The air wavered from the intensity of the desert sun. Dust devils danced through the red-tinted dunes as vagrant wind twisted and turned through the gentle hills of sand. The wasteland's heat burned through thick white cloaks and stout boots alike, draining moisture, vitality, life itself from the bodies of its victims.
Mieu loathed Aridia. Artificial though she was, irrational as it was, every step she took within that desiccated landscape only increased her hatred. The feeling had not existed when Orakio walked the Alisa III, and try though she might to convince herself the desert dome did not merit such intense feeling, she never could manage to make herself believe it. She hated Aridia. She tried, very hard, to ignore why she hated the place.
The sand crunched beneath her boots as she walked, her three young charges following her. They all wore the same heat-deflecting white cloaks, the hoods up and their faces wrapped with thick, white veils to keep the sand out of their noses and mouths and the sun off their heads. The cloaks could be tossed back quickly to draw a weapon, though if the wind decided to get uppity, they might interfere with close-combat. Under the circumstances, it was the best that could be done.
They walked in silence. There wasn't much to talk about. More accurately, there wasn't much to talk about that would alleviate their worries.
Everything had seemed to be going so well. Laya and Gwyn had woken up from their comas. The whole family had been gathered in Laya's chambers, happy, so happy. For just a little while, the darkness that had loomed over everything ever since the ship had done the impossible and shaken had lifted. They were all safe, together, a family. Then the messenger had arrived.
"My kings, we are under attack!" Filthy, wounded, and one step from falling into unconsciousness, the kneeling soldier barely managed to keep his body from collapsing on the floor.
"Under attack? From whom? Why?" Nial had surged to his feet, Rhys and Adan as quick as he to prepare for battle.
"We don't know, my kings," the soldier said, exhaustion writ deep within his bones. "They own war machines and monsters, and use both in tandem. Their army was much larger, much stronger. They show no mercy. We're trying to slow them, but they're too overwhelming. They had commanders. Men in golden armor and women in robes."
"Punishers and Zafirah. Lashute." Adan scowled. "How deep does Rulakir's treachery go?"
"Uncle did not betray us," Gwyn said, her voice regal and brooking no argument.
From that stance Landen's princess had not budged. The bubble of happiness broken, decisions had been made quickly. Rhys and Nial would command the armies. Laya would go with Nial and Lena would govern. The children would continue the quest to defeat Dark Force.
So they walked in silence. The twins were probably grinding their teeth as they worried for their parents and grandparents. Kara, sensitive to the mood, seemed to shrink into herself. Mieu hated it. They were children, however big they got, and she loved them dearly. She did not want to lead them toward something that had killed her master. That she did it at all was because she knew the nature of the children she had raised. With her or without her, they would fight Dark Force. Not because living was so sweet to them, but because it was the right thing to do.
Why did her master have to pass such a wonderful, damnable trait on to her charges?
And she was here. The world she hated the most, where Miun had spent a thousand years trapped within the nightmares of insanity and the throes of eternal grief. A thousand years of agony for her big sister while Mieu had slept, peacefully, blissfully unaware.
It continued to gnaw at her, so many years after she had discovered how her big sister had spent the last millennium. Achingly, despairingly, hopelessly alone. Had she been awake, had she known, she'd have spent that time caring for Miun.
As an android, Mieu could have deleted the feelings she had for the first Mieu-type. It would have been a simple task, just the removal of a few stray bits of data that would have left her guilt-free. But if she did such a thing, who would mourn for Miun? No one deserved to be alone in such pain, and even if she could do nothing, the sorrow was a link, something that meant the senior gynoid was not alone in spirit.
This time, she hoped, she could give her big sister peace. During the brief moments of sobbing that broke up the horrific wails, Miun would ask, "Where is my Lord Orakio? It's been one thousand years, but I'd know his black sword anywhere!"
Now, Adan, descendant of their long-dead master, owned the black sword. Perhaps it would be enough to bring Miun back from the realms of madness she had inhabited for over a thousand years. Mieu sincerely hoped so, at any rate.
A familiar howl filled the air. Mieu felt more than saw her young wards flinch at the inconsolable agony weighing down that voice. It never became easier. Mieu made her way to the top of one of the lesser dunes and stared down at what the locals called the Griever's Basin.
The gravel plain below was a light gray that contrasted with the sinuous curves of red sand. The pale powder blew across the flat field as the surface of the dunes subtly changed under the wind's caress. As she had done every previous time she had come here, Mieu ignored her surroundings to slide down the dune, her eyes intent on the lone person in the basin.
A woman huddled alone, an empty black scabbard that bore Orakio's sunburst clutched to her chest. Filthy red hair darker than her own barely stirred as centuries of dirt and neglect resisted that ever-present wind. The dirty red leotard she wore was similar to Mieu's and sported long, jagged tears along the left side that exposed her breast and had likely been caused by whatever had broken her left hand.
That same enemy had irreparably scarred the once-pretty face. On her right side, she looked like a young, pretty Palman girl, suited for laughter and smiles, vivacious and happy. The left side of that face so like hers had been cruelly ripped apart, the black metal that lay below the skin exposed to the world.
Sand scraped as others slid down the dune, but Mieu paid it no mind. She stared at the woman's face. Her sister's face...and her own.
"Are you sure about this, Mieu?" Adan asked, his voice muffled by the desert clothing.
Miun's pained shrieks tore at her. A thousand years of loyalty shouldn't be repaid with a lie, but was it a lie if she said nothing? Her master had taught her that lies could be gentler than the truth. They meant that you suffered instead of the innocent.
Without a word, she walked toward Miun, her idol, her big sister, her teacher. She gracefully knelt near the older gynoid's side and touched Miun's arm. "Sis? It's me, sis. It's Mieu."
The keening began to die down as Miun's head slowly turned toward her. In a nightmare ruin of her own face, one cerulean eye and one blue photoreceptor slowly focused on her as tears continued to flow, unabated by one interruption in centuries of mourning.
"Mieu?" Miun said, that all too familiar flicker of recognition in the insane android's good eye breaking through the grieving madness.
"Yes, sis, it's me," Mieu said softly as she gently rubbed Miun's arm. "I have something I want you to see."
"S-see?" Miun hiccupped.
Mieu did not look away from her sister's face as she pointed. As Miun slowly turned her head forward, Adan fell into a familiar combat stance and drew his ancestor's weapon.
Even now, a millennium later, the black sword did not fail to impress. The ancient weapon projected a killing edge that had made Laya's elite quail in terror. Aridia itself seemed to tremble as the blade forced its legend upon the fabric of the world itself.
Joy suffused the damaged gynoid's face as she tried to stand. Her body, weakened from centuries of exertion and neglect, refused to obey. Seemingly unaware at the failure of her ancient gears to obey, Miun smiled at Adan exactly the way she had smiled at Orakio. The happiness in her face cut Mieu to the quick.
"The black sword! Orakio, you've returned! I'm so glad to meet you again before I..."
Mieu had only that pause to catch Miun as the older gynoid's body pitched backward. The smile was still on her big sister's face as she spoke slowly. "Mieu, he came... back... to... me... he... really..."
The light began to flicker weakly in Miun's eyes. Something trickled down Mieu's cheeks. "Yes, Miun, he really did."
Blue eyes so like her own died. A mournful scream filled the desert sky.