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It was a clear day in Arcadia. Mid sky was free of clouds that would block a sailor's vision, and the sun shone, causing the many waterfalls to glisten with sunlight playing over the dancing liquid.
--Wow. The last time the sky looked like this was just after Soltis retreated into deep sky.--
Gilder fought the urge to snap at Terrance. He knew that his navigator/lookout meant well, but he wanted a morning to himself for a change.
"Sir, we're nearing Nasrad, and will arrive in about half an hour."
"Thanks for the information. I'll get what I need ready."
"Yes, Captain."
Gilder watched the crewmember leave the room, then turned back to the window.
--I need some time to be away from everyone. Maybe I should take one of the lifeboats and leave for a while. I'll need to tell my crew, but I'm sure that they'll understand.--
With that thought, Gilder left the captain's cabin on the Claudia, headed for the bridge. Another member of his crew, Elijah, was steering the ship. Upon noticing his captain, he nodded slightly and left the room.
The captain of the Claudia continued to think about what he wanted to do as he prepared to dock in Nasrad. Right as he finished, he saw a pink ship out of the corner of his eye.
--Shit. Clara's here. Ah well, it gives me another reason to leave. I'd better stock up on a few things.--
Gilder left the ship after leaving orders with Orlando to book two rooms at the inn. He then went to the weapon shop to see if there were any guns there that were more powerful than his warrior pistols. After finding nothing, he bought several sacrulen and curia crystals at the item shop, then went to the bazaar to see if he could find anything interesting. After checking two stalls there, he spotted Clara, and managed to leave before she noticed him.
--That was a close one. Now that I've got everything that I'll need, I should find one of my crewmembers and tell them that I'm leaving.--
Gilder checked the tavern, and saw Orlando chatting with the owner. He made eye contact with Orlando, who quickly, but politely finished his conversation before coming over.
"Orlando, I'm going to be leaving for a while. I just need some time to myself, okay?"
"I understand, captain. I'll tell the other two. What do you want us to do with the Claudia?"
"Just keep sailing, but be back in Nasrad in three months."
"Of course, Captain."
"Thank you for understanding."
With that comment, Gilder left the tavern, and took one of the lifeboats of the Claudia.

*On an unknown ship*
"Hee hee hee! Soon I will be able to have my revenge! Hee hee hee!"
"Quit laughing and keep sailing. If we want to catch up to him, we have to keep moving."
"I thought that Gilder wasn't our only target."
"He isn't. He just happens to be easiest at this point in time."
"Who else do we want, anyway?"
The older man sighed at the younger one's stupidity. "I already told you. Anybody who would really hurt two certain people."
"Hee hee hee! This will be really easy!"
The older one slapped the younger upside the head. "No, it won't. We'll have to make the security as tight as possible. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go give our 'special' warriors some instructions."
"Hee hee hee! Our goal is in sight!"
"Shut up and keep sailing!"

*Crescent Island*
The young captain woke to a rather loud yell from his childhood friend, Aika.
--Damn it, Aika, I was asleep. Why do you always yell instead of coming to find me? Sheesh!--
Grumbling the whole way, he got out of bed, pulled his blue coat on and fastened his glass eyepatch. The air pirate then proceeded to the underground port, as it seemed like the yells were coming from there.
"Finally decided to show up, Mr. Sleepyhead?"
"Oh? I'm not Mr. Foot-in-his-mouth anymore?"
"No, you're both and always have been."
Fina giggled, and the two friends jumped in surprise; they hadn't noticed her standing near the building that used to be their ship parts shop.
Pretending to be angry, the silvite asked, "Will you two ever stop fighting?"
Vyse and Aika looked at each other for a moment, then turned back to Fina and said, "Nope."
Fina was about to respond, but Cupil beat her to it by sticking its tongue out at the arguing friends, sending the three of them into gales of laughter. Once they had recovered, Aika started telling Vyse why she had woken him up.
"I heard that Ryu-kan recently set up shop in Yafutoma, and that he has some weapons for sale-"
"So? He always does."
Aika stomped on his foot in annoyance, causing Vyse to yelp. "You didn't let me finish. Apparently, the weapons that he's selling right now are all better than the Vorlik blade."
Rubbing his foot, Vyse asked, "Really?"
"Well, nothing is for certain. But there's no harm in checking, right?"
Fina nodded, silently agreeing with what Aika had said.
"Then to Yafutoma it is. We'll take the Prophecy because it is our fastest ship, and also has a Yafutoman engine. We'll be able to go over the dark rift that way, so the trip won't take as long."
The female air pirates nodded, and left to prepare for the journey. Vyse remained where he was, continuing to rub his foot. After a moment's thought, he yelled, "I'll get you for that, Aika!"
"Just try it!"
Grumbling to himself again, Vyse went to help his friends.

As soon as Vyse had finished docking the ship, Aika jumped off and stretched, causing the captain to chuckle.
"What's the matter, Aika? Don't you like sailing?"
The redhead whirled and glared at him. "Of course I like sailing, Vyse! I'm just glad that I'll finally be able to sleep in a bed again."
"You sleep on a bed when we're on the Prophecy."
Now Aika glared at her other friend. "Fina, stay out of this. You know that I meant a real bed, not a lumpy mattress in a box."
"She's only saying that because you took my side, and she hates losing arguments against me."
Aika returned her glare to the brunette. "That is NOT true!"
Vyse said nothing, choosing to smile innocently instead. Aika whacked him upside the head for it.
"Aika, is Vyse now Mr. punching bag as well?"
"Ooh, good idea, Fina! You hear that, Vyse?"
"I'm not deaf."
Aika was about to make another crack about him, so Vyse quickly continued. "Let's go find Ryu-kan's shop."
--I could swear that I just heard Aika muttering to Fina about something along the lines of 'that statement could be argued.' The idiots that I call my friends...--
As they were walking, Vyse spotted the bridge that could be moved up and down by using a lever on the other side.
--The perfect way to get Aika back for her little 'foot stomp' a week ago.--
He checked to make sure that the girls weren't looking, then dashed across the bridge and waited until Aika was about to step onto it. Grinning mischievously, he pulled the lever, causing the bridge to swing up and hit Aika in the face. Upon seeing the glare that she shot him, he decided to leave the bridge as it was and sprinted off.
"My turn for payback," commented Aika as Fina had Cupil hit the lever, putting the bridge back to normal. Then the two of them ran after Vyse.
As air pirate captain ran, he noticed Ryu-kan's shop, and headed for it without slowing down.
--Fina's probably already made Cupil put the bridge back to normal.--
He chanced a look back, and saw his friends sprinting after him. Just then, he crashed into something, or rather, someone.
"Oof... Vyse?"
"Nice bumping into you, Gilder, but I really have to go. My life as at stake."
"Aika." Vyse was about to say what had happened, but the older blue rouge held up a hand to stop him.
"No more needs to be said. That name tells me everything that I need to know."
"Phew. Now, if you'll excuse me-"
"Hold it right there, Vyse!"
The captain in question froze at the sound of his best friend's voice.
"Aika, leave him alone. Surely you can wait to pay him back?"
"Gilder! When did you arrive?"
"Three days ago. Vyse literally bumped into me."
"That's quite believable, seeing as the two of you are still on the ground."
"Aika, please don't start. I'm trying to relax while I'm here."
"All right, but only because you're the one who's asking, Gilder."
Aika looked at Vyse smugly as she responded, "Now now, you don't want any more names, do you? One that comes to mind is-"
"All right, Aika. I get the picture."
"Good. Let's go see what Ryu-kan has for sale. And stop interrupting me."
"Promise you won't hurt me?"
"For the time being, yes." Vyse just sighed, again thinking about what complete idiots his friends were as he, Aika and Fina entered the shop.
Gilder smiled slightly as he watched them go, his thoughts very similar to Vyse's before he turned and headed towards the port.

