"Sir... are you dead?"
Though Rhys lay on the ground beneath a shady tree just off of one Yaata's roads with his arms comfortably folded underneath his head like a pillow, he slowly opened his eyes when he heard those four words, somewhere off in the distance. His first attempts to raise his eyelids resulted in little more than blinks. The sun was now out, and Rhys thought it somehow was aimed directly at him, mocking his attempt to wake up. Within a moment, however, he was able to squint at the woman standing over him.
"No, I was just sleeping," Rhys responded, slowly putting his feet underneath him. "I'm Prince Rhys of Landen."
"Oh, prince!" the woman exclaimed as she performed a curtsy. "Welcome to Yaata! But... whatever were you doing under this tree?"
"It's a long story," Rhys replied, running a hand through his blue hair. "I left Landen late last night. I'm searching for Maia, the woman who is to be my bride. She was kidnapped by one of Laya's beasts yesterday morning."
"Some of my friends were at the wedding," the woman nodded. "They told me of what happened. I'm terribly sorry."
"I will find her," was Rhys's optimistic reply. "But I chose Yaata as the first stop on my journey because, being a port town, it is possible that the beast came here after kidnapping Maia."
"I'm sorry, prince," the woman shook her head, "but no one around here saw anything. I know because if anyone had, the entire town would have known about it immediately -- what with no one hearing a peep from the Layans for 1,000 years, until yesterday."
Rhys sighed. He probably shouldn't have expected to get any solid leads on his first day of traveling, but still... "What about the island south of here?" the prince asked. "Does anyone live out there, or is it deserted?"
"There isn't much open area out there, actually," the woman shrugged. "It's mostly mountains and forest, although I hear there is a cave out within the mountains somewhere. But to answer your question, no, no one lives out there."
"Hmm." Rhys ran a hand across his chin. "No one lives out there. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's deserted. In fact, it sounds like a perfect place to hide."
"You think the beast took Maia to the island?"
"It's a possibility," Rhys conceded. "And since it's just an island, I'd just as soon like to investigate it. If nothing turns up, at least I can cross it off my list. Tell me, ma'am--"
"Sara," the woman interrupted. "You can call me Sara, Prince."
Rhys smiled. "Sara, do you know of any way I can get out to that island?" He jingled the bag of meseta at his side. "I would be willing to pay."
Sara pursed her lips and pointed across town. "The man by the fountain owns a boat, but..."
The Prince of Landen looked at Sara, only to see her pursed lips had turned into a slight frown. "But what?" he prompted.
"But, he will not sail unless he has a cyborg on board."
"A what?" Rhys asked incredulously. "A cyborg? I don't think anyone has seen a cyborg since the time of Orakio!"
"To my knowledge, no one has," Sara shrugged. "But that doesn't stop old Blake. He used to sail all across the sea in his boat, all day, every day. But then a sudden storm left him shipwrecked on that very island we were just talking about."
As Sara spoke, Rhys watched Blake. He used a brush to scrub the fountain he stood near, occasionally dipping the brush into the water to help along his chore. As other townspeople passed him, he would pause from his work, wave, and, on occasion, stop and chat for a moment. Rhys thought he looked like a friendly old man, much like old Tobin back home.
"Blake managed to get his boat back to Yaata safely," Sara continued, "but his ship has been tied to dock ever since. He spent two years fixing it back up to pristine condition, but now, he won't sail without a cyborg. I guess he read somewhere that they're incredibly effective good luck charms."
"Not to mention incredibly rare," Rhys grumbled. The prince took a deep breath. He had to get to that island, and this man, Blake, could help him get there. I'm sure he'll listen to reason, Rhys told himself. I mean, after all, Maia could be out there, prisoner of some vile beast of Laya. Blake will understand. No problem.
"I'll talk with him after I eat breakfast," he finally announced. "Could you point me in the direction of your inn?"
"Certainly," Sara smiled. "It's right up this road. Third building."
"Thank you," Rhys waved over his shoulder at Sara as he began to walk towards the inn.
Orakio, please let Blake understand.
"But, sir, you have to understand!" Rhys pleaded with Blake, the old man who owned the boat outside of town. "My bride may be out on that island."
"She may be half-way across Landen, too," Blake pointed out.
"Well, yes," Rhys conceded. "But I have to search everywhere, including that island!"
With a sigh, Blake sat on the stone of the fountain, putting aside the brush he was using on it a moment before. He motioned for Rhys to sit next to him, and the prince did. "Please understand, I am a superstitious old man, good Prince Rhys. I don't want to sail without a good luck charm, and cyborgs are good luck charms, if you ask me."
