"So this is Laya's Treasure!" Mieu exclaimed as she pulled herself from the water. Next to her, a sleek silver sea sled rested on the beach, and a green-haired man with a ponytail and a long white cape unhooked himself from the breathing apparatus and dismounted.
"A hidden world within the Aridia dome," Prince Sean of lost Azura mused, "accessible only by a water-filled passage." He said it calmly, eyes flicking left and right, assessing possible threats in a way the combat cyborg approved of but was worried by on an emotional level. "But what does it hide that makes Lune want it so badly?"
There was a whirring noise, and before their eyes the submersible reconfigured itself into the humanoid form of the third member of their party. Wren was, like Mieu, a cyborg over one thousand years old. While Mieu was strictly a combat android, Wren possessed a wide variety of technical and analytical skills, but unlike her lacked emotions, lacked a truly human personality.
"I am not familiar with this location," he declared. "The schematics of the Alisa III contained in my memory banks do not disclose it. Possibly its existence was known only to those possessing the highest levels of security clearance."
"But if it's Laya's treasure..."
"Maybe it's not Laya's treasure but a treasure Laya was looking for?" Mieu suggested.
"Maybe. We'll find out soon enough, though."
Squaring his shoulders, he set off along the strip of land leading away from the beach, a narrow peninsula which led the prince of a destroyed satellite and his android companions west from the passage by which they had entered this hidden world. After a few hours' walk, the mainland came into view, a grassy plain studded by occasional trees.
"Everything is so peaceful here," Mieu marveled. "No marauding robots, no monsters lurking in the brush; it's so unlike the outside world." A gentle breeze teased the combat cyborg's brilliant red hair. Part of her wanted to lay down and stay here forever, to escape from the warfare that had claimed the Alisa III.
One thousand years in the past, the forces of Mieu's creator, Orakio, had battled their foes led by the dark witch Laya in a strife known as the Devastation War. The two leaders had eventually passed on orders not to kill members of the opposing side, and then had disappeared, presumably for a final battle. Neither Mieu nor Wren knew what had occurred then, but the seven domes of the great colony ship had been sealed off from one another and their people's knowledge of the past lost. All that had remained was the centuries-old hatred, based on a conflict none had remembered the reason for.
Thanks to Prince Rhys of Landen, a blood descendant of Orakio, and his wife, the Layan Princess Maia of Cille, peace between the two races had started to be forged. Yet a generation later, war had come, as the android Siren and the technique-master Lune, generals under Orakio and Laya during the Devastation War, had come ravening out of legend to burn and slaughter. Siren had destroyed the Layan cities of Cille and Shusoran, and their population had fled to Azura, only to see it too destroyed in the third generation. All Rhys' work was undone as the Alisa III was engulfed in bloodshed, not just from Siren and Lune's armies but also new horrors that preyed upon both Orakian and Layan indiscriminately. The hopelessness of it all was sometimes more than Mieu thought she could bear.
Neither of her companions could truly understand. Wren had no emotions; despair was an abstract concept to him rather than a force seeking to tear his electronic heart from his chest. And Sean...since Azura's fall he had become a man of stone. There was no rage, no fury, no grief at his loss. It had all been frozen into a cold, systematic determination to root out the identity of Azura's destroyers and annihilate them as they had annihilated Sean's people.
Yet, Mieu kept on, for her core directive was to obey the commands of Orakio's descendants, and Sean was the last of that line. It was one of the advantages of being an android. Though her feelings might inhibit her, they would not stop her from helping Sean to the last.
Suddenly, Sean stopped and pointed.
Mieu followed the direction of his gaze. It was a building of some kind, with a columned front and sloping roof, seemingly carved of tan marble--or more likely, built of metal and plastic with a veneer of stone over it.
"It appears similar in appearance to the structures known as 'Laya's Palaces,'" Wren observed. "Do you intend to investigate?"
"We can't enter into Laya's Palace," Sean mused. "Every time we've tried a barrier has kept us out and that voice--robotic? or the product of Layan techniques?--says that Laya's Palace is for Layans only, which apparently doesn't include two cyborgs and a descendant of Orakio."
It was the closest he'd come to making a joke in weeks.
"Still, we might as well have a look. It's the only sign of habitation we've run across."
Another hour's walk brought them before the palace, and Sean led them up the short steps to the portico and between the columns. They walked through the broad, open doors and entered the dimly lit palace.
Where they received their first shock.
This palace was inhabited.
It was a sign of just how much Mieu had come to anticipate violence and destruction at every turn that her first thought was, Not here, too. Only then did she recognize that the inhabitants were not cyborgs or monsters or soldiers, but white-bearded old men wearing light-colored robes.
"Welcome!" called the first one to catch sight of them. "Welcome to Laya's Treasure. We have waited here for nearly a thousand years!"
"A thousand years?" Sean asked. "Since the time of the Devastation War?"
The graybeard's head bobbed up and down.
"We have kept to our task as Laya bade our forefathers, watching over the machines and keeping the sleeping one safe."
Mieu glanced at Wren in confusion. Machines? Sleeping one?
"What do you mean?" Sean asked.
"Come, come and we will tell you--we will show you!"
They followed the old man deeper into the temple, their feet echoing off the flagstones. The long, narrow vault ended at a square pool of crystal blue water.