The captain of the Claudia looked at his surroundings as he walked back to his lifeboat, for Yafutoma was a beautiful place. There were waterfalls, beautiful architecture, ponds with fish in them, many things that you could look at for hours.
When Gilder reached the port, he saw two ships that he didn't recognize. After looking at the first, he realized that it was Vyse's ship, the Prophecy. Turning his gaze to the second ship, he was still unable to recognize it.
The ship that he was looking at appeared to be a smaller version of the specter spellship that had been in the Valuan armada while Teodora was the ruler of Valua. However, this ship was black and dark red with gold accents, and used a phoenix as its emblem.
--Strange. I wonder who that ship could belong to.--
"Interesting thought, Gilder. You're about to find out."
The blue rouge whirled at the sound of the cold voice behind him. Standing there were two people wearing black from head to toe, with dark red phoenixes on their chests. They wore dark red gloves on their right hands, and both wore a metal sphere with a blade sprouting from it on their left hand.
"How did you know what I was thinking?"
"We don't. It was the obvious guess, given the way that you were staring at our ship"
"Given the way that you're dressed, I'd say that it's obvious that the two of you came here for more than a little shopping trip."
"How very perceptive of you," mocked the second one.
"Now then, Gilder. You have two choices. You can come with us willingly, or we knock you unconscious and take you aboard our ship by force."
"I choose option three; neither."
"Too bad." The assassins lunged at him, left hand first. Gilder dodged to one side and drew his pistols, shooting one of them dead almost instantly. The second one dodged his shots by performing several back handsprings on their right hand, until Gilder put a bullet through it. The assassin stayed still for a few moments to recover from the shot, which proved to be a fatal mistake.
--Why are they after me, and who sent them?--
Gilder put the corpses on their ship, and shoved the ship off the island, with a destination of deep sky.
"Gilder! Are you okay? We heard several gunshots and-"
"Relax, Vyse. I'm unharmed."
"Then what happened?"
"Two assassins attacked me when I refused to come aboard their ship. They're dead now."
"What were they using as a flag?"
"A phoenix."
"Um, Gilder? I think that you should get out of here as soon as possible. You'll want to keep them confused about your location so that they have a harder time finding you, right?"
The blue rouge turned to the silvite and nodded. "My thoughts exactly, Fina." He then turned and got on the lifeboat, starting to pull out of the harbor.
"You keep moving! We'll try to find out who'd doing this!"
"No problem, Aika. I'll see you around sometime."

*On an unknown ship*
"Sir, we have a visitor."
The older of the two captains turned to the warrior and said, "What are you waiting for, you fool? Send him in!"
"As you wish, sir."
The warrior left the room, and heavy footsteps were soon heard just outside the door to the bridge. The door was slammed open, nearly coming off its hinges.
A booming voice filled the bridge as the newcomer spoke, "I only helped the two of you get off that island because you promised me that I would get what I wanted. So far, you've failed to deliver that to me. What do you have to say for yourselves?"
The younger looked petrified in fear, so the older one responded. "It takes time to get the things that you want. Besides, it's as Belleza said; everyone has codes and morals, but if you exploit their weakness, then those codes and morals disappear. We need to exploit our target's weaknesses before any of us can get what we want."
The newcomer remained silent, displeased with the captain's answer.
The older one continued, "Weren't you near Daccat's island? How did you get here so fast?"
"The same way that I helped you. I had one of my engineers learn about the Yafutoman engines from Brabham, then 'kidnapped' him once he knew everything about them."
The older captain nodded satisfied by this explination.
The newcomer glared at the two captains. "Next time I come here, you'd better be much closer to achieving our goals."
Both captians nodded, and the newcomer left the ship.

*On the Primrose*
"Oh, I can't believe that he was in Nasrad! And he was at the bazaar at the same time I was! How could he have possibly have escaped my grasp?"
"Um, Captain?"
"Nooo! Gilder, why did you have to leave?"
"Captain, Belle, Lilly and I have figured out where Gilder is headed."
"Gild- Nara? What did you just say?"
"Belle, Lilly and and I have figured out where Gilder is headed."
"You must tell me! Please!"
"He's going to either Horteka or Yafutoma."
"If only I had a Yafutoman engine... Oh well. Set a course for Yafutoma!"
"Yes, Captain Clara!"
"Gilder, my soulmate, I'm coming!"

*Gilder's Lifeboat*
"Squawk! Hello! Squawk!"
"Willy! What are you doing here?"
Willy extended his leg, and Gilder saw that there was a note tied to it. Without hesitation, he took it from the parrot and unrolled it.
_Dear Gilder,
We hope that you are enjoying your time off. We are spending our time scanning the desert near the temple of pyrynn to see if there are any more ruins that have treasure in them. Unfortunately, we have yet to find any. Be warned; the Primrose is headed for Yafutoma. Just thought that you'd want to know. Keep enjoying yourself!
Signed, the Claudia_
--Heh. My men never get depressed by anything.--
"Willy, tell my men that I'm having a great time, and thank them for the Primrose warning."
"Squawk! Will do! Will do! Squawk!"
Willy took off, heading back to the Claudia.
--If Clara's going to Yafutoma, then I'll want to stay out of her path, but I need to stop somewhere soon to replenish my supplies. I'll head south, then go east-northeast to Horteka.--
The air pirate spun his wheel, taking the course that he had just thought of.

*On an unknown ship*
--My head... Where am I?--
Hans slowly opened his eyes, seeing nothing but complete darkness. He thought that he'd gone blind for a moment, but his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, allowing him to see his surroundings.
--A prison cell? What happened? One moment, I was working on one of Enrique's ships, and the next, I wake up here? I must have been knocked unconscious and brought aboard, but... Where is 'here'?--
An annoying, somewhat high-pitched voice rang through the corridor.
"Hee hee hee. Our little 'guest' is awake! The fun that we will have with him!"
"Not yet. We need him to remain unharmed for the time being. If they refuse, well, too bad for him," spoke a second voice, deeper and calmer than the first.
"What do you want with me?"
The annoying one responded, "Making demands, are we? Hee hee hee! That will get you punished!"
Now the calmer one spoke. "It isn't what we want from you. It's how we can manipulate others to our needs by having you as our prisoner."
A third voice sounded, seemingly muffled, as if this person was wearing a helmet of some sort. "Sir, a small Yafutoman ship has been spotted straight ahead."
Annoying responded. "Hee hee hee! Take everyone on board prisoner! We'll have more people to use to manipulate others!"
Hans could hear the footsteps of two people leaving the corridor before the deeper voice spoke again. "Don't bother asking why we're doing this. We're not about to tell a prisoner what our master plan is." The person who the voice belonged to then left the corridor.
Hans gritted his teeth, one thought running through his mind.
--I have to get out of here.--

*Enrique's palace*
"Enrique! Someone's got an urgent message for you!"
The emperor looked up from the documents that he had been reading, surprised.
--Odd. There hasn't been an urgent message for months.--
"Send the person in, Marco."
The young redhead nodded, and ran off to get the messenger. Enrique put the papers that he had been reading on top of a stack at the corner of his desk, and waited for the messenger to arrive at his office.
Two minutes later, the door opened to reveal a young man dressed entirely in black, with a dark red Phoenix on his chest. When the messenger spoke, his voice was cold, resembling Ramirez's. "I bring a message from my captain."
Enrique motioned for the young man to continue. "We have captured one of your engineers. I believe that his name is Hans. To free him, have Moegi go to the port at midnight any time this month, alone." Without waiting for a response, the young man left the Emperor's office.
Enrique slumped in his chair.
--Why Hans, why Moegi? We're not going to agree to those terms, but he never said what would happen to Hans if Moegi didn't go to the port... Who could be doing this?--
The emperor left his office to find his wife, and tell her what had happened.

*On an unknown ship*
Hans woke again this time to a familiar voice.
"No! Let me go! I don't- Aaah!"
Two warriors appeared, carrying an unconscious body between them. They opened the door to Hans' cell and threw the person in, then turned and left. Hans waited until he couldn't hear their footsteps, then started trying to wake the person up. After a few minutes, he succeeded.
Hans nodded silently, relieved that Urala was okay. They knew each other quite well, as they had become good friends shortly after Hans had joined the crew of the Delphinus.
"...Where are we?"
"As far as I know, we're on a ship of some kind, obviously in a prison cell. Beyond that, I'm not sure."
Urala sighed, then wrapped her arms around the engineer and cried silently into his shoulder.
"What do these people want with us?"
"Apparently, they're going to use us to manipulate other people, but I don't know exactly how they're going to do that."
"...My crew?"
Hans bit his lip, not wanting to answer the question.
"I have to know..."
"If you must, then I'll tell you."
"Either they were taken captive at the same time as you..."
"...or they were killed."
Urala's embrace became tighter as sobs racked her body. Hans gently wrapped his arms around her, crying silent tears of his own.

*Gilder's lifeboat*
--That should be far enough south to successfully avoid Clara. Now, to head east-no- What the HELL?--
A ship that resembled the Hydra was floating right towards him, but the size wasn't what had him worried. It was the colors of the ship; black, dark red and gold, with a phoenix on the side of the ship.
--Oh, shit. Them again.--
Gilder spun the wheel until he faced south again, then set the small engine to full speed in attempt to get away.

*A nearby, orange ship*
The black-haired man on board looked up when he heard cannon fire, to see a ship similar to Galcian's 'flying fortress' firing at a red lifeboat with a black sail.
--Red hull, black sail? I've seen that somewhere before.--
One of the cannonballs grazed the lifeboat, knocking the sailor on it unconscious. The enormous ship began to float closer to the lifeboat.
--Looks like they're going to try to take that person on board against their will. I have to help them!--
The orange ship began to circle the large one, looking for an opening to sneak in through.
--Ah, perfect. Looks like it's right near the cells too. Now, to get in.--
The young man secured his ship in place, and slipped through the opening that he'd spotted.

