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Chapter Six

"I tell ya, it never would have happened on my watch," said the soldier Masien, "that's a promise."

Next to him on a portion of the roof of Satera's castle, a portion which overlooked the castle's courtyard, fellow soldier Roris nodded in agreement. "That's Landen's soldiers for you."

"Tell me about it," Masien grunted. "No offense against Princess Lena, obviously, but she just wouldn't be able to sneak down into our dungeon and set a prisoner free."

Thunkk!

"What was that?" Roris jumped. His head darted back and forth, searching for the source of the sound.

"I didn't hear nothin'," Masien replied. "You're hearing things." His partner looked unconvinced. He leaned over the castle wall and looked down into the courtyard, but still he did not see anything that would have caused the sound--

Thunkk!

--that he just heard again.

"Did you hear it this time?" Roris asked, but he already knew the answer. Masien's hand was dropping towards the sword at his side.

"Yeah, I did," he replied in a whisper. "It's coming from over there." With a nod of his head, he indicated the other side of the castle; the outer wall, rather than the courtyard wall. He and Roris slowly stepped in that direction. The only sounds heard now was another

Thunkk!

as well as two brief hisses, as the Satera castle guards drew their swords. When they had each come within a few steps of the side of the castle, they met eyes, nodded, and then charged, leaning their heads over the wall to see what, in the name of Orakio, was making those noises on the castle wall.

"Hi there," greeted Prince Lyle of Shusoran as he flashed the soldiers a lopsided grin. His look of humor defused the seriousness of his sitaution; he had a single moment in which the soldiers were frozen stiff at the sight of him, clinging to the side of the castle wall with climbing claws wrapped around each palm, and fter that, all they would have to do is stab downwards with their swords.

As he was nearly to the top of the castle anyway, Lyle reached his right hand up to the ledge and pushed off, swinging his legs up into the air, over the ledge, and right into the face of Masien. The elder soldier didn't even have time to swing his sword before he crashed to the stone of the castle's roof, out cold. Lyle quickly landed on his feet, shook off his climbing claws to free his hands, and spun on his heels to find Roris.

The young, frightened soldier held his sword before him. Gotta give it to the kid, Lyle thought. He can strike a menacing pose, but there's no two ways about it: that trembling subtracts a bit from the overall effect. "What's the matter?" Lyle asked, very slowly stepping towards his opponent. "You never see a Layan before?"

Lyle knew the answer was no. He also knew that the admission that he was a Layan would cause another momentary flash of frozen shock in the soldier. Therefore, never passing up an opportunity when he had one, Lyle took one long stride forward, lunging towards Roris with a single palm held upright in front of him. His hand connected with the scared soldier's nose, and a moment later, Lyle was the only one conscious on the roof of Satera's castle.

The prince of Shusoran had no time to waste. He quickly stepped across the roof towards the side which overlooked the courtyard, fumbling through the bag tied to his side as he did so. Almost on auto-pilot, his eyes scanned across the side of the castle across the courtyard from where he stood now. The Sapphire was inside, on the top story, and so if he could find a suitable window on the floor below it...

He found it. Right across from where he stood now, at the former post of the soldiers Masien and Roris, there was a window, both sides of which had been pushed out of the room to hang open and let the cool night breeze in. Lyle couldn't see much of the room from here, and what he could see was obscured by light lavender drapes which danced back and forth in the breeze, but it appeared to be the window of a bedroom. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Lyle pulled his hand from the bag at his side, and with it, he brought out a small slicer: a boomerang-like weapon which (if thrown correctly) would fly in an arc, returning right to your hand, slashing apart whatever got in the way. This particular slicer was a little different, however. This one had a long, thin line attached to the handle.

The prince much preferred his staff, but he was proficient with the slicer, as well. So, taking aim and a deep breath, Lyle drew his arm back and then brought it forward as hard as he could, launching the slicer with a grunt over the courtyard of Satera's castle.

Whup-whup-whup-whup the slicer spun threw the air. Half-way into its flight, Lyle could tell its angle was good -- it was going to strike the stone of the castle wall right above the open bedroom window. The only question was, Did he put enough power into his throw to make it stick?

