The Layan towns of Shusoran and Cille were so close, both geographically and in spirit, that it almost seemed odd that they hadn't united yet. King Lyle and Queen Maia often consulted each other in regards to ruling their respective kingdoms and were frequent visitors to each other's courts. Shusoran was Cille's first and strongest defense against the Orakian towns that shared their dome, while Cille's placement made it ideal for spotting attacks coming from the sea. Regardless of their mutually beneficial relationship, though, the two domains remained separate.
Princess Thea, the beloved daughter of King Lyle, regularly traveled between her home and the castle of her "Aunt" Maia. Though Lyle and Maia were cousins and Thea was not technically the niece of the queen of Cille, the two shared a close bond. Thea had no recollection of her own mother and Maia had stepped into the role when it came to helping her cousin raise his only child.
As much time as Thea spent in Cille and as much as the queen doted on the young princess, there was still always a certain sadness in Maia's pale blue eyes. Thea became aware of this as she grew older and upon returning from one of her trips to the neighboring town, she decided to investigate the cause.
Father? Was Aunt Maia ever happy? she abruptly asked one night.
Lyle blinked several times before answering.
That seems like a rather curious question.
Thea bit her lower lip as she wondered whether or not this had been a good idea.
Well, she always seems glad to see me and she smiles a lot, so it looks as if she knows how to act as if she's happy...but it seems like just that, an act. I sometimes worry about her.
The king sighed and leaned back in his chair.
Maia was to be married once, years and years ago. She loved her prince so much and dreamed of being his wife, he revealed.
The prince she loved was an Orakian, from far beyond Agoe and Rysel. She had somehow wound up in his land with no recollection of who she was or how she got there. At their wedding ceremony, just as they were about to exchange their vows, a dragon appeared and forcibly took her home to Cille.
A dragon? Thea exclaimed, her bright green eyes growing wide.
I didn't know such things really existed!
They are very rare. No one has reported seeing one in these lands in a very long time.
So she never saw her prince again... she trailed off.
Not quite, Lyle continued, a slight frown appearing upon his face.
The Orakian prince made his way here, determined to find her. Our world was in trouble, but once he helped me restore the systems that keep us alive, I accompanied him to Cille. Maia's father refused to let him see her, but he persisted and eventually defeated the king in a battle.
But if he came all that way to see her, why didn't they get married after all?
Lyle reached out and lovingly stroked his daughter's emerald hair.
We all like to think that true love transcends all boundaries, but the truth is that things are often far more complicated than that. No matter how much he cared for her, her prince just couldn't come to terms with the fact that she was a Layan and that he would have to give up everything he ever knew to be with her. He returned to his homeland and Maia never saw him again.
Thea stared at the floor, gradually absorbing all of this new information.
Do you think she would have been happier if she had been able to stay in the Orakian lands? she quietly asked.
I don't know. Lyle sighed again.
I really don't know.
Poor Aunt Maia...
Thea, he said, his voice suddenly more stern.
You must promise me that you will never speak of this to Maia. Though she was able to eventually overcome her heartbreak and ascend the throne of Cille after her father passed away, she never liked to be reminded of what had happened. Everyone in both our towns knows about it, but for her sake, we never bring it up. Do you understand?
Good girl. He playfully ruffled her hair.
Now try not to think about these things too much. Whatever happened is far in the past and I know Maia would hate to see her favorite princess upset over anything, especially something she can't change.
Can I go back and see her again tomorrow?
I don't see why not. But if you're leaving again in the morning, you'd best be going to bed now. It's getting late!
Thea kissed her father on the cheek before scampering off to her bedroom. As planned, she traveled over the narrow land bridge and returned to Cille the following day. Though she was more conscious than ever of the slight aura of sorrow that surrounded the beautiful queen, she kept her promise to her father and never attempted to discuss its source.
