What a frightful night, Valeriana thought as the glider carried her through the brightening sky. Even as the day progressed and the grip of the Wicked Fae on the world supposedly grew weaker, she only felt her heart get colder.
Sadja’s memories floated through her head, stirring her thoughts into a vortex of fear and pain and uncertainty. Everything she had ever believed true had been pulled away from her and she had been plunged into a screaming void.
Flashes from the girl’s past passed over her eyes: she was laying on a bed, needles piercing her flesh. She was crying in a corner. She was being strapped to a chair as someone cut away fragments of her pale flesh.
It had left her exhausted, feverish and hollowed-out, like after a long nightmare she still couldn’t shake off.
She might never be able to shake off.
Something had also changed into her own memories: like a veil removed from her eyes she now thought about her last interaction with the High Seer. Maybe it was the effect of the Forest on her sight, but it wasn’t getting weaker even as she felt the dull ache of her powers returning with each mile south.
Verna had tried to control her.
She had pulled her thoughts on a string, playing her emotions, putting them into a nice row, creating a thread and fitting it into her mind. She could still feel it pulse, golden and black and dripping corrosive oil upon bleached bones.
She had influenced her.
And she did not even perceive her touch.
Her heart beat so fast it boomed stronger than the roaring wind outside the thin metal walls.
How many times had she been manipulated by the same woman who had taken a little girl from Spirits-know-where, little more than kid, and subjected her to ten years of torture?
The fact that Sadja still had a functioning mind after all that bordered on what in a previous age would have been called a miracle – and she had perceived something, like barely-regrown connective tissue, a lid keeping close a bottomless abyss of pain and anger. She could feel it rumbling in the depths of Sadja’s mindscape. And a faint trace of some other kind of thread… one that made her think of Verna’s prodigious pupil.
Was she another victim? She did not see her in Sadja’s memories.
Everything she had believed in – or told to believe in – ever since she first predicted the weather, as a six-years-old in a caravan, was coming crumbling down around her.
Their mission had always been one to protect and heal, to serve the scattered remnants of a mankind that hid in protected towns behind ephemeral walls of holy water and lonesome prayers.
Not to engage in madness.
Not to pull a girl out of a capsule and steal her blood, to use it as a weapon in a suicidal war.
No wonder the Wicked Fae was pissed off.
No wonder this winter was beyond cruel.
Her mind went back to the first Tide, to when they first tried to tickle the Heart of the Forest.
It had been such a long time.
Under Verna’s leadership, she and the entire Council, down to the least Vestal, had been trained to believe that… the… Queen of Thorns (yes, the Queen of Thorns, she surprised herself forming her actual title in her head and looking down at her palms waiting for brambles to replace her bones), was sleepy and mellowed out, that She was not nearly as dangerous as believed. That the old fears and taboos were merely the result of a people too weak or craven to actually go on the offensive.
Now she understood that man’s (the Hunter, she recalled) anger. Now she understood why Cloria had changed so much and why she would never go back to the Order.
They had been blind.
And for the first time since she had put foot on her seat at Dorsoduro, Valeriana, another of Verna’s pupils, thought about her mission, and she found that the Council’s decision to set her on this path had not been a bad or misplaced one in the end.
For this now was her call. To turn the entire Order away from the precipice Verna would have all of them fall into.
Admitted they still got the time to repair and repent, she thought shivering.
She had a feeling that the Queen’s reckoning was far from over.
Snow fell in strands, already black from the sticky ichor. The Eerie’s body let out a few final twitch as its existence passed on to the thing that was sucking its bones, eating through its flesh for nourishment. Amidst a small clearing of bent and cracked pine trees, the vast amalgam of teeth and forked limbs that used to be Lenora enjoyed its lunch.
It had been days and days of hunting and eating, feasting on the ever-thicker amount of Eerie – those that felt its presence and tried to run presented a fun challenge and a welcome distraction from the ever-present throb shaking its undead heart.
The dead woman pulled back its head, a few strands of flesh still hanging from chapped lips, and sniffed the changing air.
There was a Voice and a Will in the wind, one that called whatever mixture of names its twisted flesh could still answer to – each sinew and bone gnawing on older and older memories, going back to the first pains of the days of the War. Such was the punishment to those who stepped over the Queen’s path.
But this particular Eerie did not feel compelled to follow the Voice.
The Tide held little sway over its corrupted heart.
No, there was another call that needed its attention.
And by now, as winter had grown thick over its bones, it had already replenished most of its former strength. Hunger never-ending, the former Vestal shivered with feverish need.
“… hooove,” it groaned, impatient.
Their reunion, their final joining, was getting nearer every day.
Pic by Nightmare