Nial grumbled to himself as he trudged through the scorching sands of the Aridian desert. The first eighteen years of his life had been relatively easy and the carefree young prince had faced very few hardships living safely in his home of Landen. Though he did have a bit of a reputation for never taking things seriously, he was popular in his kingdom, and his parents, the much-loved King Rhys and Queen Lena, were confident that he would one day grow into an honorable, efficient ruler.
Technically, it was his mother who was responsible for the sudden changes in his life. Lena's homeland of Satera had been attacked and destroyed and Nial was dispatched to investigate while his parents stayed back to guard Landen. This seemingly simple task had evolved into quite the saga as he traveled through new worlds and met a whole slew of interesting people. Accompanied by the combat cyborgs Mieu and Wren, it didn't take him long to learn that a Layan man named Lune was allegedly responsible for the attacks. One man claimed that Lune had been alive for one thousand years, but Nial chose not to concern himself with biological capabilities, especially as he'd heard that Layans were able to use magic.
The vicious monsters under Lune's control had been said to be emerging from a cave to the south, so the trio continued onward, slaying any beasts that dared to cross their paths. The Orakian prince was a fairly skilled swordsman, though he had never previously sparred in an actual life-or-death situation; still, with Wren and Mieu by his side, none of the monsters proved to be a formidable opponent. They made their way through the cave, only to find that it led to another world quite physically similar to Landen.
The new world was Elysium and as they traveled through the strangely laid out town of Divisia, they stumbled across the imprisoned sister of the very man they were trying to find. The green-haired Layan woman was quite pretty and Nial would have been perfectly happy to chat with her once outside the dungeon, but she quickly took off in an effort to stop her brother's attacks. Why she didn't bring the three of them along to help convince him, Nial would never know, but he shrugged off the brief encounter and continued on his way.
And so, after another cave, an apparition of Lune himself, and the addition of a rebel leader named Ryan to his party, Nial found himself traipsing through the desert in search of something important. He wasn't quite sure what it was, but as both Lune and the Layan rebels were after it, he had been nudged in the direction of yet another world in the hopes of finding something that could help stop the madman's destruction. The swirling winds and barren landscape made it difficult to tell if he was even leading his team in the right direction, but he trusted the monitor he carried with him and continued on.
As the sweat poured down his face and neck, he took a brief moment to wallow in his own self-pity. While he had been more than happy to go seek out who was responsible for destroying his mother's home, he didn't know that his mission would turn out to be so complex. He wasn't sure if he really wanted to confront this Lune, as he seemed to be a rather dangerous man, and, truth be told, he really just wanted to return to the relative safety of Landen.
The town of Hazatak was filled with cyborgs, many of them vaguely resembling Wren. They were directed to a whirlpool to the southeast and Wren was able to locate the point where the water was much deeper than the surrounding area. Nial watched in awe as the metallic cyborg's body transformed into a submersible vessel and floated on top of the water as the others climbed inside. They dove beneath the surface and traveled down until the radiant Aridian sky had all but faded from view.
Just when the prince had thought that they would be lost in the darkness forever, the whirlpool abruptly ended and they emerged onto a small, sandy piece of land. While waiting for Wren to change back into his original form, Nial looked around and examined yet another new place. The mossy green hills and clumps of evergreen trees reminded him so much of of his home and he felt a brief pang of guilt in his chest as he realized how much he would rather be there than in this strange underground world.
The quartet of warriors carefully made their way across a land bridge, their weapons at the ready, but nothing attacked. A stone building, similar to those they had seen scattered throughout their travels, appeared in their view and it seemed as good of a destination as any. Inside the small, dark temple was a group of old men; curiously enough, they did not seem startled by the arrival of the newcomers. They waited expectantly for Nial and his companions to approach and were more than willing to readily dispense all sorts of information.
Laya entrusted the future to her sister!
We have protected Laya for over one thousand years! Cryogenic sleep has kept her alive since the war!
This princess is Laya's younger sister. Strangely enough, she is also named Laya!
Mystoke, on Frigidia, holds a key to truth. Return to the desert and go southwest with Laya. The portal to Mystoke awaits you there!
Nial was exhausted and a bit moody from his trek through the endless desert, so only snippets of the men's declarations made their way to his ears. He, of course, had heard of the legendary Laya and knew that she had been a rival of his own ancestor, Orakio. The idea of cryogenic sleep seemed vaguely interesting, but he was far more concerned by the mention of a place called Frigidia, as it sounded even more dismal than Aridia. Passing by the elderly fonts of knowledge, he approached a glowing blue chamber in the rear of the building.
The air around him seemed to shimmer and the room distorted slightly before a young woman stepped out to greet them. Her lustrous golden hair spilled down to her waist and her body was draped in exquisite red fabric that was a perfect match to the singular jewel that shone from the center of her forehead. The space from which she'd emerged bathed her in a soft cerulean glow and Nial felt his pulse start racing as she turned her deep brown eyes upon him. The giggling girls back in Landen had been cute enough to frequently distract the prince from his more somber duties, but not one of them could ever hope to compare to the vision before him. She was an angel, a goddess, an ethereal beauty from an entirely different plane of existence.
Beside him, Mieu audibly cleared her throat; Nial realized that his mouth was wide open and he quickly snapped it shut.
I was very young when Laya fought Orakio, spoke the woman as she clutched a bow with both hands.
She left with a knight who wore a black sword. I must know the truth. Please take me along! she pleaded.
It would have taken very little convincing for the Orakian prince to invite her to join his party, but the urgency in her melodic voice only made him want to help her more. She wobbled a little when she took several more steps towards them, so he offered her his arm, which she gratefully accepted.