Life was peaceful and pleasant in the Layan lands of Aquatica until the first of the cyborgs started to appear. The small, insect-like machines were easily dispatched by the Shusoran forces, but no matter how many they eliminated, more appeared. Though they were a persistent nuisance, the residents of Shusoran weren't particularly concerned and continued on as if nothing were happening outside the walls of their town.
Thea had been visiting Maia in Cille, as she frequently did, when the panicked messenger burst into the castle.
Shusoran is under attack! he managed to get out as he tried to catch his breath.
The two women rose from their seats and exchanged looks.
Who — or what — is attacking Shusoran? Maia asked.
Is it the Orakians from Agoe?
The messenger shook his head as he continued gasping for air.
Cyborgs...huge robots...bigger than anything we've ever seen before. He accepted a glass of water a servant offered him and quickly gulped it down.
King Lyle has insisted that you both stay here, locked in the castle, until further notice.
No, Thea said defiantly.
I'm going home.
Thea... Maia raised a pale eyebrow in concern.
I have to help my father protect our lands, our people.
But Princess, it's dangerous! The messenger was as apprehensive as the queen.
These cyborgs are very powerful, many of the guards have already been injured!
Then I can help heal them. Her mind was already made up and nothing would change it.
I know I'm not the great fighter my father is, but I need to do something. Please, take me back to Shusoran.
Wait! Thea braced herself for a debate with her aunt regarding her intentions, but Maia crossed the room to where a chest of drawers was practically hidden in a dark corner. She dug around in search of something and presented her findings to the determined teenager.
Take this with you.
She took the curved blade out of the older woman's hands and turned it around carefully, examining the sharp weapon.
What is it?
It's a slicer, laced with Layan magic. Throw it at anything that tries to harm you and it will always return to its master's hand.
Thank you, Thea said softly before flinging her arms around her aunt's waist.
Maia returned the tight embrace.
Be careful, my dear. May Laya watch over and protect all of us, she murmured into her niece's hair.
Thea set out for Shusoran, accompanied by her father's messenger and several of Maia's guards, as requested by the queen. They set foot onto the land bridge that connected the two kingdoms and she could vaguely make out some strange shapes on the other side. As they gradually approached the castle, an army of enemy cyborgs attacked!
The Layan princess' instincts were to rely on her magical techniques and she shot a ball of fire at the nearest machine. Barely affected, it advanced further and reached out to strike one of the guards, sending him flying backwards. The other men did their best to surround the princess and protect her, but they were vastly outnumbered by the bloodthirsty robots.
Never content to stand by and do nothing, Thea reached for the slicer her aunt had given her. She drew her arm back and prepared to hurl it at a clump of cyborgs, but something grabbed her wrist. Whirling around, she came face to face with a rather humanoid mechanical monster and tried desperately to free herself from its grasp. No matter how much she struggled and squirmed, though, she was unable to escape.
Immobilized by the giant machine, Thea had no choice but to helplessly watch as the group of enemy robots she'd been aiming at swarmed at her feet. Her attempts to kick them away proved to be futile as there were simply too many of them attacking simultaneously. She screamed at the top of her lungs as she felt one of them pierce the skin on her right ankle, but her scream was cut short as a wave of pain rippled through her body, forcing the air from her lungs.
Poison... The brief thought flashed through her mind as her vision became clouded and her body grew weak. Her limbs no longer responded to her commands to fight back and the world before her was growing darker with each passing moment. The last thing she clearly saw was the guards succumbing to the strength of their enemies and she managed to quickly pray to Laya for the safety of her father and aunt before losing consciousness.
When Thea awoke, she was lying on the floor of a small, cold cell. She had no idea where she was, or how long she had been there, but as soon as she regained her strength, she pulled herself to her feet to examine her surroundings. The walls were made of thick gray stone that was slick and damp to the touch, leading her to believe that she was underground. A small, rectangular window above her head, though, revealed some tall blades of grass and beyond them, a deep blue sky.
