The floor below her was somewhat uneven, and cold. Aika was fairly certain it was a floor, because it wasn't moving or soft, and it didn't feel like wood. She shivered, not from the cold but as a reaction to the memory of falling. It was vague, but it was still there none the less. Slowly she opened her eyes to glance at her surroundings.
The cave was dark. One could tell it was a natural cave from first glance from the somewhat lumpy stalagtites jutting down from the ceiling. A small flickering fire was built not too far away from her, carefully placed in an evidant draft to prevent the smoke from being blown towards her. The female pirate sat up, feeling slightly groggy, not to mention a bit damp. Her clothing was wet, as was her hair, which wasn't up in its standard bizzare sideways braids. Somebody, however, had covered her with a cloak, and for that Aika was grateful. She figured she would be freezing cold in this cave with her wet clothing and all, but somebody had taken the trouble to cover her with a warm dark blue cloak. Upon closer inspection, Aika couldn't quite tell what sort of material the cloak was made out of, but she didn't exactly care. She wrapped it around her shoulders and huddled near the fire, still feeling weary, as if she wasn't sleeping at all recently.
"I see you're awake." came an accented voice to her left, towards where she surmised the mouth of the cave was. A young man perhaps a few years older than Aika stepped into the circle of firelight. His blue-black hair shone purple in light from the flames, and his skin was as pale as milk.
Aika's eyes widened, remembering the strange young man from the ball. "It's you..."
The strange young man sat down opposite of her near the fire, and smiled that pleasant grin of his. His neat ponytail was gone, and his purple-tinged hair fell to just past shoulder level, a few strands annoyingly falling in his face near his eyes. He wore more mundane clothing than he did at the ball in Valua, but its cut and style was still somewhat alien. He still preferred black, gray and blue, however. "I'm glad you remember me, Aika. I had hoped that your faint hadn't erased most of your recent memories."
He nodded, looking into the fire with his red-toned eyes. "Yes...you and your ship were caught in the heart of a storm front caused by the Dark Rift. You were flung overboard. Luckily, I was following your ship and I caught you before you reached lower sky."
Aika then remembered the look of pain and fear on Vyse's face before she fell, how he reached his hands out to her as she fell away from the Belleza, and how his features and then the ship itself disappeared from her view from the rain...or perhaps from the faint. She sighed sadly. "Yeah, I remember...falling at least. And the storm, but I don't remember landing on your ship or anything. Come to think of it, I'm surprised I'm not sore from hitting your deck."
"I don't have a ship." he said simply.
She raised her face to look at him directly. "Then how were you following us?"
He smiled slightly, and shook his head. "I will tell you later...perhaps tomorrow morning. Right now I think you've had enough stress on your nerves." He dug around in a small pack set aside near the fire. "Are you hungry?"
Suddenly Aika realized she was famished. "Yes, actually I am."
The purple-haired man produced a few apples and a piece of cheese. "Here...when the storm blows itself out I can go for more at Esparanza. I apologize, for this is all I have with me for now." He handed the food to Aika, who accepted it and began eating ravenously with somewhat ladylike restraint.
"Thank you." she said with a mouth full of apple. She really was hungry....she wondered how long she was unconcious.
"It's no wonder you're hungry. You were unconsious for most of yesterday, and today you've been sleeping on and off." he said, as if reading her thoughts. "You haven't exactly been awake, however; I believe that your mind was still asleep."
Chewing studiously on an apple, she looked at him shrewdly. "Can you tell me...who are you?"
"Oh yes, I never introduced myself. My name is Aern." Once again, that pleasant smile.
"Nice to meet you Aern." She returned his smile. "Uh...here's a stupid question...you're not a vampire or anything, are you?"
He laughed, a quiet yet pleasant sound. It seemed everything he did was pleasant. "No, I'm not a vampire. I didn't take you here to suck your blood or anything." He cocked his head to the side and listened to a faint howling outside. "The storm is still going strong. Perhaps we can risk it, at least the tail end of it."
"Where are we going?"
"To find your friends, of course. I still need to speak to your friend Fina."
"She's on board the Belleza....they're probably looking for me in this area. You said we were near Esparanza, right?"
