Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Evelynne stood looking out the window over the snow, her mind's eye on another plane, far from her physical surroundings. The snowy landscape glowed orange, reflecting the setting sun, and the scene was so beautiful she should have been enjoying it, but at the moment her thoughts were far from aesthetic values. Evelynne was so involved in her own introspection that Claire had to speak her name several times before she responded.
"Evelynne? Evelynne? Evy? Black Crow says you should come now."
Slowly, distractedly, Evelynne turned, drawing back to the present. Claire was standing in the doorway of the bedroom, and behind her was Mekohah, the older woman's face more solemn than usual, but still light and cheerful.
Shaking her head to clear it, Evelynne started towards the door. "Sorry. He said it's time?"
Claire shrugged with false nonchalance. "I guess so. Of course, exactly what makes it the right time is something only he and his spirits know."
Evelynne nodded with an equally false smile. She shifted her shoulders, feeling once again the softness of the deerskin robe she was wearing, its surface covered in embroidered animals, spirits, and symbols. It had been Mekohah's project for the past two days, the old woman drafting Claire into helping with the decorating until both women's hands were cramped and sore from the sewing and beadwork.
"And is A—" Evelynne's voice cracked and she cleared her throat. "Is Ally here?" she managed steadily.
"She's here," Claire replied. "She's with him."
Evelynne nodded again. Getting Ally to agree to this ceremony had actually been frighteningly easy—at least, once she had reappeared. She had returned to the house almost four hours after she had bolted that morning two days previously, wet, exhausted, and shivering with cold. When Evelynne had seen her it had taken all her willpower not to yell at her partner, knowing that her anger stemmed from fear, and also instinctively knowing that any displays of anger on her part would shatter whatever strength Ally was using to hold herself together. Still, Ally had agreed meekly to Black Crow's low-voiced recommendations, obviously beyond any thought of defiance or initiative.
The two days since had been long, and as she descended the stairs and looked out the window, Evelynne could see what those days had wrought.
Enlisting the aid of many of the members of the local band, Black Crow had constructed a tent-like structure of boughs and animal hides a short distance from his house. A small structure, less that three metres in diameter, it stood in the middle of the snowy clearing, the lack of fresh snow on it testimony to the heat it was generating.
A number of people were milling about, warmed by the large bonfire a short distance away. Some were already rapping on drums, their repetitious chanting creating a monotonous but highly meditative atmosphere, and Evelynne was struck by just how communal this form of therapy was. It made sense, she considered. Living in a small band, dependent on each and every member for survival, it made sense that the rest of the community would take part in any healing ceremony. It was almost a party atmosphere, with drinks and refreshments, none of them alcoholic, being served by the fires, away from the sacred space of the tent.
Next to the tent there was also a man-sized effigy, a black-haired manikin whose purpose Evelynne didn't know, although she doubted that anything in the vicinity was there by chance or a whim.
And it was into that tent that Evelynne and Ally would enter, hopefully to emerge when the healing was complete. Ally was already nearby, apparently listening absently to Black Crow as Evelynne neared with her own minders, shivering as the cold and damp from the ground crept into her moccasins. The chill from the ground, though, was nothing compared to the emotional cold that swept through her at the sight of Ally's face, tightly shuttered and more frozen than the snow on the trees. Nevertheless, Eveynne smiled encouragingly and was rewarded with a lifting of the corners of Ally's lips, a bare hint of a grin that never even approached her eyes.
Mekohah slipped away as they approached, tugging Claire along to help fuss with some arcane objects near the tiny door to the tent. Evelynne stopped by Ally and Black Crow and looked at the older man questioningly. He had been very vague about the particulars of this ritual, and Evelynne wasn't sure whether that was due to deliberate deception on his part, or simply that the detail of the event were somewhat irrelevant. She was beginning to suspect the latter, given the casual way in which the other members of the band appeared to be taking part, although of course there could have simply been an underlying pattern she could not recognise.
