"It hurts..." the little girl complained, sniveling in the dirt. She had large, brown eyes and long red hair that was tied back in a ponytail. Her blue skirt was streaked with mud. "My mommy's gonna be mad..."
"I said I was sorry." Vyse replied. He didn't exactly like this newcomer to the island, especially since she was a full year younger than he was. She had been here only a few days and already she got on his nerves.
"You didn't have to push me..." the four-year-old whined.
"I wouldn't have pushed you if you didn't try to steal my toys." The young boy indicated the small toy soldiers and model ships that lay scattered around the yard.
"I wasn't stealing, stupid!" She stood up, stomping her foot. "I was trying to play with you!"
"I don't play with girls." He declared adamantly. "Go play with some dolls somewhere."
"You're mean, you know that?" She said while thrusting her face in his, tears forgotten. "I've just moved here and I try to be your friend and all you do is be mean! I don't care if you're the cap'n's son, you're a big jerk!"
"Don't get so close." Vyse warned. "I'll push you again."
"No you won't 'cause I'll beat you up first!" Then the little redhead leaped on top of him and started pummeling him in the head and shoulders with her tiny fists. The attack took the little boy by surprise, and within a few seconds she was seated on his chest, beating on his face while screeching at him. After a few moments, she stopped, her face almost thoughtful as she looked down at her victim, who had a bloody nose at this point. "Are you crying?"
"You hit me, and it hurts." came the tearful yet sullen reply.
"Boys aren't supposed to cry, you know that?" She continued to sit on his chest, but at least stopped thumping his head with her fists.
"I'm bleeding, the blood's going into my mouth from my nose."
The redhead sighed and stood, brushing herself off. "Then cry about it, I don't care. It won't stop your nose from bleeding."
Vyse stood up, pinched his nose and tilted his head back, something his mother had taught him. "You hit hard for a girl."
"You cry a lot for a boy."
"Not a lot, really." He made a disgusted sound. "We should make a deal."
The little girl had stooped to pick up a toy ship, and was examining it critically. "What do you mean?"
"Like, a deal. I know you just moved here and I haven't been too nice to you so far. I think you'll be living here for a while so we can at least be nice to each other." He looked at the miniature Valuan destroyer she held. "Like, you can play with that."
"And then what do I have to do?" She asked.
"Well not hitting me anymore would be nice. But maybe share stuff with me."
The little redhead suddenly grinned. "I have lots of candy...my dad always gets it for me when he can."
Vyse's answering grin spoke volumes. "That sounds like a pretty good deal to me."
"I'm Aika." the redhead declared, setting down the toy destroyer next to the other toys. "And maybe now that we've both hurt each other and learned something we can be friends. We're neighbors anyway." She looked at him. "You're the captain's son....V...Vize or something?"
"Vyse, my name is Vyse." He winced about his bleeding nose, and then looked at her again. "Okay Aika, since we plan on being friends, we should make some rules. The first rule is we don't beat each other up, okay?"
* * *
"They've been gone for days..." Aika stared out the window, her long, red hair fixed in a braid that fell to her waist.
"I wouldn't worry about it." Vyse said, sitting in a chair nearby while drawing on a piece of paper with the stub of a pencil. "Your parents always go out for a few days for some raids anyway. Besides, they're with my dad. You know he wouldn't let anything happen to them." Secretly, however, the eight-year-old was worried. While two days or so wasn't something to worry about, five days was something entirely different. Still, he tried to maintain his composure around Aika, and spent most of his time at her house to keep her company. The redhead seemed grateful for his presence, but still she continued to worry. "Are you hungry? We could go over to my house and ask my mom to make some sandwiches."
"Not really." She didn't turn from the window, looking out at the sky on the horizon, scanning it for any signs of ships. "What are you drawing?" she asked.
"Somebody with a sword, I don't know. I can't get his one foot right, so I keep rubbing it out and re-drawing it."
Aika smiled and turned to look at his artwork. "You draw really good, Vyse. You could make money off of it someday."
He shook his head. "I don't want to...I'd rather be a sailor. Sailors get to see the world, but artists just sit in a room all day and draw until their hands fall off."
She laughed and ruffled his hair, something she knew he hated. "You want to be just like your father. That's okay, I want to be like my mom and dad too. I'd like to jump aboard ships and rob them blind before they can do anything."
At that point, the door to Aika's home opened, and Vyse's mother stepped in. "You two, there are small ships pulling into port. I think they've finally come back."
Vyse stood. "Small ships? But they only went out on the Marlin, not a bunch of smaller boats." He pulled Aika along. "C'mon Aika, we've got to see what's up." He glanced up at his mother as he exited the house with the seven-year-old redhead in tow. "They weren't lifeboats, were they?"
She didn't answer him, but began walking towards the docks below.
