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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Through the Gates
A cheer rose from the six people who sat at the table in the common room of one of Sailor's Isle's many inns as a seventh person approached them. Gilder, who seemed to be his old self, bowed and grinned wolfishly at them.

"Please, please...hold your applause. Just because I can bathe and shave myself doesn't mean you have to be horribly proud of that fact." His brown eyes twinkled as he sat down at the table with them, his mood definately lighter now that he was well.

The group of them laughed, and Aika cuffed him on the shoulder. "We're just glad to see you back to normal. Even if we recently found out how hairy your chest and legs are."

His fine-boned nose wrinkled, and his glasses sat askew for a moment. "I'm not that hairy. And some women find it sexy." He frowned when they laughed again.

"Women who are into bears?" Vyse murumured with a grin.

"You're just jealous because you seem to be testosterone-deprived, my friend. I doubt you even have to shave yet." Gilder's tone appeared serious, but his facial expression was not.

"Just because I've decided not to have a little fuzzy triangle on my chin doesn't mean I don't have the ability." Vyse shot back.

"Wimp."

"Shag rug."

"Little girl."

"Billy goat."

"It's good to see people in good spirits." Isapa put in before the playful bantering could continue. "Levity is good for the soul."

"We need a few good laughs." Fina said. "Events of late have been a bit stressful."

"Hey, look at it this way." the red-clad blue rogue waved the waitress over as he spoke. "Shit happened, yes. Really bad shit happened, hell yes. But through all this garbage, some good came out of it. We're all still here, in fine form and health I might add, en route to a place none of us have ever seen before. Uh, "us" sans one, anyway."

Aern nodded in reply to that.

Gilder continued to speak as the waitress approached. "Because we're good and happy, I'm feeling gracious." He looked up at the somewhat amply-busted serving girl with a pleasant grin. "Hello there, my dear. Would you be kind enough to bring this lot here whatever's best on tap today? And whatever is cooking in your kitchen today, too." After the waitress nodded, and walked off, he called after her, "And keep it coming as long as they can take it!"

"That's rather kind of you, Gilder." Lani smiled.

"Yeah, a little out of character because I know Gilder, and I know he rarely wastes his gold on anything other than himself and women he wants to get in bed." The scarred blue rogue looked at his friend. "Are you really treating?"

"Of course." he said with a completely straight face. "Especially since before I came down from the Delphinus I took the liberty of breaking into your private stashbox so I could afford to so kindly treat all my friends to a drink."

The grin on his scarred face faded. "What?!" He stood up suddenly, nearly knocking Fina and Lani off the bench in the process. "You bastard...get over here!"

Gilder pounded his fist on the table, laughing along with the others. "Oh c'mon Vyse. It's not like it was really your money in the first place."

Vyse was not laughing. "Hey, after I steal it and redistribute it, what cut I keep is mine and only mine." He edged around to where Gilder sat, and swiped the smoked glasses off his nose. "Although we could trade. These for the gold."

The taller man grunted and made a grab for the glasses but missed, much to the amusement of his companions. "You're dirty stinking rich anyway...it doesn't matter. And I want my damn glasses."

"I dunno, I'm starting to like them." He pulled the skyseer patch down from over his eye, and placed the glasses on his nose. "I think they're me. Now if only I had a fuzzy spot on my chin and a labido the size of Valua I could be you."

"Hey, I'm serious. Those are expensive."

Vyse put his hand to his chin in a mimickry of one of Gilder's more familiar poses. "Yes, these smoked glasses lenses are expensive, aren't they?" he said, imitating Gilder's voice. He turned to Aika. "Hello there, my fine lady friend. Can I interest you in a drink, an hour in bed, and some false promises?"

"Only if you shave your chest." She laughed when Gilder gave her a shove.

Aern sighed and shook his head, putting a hand to his temple.

"Something wrong, Aern?" the Silvite woman seated next to him asked.

"Yes...as well and good as a sense of humor is..." The Shwartzian looked up to watch Gilder chase Aika around the room, who now wore his glasses while singing a rather raunchy song. "...I have a feeling that it'll be a long trip to Shwartzia."

***

Despite the goofy behavior and amount of loqua from the previous night, Vyse had his crew ready to go bright and early as usual, and the Delphinus shoved off from port not long after...much to the chagrin of some people on board.

