It was too dark to see, but I could feel the bodies all around me, cold arms circling my waist, soft palms against my cheeks, fingers twining through my short hair. I pushed back against them with my good arm, but my muscles felt so weak and sore, like I had just been born again. I had all the strength of an infant.
My left arm burned, as though it were afire. In the darkness it was easy to recede inside myself, as Taavi had shown me, and feel the rootlets seeking, feeding, pushing forward. But I could no longer understand precisely where they were in my flesh, not without him to guide me there, and he likely never would again after I had… Guilt stabbed at me, and I squirmed fruitlessly in the darkness’ grasp. I had done a terrible thing, a terrible thing, and now I paid for it.
In the warm silence the fadua moved me slowly downwards, gently, passing me like a helpless little bundle from one to the next. After a time, I stopped trying to struggle. They were not hurting me, though I did not know where I was being carried. I was inside the hollow center of the giant tree, that much I understood, and Gabi had told me that the true form of Mother Forest was inside here, and that it was horrible… I should be on my guard. But my arm hurt very much and I could barely move. At least I did not think that Gabi had been dragged in here with me. No doubt things would have been much louder if she had.
Just as I thought this, I heard a soft noise, and tensed.
It was like a little whine, or mewl; the sound of an infant, or a small animal. The arms of the fadua swung me down one final time, and my back touched cold dirt with a soft thump, and their soft grasp receded. For a moment I was left flailing in the darkness, with no point of orientation, groping and kicking like an upended turtle. My fingers brushed something soft and warm, and I gasped and yanked them back.
That plaintive mewl filled the warm air around me again, and murky redness began to swim into the corners of my vision. I blinked. My eyes were beginning to perceive some sort of light, though faint. I managed to roll onto my side, and beheld the outline of a small dark cat sitting before me.
The cat blinked its single eye. As my eyes adjusted further, I realized it was not Noroc, but the other Domovoi, the new one that Mother Forest had ensnared. Noroc was… My mind flashed to the image of how I had last seen him, his body motionless on the forest floor. Dead…? No, no, he was not, he was too strong for that; after all he had been through to stay alive, to keep existing; I would not believe that he was gone now.
The nameless Domovoi stared down at me, eye thinning as though it did not like what it saw, then rose to its feet in a fluid motion and stepped away from me. It had been blocking something from my view, another, larger shape. I blinked and struggled to push myself up with my good arm. There was something vaguely familiar about the silhouette. The air around it swam with golden motes of dust, stirring in an invisible breeze; and I smelled a sickly-sugary scent that made my head feel dull and numb.
The figure before me moved, and bent slightly; I heard wood creaking. The lattice of hardened vines and rotten wood that surrounded us seemed to draw inward, as though with breath, and I felt more warm air rising from the ground beneath me. Soft little roots squirmed beneath my fingers like worms. I managed to jerk myself upright onto my knees, cradling my aching left arm. My head was starting to swim. Poison! I mustn’t forget that the great tree was the source of poison; I had to try and keep myself awake through it. At least the pain was helping me with that.
I tried to focus on the figure in front of me again, to perceive the enemy for what she truly was, and saw…
Of course it was a girl; that should not have surprised me, though I had expected something more- No, but it was not just a girl. Not a fadua, either, this I felt certain of. For unlike the fadua, this girl was at odds with the greenery surrounding her- caught tight inside a twisted, wizened little tree, both hands trembling as she kept a long, spiralling crack forced open, revealing bits and pieces of her- a pale thigh, colorless hair, blood tricking down an arm, an open mouth with red lips.
“Kezia,” she gasped.
I jolted at the sound of my name, then gritted my teeth, shutting my eyes as a wave of pain rolled over me. My arm had pulsed with her voice.
The Domovoi, still standing in attendance somewhere to my right, made a low sound. I felt the slightest tremor from the earth beneath me, as the column of wood around us creaked.
“Help me,” said the girl, trapped inside the twisted tree. “Please help me.”
I shouted, and the cat hissed at me- my arm was afire with agony.
“S- stop! You are hurting me!”
