“Thank you, Lisa,” I said, tipping my pointed hat at her.
“Of course, it’s not a problem at all.” The young woman smiled innocently back at me.
The two of us walked up the gangplank and onto the ship; I set foot onto the wooden deck, throwing my gaze around this ship for the first time. This was not the ship that had been a temporary home for the first time. That had not been a very large ship— almost like a brig, but slightly larger and made out of more sturdy materials. This ship on the other hand was much larger, yet far more fragile looking— it definitely wouldn’t hold up if attacked by spellcasters more powerful than myself. It was built for long travel at sea, not for combat or boarding other ships.
Ginah nodded to us from where she stood with one hand on the helm. The pirate Captain then turned to address the rest of her crew.
“We sail!” she bellowed, her voice resounding throughout the cavern.
I grimaced, rubbing at my ears. “She’s loud, isn’t she?”
“That’s what it takes to be a leader, I guess,” Lisa said. “I’m not one, so I wouldn’t know.”
“Right.” I glanced one last time back at the cove as we slowly left our hideout. It was empty— the beach was completely cleared out, as if no one had ever stayed there. “I still can’t believe you convinced Ginah to escort me to Jahar’taw.”
She just shrugged nonchalantly. “You did it yourself. I just gave you a tiny push.”
“Right,” I said, turning to meet her gaze. “Still, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me just yet.” The young woman shook her head. “Thank me if it works out.”
“I really hope it will…” I trailed off, looking out into the dark night sky ahead. It was cloudy, but not exactly raining. However, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that it would become a violent storm later on. “It’s a smart plan though.”
“Take advantage of nature— of what would normally be an impediment. That’s what us smugglers do.”
I grinned and she smiled; since she could see my facial expressions, she was no longer as uncomfortable around me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was a kid that disarmed her apprehension, or maybe she was just trying to gain my trust again in a way that served to benefit her. I wasn’t sure, but I had to trust her.
I had to trust them. All of them.
Our ship exited the mouth of the cavern, entering the open air where I was met with a thin layer of chill that wrapped around the night like a cold blanket. A shiver ran up my spine, but I dismissed it as nothing more than a result of the cool winds that threatened to blow my pointed hat off, and not a premonition of what was to come.
We had just entered open waters when I caught sight of the first ship coming from our right. It was not The Lightbringer’s Vessel— it had sunk during the battle in the docks of Luke. However, I recognized the design of it as one belonging to a mana ship.
Accompanying it from behind came two smaller ships. They weren’t mana ships like the first, although they were smaller and quite evidently designed for speed over anything else. And yet, I couldn’t pay too much attention to either of those ships as it was drawn to the figure standing on the first ship.
Saintess Lilith was standing on its deck, spear in hand, and while I couldn’t quite make out her facial expression, I was pretty sure she was smiling at me. It was an ambush.
“What… how…” I stared in shock as the ships came closer and closer. But they weren’t just getting closer to us— we were getting closer to them! I whirled around and faced Lisa. “You—”
The young woman jumped out of the way as I drew my pistol as fast as I could, instantly firing multiple bolts of energy that struck the wooden bulwark of our ship. She barely dodged out of the way as Jack came charging at me from behind.
He had both his short swords already out in hand, and he easily sliced apart the mana bullets I sent at him. I barely rolled out of the way as he tried to tackle me to the ground. I brought out a hand, magic circle beginning to form in it, before I was struck across the back by Braz.
The pirate kicked me, nearly causing me to stumble, but I managed to catch myself and whirl around to face him. I sent a Force Binding out at him, however he was fast. I knew he was fast. He easily danced out of the way of the snare, closing in the distance between the both of us.
But I planned for that. The Frost Javelin was already forming above my head. Braz’s eyes widened as he saw it adjust its position mid air, its tip turning to face him—
And the icy projectile shattered as Kai blasted it with his rifle. My gaze snapped at the man as he lowered his weapon, wisps of smoke coming out of its barrel from the powerful shot. I cursed at him.
“Hey now, should a little girl like you really be saying words like that?”
I turned around to see Saintess Lilith standing on top of the wooden bulwark, staring down at me with the eyes of a hawk finally seeing its prey. Her ship was still over 30 feet away, and yet she somehow crossed the distance with a single jump, landing nimbly and quietly I hadn’t even realized she was there until she said a word.
Both my hands snapped up, spell circles quickly forming on them and in the air above me. I had never cast more than two intermediate spells at once before, but my adrenaline was pumping and I was moving without thinking. Somehow, it worked and the Explosive Orbs came into existence alongside the Stone Spear, hovering just behind me as I sent a Wind Blade and Fireball at her.
Lilith simply let the blade of wind hit her— the aura around her protecting her from the attack. The Fireball was a moment slower, and she actually blocked it with her spear, knocking it aside like it was some sort of baseball thrown by a kid.
She flashed me a grin before she flipped over the Stone Spear, moving much faster than the rapid projectile with ease. She flew through the air, coming at me as I panic rolled out of the way. I left my Explosive Orbs behind, spreading them out so she wouldn’t be able to go around them.
The Saintess simply took the blast, the explosions creating a brief shimmer in the aura protecting her. It remained intact, of course. However, there was clearly some damage caused by the attack. There was no way I could shatter it with a single spell, but perhaps if it accumulated enough damage, I could actually hurt her.
I put more distance between myself and Lilith as I readied my next spell.
“Just give it up, Aria,” she said casually, spinning her spear before suddenly stopping and bringing its butt down on the wood ground with a thud. A dangerous look came over her face as she continued. “You’ll only get yourself hurt if this continues. Which— fine by me. But if I accidentally kill you, how can I get you to confess your sins to the Church?”
I grit my teeth in frustration. I aimed a finger at her, ignoring her warnings as I cast a Lightning Strike. There was a crackle, and the lightning bolt came crashing down from the sky right at her. Lilith just sighed.
“Alright, that’s enough of this.”
She brought her spear up, intercepting the lightning. It flashed for a moment, and a partial red dome of energy covered her from the spell. Saintess Lilith held the barrier up like it was an umbrella, letting the lightning splash off of it before the barrier dissipated.
