The Snow Queen and the FireHeart

Into the Weeping Valley

III

Into the Weeping Valley

Anna trudged along behind her kidnapper, stumbling over the rough terrain of loose shale and jagged boulders. Since leaving Arendelle's borders, the landscape had changed dramatically. Instead of mountainous terrain with endless snow and ice, the area had become dull and hot, a strange contrast to the cold of winter. The Weeping Valley was deep within an area that was geologically active, with hot pots and boiling ponds all around. It was the wind that gave it the name Weeping Valley, for it came hot through the many distant columns of built-up ash, howling and wailing, as if a thousand lost souls cried out to anyone who ventured this deep within. She would have been fascinated by it, if not for the acrid air that stung her nose and the sweat beading from her face. With the higher temperatures, she was happier with what she was wearing, her simple dress and winter boots, although she found that they were still wet from the slush and gritty water now mixed in with the sweat she felt all over her body.

She was uncomfortable to say the least.

It had been a strange journey from the port. Even though she was relieved when the foul captain let them depart the ship with not a single objection, following her silent kidnapper through the snowy hills had pushed her physically and mentally, though she continually found herself trying to figure him out. While her wrists were bound, her legs were free and her eyes scanned for a way to escape, yet she couldn't escape the curiosity of her captor's manner and his voice. Not since the castle had he turned his hand on her and even his mannerisms were decidedly softer than what she expected from a vile criminal. If anything, she found being kidnapped gave her the opportunity to try and unravel the mystery around the kidnapper.

Ironically, she was bound more by her interest than by the ropes. "Can you at least tell me where we're going? I think I'm pretty accommodating for a hostage, you know? What with the not-running-away and all," she groaned, annoyed at his quick pace and silence.

"Not far now," he replied.

The way he marched ahead of her with no regard for her temptation to turn and run made her smirk, wondering if he was as new to this kidnapping thing as she was. "You really know how to make a conversation lively," she moaned, suddenly tripping slightly and barely catching her balance. The strain was frustrating her and she stomped in a fit. "It would be so much easier if my hands weren't tied!"

He slowed a moment, turning his head slightly. "For you, perhaps," he said, a cynical tone seeping through his mask.

"Hey Mr. Kidnapper, I've been happily marching along behind you for who knows how long, without once trying to run off and find help or something. Are you afraid I'll flap my arms and get away?" she sneered as she waved her bound arms dramatically. His only response was to look back forward and keep marching, which irked more than her childish response could portray, "I hope you cook like a turkey in that get up." As he had never shed his heavy robes or mask even in the stifling heat of the valley, it made her believe he was far more uncomfortable than she was as he huffed along.

She felt satisfaction in that.

They continued, with the rocky trail smoothing out and taking them into a series of caves, where the sky was hidden from them but the heat remained. The caves, like the valley, were stained yellow and black, smelling of foul sulfur and boiling with some unknown heat. At some point, he produced a torch and carried it to fill the dark caves around them with light, though it almost seemed unnecessary as the caves were lined with a strangely glowing moss that filled the darkness with a soothing blue glow. She had never seen anything like it, though it grew higher than she could reach, depriving her of the chance to stop and examine it. Her captor's pace also hurried her along.

As she followed, tethered by her curiosity, she was becoming aware of the ivory handle of the black dagger at his back, catching glimpses of it as he walked awkwardly before her. He was obviously bothered by the heat, for he grunted and moved unnaturally and the odd movement is what caused her to see his weapon, taunting her with a chance to alter the nature of their relationship. Every flash of the white handle made her heart jump and the temptation grow, for while she was remarkably complaint as a captive, she was beginning to get annoyed by his lack of attention.

In the face of continuing silence, she wasn't satisfied with sitting still and being a damsel-in-distress.