All available hands were on the dock in the underground wharf, all standing and waiting as the blue-painted lifeboats puttered their way wearily inside. Vyse ran down the zig-zagging ramps, counting the number of lifeboats while also searching for his father's familiar face. Captain Dyne was already on the dock, helping bandaged-up sailors off the small boats and shouting orders to get the medics. The boy ran up to his father, dodging between the ranks of sailors milling about, Aika still dogging his heels.
"Dad! What happened?"
Dyne looked down at his son grimly, then turned to his wife. "Connie, take these kids out of here...wait with them in my office. I need to do a head count and see to the wounded."
"What happened?" Vyse's mother echoed his question, concern on her face. "Where's the Marlin?"
"It was the Valuans." the captain said shortly. "I have work to do, now." He turned and began shouting orders, despite the evident weariness on his face. Vyse's mother gently took the hands of the two children, and with a small smile, lead them back up the ramps to Dyne's office. Vyse walked along numbly, thinking of what his father said. He had heard some things about the Valuans, how they were a dominating country, how they had vast ships...but he had never thought they'd actually go out of their way to shoot down blue rogues. He glanced over at Aika, who looked close to tears. It was then he realize that he didn't see her parents among the ranks. He fervently hoped the worst hadn't happened.
The two of them sat down on a bench in the office, at Connie's prompting. She sat down in a nearby chair, and waited patiently. The two children would normally be less than patient, but something about the situation made them sit quietly. After what seemed an eternity, Dyne entered the office. There was a weariness to his gait, a weariness Vyse didn't see very often. Very rarely was there a situation that caused the man to succumb to stress, and yet it appeared that the weight of the world rested on Dyne's shoulders.
He paused by his chair at the head of the table, the large oak chair that nobody could sit in except for the captain of the Marlin himself. He looked at it for a moment as if he would sit, and then moved on towards the bench where the children sat. Captain Dyne gravely looked at his wife, and then leaned down to get to eye-level with Aika, hands rested on his knees.
Vyse leaned forward. "Dad? What's going on?"
Dyne glanced at his son, and then back at Aika. "I need to tell you what happened, but you have to promise to be very brave."
Aika nodded numbly. "Okay."
The pirate nodded. "Good girl. Aika, we were out on a routine raid in Mid-Ocean, and the Valuans attacked us. There were many battleships and the Marlin couldn't defend herself from them all. They shot torpedoes at us, and there was a big fire. Not everybody could get off the ship before it sank." He took a deep breath, and plunged on. "Your parents were trapped on board by the fire, Aika. They were on the ship when it fell." He sighed and reached out to gently pat the girl on the shoulder when she burst into tears. "I know, I know...it's hard. But I promised myself and your parents that I would watch over you for them, and that's what I'll do. You'll be like our daughter, now; Connie and I will watch over you." He held out his arms to her. "Here now, it'll be all right."
Aika pushed herself off the bench and flung herself into Dyne's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Vyse himself felt the tears forming in his eyes and the telltale burning in his throat, but he wouldn't permit himself to cry. He knew that it wasn't only Aika that needed to be brave; he needed to be brave himself. Somehow Vyse knew that he would have to be there for her more than his parents ever could be, and that he was the only one who could fill the gaping hole that had now appeared in her life.
* * *
"Are you sure it's okay to just take one of the little ones like this?" The young girl seemed anxious, almost nervous. She toyed with the front of her blue and white dress. "I don't want to get us in trouble."
"Don't worry about it, Aika...my dad won't even know it's gone." He gave her a reassuring smile. "We'll be gone and back before our parents even know." Pulling away from the dock, the small shoreboat puttered its way out into the open sky, unnoticed.
It was such a brilliant plan, Vyse thought to himself. He made up some story that he and Aika were going to hide out in the windmill today, and that they were going to be gone all afternoon. What Vyse really wanted to do, however, was try out the new swords his father gave him. One was longer, curved, and his father had called it a "falchion". The other was shorter but sharper, and even Vyse knew it was a cutlass. While Vyse's mother had thought giving swords to a ten-year-old was somewhat unwise, Dyne had reassured her, stating that Vyse should learn swordsmanship at an early age. Only once he could fight properly would he be of any use on raids.
The small boat touched down on a medium-sized island not too far away from Pirate Isle, landing on a flat area carpeted in long, green grass. Aika jumped out and landed lightly on her feet, looking around at the scenery.
"Maybe you were right, Vyse; this was a good idea. Just look at this place...it's so green and peaceful." She stood, taking in a deep breath of air. "And it's nice to get a breath of air that doesn't smell like moonstone exhaust."
"Not to mention it's great to get away from everybody." he added, vaulting out of the boat, cutlasses in hand.
She turned to him, shaking her head. "You got in another fight again, didn't you?"