Lilith widened her stance, finally gripping her spear with both hands as I felt a surge of mana come from within her. She took a step forward as I braced myself for whatever she was about to do—
I felt someone come up at me from behind. A pair of rugged arms roughly wrapped around me, pinning me to the ground as I struggled to break free. But I couldn’t. Braz was too strong for me.
I wriggled on the ground for a moment as he clasped both my hands behind my back. “Let go of me! Let go of—”
There was a clink as a cool pair of manacles closed around my arms, binding them together. I froze as the old feeling of being chained up sent a shudder down my spine. I began to thrash about in the ground as Lilith and Braz backed away from me, allowing me to move once again.
I turned to the Saintess as she took a skip and a step back. Did she really think a pair of chains could stop me? I had magic. I was no longer the same girl I was before, unable to act just because a piece of metal bound my hands together. I reached for the mana in the air, preparing to cast a Fireball—
And I froze. I could feel absolutely nothing.
“Antimagic manacle,” she said, smiling sweetly down at me. “Try all you want, but no matter what you do, you won’t be able to cast magic while wearing these.”
“Wha… how—” I was speechless. There was an item that could cancel out magic? How was that possible?
“Designed by the greatest minds of the Holy Xan Empire. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard about them before. They’re brand new— still in trial. We’re not even sure if there’s a limit to how much magic it can nullify. However, after all the problems your mother and the Shadow’s Evangelium caused the Church for so long, they decided to commission these for development. So we can actually detain you heretics for a proper trial rather than giving you the painless deaths you don’t deserve on the battlefield.”
I just looked wide eyed at the Saintess as she finished her explanation. Braz and Jack picked me up by the side as I said not a word. Lisa and Ginah came up from the side to talk with Lilith.
“Where’s our payment?”
“I told you, you’ll get it when we deliver her to the Church. Don’t give me that look. You can even keep her until then— make sure I don’t run off before you get your reward.”
“What do we do with her, boss?”
“Lock her in some place she can’t cause any trouble.”
I ignored the conversation between Lilith, Ginah, and Braz. Instead, I focused only on Lisa as I passed by her.
“How could you?” I asked, voice quivering.
She shrugged. “I told you, I like money.”
I was dragged down to the bottom of the ship by Jack and Braz as Lilith taunted me. “Next time, try picking better friends, Aria.” She started laughing as if she just made the funniest joke in the world— like the maniac that she was.
And I couldn’t help but snicker as well.
One week ago.
Ginah placed her hands on the table, leaning forward onto them as she watched Melas leave the room. She wanted to sigh in relief.
She had been nervous. She knew that helping the girl would have only been detrimental to her and her crew, so the fact that Melas chose not to press the issue any further made her feel like a burden had been lifted from her shoulders.
The Dwarf— Gennady— chased after his companion, but stopped at the door to leave one last comment. “You… you’ll really leave a child like her to die?”
She flinched, drawing her lips to a thin line. “That’s not what I’m doing. I’m simply doing what’s best for my crew and Melas knows it too.”
He shook his head and left the room. Ginah did not watch him go. She tried to focus on what came next now that this problem had been resolved by itself. Like for example, where to evacuate the remaining noncombatants within her group in the off chance that the Saintess tracked them down.
Even if Ginah had officially cut ties with Melas now, she still worked with her for a period of time. Lilith would surely want some answers as to where Melas had gone, and considering her reputation even here in Vitae, Ginah was sure she would resort to violence if necessary.
And that was not even the main problem Ginah had to deal with now. The Elise was unofficially gone— soon to be official— and there would be a massive power vacuum in Luke’s underworld. She had to participate in the power grab, else all her efforts so far would have been to waste.
The pirate Captain was not too enthused to take part in such activities, but it was necessary if she wanted the city to retain some of the stability it currently had. If things devolved too badly, her efforts to destroy the Elise would have been completely counterproductive.
Ginah rubbed at her temples as she considered what next had to be done. She was so concerned with this problem, she didn’t even notice Lisa leave the room. Only when Kai placed a hand on her shoulder did she look up.
“Hey, you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, giving him a soft smile.
Kai hesitated, averting his gaze for a moment, before trying to reassure her. “Don’t worry. I know it was a hard decision for you to make. Personally, I disagree with it, but I’ll stand by it when we have to explain it to the others.”
She blinked in confusion a few times, processing what he said. Hard decision? What is he talking about—
Then she realized that Kai was referring to Melas. Ginah frowned, taking a step back. “What?” she sputtered. “That’s not what I’m worried about at all!”
“Oh, I had assumed that had been bothering you.”
“And why should it bother me?” Ginah said, exasperated and taking on a defensive posture. “I don’t owe her anything, do I? She was the one who didn’t tell us the Church— and a Saintess, as a matter of fact— was after her. I have a dozen other things to be worried about.”
Kai narrowed his eyes. “Calm down, Ginah. You’re stressed and tired, I know. And while I do agree that this is the best course of action for us, I would say that being satisfied with leaving a child to die is far too callous of you.”
The pirate Captain snapped. “And are you going to badger me to help her too, Kai? When doing so only guarantees our death?”
“That is explicitly what I’m not saying. I…” The Quartermaster was interrupted by a loud and clearly audible ahem. The two turned to Jack and Braz who were still awkwardly standing to the side. Kai pursed his lips as he gestured at the door. “Uh, could we get some privacy please?”
Jack simply grunted in affirmation and turned to leave the room. Braz grinned and waved at them with his fingers as he left. When they were gone, Ginah sighed and laid her hand on Kai’s chest.
“I’m sorry for getting mad at you. I’m just… tired.”
“I know,” he said, not moving to push her off him.
The two stayed like that for a moment, until she began to feel better again. The stress that she had felt slowly washing over her. When she finally broke away from him, she was a lot more calm— a lot more understanding.
“I’ve just been worried about a lot of things. Ever since the Elise came, I’ve been constantly overwhelmed. It looked like an impossible battle to me for so long, but I couldn’t help myself. So many people were being hurt, I couldn’t just stay out of it. And I knowingly brought you all into this fight with me.”
Kai just nodded, not responding as she continued venting her frustrations.
