Heat seared a familiar landscape. Cloying dust and stinging sand was carried by a wind that smelled of flint and gravel. Each step crunched loudly as the sun overhead mercilessly beat down on everything that moved, alive or not. It was fascinating to look at during the night but during the day, Aridia was as far removed from Elysium as salvation was from damnation.
Ryan wiped the sweat from his brow before he once again adjusted his glasses. They were a trophy from one of his first missions, seized from the hoard of a captain after Ryan's pet Fearmoos had made a snack out of the dead mercenary's intestines. The precious artifact adjusted automatically to the lighting, which left the sun's harsh glare unable to harm his eyes. The opaque lenses also meant he could watch anyone and never be detected.
After the demon's attack, it had been all Ryan could do to hold onto the token army he had left. Lune had killed so casually, so easily, like it was as natural as breathing to him. A quick twist of the wrist and Ryan's most loyal soldiers were dead, unable to escape, unable to even struggle.
Lune had called it magic and said it was distinct from the Techniques Ryan was familiar with. He believed the demon; the spell easily exceeded every dark tale ever told about Orakio. It was no wonder Lune had come alone. With his powers, the demon had nothing to fear from them; even a Dragon Knight stood no chance. There could be no doubt he was Laya's champion, returned from his exile on the moon.
Damn you, Orakio, why didn't you kill him!
The curse had become a frequent mental refrain ever since his encounter with Lune, but a new thought came to him, one Ryan fervently hoped was just heat stroke. What if... the reason Orakio banished him was that Lune is just too strong to kill?
Ryan could no longer doubt that Lune was mighty; the demon's display had been enough to shatter the morale of most of the rebel army. They'd fled, the craven lot, abandoning their equipment just to be able to run more quickly. No matter how much his fragment of force took with them, there would be enough gear left over in their former sanctuary for scavengers to pick over for decades to come.
It was a huge setback, but at least another opportunity had presented itself. The Landenian prince had offered Ryan a way to Laya's Treasure. While he joined the boy and his pet cyborgs, his army would relocate to the backup base in the far north and continue to disrupt Lune's operations. It was the same strategy as before, just on a smaller scale.
As for the heir to an entire world, Ryan thought he was pleasant enough, even if he was a dirty Orakian. Very dedicated to his ideal of a "true knight," something Ryan did not really understand. As far as he was concerned, knighthood was just a social tool, a way to confer prestige over the peasant conscripts and men-at-arms. Ideals were just pointless, distractions for the young that would never come to pass. Despite the loss of half his kingdom, the boy still clung to his ideal, still determined to stubbornly pursue it even though they faced a demon not bound similarly. Not that it mattered, since reality would knock it out of him.
"Sirjee Ryan, are we almost there?"
From anyone else, those words would have prompted an indifferent grunt. From the strange, powerful voice that spoke them, Ryan could only stop in his tracks, turn around, and bow low. "We will be there soon, Holy One."
Her murmured thanks, laden with undertones of command, were enough to send shivers down his spine. He could not see her face within the shadows of her hooded cloak. It was a small mercy. Those indigo eyes looked into eternity; their oblivion drank the souls of the unwary. Ryan hastily resumed walking.
Laya's Treasure is Laya.
The words had seemed like some kind of riddle, the sort of word play meant to confuse rather than enlighten, but they were really that straightforward. The treasure of his goddess was a younger sister who shared the same name. Laya had cherished this maiden so much that before she went to fight Orakio in a battle to their mutual deaths, she had hidden the girl within a secret world concealed below the lake of a hostile land.
At first, Ryan had doubted. It all seemed so impossible, so unlikely. The only bit of lore that connected the little sister to Laya was the bit about the goddess' treasure, and that had been tenuous to the point of straining credulity. Even as machines raised the heavy metal lid, Ryan had been dead set on skepticism, convinced it was all some sort of trick.
Of course, there wasn't much room left for doubt after the holy girl had emerged in a cloud of steam. It was not her beauty that awed him, though she was certainly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. It was not the similarity she bore to the depictions of the goddess that cowed him, even though she wore the sacred mark on her forehead that every representation of Laya had.
Absolute power had poured off her in waves that overwhelmed Ryan's extrasensory perception. The holy girl glowed with a blue aura of magic visible to the naked eye. From the way the Landenian looked at her, it was obvious even he could perceive that she stood on a level high above theirs. Lune was mighty, but this young demigoddess easily outstripped him in sheer puissance.
Faced with such a superior force, Ryan submitted to her command before she could even demand it. Even if he wanted to disobey, he did not dare. The holy girl was not only Laya's heiress, but her little sister; the obedience due to her was equal to that due the goddess, and she of all mortals stood closest to the goddess. Even the demon had to submit to her will.
