All Vyse could do was stare. He had seen many strange things in his life, things that had lead to him becoming a living legend, but this topped the list. The ancient ruins of Rixis and Glacia, the strange empty corridors of Soltis, and even bizzare upside-down pathways of the Great Silver Shrine paled in existance to what was Gen Gulan. Gen Gulan wasn't how the others had been: a hollow, empty shell with faint traces left behind of what splendor and life it once held. No, the city of the Shwartizians lived. It was evident everywhere...from the ships both on the water below and the odd winged ships that glided about the air, to the lights that were scattered through the city like stars on nighttime skies.
Managing to tear his eyes from the city, he saw that his companions stood very much like him, gaping in awe at the magnificent city, words completely escaping them. Lani stood with tears shining in her eyes, knowing that this was the rarest and most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and it would be so for the rest of her life. Isapa's grin was just about as wide as his eyes, and he looked like a child staring at chocolate in a store that he knew he would get his hands on sooner or later. Gilder's mouth hung open, his cigarette having fallen from his lips to the deck, forgotten. Fina stood next to him, wide-eyed, hand clutching at the Black Moonstone pendant that she had received for her birthday, her fears momentarily forgotten. Then her face shifted into a look of intense worry, and then hardened determination. He knew that she would do her best to help these people and their wonderous city.
Looking at the city itself, Vyse wondered if Aern thought island-dweller cities such as Sailor's Isle and Nasrad were crude and ugly in comparison. It seemed to the Delphinus' captain that they suddenly were, that places he had once thought were spectacular suddenly dimmed in the glory of Gen Gulan.
Guided by Aern's instructions, the Delphinus made her way down to a series of docks on one of the smaller islands that were linked to the larger main one that made up the bulk of the city. There was some shouting between Aern and various Shwartzians in the area...men who stood on the docks, Mivarae who flew through the air, Protectorates who stood on the decks of ships that passed by. All seemed excited and anxious, some a bit worrisome...but none seemed displeased by the sight of an island-dweller ship. Vyse noted that none of the people seemed to be much more than thirty. Many of the groups that greeted the Delphinus as it docked were made up of teenagers; teenagers with grave, serious eyes, but teenagers none the less. The gravity of the situation seemed even more so, and the scarred blue rogue gripped the spokes of the wheel tightly. They had to find some way to help these people, or their entire race would die out.
After a few words with a group of three that jumped up onto the ship's deck with ease, Aern turned and lead them to the deck doors, Aika walking alongside of them. The three had to be a Protectorate, the clothing and way they walked clearly indicated that, if not their precise number. The tall, thin woman with close-cropped hair who spoke to Aern as they walked had to be the Sage, while the shorter teenager with waist-length hair seemed to be the Cleric. Much like Aern, she wore cream-colored clothing and a pair of simple red leather bracers. It was obvious that these bracers indicated a Cleric, one who could heal, just as much as a red cross indicated a doctor back up in the islands. The man of medium height who walked behind them with a fluid grace was no doubt the Warrior, as if his thickly muscled arms weren't an indication. He looked to be the oldest of the group, but he followed behind the Sage obediently.
"They're very class conciencous, aren't they?" Lani asked of nobody in particular. "Even more so than Valua, it seems."
"Let's hope that isn't a problem like it is sometimes in Valua." Vyse said while he watched the group disappear from the view of the bridge. He bent to the talk tube, cleared his throat, and then spoke loudly. "Attention, all hands. This is your captain speaking. For the duration of our stay, you are all ordered to remain on board the Delphinus. Those who do not obey will be subject to latrine and laundry duties for the next two months upon our return to Crecent Isle. I repeat: this is your captain. It is my order that none leave the Delphinus no matter what, until I return to the ship and order us to leave. Violators of this order will be scrubbing toilets and washing socks for nine weeks straight. That is all." He sighed as he stepped away from the device. "Hopefully that'll make everybody stay put. I don't want to be fishing for my crew in a strange city in case anything happens."
"Good idea. Never know what will happen down here." Gilder was still looking out the bridge windows at the magnificence of Gen Gulan. "Let's just hope that nothing does happen."
