Once upon a time, there was a mirror, and the mirror came with a most terrible curse.
The mirror did not reflect, it only distorted. Even the loveliest of landscapes would show as a barren wasteland in its glass. A delicious feast would be shown as rotted, stinking refuse. Art that should properly stir the heart with exquisiteness would be transformed into something repulsive. It turned beauty to disgust, love to disdain. The stronger the feeling, the greater the deformation.
What kind of being would craft such a wretched artifact?
It was the work of a terrible spirit known as Symonne.
Symonne loathed the world and everything in it; from flora to fauna to humans and her fellow spirits. One can presume a fairly tragic event that caused her seething hatred, but her resulting behavior did not inspire sympathy. She was cruel and merciless, and tormented all living creatures that crossed her path, regardless of whether they had done a thing to deserve her ire. But this did not satisfy her thirst for terror, and she set her sights higher – most high. Symonne’s spirit magic allowed her to craft powerful illusions, and with this skill in her arsenal, she set forth in crafting her awful mirror. She poured every ounce of her magic into the mirror, and planned to carry it to the throne of Maotelus, the king of the spirits, to force him to look into its glass and behold the truth of his form.
However, the crafting of the mirror had exhausted Symonne’s strength, and while carrying the terrible thing to the heavenly palace, she dropped it. The mirror shattered into a thousand tiny shards, and the thousand tiny shards flew over the world to lodge in the hearts of humans. Symonne was furious, but when her raging calmed, she realized that this presented an altogether wonderful opportunity to terrorize the world that wronged her – on a scale that she had never achieved before.
This is what brings us to the matter of Sorey and Mikleo.
These two boys were friends from the cradle, and played and grew and learned together. Their hearts were as one, and their love for each other was a simple truth of the world – like the movement of the stars, or birdsong in the morning. This made them a perfect target of the wretched mirror, as it was an artifact that craved the distortion of everything right and true in the world. If it could destroy the love between these two kindred souls, it could surely shake the very foundations of the world.
Sorey and Mikleo were adventurers and scholars, and adored all things archaeological and natural, all things great and small, just as much as they adored each other. They would often race each other on the dirt-and-cobblestone path from their tiny town to the ruined castle in the nearby forest. This ancient stone castle was a beloved play spot of theirs, and over the years, they continued to explore and examine and study its crumbling walls and aging artwork. Sunlight shone through the cracks in the ceiling, and rainwater pooled in the ruined floors; blanketing the ground with a soft cushion of moss to nap and read upon. The very walls echoed with the sounds of their laughter and the warmth of their love.
One fateful day, Sorey and Mikleo were walking the path to their castle, with packs full of notebooks and sketchpads on their backs, and a picnic basket in Mikleo’s hand. It should have been a wonderful afternoon, full of happiness and joy. But a glint from the sky and a terrible whistling noise heralded the arrival of a mirror shard. The shard was thin and crystalline; too fine to be seen by the naked eye, and too sharp to be felt even as it pierced the skin. The shard pierced Mikleo’s chest, and his heart.
Mikleo fell to the ground, causing their picnic lunch to spill over the path. Sorey was at his side in less than a moment, carefully helping him to his feet and dusting the dirt from his clothing. Sorey’s own heart ached with sympathy at Mikleo’s bloody palms; scratched and cut from his tumble.
“Mikleo, are you okay?” asked Sorey. “Did you trip?”
Mikleo looked around them, at the apples and prepared sandwiches and treats that he had so carefully packed for their afternoon trip. His lip curled in revulsion.
“It’s okay,” Sorey assured him. “Five second rule, right? We can just pick out the grass and--”
Mikleo’s gaze finally fell on Sorey, and Sorey could hardly understand the disgust he saw there. Mikleo shoved Sorey’s comforting arms away, and stumbled backward, shaking his head.
“…Mikleo?” Sorey said quietly. He reached out to him, still. “Are you hurt? The castle still has the supplies we stashed there, let’s go in and get you bandaged up--”
“And just why,” Mikleo said with annoyance clear in his voice. “Would I want to traipse through that crumbling wreck with you?”
“Because it’s…fun?” Sorey offered helplessly.
Mikleo rolled his eyes and wandered off in a random direction, scowling at everything around him. Sorey scrambled after him.
“Mikleo! That’s not the way back to town--”
“I know,” Mikleo said irritably. He yanked his arm out of Sorey’s gentle grip. “Why would I want to go back?”
“Because…” Sorey grasped for words to try and describe the obvious. Why wouldn’t he? “Our families are there. And…and the harvest festival will be on soon, and then the merchants from the city will probably be by and we can buy more books with the money we’ve been saving up…”
Mikleo just shook his head at every word out of Sorey’s mouth, as it the very sound of his voice repulsed him. Sorey was at a loss. They’d fought before, but Mikleo wasn’t like this when he was upset with him. This was something different. Something terrible, and something that Sorey had no idea how to handle.
“…if you don’t want to go back to town, where do you want to go?” asked Sorey, finally. He would go with him, if Mikleo wanted to leave. He’d follow him anywhere. “Please. If you want to leave, let’s treat your hands, first, and get some supplies and money from home before we--”
“‘We’?” Mikleo repeated coldly. Blood dripped freely from the scrapes and cuts on his hands; dripped from his fingers to the grass beneath his feet. It looked so painful, and Sorey’s heart ached at the sight.
“Your hands,” Sorey said. “Can you at least let me help with them?”
Slowly, Mikleo looked to his sides. His arms were slack, and he seemed to be observing the sight of the blood with the same detached disgust as he now regarded everything else. He did not resist as Sorey touched his shoulder to guide him into the ruined castle; their special place. He did not resist.
