinted at the horizon and failed to see an end to the dunes.

He scoured the desert for three days straight. During that time, he narrowly avoided contact with a dozen trade ships, and passed over two separate towns that practically blended into the hot sands below. He was beginning to feel frustrated.

"The temple of Pyryrnn should be around here somewhere…" He grumbled to himself as he began his fourth day of searching. It seemed like he'd been at it forever, but according to his map, he'd only scoured a quarter of the desert. At this point, he was beginning to worry he'd run out of rations before he found all the moon crystals.

"Maybe it's time to search for one of the crystals that hasn't been lost for generations…" He reflected darkly as he pulled his ship back upwards towards upper sky. He was tired of Nasr. The dome shield didn't protect him against the heat, and he was sick of sweating through his clothes.

Valua, to the north, was a more certain target. He knew that the yellow moon crystal lay sealed beneath the maw of Tartas, in the easternmost portion of the continent. Even if it was stormy and dark there due to the tumultuous power of the yellow moon, his ship's guidance systems could at least take him to the known location of the seal.

He punched in the destination and leaned against the side of the ship with a sigh as it began to steer itself towards its new goal. He hadn't anticipated this would be so exhausting. The elders really had not given him enough supplies or direction to complete this monumental task all on his own. Not that he could bring them to task for it. Their word was law, after all.

Still, if he was going to come out of this unscathed, he reflected, he'd probably need to start cooperating with the locals. The Elders had stressed time and time again that the people of Arcadia were dangerous barbarians - but he just couldn't quite accept that. If things didn't pan out soon, he'd be willing to take his chances.

The dark and gloomy skies of Valua quickly came into view ahead of him, and he was grateful for Nasr's proximity to the stormy continent that served as his new destination. He briefly worried about the lightning storms interfering with his ship, but those worries faded as the comforting glow of his dome shield flickered into view as the ship descended through the clouds.

It didn't take long for him to reach the seal. It stood out like a sore thumb against the mostly black and barren soil of Valua. He briefly wondered how anyone survived out here as the ship descended until it touched down next to the seal. With only a little trepidation, he hopped out and landed on the ground for the first time.

"So this is what it feels like to have earth beneath your feet…" He mused as he paced forward to begin treading on the ancient metal of the seal. It was carved full of runes and pictograms, mostly in black, silver and yellow. From what he'd learned in his studies, the silvites had created it to trap the yellow Gigas after the rains had stopped.

He could see scars and dents here and there. Evidently, the Valuans had tried to break through it at least once. But they'd failed, if the intact state of the seal was anything to go by. He smiled at that. The silvites truly were the most advanced civilization in the world.

As he reached the center of the seal, he noted a small indentation precisely in the middle. "Aha…" A way to open it? Quite likely. It seemed like a dormant form of the information technology that allowed him to communicate with the elders back on the station, and which he'd used to display his map. Perhaps if he could reactivate it, he could open the seal.

Just as he had resolved to return to his ship to gather some supplies to test his theory, a sharp voice caught his attention. "Halt, trespasser!" It shouted.

Rami froze, then slowly turned around to face the source of the voice. Before him stood a trio of men in full, dark blue armor, with red stripes decorating the arms. Each of them held a longsword, which they pointed at him. "Trespassing on the maw of Tartas is a crime punishable by death!" The man in the center declared.

Rami frowned at them. "You should leave me alone. It'll work out better for you all." He warned.

"You're awfully confident for a dead man." The lead soldier shot back. He waved a hand at his compatriots. "Kill him." And like that, they were charging at him.

Rami closed his eyes and extended his right arm. The bracelet around his wrist expanded, floating in midair before breaking apart into a thousand silver droplets. Gradually, they flew to his hand and began to reform into a long, slender blade. The young man's fingers closed around the hilt as it solidified in his palm.