Your guards suggested we travel to Mystoke in Frigidia, he told her.
Do you know anything about it?
The corners of her ruby-red mouth turned downwards.
I think I've been there. I don't know, it was all so long ago... She allowed Nial to escort her out of the temple and once outside, her dark eyes darted about nervously.
Everything seems so different, she whispered.
Or maybe it's exactly the same. Maybe I'm different. Her grip on his arm tightened slightly.
I thought I would remember everything when the time came, I couldn't wait to see my world again, but little by little, my memories must have shifted. Or maybe I was just foolish for thinking time would have stood still for me...
A millennium was an unfathomable amount of time for the teenaged prince and he couldn't even begin to comprehend what his new companion was experiencing. The best he could do was pat her hand in what he hoped was a comforting gesture and lead her towards the bottom of the whirlpool. Wren transformed back into the underwater vehicle and within moments, they were heading back towards the surface of Aridia.
Upon stepping out onto the hot sand, Laya shrieked in pain and buried her face in Nial's chest, trying to shield her eyes from the blindingly bright Aridian skies. Still unsure of how to appropriately interact with the ancient princess, he tentatively put his arms around her shoulders, hoping he could somehow further protect her. Eventually, he felt her body relax and she cautiously turned her head to the side, peeking out at the vast desert around her from the relative safety of Nial's grasp.
We don't have to head for Mystoke right away, we can rest for the night in Hazatak, if you'd like, he suggested to her.
I've been resting for long enough, I'll be fine. As the words shot out of her mouth, her hand immediately flew up to her lips.
I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you like that! This isn't like me at all, you were just being nice and -
Hey, don't worry about it. Realizing that she was still in his arms, he released her and took an awkward step backwards so he could see her face better.
You've had a busy day, to say the least.
She managed a small smile.
I'll be okay, I promise. Let's go to Mystoke.
The group of five traveled southwest, though Nial still thought that all the sand looked alike. It took Laya some time to become re-accustomed to fighting battles, but it didn't take terribly long for her arrows to start finding their marks more consistently. She was able to keep up with the others and her ability to cast healing techniques both benefited her fellow fighters and boosted her confidence. By the time they had arrived at the passageway they assumed would lead them to Frigidia, the sky had grown dark and Mieu suggested they stop for the night and set up a makeshift camp before continuing onwards.
The mountains surrounding the cave provided a natural barrier to both the biomonsters and the fierce winds that never seemed to stop in this world, not even at night. The two cyborgs faced in opposite directions and prepared to stand guard until the morning, as it was not necessary for the combat machines to sleep. Ryan stretched out not far from the mouth of the cave and, using his own arm as a pillow, fell asleep in a matter of moments. Though Nial was exhausted, seeing Laya wide awake and staring out over the infinite desert encouraged him to stay awake for just a little longer.
He watched her pick up a handful of sand and let it slowly trickle through her graceful fingers; she was able to repeat the process several times before she noticed him studying her actions.
It's been so long since I've touched...well, practically anything, really, she explained.
You must think I'm crazy.
Not at all! he said quickly.
I can't imagine what it must have been like to be away from everyone and everything for so long. I've only been away from my home for a few months and it's been hard on me. He frowned.
And I feel completely stupid for saying that to you, after all you've been through.
Oh, don't say that. She tilted her head to the side, sending her waves of faintly illuminated hair down into her lap.
It doesn't matter if it's days or decades, it's okay to miss the ones you love, the things that are familiar to you, she said as she started playing with the ends of the silky strands.
Nial rolled onto his back and looked up at the twin moons that filled the black sky.
I just feel a bit ridiculous for confessing to you that this is the first time in eighteen years that I've been away from Landen and Satera for an extended length of time.
But you're a prince! Surely you had all sorts of responsibilities that kept you busy at home.
Laya leaned over until her face came into his view.
Either way, you've been very kind chivalrous towards me all day, so you must be doing something right in Landen. I am very appreciative.
I don't think I've done anything special. Anyone else would have done the same.
She shrugged her shoulders as her hands moved on to fiddling with the hem of her dress.
Maybe. Maybe not. But I'm glad that the first person I met after waking up was someone as nice as you. She followed his gaze up to the two orbs that were directly above them.
And since you were so worried about me earlier today, now it's my turn to worry about you — you should try to get some sleep!
He yawned in agreement.
And what about you?
Laya looked back out over the dark, sandy landscape.
I doubt I could sleep even if I tried. For the first time in ages, I'm awake, I'm alive. I can feel things, I can smell things...I can even taste the fresh air. Even in the dim moonlight, Nial could tell she was blushing slightly.
I'll try not to keep you awake any longer.
I don't mind. He craned his neck so he could see her better.
Though I'd love to stay up talking to you, you're probably right about getting some rest. Besides, I'm sure Mieu wouldn't mind the company if you'll be awake anyway.
Thanks for the suggestion. She reached out and gently brushed his chestnut hair away from his eyes and let her fingers trail halfway down his cheek before snapping her hand back, realizing what she had done.
I'm sorry, she whispered as her face reddened further.
I didn't mean to -
It's okay, you don't need to apologize. He maintained his friendly smile, though he was fighting to stay awake.
The golden-haired princess looked relieved.
Sleep well, Prince Nial.
You don't have to bother with the formalities, just 'Nial' is fine.
Okay. She beamed down at him.
Good night, Nial.
Good night. While Laya stood up to join Mieu several yards away, the drowsy prince curled up on the sand and closed his eyes. He had previously thought that he would drift off to sleep fairly easily, but the memory of his new companion's light touch upon his face and the thoughts of the journey that had led him to her consumed his mind, refusing to let him immediately surrender to the night.