Rosalia Cuanta had never been the most powerful Vestal.
If she was, she wouldn’t be in this straight mess.
She had known since the moment she set foot in the Academia, and maybe even before that. Her Sight manifested mostly as a hunch, a bad or good omen. In ordinary times, without the threat of the Wicked Fae and the looming forest, she might have grown up to become a normal woman, one with keen intuition perhaps, and the rare bout of actual prophecy.
But the world after the Fae War was not a kind place.
She had been trained, for how much she could be, and she hated every moment of it. She hated how almost everyone in her year seemed to be more proficient than she was, seemed so enamored with her new role as a bringer of peace and order in a world that had lost its way.
Most of all, she hated her classmate, a pale brunette by the name of Cloria. She was just as bad as Rosalia, but for some reason she had become good friends with the best girl in their year, Valeriana.
When Cloria had ran away from the Order, Rosalia had thought: good riddance! Perhaps now she would be relieved of her sight.
But that only proved how poor her own intuition was.
Her only help came from the High Seer, Mastra Verna. The blonde Augur had promised she’d find a place fit for her even if her powers were not up to the task.
She had believed her.
How could she not? The High Seer inspired hope and trust wherever she went. It was thanks to her if the Order had begun to bit back against the darkness, and Rosalia jumped at the chance to find herself helpful.
Thus, as soon as she had received her Ordaining, she had been shipped on a rickety boat that had slithered away from floating city of Venexia, down the shore of the Bittersea into this Spirits-forsaken place, a tiny town by the name of Hookwood.
Judging from the bent and twisted trees growing at the edge of the town’s palisade, she had judged the name apt; at least, it did not seem as dangerous as any other town in the northern plains of Venexia’s land estates, besieged every winter by the Tide.
In fact, the trees surrounding the town were different from the eerie pines she expected: beeches and chestnuts, the kind of vegetation that had existed before the War.
Odd, but in a way it was reassuring.
Here in the south the grasp of the Queen of Thorns must be milder.
At any rate, her role was to be a missionary and a diplomat to these people, guide them to the light and offer the protection of the holy water she could make.
That, in theory.
They booted her on the land with little more than a change of clothes and the promise to come back to check on her in three month’s time.
And if Rosalia had even a glimpse of the powers of her sisters, she would have thrown herself into the forest and ran.
But she bowed to the will of her betters and she proceeded towards the town, thinking about Mastra Verna’s smile in three months when she could tell her she had tried her best. Maybe if she did, they would agree to let her come back.
The town was filled with strange people – they did not look alike, not even people from the same family. She felt like something wrong was going on there, but she did not try to rock the boat, not on her first day.
They gave her a shack that she could call a Temple (at least if she squinted really, really hard) and she spent the rest of the day setting up her holy water, practicing her rites and telling people about what the Order could do for them. How it would be the last line of defense in the coming Winter and how in one hundred years of service it had never failed to protect its charges.
And every word ran down the crowd like drops on a oiled curtain.
She went to bed hungry and knowing this would be the first day of many more miserable ones.
But she only managed to sleep a few hours.
People entered the shack. They pulled her up and tied her with steel ropes that bit into her skin. She had been trained to fight while in the Order, but she could do little save to have a faint idea of where the next blow would come from.
Punches barraged down on her frail body until she stopped resisting. Then, bleeding and crying, they dragged her away from the shack and brought her into the largest home in the town, and then…
And then into the basement.
Even through her swollen eyes, Rosalia saw how quickly the change took place: the wooden planks and bough coverage gave way to plastered metal and polished lines, the torches to electrical lights the kind of which she had only seen in the finest offices in Venexia.
Was this a place that had survived since the War?
She had no idea – what she was sure about was the faint (yet slowly growing) buzz at the base of her skull, a sort of harmonic hum that grew in intensity the further they descended.
As they reached a metal rail they left her to look down a huge ventilation shaft that plunged into the inky darkness, where even the sheer brightness of electrical lamps could not reach. Every wall and every nook was metal, shiny and chrome, a far cry from even the repaired workmanship she had seen in Venexia, and which was the floating city’s pride.
Yes, this place was pre-War for sure.
But why bring her here?
The townspeople, as if in reply to her question (as if they could understand her thoughts… like only the most powerful Vestals could) pulled down their clothes, revealing the metal bolts inline into their skin: they glistened with reflections, showing where their vertebrae had been turned into antennae and tuning forks.
As one, displaying how in tune their wills were, broadcasted as one, they came to pick her up and pull her util she leaned against the rail. Weakly, her mind ringing with the ever-growing buzz of what she now knew being some technological sorcery from the Ereworld, she looked down into the shaft.
Something was coming up.
With a slithering sound of metal skittering over metal, a huge monstrosity of steel and pistons and black stone reared its head – she saw white lights running all over its body, and more shining even brighter where the eyes would be in its serpentine head.
Wriggling tentacles slithered about on its huge body. Attached to them, the bodies of many young women murmured in unison in a chattering language she did not understand – she was afraid she’d understand – she’d soon understand.
“No,” Rosalia pleaded. Weakly, she tried to pry away from the rail and to murmur a silent prayer to the Spirits, may they have pity on her soul, may they save her from this destiny.
Each of the women, each of the Vestals that had been shipped here before her, turned to regard her. And their eyes shone with the same light as the monster.
The hum broke through her brain like a lava flood. She screamed and shrieked and rattled and struggled as their truth trampled over every other word in her brain and she Saw, for the first time in her life she truly Saw with her powers what would come, with the crystal certainty of a newly-made mirror.
She’d be taken and be part of the Whole, part of the Song. She’d let go of her meaningless desires and be Complete. She’d grow useful to the Whole and her song would become another glorious note to push the darkness away.
For this project had been born long before she did, long before any Vestal did, back in the day where the Fae War had reached a feverish pitch and the technarchs that had devised this hidden thing had sacrificed any qualms on the altar of desperation.
She’d be stuck to its body like a decorations and she’s gladly put her brain and what little of her Sight she could offer to the infinite, never-ending chorus… playing her part, until Mastra Verna would send another Vestal down here, to add ever more notes to the symphony that would keep the Forest at bay.
And then Rosalia was back into her body, and she was still Rosalia, though not for long (for she had Seen it!) and with the last of the strength she could call her own she let out a pained whimper for all that was about to happen to her, and she cursed, she cursed, she cursed her Sight.
Then the tentacles wrapped around her, and one slithered to the base of her neck and lightly punctured her spinal socket like the gentlest of kisses.
And, between her tear-streaked cheeks, slowly dawned a smile.
Author’s Notes: well that was depressing. I am giving through to dragons as of late – there’s a certain idea that has taken root and I will gladly begin to explore it soon. In the meantime, I felt like exploring this idea of the Virgin offering herself to the Dragon – the Patina setting was a nice idea to put my own spin to things, and of course I will gladly take any excuses to show Verna’s cruelty and infinite curiosity. She’d be truly fascinated with this monstrosity.
Thanks for reading.