One minute has the spell and the next, everything ends.
(It doesn’t happen like that, of course. It’s not so quick or clean. It’s a hazy, slow fall, like drifting to sleep. That’s how she remembers it, at least. That’s how she would tell this story, if she ever told anyone, but she didn’t. Hasn’t. Won’t. You know what they say about dead men and the tales they tell.
It is of no consequence. She doesn’t tells this story, and that’s all there is.
If she did, though, it would go something like this.)
Right before it happens, everything is fine.
She forms the spell with her hands and her voice, energy on tongue and fingertips both. They are winning; the binding holds and now all that remains is the retreat, falling back to safety. Victory is close enough to taste. Her allies, companions, dearest friends––Sirus and Kima, Drake and Dohla, Ghenn mere feet from her––they fight with renewed vigor, buoyed by the second wind of anticipated triumph.
And then. Then the ground twists and crumbles beneath her feet, hellfire raining down from the sky, smothering her in ash and ember, and the fragile threads of arcane energy break. The shock of the shattered spell shakes her, pounds through her skull, and her body turns to gelatin, soft and pliant; her legs buckle on their own.
The world softens around her, hazy and warm. She hears shouting, but that is far away, meaningless. The ground cradles her, gritty dirt pillow-soft beneath her, and she should not rest, but she is tired, so tired. She has been fighting for so long.
Someone else can fight for a little while. She will only be a moment.
Her eyes flutter shut, eyelids heavy, and everything fades to cotton-soft darkness.
(Here is the part of the story she will never know. Here is the part she missed. Here is her lover on her knees, praying and hoping and demanding in equal measure. Here is the choice.
Here is the guilt.)
Please , Kima begs, begs as she has never begged before. She knows she is not the most disciplined of Bahamut’s followers. She knows her teachers consider her headstrong and impatient. She knows she has nothing to offer but her faith, and her love.
Please , she begs anyways. She grips her holy symbol desperation-tight, pouring every ounce of herself into this spell. Embers slip through the cracks in her armor, burning her skin, but she cannot stop to think on the pain because this is important, more important than anything she has ever done; this is her first, last, only chance.
Please . Don’t let her be too late. Her pounding heart fills her throat, a hot-heavy lump that threatens to choke her, but she prays anyways.
Please . She feels the eyes of the others. She knows they are dim and fading, knows they are watching her, judging her, condemning her, but she cannot look back, cannot go to them, not yet, not while––
Please . She has made her choice, and she will face the consequences afterwards.
People do awful things for love.
Please, someone, anyone, please. Give her back to me.
It is soft here.
(She does not remember this part, but it is true nevertheless.
Well. It is as true as stories can be.)
It is soft here, soft and warm, and dark. She floats in the darkness, a thick, inky blackness that wraps her tight, keeps her safe. Nothing can touch her here. There is no sound, no light; there is nothing but the peace of the void. There is––
There is a noise.
It comes from far away, an indistinct echo. She thinks it might be her name. What is her name? She cannot remember. It has little significance here; there are no names in––
The noise comes again, louder. Insistent. It worms its way through the dark, a sharp-bright-brass sound among smooth-soft shadow. It drives through her skull, demanding, come here come here come here now and she can’t fight it, this half-familiar voice. It won’t take no for an answer. That makes her smile. She doesn’t know why.
So she sighs, and begins the slow, laborious journey towards the sound, swimming ever upwards through a darkness heavy as ink and twice as viscous. It holds her tighter as she tries to slip through, tendrils catching around her, tugging her downwards. It would be easy, she thinks with a warm afternoon’s tranquility, so easy to just let herself fall.
Everything falls eventually.
But someone waits for her, so she must go to them, must continue forwards, or upwards, or out––directions do not exist in this liminal space. She hears the voice again, brass and ivory and familiar as a lover’s embrace, and reaches for it, shaking away ribbons of shadow, stretching towards a silver-gold-blue light somewhere far, far away; if she believes enough she will make it, and––
And (and this she remembers, now; this she remembers with perfect clarity) she is in pain. Overwhelming pain, broken-burned-bleeding pain; it courses through her like lightning, spots dancing against the red light of closed eyelids, and she cries out at the magnitude of it, all-encompassing, eating her alive, gods, how is she alive?
A name. Her name.
She forces her eyes open.
Kima leans over her, once-braided hair a wild mess. A smear of rust-red blood stands out on her cheek against too-pale skin. Her eyes stare down, face a mask of hope, the wild desperation of a drowning woman who sees rescue on the horizon and does not know how long she can survive before the sea swallows her.
(What is the sea here? Is it the woman of faith? Is it her lover? Is it the endless plain of ash and fire?
Is it the guilt?
Ah, well. Only one person knows, and this is not her story to tell.)
Allura blinks the lingering dark out of her vision. Her eyes eyes feel sawdust-dry, gritty and grainy. They won’t focus. Kima she can see, the woman hovering just above her. Everything else is a blur, her senses tangled up in each other: a roiling sky, a cacophony of silence, and pain.
