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Chapter Eleven

"Lyle..." Rhys started, taking a step back from his attacker's approach. "Lyle, what's the meaning of this?"

"That's Prince Lyle to you, Rhys," he sneered. "And you know what the meaning of this is. You're fighting for your friend Lena." Rhys jumped as Lyle swung his staff across the ground, trying to trip him. Then, as he landed, he immediately crouched underneath another swing of Lyle's staff.

"You were supposed to help us find Maia, you sick, deceitful Layan," Rhys roared in anger as he slid his sword out of its scabbard with a hisssss.

"Find Maia?" Lyle repeated. "Rhys, I know exactly where she is. However, you don't. So I guess you'll just have to fight for her. Defend yourself!" With that, Lyle again swung his staff at Rhys, who parried the blow with his sword. Lyle drew the staff back and tried again, but Rhys was again ready, and he blocked the blow, and a third one, with his sword before slashing his blade towards Lyle. The apparent prince of Shusoran blocked it with his staff, but to do so, he'd been forced to twist around, turning his back to face the wall.

Rhys took full advantage of this position and charged Lyle with sword swinging. Lyle was good, though -- he blocked every blow. Then, when Lyle's back was pressed against the hallway wall, Rhys pulled back his arm and swung his sword hard in a slash that, if true, would gash Lyle across the chest.

He's too good, Rhys realized as Lyle blocked this blow, as well. When his blade hit Lyle's staff, Lyle immediately used the staff to push Rhys's sword away, opening the prince of Landen's body. Lyle then lashed out with a swift kick to the abdomen which sent Rhys stumbling backwards and allowed him to step away from the wall.

Once again, Rhys found himself on the defensive. This time, however, he still didn't have his bearings completely straight after the kick he'd received put him off-balance. Lyle's staff repeatedly swung for his head and torso, and each time -- somehow -- he managed to block the attack. Finally, the roles were reversed, as Rhys found himself pressed against the hallway wall.

As he stood there, defending himself from Lyle's repeated attacks, one of the lessons his father most often repeated to him came into his mind. Always stay on the offensive, King Colin would say. Even when you find yourself on the defensive, find a way to twist the supposed obstacle to your advantage. A creative fighter is a good fighter, and a good fighter is a live one.

Thus, Rhys changed his defensive technique a bit. Instead of merely blocking Lyle's blows, Rhys instead attacked them, swinging his sword with all his might into Lyle's staff to parry each blow. Again and again, the weapons met in the air with a loud klang!, but finally, after five attacks, Rhys's plan worked. He swung his steel sword into his parry, and the result was he shattered Lyle's wooden staff in two.

Lyle was momentarily stunned by the sudden destruction of his weapon, and Rhys used the shock to his complete advantage. After completing the swing of his sword, he quickly brought the bottom of the hilt, which he held two-handed, up into Lyle's stomach, hard. Lyle keeled forward reflexively as the air was knocked out of him, and as he did so, Rhys brought the hilt of his sword back for another blow. The prince of Shusoran took this one squarely on the chin, and because he was still off-balance and short of air, he fell backwards, flat onto his back.

To his credit, he tried to move out of the way, but before he could, Rhys was on the floor with him, pinning him with a knee on his chest. "It's over," Rhys hissed, holding the tip of his sword inches from Lyle's throat. "You're beaten, Lyle."

Even in defeat, the green-haired man was still full of surprises. Rather than glower at Rhys or grumble an insult... Lyle started laughing, which must have hurt considering the knee Rhys still held to his chest. "You're a lot tougher than I thought, Rhys," he laughed, nodding as if he had received the final piece of a puzzle he'd been struggling to solve. "I submit to your authority. You win indeed."

Keeping an eye on the prince, Rhys removed his knee and allowed him to stand. The androids Wren and Mieu were quickly at Rhys's side, just in case Lyle tried any further deception. As he straightened his clothes and collected the pieces of his staff, Lyle grinned up at the trio. "Someone wants to speak with you, by the way." With that, he opened the nearby door, and Princess Lena of Satera hesitantly stepped out. She glanced at Lyle, who nodded, and then, she ran to Rhys.

"Are you all right?" Rhys asked her. She nodded yes, but Rhys had more questions. "Were you harmed or mistreated in any way?"

"No," Lena shook her head. "Lyle did not hurt me, and in fact, he instructed his castle staff to treat me as a guest."

