As much as Nial had hated the endless desert of Aridia, he would have gladly traded it for the snowy plains and freezing temperatures of Frigidia. Mieu had suggested backtracking and procuring better supplies in Hazatak or even Divisia, but as they had already come so far, the prince insisted they press on. Though he had no idea what awaited them in Mystoke, he knew it had to be important to both him and Laya, and he was determined to get there as quickly as possible.
Picking their way through the icy fields and snow-covered mountains was more strenuous than they had anticipated, and the spontaneous monster attacks didn't help matters any. Gritting his teeth against the blustering wind, Nial led his team onward, following the blurry map that had appeared on his monitor. They traveled for hours, stopping to rest only when absolutely necessary, but there was still no sign of Mystoke by the time the sky started to dim to a murky gray.
Continuing on through the night would be dangerous, Mieu pointed out.
We need to find a safe place to stay until it's light out again.
There should be an inlet in those mountains over there, Laya said softly, gesturing to the rocky hills on a short peninsula that jutted out into Frigidia's lake. The others simultaneously turned to look at her in surprise.
I think so, she said, looking down as her cheeks grew flushed.
Maybe there isn't, I don't know...
It's as good of a plan as any, Nial quickly interjected.
Let's head in that direction anyway, we'd be easy targets if we stayed out in the open and maybe we can escape some of this damned wind.
The princess' distant memories had not failed her and the group was able to find a small space in the jagged rocks that would offer them protection for the night. Wren was able to build a fire, assisted by his Foi technique, and while no one could say they were truly comfortable, it was the best they could hope for under such circumstances. Nial removed his chestplate and sat on it in an effort to avoid direct contact with the tightly-packed snow, and Laya and Ryan followed his lead, removing the various armors they were wearing.
Do you remember this place? Nial gently asked Laya once they had settled down.
I must have been here before, how else would I have known? Pulling her knees to her chest, she looked around the small opening in which they sat.
Everything's still a little fuzzy, though. Logically, I know that I must have traveled through these lands when I was much younger. My sister must have been with me...but I'm not sure. I think she was... She rested her chin on her knees and stared into the flickering fire.
He watched her rub her hands against the thin fabric covering her arms as her body trembled from what he assumed to be a combination of the cold and the effort to reach back and revisit flashbacks of events that had taken place centuries ago. If he wanted, he could instantly visualize the verdant landscape of Landen, almost as if he had taken a snapshot before he left; the idea of those images slipping away from him was unsettling and he once again felt sympathy for the poor princess. The urge to comfort her was still strong within him and he tentatively reached out to lightly place a hand on her shoulder.
The dancing flames reflected in her eyes as she turned her head towards him.
I'm okay, she said, trying to smile for his benefit.
We really didn't plan well for this expedition, I suppose we were rather foolish, she admitted as she inched closer to the fire.
But I'll be fine.
I wish I could help, he said.
Not just with the weather, but...you know.
I'm okay. Really. She put her hand on top of his and though she had tried to sound convincing, her quivering hand revealed her insincerity.
Your skin is ice cold! The concerned prince took her hands in both of his and began rubbing vigorously. He looked at their small pile of belongings, hoping to find anything else that could help provide extra warmth, but his search produced no results. An attempt to remove his cloak from his own shoulders were met with protests about his own well-being.
Come here, he suggested, tugging on her wrist.
Laya allowed herself to be gracelessly plopped into the space between his knees and leaned back into his body. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, simultaneously feeling pleased at being able to protect her from the harsh temperatures and awkward about the entire situation, from their lack of proper planning to their newfound physical closeness. Her fine hair was close enough to tickle his nose as he nestled his cheek against her head, for lack of a better place to put it.
We'll get to Mystoke tomorrow, he promised her.
I hope we find what we're looking for.
Me too. Her voice was barely audible.
Nial paused as he carefully considered his next words.
Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I'm glad you're here with us. To be honest, I wasn't sure about all this traveling so far from home and investigating the attacks on Satera, you know, in hopes that other towns can be spared a similar fate. But then I met you and I heard about everything you've been through and you've started to make me see things differently. So...uh...I guess I just wanted to thank you for that.
