Even she couldn't have known how dark and grey the Land of the Forgotten truly was.
As opposed to her skeletal self in the Land of the Remembered, her bones were an ashen tone and her hair and lips as black as jet. Only the faded detail of the petals on her cheeks and her irises gave off any sort of color, a dull chartreuse that gave off the barest luminescence within the shadows of the realm she found herself in.
Though she likely hadn't spent long at all within the place—perhaps a few days, though day and night were impossible to tell apart—each moment felt like a dragged out eternity. Nothing ever happened there, and no sound broke through the stillness beyond the moans of the dead and the occasional disturbance of a falling rock. Beyond Xibalba's lava-encompassed palace, there wasn't so much as a single building to break the endless landscape of jagged stalagmites and large chains running from the stone ceiling thousands of meters above to the ground below. She did sometimes find the archaic remnants of man-made structures, but not only were they few and far between but there was also very little difference between them. Thus she spent most of her time walking aimlessly through the place in worthless exploration. Other times, she followed everyone else's lead in that dreary world by pushing herself to sleep away the hours.
After climbing over the massive piles of debris, she eventually found herself in an isolated corner of the realm. A short trek later and she plopped down with her legs dangling from the edge of a bluff overlooking the melancholic scenery. Even there she could spot Xibalba's castle in the distance, as beyond the phosphorescent greens that occasionally shown through the lava was the only form or light or color that existed. Curious though she was to see it, she wasn't as foolish as to ever approach. It did make for a better sight than the rest of the land though.
The other people were beyond talking to: If they hadn't been, she might've made use of conversation for a change. She could've at least have found some interest in questioning the eldest members of the population about what their pasts had been like, and have shared her own stories in return. Somehow that made the bleakness of their situation all the worse, so she tried to keep away from them.
It wasn't ideal, but at least she had little to regret…
"Not a very lively bunch here, is there?"
Fuega perked her head up and a chill ran down her spine upon hearing the voice behind her. Slowly—her brows furrowed and her jaw hung slightly agape—she looked over her shoulder to see a pair of glistening green eyes staring into her own, and below them a sad, half-smile gracing the features of the figure before her. Her arms hung limply at her sides as she looked upon him with a sudden feeling of numb dread overwhelming her soul.
The greyed, skeletal form of Lluvio took her hand in one of his own and pulled her back up onto her feet. A hundred questions and a thousand more accusations leapt at him from behind her searching gaze, yet he couldn't find a means of explaining himself to her.
It was she who first broke the long silence, her expression horrorstruck, "What are you doing here?" she demanded softly. Her voice was weak, as though she were dying all over again, right as she stood before him.
He averted his gaze away from her own to distract himself with a single strand of hair that had fallen across her shoulder, unable to answer. He delicately took it between his boney fingers, but remained otherwise paralyzed. Where to start. What to say. As usual, she left him speechless—never knowing the right words to satisfy her.
"I'm never going to leave you alone. We're a package deal, remember?" Finally emitting a soft chuckle, he lifted his eyes back to hers and replied, "You'd be surprised the attention you can get when you stand in the middle of a cemetery at night screaming the name of a godhead."
No… No, no, no. He didn't—he couldn't have been that foolish, surely not. Her mouth hung limp and her shoulders sagged as she slowly shook her head in stubborn disbelief. This couldn't even really be him standing there with her—just a figment of her imagination drawn by the wretched loneliness this place forced its inhabitants to endure.
She raised a trembling, hesitant hand to cup his cheek and felt him press his head against it before a tender touch overlapped her own. Eyes laced with sadness and devotion captured hers and confirmed her worst fears. Unable to deny this truth, a multitude of emotions overwhelmed her.
Anger held power over the rest. Swiftly, she whipped her hand at his face and hit him with all the strength she possessed. "Idiot!" she screamed, fighting back tears and quivering with rage. "Why couldn't you just listen to me for once, you idiot?!"
He caught her in his arms as she lunged for him, and could do nothing more than hold her as she rapidly beat her fists against him—screaming and sobbing into his chest, cursing him for what he had done. His cheek still stung from the force of the blow, but he didn't find himself undeserving of it nor her wrath. He didn't try to stop her: He didn't try to excuse himself and found no reason to. He simply allowed her to hit, and cry, and vex as much as she desired.
