Towards Rausten the miasma from its neighboring Darkling Woods crept ever deeper outward, across the trees and sky, so thick it threatened even the gnarliest oldest roots coasting above the singed earth and tainted them pale-gray with rot. Dark miasma with tendrils like hyphae, like veins in which through them pulsed the blood of demons, caressed each edge of the untouched world with poisoned fingers; and news spread of the assassination of Queen Ismaire at the hands of Grado’s Tiger’s Eye, his own fingers stained with blood and his ambition, as certain as darkness. But the knowledge was common now. At least as common as was the knowledge that the twin lords of Renais were still alive. That hung onto the tongues of people an aftertaste sweet as fresh grains from Carcino.
In the afternoon Natasha came back from the spring with a bowl of water, untouched they said by the river that flowed through the forest into Rausten. Tainted water would do nothing for the victims of what they started to call the Darkling Disease. Natasha noted in her head at some point in time that the name rung in the mind easier than what they’d in the convent of Rausten called miasma affliction , or even the Formortiis Curse, which sounded much more sinister and permanent. She’d advised against the others informing patients that they’d contracted the Formortiis Curse. “It’s the last thing they need right now,” she insisted, and eventually the trend lost its footing. The Divine Emperor Mansel himself had offered the Renais twins stay with the casual mention (or a warning; Natasha couldn’t tell) that they faced a sort of epidemic, but miasma affliction wasn’t contagious, which truly could have been clarified sooner. Tact did not seem to be Rausten’s strong suit, she came to find.
The symptoms of the affliction itself were varied, and just as baffling as the next, but somehow not unexpected. Something about it made sense. A woman came running from the church once completely naked, her pregnant belly exposed like a hard bubble, with the exasperated sister running after her panicked that she would harm her baby in her frenzy, only for the woman to completely stop only about ten heads from the garden with her eyes wide and staring into nothing. Natasha had only caught part of the debacle herself. The woman screamed until she stopped running, then nearly collapsed in the grass. She’d only been running a mild fever when her hallucination seized her. The baby was fine; the woman was restrained for the rest of the way until he was born, strangely untouched by the affliction—but it seemed appropriate that he would be safe, shielded by his mother’s protection, which was something more divine than anything else Natasha could reckon. And anyway the miasma seemed to only amplify current conditions of which this baby had none, so new and uncorrupted yet by the world. She didn’t learn what they named him and she never did see the woman or her baby again.
Natasha carried the clean spring water from the clearing to the courtyard, accompanied by two other clerics who, too, carried bowls. Saintly Latona stood erected as a statue near the entrance to the garden, Her pale robes luminous in the sunlight. Natasha’s idle thoughts usually included as she passed it by numerous times a day that she’d heard the ivory coating this Latona’s robes was imported from Carcino, as most everything was, and that it took days and nights to transport it over the mountains with the assistance of the trained cargo wyverns from Grado. In her haze she figured she clung to this thought as a reminder of Magvel before the war: hand-in-hand the work of all parts of the continent to craft something beautiful, together. She smiled at the reminder of it. She always smiled at the reminder of it.
The other two women had been silent the entire trip back and forth; Father Gerome mentioned something about disturbances through unclean words in the air being a further detriment to the tainted woods. Even here in this holy place she questioned this claim. And why not merely abstain from unclean words in the first place? But the people of Rausten treated these things with much more care than in her native Grado, and no risk was better than any risk at all. Here the priests and priestesses prayed and studied together in harmony, as well—in Grado there was segregation between the religious men and women, for the sake of making tasks easier to assign than anything else. Her mentor had been a man—Latona rest his soul. She sighed. Slipping into fragments of the last conversation they had before he was executed, like shards of glass she’d remembered seeing on the floor, perhaps in the chapel; she couldn’t recall exactly; a broken idol; cold like ice;
“No. Something is wrong with it.”
“Something is wrong with—”
“And the emperor, too—”
“Are you sure?”
“... destroy them all. Crush into dust.”
“... cannot bind me. You cannot convince me the world…”
“—what will we do?”
“You have to … do this.”
“But I can’t—”
A butterfly kissed Natasha’s hair. She startled and nearly spilled her bowl.
