Chapter 24 - Scaled to Size
Meals at the palace were an informal affair; food was generally laid out buffet-style for everyone who might wander into the dining hall. Mikaen suspected Jyle had a hand in this; in the Knights of the Star, the newest scrub ate alongside the founding knights as equals.
The banquet table seemed fairly packed, save for the area where Tirinia and Teria were sitting. At first, Mikaen thought that the idestan were purposefully segregating the tigreth sisters, but he realized that wasn't the case when Jek approached Teria. As soon as his hand touched the back of the chair, she gave him a menacing snarl that made the idestan prince wisely relocate a few chairs away.
As Jyle headed for the door, Mikaen approached Tirinia and Teria.
Teria managed a half snarl before she recognized him. "Oh! Sorry, Mikaen. I thought you were that prat again."
"I saved you a seat." Tirinia motioned to the chair beside hers.
Mikaen gave her a kiss on the cheek before sitting down. "Thanks, sweetie."
She rubbed his hand for a moment, affection coming off of her like a warm breeze.
"All right, you two are a thing." Teria tossed an empty plate at Mikaen. "No need to rub it in the faces of us single people."
Tirinia made a face at her sister before leaning over and kissing Mikaen. A few idestan looked at the lovers with mild amusement before politely averting their gazes. Smiling, Teria shook her head and turned her attention back to her lunch.
"So," Teria said as her sister and Mikaen began to eat, "What have you two been up to all day?"
"Met the Cleftan and Wenapaj delegates." Mikaen said as he piled food onto his plate.
Teria let out a snort. "Then you met King Iniagus. I bet that was fun."
"That's one way to put it." Plate loaded, Mikaen sat back and prepared to enjoy his meal. "How about you two?"
"I went down to where Jyle trains the palace guards for a bit of sparring." Teria told him. "I'll give the Cygros some credit; they're not bad. Not great, but I worked up a sweat."
She took a bite of her sandwich before asking, "How about you, Tyr?"
"Huh?" Tirinia looked startled.
"What did you do today? Did you go with Mikaen to see King Bonkers?"
"Oh, um ... I had to go to the Center."
"Ah. Still working on that doctorate, huh?" Teria shook her head. "More power to ya. Me, I'm glad I'm done."
Tirinia didn't reply; she stared at her plate with an expression of guilt. She jumped slightly as Mikaen put his hand over hers.
Teria sighed and put down her sandwich again. "Look, you might as well just tell him."
"Tell me what?" Mikaen asked curiously.
Tirinia blushed, her cheeks nearly crimson despite her white fur. Her eyes flashed to Jek, who quickly looked away.
"Ah. Later, when there's less of an audience, perhaps?"
Mikaen stared at Jek for a few moments, a smile slowly spreading across his face that was only partially from the feeling of Tirinia's gratitude spreading through his chest.
As he took a moment to spoon some mashed potatoes onto his plate, Mikaen asked casually, "Hey, that reminds me; does the name Tyrn sound familiar to anyone?"
Jek dropped his fork. Tirinia, on the other hand, perked up considerably. "That's right! I'd almost forgotten about that! I mean, there's that Tyrn, but I seriously doubt it's him."
"Who is that Tyrn?" Mikaen asked, his eyes on Jek as the idestan prince grew more and more nervous by the second.
"Well," Teria said after swallowing a mouthful of sandwich, "The only Tyrn I know of is Tyrn Windstar. He's one of the sons of the Prime Minister of Jai Vye."
"Son of the Prime Minister. My, isn't that interesting. Wouldn't you say so Jek?"
Jek stared determinately at his plate. Mikaen had to suppress the urge to laugh; Jek was trying so hard not to look at Mikaen that it was obvious Mikaen's inquiry had hit the mark dead center. Tirinia, fully tuned into Mikaen's train of thought was looking at him as well, her ears twitching.
Smirking, Mikaen said "Relax, Jek. I'm not going to tell your father."
"Tell him what?" Teria's ears swiveled toward Mikaen. "What's this about?"
