The great tree burned merrily.
The flames had crept like living things up along the gnarled trunk, composed of so many ancient strangling vines, and out from underneath the canopy, framing the rotten branches in a heated embrace. The warmth was great enough to reach us where we stood at the top of the hill some distance away, and I was glad for it, though the smoke stung my eyes. The mist that had surrounded us was quickly burned away, and Zachar went silent with it, though I supposed he hadn’t yet gone completely. The sun was too low in the sky yet for it to be Pascha’s time.
Dragonfire or not, it was a very big tree, and it was taking a long time to burn. Vasilisa seemed content to sit and watch the show, her legs folded beneath her and her eyes wide in spite of the hot cinder-smelling gusts the wind sent our way. I busied myself trying to look after Kezia, for she seemed very ill at ease. Poor thing, left with only one arm… It still made me want to wince to look at her, so lopsided; I couldn’t imagine that she wasn’t still in some pain. It was well and good that the wound the vârcolac had inflicted was so sharp, and binding it with the magic cloth of my shirt had seemed to help stop the bleeding, but it was far from safe yet; if Kezia were an ordinary human, the real risk came from infection. I didn’t have any idea if whatever she actually was could get infections, but I hadn’t wanted to risk it, and neither could Vasilisa, who had blubbered quite a bit after I informed her of what she’d done while she was sleeping. In hindsight, perhaps I ought to have kept that to myself.
Kezia was very patient while I inspected the wound, not so much as flinching as I gently ran my fingers around the swollen flesh beneath her bandage, which Vasilisa had fashioned from part of her skirt. I had to admit that my probing was more for my own benefit than Kezia’s- I had to get myself accustomed to this new version of her, after I had gotten so used to seeing her whole. Well, it was easier than having to get accustomed to the change from golem to human, in any case.
“How is the pain?” I asked her, leaning close to rest one hand on the back of her neck. She blinked slowly, and I wondered if she had even heard me. “Kezia…”
Finally she looked at me, and I had a sobering moment in which I realized how dear I found her brown eyes, even when they were reddened with smoke and exhaustion. It was an inappropriately-timed thought, and I shook it away.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, tucking a few strands of her short hair behind her ear. “Are you in very much pain? Are you still cold? Or too warm?”
Finally this made her smile a little, and she said, “The pain is not very bad. I am all right.”
“Are you sure?” My fingers lingered on her soft cheek. “You don’t seem well. I mean, you have lost a limb. I expect it’s uncomfortable.”
“It is not my arm,” said Kezia, her expression going slack again. “I do not… It is like being hollow again.”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t help but touch her skin near her stump again, anxious, but she shook her head.
“It is nothing. I do not want to worry about that now. What are we going to do?”
I narrowed my eyes a bit- I would worry about it whether she planned to or not- but replied, “Do? We have nothing to do. The last of our enemies is burning down. Nobody is chasing us anymore. Nobody has a string around our throats. We don’t have to do a damned thing.”
As I said that, my stomach lurched, because it was so unusual that it was unnerving. From the moment I’d met Kezia, I’d been running and struggling and fighting against something at all times. I didn’t think I could even remember how to relax. Even now I couldn’t help skimming back over recent events in my head, searching to be doubly sure we hadn’t left any loose ends untied.
“Yes, that is what I mean,” said Kezia. “Now that we are finished running away from things, what are we going to do?”
“Oh,” I said, and then shut my mouth, at a loss for words. I had barely even- what were we supposed to do now? Of course it would be we, Kezia and I, unless she wanted to separate… I didn’t think she would, but one never knew… We would have to go somewhere, find some sort of shelter, get a good rest to let Kezia recover, and then…
I swallowed. Somehow that was all a bit too daunting to even consider at the present time. I might rather have had a new enemy to struggle with.
“First,” I said, “I expect we’ll have to find a way to get down this hill.”
“Yes,” she said, but she didn’t smile this time, and my traitor mind wondered if she’d been having the same sorts of thoughts as I had, thinking about the future, and maybe she hadn’t liked what she’d seen- with me- curse it, I couldn’t think like this now.
“Maybe the dragon will give us a ride,” said Vasilisa, who had apparently been listening in. She was lying back on the leaf litter, staring at the cloudy sky.
“I do not think it will,” said Kezia, with typical seriousness. “It is not very friendly. I think it would only do it if Muma Balaur told it to.”
“I don’t think we should try meeting up with her, considering what we did to Baba Yaga,” I pointed out.
“We won’t be meeting with anybody if we stay stuck up on this hill.” Vasilisa rolled onto her side, facing us, and yawned- and immediately looked guilty. “I’m not going to fall asleep!”