The castle, their little home-away in the forest, was well-stocked with supplies that they had carried in from town over the years: food, medicine and bandages, blankets, and books. All things necessary for a happy home. Sorey washed and tended to Mikleo’s wounds, and was pained himself at his cruel silence. The water was fresh and clean, but it surely would sting such raw and deep cuts. Were the bandages too tight? Mikleo did not respond when asked. He did not even spare Sorey the flushing of his cheeks when Sorey leaned down to kiss his freshly-bandaged palms. He would only stare into the distance; his disdain such that he would not even look at the things that repulsed him so. Sorey despaired.
The supplies in their special place kept them in comfort for that night – Sorey did not dare to bring up the subject of heading back to town, lest Mikleo try to wander off by himself once more. However, before the morning sun broke the horizon, while there was still dew on the grass, Sorey awoke to a commotion outside. Panicked, he looked beside him – to find nothing. Mikleo was gone.
Sorey raced outside, to find a frozen world of dazzling white.
It was early autumn still, and the heat of summer still thrummed in the soil. It was far too early for frost in the mornings, or for Sorey to see his own heaving breath. But there it was – frozen grass, and puffs of mist, and a grand silver-white sleigh pulled by a team of silver-white reindeer. A woman in a snowflake crown and white robes was helping Mikleo up into the sleigh. Mikleo’s chestnut-brown hair had become frosted with white. It shimmered in the first rays of the morning.
“Mikleo!” Sorey called out, racing forward. “Mikleo, wait! Wherever you’re going, please, let me come with you--”
The woman turned her attention to Sorey as she settled in the front seat of the sleigh and picked up the reins. Hers was an expression of great pity, and with a wave of her hand, she summoned a herd of little snowflake-capped creatures to block Sorey’s path. Mikleo’s expression was completely blank as he quietly settled himself to lie down on the back seat of the sleigh – Sorey would have preferred his previous cruel disdain. He did not appear to hear Sorey at all, no matter how Sorey screamed his name.
The woman in white stole Mikleo away, and left behind a remnant of winter. Sorey wanted to race after the sleigh, but was stopped by the little creatures that surrounded him.
“Whoa there! Easy, buddy,” said one. “Don’t worry about your friend. Lailah will take good care of him.”
“Where did she take him!?” Sorey demanded, tears stinging his eyes. “Please, tell me – he’s hurt, and barely ate anything last night, and--”
“He’s hurt more than you know,” said another of the little creatures, solemnly. “Mistress Lailah has taken him in, and will do what she can to save him.”
Sorey’s stomach dropped out. “What happened to him? Please, tell me…”
The creatures murmured amongst themselves for a moment, peeping over their shoulders to make sure Sorey wasn’t eavesdropping. After their discussion, one of the creatures stepped forward to speak.
“A terrible curse is spreading throughout the world, and your friend was unlucky enough to get hit by it,” the creature said. “It’s a curse that…makes people hate everything good and beautiful in the world. Makes them cruel to the people they love. Miss Lailah’s been charged by Lord Maotelus to gather up the people who’ve been cursed, and take them away to try and break the curse before…”
The creature trailed off.
“Before what?” Sorey asked quietly.
But the creature was silent. The whole troupe of them joined hands in a circle, and began to dance. The summer snow swirled and blew into the air, blocking them from sight. When the air cleared, they were nowhere to be seen. Sorey rushed forward in a panic, and begged the empty clearing for answers.
“Please! Please, I’m begging you, tell me where she took him! I can help save him, I know I can!”
An answer rang out from the trees:
“Seek the mountains beyond Meirchio. Your Snow Prince awaits you there.”
And after that, there was silence.
Meirchio was the northernmost city of the land. Beyond it, there was nothing but impenetrable mountains and frozen lands. But if Mikleo had been spirited away there, if Mikleo’s life was in the balance, there was no other possible trajectory.
The compass of Sorey’s heart was pointing north, and he would follow it to the ends of the earth for Mikleo’s sake.
Sorey set out on his quest from his tiny home village that very evening, loaded with what supplies the town could spare, and the tears and well-wishes of his own family and Mikleo’s.
His mother provided him with warm-weather clothes: a scarf, thick gloves, and a warm woolen travelling cloak, with wool from their family’s own sheep. The love woven into it would surely keep the cold at bay, even in the forgotten, distant mountains beyond Meirchio.
Mikleo’s mother provided him with the money she had been keeping safe for them: the money that Sorey and Mikleo had been saving for the harvest festival that autumn. It pained Sorey to take it without Mikleo’s permission, just as it pained him to use it on fares and inn stays instead of the books and gadgets that he and Mikleo had dreamed and talked about all year. But coin was a necessary thing, when it came to the matter of adventuring and rescue.
And Mikleo’s uncle provided him with the gift of knowledge: a copy of his beloved encyclopedia, filled with maps, wisdom, and countless fond memories. Turning its pages, Sorey could recall any number of nights where it was just him and Mikleo under the covers; just them, a candle, and this book. They would read about the wide world beyond town and whisper and dream until dawn; curled around each other, two hearts as one.
Meirchio was a far trek, and it took Sorey a few nights’ worth of camping under the stars before he stumbled onto the first roadblock of his quest. The thicket of trees had looked like a lovely spot to settle in for the evening, and Sorey had done just that. However, when he was lighting a fire atop a pile of gathered sticks and fallen leaves, he heard a sneeze from the surrounding trees. He looked up to see a small girl there; bedecked in spring flowers and lace, and sporting a miserable scowl as she shivered. While it should have still been summer, ever since Sorey saw that mysterious woman and her sleigh, ever since Mikleo was stolen away, the weather had been…strange. Winter seemed to be seeping into everything overnight, and was becoming keener with each passing day. Sorey was warm in his cloak and scarf and gloves, but his guest was clearly suffering.
Sorey smiled and beckoned her close to the fire.
“Are you cold, miss? Please, come sit by the fire and I’ll make you a hot drink.”
The girl snorted, then sneezed again.
“C-c-cold? W-why would I want to accept drinks from a t-t-trespasser—ACHOO!”