"It's too bright in here." Gilder complained as he stood towards the back of the bridge.

Vyse glanced back over his shoulder from where he stood at the navigator's station with Aika. "The lights aren't on, since it's sunny outside."

"That's why it's too bright in here." he winced. "And it's too loud."

"You really shouldn't have drank so much." the ship's captain said.

"I wanted to."

"Yes, but your body still hasn't caught up with itself...so your alcohol tolerance isn't what it was before. I mean, Aika drank more than you did and she's fine."

Gilder grunted at the sound of the bridge's door shutting, and watched as Aern walked in. "Hey, Aern...I have a helluva headache this morning. Mind helping me out?"

The Shwartzian, who had not drank quite as much as some the previous night, shrugged. "Go get a drink of water."

The tall pirate glowered at him. "That's not very helpful."

He gave Gilder a knowing glance as he walked over to where Aika and Vyse stood. "Sure it is. Your head hurts because your body is dehydrated. When you drink too much alcohol, it--"

"Never mind. I don't need a medical lecture."

"I'm sure if you got yourself a glass of water--"

"Stuff it, vampy. I'm going to find some mojoca." He turned and walked towards the door.

Aern frowned. "But mojoca will only dehydr--"

"I said shut up." Gilder shut the door behind him, albeit a bit gingerly.

The shwartzian looked at the large metal door after Gilder had left and raised a dark eyebrow. ""Vampy"?"

"You do remind me of the vampires from stories, Aern." Aika admitted. "I mean, with your odd clothes and pale skin, and then there's your accent..."

"And when have you seen me suck blood?" he said, frowning down at the map spread on the table before them. "Not to mention that vampires are supposed to be notoriously handsome and charming."

"You are good looking." She elbowed Vyse, who chuckled from that remark. "No comments from the peanut gallery."

"I'm not Mr. Charisma either." the Shwartzian continued. "In all honesty, I don't have the traits to be a vampire, other than being able to transform into Mivaria form, which I suppose is something like a bat. And I don't bite people's necks." He seemed somewhat offended by the concept.

"Okay, so I admit to thinking you were a vampire when I first saw you, and maybe I mentioned that to Gilder in passing, but c'mon...we know you're not, right Vyse?"

"Can't say I met many vampires, anyway. You seem fairly normal to me, Aern." The scarred blue rogue jabbed a finger at the dark swirl that signified the Dark Rift on his map. "And since you're a normal guy and not a bloodsucker, I'm sure you wouldn't mind changing the subject to more important matters, like getting us down to Shwartzia."

"Even though Gaed isn't here, I'm positive that I can get us down." It was faint, but it sounded as if he held some bitterness behind that statement. Looking down at the map, he scanned the Great Nasr Ocean, which was dotted with small islands with meaningless lables for the names of them. Some sailors argued about the true names of the lesser-known and least-important uninhabited islands, but most decided not to be bothered with them. "Where are we now? Are we close to Cape Victory?"

"We should pass over the rift to the northwest of it within the hour." Aika said confidently. "We can be to the Rift by nightfall."

"Nightfall." Aern pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Very well. When we enter the Rift, I will fly on ahead, and you can follow me. I'll be careful not to fly too far ahead, either." he added dryly.

"We'd appreciate it." Vyse smirked.

* * *

The western horizon glowed a hazy orange-red behind the Delphinus as it passed the last of the Red Moon's southern lands, on its way to the dark swirling mass crowned by constant storm clouds that was the Dark Rift. The clouds rarely cleared above the rift, another factor making it hard to navigate; sailors weren't always sure where they were entering and leaving. The islands near the rift were unusual in that they constantly moved and shifted about, changing their position like lilypads floating in a pond. These factors along with the chill, damp and gusty weather made sailing near the Rift just about as difficult as sailing through it.

It was obvious to Vyse that the crew was anxious. He could understand their tense nerves, since he didn't like entering the Rift any more than the next guy on board. He had gone through the blue-black storm a few times before, but that didn't stop him from feeling nervous.

