The Whispers urgently hissed the word as Glaciem stared, frozen. Bick raised a hand. The reflection followed suit, though Glaciem could not miss the reflection’s sigh of impatience as it did so, its willingness to indulge Bick waning.
Swirling images and half memories accosted Glaciem’s mind as she tried to understand what she was looking at. The reflection seemed so familiar to her and yet she could not place the face as it distorted and rippled with the movement of the water. She looked at Bick and placed a hand on his shoulder. The reflection tensed at her touch.
“What is this?” Bick whispered, his eyes flitting to hers.
She shook her head. “We should leave.” She said quietly.
Bick nodded his head. The reflection shook its head.
They turned away and walked slowly from the banks of the river. The river was nearly out of sight when Glaciem abruptly turned back towards it.
“What are you doing?” Bick asked, stopping.
“I came into the Forest to understand what was happening. What use am I if as soon as something happens, I run away?” Glaciem asked, her jaw set.
Bick’s eyes were cautious. “Glaciem, this isn’t a good idea. Let’s move away from the water and talk about it.”
Glaciem shook her head. “You stay here. I’m going back.”
She ignored Bick’s protest as she walked swiftly back to the river. As soon as she reached the bank she knelt down to see if the reflection was still there. She raised a hand, intent on running it through the water.
“Don’t!” Bick cried from behind her, running full speed towards her to try and knock her hand away.
As he neared the water’s edge, ropes of water rushed up from the surface to meet them, pulling both Bick and Glaciem down beneath the surface as they shouted in alarm. The river widened and grew deeper as they were dragged down, the waters growing colder with each passing moment. The light above surrendered its warmth and gave way to the black abyss.
Glaciem struggled against her unseen foe, turning desperately to fight whatever it was that had her in its grasp. As she flipped around in the water, her eyes fell on Bick, who was thrashing wildly. His body curled into itself, writhing and twisting, his jaw clenched in an insurmountable amount of pain. He looked at her sharply, his eyes fluctuating between green and gold. Glaciem watched helplessly as streams of air bubbles escaped his mouth.
I have to do something.
Panic and fear seized her. She looked around wildly, trying to discover the source of the attack. She could find none, even as invisible arms pulled hers and Bick’s limbs in every direction. Her only goal was to save Bick and in a moment of sheer will, she closed her eyes and forced all of the air out of her lungs towards Bick, forming a porous block of ice around his body, his arms, and legs pinned to his sides. Relief momentarily flooded her body as she watched the chunk of ice shoot up to the surface, but her relief quickly turned to terror as she felt herself being dragged down further down into the water. She had no air left in her lungs and her sight was beginning to fail her.
Lilium…Lilium…How I’ve missed you, Lilium…Daughter of Kings…
Glaciem heard the voice echoing through her mind, but could make no sense of the words. Her skull was pounding and her scar throbbed viciously. She was beyond feeling afraid; she could feel nothing at all. Her body began to twitch from lack of oxygen, her mind retreating into a void darker than the black waters surrounding her. She did not feel the hand that grabbed her tunic sleeve to pull her roughly upwards. She did not see the light as her head broke through the surface of the water. She did not feel the earth rising to meet her, tugging her along the ground to the safety of the trees. She did not feel the pound of a fist on her chest to force her heart back into obedience. She did not feel the rush of air forced through her mouth and into her lungs to displace the water. She did not hear the desperate commands for her to open her eyes.
“Glaciem wake up!”
A boy with wide eyes grins toothily at her. He holds out his hand, beckoning her to take it. “My Queen.” He whispers, though his voice is made of many.
She takes his hand and as she does, he turns away and fades. Behind him stands two figures, a man and woman with white hair and grey eyes. They bow before her.
As they raise their eyes to meet hers, a dark shadow casts itself over them, the light surrounding their bodies is overwhelmed by darkness. They are swallowed by shadow, and she is left with a lone man who holds the moon in his hands.
Glaciem gasped and violently flung herself sideways, coughing out water, sucking in air, her chest rising in great heaves. She stayed on her side, curled and choking as Bick thumped her back to help clear her lungs of the last drops of liquid. When her coughing finally subsided, she turned weakly to look at Bick. His hand trembled as it settled protectively on her shoulder.
“Are you alright?” He asked, his voice shaking.
“Yes.” She rasped. “Are you?”
Bick’s lips were pressed tightly together and he shook his head, but it was so slight she almost missed it. She raised her head and looked at him in concern and it was then she noticed that, though his left eye was still its usual deep, emerald green, his right was completely different. It was a rich, almost metallic, gold.
