Every moment, from the moment Elika had woken from death in the Prince's arms, she had resented his actions and spared no expense to make sure he knew. But when the sun rose the next morning, turning the sea of sands to gold, the Prince found his princess at his side and nothing could make him regret any of what he had done.
They had hardly left the boundaries of the city when they had found Farah; the poor donkey was exhausted and skittish, still carrying most of her former burden and highly sensitive to the darkness that had just been released into the world. Elika, still weak from her ordeal, could only watch as the Prince made camp and carefully tended to Farah. That night she had stared at the cloudless sky and fought to collect every drop of hate she could muster for the man sleeping heavily on the sands near her. In her dreams, in her sleep, she could make every sinew and fiber of her body hum with hatred; but with the rise of the sun she felt the bitter emotions evaporate like dew. Elika knew it wasn't in her heart, broken and painful as it was, to deny that she had begun to love the prince.
The Prince kept his word to Elika and over the weeks and he showed her as much of the world as they could cover. At first the Prince had insisted they buy a horse or camel when it became obvious that despite her athletic abilities Elika had never walked for such distances before. However she stubbornly refused, day after day, and eventually the Prince gave in, smiling, to her will. They had met caravans of traders, selling wares and stories from lands Elika had never hear of, made from things she had never seen. They wandered through cities that gleamed like the sun, temples walled by polished marble that could make a man blind and ruins of peoples that pressed imagination. The Prince took her into caves that held to most beautiful ballrooms of crystal and gem that even he dared not ruin for profit, and though she had yet to learn about the depths of the Prince's past, Elika could almost forget those questions in the excitement of their daily discoveries.
Once; they even charted a small boat to carry them across a turquoise and sapphire sea, so filled fish that had Elika hanging like a child from the rails so that she could see them better. They landed on rust colored islands capped with immaculate greenery and here the Prince could hardly keep up with the woman as she darted over the rocks and up into trees. She marveled at gigantic beautiful birds that filled the skies and clouds of red and orange jellyfish that collected near the shallow cliffs. The Prince couldn't help but laugh at the predicament of his poor Farah who had been surly enough with only one human dragging her across the world. When they returned to the mainland the pair continued on their travels; searching ruins for gold, trading and gambling in the big cities, and seeking the exotic. The Prince even managed to teach Elika, after much persuasion, the fine art of scamming the overconfident. They had their fair share of close calls as well, usually involving the Prince and an old "friend" and ended with them making a hasty but mischievous escape.
The world seemed a paradise, even in the burning sands, and each night the pair slept close, smiling at the diamond stars. But even if they had traveled the entire world they would found they couldn't escape the reality of the world.
It began in the gathering darkness one night; Elika had search the sky and saw that even when fully cloaked in blackness the evening star was alone in half the sky. She was startled because she had not noticed the vanishing stars. Soon after they stumbled on a village devoid of human beings and every street choked with the wandering darkness. And in this way their journey continued; cities and towns, forests and farms, the number of infested locations became more and more numerous. At each location they fought and destroyed the creatures, cleansing as the lands as best they could. The Prince could see Elika's power growing with each day. At times she almost seemed to glow and no matter what enemies he had to fight or what trials they faced and he never, not even for a moment, regretted releasing the old god Ahriman.
When the Prince awoke the sun was just breaking the horizon of the desert. The chill of the night was still on the sand and a solid wind made the light cloth of the diminutive shelter snap and heave against its short supports. He turned sleepily, trying to block out the elements that roughly nagged him to wakefulness. The previous day Elika and the Prince had entered the deep desert heading west to chase the rumors of a massive "cloud" of corruption. According to word of mouth the corruption had collected recently and destroyed all of the caravans and villages in its path. The reports of this manifestation were far from anything they had yet encountered and Elika suspected it would bring them closer to Ahriman himself. With that in mind, they had spent the last few days in a near marathon sprint to catch an unseen enemy. Needless to say the Prince was exhausted.
The hollow in the sand beneath the linen cloth was comfortable and shaped just for him. Sword, gauntlet, scarf, vest and other effects all lay next to him, though well within his sleepy reach. He cracked an eye, focusing on the dimly lit cloth suspended a foot above his face, and listened to the windblown sand breaking like waves over his head. For a long moment the Prince lay still and let wakefulness grow with the light. Like a whip he snapped up with an ungraceful flail, head brushing the low ceiling, eyes searching the small space in the low light. A thickness crawled into his throat and he scrambled out into the blowing sands, disregarding his clothes and shoes. The wind and sand assaulted his eyes and he squinted into the lightening darkness. A yell died in his throat; he knew full well that beyond a few yards any sounds he made would be ripped away in the storm. The Prince stared into the abysmal sandstorm; Elika was gone.