"That Rydiana's been sneaking out to be with Tyrn." Mikaen said matter-of-factly.
Teria stared at Mikaen continued eating as though he had said nothing of great importance. Tirinia was trying and failing to stop herself from giggling.
Jek let out a sigh of exasperation. "Great." he muttered, "Like Teria's gonna keep her big mouth shut with this bit of gossip."
"Hey!" Teria tossed what remained of her sandwich at the prince.
As the prince wiped the mayonnaise off his face, Tirinia put a hand on her sister's arm, saying, "We won't tell anyone. Right, Teria?"
Teria grinned from ear to furry ear. "Are you kidding? It'll be way more fun to just sit and watch."
Tirinia frowned, but before she could say anything, Jek hissed, "Dad's coming!"
Everyone turned as Jyle approached. Jeronem followed behind him, his hair tousled and one of his ears cocked at an odd angle.
He sat down beside Mikaen, looking as though he were about to go to sleep. A few moments later, his head hit the table with a thud.
"Tired much?" Mikaen asked, setting an empty plate beside his friend. Jeronem didn't reply with as much as a mental groan.
"So," Jyle said, taking a seat beside his son, "What were you lot talking about?"
"The upcoming slamm match." Jek replied just a bit too quickly.
Jyle didn't seem to notice. "Really? Thinking about coming to the match, Mikaen? Well, it's not for a few weeks if you change your mind. You know, you could start a team over in Homestead. I mean, if you don't portal home as soon as you hit your Gineros, that is."
The reminder hit Mikaen like a punch to the stomach; with all the chaos of the past few days, he had completely forgotten why it was he had come to Muonsol in the first place.
Tirinia slid her hand into his beneath the table, a concerned look on her face.
Mikaen smiled at her, saying, "I'm only returning home to finish my last mission. From what Trystan tells me, I should be able to come back afterwards, no problem."
She smiled back, squeezing his hand before letting go.
"I can't blame you for that." Grinning at his son, he said, "After all, I didn't waste much time laying down my roots."
Jek dropped his fork again, this time grimacing. "Dad, please. I'm eating."
After a few moments of eating in relative silence, Tirinia asked Mikaen, "I've heard the Cygros mention a member of the Knights named Echu. Are you familiar with him?"
Mikaen and Jyle both laughed, drawing curious looks from everyone else.
"Let me explain," said Mikaen, turning to face the others, "The Knights of the Star were preparing to raid a Rev supply station. It was just a small base, a place for them to refuel combat units and troop transports, that kind of thing. Before we could send in our troops, Jyle and I snuck in to disable the security systems. Hopefully, without the firepower to back them up, the Revs would give up without a fight."
"Everything was going perfectly." said Jyle, "Mikaen kept an eye out for the patrolling guard while I tried to hack into the security grid. We started gabbing like we usually did, talking about our friends back at Misakren and girls we thought were cute … this was before you and Maria started dating, I think, Mikaen. Anyway, we were so into our conversation that neither of us noticed when one of the Revs entered the room in his pajamas."
Mikaen continued, "I was sure he was about to set off the alarm, but he just walked right on by me without a word and grabbed a drink out of a small fridge in the corner of the office. As he walks back out of the room, Jyle and I notice that someone had written the word, 'Password' real small on the tail of his shirt.
"We tried a few things, and eventually find the security code was 'sleepwalker'. Well, once we have the code, we radio the others. With the security system shut down, the attack force quickly captured everyone in the base, including our wandering friend. No blood, no fighting, no problem."
Grinning, Mikaen said, "Poor guy wakes up the next day in a cell in Misakren, completely confused and wearing nothing but his pajamas. Jyle and I stop by after lunch and tell him…"
Together, Mikaen and Jyle finished, "Thanks for the password, Lieutenant."
Everyone laughed, no one more so that Jyle.
