Kim was dying.
She knew this, could feel it in the numbness of her fingers, in the heaviness of her bones. Her heart was thudding in her chest, trying to make up for all she lost during the battle. A futile effort, but she appreciated it all the same.
After all, when an arcane bolt is sticking out of your back, lodged solidly in the chasm between your ribs… Well, it’s certainly a testament to your instincts that the Matron hasn’t come for you yet.
It had been a final parting gift from the White Mage. He had surrendered, said he would come peacefully, that he would come serve judgement. So she had turned around, calling for Aveline, to make sure she was safe, only to feel his magic pierce through her. She wasn’t able to control it then, the silver flames ripping out of her and destroying him completely. But she couldn’t focus on that right now.
No, her focus was on how Aveline hadn’t answered when she called out. And with the White Mage taken care of, there was nothing to stop her as she stumbled out of the ruins. “Aveline!” she called out again, before copper spilled onto her tongue and she coughed up crimson.
She ignored it, and leaned onto her trusty staff. Broken and splintered, it was still strong enough to hold her up, as her legs desperately tried to keep her small form upright, keeping her path rounded. Circular. As though her years training in Baguazhang could keep her away from the grips of Death, circling it like a foe as she felt the Matron looming ever closer. Again, Kim appreciated her instincts trying to protect her, but she had much more pressing matters at hand.
Like how the silence of the battlefield was unnerving. Suffocating. The lives lost on this land were calling out, in its silence. Kim was thinking of calling out again, if for nothing else than to break this unbearable silence, when she heard a voice.
“Kim!” His was not the one she was looking for, but it filled her with relief all the same. She turned to him and saw wide red eyes looking back at her. “Abel,” she breathed out, copper flooding her tongue again. “Where is she?” He was making his way towards her, favouring his left side as he did, new burn and blade marks alike decorating his pale porcelain skin. His eyes flashed with worry as he reached out, as though he could do anything about the arcane bolt imbedded within her. “Kim…” he rasped out. “What happened?”
She rolled her eyes and attempted a laugh. “He’s dead,” She managed to spit out. “And decided to try and take me out in the process.” She paused here, letting the words hang in the air a little too long.
Abel ran a hand through his dark hair. Last she saw him, perhaps an hour or five ago, it had been longer and braided. Less burnt. “Trying to reclaim the things I liked about my femininity.” he had said, the faintest of twinkles dancing in his eyes. She grinned at that, reached up and messed it around. Just for good measure. Aveline had sighed in the background, having just finished Yun and Valen’s hair. Two others that she hadn’t seen since the battle’s start, she realized, dread blossoming in her core.
She opened her mouth to ask Abel what on Ilaqar had happened to everyone else, when he tugged on her arm. “Come on,” he said, his words slipping out like oil, nearly tripping over them. “We need to get to her. You need… you need to see.”
And so they stumbled together, stepping over broken bodies and buildings alike. He lifted her over ruins that were too large to travel around, whispering apologies upon hearing her sharp inhales of pain, bringing her ever closer to the Matron’s domain of eternal sleep.
Minutes passed, feeling more like days, when she saw them. Or their back, rather. Valen’s dark hair had been tightly braided back, locked into itself and covered in a tight red hair wrap when she saw them last. Now, though… their wrap was loose on their head, as though it had been hastily tied back together. Kim was relieved, knowing that at least they were safe, until she got closer. They were shaking.
Kim stopped. Valen was shaking, and the closer they got to them, she could hear their cries, a sound she knew they never wanted anyone to hear. ‘I don’t want to worry you all’, they had said once. ‘I feel a lot of things, and they’re all so intense, but I’m okay really. Just need it out of the system, y’know?’
Now though… Kim took a breath, ignored the pressure on her chest as the bolt slipped forward just that much more, ripping through skin and muscle as it did so. She focused, her mind desperately pushing through the fog as she tried to find Valen’s mental signature. They took a few more steps forward, Abel nearly carrying her completely at this point. “Valen,” she said as soon as she connected with their mind. Pouring as much as she could into this fragile form of communication, she reached out shakily. “Valen, what happened?”
A flood of emotions rushed over her, relief quickly drowned out by despair and worry and… sorrow. Kim felt something in her tighten, pain ripping through her as it did. She glanced up at Abel who was stubbornly looking ahead, taking measured step after measured step towards Valen. And hopefully the others.
