"I would never want to attack this place," Rhys said, his eyes wary as they constantly moved, on the alert for danger.

"Why's that? Afraid of the big bad Layans?" Lyle mocked, his staff over his shoulders as he casually walked beside the Orakian prince.

"Of course not," Rhys said tightly as he walked on the balls of his feet. "In front of the main wall is that line of fausse brays and detached bastions. You told me all the city is the same way all around, right? That means there are eight of those things, altogether. They can outflank any force that goes at them from any angle. They don't even have to get close to rip an army to shreds."

Rhys moved his right hand, his only free appendage as his left was busy holding his new cloak in place to conceal his sword. "From what I've seen, the whole town is laid out in a grid. No alleys, but each intersection means another place to get ambushed. The Layans can move their forces quickly from place to place, circle around and defeat an enemy piecemeal. And just as if it wasn't bad enough, look at all those inner balconies. Each one perfect for raining fire, arrows, and slicers on intruders who won't have any cover. This whole damnable city is a death trap!"

Lyle looked around his hometown. The wide cobblestone streets were indeed laid out in a perfect grid, each block composed of a number of outward-facing whitewashed houses packed right up against each other. Metal grates hung over the windows and recesses on the second floor of each house created a shaded balcony where flowers and herbs could be grown. Pleasant curtains were drawn over the glass windows as eyes peeked out before the coverings were restored. So far as Lyle was concerned, Shusoran was the most beautiful city of Aquatica, and beat Landen all hollow.

That didn't make it any less of a death trap for invading armies, but at least it was an aesthetically pleasing death trap.

"I never would have expected a hothead like you to notice stuff like that."

Landen's prince grunted. "My father is a master soldier. I took warfare in with my mother's milk. Don't you think you're being a little too nonchalant?"

He shrugged. "If we get chased by monsters, I promise to scream like a little girl the whole time."

"As the only girl present, I object to that."

"You're a cyborg," Lyle reminded Mieu.

"I'm a female android, just as feminine as any other girl, and I don't scream at the sight of monsters."

"So if I try to—"

"If you finish that sentence, Lyle, I'll help Mieu cut your hands off."

"I wouldn't cut his hands off, Prince."

Lyle held his hands up and grinned at them both. Wren's metallic boots clop as the big cyborg marched up the stone road in front of them, the diligent vanguard of their party. Mieu tensed when they passed one of Shusoran's public parks. Her blue eyes were intent on the gigantic rose buds planted around the park's edge as she silently put herself between the park and the party. Tough green roots supported a bud as large as a tall man's torso with the smooth petals that were a pleasant pink. She did not relax her vigilance until they were past the park and surrounded by houses again. Trust a thousand year old cyborg to recognize Irisa.

They continued in silence through the seemingly abandoned town. It filled him with pride that his people had obeyed the order to hide themselves in plain sight like this. The goal (well, one of them) had been to create a tense atmosphere to test Landen's prince, to scratch at the mask royals wore to look at the man beneath. Lyle hated to admit it, but so far, Rhys seemed to be unmoved by neither the Orakian hatred for Layans nor the creepiness of the ghost town. No property damage, no fear, nothing. Just determination.

It was that stubborn quality that made him infuriating, yet likable.

"Master Rhys, the castle gate is closed," Wren announced.

Holy Laya's red symbol on its field of white was on proud display on the gate of Shusoran's castle gate. Similar to Agoe's gate, it was an unbreakable barrier that could blunt the worst violence any Layan could unleash, let alone the firepower of Agoe's paltry cyborgs. A large plaza held dozens of fountains where leather-winged dragons and pot-wielding maidens gushed water from the most likely openings, the tinkling sound a pleasant melody as the pipes pumped water from the distant sea for the beauty of the city. The whitewashed stone walls were not as sturdy, but still presented formidable barriers to any invader, be they armies or singular intruders like themselves.

"Mieu, will your drop of blood trick work here?" Rhys asked.

