Aemion lowered himself to his knees frantically in an effort to get to her. She was wearing what appeared to be little more than her undergarments, the body of a woman barely masked in any way beneath them. Her face was also changed, angles and full lips replacing features that had haunted his dreams for twelve years.
But it was undoubtedly her.
Her hair was a mass of deep golden tangles clinging to her face, with leaves bestrewn throughout. Her chest wasn’t rising and falling as it should’ve been, and panic gripped Aemion as he took in the bloody strip of cloth tied carelessly around her calf. He pulled her limp form towards him, digesting the lacerations and bruises that ran the length of her.
Quickly moving strands of hair from her face, he pressed his lips to hers in an urgency unlike any he’d ever known, and Aemion was certainly no stranger to urgency. For over a decade, he’d felt that every minute decision he had had to make was critical, like the world around him was hanging in the balance, and he might tip the scale at any point.
But this…. It was so unforeseen. The stars had hid their truths well, he supposed, because this was nowhere to be found in them. How she was here, he couldn’t fathom, but he moved that question from his reeling mind, trying to focus solely on the task at hand.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, he again met her slightly blue lips with his own. She remained lifeless, her limbs heavy at her sides, her head flailing in his grip. She was too pale.
“Come on, Nia,” Aemion huffed, as he lay her gently on the leaves and began pressing his palms into her chest, trying with his entire being to pump life into her. To breathe his own life into her lungs. “Nia…”
What could have been a lifetime later, the most insignificant rasp emitted from her throat. Aemion sat back, watching, as her body began jerking, wracked with her choking. It seemed she was drinking in oxygen too quickly, and she shakily rolled onto all fours, heaving.
He felt oxygen meet his own depleted lungs. Running his hands through his hair, Aemion remained on his knees, unable to summon strength to his legs. Eyes closed, he sucked in air, and he heard Nia’s heaves evolve into dry, coarse coughs. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring at a creature he’d thought he might never again lay his eyes on. Aemion tried to accept that this might very possibly be a dream, but the notion seemed an unlikely one.
When her rasps began to regulate, she slowly sunk to her stomach before turning over to face him. His breath hitched; he had been struck dumb, completely uncertain what to say or do next.
As she looked up, Aemion saw something unidentifiable flash across her face. Her eyes had narrowed, though they still looked dazed and unfocused. Watching her intently, he could see that she was trying her best to make sense of what she was seeing, but her efforts were failing her. Her mouth gaped as though attempting to form words, and she kept shaking her head in a small, jerking motion, trying to find some clarity.
Her eyes found Aemion again, roaming the length of him, and he felt more aware of himself than ever before. Almost naked. The idea momentarily humored him.
Finally, her eyes met his, and he almost smiled to himself, finding utter familiarity in their depths. They were the deep blue orbs he’d remembered so well. Her expression remained difficult to read, but her lower lip gave her away, as it trembled ever so slightly.
She was afraid. Aemion couldn’t imagine what she’d been through to get here. Based on her appearance, it had been hell.
He felt himself moving, one leg at a time, to a standing position, and she began to back away from him, the little bit of strength in her arms and legs trying to give out on her.
“Nia,” he said, in a choked voice, holding his palms up to her. “Nia, please don’t be afraid. It’s me. It’s me.”
She’d placed a hand on either side of her temple, and she shook it back and forth, once again, eyes drawn tight.
“Where am I?” she whimpered. “What, what’s….what’s happening? Why are you doing this? Am I dead?” She looked hysterical, which was exaggerated by the leaves in her hair and the filth coating her body.
“No, you’re here. With me. Nia, you’re alive… will you stop shaking your head? Look at me.”
After a moment, she stilled, allowing herself to look up at him. Her head had to lean nearly all the way back, and she released a shudder. Disgust? Disbelief? He preferred the latter of the two, as he could certainly empathize with the sentiment.
“This isn’t real,” she whispered. Aemion registered that her voice had a deep, gravelly quality to it, so different from the small voice of the girl on the swing.
“Maybe not,” he said back, not certain himself.
