Vyse rose out of bed, taking extra care to be quiet as he grabbed his shirt off a nearby chair. Red moonlight slipped through a nearby window and the softest of breezes blew in a night air that was colder that he'd expected. The Larso Clan sigil had proven useful again; it was immediately accepted when shown to the local innkeeper. Vyse, Aika, and Fina had been provided a room and while it took a bit of convincing on the pirates' part to assure their Silvite friend there was nothing untoward about a man sharing a room with two women—something which Fina had clearly never contended with back on her mysterious home island—they ended their night with comfortable chatter before slipping off to sleep without anything to write home about. Save for the firmness of the mattresses.
It wasn't like they had any right to be picky about their arrangements. Drachma had left them with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever was in their bags. Rupee's assistance had proven invaluable. Vyse smiled, content that one good deed had led to another. In spite of the dangers of Valua and in spite of their current predicament, there was good in the world. Even in the middle of the desert. Rupee's aid meant they could rest properly before their journey and Sadiya's assistance meant a professional treasure hunter to guide them into the Temple of Pyrynn.
What was it that his mother liked to say? "Every time a door shuts, another two open?" Turns out Johanna Dyne was right on the money, and for whatever troubles might remain after they returned from the temple could be dealt with when the time came.
Even with the belief they'd succeed, Vyse found it hard to sleep. There was an undeniable feeling that their work would not be easy. The lad sighed quietly, peeking over to the adjacent bed where Fina and Aika rested. In whatever tossing and turning had taken place during their slumber, the sheets had been pulled down and Aika's arm flopped over Fina's side. Vyse couldn't help but smile. He walked over to the bed and regarded them both for a moment. He was so lucky to have them in his life. He leaned over and pulled the sheet up until it covered them both again. Aika mumbled something but whether it was thanks or the distant whispers of a dreaming mind, he couldn't tell and didn't dare whisper back.
They could rest. He would wander.
Vyse dreamt of adventure all his life and was eager to face any challenge but there was also another reality: he was a seventeen year old boy stranded in the desert. Whatever the world wanted to think of him after his deeds in Valua, he was only human. Even if he believed they would succeed tomorrow, that didn't stop him from feeling nervous or even scared. Nervous of what it would cost to claim the Red Moon Crystal and scared that his friends might be harmed in the process. His eyes lingered on Fina for a moment; she was counting on him and every scar that she gathered on their journey would feel like a failure on his part. He knew it was old-fashioned thinking—Fina was not some helpless maiden—but he couldn't help the feeling nevertheless. There was no way he'd risk showing it to either of his friends though. Not his worry, his growing sense of responsibility, or the other stirrings in his heart.
He quietly slipped from the room and downstairs. Stepping outside the inn and beholding the town square, Vyse couldn't help but admire Maramba. The feeble haze of moonlight brought out a new quality that the oppressive sun hid during the day. Where he'd seen a town of hearty survivors battling for each new day, there was also something else. A quiet place that somehow held the same anxiety that flickered in his chest. He didn't know if the entire outpost was sleeping soundly or not but he was suddenly aware of how it, like his friends, was vulnerable. What would another war with Valua do to a place like this? Maramba already held clear scars from the prior conflict: empty and crumbling houses that once held families, dusty relics in shops that were clearly pilfered from battlefields and shipwrecks. Valua was preparing for conquest once more and even without the Gigas, their hunger would break a place like Maramba as surely as it had shattered Pirate Isle. He didn't want to imagine what might happen to Nasr or Meridia if the empire managed to claim even a single Moon Crystal. So much stood in the balance; it was held in the hands of three teenagers too stubborn for their own good and no one here would ever know.
Vyse wandered out of the village center and down a flight of steps leading down towards the docks, unsure of how he could feel so confident and so shaken. There'd been no time to second guess anything during the trip to Valua; it was one crisis after another. Now? As he drew closer and closer to the ships and hodgepodge of supplies scattered about the docks, he finally had time to appreciate the enormity of what was before him. It felt so horribly large.
"Can't sleep, Handsome?" A voice cut through the cool night air, slipping and slinking into his ears and rousing him from reveries.
Vyse turned to find Sadiya sitting on a crate near the end of the nearest dock, dressed impressively in a sharp tunic and slacks. Judging from the pouches and gear strewn about, she was taking an inventory check for their trip. He nodded.
"Afraid so," he admitted with an embarrassed rub to the back of his neck. "I'm not usually like this.."
"You're not the first pirate to get jittery before a treasure hunt," the older woman assured him softly. She reached out and shifted a barrel next to her so that he could sit down beside her. "Even the finest ship's captain will lose sleep from time to time. There's no shame in it at all."
Vyse took a step closer and sat on the barrel. "You think so?" he asked. "I can't picture my father shifting about like this, y'know?"
Sadiya nodded with surety. "You could be a Blue Rogue or a Valuan admiral," she insisted. "Everyone feels this way from time to time. You're worried about your friends, right?"
The young man chuckled. "How did you know?"
"Because you seem like a good person," Sadiya answered. She reached down and grabbed a small pistol off the docks and began to wipe it down with some cloth. "My advice? Don't worry about acting tough."
Sadiya looked at him for a moment with a mischievous smile on her lips. "You're a teenage boy traveling alone with two fine young ladies," she said suggestively. "Of course you're worried about acting tough."
"They're as capable as you or me.."
"I don't doubt it," Sadiya replied, focusing on her pistol again. "That redhead could probably take out the Nasultan's private guard if she was angry enough. Doesn't mean you can't worry about her."
"Suppose not," Vysse conceded. "We've delved into ruins before but it's never been like this.."
"What's changed?" Sadiya aske without missing a beat.
It was a surprisingly simple question but absolutely what he needed to hear at the moment. For all his mental gymnastics, Vyse hadn't really grappled with the real thing that was eating at his mind. Until that moment, he couldn't even identify it. What changed? He could measure it in the stares he received back on Pirate Isle. In Lindsi's amazed stare or the gleaming twinkle in his father's eyes. It was even in Aika and Fina's glances too; a fundamental difference in how he was perceived.
He wasn't "Vyse Dyne" anymore, and it scared him.
"I did something that people thought was impossible," he said quietly. "They look at me like I'm different now."
Sadiya stopped her work and looked at Vyse. "You are different now," she told him. "The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll understand what you're feeling for what it is."
"I don't feel different," Vyse said. He tugged his collar as if to illustrate the point. "I'm me and the idea that only a few people will remember that? Makes every step forward a little harder now."
Sadyia chuckled, reaching down to fetch a few spare crystals. She began to imbue the first with a masterfully summoned crystales spell. Off-purple light hummed on the docks as she worked.
"That feeling has a name, Vyse."
She nodded as the first crystal filled up with magickal charge. "It's called expectation," she said wisely. "It's what commanders feel, well-known adventurers stake their reputations on, and it's only going to grow over time."
"Why does it feel like the opposite of freedom?" Vyse asked carefully.
Sadiya took the second crystal and began to channel a shimmering electres spell into its confines. She spared a look at the young man. "Because it can be," she said. "If you let yourself feel trapped and obligated to meet every expectation? It becomes like a cage."
Vyse hummed in thought, leaning forward to watch the crystal before him crackle with electricity like the Valuan skies. "So what do I do?"
"You learn to be multiple things at once," Sadiya said seriously. "Me? I'm a dancer, a woman, an adventurer. To some people, I'd like to think I'm a friend. For others, I'd like to be more…"
"Multiple things at once," Vyse repeated. "So I can swap between what's needed at any moment?"
"That's right," Sadiya confirmed as she finished channelling her spell. "Pirate, hero, criminal, whatever. Whatever is required. While also remembering who you are underneath it all."
"Maybe that's what I'm worried about," he said carefully. "That I'll forget somehow."
"Those girls would never let you," Sadiya said with a smile. "Which makes you luckier than most people. If you ever need to come down to solid ground? They'll help you down."
Vyse sighed. "Yet here I am, worried sick about them.."
Sadiya stood for a moment, shifting her crate so she could sit right beside Vyse. She looked up at the clear night sky and its lattice weave of stars. "Let's try something," she suggested before pointing up to the stars. "When I'm far from home and I feel lost, I'll look at the night sky and search for something I know. Do you know your constellations?"
The young man gave a cocky scoff. "I'm a pirate," he offered. "Of course I know 'em."
"Good," Sadiya said before pointing at a cluster of stars in the distance. She traced a diamond shape between four of them before sweeping her finger down to a fifth below them. "So if I highlight this, even this far away…"
Vyse blinked before smiling a little. "That's the Delphinus," he said with a dawning realization. "Home constellation of Meridia.."
"That's right," Sadiya said warmly. "Even this far from Meridia, if you look for it, you can find the Delphinus. A little piece of home right up there in the sky. Sparkling away."
It wasn't much. Five little stars in the sky that vaguely made a fish shape if you looked at them the right way. Five random dots of light in that mysterious curtain of the night. Vyse didn't even really know what stars were but as he looked at the shimmering form of the Delphinus, he actually did feel closer to home. He'd always considered constellations from a practical perspective. If you knew where one was and could spy it, you could figure out where you were even without a map. With Sadiya's help, the sky took on a different meaning. It wasn't simply a map or guide; it was a reminder of where you'd come from.
Meridia down south. Which means west is on my right from where I'm sitting, so…
Vyse shifted and turned. He looked at the stars until he could barely find a collection of four stars. He traced a sort of head and then followed a snaking trail of stars backwards. "Can barely see it from here," he started. "But that's Draco, the slumbering dragon over Valua."
