Sadja’s eyelids fluttered. She felt so complete right now, so ready for whatever the future had in store for her. This was the ending to her journey and the start to another, and she wanted nothing more than to share it with the person who had helped her the most and who had taken her away from the life of servitude under Verna.
It was such a silly thing to do. By morning she might even regret it.
But as she tilted her head a little further and she smelled Fortunato’s breath mingling with her own, the faint sheen of his sweat and heard the echoes of his heart booming in her ears, she did not really care about morning or night or anything else.
She knotted her arms behind his neck and pulled him close until their lips brushed against each other.
And then the entire square began to scream in pain and fear.
The bonfire, behind them, roared in a huge bout of flame, raising into a torch that grew to graze against the stars.
Elissa’s body was changing. She could feel it in her bones, she could feel it in her flesh. Regrown, remade, reborn. With each hissing breath and each creaking branch and root she was feeling more and more like she had felt that one time – her every vein spreading past the village and through the forest, running beneath the ground until it reached a land of grey trunks and crimson leaves, where every blade of grass was like carved flesh. And there, for the first time ever, she could call this place home.
Fortunato blinked, shaking from the spell the wolfgirl had put him unto and turned away from the bonfire, shielding her from the shine of sparkles. The people surrounding them stumbled about, reaching for their necks where a dark blot was expanding. He trembled when he recognized it.
It was the same sign with the two spokes inside the circle he drew when he first stepped into the forest at the start of his quest.
The mark of the Queen of Thorns.
Cloria could not believe it, but by this point the time for hope was long gone. Her heart pumped blood and fear in her veins. She reached for her necklace of bones, the superstitions that she always believed would protect her from the direct touch of the Wicked Fae and-
She ripped it off. The tiny bones clattered on the ground but she did not even hear them.
“Get them out of the square! Out! Away from the Temple! Now!” Bernardo and Marina shared a quick panicked look but did as they were told, throwing themselves into the crowd.
“Come here, this way! This way, towards the walls!”
“Stop going about like headless chickens!”
“To me! Gather here,” she shouted with all the strength of her voice. “Get away from the Temple!”
She’s here, was the thought rattling through her brain. She’s here.
And the Spirits could not help them anymore.
Arguta choked, reaching for her neck. She felt it pulsate, her skin withering and greying out, as some other sort of vitality took over her body. She felt something deep and hungry and dark push its tendrils inside her flesh, wrap around her bones and start to pull her apart. But she would not go down without a fight.
No matter how hard each step was, no matter how much blood she was choking, how painful it was to breathe: she had to reach the girl in the Temple.
Nobody else was there: they would all just fly, and she’d be the only one who could help the poor dear. It all rested on her shoulders.
“Elissa,” she rasped between choking breaths. “Hold on.”
“What do we do? What do we do?” Sadja looked up at him with pleading in her big blue eyes, but he had no answers. For the first time since he had seen Lenora turn, his brain only replied with mute panic. What was this? Why now? Did they violate any taboo? No – it did not make any sense…
Revenge for rebuking the assault? She did not behave like that, it wasn’t how Her justice worked: if they overcame the forest, they could always reap the benefits of survival. The only time she ever for angry was when-
“Oh. Oh. Oh…”
“Are you thinking something? Tell me. Or we can commune. Fortunato…”
He took her hands in his own. So soft. And they had grown so strong.
He turned to look for Cloria’s gaze. She was already up, kneading her neck like everyone else, the sign also appearing there as around them the fire gave one last flash of flame and disappeared in cinders. The lamps went pop and darkness flooded in their wake.
Cloria shouted and directed her friends to try and calm down the throng, guide them away from the cinders of the bonfire and away from the Temple, but he saw her skin was growing grey by the minute, flaking off in the night wind.
He remembered what she told him about the Tide – about actually trying to challenge the Queen and the consequences of that.
Just like everything Verna had done since the very beginning.
His stomach churned – he felt like a hook had pierced right through him and skewered his entrails.
With trembling hands, he put a kiss on Sadja’s brow.
“The Queen is here.”
Elissa was walking on a field of red and white grass. In a place where beautiful trees with a trunk of bone and leaves of flesh pumped a crimson sap. There were others about her.
Tall distorted figures, in two rows. She couldn’t see them clearly, but she could perceive the doubt in them, the uncertainty.
This was new even for them.
Then one by one they bowed like the reeds before the storm.
She did not turn – did not dare to – but felt Her will next to her.
Elissa looked down at her body, at her hands.
They were hands of root and branch and bark, and her heart pumped a sticky red fluid from her stillborn heart onto her body, hollow like an excavated, wizened tree.
And she was in the Forest and the Forest was in her – and this was the Old Country.
And she was home.
Welcome to our family.
Pic by hiveworkshop.com
Author’s Notes: always hard to see someone go. Writing these chapters has the same feel to destroy the beautiful sandcastle you took hours to build. But it is a necessary part of the process… it does feel a lot like what Elissa is experiencing, to be fair. Thanks for reading.