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PostPosted: Sat Apr 23, '11, 5:54 am
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Chapter Five: Castle

"Nothing at all for me?"

Sari looked around the armorsmith's shop, disappointed as she examined the selection of goods available. "I thought Divisia was known for all the ceramics it produced!"

"Well, we just haven't had much call for that particular piece of armor, madam," the armorsmith, a tanned fellow with massively muscled arms, replied, watching an equally large kiln. "Now if you were looking for heavy armor-"

"I don't need heavy armor, I just need something better than what I have now."

"We all do, Sari," Ayn interrupted, inspecting a long coat inlaid with ceramic plating. He looked at its inner lining, then continued, "Those monsters seem to like steel and ceramic."

"Well, if it's something... tougher that interests you, then I think I can help you with that," the armorer told him. "You know about laconia, right?"

Both Ayn and Sari raised an eyebrow as they heard this- laconia was one of the most precious metals on their world. After taking a cautious glance around the store to assure himself that they were the only three people in there, Ayn approached the counter. "Laconia?" he wondered aloud. "You know that's hard stuff to find, right? I heard the kingdom of Landen up north was looking for some."

"Well, I've heard that myth. Laconia's not rare, but it's not exactly something you stumble upon during your silver and steel mining operations."

"You know Wren would be complaining something about 'that's not how mineral formations work at all' if her were here, Ayn," Sari interrupted. "So... about this laconia stuff you said you have-"

"Mind if we saw some? Just to make sure you're not here to pull our legs?" Ayn finished for her. The shopkeeper nodded, and ducked into his stockroom in reply, emerging a minute later with two large bars of blue metal.

Setting the bars down on the counter, the shopkeeper urged, "Pure laconia, friends. Take a look."

"Hmm." Sari hefted one of the metal bars, testing its weight in her hand, tossing it from one hand to the other. "If Wren were here, he'd probably be saying something about how he could tell if this were genuine-"

"Sari, I think it's real," Ayn replied, taking a look at his other bar. "There's no patina on these, and they feel about the right weight." He returned the laconia bar to the counter. "Is weight going to be a concern if you craft armor from these?"

"Not at all- laconia is as light as aluminum, and yet workable like steel, to borrow a phrase," the shopkeeper told them. "I have enough to make a couple of special orders, but I tend to charge a fair amount for them. Still interested, friends?"

Tapping her chin in thought, Sari asked, "What do you think, Ayn? ...Ayn?"

Ayn's attention was caught by an elaborate suit of polished armor, prominently displayed in the shop's front window. Its blue-purple patina reflected the early afternoon sun quite well, scattering it through the shop. Even though the armor was merely a pauldroned * with bracers and gauntlets, it radiated an aura of protectiveness.

"Ayn!!"

Ayn jumped at the sound of his name, and Sari glared at him. "Oh! Err, uh, yes, Sari?" he asked, slightly surprised.

"You're interested in that armor, aren't you?" Sari asked. "Wouldn't you rather have a full suit of that made out of laconia?"

"I can feel magic imbued in the armor, Sari," Ayn explained. "I... yes, I'm interested in this. Sari, if he has another suit-"

"Naaah. That looks a little too bulky for me. However, I could do with a new chestplate..." Her green eyes sparkled with mischief as she smiled at Ayn. "Provided, of course, someone were willing to make an offer..."

"I get it, I get it, Sari." Ayn chuckled, then approached the shopkeeper. "One laconia chestplate, and that suit of armor in the front window. We'll trade what we're wearing now, and we'll also pay the difference." He then turned aside as Sari removed her chestplate, setting it on the counter.

"This should only take a couple of hours. Until then, please enjoy our fair city, travelers."

Ayn removed his own armor, giving it to the armorer along with a handful of coins. "Of course," he replied. The shopkeeper then left, bringing his profits with him, and soon Ayn and Sari were alone in the store. "What?" he asked after a few seconds.

"I'm wearing something under my armor, Ayn. You didn't have to look away."

"Just being courteous, that's all. So..." Ayn hesitated as he looked at Sari, trying his best not to notice that Sari's dark brown tunic clung to her chest and shoulders like a second skin. "What do you think about Siren attacking the Layan kingdoms? He seems to hate Layans just as much as Lune hates Orakians."

"Sounds like we may have another battle on our hands, then," Sari told him, averting her green eyes from his. "So, we have the fair maiden trapped in a castle, and a ruthless warlord killing the innocent- what do you think your father would have done in our shoes?"