"See?" Lyle smiled, stepping forward to stand next to Rhys and Lena. "I'm not so bad after all, am I?"

"No," Mieu spoke up, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "not at all -- for someone who's lied to us every opportunity he's had."

"I apologize for that -- for all of that," Lyle said quickly. "Now, I'm prepared to give you the whole truth, and my friend Lena here can verify everything I say as accurate."

"Your... friend?" Wren spoke up.

"Yes," Lena agreed, nodding towards the android.

Rhys made the quick introductions. "Princess Lena of Satera, this is Mieu, and this is Wren. Now, Lyle, you were saying something about the truth...?"

"Two months ago, my cousin disappeared," Lyle began. "One afternoon she went out onto the shores near her kingdom -- something she did all the time -- but this time, a storm sprang up suddenly. When my cousin did not return, her father -- my uncle -- sent the guards out looking for her, but she was nowhere to be found."

"Lyle," Rhys interrupted. "I'm sure this is a wonderful story and all, but when we were fighting you told me that you knew exactly where Maia was being held. Could we please talk about that first, and your cousin later?"

Lena bowed her head, as did Mieu, while Wren stared forward. "Rhys," Lyle started to explain, "Maia is my cousin."

The hallway of Castle Shusoran remained silent for a long moment. Finally, the silence was broken by Rhys, who whispered, "What?"

"Maia is the Princess of Cille, the Layan kingdom to the north of here. Two months ago, she disappeared, and somehow ended up on the shores of your kingdom with no memory of who she was or where she came from."

"Maia," Rhys started, unsure what to think of anything, "is a Layan?"

"That's right," Lyle nodded. "We scoured Aquatica for a month in search of her. Then, one night, I had a vision while I slept. No, it wasn't a dream," he quickly added, "it was a vision. In it, I was surrounded by light -- pure, blinding white light -- and in the distance, I saw a large... spirit is the only word I can think of. And this spirit was pure black. It floated in the distance, and I was quite afraid, but it spoke to me. It said, 'Lyle, Maia is with the Orakians in the world of Landen. You must rescue her. You are her only hope.'"

"Maia didn't need to be rescued," Rhys replied softly. It was obvious he was still shocked by the revelation that his beloved Maia was a Layan. "She was safe in my kingdom. No one hurt her."

"I know," Lyle nodded, "she told me that."

"Then why did Laya appear to you and tell you to rescue her?" he demanded.

Lyle shook his head. "Oh no," he corrected. "No, my vision was not of Laya. I don't know what it was, but it was most definitely not Laya." Rhys looked up at him, nodded, and then he continued. "Anyway, I went to Landen, and eventually, I heard from the innkeeper of Satera that a mysterious woman named Maia was about to be married to Prince Rhys of Landen. So, I..." He paused. He didn't know how Rhys would react to this next. "I--"

"He sent the dragon that kidnapped Maia," Lena suddenly spoke up. "And later, he sent the dragon that stole the Sapphire. I caught the dragon, however, and it took me back to Lyle, who then brought me to Shusoran."

The prince of Shusoran stared at Lena for a moment before recovering himself. "Yes, that's it, exactly," he said. "When I returned to Shusoran, I realized I had to travel to the Weather Control Tower if I was to save my world, and so I did, and that's when I met you, this morning."

Rhys nodded upon completion of the story and then started pacing up and down the hall. "Rhys?" Mieu asked as he stepped past the android. "Rhys, are you all right?"

He did not respond. Instead, he simply turned to Lyle and said, "When can we go to Cille?"

"Cille routinely sends boats over to Shusoran," Lyle shrugged. "I suppose we could take the first one in the morning."

"No," Rhys instantly protested... but at the same time, Wren stepped forward and said "No," as well. Then, Wren clarified.

"No, prince, I agree that we wait until morning to travel to Cille, but--" He turned towards Lyle. "--we will not have to rely on Cille for transportation. I think that you, Prince Lyle, and you, Princess Lena, will be able to provide that quite adequately."

"Excuse me?" Lena asked the android.

"I'm afraid I don't understand, either," Lyle admitted.

"Prince Lyle," Wren began, "that purple jewel in your belt buckle..."

"This?" Lyle asked, taking it from his buckle and holding the small stone before the group. "This is just a gem my mother gave me before she passed away. It's a family heirloom."

