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Lunar Cycle: Chapter 12
CHAPTER TWELVE
Into Deep Sky

The sky near the horizon was a deep azure color hinted with bits of purple, no doubt clouds near Sailor's Isle. Fina stood on deck, ignoring the other crew members there, quietly thinking. It wasn't as if she needed to be on bridge for this ship, even if she was an officer. The crew of the Delphinus came close to eighty, which was twice as much as was standard for either a Valuan warship or a blue rogue raiding vessel. Besides, the crew...a mixture of people Vyse hand-picked from around the world, pirates from Dyne's retired vessel Albatross II, and new recruits that came to Crescent Isle to work for the legendary captain Vyse...they all deferred to Vyse first and foremost. Some of them were from lands where women were less important, so they would smile and nod at Fina when she issued them an order, but it was obvious they thought her unimportant and even stupid.

This was something that infuriated the Silvite at times...the fact that people thought she had no brains in her head. Just because she was small and slight, and just because she was fairly ignorant to the ways of the world when she arrived over a year ago didn't necessarily mean that Fina was stupid. On the contrary, she was far from it: Fina was just as intelligent as Ramirez was, maybe even a bit more at times. Her old friend was absolutely brilliant at times, but he lacked common sense, something Fina did have since she was a child. Her insight to situations sometimes surprised her companions, something Fina occasionally took joy in doing.

Vyse, however, didn't seem to be surprised too often. It was almost as if he had the ability to see people for who they really were, to get past the little nuances that other people saw first and foremost, and to be able to treat them decently. For that, Fina was grateful. If anything, Vyse didn't treat her like a small slip of a girl; he treated her like a fellow human being, like a friend. Aika treated her as a friend, and yet Aika didn't always seem to believe that Fina understood things fully. If anybody, Aika was the least bright of their group.

Gilder treated Fina like a lady, but it was obvious it was out of habit instead of any real respect. Fina knew that Gilder carried his brain in his pants, and that he always had one thing on the mind. He had made a few passes at Fina and Aika on occasion, but Vyse quickly and almost forcefully encouraged him to do something else. Gilder was a playboy, and he would never see women as much more than something interesting with breasts.

Lani was different, but she was quiet. While she did say what she thought about situations, she generally didn't say too much to let on to her personality. Fina got the impression that she wasn't necessarily antisocial, she was just shy. It was a shame too...Lani was somebody Fina would love to talk to for hours on end. It was obvious that Vyse felt the same...both he and Fina had made several attempts to get Lani involved in any sort of intelligent discussion. Sometimes it would get somewhere interesting, and the Yafutoman scientist's views on the world or her wealth of knowledge would shine through...but then she would make an excuse to observe Aern again. That's how scholars were, Fina mused. Once they found a new toy...a new bit of information to devour and dissect, they'd all but ignore everything else around them and focus their attentions on that one thing. Ilchymis was like that, and now so was Lani. Fina shook her head. Sometimes scholars were silly people.

And then there was Aern. Fina didn't know exactly what to make of him. He seemed fairly intelligent, but he never really wanted to talk unless he felt something important needed to be said. He was even more quiet than Lani, and perhaps it was for antisocial reasons. Fina got the distinct feeling that he wasn't horribly comfortable around them, that he was used to being around people that ignored him for the most part. This thought saddened Fina...how can somebody live their life being ignored? He was the Cleric of his Protectorate, something that seemed to be fairly important to Fina. She wondered how he was treated at home, down below the Dark Rift, in Shwartzia.

That was another thought that disturbed Fina. How was she supposed to help out this strange new race? Long ago her ancestors may have had a way to heal anything, but Fina knew that the Silvite bloodlines didn't always breed true. She knew that occasionally a surface dweller from Arcadia would be brought up to the Great Silver Shrine to marry and have children with a Silvite, to carry on the race's legacy. Silvites could have many children, but usually they were all one gender or another...such was the reason to bring up surface dwellers, as well to prevent inbreeding. Fina knew that she was a descendant of one of the elders...which one, they never told her. Still, she wondered if there was some Mid-Ocean or Valuan blood in her, and if that would hamper her ability to heal the Shwartzians.