Aern nodded. "Yes, several leagues to the southwest."
She frowned. "How are we gonna get to the Belleza, if you don't have a ship? Fly?"
He chuckled and shook his his head. "As I said before, I'll tell you in the morning. For now, I'm exhausted...and you could use some more rest too." He gave a small sigh when he saw her guarded expression. "I won't try anything, Aika. If I wasn't a gentleman, would I have taken you here where it's safe, ensure you were cared for and then fed you?"
"I'm sorry. It's just once..." she shook her head. "Never mind. Okay, I trust you Aern...you seem like a nice enough guy. I think I'd like to look at the fire for a little while before I sleep though; I have some thinking to do."
"Very well. I'll speak to you in the morning." He lay down on the stone floor of the cave, his back towards her. After a few minutes, his regular breathing indicated he was sleeping.
Aika continued to stay awake for at least an hour more, staring into the flames of their small fire. She still wondered how they had gotten here, and how Aern planned on getting them to the Belleza. Whatever it was, it had to be unnatural...you didn't just appear where you wanted to be, after all. Then she began wondering about Vyse and Fina and the others, wondering if they were all right. The Belleza was a sturdy ship and could withstand fairly strong storms, but Aika worried none the less. Then, when her eyelids began to droop with weariness, she lay back down and drifted off into sleep.
* * *
Lani opened the hatch from the lower decks to the upper deck, peering around. The weather was warm and dry this morning, and somewhat heavy...but that was to be expected near Esparanza. The scientist walked up onto deck, looking at the makeshift repairs they had made to the sails and rigging. It would have to do for now. She was no sailor, but even Lani could tell the Belleza needed extensive repairs at the nearest port, which would be Esparanza.
A small snore made her turn to the left. Captain Vyse lay huddled against the rail, one arm slung over the side. The scarred blue rogue apparently hadn't made it back to his quarters last night, since he had volunteered to stay up a bit later and watch the skies for anything long into the night. Lani smiled and shook her head at his determination. Aika must really mean a lot to him, if he strained himself like this. She walked over to him, and gently shook his shoulder. "Vyse?"
He muttered something in his sleep, but didn't respond otherwise.
Lani shook harder. "Vyse...Captain Vyse...please wake up. You can't be sleeping up on deck like this."
He opened his eyes and blinked at her, then glanced at his surroundings. "Huh...must of drifted off..." He stood stiffly, wincing slightly. "Ow...ugh...don't ever let me do that again, Lani. I feel like a pretzel." Vyse twisted slightly, cracking his back.
"I'll remember that next time. Are you hungry? I made breakfast since Fina didn't feel up to it this morning."
He took off his skyseer patch and rubbed at his face, having worn it overnight. There was a definate mark left on his skin from it. "How is she doing? She seemed fairly depressed last night."
Lani sighed and shrugged helplessly. "Who can tell, Vyse? She says that she's fine, but we both know that she isn't. She's doing her best to stay optimistic, though."
Vyse walked with her into the hatch and towards the dining room. "I am too, but I feel just as horrible as she does." He scratched at the bandage around his head. "Do I still have to wear this stupid thing?"
"I would say so....until that gash on the back of your head heals." She opened the door to the dining room, went in and sat down near Gilder.
"Morning, sunshine." Gilder said, looking up from his breakfast. "Have fun sleeping with the rigging?"
Vyse sat down next to Fina. "It wasn't my idea." He scratched at his hair again. "This stupid bandage...Lani, I'm sure I'm healed up. Fina's been casting green magic spells on me left and right."
"Do you still feel dizzy?"
"A bit, but that's probably from not sleeping well."
"Then leave it on." she said primly. "You still have a concussion." The Yafutoman scientist took a plateful of eggs and began to eat.
"It's not like my brains are going to leak out of my head..." he grumbled.
"Just do as she says, Vyse." Fina said. "Lani's a doctor of sorts, she knows what she's doing." She then giggled, and touched at his jawline. "You have a mark there...did you sleep with that eyepatch on?"
