Drunk on death.
I was putting a brave face on, but Kezia’s arm looked bad. The witch had given her two nasty, ragged bite wounds, like teeth scrapings on wet fruit, and her face was gray with pain. I’d tied my shirt around her as a makeshift bandage, tight as I dared, but a stubborn line of blood still trickled down the inside of her elbow. Which was possibly the worst thing of all, at the moment, because we had a new-made vampire to contend with.
At least, I thought Vasilisa had become a vampire of some sort. She didn’t have the look of a two-hearted strigoi- her hair was still fair beneath the dirt, and the only indication that she had changed at all was the bloodless look to her cheeks, and the unnatural flatness of her expression. Which was directed towards us. Vampire or no, new-risen spectres tended to be hungry, and not very reasonable.
The witch might have been a moldering pile of ick on the ground now- and praise everything for that– but we weren’t out of the fire yet. I was crouching over Kezia where she lay prone on the ground, but I had no illusions about my own ability to protect her. I didn’t even have my magic shirt on to turn aside any blows. I was- ironically and unpleasantly- completely at Vasilisa’s mercy.
I decided that I had no choice but to test the waters.
“Can you still speak, girl?”
Vasilisa met my eyes, but didn’t respond. The big golem was still behind her shoulder, hulking; I didn’t have any inkling of what its designs were, either. A chance to rest after Baba Yaga was vanquished might have been nice, but no! Only more problems to manage!
Beneath me, Kezia shifted, and I snapped my gaze down to see her struggling to raise herself on her uninjured arm. With a muttered curse I supported her myself against my shoulder, hissing in her ear, “Don’t push yourself!”
“Vasilisa?” said Kezia, ignoring my expressions of love. Her voice was thin, but strong. “What has happened to you?”
At this, Vasilisa had a reaction- she looked down at her hands for a moment, as though just noticing they were there, and then back up.
“Kezia,” she said.
Kezia and I both waited to see if there would be any more- a cordial greeting, perhaps, or even just a polite acknowledgement of my existence, but she just returned to having that vacant expression again. Whatever she’d turned into, it didn’t seem very bright.
“Yes, it is me,” Kezia said in an encouraging way.
“It remembers something,” I muttered, but the tension was starting to ease out of my muscles. Maybe she was harmless after all.
“I remember you,” said Vasilisa, looking into my eyes with sudden clarity, and my heart might have done a somersault.
“Is that so,” I managed to say, exchanging a nervous look with Kezia. “Well, er-”
“Am I what you are, now?”
Vasilisa said this in a somewhat weary way, looking at her hands again. She turned one over, laid it against her cheek, then her heart. “Have I lost my soul?”
I eyed her, somewhat dumbfounded. Self-reflection was not a typical quality of the newly-deceased. Had she really even died…? No, no, Baba Yaga had stated so herself, and I trusted the witch at least in that area; if Vasilisa’s soul were still gettable, she would have gotten it.
“What else do you remember?” I asked, settling Kezia at a better angle against my chest. It would have been nice if she were a little shorter, but at least she was being obligingly limp, even though the movement must have been painful for her. I stroked her hair in a silent apology.
“What else…?” Vasilisa frowned, the liveliest expression to come across her face so far. “Something about a witch… I’m so tired.”
She rubbed one eye, to emphasize this.
“Do not worry,” said Kezia, taking over the conversation with typical gentleness. “You can rest. We are safe for the time being.”
“Addendum to that,” I said, looking behind myself at the giant tree rooted there, which was no doubt listening in on the whole conversation. “We are only as safe as the Treewitch wishes us to think we are. Don’t forget that we’re sitting on her doorstep. She’s already got Vasilisa, and I doubt she’s given up on swallowing the two of us.”
“Has she got Vasilisa?” asked Kezia, sounding puzzled, as the girl in question watched us with dull eyes.
“We can quibble on details, but she isn’t human anymore; that I’m certain of.” And I was. The bright and vivacious creature was no more; she still had a physical body, but seemed to be barely holding onto it. ‘Vasilisa’ might not even be her true name any longer.
“That is not what I meant,” said Kezia. “Maybe she has become something new, but she did not d- she did not change on the earth. She changed inside the golem.”
“Maybe, but golems are sort of earthy, Kezia.”
Kezia slowly shook her head.
“But they are not the Starving Forest. They are not Adamina’s earth. Especially since Taavi has free will.”