Retreating back into the small shelter, the Prince wrestled with himself. She was smart, and some small part of him was proud of Elika. She had left early that morning, before the sandstorm hit; she had probably seen the dark cloud on the horizon the night before. The wind had covered Elika's tracks and every sane traveler the pair had met in their travels had warned against traveling during storms like these. Of course, the Prince thought bitterly as he dressed himself and packed away the simple shelter, no one had ever boasted him to be completely sane. With the thin linen shelter hastily packed away he untied Farah and, to her deep chagrin, loaded her supplies in record time.
The ability to walk in a straight line without a point of reference was largely considered the single most valuable skill a traveler could have and also believed to be an impossible myth. Of course the god Ormazd also was generally considered to be myth. With a rag tied over Farah's eyes to protect her from the sand the Prince began to march in the direction of the nearest village. It was only half a days walk to the nearest town, though the Prince had no idea how much of a lead Elika had. He reasoned that it couldn't have been too long before dawn because frankly Elika would have been just as exhausted as himself. Most likely; she had been hoping for the sandstorm to slow him down and give her time to collect supplies and plot her course. Just the same; she would have had to leave early enough to avoid being caught in the storm herself and that left an unsteady window.
Behind him, Farah made her complaints known but the Prince refused to stop, his scarf pulled up over his face to keep his mouth and eyes protected. Several hours into his trek through the vicious weather the storm came to an abrupt end. The last of the wind whistled past and then there was only sun and the retreating shadow of the storm. Farah paused to shake the sand from her fur and the Prince unwrapped removed the end of the scarf from his face. Squinting into the suddenly bright distance the Prince was pleasantly surprised to realize he had made better time than anticipated. Several miles away, clearly visible on the horizon were the dark jagged shadows of the oasis village.
The village was quiet at first; the citizens still hunkered down inside their various shelters to avoid the weather. Slowly but steadily the shopkeepers and merchants emerged and were quick to set up their carts and displays, irritated by the delay the storm had caused and eager to make up for lost sales. As the Prince entered the village he was paid little abnormal attention and was completely ignored by some of the more high end merchants; taking his less than impressive appearance as an indicator of wealth. He had replaced his scarf to hide his face from prying eyes and the Prince quickly took stock of the decently sized village, seeking out the places Elika was most likely to visit.
This particular town was more than two days walk in any direction from another town. Elika hadn't taken any supplies and only a small amount of the treasure the Prince had collected since his last deposit to his hidden stash. The Prince had calculated approximately what supplies she had taken and if she was planning on getting anywhere it would limit her price range quite a bit. He found a small inn on the far side of the town and paid the owner a few coins to feed and water Farah while he went out to inquire about Elika.
He checked, first, with horse and camel traders. Most of the livestock traders grouped close to the well and near the perimeter of the village. His trained eyes skimmed over the animals and he took stock of their condition while ignoring the shouts from sellers and bartering traders. The fine stallions and well-bred mares were far out of Elika's possible range and she knew enough of animals that the old work-worn bitter creatures would be passed by as well. When he came to the middle aged and well-trained beasts of burden the Prince slowed his pace. As his eyes followed a fast talking salesman, he nearly walked into another man.
"I have been watching you, sir, and I can tell you have an experienced eye." The man was short and stocky, his accent betraying his place of origin, and dressed in mid-toned neutral clothes. The Prince allowed himself to be lead by the shorter man towards his stock of animals, taking notice of the eyes that followed him. "So, my foreign friend, has anything caught your eye? If you see something you like in one of my competitors I can personally guarantee my stock to be able to out do any of their pitiful beasts." The Prince looked the man over carefully and noted the eager glint in the man's dark eyes.
"I can see you have a fine selection and I would be fool enough to look elsewhere. However I am looking for something other than a horse right now." The small man seemed to shift and ready himself for another sales pitch, but the Prince cut him off. "I am loath to say I am looking for my wife. Have you seen a young woman with short dark hair, dresses strangely for the area? She would carry herself in an odd way and set herself apart from the locals." The horse trader's demeanor seemed to drop away the moment he sensed the Prince was not interested in buying stock from him.
"Sir, I have not seen such a woman in this town. I am far to busy to be keeping track of every woman who passes by." He seemed ready to dismiss the Prince until he was suddenly interrupted again. This time by the flash of golden coins in the Prince's palm.
"It's a pity; she is worth quite a lot to me." The trader's eyes would not be torn from the pieces of gold as the Prince tossed them carelessly, though out of the immediate view of the other traders.
"Sir I swear to you I have seen no such girl that might have been your wife."
"But you would tell me, wouldn't' you, if you happened to see her while I am still in town?" he leaned a little closers, rolling the coins in his palm.
"Of course of course, it would only be right, sir!"
