13. Revelations from Innocence

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[AUTHOR NOTE: Birthday bonus!! It's my birthday today. So to celebrate, here's a bonus chapter for this week! Enjoy!!]

"Mister Ages ... you – you're dying..." Regina whispered, aware and afraid.

"Yes. S-seems that way." Blood-spittle flecked the air from Astral's porcine mouth as he struggled to speak. "But ... as Muh...Mana flows ... so too does Life. Everlasting Life. Infinite Mana ... Only you can ... do it ... Take my hoof, child ... None ... none of us has to s-suffer..."

Regina whimpered with pain, fear, and shook her head no.

Astral cringed in visible pain. He tried to suck back fresh air, but let out a silent yelp of agony, instead. His body relaxed, panting shallow breaths.

"Regina, you have to try. You have to. For both our sakes." His eyes glinted at her with deep knowing. With a grimace, he stretched an arm out across the dirt road towards her. "If you want to survive this day, if you want to forget all of this horror – if you want to get to KeetoTown alive, you have to."

Despite the beads of sweat that rolled across his brow, despite the chill that crept over his bones, it was the firm, knowing, stare of Astral Ages' deep and starry eyes that pierced deep into Regina's wholeness – and in that moment, even though the request didn't make any logical sense, somehow she knew he was right.

The fear in Regina's heart loosened into light vapour on the wind. She beat back the guilt in her heart for the immediacy of the bigger situation at hand, and rolled onto her stomach with a cry of pain. Then folding her elbows beneath her body, Regina used whatever strength there was left in her muscles to pull across the road like a creeping, beach-bound crustacean. Astral's heavy eyes rolled back in his head, squinted shut for a long moment, reopened. His gaze found her again, and hardened with awareness once again. He bit back his own agony and stretched his arm taut towards her, his large black scuffed hoof flexed against the air that craved for Regina's little paw grip.

She slapped her palm down upon Astral's hoof.

He squeezed around her little grasp. "Regina..."

Regina met his gaze and, almost at once, felt like her very core was sucked forward into a swirling vortex. She didn't know if it was the mental whirlwind from being kicked in the ribs, or the emotional trauma, but it was like an inescapable vacuum swallowed her up – not her body, per se, but Regina's very essence of Self. The glimmering stars and universes that shone within Astral's pupils drew her towards him until their noses almost touched – and then Regina some how passed through Astral's firm gaze, and found herself within the eye of a storm, face to face with swirling images, and feelings that were not hers, but that she could embody, like they were her very own.

Great pain enveloped Regina, sharp agony deep within her core, alongside indeterminate urgency. Incoherent thoughts – Astral's own words, words from other people – Regina thought she could even hear things she and Dwain had said only hours before – and then in the din she saw images through the perspective of somebody not of her own body.

This person was bigger than her, and frailer, and ached with every movement. Ached with every utterance that scratched its way up their vocal chords, the threat of dense-clinging copper, an ever present pool in the pit of their throat. There was the smell of duskroot and blood. Everything Regina saw before her, the upper edge of sight shadowed over by the wide brim of a pointed hat.

She stared back at herself. Laying on her stomach in the dirt. The sound of Dwain shouting something, sounds of scuffling in the far distance. She stared into an empty-eyed visage of herself, the reflection's little skunk jaw hanging loose. A string of drool had formed at her bottom lip. But she wasn't dead. The Regina that Regina gazed upon now was alive – it was clear that she was breathing – but she wasn't there, wasn't present in her own body – somehow, someway, she knew this.

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