They came to her often, strange dreams of a strange world, the towns she knew – Pravoka, Melmond, Crescent Lake, Onrac – all in ruins. Mist curled up from a silently flowing river, grey light breaking over the horizon. The geography was identical to the home she knew, but this world was artificial, constructed for some purpose that remained unclear.
There was a man by her side; recognition swirled within her, but when he looked at her, his eyes were blank. Something about him unsettled her -- she recognised his face (though from where, she wasn't sure), but whomever he reminded her of, she was sure he was not the person she had once known. She couldn’t even tell if he was a man at all, or some thing constructed to look like one -- as artificial as the world in which they stood. Her brow furrowed. How had she known him, the man he resembled? It seemed to her that she had known him so long ago that she was on the cusp of forgetting altogether, her memories swallowed up by the world she now found herself in, the new life she had been given.
Occasionally, unbidden, her fingers twitched to touch his face, but she resisted, knowing that whoever he was, he was not the man from her past. He did not recognise her, and she barely recognised him. Whatever their connection had once been, it was gone now, either cut off or slowly deadened, leaving nothing behind but these slight, jarring urges. She watched his hands on his sword, felt the breath leave her chest when he turned to face her. She often wondered what he saw when he looked at her.
She woke from these dreams confused; latent memories would often surface in dreams, but these ones disturbed her. Dwelling on her loneliness was not in her nature, but when she thought of the man's eyes, the careful movement of his body, she curled over on herself, imagining she was coiled around something living, the warmth of his body -- would he be warm? -- seeping into her skin like a balm.
While Cornelia prospered, her village declined. Lufenia had been isolated for too long -- the young people left and rarely returned, thinking of the place where they had grown up as a rural backwater. The Village on the Wing of the Hawk was dying a slow death, its industry crippled by lack of resources, the vast inherited knowledge of centuries past left to stagnate without purpose.
Queen Sara was known to be sympathetic and benevolent; Cornelia's prosperity was easily shared with others and very little asked in return. The people of Lufenia were proud, and it was their pride that had led them to turn away from the world in the first place -- but now even she, the embodiment of Lufenia's rich history, the vessel for memories of ages past, could see that if the village was to survive the next winter, help would need to be sought.
As headwoman, she would make the journey south herself -- even if it hadn’t been unthinkable to her to ask any of her people to turn themselves into beggars, there were so few with the language skills to communicate with the outside world. Besides, she was young, and the long journey would be easier for her than any of the village Elders.
The last time she had seen Lukahn she had told him of her intentions; he was an old friend, and he would understand.
"Do you think it's wise to go yourself?" he asked, as she poured him tea.
"Of course -- who else would be suitable?"
Lukahn sipped his tea thoughtfully, gazing into the distance. "My Lady," he eventually said, "I have told you before that I am a historian, not a soothsayer or an oracle. But a historian comes into contact with records that may otherwise have been lost, even to memory." He ignored her dismissive look and continued, "Written records that can be magically sealed against time, against all manner of things..."
He trailed off, giving her a cagey look, as if he knew something she didn't. It only served to steel her resolve.
"I won't be dissuaded by half-truths and riddles," she said, anger beginning to swirl in her chest.
Lukahn bowed his head slightly, placating. "I know you'll do as you see fit, My Lady. It's merely my suggestion that you send someone else."
She looked at him, almost wanting to shake him. Instead, she had sighed, releasing her frustration. "Even if I wanted to," she said, "there are so few of us who can speak the other languages. Lufenia has so long been isolated, and there are so few who go through the memory transference ceremony now... I worry I'm the only one who can convey what we need without being tricked or sent away empty-handed."
Lukahn shrugged. "If the stories of Queen Sara are true, that would scarcely seem necessary." Lukahn looked up at her, his eyes piercing. "But I am just a historian. The future is a different creature, and you are strong-willed. If I cannot dissuade you, My Lady, then of course you must go."
The wife of Cid of the Lufaine had returned to the Village on the Wing of the Hawk alone, without her husband, in such a weakened state that it was not certain she would survive. She had lived, but afterwards had forever stayed in her village, cared for by Elders, her blonde hair turning slowly to ash, waiting for his return, at first with expectancy but, as the years wore on, with gradually dying hope.
Her memories had been passed down, her skills too valuable to lose – she had not simply been Cid's partner in life but his colleague in science, a researcher beyond compare; the loss of Cid need not be the loss of his knowledge and expertise, as long as hers could be preserved.
Even in that long ago time, memory transference was a dying art. Those with the necessary skills had steadily grown fewer, but even if they had not, the people willing to undergo the ceremony grew scarcer with every generation. It was no longer seen as a passing down of skills and knowledge, a method of preservation against calamity; instead, it was seen as a tethering to the past, endlessly looking back, crippling new ideas with the old ways.
She had never understood it -- how could people hope to understand each other without the benefit of having seen things as their ancestors had seen them, to understand the pain and loss of war and calamity without having experienced it for themselves? Of what use was the written word when it lay unread on yellowing pages, decaying and uncared for?
The woman that she had both been and never been, the life that she had both lived and not lived, played across her dreams more regularly than she cared to admit. The dangers of the world outside the village had been imprinted upon her, of how the Lufenians' skills for engineering and science would be twisted in the service of war and death.
Despite these lessons learned and the knowledge that was passed down, the recollection of sorrow that did not follow its original vessels to the grave, over time faces were forgotten, flattened into composite pictures. The purpose of memory transferral was to pass down knowledge and history; personal lives, though also passed on, were subordinated to the desire to hold on to knowledge and understanding. The faces of those she had loved and lost grew fainter, dimming slowly into blackness.
Though grief and longing sometimes burned bright in her chest, it was a pain she could not pinpoint the source of; war and disaster were common, and overcoming the collective grief of thousands of years of history was a skill that all recipients of memory transferrals were trained for.
Later, she wondered whether, if she had known what Lukahn was trying to warn her against, she would have chosen any differently.
