The air around me.
I was riding the giant golem Taavi, my feet digging uncomfortably into the squashy clay on his back between bits of bark and stones and leaves, while he carried my barely-conscious lover in two of his free arms and used the others to climb the giant tree that stood as an anchor to the center of the horrid Starving Forest- and I couldn’t get on my damned shirt.
After I’d taken the thing off of Kezia’s arm- where it was doing little good anyway, as far as I could tell- I’d tied it round my waist rather absentmindedly, considering all that had been happening: Vasilisa’s transformation, the grabby golem, the white roots in Kezia’s body. I wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with being shirtless, after all; and the only person I felt remotely modest around now was Kezia, and she was in no state for me to care about that. So I didn’t even spare a thought for my naked torso until I climbed atop the golem’s back as it started pulling itself up the woven trunk of the great tree. And then, in spite of all the horrible things I could have been focusing on- mainly the white roots worming their way through Kezia’s flesh- I realized how dratted uncomfortable it was to press against Taavi’s prickly body with bare breasts.
“Are you alright?” Kezia asked, in that faint little voice of hers, and I realized I’d been swearing aloud, and muttered a sheepish affirmative. Working the thing over my head without falling off the golem was turning out to be damned difficult, that was all. Why did he have to jam so many objects into himself? Kezia had been so cool and smooth and soft to press myself up against, shirt or no shirt. I wouldn’t quite say I preferred her golem body to her current one but I very much did prefer it over Taavi’s.
Focusing on the shirt was also keeping me from falling back into that terrible glassy-eyed panic I’d been in before Vasilisa had slapped me; frozen at the thought of being helpless as the tree rooted Kezia to the ground and split apart her insides. Oh, I could see it in my mind’s eye, remember the pain inflicted upon my own flesh- remember the feeling of watching the witch start to devour her. It would be similar. And I hated that I had frozen, because that was a slave’s response, a helpless response- going silent and rigid in the face of danger, I’d seen it so many times, and I had so much pride back then that I always found small ways to fight back. Even just in my own head.
I should have been free by now, but I wasn’t.
I got the shirt on, and wished I hadn’t, because now what was I going to do?
The great tree was immense. Of course I had seen it from below, and from above with a bird’s eyes, but actually climbing it made me realize how truly enormous it was. It made huge Taavi look tiny. Pale woody vines stretched out on either side like a wall, all woven round and grown in and out of each other, knotted and furled like wooden ivy. But it was so strong. It bore Taavi’s weight so easily, this odd, huge lattice, even though I knew it was hollow inside where the strange creature that made up the truth of the Treewitch lived. If you could call it living, which I supposed I wouldn’t.
Taavi hadn’t been climbing long, but looking down was already pretty harrowing. The ordinary-sized white trees below us already looked like saplings. Vasilisa had disappeared back into them as soon as Taavi’s clay foot had gone into the first rung, and good riddance for the most part- I couldn’t see any sign of her anymore. I hoped the accursed girl managed to stay awake long enough for us to get away, or at the very least that easier, more innocent prey had wandered into her range. Small chance, but dreams were dreams. Right now I could hardly bring myself to worry about her, or the way the barren ground was receding below us, and the precarious nature of my perch on the golem. Inevitably my thoughts circled back to Kezia, like a punch in the stomach.
I couldn’t see her unless I peered over Taavi’s massive shoulder, and I wasn’t making the attempt. I’d seen enough when we were on the ground, of the pain in her expression, and the fear- at first. Then the golem had picked her up and they had… connected?
I didn’t fully understand it, but there was no denying she’d gotten the thing to understand her. And if it was somehow helping her with the pain, well and good, and as for making dubious claims that it could help with the white roots- I didn’t dare let myself hold too much hope for that, not yet, but at least it was something to cling to. But the look in her eyes when the thing had pushed its hand against her navel had been utterly eerie. It was as though- it was- I hated to even think it, but it reminded me of Baba Yaga’s eyes. Wide and black and empty.
It was as though she was half-gone when she spoke, or looked at me; her words slurred and simple and drunken-sounding, her eyes barely focusing. I didn’t think she even heard Vasilisa and I half the time when we were speaking. She didn’t sound like the Kezia I knew. The golem felt more familiar to me now, as prickly as it was: at least I could feel the cool clay again underneath my toes. Strong, fearless, endearing in its naïveté; like the way Kezia had been before I’d had a corrupting influence on her. In spite of everything the memory made me smile. I supposed I’d developed a fondness for golems. And I wasn’t even Jewish.