Black Crow nodded solemnly at her, spreading his hands in a gesture of invitation. His actions seemed to signal the rest of the group, and the milling people seemed to move with more structure, while the drumming and chanting became even more hypnotic. "Greetings, Life-of-Wisdom," he said reverently, bowing to Evelynne. "Greetings, Epiphany, Defender-of-Mankind." It took Evelynne a moment to realise that Black Crow had taken hers and Ally's names—Evelynne Sophia and Alleandre Tiffany—and extracted the literal meanings of them, turning them into something more than simple appellations. He had spoken on the subject some days earlier, explaining that the spirits of the world responded only to the "True Names" of individuals, seeking the inner essence of their being, rather than the coarseness of their outer form. Claire had been renamed as well, and while her new descriptor—Seer—was of considerably greater brevity, it was somehow elegant, not to mention incredibly apt.
Evelynne said nothing but bowed her head in greeting, uncertain of what to say, and after a brief hesitation Ally did as well. Apparently no verbal response was required, and Black Crow seemed satisfied with the response. "The spirits await you," he said simply, turning and leading the way towards the tent. Evelynne shivered as she followed, partly from the cold, and partly from the drumming and chanting that seemed to thrum through her blood. At the tiny doorway to the tent—it barely came up to her thighs—she blushed as Black Crow bade her remove the cloak around her shoulders, leaving her clad only in a thin cotton shift, and the freezing air cut her like a knife. She immediately began shivering in earnest, while Ally hesitated a moment longer before slowly removing her own garment. Claire smiled at both of them with some trepidation before following Mekohah's direction and waving a burning smudge of sage over them both, bathing the two women in its smoke. Evelynne suppressed a cough, even as her body sought the meagre heat of the smoke, and she wondered just what sort of therapy freezing to death in the middle of a clearing was supposed to accomplish. On the other hand, people would probably drive themselves sane just so that they could warm up!
Then she crawled through the entrance and almost passed out from the heat inside. It was like an oven, heat radiating from a small bed of coals and rocks in the centre providing meagre light, and the blood that a moment before had been retreating from Evelynne's epidermis reversed direction with shocking suddenness, and she could almost hear her own pores expanding in the heat as sweat rushed to the surface. A surreptitious nudge from behind reminded her that the others were still outside in the cold, and with great reluctance she crawled further inside, already wondering whether this was a good idea. Isn't there an easier way to do this? she wondered. Like, say, a lobotomy? Instantly guilty of the thought, Evelynne watched as Ally crawled through the tiny entrance, a part of her silently begging that a bit of cold air would enter at the same time.
Ally paused at the entrance as Evelynne had, the heat obviously taking her by surprise as much as it had Evelynne, and her face rapidly suffused with redness, and a thin sheen of sweat broke out instantly. She recovered much more quickly than Evelynne had, however, and quickly crawled the rest of the way, while Evelynne looked at the flush with an odd nostalgia. I remember when she couldn't go five minutes without blushing for some reason. Usually just someone looking at her. She hasn't blushed in a long time. I miss that.
Schooling her face to passivity, Evelynne saw that Ally was settling down on one of the skins on the floor, legs crossed, and Evelynne slowly followed suit across from her, already feeling dull and lethargic in the dry heat. A moment later the tent shook again, as Black Crow forced his much larger form through the entranceway. He was carrying a gourd of water, and Evelynne eyed it longingly as he stopped just inside the entrance, although there wasn't room in the tent for him to be anywhere else. Smiling at her, Black Crow held out the gourd, and Evelynne felt a little embarrassed at the speed with which she grabbed the water, feeling its coolness slide down her throat. Far too soon he was taking it away and offering the container to Ally, who took it with what looked to Evelynne as much more dignity. Still, even Ally appeared disappointed when it was taken away.
Then all rational thought of coolness disappeared as Black Crow lifted the remaining water, raised it towards the sky as an offering, and poured the remainder over the hot rocks. The instant blast of steam hit like a train, and Evelynne gasped in shock. Sweat, which a moment before had been evaporating instantly in the dry heat, providing a minute amount of relief, now clung to her body like a second skin, making the air seem even hotter. She was barely even aware of Black Crow speaking.
"The Spirits will guide you to where you need to go. Follow them and trust in them. And in each other."
With that he was gone.
The burst of cold air as he exited was extremely welcome and all too brief, and then Evelynne and Ally were left alone in the sweltering heat. Evelynne's cotton shift was already soaked through, clinging too her skin unpleasantly, and she hesitated only briefly before awkwardly wriggling her way out of it. Tossing it to the side, she looked up, naked, to see Ally watching her with wide eyes that quickly shuttered. Ally paused a bit longer, then much more slowly removed her own clothing before returning to a cross-legged position across the fire. She took deep breaths and closed her eyes, appearing to centre herself, appearing to throw off most of her discomfort, while Evelynne looked on in envy.