With a sigh, Ayn reached into his coin pouch, pulling out a gold and silver coin. The blue-haired prince stared for a few seconds at the image of Rhys's face on the coin, as if hoping it would come to life and offer the pair a few words of advice. Ayn turned the coin over, looking at the eight-pointed Star of Orakio pressed onto the coin's reverse, the words MMCCCVIII ~ D MESETA ~ LANDEN REGNUM in a circle around the star.

"I think he'd rescue Alair," he told Sari, flipping the coin back to its obverse side. "And maybe he'd find a way to deal with Siren as well."

"Sounds like a plan. And since we're here..."

"Right. Once we get our armor, let's go grab Mieu and Wren." Ayn chuckled as he said, "I bet Mieu's gonna say 'Let's have fun storming the castle!' when we bring this up."

-=-=-

"I bet you he's thinking about launching a raid on Divisia Castle right now."

Mieu crossed her arms as she watched Wren inspecting a rifle. "You've heard what people have been whispering about Alair la Dahlia," she continued. "And you know Prince Ayn's been thinking about rescuing her."

"Mieu, please. I'm analyzing this weapon for defects and combat effectiveness," Wren said, barely even registering what the redhead had said to him. "This rifle appears to have a precision-milled tactical ordinance delivery system, and its sights have been accurized to two hundred yards. Fascinating..."

"I'm serious, Wren! We don't know anything about how many guards are in the castle, and if there are machines in there..." Mieu sighed. "The combat machines in Landen and Satera know Prince Ayn's on their side, but I don't think the local combat machines can tell one Layan apart from another."

"Prince Ayn travels with an Orakian princess, as well as myself and a fellow Orakian with cybernetic enhancements. There should be no danger, Mieu."

"I don't wanna make that gamble, Wren. And something tells me Prince Ayn and Princess Sari won't want to, either. So I guess this means we have to go clobber all the machines we see guarding Alair if we see any..."

Before Wren could reply, Divisia's burly blacksmith entered the shop's sales floor. "Ma'am, here are the claws you asked for," he told her, handing her six thin ceramic blades. "The steel ones you traded me can probably go to use making machinery. Wish I had more call for fist fighters."

"Oh, that's all right. I know people like swords and needle guns these days, anyway," Mieu replied. "Now turn around so I can put these on. You too, Wren. ^_^"

With a shrug, the blacksmith turned his back to Mieu, as did Wren. They heard six th-click as she opened her claw ports, several more clicks and snaps as she set the ceramic blades in place, then a sharp snickt! as she tested the insertion, retracting and extending her claws. Satisfied, she closed the ports, then put her long gloves back on. "Okay, all set!" she said. "Wren, did you want that rifle you were looking at?"

"Yes, of course." Wren set the rifle upon the blacksmith's counter. "I am, of course, willing to trade my current rifle plus the remainder of the cost in Meseta. I have my concerns about the firing system, however..."

"Ah, that one. Don't worry, Sir. The grooving and delivery system are pure laconia, and are quite capable of delivering high-caliber rounds." As he took Wren's former rifle, the blacksmith then asked, "You know, you two wouldn't happen to be friends with a cyan-haired man and a brown-haired woman, would you?"

"Oh, that must be Pri... Ayn and Sari!" Mieu told him. "We must have just missed them!"

"Well, we have separated from them over two hours ago, Mieu."

Chuckling, the blue-haired smith added, "So you must be who I'm looking for. Your friends were in here before- bought a new sword and a pair of-"

"Daggers? Yep, that was definitely them!" Mieu clapped her hands. "So what's up?"

"They mentioned that they were heading to the tavern near town square. I think your friends are planning on saving that Alair woman in the castle. Sounds dangerous to me..."

In other words, sounds just like something they'd like, Mieu thought. "So... what's a Layan doing in an Orakian castle, anyway?" she asked.

"You mean besides being the sister of the Layan general alleged to be the commander of the monster army marching through Elysium?" the blacksmith asked her. "Apparently our king fancies her and wants to marry her."

"I am fairly sure that Alair la Dahlia would not find kidnapping a suitable means of courtship," Wren said. He set down another handful of Meseta, taking several crates of laconia-jacketed ammo in exchange. "Nor is a marriage created through coercion legally binding, royalty or otherwise."