When the next chance presented itself, she lunged forward and grasped the handle, wrenching it until she stumbled backwards with the weapon in hand. It was almost as surprising to her as it was for him, for when he spun around to face her, she yelped and nearly dropped the dagger to the ground at her feet. "Whoa! Ah hah! Hah hah!" she cried, pointing the exotic blade at him and swishing around a few times for effect, "Now then, it looks like the shoe is on the other foot! How about that?"

He was still and his grip tightened around the torch, his eyes glaring at her from under the mask. He slowly raised his free hand out to her.

"Give me the dagger," he commanded.

"Oh! I mean, I don't think so. I think it's time to change our little arrangement," she said in a frightened voice, keeping the blade pointed at him, "Now, you will take me back to Arendelle. Or at least take the ropes off. Wait, forget the ropes. You'll take me back home. Immediately." She was trying to muster up an equally commanding tone and her shoulders rose and fell with each anxious breath she took. The man sighed behind the mask and his hand lowered into his robes.

"If I refuse?" he replied.

She hadn't expected that response and stalled, giving him a very perturbed expression. "If you...what do you mean, if I refuse? I think it's pretty obvious, right? I'll, you know, use this," she said, wagging the tip of the blade at him.

He scoffed. "You do not have the heart to kill a man," he replied bluntly.

His dark observation made her wince. While that was certainly her threat and the very thought made her hands shake, she was in no position to let him see how accurate his statement was. "Don't think you know me. This isn't the first time I've used one of these, I'll have you know. I've run hundreds of men through. Thousands!" she said, her panicked expression giving away her obvious lie.

He wasn't impressed by her act. "I do not wish to hurt you, Princess, but I will if necessary," he said, this time raising his hand and stepping towards her to reclaim the dagger by force, while still giving her the chance to simply hand it back.

She nervously stepped back, standing on her toes to try and appear more intimidating. "Don't come any closer! I'm warning you!" she cried, though he offered no response and continued to approach her. Her breath was coming out in pulses and she was looking around, though she had absolutely no idea what she expected to find that would help. All she knew was this wasn't going according to her plan.

Then she realized she never had a plan in the first place.

"You really have no idea how bad this is going to be. This is your last chance," she panted, her fear bleeding through her voice. His continuing approach caused her to panic, press her eyes closed and squeal as she stabbed the dagger forward. It wasn't natural for her and she was awkward in her lunge, but she had little other option but to aim for his chest with the blade, grip it tightly and hope for the best.

Admittedly, she didn't think it was a great plan.

At the apex of her thrust, the dagger stopped and her body shuddered to a frightening halt. There was no screaming or squishy center to him, and she thought that stabbing a man wasn't nearly as bad as she thought it was going to be. When she opened her eyes to see if he was okay, she found he had caught her hands as the dagger hovered mere inches from him, his free hand deftly controlling her attack. Before she could move further, he pinched down on her hand and made a sharp pain shoot through her arm, causing her to cry out as she lost the dagger and tuck her arms to her body tightly, scowling at him.

He was annoyingly stubborn against her flimsy plan to impale him.

With the dagger in hand, he deftly spun it around and pointed it at her, as if were simply a part of him. From behind the mask his eyes were flashing and even though he had easily disarmed her, he was obviously disquieted by her attempt. "Do not do that again," he warned. The tip of the dagger was at her chest and she sucked in a breath of air, finding that being on this end of the blade was far more nerve-racking. Fearing she had pushed him too far, her chest clenched in fear and she stared at him in terror.

Suddenly, the blade shimmered with movement. She imagined herself paying for her attempt to attack him, though he simply cut down through the ropes on her hands, freeing them with a single stroke. It came as a surprise and she stared at him for several moments while she rubbed her wrists, now more confused than ever. Once again she couldn't understand him at all. "Wait, I don't get it. Why free me now?" she asked, pushing down the realization that a normal kidnapper would have probably been angry and punished her for what she had tried.