I recoiled at the name, sending her sliding down into my lap.
“Taavi? Where did you hear that?”
Kezia stared up at me innocently, and tilted her chin to indicate the golem. “He told me that it was his name.”
“Eh, the golem told you?” I frowned. “It’s been able to speak all along?!”
“No, Taavi cannot speak, not out loud,” said Kezia, her eyes fluttering as her face twisted into a grimace- belatedly I realized that the shift had squeezed her injured arm against my thigh, and hastily readjusted her. She made a pained sound as I pulled her back up against my chest.
“Th- thank you, Gabi.”
“We’ve got to get you out of here and get you mended,” I murmured, my nose against her dirty hair. Baba Yaga no longer hung over our heads, Vasilisa didn’t seem threatening- the Starving Forest itself was our final enemy. But if we escaped, we could- we could- I didn’t know what we could do, but whatever it was, we could do it! And that was the whole point of freedom, wasn’t it?
Admittedly, though, my hopes were not terribly high. I had been chasing freedom for a long time, you see. It might well have been a mirage, and we might well finally pass away in the dirt of the Starving Forest, and wake up at the endless table with Ioan. If it was with Kezia, though, it might not be so bad.
“I could speak to him again,” said Kezia, and I recalled that we had been discussing the golem. “But I must touch him.”
“Is that what you were doing before?” Kezia’s actions in baiting the witch away from me had almost been entirely incomprehensible at the time; first I had been stunned at her betrayal of Vasilisa- it was the sort of thing I might do, not my dear Kezia!- and then for some reason she had grabbed the golem, and I hadn’t even known Vasilisa had been inside, and Kezia had gone so quiet and still and Baba Yaga had lost her patience and started- oh, it had been horrid. I couldn’t stop a shudder passing through me, and Kezia tilted her head back to look at me.
“The golem’s dangerous,” I said, trying to banish the memory, which was certainly going to end up in my nightmares. “It isn’t predictable. It might hurt you if you touch it again.”
“That is your fault, Gabi,” said Kezia, smiling at me. “You gave it free will.”
I felt heat rising to my cheeks and averted my eyes. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, that’s all!”
“Taavi is not dangerous,” said Kezia. “He is only frightened.” Her smile faded, and she made an odd face, like a bitter grimace. I hadn’t thought she could make such an expression. “He does not have anyone with him to show him the right way to do things. He needs guidance.”
“He needs a wide berth,” I said, but low. If Kezia could communicate with the golem, get it sympathetic to our cause… There might be something to that.
Before I could pull these thoughts together into something resembling a plan, Vasilisa gave a sudden groan and fell to her knees, clutching her head. Kezia made like she was going to get up, face twisting with concern, and I wrapped a hand around her stomach to hold her still. The big golem- Taavi, if it insisted on going by that name- bent forward to inspect her, placing one brutish hand in the air over her head, like it wanted to touch her but was afraid to. Vasilisa was shaking as though she had an ague, and cried out, “Help me!”
“Let me go, I must go to her,” urged Kezia, squirming, and I tightened my grip in response, forcing her back against my chest. She really had no strength left in her.
“You are injured, and staying here. If it pains you so much I’ll go over there!”
“But-” Kezia pressed her lips together and quit squirming. I let go of her, slid out from behind her to lean her against a root. She was frowning.
“Be careful,” she said to me, more softly. I snorted, looking pointedly at her injured arm.
“Kezia,” moaned Vasilisa, from across the clearing. She’d doubled over, both hands over her face. I gave Kezia one last warning look and stepped towards her.
“Not you,” Vasilisa said at once, still covering her face. “I want Kezia.”
“And you’re not getting her,” I replied, stalking forward. “What’s the matter with you? What have you become? If you were a blood-drinker like me I would have expected you’d be going mad by now with the smell in this clearing-”
Vasilisa gave a long groan, trembling harder, and bent forward as though she were bowing.
“It hurts,” she whimpered. “Ah- everything hurts…”
I hesitated, a few feet of dirt all that separated the two of us. I had never heard of a spectre that emerged from death wracked with such pain. The only thing that I had felt was hunger.
Abruptly Vasilisa dropped her hands and vomited a stream of black liquid that spattered on the ground. I leapt back as drops splashed against my legs. It smelled like rank blood and bile, and she groaned and heaved as another wave poured out of her, staining the earth dark. I thought I saw the white roots of the great tree ripple in the soil. With an anguished cry, Vasilisa emptied her stomach a third time, then collapsed in her own sick.