"Wren, I don't think the king cares."

"King Reginald was never particularly one for sitting quietly and ruling," said the blacksmith.

"Sound like someone we know, Wren?" Mieu whispered, giving a slight smirk as she saw Wren nod. "All righty, I think we've taken up enough of your time. Thanks for the claws, old man! ^_^"

"Not a problem, ma'am- chatting with customers is a rarity for me these days. And like I told your friends- watch that 'old man' crap. I'm not that old!"

Once they had left the shop, Mieu sighed, then asked her android companion, "Wren, what do you make of all this?"

"To use King Rhys's words, Mieu, I believe Prince Ayn is going to rush off on 'some damn fool crusade,' perhaps storming Divisia Castle with just Princess Sari," Wren replied. "It is highly likely that, without assistance, one or both of them would be captured or killed easily."

"Ah-ha! So you're saying we should help them out!" Mieu slapped Wren on the back, laughing happily. "I knew you had a sense of adventure after all, Wren!"

"Mieu, don't misunderstand. Even if we were to provide assistance, we would be coming into conflict with Orakian war machines or Divisian soldiers. I would be forced to violate Orakio's Creed."

Sweatdropping, Mieu countered, "Wren, people get murdered. Even in Landen and Yaata. I don't think they were too concerned about Orakio's Creed. Besides, aren't you programmed to protect the descendants of Orakio sa Riik?"

"In verity, I am. It is my core programming concept."

"Even if you have to break a few rules?"

"Yes, Mieu. 'A Shirren-type android shall not, through his action or inaction, allow his designated protector to come to harm, even if Orakio's Creed designates otherwise.'" There was an electronic buzz from somewhere within Wren's head, something Mieu guessed was as close to a sigh as the emotionless android could muster, before he continued, "Very well, Mieu. I suppose you are correct. Let us meet up with Prince Ayn later."

"That's the spirit!" Grinning, Mieu added, "Wren, you're becoming more human every day!"

"Mieu, I find that rather insulting."

-=-=-

Thea had enjoyed her tour of Dahlia, from its monster replication factories to its stark vistas. She was pleasantly surprised at the sight of Alisa III in the Dahlian sky, hanging over her head like a precious jewel. Even the steel and glass buildings rising from the indigo surface fascinated her, Lune's palace naturally being the most prominent building in Dahlia's lone city.

It was only natural for the new Dahlian queen to suggest Lune give her a tour of the palace, and Lune was all too happy to agree- particularly when Thea implied that she wanted to see the bedroom. "I think I can arrange that," Lune chuckled, scooping the green-haired queen into his arms. "After all, this war against Siren and the Orakians is getting quite... tiresome. I think I could use some rest."

"Yes, war does have a way of pulling on one's nerves," Thea cooed, giving Lune a mischievous smirk. "Perhaps some... stress relief is in order."

Triumphantly, Lune carried Thea through the castle, making his way towards a lone bedroom on the far side of the palace. The simple bedroom was sparsely decorated, yet still managed to maintain an air of elegance, its predominant feature a bed carved from a single piece of Dahlian laerma wood. Lune gently set Thea upon the bed, giving her a passionate kiss.

"So, about this stress relief you promised," Lune told her, climbing onto the bed above her.

"Yes, my love?" Thea replied, smirking as Lune's hands closed around her wrists.

"Perhaps I should partake of some."

-=-=-

"Damn him. Damn him, damn him, damn him, Ryan."

Lyle cursed under his breath as Ryan doused a bandage with Trimate, then he groaned as the dark-haired man wrapped it around his chest. The wounds on Lyle's chest, inflicted both by Lune's magic and the Orakian machines guarding Lensol's outlying farms, burned on contact with the medicine- a painful reminder that the past two days had not been very kind to the pair. Sucking in his breath, Lyle continued, "Who does this Lune think he is? And what right does he have to steal my daughter away from me?"

"Well, I'd usually say he's just some arrogant warlord with delusions of grandeur, but he just happens to be one of Laya's own generals." Ryan soaked another, smaller bandage with Trimate, then motioned for Lyle's forearm. "From what I know of him, and from what his sister said about him, he's had a habit of getting what he wants- and I guess he wanted Thea."