And as they finally, painstakingly, closed the distance, she realized that Valen was holding onto Yun. Sweet, beautiful Yun, who had never feared Death, even as a child. Yun, who loved his family more than he could ever love himself. Yun, who was shaking, as Valen’s grip on him was tight, his silken black hair spilled out of the braids they were supposed to be in. Whose eyes were just pools of deep dark black, who was whispering quietly “I’m okay, I will be okay, I promise you, it’s okay, we are going to be okay,” into Valen’s shoulder, voice gentle and soothing despite looking anything but.
But Kim couldn’t focus on them. Her heart ached for Yun, knew the signs of when the gods had come to collect someone who had run from their claiming. Knew that there was nothing she could do for him, not how she was now.
No, her focus was pulled to the tall woman on the floor, her body curled into herself. When Kim had seen her last, her skin was still an unbroken brown, her blonde hair tightly braided back with no chance of slipping. Kim would know, she had spent a good amount of time weaving in whispers of safety, of strength, and of protection as she tightened them. Even if the hair was not the colour it should have been, altered as it was to blend in with the others here.
But here she was now, her hair singed and back to the familiar purple Kim knew and loved. Her brown skin was covered with a thin sheen of sweat, her eyes closed, and her breath coming out fast and shallow. She was cold to the touch, her face twisted into a painting of anguish that was frozen in time, as though keeping a furrowed brow above closed eyes and gritted teeth would persuade the Matron to take her business elsewhere.
“Aori.” she breathed out. Kim knew she would have weakly protested that, knew that she wanted them to call her “Aveline”. The name she gave herself to get the people here to respect her, to value her opinions and thoughts as much as they did anyone else. To assimilate into a culture that refused to even acknowledge her. But Kim couldn’t call her by the name she used like a mask. Not now.
She dropped to her knees, and Abel made a pained sound as he watched the arcane bolt rip upwards, her gasp of pain deafening. She felt his hand on her shoulder for a moment, before leaving. ‘To help prepare Yun,’ she thought to herself. ‘To prepare him for his claiming.’ After all, one could only run from the Matron of Fate for so long, especially once she had laid claim to you. He would know that best.
But Kim couldn’t focus on that, not even if she tried to. Because there was Aori. Aori, who was so full of life and love, even before she realized she was allowed to. Aori, who never made it past the awkward gangly phase of teenhood. Aori, whose head she pulled into her lap, tears she didn’t realize she had falling onto her silent unmoving face.
She heard herself whispering Aori’s name once. Twice. Again and again, as though saying it enough times would be enough to coax the soul back into the host. And Kim knew better, knew that Death’s grip was much too firm for that, that some strands had already been cut. But she couldn’t stop herself, because this was Aori.
Aori, who had braided Kim’s short hair before the battle. “There is magic in the braids and knots of our hair,” she had said, as she did every time she braided her hair. “This magic flows through our blood, passed from one to another, like a kiss from a mother to her daughter.” And here she paused, and grinned. “Or a lover to her loved one.” And she’d press a kiss to the back of Kim’s head. “And with this, strength and protection has been woven. Use it well. Be safe, my Champion.”
Kim stilled at that memory. She raised a hand to her hair, recalling every lesson she’d ever learned about magic. Could feel the small braids, still tight against her scalp. She untangled them, quickly and quietly, calling upon her own god. And the destiny she had claimed as her own.
Her pain faded to a dull ache and the sounds around her fell away. She heard, more than felt, the winds coming together, surrounding her. The magic that laid deep within her began to burn, coming to life this one final time. She felt herself rise, and tightened her hold on Aori’s still-warm body.
“I know you can hear me.” she spoke aloud. Her voice was hoarse, throat tired and sore. Mighty may the Champion of Justice be, but she was still dying. And the Matron knew this too. She could feel Her eyes on her as the winds grew stronger, enveloping her. And Aori.
“I know you can hear me,” she said again, voice cracking and breaking as she did. “And I will give you whatever you want.”
She had Her attention, she knew. The Matron’s gaze was a heavy one after all, and Kim was in Her domain now. Briefly, she wondered if she had bought Yun some time, if the others could get him away as she held the sole focus of the Matron.
“There will be consequences for this.” She heard the Matron’s voice ghost over her. Kim opened her eyes, could feel them burning silver. She could feel Her, could feel the dread that comes with that. The paralyzing fear. The numbing cold, slowly crawling up her spine.