Sadiya gave a polite clap. "There you go," she said with the pride of a big sister. "Take it in. They say that the sky is so dark in Valua that they can't even see the dragon above. Even if it's on almost every flag in their fleet."
"It's pretty distant out here," Vyse noted. "You gotta really look for it."
"But it's there," Sadiya said. "In the old days, they say that early explorers mistook the shapes for gods."
"What's the home constellation of Nasr?" Vyse asked. He couldn't quite recall. Sadiya began to trace nine main stars in a large pattern before trailing to tag a small arm to the side. A large shape and somewhat more abstract than the others. One of the stars burned slightly red. Like a jewel in a crown.
"Most maps call it Cepheus," she said, outlining the bold shape. "A king of the Old World sitting proudly on his throne. In Nasr, it has a different name: Alfirk. A flock of birds calling in a sandstorm."
"Different cultures seeing different things in the stars?" Vyse asked curiously.
"Can't trace a dhabu in the sky if you've never seen one," Sadiya replied sagely. "What we see in the skies depends on our individual perspectives. Cultural ones too."
Another small realization came to Vyse at that moment. It was an obvious thing but he'd never quite considered the implications until now. His lips curled into a half-amused smile. So many years spent flipping through airship manuals and procedure booklets and only now, after kicking the empire in the teeth, did he really put the pieces together.
"Valua uses the constellations to name their ships," he said. It would be funny if not for the arrogance. "I always thought it was because they wanted to sound impressive but when I think about it now… there's an edge there. A desire to claim whatever's in the sky. Even the name of things."
Sadiya gave a curious smile. "Can't say I've ever thought about it like that," she offered as if a rag-tag tomb raider was meant to care about an empire leagues away. "Makes me think of this part of their Amada's creed.."
Vyse raised an eyebrow. "The part about spreading order and bringing glory to the world?"
The adventurer shook her head and intoned: "We have no need of gods…"
"...for we are the new creators," Vyse finished. He scoffed. "So they name their ships after the gods people once saw in the sky. Pretty arrogant."
Sadiya sighed. "Maybe a little," she allowed. "But if you're some poor kid in their slums or someone out here in Maramba and you see one of those ships hanging in the sky? It can seem just as impressive."
"Or as terrifying," Vyse countered. "What we see in the skies.."
"... depends on our perspectives," Sadiya completed. She looked at Vyse for a moment. "Smart and handsome. That's a dangerous combination, Vyse."
The pirate felt a bit of color come to his face. He stood up in the hopes of hiding it. Time to change the topic: "Why are you helping us?" he asked.
Sadiya shrugged once more. "I don't know," she admitted. She moved a fallen strand of hair from where it had fallen across her face. "I thought it was a good chance to get my hands on some treasure but now? I suppose I want to see if you have what it takes to pull off another miracle."
"Surviving the unsurvivable temple?" Vyse asked with a chuckle.
"Something like that," Sadiya replied with a grin. She looked Vyse up and down for a moment. "For what it's worth, I think your chances are pretty high."
"That.. is nice to hear," Vyse confessed with an exhale. "Because I can't really afford to fail."
Sadiya raised an eyebrow but let it fall. "I won't pry," she offered. "But I think if it's that important to you? You'll find a way to make it happen. Call it a hunch."
Vyse stretched his arms above his head and managed another smile. "Suppose all that's left to do is rest up and see what tomorrow brings," he said. "Who needs luck when you have friends, right?"
"Is that what we are?" Sadiya asked.
"Yeah," Vyse said without hesitation. "I think so."
He offered a friendly salute before turning and making his way towards the outpost. His step was lighter moving up the steps and as he slipped quietly into the inn room where Aika and Fina slept comfortably, Vyse allowed his gaze to linger for a moment. The weight on his shoulders lifted almost immediately. Even if he was going to deal with everyone's expectations from now on, Sadiya was right. His friends would keep him honest. Where he could stand tall for them, they'd offer strength in return. Even in the face of the most dire threats—Valuans, dangerous temples, rough winds, or more—they'd weather the storm. It was fine to worry but better to hold to the truth he'd already known. He was not alone.
Vyse lay on his bed and gave a contented sigh before closing his eyes. Whatever tomorrow would bring, they'd deal with it together. Remembering that was more than enough to guide him into a calm sleep.
"Fina, your face is as red as my hair!" Aika proclaimed as she looked at the Silvite's sun-burnt face.
It was only a hair shy from being an exaggeration. Fina's pearl-pale skin was marked by profound blasts of bright red blemishes. They hadn't even considered the possibility of sunburns while arriving in Maramba; food and shelter took a little more precedent than anything else. The result was that Fina was left to wince in pain as Aika leaned forward to examine her friend. Vyse had already set down to the docks to help Sadiya with last minute preparations on their ship. Aika had been tasked with gathering any lingering supplies they needed. And what they needed now more than anything was something to help with Fina's scalded face. Aika knew enough about Nasr in that regard. The market was sure to have some essence of aloe plant or other remedies available. Which meant it would be their first stop.
"Is it really that bad?" Fina said even as she grimaced in the midday sun on their trip to the market. "I don't understand what's happened. Is it the wind?"
"It's the sun," Aika explained, pausing underneath the shade of one of the outpost's few palm trees. She wandered into the center of the makeshift grove and began to fill some waterskins using the town's ramshackle well. "If you're out in the sun too long, it can singe your face. Like being close to a fire except not."
Fina blinked, stroking her bracelet and allowing Cupil to pop out. The argenti bobbed at her side sympathetically. "What happens if it is left like this?"
"If you don't have any protection, it could get worse and blister," Aika said as she filled another waterskin. "But when it dies down, it usually means you get a tan. Or at least some tanning."
"What is a tan?" Fina seemed completely nonplussed at the word. "I will change if nothing is done?"
Aika gestured to her own skin. "A tan," she said as if that was enough explanation. "Your skin will get darker if you stay out in the sun. I dunno how it works. S'less of an issue I've ever had but for you? You'll crisp up."
"Crisp.." Fina repeated nervously. "If this is a bad thing, this sun-touching, I'd like your permission to fix it. I admit it's rather uncomfortable but I didn't want to be rude either if this is a trial or rite of passage.."
"What are you talking about?" Aika said, filling the last of their waterskins. "We're gonna get you some lotion at the market before we go. We'll all use some to help us in the sun. You can't simply "fix" it."
Fina played nervously with her fingers. "I actually can.."
Aika placed a hand on her hip. "You can fix a sunburn," she said in disbelief. "How? Gonna wipe Cupil's tail on your face and magickally swipe it off?"
"Do I have permission?" Fina asked carefully, as if she was breaking some sort of taboo.
"Sure," Aika granted with a roll of her eyes. "You have my permission to wipe your face with Cupil's butt and solve your sunburn crisis or whatever the Moons you're talking about."
Fina nodded. Her body began to glow with a soft silver shimmer that was barely visible in the hot sun. Aika could feel the energy radiating off her friend. It wasn't exactly cold but it certainly was cooler than the air around them. Cupil gave a "meep" of encouragement as his master closed her eyes and focused further until the shimmer seemed to slink into her body and up to her face. The light grew brighter and suddenly Aika was thankful they were partially hidden by trees lest some villagers wonder what the heck was even happening. Slowly, the red on Fina's face began to fade until there was no sign she'd ever been sunburnt at all. Fina shook her head for a moment as if to dismiss the ambient magicks before smiling at her friend once more.
"I admit I was very eager to do that," she said with clear relief. "I was worried that you might think it insulting for me to do so.."
Aika stared at the Silvite with a near slack-jaw. It was such a minute and almost frivolous use of magicks but it was undeniably amazing at the same time. Somehow, the redhead found her swagger before speaking. "Don't worry about it," she said, as if a mini-miracle hadn't just played out before her. "We're still getting some lotions though; me and Vyse can't exactly, uh… do that."
"I could help," Fina said plainly. "Mastery over Silver spells offers a variety of remedies for injury."
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of… well, something," Aika said as the phrase escaped her. "Better we grab something to prevent the need in the first place; topical rub and maybe a spare crystal we can enchant however we like. Got enough gold for it and there's no such thing as being too careful."
"You're right," Fina said dutifully. "The task ahead of us will be difficult. Vyse is preparing the ship and weapons; we should see to everything else. Even so many ages on, the Moon Crystal will be well guarded."
"Like how me and Vyse ran into one of those fortis automata-whats?" Aika asked. They'd had a tough time on Shrine Island but made it out alive in the end.
"Those are Silvite," Fina noted. "It's hard to say what the Ardites left in their temples. They weren't as eager to embrace machines as the civilizations under the Silver or Yellow Moons."
Aika shrugged, nodding at Fina to follow her as she walked towards the meager market towards the side of the main square. Her friend followed, Cupil deflating and sliding back onto the Silvite's arm.
"If there's monsters, me and Vyse can handle it," she said confidently. "If there's traps, Sadiya will find them. If there's magickal stuff, you'll be able to dispel it. Seems like a fair set up."
Fina smiled. "When you put it like that, it doesn't sound too bad," she said. "Maybe the worst we'll end up is having some sunburns."
"Not if I can help it," Aika said.
She walked over to a nearby stall and began to barter with a wrinkled old woman, speaking competently and comfortable in Nasrean. Fina stroked the argenti bracelet on her wrist for a moment and began to listen but stopped once an odd energy grabbed her attention. A jolting magick on the air that she was not expecting to find in a place like Maramba. The mage offered a glance to her friend, still bartering for salves and crystals, before she found herself wandering, almost without willing it, towards the source of the wavering energy that she perceived on the air. Which was an easy process when you could literally see such imperfections and oddities with your own eyes.