Her question seemed to catch him off guard, though he still remained a frightening creature to her, even as there were glimmers of the human underneath. "The caves ahead are dangerous. You becoming injured does not serve my purpose. But do not press my patience further, Princess. If you see this through to the end, I will let you go, and you may return to your home. Do you understand?" he said, trying to regain some authority over her. Once more, she found that he was trying to play the role of the monster, though it didn't seem to suit him. It was as if the mask he wore wasn't the frightening metal hulk across his face, but the villain he pretended to be, making her continue to find this bizarre interest in him and what lay underneath the cracked shell.

"What is your purpose? Who are you?" she asked.

He hesitated at her question, then exhaled and slowly reached up, unfastening his robes at his neck. The thick covering fell to his feet and revealed surprisingly fine clothing, dyed red and black in the darkest hue, though slightly faded and torn. Around his arms were thick leather sleeves that were tied with leather cords, leaving them bare underneath but protected across the top. His boots were low, which told her he wasn't accustomed to the snow of Arendelle's winter and his entire appearance told her of a foreign world. As she stared, he reached up and hooked his thumb beneath his mask, slowly lifting it from his face, finally revealing the man within the monster. He was young, but older than her and Elsa. His skin was marked by sweat and his dark hair was messy and long. He opened his pale, gray eyes to her, showing a determination and ferocity that she hadn't seen in many people.

She was struck by his appearance.

"I am Yasha, of the kingdom of Fria. And I wish it that you come with me, Princess, in spite of your will or desire."

Anna stared at him, not sure how she should respond now that he had been revealed. The contradictions remained, however. He was kind, but forceful. He was polite, but demanding. A simple glance beckoned her to obey, but she wished to defy him with every breath. It wasn't a black dagger or terrible mask made her heart race, but only one simple thing that made her breath quiver through her chest.

It was his commanding presence that was his most dangerous weapon, and the fire that burned in his lucid eyes.

"Princess," he called again, breaking her from her gaze.

A wave of red washed over her skin as she realized she had been staring, though she had no idea for how long or exactly what type of expression she had been wearing. She had no idea what was suddenly wrong with her. "What? I mean, okay. I mean, what?" she stuttered clumsily. Shaking off her daze, she tried to focus on person that was before her, not the terrible creature she had seen in glimpses. As bizarre as their introduction was, her natural character pierced the mood and she smiled awkwardly at him.

"Nice to meet you?"

It was the best response she had to finally meeting the human he was underneath the mask.

His eyes moved ahead of them as if to absolve himself of her gaze as he quickly slipped the dagger around and stabbed into its sheath, silently and with much practice. With her strangely casual response, he was finding it difficult to replace the atmosphere with one that better suited his task. "It is a pleasure," he replied just as clumsily, then turned from her, scooping up his robes and mask into his arms and continuing on their path. With the way he let her free and made no further threats, it was apparent that he simply expected her to follow.

And she did.

"Hey, wait!" she called, skirting after him with panic in her eyes, ironically afraid he would leave her there. She followed with no solid reason in her mind, but with only Kristoff's bit of advice floating around in her head.

Sometimes you have to roll with it.

After a short while, they fell back into their places, though now he seemed wary of her as he marched along. Strangely, she found that offensive."Hellooooo?" she called, annoyed that he was more standoffish without the mask. Only after a few more times of calling did he turn slightly and look at her as they walked, and she felt inclined to try and engage him. "Uhm, hi. So since we're all buddy-buddy now, can we talk?"

He sighed and looked back forward.

"Right, so I guess the obvious question is, why kidnap little old me? I mean, I'm sure there are lots of other princesses that you could take for whatever nefarious purposes you have in mind," she suggested, then suddenly winced and eyed him nervously, "You don't have any nefarious purposes in mind, do you?"

A slight smile cracked his stern lips, though he showed no sign of stopping. "I will keep my word. When I have what I want, I will let you go," he assured her.

"Okay. So then, what do you want? You know, if you don't mind me asking," she asked.

His expression twisted even more as he tried to comprehend this unusual princess he had stolen away. "You are very polite towards someone who took from your castle at knifepoint. Are you always this forthcoming towards men with questionable intentions?" he answered with a glance to her.

