Things were looking especially grim, though that was par for the course.
I had completely lost sight of Taavi after he had been attacked by the fadua, and that wonderful shaft of light had vanished. So too had Pascha, by proxy. I knelt in the darkness inside the trunk of the tree, Kezia half-draped over my chest, bound to the earth by the roots growing out of her arm. At the very least I could still feel the soft flutter of her pulse beneath my fingers. I was not sure whether or not I wished for her to wake up at all; it seemed she would be in terrible pain, and I could not comfort her. The chances of Taavi managing to shed enough light on the tree-monster to kill her seemed to be growing very slim.
Still, I shifted Kezia back into my lap so I could cup both hands around my mouth to shout upwards.
There was no reply. It was a pointless thing, really- was I expecting him to answer? I strained my ears nonetheless. It seemed very quiet. I couldn’t even hear the sound of them scuffling around up there anymore. Had somebody won? If so, it didn’t seem like that somebody had been the golem…
But it really was strangely quiet. The silence was pressing on my ears in an unfamiliar way. Had it not been noisy for quite a while now? But with what? What was I… ah!
I smacked my fist on my palm, eyes wide, as the realization came to me. The rumbling had stopped! The crunching, grinding, shifting of the trees- the shaking of the earth. Adamina’s activity had gone silent.
I cocked my head, looking down. In the dull red light that permeated the tree, the pale rootlets that covered the dirt looked like frozen worms. Automatically I brushed off my knees, but nothing had started to grow over them. Adamina had stopped- and had the Treewitch stopped, as well? The twisted tree was shut tight and silent before me. Nothing moved. Only I- and the slow rise and fall of Kezia’s chest where she lay in my lap.
It was as though the world were holding its breath around the two of us. I did not like the feeling. It made it seem as though I ought to be doing something except just sitting there.
So, with some trepidation, I gently shifted Kezia to the ground, smoothing down the fabric of my undergarments, and got to my feet.
The timid words fell from my lips before I could think of anything better, and I had to wince. Not like anything in the darkness was going to answer me, and if it did, I should hope to make a stronger impression than that. In any case, nothing answered.
I edged around Kezia towards the shrivelled tree in the center of the- of the other tree. Not that I wanted to wake it up from whatever stupor it had fallen into, but it had seemed before that perhaps all the parts of the Treewitch were not working in tandem. And- it also occurred to me- I might be able to snap off a large enough branch to help dig Kezia’s roots out of the ground and free her.
Assuming I was able to pull a branch off it at all without things going very badly. The continued silence seemed increasingly untrustworthy to me. I couldn’t help but glance upwards, wishing dearly to see any sign that the dratted golem was still with us, but there wasn’t even the white flicker of a fadua’s leg. Had they eaten him all up?
A nervous shudder travelled over me, and with a muttered curse, I reached for the nearest withered branch. The touch of the over-warm wood made my skin crawl, but nothing else terrible happened. The long cracks in the trunk stayed tight shut.
I took a slow breath, then yanked. The dry wood snapped more easily than I’d been expecting, and I stumbled backwards, branch in hand. Something wet and warm landed on my arm and I jolted, dropping the stick. Dark liquid was rolling down towards my palm. It smelled like blood.
I swore, more loudly this time, and snatched the branch back up, wielding it in front of myself like a sword. The core of it was wet and dark, but I pretended I hadn’t seen that.
“If you’re going to move, I’d prefer you do it now,” I snapped at the tree, “or else let me- augh!”
I dropped the branch once again, for the earth near my feet suddenly bulged, and spat something small up towards me. A pebble? It was blackened, and fell down between two roots. I braced myself and looked all around, but there wasn’t any further disturbance. Hesitantly I knelt to examine the little object.
It looked filthy, but the shape of it was oddly familiar… what was it?
A thin hissing noise from behind me gave me a jolt, and I turned around slowly, fully expecting to see a fadua crawling down the wall. But what I saw there was not white; it was black. Black fog, seeping out of the rotten wood.
I clamped my hand over my mouth and crawled over to Kezia to cover her mouth as well. The fallen stick bumped up against my knees and tangled my feet. The tang of blood in the air was growing stronger, and I was getting frantic: were we being poisoned again?
I had little time to ponder the nature of the strange black mist, for as it flowed out of the rotten wood it seemed to grow more solid, unfurling what seemed to be smoky wings. Two glowing white spots appeared near the center, like eyes.
I stared at the shifting, solidifying thing with a mixture of horror and awe. I had no earthly idea what it was. But I did not feel that it was kind.
The shadowy creature hovered for a moment by the edge of the hollow, turning its white eyes slowly across the room like searchlights. From somewhere within the black mass I thought I heard the sound of sniffing. Slowly I edged my hand towards the stick by my feet.