Sorey blinked, then looked abashed.
“I’m so sorry. There are no towns or farms anywhere nearby – I thought this was un-owned land. I’m but a traveler, passing through on a mission to save someone I love. Please let me stay on your land for the evening.”
The girl, despite her scowl and dismissive words, had bundled herself up to the fire to get warm. She glared at Sorey, then huffed through her nose.
“You may address me as Lady Edna, human. And where is the drink you promised?”
Sorey prepared hot tea for his host, and presented it with a smile.
“Here you are. Lady Edna, are you a spirit? Have you heard any gossip of a mysterious woman stealing people away in her sleigh? Or word of what is causing this strange weather?”
“Yes to all three,” Edna said, snatching up the tea and warming her hands around it. Her shivering began to ease, which gladdened Sorey’s heart. “I suppose you want me to spill the beans on it, though.”
“If you have any information, any at all, please tell me,” Sorey said. “I have to find Mikleo before it’s too late. I’ll do anything.”
Edna eyed his warm clothing.
“…give me that scarf of yours. The gloves, too.”
“Of course,” said Sorey, already winding it from his neck.
Edna arched an eyebrow. “That’s it? Honestly. I was hoping for something more dramatic.”
Sorey blinked as he held out the scarf and gloves to her. “Hmm?”
“Normally when I make a trade with humans, there’s a lot more haggling involved. You could’ve argued me down to just the scarf, you know.”
Sorey tilted his head to the side, confused. “…but you’re cold, and need it more than I do.”
Edna eyed him suspiciously, and huffed again as she snatched up the offerings and put them on.
“Whatever. Don’t come crying to me when your fingers fall off in this weather.”
Edna took a deep drink of her tea, cleared her throat, and began to explain.
“That woman in the sleigh is Lailah, a spirit. She serves the Great Spirit, Maotelus, and does his dirty work for him. If she stole away your little boyfriend, then he was probably collateral damage in some drama at the big palace upstairs. Said drama is probably also to blame for this weather.”
Sorey’s heart twisted in worry. “Her little creatures said to go to the mountains beyond Meirchio to find Mikleo. Do you know what I’ll find there?”
Edna shook her cup at him, wordlessly demanding more tea before she spoke. Sorey obliged.
“The Killaraus Mountains. Home to a dazzling array of absolutely nothing at all. It used to be the seat of the heavenly palace until they moved it to somewhere more hospitable, so Lailah and her irritating little normins might have your boyfriend locked up in the old ruins somewhere.”
Sorey smiled happily and bowed low to Edna in thanks. He had so much more to go on now – he had evidence that Mikleo was being taken care of, and would remain so until Sorey reached him. It renewed his hope that he’d be able to reach Mikleo and save him.
“Aren’t you going to beg me to teleport you there with a snap of my fingers?” Edna drawled. “Whine at me for a map? Try to threaten more information out of me?”
“Do you have a map? Or – the finger thing?” asked Sorey, curiously.
“No,” Edna said. “But I don’t know what you humans think we’re capable of, anymore. I know what your kind is capable of, though, so you’ll excuse me if I keep some information to myself.”
Sorey nodded in understanding. He bundled his cloak tightly around himself – he was already feeling the chill from the loss of his scarf and gloves. His money was carefully rationed, but perhaps he could find some inexpensive replacements when he next encountered a town. He knew he was careless, and foolish, but he was not so inexperienced to run full-tilt into the icy mountains without protection.
He was quite tired, and his eyes were heavy. He closed them, just for a moment; just so he could conjure up the image of Mikleo’s sparkling eyes and smiling mouth beyond his lids.
“Sorey,” dream-Mikleo laughed as Sorey buried his face in his neck. He smelled so sweet; like the dampness of the soil at the start of spring. “I swear. What am I going to do with you?”
“Do with me what you will,” said Sorey. “You’ll never get rid of me.”
Mikleo’s smile went so soft, then, and Sorey’s heart soared.
“Is that a promise?” Mikleo asked.
Mikleo’s lips, too, were very soft.
When he opened them again, it was morning, and the fire was nothing but embers. Edna was gone, and there was little more to be done than to pack his things and keep heading north.
Sorey noticed the root vegetables and apples that had not been in his pack before. He also noticed a small, perfect yellow bloom. He thought upon these gifts as he continued to travel another three days, then another three days after that, until he reached the outskirts of a harbor town. He would have to buy passage on a ship headed to Meirchio – Sorey suspected such a vessel might be difficult to come by. Meirchio was a distant, quiet town, and was certainly not a hot tourist spot or business destination. He would potentially have to wait weeks for a vessel to have business going there; camping outside the town the whole while in the freezing cold, with dwindling supplies.
One day, after a week of asking at the docks for any vessels headed to Meirchio – after a week of sailors laughing in his face, acting like Sorey was asking them to ferry him to the moon – he came across a ship he had not seen make port before. It was a small but stout vessel; clever-looking, even. Sorey spotted a red-haired woman on its deck, inspecting a shipping list, and shouted for her attention.
“Hey! Are you guys headed to Meirchio?”
The woman eyed Sorey and his ragged countenance with an amused expression.
“Meirchio? That dinky little mining town? Who’s asking?”
Sorey bowed deeply, and let his desperation show clear on his face. Though he likely looked desperate enough already – the cold nights of camping were taking their toll.
“My name is Sorey, and I have to get to Meirchio as soon as I can. Please. I’ll pay you everything I have, I’ll work your ship during the passage. Anything you ask.”
The woman put her hand on her hip and looked Sorey up and down. He lowered his head.
“I know it doesn’t look like I have much,” Sorey admitted. He looked an utter mess – he was filthy, and his clothes were wrinkled from days of travel on the roads. His hair was wild and windblown. Dark circles bloomed under his eyes – a good night’s sleep was hard to come by, sleeping on the ground. His bare hands were stiff and aching from the cold; the inclement weather having skyrocketed cold-weather gear to a price he simply couldn’t afford. “I’m but a traveler, passing through on a mission to save someone I love. I have to get to Meirchio to find Mikleo before it’s too late.”