The court of Cornelia was steeped in protocol and tradition – she knew it well and took care not to offend, presenting her petition to Queen Sara, however, as an equal. The high-ranking knights that flanked the throne had stirred, but the Queen herself was not perturbed. The power of the military in Cornelia had been on the wane since the death of Sara's father, but it was not yet ready to relinquish its hold.
Sara read over the petition in silence, before re-rolling the scroll and folding her hands in her lap. "Granted," she said simply, before making as if to rise.
"Your Majesty," broke in one the knights, a towering man, enormous even if he hadn't been wearing his elaborate armour. "These things should be discussed –"
Sara held up a hand. "Cornelia is courteous to its guests, Garland," she said mildly. "I've granted the petition."
Garland retreated, but not before she saw his strange eyes, almost yellow, flicker towards her, a look of complete distrust clouding his features.
Gently but inexorably, memories flowed back to her – it was a dream she had had before, but the knowledge it contained was something the Lufenians could not use, and so she had disregarded most of the memories.
She felt the dry crackle of paper beneath her fingertips as she sorted through pages and pages of experimental data, searching for the information she needed. Diagrams for machinery and equipment that had long since ceased to exist covered them, advanced technology that had been lost and had passed into the realm of lore. The part of her mind that remained lucid even when she dreamed reminded her that she ought to wake up and hold on to these memories – what else was the point of having them passed down to her? – but against her better judgement she released the urge, allowing the dream to continue.
She found the paper she was looking for. A man sat with his back to her, his white hair pulled back, sitting neatly on the nape of his neck. She placed her fingers on his shoulder, leaning over him and sliding the paper before him.
"Thank you, Cosmos," he muttered, not looking up. She saw him squint at it, his forehead furrowing deeply, and realised how tired he must be.
"It’s late," she said, echoing the words of the woman she had been. "There's no more you can do tonight. Come to bed, Cid."
She held the memories of Cid of the Lufaine's wife, who had been a partner in all his work. But never before in a dream had she seen his face, farming his wife's memories, as she did, only for her knowledge.
He sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "I know," he said. "This crystal… I don't like it. It has potential, but to create a life form… I don't see how any good can come of it."
She leaned down, kissing the crown of his head. "I know," she said softly. "I was there when they extracted it." She paused – she had never told him everything that had happened on that field trip to Onrac. He had enough on his plate without knowing the full cost of obtaining the materials he was now working with. She closed her eyes against the memory of the smell of burning flesh, the single malicious red eye that had been trained on her before the troops had retreated, urging her back through the doorway from which they’d come.
"We could leave," she said suddenly, before she had a chance to stop herself. "You're not bound in service to the state; you're here voluntarily. We could go home –"
He shook his head. "No."
She tried to mask her disappointment, but she knew he could easily see through her.
"Do you think the research will stop if I leave?" She could not meet his eyes. "The only thing I can hope to do is try to guide it in a less destructive path. If the state could see some other way to use the crystal, perhaps they wouldn't be so set on creating a monster…"
She closed her eyes, trying to shield her heart from the lie they both knew he was telling. The state would never be swayed from this path, and perhaps it was right. Given the growing aggression of its neighbour, the only way they could hope to be safe was to develop sufficient defences. And apart from that, she knew he was unwilling to leave, despite the state's intentions – he was too much a scientist to leave a project half-completed, and she had always known that whatever he started, he finished. His resolve was unbreakable; in truth, it was one of the things she had fallen in love with what seemed like many, many years ago.
She leaned forward, burying her face in his soft hair, feeling it slide against her cheek, and breathing in his scent as if trying to absorb him into the very marrow of her bones. Let them fight it out, she wanted to tell him, let them fight their wars and die, if they can find no other way to resolve their differences. Let's you and I return to our village and live in peace, away from all this… But she knew he would never agree – leaving others to die was not his way, and for a moment, she almost felt ashamed for wanting to shut herself away with him and isolate themselves on the Wing of the Hawk, lost in research and each other.
When she woke, the threads of the dream were already beginning to slip away from her, and she cursed herself for not waking when she had initially intended to. How much knowledge had passed from the grasp of her waking mind now? Such selfishness was not to be tolerated – she had been passed the memories in order to extract knowledge and help restore Lufenia to its previous eminence, not to imagine lovers who had long since passed into the grave. But despite her anger with herself, she raised her hand to her cheek, still feeling the phantom sensation of his hair against her face.
Something in the name made her start even before she felt the fingers wrap around the crook of her elbow. It was only for a moment before they abruptly released her again, the speaker starting back. "Forgive me Cosmos, I –"
Startled, she turned her head to face him; then shock knocked the breath out of her chest.
She knew his face – her head swam suddenly with memories that had remained like deeply moving water beneath the ice of her consciousness, the four points of pressure on her arm where his fingers had touched her burning. She opened her mouth, but no words would come to her – he stared at her, confusion clouding his face. His long white hair was tied back, but half of it had still managed to escape. But it was his eyes – his eyes –
"I'm sorry, My Lady – I was mistaken –"
He got no further before the personal guard she had been assigned pushed him roughly backwards. For a moment, she saw anger glinting in his eyes, before it was abruptly suppressed.
"You would presume to manhandle a guest of Her Majesty?" the guard growled out. "You have no position here. Leave at once."
The man bowed shallowly at the waist, the barest movement possible whilst still remaining within the bounds of politeness, before turning and walking away.
As she too began to move off along the corridor, she glanced over her shoulder and caught him doing the same, a look of confusion, mixed with almost palpable longing that she herself knew so well. Seeing her glance, the man dropped his gaze, straightening his back and turning his head away.
"Who was that man?" she asked, when she felt she could speak without her voice shaking.
The guard snorted. "Nobody, My Lady. An errant warrior who arrived here with some fellows – he decided to stay when the rest of them moved on. Don't ask me why; Cornelia has knights enough without picking up strays." He scratched his face. "The castle can maintain equipment for only so many men, and in peacetime there's no chance for promotion. It would better to return to the life of an errant, if you ask me."
