Gaia sinks to her knees, chest heaving. Her body can barely hold itself together after the drubbing she's just received. But I keep my distance, knowing that it's not just Gaia in there. It's not her that was fighting us - at least, I hope not.
"Ugh... As if the first time you beat on me wasn't bad enough..." Gaia coughs up blood, falling forward onto her hands. "I..."
Ryne rushes out from behind me before I realize she's even started to move. "Gaia, are you okay?"
Gaia looks up at Ryne with a wince, clutching one of the worse injuries. I feel a bit bad for giving it to her... but to be fair, she was trying to kill me at the time. "Yeah." There's a long pause while Gaia draws in an unsteady breath, a pause I'm not sure how to read. "I'm fine."
I can feel the currents of Ryne's magic disturbing the aether around me. She's healing Gaia. I have my doubts - Gaia is, so far as we know, still being controlled by the Ascian she was in her previous life. But I can't stop her from helping her girlfriend, and Gaia certainly sounds like herself again.
"I'm so sorry, Gaia, we couldn't find any other way. Are you Gaia again? Is she..." Ryne asks, that pleading look in her eyes.
"Yeah... she's quiet again," Gaia says, her voice still strained. "Thank you for taking care of me. I felt so lost... a prisoner in my own head..."
"Don't worry, I'll get you fixed up!" Ryne insists. "We'll make you better again!"
Gaia smiles weakly. "Thank you, Ryne. And... I'm sorry. I won't let her take over again."
"That's a relief!" Ryne says, her shoulders slumping. "I'm glad you came back."
"Yeah. I made it back."
There's a sick sound of metal slicing through flesh, and Ryne suddenly goes stock-still. Red blossoms outward through her Oracle of Light costume as the point of one of her own knives juts out of her back.
Gaia's tender smile turns cruel, and she pulls the knife free. "And I promise... you'll never see that 'Gaia' again."
I'm a bit in shock - even my cynical mind didn't see this coming - but that's my cue to wake up. I rush forward, knocking the still-wounded Gaia - or the Ascian, I suppose - aside and lifting Ryne. Starlight wraps around Ryne's body, sealing the wounds before they can worsen any further. There's so much bleeding. Ryne is not normally so fragile... The Ascian's magic is...
"Come on, we're getting you out of here," I say sharply, drops of blood evaporating into the air as their aether is consumed before they can even land.
"P... Put me down! Let me go!" Ryne shouts in my arms. "Gaia! Gaia!!"
'Gaia' runs her tongue along the blade, lapping up the blood that's still there eagerly. "I warned you not to trust me. You really should have listened." She tosses Ryne's knife aside, and it tumbles into the abyss far below. The battlefield is crumbling... Shrinking, being remade...
The light is being snuffed out. I grit my teeth, hurrying on. The exit is closing, too. At this rate, Ryne will be trapped in here with us, and there's no way she'll make it. I can feel the aether that had made up the platform rushing up and away, being absorbed back into the creature who had created it...
"Gaia!!" Ryne screams, her throat raw. "Give Gaia back!"
"Idiot! Do you not see? I am her, and she is me! There never was any difference!" 'Gaia' calls back, peals of mad laughter issuing from her throat. Her voice is no longer the tentative, uneasy voice of a teenager still finding her footing, but the voice of a cold, calculating, confident adult, blended with the deep and demonic voice of a voidsent. "Face it: the girl you loved is the girl who just stabbed you in the belly. I am Gaia, the Queen of Darkness, and as you bleed to death, just remember that it was your pathetic need to love me and be loved by me that killed you!"
"N... No...!" Ryne's hand falls limp at her side. This situation has just gone from bad to worse. Ryne's will to live is fading, and with it her chances of survival. "It's not true!"
I set Ryne down at the edge of the battlefield. There just isn't time to get her to safety. "Ryne, we're going to make sense of this, I promise, I just need you to keep holding on. I need you to stay with me, okay? If we lose you and Gaia comes back, the real Gaia, the one who did love you and who was loved by you, it'll all be for nothing. So just hold on. My spells can only do so much if you give up!"
"But! I... She...!" Ryne is deathly pale. She's lost too much blood already, and I can sense 'Gaia' approaching me with murderous intent. There's no time to help her!
"Do it for me," I say, pleading. "Do it for Thancred. For all the Scions. Don't make me go back and tell them you died right in front of my eyes." I turn, the cards in my sheath circling around me and flying into my hand. I fan them, their razor-sharp edges ready to pierce through the thick energy around Gaia. "And do it for Gaia. Even if she really is gone, even if she never existed, do it for the time you spent together!" I let them fly, the magic guiding them in graceful arcs through the air.
"Thancred..." Ryne murmurs weakly. "I'm sorry..."
