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Lunar Cycle: Chapter 13
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
The Priest

The dreams were so strange. She couldn't explain them, or couldn't even remember them clearly after she awoke, but they left her with an odd feeling of emptiness and longing...a feeling so strong that she wished she could pad down the hall to the captain's quarters and sleep warm and secure next to him. Despite the need for human comfort, Fina knew that climbing into Vyse's bed in the middle of the night, even for benign reasons, would raise all sorts of indecent talk. In the Great Silver Shrine, they never thought much of it; many times when she had nightmares, she would go to Ramirez's room and sleep next to him. His smile and gentle words would calm her, and they would drift off together, like brother and sister.

How Ramirez had evolved from the kind young man she knew into a belligerant madman was beyond her. It was painful to see what had happened to him, and even more painful to admit that it was impossible for him to return to the way he was. She knew it was mercy that had been the main reason behind his death: Vyse, Aika and herself pitied him, and wished to put a stop to his insanity. Still, it was difficult to do; she had almost hated Vyse when one of his cutlasses had slid through Ramirez' chest. In that last moment, his eyes lost Zelos' fire and regained a shade of the former Ramirez. In that few scant seconds, his eyes looked down at Vyse, and then flickered over to Fina...and in them was something almost like recognition. In those few heartbeats before the Gigas merged with him, absorbing his flesh in a last vain effort to sustain itself, Ramirez understood them. As the silver creature flew apart and Ramirez' silver moon crystal tumbled to the deck, Fina knew that there were worse fates than death, and by dying, Ramirez had escaped them.

But it didn't erase the pain. No amount of reasoning about the matter did, no kind words from her friends or no thoughts of better things. Some wounds simply did not heal quickly, especially when the largest one gave reminders of how alone you really were in the world. Fina's mother died when she was young, the Elders did not survive the crash of the Great Silver Shrine onto Soltis, and Ramirez suffered his fate at the hands of Fina herself, or very nearly so. On the islands of Arcadia, race didn't seem to matter as much as she thought it would; Nasrians, Mid-Oceaners, Yafutomans...they all realized they shared the same sky, and as far as many were concerned, where you came from didn't matter: it was what you did that made you who you were.

Fina accomplished much, but it left her feeling empty. She wasn't the same as these people of Arcadia she had watched on the viewscreen in the Great Silver Shrine of years past...instead, she was singled out in this world of islands. She knew that no matter what, she would be the only Silvite, the only one of her race, the one that always is singled out in a crowd despite the crowd's invitations to join them.

She sighed morosely and lay her head back down on her pillow. She wanted to talk to somebody badly...Aika, Vyse, Gilder....even Lani or Aern. It was the middle of the night, however...the clock on her bedside table said 3:47. She wouldn't disturb them. Instead, Fina lay her head back down, feeling even more lonesome than she did from the strange dreams, and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

* * *

The next day seemed to drag, as did their pace, even though in truth they were making good time. They passed over the wind- and sand-swept islands of southern Nasr, passing not far from Maramba. The Delphinus did not stop, but kept her course straight, making a beeline towards Ixa'Taka.

Aika stood on the bridge, worridly gnawing at a fingernail. Hans was pushing the engines as hard as he could, but the ship just wasn't moving fast enough for her liking. The fact that their engines could stall in the cold, thin air of upper sky didn't help ease her worry. They needed to push their engines, but if they pushed them too far, they could stop running all together.

She had no idea how Gilder was doing. She had asked Lani about it, since the scientist had been caring for him, but the Yafutoman woman had gained a distant look, then shrugged and told Aika to go see him for herself. Aika didn't want to do that, however; she didn't want to think of her friend, a normally strong and healthy man, being reduced to such a weakened state. For all she knew, he could be dying. That was not an appealing thought.

She was only partially paying attention to where they were, which was foolish of her, since one of her jobs as vice-captain was to navigate. It was difficult to see where they were, though, since they were so high up. From where they were, Aika could actually see the curvature of the planet, something only a handful of people have seen before. She estimated that they were at the start of South Ocean, since the weird white clouds below their flight path could only be a result of the tornadoes. That would mean that they would enter Ixa'Takan airspace sometime during the night. And then, it was a matter of finding a needle in a haystack...

"Aern?"

The Shwartzian Cleric was standing at the portside windows of the bridge, watching as the frozen cirrus clouds moved past. "Yes?"

Aika looked at the large map of the Ixa'Takan region that sat on the large table at the center of the bridge. "Do you remember where this flower grows?"

He rubbed at the back of his neck, obviously weary and a bit stressed. "I did know, but the layout of the world has changed since then. I do know that maiden's breath grows in the mountains of Ixa'Taka, where it's a bit cooler, and the air is thinner. It usually grows near water, so I figure that we'd start looking for mountains with streams or even lakes."