He opened his eyes. Everything had lost its color to him. The men charging at him were like a dark blur, slowly approaching. They were so sluggish, he thought to himself as he sidestepped the lead man's strike, aimed for Rami's chest.

The young man flicked his arm out at the soldier on the left. His blade cleanly sliced through the armor on the other man's shoulder, leaving it bare as the plating clattered to the ground. "Damnit!" The man snarled as he turned and swung his sword at Rami.

Still too slow. The silver-haired youth caught the blade of the longsword on his own, and with a flick of his wrist, sent it flying from its wielder's hand. A split second later, he rushed forward and tackled the man into the next of his fellows, sending them both off balance. The middle soldier dropped his own weapon as he fell, and Rami kicked it away without a second thought.

The last man hesitated for a moment as he watched his friends collapse. That was all the opening Rami needed as he closed the distance to him and swung his sword straight at him. The soldier raised his own blade to block it.

It shattered in two as Rami's silver sword clashed with it. It descended toward the man's neck - an obvious space between his helmet and his torso armor would easily expose him to decapitation.

The lethal silver blade stopped an inch from the unlucky soldier's neck, and he froze in place as he stared out at his opponent through his visor. "If I wanted to kill you all, I could." Rami hissed as he glared at the cowering Valuan.

"R-right…" The man stammered, his voice muffled slightly by his helmet but still undeniably terrified.

"You'll leave this place and forget you saw me. Understand?" Rami said. The cold steel in his silver eyes told the soldier everything he needed to know about what would happen if he refused.

"Y-yeah! We d-didn't see anyone at the seal today!" The soldier agreed, and he breathed an audible sigh of relief as the blade menacing his throat pulled away.

"Get out of my sight." Rami said, looking back at the soldier's fallen fellows, who were just now beginning to pick themselves up off the ground. The man he'd been threatening bolted, and his friends followed him as quick as they could once they were back on their feet. He watched them go until they were out of sight over the hill.

"The Elders were right… these people really are pathetic." Rami mused as his sword broke apart into droplets again, quickly reforming back into the bracelet around his wrist. "And those are supposed to be soldiers." He said with disappointment in his tone as he made his way back to the ship.

He spent the next hour and a half trying to reactivate the device at the center of the seal. He was just beginning to make progress in realigning the circuits when he realized his vision was getting worse. As he stood up and stretched, he began to understand that it was coming from a heavy fog that had descended over the area.

"I can't see ten feet ahead of me…" He grumbled as he stepped away from the device. "I'm not going to be able to work under these conditions." He said reluctantly, and returned to the device to retrieve his things. "I guess I'll just have to finish up tomorrow."

He returned to the ship, and lifted off until he was far enough above the ground that the average patrol wouldn't glimpse him. In this fog, he didn't need to worry too much about being spotted. He laid down in the cockpit and stared up at the cloudy sky, shrouded by white mist. It was as good a backdrop as any to fall asleep to, and he closed his eyes.

He was roused from his slumber by a noise. An incredibly loud noise. It rang in his ears like nothing else, and he winced as he got to his feet and looked around.

The fog seemed to be even thicker than before, if that was at all possible. And the noise… it was like an animal screaming. It was too close for comfort. He went to the controls and turned them on, setting out into the fog at a sedate pace in search of the source.

At first he considered following the noise, but then decided against it. Anything that loud would probably be trouble. As he began trying to steer away from it, however, he realized he couldn't. It was moving towards him, getting steadily louder. Just as he was about to cover his ears, he saw something in the fog.

It was massive and mostly cylindrical, but clearly some sort of animal. As it came closer, he realized it had fins, and eyes, and a gaping mouth. "An arcwhale?" He said in disbelief, unable to hear his own voice over its cries. "It's enormous!" And it was chasing him. He pushed the ship to its highest speed, but it was still catching up to him.

Was it going to eat him? Why was it so interested in him? Surely he could go after the Valuan encampments spread out over the terrain.