The great tree creaked and groaned as the earth shivered again. Something brushed the top of my head, and I snapped my eyes open. I caught a glimpse of the pale faces of the fadua peering down at us before they crawled back up into the darkness again with soft scratching sounds.
“I didn’t mean to,” said the girl, more softly, and I flinched. White roots were creeping up my thighs, and I tried to scrape them away with my elbow, gritting my teeth.
“Then stop! If you do not mean to, then stop, Crina!”
The Domovoi gave a long low whine, pawing at the flower growing from its eye socket, for a moment. The girl inside the tree was silent, though I saw her pale hands shaking harder. Warm anger was starting to fill me, rising up from beneath my breastbone, from Gabi’s heart.
“Help you,” I said. “Why should I help you? You are killing me!”
The wood of the twisted little tree groaned, and the whole thing twisted.
“Please,” she whispered, a tinge of desperation coloring her tone.
The girl’s fingers slipped from the sides of the crack, and it snapped shut, locking her out of sight. I heard scratching, and the muffled sound of her voice from within her wooden tomb, but it stayed shut.
In spite of myself, I felt a dull sort of anxious pity. Was this creature really Mother Forest? There was something that did not quite- It just did not seem like her, the way it spoke. It was more childlike than Crina, even though the body inside the tree looked older…
The scratching coming from the inside of the little tree was unnerving, an reminder of what my own fate could be. I tried to shake the fugue from my senses and managed to stagger to my feet, roots ripping away from where they had wound themselves over my thighs. My left arm bumped my hip where it dangled uselessly, and a rushing noise filled my ears as my vision briefly went black. I stumbled and grabbed something wet and slimy for balance.
It was the inside of the great tree. When my vision cleared I saw my fingers curling into rotten wood, warm and soaked and stinking, so decrepit it fell to pieces under my touch. I snatched my hand back. The fadua clinging to the walls above me hissed softly, in unison.
“You are decaying,” I said aloud, staring at my black-stained hand. “From the inside… How does this tree still stand?”
No answer but the creak of wood. I stumbled again, unsure if it was due to dizziness or if the earth was moving beneath my feet. Either way this place was full of bad air, and I needed to get out and away; but how? I looked all around and saw only dark, rotten walls, oozing with putrefaction. There were no gaps here. I looked up along the hollow center of the great tree and saw it flooded with faint reddish light like mist. The hole I had come through was up there somewhere, but I was not going to get back through it; even if I had the strength and two good arms, the fadua lurked up there to stop me, just out of sight.
I coughed; the back of my throat and the inside of my nose were beginning to burn. Every second I stayed here was a second too long. Maybe it was Gabi’s heart inside my chest, but I felt sure that at least I should stop Mother Forest from having me, if I were going to die, if only from spite. I did not want to die, but if I was, at least let it not be for her.
A thumping noise reminded me of the presence of the Domovoi, and I turned to see it scratching behind an ear with its hind leg, still cattish in spite of everything. It had gotten in here somehow, so there must be some cat-sized opening I was not seeing… But where?
A very unpleasant idea occurred to me.
I shuffled back to face the rotten wall, my left arm throbbing. With my good hand I reached and touched the black muck with my fingertips, flinching at the wetness and the give. But it did give. And when I pushed, the soft fibers of rotten wood parted for my fingers with a low grinding sound, and kept parting- my fingers disappeared into the black and I felt them encased in tight, wet heat that made me gag. The great tree creaked and groaned around me.
Still I pushed forward, forcing my way through the rotten wood, scraping blindly with my fingernails- if I could even make a small hole, to let air in, that might help me survive! My wrist vanished, and my forearm slipped in, fetid moisture oozing from the wall around me and dripping down my elbow. I held my breath from the stench, stubbornly pushing, digging, scraping- now I had worked in past my elbow, surely I would break through soon.
The wet, ragged opening I had made clamped around my bicep, and the sickly idea that I was not pushing, but being swallowed occurred to me for a moment as more of my skin vanished into the black rot. But that could not be, for I felt the tree resisting my intrusion, rotten as it was; my fingers worked harder and harder to scratch out an opening, and soon I was up to my shoulder, cheek pressing against the soaked wall as I searched for a way through. How could it be this thick without my fingers breaking into open air?
