"We have arrived in Aridia. Ambient temperature is within the expected range."
"Wait, this world is meant to be like this?"
Mieu turned toward Rhys and smiled in the face of his incredulity. "Why else would you think it's called Aridia?"
The young Orakian prince ran his hand through his hair, clearly frustrated and biting his tongue to avoid a burst of profanity. It was a sweet thing to do in front of a lady, but she had probably learned more curses in a day in an Orakian war camp than Rhys had learned in his entire life. Mieu idly surveyed her surroundings while she waited for him to recover his composure, his pack of supplies slung over her left shoulder.
They stood on a barren rock plain in the alizarin light of the setting sun, the concealed path to Aquatica behind them even as the broken terrain before them gradually descended to the ground. The dunes spread out as sinuously as a woman's curves, their red sand constantly shifting with the caress of the wind. Aridia was the driest world, filled with gravel and gypsum plains, rocky hills and foreboding mountain ranges, deadly quicksand and salt flats, a danger to all who dared enter.
In other words, but for the positions of the dunes in the sea of sand, Aridia was just as she had seen it a thousand years ago: the perfect natural defense for something as valuable as weather control. After the shock of seeing Landen and Aquatica reduced to a primitive state that would have made fascinating material for her master's studies, it was reassuring for one thing to remain the same. The cooling wind caressed her face, blowing her red hair away in a tangle that would take dedicated attention from a fine-toothed comb to undo.
"So now what do we do?" Rhys asked, his temper seemingly back under control.
She did not look at him. "Aridia is the driest world, hot during the day, cold during the night. We don't really have the gear for day travel, so we will have to travel all night." She turned to look at her master's descendant, one perfect eyebrow curled upwards. "Unless you really relish the notion of marching all day in the heat, your skin turning into a pretty red deeper than my hair, death by dehydration the inevitable outcome."
The young Orakian paled a bit before he shook his head. "I'll pass."
"Are you sure? I'm sure the local food chain will thank you for your corpse."
"Are you always so saucy?" Rhys asked crankily.
She answered him with an impish grin. "It's how my master programmed me!"
"Did my ancestor program you to bite, too?" he asked as he began to travel downhill, stumbling his way down the rough terrain. "I still have your teeth marks on my hide!"
"I told you, it was the easiest way to confirm you were really descended from my master, and not some vagabond trying to take advantage of my sweet, innocent self."
The young prince grunted. "Sweet? You?"
It was child's play for her to leverage her internal gyroscopic stabilization system to scoop up a small pebble, toss it squarely at the back of Rhys' blue-haired head, and continue sliding down without losing her balance or momentum.
Mieu calmly walked past Rhys, who had overbalanced and fallen on his backside. "You really should watch your step, young prince."
The imprecation the prince let out was a new one. Mieu idly wondered how outdated her collection of vulgarities had become in a thousand years as she kept a slow pace. Try as she might, she could not consider Rhys her master. It was not that she disliked the young Orakian; he seemed to be made of good material, a worthwhile and honorable heir to the Sa Riik name. It was just that she only considered Orakio her master. Rhys was more like a commander, his authority an extension of her master's, someone to follow and obey, but not the source of her obedience.
"Where are we going?" Rhys asked as he caught up with her, trying hard to avoid pitching face-first into the sand.
"A thousand years ago, my master had a fortress called Hazatak to the south, on Aridia's lake," she explained calmly. "If there are any inhabitants left in Aridia, they'd be there, or along the lake."
The prince began to follow her steps, matching her pace and attempting to copy her movements. His mimicry markedly improved his progress through the dunes. "Do you think someone there will be able to help us save Aquatica?"
Mieu pursed her lips as she recalled the bitter winter in the world of Aquatica. Each of the worlds had a distinct weather pattern, and the freeze assaulting Aquatica was not only unseasonable but far beyond the programmed specifications. "I hope so, at any rate. I'm not confident about my abilities to manipulate weather control."
"But if Orakio made you then shouldn't you be able to...?"
She sighed, not entirely comfortable with her shortcoming. "It's a very complicated tale that's over a thousand years old. Were you a little boy, it'd be your bedtime story. Now pipe down and walk like I do. It's going to be a long night."
"I haven't had any short ones since I met you," Rhys replied wryly. "Lead the way, Mieu."
They journeyed, cutting across the tops of the dunes to conserve energy. The sun set, the blood red of the dusk sky transformed into an inky velvet of black, tiny pinpricks of stars the only light. As they walked carefully through the desert, their steps disguised to mimic the natural sounds of the dusty landscape, Mieu kept half an eye on the sky. Time dragged on in silence as she searched for the familiar glow of purple to the west and blue to the east. In her time, the twin moons could only be seen from the desert world, but was it possible they had been lost in the ensuing centuries?
Her internal clock had logged six hours of travel through the starlit dunes when Rhys spoke again. "I spy with my little eye something beginning with 's.'"
Mieu sighed, aware that the gesture lacked enough moisture to condense and become visible vapor in the frigid desert night. "Sand."
"Yes. I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'm.'"
"No, Mieu," the prince corrected.
The redheaded gynoid waited for him to tell her what he had seen. Several paces later she finally asked, "Aren't you going to tell me what you saw?"
Rhys chuckled. "I spied Mieu. You're not very good at this game, are you?"
A terrible cry filled the air and killed the tart retort on her lips. She looked at Rhys, wide-eyed, as the scream turned into an awful wail that spoke of a pain so horrific that Mieu had no desire to meet its source. She hesitated. She wanted to help, but it would go against her duty to leave Rhys alone. It was moments like these that she felt her master's gift of sentience was more like a curse.