“When things started going our way, I thought it was too good to be true. And this proved me right. I knew we couldn’t relax once we had taken care of the Elise. But I thought we could at least rest for a week, and not worry about… this.”
He simply listened. That was why she liked him. More than just being her right hand man, more than just being by her side ever since she seized power from her father, he was always so understanding of her. He did not offer straightforward solutions which she had clearly considered beforehand, treating her like an idiot.
Instead, he offered her his support. Everyone in her crew always did. That was why she knew they wouldn’t have argued with her even if she decided to leave Melas for dead. “Whatever you choose to do next, as long as you have the right reasons behind it, I will not disagree with it.”
“But what if I don’t have the right reasons, Kai?” Ginah asked, heaving a tired breath. “Sometimes, I just don’t want to do this anymore. But—”
“But you can’t just stop, can you?”
He chuckled as she gave him a mock glare. “Don’t interrupt your Captain, jerk.”
“Right, right.” Kai cast a glance off to the side, towards the door. He spoke softly. “I know you’re too good to do that. You’ll feel responsible for not helping them. That was why you opposed your father. That was why you took over his crew and mutinied him.
“And yet, I want you to be happy. I don’t want to see you like this. That was why I helped you go against your father. But you’re not responsible for all the lives in Luke, Ginah. You never were.”
“What are you saying?” Ginah asked, raising an eyebrow.
He shrugged. “Nothing you didn’t already know. You just do you, and I’ll do my part in helping you do that.”
She just stared at Kai for a moment. Then she sighed. “You have a way with words, don’t you?” Before he could respond, she cut him off with a shake of her head. “A terrible way with words.”
“That’s why you’re the Captain and I’m not.”
Ginah snorted, her mood momentarily lightened after this talk with Kai. But she knew that once this moment was over, she would have to return to worrying— to planning what to do next. She hesitated, looking up at Kai.
“What if I decide to…” she trailed off, not finishing the thought. It was a stupid thought, one she always had whenever the stakes were raised— whenever the pressure was at its highest. What if I decide to give up? To just leave and stop caring about others?
She knew it was just her tired self talking. But she didn’t even dare vocalize those words, for it she did, she feared that Kai and the others would just go along with her.
“Yes, Ginah?” Kai looked at her curiously. She was tempted to give in— admit her worries. But before she could make a decision or even open her mouth, a figure approached the doorway.
Three figures, actually. Lisa, Gennady, and… Melas.
Ginah bit her tongue as she saw the young girl return to the room. Why was she back so soon? Kai was confused as well. He turned to Melas and cocked his head.
“No,” she said, responding instantly. Ginah narrowed her eyes, looking over the little girl once more. Just earlier she had been timid and hesitant— refusing to answer most of the questions Ginah had for her. And yet now, she was… more like her usual self. The same defiant masked girl Ginah had gotten to know for the last month.
Melas folded her arms. “I changed my mind.”
Ginah felt her hands balling up into a fist. She was changing her mind to now? Just after Ginah had thought it had already been settled, Melas now came back to bring it up once more? The pirate Captain forced her hands to unclench, trying to calm herself down. “You already made your decision, didn’t you? You said you were going to leave.”
“I didn’t decide anything.” She turned to face Ginah, defiance in her gaze. “You made your decision to leave me on your own. I am simply coming back to clear things up.”
“Clear things up?” Ginah replied coolly, suppressing her mild annoyance at having more problems on her plate once again. “How will you do that?”
“By telling you the truth,” Melas said simply. She walked over to the table, stopping just in front of Ginah. She looked up at the pirate Captain, not averting her gaze as she spoke. “You made a lot of false assumptions about me. And you asked me a lot of questions— which I did not answer. So I am here to tell you everything.”
“Yes, everything about me.” The girl did not hesitate. She did not back down. Despite having been so secretive for the entirety of the time Ginah knew her, she was now choosing to spill it all out?
Ginah frowned. “If you’re trying to guilt trip us—”
“I’m not,” Melas cut her off. “This is more for me to finally say, than it is for you to hear. Once I’m done explaining myself, I will put my offer on the table. Then you can decide whether you want to help me or not.”
Ginah considered this, chewing her lower lip. She wanted to say ‘no’, to simply reject whatever offer before it was made. But Kai was obviously interested in hearing what Melas had to say. Braz and Jack had returned too, just for this. So she acquiesced. “Fine.”
Nodding, Melas cast her gaze around the room, regarding her audience. She seemed apprehensive, almost unwilling to speak. It was almost familiar to Ginah. The pirate Captain recognized that feeling. And yet, unlike Ginah, Melas shook aside her worries and began her admission.
“Earlier, you asked me whether I knew the Church was after me. The simple answer to that is this: I did.” Before anyone could say anything, Melas put up her hand and continued. “However, the situation is more complicated than it seems.
“It’s quite obvious to all of you from the moment you’ve met me that I don’t necessarily believe in the Church. The very fact that I’m a heretic is enough of a clue into this. But I am not just any ordinary ‘heretic’. I am the daughter of the Fiend— Valeria Aimy Corinna. Or Aria, as I knew my mom.”
Ginah straightened. The Fiend? she thought, feeling her brows crease. She had grown up hearing of the Fiend’s crimes, and despite trying to approach the topic of magic with an open mind, she had always condemned the Fiend for her actions. “You do realize this isn’t winning you any points, right?”
“I told you, I’m not trying to win any pity points.” Melas rolled her eyes. “And whatever you think of my mom— yes, you’re probably right. I realize now that you know her as this terrible and evil person, and that there’s some truth to it.”
The black haired girl closed her eyes, as if reminiscing for a moment. She continued slowly.
“But I didn’t know her like that. To me, my mom was the kindest person in the world. And she raised me that way. She refused to teach me magic— she didn’t want me to live the way she did before she gave birth to me. And yet, still they came for her.
“I’m not going to be the one to say whether it was justice or not, because I know that we’ll disagree on the answer. And that’s not why I’m here. But even after killing my mother, they came for me, because I was my mother’s daughter. Because I could do magic.. Tell me, should I be culpable for my mother’s crimes? Is magic really something I should lose my life over, when it’s because of them I was forced into using magic?”