My own stomach twisted at the sight and the stench, nausea threatening to spill over within me; luckily there was nothing there for me to purge. I pinched my nose, breathing shallowly through my mouth, and edged closer, avoiding the nasty muck.
“She is sick!” Kezia called out, from her enviable position much further away. “But I thought she was dead!”
“Spectres don’t get sick!” was my nasal reply, as I leaned over to inspect what had become of Vasilisa. She was on her side, mouth agape, face smeared with red- there was a wet trail of blood emanating from the corner of one open eye, and I wasn’t sure if it had splashed there or originated there. A most gruesome sight; it amazed me to think that once I had stalked this girl as a beautiful creature with an amazing fate. I let go of my nose, growing used to the smell. Her blood no longer seemed remotely appealing.
“Look at you- you’ve become a real monster,” I said, very softly so Kezia wouldn’t catch it. “My, my, how things have reversed between the two of us. Now I am the pretty one with the chance at love beyond my station, eh?”
Vasilisa blinked slowly at me, with no indication she’d heard or understood my words. Her face had a newly hollow look to it, her flesh even paler than before beneath the smears of blood- moon-white, it was, and her eyes had grown wide and dark. She was taking thick-sounding breaths through her open mouth. I moved my foot to try and prod her with a toe, but there was a threatening creak and I skipped back a step as Taavi the golem aimed a warning swat at me.
“Still protecting her, I see!” I said, rather cross. He’d taken the name that she’d given him, too! Kezia was right, he’d no grasp of what free will meant.
“Taavi, do not hit Gabi,” Kezia urged, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her squirming to try and get up again, and shot her a glare. Reluctantly she stilled.
Taavi looked over at Kezia, putting one hand over his stomach, and then back at me. I decided not to try to touch Vasilisa again, just in case.
“Girl!” I snapped down at her- she’d closed her eyes, but was still breathing loudly, the nasty mess that she was. “Can you speak at all, or did you vomit out your brain, too?”
Vasilisa did not rise to the bait, though Kezia seemed rather miffed.
“Shh,” I said, putting a finger to my lips. “I don’t believe it- I think she’s actually fallen asleep.”
Indeed, Vasilisa’s breathing had gone even, her eyelids twitching slightly in the manner of a dreamer. Her head lolled in the mess she’d made, which I was beginning to see hadn’t been just blood, as the fluid parts of it soaked into the dirt with the hungry roots- there were nasty black bits of offal on the ground as well, like the sort one might find during their monthly bleeding, but larger. She was missing more than her lifeblood now; the thought made me queasy again.
As I stared, I noticed something else seeping from her open lips- at first I muttered a curse, thinking it was more vomit, but no- it was dark, but drifted upwards, like thick mist, oozing and bulging as it emerged, flickering half-transparent to solid every few moments. I’d never seen the like of it before, but as it grew larger I got the most unpleasant feeling it was something I didn’t want to see the rest of.
Ignoring my revulsion, I squatted and slapped her mouth shut in a swift motion. Instantly the black mist lost its opacity and shrank back between her lips to wherever it had stemmed from.
I had little time to sigh with relief, because in the next moment something grabbed me by the back of the neck and lifted me, choking and dangling, away from Vasilisa. It seemed Taavi was not listening to Kezia after all.
“Taavi!” Of course Kezia was struggling to get up again, and I cursed as I gagged, struggling, and managed to cry out, “Dammit, put me down, you oaf!”
Taavi obliged, opening his big hand and dropping me onto thankfully dry ground, where I sprawled and tried to catch my breath.
“Are you all right?!”
Kezia’s voice was a bit frantic, and I pushed myself up and shook my head.
“No, but I’m not dead! Anymore!”
That netted me a strained laugh, and I glanced over at Vasilisa. Her eyes were open again, no longer so wide and dark, merely sleepy and confused-looking.
“What happened?” she croaked, raising her head, her matted hair sticking to the dirt.
“You’ve been drunk on poison and death, I think,” I replied, indicating the mess of everything with a sweep of my hand. “Keep yourself awake. Pinch your own arms if you have to. I think I’ve figured out what sort of spectre you are.”
She gave me a rather confused frown, and Kezia asked, urgently, “What is it, Gabi?”