Fina looked in the air and found a thread of light that filtered out of a nearby tent. Curiously, she shuffled over and ducked inside. It was not what she expected. The tent was nearly pitch black save for a single energy source: a strange octahedral device spinning in place on a makeshift table. It emitted a muted crimson throughout the tent, which shifted as the crystalline oddity spun about in place. Behind the device, seated on a precarious pile of pillows, was a slight woman in magenta robes and massive spectacles. Their lenses were a thick crystal material that seemed to block out all possible sights. She stared at the octahedron with intensity and didn't even look up as Fina entered.
"You are finally here," she said. Her voice was like a whisper's whisper, the model of mysticism. "Come and sit. I'm glad today is the day we meet."
With some trepidation, Fina pressed inward and sat on a chair before the table. She looked at the woman with surprise; whoever this was, she was a starburst of magickal power. "You know who I am?"
"Not quite," she replied, eyes still locked on the glowing device. "But last night I dreamt of a silvery lake chilled by a cool purple moon. Now that I see you…"
Finally, the woman looked up and gasped as she beheld Fina. "...You shouldn't be possible ."
Fina seized up in her seat. "I don't understand what you mean," she said nervously.
The woman before her exhaled and reached up, removing her glasses. Near-white eyes gazed at Fina, and the Silvite could see that they shimmered with pain and erosion. Taking off the glasses was hurting the woman and yet it was somehow allowing her to see more. Suddenly, Fina was aware that she was being observed but not in the way that a normal surface-dweller would examine her. These were eyes filled with magicks not unlike what she held. Her soul was being perceived, the miasma of energy around her untangled, and the threads connecting her to others analyzed. Whoever this woman was, her sight was beyond anything to be expected. If Fina didn't know any better, she might wonder if the seer was a Silvite. Instead, she was merely a strange woman in a tent in the middle of nowhere who, for some reason, could see things that the rest of the world could not. And the pain that caused was immense.
The fortune-teller tilted her head, body shaking as she looked at Fina in all the ways that someone could be seen. She grimaced in pain and saw something so fundamentally shocking that the observance seemed to create a kind of feedback loop. The seer would look, endure the pain of looking, and be stuck without a means to turn away. Fina could see the magicks around her eyes begin to burn hot, damaging the woman's body.
"You are a half-complete thing," the strange woman finally managed. "You are a tangle of energy and artiface and silver hard forged. I can't… I can't…"
Instinctively, Fina picked up the woman's glasses and handed them to her. The seer placed them over her eyes and immediately began to relax. Her breath, which had grown ragged, relaxed and she nodded thankfully at the Silvite. "I am sorry," she offered. "The world as I see it is a.."
"It's a weave," Fina said politely. "Stars and strands connecting into a lattice of magick that no one else can see. The glasses make it easier?"
"A scholar crafted them for me ages ago," she admitted. "In the times before the war, in the times when there was less metal and more magick. The lenses are blue moon quartz; they block out the noise and hide the weave."
Fina looked at the woman. It was hard to place her age but she did not seem to be older than her early thirties. Yet, the way she talked hinted at a life longer lived. Fina did not know if that was possible on the surface, even if her own Elders had survived for a great many ages. She smiled at the seer although she did not even know if the seer could see the gesture. Somehow, she knew it would be felt.
"I see the world like that always," Fina explained cautiously. "Was it not always that way for you?"
The fortune-teller shook her head. "I was.. perhaps five or six?" she granted. "When the world before me became one of lights and dreams and images scratched at the edges of a temporal prison. No one understood. Few have ever understood.. The world we are in, it radiates and flickers with potentialities and everyone looks like.."
"Stars," Fina finished. "I know. What is your name?"
"I am Kalifa," the seer said through her exhaustion.
"I'm Fina," the Silvite offered with a bow of her head. "I am sorry if perceiving me caused you distress. It's surprising to find someone out here who can also see the world. I seemed to upset you?"
Kalifa held up her hand. "It is not my place," she said calmly. "You will understand in time."
"Fina, are you in here?!" Aika's voice called out as the redhead peered into the tent and immediately walked in. Her gaze spun around to the strange accoutrement before settling on her friend and the fortune teller.
"You know, most of these sorts of things are scams," she warned Fina. "Folks claiming they can read the future or telling you how to win the man of your dreams or something.."
"There is the purple I saw," Kalifa commented with a smile. "Yet, with such energy I am surprised that you did not shine red in my dreams. No, the purple is underneath. You are Nasrean?"
Aika hesitated as she walked forward and sat next to Fina. "Half," she offered before looking at Kalifa strangely. "So what? Have you been reading my friend's palm? Guessing small details about the-"
"You journey towards Pyrynn," Kalifa said knowingly. "In the hopes of grasping the sun, and yet unaware of the snake that has slithered into your basket."
Aika and Fina both paused. The redhead spoke first. "You know we're heading to the temple?"
"I didn't say anything," Fina insisted as Aika's gaze fell on her. "I said nothing about our trip."
Kalfia hummed oddly "I simply perceive the weave," she offered with a gesture towards the device before her. "The magicks of the world, stray dreams granting notions which I then meditate on using this focus crystal. From the haze, truth starts to form…"
"...Silver and Purple, in near-perfect orbit with each other. Both pulled by the gravity of a Red Inferno that threatens to swallow history itself. You travel into the desert for your prize but be further warned: to pass the canyon between it and yourselves, you will need to walk amongst the stars themselves."
Aika huffed. "That's both impressive and frustratingly vague," she said with some edge. "You know we're headed to the temple but in order to get what we want, we need to "walk amongst stars?" The hell does that mean.."
"If I say more, it may not be so," Kalifa cautioned. "What will happen, happens because you make it so. When the time comes, you will know."
Fina brought a finger to her lips in thoughts. "A quandary ever since the Old World," she mused. "Do those who see the weave around them see what will happen or only what may happen? In granting guidance, do they cut certain threads from the web of possibilities? There's never been an answer."
Kalifa nodded. "I see what I see," she replied. "Snakes and stars."
Aika looked between the two. "Uh, what are you talking about?"
"It doesn't matter," Fina said with a kind smile at her friend. "Whatever it means to walk amongst the stars, we'll figure it out. Wouldn't want all of the adventure spoiled, right?"
That made Aika shift into a cat's grin. "A good point," she said. "Hints are fine but treasure is even sweeter when you take it for yourself. With your own wits."
Kalifa nodded. "Then go. Through fire and treachery and impossibility, claim your prize."
Fina stood up and bowed before Kalifa. A silent wish for comfort passed from her mind and into her seers. If Kalifa realized what was happening, she didn't show it. Their minds touched and Fina felt a flicker of gratitude in return before Aika stood at her side as well. She reached into her pouch and held up a small bottle of salve and winked.
"This'll help with the fire," she says cockily. "Or at least keep our faces a little less burnt."
Fina smiled. "You know I could just…"
"Yeah," Aika replied. "But s'probably better that we leave the magicks for the monsters and whatever else we find. Now, c'mon. Vyse and Sadiya are waiting at the docks."
The adventurers gave a parting nod to Kalifa before leaving. The seer enjoyed the quiet for a moment, knowing it would eventually shatter. For her dreams were full of other things as well; a lynx hiding in the dunes, a furious multi-headed man, and the promise of a hellfire hotter than the sun that would soon fall upon them all. Unless the Silver One and her allies somehow managed to achieve the impossible.
The Little Jack rumbled through the swirling Nasrean air. Its engines brimmed with blue moonstones, increasing output further and further beyond what would be sensible for a normal fishing vessel. There was nothing normal about the Little Jack in this moment however; this was not a scrappy fisherman's boat searching for a simple catch, it was a warship in disguise on the hunt for one of the most dangerous creatures to ever blight the skies of Arcadia. Speed was paramount, and so the Little Jack rushed on.
For all that speed and frantic searching, the hunt had amounted to little. Drachma kept a keen eye from his position on the helm and found no sign of Rhaknam ever since he'd left Maramba in search of the dread beast. Not a scattered stream of fish, not a single sign of icy fog. The skies were full of nothing but heat and dust and guilt. Not that he would admit the last part to himself. What was there to be guilty of? Leaving those snot-nosed brats and their daft hero's quest in his wake? Drachma didn't regret that. All that mattered was Rhaknam. Hell if the skies were choked by Valua for the rest of his life; he had made a promise and wasn't going to break it. But was it a promise to them or a promise to himself?
That was the question Drachma didn't want to answer. In those final moments when his crew had been cast to the winds and the ones he loved most were torn from his life, they hadn't begged him to take vengeance. They didn't bellow out to be avenged or for Rhaknam to be repaid tenfold. At most, some of them screamed, a few said nothing, and one of them had dared to say it was "all right." It wasn't alright. It wasn't fair or just or sensible or any other word that one might use. It was random and chaotic and terrible. A stray shift into some fog and so many people had died. He was the captain that night and made the decision; port was close and going around the fog would have delayed their deliveries. He'd been responsible and diligent. His reward? Losing everything. And when you had nothing left, it was hard to care about the rest of the world. If Vyse wanted to play hero, that was his choice. Drachma didn't need to encourage it and he sure as hell couldn't waste time hauling that damned princess around the world. Not when his enemy was here and within his grasp.
But Rhaknam wasn't here. Which meant he'd left them for no good reason. Moons, he'd left them.
