The only sound that cut through it: her breath.
Long, gentle and warm. It was calming. I would have lain there listening to her breathing forever, but what was the point of that. Moments like these were important because they were fleeting. You valued them because they would never come back and could only live on in memory.
Just like all those other, fond memories that I relived in my mind whenever I could. They were what kept me going.
The blanket was warm and the magic I’d cast kept off the worst of the cold. I breathed deeply; the chilly mountain air filled my nostrils along with something else…
Her head rested on my arm while her silky, red hair trailed my skin. I admired her beautiful face. No scars, no bags, no wrinkles. It was almost too perfect. Like a sculpture or a doll. It was hard to believe she was real. Hard to believe I could touch her, feel her. That I had felt her. All of her.
I’m sorry I didn’t confess sooner, I thought. But I had important things to do. I still do.
I noticed something flash in the corner of my eye. Turning my head, I saw a bright light streak across the clear night sky. The stars were crying again but I didn’t want to console them. No, today I would join them in their grief.
Because today I had to do something that would hurt me a lot. My heart ached whenever I thought about it. But I’d already decided; it was for the greater good. This was the best way for everyone involved.
As the comet faded away, I decided to let loose for just a little bit. I needed to prepare myself for what I had to do next. A little indulgence now and then, wasn’t so bad.
Something happened. You couldn’t notice it at first but if you looked around you’d see the signs. Silence, that’s what you’d notice. The wind was dead. Amy’s breath was frozen.
The only thing that moved. The only thing that wasn’t frozen apart from myself, was the sky. Stars still flickered and blinked. The moon still floated slowly away.
I’d gotten a lot better at using my Ability and gradually stopped relying on the code or even on words. It came naturally to me.
All I had to do was think.
Think, and the stars would move.
Think, and the moon would shift.
Think… and there’d be a portrait in the stars – a portrait of Amy sitting on the deck of a ship.
Think, and the portrait would move. Her eyes would flicker like she’d noticed someone sit in front of her.
Think, and the stars would flicker when I wanted them to. They’d give her eyes a little life, her teeth a little sparkle. Some of them would flash brighter, making her smile shine.
The scene played out exactly as I remembered it. Every detail from when she smiled to when she blinked, all of it happened up in the heavens the same way it had on the ship a few days ago.
A few days. I can’t believe it’s only been a few days.
Her mouth moved but no sounds came out. But that was okay, they echoed inside my head of their own accord.
Hello Kai, how are you. You seem a little distraught.
Fine, Amy. I’m fine. Hey listen…
You’re the happiest person I know so –
Me? How am I the happiest person you know?
Well, it might be because I don’t know a lot of people.
It’s fine, I don’t have many friends either.
Yeah but everyone I do know is either gloomy or cranky!
That’s just Runir and Lily.
Well that’s almost everyone I know.
But I’m not a happy person? I barely ever smile.
Happiness isn’t about smiling, silly. It’s something inside you. Deep inside you. I’ve seen it come to the surface occasionally, usually when you’re helping someone.
Really? I never noticed. I’m bad at this ‘emotions’ thing.
No, you’re not! It’s easy to notice someone else’s emotions, but finding your own? No one can do that. At least not all the time. And even when you do, you can never tell what’s causing them. You can never tell why you suddenly feel… never mind that. Tell me, Amy, what’s the secret to happiness? How can you still be happy when things go bad? When all you wanna do is lash out or turtle up, how can you still go on doing what you do?
I… don’t know. I guess I think about my friends?
And it works?
It works if you don’t think about the future. Don’t worry about what could happen or what is going to happen. All you need to think about is the present. I mean, if I started thinking about the future I would…
The star-Amy hesitated, just like the real one had on the ship.
…The important thing is to live in the present. Remember the past, but don’t brood over it. Plan for the future, but don’t fret over it. That’s all I can say.
Those words were very important to me. They’d kept me sane for a long time.
The stars dispersed and then they came back together again. This time, they outlined Amy walking next to me. Amy, smiling, as she hugged Zoe. Amy around a campfire, listening to a story.
