The Hunter had become quite close with pain in the last six years. Compared to the stuff he’d been through since Lenora’s turn and the fall of Belacqua, all the training and fighting he had seen before was a slap on the cheek. Still, getting skewered by a pine tree was quite high on the list.
More than that, though, it pained him he was ultimately unable to do anything to help the wolf-girl. It would have eased his passing to see her fly away free, doing what she wanted, how she wanted. Unchained forever.
And to have a little part in that – perhaps expiate for his sins, his callousness and his fear.
He tried to take in a breath.
“Ghhghr,” he wetly gurgled. His chest felt like ripping apart with every movement, so the answer was just to stop breathing.
With the corners of his vision going dark and the small sparks of unlight going off behind his eyelids, he was getting there soon enough.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reach out to you… he thought back to Lenora, her beautiful hair. He would have liked to pass his hand through her hair one last time.
Hey, Queen, he thought, exchanging the pain of breath for the contracting feeling in his thorax as his lungs tried to gather in more air and only got blood and pine needles and crimson sap. I would really appreciate it if you did not turn me into an Eerie. Leave… leave my bones to the ground. Make me into a tree, even one… of yours.
“That won’t be necessary.”
He blinked. Shifted his gaze to his right. Next to him floated a girl with long red hair in a white dress. Her hair partly covered her face and shaded her eyes, but he recognized her at once.
At least I’m not allowed to die alone. Thanks, Elissa. I appreciate it.
“Shut up and get ready. The real fight starts now.”
He let out a surprised groan when the branches withdrew from his body. At the same moment, warmth and vigor flooded him, much stronger than the one time she had healed him across the woods. He looked down to find himself slowly floating down onto the snow.
“Wha…” he called out with his own voice as every wound knitted and healed, leaving his skin the same buttered map he had carved through the years. He touched snow completely restored and facing a shocked Verna, who for the first time since he had known her looked at him with her mouth hanging open.
“What is this?” She hissed, stealing his line. She whipped the baton back into its crackling flay form. Elissa walked next to him, still looking away onto the distance.
“She’s coming,” her ghost said.
And out of the trees jumped a raging wolfgirl, her fingers held out like claws, letting out a primal scream as she charged at Verna.
The Augur shifted right, but then something happened. The Hunter felt a… pulse.
Like a heart-throb.
He was positive he had seen Verna evade Sadja’s primitive attack (speaking of which, how did she free herself?) but then the image vanished and another took its place, in which Sadja managed to nick at Verna’s skin, her nails leaving three deep marks on her collarbone as she rolled onto the snow.
The two women looked at each other, aghast. Sadja couldn’t believe her luck and Verna couldn’t believe what had just happened.
But maybe the Hunter did.
“Is this your doing?”
Elissa did not reply.
“Well, whatever it may be, I’ll take a chance when I say one.” He raised a hand and let out a shrill whistle. “Now!”
From the line of trees the other four came rushing in. The three moth-people, spears at the ready. And Cloria, with a strange grin on her lips.
“I don’t really get it, but I always wanted to slap my old teacher anyway. Charge!”
Elissa lay amidst the crater. All around was a flowing multi-hued mist. Red grains mixed with brown, white and ochre. It slowly rotated on itself like a looming thunderhead. The porters had left her, the palanquin was dust.
“Is this… it?” She whispered. She reached for her blindfold and slowly took it off.
She was not there in the forest anymore. Out of her mindscape and yet connected to an endless maze of foreign thoughts, she recognized the position and goal of every plant, the need to suck nutrients from the ground as strong as her own desire for Sadja. She was one among many, and yet she still maintained her identity. This was so much different than the times she had connected her essence to the other Vestals. That felt, in comparison, like sharing your thoughts in a completely different language, trying to push through some fragment of meaning.
No training or previous experience could have prepared her to this.
“It’s full of… stars…” she mouthed, following the lights. Each of them a crimson spark, a flame, be it tiny like the smallest of the Sleeping Ones, those she had insofar called the Eerie, or the Awoken, those she had called Fae, burning as bright as a dozen suns.
And all of them converged, rushing in a maelstrom, in a dozen orbit like the fast stars crossing over the sky each night, onto one central pivot that softly throbbed.
The sleeping blight that was at the heart of the Old Country.
As I said, wisdom.
Elissa still recoiled from Her voice. It sizzled upon her unprepared mind, pushing her onto so much pressure she felt her bones squeeze.
“It’s… too much.”
Not to the trained mind. And you have both training and a task.
The voice led her through the trail of stars. She felt like flying even as her body did not move. Or maybe it did, because her body was now one of the Awoken running through the woods a hundred kilometers away, or she was a small critter following the call of the Tide as it scuttled over a blasted pavement in a forgotten basement. She was all and none, all and one. She was Elissa, and she partook in the truest language of the world.
To her, it was like opening a box she had been confined until then; like she first found the external world the first time she had been allowed to leave it. And now…
She moved her feelings, her sensations, from root to root, from leaf to leaf, gently guided by the same Will that had allowed her to partake in this universe, until the one meadow where the Hunter, Cloria and Verna were. Where Sadja was.
And she held her in the palm of her hand.
Since then she had been pulling at straws, a panic-filled attempt at tugging at the right thread that might just do what she wished.
Now, unlike holding just a few strands of reality, she felt like she got a firm grasp on the fabric.
“We fought this,” she chuckled. Couldn’t believe Verna ever thought she could go against Someone like that. The great Fae war now seemed like child’s play, something She had put an end to to stop children from hurting themselves.
It is a long story, the Voice said. Was that regret she felt? She couldn’t peer into it.
It was like trying to swallow the Sun.
So she did the only other thing she could.
She focused on the fabric around Verna.
Elissa shivered as she let the sensation pass through her. Her hand rose to her face and she touched something that wasn’t there before.
For a moment, it was almost enough to bring her out of it.
She pricked her fingers over something coming out of her orbits. Where her eyes used to be. She tentatively brushed her fingers over the new growths. Two long, spiky brambles sticking out like antlers.
Pic by PrinceYaserAuthor’s Notes: another chapter I am far from happy with. I think I’ll really have to think about this in revision. At any rate, I hope you still found it entertaining. Thanks a lot for reading.