They'd made it.
It might have seemed a dream if not for the fact the Little Jack was teeming with Blue Rogues, its holds and scant few rooms filled to the brim with raiders, scallywags, and ne'er-do-wells. A fugitive ship, a runaway ship packed with wounded and tired rebels whose hearts nevertheless swelled at the truth: they were going home.
The escape had been arduous; the final blast of the harpoon cannon—spear suffused with Fina's magical augments—had rocked the ship and left everyone in a daze that held for some time until the Little Jack had rushed further and further into the Mid Ocean. No ships were in pursuit, no dangers were on the horizon. And while the crew was wounded and tired, and Fina's own display of magical prowess left her with a lasting fatigue, they were well and truly safe.
Everyone looked at Vyse differently now. That was the strangest thing of all. Captain Drachma growled and cursed at the boy, demanding he keep to the helm for much of the journey but in those moments where the young sailor could wander and check on his friends, there was an undeniable change in the way they regarded him. It was a glint that lay in the farthest region of their eyes like how someone occasionally saw phantom motions in the margins of a mirror. But it was there and he had no understanding of what it was. It was not gratitude or even admiration; it was something deeper. A fundamental change in how he was perceived. Like his very being had changed without his knowing. He did his best to dismiss it and check with the others.
His father had refused care, demanding that Timmus used whatever supplies—doled out much to Drachma's loud consternations—to patch up the wounded. There wasn't much but cuts were stitched and bones properly placed into slings. Luke had borne the worst of it in the coliseum; a fresh scar was slashed up his face that might've festered into something truly awful if not for Marco's quick use of the sacres crystal. That said: it definitely beat losing your head entirely.
The sun had fallen, many of the Albatross' crew slipping into the first reasonably comfortable sleep they'd had in weeks. Fina had taken a quiet rest in Aika's quarters near the engine room, the red-head keeping her company and maintaining a friendly vigil as the mage regained her strength. That left Vyse, his father, and Captain Drachma on the bridge. Vyse broke the silence.
"Sorry we weren't faster," he told his father sheepishly.
Dyne turned from his position at the fore-window and laughed. It was a tired thing marred by Valuan mistreatment which also rippled with delight. "You sail across the ocean, sneak into the heart of the Empire, break into the Valuan coliseum and keep my head from rolling, break through the Grand Fortress defenses… and you want to apologize?"
Vyse shrugged. "We had some hiccups on the way," he said. "You paid the price for that."
His father looked at him seriously. "You understand what you just did?"
The young rogue hesitated. "Any one of the crew would have done it for you…"
"Yeah, but not everyone could have pulled it off," his father retorted. "You did, and what you did was something that's never been done before. Least of all by some bratty kid pirate."
"Hey! I'm seventeen."
Drachma grunted behind them. The old man sat on a large crate. He'd turned the bridge into his sanctuary ever since the Little Jack became a pirate's ark. "That makes ye damn'd kid."
"What was I supposed to do? Let them kill you all? Let them keep Fina locked up?"
Dyne sighed. "Not the point," he said. "Just… trying to put some thing into perspective. Because I don't know what happens next but it doesn't end here. They could follow us back home, and damn sure they're gonna be gunning for you and tryin' to get that girl back."
Vyse shrugged again. "So? We'll deal with it."
Drachma scoffed. "Oh, aye. Deal with it," he taunted. "Well, best ye do it off me damned ship. I'm a fisherman, not some cruise-captain. 'An Rhaknam's out there what now there's a harpoon with his name on it."
"Dunno if I've really thanked you," Dyne said to Drachma. "It's no small thing you did either. Helping my son like that."
The fisherman rolled his eyes. "I got me own business,' he insisted. "What so happened the tool I needed were in Valua. Nothin' more to it than that."
Vyse also rolled his eyes too although Drachma couldn't see it. "C'mon. Don't tell me you didn't have a little bit of fun smacking Valuans about."
"All's I know, boy," the old man started. "Is that iff'n ye muck about at that helm or toss some sentiment at me, the fun I'll have is smackin' yer head."
Dyne chuckled though the sound of approaching footsteps on the stairs cut any reply short. Light steps with jaunty ones at their side. "Might want to hold off on bustin' Vyse's noggin," a playful voice suggested.
It was Aika, walking up the stairs with Fina at her side. The blonde woman looked somewhat tired but far more refreshed from her exhausted state. She smiled at the assembled group, as did Aika.
"I...cannot thank you all enough," Fina said, her voice honey-sweet in spite of her tiredness. "I thought I'd be their prisoner forever."
Vyse grinned at the helm. "Don't worry about it," he said playfully. "The Valuans went through a lot of trouble to get you, and we just really like pissing them off. It was fun."
Fina paused. "Oh, I thought.."
Aika gave the woman the lightest ribbing. "He's joking, Fina," she explained. "You're our friend and we'd do anything for our friends. Including some epic heroism. Though I guess we could have stayed a little longer… Maybe grabbed some more loot?"
"Ya morons barely made it outta there," Drachma said. "Lest ye forget 'an start actin' cocksome."
Aika extended her arms. "It's an Air Pirate's duty to liberate as much loot as possible."
There were some spare chuckles, save for Drachma's surly stoicism, until Dyne regarded Fina' carefully. "You didn't just come up here to thank Vyse," he noted.
Fina nodded, her face shifting into a mix of soft seriousness and some nerves.