The slicer embedded itself in the target location with a Thunkk! not unlike the sound his climbing claws made on his trip up the side of the castle wall. It was now the moment of truth. Lyle yanked on the line attached to the slicer, which now hung across the castle courtyard, and waited for the weapon to break free from the stone and crash to the ground below.

It didn't happen. For now, at least, the slicer was holding. Lyle wasted no time. He tied the other end of the line to the handle of a knife, which he then drove as hard as he could into the stone ledge on this side of the castle. The blade embedded itself deep; this side of the line, at least, wasn't going anywhere. As for the other side...

Well, if I fall, Lyle reasoned to himself, I can always just take dragon-shape and fly. And so, as ready as he was going to be, Lyle climbed up onto the ledge overlooking the courtyard, drew his staff, and jumped off the side.

He held his staff horizontally high over his head, one-handed at first, only grabbing the other side as soon as he had one arm on either side of the line. This all happened in the first blink of an eye after jumping. Lyle then closed his eyes and waited for the staff to hit the line -- or, more appropriately, to see if the line would hold under his weight.

The staff hit the line, and he did not fall, though his heart did skip a beat when he heard the slicer on the other side squeal. It had probably been jarred an inch, maybe more, out of the castle wall. As he slid across the line, like a circus performer who somehow ended up below his tightrope, he prayed, Great Laya, reach down with your hand and hold that slicer until I am safe. Please reach down with your hand and hold that slicer until I am safe!

Since the line was strung across the courtyard at a downward angle, Lyle, both hands wrapped tightly around the staff above his head, zipped across it at a very fast speed. He was concentrating on several things at once. One, he had one eye and both ears on the slicer, continually praying to Laya that it would hold true until he was safe. Two, he was trying to maintain balance with the staff; if he didn't keep the line right in the middle of the staff, the counter-balance would be thrown off, thus throwing him off and to the ground. Third, he was raising his feet into the air, preparing to jump into the open window at his earliest possible convenience.

Which was right about now. Lyle was mere feet from the window, and closing in fast. This was the moment that required the most precise timing. If he let go of the staff and jumped too soon, he would fall to his death. If he let go too late, he was liable to smack into the wall around the window.

Suddenly, the slicer gave -- not completely, but just a little. The screeching sound it made as it pulled another quarter-inch free sent gooseflesh up Lyle's back. At that moment, with his feet partially inside the bedroom, he released one hand from his staff and fell forward the rest of the way, pulling his staff inside with him.

His boots hit the carpet of the bedroom (colored lavender, the same as the curtains) and he tried to roll into a somersault. Instead, he fell forward, flat on his face. Lyle didn't care; he had never been in the air like that before (at least not in this body-form) and so it felt good to be on the ground. He kissed the carpet and muttered under his breath, "Thank you, Laya."

The prince then jumped to his feet and darted his head around the room in a quick, frantic search. The bed was unmade and slept in, but there was no one inside the room. Did the occupant run when they heard the slicer hit the wall? No, Lyle didn't think so. He thought, if that had been the case, he probably would have seen movement in the room from the roof across the courtyard.

That means someone went to the restroom, or for a drink of water, Lyle realized. And that means I don't have much time. He paused quickly to lean out the window and check the slicer in the wall. It had come much, much looser than Lyle thought it had. Laya was with me tonight, he sighed in relief. He would not be able to use it to slide back over to the other side of the courtyard (thanks to a little gift from Laya called gravity), but he was planning on using it in his escape after stealing the Sapphire, so he left it in place.

Then, he stepped to the door, listened into the hallway, decided it was clear, and set off. Soon, the Sapphire would be his.

- - - - - - - - - -

Princess Lena opened her eyes, awaking from a restless sleep. Most of her covers had been kicked off the bed and onto her lavender carpet. A few strands of her hair were pasted with sweat to her forehead. She hadn't been having nightmares -- at least, she couldn't remember any -- but there was still one vision she couldn't get out of her head, no matter how hard she tried.

She reached over to her night stand and took the knife Rhys had given her into her hands, holding it against herself. The blade was cool, but that was all right. It seemed to be the only thing in this room that was cool.

