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Rhys, the handsome, intelligent young man destined to become king of Landen, could still remember the first time he'd seen that smile. He had been the one to discover her washed up on Landen's shore, and within a few moments, he had convinced her to return to his kingdom with him for aid. In the course of their conversation, she'd flashed him that gorgeous smile, and his heart hadn't stopped beating double-time ever since.
That was two months ago. It had only taken about two weeks after that for her to completely fall in love with him the way he'd instantly fallen in love with her. Now, they were to be married. Tomorrow.
"Oh, I see my information was wrong," Rhys said, flashing his own smile at his bride-to-be. "There's only a great-looking blue-haired woman in here."
Maia laughed at his words, but quickly raised a hand and blocked the doorway as he tried to enter the room. "Rhys, you can't come in!"
"But this is my bedroom," he protested, his smile still wide as could be.
"Not tonight it's not," Maia countered. "You're staying at the inn. And besides, starting tomorrow, it will be our bedroom, and I need some time to figure out how I want to redecorate."
"Gee, thanks," Rhys said flatly, flashing a quick smile to show his sarcasm.
Maia giggled. "You're welcome. But seriously, you have to get out of here. It's almost midnight!"
Rhys glanced down the hall towards the large, elaborate clock, the chimes of which usually could be heard throughout the castle. "One minute until, actually."
Maia's eyes bulged in their sockets. "One minute?" she exclaimed. "Get out of here! Once it turns midnight, it will be our wedding day, and you can't see me before the ceremony."
"Says tradition. Now go, shoo, out of here." She waved her arm out towards the corridor.
"Can't I just see your wedding dress real quick?"
"Absolutely not!" Maia retorted, though she couldn't help but laugh. "Now, Rhys! It's almost midnight! Go!"
"Okay, okay," Rhys conceded. "But there's something really important I have to tell you first."
Maia caught the change in her future husband's expression and turned serious, as well. "What is it?"
Rhys shook his head. "I can't believe I forgot to tell you this before."
"What? What's wrong?"
"It's just..." Rhys drifted off, averted his eyes to the floor. A moment later, when he looked back at Maia, his face was once again dominated by a wide grin. "I love you."
Maia rolled her eyes and grunted. "Get out of here. Go to the inn. I'll see you tomorrow."
The door was rapidly swinging shut on Rhys's face. "Are you sure I can't see that wedding dress?"
"Go!" Maia said, and then she closed the door all the way.
Rhys just stood there for a moment, beaming a smile at the closed door. He couldn't believe how happy he was. After a year or so of pressure from his father, King Colin, to find a bride to become Landen's princess, life had almost literally tossed the woman of his dreams right into his lap. It had been love at first sight. It only took a month for Rhys to propose. Now, one month after that, he was about to be married to her.
Rhys's smile widened when the large clock in the corridor suddenly chimed midnight. He counted each chime as it went off, realizing it was actually his wedding day. His wedding day!
The prince listened as the chimes died out. He strained his ears to hear them for as long as he could. Finally, the silence of the corridor had been restored.
When he heard Maia's voice call from behind the closed door, he put his face right up next to the wood. He wanted to throw it out of his way and storm into his room and pull Maia into his arms right now and never let go... but he'd have to wait just a few more hours. "I'm here," he called to her softly.
There was a pause. Rhys imagined he could see her smiling, and that just made him want to go into the room even more. Finally, he heard her softly say, "I love you, too."
"Lena?" said Queen Elin of Satera. "Lena, whatever are you doing up? It's almost midnight!"
The royal women of Satera were in the living room of their guest suite in Landen's castle. Satera's royal family were honored guests at the next day's wedding ceremony, but Princess Lena, who sat on the sofa, felt anything but honored to be attending.
"I just couldn't sleep, mother," Lena said, her voice a distant monotone. "You know me and strange places. I'll be fine. Go back to bed."
Pursing her lips, Queen Elin decided to do nothing of the sort. Instead, she sat down next to her daughter, took her hand in her own, and said, "It's about Prince Rhys, isn't it?"
Lena nearly jumped out of her seat. She stared at her mother with absolute astonishment. "How... how did you know?"
Elin smiled and softly laughed. "I remember what it's like to have a crush on someone. I was your age once, too, Lena. And believe it or not, it wasn't that long ago."
"You mean Orakio had already learned how to crawl?" the princess giggled at her mother.
"Very funny," Queen Elin deadpanned back.
"I don't know, mom," Lena continued with a sigh, her smile returning to the frown it had been a moment earlier. "I've never even met him, but I've always had a crush on him. And with him being the prince of our neighboring kingdom, I guess I'd always hoped..."
