When the Stella Tenebris finally broke free from the storm, what greeted Zoey and her crew was a sky of pure white. They had emerged from one storm into another, only this time it was snow! Beyond the bridge windows was nothing but a swirling blizzard as far as they could see.
Zoey quickly adjusted her flight path using her instrument readouts, angling her cruiser upwards in an effort to rise above the storm. Her first priority was to get her ship away from the trap they had just escaped, then to get an idea of where they were.
It wasn't long before the Stella Tenebris breached through the upper layer of the sea of clouds she had been submerged in like a monster from the depths. She rose up trailing streamers of fog as the crew inside all cheered and cried from happiness and relief when they saw the sun shining bright atop the distant horizon.
It appeared to be sunset, Zoey noted idly as her emerald eyes scanned the information flowing across her interface. The temperature outside was well below freezing, which meant that considering the season and current altitude, they seemed to be a considerable distance further north than they had been when the storm had nabbed them.
Zoey had leveled out the ship at about seven thousand meters, leaving them above the angry weather they had been in. She then turned the ship around giving them a gorgeous view of the massive swirling storm that they had escaped from.
The ship was silent for a moment as Zoey and her crew gazed upon the strange phenomenon that had trapped them not so long ago. They knew that beyond the roiling clouds was a mythical flying city fraught with danger, and all of them were glad to be free of that place for good.
Zoey left the Stella Tenebris in place, watching as the flying city slowly disappeared into the distance while the sun finally dipped below the horizon. That place still held secrets, and though they would be leaving it for now, she fully intended to come back to it once she was stronger. The connection that city had to her Dark Star could not be ignored, and she would reveal its secrets eventually.
It wasn't long until the Stella Tenebris was quiet once more. Everyone on board was exhausted, and a safe night of rest was long overdue. Now that they were all back safely on their flying home base, they could rest without worry.
Zoey found herself sitting by the front windows of the bridge as night took over the sky. Next to her was Viridi, Max, and Athena, all of them quietly watching the twinkling stars as they appeared one by one high above them. The flying city of machines and the storm that accompanied it had disappeared into the distance, on its way to gods knew where.
The silence was finally broken by Zoey's quiet, yet beautiful voice, "The place where I come from… there are no more stars left."
Her three companions looked over at her when she spoke. Max showed no emotions on his face, but his clam gray eyes carried encouragement. Athena had curiosity in her topaz eyes, and her body language indicated that she was eager to hear what Zoey was about to say. Viridi was the only one who did nothing aside from flicking her ears. Zoey and her had no secrets between them, their link connected them on a deeper level than just memories after all.
"I was not born on this world," Zoey continued after a moment. "The place where I am from is an entire universe apart from this one, and that place no longer exists."
Zoey's revelation startled Athena the most. She knew that there were other universes out there thanks to what she had learned on her adventures and from her talks with Sethrii the goddess. Max on the other hand showed only quiet acceptance as he listened.
"So how are you even here?" Athena asked after a moment.
"Well," Zoey replied, "Starting from the beginning, I lived as a human on a planet called Gaia. When I was still very young, the leaders of Gaia realized that the stars in the sky were disappearing considerably faster than they should…"
Over the next hour, Max and Athena listened with awe to Zoey's story. She told them how the Gaians had realized that the stars were being consumed by the enemy, an unstoppable alien menace that was more powerful than anything they could imagine. They shuddered when she described their appearance and their silent, horrific attacks.
Zoey told them what she remembered of her final battle, the last Gaian stronghold breached by the enemy and her desperate struggle to survive. Then something within her awakened when she became the last human alive on Gaia. She spent the next two hundred and fifty years in a cycle of destruction, numbly waiting for each wave of the enemy's attack when she would slip into unconsciousness while her transformation battled the enemy.
Finally, she told them of Pfortner, the last Gatekeeper, and the one who had sent her to this universe so that she could live on.
"Even though I have not lived long here on this world, I have come to consider it the place where I should be," Zoey finished her tale with a gentle smile at her two companions who had listened without interrupting her. "I hope that someday I can find a place that I can call home here amongst all of you," she added after a moment.
"Hun, you are already on your way to building your own home right here!" Athena declared as she gestured around them at the Stella Tenebris. "No matter what you decide though, you can know that I will always be a friend to you, sister."
Zoey smiled and nodded in thanks to Athena, who suddenly covered her face and looked away.
"If you smile at me like that, I'll get the wrong idea you know!" Athena muttered under her breath, her reaction getting a cheerful chuckle from Zoey.
