Cloria might not have been the best Vestal, but she was marginally better at blocking external forces peering into her mindscape. It was where most of Valeriana’s encouragement went and the one skill she was actually sort-of-good at. She couldn’t forecast tomorrow’s weather but could still tell her own thoughts apart from others’. Given she could still look out of a window and ponder at clouds, she regarded it as the better ability to possess.
Even like that, she was having a hard time blocking Verna out of her consciousness. She had once been on a Hunt close to the Tiger Stripes, where toxic lava poured from an old pre-War industrial accident, letting towers of noxious smoke rise to blot the sky, and each breath she prayed to the Spirits her air filter held. Each step could be her last, if just a whiff of the life-ending smoke perspired into her lungs.
Besides lessening her appreciation for mankind’s industrial civilization, it had given her a useful metaphor for what was happening her. Verna’s threads probed into the distance, held back by winter and the presence of the Heart (cursed be Her name, Cloria thought as she signed herself) but always present, hitting against her meager presence like a cloud of needles.
“Why did I agree to this, why did I, oh Spirits,” she hushed, moving through the snow in a wide circle, trying not to focus too much on the screams and noises coming nearby as the Hunter fought Verna.
Pillars of snow scattered about, echoes of two bodies falling against each other, the smell of burning bodies from the destroyed glider and that pressure just outside of her mind, threatening to fill her mind at any moment and make her pop.
“Hhheelping fffoudhling,” said the younger female moth, running besides her, spear carefully held in all four of her hands. “Thhhhatss wwwhy.”
Cloria thought about it. Sure, helping the girl would help her sleep better at night, but it was only part of the reason. She had carried so many people to the gallows that one more girl, especially one so evidently Fae-touched, did not seem to matter much. But it did matter to these twisted life-forms, and it mattered to the Hunter.
Also, whatever. If it was enough to spit into the face of her former superior and employer… so be it.
She spotted Sadja, struggling to get out of the tree holding her in its embrace. Its bark surrounded her in a tight grip. They should have brought saws or something like that. As I distract Verna, go behind her to help Sadja, he said. It’s not going to be hard, he said.
“Alright,” she said to the daughter and mother and brother, who all seemed to move faster and with more ease than her between the crimson and grey trees. “That’s her. How do we free her? I can’t exactly blast the trunk off with a gun.”
The three moth-people shared a look and a few words in their chittering language. Then the brother nodded and pointed at him and his sister.
“Whhhee goiing uhp.”
“Fine by me,” Cloria replied, nervously looking behind herself. A few vermillion needles cut through trees, leading to an explosion of leaves and pulverized bark, just as crackling thunder flashed blue and purple. “I’ll hold the position.”
The Hunter charged again. His movements enhanced to super-human levels, he had been forced to empty his reserves twice in less than a week. Spirits, even though the Eerie that Lenora had been turned into always had some new trick up its cursed sleeve, he did as well. It could think, but not fast. It was strong, but not all-encompassing.
In short, it was a far, far cry from High Seer Verna.
She chuckled at him as she grazed his tempered flesh for the tenth time, cutting through his skin like it was made of sandpaper, caring little for the runes and the blood coverage that had been enough to assure his survival even before the assault of a ten-meter-long Eerie. Electricity ripped through his muscles like a river of needles. She pivoted on herself and held out a hand, pushing him off course and against a piece of the downed glider, making him dent the metal in the impact.
“Dancing requires two people, Hunter,” she mocked showing him that sickle-like grin of hers. “Are you going to leave a woman alone on the waltzer floor?”
No idea what a waltzer was. Maybe some kind of forgotten weapon. Knowing her, it must be not too far off the track.
“I was always more for the hands-on approach,” he groaned standing up, blood still pumping white-hot in his veins, but for how long. He approached her, but with each step it was like invisible chains held his ankles anchored to the ground; he swayed as every step turned wobblier and wobblier. He knew where to put his feet, had been since he was one year old. But each movement, each of his muscles twitching seemed to not respond tho his will anymore. He let out a pained breath as his heart started to pump at irregular pace. His fingers twitched, his mouth twisted into a rictus. Everything that could go wrong with his body just… going wrong.
“Is that all? You bore me.” She shook her head, walking towards him. She withdrew her baton into a single staff. “Hands-on approach. That has always been your problem, has it not? With your so-called magic, with the woman who abandoned her post to lay with you. Warmth and human contact is a precious commodity, Hunter, not to be wasted on such petty desires. Look at us!” She opened her arms. “I am standing here in the middle of winter, next to the very home of my mortal enemy, and yet I have lay down all my cards perfectly. The only person who could hinder me is hooked on honeyed words and patting on the head. Sadja will also come around. I did all this to show her there is no escape. For her. For you.”
He fell on one knee.
So she did not know.
She still believed Elissa…
He quickly thought of something else, lest she peered through him. She was now so close Verna’s mind banged upon the door of his mind. If shutting the Fae away had been easy enough, now, even with all the power of his restored cruoromancy at his disposal, Verna was like a flooding river spilling hateful thoughts into his body, taking over his nerves, paralyzing his muscles, turning each action he could take into the worst possible outcome.
“What do you… want, an award?” He choked. He was starting to… lose it. Consciousness. Like when Cloria shot him. But it would be worth it. As long as he kept her occupied her. Binding her in the net of her own self-aggrandizement.
“Maybe next year,” she said standing right ahead of him. She flicked a wrist and the pressure around him changed, lifting him in the air. He took the chance and swung his knife at her.
She swatted it off with the same invisible force, snapping his wrist as a bonus.
He cried out in pain and bit the inside of his mouth, spitting at her a wad of blood that turned into a hail of needles.
Her grin widened just a tad as the needles floated behind her, turned and impaled themselves through his chest.
“Everything,” she said in a sweet tone, “has already been decided. You can’t begin to understand how much this pains me, Hunter. I am fond of you, and of our friendship. I still allow for free will, even if the outcome tastes as bitter as betrayal.” She cupped his cheek. “This is the final winter of the world. Come next year, we will be able to resettle. I would like to offer you one last chance to see that world, but I already know you are going to use it as a way to backstab me. Alas, it has always been your own choices that doomed you. You now see how dangerous a free mind is for your own good?”
All he could do was put his faith in Cloria and the moth-people. And Elissa. What happened to him mattered only up to a point. He had failed in everything. But even if he managed to give the wolf-girl hope for freedom, even for just a couple more minutes…
“Worth it,” he gurgled. “Every moment of it.”
She held out her hand and threw him across the thundering air, until something pierced his back, biting into his flesh.
He looked down at bloodied branches sticking out of his chest.
She had impaled him on a nearby tree.
“Truly a waste,” he heard her as light began to ebb out of his eyes.
Not any less painful than the first time.
Pic by Marcos DABAuthor’s Notes: I am not exceedingly happy with the fight in this chapter. Still, I felt like delving into the conversation was more important. I think this will be one of the kinks I’ll iron out in revision… still, I hope you found this chapter entertaining enough. Thanks for reading.