She nodded slightly but didn’t reply. She sat silently through the dinner the castle provided, not tasting the food in her mouth and thinking only of the man's blue eyes looking over his shoulder at her as he had walked away.
These were not the memories of the wife of Cid of the Lufaine, she was sure of that now.
She was back within the confines of the decaying world, twilight's soft descent darkening the horizon. She watched them disappear, one by one, sent back to the worlds they came from. As was right. As it always should have been.
He was the last to disappear, standing and looking at her, his eyes full of the sadness she knew he would never give voice to. Where would he return to? He had been created in this world; he belonged nowhere in the places beyond the Rift.
For a moment, savage selfishness stabbed through her chest – could she not have this one thing, to keep him with her as the world died around them, and live out their final days as they had not been allowed to in that other world? She knew even as she thought it that she was being unreasonable and that she had to let him go. He was not that man, and she was not that woman. It mattered not where he went from here, but simply that he was free from the cycles that she, Chaos and Cid had started in their anger and desire for revenge.
"You're going now?" she asked him softly, watching as he, who had always seemed so solid, slowly began to disappear before her eyes.
She looked up, her eyes stinging with tears she did not want to shed in front of him. "Thank you," she said.
"There's no need to thank me. I regret only that I couldn't do more." He looked up at the sky briefly, at the sun shining between the clouds. "I'll find you," he said, looking down at her again.
She closed her eyes. "No, you won't."
"I will." In one fluid motion, he knelt before her, taking her hand in his rapidly disappearing fingers. "Please remember, Cosmos, that I am ever yours." His voice was steady. "I will find you."
They remained like that until his fingers became too insubstantial to hold her. When he was gone, she let her arm drop slowly to her side, before turning away and walking out across the land to wait for her death.
She awoke, her chest aching, her breath catching in her throat, the pale gold dawn stretching through her window.
The harvest season had only just begun, and she was compelled to stay in Cornelia until enough had been gathered not only to fulfil her granted petition, but to first provide the minimum required to keep the castle and surrounding villages in supply. She understood fully – Queen Sara would have been remiss in her duties to pass even part of Cornelia's plenty on to a foreign village before first securing enough for her own people – but still, anxiousness to be off cast a pall over her days.
She had not seen the errant warrior who had so unsettled her again – she supposed that low-ranking knights and fighters not formally allied to Cornelia were usually sealed off from guests of the Queen unless they were on guard duty within the main body of the castle.
She had seen Garland several times, however – as a high-ranking knight and advisor, he was constantly within the call of the Queen, and she had often passed him in the long corridors of state or sat within range of his gaze at dinner. She could never get over the feeling that he was looking at her, even when she turned her head and found him engrossed in conversation with someone else. The one time she had raised her eyes and found his upon her, it was with the same expression as the day she had first arrived – a mixture of mistrust and something that bordered on hatred. Even so, the expression was tempered, as if with the knowledge that his feelings were irrational and he could not place their source; indeed, it was the same feeling she had about him – the flash of his eye was something she felt she had seen before, but where this may have happened was long buried in her memories. In any case, it was impossible for him to have been alive when a Lufenian had last visited Cornelia, and she found it hard to reconcile this knowledge with the fact that, nonetheless, she knew him.
There were too many questions without answers, and too many uncanny dreams and emotions. She had felt unsettled and ill at ease since her arrival here. Briefly, she wondered if it would be wiser to simply leave now, regardless of how badly mannered that would be, and forget these things had happened.
She dismissed the idea almost instantly – even if it would not have been an extreme insult to the Queen, she burned with the need to understand why -- how had these men come to be embedded so deeply in her memories, even if she could not place them? The errant knight had appeared twice, in two entirely different contexts: as a warrior, standing before her with a sword in his hand; and as a scientist, sitting calmly over his work, his musculature far less filled out but his eyes, his face, the same.
Lufenians had been scientists before other cultures had discovered fire, she knew, but it still did not explain how the same man had come to be here in Cornelia, having aged only a few years from the man she saw in her memories. And as for Garland…
She did not even know where to begin answering her questions. She knew that records would be kept of all enlistments and promotions of the Cornelian army – the kingdom had been militarised for so long that such things were necessary. She assumed the records were kept in the library, as were all paper documents of that sort.
She made up her mind – even if it came to nothing, at least she would have tried.
The library at Castle Cornelia was on the lower levels, deep underground, its passages lightless and oppressive. She wandered alone among the ancient volumes, the unfamiliar, musty smell of parchment heavy in her nostrils.
She cradled the light spell in her palm, confident that she was alone but wary all the same, holding up her hand to read the dates and names on the spines of the bound books that lined the shelves.
It wasn't until she reached the back of the deep room that she sensed it: a concealment spell, mixed with something else, an enchantment that locked the chamber beyond out of normal time. Such a spell was very rare. She felt the threads of magic curl through her fingers, soft and fluid, moving between the motes of dust that hung in the air. The spell was ancient and delicate; it would be easier for her to simply break it down and re-cast it when she was finished.
She paused for a moment, wondering what she should do next. This had not been her original purpose here, but her curiosity drew her towards the room, aware that being caught here would likely have her branded a spy or a traitor to her hosts. Before she had a chance to contemplate the possible consequences further, she waved her hand, dissolving the spell, and moved into the room within.
Inside, there was a single volume. Its pages, far from being yellowed with age, were crisp and white, bound with string that was still strong and held them together so tightly that it was only with some effort that she pulled them apart. Taking care not to crease the binding by laying the book flat, she read from the first page:
The world lies in shrouded darkness.
The winds die...
The seas rage...
The earth decays...
But the people believe in a prophecy, patiently waiting for its fulfilment.
'When darkness veils the world, four Warriors of Light shall come.'
After a long journey four young warriors did at last appear...
