Before the Fall

Fanfiction of When the World Falls to Darkness by DragonSoulJess.

The fall has begun. alliances are being formed, and guardians are being rounded up. In a small outpost called Ryoko, a small number of guardians still fight for their freedom.

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19. River

 

    Ash began to mumble deliriously as she got back to his shed. He twitched and thrashed, fingers groping at the air like he was trying to catch something. Kylora watched in silence. She’d tried to wake him twice, but it hadn’t worked. He stayed unconscious, shaking and whimpering to himself. She hated to see him like this, but she knew in her heart that there was nothing she could do. She just had to hope he could stay strong through whatever nightmares he was having, and wake back to reality.

    Not that his reality is much better than those nightmares the image of the dead angel still haunted her. The angel’s death had been so callous and so cruel… she couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been done because Kylora had chosen to defend the angel. By trying to be kind, she had doomed him. She wondered if he knew that, and in his last moments had hated her for trying to help.

    You killed me, she heard his quiet voice whisper. You tried to help me, and look where it got me. No one wants your help, guardian. You’ll just make things worse.

    A hand grabbed her arm. She let out a sharp yelp, until she realized it was Ash. His eyes were half open, but they were glazed over like he was still asleep. His hand was hot against her skin.

    “River…” he muttered weakly. “River… is that you?”

    Kylora hesitated, confused. She didn’t want to lie to him. But there was a weak desperation in his voice, like his life depended on her answer.

    “Yes, Ash, it’s me,” she lied.

    “Oh good…” Ash patted her arm gently. “I was worried… worried you’d left.”

    Kylora had no idea who he thought she was, but she played along. She took his hand, and held it, hoping that would bring him some comfort.

    “Never.”

    “I thought…” he frowned slightly. His eyes were still only half open. He must have been partly locked in a dream still. “I thought master… the screaming… was it him or you? There was so much yelling… I thought he hurt you…”
    “No, I’m okay,” Kylora said softly. She felt guilty for telling him this, but it seemed to bring him some peace, if only for a moment. Then his whole body began to shake. Beneath her fingers, his hand grew hotter.

    “But the screaming, river… the blood… so bright red… blood on your face, on his hands, on the sword… River, what did he do to you? Why does your face shine red?”

    “No, no, Ash, there’s no blood,” she murmured. She touched his hand to the side of her face, letting him feel. He patted her cheek carefully, feeling his way across her forehead.

    “No blood…” he relaxed. “Must have been… my mind. Not as strong as I always have been… forgive me, River. I’ll be better soon. Just… got to rest.”

    His hand went limp in hers, and he fell back into a deep sleep. This time, though, he didn’t shake or cry out. Kylora felt a little better. Maybe her deception had been good after all.

    Ash shifted and murmured something. Kylora caught the name River again. She sat back thoughtfully. Who was River to Ash? Clearly it was someone close to him, but who exactly was this River in relation to him? A sibling? Clearly they meant a lot to him. That just made Kylora guilty all over again. Did she really have a right to pretend to be this person who meant so much to him?

    He smiled in his sleep, and Kylora found herself smiling as well. Yes, she thought. It’s definitely worth it.

 

    When Ash woke it was evening. A human guard had tossed them a small loaf of bread to split and then had left, letting Kylora tend to Ash in silence. Finally, he stirred and sat up, groaning and rubbing his head. He looked around, blinking dazedly.

    “Where…”

    “Hey Ash.” Kylora broke the bread in half and handed it to him. She didn’t even bother to wonder where the will to care for him had come from. Taking care of Ash made her feel more alive- a feeling she hadn’t realized she’d missed until she got it back. She breathed more evenly, and the fog of misery and apathy didn’t swallow her as easily.

    Ash tore into the bread ravenously. Kylora watched him for a while. There was an unusual amount of sadness in his eyes. She hesitated, then spoke softly.

    “Who’s River?”

    His eyes widened, and his head snapped up. He shrunk back from her defensively. “What… who… who told you about River?”

    “You were talking… in your sleep,” Kylora blushed. She realized she’d just asked a stupid question. “You were talking to someone named River, and I just…” she paused, but Ash got it.

    “It was you,” he said softly, his tone emotionless. “I thought I heard her talking to me, but… it was you?”

    “It seemed to make you happier,” Kylora muttered. “I didn’t mean any harm. I just… I just wanted to help.” She considered telling him that helping him had brought back some of her old passion, but she couldn’t bring herself to. Not after she had tricked him like that. He was probably angry at her now. It wasn’t her place to say anything.

    “No, it’s all right.” Ash breathed deeply. “I suppose it’s better to believe that River was talking to me, even if she wasn’t…” he laughed idly, but stopped quickly as he turned to study Kylora with a wary expression. “I suppose… I owe you for helping me. I can tell you… who River is.”

    “Are you sure?” Kylora asked instantly. “If it’s painful, then-”

    “No, no, it’s all right,” he breathed deeply. “River is- was- an angel.”

