"She's here," they murmured. "She's here!"
She sighed as she listened to the people of the crowd whisper to each other on this sunny spring day. People had been staring at her all of her life, which was why she had kept the hood of her borrowed cloak up until they reached Mystoke. They would be staring at her even more now, with her excess energy not yet under complete control and manifested around her as an aura of light. Ice pellets crunched underfoot as she walked the main street toward the fortress that had been her sister's stronghold. Mine now, I suppose.
The road was lined with statues that depicted her big sister in many different roles. Here was one where Laya the archwizardess used her great magic. Next was one where Laya the archer aimed for a target. Then there was one where Laya the ruler dispensed justice. She stopped and stared at the next statue. A painful lump rose in her throat.
The statue depicted a simple scene. Her big sister was there, her usually proud and severe features soft, her hair free from its restraining braid as she stroked the long tresses of a little girl who clutched her leg and smiled up at her. Laya as mother.
Laya as her mother.
Except now she was an orphan.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she felt her heart ripped out of her chest yet again. She closed her eyes and took a silent, shuddering breath to suppress the nameless things that flooded her mind. She needed to stay functional until she understood. The dam could break afterward.
Her effort did not work as pain swelled within her chest. With no other recourse, she once again took sanctuary in musubi.
Her mind emptied as she made the world one. It was the best way to explain the concept archers used to hit the target. Action and result were the same; she was the arrow and the arrow had already hit. Even if she was blinded, everything was within the perception of her mind. She had joined past and future together at the same point.
She sealed her emotions into an arrow and fired them into the sky. They would return, but for now, the arrow that was her self had another target to hit before she could be dragged down.
The truth was inside the Castle of Silence. She could feel it. The truth behind why her sister had sealed her inside a cryogenic chamber for a millennium. The truth behind the knight of the black sword.
The truth her sister had seen in her visions of the future.
She turned from the statue and determinedly walked forward. She rejected their emotional impact, especially as the face of the sculptures changed from her sister's to her own. Ahead of her, a handful of graybeards in thick robes waited patiently in front of the gates to the fortress.
"Hail," said one of them. "We recognize your face, but still we must ask. Are you the little sister of Laya?"
There could be only one Laya, but there was little point in correcting them right now. "I am."
Joy transformed his face. The whiskers of his beard quivered in happiness. "At last! We have waited centuries for Laya's kin to reach Mystoke, the Castle of Silence."
"What awaits me within?"
The graybeard blinked in surprise at her impatient question, his joy diminished as fear that he might be disappointing the heir to his goddess grew within him. "Your pardon, Holy One. You will be tested within the castle gates. If you pass the tests, Laya's Pendant is yours. All the doors to her palace will open to you."
"Laya's Pendant?" she asked sharply. Her sister had left her the tikal, the mark of the Laya, and the bow, the inheritance of the Laya. A pendant had never been part of the legacy.
"Laya's Pendant is the treasure of the Castle of Silence. Use Laya's Pendant to hear Laya's final words. That is the message passed down the generations."
Her sister's final words? The shock rocked her to her core. It took all of her concentration to continue to wear her sister's persona. "Thank you, loyal ones, who have kept watch over my sister's legacy," she said, her voice audible to everyone. "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 crowd fell silent as they knelt in the snow, their heads bowed to receive her blessing. Without another word, she advanced on the castle gate, her eyes filled with the Laya's red glyph on a field of white. It looked like it had been closed a thousand years ago and never opened again; even so, the technology of old Palm was good for centuries of continuous operation.
She leaned in close to the panel beside the gate and looked through the eyepiece. It might as well be the day after she had been sealed so far as the machinery was concerned. The gate slowly went up in obedience to her status as the mistress of the castle.
"Do you want us to go with you?" Mieu asked.
Her sister would have devised tests only she could survive. Their nature would be magical, something neither machines nor mundanes could hope to defeat. By that same token, she knew how powerful her sister had been. She was afraid of what those tests could be, but the Laya could not admit to fear. "Do as you will," she answered.
"Then we'll go with you," Nial said.
She ignored him. She was still angry with him over his constant nagging. She understood that he worried for the well-being of his people. She respected and even liked him the better for it. Even so, her sister would not have forced her to sleep for a thousand years over something as cosmically minor as putting a leash on Lune. She needed to know what Laya needed from her before she could do anything else.
It was her duty to her sister.
"Remember the name of this castle," she told Mieu. "Keep your silence."