Sorey dug in his pockets to present the woman with his travelling funds – the money he and Mikleo had saved up all year, through chores and hard work.
“All I have is yours. Including an extra pair of hands on your crew.”
The woman traipsed down the plank to the dock, and took Sorey’s money pouch from him to count it out.
“…it’s not really enough to make me consider deviating from our delivery schedule,” she said.
Sorey’s heart dropped. But then, the woman was twirling the flower Edna had given him between her fingers, examining it with great interest.
“But this herb here more than makes up for the difference. A single petal from this thing sells for a cool mint in the spice market. If you’re willing to trade it, I’ll be more than happy to put my deliveries on hold to shuttle you to that frozen wasteland.”
Sorey gave an excited shout, and bowed deeply from his waist.
“Thank you, thank you so much--”
“But if you’re coming on my ship, you’re gonna need to clean up first,” the woman said firmly.
Sorey’s cheeks flushed, and he scratched at his wild hair in embarrassment. The woman tossed the coin pouch back to him.
“Go to the inn with the green sign on the main road, and tell them that the Sparrowfeathers sent you. You’ve got enough in there for a hot bath and a good meal. And believe me, if you’re going to Meirchio, you’ll need all the help you can get.”
Sorey bowed again in thanks, then turned and headed down the road. The woman called after him again.
“The name’s Rose, by the way. And your flower is back in your pouch – were you just going to leave it with me while you ran off to blow all your money at the inn?”
Sorey blinked in confusion. “…Yes? You wanted it as payment, after all…”
Rose snorted. “And you were just gonna trust me to not run off with it? You barely know me.”
Sorey smiled a sweet, self-conscious smile. “I guess I don’t. But you seem like a good, trustworthy person to me.”
Rose laughed and shook her head in disbelief. “Go and get washed up, and make sure you keep that herb safe. We leave at sundown.”
Sorey dutifully parted with the money required for a bath – he knew Mikleo would never let him hear the end of it if he showed up to rescue him looking like this, after all. However, though his stomach growled at the thought of hot stew and warm meat, he saved the remainder of his coin for the trials that surely awaited him in Meirchio.
As his freshly-washed clothing dried next to the fireplace, Sorey brushed his fingers over the illustrations in their beloved encyclopedia. Just as its knowledge of edible plants and berries had kept him fed over his journey, just as its maps had kept him on the right path, the memories of reading this book with Mikleo kept his heart and spirit strong. Sorey’s eyes fell on his own stiff, frozen fingers as they turned the page. They were a sorry sight in comparison to the memory of Mikleo’s beautiful hands.
“So to the capital first,” Sorey said in the haze of his dreams. “We’ll check out the libraries and architecture, and then heading south, we’ll be on the pilgrim’s path, so there’ll be plenty of roadside shrines to examine--”
Mikleo laughed. What a beautiful sound, even as a memory!
“You say that as if you’d ever be finished ‘checking things out’ in Pendrago,” he chided. “I know you could happily set up camp in a library for a year. Or a lifetime.”
“A lifetime?” Sorey teased. Head on Mikleo’s lap, he buried his face in Mikleo’s thigh, making Mikleo squeak. “Only if you’re there too.”
Luckily, Sorey awoke from his fevered sleep with time enough to get down to the docks and Rose’s ship. He handed over the herb, and she was true to her word – they set sail for Meirchio.
It was a journey made longer and all the more difficult with the terrible weather; that grew only more terrible as they approached Meirchio. It was proof enough to Sorey that they were approaching where Mikleo was being held, and it was enough to make Sorey pace the deck anxiously as the ship slowly wove its way through the icy waters. Sorey hoped Mikleo would forgive him for being late, just as he hoped Mikleo would forgive him for spending their money, and losing his clothing in this weather. Mikleo had always fussed over his health, ever since his sickly childhood. Sorey hated making him worry, but he seemed rather incapable of not doing so, all the same.
They arrived in Meirchio, and Rose called to him as Sorey made his way into the town proper from the docks.
“Hey! If you’re looking for info, you’re going to have the best luck chatting up the miners at the tavern.”
“Thanks!” Sorey said cheerfully, waving farewell to her. “I will. Mikleo and I owe you so much, Rose.”
Rose watched him go, and quietly said a prayer aloud for his safety. He was a clueless young idiot, and needed all the help he could get – lucky for him, that smile of his could melt the heart of damn near anyone, Rose would bet. It was like the light of spring. Or something cheesy like that. She sighed and wondered if Sorey would question why there was more money in that coin pouch of his than he remembered, and hoped that he wouldn’t get scammed out of all of it anyway at the tavern.
Rose’s prayer did not go unheard, for unbeknownst to her, there was a young wind spirit accompanying her ship. This wind spirit was named Dezel, and, being a spirit, was bound by ceaseless compulsion to grant the prayers asked of him. Heaving a sigh, he trudged unseen by all along the roads after Sorey, irritably sending out gusts of wind to knock over suspicious-looking individuals who were eyeing Sorey like a walking target. The town was not wealthy to begin with, and the cold weather had made people all the more desperate. With Dezel’s assistance, Sorey made it safely to the tavern. Cheerfully, Sorey turned and opened the door for Dezel to enter after him.
Dezel paused. “…you can see me?”
Sorey smiled. “Of course. You’re Rose’s friend, right? I saw you on the ship on the journey here. Did you want a drink before you headed back out?”
Dezel sighed and entered the tavern wordlessly. He could understand why Rose was so concerned about this idiot’s safety, and maybe even understand why she was fond of him. Maybe. A little.