...and in their hands each was holding a crystal.
She paused – of course she knew the legend, it was taught to every child, a fairytale for cold nights, of the Light Warriors who had defeated the Four Fiends and ensured peace for the world.
Confused, she skipped over the next page or two, skimming the text. This legend was old and well-known; why would anyone go to such trouble to conceal a book of fairytales? She knew very little of books, though enough to be aware that some were highly valued, encrusted with jewels and painstakingly illuminated – but this book was plain, and she had seen the valuable books locked away elsewhere in the library. She read on:
The Flying Fortress of the Lufaine was first ravaged by Tiamat, its inhabitants destroyed…
She paused, her forehead creasing – she did not remember this part of the legend at all. The Flying Fortress still stood, suspended in the air by its Levistones, an accomplishment of engineering developed by Cid of the Lufaine, whose wife's memories she held. It was due in part to these memories that the Levistones could be maintained. The Fortress had never been destroyed, never been touched by the serpentine arms of Tiamat. Tiamat was a myth.
She read on, growing more confused with every line.
The shrine of Onrac is no more, the mermaids driven out, taken over by Kraken, who made the once holy place his home.
The fertile earth of Melmond now begins to rot, a slow decay that creeps over the land day by day… the Light Warriors will appear, of that I have no doubt. But whether it is in time to save what is left I do not know…
Perplexed, she stopped reading, resting her fingers against the crisp paper. These were additions to the legend that she had never before seen, but why had someone gone to the trouble of concealing them in such a way?
Turning to the overleaf, she let out a sharp breath – there on the page was her own name, inscribed in the same immaculate handwriting as the rest of the book.
My story is merely that of a single researcher...
no more than the tale of a mother and child.
I fear the telling of this tale will most
likely do little more than add further
confusion to people living in a world that
has fallen into the depths of despair.
Had she spoken those words? She read on, a darker ink and an indentation indicating a new speaker:
I do not intend to tell them.
After taking down your story,
I will keep the reports firmly sealed,
hidden from the outside world.
Yet, someday, a strong-willed person
will uncover the reports.
By the time they are read... this
story will be no more than a myth.
Still, we have a duty to hold it dear.
Stories are proof of life, after all.
She swallowed as she read, her throat feeling thick – the story was here, laid out in ink; Cid's research and its disastrous conclusion, the disappearance of himself and the life form he had created, her decision not to wait or look for them but to travel directly to the village to have her wounds treated and to pass on her memories… her breath caught in her throat. There was more beyond this, things that she did not know, could not know, because they had never happened:
Do you believe there is some connection
between what you've just told me and the
Four Fiends who currently aim to wreak
havoc within the world?
That is something even I do not know. However,
it seems that several locations key to the story
In the memories, they are places with fissures in
space-time. The places where the Four Fiends
reside... Each and every one of them are locations
from my memories.
Such things were impossible: the Warriors of Light had defeated the Four Fiends in the distant past – if either of them had ever existed at all. The Fiends had never taken up residence on any part of the world. The Flying Fortress of the Lufaine still flew, and the mermaids still tended the shrine at Onrac. Melmond prospered, an agricultural trade centre.
Pressing her fingers to her forehead, she re-read the text. Who had recorded this? Even if it were somehow a forgery or a work of fiction imagining what may have happened had the Fiends not been defeated in the myth of the Light Warriors, it did not explain how her own memories had come to be written down here, in her own words, just as she would have detailed them.
Turning to the last page, she pulled back her fingers in shock – the text's author had inscribed his name below the last lines, apologising for the hasty way in which it had been assembled. Lukahn.
Feeling breathless, she wondered if this was why Lukahn had warned her against coming here, if she had uncovered some secret that she was never meant to have known –
She started up at the sound of the voice behind her, deep and cold. Slamming the book closed, she turned.
Garland towered over her, even as she drew herself up to her full height. She was not a tall woman, and he was a giant of a man. He looked down at her oddly, his yellow eyes cold in the darkness.
"The Queen has ordered these records remained sealed," he said, his voice sounding oddly soft in the small space between the shelves. "They have been sealed since before her father's time. What are you doing here?"
She swallowed. "My apologies. I allowed my curiosity about Cornelian history to get the better of me –"
"Very curious indeed, to have come here in the dead of night." His eyes hardened. "How did you break the concealment spell? The magic is old, and the ability has been lost. How did you know it?"
Before she could complete the sentence, Garland stepped forward, catching her wrist, his fingers encircling it easily.
"Who are you, woman?" he asked quietly, his breath swirling the dust motes. "Why do I know your face?" His fingers tightened around her wrist.
Setting her jaw, she began to let the warmth of magic fill the palm of her other hand, ready to defend herself if she had to –
At the sound of the voice behind him, Garland started, releasing her. He turned, and she looked past him, down the aisle – the warrior who had stopped her in the courtyard a few days prior stood in the gloom beyond, his white hair standing out even in the darkness.
"My apologies, My Lady," Garland muttered, not looking at her. "I seem to have forgotten myself." He moved back, creating enough space for her to walk by him. "I must ask you to leave the library. This section is restricted."
Pausing only briefly, she moved by him. She wanted to say something more, but could not think of what. With effort, she did not look up at the warrior, instead walking past him and down the aisle. The sound of Garland's voice stopped her in her tracks.
"Please wait, My Lady." She turned back towards him, her heart in her throat. Instead of addressing her again, Garland instead spoke to the warrior. "Escort the lady back to her quarters," he said. "She is a guest. The castle can be confusing at night, though she seems to know her way around."
The warrior bowed. "Of course, Garland," he said.
She lowered her eyes, trying to appear chastised and mildly embarrassed by her misstep. If Garland believed her meek, then there was a chance he would not pass on the incident. If he believed his suspicions of her irrational, there was even less incentive for him to give voice to them.
