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Danse de la Vie

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“We’re out of sandwiches,” Miriam announced sourly one morning, digging through her satchel.

Kiwi added another log to the campfire they’d built to push away the forest’s chill, dewy air. The two of them were three days out from Chismest, making exceptionally good time towards Rulle and the next Nexus Point, but— well, all they’d had for rations were the sandwiches Kiwi’s mother had packed for them. Kiwi was a little glad to hear they were done with sandwiches for every meal. Even if that presented a larger problem.

“What about those bread-things the pirates gave us?”

“Hardtack, you mean?” Miriam pulled out the last of the hardtack and knocked it against a nearby stone. The stone chipped. “You could give somebody a concussion with this thing. I’m certainly not eating it.”

Kiwi frowned. They waved off the hardtack when Miriam offered it.

Breakfast that morning consisted of pine needle tea and a handful of berries Miriam foraged from the forest. She also brought back a pocketful of mushrooms, too, but neither of them felt hungry enough to test her mushroom identification in this corner of the world. They ate in silence. After breakfast, Kiwi wandered down to a nearby stream to wash off. They found Miriam preparing her broom for travel by the time they got back.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to the next town over to pick up supplies. I’ll be back in a few hours.”

“But, Miriam— we don’t have any money.” A sudden scandalous thought crossed Kiwi’s mind. They gasped. “Are you going to steal?”

Miriam brushed at her skirt. She looked away into the woods with a scowl, as if to say she had thought about it, but wasn’t actually going to do it, especially not with someone like Kiwi following her around. “No,” she huffed. “I’ve heard they like magic tricks. I’ll just… toss some flashy little cantrips around in exchange for what we need. But you’re staying here,” she added vehemently. “If you can’t sit still, there’s a town called Carillon to the west. Do your little… help-y thing, or whatever. I won’t let you see me acting like a fool.” She tossed one leg over the handle of her broom. A subtle breeze washed through the clearing, buoying her aloft. Miriam hid a smile in her wind-tossed hair. “Stay out of trouble, okay?”

Kiwi pressed a hand to their heart. “I promise~!” they sang out after her, with just a hint of teasing.

“Stop singing!” Miriam cackle-shrieked in reply. She shot away over the trees.

Kiwi immediately departed for Carillon. They could probably amuse themselves in the woods— singing to birds and the like— but the draw of people in a brand new town pulled them in like a siren song. They loved people! They loved towns! The prospect of a full morning to explore without worrying about an Overseer song made them giddy.

Kiwi passed through the gate to Carillon at a steady dancing clip. They waved to a guard as they shimmied by. The guard, confused, offered them a stiff half-jig in reply. “Nice dance~!” Kiwi sang out, already twirling down the street. They followed the wide main road towards the town’s open center square. A series of uneven pavestones caused Kiwi to stumble out of their pirouette.

Several little hands caught the hem of Kiwi’s cape, steadying them. Two grubby children, a boy and a girl, stared up at the bard. “Can you help us?” the girl asked with all the point-blank bluntness of a five-year-old.

Kiwi grinned. “Sure! I love to help!”

“Mr. Wigglepants is stuck,” the boy said very seriously. He pointed at the high roof of a nearby building. Something in the gutters mewed piteously. Kiwi frowned. 

“I’m not sure I can reach—”

But the children had already dragged the bard over to a trellis secured to the house’s side. “You gotta use the flowers ,” the girl instructed. “Grammy says they grow if you sing at them, except—” Both children squatted down and screamed at the tiny green shoots with impressive strength. The shoots retreated further into the earth.

“The flowers are broken,” the boy said.

“I think it’s because you’re screaming at them,” Kiwi replied. “Here, let me try.”

The flowers curled eagerly around Kiwi’s every limb at the sound of the first note. They lifted the bard higher and yet higher, their soft blossoms pushing against Kiwi’s cheek, as if to whisper in their ear: thank goodness you’re here, we’d lift you clear to the moon if you asked—  anything to stop that awful racket. Kiwi sang even sweeter to soothe the flowers’ tired green ears. The kids meant well. Someone just needed to push that energy in the right direction.

A bedraggled kitten peered out of the gutters at the approaching bard. It took a little convincing to coax Mr. Wigglepants into believing that yes, this noodle-limbed person suspended by trembling vines was, in fact, a much better option than a gutter. Kiwi looked out over the town square from their vantage point while the kitten climbed into their arms. A farmer’s wagon trundled across the cobblestones, ferrying cabbages and a particularly sour-faced Hero. Audrey hopped out without so much as a backward glance at the driver. Oh, Kiwi thought, as the flowers gently lowered them to the ground. I always wondered how she got around. It was… nice, almost, to see Audrey paired with a cabbage-cart. It made her seem more like a person and less like a lightning-wielding demigod. Kiwi contemplated what kind of side-quest she’d had to do to hitch a ride. If she’d had to do one at all, that is. Maybe that was a perk of being a Hero— you could commandeer any cabbage-cart you liked. Kiwi adjusted the kitten against their chest. It mewed anxiously. 