Lena paused for a moment after that thought and realized that it was awfully warm. She stood up from her bed, padded across the room to her window, and threw both halves out into the night. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath of the night breeze. Across the castle courtyard, she could see Masien and Roris at their post, keeping Satera's castle safe from intruders.

The spurt of happiness she felt at feeling the cool air did not last long, however, for the coolness of the night reminded her of the coolness of the dungeon -- the dungeon in which she had last seen Rhys. "Arm yourself well, and go find Maia!" she had told him, though it meant swallowing all her feelings to do so.

"Perhaps when I do, and when we are married," Rhys had said, "you would welcome the heirs to the throne of Landen into your kingdom, princess of Satera?"

Rhys in her home. That was a dream come true. Of course, he'd have Maia hanging on his arm...

Why don't you just get over him, Lena? a mental voice chided. He's decided to marry someone else, and all you've got is a stupid crush. Stop wasting your time and move on.

Realizing she had done too much and thought too much to be able to fall back asleep without a fight, Lena quietly dressed, throwing on a green shirt and slacks, boots, and a white cloak. Maybe a walk through the courtyard will help me evict Rhys from my mind, she thought, at least long enough to sleep. She stepped out of her room with this intention, but she didn't seem particularly taken with the idea: Rhys's knife was tucked into her belt.

A minute or two after she left, a slicer imbedded itself into the outside wall above her window.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lyle quietly stepped through the halls of Satera's castle. He had found a stairway, subdued the guard stationed there with a punch to the eye, and made his way up to the top floor, where the Sapphire awaited him.

As he came to the top floor's landing, Lyle quickly retreated back down the stairs. He had seen that, down the hall, two soldiers were stationed outside a room with eloquent double doors. Being a prince himself, he knew the king and queen's bedroom when he saw it. The trouble was, he wouldn't be able to sneak into the room housing the Sapphire, which was next to the king's quarters, without a distraction.

He would have to call on Laya once again.

Slowly, he re-ascended the stairs on his tummy, crawling up them one by one, so that, when he reached the top, he could look over the top stair and see the guards down the hall. Raising a finger, he whispered under his breath ("Foi!") and the potted plant at the end of the hall burst into flame.

"What the hell?" one of the guards exclaimed. Both spun on their heels to charge towards the end of the hall and extinguish the fire. The moment they did so, Lyle pounced. He drew his staff into his hand and charged at the guards, who didn't hear him coming until he was right behind them.

They spun around. In the hallway, lit only by a few dim torches and the bonfire that had once been the potted plant, Lyle's face looked almost like that of his dragon-form. He drew his lips back, revealing his teeth, as he swung his staff into the face of the first guard, who smacked backwards into the wall and fell unconscious. Before the second guard could react, Lyle had knocked the wind out of him with an elbow to the gut, then, taking a step backwards, he brought his staff down on the man's head, robbing him of his consciousness, as well.

The prince of Shusoran, after taking a ring of keys from the first guard, then stepped down the hall they way he had come, absent-mindedly waving a hand behind him as he went. The Tsu spell he cast created a burst of water which doused the flame in the potted plant, but Lyle did not notice. By that time, he was sliding one of the keys into the lock on the door which housed the Sapphire, and then he was twisting the handle, pushing the door open, and stepping inside.

- - - - - - - - - -

Princess Lena stepped into the courtyard of Satera's castle, but before she had even closed the door behind her, she noticed something very out-of-place. Not to mention rather unsettling.

Her eyes looked towards the sky. At first, she did not know what to make of it, and so she just stared. Strung across the courtyard, from the roof ledge on the south side of the castle to the wall right above her open bedroom window on the north side, there was a thin black line, visible against the night sky only because Dahlia, though distant, was giving off a soft purple glow.

Was this for some sort of celebration? On her birthday, the castle staff sometimes hung strings of lights across the courtyard, but her birthday had been three months ago. What, then, was this line for? And why did it lead straight to her open bedroom window?

Lena noticed something else on the south ledge, and she gasped. Why, if this is some sort of decoration, would the castle staff hang it by tying the line around the handle of a knife and embedding it in the stone of the ledge? And speaking of the ledge, why couldn't she see Masien and Roris up there on the roof?

