I woke to a searing pain in my left arm, so intense I wanted to scream. I jerked up from where I had been lying with my back against the ground and tried to grab my bicep, to feel for the wetness of blood that was surely there. Except that my fingers closed around nothingness where I was sure flesh should have been.
I drew a deep breath and cracked open my eyes. I was met with a searing white light. Pain again surged through my left arm, though I still had my right fist clenched around the empty air it should have been inhabiting. My head felt light and dizzy; was any of me still there? Was this what a mortal death felt like? Panicked, I reached for my thigh, and was somewhat reassured to find it solid and clammy to the touch.
I blinked, and gradually the harsh white softened into formless masses, like clouds. No, they were clouds, and I was staring out at them from somewhere high up. A dense mist encircled me, and cold droplets of water were beading on my skin. I realized suddenly how cold I was, and shivered. I tried to wrap my arms around myself, but only the right arm complied, and I tilted from a strange feeling of imbalance.
I thought I heard someone call my name, but it was so faint that I was not sure. I looked around in the mist and caught a glimpse of the ground, covered over in moss and leaves beneath the mist. A fallen tree lay to my left, its roots looking recently exposed, the soil split and crumbling where they had been forced upwards. In the dark space beneath the roots, I thought I saw movement.
I tensed. What could that be, and where on earth was I? My memories were cloudy, but I thought we had been near Mother Forest- no, somewhere inside of her, the great tree, with the twisted one, Adamina’s letters hidden beneath the roots…
I swallowed. Adamina. What had I done? How could I have…
“You’re awake,” came a voice, very soft, very quiet, and my arm rippled with gooseflesh. It had come from the hollow beneath the fallen tree, and the thing beneath it came forward a little, and I saw a pale girl’s face. My first, fearful thought was fadua, but then I realized she had eyes. And I knew her.
“How do you feel?” whispered Vasilisa, her blue eyes peering round and owl-like out of the shallow depression. She was laying on her belly in the shadow, her shortened hair matted with dirt.
“I feel-” I began, but then interrupted myself with more pressing concerns. “Where are we? Where is Gabi? What happened?”
In answer, Vasilisa crawled forward a little and pointed with a blackened fingernail. A little further down the tree, Gabi was sitting with her back against the trunk, her head tilted back and her mouth open, very obviously sleeping.
She seemed scuffed and bruised and worn out, a lump of a person barely distinguishable from the dark line of the fallen tree in the mist. But the sight of her chest rising and falling made my own feel warmer.
“She fell asleep just before you woke up,” said Vasilisa, and belatedly I realized why she was speaking so softly. There was a tinge of reproach in her tone.
“I- suppose we should let her sleep?”
Vasilisa nodded, and I felt a little disappointed; but she was right. Gabi looked as though she needed the rest.
“I have to apologize,” whispered Vasilisa. “For what I did to you last night.”
I was still staring at Gabi, so this took me by surprise. “What do you mean? I do not remember you doing anything to me…”
“I don’t remember much either,” she admitted, “but she told me.” She jerked her head in Gabi’s direction. “I apparently… came after the two of you last night. And, Kezia, I’m so sorry- your arm, that was me.”
I furrowed my brow, still hazy in the head. My arm? I opened the fingers of my right hand and squeezed the empty air again. Slowly I turned my head towards my left shoulder. I saw a strip of dirty-looking cloth wound over my collarbone and covering part of my side. Pain twinged up and down my left arm- the arm that was no longer there. My shoulder was a bandage-covered stump.
For some reason, the sight did not upset me very much. Mostly, I felt confused. I moved my hand to touch the bandages, the reddened skin peeking from beneath the cloth. I felt nothing from the pressure. The pain came only from the space where my arm used to be.
“You took my arm away?” I asked Vasilisa, to be sure I had understood correctly. I was not sure how could have done such a thing.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, and she sounded so miserable that I frowned. “I was- the vârcolac, I think, and Gabi told me that I somehow cut- I don’t expect you to ever forgive me, and I can’t even say that I wasn’t in my right mind, that’s no excuse at all-”
“Shh,” I put a finger to my lips, as I had seen Gabi do, for her voice was rising in pitch and volume. She bit her lip and went silent.
“It is all right, Vasilisa,” I said, reaching towards her with my right arm- she seemed to flinch. “It was only an arm.”
“Only an-!” She stopped herself before she got too loud again, flicking her eyes towards Gabi.
