[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter Ten

Lyle's flight from Cille Island across Aquatica had been draining on him. Since he was cold-blooded while in dragon-shape, the frigid temperature of the malfunctioning bio-dome got to him much more than it had gotten to Rhys when Rhys had emerged from the Landen-Aquatica tunnel without snow gear. However, the trip from Laya's Palace across Aridia to the Weather Control Tower itself had been much more comfortable. Aridia's hot, dry air instantly warmed him and helped him to flap his wings much faster than he had in his home bio-sphere.

He landed on the sand in front of the Weather Control Tower before reverting back to his natural shape. Then, he walked towards the front doors, which automatically slid open to allow him entrance, and stepped into the dark, cool, climate-controlled structure. Since he had never himself been in any of the transport tunnels connecting the bio-spheres (as a Layan, he had Laya's Palace at his disposal), Lyle didn't recognize the various machinery around him as being much like the kind found within them. In fact, the machinery was not the only thing the Weather Control Tower had in common with the transport tunnels; its maze-like structure was similar to the underground passageways, as well.

Lyle had thought his biggest problem upon reaching the tower would be determining how to fix Aquatica's weather. It was only after Lyle had proceeded halfway down the first long corridor of the Weather Control Tower that he realized he had a much bigger problem than that: he had absolutely no idea where the weather control systems themselves were actually located.

"Well, uncle," Lyle muttered under his breath, "you said Laya would guide me when I got here. Let's see her do her stuff."

At that moment, Lyle heard the Weather Control Tower's double doors open down the hallway behind him. Quickly, he spun on his heels to see who it was. As soon as he did, his jaw dropped open in stunned surprise. "By Laya's bow..." he whispered in awe.

It was Rhys. And now he had two cyborgs with him.

Glancing around, Lyle frantically searched for a place to hide. On his left, he saw what looked to be some kind of maintenance pit below an indented portion of the wall. He took two steps towards it, prepared to jump in... and then paused.

"Laya is with you. Always," his uncle had told him back in Cille. "She knows you are our only hope for survival here. Go to the Weather Control Tower. Laya will handle things from there." Then, right before Rhys had walked inside, he had prayed to Laya, asking her to guide his way.

Could it be, he wondered, that I am supposed to work with Rhys?

Not quite understanding what he was doing, he didn't dive down into the maintenance pit, but he did keep himself pressed against the wall, which meant that he would not be spotted by Rhys for another few seconds in the dim light of the Weather Control Tower, and that's when he received the answer to his question -- the new cyborg traveling with Rhys was a Wren-type. Lyle didn't know much about Orakian cyborgs aside from what his father had taught him about how to attack and destroy them, but he did know that the Wren-type was a programmed technical specialist. He would be capable of fixing the malfunctioning weather systems with ease.

All right, then, he decided, letting out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. He was going to do it; he was going to work with Rhys to fix the weather. Laya, be with me, he prayed. And then, he stepped out of hiding.

- - - - - - - - - -

"This looks a lot like the transport tun--" Prince Rhys started to say before pausing in mid-sentence, bringing his forward movement to a halt, and drawing his sword. "Who's there?" he finished.

Mieu and Wren saw him, too, and immediately, both of them activated their shoulder beacons. The path before them brightly illuminated, all three of them saw a tall, handsome, green-haired man, squinting at the brightness of the light. "Remember me, Rhys?" the man asked hesitantly. "Lyle, with the Sapphire?"

The androids relaxed and turned off their beacons as they saw Rhys put his sword back in its scabbard. "Of course," Rhys replied, stepping forward to meet Lyle half-way. "I met you back on the island. What in Orakio's name are you doing here?"

"Rhys..." Lyle began, kicking uncomfortably at the floor with his boot. "I'm afraid I wasn't entirely truthful with you the last time we met."

"I knew it," Mieu muttered under her breath. She was far enough away from Rhys and Lyle so that the green-haired man did not hear her. Wren, however, did.

"Who is he?" he whispered to Mieu.

"He's the one who gave us the Sapphire," she answered. "And I knew there was something funny about him. Now we're going to find out what it is."

