As usual, the Prince and Sarina rose early before the sun, travelling all day with few stops before their nights rest.
Sarina hadn't forgotten about his story, either. "Are you going to continue your story?" she asked after they'd finished their meals.
"Didn't forget, huh? Where did we leave off last?"
"You defeated the Concubine with Elika." she reminded him.
"Well since you know the others, what do you know of the Warrior?" the thief asked.
She reflected on her studies for a moment, "The Warrior was a King whose people were being attacked from every direction. Being ones of peace, the kingdom refused to fight in return and the civilization then began to crumble. Wanting his people to be spared the suffering, he and a small group made themselves instruments of war, but it was not enough to ward off the pressure of the enemies. Becoming increasingly overwhelmed and his kingdom on the brink of total destruction, Ahriman spoke to him, promising his people salvation from the suffering in return for the King's soul. Having accepted and being able to defeat the enemy, he was not able to return home as he had become everything his people rejected."
"Yes, yes," the Prince waved off, "I know the part about him doing it out of honour. Elika wouldn't let that go. Kept giving him a chance to redeem his honour." he said, irritation in his voice, Sarina giggling at his dismissal for that particular Corrupted.
He groaned, "Ah, after that battle, I wasn't sure who got their ass kicked more." he admitted.
"Met your match, did you?" she asked, an eyebrow perking up, entertained and curious.
"Just a little bit," he admitted, "Just...he was very tough to fight, alright." he frowned.
She laughed at this, "I didn't mean anything by it, I'm sorry."
"It's alright, Princess. I'd like to see you try." he challenged her.
"I'd rather not. Besides, that would mean having to release Ahriman once again and you'd have to repeat the entire process of trapping him once more." she brought to his attention.
"That's...very true. Alright, maybe not."
"So, how does this story end?" she enquired, "Did you keep Ahriman trapped?"
"Well...once we got back to the Temple, we were greeted by her father, who was now thoroughly a minion of Ahriman."
"That's unfortunate," she sympathized. She could never imagine her father being taken over by such an evil entity like Ahriman.
"He begged her to let him live, begging to leave Ahriman free. I wasn't going to stand for that, but this was between her and her father, now. She denied him his wish, not seeing the man she once new any longer. Ahriman was about to be set free despite our efforts and we hurried to make the final move in keeping him locked away with the remaining fertile grounds within the temple. While using the plates to get us where we needed to go, Ahriman appeared out of nowhere. He swallowed us."
Her eyebrows knitted, "Ahriman...swallowed you?" she repeated.
"He is very, very big." the Prince elaborated.
"The next thing I knew, I hit the floor. We were by the Tree of Life, and it carried this glow, just as it did before the King attempted to set Ahriman free. I saw Elika on the other side of it, letting her know that we, amazingly, did it."
"That's a wonderful story," Sarina smiled.
"No, no, it's not..." the Prince grimaced, "The last piece of the seal to keep Ahriman trapped was Elika giving her life back to Ahriman. She was gone."
"Oh, no..." the Princess whispered. She could see it in his eyes that there was something there, somewhere in his heart, that Elika remained, "I'm so sorry..."
"I picked her up, brought her out of the temple and laid her on the altar there..."
Sarina said nothing, not wanting to rob him the end of his story.
"There were four trees further out, each acting as a guard for the four parts of the kingdom. I destroyed all of them. I went back into the Temple...and made the same deal with Ahriman that her father did. I brought her back. Everything that we'd worked so hard to stop, I undid in that single moment. But...I didn't release Ahriman; and as I walked away with her in my arms, the world around us became colder and more void of life. He escaped, he was going to, regardless of Elika giving her life back or not. It was freezing, she was getting heavier in my arms, but she was so weak I wasn't going to let her try to walk. I found a door and went in with her, putting her down to close it. The door shook and I was so weak and hungry, I just wanted at least five minutes of rest. Elika had woken up and managed to stand up on her own and I approached her to make sure that she was okay, but all she gave me was a very hard slap across the face."
Sarina knitted her eyebrows, "Just like that?"
"Well, it seemed like I undid everything we fought so hard to prevent, so I kind of deserved it," he argued.
"You brought her back because you couldn't see her lifeless and after everything you helped her do, you didn't deserve to be hit." Sarina argued.
"I'm glad you're on my side, I suppose," the thief spoke, "I argued that I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't just leave her lying there dead."
"Well, of course not." Sarina agreed.