Kezia was no longer a golem, though. I hardly knew what she was, only that she seemed to be withering away before my eyes. The most terrible part was that I likely could have prevented the whole thing, if only I had been paying more attention…
(If only I had kept that needle, long ago when I’d found it in the egg, we might have been long freed.)
(Then again, long ago if only I hadn’t followed that man at the fair, none of this damned foolishness ever would have happened. How many times would I think about that before my consciousness vanished off of the earth?)
I squeezed my fingers into Taavi’s broad shoulders and tilted my head back, as though that might spill out some of the thoughts crowding around inside of it. Instead I found myself gazing up at an endless red canopy, massive branches dense with thousands of tight-packed leaves, blocking out any glimpse of the sky. The only exception was the small hole Pascha had burned away before we’d defeated Baba Yaga.
I found my eyes inexorably turning back down towards the ground, which was even farther away now; the white trees looked like miniatures. I could still see the dark black spot the witch had left behind on the ruddy earth, a glaring blot on an otherwise unremarkable clearing. I shuddered.
A soft creak of wood made me whip my head back up, peering around Taavi’s side at the twisted trunk before us, with its dark, unfathomable gaps- some smaller than a fingertip, some large enough to fit my head through- but there was nothing amiss that I could spot, no writhing of branches, no glint of red eyes. I might have dismissed that creak as wind, but there was no wind here in this place without a sky.
Creak. There it was again. It wasn’t coming from the great tree, but from somewhere below. Louder. I squirreled myself around so that I could loop an arm around one of Taavi’s four and lean further outwards to look at the trees spreading below us. Even as high up as we were, there was no end in sight, only the endless ocean of trees in every direction. It was startling, looking from this spot, how stark the shadow of the great tree’s canopy was upon the forest. Beyond it, I saw ordinary dark trees in their fall colors, and further out, wearing naked branches for winter. But within the shadow grew only the white trees, growing outwards from their mother like a pale blight, delicate branches and bloodred leaves. It looked, to me, the way a mold did when it attacked a fruit, spreading outwards from a single spot and ruining whatever it touched. She had said that she was like a poison.
Movement caught my eye. The branches of some of the trees directly below us were waving, and I heard the whine of reluctant wood. Something large was coming? Or-
The ground shuddered, and the trees rose and fell like waves. My lonely heart leapt up into my throat.
“It’s Adamina!” I cried, thumping my fist against Taavi’s back. “Adamina is doing something- she’s moving!”
The golem paused in his ascent, and I leaned around his elbow to try and see Kezia, but she was blocked by his second pair of limbs, rudely edging me back. I heard her voice, though, soft and slightly dazed.
“Adamina? She is coming?”
“Coming- I don’t know!” Frantically I leaned back around; the trees were really rolling now, like the restless surf on a windy day, and I heard the creaking and snapping sounds as their branches jostled against one another, and the dull grinding noise of shifting earth. She wouldn’t move the base of the great tree- that’s what we had assumed, anyway, to keep her mistress safe- but now that seemed a fairly flimsy thing to stake our lives on, and I was shaking a little as I watched the forest roil beneath us like boiling water. The sheer power of it! I had forgotten how terrifying Adamina really was. Had I thought earlier that I was fond of golems?
A great swell of earth rolled towards us, and I nearly lost my grip on Taavi as everything suddenly lurched. A terrible groan rose from the wood of the great tree as the earth shifted. We had been wrong, wrong, wrong! I pounded on Taavi’s back.
“Climb, climb up, quickly, she’s going to come after us!”
But the big golem stayed where he was, hesitating, letting go with one hand so he could peer downwards, tilting his big head as though listening to something. My heart was hammering, and I managed to lean around and catch a glimpse of Kezia’s face- eyes wide and drained of blood.
“What’s the matter?” I cried, feeling dread settle over my shoulders like an old friend.
Her mouth worked, her eyes flickered- it was like watching one possessed; but then she managed to speak.
“He- he- he wants to go back down to her!”
“What?!” I felt a brush of that frozen panic again, for Kezia was in the golem’s arms and I was on his back- we were utterly subject to his whims! If he started climbing down-
“Why, why does he want to go back? Stop him! Tell him how terrible she is! Tell him-”
I stopped speaking, for suddenly the golem’s back had rippled, like the forest below me in miniature, sticks and stones jabbing at me like some pest to be sloughed off. Kezia said something indistinct as I clutched at the golem’s arm to stay aboard, heart hammering. My vision spun as the trees far below us seemed to dance.
“Taavi…” I heard Kezia say aloud. “Taavi… she is not your m-”
The golem abruptly moved, and my stomach twisted; he was lowering a foot, reaching for a handhold to climb down.