Red hair shifted a bit as Mieu shook her head. "Unfortunately, it only took one fallen fortress for Laya to realize her danger from Orakio's blood. All the gate mechanisms were ripped out of Laya's holdings not even a week into the start of the war."

Tension left his body as his shoulders relaxed from the unconscious tautness they had assumed. Just because no one could take Shusoran did not mean Lyle wanted Orakians breezily walking into the castle. Who knew what sort of mischief they could cause?

"Do you suppose there's another way in?" Rhys asked as he stared at the gate with the look of a starving man whose meal was just out of reach.

"What are you thinking?" Lyle asked.

"A secret passage or escape of some kind. Just because this city is hard to take doesn't mean a way out or two wouldn't come in handy."

"What if there isn't one?"

Rhys looked at Wren. "Do you think you could break down the wall if you had to?"

"Affirmative, Master Rhys. Do you wish me to do so?"

Mieu's dry response came before Lyle could do more than goggle at Rhys in amazement. "Perhaps it would be best if we avoided drawing attention to ourselves while in hostile territory, Prince."

Landen's prince growled. "What else are we supposed to do?"

"Well, there might be another way in," Lyle put in before the lack of a response convinced Rhys to break down the castle wall. Repairs were one expense the royal family didn't need!

"What are you thinking?" Rhys asked.

"Well, they say that monsters appear in the fountains of Shusoran. Perhaps they appear there because there's something under the fountain?"

"Like a secret passage?"

The excitement in Rhys' eyes worried Lyle. Was he so used to stories coming true that even Lyle's hastily concocted tale made sense?

"Well, maybe," Lyle replied. "Let's find out. Why don't we start from the first one and work our way down?"

Shusoran's castle, like her sister castle in the kingdom of Cille, did indeed possess a secret passage. These had been installed under the fountains for silent entry and exit. Whoever had designed the layout of Shusoran had made sure that none of its citizens would be able to witness the secret from their homes. Normally, that would have limited the fountain's use to night, but since all of his people were at present hiding...

They arrived at the fountain farthest west in the plaza. Without waiting, Rhys jumped into the water and waded toward the center of the fountain, where a statue of a graceful woman stood, her expression serene as water gushed from four dragons that surrounded her. The young Orakian scowled at the dragons as he tentatively probed them, intent on finding a button or trigger.

After a few minutes, it was obvious Rhys was becoming impatient. He muttered, "If I were a Layan, where would I hide that damned button?"

"Probably the place a thick-headed Orakian would last look," Lyle said calmly from the fountain's edge.

"Very funny, Lyle. Come help me find it."

"Thank you, but I prefer staying dry." Did Rhys really expect him to help him break into the castle?

"This was your idea, so shouldn't you—" The Orakian prince stopped abruptly.

"Shouldn't I what?" Lyle asked, almost certain he knew why.

"There's something here," came the slow reply. "It's behind the dragons. It looks like the glyph on the castle gate."

"It might be the passage trigger," Mieu said thoughtfully. "That glyph was Laya's heraldric device during the war, the same way the sunburst was Orakio's, so whatever it is, it must be important."

"I'm going to push it," Rhys said determinedly. "Prepare yourselves."

For a moment, nothing happened. Without warning, the fountain began to shake. Rhys jumped back, a white blur as he somehow moved at top speed without any room to gain momentum. Suddenly, a section in front of the statue dropped. More of the pool bottom depressed as a spiral staircase quickly appeared and water flowed below. Lyle traded looks with Rhys.

"Guess this explains how monsters can appear from fountains," Rhys said finally. Then he grinned. "Let's go before they figure out that we figured it out."

"That was rather tautologous," Lyle observed as Wren stepped into the fountain and assumed the vanguard position.

"Doesn't matter. Maia's here, and we're finally going to save her," came Rhys' reply as he followed the black cyborg into the subterranean passage.

"Why are you so sure she'll be here?" Mieu asked as she followed her master into the darkness.

The reply was quick, sarcastic, and exasperated. "Well, who else could be the abducted girl the Agoen soldier saw be? Lena?"

A fit of coughing covered Lyle's amusement. Now I wonder why he thought of Lena?