But she bared her teeth, an act of defiance. Of intimidation. Of whatever would get Her to keep listening to her. “I’ll do anything,” her voice broke here, breath leaving her body. Could feel the divine magic she couldn’t control finally meeting Death’s curse, the two causing a harmony of searing pain.
“I’ll give You my service,” she gasped. “My body, my life.” She felt her body crumple, could feel herself doubling over, the Matron now hovering over her. “Everything I have left to give, I will give to You, to all of You.” She tightened her grip on Aori again, pushing her forehead down onto hers and whispered her plea.
“Just please, bring her back to me.”
And the white pain took over, her vision blanking as the pain doubled in intensity, demanding her attention. And as the world around her fell away, she wrapped her lips around one final plea.
❦ ❦ ❦
It was loud, and harsh, and a little squeaky. But it was laughter all the same. Kim startled awake, but her body was too heavy, her eyes still closed. She was laying on something, she realized. And then she felt her cheeks blaze red when that something shifted, and Kim came to the understanding that the something was actually a someone. She heard a low chuckle, before she heard a quiet “I know you’re awake.”
Oh. That was Aori’s voice. She was in Aori’s lap. She slowly blinked open, vision still fuzzy as she looked up into the bright brown eyes staring back at her. Eyes she had just been pleading to open once more.
She could feel the heat of the sun on her, could smell the nearby lake. Could hear the yells of a nearby group of people running around, perhaps chasing each other. But it was all so distant, so she collapsed back onto the violet-haired woman’s lap, a grin playing at the edge of her lips.
“Sounded like quite the dream you were having.” Aori’s voice was soft, gentle. As though she was scared to break this moment of silence and warmth they were sharing, just staring at each other.
The warm silence was suddenly pierced by a loud shriek. Kim flew upwards, her hands open and held in front of her, arms and legs in a defensive stance. It wasn’t until Aori’s laugh rang throughout the clearing that Kim realized the source of the shriek. A blue haired monk was spluttering in the lake, a small red-skinned and horned child laughing nearby.
Her heart clenched for a moment, was reminded of a similar group of misfits, before she let out a steadying breath. She brought a hand up to her chest, clutching at where the large scar decorated her torso, before she felt two arms wrap around her waist. Brown hands came to a rest over her own, where her heart lay thumping in her chest.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Aori asked quietly. As though she was asking what her favourite meal-time was. And Kim melted into her, her silvered hair flopping into her face as she did so. She stayed quiet for a while, waiting for Aori to maneuver them into a sitting position, Kim in her lap.
“I nearly lost you, y’know.” she eventually said. Aori stiffened behind her, hands tightening around hers. “Right after we found each other again, too.” Aori knew this story, had lived it just as Kim had, but she stayed quiet. Like she knew Kim needed to talk it out. “We decided to join a war that had nothing to do with us.”
“But we couldn’t just leave them be,” Aori cut in. Kim smiled, rubbed a thumb over her knuckles, silently telling her to continue. “We couldn’t just let innocent children be locked up in cages,” Aori continued. “Couldn’t let the white-skinned Overseers dictate who could and couldn’t live.” And she paused here, her entire body going tense. Kim turned her head, made sure that Aori’s gaze met hers.
“And we would do it again,” Kim said. And she watched as Aori’s eyes went soft, the tension leaving her body as she leaned back against a nearby tree. She closed her eyes and took a breath, stealing all the breath in Kim’s lungs as she did so.
“And we would do it again,” she finally echoed, the shared weight of their words escaping her. Her eyes opened and she met Kim’s gaze, clear obsidian meeting divine silver.
“I love you.”
A moment passed before Kim realized that she was the one who had said that. The words had rushed forward as though they were scared of never being said. She winced, hating the expectation that came with an admission like this one, but felt two warm hands cup her jaw, tilting her to gaze upwards. And who was Kim to deny Aori what she wanted?
So Kim met her gaze, and felt her breath catch as she read into those eyes. Eyes that carried everything they both knew Aori couldn’t say. Not when they didn’t know who was listening in, who was watching, who they couldn’t trust. So she leaned forward instead, pulling her in for a hug as she rested her head onto her chest, and Aori’s head rested atop hers.
The gods had listened. And nothing would come between them again.