The Hunter lowered his head, trying to collect himself. The things he had seen… between Verna’s experiment, her lies about Lenora, about the scope and effect of the Sere Rite had pulled apart the shield of certainty and purpose he’d been building around himself for the past six years. There was no saving her, no putting her soul to rest. At least, not that Elissa knew. And what she did to those two, ever since they were little girls barely out of their capsule. It defied thought.
He’d also been in their situation once. Old man Salix had taken him in and taught him everything he knew, from the Hunt to the purpose of a man, to not falling for a Vestal, and in almost everything he believed he managed to make him proud. He used to be the closest thing to a father a foundling like him could ask for.
How it must have been for the two of them? Waking up only to be terrorized more, subjected to experiments by the same person who was calling them good girls and using her affection as a fine-cutting thread to sculpt them into the perfect specimens. The compressed memories of the Vestal gnawed at his thought, fighting for space, making him feel each pang of pain, of sorrow and solitude they must have felt for all those years in the mechanized hallways.
“No wonder she wanted to escape. Oh, Spirits, and I was supposed to bring her back…”
Wait. There was something to address as well, a little doubt scratching at the back of his mind.
“But… how can I be sure all this is real? That is the truth? Maybe I’m just hallucinating you? Or something else is happening? Elissa, I have known that woman for more than ten years…”
“Just ask yourself how much of what I tell you lines up with what you have seen so far.”
He balled his fists. She was right. What Verna told him up to that point had only caused him more misery and tying his life to a lost cause, drawing others into this misery, such as the wolf-girl.
“To give you credit, you at least wanted to let her go the moment you understood what was really happening,” Elissa said, walking close to him and extending a hand. He couldn’t get over what she did to herself, the gnarly wounds she had inflicted upon herself. Mutilation, in order to be more useful.
He took her hand. It felt smooth and somewhat cold, but then again it might just be his own imagination firing off his nerves. No idea how any of this worked anyway. He was only an expert on blood magic, and this was far beyond his expertise. Or any other Vestal’s, really. Reaching all the way to him past the Tide and the forest…
All this because she believed he could help.
Beyond everything he had suffered, beyond all the mistakes and the stupidity of his way, she had reached out.
“How can I help? If there’s any way I can. If this means going directly against Verna, I want to know how I can last longer than a handful of snow in a furnace.”
For the first time since he had known her, the redhead smiled. A genuine, heartfelt smile, unlike the tired, stretched ones he had seen her perform during her task giving out holy water.
“I have been fighting alone since I was a Novice. Trusting someone else with Sadja is…” she hesitated a little, “… unusual for me. I’m new to all this as well. But I have a hunch.”
“You Augurs always do. It’s not exactly helping much, my Lady.”
“First things first, we have to put your body back together. I can help a little, but you’ll have to do most of the job. I trust that as long as I can fix your blood resources you’ll be able to use your own rituals?”
“I can at least try. Right now I’m so worn out I couldn’t even congeal my own blood. It’s not going to be easy.”
“Remember what we are trying to prevent. If Verna gets Sadja, she can start her crusade.”
“Her crusade…?” The blood. The girl’s incredibly powerful fluid that could turn Fae and Eerie alike into so many blazing torches. “She’s going to wring her dry. And attack the Old Country? That’s madness!”
“She believes it can work.”
“It won’t! How can she win where the rest of mankind failed?”
“I don’t think that line of thought it going to bring us anywhere. She has been training the both of us into living weapons since we drew our first breath.”
“And what was supposed to be your role?”
“Someone would have to draw the Queen of Thorns’ attention.”
“You’d be…” he thought of Lenora, how the curse had ravaged her mind and body. “That’s vile.”
“We can put a stop to it. And save Elissa. She’d be safe with me. I can take care of her.”
“I was planning to bring her to Belacqua as well. She’d be protected by the whole town. It’s not much, as long as Verna is out there, though.”
At the mention of the entire community dealing with her, a strange frown appeared on Elissa’s brow, quickly chased off like a dark cloud by seaward winds.
“… yes. I think… I think that could work. At any rate, Hunter, let me fix your body first.”
She walked up to his prone form and lay both ghost-like hands over him. He felt a strange sensation spread all over his astral form, like a numbing heat. His body took a bit of color back, and his wounds started closing. All the while, Elissa was growing fainter.
When she withdrew her hands, she was panting hard and a veil of sweat had grown over her forehead.
“That’s… all I can do.”
“I’ll take care of the rest. I can track Cloria, bring Sadja to the town. But they are going to meet with Verna soon. If she finds out about this… well, when she finds out about this… I can’t hold back the entire Order, Elissa. I don’t think I can last more than a handful of seconds against her. Look what happened the moment I decided to bring Sadja to the village.”
“And yet…” she replied, her voice coarse and dry, “… I was there to help you, wasn’t I? Leave Verna to me. I was her best disciple. Let blood run with blood and water chase water, Hunter. To each of us their own.”
He was about to reply when she let out another pained groan. She reached for her head.
“Threads… ripping. I have to go back. Find her, Hunt-”
Elissa disappeared like the glint of moonlight on water.
Blinked. He could blink.
He was in his body again.
His tired, broken, aching body.
His breath came out in white spurts, getting lost amidst the snowflake and the off-white sky. At his feet lay Cloria’s gun.
But there was a kernel of strength flowing inside him, a source of healing and energy stronger than anything he could have given himself.
And at that point, after having his dreams shattered and his friendship revealed for lies, he’d take whatever he’d get. As far as last gifts went, that of Augur Elissa was nothing to sneeze at.
He placed both hands on his chest and began to chant.
Away and at another time, in Belacqua, the white Temple stood as it had done for decades. At its core, next to the holy water pool, old woman Arguta opened her eyes.
She patted herself all over.
Everything seemed to be at its place, no worse and no better than it had been when she had accepted the Vestal’s proposal.
She let out a relieved sigh. Maybe she’d live to see another dawn.
Speaking of which, if the girl was done, she might get out of here and be actually useful. There were lots of people from her town she could help settling down, and they’d need to share the burden of the townspeople. Idle hands do the Queen’s work, after all.
“So, all-seeing Lady, can I go?”
She looked at the wardens, standing stiff, as if frozen at their posts.
And then at the pool.
The pool where, laying with her arms wide, lay the girl’s pale corpse, her red hair strewn like a rust halo around her head, and crimson lines streaking her face, where blood spilled from her mouth and nose.
Pic by PrinceYaserAuthor’s Notes: and here we go. 60 chapters, one per day, and two months of writing every day. It feels incredible to reach this milestone. I am also grateful for all your likes and follows these past sixty days. As I said, this was mostly intended to be just a repository hub as part of an ongoing project. As for Patina, we are reaching the ending of the second part. The third is going to be… interesting, for sure. Thanks again for reading.