"No," she said. "After all this… After all you've endured because of me… It's time you know the truth. It's time you know why I'm here and what my mission is.."
It was the second time in so many weeks that Fina found herself standing before a ship's captain and her friends. Vyse and the others, including his father, had left the bridge and adjourned to the Little Jack's deck—Briggs had managed to convince Drachma that he could helm the Little Jack for the duration of their meeting—and were looking at Fina with excitement and curiosity. The light of the Silver Moon drifted down on them, framing Fina with a particular focus. Up above, in the crow's nest, Luke's faint snoring could be heard but other than that, the stage was perfectly set for revelations. Their lives had been thrown into chaos ever since she'd arrived and the Valuans went to all extremes to capture her. Now it was time to know why..
Of course, Fina was no expert in talking to so many people at once. It was hardly some grand speech like those she'd read about in the history archives but there was something undeniably odd about having peoples' complete and undivided attention. She shifted nervously in place, her hand moving to stroke the silver bracelet on her wrist.
"I apologize," she said. "First for the trouble that I've caused you and for… well, I feel strange. The Elders told me that I was not allowed to utter a word of my mission to anyone but you have done me such kindness that I.. I vowed but..."
She pushed onwards to make an admission. Ramirez' voice played at the back of her mind: Foolish, shortsighted, arrogant. That's what he'd called the Elders, and for the first time in her life a stirring of rebellion snaked into Fina's heart.
"They are wrong," she said. "At least in this matter. You have helped me, given me shelter, and suffered greatly for it… You deserve an explanation."
Vyse looked at her seriously. "Only if that's what you want," he said. "You don't owe us anything, Fina. And breaking a vow isn't something small."
"I definitely wouldn't mind knowing what's up though," Aika said to his side. Not pushy but undeniably curious. "Because there's something about you…"
Dyne spoke up. "You're one of them," he said seriously. "Somehow. Or at least have their knowledge…"
Aika looked at Dyne. "What are you talking about?"
Fina nodded. "That's correct," she said. "I am a Silvite, a descendant of the Silver Civilization."
Dyne sucked in some air. "Hardly seems possible."
"Hold on," Vyse said, looking from his dad and back to Fina. "Silver Civilization."
Fina took a breath and nodded. "You call it the Old World," she said. "An old time. An ancient time where the world's population was split into six different civilizations. One existed under each of the Moons in the sky... Green, Red, Blue, Purple, Yellow, and Silver.."
A realization dawned on Aika. "When we were in Valua, Marco mentioned that the catacombs had something to do with folks called Fulmarians…"
"They were the people who lived under the Yellow Moon," Fina answered. "Their civilization thrived thanks to automated beings not unlike that of my own people. Powered by electricity and yellow magicks. Many of them lived underground in a glowing city. The Valuans follow in their footsteps with their machines but with less… refinement."
She paused. "That's as good a word for it too," she said. "The world was refined, each civilization harnessing the power of its moon and their moonstones to create all sorts of wonders. Medicines that completely eliminated diseases, libraries compiled into something so small you could carry it in your pocket. Messages that could be sent across the skies in an instant…"
Fina sighed, brushing a strand of silver-blonde hair from her face. Where her voice held wonder, it shifted to sadness and regret. A pain that was far older than she was, ingrained into her by her Elders and their own knowledge of the world that was.
"Technology moved faster than man's hearts," she explained. "The civilizations grew arrogant, their leaders feeling more and more like gods. Like your Valuans, they started to crave power. There was a war… and in their desperation to dominate, each civilization created a weapon of unimaginable power: a Gigas. Living weapons that could destroy islands and rend the lands asunder."
Aika spoke up. "I actually know this," she said with some surprise. "Granny Hofman's told stories about Old World monsters. There was some type of bird, a giant man.."
Vyse narrowed his eyes at Fina. "We always thought those were just… well, folklore and fairy tales. Knights fighting giants or a bird flying so fast it left sky rifts wherever it went. You're telling me that all those tall tales and stories are true?"
"Very true," Fina said darkly. "The war tore continents apart, raging and breaking a world that used to be connected until finally… something happened: the Rains of Destruction fell."
Drachma finally broke his silence. Even the old man had found himself caught up in the woman's story. "Rain 'o Destruction? Make it sound like fire from th'sky"
"It was," Fina said. "No one knows what caused it but moonstones began to fall from every moon at once. Thousands upon thousands crashing into the world below, each of them creating an explosion bigger than any of your cannons or other weapons. Millions died in an instant; cities became little more than craters. It was as if the Moons themselves were trying to make sure their powers couldn't be so terribly misused."
Dyne raised an eyebrow. "But you said it yourself: you're a member of the Silver Civilization."
"Most died," Fina said. "Some avoided the Rains. We live on an… island high above the rest of your world. There's very few of us left. Two of us were sent down here: myself and my companion Rami. Our duty was to collect what we call the Moon Crystals. Concentrated moonstones that can awaken the Gigas and allow those who hold them to control the beasts…"
Vyse started to put it together. "The Valuans are after you because they want to find them too. To use the Gigas and hold the world by the throat. How do they even know about the crystals?"
"Rami told them," Fina said. Her voice dripped with pain. "He has joined their ranks. Serving the Lord Admiral under a new name: Ramirez."
Aika gasped. "That warrior on the train! The one that attacked Vyse!"
Fina nodded. "Was him, yes."
