"Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it," Alair muttered angrily to herself. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
Her foot danced an impatient rhythm as she lay on her hard cot and stared up at the drab stone ceiling. Pale blue energy formed a barrier all around her cell. She had already pitted her full power against the shield, but as expected, it had proven fruitless. The only thing she had really accomplished with her last attack had been to fill the entire room with the noxious miasma of ozone. That had been bad enough, but when her strongest magic had been absorbed by ripples that mimicked the surface of a pond after a rock had been tossed in, she couldn't do more than use every curse word she had picked up in her brother's army.
It was all Laya's fault. In the early days of the war, Orakio had contained Tech-using prisoners inside portable cages equipped with a superconductor energy feedback system that bounced Techniques back at the caster. The cages had originally been used to imprison criminals and anti-Mother Brain rebels, but Orakio was ever able to adapt any technology to the war effort.
The cages had offended Laya, so she had deliberately allowed herself to be captured. Even as the Orakians had prematurely celebrated the end of the war, Laya had overloaded her cage in a display of extraordinary power. It had been a great victory for morale and a blow to the enemy's spirits, but Orakio was nothing if not determined. He had quickly modified the cages and prisons throughout his territory to use energy absorbent systems. Techniques and magic tossed at the damned things just fed their batteries. Laya and probably even Sahana could have overcome this infernal machine and overloaded it past its limits, but the power those two had owned far surpassed Alair's strength.
"Like comparing a blizzard with a breeze," Alair muttered before she moved her legs over the side and stood. She paced her cell impatiently as she worried her lower lip.
How was she going to escape?
There was no doubt that she had to get out of here. Her brother might not attack Divisia while she was their unwilling guest, but if the people of Elysium had thought Lune brutal before, they were soon going to find out how much of his wrath Alair had been holding back.
Alair hugged herself tightly. She still couldn't believe how much everything had changed since she had gone to sleep. Biologically, she was only twenty, but chronologically, she was over a thousand years old. Why? Why had Laya left them on Dahlia for so long? Why hadn't they been recalled sooner?
While those questions bothered her and the rest of the old army, they disturbed her brother on a far deeper level. Lune's bloodlust had always been part of his generalship, but without Laya to restrain him, he savaged anything that got in his way. Vengeance drove him, vengeance on behalf of their dead leader and his dead wife. Layans who had been slow to obey or quick to rebel, Orakians who futilely defied him on the field, nothing and no one was safe from his wrath.
He had gotten even worse after he had heard the story about Laya's Treasure. The locals said that Laya had hidden something very important in Aridia. Lune had been content to gore his enemies in Elysium at his leisure, but the story drove him to a new level of frenzied ferocity. Whatever Laya had deemed important enough to hide in the ending days of the Devastation War was obviously important enough for Lune to take and use in his new offensive. Most of Divisia had fallen before him even as he sought a way through the mysterious, impenetrable magic barriers that prevented his access to Aridia and Frigidia.
She had been able to blunt the worst of his excesses by influencing his choices in field commanders, with her own name always near the top of the lists. Some within the old army muttered about nepotism where they thought she couldn't hear, but the truth was that she was pretty good at warfare. She had always been a tomboy and her brother had been her parent. She had learned to raid, ambush, and fight practically from the day she was old enough to walk. It had not been much of a step to adapt playtime to bloody practice.
It also helped that she could speak to the monsters on a level far beyond the rudimentary commands they were taught to obey. Her telepathic gifts allowed her to communicate with them in a combination of words and mentally exchanged images that improved their fighting capability to a level best described as elite. Her rank of tribune and status as a beast mistress had been earned, things she'd proven pretty quickly with several bold victories over rebellious Layan mercenaries and bold Orakian knights. Unfortunately, she had gotten clumsy and made a mistake. After a successful raid into Divisia, she had been ambushed on the way back to Lune's lines. The end result was her inside this dungeon.
A lock of lime green hair was tucked away behind her ear as Alair continued to pace. She suspected the main reason she had been captured instead of killed had been because of this telltale color. Little Coel, Sahana's favorite playmate before the war, had used to make fun of Alair about it, calling it "electric laser limeade." Of course, his cousin had joined him, irrepressible child that she had been. She wondered how he had ended his days.