    Kylora waited patiently. Ash took a deep breath, then kept talking.

    “She was one of the master’s slaves. She was beautiful- with blue wings streaked with white, like wind on the water. Her eyes were as blue as the sky. She was always so happy- so full of life… nothing the master did could break her joy. She could make anyone happy just by smiling at them. She was so wonderful, so pure, so beautiful…” he sighed, lost in memory. Then he glanced at Kylora, as it just remember she was still there. He cleared his throat, and kept talking.

    “She was amazing. When the master enslaved me, he… well… he beat me as hard as he beat you- if not worse. River nursed me back to health. She would bring me my meals in the evenings. She tried to talk to me, but I refused to speak to her. I was… afraid to make friends, I guess. Afraid to get attached.”

    “But I take it your strategy didn’t work?” Kylora raised her eyebrows. Ash nodded ruefully, and she frowned slightly. “How did she change your mind?”

    “You’d have to meet her to understand…” he shook his head. “She could bring out the best in anyone. She was so wonderful, her very presence brought calm. She was so good and so kind and she totally refused to be pushed away. She just kept being friendly, and eventually I started responding to her. And then… well… I started to look forwards to her visits.” He was blushing now, his pale skin turning pink. He wouldn’t meet Kylora’s eyes as he kept talking. “I know you probably think it’s stupid, but she was so wonderful and so beautiful… I couldn’t help myself. I was head over heels for her. I fell so in love… she was all I could think about. I spent the days hoping to catch a glimpse of her on her errands, and my nights thinking of ways to impress her. But I was a guardian, and she was an angel. She was treated as a lower being, but even then she wasn’t as low as me. I was so far below her that she shouldn’t have even considered me. But… sometimes I wasn’t sure. She still brought me my meals. And she’d smile at me, tell me to hold on and be brave…” He looked up at Kylora. His entire face was pink now. “You have to understand how River changed me. I felt… strange, all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

    He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. “The master never clipped River’s wings. She delivered messages for him. I never understood how he could allow one of his slaves to fly so far. Surely she would never come back. But she did each time. She endured the scorn and hatred lain upon her, and always came back. One day… one day I asked her why she didn’t just fly away. She smiled at me and said…” he blushed even deeper. “She said, ‘My wings may be able to carry me to the sky, but my heart is here on the ground. With you.”

    Kylora waited. She wanted to feel uplifted. She wanted the story to feel wonderful. But all she felt was a strong creeping sensation of dread. She was sure that this story would have no happy ending. It couldn’t, or she was sure she would have seen this angel- this kind, wonderful, caring angel with wings like the wind on the water. She almost wanted to stop Ash. His story brought a strange sick feeling to her stomach- a feeling she neither understood nor liked. But she said nothing, and let him keep talking. The story, at least for now, seemed to make him happy, and that was more important. At least one of them could feel some sort of peace then.

    “When she told me she loved me, that was… the happiest day of my life,” Ash continued. “I know it sounds foolish and dangerous. The master could punish us at any time. He would punish us if we found out. I should have pushed her away then and there, but I couldn’t. She was my sun, my moon, my stars, my everything… I’d sooner let go part of my soul than let go of her.” He laughed ruefully. “See? Here I go, spouting off poetry. Thinking about her always does this to me.” He took another deep breath. “We started meeting in secret. When the master would send me away, I would creep elsewhere to meet with River. It was dangerous, but it was such a wonderful feeling. She would bring me meals, and we would sometimes… spend the night together.” He sighed. “I know it sounds ridiculous. Her- an angel- and me- a guardian. I was the lowest of the species, and she could ride the skies. She could have run away, but I kept her there. I hated myself for that, but then she would tell me she loved me and I would forget those thoughts all over again.” He shook his head, and his tone turned bitter. “Those nights were wonderful, but one night… the master called me unexpectedly. His men came to fetch me, and found River and I together. They dragged the two of us to the master. He saw us, and knew instantly that we were in love with each other. He took a whip, and ordered me to beat River. I refused. It was… the one time I ever dared defy him.”

    Kylora let out a soft breath. She could see the scene clearly in her head- Ash standing beside a beautiful angel, eyes gleaming with defiance, standing against his master because he refused to hurt the girl he loved. It was noble and wonderful, but she doubted it had accomplished much.

    “Master was furious,” Ash murmured. “He took the whip himself and beat River. He didn’t stop when she screamed. He didn’t stop until she collapsed. Until she stopped moving, stopped breathing…” Ash let out a weak gasp. “He killed her. As my punishment…” he lifted his hand to his blind eye. “He destroyed my eye. He said all I could see was the angel, and my love for her had made me blind. So he took my eye. I would rather have lost both than lose her, but…” He trailed off, and began to shake.

    Kylora hesitated. She wanted to put a hand on his shoulder and comfort him, but what could she do? It didn’t feel right, after his story. So she sat there as Ash broke down and began to openly cry.

 
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