"We found out later that the night guard had written 'password' on every pair of that guy's pajamas. If he was locked out and forgot his code, the lieutenant would be walking by sooner or later and remind him. The poor guy had no idea!" Jyle let out another laugh before downing a tankard of milk. Smacking his lips, he said fondly, "Good times … good times."
"What happened to them?" Tirinia asked Mikaen curiously, "I mean the Revs you captured."
"Oh, some we eventually let go after we got what information we could out of them." Mikaen shrugged indifferently.
"You let them go?" Tirinia asked, sounding surprised, "But weren't they your enemy?"
Mikaen waved it off. "There were only three of them, and as you might have guessed they weren't exactly soldier-class. More than likely, they joined the Revs to avoid being slaughtered with phreacs like me and Jyle. They all tested positive for magical ability. The sleepwalker ended up joining us … and he was Echu. Echu Articus."
"Damn good blader." Looking at Mikaen, Jyle added, "You know, while you were gone, he was the head of the bladers. Did a great job, though not as good as you, of course."
Mikaen shrugged, saying, "Of course."
They continued eating without conversation. Mikaen cleared three plates, and had started on his fourth when Julia approached the table, looking as radiant as ever as she led a sleepy-eyed Meryl to the table.
As they exchanged good mornings, it occurred to Mikaen that Rydiana was absent. Worried or no, she had to have been hungry.
"Where is Princess Rydiana this morning?" Tirinia asked politely, her eyes catching Mikaen's for a split moment.
"In bed. Not feeling well." Jyle sniffed, adding, "Probably has a cold from all that sneaking out."
"Nothing serious, I hope." Mikaen said politely. He had to suppress the urge to smirk; Jyle had often used his illusionist abilities to make people think he was in his room while he secretly snuck out, usually on one of his doomed attempts to woo whichever female knight he was currently interested in. Apparently his daughter was more like him than he knew.
Pushing his plate away, Jek stood up rather abruptly headed for the nearest exit.
"Where are you off to in such a hurry?" Jyle called after him, a touch of annoyance in his voice, but Jek didn't respond.
Jyle sighed and shook his head. "Kids."
Mikaen stared down at his plate. He was still a little hungry, but he was even more curious about the possible link between the monks who ambushed him and the missing people. Jek knew something, that much was obvious.
Pushing his own plate forward, Mikaen stood, saying, "Well, that's enough for me."
"After only four plates of food?" Jyle asked, grinning, "Are you sure you don't want to go for five?"
Mikaen made a face at him before heading for the door that Jek had left through. Jek was gone, but he nearly ran into someone else he knew going through the doors into the banquet hall. One seemed a bit startled by Mikaen's appearance. "Oh! Good morning, Mikaen. I was just going to have a bit of breakfast."
"If you're still trying to avoid Teria, you might want to wait a few minutes." Mikaen advised him.
"Thanks for the-" One stopped abruptly. "Now what makes you think I'm avoiding Teria?"
"The other night when she was chasing you, last month when you disappeared as she and Tirinia came around the corner, and Teria's response when I mentioned your shirt, not to mention the fact that you just thanked me for warning you."
To Mikaen's surprise, One gave a sigh so filled with melancholy that he was surprised that the Dreamer's breath didn't come out blue. "Yeah, well … we have some history."
"Now what does that mean?" asked Mikaen, his curiosity piqued.
One's eyes narrowed. "It means that I don't want to talk about it."
Mikaen waited expectantly.
Sighing again, One said, "I don't remember."
"That's awfully convenient."
One glared at him. "I'm not lying; apparently I hid the memories from myself. No idea why. It's coming back, but there's still a lot I don't remember. I'm only avoiding her until I get a grip on my memories again."
"You and she were close?"
One bowed his head. "I think so."
"Close enough that when she realized who I was the other night, she kissed me." said One, his cheeks a little red.
Mikaen's eyes widened. "You're kidding. I had no idea."
"Neither did I." Shaking his head, One grinned at Mikaen and said, "Well, enough about my strange life. What are you up to today?"