The pang in her heart, however, was not for Coel, but Sahana. Sahana had been her little sister in everything but blood, the girl Alair had scolded, told on, played with, whose exquisite long blonde hair she had brushed as they shared girlish confidences. As they grew older, they were called apart by their duties, she as heiress to an ancient tradition, Alair to service on the battlefield, but they had been very close. Her dreams had always been so peaceful, so traditional: a loving husband and beautiful children, a happy family life. Had she accomplished it, despite it all?
"Enough distractions. Focus, Alair, focus," she muttered as she pushed away thoughts of the past and once again took stock of her situation.
They had taken her slicer and other supplies from her, so she lacked weapons. Her current assets were her brain, her magic, the clothes on her back, her cot, a blanket, and a small toilet. Her current obstacle was the energy barrier that kept her locked in. There was also the relatively minor problem of the guards outside and the steel door that was her ticket out, but she could handle those without even breaking a sweat.
Alair paced by the door, considering and rejecting plans one after the other. The truth of the matter was that she had not come up with a new plan in weeks. She was not strong enough to overload the barrier and none of her ideas to short it from within had borne fruit. But she sloughed on, determined to find a way out.
"Snack time," a cheerful female voice caroled out of sight.
When Alair saw the servant with her serving tray, she instinctively tensed. The redheaded young woman in the castle livery looked identical to the Mieu-types. Alair forced herself to relax at the genetic accident. Primitive and divided though they were, she highly doubted the Divisians would relegate one of Orakio's most sophisticated and formidable creations to the role of maid.
"Prisoner's already been fed," one of her guards grunted, a surly fellow with a crooked nose.
"Of course," the servant replied, her blue eyes honest and open. "This is for you. Some mulled wine, freshly prepared!"
Her other guard, a young cross-eyed man, squinted. "For us?"
"Yes, just for you," she said, her face sickeningly sweet as she made eyes at the younger guard. "Just a little token of our appreciation for keeping her locked in there." The redhead seemed to notice that Alair was watching. She shivered. "Oh, she's just so creepy."
Alair puffed her cheeks out. Creepy? Who was this vapid little twit calling creepy? Laya herself had called Alair pretty! When she got out of here, the first thing she was going to do was shave this redhead bald as an egg.
The guards relaxed at the chance to play up the hero role. "Oh, she is that, lass, but we'll keep her in there, no worries," said the older one as he picked up a mug. The younger nodded enthusiastically as he took his own drink.
What both guards missed as they took deep draughts was the redhead slowly mouthing words at Alair as the maid tucked her tray under her armpit.
Fake a sleeping spell? What in the...?
Well, what did she have to lose? Alair raised her hands. "Oh, shut up, you idiots! Sleepwa!" She internally winced at how stupid that sounded to her.
The servant girl pressed her hands together and looked at the guards in terror. "Oh! She cast a spell!"
The younger man rushed to reassure her. "No need to worry, her magic can't reach us here!"
"Yeah," the older agreed as he took another draught.
The younger followed his example. Their mugs were drained in a trice. The maid smiled at them as they put their drained vessels back on her tray. "Oh, that's good! Let me take these back to the kitchens. Thank you ever so much for keeping us safe!"
The servant girl left. The cross-eyed young man stared after her departing rear. "She's a pretty one, isn't she, Tilin?"
"Yeah, she is. Never seen her before. Must be a new arrival..."
"Probably means she's...avail...able...right...?"
The two guards fell to the stone floor. The redhead reappeared shortly with a bemused look on her face. "'Sleepwa?' Was that really the best you could do?"
Alair felt her face warm. "W-well, it was short notice!"
"Really! You'd think Lune's little sister could be more creative than that."
"Look, are you going to let me out or not?" Alair demanded, embarrassed. She knew it had been lame from the moment she opened her mouth. She did not need to be reminded!
"That's the idea," a deep masculine voice said.
Alair blinked as a tall brown-haired man walked into view. He was good-looking, just the kind of guy she liked, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. He looked the type to be full of good humor, but the grim twist to his mouth lent him a severity that seemed out of place.
"Mieu, please let her out," the young man said.
"So she really is a Mieu-type?"
"Of course," Mieu said as she calmly shut down the barrier and opened the door. "I'm surprised you didn't recognize me from the start."
"Can you blame me?" Alair said defensively. "I wouldn't have expected the Divisians to relegate a frontline unit to maid duty." Alair turned to the redheaded android's apparent master. "Who are you?"
"I am Prince Nial Sa Riik of Landen and Satera," he said.