"What do you mean?" Rhys asked carefully, his hand casually reaching down to rest on the hilt of his sword.

The move wasn't lost on Lyle, who moved quickly to explain. "I told you that I saw the bandits who took the Sapphire when I was out for a walk outside Yaata," he reminded Rhys.

"Yes," Rhys prompted him to continue.

"Well, the fact of the matter is..."

"He's not from Yaata," Wren whispered to Mieu. He had just completed a scan of Lyle with his internal sensors.

"What do you me-- Of course!" Mieu snapped her fingers. Both androids stepped forward to stand behind Rhys.

"...I'm not from Yaata," Lyle explained to Rhys. "I'm from the city of Shusoran, in Aquatica." He paused, swallowed. "I'm a Layan, Rhys."

Rhys watched as Lyle watched him and his two android companions, his eyes darting between the faces of all three. Then, after a long moment of consideration, Rhys finally acted. Slowly, he drew his sword from its sheath.

"I, I was just passing through your world," Lyle explained quickly. "I saw the bandits and I followed the one out to the cave, and--"

"Where is Maia?" Rhys interrupted.

"Your bride-to-be," Lyle nodded. "I don't know, Prince. I came through Landen because of our weather in Aquatica. We thought maybe you Orakians did something to us, or... Rhys..." He collected himself, started over. "Rhys, I need your help to thaw out my whole world. People, both Orakian and Layan, are dying from cold and starvation! Farther in here are the weather system controls, but I don't know where they are or how to fix them." He motioned towards Wren. "Rhys, your Wren cyborg can fix it up in no time at all. In return..."

Lyle paused, took a deep breath. "In return, I'll join your party to help out. I'll take you through the Layan lands of my world and help you find your bride."

Rhys did not say a word. He just kept watching Lyle, sword drawn and in hand. Finally, he turned to Mieu and Wren. "What do you think?" he asked them.

"I told you back when we left the cave that I thought there was something suspicious about him," Mieu answered. "Now I know what it was." She looked to Lyle. "I should have known from the start you weren't an Orakian."

"I'm sorry I deceived you both," Lyle nodded. "But I do want to help, and I need yours, as well."

"Having a Layan guide would be beneficial upon reaching the Layan lands of Aquatica," Wren advised Rhys. "But it is your decision, Prince, and both Mieu and I will accept whatever you decide."

Again, Rhys met Lyle's eyes. He'd already been deceived by the green-haired man once. Was Lyle lying to him again? Of course, if he wasn't, Wren was right in saying a guide through the Layan lands would be helpful. But could he really trust a Layan?

After a moment's hesitation, Rhys found himself placing his sword back in its scabbard. It was already clear that he had guidance on this journey; Orakio had already provided him with Mieu and Wren, two androids from his own personal army, programmed to serve and aide him. Rhys couldn't shake the feeling that perhaps Orakio had sent Lyle, as well, even if he was a Layan. "All right," he finally agreed, extending a hand to shake with Lyle. "We're glad to have you aboard."

"Thank you," Lyle smiled back. Then, he turned to the androids. "Do you know where the weather control systems are located?"

"Yes," Wren nodded, "they're not far. If you'd care to lead the way, Prince...?" Rhys continued marching down the corridor, Lyle beside him, with the androids close behind.

Now there were four.

- - - - - - - - - -

Rhys spoke to him -- small talk, mostly -- all the way to the weather control systems. He idly made up some story about being a merchant in Shusoran, a trade he'd supposedly picked up from his father. The fact of the matter was that Lyle didn't pay much attention to what Rhys said to him. He was far too focused on deciding whether or not what he'd done was right.

If his uncle knew that he was actually going to lead Rhys to Shusoran -- even if that didn't necessarily mean taking him on to Cille after that -- he would have had Lyle locked in the dungeon immediately. Meanwhile, his cousin and Lena both would have been proud of what he'd done. So which was it? Was what he'd agreed to do noble, or extraordinarily foolhardy?

