The Prince's smile fell and he stared up at the daunting stairs, alone.
A bird. It was a god damned bird that was chasing the Prince now. An enormous corrupted creature with a bird like body and a razor beak had exploded out of a collection of homes. It had no feathers on its body, only slick black ooze, and taloned feet. The only feathers it had were on its long boney wings, and when the Prince attacked the bird he found the feathers were more like solid scales that deflected his blade like steel. The damn thing was fast, its claws gripped the sandy earth and it knuckled on its wings to make sharp turns. The Prince cringed every time the creature let out an outrageous scream, and half expected the return howl of wolves.
His one relief was that however birdlike the creature was, it apparently couldn't fly. So, the Prince frantically whipped around corners and jumped on roofs, desperately searching for a building tall enough to possibly out climb the creature, and get an idea where he was. Without Aara he had no idea if the main stair was the only way to get to the next level or if he was running himself into dead end. To his chagrin this level of the city was almost entirely made up of single or two story buildings and walls separating clusters of buildings, possibly for privacy or the sole purpose of slowing down his progress.
The game of hide and seek was wearing the Prince down and the farther he ran the heavier the stench of dead bodies became. The alleyways were thick with corruption and although he couldn't see any bodies, the shapes and seeping stench, well, it didn't make him hopeful. The Prince could feel himself slowing down, his muscles burning, suffocating slowly in the oppressive air, so consumed by dodging and running he almost missed the wisp of sweet, fresh air as it hit his face. Without hesitation he threw himself down the narrow gap between two buildings.
It was the only alley he had seen without corruption and the warm sweet air was almost a breeze in the small space. Not even a length behind him, the bird creature slammed into the gap, its long beak snapping at him. He watched it press its dripping flesh against the walls holding it back, the plaster cracking and crumbling. Satisfied that the bird couldn't reach him, he pressed himself through the narrow bricked space. The air grew sweeter, overwhelming the scent of the damp walls, with a heavy floral scent.
The garden the Prince stepped into was immaculate. Polished white tiles patterned the entire space, wall to wall, and fitted and kept so well that not a single weed had place to sprout between the stones. Unlike the last garden he had come across, this one seemed well used and had no fountain or any other fixtures to interrupt the beautiful stonework. Filling his lungs with the sweet air, the Prince let himself feel his exhaustion for the first time, bent double and resting his weight on his knees. Salty, warm sweat slid into his eyes, blurring his vision. His lungs burned and he could hear his slowing heartbeat thundering in his ears.
Footsteps, light and careful echoed from across the small courtyard, and the Prince caught his breath for moment, his every muscle protesting against his sudden tension. He tried to stand upright but the moment he took his hands off his knees, his leg buckled. He held himself as upright as possible, blinking and wiping the sweat from his eyes, but his limbs all felt like stone. Though his vision was blurred he made out the shape of a human figure across the yard. And he could never forget that figure.
"Elika?" he hardly dared to open his mouth, but even as he did the slender form stepped closer, footsteps tapping on the stone. His lungs burned and he was forced to drop his eyes to the ground, muscles shuddering. The Prince sucked in another breath, the sweet scent of the air coating his mouth and throat. But it seemed no matter how deeply he inhaled, he couldn't get enough air to his exhausted body. He could taste flowers and sugar clinging to his tongue. More sweat drifted into his eyes and he pushed his shaky palm across his face to clear it away. Looking up again, he could only focus as far as Elilka's blurry legs.
"My Prince… how did you find your way here?" there was a buzzing between the Prince's ears and it made it hard to focus.
"I can't believe you found your way here." The voice was soft like smoke. It was impossible, he couldn't believe he had found her, but he would know that voice anywhere. His vision was cloudy and no matter how many times he blinked it wouldn't clear. Each time his eyes closed it was harder to force them apart again. The air was so thick, so sickly sweet and heavy that he felt like he was drowning in flowers. He collapsed to one side, desperately trying to make out Elika's face before exhaustion took him and he slipped into dark unconsciousness.
Even in sleep, it seemed, he could not find relief from his weariness. He couldn't move his limbs, or at least it felt like there was weight dragging his down, like he was underwater and every movement was like pushing through mud. There was a muffled feeling all over his body, as if he were floating just below the surface, surrounded by that flowery sweet air.
"My Prince…you…here…" the voice sounded like it was trying to speak to him through glass, vibrating somewhere off in the distance. His thoughts trailed after one another like leaves in a breeze, while he fought to make sense of everything.
"Prince…" closer this time, more a muffled whisper in his ear. "Little Prince…" His skin felt numb, bringing the pain of his muscles into sharper focus.
"Little Prince… wish?" through the fog in his mind, he struggled to understand, "Tell me… what is your wish." Wish? His thoughts turned over slowly. The voice whispered again, "what is it that you wish for most?" What did he wish for? What is that he wished for? The moment he processed the words a thought immediately jumped to the surface.