“Kima,” she says, and the word comes out thick and heavy and cracked, drought-dry. Her fuzzy tongue does not fit in her mouth; it fumbles against her teeth as she speaks. “Kima.”
“Stop talking,” Kima snaps, brash and short and frightened, so frightened, Allura reads it in the tightness around her eyes and the tilt of her eyebrows and the mulish line of her mouth, as if scowling at the darkness makes it any less daunting.
Allura smiles to see it. This is the stubbornness she fell in love with.
“Is it over?”
“I said stop talking.” Kima pulls away, falling out of focus for a moment, and then she returns with a stoppered vial of viscous, familiar liquid. She uncorks it with her teeth and gently, oh so gently, slips her hand behind Allura’s head, lifts her enough to feed her the potion. Allura downs the vial in one gulp; it coats her tongue, bitter and thick, but even as she swallows it she feels some of the pain lessen and her vision clear. Kima produces another potion, and Allura pushes herself upright to drink it, glass cool on her blistered fingers. The healing energy washes through her like a wave, smooth and soothing, and Allura takes a full breath as broken ribs shift back into place.
“Sorry I can’t do more,” Kima says, kneeling empty-handed at her side, unarmed. She shrugs a little, apologetic. “I wish I could, but I’m tapped out.”
“Is it over?” Allura asks her. The plain is utterly silent, devoid of of the sounds of battle. She cannot see the beast, cannot see much besides the endless field of ash and ember, and a few huddled shapes, and the smudge of mountains in the distance. The smoke burns her eyes. “Did we win?”
“It’s over,” Kima nods, but Allura sees none of the relief she expects. “The binding worked.”
“Where is he?” Surely he cannot be dead. She knows they are not strong enough to overpower the beast, and were he dead his corpse would lie somewhere on the plain. But there is nothing.
“He fled to the mountains. We seriously fucked him up.” Kima smiles, bitter and angry and nothing like the bright face of victory Allura saw before falling unconscious. Cautiously, she places a blistered hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Are you alright?” she asks. Kima looks a good sight better than she imagines she looks, but time and experience have taught her that not all injuries are visible on the surface.
“I’m fine,” the woman says, voice flat. Allura pulls her hand away.
“I’m fine,” she repeats, staring out over the plain. The empty plain. It niggles at the back of Allura’s mind. Something about this is wrong, but her mind is still slow, her thoughts still too heavy, for her to pinpoint what. Dread seeps into the pit of her stomach.
Kima stares out over the plain and does not answer.
Kima cuts her off, words tumbling out of her mouth, fast and sharp and brittle.
“You died, Allie.”
Allura’s breath catches in her chest, and all she can cough out is, “What.”
Kima’s shoulders shift, plate clicking together as she makes to move and decides better of it. “You died,” she says. The edge slips out of her words, leaving them raw and vulnerable. “You just–– I thought I lost you.” Her voice cracks at the end, her hands clenching into fists, and Allura wants to reach out for her but she can’t, because her head is spinning, her hands shaking, her lungs struggling to pull in even a whisper of air, because––
You died, Allie.
She does not know what else to say.
“I thought I lost you,” Kima repeats with a hint of a laugh, as if it’s funny, as if something like this could ever be amusing. “I thought you were gone, and I was too late, and––” She cuts herself off as her voice rises, loud and frantic, just this side of hysterical. Allura has never heard her like this before, not when they faced down monsters or giants or gods. It scares her.
She swallows that down. Only one of them can afford fear right now, and Allura tells herself she will be strong for as long as she need be.
(It is a nice lie, no? A storybook determination; the real world does not care how inconvenient emotions may be.)
“Kima,” she begins, but her words fizzle on her tongue, and for a moment she feels caught in the dark again, tangled in a tapestry of threads, a single stitch out of millions. Insignificant.
(She has nightmares, sometimes. You died, Allie , Kima will say, and Allura will rise, a burnt-burning corpse, and she will try to kiss Kima’s tears away and set her alight, burn everything she touches, friends and family and the world entire, until there is nothing but the burnt-burning empty plain.
They are some of the kinder horrors that visit her sleep.)
Kima’s head snaps up, face still too pale, brows drawn low and dangerous, mouth a hard line.
“Don’t do that again,” she orders harshly, voice made of iron, of stone, utterly unyielding. “Don’t you ever, ever do that to me again.”
“Just, promise me you won’t, Allie. I don’t care if it’s a lie, just say it. Please.”
“I won’t,” Allura says. She crosses her fingers behind her back as she says it, as if she’s a child again, as if crossed fingers can invalidate this, make it not-true. A loophole. A politician’s promise, Kima might say, and laugh, but this is no white lie. “I promise.”
Allura’s hands shake. She presses them together.
“Did–– Is everyone else okay?”
Kima’s face, if anything, goes paler. Stony. The sinking in Allura’s stomach, momentarily forgotten, returns with a vengeance, tendrils of icy dread seeping through her, turning her blood cold.
“Kima,” she says, voice low and demanding. “Is everyone else okay?”
