Thunder boomed overhead as Vyse began shouting orders, he having to raise his voice above the sounds of the storm. "Aika, start getting people into the harbor; head to the barracks first, and make your way around the island. Tell them not to worry about their things, just get their asses into the harbor. Lani, go with Aika, help her out as best you can; start by going to the tavern and herding them towards the caves. If anybody gives you trouble, tell them that anybody who argues is first for harbor cleanup duties for the the next month. Fina, go get somebody from the barracks and get our animals into the market cave. Pinta's good with animals, he'd probably be best. Gilder, I want you to head back into the harbor and try to keep everybody calm. Sing a song, tell a story....I don't care what you've gotta do, just don't let them get panicky. Aern, Hans, Centime, you guys are with me...we've gotta get ahold of Izmael and Kirala and do our best to close up the doors and windows of the buildings. And Aern...if anything gets funny with the storm, you tell me immediately. All right, dismissed!"
Immediately they all ran to various parts of the island to carry out their orders, despite the howling winds and the heavy rain that began to fall. Hans and Centime went to look for Kirala, while Vyse and Aern dashed over to the small cabin that Izmael had built for himself recently. Normally Izmael had the luxury to take a nap after dinner, but waking him up alway seemed to be a problem. Vyse pounded on the door. "Izmael! Izmael, if you're sleeping through this, I'm ditching you in Nasrad!"
The door opened a crack and a wide, bearded face peered up at the two young men. "I ain't sleepin'. What's your problem? It's just a little storm."
"Trust me, it isn't "just a little storm", sir." Aern said. "If you're lucky, the winds won't pull the buildings off their foundations."
Izmael immediately took offense. "Whaddya mean by that? That'll NEVER happen! I built those babies myself...put all my heart into 'em, and you're sayin' they'll fall down like a house of cards? Captain, who is this joker, anyway?"
"A friend of mine, and I think you should listen to him. He's got a knack for weather. We need to board up windows and deadbolt doors, so grab your tools and get going."
"All right, all right...around the back's a whole stack of boards....you know where they are, Captain. Start grabbin' em, and I'll get some nails."
That proved easier said than done. Carrying several large boards at once is somwhat straining, but trying to carry them in a fierce wind is another matter. It was a chore just keeping the boards from flying off into the wind, let alone keeping the two of them from flying off into the wind. The rain slashed at them and made their hand slippery as they tried to grip and hold up boards to nail them across the windows of the barracks. Over at the tavern, Vyse could see that Centime, Kirala and Hans were having the same problems.
Before they nailed the doors shut, Vyse did a thorough check of each building they were boarding up, making sure that Aika and Lani had evacuated everybody to the harbor. The empty pens, cages and coops at the one end of the island indicated that Fina had managed to get the animals into the market area...or at least out of their cages. Vyse furvently hoped that they hadn't been blown off the island.
Aern struggled as he hammered yet another board across one of the windows of Fina's quarters. The wind tugged at him relentlessly, despite his efforts to stop it from doing so, and the rain was so heavy it was blinding. Then something hit him in the shoulder and fell to shatter on the pavement below. "Vyse! Hail!"
The Shwartzian didn't have to tell him, since Vyse was already busy dodging fist-sized hailstones, two already having hit him. "This isn't good! Aern, come down! We've gotta get inside! C'mon, Izmael!"
The three of them dashed across the courtyard to the harbor entrance, their arms held over their heads for protection from the hailstorm. Large hunks of ice hit the cobblestones around them, shattering and harshly pelting them with bits of jagged ice. One flew up and hit Vyse just above his left eye, and he blinked furiously as blood ran into his eye from his eyebrow.
They reached the sanctuary of the cave with some relief. Izmael flopped down on the floor, panting hard, too winded to speak. Vyse leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Aern panted and looked outside. He could barely make the nearby trees out through the rain and hail.
"I hope everybody's okay." Vyse said as he straightened, wiping at the cut above his eye. "You alright, Izmael?"
The carpenter nodded, still wheezing a bit. "I ain't as athletic as I used to be, that's all." He stood slowly, wincing. "That, and runnin' while gettin' hit by pieces of ice tends to wear you out."
"Is that why your face is bleeding?" Aern asked, pointing at the gash on Vyse's eyebrow. "Perhaps I should take care of that for you."