Ginah didn’t feel like responding to that, but Melas met her gaze challengingly. She wanted a response, so Ginah gave her a half hearted one. “Uh, I mean, it does violate Holy Law…?”
“That’s fair,” Melas said, nodding, “if it was a law written by the Goddess herself, and not by the corrupt and greedy men using her name to their advantage.”
The pirate Captain certainly wasn’t the most religious individual, but everyone in the room knew the ‘Holy Law’ first conceived as a justification for the First Holy War was often revised by the Church to suit their own interests— until the Great Hero Xander rewrote it entirely, making it now immutable. And yet, it was in the same amendment did he claim that magic was something that could be forgiven if the heretic was repentant. Something everyone knew he wrote up to protect the Demon Lord’s daughter from persecution.
“What’s your point then?” Ginah asked, still unconvinced by what Melas was trying to say. “The Church is unfairly targeting you, so we should protect you and risk their ire then?”
“It’s something you all, as criminals, know well enough: that the law isn’t perfect.” Melas spread her arms around. “If the law was perfect, I wouldn’t be hunted by the Church right now. If it was perfect, I wouldn’t be wanted in the Free Lands for being a slave.”
Ginah blinked and Gennady sputtered. “You were a slave, Melas?” the Dwarf exclaimed. “Why did you never tell me this?”
“I didn’t trust you then,” Melas said, her silver eyes glinting as she met his gaze. “But I do now.”
“Lass…” he trailed off, but Ginah stepped in before he could say more.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Sure, we’re criminals. We understand that more than anyone. So what?” She was getting exasperated. If Melas was trying to guilt her into helping— it was almost working. And Ginah wanted it to work. But she knew it would be the end of her crew. So that was why she felt frustrated.
“So,” Melas started, turning to face the pirate Captain, “aren’t you tired of living like this?”
Everyone in the room looked at her, a confused look on their faces. She ignored them, singling out Ginah.
“I mean you. You’re tired, aren’t you? I saw it in your face when we first met, and I see it now. You’re exhausted. You’re sick and tired of living like this. I can’t say I fully understand your situation, but you and I are alike, aren’t we? You just want to help others without feeling like the world itself is going against you.”
Ginah’s eyes flashed. “You know nothing about me.”
“I know enough.” Melas shrugged. “Lisa told me you killed your father because he was a terrible person. You could’ve just lived comfortably, protected by an abhorrent individual. But you didn’t— it didn’t weigh well in your conscience. So you killed him. I found myself in that situation too, just half a year ago. And that’s why I can’t join the Dark Crusaders.
“You’re a good person, Ginah. Deep down inside of you, you just want to help others, but you don’t want the weight of the world on your shoulders. You wonder to yourself, why must you be a criminal to do that. Why must others come after you for doing what’s right? It makes no sense, doesn’t it?”
Ginah wanted to deny it, but she knew it was true. This was a child, and yet she broke it down so perfectly. Just what did she go through to know all this? She couldn’t have been just saying this for the sake of it. Ginah knew that Melas was speaking from the heart here— that she truly felt that way too.
“Fine,” Ginah finally conceded. “You’re right. But that doesn’t change things. Helping you will do us no good. I have no reason to help you.”
“Except— you do,” Melas said. “Ignoring your conscience, you have two other reasons. The first is the fact that we made a deal. You claim to be pirates with principles, no? Going against our deal would go against everything you’ve worked hard to establish so far. But more than that, I can help you.”
“And how’s that?”
“I can help you escape this life of crime.”
This time, Ginah wasn’t the only one who had a dubious look on her face. Everyone seemed to doubt what Melas had to say, but she was offering Ginah specifically a deal, so they didn’t opine. She continued.
“My friend here”— Melas gestured at Gennady, her Dwarf escort— “has many connections in Taw. He has offered to use his contacts to give me asylum in his country. To revoke my status as a heretic there. Or at least, erase all traces of it so I can start a new life. I’m sure such a thing could be arranged for you too.”
Ginah frowned. “I’m not going to leave my crew behind.”
“And you don’t have to,” she said. “You can bring them with you.”
The pirate Captain hesitated. That was a really alluring idea. But still, she had things to take care of in Luke. “And you expect me to leave Luke in chaos as I go and live a happy, new life in Taw?”
“No.” Melas shook her head. “You’re coming to Taw specifically to help your people in Luke
“As I said, Gennady has many contacts. He knows factory owners and people from other industries. Now that the Elise is gone, I’m sure many of these factories and companies owned by them would be going bankrupt soon without their drug money to support them. That means a lot of people going out of a job.
“If you come to Taw, Gennady would be able to get you to speak with some of these people. You probably can’t get all of them to help you, but I’m sure one or two would hear your case. If they come to Luke— and Laxis— to broaden their horizons, you’d be helping a lot of people. You could increase the standard of living, which would also decrease crime, no?”
She considered this for a moment. What Melas was proposing made sense. Of course it did. And Laxis did have a lot of natural resources, which was why they had survived even in spite of the initial blockade and subsequent trade embargo by the Holy Xan Empire. But still…
“If these guys wanted to come into our country to invest in the first place, they’d have done it long ago.”
“Sometimes, people don’t go into places they don’t know,” Melas said. “However, if someone they know pushes them in that direction, they might then stay in that path.”
Ginah grit her teeth. She was actually considering this offer. This… deal. She didn’t like that she was. But it was something that appealed to both her logic and her desires.
“And if it doesn’t work?” she asked uncertainly. “So far, all of this sounds like empty promises. What if you can’t deliver on any of them?”
“I have no choice,” Melas replied without hesitation. “But this is all I can offer you. You just have to trust me.”
Trust her? Ginah had no reason to do that. But she never did, did she? She trusted Melas back when she was a masked Goblin capable of magic. However, they were pushed to do so because they were in a difficult position. The situation was different now.
But Melas had revealed everything she had been hiding. She was in a difficult position too now, wasn’t she? That was why she was trusting that this gambit— this deal would come through.
The pirate Captain turned to her sole advisor. “What do you think, Kai?”
“What do I think?” The Quartermaster rubbed his chin in thought. “Personally, I’d say it’s a terrible idea.”
