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I Am Not A Mirage
by Neilast


The desert was a very different place at night. While during the day, the dunes surrounding Hazatak were touched by fire, at night they were as cool as the salty sea breezes that caressed Cille's coastline. Stars, like sequins, were peppered across the night sky. The moons Dahlia and Azura were there too, still locked in their never-ending tango.

Prince Ayn took a deep breath as he stepped through Hazatak's northern gates. He had a lot on his mind. He was worried about his homeland, reduced to ruin by the mysterious cyborg army. He was worried about his family and the remnants of his people, who were at that time cowering in a miserable cave far to the east. He was worried about stopping the cyborgs, and of finding the legendary Satellite, the one Haven of True Peace, which Ayn's father, King Rhys, had sent him to find. And new on the prince's mind was Sari, the bitterly angry young woman who now accompanied Ayn and his friends yet treated them with an incomparable scorn.

The Prince stood lost in thought several meters north of the town gates. And then a sudden sound behind him brought him back to reality with the quickness of an eindon's strike. The Prince whirled about, sword at the ready, expecting to see some hideous monster sneaking up behind him.

"Sari," he gasped as he resheathed his sword. "It's just you."

"Just me?" the queen of Landen asked. "Don't take me lightly, Layan, or you'll get burned."

Ayn sighed and faced back out towards the desert. "I won't ask why you hate us, Sari. We're Layans, you're Orakian. And I won't even ask why you hate me especially, since I know what my father's rejection did to your mother."

Sari snickered. "To my mother? True enough, but try to Landen."

Ayn resisted the urge to say "whatever." "Look, I don't know why my father did all what he did. But he's a good man."

Sari laughed out loud and faced out to the west, her back to Ayn's back.

Ayn could feel his face going red as he said, "Regardless of what you think of my father, my mother, or...Laya, or my kingdom or anything, you cannot hold me responsible for what happened before either of us were even born."

"Why not?" Sari asked. "The legacy remains with me."

"But that's your own fault," Ayn answered. "Yes, the anger has fallen to you. But that doesn't mean it's for you to continue it."

Sari shifted uncomfortably and crossed her arms. Both of them stood quiet for a moment, and then Ayn asked, "Why'd you come out here?"

"Same reason you did, I'd presume," Lena's daughter answered. "I needed some fresh air. I'm Orakian, and I consider all cyborgs -- except for Mieu and Wren, maybe -- to be my allies. Yet even I can't take the smell of petroline and plastic that pervades this town. It's a shock Orakio didn't forsake it."

Ayn laughed. "Perhaps he wasn't as bright as Laya after all, huh?"

Sari grew hot, but then she realized it was intended as a joke and not a slight towards Orakio at all. She laughed. "Yeah, right. Perhaps."

"You know," Ayn said, looking about, "we probably shouldn't be out here like this. We're far enough from the town that a bolder monster might make a move against us..." His fingers twitched nervously about the hilt of his sword.

Sari laughed again. "Are you afraid, sweet prince? Worried without your precious cyborgs? Worried about the ghost, maybe?"

Ayn shook his head. "That's no ghost, Sari. Mieu and Wren have both seen her. And my father swore she was real."

"A mirage, then," Sari rebuffed. "How amusing that you should be afraid of a mirage. And a mirage cyborg at that. You know that cyborgs can't harm Orakians, and you're travelling with an Orakian. Or do you think the rules don't apply to mirages?"

A strange whistle sailed through the air. Ayn could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Sari fumbled in the darkness and drew a force knife.

"What in Landen was that?" she whispered.

"I...I don't know," Ayn answered. "Should we...investigate?"

"Why not?" Sari said, drawing out a steel knife to accompany her force one. "I'm not afraid of any eindons or chirpers or whatever creatures lurk around here. Let's go."

Ayn nodded, and the two royals stalked out into the darkness. Travel was quick and easy over the tightly-packed sand of the desert, and within a few moments time, the few lights of Hazatak were dim on the horizon.

"Nothing," Sari said. "So much for that adventure."

Ayn shrugged and looked around. "I guess you're right. We might as well go back."

They heard it again.

"There it goes!" Ayn shouted. "But where is it coming from?"

"Look!" Sari cried. Ayn looked at her, and saw that her eyes were wide, and the knife with which she pointed was glittering ominously in the moonlight. The prince followed the pointing blade, and saw that, some meters away, walked a man. And he was coming nearer.

The man was less than five meters away when he stopped.

"Who are you?" he asked. His voice was young, but deep.

"Who are you?" Sari demanded. "No one speaks to me in such a way."

"Watch your tongue, witch," the stranger whispered. He didn't brandish the sword at his side, but his hand hovered above its handle as he stepped closer.

Ayn thought the man to be a few years older than he and Sari. The stranger was between the two of them in height, and something about him seemed rather familiar. The stranger was strikingly handsome, with thick brown hair and typical Orakian armor. He carried a sword very similar to Ayn's, and fastened to his belt buckle was a massive blue stone.

"Where in Cille did you get that?" Ayn demanded, pointing to the stone. "That is mine!"

"What are you talking about, whelp?" the stranger cried back. "The Sapphire of Satera is a family heirloom!"

"You're right, but you've got the wrong family!" Ayn cried. "The Sapphire belongs to my father, King Rhys of Cille!"

The stranger recoiled in shock. "King Rhys of what? I'll have you know that King Rhys of Landen is my father, so don't try to play any games with me, you desert thieves!"

"King who of Landen?" Sari shouted. "It just so happens that I am the queen of Landen. There is no king!"

