It was almost sundown, and the sky was filled with an orange glow by the time Rhys reached the lake Amar had visited two days before. As he crept along the edge of the forest near the lake, he kept his eyes squarely focused on the figure he saw standing just off the shore; it had to be the Layan that Ilan's baker had seen. The red color of her hair was almost a perfect match for that of her bodysuit and boots, but most noticeable to Rhys, as to Amar, was the fact that the woman simply did not move.
In fact, she was so motionless that Rhys thought it would probably be possible to walk right up to her, draw his blade, and put it to her throat without even causing her to blink. The prince opted for caution, however, and he crept through the forest, watching her from behind.
After several minutes of careful reconnaissance, Rhys quietly pulled his short sword from its scabbard and slowly began tiptoeing towards the Layan. The sound of his excited heartbeat sounded in his ears loudly,
I'll have Maia soon. You're going to tell me exactly where she is.
and he feared that its thunder would alert the creature to his presence. However, even this was not enough to stir her. Finally, he was just a few steps behind her. Then three... two...
Rhys leaped forward and threw his left arm around the Layan, grabbing her in a tight hold. With his other hand, he brought his short sword around to her front, and placed the blade an inch away from the tender flesh of her throat. Even still, she did not seem to budge.
"All right, you vile Layan, the game's up," he hissed, his mouth right up to her ear. "Return Maia to me, now!"
Rhys grinned in satisfaction. Within hours, he would be back in Landen, and Maia would be his bride. This had been all too easy.
Before Rhys even prepared himself to listen for an answer -- in fact, a mere nanosecond after he had uttered the last syllable of his sentence -- the Layan suddenly moved. The move was so unexpected, not to mention so fast, that not only did Rhys not have time to respond, he didn't even have time to formulate a response. Before he knew it, the red-headed Layan reached out (faster than any human could) with her right hand and grabbed a hold of the fist Rhys had wrapped tightly around the hilt of his short sword. Pain shot up and down Rhys's forearm, but the Layan did not even give him time to yell before she pulled his arm, and the short sword it held, away from her, causing the blade to twirl through the air and land near the shore of the lake.
Rhys turned his head to look for his sword, and at the same time, the Layan grabbed him by the back of his neck and pulled him up off the ground, tossing him over her head and flipping him down onto the grass at her feet. Stunned, with a bit of wind knocked out of him, the Prince of Landen looked up at the woman (who, obviously, no longer resembled a statue in the slightest bit) and saw she held her right hand pointed at his neck. What's she going to do to me? Rhys wondered in genuine fear. Shoot fire from her hands?
It turned out, his fears weren't all that far from the truth. Upon closer inspection of the woman's forearm, Rhys gasped: three tiny blades were poking out of a metal object wrapped around her forearm. The shocking thing about this, however, was the fact that the metal of the wristband looked to be very thin -- too thin for the blades to be housed inside. That means... Rhys realized. That means... they must protrude directly from her skin! He almost gasped again.
"Tell me who you are," the woman demanded. Rhys met her eyes and saw she was not kidding around in any way. Then, a slight movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention back to the blades which protruded from her forearm.
The "tiny blades" were growing longer.
Soon, cutting devices which couldn't be called anything except claws had extended themselves from her forearm, and the sharp surfaces on the ends were but a fraction of an inch away from Rhys's throat. "Now," the woman added with a grin, taking great satisfaction in using Rhys's own demand against him.
"I...," Rhys stuttered, "I'm Prince Rhys of Landen. I'm searc--"
Suddenly, the woman retracted her claws back into her arms and picked the prince up off the ground with a questioning look on her face. "Landen!" she cried. "Why didn't you say so before?"
Rhys, thoroughly confused, brushed the dirt from his clothes and watched as the Layan woman stepped across the grass to where his sword had rested. "I..." he spat out again, not knowing what to say. Finally, he adjusted his posture, took a breath, and took on a defiant tone. "Yes," he announced, "I am Prince Rhys of Landen, and you are a Layan witch. I want to know what you did with my bride-to-be, Maia, and I want to know this instant!"
He wasn't sure what kind of a reaction to expect from her, but the one he got was not on his short list. The woman picked his sword up off the ground, started walking back towards him... and laughed out loud. "No, you're mistaken. I'm not one of Laya's people, Prince," she said as she returned his sword.
"You... you're not?" Rhys asked, filled with suspicion.