"And of course I would purchase at least two of your fine animals to carry her home or at least to chase after her. And I would be struck with such gratitude for your help I would certainly reward you with all my heart."
"Yes sir, I would provide you and your wife with my best stock!" The Prince let the man follow the heavy coins for a moment longer and then slipped them into the fold of the man's outer layer.
"A good man." The Prince pat the man's shoulder with his left hand and looked him dead in the eye. It was then that the trader seemed to notice the heavy gauntlet and flinched almost imperceptibly. "I'll be back in several hours to look over your horses again." He grinned at the horse trader and clapped him again, his gauntlet clinking, before turning away.
The Prince spent the rest of the day wandering the small village buying supplies and looking for any kind of news about Elika. He stopped by the horse trader's stalls after several hours and tipped him another gold coin, but the man told the Prince he hadn't seen or heard of anyone that would fit her description. He had combed the small village so many times, by nightfall, that he could map out its every alley and rooftop. The man that had stabled Farah offered a room to the strange prince but was quickly turned down. Even as the sun began to fade the Prince had found no trace that Elika had even passed through this village. He wrapped the extra length of his scarf over his face and shoulders to brace against the steadily falling temperatures and made another pass through the village.
Many merchants were still out in the streets as bonfires and lamps were lit, though some had closed up their shops or were in the process of packing away their wares. There was noise and delicious smells as late meals were prepared and the Prince was forced to buy a loaf of bread to calm his aching stomach. As he turned a corner and started down a darkened alleyway he caught the sound of frantic rising whispers. He hardly paused at the initial noise but as he passed and the voices grew louder he froze, recognizing one of the speakers.
"We agreed on five this morning!" the familiar voice was harsh and struggling to keep quiet.
"Well my dear things change and my prices have gone up. Its 15 for everything." The second voice was a smug sounding merchantman.
"I don't have enough for that, and you gave me your word! Now I demand the goods I purchased this morning."
"No can do, young lady." The man was no longer trying to keep his voice low, letting it rise to a normal speaking tone. "Five was the price this morning, and when the sun set the price went up to fifteen. If you don't have the money I'm sure there is something we can work out…"
"Ugh! Don't touch me!" the other voice yelled and there was a scuffling sound. The Prince took off in the direction of the altercation. It was Elika; he had been on the receiving end of that yell too many times to mistake it. As he ran he saw a flash of light from inside a small stall whose reed woven curtains were let down to signify the shop as closed. There was a shout and Elika burst out of the shop, nearly tearing down the whole curtain as she did, with a small bag of, what appeared to be, supplies. She threw a handful of coins into the dirt, her face pulled anger.
"Take your damn coins!" she whirled and was about to stalk off when she suddenly caught sight of the Prince standing only several stalls away. They both froze, eyes locked for a long moment until a scuffle from behind the ruined curtain broke the moment.
"Elika…" the Prince called softly as if speaking to a startled animal. Her eyes flicked to the stall merchant and then back to the prince. Elika shifted her weight just slightly and the prince knew she was going to run.
"Elika, why did you run off and ditch me in that sandstorm?" he kept his voice low and calm. Elika stared him down and the minutes stretched out as she tried to decide whether to run or not.
"I have to go." She replied simply, but he Prince was quick to retort.
"I have to find the Ahura."
"Why do you have to go off alone? We were searching together, Elika."
"Why not?!" the Prince's voice was raised, nearing a shout.
"You know why! You are arrogant and selfish and I-I can't trust you! I'm going to find the Ahura without you and use the power Ormazd gave me to lock away Ahriman. It's my duty." Elika shifted again and the Prince moved to crouch just slightly. He couldn't argue. It was selfish of him to release Ahriman just to bring back one girl, to sacrifice the entire world for himself. But he wasn't sorry.
"Elika, wait!" he called out as she suddenly turned and took off down the alleyway. The Prince cursed loudly and took off after her, ignoring the startled and angry merchant.
The pair tore down the dusty roads, pushing past strangers and dodging obstacles. Elika was light and almost impossibly fast and the Prince had to fight to keep up with her. He tried to call out to her again but she didn't seem to hear him. She slid around a sharp corner and down a narrow alley that ended in a dead end. The Prince hoped this was his chance to catch her but Elika didn't slow even half a pace. As she reached the end of the alley she jumped, a flash of magic throwing her up to the single story roof ledge. She grabbed the rough brick ledge and pulled herself up, disappearing over the edge. The Prince grit his teeth and jumped off the sidewall as high as he could and then used his gauntlet to climb the remaining distance.
As he pulled himself over the edge he looked around for Elika and saw nothing. The gritty sand on the top of the building was disturbed but he was unable to see footprints or even that Elika had come this way. The Prince spun around trying to catch any hint of movement. There was a sound of a single footstep and before the prince could react he saw a painful flash of light and then his world went dark.