The monsoon rains started falling two days later.
It was not the first time it had happened, nor would it be the last. Asian winds tended to be very capricious, and could bring clouds and clouds of rain from the sea at a moment's notice. Summer was especially scary, since rivers could flood and coasts disappear under the water, but the people of Mu were used to it. Rising waters were easy to divert and control; the real threat here was the disappearance of the sun behind those black clouds.
New Sun Land had no way to store solar power as of yet. All it produced was either used immediately or wasted away, but it was no great loss either. At this point in time, they had barely managed to light up the main paths at night, so a full-fledged defense system like that of their capital city would be out of question. To stand their ground, they would have to resort to good old methods, primitive as they may be.
Kardelios's message, while informative, lacked a lot in context. Rana had no idea how big were the forces marching onto them, how far they were and what was the state of their weaponry. To have been warned at all was quite a prodigy, to be fair: she couldn't be mad at him for not including all the details on such small pieces of paper, patiently forming every letter with the poke of a needle. A technique she knew she would use herself, perhaps with a different medium; but that would come later. It could all come later. For now, she had to focus on the task at hand.
While she organized the defense of the town, she sent out scouts to try and find about the Atlantean forces coming up. Without solar weapons, their own military was useless, but Rana remembered the way she and her friends have organized all sorts of siege defenses when she was younger. Powder, light flares, simple weapons were easy to make; while unrefined and below the superior technology of Mu, time was of the matter here, so they could not afford to complain. No matter where you come from or what you're used to, a gun pellet is a gun pellet.
Of course, she was far from comfortable with the idea of armed defense. But the council she's gathered had made it clear: if a fight were to break out here, Mu could not afford to lose. New Sun Land was too precious a place to be lost, what with all it carried; but most importantly, if an attempt were to be made on the princess's life, it would be the end of all. Rana'Ori was no mere princess: she was the Daughter of the Sands, one on which an entire prophecy was resting, and perhaps many more. Her life could not afford to be lost. Plus, she knew that however she would die could not be that way. Her hunches told her so, and she's always trusted them. So if she had to defend herself and her city with all her might, she would do just that.
She had to be a leader, and do what her people expected a leader to do.
The day the storm hit its strongest point, New Sun Land was ready for the attack. There was no telling what would happen, but they were expecting the worst from these snake-eyed fiends. How else could it go? They would never play by the rules, always with tricks up their sleeves. This was the scariest part about this conflict: whatever would happen would surely be unexpected. That made sense, of course, but it was also as frustrating as could be.
Cooped up inside the castle, Rana was waiting. These walls might be stone and not metal, but they were safe. There were guards patrolling around the halls, the rooms, the streets of town. The rain was pouring hard outside, and there was no way to walk without upsetting a puddle or leaving a suspicious water trail. If there really were assassins coming after her, they'd be seen. There was no way they could escape her watch.
Still, that didn't mean she wasn't anxious. She felt nervous, more nervous than she's ever felt before. Any moment now, she could be met with an assassin, a fleet of enemy soldiers, a weapon beyond all their predictions. She didn't know what she was supposed to do, how she was supposed to feel in such a moment; she figured her father the Emperor would know better, he whose life had likely been attempted on many times. Such was a difficult part of a ruler's life: one day or another, it would need to end, and many would love to play a part in bringing that day along. It was cruel, but it was how the world worked, even as far back as the era of Mu.
She anxiously caressed Pichu's feathers, watching out the window through the rain-spattered glass. A low rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, bringing her brow to a frown as she felt it foretold of the upcoming assault. Changes in weather were never a good sign, not when she knew what, or more exactly whom could be causing them. Any flash of lightning could be them preparing some onslaught to strike them with; any stray sunbeam still filtering through the storm could recharge their powers. The children of Coyolite were resourceful, and their divine blood could hide more than just snake eyes.