She tried climbing up to see what else the view from the window would reveal, but the wall was too slippery for her to get a good grip. Turning her attentions to the door, she peered out from behind the bars, but could see nothing beyond a few feet in front of her. She stood still and listened; she thought she could faintly hear the sounds of metallic footsteps, but she wasn't sure. Her voice echoed through the empty hallway as she called for help, but her pleas went unanswered. The lock keeping her stuck inside appeared to be made from a heavy, dull metal and an hour of picking at it with her slicer produced no results.
Thea backed up against the wall opposite the door, hoping she was a safe distance away. Taking a deep breath, she extended her hand and concentrated her energies for a Foi technique. The large fireball rapidly shot towards the metal barrier and exploded once it made contact. To her dismay, however, the door remained intact. The other techniques in her arsenal produced the same result on both the door and the window and the princess had to admit defeat. She was trapped.
She sat down on the freezing cold floor and contemplated her predicament. If her father thought that she was with Maia in Cille, and Maia thought she had returned home, and the guards hadn't survived the attack, it could be quite some time before someone noticed she was missing. A shiver went through her body, due to a combination of the disconcerting ideas and the low temperature of her cell. Someone had to notice she was gone. Someone had to come rescue her.
The quivering princess leaned back against the wall and hugged her knees to her chest, trying to stay warm. Except for her presence, the cell was completely bare; no furniture, no blankets, no food, no water. She felt a pit of dread form in her stomach as she realized that it was not designed to ensure a prisoner's survival.
The shifting colors in the sky were the only means Thea had to help her track the passage of time. She couldn't be entirely sure of how long she had been in the cell, as the days and nights seemed to be of different lengths in this strange place when compared to those in her home of Aquatica. Her sleeping patterns were erratic and she had no way of knowing how much time had passed whenever she managed to doze off.
Hunger and thirst set in, and the pain they caused was nearly constant. Thea focused on her prayers to Laya, the only activity available to her in her miserable prison, and begged for a miracle. She roughly estimated that it had been two or three days since she was taken from Shusoran and knew that she could only survive on nothing for so long.
She had just about given up all hope when a shadow was cast across her body, blocking the light from outside. Something was at the window. Dragging herself to her feet, she peered up at the space at the top of the wall and was overjoyed to see a familiar face.
Father! she cried out.
Thank Laya you're here!
Lyle let out a great sigh of relief at finding his only daughter alive.
I came as soon as I could, he said softly.
Now that the initial shock of seeing him had passed, Thea was able to better examine her father. His head was heavily bandaged and only one of his eyes was visible. What she could see of his face was covered in scratches and bruises and she could only imagine that the rest of his body looked similar.
Oh, Father, you're hurt! What happened?
The cyborg armies are growing more and more powerful with each passing moment. They're even more deadly in this world than in our own. I hope Shusoran hasn't fallen to them yet, but I needed to find you before I could do anything else.
I was coming to help you, but then I was taken here, she told him.
As soon as you get me out of here, we can go defend Shusoran together.
Lyle frowned down at her.
The castle is filled with vicious machines and I can only imagine what kind of labyrinth is underneath it in the dungeon. I honestly don't know if I would survive the fight to get to you, and the Shusoran armies are defending our home, he said sadly.
But you're my daughter and I know how strong you are. I know you can free yourself from that cell!
I can't, I've tried everything! she whimpered.
I can't undo the lock and I couldn't do any damage to the door or this window.
A quick inspection of the bars on the window proved to Lyle that they were, in fact, immovable and Thea began crying at the hopelessness of her situation.
How am I ever going to get out of here? she choked out between sobs.
Thea, listen to me. Lyle couldn't bear to see his daughter so upset and he was nowhere near ready to give up.
We have one last option remaining, but you have to promise me that you will remain calm and be brave.
The princess wasn't sure if her confusion was due to her weakened state or her father's vague words.
I don't know what you mean, but I'll do anything.
There are some things I've never told you, he admitted.
Please, try not to be too shocked or upset.