As they entered, they overlooked a sea of dour-faced miners. Sorey didn’t really know where to start asking for information – the bartender was likely a good start, in any case. Sorey walked up to the bar (Dezel following him, still unseen by most) and sat down stiffly. The bartender raised an eyebrow at him and waited for him to speak.
“Do you. Um. Know anything about a lady in a white sleigh? Or a palace in the mountains?”
The bartender wordlessly polished a glass. Sorey fumbled out his coin pouch and carefully counted out a few coins – what, exactly, was a good payment for information?
“Less than that,” Dezel hissed in his ear. “You don’t know if this chump knows a damn thing.”
Still, the coins that Sorey offered seemed to make the bartender more willing to talk. He hummed, as if deep in thought.
“A lady, not so much. But I’ve heard talk about a white sleigh, being driven by a lad with white hair. Dressed like a prince. Sightings started ramping up when this damn weather rolled in, and people constantly whisper about seeing that sleigh when the worst storms roll in. As for your mountain palace, that’s just a fairy tale. If you’re planning on heading into the mountains to go looking for some palace, or that snow prince, may the gods have mercy on you.”
“Is there anyone who knows anything about the palace? Anyone at all?” Sorey asked. He held up his pouch. “I have money, and…”
Sorey heard someone whistling for him nearby, and swiveled his head. A man sat in a corner, and beckoned him near. Sorey nodded his thanks to the bartender, and moved to where the man was sitting.
“Lookin’ for the old palace in the mountains, eh?” said the man. “Has that snow prince stolen your heart away?”
“I – well, maybe,” Sorey said. “You see, my friend Mikleo was stolen away by a woman in a sleigh, and his hair had turned white when she got to him, and he’s so beautiful that anyone would think he’s a prince, so I thought that it’s possible that--”
“He’s a spirit, you know,” Dezel interrupted, gesturing with his chin to the man Sorey was speaking to. “A wind spirit, like me. He’s probably just looking for juicy gossip, and doesn’t have a damn relevant thing to tell us.”
The man clutched at his chest dramatically. “You wound me, my brother-in-elements!”
Sorey hummed thoughtfully. “I figured he was a spirit,” he said. “I’ve always been able to sense them, even when others couldn’t. But I thought a spirit would know better than anyone where the old heavenly palace is in the mountains. Especially a spirit that looks as old as him.”
The man looked far more legitimately heartbroken at that comment. “Really? Do I look old? Is it my hairline? It’s my hairline, isn’t it…”
He patted at his hairline mournfully.
“No, it’s just that you have a certain…air around you,” Sorey said. “An air of worldliness?”
It wasn’t a lie, but it was also kind of the hairline. Still, the man puffed up a little at the compliment.
“The name is Zaveid,” he said with a little flourish of his hand. “And I too have had my heart stolen away by someone driving that sleigh. Her name is the Lady Lailah, and she has had to freeze her fire on the order of the Mao-Man to clean up after some heavenly politics.”
“Politics?” Sorey asked. “Please, tell me whatever you can – I have to save a person I love, and his life might depend on your knowledge.”
Dezel sighed in irritation. Sorey didn’t even need his help to make this Zaveid character talk – there was nothing wind spirits loved more than drama and gossip. (Except Dezel. Dezel was proud to Not Be Like Other Wind Spirits. He was entirely and perfectly undramatic.) Zaveid’s eyes sparkled with tears.
“A romantic rescue…” Zaveid whispered mistily. “You see, there’s this spirit named Symonne who’s a real piece of work. She’s got it out for Mao-Man, and made some crazy cursed mirror to make him think he’s ugly or some shit, I dunno what her endgame was. But she accidentally smashed the thing in the process, and all those little mirror shards flew across the world. They pierce people’s hearts, and suddenly, they’re not who they were anymore – full of hate for everything they once held dear.”
Mikleo’s strange behavior before he was kidnapped made sense now, but the knowing was almost worse than the mystery. Sorey swallowed hard, his heart beating in his ears.
“How can they be fixed?” Sorey asked quietly.
Zaveid shook his head sadly. “That’s something Mao-Man is still trying to work out. In the meantime, he’s having Lailah head out and spirit away the victims and keep them in the palace on the mountain. If she stole your man, he’s there.”
And that was enough for Sorey. He stood up and bowed to Zaveid.
“Please. Lead me to the heavenly palace,” he begged.
Zaveid blinked at him. “…why don’t you ask your other spirit buddy there?”
“I’m not his to ask,” Dezel shot back. “And I wouldn’t do it anyway. I’m not venturing that far away from Rose.”
Zaveid nodded sagely. “We are all slaves to love, I see.”
Dezel sputtered. Sorey bowed deeper.
“Please, spirit; Lord Zaveid. I’m so close to finding Mikleo again – I just need someone to lead the way. Won’t you please grant me your assistance?”
Zaveid grimaced and leaned forward, waiting for Sorey to look him in the eye.
“Leading someone to the heavenly palace is no small thing to ask,” he explained. “Even though the big cheeses have since moved house, the enchantments are still there on the old place. You’ll need to give up something incredibly dear for me to even be able to help.”
Sorey had gotten used to giving things up on this journey. But he had so little left – and he knew that Zaveid wasn’t talking about the few coins he had left in his pouch. Sorey took out his and Mikleo’s beloved encyclopedia, and touched the cover with aching fingers and an aching heart. It was a precious memento. The notes they had made in the margins, the memories in the pages, were irreplaceable.
But what was more precious and irreplaceable was Mikleo himself.
Sorey bowed again, and offered the book to Zaveid.
“Please, spirit. Lord Zaveid. I’m but a traveler, on a mission to save someone I love. Won’t you please grant me your assistance?”
Zaveid accepted the book, and tucked it into his pack.
“It ain’t gonna be easy. Let’s set out while the sun’s still high.”
They parted ways with Dezel, who quickly beat a retreat back to Rose’s ship, and set out from Meirchio into the barren snowfields and towering mountains beyond.