"Once again, not my idea." He began to eat. "I didn't see anything, either. I saw a bit of a dark smudge to the west, but it moved farther and farther away. I think that was the storm that nailed us yesterday."
"Two days go." Gilder corrected. "You were out cold for an entire day."
"Fine, then the storm that nailed us two days ago. How close are we to Esparanza?"
"I'd say about a half a day." the red-clad pirate said. "But that's in a straight line, without scanning the line of islands we've been following. They sort of go away from Esparanza."
"We can scan the islands later. Right now, we really need to make some repairs. Besides, we can ask around Esparanza...maybe see if a ship nearby picked up Aika. We were sailing along a well-traveled trade route after all." He scratched at his bandage again. "Damn this stupid thing...I'm healed enough." Pulling at it, he began to remove the layers of tacky cloth.
"I wouldn't do that...I already told you to keep it on." Lani said.
"I'm fine...ask Gilder, he knows." He continued to attempt to pull it off, trying not to pull half the hair off his head.
Gilder held up his hands defensively. "Woah...leave me out of this, Vyse. I refuse to take any part in your little battle here."
"Spoilsport." After utilizing a knife, he was able to remove the sticky clothlike tape from his head without removing too much hair in the process. He sighed happily and scratched at his hair where the bandage was. "So much better." Standing, he pushed back his plate. "I think I'll head up and take the wheel now."
"No you don't." Fina reached out to grab his arm. "You're getting more rest...you barely slept up there on the deck."
Vyse's face took on a pained expression. "Why are you people all treating me like a baby? I'm telling you I'm fine."
"Gilder can continue fine without your help....he knows where Esparanza is." The Silvite stood and began pulling him towards the door. "Come on, it's naptime."
He dug his heels into the floor, stopping her efforts to move him. "Naptime?!" he cried incredulously.
She bit her lip. "All right, poor choice of words....but you really ought to rest. You're never going to get rid of that headache if you treat yourself badly." Fina gave his arm a tug. "Now, come on."
Vyse turned to Gilder, who was laughing. "Will you stop that?" He shook his arm free from Fina's grasp. "Fine, it's naptime for Vyse baby. Whatever. Just wake me up when we get there."
"Whatever you say, Captain Vyse." Gilder said with a completely straight face.
* * *
Esparanza was as run-down as ever. The strange, unorderly town was still a mass of steel shanties and rusted towers huddled against a sheer rock face. The smell of pitted iron and propane exhaust hung heavily over the town. It was never a pleasant place, but it was a necissary stop for many ships heading to and from the Dark Rift. On this particular day, there seemed to be quite a few ships docked at the harbor, and more merchants wandering idly down the streets.
"I've never seen so many people here." Fina commented. "Normally this town is half-dead."
"It's probably the weather." Lani said. "Seeing how strong that storm that hit us was, I imagine the Dark Rift has become very intimidating, and you'd have to be insane to try to navigate it in the first place."
"That never stopped me before." Vyse said dryly. "All right...I guess we can stop at that tavern over there. Drunks have a tendancy to be fountains of information."
The tavern was crowded, noisy, and a thick haze of smoke hung just over the tables. Gilder waved his hand in front of his face with a cough.
"I'm not against a good smoke, but this is ridiculous." He squinted through the smoke. "All right, I'll go over to the bar to ask around." He made his way over, and almost immediately began flirting with the young woman tending bar.
"Gilder never changes." Fina shook her head. Then she narrowed her eyes as her gaze fixed on somebody. "Vyse....isn't that Vigoro over there?" She pointed at a burly man seated at the far end of the tavern.
Vyse looked at the man she pointed at with obvious distaste. Nobody really liked Vigoro, even after he had apparently reformed. Vyse himself disapproved of the ex-admiral's callous attitude towards women, and how he viewed them as objects rather than people. The one thing that really set Vyse's teeth on edge, however, was how Vigoro tried to force himself on Aika in the Grand Fortress a year past.
"From the looks of it, you don't like that man very much." Lani commented.
"Let's just say that he tried doing some unspeakable things to my best friend...and nobody, I mean nobody messes with Aika while I'm around." He sighed. "But I suppose we should talk to him, he might know something about where she is." The blue rogue captain strode through the crowds towards the large man seated lazily at a table by himself.