"We have to go help," Rhys said, his voice firm and determined as he turned in the direction of the scream and ran.
Mieu followed. Moments like these made her respect the young Orakian as her commander.
The wail increased in intensity as they ran. Mieu's perfect balance allowed her to quickly outdistance the stumbling Rhys. Her long strides remained steady even as the ghastly howl grew ever more painful to hear. She had been programmed not to fear for herself, but there was something familiar in that wailing voice that made her uneasy.
She crested a dune. The flatness of a gravel field stretched for a distance before her. The plain was surrounded by dunes, a level area in a sea of dust. In the sunlight, the distinctive gray would stand out against the red sand, but Mieu only had eyes for the screaming figure crouched in upon itself in the darkness. She slid down the dune, her claws at the ready. Once she reached the bottom, she leaped up into a fighting stance. The figure tossed back her head and howled again. Hollow shock encapsulated Mieu's world.
The woman whose wail filled the desert night had a mane of long red hair that Mieu knew was darker than her own. The filthy red leotard she wore was similar to Mieu's, but bore long, jagged tears along the left side that exposed her breast. Her left hand was broken, but that inconvenience did not prevent her from clutching an empty black scabbard tightly to her chest as tears streamed down her cheeks.
But the worst of it was her face. Something vicious had dug deep into that face, had gouged out the warm flesh to expose the skull. Instead of the white bone of a mortal, the black metal of artificial life given Palman form sat, cruelly unmasked for all the world to see. Another howl escaped the aggrieved woman, agony twisting that face into something Mieu could not name. The face should have been pretty, filled with laughter and smiles, a mirror image to her own.
"Sis," Mieu whispered. Her voice wavered. Why was it wavering? She ran forward.
Mieu knelt before she grabbed the scarred android by the shoulders and shook her. "Sis! Miun, it's me! It's Mieu! SIS!"
The wail began to die down as the damaged gynoid slowly faced her. One cerulean eye and one blue photoreceptor stared at Mieu as tears streamed down both cheeks. It was a horribly cruel joke that whatever had ruined that pretty face had missed the artificial tear ducts.
Miun had been the first Mieu-type, named by Orakio himself. She had been one of the two permanent fixtures of his personal guard and had followed their master into the bloodiest battles of the Devastation War. Secretary, bodyguard, special forces commander, there had been nothing Miun could not do. The Mieu-types that were created after her considered Miun their elder sister, and Miun had taken that role very seriously, taking care to guide them through the turbulence of their sentience. To see her idol like this...
Mieu heard someone slide down a dune. Rhys had arrived. She did not say anything as she stared into Miun's slack face. She hoped the young Orakian had the sense to keep silent.
"Mieu?" Miun said, a flicker of recognition in her good eye. Why hadn't her self-repair systems fixed the damage?
"Yes, it's me," Mieu said gently. "Sis, are you alright? What happened to you?"
The face that mirrored her own crumpled into a mask of grief. "Oh, Mieu, where is my Lord Orakio? It's been one thousand years, but I'd know his black sword anywhere!"
Broken, Mieu thought. How long had her big sister been like this?
A fresh melancholic scream shattered the desert night. Shadows slid down the nearby dunes. Mieu clutched at her big sister and held her close as a new wail erupted. Miun ignored the new arrivals as her grief ripped more wrenching agony from her artificial throat. Out of the corner of her eye, Mieu saw Rhys prepare to draw his knife, his stance a familiar echo of the past.
The shadows resolved into ten hooded Palman men garbed in cloaks that Mieu suspected protected them from the sun and allowed them to blend into the desert landscape. Their faces were covered by veils that left only their eyes exposed. Each carried two Orakian combat knives, long cleaver-like weapons that could chop as well as cut. It was obvious from how they stood that these were fighting men, accustomed to using their blades.
Mieu held Miun closer as she considered her options, none of them any good. Given his unfamiliarity with the desert, flight would likely result in Rhys having to face these fighters on his own. Mieu had seen Rhys fight before, and while the prince was good, no man alone could possibly best ten men in a brawl. She could have taken the lot of them by herself, but with Rhys present and her big sister unlikely to defend herself, the odds one or both of them would get injured were unacceptably high. Their opponents likely knew this as well, so why hadn't they attacked?
One of the hooded men spoke. "Do you mean to harm the Griever, strangers?"
"The Griever?" Rhys asked, his hand on his knife.
The hooded man gestured. The gray blade in his left hand pointed at her even as the blade in his right hand stayed between him and Rhys. "The Griever is the Griever. She weeps for Orakio and awaits his return."
Rhys glanced at her uncertainly before he shook his head. "We mean the Griever no harm."
"Who are you?" Mieu demanded angrily. "Why are you here?"
The speaker studied her for a long time. "We are representatives of the ten tribes. It is said that long ago the Griever did us a kindness. In exchange, we protect the Griever so that she may mourn unmolested by the beasts of the desert and the machines of Hazatak." The speaker fell silent. Curiosity came into his tone as he said, "You share the Griever's face."
Miun had quieted. Her damaged face was buried in Mieu's chest. Muffled sobs seemed to shake Mieu's body. An invisible weight seemed to press down on her as horrible emotion she had not felt in over a millennium threatened to overtake her. "I'm her little sister. How long has she been alone out here?"
"It is said that she has wept alone for ten centuries."
Something trickled down her cheeks. Mieu looked up at the night sky. It wasn't raining.