From Kezia’s expression I could tell she had no inkling of what the word meant, but it was Vasilisa who asked, in a sluggish voice, “What does it mean?”
I looked down at her. She was struggling to rise, her arms trembling as she pushed herself off the ground, clumps of hair falling over her eyes.
“I know little about them, only rumors; I’ve never met one,” I said, tapping my thumb on my chin. “But there are many things that can happen to a soul after death- it can go to heaven or hell, it can be consumed by something else…” I cast a significant look down at the remains of Baba Yaga. “Or it might linger in its corpse and rot with it, as yours is. A vârcolac is supposed to be a sort of vampire that’s half a ghost; shambling and brainless as a moroi when awake, but when it sleeps, the spirit of it seeps out and seeks life to swallow.”
“The spirit…?” Vasilisa stared at me, as I gave her a tight smile.
“So I mean it, my dear, don’t fall asleep. That black soul of yours will come out and try to eat Kezia and I, and I might have to do something drastic, like cutting off your head.”
“Don’t say that, Gabi,” said Kezia, and I shrugged. I wasn’t being nasty for the sake of it. It was no wonder she was so tired, if that was her only method of feeding- she was new-risen, and hadn’t had her first meal yet. And Kezia and I were the only things worth eating for miles.
“Then I won’t fall asleep,” said Vasilisa, exhaustion dripping off of every word, and I fought not to smile again. So there was a speck of the original in there still. I couldn’t help finding it all a little bit funny.
“Do your best,” I told her. “In the meantime, can you see if that golem will listen to you? I think it- he- can help us escape from here.”
Vasilisa did not reply until she’d slowly dragged herself into a sitting position, mirroring Kezia a few feet across from her. She looked up at Taavi, then back at me.
“You didn’t want me to command him before.”
“He couldn’t disagree with your orders before,” I replied.
Vasilisa blinked slowly- it was clear she still didn’t really get it, but what could one expect from a gadjo- and then said, “What do you want him to do?”
I crooked my thumb back at Kezia. “Carry her- and you, if you can’t walk, I suppose, and perhaps even me, because I’m tired, too, and it won’t be any effort for him to take the three of us. He can carry us right out of this place. Nothing can stop a golem.”
“Except for other golems, Gabi,” pointed out Kezia. “Do not forget about that.”
I turned to face her. “But you can stop them, can’t you? Now that you know how to speak to them- and you got Adamina afraid to touch you, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” said Kezia, not looking as reassured as I would have liked. “But that will not stop her from changing the paths like she did before, so that we stayed lost.”
I hesitated. I hadn’t thought of that.
“Well- if the whole ground here is part of her body, can’t you, err, touch her to make her stop it?”
This got a very assured shake of the head.
“I cannot reach her hollow space through this ground,” she explained. “The earth is too thick. She is too far underneath it.”
I was positively deflated, staring hopelessly at the white trees hemming us in all around the barren clearing. What was our alternative, then? Sit in this clearing while Adamina and the Treewitch concocted their own plans? What were they planning, anyhow? It had been oddly quiet…
Kezia had tilted her head back, letting some of the sunlight from the gap Pascha had burned in the canopy fall over her face.
“Maybe Taavi can carry us out of here after all,” she said, squinting.
I recognized the look and the tone, my heart speeding up just a tad. Eagerly I asked, “Have you thought of something, then?”
“Maybe.” She shifted her legs in the dirt, drawing up one knee. “I do not think that we can walk out of the forest without being trapped. So we must get out some other way.”
“Other than walking? What, burrow? Fly?”
“Neither of those,” said Kezia, glancing at me with a quick little look that made me grin. “Burrowing would especially be a very bad idea, I think. But if Taavi agrees to it, I think we might be able to climb.”
She leaned back against the root, wincing, and pointed up the trunk of the massive tree.
My grin fell right off my face.
“Climb? Climb that tree? Climb THAT tree?!”
“Yes, that one,” said Kezia. “It may be Crina’s tree, but it is still a tree, and you can climb trees.”
