A/N: I feel the need to add an A/N to address two points. Firstly, this is most definitely not meant to be my final GrimGrimoire story, though it would of course be the finale to my continuity of stories, and since everyone who's thus far commented on the story has asked about that, I thought I should mention it. I fully intend to write more! Secondly, I'd also like to thank deathcurse for reading and commenting on my draft of this story and pointing out a couple of places where things could be clarified or better explained. She's an excellent writer herself, so I hope that she'll turn her talents to writing a GrimGrimoire story as well as just being a fan!
~X X X~
The old witch lay on the bed, drifting between waking and dreams, unable to fully will herself in either direction. Wisps of gossamer-fragile hair that was nearly white trailed across the pillow. Her chest rose and fell in shallow, slight movements, drawing raspy breaths between her lips. Her skin was overlain by a fine, intricate webwork of lines, skin pulled tight against fragile, birdlike bones because of the steady atrophy of the tissue that had once separated them. One would never have known that she had once sat for the portrait hanging downstairs, the robustly pretty country girl with an apple-cheeked smile, hair like flowing honey and a sweetly curved figure. Even the violet eyes seemed faded and rheum-clouded.
But then, Lillet Blan thought, she still looked good for her age. Just still having flesh on her bones at all left her ahead of most of those born five hundred and six years ago. Magic had sustained her long past the lifespan of ordinary people, but the human body was mortal, and there was a point of diminishing returns, where even Lillet's immense magic could no longer preserve herself.
Her old Sorcery teacher, Advocat, had paid a call not long after the deterioration had started to take hold, offering to extend her lifespan. It was really for form's sake, with no real expectation that she'd accept, although the devil would have gladly made the bargain if she'd been tempted. She hadn't, though.
"And after all," she'd remarked, "do you truly want to go down that road again? You do remember what happened the last time you got your hands on my soul?"
He'd flinched, then fumed, then laughed, because of course he didn't remember, which was the entire point as she'd gained the benefit of the bargain while negating the very existence of the contract,
"Besides," she'd added, "Amoretta wouldn't like it if I did something so short-sightedly foolish."
She turned her head, or rather let it loll to one side on the pillow, so that she could see Amoretta. Lillet's lifelong companion was the one unchanging point in her existence. Monarchs had lived and died, governments toppled and rose, wars fought, borders changed, religious movements swelled and ebbed, social values shifted for better or worse, human knowledge marched ever onwards, and cultural fads were as ever-changing as the ocean waves, but Amoretta was always there, her love unceasing. She never changed, never aged, still the delicate-featured girl of eighteen or so that she'd been when Lillet had first met her four hundred and ninety years ago.
But then, Amoretta wasn't human, so the laws governing human existence didn't apply. Her body was a crafted thing, made by alchemy, its life functions sustained within a magical flask. Caught within that homunculus's shell, though, was the spirit of an angel.
As always, Lillet's heart melted to look at her. They had shared so much over their lives that a single glance called up a flood of memories, both happy and sad, whether it was holding their first grandchild or standing together as loved ones were laid to rest. Visions cascaded through her mind one after another; so often these past weeks memories would come unbidden, like tides surging through a crumbling dam. She saw the crowd at the Royal House of Magic the day she stepped down as Mage Consul, felt the surge of magic rising in her as she fought Calvaros at the Silver Star Tower, knew again the ache in her heart at her father's passing, felt the exhilaration as she stood at the rail on the maiden voyage of the first airship, knew again the touch of soft, cool skin against her heated body.
It had been a full life, a rich life, one that she hoped she had not squandered and believed that, on balance, she had done more good than ill, left the world a better place than she'd found it. She remembered many a long discussion with priests and bishops—some pleasant, some bitter and acrimonious, some insightful, some where one or both of them was merely venting ill will. Especially in later years, her age gave her a unique perspective on such discussions, in defining what was right and wrong, the immutable truth of God's law, and what was but human custom interpolated into the articles of faith by people with more zeal than judgment.
Lillet felt Amoretta's hands cover hers, clasping one of Lillet's between the homunculus's own, and it brought a smile to the crone's—surely, a five-hundred-year-old magician qualifies as one, if anyone does flitted through her mind—lips, the contact drawing her back to the here and now for a moment.