I had to snort, and not just at her. The whole situation was rather ridiculous. After all we had been through, were we really about to be stuck on this hill?
“I suppose I’ll see if there’s a way to climb down,” I said, squeezing Kezia’s good shoulder before rising to my feet. Hot air from the burning tree immediately rushed over my face, making me flinch. “You know… I hope that doesn’t spread very far. Things get dry during winter.”
“Then maybe we should stay where we are,” said Vasilisa, rolling further so that she lay on her stomach. I was not impressed with her lassitude.
“I would rather brave the fire then spend another night with you, dear girl. Kezia and I are going to find a way down from here.”
Vasilisa flicked a few leaves with her fingers, eyes downcast.
“Gabi.” Kezia frowned up at me, and I shrugged, moving out of her line of disapproval to peer over the edge of the cliff. The drop was as sheer as I remembered it, moving out into a gradual slope further down. It perplexed me to no end, trying to figure out where on earth this hill had sprung from, when the Starving Forest had always seemed more or less flat… And as we had already discussed, Adamina wasn’t here to jostle it around anymore… Perhaps it was because I was so tired, but it felt like I was missing something, or misremembering something.
A ghost of warm breath at my ear made me jump.
“Do you see any way down?”
I flinched away and rubbed at my ear- Vasilisa had crept up behind me, and was now looming rather too close. Why did she and Kezia both have to be so cursed tall?
“Yes- for me!” Indeed, if I gauged the distance, I might have a chance to scramble far enough down to drop without risking breaking all of my limbs. “But for Kezia-”
Vasilisa made a soft noise of acknowledgement, glancing to where Kezia still sat, staring at nothing.
“If I could become… what I was last night, at will, and help you, I would… But I don’t think I can control it on my own.”
“And I don’t think it’ll come out in the daylight, either.” I shook my head, taking a step back. She really was too close; had she been thinking of trying to push me, or something? I had thought we were at least united for the moment, as we both cared about Kezia.
“But Zakhar said that the light wouldn’t hurt me,” said Vasilisa, and much to my chagrin, she stepped close again.
“Well! I don’t know, then, clearly you’re better off than I was! But I won’t have you trying to fall asleep again now- Kezia ought to have at least one arm left, you know.”
Close as she was, I got a clear view of the way her face clouded at this, and wondered if I hadn’t pushed too hard on a sore spot. But all she said was, “I know.”
“Well, good that you know. I think that perhaps if one of us manages to climb down and find some sort of- I don’t rightly know, log or vine to try and make a ladder of-”
“I don’t think we’ll have such luck with that.”
“Well, if you’re going to interrupt me, why don’t you spit out some ideas, then?”
Vasilisa was quiet for a moment, then I saw her look at Kezia, then at the burning tree.
“Would a fall from this height kill a vampire?”
She said it very softly, and chills went up my spine.
“I’m not a vampire anymore, you-”
She continued on over me, stepping forward again as I stepped back. “I’m not sure it would kill an ordinary person, so I suppose not. But the fire would, right? They use fire to kill vampires in all the stories-”
“What are you on about!” I cried, feeling the muscles in my back go rigid. Vasilisa gestured quickly for me to be quiet.
“Sh! I don’t want Kezia to hear.”
“You wouldn’t, would you-”
She leaned very close, and I snapped my mouth shut and went rigid as she murmured, “I’m not talking about you.”
It took one, two, three beats for things to click together in my mind. I snapped, “What.”
“I’m a danger to you both, as I am,” she said, in that very quiet voice. “Even if you do climb down from here- and I try to go very far away- you see what happened the last time we tried.” She touched her own arm, and I saw a little shudder pass through her, as her face twisted with revulsion. “I can’t let it happen again… I can’t make my living by killing the innocent. So I ask you… what’s the fastest way to kill a vampire?”
Behind us, the fire popped and whined, and a large branch splintered and creaked as it began to split from the tree’s crown. I took in the whole of the girl standing before me, in her filthy ripped dress, with her filthy hacked-off hair, the hollows beneath her eyes and the sallow color of her skin.
“So you think you ought to die…? I hadn’t realized my insults had such an effect on you.”
“I don’t care at all what you say,” Vasilisa said, rather too stiffly for me to believe her. “But I would rather die than live any longer like-”
“Oh, shut up,” I spat, cutting her off. “Just be quiet, you stupid, stupid girl! Do you want me to pity you, saying things like that? Do you want me to help you, in your noble little sacrifice- push you in the fire?”
Vasilisa made another hushing motion, but I didn’t care; Kezia was already looking at the two of us.