A tangle of thoughts cartwheeled through Kiwi’s head. Maybe they should go say hello to Audrey. It was certainly the friendly thing to do. But what was there to say, especially after their last meeting? It really hurt when you hit me with lightning? Sorry my witch friend attacked you, although I’m not sure I’m really sorry, and I think I’d let her do it again? No, the real question was, Why can’t we work together? 

Why do you want the universe to end?

And then there was Miriam in the back of Kiwi’s mind, muttering, Don’t do anything stupid. I told you to stay out of trouble.

It’s not trouble, Kiwi countered, I’m giving her a second chance. They came to rest on the pavestones. The flowers slithered away. Determination welled within Kiwi, bright as the noontime sun. They would talk to Audrey. Maybe she was the Hero and they weren’t, and maybe that truth still hurt a little, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t come to an understanding.

Kiwi’s thoughts shattered at the sound of a thunderous, furious, “YOU!

They looked up. Audrey pointed at them across the town square, her perfect hair and perfect scarf whipping in a heroic breeze, the sun glinting off of her sword, a faint rainbow aura trailing out behind her. Kiwi hesitated. They pointed at their chest and mouthed, me?

“YES, YOU!” Audrey stomped across the square. “What are you doing here? Why do you have to turn up in every town I’m in? I thought I told you to stay out of my way!”

“I’m looking for the Earthsong,” Kiwi said defensively. The kitten in their arms started to struggle. They slipped a hand under their cape to calm it down, casting furtive glances at the Hero as she approached. “Look, Audrey, I think we should talk! I know you and Miriam don’t get along, but—”

“I don’t want to talk,” Audrey said coldly. She raised her sword to the heavens. Skeins of lightning tumbled down from a clear blue sky at her call. “I want you to leave.” 

“Well—” Kiwi’s voice wavered. They gathered their courage into a miserable little pile. “I’m— I’m not going anywhere!”

Audrey dropped her sword into the attack.

Maybe it was the way Kiwi’s body remembered the first lightning strike, and feared another— maybe it was the thought of the little innocent life in their arms— maybe it was the way the kitten escaped their grasp and clambered with tiny painful claws over their shoulder— but a single pained note escaped Kiwi’s throat, twisted to the left of any shield they’d ever sung. 

The lightning ricocheted nigh-instantly and struck Audrey directly in the chest. 

The Hero wheeled backwards with a scream that sounded more surprised than hurt. Swarms of lightning buzzed all over her body like a cloud of electric bees. She swiped at it, shrieking, blind to the fact that in one flailing arm she still grasped her sword. Kiwi handed the kitten back to its frantic owners. The two of them darted away with wide eyes. Kiwi turned heel and dashed towards the Hero herself. They were glad to know they hadn’t hurt her, but still, she might hurt herself in her panic… and that sword wheeling around her head might hurt someone else.

“Audrey! Drop your sword!” Kiwi called, ducking away from an errant swing. A nearby bush lost a trimming of leaves. They gestured for the gathering townsfolk to stay back.

“Are you crazy?” Audrey shrieked. Her sword collided with a flowerpot. Someone in the crowd gasped, clearly the owner of that begonia.

“Okay, okay! If you can’t put down the sword, then please! Try to calm down! You’ll hurt someone!”

“What about me?” Audrey countered. She spun in circles, swatting at her face. “I’m already hurt! You hit me with my lightning!”

Kiwi’s look of concern vanished into a perturbed scowl for a split second. No, now wasn’t the time to swap lightning-strike stories, or remind her how bad they really hurt. She was just— scared. And confused. She deserved a little patience. Kiwi took a deep breath. They began to sing.

Charming lightning proved much harder than charming winds on the Lady Arabica, but weather was weather and like all things in the universe, it bore its own pattern. Kiwi sang a series of quick slide-scales. They let their voice bounce rapid-fire through alternating notes. Audrey slowed and stilled. The lightning cording her body wisped away in little bolts like static-charged fibers. Soon only a few sparks danced across her clothes. Kiwi let their music fade away. They crept forward, one careful hand reached towards the Hero’s still-raised sword.