Melas didn’t deflate or show any obvious reaction, but Ginah saw the flicker in her eyes. The uncertainty that she was hiding, and the disbelief at what Kai had said.
“So we shouldn’t take it then?” Ginah asked, glad that Kai was being her voice of reason. However, she was immediately taken by surprise by his next response.
“No. I think we should.” Kai turned to Ginah, quickly speaking before she could interrupt him. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. The chance to not only help those we can, but do good in a way that goes beyond our tiny influence? It’s a risk we should take.”
“I…” Ginah trailed off. “But that doesn’t make sense. If we all go to Taw, we’d be leaving behind a city in chaos. A chaos that we helped cause! We’d be abandoning our responsibility!”
“That’s right.” Kai nodded. “Which is exactly my problem with this deal as well.”
“See? So we should turn it down.”
“But we can alter the deal, can’t we?” The Quartermaster turned to Melas. “You’d be willing to make some amendments, right?”
“Yes,” Melas said without hesitation. “As long as the plan is the same and we go to the Taw Kingdom.”
“Good.” Kai turned back to Ginah and spoke to her softly. “Then we just have to split up, Ginah.”
“…split up?” The pirate Captain gave him a confused look.
He smiled as he placed a hand on her shoulder. “You take anyone who wants to go with you to the Taw Kingdom. Anyone who wants a new life— one where they no longer have to live a life of crime just to get by. And I’ll stay in Luke with those who are willing to stay. We’ll do everything in our power to calm things down for now, while you work in Taw to bring us a better future.”
Ginah froze. “But that’s…” she trailed off. “I can’t leave you, Kai. I can’t just—”
“It’s only temporary,” Kai said. “We’ve been together for a decade. A year or two apart won’t be anything too bad. And you’ve been fighting so hard all your life. You deserve to rest and relax a little bit, don’t you?”
But still, she protested. “I’m the Captain, aren’t I? I should be the one staying here while you go with them to Taw.”
“No. It’s specifically because you’re the Captain that you have to go. You’re the charismatic leader, after all. There’s no way I’ll be able to convince anyone— not even a drunk Dwarf— to come to our backwater country for philanthropy or business. But I can manage logistics. I can hold things down while you’re gone.”
Ginah looked between Melas and Kai. The two of them had a determined look in their gaze. Melas with her arms folded, and Kai with a reassuring smile.
“Trust me, Ginah.”
She had always trusted him, ever since he agreed to help her take down her father. So why did things have to change now? This deal would solve all the current problems Ginah was faced with… if it worked out.
But if things didn’t work out, it would only serve to cause more problems. But she trusted Kai, didn’t she? So finally, after much internal debates, she gave in.
“I trust you, Kai.” She turned back to the waiting Melas and nodded. “Fine. We’ll take your deal.”
The young girl released a breath she had been holding in relief. She held a shaky hand out and smiled. “I promise you, you won’t regret it.”
“So what now?” Ginah asked after shaking hands with her, still feeling nervous about doing this. She had just made a deal with a child! Anyone would normally think it was ridiculous. But Ginah ignored that thought for the moment.
“Well, first I have to get Jack and Lisa’s help. Lisa said she would help me, and she’s even willing to come to Taw with us since she has nowhere left to go.”
“None at all,” the young woman said with a smile. “Most of my bridges in Luke have been completely burned. But it all depends on what Jack has to say.”
“Righ,” Melas said, nodding. She directed her attention to Jack. “What do you think? I know you don’t like Dwarves and all…”
“Lisa has a point,” he grunted. “And I don’t have a problem with all Dwarves. I have a problem with a Dwarf. We have nothing else left in Luke, and if we’re going to the Taw Kingdom, I can finally resolve that problem.”
Gennady sat up from where he had been seated. He turned to the smuggler who avoided his gaze. “Hey, wait! If ya have a problem with only one Dwarf, what’s your problem with me?”
Jack scowled. “Shut it. The way you talk reminds me of him.”
He sputtered. “But all Dwarves talk like me—”
Melas ignored their conversation, muttering under her breath. “Huh, uh, that was easier than I thought it would be.”
Ginah turned her attention to the young girl as the argument in the room drew to a close with Lisa stopping Jack from continuing. She regarded Melas optimistically. “So, we just have to bring you to Taw, huh? That doesn’t sound too difficult.”
“Nope.” Melas hesitated. She glanced between everyone in the room, an uncertain look on her face. “It’s a tad bit more difficult than that.”
“What do you mean?”
She took a deep breath. “We’ll have to… deal with Saintess Lilith first.”
This time, everyone— not just Ginah— raised objections. But Melas quickly waved her hands, silencing them.
“We have no choice. If we deal with her now, the Church might decide that it’s not worth pursuing me in such a direct fashion any further. But if we don’t deal with her now, she’ll come back again in the future and cause a lot more problems than what we’d have to deal with right now.”
“That makes sense,” Lisa said, nodding. “But how do you expect us to take care of a Saintess.”
“Well,” Melas sighed. “I have a plan…”
Even at the moment, I knew it was such a cliche thing to say— I was internally cringing as I said it. But it was true. I had a plan. And that plan led to the current situation.
Jack and Braz left me in the storage room of the ship; they didn’t treat me too roughly once they were out of sight of Lilith. They set me down and chained my antimagic manacles to a pillar before they turned to leave.
Well, Jack tried to leave, but Braz stayed for a moment to whisper to me. “Sorry about the rough treatment.”
“It’s fine,” I said, before gesturing at the door. “Go before you arouse any suspicion.”
He was about to turn around to leave before I quickly added.
“And thank you.”
The pirate paused. He glanced back at me, then shot me a grin. “Thank me once this is all over and we’ve dealt with that insane woman.”
I met his gaze for a moment, staring into the golden eyes of his. Then I nodded, before he finally left the room. I watched him as he took his leave, heaving a sigh as I leaned back on the pillar I was chained to.
It was no more than a minute until I heard the creaking of the wooden crate behind me and the hushed whispers of a Dwarf.
“Pst, lass.” He tried to get my attention. “All clear?”
“For now. But your role doesn’t come in until later. What if you get caught?” I glared back at him.
