Author's Note: This story is based upon a theory put forward by Neilast. It should be highly obvious what that theory is, at least as it relates to this story, from the context, but her complete analysis is available in the "Thea Theories" subdirectory of the Theory section at the Beyond Algo website and is well worth reading for any fan of Phantasy Star III.
Matthias Rey would have been considered a fortunate man by many of his ancestors. He was the king of Lensol in southern Draconia, and it was his destiny to see the changing of an age. A thousand years after Holy Orakio had battled the dark witch Laya in the Devastation War, an army of cyborgs had emerged from the castle of Techna and swarmed throughout Draconia. These war robots had been far more advanced than those Lensol could produce, more advanced and more lethal.
Leading these cyborgs had been the one called Siren, a manlike cyborg with a chromed body and red hair. Some of Lensol's oldest legends mentioned Siren, speaking of him as an ally of or war-leader under Orakio. Siren had promised an end to the "Layan pestilence" once and for all, and from the power of his followers it seemed likely that he could do it.
In truth, King Matthias had never had much trouble with Layans, pestilential or otherwise. Draconia held only one major Layan settlement, the village of Endora, and its relationship with Lensol had been wary but never overtly hostile for generations. Lensol was larger and wealthier than the Layan town, and in addition Techna was also Orakian, though its folk largely held themselves aloof from the rest of Draconian society. Those were not odds likely to incite the Layans to mischief. On Lensol's side, there were the continuing reports of dragons near Endora and Cape Dragon Spine, legends that mentioned them as well. Hidden power, sleeping, was not a thing to be trifled with, and the kings of Lensol had not been foolish enough to tempt fate.
No, conflict with the Layans was not something King Matthias had ever sought, but he had it nonetheless. Siren had offered Lensol the chance to join the armies of Orakio, and the king had accepted. It would not have been wise to seem an enemy of the armies of Orakio, at least not under the guns of Siren's Arachne, Stix, and Commsats.
Oddly, Siren had ignored Endora. Instead, his armies had swept outwards from Draconia to other worlds, leaving only roving patrols in their wake. Then, Siren had returned, bearing with him a girl, a Layan princess with bright green hair. He'd ousted Matthias and Lensol's court from the castle, imprisoned the girl in the dungeon, and filled the castle and its cellars with hordes of cyborgs. He then left once more, returned to wherever he called his headquarters.
There was one problem with cyborgs. While advanced models like Siren himself were self-willed and capable of acting on their own, simple military models required direction to act effectively. This was why King Matthias and the soldiers of Lensol were still under arms, ready to fight if an army came for the princess, but Siren did not trust the folk of Lensol well enough to let his robots take orders from them.
In essence, Lensol had become occupied territory.
The people sensed it, too. They hid in their houses, shrinking from the streets, coming out only to work or shop, then slipping back home or to huddle in the taverns.
Then the boy had come, a study in contradictions if there ever was one. He wore his pale cyan hair long, pulled back in a ponytail in the manner of a Layan, but he was escorted by two cyborgs of types as elite as Siren. Near the town gates he had been attacked by a patrol of Doomflies and Arachne. The folk of Lensol had watched the traveler defeat the attacking cyborgs wielding a sword like an Orakian knight, but after the fight he'd employed a technique to cure a Doomfly's poisonous attack, a power possessed only by Layans.
A contradiction, this one, and that was a dangerous thing in these troubled times. It meant a potential threat. The citizens of Lensol avoided him, other than the shopkeepers, who were desperate for the meseta he spent freely. They did not chat with him, however, dismissing his questions with taciturn grunts or denials.
The questions worried Matthias most of all. The traveler asked about a place called Satellite, which the Lensol-folk knew only from legends, and more pointedly about a girl named Thea. Although the king did not know the name of Siren's prisoner, he descriptions were far too close for the traveler to mean anyone else. He was, undoubtedly, a rescuer. Luckily, he did not choose to press the point, and he turned away from the closed castle gates without trying to force his way in. From hiding, Matthias watched the boy go, all the while cursing the fate that had reduced a once-proud people to skulking in the shadows.
He didn't know that he wasn't the only one watching Prince Ayn of Cille.
* * * * *
"I don't like it," Ayn said, staring into the crackling campfire. The blue moon, Azura, was bright overhead, illuminating the night with its peaceful, comforting glow. "That place just gives me the creeps."