Lyle couldn't help but believe he'd done the right thing. He truly believed he was following the will of Laya; that for whatever reason, Laya wanted him to work with Rhys. He did not yet know whether or not that meant taking Rhys to Cille itself, but he would deal with that at the proper time. For now, listening to Laya was about to save his world from the deadly winter it had been suffering for almost a month now. That was good enough for him.

"Just around this bend, right?" the female cyborg -- Mieu was her name -- asked her companion, Wren.

"Yes," Wren agreed. As they made the turn, Lyle saw they had come upon a large mass of machinery. It stood on the floor a head taller than even Wren, and it was covered with various flashing lights, readouts, and control panels. "And there it is."

"Can you tell what's wrong with it, Wren?" Rhys asked as the android casually walked around the device in a circle.

"Not yet, but I think I have a clue," Wren announced. He reached to the floor, out of sight from the others, and when he stood back up, Lyle saw he held a large sheet of metal in his massive hands. "Somehow, this access panel has been removed, and it looks like the section it covered has been damaged."

Mieu stepped forward, frowning slightly at Wren. "Those panels are pretty well-secured," she said. "How could it have come undone?"

They soon had their answer. Without warning, some kind of monster dropped down from the ceiling, hanging from an overhead pipe by its long, thin tail. It dropped right above Rhys, grabbing the prince from behind and digging its claws into his shoulders with a loud hisssss!

"A Topliz!" Wren yelled. Lyle jumped backwards, stunned, as Rhys tried to shake the beast off of his back. Mieu, meanwhile, acted. Before Lyle knew it, the (apparently extremely agile) cyborg had leapt into the air, flying past Rhys and sweeping the air above him with her claws as she did so.

Not coincidentally, the air she cut through was also occupied by the Topliz's tail, and her claws sliced it into four pieces. The creature it belonged to howled in agony, but still held onto Rhys... though not for long. Landing behind the prince, Mieu ripped the creature from Rhys's back, spun it around, and slashed her claws across its chest. It died instantly.

A moment later, the group realized they had not stumbled upon one Topliz but an entire nest of the creatures. Two more jumped from the ceiling and tackled Mieu. The red-haired cyborg wrestled with them on the floor, but before anyone could run to her aid, more of the vaguely-humanoid looking monsters were upon them.

One dived from the ceiling towards Wren. He raised his ceramic shot and quickly shot three blasts through its chest, but then two of its brothers leapt from the shadows and grabbed the cyborg by the arms, forcing him to drop its weapon.

Glancing at Rhys, Lyle noticed another was preparing to leap at him from behind. "Rhys, duck!" he called in alarm. Without turning around, the prince did so. Lyle took advantage of the opportunity to draw his staff and swing it through the air (right where Rhys's head had been a moment earlier). The Topliz which was jumping at Rhys was knocked across the area, into the side of the weather control system, where Rhys finished it off with his sword.

"Are you all right?" Lyle asked, running to Rhys's side.

"Yes," he managed to reply. He was breathing heavily, probably due to the shock of the sudden attack. "But Wren and Mieu..."

One moment, it looked like the cyborgs were in danger. Mieu was still wrestling on the floor with two Toplizs, and Wren, while on his feet, had two of the monsters to deal with, as well. However, just as Rhys and Lyle were moving forward to help the cyborgs, it was all over. Wren took advantage of the fact that his attackers were clinging to his arms by moving his arms -- and the Toplizs with them -- in towards one another. The monsters' heads connected with a loud crack. Then, he swung his right arm around and smashed the first Topliz into the side of the weather control systems. A moment later, he spun 180 degrees on his feet and slammed the second Topliz, as well.

At the same time, Mieu's two attackers were on top of her. Without warning, three claws suddenly emerged out of the back of one of the beasts as it fell limp and unmoving. Mieu then pushed the corpse off of her body, throwing it on top of her second attacker. She used the moment of distraction the move created to get to her own feet. Of course, the Topliz wasn't kept down for long, either, but by the time it got back to its feet, Mieu was upon it, and with two quick slashes across its chest, it fell dead, and the entire attack was over.

"Is everyone all right?" Wren asked as the four of them gathered in a circle.