And most startling of all, why had that line not been there moments before when she had opened the window?

Lena spun on her heels and ran back inside the mansion. She quickly ascended a few flights of stairs, ran down a hallway or two, and arrived on her bedroom's floor--

--where the first thing she saw was Nilv, the guard assigned to the west stairway (which led up to her parents' bedroom), unconscious, one eye already swelling a deep purple.

There was an intruder in the castle.

Taking two stairs at a time, Lena charged up the west stairway, where the stench of burning suddenly attacked her olfactory lobes. Taking a glance around, she saw three things. One, the potted plant at the end of the hall, though dripping with water, had thin trails of smoke rising from it as well. Two, the guards assigned to her parents' bedroom were also unconscious, just like Nilv down below. And three, the door to the trophy room, always closed and locked, was wide open.

Shoving her fear aside, Lena charged to the trophy room's doorway. Inside, she saw a tall man with green hair that touched his shoulders. His back was to her, but she could see he held the Sapphire, a family heirloom on her father's side, because he was holding it up against the window, letting the moonlight from Dahlia reflect in it.

"Hey!" she called into the silence, and part of her smiled in satisfaction when she saw the man jump. He spun on his heels and met her eyes, and the first thing Lena thought was, I've seen him before.

As he turned, Lena also noticed, for the first time, that he was armed. He carried a staff in a loop on his belt. It didn't look like he'd need it much, however; Lena saw that his arms, extending from a sleeveless brown shirt, were rippling with muscles.

It was Lena who finally broke the awkward silence. "Get out of my house," she said at last. The intruder, however, did not move. No, wait! Lena noticed he carefully slid the Sapphire into a bag hanging at his side. Then, once it was tucked away, he addressed her... by name.

"Princess Lena, I presume?" the intruder asked in a voice filled with a sarcastic charm that Meri the innkeeper had not been observant enough to notice. This time it was Lena's turn to jump in surprise. The green-haired intruder somehow found this funny, and his lips peeled back into a lopsided grin--

"Oh my gosh," Lena whispered, her hands covering her mouth. Her eyes focused on the intruder's mouth -- the intruder's grin -- as her mind pasted a memory over the scene in front of her. A scene from Landen's castle. Though Lena's eyes saw the green-haired man in front of her, her mind's eye saw a giant dragon, looking over the crowd at Rhys's wedding with a lopsided grin -- the same grin! -- of evil satisfaction. "Filthy Orakians!" the dragon had screamed, and as her mind replayed the scene, Lena found that, though the dragon's voice was dry and raspy, it was the same voice. Somehow, it was the same voice! "Maia will not be yours!"

"Oh my gosh, you're him. You're it!" The intruder's grin disappeared, a look of confusion taking its place. "You're the dragon!"

At these words, the intruder's confusion turned to outright shock. Blindly, it seemed to Lena, he charged across the room towards her, hands outstretched and reaching for her throat. Even in his rage, he was fast. Lena had no time to formulate a plan, and so she acted on pure instinct.

She reached down to her belt, grasped the knife Rhys had given her, and slashed across the air in front of her. The intruder saw the move coming, but not soon enough. He raised his arms in a defensive posture, but even still, the knife slashed across his right forearm, sending pain shooting up and down his arm, and splashes of blood across Lena's green shirt.

Lena soon found, to her horror, that it wasn't going to be enough to stop him. She brought her arm back to attack with the knife again, but by that time, the intruder was upon her. The princess of Satera saw him pull back his fist, saw it aiming right for her chin, felt it connect with her face and felt the blast of pain it created.

By then, blackness started to engulf her vision. The last thing she saw was her home's trophy room, spinning as she fell to the floor at the feet of the green-haired intruder, who was also -- somehow -- the dragon who had kidnapped Maia.

- - - - - - - - - -

I have to get her out of here, Lyle realized as he looked down at the unconscious form of Lena, princess of Satera. Some guards had seen him, too, but so what? When they wake up, they'll give everyone else his description, but this one, Princess Lena... Now she could give them a lot more. It was bad enough that Rhys was out searching for Maia; if Lena reported to the others that the dragon who had taken Maia was really a man, well, then everyone in Landen would be after him. And that couldn't happen.