"Don't worry about me, it's a little nick. I'd rather you see if anybody else got pegged with hail and take care of them instead." He turned and walked into the cavern, heading down the metal catwalk towards the left, where the market area was.
Osman was standing in the midst of chicken-like koetas, red-faced and screaming angrily at Fina, waving an expensive handkerchief about as she ranted. "Absolutely not! They're animals, they're supposed to be outside!"
Fina wrung her hands apologetically. "I'm sorry, Ms. Osman...but we really need to have them inside. It's dropping hail the size of apples out there; our animals would die if they were out there and got hit by it."
The obese merchant mopped at her reddened face, grunting. "That's perposterious. These idiot birds were born outside, and I'm sure that their wild relatives that live...wherever can live through a thunderstorm--"
"Hailstorm." Fina interjected.
"--fine, hailstorm, whatever. I do NOT want them up here, near my shop. They'll track mud all over my carpets, and they're upsetting my cat." She wrung the silk handkerchief worridly, moaning. "Dear me, what if they knock down my displays? Manage to eat some of my merchandise? I know dhabus are stupid enough to do that, so I'm sure these idiot birds would do it too." She continued to groan and complain, oblivious to the fact that Vyse stood behind her.
"Please be reasonable, Osman." Fina pleaded. "It's only for a little while, and nobody else here is complaining.
Osman grew red in the face again, her multiple chins bobbing as she waved her arms. "Nobody else is complaining because they're just that: nobodies. I'm the important one here; I have more money than your whole damn platoon of smelly pirates! If it wasn't for the fact that your captain picked me up when my shop was blasted, I'd have never come to this lousy hole."
"So then leave, if you want to." Vyse said coldly, from behind her.
The yellow-clad fat woman turned slowly, her eyes widening behind her smoked glasses. "C...captain. I didn't realize you were there...what can I do for you?" She looked him over, wrinkling her nose slightly as she regarded his sopping wet hair and clothing, and the puddle it was leaving on the floor. His fogged-up skyseer patch hung loosley around his neck, and there was a red smear of blood on his left eyebrow from the cut above his eye. Even though he was disheveled, there was still an aura of command about him; something Vyse didn't need to use frequently.
"You can stop being stubborn. Fina's following my orders." He crossed his arms sternly, narrowing his eyes. "Unless you have a problem with that?"
"Well...captain..." Osman floundered, looking for the proper word, phrase, bit of flattery or anything to say in order to get her out of the situation. "Please, captain...I am a woman of rank, and of dignity. I came here out of my free will, and I choose to run my business here because I was ensured that my shop wouldn't be put to squalor...not like it is now."
Vyse grunted in a disgusted manner. "Osman, tell me...who's island is this? Who's town, who's base?"
"Uh, yours of course, captain."
"Exactly." he said, dragging out the word for emphasis. "I'm in charge here, and what I say, goes. If I say that the animals are to be housed in the market during a storm, then that order stands. And, I'll add...if you have a problem with it, then as soon as this storm ends, I'll drop you and your lousy attitude off at Nasrad, where I recall the residents aren't too happy with you because of some sort of scheme involving several large bank accounts in your name and customers missing their money for suspicious reasons."
Osman gaped at him.
"Yes, that's what I thought....so you and your egotistical ideals can go to hell. You're on Crescent Isle, not in the Nasultan's palace: suck up and deal with it. Is that clear?"
Osman mumbled something.
"What was that? Speak up."
"Yes, sir." came the strained reply.
"Good. Don't worry about your shop, it's under control. Now please, go head off and do something constructive to keep yourself busy. See if you can help by making hot tea for the people who are soaking wet. I need to talk to Fina. You're dismissed." He deliberatly stepped around the large woman and put his back to her, facing Fina. Osman spluttered something, still standing there, hovering somewhere between rage and disbelief. Vyse glanced over his shoulder at her. "Are you still here? I said to go do something. The tea won't make itself. Dimissed."
"DIMISSED!" he snapped, turning to fix blazing amber eyes on her.
The fat merchant clomped her mouth shut and hurried off, looking slightly put out yet somehow submissive. Once she was out of view, Vyse leaned forward on his knees and laughed. Fina shook her head, sighing. "That wasn't very nice, Vyse."