Resolute, she entered the castle grounds. One of the towers loomed straight ahead, but she needed only a glance to know it was tightly shut. She turned from the path and headed toward the southeast corner of the castle. In a sheltered, isolated alcove of the gardens, there was a hidden way out of —or in this case, into— the underground passages that connected the seven towers.
The layout of the castle was based on magic symbols. The towers were laid out as a hexagram, with one at each corner and the last in the middle as the focal point, a representation of the union of the two opposite forces at work within the universe. Appropriately, the central tower housed everything of importance to her sister. The pendant they were searching for was probably there. To get to the central tower, one had to traverse the underground area designed in a complicated spiral, a crude representation of the nature of infinity.
As they made their way through the midget evergreens liberally dusted with snow, she worried about the tests. Her sister had been a prodigy, the sort born once every thousand years. Although her sister had taught her everything, she knew she did not have the same breadth and width of talent. It was possible her sister had created tests that were too much for her to handle.
Her eyes found what they searched for, the slight wavering of light that to trained eyes betrayed the site of an illusion. The excess energy of her aura was enough to dispel the ancient ward and reveal the steps into the lower levels. She half-closed her eyes as she tried to sense any hidden traps, but she did not find any.
Laya expected me. The secret passage is unlocked.
Her heart began to beat faster with every step she descended into the darkness. The tunnels were pitch black, with neither normal nor emergency lighting in operation, but the glow of her aura pushed back the shadows enough to see. The air within was sharp and clean, free of the staleness of air that had been bottled up and left to decompose.
Silence reigned as she led the way through the subterranean labyrinth, her temporary escorts a safe distance behind her. She could not spare them any thought, however; she was too focused on searching for the flicker of energy that would warn her of—
An orange-tinged barrier spread out in the air ahead of her as bolts of flame shot forth from the darkness. Fire exploded against the magical shield as she sensed the familiar touch of her sister's power. Had she been careless, it would have been the end of her.
Exclamations of surprise sounded behind her. Before she could scold them for it, a powerful voice she had known since her cradle boomed within the passage. The reverberation shook her very bones as the familiar voice asked, "Who was the first of us?"
So that's it.
Magic and holy lore, those were the nature of Laya's tests. The wards her sister had created would overwhelm machines or mundanes, no matter what Techniques or technologies they used. Now that the test was active, she could sense the magic furnace that would keep the ward active for however long it took to remove intruders. In order to disarm the wards, she would have to use hidden, sacred knowledge: the names of her predecessors as Laya. "Lalita!"
The fire storm ceased. She breathed a sigh of relief before she rounded on her escorts. Without a word, she went up to Nial as his lips parted to speak and slapped her hand over his mouth. She raised the pointer finger of her free hand and put it to her own mouth in the universal gesture for silence. She trusted he had gotten the point when he averted his eyes from hers. She glared at Ryan and Mieu for good measure before she turned her back on them and walked forward.
Aware that her anger would make it harder to detect her sister's tests, she once again made the world one. The arrow of her anger was sent ahead into the murk. She sent her gratitude for being taught musubi on a different arrow bound to wherever her sister's soul rested.
Their silent progress was swift, but so was the appearance of the next test. Two powerful waves of holy energy surged toward her even as she raised her hand to break the attack. She clutched her fists as she bent the energy into her body and absorbed it. Her body felt a little irritated, but otherwise, she was unharmed.
Ahead of her, two women shone in the darkness, their beautiful faces framed by long purple hair. They wore no clothing, exposing their voluptuous figures for all to see. Their physical perfection ended at their knees, as they lacked shins and feet.
Acacia? Why did she summon holy spirits to defend this place...?
She continued to absorb the unceasing holy attacks. That familiar voice boomed out her next question. "Who died giving birth to the first?"
The true name of the first avatar of the Great Goddess, the one who had linked her female line to the origin of creation, had been forgotten by all but Lutz, but she knew the name recorded in lore. "Ladali!"
Both Acacia ceased their attacks. They faded from sight, but her Esper senses told her the magic furnace had not ceased and the spirits had not dissipated. They would remain within the walls of the Castle of Silence as its guards until either they or the castle were destroyed.
However, there was the problem of all the energy she had gained from breaking the spirits' attacks. She could not keep it within herself for long. She focused her mind and channeled it through her feet and into the ground. The floor glowed for a while before the energy dissipated.
They were halfway through the spiral when she sensed the activation of the third magic furnace. Balls of red fire began to form in midair. Faces formed within the flame, their expressions twisted into distorted sneers as their hideous teeth gnashed silently.
Elemental creation too? At least they're just common Fire elementals. It would be trouble if they were blue.
