"Where...are we?" Ryan asked in utter disbelief.
"Location unknown," Wren said in his monotone.
It was the very first time in his life that Nial had ever heard those words come from the always-informed Wren's mouth. A look at Mieu confirmed that the redheaded android shared their confusion. Nial shook his head, ostensibly to flick water off his wet head, but really to clear his thoughts.
The unbelievable, the inexplicable, and the inconceivable: all three had combined to devastate Ryan's army far worse than any battle. Word that Lune himself had attacked and killed had spread like wildfire. Within minutes, the tale had taken on a life of its own. Perhaps, had Lune done the deed with something they recognized, the soldiers would not have been so shaken, but the horrific details of how those men had died were something beyond their understanding. Who could hope to stand against "true magic" that could kill without a mark, that could not be defended against or escaped?
Still, the grizzled Layan was made of stern stuff. He had managed to rally enough of his men to retain a respectable force. They were incapable of challenging Lune's field armies, but enough to be of severe nuisance value to the demon for quite some time. That settled, Ryan initiated an evacuation plan, determined to preserve his remnant of an army and certain that Lune's hordes would only wait until their master's return before they attacked.
Lune's magic had battered Nial's body severely. It was Orakio's blessing that the Layan demon had been unable to summon up the necessary killing intent for his spell. Once Mieu had healed his wounds, he had gone to speak with Ryan again.
The rebel leader had been more agreeable after Lune's attack, especially since it was highly likely that only Nial's hotheaded response had saved his life. Nial had quickly agreed that denying Lune Laya's Treasure was the best strategy. As they shared a common enemy, they had agreed to fight together.
They had departed quickly, a small group of four. The grizzled warrior had reluctantly agreed that it was impossible to move so many people unseen when so many soldiers were on edge, so he left his army in the hands of a capable deputy. Nial had originally thought they would be forced to beg his father to lift the blockade of the Aquatica passage, but Ryan had given a grim half-smile and flashed a massive ruby at him with the words, "No worries, boy. There is more than one way into the desert world."
Aridia was their destination, of course. It was the only desert in existence, so it matched the story in Elysium. The other part, "the secret world within the waves of the desert," had been guessed to be the lake within that desolate world. Laya's Treasure was likely at the bottom, a place out of their reach... under normal circumstances. Equipment Ryan had captured from Lune had been identified by Wren as "docked chassis control interface components," which Mieu had assured them could be used to reach the depths.
Once they had arrived in the desert world via the new passage Ryan revealed (Nial made a note to get the Twins' Ruby away from Ryan and inform his father of the passage once everything was over), they had made their way south through roaming packs of monsters. The dumb beasts where unaffected by the magical barriers that kept the worlds isolated, so Lune had unleashed them to wander and butcher at will.
When they found the ancient facility along the lake, Wren had quickly demonstrated what his new equipment could do. A sleek black machine, with every potential angle curved, had been wrapped around the black android's body. The device was a "Sharkin-class aquatic superiority chassis," a weapon from the Devastation War designed for battle on the sea and below the waves. It was perfectly suited to reaching the bottom of the lake.
Only...the bottom had been like nothing they expected. They had descended into the lake, their clothing stowed within the chassis and their bodies in an incredibly uncomfortable garment Mieu had made at the facility. Light grew dimmer, but never faded. Fish swam by as they had gone ever deeper. It had been strange yet enchanting, something no Orakian had seen in centuries.
Then they had emerged from the waves.
Grass gently swayed as a vagrant breeze brought the scent of wild flowers over the softly rounded hills. Trees grew in haphazard patches or stood singularly alone in the midst of long plains. Far above, evanescent clouds lazily drifted across a bright blue sky.
It was easily the most surreal experience Nial had ever had.
"This is a world within the world of Aridia," he said, finally.
"Fits the story a bit too closely," Ryan grunted. "Whatever Laya's Treasure is, it must be something pretty damned important for the goddess to go so far to hide it."
"I agree," Nial said before he sneezed. As idyllic as the weather was, he was soaked and that breeze made him feel cold.
"Guess someone's talking about you behind your back," Ryan said. "Probably that cursed shousa whelp."
"Probably lovingly fantasizing about where in my guts she'll stick her sword," Nial grunted.
"Or where you could stick your sword," Ryan replied, an eyebrow arched in Nial's direction.
Another grunt met the crude humor as Nial retrieved their clothes from their secure dry storage in the chassis. He irritably tossed Ryan's bundle at him. The older man caught it with ease. As they quietly stripped off the painfully constricting one-pieces, Nial pursed his lips and thought about the absurd scene that had played out after Ryan had agreed to join forces.
"Who said you could go?" Miyu had demanded, her hands on her lips as she glared up at him.
"I beat you! Even if I agreed with something as insane as being your belonging, I won!"
