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Fate and Chance

Chapter Text

Gertrude wondered, not for the first time, what in the Sarantha's-- no, bad thought, she was doing here in Ostian again. Much less here at this house.

She sat at the wobbly table, staring at the splintery wood, fighting back the wash of bittersweet memories that the old house brought back. Callisto, Gabor, Kim...

She took an unmeasured gulp of the strong ale; the firelight gleaming in her red-golden hair. Her hooked nose crinkled in moderate distaste. Tastes like distilled piss t'me.

"You're back!" Kim exclaimed, throwing his arms around her. "I've never been so worried in my-- What happened?"

Gertrude grimaced. "I'll tell you about it later," she said. "I need a bath."

"Yes, yes you do," Callisto said from where he sat by the fire. "You smell like something the dogs dragged in."

"Ouch," Gertrude whispered, and drank deep from the bitter beer in her mug. With her free hand, she wiped away a tear that escaped from her eyes. "I'm beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea."

She settled her head into her arms, and sighed slowly. "Ai, Kim, you idiot," she muttered, half-fondly, half-sadly, and realized she could smell the alcohol on her own breath.

The door creaked softly; perhaps with the wind, perhaps not. The dancing fire guttered low, filling the room with creeping shadows. Gertrude raised her head, squinting into the darkness that congealed around the doorframe.

"Who's there?" she asked. "If you want to rob me, let's get it over with so I can drink some more."

"I am not here to rob you."

It was a woman's voice, calm and measured and somehow dangerous. Gertrude shivered, despite herself. The last time she had heard a voice like that was not a pleasant memory.

"Then what do you want?"

"I want to thank you," the woman said, stepping into the firelight. She was hooded and veiled, but her eyes gleamed like dark stars. "You freed me."

Gertrude shook her head. "No offence, but I think I'd remember." She tilted her head back and squinted. "Who are you, anyway?"

"Who I am is not important," she said gently. "I am going to do something you will both curse me and bless me for."

Gertrude stood so fast she nearly set the table flying. "No!" she said. "No, no, no no! I have had enough of being used! Take yourself and your double-edged gifts somewhere el--"

"No."

The woman reached out a hand, and Gertrude realized she couldn't move. She was frozen, unable to blink or breathe.

The memories were fading. She realized she could no longer recall Kim's face, or his smile, or Serantha's vicious laugh. Arantheal's hot-headed rages and Arkt's tempered scorn. Callisto's one sentence of gruff praise. Every recollection of anything that had happened over the past few years was fading fast.

"And so I will remove your pain-- for a time," she said; and turned to leave. Gertrude fell back into her chair, reeling.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen over the cottage where Arkt was staying. He had offered Gertrude a place to stay, and cast a spell on Kim’s body; preserving it perfectly until Gertrude could give him a proper burial.

Sleep would not come to her. The images of Kim, crumpled and broken at the foot of Saratha’s pedestal haunted her, and his last words echoed through her mind. His cry of fear, and then....

Nothing.

Gertrude felt…empty. The rage and pain she had felt when she saw Kim’s lifeless body at Sarantha’s feet had all but vanished; leaving her cold and empty, full of pain and nothing else.

Is this what grief feels like? she wondered numbly, staring her friend’s corpse inside it’s shimmering shield. He looked almost peaceful beneath that shimmering, delicate-seeming wall.

Gertrude’s eyes were hot, and burned like live coals in her skull, but she could not weep. She had cried for Merzul, for Melvin, for Vanmiria, for Callisto, even for Narathzul’s death at Arkt’s hands. Now, when Kim lay dead on an old table in a cellar, she could not even summon a single tear to ease the aching loss.

He was gone. Kim was gone, and she could do nothing. All her experience, all her power, and she couldn’t save the one person she had left.

I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m so sorry. I should be dead instead of you.
She didn’t even notice the soft, cat-like footsteps behind her; or maybe thought it was Arkt.

When a robed and veiled woman stepped from the shadows, for a moment she didn’t even notice.

It was when she walked through the shield that Gertrude took notice.

The veiled stranger walked through the shifting wall of woven magic, taking as little notice as if it was simply air. She bent over Kim, and spoke, though her words were inaudible to Gertrude.