"I'm with you," Mieu said, hugging her drawn-up knees to her chest. It was hard, sometimes, to remember that the red-haired woman was a cyborg, an artificial creation rather than a human being.
Conversely, it was all too easy for Ayn to keep that in mind concerning his second cyborg companion. Wren didn't even look human other than his head, and even that was studded by sensor arrays that seemed to grow out of his "flesh." Even more telling, though, was his lack of emotions. His intellect was extraordinary, superior even to Mieu's, but he lacked the female model's emotional capacity. It made him seem very cold, more like a machine than a person.
"If I am correctly interpreting your assessment, Prince Ayn, I must concur. The condition of the town of Lensol appears unnaturally hostile in comparison with those Orakian cultures we have previously encountered, although given the isolated nature of this world of Draconia it is possible that customs may have developed in different patterns.
Ayn shook his head.
"There's no question about it. This world is crawling with those powerful cyborgs. Something's wrong here."
"The models encountered thus far are familiar ones dating from the Devastation War."
"You can remember that far back?" Ayn asked, astonished.
"The memory of an android does not change over time."
"In the here and now, though, what are we going to do?" Mieu asked.
Ayn scowled. In his native kingdom of Cille as well as Thea's kingdom, Shusoran, there had been secret passages into the castle dungeons. This was how Ayn's parents had escaped the attack on their cities, fleeing through these passages while the castle was assaulted. Lensol, though, did not seem to have any such hidden entrances to its stronghold.
"We combed the town, looking for a way inside, but so far as any of us could see, the castle gates are the only way in. There's no way that the three of us could force our way inside."
"Do you propose to abandon our inquiries in Lensol?"
"We have to, for now. We'll keep on and get the lay of the land here in Draconia. Right now, we can't even be sure that what's wrong in Lensol has to do with Thea. If we do have to storm that castle somehow, I'd at least like to make sure that we're not wasting our efforts while Thea is somewhere else entirely."
He flipped a stick onto the fire.
"If she is there, though, then you can believe me, we'll be coming back."
What he didn't say, but which he felt, was that if she really was in Lensol's castle, he had no idea how he might get inside. It wasn't as if he could fly, after all.
* * * * *
Well away from the camp, a sinuous, serpentine formed turned on two powerful hind legs. It had been too far away and too well-concealed for Ayn and his escorts to notice, but its inhumanly powerful hearing had allowed it to listen to every word of their conversation.
The outline of the beast shimmered, shrank in on itself, and resolved into the image of a dark-haired man with a thin mustache. Two three-foot fighting staves hung at his belt, marking him as a Layan warrior. The shift of form, however, had marked him as something else.
A Dragon Knight.
The dragons were once Layan champions during the Devastation War, to hear the legends tell it, no doubt a counter to elite cyborgs like Mieu and Wren. The need for such champions had ended long ago, but the power remained in their blood, passed on down from generation to generation.
Ryan Quisto thought over what he'd learned from observing this Prince Ayn. His thoughts about the young man, ironically, mirrored those of the Orakian king--Ayn was an unknown quantity, a Layan who fought like an Orakian and was accompanied by cyborgs that actually dated back to the War a thousand years ago. Yet, their mission appeared to be to rescue a Layan prisoner, at least to judge by how they talked among themselves.
Ryan had considered approaching the three travelers, but then decided against it. Trust was a valuable commodity, and Ayn hadn't earned it, not with Orakian death machines prowling the world. It was too bad, because Ryan did have one piece of valuable information. His own investigations had confirmed that there was a Layan princess, presumably this "Thea," held in Lensol's castle.
It was also too bad for another reason. Ayn and his companions were strong fighters, and would have made good allies. As a Layan warrior and a Dragon Knight, Ryan was not going to let a Layan princess remain a captive of the Orakians. In his dragon shape, the castle walls would be no obstacle; he could fly right over them.
The best time to attack, Ryan had concluded, would be at night. Darkness would not inhibit the cyborgs overmuch, but it could have quite an effect on human guards, in visibility and in regard to the combat skills of a basically diurnal animal.
It wouldn't be easy, Ryan thought. The cyborgs were fierce opponents, and even as the dragon he was only one. Each day's delay, though, was one more day in which the princess might be killed or tortured, in which the object of her capture might be achieved.
Ryan sighed heavily. There was no point in putting it off any longer. He would act now. His body shimmered again, and the dragon launched into the air.
