Vicious growls echoed in the enclosed space as several predators padded through the cave's gloom. Wicked claws scraped against stone as they approached, their ears laid flat below their antlers. Sharp teeth were exposed in their long, ugly snouts as the pack began to bark, a tactic meant to intimidate their prey. The heavy bone armor made the four-legged brown beasts appear like animated skeletons as their jaws snapped at the air.
"Moos," Mieu said calmly, her eyes quick and observant even as her body stood completely at ease. "Three of them. Feral, too."
"I can see that," Rhys said sourly, his knife already out. "Any bright ideas?"
The redhead shrugged. "Kill them and continue."
"I can work with that," Rhys muttered as one of the Moos opened its mouth. A red glow built up at the back of its throat. The Prince of Landen counted three heartbeats before he leaped to the side. A fireball erupted from the monster's throat and blackened the ground he had stood on just a moment before. "Damn it."
The monster reared back on its haunches, ready to pounce. Its powerful hind legs could propel the beast twenty to thirty feet with an impact that at minimum stunned its victim. Rhys braced himself for the attack. He had two options once the Moos leaped: dodge or duck. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the other two Moos approach Mieu as the girl wore a beatific smile.
A shriek overrode rational thought as his instincts reacted. He dodged to the side as the Moos sailed by his left side. Rhys turned to face the monster as his cloak whirled behind him. The Moos landed on its front legs and used its momentum to orient itself toward him again. Without a single wasted movement, the monster charged. The Moos leaped, its body aimed at his chest. Rhys side stepped and raised his knife as the monster passed where his torso had been. His attempt to slice through the Moos' arm failed as steel scraped against bone.
Snarling, the monster landed and once again leveraged its momentum for a quick turnaround. The beast reared back on its haunches, ready to pounce once again. Rhys waited until it shrieked to duck and stab his knife upward. The steel tip penetrated unprotected flesh as blood sprayed over the top of his head. When Rhys felt pressure begin to bend his arm backward, he withdrew the knife. The Moos' body landed with a heavy thump.
Rhys spun around in his crouch and confirmed the kill. His knife had gone through the monster's chest, right below its ribs, and torn it open down to its crotch. The Moos kicked feebly as its life bled out from the gaping wound. Rhys turned his head to see how he could help Mieu, only to watch flabbergasted as the redhead grabbed a Moos in midair and slammed it into the ground with brutal force. Before the stunned beast could do anything, she snapped its neck with a single twist of her dainty-looking hand. From the looks of it, the redhead had already done the same service to the other Moos that had tried to attack her.
Mieu flashed him a cheerful smile as she rose from her crouch as gracefully as a bird launched into flight. She was an utter mystery to him. The redhead claimed she was a cyborg, and fixing the Monitor definitely seemed to back that statement up... well, so did breaking the neck of a monster with her bare hands, but she looked like a pretty girl his own age! Nothing like the squat metal lumps that made up the armies of Landen. It was such a foreign idea that he still couldn't make himself believe it completely.
Her personality was strange, too, though no stranger than any other woman. She could be cheerfully irreverent and childishly mischievous with him one moment, act with the class and poise of a respectable matron in the next, and then be staring off into the distance with a melancholy look in the last. Not that he had any right to blame her for whatever private sorrows she had when his own still loomed fresh in his heart.
His beautiful bride was gone, stolen by the foul Layan dragon-spawn that had interrupted his wedding. Rhys bit his lip as he walked deeper into the cave. He had no idea where Maia was. He didn't even know if she was still alive. He hoped she was, since the foul Layan had kidnapped her, but he didn't know. Ignorance combined with fear to create a sort of exquisite torture that would have made any inquisitor proud.
Rhys scowled. It was his father's fault he hadn't been able to go after the foul Layan the moment it had run off with his bride. If the old man hadn't interfered, they would have found Maia in no time. Instead, he'd been forced to rot in the dungeon for days as his father pressured him to give up Maia and his mother encouraged him to stay true to his love. And of course, none of his friends or vassals did a damned thing to help him out of the dungeons. They just forgot he even existed, bunch of fair weather friends. If Lena hadn't come for him, he'd still be pacing the confines of a dungeon cell.
