A/N: So sorry if I gave any of you the wrong impression the last chapter. Well, I've always planned it up till there, so what comes here is actually pretty new. This story as of now has the most reviews and chapters out of my repertoire, so I'm pretty proud of it.
On a side note, I AM OFFICIALLY A GREEN BELT IN TAEKWONDO.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Seventh Tower, but this has been a pretty great journey.
Chapter 16 – Beyond the End
Milla's head snapped up as a scream rent the air. One of the Spiritshadows fighting her faltered, but she hardly noticed. She would recognise that voice anywhere. It was hers.
The fight was winding up. Bloodied humans decorated the aisles. Shadows faded out of existence. Before Milla's eyes, two Spiritshadows slid to the floor, while another was captured by a golden shadowsack. The Shield Maiden who held the shadowsack whisked two fingers to the side, giving the 'good-hunting' sign, which Milla didn't return. The twin whips of light retracted back into the crystal, which shrank back to nail-size. Once her path was clear she sprinted down the last few steps into the Wood.
Behind the trees of Crystal, more blood and gore awaited her. Even before she went close, she could see that blood had stained the trees at waist-level in a circle. A blood-smeared body lay next to a lone boot, unconscious. Rhin. Milla ignored him for the moment and stepped over him.
What she wanted to know, to see now was blocked from her line of vision by a crouching figure. He straightened when Milla approached. Before he even turned, she knew who he was. And by the way his lips were pressed into a line, she knew that the worst had happened.
Tal didn't say anything as she pushed past him to look at the body curled up on the ground. Her breath came out in hisses as she saw the bloodied furs, the broken sword, the bare foot.
The hole that ran straight through her midsection.
Wordlessly, Milla flipped her knife out of her sleeve and into her hand. She stepped back towards the other body, the one that lay unconscious and not dead.
Tal caught her upraised hand. "Don't."
"He killed my sister," said Milla stoically. "I should kill him. I should."
His grip on her wrist slackened for a second in his confusion, then tightened once more. "Don't," he repeated, sounding as though he was pleading.
"Let go of me," yelled Milla all of a sudden. "You don't understand, this is an Icecarl thing – ."
"Will the two of you stop wasting time?" another voice cut her off. Milla twisted her wrist out of Tal's loosened grip to face Ebbitt, who was looking uncharacteristically serious. "You both have Sunstones. Use healing magic."
Milla shook her head as a bout of weariness overtook her. "You can't bring back the dead, Ebbitt." Now that the initial rush was over, she didn't feel anything but tired. She hadn't really wanted Rhin dead, it was just a knee-jerk reaction, one that passed as quickly as it came.
"She isn't, but she will be if you don't hurry," snapped Ebbitt, fingering his breastplate.
Not really believing Ebbitt, but humouring him anyway, Milla replaced her knife and raised her Sunstone. Beside her, Tal mirrored her action. Concentrating, she sent out a Blue Ray of Healing, while Tal sent out a Yellow Ray of Replacement. Together, they wove a Light spell in concert, one that would close the dreadful hole in Miria.
Meanwhile, Ebbitt explained about "sealing of blood vessels" and "blood from pulverised innards", but Milla concentrated on blocking that out and casting her Light spell. To her relief, the spell seemed to work, regenerating flesh while Tal's Yellow Ray regenerated structures. As the wound closed, Milla could see her chest rising and falling as she breathed, and she herself breathed more easily.
Finally, as the edges of the wound met and fused together, Milla stopped the Blue Ray and nearly sank to the ground in relief. She had not rested for a while, and the slight slump of her shoulders indicated it. Beside her, Tal cast her a questioning look.
"I am fine," she said, pre-empting his question. She tried to smile and was surprised to find that she could. "We still have much to do, do we not?"
Tal's expression relaxed. "Yes," he agreed. "But it'll be alright."
After clearing up the mess and tending to the injured, as well as securing the rebels, Tal went in search of Milla. The Castle was unnaturally quiet, he reflected, but that was probably because everyone was busy with their own duties. The Crones were kindly assisting the healers in the infirmary, which was currently so packed that some of the injured had to be dispatched elsewhere.
