He proceeded on the uneven ground – his feet stumbled on holes and cracks. There was a slight upwards slope that lead to a bald peak where something indistinct fluttered, moving back and forth. He knew that was his destination. The crimson light of the thunderbolts going off in the ceiling-sky, showing off the inside of some unfathomably-large beast, lighted his way. They also showed the holes and cracks of the ground forming the outline of distended shapes, their limbs spread all over, their faces twisted in fear, anguish and rage.
At any other time, he would have been crushed by the weight of their presence, knowing where he was now and what awaited him.
If he came here alone.
But close to his chest he could feel the warmth of some other presence – the people he had touched during these last few disastrous months. And Spirits did he lose more or less everything he used to have: his station with the Order as a respected Venator, his trust in and relationship with its Head (whom he had also helped to assassinate, funny that) and his reason for for living.
And his sled. Spirits, did he miss his sled.
The slope was getting steeper. It did not feel like he was breathing in this place, or he needed to, but he felt his chest growing heavier anyway. Most likely due to what he would find at the end of the road.
“I should have understood it quicker,” he confessed to the seemingly-empty air. “And come back to you with an open hand and not holding a firebomb. I thought the only way to give you some peace was through the pain of others.”
The Sere Rite. He had drank Verna’s words like the sweetest poison, but beyond their first charm, the responsibility was his own. He ought to check, to have doubts, to feel the strings she had hooked under his arms and that she was gladly pulling. But all he could think was his guilt.
He couldn’t protect her, he couldn’t save her, he couldn’t hold back the Tide.
Then again, the problem, for the longest time, was believing he could do all that on his own.
He began to earnestly climb at that point. The slope was turning into a cliff. He had to put his hands in the mouths of skull-like indentations as he pulled himself forward.
From the top of the tower he now heard a torrent of filthy, indistinct words, which he couldn’t really understand, busy as they were biting onto each other, but he knew what they were saying nonetheless.
They were the very same words he kept telling himself time and time again.
“I should have just told you I was sorry. That I would try to do better. That we could reach an agreement. That we, together, could let this one go,” he panted, his voice broken not by lack of air but by the pressure that chocked his throat.
He pulled himself up against the sharp rock, or whatever material this place was made of. Memorial bone. Wraith tassels. He did not stop to check.
“Instead I pulled an innocent girl into the fray. Two of them, in fact.” He stopped for a moment, trying to gain traction once again. His body ached. The deluge of imprecations washed over him like a black rain. The sky thundered with crimson lightning and patches of ceiling brightened like veins through a candle. “But in the end I decided to do better!”
He grasped a spur and pulled himself up to the end of the tower, where the echo of the words was enough to slip past his clothes and bite into his very flesh, like the sharp wind of the foul Winter. He covered his eyes with his arm and advanced.
“I lost it all. I let her go. Are you mad because I decided to put you before her?”
A dark pulse shrieked through the air and he gritted his teeth as every bone in his body vibrated under the pressure. He ought to go back, to get lost in the well of petrified souls that made up this hellish realm.
But he had a few things to say yet.
“I stopped putting myself first!” He shouted. “I stopped focusing on guilt and pain. And try to patch things up! With Cloria. With Sadja. With you!” There was something feverishly buzzing in the middle of the pillar. It appeared like an uneven ball of sharp wings, like a gathering of bats biting into each other. “I wasn’t able to protect you. But I have accepted you took a choice, in coming out to help us! In standing on the front line! You were more of a Vestal than anyone else, because that’s where you laid down your soul!” Shaking step after shaking step, he reached the sphere of wings, its shouts now reverberating through his bones with each foul syllable. And endless cycle of angry shouts, of words spent gnawing onto themselves, a corridor of lamentations that would bring nowhere, forever. “And I am done running away from that.”
He put his right hand through the sphere and cried out in pain as thousand of blade-like teeth bit onto his flesh.
“I’m done killing you over and over!” He groaned out in anguish as the assault renewed, but he was almost there. Something pulsed right beneath his touch, just out of reach but if he could push a tad further… “Let’s just… stay here!”
Something beneath his touch.
Something smooth and clean and wholesome.
A woman’s hand.
His heart roared at the contact. He pulled and ripped right through the ball of screaming blade.
And just like a murder of crows, they shrieked and dispersed through the black air, disappearing in ever-farther echoes.
A few rumbles from above signaled the changing weather.
Black rain fell, running down his face like ink.
Down his clothes.
And staining the simple linen dress of a dark-haired maiden, her fair skin covered in the bits and pieces of leathery wings and teeth.
But her fluttering eyes were the same.
The same emerald color.
All those years later.
“Love,” she muttered.
And the Hunter pulled her close and squeezed her in a desperate hug.
Pic by Original
Author’s Notes: This was one of the few scenes that I had envisioned since the very start. When I began to write notes on this story, characters and environment were much, much different. But this scene, with the two of them reunited and the Hunter finally facing his greatest fear, his greatest failure – this one was there from the start. Thanks for reading.