Zaveid spoke true – the road to the palace through the mountains was difficult indeed, even with the assistance of a wind spirit at Sorey’s back. The weather made their way all the more treacherous. The snow weighed down Sorey’s cloak, freezing the fabric and making the cold bite through deep into his bones. Even tucked firmly under his arms for warmth, his bare fingers felt numb and useless. Sorey truly did not know if he could make it through. He kept the memory of Mikleo close to his heart, a gentle warmth that prevented him from freezing all the way through.
“Sorey! Buddy! Eyes up ahead!”
Sorey squinted through the blowing snow, and thought he saw the outline of a structure. Zaveid shoved him forward, and guided him to what looked like a chasm standing between them and the palace. Zaveid whistled aloud, and the chasm glowed with white light. A beautifully-designed bridge appeared to shuttle them across – Sorey would have loved to examine it closer were it not for his duty to Mikleo, and his imminent death in staying outside a moment longer. He and Zaveid hurried across, and Zaveid grabbed him by the hand, dragging him along through the strange glassy doors with their intricate silver filigree work. Through them – as if they were passing through mist.
Sorey had not known what, exactly, to expect when he found where Mikleo was being held. Perhaps maybe Mikleo, chained to a wall, swooning sweetly into his arms. Perhaps that was a bit too much. But what he did not expect was a receiving-hall filled with frozen statues. Sorey wandered up to one, and to his great dismay, he found that these statues were not statues at all.
“Zaveid! These are – these are humans! Frozen humans!”
Zaveid was examining a few of the statues himself, with a grim expression.
“This was their solution to the mirror problem, huh…” Zaveid murmured.
Sorey dashed from statue to statue, trying to find one that was still alive, dreading finding one wearing Mikleo’s face.
“Solution? What do you--”
One statue’s eyes stared back at him, listlessly. Sorey nearly jumped out of his skin, but calmed himself enough to take action. He loosened his cloak, as if to drape it around the frozen person – as if they had any warmth left to keep in.
“Sorey!” Zaveid yelped. “Keep your clothes on! You’ll freeze just like the rest of ‘em!”
Sorey hesitated at the thought of not being capable of saving Mikleo, but – but he couldn’t just leave this person to…to…
“Useless,” said the person in a flat, emotionless tone. The ice around their lips and neck cracked as they spoke. “Why would you sacrifice yourself so readily? Our frozen hearts are beyond saving.”
Sorey’s own too-soft, foolish heart ached. “Who did this to you? That spirit Lailah?”
“The mirror filled our hearts with hate,” said another frozen statue across the way. Their neck snapped with an awful sound as they slowly, painfully slowly, turned their head to look at Sorey. “The spirit Lailah froze our hearts before they rotted from it.”
There were so many statues. So many people. Some murmured their assent to the previous statue’s statement, but others were silent – frozen through with the silence of death. Sorey’s pulse raced, his eyes darting around the room. Not Mikleo, not there, not there either; none of these poor souls were Mikleo, so where—
The gate that Sorey and Zaveid had entered through glowed. Another guest stepped through – but truthfully, this was no guest. A trumpet blew, and snowflake-capped normins raced from every nook and cranny to form a receiving-line. The doors at the end of the receiving hall flew open, showing the throne room – and the throne, perched atop a dazzling frozen lake.
Through the front doors came that same familiar sleigh that stole Mikleo away. But instead of Lailah at the helm, it was Mikleo himself.
He was so beautiful. Mikleo was always beautiful, always, but he was simply…otherworldly. It was no wonder why there were whispers of a snow prince. Mikleo was dressed in a suit and cape fit for royalty; white and icy blue, trimmed with silver and royal navy. His high boots clacked against the marble floor as he dismounted, and his white hair glimmered in the iridescent light of the strange silver flames that lit the lanterns around the palace hall. Mikleo reached up to help his passenger off the sleigh, and led them to stand with the rest of the frozen people. The passenger went wordlessly, and stood without complaint or comment next to their new neighbors. And then Mikleo turned and walked, straight-backed, toward the throne room. He made no indication of seeing Sorey, or caring about the plight of the frozen people around him.
Mikleo was a kind and warm person, who cared deeply about the pain and suffering of those around him. What had that mirror done to him? What had that Lailah done to him?
“Mikleo!” Sorey cried out in despair. “Wait! It’s me!”
Mikleo did not turn to acknowledge Sorey’s voice, nor did he even slow down. He walked across the frozen lake confidently, without slipping a bit on the ice, and arranged himself on the throne with the same air of wordless complaint as the new arrival to the receiving hall. Sorey raced down the hall toward the doors to the throne room, his muscles aching with weeks of stress and strain, his heart aching, also—
The normins blocked his path, again. Sorey gritted his teeth and was about to just vault over their tiny heads, but one stepped forward. They raised their trumpet, and tooted another receiving flourish.
“The Lady Lailah approaches! Show some respect to your host, human.”
Sorey whirled around, trying to see where Lailah was approaching from, trying to see if he had time to grab Mikleo and run (he was sure driving that sleigh wasn’t that hard). And then, she appeared in a crackling of silver flame in the doorway to the throne room. Her expression was pained, and she extended a hand to Sorey.
“You are Sorey,” she observed. “I am Lailah, servant of the great spirit Maotelus--”
Zaveid wolf-whistled. “Lailah! My heart was about to waste away without you. Why don’t you turn those flames of yours back on to warm us up--”
Several of the normins rushed Zaveid to whack him in the shins with their trumpets, causing him to yelp and stumble back into the arms of one of the frozen people. Lailah’s cheeks were colored pink, and she coughed lightly, and started again.
“I am Lailah, servant of the great spirit Maotelus. Sorey. You have travelled so far, and touched so many hearts. Truly, you bring spring wherever you set foot.”
“What did you do to Mikleo?” Sorey demanded.