*On an unknown ship*
"Same cell?"
--It's that annoying idiot again.--
"No you fool. He's well-known for his skill at breaking out of prison."
"But he doesn't have the dumb bird this time!"
"He's already done several birdless breakouts, you fool."
Two warriors went past the door to Hans and Urala's cell, carrying another person.
--Gilder! How did he get caught?--
He could hear Urala gasp beside him when she realized who it was. Hans was also surprised, but he knew that they would have a better chance of getting out of here once the blue rogue woke up.
"Hee hee hee! Enjoy your stay while you still can!"
Footsteps sounded farther down the corridor, slowly growing softer. He turned to his friend and asked, "Think we should try to wake Gilder up? He might be able to get us out of here."
"Um, not yet. The hallways are probably heavily patrolled, and we don't know our way around the ship. Also, how would we be able to wake Gilder up without making too much noise?"
"No need, I'm awake," came a voice from the next cell over. "And I agree with Urala. It pains me to say this, but we'll have to wait for rescue."
"Heh. That'd be where I come in, eh?"
The three prisoners turned to see who had spoken, but there were too many shadows near where they were standing. Taking care to remain in the shadows, the person picked the lock to Hans and Urala's cell. When he tried to do so for Gilder's, he inserted the wire, then dropped it, holding his hand and swearing vividly.
"Move back."
Their helper did so, and Gilder cast pyrulen on the lock, immediately followed by crystalen. Getting the message, their helper punched the cracked metal, shattering the lock.
Once the three of them were out of their cells, the person motioned for them to follow. He went through several corridors, then hoisted himself into a large air vent, turning around and extending a hand to help the next person up.
There were so many twists and turns that the three former prisoners were soon quite lost, but their guide seemed to know what he was doing. Eventually, they could see a light up ahead.
They emerged onto a bright orange ship, which was promptly set on a course for Horteka. Hans turned to thank the person, and his jaw dropped.
The treasure hunter gave him a thumbs-up while he continued to sail.
"I'm going to drop the three of you off at Horteka. Those dummies probably won't even realize that you're gone for a month, but even so, you'll want to avoid notice for a while.'
Gilder muttered something under his breath, and the three turned to him with questioning looks on their faces.
"I said, that's what Fina told me after I had a run-in with two of their assassins in Yafutoma."
Urala frowned. "So this isn't just a 'capture whoever' thing. This is serious. We should let Enrique and Moegi know what's going on."
Hans nodded in agreement. "Then we'll do so as soon as we get to Horteka."

"Take care, Domingo!"
The treasure-hunter waved, steering the orange ship away from Horteka. After a few minutes, Hans spoke up. "I'll go get some beds at the inn."
"I'll come with you," said Urala, and the two started down the path to the Elder's hut, but they hadn't gone far when they heard a familiar squawk.
"Squawk! Message from the Claudia! Squawk!"
"Don't fly around all day, you dumb parrot! Give me the message!" The two friends turned, and saw Gilder glaring at Willy, who was flying in circles just out of reach. The parrot saw the glare, and quickly landed on the blue rogue's shoulder.
"Claudia's fine, found treasure, wants news of you, squawk!"
Gilder nodded, and pulled a pen and three sheets of paper out of his pocket. He wrote one letter, and made two copies of it. Then he pulled some string from his pocket and tied the three letters around Willy's leg.
"Take the first letter to Enrique, the second to the Claudia and the third to Vyse, okay?"
"Squawk! Will do! Squawk!" The parrot flew off, headed for Valua.
"Um, Gilder? What did you write?" asked Urala
"I told them about that ship, and that Domingo had saved us. Willy knows to tell the people where we are, in case the letters are intercepted."
"That bird is smarter than he looks," remarked Hans.
Gilder laughed. "Yeah, but not much smarter. I'm still having trouble breaking his habit of flying into windows."
"You heard me. He flies into windows. Anyway, we should go get those beds at the Elder's house."

*Enrique's Palace*
Tap. Tap-tap.
--What the hell is banging on the window like that? I was asleep...--
Enrique dragged himself out of bed and went over to the window by the door, opening it when he realized that Willy was outside.
"Squawk! Message from Gilder, he's in Horteka now!" The parrot extended his leg, and Enrique wasn't sure which message to take until Willy spoke up again. "Any message, all are the same, squawk!"
Enrique unrolled the paper, and felt like he had a migraine when he had finished reading it.
--I'm sick of having to deal with things like this, but I don't have a choice. At least the ransom note isn't a concern anymore, seeing as Hans is free now.--
"Enrique? Why are you awake at this hour?" The emperor silently gave the message to his wife before turning to the parrot again.
"Willy, give Gilder my thanks for bringing me this message, and say that I pray for his safety."
"Will do, squawk!"
Enrique watched the parrot fly off into the distance as he waited for Moegi to finish reading the note.
"...What are we going to do about this?"
The emperor's shoulders slumped as he answered. "I honestly don't know."

*The Claudia*
Orlando watched the skies, waiting for Willy to return. Two days had passed since they'd sent their message to Gilder. Soon, a speck of green could be seen on the horizon. He waited a few moments to be sure of it, then yelled to his fellow crewmembers, "Willy's back!"
Terrance and Elijah ran onto the deck just as Willy settled on Orlando's shoulder.
"Identical messages, take one, squawk!"
Orlando took one of the pieces of paper from the bird's leg and read it aloud. When he had finished, he looked at the other two men in shock, seeing similar expressions on their faces. Elijah was the first one to regain the ability to speak.
"Willy, where is Gilder now?"
"Horteka, squawk!"
Terrance shook his head sadly. "That's too close to where he was caught. We should pick him up and get him farther away from there. Same thing goes for Hans and Urala."
Orlando spoke to the bird, "Willy, tell Gilder that we are coming to pick him and his friends up."
"Squawk!" Willy flew off, heading up and to the east.
Terrance questioned the parrot's flight path. "Shouldn't he be heading west?"
"He had one more message to deliver, and it must be for Vyse, who I heard was on Yafutoma."
"Makes sense. Set course for Horteka!"

"Vyse, Aika, look! It's Willy!"
The three friends turned to see the parrot land on the ground in front of them, extending his leg and looking positively ridiculous.
"Hey, there's a note tied to Willy's leg!"
"You get it, Aika. I've had bad experiences with birds before."
Aika did so, but not before teasing Vyse about it. "You have a bias against birds just because one pooped on your glass eyepatch?" Vyse stuck out his tongue at her in response.
Aika laughed, and started reading the message to her friends. When she had finished, Vyse whistled softly.
"I think that we should try to catch a glimpse of that ship so that we can see exactly what we're up against.
"Should I tell Gilder that, squawk?"
"Yes Willy, you should. Let's get back to the Prophecy."
The air pirates went back to their ship, and Willy took flight again, headed for Horteka to give Gilder the responses.

"Hans, Gilder, wake up! Willy's back!"
Hans got out of bed without complaint, but Gilder put a pillow over his head. Upon seeing this, the cook rolled her eyes, took the pillow and hit Gilder with it.
"Nghhh... Who cares about the dumb parrot?"
"He'll have responses to your messages." Still grumbling, the blue rogue got out of bed and opened a window to let Willy in.
"Enrique thanks you for the message and prays for your safety, the Claudia's coming to pick you three up, and Vyse is going to try to catch a glimpse of the huge ship to see what we're up against, squawk!"
"Thanks, Willy. You should rest now." The parrot flew out the window and perched on a nearby tree, promptly falling asleep.
"Gilder? Are you sure that Vyse won't get caught by that ship if he goes looking for it?"
"No, Hans. I'm not. Then again, Vyse was always able to pull himself out of crazy situations one way or another."
"I believe that you were the one who pulled him out of the grand fortress incident?"
"That's why I said 'One way or another'"
"Um, I can see why the Claudia wants to pick us up, but wouldn't that make us easier to find?"
"What do you mean by that, Urala?
"Well, we're really close to where we got caught, so it would be easy for them to catch us again if they learned that we were here, right?
Hans shook his head in confusion. "I can see where your logic comes from, but what's wrong with the Claudia?"
Gilder slammed his fist on the table when he realized what Urala meant. "They know what my ship looks like. If they catch sight of it once they realize that we're gone, they won't hesitate to shoot it down and take all who are on board prisoner. Unfortunately, we have no way of contacting the Claudia, because Willy is exhausted."