"She ran, not stopping to look back and I ran after her. I ran into her and her father—or what was her father once. He spoke of me setting Ahriman free, and I told her I didn't. The Minion pushed Elika hard enough that she fell unconscious upon hitting the wall and I battled him for a while until she recovered. Despite being angry, she helped me when she could, but it was difficult for her to fight him and I was mainly left fighting him on my own. We won the battle, for the most part, but the force of his blade—or something he'd done—was powerful enough to push us back into some crevice. I immediately rushed to her side, to make sure she was alright, but she still wasn't speaking with me. We kept moving. Where to, I didn't know. I only did as asked. I tried reasoning with her, but she wouldn't hear it; wouldn't reply to me. We battled a few corrupted soldiers and on our way to wherever we were going, she mentioned the mark of Ormazd, informing me that her people had been there."
"Where were her people before?" the Princess asked.
"She said they dissipated after her mother passed away three years prior to this."
"That's sad to hear: losing her mother, her people and now her father," the princess spoke with a frown upon her lips, "Please, continue." she urged the Prince.
"We finally reached a platform and moved across, only to be stopped by the Warrior."
"I thought you'd killed him." Sarina mentioned, remembering earlier on in the story.
"As did I. The Warrior charged at us, but I was quick to advert his attack with my own blade and it halted him for a moment. We lured him to the edge and thought we'd pushed him off, but he became surrounded by corruption and all of a sudden, we were looking at the Hunter."
"Interesting." the Princess commented, so enticed by his story and wanting to hear the end.
"Again, luring the Hunter to the edge this time, I'd managed to push him off. I then asked Elika what that was—as she told me that the Corrupted we eliminated in the Kingdom were dead now. She said that Ahriman was creating creatures from the corruption, but was weak enough that he could only use forms that he was familiar with until he built more strength. I took that, having some form of hope to hold on to. I enquired that if Ahriman was too weak, we should turn around and face him while he was, that it would be our only hope to stop him, but she said we weren't strong enough. I didn't know what we could possibly do at that point. God, she berated me for not having an immediate plan when I pulled her into that place. Even worse for bringing her back to life. Ahriman wanted her dead, is what I believe. She just couldn't see it from the way I did."
"She was angry that you brought her back," Sarina understood, "When you helped her get to the Temple, she told you to leave because she was going to give her life back to Ahriman, but her father intervened and stopped her. Am I right?"
"I think that was her initial plan, yes." he agreed, "Did I ever mention corrupted air? It hurts so much. You feel it surging through you. Your body can't breathe, you feel weakened but you have to keep pushing through to the other side, if there's another side," he complained.
"It sounds horrible." the Princess agreed, "Something I will be glad to never experience."
The Prince nodded, "We finally found a plate, but it wasn't lit in any way. Elika was ready to give up, but I wasn't. I hit the plate in anger and it did cause her some pain, but it activated. We were able to continue on and that's what mattered," he justified, "We were in a hammam (bathhouse), and bit by bit, we were draining the corruption and finding a way to escape. We made our way down once the way was cleared, but we were once again confronted by the Warrior. I had to ask why was he trying to stop us if she was so sure that he couldn't be stopped? To me, that's enough to try, even if we failed."
Sarina nodded her head, "That seems reasonable to me."
"She was adamant in believing that only Ormazd had the power to stop him. I didn't think so. I believed in her. Even though she argued that the Temple gave her the powers she had, she still had them even though the Temple was destroyed at this point. We continued on after defeating the Hunter and Warrior once again, still trying to convince her that she was capable of stopping Ahriman, but she didn't want to hear it. As we moved on, she was beginning to sense that there was a way out of where we were despite seeming like there was no way out of there. We pressed forward, taking it one step at a time and we finally found a way to go on."
"I'm glad you didn't give up hope," Sarina commented, a smile on her face. The Prince smiled in return. He could see that she was very interested in this story, compared to easily dismissing him at first.
"Believe me, so am I. Continuing on, we ran into the Minion that was once her father—asking me what I wish of Ahriman and I, of course, denied any offer. We fought him until we 'defeated' him once more. I won't lie, I was offended when she asked me why I wouldn't take what Ahriman has to offer. I was shocked that after everything I had done to help, that she thought I would do such a thing."
"Well, of course. It must have not been a good feeling to hear that's what she expected of you." Sarina agreed to his discomfort in the Ahura Princess' words.
"I kept trying to show her that it was her that held the power. The plates working, beams appearing for a short while to help us across, but she still didn't see it, said that there might have been a Temple within the area that we hadn't reach yet, but I knew it was her. We ran into that damned Warrior-turned-Hunter again and continued on once finished with him, finding the Tomb of Acha—something, no offense to the man." he said, unable to pronounce the man's name.
"Achaemenes, I believe. The King of the Ahura when Ahriman first attacked." Sarina corrected him.
"Yeah, him," the Prince confirmed, impressed with her memory from simple studies, but was too emotionally caught in the end of his story to really comment on it. "We made our way out of the Tomb, and let me tell you, her pessimism was becoming annoying at this point. To me, if she didn't believe in herself that she could defeat Ahriman, then it wasn't going to happen."