"It's more than that," Wren revealed. "It's also the Moon Tear. I noticed it back when you joined our party at the Weather Control Tower, but thought little of it then. Now, however..." He turned to Lena. "Princess Lena, would you allow me to have a better look at the blue stone at the end of your necklace?"

Lena nodded her agreement and removed the necklace, placing it in Wren's metallic hand. "Just as I thought," he smiled.

"It's the Moon Stone, isn't it?" Mieu asked. She was smiling, too.

"That's what my mom called it when she gave it to me," Lena announced. "The Moon Stone. Mine's a family heirloom, as well."

"Affirmative," Wren replied. "This Moon Stone and your Moon Tear, Lyle, are actually microchips that once were part of the Satellite Control System, located on the upper level of the Weather Control Tower. Long ago, when the worlds were sealed, the Moon Stone and the Moon Tear were removed, sending the moons Dahlia and Azura to the distant orbits they now occupy."

"However," Mieu picked up. Apparently, Wren's enthusiasm was contagious. "If we put these two stones -- er, microchips -- back into the Satellite Control Systems, Dahlia and Azura will return to their proper orbits, tides will return... and tomorrow morning, at low tide, we'll be able to walk across the sea itself on a sand bar stretching between Shusoran and Cille Island."

"Wow!" Lena exclaimed. "I guess it was pretty lucky that Lyle and myself had these stones, or mirco-- whatever."

"I don't think it had anything to do with luck," Lyle smiled. "Laya is with us."

"And Orakio," Lena quickly added.

"All right, then," Rhys said, getting right back to business. "Lyle, Lena, you two get some sleep. Mieu, Wren, can you two lead me to the Satellite Control Systems?"

"Prince," Mieu began, "I think you should get some sleep, as well. Wren and I will return to Aridia overnight, return the Moon Stone and the Moon Tear to their proper places, and return in the morning, just in time to head off to Cille.

"Very well," Rhys finally agreed. "Lyle, is it safe for Wren and Mieu to leave the castle?"

"Of course," Lyle nodded. Then, he raised his voice and called, "Corsen!" Almost immediately, a guard appeared at the top of the stairs they had used to enter the hallway they stood in now. "Corsen," Lyle addressed the guard, "I would like these two cyborgs, Wren and Mieu, safely escorted to the castle gates. They have an errand to run overnight, but when they return in the morning, I'd like them given free entrance into the castle. They are my guests. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," Corsen nodded. "If you'll come this way, please?"

"Good-night, Rhys, Lena, Lyle," Mieu called before she left. "Rest well. In the morning, Rhys... we find your bride."

"Yeah," Rhys replied with a shrug. "I guess so."

As the androids left, Lena and Lyle exchanged a concerned glance. "Come, Rhys," Lyle then said, motioning the prince further down the hall. "There is a wonderful guest suite just ahead which I think you will find to your satisfaction."

- - - - - - - - - -

Lena sat on the edge of the bed in Rhys's guest quarters, watching the prince as he stared out his suite's window, his back to her. Ever since learning that Maia was a Layan, he had been extremely quiet and withdrawn. Lena wanted nothing more than to walk over to where he was and to hold him, to tell him that everything would work out. Also, deep inside, there was a part of her that was almost -- almost -- happy that Rhys was apparently having second thoughts about Maia. She pushed these feelings aside, ashamed at the selfishness of them.

"Rhys, everything will work out," she assured him. "Tomorrow morning, you'll be with Maia again--"

"Maybe," Rhys interrupted. "You heard Lyle. You heard him tell us how much his uncle was opposed to me ever seeing her again. Even though Lyle will be with us, there's still a chance we won't make it to Maia."

"Don't forget," Lena reminded, "that Orakio will be with us, as well."

"I suppose," he sighed.

As she watched his back, Lena bit her lip and pondered the situation. For the entire length of his quest, up until less than an hour earlier, he had believed he was on a mission to free Maia as a prisoner. Now, all of a sudden, he had learned that he was just coming to Maia's home, prepared to fight her father if he had to in order to see her again. So is that it? Lena wondered to herself. "Rhys," she said aloud, "are you afraid that Maia won't want to see you tomorrow."

He shrugged. "There's that."

"Rhys, you heard Lyle say that Maia very much wants to see you."

"I also heard him say that she's unsure about whether or not she wants to go through with a marriage to an Orakian."