*On an unknown ship*
"Captain, the prisoners have escaped!"
"What?! How?!"
"I-I'm sorry, sir. I-I'm not quite sure how."
"You were supposed to keep a tight watch over the entrance to the corridors containing prison cells!"
"Nobody came through the entrance, and all of the lifeboats are accounted for."
"And the air vent? Was the cover locked?
The warrior gulped.
"I'll take that as a 'no'. If you see the Claudia, fire at it and take everyone on board prisoner."
"The Claudia might not-"
"SILENCE! There are no other ships that could have managed to get away so quickly!"
The other captain came onto the bridge, looking downright pleased with himself. "The Claudia has been spotted in the clouds on the port side!"
The older one smiled, and said, "Fire at will."

*The Claudia*
"Orlando? What's going on?"
The lookout turned to Elijah and said, "The ship from Gilder's letter is coming right towards us, and there's no way that we'll be able to escape. That monstrosity is faster than the Claudia."
Two cannonballs came streaking through the sky, easily piercing the Claudia's hull. The ship was now right on top of them, and several people dressed in black jumped onto the ship, knocking Gilder's crew unconscious and bringing them aboard the huge ship. The Claudia was left to sink, and her smoking remains landed atop the pirate's grave.

*The Prophecy*
Aika was acting as lookout, but was falling asleep from boredom. There hadn't been any sightings of the huge ship, or anything interesting, for that matter.
--Good grief. Of all of Vyse's stupid ideas, this one is by far the worst. It's as boring as hell until that 'thing' shows up, and then our chances of making it out alive are nearly zilch.--
A school of sky sardis flew past, and redheaded air pirate sighed.
--Whoop de do. We have just discovered sky sardi colony number five million and two. Who cares? I just want to sleep.--
"Aika! Come look at this!"
The air pirate turned to see what her silvite friend was talking about. Beyond the next mountain, black smoke was rising into the air.
"What the hell caused that?"
"I don't know, but we should see if we can do anything to help."
The two friends went to the bridge, and Vyse confirmed that he had seen the smoke. "Black smoke like that is hard to miss. I'm going to land nearby, but not close enough for the ship to catch on fire."
Once they got over the ridge, they saw that Vyse's plan would need a little bit of editing. Vyse landed the Prophecy nearby, and they took a lifeboat to view the wreckage from above.
"Vyse, Fina... I think that this ship used to be the Claudia."
Vyse leaned over the railing, and said, "Thankfully, it doesn't look like anybody was on board when this ship crashed."
"Um, crashed? It looks like there had been gaping holes in the hull."
"You're right, Fina." The young captain sighed. "Have Cupil tell Gilder and Clara that the Claudia crashed. We're going to go tell Enrique in person."
"I'm assuming that Cupil is allowed to tell Clara where Gilder is?"
Vyse smiled mischievously. "But of course! This may be one of the few chances she gets to catch him, as he would have no way of escaping her."
"Or the phoenix ship." Vyse grimaced at Aika's comment, but didn't respond.
Cupil went zooming in the direction of Horteka, while the air pirates went back to their ship and set a course for Valua.

"I'm sick of waiting for news!"
"You wouldn't notice the wait as much if you'd just do something other than sit around all day, Gilder!"
"That's not a bad idea. I think I'll go for a walk. Who knows, maybe having time alone together will cause the two of you to confess your feelings for each other."
"Just kidding!"
The captain of the Claudia ran out of the hut before his companions (who were both blushing furiously) could hurt him.
Urala sighed in annoyance. "Honestly..."
"No clue as to what he was talking about."
"...Me either."
The two stared out of separate windows, both consulting their hearts over what Gilder had said.
--The fool. He just said that to irk us. But... do I love Hans? I never thought about it before...--
"Cup-cupil! Cuuuupppiiilll!"
The silver creature's cries jolted Urala out of her thoughts, and she turned to see it zooming out the window.
"Hans? What was that all about?"
The young engineer held up a folded piece of paper, and said, "Cupil had a message from Vyse."
"Don't just stand there, read it!"
Hans did so. When he had finished, he was pale, and looked like he was about to drop the note at any second.
"I-I'm fine."
"What did Vyse write that caused your reaction?"
Hans took a deep breath to calm himself before answering. "The Claudia sank. Her remains are near the pirate's grave, it looks like some cannonballs tore holes in her hull prior to sinking, and there's no sign of Gilder's crew anywhere."
Urala gasped. "Do you..."
"Think that the phoenix ship caused this? Yes."
"We have to go tell Gilder. Now."
Hans nodded, and the two left the elder's hut to look for their friend.

*The Primrose*
Clara looked out the windows on the bridge, sighing in frustration.
--No sign of Gilder anywhere near Yafutoma. I hate those stupid, unreliable information sources.--
Tap tap.
The blue rogue looked around for the source of the noise, but was unable to find it.
"Captain Clara!"
"Lilly, do you know where that noise is coming from?"
"Uh-huh. Cupil came, and gave me a message from the Prophecy."
--Huh. I wonder what Vyse has to say.--
Clara read the message, and looked torn between crying and whooping for joy.
"Um, Captain? Why the split reaction?"
"The Claudia sank without any nearby sign of Gilder's crew, but he's in Horteka without a way to leave."
"You can finally catch him."
"Yes, and this time, I will succeed! Set a course for Horteka!"

--I hope that Hans and Urala won't kill me when I return to the elder's hut. Maybe that was a little mean of me...--
Gilder saw three Ixa'takan children playing a movement game, and stopped to watch for a moment. They were in a triangle, and one of the children would lead the movement with the others copying until the first one turned and the leadership was passed on to another child.
--I wish that I could've played that game when I was a kid. It looks like fun.--
Gilder sighed and walked on, not wanting to dwell on his dark past.
--Even though I may have been a little harsh, it's obvious that the two of them are attracted to each other. Problem is, those two will never realize it without a little help. Urala is shy in general, and while very outgoing, Hans is very shy when it comes to matters of the heart. Despite being very good friends, the shyness still sometimes interferes with what they are willing to say to each other.--
Gilder descended the ladder behind the item shop, and soon emerged into the clearing where the Iron Clad had crashed at one point.
--This stinks. I leave needing a vacation, and I get thrown into this whole mess. Also, I have no way of escaping if Clara or those 'phoenix people' show up.--
"Expecting us, by any chance?"
Gilder whirled, and saw five people behind him, dressed the same way as the two in Yafutoma, with one major difference. These five each had a thick black belt around their waist, with two guns attached to it.
--Just the thing I need to make my day.--
"And I suppose that you want me to come with you this time as well? Fat chance," remarked the blue rogue. He drew his pistols and shot two of them dead on the spot.
The remaining three leaped into action, Gilder managing to nail the third one in time to avoid having his guts spilled open by the blade on the assassin's left hand. The fourth fell, taking a bullet to the chest soon after the third.
The fifth executed a series of back handsprings while saying, "I don't think so." Gilder merely raised an eyebrow and pulled the trigger on his right hand pistol.
Everything happened too fast. The captain on the Claudia heard a second gunshot just before his bullet connected. The assassin fell, his gun outstretched and smoking as searing pain shot up Gilder's leg. He fell to his knees in agony, and looked back at his legs.
His left knee had been shot, and was bleeding profusely. That was the last thing that Gilder saw before he passed out.

*On an unknown ship*
"Emergency, it's an emergency!"
"Damn you, I was asleep! This had better be worth it, my fellow captain."
The younger of the two was sweating and looking extremely nervous as he answered. "My apologies for waking you, but Gilder has successfully killed the team of five that we sent to eliminate him."
"Killed? Are you sure?"
The younger nodded furiously. "I checked the chips that we had implanted in their brains, and none of them responded."
"The life-monitoring chips weren't working? Then you're right... Gilder did manage to kill them."
"Wh-what should we do? Our helper isn't going to be pleased with us at all!"
"The answer is quite simple. We contact him."
"We need his ideas. I don't care how scared you are of him, you are going to go contact Vigoro now."

"I just don't understand. We can't find him anywhere!"
Hans rubbed his temples with his forefingers, trying to ease the headache that he was getting. "I don't understand either. It's like he disappeared or something."
Urala leaned against the hut that they were standing next to, thinking about any places that they could have missed in their search. She heard a loud smack, and looked up to see that Hans had just slapped his forehead and was muttering a string of curses under his breath. "Hans?"
"I can't believe that I was so stupid!"
"What are you talking about?"
"I lived here for almost six months, and I completely forget about the area where the Iron Clad had crashed!"
"Then we'd better go check that area." Her friend nodded, and the two of them left for that area.