"Believing in yourself is the key to success," the Princess commented, "Something even my father had taught me from young."
"Exactly. Moving on from the Tomb, we encountered The Minion again. I'm not sure if they tried to be annoying, or if it just happened naturally. Either way, we got him out of the way once more to continue trying to find some way out. Of course, we ran into the Warrior-Hunter again. I'll admit it: I was glad it wasn't the Alchemist or the Concubine. I found those two the most annoying to battle in all of this, apart from Ahriman himself—that was just frightening, even for me. We defeated them moved on through more horrid corrupted air and climbing and avoiding corruption plastered on the wall. I just wanted to sleep at that point. Then again, who needs rest when there's an angry God of Darkness after you?"
Sarina smiled, "Sleep is for the weak, I suppose."
"She said there was a way out of there, pointing in the distance and explaining that we could shelter from Ahriman until he finds us. I wasn't keen on running and hiding, but if this was the time I needed to convince her that she had the power to fight Ahriman and trap him for another thousand years, so be it. I was pulled away from continuing on by The Minion and she was already on her way down. I shouted out for her to get out of there and I fought him. Elika didn't leave like I told her to, told me to push him down there. Logical, since it seemed like she was the only one who could do any real damage to him and I happily obliged. After a lot of trouble, I finally pushed him down and followed, now having Elika to help me defeat him. She wasn't seeming to damage him either, though. I saw the throne and it had spikes coming out of it from behind and brought it to her attention. In time, we'd managed to push him against it and The Minion was defeated, unable to return once more. Elika was devastated and I had to pull her away as he died. The throne became covered in corruption, his corpse even remaining. We pushed forward. If we were able to defeat him, I think we still might have stood a chance against Ahriman. Once we made our way to higher ground, a sort of...growling noise was prominent in the vicinity and I looked over to see that The Minion emerged from the corruption on the throne."
"That's very sad..." Sarina grimaced, "I couldn't do it. I could never see my father in such a state."
"It shook her, believe me. I could see it in her eyes every time I looked at her." he agreed. Sarina could see it in his eyes as well, that he still felt her pain, "We kept pushing despite that, taking refuge on plates in the walls with corruption rising up to try and eat us. Mind you, I myself was starving. I still don't know how I pushed forward without any sustenance."
"Maybe even corruption gets hungry." Sarina smiled, getting a glare in return along with a chuckle.
"Oh, she thinks she's funny now," the Prince said in a playfully sarcastic tone, referring to her little joke and causing the Princess to giggle, "We made our way up, finally finding an exit. She brought up that she couldn't heal her father, that if she couldn't even do that, she never stood a chance against Ahriman if he was only growing stronger. I told her that there was a city a few days away, a fort just a little further. I told her we could even cross the seas. That there wereplaces for us to run. She told me to go on if I wished and I told her she couldn't do it alone. She said she knew that, and that's why she had to find her people. She jumped off the banister there, but her power would have protected her fall."
"What happened then?" Sarina asked, seeing his expression darken further.
"I ran. I will admit it, I ran. I did what I could, but I just...I was no use to her anymore. Elika found her people and helped them, I assume, since Ahriman has been trapped once again...but I ran."
"Did you find Elika again?"
"No," he replied, "I haven't seen her since that moment she left me there."
Sarina saw his face lit in the light of the fire, and she could see from certain angles a trail running from his eyes as he looked up into the stars. She moved closer to him, placing her hand gently on his face to wipe the tears away, "Why do you cry?" she asked him, her tone gentle, trying to bring him some comfort.
"I'm not crying. The smoke of the fire is making my eyes water." he lied.
"Do not lie to me, Prince. I can see it in your eyes. Tell me, what is in your heart?" she requested of him.
"Sometimes...things just seem too similar to the past," he began, "Running from Ahriman, it was as if I was running from the war that took my parents again, only with nowhere to hide this time. I don't even remember how I made it out of there or how I knew Ahriman had been trapped once more. All I knew was that corruption hadn't taken over me and my heart was still beating."
"That's all that mattered and all that still matters," she reassured him.
"I still think on it, to this day, after everything I helped Elika accomplish, how she could have just left me there like she did: no way of fighting against them without her powers. I don't remember how I escaped the area. All I know is that I did and I ran."
"You loved her," Sarina stated.
"I wouldn't know if that was love, I've never loved a woman before. Maybe it was; I'd never felt like that until I met her; that feeling that makes you wonder what could be. As the Concubine had put it when we were battling her, she 'infected me deep', and Elika herself had hinted that maybe she had feelings for me in return. But, that hope diminished when I saw how easily she could have left me to die when I couldn't leave her there on the Temple floor after giving her life back to Ahriman."
"That is love, Prince."