"Well, right now I'd like to see if there's some correlation between the disappearances around Muonsol and the failed attempt to capture Jeronem and me." It suddenly occurred to Mikaen just who had suggested the trail that had led to the ambush.
"Speaking of which." Mikaen put his hands on his hips and glared at the Dreamer.
Looking affronted, One said, "Look, I honestly had no idea you were going to be ambushed. I suggested the trail so you'd end up camping close to the Muonsol girls!"
Something in the tone of One's voice made Mikaen believe him. "Still, if you want to make up for it, maybe you can help me."
One shrugged, saying, "Sure, I'm game. Whatcha need?"
"Information. What do you know about the disappearances around Muonsol?"
"Nothing." One rolled his eyes in response to Mikaen's renewed glare. "Look, just because I'm a Dreamer doesn't mean I know everything. Do you know every member of the Knights of the Star by name?"
"Can you tell me the head of the old Ranger's Collective?"
"Well, no, but-"
"How about Jyle's middle name?"
"I … I don't know."
"It's the same with me. Hell, it's worse, what with the memory artifacts. I mean," he continued, as though trying to explain himself to Mikaen, "You'd think if my memories were so good that I wouldn't have stored them away. Dreamers only store away memories that are really bad, but nothing I've remembered so far from my time on Vinta is like that."
"It is you!"
Mikaen and One turned simultaneously toward Tirinia, who stood behind them. Mikaen was surprised he hadn't felt her presence, though that though had scarcely formed in his head before he felt a sense of smug satisfaction from Tirinia.
One's face went dark red. Mikaen got the impression that he wasn't used to people sneaking up on him. "Um …"
"I had a feeling it was you. I mean, the way Teria was acting ..." Tirinia paused, looking even more timid than unusual. "Is it true? You're a Dreamer now?"
"Yeah, I'm a Dreamer." One told her, his voice uncertain. "Do I know you?"
"You probably wouldn't remember me." She told him. "We only spoke the one time."
"Probably more memories I don't have." said One, shaking his head.
"I could talk to her if you want." Tirinia offered. "She'd never admit it, but I know she still thinks about you a lot."
"She does?" Mikaen was surprised to see One blush at this admission. "I ... I don't know. I really should talk to her myself; I owe her that much. Still, thanks for the offer, Miss Myssohn."
"Oh, not at all. I'd love to grill you about the whole Dreamer thing, but Teria's probably not far behind me."
"She's ... oh, lord." With a nod at both of them, One quickly walked through a door that Mikaen was certain hadn't been there moments ago.
When Mikaen turned back to Tirinia, she was looking at the door, a sad look on her face. Rubbing her cheek, he asked, "What's wrong?"
She sighed and smiled up at Mikaen. "We have to help them."
He raised an eyebrow. "You mean hook One back up with Teria?"
Tirinia grinned, looking more like her sister than Mikaen had ever seen her.
"I don't think we have to." Mikaen said, unable to keep the smile off his face, "He told me that she kissed him the other night."
"It doesn't work that way." Tirinia, cheeks went a little red. "He would have had to defeat her in a fight when she was in thrall. C'mon, Mikaen; I've never seen Teria happier than when she was with One. When he left, she cried for days. I'd never seen her cry before, not even when she broke her leg."
Grinning himself, Mikaen said, "Matchmaking for a Dreamer, huh? Sounds fun, but I'm already checking up on something. You're more than welcome to-"
Without warning, the clear crystal windows above them shattered. Mikaen pulled Tirinia close, the missile shield enchantment on his pendant protecting both of them from the falling shards of crystal.
A loud shriek pierced the air. Mikaen looked up to see a small dragon flying above them. Small is a relative term of course; it was easily as big as Mikaen, but it was much smaller than Alfred, Mikaen's tea-loving dragon buddy back home. While Alfred had purple scales, this dragon's scales were gun-metal black, giving the creature a very sinister appearance.
With another shriek, it dove at them. Mikaen and Tirinia jumped in opposite directions. Mikaen pulled Truth from his belt to attack, but Tirinia was already running forward. With a wild shout, she tacked the creature in mid-air and slammed it to the ground.