“I have another one,” I reminded her. “Even Gabi said that you would not be able to control yourself, since you would be asleep. I am not angry. I- well, see, I have not got the white tree inside me anymore, have I!”
This thought had just come to me, and it was such a nice one that I had to smile a little, and Vasilisa’s eyes widened.
“She said that as well…”
“Yes… she told me it was for the best, for getting rid of the parasite… But I wasn’t in my right mind, I didn’t know what I was doing- I could have killed you!”
“But I am not dead,” I said, touching my bandaged shoulder again- I could not help it, it was so strange to expect something to be there and find nothing. “We are both alive, and we are not inside the great tree anymore. Vasilisa- can you tell me how we escaped? What happened? It is the day after, is it not?”
“Yes,” said Vasilisa, licking her lips. “The sun rose a little while ago… I can’t remember much from when I was- the thing that I was. It was like dreaming, and in the dream, I followed the smell of… I followed a certain smell. And I must have seen you two, but I didn’t really know it, I couldn’t- I couldn’t really do a thing, except try and feed myself, until…”
She trailed off a moment, her eyes going oddly unfocused.
“Moonlight,” she muttered.
I was not sure I had heard her correctly. “Moonlight?”
“Yes. I felt it, and it was like I woke up, or I put my head above water… Suddenly I was in control of myself again. Or not quite in control, but that I knew sort of what I needed to do– there was a voice, I think, calling your name, and it seemed to tell me to rescue the two of you. And I remember sort of picking you up and carrying you away- I think Taavi might have helped me, too-”
“Taavi!” I had not meant to interrupt her, but the name slipped out. “Is he here too?”
“I think he was, but I don’t know where he went… When I really woke up, and felt like myself again, only the three of us were here, and the sun was just starting to rise. I don’t even know where we are now. All I know is that if it hadn’t been for the moonlight- that voice- I might have done something terrible last night.”
She looked at me, something like anguish in her eyes. I found myself at a loss. I had never met a vampire with remorse before, or rather, not one who could express it aloud… I glanced at Gabi, wishing that she were awake. In her own rough way, I was sure that she would know how to comfort Vasilisa, or at least commiserate with her. Or simply irritate her enough to make her forget her sadness for the moment… it was difficult to predict, with Gabi. But she was better at these things than I was.
“This voice that you heard from the moonlight,” I said, in an attempt to change the subject, “do you have any idea who or what it was?”
Vasilisa shook her head, slowly. “I am not completely sure I didn’t imagine it, to be honest… It seemed to be only in my own head.”
“It was not imaginary.”
Words like feathers tickled at my ears, and I flinched. Vasilisa gave a little cry and retreated further back into her little hollow.
“That- it was a voice like that! Did you hear it?!”
I looked around for the speaker, but saw only thickening mist. “Yes- I think-”
“What you heard in the moonlight was Kazimir’s voice, child. He has some command over the creatures of the night, and was able to call on you for his bidding.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, as Vasilisa also mouthed something that looked like Oh, no. “Zakhar! Is that you?”
“Kezia,” came his familiar voice again, sounding quite pleased, and the mist around us seemed to congeal into a thicker sort of shape, a huge loop, like the coil of a serpent. The clouds parted a little, and I squinted upwards and saw two little blue patches of sky, like a pair of eyes looking down on us.
“Pardon my present shape, or lack thereof,” he said, sounding as though he were smiling, though he had no mouth to do it with. “The witch molded us into flesh, but it doesn’t come naturally to us. Even speaking is requiring all my concentration.”
“Do not worry,” I said, pretending that I understood anything he was saying. “I am only happy that you are all right. Where is Kazimir?”
“On the other side of the world, following the shadow of the sun,” said Zakhar. “I can see him very far away, but I won’t ever catch up to him. That is the price we three pay for freedom, you know.”
“Ah…” Pascha had told me something like that, before. I stared up at the expanse of cloudy sky above us. There was still an orange gleam to the east from the recent sunrise.
“It will be all right, for a time,” Zakhar said, gently, perhaps because he was seeing my expression with his immaterial gaze. “We know how to leave messages for one another, Zakhar to Pascha to Kazimir. Communicating indirectly has always been our lot. We will sustain ourselves, until enough time has passed for us to forget these lessons once again.”
The mist swirled into tighter loops around us, beading more cold water on my skin. I shuddered.
“This is not the first time we three entered into a contract with Baba Yaga,” said Zakhar. “When we are bound to flesh, we forget many things. Many times before, we have tricked and betrayed one another for a chance to…” He paused. “Suffice it to say, we are all fools for intimacy.”
