His arm is on fire, muscles straining as he struggles to maintain his grip. Below, two blue eyes stare up at him in terror, their owner dangling helplessly above the abyss.
"Just hold on."
"It'll be alright. Just keep holding onto me."
"I'm going to fall." The words are unsteady, fearful. Enjolras tries to keep his voice soft and soothing, hoping the steady tone will calm the man currently swinging from his hand.
His shoulder feels like it's going to separate from his torso. He prays the strain doesn't show in his voice.
"No, you're not. I've got you. Do you trust me?"
"Do you trust me?"
"Of course." There's no hesitation in the answer. Enjolras feels a flicker of warmth in his chest even as his muscles scream for mercy.
"Then just hold on. I won't let go." His fingers, wrapped around the man's wrist, feel the rabbit-fast pulse slow. The terror is fading from those blue eyes now, replaced by a blind trust that takes Enjolras' breath away.
Digging the fingers of his left hand more firmly into the earth, he braces himself, groaning as he starts to pull his precious cargo upwards.
A clawed hand grabs at Enjolras' arm and he jerks, crying out as sharp talons pierce his flesh.
His curled fingers, suddenly nerveless, spasm and open.
The man screams.
"No!" Enjolras throws himself forwards, but it's too late. He can only watch as the man disappears into the darkness, hands still reaching towards Enjolras in a desperate plea.
Enjolras jerks awake, the remaining echoes of his cry fading around him. He lies there in the sweat-drenched sheets for a moment, heart pounding and arm aching in phantom pain. Slowly, he raises his right hand and stares at it, silently flexing his fingers and watching them curl about nothing.
He can still feel Grantaire slipping from his grasp.
Shivering, he rolls to sit on the edge of the bed and pinches the bridge of his nose in frustration, forcing his rapid breathing to steady. Slowly, carefully, he folds away the detritus of the dream and imagines locking it away, the key a reassuring weight in his hand as it turns. When the lock clicks and his heart has stopped racing he gets up, moving across the room to the giant window opposite the bed.
It's still dark; Enjolras can barely make out the silhouette of the Great Tree through the greying shadows of early morning. Somewhere in the forest an owl screeches and falls silent, the sound harsh and foreboding to Enjolras' already uneasy mind. He shivers, rubbing at his arms and feeling the brush of tiny hairs there as they stand on end.
Grabbing his robe, he strides from the room, distractedly tying the belt around his waist as he hurries down the stairs. Throwing open the front door, he steps onto the grass only to reel back at the first brush of blades against bare flesh, a shock of cold clinging to his heels. Crouching down he runs a hand across the ground, frowning at the frost that dusts the grass in place of the dew that should be there.
His jaw is set and his back rigid as he makes his way to the Singing Pool, nerves set on edge by the sense that things are subtly off. The thin layer of frost under his feet; the oppressive silence; the complete lack of movement from even the nocturnals. The cool, still air that hangs about the forest like a dying man's final breath.
Jehan is already seated beside the Pool when Enjolras gets there, feathered winter cloak thrown over his lighter summer clothes. He looks up as Enjolras emerges from the bushes, expression troubled.
"The trees are whispering to each other. They're frightened."
"Frightened of what?" Enjolras kneels down beside Jehan, fighting down the thread of anxiety threatening to rise at the tense tone of Jehan's voice. The Seer shakes his head, brow furrowed as he glances back at the water.
"I don't know. I don't think they know. They just know something's wrong."
"Could it be Patron-Minette? Feuilly says he caught Babet skulking around the Gateway the other day. Could the humans have found a way to cross the barrier?"
Jehan scrunches up his nose, considering.
"I don't think so. I don't sense anybody other than the Guardians." He pauses, glancing nervously at Enjolras. "Well, the Guardians and..."
"Him. Yes." Enjolras shivers, feeling suddenly cold. Pulling his robe tighter around him, he pretends he can't see the way Jehan is looking at him.
"Bad dreams?" It's not a question, even if it's posed as one. Jehan always seems to know when Enjolras' nightmares return, though this time he supposes his mere presence at the Pool has given him away. None of the other Guardians are here. Though Enjolras is technically the leader, he is no more attuned to the forest than any of them; there is no reason why he should have been disturbed and not they. This, when coupled with the sleeping attire that marks Enjolras out as having woken from sleep rather than simply having not gone to bed yet, betrays him.
Enjolras flinches, Grantaire's despairing scream echoing in his ears. "Maybe."
