Walking had never been as easy affair for Elissa, even less so since the… drastic measures she took in her childhood. Usually she had her palanquin bearers to carry her about, or at least a few guards would help her; but this was far from ordinary circumstances.
To complicate matters, Augurs were not known for their usage of thick clothes. To ward off from the cold, she could just lay in her warm pool of water, think of the past and the future, shut out the door to the present. She couldn’t do that anymore. And she felt ridiculous in the wool pants and thick shirt she had commissioned, even more so when she put on the coat and boots. She walked about, experiencing a far lesser degree of mobility than she was used to – pretty much all her life she had lived wearing just a simple linen tunic, if that.
Elissa let out a chuckle, passing her fingers over her blindfold. Quite silly for you to worry about a discomfort now, right? She told herself. Another habit of her upbringing: speaking to yourself, for someone with her Sight, as a safe anchor to her identity in a stormy sea. Now let’s go outside.
She walked through the almost-empty corridors of the Temple, covered in her winter gear and trying to make as little noise as she could. Guards passed by, completely ignoring her: or rather, the seemingly empty spot where the Augur was.
She tip-toed on the marble floor, watching the men and women playing with their amulets of vials of holy water, rolling them between their fingers, murmuring prayers to the black sky.
As she reached the exit, the temple’s threshold was covered in fresh snow.
Elissa hesitated, looking at the dark mouth that gave on the outside, on the frigid night, the golden lights of the town shivering in its sieged hamlet.
Then she thought of blue eyes, looking up to her, pleading.
She stepped out in the freezing air. Elissa trembled in her coating and took uneasy steps on the snow, leaving no prints even on the soft blanket. With as much noise as a whisper, she whisked past the guards like a fleeting thought, and then she was on the trail leading to the top of the temple’s hill.
She hiked at a brisk pace, as much as her youth allowed her to, even as her heart began to pick up in her chest. You need to workout more, she reminded herself. As ridiculous as that thought was, for someone like her. She was not a Venatrix and memories of her brief time as a Novice reminded her most Vestals stayed trim only thanks to their diet. All the while, Sadja was lost in the woods during the Tide, and all the horrible futures she could be involved in prayed like vultures on her mind, ripping through her emotions like barbed hooks.
At last she reached the top, looking down at the town, each breath a ragged cloud that got lost in the snow. Belacqua spread in an uneven circle, the last lights reflected by the impressive walls of metal, spikes and steaming canals filled with holy water. Since the last incident six years prior the defenses of the small town had been enhanced, and yet she starkly felt fear and uncertainty ooze from every house as winter came knowing on their door.
Moving her gaze past the walls and the gates, the black forest glowed with the corpse-light of the Fae, screeching with the calls of the Eerie out and about. No wonder everyone was holding onto their blessed bones and holy water.
They need you, said a part of her.
Good point. But Sadja needed her most.
Elissa found a good spot beneath a willow. She lay there on her knees, touching her forehead to the ground, in a typical praying position. She grit her teeth.
This is going to hurt.
She knew as much. Need to second-guess herself. Why was it that every time it came to things like that, she hesitate? She was such a coward.
But she could do it.
For Sadja, she could do anything.
Taking slow breaths that tickled against her neck, Elissa withdrew all the threads into herself, drawing them in, upturning pages she had kept under lock and key for years. Memories, memories: like unpicked scabs. Pulling them up one by one was like scraping against the inside of her skull. Scritch-scratch.
She was going back.
Diving into the depths of her pain, hanging on her own umbilical chord.
And when she touched ground, Elissa was not alone anymore.
Her younger self stood a few paces away, with Sadja laying in a corner. The room was different – it was supposed to be, her memories couldn’t remake it perfectly and it did not matter, her dreamscape was more real than real, as this was of her own making – but she remembered the cold feeling of the air around her, Sadja’s still form, the many scratches and pockmarks peppering her from side to side, where the needles had drank avidly. She held onto her tail and shivered, mewling softly.
“If you don’t sit down,” said the same voce that had put her needles deep into her flesh, “she’ll have to do it again.” The two Elissa turned. The younger girl whose short red hair stuck to her forehead, her breath ragged with fear and apprehension, wearing little more than her blindfold, and the taller, older one, whose hair now reached her back, dressed in her winter clothing.
And the one who spoke: the tall blonde with the ever-kind smile on her lips, half her face covered by a metal mask. She wasn’t High Seer yet, her robes as Augur of Venexia sporting a deceptively-simple golden lining.
“I’ll do it,” younger Elissa wheezed, walking towards a spindly metal chair surrounded by wires, in front of a wooden table. She strapped herself on the chair, without the ‘help’ from the assistants, who just poked her with needles.