Later, Kiwi would say they startled her. That Audrey was a scared warrior, with warrior’s instincts. They should have announced their intentions.

In the moment, all Kiwi saw was the flash of lightning in Audrey’s eyes and a single streak of silver.

Kiwi leapt backwards from the singing blade, felt a pinch, a rip, a tear, heat and pain and stickiness across their gut— They staggered upright in a daze. The shouting voices of villagers reached their ears through cotton smog. One hand lifted away from their side, dark and slick. They blinked numbly. They felt a breeze, turned, to see Miriam touching down on the other side of the town square, her face gone pale in fury and fear. Kiwi tried to smile at their friend. It was fine, right? Everything was fine. It was just an accident. They tasted iron on their tongue. Miriam’s mouth moved through the syllables of Kiwi’s name. They couldn’t hear her.

“Hi, Miriam!” they said, and collapsed.

* * *

Kiwi woke up in a pool of light, surrounded by a wide, dark expanse. Their body ached with the exhaustion of spent adrenaline. Their brain felt all foggy and muddled. A vague memory tickled the edges of their mind, tinged with panic and the taste of blood, but a quick scrambled pat-down of their body uncovered no injuries. Kiwi sat up. Were they late? Had another Overseer already been killed? They had never experienced a darkness so whole, so eternal, as in the realm of a dead Overseer.

Mask lay beside them. They lounged easily, arms behind their head, as though this was just another sunny field in Langtree. Their presence curbed the rising panic in Kiwi’s chest. The bard cleared their throat. “Hey, Mask.”

Hey there, Wanderer. You did good, finding me here.”

Mask’s nickname brought a tiny smile to Kiwi’s face. It felt different from the other names they’d collected over the years, all warm and tingly, like an honored title rather than a pseudonym. “I’m… not really sure how I found you, to be honest.” They looked out into the abyssal darkness. “Are we in the Spirit World?”

Not quite. But that’s a good guess.

“Oh. Then where are we?”

Somewhere you’re not supposed to be for a long, long time.

Mask slowly stood up. When they turned to offer a hand, Kiwi took it, pulling themself to their feet. Their legs wobbled beneath them like a newborn deer. Mask let them cling to their colorful poncho for support. “…Are you going to teach me a dance?”

Every dance I’ve ever shown you was already deep inside, waiting to come out. But this dance is one you’ve known your whole life. All I’m here to do is help you remember.

“Well… alright.”

Mask lifted their arms in a waiting stance, like those old-timey ballroom dancers without a partner. Kiwi steadied their jelly-limbs. They slowly mimicked Mask’s stance, allowing Mask to place a guiding hand to their hip, to adjust their own posture so they could follow properly. How strange, to finally feel the flesh-and-bone body beneath those colorful clothes. 

Sing us something, Wanderer.”

Kiwi trawled through their memories of dances— waltzes and tangos and country reels— and yet the music felt a hair’s breadth away, an apple for Tantalus. They frowned. The best they could do was open their mouth and let an idle succession of notes fall out. They realized a second too late they were singing the last piece they’d composed: the candy shop theme from Delphi.

Mask didn’t seem to mind, or if they did, they did not comment. With steady pressure they pushed and pulled Kiwi into a succession of shuffling moves. Ah, so it was like a waltz, with a four-square pattern— or, no it wasn’t, here they were doing a quick foxtrot— goodness no, what was this, a grapevine reel? Every time Kiwi felt as though they could anticipate the next movement, Mask changed the pattern again. Kiwi floundered along. They were reminded of those persistent nightmares, the ones of being dropped into a school musical, with no memory of the songs and only anxious pantomime to see them through. Except this was worse, because they could feel Mask pushing them ever backwards. Dances were about swinging around the room. Expressing yourself. Not this… shuffle-footed mess.

Kiwi let their song falter and die. “I’m sorry,” they confessed. “I really don’t think I know this dance.”

Of course you do,” Mask assured. “Everybody knows this one. Every bug, every rock, every person and tree knows it from the very moment they’re born.

“But what if I don’t?”

You do.

Kiwi glanced past Mask’s face to the darkness beyond. A mote of light hung over their friend’s shoulder, like a liquid opal churning in the pitch. “What’s that light?”

Don’t worry about it. You’ll find out in your own time.

A sound like music filtered through the nothingness. Kiwi strained to hear. “…I think it’s singing!”

Don’t listen to it, Wanderer.

It was like telling a fish not to swim, or a bird not to fly. The music crept into Kiwi’s veins. They tested a note or two on their tongue. It sounded familiar. Like an Overseer song. Or— like an Overseer, singing their verse of the Earthsong. Yes, there it was, the unmistakable subtle beat of the universe!