Jehan's face crumples, every line of his face alight with sorrow. It's too much; Enjolras looks away, pretending to examine a patch of flowering rush on the other side of the Pool.
"You can't keep doing this to yourself, Enjolras. It wasn't your fault."
Enjolras snorts, clenching his hand (his right hand, the hand still prickling with the ghost of Grantaire's lost grip) into a fist beside him. "I think we both know that's not true."
"There's no way you could have..." Jehan's voice trails away, grey eyes widening. In a matter of seconds his body is stiff and unyielding, jerking like a marionette as his head swivels towards the pool. The first time Enjolras had seen Jehan like this he'd been terrified; now he simply watches his friend in concern and waits for the visions Jehan Sees in the Pool to end.
Enjolras doesn't know how long they sit there, unmoving but for the feverish trembling that always accompanies Jehan's more intense visions. It feels like an age before Jehan suddenly throws his head back and gasps for breath like a man emerging from deep water, the rigid line of his body slowly relaxing into something more normal.
"Jehan?" Enjolras is next to him in an instant, hand resting reassuringly on his back. "What did you see?"
Jehan shudders, turning wide, horrified eyes to Enjolras.
"He's coming, Enjolras. He's coming back for us. For everyone."
"What are you talking ab..." A thunderous explosion reverberates through the forest and Enjolras suddenly no longer needs Jehan to answer.
"The Prince..." He breathes in dawning horror. Jehan moans, curling in on himself.
"It wasn't enough. The tree wasn't enough."
The forest animals are screaming, so many birds taking to the air that the sky is dark and full of their shrill, panicked cries. Numb, Enjolras pushes himself to his feet, turning towards where the explosion came from.
"Wait. The others will be...you can't just...Enjolras, wait."
Enjolras isn't listening anymore.
He takes off at a run, leaving Jehan's increasingly desperate yells behind him.
Even as he sprints through the forest, leaping over roots and ducking under branches, Enjolras knows he's being stupid. He should wait for the others – for all he knows, he's running straight into a trap. He has no idea what could be waiting for him. Even if the Prince has fled, there's no telling what evil he has left behind. Enjolras has a vivid memory of the last time they underestimated the Prince; Joly still bears the scars from where one of the Prince's creatures attached itself to his leg, giant purple splotches that curl all the way from ankle to knee. Combeferre had thought that Joly would never walk on it again. If it hadn't been for Bossuet pulling him away from the creature when he did, he certainly wouldn't have.
Catching himself before he can slam into a deceptively broad tree, Enjolras braces himself for the worst. He wishes he'd thought to wear his sword. The familiar weight at his hip would have been comforting right now. But, then again, he hadn't exactly been thinking clearly when he sought out Jehan at the Pool.
Taking a deep breath, he pushes his way through the thick mesh of vines and thorns. They resist him, barbs catching at his robe and tearing his skin, doing their best to forbid him entry. No one was ever meant to come here after the Final Battle. They had all pooled their power to seal the site away and hide it from curious eyes, persuading the trees and plants to tangle themselves into a near impenetrable wall. Enjolras had encouraged the thorns himself, ordering them to grow sharp and long, a warning to those who might otherwise seek to gain entry.
Not that it matters now. Not if the Prince is free.
Stumbling into the clearing, Enjolras jerks to a halt, breath catching in his throat in horror as he takes in the destruction. Everything in the clearing is blackened and dying, the grass scorched and coated with a fine layer of ash. Jehan's forget-me-nots, a final act of kindness for the prisoner, droop with decay, their delicate blue petals bleached bone-white and paper-thin. Enjolras tries to revive one, flinching as it crumbles to dust in his hand.
The whole clearing stinks of death.
The sole tree in the clearing, grown from the seed of the Great Tree and blessed by all seven Guardians, is a wreck. One side is completely blown outwards, the wood and bark twisted and shattered as if something erupted from within. Enjolras traces the five jagged lines scratched into the bark on either side of the hole and swallows hard, picturing cruel, clawed hands curling over the edges as their owner drags himself free.
"Enjolras?" Courfeyrac. Enjolras straightens and turns, mildly surprised to find the rest of the Guardians there. He watches the way their eyes widen as he shifts out the way, the full extent of the tree's destruction suddenly clear.
"It's true then." Joly murmurs, grip tightening on his cane until his knuckles turn white. He limps forwards, one leg dragging awkwardly behind the other. "He's free."
"Yes." It doesn't feel real. They'd been so sure that that was the end of it, that the grief and the pain was over. As much as it ever could be. And now...
