The smell of smoke was suffocating as a gray haze hovered over the ruins of Satera. Mieu stood on the battlements of Castle No Satera. As far as the eye could see, the blackened remains of wooden supports denoted where houses and buildings had once stood, while broken stone forlornly tried to support walls that no longer existed. Fires still raged in parts of the city even as stray monsters continued to roam the streets.

Things were not much better within the castle, battered by claws and Techniques. Streaks of soot and gouges in the stone scarred the interior. Priceless paintings had been torn to shreds. Statues and other works of art had been shattered beyond repair. The gardens had been scorched. The broken branches and trunks of trees blocked the walkways. The corpses of soldiers and civilians alike littered the grounds, while the mingled stench of roasted flesh and rot wafted through the wrecked halls, the aroma of decay and defeat.

The sight of ruin was a familiar one. During the Devastation War, dozens of cities had been sacked, most of them more than once. Even Landen had been put to the torch. But the stealth, cunning, logistical planning, and absolute brutality that characterized this particular attack had all the hallmarks of Lune, Laya's general. Rumors had raced across Landen assigning the blame for the attack to the ancient warlord, but there was no proof, just claims that the army that had annihilated Satera had carried Laya's standard alongside Lune's banner of a white moon on a field of red. Mieu had gotten tired of pointing out that the Sa Riik emblem was Lord Orakio's golden sunburst on black, yet no one expected Lord Orakio to be in command of armies marching under that banner.

Mieu sighed before she continued down the broken defenses. Half of Landen's garrison had been sent to evacuate any survivors. The other half remained at Orakio's Keep while Rhys recalled his armies from their fortresses elsewhere. Everything moved toward war once again.

She wasn't worried about Landen's chances against the Layan horde that had sacked Satera. Jos Arl's technical expertise had been invaluable in turning a motley collection of third-rate machines into the equal of any of Lord Orakio's frontline armies. Add to that Rhys' natural instinct for war, and the Layan commander that even now rampaged across the western half of this world had an unpleasant surprise waiting for him.

Ahead of her, the indefatigable Wren stood next to a brown-haired man sitting against the parapet. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, a young giant far larger than his father, let alone the mother who had birthed him. His head rested within the crenel while brown eyes stared sightlessly into the blue sky; their warmth had disappeared into pools of grief when word had arrived about the death of the King of Satera. On his lap he held a double-edged great sword, a weapon he handled as easily as his mother used a dagger. But for the white armor he had donned, he looked just like any other shell-shocked Sateran soldier.

"Hey, Mieu," Nial said listlessly.

"Hey yourself," Mieu said gently as she crouched near Rhys' heir. "Are you feeling alright?"

Nial shook his head, perhaps answering her question, perhaps denying anything was wrong. Either way, it worried her. Rhys had sent his son to investigate the ruins and try to confirm the identity of the unknown attacker, but the young prince had said very little ever since they had arrived. That was no surprise, as he had never before seen war. The last conflict within Landen had been a minor uprising in the south shortly after Rhys' coronation, early on in Lena's pregnancy. The troops that accompanied Nial included veterans from that campaign, but the truth of the matter was simple: no one in Landen today could be prepared for an atrocity on this level.

What bothered her most was that his ever-present smile seemed to have been permanently snuffed out.

"I didn't recognize Gramps or old cousin Greck. The monsters ripped them apart. At least Gramps is resting in the royal catacombs now," Nial said, his voice still lifeless.

Mieu nodded mutely. Greck Le Gaede had been Chancellor of Landen. Rhys had sent his first cousin to Satera to once again attempt to persuade old King Askle to remove his forces from their ancient fortresses on the shore and toward the south. So long as the old king had lived, Rhys could not give commands to the western half of the world, only hector. Had the old king only listened, this could all have been avoided. It would have been farcical if it had not led to such a tragic ending.

"Mom's Queen of Satera now, huh? Makes my old man King of Satera, too," Nial said. His face crumpled. "Why did he have to die?"