"So that's what's bothering you?" Lena asked. "That after all you've gone through, you may be rejected."

"That's part of it," Rhys conceded, stepping over to stand before her. "But another part of me..." A sigh. "Lena, I'm not sure anymore if marrying Maia is the right thing to do."

"What do you mean?" she questioned slowly.

"I mean that our children would be half-Layan," he pointed out. "That means that Landen would be ruled by a half-Layan king! Lena, you and I have known of the other worlds for only days. I'm afraid how my people would react if I returned home not just with Maia, but with the news that she is actually Layan."

"They all loved her before, though," she replied angrily. "They'd be hipocrites if they turned their backs on her now -- and that includes your mother and father, Rhys, no offense."

"I don't know, Lena," Rhys said, waving his hand in exasperation and returning to the window. "I'm just so confused."

"So... do you want to just return to Landen and call the whole thing off?"

"No," Rhys answered quickly. "No, out of all of this, there's only two things I'm sure of. The first is, I truly do love Maia. And I want nothing more than to see her again, even if the future beyond that is uncertain. So, the second thing I'm sure of is that I don't want to go home. I want to go to Cille and see Maia -- fight to see her, if I have to."

"Then I commend you, Rhys," she said, standing up off the bed. "I've always thought that Maia was a very lucky girl to have you. Only now am I starting to realize just how lucky she'll be."

Turning from the window, Rhys fixed her with a slight smile. "What do you mean, you've always thought Maia was lucky? You just met me in the dungeon of my castle a few days ago."

Damn... Lena cursed herself as she felt her cheeks turn bright red. Quickly, she bowed her head, hoping Rhys wouldn't notice her blush. "It's getting late," she said. "I better get some sleep, and let you get some, too."

"All right," Rhys said after a moment's pause. "Good-night, Lena."

"Good-night, Rhys." As fast as she could without appearing to be running, she left his guest suite, closed the doors behind her, and then leaned back against them, closing her eyes. Why didn't you just come out and throw yourself at him, Lena? She put a palm to her cheek; they still felt red-hot. Regaining her composure, she walked down the hall to the next set of rooms, which was the suite that had been assigned to her throughout her stay at Castle Shusoran, first as a half-guest, half-prisoner, and then as a full fledged-royal guest. She entered her rooms, closed the doors behind her, and walked to the bedroom, where she kicked off her shoes and almost started to undress... when a voice made her jump a meter into the air.

"Hello, Lena." It was Lyle. He was sitting in the corner chair, bathed in shadows.

"Lyle!" she breathed heavily. "You scared me to death!"

"I didn't mean to," he assured her, standing from his chair. "I guess I started to doze, and I wanted to speak with you before you changed. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. What did you want to talk about?"

"I wanted to thank you, actually," he smiled. "Thank you for not telling Rhys about my power."

"Don't mention it. I've seen you change over the last few days. I didn't see any reason why Rhys had to know you were the one who kidnapped Maia. And besides, what I told him was a half-truth, at least. You did control the dragon at his wedding and at my home."

"Yes, I suppose that's true enough," Lyle nodded. "I'll let you get ready for bed now in privacy. Sleep well."

"Thank you, Lyle." He stepped out of her bedroom and walked through the main room of her suite. Lena heard the door handle turn, but she did not hear the door itself open. Instead, she heard Lyle's voice call out to her.

"Oh, and Lena, if things don't work out between Rhys and Maia... I pray that Laya is with you to help you win his heart." After that, he opened the door and then closed it behind him.

Lena sat down on her bed and smiled. She realized she was blushing again. Maybe a nice breeze will cool down my cheeks, she thought, stepping towards the open window. When she got there, she looked out at the stars... and then, she glanced down into the chair which Lyle had just vacated.

There, sitting on the chair, she saw that Lyle had left the knife he'd taken from her back in the Island Cave -- the knife Rhys had given her back in Landen's dungeon.

- - - - - - - - - -

Much like the deserts of Motavia -- before Mother Brain had terraformed it into a green world -- the desert bio-sphere Aridia, while blisteringly hot during the day, cooled significantly at night. The androids Wren and Mieu padded across the sand on their way back to the Weather Control Tower, and though the path before them was pitch dark (they did not activate their shoulder beacons for fear of attracting Giants), the androids could see perfectly, thanks to the night vision system in their optical arrays.