Lailah folded her hands and stared at her intertwined fingers.
“I am Maotelus’ closest servant,” she began. “And the only one who can wield even a portion of his power. Maotelus charged me with the mission of gathering those afflicted by the shards, and bringing them here for safety…and freezing their hearts so the shards do not destroy their very immortal souls. But I am a fire spirit – the taking away of heat is within my purview, but a more graceful application of the art of ice magic is…beyond me. My clumsy attempts at it have only caused more disaster – this terrible weather, for example.
“However, your friend Mikleo is possessed with a gift for magic. When I froze his heart, it awakened his latent abilities. He was able to take up my duties with far more dexterity and finesse. He has saved so many souls from eternal damnation, and once the Lord Maotelus has determined how to purify the mirror shards--”
Sorey slowly approached her as she spoke, and carefully, bones aching, went down on one knee. He bowed his head.
“Please, Lady Lailah. I’m but a traveler, on a mission to save someone I love. Won’t you please grant me an audience with the prince of this palace?”
Lailah extended a graceful, smooth hand, and Sorey accepted it with his battered, bloody one to rise to his feet again. Lailah made no indication of disgust – only pity.
“You may speak to him,” she said. “But he is unlikely to respond or recognize you for who you are. His heart is frozen through – were it not for his magic talents, he would be just as stiff as the poor souls you see here.”
That seemed like a challenge Sorey was willing to take up. Sorey would never be able to forget Mikleo – through trial and tribulation, through death and on to the ends of the earth. Sorey limped across the frozen lake; his feet not as sure on the ice as Mikleo’s, but his path just as set.
The throne room was dazzling, and an architectural marvel. Intricately-carved white marble spires twirled up to the high ceilings, which were under some strange enchantment – it showed the night sky, and an ever-moving map of the moon and constellations. These enchantments reflected onto the surface of the frozen lake, making Sorey’s path an otherworldly journey through the cosmos. The room sparkled with a sheen of ice and snow, which grew into flower-like blooms around the foot of the throne.
Mikleo did not acknowledge him as he drew closer. He did not acknowledge him as Sorey collapsed to his knees in front of the throne. He was as pale and lovely as a fine marble statue, but his eyes – those beautiful, expressive violet eyes that sparkled with love and intelligence – were so terribly blank. Sorey felt his tears freezing to his cheeks.
“Mikleo,” he said quietly. “It’s me. Sorey.”
Mikleo did not respond. Sorey continued.
“I was so worried when you got stolen away,” Sorey said. “I was worried the night before, when you were acting strangely, too. I’m so sorry I didn’t realize what had happened. You must have been in so much pain from that shard, and your hands were all scratched up on top of that, and you didn’t even eat the lunch we’d packed. Have you eaten since?”
Mikleo remained impassive.
“I wish I had more to offer. I only have some jerky left in my pack,” Sorey went on. “It’s not really a meal meant for royalty. You look even prettier than usual, Mikleo. I didn’t think either of us would have our hair going white for a few decades yet, but it really suits you. So do those clothes. Do you remember how we used to dress in our best for the village festivals? You always looked so nice in that vest and ribbon tie. I always just looked like a barn animal stuffed into a suit. Or I think that’s how you put it, once.”
Sorey flexed his battered hands, watching as fresh blood oozed from the cracked skin. He was battered, as a whole. He was dirty and ragged from travel, he was bruised and bloody and looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. He was a sorry sight, compared to how stunning Mikleo looked.
“I lost my gloves and scarf on the way here,” he admitted. “And all the money we saved up for the harvest festival. And…and our encyclopedia. I’m so sorry, Mikleo. I’m…I’m so sorry…”
Sorey crumpled, and crawled forward, shuffling over to press his forehead to Mikleo’s knees.
“Mikleo,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”
He wept, and wept, and wept. Perhaps if he stayed here long enough, tears frozen to his cheeks, he would become a statue like the ones in the receiving hall – a statue that crouched at the foot of the throne like a loyal dog waiting for his beloved master’s return.
He almost didn’t notice the soft touch to his ruined hands.
Mikleo examined Sorey’s hand, turning it this way and that. Sorey felt color flood his cheeks, and pouted, despite himself. He knew his hands looked terrible, but Mikleo didn’t need to rub it in. Mikleo blinked slowly, and rubbed his thumb across the dried blood on Sorey’s knuckles.
Sorey stared at him, tears beginning to fall from his eyes anew. Mikleo bent, and pressed his other hand to Sorey’s chest, over his heart.
“Hurts here. You too?”
Sorey nodded, and reached out with an aching hand to press his own palm to Mikleo’s heart in turn.
“It hurts for me, too.”
Mikleo’s hand twitched, and as if on reflex, he moved it to cup Sorey’s cheek and brush his tears away with his fingers. Sorey gave a choked-off wail, and buried his nose into Mikleo’s hand – he thought he’d never feel this touch again. He closed his eyes, and pressed a kiss to the soft skin of Mikleo’s palm.
He heard a sharp intake of breath, and slowly opened his eyes. Mikleo was looking at him – really looking at him – and he looked absolutely distraught.
“Sorey,” Mikleo whispered. “What happened to you?”
Sorey really had thought his crybaby years were over, but here he was, weeping again. Mikleo scrambled down from his seat on the icy throne, and wrapped Sorey in his fur-trimmed cape, rocking them both back and forth and shushing him with gentle noises. Sorey had thought he’d never be fully warm again – how wrong he was.
“I had my heart stolen away by a snow prince on a white sleigh,” Sorey said, through his sobs.
Mikleo pouted at that, and color rushed to his cheeks. It was the most beautiful sight Sorey had seen in weeks, even after travelling the whole of the kingdom. Sorey smiled up at him, and leaned up, tilting his chin, pleading for a kiss. Mikleo leaned in as well, ready to oblige.