The shousa had crossed her arms. "W-well, that's an anomaly I'm sure will be rectified in the future!"
His face must have betrayed his skepticism at her remark, as the lavender-haired girl plowed on. Her choice of words could not have been more regrettable. "Whatever the case, I'm taking you as my consort and mate!"
"What in Orakio's name are you talking about? You barely know me!"
"I know you're strong! You beat me and drove Lune away! You even survived the demon emperor's magic! That makes you a perfect sire for my future daughters."
Everything she said only made him more confused. Before he could even begin to protest, Ryan had saved him. "Shousa, I will keep an eye on him. For now, I think you should gather your warriors and bring them to Elysium. Under your command, of course. A man cannot command Kensai, after all."
Miyu had frowned at Ryan. "That is the first time you have adopted a proper attitude. Very well. Just remember I have my claim on this man."
Nial banished the irritating memory the moment he slung his great sword over his shoulder. Each world was very different from Landen, with cultures and attitudes that no one in his kingdom had ever imagined. It was strange that a culture had developed that treated men as possessions, but it was within the realm of the possible. Awkward, confusing, and incomprehensible, but possible.
Another breeze gently caressed Nial's cheek. The scent of growing things, free of the taint of machine oil and bloodshed, filled the air. His eyes roamed the landscape as the group quietly walked away from the lake. It would be wonderful to just lie down and watch the clouds go by for an hour or perhaps a day, but there was no time to waste. They had to find Laya's Treasure quickly.
That endeavor would be immeasurably helped if they knew what the treasure was supposed to be.
When another grunt escaped his lips, Nial wryly wondered if the idyllic scenery had left him bereft of his vocabulary. Like all of his recent mental essays into humor, the amusement was temporary.
As they had hustled through Landen, they had learned that his old man had scored an impressive victory over the army that had sacked Satera. Even so, Nial suspected that it wouldn't be enough to give Lune pause. The demon's will was as intractable as the walls of Orakio's Keep. Lune would never accept a defeat. He would return, again and again, until he had won, even if it took an entire generation. That meant that Lune had to be neutralized, one way or another.
Could he do it? The question had plagued him ever since he had grappled with the demon and realized that the end of the war would only come when its instigator was dealt with.
Would he be able to bring about Lune's demise? Orakio's Law forbade him from killing with his own hands, but what if the opportunity came during battle? Lune had no such compunctions; an error on Nial's part meant death. But would he sacrifice his ideal to save his kingdom?
The journey from Elysium had been spent in this internal struggle. What mattered more, his ideal of knighthood or the lives of his people and peace? If he killed, he would betray everything he stood for. If he did not, he would betray those he was supposed to protect. Was this what was required of him?
"It seems the local welcoming committee has come to say hello," Mieu said lightly, her tone belied by her casual combat stance. "I wonder if they're friendly?"
A fair question to ask, since everything Nial had heard from his father and experienced himself indicated the many isolated worlds had different reactions to complete strangers. The delegation itself seemed like a pleasant enough lot, a group of men in comfortable-looking white cassocks.
"Hail, blood of Orakio," called out the man in the lead, a pleasant-looking man with a thick beard.
Nial goggled at his words. "Blood of Orakio? Not that I'm not, but how do you know that?"
The bearded man tilted his head. "Laya said so."
The urge to sit down and wait for the world to stop spinning was overwhelming. If Lune was alive, did that mean that Laya's Treasure was... Laya?
Ryan stepped into the gap. "What do you mean?"
"Laya foretold that the very first time strangers came to our world, they would come from the lake, and would be led by the blood of Orakio," the bearded man explained calmly.
Nial licked his lips. "When... was this foretold?"
"Laya foretold this to our ancestors a thousand years ago. We have kept her true words in our hearts and waited the time since for when we must set down our duty. Come, blood of Orakio. Laya told us that it is to you we must turn over our burden."
Before Nial could even open his mouth to ask his questions, the group had turned on their heels and begun to walk away. He traded a perplexed look with Ryan before they hurried to catch up. They quickly flanked the bearded man, who looked neither to his left nor to his right. Nial asked the most obvious question first. "Who are you?"
"I am Renar, vicar of Laya's Temple. I am charged with preserving the divine mystery. Rather, I was charged with doing so until you came."
"Divine mystery?" Ryan asked.
"The divine mystery of the sleeping avatar. We care for the dreamer who is the connection to the greater cosmos, she who unifies our world with the one beyond our perception, to the core of the universe and the origin of creation."
An answer like that was enough to convince Nial that practical questions were the best ones to ask. "Do you know what Laya's Treasure is?"
"Laya's Treasure is Laya. We have protected Laya for over one thousand years. Cryonic sleep has kept her alive since the war."
That's a divine mystery alright. One great enough to make the world start spinning again.
"The goddess is alive? But she died fighting Orakio a thousand years ago!" Ryan yelped.