She's always been able to calm herself so easily, Evelynne thought. Even when she's falling apart inside, you'd never know it from her face, unless you know what you're looking for. But recently even I haven't been able to see what's really under the surface. It's like she's completely shut herself down.
Outside, the tempo of the drumming picked up slightly, and the hypnotic, repetitive chanting seemed to gain slightly more force, as though nudging the occupants of the tent to remind them of what they were meant to be doing, and Ally's eyes opened, catching Evelynne's. They were cool grey, Evelynne noticed, the colour of the winter sky, and the coldest things in the tent. Why are you so cold? Evelynne asked plaintively inside her own mind. Why won't you let me in and warm you up? Please Isis, Osiris, help me understand what's happening to this woman I love. Right now I'd accept help from Set Himself if I thought it would help.
Her eyes still caught by the steely grey ones across from her, waves of heat distortion between them, Evelynne was helpless to look away as they grew and grew, seeming to take up her whole world…
And suddenly Evelynne seemed to wake, startled, uncertain of how much time had passed. The all-encompassing greyness was still before her, taking up her whole vision, and she shivered in the frigid cold. Wait a minute. Cold?! Sitting upright abruptly, completely at a loss as to how she had got there, and looked around over the frozen landscape around her. She was sitting naked in the middle of an icy plain, the ground completely covered in snow and ice, and Evelynne shivered. How in the Duat did I get here? she asked herself. Wherever "here" is. The last thing I remember is… She frowned, concentrating. She remembered the sweat lodge, looking into Ally's eyes, and then… here. I don't think they moved me. Tickling the edges of her awareness was a vague sensation, and focusing on it Evelynne had a brief disconcerting moment where she was both boilingly hot and frigidly cold at the same time. She stumbled, fighting off the sensation. Isis, it's like I'm still there. She paused. Maybe I still am. Maybe this is… somewhere else. But where?
Looking around more closely, Evelynne realised that the landscape wasn't as featureless as she had first thought. While she was standing in the middle of an icy flat plain, off in one direction she could see what looked like two copses of trees, and beyond them a hill or small mountain rising in the distance. In the opposite direction there was another "forest", stretching from horizon to horizon. It all looked disturbingly familiar, like an inkblot that was almost the exact replica of a recognisable object, and Evelynne wished briefly that she had an aerial photo. Instantly she once again had the disconcerting sensation of dual perceptions, both standing on the ice and looking down from high above. It lasted only a moment, but it was enough for her to recognise the "landscape". Isis, it's Ally! I'm standing on Ally! She looked down at the layer of snow on the ground. Frozen solid. Just… like… her.
Understanding came. This is a vision. I'm touching her mind, but everything's symbolic. What was in that water? Realising that she was "standing" directly in the middle of Ally's "forehead", Evelynne looked around, amazed at the clarity of the vision. Its surreal qualities aside, there was no way she could tell it was all in her mind, every sense telling her she really was standing in the middle of a snow-covered field. Naked. Shivering violently, she longed for a coat to protect her from the chill, and was shocked when without warning she was bundled head to toe in a thick warm fur coat. The cold was instantly banished, but so, in some ineffable way, was the sense of immediacy of her surroundings, and it took her a moment to realise that the landscape was slowly fading, becoming less and less "real" by the second.
"Wait!" she cried out. "Don't go! I just got here!"
The surroundings ignored her, and she could feel herself being pushed slowly but inexorably from the surface of Ally's mind. As she was, the coat she was "wearing" seemed to become more and more real, and in a burst of insight she banished it from her mental body, shivering once again in the frozen emptiness. As she had hoped, in response the landscape inched back into focus, slowly and carefully, like a wary, wounded wild animal. Even as her phantasmal nerves were telling her that her feet were going numb, Evelynne nodded and looked around in sorrow. "If I want to get close to you I can't put any barriers between us, can I?" she murmured into the wind. "You won't really trust me until I'm as vulnerable as you are. It's all right, love. I understand." She didn't know how much Ally was really "hearing".
