The journey back to the northern part of Frigidia was less strenuous than their initial voyage, as the team was properly equipped with the necessary supplies and clothing. The endless miles of walking combined with the frequent enemy attacks made it difficult for Nial to sneak longing looks and stolen kisses from his blonde fellow fighter, but her reciprocated affections had bolstered his confidence and he was determined to get them to their destination as quickly as possible. The women of Mystoke had directed them to Aerone, a small village to the south of Divisia, and the cave that supposedly led back to Elysium was not far from the passageway that had brought them to the world of ice.
Several yards away from the rocky opening was a structure similar to the one in which Laya had been sleeping beneath Aridia. Before he could lead the others to the cave, Nial saw her staring at the snow-covered temple with an odd look in her eyes. She was fiddling with her sister's pendant, which now hung around her neck, and he almost didn't want to disturb her thoughts, as she seemed so intently focused on it.
However, the day wasn't getting any longer and the temperature wasn't getting any warmer.
...Laya? he gently asked.
There's another way.
There's a faster way than traveling through the mountains. I remember now!
Nial vaguely recalled one of the women in Mystoke mentioning something about the doors of Laya's palace opening, but he hadn't really known what she meant, so he had filed that bit of information away for a later time. Side by side, they approached the small building and entered. In the back of the single room was a blue panel nearly identical to the one that had been in Laya's chamber. Signaling for the rest of them to follow her, the princess stepped into the glowing cerulean aura that surrounded the recessed square.
The world suddenly went black and Nial felt like he was falling, plummeting to a certain doom. He couldn't move, he couldn't speak, and he briefly wondered what sort of hell he had stumbled into. Before he could let his imagination come up with all sorts of gruesome possibilities, he abruptly found himself back on his feet, seemingly in the same place where he'd started.
Startled, his eyes darted around the stone enclosure, searching for signs that he wasn't hallucinating.
What the...what just happened?
Laya beamed at him.
We took a shortcut!
But we didn't go anywhere!
Don't be silly! she laughed, giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze as she smiled up at him, her dark eyes sparkling.
Haven't you noticed that it's not that cold in here?
He realized she was right.
So where are we?
Back in Elysium, where we were originally headed, of course. Let's go!
Sure enough, when they emerged from the temple, they were greeted by the rolling green hills and majestic mountains of the pleasantly sunny world. Their location, though, was unfamiliar to Nial, as they seemed to be in a place that he hadn't been to before. A few hours of traveling brought them to a bridge that led them directly to their destination, the small village of Aerone.
The purple moon of Dahlia was starting to appear in the darkening sky as the natives of the town informed Nial that the satellite was home to the man he had been seeking. They directed him to a shuttle that would lead him to Dahlia and plans were made to leave first thing in the morning. Though he didn't want to admit it, Nial was growing more and more anxious about the upcoming confrontation with each passing moment.
Laya saw right through his casual demeanor.
It's okay, I'm nervous, too, she whispered to him after the others had retired for the evening, Ryan to his upstairs room at the inn and Wren and Mieu to wherever they spent their nights.
Somehow, I don't think Lune is the type to want to sit down and have a polite conversation and listen to reason.
No, probably not, she said, shaking her head.
I never met him, but Laya spoke of him often. She trusted him almost more than anyone else and frequently praised his combat skills. She frowned.
That's not very helpful, is it...
Maybe he's gotten a little rusty in the past thousand years? she offered.
You bounced right back, he pointed out.
And he probably has an army waiting for us.
Well, we have Mieu and Wren and Ryan. She took his hands in hers.
And each other, she tried to reassure him.
He lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them.
I hope you're right.
As always, Nial politely escorted the fair princess to the door of her room at the inn.
We're going to be okay tomorrow, she stated firmly, staring up directly into his eyes.
You really think so?
I do, she said as she slipped her hands into his again.
I have faith in you. I know you're going to lead us to victory.
He could see by the way she looked at him that she meant every word and while he wanted to be comforted by her, he now felt even more pressure not to let her down. Though he had planned to make their customary good-night kiss brief in light of the next day's planned activities, her grip on him tightened and he knew that she wasn't ready to part ways just yet. Without letting go of him, she nudged the door open with her hip and pulled him inside.
There was a sense of urgency as each of them strove to cling to anything that would save them from thinking about what possibly awaited them on Dahlia. Despite his efforts to clear his head of all doubts and negativity, Nial couldn't help but think of everything he had to lose as he buried his hands in Laya's waist-length hair, letting the golden strands wind through his fingers as he kept her as close to him as physically possible. He could lose the battle, he could lose his honor, he could lose his life...but out of all the outcomes that were playing through his mind, the one that sent a chill down his spine was the thought of losing her.
Fear drove him to wrap his arms around her as tightly as he could, pulling her body up against his, and he found it impossible to remove his mouth from hers. Her hands were moving across his chest, initially gliding smoothly across the woven fabric of his shirt. When she balled up the sides of his collar in her fists and returned the intensity of his impassioned kiss, he fervently hoped that she felt the same way about him, that she needed him just as much. Gone were the playful looks, the incidental touches, the coy kisses; on this night, they clutched at and breathed with each other as if their lives depended on it.
Time was escaping them, escaping both of them, the teenaged prince and the ancient princess. For the first time in his life, Nial was forced to come face to face with the fact that he didn't know what his future held, and he desperately wanted to spend every possible moment with the woman in his arms in case their number of moments abruptly ran out. He ran a hand up her back and around to cup her cheek before trailing down the long line of her neck, trying to commit the feel of her flawless skin to his memory forever. Her heart was beating rapidly beneath his fingertips, nearly in sync with his own, and he wanted nothing more than to touch her, to explore her, to know every inch of her before their time ran out.