"What happens now?" Bossuet asks, coming forward to help support Joly. Bahorel laughs bitterly, gesturing at the destruction surrounding them.
"What does it look like? We're right back where we started. The Prince of Disaster is free. We're at war again." There's a wild, broken quality to his voice. Feuilly squeezes his shoulder in silent support; they all lost things in the war.
"We need another Chosen." Combeferre says, taking off his glasses and rubbing his left eyebrow tiredly. "I'll ask Jehan to..."
"No." They all stare. Enjolras hardly ever cuts across them like that and certainly never when Combeferre is speaking.
"Enjolras, be reasonable. We can't do this again, not without a Chosen. It was bad enough the first time..." Courfeyrac tries. Enjolras whirls on him, colour rising in his cheeks as he throws an arm out.
"No! We can't. Not again. Not after..." Enjolras takes a shuddering breath, closing his eyes as he struggles through the familiar flash of pain, the wound still raw and weeping after all these years. "The price is too high."
"I said no!" The words burst out of him like an explosion, catching in the stagnant air. The forest rumbles.
He cannot stand the pity on their faces.
"We'll do it ourselves, without a Chosen. We did it before and we'll do it again." He asserts. Courfeyrac growls in frustration, scrubbing his hands through his hair.
"Are you hearing yourself? Don't you remember how hard it was last time? We barely managed to trap him in a tree, and look how well that turned out! We can't stop him without a Chosen."
"We can and we will."
"Listen to me! This isn't something you can just decide for yourself! We all suffered. We all lost people. Or have you forgo..."
He doesn't see the punch coming. None of them do. Even Enjolras seems shocked, swaying on his feet and staring down at his hand like it's foreign to him.
On the ground, Courfeyrac touches his cheek gingerly, wincing as his magic rushes to soothe away the bruise.
"Forgotten? Do you really think I've forgotten just how much we lost in that war?" Enjolras hisses. "I was there. I was with you for every charge, every fight. I watched our friends get caught in the crossfire. I watched Floreal fall under Thénardier's blade. I watched the Outer Forest burn."
He paces agitatedly, hands a blur of frustration as he gestures wildly.
"I know we lost people. I know that the battle was longer and harder than it would have been with a Chosen. But in case you're forgetting, we had one. We had Grantaire. And we lost him too."
They're all silent, faces frozen masks of guilt. Enjolras knows that no one has really forgotten Grantaire. In many ways, he was the first real victim of that terrible war. His loss hung heavy on them throughout each and every struggle, his absence felt for more painful reasons than the simple lack of a Chosen's power in battle.
Grantaire never asked to be Chosen. What happened to him was on them and them alone.
"Enjolras..." Combeferre's voice is soft, comforting. Enjolras doesn't want it. Not now. Not when the ghost of all his past mistakes is reaching out to him.
"The Red Snow is falling." The tension between them is broken by Jehan's arrival, the ominous weight of his words pressing down on them. The Seer's face is stricken, freckles standing out stark against his pale skin.
"The Red Snow is falling and the Thénardiers have disappeared. The Prince is gathering his strength again." Jehan announces. His eyes cut to Enjolras, sympathy radiating from every pore. "I'm sorry, Enjolras. But we need a Chosen."
Enjolras sinks to his knees, his fury draining away and leaving him broken and exhausted. The Red Snow hasn't fallen for hundreds of years. It's too convenient to be chalked up to coincidence; the Prince must have found a way to channel it to build up his power.
If the Red Snow is falling, they haven't got a choice.
"Fine. Fine. We'll look for a new Chosen. But they fight with us. Nothing more. No friendships, no communicating outside of training and battle, no getting attached. Not this time. The risk is too great. Understand?"
"We understand, Enjolras." Feuilly whispers. "More than you know."
One by one they leave, vanishing away on nimble feet; they have a war to prepare for. Combeferre is the last to go, expression troubled as he watches Enjolras. He pretends not to notice and eventually the other Guardian sighs and silently slips away, leaving Enjolras alone in the middle of the clearing.
He stares at the claw marks, pale gashes standing out bleakly against the dark bark of the tree.
"Do you trust me?"
Slowly, he crumples into himself, cradling his right hand to his chest and curling protectively around it.
"Do you trust me?"
Enjolras screams into the ground, body shaking with the force of it.
It doesn't matter if he cries. There's nothing living here to see him.
In the nearby village, Cosette pauses in the middle of tying her bonnet, gazing through the open door.
It almost looks like...