Father Gerome was a strange man with thinning hair down the middle of his head, his nose thick and eyes small as blueberries. He wore the gray robes of a bishop of Rausten that trailed down over his feet, and he stood in the hall with his back stiff and his hands held together. He spoke with an accent that Natasha heard on the border of Rausten and Jehanna, in a town with a name that sounded like Saihar. Or Jahar, she couldn’t remember. She was on a mission at the time. She was struck with fever from the heat of the desert and all she could hear at the edge of her circle of knowing was a man singing, some street performer without a name, in the backmost part of the city where the road twisted like a snake around the plaza. It was her only memory of the place, and every time Father Gerome spoke the flame of the memory roared in her mind like a campfire fed its kindling, as if she’d been there again—nigh-fainted on the edge of the road, the performer’s voice her only indication that she still existed. As Natasha returned to the church with her bowl, she noticed his sway as he spoke to another sister outside of the infirmary; she stopped and the other two women stopped behind her. At least finally they were talking.
“Father,” said one of them; she was the shortest one, with pale-blue hair and wide hips. “We’ve returned with the rest of the water.”
His countenance was broken at the announcement; he’d looked so serious until now. “Ah, yes…” He gestured the other sister away, who looked flustered. “You can set the bowls down by the door.” He’d said this every time, like a mantra. Natasha breathed in and out—she was so exhausted. “Sister Natasha,” she heard, suddenly.
“Yes?” She looked up from the floor as she rested her bowl.
He seemed to be looking at her almost wide-eyed. As if she’d been a stranger. “Are you all right? You don’t seem like yourself.”
“Mmm.” She stood back up, and let her veil down—she’d forgotten to on the way in. “I’m only thinking, Father.”
“You know to tell us if anything is amiss, Sister.”
“These symptoms are deceiving.”
“The miasma affects more than the body.” Father Gerome cleared his throat. “Some of our patients have nightmares. They see things that aren’t there. It’s as if…”
Natasha watched the blue-haired sister leave with the one that was dismissed; the other sister, with lilac hair and brown skin, stayed by the foyer. She appeared to be waiting for someone. “The miasma affects the mind?” She asked. But she’d known that already. More like the soul, perhaps, but even she wondered if that could be possible. Here, in this place?
“It appears that way.” He shook his head. “But I don’t know. Our patients have been recounting things they thought they’d long-buried in their heads.”
Natasha watched the woman in the foyer as she spoke. “It’s only natural that this darkness would corrupt all aspects of ourselves.” She narrowed her eyes.
Her eyes shut tightly. Trying to remember something. Red, nothing but red at the corner of her vision. Nothing but red that tainted her soul.
She opened them again. She was staring at one of the sconces on the wall. She turned back the other way. “Pardon me—I only…” she couldn’t finish. The woman with the lilac hair was gone.
“You need to sit down. You were asleep for two days...” He took her hand, and her first instinct was to pull away; she desperately reached at her mind for the red, the red again. Where was it coming from?
“My apologies, Father, but there is something…”
“Sister, you must not push yourself.” He reached for her again as if she were falling away from him, then realized his error and withdrew his hand. But he must have seen through some otherworldly eye the glint of red she hid away in her golden tresses. “Are you going to see K—”
“Joshua.” She sunk into the name as it fell upon her tongue. The subject hadn’t come up since she’d awakened. Two days was a lot of time when you thought about it but she didn’t think about it; just the rush of wind through the hall and her hair and the bowls and her spirit. A tawnybird landed on the cobblestones and it sung to them with its kya kya kya like a revelation and Natasha clutched her wrist. She was awake now. “I’ll be better after I’ve seen him.”
“He woke not long before the sunrise. You performed a miracle out there.”
This made Natasha smile, but the news also relieved her. “I wouldn’t say it was a miracle.”
“You always humble yourself!”
“But…” He did most of the work, she wanted to say. All I did was allow his body the chance to heal. And even then…
“He’s still where the rest of the soldiers are.” Father Gerome watched the sister idly make her way down the foyer and she was gone like the bird off into the sky as her footsteps startled its alight. “Take care,” he said, but she did not hear him.
The sun was already setting. The convent stretched long into the horizon, a sea of identical buildings, where each a specific duty was played; from here Natasha was still an outsider, and she would be for as long as she and Eirika and Ephraim and Innes and Tana and the rest of what started as the Renais liberation army stayed here. But the difference between her and at least most of them was they had homes to go back to. Some of them remnants of homes, but a familiar place they’d known all of their lives. Grado would not wait for their traitor with open arms, no matter her motive; the damage had been wrought the moment she offered resistance to the emperor. These people were temporarily misplaced, but she was displaced forever. Her reputation corrupted like the forest.
The thought did not faze her like she thought it would. She had her bout of grief in Serafew, after the skirmish. Joshua taught her how to spin a gold coin on the counters at the inn and that it could work as an alternative for a coin flip if you wanted it to. All she could do was watch it spin on the hard oak through the gloss of her tears. She hadn’t wanted anyone and certainly not him to worry about her, and figured through the din of drunken men and mercenaries no one would hear a woman’s sob or two.