As he spoke, Thea noticed something in his body shift, nearly imperceptibly at first. He closed his remaining eye and his face began to change shape and color. His chest grew broader and his arms grew longer as they, too, began to transform. The clothes he was wearing were destroyed and fell to the ground as his body grew larger and in a matter of moments, a giant, golden dragon was standing where the king of Shusoran had been only minutes before.
The imprisoned princess gazed up at her father in awe, but her feelings of wonder soon turned to anger as realization sunk in.
It was you, she whispered, glaring at him with her piercing green eyes.
You're the one who kidnapped Aunt Maia from her wedding! she hissed.
You're the reason she's so unhappy!
I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. Though everything else about him was unrecognizable, the authoritarian voice of the king remained unchanged.
His words did nothing to soothe her, however, and she turned away from him.
How could you do that to her? How could you tear her away from the man she loved?
Thea, I understand that you're upset, but I don't think this is neither the time nor place for this conversation. Lyle knew it was only a matter of time before his hulking, reptilian form drew unwanted attention.
Thea took a step back from the window and folded her arms across her chest.
What are you going to do, drag me out of here like you did to her all those years ago? she snapped.
No. You're going to fly out of here yourself.
What? She whirled back around to stare at him incredulously.
One thousand years ago, Laya herself blessed our line with an amazing gift. And as I said earlier, you are my daughter.
But I don't know how to turn into a dragon!
How do you know that if you've never tried?
He had a valid point.
Fine, I'll try. But I'm still mad at you for what you did to Aunt Maia, the teenaged princess declared.
That's okay, we can discuss it later. But we really need to get out of here as quickly as possible.
So what do I have to do?
Lyle paused to think. Becoming a dragon came so naturally to him by this point, he had nearly forgotten how to get started.
Visualize the transformation, he instructed.
Feel it coming from inside you, where it has always lived.
She tried to follow his directions, but her head was still spinning from all of the information she had just acquired and her body had been weakened by her time in captivity. Imagining herself mirroring the new image of her father didn't seem to be causing any noticeable changes and she quickly became frustrated.
It's not working. I can't do this!
Thea, you must. Now, concentrate. Our people need another brave fighter and it's going to come from within you. Reach inside yourself and find that power; I promise that it's there.
The princess closed her eyes. The first image that flashed through her mind was that of her abduction and she saw the guards, bruised and bloodied, collapse under the brutal attacks of the enemy cyborgs. Shusoran's gates were nearby and her muscles clenched with the thought of of the robot armies breaching the perimeter. Though she wasn't there to personally witness the battle, she saw her father valiantly fighting to protect their home and persisting through the injuries that were inflicted upon him. Lastly, she thought of Maia, who had always been like a mother to her, left by herself to save Cille.
She felt something stir deep inside her chest. Keeping her eyes closed, she lifted her arms from where they had been dangling at her sides and stretched them out, parallel to the floor. When she thought she was reaching out as far as she could, she was surprised to feel her fingertips extending even further, almost reaching beyond the walls of her cell. Her skin was stretched tight against her bones and muscles and seemed to be growing downwards. She tilted her head back as her neck grew longer and the structure of her delicate face shifted drastically, being pulled in all different directions at once. Curling her legs beneath her, she felt her body expand until it seemed the tiny room would no longer be able to contain her.
The earth surrounding the castle began to rumble. The grassy fields shook and swayed and the stone gates crumbled down into useless piles of rubble. The outer walls of the castle buckled inward and were destroyed as a massive, silvery creature burst forth from the ground and soared into the air with a triumphant roar. The dragon flapped its wings and surveyed its surroundings with its brilliant emerald eyes from its place amongst the clouds.
Thea circled the remains of the castle as she waited for her father to join her. Lyle beat his wings against the gentle breezes and flew upwards from where he had been waiting several yards away. The two shimmering metallic dragons were a majestic sight as their impressive forms filled the flawless cobalt sky.
Come, Thea, Lyle said as he started flying towards the northwest.
Let us go save our home.