“Just wanted to check in on ya,” he said, ignoring it. “Think everything will go according to plan?”
“I hope it does. Because if it doesn’t…” I trailed off.
Gennady just snorted. “You’re always so grim, aren’t ya? Relax for a moment. It’ll all go smoothly.”
“But what if something goes wrong?” I asked, looking up at the ceiling. “What if they decide to betray us? Rat you out and truly hand me over to the Saintess and the Church?”
It was a fear that had been eating me up inside since we concocted this plan days ago— before we had the rest of the cove evacuated and set the stage for the fake ambush. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, yet it could fall apart any moment.
Anything ranging from Lisa deciding that she wanted to take all the gold for herself and Jack, to Ginah and Kai having second thoughts. Perhaps Lilith might decide she didn’t want to uphold her end of the deal and slaughter every single one of them while I was down here locked up and unable to do anything about it, effectively ruining our plan.
Even bad weather stood to threaten what happened next— if our ship was tipped over by a large wave or if the storm somehow ruined our masts, we might be forced to migrate to one of Lilith’s ships. And that made our plan all the more difficult to achieve, possibly even ruining it.
For all these reasons, I was worried; stress gripped my entire being in spite of me going through with this plan. And it must have shown only my face as Gennady reassured me.
“Come on, Melas. You’ve done your part, now it’s up to them lot. You have to trust that they play their roles well.”
“Right,” I said. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. Trust. It was something I had so little of before; it was something I had robbed from me by a young man who saved my life. But things were different now— things had been different for a while.
I had to trust that things would go well, even if I feared that I would once again find myself bound by my hands with my freedom robbed from me once again. I had to trust that the pirates, Jack, and Lisa would not choose to betray me just because the tides suddenly seemed to shift, even if— no, in spite of the fact that it was a very real possibility.
That was what trust entailed. It wasn’t something incredibly deep or difficult to parse. That was the very definition of trust itself.
So I opened my eyes. I looked away from the Dwarf, and out the porthole to the side. The waves were rather calm— not what I was hoping for. But the weather out in the rough ocean was unpredictable, and if there was one thing you could predict, it was a storm.
And I simply waited there, trusting that things would work out. That the tides turned in my favor, and this plan would work out. That my friends would not betray me.
Ginah rested one hand on the helm, turning it as she felt the light breeze of the morning blow against her hair. She didn’t really have to do much— navigating was not an issue since she just had to follow the three ships Lilith had brought with her.
The weather was nice, gentle, and ideal for any ordinary voyage across the sea. But currently? It was not what Ginah wanted.
Melas had outlined a plan to separate Lilith from whatever resources and men she had to corner her. And since they would be out at sea, in this ship that wasn’t built to take a lot of hits, the Saintess wouldn’t be able to use her miracles lest she strand herself in the middle of the ocean faced with terrible an unending stream of sea Monsters— something that even a Saint or Saintess couldn’t possibly survive.
The ocean was dangerous even on a boat, and especially when in the water. Everything had been arranged over the course of the last week, from the fake trap they had set up for Melas, to getting Lilith to be on this ship. Now the rest of the plan hinged on a storm ‘splitting’ them up from Lilith’s escorts.
Well, that would simply make it easier. If by the third day of sailing, the weather didn’t turn for the worse in their favor, Ginah would have to stray away from these three ships in the middle of the night. And unless being a Saintess meant Lilith didn’t have to sleep and was up to stop them, there was no way Ginah wouldn’t be able to do that successfully. A storm only made things more convenient.
Whatever the case was, it would work. The plan had to work. The only possible thing that could ruin this plan was Lilith somehow finding out about it.
Ginah cast a glance at the Saintess who was happily chatting with Lisa. The pirate Captain grimaced at the sight. She did not understand how easily Lisa was able to put up a farce to goad someone into a fake sense of security.
It had always been something that Ginah found unsettling about the young woman. In fact, it took years of working with Lisa before she finally stopped being so skeptical of her. That was how she knew Lisa wasn’t planning some sort of betrayal with the Saintess— Lisa was not evil, even if she valued money.
To be honest, even if Ginah was simply following directions and tailing the ships ahead of them, she knew that they were probably headed to port Xenon. It was the closest port in the Holy Xan Empire to Laxis. A small island in between Vitae and Soli that thrived solely on maritime trade and commerce. And that was where the Saintess would leverage her status to get the gold needed to pay them.
The price she offered them was a steep one. When Ginah heard the sum, she thought Lilith had to be joking. But she wasn’t. 10,000 gold. And that was just how much she was offering Ginah and her crew.
As a pirate, Ginah had obviously seen a lot of money in her time. She had probably made more than double that amount ever since she became the Captain of her crew. Yet earning so much for a single job? That was almost unheard of.
It was the kind of gold small countries or large companies tossed around at each other, not individuals. Perhaps if Ginah wasn’t… well, Ginah, she would’ve taken the gold and betrayed Melas. But leaving Melas to die had been an option, but full on betraying her? That was never an option in her mind.
So when the sails picked up and the waves began to get choppy— when Ginah saw the dark clouds gather and the thunder roar in the distance— Ginah did what she had to do. The wind blew harder and harder as the downpour began. The sky darkened and the ship rocked with the rough sea.
The other ships slowly got smaller and smaller in the distance, almost disappearing behind the thick veil of rain poured down from the sky. It was difficult to navigate through the ocean, after all. And it was really easy to lose your bearings. But it was even easier to lose your bearings when you were actively trying to lose it.
Lisa had Lilith distracted. And when the Saintess came to realize they had lost sight of her ships, it was already too late. She demanded they go to Xenon— that Ginah took her there. But the trap had already been sprung, and it was now time to act.
“What’s going on?”
I could hear Lilith’s annoyed voice even before I left the deck below and entered up above into the bright afternoon sun— the dark clouds now gone and the sea was now calm again. Gennady had used one of his mana tools to break the antimagic manacles binding me, and was now escorting me up the stairs to settle this problem.
It all led to this: there was no more turning back. If we failed now, then we would probably die. But my friends trusted that this would work. They trusted me, so I trusted them.