He didn't get an answer as it opened its mouth and breathed out a massive wave of icy mist. It caught up to his ship in no time and enshrouded it in steadily-growing crystals of ice. The controls began to lock up as the dome shield flashed opaque. "No, no… Don't fail on me." He said as panic began to set in. His fingers were starting to shake in the cold.

Something smacked into the side of the ship and sent it tumbling away. He stumbled and caught hold of the console as hard as he could to keep himself from falling over. The dome shield was still completely opaque; he couldn't see anything as the ship flew somewhere out of his control.

As his stomach threatened to turn upside down, he closed his eyes and did his best to maintain his composure. Surely the controls would come back online. Surely he would be able to steer again shortly. He reached out and found the console still unresponsive.

The arcwhale's cries were growing distant, he realized. A minute later and they were gone. How fast must he be going? Where was he going? The ship was still freezing, but the dome shield was slowly, slowly beginning to fade back into the background.

As it did, he caught sight of something black and stormy. Valua? No, the only part of Valua that was black and stormy was the cloud ceiling. Whatever this was, it stretched from the cloud ceiling down into the abyss below the lower cloud layer.

As the shield faded back into true translucence, he realized what it was. "The Dark Rift…" He breathed the words as his panic began to overtake him again. His fingers hammered at the controls as he tried to steer away, but they wouldn't budge. Something in the ship's electronics must've been fried. The swirling, black clouds of the Dark Rift drew ever closer.

"No, no, no, no…" Rami repeated over and over as he struggled to right the ship, to steer away. He could guess that by this point it probably would've been pointless anyways. He could feel the ship lurching in the fierce currents that surrounded the rift. Even if he had control, it would likely be too late to pull away by now.

The shield flashed opaque again as the ship hit the rift. The ship shook violently beneath him and he was forced to cling to it again to avoid collapsing or hitting his head. He could feel it descending. He was going downwards, towards the bottom of the rift.

As the hopelessness of the situation dawned on him, he found himself growing distant from his worries. What was the dark rift like? He'd studied it many times before. Perhaps in the few moments before he died, he'd at least get a glimpse of the interior.

For a moment, the dome shield faded as he broke into what seemed like some sort of calm spot in the center of the rift. Dozens of floating stones glowed with eerie blue and green light as they drifted in the empty space between walls of dark, violent winds. Below him stretched a blue-black maelstrom, whose whipping winds were drawing his ship steadily downwards.

He stared at the oddly-glowing stones as his ship fell. Then he hit the maelstrom, and the shield went opaque again. He felt himself plummeting, faster and faster, until all at once, everything stopped, a thunderous crash filled his ears, and his vision went black.

León had been working as a doctor on the Aquila for several years now, and by this point, just about everyone on the ship called him "Doc". It was an appellation he didn't particularly mind; He'd been a doctor for most of his life, so to him, being called "Doc" was as much an expression of his identity as his real name was.

His day to day life was fairly peaceful. The Aquila was the flagship of Admiral Mendosa, commander of Valua's expedition fleet, and as such it was rarely involved in actual combat. Thus, his regular patients numbered very few. He served as more of a health advisor than an actual surgeon or physician.

He couldn't complain, however. He'd worked hard to get to where he was, and he enjoyed living aboard the Aquila whenever Mendosa was out and about (which was often indeed, considering where they were). As he returned to his cabin, he peered out the window at their surroundings.

The Aquila was just now flying over the forests of Ixa'taka, near Horteka. The lands of the green moon were lush with plant and animal life, but the people there were perhaps the least advanced of the known civilizations of Arcadia. They still lived in huts and maintained a hunter-gatherer society. Moon stone technology was mostly unknown to them.

Which had made them a prime target for the Valuan expedition fleet. Ixa'taka was full of untapped sources of moon stones, and the Valuan mainland was running out. They needed more fuel, and this new land was a perfect source for it. The natives had been resistant at first, but there was little they could do to stop the superior firepower of the Valuan armada.