"Papa! Papa, it's snowing!" She pauses, frowning. "In...summer."
Moving to the doorway, she blinks up at the grey morning sky. "And it's...red?" Confused, she holds out a hand to catch some of the crimson flakes, flinching as their touch stings her palm like the angry bees Sister Simplice keeps. Yanking her hand back inside, she stares at it, carefully tracing a fingertip over the pink marks left behind by the snow. It almost looks like she's been burned.
Cosette sighs. It looks like she'll have to wait a while before visiting Marius.
"I don't think I'll be going out after all, Papa." She calls, pulling her bonnet off and carefully placing it on the side table. "Have you still got that waistcoat you need fixing?"
Her father's reply is muffled and slightly strained. Cosette would bet any money right now that he's moving the bookcases upstairs despite the doctor's advice for him to take it easy. Jean Valjean may have been absurdly strong in his youth, but age is catching up with him. Big as it is, her father's heart is beginning to fail him. No matter how much he denies it.
"You better not be moving furniture again!" She yells, smirking at the sudden guilty silence from upstairs. Moving to join him, she pauses, glancing back over her shoulder at the still-open door. She's not sure why, but the thickening flurry of snow makes her feel uneasy. As if someone is watching her.
She's being ridiculous. And yet...
Rolling her eyes at her own childishness, Cosette shuts the door and immediately feels better for it. If her father asks about it, she'll just say it was getting too cool for her liking despite the warm temperatures outside.
Something quietly scrapes across the floor upstairs.
"Leave the bookcase alone!"
On the other side of the village, Bishop Myriel is tending the less-visited graves at the edge of the churchyard when the snow starts to fall. He too is confused by the stinging nature of the flakes, but chooses to ignore it; his church garments protect the bulk of his body and he can overlook the odd prickle of discomfort on his hands and face.
When the snow picks up he concedes defeat and begins to hurry inside, air hissing between his teeth as determined flakes dart between his hair and robes to sting the back of his neck. A particularly strong gust of wind blows and he throws up an arm to shield his face, crying out as a flurry of flakes attack him.
It's like he's trapped in a whirlwind of needles, each one somehow managing to find a target despite his bishop's robes. The snow thickens, turning even his well-rambled churchyard into a strange world full of obstacles and traps. He can barely see anymore, barely think over the misery of thousands of snowflakes pelting his skin.
He should be at the church by now, he thinks, only to trip and fall, gasping in agony as he lands in a pile of fresh snow. Blinking it out of his eyes, he just about manages to make out the shattered remnants of a clay dog before the snow obscures it once again.
Except that that can't be right. That dog is on the Western side of the churchyard. In the complete opposite direction to where he'd been going.
He prays for guidance through this freak storm, prays to be protected from the evil that has surely set its sights on his poor village.
Oh, I like you. The voice comes out of nowhere, floating through the snow and slithering into his ears. The Bishop shudders, praying all the harder.
Such an honest, faithful man. A good man. I bet your flock just walk all over you. I bet you'd give them the clothes off your back if they asked. Pathetic. Haven't you realised yet? Love, friendship, care...it's all a lie. A childhood fairytale we whisper to ourselves as we writhe in the darkness. No one really cares. Not about anything other than themselves.
"You're wrong." The Bishop gasps, struggling to right himself and get to his feet. Except the snow is everywhere and he doesn't seem to be able to tell up from down anymore.
Am I, Bishop? Don't tell me you've never looked out at the crowd during your sermon and realised the hypocrisy of those lying snakes coming to hear you speak? They're not there to worship your God – they're there for themselves. They want to feel better, to pretend their sins don't exist. When one man reaches out to help another, he's not doing it because it's the right thing to do; he's doing it to forget the touch of that man's wife's lips last Tuesday night.
"You're wrong! There is good in humanity, in every soul. God made it so."
There's the sudden sensation of his chin being fiercely seized, sharp nails digging in so firmly that he fears the skin might break.
Even mine? The voice sounds amused now, like it's trying not to laugh.
"Even yours." The Bishop swears stubbornly. A high-pitched, delighted giggle sounds somewhere next to him and he shudders as lips suddenly brush his forehead in a tender mockery of a kiss.
You're so precious. I want to keep you. The voice whispers in his ear. Let's play a game, Bishop. I want to see what your soul is really made of.
The wind howls, a shrill shriek that blasts and rages through the village.
The snow swirls, thickening to a solid red blanket that writhes through the air and blocks out all light.
The Bishop screams.
When the storm passes, the churchyard is empty.