Rotten liquid seeped down my cheek into the corner of my mouth, and I choked and gagged, pulling away and withdrawing some of my filthy arm from the wall. Perhaps- perhaps it was the wrong angle that I was pushing towards. I leaned back in and tried to dig in a different direction, and almost at once my fingers encountered something hard and solid. Perhaps it was the solid wood of the outside of the tree? Encouraged, I pressed in close again and tried to probe the object, feeling some contours, a slight give- and then bone-crushing pressure as something snapped shut around my fingers.
With a shout I jerked back, but the thing clamped onto my arm came with me, splitting the wood with a great squelch, raining rotten fibers down on my face. I staggered and dragged back my arm, heart thundering, stumbling on writhing white roots as they rose from the ground, choking as my useless left arm smacked against my side. I managed to brace myself enough to drag my arm completely out of the rotten wall, and finally out came my hand, and attached to it, thin white fingers that crushed my own in their grip.
The rotten wood oozed and split, and out of it emerged something ghostly pale; a face, a girl’s face with eyes made of seeping rotten much, her mouth open and gaping at me; I yanked my hand out of her grasp and fell backwards, my head slamming against something hard. Black splinters fell out of the girl’s mouth as she spoke.
I uttered an involuntary sound, hand over my hammering heart, as the girl wriggled and vanished back into the wall with another shower of rotten splinters. A fadua. Only a fadua, only a fadua. I gulped air; as acrid as it tasted, I needed it at the moment. Only a fadua!
I looked at my trembling right hand. It was filthy and my fingers ached as though they had been sprained by the fadua’s tight grasp, but I could still use it. I still had one hand.
The Domovoi was yowling, tail lashing as it glared at the mess the fadua had left behind, every hair on its arched back erect. For a second it seemed to stagger, as though suddenly dizzy, and then bent to rub the side of its face against the ground, the side with the flower growing out of it. White roots wriggled up and poured into its eye socket.
I gagged. My stomach seemed to be jumping inside my belly, pressing up against my throat and filling me with a feeling of thick nausea. It was as almost as bad as pain, this feeling, and I covered my mouth with my dirty hand, afraid that I might vomit blood the way Vasilisa had.
I held still as the feeling washed over me; after a few moments it eased, as did the twitching of the Domovoi, which slowly went limp and slid bonelessly to the ground. More white roots traced the shape of its body, tying it down. Fibers were tickling my own feet; I raised them up onto the hard thing I was sitting against to get them out of the way. Speaking of which… what was my back against…?
A soft scratching noise near my ear told me what it was before I even turned to look; I jolted to my feet upon the realization and stumbled around. I had been leaning against the little twisted tree.
For a moment I stared at it in silence, breathing hard. The scratching came again, then eased off; then there was a soft tapping sound, as though the person inside was knocking.
This tree was solid, not rotten. With a mixture of reluctance and sick curiosity, I reached out and tapped back.
The reaction was immediate. With a loud crick-crick-crick, the tree twisted, splintered; a new crack opened, pale fingers reaching out and groping for me. I shied away, curling my recently injured hand into a fist.
“Don’t run!” cried the girl, and the hand withdrew, and a bright red eye replaced it at the crack. “Please!”
I stayed where I was, arm’s length from the tree; I could not have run away in any case. There was nowhere I could run to.
“Don’t try to escape,” hissed the girl, red eye blinking rapidly. “We won’t let you.”
The words were ominous, but for some reason they also seemed like a warning, not a threat. I swallowed, tasting ammonia in the air.
“I,” corrected the girl, though for a moment I thought a hint of confusion colored her voice, and her eye disappeared as her hands came back, squirming and struggling to widen the tiny gap. The wood around it groaned in protest.
“How-” I hesitated, warnings that sounded as though they were in Gabi’s voice filling my head: do not, do not try to speak to it, it is danger, it is a trap. I pressed my good hand briefly against my chest, feeling the strong heartbeat there.