With new resolve in her mind, even as frost began to form on her extremities, and resolutely not thinking about how apparently physical damage in this realm might translate into real psychological damage when she left, Evelynne looked around again. So this is like the surface of Ally's mind. The face that's she's showing the world. Cold. Frozen. A glance into the featureless grey sky. Alone. I wonder if this construct is mine or hers. She shook her head, dismissing the thought as irrelevant. If it's mine, then I need to work through how I'm seeing her to the real Ally underneath, and if it's hers I need to find out what's really happening inside. Either way I need to get… in. She looked around helplessly. But how do I do that? There are no entrances. And somehow I don't think crawling up her nose is the kind of symbolic entry I'm looking for. Aren't vision quests supposed to involve spirit guides somehow? And didn't Black Crow say to ask for help?
"Hello?" Evelynne called into the emptiness, feeling somewhat foolish. "Er… I don't know exactly what I'm supposed to say here, but I need some help. Isis? Black Crow? Anyone?" While a casual follower of the Old Ennead religion, Evelynne had never really taken its spiritual precepts too seriously, so literally calling for help from spirits was outside her normal experience. However, whatever she was expecting, it certainly wasn't what arrived.
In the direction that Evelynne had arbitrarily designated "south"—the direction of Ally's nose, and presumably the rest of her "body"—a speck appeared, skimming above the ground. As it neared, Evelynne gaped as the indisputable form of a dragon neared, easily but determinedly sculling the air with its wings in a way that, strictly speaking, several tons of lizard shouldn't be able.
Evelynne surprised herself by feeling no fear as the great creature came towards her, only a sensation of awe and, oddly, recognition. There was a certain duality to the dragon, as though its apparent form was merely a mask or semi-transparent mirror, through which she could almost see the reality behind. As it landed gently, gleaming silver on the snow, Evelynne recognised its outer form at last. "Isis," she murmured. "You're Ally's pendant. Claire gave you to her." She looked up at the great head. "You're a little larger than I remember you."
The dragon said nothing, but Evelynne somehow felt that it was amused. As it settled, tucking its feet under itself for all the world like a massive cat, Evelynne shivered again. She looked around again, hoping that somehow the arrival of the dragon—her spirit guide, she assumed—would have changed things. It hadn't, and the landscape was as frigid and forbidding as ever. Even though she was aware that this was all happening in her own mind, the unreasoning part of her brain was convinced she was standing naked in sub-freezing temperatures, and was efficiently reporting the sensations as such. It was so real that when she looked down she could see that her own ethereal feet were turning an unpleasant blue colour.
Looking at the huge dragon beside her beseechingly, Evelynne asked, "Can you tell me how to get inside? I need to help her."
Somehow the dragon responded with a question, although there was absolutely nothing that could have been interpreted as speech. Instead, Evelynne simply understood the question, as though she was remembering what it had said.
"Because I love her. And I don't want her to be in pain any more."
The dragon looked at her questioningly, as though weighing her answers on some unseen scale. It didn't reply, but eventually simply laid its head down before it. Its eyes flickered to the frozen ground under its chin briefly.
Evelynne waited for more of a response, but began to despair when it seemed none was forthcoming. "Please?" Still no reply, leaving Evelynne to watch the steam gently rising from where the dragon's scales met the frost.
Looking down to where her own numb skin was in contact with the ground, Evelynne saw that her own body was doing nothing to warm the ground. The opposite was true, in fact, and ice crystals were easily seen on her own skin. "I need to melt my way through, don't I?" Evelynne whispered, looking into the dragon's eyes. One was a brilliant silver that matched its scales, while the other was a rich gold. Those eyes gave away nothing but compassion as Evelynne nodded slowly to herself.
Easing herself down to the ground, wincing as the chill penetrated her body more deeply, Evelynne hesitated before lying down full length. She shivered violently, no longer caring whether the cold was all in her mind or not. Some part of her believed it was all too real, and that was more than enough in a realm like this. Aware of metallic eyes on her, she closed her own, feeling the cold seep into her core. If she thought about it, the fact that Ally felt the need to present this impenetrable mask to the world, and what might lie under it, would frighten her immensely.
As she lay there, Evelynne realised that her own body heat, ephemeral as it was, was completely inadequate to even begin melting through the ice, and knew she was missing something. Need to be warmer, she thought to herself, aware that her thoughts were coming slower and resolutely not thinking about what might happen if she "froze" to death in this place. Need warmth. Heat… Flame… Flame of passion… Passion… She frowned, although she could no longer feel her face. Love. With the last of her energy she wrapped herself in memories of her love for Ally.