Her lips suddenly burst dismissively and she rolled her head sheepishly across her neck. "Ugh, you have no idea," she said, remembering back to previous experiences of devious princes taking advantage of her open heart, "Let's just say you're not the first and leave it at that. Anyway, I don't know why you're all glum and moody, but you don't seem like such a bad guy. You're actually kind of nice?"

"Am I?" he asked and abruptly stopped, looking back to her in surprise. She only smiled and nodded, which appeared to make him uncomfortable. It wasn't the impression he expected her to have of him. "You have a strange understanding of what it means to be kidnapped, Princess," he remarked, then continued walking.

She laughed as if he had been flattering her, trotting along behind him as she dispelled the formality between them. "Please, you can just call me Anna. And it's not like I've ever been kidnapped before, so I don't exactly know what to expect. I kind of thought there'd be more yelling or burlap sacks, or something." The remarks made him glance at her strangely. She was beyond it. "And, you know, I'd still like to know why."

He quietly stared forward as he lost his levity and his response struck her. His back had stiffened, as if he suddenly remembered the gravity of their situation and when he did answer, it came in a frighteningly candid voice as he looked distantly at path ahead.

"I intend to kill your sister, Anna."

She instantly stopped. It took her a moment to even comprehend it as her face went from a lighthearted smile to a much more offended grimace. She glared at him furiously. "Whoa whoa, mister, that's 'Princess' to you. And what do you mean you intend to kill my sister?!" she wailed, clenched tightly at the mere suggestion and gawking incredulously, as if he were somehow the last person she would expect to want to harm Elsa. The threat instantly destroyed any rapport they had been building and the reality of the situation slapped her in the face, as this was no longer a playfully strange exchange from an oddly alluring stranger.

This suddenly became terrifying.

Yasha stopped as well and seeing her reaction, his face darkened. He turned to her with an ominous glow in his eyes, making him seem almost more the monster than his mask ever could. "It is a frivolous story, and you need not sympathize with my reasons," he stated coldly.

She cawed. "Like I'm going to be okay with you wanting to kill Elsa! Did you think I'd just be okay with that?" she yelled, fighting the panic in her chest. The extraordinary nature of her sister brought extraordinary drama to their world and she desperately wanted to be her vanguard. She knew this man was dangerous and his resolve proved he wouldn't be easily discouraged from his task. Still, she felt there was far more behind his actions than some simple scheme and she strangely wanted to believe there was more to him.

At the very least, she didn't want to imagine someone with his apparent skill going after her sister.

Seeing the determination remaining in his eyes, she suddenly crossed her arms over her chest and smirked, taking a different tone and trying to intimidate him. "And besides, that's easier said than done, buddy. I mean, yeah, you were able to sneak into the castle, kidnap a princess and escape on a ship that was frozen into the fjord, but regardless of all that, Elsa's pretty powerful, you know. She could turn you into a popsicle," she remarked, throwing a threatening finger at him to emphasize her last point.

He considered that for a moment. "I will manage," he replied and turned to continue walking.

"I will manage," Anna repeated in a mocking tone, "Others have tried and Elsa's still here, so don't be so sure of yourself."

Yasha sighed and stopped once more, as if her defense of her sister was nothing more than an inconvenience to him. Realistically, he had never expected her to be in favor of his task, though her strangely warm behavior towards him had disturbed his pace, making him feel almost cordial with her. Now, as she righteously stood to defend her sister, he was reminded of the truth of their relationship. Pushing his matted hair back and turning to take a heavier hand against her, he suddenly felt a tension in the air that had otherwise gone unnoticed. There was something scraping along the caves around them, covered in darkness, and his attention swiftly drifted to the shadows beyond the torchlight, his body tense and his jaw tight.

Anna noticed this sudden change of posture and felt like she might have dissuaded him from his task with her convincing arguments. "Ah hah! Not so sure of yourself now, eh? I don't blame you. Elsa turns guys like you into frosty statues with a flick of her wrist, and that's not even half of what I'll do if you even think about touching my sister," she barked smugly.