"Well well, hello there Vyse." Vigoro said with a grin. "Didn't expect to see you in a dump like this." Even though he was seated, he was at about eye level with Vyse. He gave an oily smirk at Fina. "Hey there, babe. I like the new threads, they show more of that pretty skin of yours."
Fina's face hardened and instead of ducking behind Vyse, she crossed her arms and stood her ground, meeting Vigoro's lecherous gaze with a steely stare. Cupil hovered next to her head, growling in a burbly manner at the large man.
Vigoro laughed. "You've changed, little lady. Not as shy and demure as you were, apparently....more like Red." He glanced around the crowded establishment. "Where is she, anyway? I've been hoping I'd run into her lately."
Fina's hard glare dissolved, and she looked at the floor. "We don't know. A storm hit our ship two days ago, and Aika was thrown over the rail."
The large man's couth attitude melted, his tanned face draining of color. "What?" He looked at Vyse. "How could this happen?"
"I keep asking myself that, Vigoro." He shrugged helplessly, his shoulders slumping. "It was circumstance, there was nothing I could do, and nothing Aika could do either." He straightened. "We were hoping sombody picked her up; I know there's a lot of small islands around the region we were sailing in, and we did see quite a few ships around that day."
The ex-admiral shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry Vyse, I really am...but I haven't seen her. I haven't heard anything of her being around Esparanza either."
"That's all right, we'll keep looking until we find her." Vyse glanced around the bar, looking for Gilder.
"Don't bother." Vigoro said in an abyssmal tone. "We both know what happens when people get thrown overboard in a storm out at open sea."
The blue rogue snapped his head back to glare at the burly man, his amber eyes burning. "Excuse me?"
"Look, I hate to be the pessimist, but Aika's good as dead. Not even Red could survive being dumped over the rail, especially near the Dark Rift....not unless she could fly, and that's doubtful."
"You're both disgusting and insulting, Vigoro...you're suggesting I just give up and abandon her? Do you have any idea--"
The ex-admiral stood to his full height. "Do YOU have any idea what time you're wasting?" he said, cutting Vyse off. "She's gone! She flew over the side, I've seen it happen before! I know you're a bit crazy at times, but you're just a goddamn jackass if you're wasting time and breath to tear the ocean apart looking for her. Wake up, already! Give it up!"
Vyse's eyes widened with an unreadable emotion and then he narrowed them, looking up at the large man, face red with rage. Then, he suddenly pulled back and slammed his fist squarely into Vigoro's jaw. While Vyse wasn't an overly tall person, he was incredably strong for his size; the massive man stumbled back from the blow, and fell over onto the table behind him. The entire bar fell silent, all turning to look at the scene unfolding at the far end of it.
"You son of a bitch...I ought to break your jaw for what you've said..." Vyse pulled back his fist to hit him again, taking a step forward, but Fina wrapped her arms around his arm, restraining him.
"No, Vyse! Beating on him won't solve anything!" She looked at him, her green eyes both pleading and reassuring. "Just let it lie."
Still breathing a bit heavily, the infuriated blue rogue lowered his fist, lowering his eyes to the floor. Then he turned and walked out of the silent bar, the crowd hastily moving out of his way. The door slammed behind him, and a hushed buzz came from the bar's patrons.
Gilder walked over to Fina and Lani, who still stood near Vigoro. "What the hell was that just now? I've never seen him so angry. Didn't think he'd go and pop somebody twice is size."
"I didn't either." Vigoro said, rubbing at the ugly purple welt forming on his face. He flickered his eyes up to them. "No apologies for what I said, I'm just being realistic. Go find your captain before he beats the hell out of somebody else." He then straightened, and sat down in his chair as if nothing had happened. Both Fina and Gilder followed his advice, and hurried out of the bar after Vyse, but Lani lingered for a minute.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Vigoro." she said. "I didn't think he'd do something like that."
Vigoro waved his hand, dismissing the whole ordeal. "Don't worry about it, just go calm him down. Nothing worse than a moody captain."
