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Protector
by Rune Lai


He had been given the dragon blood to protect, to fight. All his teachers had told him so for as long as he could remember. Few possessed the Blood, fewer still could master the Ability. He was one of the few, one of the mere handful existing within the neighboring Layan kingdoms of Cille and Shusoran. But he was used to being one of few. Lyle Ra Mira was royalty, the crown prince of Shusoran.

Dragon Knight they called him, called all those of the Blood. This Blood was rarer than kings, fortunately found only in Layan lands. The thought of Orakians controlling the power of the dragons made Lyle's blood writhe in cold discomfort. Any thought of Laya's hatred foes could rile him, much more so now that Maia was missing.

"She was too curious for her own good," lamented the king of Cille, her father.

Maia had seen activity in the ocean, the appearance of machines out above the water, and went to get a better look. Machines meant only one thing. Orakian activity. All eyes turned towards the kingdom of Agoe, the only stronghold for Orakio lovers in the entire sphere of Aquata. Shusoran and Cille had warred with Agoe for almost a thousand years, ever since the fateful climax of the Layan-Orakian War that ended in both Laya and Orakio disappearing, never to be seen again. However they no longer fought like beasts, pitting human life against human life. Now the Orakians used machines and the Layans monsters to fight their battles. But still, the Dragon Knights remained, and this Dragon Knight did not care if the enemies he faced were of metal rather than flesh and bone.

Maia vanished in the storm that wracked the coast the moment she stepped outside the city's protective walls. Visibility reduced to zero, and when the storm began to weaken no one in Cille could find her. The king of Cille came to Lyle, his nephew, to ask him to find her. For Maia, who had been his childhood friend and confident, Lyle was more than willing.

The storm still raged, and Lyle was soaked despite the protection of his cape. He barely noticed though, being beyond such a trivial feeling. He had scoured the entire island consisting of Shusoran and Agoe, crossed the land bridge to Cille's own small island, but found nothing. Maia... Days melded into weeks, and the leaders of both Layan countries felt her loss. Many thought she might have died in the storm. Lyle refused to believe them. He told his family to keep hope and continued to hunt for her, sailing as far away as the distant mainland.

Maia. He wanted to see her smile, hear her laugh. She could not be dead so easily. Why had the storm kicked up so suddenly and without warning? None of the meteorological records spoke of anything like that.

Only one town on the mainland, Rysel, survived the ancient war of centuries past, and its inhabitants had declared themselves neutral in regards to the Layan-Orakian squabbling. Rysel's tradition of neutrality rose not from open disgust of either side, as one might expect, but claimed the need to serve the well being of all people. People of both followings were free to visit Rysel, and the town enforced a strict policy of no fighting within its borders. Small though Rysel was, it formed the core of Aquata's artistic culture, and the few Orakians and Layans that journeyed off their islands appreciated it.

Lyle had only been here twice before, both times for the storytelling festival held each spring, but he had garnered a friend during his last stay. He went to this friend now. His friend was a young man like himself, though most of the resemblance ended there. Benth was a commoner of the merchant class, by no means a worthy companion of a prince, but he knew more than most, and if anyone could tell Lyle how Maia could have vanished, it would be him.

He listened to Lyle's story, then told him of the impossible. He told him of other spheres, other worlds. Benth and his sister had both crossed to the other side of the unscalable mountains. They had told no one outside their family, but Benth maintained that what he did was truth, and invited Lyle to examine the Orakian ruins to the south.

"There is a secret to them if you look in the basements; an escape route in times of war. It took us beyond the cliffs to a world of sand. This is how Maia may have left Aquata." Benth then looked at Lyle shrewdly. "I warn you though, the other world is easy to get lost in. Take plenty of supplies with you, for if you wish to comb the entire desert you will be at it for weeks."

Time. The longer he took the less he cared what others thought. He found he could barely laugh or cry without her. In his city he was famed for his humor and spontaneity. Now he lapsed into the hunter; grim and brooding. He thanked his friend and made haste to the ruins. Another month, another two--it didn't matter so long as he found Maia in the end.

The mainland itself was not large, only called that because it was not surrounded on all sides by water. Part of it lined the unscalable walls of their sphere, Aquata. Many people wondered what was past them. Lyle had too, but now, faced with the dwindling locations in which to find Maia, he would find out.

Lyle entered the ruins, found a passage leading into a maze of clear sheets harder than glass and beams of metal, all suspended within what appeared to be a gigantic cylindrical structure. Strange and aweful though it was, he passed through with resolution. Wild beasts, perhaps creatures left over from Laya and Orakio's war, roamed the twisting paths like ethereal sentries; sometimes there, sometimes not. One dared to attack him, but he smote it so sharply on the head with his staff that one glare at the others drove them away. Dragonfire burned in Lyle's eyes, and from days of old these beasts knew to avoid it.

He passed from darkness into the hot sun and knew that he had found the world of which Benth had spoken. He prowled the sands for many cycles, watching the day turn to night so many times he no longer bothered to count. The Dragon Knight discovered many things about this world that made it different from his own, but there was no Maia. The one town in all the desert had never seen such a woman since the days of the Layan-Orakian War. Lyle thought that strange until he realized that nearly the entire population was composed of cyborgs and robots. For a terrifying moment he thought they might recognize him as a Layan, but they did not and went about their business no differently than they had before he approached them.