"What if I did? I didn't hurt him too much...well, this time anyway." He shrugged as if it was nothing.
"And who was it this time? Bryan?"
Vyse shuffled his feet. "Nah, Bryan and me are on good terms now. He hasn't frustrated me in two weeks now, so we don't fight." He looked at the horizon, at the powder-puff clouds gently rolling past. "No, this time it was Erik."
Aika visibly started. "Erik? Why Erik? What did he ever do to you?"
"He irritated me--a lot." The truth of the matter was that Erik did far more than irritated Vyse. Erik was a boy a year older than Vyse, who liked hanging around Aika's house. He seemed to be there frequently, asking Aika if she wanted to go play but at the same time excluding Vyse. This not only irritated Vyse, but also brought out the jealousy in him. Aika was HIS best friend, and while he didn't mind her having other friends he did dislike Erik for wanting to hog Aika all the time. Not only that, but whenever Aika would opt to go with Erik, the boy would glance at Vyse with a taunting look of triumph. It basically made Vyse's blood boil. When he was little, he was a fairly well-behaved boy. Now that he was a bit older, however, he seemed to enjoy thrashing the other boys on the island. It had nothing to do with the fact that Vyse was Captain Dyne's son; it was more that Vyse was horribly frustrated and bored, and he needed to vent in some way.
"Please don't beat up Erik, Vyse. He's not a bad kid, I know you'd see that...if you gave him a chance." She sighed a bit ruefully. "Why can't you ever get along with my friends?"
"I have my reasons. And I get along with the girls, anyway." No matter how much girls did in fact irritate Vyse, he refused to be cruel to them. Some of the common sense his mother instilled in him rose to the surface sometimes. "If it makes you happy, I won't fight him unless he really asks for it, okay?" He slashed at the air with a cutlass. "He was sorta asking for it this time, y'know."
"Whatever...don't make promises you can't keep." She glanced around the island, and towards a small forest along the one side of it. Before the forest, there was a small pond, and surrounding the pond was a field full of alfalfa and wildflowers. "This place looks like a lot of fun." She said, changing the subject. "I'm gonna check out that pond, maybe pick a few flowers."
"Okay, I'll be around here for a while. This place is nice and open and I want to try out my birthday gift." He grinned, holding up a cutlass.
Aika rolled her eyes and walked off towards the pond. Vyse watched her as she stooped to pick a few flowers, and then turned his attention towards the light blades in his hand. He had seen people use single swords, but never two at once. His own father preferred a gun, saying it was a "gentleman's weapon". The boy, however, always had some interest in various kinds of swords. He was constantly drawing pictures of men with swords, and feigning swordplay with a wooden sword in his yard. He figured that with the practice he had watching others and playing with that fake sword, he ought to get fairly proficient with these cutlasses.
He took an experimental swing with the one in his right hand. It whistled through the air cleanly, although it didn't exactly stop when he wanted it to. He would have to adjust his swings for the added weight of the metal and the moonstones within. The blue moonstones inside made the metal shine an aqua color in the sunlight, one of the things Vyse liked. He took a swing with his left hand, with the falchion, and decided that it was still a bit to heavy to swing. But yet, when he held it this way and extended his arm in this manner...and perhaps crouched a bit...that would work; he could defend fairly well with that sword and still attack with the cutlass in his right hand. Now if he swung down instead of right to left...there, that would use the weight of both his arm and the sword.
He was getting the hang of it after a half-hour or so, although his shoulder ached quite a bit. Vyse figured that as he trained more day by day, his muscles would get used to it and the ache would disappear. Within a year or even a few months, he may even develop some descent muscle. That appealed to Vyse; he was always such a skinny boy, built almost as thin as a girl. He fervently hoped that he would stop being so thin and start looking like somebody male. The fact that he had long eyelashes and his hair was somewhat long and held back in a ponytail didn't help much either. Well, he could cut his hair at least. Maybe then, people wouldn't make fun of him, and he wouldn't have to beat them up on a regular basis.
A scream came from the direction of the pond. He had almost forgotten about Aika. Turning, he looked to see what she was so excited about. Aika was clutching wildflowers to her chest, and staring at the surface of the pond in horror. The green-brown waters were disturbed, as if something were moving below the surface.
Vyse ran up to her. "What's wrong? Why are you screaming?"
"There's a thing in the water!" she said a bit frantically, pointing with a shaking hand at the pond. "I saw these yellow eyes and this really big head pop out of the water. Then I screamed and it went back down."
He scanned the water with his eyes, looking for any trace of what she was talking about. Something was definitely moving beneath the water, although what it was Vyse couldn't exactly tell. "Maybe we should get out of here...I'd rather not find out what's in there."