Before the Fires could spit out their Foi Techniques or rush across to explode on contact, her right hand slashed the air in front of her. "Hewn!"
Invisible spirals formed in front of each Fire. Powerful spirals of wind tore the elementals apart, with nothing more to mark their presence then the uncomfortable sensation of heat. She repeated the spell, destroying each ball of flame before it could coalesce into its own entity, biding her time until the next question was asked.
It was not long in coming. "Who came before you?"
The name she had never been allowed to use, even in private; she could only use it now because her sister was dead. She said it gently, with all the reverence it deserved. "Kalika."
The magic furnace powered down. The elementals ceased to appear. Melancholy filled her as agony began to form in her chest. With difficulty, she made the world one again. Just a little longer. She only had to last a little longer. Then she would take off her sister's persona and feel. She just had to endure a little longer.
Only a fifth of the spiral was left when she saw the nature of the fourth test. Three empty suits of plate armor stood in the middle of the hall. Each was armed with two heavy double-edged battle axes. The moment she stepped into the ward, the magic furnace would activate and animate them as golems. Laya had probably enchanted the armor to be magic resistant just to make it hard.
Even so, it wasn't like she had a choice. As she expected, her arrival woke the golems from their long slumber. Their metal plates groaned as the lifeless puppets stirred. False life gave them the power to move. The trio of armors simultaneously took their first shaky step forward, the order to destroy any intruders the only will they had ever or would ever possess.
"Who came before me?"
It was a surprise question, since she had never expected to be asked the name of the mother she had never known. "Amika."
Energy ceased to flow into the armors, but they did not halt. They had absorbed enough power to operate on their own for a time, which meant she was supposed to stop them. As she had never had any talent for animating or deadening golems, something Laya well knew, that meant she was supposed to destroy them. She splayed her fingers and extended her hands toward the slow, menacing enemies. "Legeon!"
Beyond the level the eye could see, electricity filled the air and superheated the atoms that were the foundation of the universe. Even as her spell broke the bond of matter, powerful bursts of energy exploded with enough force to annihilate an army of thousands within seconds.
The use of the most powerful Esper magic without proper control would easily bring the entire castle down on her head, but she successfully managed to limit the area of effect. The walls of the passageway were unharmed. However, not even scrap was left to testify to the existence of the golems.
With so little ground to cover before the secret entrance to the central tower, she had thought the golem test had been the last. She was surprised when she saw a glow ahead of her, one she soon recognized as her own. My reflection? No, it's a mirror wall...
She silently berated herself for her carelessness. She should have sensed that low extrasensory hum that signaled the activation of a magic furnace. Had the test been the fatal sort, she'd have died with the truth just within her grasp. Still, so far as tests went, this one was fairly simple. Her reflection mimicked her as she walked up to the barrier and put her hand on its smooth surface. She channeled her magic into the mirror wall. Her mind's eye perceived a crystalline lattice, an unbounded field with seemingly infinite connections and patterns, each one built on top of the other to create the powerful barrier. She searched for the slight flaw in the structure, the gap between its formation and construct's "base." With the magic furnace on, the barricade would merely reform each time the gap was "turned."
The voice rumbled in her mind. Who are you?
It was the question she had silently prayed she would not be asked. It was the one that would force her to give up her name, the one she had thought she would hold her entire life. There was only one answer her sister would find acceptable. I am... Laya.
The flow of energy ceased. She twisted her hand in a motion similar to turning a key. The sound of glass shattering echoed as the barrier collapsed. The simple staircase up into the throne room was revealed, its trap door open. She gritted her teeth to stay within the familiar safety of musubi, but she could feel it fraying at the edges. She had to hurry.
She took the steps two at a time. The room itself was simple. No fancy art work, no statues, just the raised dais, the plain throne, and the red carpet. A room designed to be dominated by her sister.
Something on top of the throne caught her eye. She ignored her escorts as they emerged from the staircase and went straight toward it. It was a small plain box, covered in the dust of ages. She opened it easily. Within was the pendant that was supposed to hold her sister's final words, a simple locket that bore the red glyph of the Laya on a field of white.
The moment she picked it up, the glyph glowed before a familiar voice rang out for all to hear. "Sister, it is time for you to know the truth. Though Orakio and I have fought for many years, we finally realize that we have been deceived. An evil force from times beyond legend is using us to satisfy its desire for pain and suffering. We are joining forces to fight this ancient evil. In case we never return, I leave you the pendant; you will hear this when you are ready. Goodbye!"
Her limit had been reached; the world wavered. She dashed out of the throne room and fled upwards through the tower.