“How is it you came to be trapped there?”
The scrabbling of the girl’s hands ceased, and now I saw her lips through the narrow opening as she spoke.
“In this tree,” I said. “Are you really- Who are you?”
“You know who I am,” said the girl, and for a moment her voice dipped lower, into a more familiar timbre; then her hand pressed over her red mouth and she said something muffled.
“What?” I asked, inching warily closer, eyeing the little tree; if it showed any dangerous signs I would get away from it, but the white roots on the ground seemed less active directly surrounding it, and I was not keen to look like the Domovoi did now, covered over in a spiderwebbing of them.
“Kezia,” the girl hissed, and I winced, feeling my left arm throb again. “Kezia-”
“But what is your name?” I repeated stubbornly. “That one is mine!”
The red eye was back, glaring.
“It isn’t yours, golem!”
I jerked back as though I had been slapped. That had sounded like- it was in- her voice, my voice, Kezia’s voice!
“No, don’t,” said the girl, and she no longer sounded like the other Kezia. “Please.”
I looked back at the rotten hole the fadua had made, around at the blackened inside of the tree, up at the column of red mist above me- I wished so badly to get out of this place, right now. I felt sick, and not just from the poisonous air.
“Don’t… Do not what?”
“Do not help you?” I said, thoroughly confused.
She did not seem to be listening. Perhaps she was even more confused than I was. I was beginning to suspect, more and more, that this was not Mother Forest, or at least it was not the one I had become familiar with: this was an unknown part. And it made me feel terribly uneasy, because it had used Kezia’s voice for a moment, and because a small part of me wanted to pity it.
But I was not as naive as I had once been. I was wary now.
“Help you how?” I asked, carefully. Since there was not much else I could do, I might as well satisfy my curiosity; that did not mean I was becoming sympathetic or anything.
Perhaps the creature had not expected this question, for it went very quiet, and the red eye snapped off, and I did not hear any movement from inside the little tree. I was a little bit surprised, for I had assumed that the obvious answer would be for me to help get her out of the thing.
I cleared my throat, and coughed, feeling a headache threatening, and decided to change the subject.
“Is there…” I had to be careful about my wording. Do not try to escape, she had warned me before, perhaps that meant do not sound like I was trying to escape when I spoke, as well. Was it a strange game?
“Is there a place here where I can get some fresh air?” I asked, slowly. “My head hurts, and it would help me think more clearly.”
The silence lingered so long I was afraid that I had lost her completely, or perhaps lost my own mind; but then the red eye reappeared, and she spat out, “Ghinion!”
The word left me bewildered, but then a tearing sound made me look over to the Domovoi, which was struggling out of its cocoon of roots, wriggling backwards until it emerged completely.
“Ghinion,” said the girl, “give air; let the outside air flow through the trunk again.”
The Domovoi- which I gathered was named, or had been newly named Ghinion- blinked his single eye, then walked directly into the wall and melted into it.
I stared at the rotten wood where he had vanished somewhat despondently, gripping my bad arm; it seemed I would not be able to leave the same way he had come after all.
But then, moments later, I felt a cool tickle on the tip of my nose, and opened my mouth wide and- a breeze! A real breeze, not the soupy mist that lurked within the great tree, not the thick stench of rot- this was good air, like the air from outside the forest! I took great gulps of it, as though I had been drowning, which was near enough; the pounding in my head immediately began to subside.
“Thank you!” I cried, my chest fluttering, as I tilted my head back to try and see where that wonderful trickle of air had come from.
“Is it good?” said the girl, sounding wistful. I did not answer right away, still staring upwards, but I saw only the same reddish light, and no visible hole or gap in the rotten trunk.
“It is good. My head is not spinning anymore.”
This made the girl giggle, and she sounded very childish when she did. I looked back at the tree, and saw that she was trying to widen the crack with her hands again.
“You have helped me,” I said. “Shall I try to help you?”
I took a cautious step forward. “Help you get-”
The eye blurred, and the girl’s lips were at the crack again. She put one finger over them. I swallowed the word out.