Glaciem’s eyes widened as he held out his right hand to show her his fingers, which had lengthened and were now tipped with sharp, black talons, bits of torn gauze still clinging to their points. His skin had taken on a gray pallor and she could see black veins creeping across the curve of his shoulders.
“What’s happening to you?” Glaciem whispered as she timidly ran a finger across his neck, his heart beating with wild uncertainty.
“I don’t know,” Bick answered, solemnly. “I can’t see properly out of my right eye either. Everything is,” here he paused, considering his words. “Darker. It feels like I’m looking at everything through a veil.”
Bick stopped and removed his normal hand from Glaciem’s shoulders, standing as he did. “I can hear your Whispers as well.” He said as he held out a hand to help her up.
Glaciem looked at him sharply.
“I can’t understand what they’re saying.” Bick said, reading her thoughts.
The human chosen by the darkness. Glaciem groaned inwardly as the words of the Second Elder clear in her mind.
Bick opened his mouth and closed it again, hesitating to continue.
“What is it?” Glaciem pressed.
“There’s something else.” Bick said after a moment.
She gestured for him to continue.
Bick raised his taloned hand towards the trees and Glaciem gasped as their branches curled to his whims, whining reluctantly as they did so.
“When I pulled you from the water, the trees offered their assistance. At first, I thought you were the one controlling them, but I realized soon enough that they were obeying my thoughts, not yours.” He dropped his hand and the branches fell back into their natural positions. He chuckled ruefully.
Glaciem looked at him incredulously.
“First you breathe fire, and now I sprout claws and make tree branches move.” Bick grinned, but it was a hard smile with very little mirth.
Glaciem shook her head slowly, loathing the apprehension that had settled within her. She looked at Bick, pained by the wave of love and sadness that washed over her. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, trying to stay the tears welling up in her eyes. He held her tightly with his unblemished hand.
“I don’t remember Narratus ever saying anything about the Children of the Forest being born of humans, or having black talons, do you?” He said quietly into her shoulder.
“Bick, please.” Glaciem said, her voice muffled by his tunic.
“We can’t ignore this, Glaciem.”
“Narratus never said anything about it because it was never brought up in the first place. We don’t know if that’s how the Elementals work or don’t work.”
“Do you want me to go back to the Village?”
Glaciem looked up at Bick in horror. “No!” She exclaimed. She didn’t want to think about what would happen to Bick if they saw him like this.
“Then do you want me to stay?”
She was trapped. Glaciem sighed in frustration and pulled away to pace, racking her brain for an answer, coming up with nothing. Even her Whispers had become silent. She turned and looked at Bick, her eyes steady as she studied his.
“What would you have me do?” She asked him.
Her arms folded around her body as she tried to shield herself from the vulnerability she felt.
“Continue on the path we both started.” He answered without hesitation.
“Is that wise?”
“I don’t care if it’s wise.”
Bick’s eyes betrayed his feelings as he spoke and for a moment Glaciem could clearly see the depth of the love he bore her. Her heart swelled, filled with both affection and guilt, knowing full well he had not only suffered, but would be willing to suffer a great deal more on account of that love. She walked back to where he stood and rested her fingers against his shoulder, defeated. Bick reached up with his good hand and pressed it against hers.
“Are you still with me, Strong Heart of the Village UnNamed?” She asked quietly, unable to meet his eyes.
“You and I started this journey together. I would have us finish it together.” Bick nodded, his voice solemn. “I am still with you, Glaciem Ice Child of the Old Forest.”
She breaks through the surface of the water, coughing and gasping for air, frantically clawing at anything to help her pull herself up. She spins around wildly. The moon is her only source of light. Disoriented and shivering, she tries to calm her rapid breathing as she looks around. She is in a large lake and the waters are so black one could mistake it for a chasm were it not for the moon rippling upon its surface. She is not in the Forest, but in the mountains above the Valley. Only small dead trees dwell here, their leaves long forsaken and their branch twisted and withered.
Just beyond her reach is the bank. She trembles as she paddles her way to it. It is rocky and sharp and the jagged edges of stone cut deep into her hands as she hoists herself out of the water. She coughs the last bit of lake out of her lungs and stands, looking for anything she might recognize. She looks around slowly, observing the trees and small bushes and notices the mouth of a large cave.
She is drawn to the cave and cannot stop her feet from taking her in its direction. She is not alarmed, neither is she afraid. She does not feel anything. She is as void of feeling as the cave is void of light. When she reaches the entrance she peers into it curiously. She is surprised to find that it is not a cave at all, but rather an unnaturally black void without outer edges. It cuts a harsh gash into the landscape surrounding it. She stretches out a hand through the void and as it enters, it disappears from sight altogether. She follows her hand into the void.
