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Lunar Cycle: Chapter 8
It was probably afternoon at this point, although Aika didn't have a clock to gauge what time it was exactly. She figured it to be an hour or so after noon, judging by the kind of light outside. When she had woken up she hadn't seen Aern anywhere, although she did note that his packs were gone. At first she thought that he had deserted her, but then she thought better of him; he wouldn't have gone through the trouble of rescuing her just to ditch her. Besides, he had left his cloak behind as a sort of blanket for her, and that wasn't something you discarded, especially when there were storms raging outside.
It was drizzling when she awoke, and had continued on until...well, until whatever time it was. The thick clouds and hazy rain obscurred the sky, so not only could she not tell what time it was, but she couldn't see any moons in the sky to discern her location. All she knew that she was on an island, and she could somewhat see another one looming in the distance to the left. Whether that was north, south, east, west or whatever was unknown to Aika. All she knew was that she was still stuck on this island.
Sighing, she wandered back inside the cave. She was fairly hungry, but there was no food left since yesterday. Aern had made some mention about going off to Esparanza for more supplies, and that's where Aika figured he had gone. Still, being left alone was boring. Aika wasn't one for solitude most of the time. She preferred companionship and conversation over anything else. She picked up another hunk of the strange gnarled wood that Aern had set aside for firewood, and threw it on the coals of the fire to revive the flames. The dry wood caught fairly quickly.
So many things were strange about him...his clothes, his coloring, his accent...even this wood he brought. He had claimed to not be a vampire, and Aika believed him for the most part, but he still didn't seem normal. Something about the way he moved seemed strange, almost graceful in manner. His ettiquite was extreme, he was very polite and did his best to be a gentleman towards her. He seemed to do it more out of habit than anything else, not out of hopes of picking up on her.
"Sorry I'm late." came the deep, accented voice. Aika jumped and turned to see Aern standing there, several packs slung over his shoulder. His hair and face were dripping wet, as were the outside of the packs, yet his clothing seemed more or less dry. "I brought more food from Esparanza." he declared, setting the packs down on the floor. "Although it's raining like mad there. It's amazing how one little storm will cause all to hole up in their homes as if it's the end of the world."
"Don't forget it's one little storm that threw me overboard." Aika said, looking at the food in the packs. It was more fruit, bread and cheese, but Aika wasn't horribly picky. "Why didn't you tell me you were going? I could've gone with you."
"Not in this weather. I can manage in the rain by myself, but going a long distance with a passanger is difficult in stormy weather. Besides, I left very early and you needed your rest." He sat down. "Help yourself, I've already eaten."
"You don't have to tell me twice." She pulled a fruit out of the pack and bit into it.
"I saw your ship there." Aern stated, staring into the fire. "The rigging was partially repaired, but the sails were all removed. I think it was hit fairly hard by the storm."
"Did you see anybody on it?" Aika asked eagerly.
He shook his head. "Sorry, no. There were a few workmen around, but I didn't see any of your companions. I didn't have the opportunity to ask around, either. I think they were inside one of the inns or taverns when I was there."
"Well, at least you saw the Belleza. Did it look travelworthy?"
"More or less. As I said they removed the sails, but the masts and decks were fine."
"That's something at least. They must be all right then." She looked at him. "Why is it you didn't have the opportunity to ask around? Didn't you at least stop in a grocer's to buy this food?"
Aern coughed uncomfortably. "I uh...stole it."
She raised an eyebrow. "You...steal? I didn't figure you as the type."
"I normally don't, but lately I've had no choice. It's not that I don't have any money...although I doubt my currancy would be accepted at Esparanza."
Aika sighed. "All right, Aern. I think it's time you give an explanation. I don't know who you are, where you come from, and how you even manage to get around. I mean, what are you exactly, a flying man?"
His red eyes met hers for a second, and then flitted down to the stone floor of the cave. "Yes, of sorts."
"What? That's impossible!"
He shook his head. "Not entirely, considering who I am."
"And who exactly are you, Aern?" She crossed her arms.