It threw her off, but she landed unharmed a short distance away with feline grace.
She lifted a hand and barked, "Sword!"
Mikaen immediately pulled Justice from his belt and tossed it to her. Catching it easily in mid-air, she activated the blade and rushed at the dragon. As she swung Justice at the beast, a wave of bluish-green energy shot from the blade. The dragon dodged, barely avoiding being sliced in half with the potted plant near where it had been standing.
Truth in hand, Mikaen started to join the fray when two more crashes from above send another rain of crystal shards down on him. Two identical dragons fell to the ground, one on either side of him.
"It's never easy." Mikaen muttered before stepping forward.
He shot a burst of lightning at the nearest dragon. It dodged the bolt in midair as the other swooped to attack, but Mikaen leapt out of the way just before the dragon was upon him. Unable to stop its momentum, it crashed into the floor, where Mikaen wasted no time in spearing it through the chest with Truth … or at least, he would have if the other dragon hadn't caught the end of Truth and tore it from his grasp.
As the fallen dragon started to rise, Mikaen shot a blast of lightning from his hand that sent it flying across the corridor into an expensive looking statue of some kind of mythical warrior. The charred hole in the beast's chest made it clear it wouldn't be getting up again.
The dragon with Truth landed, its wings folding against its back. It shrieked at him, holding the weapon in its fore claws and adopting a strangely humanoid battle stance.
A little taken aback, Mikaen backed away from the creature. He couldn't use his energist abilities; the amplifier in Truth would absorb any magic he shot at it. His eyes fell on the shattered statue; the warrior's crystal sword lay on the ground, still clutched in a stone hand. As the dragon attacked, Mikaen ducked beneath the swinging blade and made a leap for the weapon.
Flinging the stone hand aside, Mikaen tightened his grip around the hilt of the crystal sword. He looked up just in time to see Truth flashing toward him. Ducking beneath the blade, Mikaen gripped the crystal sword with both hands and shoved it as hard as he could into the dragon's chest.
The blade slid through the creature's dark scales with almost no resistance. The dragon dropped Truth to the ground and slumped forward, nearly landing on Mikaen.
He turned to see if Tirinia needed help only to find her watching him with interest from her seat upon the dragon she had fought, her elbow resting on the end of Justice that wasn't stuck in the dragon's chest.
"Are you okay?" Mikaen asked as she rose and approached him.
"A little scraped, but nothing serious." She looked him over, a hint of concern on her face. "How about you?"
Bending down to retrieve the crystal sword, Mikaen replied, "Yeah, I'm good, thanks to-"
The sword snapped at the hilt. Mikaen stared at it dourly for a moment before tossing it at the dragon's inert body, muttering, "Crystal sword. Right."
Shaking his head, he picked up Truth before turning his attention back to the dragons. Something about them bugged the heck out of him, though it took him a few moments to realize just what it was.
"Wait a minute!" He muttered as it hit him, "They all look the same."
Tirinia tugged Mikaen's sword out of the dragon she had slain. "Is that unusual?"
"I've never seen two dragons look even close to the same, but look at these three; they're exact replicas. Same size, same color, same scale shape."
"Triplets maybe?" Tirinia looked at them curiously.
Mikaen shook his head, saying, "Doesn't happen like that with dragons. Even with a whole clutch of eggs, the genetic diversity in dragon DNA makes identical twins next to impossible."
Seeing her questioning glance, he added, "The Knights of the Star trade with a colony in the mountains east of Misakren. I've been there a few times."
"Really?" She said, her eyes widening with interest. "I'd like to hear more about it sometime."
"Hang on a sec." Mikaen knelt beside one of the bodies. The dragon was oozing an oily black liquid from the large hole in its chest. Using Truth, he tried to pry the area around the wound open.
"I don't think that's such a good idea." Tirinia told him, her hand unconsciously tightening its grip on her borrowed sword.