“He’s the only one that would listen to me.”
She thought the way she’d said it probably sounded ungrateful, as if she had to “settle” for him, a “beggars can’t be choosers” sort of thing; she’d felt bad about it now. Probably worse than being a traitor to her homeland, in fact. The obvious answer would be to say that these people, the Renais army, some of who’d also had no place to return, and some fellow traitors, were her home now. But that didn’t feel right, either. She wanted it to feel right in Serafew, and for a moment perhaps it did. All she could surmise was that it was complicated.
Yet she would watch the way he held his frame upright. He’d shake leather pouches of gold just to hear the coins rub together and jingle like the small bells Natasha heard when he spoke. And he’d take the tarnished ones and bet homeless people sitting out on the streets. Usually they’d win and have money to eat for the day and Joshua would grin so wide it could be a bridge between mountains as he announced, “Luck has yet to come for me tonight,” and congratulated his “opponent.” Watching this the first few times, she knew he rigged the first “game” he played with her too. She knew but she didn’t mind it—after all why would she, considering the circumstance?—she’d been no different than those she saw in the streets, freshly homeless all the way from Grado, and he with all of what he had to offer to them, and to her, came to them with his soul full of wealth, a mirage in the sun. It was so easy and he managed to make it appear so mystical, as if he could bet all of Magvel and win every time. It sounded corny, she figured, or some other iteration of the word she couldn’t remember, but it was true. He held his persona of the gambler so steadfast it was his own type of magic. Natasha would lose the coin underneath the table when she tried flipping it, and Joshua taught her the spin to make it easier for her. Whether it did or not was to be debated.
The red, suddenly, again, in her vision, an apparition.
A moment of silence. No footsteps. Her body moved on its own as she halted by a Latona, this one different as She was sitting instead of standing, holding presumably what were the Sacred Stones in Her arms. Two days ago she caught only a glimpse of this Latona, and thought She might be holding fruits instead, all in her haze as one of Ephraim’s knights, Forde maybe, brought her on horseback to the barracks. Her hands were still dry and tired. Her eyes flitted to another bird.
The thick smell of grease and sweat and steel offered itself in a overwhelming stew to her as she carried herself through the hall.
His voice came as a surprise to her. She was unprepared for it. “Oh, heaven.”
“Is something wrong?” He was sitting upright, his torso completely wound in cloth, like some preserved animal’s corpse. He wore nothing but a pair of spare trousers from the convoy. His hair was loose and fell below his shoulders.
“No…” Finally she allowed herself to sit down. She made note of how much of a mess this place was in. Stray chairs everywhere.
“They told me you needed rest, but for two days? ” He held half his face with one hand. “I could have figured you for dead!”
She smiled. “Well, I’m not dead.”
“But… what did you do? Does that, I mean, what you do...”
She looked away. “Only when it’s necessary.”
He didn’t accept that answer. “Natasha, you need to be careful…”
Sheepishly, she turned to face him; his eyes were serious like flames, warm but not scorching, much like his red hair, the most vivid of her visions. She clutched her wrist again. “Joshua,” she hesitated, “I was prepared to use anything I had in my repertoire to save you. And the others monitored me. I’d merely overextended myself, that’s all.”
“Natasha…” He ran his hand over his face. “Oh, man.”
“Joshua… are you all right?” She wanted to veer from the subject, as guilty as it made her.
“I don’t know. I’m…” He realized what he said, suddenly. “I’m fine, really, as far as being alive goes.”
But now it was her turn to reject his answer. She reached out her hand, almost mechanically.
He gave in, taking her hand in his own. “Just… thinking about Caellach.”
A wave of nausea hit her, suddenly. “Oh…”
His lips drew themselves inward, and his shoulders drooped the slightest. “Despite it all, I can’t help but think he won, you know?”
“But he didn’t!” The assertiveness in her response surprised even herself as well as the swordsman in front of her. In the moment it dawned on her this was one of maybe three, four times she’d seen him with his hair uncovered. It was uncovered, too, when she was tending to him, every part of his body vulnerable. It hung over his eyes and reached for his nose and covered the sides of his chin. Red all over, like what she’d seen some moments before. Red all over the sand like his
“Look, I know. I know.” He pulled his hand away. “But… look at me. My mother is dead. The palace was scorched.”
“That isn’t—” the point, she wanted to say.
“Yeah…” As if he could hear the words through her mind. He laid himself back down on his cot, so that he was staring at the painted ceiling; there was a mural, unfinished, of the Five Heroes brandishing their weapons. Natasha caught Audhulma at the corner of Joshua’s eye. “Well, at any rate. They told me I couldn’t fight for… oh, hell.” His hand flew over his mouth. “Sorry, I know this is a holy place.”
