The Dark Rift
They remained at Sailor's Isle for the latter part of the next day. While Aern and Gaed both did seem somewhat anxious to take Fina back to their home continent, they also respected her feelings, and didn't want to push her into anything too quickly. While passing through the reef into southern Nasrian skies, on towards Cape Victory, they both discussed this with her privately.
"We know that it's a large task to do," Gaed was saying. "but we don't want to make it too stressful for you."
Fina nodded, seeming a bit dubious. "I appreciate that, it's just that I really wish I knew what I had to do."
Aern, who had been sitting quietly nearby for most of the conversation, shrugged a bit helplessly. "That's just it, Fina...we aren't sure. Gaed and I don't know, and I doubt Eleah knows either. I don't think our Protectorate was authorized to hear that information. Many things dealing with the Council are kept quiet outside its ranks."
"That's funny. Your government likes to keep secrets from its people?"
"Many governments do." Gaed rumbled in his deep voice. "But rest assured, we Shwartzians are of polite and ceremonious sorts. Whatever will happen, I am sure that it will be regarded as something of high importance, and you and your friends will be treated with the utmost respect and courtesy."
Fina smiled slightly. "That makes me feel a little bit better. After seeing how polite you two are, I have a feeling that the rest of your people are the same. I think I can be prepared for whatever happens."
Gaed returned her smile with a reasurring nod. "Good. In that case, I'll ask your captain to continue nonstop to the Dark Rift, and to not stop in Esparanza for the night. Pardon my apparent impatience in this matter, but this is something that has waited far too many centuries."
"That's all right, Gaed...I understand. Go talk to Vyse about it." She reached out to pat Cupil on the head, who was nuzzling her cheek soothingly, detecting its mistress' unease as always. "I'll be ready when we get there."
The indigo-haired man nodded, and exited the room quietly. Aern did not accompany him, but instead came to stand next to Fina.
"Where I live.....Gen Gulan...you would have never seen it, nor been able to learn about its people from where you lived in the Great Silver Shrine, correct?"
"Yes, that's right. The Elders must have known, but never did mention it."
"That's what I thought." He continued on, his red eyes fixed on her in that penetrating way they always did, as if he was seeing directly into her soul. "I just want you to know that if you have any questions, concerns, frustrations or the like that deal with my homeland and my people, don't hesitate to ask me." His eyes lowered. "Me, Fina...not Gaed. I know he's the Sage of my Protectorate, but..." Aern shook his head, dismissing the matter. "Just ask me anything. I consider you my friend now, and would be happy to help." He turned to leave.
"Yes?" He stopped, partway though the act of stepping out of the doorway that lead to the main hallway.
Fina's brow was furrowed, her head cocked slightly to the side. "What's wrong with Gaed?"
His response wasn't immediate, as if he couldn't quite place the answer himself. When he responded, it was quick and quiet, given as his long legs carried him out the door. "He's different somehow."
* * *
"Whaddya mean, different?" Aika asked, her face contorted into one of almost comical puzzlement.
"He seems decent to me." Vyse said. "A bit stiff at times, but I sort of thought that was because of the fact that he normally speaks a different language."
"Aern didn't say, and didn't seem like he wanted to discuss it either." Fina chewed at her lower lip worridly. "Aern mentioned that Gaed was a good friend of his, but if Aern thinks that he's acting funny, maybe we shouldn't trust him entirely."
"One would say that about Aern, though." Vyse said pointedly. "We've only known him for a few days. He seems to be decent, but..."
Aika frowned sourly. "I don't think we have to worry about that. Aern seems like the honest type. I mean, we only have known Lani for a few days and we trust her well enough, so why not trust Aern equally?"
"I know, but I'm just saying, Aika...." Vyse sighed. "Well, this is my decision on it: we treat and trust both Shwartzians the same. Gaed just might be a bit short with people normally, or maybe getting stuck down in Soltis for a couple of months made him a bit wacky. There's no reason to jump to conclusions here."
The Silvite nodded. "Yes, you're probably right. Gaed may not be overly comfortable riding with pirates, or even not comfortable around island-dwellers. Or maybe he's just nervous about me, because I'm important to Shwartzia."
"I can try asking Aern about this if you want." Aika offered. "He's more comfortable around me than anybody else...probably because he's known me a few days longer than he's known you guys."
"Hold off on that thought for now." Vyse said, resting his foot up on the meeting room's table and leaning back in his chair. "If Aern has a problem with Gaed, it's probably personal, and doesn't deal with us." He glanced up to the large double metal doors that granted entry to the room just as they opened. Gilder walked in, flicking a half-finished cigarette. The Delphinus' captain frowned in response to this. "Gilder, I've told you not to drop your ashes all over my ship."