“NO!” shouted Kezia, and the golem froze, and I froze, never having heard a shout like that from her- and as the earth below us writhed, Taavi slowly started moving upwards again. I squeezed out what little breath I had in a sigh of relief.
And then Kezia gave a peculiar cry, soft and anguished, and the arm I was holding flopped straight down, sending me swinging perilously out into open space.
“No- no- no-”
Kezia’s voice, inconsolable. I dug my fingernails into the golem’s arm, gritting my teeth, and kicked out my feet until I could brace myself on his side again. I think if I’d had anything in my stomach I’d have lost it then. Kezia was mumbling and sobbing as I managed to clamber back up to a safer spot, shoving my toes deep into the golem’s flesh, leaning around to reach for her.
To my horror, Taavi’s arm had fallen away from her as well, and she was now precariously supported between the golem’s stomach and the trunk of the tree. Any movement on his part would dislodge her and send her tumbling down. I reached for her, caught her ankle, as though I might be able to somehow bear her weight.
“Don’t let her go!” I pleaded, but Taavi was motionless, two of his four arms hanging down limp, his hollow eyes trained upon Kezia. She had her uninjured arm covering her face, and her navel, I realized, was bared- they had broken their connection.
She was weeping, tears rolling down her cheeks; I squeezed her ankle, cried out, “Kezia! You must speak to him- we’re going to fall! Kezia! What happened?!”
She lifted her arm just enough to look at me, eyes rimmed with red, and said, “I- I- I controlled him!”
I couldn’t comprehend a word. She continued in a shaky voice as I stared.
“He- was not listening- he was climbing down to be with Mother-”
She didn’t even appear to notice the slip.
“-to be with Mother, and I couldn’t stop him with words, and without thinking I- I know how to move this body, and I- I made him move back up!”
Perhaps she read horror in my eyes, for she whimpered, “I- I did not intend to! Oh, Gabi!”
“Kezia- it’s-” I fumbled for words, shaken; she had controlled Taavi? How could that even be possible? She could control things- or only golems? Or only Taavi? Was she even sure she’d done it? But we had no time to think about this now! I swung around to jam a foot into one of the gaps in the trunk, grimacing from the bruising impact, still gripping her ankle and Taavi’s arm as though I could hold the three elements together under my own power.
“What did he say, Kezia? What is he going to do now? Should I-”
The earth rumbled, and my stomach abruptly rose to my throat, filling my mouth with bile; it felt like the world had been thrust abruptly up. My sweaty fingers lost their grip on Kezia’s ankle and for a moment time slowed to a crawl as I watched Taavi’s body swing back and away from her from the aftershock.
For a moment I saw her suspended in the air, and her eyes met mine in an awful instant, and then two pale hands reached out and grasped her by the arm.
I choked out something- not a word, an inarticulate noise. Kezia dangled from her injured arm, her eyes squeezed tight shut, and- who held her? The hands had come out through the gaps in the latticework of the great tree, and now I glimpsed pale faces- faces without eyes- the fadua!
Suddenly they were clustered at every opening, grinning at me; waxy imitations of Crina. More arms shot out to grab at Kezia, pinning her back against the tree trunk, and I cursed and kicked at them, grabbing for a handhold on the trunk and finding my hand curling around freezing skin instead. With a shout, I let go, and my foot swung free, and my other hand ripped away with a handful of Taavi’s clay, and I was fa l l i n g . . .
The breath was squeezed out of me as I stopped with a jolt, shirt constricting my chest; Taavi had grabbed the back of it. I swung, dizzy, from his grasp and was knocked painfully in the head by something- o, God, it was Kezia’s foot! The white hands were moving her, pulling her through a large gap in the lattice- she had almost vanished. Desperately I grabbed her ankle and held on, fighting that ferocious tug- and then I lost my grip, lost it again, and lost Kezia.
The gap was empty, the white hands withdrawn as quickly as they had appeared, the pale faces hidden once more. Hanging from the back of my shirt, hardly able to breathe, I could not release the howl building up within me; instead I wheezed and reached for the empty space where she had vanished.
Taavi yanked me back up, slammed me into a painfully tight grip against his side. The world was rocking back and forth, tree-lined mountains rising where there had been none before. I fought against the massive arm wrapped around my waist.
“Kezia!” I screamed. “They took Kezia! Through there! Let me-”
I caught a glimpse of something pale moving within the tree, and then Taavi was climbing up, up, up, much more quickly than before, shedding rocks and twigs and leaves in his haste and sending them whirling to the earth far below. I heard the hiss of air from within the tree and I really was howling now, howling and struggling and cursing him- “Let me go! Let go! Damn you! She’s- damn you!”