Unfortunately, he knew he couldn't. Regardless of what they would face in mere hours, he had still been raised to be the respectable prince of Landen and she was...so much more. It was nearly painful, but he managed to tear himself away from her inquiring lips and tried to catch his breath.
I...I should go, he murmured softly into her hair.
I know. Her voice was muffled against his chest.
Even though I don't want to... He felt her nod her head.
They managed to disentangle themselves from each other and stood a safe distance apart, staring at each other in the small moonlit room.
Try to get some sleep, she sympathetically suggested. It was now his turn to nod.
Everything will work out.
I trust you. He allowed his eyes to linger for one more moment on the breathtakingly beautiful princess before forcing himself to leave.
Good night, Laya.
The outskirts of Aerone concealed an entrance to an underground chamber, in which they found a small spaceship already prepared for takeoff. Once they had boarded, the shuttle rapidly shot down a passage into the murky darkness of outer space. Nial looked out the window to get a good look at the home he was leaving behind and was shocked by what he saw.
That's what our world really looks like? he exclaimed.
It's a spaceship! From where he was sitting, he could see the various worlds of the Alisa III, each encased in its own rounded dome. The yellow sands of Aridia, the colorless ice of Frigidia, and the reassuring greenery of his beloved Landen were all neatly displayed before him and suddenly, everything began to make more sense to him. The cold, sterile passageways between the different lands, the way the rounded landscape of his world just seemed to just stop...though he was amazed, he wasn't particularly surprised.
But who built it? he murmured.
Laya was following his gaze out the window, but she didn't answer him. He turned to face her and saw the familiar look in her eyes, the one that showed her trying to determine whether or not this was new information to her. Did she remember that she lived on a spaceship? Was she even born on the spaceship or did she board it from someplace else? Where did the ship come from? Where were they going?
There was no time for Nial to voice his questions before the shuttle touched down on the purple satellite. They emerged in a rather foreboding stone fortress, with no sign of the man they had come to confront. As they wound their way through unwelcoming corridors and steep staircases, the attacks from Lune's hordes of monsters were nearly constant. A spacious throne room offered them a fantastic view of a starry expanse of pitch-black sky, but there was no time to appreciate it, as Wren had located a narrow set of stairs descending beneath the floor.
The glass floor of the dungeon was treacherous to navigate and though he didn't want to show it, Nial was terrified of losing his footing and tumbling into the infinite pits below. They carefully picked their way around the damaged tiles, making sure to avoid the shards of broken glass, and continued to fend off enemy attacks. After rounding a corner, they caught a glimpse of a tall, lime-haired man; though he was lurking in the shadows, he seemed prepared for their arrival.
You Orakians have invaded my domain! Lune accused as they approached, apparently feeling that formal introductions were unnecessary.
Orakio banished us here almost one thousand years ago. Cryogenics has kept me alive for centuries, waiting for revenge. A cruel smile crept across his face as he produced a long, curved blade, tightly gripped in his right fist.
Now my revenge is at hand!
The Orakian prince barely had time to duck the slicer that was hurled in his direction as more creatures appeared to defend their master. Flanked by three sentient purple flames and three gelatinous blobs with surprising agility, Lune expertly caught his weapon as it returned to him and prepared for another attack. Now fully ready for battle, the two cyborgs concentrated on taking out the lesser enemies as the others focused on the former general himself.
Though it was fairly easy to dispose of the monsters, taking on the legendary warrior was entirely different. The experienced soldier was incomparably stronger than anything they had ever faced and their attacks barely seemed to affect him at first. Though Nial's swordsmanship had vastly improved since he initially set out from Landen, he found it exceedingly difficult to land an effective blow on the man responsible for the downfall of Satera. Had it not been for the support of the rest of his team and the healing warmth of Laya's techniques, he would have been forced to admit defeat, but they battled on for what seemed like hours.
Though Lune, by all accounts, should have had the upper hand, in the end he was simply outnumbered. Rather than relying on pure strength or force, the strangely-assembled group from the Alisa III was simply relentless in their attacks and having to be in a constant defensive state was starting to take its toll on him. As he shielded himself from the nimble slashes of Mieu's twin claws, he was caught off balance, and Nial saw an opening.
Rather than risking his foe being able to recover as he prepared to swing his sword, the determined prince stepped forward and quickly swung his foot out. His heavy boot smashed into Lune's leg, just below the kneecap, and the esteemed former general toppled to the ground. Mieu kicked the slicer out of his hand, leaving him unarmed, and the others all raised their weapons to aim at his fallen body.
I'm surprised that you just don't kill me, Lune groaned when no further attacks came. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the bow-wielding princess who was standing in front of him, her arrow aimed directly at his chest. What little light there was reflected in both her dark eyes and the metallic necklace that dangled against her chest and the defeated man's jaw dropped in disbelief.
Laya's Pendant... he breathed.
You must be Laya's little sister!
Her eyes flicked up to meet Nial's, but neither one of them lowered their weapons just yet.
I have no wish to fight you, Lune continued.
The war is at an end. I'll recall my armies, he conceded.
Nial raised an eyebrow, asking his trusted companion the silent question, and she nodded. He sheathed his sword and graciously extended a hand to help the wounded commander to his feet. Though he wanted nothing more than to pull Laya into his arms for a celebratory embrace, he knew it was neither the time or the place, so he settled for giving her a warm look of contentment. She had been right all along. They had won.
Read the epilogue