He found her in the room that was assigned to her when she first came to the Castle weeks ago. He knocked twice before entering, and was greeted by the sight of Milla sitting beside the bed where her sister lay unconscious. She didn't look up as he entered.
Tal cleared his throat to catch her attention. "How is she?" he inquired.
"She'll live," replied Milla, shifting to face him directly. He couldn't help but notice that she looked tired. Not that it was that obvious, but Tal knew more about Milla than anyone else did. He knew the signs.
Silence reigned for a moment, before Milla coughed. "Whoever plays out the Great Reckoner has a sense of humour," she said wryly, breaking eye contact with him. She looked back to the sleeping Icecarl, all bundled up to prevent her from going into shock.
"What?" Tal followed her gaze, and noted the uncanny similarities between the two Icecarls. But now that he looked carefully, there were differences. Subtle things, like how Milla still looked scary in her sleep but Miria didn't. Like the faint lines around Milla's eyes and mouth.
Milla made a sort of gesture towards the bed. "My sister, would you believe?" she said dryly. "We're rather different, as you can see."
"Really? The two of you seem rather alike to me," blurted Tal without thinking. He cursed himself mentally. It was very much like when he was fourteen and had met Milla for the first time. He couldn't control his tongue then either.
Milla gave him a sideways sceptical glance. "I see," she said.
"No, really," insisted Tal, feeling like the conversation was rapidly going downhill. Rapidly. "Both of you are brave and strong and I guess you can include stubborn as well. I didn't mean that in a bad way, it was a compliment, I mean… You know…" he trailed off.
He didn't know what reaction he would be getting in return, but Milla gave a small laugh. "Yes, actually, I do," she said with a trace of amusement in her voice. Abruptly, her tone darkened. "We might have grown up together. If…"
"If what?" prodded Tal.
"If I hadn't taken more than my share when our mother bore us," Milla finished flatly. "A weak Icecarl is hardly better than no Icecarl at all, and my parents didn't want a liability."
Tal didn't quite understand how it worked. "It isn't your fault," he protested. "You couldn't have known back then. Besides, everything turned out well in the end, didn't it?"
Milla stretched her arms above her head lazily. "True," she replied easily, without a trace of worry on her face. She lowered her arms. "In any case, she isn't holding it against me."
Feeling emboldened, Tal added, "She probably won't awake so soon. You should get some rest in the meantime."
"I should," Milla agreed. Getting on her feet, she stretched once more. "I'll go check in with the Crone Embassy first, though. You should get some rest yourself," she added as an afterthought.
"I will," replied Tal. "In a bit."
Milla looked as though she wanted to add more, but shrugged and left. "Thank you," she said quietly, before closing the door behind her.
Alone with Miria, Tal checked that she was breathing regularly. Just in case. "You have an amazing lot to live up to, you know?" he commented as he assessed her condition and adjusted the brightness of the Sunstones in the room. Satisfied with his findings, he dimmed the Sunstones entirely and left, intent on returning to his family chambers to check on Gref and Kusi.
It was the dull pain in her abdomen that told her that she was alive. That, and the throbbing in her head.
Slowly, her senses began to come back. She could hear the soft sounds of breathing from her left, feel the soft fabric under her hands, see the light that made her eyelids appear red. Dimly she recalled thrusting her leg out in a forward kick, but she never connected. What happened, she couldn't help but wonder.
Her eyelids lifted, slowly, allowing the soft Sunstone light to filter into her eyes. The first thing she saw was the cluster of Sunstones set into the ceiling, emitting their white light. How pretty, she thought inanely.
"Finally," a familiar voice said, and her eyes flicked to the left, sending a wave of pain through her head. "We were beginning to worry that you would never wake."
Miria's eyes fixed on the blurry image on her left, bring it into focus. Her War-Chief was there, leaning forward in concern. She felt vaguely irritated that she was constantly invalid, and there was always someone watching over her. Forcing her lips to part, she spoke. "Sorry to disappoint you." Her voice sounded hoarse and raspy, and she wondered how long she had been out.
The corner of Milla's mouth twitched, which she took to be a sign of discomfort. Now she regretted saying those words, but she wasn't really thinking so far ahead when she said them. She tried again. "Why am I still alive?"