Elika. In all of his life he had wanted nothing more than to seek treasure and have all of the women and wine and anything he could ask for. It was a pretty big goal, but if anyone could have it all, it would be him. But suddenly, those weren't the words filling his thoughts. There was only one word in his mind: Elika. He wished he could find her, bring her back to him. He wished that Elika would leave the city with him, and they could travel the world, free to do and go where they wanted.
"Little Prince, tell me what you wish for…" That voice again, it washed over him like a chill through the water. He felt his lips slowly forming words. "I wish…" The heady scent was slowing him down but his wish was all he could think about. And all at once his skin was covered in ice.
"Too late, little Prince…" the sick air was filling his lungs, drowning him in honey and he suddenly became desperate to break the surface he was trapped under. It was so close, a fresh breath of air to fill his starved body. But all that the Prince found was more suffocation by flowers.
His body hit the ground, like he had rolled out of bed, the illusion broken. The harsh paving stones below him cut into his flesh and everything seemed to be in sharp detail. There was still fogginess to his vision but he could see the figure standing next to him in the garden. Pink gauzy silk floated over blackened skin, and a whip like tail snaked behind a pair of long sleek legs, twitching like a nervous cat. He could see the Concubine's lips move, eyes narrowed at the opposite wall of the garden, but it sounded like his ears were covered. The Prince gasped desperately, drawing nothing but thick suffocating sap into his lungs.
Suddenly the Concubine was gone, jumping away across the atrium, followed by a flash of cloth and black. The Concubine leapt onto the roof of the farthest building, her eyes finally meeting the Princes and her lips moved again.
"See you soon, little Prince." Though he was slipping into unconsciousness again, he could hear the words as if they were being spoken directly into his ears. He felt his body go slack against the ground. There was a face over his, not Elika's his mind recognized with melancholy, a mouth moving again, yelling so close to his. A hand smacked against his cheek but the Prince's skin was already beginning to go numb. Another smack across his face, and then eyes searching his own before he could no longer keep them open.
There was a moment of stillness, and then a pressure on his chest, slight at first and then growing until it seemed as though someone was standing on him. All at once there was the sensation that someone had tied a knot around his heart and was attempting to pull it out from between his ribs. The pain grew until he coughed, choking over himself to gasp in the suddenly abundant air. And then he was standing, his own feet fumbling underneath him, carrying only part of his weight.
He had no idea how far he stumbled or where he went, but the Prince remembered only the sense of a great weight being removed from his body, pulled out of his chest through his sternum.
When the Prince woke up he felt first to the feeling of smooth cool tiles on his back. He had been stripped to the waist, all his belongings stacked neatly next to him. Sitting up, he took stock of the bruises and scratches of the day before, the cooling sensation of balm that had been applied to his wounds, and the cool damp cloth that fell from his forehead. The Prince found himself in a stunning but sparse room. There was a delicate golden light filtering in from the doorway and a tiny window at the very top of the farthest wall. The light reflected off of brilliant white tiles covering most of the room, each wall patterned at the edges with blues and reds and golds. There was a single low wooden couch against the wall, simple but exquisitely carved. Next to it was a small rolled up carpet and a very old wooden table.
He had been cured. The sensations of his last waking moments came back to him. He knew those feelings, the way that invasive parasitic corruption crept into his body, sticking to his every fiber. And then it had been drawn out. Not seared away with light and magic, no he knew that feeling too. This time the parasite had been drawn from his body, from his very blood, as one would pull a stick free of the mud. It was this that concerned him. The gears of his mind turned with the thought of what creature would possess such power, and he was grim with the solution.
The crash of metal on tile brought the man to his feet. He shrugged on his leather vest and looped his lucky scarf hastily around his shoulders before creeping carefully to the doorway. Outside the room, the architecture opened up into a tall wide hallway with even more intricate mosaic work and beautiful carpets, with understated doorways opening quietly, almost invisible under the glamorous archway at the end of the hall. What struck him the most, however, was the bright sunlight that illuminated every detail of the beautiful building. The pall of corruption over the city had barely allowed for day to be distinguished from night. But the Prince didn't pause for long. He advanced cautiously, hand on his sword to keep it quiet and ready, and stepped down the hall and through the arched doorway into a sunlit room.
The hall he had just passed through suddenly looked bland and shabby next to the high ceiling room. It was tiled in the same beautiful shimmering tiles, with vast mosaics made up of vivid tiles no larger than a fingernail. Latticed windows stretched down from the ceiling nearly to the floor, casting the golden light of dawn over carefully rolled and arranged by the walls. The only sign that the building had been left in a hurry was the disheveled altar. Old flowers decayed slowly along with the remains of tribute food, and dried spilt wine.