And so it was that the Ixa'takans silently tolerated their occupation by the Valuans. Doc wasn't personally very happy with the way they were treated, but there was virtually nothing he could do about it. This was the way Valua operated. He was just a ship's doctor. He would patch people up and keep them healthy, and that was the extent of his authority.

He enjoyed the view out the window for a long while before a knock on the door roused him from his thoughts. As he opened it, he was greeted by the sight of a young man in uniform. "Doc, we've got an odd situation developing on the foredeck. You might wanna come along." He reported quickly.

"Right." Doc replied as he grabbed his white coat and donned it before picking up his supply bag and hurrying off after the younger man.

They got to the foredeck in no time, and when they did, the doctor was greeted by a curious sight indeed. Two other soldiers were pulling in a very strange-looking ship with lengthy poles, until it bumped gently against the side of the Aquila's foredeck. "There's someone inside." The young man from before informed him.

"What in the six moons…?" Doc swore as he stepped forward to the railing to look into the cockpit of the odd-looking ship.

The ship itself was odd-enough - all polished silver metal with sleek curves and no welding marks. It extended downwards for quite a ways, like a long fin. He couldn't see any means of propulsion. Inside it, however, was another oddity.

The young man inside the ship looked unconscious. He was dressed all in white and gold, but it wasn't like the kinds of outfits Doc had seen during his trips to Nasr in the past. These clothes seemed molded to the man's body, like they'd been made perfectly for him. As he looked closer, he realized the materials, too, were something like he'd never seen before. Was that thread spun from moon stone?

The young man's silver hair was a mess, but his face was calm, eyes closed and breathing apparently steady. The rest of him was unremarkable - he looked like he was of average height, weight, musculature… everything. Like he'd been designed according to a human blueprint.

Doc shook those odd thoughts from his head as he glanced to the men who'd pulled the strange ship up alongside them. "One of you, get this man to the infirmary." He turned back to face the soldier who'd led him here. "You, get a team to help bring the ship aboard."

"Right." the second soldier responded, disappearing into the ship. Doc helped the first one haul the boy out, and together, they carried him to the infirmary.

Doc had a lot of questions he'd need to ask. He hoped he'd be able to sort them all out before the young man awoke.

Rami dreamed of darkness.

It swirled all around him, shaking him violently. Then it cleared, and he saw colored lights drifting in the void, far above him. Then a crash, and pain, and confusion.

And then things became strange.

He couldn't see at all. The darkness had consumed everything. But he could hear, snippets of voices far away.




It was all too distant for him to make sense of it. The more he strained to listen, the harder it became to make out the words.

Then he woke up.

The darkness behind his eyelids was not nearly so oppressive as the darkness he dreamed of. It was comforting, and familiar, and real. He could still hear voices, however.

First, a man's. He might've been a little older than Rami. "...You can't be here. What if he's dangerous? You'll get hurt." The voice was chiding someone nearby.

Then… a little girl. Fina? It sounded like the right age, but… "Come onnn, Doc. I'm better with a knife than half the people on this ship. I can take care of myself!" He could hear a smile behind the tone of the girl's voice. "If he's a problem, I'll make him not a problem real fast."

Rami shivered. That wasn't Fina. Whoever this girl was, she was just another violent Arcadian. Evidently, however, the older man had caught the subtle movement of the silvite's body. "Hey… I think he's awake." Suddenly, a hand was jostling his shoulder, gently but insistently. "Stop faking, kid. I know what it looks like when someone's pretending to be asleep."

Rami groaned as he opened his eyes and turned his head. Beside him were two people - the man and the girl he'd heard. The man was dressed in a white coat with an elaborate blue uniform beneath it. His hair was shaved close to his head, and a curious dot had been inked onto the center of his forehead. He regarded Rami with a patient smile as he leaned over him.