"Light magic on our part, and a whole lot of luck on yours," replied Milla, her expression smoothing out. "You lost a lot of your insides, but nothing too fatal. You were still out for quite a few sleeps though."
Forcing her eyes to the left without turning her head was getting tiring, so Miria turned them back to the ceiling. "What happened while I was out cold?"
Milla shrugged. "Rhin and his supporters are imprisoned for now. The Assembly and the Crones will decide what to do with them. The Spiritshadows have all been sent back to Aenir. Ebbitt recovered the Codex. Thankfully, there were no fatalities."
Miria took in all the information silently, her eyes flickering from one Sunstone to another. "And now what?" she asked.
"I was going to come to that," replied Milla. "I was thinking of carrying out another expedition on the Ice, a small one. I think we've both seen enough of this mountain to last us a while."
"'We'?" repeated Miria. "You're taking me along?"
"Yes. That is, if you do not mind," added Milla hastily. "If you still wish to stay on the Ruin Ship, then you may."
"I don't mind," clarified Miria, her eyes focusing on Milla again. "As long as that is what you want."
"Why would I not want it?" asked Milla, feeling nonplussed. "I only wish to make up for lost time."
"Oh," Miria replied, sounding disinterested. Her attention returned to the ceiling. "You don't have to do that for me, you know. I meant every word I said back then."
"I'm not doing it for you," said Milla shortly. "I'm doing it for me." She stood up, dragging the chair across the floor with a rasping sound, and made as to leave. "We'll talk again when you're feeling better."
Just as she was about to shut the door, she heard Miria's voice once more. "I will go with you, but only you would know what you want."
Time seemed to pass very quickly after that. It didn't seem like very long before Milla found herself about to leave the Castle. Somehow, in all the chaos and administration matters, she had managed to find time to speak to all the former Freefolk. Clovil and Ferek mostly congratulated her, while Gill wanted her to stay longer, and Inkie didn't say much as usual.
Now, waiting at the front entrance of the Castle much earlier than the scheduled departure time, she leaned against the stone wall and made a checklist again. Ebbitt was taking the Codex along, of course, and they would have half a Hand of Shield Maiden cadets. There was going to be one Crone as well, not Malen but someone older. They would make a stop at the Ruin Ship first, before setting off. The Shield Maidens had already gathered, the rest were not yet present.
A movement at the edge of her field of vision broke her train of thought. Pushing herself off the wall, she turned to face the newcomer. But it was only Tal.
He stopped a few paces away from her. Milla couldn't help but notice that he had grown much taller since their last adventure together. He was taller than her by a fair bit. His face seemed to have lost some of its naiveté too, though there was still enough of it for her to see the boy who had fought Sharrakor alongside her.
"Are you here to see us off?" Milla said finally, breaking the silence. She had not spoke to Tal since that time after the battle, and while she missed his presence to an extent, she had felt uncomfortable discussing her departure with him.
"N- I mean yes," he replied, looking about as discomfited as she felt. He glanced at the Shield Maidens, who were very professionally ignoring them. "Do we have time to go elsewhere?"
Milla shrugged. Tal took it as an affirmation, and led her along the Red Corridors. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"You haven't seen it yet, have you? The Red Garden," he said, smiling gently. "It was Dad's idea, to have a place like this every few levels and not just on the higher floors. Plus it gives the gardeners a job, maintaining the gardens. Now that we can't go to Aenir, this is the next best thing."
Milla nodded and kept pace with him. Privately, she thought that she wouldn't care very much for what the Castle used as substitutes for Aenir, but it probably meant something to Tal, so she kept quiet and followed.
The Red Garden was, admittedly, aesthetically pleasing. Shrubs, trees, grass, and the occasional crystal sculpture. Plus one fountain. Milla couldn't deny that it was artistic, but she was not an expert in that area.
They stopped in front of a statue ringed by rose shrubs. Milla raised her head to look at it. It featured a Sword Thane flanked by a Shield Maiden, both of whom Milla personally knew. Jarek and Kirr.
"We have one statue like this in every garden," Tal said conversationally. "There's no particular… hierarchy, you could say, but Crow is in the Violet Garden."
"He deserves to be accorded the highest honour," stated Milla, observing how the sculptor had made it seem like Jarek and Kirr were watching each others' backs, even though he had probably never met them in person. It seemed only fitting that they were remembered this way.