"Ramirez," Dyne repeated the name. "There was someone by that name years ago who supposedly killed the previous Lord Admiral. Man named Mendoza."
"That's what the prince told me," Fina said.
"The prince?" Vyse looked at Fina with surprise. "Some snooty pretty boy Valuan?"
"Not quite," Fina offered. "He was kind and worried about his country obtaining the Moon Crystals. I asked for his help but he… It hardly matters now…"
She fixed her gaze upon Vyse. "You've done so much for me Vyse, and you as well Aika. I would like you to go with me on my quest. Help me travel the world in search of the Crystals. Please! I don't want to think of what could happen if Valua gets the crystals."
History hinges on small moments. This was one of them, although Vyse didn't realize it. Instead, all he heard was a chance for an adventure and the begging of a friend in need of help. The young rogue didn't need to think about it. There was not even a moment's hesitation as he took a step forward and nodded.
"Leave everything to us! We'll go with you and find those Crystals! If any trouble comes our way, we'll face it together!"
Fina's face, which had been a shifting portrait of worry and seriousness throughout her explanation blossomed into a marvelous smile. From the moment she'd seen the pair in the coliseum… No, from the time she'd awoken to find them at her bedside.. She hoped that they might join her.
"Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Aika grinned. "This is our chance to see what's beyond the sunset and more," she said with a cat's-grin. "Probably find a few trinkets here and there too. Fina, where you go we go. Together."
Dyne chuckled. "Three young and wonderful foolish heroes on a grand adventure," he noted. "Any Blue Rogue worth his salt would want that."
Vyse looked at his father. "You approve? Just like that?"
"Hell, I'd help if I didn't need to tend to the crew and our home," he said.
Aika chuckled. "You should leave it to us young folks anyway," she teased. "Wouldn't want to hurt your knees or whatever, old-timer."
Meep! Pwoooo! Cuuuueeee!Drachma gave a grunt, turning to look about his room. "The blazes is that shite?"
Fina giggled. "Oh, that was my friend," she said before looking at the bracelet on her wrist. "It's okay. You can come out now."
It was the strangest thing Vyse had ever seen. The silver bracelet on Fina's arm seemed to melt into a shimmering liquid that slid off and glided upwards into the air where it began to expand like a balloon, growing into a rotund creature with a small, flickering tail. It opened its mouth wide.
Cue! Cue! Meepil!Aika gasped. "What is that thing? Where did it come from? Oh Moon, it's adorable!"
Fina gestured at the creature. "This is Cupil," she said. "He's been with me since I was a child. He's a creature from my home called an Argenti. In the Old World, every Silvite had one. A friend, a repository of knowledge, a translator of languages. He can change his shape but he's usually shaped like a bracelet around my arm.."
"I'm actually too old for this shite," Drachma muttered. "Here I thought Rhaknam were the damnedest thing I'd ever see…Gigas and argenti and magicksome rains.."
Vyse blinked. "Jimmy said that when the Valuan's attacked, you had a silver sword at your side."
Fina nodded. "That was Cupil."
As if to prove the point, Cupil shifted into a small sword before melting mid-air and then assuming the shape of a star and then shifting again into a wiggling entity almost like a magickal whip.
"I'm not a warrior," Fina said. "But Cupil helps keep me safe."
Cue! Cue!Aika literally squee'd with joy. "He's amaaazing!"
Cupil drifted over, puffed back into his rotund shape and bounced in front of the young rogue. She reached out and pet him. His silvery skin shifted to a faded purple.
"He's probably reacting to one of your moonstones," Fina offered. "Or even the energy inside you. He's a creature born from studying the Moons themselves. Easily affected by magick."
The floating argenti glimmered through various colors: red, blue, green and more. All the colors of the Moons in a quick display of joyous boasting before slinking back to Fina's wrist.
"It'll be a long journey," Vyse noted before looking at his father. "Think mom will be upset?"
Dyne laughed. "Let's worry about that later. For now, I think it's time we all rest. By tomorrow morning we'll be home, and that'll be one hell of a thing."
Drachma exhaled. "Fine. Great. Good," he blurted. "Now clear the deck 'an dun utter any more fusses, reveals, or other such nonsense t'me. Buncha trouble since I met ya.."
He turned and proceeded inside. The others followed Vyse found his familiar hammock while the girls returned to Aika's room. Briggs remained at the helm, guiding the Little Jack through the night and onwards to their home.
There couldn't have been more excitement on Pirate Isle if Daccat himself had come back from the dead and tossed a bagful of gold at every soul's feet. The Little Jack's arrival into the underground port was met an uproarious excitement as families reunited and friends embraced each other. Everyone had been impressed that Vyse and Aika ran off to save everyone from the Valuans but they knew that the chances of seeing Dyne and the others were slim. Well, chances be damned. The impossible had happened; the crew was back and where the world had seemed hopeless, it was suddenly brimming with light.
For a long time, heroes were a thing found in stories. Not anymore. As Vyse strolled down the gangplank with his father in tow, a cheer filled port unlike any other. This wasn't some mere raid full of booty to split up and stories to tell—It was a miracle. Vyse and Aika had left with nothing but some grit and returned with everyone's lives. Not a soul lost to the Valuans. If it wasn't for the lingering wounds and only partially-rebuilt village aboveground, it was like nothing had ever happened at all. Drachma watched it for a moment from the Little Jack's deck before turning back and walking inside. It wasn't his moment, these weren't his people, and the ship needed plenty of inspection after everything. One loose bolt could spell an end against Rhaknam.