Flying, it took Ryan only minutes to cover the distance that Ayn had journeyed from Lensol since he'd left the city several hours ago. His keen eyes picked out the shadowed walls, where lights shining from inside houses and shops made pinpricks of illumination. He turned and banked down, descending towards the walled stronghold of the castle.
Buzzing angrily, four shapes rose up to meet him.
In that day and age, no one would have expected an attack by air. What Ryan did not know was that Siren was a relic of the Devastation War, when aerojets routinely were a part of the battles between Orakio and Laya's armies. He had ordered certain cyborgs to watch for and guard against an attack from above; he would not have thought his defenses complete without it.
The four attacking cyborgs were Doomflies, aptly-named creatures that looked a bit like a child's wind-up toy, right down to the "key" in their bellies that turned as its glassine wings moved. There was nothing whimsical, however, about the saberlike mouth blades that belonged more to a wasp than a fly.
The Dragon Knight opened his jaws and breathed out a stream of fire. The blast struck a Doomfly, destroying its wings. The cyborg plummeted, shattering on the stone of the castle. In response, the other three Doomflies broke formation, swarming around Ryan, attempting to use their numbers to their advantage.
Seeking to thin those numbers, Ryan pulled up above one and used his claws to sever the relatively fragile wings from its armored body. As the second cyborg fell, another one raked the dragon's side. He turned his serpentine neck and breathed again, the flaming assault blasting its target apart explosively. Then, he felt a stinging pain, and a coldness seemed to flow through his veins. As the numbness spread, Ryan located the last Doomfly and realized what had happened. Even as he turned to strike, a tube mounted just under its blades was retracting--a launcher for envenomed darts!
Ryan dove at the cyborg, catching it in his talons. Angered at the way it had caught him off-guard, he satisfied his petty revenge by not merely knocking it out of the air but punching his claws through the cyborg's steel plating and ripping out great chunks of circuitry so that it fell in pieces to the castle ground below.
Ryan was familiar with the poison that he had been exposed to; it was standard in Orakian cyborgs and a variation was employed by certain monsters. It prevented the body from healing, both in the natural course of events and by regenerating medicines and healing techniques. If left untreated death would be inevitable as the body wore itself out, but its principal use was to stop in-battle healing such as with the Monomates Ryan's human form carried. If necessary, then, Ryan could press on with his rescue attempt.
The wiser course of action, though, was to fly back to Endora and have the poison treated, then start anew. There, he could also purchase poison antidotes to use in case he was attacked this way again, and gain the full benefit of his healing medicines.
His thoughts, however, were interrupted painfully by searing bolts of heat and light. With the Doomflies defeated, the cyborg defenders had switched to their second line of defense, namely a squad of Lazrbots manning the walls with their high-powered Foi cannons. The burning crimson beams sliced through the night sky, tracking Ryan's position. Though he dodged rapidly to throw off their aiming points as best he could, he took a hit to the belly, a second raking his hind leg, and a third punching a hole in his wing. In desperation he spiraled towards the ground, getting out of the shooting gallery that was the sky above Lensol Castle.
On the way down he took a fourth hit, which threw off his timing, making his landing a hard one. It had also thrown off his trajectory--he'd landed inside the castle grounds. At least, he thought, the bots had stopped firing at him once he was out of the air.
Ryan knew there was only one way for him to escape now, and that was through the gates. He took his human shape back, feeling the wrenching pain of transformation while injured, and began to look for the gate release. Luckily, it did not take him long to identify the mechanism, a simple plate set into the wall with a red-handled lever. He saw no ropes or pulleys; the technology must have been similar to that used to create the Orakians' war machines.
Before he could reach for that lever, though, he heard a loud, angry-sounding bird call. He spun, hands dropping to the leather grips of his fighting staves, and saw a pack of Chirpbots glaring hostilely at him. This series of cyborgs was almost cute, designed to resemble the furry-feathered Chirper monsters, but there was nothing appealing about fighting them.
Two launched themselves forward at Ryan, pointed beaks and tiny talons both honed to the sharpness of a swordblade. Injured as he was, he still lashed out and caught one in mid-hop with his right-hand staff. A third Chirpbot opened its beak and spewed flames, its Foi weapon having less range than that of the Lazrbots but still being quite deadly.