Empathy, however, was the main reason for Vyse's taut nerves. He glanced over to his right, where Fina stood beside him, hand clutched to her chest, biting her lip. If anything, her reaction was making him feel even more on edge, and he knew it wasn't because of the dangerous storm rift before them. He wondered what it would be like, to know that an entire race of people depended on you to survive...and yet not know what those people expected you to do. His hands gripped the wheel tighter as he imagined quailing about it, and momentarily felt lucky that the burden wasn't placed on his shoulders. Only momentarily.

"We'll be in soon." she said, noting his tighter grip on the helm. Her voice was quiet, almost a whisper, as if raising it may reveal the turmoil in the speaker's mind.

"I know." he answered just as quietly. He doubted anybody on the bridge heard him speak besides Fina. "We'll get this over with soon."

"Mmm." she replied, hugging herself as if cold. After a pause, she grasped after conversation again. "Nervous?"

Vyse ignored the rhetorical question, knowing the real reason why she had spoken that particular word, and looked over at her. She looked so small, so frail and even though she stood only a few feet from him, she appeared very alone as well. It was as if she was the only one who stood on this bridge, the only one entering this strange place, and he could only watch from a distance. He wished he could turn the ship around, to take the burden from her shoulders, to do it himself somehow...to do anything to give her peace.

"I hope this doesn't take too long." She shivered, her eyes shimmering a bit in the lights in the instrument panel, and his thoughts redoubled themselves. He wanted to put the ship at full stop, and tell her that he would go no further. No, what he really wanted to do was let go of the wheel and put his arms around her and tell her that it would be all right, to smooth back her hair and let her know that she wasn't alone.

"I'd take it all away, if I could." he said softly.

The silvite looked at him quizzically with her green eyes. "Vyse...?"

"The rift, Shwartzia, even Aern...I'd wish it all away so you could go home, Fina. Just so you could be back at Crescent Isle where you're happy." He had no idea why he said it, but he knew that somehow it was the right thing to say.

Her face was almost unreadable, but Vyse knew what she was thinking when she opened her mouth to speak. "You would..."

"Yeah. I hate this. I hate this because you hate it all." His grip tightened on the spokes of the wheel again. "We're air pirates, we're not miracle workers. You're only human, Fina...and so am I. Shwartzia's become like a wave, and we're lost trying to swim against it in the middle of a hurricane." His voice dropped even lower, but not because he was preventing anybody from hearing him...it was more like he was quietly repeating his thoughts out loud. "If I could give you sanctuary and shelter from that storm, I would. A safe haven, something, anything to keep you from being caught up and carried away by that tide." The scarred blue rogue lowered his amber eyes to stare at his tanned hands, which still held onto the wheel. "I just wanted you to know that I would do that, if I could."

She was beginning to cry, he knew it. He could sense it from her, and hear it in her voice when she spoke. "Why...? Why do you say these things now?"

"Just because--" he began, but then was cut short by a squawking sound from the talk tube.

" ..yse? You ready?" Aika's voice sounded thin coming through the horn-shaped device. "Aern's in position."

Vyse blinked, giving a start, and looked at Fina's misty eyes for a moment before responding. "Yeah, ready." he said loudly into the tube. "Launch the Shwartzian."

"Aye!" The redhead could be heard saying something to Aern, who stood on the deck next to her in Mivaria form. The Shwartzian nodded and took off, gliding in front of the Delphinus' bow while holding onto a moonstone lantern. "Bird's in flight." came Aika's voice again.

The captain began issuing orders. "Hans, lower propellers at half speed. Easy does it."

"Aye, captain." The boy carefully gave the engines a nudge.

"Valim, watch that barometer. If things start to get buggy, give a shout."

"Aye, cap'n." The Nasrian man carefully watched the gages in front of him.

"Tika, watch Aern's lantern. If you can't see it for even a second, shout for all stop."

"My eyes won't lose it, captain." came Tika-Tika's voice from where he was stationed at the lookout's post.

He was about to give Fina an order, but decided against it. It wasn't as if she could help navigate very well anyway. "All right, here we go."

The Delphinus carefully followed behind Aern as he entered the first calm area of the rift. Aika stood on deck, dark brown cloak whipping around her, bravely watching her dragonic friend as he flew on ahead, dauntless. Her hands tightened slightly on the rail as they entered one of the thick, stormy areas. She had never thought about it before, but now storms frightened her. She had a feeling that ever since falling from the Belleza, she would not be able to overcome that fear. Still, it was her duty to stand on the deck, and watch her friend as...