And now, with my staff in hand and Gennady by my side as he inserted the Greater mana crystal I had paid for into his large, tube shaped weapon, we approached the Saintess. She whirled around as she saw me come from the corner of her eyes.
“You…” She glanced between the dozens of pirates— all of Ginah’s most elite fighters— surround her. She stood alone amongst enemies. “So this was a trap, huh?”
“It was,” I said simply. “And now we have got you where we want you.”
Lilith’s eyes flashed. “Do you really think I can’t kill all of you by myself?” She gripped her spear dangerously as everyone— Ginah, Kai, Jack, Braz— all tensed.
I raised my shoulders in a shrug and pointed at the wooden floor around us. “Not if you don’t want to sink the ship and get yourself killed.” Shaking my head, I raised my wooden staff and pointed it at her. “This is not a threat, Saintess. You may think I am some kind of evildoer, but I am not. So here’s my ultimatum: leave me alone, and you will never hear from me ever again. I shall disappear into obscurity in the Taw Kingdom, and you can just claim to your higher ups at the Church that you killed me. It’s a win for everybody, is it not?”
That line of thinking had made sense to me, but apparently it didn’t to the Saintess as she scoffed. “The Church doesn’t even know that you exist. I’m here of my own volition.”
I blinked. I exchanged a glance with Lisa who was off to the side, but she looked just as confused as I was. “If that’s the case, then why are you hunting me? Is this a personal vendetta? Did my mother do something terrible to you? If so, then I apologize. But I am not responsible for what she did, so don’t hold me accountable for it.”
“That’s not the case either.” Lilith sighed helplessly, leaving me even more perplexed. “I have to admit. I don’t even want to do this either. You’ve got fight in you, Aria. I like strong girls— unwilling to back down in the face of adversity.”
“Then why are you doing this?” I cocked an eyebrow.
“Because,” she said, shaking her head. “If I offer you to the Church in exchange for my freedom, then maybe they’ll finally listen to me. Maybe they’ll strip me from my title of Saintess, and I can finally live the life I want to, not the one they’ve always given me.”
I stared at Lilith for a moment, into the darkness of her eyes. The shadow that hung over her gaze from the arch of her brows indicated some dark past. Something I didn’t know anything about. It reminded me that I knew so little about other people— like with Bahr whom I briefly met and fought. Did he have a reason for doing what he did? Definitely.
But sometimes, I had to act even when I knew nothing about what someone had been through. Whether Victor’s desire to exact ‘revenge’ was justified or not— even if I thought it wasn’t— didn’t matter, because I had to act there and then. And even if it was for different reasons, the same thing applied now.
I put a hand out, opening it towards Lilith. She cocked her head, eyeing the gesture. “What?”
“Saintess Lilith, I do not know what you’ve been through and I do not know anything about you. However, I shall offer you a deal now. If you want to be free from the Church, then come with me. With us. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do everything within my power to ensure this comes true.”
It was a similar offer I made to Ginah. It was an unsubstantiated offer. Something I had no previous results to show that I could deliver. And yet, Ginah trusted me because she had gotten to know me. But Lilith? She said she liked me, but we had only just met.
“Going against the Church? Haha! Good one— oh, wait you weren’t joking.”
Lilith cast her gaze over all of us, stopping at each and every single one of our faces as if she were assessing us. She stopped at Gennady for a moment, narrowing her eyes, before she continued past him to face me.
“And what do you have with you to achieve that goal? A motley crew of pirates? A Dwarf inventor that was replaced by his own country for one of our insane Scientists? And you, Aria— a little girl who can cast some magic?”
“I’m not just any little girl,” I said, meeting her gaze. “I am Melas, and I am the [Witch].”
She snickered. “Well then, Melas the Witch. If you truly want to be like your mother, Valeria the Fiend. Then go ahead and try. But I am no fool. I know what the Church is capable of, and I know all the secrets that they are hiding.” The Saintess lifted her spear, pointing it at me. “So come then. Try and stop me from slaughtering you all.”
Lilith blurred. She moved so fast I could barely keep up with her. Kai tracked her movements, firing one of his beams at her. She easily deflected it as a barrage of bullets came at her from the other pirates. It bounced off, her protective aura, of course. There was no way that would work.
She landed between three pirates, quickly disposing of the first two with a wide swing that they couldn’t dodge. The third pirate barely blocked the attack, but she struck him with the butt of his spear, knocking him back. She was about to finish him off when Braz tackled her from the side, throwing her off balance.
The Saintess stumbled back, and in that brief moment where she was immobile, I sent the spells I had pre-cast flying at her. Three Frost Javelins arced through the air, looping around each other before they crashed into her.
It was not enough to discombobulate her, but it was clear it damaged her aura. Lilith steadied herself before thrusting her spear at Braz. He was fast— I had known he was fast. But I didn’t expect him to keep up with Lilith. And he did, just for a moment.
Braz sidestepped the attack, bringing his cutlass down at her knees. It bounced off her aura harmlessly as she took a step forward and jerked her knee forward at him. Braz dodged it, but couldn’t react to the follow up attack as Lilith swung her spear at him.
Luckily for him, a glowing whip of energy intercepted the attack, wrapping around Lilith’s spear. Ginah yanked her whip back, trying to pull her weapon away from her. Lilith tsked and pulled back harder, causing the pirate Captain to stumble. But before she could do anything else, Kai shot her once again before she was swarmed by Jack and a dozen other pirates.
But even outnumbered, the Saintess cut through the pirates with ease. They were supposedly the best fighters in Luke, and yet they were being cut down like flies. Jack staggered back away from the fighting, a bloodied wound on his chest as Ginah’s whip grabbed hold of Lilith’s legs. She nearly tripped, but caught herself before my Frost Javelins smashed into her back forcing her to fall face first onto the ground.
The problem with having negated Lilith’s miracles meant that I was also severely impeded. My array of spells to cast was severely reduced, but with all the water vapor in the air, it also meant I could cast Frost Javelins much easier than on land. And considering that was one of the stronger spells I knew, it actually proved to be a boon to me. Still, we were losing. So I turned to my Dwarven companion and spoke hurriedly to him.
“What’s taking so long? Why isn’t your Annihilator cannon working?!”