She let her arms drop, confused. "A what?"
Aern sighed, and stared into the fire. "That's what I am: a Shwartzian. You come from Mid-Ocean, I come from Shwartzia. Please let me explain in a bit more detail. My people live, or at one time lived beneath the black moon."
"But there isn't any black moon..." Aika narrowed her eyes shrewdly. "At least not anymore. I did see some black moonstones in the Dark Rift."
"That's because the black moon used to be right over the Dark Rift. Actually, the Dark Rift is over Shwartzia. Thousands upon thousands of years ago, before the Rains of Destruction, my people created the Dark Rift to protect our land from the deadly Rains. We each have within us the power of the black moon. Look." He unbuttoned the front of his shirt to show her his bare chest. Beneath his pale skin, something glowed darkly.
"What is that inside you?" Aika asked in wonder.
"A black moon crystal. Each Shwartzian has one within him or her, just as Silvites each have a silver moon crystal inside of them. I'm sure Fina told you about that."
"Yes...please, continue with your story."
He re-buttoned his shirt. "We have limited power over the weather, because of our powers over gravity. I'm the one who caused the storm at Esparanza when I went there this morning. If I didn't, then I wouldn't of had any cover when I flew in to get supplies. People get startled when they see me." He smiled. "I hope you won't, however."
"Trust me, after seeing a lot of the things I've seen, a flying man won't bother me in the least." She grinned at him.
"Well, that's just it. I don't fly as a man, as you see me now. I have another form." He stood and started gathering his supplies to pack. "You see, both races that originally inhabited Arcadia have the ability to shapechange because of the crystals within them. Silvites at some point evolved to not do so anymore, but Shwartzians can still literally grow wings in order to fly about our world." He grinned at her. "I imagine you never knew that your people came from a different world."
"Please, don't overload me with shocking and debatable information, Aern." Aika said with a pained expression. "I'm trying to still accept the fact that you can fly and cause storms."
"One thing at a time, I suppose. You had best put that cloak on, since we'll be leaving soon." He set the packs down next to him, and reached up to unbutton his shirt. "And please turn your back."
"What are you doing? Stripping?"
"I said that I could shape shift. My clothing cannot, so if I do so while clothed I'll rip right out of them. Don't worry...my other form is very modest."
"If you say so..." Aika shrugged, turning her back. The whole thing was strange, and yet a bit of it made sense at the same time. She now understood the reason why Aern could have rescued her, and why his apperance was so strange, and even what the black moonstones were doing at the center of the Dark Rift. Even so, it made her uncomfortable. There were so many things that went against the grain, especially this shapeshifting thing.
"You may turn around now." Aern said. His voice was still deep, although it seemed to be less quiet than before and more low and resonant.
Aika turned around to face Aern. And then she gasped in surprise.
* * *
For the most part, the Belleza was repaired. It had cost her famous captain quite a bit of money to get it repaired so quickly, but it was definately worth it. New sails billowed gently in the wind coming from the west; neatly coiled cotton and hemp ropes, made just months ago in Maramba, made up the new rigging. The paneling on deck was repaired as well, a few damaged boards replaced and the whole thing sanded and re-varnished.
Vyse looked at the ship docked at the shipyard with a certain amount of pride. He still felt extremely lucky to have such an excellent sailboat, even when most captains preferred their ships to have Valuan design involving propellors. Without a doubt, the Belleza was one of the best ships out there, aside of her sister ship the Albatross II and the world-renowned Delphinus. The Belleza, however, had a certain grace and almost antique elegance that the Delphinus did not, and despite the fact that the Delphinus was considered the greatest ship in the world her captain always prefered the wooden decks of the Belleza.
Fina came to stand next to him. "They did a good job repairing it, didn't they?"
"They better have, it's costing me a fortune. We're going to have to double the raids for the next few months, once this black moon/Aika gone missing incident is taken care of. The last thing I want is to lose crew because I can't afford to feed them."
The Silvite took his hand and patted it kindly. "Things will work out, they always do. If all else, we have friends in high places that will help us out financially."