"Are you sure this is wise?" Mieu finally asked Wren. "I mean, Orakio sent the moons away for a reason. Should we be bringing them back?"

"The worlds were sealed and the moons sent away," Wren began, "because of the Devastation War, and though many Orakians and Layans still fight one another, the conflict is, for the most part, over. I think it will be fine to return Dahlia and Azura to their proper orbits."

Just then, both androids heard a voice from behind. "Hey, you," the voice called. It sounded strangely familiar to both of them. They turned around and could not believe their eyes. Activating their shoulder beacons for a better look, Mieu and Wren saw the same thing.

It was Miun. It was their android friend who, 1,000 years earlier, had left with Orakio on what he'd called "the final battle." Mieu and Wren ran to her side. They were horrified to see that she had suffered massive damage. The synth-flesh on her left shoulder had been completely removed, and the circuits underneath were blackened and charred. It was for that reason that her left arm hung limply at her side, unmoving.

But what was most horrifying to Mieu and Wren was that all the synth-flesh on the entire left side of her face had been completely torn away, revealing the circuitry underneath. Her left eye had been gouged out altogether. Also, as the android stood, she wobbled slightly, as if her entire system could crash at any moment... which, Wren decided, actually wasn't that far from the truth.

"Miun!" Mieu cried out to the android. "Miun, it's me, Mieu, and Wren! Don't worry, Miun, we can help you!"

"Where is Orakio?" Miun replied, gazing at both of her fellow androids with her one remaining eye.

"That's what we were going to ask you!" Mieu replied. "It was you and Siren that left with him for the final battle. Can't you tell us what happened to him?"

"Where is Orakio?" Miun repeated. "It's been 1,000 years, but I'd know his black sword anywhere!"

"Miun... didn't you hear what I just said?"

With that, Miun started walking away from the androids (wandering would have been a better term), out across the wastelands of Aridia. "Miun, come back!" Mieu called after her. She started to stride off in the heavily damaged android's direction, but Wren's powerful hand gripped her upper arm.

"No, Mieu," he said softly, "let her go."

"Wren, she needs help!" Mieu protested.

"Sadly, she is beyond help," Wren sighed.

"What do you mean, 'Beyond help?'"

"My scans indicate massive structural damage, as you no doubt witnessed yourself," Wren began to report. "But also, I detect extensive breakdowns in her neural net, accompanied by severe impulse pathway degradation. Miun is suffering from unrecoverable dementia," he finished. "I'm sorry, Mieu, but there's nothing we can do."

"Can't we at least interface with her memory core," she pleaded, "and find out what happened to Orakio?"

"I'm afraid not. Enormous portions of her memory core have been melted down and fused together. Her brain is now little more than... scrap metal."

Accepting reality, the two androids again started off towards the Weather Control Tower. "What happened to her, Wren? What could have caused all that damage?"

"I think perhaps time itself, and the strain of centuries of operation without standard maintenance, accounts for some of it."

"Some?" Mieu repeated. "But not all?"

"No," Wren admitted. "I believe most of the damage she is suffering from is the result of injuries. Combat injuries."

"What could have done that to her, though?" Mieu wondered. "What could have done that to her face?"

"I'm not sure..." Wren answered hesitantly. "But, on her face, where the synth-flesh was torn, I did detect... claw marks."

"You mean something with claws ripped open her face like that? Wren, our synth-flesh is strong, and ours is just as old as hers. Even a Topliz's claws shouldn't cause that much damage."

"I didn't say it was a Topliz's claws," Wren clarified. "I just said it was claws."

They completed their journey to the Weather Control Tower in silence.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Your majesty," said King Cille's chief aide, Vallen, as he rushed into Castle Cille's library. "Your majesty, we have a situation developing."

"I'm reading, Vallen," King Cille replied impatiently.

"But, sir--"

King Cille slammed his book closed. "This had better be good," he grumbled at his servant.

"Your majesty," Vallen began, "your nephew, Lyle, is crossing a sand bar between Shusoran and Cille Island."

"What?" King Cille shouted in confusion. "There is no sand bar connecting our lands!"

"There is now," Vallen nodded. "Last night, guards reported seeing the moons actually moving in towards one another. With the moons in closer proximity, the tides are more powerful, and at low tide this morning, a sand bar appeared, connecting Shusoran and Cille Island."