But it was too late. Something large, black and long erupted out of the water, throwing back a spray of droplets as it reared back its wedge-shaped head. The creature slid open its white secondary eyelids to fix its dull, reptilian gaze upon the two children. Before either of them could start running, it lunged at them, jaws agape.
Reacting almost instinctively, Vyse lashed out at it with a cutlass. The blade glanced off the serpent's teeth with a disturbing clanging sound, and managed to nick the creature's lower jaw. It reeled back, hissing loudly in pain, gathering itself up for another strike.
"Aika, get down!" Vyse shouted, stepping between her and the monster without even thinking about it. He wasn't quite prepared for the snake's second strike, and only managed to leap partially to the side as it snapped its jaws in his face, with a bite that would of taken off his face if he hadn't moved. Still, its large pointed teeth grazed the left side of his face, leaving a deep gash just below his eye and a smaller one on his chin. Crying out in pain, he stumbled back into Aika, who was practically sobbing in fear at this point.
Then something happened, although he couldn't exactly remember what set it off. Perhaps it was the blood running down his face from the deep cut under his eye. Perhaps it was the sound of Aika simpering behind him, or even the dull, dead look of hunger in the snake's eyes. Whatever it was, it triggered something within the boy, something beyond the frustration and anger he felt when fighting another boy. Vyse felt rage, and only knew one way of releasing it. Swinging his cutlass, he slashed at the monster's face. Then he swung the one in his left hand, cutting right through the reptilian scales. Then another, then another, his sword strokes becoming both stronger and faster as he went on relentlessly, attacking the face and neck of the serpent. Then, utilizing all his weight, he lunged forward with both blades and slid them cleanly into the throat, just below the jaw.
With a gurgling hiss, the snake began to thrash around violently, even though Vyse's cutlasses were still embedded in its throat. Clinging wildly, the boy was tossed about as the animal whipped its head around in death throes. Then the swords came free and sailed, Vyse and all, onto the grassy bank of the pond. Ignoring the pain he felt from the impact, he partially rose and watched as the mortally-wounded serpent sink back below the water's surface.
Slowly he stood, looking down at the blood-covered blades in his hand. He had no idea that he could of ever done anything like that, especially to an animal of that size. It was then he realized he was trembling, not from fear but from rage, from the remnants of adrenaline in his system. At the same time, he felt somewhat resentful, having killed another living thing. He didn't have too much time to think about it, however. Aika ran over and practically tackled him.
"You big jerk!" She said, shaking him violently. "You could of gotten killed! What made you fight that thing, anyway?"
The cutlasses slid from Vyse's fingers. She was right, doing such a thing was stupid. "I...I don't know. I had to, I guess." He wiped at the blood running down his left cheek, wincing at the pain. "It would of eaten you if I hadn't done something. I couldn't let it do that."
Aika's hard countenance melted, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. "You're an idiot, a really big idiot...playing the knight in shining armor. I swear, if you do that again--"
"But you know I will do it again. I'll always be there for you." He was getting somewhat uncomfortable from Aika's embrace, but at the same time didn't exactly mind. She was safe, and that's what mattered. He patted her on the back. "Don't cry, Aika. That thing's dead now and we're both safe."
"I'm not crying because I'm scared, I'm crying because you risked your butt for me." She said it in an almost matter-of-fact manner.
"Well, of course I did. I'll always protect you, Aika...no matter what. That's a promise."
* * *
Vyse's eyes snapped open. He hadn't exactly been dozing, and yet it was obvious that quite some time had passed since he had climbed up to the top of the rusted-out guntower. He had let his thoughts wander, and by doing so had wasted hours of the day away. The whole time he had been thinking, he had been thinking about his best friend.
The blue rogue put a hand to the scar below his left eye, the scar he had earned that day he saved Aika's life and vowed to always protect her. He was grounded for a month after that, both for stealing the small boat but also for nearly getting Aika and himself killed. Still, it was worth the punishment and the scar he received; that event had cemented the friendship between them. The promise that he had made always held true, and Aika had made her own of sorts: she would always watch out for him, and he would always do his best to watch out for her.
Until a few days ago. That promise had been broken, Aika had slipped over the Belleza's rail and fell into the sky. Even if there was the small chance that Aika had somehow survived, Vyse knew that he could never forgive himself for what had happened. If there was one thing he never did was break a solemn promise, even if circumstances were dire. He had always found some way or another to come to her aid, even during many situations in the search for the six moon crystals.
Looking down at Esparanza, he sighed and decided that mulling over it even more wouldn't help the situation any. Even though his hopes were small, he knew that pouting on top of a rust-covered tower wouldn't help find Aika. He also knew that the Belleza's rigging, sails and deck needed serious repairs, not to mention they needed more supplies if they were going to be searching the skies. Sighing, he climbed down the creaking ladder of the tower, and went to find his crewmates.
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