A horrific sight met their eyes when they arrived at the clearing.
The ground was red with blood. Five bodies dressed in black were littered around the area in odd positions, and a sixth was lying on his face.
"...This is horrible..."
Hans merely nodded in agreement, fighting the urge to puke as he went to check one of the bodies. After kneeling beside it for a moment, he stood up and said, "Dead."
"We should check all of the people in this area; one of them might still be alive."
The other four assassins proved to be dead as well, so the friends moved to the sixth and final body.
Abruptly, Urala gasped and ran to the fallen person. Hans followed at her heels, but he didn't understand why she was doing this.
"Hans, help me turn him over. I really hope that this isn't who I think it is..."
The engineer did so, and his jaw dropped when he recognized the person.
"He's still alive!"
"You stay here. I'll go find Isapa. The priest may be able to keep Gilder alive." Hans sprinted out of the clearing.
Urala turned back to the fallen rogue and said, "I hope that you can get someone to help you in time, Hans. It looks like Gilder doesn't have much time left."

*Enrique's palace*
The young emperor looked up and saw that Ilchymis was standing in his doorway.
"Ilchymis, come in." After the chemist had seated himself, Enrique asked, "What brings you here?"
Ilchymis reached into one of the pockets on his lab coat and pulled out a folded note. "This note is what brings me here. It came to me in the mail, and asked me to give it to you. I don't know what it says."
The young emperor opened the note and began reading.
_Your majesty,
Someone freed our prisoners. This is an act against us, and therefore will not be tolerated. Be informed that we will not hold back any longer.
The Phoenix_
Enrique gritted his teeth.
--Who are these people, what do they want, and what will they do to get it? I really wish that I knew!--
"Thank you, Ilchymis."
The chemist nodded and removed himself from the room, leaving Enrique to ponder the meaning of this new note.

"All right, now that we're here, where's Gilder?"
Clara laughed at Lilly's impatience. "I'll find him. You three stay on the ship."
Clara walked farther into the village, ignoring the protests coming from her ship. Walking up to one of the natives, she asked, "Excuse me, are there any visitors staying here at this point."
The young man turned to her and said, "Yes, three of them. They're in the elder's hut. Would you like me to take you there?"
"Yes, that would be greatly appreciated."

After a few minutes, they arrived at their destination. Clara thanked the young man, and entered the hut.
She gasped at the sight that greeted her. Hans and Urala were standing off to one side with worried expressions on their faces, looking at the person that Isapa was tending to. He had familiar brown hair and a bloodstained bandage around his knee.
--Wait a minute, I know that person...--
Realization of who it was his her on the head like a ton of bricks.
"Gilder! Wh-What happened to him?"
"We found him in a clearing in this state, surrounded by five dead assassins from that huge ship."
Clara looked at Hans, and said, "Bring him aboard the Primrose. There's more space, and the beds might be a little more comfortable for him."
"Until he wakes up."
Clara glared at Urala, who laughed and said, "It's true!"
"I agree with both of you," said Isapa. "We'll move Gilder to the Primrose, even if we wind up having to deal with an interesting situation if he wakes up."

*The Phoenix*
The older of the two captains of the phoenix strode down the hall, headed for the quarters of the younger.
"Wake up, my fellow captain. We must ready the cannons."
"Mphh gnumble... Dun wanna get uph."
"All right, fine. I'll take everything that we get from this myself." Frantic sounds came from the younger captain's quarters, and he soon emerged, though out of breath and rather sleepy.
"No, no, that won't be necessary... I'm awake... Sort of..."
"Good. We'll be able to oversee the preparations better if we go to the bridge." The two turned, and emerged on the said room half an hour later. All of the warriors on the bridge immediately snapped to attention, and one stepped forward to give a status report.
"Three of the harpoon cannons are ready, and the fourth is being checked over as we speak. All normal cannons are fully functional, and the upgrades that we gave them worked even better than we had originally expected."
"The moon stone cannons?"
"Both are in perfect condition, and the spare moonstone fuel chambers of both are full to capacity."
"Hee hee hee! Now we will be able to fire them many times without having to stop and recharge!"
"What did I tell you about that overly annoying laugh of yours?" asked the older captain as he whacked the younger upside the head. The younger made a sound of complaint, and the older turned to the warrior again and said, "And the phoenix cannon?"
"Running at full capacity, just like our moonstone cannons."
"Perfect. Nothing can stand in our way now. Warriors, you know our first target!"
A chorus of 'yes, captain' was heard from the bridge as the phoenix turned and sped for it's first unfortunate target.

Clara could hear the sounds of various birds and insects from her seat near one of the windows of the Primrose. The green moon was full, casting a soothing light over the small village that her ship was docked at.
--If only I could be soothed by that calm glow.--
Clara's shoulders slumped, and she got up from the chair that she had been sitting in.
--I'm so worried about Gilder... If he doesn't make it, I don't know what I'd do...--
The blue rogue walked through the corridors of her ship, eventually stopping at a door and entering a room. She smiled slightly when she remembered that it was the one that Aika and Fina had once stayed in, but her smile disappeared as she approached the bed and sat down on it. Staring silently at her injured friend, she allowed the tears to fall down her face.
--I don't want to lose him. He's the only person who I could consider family that I have left.--
She sighed sadly, not wanting to think about her past, but unable to push her memories away.
--Many people think that Gilder's brain is in his pants and that I'm an airhead, but that's not the way that it actually is. We're both afraid to take down our goofy exteriors because we had such hellish lives. We both lost our parents, he lost his sister too... But my life was always better than his. I was the noble, he was the servant, the lower city street rat.--
She blinked as a realization came to her.
--Perhaps... Perhaps that's why he was so open around Marco... They went through similar things...--
She sighed again, and started to change the bandage around Gilder's knee.
--I never told my crew the true extent of our relationship, and I still think that it is for the better. I don't want to know what they'd think if they knew that Gilder had been my servant for three years, and that our relationship was that of brother and sister.--
She stayed, silently watching Gilder and thinking about the past until she caught herself yawning.
--Damn, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I didn't even realize what time it was. I should go back to my room.--
Getting up, Clara paused to look at Gilder one last time before leaving to go back to her room.

"All right, Vyse. Take us to the palace."
"Aika, you're the one with the photographic memory, not me! You lead us there."
The redhead smiled sweetly and replied, "I'm not the captain of our ship, Vyse. Besides, we've been here loads of times, and even you can remember your way around a place after that long!"
Vyse shot a glare at his friend, who put on the most innocent face that she could. "Aika, no innocent faces permitted."
Aika pouted, and Fina saw an opportunity that she immediately took. Getting behind Vyse, she assumed an expression even more innocent than Aika's had been, sending the redhead into gales of laughter.
Vyse looked surprised, and asked, "What's so funny?"
Still unable to speak because she was laughing so hard, Aika pointed over her friend's shoulder. Vyse turned and saw Fina, who appeared to be extremely confused. The captain of the Prophecy looked at his female friends, then gave up on trying to figure out what had happened and set off towards Enrique's palace.

*Enrique's palace*
Vyse knocked on the door of what Marco had called the 'Emperor's study'.
--Stupid kid. He probably directed us to the loqua storage or something for a laugh.--
"Come in, please." Vyse jumped, not having expected the voice that came from the other side of the door. The three friends entered the room, and saw Enrique standing near a window behind the large desk in the center of the room. The young emperor turned and said, "Vyse, Aika, Fina! I wasn't expecting you. What brings you here?"
"Bad news. Very bad news."
"Regarding the phoenix, no doubt."
The blue rogues jumped at Enrique's comment, and the emperor continued. "Moegi and I received two 'letters' from them. The first was a ransom note for Hans, and the second we got only two days ago. It said that the prisoners had been freed, and that they wouldn't hold back any longer."
Aika whistled softly. "We already have proof of that. We found the remains of Gilder's ship near the pirate's grave, and no sign of his crew, not even dead bodies."
Enrique slammed his fist onto the desk. "Damn! What they hell are these people doing?"
Moegi, who had been sitting in a corner near the door, looked up sadly and said, "We all wish that we knew."

*The phoenix*
The footsteps of a running warrior could be heard from the bridge, and soon the person entered, looking out of breath, but otherwise okay. The older captian turned and said, "Report."
"We successfully captured the five that you wanted us to. They were discussing something, but none of them had their weapons ready. It was a simple matter of casting Slipara on them, making sure that they wouldn't wake up, and throwing them in the maximum security cells."
The older captain nodded, and said, "Very good. Leave them there until we get to our base, then put three of them in the maximum security prison cells there, and the other two in separate guestrooms with the spell-locked doors."
"The two that are being singled out are the ones that we talked about earlier, captain?"
"Of course."
The younger captain spoke up again, barely able to restrain his glee. "At last, two of the three goals of this operation are complete! I will be able to get what I want, and Vigoro will as well!"
The older nodded, and said, "Especially because he will be meeting us at our base. However, my goal isn't complete. If I want to rule this world, then I must first rebuild this city." He smiled, and continued, "However, one cannot rebuild what has not been destroyed. Fire all cannons at will! I don't want a single building left intact!"
Cannonfire could be heard all around Arcadia that night, and the fire that was started could be seen for many miles.