Vyse continued to stride angrily towards...somewhere. Away from the bar was his only destination, and he just let his legs carry him to wherever while his mind continued to spin. He massaged his fist as he walked, somewhat ruefully admitting that he shouldn't have hit Vigoro...at least not that hard. Behind him, he could hear his crew calling his name. The blue rogue stopped to let them catch up, but he didn't turn to face them.
"Vyse, what the hell was that just now?" Gilder demanded.
"I don't know." came the reply, in a restrained tone of voice.
"I've never, repeat, never seen you go whacko like that before, and I've known you to go through some incredable situations without batting an eyelash: escaping from the Grand Fortress, blowing up Gigas, saving the world." Gilder crossed his arms. "Turn to look at me when I'm talking to you."
"And who are you, my father?" Vyse turned to glare at the taller pirate.
"I'll let that slide because you're acting stupid right now. I know you hit your head, but you're being ridiculous. You're flat out being a jerk."
"I think I'm permitted to be a jerk from time to time," the scarred pirate declared hotly. "especially when I'm cranky, frustrated and upset all at once." He sighed. "I'm sorry. I know this isn't me, and you guys are suffering for it. Maybe it's because I hit my head too hard...I don't know." He brought a hand up and rubbed at his face wearily. "I'm just so tired..." he said quietly.
"Vyse..." Fina began.
"You three continue searching for information....I think I should go off somewhere and cool down for a while."
"Maybe that's for the best." Lani agreed.
"All right, then. I'll meet you three on the Belleza in a few hours." Vyse turned and walked off towards the dusty, eastern end of Esperanza. There was a definate weariness to his gait, one that he didn't let show often.
Fina watched him walk away almost sadly. "He's right, this isn't like him at all. I've never seen him like this." She clasped a hand to her chest, something she generally did while nervous or upset. "He's faced so many obstacles that would make other men cringe just thinking about them, and did just fine. Why is this affecting him so much?"
"I think it's because Vyse has know Aika since both of them were little." Gilder replied. "Losing somebody like that's gotta be rough."
"Perhaps it's more than that." Lani said thoughtfully. "Maybe he has feelings for Aika, and that's why this bothers him so."
"I wonder that too, sometimes." the tall pirate admitted. "But then again, even if it's true I doubt even Vyse knows about it....or maybe just pretends not to know. Ignorance is bliss."
"We should move on." Fina declared, not fully able to hide the bitter disappointment and chagrin on her face and in her voice. "We need to continue searching the town, and then there's the matter of getting our sails and rigging fixed."
"All right." Gilder agreed, not dwelling on the obvious reason why Fina was upset. "Let's split up, we'll get more work done that way."
* * *
Vyse's legs took him to the rusted-out watchtower at the southeastern tip of Esparanza, a tall, ugly, iron structure situated on a small island near the city. He walked along the somewhat wobbly catwalk towards the pitted tower, trying to sort out this thoughts and clear his head so he could think logically. No matter how he tried, he simply couldn't. Normally, he could easily set aside any anxiety, fear, anger or any other emotion he was feeling; just enough so he could think clearly. No clear thoughts came to him as he climbed the creaking ladder of the tower, however. The only thoughts that came to him were the last moments he saw Aika, how she did each small thing, and how those things stuck in his mind vividly.
It was windy and somewhat chilly up on the battlements, but he didn't really react to the cold; it was as if his mind was so detached from his body, he couldn't even feel the goosebumps on his arms and the back of his neck. His mind was elsewhere, it was focused on Aika clinging to the rigging, fear encompassing her face; it was focused on Aika, tumbling through the sky, obscured by both rain and tear-blurred vision. The memory made him want to pound his fists on the metal of the tower and howl in anguish.
But he didn't give in to such emotional displays; he had done enough of that recently. Instead, he sat down on the cold metal floor of the battlements, and leaned against the turret that housed the once-powerful cannon, staring out at the swirling inkiness that was the Dark Rift in the distance. He was relatively calm now, and Vyse knew that he should go back down to aid his friends in their search, not to mention see to the repairs of the Belleza.
He did none of these things, however. Vyse instead stared out at the imposing blackness on the horizon without really seeing it, and remembered Aika.
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