"That's not much to go on."

"No, but it's all we have. I wish it could be otherwise." He sighed. "I'd ask to stop in Horteka, but Gilder has already been poisoned two days as it is..."

A thought suddenly came to Aika. "Wait a moment...what if there was somebody that we knew in Horteka that knew a lot about local things...healing, history, religion, things like that."

Aern laughed. "Then I'd go and kiss that man's feet and call him god. It's hard to find renessaince men in today's world."

"I know of somebody, though. He's an advisor to the King, and a priest of Naemynn."

"Naemynn?"

"The goddess of the green moon...she's the goddess of nature and fertility...and I guess she also's considered the goddess of love and of healing."

"Hmm. I admit I don't know much about any gods, other than Li'nim, who is the god of the black moon. Not that I'm religious or anything...I cringe at the idea of going to a temple to pray. It isn't as if any god has been kind to me or my people anyway." He walked across the bridge to talk to her. "And you say this priest is a good man?"

"Well, he considers himself a lady's man...purple-haired freak that he is."

"Purple hair?" Aern's interest was piqued.

"Not like your hair, kind of lighter, more of a fruity color. But anyway, Isapa is a good man, or so I've seen. King Ixa'Taka puts a lot of trust into him."

"Then I would like to meet this Isapa. Perhaps he would know something...and would make our search for one flower in a sea of plants much easier."

Aika grinned. "I guess I'll go find Vyse, then."

* * *

Vyse agreed that Isapa seemed to be a good choice for a guide to find the plant. Despite Gilder's deteriorating condition, the captain decided that they would have to take a gamble in this matter, and stop at Horteka. The crew didn't seem to mind this decision...every excursion to the Ixa'Takan capital was like a field day.

"It's not really a capital." Hans was saying to Urala during his dinner break. He stopped to speak to the gentle Yafutoman girl whenever he could. Despite her shyness and odd customs, he found her very facinating to talk to, not to mention fairly cute. "Instead, the Hortekan tribe was chosen years ago to represent all the allied tribes of Ixa'Taka. The king, who is more like a tribal leader, speaks for the whole continant."

"Isn't that a bit hard to do?" Urala asked. "Aren't there hundreds of tribes throughout Ixa'Taka?"

"Yes and no...some of the more belligerant tribes, like Ixa'Ness or Nar'tana aren't represented at all. Only the ones who are are part of a loosely held together alliance are represented by King Ixa'Taka." He paused to eat more of his dinner. "This is really good."

She rewarded him with a shy smile. "I'm glad you like it...although you know that I'll cook you dumplings whenever you like, Hans."

"Thanks, I like your cooking." He drank some of his tea. Even though Hans was nearing sixteen, he hadn't developed a taste for loqua yet. This was all well and good with the young man anyway, since he had seen how stupid his crewmates sometimes got after hitting the loqua tap. "The king isn't allowed to use his real name either."

"That's strange...in Yafutoma, the emperor's name is used with honor and reverance. No children are named the same name as the reigning emperor out of a means of respect."

"Two different lands, two different systems, I suppose. But the kings, who are all of the same family for generations, always stop using their real names when they ascend the throne. They use the name "Ixa'Taka" to signify that they as one represent the whole continant, regardless of the fact that the king comes from one specific tribe." He frowned. "Come to think of it, that's something I never knew...what tribe the king's family comes from. I don't think they were Hortekan, even though they have lived there for years..." He frowned, then shrugged. "Sorry...just rambling on here. Didn't mean to bog you down with a history lesson...it's just that I lived in Horteka for years, and I learned a bit of local lore there."

"That's all right, Hans. I like talking to you." She patted his arm. "Will you take me into the town when we stop there? We've gone past it since I came on board the Delphinus, but I never got to see it. I don't think Captain Vyse would mind."

Hans smiled at her, genuinely pleased. "Of course I will, Urala. Of course."

* * *

They reached Horteka not long after sunrise the next day. As usual, the natives gathered in excitement whenever a large ship appeared at their port. They used to cringe in fear at the sight of a metal Valuan ship, but the Delphinus was never a ship they scorned. Several Ixa'Takans served on board the ship, which seemed to represent people from each inhabited land beneath the moons.

Gilder stared out from the port side of the ship, where his cabin was. Through the tiny round window he could see children running along the dock in excitement, many of them wearing nothing but happy smiles. Heathens, Gilder thought. Well, if they decided to let their kids run around buck-naked, that was their perrogative.