Abruptly the thing folded its wings and swooped down towards me with a whoosh. I yelped and covered my head. An icy wind tickled the hairs at the back of my neck as the thing passed over me. I grabbed the stick and scrambled around on all fours in front of Kezia’s body.
The shadowy creature was hovering near the twisted tree, making that sniffing sound again. It thrust what might have passed for its head close to the spot where I’d broken off the branch, which still dripped with dark blood. Something like a mouth opened up beneath the burning white eyes, just an empty hole, and the thing fastened itself upon the bleeding branch. It flapped its smoky wings and made sucking sounds like some hideous leech. My stomach turned to see it.
The creature, I noticed, appeared to have a tail- a long, twisting strand like a ribbon that travelled all the way back to the spot where it had first emerged through the tree. My eyes followed it, and a thought came to me: was this creature not a vampire, to be attracted to blood? A ghastly soft of vampire, a spectre with a tail or tether that led back to somewhere unseen: a vârcolac? And from whose mouth had I seen such dark mist pouring out of before?
“Vasilisa?” I hissed.
The name hovered in the thick air inside the tree. The spectre drew back away from the broken branch with a sweep of its wings, a line of sticky blood connecting the two for a moment like spittle. A final thought came to me: the blood of another spectre would not be satisfying for a vampire. Not in the slightest.
The vârcolac turned towards me with a few slow flaps. I could see shining blood smeared down its front and suspended inside its mass. The white eyes burned into mine.
I grabbed the stick. The vârcolac dove, that dark mouth splitting open wide again. With a shout I rolled away from Kezia, waving my makeshift weapon; it passed right through the dark spectre, then caught fast. With a noise like a sharp inhale, the vârcolac yanked the stick out of my grasp and rose higher with it. I tensed, but it seemed the thing was distracted: something like a clawed foot emerged out of its front as it grasped and mouthed on the stick. Of course- it had blood on it from when I’d broken it off! That was all the mindless thing sought! I looked around wildly- if I could somehow lure it away- but to where? We were trapped inside a tree with it!
The stick thumped to the ground. The vârcolac had found this blood to its dissatisfaction as well. It turned its burning gaze towards me again. I swallowed.
“Vasilisa? There’s no way that you might- possibly- understand me?”
The creature’s gaze bored into me, and I heard that sniffing sound again. Slowly I started edging my way closer to the twisted tree.
“Because- you know- I know the two of us have never been on the best of terms, but surely the sound of my voice might prompt some sort of-”
The vârcolac turned its glowing eyes away from me, and down to the ground, where Kezia still lay prone. It snuffled, a long sort of muzzle emerging beneath the eyes, dripping with mist.
“Don’t you dare!” I cried, and snapped a twig off of the twisted tree. Blood spurted from the wound and landed on my arm. The vârcolac whirled back to face me, the new muzzle opening up wide.
“Come here, girl!” I snarled, showing it the bloody twig in my hand, and the vârcolac folded its wings and dove towards me. I braced myself, but just as abruptly as it had started, the thing stopped a few feet short of me, glaring.
“What’s the matter? Come here!”
The vârcolac made a soft noise, like an exhalation, then swept back its wings to glide down towards Kezia again, stretching out that blade-thin snout towards her arm.
I threw the twig down with a cry and lunged towards the two of them- to stop it, somehow, somehow! Just then, the earth buckled beneath my feet, the twisted tree rocking on its roots. I stumbled, fell through the vârcolac- it felt like my skin had been drenched in ice-cold water- and landed beside Kezia.
The earth was still jerking and bucking beneath us like some wild stallion. I heard roots tearing. The vârcolac snuffled greedily towards the two of us, and I felt my heart thumping in my chest, pumping away at all that delicious life. Kezia’s face turned towards mine, and I thought I saw her eyelids flicker.
The vârcolac dove. I snatched Kezia around the waist and yanked her back. Her arm, still bound to the earth by roots, stretched taut- there was an awful rending– and then I fell backwards, Kezia’s heavy body pressing against my chest. I heard the vârcolac’s gruesome suckling and struggled to get myself out from beneath her.
The earth had stopped squirming. I managed to shove Kezia part of the way off of myself so I could sit up. The vârcolac that had once been Vasilisa was a few feet away, the dark mass of it concentrated around something on the ground, making gruesome slurping sounds. I breathed out slowly- at least it had gotten distracted- and wrapped my arm around Kezia’s chest. My fingers touched something hot and wet on her side.