Quickly, before the king and queen could wake up in the room next door (If they're not already awake), Lyle took three steps backwards so that he was in the middle of the room, and then he transformed.

It was not a change that remolded and reshaped his body. It was instantaneous. One minute he was Lyle, the next, he was the dragon-knight. As soon as he reverted back to human form, he found himself in the same clothes he'd been in before the change. He didn't question it. In fact, that's what his father had told him to do, that stormy night on the roof of Castle Shusoran, when the king had revealed to his son the power of the dragon-knight. "Don't question it, Lyle!" his father chided. "Just accept it for what it is: a gift -- a wonderful gift -- that Laya, in her esteemed wisdom, has granted to our family!" Who was he to argue with that?

Once he had taken dragon form, he stepped back to where Lena lay, out cold. He picked her up in his arms -- the same arms that kidnapped Maia days before -- and then ran across the room, full speed, at the double-paned window.

The dragon-knight smashed through the glass and fell a few feet before unfolding his massive wings and soaring out over the mountains beyond Satera. Lyle always enjoyed the sheer exhilaration of flight, even if it was a burdened flight of escape.

Before the whole ordeal at Satera's castle, Lyle had decided what he was going to do next: he was going to spend the night in the island cave, out on Landen's ocean. So far as he had learned, the only way out to the cave was via the boat of an old man from Yaata -- a man who only agreed to travel with a cyborg on board. Where was Rhys going to find a cyborg? Then, in the morning, he would take the Sapphire back with him to Aquatica, and that would be the end of his dealings with Prince Rhys of Landen.

Lyle's flight continued south until he reached the banks of the ocean, just outside of Yaata. There, he placed Lena on the shore, transformed, and tried to decide what he should do with her. If she awoke in the morning, she could be back to Satera by nightfall. However, by that time, he (and the Sapphire) would be safely home in Aquatica.

So he was decided. He would leave her here on the shore. He started to walk away from her, to again transform into a dragon and fly off to the island, when he suddenly noticed something he hadn't noticed before.

She still clutched the knife she'd used to gash his forearm.

How'd she manage that? Lyle wondered. Keeping a hold of it after I knocked her out cold is one thing, but during the entire flight here? Lyle decided she must really be attached to the knife.

Fine. Let her keep it. I'll never see her again anyway. A moment later, the dragon-knight of Shusoran was soaring through the air towards the island cave.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lena started by rubbing her chin, then blinking her eyes. When she opened them entirely, she saw the bright, purple circle shape of Dahlia high overhead.

She blinked again, and then Dahlia was partially obscured by the form of a dragon flapping its wings in flight. Lena came fully awake then, and sat upright, following with her eyes the "man" who had stolen the Sapphire. Apparently, he was headed out to the island.

"And I'll bet he still has my father's Sapphire, too," Lena muttered, climbing to her feet. She looked all around her, both out at the water of the ocean and the beach she stood on now. She decided she could just swim out to the island -- the water couldn't be that cold.

Lena placed the back of her wrist against the water, then immediately jumped away, shaking her wrist back and forth. Maybe it can be that cold... Okay, so swimming wasn't an option. What else was there?

Glancing down the shore, Lena suddenly laid eyes upon the answer. What she saw was the boat belonging to Old Man Blake from Yaata, but that is not what got her moving in a dead run down the beach. Attached by a pair of ropes to the main boat was a small row boat, designed for escape purposes in case of an emergency.

I think, Lena thought to herself, that this most definitely qualifies. Before walking out to the boat, she paused at the foot of the dock leading to it, and knelt down to carve a message in the sand with her knife. "Man on island. Stole gem," the message read. "Will return boat. Promise."

After making sure the message was legible, Lena then started walking away, slowly at first, so as not to disrupt the sand the message was written in. Then, once her boots were stomping on the wood of the dock, she broke out into a run. First, she was going to get her father's Sapphire back.

Then, she was going to make the dragon-man tell her exactly what he'd done with Maia.

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