"Be quiet for a moment," he said, cutting away her tone with the alarm in his voice, "There is something else here."

At first, she didn't believe him and simply thought she was making good ground at intimidating him, but as he scanned the darkness of the caves with the torch, she suddenly felt this was no ploy. Soon enough she could also feel the panic rising in her, as if she was also keen to the presence just beyond the rim of light. "Some thing? It's not wolves, is it?" she asked, ironically stepping closer to him as her eyes scanned the dark recesses of the caves.

He scowled. "Something far worse. A Xenolith," he replied.

Taking a few steps from her, he continued to look around with the torch, though couldn't find the elusive creature. It was the last thing he wanted to find as they moved through the caves and the reason he had freed her from her bindings. It was simple enough to avoid them when he was alone, but looking after her at the same time would complicate matters. She was proving to be a handful all on her own, so he was greatly annoyed at having to also deal with ancient monsters of darkness and light.

Exhaling sharply, it was only until he turned back to her did he find the shadow, moving silently behind his captive, ready to strike with a great swing of its massive arm. Seeing her in danger shot a wave of adrenaline through him. "Anna!" he yelled, lunging forward to her surprise. The two of them rolled to the side just as a huge, black claw crushed the ground where she had been standing, sending a spray of fragmented rocks into the cave. It took a moment longer for her to regain her senses, but when she did she found a looming monster, black as the darkness and glowing with the same type of red markings as his exotic dagger. It was a golem, made of shiny volcanic rock. It was jagged and tall and two yellow eyes pierced the darkness towards them. The sound it made was like the resonance of a crystal goblet and it shrieked through the air, making her wince but not take her eyes from it.

She was absolutely terrified of it.

"What is that?!" she cried as she scrambled to her feet.

"That is a Xenolith," he replied, shoving the torch into her hands and trying to face the creature.

She fumbled the torch and waved it in his face. "What's this for!?"

Grabbing her hand as it held the torch, he forced her to wave it at the creature, showing his apparent annoyance. "You are an incessant deluge of questions, Princess! It is for the Xenolith! They fear the flame," he yelled.

"Like I'm supposed to know that!" she yelled back, lowering the torch as she did.

He wrenched the torch back towards the creature.

"Torch! That way!"

Anna growled and then shrieked as she started to flail the torch towards the massive golem, which had been stumbling back and forth against the movement of the flames. It was mostly just a tantrum against his orders, but she was amazed at how fearful the monstrous beast was of simple fire. It lumbered clumsily before them, though its apparent weakness emboldened her and she struck a heroic pose in the wake of her advantage. "Hah! Scared of a little fire, huh? Fine! Take this!" she yelled, hurling the torch forward, where it landed in a small puddle of water on the cave floor and went out, leaving them only a dim blue light.

Embarrassed, she put her fingers to her lips as Yasha gawked in utter shock.

"Oops."

The piercing scream of the Xenolith shattered the air as it set on them, now unfazed by their light. She didn't know what was more terrifying, the fact that she could barely see the ominous red glow of the monster as it crashed towards them or the fact that she would meet her end with some ominous stranger. In her heart, she wanted Elsa to arrive and save her with her magic, or for Kristoff to ride in and pull her away at the last second.

In the dark and frightened, she clawed her hands out for some kind of support against her fate, but didn't even find the touch of her mysterious kidnapper.

Just as hope was slipping away, a bright light suddenly stung her eyes and heat seared her skin, making her wince and cover her face with her arm. The shrieking of the Xenolith filled the air and made her brave the piercing light, but what she found took her breath away. Yasha stood before her, his hand outstretched and a wave of beautiful flame fanning out towards the monster. It took a moment to realize it but she discovered that he wasn't waving a new torch or using some other kind of tool – he was creating the fire from his hand and it followed his gestures in elegant pulses. She had been accustomed to seeing Elsa use her magic, but this magic was something different, something more primal. It didn't sparkle like her ice, but roared out from his hands like hellfire, and it struck fear into her as she looked on.