He straightened, grinning at her through dripping bangs. "And yet, oh-so-satisfying. Osman needs to be put in her place now and again. You know I don't normally talk to people like that."
The Silvite sighed and reached up to wring out the scarf hanging around his neck. "You're soaking wet..."
"So are you." He said, examining her critically. "And a bit cold, from the looks of it." he added with a something close to a leer.
Fina blinked, looked down at her damp shirt and then blushed, crossing her arms to cover up her breasts. "That's not nice either."
He chuckled. "I'm sorry...it's not as if I was staring at them. I'm just sure you don't want to walk around with your nipples popping out to say hello." He winced, seeing her reaction to that sentence. "Hmm...poor choice of words, but you get my point."
She nodded. "That's all right, thanks for telling me. ...and what happened to your face? You're bleeding..."
"Again? This damn thing..." He wiped at the blood that had pooled and slowly was running down towards his eye again. "What kind of idiot gets cut on ice, anyway?"
"Hailstone hit you?"
"No, a hailstone hit the pavement, and then bits of it flew up to hit my face. I hope it doesn't leave a scar."
"But, you already have that scar below your eye. What will one more matter?"
"That's different. I got that scar in a fight, defending my friend from a vicious animal. That's something you can wear with a bit of honor and decency. Not like some idiot scar caused by a piece of frozen water."
She giggled. "You have some strange ideas at times, Vyse."
He smiled in reply. "Somebody as to. C'mon...there are enough people here to watch over the animals. Let's go back to the harbor where everybody else is. We might not be able to get to our clothes to change out of our wet ones, but we can at least sit near a warm fireplace or stove."
The Silvite nodded, her arms still crossed somewhat defensively across her breasts, and walked with him towards the harbor. "You should go talk to Aern about that cut, though." she said. "He managed to heal my black eye pretty well, and he says that he can manage small things like that cut you have."
"Magical healing?" He shrugged. "He offered to before, but first I need to make sure that everybody's made it into the caves safe and sound. Are all the animals accounted for?"
"Most of them. A few birds got panicky and literally flew off the island, and we both know how well koetas fly. Still, Pinta helped me and we managed to get most of them. We won't worry about having no meat for a while...but who knows what the garden will look like after this storm is done." She paused, listening to the rain and hail drum heavily outside. "Horrible..."
"I know. I'm glad Aern warned us." He walked down the catwalk towards where the small population of Crescent Isle had gathered near the wharf, all standing crowded around Gilder. The red-clad pirate was telling some sort of story or another, embellishing it a bit with theatrical facial expressions and gesticulations. Fina and Vyse couldn't quite hear what he was saying, but every few seconds the crowd would laugh or even clap about something in his story. The red faces of some of the female folk indicated that the story was somewhat on the raunchy side.
Aika, Lani and Aern were standing off to the side, listening to the story. Aika had a wide grin on her face, her eyes alight with laughter, but the Shwartzian's facial expression dictated that he didn't quite care for the story. It may of been a trick of the light, but he was slightly red around the ears. Lani seemed to be ignoring the tale entirely as she read something written on a sheet of paper she held.
"Did you do a head count?" Vyse asked her as he approached the three with Fina.
"Yep." the redhead replied. "Everybody made it into here safe and sound. A few people got whacked with hailstones, but nothing serious. The worst was Kirala, who got a nasty bump on the head."
"She's inside now." Aern said, indicating the building the three of them were leaning against. "She's put ice on it, saying that it'll take more than a little bump to send her crying for a healer." He seemed somewhat offended.
"That's just Kirala, she's always like that." The scarred blue rogue smiled. "She might not seem it, but she's tough as nails."
"What happened to your eye?" Aika asked.
"Hail hit rocks. Ice fly up. Vyse bleed." He sighed. "It's stupid..."
"Accidents happen." Lani shrugged, glancing up briefly from her reading. "I'm surprised nobody really got hurt...just horribly wet." Her dark grey-brown eyes flickered down to her notes again. "And sadly most people don't have a change of clothing, seeing that it's all out in the barracks. Or that's what I've heard from the complaints flying left and right down here."
"They'll live." Aika muttered. "Damn babies...it's just a little water."
Fina glanced down at her chest again, making sure that it was well covered by her arms, but she didn't say anything.
