"Considering they've been abandoned for 1,000 years," Mieu said as she looked around her at the ruins of Orakio's old fortresses, "I'd say they've held up remarkably well."
Next to her, Rhys nodded in agreement. No longer shivering thanks to snow gear he borrowed from a Ryselian, Rhys replied, "I think we can thank the people of Rysel for that. Didn't they say one of the songs they performed for us last night was part of an annual ritual here at the fortresses?"
"Yes," Mieu nodded. After Rhys had woken, bathed, and eaten for the morning, she had led him south, across a bridge over a thin portion of Aquatica's great ocean, and then east towards one of Orakio's army's old campsites. The trip brought lots of memories back to the android; Siren, Wren, Miun, and herself frequently patrolled the area at night while Orakio and the other Palman soldiers rested. And speaking of their resting... "This way, Rhys," she called, heading off towards one of the more outlying structures of the camp.
"What are we heading towards?"
She motioned towards it with her hand. "This was once one of the barracks buildings. There's a large storeroom in the back, and if you know where to look -- like I do -- there's also a secret entrance into the Aquatica-Aridia transport tunnel.
"Orakio built a base right on top of it?" Rhys asked as they entered the abandoned and half-destroyed structure.
"Yes," Mieu answered. "After Laya's forces took the teleport stations, our only way of traversing the different worlds was with the transport tunnels, so their defense became one of our utmost priorities."
Rhys and Mieu walked down the long main corridor of the old barracks building. On either side of the corridor were several doorways (the doors themselves having been gone for centuries) which led into rooms just as long and narrow as the corridor they were in now. These must have been where Orakio's soldiers slept, Rhys guessed. There were several of the rooms, and considering each looked capable of holding many rows of bunks, the base's troop capacity must have been enormous.
"Ah, here we are," Mieu called over her shoulder to Rhys as she stepped into a wide, tall room. "Just where it's supposed to be."
"What did you store in here?" Rhys asked. He realized that the enormity of the room probably would have caused his voice to echo off the walls, if not for the fact that all that remained of the room's ceiling was various chunks of debris scattered about the floor.
"Oh, different things," Mieu answered. She seemed to be preoccupied with the circuitry inside a panel she had opened on her left arm's gauntlet. "Food stuffs, weapons, spare robot parts..." Pursing her lips, Mieu continued to press buttons on her gauntlet. Finally, she snapped the panel closed and smiled at Rhys. "That should do it!"
Suddenly, a grinding noise filled the room, and Prince Rhys saw that a section of the floor in the corner of the old storeroom was slowly moving aside, revealing a stairway exactly like the kind he had encountered in the Landen-Aquatica tunnel the day before. "I take it no Layans ever found that," Rhys grinned at Mieu as they descended the stairs.
"Not a chance," she beamed back proudly. "You need a special thoron-band emitter to activate the secret door, and only Orakio, us androids, and a handful of Orakio's generals had one."
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Rhys recognized the various machinery around him. It looked exactly like the kind found in the other transport tunnel he'd seen. Also like the other tunnel, it was a comfortable temperature inside, and he found himself unbuttoning his snow gear. "I think I'm a little too warm now," he told Mieu. Oddly enough, this drew a chuckle from his android companion.
"I think you can go ahead and leave the snow gear here, Prince," Mieu laughed.
"Why?" he asked as he acted on her suggestion. "What's so funny?"
"You'll see," she teased. "Come on."
After Rhys removed his thick coat and warm gloves, he followed Mieu as she led the way through the transport tunnel. Again, like the Landen-Aquatica tunnel, the path through was not a simple straight line, but instead, the tunnel was a maze-like structure, with various paths and catwalks ending at computer terminals of some sort, while others ended at large access panels. Eventually, Rhys spotted another stairway in the distance. Mieu led him to it and he followed her up into another cave foyer like the one in Landen.