"Mostly," Rhys shrugged. Then, he winced in pain, reaching towards his shoulder.

Mieu stepped forward. "Here, let me have a look at that." She lifted Rhys's sleeve past his shoulder, revealing a nasty spot of blood and gashed flesh on his right arm where the Topliz's claws had dug in. She covered it with her hand and a slight humming noise filled the space they all stood in. Rhys blinked in surprise, then, as Mieu removed her hand, he looked down at his shoulder, which somehow had healed.

Smiling, Mieu wiggled her fingers before her face. "It's been a while since I've been able to use my Res systems," she beamed. "How's the arm?"

"Like new," Rhys said in awe, swinging his shoulder around to test the arm. Meanwhile, Lyle stepped to where Wren was looking inside the weather control systems, where the access panel had been removed.

"How does it look?" he asked.

"Now that I know there were Toplizs around here," Wren answered, glancing at the access panel where it rested on the floor, "I can easily see their claw marks in the metal of the panel. It would appear that they clawed some wires inside here, as well, resulting in the unexpected cold in your homeland. There." He stepped out of the machinery, replaced the sheet of metal, and then walked to one of the control boards, where his fingers flew over the buttons faster than Lyle could follow.

"I've programmed a week of unseasonably warm weather in Aquatica," Wren finally announced, stepping away from the control board to join the others. "I'm sure your people won't mind. After that, normal weather patterns in Aquatica shall resume."

"Are you--" Lyle began, unsure it was really happening. "Are you saying the winter is over?"

Wren nodded. "The snow should be melting already."

A huge smile spread out across Lyle's face. "I owe you more than I can ever repay," he said at last. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Rhys said, smiling back. "And you can pay us back -- help me to find Maia."

Lyle met Rhys's gaze for a moment, considering. Then, he nodded his agreement. "We'll leave at once." He still didn't know if he would take Rhys all the way to Cille, but he figured Rhys had certainly, at least, earned passage to Shusoran. "We can go by ship from the village of Rysel."

- - - - - - - - - -

It was dusk by the time they had returned to Rysel, sailed across the ocean, and reached the Orakian town of Agoe, mere kilometers from the neighboring Layan land of Shusoran. Rhys, Mieu, Wren, and Lyle all filed out of the boat and onto dry land, but when the prince of Landen and the two androids started marching towards Agoe, Lyle sat down on a large rock near the shore and started throwing pebbles out into the ocean.

"Lyle?" Rhys called to him. "Aren't you coming?"

"No, you three go ahead," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be waiting here. It's been a while since I've been able to look at my world without seeing fields of ice and snow."

"Lyle..." Rhys started, moving towards the mysterious man, "you promised to guide us through the Layan lands of Aquatica in exchange fo--"

"I know what I promised, Prince," Lyle interrupted, launching another pebble into the ocean, "and Agoe is not a Layan land. Trust me. They don't want a merchant from Shusoran walking around their town."

Rhys started to protest, but before he could say a word, Mieu's hand was on his shoulder. "Lyle's probably right, Prince," Mieu whispered. "Come on, let's go."

After a moment, Rhys nodded. "All right." Then, he turned back to Lyle. "We'll try to be back within an hour," he called.

Without looking back, Lyle waved. "I'll be here."

- - - - - - - - - -

Within a few moments of arriving within the gates of Agoe, Rhys and the androids, upon presenting and identifying themselves, were immediately given an audience with the king and queen of the town. "Prince Rhys!" the king greeted, shaking Rhys's hand. "Welcome to Agoe. When my servants first told me you had arrived in my city, I was immediately puzzled as to how -- I had thought the passageways between the worlds were sealed. But now..." He glanced at Mieu, and then at Wren. "Now I see exactly how you have made it to Aquatica."

"Your majesty," Rhys began, "I come from Landen in search of my bride, Maia. As we were about to be married, a dragon swept down from the sky and kidnapped her. We believe this Laya-beast may have brought my bride to one of the Layan lands of your world. We were hoping... perhaps..." he finished with a shrug.