"And this whole thing about me not being qualified to take care of her?" Lyle pounded the ground with his free hand. "I'm her father, for God's sake! I should have kicked the *(&@ out of him then and there. Why did I try to get into a Tech fight with him-"

"For all you know, he would have pounded you flat with a couple Gra bursts," Ryan countered. He finished bandaging Lyle's arm, then started to work on his own injuries. "At least Thea's out of Orakian hands. We can be grateful for that."

"I was gonna say something about that," Lyle told him. "Robots attacked Cille and Shusoran. The only Orakian king I know of is King Rhys of Landen, but he's married to my cousin. I don't think he'd attack his wife's homelands."

"I think you're right. Have you heard that Layan biomonsters were on the prowl in Landen and Satera?" Ryan tied a bandage closed around his hand. "I don't think your family would attack Rhys's kingdom if this cousin of yours was there. Besides, the monsters came from Satera's west."

"Hmm. Interesting, then." Lyle stroked his chin in thought. "Now that you mention that, the machine army came from the east of Cille... probably through the pass between Aquatica and the Holy Kingdom of Draconia."

"Something stinks about this, then. Alair always said Lune knew the war was over since they were unfrozen five years ago, but he wants to kill every last Orakian. And Siren was surely monitoring things on our world from Azura- he'd know more than anything that there's no war. Orakio sa Riik and Laya la Mystoke are dead."

"And yet their legacy lives on..." Lyle sighed, looking at the setting sun. "So, Ryan, since we've really got nothing better to do than wait for some scabs to form, why don't you tell me about this unification movement?"

"Oh, that." Ryan chuckled, putting his mirrored sunglasses back on. "I just thought that maybe Orakians and Layans could get along with each other, like before the war. Before all this bull(*&@ about heresies and sorcery and enchanted swords." The dark-haired man paused to spear a piece of rappy jerky onto a stick, then held it over their small campfire. "Alair came to Aerone about a year after she and Lune were unfrozen, and she..." He sighed, softly. "She's something special. The very picture of elegance. There was always something about the way she carried her slicer- a balance between 'lady of war' and 'serene princess.'"

"Sounds like Luna. So, you and Alair started this effort to reunite Orakians and Layans..."

"Indeed. We would visit Dahlia often, telling Lune that Orakians aren't all bad- things like that for every Rulakir sa Riik he fought, there were a hundred Rhys Landens. He would have none of it, and eventually he banished us from ever setting foot on Dahlia." Chuckling, Ryan continued, "And of course he forbade me from marrying Alair. Well, I hope he never finds out we already consummated that part."

"Sounds like a high-standing character." Lyle took a small bottle of Cillean brandy from his rucksack, pouring a measure into both of their canteens. "How many people are in this movement?"

"A couple hundred. We keep to a cave between Aerone and Divisia over in the Plains of Elysium, just in case Lune's soldiers decide to ruin our *." Ryan drank the strong liquor he was offered, then continued, "They seem to be looking for something called Laya's Treasure, whatever that is, so I guess we got lucky there."

"I guess- they were blocking off most of the passes between the kingdoms," Lyle groused. "I hate having to turn into a dragon like that, but it beats fighting through soldiers. You seem pretty well-traveled, looking at you."

"I try to be. There are Layans everywhere, after all."

"Well, I know a particular Orakian princess who used needle guns like that one." Lyle gestured to the sole pistol strapped to Ryan's hip, beneath his steel fiber cape. "And some of the money we've been sharing..." The green-haired king took a handful of assorted gold, silver, and copper coins from his belt pouch. "'Kingdom of Divisia, 500 Meseta,' 'One Hundred Meseta ~ AW 2284 ~ Aerone,' and this one's an oddity- thirty Meseta, and this looks like it's from Hazatak. I've never seen an octagon-shaped Meseta before."

"Tell me about it. The androids of Hazatak never understood why we based Meseta on ones and fives- at least that innkeeper in Lensol accepted Hazatakan money." Ryan shrugged. "We've still got some, though- enough to easily get back to Aerone."

"That's really the only way to get to Dahlia?" Lyle asked, concerned. "Lune isn't just gonna shoot us down if we head there to pick Thea up, is he?"

"Not quite. We can get in touch with the reunifiers. They're working on short-range ships to get to Dahlia. Funny... short-range ships to get to another ship, launched from an-"

The sudden buzz of machinery interrupted Ryan, and he snapped to attention, raising his needle pistol. "Lyle, do you hear that?" he asked. "From the south, I think."