Disgruntled and depressed, he returned to Aquata, his world, his sphere, and found a land sprinkled with the first signs of frost. The air pressed thick and damp against his lungs. Something struck him lightly against the head and he looked at the ground stupidly to see a small chunk of ice. Another hit him and bounced to the ground. What was going on? Had the storm become so bad since he had left? He had never seen ice fall from the skies before, and the thought disturbed him. More importantly, he did not want to be caught underneath one if the chunks became any larger.

Lyle hurried to Rysel for shelter, holding an arm in front of his head like a visor as he ran. Other worlds, other spheres. Other spheres. More than one? Benth only described one other world, but were there more? He winced as a ball of ice rapped the top of his head, but he had to find out now.

He leaped in the air, feeling the Blood course through his body as the touch of the wind enveloped him. Great bronze wings emerged from his human back and the Dragon Knight, Lyle Ra Mira, soared through the storm towards the western mountains. He beat his wings, rising higher towards the clouds and ignoring the pain of the small pellets of ice. The rocky cliffs loomed before him, stark and formidable. He had passed below them. Could he above?

Lyle sailed out from under the clouds, which held back towards the center of the world by some odd force. Starlight shone above the rim of the mountains and he climbed. He alighted on the edge and gaped at what he saw before him.

Worlds. Spheres. He could not see much, but there was another land just west of here, and another to the southwest, the desert land of Aridia. Lyle walked forward until his head hit a walled surface he could not see. He pressed his hands against it--it was like a window--and looked out at the stars in space. Something was wrong here. He had been taught that above the sky was the empty space dotted with stars. There was nothing about this glass, this...

Lyle looked down and discovered a long metal tube passed from this world to the next, which was as green and fruitful as Aquata was before the storm. He felt his knees grow weak as he thought back to the strange mess of clear sheets harder than glass and the metal maze within a monstrous cylinder. That... He passed through that on his journey. They connected the worlds.

He scanned the countryside along where the tube adjoined the metal surface lining the outside of Aquata, fervently wishing to miss nothing as he strove to lessen the thoughts in his mind. Surely the tubes had been an Orakian invention. They smacked of technology. But if the Orakians wielded the power to bind worlds together, how then had Laya fought them to a standstill? Such power did not exist now. The simpering Orakians in Agoe did not possess it. They had to watch as generations ago his ancestors fought for land off of Cille's coast and founded the kingdom of Shusoran.

All Lyle could find was a cave, but it was an intriguing one. There was a metal panel embedded in the rock beside it, but it had been broken, hanging limping from its mooring by a single loose screw. The circuitry inside was mashed, probably by a monster. Interestingly enough to Lyle, he sensed the residue of magic in its making. Stranger and stranger his world became, and yet no Maia.

He entered the cave, dismissing his wings from his body with a thought. Thin tendrils of broken magic waved about him like ribbons in the wind. They came from the sealing magic? A flight of stairs awaited him and he descended into another maze in another cylinder. This time when he emerged, however, the world was warm without being uncomfortably hot, and the grass was green and healthy. What wild beasts he saw were small and harmless; mostly. He spotted a pair of male chirpers intently battling it out with their gra techniques, and that would earn him a few bruises.

Another world. How many more weeks would pass before he could find Maia?

Lyle searched, choosing to learn more than anything else, and he was pleased with his discretion. Orakians were everywhere; ignorant idiots who haven't seen a Layan in a thousand years. They had grown soft and he cared little for their personal affairs, until he eventually heard of a wedding, a wedding between an Orakian prince and a beautiful blue-haired woman he discovered on the beach. She had lost her memory, everything save her name, and no one knew who she was, save him.

Maia. Lyle could feel her touch on his shoulder as if she would smile at him the moment he turned to face her. He was supposed to protect her. She knew him better than anyone and he knew her.

Days, spent in planning. Lyle learned the details of the wedding, the time and date. He checked the cave and discovered he could not reenter from this side, but the theft of a certain Sapphire would allow him to do so. He plotted and stalked, mind slinking like some predatory beast.

The day of the wedding he entered the Orakian castle, climbed up on the roof, and padded his way over the audience hall of the king. The ceiling of the hall was made of glass, peaked to form a sort of steeple. Lyle knelt and peered down into the chamber, eying the numerous soldiers, the king and queen, and the many, many guests. It was crowded, and he wouldn't dare such a thing among an equal number of Layans. But these were Orakians. They shunned magic, and they had not seen a Layan in a thousand years.

The wedding bells rang, heralding the arrival of the bride and groom, and he saw her. He looked down into the Orakian castle, livid with rage as he saw Maia, so pale, as fragile as a paper doll in her wedding gown.

"Maia," he croaked, his voice rising with longing.

He could not let her marry this Orakian prince. He could not let her do such a thing without knowing who she truly was. Lyle felt the Blood pulse within him, driving him towards the complete change of mind and body. The ancient warriors who fought against the Dragon Knights feared them for their magic and their prowess in battle. Many believed it was the anger of the knight that triggered the transformation, but it was not. It was the desire to protect. It was love.

He did not fight the power within him, but gave in to the metamorphosis.

Lyle reached out with bronze limbs, formed from his own arms, now tough and thick like leather, and crashed through the glass windows of the ceiling of the Orakian castle. He landed mightily, forcing back soldiers and prince alike with the beat of his scaled wings. His whiplike tail slapped the ground and he roared. Lyle the Dragon wrapped his long talons about his love, eyeing those around him with a protective greed. He snorted once, raising his head as he called out in defiance:

"Filthy Orakians! Maia will not be yours!"

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