Ally throwing herself between assassins' bullets and Evelynne's body, willing to die for a complete stranger.
The easy friendship that developed in the hospital afterwards, when a paralysed Ally had to accept help from someone she hardly knew.
Teaching Ally to play Vei'Chel at the Summer Palace as they convalesced.
Recognising her own attraction to her friend, and the confusion, yet surprising lack of distress, at the realisation.
Knighting Ally, and offering her own life in Viamadi during the same ceremony. Admitting their mutual love afterwards, and their first real kiss.
Ally revealing her greatest secret while saving the life of yet another total stranger, displaying the kind of superhuman abilities that lay within her all-too-human form.
Using those same abilities to fly them both to the completely secret grotto where they made love for the first time…
Evelynne suddenly realised that she was much warmer and opened her eyes, reluctantly letting the good memories fade slightly. She almost panicked when she realised that she was inside the ice, ensconced in a bubble of warm water, sinking slowly as the ice reformed above her. She began to choke before noticing that she wasn't breathing, and then felt foolish. Assuming this all was a purely mental plane, the air she had imagined breathing before was as unreal and ephemeral as the water she was immersed in now.
Imaginary or not, Evelynne's eyes drooped as she felt a warm lethargy settle over her and could feel a far-off rhythmic thumping sound, and continued her journey towards it through the melting ice.
Evelynne realised that she was aware, and had been for some time, although she had absolutely no concept of exactly how long she had been so. It was like suddenly realising that one is dreaming in the middle of a dream, without any real idea of how long the dream has been going on. Indeed, this new realm she found herself in was incredibly dreamlike; while the previous reality had been excruciatingly real, this was indisputably surreal.
In the manner possible only in dreams, Evelynne was astride the dragon that had appeared before, but also flying alongside it at the same time. They were moving through a darkness that was filled with tangible indescribable colours, but Evelynne still felt like there was a barrier around her, like a bag over her head, allowing her to see only vague shapes and images.
Somehow turning to her guide, Evelynne asked/thought, "I can't feel. I need…" She wasn't completely surprised when her words emerged as semi-physical objects that swam across the unfathomable distance between them. She didn't even say what she needed, the pure concept easily passing forth without the crudeness of words.
The dragon looked at her with concern, but didn't argue. Instead, it simply spoke.
The intangible veil lifted, and Evelynne almost screamed as the sensations hit her.
Where before the colourful darkness had been relatively calm, now, without changing visually in the slightest, it was a violently roiling mass of turbulent emotion. Uncontrolled grief, hatred, confusion, anguish, anger and guilt beat upon Evelynne's astral senses mercilessly, though she knew she was only catching the edges of the emotional storm.
Even as she reeled under the onslaught, Evelynne's mind automatically compensated by translating the sensations into a more symbolic format, one that allowed a measure of separation and comprehension. Once she had recovered slightly, she "looked" forward again, wincing as the hail battered her senses. What she saw chilled her.
Ally was certainly there, a battered, bloody form, completely exhausted, a waiflike figure nursing numerous defensive wounds on her arms and hands. She hadn't been able to protect herself completely, as numerous bruises on her face and body attested. Again with a duality that seemed completely normal, she was both completely naked and dressed in an equally battered suit of armour that Evelynne could tell in some ineffable way was composed of logic, love and hope. It was incredibly fragile armour, though, threadbare and completely pierced through in places, but Ally was wrapping the remnants around her body in desperation against her attacker.
And attacking Ally was… Ally.
Somehow both a separate entity and the same being, the attacker was a nightmare of self-loathing, guilt, rage, and irrationality that struck at the defender with merciless and chaotic precision, knowing precisely where the weakest points in the armour were located. Which made sense, since they were the same person.
And Evelynne understood something she had comprehended only vaguely before. Over the past months she had, at times, wondered just how someone as intelligent, as insightful, as perceptive as Ally could continue to suffer so much about something she had no control over. Ally's mind was too powerful, she had thought, to allow anything to affect her so. Now she knew that it wasn't the external events that were directly assaulting Ally's psyche.
She had never really considered what the effects would be if a mind as powerful as Ally's were to literally turn on itself.