Their destination was "Mystoke, in Frigidia," a place the holy girl said was eternally covered in something called "snow." The red cyborg had declared their current equipment inadequate for the journey and advocated returning to Landen to get winter gear. The boy had been on the verge of overriding her objections in the interest of speed when the demigoddess intervened on the cyborg's behalf. Favoring haste himself, Ryan had presented them with the solution. Even now, they journeyed to the cave that had once been the last refuge of the remnants of Cille and Shusoran.
It was the second time his association with the backstabbing bastards had borne fruit. The Twins' Ruby he had gotten from the little whore had been the key to finding the demigoddess, and now his knowledge of all the things the vermin had had to abandon three years ago would speed them on their way to Laya's secret and defeating that demon. Of course, the irony that the little whore's betrayal meant Lune's downfall was something he relished.
Suddenly, a quartet of hooded figures appeared, their cloaks a beige that would help them blend in with rock and sand. Ryan instinctively armed himself. He didn't know who these strangers were, but he did not underestimate the demon's abilities. For all he knew, Lune had figured out a way around the goddess' barriers.
"Are they the desert men my old man told me about, Mieu?"
Ryan's gaze darted from the strangers to the red cyborg, keenly interested in the sudden strain in her voice. He had not been with this lot long, but he thought that, like the black cyborg, nothing could upset the machine. That something could was useful information.
"I think you should talk to them, Mieu. We don't need a fight."
It shouldn't be possible for a cyborg to sigh, but she did. She moved in front of the party. Somehow, even though her outfit would make a whore blush, she still looked dangerous. "I am the Sister of the Griever," she called out, her arms extended in greeting.
The strangers stopped some ten paces ahead of them. Ryan took the chance to study them. Their faces were concealed behind rags; only their eyes were visible. Their cloaks were wrapped around them to conceal their bodies, but he caught hints of combat knives. Were there no worlds without filthy Orakians?
One of them, the probable leader, removed his rag and revealed a hard face lined by sun, wind, and sand. "We know of you, Griever's Sister. The ten who met you that night a generation ago made you known to us. You have wept for the Griever, and for that we honor you. I am Beno. What do you here, so far from the Griever's Basin?"
"We are on a journey. Conditions will be harsh. We were told that there was an encampment here a few years ago that left behind materials we could use. Thick coats, tunics, that sort of thing," she said.
"How came you to know of the many strangers, Griever's Sister?"
It was high time for him to step into this duet. "I helped lead that lot out of here and told Red over there about it."
An inscrutable look was turned in his direction. "Is that true, Griever's Sister?"
"It certainly turned out to be. I don't suppose you know if any of those things are still around, Beno?"
The savage's head turned toward the noise, a look of displeasure on his face, as a youth little past boyhood raced across the sand. The lad stopped in front of that man, Beno, and gasped for breath. Before he could be rebuked, the youth spoke. "Beno, it's Tion! He's asking for you. The healers say it won't be long now."
Resignation replaced indignation. "I see. Then I shall go." The savage turned his head toward them. "I am sorry, Griever's Sister, but for now, you must wai—"
"What is wrong with your friend?"
Hitherto silent, the demigoddess interrupted with a sharp question that expected an answer. A scowl crossed the savage's face. "It is no concern of yours."
Before Ryan could cross the gap between them and smash the disrespectful dog's face in, the holy girl spoke again. "I may be able to save his life."
That certainly caught the savage's attention. "Do you take me for a fool? What can you possibly do that our healers cannot?"
She hesitated. "I suppose you could call it a miracle."
"A miracle? Truly, you must think that I—"
"I'd take her word for it, Beno," said the red cyborg. "She's much more than meets the eye."
Conflict raged across the savage's face before he nodded curtly. "Very well. The Griever's Sister has spoken for you. I shall tolerate your presence until you are proven a liar and you are expelled to wander the sands without succor."
"If she succeeds, promise no harm will come to her," the boy said suddenly.
"Who are you to command me?" demanded the savage angrily.
"My father is Orakio's descendant, King Rhys Sa Riik of Landen. He accompanied... the Griever's Sister twenty or so years ago. Surely that counts for something with your people?" The boy's tone was as dry as this sun-scorched land.
"Too many strange things in one day, truly," muttered the savage. "Very well. No harm shall be done if she accomplishes what she claims. Come."
They followed the robe-clad lot in silence. As Ryan more or less expected, the savages went straight to the cave where the survivors of Cille and Shusoran had hidden after the annihilation of their kingdoms.
As they entered, the guides pulled down the hoods of their cloaks. Ryan did the same, as did the Landenian. No need to tramp around a cave with the bloody thing on.
Unexpectedly, the red cyborg chuckled. "Brings back memories, doesn't it, Wren? Rhys and I found you here."
"How you managed to wait a thousand years for that lunk Rhys to show up, I'll never know."
"My primary directive is to serve Lord Orakio. Faithful execution of his orders is the fulfillment of my existence."