Gilder walked up to them, a bag of supplies slung over his shoulder. "Okay chief, this is it. Is there anything else we need to do here?"
"Not really. Nobody has found any information on Aika here, so we may as well continue on to Yafutoma."
"Are you sure about that?" Fina asked. "Don't we want to continue searching?"
The captain of the Belleza looked down at the ground thoughtfully, almost sadly. "No, I don't think we do. We were seperated before, and fate brought us back together again. I have a feeling we'll see Aika again. She's not the kind that dies that easily." He looked up and over at Lani. "Besides, our scientist friend here needs her notes so we can solve this black moon mystery."
"I do need my notes..." Lani agreed. "...but I'd like to add to them as well. While I was asking around for information on Aika, some people said they saw a strange creature flying about the area."
"Describe it?" Vyse asked.
"They say it was about man-sized, with the wings of a bat. It appeared to be black, but they couldn't see too well because of the storm last night. It's been snooping around the area for a bit now, so all sorts of stories about gargoyles and dragons have popped up."
"The foreman at the repair yard here mentioned I'd better be careful of dragons." Vyse said. "Then again I told him we were heading through the Dark Rift, and people have all sorts of weird stories about that. I took it as standard sailor superstition."
"Come on, Vyse." the blonde Silvite said, pulling at his arm. "We'd best leave before another storm tears our ship to pieces. I'd rather not spend any more time in Esparanza."
* * *
Their progress was slow, not only because they had to quarter the westerly wind, but also because they continued to watch the various chains of islands near the Dark Rift for any signs of Aika. Vyse chafed at their slow pace, irritated by the hindering winds and the slow rate they moved towards the Dark Rift. The storm was still just a smudge on the horizon.
"We're moving too slow." he said, gripping the wheel. "I love sailboats, but they just don't move quickly headlong into the wind."
"I hear ya." Gilder agreed. "At times I thought about upgrading the Claudia, but you just can't do that to a sailboat, it's almost cruel. Propellors belong on Valuan ships. We Mid-Ocean boys need our sails."
"You won't see a single propellor on our ships, either." Lani added, glancing up from the maps she was looking at from the navigator station. Normally Aika was navigator. "Just because something is made an old way doesn't necissarily mean it's a bad thing. If you have a good design, why try to complicate it? I've always enjoyed the quiet of sails as opposed to the annoying whirring of propellor blades."
"Yet when you get down to it, a ship is a ship." Fina said while feeding Cupil. The little animal had become very attentive since its mistress had pulled out small shards of red moonstones. After eating each one, its silver skin would ripple with shades of red, and then it would go back to its quicksilver appearance.
"I wouldn't go that far, Fina." Gilder frowned. "Not all ships are alike."
"I didn't say they were alike, Gilder, I said that a ship is a ship. All ships are designed more or less the same; it wouldn't be very aerodynamic to have a block-shaped ship."
"Okay, you do have a point there...but I still don't think "a ship is a ship" is an accurate phrase."
"Also look at it this way..." She offered the silver animal another bit of moonstone, who took it greedily. "All ships rely on moonstones to fly. There simply aren't anymore that use gasoline or other such fuels. Also, because all ships use moonstones, they all have the ability to hover. I know for a fact that centuries ago ships couldn't do that...they had to keep moving or else they'd fall." Fina scratched Cupil's chin, smiling. "Not only that, but every ship that uses moonstones has more or less a similar engine. They all have to output a certain amount of energy to defy gravity, and yet to not burn away the stones entirely. So all ships use moonstones, all ships can hover, all ships can defy gravity. Or, if you'd like to put it simply: a ship is a ship."
Gilder opened his mouth to find something wrong with her argument, but then shut it again with a somewhat confused expression on his face.
"She's got you." Vyse grinned.
The red-clad pirate almost glared at Fina. "And when did you get so damn bright, anyway? You used to be so nice, cute, innocent and...uh..."
"Dumb?" Fina offered. "That was never the case. I was a bit ignorant, but I was never dumb." She patted Cupil on the head, who was burbling contentedly at her. "Yes, I know, Cupil."