"I know, honey, I know," the Queen said, wrapping her arms around her daughter. "But don't you get too upset, okay? Someday, and someday soon, Orakio is going to send you a wonderful man who will make you very happy, I promise."
Lena sighed. "It's still hard to have to wait."
"Well, who knows?" Queen Elin said, her voice filled with optimism. "I'm sure there will be lots of handsome boys at the wedding tomorrow, all of which would love to spend time with a girl as beautiful as you."
Lena fixed her mother with a frown. "I'm not beautiful."
"I think you'll find that many a boy will disagree with you on that."
The clock in the corridor outside the suite chimed midnight. "You had better get some sleep," the Queen told her daughter, "if you want to have enough energy to fend off all of those boys at the wedding tomorrow."
When she did not receive an answer, Queen Elin of Satera looked down and saw her daughter Lena had already entered the world of dreams.
"Terrific!" cried Amar, a baker from the town of Ilan, when he noticed that his flash was almost dead. Shortly after lunch, he decided to close his shop early for the day and set off for the forest deep within the mountains north of Ilan. A special kind of poyola berry was ripe and ready for picking around this time of year, and Amar wanted to get as many of them as he could. The sales he missed this afternoon would more than be made up for when the poyola pies started flying out of his ovens and then out the door of his bakery within a few days.
He felt himself quite lucky when he found many more berries than he had expected to find, but now he didn't feel lucky at all. He'd spent so much time harvesting, that it had gotten dark before he'd known it. It was almost midnight, he was still a ways away from Ilan, and now, his flash was going out.
Prepared for the possibility of spending the night in the woods, Amar spotted a small lake out past the section of forest he currently walked through. Stepping into the clearing, he shined his dimming light around the area. None of Laya's monsters that he could see (and in fact, the poyola berries gave off a certain scent that kept eindons and deadly moos away), and so he began to unpack his tent from his knapsack.
He jumped as he did so, for he suddenly saw something that he hadn't seen a moment before -- or rather, he suddenly saw someone. "Who's there?" he called, but received no answer. The baker swung his flash around to shine on the figure, about twenty feet from where he stood, but just as he did, the flash died completely.
"Hello? Who's there?" he called again. Still no answer. The person in the distance seemed to be standing, but remained perfectly motionless. Almost like...
"Hey, are you some kind of statue?" Amar said, almost to himself this time. An amused smile flashed onto his face, and he quickened his pace as he continued to approach the "statue."
But as he got closer, he realized with a gasp that he was right the first time. Amar stopped, captivated, as he saw that the figure in the distance was not a statue at all. It was a woman. She had long, red hair that went past her shoulders and she wore a one-piece red bodysuit that almost matched the shade of her hair. Those, however, were not the details that made Amar the baker from Ilan stop dead in his tracks. What caught his attention was the woman's bright blue eyes.
They never blinked. They just stared straight ahead, open constantly, seeing everything, although from the distant look they had in them, it seemed to Amar that she saw nothing.
"Hello?" Amar said again. "Are you okay? Who are you, miss?"
No answer. The red-haired woman just stared straight out past the water of the lake, and she still didn't blink.
Amar checked the chronometer on his wrist. Three minutes until midnight. If the woman does not blink by two minutes after...
And so, with a sigh, the baker kept his eyes on the woman. He stared and stared, but the bright blue eyes of the red-haired woman stared straight ahead, and never blinked.
"Oh my God," he finally said quietly. Not even two minutes had gone by yet, but the man came to a sudden realization. "Oh my God... you're a Layan! You must be a Layan!" Complete panic overtook Amar. He spun on his heels and ran as fast as he could from the woman, shouting in terror all the way.
"Stay away! Stay away! Layan witch, stay away!"
Soon, he was gone from the area. He would find a new place to camp, and eventually, he would sleep and return to Ilan with his load of poyola berries. As he ran, the chronometer on his wrist turned to midnight, and counted down the first seconds of Prince Rhys's wedding day.
And Mieu the android kept on waiting. It wasn't hard. She'd been doing it for 1,000 years.
Far away from Mieu and the fear-stricken Amar -- far even from the world of Landen -- another android kept vigil in a cave deep within the world of Aridia.
Wren, technical systems and combat specialist, watched as his internal chronometer counted down the final seconds until midnight. True, it was something that happened all the time -- at least once a day -- but today was a very special countdown. For Rhys and Maia, it was a countdown to their wedding. For Wren, however, it was a countdown to another anniversary.