"Come. Your questions are best answered at the temple."
The pace of the white-garbed lot did not deviate in the slightest. Nial and Ryan silently fell back and joined Wren and Mieu in the rear. Nial counted to ten before he whispered his question to Mieu. "Are they insane?"
"I...don't think so," Mieu whispered back. "They seem to believe what they're saying."
"Then how can they protecting Laya if the goddess and Orakio killed each other? Especially if this Laya is alive?" Ryan asked belligerently.
"Answer unknown," Wren said. "Insufficient data for hypothesis formation."
With nothing more to be gained from conversation, they followed their guides in silence. It was simply impossible. Everyone knew that Orakio and Laya had killed each other in their final battle... though their bodies were never found.
Doubt began to fill Nial. Was it possible? Had Laya survived? But even if Laya had survived, why would she hide here? Why not annihilate the Orakians, bereft without their master and cut off from each other?
Questions chased each other around in his mind. Nial simply could not figure out the logic behind it. The more he tried, the more circular his logic became until he finally had to abandon his attempts to unravel the mystery. His final conclusion was that the minds of deities were inscrutable to mere mortals.
Even so, the idea of a goddess abandoning her followers left a sour taste in Nial's mouth. The very least she could have done was explain why Layans were forbidden to kill. As a matter of fact, she should have bound her demon to obey that prohibition, not just her lower-level minions. If Laya had not gone to sleep, Satera would never have been destroyed, his grandfather and hundreds of other innocents would still be alive, and the suffering that blighted two worlds would never have happened. What sort of deity hied off and abandoned its duty to its followers?
By the time they reached the large building with its array of fluted columns, its regal arches and imposing dome, Nial had come up with a series of particularly stinging remarks to unload on Laya the moment she opened her eyes. If the goddess had whiled away the centuries by sleeping, then she was about to receive the sort of unpleasant awakening she deserved!
The temple was similar to the buildings known as Laya's palaces. However, the pure white marble used in its construction differentiated it from the dull gray palaces. Dozens of people in the same garb as their guides were crowded within. All of them, male, female, young and old, looked from his party to the center of the temple with anticipation.
At the top of an elevated dais there was a heavy-looking black metal coffin. Nearby, a complex-looking device hummed softly as various lights blinked on its surface. Renar looked at them from his position by the machine, his head tilted slightly.
"Alright, we're here," Ryan said with a sour twist to his mouth. "Now answer my question. Is the goddess asleep in that box?"
"The goddess has transcended beyond the limits of this world and become an aspect of the divine. Our existence is proof of that."
"Then who in Laya's name is that?" Ryan snapped.
"I have told you, Laya's Treasure is Laya."
The hand that went up to massage his temples did so of its own accord. Had they truly gone through all this effort to see the dead body of a goddess? Had Lune slaughtered his grandfather and his Sateran subjects just to take back a cadaver? Certainly, there was value in denying the demon such a potent symbol, but... "Are you telling me you've been protecting Laya's corpse for a thousand years?"
"Her corpse? You are strange," Renar said as he looked away from them and gazed at the black box. "This princess is Laya's younger sister. Strangely enough, she is also named Laya!"
"That's impossible," Ryan growled. "There is nothing in a thousand years of lore about Laya's sister! Absolutely nothing!"
"You came seeking Laya's Treasure. Obviously, that is not true."
"He could be right," Mieu said reluctantly. "There was a sister, a child I never met. There was technology available to allow someone to sleep unchanged for centuries. It's possible that Laya did that. I don't know why she would."
"Laya entrusted the future to her sister," Renar said, his voice filled with fervor. "Laya is the heiress of the goddess. She has taken her place in this mortal world, as the avatar that reaches from here to the origin of creation. All who swear allegiance to Laya swear allegiance to her." The vicar returned his gaze to Nial; an incredible intensity burned within his gaze. "Blood of Orakio, please be the first to welcome her, as it was said that you would be the first to greet our most holy Laya when she awakens."
If this sister was Laya's heiress, it meant all of the original's responsibilities, duties, and blames belonged to her. Nial grimly ascended the steps. Oh, I'll greet her alright. I'll give her a tongue-lashing that will make her regret sleeping while Satera burned.
For a quarter of an hour, nothing happened. At least, nothing Nial could see. His impatient glances at Renar were ignored as the vicar intently pored over his console. Finally, white vapor slowly flowed out from the coffin as the air became colder than a winter night. His breathing shortened as the coffin's chilly air began to pour out faster. He lost track of time as primal fear began to crawl along his nerves. His instincts told him something momentous and immensely powerful had been awaken, but Nial stood his ground. He would not retreat.
The coffin's lid lifted as powerful machines automatically raised the heavy mass. Nial looked within as the final layer of mist dissipated...and forgot to breathe.