“Oh,” I said. I did not really fully understand, but then again, the three of them were much, much older than I was. “But Zakhar- Baba Yaga is dead now, is she not? You will not have to worry about her tricking you any longer!”
“Alas, Kezia.” His tone was wry. “Perhaps you will not meet her again in your lifetime, but the witch-queen never truly dies. There is a space for her always left hollowed out in this world, and as she rises to power, it seems we three horsemen always succumb to it. As surely as the sun rises and sets each day.”
I drew my knees up to my chest, hugging them awkwardly with my single arm.
“It makes little sense from down there, I know,” Zakhar said, and the mist whirled a little looser around us. “But given time, freedom, and loneliness, things always change how they seem… But I ask that you not regret helping to free us, Kezia. We are all deeply grateful to you- to all three of you.”
The mist parted a little in front of the fallen tree, and Vasilisa flinched as the sunlight fell a little closer to her hollow.
“I can offer little help now, but I do offer it freely.” Zakhar’s voice, though it held as little inflection as ever, now seemed almost contrite. “My light won’t hurt you, child. Pascha and I will let you walk freely under our gaze.”
Vasilisa looked startled- wary, even, and I remembered how unkindly Zakhar had behaved towards her when they were both caught in the witch’s hut. But hesitantly, she inched her way out, the sallow paleness of her skin striking against the dark soil, and put her hand out into the light, palm up.
“It doesn’t… burn,” she said, slowly. “Am I still a, a vampire, then?”
“I can’t change what you are, I’m afraid,” said Zakhar. “Only ease your travels, a bit.”
“Nobody eased my travels,” came a familiar, cross voice, and I turned to see with delight that Gabi had woken up, and was stretching with a scowl, her arms up over her head.
“You ought to be sleeping,” said Vasilisa, but she said it in a distracted way, inching her way forward and turning her arms this way and that under the daylight.
“Yes, I ought to be, but you all were so cursed loud!” I heard Gabi’s joints pop, and then she put her arms down to thump on the side of the tree for emphasis. “And I had to wake to the sound of this insufferable horse-person complaining that he doesn’t get to touch his lovers enough, too! Ugh!”
“Gabi, that is-” I began, but the sound of my voice made her eyes sweep across to me, and an expression tumbled over her features that made me close my mouth. In another moment it was gone, and she was levering herself up to walk shakily towards me.
“I told you to wake me when she got up!”
“You needed the sleep,” said Vasilisa, sounding neither concerned nor sorry about it. Gabi ignored her, weaving and stumbling her way over to me, wincing with each step. I tried to pull myself to my feet to meet her, but my missing arm sent me off-balance again- where I tried to brace myself against the ground with it, I instead flopped over.
“You are pathetic right now,” said Gabi, but in a worried way; she crouched down and helped me right myself. I put my remaining hand on her shoulder as a source of stability while her eyes searched my face. “Are you hurting? How is the pain? You didn’t lose so much blood, thank goodness, the cut was quite clean, though I don’t know how it came to be so-”
“A vârcolac is a far neater eater than a strigoi,” came Zakhar’s voice, helpfully, and Gabi made a very unpleasant face.
“You’re shivering,” she said, and moved as though she was going to take off her shirt, which was hanging loose and unbuttoned over her breasts. I managed to stay her hands with my own.
“You are shivering, too.”
Gabi’s ruddy skin grew a little darker with a blush. “Perhaps, but I still have both my arms.”
“It does not hurt very much. It is better than having a white tree growing inside me.”
“Just so you know, Kezia, human arms do not grow back.”
“Of course I know that,” I said. “But right now I feel very happy that we are alive, and we are safe… We are safe now, are we not?”
Gabi drew her brows together, and looked around the misty little clearing as though she were seeing it for the first time.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Everything happened so fast last night… I don’t even know where we are.”
“I can tell you that,” said Zakhar, and a little more of the thick mist seemed to blow away with his words. “You are still within the Starving Forest, but no longer so close to the center; Vasilisa carried you to the highest ground instead. You might stand at the edge of this hill and look out, and I think you will get your bearings.”
Gabi shivered from the breeze, and so did I. My hand was still resting on top of hers, so I linked her fingers with my own. She acted as though she had not noticed while she helped me up into a standing position.