The moment belonged to Vyse but perhaps the most dramatic display went to his father. Face still marred with cuts and bruises, his own gait heavy from days of mistreatment, Victor Dyne somehow managed to cut his way through the crowd to find his wife waiting for him with a wide smile and tears of joy falling down her face. He made straight for her, dipped her down, and kissed her as deeply as the night they'd been married. Another cheer rang throughout the port.
"Hey, Jo," he whispered quietly to his wife. He pulled her upwards into an embrace.
"You're so stupid," she said, hitting his chest lightly. "Had to do the brave thing, didn't you? Turning yourself over like that?"
Dyne grinned wickedly. "Yeah, and don't you love it?"
"He was always coming back," a voice spoke up at their side. Vyse, Aika, and Fina had made their way over. The young man beamed at his mother. "I said I would save him, right?"
Johanna Dyne laughed, even as her happiness threatened to bring more tears. "That you did."
Aika laughed. "We kicked so much Valuan butt that I think they actually ran out of butts. That's it: none left. We kicked them all!"
"I don't doubt it," Johanna said before looking towards Fina. "Welcome home, dear."
Fina paused. It was a strange word to hear all things considered. Her home was far away from here and yet Vyse's mom had cut to the heart of the matter. Pirate Isle felt like a home. She felt safe here, welcome. Somehow she'd become part of a community.
"Vyse! Vyse! Aika! Miss Fina!"
Jimmy, Alan, and Lindsi scampered over with abandon, faces etched with awe as they looked at the older trio. They began to pull and tug, asking questions like: "Is it true you beat up the Empress?" and "Miss Fina, did you escape using your magic?"
Lindsi moved away from her louder friends and smiled at Vyse. "You did it," she said with wonder.
"I promised you," Vyse said, ruffling her hair a little bit. To the side, as if to create some space, Fina promised to tell JImmy and Alan all about Valua before introducing them to a friend: Cupil. He slithered off her wrist and puffed up with a cuuuueeeee! before speeding off into the port. The children chased after him immediately, even Lindsi, slipping and snaking through the crowd in search of their new silvery playmate. More than a few confused glances drifted Cupil's way as pirates and cutthroats realized there was something among them but the time had long passed for questioning what could and could not be. If there was a silver blob flying around now? It garnered curiosity but most people were craving warm beds and good food first.
Vyse looked at Fina. "Is he gonna be alright alone? Those little devils aren't gonna slow down."
The mage giggled. "Cupil's been on my wrist for weeks," she said. "I think he'll appreciate the chance to explore."
Aika watched as the blob flew off. "A friend at your side always," she noted. "Makes it hard to get lonely, I imagine."
Fina hesitated. "You'd think so," she managed to say with a sigh. "Now, I don't know when we can leave or how but I should do some planning. Decide how best to start the… our journey."
"Journey?" Johanna narrowed her eyes at the trio. "You just got here! Wherever could you need to go?"
Dyne looked at his wife. "Johanna, we should have a chat. There's plenty you should hear…"
"But first, Victor, maybe a check-in with a doctor?" A fresh voice, an unfamiliar voice.
The group turned. A tall man with dark skin, a clean-shaved head and a friendly face ambled over. He wore a white doctor's coat with a blue ensemble underneath but his professional look was undercut slightly by the tattered sandals on his feet. He must have been in his mid thirties; younger than Dyne but the smile on his face bridged the age gap in their clear friendship. Dyne did a double take.
"Jaime? Is that really you?"
"In the flesh," the man said before looking at the pirate more deliberately. "You look terrible."
"Little vacation in the homeland," Dyne said. "What are you doing here?"
Vyse looked at his father. "You two know each other?"
Dyne nodded at his son. " This is Jaime Ortega. We served together in the Armada years ago," he said. "Both in the Second Fleet. He was the ship's doctor. Then he ran off to a cushy new position.."
"And you literally ran off to become a pirate," Ortega countered. "And please, 'Doc" is fine. No one calls me anything else these days."
"You haven't answered my question, Jaime."
The doctor nodded seriously. "I've been traveling," he said. "And when I heard about an attack on the island here, I changed course to offer my services. Figured there'd be some wounded. I did what I could. Was about to ship off today but it looks like I got a fresh load of work to do with all you sorry folks showing up."
"Well, Doc, you're welcome here as long as you want," he said. "A quick look over and maybe some loqua but then I'd appreciate it if you focus on my crew."
There was a swish of motion behind Doc as someone peeked out from behind his coat. A young girl, perhaps a little older than Lindsi, peered at the group. Her corn-blonde hair was pulled into perfectly-coifed pigtails that were far more refined than one might expect from a child. She wore a fine black and white dress, a somewhat mis-matched look considering her guardian's more casual attire. Wide blue eyes gazed at the group with muted curiosity. A small, round hamachou chick sat in her hands.
Fina smiled and leaned down. "Hello there," she said. Her voice filled with even more kindness than usual. "You don't need to hide back there. Everyone here's very nice."
Dyne looked at Doc with some concern. "Is that.."
"This is Maria," Doc said firmly. "And her little friend there is Piccolo. I've been acting as her guardian for some time now." His eyes turned to Dyne. "Ever since the Aquila."
That caught even Vyse's attention. He looked to Aika, who also bore surprise on her face. "That's the first ship we boarded," he said. "All those years ago. The rescue…"
Aika looked to Doc. "You were there? Was she?"