...as the storm clouds before him melted away, leaving a clear pathway behind him.

Aika's jaw dropped as she gaped. "Uh..." she began to lean down to the talk tube to speak, and decided against it. There was no way that the bridge could have missed that, especially since they were now entering the strange tunnel that Aern had somehow created. Lightning flashed, the wind roared, but nothing seemed to touch the large silver ship and lone gray figure flying before it. She glanced back for a moment, knowing the lookout was also watching the flying Mivaria before them. It was hard to be sure, but she thought she saw the clouds closing just behind the Delphinus' wake. Shivering, Aika turned back to watch Aern again. There was no turning back now.

They entered another calm section, but this one lacked the remains of crashed ships on the strangely twisted land masses. Instead, there was an odd sort of forest, the thick yellowish-green leaves of the gnarled trees glowing quietly in the darkness. An occasional shrub with glowing red flowers or large balloon-like glowing mushroom would stand out among the luminecent forest, adding to the only kind of light the plants could live off of: their own. It was eerie, but beautiful at the same time. Aern continued on, however, ignoring the forest as if he had seen it a hundred times before.

Another calm tunnel surrounded them as they passed through roaring storm clouds. The light from the photophosphorent forest faded away, and the only light came from the Delphinus and the silver moonstone lantern Aern held. A small beacon in the darkness to lead a larger beacon. Aika couldn't help but shudder.

Another area opened up, this one less populated by glowing plants. Still, Aika could see...

"Moons..." she breathed, looking at the area they passed over.

The remains of a city lay below them, lit up by the Delphinus' search lights. The buildings seemed to curve gently to a point, like purpleish-black seashells. Other buildings had domed roofs made of the same blue-black rock, partially falling in on themselves. Yet other bits of civilization remained: a plaza with a now-dry fountain centered in it; a forgotten garden that had long since been overrun by glowing weeds; empty store fronts with shattered windows. The Delphinus moved on, and soon the deserted Shwartzian city lay behind them.

They went through another clear pathway behind Aern, like worms burrowing through dark soil. As they went on, Aika began to wonder how long it would take them. She knew that going through the Dark Rift took at least a day, but she wasn't sure how long it would take them to get to Shwartzia. She hoped that it wasn't too long...the lantern Aern held would only last about five hours, and they already had been travelling a few hours.

Then a large calm area appeared before them, and to her surprise, Aika recognized it. Small black stones shimmered in the air all around them, all orbiting the large black stone glowing darkly at the center. It then occurred to her that Aern had cut straight through to the center of the Rift where they were now, where the large Black Moonstone hovered. Where it would have taken them half a day of hopping from calm spot to calm spot, it only took them a little over two hours this time around.

Dipping his pinions, Aern glided over to the large stone at the center of what had to be the eye of the storm. Another dark purple light appeared, mirroring the light from the large moonstone, but this light came from within the Shwartzian himself. Aika watched, transfixed, as Aern arched his back and the light within him intensified. The large stone gave back that same glow, and the smaller ones began to do so as well. Their light intensified as they began to revolve faster around the stone, swirling downwards like water going down a drain. Then there was a hissing rumble, like some distant waterfall, and the clouds below them swirled down into a deep funnel.

The Mivaria turned to face her, ponderously flapping his wings, and pointed downwards with a clawed digit. He then began circling down into the darkness below, heedless of the swirling whirlpool of clouds around him.

"Vyse! We go down!" Aika shouted into the tube.

"Down?" said Vyse's voice in a tinny manner. "Is that hole big enough for the ship?"

"Looks that way!" the redhead replied loudly. "We'd better move before we lose Aern!"

As they decended down the swirling maw, darkness swallowed them completely. Although she wasn't afraid of the dark, Aika tightly gripped the rail. A memory from childhood where she had fallen down a well surfaced, and she shivered, the chill, heavy air reminding her of the cold, dark well. It seemed like the inky blackness around her was smothering, the air down here was heavier, thicker. Suddenly it seemed too heavy...too stifling. Coughing, she struggled to breathe, forced to her knees by some intense pressure, every second it growing greater. It felt as if her eyes were being forced from her face, her lips back from her teeth. There was some shouting coming from the talk tube....Vyse's voice, sounding panicky and then ending in a sudden click; she couldn't respond, couldn't move as she heard clacking from behind her. She felt like screaming in this crushing darkness, but was denied even that by the lack of breath.