Gertrude threw herself against the barrier, shrieking an unanswerable challenge. The veiled woman regarded her calmly, and the shield suddenly vanished. Unable to stop herself, Gertrude fell forward onto Kim, who stirred and groaned. She screamed again, in fear or pain or joy, she couldn’t even tell. Everything whirled together in a state of err and confusion.

The veiled woman watched with amusement as Arkt ran down the stairs, half undressed. He skidded to a halt when he saw her, and she might have smiled beneath her mask.

“Take care of them,” she said. “It will not be easy for either of them.”

And then she vanished, leaving Arkt to deal with a near-hysterical Gertrude and a very confused Kim.`

Chapter Text

She stepped through the portal, flushed with grim determination. Fate no longer weighed upon her, which in turn meant that she could end its tyranny.

“Let me go!”

She knew that voice. The bottom of her stomach dropped out and her heart leapt into her mouth.

A second voice spoke, soft and sweet and drawling poison. “Why do you whine so pathetically? Don’t you know that nothing can change what will happen here?”

She ran along a path marked by dancing blue fires, praying that she was going the right way. Praying? She was a God. And yet she whispered her plea over and over to the uncaring stars.

Kim’s voice was high and terrified. “I beg you; just let me go! I’m nothing! Please!”

The path ended at the gaping maw of a hallway disappearing into the rock, gated only by ancient hinges. She plunged into the darkness without another glance.

The woman’s laugh dripped like poisoned honey. “You hide like a worm facing fire,” she said. “You know that these flames will consume you. You cannot cheat Destiny.”

A cry of fear. She thought that her heart would surely pound out of her chest. The bright blue glow of the portal was barely registered before she was through, and found herself skidding forward over an arena of polished stone and burning fire.

Kim stood at the base of a pedestal where a tall woman stood, her face twisted in a mask of self-righteous cruelty.

KIM!” she screamed.

He turned, fear becoming shock turning to relief.

“No!” the woman snapped, but Kim was already speaking.

“I love you,” he said the words tumbling out of his mouth. “I love you. I should have told you before, but I love you. I’m sorry.”

The woman snarled, and with a sick crack Kim’s neck twisted sharply to the side, and he fell in a tangle of limbs.

She screamed and Sarantha laughed.

 

 

“Wake up.” Sirius hissed. “Wake up!”

Still half-asleep, she sat up, blinking the blear from her eyes. The tiny fortress of crates and boxes was filled with flickering lamplight.

“Sirius?” she muttered. “What did I do?”

He shrugged. “Must have been a bad dream,” he said. “Another one. Can you remember who it was about this time?”

She shook her head slowly.

“No,” she said softly. “I don’t.”

Chapter Text

Kim's hideout had certainly seen better days, but it wasn't the worst place he had found among Erothin's many nooks and crannys. It was here that he scribbled his pamphlets and came to hide when the guards came after him.

This was one of those times. He slipped between the rocks, and wound his way backward along the spring's narrow-carven niche. Sometime in the distant past, someone had chipped a hidey-hole into the soft stone, leaving a refuge few could find.

The spring that dribbled into the deceptively peaceful moat provided his drinking water, and he was used to frugal meals, so he was fairly comfortable. Papers and ink he brought from the Monastery sat in an small crate he had scavenged in the middle of the night. It served as a desk, a place where his writing wouldn't be any wobblier than usual.

Even down here, he couldn't risk using magic. He didn't know the power of the bell that sat in bronzy smugness on the city's plaza and didn't care to test it. Instead, he used candles, first the few he brought with him, then whatever he could scrouge from the melted dribbles that spread over his makeshift desk.

During his time first at the Sanctum, then at the Monastery, Kim had almost forgotten how difficult lighting candles by hand was. He tried not to curse at the flint as he failed again and again to light the tallow candlewick.

Finally, a tiny fire light on the oil-soaked wick. Kim sighed with frustrated relief and went to tend to thickening ink and worn pen-nibs.

His mind wandered a little as the hoirs crept by; the drying ink gleaming under the ruddy light taking on different shades and meanings.

