Emily woke up the next morning with band-aids on her face, back in the spartan ladies bedroom at Wand of Doom. A note rested by her pillow, a written apology from Go written in Cenine slashes and crosses.

And she remembered what brought on her unconsciousness.


Rachel was quick to reach her bedside. "Rain said he was sorry."

Feeling her injuries tingling, Emily only answered with "He should be." Seeing Rachel's brow knitting, she changed the subject. "Do jellyfishes sting themselves?"

Rachel gave a puzzled smile before shrugging.

Emily looked around. Tanya also had band-aids and bandages on whatever parts of her body that was visible, sitting against the wall, her violet irises flickering. Eiko clacked nonstop on her laptop.

"Everyone else is already downstairs. If you're interested, Go wants to show us around the city," Rachel added.

"Rachel, are you okay?"

"Just a broken rib, but QTs can work wonders. Should be fit for training tomorrow."

"Wonders, huh."

"Think of the bamboo plant. In a growth spurt, they can grow a meter in one day. What's a broken rib or two?"

Emily hurtled down the stairs, allowing the momentum to shake away her sleepiness. She passed by an open door and almost bumped into her Cenine trainer.

"Morning," Go began. "Sorry for yesterday. You missed a whole night of Estyl."

Emily peeked over the Cenine's shoulder, into the doorway.

A bed was the only furniture. All the other objects in the room were categorized into stacks and piles that covered a third of the interior - tall stacks of books, a pile of trinkets, a pile of weaponry, stacks of neatly folded clothes, a pile of work tools, a pile of small wooden caskets. All except for models of spacecrafts and buildings that didn't look like they belonged on Cenebol.

"Nice room."

Go slammed the door shut, keeping a straight face. "It's nothing."

"No, Go, it's wonderful!"

"If you want to come with me to Aegis, we're setting off in half an hour." She left Emily hurriedly.

Aw, she's blushing.

The barge felt less cramped than last time. Half of the crew was there: Will, Rachel, Rana, Fox, and of course, Emily. Eiko compensated for her absence with a small metallic beetle perched on Rana's shoulder.

"Hey Eiko," Rana spoke, "I thought yer the techno-girl. Go said ya actually stepped on 'er hair. Shouldn't cha know they sting?"

"Shut up," Eiko's voice came from the bug.

The sun peeked out from behind the clouds. Cenebol's winter resembled a gentle summer with its comfortable breeze.

At the estuary, they ran into the eccentric innkeeper with his own boat, a large coiling serpentine with a spear jutting out of its back filling half of the vehicle. He just gave them a "Hohoho!" like Father Christmas.

As they drifted into the sea, a faint black line showed in the distance, splitting and branching.

"If we keep walking on the bridge, can we reach the city?" Emily asked, admiring the turquoise waters.

"If you want to walk an hour," Go answered.

"Who built the bridges?"

"A long time ago, before the Great Blight. Eleven hundred years ago according to the books."

"The bridge goes across oceans?"


"How are they still standing?"

"The bridges are alive, with deep roots underwater. The ancients have this craft of making threads of adamant that's, like, indestructible. Sometimes a really fierce storm or earthquake can still break them, but they heal."

"Ancients? Cenes?"

Go's ears twitched. "Yeah, we think so. They used to have great magic like you star-men."

It was not long before the city dominated the view. High gray walls loomed over them, smooth but segmented by ridges, each segment as wide as they were tall. Emily believed that no one would be able to manually throw a grappling hook that high.

The only things visible within the walls were three stone towers with tiny flags flapping in the breeze.

Pulling a series of ropes, Go steered the barge towards one of the city's sea gates, their upraised metal grills glinting like teeth of steel.

Cene guards in leather armor paced under the shadows of the gate, chests thrust forward and not hesitant to display their weapons.

A few of the guards turned to look curiously at the weird company on the barge.

"They usually don't bother with star-men," Go explained. "The Palace considers star-men honored guests, with a status on par with the nobles and wealthy merchants. Just don't go looking for trouble, and beware of the… less reputable members of the society.

"Well, welcome to Aegis. Population, around fifty thousand."

Emily gasped at her first sight of the city. Aegis stood on an archipelago with busy canals separating the small islands. Wooden bridges bound the islands together, while barges and boats drifted lazily under the shadows of tall wooden buildings with pyramidal roofs. The part of the city they were in looked like it was built according to a whimsy medieval plan.

As they passed along the canals, Emily noticed that Go dressed much better than most of the Cene roaming the streets. Leather seemed to be the main material for clothing, yet many of them seemed to be in ragged condition. Peddlers wandered and flitted between alleys, while beggars crawled on all fours with clawing hands asking for alms. Small children in worn out clothing ran, navigating their way underneath the elbows of passing adults.

Some of the smells made Emily uneasy.

"Hey Go, that one looks like you," Emily whispered, pointing at a little red-haired Cenine in a boat filled with reptilian hides. The lookalike child wagged her teeth at them. Go only responded with a humph.

Small, seedy shops crammed against each other, grudgingly sharing the same buildings. Once, they saw a worker tossing strange fishes across the canal, and his friend skillfully catching each one and placing it into a large basket.