Looking back to it, Elissa guessed they were taking measurements on her temperature, her heartbeat. Maybe something else as well. Who knew if the Erepeople managed to monitor the Sight, when it began to appear? Her own threads couldn’t reach that far. Maybe the Queen of Thorns would have an answer to that, but Elissa’s mind would fizzle and burn long before she managed to approach the Heart of the Forest.
“That’s a good girl.” Verna made her heart skip a beat. Even after all these years, those two words sent her in a frenzy. She needed to hear them again. It felt like coming home, in a warm, soothing embrace, and knowing all was good in the world. The younger Elissa nodded, by reflex.
“Now, this is a different kind of test than what Sadja did. She and you are very interesting, do you know that, my lovely little apprentice? Very interesting indeed!” The throaty chuckle in Verna’s voice sounded like burning oil, sizzling on the cold steely floor. “But you’re not the same. This is your challenge.” She sat at the other end of the table and produced a worn-out coin. “I’m going to flip the coin. You have to make it land on heads, no matter what I do.”
Past Elissa nodded. Her head turned quickly to glance at Sadja, still laying on the floor.
Verna flipped the coin.
She clicked her tongue.
“My dear, you can do better than this. Do you think Sadja will be happy if you don’t even try?”
“I’m trying!” She protested.
Verna reached out with her pale hand, stroking her cheek.
“Then do better.”
She flipped it again.
Again, landing on tails.
Present Elissa balled her fists. She knew what was about to happen, and she had come back in this memory for a reason, but seeing it happen once again…
Verna shook her head. She raised a hand and Sadja floated in the air. The wolf-girl yowled, letting out a distressed call for help.
“One more time,” Verna announced.
She flipped the coin.
The younger Elissa jerked her body forward, against the straps, her fingers bent like she was fighting against a current. The coin froze mid-air. It wriggled against two invisible forces fighting each other.
Bit by bit, it began to tilt towards tail.
The past redhead gritted her teeth.
The coin kept turning.
Sadja let out a scared yelp, looking at her with her big blue eyes.
The coin began to float down towards the table.
“No!” Elissa shrieked. Air wavered like before the flame of a candle. She struggled against the straps, sputtering, as the coin pushed towards the table, firmly showing its back side.
And then it ripped through the air, hit Verna’s mask jerking her head back and it shot through the room, tinkling against the ground paces away.
Past Elissa fell against the chair, monitors next to her beeping angrily. A drop of blood left her nose.
Verna did not smile anymore. She stood up, letting Sadja gently on the ground once more. She walked to where the coin had fallen. She picked it up, showing it to her. It proudly displayed its front. Her right eye, now visible as the coin had displaced her mask, shone with feverish light, making it appear almost white from its normal grey iris.
“Now isn’t that amazing? See? See?” She walked back, pulling up Sadja and her in an embrace, kissing their foreheads, ruffling their hair.
Present-time Elissa shuddered at the contact, like submerged in a vat of sticky industrial oil.
But there was something else. The close contact, the praise. It set foot deep in her heart, made her feel like she did good. Like she had finally achieved something. A deep-rooted feeling of shame for not being able to do so before came to rest in her stomach as Verna stroked their cheeks.
“You are both doing so well. You are my fantastic girls, and if you keep this up, there will be no end to prizes for you two…” she cooed and her embrace tightened. Bit by bit, Sadja’s hand rose to touch her own.
Augur Elissa waved her fingers and the image disappeared. She was pulled up, to the here and now, gulping freezing air. And yet, she held fast onto that memory. That touch. How it made her feel: how impotent she was before she did what was asked of her. How glad she was she finally managed to show how useful she could be.
And how much, despite everything, she still hoped Verna was still there with her, stroking her cheek and calling her a good girl.
Elissa let out a chocked laughter. Oh, she was. She was, indeed.
And she filled her hands with that shame. That impotence. That need. And that fear. And under the tree, as snow danced about and the far-off cries and laments of the incoming tide approached, the took her pain and wore it like the finest shawl. She danced and danced wearing it, coating her presence with that iron-tasting fear. Like a dog rubbing its coat in urine to appear submissive, Elissa made sure to plunge deep into the memory.
So that when Verna came to look for her (as she already did, as she would do), her Master would only see what she expected to.
Pic by CRAZYRUSSIANAuthor’s Notes: if being Sadja is suffering, being Elissa must not be much better. I often come back to her character and what’s going to happen to her, thinking about it. She’s a very difficult girl to write, with how her mind works, mixing past present and future, but that’s part of the fun. I also wanted to show a little more of Verna herself in this chapter: another very fun character to write. She’s so loathsome and devious! And with that, thanks once again for reading.
Muse willing, I’ll see you tomorrow.