When they reached the bottom of the stairwell, it was obvious they were in the dungeons. Without hesitation, he flipped the switch that reset the fountain exit. Rhys jumped at the sound and turned, ready to draw his sword. Lyle raised an eyebrow at the aggressive reaction. "No point going in the back door if someone spots the door is open and raises the alarm, don't you think?"

"Good point," Rhys replied with a smile. "I'm glad we met, Lyle. You're a good man to have covering my back.

Lyle pasted a smile on his face, but inwardly winced. What a thing to say! Hopefully, that sentiment would survive the upcoming trials.

Their progress through Shusoran's dungeons was swift, much quicker than what a group of complete strangers without guides should have been able to accomplish. Lyle suspected that was due to Wren, but he couldn't say how the black cyborg did it. It was also a quiet sojourn, as Rhys took to heart Mieu's warning that they not attract attention.

Not that it mattered. Despite the shortened trip, Lyle still got a good look at Rhys' fighting techniques. The first was a move to draw the sword. Rhys would lead with his right leg forward, crouch back on the left leg, his left hand on the scabbard and his right hand on the grip. Then the blade would fly out faster than lightning and cut the target in half. The second combined that blinding speed of his to charge forward at a speed that made Lyle wonder if Rhys did indeed have demon blood; no normal person could possibly be that fast. Demonspawn or not, once he completed that charge, Rhys would then draw his sword before the enemy could react and cut them in half.

Powerful moves, but not invincible. It was obvious Rhys depended on them heavily, but Lyle was confident he could stop the first move with ease. No mere sword could match the flexibility and power of the staff. Even if he used his charging attack, Lyle was certain he could stop it. While women would argue that men amongst each other did not accomplish anything, as a Layan warrior, he disagreed. There was no better test of a man's character than combat.

Besides, it was all part of the trap.

Mieu poked her head out of the door in front of them. "It seems this is the way to the castle proper. It's much nicer than the dungeons."

It was time, then.

"I have to leave you now, Prince Rhys. I'll explain why later, if things work out."

"What? Lyle!"

Howls echoed down the hall as Lyle ran from the party. It was fortunate that a pack of Fearmoos had been present. The hardier, more vicious versions of the normal Moos would keep Rhys busy long enough for Lyle to enact the next stage of his plan.

His run through the castle ended in the gardens. Unsure of how much time he had, Lyle called out, "Lena! Are you here?"


Just as he had expected, Lena No Satera was in the gardens. He grinned as she poked her head up from some bushes and walked over to him. The perplexed Orakian princess was in the traveling clothes she had worn when they had met, covered in dirt from head to toe from digging. Even though she was filthy, she was still an adorable brunette who definitely fit Rhys' preference for "full-figured" women.

"What is the matter? Why are you he—"

"No time," Lyle replied as he quickly slung the pretty brunette over his shoulder. Even with those curves of hers, Lena was still a relatively light burden. "Rhys is here and we have to go."

"Rhys is here?" she squeaked. "Wait! Lyle! I'm filthy! He can't see me like this! No! Stop!"

Women! There simply was not enough time for her to clean up just to soothe her vanity. The monsters loosed in the castle would drive Rhys toward the throne room, and they needed to beat him there for it to look convincing. Though Lyle was glad Lena didn't try to kick him while he was running. The fall would hurt them both.

Lyle felt a pang of sorrow when they arrived in the throne room. The throne of Shusoran was empty, her king recently deceased. The heir to the kingdom had not yet been crowned due to certain complications, not least of which was a certain vow to Holy Laya. Lyle set Lena down on the dais. "Sit here and try not to say anything."

"What? But Lyle—"

"Trust me," he said with a smirk.

"My mother once told me that whenever a man said that, it could only mean trouble," Lena replied dryly.