And yet...heal what? Their women were barren, Aern had stated that fact clearly. How could she heal their wombs so they could have children again? Was it something she had to do to the young women who had just come out of their long sleep? Or perhaps she had to save those who were dying from being in magical hibernation for so long? Aern had such faith in her, she knew she couldn't let him down. Still, how she could help was beyond her knowledge; she as a Silvite had skills with magic that her friends didn't have, yes...but she had no other abilities that she knew of.

The thought that she had to do something she didn't understand nor had the capacity for frightened her, and yet she wanted to keep it to herself. If she told any of her friends that she had these doubts, it would probably crush Aern's spirits. The young man seemed to have gone through much, and the last thing she wanted to do was fail him.

Depressed by her thoughts, Fina sighed and let her hands fall from where they rested on the rail. Worrying about it would do no good...and her companions would start asking her about it, that being the last thing she wanted them to do. Putting on a pleasant, calm face, Fina turned, and with her heels clicking on the metal planking of the deck, made her way back towards the bridge.

* * *

Later in the afternoon of the next day, they reached Shrine Island, the remaining piece of Soltis left in Mid-Sky that hovered near the location of the Vortex, a swirling mass of clouds that marked the entrance down into Deep Sky where Soltis lay. The Delphinus slowly slipped down in altitude until they reached Lower Sky, right above the fringe of dark turbulent clouds that was Deep Sky.

"Intimidating, isn't it?" Gilder murmured to Lani as Vyse ordered the pressure shutters closed over the Delphinus' windows. "Last time they went down there, I wasn't with them. I've never been down there, but I'm not too anxious to go. I've seen Soltis once, and once was enough for me. That place is creepy, and now that's its lying on the surface of the planet, it creeps me out even more."

"Afraid of the ghost stories you've heard, Gilder?" Lani prodded mildly. "Do you seriously believe that the dead reside in Deep Sky?"

"Well...it's not like they're walking around like zombies...but I do believe in a soul. What happens at a funeral? You dump the body overboard and it goes down into Deep Sky to land on the surface eventually. What happens to that person's soul, then? I think it'd hang out near where its body wound up. There has to be something down there: spirits, ghosts...whatever you want to call them." He shivered. "Damn creepy."

The scientist laughed. "You're really serious, aren't you? And here I thought you weren't afraid of anything."

"Well it's not as if I'm really scared or anything..." he gave a grin, but it seemed sickly from the wan glow given off by the green submergence lights.

She patted his hand kindly. "Sometimes we can't help phobias. I won't tell the others about it, they'd just make fun of you."

Gilder coughed and fiddled with the brooch below his scarf. "Uh...well I..." His eyes lowered. "Thanks. Those kids...y'know...they kinda look up to me at times. I think. I don't want them thinking I'm some sort of little scared pansy."

"You're not, trust me. I've heard of you doing some crazy things, and I don't doubt any of them. It takes a lot of bravery to be an insane air pirate."

His grin of response was overlaid with confidence. "You betcha. I've been to hell and back several times, and even enjoyed the trip. Hey, if you want, you and I could talk about it in private somewhere..."

Lani rolled her eyes and walked off. "Never mind...forget I even talked to you."

"Aww, c'mon! You don't know what you're missing!" he called after her.

"Goodbye, Gilder." Lani said as she went to stand at the far end of the bridge, her back to him. The other crew members turned to look at him, a few of them sniggering because they knew exactly what was going on. Gilder's reputation as a womanizer preceded him wherever he went, even on board the Delphinus.

"Gilder, keep it in your pants for now. We're ready to go down." Vyse said over his shoulder from his place at the helm. Shaking his head about the other blue rogue's behavior, Vyse looked down at the instruments. "It looks like we're ready. Aika, Fina...how are things at your stations?"

"Submergence engines are running, all the pressure shutters are in place." Fina reported. "Sonar is active and functioning normally. Hovering engine power levels at normal, and all unnecessary systems shut down. We have enough fuel to fly down here for a full day, and enough power for sonar for about three and a half hours...and that's if we don't use it to locate objects on the other sides of mountains or beneath the surface."

"We're at 134 feet above the Deep Sky fringe, winds are coming from the east at 47 MPH and heading towards the Vortex. External barometric pressure at 51.6 inches and rising, internal at 30.2 inches. The crew has reported in at their positions." Aika glanced up from her station to look at Vyse. "We're ready to go."

"All right people, we've done this before. Aika, you keep an eye on that air pressure, if it starts getting too high inside let me know. Fina, keep an eye on the power levels for our sonar. I'd hate to run out of power and fly around blind down here. Hans?"