She scoured the room with her mageia, and as before was met with the presences of the people she knew. Vigilant watchdogs outside the hall, busy bees in the rooms below, archer birds ready to strike around the remparts. On her lap, Pichu's own presence was small and fluttering, like the tiniest of hearthfires that brought memories of home to her mind. How nostalgic, and how lonely it made her feel too.
She allowed her mind to rest, and think of the world she's left. Of the friends she's parted from, of everything she knew and has forsworn. It has been over six years now, and the faces of her friends were starting to be but distant memories. It felt as if every day she would forget a little more about them and the adventures they've lived together, and she didn't know what to make of it. Was the past finally coming to a close, the page turning for good? She's been so busy with work these last several months, she's barely had time to think about her old life. It was so distant now, so much that it started to feel foreign even to herself. She's made new friends, lived new adventures and faced new trials, and her mind was slowly replacing everything with fresher memories. All in all, it was not a bad thing, and she's learned to stop feeling guilty about it. It'd be useless, anyway.
Another echo of lightning brought her out of her thoughts. She glanced around the room, which had darkened somewhat as the sun went down. She listened to the footsteps outside her still-locked door, to the regular pace of the guards that reassured her a little. Everything was fine. Everything would be fine.
Best not to stay in the dark. She got up, and walked to ring a servant to bring some fire for the torches. But as she approached the door, another flash of lightning illuminated the room, and she froze in her tracks.
She turned around. For a second, a split second, she thought she'd seen something move in the corner of her eye. She stared at the window, stared at it a long moment, but nothing came. There was nothing but rain and wind that made the curtains dance in its breath. She turned to Pichu, and the bird was still sleeping on his perch. There was nothing but the two of them in this room. Sighing, she walked to the window, and shut the wooden blinds to keep the wind away.
That's when she noticed the wet marks on the stone of the windowsill. Her heart skipped a beat, and she turned around to sweep the room with her auratic sight. There was nothing around her but a sleepy parrot, watchful guard hounds all around, and a snake hiding right behind her.
She moved out of the way right before its fangs hit. Startled, she faced the intruder, and her eyes were met with nothing. But she heard the definitive sound of footsteps right in here, and her mageia still showed the gaping maw of a venomous serpent right about to strike. It lunged at her, and she moved her arms without thinking; her hand closed around empty air, that felt very much like an arm about to hit. She screamed, finding no other action to do, and the force of her voice was enough to blow all the wooden blinds wide open, bathing the room in thunderous light.
As everything brightened and shifted around, she saw it. It was quick, and so easy to miss, but there was a silhouette in here. The moment her eyes adjusted again, it disappeared into nothing, and yet struck her in the gut. She fell on the cold floor, her breath cut short, and Pichu hopped around in a panic.
“Help! Help!”, he screamed. “Alert, alert! Danger!!”
Outside, there was turmoil. She looked up at the invisible enemy, trying to gauge its next move, but even the sound of footsteps was too slight to cue her. She hurriedly stood up as quickly as she could and grabbed a dagger from her belt to defend herself, hoping it would at least scare the intruder somewhat. But still she couldn't see them: whatever magic they were using, it was effectively rendering them invisible, and the way they were walking only gave her so little direction.
She felt the snake strike again, and she hit at random to retaliate. Her hand was met with something, showing she did hit; but at the same time, she felt a sharp pain in her gut. She yelped and fell on her knees, releasing her grip on her own weapon out of surprise. The intruder didn't stop, and she felt them going for another strike; but before they could do so, she reached her hand forward and screamed again, hitting them in what she supposed were legs. The force of her hit was enough to make them fall back, and for a moment she saw their silhouette appear like a dark cutout on the white stone floor. It flickered out of sight a second later, but that told Rana all she knew.
She felt herself unable to move, hurt and in shock. She couldn't muster the strength to get up and strike back, no matter how hard she tried. So instead, she allowed her body to fall down, and let her mageia do the rest.