As soon as Mieu made the wall of rocks blocking the cave disappear (something she called, "Deactivating the hologram controls"), Rhys instantly felt a blast of hot air hit his face. "Oh no," he said, stepping out of the foyer and then the cave itself onto hard, dry, sand-like land, "the weather systems must be broken here, too."
"No," Mieu shook her head, a smile on her face as she looked across the landscape, "this is exactly how Aridia is supposed to be."
"But it's a desert!" Rhys protested. "And," he added, tugging uncomfortably at his collar, "is it always this hot?"
"Let's go," Mieu answered him. "South-south-west of here is a town called Hazatak. We need to stop there before we go east to the Weather Control Tower."
"What is Hazatak like?" Rhys asked as he and Mieu started walking side-by-side.
"Oh, it's quite unlike any other town you've seen, Rhys, believe me," Mieu answered.
"You seem to be saying that a lot, about all sorts of things," Rhys groaned. "Am I ever going to learn everything there is to know about my--"
"Rhys!" Mieu called out, interrupting him and throwing an arm across his chest to hold him back. "Look out!"
The prince didn't see anything except the wind blowing some sand a meter or two in front of where they stood. A moment later, however, Rhys realized that he didn't feel a wind on his face, and that's when the monsters erupted from the sand in front of them.
There were two of them, and they were giant. Their bodies appeared to be shaped exactly like he and Mieu's -- two arms, two legs, torso, and head -- except they were enormous. Crouched down like they were now, they stood at least three meters tall. Upright, Rhys wouldn't be surprised to see them reach four or five.
"Giants!" Mieu called out.
Rhys nodded in agreement. "You're telling me."
"No, that's what they're called," Mieu clarified. "Quick, draw your sword. Watch me."
The Giants, still crouched down, were slowly approaching Rhys and Mieu, each of them breaking off to focus on one target. Mieu bent her knees slightly in a ready position, though she did not extend her claws. A moment later, as outrageous as it seemed to Rhys, she was actually charging the monster.
As she got closer, the Giant extended one of its legs in a quick but powerful snap kick towards the android. Mieu dodged the attack as if she had expected it, leaping to the side and somersaulting across the sand. Then, coming out of the somersault, she planted her feet on the ground, twisted at her waist, and pounced.
The Giant looked around, confused, as then uttered a roar of shock as Mieu grabbed a hold of his shoulder and pulled herself up the rest of the way until she sat on his back, grabbing at his hair as a hand-hold. Only then did she extend the claws on her right arm, reaching around to the giant's front to drive them deep into the soft part of its throat. Its bellowing was instantly cut off with a small gurgle, and she jumped from its back just as it fell forward, face down in the sand, dead.
Maybe they're not so tough after all, Rhys thought to himself. By then, the Giant that was attacking him was upon him. Instead of kicking, this one swung one of its massive fists around in a backhand punch aimed at the side of Rhys's head. He ducked the blow and then charged in towards the Giant's torso, now left wide open. Pressing his foot off of one of the Giant's crouched legs, Rhys jumped up to get more even with the giant's upper torso. Then, in mid-air, he drove his sword into the Giant's chest, hoping that its heart was in the same place as his own.
He was right. The Giant blinked once in surprise before falling backwards into the sand. After that, it moved no more. Mieu stepped up to Rhys's side as he retrieved his sword from the dead Giant's chest. "Good work, Prince," she smiled. "Giants look fearsome, but their size is a major disadvantage if you attack them speedily."
Rhys nodded in acknowledgment, looking over the monsters' corpses. "They must be native to Aridia," he decided at last. "I've certainly never seen anything like them back in Landen."
"You're right, they are," Mieu nodded. "They burrow down into the sand and wait for prey to come along. Then, they attack."
"Will we encounter more of them?"
"Probably," Mieu answered. "But like I said, hit them hard and hit them fast, and you shouldn't have a problem. Come on," she motioned towards the south, "let's get to Hazatak."
"So you see," Mieu explained to the robot who stood in front of her, "it's quite a problem for the residents of Aquatica."