"He should wake up in a few hours." Hans, Urala and Clara all sighed in relief, and Isapa continued, "I'm going to go see if the king needs me. You know where I can be found." The fat priest left the ship, headed for the elder's hut.
"I'm so glad! He's going to live!"
Hans laughed at Clara's happy outburst, and said, "Yeah, your life wouldn't have any purpose without Gilder to chase around." Clara's expression became slightly sad at that comment, and confused, Hans asked, "What, did I say something wrong?"
"No... It's just... Ah, you wouldn't understand..."
"Are you sure? Sometimes it's better to tell people your troubles."
"Hmm? Sorry, I wasn't paying attention."
Hans looked surprised for a moment, then decided to leave Clara be. He and Urala went to chat with Lilly, who was making repairs on the bridge. Clara decided to go see if Gilder was awake yet. As she walked through the hallways, she could hear Belle and Nara talking excitedly about wedding plans for her and Gilder. Clara smiled at their antics, then continued on.
She reached the room that Gilder had been staying in, and sat on the bed near his feet.
--This sort of reminds me of two nights ago, when I was thinking about my past.--
To her surprise, Gilder started to move around a bit, then he groaned and opened his eyes.
"Ugh... I'm on the Primrose... Someone, please tell me that this is just a bad dream..."
"I really wish that I could, my old friend."
She nodded, and said, "It's me. We're docked at Horteka."
"What happened?"
"That's what I'd like to know. Hans and Urala found you with a shot knee surrounded by five dead people who were from the phoenix."
"Oh, that..." Gilder grimaced. "Their orders were to recapture me, and to kill me if I refused." He started to sit up, but Clara pushed him back onto the pillows.
"You've been unconscious for several days. You should rest."
"All right, I will." Clara was at the door of the room when she heard him say, "Wait."
"What is it?"
"Why are you here, and why didn't you try anything funny?"
Clara smiled, and said, "Cupil came to me with a massage about your location, and you know that the real me wouldn't take advantage of you while you're hurt."
Gilder grinned slightly, and said, "Sorry, Clara. It's sometimes hard to remember that you use a false personality as well."
"Well then, that shows how well I do it!"
"Gilder, talking to Clara willingly? Clara, not making advances at Gilder? Hell must have frozen over!"
The captain of the Claudia glared at Hans, who laughed and came into the room, accompanied by several other people.
"Marco? Ilchymis?!"
Urala quickly told to two captains that the new arrivals had some important information, then Ilchymis spoke up.
"The phoenix attacked Valua last night. All of the buildings have been destroyed, only two-thirds of the population escaped, and we barely escaped."
Marco, looking annoyed, said, "Enrique and Moegi were taken prisoner, as well as Vyse, Aika and Fina, who were visiting them."
Gilder growled in annoyance, and said, "I lose consciousness in a bad situation, and wake up in a worse one."
Ignoring Gilder's comment, Urala said, "We have to go find them." Everyone agreed instantly, and started making preparations to leave Horteka.

*The primrose*
The captain of the Primrose turned to see the chemist addressing her. "Ilchymis? What is it?"
"I know that we have to save the five that got captured, but we don't have any idea of where we should look."
Marco, who had been sitting in a corner of the bridge, spoke up. "It obviously has to be a pretty big place in order to hide that ship. And aren't you supposed to be tending to Gilder? He isn't fully healed yet."
"He's been asleep for a few hours, but you're right. I should go back and see how he's doing."
Urala came onto the bridge, and Marco couldn't help teasing her. "What's the matter, got tired of making out with your boyfr-"
Urala had thrown the screwdriver that she was holding at Marco, and it hit him handle-first. "You need to stop taking teasing lessons from Gilder."
"You and Hans would make a cute couple if you'd just tell each other how you feel." Marco dashed out the door before Urala could hurt him for that comment. The shy cook shook her head, and picked up the screwdriver, returning it to its chest near the wheel.
Clara turned and looked at Urala quizzically before asking, "Where did you find that?"
"Oh, the screwdriver? Hans asked me to return it. He was working on your engine in order to increase the maximum speed of this ship."
"Be sure to thank him for me, okay?"
"I will." Urala smiled and left the bridge, leaving Clara some time to herself. Or so she thought.
"Heh. And people call MY ship ugly."
Clara whirled, prepared to cream the person who has insulted her ship, and saw Domingo leaning casually in the doorframe.
"Exactly what would the 'best' treasure hunter in Arcadia be doing on the Primrose?"
Domingo's face became serious for a change, and he said, "I happen to know where the phoenix's base is, and who captains it."
"What are you waiting for? Tell me!"
"Only if I don't have to come with you."
"I wouldn't have made you anyways."
"Well, that's a relief." The lookout shifted slightly, and continued, "The base is located in the Maw of Tartas, and the ship is captained by Kangan and Muraji."
Urala appeared in the hallway behind Domingo just in time to hear him say that, and she frowned at his words. "I know that Muraji was always after Moegi, so it makes sense that they captured her and all other people present. But Kangan... that just doesn't make sense. I mean, he's Muraji's father and all, but why would the two of them want to destroy Valua?"
Domingo shrugged. "Don't ask me. I have to get going."
Urala and Clara watched the lookout's receding back, then turned to each other. Clara spoke first, "How are we supposed to pull this off? The Primrose is a good ship, but she doesn't have nearly enough armor or firepower to do this."
"Which is why we need the Delphinus."
The two girls jumped, but relaxed when they saw Hans coming towards them, cleaning his hands on a rag. Confused, Urala said, "But the Delphinus was in Valua. Wouldn't it have been destroyed?"
The engineer shook his head and replied, "The Delphinus is Valua, but in a near-impenetrable chamber. The only ways in are the harbor door near mirage island and the door that lead to the basement of Enrique's palace. Both doors have tons of armor on them, are well concealed, and use combination locks that are nearly impossible to crack. When you think about it, it's highly unlikely that Kangan and Muraji were able to destroy or take the ship."
Clara sighed. "Exactly how are we supposed to get to it if there are those locks?"
Hans smiled and said, "I helped build the place, so I know the combinations. We'll have to go to Valua in order to reach the area. It won't take very long; I just finished increasing the speed of the Primrose."
Clara walked over to the talking tube and said, "Everyone hear that? Set course for Valua!"

"I'm still not very familiar with the layout of this city, so Ilchymis and Marco will have to lead us to the palace ruins."
The two nodded, and they arrived at the rubble that had once been Enrique's palace an hour later. Hans took over, and had soon found a door that looked exactly like the stone all around it, except for a very small, easy-to-miss carving of the imperial crest in the upper right corner. The engineer pushed on the carving and the door swung open, revealing a long, dark passageway.
After walking for another hour, with Gilder complaining once or twice, and Marco the whole way, they arrived at another door. This one was steel, with a pad of numbers next to it. Hans punched the buttons to form an eighteen-number combination, and the door opened slowly, revealing the sizeable harbor that the Delphinus was kept in. Hans entered a different, longer code onto a pad on one side of the bridge, and the harbor door creaked open.
"All right, who wants to steer-"
"Ooh, me, me! Pick me!"
"The ship, and won't make a huge mistake while doing so?" asked Hans, shooting a glare at Belle when she interrupted him. Nobody spoke up, so eventually Gilder volunteered.
"I haven't actually flown the Delphinus before, but I should be able to figure out the finer points in a matter on minutes."
"All right then. To the Maw of Tartas!"
The Delphinus dipped beneath the clouds and sped towards its destination.

*Phoenix base*
"Aika and Moegi have been placed in the bedrooms, sirs."
"Excellent. It's about time that I got to see Red again. This time, I know that she won't be able to resist me!"
"Hee hee hee! Moegi will finally be mine!"
Kangan shook his head at Vigoro and Muraji. "All right, you two can go have a little fun with your 'playmates'."
"Oh, don't worry, Kangan. We won't get too involved."
Kangan glared at the two as they left, headed for the rooms that the human female prisoners were in. He turned and went to his quarters, and had just started to relax when the alarm went off. "What the hell? Someone entered the Maw? Who could have found the location of our base?"
He walked over to the viewscreen, and to his horror, saw the Delphinus passing the dancing lights, clearly headed northwest.
"So, they decided to come. I was sure that I'd destroyed the Delphinus... Oh well. I'll leave Vigoro and Muraji alone. They'd just mess this up." He turned to the nearby talking tube and said, "Fire all special cannons once the Delphinus is in range. I don't want that ship to be able to fly once you finish!"