"Beautiful" was a helplessly inadequate word when it came to describing the holy girl who had slept for a thousand years. Her face was finely and delicately featured, almost as if some divine artist had spent a millennium making sure every curve of her face was flawless before he had allowed her to be born. Her cheekbones were high, her nose dainty, her lips a perfect blossom. Her skin was a pale, pure alabaster without flaw. Her hair was a fine light gold that made the precious metal itself seem like cheap scrap. Her figure, its outline visible under her strange red dress, was tall and possessed a graceful slimness even as a mysterious aura of power surrounded her body. A blood-red ruby rested in the middle of her forehead.
The holy girl stirred; she was almost like a child being gently but persistently tugged back to consciousness. There was something endearing in the innocence implied that reminded Nial to breathe. Then she opened her eyes.
It was only much later that Nial had the presence of mind to try and describe those eyes. They were the path to an otherworld, a nightscape that made the domain of the moons look like a poor imitation. To stare into those eyes was to risk falling into a beautiful, mysterious, inescapable abyss. Were he pressed to pick a color for that blue so dark, "indigo" was the best he could do.
She smiled up at him, the sleepy smile of a contented innocent. Her hand extended to him, a silent, trusting gesture that asked for his help. Helpless, Nial stooped down and took her hand. He gently helped her sit up. Before he could think of anything to say, the entire temple shook with the voices of the gathered throng.
"Holy Laya, we welcome your awakening and return."
Within a heartbeat, the sweet disposition collapsed as horror flooded her face. The holy girl looked down, her long hair a barrier against onlookers. When she looked back up, her face and her eyes were carefully empty. The sweetness had been masked by a persona of power, but it seemed like a set of ill-fitting and uncomfortable clothing. Like... a hasty copy of something she had seen someone else wear.
"I am—" she faltered, her soft voice with its exotic accent a dulcet melody to his ears. "I am now Laya."
Before Nial could ask himself about that mysterious "now," Laya had used him for leverage to stand. She murmured her gratitude to him before she stood at the top of the stairs and gazed down at the people who cheered her. He could now see that her long blonde hair reached all the way to her hips.
She waited for her worshippers to finish their exultation, her face almost perfectly set into an expression of benign patience. It was the "almost" that caught at Nial. Perhaps he was the only one who could see it, but it felt like the holy girl was trying her best to imitate something she had never thought to need.
When the cheering died down, Laya spoke. "Thank you, loyal ones, who have kept watch over me," she said, her high voice carrying throughout the temple. "You have my eternal gratitude, as well as that of my sister. May the Goddess take you into her bosom and may She shelter and protect you as you have sheltered and protected me."
The people all knelt, their heads touching the floor. Nial heard the quiet question she directed at him. "How long has it been?"
Once again, Nial felt some slight incongruity, the sensation that Laya aped the appearance of dominion but did not truly seek it. It was probably easier to realize that when those incredible eyes of hers were not on you. "I don't know exactly how long you've been asleep," he said slowly as he tried to deliver the blow as gently as he could. "For us, it's been about a thousand years since the final battle between Orakio and Laya."
Her slender shoulders shook violently before she stiffened her back and forced herself to stillness. "Who are you?"
"I'm Prince Nial Sa Riik of Landen and Satera."
Surprise made her body rigid. Her tone was almost imperious when she spoke again. "What do you want?"
Mask or not, she was direct. "Lune has returned and begun the Devastation War anew. I want to stop him and end the fighting. You're the key to that."
Her murmur was so soft Nial couldn't hear it. Her next words were clear. "Do you know why I was put to sleep?"
Nial hesitated. "No, we don't. It came as a complete surprise to us."
"I was very young when Laya fought Orakio," the holy girl said, her regret impossible to miss. "She left with a knight who wore a black sword. I must know the truth of why I was put to sleep. Without knowing that, I can't do anything but disappoint you. I'm sorry."
Disbelief and dismay filled Nial's chest as he tried to grasp her refusal to help. "You...I said Lune started the war again! He's killing people! Innocent people!"
Her rejection was filled with sorrow, but firm. "I'm sorry."
The temple acoustics meant that every word they had shared could be heard throughout the temple. However, the conversation seemed to have not interested the worshippers as Renar spoke from the bottom of the dais. "Holy Laya, it has been our honor to serve you while you slumbered. Please allow me to discharge the last of my burden, a final gift from your great sister, the goddess herself!"
Laya regally nodded her head. Renar spoke. "These are the words of your sister. 'Mystoke, in Frigidia, holds a key to truth. To find Frigidia, return to the desert and go southwest with Laya. The portal to Mystoke awaits you there.' That is the entirety of it, preserved for thirty generations."
The breath was knocked out of him when those indigo eyes captured his own. Fear, sorrow, determination, all three intertwined within that otherworld as that imitation persona bore in on him, half-command, half-plea. "Please take me along!"