The Prince landed with a heavy thud, Elika a light step behind him. The sky stretched dark blue around the highest pavilion of the Royal Palace, all open air and wild freedom. The Concubine was nowhere to be seen.
The pair rushed forward just a few steps before Elika vanished in a blink of blue light. The Prince was only momentarily surprised—the Concubine was too dramatic to simply remove the queen she treated like a pawn. He hesitated an instant then stepped forward again, and almost immediately the purple and black figure with its dark seduction appeared, tattered clothes blowing in the evening wind. He advanced, slowly, wondering what her move would be.
"No, no, no, you chose her," she said, and swirled into dust. When it settled a half second later, there stood Elika; silent, poised, judgment lining her cool gaze.
But no, something was wrong…there, to his right, maybe twenty feet away was…Elika? Again? The Prince turned on the spot. Surrounding him in a circle, not one or two but six Elikas stood, evenly spaced, exactly the same. Not a twitch, not a single glimmer of falsehood to give away which was real and which was illusion. The voice of the Concubine echoed over and around and through him, bodiless on the breeze.
"So choose her."
The Prince didn't know what to do at first. This was not a situation where his sword might be the first success. Unable to tell the image from the reality, he could not plunge in and, as Elika would say with that mocking tease in her voice, "just start hitting stuff." But he was not one to stand around and worry.
"Oh no, my little man. How will you find her now?"
He ran, approached the nearest woman. She did not blink until he was nearly on top of her, and then she blinked out, a puff of blue, a snuffed candle at twilight. He could not touch her, though she shimmered back as soon as he moved away. No. He ran to the next. The same. He ran. Again. When the sixth vision had vanished and returned, he paused. There must be a trick.
"Hesitate, and the choice is gone." The Concubine's voice floated again.
Okay, if she wanted to play it that way, he could do that. They were all illusions? He'd have to get rid of them, same as the others. The Prince drew his sword, faced the Concubine's idea of a joke made visual in dust and light. Elika stared back at him. He raised his weapon. She did not move, did not flinch, met his gaze and dared him on. His sword fell. He couldn't do it.
But he looked again. There was no laughter, no pain; nothing in her eyes. This was not the princess of the Ahura, the one made of azure spitfire and starlight trust. Not even the hint of a sneer or a rolled eye. This one was not Elika. He hoped.
Even though he knew, his blade still shook in his hand as he swung and sliced through the illusion that looked like her. He could have sworn he heard a scream of pain, but there was no blood, no body even to cut through; the metal sang through the air and met no resistance, and the image vanished like the others. It did not come back.
The Concubine spoke again, the voice coming from all of the remaining visions—"How will you prove yourself to her?"
As if it wasn't enough that he would dare to hurt himself like this, to take the risk and feel the pang and doubt he did when his blade bit through her image, trying to find the reality. He attacked another dream of Elika, another that broke when touched. Six times he struck, six times he flinched, wondering if this would be the one to connect, to collapse. But he had stopped where he had started and still three remained. Still Elika was missing from her body, and still the Concubine mocked him.
"What is she worth to you? What would you sacrifice for her?"
What he would…what? What she was worth? He was letting himself be dragged all over the crumbled ruins of a city for a god that ignored the most devoted follower's pleas, while his donkey was loaded down with gold somewhere out in her blasted desert. He'd had Corruption spat in his eyes and forced into his body, he'd been pounded and struck and thrown and he'd fallen off of more cliffs than any man had a right to and still live, and this fallen thing speaks of worth? Of sacrifice? When Elika's own father stands corrupted by Ahriman, when her people abandon her, when she lives out her life surrounded by decay and ruin in solitude? The Concubine calls herself a Queen, plays at nobility and title with illusions, yet the princess with no court, no champion, who by all rights deserved the splendor of her kingdom and the devotion of her people, the Princess lives in servitude and the reality of loss.
The Prince looked at the three remaining phantoms, hollow and dead without her cerulean glow. How long would it take for this illusion to wear him down? Although he wasn't fool enough to take the Concubine's offers, he also knew he couldn't stay here forever, and the Concubine had been waiting for eternities. Elika was somewhere, but the Corrupted wasn't about to give her up. He had nothing to offer, nothing to sacrifice, nothing that the Princess wouldn't hate him for after. Stalemate.