*The delphinus*
"Gilder, my dear, PLEASE be careful! We don't know what to expect from these people!"
"I know what I'm doing, Clara. And DON'T CALL ME THAT!"
Hans smiled, checking the pressure gauges again to make sure that everything was stable. "No problems here."
Urala looked up and confirmed that the ship was at peak condition, and Belle did the same for the cannons. Gilder nodded, and slowly steered the ship into the Maw. The sailing was fairly smooth for several minutes.
Unexpectedly, one of the glass windows on the bridge shattered, and the ship rocked sharply, sending everyone towards the newly made opening.
"The HELL?"
Nara looked up and yelled, "He must have put cannons into all of the natural spines of rock on the walls! We could get hit from any direction!"
Gilder cursed vividly, and another shot hit the Delphinus. Urala lost her grip on the panel for a moment, and started to slide towards the shattered window. Luckily, Hans noticed and was able to stop her from falling. Nobody made any cracks about it because of the situation they were in.
"Does anybody here remember which direction I'm supposed to turn?"
Marco snickered at the womanizer's lack of knowledge, and said, "Left in the first room, right in the second IF the base is located where Yeligar was."
"Then we'll try that first. I want everybody who knows how to be keeping the ship together, and to stay off the bridge. That includes you, Clara."
She pouted, but her eyes told him that she understood, and she ushered the others out of the bridge. Before shutting the door behind her, she said one thing to him.
"Good luck."
--I'll need it.--

*Phoenix base*
"Well, this certainly is fun."
Enrique made a face, and said, "Vyse, this isn't funny. We need to get out of here as soon as possible."
"I agree with Enrique."
"Fina, I never said that I didn't! It's just... Well... I don't have any ideas."
"Me either."
The prisoners sighed, and Fina looked sadly at a moonstone box in the corner. Cupil was trapped inside, and it had been constructed so that Cupil couldn't get out to help them.
All three of them jumped when they heard voices drifting down the hall. The words couldn't be made out, but the people and emotions were clear. Aika and Moegi sounded furious, while Vigoro and Muraji were teasing.
The blue rogues looked sadly at the emperor, whose body was shaking with quiet sobs over the treatment of his wife.

*The delphinus*
Everyone except Gilder was gathered in the banquet hall. An aura of silence was present, the only noise coming from the people who were casting spells or making adjustments to keep the ship going.
After the ship had been still for a while, Clara looked up and said, "It seems like the worst of it is over. I'll go to the bridge to confirm it." The blue rogue stood up and ascended the stairs, and was soon in the darkened hallway.
--The lack of light makes sense. We want to keep as much fuel around as possible.--
She climbed up another set of stairs and opened the door opposite her, emerging onto the bridge. Two more windows had broken since she'd left, shards of glass littering the floor. Two reddish pieces lay at Gilder's feet, and he had a long, shallow gash on his right arm that he was in the process of healing.
"How's it going?"
The air pirate sighed, and said, "We're out of range of the cannons, though as you can see, they nailed us pretty badly."
"Is there anything that I could do to help?"
"Bring all of the gunners onto the bridge. I can see that ship from here, and while we can't send it into deep sky, we can prevent it from flying for quite a while."
Clara nodded and fetched her crew (Belle, Nara and Lilly) and Marco (who was a good shot, even though he wasn't a gunner). The four of them promptly started firing, and the remains of the monstrosity were soon scattered around the floor of the cavern. The delphinus docked where the phoenix had previously, and everyone disembarked. Ilchymis groaned when he saw the door that faced him.
"Oh, no... It's got a combination lock..."
Hans said nothing, getting to work on the system right away. Soon, the door opened and he stood up, grinning widely. Everyone else looked at him in surprise, and he shrugged and responded, "I'm not an engineer for nothing."
Gilder gave one of his trademark smiles, and said, "Well put, Hans. Now, we'd better get in there. We have some friends to rescue!" Everyone nodded, and they went into the base.
It was dimly lit, with dark corridors stretching off in all directions. Marco started complaining again, saying, "Aw, Man! We get here, and now it's gonna take us a century to find them!"
Several other people shared the snot-nosed brat's opinion, but Clara was more worried about something else. "Where's Urala? I thought that she entered with us."
Hans' expression immediately changed to one of deep concern. "She did, but I didn't see her leave or anything."
Marco grumbled again, this time managing to lighten everyone's spirits. "Hans can go look for his girlfriend, and the rest of us can go look for the other five." Hans' face turned a deep enough shade of red to be visible even in the dim light.
Gilder frowned sadly, and said, "We'll have to look for her later. With luck, she'll meet up with us farther on. Without luck..."
Clara completed Gilder's sentence. "We'll have to come back later, because we can't afford to stay on this place very long."
Hans looked like he was about to object, but he shut his mouth, and followed the others into one of the many corridors, becoming more concerned with each step that he took.

*Kangan's quarters*
The older man looked up as Muraji and Vigoro entered his quarters. "Well? What did you do to them?"
Vigoro sat down and looked at him with a smile. "We teased them, but nothing physical happened, as we had promised. What'd we miss?"
"The destruction of the Delphinus. It entered the Maw, but there's no way that it could have made it past all of my spike cannons."
"Hee hee hee! Now you can carry out your plan to take over Arcadia!"
"Patience, Muraji. I need to gain the trust of the people first, so that they will look to me as their leader."
"A perfect plan. Anything else that you need us to do?"
Kangan nodded, and the three talked about his plans for the rest of the night.

*Phoenix base*
"We've been walking for hours, my feet hurt, and I'm thirsty! Can't we rest for a little while?"
Most of the other people in the rescue group agreed with Marco, and they stopped walking for a few minutes, several sitting down and rubbing their feet. Hans sighed and leaned against the wall.
"Think that Urala will return soon?"
Gilder shrugged, and responded, "Maybe, but standing around like this won't help us find anyone except a bunch of Muraji's goons. Unless we want our next two homes to be a prison cell and deep sky, we'd better keep moving."
"You're not acting like yourself, Gilder. Normally you'd be cracking jokes about a certain engineer's concern for a missing cook" commented Ilchymis.
The blue rogue shrugged again, and said, "Nothing wrong with acting serious in a situation like this. Besides, Clara would normally be chasing me all over the place, and you don't see her doing that, do you?"
Ilchymis laughed quietly, and said, "You're right that we should keep moving."
"Not without me, I hope?"
Everyone turned to see Urala standing in the corridor behind them with a mischievous smile gracing her features. As always, Marco couldn't resist making a crack or two. "Where'd you go? Your boyfriend was worried sick-"
Marco was cut off when Hans hit him upside the head. "If anyone gets us caught, it'll definitely be you."
The shy cook smiled at their behavior, and said, "I knew that the idiots would put an alarm system near the prison blocks, but they made the mistake of using a Yafutoman layout for this base. It was pretty easy for me to find the alarm controls and disconnect them."
"See, Hans? This is why she should be your girlfr-"
After smacking Marco upside the head again, the engineer asked, "If this is a Yafutoman layout, then finding the prison block should be a fairly simple task for you, right?"
"I think so. Just follow me."

*Prison block*
"Vyse, will you stop swearing and start thinking of a way to get us out of here?"
Enrique was getting a headache from the argument that his friends were holding, so he said, "Will you two shut up and think already? I'm going insane from the amount of noise that you're creating!"
Vyse and Fina looked apologetically at Enrique.
"All right, they should be around here somewhere."
The three prisoners jumped at the sound of Clara's voice, and Fina asked, "What's Clara doing here?"
"Rescuing you," said Clara as she used one of her hairpins to pick the lock of the cell door. As it swung open, the captain of the Primrose noticed something, and said, "Where are Aika and Moegi?"
Enrique grimaced, and said, "They were carted off to the prison cells that just happen to resemble bedrooms for the amusement of Vigoro and Muraji."
"Great, we come all this way, and we only find three people. Wonderful."
Urala sighed in annoyance. "Marco, you'd think that you would have learned how to shut up by now. We'll be able to find where they're being kept."

*Kangan's Quarters*
Kangan, Muraji and Vigoro were sitting on various chairs, chatting idly while waiting for the preparations of the Phoenix to be completed.
"This is taking forever! Normally they'd be finished by now!"
"Muraji, shut up and sit down. It's taking longer than usual this time because we need to restock the food on the ship."
The yafutoman followed his father's orders, but he wasn't too pleased about it. "Can't you make the guards load the ship faster? There's nothing to do here except-"
"Sirs, it's an emergency!"
Muraji looked rather put off at being interrupted, even if it was an emergency. Kangan spoke to the warrior that had just burst into the room. "What sort of emergency?"
"The Phoenix was destroyed by the Delphinus, and three of the prisoners have escaped from their cells; Vyse, Enrique and Fina. They also managed to free Cupil."
"And the alarms? Why didn't they go off?"
"...Disconnected, sir."
"Send the elite squad to guard the hallway that Aika and the Empress are being kept in. We don't want the fools who rescued them to get any farther." The warrior saluted smartly and exited the room to carry out his commander's orders.
"What about us?"
Kangan turned to his comrades, and said, "We wait. If they, by some miracle, manage to get here, they will go no further."