For a few moments silence reigned. Milla waited expectantly. She knew that Tal had something to say, and she had a good idea of what it was. Which was why she waited patiently. She understood that she would probably have difficulties finding the right words if it were her.
"I like you," Tal finally said, looking at her but not meeting her eyes. "You know… As in like."
She couldn't help smiling. It wasn't a mocking smile, it was an understanding one. Even though she saw it coming, she couldn't help but feel the slightest bit flattered, which was a feeling unfamiliar to her. "So do I."
"Really?" Tal asked eagerly, and she could detect a trace of relief in his voice. He met her gaze. "Then will you… That is to say, can you stay?"
"If you asked earlier, then I would." She noticed a marked dimming in Tal's face as she answered. "Right now, though, there's still one more thing I have to do first."
"I understand," said Tal, trying to mask his disappointment but not really succeeding. Or maybe it was because she was Milla that she could see through it so clearly.
"However, I will permit you to ask me this question again one circling from now," continued Milla, watching Tal's face brighten again and feeling amused. "We will meet here again in one circling. I swear this on the name of Danir."
"It's a promise," agreed Tal. "Shall we bind ourselves to this?" he asked, only half-jokingly.
Milla's smile widened. "There's no need to. However, I will ask you to hold on to this," she twisted the Talon on her left hand off her finger and tossed it to Tal, "until we next meet."
Tal caught the magical fingernail and brought it close to him, closing his hand around it protectively. "Won't you need it?"
She shook her head. "There is nothing that will require the Talon on the Ice," she replied, amusement audible in her voice. As an afterthought, she warned, "I'll be wanting it back though, so keep it safe."
"I wouldn't dare to do otherwise." Tal grinned, and held up his bare wrist. Milla returned the smile and stepped forward, pressing her wrist against his, so that their matching triple scars touched.
Later, when Milla's company was making its way down the icy cold mountain path in the darkness, with her at its head, Miria finally popped the question.
"So did you two talk about what I think you talked about?" Her voice came out muffled through the mask. Miria had seen Milla returning with Tal, and both of them looked happy. Or rather, she thought peaceful would have been a better description.
"What do you think we talked about?" countered Milla, hoping to stall for time. She fiddled with her Wreska hide gloves, pulling them onto her hands. She hadn't quite expected the weather to be so cold, so she wasn't wearing them when they departed.
Through the amber lenses of her bone mask, Miria shot a covert glance at Milla's left hand. With the dim light and the mask it was hard to see, but she could clearly tell that the Talon wasn't on its usual place on her finger. So she dropped the subject. "Never mind. I already know. So, where are we going to explore?"
Milla finished lacing her gloves to her sleeves and looked up. The pale green light from the moth-lamps played off the mask, making Miria appear ghastly. Not that it mattered, because Milla knew better than anyone what lay under it. "Where do you want to go?"
She shrugged in reply, watching the path ahead of them. "Anywhere, as long as it's with you."
A/N: And with this, Mirroring the Light is now complete. COMPLETE, you hear? You may now take this off your alerts.
Before I leave this place for good, though, I would like to award credit where it's due.
First to Perennial Rhinitis, for being such a faithful reader/reviewer. Thanks for sticking with me for so long!
To lkc159, for holding that aimless conversation with me that motivated me to push forward. (You're probably won't see this for a while because of NS, jiayou!)
To all those who have read and reviewed in all these three years, including Azarathed, MaximumTwilightRider, Bane-Treller, kylesanchez, Monsieur Incognito, Douggy, noc, SweetTangerine, Kewix, 23lilly, Obsessive Child, Yumerin, and StevenDensmore.
Now that I'm done with this, I feel that I've grown somewhat over these past three years. I don't intend to rewrite the first few chapters, because it's so nice to just read the whole thing and think "whoa, I've gotten better". Again, thank you for helping me grow.
And here's a bit of an advertisement: I'm planning another fanfic for this fandom that might show up in the next few months. It revolves around Aenir, so if you have any opinions on this I'll be glad to hear them.
I would love to receive reviews, because this is THE last chapter after all, and it would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but hey, no pressure whatsoever :D