There was no adequate defence against something that knew all its own weaknesses, that drew its power directly from the strengths of its opponent. Every victory on either side was automatically a defeat, a blow against itself.
Still, that didn't completely explain why all the people who had been trying to help had met with only very limited success. Even as she wondered about that, the answer came directly from the mind Evelynne was partially merged with, swirling up out of the depths like a bizarre shadow play.
Mere days after the actual events, where a drug-confused Ally had nearly had sex with a complete stranger in the bar, she had been able to directly confront the person who had been responsible. In an emotional showdown, Ally had thrown the woman into a wall and been prepared to strike her. Knowing Ally's power, Evelynne had stopped her, afraid of just what Ally could be capable of. What she hadn't guessed was just how close Ally had been to not simply striking her target, but to killing her. But even if Evelynne hadn't known, Ally had, and this new horror over just what she was ready to do had terrified her, especially since for the briefest of moments she had been prepared to strike at Evelynne with equal force in the instant her partner had intervened. The knowledge that she would be willing to harm the person she loved above anything else had been so terrifying that she had instantly thrown up the strongest of shields, protecting the outside world from the danger she thought she represented, but also blocking anything outside from getting in.
And trapping inside every bit of pain and anguish she generated, allowing them to build and fester to awful proportions, enhanced by a "gift" that allowed her to relive, completely and with excruciating clarity, every moment of all the events that had caused them.
Fester was a good word, Evelynne considered. Now the inside of Ally's mind was like a scabbed-over wound, the infection trapped inside and immune to any external poultice that might be applied. In time some form of psychic antibiotic might work, but watching the beleaguered Ally locked in mortal combat with herself, Evelynne didn't know how much time Ally actually had. Even a psyche as strong and determined as Ally's had its limits, and the blood-spattered warrior before her in the astral realm was clearly nearing them.
"I need to release her," Evelynne murmured, half to herself and half to the dragon that was patiently waiting. "She needs to let it… out." She turned again to the great form. "How do I get through?"
In response, the dragon looked upward—assuming the term had any meaning in this realm—and Evelynne looked up to see the thick frozen surface far above her head. That would need to be pierced. It would not be the slow, gentle, love-inspired melting that had brought her to this place. Events had shown that slow and gentle would not help now. Afterwards, perhaps…
Setting her ethereal shoulders, determined that there would be an afterwards to look forward to, Evelynne cast one last look at her embattled lover. Somehow sensing the attention, Ally looked at her with a gaze full of pitiful hope. As much as Evelynne wanted to rush forward and comfort her lover, she knew it would not help in the long run.
Instead, she took a deep metaphorical breath and drew into herself, drawing her energy together and groping for the link that even now joined their minds together on a primal level. It was weak, faded, a tattered remnant of what it had once been, but it still existed, the only weak point in the wall that Ally had built around herself. Grabbing hold of it, a simple task since it was formed at least in part from her own psyche, Evelynne took a final ethereal breath and struck.
With unstoppable force she drove outward, breaking through the frozen shield like a red hot knife lancing an infected wound, instantly ready to change her energy to a healing form, to hold Ally's mind together through the storm she knew was coming.
If she wasn't surprised by the maelstrom that ensued, she was shocked and terrified by its intensity. No longer bound by the shield wall it had built to protect both itself and the outside world, Ally's mind whipped outward in furious chaos, whipping around a suddenly vulnerable Evelynne like a hurricane. Unbound pain and anguish lashed at her, but only peripherally; most of Ally's mind's energy was seemingly devoted to tearing itself apart. In desperation Evelynne threw the healing energy she had been holding in reserve into the chaos, reaching for those parts of Ally that she could, no longer possessing even an imaginary form to contain her. Instead, she was simply a disembodied force, like gravity, trying to weave together the fractured pieces of Ally's mind. Evelynne knew that she was powerful herself, her own formidable psychic skills bolstered by months of training under both Ally and, later, Mrs Chen and Black Crow, but even so she found herself losing ground, unable to heal faster than Ally's mind was tearing itself apart.
From somewhere she sensed a pulse of power, a deep, rhythmic pounding like a heartbeat, its source a diffuse yet powerful circle of energy from outside, and some part of her could hear the chanting of the band members outside the tent, their tone no longer relaxed and centering, but strong, supportive, providing a shield around Ally's now-exposed mind, both keeping out any external threats and keeping Ally's mind contained, preventing it from simply dissipating outward. However, even within that barrier, Ally's psyche was disintegrating before her mind's eye, and Evelynne cast about for a new source of power.