“Very well, several issues that I shall address,” I said, shaking my head. “First, that may be a tree, but you haven’t seen what’s inside of it, and I have, and I don’t want to see it again. Second, once we get to the top of it, if we even make it there without being caught by some vicious fadua-corpse, what are we going to do? Jump? Watch the sunset? Build a nest? Third, the other golems-”
“You said that nothing can stop a golem yourself, Gabi,” Kezia interrupted. “Taavi can get us above the canopy, I think. And once we are on the tree, we will be safe from Adamina, since she will not want to move the earth below too much it in case she uproots it. And while we are above the canopy, we can look for the shortest way to get out of the forest, and find a landmark so that we will not get lost when we are actually walking out. If we remember to climb up and check again every once and a while. And maybe making a nest would not be so bad of an idea, because I would rather be up there than down here when the sun sets.”
I sucked my teeth. She really was too damned clever, this girl.
“I admit that it is beginning to sound like a halfway decent plan. But I suspect that it won’t be so easy.” I looked critically at the massive, braided trunk; handholds aplenty, but also plenty of dark nooks and crannies for horrors to lurk in. “I don’t think our crawling about will be appreciated.”
“I do not think so either,” said Kezia, her expression shifting back to something pained. “And it will not matter if we cannot get Taavi to help us. I cannot climb at all right now. And I do not think Vasilisa can, either.”
“For that matter, I wouldn’t last very long myself,” I groused, glaring at the tree. “Damn! We are a lot of weak fools. But you’re right, I don’t want to be here when the moon rises either.” So saying, I looked at Vasilisa, and muttered a curse.
“Oi! You! Didn’t I say not to fall asleep?!”
Vasilisa, whose head had been nodding, jerked.
“I wasn’t asleep,” she said, somewhere between groggy and petulant.
“Get on your feet! And ask that golem if he’ll carry us up the tree on his back!”
She looked confused again- apparently she hadn’t been mentally present for much of that conversation- but obediently lurched upright, swaying like a drunkard, one hand to her head. She coughed, and I took a few steps back in case something else was going to slip out of her.
Thankfully, her only emittance was a bit of stray spittle. She put her hand on Taavi’s arm, and at once the slouching golem stood up straight.
“Can you carry us, Taavi?”
The golem stared at her, motionless, for a moment, then bent at the waist to pick her up, bridal-style. A brief look of panic crossed Vasilisa’s face as she clutched at his lumpy chest.
“It seems he can!”
Somehow, seeing the golem still obeying her didn’t make me especially happy, but I had to take it for the time being.
“He doesn’t need to pick me up- I’ll climb on,” I said, taking a couple more nervous steps back as the golem began to slouch its way over to Kezia and I, Vasilisa in his arms looking like a child’s doll. “And he’d better be careful with Kezia! Tell him so!”
Vasilisa merely gave me a flat look, and I hissed through my teeth and knelt over Kezia.
“Can you stand, do you think? Shall I help-”
I stopped, looking at her face- her eyes were squeezed tight shut, and she was grimacing.
“What- what’s happened? What’s the matter? Is the pain worse?”
She responded through her teeth, voice thin. “It hurts…”
“Damned witch! Let me see your arm.”
I tried to lift her crudely-bandaged arm, but met surprising resistance, as though something was tugging it back away from me. Kezia cried out.
With a thump Taavi came to a halt just before us, looming, Vasilisa looking down at us with her arms wrapped around his thick neck.
“What’s the matter with her?”
“Be quiet!” I cupped one hand on Kezia’s face for a moment, but she didn’t open her eyes; she was shaking. A horrible sense of fear was clawing its way up my breast. Very carefully I tried to lift her arm again, and met that same bizarre resistance. I heard Vasilisa give an exclamation of some sort when I turned her arm slightly, and saw… The Treewitch had not been biding her time after all. At some point while we had been wasting our time, white roots had snaked up from the ground and worked their way beneath the makeshift bandage.
I was saying that, it seemed, as I pulled away the edge of the shirt, fingers slimy with Kezia’s blood, and saw what I’d been most afraid of. White roots digging into her open wounds.
I was trembling with horror and shock, mouth agape, feeling Kezia press her damp forehead into my shoulder to muffle her whimpers.
“Pull them out!” said Vasilisa, strangely authoritative.
“But- but- she’s in pain!” I said, stupidly, and was swept aside in the next moment by a massive hand. I scrambled up to see Taavi, Vasilisa now nestled in the crook of one arm, bend down to grab Kezia around the waist. Vasilisa reached out and grabbed her left hand.
I jumped up to grab at a handful of the golem’s clay flesh. But Taavi was straightening, and Kezia was screaming, and there was a dreadful ripping sound, and blood and clods of earth seemed to fill the air before my eyes.