Cloria woke up with something hold her down. Her honed instincts kicked in and she started, her hand reaching for her side to take out her knife.
Only to blink and realize that the thing holding her to the bed was just Bernardo’s naked arm. Attached to the rest of his, quite naked as well, body.
Memories of yesternight floated back to her mind, one by one, like lost flotsam carried back by the Spring rivers.
“Hmmh,” she groaned, looking around. It looked like she wasn’t the only one…
The rest of the people from her unit also seemed to have enjoyed each other’s company, from what she saw. A lonely blade of white light cut through from the window. From the angle, it must have been still early in the morning.
So maybe she could still enjoy this moment for a little bit. She pulled Bernardo’s arm closer and allowed herself to close her eyes, a smile spreading over her lips.
She had made it.
In that moment, she was home. Utterly complete. It did not matter that she used to be a Vestal, or that she was a failure of one. It did not matter that she was a Venatrix and as of late a liquidator. It did not matter how strong, how quick or how witty she was. Nor how rich, how respected.
It really felt like coming home.
As she let her body settle back onto the bed and her mind go back to how she had changed during the last few month, and how quickly. She could never bring back the six she had lost in the forest. She could never tape over that guilt.
But she could do something to avoid repeating that mistake ever again.
And if the warmth she felt in her chest at sharing this space with her unit told her something, she was on the right track.
Cloria’s eyelids fluttered and she slowly fell into a peaceful sleep. Her smile did not go dry on her face.
Sadja kicked the Eerie in the face. It let out a shriek of pain. With the momentum from her jump, she somersaulted and slashed out with her arm, spreading droplets of her silver blood that quickly turned into needles. As they pierced its cursed skin, it fell on its side, the hundreds of pedipalps running down the underside of its body wriggling – the two entwined corpses sprouting from its other end, embracing in endless dance as their mouth laid open in a mute scream started to shake back and forth. Tiny flames bloomed down its length and soon it was engulfed in a ball of white fire.
Sadja felt the heath covering her skin as she jumped towards the closest tree. It wasn’t easy to find purchase with the bark slippery from the crimson sap, but her hands got a good grip on a branch and she pulled herself up there, looking at the thing going up in noxious fumes.
She let a silent prayer out for the souls of the poor bodies fused in that curse, though she still couldn’t properly officiate the rites for the dead, she still spread a few blessed words. It was the least she could do, really.
Maybe next year, when she was even better at this, Hunter would teach her the very same rites.
“That makes three,” she mused, turning back to look at the line of trees and at the far-off walls of Belacqua, dark with ichor and charred bodies still hanging from the outward spikes. Was she actually making a difference? She was not really sure – and trying to think about it wasn’t a good distraction from memories of last night’s dance with Hunter.
Her tail wiggled against the tree, with her none the wiser.
That had been… something. The warmth she felt dancing with her head against his shoulder had been unexpected in a world that, since she had gotten away from Verna’s grasp, was full of unexpected things.
To think they used to bicker and fight so much.
And, as a sheepish smile spread on her lips and she jumped down the tree to look for more Eerie to fell during her Hunt, she couldn’t avoid but wonder about what the future could have in store for both of them.
Far and away from Cloria and Sadja, from the Hunter and Arguta, from Elissa and from Valeriana now back in Venexia, the Forest kept growing. It pushed its tendrils down through the soft earth, it spread its branches up to rake against the blanket of the sky. Its inhabitants, be they Beast, Eerie or Fae, from the lowest of the burrowing critters to the highest Omnischolar of the Autumn Court, stood for a moment in silence, as the peak of winter came and went.
The Tide had rumbled south with the strength and the portent of utter doom, trashing everything into its path: the Will that animated each of them especially bitter this year. It had carried snow and wind and teeth and claw until the final sands of the shores, where the salty water of the Bittersea halted, at last, its advance.
And then, one by one, they understood that this was to be their greatest extent, at least for the current year. The Tide would not be held back, it would not be defeated, but it had reached its natural stretch.
Further, at least until the Will leading them deemed it so, it would not go.
And so tree and crimson drops of glistening sap heard and knew that their time would come. Not today, not tomorrow – not in a month of grinding wind and chattering hungry jaws.
But the turning had began.
And once again, they would have to withdraw into the Old Country, leaving the forest to the Children of Men, who would go back to spread and multiply for a few months, growing like an infected patch of rust.
But this year… something had also changed.
For around the walled town of Belacqua, the one they had almost managed to take years before, a hint of the sleeping blight that pulled all the strings seemed to linger. Nothing much.
But a dark seed was there, and that night, as the Tide went past its mid point, those of the people of the Queen who could still think and wonder for their own felt that something, in that lonesome spot forgotten by time and history, was bound to happen.
Pic by hiveworkshop.com