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In The Balance

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If she didn't know better, it would have been so easy for Miriam to think none of the past few weeks had ever happened. When she had left Delphi after her pity party, the land was scarred nearly beyond recognition. Spirit world monsters had made short work of the port town and not even Saphy could keep them at bay forever. Miriam's grandmother had been able to shelter most of the town before things got really bad, thankfully.

Now, as Miriam descended, Delphi was as quiet as it had ever been. Well, not entirely. It was more lively than it had been since Miriam had grown up there. Spirit world structures that had been flung into the living world during the collapse stood in awkward harmony with the buildings that had already been there. Just like the Dream King's bell tower remained in Langtree, the Queen of Winds' organ pipes rose over Delphi like a weird metal tree. The blues and greens of the former Overseer clashed dramatically with the usual reds and oranges. Still, it was unmistakably Delphi, and it didn't take Miriam long to make her way through the cave that cut Saphy's house off from the rest of town.

Miriam didn't bother to say anything to the cave trolls as she passed, and she knew Kiwi would have insisted if they could speak. One upside to Kiwi being unconscious was that they couldn't interrupt Miriam's path with silly little personal distractions. The bard in question weighed heavily against her back as she flew. If she thought piling them onto her broom as a useless tangle of limbs was hard the first time, it had only proved harder again. Miriam thought doing so while being under stress by the law was one thing, but the day's events had left her uncoordinated and even more worried she'd drop her friend. Miriam knew it was probably risky jostling Kiwi further, but if anyone could help them it had to be Saphy. Surely she had seen worse than this? Miriam briefly thought back to the paralyzed troll that she couldn't fix and if this was worse or similar. No, she didn't want to think about that now. Saphy was really her only hope of helping Kiwi, and she wasn't about to doubt her grandmother.

Miriam felt a nauseating pull at her heart when she saw her and Saphy's home. When she left, it had a chunk missing by a monster's paw. Miriam had committed the image to memory, sure it was the last she'd see of her childhood home. Now that chunk was replaced with a weird crystalline structure, fitting almost neatly into place like it belonged there.

Miriam carefully dismounted and pulled one of Kiwi's arms around her shoulders. They were already heavy, but Miriam only felt even more tired standing on her front step. She never thought to knock at her own home, but she didn't want to spook Saphy. Miriam figured she had gotten all the emotion out when saying her final goodbyes to the only family she'd ever known. But, when Saphy opened the door and looked her over, Miriam was once again unable to keep it together. Saphy held out her arms without hesitation and took both her granddaughter and the bard into a hug. Tears didn't come, but Miriam found herself hyperventilating into Saphy's shoulder, her legs going out from under her. She somehow still managed to hold the ragdoll bard up, but Saphy thankfully shouldered some of the weight. At least Miriam still had one pillar of stability to count on.

Once the trio had made it inside, Miriam lugged Kiwi up to her bed. Saphy put the back of her hand to Kiwi's forehead and made a thoughtful noise.

"How long have they been Iike this?"

Miriam shrugged. "A couple hours? I don't know exactly when they collapsed."

Kiwi's breathing was a little shallow. The edge to their breath ground on Miriam's nerves like sandpaper. They were starting to pale. Saphy smoothed Kiwi's hair, and Miriam knew it was a comforting gesture. The amount of times Saphy had fretted over Miriam's hair when she was worried for her was incalculable. It wasn't a good sign.

"I have some ideas," Saphy started. "But, I can't promise you they'll bring your friend out of this. If that angel was right, then they're very deeply asleep, and I don't know if I can reach them."

"I'll try anything," Miriam said, a little too quickly. "A-and even after that, it might just be a matter of time, right? They might just wake up on their own?"

Saphy said nothing, only stroked Kiwi's hair again.

The two witches searched for a solution long into the night. Normally, bringing someone out of a deep sleep was beginner’s stuff for witches. By the time the sun rose the next morning, Miriam was sitting on a stool at Kiwi's side with her head in her hands. It was clear Kiwi's condition was beyond any normal unconsciousness. Saphy had long gone to bed and insisted Miriam do the same. "We can't do anything for them if we're exhausted," she had said.

Miriam couldn't even begin to think about sleep. Sleep was wasting precious time and besides, Miriam didn't even feel tired. She may have dozed off once or twice, but part of pulling an all-nighter was power naps after all. However, the thought nagged at her that she hadn't really done much else but worry since Saphy had gone to bed. In the moment, it felt more productive than sleeping.

Kiwi never so much as twitched in their sleep. Their face was way more relaxed than Miriam felt appropriate. In a way, she was happy they were getting some rest. Kiwi barely slept during their adventure; they always claimed they weren't tired. They were an early-riser too, much to her chagrin at the time. They had to be up with the birds at dawn and woke Miriam several times with their morning vocal warm-ups. She'd give anything for that now. She didn't think anyone could be this still unless they were…they were alive, Miriam had to keep telling herself. Their chest unsteadily rising and falling was the only sign of life Miriam could hold onto. She had to keep reminding herself of that no matter how cold Kiwi's hand had gotten. She idly stroked said hand and hoped in vain for a response. Swallowing a wave of anxiety, Miriam rested her head on her arms against the bed, still holding Kiwi's hand. She hoped they were dreaming, at least.

Saphy woke Miriam at around noon. Miriam sat bolt upright. "Did you find anything else??" She asked desperately.

Saphy stayed quiet for a moment and reached to smooth Miriam's hair. Miriam considered waving her hand away but the touch felt like it was the only thing keeping her sane.

