Cloria’s fingers uncapped the final vial of Verna’s holy water. She crouched before the last man and began to trace holy symbols over his naked torso, muttering spells of protection and rebuke.
“May this blessed water shield you from the treachery that lurks in the wood,” she concluded.
The man nodded, as did the other two.
The ones they had buried couldn’t.
Just to make sure to keep them from becoming useful to the will of the forest, they had to chop them into parts. One arm hidden here, a leg there. Special care for their skulls: they had to be shattered with a hammer.
Cloria had seen what the Queen of Thorns could do to unchecked bodies, and it was the rational, savy thing to do to keep them from turning into Eerie.
At least their souls would be safe.
The men’s breath lingered around their necks, mixing with the frozen mists hiding most of the forest just a few paces away. Cloria brushed her hands together, as if trying to wash away the black ichor, the crimson blood, and the fuel and oils and grease necessary to give the tank a fighting chance.
Or what remained of it. The old vehicle had taken a lot of damage, with a head-sized hole in its side opened by a particularly eager Eerie the night before.
“We are coming back,” she said. The initial spark of relief in their eyes quickly died down as they saw her stern expression did not change. “And on on our way, we’ll complete our task. We are going to get our prize.”
They were looking at her wrong. Doubting her. Doubting her and her leadership abilities, but she had kept them alive so far, managed to guide them further than anyone else did during this time of the year. And sure, they were being pushed back, but she’d manage. She always did.
“We’ll get what we deserve, I promise,” she said raising her fist. “In a week, we’ll reach the closest river and we’ll then leave for the sea. The Tide has no power there, and we’ll head to Venexia where we’ll all be acclaimed as heroes by the High Seer herself! Or do you prefer all our sacrifices to mean nothing?”
The men exchanged a look.
“We did not come here to die.”
“And you won’t! We are protected! The holy water, the same holy water that cuts off the Tide every year! Don’t you trust it?”
But their gazes said her one thing and one thing only: they did not trust her.
Which was stupid: Why didn’t they? Because she was the only one still unscathed? Not her fault she was a Venatrix, and a former Vestal, to boot. She was doing everything she could to protect them as well!
“I’m doubling your rate. Again.” That left her with very little to repay her expenses – and luckily the tank was already mostly covered by Verna – but she could eat a little lighter for a couple months if it meant enough glory to finally put her name close to the Hunter’s. The men shifted their eyes from her to the scattered mounds where they had buried their fallen. “Fight for me, and you’ll be rewarded as you deserve.”
That seemed to convince them. They shared another look, and Cloria saw it as a sign of her victory.
“We agree on getting what we deserve,” said Orzono. He was the youngest of the crew, the same who got her title wrong when they had first stepped into the forest. “Show us the way, Venatrix.”
“That’s the spirit!” She said with a big smile. “Now let’s get back to work. We have the last repairs to finish and then a Hunter to catch!”
Cloria picked up grease and tools and guided the others as they all finished patching up the tank. And maybe her embarrassingly-low marks as a Novice did count for something, for she did not even try to peer through the minds of her crew, to take a closer look at their thoughts.
The Hunter looked up. The sky had turned from a dull grey to a shining white – past the treetops everything was the same color, the same blinding vastness of nothing and nowhere. His sled still remembered the way south (thanks to some tinkering from the Erepeople that built its heart, no tricks of his own), but it was a long way.
Behind him, the girl slept. He had secured her to the back of the sled, thought that meant sacrificing part of his belongings, but at this point nothing mattered more than getting her back to Verna and then, finally, lifting the guilt that had pressed on his chest for so long. She seemed so peaceful.
He probably wasn’t doing the right thing. Something gnawed at his heart every time he thought about the girl and who he was going to leave her with.
But then again, what a silly point in his life to worry about such a fanciful matter. The weight of his actions pulled on him like a thousand hooks grasping onto every centimeter of his scarred, ruined flesh – and every mile was a sinful as the one before. No sense in stopping now, or even worrying about stopping at all.
“Nobody stops,” he sighed. The Erepople certainly did not. Neither did the Fae.
He could see it. He would crouch, Elissa would cast her final spell, and he’d finally be able to say goodbye. One last send-off.
He patted the heavy notebook that he had tossed at the wolf-girl to cut her run short, thinking back to their long, forgotten nights in the stolen peace of Belacqua’s temple, naked body against naked body, their breaths mingling with each heartbeat, far from any rule, far from any duty.
If she could see him, she wouldn’t be happy.
But she’d soon be at peace.
Which, these times, was more than he could hope for.
The wind picked up. It passed its cruel fingers all over his hair, and he shivered. Looking back, the girl gritted her teeth against the northern gale. He stopped for a moment, took off his coat and rolled her in it. There. He’d probably get enough pneumonia for a year, but at least she’d arrive unspoiled to his meeting with Verna.
He had just three days before the last bit of granted protection ran out.
As if on cue, a tiny white speck floated before his eyes, carried by the wind.
He lifted his palm and a dozen snowflake came to die in it.
From all around came the sound of rising voices. They gathered in a throaty song, with ancient words and ancient notes.
Long they had slept, slumbering under the moss, beneath the roots, and into the shadows.
Behind the veil of frozen mist, tall figures began to walk south. The Fae walked once more.
He shivered, this time not for the cold, and revved up the sled’s engine.
The Tide had come at last.
Pic by -Dieser-Author’s Notes: I can’t believe it. We have reached a whole month and I have completed the first arc! My enthusiasm is barely tempered by the current threat of a nuclear war. I also tried to add some buttons at header level to make navigation easier (and I might work on some other window-dressing to make reading a little more pleasant). One month in, I have to say the amount of mental energy devoted to this project and the 100-Days-Challenge has been larger than I initially thought (as I ought to expect), but what I got out of it in terms of self-satisfaction has been amazing (and that was far from expected). I’ll start making actual blogposts on my experience from time to time, as I have actual evidence to back it up now.
Also, thank you all – all those who read, put a like and came back to read for the next day. Your support has been amazing, considering how small this little idea of mine is. Thank you so much. I hope I’ll be able to earn your time and enjoyment more and more. See you soon.