Dyne held up a hand. "We can talk about this later," he said. "For now, we should take time to enjoy the fact that we're back. Jaime, why don't you join me in my office? Aika, would you mind grabbing a bottle of loqua for us?"
The redhead rolled her eyes. "So I get to do the grunt work?"
Dyne sighed. "Please.."
"Sure thing," Aika offered warmly before looking at Maria. "And maybe this brave soul could help me on my quest? Unless she wants to find Jimmy and the others.."
Doc shook his head. "Maria… Doesn't really play with other children," he said sadly before looking at the girl. "But what do you think? Could you help this brave pirate with her mission?"
Maria paused, unsure and shifting backwards but then Piccolo gave a little cheep. Her demeanor shifted. The smallest twitch on her face that might have been a smile. She nodded, walking to Aika's side.
Aika smiled at the girl and her bird. "I feel safer already," she said chipperly.
Vyse looked at Fina. "Let's gather some maps and a few other things," he said. "See what we can start to figure out."
Fina nodded. "There's so many variables," she noted. "But I think the closest destination would be under the Red Moon.."
"You can explain to me what is even going on anymore," Johanna Dyne said to her husband. "While this doctor makes sure you're not going to suddenly keel over."
Aika held up a finger of her own. "In the meantime, Maria and I here will heroically gather some loqua. Moons know that we've earned a drink or two.."
Luke wandered into the underground port's makeshift tavern. It was more of an extra cave with a few tables and a bar than anything special. After most raids, the tavern brimmed with boasts and booze, as the Albatross' crew recalled their fights and told increasingly tall tales about the threats they'd faced with Aika usually managing to craft the tallest. Today was a day for celebration but it was also a day of recovery. While the rest of the crew tended to their families or else just took a few moments to breathe free air again, Luke had snuck off without much warning and made his way towards the tavern.
It wasn't the drink he was after. Something far more important was waiting for him. Mabel was seated at their usual table at the back of the cave, a tall bottle loqua before her and two mugs waiting. He hadn't seen her at the dock and while his immediate reaction had been to fear that she'd somehow relapsed after Fina's magical healing of her wounds earned on the Cygnus, that fear melted into a calm surety that she'd be waiting for him. Which she was. Right at the table they'd drank at for years. Her brown hair gleamed underneath the tavern's yellow moonstone lights. As he drew closer, and his own features came into view, Luke started to feel more self conscious. The cut he'd sustained in the coliseum had given way to a spectacular scar that slashed upwards across his face. What would Mabel think?
"Don't say it," Luke warned. If anything else, he wanted honesty.
"What? That with that big crack up your face, it looks more like an ass than usual?"
Mabel gave him a taunting look. What was he going to do about her teasing? Mope at her?
"I'm serious, May," Luke said, walking towards the table and sitting across from her. "There's one person in the world I trust to tell me how bad this thing actually is and it's you. What's your take?"
Mabel paused, leaning forward to regard her fellow raider with a dramatic stare. Her brown eyes studied each portion of his face carefully, the sides of her lips pulling into a smile.
"Not bad," she said finally. "It gives you character. Something you were in desperate need of. What happened? You trip and fall onto some Valuan's cake-cutting knife?"
Luke rolled his eyes. "Hardly," he said. "They took us to the coliseum for a public execution."
"Guy with the axe must have horrible aim," she teased again. She poured some loqua into one of the mugs and placed it before Luke. "I thought the idea was to chop heads off."
"Vyse and Aika," Luke said as an explanation. "Then, the usual story. I play second-fiddle, tangling with some mean Valuan so Dreamer can be the hero. Took maybe three of 'em and the last cut me fierce. Only survived because some street rat kid popped a sacres crystal."
"You get to have all the fun," Mabel said, swigging some loqua.
"Yeah, Valua was a real hoot," Luke said with a sip of his own. His gaze lowered to look at the table. "So… I'm gonna tell you something and I need you to promise not to snark for one moment in your life."
"You're asking for a miracle, bucko."
Luke looked at his friend again. "I'm serious. Promise."
Mabel held up her loqua. "I swear I will not snark this one time."
Luke nodded, taking a minute or so to find the words that were spinning around in his heart. "When we were there," he started. "When we were all locked up and starving and beaten up, and when they were taking us to be executed… I felt… calm."
Mabel raised an eyebrow. "How'd ya figure that?"
"Because," Luke continued, fixing his eyes on her. "I told myself: well, at least May's gonna be okay. See, I didn't mind sitting there waiting for my head to roll because there was this part of me that was fine with it because you were safe."
The woman lowered her loqua, face turning red. "That's…. stupid. Because I was stuck here thinkin' I'd never get to see your ass-face again."
Luke chuckled. "Yeah. I'm sorry…"
A moment held on the air before Mabel stood up, walked over the table and sat down beside Luke. "You know, I think it's about time we're honest with each other. Seeing as we've twice-over nearly lost at least one of our lives lately…"
"What do you mean?"
Mabel smiled. "I mean you know I'd do anything for you right?"
Luke blinked. "Well, yeah. That's obvious."
The woman gestured expectantly with her free hand. "Right but… you understand what I'm saying, right?"
The red-hair man paused. He felt a heat within his chest. "May, I… I mean… We both know that…"
Mabel held a finger to Luke's lips, shutting him up instantly. "But we never said it," she interrupted. "For years now, I've jumped into danger and you've always been at my side. Always. And yeah, that's the job. We work in pairs. That's how the system works but… I know it's more than that. And you do too.."