I relived some other memories and got lost in them for who knows how long. But the night never ended, in fact, it never grew any older.
I remembered the past. I sought comfort in it. I sought courage from it.
I thought about the future. I sought hope in it. I sought determination from it.
But when I sought for happiness, I turned to the woman lying beside me. She was right; happiness could only be found in the present.
More of my memories flashed in the sky, some of them flickering by so fast you could barely see them. But then they stopped, frozen in place as a new memory overrode the others. It wouldn’t be right calling it a memory just yet though, but maybe it could count as a memory from the present.
Amy’s sleeping face looked down at me from the heavens.
I’d think of this moment again, whenever I needed some comfort or when I needed the courage to do what I had to do. Of course, I couldn’t go to it for happiness because happiness was in the present.
The only problem was, the present wasn’t going to be happy for much longer. It had to pass. It couldn’t stay. It had to fade into the past. It had to fade into memories.
The sleeping face in the sky vanished. The stars and the moon went back to their original positions. The wind howled once again, and Amy’s chest rose and fell once more. I stared at her one last time and then I steeled myself and replaced my hand with a pillow.
I left the warmth of the blanket and appeared outside wearing a long purple robe. I walked down the mountain without glancing back.
I didn’t need to walk. I could have just flown there. But I was delaying. I was putting it off. I didn’t want to do it even though I knew it was for the best. I knew for a fact that this was the right thing to do.
On the other side of the mountain was an abandoned building nestled in the woods. The walls were crumbling and the bars on the windows had long since rusted away, but there was a bed inside.
I approached it slowly, trying not to make a sound.
She heard me anyway.
“Who’s there?” someone said.
“It’s me,” I replied.
“Kai?” Something fell on the ground. “It really is you!”
A tiny human tackled my legs. I tousled her hair and chuckled, noticing the rusty knife she’d dropped on the floor.
“Hey Zoe, how’ve you been?” I asked.
Zoe looked up at me and smiled. “Bored! Do you know where the others are? Amy, do you know where Amy is?”
“They’re fine. They’re all fine. All though, they are worried about you.”
“I’ve survived a lot worse than this. This is nothing!” she said.
“Come on, grab your things and let’s get out of here,” I said.
She nodded, put everything in her Storage and let me lead her outside.
“You did a good job staying safe. You stayed here for the whole day, right?”
“Yep, there was a bed and everything. I lucked out!”
We walked up the mountain. I shielded her from the wind and the cold, but I still made her climb on her own.
“Do you remember what happened?” I asked.
“Yeah…” she trailed. “Was Lily really…”
“I’m afraid so,” I replied.
“You already knew, didn’t you?” she said, accusingly.
“And you didn’t tell me?” She let go of my hand. “Why should I trust you right now?”
I let the wind hit her. She stumbled and her eyes went wide.
“Because I care about you. I’m taking the full force of this wind for you, right now,” I said.
Her eyebrows furrowed but she grabbed my hand again.
“Don’t do that again,” she said, pouting.
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
We walked in silence for a while.
“So what now?” she asked.
“Well first we need to climb this mountain to see Amy,” I said.
“What’s she doing all the way up here?” she asked.
“We were following the signal from your ring but she got tired while climbing the mountain so I left her at the summit and came down to fetch you,” I explained.
“Oh! Are we going to surprise her?” she asked.
We reached the summit but there was no one there.
“Hey, where is she?” asked Zoe, confused. “You said she’d be here.”
“She’s on that mountain over there, can you see her?” I said, pointing to the mountain peak next to this one.
“But then why’d we climb this one?” asked Zoe, frowning.
“So you could see her one last time,” I said.
The wind died down.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Zoe as her eyes flitted between me, and Amy’s sleeping figure on the other mountain.
“You think I didn’t notice what you were trying to do in that building down below?” I said.
I stepped closer.
“You think I didn’t see what was in your eyes ever since we rescued you. You think I couldn’t tell from a mile away…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, quickly. Even though it was cold up there, she was sweating.
“Zoe,” I whispered. “Look up there.” I pointed to the sky.
