She walks through the forest, and the forest is dark. Pale trees sprout from the damp black ground, grow thick and strong, their branches spread like veins, throbbing with crimson sap. Up above a golden light seeps through everything like a kind of vicious bile.
And she walks on naked feet on the sharp blades of grass. The leaves are not silent; the moss is not blind. Everything here knows and remembers and speaks with the voice of a throbbing heart.
She stops amidst the trees, even as they go by forever, mirrored in all directions, with her as their pivot.
She looks down at her hands.
Her hands reach for her eyes. They tremble. She can see them. Not just perceive them or predict where they will go or what will happen.
She can see her skin. A-
A gasp leaves her mouth like a scared hawk.
She falls on the grass, and the grass is damp.
Dry, heaving breaths shake her body.
She’s dressed, and she’s dressed in black and red.
Her hands reach for her forehead.
What is this?
Where is this?
Why is this?
She smells her own fear, tangy and a little sweet.
It’s sweet all around.
Sweet like overripe peaches.
The door is often shut.
It’s a Voice. It’s a Thought. It’s coagulated Will and it slams her against the ground.
She shudders and falls on her side.
Her body shaken by the need for air.
She gasps and emits no sound.
Her eyes (her eyes!) look around (at the colors!) and (the forms!) see nothing.
Far ahead, a flock of birds leaves the branches and begins to fly in a circle, cutting through the veils of sunlight until they are unstitched threads.
Like… those she used to cling onto.
But there’s none here.
None she can grasp on.
This place is-
Seldom open to visitors, the Voice comes again. Yet, you are interesting.
A trickle falls out of her ear.
Hmm, hmm. Such pretty fantasies. You live in a glasshouse, my dear friend.
The ravens fly lower. They fly in pairs and in threes and they fly into each other and against each other and they scream into each other and one by one they fall onto the ground.
Their corpses pile up.
I do regret not meeting you before. Apologies. My time is stretched thin.
Regret. It drips from the Voice like the sap from trees.
It cannot be.
It cannot be.
Spirits, please no. That’s the only prayer she can formulate.
Next to her, the last corpse falls down.
The pile begins to move.
It screams and yowls and barks and hisses as it twists into a tower of stretched bent bones, feathers and blood. The beaks fall on the edge of the new creature, and the eyes collect atop its head.
Oh, sweet sweet child of Winter. Your troubles are for naught.
And it’s her voice, it’s her it’s-
A hand made out of mutated feathers reaches for her cheek.
Sticky primaries brush against her tear-streaked cheeks. They play with her red hair.
She will not remember you.
She grinds her teeth and starts shaking her head, ripping her hair off from her grasp. It won’t be like that, she will come back, she will save her, she can see it, foresee it. The white-haired girl, throwing herself at her in a big hug, and they will be free and together and she will be hers and-
Know it is not your fault.
It’s not! Because! It won’t! Be!
She will be safe!
She’ll save her… she’ll go against anything and everything, she has a plan, she has put her pawns into place, and she will win, she will turn Verna’s Sight blind and the girl with the blue eyes and the white hair will be-
I understand your plight.
She understands nothing! It’s too late for compassion, fake or real! She’s got enough of both. She will go to the deep end and she wil-
She’s been wiped off.
You are ignoring my warnings at your own risk. There is no blame in that. But very little wisdom, which saddens me.
Get off me, get off me get off m-
The closest branch of bones and feathers reaches her cheek.
You have such beautiful eyes.
She doesn’t anymore. She has cast them out, she clawed them off her face so that she could See-
Only what your teacher wanted you to. Hence, you are doubly blind.
For you to pick apart from truth. Yet I always want to leave a gift to all my visitors. In return for what I pilfer.
I did not come, I did not want to come…
Seldom the falling rocks puts her mind to flight. But we all must learn to fall.
Leave me alone, send me back send me back.
Your body is, and I quote, perfectly busy dying. You stretched yourself too far, my dear. The forest is treacherous, no matter what.
You did this!
Is the growing vine to blame for destroying a crumbling wall?
I don’t want to talk to you. You’re the reason we are all like this, we lost everything, the reason I was made like this, you and your stupid war and your stupid forest and your stupid Fae!
Perhaps. I suppose you could understand in time. Time you don’t have. And yet…
The pile of crows twists into a spiral and takes off.
Sunlight comes back to bathe her body. The ground smells like peaches.
The trees around her turn. Like layers on a painted background, they shift and bend. Shadows and trunks begin to take a form, appearing only in its negation.
The face of a woman.
I said I like to leave a gift to all my visitors. I offered you wisdom, but it might have been a tad too early.
An unseen force lifts her body from the dark ground. She reaches out, but only grasps air.
Something pierces her eyes and she screams.
So I am offering you a chance to return.
The same forces throws her up. She can’t see the woman’s face anymore.
But her Voice is with her forever.
Sad and yet hopeful.
I shall keep wisdom for later.
Elissa broke the surface of water, grasping at something that was supposed to be there.
“She’s alive! Oh, Spirits, she’s alive!”
Her attendant held her up, passing a sponge all over her face.
“The Heart,” she muttered.
She shut her mouth.
The Heart of the Forest, she thought.
The Wicked Fae.
Her Voice… so much unlike a mind-conversation. Even when she was overwhelmed by Verna’s tendrils and her presence of will, it had never been so utterly complete. She felt like she’d just been popped back into reality from a terrible, terrible dream.
She reached for her eyes.
Touched the wet, wrinkly skin of her old wounds.
No eyeballs there.
“Leave,” she whispered. “I’m fine. I need to recover by myself.”
Resistance, of course. She’s worried about her.
Which is sweet, but she does not have much time for that.
This time, she obeyed.
And Elissa, Augur of Belacqua, best and most powerful Vestal this side of the Alps, could only float in the scalding water and listen to throbbing bit of her heartbeat.
Perfectly busy dying.
Her hand reached for her chest.
Her heartbeat was there.
Her blood pumped through her veins.
She was alive.
Her body aching all over, but she was alive.
And something’s stuck in her throat.
She reaches for it.
Pulls it out of her mouth.
It’s a tiny thing.
She really isn’t supposed to lose her mind over it.
It’s such a tiny, innocuous thing.
She’s not supposed to scream and scream and scream.
It’s just a crimson thorn.