My head spun; somehow standing up it felt that I had thrust my head into the clouds. The air was so wet and cold and the part on Gabi’s scalp was shiny from it. I squinted outwards, following the dark line of the fallen tree, where Vasilisa was finally emerging, and out beyond… The leaf-covered ground did seem to slope downwards further out. Gabi tugged on my hand, and I followed her for a few steps before we had to stop. The earth suddenly fell away from our feet in a sheer drop down into the mist.
Before us, though, shrouded in a veil of gleaming white, were the branches of a gigantic tree, the great tree, surely, for there were brilliantly red, star-shaped leaves the size of my head growing from the branches. Where we stood, we could just look down on the highest branches, where they shaded the trees below like some benevolent mother. Through the slowly-fading fog, I could see the rest of the forest spread out beneath us like a carpet, green close to the mother tree, and fading to red-brown and finally jagged empty branches the further out it went.
“We’re up so high!” exclaimed Gabi, and she tugged me back another step away from the edge of the cliff, though we were already a few feet from it. “I don’t understand- there wasn’t a mountain in the Starving Forest before, was there? Has that golem been tinkering with the landscape again?”
“No,” I said, and I dropped Gabi’s hand, making her eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. “She cannot have done this. She is gone forever.”
I thought this would make Gabi question me, but she only looked at me strangely, and said, after a moment, “I figured as much.”
It was a relief that she let it go so easily. I resolved that I would have to admit what I had done to her someday… but not right now. I was tired right now.
“If we have not left the forest,” I said, to change the subject again, “that means that we are not safe here. Even if A- even if there is no one to change the paths around, Mother Forest still has her fadua and her poison.”
“I agree with that very much,” said Gabi, her fingers drumming on her hip. “However, the last few times we’ve tried to get out of these blasted woods, we’ve ended up in even worse trouble. Has anybody got a decent plan?”
She looked pointedly at Vasilisa as she said this, but Vasilisa appeared not to hear her. She had walked a little ways in the opposite direction as we had, and was looking out and down on the other side of the bald little slope.
“I can see the river from here,” she said. “It seems quite far away. And there’s a steep drop.”
“High ground, indeed,” Gabi said, flicking her eyes towards Vasilisa, and then up towards the sky. “Is it even possible for us to climb down from here? Especially Kezia! It’s already cold, too, and I can’t see it getting much warmer- I keep forgetting it’s actually winter now-”
“You won’t have to worry about being cold in a moment,” came Zakhar’s voice. He sounded strangely amused.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and Gabi added in a growl, “I don’t like your tone!”
“For the moment, I believe you’ll be safest where you are. Best not try to climb down.”
“I really don’t like the sound of that- would you mind explaining, or are you enjoying yourself too much?” Gabi rose up onto her toes, shading her eyes to look further out. Behind us, Vasilisa gave a little cry.
We both turned, Gabi’s fingers suddenly clutching vice-tight on my arm. Vasilisa was pointing to an ugly black column rising out of the clean white mist, staining the sky above it grey. Gabi sniffed, and I followed her cue and took a deep breath. It smelled like something burning. Wood burning, rather. My mind turned with uneasy memories- death from fire, death by fire; houses and fingers turning to ash.
“Is that from the fire that Baba Yaga set?” I wondered aloud, and tried to cover my nose with my nonexistent hand. Gabi was still holding down my real one. “Is it still burning?”
“I don’t know… It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? I thought the golem would have put it all out,” said Gabi, a touch of worry in her tone. She was glancing all around, as though she was looking for shelter, but there was none on the bald hill except for the fallen tree.
But the golem was no longer here to put it out, I thought to myself. Still, the smoke was far away, contrary to what Zakhar had said- it wasn’t making my cold limbs feel any warmer.
“He’s reached the base of the tree,” Zakhar noted, as though summoned by my thoughts.
“He? Who’s he? What tree?” snapped Gabi, but I pulled out of her grasp to step forward a little to stare at the great tree, with the red stars for leaves. The white mist that had shrouded it just moments ago was churning and boiling away into steam. It was followed by threads of grey smoke drifting upwards through the branches, and then puffs of billowing black smoke. I gaped out at it, and so did Gabi and Vasilisa, who had by now caught on. The scent of burning wood was suddenly impossible to ignore.
“What’s burning it?” Gabi stammered out.
“A dragon,” said Zakhar, and I could imagine the way his eyes would have sunk back into the fat of his face with his amusement. “I have just had a few words with it. Apparently, Pascha told it the location of the seat of Mother Forest’s power yesterday evening.”
