In the spiraling network of cocoons in a lonely, grey plane of existence, one cocoon, just one out of what could have been an infinity, shuddered. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of sentient life, that was the first a cocoon had ever moved in a number of years that would have been incomprehensible to the human mind.
At the very least, none of those orbs of cosmic silk had shook like that since the birth of the star that created the sol system.
A black clawed hand jutted out of the silk, tearing through its weave. Another hand followed, and together, they pulled, tearing open the cocoon.
Valera emerged. In this colorless realm, her eyes stood out the most in its redness. But it was a faint red, one that hearkened to the light of a dying ember.
She was tired. Thoroughly tired. She had drained almost every inch of her power, and she felt it in aching that went deep down into her very bones, in her flesh that felt like it was ready to tear apart at a moment's notice.
Gone was her armor and her shield, leaving her naked.
Despite her situation, she smiled.
When she emerged fully from the cocoon, she did so with Aldrich on her back.
Aldrich's arms were slung around her shoulders, holding her for support. He was not conscious yet, but he was alive - and to Valera, that made her happy more than anything.
The cocoon sealed back shut, forming a solid surface upon which Valera rested Aldrich down on, though she kept her hands under his head and back in case there was a chance he could slip back in.
She had almost lost him once. She could not let that happen again.
Aldrich, too, had been stripped of his armor and weaponry, leaving him just as naked as her.
Normally, Valera would have been flustered at the bareness of their bodies, but now, it made her feel closer to Aldrich. It let her feel the chill of his undead body closely.
The vulnerability made her more starkly aware of what she could have lost.
Aldrich opened his eyes. They flashed bright green in this colorless realm. He sat up, putting a hand to his forehead.
"Are you alright, Aldrich?" said Valera. She tentatively put a hand on Aldrich's back.
"I lost…everything," said Aldrich. Memories of an entire lifetime assaulted his mind.
Memories of building the perfect world he had dreamed of.
Memories of loving in a way he never could have. Love for a partner. Love for a daughter. Love he thought his mind, hardened by hurt and loss, was never capable of.
And the loss of all that -
It was unbearable. It would have driven an ordinary man insane several times over.
A tear trickled from Aldrich's eye, flowing down his face in a crystal clear trail.
But then, Aldrich felt his mind calm. Chill. Where the human mind broke easily under pressure, the undead mind - especially the mind of a Lich - was nigh-infallible.
Aldrich looked up. He saw Valera, tears brimming in her crimson eyes.
"I'm sorry I had to do that to you," said Valera. "I tried to talk to you down there, in that other life, but my words didn't go through. All I could do was stand there and let that world crumble.
I saw how happy you were, Aldrich. I saw the woman you loved and the daughter you raised. At first, I was jealous - intensely jealous. But the moer I saw you fight for them, the more I saw of them, I realized you were happy there.
Truly, truly happy.
Happy in a way I never saw before. Happy in a way that I…I don't think I could ever make you."
Valera put her hands to her eyes, trying to wipe her tears away, but more just replaced them.
"And I-I took that all from you. I knew it was what you would have wanted, and deep down, it's what I wanted too. But even then, even then-,">
Aldrich looked across at Valera. His mind was undead, but that did not mean he had forgotten that other life. He had lived a fully human life where he got to love with an open heart, a heart that had not shattered and forged back strong but broken from the death of his parents.
He…understood Valera better now. He understood that love of hers. That single-minded, fierce love that would risk everything, even the destruction of a world, to stay alive.
It was the same kind of love he had in his other life.
Elaine's last words echoed in his mind. To love here as he had loved there.
Aldrich had lived a full life in the other world, and though it had ended, he knew he had a life here to still live out.
Aldrich reached out and pulled Valera into a tight hug. Valera's eyes widened as she froze at the hug, arms held to her sides.
"I'm glad you're here," said Aldrich. "I'm glad you saved me." A pause. "I'm glad you love me."
Valera closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tight around Aldrich, and together, they stayed like that, their hearts opened, their feelings coiled around each other in understanding and affirmation.
White light enveloped the two, completely encasing them before fading away. They were gone now. Only a few sparkles of white remained as evidence that they had been in that colorless realm at all, and even those quickly faded away, letting the all consuming grey take over once again.
Aldrich and Valera found themselves in a familiar location. The top of the Necropolis tower, before the enormous bell of souls that fueled the mega-structure.
The bell that usually shone with near blinding radiance was now dimmed down to little more than an oversized flashlight.
"Welcome back." The Death Lord addressed them. She saw the two of them naked, hands held together, and shrugged. "Guess I've been beaten. Ah well, there's always second place, eh?"
She smiled before she tore off her cloak and then split it into two before tossing both halves over to Aldrich and Valera, clothing them.
"What…happened?" said Aldrich. "Not just to me, but to you. To this realm."
The Death Lord had grown noticeably skinnier, losing a good chunk of her normally athletic physique. Her cheeks were slightly sunken in, as if she had gone fasting for days. One of her horns was gone.
Above her, in the skies of the Death Realm, there were cracks, as if the whole thing was a globe that someone had hammered.
"You were taken into a different realm, one far, far away from our Axis," said the Death Lord.
"Realms similar to each other are easier to reach. Take for example your realm and my realm. Magic separates us, yes, but the lives that populate our realms are not too dissimilar. If we were to look at the humans of your realm and the Elumen, they are almost entirely the same," explained the Death Lord. "Similar realms share an Axis. The one you were sent to was to another, where the very laws of existence, of space and time, were utterly foreign."
"Why are we here?" asked Valera. "I thought we would return to the human realm."
"Returning there naked as you are? Hah, now that would be quite the sight!" the Death Lord chuckled, and Valera faintly blushed. "Fear not. I will have armor replacements for the both of you. As for why you are here, why, it is because I reached out to you.
It is my power that you felt. My mana that I sent across the void of stars for you to anchor to."
"So that was you…" murmured Valera.
"Yes, it was. And, as you can see-," the Death Lord unrolled the sleeve of her robes and tried to flex her bicep. There was not much there to show. "It took quite a bit from me.
From this entire realm.
Though, I am happy to say, my power was not wasted. Look."
The Death Lord tapped her forehead and nodded towards Aldrich, indicating him to do the same. He checked his head to see that he had a horn.
One identical to the Death Lord's, as if he had taken her missing horn.
"I must say, it does not look too shabby on you," nodded the Death Lord.