They were interrupted by sloppy crying from the throne room’s door.
“I-i-it’s so beautiful,” wailed Zaveid, sobbing into the arms of a normin who was weeping just as hard as he was. “Love! Love is what melts hearts and purifies cursed mirror bullshit! LOVE!!”
He trailed off into more crying. Lailah tugged a hankie from her sleeve and dropped it on Zaveid’s head for his later use, then approached Mikleo and Sorey, happy tears in her own eyes.
“Mikleo,” she said. “You are well again. Though the Lord Zaveid’s explanation was…simplistic, it seems that Sorey’s love for you has rid the shard of its corrupting power – in addition to melting your heart of my magic.”
Mikleo touched his hand to his chest, as if testing it for any sort of pain.
“…I can’t feel it at all, anymore. The shard. Do you think it’s gone?”
“I do not sense its presence within you any longer. A tiny piece of glass is surely nothing in the face of such powerful love. The Lord Maotelus thanks you so much for your service. Do you remember where you are, what has happened…?”
Mikleo nodded slowly. “…I do. Those – the people I spirited away, whose hearts I froze. Will they be…are they…”
“When the Lord Maotelus finds a way to purify the shards, it will be safe for them to be unfrozen. Your skillful work with your magic will ensure that they will live again – it will be as if they wake from a deep winter sleep.”
“And the rest of the shards?” Mikleo asked.
Lailah hemmed, and plucked at her sleeves. “I will tend to those shards that remain. You must tend to Sorey, to get him home and back in his own bed – you have gone above and beyond your duties, and Maotelus will surely bless you in all your endeavors for the rest of your days--”
“I do need to get Sorey home and patched up,” Mikleo said. “And bathed. But please. You saved my life, so I want to make sure no one has to suffer while we wait for a cure. I’ll come back to help, I promise.”
“I’m coming too,” Sorey said, a bit miffed at the bath comment. “You’re not leaving without me this time.”
“Do I really have a choice in whether you tag along?” Mikleo asked mildly, though he already knew the answer. Sorey smiled mischievously.
Lailah gave a watery smile of her own, and curtsied. “Thank you. Please, take the time you need to make Sorey well. He has journeyed far to save you, and his heart has melted a path through the coldest winter.”
A pair of normins trotted up to slide a pair of warm snowflake mittens onto Sorey’s hands, and wrap a matching scarf around his neck. To top it off, he was blessed with a snowflake cap, like the little creatures themselves wore.
“I will see to it that this foul weather is lifted,” Lailah said. “Now that I can rekindle my flame to do so. Mikleo, please take your sleigh and carry Sorey home to care for him.”
“Can I drive?” Sorey asked as Mikleo helped him to his feet.
“Absolutely not,” Mikleo said.
Zaveid stumbled up to the two of them, still crying, and bundled them both into a bear hug.
“You’ve allowed me to bear witness to the greatest romance in the past few centuries,” Zaveid sniffled. “Sorey, my man, you’ve overpaid me for my services.”
With that, Zaveid handed Sorey the encyclopedia back. Sorey took it gratefully, and clutched it close to his chest. Zaveid loudly and obnoxiously blew his nose into Lailah’s hankie, and it was clear one of the normin at his feet wanted to nail him in the shins with their trumpet again out of spite.
They journeyed home with incredible speed, sailing across the skies and making it back to their tiny village before the sun rose. They were welcomed back with open arms and tearful faces, and Sorey was bundled into his family home for a hot bath, a fresh set of clothes, and a big warm breakfast.
“The fruit trees are blooming all over the village,” Sorey noted to his mother and grandfather as he stuffed himself. “And the harvests look even bigger than I remember them. What happened?”
“Well, we thought we’d lose the whole harvest to the early frost,” his mother said. “But somehow our little village was spared the worst of it. It was a miracle.”
Sorey had seen Edna on the way back to his home, sitting on a bench in the town square, pretending to ignore him. She had still been wearing his gifts. He hoped she hadn’t strained herself too much.
Luckily, Sorey and Mikleo made it back just in time for the harvest festival – although they were out the funds they’d saved for it (“Sorey, stop apologizing for spending the money – I would have done the same for you!”), they enjoyed the hustle and bustle, and each other’s company, and the sight of each other in their festival clothing. On the second day of the festival, a caravan bearing the name “Sparrowfeathers” rolled into town, bearing an array of goods and gold to be traded for the village’s envious harvest bounty.
“For the wool, cloth, and goat cheese,” Rose said, handing Sorey’s mother a hefty pouch of coins. “And this here is on the house.”
Rose handed Sorey a stack of freshly-printed novels and journals, straight from the capital. Sorey smiled at her brightly, and thanked her profusely – and waved to Dezel where he sat atop the caravan, also pretending to ignore him. Spirits were so moody, sometimes.
The festival went long into the night, and Sorey and Mikleo curled together under a blanket in front of the bonfire, sipping at hot cider. Sorey was healing up well, and soon, they would be off on their mission to gather the remainder of the shards – Sorey wanted to make the most of this evening together. He nosed at Mikleo’s still-white hair, and watched as the firelight played off the silky strands.
“Is the fire too warm for my snow prince’s comfort?” Sorey murmured.
Mikleo idly traced the air, sending a few snowflakes flying into the night sky. “Hardly. I’m not a delicate, swooning thing, Sorey. I help you and your mother wrestle sheep for shearing.”
Sorey laughed. “I know. But isn’t that below your station, now? Wrestling with barn animals.”
Mikleo slanted a look up at him, and the side of his mouth twitched.
“Wrestling with barn animals is something I’m quite passionate about, thank you.”
It was Sorey that was a bit too warm, now. But with the light of the bonfire, and the beauty and crispness of an autumn night to enjoy, Sorey could make do for a while longer before they headed inside. He tucked his cheek against Mikleo’s silky white head, and sighed happily.
Yes, a while longer.