Go pulled out an oar from beneath their feet and rowed.

Finally reaching a painted white establishment, Go moored her boat in front of it. She stepped onto the waterside, and confidently marched into the building.

Three Cenines stood guard by the entrance, their hooked swords clearly visible.

The others followed Go into the shop and saw her talking in hushed whispers to a baldheaded Cene with large, round spectacles, reminding Emily of a hairless cat. The Cene took a pouch from Go's hand and placed it on a scale. Then he opened a book, wrote something in it, and ducked beneath the counter. After a few minutes, he stood again, passing an even bigger pouch to his customer.

Go signaled with a jerk of her head and they left the place.

"Feel free to walk around," Go said, pausing to let a cat pass in front of her. "It'll be a bit cumbersome to walk in large groups. Just meet me here before noon."

"I'm walking with Go," Emily said, raising her hand. Like she predicted, Rachel followed suit.

"I'll just walk with them boys," Rana grumbled.

"Hell yeah!" Will raised both of his hands. Fox gave a gentlemanly nod.

"Just keep your weapons at the ready," Go told them. "Carrying weapons should make the locals respect you as long as there's no trouble."

"Uh…" Emily pointed at her hand, signaling that she was the only unarmed person.

"Let's go." The Cene turned.

Will waved at Emily, but she pretended not to notice.

"What are those glowing rocks?" Emily asked as they crossed a bridge into a fish market.

"Rosfur," Go answered. "One pinch is more valuable than the hide of a great serpent, and with the right mixture can either warm a house for a whole fortnight or blow it into bits."

"Uh, Rachel, scientific explanation?" Emily asked. It didn't sound like any substance she had heard of.

"Our universe's equivalent would be phosphorus," Rachel answered.

"Phosphorus doesn't do that."

"Not in our universe, no," Rachel continued. "We're in a different universe. Different elements, different properties. Maybe different protons, electrons…"

"We have phosphorus in our bodies!" Emily almost yelled. "They're not turned into dynamite juice, aren't they?"

"I'm not sure, but," Rachel paused, trying to piece together her thoughts. "The OmniGate works by changing elements of the objects it transported as it sees fit into those that would work in the same way in the destination universe."

"So if we're going into a peanut butter and jelly universe, we'll turn into peanut butter people."

"Maybe," Rachel said, looking dead serious before ducking under a big, greenish fish with insectoid legs carried across the shoulders of a passing fisherman.

"Who made OmniGates?"

"Admins." Seeing Emily's puzzled expression, Rachel continued, "An alien race that moderates interuniverse affairs. It's like… the UN on your Earth."

"Are they the ones putting Earth as a restricted zone?"

"That's… classified information. Rain insists."

Then Emily noticed Go's interested expression. The Cene quickly turned away.

They continued their walk, past an alley of sellers sitting crosslegged on the ground with wares on spread leather mats. Go stopped in front of an old lady sitting behind a jumbled heap of books. She then rummaged wordlessly through the pile, picking up title after title, flicking speedily through a few pages. Most of them were dog-eared, and a few of them had a musty smell. Go picked a small green volume that seemed to be in good condition. Emily only saw one word of the title: "Pulsating".

Flicking a coin to the old lady, Go quickly stuffed the book under her cloak and walked hurriedly away. Crossing another bridge, they passed in front of a tavern when Rachel stopped her guide, whispering something inaudible. Before Emily could ask, Rachel had already disappeared inside, coming out a few moments later with a poker face.

"Bathroom?" Emily whispered.

"Is that a candy store?" Rachel pointed across a canal.

"What's… candy?" Go asked with a quizzical look. "That's a treats shop. Little treats like, sweetened dried meat, or dried meat strips of every flavor…"

Treats as in… dog treats?

"I need to stock up on spices," the Cene added thoughtfully. "Oh, that's a star-man," she pointed towards the candy store. "Doesn't look as Cenine as you people, though."

Emily paused. The 'star-man' looked like a wendigo with a gun belt.

My first alien sighting? Oh, wait, Cenes are aliens.

Wait, what am I thinking? Rain and company are all aliens!

Emily only realized that Go had a dreamy look on her face. "Hello?" she waved in front of her guide.

"Ah, let's go," Go quickly said.

Crossing a few more bridges and islands, they could smell their destination before seeing it. The spice shop made their eyes water, and they could hear sneezing every ten seconds. Upright sacks were filled with powders of every color.

Go finished her business swiftly, flipping a silvery coin at the watery-eyed shopkeeper and emerging from the shop with tiny pouches. They heard her take in a deep breath only after a safe distance away.

Walking down another alley, a group of Cene children ran past them, just as Go caught one of them by the wrist, snatched away what the boy was grabbing, and threw him into a nearby canal. The ensuing splash made Emily wince.

Spitting out mouthfuls of water, the boy bellowed "Filth! Filth of the stars! Curse your mothers' slimy gullets!"

Go kicked a pebble in his direction and yelled at the kids, who quickly scampered away, squealing. She then turned in Emily's direction.

"Your bracelet," she said, pressing something into Emily's palm.

It was her watch.