"Nothing will happen." Fina said in a confident tone. "If I am as important as Aern says, any who are my friends or who are important to me will not be harmed. I'm one of the head officers of this ship, so any members of my crew should be safe if I wish it." She turned as the doors to the bridge opened, and let her hand drop from her pendant as she saw Aern, Aika and the Protectorate enter.
"Captain Vyse, this is Maena...she's the Sage of her Protectorate." Aern said as a means of introduction. "She'll escort us into the city." He turned to the short-haired woman. "Maena, gae ist Vyse, Delphinus ae gallen, an meundain dem Silvite. Dae Silvite ist vam Faena...amer "Fina" ....ma schellanmentzae dae ins ae Aelmanallengai."
Vyse went to shake the hand of the woman with a smile. "I'm not sure if you understand me, and I'm not positive what "Aelmanallengai" means...but welcome to my ship. I'm very pleased and honored to be here in Gen Gulan."
"I understand you, island-dweller, and that is just what Aelmanallengai means....it is the Shwartzian word for those who live in the islands above Deep Sky." Maena's accent was much thicker than Aern's, but she seemed to grasp the language fairly well, if her pronounciation was slightly outdated. "You are welcome here in Gen Gulan, even if we have not seen your kind in many many years." She turned to Fina and bowed her head formally. "Su men wa, anaki, di koname ono noka zem."
Fina blinked and reached back into her memory for the proper response. "Su men wa, anaki, di n...nanei unudai ono Res." She then made a rueful face. "I'm sorry, but it's been so many years I've spoken Old Silvite, I barely remember any of it. When I left the Great Silver Shrine, we spoke the same language that the island-dwellers spoke."
"And how fares the Shrine?" Maena asked politely.
"It's gone. It crashed into Soltis." she said it in a bland manner, obviously hiding the pain behind an empassive mask.
"Ah, what a pity." A brief flicker of grief passed over her face. "Then you are truly the last, yes?"
Fina nodded solemnly.
"Well, you have friends here in Shwartzia...ones you have not yet met, but ones that you will not forget. When you are done here, you will be known as a hero."
"I just want to help. Please, let's not stand around here any longer...take me to wherever I'm supposed to go."
"I will have to tell the Council that you're here, so until then, you will be under Aern's guidance. Please, gather what friends you will take with you and follow me."
So it went that in a few moments Fina and her entourage walked down the smooth-stoned streets of Gen Gulan, lead by Maena's protectorate. The group consisted of Fina, Vyse, Aika, Aern, Gilder, Lani and Isapa. Fina wanted to take more, but Vyse reminded her that a smaller group was easier to keep together while walking through a strange city. Gilder glanced around warily at every crossing they passed.
"Why so edgy, boy?" Isapa seemed relatively at ease. "There's nothing here that'll come out and bite you."
"I just hate being in unfamiliar places, that's all. No...that's not it. I'm okay with unfamiliar places...I'm just absolutely not okay with unfamiliar places that I don't understand in the least." He nervously adjusted his pinch-on sunglasses. "I need to know my enemy."
"Gilder, keep your voice down." Lani warned. "You don't want to upset or offend our hosts. Besides, nobody's our enemy here."
"If there's one thing I've learned to do, it's to treat your enemies friendly, and think that every one of your friends is an enemy." His brown eyes scanned the windows of nearby buildings, most of which were occupied by teenagers and children, looking out to see the Silvite enter the city. "Let's just hope that my philosophy doesn't have to apply here."
The people lining the streets cheered raggedly as they passed through, most of them children...but no child seemed younger than four. They waved their arms and even smiled at Fina as she passed, but the dull look in their eyes made it seem almost as if a funeral procession was going past. The Silvite smiled at them, but she too had a look in her eyes different than the look on her face.
Fina was saddened, and Vyse knew it. It was depressing him a bit too, seeing all of these people in their beautiful city with their ugly mood. From the first glance, all he could think was that Gen Gulan was remarkable and breathaking, pulsing with life, verility and technology. Now, on closer inspection, Vyse realized that Gen Gulan was drawing its last breaths; the city was on its deathbed.