"Captain?" The young man turned from his post to look at Vyse.

"Are the lower doors ready?"

"Aye, aye. The airlock system is working fine, I triple-checked it. If Aern does his part, you can step down onto Soltis and not be squished by the air pressure."

Vyse turned to Aern. "And you're up to this?"

The Shwartzian nodded. "Of course. I can hold off high pressure like this for a few minutes, which is more than enough time for us to enter Soltis. The air pressure inside should be the same inside as it was when Soltis was still in Mid-Sky."

"Good. All right, we're going down. Dropping in altitude."

They began their descent into the depths of Deep Sky, all somewhat nervous. Gilder looked especially pale, but he didn't say anything as the ship jarred and rocked slightly from turbulence caused by the Vortex.

"Makes the Dark Rift look like a stroll in the park..." Vyse muttered. "Aika? Pressure good?"

"Internal pressure staying steady, external pressure rising pretty damn quick. The needle's bopping all over the place so I can't get a good reading. We're now 150 feet below the Deep Sky Fringe...200 feet...300...400..."

"Sonar says we're approximately 1,200 feet above the surface, give or take a few hundred feet." Fina reported. "There's a large formation to our port side...but it seems to be normal rock from the surface, probably a mountain." She winced as the ship suddenly lurched and there was a large booming sound. The instruments below her flickered briefly and then returned back to normal. "I think we were hit by lightning there...everything seems fine, though."

"It can't be helped...the electric activity down here is insane, probably because of all the moonstones." Vyse continued to watch the altimeter. "I can't even get a reading anymore...I'm in the red. Where are we at?"

"Sonar says we've broken through the lower cloud fringe and are now about 600 feet above the surface. Gravitational stabilizers and hover engines holding steady...we won't be falling anytime soon."

"We've dropped some 1,100 feet or so since entry, internal pressure at 30.5 inches. I think we're doing good...this is about how we were last time." Aika shuddered. "I still don't like it down here."

"None of us do, Aika." Vyse tapped at the compass in front of him. It was more or less behaving itself. "Shrine Island was a bit to the north-northeast when we descended. If we head in that direction, we'll bump into Soltis for sure. Fina, keep an eye on that sonar, we're on the move."

They slowly made their way forward, creeping along just above the planet's surface, listening to the boom of thunder overhead. Everybody on the bridge seemed somewhat nervous, but that was to be expected because of the massive pressure all around them. If even one of the shutters or hard plates buckled or lost a bolt, air would start to rush in quickly. If it didn't cause them to pass out from difficulty in drawing breaths, it would disable their hover engines, and they would fall to the surface. It wasn't a pleasant thought, and yet it was on all of their minds.

"It's hard to think Gaed is in this horrible place..." Aern said quietly. "I hope he's all right."

"You seem to be pretty sturdy, so if you're friend is anything like you, he's probably fine." Aika gave a reassuring smile. "We'll get 'im out of there no problem. We'll be in and out of Soltis before you even blink."

Aern gave a short laugh. "You're pretty confident. All right, I have faith in all of you."

"I'm picking up something on the sonar..." Fina informed them. "Vyse, there's something at our ten-o-clock...it's fairly big and made of something reflective, sort of like metal. I think it's Soltis."

Vyse peered over to look at the sonar screen, to see the vague hexagonal green shape that appeared and faded with each sonar sweep. "That's Soltis all right...it's bigger than anything else here, not to mention it bounces back the sonar more, which means it has man-made metals in it. Okay, we're heading in."

* * *

They all stood in the airlock, on top of a lift that would be lowered down to the sunken continent's surface. The Delphinus was no longer hovering but had settled down to land on an even section of Soltis, near a formation similar to Shrine Island, whose familiar shape indicated they would be able to head down through it. They all agreed that if they had not found Gaed in six hours, they would head back to the Delphinus, resurface above Deep Sky, refuel and then try again tomorrow. The ship's crew had orders to leave if the search party hadn't returned in twelve hours. Some weren't happy about this, but Vyse claimed he didn't want his crew to stay down here to die in case something happened to him. He also added that he doubted anything would happen to him, so nobody should worry. There were no arguments, and they had made their way to the airlock in the fore part of the ship's belly, just below the massive moonstone cannon.