She followed my finger and began to tremble. Her entire body shook as she saw the stars in the sky swirl around to make a portrait.
A portrait of a little girl holding a knife to her throat.
The stars disbursed before coming together to make another picture.
A picture of a girl crying all alone in the woods.
Then they outlined a girl looking off a cliff, eyeing a sharp rock, or gripping some rope.
Then they made an arm covered in scars. But then more scars showed up. And then some more; most of them around the wrist.
Zoe trembled and her mouth quivered. But she wasn’t awed by my Ability. She wasn’t wowed by the fact that I could make the sky my canvas. It was the pictures in the sky that stunned her. Her dark secret was being displayed on the largest screen possible. One can only imagine how she must have felt. The emotions roiling inside her heart.
Her eyes were wet, and her face devoid of all color. Gasping for breath, she took a step back, as if to escape from the pictures in the sky. But it was in vain, because how could she escape the sky? She couldn’t even look away. It pained her to look at the truth laid out above her but she couldn’t break away. She couldn’t deny it any longer. She couldn’t hide it anymore.
“Zoe,” I said, gently. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
I tried to approach her but she shrank away.
“No. No, it’s not okay. They know… they know I…” She sobbed. “Everyone knows now… they know!”
“No! Shut up!” she screamed, finally wrenching her gaze from the sky. “You put it on the sky! You told everyone! Now they’ll… now they’ll…”
“Now they’ll what?” I replied, calmly. “Judge you for being forced to endure so much pain? Judge you for having the misfortune of being born into a shitty life, twice? Or maybe they’ll judge you for having the courage to resist ending your pain so many times. If they judge you for any of that, I’m sure they’ll think very highly of you. And if they don’t, then that’s their problem.”
“Why can’t you leave me alone!” she cried. “Everything was fine! I had friends, no, I had a family!” Tears trailed down her cheeks. “Why did you have to tell them? Why did you put it up there for all of them to see?”
“They can’t see it, Zoe,” I said. “Calm down and look around you for a second. Notice anything?”
She fought back her tears and sobs, reminding me once again how strong she really was, and looked around.
“I don’t see anything. It’s too dark,” she said, finally.
“Exactly, it’s too dark,” I said.
“That makes it worse! It means they can see the stars. They can see that!” She pointed at the pictures in the sky.
The pictures were going back through her life. There were scenes of a little girl trying to swallow dirt or stabbing herself with a shard of glass.
“But they shouldn’t be able to see it,” I said.
“Yes, they shouldn’t! It’s none of their business, nor yours!” she said, angrily.
“No, I meant they shouldn’t be able to see it because the sun should have risen an hour ago.”
She furrowed her eyebrows and looked up at the sky again. She ignored the little girl trying to goad a man with a whip into killing her, and noticed that the moon hadn’t moved. Then she looked around and saw the pebbles stuck frozen on the edge of rolling over, the leaves hanging in the still air, and the frost that hadn’t begun to thaw.
“Oh,” she said.
I walked closer and this time she didn’t move away. She was still eying me warily though. I’d lost her trust.
“Zoe, it’s okay. You know we love you. Even if the others found out, they wouldn’t think any less of you. In fact, they’d try to make sure you were safe and cared for,” I said.
“So they’d be worried about me? Well I don’t need their pity!” she snarled.
“It’s not pity. They love you. We love you. Like you said, we’re like a family,” I said, reassuringly. “And a family takes care of each other, whether they like it or not.”
“We’re not a family…” she mumbled. “Lily was the Hero, and Runir’s the Demon Lord. We can’t be a family anymore.”
“Oh don’t worry, every family has its squabbles. Although our family is a little special, we’ll get through this eventually. All we have to do is trust each other,” I said, tousling Zoe’s hair again.
She didn’t avoid it this time. “Fine…”
“Now that’s the spirit.” I smiled.
“Kai…” she said, so quietly I barely caught it. “What if they think I’m crazy. I don’t wanna tell them about it.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll leave it up to you.”
I turned away from Zoe.
“Zoe,” I said.
“Yes Kai?” she asked.