"How about this?" Rhys proposed. "You steer the boat, and I'll pray to Orakio the whole time that we have a safe ride. Okay?"
Blake smiled but again shook his head in the negative. "What if Orakio is sleeping, and can't hear our prayer? Cyborgs, however, are his hands. If we have one aboard, our voyage will be upon smooth waters all the way."
"Fine," Rhys sighed, defeated. "Could you then at least point me in the direction of a cyborg?"
A bit of a frown played across old man Blake's lips as he responded. "I don't think anyone around here has seen a cyborg for 1,000 years," he admitted. "I guess if one would be anywhere, one would be up north, in Landen."
Rhys climbed back to his feet and spoke each word very deliberately, avoiding eye contact with Blake. "I am from Landen, remember? We have no cyborgs there."
"Oh, sorry," Blake shrugged. With a wave towards Rhys, he picked up his brush and began scrubbing the fountain stone again. "More Orakians live off to the east, in a town called Ilan. Maybe someone there could lend you a cyborg."
The prince quickly stormed away from the fountain. "Thank you, Blake," he grumbled under his breath, "for your invaluable help." Now what am I supposed to do?
Rhys ended up taking a quiet stroll around the town. Eventually, he came upon Yaata's armor store, where he purchased a set of hunting armor. He would need it for the next leg of his journey, which, apparently, would not be to the island, but to the town of Ilan, east of Yaata, old man Blake, and his ship.
Rhys ended up leaving Yaata shortly after his conversation with Blake. In order to work out the frustrations brought on by the conversation, he removed his short sword from its scabbard and swung it ahead of him in sweeping arcs. This also helped to loosen up the new set of armor he purchased in Yaata, which, though it provided considerable protection, also made the sun overhead that much warmer.
A couple hours after leaving Yaata, he spotted Ilan. Nestled on the edge of a small island, it looked to be even smaller than Yaata, but peaceful and quaint. Rhys marched for another hour or so before coming upon the small, creaky bridge that connected the mainland to Ilan's island, and that's when he was ambushed by beasts of Laya.
Even before he began his search for Maia, Rhys was quite proficient at hunting chirpers and eindons in the wilderness near Landen. But the prince was quickly learning that the further he journeyed from his bustling home, the attacks from Laya's monsters became more and more frequent. He heard a rustling in the forest behind him, and when he spun around to face his attackers, he saw two chirpers were working together with an eindon to kill their next meal.
"Chirpers working with an eindon..." Rhys muttered under his breath. "They always keep their distance from each other near Landen." The prince kept his empty hands out in front of him, his eyes darting between each of the chirpers and the eindon to their right. The small yellow birds jumped and squaked threats in his direction, while the horned, snouted eindon grunted and snorted, no doubt preparing to shoot deadly poison in Rhys's direction.
The standoff was broken by one of the chirpers, who used its thin, twig-like legs to push itself into the air, letting its flapping wings carry it towards Rhys. The Prince of Landen reached for his short sword to counter the attack, but the chirper was there first. It pecked at Rhys's abdomen, sending the prince jumping backwards with a yelp.
"Lesson number one, birdy," Rhys said as he pulled his short sword from its scabbard with a hissss. "Don't bite anything that can bite back." The chirper again flapped towards Rhys, but this time the prince was ready, and the chirper just wasn't fast enough to avoid being cut in half by the swing of Rhys's sword.
At this time, Rhys glanced over and found the second chirper was living up to its name by singing a song that was either in grief for its companion, death for Rhys, or both. Rhys didn't much care about the chirper at the moment, however; his concern was finding the eindon, which he had somehow lost track of.
A deep grunting noise from behind made him spin on his heels. Rhys turned in time to see the eindon draw in a great breath. A moment later, a pellet of poison would come shooting forth from its snout.
Rhys stood his ground for a fraction of a second, then dodged out of the way just as the eindon snorted. The poison passed harmlessly beside him and landed somewhere in the grass. The dodge, however, brought Rhys closer to the eindon, and he reached out with his boot and kicked the small beast backwards. With a cry of pain, the eindon rolled down the hill leading towards the water before splashing in with a yelp of alarm.
That left just the second chirper. Turning around to relocate it, Rhys found it flying straight towards him. He ducked, though its claws scratched painfully across his scalp. As the bird spun in the air to take a second pass, Rhys jumped back to his feet, pulled back his blade, and then, just as the bird was flying overhead, thrust it upwards. The chirper made one final sqwauk as Rhys's weapon pierced its body, then it fell to the ground dead.