Luke took a breath. "May, I just.. I guess I always worried that saying it would.."
"What? Make me happy? How dare you."
He shook his head. "No," he replied. "I thought it would jinx it. Like maybe I'd say it and you'd not feel that either."
Mabel took another sip of loqua and slammed the mug down on the table. "Now's your chance, sailor. Give it a try. See what happens."
The pirate froze, all wind taken from his sails. Not because he was nervous to say it, although that was certainly true, but because Mabel had never talked to him so seriously before. A mix of looseness and yearning that congealed into something undeniably real and urgent. She wanted him to say it.
Luke did. He looked her right in the eyes and spoke those magic words: "I love you, May."
"I love you," came the reply. Suddenly, all of his pains and worries were gone. Without even a moment of thought, he leaned in and kissed her, pulling his fellow pirate in tightly. Then, he pulled back slowly, returning for something lighter. They looked at each other.
"So what now?"
"I got some ideas," Mabel said suggestively.
"No, I mean… what now? We're a crew without a ship, fugitives from Valua even more than before… and.."
Mabel paused. "And what?"
Luke rubbed the back of his neck. "I was sleepin' in the crow's nest of that there ship last night and heard Fina talking to the others," he explained. "She's gonna leave with Vyse and Aika on some quest to find, uh… and I'm not kidding.. magick'd stones that control giant monsters. Says Valua's after them."
Mabel seemed to take the news in stride. Maybe it was that she'd come to accept that strange and improbable things surrounded Fina, or maybe she just trusted Luke that much. Either way she nodded.
"You think we ask about going with them? Sounds like they'd need good swords.."
Luke hesitated. "I'm roughed up still," he noted before nodding at Mabel. "You got a sword to the gut not so long you're gonna tell me you feel right as rain?"
Reality fluttered across Mabel's face. "Not quite," she said. "So, what? We let them sail off?"
Luke shrugged. "For now, sure," he said. "Because like you said… I can also think of a few things we should take care of in the meantime."
He leaned in and kissed her deeply, pulling her over towards the the table an-
"Woah! We, uh… interrupting something here fellas?"
Aika stood near the door, a small blonde girl at her side. The redhead quickly moved her hands to shield the girl's eyes. Luke and Mabel shot upwards. "I can come back some other time," Aika said. "Was just trying to grab some loqua for the captain."
Mabel laughed an uproarious cackle that filled the tavern before she finally managed to stop.
"Moons, no. It's fine. Dig around and find your poison," she said. "But hey, you should know that Luke says he loooooooves me."
The man shifted nervously in place. "Mabel…."
Aika laughed, walking around to the bar and looking through the bottles. "Is that so? I couldn't tell!"
Mabel laughed again. "He was all dramatic too," she said before putting on a mock-Luke voice. A half-pitch down, a hint of gravel. "Oh May, how could you love me? With a scar!"
"It wasn't like that at all!" Luke's protests fell upon the first person he could find: Maria. The young girl looked at him with no expression, seemingly unaffected by anything around her.
Aika shrugged behind the counter. "It's not a big deal," she said absent-mindedly, looking for one of the fancier bottles they'd taken from Alfonso's ship. "Vyse has a scar and I still love him."
Aika froze in place, standing up as she realized what she'd said. Luke and Mabel looked at her with jester's grins. Maria stood unchanged but Piccolo gave out a small cheeping. Trying to recover, Aika fussed about until she found a decent enough bottle of loqua. No need to find the best stuff anymore. She wanted to leave the room as fast as possible.
"Loooooooooove!" Luke and Mabel tittered the word towards Aika, who'd turned as red as the loqua in the bottle.
"I meant.. I just mean that he was my friend before and…"
Mabel chuckled. "Oh, no no no. Not today, Spitfire," she teased. "Everyone in the room heard you! The friggin' bird heard you say it! You love him!"
Aika spun about, arms flailing fruitlessly as if they could deflect Mabel's mockery. "He's my best friend," she said earnestly. "Of course I care about him."
"Luke's my best friend," Mabel sniped back. "And I was about to show him just exactly how much I care about him."
The other raider stifled his own giggling. "I think what May is trying to say," Luke offered diplomatically. "Is that it's okay to be honest about what you mean when you use that word.."
"I am being honest!" Aika's protest only made her seem more and more like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar. Underneath it all, she felt a fluttering in her heart. An all too real desire and sudden jealousy for the two pirates before her that proved their point—Even if she wouldn't admit it.
"Sure," Mabel said, unconvinced. "Spitfire and Dreamer, attached at the hip and finishing each other's sentences. Just really good friends with nothing else going on at all. You've never even once just looked at Vyse with his shirt off on a hot day and…"
An empty cup sailed across the room and bonked Mabel in the head. Aika pointed a finger.
"Nope! Nope! I am not doing this," she said, walking out from behind the bar and back to Maria. "Just gonna take this and check in on the captain, thank you both very much!"
She hurried to the door with Maria following wordlessly at her heels. Behind her, Aika heard Mabel call out once more.
"Can't run forever, kid!"
Maybe not. But she was certainly gonna try.
"We're really plotting a journey to whatever's underneath each Moon?"