Upon arriving in Hazatak -- a small town half-occupied by regular people and half-occupied by robots and androids of various size, shape, and color -- Mieu sent Rhys off to visit with some of the town's flesh-and-blood residents in the shops. She needed to consult (alone, for fear of the robots revealing information she did not want Rhys to hear) with the robot residents of the town and perhaps learn how to repair Alisa III's weather control systems. Otherwise, they were going to have to return to Aquatica and tell the Ryselians they were unable to help.
"Aquatica?" the robot repeated. He was made of shiny black metal, but aside from that fact, he was android in shape, standing upright on two legs.
"Bio-sphere two," Mieu clarified.
The robot made a sound that was its equivalent of a Palman's, "Hmm..." Then, folding his arms across his chest, he looked Mieu in the eye and said, "Sounds like the weather control needs adjusting."
Mieu sighed, ran a hand through her long red hair. "I know that," she told him. "I know the weather controls need adjusting, I know you do that in the Weather Control Tower, and I know where the Weather Control Tower is. But I'm not a Wren-type, I'm a Mieu-type combat cyborg, and I simply don't have the kind of programming needed to--"
She almost didn't hear it at first, but suddenly, Mieu was interrupted by a small one-meter tall robot which putted along behind her on two large treads. "The one you seek abides in a western cave," it said matter-of-factly, and then continued on its way without stopping.
Momentarily stunned, Mieu fixed the tall robot she had spoken to first with an incredulous look. Then, she turned and ran after the small tread-walker. "Hey!" she called. "Hey, you! Wait!" Finally, she had to run around and stand in the tread-walker's path. Only then did she get the tiny robot's attention. "Hey, wait. What did you say back there?"
"I said, 'The one you seek abides in a western cave,'" it repeated.
"What do you mean, the one I seek?" Mieu asked. "Maia?"
"Maia?" the robot repeated. "What is a 'Maia'?"
"Never mind," Mieu huffed impatiently. "Just tell me, what were you talking about when you said that?"
"I was talking about what you were talking about," the robot answered. It obviously did not understand what all the commotion was about. "I overheard you saying that the weather controls for bio-sphere two require repair. You stated, correctly, that only Wren-type androids are equipped for such a purpose. And so I told you, the one you seek abides in a western cave." He paused, ran his servos for a moment. "I thought I would be of help."
"Wait a minute," Mieu whispered, slowly catching on. "Are you telling me there is a Wren-type android in the cave west of Hazatak, here in Aridia?"
"The only Hazatak on Alisa III is in Arid--"
"Would you just answer me?" Mieu cut the robot off.
"Why, yes," the robot finally answered, moving its head as if blinking in surprise. "A Wren-type android abides in a cave to the west of Hazatak. But... is that not what I said in the first place?"
Before he had even finished his sentence, Mieu spun on her heels and began sprinting towards the shops where Rhys waited. Thank you, Master, she thought to herself. I knew you wouldn't let me down. Soon, the weather in Aquatica would be fixed. But even sooner than that... she would be reunited with her old friend Wren.
"Uncle," Prince Lyle of Shusoran greeted as he entered Castle Cille's throne room, flanked by two guards. Across the room, near the fireplace, King Cille turned and strode across the room to meet his nephew.
"It is good to see you again, Lyle," he nodded. "Please, report."
"The Orakians did not damage our weather control systems," he announced as the guards left the room. "The problem must be in the Weather Control Tower."
"Very well," King Cille nodded. "Lyle, you are our only hope. Can you fly to Aridia and repair the weather control systems?"
"Uncle, I can of course go to Aridia, but repairing the weather control systems..." He shook his head. "I fear that is beyond my capabilities."
King Cille nodded his understanding and placed a hand on Lyle's shoulder. "I understand," he said softly, "but remember, nephew, Laya is with you. Always. She knows you are our only hope for survival here. Go to the Weather Control Tower. Laya will handle things from there."