It was the cry of a little boy mourning a beloved and indulgent grandfather. Mieu stroked Nial's brown hair gently as tears silently streamed down the prince's face. If she could have protected her master's heirs from the bitter agonies of reality, she would have. But that was beyond her power, something she was forced to acknowledge every time it happened. A millennium ago, a little boy screamed for his dead mother as Mieu held him. A generation ago, another young man grieved for his dying father as Mieu stood wordlessly beside him. Each time, she had been powerless before the sorrow.

Pain filled her as she remembered her big sister Miun, her mind lost to insanity for a thousand years as she wept for their lost lord. Palman or android, it never became easier.

"If I could suffer your pain for you, I would," she said sadly.

Nial looked at her for a moment before he closed his eyes. His jaw worked silently as he restrained his grief. "Who could have done this? There was no honor in this."

"This style of warfare...is not honorable," Mieu said carefully. "It does not belong in this era."

Brown eyes focused on her. "Did it belong in yours?"

"It does not belong in any era," Mieu replied firmly.

"But it happened in yours?" he pressed.

When she said nothing, Nial turned to Wren. "Did this happen in your era, Wren?"

The giant android looked at the prince, that pallid complexion a match for his unfazed expression. "Yes, Master Nial."

"Why?"

"It was how Siren and Lune fought."

It was how babies were born. It was how children were raised. Only Wren could make the brutality of total warfare sound as banal as the facts of life.

"Siren. Lune. Orakio's general. Laya's general. Does that mean... that they're still alive?"

"I don't think so," Mieu interjected. "Siren would never have passed a millennium quietly. Lune would be over a thousand years old by now, impossible for a mortal. More than likely, this attack was done by some heir of Lune's legacy from a world where they're still fighting the Devastation War."

"I see," Nial said. He said nothing for a time, his hands on his weapon. "There's a report that the monsters are coming from a cave to the south. How did they get here without being spotted?"

Wren answered the rhetorical question. "Sneak attack accomplished via concealed, rapid movement through rugged terrain. The mountains and forests of Satera served to conceal their presence. Any Saterans unfortunate enough to come across the Layan army would have been silenced permanently. The lack of southward facing defenses only facilitated their movement."

"Thank you, Wren," Nial said as he stood up. On his feet, the young giant was as large as Wren, something few Palmans could claim. Nial stared out across the demolished city, at destroyed buildings and empty lots where homes had once stood. The air seemed to have adopted the color gray as a cloak. A vagrant breeze brought the smell of soot as it stirred Nial's white cape. The breeze died.

"Our danger increases the longer we remain here," Mieu reminded him. She wanted nothing better than to give him time and space to grieve, but it was not unknown for a place to be attacked twice for the specific purpose of slaughtering rescuers. Rhys had specifically charged her and Wren to care for Nial, something she would have done without being told. "We can't stay here much longer."

"I wonder if they've found all the survivors?" Nial murmured.

"Highly probable," Wren said in his monotone. "Rate of survival decreases with time."

Mieu winced, but Nial did not seem to react to that depressing fact. He unconsciously adopted a combat stance. "Wren, issue the order to begin withdrawal. How many supplies do we have, Mieu?"

"For yourself? More than enough for a long trip," Mieu said suspiciously. "What are you thinking?"

"My old man told me to find out who attacked us. We're going to pass the order for the Sateran garrisons to abandon the shore defenses, and then we're infiltrating the southern cave these invaders are coming from."

Taken aback, Mieu could only stare at the determination in Nial's voice. "By ourselves?"

"It's harder to find three people than it is to find an army."

"But if we're caught, you could be killed!" Mieu objected.

Stony brown eyes met her gaze. "I failed my people and Gramps, Mieu. I should have protected them. My old man has to defend Landen and the survivors of Satera, and a war can't be won by defense. We're the only ones who can do it."

That was the reason he gave, but Mieu wasn't fooled. She had helped raise Landen's heir and knew what drove him. Nial had internalized the fall of Satera as his fault. He rejected the very idea that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. It was their duty to defend their people; there were no excuses for failure. The only redemption was to defeat the enemy.

Mieu stared out at the city. The Layan army would be doing the same throughout Satera, turning the fertile land into a ruined country. The longer they delayed, the worse the damage would be. It was even possible that the entire kingdom would be left so devastated that it would never recover.

"I'll prepare for our departure," she finally said. She might not be able to shield the child she had raised from life's pain, but she would definitely protect his back.