“That-! So he did!” exclaimed Gabi, at the same time that I cried out, “Is it Muma Balaur’s dragon?!”
“I’m not familiar with the beast, myself.”
“Of course it’s Muma Balaur’s dragon! How many dragons d’you think are hanging around here! And it’s gone to burn that accursed tree!” Gabi’s eyes were suddenly dancing; black smoke was now pouring up from between the star-shaped leaves, red as flames themselves. I was starting to see sparks flying through the air. “If anything can destroy her, it’s dragonfire!”
I bit my lip- she was clenching both her fists, looking gleeful. Beside her Vasilisa seemed both curious and hopeful. But I felt a strange sense of trepidation, watching more and more smoke rising to form a vast dark column in the sky above the tree. Oh, while we were in it, it had been terror and anguish, and I would not say that I pitied Mother Forest, but-
Some of the glorious red leaves were shrivelling and falling from the heat. I felt them fall with a little twist in my gut. Some remnant of the golem called Adamina, perhaps. But I could not feel happy at the sight.
“Then it’s done, Kezia!” cried Gabi, grasping my hand. “Baba Yaga, Adamina, the Treewitch- they’re all over and done with! My God- we’re free! Are we really-? I think we might really be able to get away from all this!”
She reached up and tugged on the front of my vest, startling me, and stood on her toes to give me a quick peck on the lips. I felt my eyes widening.
“We’re not out of the forest yet,” Vasilisa pointed out, and for some reason it was the sight of her eyeing the two of us that made me blush. “Don’t celebrate too quick.”
“Shut up! Let me have my little hope,” said Gabi, squeezing my hand in hers. “True, the forest we’re in is on fire, and true, we seem to have landed on a mountaintop with no way to climb down, but at least nobody is around to swallow our souls! Can’t I have that?”
“Hm,” said Vasilisa, arching one eyebrow in a way that reminded me of how pretty she really was underneath all the dirt. “Wait until I fall asleep.”
“I’ll push you off the cliff when you do,” said Gabi, waving an airy hand, and at my look added, “She’s a vampire now, Kezia, really, she’ll be fine.”
“I hope Kazimir will be able to help us again tonight,” I replied. “So that we do not have to push anybody anywhere.”
“Oh, Kezia, look!” Gabi was not listening to me at all. She tugged my arm and pointed- flames had worked their way up one of the lower branches of the great tree. The leaves shriveled and vanished like mirages, the flames stubbornly licking their way up the naked wood, blackening and cracking it. Gabi’s eyes were lit up with it.
I still could not share in her enthusiasm. Something felt like it was missing, and not just my arm; why was I filled with such unease, watching the tree burn? Maybe I had touched Adamina’s mind for too long, and now I felt her pain. Or maybe it was imagining the being trapped inside the twisted tree suffocating and burning in anguish… I did not think, really, that that creature had ever chosen to be caged there.
“Ahh,” said Vasilisa, pointing, her eyes wide. “Look there! Do you see them?”
The wind shifted, sudden heat burned away the moisture on my skin, made my eyes dry and my nose prickle. Vasilisa had pointed out a cluster of branches where more flame had risen up, closer to the center of the tree; from the distance we were at I could just barely make out pale figures, squirming, writhing, shriveling against the flames like the leaves had.
“Fadua,” said Gabi, and there was a new, grim, note in her voice; I could not tell if she was sobered or still pleased. I tried to pull my hand out of hers, compulsively, and she looked at me.
“You don’t have to watch,” she said, her expression softening, and she let my hand go on her own. “I’m sorry.”
“I-” I could not think of what I really wanted to say back to her. That there was no reason for me to feel as sorrowful as I did? Yes, for even with whatever awe the tree inspired in me, I knew that it was rotten and poisonous, a thing that should have died long ago, kept alive by stubbornness and bitterness. It was long since due to perish. It was a monster that swallowed up lives.
But still I felt hollow again, at the terrible sight of it: the fadua burning and dying without a sound, the leaves stripped away, the branches bared and vulnerable; I felt less as though we were vanquishing a monster than witnessing one.
And I knew that if she had been there to see it, the golem called Adamina called Mother would have voiced the silent screams coming from the mouths of the fadua at the sight.
“Kezia,” said Gabi, tugging on my wrist. “Kezia. You’d better sit down, you’re getting very pale.”
I obeyed her wordlessly, let her ease me back down to the cold earth. At least Zakhar had been right: the air was much warmer now.