Lena. Who'd have thought the tiny Princess of Satera would be the one to get him out? He'd completely underestimated the pretty little thing. Fancy her setting off whatever it was to distract the guards and guiding him to the secret passage in the dungeons he had half-forgotten about! She'd even thought far enough ahead to have prepared money and a weapon for him. It was very clever, no doubt about that! He had to admire the sheer cunning and courage in her one woman plot.
They had been friends since childhood. Rhys didn't know why she'd rescued him, but the lengths she had gone to bust him out were extraordinary. At his mother's encouragement, he'd broken the engagement their fathers had arranged for them so that he could marry Maia. He had felt guilty about inflicting that kind of hurt on her, but had gone ahead with it to marry the mysterious beauty he'd rescued. Her willingness to help him in spite of the undeserved blow he had dealt her left him in awe. So far as he was concerned, Lena was one of a kind.
A scowl emerged on his face, something that had become all too common of late. When he had emerged from that tunnel, he'd been inside the town house House Sa Riik secretly owned. Depressed over the loss of his bride, he'd had his armor lacquered white and grabbed a white funeral cloak. Until he saw Maia again, he would not put away the color of mourning, though that had made it difficult to sneak out in the middle of the night. It was poetic that his quest to find Maia began in the shades of grief and uncertainty.
When he'd set out, he had had nothing but rumors to follow. People had seen the foul Layan dragon-spawn, but they didn't know where it had gone. Just when he'd been about to give up hope, the rumors had led him to Mieu, restoring some much needed hope. Now, he was on Possnam, the large island in the middle of the world of Landen, chasing another rumor.
"You know, if you keep making that expression, your face is going to get stuck like that."
Rhys growled. "How do you keep doing that? One moment you act like a brat, the next you're a classy, respectable woman, and then you're staring off into the distance like some old crone."
An eyebrow rose on Mieu's face. "There are three faces to every woman, Rhys. Expecting someone classy, as you put it, to only be classy ignores the other aspects their personality may have."
"I guess so," he muttered. "Do you really think that gem does what people say it does?"
"You mean act as a key to another world?" Mieu shrugged. "It's entirely possible and helps explain why knowledge of the other worlds was lost."
"There aren't any other worlds," Rhys said irritably. "Just Landen."
"Your Monitor and my memories disagree. Besides, how else do you explain that one guy who said he saw the dragon vanish into a cave he couldn't enter?"
"Filthy Layan magic," he replied angrily.
"Probably," Mieu agreed amiably. "But this isn't a fairy tale. Dragons and damsels in distress need to eat, and there's not much food inside a cave. It was probably the passage into another world."
Rhys grunted. There were no other worlds beyond Landen, he was absolutely certain of that. Though if there were other worlds than Landen, would that mean that the reason he couldn't find anything out about Maia was because she was from...?
No, that was a stupid flight of fancy that Lena would be justified in making fun of him for when he returned home with his bride. Rhys and Mieu were on this rustic island to chase down a man that had stolen the Sapphire, which people claimed was the key to another world. When pressed, they admitted that no one had ever used the Sapphire to go to this other world. What good would fairy tales from a thousand years ago do him when he was trying to rescue Maia?
Thinking of fairy tales, the old man on the ferry had told him a particularly uncomfortable one on the trip here. They had sailed past a sunken palace the old man claimed had been where his ancestor Orakio had fought his final battle with the goddess of darkness Laya. He'd even sung a line from a ballad that supported him. It had gone "The fortress's people, thirsting for hatred's power, summoned the Darkness known by that name. Orakio, angered, thrust down his black sword, and sealed both fortress and Darkness away."
If Orakio had sealed the Darkness away, then how did the foul Layan that had abducted Maia manage to appear within Orakio's keep?
Rhys shuddered suddenly, violently, and not from the cold, stale air in the cave. When he had left Landen, an old fortune teller had appeared before him. He'd stared at her, horrified at being discovered, when she suddenly began to chant.