She kept her head bowed, and did not look over her shoulder at Garland as she followed the warrior back through the maze of shelves – she knew what the expression on his face would be, in any case. Internally, she cursed herself. This had been so clumsily done, she thought, and all that she had achieved was to uncover more questions without answers. How had Garland known she was here?
The man beside her fell into step at her right, as protocol demanded, and she could not help but glance at him from the corner of her eye. He was the same man, she was sure of it – even if he had aged slightly from the man she saw in her dreams and memories, the set of his jaw, the straightness of his spine and, most of all, his eyes were the same. He looked resolutely ahead, not turning his eyes to her, and he did not speak. She wondered if it had been he who had followed her and had alerted Garland to her presence in the library.
After a moment of deliberation, she said, "Thank you."
Now, briefly, he turned his eyes to her, before looking away again. "For what, My Lady?"
"I'm afraid I angered Garland."
He did not respond for a moment. "I was on evening watch. I saw you go into the library and saw him follow you. I was… concerned."
He was silent for a time. "It matters not," he eventually said.
Though she kept her face neutral, she felt a cold twist in her belly -- the warrior knew Garland, that much at least was clear. Concern at his following her meant that, despite the fact they were on fairly familiar terms with each other, he did not completely trust the man.
They turned, and he began to escort her up the stairs to the guest sleeping quarters. She wanted to slow him down somehow but could not think of an excuse. Instead, she said, "You stopped me in the courtyard the other day. Why?"
Watching him, she saw his eyes flicker to her again and noticed something – pain, or something close to desperation – deep within them. "I'm sorry for that, My Lady. I mistook you for someone I… someone I once knew."
Again, he was silent. "It matters not," he said again, and she could see in his face that he had said more than he’d meant to. Even so, she could see that even in his reluctance to speak of such things, it probably would not even have occurred to him to lie or obfuscate.
She wanted to tell him more -- that Cosmos had been her name once, thousands of years ago – but she did not trust herself to speak, and she did not yet understand what she knew. Instead, she let him escort her the rest of the way to her room in silence and closed the door behind her without a word, not trusting herself to look back at him as she did so.
She did not sleep the rest of the night, her mind too restless, too desperate for answers.
She did not understand the meaning of what she had read in the library – could not understand why, when she closed her eyes, she saw only the man's face. Cid had died over two thousand years ago – no one knew how, but the records that existed from the time were clear. He had died in a foreign land, in mysterious circumstances – the wife whose memories she had inherited had seen him disappear before her eyes, and he had never been heard from again. His wife had died believing him dead.
Closing her eyes, she wished she had heeded Lukahn's advice and never come to Cornelia – Lufenians always hungered for more knowledge, to understand completely and implicitly how the world around them worked, but for the first time, she wished only to forget everything she knew, to leave the past where it had rested. Though she knew Lukahn had warned her, she could not help but feel an acute sense of betrayal – he knew more about her own life even than she did, it seemed, and he had kept it from her, not only knowledge about her life, but about events from history that were patently impossible, but nonetheless existed in record.
She wondered if he knew the answers she sought, and if, when asked outright, he would supply them to her. She may be stuck in Castle Cornelia for the immediate future, but she knew she could contact him – projection was exhausting magic and required great concentration, but she was sure she could achieve it, tired though she was.
She sat before the fire, staring into its depths, trying to clear her mind and achieve the proper state of consciousness to allow herself to go to him. It would be the early hours of the morning in Crescent Lake, but she knew he would be awake. Sometimes she wondered if he had passed beyond the need for sleep.
Slowly, the room around her began to dim, the sound of the fire fading. When she opened her eyes again, she was in Lukahn's bare room, near where the Circle of Sages met. She raised her eyes and found him regarding her quietly.
"Lukahn," she started, and hated how desperate and plaintive she sounded.
He sighed. "You did find it after all. I thought you might."
"What does it mean? Those things – the destruction of the Lufaine – "
"Did not happen in this timeline," he finished for her, a hard edge in his voice.
She was silent, looking down into her lap.
"I told you that some events are only safe when they are written down and guarded with magic," he said. "Perhaps they no longer matter – they are a record of things that can never happen now, after all."
"The legend of the Light Warriors –"
"A legend now, yes."
"In the document, you predicted that they would come?"
"I did. The reason that all the events recorded in that book are now impossible is due to the fact that they did indeed appear in this world." He paused, watching her face. "All of history is the result of choices, My Lady. Things change – had you decided to remain in Lufenia, we would not now be having this conversation. Had you and your husband not delved into the potential of the crystals –"
She looked up sharply. "My husband," she said. "What is the meaning behind his appearance here?"
"Is he indeed the same man?" Lukahn asked mildly. "Think of the powers of the crystal that was discovered in the Rift at Onrac. Think of what the state created when they unlocked its powers."
Dropping her head, she squeezed her eyes shut. She had not realised until now how desperately she had wanted the man to be Cid, for him to have wandered here somehow, after so many years lost to her – she could have restored his memory to him, at least partially, and together they could have… She did not finish the thought, but her fingers, as if unbidden, brushed over her cheek, remembering again how she had buried her face in his hair, wishing they had returned home when they had still had the chance.
"My Lady," Lukahn said, his voice not unkind. "It's my advice that you leave it be. He is not the man you knew."
"But he remembers me –"
"He remembers the manikin the state made of Cosmos to control the child," he said. "If he sees her in you, it's because you hold her memories. These things leave… impressions on the recipient. And you resemble her more than a little, in any case."
"Don’t presume to lecture me about my own culture," she said, her voice harsh.
"Of course. I apologise."
They were silent for a time.
"This Cornelian man – Garland –"
Lukahn waved a hand. "That, I cannot reveal. All men can be judged only what they do, not what they have the potential to do. If he has chosen a righteous path in this timeline, it is not right for me to speak of what he may have done in another."
She bowed her head – as usual, Lukahn had answered her and yet not answered her. She sometimes wondered if he had gained his reputation as an oracle by simply giving everyone incomplete answers.