"No, not at all." Another chuckle.
"Well then... Amar, a baker from Ilan, he saw you here and... you never blinked! All Orakians blink, and you do not, so therefore, you must be a Layan!"
"I can blink," the woman confessed, and to prove it, she leaned her face in close to Rhys's and fluttered her eyelashes. "But you are right. I'm not an Orakian. I am a combat cyborg, designation Mieu type."
"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."
"A cyborg?" Rhys repeated.
"That's right," Mieu nodded. "To be technical, I'm an android, but back 1,000 years ago, when our army fought Laya's, we used the term 'cyborg' to fool them into thinking we were made, in part, with human flesh, so that, because of Laya's Law, they would not attempt to kill us."
Rhys nodded his head, taking in the information. Not only was she a cyborg -- she was a cyborg who fought with Orakio himself!
"And if you are who you say you are, Prince, then you should know that I have been waiting for 1,000 years for you."
"Excuse me?" Rhys blinked. The twists and turns were just coming too fast. Not only was Mieu not a Layan, she was a cyborg: just what he needed to get old man Blake from Yaata to take him to the island. More than that, however... she fought with the great Orakio 1,000 years before... and she's been waiting for him ever since? "You... you have?"
"I didn't know your name would be Rhys, and, of course, I didn't even know what you'd look like," Mieu explained. "But only a descendant of Orakio can command me, and if you are indeed Prince of Landen, then you fit the description perfectly."
Rhys smiled. Life had taken a very, very nice turn. Now, he not only had his ticket out to the island, but he had help in his quest to find Maia; help in the form of his own personal combat cyborg (er, android), designation Mieu type.
"I am the prince," Rhys told her. "And I very much need your help, Mieu."
The android performed a slight bow at her waist. "I am here to serve," she said with a smile. "How can I be of assistance?"
"First of all, let's head to the town of Yaata," Rhys started. "On the way there, I'll tell you about everything that has happened."
And then there were two.
"Lyle!" cried Meri, the keeper of Satera's inn, as the dashing young green-haired man stepped through the door of her establishment.
"Hello, Meri," Lyle said from one of his lopsided grins. "I trust you have been well since our last encounter."
Why is he being so casual? Meri wondered to herself. The man vanishes in the middle of the night, I'm worried sick for days, and here he is, as if nothing ever happened!
"Mostly," Meri answered finally. "But I've been worried sick as to you! What happened?"
Lyle blinked at her, feigning complete confusion, when in fact, the conversation was (so far) going exactly as he'd hoped it would. "What happ..." He drifted off as he crossed the floor to meet Meri at the inn's counter. "Oh my!" he gasped upon reaching it. "Oh, don't tell me I forgot to leave a note!"
"A... a note?"
Lyle buried his face in his hands, as much to act the role as it was to prevent himself from laughing out loud. "Everyone is always saying, 'Lyle, you're just so absent-minded. You'd forget your legs if they weren't attached to you.'" After raising his head (his expression now completely innocent) to again meet Meri's eyes, he smiled. "Forgive me, Meri. I awoke before sunrise and left, so that I could get that early start to the wedding, as you suggested. I suppose I forgot to leave you a note."
"But what about the key?"
"The key?" Lyle blinked back.
"Yes, your room key." Meri pointed towards the stairs leading up to the guest rooms. "Your room was locked, but your key was inside, on the table."
In response, Lyle only shrugged. "What can I say? It's my absent-mindedness again. I guess I locked the door behind me and left the key inside."
"Oh." Meri seemed to toss the explanations over in her mind. What have I been so worried about? she finally asked herself. In response, all she could do was laugh. "I'm sorry, Lyle. For the past few days I've been entertaining the silly notion that you climbed out the window in the middle of the night."
Lyle joined her laughter, all the time thinking, Half right there, Meri! I didn't climb out; I turned into a dragon and flew out!
"Well, with that out of the way," Meri said, her cheeks starting to blush, "what brings you back to my establishment, Lyle?"
"That wonderful tea you served me the night I stayed," Lyle answered. "I was just passing by and decided I could use some of it... as well as some conversation with you, of course."
Thattaboy, Lyle, the dragon knight of Shusoran told himself. Make her think you fancy her and in a moment, she'll be singing like a morning bird.
"I just put a pot on," Meri smiled before retreating to the room behind her counter. "One cup of tea, coming right up."
"Say," she called to him from the back room. "Did you make it to the wedding?"