Max, who had been watching them quietly for a while now, suddenly spoke. "I will also be by your side, for as long as I can."
Zoey knew that Max was by most standards a quiet boy, and said very little under normal circumstances. But when he said something, he meant it. In response to his honest words and the earnest look in his eyes, Zoey smiled and patted his head, quietly accepting his declaration.
Viridi also chimed in with a possessive growl as she wrapped her tail around Zoey, drawing a laugh from the group. The four of them passed the night in each other's company, quietly enjoying the companionship that they had missed for a while now.
When morning came and the crew woke up, a somber atmosphere took over the ship. Despite the fact that they had survived and escaped the deadly flying city, they had still suffered losses.
Most notable was the death of General Saigo, the great commander of the Asurai clan, and a friend and mentor to many that had known him. Also counted amongst the lost were those that had died at the hands of Cornelius Rellen's men, and a few that had been killed by the traps and machines of the city itself. Even though the Eves they had were a huge advantage, they did not grant invincibility.
The Stella Tenebris's cargo bay was used to conduct the Asurai clan's Ritual of Passing, a ceremony of remembrance for those that lost their lives. With Zoey's permission, the names of the lost were engraved on the metal plates of the cargo bay walls, and their Eves welded to the metal below their names to indicate their connection to the ship that they had been their salvation and that they had come to call home.
The ceremony took only a few hours, and as Ssaul, Baiken, and the others looked on, Taigen performed his role as the clan leader admirably, showing to his fellow clanspeople that he was not only worthy of the position, but willing as well. The thought in many of their hearts was that Saigo had taught this young man well.
In the back of the cargo bay, Markus watched it all with a heaviness on his soul. He felt the weight of the general's death, and though he had not personally known the man himself, the effect that his passing had on the members of his clan was obvious.
[Would my death be remembered like this? Would my family feel any sadness? Pfft… Unlikely.] He thought to himself bitterly. His family was nothing but a pack of rabid dogs only kept in line by their fear of Cornelius, and gods only knew where his brother was after the recent events. Markus didn't even know if he was still alive.
[Well, at least Volaia is free of him now… I will do my best to pay back the debt I owe to the Asurai clan, but I must also ensure that Volaia stays safe.] Markus sighed to himself. Whatever happens, he could only do what was within his capabilities, and at the moment that was very little.
After the Ritual of Passing was completed, the gathering in the cargo bay slowly started to disperse. Markus was still loitering near the back of the cay when the bracelet on his wrist vibrated, signaling that someone wanted his attention.
Up on Deck 2, Athena and Zoey came to a stop outside the door to one of the temporary infirmaries.
"He'll be here in a minute,'' Zoey said to Athena, who acknowledged with a nod. The two of them were going to tell Markus about his brother's fate, along with the current situation of his sister. There was no telling how the noble would react, so the two strongest individuals on the ship were here to manage the situation, just in case.
Of course, Athena was also here because she had a vested interest in Volaia after her little 'skirmish' and conversation with the chaos entity that resided inside the girl. She had promised to take care of the girl once she woke up, and even though Athena was a little reluctant to babysit a noble, a promise was a promise.
"I'm still not sure about this girl, Athena… How do we know she won't be a threat?" Zoey asked while they waited.
"The short answer is, we don't," Athena replied. "Until the girl wakes up we have no idea what she will be like. The good news is that she likely won't be able to use any of her abilities very well, if at all. Plus, there is no chance she will be able to use the chaos within her, although I'm not sure if she will be influenced by it…"
"So the chaos inside her is like a power source?" Zoey questioned.
"Kind of," Athena replied. "Think of it like our Arbiter's Mark. It's similar to that, but follows different rules about how it works. For example, if she wishes to use the power of chaos, she will need to give something equal in exchange. What she exchanges could be literally anything based on what chaos demands. It's so unpredictable that even the gods tend to avoid chaos wielders whenever possible."
Zoey shook her head at Athena's explanation. "You mentioned that chaos was not destructive? It's hard for me to see how that is possible with what you just described to me."
Athena thought for a bit, then said, "It's like this, no matter what chaos demands in exchange for the ability to use it, it is still one of the fundamental forces of the universe we live in. The document I found before was unfinished, but what I found indicated that unless you threaten the wielder of chaos, you have nothing to fear."
"I guess we'll see," Zoey said with a sigh. She had no intention of harming the girl, she was just worried about her crew. They were in a flying cruiser, thousands of meters in the air after all. Whatever happened, she would just have to do what she always did and adjust with the circumstances.