"So my nephew is coming to see me," King Cille said slowly, realization dawning on him. "Why is this a 'situation'?"

"Because, your majesty," Vallen answered hesitantly. "He brings with him Prince Rhys, Rhys's cyborgs, and a young woman whom our guards identify as an Orakian princess Lyle brought to Shusoran days ago as a prisoner."

"Has my nephew gone mad?" King Cille exploded, leaping from his chair in anger. "I shall have him stripped of his title and locked within my dungeon for this!" He breathed heavily, but soon, rational thought returned. "However, that will have to wait. For now, seal the castle. Recall all guards to the castle proper, even the ones in the dungeon. I will go to my throne room."

"Yes, your majesty," said Vallen, moving out of the way to allow the king to leave the library.

"Oh yes," the king threw over his shoulder. "Have Maia brought down to the throne room with me. Have the guards drag her there if they have to."

- - - - - - - - - -

When they entered Cille, Wren and Mieu stood on either side of Rhys and Lena, daring the assembled onlookers, many of whom scowled, hissed, and even spit in their direction, to attack the Orakian prince and princess. Lyle, meanwhile, led the way, and it was most probably his presence that kept the Layans from doing anything save shout.

"The people of Cille are insulted," one shopkeeper yelled, "that you want the hand of Maia, our fair princess! Begone!"

"See what I mean," Rhys whispered to Lena, "about how kindly they'd take to Maia and I's marriage?"

At that moment, proving Rhys's point, someone shouted, "Layans should not marry despicable Orakians!" Soon after that, the main entrance to the castle was in sight. Only there was a problem.

"It looks sealed," Lena commented.

"It is," Lyle nodded. "My uncle is taking our arrival almost as bad as I'd expected. No worry. I planned for this." The prince of Shusoran led them to one of the eight fountains which sat alongside the road that ran in front of the castle.

"Why aren't there any guards around?" Wren asked Lyle.

"My uncle probably had them all recalled into the castle," he answered.

"Why aren't the townspeople attacking us then?" said Mieu.

"I think that's your doing," Lyle responded. Off her puzzled look, he explained. "Few of my people have ever seen a cyborg of your type, Mieu, or of Wren's, for that matter. And with the size of that gun of Wren's... Well, I'd keep my distance if I were them, too."

They had reached the third of the eight fountains. Just as he had done in Shusoran, Lyle opened a secret entrance into the dungeon, and after all five of them were safely inside, Mieu closed the gate, shutting them off from the gawking, insulting crowd.

Wren and Mieu activated their shoulder beacons and the way before them was illuminated. "If I know my uncle," Lyle said in a normal speaking voice, "he'll have recalled all of the guards from the dungeon here, too."

"Shouldn't we whisper, just in case?" Rhys asked, though he did not whisper as he said it.

"Don't worry about that," Lyle laughed. "We'll have bigger problems soon enough."

They quickly learned what it was Lyle meant. After twenty minutes of roaming around the dungeon, the group turned a corner. There, in the distance, they spotted a staircase which, apparently, led up into the castle.

"Let's go," Rhys said, stepping forward to take the lead.

"No!" Lyle whispered after him, lunging forward to grab Rhys by the collar. However, it was too late. Before Rhys realized it, a huge form moved out of the shadows of the dungeon. It was some kind of monster, and it was huge -- bigger even than the Giants he and Mieu had encountered in Aridia.

"What's that?" Lena screamed as Rhys jumped back from the giant lizard beast.

"It's my uncle's guard Lasher," Lyle explained, drawing his staff. "And it looks to me like my uncle didn't have his guards feed it this morning."

Rhys, still being the closest, drew his sword and swung it at the monster as it opened its mouth and let out a loud hisssss. The Lasher dodged Rhys's blow, then swung its tail around towards Rhys's chest. Rhys dived back into the dungeon wall, barely missing the blow.

"Watch that tail!" Lyle warned. "It's poisonous!

"Rhys!" Wren called out to him. "Move back behind me. Let me get a clear shot."

"Sounds good to me," Rhys nodded. The Lasher, however, refused to play along. As Rhys retreated, it reached out one of its short, thin arms, baring its teeth and spitting out another hiss. Soon, the hiss turned to a howl of agony, as Lena drew her knife behind her head and whipped it forward. The blade removed the Lasher's hand at the wrist before crashing to the floor, along with the severed limb.