Moving closer, he pried the wound open again to reveal network of circuitry, tubing, and steel support rods. A closer look at the scales and skin revealed that they were synthetic in nature.
"It's a machine!" he exclaimed.
Reluctance forgotten, Tirinia knelt beside Mikaen to get a better look. Her fingers brushing a damaged circuit board, she whispered, "I've never seen tech like this before."
"I have. It was an old defense drone from the Ranger's Collective." Mikaen stared at the metal corpse for a moment before adding, "Surprised and killed three Knights and a dozen Revs before we managed to put it down. That one was humanoid, but nowhere near as realistic as this."
Tirinia pulled out her phone. Glancing up at Mikaen, she said, "I'm messaging Teria. I know she'll want a look at this."
Mikaen nodded absently, his mind on the drone. "What is this doing here?" He wondered aloud.
At that moment, Jyle rounded the corner. He was laughing with his daughter, Meryl, who sitting on his neck with her legs draped over his shoulders.
Meryl's eyes went wide when she saw Mikaen and Tirinia, weapons in hand, standing over the bodies of the dragons. "Whoa! Daddy, look!"
Jyle's jaw fell open as he surveyed the scene.
"Hey, Jyle." said Mikaen, smirking as he slid Truth back into its sheath, "Just the guy I wanted to see. I don't suppose you have an explanation for this."
Meryl slid off her father's back and started to run toward one of the dragons, but Jyle held her back. "Meryl," he said, kneeling so he could look her in the eyes, "I need you to go see mommy."
"But daddy-" she began.
He held a finger to her lips. "No arguments, sweetie. Go!"
Disappointed, Meryl trudged back down the way she and her father had come.
Turning back to Mikaen and Tirinia, Jyle took a deep breath. "Okay, what happened?"
"We were just talking when one of these machines broke through the ceiling and attacked us. The other two busted through a moment later." Pointing at the exposed circuitry, he said, "Looks like Ranger-tech, doesn't it?"
His eyes going back and forth as though he were reading something, Jyle muttered, "Now what are you doing here? Maybe ... dislodged?"
Exchanging a confused glance with Tirinia, Mikaen asked, "Jyle?"
Jyle shook his head, saying, "Looks Rimstakken to me. Probably some wandering tinker's pet project gone haywire. Please, think nothing more of it."
"Think nothing more of it?" said Mikaen incredulously, "Jyle, three miniature dragons just dropped out of the sky and attacked us! Tirinia and I were prepared, but if they had attacked a group of servants or people in the city-"
"It doesn't matter. Look, I'll have a knight in every hallway in an hour just to be safe."
Mikaen persisted. "Wouldn't it be safer if I-"
"I said I'd take care of it!" Jyle snapped, his cheeks slightly flushed.
Mikaen stared at his friend, stunned into silence. They had been friends for years, yet that was the first time he had ever seen Jyle lose his temper.
Jyle let out a sigh. "I'm sorry. This whole business with Rydiana has made it impossible to get a good night's sleep." Shaking his head, Jyle patted Mikaen on the shoulder. "Don't worry about this, Mikaen. I'll take care of it, I give you my word."
"Sure, Jyle." Mikaen said, still giving Jyle and odd look, "No problem."
As Mikaen and Tirinia walked off, Mikaen stole a glance back to see Jyle looking pensively at the bodies of the dragons.
Once he and Tirinia were a few hallways away, Mikaen said in a low voice, "That's it; I can ignore a few weird monks, and maybe I could play dumb about disappearances, but robot dragons falling out of the sky? I don't care what Jyle says; I'm getting to the bottom of this."
"I think I know where to start." Said Tirinia, pulling out her cellphone again.
"I didn't mean …" Mikaen flushed and continued, "I mean, you don't have to get involved."
"Are you saying you don't want my help?"
One look from her beautiful purple eyes drained away any objection he had. Besides, she had been attacked as well; she had just as much a right to get involved as he.
Sighing, he said, "Where should we check first?"
Her lips curved into a smile. "Follow me."