Vyse asked the question with unabashed excitement, sitting on the bench atop the isle's high lookout. It wasn't the end of the day but it was by far the quietest place on the island at the moment. While the village was not nearly close to being fully repaired, enough aid had come from nearby settlements to rebuild it into something passable. A few of the old crew had joined in the day's work of rebuilding homes, hammers and other implements percussing through the air. If Vyse and Fina wanted to get anything done, it needed to be with some privacy. That left somewhere in the port or the lookout.
It was better to be up here, he'd decided. To have the blue sky before him. The sky he was about to sail about in the ways he'd always dreamt. Fina sat further down the bench. Having sprawled some maps between them, she'd started to figure out some of the logistics—aided by Vyse's understanding of wind currents and other sailing factors—of their journey and where to start finding the Moon Crystals.
"We must," Fina said plainly. Her finger moved around what limited space the world map offered. So much of it was blank. "That's where each civilization was, so that's where the Moon Crystal will be. There's only one problem…"
"Most of what's left is Meridia, Valuan, or Nasr," Vyse noted. "You say the Green Moon is westward and the Blue Moon is to the east but there's no way we can get there. The sky's packed with rifts and rock shoals."
"My ship was the solution to that problem," Fina said plainly. "The hull was ablative silvinium. Supposed to stand up to anything in my way. Your sky rifts would have posed no problem."
"You're serious? I only caught a glimpse of it by the time we'd reached the Cygnus but that little thing was going to bust you through sky rifts?"
Fina nodded. "We call them Invictas," she explained. "Scout ships. The armor made to hold firm against rifts and winds, the engines stronger than anything your people have managed.."
Vyse chuckled. "I've seen some damn fast ships," he said. "Still, it's a huge problem. We don't even have a ship of our own really.."
"What about Mister Drachma?" Fina's question was an innocent one. "He helped before, and if that ship… the Little Jack… has that cannon on the front, with the moonstone weave? Well…"
"It'd break through most rifts easy," Vyse realized. "Other things too. But he's…. Well, I dunno."
"What is it?"
Vyse sighed, kicking his legs idly. "He's only focused on that arcwhale," he said. "I don't think he cares a spit about Valua or the Moon Crystals. Still, I guess we could ask but we can't assume much.."
Fina looked at the map, thinking. Cupil, having fled the pokes and prods of the island's child population some time ago, drifted by her side. Cueeee….The Silvite's finger trailed about the map. Vyse watched it but idly brought up his journal and pencil; Cupil was perfectly posed for a sketch. He began to scribble the creature's semblance into his notebook. The blob seemed to notice, taking something of a more pronounced pose and turning even more rotund.
"We shouldn't head back to Valua," Vyse said. "Which means…"
"The Red Moon," Fina finished. "We'd go there. There's no need to hunt here; the Silver Moon Crystal is safe with my people. So, we head…." Her hand found Nasr on the map. "Here."
Vyse regarded Cupil and then his sketch. It was a hasty drawing but the resemblance was strong. He took a few notes including a small reminder to ask Fina more about her ship some other time but his gaze drifted from Cupil and over to his master. Fina's hair fluttered in the wind just right, each strand rippling perfectly. She was small, he seemed to notice, and his mind thought about how she'd looked on the train in Valua. Helpless and very alone.
The young woman seemed to notice his staring. She looked back at him. "What is it? Do you not agree?"
Vyse shook his head. "It's not that," he assured her. "But I was thinking.. We're bound to run into trouble on this journey. Probably even more Valuans or your old friend who gave me that cut on the train. How much do you know about fighting?"
Fina hesitated. "I was trained as a priestess," she said shyly. "Taught our history and magicks. Rami was the one trained as a warrior; he was meant to be my companion and protector here once I arrived. But I am not helpless.."
She brought her hand up. Fire flared in her palm before it shifted and crackled into lightning and then dissipated into a globe of water that she let drift off into the sky.
"My people's understanding of magic is advanced," she explained. "I don't need to use moonstones to cast spells like you or Aika might."
Vyse stood up and walked away from the bench. "Stand up," he told Fina. "Square up against me like I'm some nasty Valuan soldier. Like however you did when you were with Jimmy and the Valuans attacked."
Fina raised an eyebrow. "Okay… I suppose I could do that.."
The Silvite stood up and brushed off her skirt before taking a position before Vyse. She held a palm forward, the glow of red magicks lighting it ever so slightly. At her side, Cupil shifted into a small blade that stood at the ready to strike. It was a confidently held pose but it was just that… a pose. Vyse could see the ways in which he could sweep her legs or else easily take advantage of her lack of experience.
"Not bad," he offered. Fina smiled. "But.."
He rushed toward her position, bridging the gap in an instant. The young rogue slipped under her extended arm and stepped inwards. A free hand pulled her palm down and drew her in close to him. He had all the leverage he wanted, if he wanted.
"If you're gonna be in a fight, you need to always be ready.."
"That's not really fair," Fina said. "You gave no warning or anything."
Vyse smiled. "Bad guy's not gonna play fair," he said. "He's gonna just attack. Which means if I was some nasty Valuan I'd have you at my mercy."
They were close. Like dancers on the floor. Fina smiled but it held a surprisingly playfulness. A different side of her that he'd not seen before. "Not quite," she noted.
Vyse felt a tiny needle's prick at the back of his neck. Cupil, still in his sword form, hovered behind him, the "point" of his blade ready to act if needed. Vyse chuckled.
"Are you controlling him or does he do whatever he wants?"