The move distracted the Lasher long enough to give Rhys time to escape behind Wren. Once he was safely out of the way, Wren raised his ceramic shot, powered it up, and fired off several blasts at the Lasher, who was in the process of preparing a charge at the group. Instead, it was sent flying backwards down the dungeon corridor, its blood splashing on the walls as it fell, until finally it landed flat on its back, dead.

Lyle moved forward to examine the corpse as Lena retrieved her knife. "My uncle is not going to be happy about this," Lyle groaned.

"Good," Lena responded. "Serves him right for having it try to kill us."

This drew a lopsided grin out of Lyle. "I couldn't agree with you more. Come on. We have an appointment with my uncle."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rhys knew they were in the right place when he saw the large painting of a woman to the left of the elegant double doors. The woman was still the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen in his life, and the painting did her justice.

It was of Maia.

To the right of the doors was another painting, this one of a younger girl who bore a striking resemblance to Maia. "Is that Maia's sister?" Lena asked.

"Yes," Lyle nodded. Then, without further hesitation, he placed his hand on the throne room's door handle, turned the knob, and pushed.

The door had been sealed from the inside.

"Open up, uncle!" he yelled as he beat the door with his fist. "You are wrong to keep Maia from Rhys, and I was wrong to support you. Open up!"

"Lyle," Wren said, stepping forward. "If you'd allow me?"

"Certainly," Lyle said with a wave towards the door. Before Rhys knew it, Wren had taken a step backwards, then he charged forward with all his might. The wood of the door shattered into splinters under the weight of his ultra-strong android body. Moments later, they were inside.

Several guards lined the perimeter of the throne room. They kept their eyes locked on the group of invaders, but never for a second did Rhys so much as notice them. Instead, he remained focused on the tall, mustached man who stood before the throne, clad in elegant robes and clutching a staff of some kind. Rhys didn't need to see the resemblance to Maia to know this was her father, King Cille.

Then he saw her. She was behind her father, to the side of the throne, where two guards held her by the arms. "Maia!" he called out, and started to run in her direction, but then King Cille took a step to the side, blocking his path. Soon, Lyle and Lena were on either side of him, with the androids just behind, and he stared down King Cille.

"Rhys!" Maia called, struggling against the guards who held her.

"So, this is the one they call Prince Rhys," he sneered. Then, he turned his attention to Lyle. "And you, my nephew. Have you gone mad?"

"No, uncle. I only followed your instructions."

This made the king quite frustrated. "You call bringing two Orakians and two cyborgs into my throne room following my instructions?" he roared. "I'll have you locked in my dungeon for this, Lyle."

"You told me to follow Laya. To listen to her," Lyle reminded him. "That's what I did. I don't want Rhys here, uncle -- Laya does."

"Blasphemy!" he roared, but before he could reprimand his nephew anymore, Rhys took a step forward.

"Tell your guards to release her," he demanded, "or I will remove them from her by force."

King Cille's temples bulged with anger as he turned his head to stare incredulously at Rhys. "How dare you speak to me that way, you Orakian monster!" he hissed. "I am the king of Cille! And now, I'll show you -- all of you -- how we handle Orakian spies in my country!"

With that, the jewel on the end of his staff glowed, and then, six small, winged creatures suddenly appeared in the room. "Dryads..." Lyle whispered as the fairy-like beings took to the air and swarmed Rhys's party. Each one attacked a different member of the group, while two swarmed in on Wren.

Lyle jumped backwards and ducked as the Dryad that attacked him circled his head. He dodged out of the way as the Dryad dived in towards his head, its claws ready and bared. Once the Dryad flew past, Lyle swung his staff around and connected squarely with the Dryad's body. It emitted a squeal of pain before being slammed across the room, where it finally crashed to the floor in a heap.

While the Dryads were small and agile, Mieu was just as agile and even faster. She quickly extended her claws and sliced one of the Dryads in half before doing the same to the Dryad which attacked Lena. Rhys, at the same time, swung his sword through the air, killing a Dryad instantly, while Wren eliminated the two Dryads which attacked him with two shots of his ceramic shot.

Before the five of them could regroup and attack Maia's father, King Cille aimed the jewel of his staff at Wren, and a moment later, an energy blast surged forward out of it, catching Wren squarely in the chest and knocking the big android down. Mieu ran to his side but quickly noticed that she was the king's next target. She dived out of the way of a second energy blast, but it still caught her in the shoulder.

