Arguta reached Elissa’s chamber – her heart pumped something different from blood now, and her skin felt flaky and creaking with something that was not flesh. She sputtered and coughed. She felt like all the water, blessed or not, was leaving her body to be destroyed, or maybe syphoned away. Her old mind swam, trying to hold onto a semblance of order or meaning or anything that could give her the strength to take one more step. At last, on wizened steps, even as strange roots were starting to pierce through her chalky skin and her gums withdrew for lack of water, even as she was getting mummified with each step, as the Sere Rite proceeded and claimed all of water and its power to itself, Arguta hoped to find a sleeping, but friendly girl whom she could help.
“Eeeel-” was all she could say as she fell on her knees and then her dried-up, creaking body tilted on its side, her eyes growing dull as she contemplated what was happening. In the place of the girl she had come to know and try to befriend stood a series of interwoven circles, each biting onto themselves, Elissa, or what used to be her, floating inside it, her arms elongated, her skin turned to bark, her eyes burning with the glistening of fey-touched gold.
Did Arguta truly understand what was happening, at the last moment? Or did she still think the girl was being attacked, was a victim like everyone else?
She knew nothing of how Vestals operated, of their powers and their rites. And maybe she could find comfort in the knowledge Elissa was just another pebble ruining downhill like each of them.
Whatever the truth may be, as Arguta the Smith lost all awareness of where, when or who she was, as her eyes popped and brambles grew out of it, as her bones branched into wrung limbs, as her body was turned by the Sere Rite into a wound twisted upon itself, her poor old heart broke last.
Elissa felt Her hand brush against her brow – and she blinked.
With trembling palms, she reached for her orbits, catching an eerie glow cast upon her bark-like skin. It was the shade of the fire burning in the deep dark places of the earth, ere mankind ever though to leash it and turn it to its aims.
It was a flame just as free as she now was: the trembling power of gold and the wisdom and terrible Will that came with it.
But more than anything, it was the fact she was seeing her hands.
Not perceiving them.
Just like in her dream-
She gasped, reaching with her fingers to feel the burning embers that had taken residence inside her orbits.
She could see-
The colors the shades the shapes the textures-
She fell on her knees, shaken by sobs.
And she’d soon see Sadja once again.
With her own eyes, for real.
All she had to do was the sacrifice almost the entire town for it.
You have such beautiful eyes, her Queen praised her.
Besides the obvious, Cloria knew something was wrong – the Queen did not seem to act like this, and why would She? It did not make sense, no matter how much fear and panic bubbled through her mind in painful bursts, she knew there was something amiss.
Sadja seemed to think as much. She got a glimpse of her and the Hunter running towards the Temple – she raised a hand to call out to them, even though she felt her throat parched by the lack of water. All around them trees and flowers were dying their quick and merciless death and there was nothing she could do to stop them, because-
She blinked, losing all her strength as Bernardo tried to lift her up, as the throng dispersed and each of the people in it swayed and stumbled and fell, fingers clutched over evaporating holy water, or around useless bones or praying up to a merciless sky, plunging the knife into them right at the moment they thought the most merry.
She felt Bernardo’s strong arms trying to protect her. He coughed, his eyes rolled up, he spurted blood which quickly turned into fine mist, and he fell just like she did, rolling to the side.
She had recognized something in this evil that was taking them all over. She reached for the mark on her neck. It might have been the mark of the Queen, but the spell behind it-
She did not study it, but she did recognize the signature.
They had tried to teach it to her in her final year.
One of the forbidden rituals that Vestals were ought to know and seldom perform.
It had scared her even then.
The Sere Rite.
And in one blinding flash of awareness she understood who had cursed them all to a choking death like barren leaves in a blight.
Sadja ran towards the Temple – Fortunato was right besides her, and behind them the echoes of death cries as the people of Belacqua dried up, taken by some illness or dark power.
But she knew where to go.
The instinct in her gut told her so – she just… she just knew.
Maybe she had always known, the hunger she had seen in her touches, in the emptiness of her smiles, in the hole-like need that she had showed her time and time and time again and which she had chosen to ignore, to believe the girl could be better.
“Turn around!” She shouted behind her to Fortunato, who looked pale and wizened, but was still alive, who shook his head and took her hand in his. She felt his chalky skin beneath her own and she tried to gulp, her throat like glass paper.
She found the room where Elissa had been laid.
And she shrieked when she found the misshapen carcass of what had once been an old woman, twisted beyond recognition, a willow of bones and flaky skin, stretched from bitter to bitter hook.
Fortunato stumbled behind her, choked, let go of her hand and fell to his knees.
In front of them, giving out a flame-like golden glow, a human-shaped thing came out of a circle of brambles that had wrapped around her like an egg.
She walked out of her cocoon, renewed: tall and spindly, skin of bark and bones of ever-hungry desire, and eyes like burning embers glowing with the proud hollowness of gold.
She blinked, and Sadja realized that for the first time since she could remember, Elissa – or what the cursed Augur had turned into – was looking at her with her very eyes, two motes of flames burning like endless candles.
She reached up for her and she could do nothing, couldn’t even move, as she cupped her skin with those coarse hands of hers.
“You are beautiful,” she said with a voice like splintering wood.
And Sadja screamed.
Pic by hiveworkshop.com
Author’s Notes: well what a depressing chapter. One by one they are leaving us. Still, thanks for reading.
Per i miei lettori italiani: questa settimana il nuovo capitolo di Nata di Cera salta per dare precedenza al finale di Patina. Ci vediamo il prossimo giovedì!