Despite the cold temperature, he felt a flush rise to his cheeks as a result of the sudden outpouring of his feelings, but the only response was Laya's soft, rhythmic breathing. Though sitting up straight on his armor was not the most comfortable position he'd ever been in, he didn't want to disturb the weary princess. His own fatigue soon began to set in and he slowly leaned his head down to gently rest it on her shoulder.
Another day of traveling brought them to the town of Mystoke by nightfall. The isolated kingdom seemed to be inhabited by women only and, much like the men who had guarded Laya beneath Aridia, they seemed to be expecting the five visitors, the golden-haired princess in particular. Nial and his team were directed towards the "Castle of Silence", but before they could enter, they were stopped by two more women.
Use the Laya Pendant to hear Laya's final words, one instructed. The younger Laya grew pale at the mention of her sister and Nial instinctively reached for her hand.
You will be tested within the castle gates, another one warned.
Mieu, noticing the fatigue of the non-cyborg members of the party, stepped in to address her master.
I know you two are impatient to see what lies within the castle, but if it's going to be dangerous, we're in no position to proceed. I suggest we rest for the night at the inn we passed and we can set out first thing in the morning.
No one could offer a valid counter-argument, so they took her advice and trudged back towards the inn. The cheery pink-haired woman behind the desk ushered them to a group of small tables and promised to return as quickly as possible with a freshly-cooked meal. Though they were tired from battling their way through the monster-infested ice and snow, the offer of hot food was too good to pass up and they forced themselves to stay awake for a little longer.
Nial could see that Laya was still a bit rattled from the mention of her sister's parting words, so he slid his hand across the table to give hers another squeeze.
Whatever happens tomorrow, whatever we face in the castle...things will work out.
I know, she sighed.
I was just surprised to hear that my sister apparently left something behind, something for me to have one day, assuming I woke up. Her lip began to tremble just slightly and her impossibly dark eyes began to glisten.
I miss her. Or what I remember of her, anyway.
The sympathetic prince scooted his chair closer to hers without releasing his grip on her hand.
Tell me about her? he softly suggested.
I was so young... she started.
She was quite a bit older than me, I think. She must have been. She was smart and beautiful and charismatic and everybody loved her. I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be just like her. She closed her eyes as if she were trying to recall scenes from centuries ago.
She was an accomplished fighter, she could hit anything with an arrow, no matter how small the target or how far away it was. I don't think she fought in the war that much, though. I think she just organized the troops and gave commands. I'm not really sure.
Nial had naturally learned about the Devastation War as he was growing up, but he had always regarded it as a rather dull bit of history. Though the Orakians and Layans still weren't completely at peace with each other, the conflict had never really affected his everyday life before Satera was destroyed. Hearing a first-hand account of it, however, gave it new meaning in his eyes and he listened intently to her every word.
She came home to me one day...at least I think it was home. I don't even remember where home was. There was a man with her, off in the distance, I didn't pay much attention to him. Bowls of some sort of thick stew were set down in front of them, but they went ignored for the time being.
She told me that she had to leave, that she didn't know when she'd be back. And that I needed to be kept safe in case anything happened to her. If everything went well, she said, she'd come wake me up as soon as possible.
Nial didn't want to interrupt her, but he also didn't want their food to get cold, so he gently nudged her bowl towards her. She picked up the accompanying utensils and ate a few bites before continuing.
She hugged me good-bye and left with the man. I was taken beneath Aridia and led to the cryogenic chamber. That's the last thing I remember.
That's a lot for someone to deal with, regardless of age. He looked at her over a spoonful of steaming meat and vegetables.
How old were you when she left? he asked.
Laya shrugged her shoulders.
I don't recall. The cryogenic chamber vastly slowed down the aging process, of course. I don't even know how old I'm supposed to be now, biologically. She examined the appearance of her dining companion.
I guess I'm supposed to be around your age, give or take a few years.
Well, you don't look a day over five hundred to me, he tried to joke.
He'd managed to elicit a laugh from the melancholy beauty.
Gee, thanks, she giggled.
You're too kind.