The final seconds ticked by, a new day began, and it was now official. It had been 1,000 years since Wren had last seen Orakio. The android (many considered him a cyborg, due to his human-like appearance, but there was not an ounce of flesh on him) vividly remembered the day. Orakio stood before him, black sword sheathed at his side. Siren and Miun were there, too, listening on as Orakio told Wren that he was going off for a final battle -- a battle that would either end the Devastation War once and for all, or mark the beginning of the end for Alisa III. He remembered pleading with Orakio to take him along. He wanted so badly to fight at his master's side. But Orakio had refused.
"There's a good chance I won't survive this battle, Wren," Orakio had said. "And there's a good chance that Siren and Miun will be destroyed, as well. And even if we are victorious, and we manage to destroy the evil that has terrorized Alisa III... there is a good chance that the evil will rise again. It may take 1,000 years for it to happen, but it may still happen."
"If there's a chance you might die, take me along, and make the chances better," he'd responded. "And what's this about 1,000 years? I don't get it, master."
Orakio had placed a hand on his shouler. "Wren, at that time, a hero may need your help. I want you to stay behind -- I need you to stay behind -- so that you can be here to help him."
The words had been so eloquent that Wren's argument had ended on the spot. But now, it was 1,000 years since the day he had heard those words, and evil had not risen again. He felt so useless. He wished so much that he had defied his master's order and accompanied him. That way, he could have at least fought at his master's side one last time.
That way, he would have at least known what had happened...
But Wren also knew that he could not defy an order from his master, and so he continued to follow Orakio's final order. He waited.
He did not know it, of course, but he would not have to wait much longer.
As she stood on the third step of the stairway with a candle in her hand, Meri, owner and operator of Satera's inn, reached out with her free hand towards the light switch for the lobby of her establishment. As she did so, she took one last look over her shoulder, to make sure the bell was in place on the counter, in case business came in the middle of the night, and then she placed her fingers on the switch and almost pressed down.
Before she could, the door to her inn was thrown open. With a quick intake of air, she spun around to face the doorway... but she saw nothing, except the raindrops that fell outside.
"That darn door..." she muttered to herself as she descended the stairs. "Can't lock it if I want business overnight, but it sure would be nice if a little wind wasn't enough to--"
She cut herself off as, outside, there was a flash of lightning. As it lit up the sky, it also revealed a man standing in her doorway with his eyes closed and head bowed. Meri screamed.
The scream instantly woke the man, who took a quick glance around at his surroundings, as if to remind himself of where he was. It didn't take him long to remember. "I didn't mean to frighten you," the man apologized. "I must have just fallen asleep right in the doorway."
With a nod of understanding, Meri cautiously approached her customer. "You're soaking wet," she said, stating what was the obvious to the man. "Would you like some towels?"
Her green-haired customer shook his head, throwing droplets of water in all directions. "No, ma'am, that will not be necessary. I am absolutely exhausted. I would just like a room with a firm mattress and a soft pillow." A friendly smile appeared on his face. "Though a cup of tea wouldn't be bad, either."
Meri laughed and set her candle down on the counter. "Coming right up." She stepped into the back room to prepare the tea as the man stepped forward and rested his arms on the counter.
"How much for the room?" he called to Meri.
"Five meseta," came the reply from the back. "And that includes all the tea you can drink."
"Thank you, ma'am," he chuckled, dropping a five-meseta coin onto the counter.
"Meri," she said, stepping into the main lobby from the back room. She slid his cup of tea across the counter and dropped his coin into her pocket. "I'm Meri. And you are?"
"Lyle," he said, flashing one of his lopsided smiles.
"Nice to meet you, Lyle," she said as they shook hands. "If you need anything, just give me a ring. You're my only customer tonight, and to tell you the truth, I didn't expect any at all, what with the wedding in Landen tomorrow."
Lyle raised an eyebrow at her as he sipped his tea. "I'm sorry, I'm not from around here. Who's getting married? Big ceremony?"
"You bet," Meri nodded. "It's not just a wedding; it's a royal wedding. Prince Rhys of Landen has finally chosen a princess. We here in Satera all thought maybe he'd choose our princess, Lena, and unite our kingdoms, but ever since Maia washed up on Landen's shore..."
Her new customer dropped his teacup to the saucer, almost hard enough to break it. Meri jumped at the sudden move, and when she looked up, she saw Lyle staring at her with a look of complete shock on his face.
Or at least, that's what she thought she saw at first. A moment later it was gone, and Lyle was sipping his tea again. "Maia, eh?" he said casually. "How did she and Rhys meet? She didn't, of course, literally wash up on the shore."