*Phoenix base*
Vyse sighed. "We've been searching for quite a while, but it doesn't seem like we're getting anywhere."
"And you're not going to." The searchers whirled, and their jaws dropped. Standing behind them was a group of about twenty assassins, dressed the same way as the ones in Horteka; gun in the right hand, spare in the belt, blade in the left. "We're here to make sure of that."
Abruptly, three of the assassins fell to the floor dead. "Really? It seems like you're the ones not going anywhere, having made the mistake if leaving our cell unguarded."
Gilder recognized the new trio instantly. "You've given me yet another reason to prove the fact that you're the best crew that I could ever have." Orlando, Elijah and Terrance smiled, then leaped into action.
The battle wasn't a pretty one. Two members of Gilder's crew had to back out because of arm injuries, and Fina sprained her ankle. Soon, there were no enemy fighters left.
That's what everyone thought until they heard a voice behind them.
"Move, and he gets it." The one remaining assassin was standing with his right arm around Hans' neck, and the blade across his ribcage. Everyone froze, and a cruel laugh came from behind the assailant's mask. "Good, now just march back to the prison block."
Clara caught Hans' eye in a silent apology, then whipped out one of her guns and fired a bullet at the assassin. Though he had no chance of being able to dodge, he registered the movement and drove his blade lengthwise into the engineer's chest. Both slumped to the ground in a pool of blood.
Ilchymis hurried over and inspected the two bodies. "The assassin is dead. Hans... He's barely alive."
"Will he..."
"If I don't stay here and heal him, then yes, he will die. But even if I stay, it's unlikely that he'll survive."
The three members of Gilder's crew looked at each other and nodded. "We'll stay here to guard you from any other warriors that would come."
Clara nodded. "Good idea. We don't want to lose him. The rest of us will continue searching for Aika and Moegi."
Ilchymis returned the gesture, and he and Gilder's crew watched the others continue down the dark hallway.

*Aika's cell*
--Ugh. Even though the creep left, and didn't tough me like last time, I still feel really dirty.--
The red-headed air pirate shivered at the thought of Vigoro.
--Disgusting and stupid. Those are the only accurate words for describing him.--
There were several people outside her door, but they were speaking too softly for her to make out what they were saying.
--Probably just the guards.--
Several thumps and a click sounded, piquing Aika's curiosity.
--Odd, they don't usually make that much noise when they're chatting unless... Oh no! That creep's here again!--
Aika walked over and stood by the door, ready to give whoever entered a good, solid kick in the balls. The door opened and her foot shot out, but she couldn't see who she kicked because it was too dark.
"What the hell was that for, Aika?"
She smiled apologetically at her friend. "Sorry about that. I thought that Vigoro had decided to drop by again."
"He's here? Yuck. Anyway, Moegi, Fina, Cupil, Enrique and I were freed by several old friends."
"Oh? Who?"
"Marco, Gilder, Clara, Hans, Urala and Ilchymis." By now, the two air pirates had returned to the hallway, and Aika saw the party that had rescued them.
"Where are Hans and Ilchymis?"
Gilder looked up and spoke. "Hans got hurt, so Ilchymis stayed back to help him. My crew met up with us on our way to find you and Moegi, but they stayed with the two of them as guards."
Aika nodded, then got a grin on her face. Several people looked at her quizzically, so she said, "One last thing to take care of. Get rid of the three who did this to us!"

*Kangan's quarters*
"Why? Why didn't the spike cannons hit them? Why didn't the guards kill them? Why-"
"Shut the hell up, Muraji. You're about to make my ears fall off!" The younger man looked at Vigoro in fear, then shut his mouth and resumed pacing as far away from the door as possible.
"Hmmm. It won't be much longer. Those idiots are only two halls away from here."
"Oh really?"
Kangan turned to his Valuan comrade and nodded. "However, they seem to be missing a few people, which will give them a definite disadvantage when they enter this room and attempt to destroy us."
Kangan didn't get a chance to say anything else; the door was sucked off its hinges by Cupil, who promptly spit it out at Muraji, effectively trapping him in a corner. Kangan began to cast Eternes, and Vigoro readied his cannon.
Aika used Delta shield, and the silver shards were deflected by the colorful bubbles that sprang up around the group. Gilder and Clara let loose with their warrior pistols, but the two negated the effect by casting sacrulen on themselves.
Vigoro used his cannon to deal massive damage to the whole party, and managed to knock Vyse and Fina unconscious. Aika threw her boomerang to distract Vigoro, giving Urala an opening. She quickly gave Cupil some instructions, and the silver creature sped towards their Valuan opponent and disappeared. Enrique used the Judgment on Kangan, who was promptly knocked unconscious as well.
Seeing this, Vigoro realized that he'd need Muraji's help to win this fight. He turned and fired his cannon at the door that the yafutoman had been trapped behind, only to have it blow up in his face. The valuan fell to the floor dead, and Cupil flew out of the remains of his cannon, squeaking indignantly.
Moegi revived Vyse and Fina, and they surveyed the scene before them. Vyse whistled softly and said, "What do we do with Kangan and Muraji?"
"Kill them. They've proven that they can't be trusted."
Everyone turned to see Gilder holding one of his pistols pointed at Kangan's head. Before anybody could stop him, the yafutoman was dead, and Gilder was moving over to the door that Muraji was trapped by. Pulling it away with ease, he shot the one who had been trapped behind it.
Oblivious to the shocked people behind him, the blue rogue walked over to the door and turned around. "Come on. We should see how Hans is doing."
Enrique shook his head in disbelief. "How could you do that? Kill someone with no remorse? You're acting like Ramirez!"
"Face the facts, Enrique. Not everyone in this world is nice, and not everyone gets the amount of life that they deserve. Some die too young, and others live far longer than they should be permitted to." Gilder nodded to the three dead bodies. "These three are examples of that. And Clara? Please don't say anything."
"...All right, I won't, even though it would help them understand..."
The captain of the Claudia smiled slightly, and left the room to check on the five that they'd had to leave behind. Urala followed soon after, and Aika nudged Vyse with a smirk on her face. One by one, the others left the room, until only Clara was left. She looked sadly at the bodies.
"I wish that it hadn't turned out this way... We were happy the way we were, until that happened..." Realizing that the others had already left, she hurried out of the room to catch up.

*Phoenix base*
Orlando looked around in disgust. A group of five troops had shown up soon after the others had left, and their blood was slowly spreading around the bodies, staining the floor crimson. Even though he was an air pirate, he disliked the sight of blood.
Running footsteps caused him to look up, as well as Terrance and Elijah. All three members of Gilder's crew readied their pistols in preparation. The person who came around the corner easily dodged the bullets by sliding underneath them. He stood up and dusted himself off, then walked into the light.
Gilder smiled, and then said, "The idiots that we faced won't bother us anymore." His crew sighed in relief, and he continued, "How is Hans doing?"
Gilder looked over to see Ilchymis bandaging the engineer's chest. The chemist's back was to him, so he couldn't see his expression.
"He's going to be all right, though it will take him several weeks before he is fully recovered."
A collective sigh of relief was heard just down the corridor, and everyone else (except Clara) walked into view. Just then, another voice was heard, and Clara was seen running down a different corridor from the others. "Gilder! Come here and give your soulmate a kiss!"
"HELL no!" Gilder took off down the hallway, looking like he was escaping from eternal torture. The others weren't very surprised, because they knew that for Gilder, Clara was the same as eternal torture. Vyse and Orlando carefully picked up Hans, and the rest of the group started walking back to the Delphinus, though at a much more leisurely pace than the first two.

*Crescent Island, three weeks later*
Hans had woken up four days after receiving the slash on his chest, but he was remained confined to bed, still too weak to stand. Brabham and Izmael had come two weeks ago, and together with Kirala, the rebuilt the Claudia for their fun-loving friend. Clara had left only a day after rescuing everybody, and no one had heard any news of her since.
Now that the Claudia was finished, she was pulling out of the Crescent isle harbor, with Elijah steering and the other three saying goodbye.
"Be sure to come visit once in a while, otherwise Aika will strangle me with her hair for not making you!"
Gilder laughed at his friend's comment. "Now THAT is something that I'll have to see! Take care, Vyse!"
"You too!"
Gilder watched as Crescent island faded into the distance, then went to the bridge to speak to Elijah.
"Captain, where do you want to go?"
"Back to the base. I just need some time to think without worrying about interruptions."
Elijah nodded and set the ship's course. Gilder went back to his quarters, ready to get some well-deserved sleep.