"I did," Lyle answered truthfully, and he had to turn his back and feign casually looking around the room to prevent Meri from seeing his grin as she re-entered the room. "Terrible, just terrible. That poor Maia."
Lyle sipped the tea he was handed as Meri nodded in agreement. "We were all shocked to hear about it. Prince Rhys immediately wanted to take Landen's army in search of Laya's clan, but his father wouldn't stand for it. He locked the prince in Landen's dungeon."
Oh, poor thing, Lyle thought sarcastically. "Is that right?" he said aloud.
"Yes. The good news is, our very own Princess Lena freed him from the dungeon, and he has already set off in search of his bride."
Lyle nearly choked on his tea. "Now that's what I call interesting." Here's your opening, Lyle. Take it. "So, what did he do first? Trash Aquatica's weather systems? Or was that taken care of by others, back in Landen?"
Meri blinked at Lyle as if he were speaking another language. "Excuse me?"
"Did Prince Rhys destroy the Layans' weather systems," Lyle said slowly, placing his teacup down on the counter, "or was that taken care of by accomplices back in Landen?"
The innkeeper stared at him for a long moment. During the uncomfortable silence, for no particular reason, Lyle suddenly noticed that Meri's eyes were the same green as his hair. Then, as Meri still stared at him blankly, his mind started to fill with panic. She suspects! he told himself. She knows I'm a Layan!
Finally, the tension was broken... as Meri started to laugh. "Oh, you're so silly, Lyle!" she chuckled. "I'm sure Prince Rhys would love to flood the Layans' cities, but only Orakio controls the weather!"
Within an instant, Lyle was joining Meri in laughter, but they were not, by any means, laughing at the same joke. They don't even know! Lyle realized. Oh, how he couldn't wait to return to Cille and share this one with his uncle. The ignoramuses don't even know the truth of this world! They think Orakio rules over weather!
Retrieving his teacup from the counter, Lyle took another sip. His mission was accomplished; he had determined that the Orakians had not trashed Aquatica's weather control systems. Therefore, all that was left to do was to let Meri tickle his funny bone with a few more stories. "So, what did Rhys do first?" he asked, still chuckling occasionally.
"We hear he went east, towards the villages of Yaata and Ilan," Meri answered. "Though I wish he would come this way. Lyle, on the morning of Maia's abduction, I saw the beast that took her!"
Of course you did, Meri. He slept in your inn the night before. "Oh my!"
Meri nodded and continued. "The beast came from the west, however. Lyle, listen to me -- you were at the wedding, so you know what Prince Rhys looks like. And I remember you saying that you're a traveler, so... If you see Prince Rhys, tell him to come here, to Satera. If the beast came from the west, it probably took Maia back that way, as well."
"I'd be happy to pass along the message, Meri." Especially since Maia is east, you twit. "Rhys won't get very far heading east, anyway. That far cave is blocked, and no one can enter."
"Well," Meri shrugged, "that's another reason for him to head to Satera. Our castle holds the Sapphire, a brilliant gem which, legend has it, is they key to opening that eastern cave. Maybe the creature took Maia inside it, thinking that he could lock her away in there forever."
The laughter in Lyle's head stopped. He had brought Maia back to Cille immediately because there was no way for the Orakians to reach Aquatica -- (Unless they could somehow fool the sensors in Laya's Palace into thinking their genetic codes were Layan, of course) -- but now, that was changing. If Rhys got the Sapphire, he would indeed be able to reach Aquatica.
And that was totally and completely unacceptable.
Slowly, Lyle nodded, then gulped the rest of his tea. It burned in his throat as it went down, but the pain, in a way, felt good -- it felt like a reminder to Lyle. Wake up, he told himself. Rhys isn't out of the game yet. But he will be, if you can keep yourself two steps ahead of him at all times.
"I'm afraid I must be leaving, Meri. How much for the tea?"
Meri shook her head, declining payment. "It's on the house, in gratitude for solving the mystery of what happened to you."
Lyle put on all his charm and smiled. He gave Meri, the keeper of Satera's inn, a slight bow before walking to the door of her inn, throwing it open, and exiting into the town. All he had to do now was find a place to hide; a place to lay low and wait for sundown. Once it was dark, he was going to break into Satera's castle.
Lyle, dragon knight of Shusoran, had a gem to steal.
An evil force from times beyond legend is using us to satisfy its desire for pain and suffering.
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