While this was occurring to Vyse, it was also occurring to his best friend. Aika walked along next to Aern behind Vyse and Fina, and she could almost feel the hopelessness. Not only that, but she finally understood her Shwartzian friend's mannerisms. The quiet way that he spoke, his sad smiles, the tired look in his eyes...things that he didn't always let slip, but she had occasionally seen in the few weeks that he had been with the group, those things all made sense. They were a result of living life full of worry and despiration, of trying to survive when it was known that there was no point, that everybody would sooner or later join their loved ones and pass on without a legacy. Suddenly the deaths of her parents seemed very small and her life that of a princess. Aika had only lost her mother and her father, but Aern had lost all but his sister.
"Aern?" She felt the need to say something to cheer him up. "How are you doing, buddy?"
"Hmm?" Obviously he was thinking as he walked along. "Oh. I'm fine, thank you. And you? Do you like my city?"
"It's lovely...definately a wonderful place to live." She winced inwardly. Right, the perfect place to live if you liked to be reminded of your own impeding extinction. "Hey...don't you want to walk up front with Maena's Protectorate?"
He blinked, looking up ahead. "No, I don't think I should."
"Why not? You're the one who found Fina, you're the one who told her what was going on, and you're the one who brought her here so she can help. You should be marching up there with your head held high...you're a hero come home." It sounded lame, and she hated the overuse of the word "hero", having heard it applied far too often to Vyse. Still, she was sincere.
"Hero?" He laughed. "Not really. I haven't done anything." The smile faded from his fair-skinned face. "She's here, but look at my people, Aika...just look at them. Some of them think that the Silvite will save us all, but..." He lowered his voice. "There's more going on here than I told all of you. Please...don't tell Fina or anybody else. I don't want you to think you can't trust me."
"What? What's going on here?" This was new, and a bit concerning. What could be going on that would make him worry so much?
Aern dropped his eyes. "I'll tell you later, when we're at my home." It seemed that all traces of the tall, thin gentleman were gone, and in his place stood a man tired with worry and fear. He suddenly seemed to be as old as he claimed he was. "Please...trust me."
Aika nodded, and looked ahead. "I have so far, haven't I?"
* * *
The city was huge, so many miles across, a testiment to a past glory of the Old World. The massive span of the stone wings overhead seemed to cradle the city protectively, like a mother holding a child. The grand proportions of it were beginning to tire the group, however, after they had been walking for a while. They felt dwarfed by it, almost oppressed, and the roiling clouds above did not help their spacial conceptions.
Briefly, they stopped to allow another procession through, a small group of pale-faced Shwartzians walking in two shuffling lines, all garbed in dull gray. At the head of them stood two young men, only one of them looking really old enough to be considered thus, and between them they carried a small silver and black box. It was fairly obvious what the purpose of the procession was.
Maena stood quietly with her Protectorate and watched them go past, her expression unreadable. The Warrior stood next to her, almost idly, while the Cleric folded her hands behind her back and bowed her head, not wanting to look at the young couple who comforted each other behind the casket bearers.
Fina watched as well, her face blanched, her hands clasped together at her chest. Cupil floated next to her face, nuzzling her to provide a bit of comfort. "They barely even cry..." Her green eyes glanced around at the people on the streets, most of which were doing their best to look elsewhere. "How can these people not feel?"
"When death is part of your daily life, you choose not to feel any longer." The matter-of-fact way that Maena said it made the statement all the worse. "Besides, it is what happens when there are those foolish enough to try to conceive."
The Silvite's eyes followed the small casket. It definately did not need two people to carry it. "How old...?"
"It all depends on how strong the mother is, but...all are pre-natal." The Sage seemed detached.
"A miscarriage." Aern said behind them. "It's not common, but not unheard of either." It was the first thing he had said in a while. "Please, Maena...we're almost to my home. Let's continue on."
They passed the funeral procession quietly, and left the family behind to mourn for their nameless child.