It was too late now, wasn't it? Too late to go back? It wasn't as if he could turn around and be welcomed back with a smile. No, they had trusted him and when he had a chance to justify that trust, he'd run off into the sky where nothing awaited him but heat and solitude. The enormity of the desert was stretched before him; a wasteland where little survived. Battles waged, ships sunk and buried under storms, ancient civilizations eroded into nothingness. It was only him and…
… and another ship. Drachma leaned forward, spying the outline of a curved cruiser positioned surreptitiously between a small ridge of sand and stone. Scorfly -class. One of a kind, with a massive forward cannon and a battery of smaller guns on each side of its glistening scarlet hull. Flickers of moonstones, their varied colors sparkling in the desert sun, teased of magickal enchantments and other refinements. Its propulsion fans faced forward. A fast design, a bolstered design.
He knew it immediately. It was the Lynx , flagship of the Valuan Armada's Fourth Fleet, personal vessel of Admiral Belleza Aguilar. Anyone who sailed the sky could name it, even if they had never seen it before. So well known was the Scorfly 's design, so unique and unlike anything else within the entire Armada. But seeing it? That was a rare thing. Admiral Belleza was not known, like her more militant peers, as an admiral who was keen to parade her flagship about. No, she was the sort who killed with a whisper instead of a bombardment. Yet, Drachma's eye wasn't deceiving him. The Lynx was here. Belleza was here. Waiting. There was only one thing she could be waiting for: the brats.
"Moons be damned," D rachma whispered under his breath. Because he knew this was a crucial moment.
It was a crucial moment because if he did nothing, if he continued to sail in search for Rhaknam, the Valuans would almost certainly find Vyse and the others. Their quest would end. Valua would win. The skies would grow black until the world fell under one banner and anyone who questions their power was obliterated by whatever monstrosities were summoned by the Moon Crystals. That would be that.
If Drachma Gealbhan chose his revenge, the world would pay the price. But if he didn't…
"Damn it! Damn it!" The old man roared in anger as the weight of the moment pressed on him. He'd promised not to let go. To never stop until Rhaknam was dead. Was that what they wanted? When he died, could he ever look them in the eyes again if he failed at this moment? Because the test wasn't if he'd find and kill Rhaknam, at least right now. The test was something else. Something he didn't expect.
He needed to stop. If only for this moment. He understood that it all came down to this. The old man sighed, cursing his luck under his breath. With a spin of the ship's wheel, the Little Jack turned and made towards the desert. For perhaps the first time in decades, Drachma was going to do the right thing.
The Temple of Pyrynn was unlike anything Vyse had ever seen. Their journey had been uneventful; Sadiya calmly captaining her tiny ship out towards the desert with a practiced grace. It left time for last minute preparations and even afforded Vyse some time to sketch in his journal. He'd scribbled what he could: an odd floating island with something Sadiya called an "oasis," more sandfalls, his companions. But when the temple came into view, the young man took a moment to truly appreciate it.
Fina explained that it was a design called a pyramid, a repository of magickal knowledge that also acted as a tomb for the more well-regarded of the Ardite's leaders and sages. Much of it was built through the hard labor of lower caste workers, something that Vyse found distasteful. Even so, he couldn't deny the result of the work. The Temple of Pyrynn still stood after centuries of wind and falling moonstones and other ravages. On appearance, it was nothing more than hearty stone but as their ship drew closer he could see a shimmer of reddish energy about the building. Lingering charges of a spell cast ages ago.
"They thought they could survive the Rains of Destruction inside," Fina explained as the ship landed and they disembarked. "Casting a barrier to seal out all dangers: both moonstones and the raging populace demanding they also be saved. In the end, their temple became a tomb. So secure that none could enter or escape."
"It's weaker now," Sadiya explained. "Scholar teams have managed to breach the energy veil and enter the temple on a few occasions but they've never returned."
Vyse did his best not to take too much pleasure in the thought of callous Old World god-kings starving as their magickal ark had become a prison. Whatever befell the Qawiun in those final days came at the expense of the everyman. All that was left was a paradoxical monument to mankind's heartiness and also its arrogance. As they landed, the temple towered overhead; it's entrance high at the top of a grand flight of steps. An invitation and a challenge: "come and take what you can." Doubtless plenty of eager adventurers had risen to the occasion; now it was their turn to make the attempt where others had failed.
"What are these?" Aika asked as they walked through a courtyard before the temple proper. At each corner of the plaza, odd statues in the shape of rudimentary heads rest above the ground. Resting in the center of the plaza was an etching. Fina leaned over to read the Old World writings.
""From grains of sand we shall create mountains," she intoned. ""Our era stretches into eternity..."
"Maybe they're supposed to represent the Qawiun," Vyse mused. Cupil flew over and meep curiously at one. His skin turned red as he drew near. "Geez, they look like they were sculpted yesterday."
"They're giving off a surprising amount of energy," Fina said. She looked at the statues curiously. "Perhaps the underlying layer is made of imbued moon quartz or something else?"
Sadiya walked over to place a hand on one of the statues. "Active magicks sometimes tingle," she noted. "Whatever might be here is sedate. If there was anything flowing underneath, even someone like me could feel it."
Aika shrugged. "Y'all are talking a lot of nonsense to me," she said with a scoff. "If this is a plaza and it's where folks gathered, maybe it's like how it is now in some parts of Nasr. You'd come here to pray."
"A mystery for another time," Vyse said, beckoning for the others to follow him up the stairs and towards the temple entrance. "What we need is inside and we don't have a moment to spare."
They followed slowly up the stairs, Sadiya pushing forward to walk at Vyse's side. "What's the big deal anyway?" she asked curiously. "I know I said I wouldn't pry but if there's something I should know before we head in…"
Vyse cast a glance to Fina, who nodded back to him. The young man answered Sadiya's question. "We're looking for something called the Red Moon Crystal," he said. "S'hard to explain why but the Valuans are after it so we need to find it first."
"The Eternal Flame," Sadiya whispered. "They say there's a fire in the heart of the temple that never goes out. You think it's this Moon Crystal?"
"I know it is," Fina answered with confidence. "It was taken here many ages ago."
"During those rains you were talking about?" Sadiya asked nervously. "End of the Old World? There's stories of a storm and flood of sand that swept away those times. Didn't think it was real."
They finished their climb up the stairs and came to rest before the temple entrance, a high arched door that was etched with glyphs similar to those Vyse and Aika encountered on Shrine Island. The major difference was the haze of red light draped over the entrance. The so-called "veil" warding intruders out. In old times, it must have been as solid as diamond and then some. Now? It flickered like a feeble mist. All eyes turned to Fina. The Silvite grew red in the face. Cautiously, she reached out to touch the barrier.
"It's red magicks," she confirmed. The haze rippled at her touch. "But not harmful. It's simply a ward and like anything else, it grows weak over time. I'll just attune to an opposing frequency and.."
A ripple of silver glazed through the red mist with a quick flash and suddenly the barrier faded and faltered until flicks of magick slipped into the air like so much smoke. The door behind the ward opened up. A simple matter for someone like Fina that would have taken trained scholars a few days of incantations. Aika gave a polite clap.
"You make it look damn easy," she said with a chuckle. "My plan was to hit it with my boomerang a lot."
Sadiya laughed. "It takes all kinds to rob a tomb,'' they say. Shall we?"
"As if there's any other choice," Vyse said confidently as he continued onward and stepped into the temple. The others followed. None of them were prepared for what they saw.
The foyer looked like paradise. A grand reflecting pool glistened in the middle of the room, reflecting the light of magickally lit red fire sconces that flanked either side of the room. That was the most ordinary part; it was everything else that was unbelievable. The room was teeming with life. Green grass upon the floor and tall trees that Vyse could identify as even more lush versions of the palm trees they'd found in Marama's main square. They swayed in the breeze although the room held no wind. In fact, the room held little of anything that was real. As the group step in further, there wasn't the familiar sensation of soft grass under their boots but rather the stark reality of a hard stone floor.
Aika looked down to see that her legs, and everyone's, faded into the grass itself. It wasn't real. It was something like a purple magick illusions. The slightest sense of contact existed but the grass was little more than light masquerading as the real thing. She looked at Vyse, who shrugged and walked up to one of the trees and pressed his palm upon the trunk. His hand sunk through. It was also fake; an echo of a time when the lands of Nasr were presumably lush and full of life. He gave a gasp of wonder as the situation became clear.
"They enchanted the world inside," he said with a mixture of amazement and sadness. "Because they knew they might never see the outside again."
Sadiya cautiously made her way to the torches on the wall and placed her hand near the flame. There was no heat. In fact, the room itself held nothing but the horrible cold of shadows and darkness. She brought her hand up to the fire and let it lap directly on her palm. There was no pain or burns.
"There's stories of Old World illusions," she said. "But it's not usually something you hear about with Ardites. Their magicks were focused on the body. Fortifications, modifications. At least that's what investigating old corpses shows. Many look as fresh as yesterday."
Fina placed her hand out into the room and released an odd pulse of silver energy. The false decorations sparkled and jolted like they were broken. "True illusions were the providence of the Glacians, she said knowingly. "But even magicks like this were simple for any mage no matter what moon they were under."
"Glacians?" Aika asked, drawing close to the reflecting pool. She took a loose pebble from her pouch and dropped it into the water, where it splashed quietly. At least one thing was real.
"The people under the Purple Moon," Sadiya answered ahead of Fina. "Though if they exist, no one's ever found any real traces of them outside of mentions in old writings."
Fina wandered the foyer and looked at the artificial constructs. "It's different than Silver magicks," she noted carefully. "Such simulacrums could be made but silver fire is still fire. It's not an illusion."
Aika walked up beside Sadiya and looked at the fire. "Like what me and Vyse found on Shrine Island.."
"Whatever the case, we can't exactly stay here all day," Vyse said from the other side of the foyer. He gestured to a sloped pathway heading further down into the temple. "Only way forward is down."