"...Yeah. More machines." Straining to hear, Lyle closed his remaining eye. The sounds of several machines pounding the ground, some faster than others, was audible over the snap of their fire, and he could tell that whatever kind of machines they were, they were approaching fast.

That wasn't his immediate concern- what was was the fact that he could easily sense at least fifty of the damned machines.

"Lots of machines," he told Ryan. He struggled with his twin staves, glaring at the southern horizon. "I think we may have to run."

"With your wounds, you wouldn't get far," Ryan told him.

"Then go, Ryan. Run for your life," Lyle urged. "Head back to Elysium and get your friends. I'll catch up with you. From there, we'll head to Dahlia."

"No, Lyle," Ryan replied. "One Layan to another, we're in this fight together."

"Ryan. As your more-or-less only sane Layan leader, I order you as the king of Shusoran and Cille to retreat." The playful nature that dominated Lyle's voice for most of his 38 years disappeared, as things like duty, responsibility and leadership came to him. "Please."

Ryan hesitated, then nodded. "Very well. Laya be with you, Lord Lyle," he said, gathering his cape around him before breaking into a blind run westward.

Alone, Lyle surveyed the south, watching with grim satisfaction as a score of wolf-like robots, standing like men and bearing scimitars and bucklers, charged into view, clouds of blue-hued Flopper robots behind them, rotating end-over-end in an almost terrifying urge to shred the Layan king into pieces.

Feralbots, he thought. And those must be the new Flopper type. Diskers.

"Laayaaaaaaaan! Laaayaaaaaan to the noooooorth!" he heard one of the Diskers shout. "Shaaaaaal we engaaaaaageee Zaaaaaan deviiiceeee?!"

"Never!" one of the Feralbots called back. "We sever this one and savor his pain!"

"Foorrrr Sireeeeeeeen!"

The small contingent of machines was a hundred feet away by now. Lyle sucked in his breath, concentrating upon himself. You want a fight, robots? he thought, as scales started to form over his skin. You'll get one!

The human form before the machines shifted suddenly, forming into a terrifying green dragon. Lyle roared as he and the machines started to tear into each other.

Minutes away, all Ryan could do was hope and pray to Laya that his friend's sacrifice would be worthwhile.

-=-=-

"And that makes four guards there..."

Sari looked to Ayn as he counted off patrons entering the tavern. "They look like they've been drinking for a while," he continued. "Should be easy to get some info on Divisia Castle from them."

"Assuming they don't try to hit on me or Mieu," Sari replied. "They're gonna be in for a face-beating if they try something stupid."

"At least humor them. You know... flirt."

Sari sweatdropped. "Flirt," she replied, her voice staccato.

"Yeah."

Throwing her ponytail across her shoulder, Sari continued, "You mean I should just... flip my hair? Maybe lean in close to them, offer a small view..." As she spoke, she leaned across the small table towards Ayn, her chestplate and loosened tunic falling far enough away from her to reveal her cleavage line to the blue-haired prince, and he found himself hard-pressed to keep his gaze even with Sari's. Her green eyes remained focused on Ayn's as she continued, "And maybe I should just lower my voice a bit (her voice lowered as she spoke) and drag my hands across them..."

One of Sari's hands found Ayn's shoulder, and the other brushed his cheek. Sari allowed her fingertips to follow a line down Ayn's cheek to the base of his neck before she added, "And after that, maybe I should just see how things... play out. Maybe something like..."

Sari then finished leaning across the table, bringing her lips to Ayn's. He didn't protest, only cupping her head to keep her from falling away. Her tongue threatened for a second to pass through his lips, then she broke the kiss away. Giving a mischievous grin, she returned to her seat and said in her normal voice, "Sorry, Ayn. I'm not flirting with those lushes."

"I... you... I... I just..." Ayn sighed, trying to make any sense of Sari's flirting. He gave up after a few seconds, sighing in exasperation as he slumped in his seat. Is it wrong of me to have wanted Sari to keep going? he thought, his face red. Nervously, he looked up at Sari- her only response was a flirtatious, maybe more than friendly wink.

"I'm back! Hope I'm not interrupting you two!"

Mieu approached the table with three small tankards of ale- Not a moment too soon, Ayn decided as Mieu sat down. "No, you're not," he replied. "So... hear anything about a way into Divisia Castle?"

"Not really- Wren thought I should probably buy the soldiers some drinks, but they wanted me to drink, too." Mieu crossed her arms and glared at the soldiers. "They had four mugs each! That's almost all the rest of my Meseta, My Prince, and after that, one of them wanted to grab my butt!"