"Prince of Orakio's keep, the time has come to leave your castle! The purple and blue moons shall draw near! A despondent knight and a tormented doll shall awaken and gain power over
the beasts! The two shall engulf the earth with the raging flames of cataclysm! And the prince's offspring shall carry on his wanderings!"
The entire thing had made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. The only thing that could have possibly made the crone's fortune more ominous would have been thunder and lightning. Neither of those had happened, so Rhys had stared at her at a loss as the crone had watched him with rheumy eyes. When he had managed to recollect himself, he'd given her coin and continued his escape.
"Ah, there's our thief," Mieu murmured.
Rhys pulled himself out of his reverie and took in the man at the back of the opening within the cave. The man was sitting cross-legged against the back of the wall, a long staff across his lap, his eyes closed, his expression relaxed. He had long green hair tied into ponytail that hung off his right shoulder. He wore brown traveling clothes and a white cloak covered in the grime and dust of travel. Was the thief in mourning too?
Their steps echoed as they approached the man, so Rhys had no illusions they would catch the man by surprise. He surreptitiously prepared himself in case the thief decided to put up a fight. When they were right in front of the green-haired man, Rhys exchanged glances with Mieu. His body language was as relaxed as it had been when they first entered. They both shrugged. Rhys cleared his throat, very loudly.
The man's eyelids fluttered open to reveal a pair of brilliant green eyes. The man's lips moved into a smile that was half-smirk, half-laughter and pure charm. For the first time since his bride had been kidnapped, a smile hesitantly emerged on Rhys' face. The stranger cheerfully said, "Hi!"
"Hello. What's your name?" Rhys asked.
"I'm Lyle Ra Mira. What's your name?"
This whole thing was going very strangely. What thief introduced himself by his full name? "I'm Prince Rhys Sa Riik of Landen."
"Oh? Aren't you have supposed to have vanished mysteriously?"
"What?" Rhys asked, puzzled.
Lyle nodded. "Yup. You're supposed to have gotten tossed into the dungeons and then vanished without a trace. Your family's in mourning, so I hear. The old king isn't doing very well, either."
Rhys pursed his lips. His father wasn't doing well? Every filial instinct screamed at him to return home on the instant, but he did not want to repeat what had happened at his wedding. For all he knew, his crafty father might have had this rumor spread to lure him back to the castle. Lena had gotten him this chance to rescue Maia, and he wasn't going to squander it.
But what if it was true? He was the only heir to Landen, and if his father were to die without Rhys present to succeed to the throne, the kingdom would fall into feuding factions. Every noble family would seek to settle old scores, seize new lands, and even fight for the Crown that was rightfully his. Either way, it meant time was short.
"Did you steal the Sapphire?" Rhys asked brusquely.
Rather than take offense at his rudeness, Lyle's smirk widened. "Yes, I do have the Sapphire. I'll give it back to you."
"Just like that?" Rhys asked suspiciously. "Why would you steal it only to give it back to the first person to ask about it?"
Lyle shrugged. "I don't really need it, so you're welcome to it." The smirk returned. "Though you're right, maybe I should add a condition. What's the name of your pretty new girlfriend?"
"Aren't you the charmer?" Mieu said, her tone distinctly amused. "My name is Mieu, and I'm not his girlfriend. I'm a combat...cyborg...under the command of my master's descendant."
The blank look Lyle gave Mieu was almost enough to make Rhys laugh. "A combat cyborg? But you aren't made of metal!" Lyle seemed to have caught the flash of irritation in Mieu's blue eyes since he hastily asked, "Your master's descendant?"
"My master, Lord Orakio," Mieu said pleasantly. "Prince Rhys is his descendant."
Lyle stared from Mieu to Rhys and back again before he shook his head and reached into his pouch. The green-haired man drew out a large blue sapphire as dark as a bilberry fruit and extended it toward them. Rhys picked it up and stared at it. Such a small thing was supposed to be the key to another world?
"I'd like to join you on your adventures, but I have other things to do now. See you around!"
Rhys felt his jaw drop as the green-haired man casually stood up and walked away. What a curious person Lyle was! Rhys shook his head. He had a hunch they would meet again, but for now, he had what they had come here for. "Come on, Mieu. Let's find out if this Sapphire really is the key to another world."