The girl wore a frilly black dress, which looked custom-made. It covered her to just past her knees and shoulders. Her dark brown hair was tied back in two small pigtails near the back of her head. She wore an unmistakably mischievous smile as she watched him. What caught Rami's eye the most, however, was the belt around her waist, lined with small, delicate-looking knives.

"You got me." Rami admitted as he eyed the older man. "I'm awake." He didn't trust them for a moment, but at least as long as they weren't attacking him, he supposed he wouldn't have to kill them.

"Lovely!" The older man said with a satisfied tone to his voice. "I'm Doc. I work here on this airship as, well, a doctor. And you, my friend, were just rescued by us." "Doc" tilted his head to one side as he looked Rami over once before continuing. "Care to tell us your story? Those're some mighty strange clothes you've got, and the ship you arrived in is even weirder."

Lie. Rami's instincts told him he'd only make things worse if he told them the truth about his origins. His mission was a secret. He'd keep it that way. "I'm a traveler. I got caught in a pretty bad storm, and thrown off-course." He put on the best smile he could muster. "Thanks for rescuing me, Doc."

Doc narrowed his eyes at the silver-haired man on the bed before him. "Uhhh-huh. Where are you from, exactly?" He said. It was clear that he hadn't convinced the older man exactly.

"And where can I get some clothes like those? They're so pretty!" The young girl exclaimed.

Rami briefly eyed the girl in question, who was idly toying with the handle of one of her knives with two fingers, like it was an unconscious habit. Something told him he'd want to avoid getting on her bad side.

He turned his attention back to Doc. "I'm from a far away land. You probably wouldn't recognize the name."

Doc rolled his eyes. "You're a terrible liar, you know that?" He leaned in closer, staring Rami down. "Look, kid, I sympathize with you. You got hurt, and as a good samaritan, I want to help you. But this here's a military ship. If we can't determine you're not a threat, we're gonna have to toss you overboard."

"You can't toss him overboard until he answers my question!" The girl shouted indignantly.

Rami sighed and leaned his head back on the pillow. "I'm not a threat. I promise you that." He spread his arms and hands a little, showing how he held nothing and concealed nothing on his person. "I don't even have a weapon. How could I hurt you?"

Doc's stare intensified. That bluff had been a particularly good one, and even now he smelled something wrong. Just how sharp was this guy? After a moment, the older man leaned back in his chair. "You could still have access to magic."

Rami tilted his head in the direction of the girl, who was now bouncing impatiently on the balls of her feet. "You'd both see me casting it. The girl would have a knife in my gut before I could sling a single fireball."

Doc sighed and closed his eyes. "Fine. You win. But I'm taking you before Admiral Mendosa. He'll have to decide whether we can take care of you or not. Your ship's not functional, and until it is you're pretty much stuck with us."

"Admiral, huh…?" That could only mean this was a Valuan vessel. Among the barbaric peoples of Arcadia, they were the worst, if the behavior of the men at the maw of Tartas had been any indication. Warlike, isolationist, and imperialistic. Rami had really landed in the worst spot possible.

"Can you stand, kid?" Doc's voice brought him out of his reverie, and he nodded before he even tried. He swung his legs out to one side before sitting up, rolling his shoulders for a moment before standing up.

Doc seemed a little guarded as he stood up, too. The young girl pouted as she suddenly became the shortest person in the room. Rami was a little surprised to see that Doc stood even taller than he did. He hadn't encountered much variation in height back on the shrine, where everything was built to specifications.

He still wondered just how he'd survived his crash in the Dark Rift - had he imagined it all? But he doubted Doc, or anyone on this ship, had the answers he sought. For now, he'd just attribute it to a miracle. "I'm ready to go." Rami said as he eyed the good doctor.

"One last thing before we do." Doc said, crossing his arms over his chest. "What's your name?"

Valua. "Rami" would stand out. He'd need something more fitting, and in the moment he came up with only one answer. "My name is Ramirez." He lied, affecting an air of boredom.