Although they could not see very deep into the cave due to its many twists and turns, the stench of unwashed bodies packed tightly together assailed Ryan's nose and made him want to gag. Even when he breathed through his mouth, he could taste the filth and sweat that seemed to seep into his very clothing. It was the miasma of the cowering vanquished.
Despite the warning fetor, Ryan was ill-prepared for the scene at the end of the twisted passage. Dispirited women in torn rags attempted to console dirty children too frightened to stray far from that perceived comfort. Disheveled men huddled together in clumps as they tried to keep their spirits up and reassure each other that they had not failed, that their survival meant they had not been abandoned by their god... and fearful that the living were truly the forsaken.
"What... happened?" asked the Landenian.
"You have seen the packs of new monsters that roam the desert?"
The boy nodded. "We've been keeping an eye out for them."
"We were not so fortunate. They are much stronger than the beasts that roam our world. We only discovered their presence when they annihilated us in our tents one night. Those who survived fled here." A bitter sigh escaped the savage's lips. "We have kept our duty to the Griever, but we grow weaker by the day."
No one spoke as they made their way to the farthest wall. Supports driven into the wall held the ropes that the long, thick blankets hung from and separated the inner area from the disheartened desert folk. Within, men of different ages lay on crude pallets, vicious injuries on their bodies the obvious result of claw, fang, and Technique. Ryan averted his gaze from a screaming youngster missing half his face.
Toward the back, a woman sat on the ground by a bearded man. The man weakly sucked on the rag she put to his lips, but stopped when he saw them. The fragile smile that appeared on his face was the sort Ryan had seen many times before. It was the expression of a man who knew his time had come, but did not wish to trouble those around him.
"Not long now, Beno," the bearded man said as he shakily extended his hand.
"I fear so, Tion," was the soft response as their unwilling guide gently took the proffered hand and sat down.
Before anything else could be said, the holy girl slowly walked forward, her face still concealed by the hood. The Landenian hesitated a moment before he followed behind her. Laya stood above the dying man, who stared into the confines of her cloak with a look of awe. He asked weakly, "Are you... are you the angel of death?"
There was no answer as she gracefully knelt on the floor, her legs folded underneath her thighs. Her hand, steady and sure, pulled back the blanket down to the man's waist. Ryan sucked in an involuntary breath as he took in the full extent of the dying man's injuries. Three poorly stitched tears that you could see had ripped skin and flesh, right down into the guts themselves. Cut right into a few of them, too.
The wounds were without doubt fatal. Not even the best Layan healer, with powerful Techniques at her disposal, would be able to save him, especially when things like Res pulled the energy from the person's body. Shock would kill him if the healing didn't.
Long, thin fingers, protected by light, white gauntlets traced the wounds. "Are his intestines aligned? Were any of them severed completely?"
The woman shook her head. "None of them were cut through completely. Even so, the injuries were severe, too..."
"Then he won't die today," Laya said, her hands over the dying man's stomach. "Medice."
The man's stomach glowed green as the holy girl spoke an unfamiliar word. Energy poured over the man in waves. Ryan gaped in astonishment as the wounds to the guts closed up. The stitches popped out as the flesh closed seamlessly. Within seconds, it was done, the fatal injuries gone like a bad dream.
Shock filled the area. No one was more surprised than the man who had been on the verge of death before. He touched his stomach in confusion. "The...the pain is gone. The wounds are gone. How...?"
"As I told your friend, you may call it a miracle. Now rest."
Her tone distant and mysterious, the demigoddess said no more. However, the bearded man persisted. "Are you...are you a Layan?"
"I do not follow Laya," said the holy girl, an evasive answer that would make the most devious noble proud. How could she follow herself, after all? Her next words, however, shocked Ryan. "Even if I was a Layan, it is alright to save a life in front of you, Layan or Orakian."
"Then why won't you—"
The demigoddess looked up, right into the Landenian's frustrated face. Whatever he saw in her eyes was enough to silence him and force him to look away. Laya turned that gaze on the savage. Confronted with those overwhelming otherworldly eyes for the first time, he flinched. "I healed him, so by your word, I will not be harmed. I offer you a bargain. Those I can heal, I will heal. In exchange, you will give the Griever's Sister the supplies we ask for. Agreed?"
Hesitation played on the savage's face before he nodded brusquely. "It is so agreed, in the name of Orakio."
It seemed like they had gotten everything they wanted, but Ryan was still discomfited. The demigoddess' words had disturbed him.
Even if I was a Layan, it is alright to save a life in front of you, Layan or Orakian.
Ryan had always honored Laya's Law. He had been taught that it had been given to them by the goddess as proof of their superiority over the Orakians. The Orakians had a similar law, but Ryan had always thought the dogs had been imitating their betters. But... the demigoddess seemed to think it meant more than just superiority. Almost as if it meant... to treat an Orakian the same way a Layan would be treated.