CHAPTER NOTE: I can't believe how long it's taken me to write this, but fear not! I will have the final chapter NEXT WEEK! Thank you for sticking with this story, for your comments, words of support, and all those good vibes I'm feeling across space and time. I hope you are all safe and taking care of your mental health. Things are hard, but you're not alone, at least in this space. The final chapter is going to have a lot to it, so I decided to make this one a little more focused. Jumping around just didn't seem right this time. I really hope you all like it! Comments are always appreciated and loved. Please forgive any grammar/spelling/ continuity problems as I am on some SERIOUS meds. I just couldn't not write while holed up in bed LOL. (I'm fine, I swear. Just a cold)

Rian speaking with Captain Nitsy and Rek'yr, Deet asleep. He remembers them holding one another through the night

In Ha'rar: Brea and Kylan, called by Aughra to meet with the crystal to help Rian and Deet

Gurjin with Hup and Snood: the crystal is lost, unbeknownst to them

Back to Rian: they make land, depart from the captain with Deet, go to meet Aughra but are attacked by Garthim. Deet surrenders herself, buys them time to come save her. Everyone taken to the castle.

Rian was engulfed by the smell of Deet as he stirred to waking. She smelled of the sea air seeping into the hull of the ship where they rocked softly to and fro beside one another. There was another scent upon her clothing, her hair, the skin he had caressed until she fell into a calm sleep: the caves of Grot, the flora and the fauna of her home still lingered upon her even after so much time apart. Rian smiled at the memory of flying through the iridescent caves cosseted safely under her slender body, wrapped tightly in her dedicated arms. Her strength had surprised him then, but now it seemed more natural than anything else in all of Thra. When all else fell to nothingness, Rian was certain Deet would remain.

He watched the steady rise and fall of her bosom with a slow grin building upon his lips. Was it wrong to feel such relief, such joy in the middle of a war? Deet's skin still glowed with the darkening, and she had tried to dissuade him from touching her, but he hadn't been able to stay away. After capturing the ice crystal and getting Deet to the ship, Rian was merely too tired to resist any longer. He would never, ever, leave her side again.

Deet stirred softly beside him. Rian reached out a hand to stroke the still soft skin of her glowing cheek. Deet sighed at the contact. An ache gurgled through Rian's chest at the sound. If he had his way, Deet would only experience softness and tender touches, not pain and suffering with the weight of Thra on her shoulders. He inched even closer to her to rub his nose into the space just below her ear and planted a delicate kiss there. Rian smiled when another sigh left her lips. Though he would have liked to never leave, to hold her and explore one another until they were too tired to move, common sense cut back into his clouded thoughts - they had to make a plan to get through Thra and back to Mother Aughra to remove the darkening. But… perhaps a few more minutes of quiet wouldn't hurt.

Rian snuggled into Deet, wrapping an arm around her waist. His heart gave a flutter when he felt her turn into him to bury her nose into his hair and shoulder. He was just about to press another kiss to her brow when footsteps sounded down the stairs from the deck. Rian sighed and huffed out, "back to work, I suppose. I'll be back Deet."

She managed a slow, stuttering nod before allowing herself to settle back into sleep. When Rian turned to see who it was, he was surprised to find Captain Nitsy rather than Rek'yr. The captain motioned for him to follow with a firm wave of her hand, which was enough to make Rian rise without delay. He looked back over his shoulder to where Deet had curled in on herself before leaning in to speak with the captain.

"Is everything all right?" He asked.

" I'm 'fraid not, Rian," she spared a glance to Deet, then pulled him by the elbow to the deck where Rek'yr was waiting with the rest of her crew. "Seems we have company." A crewman handed Rian a spyglass. When he looked through in the direction Nitsy pointed, his breath caught in his throat. That dastardly captain who had tried to betray them, was waiting only a few kilometers away, accompanied by another ship full and surely armed to the teeth.

"It appears our arrival was anticipated, Rian," Rek'yr ground out. "A spy, no doubt."

Nitsy visibly bristled at the implication and rounded on Rek'yr quickly. "Not a one of my crew would do such a thing! The Skeksis are cunning. They have eyes where Gelfling dare not look." She jabbed Rek'yr with finality in the chest and narrowed her eyes daring him to disagree.