"Well, then I don't want it again. Trusting people, letting them under your skin; you only get hurt in the end. It will never be worth the pain of betrayal you face in the end. I didn't even know her for very long. It's not like I spent a vast amount of time with her like I have with—" he stopped himself from speaking any further, looking to the Princess. Perhaps he didn't need any more words.
"Sometimes, it just takes finding the right person..." Sarina told him, "I'd like to think so, at least. I was devastated when I ended the affair Altaïr and I had. I couldn't even return home. I just...travelled. Where to, I don't know. I could have died, not even bothering to look at my sun-dial and barely giving myself enough sustenance. But you're here, just as I am. We're both still alive because regardless of the pain we've been through, there's something out there for both of us. It's just a matter of finding it." the Princess reassured the thief, looking up to the stars with him, "I like to believe that as much as we fall and pick ourselves back up, there will be a day where someone else is going to come along and help us through each and every hurt we feel, share every moment, regardless of the circumstances—the good and the bad. Not a saviour, but a comforter. That will be the day I find the one who is right for me." she smiled.
The Prince looked at her, amazed that as young and beautiful as she was, she knew the pain of heartbreak. Yet here she was, giving advice to someone so much older than she was—someone who had much more experience in comparison—and staying so optimistic that the Assassin wouldn't be the only love she would know in her lifetime.
He observed her as she looked to the stars, before her eyes turned to meet his. The light of the fire illuminated the edges of her figure, seeming like she was glowing. She was so beautiful. The soft smile on her lips taunted him, but she deserved more respect than possibly feeling like a comfort for his own loss.
She leaned in, wrapping her arms around him for an embrace for a moment before pressing her lips against his cheek, looking back at him as she gently cupped his cheek with her hand, "Life if good, Prince. You know this. What happened is in the past and what matters now is the present." she reassured him, "Goodnight." she said, rising from his mat to find her own.
The Prince slumped down on his own, arms propping his head like a pillow as usual.
Why does it always have to be a Princess...?
The night was particularly chilly and while the Prince was able to withstand it, he still woke from noise and couldn't help notice that Sarina was moving around a lot.
He observed her, unsure if she was having a bad dream or if she was cold.
Her eyes suddenly shot open and she stood up quickly, pacing around, her chest heaving.
"Are you alright?" he asked her, surprised by how rapidly she helped herself up from the floor.
"I'm fine," she said with short breaths, "I just...it's cold."
"You've never slept through nights like these?" he asked, "They're quite common." he said as he attempted to re-light the fire that had gone out.
"I have, I just..." she trailed off, "As I said, I'm fine." she finalized. She didn't want to tell him about to horrible dream she had. It would seem weird to him, wouldn't it? A dream about the thief she travelled with, lost and helpless, not knowing where to run and having nobody to run to. "I'm going to check on the horses." she told him, walking away.
When she returned, the Prince stood up from the re-lit bonfire, walking over to her. He put his hand on her arm, a gentle squeeze, "I won't force you to tell me what's going on, Princess," he began, "But at least assure me that you are alright."
A soft smile formed on her lips, her hand unintentionally reaching out and finding itself resting on his side, "I'm alright, I promise."
"Good," he smiled, "Now, lie down."
"I don't feel like sleeping right now." she told him.
He sighed, "At least just rest your body, Sarina."
She did as asked, her eyes observing the fire crackling from penetrating the pieces of wood arranged like a tent. She heard shuffling behind her, startled by suddenly feeling the Prince behind her. "What are you doing?" she asked him, her body tensing from the unfamiliar and very close contact with the thief.
"It's a cold night, Princess," he told her as he lifted her head gently to rest on his folded arm like a pillow, "and we both need sleep or we won't make any good time travelling tomorrow." he finished explaining, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her close, his hand gently laying on top of hers, "Besides, your mat looks much comfier." he finalized as he finally found a comfortable position with her in his arms.
"It is." she agreed, her voice soft.
Her body sank into his. She felt so secure in his embrace, a feeling she never had with the emotionally detached Altaïr. A comfort took over her and even though her eyes remained open, she became at peace in the position she was in; sleep seeming unnecessary. She didn't want to sleep, she wanted to stay awake and relish in what she was feeling in that moment.
She felt so delicate in his arms, a softness to his strength. Despite being with many women, there was never a comfort like what he was feeling as he held Sarina in his arms. It was an intimacy that he'd never experienced before and one that he would never pass up if he ever got the chance again. Her hands were small compared to his, her skin gentle to the touch. His thumb tenderly caressed her hand in a back and forth motion, his eyes too not wanting to close. She shifted and he thought she was going to pull away, but she pushed herself even closer to him, a smile forming across his lips from her attempt at being closer to him. Neither of them look at each other, both of their eyes remaining on the cracking fire, not a single word being spoken between the two.
He was falling, and he feared the landing.