“It’s an Overseer!” Kiwi strained against Mask’s guiding hands. “I’ve got to go there! I’ve got to get the Earthsong before Audrey—!”

Hey now, Wanderer. Don’t go running off.” Mask’s grip turned vice-tight. Kiwi could not see their eyes, but felt a gaze nonetheless, cold and piercing. “They don’t let me do this often, you hear? Keep going. You’ll get the hang of it soon. Remember, it’s already inside you.

“Mask, please—”

Kiwi,” Mask murmured. The name sounded clumsy and strange in their mouth, and yet it lanced through Kiwi’s soul like a needle made of love. “That’s not the Earthsong.

Everything fell back into place. The events of the afternoon flashed through Kiwi’s mind like a roll of film— Audrey, the accident, her sword— waking up here— and the truth burned through cold and clear.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” Kiwi said.

Not yet. Look.

Another mote of light glowed faintly far behind Kiwi’s back. It pulsed in odd iterations, with the luminescent red of sunlight filtered through closed lids. It did not seem as pretty as the opal light, nor half as important. And yet… it felt like home. A solitary wind instrument echoed the strains of a folk song into the darkness. 

“Oh,” Kiwi murmured. “I know that song.”

The music washed through their clothes like a spring breeze. They found themself swaying along. It started with a subtle bounce, a shifting of weight from foot to foot. Something within them stirred like a bird remembering how to sing. There was longing, too, and the desire to hear Miriam’s cackle one more time. Mask matched their cautious rhythm. 

Ready to try again?

“Yeah,” Kiwi said. “I think I am!”

The music rose into a rolling crescendo. Kiwi burst into a gallop along with it. Mask’s formal grip melted into a loose hand-hold, no longer guiding the bard’s enthusiastic canter, but coming along for the joyous ride. They spun, they tapped, they kicked and clapped and whirled each other around the room. The music wove in and out of Kiwi’s ribs. They could not keep up with their own body. Their dance had become immediate, instinctual. They were not sure they could stop— but oh, who would want to stop a glorious dance like this? They had never felt so happy; so alive.

The red mote of light drew ever closer. The sound of the wind instrument boomed with the force of a whole orchestra. Mask guided Kiwi into a pirouette and then— let go, letting the bard spin out through the darkness and into the light. Kiwi looked back towards their friend.

“What about you?”

Mask laughed. “I have my own ways, Wanderer.

The world blazed at the edges with bright white radiance. Kiwi’s body grew heavy, but still they spun ever deeper into the light. Mask stood alone in a pool of night. The mote of opal light crowned them like a halo. What they were, and what they did, suddenly made a bit more sense. Kiwi smiled. “Thank you, Mask.”

Their friend waved. “See you soon, Wanderer. Good luck out there.

* * *

Kiwi woke up in the spare bed of a villager. Whitewashed walls glowed faintly between dark oak beams in the late afternoon sunlight. Stiff white sheets rustled over them when they tried to sit up. A deep, aching pain lit through their gut in response to the effort, and Kiwi dropped back to the mattress with a yelp.

Miriam’s head snapped upright. She scrambled to hide the fact that she’d drifted off in her chair at Kiwi’s side. This involved a lot of uncrossing limbs, combing her hair out with her fingers, and a quick swipe at her cheek. Kiwi spied an instrument in her hand.

“…Is that a piccolo?” they asked. Their voice sounded hoarse and strange. They coughed. 

Miriam blushed. “What? No! I mean… Yes. I guess. I know you like music, so,” she gestured with her piccolo. “Whatever. It’s stupid.”

“No!” Kiwi struggled to shuffle up, so they could look at her better. “I think I heard you! It was nice.”

“Oh,” Miriam said. She ducked her head and smiled. Kiwi pushed one hand out from under the covers. Miriam hesitated, then held her friend’s hand. A beam of sunlight slid across the two. The glow backlit Miriam’s hair, giving her a poor woman’s halo that juxtaposed sharply with the lines of exhaustion on her face. Kiwi gave Miriam’s hand a slight squeeze. She noticed their kindly stare. Flustered, she stuck out her tongue to diffuse the situation.

“You sing when you snore,” she accused.

“Oh,” Kiwi said with a laugh. “Yeah.”

“…You sing when you scream, too.” Miriam hunched her shoulders. “Grandma Saphy taught me a healing spell. For emergencies only. It’s not… pretty. I think you scared some people. And turned a tree permanently black.” She fiddled with her instrument. “…Do you remember any of that?” 