"I never actually said that..." Gilder said a bit defensively.
"No, but I know you, Gilder. For some reason you have it stuck in your testosterone-ridden brain that all blondes are airheads." She flickered her green eyes up to him. "I think we'll have to remedy that one day..."
"It looks like we're getting good time now," Vyse stated, attempting to change the awkward conversation and hopefully head off an argument. "although it's hard to gauge distances in the cabin...the windows are fogging up from the cold air outside. Would one of you mind heading out there as lookout, at least until we're near the Rift? I don't want another storm sneaking up on us."
"I'll go," Fina offered. "Gilder can take over my post since he said I was dumb."
"I said that I never said that!" the red-clad pirate declared, a bit annoyed. "What do I know about the Belleza's engines, anyway?" he asked, and yet moved over to watch the various meters that were at the engineer's station.
"Stop being lazy and just do it, Gilder. Fina, be sure you throw on something warm, it seems pretty cold out there." Vyse glanced at the Dark Rift looming in the distance. "We're far enough south that it may snow, even though it's early spring in the southern hemisphere."
"Right." Fina exited the cabin with Cupil in tow.
* * *
"It's getting very cold...aren't you getting numb?" Despite the fact that she was wearing Aern's heavy dark blue cloak, she was shivering. She had pulled her goggles down over her eyes to keep the biting wind out of them.
"It can't be helped, but I'll be fine. I've been through worse." came Aern's calm reply.
"Yes, but you're...uh..." Aika didn't know how to put it delicately.
"Naked?" the Shwartzian offered. "Yes, although I do have some fur so I'll be fine. Besides, it may be cold but at least it isn't snowing. I dislike travelling through snow. It gets in my eyes and in cakes in my fur." He paused. "You're shivering."
"It can't be helped." she replied with a smirk. "Besides, I'm still getting used to this idea of being carried by a....uh...whatever you are."
That was the best description she could come up with. Even though she had been riding for a while, carried in Aern's arms as he flew, she still couldn't exactly figure out what he resembled. When he claimed that he could fly and he grew wings, she pictured at first him as an angel with golden-white feathery wings. Then when he mentioned that he fully transformed, her suspicions on vampires began to grow again and the image of a large, disgusting vampire bat popped into her mind. She was not prepared for the truth, however. What stood before her after the transformation wasn't an angel or a vampire....but a tall, slender, dark gray creature, vaugely reptilian with large batlike wings and white fur covering various parts of its body. If it wasn't for the thick fur that covered his chest, groin and back, she would have said he looked like a cross between a human and a dragon. He had put his pack on between his shoulders, picked her up as if she weighed nothing with his clawed hands, and with a few quick strides had them airborne and out of the cave before she could say anything.
Now they were gliding along the main chain of islands that ran from Esparanza to the Dark Rift, Aern's large wings skimming along on air currents that rose all the way from the fringe of deep sky. Ocasionally, he would dip his pinions to give them a bit of a lift, but most of his flying seemed to involve riding on convection currents. That is, until the temperature dropped as they got closer to the Rift. At that point it involved a bit more flapping and a lot less gliding.
Aern blinked his purple, pupilless eyes at her, but his strange somewhat-reptilian face made it difficult for her to read his emotions. "I am what you see. Leave it at that." he said in respond to her general statement.
"Okay, fair enough. How far behind them would you say we are?"
"Well, if they truly went this way, then I would say within a few hours. I travel much faster than a sailboat, even when carrying someone." He grunted, a sound of displeasure. "Which I must say I'm not used to doing. You're not horribly heavy, Aika, but I still must put in a bit more effort when carrying you."
Aika was going to retort, but then thought better of it. She decided that harassing the one thing that was holding her up and out of deep sky wasn't horribly wise. She instead wrapped the warm cloak more tightly around her, and watched as the chain of islands slid past them.