“And of course you’d rather I be complicit than-”
“Stop!” The tips of Vasilisa’s pale ears had grown red. “Didn’t you want to kill me in the first place? Like you killed my father?”
“Oh, you bring up that old chestnut-”
“He was my father, you- you!” She pressed her lips together, flushed entirely now with rage. “You killed him, and now you’re the one with the second chance, and I- I don’t want to become what you were!”
I let her fume for a moment, breathing hard, her hands clenched at her sides.
“What I was?” I raised my eyebrows. “You couldn’t hope to become that.”
“This is all a joke to you, is it?!”
“Yes, it is!” I punctuated that with a short laugh. “You’re such a fool. If you want to waste your time, then jump onto the fire. You know I would never have done such a thing, selfish as I am. I am a wicked creature, because I decided I ought to live- at the expense of others! But it never crossed my mind that they should have a chance over me! No, indeed, becoming a strigoi was by far the greatest thing to ever happen in my miserable life.” I spat derisively to one side, for emphasis. “So no, dear Vasilisa, you won’t ever become what I was. You don’t have the stomach for it.”
I saw her fists quiver for a moment.
“You never regretted killing anybody- not once?”
I felt Kezia’s eyes on me. “Not once. I lived. They died.”
“Then you are wicked.”
I had been prepared for it, but something sharp curled beneath my breastbone at her bitter words.
“Why should that surprise you? You know what I was.”
Vasilisa turned away, showing me her back, and I took a moment to draw in a slow breath. Ash was drifting in the breeze, and I looked down towards the burning tree. So many branches had burned now, the leaves withered away, that I could see straight down to the bare earth at the base of the trunk.
There was the dragon itself, all five of its heads moving about in agitation, some spitting flame, others flickering their tongues and twining around one another. It reared up on its hind legs and rubbed itself against the charred bark like a bear, sending red-flecked flakes whirling in the air.
“I don’t believe you’re telling me the truth,” said Vasilisa, quite suddenly, and she turned back around. “I don’t understand you.”
I furrowed my brow at her, not eager to start the row again. It had worn me out.
“If you were entirely wicked,” she said, “I don’t see how you could love Kezia the way you do. And don’t say a word- I know that you do.”
“I wasn’t going to argue,” I muttered. Not with her sitting right there.
“So- even while you were a vampire- it wasn’t all gone, was it?”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say. And I don’t think it’s very important right now- I wish you wouldn’t get so close!”
For she had moved close again, and I was forced to step back towards Kezia, to stop her infernal face from filling my field of view. I was beginning to think she simply liked to make me uncomfortable.
“Why did you hate me so much, that you wanted to kill me?”
“I still hate you,” I replied, snide.
“All right, but why? You said it was my fate- did you want the Tsar for yourself?”
I laughed loudly at this. “Of course not! Kill me first!”
“Then what? We had never even met, yet- Explain it to me, so I understand!” Now her eyes searched my own, desperate. A sick feeling bubbled up in my throat, and I wanted to laugh again, but it would have come out as desperate. As if I would ever say it to her! The same reason Baba Yaga wanted control of her fate, I wanted to destroy it, because in her blood I smelled it too; it wasn’t that she’d just marry the Tsar. That was no great fate at all.
She would marry the Tsar, and she would become powerful. She would become important. Great things would come from her.
And I hated that, I loathed it so, I longed- longed to crush it out of existence.
I had never gotten an ounce of power in my damned life.
It was an utterly stupid thing to feel, and it was even stupider now that I had lost my second heart and the bloodlust that came with it. It was even stupider because Vasilisa had averted her great fate, had died in the belly of a golem and been reborn a monster, and nothing more would come of her except a few dead peasants, no doubt. I had absolutely no reason to cling to it- and that was what I hated most of all, because of course she had to dredge the damned stuff up again to please herself.
“Stop looking for things you won’t find,” I told her. “You’re wasting our time.”
To my surprise, Kezia spoke up then, as well.
“Vasilisa,” she said, looking lost there on the ground, supporting herself with her arm. “Please.”
If anyone was to be admonished, I would have thought it’d be me, so I said nothing at all, and watched as the two of them shared a peculiar look, one that I could not interpret. Then Vasilisa wrapped her arms around herself, seeming diminished, and went to sit down on the fallen log without a word.
I was left at a bit of a loss, and I cast around for what I was supposed to do now. Vasilisa was sulking, and Kezia seemed melancholy- and I was sort of nervous to speak to her after having her listen to all that. I glanced down the hill, searching for the dragon again, but to my surprise, the big creature was no longer in sight. The great tree smoldered.