Gradually she stopped, with shaky fingers gripping the fabric of his sweatshirt in a vicelike hold. "Idiot… You idiot…" she continued to whisper like a mantra in between mild wails of grief. He felt her deflate in his grasp and, keeping one arm wrapped around her torso, raised his free hand to caress the back of her skull—running his fingers through her mane. She didn't fight it, but instead merely released a quiet whimper and shifted her head to rest sideways against his chest, her eyes sealed shut and her lips twisted in despair.
The corner of Lluvio's mouth lifted with the barest of grins. Twice. He had had to die twice to have this moment: To hold her, and console her, and love her—the ice queen he never dared speak to as he lived. How could the same person he never fathomed he'd spend an hour with be the same as the one he yearned to spend eternity with, when even now he couldn't find the resolve to utter those three, simple words?
Fuega's hands travelled up his chest, running across his shoulders and then encircling his neck as she returned the embrace, still sniffling though she could cry no more. As his arms tightened around her further, he found himself breathing in a faint scent of brown sugar and autumn spices. Lluvio released a barely audible murmur of longing and allowed himself to submerge in the combined warmth of her being and that which she stirred within his heart.
He very nearly whined when she did pull away, and only the touch of her hands gently gliding back around to rest at his shoulders —tickling his every sensation—prevented him from doing such. Tear streaks stained her features and her mouth was curled in a manner of grief as he was made to look at the face of the one whose promise and desires he had betrayed yet again. "Idiot…" she repeated in a whisper.
Too paralyzed to do anything, he found Fuega's grasp shifting once again to his sweatshirt, tightening in an unshakable hold as she tugged him forward. Painted lips met his own in a kiss that engulfed his spirit with a divine flame. Sparks ignited from within and energized his whole being, jolting him enough to finally return the warm endearment after getting over his initial shock. His hands trailed up and down the gentle curve of her back before catching her at the waist and drawing her close once again.
To know her, to love her, and now to kiss her… If he had died then surely this was heaven, and the ice queen in his arms was an angel whose frost-covered heart had been melted by the approach of spring. If this was death then he had never truly lived.
When the demand for air forced them to part, Fuega sniffled once more in sorrow. "I love you, you idiot," she sighed, the bitterness in her tone deeply contrasting the unfathomable words. "That's why I wanted you to live. I wanted you to live a good, long life and now you've thrown it away! What about your family?! What about Sasha—?!"
Fingers lacing within her hair, he gently pressed her head back to his chest in order to silence her and rested his chin atop it. He didn't mean to hurt her, but he couldn't say he was sorry. This was what had felt right to him: He couldn't have gone on existing with the guilt of losing her.
"She knows what happened," he informed her quietly, a half-lidded gaze staring off into the distance. He wouldn't have been able to leave his sister's side if he hadn't told her the truth. Shockingly enough however, the little girl had shown greater courage in the matter than he had. What had happened for his sister to have grown so strong so suddenly…?
"Fuega." The call of her name forced her to shift in his grasp and look up, "I know we're not close. I know you're mad. I know I'm kind of a disappointment and have made plenty of dumb decisions. But you need to know that I am never going to leave your side, and that's one decision I'm never going to regret. Whatever is in store for us in this place, we're in this together."
"Well… we've got plenty of time to get to know each other now…" she sighed in a tired voice.
"And that's all very touching," a new voice broke in, "But if you don't mind, we have different plans." The pair looked about, bewildered, for the cause of it but didn't find out until two new figures levitated into view from the cliff edge. Stunned, Lluvio pulled Fuega back after him in order to give room for the two deities that had suddenly appeared from nowhere, holding her defensively in his grasp. The newcomers were all too familiar: Xibalba and La Muerte, the rulers of the dead. Though the former looked sullen as ever, the latter gave such a kind smile that it couldn't help but put the two mortals at relative ease.
"Yo! Are these the two ya'll were telling me about, La Muerte?" A friendly, though booming voice inquired, causing them to jump in surprise at its nearness before they turned to face a hulking man that they had yet to meet. Fuega recognized him quickly enough and balked at his presence, but it took Lluvio a moment longer to realize that the man had also been a deity shown in the mural at the museum. Every part of him seemed to radiate power, and yet he seemed so jovial that it was hard to be intimidated by him.
"That's the Candle Maker…" Fuega clenched Lluvio's hand in hers as the words rushed part her lips.
"Look at how you've both grown up! And you're a thing now!" His exclamation was bursting with gaiety, but did little to aid their confusion. The next moment, he patted each of their backs once simultaneously as though in congratulations. "Man, this is great! I've been shipping you both since ya'll were kids!"