* * *
Fina shivered, despite the heavy wool cloak she wore over her blue overcoat. Vyse had warned her that it was cold out on deck, but it seemed as if the temperature had dropped even more since she stood out as lookout. She didn't climb up to the crow's nest, she knew the wind would be too bitter cold up there. Besides, she never exactly enjoyed high places. Being up on a ship or an island was one thing; climbing up a ladder when your fingers were numb from cold was another.
Something poked her cheek, something soft yet cold. Fina brushed at it. "Not now, Cupil. I just fed you." She turned back to stern and continued looking ahead of the Belleza as part of her watch.
The small quicksilver creature burbled and poked at her again with its long prehensile tail. Fina muttered something and gently pushed the animal aside, still only half-paying attention to it. Cupil gave a loud gurgle, began swooping in figure-eights over her head, and then redoubled its efforts when she made a grab for it.
"Cupil! I don't understand what you can possibly want from me, Cupil. All I will say is that you're making me angry. Now stop...s--..stop it already! I'm trying to do what Vyse asked me to and you're--" She stopped short, noticing something past the wildly gyrating silver creature, something small that seemed to be catching up to them quickly. She peered at it, frowning. "Is that why you're acting funny? That...thing flying over there?"
Cupil made a sound that Fina knew meant affirmative. The Silvite felt a bit guilty about dismissing the creature's behavior as nothing, but shoved that thought aside and hurried across the deck to the deckhouse, and slipped inside.
"I just saw something out there." she reported to Vyse, who still stood at the wheel. "Cupil noticed it first, though. It's too small to be a ship, and it looks like it has wings."
"Where did you see it?" he asked.
"At approximately our five-o-clock position. I'd say it was only seven hundred yards away or so. I don't know what it was, though."
Vyse brought the Belleza down to a hover, and looked at Fina. "You said it had wings...are you sure about that?"
The Silvite nodded. "Yes, fairly sure. I have good eyes. Come with me, Vyse. I'll show you myself."
"I wonder if it has anything to do with that monster people were seeing around Esparanza..." Gilder mused.
"Possibly." Vyse replied. "I don't know if it's friendly or not, so ready cannons."
"Vyse..." Fina retorted.
"You know I wouldn't actually shoot it, Fina. I figure if it gets too pushy, we fire a few shots to scare it off. Most animals run off at the loud sounds cannons make. Show me what you saw, Fina. I'm starting to have some suspicions here."
* * *
"It's them! Hey, it's them!" Aika waved her arms excitedly with glee.
"Careful, stop squirming! I'll drop you if you aren't still." Aern grunted, nearly dropping her. He tightened his grip on her, feeling perhaps not all that guilty when she winced from his claws digging into her skin. "I do think you're right. That looks like your ship, even though I cannot see the flag from here."
"That's the Belleza, all right." she said confidently. "I'd know her anywhere. Speed up, Aern....I really want them to know that I'm all right."
"And I really wish to speak to your friend, Fina. I never had the opportunity in Valua." He paused, the corners of his mouth turning down in a reptilian frown. "Aika...why are they coming around like that? I think I can see their cannons coming out."
"That's nonsense...they wouldn't shoot at us. Vyse knows better than to shoot at living things." She squinted, lifting up her goggles from her eyes to look at the ship. "But..hey! They ARE getting their cannons out!" She started waving her arms again, this time taking care not to fall out of Aern's grasp. "Vyse you idiot, stop acting like we're a damn warship! Put your guns away you moron!"
* * *
"There, right there." Fina said, pointing to the west. "It's odd-looking...I can't exactly say what it is, although it definately is much closer." It had begun to snow at this point; lightly, but it still made visibilty worse.
Vyse adjusted his skyseer patch, zooming in at the creature skimming at mid-sky level. It was dark gray in color with a long tail lashing out behind it, and wings that resembled a bat's. It also seemed to be carrying something with its front limbs that almost looked like a person. "It's carrying something..." he frowned, zooming in more. Getting the thing off in the distance into focus was difficult because of the snow. Though somewhat blurry, he could make out a red-headed figure waving its arms frantically, although it lacked its familar pigtails. "What the...hey. Hey! It's got Aika!"