In that moment, she realized that this mysterious man from the kingdom of Fria wielded fire as Elsa wielded ice, and she suddenly felt even more dread for his proclaimed task to kill her.

With the wave of fire filling every corner of the cavern with light, the Xenolith stumbled wildly and fled from them until nothing could be heard of it. Yasha's flames slowly died down until the cave was once more dim, aside from a few errant pyres that survived on the ground around them. With the last of his flame disappearing from his hand, he was looking around to assess the situation, making sure there would be no more surprise visits from the ancient denizens of the caves, when he suddenly hacked painfully and lurched forward, clutching his chest.

Anna gasped. She was certain the Xenolith had never been close enough to get at him, and the convulsion took her by surprise. It was enough to try and digest his apparent magic, but to have him suddenly wilt in pain staggered her further, as she had no idea what to do about him.

Breathing heavily, he hunched forward and glared at the stone floor, sweat dripping from his nose and his chest on fire. He spat in indignation."It is getting worse," he whispered, though not to her. He was doing his best to face away from her and his body shuddered with labored breathing, signaling that while the display of magic had been a brilliant show, it had taken a severely painful toll on his body. Though still speechless, she dismissed the countless questions that surged within her and stepped to his side, worried more that he was now in pain.

"Are you okay?" she asked, placing her hand across his back. At his chest, she could see a pale, red glow that churned like the flames he had conjured and she thought that he had set his clothes on fire, but the way he clawed his hands over them meant it was something deeper than burning cloth. It was like his very heart was on fire. After a few moments of attending to him, the glow faded away and his pain seemed to subside. While that relived her, he suddenly then tore his shoulder away from her and stumbled a few steps away to get out of her comforting reach.

"I am fine," he said in a warning tone.

She could tell he was lying, but something at her feet suddenly caught her attention. It was another torch sticking out of his dropped robes and it was dry. Grabbing it, she stabbed it into one of the dying fires and filled the area with light once more, something he didn't seem to appreciate, but she moved towards him anyway, her eyes filled with worry and her voice soft.

"You don't look fine," she pointed out.

Her persistence agitated him. "You need not concern yourself," he gasped, holding a hand out to stop her approach. Still remembering the true nature of their encounter, she thought that maybe she would be next victim of his majestic flames, but when he simply used the chance to catch his breath, she felt a sigh of relief escape her lips.

"It will pass," he explained, standing straight but still in pain.

Anna was watching him tensely. The revelation of his ability shed a whole new light on their situation and she no longer felt this could be resolved with some simple conversation, but as she had just met the second person that could use ancient magic, her fascination with him continued and she became bolder in light of his weakened state.

"Who are you?" she repeated, now more gravely.

Yasha shuddered, though she couldn't tell if it was from the pain or her question. He wouldn't look at her for a moment, but then turned and took the torch from her harshly, making her yelp in surprise. His eyes were once more cold and he did all he could to appear as the villain she expected of him. "A cursed man with a cursed task. Let that be the end of it," he snarled and tried to stagger back towards their fated path.

His determination to continue put him at odds with her, to say the least. Threatening her sister was the fastest way to offend her, though in light of his dangerous abilities, she was reluctant to try anything against him. Instead, she would appeal to his humanity, the part of him that was obviously susceptible to her. "No way. I'm not going anywhere as long as you want to hurt Elsa. If that's what you planned when you so rudely took me from my home, I'll do whatever it takes to stop you," she said, crossing her arms stubbornly.

Flashing in anger and exhausted, he suddenly whirled at her, taking a step forward. "Do not force me to harm you, Princess! You must return to your kingdom, unharmed," he seethed, repeating his insistence that she return home safely, which she found strange. There was a terrible look on his face and she could see the most exotic ring of orange in his eyes, something that should have frightened and intrigued her, but as she stared back at him fearlessly, she showed that she wouldn't be intimidated anymore.