I could do nothing against a golem. Taavi carried me up as though I were a mewling kitten, up and up and up, far from the spot where Kezia had been taken away, up and up and up and-
I barely had time to register that he was grabbing branches instead of trunk before we burst up with a crunch and I went blind.
The sunlight was shocking. I hadn’t experienced it in so long. I dug the heels of my palms into my smarting eyes as Taavi came to a stop with a great crunching and snapping of branches. The leaves rustled. I heard a bird singing. Far below, there still came a distant rumble of the earth.
Taavi let go of me and I fell onto something thick and soft- leaves- and managed to drag my palms away and squint up at the sky.
White. Seamless white. For a moment I couldn’t understand it, until Taavi’s big head loomed into view. The sky was covered over in clouds, the sun a pale yellow circle glowing behind them. The leaves against my back were warm, but the air was biting cold. I shivered. A tiny piece of the clouds seemed to come off and landed on the tip of my nose.
Another loud crunch made me snap my attention back to Taavi, who was slowly sinking as the branches beneath him snapped; the canopy wasn’t built to carry a golem. The canopy! We had reached the top of the tree! But without Kezia-
“Taavi!” I cried out, as he continued to sink, and finally ducked out of view. I tried to scramble up after him, but my foot shot out into empty space- the leaves I was lying on were concealing more branches, more places for me to fall through, and I froze, my eyes trained on the large hole that Taavi had left behind.
Snowflakes were whirling gently down, landing in my hair and eyelashes, making me blink, as though the sky cared not about the horrors that lay beneath. Numbly I recalled that it was winter. The snow melted before it hit the leaves; the great tree gave off too much warmth, keeping the earth below it in perpetual spring.
And the red leaves spread around me like a vast, rustling blanket under the cold sky, with the grey air filled with slow, silent snow, and for a moment I thought I had been carried into another world entirely.
I shook my head; I had to stop staring and figure out how to get back down, find the spot where Kezia had been taken, had to get her back from the fadua, had to stop the white roots, had to-
What if they had already torn her apart and eaten her, o, God, what if it was already too late, there had been so many of them- Taavi had betrayed us- a moment of control and he had betrayed us- I had given him free will!
“Damnit, Gabi, I know you can hear me!”
A cloud shifted, and for a moment a shaft of light hit me straight in the eyes. I yelped and nearly fell back through the leaves.
“Hear- hear-” I grasped a branch, shifted my legs until they felt somewhat stable, and stared around wildly. “Hear you?”
“Strigoi have such short memories,” said the voice, melancholy and light and male and familiar, very familiar, but where was he?
“Have you forgotten about me?”
“Where- where are you?”
“Right here, Gabi.”
Again I looked around, again saw only a carpet of fluttering leaves and silent snow.
“I can’t see you!”
“Yes you can. I’m in the air all around you. Calm down, you’re going to fall and I’m afraid I can’t catch you.”
“You’re-” My lips were numb, my teeth starting to chatter, but I hardly felt the cold. “I don’t understand- Pascha?”
“Aye, that’s what the witch called me. But soon enough I won’t remember that name.”
The gap in the clouds grew, and the snow eased up, only a few sporadic flakes coming down here and there. The weak light of the winter sun cast a soft warmth on my skin.
“…In a few thousand years, probably.”
I gazed up, squinting, searching for some kind of familiar figure.
“Don’t bother. The witch bound us in shapes that pleased her, but we never had form up here. It seems I forgot all about it when she imprisoned me. I forgot many, many things. But when you all killed her, we three returned home.”
I stared at the clouds, unable to look quite directly at the sun, and realized I felt… Well, they were free. Really free. I’d nearly forgot about it completely with all the excitement, but. We’d done it. They’d done it.
I didn’t know what I wanted to say. My tongue was as numb as my lips.
“Don’t tell me you’re about to cry, Gabi.”
“Shut up! Don’t flatter yourself! Are… are the others there with you?”
A moment of silence, and between the red and the white I was half-afraid I’d imagined him entirely. Then he spoke again.
“They’re where they belong. Kazimir behind me and Zakhar in front. At dusk and dawn, I expect they’ll greet you as well.”
“Ah…” I realized that the soft note of melancholy in his voice hadn’t ever left, even when he was talking about gaining his freedom. “I suppose that’s only… polite.”