She felt her concentration beginning to wane, the crackle of the fire beginning to slide back within her hearing.
"Are you leaving now?" Lukahn asked, and she thought she saw pity in his eyes. The thought angered her. She did not need to be patronised by him.
"Yes," she responded and felt herself begin to descend, to slide back within her body.
When she opened her eyes again, the fire was dying down into dull embers, crackling softly on the hearth. Her mind reeled with exhaustion, and she barely had enough energy to stand and make her way to the bed, before lying down in her clothes and sleeping until the grey light of morning.
As the days wore on, she could feel her resolve becoming weaker and weaker.
Let it be, Lukahn had said, and she knew he was right. No matter what memories she held in her heart, he did not belong to her, and she was no longer the woman he wished her to be. He would come to realise that, sooner or later. She wondered if he might never have thought of Cosmos again had he not been reminded by her arrival.
She had no formal activities to occupy herself with during her remaining time at the castle – the Queen met with her in the morning to exchange pleasantries, but the rest of the day was hers. She kept to the inner chambers of the castle, unwilling to return to the courtyard where she had first met him. Dreams of a past life still haunted her sleep, and she sometimes woke now feeling so empty and brittle she thought she would snap if she tried to move.
In the dreams of the dying world, he had never touched her, except to hold her hand that single time, of this she was sure. But as Cid, as her husband, they had lain wrapped around each other every night, drinking in each other's warmth, holding each other close as a reassurance against the world they had found themselves in. He had always been wakeful, and she had pulled his head against her breasts, stroking his hair until he gradually fell into a troubled sleep, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist as if he would never let her go. She had always remained awake long afterwards, listening to him mutter in his sleep, growing ever more fearful of what he was creating and ever more mistrustful of the state they both served. The prospect of war loomed over them like a shadow, threatening to swallow up everything they held dear.
When she did see the warrior again, it was entirely by accident.
The knights who stood watch outside her chambers did so in six-hour shifts; one stood guard while the other slept in the small room next door, bare except for a bed and a shelf for their swords. It was pure formality – the likelihood of an assassin making their way so far into the castle was slim indeed, and even slimmer was the chance that someone would bother to attack the headwoman of the isolated and impoverished Lufenians.
When she rounded the corner after dinner and saw him standing there, she almost took a step back. Dinner had been a tiring affair, and Garland had been watching her all evening. She had excused herself as soon as politeness allowed, making her way through the corridors of the castle as servants began lighting the braziers that lined the walls in preparation for nightfall.
She hovered behind the corner for a moment, feeling foolish – what exactly did she think she would do? Simply not enter her room until his shift was over? In any case, if he was any sort of sentry at all, he had seen her round the corner and then step back, and she felt her cheeks burn.
Swallowing, she rounded the corner once again, acutely aware that the schoolgirl blush still burnished her cheeks.
"My Lady," he said formally as she entered her chambers; she merely dipped her head in response, not trusting herself to speak. She closed the heavy wooden door behind her and leaned back against it briefly, feeling its cold solidness press against her skin. Her knees were trembling. Irritated, she held a hand to her face, as if to wipe away her shame – to behave like a maiden on a feast day was beyond contemptible in her current position. But she knew it was not the same innocent joy that a young woman might have felt at the sight of her champion – the weight of their history bore down on her, and everything she felt was darkened with the knowledge of the deeds that had brought them both to this point.
She moved away from the door, undressed herself slowly and changed into her nightgown. Though the night was hardly chill, she shivered as she climbed beneath the covers, feeling cold and alone, her fingers curling around nothing but empty air, her heart within her feeling as heavy as stone.
She closed her eyes – to know he was a few scant feet away, on the other side of the doorway was almost intolerable; in vain, she recalled Lukahn's advice to let it be, not to complicate matters even further by confusing the man he was with the man she had lost. It seemed to her that she had lost him twice already – once to the experiments of war, and once to the dying world from which he had disappeared before her eyes. To lose him again… she pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead, as pain loosed itself in her chest.
The night wore on. Sleep would not come to her. She lay curled in bed, watching his shadow, visible through the gap at the bottom of her door. She wondered if he thought of her, or if, having realised she was not the woman he sought, she had simply passed out of his mind.
Eventually, his comrade came to relieve him; his shift was over, and it was time for him to take his rest. She heard them exchange a few words, muted by the thick wood of the door, and then heard him walk the few steps down the hall to his room. She bit her lip. It would be so simple, and she would never again find him alone… the life of a low-ranking knight was characterised by a complete lack of privacy, sleeping as they did in barracks, and spending their days either on duty or practicing with their fellows.
Before she knew what she was doing she had swung her legs over the side of her bed and walked, barefoot and silent to the door. She opened it slightly and peered out.
"My Lady?" the unfamiliar guard on the other side began to say, before she let the sleep spell flow from her fingers. He slumped over, his eyes flickering shut – she silently requested his forgiveness as she moved out and closed the door behind her. He would only be out for a few minutes, and she hoped he would wake and believe that he had dropped off on duty, with no consequence but feeling slightly sheepish.
Under the half-light of the braziers she walked the short distance down the corridor to the plain wooden door of the room where the night guards slept. She paused before it – knocking seemed ludicrous in such circumstances. Instead, closing her eyes and pushing the image of Lukahn's disappointed gaze from her mind, she pushed down the latch, opening the door.
A semi-circle of light from the corridor flooded into the pitch-black room, illuminating the narrow bed in the corner. He was already sitting up, sword in hand, the bedclothes having fallen back from the broad plane of his chest – her breath left her, not with the simple emotion of desire, but with the aching need of the familiar.
"My Lady?" he asked, his voice sounding confused. "Is something wrong? Where is – "
She turned away from him, closing the door and for a moment resting her forehead against it. All her life she had done what was required of her, she was the lady of her house, the head of her people, and the carrier of centuries of Lufenian memories and history – was it permissible, just this once, to behave so irresponsibly? Even as her head told her that one mistake was as bad as ten thousand, her heart refused to give him up. Not yet. Just once…
She blinked in the darkness, her eyes beginning to adjust. Behind her, she heard the flare of a match being struck, then the pale glow of a candle lit up the small room.