Aern had told Gilder why they were stopping here, that the priest Isapa would most likely know where the antidote to the Mivarae venom was. That announcement had made the tall blue rogue's spirits plummet, as if they weren't already low to start with. If the Delphinus was coming to Ixa'Taka for a cure to his poison, that was all well and good. But if they needed to talk to some sort of wise man to figure out where the damn thing was, that was a different matter. Suspicion grew in Gilder's mind, that perhaps Aern wasn't being candid with him, and perhaps this venom was a bit more serious. Could he die? He was already feeling worn out both physically and emotionally, and he had only been poisoned for a little more than two days. At times, he couldn't sleep at night because his heart was beating so quickly from the adrenaline in his system. Other times, his head ached even more than his groin did from the testosterone. He wasn't too sure what was happening to his body, but he didn't like it.

Mainly because what it had made him almost do yesterday. Ever since that incident, Lani had barely stopped by his room in look in on him. Aern began checking up on him instead, but whether the Shwartzian knew what happened or not, he never said. Gilder fervantly hoped that Lani hadn't told anybody about it, since he would never do such a thing. Lani was an attractive woman, and admittably he wouldn't mind fooling around with her a bit on a future occasion, but he respected her too much. He wished that respect had held out before he started to grope at her body and crush her mouth with his. If there was one thing Gilder disliked, it was men who didn't know how to treat women, especially those who raped. He had stopped and let her free before it was too late, but the damage was already done.

Blue rogues had a code of honor not to harm the innocent, but that code had gone out of the window. Black rogues did things like rape, murder and terrorism...but Gilder willingly became a blue rogue because he loathed things like that. He didn't want to harm others, or cause terror...well, maybe a bit of terror in snobby merchants with big, sweaty armed guards. But mostly he didn't want to be like black rogues because of his mother.

His father apparently was some sort of pirate...whether a blue or black rogue, Gilder never knew. He was raised by his mother and her uncle on one of the many Mid-Ocean island colonies that lay beneath the silver moon. It was a fishing village, most island villages were. He never saw hide nor hair of his father, not that he minded. His uncle was a good enough man, and his plain ways and hard work impressed themselves upon Gilder's brain. He wanted to be like his uncle, to work hard for what he earned, to take pride in what he did. He wasn't too sure if he wanted to be a fisherman...that seemed kind of dull to the young Gilder. Still, there had to be something out there for him, although piracy hadn't occured to him yet.

It was like any other day beneath the silver moon...the mists of morning had been burned away by the relentless sun that seemed to beat down on the backs of those who worked at the small town. Gilder was chopping wood for his mother's cookstove in the back yard. Since it was a small town, they didn't have luxuries like electricity or hot running water...but they got by fairly well. His uncle was getting his small fishing sloop ready for another pass at the sea after lunch, which Gilder's mother was preparing.

Gilder was carrying a cord of wood in his arms, pleased by the fact that he was developing good muscle tone from the hard work he had done through the years. At the age of fourteen, he was much taller than most of the boys his age, although his face was still fairly fine-boned and delicate. He wanted strong muscles and a coarse beard when he grew up in hopes of hiding that boyish beauty in his face. He had never grown that much more muscle, and the neatly-trimmed beard only enhanced his features now that he was in his thirties.

When he had deposited the wood in the trough next to the stove, he had heard a noise outside. Curious, he had gone out onto the front stoop of their house to see what it was. A ship was hovering a scant few feet above the ground, and rough-looking men were sliding down ropes from the deck to alight in the town. Alarmed, Gilder cried out to his uncle, but the men had already made their way over to the docks. While the young man couldn't entirely see what was going on, the flash of blood-smeared steel and the screams of terror let him know. Pale-faced, he ran back into the house, crying out to his mother to hide, that raiders had come to their town.

At that moment, four men burst into their small house, brandishing bloodied knives and swords. His mother cried out to Gilder, told him to hide even as the men grabbed her. Hiding was moot; there was no place to run to, and even though he resisted as two of the men grabbed him and bound him, there was no escape. They threw him into the next room, laughing when he hit his head on the floor with an audible clunk. Then Gilder heard his mother scream. The men laughed, and there were more screams. Her screams became weaker as time pressed on, as they did the unthinkable to her while Gilder sobbed in the next room, unable to help her. Eventually she stopped screaming and began to groan weakly...but soon she stopped that as well. There were sounds of scrabbling and of things breaking, as if the raiders were pawing through the family's scant belongings for anything of value. Still the minutes dragged on, the cords cutting into Gilder's wrists and ankles.

Then they came into the next room for him. Each kick to the head and blow to the stomach was a nightmare, but he did not once cry out. It was as if he couldn't cry out, like his insides had been driven away to leave a hollow husk behind for them to pummel. They smashed his fingers. His one leg was broken. They even lashed his back with a belt, leaving welts. Eventually they grew tired of their gruesome amusements, and left him behind for dead, taking a few sackful of stolen items along with them. Gilder waited until the sounds of terror had subsided, and then somehow managed to undo his bonds, ignoring the cuts they caused in his wrists.