The feline lunged forward, jaw agape and claws ready to strike. It seized the snake by the throat, and its defensive hiss aligned with a painful scream coming from an unknown voice. The reptile was too taken aback to retaliate, and she used that moment of shock to her advantage: she struck, and struck again, biting and clawing and tearing at flesh and scale and skin and soul, feeling a foreign rage invade her. The venomous cobra shed its fangs back into being a harmless ringworm, but she kept going, her mind unable to think straight. She tore and tore and tore apart at the enemy until it was screaming, pleading for its life, turning into nothing but a frightened and horrified creature. But the feline kept going, and closed its jaws around the creature's neck, which eventually gave up. It then dissolved into nothing, like an explosion of dust particles that eventually disappeared, and the feline's rage found no target left to pass itself on. Then and only then did Rana wake up from her trance.
The storm had quieted, to the point rain almost ceased. People were pounding at the locked door, trying to open it. Pichu was half-flying around, calling for help and hiding away. Her hand was damp and warm, and her side hurt. And on the floor, a dead body was reappearing into the light.
The door finally gave way, and everything else happened. Fire and light were brought back into the room. Rana was laid to rest against the wall as her wound was being treated, luckily nothing of significance. But she couldn't draw her eyes away from the intruder, who now laid flat on the ground with an expression of sheer terror on their face. They looked like they came from a whole other continent, but their golden irises could not be mistaken. Their daggers and dark garb left no doubt: an assassin, sent to kill the princess in secrecy while everyone would be expecting a full-on army to march onto them.
“How is this possible?”, a voice said in the crowd. “We were watching every entry point. We'd have seen them coming!”
They couldn't have, Rana thought. She remembered how even she had not seen them. It wasn't darkness or illusions: it was as if that person had completely turned invisible. Could this even be possible? It did happen, so there was little doubt. Yet still it felt as if she was discovering a side of things she's never expected before. If Atlanteans had invisible soldiers on their side, then things would be much, much harder for them to fight.
On that moment, it dawned on her and on everyone else just what Atlantis was capable of. As if everything they've ever known about them was but the tip of a gigantic iceberg, and that things were only just beginning.
“So it was true, then.”
There was no need to mention that the mood around the table was as tense as could be. The storm had passed, and the attack had been avoided, yet everyone was on edge and ready to blow a fuse.
“They're attacking us upfront. They've dared doing so! And now they've attempted to kill the Princess!”
“This will not go unanswered. We have to strike on Atlantis, right now!”
At that, Rana jerked up.
“We will not retaliate! Do you not see the loop of revenge it might start!?”
“But...Your Highness! They tried to kill you! Laying hands on a royal person cannot go unpunished!”
“It cannot. But we will not strike. We will apply justice in peaceful terms.”
The ministers felt enraged at such a proposition.
“We are not in times of peace anymore, Your Highness! War is right at the door! Already Gaderis is marching onto our colonies!”
“The Emperor has ordered for all rogue Atlanteans to be executed. We have to abide by his law.”
“That might be the law of Mu.”, she retorted. “But New Sun Land is my territory. Any crimes committed here will be answered by my own law. And we will not send our own troops over a few assassins.”
She stood up, turned to the balcony. Outside, the city was recovering from the heavy rain, and from what little damage has been sustained. Marching upon town has never been the goal of the enemy: it was but a distraction. When news got around that the assassin has been killed, the sun army had quickly retreated like cowards. Yet Rana knew what it truly meant.
“They see me as a threat. They know what power I wield. They expect me to attack full-on, and punish them for their crime; but I will be smarter than them.”
“So what? Are we just going to wait until they come back and try again?”
“We will show them that we are not fazed by their attempts. We will keep building our city and organize its defenses; but in no way are we to retaliate. Whatever troops they send, they will not matter to us. For we are strong.”
And we are not cruel, she thought. Even though the stab wound was still real in her flesh, she did not feel the need to strike back. She could not be so cruel. She could never afford to take another life.