With those words, the king turned and stepped back towards the fire. Lyle watched his back, not sure how to bring up the next, but knowing he must. "There is something else, uncle."
"Hmm?" the king asked without looking back.
"It's Rhys, uncle." At the mention of the prince of Landen's name, Lyle once again had King Cille's attention. Slowly, the king turned around and eyed his nephew, prompting him without a word to continue. "Uncle, forgive me, but I allowed the Sapphire to fall into Rhys's hands."
King Cille's forehead furrowed at the unfamiliar term. "The Sapphire? What is this?"
"It is a gem," Lyle began, letting out a deep breath. "With it, the cave connecting Landen and Aquatica is... somehow... not so impassable, after all."
Slowly, King Cille began stepping towards Lyle. "Are you telling me," he asked slowly, "that Rhys is in Aquatica?"
"Yes," Lyle nodded. "And he has found a cyborg to travel with him."
"Curse him!" King Cille hissed, pounding his fist into his palm before nervously pacing the room. Lyle watched his uncle for several long moments. He knew the fact that Rhys had come this far was his own fault, but he couldn't do anything to change that now. All he could do was make sure things did not get worse.
"I could keep an eye on him," Lyle offered as he watched his uncle's back. "Follow him around, make sure he does not get anywhere near Shusoran, let alone Cille Island."
"You'll do more than that, Lyle," King Cille whispered softly. Then, he turned around to face his nephew, and Lyle saw he was serious -- deadly serious. "You will kill him, the first chance you get."
"You know how I feel about Rhys, Lyle. I love him. And if you truly consider yourself my friend..."
"Uncle..." Lyle began. Then, stumbling over his words, he paused and started over. "Uncle, that... that will be impossible. The cyborg that is with him--"
"Is not with him all the time, is it?" King Cille demanded angrily. "I don't care if you have to wait until he uses the restroom, Lyle. Just kill Prince Rhys!"
"No!" someone suddenly screamed from the throne room's side door. It was Maia. She came rushing in to stand between Lyle and King Cille. "No, Lyle, you'll do no such thing!" she yelled in his face. "And you," she added, spinning on her father. "Father, I can't believe you'd even suggest such a thing! You know Laya's Law forbids killing anything that lives!"
"I also know," King Cille grumbled angrily, "that Laya would not wish you to marry an Orakian!"
"And how do you know?" Maia roared back, screaming inches from her father's face. "Why wouldn't Laya want me happy? Answer me that, father!"
"Guards!" King Cille yelled in the direction of the main doors. A moment later, they opened and two guards rushed inside. "Take my daughter back to her quarters, and do your job and make sure she stays there this time!"
"You will not even listen to me anymore?" Maia cried out as the guards took her by the arms. "What is the matter with you, father?"
"Uncle," Lyle called out, raising his voice above Maia's, as he placed his hands on the guard's shoulders. "Allow me, please, to escort my cousin back to her room."
"I am not going back to my room, Lyle!" Maia protested.
"Maia, please," Lyle said, stepping in front of her to look her in the eyes. He and Maia had always been close, considering the facts that he had no sisters and she had no brothers, their closeness in age, and the short distance between their kingdoms. In fact, in many ways, he and Maia were less cousins and more like siblings.
Seeing the look on Lyle's face, Maia ceased her struggle against the guards and walked with Lyle across the throne room and out the side door, pausing once to shoot her father a look of pure ice before stepping into the corridor of her castle.
"This is ridiculous, Lyle," she said softly as they walked together back towards her room.
"Look at it from his perspective, Maia," Lyle offered gently. "He has no sons, and since you are his eldest daughter, when you marry, your husband shall become his heir. If you have your way, Cille shall be ruled by an Orakian. An Orakian!"
"They're not monsters, Lyle!" Maia shouted, stopping to face him. "While I had no memory, I lived with them for two months. Everyone in Rhys's land made me feel welcome. No one mistreated me in any way. They're people, Lyle, just like us! Why can't you and my father see that?"