Doc frowned for a moment, as if about to object. But instead, he simply stood aside and opened the door. "Nice to meet you, Ramirez."

"Oooh, that's a pretty name!" The girl perked up as Rami made his way to the door. "I'm Piastol, by the way!" She said as he moved to follow him.

Doc and Piastol. What a couple of oddballs, Rami reflected as he stepped out into the hall. As he did, he became aware that he'd been flanked on all sides by soldiers in black armor. Two each filed into position in front of and behind him, and Doc and Piastol soon took up the spots to either side of him.

"Let's go see the admiral, boys." Doc said casually to the men surrounding them. The duo in front of them began to march, and the three of them followed suit a moment later.

Admiral Mendosa looked to be in his late forties. His black hair was peppered with grey, and he was balding heavily, with most of what remained concentrated around the back and sides of his head. He had a neatly trimmed goatee that hung from his chin, and his clothing was as exquisite as what befitted an Admiral of the Valuan armada.

But what struck Rami most about him was the smile he wore as the two soldiers in front of him moved off to either side to present their guest to the Admiral. It was a bright smile, happy, and utterly without malice.

Doc took his place beside Rami and gently set a hand on his back, pushing him forward. "Admiral Mendosa, I present to you a young man named Ramirez. As you know, we discovered his ship drifting through eastern Ixa'taka this morning and took him aboard in a state of unconsciousness."

Mendosa spread his arms wide in a welcoming gesture. "Good to see you up and about, my boy! You look like you're in great condition for someone set adrift." He looked towards Doc for a moment as he continued. "I take it our good doctor is responsible for this?"

Doc smiled and shook his head. "I'm afraid not. There wasn't much I needed to do besides let him rest. The kid was in perfect condition when he got here."

The old Admiral looked aghast. "Tch! You must've been so disappointed. I know how bored you get on your off days." He teased, before turning his attention to the silver-haired young man before him. "Now, mister Ramirez. Can you tell me anything at all about what happened to you? Why were you drifting through Ixa'taka like that?" Suddenly, there was a dangerous gleam in his eyes. "Were you attacked?"

Rami shook his head vigorously. "No, nothing like that. I was traveling in the area and got caught in a bad storm near south ocean. It rattled my ship, and I guess I got knocked out in the process. I'm very grateful to your men for rescuing me." He said, bowing his head slightly.

"Hmm, I see. It's a bit strange for an ordinary storm to do so much damage to your vessel but to leave the passenger intact, but as long as you are okay, then I am unconcerned." Mendosa said, waving his hand dismissively. "My real concern is if foul play is involved. Pirates have begun to worm their way into Ixa'taka. I must keep them out of our airspace."

"Sounds like a real problem, sir." Rami said. He wondered what the pirates were like.

Mendosa was looking him up and down with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Your ship is out of commission, boy. You'll be stuck with us for awhile."

The silver-haired young man frowned. "So I've heard, sir. I'd be grateful if you could give me lodgings until it's repaired."

Mendosa frowned right back at him. "Unfortunately, I've got some bad news for you. My mechanics don't have the foggiest clue how your ship works. It's really miraculous, you know. They're some of the best boys in the armada." The old admiral steepled his fingers on the desk as he leaned forward. "I don't think we'll be able to repair your ship ourselves, and we're a long way from anyone who could."

Rami winced. He'd been afraid of that. Silvite technology was hundreds of years ahead of the rest of Arcadia. They couldn't possibly know what to do with his ship. "I see… Well, if you could set me down with it somewhere, maybe I could fix it myself."

The admiral's frown intensified. "You seem awfully attached to it. As unique as it is, it seems a bit small for traveling any significant distance." Mendosa tapped his chin thoughtfully for several moments, eyeing Rami carefully. "Boy, I've got a proposal for you."

Rami blinked in surprise at the abrupt shift in topic. "A proposal?"