They were carrying moonstone lanterns, all containing silver moonstones because of the large amount of light they gave off. The sun would never reach this place...the sun had never reached this place, apparently, until Aern said something before they descended.

"It's said that long ago, the ancestors of the Silvites and the Shwartzians once lived on the surface of Arcadia. Then something happened that caused the air pressure to grow heavily throughout the planet, and it caused the weather to alter greatly. Layers of clouds formed, keeping the sun from the surface and driving everybody to live in the skies. I'm not sure what happened, but I hope it's something that doesn't happen again. Something that can drastically change a planet like that can kill millions."

"That's kinda scary." Aika shivered. "All right Aern, you ready?"

He nodded. "Let's go down."

Vyse took one of his cutlasses and tapped the airlock door behind them with its pommel, indicating to his crew that they were ready. They all had brought weapons with them, even Lani, who seemed to favor a slightly curved quarterstaff. From their last venture into Soltis, they had learned that the old guardians that once kept the city safe from intruders still functioned and were still out to kill on sight. Fina still had no weapon, only having Cupil to defend her, but her magic was more than enough to keep anything at bay. Aern had nothing at all, but he seemed confident enough.

The slanted door before them grated open and suddenly there was a violent rush of cold, stagnant air. Suddenly it stilled about them as a sphere of faintly glowing purple-black light surrounded them. Aern, the black moon crystal in his chest glowing darkly though his shirt, nodded in a confident manner. "We'll be fine. I have it handled. Just don't go outside the sphere and stay close to me, or else you'll be crushed."

The lift chugged and lowered them down to the silvery-white surface of Soltis, an occasional silvery-black stripe of metal reflecting back their lamplight. Even though the pressure was high and the air was obviously tainted with gasses that made it almost unbreatheable, the strange silver metal that Soltis was constructed of had scarcely eroded. There were no signs of oxidation on it either, no rust or tarnishing; proof that the Silvites were far more advanced than any civilization currently living on Arcadia. Vyse marveled at it as he held his lantern chest-high while walking within Aern's dome of habitable air.

"Are you all right, Aern?" Fina seemed concerned, her eyes visible amid pools of shadow as a result of the meager light the lanterns gave off in this land with no light. "You're breathing a bit heavy."

"It's a bit of a strain, but I will be all right." Aern grunted, his chest heaving slightly. "Just let's hurry. I would rather not stay out here." His red eyes flickered up to the dark clouds roiling overhead, which were occasionally illuminated by flashes of purple-blue lightning. "Besides, we're in danger of being struck by lightning. I'd prefer not to die that way."

Without further comment, the six of them continued on their way, towards one of the shimmering towers that marked an entrance into the dead city. Unlike its brother tower Shrine Island, this structure wasn't overgrown with vines and moss, nor did it have water pooling in its lower areas. It was unchanged by time, constructed of silvery-white metal sheathed in something pale and white that can only be described as some sort of plaster, and yet it didn't exactly seem to even be that. Green, blue and black lines crisscrossed its surface, each not a solid line but clear glass veins with strange glyphs and symbols contained within.

As they approached, the strips of dark color amid the chalky white began to hum and glow, the metallic-colored symbols quickly whizzing along inside their glass pathways. The group stopped, looking at the building that suddenly alive with activity.

"That's remarkable," Lani breathed. "I don't know what's going on...is the building maybe...recognizing us?"

"Shrine Island did in spots." Vyse replied. "When you walked near things, it seemed to trigger them so we could get deeper into the tower. I think that's what's happening here." He frowned. "At least I hope so."

As if in response, the white-and-bronze door slid open with a faint hissing sound. The lights in the glass pathways dimmed slightly, but the building didn't stop its humming sound.

"So much for knocking." Gilder murmured.

"I think we'd better get moving." Aika said. "I'd rather get inside before we're fried by lightning, or before Aern's bubble pops." She glanced nervously at the purple light shimmering a few inches away from her shoulder. "I don't know about you, but I think I'd like to be someplace safe."

"Safer." Vyse corrected. "Who knows what's inside?" He shrugged, holding a cutlass ready in his right hand. "Let's go."

They made their way into the tower's entrance, most at all surprised when the door slid shut behind them. Lani did jump, however, and gave a worried look to their leader.

"Relax. We'll be fine." the scarred blue rogue assured her. "Last time we were here, all sorts of things moved on their own. Think of it as something like Glacia....you were used to that place after all."