I looked at my hand slowly- with disbelief- as my nose filled with the scent of fresh blood. Lifeblood. Whatever vampire was left in me stirred from it. Like some hunched vulture, the vârcolac shuffled around, its spectral claws grasping the prize it had got so that the end was in its mouth. It seemed to be having a bit of difficulty, because the thing was still rooted to the ground. The thing. I stared at it. Not a thing. An arm.
I looked down at Kezia, my stomach lurching. Her eyes were half-open, and she was staring up at me, and one of her shoulders ended in a blackened stump.
I yelled. My body shook from the force of it. Kezia did not blink. With a trembling hand I reached for the place where her arm had been- the stump- then snatched it back. The blood! I would have to stop the bleeding! Frantically I pulled my shirt over my head, twisting it tightly, and tugged Kezia further onto my lap. I couldn’t bear to look back into her half-lidded gaze. The edges of the stump were sickeningly dark… I, who had seen so much carnage and death in my life, I felt as though I were going to faint. There was surprisingly little blood. I did my best to wrap my shirt tight around what was left, though there was not very much to tie it to.
I heard the whisper of air moving, and looked up. The vârcolac, slightly swollen now, had dropped Kezia’s disembodied arm. My fists tightened. It was looking at the tourniquet I’d made.
The spectral vampire raised its wings, but just then something whooshed down behind it and landed on the twisted tree with a sickening crunch.
We were both distracted- the spectre gave a sort of gasp and rose from the ground a few feet, glaring towards the tree. I put one of my bloodied hands to my mouth. It was a fadua- a fadua had fallen down from somewhere high above us. Its pale body was crumpled and impaled on the branches of the twisted tree. Some had snapped and were oozing more bloodied sap onto the fadua’s white skin.
A loud creaking noise made me tilt my head back. The body of another fadua came spinning down from the darkness to slam onto the ground just beside us. I clutched Kezia tighter to myself in alarm. Bits of broken wood and sawdust came raining down on us, and then-
Far above, through the swirling dust, I saw a line of blue.
I called out his name again, a fresh hope rising in my breast. The vârcolac was fluttering back from us, closer to the wall it had emerged from. Of course, sunlight would drive it away! I squinted up and thought I could make out the golem’s limbs braced near the top of the tree again. Were they a bit worse for wear? It didn’t matter, as long as he could bring the light down!
But as Taavi pushed the crack wider and wider, no shaft of sunlight spilled down from that line of blue. Dark blue, it was- grey-blue. I thought I felt a chill.
“Pascha…?” I said, my lone heart sinking: he didn’t answer. He wasn’t there anymore. The sun had set.
Nearby, I heard a soft sigh. The vârcolac fluttered out from where it had taken shelter in the shadow of the wall, craning an oozing sort of neck it had formed to peer upwards. The lack of light seemed to fill it with confidence, and it spread its wings and grew, Kezia’s stolen blood saturating and solidifying its misty flesh. Now it had more of a form- like a great dark bird, or bat, with the head of a sharp-snouted wolf. It white eyes burned and steamed with a hot fog of their own.
“Vasilisa,” I spat, and the vârcolac turned to look at me. What a monster it was. I doubted I would have stood a chance against it, even as a strigoi, and that rankled. Did the girl need to be superior to me even in death? I ran my tongue across my teeth.
“You’re not satisfied, are you, my girl? Blood wants for blood. I know the feeling well.”
I pushed Kezia’s body aside and rose to my feet. The vârcolac’s gaze hovered back and forth between the two of us.
“There must be something of the girl in you yet,” I told it, my fingers clenching and unclenching. “Is that why you cut off her arm? That was what we’d agreed we should do, wasn’t it? Well, now it’s done…”
With a snuffle, the vârcolac slid forward through the air a few inches, eyes fixed on Kezia’s bloodied stump. I quickly stepped closer, in front of her body, and it halted.
“Yes, you’re not just a beast,” I hissed. “I know, because neither was I. You can pretend if it makes you feel better… But speaking of feeling better… When you wake up, and realize that you finished off Kezia, won’t you feel quite sorry?”
The spectre did not respond. It tilted its head sideways, still fixated on the body by my feet, muzzle dripping with shadow.
“No, look at me!” I snarled, and bit down on my thumb. The flesh split, and my mouth filled with a rush of coppery blood. The vârcolac shuddered, jerking its head back up. I spat my own blood in its direction.
“Come on!” I cried. “If it’s me you kill- you’ll rejoice!”
I held out my hand. Time seemed to freeze for an instant, the bright red on my thumb somehow stark in the dull light of the great tree. Then the vârcolac dove at me, shoving me back, back, until I hit the trunk of the twisted tree. The shadowy mouth converged on my hand, and I bit my lip from the fierce stab of pain as it greedily suckled at my life.