Immediately, the king and queen exchanged glances. Then, the king looked back to Rhys, and said, "Orakio has led you to the right place, Prince."

"How-- Wha--" Rhys didn't know what to say. "You know where my bride is being held?"

"Not for certain," the king clarified. "But there are rumors that a young woman is being held in Shusoran's castle. And for years..." He drifted off.

"For years what?" Mieu prompted.

"For years," the queen took over, "we have seen a dragon flying around the air above Shusoran."

Rhys exchanged excited glances with Mieu and Wren. Finally, at long last, it seemed they were on the right track! "Then," he said, turning back to the king and queen, "I believe our next stop will be Shusoran. What can you tell us about it?"

Before answering, the king stood from his throne and walked to a window that looked out over his kingdom. "You saw the state of Agoe when you entered the city," he said solemnly, and all three immediately knew what he was talking about. The city's main gate and walls were damaged in numerous places, and many of the town's buildings were in various states of disrepair. "My kingdom lies on the front lines of the Orakian-Layan conflict," the king told Rhys. "And our enemy in that conflict is Shusoran."

"How goes the war?" Wren asked hesitantly.

"Not well," was the king's honest answer. "My people are not strong enough to beat Shusoran. It just seems that no matter how hard we try... they always win."

"We're sorry," Mieu replied softly.

"Not as much as we are," the queen responded, speaking even softer than Mieu had. "We are weak at the moment, perhaps weaker than we have ever been. If the Layans attack," she began, pausing to exhale a deep breath, "we'll be wiped out."

- - - - - - - - - -

After sitting and throwing rocks for a while, Lyle had finally decided what to do about Rhys. His questions about how far to let Rhys proceed, and what he should do with (or to) the Prince of Landen once they reached that point had been resolved. The answer was probably not as good as Maia or Lena would have hoped, but much worse than his uncle expected of him, as well. Regardless, Lyle was confident of the path he had chosen. The slight confusion he'd felt since the moment he'd encountered Rhys in the Weather Control Tower was now gone, because he had finally done what he knew he should have done in the first place.

He'd given the entire situation to Laya.

It was dark when Lyle finally heard footsteps in the grass behind him. (He'd taken quite a risk in assuming dragon-shape, flying to Shusoran, conferring with his soldiers, and then returning to the boat, but he had made good time, and to Rhys, it would appear as if he'd been throwing rocks for the whole hour.) He stood up and turned, smiled... and saw Rhys approaching him, looking quite angry. Oh my... he thought with dread. Though outside he kept his smile firmly planted, inside, he was turning pale, wondering, What did the king and queen tell him?

"Hello," he called out in greeting. "How was Agoe?"

Rhys did not answer until they stood toe-to-toe. Then, he stared directly into his eyes, and Lyle returned the gaze without flinching. "I think you know what Agoe's situation is, Lyle," he hissed. "Your land is destroying it in the war."

"That's what you're mad about?" he asked incredulously.

"You bet I'm mad about it!" Rhys roared. "Your people are destroying my people's land, and I'm not supposed to get a little upset about it?"

"Please," Lyle sneered. "Rhys, don't even try and deny that if there were a Layan town just outside of Landen that your father wouldn't have his army attack it whenever he got the chance. In fact," he added, raising a finger for emphasis, then pointing it at Rhys, "as prince, you'd probably lead the charge. Hmm?"

He had swiftly silenced Rhys, but the prince still stared him straight in the eye. Finally, when he spoke, it was on a completely different subject. "The king and queen tell me there's rumors that a woman -- possibly Maia -- is being held in Shusoran's castle, and that a dragon is frequently seen circling the skies above the town. Have you heard anything about this?"

"About the dragon, yes," Lyle nodded. "We see it often. But as for the woman..." He shrugged and then lied, "I don't know anything about that. But then, being a merchant, I don't hear much about our royal family save for gossip, anyway."

Rhys nodded, then continued. "We're going to spend the night in Agoe." He snorted. "I guess you'll get to see first-hand what your land has done to those people." With that, he turned and started walking back towards the cyborgs.

"No," he said to Rhys's back. In response, the prince turned and grinned.