"We've tried everything I know," the old witch sighed. "I've never seen anything like it."

Miriam glanced at Kiwi. She didn't have the energy to panic anymore and rolled with the punch her disappointment dealt. Saphy pulled her into probably the sixth hug in the last twenty-four hours. Miriam leaned her entire weight on her grandmother. She wasn't going to cry.

"What am I supposed to do now?" Miriam's voice was barely above a whisper.

Saphy gave her a steadying squeeze. "You might just have to wait and see, sweetheart. Sometimes these things just take time."

Miriam didn't have time. Well, she did now, but she felt like she'd explode before Kiwi would awaken. She sagged further into Saphy. She should have known better than to expect Saphy to just wave her hand and fix this. Locals considered her grandmother a sort of miracle worker, like she could have single handedly held the world together if it came down to it. Miriam thought their admiration was overblown, but she had regarded Saphy the same way. She couldn't shake the utter helplessness she felt.

"...The chill isn't probably good for them," Saphy started. "Here in Delphi, anyway. Maybe they'll fare better in a familiar place. Plus, their friends back home might want to see them."

Miriam could read between the lines on that. Saphy was pretty much telling her to make Kiwi as comfortable as possible in case of…well. Putting that part out of her mind, Miriam agreed that Langtree might be better for Kiwi to ride this out. It was quiet and warmer there.

"They're a strong one, Miriam," Saphy said. "And so are you. But, you need to take care of yourself, too. Promise me you'll get some sleep in Langtree at least, okay?"

Miriam didn't answer.

Audrey insisted on leading the way and Kiwi didn't fight her on it. It was pretty clear neither of them knew where they were going, but at least Kiwi could admit that. Audrey kept stressing she knew the "right" way. They both pulled the sword by the hilt, leaving the blade dragging across the grass. It was a sorry defense but better than nothing. Kiwi didn't know what they were going to do if they actually did run into anything.

Thankfully, the walk so far had been mind-numbingly boring. They carried on mostly in silence that was only interrupted by Kiwi accidentally stepping on Audrey's heel. Much like their trek through Mt. Ichor, they had to walk unbearably close together. Audrey may have lost her powers but her annoyance radiated off of her like static. Kiwi had been okay walking in silence for a bit, but by hour three they were practically dying for interaction. Even Miriam wasn't this quiet, Audrey was pretty much pretending they weren't even there. Kiwi was going to go insane if they didn't speak.

"Nice weather out here, huh?"

Audrey briefly stumbled in her tracks and looked back at Kiwi.

"...I guess?"

Silence again, they resumed walking.

"I mean, it's more like every weather here but still-!"

"Yeeeeup."

Kiwi cleared their throat awkwardly. "Y'know, at least it's not as cold as Ichor. But, you handled that pretty well. The scarf definitely helped. Did you get that when you became the hero or-"

"Oooooh my gosh," Audrey groaned. "Do I have to hear every thought that crosses your pea brain??"

Kiwi threw their hands up defensively and accidentally let go of the sword. Audrey went down with it before Kiwi caught it again. "Sorry!"

"Focus!" Audrey barked. "How are we supposed to get where we're going if you can't hold onto this thing?"

"Audrey," Kiwi chanced, only now asking this. "Where are we going?"

Audrey didn't answer right away but adjusted her grip on the hilt. "You know! Somewhere! Not here! If you keep talking it's only gonna take longer to get there."

Kiwi bit back a retort. There wasn't really any use arguing with her, they knew that much.

That's not enough.

Kiwi and Audrey passed under a stray storm cloud. A roll of thunder made the sword vibrate a little in their hands, startling Kiwi a bit.

"I made the scarf."

Kiwi tilted their head. The rain pelting their head picked up a little.

"Really?"

Audrey nodded. "I used to do that. Make stuff."

Another bout of thunder stirred the sword.

"That's pretty neat, Audrey."

Audrey pulled her end of the sword a little closer. She didn't look at Kiwi.

"It's a nice scarf," they went on. "I'm not much of a tailor but my friend Marely is. I really appreciate the craft, honestly. It's even got some embroidery along the edges, and she'd love that! She said she comes from a long line of talented seamstresses, her grandma taught her mom who taught her. What about you?"

Audrey's shoulders tightened. The rain came down harder on top of them. She recovered quickly with a wave of her hand. "I dunno, probably. I'm way better at swordplay, though. That's what my family was all about, not some lame arts and crafts."

"What's wrong with arts and crafts?"

Audrey scoffed. "Right, I forgot that's kind of your thing."

Kiwi knew she was trying to insult them, but they were just happy they had something to talk about now. "Seems like it's your thing, too."

"Yeah, well-" and then Audrey stopped dead in her way, forcing Kiwi to bump into her. The storm cloud above them dissipated. Kiwi looked over her shoulder and saw a structure sitting just down a slope. It looked to be made of ivory pillars that stretched to the sky. As they rose higher they fell into more and more disrepair until they resembled a staircase that went out of sight. The chunk of sky framing it was a beautiful orange and pink sunset, reminding Kiwi a bit of Delphi. It was the most familiar Spirit World-looking thing Kiwi had seen so far, all grandiose and majestic.

"See! I told you I knew where we were going!" Audrey picked up the pace. Regardless of her inability to lift the sword, she was still stronger than Kiwi and her momentum nearly knocked them off their feet. They tripped helplessly after her downhill towards the building, Audrey's scarf swatting them in the face.