Sa Riik? As in, Orakio Sa Riik? It couldn't be... could it? "Thank you for freeing me, Prince Nial."
"You're not freed yet," Nial said as he extended his bundle toward her. She recognized the twin of Mieu's own servant outfit and...
"Is that a wig?"
"Your hair is rather... distinctive," he replied diplomatically. "There is no other way for you to leave here without getting caught."
"I...see." Well, what else could she expect? Alair grimly put the brown-colored thing on her head before she took the dress from Nial. "So why are you letting me go?"
Stony brown eyes bore into her. "Your brother annihilated Satera and killed thousands, among them my grandfather."
Alair felt the blood drain out of her face. His words were her worst fear played out. It didn't come as a surprise, but it still made her stomach drop like a rock. "My brother needs to be stopped-he's crazy!"
Nial relaxed ever so slightly. "Yes, he needs to be stopped."
Alair stared at him as a dark suspicion arose in her mind. "Were you testing me?"
"Yes," Nial replied honestly. "I didn't know if you were like him and wanted all of my people dead, or if you would be appalled by his massacre. At least now I know. Do you begrudge it?"
She shook her head. Alair had to admire his frankness...along with whatever was driving him to do this. Here he had sneaked into the dungeon of his own allies, disabled two of their guards, freed Lune's little sister before he had discerned her true sympathies, all in a gamble to free her. Had their roles been reversed, she certainly wouldn't have freed him.
"I guess one thousand years of exile has warped him," Alair sighed. "All he wants is to kill Orakians and cyborgs!"
"Much to the detriment of peaceful Orakians and cyborgs," Nial said grimly. "The Devastation War is over. It ended when Orakio and Laya defeated each other."
The war is over. Somehow, those words resonated within her. If the war had ended with her leader's death, then why were they still fighting?
"I'm going back to try to convince him to stop," she said determinedly as she put the disguise on over her clothes. The outfit was good enough for sneaking out, but she was certainly not going to trek all the way to Aerone in a dress!
When her head popped out of the collar, she saw that Mieu had also donned a brown-haired wig. At her look, the gynoid said, "My red hair is pretty distinctive too. This way, we can just walk out the front door with no one the wiser."
Alair toed the guard with the broken nose. "What about these two?"
"Leave them," Nial said. "They'll sleep for another hour. Although..." He quickly shut the door to her cell and reactivated the barrier. Dark amusement filled his expression. "Now the powerful Layan witch Alair has mysteriously escaped captivity without a trace."
She smirked. "Such a gentleman, making a lady look good like that."
"You could say that," Nial said as he led the way out. "The other thing is that we need to explain your escape somehow, and what better way to do that than a mystery?"
The silent walk through the dingy dungeon felt like it took an eternity. The lack of talk was meant to conceal them and prevent anyone from being aware of their presence, but it also had the unfortunate effect of magnifying the tension. Cunning though Nial's ploy was, she was still a Layan in Orakian territory. If they were caught...
Another complication was not one that she had expected. Unused to skirts as she was, Alair kept tripping on the stupid thing. Fortunately, Nial seemed to be aware of her difficulty, as his strong arms caught her before her face was introduced to the floor. She had resented the gesture, but by the third time it happened, she was ready to be grateful, especially when he allowed her to keep her dignity and did not even acknowledge the spills.
Regardless, when the way out appeared before them, the only thing that prevented Alair from racing out was Nial's strong grip on her arm.
"Mieu, go check if it's clear," he ordered.
"One moment, please."
The android gathered her skirts and darted ahead of them. She poked her head out and signaled them forward. When Alair poked her own head out, she saw that the hall was empty. Strains of music wafted down the hall, probably for some kind of celebration, which helped explained the lonesomeness.
Nial's mouth twisted sourly. "I wish they would stop butchering their music."
Alair tilted her head. To her, the music sounded fine. "They're that bad?"
"They're so sloppy and slipshod that the instruments would make better noises by being tossed down the stairs."
"Interesting," Alair said as Mieu moved to stand beside her. "You've an ear for music, then?"
"Yes, I do," Nial said as he moved away from them.
"More like he loves it," Mieu noted as she gently took Alair's arm and led them in the opposite direction. "Find a talented musician or singer and he'll be entranced for hours."
"Too bad he couldn't have met Sahana," Alair said sadly. Her friend's voice had been angelic. "Let's go."
She had to stop looking back at the past. So did Lune. Their time, their war, was past. They had to move forward.