“We’ve been avoiding this question for a while now, but you know I have to ask, right?”
She didn’t respond.
“Are you going to stop?” I asked, fighting to keep the emotion out of my voice. “No matter what happens. No matter how far you’re pushed. No matter how much pain you’re in. Can I trust you to never try to kill yourself again? Can I trust you?”
No response, just empty silence.
“Zoe, I know I can protect you from everything else but tell me, how do I protect you from yourself?” I asked, turning around to face her.
She was staring at her feet.
I hugged her.
“Just say it. Come on. Tell me I can trust you. Tell me I don’t have to be afraid for you whenever you’re alone. Tell me I don’t have to worry about you jumping from a cliff or driving a knife through your heart.” I held her tighter. “Tell me you won’t kill yourself.”
“I can’t…” she whispered.
I grabbed her shoulders and stared her in the eyes. “Why? Why not?”
I was emotional. More emotional than I’d been in a long time. And it didn’t even make any sense. I’d always known this would happen. I’d known how this would end.
“I’m telling you it’ll be alright. No matter how bad things seem, they will get better. Just endure a little. Just a little, that’s all I ask.”
“No,” she whispered, avoiding my eye. “I can’t. It’s all I have. The only thing I can control. It’s how I escaped last time.”
“I can’t,” she looked me in the eye, not a tear to be seen. “I can trust you. I can endure. But I can’t make that promise. I can’t.”
This was it. We were at an impasse. I’d known she wouldn’t budge on this. Suicide had been her only comfort, her only escape. She wouldn’t throw that away. Even if she was safe forever, she’d never throw it away as an option.
It wasn’t likely that she’d kill herself. She’d endured far worse than anything that could possibly happen to her now. But if she wasn’t willing to make that promise, there was a chance. A small chance, but a chance nonetheless.
If something went wrong. Or rather, if something felt as if it had gone wrong, Zoe might try to take her own life. And with Lily and Runir at each other’s throats, and Amy as emotionally vulnerable as she was, it was highly likely that Zoe would consider suicide again. It was almost a reflex for her now. If she felt like things were about to go bad, as if she would be caught up in the perpetual suffering from her previous life or her childhood as a slave in this life, then she wouldn’t risk it.
“Please…” I tried one last time. “At least lie. At least pretend like you’ll consider it.”
She shook her head.
I was kneeling so our eyes would meet at the same level. I stared into them but she stared back with intense resolve. This was the one thing she would never compromise on.
“Then you leave me no choice,” I said.
The stars dispersed, then flickered and vanished. The moon faded away. The mountains disappeared, leaving a world of darkness. Yet, even though there was no light, Zoe and I could see each other. Her eyes went wide as she noticed what was happening but no words left her mouth.
I knelt in front of her and hugged her.
She somehow managed to find her voice. “Kai… what is this?”
“We had a lot of fun together. We laughed and we played. We shared stories and good times. But nothing lasts forever. I wish it could, but it can’t. We can’t go back to the way things used to be,” I rambled, lamenting.
“What?” she asked.
“We made memories together. Lots of memories. Memories are important. Some say we are nothing but the sum of our memories. They define our past and mold our future.” I released her from my embrace, patted her shoulders and met her eyes. “You’re a tough girl. You’ve been through a lot. I know your future won’t be anywhere near as tough as your past, but the toughest part will be the memory of everything you’ve been through. Reliving the pain every night, flinching at shadows, and crying in the darkness. I don’t want you to go through that anymore.”
I kissed her forehead gently. “Some memories are useful; they can help us get through the worst of times. Even when you want to curl up and cry, those memories can be the anchor that keeps you from floating away. But some memories aren’t worth it. Some memories are a useless weight trying to drag you down to the bottom of the ocean.”
“No, don’t!” Zoe shouted with alarm as she finally realized what was happening.
“Some memories, are best left forgotten.”
Zoe’s face froze and her eyes blanked. She vanished from the empty world I’d created on a whim. I stayed there all alone for a while. There was no ‘time’ in this world, so I could stay there for as long as I wanted to.