There was no more time. Rhys entered the throne room, his pet cyborgs at his heels. Wren fired a few more rounds into the corridor while the other two raced to close the twin doors. The black cyborg withdrew several steps while Rhys and Mieu closed the entrance. Landen's prince sagged against the doorway for a moment, a bit worse for wear from what had clearly been some hard fighting. Hopefully, they hadn't broken any of the treasures in the hallway during their skirmishes. Lyle glanced behind him and saw the positively radiant expression on Lena's face as she looked at Rhys. Rhys really needs to pay attention to the things in front of him.

"It's her! How did she get here?"

Lyle snorted as he turned his full attention back to Rhys's dumbfounded expression. "I found her."

"Please help me take her away, Lyle!"

Did Rhys even hear the worry and concern in his voice? "If you want her back, fight for her!"

Lyle extended the loosely-clasped fingers of his left hand and gathered the mental energy for a Technique. He flung the fingers open and said a single word. "Foi!"

The fireball launched itself from the palm of his hand and struck the ground Rhys had stood on a moment before. You had to give the Orakian credit for speed.

"You're a Layan!" Rhys shouted, outraged.

"That's right," Lyle replied as he lightly spun his staff. "As a matter of fact, I'm Prince of Shusoran."

"You led us into a trap! What have you done to Lena?"

The accusatory tone did not make him feel good, but it was all part of the game. "Try to beat it out of me," came the taunt. "Let's see you really fight, Rhys! Foi!"

Once again, Landen's prince dodged the fireball attack, but Lyle had expected that and launched his next Technique at that blur of white. "Zan!"

Vicious tornadoes of razor wind formed within the throne room and quickly shredded the red carpet and Rhys' white cloak. Unfortunately, Lyle's eyes had tricked him; Rhys' cloak had gone in one direction, while the man himself had gone toward Lyle from a different angle. In a bit of good news, however, the move the Orakian used was the same high-speed draw technique Lyle had seen before. His staff moved quickly and parried the attack.

"I've seen all your moves! You won't be able to hit me with those," Lyle taunted him as he brought the top of his staff down from his shoulder in an attack, then followed up with a low-to-high blow from the level of his boots.

Rhys parried both of those smoothly, the clash of metal staff against metal blade loud in both their ears. Lyle quickly fell into the rhythm of his preferred weapon as he pressed his attack. High, low, low, high, each blow was parried by the Orakian blade. He watched Rhys' expression as they fought. Anger, though that was to be expected. Determination. Focus. But no hate. Interesting.

Their duel continued as Lyle pushed Rhys back. His staff had more range, more flexibility, more of everything when it came to battle. He had the superior weapon, so once he succeeded in cornering Rhys, it was only a matter of time until the Orakian went down.

Suddenly, Landen's prince refused to give more ground. Lyle caught the shift in Rhys' stance as his right foot pointed forward and he crouched back on his left leg. Even as he moved to interrupt the draw technique, Rhys' blade thrust toward Lyle's chest. A quick leap back prevented the attack from connecting, but it was a close thing.

"You don't know anything, Layan," Rhys said angrily as he removed the scabbard at his hip and sheathed his sword incredibly fast. "I'll show you just how ignorant you are."

"Do your best, Orakian," Lyle replied as he entered the range of Rhys' attack, his staff angled, its bottom by his left boot, its top by his right shoulder. Quick as Rhys was, Lyle was confident in his ability to block the draw.

The blade left its sheath, deadly metal given the speed of lightning at the hand of an Orakian. Lyle moved the top of his staff down and heard the clang of metal as he brought the bottom of his staff up. His blow would connect with the head of Landen's prince and knock him to the grou—

A powerful blow slammed into Lyle's head before he could finish the thought. He felt soft velvet on his face before he realized he was on the floor. Dizzy, he looked up in time to see Rhys' scabbard as it was brought down from shoulder height or so. Lyle tried to bring up his left hand to launch a Technique, but Rhys grabbed his hand and twisted it in a painful unarmed fighting grip. The Orakian dragged him up with his free hand. Before Lyle could say a word, Rhys headbutted him.

Stars danced in his vision as the headbutt was followed up with a particularly powerful slug to the face. It was entirely possible Lyle had miscalculated the physical strength Rhys had at his disposal.