Her perceptions of Ally's mind were fading, and in panic she saw that the very link between herself and Ally was unravelling, unable to withstand the storm. From somewhere she couldn't perceive Evelynne found a new, hesitant source of power, whether deep within Ally's psyche or her own she didn't know, and seized it, frantically pouring its energy into the link, trying to make the ephemeral connection a bastion against the chaos, and finally it seemed to work. Still weaving the energy from that source into the link, Evelynne saw the maelstrom calm slightly, and slowly stop. It was still there, still battering against Ally's sense of self, but at the same time it was strangely static, like a picture of frozen lightning.
Feeling her own energy fading, Evelynne almost wept. "Ally, please don't!" she cried into her lover's mind. "I love you!" She paused, mentally gasping for breath, then, with the last of her energy, she whispered.
“I forgive you.”
There was a pause as Ally's psyche processed this simple phrase, one that Evelynne had been unable to verbalise until now, and then the storm—
For a brief moment that Evelynne would never be able to describe, Ally's mind exploded and imploded at the same time, the very particles of her being dissipating and coalescing at once, and then where Ally had been two aspects battling each other, now there was one.
This new Ally was lying on nothing Evelynne could perceive in a mindscape that was both completely void and filled with a rainbow-coloured light. Her eyes closed, Ally appeared to be sleeping, naked but for the dragon pendant around her neck and the ring on her finger, and Evelynne hesitantly moved closer. She reached out to touch the other woman, stopping when the slumbering form drew away ever so slightly, but she didn't feel any sorrow from that instinctive response. Ally's skin looked new, raw, but healing, and the destructive guilt that had been there before was gone.
No, not gone. The guilt was still there, under Ally's skin, but now integrated more fully into Ally's psyche as a whole, not a discrete weapon, and Evelynne nodded in sad acceptance. "Everything I have done and everything that has happened to me has had a part in making me who I am today," Ally had told her once. "Changing anything about my past would make me a different person…" It wasn't in Ally's nature to forget or deny anything that had happened to her—it was why the events that had led to this cleansing had been so persistent—and now that healing could begin, for there were still deep wounds. Ally would take this experience and use it to grow and learn. Evelynne didn't know what the "new Ally" would be like, but she knew she would be around to find out.
With the knowledge that Ally would be all right eventually, Evelynne suddenly realised that she was completely exhausted. The adrenaline that had been fuelling her dissipated with surprising suddenness, and Evelynne sank forward, and on two levels of reality she leaned her head on her lover's breast and closed her eyes.
In a haze Evelynne felt herself being lifted gently, pulled awkwardly through a tight tunnel, and the abrupt change from sweltering heat to freezing cold was almost enough to jar her from her stupor. It wasn't quite enough, though, and she was quickly wrapped in something warm. She had been separated from Ally at some point, but didn't mind, since her partner's soul was bright and safe, close by within the scope of her own mind, and Evelynne was content to let these people she trusted take care of Ally's physical self.
She was being helped stumbling up some steps when something prompted her to look up blearily. Claire was standing in front of her, and where the rest of the surroundings were extremely blurry, Claire's unusual face was oddly clear, although its black and white patterns seemed to blend into a shimmering rainbow, a flickering aura outlining her features. The expression on Claire's face was also unusual, dazed and stunned, and she was being supported by at least one other person, but nevertheless her expression filled with relief that her friends were all right. Her gaze flicked behind Evelynne to where Ally was being carried, and then her eyes turned back to Evelynne, her question understood as clearly asif she'd spoken.
Evelynne understood and managed to dredge up a weary but genuine smile. "She'll be all right," she whispered hoarsely. "She's just… resting now."
Claire nodded, and Evelynne saw tears in her eyes and reacted by reaching out a hand—the other was being held by Black Crow to support her, she vaguely recognised—which her friend took and squeezed. It was a brief moment of comfort, but it was enough.
"You rest, too, Evy," she heard as fatigue came crashing down on her again and she leaned more heavily into the warm body supporting her.
Evelynne just closed her eyes and smiled as she slipped back into welcoming darkness.
Continued in Chapter 25
Return to the Academy