As he crawled into the next room, he could smell smoke. Apparently they had tried setting fire to the house, although it didn't seem to spread. Gilder wasn't concerned with fire...he wanted to know if his mother was all right. As he pulled himself over to her still form on the floor, he knew that she was not. Her dress' bodice was torn to expose her breasts, the skirt of it pushed up above her waist. And there was blood...so much blood. The boy had clutched at his mother's still form and sobbed; they had slit her throat.

After what seemed like hours, he managed to pull himself to his feet and hobble out of their ruined house. The doorway was a bit blackened, and it was smoking. Other houses were on fire, or gently smoldering. Already a few ravens had gathered at the one side of town...Gilder did not want to go investigate why. Numbly, he made his way over to the docks to look for a ship, but all were ruined. It was then he decided that he would simply die. Sitting down in the middle of the wooden dock, he bowed his head and picked at his wounds. If he was lucky, he would bleed to death. If he didn't, he would fling himself off the island.

He had no idea how long he lay there, passing in and out of delirium, alternating between weeping and a half-drowse. It didn't matter anymore, nothing did. That's why he didn't resist when a group of men and women came and lifted him up, speaking to him kindly. He did not care when they lead him onto their ship, nor did he care when they told him that they were blue rogues, and they were there to help him. That crew was the crew of the Angelicus, under the command of Captain Avris. As the years went on, Gilder grew more and more grateful to Avris and the other blue rogues, and did what he could to follow their code of honor, to learn to be a gentleman, to make his way in the world. Loathing blades, he had chosen guns as a weapon. He had always dressed himself in red to remind himself of the blood the nameless black pirates had shed in his home town. And once he was a man who had done well enough for himself to gain his own crew and his own ship, he named it Claudia. Claudia, after his mother. Claudia, to remind him of how he survived.

Gilder sighed as his thoughts returned to the children running along the docks. They were lucky...they were free, as were their mother and fathers. For ever how long as he lived, for ever as many woman he had had, Gilder still treated women with as close to respect as he could. True, he was a bit of a wolf, but he would never harm a woman. He would never break the code he learned from Captain Avris, and would never do it on the name of his ship Claudia. And if he survived this damnable poison, he would do everything he could to make it up to Lani. Sighing once more, he watched as Vyse and several of his crew members walked down the docks and into the city. He hoped that they would find his Isapa guy, and get the cure. Gilder did definately not want to die this way...as an oath breaker, a weak idiot with no heart, and no willpower.

* * *

Isapa sat on the hanging platform outside his treetop home, palms held together in prayer. A thin whisp of smoke curled up from a small heap of burning incense that lay on a flat stone before him. The priest's bald head shone with perspiration from the warm weather that was constant in Ixa'Taka.

"What is it? I told you I don't want to be disturbed." He didn't open his eyes when he spoke. "My prayer hour is almost up...come back after I eat breakfast."

"I'm sorry, but I need to speak with you." Vyse said, crossing his arms.

"Velnada, when did your voice...?" He opened his eyes, then blinked when he saw them. "Oh...oh I'm sorry. I didn't realize that it was you." He rose somewhat awkwardly, brushing bits of leaf from his purple robes. "So Mr. Vyse, you have come back to Horteka again. I see you brought your women friends as well...along with two new..." His eyes widened. "Is this true...?" He shuffled over to Aern and looked at him in awe. "Sir, are you...a Shwartzian?"

"That I am. You're Isapa, I presume?"

The fat priest laughed, setting his belly to jiggling. "Yes, yes I am. I'm honored you know of me, young man. But why have you left the Dark Rift? I thought your people were going to stay under there forever."

"How do you know about us...?" Aern seemed a bit confused.

"Oh come come...follow me..." He waved a tan hand at them, beckoning them inside his hut. "Come, you can all have breakfast with me, and we can talk. I have some nice fresh--"

"Not to be rude, Isapa, but we're here for urgent reasons." Vyse cut in. "Our friend is poisoned with Shwartzian venom, and we need maiden's breath to cure him before he dies."

The priest's look was crestfallen. "Oh. Oh I see...I'm sorry."

Fina looked stricken. "You mean you can't help us?"

"Of course I can, my lady Silvite. Hmm...I see you haven't obtained your tattoos of womanhood yet." He waved his hands in a dismissing manner. "Nonono...I'll speak of that later. Yes, I know where the sacred crop grows. My family has been tending it for centuries."

Aern took a step forward, as if only realising something for the first time. "You mean...?"

"Of course, my young friend. The bloodline's a bit muddled now, but I'm a decendant of your people."