"My Lady?" he said again, and she turned towards him.
He had placed his sword down on the shelf near the bed, and was regarding her quietly, his face soft.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice shaking. "I wanted to see you –"
She cut herself off, not knowing what to say next. Any explanation she could give him, she realised, would sound like madness, depending on what he remembered. If anything, she reminded herself sourly. She raised her eyes to him, the guttering light of the candle casting long, flickering shadows across his chest. Looking at him now, she remembered that he had always taken her breath away, from the first moment she had ever laid eyes on him. She felt the same familiar warmth begin to collect in her belly, her skin feeling too tight for her body. Her breath quickened in her chest, and before she could stop herself she had moved the few steps across the room to him, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck, and pulling his head to her chest. Again she buried her face in his hair, remembering every time she had done this in the past, as if by doing this she could block out everything in the world but him, cast everything away until only they were left, standing together at the end of the world.
"Cosmos," he murmured against her, and she did not even care that this was no longer her name. "I knew it was you," he said softly, raising his arms to curl around her back, his hands resting on her shoulder blades. They stayed like that for a time, unwilling to move, before she pulled back, running her thumbs along his cheekbones, and bowing her head to kiss him.
His mouth was as hot as she remembered it being; he had always burned brightly behind the ice blue of his eyes, but she could feel his uncertainty, the hesitance behind his movements. She pulled back, running her fingers through his hair.
"My Lady – " he began.
"This isn't what you want?" she asked.
He dropped his eyes. "I told you I was ever yours, My Lady," he said.
"That isn't what I asked."
His breath was as light as a feather against her throat when he answered. "I was only waiting to be worthy."
She smiled slightly, the first time she could remember having done so except out of obligation in weeks. "There was never any question of that."
Moving forward, she knelt on the bed, her knees either side of his hips, her nightdress rucking up to her thighs. If he had had misgivings before they now seemed to have vanished, and his fingers traced their way lightly up her sides, over the curve of her hip and the shallow valley of her waist. Her breath hitched as they slid over the skin beneath her breasts, leaving a warm trail behind them even through her nightdress.
She moved over him, pressing forward against him. His hands wound their way around her back, moving up to tangle in her hair, and she leaned forward to kiss him again, this time opening her mouth and feeling his tongue against hers.
Warmth flooded through her; warmth, and a sudden, desperate, clawing need. The only thing she wanted now was to hold him close to her and never let him out of her sight again.
Her hand rolled down his shoulders – they were so much heavier than the man's she had once been married to, and if Cid's body had not been soft, neither had it been like this. Despite the fact she had known him so well, every inch of him over so many years of courtship and then marriage, she almost felt that she would now have to re-learn his body, these different dips and grooves, the thickness of his thighs and the cords of his muscles.
She saw his throat clench gently as he swallowed, looking up at her as if waiting for guidance. Tightness coiled in her stomach, winding its way downwards – she longed to breathe him in as she had tried desperately to do all those years ago; to bury her face in his hair as she had always used to, to feel it against her cheek and neck. His hands came down from her hair, down her back and slid over her thigh, rising beneath her gown and over her hipbone, his fingers spreading over the skin next to the small of her back. His mouth found the curve of her throat; softly, tenderly. Fire shot through her nerves, collecting between her thighs, and she pressed her hips forward against him, feeling the heat of his own flesh rising between them.
The bed creaked as they shifted and for a moment she glanced towards the door, but there was no evidence of movement outside. His back was pressed against the stone wall – she thought it must be cold, but he gave no indication of noticing it. Instead, he simply pulled her forward to him, her thighs parting around him, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders. The growing hardness at his groin pressed against her and she shuddered, feeling her pulse begin to throb.
She closed her eyes, resting her forehead against his. Her breathing felt loud in her chest, and it took a moment for her to realise that he was speaking. "Cosmos," he said, but this time the name was like an ice shard through her chest. "I've been so lost without you. I never thought –"
She moved against him, letting him feel how wet she was, and he cut himself off with a gasp. "I know," she whispered, "but you would have forgotten, given time."
This time, he opened his eyes, sitting up a little straighter. "Never," he said, his voice hard. "Without you, what is there that's worth protecting?"
She pressed her lips to his, silencing him, but the coldness that had cut into her heart would not dissipate. She rolled her hips forward, hearing him groan into her mouth. She braced herself on the wall with her palm, rising up on her knees. Reaching down, she found him with her hand, her fingers winding around him. His head fell back, and he closed his eyes. Slowly and deliberately she stroked him, feeling his pulse in her palm.
Holding him, gently she began to lower herself, drawing him deeply within her, feeling his heat radiate through her body from the inside out. His breath was shallow in his chest, his fingers twitching on her hips as she moved slowly forward, pressing her lips to his jaw. At this moment, she wanted to stay like this forever, this feeling of complete fullness too good to let go, the singing in her muscles and nerves too sweet to relinquish. It could never be, even if the limits of physicality had not made it impossible – she knew, and had always known, even as she made her way to his room, that whatever they would share here would die with the coming dawn.
Closing her eyes, she pushed the thought from her mind, beginning to move over him, sliding her hips forward in long, slow thrusts. Next to her ear, he gasped, his fingers digging into her skin, the muscles of his thighs clenching beneath her. She felt the beat of his heart against her breasts, sweat, both hers and his, dampening the cloth of her nightdress bunched between them. Vaguely, she was aware that the bed creaked with her movements, but now she could not bring herself to care, quickening her pace.
He groaned deep in his throat every time he sunk into her, and these sounds she did care about; she pressed her fingers to his mouth, trying to quieten him, but he only drew them into his mouth, running his tongue along the sensitive pads, and making her gasp. It was only when his teeth grazed them, ever so gently, that she cried out herself, pulling herself up against him, losing her rhythm for a moment, her head growing light.