Seth checked in on them for a moment. Natasha startled like a hen. Something about the evening, what they would do for food. They weren’t certain yet how long they would be in Rausten. Roaring laughter from the back, now that it was audible; they waited for it to quiet down.
“My point is,” Joshua continued, “—he took so much from me. My mother, my dignity, the palace—my—” He choked on the words. It was like trying to swallow sand. (But he’d swallowed sand before.) “And what did I take from him?”
“His life. His ambitions. He can’t have what he wanted, now, if he’s dead.”
“But it doesn’t…” He paused. “I have to live with this now, and he, well, doesn’t.”
“You can’t look at it that way, though.” Natasha forced her chair forward—the sound against the floor could have woken Formortiis Himself—so that she was the closest to him as possible. “When you die, that’s it. You’re the one who always tells me that.”
He grinned, but she couldn’t see it. “I hate it when you get all introspective on me.”
“You don’t have to hide yourself from me, Joshua.”
“It’s just that…”
“Joshua, look at me.” She tipped her chair over, nearly toppling herself onto him. He’d turned to face the wall moments ago and it was exactly what he did every time he closed himself off, to her and to any of the others. But here in this place it was different. Here, after his blood spilling, sinking into the hungry desert, and sinking into the creases of her hands, making a crimson web on her palms, his body so open, he couldn’t close himself again. (Compulsively she checked her hand and it was clean—clean as it could be.) “Look at me, please.” Begging, pleading him to stay with her. “Please.”
He turned over, at last. He saw her eyes glistening to their brims and immediately pushed himself up, grunting. “Natasha, hey…”
“I didn’t think—I thought—oh…”
He sat up again, reaching for her. “Hey, I’m here. I’m looking at you. Hey.”
Natasha wanted to melt into him. There wasn’t anything else she wanted more in the entirety of Magvel and the world beyond it than to become one with him, as if she could shield him for the rest of eternity. Her soul a blanket over his.“I apologize,” she said.
“No, Natasha—” she allowed him to wrap her in a hug, to press her face against his chest. The pain was minimal and regardless this was more important. “You’re right,” he whispered, “you’re right, and you’re the only one that knows what he did to me.”
“Well, you and heaven, since you believe in that.” He heard her muffled scoff. “Y’know, and I don’t know how I would even begin to tell anyone else. But you, you know everything I can recall. I dreamt we were back in Carcino. That night… I thought I could escape it, and let it forget me.”
“That was the night he…”
Natasha brought herself back up from him and met his gaze.
“He told me I was nothing without him. That I needed his skill next to mine.”
“But you know that isn’t true. It was never true.”
She felt him tense up. “Not even my mother knew. About us, I mean. I hadn’t seen her in so long. I never had the chance to tell her. She would have been so livid if she had known. We could have faced him together. I wonder if—when he was with her, in the palace. What he told her...”
Natasha brought her pale hand to his face, sweeping his hair aside to his ear—oh, did he look so much like his mother this close up, from the very short period she saw her before her death—his nose and his lips, especially. Like stamping a letter twice. And his face was clean and not stained with his blood, or Caellach’s blood. Immaculate, like—a saint.
“I’ll always regret that,” he continued. “I needed to be free. But I’ll always regret leaving her alone.”
“You couldn’t have known.” Her voice regained its softness. “None of us knew what would become of Magvel, Joshua.”
“You talk like you’ve been thinking about it.”
“Perhaps. But I don’t regret leaving Grado.”
He seemed taken aback at this, for a second. Surprised, maybe. It was fleeting. “I don’t think I blame you. I’d rather be on the run than dead.”
“My freedom is important,” she stated, lifting herself from him, “as is yours.”
“Leaving her, leaving him. You did what was necessary for your freedom.”
He chuckled. “You know me, always running away from everything.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
Strangely he regretted teasing her this time. He never did until now. “What’s freedom when, in the end, I’ll be expected to rule a kingdom anyway?”
She saw the regret in his eyes; and she was conflicted, and largely disconcerted by his body language still, his body something chained and restricted to half-movements only. Even his eyes didn’t seem to close all the way when he blinked. Brim-full with pain so severe it caked his joints like a thick moss. “I,” she started, then stopped.
“You want to say you don’t know.”
“What is it, Natasha? What have I learned from all this?”
“I can’t answer that, Joshua.”
“What have I learned?” He started to shake.
“It’ll come in its own time. It came to me in Serafew, remember?”
“I thought I was coming to something. I thought I was prepared to be king.”
The air was hot. So hot and wet and red. The heroes surveyed them from the ceiling.