“We can not say such things,” I said, instead. “Is that right?”
“The forest is not listening now,” whispered the girl. “Because you will die here soon.”
“You will, and if not- a word, a feeling, the forest will listen, because you must die here.”
Her words were garbled, nonsensical, but I felt that there was a definite message, another warning.
“Are you and the forest-”
Again the girl’s pale finger pressed up against her lips.
“No and yes,” she whispered. “Please… Kezia.”
Her words still made the roots inside my arm twinge, but now the fresher air I was breathing was helping, and the pain felt less than it had before.
“The forest is not listening,” I repeated.
“Because you will die here,” she finished.
“Oh,” I said. “Because I will die, the forest does not need to listen.”
“But you are listening.”
Hesitation. “No and yes.”
“You need help.”
“But you want me to help you.”
I stepped a little closer to the tree, dropping my voice lower, though it likely would not matter either way.
“You got me air,” I whispered. “Can you make it so… so my arm does not hurt anymore?”
I was close enough now that I could see every detail of the red eye when it reappeared at the crack; how the red seeped into the white from the iris, and the pupil was not black, but colorless.
“No,” she murmured back. “I’m sorry. I love you.”
I drew back, feeling an odd pang, but it was likely only more nonsense.
“I understand,” I said, as though I did. “But… you can command, um, Ghinion. What else can you have him do?”
Blink, blink. She did not appear to grasp this question. Perhaps I needed to be more specific. But I could not think of anything more specific than that, without using phrases like escape or get out or leave. I might be able to try saying opening, or door, but I had a feeling I would not be allowed to get away with it.
Perhaps I had better try acting instead of speaking.
I put my fingers lightly along the seam that led up to that thin crack, feeling along it, and the eye widened and withdrew. After a moment the thin white fingers emerged, and lightly brushed against mine.
I pulled back, and those same fingers gripped around the wood tightly, white-knuckled.
“I- I would help you try to pull it open,” I whispered, hoping I was not coming too closely to saying dangerous words, “but- you see- my fingers on one hand are not working very much right now. I do not have the strength.”
Her hand withdrew, vanishing back into the dark, and I heard sounds- shifting, or scraping, as though she was struggling to move around. I could not suppress a sudden shudder, for I had inadvertently imagined what it must be like, being trapped in such a tight, claustrophobic little space. And she had been bleeding, too.
I did not understand. What was she, really, in relation to Mother Forest?
I put my hand out and touched the diagonal seam on the tree again, and then nearly lost my balance as the ground suddenly shifted beneath my feet. I thought I heard a cat’s distant yowl over a deep, ominous rumbling sound.
“Adamina?” I said aloud, feeling a sudden tight pinch in my chest, a fear-anticipation that she might suddenly rise up here, from the root-covered ground. But after a moment the rumbling ceased, and no golem emerged from the earth.
“Ah,” said the thing inside the tree, and I jumped as more wood suddenly split apart with a crack, and I caught sight of her pale, bare belly before she wedged her hip against the new opening, keeping it there with her own delicate-looking flesh.
“Be careful!” I said, now alarmed, for it looked as though it was painful, the way the wood was clamping down on her vein-lined skin, and indeed in spots it was starting to turn red and split, bright blood spilling down her thigh.
“Adamina,” she said, as though she had not heard me, nor felt the pain. “Adamina, yes?”
“Y-yes?” I was not sure what I was saying yes to. “She is the one making the ground move, is she not?”
“I love Adamina,” the girl told me, her voice clear and warm. “You love her too, don’t you, Kezia?”
My arm twinged. I gripped it and did not answer.
“Because she made you,” the girl continued, heedless. “She made you. You’re a part of her.”
I held back my words, the immediate protest that rose to my lips, and it was a good thing that I did.
“You are a part of her,” murmured the girl. “Kezia is Adamina. Adamina is Kezia. I have their secret.”
For some reason, blood was rushing in my ears.
“I keep it safe for you,” whispered the girl. “Because I love you. Under my feet, in the safest place, the secret, the golem’s silver truth.”