"What?" he chuckled. "You're going to stay out here all night? Sleep in the boat maybe?"

"No, I meant we're going to Shusoran tonight."

That made Rhys fix his cyborgs with stunned glances. "Tonight?" he repeated when he faced Lyle again.

"Yes," Lyle nodded. "There's a secret entrance to the castle's dungeon. I, uhh..." He shrugged and quickly thought of a lie to explain the knowledge. "I found it one night when I was locked in there after getting in a fight at the local inn. If we don't find anything in there, I think I can get us into the castle proper, and we can search there, as well."

"You want us to break into the castle in the middle of the night," Rhys replied, flabbergasted at what Lyle was suggesting, "right when the guards are most alert for intruders?"

"I think he has a good plan, Rhys," Wren spoke up. "What are we to do in the daylight? We obviously can not engage in a frontal assault on Shusoran's castle, and I doubt very much the town's leaders would grant an Orakian and two cyborgs audience, even if they do have a Shusoran guide with them. That leaves a stealth operation as our only alternative, and under the cover of darkness, our chances of success increase significantly."

Rhys sighed, ran a hand through his blue hair. He was silent for some time, but when he finally spoke, he said the words Lyle had wanted to hear. In fact, it was the words Lyle was counting on hearing. "It's crazy," he decided. "But it does appear to be our only option."

"Come then," Lyle said, waving his arm to the north. "It's time for me to go home."

- - - - - - - - - -

A half-hour later, the group slipped into Shusoran on a side road which entered on the western portion of the town. They kept low, glancing all around them as they quickly ran from one covered location to another, but the town was very quiet -- in fact, it seemed practically deserted.

"Where is everyone?" Rhys whispered to Lyle as they sat crouched against the side of a building.

"Sometimes the guards impose curfews for the night, when we-- when they believe Agoe might attack," Lyle answered, mentally cursing himself for the slip, and praying that no one caught it.

"What do you mean, 'we'?" Mieu asked quickly. Why is she always on my case? Lyle wondered. Even if I handed Maia to Rhys this instant, she would ask her little Wren-friend to run a scan and see if it's really her.

"All right," Lyle sighed. "You got me. I used to be a castle guard. That's why I'm confident I can get us through the castle, if I have to. And while I really did find this entrance while locked in the dungeon, it wasn't because of a fight at the inn. It was because I was caught in the middle of a rather passionate kiss with the king's daughter." Upon speaking the words, a mental image of himself and his sister suddenly sprang to mind, and Lyle had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

"You told me you were a merchant," Rhys protested.

"What do you think I became after being kicked out of the castle?" he responded. Then, before Rhys -- or anyone else -- could whisper anymore, he added, "Come on, we have to move."

Remaining crouched down, Lyle led them out of cover and ran to the water fountain, located in the northwest corner of the town. Once Rhys, Wren, and Mieu followed, he quickly leaned over and pushed in the proper stone in the fountain's base to release the lock on the secret entrance. Then, sliding with all his might, he moved aside a portion of the fountain wall, revealing a dim, damp dungeon beneath.

Mieu glanced inside, noticed the drop was about fifteen feet. "I'll go in first," she announced, and then she leaped inside. Her agility helped her to land on her feet, pounce back into an upright position, and then look up, signaling with a nod to the others that the path was clear.

Rhys entered the dungeon next, slowly lowered down by the powerful hands of Wren. Lyle followed, and then Wren himself jumped into the dungeon. After they all were assembled, they looked up at the secret entrance, which remained open. "How do we close that up?" Rhys asked.

"I can take care of it," Mieu answered. Extending her claws just a few centimeters, she used them as climbing claws and quickly scaled the wall of the dungeon, reaching up with one hand to slide the secret entrance closed before jumping back down to rejoin the others.

"Let's go," Lyle nodded, leading the way. "When I was a palace guard, there were no posts until much further into the dungeon, so we should be safe for a whi--"

As they turned the corner, they ran straight into a guard.