"Guess we need to ge-" Aika was approaching Vyse when she stumbled over something in the "grass." Cat-like reflexes kept her from falling on her face and she spun about to see what she'd tripped on.
It wasn't a pretty sight. "Uh… guys…."
The group moved towards the fallen object before Sadiya knelt beside it. Under the spectral grass, a musty corpse lay with tattered robes and a gaping wide jaw. More skeleton than man. Aika shift backwards and took Vyse's hand. Fina drew close to her friends as well. For her part, Sadiya simply began to move the body around to examine it. Flipping it to look at a crest on the robes: a yellow scaled skyhorse. Not an Old World dweller or even Nasrean.
"House Moncada," Sadiya noted with surety. "I heard they'd sent a scholar to examine the ruins but they never returned. We should be careful.." She pointed by the corpses feet, where one of the stones beneath the grass was slightly off-color. It was a pressure plate. "A trap," she indicated. "Must've triggered some type of.."
"Magickal cascade," Fina realized as she looked at the corpse. "It saps the strength until you can't move. He could have been stuck on the floor for days before actually dying."
"We'll move slowly," Vyse said, his confidence unwavering. "I can stay up front with Sadiya. If there's any magickal hazards, it'll be your job to clear them out. Okay, Fina?"
"Yes," Fina said with a nod. The group reformed and started down the sloped path downwards.
The long hall was as artificially verdant and wonderful as the foyer before it but with each step downward, the illusory magick began to lose luster and power. Flakes of phantom vines cracked off the walls where real cobwebs hung in small corners. Side rooms held a mixture of audience chambers and bedrooms that flickered with golden treasures and false skylight. The temple was split between two realities: the false world its Old World inhabitants wanted to pretend existed and the worn down tomb of the present day. Oddly, each step downward brought a new flicker of heat from a source other than the false torches on the wall. There was something real down below although there was no real guessing what it might be.
With each step, Vyse and Sadiya kept their gaze on the lookout for traps and defenses. Fina frowned as she beheld what happened to the Ardites. Would this have been the fate of her own people if they hadn't found their own way to survive the Rains of Destruction? Aika, meanwhile, was caught between two modes. Her eyes darted around looking for loose treasures—the side rooms held glimpses of priceless vases and golden idols—but she also looked at her companions and wondered about Kalifa's words.
"In the hopes of grasping the sun, and yet unaware of the snake that has slithered into your basket."
Aika's gaze lingered on Sadiya. So quick to help them and so knowledgeable about everything they happened upon. The temple, the fallen Valuan noble. And her curiosity seemed boundless..
"Sadiya, how did you know what house that Valuan belonged to?"
There was the slightest pause in the air as they continued downwards. Sadiya spoke up. "When you're selling pilfered treasure and ancient art," she started. "It helps to know the competition. And sometimes, you sell to whoever offers the gold.."
Vyse glanced at the treasure hunter. "You sell to Valuans?" he asked. "I figured that would be a sore spot for you."
"Is that what this is about?" Aika asked pointedly. "Another chance for treasure? Another chance for profit?" It was perhaps hypocritical given her own love of loot but Kalifa's warning rang in her ears.
"She's helping us.." Fina chimed in kindly. The Silvite was trying to moderate the situation.
"It was about that at first," Sadiya admitted. "But the way you all talk about this Moon Crystal, it's gotta be important. If you want it that much, it means that the Valuans must. Which makes it sound like a weapon."
Fina hesitated. "It's dangerous," she finally admitted. "That crystal could bring destruction worse than any of your modern wars. It's partly what led to the Ardite's destruction."
Sadiya sighed. "My father was a soldier," she finally offered. Her voice was a far cry from the confident woman they'd started to know. "He was short-tempered but he wasn't a bad person. A good man. A good father.."
As they moved downwards, the magickal embellishments on the temple walls seemed to decay further. Sadiya took a breath before continuing; it was clear she'd not talked to anyone about this in a long time. Perhaps ever. Each word held a genuine pain, her gaze drifting towards the image of the past in her mind. Memories of a man as absent and gone from this world as the Ardites.
"When Nasr and Valua declared war, he was a part of the navy," she said softly. "His ship sunk a few leagues off the shores of Tabria. A little south of Nasrad proper. And when he died.."
"... me and my mother had nothing," she explained. "No food or money. Lived on the streets. You know, they say you can't die of a broken heart but they're wrong. One night mom just… didn't wake up. I've hated war since that day. It destroys families, it kills thousands."
Aika frowned. "I'm sorry, Sadiya. I didn't know.."
The treasure hunter stopped for a moment to look at the group. "If finding this crystal means preventing another war? Seems proper to do. And if there's some loot on the side? That's good too."
"I lost my parents when I was young," Aika said. The sting of the loss was clear on her voice. "Valuans killed my mother and father.."
"I'm sorry," Sadiya said. It wasn't said in that reflexive way either; she was actually apologizing. "I wish the world wasn't like this."
"We can make it better," Vyse said with a clear voice. He continued forward.
"I know we will," Fina added. "It'll take some work but we'll-"
The Silvite looked down and saw that her foot had ventured upon a stray panel in the stones. In the course of their conversation, it must have escaped their notice. While there had been a few panels to walk around, the main hall had been remarkably safe until now. Fina's foot sank further into the ground as the panel slipped down further into the stone. There was no zap of magicks or sudden emergence of automated defense soldiers. Instead, the hallway rumbled for a moment before something slammed down behind them at the top of the slope. Everyone froze.
"I didn't mean to," Fina said meekly. "I'm sorry!"
The rumbling grew and in the flicker of the illusory light, they could see what Fina's misstep had triggered. A massive boulder was rolling downwards from the height of the slope. It was massive and sure to crush anything in its path. The party stared for a moment. It would have been humorous if not for the danger.
"You gotta be kidding," Aika intoned, eyes wide.
Vyse's command jolted them into actions, the group turning to rush down the slope. Vyse led the pack, reaching to grab Fina's hand and help her along as Aika and Sadiya kept pace. They bolted downwards at a sprint. Behind them, they rumbling and rolling grew louder and louder. The boulder was outpacing them with each passing moment. If they couldn't reach the bottom soon, they'd all be little more than smears on the ground. The bloodiest reminder of a foolhardy group of intruders. Too bad, so sad.
Of course, that was discounting the possibility of something worse. Which the situation was growing to be. As they rushed and scrambled down the corridor, stray feet slammed into random panels in the floor. Each desperate step triggered a new effect or strange trap. Aika's boot cracked into a trigger that sent an explosion of pyrum magick behind them. A moment slower and she'd have been dust. Vyse clomped into a pressure plate that sent a spout in front of them, which Fina dispelled with a flourish of her hand. Down and down they ran, the boulder gaining. And as they came closer to the bottom, and Aika's foot landed on another panel, the path before them began to crumble away. Beyond it, a doorway led to a warmly lit room but if they wanted to enter they would need to leap across the fresh gap.
"We're gonna need to jump!" Sadiya called out. "Keep your stride and push off right at the end!"
"Fina, I'll cross and catch you!" Vyse added. "Aika, you got this right?"
"I don't really have a choice!"
Closer, closer, closer. They drew closer to the gap. The boulder grew closer behind them. Then the moment came: a leap for their lives. Vyse cleared the jump easily, turning around to catch Fina in his arms and tumble to the floor. The two spared a glance before rising to their knees. Sadiya came next, an athlete's leap hinting at past adventures. But when the time came for Aika to jump…
"Crap!" One last foot fall sunk into a pressure plate that drove into the ground and sent the redhead stumbling. Her jump was a half-formed scramble and she started to tumble down into darkness. Until a hand caught her. Sadiya had dashed back, seizing the pirate with two hands and yanking within all her might until Aika was pulled to the top and safely into the room. There was a tremendous slam as the rolling boulder crashed against the room's frame before falling into the pit that might've claimed them all.
Down, down, down. Slam! Silence.
"Is everyone alright?" Vyse asked, voice shaking with adrenaline and ragged breathing. Fina kept close at his side, almost clinging to the man before shifting away. No one spoke up. It had been too close a call.
"You saved me," Aika said, looking at Sadiya with surprise. She hadn't expected the treasure hunter to worry about anyone other than herself. "Without you, I…"
"It's fine," Sadiya said, brushing herself off and walking over to a nearby coffin. They apparently tumbled right into one of the Qawiun's tombs. She slid the lid slightly and peered inside. An almost perfectly preserved body rested within, face covered with a sheer golden veil.
Vyse stood and walked right over to Aika. His friend looked at him and in their glance dozens of different words were exchanged. It all led to one thing. He walked right up to her and hugged her tightly, which she returned fervently. "Worried me there, Spitfire."
There was quiet for a moment as the two held each other close before they realized both Fina and Sadiya were staring at them. "Don't let us interrupt," Sadiya said, sliding the golden veil idly into her bag.
Fina shiftly oddly. "Um, I'm glad you're okay, Aika."
Aika smiled and walked over to Fina, giving her a hug as well. "Not getting rid of me that easily," she teased. "It's you, me, and Vyse until the end. Right?"
Sadiya chuckled. "It's funny watching you," she admitted. "You're all such good friends. And you, Handsome, must feel pretty lucky to have two special girls in your life."
Vyse froze, rubbing the back of his neck. "They're special," he admitted. "But it's not like… I mean… you know it's…"
He was suddenly aware that Aika and Fina were looking at him curiously. "Well, you're supposed to do anything for your friends. Right? Even if that means exploring ancient tombs."