For a moment he seemed perplexed himself, but only added, "That is what your generation calls it these days, right?"
"Candle Maker," La Meurte's tone was chiding, but even she couldn't help but grin and shake her head at the absurdity, "I think we really just need to get to the heart of the matter: We've confused them enough."
"What is that you want?" Lluvio asked, eying Xibalba worriedly. So far, the Lord of Death had yet to say or do anything beyond hover alongside his mistress, but he doubted it would stay that way.
La Muerte laced her arm through that of her lover's, leaning her head against it with a relaxed air. "After everything returned to normal, Xibalba found me and explained the situation. Then we made a little bet. We bet that the two of you would sacrifice yourselves in order to help the other. And we won." Shifting her gaze up, she gave Xibalba a knowing smile, "And a person—or in this case two—who is willing to make that sort of sacrifice is just what we've been looking for."
Somehow, with that said, a faint crack of a grin managed break through Xibalba's stubborn refusal against it.
"We can't restore you back to your old lives. Not with the rules of the wager you made with my husband. However, there is a sort of loophole." Stepping forward, La Muerte knelt to the eye level of the two mortals. "We would like the both of you to be our Bookkeepers. To take care of the Book of Life and watch over mankind like we do."
Rather than answer, all Lluvio and Fuega could do was remain in a state of shock. Become immortals? Surely this was a joke…
"Technically, we've only ever needed one Bookkeeper," Xibalba finally spoke up, rolling his eyes skyward and looking away to the distance even though his words were clearly directed at the pair. "But just one of you would be hopeless without the other."
La Muerte shot him a half-sour gaze before explaining in a gentler tone, "What he means by that is, Lluvio, you have a multitude of skills and street-smarts. You can keep a clear head in a bad situation and remain a calm leader when things go wrong. You're a fast thinker. However, you lack confidence and the drive to push yourself forward, and there are somethings you can be a little too lax over. Meanwhile, Fuega, you're very knowledgeable and extraordinarily passionate, but—"
"But you're reckless!" Xibalba finally broke in, gliding over to them as he criticized, "Impulsive, idealistic, stubborn, short-tempered, strong-willed, and the list continues!"
Both mortals sheepishly huddled together, not knowing how best to respond.
La Muerte cleared her throat and continued, "If you become Bookkeepers, you can disguise yourselves as humans and go on with your usual existences. You're families won't have to know that you died. However, you'll live within the realms of the dead and you'll be expected to maintain your duties at all times. You'll watch over the book and the lives of the living: You, Fuega, as a representation of passion, and you, Lluvio, as a representation of reason. Keep in mind, it's your choice."
"It's not like they really have much of one. It's either that or stay here," Xibalba mumbled, earning himself another sharp look from La Muerte.
To act as guardians over the Book of Life and the living… Could they really do that? That and keep up with their normal lives? And if they failed to, what would happen then? Would they be sent back to the Land of the Forgotten or would they face a far worse punishment? Lluvio looked to Fuega to find her staring at him questioningly, and he held her even tighter. Gradually, however, he found the resolve in her eyes that he had always known, and that was what marked his decision.
"We'll do it," Fuega spoke for the both of him, and he readily nodded in agreement.
"Oh yeah, man!" cheered the Candle Maker, "This is what I call a happy ending—or beginning! First though, you two are in need of a new look."
As the Candle Maker gave a snap of his fingers a blinding white glow took hold of the mortals, much to their astonishment. Fuega dug her fingers into the sleeves of Lluvio's sweatshirt, a sharp gasp leaving her as soon her vision was lost by the overpowering light. The air appeared to tear away at their forms, and they each held onto one another as if in fear of it ripping them apart.
She felt something was wrong before she could actually see anything. The fabric she had dug her fingers into was different from before—not of woven cotton but of some sheer, light cloth akin to silk. Her glasses, once loose enough that they often slid from her face, now felt a size or more too tight. And when she finally regained her vision, it was surprisingly out of focus and strained her eyes. The lenses were cracked, yes, but they hadn't been damaged at all that badly moment's ago. Taking them off—and cringing at the quiet snap that came from them as she did so—she squinted down at them in perplexity only for her jaw to fall at what she then discovered.
Her eyes were better than they had been during her childhood. She didn't even need her glasses anymore.