Ye Gods, I must be tired, he thought, staring at a word he'd read so many times over it seemed to have almost lost any shred of meaning. He shook his head and pressed on. Surely it wasn't that late yet...

Over the next few hours, his eyes drifted toward the wet ink, over and over. When he was young, sometimes he could see visions in water or ink or his mother's thin broth. It was tempting to see if he could repeat it, see if he could find Gertrude somewhere among the oily colors.

He shivered suddenly, his still-thin shoulders quivering under the memory of his father's beatings after the stern, book-black man had learned of his innocent games. He couldn't, even if he tried. Even if he would, which he wouldn't anyway, even to satisfy his own worry. It was a brief idea, nothing more.

He sighed, and blew on the ink to dry his finished paper.

One down, and many more to go.

Another piece of paper, another message. He hadn't gotten more than a few hours of sleep in weeks. He was tired, so tired.

It had been a month, at least since he had gotten here. Longer since he had left the Monastery, and seen Gertrude last.

He missed Gertrude with a poignant sting, missed the red-haired, hooked-nosed woman with her cheerfully loud voice and ruddy, freckled face. Her large, capable hands and abundance of good common sense.

A strange angel indeed, he thought in amusement, remembering his bewildered first impressions of the tall woman- taller than him, which had caused some good-natured ribbing from the other novices, never intended as anything but genial. At first he had flinched from everyone's raised hands and loud voices, even Gertrude's; but he had slowly, slowly grown used to being slapped on the shoulder in congratulations or commiseration, catching his aborted twitches before they happened. Gertrude had helped as best she could without knowing what to do for him.

He smiled at the memories of his red-haired protector. That probably hadn't hurt his budding adoration.

And then that ship ride to Arktwend. Gertrude had asked about his past, his parents, how he had become a slave. It had touched him that she cared, and so he had told her, even if it paled in comparison to the happines in her stories of Abbey life. She had listen quietly, occasionally asking about some aspects he hadn't made clear.

And then she had hugged him fiercely, telling him that his father was lucky she had been across the Valley and much smaller at the time.

He missed her sorely. He wondered what she would make of his doings here, sneaking about at night, slowly raising the trust of the Aeterna and certain of the farmers and merchants who had witnessed the Chancellor's brutality firsthand, only to be forced to turn away for fear of their own lives and livelihoods.

Well. Fate (and Callisto) had chosen to seperate them yet again. Kim may not like it, but he supposed he had to live with it.

He looked down at his paper and was dismayed at what he saw. His handwriting had gone scrawling along with his thoughts until he'd run out of ink. At first he was angry with himself. Stupid. Stupid. I can't afford to wast paper like this.

Then he read further and was amused by his own mental wording and the seemingly poor grasp of Inâl his inner voice seemed to possess. The ink began to glide patchily, sometimes rendering whole words as meaningless scratches.

I really do need to go to bed, he thought ruefully.

Chapter Text

Gertrude knelt in the blood-mixed mud, and ran her knife along the stitches that bound the battle-mage's hood to the tabard the man had worn over his padded chainmail. She crumpled the small piece of cloth in her grimy fist; no doubt making it even dirtier than the bloody, burnt hood already was.

Beneath the smudges of soot and blood, the original, luminously gleamong crimson shone throigh. The color of Erodan, the city they had given their lives to defend; by striking down what Barteon had seen as a threat to his authority.

She rose to her feet, and pushed the hood into her pocket as she followed Arcorias to the Sanctum's proud white spire.

That battlemage was only the first in a long line. When she and Melvin were pursued down the steep stairs in the winding dungeons, they fought back against the five-to-one odds, scorched and frozen by the battlemage; but slowly picking off the frightened, determined, all-too-noble soldiers in their red livery.

It came with heavy tolls on both of them. Both bled sluggishly from rents in their armor, Melvin had frostbite on his fingers and Gertrude's eyebrows were singed.

They stopped at the foot of the stairs, breathing heavily, the pain slowly leeching back into their tired bodies as the adrenaline of battle receded.

Two battlemages had fallen. She took both their hoods, and stuffed them into the same pouch she kept the other. Melvin cast a strange look her way, but she ignored him.

