Sharp steel spun swiftly as the blade whistled through the air, its speed a potential threat should its owner lose control of the weapon. The sword's hilt was fashioned after the handle of a needler, complete with a trigger guard that granted the swordsman better protection for his fingers and made it harder to lose grip on the sword. The weapon's current lazy spin was only possible because of that guard.
"Would you stop playing with that? You're going to end up poking an eye out."
Relief filled Rhys as he sheathed the sword in a single smooth motion. A dark cloud of depression had hovered over Mieu ever since they had encountered the Griever in the desert. The redhead's usual fire had been dampened, her teasing practically nonexistent as her gaze drifted back the way they had come, her expression as mournful as the Griever she had called her elder sister. Rhys suppressed a shiver as the memory of the wretched woman's shredded visage floated before his eyes.
Wretched cyborg, he silently corrected himself. The exposed metal beneath that ruined face so like Mieu's was the final proof needed to banish all doubts about the redhead's words. She truly was a machine, one so well-made that she was essentially indistinguishable from a normal person. Surely, she surpassed even magic, the only one of her kind anywhere in the worlds.
As the next King of Landen, he had always been aware of the guardedness of his peers. It was always in their eyes, the way they knew he was their future King. As open and friendly as he had been, however fun the games, there was a distance between them that could not be closed as they eyed him askance. Lena had been his only real friend for the simple reason that she didn't care about his position since she shared the same burden.
But Mieu... the only one who could truly understand her was locked in madness, grieving the long gone Orakio. Rhys wasn't sure how family relations worked amongst cyborgs, but Mieu's tears made it obvious they were at least as emotional as those amongst people. He had kept his peace as they journeyed through the cyborg outpost Hazatak and the far west of Aridia, respectful of her grief and ready to help her whenever she asked.
Other worries had bothered him in the meantime. He gnawed on his bottom lip as he wondered about his own father. The jewel thief, Lyle, had mentioned his father had fallen sick. His old man was tougher than old boots, but that was part of the problem. King Saiki was old, so it was really only a matter of time before he died. If he died while Rhys was away...
"Master Rhys, Climatrol appears to have been breached."
Rhys turned his gaze toward his new companion. He looked like a large, bulky man with wild black hair and a strangely waxy complexion, outfitted in heavy, ebon plate armor that would not have been out of place on any Landenian soldier. After meeting the Griever in the desert and the cyborgs of Hazatak, it had not been difficult to believe that he too was a cyborg. Like Mieu, Wren had apparently been programmed to serve Orakio's descendants.
"How long since it was breached, Wren?" Rhys asked, his hand on his new sword.
"Unknown. Recommend caution."
The tower peeked out of the broken top of the giant stone cone that encased it, a stark gray contrast to the cloudless blue sky. Not far from where they stood, two massive doors looked like they had been wrenched out of place by a great force, the metal warped and twisted like cheap wire. Rhys doubted the Giants that roamed Aridia could do such a thing, which left only one possible suspect.
"Filthy Layan magic," he muttered under his breath. He spoke louder. "Wren, please take the lead. Mieu and I will cover your back."
The black cyborg advanced rapidly, his knees slightly bent. In his arms was a long, heavy weapon with the handle of a needler, though that was where its similarity to the small flechette weapon ended. The gleaming black weapon was a long tube that had ended in a large rotating mechanism that resembled a drum. The barrel sported a grip for two-handed use to better control the weapon's recoil, but Wren's impressive strength made it obvious that the grip was redundant.
More important than Wren's strength was the power of his weapon. Rhys had watched in silent awe as the cyborg's rounds brutally ripped through the skulls of the large predators of Aridia, particularly Giants. The oversized behemoths fell to the lethal efficiency of Wren's ammunition as the bullets went in through the middle of their heads and out the back. It made sense for the best armed to be the first in, as it gave the cyborg a chance to clear out any ambushers. Rhys and Mieu followed, weapons drawn.
Rhys glanced down at his sword and continued his silent admiration for the technology of the ancients. The cyborgs of Hazatak had machined this weapon for him using the knife Lena had given him and some scraps of metal. The end result was a blade superior in every way to the sword he had left behind in Landen. It was obvious that home of Orakio though it might be, Landen was a primitive backwater compared to what his ancestor had ruled. Rhys had no talent for the complex devices that crafted cyborgs, but that did not mean he lacked appreciation for the implications. If some other world had retained this knowledge and found Landen, they would be doomed.