"Well sorry if I can't be as sanitary as you want, Auntie Vyse, but I'm only human." He sat down in a chair to join them. "So what's up?"
"We were just wondering about Gaed." Fina said. "Aern was saying that--"
"--He's really weird?" Gilder interjected. "Anybody could've told you that. I've kept my eye on him since he came on board, just because something just doesn't sit right in my gut about that guy." He took a drag off his cigarette. "Maybe it's because he's a friggin' egotistical jerk. He walks around the decks like he owns the damn ship or something. Not to mention, he's too nice."
"Is that a bad thing?" Aika mused in a joking manner.
"Well, it's one thing to be raised to have good manners....y'know, do things like hold doors for old ladies or to try not to fart at the dinnertable. But this guy goes beyond that. Sometimes I think he smiles so much that his face is gonna crack. It's like he constantly think he's posing for a goddamn photograph, so he has to be Mr. Nice and Clean." The red-clad pirate snorted. "That's why it's a bad thing. It doesn't seem natural."
"Well think of it this way, Gilder...if you were on board with a bunch of unfamiliar people, and you really needed something from one of them, wouldn't you put on your best face and play the gentleman?"
He shook his head, blowing a stream of smoke from his nostrils. "I am a gentleman, Aika...and a gentleman knows that you've just gotta be yourself and not stress things too much when you're around others. Right Vyse?"
"Don't ask me, I don't practice Gilderism." He folded his hands behind his head. "But if you think Gaed is weird, keep in mind that Aern's also really polite...almost to the point where he's perfect. Maybe all Shwartzians are like that."
Gilder snubbed out the end of his cigarette on the aluminum tabletop, ignoring Vyse's disapproving stare. "Eh, maybe. You're the captain, so I can't tell you what to do....but I myself am gonna keep an eye on this Gaed guy. The moment he does anything fishy, he'll be staring down a pair of pistols before he can even blink."
* * *
Despite Gilder's unease and Aern's remark, Gaed did nothing unusual on the way towards the Dark Rift. He occasionally asked Fina questions about her life in the Great Silver Shrine, but didn't seem to mean anything by it; it was more like he was simply making small talk. When they arrived at the coordinates that marked the swirling entry to the Dark Rift, Gaed addressed Vyse.
"I will change into Mivaeria form and lead you the proper way through the rift. Aern will remain on deck as backup, so he can guide your crew in case they lose sight of me. I will carry a light, however, so you should be able to spot me fairly well."
"Sounds good to me. Will the trip be as rough as it normally is through the Dark Rift?"
"Yes and no. At first, the storm will be as fierce as it always does. When the Dark Rift, as you call it, senses a Black Moon Crystal, it opens the way down to Gen Gulan. At that point, the air nearby will be not only calm, but clear as well...and the trip down will go much smoother."
"Good. My crew really dislikes the Dark Rift. We had to go through once, and once was more than enough for everybody. Normally, we sail over it to keep everybody happy."
Gaed smiled slightly. "Then mission accomplished, because the rift is there to keep people away from Shwartzia." He nodded sharply. "Good, then it's settled. I will go to transform now. Aern will notify you when I'm ready." He turned and strode out of the bridge, and on towards the temporary quarters he was given.
Aern, who had been standing nearby quietly, watched him go with a frown. "I was going to guide you myself, but Gaed insisted. He is the leader of our Protectorate, so I won't argue with him." He sighed. "But still..."
"I think I understand how you feel. You found Fina, so why should Gaed seem like the hero?"
"Exactly." He sighed. "It doesn't matter...it's just a personal thing, not important in the grand scheme of things. Let's continue on, Vyse; I'm sure the Council will be glad to see us."
Holding a silver moonstone lantern, Gaed circled up ahead of the Delphinus, right before the entryway to the Dark Rift. He seemed the least bit concerned of the nearby storm that had torn so many ships to shreds. Signalling with his lantern, the dragonic creature began to fly into the rift.
"Follow him slowly, Vyse." Aern's voice came in thinly over the talk tube. The purple-haired Shwartzian stood on the deck, his dark cloak whipping about him in the wind. "While we don't want to lose him, I'd rather not run him over."
"You heard the man. Engines at docking speed, and don't give it any more juice until I say so." Vyse himself held the wheel, his helmsman far too nervous to pilot the ship into the Rift. He gritted his teeth as the ship slowly made its way into the ominous darkness that was the Dark Rift. "Here we go..."
Propellors whirling slowly, the Delphinus pushed its way through thick black clouds and fast-moving winds. The ship trembled and shook from the strange changes in air pressure that no other storm could produce. The crew on bridge were quiet and withdrawn, all uncomfortable with where they were and yet none wanting to argue with their captain. Fina especially looked pale as she tightly gripped at her station's console.