She looked up and nearly startled back from lack from preparation for the sight that awaited her next. Lluvio was gawking at her, and not long after she could only manage to return the expression with equal disbelief. The face looking back at her was definitely Lluvio's, but his entire appearance had changed. Light skin had turned a faint blue, as soothing a color as a clear lake. Unruly, ashen blonde locks were now elegantly groomed as aegean ripples in a flowing tide—tucked behind his ears as the wave cascaded to the bare end of his neck. His sweatshirt and denim jeans had been abandoned, and in their place he wore a robe that draped across his shoulder in an ancient Aztecan fashion. It hung loose from where it was bound at his right shoulder and fell all the way to the ground—the fabric mimicking the downpour of a beachside waterfall. No, it was water, and gathered around his feet to hide them was a shroud of mist and seafoam. His irises were most captivating, as if they were two Lapis Lazuli gems cut into the shape of raindrops.
"Look at you…" she whispered.
"Look at you..." he echoed, and his own awe was not without justification. Fuega's skin now glowed similarly to the Candle Maker's own, though it was of a slightly deeper orange hue—as though having absorbed the color of the sunset. Her hair had grown in length and gained in volume, though while it flowed down the slope of her back it also moved on its own accord as a living, flickering flame. Her own clothes had been replaced by a ball gown similar to what a young woman might wear on her quinceañera, with a bodice that was fashioned from obsidian—which cracked and ruptured along the length of the dress in an exploding effect overtop a bottom layer of magma. The warm colors moved, bubbled, and bent as though stirred within the confines of a volcano. It was hypnotizing. Her eyes as well had changed, only her irises seemed to be twin embers alight within the remains of a smoked-out fire.
Both of them now stood a head or two shorter than the other three immortals. Despite each other's touch, they found they failed to harm one another with their opposing elements. Though Lluvio stood a manifestation of the sea, he was neither cold nor wet: Though Fuega seemed to radiate scorching heat, she failed to burn him.
"And now we change the setting…" The Candle Maker caught then off guard once more as he clapped his hands together with a deafening boom and the ground began to shake beneath them. The rock shot up like an elevator, and just as soon as they thought they would crash into the ceiling above they were transported elsewhere into a cave-like space with limestone walls and sand covering its floor.
He made a wide, brisk gesture to his right, and suddenly a passage opened from the wall in a burst of dust and rock. Once that cleared, they could hear the rush of water and see a path of white marble columns leading further within a large circular chamber. A winding stairwell wrapped around its walls and spiraled upward to who-knew-where. The sound that they heard was from the fresh stream carved beneath the bridge and columns leading to the chamber, seeping from a shallow slit in the wall and exiting in a similar fashion on the opposite side as it made its journey through the rest of the cave.
The Candle Maker repeated his motion to their left and opened yet another passage. However, this time the walls, ceiling, and floor were made of glistening, mirror-like obsidian on every side, and balls of fire hovered in the air to light the way to the main chamber. Lava sizzled around the room's perimeter and channeled throughout the faces of the walls in intricate designs mimicking those of an Aztec temple. It too had a staircase that rose farther than they could see, but they could just make out the fade of obsidian and return of limestone the higher one looked.
"This is the Cave of Souls," the Candle Maker explained. "You both will be rooming with me here, but you each have your own separate wings to do your work in. Just be sure to give me a call from time to time."
Neither of them made an attempt to move or speak. They just continued to stare at all that was around them and silently adjusted to the fact that what was happening really was true. Fuega was the first to act, wrapping her arms around Lluvio in a firm embrace as she laughed at the insanity of it all. Soon enough, Lluvio found himself laughing with her with the first feeling of complete bliss he had felt since before this entire mess had begun.
Somehow, in death, a strange and new life had awaited them both. The future was as uncertain as ever, but now neither of them would face it apart—and after everything they had been through, they were both sure that they could handle it.
"Now," the Candle Maker turned his back to face La Muerte and Xibalba, his hands on his hips in an almost parental display of authority. "Does anyone mind telling me how all of this got started? Because I feel like there are a few blank spaces the need to be filled in for me."
Having been enjoying the show in the background, the lovers suddenly turned sheepish themselves—looking to one another in flustered silence in order to give him an explanation. Eventually, La Muerte nudged Xibalba in the side with her elbow, goading him enough to chuckle in discomfort as he raised his shoulders in a tense shrug, "It's a long story…"
Fuega and Lluvio couldn't help but snort at that, though they were in full agreement and also failed to clarify anything. Looking at her smiling face—this ice queen turned a fiery angel before him—the young man couldn't help but plant a soft kiss upon her forehead without reservation. For once, he was looking forward to the future ahead.
"So… Does this mean that I can get that second date?"