I took a shallow breath. The shadow was converging around me, holding me fast against the tree- but I wasn’t struggling. Kezia was lying on the ground still, her wound bound, her chest moving. I had nothing else I could give her.
The pain was spreading from my hand, up my arm, as the shadow split more of my flesh in its hunger. I let my head fall back, staring up through the dead branches of the twisted tree. Taavi had widened the gap while we were distracted. The dull-colored sky seemed to mock me; no stars were visible. The sun must have set mere moments ago.
The pain was so sharp now that tears were pricking at the corners of my eyes. The shadow was creeping up towards my neck. Soon it would grow frustrated with such a trickle and search for a larger vein to cut; I knew this. Upon reflection, I couldn’t help but think that of all the ways to go, this one- this one was not the worst. At least neither Baba Yaga nor the Treewitch would have my soul. And Vasilisa, well, it would be funny if she actually felt guilty when she woke up…
From behind me, I heard a crick-crick-crick, and then an arm wrapped around my neck.
“Adamina!” a voice shrieked in my ear. “What happened to Adamina?”
I could not answer- I was choking, squirming with surprise. I had nearly forgotten about the thing inside the tree! And the vârcolac was still holding me fast against it, oblivious to anything but the taste of blood.
“She’s gone!” moaned the creature that might or might not have been the Treewitch. “Adamina, my Adamina is gone! I cannot feel her anywhere!” The grip around my neck tightened, cutting off my last thin trickle of air. “DO YOU KNOW WHERE SHE IS?”
In response, I gargled. I could feel wood splitting against my back, the softer press of a flesh leg against my own. A second arm shot out and gripped the vârcolac by its spectral throat.
“DO YOU KNOW?”
The vârcolac’s mouth left my hand, and I shuddered with relief even as I strained for air. The vampire was flapping and thrashing, trying to escape that furious, impossible grip. I reached up and managed to lever the white arm around my throat a few centimeters looser so that I could suck in some air.
Fingernails dug into the meat of my shoulder, and I wasted my breath on a shout of pain.
“GABI!” screamed the thing inside the tree. “TELL ME WHERE SHE IS!”
“I- I don’t know,” I managed to cough out. “How- how should I know? Isn’t she- here? Everywhere?”
A furious screech made my ears ring, and I was flung hard onto the ground. For a moment I was too dizzy to do anything but stare as the arms reaching out from the twisted tree pulled the struggling vârcolac closer.
“ADAMINA!” it howled. “ADAMINA! DID YOU ABANDON ME? ADAMINA!”
The vârcolac thrust its wings forward, jerked its blade of a muzzle, and suddenly the white arms fell free from its throat and landed on the ground. The tree-creature waved bloodied stumps. I made an involuntary noise, something like “Gah!”
Out of nowhere, a fadua lunged at the vârcolac, wrapping her arms around its trunk, but she did not seem to have the same power that the tree creature did, for she merely fell through it. Another one struggled from where it had been impaled on the branches of the twisted tree, snapping them as it flailed towards the vampire. With a flick of its wings, the vârcolac beheaded it, and the headless body collapsed with a thunk. Clear fluid spilled from the stump of the neck to wet the dry soil.
The twisted tree buckled. Wood was splintering and snapping, oozing dark sap. The tree-creature’s arms, formerly stumps, were now growing out white shoots and twitching red veins. It had enough of a hand now to grip the sides of its twisted prison and lever its head and shoulders out. Again I saw that it was a girl, with colorless hair and terrible red eyes. She opened her mouth and screamed.
I grabbed Kezia and dragged her back, as far back as I could manage, as the vârcolac and the Treewitch’s creature converged on one another. This was by no means our fight to get involved in. I hoped they killed one another and solved all of our problems! I bit my lip and shut my eyes tight, shivering. What did she mean that Adamina had gone? My arm was still prickling all over where Vasilisa had fed on it. How close had I come to dying by her hand back there? When she woke up, Kezia would probably be furious with me.
A slithering sound made my eyes snap back open. Roots had risen from the earth to wind around the vârcolac’s body, forcibly clamping its sharp wings shut. More grew from the tree-creature’s hands around its neck and face, covering the burning white eyes. After a few moments, only twitching bits of shadow were visible, and then, only the long black tether protruded from the knot of white roots.
The tree-creature tore her arms away from the captive vârcolac, tearing off her fingers, which began regrowing at once. She turned to glare at me, and I realized that her legs were still caught inside the base of the tree, though her entire torso was out, and marked with red lines from her struggle with the vampire.
“Where is she?” she hissed. “What happened to my Adamina, Gabi?”
I clutched Kezia’s body tight against my chest, and swallowed.