The stifling air lifted, and there was a light next to her. It was the moonstone lantern. She then realized she lay on her stomach on the deck, forced down that way. Large, strong hands picked her up gently, helping her to her feet.

"Forgive me...I hope I was not too late." Aern's transformed voice rumbled like distant thunder. "Are you all right?"

She leaned against the white-furred chest, coughing yet noticing that he was panting slightly from the effort of putting up his barrier. "...j...jerk!" She tried to scold him further, but succumbed to another fit of coughing as he patted her shoulder gently. Somehow that slight touch removed the burning from her lungs and the pain from her joints. "If I wasn't so pissed off at you for not telling me about that, I'd give you a hug for saving me."

"I'm sorry." His eyes glowed blueish-purple, making the statement seem not quite as sincere as it really was. "I was hoping to make it to the gates with you right behind me, but I was too far ahead." The softly glowing eyes blinked in a strange manner, one inner eyelid closing before the outer ones covered it. "At least you seem all right. And you can still hug me if you want." It was hard to tell, but it seemed that the corners of his dragonic mouth turned up in a smile.

"Right Aern...like you're a big ol' teddy bear." She ruffled the fur on his chest, noting how the Black Moon crystal shone dimly in his narrow torso. "So where are these gates?"

The creature turned his head to look forward, blunt horns and mane of hair sillouetted in the cold light of the lantern. "Not much farther down. We need to clear the Great Cloud Sea first before we see the walls."

"Walls...? Wait, into Deep Sky? We're going into Deep Sky, and I'm standing out here on deck?" She couldn't keep the note of panic out of her voice. No wonder it felt as if she was being crushed. Turning to look, she saw that the pressure shutters had closed on the bridge's windows. No doubt the sound she heard from the talk tube was them sealing it.

"You're with me. You're safe." He looked at the shuttered windows behind them. "They didn't shut them until they saw me land next to you...so they know you're all right."

"But...why didn't you tell me? I don't want to be out here when we're flying around Deep Sky."

"I wanted you to see the gates as we entered, and then Gen Gulan beyond them." He stretched his wings slightly, producing a sound like wet canvas flapping. "It's something no island-dweller has ever seen...not the way it is now. I know that you wouldn't see it if you were on the bridge..." He walked with her to the talk tube, leading her away from the lantern into the shadows. "You've been so kind to me, Aika. You're the first friend I found in the lands of the island-dwellers, the first to not be afraid, the first to treat me the same way you'd want to be treated." Aern bowed his head, closing his glowing eyes until they were slits. "I just wanted to give you something back, as a thank you...even if it's only showing you my home."

Her nervous expression melted away, and she began to laugh as she threw her arms around his slim chest, since he was far too tall for her to hug him around his neck. "Aern, you big dork...all because I was nice?" She laughed again. "Dork or not, you've saved my life. You don't have to pay me back any sort of way...I mean, I should do more for you. How could I not want to be friends with the guy who did that for me?"

"Really?" He stood a bit awkwardly, not expecting her to react so enthusiastically.

"Yeah, of course. Besides, you seemed kinda...alone. Nobody deserves to be alone." She crossed her arms over her chest and grinned up at him. "Right?"

Aern nodded his reptilian head, mouth turned upwards in a smile. "You're right. But I still want you to see Gen Gulan and the gates." He tapped the talk tube loudly with a claw. After a few moments, a clicking sound was heard and Vyse's voice echoed from the trumpet-shaped device.

"...hello? Aika, is that you? Are you all right?" He sounded concerned.

"It's me, and yes, Aika is fine. I can maintan air pressure longer this time because there's only two people's air to manage. I'll guide you from here. Don't use your sonar, since it won't work properly over the water."

"Water?" Vyse sounded a bit interested.

"Yes, the sea. Don't ask me to explain now. Stop your drop in altitude. We don't want to land on the surface."

"Right. Just give us a bearing."