The next moment, a huge hand thrust up the side of the cliff and grabbed onto the dirt. I uttered a strangled yell and jumped back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Vasilisa jerk to her feet, her thin fists raised.
A big, blackened clay head followed the hand, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. It was only Taavi, clambering his way up onto the hill with us. I stood back and gave the big golem more space to drag himself onto solid ground, his thick fingers digging furrows into the crumbling dirt. He was covered in soot and bits of charred wood; evidently he’d gotten too close to the dragon.
“Taavi!” cried Vasilisa, lowering her fists (I wanted to laugh). She ran to his side and gripped his sooty arm, never mind that it was blackening her palms. “Thank goodness! I was worried about you- where did you go?”
She didn’t seem to mind when the golem didn’t reply, turning his head to look at her with a slight crackling noise, shedding ash and flakes of earth. He took one of his huge hands and pushed hers away. I saw that he had his other hand clenched, as though he were holding something.
Kezia was leaning back on her hand, her elbow bent as she stared up at the golem, her expression peculiar. I saw it, and went quickly to her side.
“Kezia, don’t worry, he helped us get here, he’s not angry with you,” I said, low in her ear, and wrapped one arm around her side to help support her torso. She was stiff against me, not yielding.
“What is he holding?” she asked me, then addressed Taavi directly. “What- what are you holding?”
One, two, three seconds the big golem stared at her without moving, then he stumped his way closer, looming over the two of us where we sat. Another moment, and then he bent his legs- I heard the dry clay cracking as he did- and crouched before us. He thrust his palm towards Kezia, and opened his fingers.
At once Kezia covered her eyes with her hand, going slack against me, and I had to steady us both. I braced us with a hand against the ground and looked: the golem was holding three black little objects, and it took me a moment to recognize that they were silver letters.
“Adamina…?” I mouthed, looking again at Kezia, but she was clasping her own face, only her contorted mouth visible. It was as though Taavi had opened his hand and showed her a corpse. But then, in a way, he had.
Vasilisa had come to stand over Taavi’s shoulder, rising on her toes to peer down with us. She was frowning, clearly not understanding the meaning of the three little metal things, but she was at least wise enough to catch Kezia’s mood, and kept her mouth shut.
Taavi closed his hand again, rose to his feet, and moved a little ways away. Kezia’s mouth was still grimacing, and I realized she was trying not to cry behind her hand.
“Shh,” I murmured, and wrapped both my arms around her, turning her face towards my chest. “Kezia…”
She was quivering. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew grief when I saw it. I held her loosely, felt her first tears falling on my shoulder.
Taavi was looking down at his closed fist. He took one big foot and scuffed a gap in the leaf litter, then crouched again to thrust his hand into the dirt. For a moment it rippled like water. My arms around Kezia went tight.
He pulled back his hand, empty now, and cleared of ash. A little hole was left behind in the dirt. He looked over to where I held Kezia.
“Are you burying that, Taavi?” asked Vasilisa, softly, as though she were speaking to a child. “Is that what you’re doing?”
“She won’t come back,” Kezia mumbled, against my shoulder. I didn’t know whether she was reassuring or berating herself.
Taavi pushed leaves and dirt into his little hole.
“I’m sorry,” said Vasilisa, touching Taavi’s head very lightly. “I don’t understand- but you’re sad, aren’t you, Taavi?”
Kezia’s hand came up to grip the back of my shirt as she shook into another sob. The muscles on her left side were tensing as though she were trying to move her missing limb, too.
I rubbed her back, at a loss for how to soothe her. She mumbled something into my shirt.
“What? What is it?”
Gently I pushed her back, so that our faces were inches apart. Her eyes were red.
“I said I am sorry,” she said. “I- I did not know I would cry for her.”
Something in my chest quivered, seemed to liquify. I raised up just enough to kiss her forehead.
“No, no… you can cry. I know what you mean, I think, my dear… You can cry for her.” I squeezed her tight against myself again, let her bury her face into the crook of my neck. My throat was growing tight as well.
“You don’t know what I did,” Kezia mumbled. “I did a bad thing to her. I-”
Her voice was so soft, I nearly didn’t catch what she said next. Swiftly I glanced over at Taavi, but it seemed he hadn’t heard. Vasilisa was helping him finish filling up the hole.
