Elissa had never been out in the forest. It was worse than she believed. Every step of her porters made the palanquin wave and shift, so that she was having a hard time sitting there and meditate. The moment they left the protective walls of Belacqua, the veil that every year fell on every Augur’s Sight had thickened. Trying to peer through it was like pushing her hand into ever-hardening sand.
And she had already over-reached once. More than anything else, the simple fear of going back to that awful place, in the embrace of that… that thing was enough to make her tread lightly.
She couldn’t locate Sadja. Her position was somewhere on the north-west, closer to the Old Country, but slowly moving south. She was close to a river, that much she was sure. Or at least, most of the threads and possibilities sent back her an image of the wolf-girl next to a river.
And close-by, the Hunter and the former-Vestal were coming for her. Together with some unexpected guests.
On her mind-scape, the pawns were moving fast. Maybe a tad too fast.
And Verna… was like this oily black tentacled-thing, eating away at her threads, drawing over her borders, turning and twisting chances at every moment. She couldn’t contain her. Barely make it so she didn’t just trample over every single of her efforts.
And of course the forest did not hold back.
She did not really see them. Couldn’t.
But she perceived the beasts and the Eerie and the Fae, chittering and hissing around her. They did not dare come forth, at least not yet. They just followed her in a monstrous procession. Sometimes something large and dark came a little closer, leaving the edge of the trees to sniff at the palanquin. She perceived it like a smoldering face, burning flesh carved by the weight of sorrow and hate and long years of pain, each bone and piece of cursed meat hating upon its neighbor, driven by unnatural hunger.
Strained muscles and sharp teeth, curled talons and bent knuckles, legs like endless digits and the gnawing of teeth in their chests.
Eyes blinking inside breathing jaws.
“Leave,” she commanded, extending her hand, and her will with it. The threads pulled.
The ghastly forms peering at her palanquin stood back. Those tall and spindly ones, with eyes like polished glass and half-broken antlers still held, for the Fae were far harder to rebuke than some mindless beasts.
And she couldn’t lose her focus on Verna… on Sadja.
Thus, panting, Elissa held her hand up and focused her Sight onto the external world, as her porters kept walking through the forest and the starless night. As snow piled up around them and the gloomy procession followed them, eager for the tiniest crack in her armor to jump on them and tear them apart, pulling each piece, each tiny slice into the endless howling darkness of the Old Country.
With her other hand, Elissa dried a drop of blood running down her nose. It was nothing.
She could deal with this. She had faced worse foes.
A big fat pile of lies, but she was doing her damn best to keep believing them.
And above else, to believe that the moment she saw Sadja again, it would all be worth it.
The Hunter sniffed the air. The hunch that pulsed around his senses shifted and pulled him in the closest direction to Sadja. A sled would have maybe been more practical, and allowed the two of them to carry more material, but time was of the essence. Thus, they had fashioned themselves a pair of skis and proceeded down the frozen river.
He was a lousy skier, and Cloria had to help him more than once. She had seemingly more grace in her legs, and surely more coordination, than she did.
All in all they were making fast progress. With some luck, they’d be able to reach Sadja in one more night, if the Eerie kept at bay.
He had practiced another (quite small in truth) blood sacrifice to the Queen, this time together with Cloria.
When he had realized she did not perform even a prayer when she had set foot into the Queen’s realm, he had almost punched her again. The gall of some people.
Now, he sported some new lines on his carved chest, and Cloria showed a finely-crafted scar on the upper part of her left arm, displaying a bramble.
The blood had turned into smoke once again, and their offering been accepted.
All things considered, the Heart of the Forest was being quite generous today.
At least for the time being. You never knew what She was plotting. And Cloria might be right: Verna’s incursion and plots might have deeper repercussions than they might imagine…
But for the time being all they had to focus on was trying to deal with thirst, hunger and keeping their eyes from going blind as dropping temperatures turned the fresh snow into little less than polished glass.
“How long until we reach her?” He tried. Maybe the constant pressure from the Old Country was helping develop Cloria’s latent Sight?
She shifted her pace and leaned to her right, pushing the weight of her body to better accommodate her turning (so that was how it was done, hm? Better put that to memory), getting closer to him. She dashed a look at the white clouds and clicked her tongue.
“How do you think I know, Hunter? I can’t foresee tomorrow’s weather!”
“Worth a try!”
“I don’t think it’s going to be much more, at any rate. This Fae-forsaken river must end somewhere!” She lifted her bandaged arm and pointed downward. “It’s getting wider down there. Ice will be thinner. We should stick to the banks for a bit.”
He nodded, following her expertise.
Still, he felt cautiously optimistic. They were proceeding fast, and if they rationed what little food they managed to retain, they might get Sadja sooner than later. After that, it would only be a matter of trying to escape the most dangerous Vestal on this side of the world, who was also the head of her order and able to kick their asses into next week, more literally than in most other cases the Hunter had used that expression while thinking to himself.
Still, they had Elissa on their side.
That must account for something.
And there was also the matter of the Queen’s actions and purpose…
“Hunter,” Cloria said, slowing both of them down. She crouched and pulled them against the bank. He blinked and looked ahead, just in time to avoid a branch to his eyes.
“Sorry. I spaced out a bit.”
“No, not that…” she pointed ahead.
Just at a few paces’ distance, a group of dark figures turned to look at them. They had been crouching on the riverbed, sniffing at something. A few still held handfuls of snow in their four arms.
“Oh. Fancy meeting your here,” the Hunter tried.
One by one, the family of moth-people held up their spears and reached for the two Venators.
Pic by SapprineAuthor’s Notes: I feel a tad more confident with this chapter than the last one. I feel like we’re finally pulling the threads in for the final chapters of part II. Thanks for reading.