If she was to be at his mercy, she would do it on her own terms.

"No. You're just going to have to harm me," she claimed, although her voice was a little shaky.

Yasha flared. "No!" he yelled, which made her flinch. At first, she thought she might have pushed him too far, but he simply turned from her in frustration, his eyes darting around wildly for some way to vent his anger.

"I will not sacrifice one kingdom to save another."

Once more his comments didn't seem directed at her.

Anna's intrigue in him continued to grow. Nothing he said made sense to her, but she could see the turmoil in him and the contradictions between his intent and his moral compass. The way he struggled made her sympathize with him, even as he still sought to commit the ultimate sin against her. "What does that mean, Yasha?" she asked, using his name for the first time in an effort to reach him. He didn't answer, but just stared into the darkness.

As they faced off, she slowly realized something that gave her a great advantage. For some reason, he was doing all he could to keep her safe from the dangers around her, and that included himself. He had the motivation and ability to force her to obey, but he hadn't once tried to really hurt her in order to do so, making her again suspect that he wasn't this terrible creature he presented himself to be. It took her a few moments of staring at him and thinking, but she began to unravel the motives behind his actions as her heart sought ways to vindicate him. "If you just wanted Elsa, you could have burned the castle to the ground with your magic. But you didn't. Is that's why you're bringing me here? To lure Elsa away, where no one else can get hurt?" she said, trying to bait him into opening up to her. He was silent against her reasoning, but her eyes were moving around as she tore the mystery from him, finding his silence compelling. "I don't think you're a bad person, Yasha. So why are you doing this? Why Elsa?"

His hand clenched at his side as he stared into the shadows beyond the light, furious at her attempts to reason with him.

"It is...my task," he replied.

"That's not good enough for me. And I don't think that's good enough for you either. So what's the real reason? Who's given you this task?" she pressed, stepping towards him.

Yasha was seething, his shame and remorse barely hidden from her. He regretted becoming so friendly with her, though his sheer loneliness and her penchant for talk had overwhelmed him. He couldn't remember the last time he had spoken so intimately with anyone, but this only made his self-loathing grow. Strangely, he feared how powerful she was at connecting with others and how she had cut into him so quickly.

In some ways, he found dealing with her more dangerous than facing the Snow Queen and her magic.

"It was..."

In the midst of their stalemate, a distant wail in the caves grabbed their attention and broke him from his trance. Anna wasn't sure what the sound was, but he knew instantly, not wanting to linger any longer, especially with her cunning drive to find the truth in his heart. He used it to save himself from the kindness in hers. "This place is not safe. The Xenolith will return, and I may not have the strength to repel it. Only in my grotto will we find time to rest," he explained, turning back to her with the same resolute eyes that she had come to fear.

His voice once more became grave, especially at the lingering ferocity in her eyes.

"I will tell you what you wish to know, knowing it will not change our fate, but remember one thing; this path leads to fire and ice, and the unrequited hatred you will bear for me. I have spent a lifetime in anticipation for my task. Could you possibly dissuade me after a single conversation, Princess?"

She stared into his cold eyes. It was chilling how beautifully he could speak while speaking of such cruelty. This man was turning into something far more terrifying than a Xenolith, though his contradictions still tangled her up. While anyone who threatened Elsa deserved her ire, she was trying to find a reason to doubt him, for something picked away at this image he tried to project, something she had seen in those moments between his cruelty and design. At once, she understood how she could help Elsa with no one getting hurt, though the idea seemed daunting, yet as it was a simple matter of using everything she had to protect her, she felt confident, and wanted to unravel the noose of fate he held around his neck. She decided to steer him from this terrible path he walked, not by magic or weapons, but by the simple act of digging through the despair that she saw in his eyes, no matter how deeply he buried himself in it.

She would deny him the benefit of her hatred.

He didn't yet deserve it.

"I guess we'll find out. Lead on."

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