The Cene led them into a vast brick walkway by a great canal populated by tall-masted ships. It was made of conjoined islands leading into Aegis' inner circle. A wall half as tall as the outer perimeter surrounded the inner city. They could see the three stone towers peeking above it, looking even more imposing than before.

"That's where the bigshots live," Go pointed with a thumb, a distant look crossing her eyes. "And that's the Palace, those towers."

"Let me guess, there's a king with absolute power," Emily commented.

"Yeah," Go said with nod. "There are only kings here, on this star."

Emily stepped onto the walkway lined with well-kempt shops. Ahead, an old hunchbacked Cene swept the ground with her broom. Emily looked towards the heart of the city and saw a great gate glinting crimson. She looked behind her, and could see the outer gate, looking like its bigger mirror image.

Something like a crab with too many legs scuttled across the walkway. A dark shape fell from the sky and snatched it away. Emily looked up. It eerily resembled a headless pterosaur. As it flew higher and higher, bits of crab dripped down onto the pavement. Emily narrowly avoided a couple of twitching legs. Gross!

Behind her, she heard the inner gates swung open, and just as she turned around, a horseless carriage shot out of it, screaming and puffing like a locomotive and sending a gust of wind along its wake.

Emily leapt out of its way with a small cry.

It reached the outer gates in less than a minute.

"Rosfur carriages, the rich man's steed," Go explained with a sigh.

A small screech resounded from the rooftops. Go turned around and avoided the descending blade of a hooked sword. She produced her own weapon.

A clang resounded as she crossed blades with her attacker, a Cene her age with a mane of white hair. She twisted around just as his sword shot out a spring-loaded blade, adding into its already superior length.

Go moved in, holding off the enemy's sword while drawing out her chakram.

Their chakrams met, sending sparks flying.

The opponent leant on his sword, pushing in the spring-loaded blade and twisted his cross-guard even as he fended off her attacks, not flinching even as one strike went through his hair.

The Cene in guard uniform finally lowered his weapons and gave his opponent a bow. "Ah, you've improved, Princess." He turned towards the group. "Sorry, just a friendly sparring. Enjoy your stay," and he walked away, shouldering his sword.

Go panted. "Enjoy your stay? That's all?" she half-shouted, but the guard had already turned into an alley.

"Go, what's wrong?" Emily placed a hand on her shoulder.

Another headless pterosaur flew off the rooftops with a small screech.

Go narrowed her eyes and muttered, "He's my brother."

The headless reptile flew and flew, past well-kept manors and houses of the inner city. The three-towered palace grew larger and larger until it filled its field of vision. The reptile finally perched on a triangular windowsill high above the neighboring houses, peeking into a cavernous hall of gray stone.

"Your Majesty, are we forgetting the tale of the Fire Bird?" the bald sage sitting by a throne said, his solemn voice echoing. "It began with the spirits of the waters, floating stars of the oceans.

"Then they begot flesh and bone, they learnt to swim.

"Then these great fishes begot feet, they learnt to walk.

"Then these great cats begot reason, they learnt to talk.

"Speech is the tool of the gods. The Watchers then judged the mortals of this world ready for their touch. Right out of their domain, the twisted void between worlds where forgotten stars and dreams lie, they descended and granted the mortals their gift: the fire of knowledge.

"The people embraced the gift, and was glad.

"The people grew even as the fire grew. Their greed awakened, and the fire turned into a hungry beast.

"It started to devour them. They continued to feed it.

"So great had it grown, that it was already a monstrous bird set to challenge the heavens.

"But before it could touch the skies, the gods intervened - they were displeased. They cut off its wings.

"The bird fell and burnt the world. Countless choked on its virulent ashes. Great Aegis was lost; majestic Tuncath; proud Dilinas, all great kingdoms, great cities, all gone in the Great Blight."

The hall grew deathly quiet. The sage resumed his seat amongst the robed figures accompanying a crowned Cene in the throne.

"Legends and myths!" another voice hissed, belonging to a kneeling raven-haired figure swathed in swirling black robes. "All you can see is death when I'm offering you life! Your Majesty, the egg shall bring this world back into its past greatness, and Your Highness shall be at its head.

"We need to set ourselves free of the shackles of the past. Recover the ancient key! We shall bring this world to the lost heavens! The days of the barbaric kingdoms are over. Once more, our people shall sit proud amongst the people of the stars."

The sage who spoke earlier wanted to rise, but a hand stopped him.

"Ka Struven," the crowned figure finally spoke, addressing the raven-haired noble. "I'm afraid I cannot give you my blessing. The ancient key might bring our ruin. It shall be kept a royal secret, and locked away forever."

"But Your Majesty, what if someone else gets hold of it? Meaning no disrespect to Your Exaltedness, but no one can keep something forever!"

"It shall be guarded as long as I am King," the crowned figure replied calmly, his fingertips pressed together. "It is deep in our own territory. It shall be guarded, and guarded well."

"Very well. Pardon my rashness," Ka said, wearing a grudging smile. He stood and gave a deep bow, showing his lack of Cenine ears.

Author's Note:Ugh, real life has finally caught up with me. I'm not sure if I can regularly update like I used to.