Though it wasn't the time for it, Rian thought he saw a flash of a swoon flit over Rek'yr's features. He might have teased the man under other circumstances. Now, they had to find a way to get out alive once more.

"Can we fight them, Captain?" Rian asked.

Nitsy's mouth formed into a thin line. She looked through her own spyglass, let it fall to her side, and sighed. "We would fight well, especially for Thra. But I fear we are no match for two ships."

Rek'yr brought his hand to Rian's shoulder to grip him in support. "Rian and I have already survived worse. We must not let them capture Deet, nor the crystal."

"What about that crystal? Can we use it?" Her first mate piped up, drawing questioning grunts from the rest of the crew.

"Too dangerous," Captain Nitsy replied, her eyes still trained on the ships waiting patiently for their approach. "We don't know what it can do. Besides, those two" she jerked her head in Rian and Rek'yr's direction, "have Mother Aughra on their side."

Rian swallowed hard when everyone turned toward him. It was true, Mother Aughra had sent them on this quest, but she had not been as, well, talkative since he departed the great city to find Rek'yr.

"I think we're on our own, Captain," he answered, struggling to keep his voice steady. They had been helpful and brave up to that point, navigating ice and winds without blinking it seemed. Yet, Rian noticed their once brave countenance began to waver in the face of the ships before them. He couldn't say he blamed them. Times were worse than ever before now that the nature of the Skeksis had been revealed. He had no doubt in his bones that they were behind this appearance of pirates. But how? It didn't matter. The wind ripping through his clothes would deliver them in no time, and there was nothing Mother Aughra could do about it. They had to stay strong and fight.

"How many weapons do we have? We must hold them off!" Rian spun on Captain Nitsy and her crew with his eyes alight. They'd come too far to give up now.

"We could do it, Captain," Rek'yr added. "We must find a way."

Nitsy looked between the two, then to her own crew. They stood still despite the battering winds, waiting for her guidance. Though the gelfling she commanded had withstood each test and rode bravely into adventure on the deck of her vessel, she was hesitant to seal this fate on their behalf. Many had grown to adulthood by her side, had learned to sail under her guidance. Could she do this to them, after they had so narrowly escaped the frozen lands of the Crisha?

"No, Rian," came an eerily calm voice from behind them that stopped Nitsy's thoughts dead in their tracks.

Rian rushed over to meet Deet as she struggled to stay on her feet in the gale-force weather. The crew made way for the pair, though Rian wondered if it was due to fear or respect. He reached for her and was selfishly relieved when she mirrored the motion with a pained smile. He pulled her into his embrace against the cold. She deserved more warmth, to never fear the chill again.

"I can't let you, not any of you, sacrifice yourselves for me," Deet muttered into his shoulder once he wrapped her in his arms.

"Thank Mother Aughra," a grumbly pirate mumbled to another before catching an elbow from his captain.

"Deet, we can't let them have you! Mother Aughra said there's a way to end this all, we just have to stay together and - "

Deet met his eyes with a glow of her own and a finger to his lips. "Thank you for never giving up on me, Rian. Trust me now. You can save me again, but I have to save you first. "

For a moment Rian thought he saw the same effervescence Deet possessed before the Darkening took hold in her breast. She looked... Alive again. Before Rian could launch another argument, or plead for her to wait, Deet slipped her lips against his as softly as a brush with silk. Rian felt every good emotion he had ever experienced swell in his chest at the contact. It was Stone in the Wood at Autumn, a spring twinkling in twilight, his mother's voice singing him to sleep, his father when he had been proud of him, the first time he and Deet had met eyes; she gave him a second wind with her lips before she leapt into the air.

Rian was helpless to stop Deet from flying off in the direction of the ships to sacrifice herself once more.

"Deet! Deet, no!"

Rian might have leapt into the sea if not for Rek'yr and Nitsy's hands on his shoulders holding him in the ship.

"DEET!" His voice died on the wind as she moved beyond his reach and one step closer to the Skeksis.

Deet didn't look back once she was airborne. Sleep, the feeling of Rian near her, had sharpened her mind with purpose. This was the only way. She only hoped Rian and Rek'yr moved quickly to see their part to the end. Then, if her vision stayed true, there would be hope for their kind in the end.