“Centuries of servitude have at least taught us manners.” He paused. “I’m glad you came up here. I can’t see at all through that canopy, except through that little hole I made, and nobody was stepping in the light.”
“Sorry. We weren’t aware you were still around.”
“Well, that monster of a golem left a big one behind, so I can see a bit better now. Where is Kezia?”
My heart seized. “She- the fadua hiding in the tree took her. I must get back down to her, but- Pascha, can you help me at all? I don’t have much power as I am now!”
“Oh, look at this- Gabi, the haughty strigoi, asking so nicely for assistance!” He chuckled in the air around me, as I pressed my lips together in a tight line. “From me, no less! I am an omnipotent spirit of the high sun, only recently freed and eager to escape the trivial affairs on the ground- what makes you think I’ll bend over myself to help you?”
I hissed out through my teeth. “Well! If that’s the way it is, I’m wasting my time here, and Kezia’s as well, and I’m going to climb back down!” I put both hands on a thick branch, feeling downwards with my foot, and winced when the leaves trembled as another tremor passed below us.
“Oh, stop!” exclaimed Pascha, before I could move again. “I wasn’t serious! I haven’t even got a waist to bend over with now. Of course I’d like to help you and Kezia.”
I scowled at a vague spot somewhere in the sky.
“There isn’t exactly time to be joking around, Pascha! The fadua could be eating her as we-”
“No, these ones are only the husks, remember? They’re all controlled by the Treewitch. They don’t exactly need to eat.”
I pressed my lips together. Come to think of it, they could have dropped us both if they were that eager to murder us. What was Crina up to with this? And what was Adamina doing, rattling the earth all around like this?
“You’re more powerful than you were now that you’re free, right, Pascha?”
“So- could you burn away part of the tree, or open it with-”
“Not at all.”
“You can’t come down and-”
“I don’t even have a body to move with, so I can’t go down anywhere.”
“You told me you were more powerful just a moment ago!”
“Yes, I can see across all the oceans and continents as I pass, and look down into parts of the earth unseen by the eyes of any man, and fathom thousand-year-old secrets you will never comprehend, and also make the sunlight mildly brighter sometimes. It’s all quite powerful, and I couldn’t do any of that before.”
“Though I suppose it’s not terribly useful to you right now.”
“No! It isn’t! Damn it, Pascha, you said you were going to help!”
“I’d like to! Please stop shouting at me!”
I shut my mouth and settled for a furious look, though likely not as furious as he deserved. I’d never admit aloud that I’d missed talking to him.
“Better,” said Pascha, sounding a shade happier than he should have. “Now listen here-”
He hesitated. The distant tremors had grown markedly louder, and I grabbed onto the branches around me as the entire canopy swayed. Quite suddenly I shouted, for a section of trees had risen into view as the earth bulged upwards into a slope. Finally I realized what was going on.
“Adamina- she’s moving the forest again?”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
So she hadn’t been after us at all? The realization didn’t set my mind nearly as much at ease as it should have. “But why? Why now? They haven’t taken over another village, have they-”
“No, no, the trees need all spring and summer to sprout inside their hosts. Ask me how I know that.”
“Apologies! Urgency is difficult when you’ve become timeless and all-seeing. It looks to me like she’s trying to expand the forest another way now that the Baba has been removed from the area. North of here lies the forest where I got struck by lightning, do you recall it?”
“Muma Balaur’s forest!”
“Yes, yes, that’s it. The front part of Adamina is moving in that direction- you ought to feel the tremors soon- I’ll bet she’s going to try and snatch it all up.”
I muttered some choice words about the golem. I was nearly actually insulted by how little attention this meant she had been paying Kezia and I; were we that unimportant? It was good, of course, but- annoying. Especially considering what could be happening to Kezia right now!
The rumbles reached us, and the tree swayed. I had the very, very vague sensation of everything moving forwards, as though I were on a gigantic ship, or at least the way I’d imagined it would be; the largest nautical vehicle I’d been on was a narrowboat. I couldn’t see any of Adamina’s features at all, only the slope of the trees rising up unnaturally in front of me, so the great tree must have been positioned on her back. Likely the safest spot she should keep it. So we had been right about that, in a way.
Muma Balaur wasn’t likely to take this attack lying down, if I remembered the witch at all. Adamina would likely have some sort of fight on her massive hands… It would be a spectacle. I looked back up at the sky.
“You said you know quite a bit more than you used to, is that correct?”
I licked my lips, ignoring how frozen this made them feel in the cold air.
“Do you happen to know, in that newly big head of yours, how to destroy the Treewitch?”
Soft laughter filled my ears.
“As a matter of fact, I do.”