Rhys, Wren, Mieu, and the guard himself all jumped in momentary surprise; Lyle acted. Within the blink of an eye, his staff was in his hand. He swung it low and knocked the guard off his feet and flat on his back. Then, Lyle dropped to one knee (which he rested heavily on the guard's chest) and delivered a chop to the stunned soldier's throat. The guard gurgled once, and then fell unconscious.

"So," Rhys deadpanned, coming to stand beside Lyle as he looked down at the fallen guard, "that's how you treat your old co-workers. I'd hate to see how you treat enemies."

"I never worked with him," Lyle shrugged. "First time I've ever seen him in my life." The group continued on, though this time, Mieu and Wren led the way, followed by Rhys, who was followed by Lyle.

Soon, they approached another turn in the dungeon's corridors. Rhys, Wren, and Mieu all made the turn, but Lyle paused momentarily, glancing back at the fallen guard. The supposedly unconscious soldier then raised his head, turned it, locked eyes with Lyle, and nodded.

Winking "good work" to the guard (who was now getting back to his feet), Lyle continued on with the others.

- - - - - - - - - -

After checking for Maia every place in the dungeon where Lyle thought she could be, the group proceeded into the castle proper. "I don't like this," Mieu spoke up as they worked their way through the corridors with their elegant tapestry-lined walls. "There should be a lot more guards around here."

"Well," Lyle shrugged, "sometimes, when I was a guard, we imposed a curfew when we thought Agoe would attack. And other times, we did it when we wanted to spend the night partying."

"Lucky for us," Wren nodded. Then, as Wren walked past a window that looked into Shusoran's castle courtyard, he stopped, strode to the window, and then turned to Rhys. "Prince, there is a young woman at a window across the courtyard," he announced. "I would speculate that it is either the young princess with whom Lyle had the romantic tryst that resulted in his unemployment from the castle, or your bride, Rhys."

Lyle was at the window first. He glanced across... and saw Lena, arms folded on the window sill, looking out her (cell's) room's window at the stars. "No, it is not the young princess," Lyle stated. Then he stepped away, allowing an anxious Rhys a view.

"No, that's not Maia," he said slowly. "It's her! It's Princess Lena of Satera!" He turned to Mieu and Wren. "You know, the girl who broke me out of the dungeon back in Landen, after Maia's kidnapping." With a puzzled look on his face, he returned his gaze out the window. "How did she get here?"

Behind him and the cyborgs, Lyle exhaled a deep breath. Now was the time. "I found her," he said flatly.

Rhys, Mieu, and Wren all slowly turned and faced Lyle. The looks on their faces showed that they didn't quite know what to think of what Lyle had just revealed. "Lyle..." Rhys began. "Lena is a friend. I don't know where you found her, but please help me take her away from here, Lyle. She might know something about where Maia is being held."

He couldn't help it anymore. In that moment, Lyle dropped all of his pretenses and stories about being a merchant and being an ex-palace guard and of being caught kissing the princess who was actually his sister, and the prince of Shusoran fixed Rhys and his cyborg companions with his best lopsided grin of arrogant satisfaction. "If you want her back," he chuckled, "fight for her!"

He noticed that at his words, Wren's hands wrapped tighter around his ceramic shot, while Mieu prepared to extend her claws. Rhys, on the other hand, just took a step forward, his face a mask of confusion. "Lyle, I don't understand," he said. "What's going on?"

In response, he only widened his grin. "You'll see. Look, I have to leave you now, Prince Rhys."

"You're leaving?" Rhys said incredulously, and as loudly as he could inside the enemy castle. "Right in the middle of this?"

"I'll explain why later, if things work out," he added. "For now, just continue down this hallway until you come to a circular staircase. Take it three floors up, go down the hall to your right until you come to another short set of stairs. Take them up, and then follow the hall until... Well, you'll know." With that, he spun on his heels and ran down the hallway in the opposite direction of that which they were originally heading.

Very soon, one way or another, this would all be over, just like he had promised his cousin Maia.

- - - - - - - - - -

"What?" Rhys whispered to the androids after Lyle had disappeared from sight. "What's he doing? Mieu? Wren? What the hell is going on here?"

