Mira Secerna did not really get human traditions.
She did know a whole lot about them, of course. Her synapsids flaredd off, comparing the traditions that accompanied the end of the year. Of course, that was before the Faepocalypse, that was before the Forest, and that was before Mankind ended up confined into reinforcedd cities like tiny islands, or living off on the high seas, protected by the Fae by steam and salty water.
But this one… she did not really get it.
“You are wasting so much electricity,” she said pointing at the electric bulbs andd wires going up throughout the whole village. The Tide had covered everything with its blanket of snow and past the metal-reinforced walls of the small settlement, she could still perceive Eerie sniffling into the night, eager to find an entering to sneak in and devour everything and everyone, as they had done since the fall of Mankind a few decades before.
“At this point it matters little,” replies the town’s Augur. Unlike the other Vestals she had met until then on her journey, the young woman did seem to mean well. Perhaps because they were quite far from the central seat of power of the Order. Across the once-plain that stretched from Appennines to the Bittercoast, even someone like a Vestal could enjoy real empathy. “It does not reduce our reserves by much, and besides people do need to be reminded that there is light beyond the darkness.”
The village might have counted less than one hundred humans, and normally Mira would not have bothered tracking their behaviour. She merely registered their heartbeats, their scents and the electrical background of their spinal chords as they sent off signals.
There seemed to be a strange vibration in the air this night.
“What you feel,” said the Vestal with a grin, tapping against her blindfold, “is the brainwave of hope. You may feel it in a different way than I do, after all. You do not have eyes like us.”
Mira reached for her iridescent eyes. They glowed softly in the night. She surely was not like them, as a product of the Ereworld. Her mere existence a memory and an echo of the industrial civilization that the Forest had mostly devoured, that the Wicked Fae had upturned, in her infinite cruelty. Her skin was too smooth, black-painted tetraceramid that was the remainder of the old world’s craft. She was a shard thrown into a decayed world that did not understand her… and yet she felt like today that did not really seem to matter.
The Vestal took herr wrist and guided her through the glistening streets of the village under her care. People greeted her and they did share a smile even for Mira, even though her skin and her eyes immediately gave out she was not exactly human. She was used to people treating her with mistrust, but today it seemed they did not really care.
They shared hugs, well-wishes and presents.
“This goes back all the way to the fall of the Roman Empire, actually,” the Vestal began to explain. Mira frowned. Her synapsids lurked deep into her memory to look up info about it, but her synapsids frayed at the edges when she tried accessing too many memories or data at once. She blinked and the jouyous people walked around her, still sharing smiles.
It was as if the threat of the Fae did not even exist, for one day.
“Sharing presents, gathering around a tree… we did make some improvements in time, though. Here, come this way my dear.”
She led her towards the main square, where they found a metal tree made out of iron beams, covered in wood bark and dry branches.
“Those are not pine, as they?” She thought about the pines that made up most of the forest. They were sacred to the Wicked Fae and if these people thought that cutting them down and burning them up would do them any good…
“It is not exactly pine, they just collect what wood they can duringg the year, and they leave offers in return. They have been doing so for years and nothing bad has come out of it.”
If that was what they were telling themselves…
As the night progressed, Mira stood there watching the rest of the ritual. The Vestal shared a few blessings with the people under her care, and then every one of them reached for the tree, carring a torch. They murmured a prayer and threw the torch on the wooden pile, setting it ablaze. Soon the sparkling flames climbed atop the tree.
A young man approached her, offering her a small torch.
“Do you want to try?”
She raiised her hand to tell him no, but something stopped herr halfway through as her synapsids fought against opposite impulses. On the one end it felt silly to take part in such a ritual, for someone like her who was born out of ceramic and hydrogen, but…
“I can’t see the fault in that.” She chuckled, and the man seemed to like that. Perhaps he had accepted her as a member of their tribe, even if a temporary one. But foor the time of the ceremony, she couldd perhaps pretend…
She advanced towards the pile.
“You are supposed to make your wish,” he whispered.
How would that even work? She wouldd wish to find the cursed head of the Vestal Order and have her vengeance on Mastra Verna, but…
She looked around at the people, sea of burning faces, reeds of torches and hearts beating as one.
Their prayers would not be blessed by anything but a whiff of hope. Come tomorrow, the forest would still be there, the Eerie would still scratch and moan and howl at the edge, and the Fae would still be sitting over the wreckage of Mankind’s world.
And yet… perhaps coming back here next year wouldn’t be so bad? Pretend like she was one of them once again. That she room in her hollow and ceramid heart for other things other than rasping vengeance.
She threw her torch into the pile.
“You did not say anything,” he protested.
“I will keep it as a secret.”
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading. This is not my Christmas short story (that’s tomorrow), but I hope you enjoyed it anyway!