Sadja held up her bow as she kept bleeding and sobbing and heaving. Her breath was raspy and ragged as she watched Fortunato gasp at her feet.
The thing that had once been Elissa took another step towards her, shaking her head, she couldn’t have said if in mockery or sorrow.
“Don’t come closer! Or I’ll shoot! You’ll burn! I’ll turn you into cinders! Reverse all this!”
Her pleads and her demands both fell on deaf ears. The thing tilted its head and it sounded like splintering wood.
“I have burned for you once already,” she stated and Sadja’s heart jumped, for it was true.
She had burned alone in the chamber for them all.
But that did not mean-
“I am not afraid.”
“Shut up!” Sadja let go.
Again and again her argent bow shot needle-like arrows, piercing through her skin and the hollow that was beneath. They went up in white flames, so that that moving, talking tree seemed to bloom under the sun of an unseen, wretched Spring. But beneath the dome of the Temple no salvation would come with the turning seasons.
It kept advancing. It grunted in pain, but did not stop. Sadja did not even slow it down.
“I would burn a thousand times for you once more.”
“No… no…!” She shot again again again again again, covering the former Vestal in a rain of bleeding arrows, each of them blushing into a white flower of flame, but the fire did not catch.
It kissed the same cursed flesh as the Eerie, but just like the fire had not been able to completely destroy the one that Lenora had turned into, it also seemed unable to burn through this wicked thing.
At last, Sadja fell on her knees, panting and bleeding, her skin stained with her own fluids.
The once-Augur walked so that she was between her and Fortunato and she feebly tried to push her away, to help her poor Hunter, who was choking and shivering on the floor, his skin falling away in flakes.
“Please don’t hurt him,” she croaked. “Please don’t- please…”
Fortunato groaned and grasped the thing’s left knee.
It turned and regarded him with what looked like a curious glance.
“Elissa. This is not the girl I have… known,” he choked, his good brown eye looking up into her own. “I can’t believe this what you have let yourself become. But it is not too late. We have all learned and changed. You too can…”
“Spare me your sympathy,” she recoiled from his touch and he kicked his hand away. “Where was it when I was lost in the dark? Where was it when I was alone in the Temple? Where was it when you took what once was mine and ran away with it?”
“She’s not yours!” He retorted, and for the first time true embers of rage appeared in his wizened voice. “She’s not yours to take.”
“She belongs to the person who loves her the most,” she said shaking her head. “Your lies have poisoned her mind for too long. I wouldn’t waste your breath, though, Hunter. Doesn’t look like you have much yet.”
As if on cue, he groaned and fell on his side again, his hands rising to his throat. The Sere Rite mark on his neck had expanded, sending its dark tendrils through his skin and into his body.
Sadja wailed and rushed at his side, but Elissa, still burning, still smoking, still uncaring, took her by the wrist. Her flowing blood turned her wrist into a ball of white fire and Sadja yelped at the heat, but the other did not let go.
“We’ve been with you, you crazy hag! We’ve been with you all the time! At your side while you were sleeping! I even went to say sorry! And you- look what you have done!” Sadja shouted until her words turned into a desperate yowl. She scratched and fought and tossed her blood around in waves of silver, but the thing holding her was not deterred.
“Sadja,” came Fortunato’s weak voice from behind them. “It’s alright.” He gave her a parched smile. With a creak, thin roots sprouted from just under his neck. They created a spiderweb of cracks over his skin, similar to the scars that already adorned his chest. His body was already starting to glow red – Cruoromancy in his body trying to fight back the influence of the Rite, but they both knew it would just be a losing battle. “I was able to know you. I got over myself. We found friends together.” A pause, and his brown eyes turned towards Elissa. “We lost some.”
For the first time, the grip on her wrist loosened. Sadja bit deep into the cursed flesh, which felt like wet wood beneath her lips.
Elissa let go, without a gasp.
She threw herself into Fortunato’s arms. He still smelled like himself, that promise of long mornings and peaceful walks by the shoreline, that promise that they had given each other.
“No,” she shook her head “You can’t go. You can’t go on right now.” She held his hands in her own, pleading. “Isn’t there- something. Some kind of spell. Something that can…”
“Sadja. It’s alright. You can go on. Somewhere, somewhen, I will see a wolfgirl standing on a verdant hill, happy and free. And I will know it was you. We’ve all changed. We’ll change again.”
“No, I… Fortunato… I-”
She did not have the chance to finish.
Elissa waved her arms and the flames disappeared. A ring of smoke rose from her charred body, but once again, she did not seem able to feel pain anymore. Relentless like a landslide, she reached for Sadja once again.
“Stop!” She shouted – and so thick was the sorrow in her voice and the tears running down her face that Elissa hesitated. “I’ll come with you.”
“I’ll come with you as you wish. Even to the ugly place you came from. If you let him free.”
“You would?” And Sadja’s stomach churned at the naked, raw desire in those words.
“You can’t do this. My story is over, yours-”
“If you really believe your words,” she shuddered as she reached for her ears, drying up her tears, “if you really believe I can do what I wish, then you will know it is not over. And I can do what I want to.” She turned back to Elissa, her piercing blue gaze striking her in her orange one. “So? What do you say?”
She lifted a hand, turned it into a clock-wise motion and the mark on Fortunato’s neck disappeared.
At the same time, the hand that had made the motion curled up like a dead leaf and withered into dust, leaving her with a stump that ended at the height of her wrist.
“So you could turn it back. Another lie. At this point I am not even surprised anymore.”
Fortunato stood up – his skin was red like he had been leashed all over and from the glowing scars, but the rest had recovered his natural color.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Time for negotiations is over. Farewell, Hunter.”
Sadja gulped as her good hand pulled her against herself, and from all around him thin and thick roots sprouted, opening up the ground like a maw. Sadja’s heart jumped because, no, she did not want to see him go, and she reached out one last time, as the ground swallowed him, and he disappeared forever.
Pic by ThePanda
Author’s Note: it’s a bit embarrassing, but I have to admit the Muse has yet the ability surprise us even at the end of a 220 thousand-words novel. I have changed things slightly from how I had figured them out, right at the last moment. Mostly related to Sadja’s ability to take this last decision. It feels depressing to write these moments – and yet I am grateful to be able to reach them – and yet I feel so unable to capture them as they should.
Nevertheless, I hope you liked these last few chapters. Thanks for reading.