“Don’t you see?”
“I said, don’t you see?”
“Can you see anything? Natasha?”
She shook her head. Her face full of iron. She felt so exhausted again. She watched Kyle and Seth leave together with bowls.
“This is my fault. You need to rest.”
Ewan threw himself across the hall with his own bowl in hand, this one glossy and glinting in Natasha’s eye when it met the sunset. She watched him sprint so fast and ahead of his sister. His bare feet pat pat pattered the floor.
“And I made you cry… I’m barely a gentleman at all.”
Ewan pat pat pattering and the tawnybird tit tit tittering and the army chat chat chattering.
“Natasha, I have a confession. Everything—while I was out, I heard everything. Or nearly everything, at least. I could have been dreaming, but see, I was lucid enough to know that I wasn’t, even with his axe in me—and then out of me, I suppose. Anyhow, your voice caged so much panic it seemed impossible that you spoke without screaming. Even lying there half-dead under the sun I couldn’t help but be impressed with you all over again. It was as if that asshole never touched me. You there, with your radiance, and accompanied by—probably Lute or something, her radiance of a different kind—you demonstrated yet again what set you apart from so many people when I first met you. You spoke to me like you knew I wasn’t going to die. And you were right.” Joshua set both of his feet on the floor; the soft pat pat roused Natasha from her half-sleep. “The ultimate gamble, and you took it, didn’t you?”
Natasha rubbed her eyes. “I wouldn’t have called it a gamble at the time. But it was also more than merely tending to my duty to serve…”
“Would you call it love?”
Natasha pushed him. “Be serious!”
“Ha ha! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
She sighed, but half out of relief at seeing his usual facetiousness. She, too, found herself returning, but to what she didn’t know.
“It’s late, and you should be eating tonight.” Joshua grunted as he attempted to stand. “Don’t worry about me now. No more than you have been, at least.” He decided against standing and sat back down. “Uh, hey, if you could tell Seth to have dinner delivered to me, that would be great.”
Natasha lifted her veil back over her hair. She surmised the sun was out of view by now. Her eyes trailed over him. She refused to leave him forsaken again. “I’ll bring it myself,” she said so softly.
He whispered. “You’re the only one who would listen to me. And I’m so grateful for it. ” And he touched her hand again, and she breathed deeply, taking it all in.
That night Dream Natasha came to a peculiar place, wrapped in algae all the way over from the shore to the woods and its dells. Her robes were gone but she was not naked; a thin film like a wet sheet coated her body, and water droplets would form on the surface then slide away as the breezes blew. Beneath her it was mostly grassless and parched, but clover flowers stretched themselves from underneath fallen leaves. Before her lie a sort of ruin, a great fortress with multiple entryways—at least one facing her and one that led into a tunnel from the side—and shard upon shard of broken pottery, from bowls and vases and platters, some of them blue and some of them clay-red with streaks of orange. Parts of the ground were inundated with these pottery shards. She waded through them to hear the crunching of them underneath her. The further away from the ruined fortress the more there were, which piqued her curiosity. In an attempt to bend down and procure one of the larger pieces, it nigh-immediately crumbled into three pieces in her hand. So fragile they were, so prominent they were.
Somehow she could tell she was dreaming. For example the dinner her half of the army had that night was roasted pheasant, and she contemplated this there in front of the fortress. The pheasants in Rausten were the most plentiful right at the cusp of spring and summer, and you could find hundreds of them in a single area, and it was L’Arachel who told them this, of course. The females all nested around one male and tended to be meatier and fatter. You didn’t kill the male and not just because he was worth barely any food but also so he could move on to another group of females that could breed with him and begin the cycle all over again. Neimi was the one who told her that bit, and she trusted Neimi because she was a vastly better hunter than a soldier, and being from Grado it comforted her that Neimi always killed more game than her countrymen, even if slightly.
As if on cue she watched a single pheasant burst from a thicket and launch itself straight at her if in an attack. Dream Natasha screamed and dashed as fast as her legs could take her straight through the thicket it came from and into the woods. Its long sienna tailfeathers burst from its body and launched all in different directions, projectiling into the trees like arrows, making crisp plonk noises when they hit the trunks. She braced herself but heard no more whistles of the arrow-feathers chasing her, and when she spun around the pheasant was gone, and in its place was Father McGregor.