“I wondered what happened,” I said to Kezia. “I see…”
“And I looked into her before I did it. And I saw how she didn’t know any better. I think she could have changed… I saw everything inside of her and I could have, but I didn’t… I knew she was scared and she was lonely and she loved the forest so much-”
“You did the right thing,” I said, and she tensed, and I squeezed her tighter. “Kezia. You had to live. You had to, Kezia. Like me.” I pushed her back to kiss each of her cheeks, her forehead again. “I turned my back, too- I hurt someone, maybe killed him- but he was crushing me. And I decided I wanted to live.”
She looked at me with bleary eyes.
“You said… being a strigoi was the best thing that had ever happened to you… is it true?”
I had to think about that for a moment.
“Yes, of course… if I hadn’t been, I never would have lived long enough to meet you, would I?”
This coaxed a small smile out of her, and I kissed it.
“Gabi,” she whispered. “I am also a monster. If you are one, I am too.”
“Well, my dear, like loves like…”
She kissed me back, still wet and teary.
For a little while, we four rested atop the hill, while the tree burned, and the sun climbed higher into the sky. Kezia finished her cry and wiped her tears away clumsily with one hand. Taavi got back to his feet, and Vasilisa followed suit.
“We ought to get off this hill,” she said, pulling her mouth to one side. “I’m exhausted.”
“I am, too,” I said. “My nap was interrupted earlier. D’you think we’ll find a nice napping spot in the woods down there?”
“Perhaps a cozy little cabin, with three beds freshly made,” Vasilisa said, a wry smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “And a fire in the hearth.”
“Four beds, Vasilisa, Taavi might want to rest too.”
“Taavi.” Kezia spoke up, cutting through our banter. “Do you… Will you carry us down the mountain?”
The big golem looked at her, then inclined his head.
“Oh! He nodded!” I was genuinely impressed. “That’s something new, isn’t it?”
“It isn’t as though he’s stupid,” said Vasilisa, and I fish-mouthed at her a bit. “Don’t talk down to him. He’s been sorrowful. And Kezia… I don’t know what that was all about, but I do hope you’re all right.”
“I am,” said Kezia, though her voice dipped a little, as though she wasn’t yet completely sure. “Besides, Taavi must be feeling worse than me. I am grateful he is going to help us at all.”
She looked a bit grim as she said this, and looked back towards the burning tree, away from the golem, who stood stock-still. I coughed, partly from the ash in the air.
It took a bit of arranging, but we managed to get the three of us onto stolid Taavi- I in one arm, Kezia in the other, and Vasilisa clinging to his back. As he had done when he’d climbed the great tree, Taavi grew himself a second pair of arms and began clambering down the more sheer side of the hill, away from the burning tree. Kezia kept one hand over her navel as we descended.
It was a long way down to the forest floor, and by the time we reached it, the great tree was no longer visible: just a black stream of smoke spilling into the clouds far above. It was much colder, too, on this side of the hill. The thin trees had no leaves on them. I shivered, and pulled Kezia close after Taavi set her down.
“Where’s that cabin you spoke of, Vasilisa? With the roaring fire?”
“Perhaps we passed it,” said Vasilisa, who was not shivering by virtue of her being a vârcolac. There was little mirth in her voice now. “I should move away from you two.”
“No, stay with us at least until dark,” Kezia pleaded, blinking at her. “Kazimir will help you again, won’t he?”
“Only if the moonlight reaches me, I think,” said Vasilisa, twisting her lips, but I was pleased that she didn’t protest anymore. Instead she sighed and tilted her head skyward, and then gasped.
“Look- look! My God!”
I turned around, and Kezia did beside me, craning our necks to see whatever it was we were pointing at. At first I didn’t see it at all, because it was far too large. It was a mountain. A mountain with a frozen face. My throat went tight.
“It’s her shell,” said Kezia, and I shuddered. For a moment it had seemed to me that Adamina had come back to life, looming over us in her behemoth form: but no. Kezia was right. This was the empty husk the golem had left behind, frozen in her last act: a mountain of a torso rising out of the ground, arms outstretched, hollow eyes wide as caves staring outwards from far above. The hill we had been standing on, it had been the top of her head.
Taavi took a step away, picking at some of the charred wood jammed in one of his shoulders, and a thought occurred to me.
“Kezia… he buried the letters up there on her head- you don’t think it could-”
“No,” she said, very firmly. “There is a spell to make a golem, and Taavi does not know it.”
I breathed a long sigh of relief. “Ah- ah, I see.”
“It would not have been her, anyway,” Kezia said, more softly, then shook her head. “I wonder how long the earth will stay like this.”
I peered up at the vacant, giant face, and shuddered again.
“I think I would like to get out from under her eye now, if it pleases you three.”
Kezia and Vasilisa both seemed to agree, at least, and so we four set off again into the empty forest.