But even so, she already did. When faced with an assassin, she unleashed onto them something she's had no idea she could do. To kill someone, just by wanting to...what other kind of cruel things could mageia do? What other secrets did the Power of Kings hide? She needed to talk to her father, as soon as possible.
Around the assembly of ministers, Meliad's voice shyly perked up.
“Your Highness...what do you suggest we do, should more come? We might be developing our defenses, but...their own attacks are getting stronger. We are no match against invisible soldiers.”
It was true. The Children of Coyolite had extraordinary abilities, the secret of which was well-kept. She thought of a world where Esteban had unlocked the whole of his mageia, and used his entire power without a doubt: what kind of turn would their adventure have taken? Would he have grown mad with power, the same way Ambrosius had when wielding the Black Suns? No, he surely couldn't have. He was too kind for this.
However, thinking back on Ambrosius's discoveries brought some thoughts to her mind. She's always wondered why there could be such cruel tricks in the books of Mu...but it seemed that the answer was slowly coming to her.
“We might not match their natural abilities.”, she said after a moment. “But we have our own strengths. Our technology is far superior to anything they can make.”
She turned to her council.
“Nature made the Children of Coyolite into powerful mageians. But we have bent nature to our will, and forced it to give us power. We have harnessed the power of the sun to great ends. If we need to make it into our defenses, we will.”
“So you suggest we fight mageia with khemeia.”
“It is our best option. If they understand the scope of our power, they will back away. They might be reckless, but they are not stupid.”
She turned to the minister of Gold.
“When could we start putting these plans into practice?”
“Well...it would take a bit of preparation, but we have enough materials at our disposition. What we lack in, however, is manpower...”
Another minister piped in.
“Let's capture some of the natives, and put them to work! They aren't good for anything else, anyway.”
Cruel echos flashed to Rana's mind, and she snapped at that proposition.
“I forbid you!”
And then, after she remembered her countenance:
“Angering the local people would only make our problems worse. We...we will have much more success by offering a mutually beneficial trade.”
“What do we have to offer, in return for work?”
“We are the people of Mu, we always have something. Check with the Circle of Land for what agricultural goods we can trade.”
“Your Majesty, if I may, our food supply is already limited. We cannot afford to give more of it away!”
“Think of it as an investment. The locals do not know of cultivated fields: if we offer them that knowledge, they will thank us generations later. We have to make allies, even if it means literally rising them from the ground up.”
A very Muan thought for a very Muan audience. If not all of the council was on board, nobody wanted to contradict the word of the Imperial Princess.
After the reunion was over, Rana took a moment to think. How ironic was it that she was doing the exact same things that she abhorred hearing of, ten thousand years in the future? Using local populations to build weapons of war, in this very same place; what would her younger self have thought, had she known?
“Never would I ever have thought I'd side with Ambrosius.”, she sighed. “'Greater goals require cruel actions'...oh, what a fool I am!”
She hid her face in her hands, letting herself sit against the wall of her bedroom. Not far, Pichu hopped her way in that half-flight he recovered, and perched on her knee.
“Zia...”, he crooned sadly. “Zia hurt.”
“I'm fine.”, Rana sighed. “I just...I'm just thinking of the past.”
She caressed his head, letting the softness of his feathers try to bring her out of that state.
“Things are different, now. I'm not doing this to conquer the world or anything. I...I need to defend my people, and my own life. If we are to build weapons, it will not be for a bad purpose.”
Who was she fooling? She knew how it would all end up. She had the horrible feeling that none of this would ever end well.
“I guess that in the eyes of Atlantis, I am a bad person.”
“Zia not bad! Zia...friend! Friend!!”
And he bounced around to hold his point. She smiled, letting him do so.
“I suppose so.”
Without thinking, she held the parrot against her chest, where he snuggled into a tight little ball. The warmth of his tiny body reassured her, brought her a flurry of familiar sensations that grounded her back to reality. It was a moment of respite that she cruelly needed, before the horrors of reality would catch up to her.
“If only the rest of the world could see me as a friend.”