"Are you all right?" Vyse murmured to her, quietly so the other crew members wouldn't take notice.
"It'll be over soon." He looked up ahead, and frowned. They had entered one of the still pockets of air, where surreal islands shaped by the harsh winds floated quietly, dotted here and there by the ragged remains of downed ships. He could see the strange glowing plants, the shipwrecks, Aern standing on deck, even the dark swirling clouds in the distance, but the one thing he was looking for was missing.
"Aern?" Vyse shouted into the tube. "Where did Gaed go?"
"I don't know..." Aern's voice sounded bewildered and slightly embarassed. "He was right here in front of us, and I could still sense him, but now...I don't know. Maybe he cut right through to Gen Gulan." A few strange words came through the talk tube, alien-sounding to Vyse. Then he realized that Aern was swearing in his own language.
"Can you take us through?" Vyse asked.
Aern's stream of profanity stopped. "Yes, just allow me to....wait a moment. I see somebody coming." He stepped away from the tube, to take a few steps towards the center of the deck. A figure was gliding towards them, although it held no lantern.
"Is that Gaed?" Aika asked of nobody in particular.
"I don't know. Hans, full stop. We're not moving for now." Vyse looked out the windows of the bridge, watching as Aern shouted up to the Shwartzian circling ahead. By his body language, it seemed as if he was trying to get the flying creature to land on deck. Appearing frustrated, Aern turned to Vyse and motioned to him to come out on deck.
"Why does he want us out there?" Fina looked at Aika.
"Don't look at me, I'm as clueless as you are."
"Aika, take the helm, just in case we get going again. Gilder, let's go outside and see what's up."
Gilder patted one of the pistols slung in his holster. "Meet and greet defense?"
"Meet and greet defense. Be on your guard. Something's funny here." The scarred blue rogue lead Gilder out through the bridge and down to the deck's doors.
Outside, the wind was surprisingly calm, although a bit cold. Aern stood, shouting at the circling Mivaeria, his normally quiet voice sounding somewhat strange and harsh as he shouted in the Shwartzian tongue. "Zishnae! Vem de mer dein!"
"Mai gemmen nust dennae, Aern! Nust sellem gai!" The voice of the circling figure was definately not Gaed's. While it was somewhat low and resounding like both Aern and Gaed's were in Mivarae form, it definately was not masculine. Whomever was flying above the deck was female.
Aern gritted his teeth in a frustrated manner. "Aargg...Zishnae!!"
"Zishnae?" Gilder asked, confused.
The purple-haired man turned, his face bearing an expression of annoyance. "Zishnae means "sister". That's Eleah flying up over us, and she's being beyond difficult."
"That's your sister?" The tall pirate glanced up, trying to see if the flying figure appeared even somewhat female. It was difficult to tell. "She seems like a pain in the ass, just like my sister."
"And I think you're a pain in the ass, Mr. Pirate!" Eleah called down, her purple eyes glowing. "Why don't you go home? You have no place here."
"It seems like she understands the common language." Vyse muttered. He glanced up at her, and shouted up. "Are you gonna keep playing games with your brother, or are you going to come down here and discuss things in a civilized manner?"
"Why should I come down and talk to you, island-dweller? I'm here to talk to my brother!"
"If you were here to talk to me, then you should have said something that made sense, instead of playing these childish games!" Aern crossed his arms and glared up at his sister. He seemed like an entirely different person while angry.
A disdainful snort came from the gray-skinned creature, and she swooped down to alight on the deck gracefully. She was gray with batlike wings like her brother, although the white hair on her stomach and chest was somewhat shorter than Aern's, and the crest of hair on her head a bit longer. Her horns were also shorter, not to mention that she posessed a more femanine figure. "Fine, I'm down here. So let's talk."
"What do you want, Eleah?" Aern asked impatiently.
"I told you, I want these stupid pirate friends of yours to go away."
"You told her that we were pirates?"
"I'm sorry Vyse, but she did ask. And Eleah, they're not here to do harm. We were following Gaed down to Gen Gulan...but we've lost him."
The purple eyes stopped glowing briefly. "Gaed? You were with Gaed?"
"Yes, Zishnae...he was leading us down, because we found a Silvite."
Eleah turned, folding her wings. "...I thought that's why you are here."
"That's right, Aern and Gaed were leading us to take Fina down to your city to help your people...or at least that's what we were told."
The Mivaeria glanced over her slender shoulder at him. "And who are you?"
"I'm Vyse, captain of this ship. This is Gilder, captain of the Claudia, a friend of mine. And Fina, the Silvite, is a friend of both of ours."
"I see." She appeared to be distracted, even though she was listening to them.
"I would like to see nothing more than your people restored, and for life to return back to normal, but we can't do that while you're standing here on deck, delaying us."