All alone in that empty world, I toyed with the idea of cutting away my own memories. It would be so much easier if I didn’t have them. So much easier to keep swimming if I could just let them go. But I couldn’t. Even if they dragged me to the bottom, I couldn’t let go. Even if I had to trudge along the seafloor, I couldn’t let them go.
I had to live with my memories. I had to endure.
Somewhere outside the capital of the Earth Kingdom, a group of yellow-robed horsemen were practicing their drills. Suddenly, the old lady directing their group ordered them to halt. She’d heard something strange in the bushes to the side and told one of the new recruits to investigate.
The young man was annoyed, but he didn’t dare disobey the old crone, so he dismounted and walked into the bushes. He couldn’t see anything and was just about to turn to report that it was probably an animal or something, when his foot hit something strange.
Surprised, he pushed away the leaves and stared wide-eyed at what lay hidden underneath. He shouted something to the people behind him and began pulling apart the bush. Some of his compatriots arrived and helped him rescue the little girl in the bush.
The old crone approached and inspected the girl. After judging that she wasn’t hurt too badly, and that the clothes she was wearing were too nice for her to be a peasant girl, she was just about to order her soldiers to leave the girl when she stopped.
She stared at the girl for a few minutes, confusing the other soldiers who began inspecting the girl too. They stood transfixed; a few rubbing their eyes in disbelief. The crone was the first to snap out of it as she ordered the men to carry the girl to the old lady’s horse. She tied the girl in front of her and rode back to the corps headquarters, shouting frantically into a prism.
They were greeted by a grumpy middle-aged man and a host of armored soldiers like the one behind the old lady. He said something to her, angrily, but she brushed his comments aside and pointed to the girl on her horse.
The man followed her finger and stared at the girl before his jaw dropped wide open. He immediately ordered the soldiers to take the girl inside and heal her injuries, and asked the old lady where she’d found her.
The old lady told him everything but he could barely believe it.
“And that’s not the worst of it,” said the old lady.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“We found this in the pocket of her robe,” muttered the old lady as she unfolded a piece of paper and handed it to the middle-aged man.
He read it and a shiver went up his spine.
“Old hag, what have you gotten us into this time,” he mumbled.
“Didn’t you read the note? This isn’t my fault!” she complained.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said, taking a deep breath. “But fine, we’ll do it. Who knows, I might be overthinking it.”
He watched his soldiers take the little girl into the building and ordered the rest of them to resume their training.
The Earth Kingdom’s scouting division couldn’t slack off because of a little girl. Besides, the little girl would make a fine addition to their group.
But later that night, as he tried to fall asleep, the commander of the scouting division couldn’t help but remember the girl and the note. He’d been scared witless by the girl’s Status, which even he couldn’t see, but it was the note that kept him up all night. In fact, the note would keep him up all night for many a night to come.
I am entrusting you with this girl who, in a way, is my daughter. She has lost her memories so please be kind to her, however, I understand that it will be difficult for the scouts to care for her without recompense. As such, please feel free to enlist her for your division.
Thank you for your kindness, commander Heris and chief Oleen. Have a nice day!
P.s. Do not share this letter with anyone else.
At first the commander had scoffed at the letter. A letter from Fate? Preposterous.
But when he tried to show the letter to his superiors, he found that he couldn’t. No matter how hard he tried, he simply couldn’t. Terrified, he took the letter very seriously from then on, and did everything he could to help the little girl.
And that is how Zoe Hill joined the scout division of the Earth Kingdom’s army. I watched her grow up from afar. All the difficulties she endured. All the hardships she faced. I saw them all.
Although it pained me, I could tell that she was a lot happier there than she had ever been with us. There were no scars on her body anymore, but more importantly, there were no scars on her heart. There was nothing to weigh her down. The memories that had threatened to sink her were gone, and she could swim freely now.
And I knew we’d meet again one day. One day, after she’d learned how to swim on her own, she’d come riding on the waves. She might not recognize me, but maybe her presence would give me the strength to carry on.
But for now, I’d get my strength from the memories we shared.