"I don't know, prince," Mieu admitted, "but I know I haven't trusted that guy from the start."

"Come," Wren called, quickly starting to follow the directions Lyle had given them.

Rhys was again perplexed. "We're really going to do what he said?"

"I do believe," Wren started to explain, "that the directions he gave us will indeed take us to the location we spotted Princess Lena at. Once we have her in our custody, safe--"

"We can get the hell out of here," Mieu finished.

"Sounds good to me," Rhys decided. And Wren was right -- the directions Lyle had given them took them up an (unguarded) circular staircase, down (another unguarded) hallway, until they reached a short staircase, and when the trio ascended these stairs and turned into the hallway they landed on--

- - - - - - - - - -

Princess Lena jumped as, without warning, Lyle suddenly burst into her room.

"Lyle!" she exclaimed, holding her heart. "You're back! I -- I got your message, an--"

"Shhhh!" Lyle hissed, holding a single finger before his lips. She ceased talking, and when she did, he started talking to her. "Rhys is here, Lena, in Castle Shusoran. I have been working with him since early this morning, when he walked into the Weather Control Tower just after I did. He has two cyborgs with him now, and one of them is Wren-type. That one fixed the weather control systems with ease, and that is why the snow melted this afternoon.

"Now," he continued, "as I said, he is here. I have brought him here. About two hours ago, I sat down on the shores near Agoe, a town to the south of here, and I listened to Laya. I was unsure whether or not I should escort Rhys all the way to Cille, or if I should earn his trust and then lock him in my dungeon. So I asked Laya. I asked Laya for a sign, Lena. And do you want to know what that sign is?"

Lena nodded, and after she did, Lyle went on. "I told Lena that I was going to challenge Rhys to a duel. Just him and me, my staff and his sword, no cyborgs and no spells. If Rhys wins, I will not only escort him to Cille, but I will personally take him to my cousin Maia, and if Maia should decide that she does indeed wish to marry him, I will support the marriage one hundred percent. Hell, if Rhys asks me to be his best man, I'll agree, because if I lose the duel, it will be a sign that Laya wants it that way."

"But what if Rhys loses?" she asked.

"You're not going to like this," he told her up front. Then, he explained. "If Rhys loses, I will have my guards pounce on his cyborgs and disassemble them, while I take Rhys below the castle to the dungeon, where I shall lock him away and make sure he never, ever sees Maia so long as he lives. Because if I win the duel, it will be a sign that Laya wants it that way. Do you understand?"

"I understand," she nodded. "And I don't mind telling you I'll be rooting for Rhys."

"Either way, Lena," he said, apparently ignoring what she'd just said, "you're about to be free." He stepped back then, bowed, and then -- in a move Lena found quite interesting for a captor to do to his captive -- he took her hand in his own and kissed its back.

He drew his staff from its loop on his belt. "I must leave now. Rhys will be here soon." Without another word, he turned around, left the room, and closed the door behind him.

Lena then fell to her knees and started praying to Orakio. "Great Orakio, please be with Rhys," she muttered under her breath. "Great Orakio, please be with Rhys. Great Orakio, please be with Rhys..."

- - - - - - - - - -

--they saw Lyle standing halfway down the hall, staff in hand and grin on face.

"Lyle!" Rhys whispered, leaving the androids behind to step forward and meet the strange green-haired man. "What's going on here? First you leave, then you--"

"You don't have to whisper anymore," Lyle called out. It was a normal speaking voice, but in the quiet of the hallway, and with the whispers they'd been speaking in for the last half-hour, it sounded much louder than it actually was. "My men have known you were coming since before you even arrived."

"He's no merchant..." Mieu grumbled softly, the truth -- this time, the whole truth -- was finally becoming apparent.

Rhys looked up at Lyle, his stunned eyes wide, and saw Lyle was grinning that lopsided grin of his. With that, he jumped back into a ready stance, and swung his staff into both hands, obviously ready for battle. "This is a trap, isn't it?" Rhys asked softly.

In response, he only chuckled. "Now it's time to see you really fight, Rhys!" Lyle said, and then, he attacked.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]