"What did you say?!" Fina demanded, grabbing onto his arm and shaking him. "Did you say it was carrying Aika? Is she okay?"
The blue rogue laughed, jumping into the air with an excited whoop. "She's fine! I don't know what's with that creature, but Aika's fine! We did it, Fina, we found her!"
Lani hurried out onto the deck to see the two pirates dancing about in a strange little dance of glee, despite the slippery snow. "Uh, some good news, I take it?"
"Lani, we've found Aika! Go tell Gilder to withdraw cannons and close bay doors, we don't want to shoot at her now that we've found her."
* * *
"I hate snow." Aern grumbled as the closed in on the Belleza. "I'll be dripping wet not to mention half-frozen by the time we get inside."
"Stop complaining and go faster...I'll make you all the tea you can drink when we get below decks." She laughed. "I can see them! There's Vyse and Fina and they're....dancing?"
"They appear happy to see you. Oh, since we're within shouting range I suggest you tell them not to be alarmed by me. If I start speaking it may startle them a bit."
"You gotcha." She cleared her throat and cupped a hand to her mouth. "Vyse, Fina, long time no see!"
"You're acting pretty damn casual, Aika!" Vyse shouted back with a laugh. "Who's your chauffer? Dracula?"
"This is Aern, he's a good guy so don't worry about him! Just let him land and don't attack him, okay?" They were getting closer, so the shouted conversation decreased in volume as it went on.
"Right!" came Vyse's response.
Aern flapped his snow-dusted wings and rose up above the Belleza. He circled once, and settled down to the deck with a flurry of wings. Almost before he could finish landing, Aika had jumped out of his arms and flung herself at her best friend.
"Vyseohmygodyoushouldaseenwhathappened! I fell and I fainted but then Aern caught me I guess so now I'm okay but I was still worried about you!" she said excitedly.
"I thought you were dead, Aika! I saw you fall and then I thought that was the end of you, but I should've known better...." he spoke just as rapidly as she did, at approximately the same time. Fina threw her arms around the two of them, laughing and crying all at once, too overjoyed to say much. Lani and Gilder had come up on deck as well, the two of them stood with smiles on their faces.
"Aren't you glad to see her too, Gilder?" Lani asked.
"Uh...I don't do the group hug thing. Let the kids rant for a few more minutes and then we'll untangle them and drag them inside out of the snow." He took a puff off a cigarette and blew a smoke ring, which disintigrated quickly from the falling snow. "This scene is so sweet it's making my stomach hurt."
"Not an emotional man, I take it?" the Yafutoman said with a small grin.
"Not entirely, no." He glanced at Aern a bit nervously. "And that thing standing there is setting me off anyway."
The Shwartzian shook his wings to shed the snow off them, but said nothing in reply to Gilder's comment.
"So anyway.." Aika said. "Aern picked me up after I fell overboard. He was following the Belleza because he says he needs to talk to Fina. He's a Shwartzian, or so he says. He's the guy that Fina and I saw at the party, although it's pretty obvious he can transform into something else. We would've found you sooner, but it took me a while of asking around in Esparanza to figure out which route you took."
Vyse loosened himself from Aika's embrace, and turned to look at the tall creature that stood on the Belleza's deck. "So you're the guy who saved Aika. I can't tell you thanks enough."
"My pleasure." rumbled Aern. "We were just fortunate enough that I happened to be fairly close to your ship when she fell." He then flicked his long tail and crossed his arms, a gesture that at first seemed intimidating, but then it became obvious that the winged creature was shivering. "Aika...about that tea you promised..."
"Oh yeah...can everybody go inside? Aern needs to change back, and he's well...sorta naked."
"Naked?" Vyse raised an eyebrow. "Aika, what in the world were you up to when you were missing?"
"Get your mind of of the gutter, you big dork." She snapped, cuffing him on the back of the head. Then she blinked when he reacted to a blow that should not have hurt at all. "Did you hit your head or something?"
"Yeah, or something. Give Aern your cloak so he's not completely naked when he turns human, and let's get inside. It's getting chilly out here."