"Want me to do something about that cut now, Vyse?" Aern offered.
The blue rogue captain sighed and nodded. "Might as well. It isn't as if we have much to do until this storm finishes."
* * *
Aika sipped her tea, relaxed and content despite the storm raging outside. She and the other bridge officers, being Fina, Vyse and Hans all sat in one of the warm, dry rec rooms alongside the dock. Gilder, Lani, Aern, Centime and Domingo had joined them near the cheerily burning iron moonstone stove, all sipping hot drinks and chatting idly.
"It pisses me off," Domingo was saying. "Here I made all these preparations to check out some supposedly forgotten Valuan castle, and then mother nature goes and has other ideas."
"Don't feel bad, Domingo." said Fina, who sat on one of the couches with Vyse and Aika. She happened to be leaning a bit against Vyse, who didn't seem to object, or perhaps didn't even notice. "We're all stuck here too. We can't even go out to our quarters, and neither can the crew, so everybody has to sleep here for the night."
"At least people are safe." Aern said in his quiet voice. He was seated on the arm of the couch the three blue rogue officers occupied. "I'd rather not have people hurt...I'm not the best of healers."
"Is that false modesty I hear, or do you just enjoy beating yourself up?" Aika nudged him with her elbow. "C'mon Aern...there hasn't been anything you haven't been able to take care of yet. You managed to take care of all the people who were bonked by hailstones anyway."
He gave a faint smile, but didn't reply.
"In any case, the weather should blow over by tomorrow. I'd be surprised if a storm of this magnitude lasts for days. Right Vyse?"
He glanced at the redhead and shrugged. "I've never seen it happen, so I'm not too worried. I'm just aggravated because it sounds like this storm is doing damage out there. I hate to leave a mess behind for my secondary crew to clean up."
"Don't worry, Mr. Vyse." Centime smiled. "I assure you that my crew can help with whatever needs to be fixed, and there will be no complaints. I'll make sure of that."
"Thanks Centime, but it's the morals of the whole thing that bug me. What kind of captain ditches his base in a time of need? Well...not that a few broken windows counts as a time of need..." He frowned and shook his head. "In any case, people won't be happy with me."
"But you have a mystery on your hands." Lani said. She hadn't said much since they had been ushered inside, but had instead been reading over her notes she compiled over the past few days from interviewing Aern. "I don't think your crew can blame you if you go out to solve something that might change the world completely." She neatly set down her teacup in its saucer and stared at the wall distantly. "There's a civilization out there that the world has forgotten, and I think it's up to you, no...up to us to bring it to light. Not only that, but to bridge a gap between humans and Shwartzians and unite them in a way they were thousands upon thousands of years ago."
"That's what I am hoping." Aern stood, folding his arms behind his back while staring at the fire. "My Protectorate was sent out in hopes of contacting somebody, anybody willing to listen to our cause and to accept us as part of the world. I think it's time Shwartzia stopped hiding, even if some members of the Council don't agree."
"What do you mean by that, Aern?" Aika looked at him a bit suspiciously. "You didn't tell us this detail before."
He coughed a bit uncomfortably. "Yes, well...I had my reasons. I didn't tell you all the details, because you may not have wanted to help a country that's literally divided in half. It isn't as if we're at civil war...but we're close. Whenever the Black Moon passes close to Shwartzia, opinions rise and tempers rage, and the government nearly crumbles each time. The argument is thus: should we remain hidden and safe, or should we take a risk and let ourselves be known? If we remained hidden, then no wars, pestilance, raids or other problems that effect places such as Mid-Ocean and Nasr would reach us. And yet, if we brought our country out into the world, we may stand of a chance of trade, of experiencing new cultures and discoveries." His red eyes reflected the glowing flames of the moonstones burning in the stove. "I think that we have nothing to lose...that we should contact the rest of the world and become part of Arcadia once more. So does Gaed. But Eleah..."
"Your sister wants the Shwartzians to stay hidden under the Dark Rift, doesn't she?" Fina asked gently.
"Yes. And yet, as part of our Protectorate, she must do as the rest of us do. Gaed made his mind up long ago, and she would sooner remove her arm than go against Gaed." He made a bitter face. "She's so...difficult at times. I imagine you'll meet her sometime soon, if we find Gaed first. I expect that once we find him we will be able to go down to Shwartzia and then Fina can bring life back to us."