Wren's entry through the broken doors brought his mind to the present. The black cyborg pointed his gun at the left, then quickly spun to his right. "Clear."
"First step is the hardest," Rhys said, if only to say something.
Mieu smiled at him. "Just a couple thousand more to go to find the weather control system."
They advanced into the tower and through corridors of machines with their blinking lights and glass floors. After marching through two "transport frameworks," the sight was not as unsettling as it had once been. It didn't take long for them to come across the smoking remains of destroyed cyborgs and dead monsters. Rhys shared a look with Mieu. "I expected monsters, but are we going to be attacked by cyborgs as well?"
The redhead frowned as she stared down at the mechanical remnants of the tower's defeated machines. "No," she said at last. "I submitted a special operations exemption request to the main security system. My codes are still valid, so my request was granted. We are no longer a target. The only thing we have to worry about is whatever monsters are attacking Climatrol."
A pair of shrill, awful shrieks echoed down the corridor, feral screams from beasts in a blind rage that made Rhys grind his teeth. He spun, his cloak a white blur around him as he saw the new threat.
Two humanoid shapes scuttled down the hallway on all fours, a long tail dancing side to side to keep the monsters from falling on their faces. Before more details could become clear, Wren opened fire once, twice. Each bullet found its mark and the two monsters fell forward and skidded to a stop.
Rhys stared. The monsters had the shapes of people, their arms and torsos well-muscled, their legs limber and strong, but their faces had distinctly reptilian casts. Their long green tails were the same color as the veins that networked their bodies, a curious contrast to the bright orange mohawks they sported. Their long-nailed hands were lightly curled around slender stilettos.
"Hopliz," Mieu identified the monster, her voice shaded with distaste. "They're semisapient. Not as intelligent as a Palman, but definitely able to use tools, solve problems, and follow orders. The only reason they'd be here would be under orders from a Layan."
Rhys unconsciously rocked back on the balls of his feet, ready to move. "There's a Layan here?"
"Not necessarily," Mieu said. "They were brought here and ordered to do something. Their continued presence means they haven't accomplished whatever it was."
"Could they have caused Aquatica's winter?" Rhys asked, curious.
"Negative," Wren said in his distinct monotone. "Weather manipulation is beyond the intellectual capabilities of any semisapient-type Layan monster. Dome climate change requires manipulation by a Palman-level intelligence or higher via the correct control mechanisms."
"...I see," Rhys said, even though he didn't quite get it. "But you can fix it, right?"
"That's good enough for me," Rhys told the larger machine with a smile. "Let's continue."
Together, they moved through the corridors, Wren in the lead, Mieu and Rhys on guard for attacks from the side or the difference between wild animals and trained monsters was swiftly demonstrated the first time the beasts ambushed his party in a narrow corridor. A group of lesser creatures distracted Wren while a pair of Hopliz attacked from the rear. Even as Rhys shifted his stance to draw his sword, one of the lizards began to move its hand strangely. He had no time to react before Mieu grabbed his cloak and pulled it around him.
"Cover your face!"
Impossibly, a violent wind rose around him. Rhys brought his hands in front of his face as razors slashed his cloak to pieces and sliced through the cloth and flesh unprotected by his armor. When the tornado ended, he brought his arms down. Mieu had slit the throats of the Hopliz with two precise blows.
"What was that?"
Mieu wiped her claws clean. "Zan Technique. You could call it a manipulation of the wind that turns it into a razor sharp attack."
Rhys growled deep in his throat. "Filthy Layan magic."
"At this rate, that's going to become your catch phrase," Mieu commented with a slight smirk.
"Is there any way to stop those things from using magic?" Rhys asked as he examined his wounds. None of the cuts were very deep, but they were starting to burn.
"Techniques require a gesture to be completed before it takes effect," Mieu said calmly as she walked over to him. "Stop the gesture and you stop the attack."
"Then I'll make sure to cut off their hands before I take off their heads," Rhys replied sourly.
After that first attack from Layan magic, Rhys had removed his scabbard from his waist, as it would give him greater flexibility in technique. His father had taught him to wield the blade, and it was said that their secret sword art had been passed down to them from Orakio himself. Given how all the other stories were working out before his eyes, it wasn't hard to believe. Even if the stories weren't true, the techniques themselves were incredibly powerful.