In the pattern of light and shadow, a polished copper basin shimmered on the tiled floor, a puddle of water slowly spreading. The Prince stepped quietly into the room, seeing Aara standing in front of the altar. A space was cleared on the alabaster surface and several supplies laid out. Her airy tunic had been left crumbled on the side and her entire left arm was covered in bandages from fingertips to shoulder blade. From her position it was obvious that she had thrown the copper basin, her face was turned away but she gripped her left arm like a vice. Even across the room the Prince could hear her ragged breathing, her whole body shuddering like she was in pain. Aara cursed, her loud voice ringing through the vast room like a bell.
"So you are alive." The Prince's own deep tones seemed to vibrate around the room, surprising him slightly. Aara yelped in response, snatching up her shirt and sending tribute remains scattering across the floor. As the Prince stepped forward, Aara shuffled backwards as quickly as she could.
"Y-you're up…" her wide eyes flickered from his face, to his wounds, to his sword and back. "I'm sorry, can you… er, give me a, a moment?" But the Prince continued to advance slowly, ignoring her words.
"I'm glad to see you. I was sure you fell into that pit." The statement was loaded. Aara tried to force a look of cockiness onto her face, but it was overwhelmed by nervousness.
"Well, if you lived here as long as I have, then you'd know about the security traps and how to get out of them." she paused and he was silent, "But, uh, I can see you've been finding your way without me…" Aara was losing confidence by the second. The intensity the Prince was exuding was oppressive, making her forget that she had no shirt; it made her forget she was wearing anything at all, like he could see through her.
"Tell me how you escaped." It was an order. "In fact, just tell me what exactly you are. There was nowhere you could have gone, back there, and I appreciate you saving me from that corruption, but I know what that is like, and I don't know how you did it." His strides became longer, smooth like a leopard. "I don't have time for liars, and you are either useful or dangerous, so its time to start talking."
"I don't-" he cut her off, slamming his gauntlet down on the altar as he passed it. "What are you." Aara cracked under the pressure of his gaze and she darted suddenly to his right, attempting to put distance between them. Like lightning the Prince drew his sword and stopped her short, slashing with force enough to shatter the tile on the floor. With impossible agility, the woman changed direction, flipping backwards with her momentum and left arm. The Prince darted forwards and with his gauntlet grasped for her arm, not really wanted to kill her.
The clawed fingers caught her above the elbow, and with a look of terror Aara somehow slipped from his grip. Tatters of fresh bandage slipped from her skin and the Prince stopped as Aara desperately stumbled backwards. The remaining bandage slowly unraveled from her upper arm and the rest pooled around her wrist. All the skin between the stark wrappings was blackened like coal. From finger tip to collar bone, Aara's entire left arm was stained black.
Aara desperately tried to cover her arm but she knew it was too late. The Prince stood, silent at first, his sword still ready. He took in the sight of the arm. There was no smell of death or dead flesh, no sign of crawling skin, but the look of it made his hair rise on his neck. He wasn't sure what to make of it, though in his heart he was certain of what it was.
"Time to talk." He demanded, though with a hint of more patience. There were tears in her eyes and fear on her face when Aara finally spoke.
"I-I'm not sure exactly what happened. When I was escaping, the first time… my sister and I were separated from… the rest of our family. We ran and she lead the way. We were trapped in an alley and there was magic all around us, like a wall that blocked our escape.
I don't know how it happened but a wall collapsed and my sister, she fell into a black puddle. I thought she was dead but when I reached out to her all the blackness moved into me, stained my arm, but nothing more. And when I reached out the magic dissolved. She and were about to run but the wall of the city tier broke and I lost her in the land slide." She looked into the Prince's eyes, begging him to believe her. "I don't know why it hasn't killed me. But that is what I did to you. I saw the demon curse you, and when I touched you I drew it out." She shook her head, "I can't get rid of it. I came here, I thought the sacred powers and the water of purification would heal me, but…" Aara look up again. "Please, I know it sounds like insanity but you must believe me!"
Sheathing his sword, the Prince washed the girl's story around in his mouth like he would with questionable wine. But then again… He had seen far stranger things.
"I believe you. For now." There was a moment of silence. Aara suddenly turned red and turned around, pulling her tunic over her head. When she turned back to the Prince, there was a certain amusement in his eyes again. He walked up to her, calmly, and grasped her blackened arm gently. He turned over her hand and he touched her skin carefully. It felt normal, warm and soft and smooth, like any other piece of flesh.
"I suppose," he began slowly, "this explains quite a lot."
"You are… far less surprised or mistrusting than I had thought you might be. Not that you have any reason to think I am not telling you the truth!" she added quickly. The Prince looked weary for a moment, his eyes going somewhere far away, before coming back to her arm and her face. He had an interesting thought.
"What do you know about the Ahura?"