The glowing eyes narrowed. "What are you insinuating, island-dweller? That I'm in your way? That I'm a small problem, a little obstacle that you need to get around somehow?"
"Eleah, we have no time for th--" Aern began.
"Quiet, little brother." She snapped, cutting him short. "If anybody, you're the one getting in our way...bringing all these island-dwellers instead of just the Silvite. Now Gaed may be in trouble for bringing outsiders in."
"That's nonsense. The Council would welcome them."
"Well I don't." She said stiffly, lashing her long tail.
Gilder gritted his teeth. "She's a racist, a goddamn racist."
"Gilder, hush." Aern said. "Her opinion doesn't matter."
"Well it matters to me." He stepped forward, face slightly red with anger. "Look lady, I don't know what the hell your problem is, but I don't like your attitude."
"Watch your tone, island-dweller. I am not in the best of moods right now."
"Well neither am I. What's with all this "island-dweller" crap, anyway? I don't know how the hell your mother raised you, but most of us learned to all get along."
"Silence." It was a growl, a scarcely veiled threat contained within, but Gilder failed to take notice.
"No, I ain't shutting up!" He continued. "I'm gonna tell you right now, lady, that on this ship, no...anywhere in this sky bigotry just ain't tolerated. Now if you have a beef with some individual, fine, but to suddenly hate my guts the moment you--"
He didn't get to complete the sentence. Letting out an inhuman screech, Eleah whirled around and in a flash of claws, slashed Gilder across the chest. Aern let out a yell even as Gilder staggered back and clutched at his ripped clothing. Drawing his swords, Vyse jumped in between the wounded pirate and the Mivaeria, who was already spreading her wings and bending her legs to leap into the sky.
"Just stay out of my way, Aern...and stay out of Shwartzia, until you can do things right for a change." Like a tensed spring, she shot into the air, flapping her wings to gain altitude. Ignoring Vyse and Aern's shouts, she glided into the swirling black clouds of the rift, and was gone.
Swearing, Vyse hooked his swords on his belt, and glanced over to Gilder. "You all right?"
Gilder did not in fact seem all right. Clutching at his chest, a small trickle of blood had soaked his shirt, his vest ripped open from Eleah's attack. "No, I'm not. No offense, Aern, but your sister's a bitch."
Aika was running out onto deck, boomerang in hand, with Lani not far behind her. "Vyse! What happened just now?"
"We were talking to Eleah, and she just snapped and attacked Gilder. She went and attacked him like some kind of cat."
"A cranky-ass cat." Gilder winced as Lani helped him to his feet. "I feel lousy..."
"Vyse, you need to take your ship out of the Dark Rift, and we need to get Gilder into bed." Aern supported Gilder, glancing at the slashes on his chest.
"Out of the Rift? Why?"
"Please Vyse, just do this....not for me, but for Gilder. We can't stay here."
"Fine, I'll set a course back to Esparanza." He turned and ran back into the doors, no longer questioning Aern.
"You're a cleric, right, Aern?" Gilder panted as they brought him below decks and towards his quarters. "You can help me out, right?"
"I will try. Aika, please get the door, will you?"
The redhead wordlessly opened the door and watched as the two of them helped Gilder sit on the bed, who protested mildly.
"Y'know, it hurts a bit, but not that much guys...I don't need you to drag my ass into bed."
"Too bad, because we are." Lani removed his coat, and took off his vest. "Those claws of hers cut right through your clothing. Be glad that she didn't take a swipe at your stomach, or else you'd be carrying your intestines around in a pail right now."
"Damn. I liked that vest, too. I didn't bleed on the coat too much, did I?"
"Well...maybe nobody will notice." He winced as Lani pulled off his shirt. "Careful, I'm bleeding here!" He muttered under his breath. "Lani, if I had known it took this for you to undress me, I would have taken on a wild tiger."
The Yafutoman woman ignored the comment, and started muttering a spell incantation to help heal the wounds. She only had uttered the first part when Aern raised a hand to quiet her. Frowning, she looked at him, confused. "Why don't you want me to cast spells on him? Did she do something to him?"
"Woah, she did something to me? Like what?" Gilder put a hand to his head. "Ugh, she must have...I'm really feeling like shit over here."
Aern looked at the slashes across Gilder's chest, and shook his head. "Your spells would do no good, Lani. Magic can't heal him."
"Man...I feel almost as if I'm..." The tall pirate laid back on the bed, wincing. "It's hot in here..."
The Shwartzian sighed, and looked up at Lani and Aika. "This is a major problem, and not even my clerical magic can help."
"Why not? What's wrong with Gilder?" Aika seemed concerned.
"Any kind of magic or medicine on your ship wouldn't help him. Your friend has been poisoned."
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