And she froze there, eyes widened, either in horror or in reliefphoria. She lifted her arms up, keeping her hands in front of her face, as if in preparation to test how tangible this figure in front of her was; but oh Latona it was him, it looked just like him. Well, save for a few plumes sprouted from the top of his head. Actually, he bore his appearance from the day before his execution: the black circles under his eyes, the visible veins through the scleras, which she could see even from the distance between them as defined as if she were a half-inch from his face, and his trembling lips. He hadn’t slept at all those past few nights. It was as if the dark stone had poisoned him, too, with such close proximity to the emperor and his son. Face sunken into his skull, the eyes drooping outward like bags of jelly.
“Natasha,” he finally said, without need for formalities. He stayed where he was although his posture changed.
“Father—” McGregor. McGregor. Why can’t I speak his name?
“This place is so old. How have you gotten here?”
Invisible bands kept Dream Natasha’s feet bound to the clay-crushed sand. “How have you gotten here?” She could only repeat him.
“I’ve always lived here. I’ve lived here since before you were born.”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said after a moment, gleeful that whatever this was finally allowed her to speak on her own. “I feel so uncomfortable here.”
She paused, reaching for her mouth. “Y—yes?” she stammered.
“In Grado we honor our founder and prepare ourselves for heaven. Rausten focuses almost entirely on the Saint.”
“What do you think, Natasha?”
“I did not, well…” She sighed. Why had it been so hard for her to speak since she’d awoken? She was not free of it, even here. “I did not believe Latona wished to be seen as a goddess. If She was here, in human flesh…”
At this Father McGregor smirked. “Did you ever find it odd that only She, of every creature to have lived and would live in this world, proved immune to Demon magic?”
She had thought of it before, but she qualmed at the subject as it was presented to her. Something about it still felt wrong. It was visceral and innate. “Maybe it is not whom they worship. It may just be their customs… I could just be tired.”
“Never lose that feeling, my child. That is your spirit, and it is stronger than it has ever been.”
“Father McGregor, I have a question.”
“Yes?” He folded his hands together.
“Why did you take me in? All those years ago?”
“Words could never do justice the spirit I saw in you, my child. It is so lavish with healing and soothes all that it sees.”
“Will I ever see it?”
“All of us see our spirits when we pass, someday.”
“Like you? Did you see it?”
He grimaced at this. “I did.”
Invisible hands rearranged the words in the cleric’s mind. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Father McGregor’s figure finally began to approach her, but the bands remained tight around her feet. The broken pottery rubbed and shuffled around him. “He will have to cope in this new world without his mother, and also without Caellach.”
The stream of thought felt normal. “I worry that I may not be enough…”
“To help him?”
“It will feel this way at first. But his spirit is not lost.”
“I have never felt this way about anyone in my life. Admittedly not even you, Father McGregor.”
“It’s understandable, my child.”
“He’s so easy to be around… he fills my heart with light. He found me when I was lost.”
“He will not be lost, my child. You made certain of that.”
“Part of me hopes that he will…”
“Want a future with you?”
“I—I,” she felt her face and neck prick and tingle with warmth. “I couldn’t expect that of him! He has to come to that on his own. I couldn’t… I… after what he did…”
Father McGregor seemed appalled. “You are nothing like Caellach.”
“That’s not exactly…” she paused. What exactly was she trying to say? Tumble the stones that were her words over and over until they seemed polished enough; even if they did not shine, they were smooth. “I could not even… remotely allow myself to resemble that presence in his life again, that’s all.”
“You could never…” He reached for her. “For all of the years I have known you. Natasha...”
Her hand fitted itself around her wrist again. She never recognized it as a habit until now, here in this old place. Fear panged her at the thought of her heightened self-awareness. What else would she notice? What else would she see? Her voice quavered as she spoke. “Father Gerome and the others are all right. But I miss you.”
They embraced. Dream Natasha was immobile still, as if something higher fervently needed her to be present for this, and to not retreat at the uncanniness of it, withdraw into the fortress perhaps and stay there until it was day. Strands of her hair displaced in the wind and made her head itchy. Her gold hair against red clay. Her thin arms wrapped around her mentor’s waist, as if she were a child again.
Then his arms over her body grew bigger and bigger, even bigger than the big fortress behind them, so big until she was literally smothered by the fat of his huge arms. She pushed against it with her feet and hands but it reacted as she predicted, it did not give way. She wanted to yell again in her terror, but the bands that bound her feet now bound her mouth. Much different from mere moments earlier, where it had only been the words themselves that refused to come to her aid; now the bands refused to let the words be spoken, and wrapped so tightly it felt her jaw may unhinge and snap into its two halves. She tore at her neck with her nails as if it would help. She dug so deep into her throat she felt the warmth seeping beneath her nails of her own blood. And she tore still until her body contorted inward into nothingness, and then she was gone.