"What are you saying?" 'Gaia' asks. "I told you who I was from the beginning. I told you not to trust me. All of that was an illusion!" She dodges the arcs of my magicked cards, covering each of them in the same gut-shredding darkness that she'd soaked Ryne's dagger in and sending them back at me. No, past me. Toward Ryne!
A sheet of moonlight manifests in front of Ryne, absorbing each of the cards' magic and rendering them just harmless paper once again. They flutter down to rest atop Ryne's chest. My hand circles the floating star globe, then plunges forward. "You can't just take it back like that. Gaia was kind to her. Cared for her. Long after Ryne exposed her heart to Gaia. If it was all a ruse, you would have let Ryne be consumed by Shiva. But you didn't. You couldn't. Because Gaia couldn't bear to lose her. Admit it!"
The starlight barrages 'Gaia', making her stagger back. "Thancred would have killed us had we let her die. Assuming, that is, that Thancred really cares for her and not the girl who once inhabited her body. Can you really trust the word of such a man? A womanizer, who knows insincere love better than the real thing? He even freely told you those stories. An admission of guilt."
"Thancred... Thancred loves me!" Ryne says, insistent. Her body is weak, but thoughts of Thancred's fatherly love for her are giving her spirit strength, and that's something I can work with, even as I have to scoop Ryne up to get her out of the path of 'Gaia's' hammer of darkness. "I could never doubt that. And... I don't believe you! I don't believe that it was all a lie! I don't believe you could fake the way she... she... k-kissed me!"
The mention of the kiss makes our opponent falter, giving me time to get Ryne further away. I bind the light of the sun to Ryne's soul, letting its warmth flood her body and knit her wounds together. "An interesting development, though not unexpected," I say teasingly, calling forth the uncontainable light of a nova through the star globe. "I should have suspected as much when you came back smiling like an idiot from that date and wouldn't say why."
Ryne's cheeks flush with embarrassment, but more importantly, with life. "I... I was going to tell you another time!"
I breathe a sigh of relief. She's okay. She's back from the brink.
"Kissing is not hard," the dark-haired girl before us snaps, enraged. "You don't think after a thousand of your lifetimes, I would not have learned to kiss?"
Ryne gets to her feet unsteadily. "It wasn't the skill. It was the passion! She didn't know much about kissing, she didn't even know if she'd like it, but she wanted to try. For me! For us!" She draws her remaining dagger. "And I'm paying her back. I'm getting you out of her head once and for all!"
I grin. "Good to have you back, Ryne."
"I feel like I'm going to puke, the only thing in my bloodstream right now is pure adrenaline," she says, giving me a trembling side-eye. "But thank you."
"Don't thank me. Yours is the heart that kept on believing," I say, turning my attention to 'Gaia'. "Shall we?"
"Let's!" Ryne growls.
I get up from where I've crouched beside the fallen Gaia, returning to Ryne's side. "I've done all I can do. She's... her body is fine, but... she's still not waking up."
Ryne swallows, nodding slowly. I can see her eyes are threatening to spill over, but she's keeping on a strong front. "It's beautiful out here. I want her to see it! Even just once! What we did together..."
I stay back, giving the two girls some space. Ryne kneels beside Gaia, holding Gaia's limp hand in both of her own. "You'll love it, really! I'll describe it for you, since you're not looking. There's a beautiful crystal that shimmers in every color of the rainbow... The water is flowing and I can see fish swimming and leaping, their scales glinting in the sun... There's the softest breeze you've ever felt, and there are birds flying above and chirping... You can feel the warmth of the sun on your face, and look up at the clouds and see what kind of fluffy shapes they make with me..." She's not holding it together. I feel for her. I'd miss Gaia too if we lost her, and I haven't spent nearly as much time with the girl. She keeps going, ignoring the quavering of her voice. "So come wake up and watch the clouds with me, Gaia!" she says, tears running down her cheeks. "I don't... I don't want to be in a world that doesn't have you in it!"
One of Gaia's black-manicured fingers twitches, and I start to see motion. A massive surge of aether floods through the air around me, and I realize that a spell has been broken.
The moment Gaia's eyes open, Ryne is tackling her, hugging her violently. "Gaia!"
Gaia is out of breath, as if she's awakened from a nightmare. "All that time... All that time, while she hurt you and fought you, I just wanted to say it... I just wanted to tell you I love you..."
"I love you too," Ryne replies without a moment's hesitation. I look away to give them some privacy, but it sounds like they're sharing a kiss.
"It wasn't a lie," Gaia says. "I was so scared I would never get to say it, I was so scared she'd keep me trapped in there forever..."
Another kiss. "I know. I never doubted you. And I wouldn't have left you alone even if she killed me. I would have haunted you so hard."
The two girls lock eyes and burst into tearful laughter. I stretch and head into the tent, yawning. I've done a lot of magic today. Maybe I can leave the girls to it and get a nap in...