She felt a bright throb within her, a pulse that seemed to flow like a wave through her whole body, and she arched like a bow, soundlessly releasing her climax to the empty air around them. A moment later she felt him stiffen, his muscles twitching almost violently, and then felt him pulsate once, twice inside her before he fell back into complete relaxation. She curled her fingers into the muscles of his shoulders, feeling her heart rate slowly descending within her ears. Even now, she did not let him go, instead tightening herself around him, draining every last drop of pleasure she could from him. Here, she felt full, she felt whole – to withdraw would be like cutting out a part of herself.
She knew it could not last – no matter how desperately she might wish it. Releasing him, she rose, and he began to lie down, drawing her down with him and pulling her close to his chest. "I knew I would find you," he murmured again into her hair, and she blinked against the tears that rose unexpectedly in her eyes.
She did not reply, simply waited for the breath in his chest to deepen into sleep, before inching her way out of his arms to sit on the end of the bed. Despite the mild languor that flowed through her, her heart in her chest felt cold. She had achieved what she had set out to do when she entered his room – and now what? For a moment, she entertained the thought of asking him to go to Queen Sara and seek her permission to leave the castle and return to the life of a journeying warrior; there would be no restrictions on his movement so long as he did not relinquish his pledge to the Cornelian crown; he could come with her to Lufenia and together they could –
Almost as quickly as it had come, she cast the thought aside. Could she truly believe that he would be happy with that life? Only now did she realise how deep had been the disservice done to him – his thoughts were so entangled with a dead goddess that he could now see no way forward that didn't include her, no matter how impossible that might be. He may have thought he had found the Cosmos he had known in her – but she was painfully aware of the untruth she would be perpetuating. She was not his goddess, and he would come to realise that sooner or later. Bowing her head against the pain of the realisation, she knew she could not bring herself to take advantage of him simply to keep him with her. As long as he still held those memories they would never be equals, and he would never break free of that dying world his goddess had watched crumble and collapse all around her.
He was lost here – her and her husband's actions were still hobbling people even now, over two thousand years later. She could remember the past, but she could not change it. Her breath almost rose in her chest as a sob as she realised there was one thing she could do for him – memories could be transferred, but they could also be erased, though Lufenian culture held it as a great taboo to do so. A ceremony was performed, but it was only required when the whole of someone's life's memory was being transferred: a single memory or a thread of memories could be passed on or erased through a single touch, providing the practitioner had sufficient skill – skill such as hers. She had told herself that she could not lose him again, but now she realised that he had never been hers to lose.
Briefly, she wrapped her arms around herself, feeling sick. Could this truly be the correct path? Hadn't she and Cid's belief that they knew what was best, that they could control people's destinies, been the cause of all of this in the first place?
He stirred in his sleep and she turned towards him, running her thumb over his forehead. Of course it was right, she told herself. There was no life in chasing after what no longer existed.
Gently, she leaned down over him, feeling his soft breath on her cheek, before she whispered, "Forget," and pressed her lips to his forehead.
The morning of the day she left to return to Lufenia, she was standing in the courtyard watching sacks of grain be loaded onto the cart which would accompany her home. All told, she had spent a little over three weeks away, hardly any time at all really, but far too long for her liking. After the harvest winter would follow, and her people were hungry.
Queen Sara had promised her a mounted guard on her way back, as was only proper, and she watched as the castle stablemen prepared chocobos for the journey back, brushing down their feathers and fitting them with saddles.
She turned at the voice behind her, swallowing, her heart cold in her chest. She almost closed her eyes, but forced herself instead to look the warrior in the face, a light smile on her lips.
"I'll be leading your escort back to Lufenia," he said, bowing before her. "It's my honour and my privilege." There was no spark of recognition in his eyes this time – there was nothing but the polite courtesy of a knight charged with a task by his queen to protect a lady on her way home. Again, she wondered if she had been right – she had broken one of Lufenia's most serious taboos in taking his memories away from him, and she wondered for a moment if she had truly learned anything from the experiences of Cosmos and her husband.
She bowed her head slightly in response, lowering her eyes. She clenched her fists beneath her robes, waiting until she trusted her voice to speak before responding. "Thank you," she said, before turning away from him, feeling needles carve their way into her heart.
The world around her was dying.
She had roamed to its edges and watched as they crumbled away, almost gently returning to the nothingness from which they had come.
She had retired at last, when nothing else was left, to the spire of Order's Sanctuary, waiting for the Rift to swallow both it and her up. She had no desire to escape it, and no fear when the sounds of disintegration finally reached her ears. This had been her choice, and even if she had been inclined, it was too late now for second thoughts.
Perhaps the only thing she did regret was that her memories of this world, of all that her champions had fought for, would die with her here. She was alone in any case, even Cid having returned to beyond the doorway, and she could no longer feel the presence of Shinryu anywhere in the world; she presumed that following the final defeat of Chaos, who had long since lost his mind, he had returned to wander the Rift, as he had before their arrival. Her champions had been returned to the worlds they had been called from. Even him…
A crack opened up along the floor of the Sanctuary, the sounds of her last moments now loud in her ears. Desperation sliced through her. There had to be a way… Memories could exist without their original vessels, she knew, but that took power, and she had none left. She was exhausted and wanted simply to embrace the nothingness that awaited her. Closing her eyes, she bit her lip. No – she had to try. She had wanted to die with her memories, but she knew she had been selfish enough for several lifetimes already, without denying her warriors the remembrance that they deserved.
Closing herself off from the collapsing world around her, she clenched her hands into fists, her nails cutting semi-circles into her palms. Some tiny reserve of strength welled up within her, and she grabbed at it, balling it together, plucking her memories from her mind, a bright ball of light that grew within her.
In the moment before she disappeared, she released them, casting them into the void beyond.