Mendosa nodded. "Are you in any hurry to get where you're going?"

Fina was waiting for him. Rami didn't want to keep her waiting, but… He'd already been here longer than he expected. He supposed the job could wait, at least a little longer. "I suppose not."

The older man seemed pleased. "I can tell by the way you hold yourself that you're a swordsman." His smile widened at the look of surprise that crossed Rami's face. "I've got a deal for you - you join my crew for the time being, and I'll let you have a go at fixing the ship in your off time. You won't be left helpless in the jungle, and I'll gain a competent new soldier."

Rami's jaw dropped. He hadn't been expecting that. Join the crew of a Valuan flagship? Sign on with a bunch of barbarians?

But… since arriving on this ship, the people hadn't really seemed all that barbaric. Mendosa was as polite as they came, and he had to admit he even liked Doc and Piastol a bit. Could it really be so bad to work with these people for awhile? He supposed it couldn't hurt. "Okay. I'll take that deal."

Mendosa seemed overjoyed. "Wonderful! Welcome aboard, son." He said with the same bright smile he'd worn when they'd first come into the room. He gestured to the soldiers flanking Rami, as well as to Doc. "Why don't you get him suited up and see how he handles a sword."

Ah. There was the barbarism. Rami quietly sighed as he was led out of the room and down several hallways to what looked like a training room. A young man in uniform was sitting on a bench nearby, and one of the armored soldiers, gestured to him as they stepped inside. "You! Grab a training sword for yourself and our guest."

The uniformed man nodded and hurried off into one of the side rooms. The soldier turned to Rami a moment later and said, "Those pretty clothes of yours won't handle combat well, will they?"

Rami glared at him and shook his head. "They'll be fine if I don't get hit."

The soldier laughed. "Confident. I like it. Let's see if you can back those words up."

The uniformed man returned a moment later with a pair of polished wooden swords, handing one to Rami before pacing back to the other side of the room, apparently getting ready. "You go to the other side. Let's see what you can do." The soldier said, gesturing to the side of the room opposite where the uniformed man had gone.

Rami nodded, testing the weight of his new weapon along the way. It was a little lighter than his silver sword, but not too much lighter. The reach was also worse, and it had a crossguard, which he found uncomfortable. Still, he knew he could handle it. He held it to one side as he took his position and stared down his would-be opponent.

The uniformed man was apparently ready to go as well, and he raised his sword in a two-handed grip that pointed the tip towards Rami. From near the center of the room, Doc, Piastol and the soldier watched. The soldier raised his hands. "Ready… fight!" He dropped his hands as he said the second word.

Rami's opponent came at him. He was even slower than the men at the seal had been. He wouldn't even need to focus to deal with this one. He raised his training sword to parry the first attempted swing, then adjusted it to block another, and another. He kept this up for five more swings until he saw his attack getting frantic and frustrated.

He dodged to one side as another vertical strike came at him, missing him completely as he circled his opponent in the blink of an eye. A moment later his sword descended towards the man's open back. His opponent reacted only just barely in time, stumbling away and raising his sword to block.

The strike put him off-balance, and Rami went on the offensive. One blow struck the man's blade, then another, until the third sent it flying out of his hands. At last a final blow came down on his opponent's shoulder, stopping just short of actually hitting him. Rami held his position as his victory became apparent to all present.

"He's so fast!" Piastol sounded ecstatic as she practically bounced in placed with excitement, clapping her hands and cheering.

"I thought you were kidding about not getting hit…" The soldier said, his voice much quieter than before, and the uniformed man who'd been Rami's opponent slowly pulled away with his face much paler than before.

Doc was grinning as he seemed to look Rami over with a new appreciation. "I guess the Admiral knows how to pick 'em. You sure you don't wanna just join the armada?" He said.

Rami eyed the sword in his hand for a moment before smiling back at Doc. "We'll see about that."