Aika chuckled before looking at Sadiya. "You must know how it is," she said. "Lady like you probably has someone really special in her life."
Sadiya paused. It was obviously something she was not expecting to be asked about. It was her turn to shift awkwardly before managing to find her voice. "Not like how you all have each other," she said sadly. "I think.. I know there's someone I love but he'd never think of it like that."
"Have you tried as-" Vyse started but Sadiya cut him off.
"Let's not talk about this," she insisted. "There's still work to be done. Look."
She gestured to the other end of the room, where an open arc led into a massive cavern. Apparently, they'd run very far down indeed. The cavern was a series of magickally protecting walkways criss-crossing above a hot red muck that Vyse couldn't identify. He took the risk of stepping into the cavern first. The others followed. All was heat and fire and devilish glow. The burning mud beside the path was like a horrible stew; Vyse didn't doubt that a single touch would burn his skin off.
"What is this?" he asked as the group pressed onward. "It's like a river. It is enchanted?"
"It's magma," Sadiya explained. "Think of it like melted rock."
"How does rock melt?" Aika asked. She watched her steps carefully. Their pathway wasn't particularly wide, all things considered.
"It's from fallen stones from the Red Moon," Fina explained. "The hottest cut into the land and far underground. Over time, it can create seas of magma like this once enough moonstones of sufficient potency converge. Creates magma deposits. The Ardites used it in crystal creation and more.."
Sadiya coughed. "Gives the air a thickness, doesn't it?"
"Hot as hell too," Vyse added.
Fina nodded. With a flourish of her wrist, she summoned Cupil. The argenti hovered above them and, with another flick from Fina, took a purple glow. The air around the group cooled and a thin magickal shield hovered around them. Suddenly, it was easier to breathe and the heat started to fade. Vyse looked at Fina. It was clearly causing her a share of focus to maintain the barrier; her brow quivered ever slightly as she channeled the necessary magic. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
"It's nothing I can't manage," she said toughly although the stain on her far couldn't be hidden. "Cupil's doing half the work. It should keep us from being overtaken by the heat. In the Old World, the most powerful Ardites would ward themselves with runes on their bodies. Heat wasn't an issue for the, This will have to do for us in the meantime."
"You're a miracle worker, Fina," Aika sighed, letting the cool air seep into her skin. "Every time I think I've seen the limit of what you can do, there's another surprise."
"How do you know all this magic?" Sadiya asked. "Apprentice under a scholar or something?"
"One of the elder mages of my people," Fina said without much elaboration of who her people were. "I started training around the time I was six years old."
"Can a kid even cast a spell at that age?" Vyse asked. Silvite or not, that was quite a young age to start training in magicks.
"I could make little snaps of energy," she said, reaching out to bring a finger towards Vyse's shoulder. It gave a little spark that made the air pirate jump. He chuckled before looking at Aika.
"Can you even imagine the trouble we'd have caused if we could do that?" he asked mischievously.
"Your father would have never known a moment's peace," Aika said with a laugh. "Luke too!"
They continued with surprisingly good cheer considering the traps and foibles thus far. Fina and Cupila's warding made navigation of the winding pathways in the central cavern bearable and there were no immediate signs of defenses. Perhaps this far into their holy place, the Ardites had opted to leave things mostly alone. If this was a place for respected mages and kings, access would be barred and there would be no need for tricks. Of course, if there were additional magicks in places to ensure only the chosen could endure in this space, they'd long wavered. All that was left was the bubbling magma, antechambers containing both large coffins and odd alchemical tools in equal measure, and a slowly winding path down into the caldera where the greatest heat seemed to gather. Vyse didn't know if that was caused by the aforementioned moonstone deposits or a larger flow of magma but he took it as a sign that they were on the right course. The Moon Crystal would almost reside in the deepest point of the temple, and in the land of the Red Moon that probably meant being held within the hottest point.
Fina cast her glance around and pointed downwards towards a door across a small flow of magma. "There," she said. "There's a great deal of energy behind that door. Stories talk of how the most powerful Qawiun would retreat into the temple and use the crystal to forge creatures out of the magma.."
"They used the Moon Crystal to make beasts?" Aika asked.
"Starting with stone servants like the fortis," Fina answered. "Before eventually creating odd mixtures of animals called chimeras, and then eventually the Gigas itself.."
"Downwards it is," Vyse said boldly. He was about to move down the path and beyond the next small collection of tombs where Sadiya pulled him back and gestured for the others to stop as well.
"Wait," she ordered with surprising authority. "We're not alone…"
The treasure hunter was right. Ahead of them, focused on the process of grave robbing, a slight man in red armored garb dug through open coffins. He peeked up for a moment, head covered and eyes obscured by red-tinted glasses that seemed to ward off the heat. A red moonstone blade hung at his side, his free hand reaching to pry an odd orb from the preserved corpse of what might've been a long dead mage or even a king. It hardly mattered now; the thief moved with such professionalism that it was clear he cared little for the corpse and entirely about the loot. He continued his work for a moment before stopping. He turned around and rolled his neck dramatically.
"I know you're all there," he said, a deep voice escaping from underneath a scarf wrapped around his face. "If the sound of all those traps didn't give you away, all your jabbering would have."
There wasn't any real point of hiding. Vyse stepped towards the man, his hand within reach of his own weapons. "No quarrel with you," he said as if finding a stranger in the middle of ancient ruins was something that he'd dealt with plenty of times. "We'll head on by and that'll be that."
The masked man scoffed. "So you can draw deeper to the Eternal Flame and take it for yourself?" he asked incredulously. "It's not yours to take. It belongs to Lord Bane."
Fina tilted her head in confusion. "Lord Bane?"
"The leader of a Black Pirate clan of robbers and thieves," Sadiya noted with wariness. "Seems one of his little servants got here before us. Sorry to break it to you but we've no intention of walking away simply because you were here first."
"I'm a trained Zivilyn Marauder," the man said. "Bloodied and beaten into shape by Lord Bane himself. We are the stuff of legends, and you all need to take a hint. Turn around and leave."
"Can't do that," Vyse said firmly even if he knew what it would mean. "I'm sorry but we really can't."
There was a flash of motion as the marauder tossed a round object into the air, followed by a lashing snap! as something lurched out to swat it aside. A whip's fall, yellow glimmering moonstone tied to the end, crackled as it smashed against the Zivilyn's device. It exploded in a burst of fire and smoke; a bomb. Behind the group, Sadiya brandished the whip in her hand; she'd already moved to act at the same time as their enemy. The thief brought his blade up and lunged at Vyse, who matched his motion with a rising motion of his cutlass. The two moonstone blades crashed and sparked against each other.
The two faced each other in a lock as something swooped past them. It was Cupil, form shifted into the same rapier that he'd morphed into back on Pirate's Isle. The marauder let a parrying dagger slide into his free hand and then the battle was truly afoot. Vyse and Cupil dipped and slashed at the thief, who seemed to match each attack with a confident ease. It wasn't like fighting some mere Valuan grunt or half-drunk Black Pirate barcrawler. This was a professional in the truest sense. His slashes clean, his ability to alter his profile and let attacks slide by him all but supernatural.
Spare snaps of fire burst at the Zivilyn's feet as Aika began to assail him with fresh pyri spells. The marauder dodged and ducked and moved although the extra layer of attack gave Vyse an opening to lurch in and cut just above the masked man's shoulder.
"Seriously, back off!" he pleaded. "You're outnumbered! There's no point to this!"
"Glory or death!" the treasure hunter spat back. "If I don't return to my lord with the Eternal Flame, I will have proven myself more worthless than dirt."
It seemed that the fight would last for ages if not for one sudden factor: a crystal sliding underneath the chaos and coming to a rest right between Vyse and his enemy.
"Handsome! Get back!"
Vyse disengaged immediately as Sadiya's voice rang in his ear. Cupil slipped away as well, soaring back towards Fina. Before the marauder could move, Sadiya drew her pistol and fired. It was a shot to make the best marksmen blush. The crystal burst into a shower of ice and rising cold that snaked around the Zivilyn and encased most of his body in a pillar of ice. Sadiya had used the crystales infused crystal she made the night before. A temporary measure that the magma was already starting to melt away
The young air pirate was about to thank Sadiya but she didn't even stop to acknowledge him or other others as she walked towards the trapped Zivilyn. He squirmed some in the ice, head poking out so that he could breathe and speak. His bag of treasures rested on the floor beside him. As she drew close, he gave a growl like a caged animal.
"Give it up," Vyse said, walking forward to catch up with Sadiya. "Head back to your master in shame."
"No," Sadiya said darkly. "You heard him: glory or death.."
Realization dawned upon all as Vyse started to run towards Sadiya. Aika instinctively turned to shield Fina. Not because of any danger but because she knew what was coming and didn't want her friend to see it. Vyse drew close and closer but there was no way he was going to make it. Sadiya aimed his pistol squarely at her rival treasure hunter's head and pulled the trigger. There was a snapping blast that rang through the cavern and an oddly soft sound as the bullet cut through and embedded in the ice behind his head. A clean hole in his skull, a trickle of blood. No glory. Only death.
"What the hell was that?!" Vyse yelled, turning on Sadiya with unreserved anger. "He wasn't a threat to us anymore! I don't care what you thought was right; we're Blue Rogues and we do not kill like that."
Sadiya holstered her pistol before looking Vyse up and down. "Hypocrite."
It was Aika's turn to round on the woman. "Wanna say that again?!"
The treasure hunter shrugged and looked at them both. "You've killed people," she said plainly. "Valuan soldiers on raids, maybe a Black Pirate or two when you helped fire a cannon. What's the difference?"