Via Aern, the Delphinus made its way through Deep Sky, slowly creeping along only about few hundred feet above the planet's surface. Dark clouds roiled overhead, occasionally illuminating things with a flash of lightning. Every time she got a good look at the clouds above, she would edge closer to the Shwartzian. He only smiled in his strange dragonic way, and continued to navigate for Vyse who stood at the helm.

Looking over the rail, Aika could see nothing but darkness at first. Most of the times, the lightning was overhead, in the clouds. What flashes it did give from above didn't seem to be reflected back too well from the surface of Arcadia below, for some reason. Then, when finally a bolt of lightning raced down to the surface below, she saw the reason why.

"There IS water!" she exclaimed, utterly surprised. Water? On the surface of the planet? What complete nonsense. What good would it do on the surface, anyway?

"Of course. That is the ocean." Aern turned his head to glance at the sea with Mivarian eyes. In the flickers of electricty from above, they could see undulating waves on the water's surface.

"That makes no sense. The ocean is above us."

"No. The cloud seas are above us. The true ocean, an ocean made of water, is below us. Long ago, before unknown things tore Arcadia apart and forced the people and animals into the skies, this world was sustained by the vast ocean. Even today, it is the source of all the clouds in Arcadia, where all the island-dwellers get their water from through rain." He turned his head. "Ah. Look ahead, Aika. We can look at the sea later."

The redhead turned to see pinpoints of light ahead. As the Delphinus drew nearer, she realized that it was a giant stone wall, marked here and there with glowing searchlights. The lights fixed on the Delphinus as it drew to a halt before the great wall, a wall that reminded Aika a bit of the old Grand Fortress, but without all the gun turrets.

A voice was heard coming from somewhere near the top of the wall, which extended from far below the dark seas to the clouds swirling above. It shouted out in Shwartzian, sounding almost demanding. Aern replied in his own language, using a few key words such as "Silvite" that Aika could recognize. After a few moments of shouted conversation with the unseen man on the wall, the massive structure began to shudder, and open inwards.

"We're going in the gates..." Aika murmured as Aern continued to shout directions into the talk tube.

"Pardon?" he asked as he straightened.

"We're heading into your city, through the gates. Through..." she squinted, looking at the purplish-black haze in front of them. "...a purple thing?"

"A barrier, raised by the gate guardians. It is much like the barrier we are standing in. Once we enter, there will be no need for us to take precautions against high air pressure." It seemed that there was a slight slump to his slender yet muscular shoulders. "For that, I will be grateful. I am feeling quite a bit strained, small as our barrier is."

Slowly they crept forward, growing closer to that strange, wavering, purpleish-black surface that resembled something like reflective water or a mirror. As it closed in on Aika and Aern, the redhead flinched away from it briefly before it touched her, and then blinked in surprise when she found that she felt nothing. She heard her companion laugh, a sound that seemed strange coming from a tall, monstrous creature.

"Afraid it may tingle a bit? Instead of worrying about it, why not look ahead of you?" Behind him, the pressure shutters on the bridge opened, but the Shwartzian was pointing ahead with a clawed finger.

Turning her head to look, Aika's eyes widened slowly as she saw what no island-dweller had seen in centuries. A massive island sat not floating in the air as she was accustomed to, but immersed partway into the deep sky ocean of water. Smaller islands were connected to it, some floating in air, some nestled on the sea, all connected by curving, graceful bridges dotted with softly glowing lights. Even below the water, she could see faint smears of wavering light, evidence that they had built something on the very surface of the planet itself. The buildings were, in a word, beautiful. All constructed of dark blue-black stone, much like the stone Aika had seen in the ruins they passed over, they varied from high-domed rotundas to gracefully curving spires, to a large, centrally-placed, smooth-sided pyramid even more advanced than the ones found in Rixis. These too were scattered with soft-edged glowing lights. The most impressive thing, however, was the massive stone sculpture of a pair of Mivaria wings that stretched from the back end of the city, swept along the outer edge of the latter half of the main island, and then crossed at the thumb-claws high above the pyramid at the center. Even the stone wings were made of the dark, unidentifyable rock that all of Shwartzia's single remaining city was constructed from.

Aika felt Aern's clawed hand on her shoulder, and continued to stare at the wonder before her as his transformed voice rumbled beside her. "Welcome to my home, Aika...the place that your people haven't seen in over ten millenia. Welcome to Gen Gulan."