That was supposed to be our secret weapon in this battle; the moment Lilith tried to attack us instead of cooperating, he was supposed to blast her off the ship. But evidently, it did not happen.
Instead, Gennady was looking over the weapon confused. He took out the Greater mana crystal and placed it back inside, before smacking it a few times. However, when he pointed it at the downed Saintess, nothing came out of it.
“I… don’t know!”
“You said it would work now that you’ve got a Greater mana crystal!” I shouted, exasperated.
“It’s supposed to work! I don’t know why it’s—”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence. While we were arguing, Lilith had gotten up and was knocked back down by Kai— and some of the mana crystals adorned on her clothes cracked. The aura around her fizzled for a moment, its radiant glow suddenly becoming less vibrant and more transparent.
She must have noticed this, because when she got back up, she was livid. I felt a strong build up of mana inside of her, and my eyes widened.
My body moved by instinct; the dangerous feeling forcing me to act before I could think. I brought my hand forward as Ginah and the other pirates heard my warning and backed away from Lilith. Perhaps if I didn’t act, they’d have been killed in an instant. But what I did was not enough.
Dispel Magic. Somehow, the spell worked on her. For just a moment, I felt a band of resistance coming from her as I held the miracle back from being unleashed onto the ship. But Lilith was strong. She broke through my spell, releasing a burst of flames all around her.
It was like when she sunk The Lightbringers Vessel, but weaker. She must have held back knowing she’d sink the ship. She wanted to simply repulse the pirates from swarming her— and it worked.
Ginah managed to get away from the blast just in time, but Kai wasn’t so lucky. Half of his body suffered severe burns from the attack, forcing him to drop his gun as he writhed in pain. Other pirates were hit by the attack, and many of them were dead or dying on the ground between me and Lilith.
The Saintess looked at me with eyes full of anger and fury. More glowing lines spread throughout her body, but this time they didn’t concentrate into a single attack. She took a step forward, and I blinked.
She had been fast before. Quick on her feet— able to cover distances very quickly. But I could at least see some movement. Now, I didn’t even notice when she reached me. It was instantaneous.
Lilith swung the butt of her spear at me and Gennady. The Dwarf managed to brace for it and was knocked to the ground. I wasn’t prepared for it and all and went flying a dozen feet through the air, before landing on the bulwark of the ship with a thud.
I picked myself up in a daze, trying to regain my bearings. But Saintess Lilith was once again above me in an instant. She stared down at me with a tiny red glow in her malachite green eyes. Her entire body pulsed with energy, radiating so much excess mana off it. She didn’t seem to notice as she brought a foot down on my hand, stopping me from reaching for my staff. I grimaced in pain.
“I didn’t want to hurt you, but you leave me no choice. Now, all your friends will die. Now you have no choice but to suffer as I kill them all—”
Dispel Magic. For a very brief moment, the aura around Lilith flickered. I interrupted the flow of mana in her protective mana crystals just long enough for me to bring my dagger down onto her leg. She screamed in pain as she released me.
The Saintess stomped on her foot like had stepped on some hot coal, shouting curses as she did. I didn’t have time to think. I saw Gennady’s Annihilation cannon lying on the ground just ahead of me. That was the only thing we could use to defeat her.
I leapt for it, and Lilith’s head snapped towards me. She swore as she reached for me. “You’re not going—”
She was faster than me, of course. She’d have reached me if not for Braz who rushed the Saintess. He didn’t even bring a weapon with him. Instead, he tackled her and wrestled her with his bare hands, holding her back for just the moment I needed.
By the time I even came into contact with the weapon, Lilith had already kicked him away after pulling her spear off of him. She turned to face me just in time to see me aiming it at her.
The Greater mana crystal shattered.
I used all of my strength to shove all the mana inside of the weapon at once. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I had to try. Gennady had said that he rigged all his weapons so you could destabilize a mana crystal and it wouldn’t blow up in your face… most of the time. And the weapon wasn’t working anyways. So I pushed all of the mana out of the crystal, and somehow, it worked.
A blinding beam of dark energy came out, larger than the barrel of the gun that held it.
The black streak of light seemed to absorb the light from its surroundings, yet it had an ethereal white glow surrounding it at all times. It emitted no sound, a deadly silent laser that shot out with almost no warning. It engulfed the Saintess before she could even react, blasting her against the bulwark, annihilating the wood of the ship as though it were nothing, before cutting across the ocean water without leaving a single splash in the wave.
A blood curdling scream came from Lilith as the Annihilation spell-turned-weapon blasted her further and further away from the ship, until I couldn’t hear her screams anymore. And still, the laser continued pouring out of the cannon. For a minute. Then two.
And finally, after five minutes passed of me holding the weapon up and pointing it away from the ship, the beam slowly dissipated. The black laser disappeared.
I ran up to the edge of the ship, casting my gaze at the empty waters. And the clear ocean showing no signs of life. Saintess Lilith was gone. She was swept away by the blast, brought into oblivion.
Gennady limped up from behind me, rubbing at his arm. It was broken. The Saintess didn’t hold back from hurting anyone except for me. And even then I was pretty sure I had broken a few ribs and sprained my wrist from the fight.
But still, we had won.
I breathed in relief knowing that we had come out victorious.
The Dwarf peeked his head over the edge of the ship, investigating the watery terrain with me. “Well, you blasted her to Hell, didn’t ya?”
I didn’t say anything. I simply nodded.
“Right,” he said, glancing at the broken mana crystal in his weapon. He shook his head, before turning back to the empty ocean. “Annihilation is supposed to be a Tier 6 spell. But that had to be Tier 7 at least. You could’ve gotten yourself killed, y’know?”
Again, I said nothing. Instead, I just sighed and dropped the Annihilation cannon, letting the mana crystal pieces fall onto the ground devoid of color and power. I leaned my head on the intact part of the wooden bulwark, just resting.
Gennady didn’t seem to notice my exhaustion. He continued with his questions. “So, think she’s dead?”
“No,” I replied instantly.
“But she was blasted by a Tier 7 spell—”
“No body, no proof.” I pushed myself up and turned around. “That’s the rule.” Perhaps I was being paranoid, but that was simply how it worked. Not like Gennady understood it or anything.
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