Lyle exhaled a deep breath. "Recent events have led me to... reconsider my opinion of Orakians," he conceded. "But would you really want to marry one?"
"I... I don't know," Maia admitted. "But what I do know is that whom I marry is a choice I must make for myself, and instead of letting me make it, you and my father have me confined to my room, like a prisoner in my own home!"
Stepping forward, Lyle collected her in his arms and pulled her to him tightly. "This will all be over soon, Maia, I promise."
"Lyle," she said, raising her head to look him in the eye, "we have always been close. I consider you the brother I never had."
"As I look upon you as a sister."
"Then please, Lyle," she pleaded, stepping out of their embrace. "Please, for the love of Laya, do not kill Rhys."
Lyle was silent for a long moment, considering all that was going on around him. There was Lena, back in Shusoran, whom he truly did consider a friend. There was his uncle back in the throne room, who wanted Rhys's quest stopped at any cost, even if it meant breaking their most sacred vow, Laya's Law. There was Rhys himself, an Orakian who even now was getting closer and closer to Cille, determined to find Maia or die trying.
But for now, there was just his cousin, standing before him with tears in her eyes, pleading for the life of someone she loved. Whether that someone is Orakian or Layan, Lyle decided, it really doesn't matter.
"All right," he nodded. "You can count on me."
Maia closed her eyes tightly, holding back more tears, and again hugged her cousin. "Thank you, Lyle. Thank you so much."
"Though please, for now at least, return to your room, all right?" he said gently. "Like I said before, this will all be over soon."
Maia nodded and then turned away towards the stairway that would take her upstairs to her room. After watching her go, Lyle made his way towards Castle Cille's main exit. On his way there, however, he passed by two soldiers at their post, who saluted him as he went by. "Prince Lyle," they greeted.
"Have a messenger sent to Shusoran," he ordered them. "I'd like a message delivered to Princess Lena. Don't worry," he added off their confused looks. Who was Princess Lena? "My castle's staff will know. Just have this message delivered to her from Lyle. Tell her, the answer is no.
"Tell her Lyle gives her his word that the answer is no."
"Why don't you use that... thing?" Rhys asked while swinging his new steel sword in front of him as he and Mieu stepped carefully through the cave. As before, Mieu lit the way with her built-in light beacon.
Rhys referred to the huge device Mieu wore strapped to her back. "It's called a ceramic shot," he told the prince, "a kind of laser cannon, and I'm not using it because the weapon interfaces with a Wren-type android's optical network to act as a highly advanced targeting system."
The prince swung his new sword in front of him, chopping a stalagmite in two. "Do you really believe those robots back there in the town?" he asked as they stopped a point where two corridors teed off of one another.
"I believe that they believe Wren is here," Mieu answered. "Whether or not he actually is... That I can only hope about." She turned to Rhys. "Which way should we go?"
"Let's try left," Rhys said after a moment's consideration. Then, they continued through the cave.
"Orakio promised me that when I would be needed in 1,000 years, Wren would be here to help me," Mieu told Rhys excitedly. "For a while, since you reactivated me, Rhys, I had doubted that. I'd seen no sign of Wren anywhere. Now... it would appear what Orakio said was true."
Rhys nodded knowingly. "Orakio keeps his promises," he stated without a doubt. "Even if he's not in this cave, we'll find--"
The prince was interrupted by the sound of servos from behind. Then, the path before them, already lit by Mieu's beacon, became even brighter. "Halt," a voice called from behind them. It was gentle and male, but had unmistakable authority in it, as well. Rhys stopped moving. He did not turn around, but he did grip the hilt of his sword a little tighter. "Identify yourselves."
Because Rhys was trying to get a look at the newcomer out of his peripheral vision, he did not at first see Mieu turn around fully, and then smile. "I'd know that voice anywhere," she cried in excitement. "Wren, it's you!"