Fina took a step forward, speaking meekly. "That man wasn't in a place where he could have hurt anyone.."
Aika nodded. "Right," she said. "He was trapped. We might've convinced him to leave."
"He was a member of the Bane Clan," Sadiya said knowingly, crossing her arms with one hand still on her whip. "Do you have any idea what they're like? Brutal, vindictive. Assuming he didn't immediately attack you all again once the ice had melted and your backs were turned, he'd bring the entire clan's anger down on you once he reported back."
Vyse shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said fervently. "We'd deal with it."
"You can't fight the entire world," Sadiya said, her voice caught between exasperation and admiration. "The Armada, rival pirates, the world's most infamous clan of thieves and assassins. You gotta draw the line somewhere."
"I don't need to do anything," Vyse said boldly before Sadiya reached out and tapped his forehead. Somehow, it made him pause although he found his voice again. "... except what's right."
"What's right is just like what we see in the skies," Sadiya countered. "It depends on our individual perspectives. Leaving that man alive puts you at risk. It puts those girls at risk. Do you want that?"
"Of course not!" Vyse snapped. "But there must have been another way."
"Maybe," Sadiya said, gracious enough to allow the possibility. "But I made a choice. We all live with it now; if the ghosts of old or great dragons in the sky or whatever the hell there might be want to judge me for it in the afterlife? I'll deal with that when the time comes."
Aika looked at Sadiya with pain etched on her face. "We can't change the world like this," she said. Vyse is right. We need to be better."
Fina nodded. "You think Vyse and Aika are naive," she noticed intuitively. "But I promise you their strength comes from doing things other people will not. Doing what might not always make sense."
Sadiya shrugged diffidently. "Maybe so," she said quietly. "Just don't be surprised when you all realize that the world doesn't run on good intentions and happy thoughts. But, c'mon.. we should move on.."
The treasure hunter seemed troubled, as her companions disapproval bore into her and brought a scowl to her face. She turned to proceed more quickly down the path towards the cavern center. Aika, upset but pragmatic, walked beside the murdered Zivilyn and picked up his bag. It jingled with treasure and she could sense a strange energy inside. As the trio made to follow Sadiya, she reached into the bag and pulled out a small phial of glittering dust. It almost looked like gold save for the tell-tale twinkle of mystic energies. Like a bottle of the world's tiniest moonstones, every glowing and bright with potential.
"What is this?" she asked aloud. She held the phial out for Vyse and Aika to see.
"Alchemical ingredient?" Vyse guessed. "Ground up powder, maybe for making something like that bomb he tossed."
"Star sand…" Fina intoned with awe. "It's star stand!"
"The heck is star sand?" Aika asked. "I mean, it's shiny so it's gotta be worth something.
Vyse slowed his pace to walk alongside his friends. He looked at the sand and reached out to touch the phial. There was a slight hum to the glass. "Are these moonstones?"
"Almost," Fina explained with an impressed smile. "It's the dust that follows in their wake. When moonstones fall, they're carrying all sorts of particles and residue. As the stones fall, that gets scattered in the sky. As I understand it, you can see the clouds it leaves in the night sometimes."
"Gloom," Vyse noted. "S'what we call it in Meridia. Really rare though.."
Aika nodded. "You only ever see it after a proper stone storm," she added. "Which doesn't happen very often. Moonstones fall one or two at a time usually. This is the stuff left over from storms?"
Vyse frowned. "If that's the case, the world must have been full of it after the Rains of Destruction."
"It was," Fina said knowingly. "Caused all sorts of anomalies. By the looks of it, the thief had collected some though I couldn't guess why. This small of an amount will do little more than light a room."
"Hurry up back there!" Sadiya called from down the lowest part of the path. "It's hot a hell down here without your little balloon pet! But we're right there…"
The trio hurried down the path, Cupil swirling overhead to offer renewed protective warding as they drew to the bottom of the winding path towards the door Fina pointed out earlier. An impassable flow of magma blocked them from proceeding further. Vyse idle kicked a pebble off the platform and watched it sizzle into the burning gloop with a hiss. They were so close to the center of the temple, and the Red Moon Crystal.
"What now?" Aika asked nervously. "Not like we can skip across."
Fina observed the magma and Cupil zipped down lower towards it as her thoughts centered on the heated earth. He gave a little "meeep" and wiggled. A part of the magma seemed to shift and part. Fina exhaled; this wasn't going to be easy. "I can strengthen the shield spell from before. If strong enough, we could push the magma aside.."
"And if you sneeze or lose focus for even a second?" Sadiya asked cautiously.
"It would be… problematic," Fina said. In front of them, the magma pool began to churn and swirl as portions of it shifted aside.
Vyse chuckled. "Well, you're making that look easy right now," he said with a small clap to Fina's shoulder.
"I'm not doing that," Fina said nervously. Then, it happened.
With a bursting roar, a great creature slammed up out of the pool, spraying magma everywhere. Fina increased the warding of her shield, energy gathering around the group as hot lava smashed against magickal protection. As the heat and fury dissipated, the beast came into view. It was nothing that could have existed in the natural world. Two beady red eyes graced a fanged face with a massive jaw. It's head was connected to an elongated body like a worm but to such a scale that it towered above the group. For a moment, it simply stared before giving a roar that was part snake's hiss and part lion's clamor. Stony skin coated the beast and protected it from the heat. It was an alchemical nightmare of stone and viper and dragon and fury. An ancient thing that had waited centuries for another feast. Eager to snack.
Like before, Sadiya was the first to act. Her whip, stone enchanted with red magicks, smashed once and then twice against the beast's jaw. Each hit created a small burst that caused the strange wrym to recoil. In response it gave a shake and obrs of fire began to form about it. One by one they grew and began to fall towards the group until they were intercepted by a swirling of ice as Aika's boomerang cut into their path. The flames' heat clashed with her weapon's purple stone, blasting the area with steam.
"Aika, I'm gonna do something pretty stupid!" Vyse warned before darting through the mist towards the magma. Cutlasses in hand, he leapt right at the beast. Aika gasped in fear but as Vyse's arc took him closer to the magma, it was intercepted by Cupil. The argenti had form-shifted into a small platform that gave Vyse an extra step to jump off. Behind the group, Fina grinned. It seemed like she was starting to understand how her friends fought. Cupil meep'd and scooted away as Vyse landed on the creature's back and cut over and over with his swords. Flakes of rocky flesh chipped away until a gout of odd, almost molten looking blood burst out. The wyrm doubled over and slammed to the platform before them.
"Back!" Sadiya called as Vyse rolled off the monster and moved towards the group. "Fina! You might want t-"
"On it!" the Silvite called. Cupil took position in front of the group to make a curved shield as Sadiya rolled her previously made electres crystal at the wounded monster. It burst with electric and enervating magicks that caused the beast to flail around. Magma kicked into the air again as the wyrm slipped back. Before it could even recover, Aika's boomerang swirled and slashed a purple-enchanted cut into its jaw.
The monster paused and then reared. "Oh, I think I really pissed it off…" the redhead noted.
"Everyone get behind me!" Fina called. There was no hesitation from the group, no protest that hiding behind a meek seventeen year old mage was not the safest place at the moment. But something was happening and they could all see it. Energy swirled around the wyrm's mouth. Fina would not say but she could see it for what it was: petrification magicks. A stray touch of the creature's breath would turn limbs to stone, an effect that would only spread more and more until the entire body was nothing more than a statue. Fina looked at Cupil, their thoughts one.
As the wyrm made to blow its deadly breath, Cupil began to swell in size. Larger and larger and larger until the group might've hid behind him entirely. When the wyrm exhaled, Cupil did likewise. A gust of strange silver light rushed out and clashed with the crackling red wyrm breath. Slowly but surely it pushed the dangerously miasma backwards until it filled the beast's gullet. There was a feeble roar and the sound of further hardening stone as the wyrm began to darken into color. It's breath had been turned against it. The head turned to stone first, pulling the creature down until the rest of its malformed body lifted up and its tail slammed on the other side of the magma pool. Bit by bit it hardened until it was completely still.
There was a moment of silence. They'd won, and as Vyse surveyed the danger he couldn't help but chuckle. The wyrm's petrified body created a perfect path over the remaining magma.
"No friggin' way," he said with a grin.
"Guess that's one way to solve the problem," Aika added before finding Cupil and pulling at it his cheeks. "Who's a good boy? Who's a good magickal blob fella? It's you! That's right!"
"Meeeep! Meeeepil! Cuuuuueeee!"
Sadiya wiped some sweat from her brow and looked at the trio. Two pirates, a strange mage, and their mascot. They really were perfect for each other. "The prize awaits," she said dramatically.
The crossing was simple enough. Or at least as simple as crossing over hot magma using the petrified bodied of an ancient alchemical worm beast could be. The party stepped slowly and when Fina reached the adjoining door, all it took was a small pulse of properly resonated red magickal energy to coax the entrance open. They walked into the central room and saw their goal shining before them.
The Red Moon Crystal was a pyramid shaped gem perhaps somewhat larger than an apple. It rested on a pedestal across the room, the crystal somewhat translucent and holding a concentrated fire of red magicks unlike anything Vyse or the other had seen. No treasure in any ship's hold matched its glory, no comparable device to be found back on Fina's mysterious home island. It was a singular treasure, all energy and power; the sublime and eternal proof that the Ardites ever existed. All they needed to do was take it and Valua would be denied one of the greatest weapons in the history of the world. But there was a catch….
In spite of the red glow basking from across the room, the rest of the chamber was perplexingly black. The walls impossible to spot, the floor a seemingly endless maw. Vyse moved a big forward and felt his toes rest against an edge; it wasn't an illusion. There really was a massive chasm between them and the crystal. He frowned.