The Yafutoman scientist nodded, her braid bobbing. "All right, I trust you all." She glanced over at Aern, who was tentatively reaching a hand out of the dome of purple light to test the weight of the air. "Is it all right?"

"A bit heavy, but breathable. I'll take the shield down now." He closed his eyes, and the black moon crystal beneath his skin flickered briefly. The dome shimmered and dissolved, letting heavy, stagnant hair rush in. They all coughed, their bodies not suited for such a change in air pressure.

"Ugh, this reminds me of when I had pneumonia when I was little." Gilder coughed. "Thanks for the warning, Aern, but I still wasn't ready."

"Sorry. I assume that it'll get better as we move in further. You'll get used to it as well." He began to walk down the spiraling pathway that was laid out along the hexagonal walls in a series of platforms and wide steps. Wordlessly, Fina followed him, her green eyes glancing about a structure that her ancestors had built, and yet it seemed alien even to her.

"I still think these Silvite buildings are weird," Gilder commented, reflecting Fina's thought unknowingly.

"I think your buildings are strange." Aern said. "In Shwartzia, our few towns are composed of more advanced materials. Wood is hard to come by where I live. We use certain plants from the Dark Rift as fuel and light, and stone from the planet's surface as building materials."

"I can't wait to see it." Aika popped up, grinning. "From what it sounds like, it's a city of endless night, just like Valua....but much nicer looking." Her grin faded as they reached the large brass-colored door at the bottom of the tower. It wasn't moving. "Uh, isn't something supposed to happen?"

"Funny, the one in Shrine Island always worked." Vyse's face screwed up into a look of annoyance. "Now why wouldn't this thing be working?"

"Maybe it's the floor....lots of things in Shrine Island worked because you stepped on the floor." Aika stamped hard on the smooth white stone in front of the door. "Well, at least I think they did." She stamped harder. "Stupid thing....why won't it budge?" She began hopping up and down, ramming her heels into the ground, causing dry-sounding echoes to resound through the tower; she also caused a few chuckles from her companions. Ceasing her hopping, she glared at them. "Well at least I tried something...I'm not just standing around like some people."

Fina felt along the smooth surface of the door. "Here's a crack, where the two doors open...but I don't know if all of us could pull open these huge things ourselves, even if Aern turned into his other form." She frowned, her porcelain brown crinkling slightly. "We might have a problem."

"Did you guys try this?" Gilder asked, even as he was in the act of pushing flat, irregular shapes on a panel that could only be described as buttons. Some of the members of the group cried out at him to not touch it, but it was too late. The humming sound was heard again, although none of the glass pathways were to be seen inside the tower. A grinding roar was heard from behind the door. Then silence.

Gilder raised one eyebrow. "Did I break it?"

The large door slid open, leaving a yawning blackness ahead that their silver moonstone lanterns could not illuminate. Something inside shimmered in spots, however; almost like the glass pathways outside, but silver instead of blue. Then small balls of light seemed to gather and form in front of a large glowing hole in something that was metallic and huge. By the light of the charging energy, they could see the definite shape of one of the larger varieties of Soltis' guardians.

"Look out!" Fina cried, jumping out of the way. The others followed suit, all drawing their weapons just as a blast of silvery-blue energy shot through where they were standing to explode on the far wall behind them. With a faint hissing mechanical sound, the guardian stepped out of the doorway and took a clumsy swing at Gilder, who was still standing somewhat near the door. The blue rogue leaped back as nimbly as only one of his profession could, and began to fire with both pistols. The bullets bounced off the silvery surface of the guardian's armor.

"Aw, crap." Gilder muttered. "I remember now." He jumped back. "I can't shoot the damn thing unless some of that armor is damaged." He glanced at Vyse. "Can't you hack at it a bit with those fancy swords Ryu-kan made you?"

"Working on it, Gilder." Vyse grated, feinting in and dodging out while attempting to slash at the thing's torso with his velorium-and-moonstone alloy cutlasses. He managed to land a few hits before the guardian grabbed him by the front of his coat and hurled him into Aern.

"Did you have to fall on my head?" The Shwartzian groaned, rubbing at a spot above his right temple while the blue rogue clambered off from on top of him.

"Sorry. I'll be sure to land on Aika next time." With that, he was up again and back in the fray.