"Laya told us that you would come for the princess in a thousand years, truthseekers," their host told them. He advanced to the edge of the pool and withdrew a small control unit from the pocket of his robe. Several of the other men gathered around the pool and watched as the first man manipulated the controls. A low humming noise seemed to permeate the chamber; it was coming, Mieu realized, from beneath the floor. Suddenly, waves crashed against the edge of the pool as something thrust itself up through the water.
"The sleeping one has lain dreaming here since the time of Laya and Orakio," one of the attendants said rapturously. "You will be the first to speak to her in all that time."
"But...what is it? It looks like a coffin?" Sean said, staring at the object in the center of the pool. He was right; it did look like a metallic coffin covered with tubes and conduits, only the lid was made of a clear plastiglass through which the outline of a human form could be seen.
"It is a cryogenic stasis chamber," Wren explained.
"That is right," their host said. "Cryogenic sleep has kept her alive since the war."
Sean glanced at Wren in confusion, then shrugged. If the cyborg believed it was possible, then that was sufficient. He didn't need to know the how of it, only that he wasn't being lied to.
"But who is she?"
"This princess is Laya's younger sister. Strangely enough, she is also named Laya!"
The one who seemed to be the leader of the guardians did something else with his remote control device, and heating elements along the stasis chamber's sides began to glow. Steam hissed as it was vented out of the sleep casket. The violet-tinted ice which obscured the view of the woman within melted away, and Mieu could soon see a slender blonde girl in a red dress with a short skirt, her eyes closed.
"Laya's sister!" she exclaimed.
"This is the treasure Lune sought? Laya's sister?"
"Lune knows nothing of her," one of the men said, "though he has heard of this world, I am certain."
"Then," Sean mused, "Lune just sought Laya's Treasure because he wanted whatever Laya had left. As Laya's most secret stronghold, it would no doubt hold something precious and powerful, or so he would think."
"You are correct, young man, for the young Laya is both precious and powerful."
The leader of the men turned to Sean.
"Laya entrusted the future to her sister. Her last stronghold was in the castle of Mystoke, in the world of Frigidia. When you return to the desert, you must go southwest of here with Laya. The portal to Mystoke awaits you there."
It sounded like a prophecy, the voice of some sage or oracle.
Laya's sister! Mieu thought. The biological relative of Orakio's ancient enemy, someone whom the android expected to be a bloodthirsty foe of she herself and her master. And yet, the world had been turned upside down in the past millennium. Mieu had fought alongside Siren in the Devastation war, but had battled against him with Sean's father Ayn, defending Layans against Siren's attacks. Sean may have been a descendant of Orakio, but his mother and paternal grandmother had both been full-blooded Layans. Peace between the two sides had become the ideal of the new era. Why shouldn't the sister of Laya join them, to solve a mystery which threatened Orakians and Layans alike?
Slowly, the plastiglass canopy lifted, and the three newcomers stepped forward to see. The sleeping girl's eyelashes fluttered, and then the lids raised.
She is beautiful, Mieu thought, and yet so strange. She had the face of a girl no more than twenty, and yet with the calm serenity of one who was truly a thousand years old. A crimson jewel like a cabochon-cut ruby was set in her forehead as if it was a third eye. And her true eyes...her sister, the "dark witch" of Orakian legend, had never been spoken of as having a gaze like this. They were black pools of darkness, "whites" and irises alike, and the pupils were reversed as well, like stars in their tiny night skies.
"When...when is it?" she asked softly. "How long has it been?"
"We are told you've slept for a thousand years," Sean told her. He no longer had the time or inclination to trouble with anything besides pure, blunt truthtelling these days.
"So long..." she whispered. "Who are you?"
"Sean Sa Riik, Prince of Azura."
Her eyes flashed wide.
"Sa Riik! That was Orakio's name!" Her gaze flicked left and right, to Mieu and Wren. "And these androids!" Laya's head dropped. "I never believed that when I woke it would be in the hands of enemies."
"We're not your enemies," Sean told her, "not unless you make it so. It's true that I am a descendant of Orakio, but I'm also the grandson of one of your Dragon Knights."
Laya's gaze rose.
"Then you are--"
Sean smiled wryly.
"Myself," he stated. "Neither Orakian nor Layan, but a bit of both. But maybe that's what the world needs. Cyborgs attacking Orakians, monsters attacking Layans--everything we've believed for centuries has been swept away."
"You sound like my sister," the girl told him softly.
Laya stepped from the sleep-chamber, her white boots splashing into water which rose to her ankles.
"Before she left, Laya told me that the war was going strangely, that something was wrong with it. I asked if we were going to lose, and she said that no, she wasn't talking about military success, but something else."
Sean turned to the leader of the old men.
"Is that what you meant when you said that Mystoke held a key to truth?"
"I cannot say. All I know is the knowledge that has been passed down for generations."
"Everything seems to be coming out of the past in the current age," Sean said. "First Wren and Mieu. Then Lune and Siren. Now Laya. All from the Devastation War. Maybe the solution we're looking for is from that era, too."
"Please," the girl asked suddenly. "When Laya left me here, she left with a knight who wore a black sword. I must know the truth of what happened to her--what was wrong with the war, what drove her to put me into cryogenic stasis. Please take me with you!"
"Yes, you can come with us. We'll hunt for the truth together, we four."
Mieu could not speak, though. Her attention had been captured by one phrase Laya had spoken: "a knight who wore a black sword." While there might have been others, Mieu knew of only one such warrior in that ancient era, one man who might have been Laya's ally in that last battle--but that was impossible! Unbelievable!