* * *
"We will be leaving you here." Maena said as they stood in front of a large domed building that had a collection of strange glowing bushes on its grounds.
"Moons..." Aika looked up at the large home. "This is your house, Aern? I've seen smaller palaces."
The Shwartzian didn't reply. Instead he gave a shy smile to them and colored a bit in the cheeks.
Maena turned and spoke directly to Fina. "After the Council has been reported to, we will send a messanger to you. They will give you a greater idea as to what you must do, and how your friends may aid you. Until that time, please remain here and do not leave. Gen Gulan is a large city, and it would be difficult to find you, even with your pale hair and green eyes. After that, however, I am sure you will be free to see our fair city at your leisure."
Fina inclined her head politely. "Thank you, Maena."
"You are welcome. As I said before, you have friends here in Shwartzia. Until later," The thin woman bowed, turned on her heel and lead her Protectorate away to the center of the city. The man followed her silently, but the young Cleric turned and smiled to them, and gave a small wave before following. It was obvious that only Maena could speak their language.
"Ah yes, that is the universal language." Isapa said. "A smile, a wave...signs of general friendship."
"I thought love was the universal language?" Lani asked wryly.
The fat man let out a booming laugh. "So it is, so it is. Many many things do not need to be spoken at all, and that girl knew that. She was more welcoming to us than her leader."
"Yeah, Maena struck me as a little cold." Vyse said as Aern lead them up the walkway to the building. "Polite, but chilly."
"Maena is one of the oldest Sages, and prides herself on her precise logic. It doesn't leave much room for feeling. There are other reasons why she's the way she is." Aern fumbled around in his vest for a key. "I hope the place isn't too much of a mess. Eleah isn't the neatest, and she's been home to Gen Gulan more than I have recently." He grunted and swore in his own language as the door swung wide open at his touch. "And I see she's left it unlocked again. I hope I haven't been robbed blind."
The purple-haired man lead them into the dark inside, and fumbled along the wall for something. "Oh...where is that thing..." He passed his hand over something, and the lights came on. They seemed electric, but had a softer, more pure kind of glow to them. The main foyer was taller than it was wide, with a sloping ceiling, and it ended in a T-shape. "No wonder I couldn't find it." Aern said, examining an oval disc set into the wall. "The light in it needs to be recharged."
"That's a funny light switch you have there. Is there anything else funny in your house, like a magical fireplace?" Gilder looked around, less wary now that he was inside. "Or maybe a hallway with a moving floor?"
"A fireplace yes...it's a methane and moonstone fireplace, nothing magic there. Moving floor...no. I'm afraid you'll have to walk." He headed down the foyer and turned right, with the others behind him. After turning the lights on, he walked to a chair and sat down in it gratefully. The room was rather large, but he seemed comfortable. "Please, sit down everybody."
Aika didn't want to sit down, however. She looked around the room in wonder. Much of the furnature seemed to be made of red and gold silks, and an odd blueish-black wood. The walls themselves were paneled in a strange wood that had alternating strains of light and dark wood running through the grain. The floor was a lighter color of the similar purple-gray stone that much of Gen Gulan was made of, and it was covered with detailed carpets. There were things around to make the place look lived-in and less like a palace, however. One table was covered with picture frames full of photographs, while another had some sort of board game set, the peices both on the board and halfhazardly heaped up alongside it. A pile of books sat on the endtable near the chair Aern was seated in, and it was obvious that he had moved to his favorite chair.
"How many rooms are in this house?" Aika asked, looking at the pieces of the game. It sort of reminded her of backgammon.
"Twenty-seven." Aern picked up a book from the table, and thumbed through it. "Oh sorry, twenty-eight if you count Eleah's walk-in closet."
"That many? How in the world does a guy like you have a big house like this?" She picked up one of the game pieces and rubbed it with a finger. It seemed to be made of some kind of weird stone she couldn't identify....or maybe some odd kind of wood. "And what the hell is this thing made of?"
"I have such a large house because I inherited it. My family has owned it for generations. And that taeban piece is made of plastic...it's kind of cheap."