"Just your butt?" Sari joked, taking a drink from her tankard. "They look pretty rough."

"Well, after Wren came by and pretended to be my boyfriend, they backed off. But one of them was glaring at Wren..." The redhead gestured to Wren, who was standing in the corner of the tavern, plugged into a wall outlet. "And he was ready to sell him to the blacksmith! Lucky thing you both came in just then!"

"Looks like we did our part, then," Ayn guessed. "That still leaves us at square one, though..."

"Well, maybe we can try something else. Waitress!" Sari waved over a dark-haired barmaid, then pointed to the soldiers Mieu mentioned. "Another round for them. It's on me." Once the server left the table, Sari continued, "I don't think they're drunk enough to talk yet."

"Well, how drunk do they have to be?"

"More than that. This is pretty *&@$poor ale, Ayn. The stuff back home's much better." With that, Sari sighed. "Maybe I can find a cask of it when we get back..."

Noticing the sudden frown on Sari's face, Ayn reached across the table, resting his hand on Sari's. "I'm sure we will, Sari. Maybe more," he reassured her.

"Thanks..."

"I... Princess Sari? I'm sure it's not all that bad," Mieu added. "I know it. In fact-"

The soldiers started laughing loudly, pounding on their table as they calmly downed their ale. One of them wandered up to Ayn, Sari, and Mieu, leering at the two women. "Well, well, look what we have here," he slurred. "Pretty women. Heya, cute thing."

"Oh, you again," Mieu groaned. "What now?"

"I can't help but notice your woman friend there's crying." The soldier pointed to Sari, who was indeed starting to tear up at the mention of her homeland. Glaring at Ayn, he continued, "This little man making your friend cry?"

"He's not," Sari replied, blinking back a tear. "Just... thinking about old times."

"Welll, well, then. Wanna go have some new times? We can leave Pee-Wee here."

Ayn glared at the drunken soldier. "Look," he started. "I think you've had a bit much. Can't you see she's not interested?"

"Oh, what do you know? I'm probably more of a man than you'll ever be." The soldier leered at Sateran princess. "How would your special man friend here feel if I put my hand down your shirt, honey? Maybe some of my buddies here may play around with the redhead, maybe even throw him into the street? We can have him roughed up, have him spend the night in some manure..."

Sari raised an eyebrow, noticing that the soldier's fellows were starting to circle their table. Two stood behind Mieu, while the fourth stepped behind Ayn. "How would he feel?" she asked. "I think he'll tell you the same thing I'm gonna say."

"'Wow, you've got professional hands?'"

"Try 'Do it and I'll break both your damn arms. And as for Mieu there..." Sari nodded to Mieu. "You know those red star-shaped flying monsters?"

"The Novas? Yeah, they fried a few of my pals with that weird Layan lightning. Not gonna lie when I say I enjoy the bounty on killing them."

"Really?" Ayn asked. "Mieu there can kill four of them in three seconds."

"No muscle, blue hair, and a really bad liar." Again, the soldier grinned as he rubbed his hands. "This is gonna be fun, boys! Let's show these women what REAL men are like!"

One of the soldiers behind Mieu reached for her, intending to tear away her vest and dress. Immediately, Mieu sprung to her feet, grabbing his arm. She effortlessly swung the soldier into the other one flanking her, sending them both to the tavern's floor with a loud thud.

At exactly the same time, Ayn swung his sheathed katana upwards, striking his soldier between the legs. He cried out in pain as Ayn jumped from his chair, turning to face him. "Go ahead!" he ordered, raising his arms into a fighting position. Gray energy started to crackle around his right hand as Ayn continued, "Let's see you fight! You keep saying you're so tough! Put your Meseta where your mouth is!"

"You're dead, pal! Hraaaaaah-"

With a grunt, Ayn dodged the soldier's awkward swing, bringing his energy-charged fist into the man's gut. "Deban," he whispered as he struck, watching the gray Technical Energy course into the soldier's arms. The soldier suddenly found both of his arms as heavy as lead, and as he realized he could barely throw a meaningful punch, Ayn brought his fist into his opponent's face, easily decking him.

By this point, Sari was already standing up, her soldier in an armlock. The drunken man struggled ineffectually before he found himself thrown over Sari's shoulder, then through the wooden table with a loud crunch! that silenced the patrons of the tavern.