Rhys removed a small tube of ointment from his belt and rubbed it on the scratches in his scalp and the bite mark on his tummy, a grin of satisfaction on his face all the while. Laya's beasts had thought to make him lunch, but instead, it would be the other way around.
About an hour later, Prince Rhys entered Ilan. Part of the reason he'd taken the time to cook the chirpers he'd killed was so that he could save money on food once he arrived in Ilan, but the thought of not buying anything to eat quickly disappeared as he walked by Ilan's bakery.
The incredibly pleasing aroma of fresh-baked poyola pie attacked his nose and instantly started his tummy grumbling, despite the fact that he had just filled it with chirper meat. With a look of indecision on his face, Rhys jangled his bag of meseta. How much can one slice cost? he told himself, and with that, he entered the bakery.
"Greetings, traveler!" the baker behind the counter called to him as he entered the store and closed the door behind him. Currently, he was the only customer.
"Hello," Rhys nodded with a smile.
"Welcome to Ilan. My name is Amar." As he spoke, Amar turned to pull another freshly baked poyola pie from his oven. "What can I do for you today?"
"You can name your price for a slice of that poyola pie," Rhys motioned with his head. "It smells absolutely delicious."
"Thank you, thank you," Amar chuckled. "I'll have one slice coming right up. So tell me, what brings you to Ilan?"
"I'm on an investigation of sorts," Rhys replied. "I'm looking for my bride-to-be. She was kidnapped from our wedding ceremony yesterday."
Amar looked to Rhys with alarm. "Why, you must be Prince Rhys of Landen!" Off Rhys's nod, he continued. "Prince, accept my sympathies. Everyone here in Ilan was devastated to hear of your misfortune."
"Thank you." The words were not just in gratitude of the baker's sympathies, but for the steaming slice of poyola pie Amar slid across the counter towards him. "How much?"
Amar waved off any meseta. "It's on the house. You need to have a full stomach if you're going to tromp across the land in search of Layans."
"Tell me about it," Rhys said after swallowing his first bite of pie. "No one has even seen a Layan for 1,000 years." The prince put his next piece of pie into his mouth and started to chew, and so he did not notice the distant look that came across Amar's face.
"Stay away! Stay away! Layan witch, stay away!"
"Not 1,000 years..." Amar replied softly. Rhys raised his head to face Amar, not completely understanding the baker's quiet words, and when he did, he instantly became alarmed. Amar was staring in the direction of the front window of his bakery, but what he was seeing was miles away.
Finally, he turned his eyes back to Rhys. "Two days ago, Prince Rhys."
"Two..." Rhys didn't completely understand what Amar was trying to say. "Two days ago, what?"
"Two days ago, I saw one of Laya's people at a lake by the northeastern forest."
Carefully, Rhys placed his plate back down on the counter, because if he didn't, he was liable to drop it with a smash to the floor. If Amar here saw a Layan two days ago... it might have been the same Layan who kidnapped Maia, on his way to perform the dastardly deed -- or, to plan his escape route after he'd pulled the kidnapping off.
"Was--" Rhys started, but he choked, and had to start over. "Was it a dragon? Green and brown, with flapping wing--" He stopped as Amar started frantically shaking his head.
"No, no, no, nothing like that," Amar clarified. "It was a woman. A red-haired woman with bright... blue eyes."
Rhys was somewhat taken aback by this announcement. "But," he started, "how do you know it was a Layan?"
"Because I watched her very closely," Amar explained. "I watched those eyes. They were wide open, and I was standing closer to her than you are to me right now, and I called out to her, but she never responded. She stood just like a statue, and more than that, she never even blinked! By Orakio, Prince Rhys, I tell you, the woman never blinked!"
Rhys nodded, mentally digesting what Amar was saying to him. "Do you think she might still be by the lake where you saw her?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. She was a living statue, Prince! I wouldn't be surprised if she's there ten years from now!"
"Amar," Rhys began, leaning across the counter, "will you lead me up to wher--"
"Oh no, no," the baker again interrupted. "I'm not going anywhere near there again, Prince Rhys. I don't want to ever so much as see that Layan witch again."
"Then I'll go by myself," Rhys said defiantly. "This unblinking woman may or may not be the wretched creature who took Maia, but she's still the first Layan anyone has seen in 1,000 years. It's the best lead I have so far."
"Be careful, Prince," Amar warned. "They say Layans have strange powers. I don't know about this one, but then again, I didn't stick around long enough to find out."
Rhys was striding across the bakery on his way to the door, the rest of his poyola pie forgotten on Amar's counter. "I will use caution," Rhys nodded, "but I'll make sure this Layan either returns Maia to me, or leads me to her captor. On that, I promise."
I am Dark Force, master of Death!
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