Aika, however, didn't hear her friend's comment. She was busy trying to accomplish anything with her boomerang. Like Gilder's bullets, the weapon was simply bouncing off, and usually landing in an inconvenient place near the monster's feet. Then she would have to dodge back in, grab the weapon before she was stepped on, and leap back out quickly. "This isn't working! Somebody better start throwing spells at this thing before it decides to shoot at us again!"

Fina, however, was already in the act of doing so. With Cupil whirring about her head excitedly, the Silvite lowered her face slightly, not ever taking her eyes off the guardian. In a whirling mass of purple lights hinted by hues of yellow, she held out her right palm, quietly whispering the proper incantation in the old Silvite language. A ball of crackling electric energy formed in front of her hand, and suddenly shot out as intense lightning to hit the guardian. The dim inside of the tower was suddenly illuminated by yellow-white light that flickered and danced on the walls, causing their shadows to writhe strangely. The creature faltered, caught off guard by the electric spell. Then it straightened and began swinging its large arms at Vyse, Gilder and Aika again.

"Good idea....silver creatures were always weaker against lightning." Aern came to stand behind her, and with similar purple and yellow lights moving below his feet, unleashed a similar lightning spell. The creature attempted to cover its head with its massive clublike hands, but this action couldn't protect it from the spell's electricity that crackled all along its body.

Lani set the butt of her staff on the ground, having not used it for obvious reasons, and cast a lightning-elemental spell. She too used the ancient Silvite language for an incantation, as was standard with most spells. Aern, however, quietly muttered a different, alien-sounding tongue as he unleashed another lightning spell on the guardian.

The creature writhed, although not exactly in pain; it was as if whatever was causing it to function properly was failing. Vyse took this as a cue and leaped in to hack at the left arm in a blur of sword strokes. Silvery-blue electricity crackled along the guardian's torso and left arm, and then the arm fell to the ground with a heavy chink sound. The other limbs, which weren't exactly attached, began to hover farther and farther away from the creature's body. Obviously, it was losing control and couldn't keep the appendages fastened to its torso.

Gilder opened fire again, this time on the large hole in the guardian's torso, the spot where it had earlier produced an energy blast. The bullets hit true, and caused small explosions inside the monster, making it stagger back awkardly. In one last attempt to carry out its programming, the guardian picked Aika up with its one remaining massive arm, but the damage to it had been done. With the sound of dying machinery, the metallic creature's head, then arm, then torso and finally legs fell to the floor, all landing with a heavy-sounding clatter. Aika stood up from the pile of metal rubble, rubbing at a bruised shoulder. "Well, that's that." Then she turned to glare at Gilder. "Although it wouldn't have come if you weren't poking around at things."

Gilder spun his pistols and set them in their holsters, fixing a look of boyish innocence on his face. "What? I got the door open, didn't I?"

* * *

After their initial encounter with one of the larger guardians, the group moved along a bit more carefully, eyes cautiously scanning their surroundings even as they hastily made their way through the crumbling tunnels of Soltis. Most of the outer tunnels were weathered and eroded by the harsh air of Deep Sky, and for parts Aern had to erect the dome of habitable air in order for them to proceed. Occasionally smaller guardians would intervene and attempt to impede their progress, but none would succeed, most being blown to bits by yellow spells from Fina, Lani or Aern.

"I'm glad I don't really use magic." Vyse commented at one such encounter. "I'm always afraid that I'll say the words wrong and wind up burning my own eyebrows off."

"Amen." Gilder agreed. "Give me something like this, something I can hold in my hand and know it's gonna protect me." He held up one of his pistols, the elegant etchings in it faintly visible in the light from their lanterns. "Always go for something tactile and solid instead of something mystical, that's what I say."

"It's not that bad, Gilder." Lani said. She had occasionally used her strange, curved staff since more guardians were appearing, and obviously possessed some skill with it. "I don't mind using a weapon, but I understand how magic works. I find it more reliable."

"To each their own." The red-clad pirate shrugged. "Our current system works out fine. You blast things with magic, I'll blast them with guns. And on that note..." He aimed a pistol at another silver-colored guardian that had appeared from around a far corner.

* * *

After about three hours, Aika began to worry. "Aern?"

"Yes?" The Shwartzian had mostly been using spells to defend himself, but occasionally would use punches and kicks that were similar to the fighting arts used in Yafutoma.

"Do you know where Gaed is? We seem to be sort of wandering aimlessly here."