No. Maybe not. She must be up here, hidden somehow, trapped. But not entirely. Even when the Concubine had her restrained by Corruption, she'd been able to reach out and catch him, which was far more than he'd ever done for anyone.
And suddenly it hit him. A way to pull her out of the enchantment that hid her, her first magic, the one that always worked.
He ran, because he knew that if he didn't he might not be able to follow through. Like with the first ghost of her that he cut down, there was that doubt he would never show, and this was more. He'd fallen plenty of times by accident, by misstep or miscalculation, but deliberately, as a whim to draw her out, never. But he knew, he knew that if she could, she would, and there she'd be.
He ran past the three Elikas that turned and watched him go, and he found the edge, and he jumped, straight out into the night, into the stars. The ground was gone, falling fast, the tower walls rushed by and his scarves streamed behind him, no, above him, they whipped and snapped in his ears. His stomach rose, his eyes watered in the cold and the winds, and whether aloud or in his head or screaming for help he never knew, he called for Elika, prayed for her, left caution behind and could only hope it worked.
And gloriously, wonderfully, magically her hand reached out and grabbed the leather of his glove, twined fingers around his forearm as he clasped the slender wrist, a familiar tug and weightlessness and light, and his feet touched ground, solid ground again. Elika tossed hair out of her eyes and in a voice weary from caring she said, very simply, exactly what she thought of his answer to the Concubine's questions.
After landing, Elika felt the grip of Corruption; it seized her like a vice and wrung her out until she felt her magic slip away and her body vanish, dissolve like sugar in water and spread thin over the floor of the airy pavilion and reform in mists and moonlight.
Elika didn't know what the Concubine had done to her. She found she couldn't move, couldn't speak, but she knew she was not bound, not the same way she had been. For one, she couldn't see or feel her body.
No, that wasn't true. She could certainly see her body—six of her body, actually—but it wasn't her body. She was somehow in all of them and in none of them, a little piece of her consciousness hammered to gold-thinness to keep the illusions intact, but there was no control, no corporality to keep her anchored there. The Prince ran through her, through each piece of herself in turn, and she felt a tingle, needles and pins, sliding like dew away again, reforming, somewhere in between. It reminded her of when she'd been dead.
And the Concubine called out, taunted him, and her as well, "What would you sacrifice for her?" and she hated it because although she asked she expected nothing of him, and she saw a glimmer on his face that she'd seen on her father when Ahriman whispered in his ear. And she was unable to speak and unable to move and unable to prevent him from doing something he defined in his head as noble but was really just incredibly stupid.
And when the Prince raised his sword she flinched, and when he hesitated she felt something weaken inside her and go out to him, and when the blade finally bit through nothingness she felt it and yet she didn't feel it. The illusion wore down and could not fully withstand the physical contact, but it held up enough so that she remained in the three phantoms left, and when he struck those she almost thought she could reach a hand down and feel the warm blood spilling over her stomach, but of course she couldn't and it wasn't there anyway.
Then a sun rose over his face and she knew what he was about to do before he did it. Every mote of dust that she was pulled and strained against whatever held her, begging him not to jump, but he set his face and ran and leapt out, out, away from her. For not a second she saw his body fly, scarves midnight and fire behind him, and he vanished over the ledge down into the ocean of stars. And her body, wherever, however it was, screamed and burned and cried. She flared with power and anger and desperate longing, a need to save him, the idiot, whose hands gave her shivers when they touched the small of her back after she healed Fertile Grounds, whose voice was maddening and rich and teased her like a feather up her neck. And his hands were stretching up even now searching for hers, and his voice rang out in her head, and she was stung by the curl of doubt in his voice— "I hope this works."
She surged, brighter, brightest in the sky, and it was his words that let her blaze free of the illusion and Corruption, her body all rushing together to that single point where his arm extended for her, and she didn't realize she had form and substance back until she felt his fingers on her wrist and the familiarity of her powers flowing through him. This had been different, this had been more than any other time, but the end result was the same—both of them standing, exhilarated with fear, on the ledge he had just fallen from.
His eyes grinned, pleased with the fact that his plan had worked, that he'd found the real her, unaware of what his faith had meant on her side. And she wanted to say so many things, but none of them were right, and none of them were fair, and none of them were things she could follow through on, not with how she knew it all must end. So she said the simplest thing, the truest thing, and so much was coiled into those two words that she doubted he could hear but she said them all anyway, relieved he was even alive to spend her frustration and concern on.