"Oh yes, that's it exactly," Meri said, resting her elbows on the counter. "Rhys woke up one morning and found her unconscious on Landen's shore. The poor girl couldn't remember anything, not even where she came from! About all she could remember was her name."
"I see, I see," Lyle nodded as he finished off the last of his tea. "Well, Meri, I would love to sit and converse with you more, but I'm afraid it shall have to wait for breakfast. As you could tell by my rather dramatic entrance, I am quite fatigued."
"Oh, certainly," Meri nodded. She grabbed a key off of the wall behind her with one hand, took her candle in the other, and motioned Lyle to follow her to the upper level of her inn. "Could you hit that switch on your way up, Lyle?"
The dashing green-haired man hit the switch, dimming the downstairs. "So where is this wedding to be held?" he asked Meri with a yawn. "Landen's castle?"
"Uh-huh," Meri confirmed. "When you first got here, I thought maybe you were on your way, but I suppose not, eh?"
"Well, no," Lyle agreed. "I've been... searching for someone, actually. A cousin of mine turned up missing a couple months ago, and my uncle has sent me to look for her."
"That's terrible! Do you have any leads?"
Meri fumbled with the key in the door's lock, so she didn't see Lyle grin behind her. "Yes, I have some very strong leads. I'm sure she'll turn up soon. Very soon. But this royal wedding sounds exciting. Maybe I'll stop by Landen tomorrow and pay my respects."
"Well, not to disappoint you," Meri began after unlocking the door and motioning Lyle inside, "but unless you want to travel through the forest or take the river, Landen is very far away. I don't think you'll be able to make it in time for the actual ceremony."
This time, Lyle was inside the room with his back to her, and so she again did not see his grin as he said, "Well, maybe I can hurry and... put in an appearance at the wedding." Spinning on his heels, his sly grin was replaced by a friendly smile. "The room looks wonderful, Meri. Thank you. Could I be woken at sunrise tomorrow morning?"
Meri blinked. "Of course. But it's midnight now, and you seemed so exhausted downstairs... Are you sure you don't want to sleep longer, Lyle?"
"I'm sure. I require very little sleep, especially when, right before bed, I enjoy a wonderful cup of tea."
She smiled at the compliment and moved to close the door. "Thank you. Good night."
"Good night." He kept up his friendly smile until she had closed the door all the way.
Then he began to pace the room, planning out how to rescue his cousin Maia from the hands of the despicable Orakians.
"Lyle?" Meri called as she knocked on the door to his room. "Lyle, the sun is almost up. You wanted me to wake you..."
After pursing her lips and pausing a moment, Meri knocked and called Lyle's name again. "Lyle, if you ever want to make it to that wedding you'll have to get an early start."
Still no response. Maybe he requires more sleep than he thinks he does...
Slightly alarmed, Meri fumbled into her pocket for her master key ring. She brought the key to Lyle's room near the door handle, unlocked it, and stepped inside with a gasp.
Aside from the unmade bed, the table, and the chair, the room was empty. Lyle was nowhere to be found.
Meri stepped into the room and looked around with astonishment. The window was wide open, and the gentle morning breeze was blowing the curtains into the room. Upon close inspection of the bed, Meri found that it had indeed been slept in and not just unmade; one of Lyle's green hairs still rested on the pillow.
Events took an even stranger turn when Meri glanced in the direction of the corner. There, all alone on the small table, sat the room key she had given Lyle the night before... yet the room had been locked when she arrived.
Running the four steps across the room to the open window, Meri looked down at the side of her inn. She would have to step outside to take a closer look, but at a glance, it didn't seem as if anything was disturbed. In other words, there was no evidence to suggest Lyle had climbed out the window.
"Then where is he?" Meri wondered aloud. "At least he paid for the room in adv--"
She cut herself off, throwing a hand over her mouth, when she spotted, in the distance, a large, winged form flying across the sky just past Satera. Meri had no idea what it was, specifically, but in general, she knew exactly what she saw.
"It's one of Laya's beasts!" she shouted to the empty room. "And it looks like it's heading towards... Landen!"
The innkeeper spun on her heels and ran from the room. She had to notify someone of this immediately. If the evil Layans were sending some vile creature to disrupt Prince Rhys's wedding... well, there probably wasn't enough time to stop it, but she couldn't just sit around. She had to do something. So she ran down the hallway of her inn, the mysterious disappearance of the even more mysterious Lyle the farthest thing from her mind.
Meri, of course, had no way of knowing it, but with the dragon's flight, all of the pieces were in place.
An epic adventure was about to begin.
--Billy Corgan, "Cupid de Locke"