"This is...this is preposterous!" the stranger cried at the top of his lungs. His face had turned red and his begauntleted hands were clenched in anger. "I am Prince Nial, son of King Rhys of Landen and Queen Lena of Satera-- "

Sari blanched at the mention of her mother's name.

"--and the Sapphire is mine. Now, get out of my way! I must get back to Hazatak! I've had quite enough fresh air for one night..."

Nial began to walk back towards town, but Sari grabbed his collar. The prince nearly fell flat on his back.

"Who...who did you say your mother was?" she asked, her voice shaking.

"Why, Queen Lena of Satera, wife of King Rhys." Nial looked at the two strangers questioningly. He was clearly more than a little unnerved. "What is going on here? Tell me. Please."

Sari released the prince's collar and fell to her knees. "She's alive..." the girl-queen whispered. "Mother is alive..."

"Yes, girl, my mother is alive," Nial whispered as he helped Sari to stand. "Why? Has...has something happened? Has Lune attacked Landen?"

Sari stared at Nial for a moment as if she were deaf and dumb. Then finally she said, "Lune? I don't know who that is. But Landen is fine. At least, my Landen is fine."

"What do you mean 'your Landen?'" Ayn asked. "There is only one Landen, isn't there?"

Nial looked at Sari. "You've heard the legends, too. But they aren't really true, are they? How could they be?"

Ayn looked at Nial and Sari. He felt utterly exasperated and spent as he asked, "What legends?"

"They say," Sari began, "that the sands of Aridia have powers not unlike those of a Grantz technique. The ancient Layans possessed great wonders. The tunnels connecting the worlds were made by them. One walks only a short distance but comes out across untold distances in another land."

"Right," Nial began. "They say the whole of Aridia is the same. When one steps into just the right places, secret places far off the usual trade routes, one can find one's self overcome by a secret power. Different times can merge... Different...worlds..."

"This is all crazy," Ayn shouted. "What are you trying to say?"

"That none of us our impostors, Ayn," Sari said, her voice still a whisper. "You are both the son of Rhys. You are the son of Maia's Rhys, and he..." Sari turned to Nial. "...is the son of...my mother's Rhys." Her upper lip quivered as she asked, "Is she happy?"

Nial stared her dead in the face. Compassion and a sense of oneness with this strange girl overcame him, and his aspect softened. "Yes...Sari. She is very happy."

"I can't believe this," Ayn said. "Don't you both realize? You are the same person!"

Nial blinked and stared at the prince of Cille. "You're right...Ayn. We are both the only child of Lena. Therefore..."

"But that's not all," Sari said, wiping her eyes. "The two of you are both the only son of Rhys. You are the same person as well."

Nial gasped and looked from one of his counterparts to the other. "You are both...me. You, Sari, are me with a different father. And you, Ayn, are me with a different mother."

Ayn looked at Sari and smiled a little sadly. "But you and I..."

"No, prince, we are not one," Sari said. "But we are a great deal closer in kin and kind than I ever would have imagined..."

"But...where does this leave us?" Ayn asked. "I mean, who's world are we in, now?"

"Both," Nial answered, "if the legends are true, and I don't think we have any cause to doubt them now."

"Indeed," Sari said.

"When you return to Hazatak, Prince Ayn, you will be in your world. And I will find myself back with my friends, in my own time and place."

"Your friends?" Ayn asked. "I don't suppose they would include two cyborgs by the names of Mieu and Wren, by any chance?"

Nial smiled. "But of course. Our father is not a fool."

Both princes smiled.

"But it isn't safe to remain in this state," Nial said. "We must return to our respective worlds at once, lest we end up somewhere we aren't supposed to be."

The queen of Landen grabbed her counterpart's hand. "Nial..."

A thousand plans raced through Sari's mind. She could return to Landen. His Landen. Mother would be there, alive and happy. It was a prosperous Landen. It would be a kingdom without the hardship and horror of her own. She would have a father, something she'd never really had but missed sorely. And whereas her Landen was already ruined, Nial's was a Landen that appeared in need of saving. A terror named Lune had raised his ugly head; perhaps Sari could help to lower it.

But then she caught Ayn's look. And when she saw his face fall, Sari's own eyes dropped. They dropped just enough to catch the faint glow of the Power Topaz in the dim light of the moons. Ayn's entire kingdom depended on Sari for its very survival, for only her Power Topaz could open the way to Satellite, the last place in all the worlds that Ayn's people had left to run to.

"What is it?" Nial asked.

"Nothing," Sari answered, wiping away another tear. "It's nothing."

"Then we should go," Nial said.

Ayn nodded. "Right. Sari?"

Sari nodded, too, but said nothing.

"Then...we're off."

The three "relatives" began their short journey back to Hazatak as the dull glow of the moons became brighter and brighter with the waxing of night. And as they approached the cyborg town, a dreamlike feeling began to overcome them. When Ayn at last stepped through Hazatak's gates, he realized that he had walked the last several minutes with his eyes closed. Or, if they had been open, he retained no memory of anything he had seen, heard, or felt.

Sari was beside him. She, too, was just emerging from the trance-like condition. She looked about, blinked, and then stared at Ayn.

"Is he gone?"

Ayn nodded. "Yeah."

"What happened, Ayn?" Sari asked. "I remember it all, but..."

"I know," Ayn said wearily. "Perhaps it was just a mirage."

"Perhaps."

Off in the distance, hidden by the darkness, walked a bow-wielding woman, two men, one of which carried a long black sword, and two cyborgs. And not far away, the cyborg woman who was not a mirage cried out for forgiveness.

Fin.

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