“Why did you do it—”
like nothing ever was. The ground so frigid, so cold. Like ice but it was not ice. She could tell because she felt the cobblestones with the bottoms of her hands. Her fingertips meticulously laced through the cracks between each stone, inch by inch until she finally groaned herself up off the ground. Dream Natasha had been face-forward and in her robes again. Dust filled her nostrils and she sneezed. Darkness was like liquid here as she managed to wade her way up and forward through wherever this was (she couldn’t see a thing at all), trudging through the watery dark.
The grittiest voice she’d ever heard. Its vitriol dripping venom into all the stonecracks. Bewildered she turned
His tall rough body, arrayed with ashy scars across his face and chest, his bare abdomen exposed, hia clay-red hair. Somehow her eyes allowed her to see him in this soupy dark, shadows crawling under her skin.
“I almost had him! I almost had him, but you had to ruin it!”
She had better view of him now and spotted the gash on his chest, gaping all the way through, a hole bored into a pine tree by a woodpecker or some kind of massive grub, through his bark-hard body. Part of his vertebrae was exposed, the disks crooked and one of them almost dangling by just sinew. His blood caked dry into his pale gray collar. And his eyes had no pupils, the whites almost glowing in the dark.
Caellach came towering after her as she cowered with her arms over her head. A pungent smell of rot pummeled itself into her. “I could have had something! I could have been good for something!”
Dream Natasha stepped backward as he drew nearer. Frantically she glanced behind and saw nothing but the black wall.
“I would have been the tiger’s eye that murdered Jehanna’s queen and their king. I almost robbed that fucking place of all its hope. And I would have been remembered for it. For something. ”
Another step back. Another step back.
“You,” he screamed, “had to take that from me too!”
“Greedy witch, what’re you gonna do now? You gonna kill me here, too?”
“He was mine and you took him from me.”
She felt Caellach’s breath on her face, but something kept him from moving closer. “I… took him from you?” she asked him.
He bared his teeth then, and she felt specks of his spit dot her face. “Oh, you’re gonna play even stupider than you are, are you?”
Suddenly Dream Natasha caught a glance of something shimmering. She leaned backwards and the shadows parted ways to reveal it —finally? Is that it?
“And he thought he could hide that all from me? His wealth and his power?”
She spun and saw more light beating against something, a body of water, the glistening of it stinging her eyes. But she was ready for this to end.
“Listen to me!” His voice boomed, and at last she bolted. “Bitch! What did you do?! What did you do that the others couldn’t?!”
The shadows parted more and more and she began to see grass and clover and sweet button-shaped flowers, and they blurred frenetic as she crossed the burning stones to the river roaring like a thousand swords all at once. Ironically it felt no longer like she was drowning.
‘s — ”
The cacophony shattered his sentence into something easier to digest. Fear drained from her pores as she came within reach of the water. She tensed her body to jump.
“He was never yours. He was never yours.”
“He belongs to no one.”
There was no splash as first her head hit the water then her hands her arms her ankles her belly her feet. Bubbles fizzed through her ears. The cool silence swallowed her and Caellach was gone; just her and the red and something else here or miles away. And that, too, was dissipating.
“What was that?”
“The miasma … trails along with it restless souls, and turns them into monsters.”
“But he was already…”
“Souls that have accumulated enough regrets will be roused by nearly anything… Formortiis knows this, and exploits it to all ends … are you here?”
That morning Natasha came back from the spring with a bowl of water, untouched she said by the crazed visions she’d seen that last night, which her mind was still registering. Her eyelids heavy, she set the stone bowl down by a yew bush, leaving in it a sprig of some herb she found that she would retrieve later. Heeding Father Gerome’s advice meant admitting a day away from her duty and service to the people. Having already spent two days incapacitated, she averted taking more time off than need be, but a shadow seeped into her that allowed her second thought. The sister with the lilac hair flounced across the courtyard with an empty bowl, clearly distressed about something, of which was no business of Natasha’s now that her own bowl was on the ground.
Above the entire convent the sun simmered hotter than it had all season, and Natasha silently berated herself for not at the least bringing herself any water—there had been plenty vessels for water on hand, a bowl for instance—on her return to their makeshift barracks. Realistically she should have asked for someone’s assistance, but instinctively she avoided it, as she always avoided it. She trudged on through the ground still worn with tiny caverns created by their horses, again past the Latona with the Sacred Stones, past the yew bushes by the gravestone where a priest had been buried, finally within view of Ewan and Ross already, who waved—they seemed to be playing some game they invented, or they could have been sparring—and her legs hurt, they were so worn. And she was so tired of thinking. “Oh, heaven,” she mumbled, her throat raw.
“You called for heaven?”