Kiwi considered the blank ceiling. “Mmmm… nope!”

Miriam let out a sigh that suggested she wasn’t sure whether or not to feel relieved. “The villagers told me what happened, you know. I can’t believe you tried to help the Hero.”

“She was just scared, Miriam, honest!”

“So you ran at the person with the magic sword?” Miriam shrieked. “Remember how that worked out last time?”

“But—”

Miriam tightened her grip on Kiwi’s hand until it almost hurt. “You almost died, Kiwi! What if that happened before I got back? What if I hadn’t been there to heal you? I used to think you’d be just fine without me, but— ugh! That’s the last time I ever leave you alone!” Another tirade rose on Miriam’s tongue, but her breath hitched in her throat, causing her to snap out a shorter, more pained phrase: “Don’t— don’t ever scare me like that again!”

Kiwi looked away, guilty. They squeezed Miriam’s hand in reply. “…Okay.”

The room fell into silence. Miriam’s anger dwindled down into a much more dangerous emotion. She swiped at her eyes with quick movements. “Your voice sounds… bad. I’m going to get you some water.”

“Miriam—”

But she had already left the room. The door clicked shut. Kiwi sighed. They slid back down in bed. Sunlight and the shadows of leaves danced across their pillow. If they closed their eyes, they could just make out a strange song floating on the breeze outside.

Heyyyyy, lil b!

Kiwi’s eyes snapped open. The rainbow girl shimmered into being at their bedside. She looked twice as chipper as she ought to, given the circumstances. Kiwi frowned. “Your Hero almost killed me,” they said by way of greeting.

Yeahhh, I’m really sorry about that.

“…Is she sorry?”

She’ll never do it again.

Kiwi turned their head away. “That’s not the same thing.”

The rainbow girl fell silent. She carded her fingers through her long, rippling hair. “Look, lil b, I came here to help. I’m going to heal you! Isn’t that great?

“I thought Miriam already healed me.”

You mean her silly little spell?” The rainbow girl laughed. “It was really sweet, honest, you should have seen her! But you’ll need something much stronger if you want to keep chasing the Earthsong.” The rainbow girl placed her hands slightly over Kiwi’s stomach, as if she were warming herself by a fire. “This might feel a little funny, okay?

Kiwi opened their mouth to ask what ‘funny’ entailed when a burst of sensation flowed through their injury. It was like… sunlight, and song, and every color of the rainbow, all twined together and silk-ribbon smooth. Their pain dissolved like sugar in tea. Kiwi blinked away a sudden burst of stars in their vision. They had a suspicion that human people weren’t really supposed to be healed with angelic magic. “Why are you helping us? I thought I wasn’t the Hero.”

You aren’t!” the rainbow girl chirped.

“But—”

Maybe I should have explained the situation better. Gosh, I can be so clumsy sometimes! Sure, there’s nothing about you in the prophecies, or in Eya’s grand plan, but… Well, lil b, you’ve got some special people looking out for you.

“Like Miriam?”

The rainbow girl floated away. Her mouth pulled into a momentary frown. “No, not her.” Her bubbly smile came back with a vengeance. “Okay, well that’s the best I can do for you without really breaking the rules! I hope we can all be friends again! Forgive and forget, right?” Kiwi started to disagree, but the rainbow girl rushed on. “Okay, great, see you around sometime! Byeeeee!

And in a cloud of sparkles she was gone.

Kiwi sat up. They tentatively unwrapped the bandages around their middle to find a patch of bright pink scar tissue underneath. It shimmered faintly in the low light. The door unlatched with a click. Miriam stood over the threshold with a half-full glass in one hand and a face that looked like it had just been repeatedly splashed with the coldest water she could find.

“Rainbow girl healed me,” Kiwi said.

Miriam scowled. “Ugh, she was here? Can’t believe I missed my chance to give her a piece of my mind.” She plopped down in her chair again. “I hate her.”

“Yeah, me too.” Kiwi took the proffered glass of water. They chugged it faster than a thirsty racehorse, realizing for the first time how parched they were. They couldn’t tell if it was a side effect of nearly dying or being healed by Eya’s angel. Maybe both.

“I guess this means we can keep traveling,” Miriam said, pulling out a map. She spread it across her legs. “If we get going now, we can probably make it a few miles before nightfall.”

Kiwi leaned over Miriam’s shoulder. “Oh! Does this mean you got the supplies we need?”

Miriam’s mouth wiggled into a look of distaste, recalling her cantrip-filled morning. “…Yeah, I did.”

“What did you get?”

“Sandwiches,” Miriam grated. “They paid me in sandwiches.”