Vyse peered at the small flat thing in Aika's fingers. "What kind of tree is plastic, anyway?"
"Plastic is a synthetic material...it doesn't grow anywhere. Please don't ask me much more about it, since I'm not sure how it's made." He waved a hand to indicate the whole of the house. "If any of you want to look around, feel free. You saw how the light switches work. The kitchen is down to the left of where we came in, and there's a bathoom next to it. There's also the den on this side, and a library upstairs. We even have a piano upstairs in one of the old bedrooms, but I don't know how to play it. Eleah has a bunch of paintings and other kinds of art she's been collecting in a room up there, if anybody's interested in that." He pulled open the book. "If you don't mind, I'm going to enjoy being home, and read some of my favorite book...which I was stupid enough to leave behind before."
"Before you read, young man...may I make us something to eat?" Isapa pointed in the way of the kitchen. "I'm anxious to get in there and make us something good, but I'm not so rude to not ask."
"Sure, go ahead...you'll probably do better than me at cooking. I hope you like aquatic fish and mushrooms, because we eat a lot of those around here." He didn't even look up from his book and waved Isapa away. "Have fun. Just don't burn a hole in my pots."
But it was only a minute later when the fat priest came back. "Uh, excuse me Aern...but what precisely is that large metal thing? I opened it up and there was a light inside."
"Mmm? Oh, that. It's..." He paused as he fished for the word in a language other than his own. "I guess you would call it an icebox. You keep food cold in there so it doesn't spoil. Just don't touch the containers labled "venesheim", since they're medicine." He lowered his eyes to read his book once more.
Isapa bustled off to the kitchen again, with Gilder behind him saying "I told you not to open those "veneeshime" containers...". Vyse had gone upstairs with Fina to look at the paintings that Eleah had collected, while a faint strain of music indicated that Lani had found the piano, and definately knew how to use it. That left Aika still looking around the first room, more curious than the others by nature, with Aern reading his book contentedly.
"So many pictures..." Aika picked up one of the picture frames. "Very high-quality too."
"My father liked to take photographs, especially of his family. He really loved my mother and his children." He twisted in his chair to point at a larger portrait. "That one there he didn't take though...that's professional. That one was taken when I was six."
The redhead picked up the picture frame. "If you're six...wait...then you're the second youngest in your family?" The family within the frame smiled happily as they stood and sat together in a group: a mother, father, and five children. The little purple-haired boy near the bottom smiled a huge grin that bared as many teeth as possible. She couldn't help but chuckle, since she remembered a kid growing up that smiled like that.
"Yes, Eleah's the youngest, as if you couldn't tell by her behavior." He stood and set his book down on the chair arm. "The one with the stupid grin is me. It's a very old photograph, but our technology was very advanced. The image is impressed on the back of the frame itself. Aside of direct sunlight exposure over a prolonged period of time, it won't fade." He picked up another picture and smiled faintly. "Not that it matters...when we entered our sleep, Mortian did the same, and by doing so extended his power to preserve the city perfectly. That way, we would not awaken to dust and ruins."
"So your house is the exact same way that most houses were ten thousand years ago?" Aika looked around. "Wow..."
"Yes, and there are things here that your technicians of today have forgotten how to make. At one point, all cities in the world had homes like these."
"And who's this with you? This photo is different..." Aika picked up a smaller frame made of the striped wood. In it were a younger Aern and a pretty blue-haired girl with a gentle smile. Both seemed to be around eighteen.
Aern took it from her, and lowered his eyes to look at it. "Oh. That's Naenen. My ex-girlfriend."
"Oh, break-ups suck. Not that I ever had a serious boyfriend myself, but y'know...I've heard."
"It wasn't like that." He set the picture down carefully. "We loved each other very much....ever since we were sixteen. We even became engaged, right around the time this picture was taken. By then I was entering training to become a Sage, since my family was known for its intelligence and forsight." He sighed and smiled, remembering. "Naenie was such an energetic and bright girl...full of happiness even when her family awakened and passed away...she always said it was better to die happy than to live miserable. She was my best friend, the one person that I could confide in and trust.