Natasha’s entire form jarred and jerked that she swiveled nearly into a cedar tree if Joshua’s swift hand had not grappled her arm. The cedar branch forcefully tugged her veil and tore it from her hair. Exposed now that she was, she covered herself as if her clothes had been gone. “Come on, enough of that!” She screamed.
Joshua leapt back. “Whoa, hey,” he responded.
“You know I startle easily.” She was terrified. She’d never shouted so loudly since they left Jehanna. And it’d tainted her with guilt.
“I just like to tease you. I can’t help it, for some reason.”
She sneered at him. “What are you doing out here, anyway? I thought…” Her eyes scanned him from up to down and admired his fresh bandages. Whoever changed them had delicate handiwork.
“They’ve got me on watch. But I really needed to get out of that room.”
“Who allowed it? Moulder?”
“I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”
“Hey, wait! All right, it was Lute.”
“See! Now you’re doing it again.”
“Well,” Joshua began, then he swallowed. “I just like to see you smile. You’re always so grim all the time.”
She pulled herself from him. “Everyone says that. But it’s just how I am.”
Natasha felt another guilt stack onto the previous; she acted without control, and his eyes seemed sad. “What’s gotten into you? Did you sleep at all?”
She shook her head. She couldn’t tell him! He was here now, and those demons were far away. To mention them meant to bring them back into this realm, and she could not bear it. “I’m sorry… I just don’t know.”
“Have you been speaking to the others? They’ve worried about you, too. We all need you here, Natasha.” He hesitated to touch her again, and she noticed.
“They’re probably speculating. They’re probably saying, ‘she’s got the Darkling Disease, everybody run!’”
He laughed at this, and she did as well. “I thought they said it wasn’t contagious?”
“Just the Demon King farting and people catching its stench. It incapacitates even the strongest men. Even me!”
She laughed a strangely dark laugh this time. “Fortunate that you were away from it, then.”
Joshua grinned at this, not unsurprisingly.
“Natasha, can I tell you something?”
They were sitting outside now by the Latona and her fruit-stones. Joshua had shouted at Ewan and Ross to allow them some them-time, at which they responded with suspicious giggling, predictable as it was. Ewan at least had some manners enough to take Ross by the hand back out of range, probably behind the building where they could continue their antics, adding on some rhyme they’d invent about Natasha and Joshua being together there in the courtyard. At the very least they were out of sight. The grass here smelled of tea leaves.
“Yes?” Natasha responded.
He breathed in through his teeth. They had their backs rested against the legs of the statue. “I think I had something for Gerik a while there. I think, but I don’t know.”
She glanced down. “Something?”
“I just!” He slapped his forehead. “I tried him. I tried! Ohhh.”
Natasha squinted her eyes. “Did you tell him you had feelings for him?”
“No!” He squeezed his own eyes shut. “He was so easy to be around, it was like he wasn’t even there—when we marched beside each other he was a ghost in the wind. But I spoke to him, and it changed.”
“He—already has a league of people waiting for him. And he saw right through me! I’d disguise it as an offer, and he saw right through me.”
She wasn’t sure she was following, but caught the gesture that it’d gone badly. Or had the potential to go badly? He scattered his words like seeds for the birds.
“I—thought I’d try again, but oh man—heaven?—I am not sure.” He ran his hand through all of his wonderful hair. She wondered if he would leave it uncovered. If he’d tie it back. “Just talking about it leaves me all over the place.”
That sun could not touch them here under the shade of so many cedar trees. Natasha took all of her own hair into both hands. “Joshua, you know what I’m going to say.”
“That you’re relieved?”
“I know, I know! That I should do what I want to do. And I appreciate that.” He offered his hand, and she took it.
She looked at him, finally. He’d be expectant of her. “I have to ask you something, too.”
“Did you think this statue was holding fruit, when you saw it?”
He furrowed his brow. “I can’t say I really thought about it.”
“They don’t look like the Sacred Stones at all.”
“I suppose they probably look like mangoes from Jehanna. Which are scrumptious, by the way,” he added.
She looked at him, finally—this entire time she’d been staring at her discarded veil, hanging from the branch like a distended limb. “I want to go back, when the war’s finally over. I’ve only been at the border before this.”
“In Sahar? I think you told me about that.”
“They didn’t let me eat there. They said it would be bad for me.”
Joshua scoffed at this. “Those pompous folk. Well, when we get back, I’m gonna show you all the Jehannan food I can think of to show you, and then some. So I hope you’re prepared.”
From here, Natasha could only see the tops of Latona’s hands. It prompted her to look at her own, which were almost blue as her eyes kept adjusting from the sun to the shade and to the sun again, that glint that grew brighter in the gloam of your eyelids.