Cloria knew she had come too late – but maybe for the the first time in her life, or the last few years at the very least, she was grateful someone else was having all the luck in the world. She cried out from Bernardo’s embrace, a long and wailing sound, her throat parched from the efforts of the long siege and knowing she was just about to fall asleep.
But as they walked through the ruined barricades she spotted the Hunter holding Sadja close, the wolf-girl’s chest softly rising as she slept.
“No fair,” she chuckled, “I go through Spirits-know what and she gets to sleep before me? That’s why I couldn’t reach her anymore.”
“You’re one to complain,” the Hunter said, tilting his head to point both she and Sadja were more or less in the same position. “The last few events were too much for her,” he explained passing a soothing hand through her locks. “And they were too much for me as well.”
“So, that thing…” she inquired pointing at the pool of sludge on the ground.
“That doesn’t matter anymore. It’s over.” A pause, as he lifted his eyes to the stars. The clouds of vapor let a few patches of black sky pass through and Cloria even caught a quick star streaking its tail over the darkness. “The Night is passing.”
“Does that mean we can actually draw our breaths?” Marina asked, pointing at the rest of the town, which was a mangled mess of destroyed buildings and overspilling fires from the massive use of holy water. “Is it over?”
“It’s never over,” Cloria said. And there was no need for foresight in that statement. “But for the time being, it’s just as the Hunter said. One Night is passing and more will time, but we will enjoy a few days through that.”
“The Winter is not over yet,” Bernardo mumbled, turning to peek past the gash in the walls and at the looming forest.
“But the Tide is,” the Hunter replied. “It has passed over us, and it’s now turned. There will not be a Winter such as this one for a long, long time.”
“I thought I was the one with the foresight,” Cloria mumbled. The ache, pains and weariness was getting the better of her joy. “But I will concede the point, if I get to have a warm bed in the next few minutes.”
“I think I can deal with that,” Bernardo reassured her.
“Let’s try to find another one for her,” the Hunter stood up, gently holding the wolf-girl in his arms. She seemed to weigh nothing and lay there peaceful, as scuffed and tired as she looked.
But if someone took their time to check her face, they’d see that she seemed to be wearing the tiniest of smiles.
The forces and the people that had built the Generator in the middle of the forest were long gone. As thorough as the Tide was, not even their bones, nor their souls, might remain. The world had turned into an unkind and fearsome place. But for maybe the first time since the fall of industrialized Mankind, the trees were silent, as no crooked shadows lurked between them. The pines moved only to the whisper of the wind, not because some Will rearranged their shapes. And the birds might look down and see only clear snow.
In a home far-off from every road, a group of four people lifted their head as one from their bed, roused by a strange sensation. They shared a look with their large globe-like golden eyes and a few words in their chittering, spurting language.
“Ffffhhoundling saaahfe,” murmured the daughter, and she pulled her brother closer in. They shared a hug and fell back to a more pleasant dream than before. That night, the scuffing and howling and rasping outside of their home ceased, never to return.
In the next few days, the family would discover they could walk the woods with no fear – the Eerie and the beasts, the Fae and even She had withdrawn to their Old Country, to the rust-colored strip of woods that hugged the Alps.
For the first time in over a hundred years, it would be an absolutely-normal winter.
In other places, the Tide did not relent as much – many of the coastal cities around the shores of the Bittersea still had to rely on the strength of their Venators, or on the piety of their Vestals to stave off the occasional incursion. But the change was stark. From the worst Winter in current memory to the most mild in a matter of hours.
The Augurs peered through the Threads for an answer, but did not seem to find one that satisfied them. In the end, the newly-appointed High Seer decided that for the time being they would just accept it as a boon from the Spirits.
And from a balcony in Venexia, as Valeriana accepted her garments as High Seer, wearing the White and Black and the Gold, she raised a hand and regarded the crowd with words of hope.
Arguta and the others were among the very few who did not get much sleep that night. They found her laying on the floor just outside of the burning Core. The flashes of light coming from the restored machine scattered shadows in cycles of panic, showing the changed shape of the metal: some kind of unseen force beyond their comprehension had twisted it in weird angles, layering curved spokes of steel like flash-frozen water. And in the middle of the cratered, bent structure lay a lonely figure.
Her arms and legs were motionless, but she was still breathing. It was barely the only thing they could still recognize as human in her. The skin all over her body was cracked and charred black. Beneath it the cooked flesh, with its maroon color, peeked through. The sickly-sweet smell made Arguta’s head turn.
“W-Water,” she muttered, stumbling forward. “Bring more of that holy water of yours! She doesn’t have much time!”
She crouched next to her. Did not dare to touch her skin, or what used to be her skin. Then again, would her nerves still work?
“Hang on, dear. Help is on the way. Everything will be alright,” she lied in the face of the burnt Augur.
Elissa did not reply.
Pic by hiveworkshop.com
Author’s Notes: Ah, another of those chapters that feel so final. It’s always a weird experience to wrap up a story. You look back onto all the things you could have improved and draw a balance of what you managed and did not manage to do. But overall, I feel like the story was not too terrible. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned. There’s still a few twists and turns yet.