"Not long after we became engaged, much to our surprise, Naenen became pregnant. I didn't think it was possible, after what the Head Cleric in the council had said about our women being barren. We were happy, as were our friends. Normally, having a baby outside of wedlock is frowned upon..."
"I know, it still is." Aika smirked. "Some things stay the same."
"I wish they did."
"Why? What happened to the baby?"
Aern paused, his red eyes distant. "In the middle of the night, Naenie went into labor. She was only five months pregnant. It was stillborn, but that wasn't the end of it. Naenen was bleeding quite a bit, and I didn't want to leave her. I sent Eleah to go get a Cleric to heal her, but none were trained enough to heal hemmoraging and rebuild blood." His voice grew very quiet. "I don't blame Eleah for it, it wasn't her fault. She thought that Naenen's death was because of her, but it wasn't. It wasn't my fault either, but..."
"But you blame yourself." Aika understood. Hearing the story, after all she had learned about Aern's life previous, made her want to cry...and Aika didn't weep often. She wondered why Aern wasn't crying himself. "Don't, though...don't ever blame yourself. I did that for my parents, and all it made me was angry." She took his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Is that why you're a Cleric instead of a Sage?"
"Yes." He didn't make eye contact, but kept staring at the arrangement of photographs through his dark purple eyelashes. "I wanted to learn how to help people, to save them if they were dying, to heal them if they were sick...to give them comfort if they were upset. Anything to try to redeem not being able to help Naenen." His expression remained the same, but his voice quavered. "I would do anything to have her back, but I know that's not possible. And I would do anything to help my people, because I love Shwartzia as much as I loved my fiancee." He looked at her, his eyes full of the pain that he had done his best to bury over the past year and a half. "This is why I don't care if I'm a hero, Aika. I don't care about that...that's not what's important to me. Saving my people is, and restoring the order here is too."
She could feel him trembling, his hand shaking in her own. His eyes, however, were passionate and intense, and she knew that he would save Gen Gulan, no matter what. "Is that what you were talking about earlier? The reason why the people saw Fina and didn't react? There's no order in Gen Gulan?" She regretted asking it instantly, after he had already told her so much. She didn't want to upset him any more, especially here in his own home, but she needed to know the truth.
"My people are divided right now, over the very issue that I left my country to help with. Part of it is adolecents not understanding the situation, but part of it deals with the Council, and their state. You see, some of them believe in the Silvites, and that they will save us. I believe in this, since I've studied the powers of Silver Moon Crystals, and I believe that Fina has the power within her to heal. There are those who think that the solution falls in us leaving Gen Gulan and going to the surface, and then trying to marry island-dwellers instead of our own kind. That concept upsets many, since we are a proud people, and do not want our bloodlines watered down like they have been in Ixa'Taka. Eleah once believed in saving our race this way when she was younger, but she has chosen Gaed's side.
"And the last group believes that outsiders do not belong in Gen Gulan, that it is our problem, that we have offended the gods or the planet, and that we must suffer in silence...or find a solution on our own. Until recently, this was the way Gaed thought. The Council decided to try asking the Silvites for help before anything else, so they sent him out. Right before he left, he spoke to certain Council members at great length, and came to realize that it was the greatest hope for our race, aside of abandoning Gen Gulan."
His vermillion eyes looked at the picture frames before them. "If you ask me what I really believe...I believe in anything that would help our people survive. If Fina cannot help us, and I must leave my home to marry an island-dweller in order to have a family, then I accept that. Anything is better than sitting down here in a cauldron, slowly dying, all the while surrounded by roiling bubbles as people's opinions and tempers bubble and boil. I just hope that Fina can help us, and it sets everyone at ease."
Aika, realizing that she still held his hand in hers, decided not to let go, but put her other hand around it. "I understand what you're saying...that this problem needs to be solved soon, before people start rioting and fighting in the streets."
"I hope it never comes to that, but it may." He shuddered at the thought of it, knowing the truth but never wanting to openly say it. "My people are a hair's breadth from civil war, and I think all that can stop them now is Fina."
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