Cloria held her head with both hands. Her breaths came in short spurts as she tried to process everything the Hunter told her. This was… beyond madness.
“We never knew anything about it,” she said in the end, looking at him for support. He could only shake his head.
“It is what it is. I suppose it’s been her plan since the beginning. She has always been obsessed with the war, and the past, and the Erepeople…”
“But the Order exists to protect!” Cloria set her hands against her breast, as if to hold onto something she had seemingly lost forever. “We… they… even when… when I was chosen, they told me I was supposed to use my Sight as a bastion against the encroaching darkness. We are not to use it like that!” She stood up and began to pace back and forth on the frozen river, like a caged Fae waiting for iron or fire to take it out of its misery. “The head of the Order… the High Seer herself!”
“It’s a meaningless effort,” the Hunter said, approaching her and stopping her with a hand upon her shoulder. “Look around you. All I can see is grey pines, red sap and the signs of the Queen o-“
“Hey, hey!” Cloria covered her ears. “Speaking that name is bad luck. Are you crazy, Hunter?”
He let out another chuckle.
“Maybe it is. Yet, She has been somewhat merciful to me so far.” His eyes wandered back in the direction of the blasted city. “Though She is ultimately responsible for much of my misery.”
“That’s besides the point… another War… an assault on… Her.” Cloria signed herself, kissing her fingers and tracing a circle in the middle of her forehead. “I have met one of the Fae,” she replied with a trembling whisper. “It was a fearsome thing. Its thoughts like the gnawing of teeth. It rattled them against the inside of my mind like claws over wrinkly rock. I can’t even imagine how bad She must be.”
“One more reason to get Sadja back. If you now understand, and you do seem to, would you…”
“Hunter.” She shook her head, set her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye. She seemed to come back to her former strength, the proud and brave (and foolish) Venatrix he had known. “You don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation.”
“Verna is going to fail. There’s no stopping the Heart of the Forest.”
“I said that’s besides the point!” She bit her lip. “What I’m about to say… they tell us this story on the very first day, you know? It’s the very first lesson, and we all mind-share. It’s a very old memory, back from a couple generation ago. About thirty wears after the War. Come here.”
She pulled his forehead against her own, and their breaths and minds and memories intermingles.
Before, she had been hesitant and tentative, tip-toeing into his garden. Now, she pulled him right into her mindscape. It was a white hall full of young girls. Present-time Cloria and the Hunter stood right besides two Novices, one of them with stark dark skin and beautiful black hair, sitting straight just as another girl, with short dark hair and blue eyes, tried to find a place where to sit down. The dark-skinned girl noticed her and moved aside, leaving her room to sit.
The memory moved at a faster pace as an old Augur entered the room, her white hair touching the floor. She sat ahead of the girls and raised a hand.
And both the Hunter and Cloria were pushed into yet another mindscape.
The image was less clear, like old cloth starting to fray along the edges. They were walking amidst a valley. Palaces and roads covered in snow. And tall trees. Not the skeletal pines of the Old Country, bleeding sap, but the old kind of trees, bent and wizened by winter, but not conquered. People walked back and forth, and many among them wore thicker clothing, too perfect to be anything but industrial manufacture. From the edge of the vision rose tall smoke-stacks.
And the people.
So many of them, walking by without a charm or a bottle of holy water, in the dead of winter. Just going by their business, paying little thought to the encroaching Tide.
“What is this?”
“The end of the War was not the beginning of the Tide. Back then, we still used to possess much of the knowledge and power of the Ereworld.” Cloria guided him across the snowy streets. Electrical lights shone like strewn stars. And not a pipeline in sight. These people were just… living there? “The Order had just been established, and girls with the power of Sight were still quite rare. But we used to believe it was enough.” She turned and pointed at the line of hills growing taller the further north. “That’s more or less the direction we just came back. What now is all Old Country used to be free territory.”
“Then… what happened?”
“Some of the most gifted among the Vestals of the time believed they could find a way around the Wicked Fae. Could bend the future in a knot, so to say. Reclaim what was lost.”
The picture blurred.
From the horizon came a rust-colored line. Quickly growing, just like the incoming tide.
“We tried to go on the offense. Let us cut down the head! That’s what we used to believe. A hunting party, down in the depths of the forest, manned by the best, protected by the most powerful technology we could maintain or excavate.”
Around them, the people that until then were just happily going down the business began to tremble, twist like melting wax. Their faces and bodies darkened and ripped through their clothings. Thorns grew out of their skin. Their bones popped. And mad with hunger, they threw themselves at each other, even as every tree and plant twisted and bent into hooked shapes, their branches blooming crimson.
And in the air spread a thick smell of too-ripe peaches.
Cloria looked dejected, balling her fists.
“Nowadays we teach the Fae War grew to a standstill, but if you ask me, Hunter?” She turned to look him in the eyes, those blue eyes steel-cold. “She just got bored.”
Cloria pulled back her head.
They both blinked, coming back to the real world.
The world after the Tide.
“It’s an unspoken agreement, a silent rule,” she said twisting a lock of hair around her fingers. “We may go into the forest, we may even try and spite Her with our rituals. She allows us to, like children building sandcastles around the ankles of a giant. But trying to restart the War? She’s going to make us pay back every drop of blood, one hundred-fold. Venexia used to be one of many flourishing cities, do you know? The Bittersea was called the Adriatic, once. How many things shall we lose this time?”
The Hunter looked pale. Paler than usual, at least.
“This is… direr than I thought.”
Cloria gave him a sad smile.
“Do you want to know the worst part? Since then, since the first Tide… our numbers only grew. We have now more Vestals, and more powerful ones, than ever. It’s like She’s taunting us.” She hugged herself, as if to find shelter from a far deeper cold than any winter. “And this thing with Verna… I’m sure She’s going to make us pay for it. I don’t need any Sight.”
“Can’t the rest of the Order do anything about Verna?”
“She’s the High Seer. That’s the worst part… what really has me worried. We always knew Verna was a bit of a nutcase, but not to the point of breaking this one taboo. If nobody in Venexia got wise to it, it’s either because Verna is just that skillful with her powers, or they are into her pocket. I don’t like either solutions.”
“She’s a prodigy. She might be able to deal with Verna.”
“It’s a hope carved on black ice. Still, I’ll take all that I can get.”
“First things first, then. We have to get Sadja back.”
“That’s her name?”
The Hunter nodded. Cloria’s face darkened.
“I never asked. I never asked any of their names. They are dead and buried in the Forest in the blighted soil because I couldn’t spare them a thought. All I could think about was going to back to Venexia with my prize, showing off to the girls… being renown as a true Venatrix.”
“A true Venatrix would be able to track three men and a girl going south, don’t you think?”
For the first time, she chuckled.
“Heh. I suppose so, Hunter. So… I’m sorry about shooting you. No hard feelings?”
Pulled her in.
And punched her right in the stomach.
Cloria chocked on a pained breath, folding over his fist like a curled leaf in autumn.
She grimaced as the pain slowly abated.
“No hard feelings,” he said at last.
She nodded, still massaging her stomach.
He gave her back her pistol.
“Try to get a better shot this time.”
Pic by DarkfangAuthor’s Note: another of those weird chapters. I started working on it with a heavy head and heavier hands, and by the end of it I was all smiles for what, praised be the Muse, I managed to wring out of my shrunken brain. I enjoy Cloria’s character in this. Her dualism is fun to explore. As is laying the roots for the final part of the story, of course. At any rate, thanks for reading.