She nodded. “I’ve died, haven’t I? I was… I was in the woods, and… the others, I couldn’t find them… The owls, and I was bleeding.” She stopped, her eyes becoming glazed and wet. “Oh my god,” she whispered, bringing a hand to her mouth.
She looked around, taking in the forest around them. Everything was lush and teeming with life. Vines creeped in every direction, and foliage thrived. Only the rotting leaves that coated the forest floor reminded one that death was never as far off as it might appear. “Is this… is this like Heaven or something?”
“Nia, you’re not,” Aemion choked out, his throat constricted. “You’re not dead.”
She wasn’t listening to him, but instead continued to whip her head around, in search of any sign that could tell her where she was.
“I don’t know what happened to you, but...” he began.
“There was a darkness,” she said absentmindedly, cutting him off. “It grabbed me. I couldn’t get out.”
She turned her head back to him, a tear spilling down her cheek. “I’m dead.”
“No,” Aemion whispered, shaking his head.
She ignored this.
“Are you my guide?”
“Guide?” he repeated, unsure what she was asking.
“Into the afterlife, or whatever,” she said with a resigned frustration. “You know, my spirit guide. Corinne, she said one time... “ She threw her hands up. “Are you going to ‘lead me to the light?’”
Aemion hadn’t a clue what she was trying to say, and he told her so.
“Well some good you are,” she snapped, throwing herself back onto the leaves. “Don’t even know your own role in all of this.” She closed her eyes and groaned in what he could only assume was physical pain and despair.
“My role in this,” he growled. feeling his own frustration rising, “was clearly to save your ungrateful life.”
She huffed indignantly, eyes still squeezed shut.
“Why don’t you believe you’re alive, Nia? Why are you so determined to be dead?”
She chuckled to herself humorlessly before responding. Her voice was shrill. “Maybe because I’m lying in the middle of some forrest I’ve never seen in my life, talking to a fucking centaur!” she shrieked, rising to sitting position. “The last thing I can remember,” she shivered involuntarily… “I’m definitely not alive after that.”
Aemion found himself momentarily taken aback. He found himself irrationally offended that she seemed to not remember him.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked with uncertainty.
She was whimpering, her head now tucked between her legs. Aemion took in her devastated form. Her torso was bare and seemingly unscathed, but her slender arms and legs were coated in filth and what appeared to be minor abrasions. Well, with the exception of whatever lurked beneath the fabric around her right leg. It was crusted with blood that had congealed and dried, but there was a bright patch indicating the wound was still fresh. She began rambling, her voice muffled between her thighs.
“And you look like him, and he wasn’t real! And he left me, and he wasn’t real! He wasn’t…” she trailed off.
Aemion was quiet for a moment, before lowering his voice, though he was still shaking. “I am real. My name is Aemion, ancestor of the great and wise Chiron, Commander and War Chief of over fifty Clans within the lands of Averynn.” His chest was heaving with some emotion, though Nia couldn’t detect what it was. Pride? Anguish? Anger? He continued. “When I was ten years old, I traveled the multiverse. Kosmos Taxidia.” The familiar words caught Nia’s attention.
“I found a girl. She was afraid, sad, desperate for adventure. Her name was Nia De Atta, and I wanted to make her nightmares go away. I visited her every night for some time, until…” He broke off, his figure seemingly deflating and his eyes leaving hers.
“It’s me, Nia,” he whispered.
Looking back to her, he found that Nia’s mouth was open, and she leaned forward, putting obvious effort into moving to a standing position. In her helplessness, Aemion forgot his anger.
“You don’t need to…” he began, holding his palms out and moving slowly towards her.
“Aemion?...” she asked slowly, approaching him with equal reserve. “Aemion, is it really you?” Her voice was barely a raspy whisper, and Aemion lowered his head.
“What is happening to me? Why am I here?” He felt her fingertips touch his chin and delicately lift it to meet her gaze. He was standing a foot over her, and her head was tilted back, her eyes narrowed and searching as though she was trying to solve some puzzle, and the answer was somehow hidden within the depths of his eyes.
Eyes rolling back heavily, her body began to collapse, and Aemion instinctively reached out and clasped her to him.
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