As King Cille adjusted his staff to take a second shot at Mieu, he suddenly found the weapon flying out of his hands. He looked over and saw his nephew Lyle following through on the swing of his staff which had disarmed him. Then, Lyle brought his staff back around towards his uncle's feet. King Cille jumped to dodge the blow -- in fact, he jumped right into a snap kick, which he delivered to Lyle's jaw. Dropping his staff, the prince of Shusoran fell down.

Maia's father then walked to retrieve his staff, but before he could, Lena jumped into his path, holding her knife before her. "Stop right there!" she shouted, but King Cille virtually ignored her, pausing only long enough to slap her across the mouth with the back of his hand. The force of the blow knocked Lena off of her feet and sent her rolling away from the throne. Then, unhindered, the king reached down for his staff--

--when suddenly, a white boot landed on top of the weapon, holding it to the ground. The king looked up and saw Rhys standing before him, sword drawn, ready for battle. "I'll give you one last chance to surrender, King Cille," Rhys told him. "I have no wish to hurt you."

Before Rhys knew what was happening, King Cille had lashed out a hand and wrapped it tight around Rhys's sword-holding wrist. Then, he twisted the joint with all his strength. Rhys felt searing pain shoot up and down his arm and involuntarily, he dropped the sword. With his free hand, King Cille then backhanded Rhys across the mouth, sending him rolling to the floor.

Forgetting about his staff for the moment, he followed Rhys to where the prince tried to get back to his feet, supporting himself with both arms. The king kicked those arms out from under him, then kicked Rhys in the ribs. Then, just for good measure, he planted his boot once in Rhys's face.

"Father!" Maia yelled from where she was still being held.

"Silence!" King Cille roared at her, momentarily taking his attention away from Rhys. "Stay out of this, Maia!"

"Hey, uncle."

King Cille spun on his heels and found Lyle standing right behind him. Before he could react, however, he saw his nephew's staff flying towards his face, battering-ram style. It collided with his nose, resulting in an explosion of pain throughout his head and a splattering of blood across his robes. Knocked backwards, he struggled to maintain balance.

With arms flailing at his side, he crashed right into Mieu, who spun him around, punched him once in the abdomen, and sent him reeling backwards again. This time, he landed in the arms of Rhys, who slammed his fist once into his kidneys before spinning him around, punching him across the face, and then grabbing him by his lapels.

"I told you I didn't want to hurt you," Rhys roared. "But look at what you're doing. You're holding your own daughter a prisoner! And you have the nerve to call me a monster? This 'filthy Orakian' and his family treated Maia like the princess she is throughout the time she spent with us, and we didn't even know of her heritage. Even if I didn't have feelings for her, I would take her away from here to prevent her from more of this kind of abuse. But I do have feelings for her. I love that woman with all of my heart. She is my world, and I will speak with her. And if you want to stop me, well..." Rhys laughed for a moment, then he pulled King Cille even closer, got right in his face, and hissed, "You'll have to kill me first."

With that, he threw Maia's father across the room, where he collapsed in a heap of pain before his throne, blood still gushing from his nose thanks to the blow he'd received from Lyle. Upon seeing their king defeated, the guards started to swarm in on the group of invaders, drawing their swords, but they quickly held their position when Lyle, Mieu, Lena, and Wren formed a circle around Rhys and King Cille, daring them to take one step further.

Rhys glanced at this, and then looked down at the king of Cille, who looked up at him, breathing heavily with the bottom of his face smeared with blood. "I yield to you, Rhys," he whispered. "You are mighty indeed. Perhaps Lyle..." A glance at the prince of Shusoran. "Perhaps my nephew was right about you."

Upon hearing the words, Rhys extended a hand to King Cille and helped him to his feet. The king took two steps backwards and then collapsed into his throne. As the guards in the room relaxed, Mieu stepped forward and placed her hand on the king's face. "Here, I can help," she said as she activated her Res systems.

But Rhys did not notice that. All he saw was that the guards holding Maia released her. "Rhys!" she cried as she ran to his open arms and leaped into his embrace. Lyle, Lena, and Wren watched the reunion, but Rhys did not notice them, either.

For in that moment, no matter what the future held, his world consisted only of himself and of the woman who he held tightly in his arms, Maia, the woman he loved more than his life itself.

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