"This is a bit of a problem," he said understatedly. "One wrong step and it's a long way down."
Sadiya traced the edge of the floor with her feet but found it difficult to determine if there were any safe spots. "There must be some sort of trick," she noted. "We can't stop when it's right before us."
Fina looked from the crystal and to the massive gap between them and their prize. She narrowed her eyes in focus. "I don't see any magicks," she noted. "No invisible platforms that I can perceive at the very least. Whatever might be there was forged by an illusionist to rival the most powerful Glacian."
Aika paced back and forth, thinking about what to do. It felt like a critical moment. It was a critical moment, and as she paced her mind began to wander back to Maramaba. Back to that tent where the walls seemed just as dark as the room they were in now. With Kalifa and her strange device.
"You travel into the desert for your prize," she muttered quietly. "Into the desert but… to pass the canyon between it and yourselves.."
Fina gasped. "...you will need to walk amongst the stars themselves."
Both Sadiya and Vyse looked at their companions. "What's that?" Vyse asked.
"Something a fortune teller told us," Aika explained. "I thought it was nonsense but…"
Her hand shot up. It was holding the phial of star sand. With nothing else but a grin and a flash of motion, she smashed the glass against the ground and the room blazed new light as moon dust and magicks flared out to create a miniature starfield in the room. It was as if the Red Moon Crystal was the sun and the sand were the night sky's stars. They flittered and glowed in the dim red light, shimmering gloom teasing of their origin, and as the sand floated through the room some of it began to fall down before. Far from falling into the maw, much of it lingered. Glinting light sand specks fell on a path that could not be seen before. In the darkness, there was a starway for them to walk on and use to reach the moon crystal.
"Amazing," Sadiya intoned, looking at the miraculous walkway before her. "The Bane marauder must have known he'd need the sand. Good thinking, kid."
Aika chuckled. "I have my moments," she said before gesturing to the newly forged star road. The group made their way across. Vyse reached out and paused, stopping just shy of taking the crystal.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said quietly. It was gorgeous and he couldn't help but feel that beauty was wasted on being a weapon rather than something better. "It looks brand new and not centuries old."
"I'm getting weak in the knees just looking at it," Aika admitted. "Imagine what you could sell it for."
"I'm no mage," Sadiya noted. "But even I can feel the power within that crystal."
Fina nodded and reached out, taking the crystal in hand and holding it before the group. "A Moon Crystal is the most concentrated source of energy you'll ever see," she explained. "They're made from distilling countless moonstones into their purest forms and fusing them together into a masterwork."
"I bet you could run an entire fleet using that energy," Vyse noted. "Even a spare shard of this crystal could mean an end to burning moonstone engines."
"It has the power of thousands… No, tens of thousands moonstones," Fina confirmed.
"Which somehow allows it to control a Gigas?"
"You've said that word a few times now. What is it?" Sadiya asked. "The crystal has other uses?"
Vyse hesitated. "This crystal can control an old world beast," he explained. "It's why we can't let anyone have it; even one of these "Gigas" could spell disaster for the world."
The treasure hunter sighed. "Gotta keep it in good hands then," she noted. "Or else it'd be war all over again…"
Fina gestured to the crystal. "Now that I'm holding it, I feel sad," the Silvite admitted softly. "The Old World was a place of so much power and knowledge. And instead of using it to help each other or create a lasting civilization, it was used to make weapons.."
"Not entirely different than nowadays," Sadiya said, a touch of guilt in her voice. "We have more and more wonders each day and when you look at what most of them are? Cannons, bombs, warships.."
Aika frowned. "You make it sound like an unending cycle," she said. "But we need to believe there's a way to break that cycle. So what happened to your father or my parents… to us and people like us… never happens again."
"I'd like that,' Sadiya admitted with a weak smile. "It wouldn't be easy though."
Vyse chuckled. "We're off to a good start," he said.
"I can't imagine having done this without all of you," Fina said with a kind bow. "Even you Sadiya."
The treasure hunter said nothing but smiled nevertheless. Vyse, for his part, stood tall. "The Valuans are going to have to take it off of my dead body before I'd hand this over to them," he said boldly. "There's so much of the world that I still have to see... I'm not going to let them wake some ancient guardian to destroy half of it any time soon."
Fina looked at the crystal for a moment longer. She'd trained for this moment all her life and there was still so much of the journey to continue but it felt real and achievable in spite of the threats she'd found on the surface. Her mission started with disaster but now it felt possible. She would succeed. With Vyse and Aika at her side, no matter what hurdles they encountered along the way, all the Moon Crystals would be secured.
As if to provide a pathway forward towards this better future, a door to the side of the room opened up and sunlight flared inside. The star sand blew about as fresh air rushed into the temple. It was impossible if given any thought but the new exit opened right outside their initial entrance to the temple. Perhaps it was Old World magicks or portals; it hardly mattered. There would be no need to trek back through the temple and around traps. The group walked outside and into the sunlight.
But it wasn't a better future that awaited. As Vyse and the others acclimated to the fresh sun and the world came into view, they found themselves surrounded by a phalanx of Valuan soldiers.
Vyse hadn't expected to test his words so soon but his hand began to move towards his cutlasses. If he had to, he'd kill every last soldier in their way in order to keep Fina and the crystal secure. In front of them, two soldiers leveled pistols and made ready to shoot.
"Hold your fire!" Sadiya called out, walking forward towards the gathered troops. They immediately lowered their weapons and froze in place. The treasure hunter turned and looked at her young companions.
"End of the line, Handsome," she said coldly. "You spoke some big game in there but I'm going to need you to hand over the crystal. Or else I'll have these fine soldiers of our empress tie you down, hold your eyes open, and watch as I shoot each of your girlfriends in the head."
Vyse's hand drifted close towards his weapon, as did Aika's.
"Don't! Don't test me!" Sadiya ordered. A voice clear and powerful and unlike anything she'd shown them before. "I like you all. I do. But I have my mission and bringing you back to Valua alive is decidedly optional."
"Sadiya… Who are you?" Aika asked, closer to Fina.
The treasure hunter smiled. A cruel and calculated thing like a spider grinning at a fly in their web. "I suppose we should make a proper introduction," she said before giving a bow. "Admiral Belleza Alegria Aguilar, admiral of her majesty's Fourth Fleet."
"An admiral?!" Fina gasped with surprise.
"You liar!" Vyse snarled. The soldiers behind Belleza shifted. One stepped forward and smacked the young air pirate in the face with his backhand.
"Watch your tongue, pirate!" He made for another strike but was stopped by a strict raise of Belleza's hand.
Aika looked at the admiral with rage. "Was it all a lie? Everything you said? What you told us about your father?"
Belleza paused, a look of hurt sliding across her face for a moment before she composed herself once more. "I never said my father was from Nasr," Belleza offered. "He was a Valuan soldier and died in the war. Everything else? Truth. What I'm doing now, I'm doing exactly because I want to put an end to all war! So nobody has to go through what I went through!"
"It isn't going to go the way you think!" Fina yelled back. "Not with leaders like your empress or Galcian!"
"Don't you dare mention him," Belleza said, marching forward to seize the Red Moon Crystal and wrest it from Fina's grip. "Once we have these crystals, nothing will be able to stop us. No one would dare! There would be peace in the skies… Now…"
Her eyes lingered on Fina. "If I'm holding this? I can command the Gigas? That's what Ramirez told us."
"It's… a power source and control matrix," Fina muttered nervously. "What you think and will, the creature will do. Belleza, please… It's too much for anyone to control.."
"Don't do this," Vyse said. "You're better than this."
The soldiers led the group down towards the central plaza and the muli-faced statues. If Belleza heard Vyse, she didn't care to answer. Was she better than this? At the moment, it didn't matter. She was a soldier and she had her orders. What Lord Galcian willed, would be. Landing crafts rested by the plaza and up in the sky above the temple, a large battleship flew in the sky. It was her personal ship, the Lynx.
As Belleza stepped into the center of the plaza, she looked at Vyse and the others. "There is a need for only one nation," she said seriously. "United under one rule. These crystals will secure that rule but first…"
She looked at Fina again: "What's its name?"
The Silvite hesitated. One of the soldiers drew closer. Vyse shifted once more to defend her but she spoke before it was too late. "Recumen," she said. "The Gigas is called Recumen.. But you're not actually thinking of…?"
Belleza held the Red Moon Crystal aloft, its core burning with energy as she called out to the heavens. "Red Gigas, Recumen! As bearer of the Red Moon Crystal, I command you to awaken and do my bidding! Bring fire and blood once more! That it might be the final conflict this world ever need know!"
The crystal began to burn bright, energy snaking from it and swirling around Belleza. The sky itself grew red as booming noises rang out from high in the sky. Far up, although it was the height of day, red stars began to burst into being overhead. One, two, three. An entire network of freshly made stars burning ominous above all of Nasr, from the remote portions of the desert and beyond. In the courtyard, the statue's eyes glowed with fire until their outer layer of clay-like covering split away to reveal gleaming red skin; the statues weren't representative of old world leaders. They were the many heads of the Red Gigas.
They were standing right next to Recumen. Next to one of the creatures that had destroyed the Old World. The ground shook, the star burned overhead, and the beast began to rise from its sleep, command crystal held by a Valuan admiral. Vyse could only look in horror as the creature's heads began to lift further out of the sand. Aika's gaze remained fixed on Belleza; the betrayal stinging more than any sword. And Fina's heart filled with a dread that she did not know was possible. Her worst nightmare had come true.
They had lost.