The touch was reassuring, and Lillet realized that it was because she was a little afraid. Many people in her place in life looked at the approaching end with resignation or even acceptance, sometimes even as a release from the growing frailty of the body and mind. One would have thought that her long experience with necromancy would have calmed and comforted her, but that did not seem to be the case. She was, perhaps, too familiar with death to be comfortable with it, or perhaps it was the fact that her vast knowledge of the magical art told her just how much she did not know about the mystery that was the soul. From the darkness that clouded the edge of her vision the shadowy form of Lujei Piche seemed to flit, and Lillet wondered what had become of the ghost witch. Was she still wandering in space and time between worlds, and had she at last found surcease from the madness that clouded her mind? Or had her existence merely driven her further along the path to insanity?
Grim thoughts, Lillet said to herself, and her fingers twitched, curling a bit to clutch at Amoretta's hand.
She wondered idly if her twenty-times-great-grandson and his wife were still there or if they'd gone home. Lillet wished she could remember their names; the fog of age didn't help but the real problem was that there were so many of them after centuries. Amoretta's near-eidetic memory could keep the twisting and branching of their family tree clear, but without that advantage it was an impenetrable tangle. It was odd how it had begun with only one adopted daughter, but simple mathematics indicated that one could likely populate a large town, perhaps even a city, with Lillet's descendants. There had been several of them visiting since Lillet had become bedridden, helping to manage things since Amoretta was spending nearly all of her time at Lillet's side. It had been kind of them, though, especially since they knew they weren't likely to see anything from Lillet's will as they were several generations down from the nearest still-living descendants.
Lillet smiled at Amoretta, or tried to, to let her know how glad she was of the comfort she was offering by her presence. Perhaps she understood, their sheer number of years together lending them that sympathy as a couple. At any rate, she began to speak.
"Thank you, Lillet."
She held the withered hand in one of her own and stroked the back with the other, softly. Her fingers didn't feel cool, oddly enough, despite the homunculus's body temperature being lower than the human norm. Lillet took a moment to realize that her nearly bloodless, almost skeletal claw of a hand was probably just as cool as Amoretta's flesh now.
"Thank you so much for everything. You saved me with your love. You took me into your life and shared it with me. You put up with me even when my nature made me have needs that a normal person wouldn't in my place, when I would cling to you or be desperate for your presence after only a short time apart. You never complained about it, just held me close and made sure I knew you loved me for whom I was."
She lifted Lillet's hand and cradled it against her cheek.
"I know it couldn't have been easy for you, even though as a powerful magician you had no trouble shrugging off those who felt it was unnatural I was a woman, or that I wasn't human." She fell silent for a moment. "Though I'm not being fair, am I? I'm making it sound like our time together was all you giving and me taking, and I know better than that."
Was that a tear Lillet saw glistening in Amoretta's eye? It was so hard to tell; she couldn't quite seem to see properly. But she was glad Amoretta had caught and corrected herself. It was silly to think that their lives had been all one-sided. Lillet, not being a homunculus, might not have literally needed Amoretta's love for her to survive, but it was nonetheless a central fact of her happiness, and had been since shortly after they'd met. So it was good that Amoretta had realized that she was mostly speaking from grief, because Lillet wasn't sure she could find a way to take her to task for the mistake.
So that was all right.
After so long, it would be silly to end things with a mistake between them.
Lillet's eyes drifted shut. That was easier. It was hard work, keeping them open.
She didn't have any regrets, she decided. That was the important thing. No gnawing aches in her soul, no passionate longings left unfulfilled. She wouldn't become another Lujei, forever wandering in the shadows between life and the next world. Which didn't mean she wasn't scared. She couldn't help it, when confronted with such a basic, elemental truth.
It was getting harder to feel Amoretta's hand, she realized, and this caused the fear to build. It was still there, but a growing numbness was replacing the familiar sensation. Lillet shuddered...or felt like she would, anyway, though she did not think her body actually responded to the emotion. She didn't really feel connected, somehow, like her senses weren't responding, were fading from her mind, leaving nothing but an inutterable coldness in their place.
Lillet wondered if, could she find a way to open her eyes, there would be anything to see, or would the darkness have swallowed it all?
From somewhere far off in the house, she seemed to hear the shattering of glass.
Then it was there, a brilliant golden light, suffusing her, banishing the dark and the cold. She seemed to feel the brush of something soft, like...feathers?...embracing her, and a soft voice whispered as if in both ears at once.
"Come, Lillet. Let's go home."
~X X X~
Sheridan Blan-Virgine knocked softly on the bedroom door, without response.
"Grandmothers?" he called, but there was still no answer. Worried, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. "Grandmothers, I came to see if—" He stopped as he realized that the chair by the bed was empty. "Grandma Lillet, where is Grandmother Am—" he began, then cut himself off once more when he realized that the witch couldn't hear him.
He'd been deceived until then, for who expected the face of the dead to carry such a radiant smile?