Kima does not answer. Her hands ball into fists, press into the ash. She leans over, bent around herself, tension bleeding off the line of her back. As if she is bracing herself.
Allura’s skin is too hot and too cold at the same time, and too tight around her. Her heart catches behind her teeth, heavy on her tongue; she’s as likely to spit it out as she is to speak words the next time she opens her mouth.
The silence stretches on, eternal and heartbeat brief. Kima takes a deep breath, straightens her shoulders, looks Allura in the face. Her mouth makes a flat, hard line, and her eyes brim with too many emotions to name.
When she speaks, though, her voice stays steady.
“I couldn’t do more,” she says. “I’m tapped out. I only had one chance. I had to choose.”
For a moment, Allura does not understand. And then she does, and horror grips her. No. No, it cannot be.
“You died.” Kima keeps talking, calm and collected; how can she be calm and collected at a time like this? “You guys just–– And I only had one chance, I couldn’t do any more.”
Allura’s heart fills her mouth; her words barely slip out around it.
“What have you done?”
“What was I supposed to do?” Kima demands, eyes afire, and her voice cracks, snaps. Desperation drips off her tongue. “You were dead! What good am I if I can’t even do what I’m here for?”
“You can’t have–– Please tell me you didn’t––” Horror crawls through her, sick and twisting, sinking into the pit of her stomach and stretching through her ribcage like a vine, wrapping tight around her heart and lungs, climbing up her throat, choking her.
You died, Allie.
“Is anyone else––?” The words catch in her throat; she cannot force them out. Are they the only ones left?
“Drake made it,” Kima murmurs.
Allura takes a moment to process that. Drake. Alright. Yes, alright. But the others…
(If she were to tell this story, she would say it is like being hit by a carriage, or perhaps a collapsing building, but in slow motion––feeling every impact but unable to move, standing there while the world crumbles around you, on top of you. But she doesn’t tell this story. She swears she never will.
She has already taken it to the grave. It is little effort to do so again.)
She forces her mouth to move. “Dohla? Ghenn? Sirus?”
“Allie, I’m sorry.” There are tears on Kima’s face. How has she not noticed before? Their tracks trace through the soot, narrow rivulets that Allura knows would taste of salt if she kissed them away. They are dry now, though, already shed. Kima has never been one to linger on pain. Allura has always told herself she admired the woman’s strength.
Right now, she cannot stand it.
She looks away. She cannot stay here. She has to move, has to do–– something. She stands, turns around. She sees Drake a ways away, kneeling over something. Someone. Bile rises in Allura’s throat.
Behind her, she hears Kima push herself to her feet. The thorny vine that has her heart in stranglehold pulls tighter.
“What was I supposed to do?” Kima demands.
“My life is not worth more than theirs,” Allura says, cold and hard, as if words could change anything.
“It is to me.”
When Allura turns to look at Kima, the woman stands tall, chin up, a challenge. Allura still sees the her tension––the creases around her eyes, the line of her shoulders, her clenched fists––but there is determination there too. An unspoken promise, I will always choose you.
Allura doesn’t know what to do with herself. She wants to throw up.
“How can you say that?” she asks, and she thinks she should be angry, but all at once she is empty, only empty. Maybe she will be angry later. Maybe she will be angry when the bodies of her friends and companions are not a few dozen feet away. Maybe she will be angry when they return to the material plane. Maybe she will be angry in a day, a month, a year.
Or maybe she will always be sick and empty.
“I love you,” says Kima.
“I don’t want this,” Allura tells her helplessly.
“It was my choice.” The woman pins her with her gaze, refuses to back down. Why would she? She would not be Kima without this stubbornness. “What would you do in my shoes?”
Allura knows the answer before the question is asked. She would do the same.
And how can she live with herself, knowing that?
“It was my choice, Allie,” Kima repeats, as if saying it more than once will make it any better. “That makes the guilt mine, too.”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Allura tells her, cracked open and raw and a gaping, empty void. She turns again, turns back to Drake, to the lost.
“I need space,” Allura says, even though that is all she has, space and nothingness. Her choking heart feels numb. “I think maybe we should spend some time apart.”
(If she told this story, she would tell you that she was a coward. She would tell you she said it to the open plain so she would not have to see the expression on Kima’s face.
So she would not have to see the heartbreak.)
Behind her, Kima falls silent.
“If that’s what you want,” the halfling says finally, voice distant, and Allura nods. Her eyes sting and water. She tells herself it must be the smoke.
It is not the smoke.
She forces her leaden feet to move, one step and then another, caught between Kima and the dead, and she does not know which hurts more.
(That is a lie. She might admit that, if she told this story, but she never has and never will. She knows it is Kima. It is always Kima, because Kima has burrowed her way into Allura’s heart and settled there, made a home of it, and Allura cannot pull her out. Does not want to.
She would make the same choice.
That is the worst part.
If she told this story, she might tell you it has a moral. That would be a lie; there is no moral. There is only the truth. Alright, then. Here is the truth.
People do awful things for love.
But you already know that.)