"Both," Fina explained. "He responds to my thoughts but has a basic suite of combat knowledge built into his neural-lattice."
"It's like… a… a…."
Fina paused. They were still so very close to each other weren't they? She felt his hand around her own, saw his face only so far in front of her. There was heat. She felt that too, and a stray skim of his mind—unintentional but instinctual—revealed that he was suddenly aware of their physical proximity as well.
"Like…" Vyse was staring at Fina. She was staring at him. He cast a look around her face, eyes darting to the tattoo on her forehead. A circle with a slash falling from the center that resolved into a leftward cut. He'd drawn it before, in his sketching but he didn't know what it really was. He liked it though. Liked the way it added mystery and charm to her face. Her… beautiful…
He cleared his throat, stepping back. "Sorry, I… was just trying to… You know, see how much you knew about fighting and all that…"
Fina took a step back too. "It's okay," she said softly. "I don't mind."
Vyse gestured to her forehead. "That marking? What is it?"
Fina's hand drifted upwards for a moment. "It's the mark of a priestess," she explained. "My people's markings are based upon their role and the guiding virtue that each task requires. This is the mark of wisdom, reserved for priestesses and historians."
"Make sense," Vyse said. "Tattoos are a thing around here but it's mostly just whatever folks fancy. I saw that you had another? On your shoulder?"
She nodded, leaning to show it to him. Another circle with a sort of triangular shape pressing inwards.
"This is the mark given to scouts," she explained. "It's the mark of fortitude. Meant to bless me with the strength to carry out my duty now that I'm out in the world."
Vyse grinned. "I think you've got plenty of fortitude," he said. "Taking on a mission like this. That said… we might want to find time to teach you and Cupil a little more swordplay."
"Was he not good?"
"He was great," Vyse said. Cupil meeped in reply. "But even with all your magic and a fancy flying sword, there's no cure for good practice. Aika and me? We'll be like Ramirez was supposed to be: we'll protect you.. But it's good to be able to look after yourself a little more, right?"
Fina smiled sadly. "You remind me of him," she said. "Before all this. He was so curious. Like you! He'd brag about how he was going to fly his Invicta through the skies and explore everything."
Vyse frowned. "And now he's some Valuan dog…"
"I wish things were so different," Fina said. "But in spite of all the trouble, I have you and Aika now and that's…"
"Pretty dang good," a fresh voice called out. It was Aika doing what she was becoming very good at: walking on other people's intimate moments. She climbed up from the ladder and looked at the two.
"Got it all figured out?" Her gaze lingered on Vyse just a moment longer than usual.
Fina nodded. "We'll head for Nasr and the Red Moon," she said confidently. "After we determine our means of travel."
Aika smirked. "Bet if we said that dumb whale was that way, the old fart would take us," she noted before changing to a somewhat more serious tone. "In the meantime, Captain Dyne wants to see us in his office."
Vyse titled his head. "Really? Figured he'd want a little time to himself."
"Well, it's not really him," Aika explained. "It's Doc Ortega. He wants to talk with us about something. He says it's pretty important…."
Dyne was waiting in his office, feet kicked up on his deck, a glass of loqua in one hand and freshly-lit cigar in the other. The rest of the crew had similarly found drink and other comforts but Dyne had elected to keep largely private company in spite of offers of shared revelry. Smoke listed through the beams of moonstone lamps. The soot seemed to irritate Piccolo, eliciting a cheep from the bird from his perch on Maria's shoulder. The girl herself had found a small chair in the corner of the room, keeping as far from the pirate captain as possible. Doc Ortega leaned against a nearby bookshelf, regarding the captain with a somewhat annoyed gaze as Vyse, Aika, and Fina slipped into the room.
"You know, as a doctor I can't rightly condone that habit," he said with a gesture towards the cigar.
Dyne shrugged. "Doc, you're in my office… in my port… on my island," he drawled. "In here? I'm God, and God wants a cigar. Besides, we didn't invite Vyse and the others here so you could nag at me."
Doc nodded seriously. "You're right," he said. "We're here to unravel a tangled bit of history."
Vyse narrowed his eyes at the older man. "What are you talking about?"
"The Aquila," Dyne said before puffing out some smoke.
Aika blinked. "That was years ago," she said. "We're gonna reminisce about some burning Valuan ship?"
Maria shifted in her seat. Piccolo seemed to notice, sidling up on the young girl's shoulder. Her quiet voice carried through the room. "Burning…"
Doc looked to Maria and frowned. She'd been so young and that night had cost her far too much. He turned his gaze back to Vyse and the others. "It's not that," he said before looking at Fina. "Captain Dyne's taken the liberty of… explaining certain things to me.."
"If you considered it a breach of confidence, I apologize," the captain said. "But I promise it's important. See, you and Doc here have a shared acquaintance."
Fina hesitated. That didn't seem possible. "I'd be very surprised if that was true…"
"Ramirez," Doc said. "I'm given to understand that he's a friend of yours."
The young woman nodded. "He was," she said, pain etched on her features. "I don't know what he is to me anymore. He's so different now.."
Doc nodded knowingly. "I know," he said. That sent Fina into further surprise. "I've seen him at his best. One of the finest soldiers and gentlest souls I've ever known."
"How's that possible?" Fina stepped towards Doc urgently. "How do you know Rami?"
"Because," Doc began. "I was there when Valua found him, and we were all there on the night when everything changed…"