Ryan dove to the grass and rolled forward, letting the flames pass overhead, then came out of his roll and thrust forward with a staff into the cyborg's mouth. It punched into the flame launcher, crushing it, stabbing into whatever circuitry lay beyond. A blow from his other staff knocked the bot free and left it twitching and smoking. The Dragon Knight winced as another cyborg's beak slashed across his wounded thigh, but he fought on until he stood, bloody and battered, above five piles of scrap metal.
Cautiously, he waited for the next threat, but none appeared. It seemed that there was no second line of defense. Could the grounds be so badly defended that there would be no reaction?
Wait a moment. Where are the Orakians? Orakian cyborgs, like Layan monsters, needed to be directed by human leaders, and Ryan hadn't seen any so far. Perhaps there was no central command unifying the cyborgs, so each group only followed a limited set of orders, such as "attack anyone who enters a specified area."
Deciding there was no time to worry about it then, Ryan went over to the gate controls and threw up the lever. With a soft hum, the gate rose.
Now, I just need to make it stay there. It didn't do any good to get the gate open, after all, if the Orakians could just pull the lever and close it. He pointed at the gate controls and reached inside himself for the power that was the birthright of the Layan race.
The technique struck out with the power of gravitational force, causing the metal to twist and buckle, the lever itself to bend. Experimentally, he gave the lever a tug. It didn't so much as budge.
"Perfect," he said, the word coming out more like a growl. He staggered out through the gate, then forced his body to transform once more and launched himself into the air. As he'd suspected, no Lazrbot fire targeted him; they'd been ordered to defend the air over the castle only, not the town and surrounding countryside. His entire body throbbed with pain, and his wounded wing seemed to be begging him to land, but Ryan pressed on. He had to get to Endora to have the poison cured, or else his wounds would finish him in a few days. He had no choice but to keep flying.
And what then, he wondered? Battles with only three groups of robots had left him nearly incapacitated, and he hadn't even destroyed one of the groups. The truth was obvious; alone, he had little chance of rescuing the imprisoned princess.
On the other hand, there was Ayn and his two cyborgs. With the gate now open, they could make a try. Working as a team they might succeed where Ryan had failed. He would have to wait for them, of course, to see what they'd do once they'd gotten her out. If their intentions were hostile he would have to act--but even then, it would be easier to rescue a girl from three individuals tired from combat than from a castle full of cyborgs. And, if Ayn's group failed, perhaps they would inflict enough damage on the enemy that a healed and fully-equipped Ryan could finish the job.
Long before the sun rose, he was already planning what to say to them.
* * * * *
King Matthias looked at the gate yawning open. Like the rest of the Lensol-folk, he'd been barricaded inside, weapons at the ready, at the sounds of battle, but whomever had attacked the castle did not carry the fight to the town. Matthias was thankful; he had no idea how his troops could handle anything capable of fighting Siren's war machines.
When the fighting had grown silent, Lensol's soldiers emerged, blades and needlers at the ready, and advanced on the now-open gates. Matthias lead the way through, saw the wreckage of the Chirpbot patrol. He also saw blood spattered on the ground. A human had been there, probably a Layan attacker.
"They've disabled the gate controls, whomever they were," a soldier said.
"Just the external controls, or did they tamper with the mechanism itself?"
The soldier looked things over.
"I can't be sure, but it looks like just the controls."
It was true that in the centuries since Orakio and Laya had lived, their people had lost much of the knowledge of how the ancient technologies worked. The Lensol-folk could operate their cyborg factory, for example, but had no idea how to alter it or to attempt to improve on the preprogrammed designs.
Even the best-made equipment, however, would inevitably suffer damage over the course of centuries, and while the men and women of Lensol did not have the necessary repair skills they did have maintenance cyborgs which did possess them. Matthias was sure that one of those robots could have the gate controls operable in no more than an hour's time.
"Your Majesty, shall I summon a repair cyborg?" asked the soldier.
Matthias looked up at the castle, at a citadel which was no longer a haven for his people, then turned back to Lensol. He saw a town in which its citizens, even its king, cowered in fear inside their homes, unable to do anything other than hide while world-shaking events played out around them.
He was sick of it.
"No," he stated. "If Siren doesn't want us to interfere with castle business, then we won't. Let's go."
"But, your Majesty, if we don't repair the gate, then--"
"Quite. Come along; we don't want to be trespassing on castle grounds. As Siren made quite plain, we have no business here."