Hey, I try. Having lightened the mood slightly, he continued eating his meal while Laya asked him questions about his own childhood in Landen. Though he felt that his own stories paled in comparison with Laya's experiences, she was an attentive listener who seemed to enjoy his recollections of the mischievous fun he'd had growing up. She smiled and laughed in all the right places and Nial found himself striving to bring the joy back into her eyes as often as possible.
Once they had finished their dinner, the courteous prince escorted his fair princess up to the second floor of the inn. He led her to the door of the room that had been set aside for her and wished her pleasant dreams. They lingered in the doorway for an extra moment, awkwardly and expectantly, until Nial quickly ducked his head down and brushed his lips against hers. When he pulled away, he saw a spot of pink appear on her cheeks, though she didn't look displeased, and he sheepishly excused himself from her presence.
Navigating the labyrinth of Mystoke Castle was as challenging as the women had warned and the enemies within were the most difficult they had faced on their entire journey. Dimly-lit underground corridors, dead ends, and various hedge mazes all helped to impede their progress, but they finally emerged in the central room of the enclosed grounds. The small chamber was dark and musty and Nial surmised that no one had been inside for decades based on the thick layer of grayish dust that covered everything he saw. Aside from the ancient throne that sat abandoned in the back of the room, there was little else to be found.
Wren was the first to notice the small chest hidden away in a corner. Laya approached it carefully and knelt down in front of it. Hesitating just slightly, she lifted the unlocked lid and pulled out a golden necklace. Dangling from the chain was a spherical pendant and when she wrapped her hand around it to examine it more closely, it began to glow within her palm.
Every member of the group was astonished when a voice rang out for all to hear.
Sister, it is time for you to know the truth. All the color drained from Laya's face as she froze in place, listening to the gentle tones that had previously been all but the faintest of memories.
Though Orakio and I have fought for many years, we finally realize that we have been deceived. An evil force from times beyond legend is using us to satisfy its desire for pain and suffering. We are joining forces to fight this ancient evil. Nial raised an eyebrow at the last statement, as it contradicted everything he had ever been taught about his ancestor and his foe.
In case we never return, I leave you the pendant; you will hear this when you are ready. Goodbye!
As Laya stood up, the confused prince prepared to console her again, but when his eyes met hers, he saw a newfound determination in their near-black depths.
Let's go, she simply stated.
Nial wasn't sure how to respond.
Are you...I mean...is everything okay?
Yes. I need to finish what my sister started. What she and Orakio set out to do. Let's get out of here.
Whatever you say! He flashed her a grin.
Yet again, their plans were interrupted by the limited number of daylight hours available to them, and Mieu ushered them back to the inn. Laya was outwardly restless and once they had finished eating dinner, she grabbed Nial by the hand and led him back outside. They wandered through the drab, chilly streets of Mystoke for several silent minutes before she stopped and faced him.
I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were an Orakian, she bluntly started.
And even through my fractured memories, I knew that you were supposed to be the enemy, that I was supposed to fight against you. She stared up into his eyes, her face illuminated by the pale moonlight that reflected off the icy snowbanks that lined the stone paths.
But you instantly reached out to me and I saw that you held no grudge against me, and I could see in you that you didn't have the capacity to hate. You showed me that perhaps enough time had passed that the ancient wars were meaningless now, and my sister's revelation only helped convince me I was right.
He was moved by both her intuition and her kind words, but he wasn't sure if he believed all of it.
But there's still so much fighting going on. Lune is still attacking the Orakians and I'm sure he's not alone.
She stepped closer to him, close enough that he could feel the lower layers of her dress brushing up against his shins.
We're going to stop it, she said, reaching up to pull his head closer to hers.
He could feel her last word more than he could hear it as she pressed her lips against his. The cold winds swirled around them as he slid his arms around her waist and held her against him, touching her, tasting her, embracing every moment with her. From the day he had left the safety and comfort of Landen, he had questioned his purpose in setting out to avenge Satera's destruction and he hadn't wanted to admit his own anxieties and fears, but the woman in front of him had nearly erased all his insecurities and negativity. As he kissed her, he knew that he had faith in her beliefs that they would emerge triumphant, as long as she remained by his side.