"I'm not sure I know how to do that." the Silvite admitted.
"I'm not sure either, but the Council assured us that the way was written in some old texts they had. Whatever it is, I'm certain it won't be too much of a strain on you. The Council knows that Silvites are rare and the last thing they'd want to do is harm one of your race."
Fina nodded and stared down at her hands, but it didn't seem as if she was entirely sure she believed Aern, regardless of what he said.
* * *
Aern stood on the deck of the Delphinus, watching as Vyse and Aika both supervised and helped with the loading of supplies into the large battleship's hold. He somehow wished that they could take the Belleza; he had grown to like the wooden sailboat and its comfortable quarters. To him, the Delphinus was a beast; an ugly beast that had cannon turrets instead of masts, steel and aluminium plating instead of polished wood, cold electrical lights instead of a moonstone lantern's warm friendly glow. He didn't voice his opinions, however...he knew that to do so would only offend his friends.
He could see that Vyse took pride in the battle cruiser, even if it did appear large and ungainly. Something in his amber eyes shone when he glanced about the ship as he stood, one hand hooked lazily in his belt, with Aika not too far from where the crew was loading in supplies. The Shwartzian wasn't necissarily in earshot for a normal person, but Aern was far from normal. Despite his manners, he could clearly hear what the two air pirates were saying and he made no effort to politely ignore what they were saying.
"It's been a while..." Vyse said in a mixture of regret and anticipation. His voice was strange at times, or so Aern thought so; sometimes Vyse would sound like an 18-year-old young man: youthful, brash, rising and falling in tones and candence...and yet at other times, his voice would gain some of the maturity and intelligence that lay hidden behind a scarred face and uncombed hair, and Vyse would sound like a man decades older. Right now, the latter was the case...the goofy youthfulness was gone, and Vyse the legendary captain of the Delphinus took over. "I've been somewhat leery every time we use this ship."
"I think I know why." Aika's voice was usually strong, loud and lacked femininity sometimes; yet, right now it was soft, deep, kind and understanding. It was obvious by the way she and Vyse spoke to each other that they were fairly close. Aern somehow wished that he could have a friendship like that as he continued to listen to the redhead speak. "It's sometimes hard to go on a ship where horrible things happened."
He sighed. "Well, yes and no. I admit the time we took on Zelos was probably the scariest thing I've ever done...and yet it's not just that. The fact that we had to kill somebody close to Fina, and that she was so close to him..." He grunted. "Ramirez went wrong, but I'm sure he wasn't a bad guy as a start. Fina still mopes about losing him, and it isn't just losing a fellow Silvite; it's about losing somebody close. I think I understand where she's coming from too...after all, I thought you were dead, and I practically went psycho. Ask Gilder or Lani."
The redhead let out a laugh that wasn't quite a chuckle nor a giggle, and threw her hands around her friend's neck. "You dumbass...you should've known I'd be okay."
Vyse gave a small smile. "Sometimes you lose hope. Not something I do often, huh? But uhh...let's change the subject. And stop hugging me in front of the crew, it's embarassing."
"Whatever the Cap'n says." Aika let go and ruffled his dark brown hair. "And anyway...don't think about the horrible things that happened on board this ship. Think about all we accomplished: we sailed around the world, we saw so many new things, we became world famous..." She grinned. "The Delphinus isn't all that bad. It sort of made you who you are."
"I wouldn't say so. I've always been who and what I am...I just needed the Delphinus to see it, I guess." He shrugged, dismissing the subject. "We'd better talk to Centime to see how the repairs of the tavern are going. We have to be out of the port within the hour and I want to make sure that everything runs smoothly here while we're gone."
"Oh, sure, sure...captain's responsibility and all that." She grinned and hopped onto his back, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Now, giddyap!"
Vyse grinned and grabbed her legs to hold her up, and then laughing along with Aika, ran down the twisting loading catwalk. Aern's eyes followed them as they went, watching as the two of them engaged in heartful immature activity despite the strange looks their crew gave them, and he listened as their laughter echoed about the cave walls of the underground harbor. He felt a pang of jealousy then, wanting to have a friend or anybody that close, to have something similar to what Vyse and Aika had, and knowing that he would never find it in the members of his Protectorate.
If he even found them.
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