Upon hearing this, Rhys spun around. "Mieu?" Wren asked hesitantly. "Is that really you?"
The question was answered when Mieu stepped forward and pulled the man into a tight embrace. She smiled as she did so, but Rhys noticed that the man -- Wren -- twisted his face in a bit of confusion before returning the gesture.
"Wren, it's so good to see you!" Mieu exclaimed, breaking the embrace and stepping back to hold Wren at arm's length. He was much taller than Mieu -- in fact, he was taller than Rhys -- and had a thick mop of black hair atop his head. Brown eyes (not nearly as big as Mieu's blue ones) looked out from a face lined with some sort of metal implants, including one which extended from above his left ear, over the ear itself, and ended in an extension which jutted towards his mouth. Finally, his massively built body was clad in thick black body armor. All together, he made for quite a menacing figure... if not for his innocent-looking face and friendly smile. "It's been so long."
"Indeed," Wren nodded. "One thousand years plus a handful of days." Looking past Mieu, Wren fixed his eyes on Rhys. At the same time, Wren's own shoulder-mounted light beacon moved to shine on the prince. "Who is your companion, Mieu?"
"My name is Prince Rhys of Landen," Rhys answered for her, stepping forward and offering a hand of greeting to the android. Wren gripped it tightly -- A little too tightly... Rhys thought with a mental grimace of pain. "Layans kidnapped my bride, Maia, and on my quest to find her, I discovered Mieu. She has agreed to help me on my quest."
"I'm a Wren-type cyborg," he told Rhys, "and since I'm programmed to serve you, I'd be pleased to help you, as well."
"Thank you, Wren," Rhys smiled. "I would appreciate that very much. Mieu believes Maia is being held in one of the Layan lands in Aquatica, but apparently, the weather control systems there have failed -- it is cold season and the ocean there is frozen. We must repair the systems before we can cross the sea to the Layan lands, and Mieu tells me you are programmed to do that."
"Of course," Wren nodded. "I'm a technical systems and combat specialist. I can fix the weather controls easily. However, did you consult the pilots in Aerone to ask--"
Wren, the android heard in his head. It had been so long since his communications systems had been used, he almost didn't realize what was going on. Then, he looked to Mieu, saw her watching him intently, and answered her call with one of his own.
Mieu? he replied.
Wren, the sealing of the worlds has cut the people off from one another.
Was that not the intention? he inquired.
Yes, but... Wren, Rhys was unaware that the other bio-spheres existed. Everyone in Landen is. Obviously, we're here now, so you can see that I have told him about the other worlds, but he does not know we're on a spacecraft, and for now, I think it would be best to keep it that way.
I see, Wren nodded. I thank you for stopping me then. Apparently, Alisa III is much different than I remember.
Wren turned back to face Rhys. The entire exchange, being between two androids, had taken only a few seconds. Quickly, Wren recovered from what he had been saying before being interrupted by Mieu. "Err, never mind. That would not help. I suggest we head for the Weather Control Tower immediately. How long has Aquatica been frozen?"
"A month or two," Rhys answered, "but it came so unexpectedly, that the people there are starving."
"They will be able to fish again soon," Wren nodded. Then, he turned to Mieu, and motioned towards the ceramic shot strapped to her back. "Is that for me?"
"Of course," she smiled, unstrapping the weapon and handing it to Wren. As he took it into his hands, Rhys noticed small metal probes extend from his fingertips and plug into the hand hold on the cannon. That must be the interface Mieu spoke of, Rhys guessed correctly.
Very quickly, Wren raised the weapon, aimed it at a stalactite across the cave, fired, and then repeated the maneuver two more times. Each shot was dead-on, instantly blowing the stalactites to dust. Wren looked over his work, nodded, and then looked to Rhys and Mieu.
"All of my systems are fuctioning within acceptable parameters," he said. "I am ready. Let us go."
And then there were three.
As you may know, Black Paper isn't a normal group of traders. It is another facet of the 10-nation-alliance.
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