"G... go back to your drinks, people," Ayn stammered, clearly embarrassed by the sudden attention. "Just your standard bar fight. Nothing to see here."

"I would do as he suggests," Wren added, removing himself from the charging port. "You have seen how my companions handle themselves in a fight. You don't wish to get drawn into their conflict, do you?"

The patrons quickly found business as usual an appealing concept, returning to their ale and tavern games rather quickly, leaving Ayn and his group once again alone with the one semi-conscious soldier. "All right," Ayn told him, motioning for Sari and Mieu to flank him. "Now that we've gotten the manly man crap off our chests, maybe you can help us out."

"Ungh... I think I'm gonna need a truss."

"Oh, you'll need a bit more than that if you don't give us what we want. You lot guard Alair la Dahlia?" Sari demanded. Seeing the guard nod, she continued, "Holy crap, I'm surprised she hasn't escaped on her own by now! Anyway, we need a way into Divisia Castle. How can we get in there?"

"You can... the rear gate, north wall. Turn... turn left at the throne room. That'll get you into the dungeon..." The soldier grunted in pain. "Lady Alair's down there."

"See? That wasn't so hard," Ayn told him. "Wasn't worth the fight, but oh well." Approaching the tavern owner, he then set a small stack of coins on the bar. "That's for the mess. Sorry about that."

Sari chuckled as she stepped around the soldier and the crushed table, followed by Mieu and Wren. "I don't know what you two were so worried about," she said. "We're just fine."

"Well, that was the easy part. The hard part's gonna be getting Alair out of there," Ayn replied. "But we handled ourselves pretty well so far... I think we'll be fine."

Always confident, Sari thought, sighing to herself. I wish I had some of that confidence.

I wish I could always have that confidence around.


-=-=-

Lune smiled, admiring Thea's nude form as he pulled away from a lingering kiss. "Now that was relaxing," he said.

"And that is the greatest honor men would have waged war for, Lune, my love," Thea replied. "Now then... about these damned Orakians..."

"Yes. I was hoping we wouldn't have to talk about them so soon, but..." The man with lime-green hair sighed with disappointment. "Sooner is better than later, I suppose. After all, they must be made to suffer for their crimes in Cille and Shusoran."

"That they must. The people of Ryshel and Agoe should never have set foot upon Laya's sacred grounds." The Dahlian queen made a gesture with her hand, watching as a small fire danced to life across her palm. She smirked as she moved her fingers, the fire changing colors with each motion. "Lune, is it true that Dahlians can create fire that acts as a biomonster?"

"That it is, Thea. The Fire monsters seek out non-Layans and burn them alive." Lune chuckled. "And the best part is, they're practically immune to the pathetic physical flailings the Orakians command."

"And they lack Techniques..." Thea snapped her fingers, and the dancing fire winked out of existence. "Yet they command such powerful technology." An idea came to her mind, and Thea smiled. She rolled to her side to face Lune, her every curve commanding Lune's attention with sinister grace as she continued, "That would be a perfect wedding present, my dear Lune."

"I think I understand. Conquer Ryshel and Agoe, and force the Orakians to construct breeding chambers for our biomonsters. A veritable stronghold from which we can attack Landen... a two-pronged attack." Lune draped his arm around Thea, running his hand up and down her back and side. "That would be perfect."

"And just think, Lune... once Laya's flag flies above Landen's castle, and the Orakian hubris is crushed... that would be the perfect gift to present our child. A palace of their own."

Lune chuckled. "Now, Thea," he urged, his voice teasing. "I thought we said Laya's Treasure was going to be for our child?"

"Well, maybe we'll have two children. They can split Laya's Treasure and a conquered Landen evenly."

"And we've only just... completed our union. We don't even know if we conceived anything yet."

Thea smiled at her husband. "We can always... correct that later, my love," she cooed. "Let us sleep, Lune. Let us dream of Alisa III, ruled as it should be by Layans."

"Yes... let us dream of our kingdom, Thea. Let us dream of our future."

-=-=-

(With Lyle risking his life to ensure Ryan's getaway, Ayn and Sari prepare to enter Divisia Castle. Will their plans to end the biomonster menace intersect with Ryan and Alair's? Will Lune and Thea be successful in their plans against the Orakians? What is Laya's Treasure? And what will Siren's eventual response be?)
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