"I know he's towards the center...I can sense that he's there, and that's he alive. Protectorates are so tightly knit that the members can feel one another's presence, even when they're a goodly distance away." He looked up the dim hallway, red eyes reflective. "Gaed is like a brother. I know where he is, even though I have never been to Soltis before."

"I remember this place fairly well enough to get to the center." Gilder said. "I have a knack for that sort of thing; put me someplace once, and I'll remember how it's laid out years later." He grinned. "Having a photographic memory comes in handy."

"Is that why you can't remember the names of all the women you've been with?" Vyse asked blandly.

"Having a selective memory helps at times too. If I don't remember their names, I don't need to remember any promises I've made."

Lani rolled her eyes, but didn't comment. They walked on.

Soon they reached the bizarre area of Soltis that involved a series of platforms. When somebody stepped on a small round section of a platform, they would vanish and appear on another one halfway across the room. Words were written on the platforms in the old Silvite language, but most of the group couldn't make them out.

"This is stupid. Why would anybody design such a system?" Aika muttered. "And what if it worked wrong? What if it teleported you into the middle of a wall? I mean, that would really suck."

"I don't think that's possible...the Silvites were very careful about such things." Fina bent to look at the writing at one particular platform. Old Silvite was a language she could read, but only slowly; she could speak it better than read it. "This one goes to "Block Delta"." She glanced around the room. "Now where is Block Delta?"

"There," Aern pointed at a platform a good ways away, where writing could somewhat be seen from this distance. Smaller writing was above the doors. "I don't know what the doors say, but that sign above them says "Delta"."

Fina squinted at the platform. "You have good eyes. I can barely make that out. Well, let's try going to Delta and see where we should go after that."

Through the process of trial and error, they teleported from platform to platform, pausing at each to look in the doors at each particular block. Most of them appeared to once be living quarters or shops of some kind, but were all uninhabited. Eventually they reached a large door that seemed to lead off into another area. Aern confirmed that it lead the way they wanted to go. "Gaed seems closer now. I think if we head this way, we'll get to the center."

"I think he's right." Gilder added. "I remember that this big door lead to some black weirdo hallway like the other one we went through earlier, and then that lead to the room where we ran into Ramirez."

"The room that had the Gigas. So Gaed might be there?" Vyse stepped up to the doorway, and it slid open smoothly in front of him. "We might as well find out, we've already been down here almost four hours. Let's go."

The group walked down the black hallway, their lanterns no longer being used. The inner part of Soltis seemed to contain a constant light source from the walls, and so they could conserve their moonstone lanterns for when they went back out into the old decomposing tunnels again. This particular hallway had black walls that curved up to form a dome ceiling. The floor was inlaid with white stone held together with some sort of glowing substance that served as mortar. Every few feet, a strange structure constructed of blue metallic stone was set in the exact center of the floor. What the bizarre structures did was beyond anybody in the group, even Fina. They soon reached the room at the far end, and entered the small antechamber beyond, to wind up facing a large silvery-white door that held the crest of six, the crest of silver magic.

"He's in there, I know it...although...something doesn't seem right." Aern frowned, and glanced at Vyse. "I don't know why I have this strange feeling, but maybe we should be ready for anything."

"We always are, Aern." Vyse pointed at the door with a cutlass. "You do the honors, we're right behind you."

The Shwartzian took a deep breath, and then stepped up to the metallic white door. It slid open eerily without a sound, and then remained open. Aern gasped, and took a few tentative steps into the chamber. They all shuffled into the room, which was dim, as opposed to the rest of this area of Soltis. There was one main light source, and this is what made Aern react the way that he did.

At the center of the room, was a large, pentagonal platform. At each of the five corners, the crests of five of the six known moons were placed, and on each of the five corners were large glowing gems of immense power: moon crystals. How they had gotten there, nobody knew...nobody even momentarily wondered, because of what was in the center of that glowing circle of multicolored light.

A gray-black creature hovered above the platform, unmoving, except for occasional eddies of energy from the crystals that ruffled the white hair on its head and tail. Its body was wrapped in large black wings, its horned head bowed, but they all knew who it was.

They had found Gaed.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm sorry! I know I haven't uploaded anything in a while, but I stopped in the middle of this chapter, and didn't have the motivation to continue it for about five months or so. I'm back to writing again (and on chapter 13), so hopefully there will be no more gaps in updates. --Annie