 

When Gertrude reached the Mountain Monastery, she had five hoods. One was a single battlemage, a scout she had run across in the wilderness. He had barely had time for one startled glance before she had lashed out with a swordblade he had no hope of deflecting.

It bit deep into his neck and into his shoulder and chest, blade grating on bones until it slid to a stop just shy of his sternum.

A horrible gurgle of a dying scream choked off by blood that fountained into his lung, lept from his ruined throat. Gertrude stumbled back, her numb fingers releasing the pommel and leaving the sword buried in the terrible wound in his chest.

His mouth worked, trying to whisper something through blood-flecked lips. His face looked impossibly young, little more than a boy still mastering the arcane arts; not ready to be out of his mother's house.

Gertrude's stomach revolted and she emptied what was left of her meager supper on the ground. It surged violently, over and over, spasming painfully, even when nothing came out. She wanted to cry for this boy, this stranger even younger than herself.

It was the first time she took a hood with the sole purpose of remembering the man who had worn it; and his face haunted her dreams for months.

 

Killing began to come easier and easier, and it frightened Gertrude. She wondered if she was beginning to turn into a heartless monster, her soul black with blood; a woman people frightened children into compliance with.

After the attack on the Monastery she hid in the cellars, staring wide-eyed at the four new hoods she had collected, her hands shaking.

Why did she take these grim trophies, relics of souls that no longer walked the world? Men-- good men, men with families, wives and children, mothers and fathers. Someone's friend, laughing at off-color jokes, praying the same litanies that she knew.

The thought brought tears bubbling to the surface, but she dabbed them away as quickly as they came, fighting against the quiet sobs that jerked her chest.

The door swung open. "Gertrude? Gertrude-- oh."

Kim had come looking for her. Gertrude didn't even bother to edge out of the pale autumn light that stemmed from a window set high in the wall, knowing from the soft 'oh' that he had already seen her.

He hovered for a moment, clearly dithering over whether he should go to her or leave her be.

"I'm sorry," he muttered timidly. "I- Well, I'll go."

"Are you frightened of me?" she asked bitterly as he turned back to the door. She had thought that she could talk to Kim at least, of all people. She sent the red cloths scattering over the dusty floor like old autumn leaves before a winterwind.

Kim hesistated before he answered, but long enough Gertrude felt it was an eternity, and she dropped her head in shame.

"No, I'm not," he said, and she didn't know whether to believe him or not.

Gertrude heaved herself to her feet and shook her head. She didn't even try to hide the red blothes on her face that betrayed that she'd been crying.

"Let me wash my face," she said, trying valiantly to keep her voice steady. "I'll- I don't know what came over me."

Gertrude's hands shook as she hooked the bucket onto the rope, and sent it spinning down into the waters below. A full second ticked by before she heard the splash echo up from below. The windlass creaked as she turned it over and over on itself, drawing the bucket out of the deep pit of stone and water.

Smaller hands laid over hers, and Kim helped her pull the bucket up. Maybe a small gesture, but it soothed Gertrude's restless soul, at least for a few moments.

 

So much death on her hands. She had slain Angels to free Narathzul, and coldly killed the battlemages that Barteon had sent after them. Again, she had taken the hoods, more or less on autopilot, adding four to the five that she had claimed after Cahbaet. Eighteen hoods, all of which she carried with her.

In Erothin she only claimed two more hoods. Twenty, all told.

In the days after Narathzul assumed the Middlerealm throne, Kim found her with the hoods again, sitting in the courtyard with her back against a tree.

"It's over," she said, her eyes half-lidded. "No more collecting hoods. No more slaying the loyal soldiers of Nehrim."

She let the hood flow from her fingers, and flop onto the bright leaves. "I don't know what to do with all of these."

Kim bent and picked up the hood, running bow-calloused fingers over the fine silk. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

"Why did you take them?" he finally asked.

She shrugged, a limp and watery motion. "To remember the men I've killed. I think. I don't know."

Kim thought for a moment. "Make a memorial," he suggested. "Or... I don't know. I'm not good at such things."

Gertrude nodded absently. "A memorial. Maybe. I'll think about it. Thank you, my friend."