What monsters Wren's shot did not dispatch were dealt death either by Mieu's claws or Rhys' sword. Whenever he saw one of the lizard-tailed monsters approaching them, he would launch himself with the powerful footwork of his ancestor's sword art, close the distance faster than the mohawked beasts could react, and kill them. However, the fact that Hopliz flesh did not differ from Orakian flesh soon began to bother Rhys, as every time he cut one of the monsters down, it felt uncomfortably like he was breaking Orakio's law.
"Yes, Prince?" Mieu replied, her eyes intent on her part of the flanks.
"Killing these things...it doesn't break Orakio's law, right?"
"No," Mieu said reassuringly. "Hopliz are mere monsters. Lord Orakio never regretted killing any of Laya's semisapient beasts. He only regretted the deaths of fellow Palmans. That's probably why he passed that law of yours."
Relief began to fill his chest, but before the worry brought on by his religious dilemma could dissipate, Wren called out something that flabbergasted him. "Unidentified intruder ahead. Palman male."
Incredulous, Rhys peered past the large cyborg. Sure enough, a tall man in a white cloak was a ways down the hall, his back to them. His long green hair was loosely tied at the back. Rhys got in front of Wren and advanced at a steady clip, Mieu on his heels and Wren right behind them. It couldn't be. How...?
The stranger turned at the sound of their footsteps. Sure enough, it was him, that ever-present smirk on display as he waved at them.
"Remember me, Rhys? Lyle, with the Sapphire?"
"Yes, I do remember you," Rhys said in disbelief. "What in the name of Orakio are you doing here? How are you even here?"
Lyle shrugged. "Well, I did tell you I didn't need the Sapphire anymore." A scowl replaced the smirk as worry etched itself on the taller man's face. "Anyway, that's not important right now. I'm on a journey to save my world. You saw it, didn't you?"
Rhys nodded grimly. He had not spent enough time to see the full scope of the situation, but he had seen enough of the gaunt-checked people in Rysel to know things were not good.
A sigh escaped from Lyle's lips at his nod. "It's been entombed in ice, people are dying from cold and starvation, but this weather system has me at a loss — I tried to operate it, but it won't respond for me."
"I guess that proves that for all your charm, you don't have Palman-level intelligence," Mieu commented dryly.
Lyle raised an eyebrow in Mieu's direction as a smirk reappeared on his face, his lips already twisting into a verbal riposte when he took in the silent Wren and paused. "Who's the big guy?"
"This is Wren. He's a cyborg like Mieu and supposed to serve me," Rhys explained. An impish smile crossed his lips as he added, "However, unlike Mieu, he's smart enough to fix the weather."
Lyle's expression as he looked at Wren was like that of a man clinging to a single tuft of grass as he dangled over the edge of a precipice. "You can fix the weather?"
"Affirmative," Wren responded.
"You came to fix the weather?" Lyle asked Rhys.
"It's what we had in mind."
Joy lit up Lyle's face like the sun in the dawn sky. The green-haired man extended his hand. "Terrific! Please help me thaw out my frozen world! I'll swear to lay down my life for you and your children if you do!"
Rhys took his hand firmly. "Just show us the way."
The weather control system proved to be a short distance away. Rhys stared at the bewildering array of monitors, buttons, switches, levels and dials before he shot Lyle an accusatory glare. "When you said you tried to operate it earlier, you meant you just messed around with everything at random, didn't you?"
"Of course not," came the indignant reply. "I only messed around with every third doo-hickey."
"That's about as reassuring as waking up with a Moos in your bed," Rhys noted clinically.
"Does that mean you like the bony type of women?"
"What? No! I like full figured women, not—"
"Wait, if she looks like a Moos, does that mean Maia—"
"Absolutely not! Wren, can you fix the weather before I end up using this jester as Giant food?"
"Yes, Master Rhys," Wren replied calmly. The black cyborg advanced on a terminal and pulled out a thin wire. A connector at the end of the wire vanished into the metal devices where Wren's ears were. Lyle fell silent as the tall machine stood silently. After a drawn out eternity, Wren removed the wire.
"The weather system has returned to normal," Wren declared.
Lyle grinned and slung a companionable arm around Rhys' shoulders. "Thank you so much! As thanks, I'd like to show you my homeland. It's a short boat ride across the sea from Rysel."
Rhys smiled. "That's fortunate. We were going to cross the sea, so you're on the way."
The smirk became mischievous. "That works out perfectly!"