It is dark in the void. There is no light. She holds out her palm and a small tongue of fire emerges from the center. She gently pulls at the flame with her fingers, beckoning it to grow larger, stronger. Soon, it is large enough to light her immediate surroundings.
She is in a stone tunnel. It is damp and the dripping of water echoes throughout the length. She does not know which way to go; both directions fade into nothingness. She turns to the right and begins to walk, her pace slow and steady, one hand held high with its fire burning brightly.
She shivers as she walks, the cold stone is rough and uncomfortable against her bare feet. There is no end to her tunnel, no turns, only the ever constant dark closing in around her, threatening to suffocate her.
The voice makes her stop. It is the voice of a man. She knows that voice. She leans forward and peers intently into the darkness and as she watches, a small light in the distance begins to flicker.
She runs towards the light, her breathing strained and ragged.
As she draws closer, the light begins to take shape. It is coming from a torch that has been fastened to the wall. A few feet further is the end of the tunnel. It is covered with chains. There is a person hanging from the chains. It is a woman. The woman’s arms are spread apart, each cuffed to the wall. She wears no clothes, and the chains wrapped around her bare skin are so tight small cuts have begun to form. Her eyes are closed, but her chest rises and falls in the telltale sign of deep slumber.
She whirls around in surprise and clenches her fist, extinguishing the fire in her hand. The man before her is tall and his height obstructs the light from the torch behind him, further darkening her view, but even in the shadows, she knows who he is.
“Has it really only been a day since I’ve had the pleasure of your company?” He asks her as he tilts his finger to gently run it across her cheek. She flinches and shies away from him. He chuckles and nods his chin to the woman behind her. “Do you know who this one is?” He asks.
She turns back to the woman to study her. She is familiar, but she cannot place her face.
“Perhaps this will help.”
In Umbra’s hand, he holds a thin, gold chain. From the chain hangs a stone. It is a rich purple and sways as Umbra moves it closer for her to see. She looks back at the woman sharply.
“She had a name once, but that is of little consequence.” Umbra walks up to the woman and lifts her chin up with his hands. Though her eyes remain closed, her breathing quickens. “She was quite beautiful. Reminds me of your own, lovely mother.” Umbra turns back to look at her briefly before letting his hand drop, the woman’s chin droops back down against the chains around her chest. “It’s a pity, what happened to her. Though one could have known what would happen to a human who bore the spirit of the Shadow. I must say, however, that it was quite the delicious turn of events. Most unexpected.”
She furrows her brows, unable to understand.
“No one could have known the darkness would leave behind such a blight within her womb. No one could have known it would take so long for such a poison to finally claim her life, just like it claimed the life of her unborn children.” Umbra pauses, grinning as he cocks his head thoughtfully. “Her death was so quick…over so fast…such a shame really.”
She feels pressure around her middle and looks down at her arms in alarm. The chains once binding the woman now grow tight around her own arms and legs. She struggles against them helplessly as Umbra holds out his arm, his hand clutching the throat of the woman, whose eyes are now opened and filled with terror.
His grin grows wider as he stares at the woman. “Would you like to watch her die again?” He asks, his voice acid.
Umbra plunges his free hand into the woman’s chest. Her eyes widen and her pupils dilate in pain. Her mouth hangs open, but she cannot speak. He pushes his hand further into the woman and her skin stretches and pulls apart, the sound of bones cracking bounces sharply off the walls as blood begins to pour from the wound. Still, Umbra pushes further, his eyes blank, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts. He does not stop until his hand wraps around the woman’s spine, his talons ripping through the skin on her back as his grip tightens.
She pulls harder against the chains, knowing she is powerless to stop him, knowing it is too late to help. Her eyes grow cloudy as she blinks. Blood spills out from both her eyes and nose. She tries to cough the red from her lungs, but she cannot breathe. Her fingers go numb from panic as she begins to lose consciousness.
Umbra growls. It is the sound of a monster, of something utterly inhuman. He flexes his muscles and pulls the woman’s spine through her body, tearing her nearly in two. Her lower half droops and brushes the ground as the skin connecting her legs to her torso stretches from their weight. Matter falls heavily to the floor in wet, burgundy piles. He laughs in delight as he watches the light in the woman’s eyes fade away. He releases his hands and lets her drop to the floor, the sound of her body thudding against the tunnel floor is both deafening and nauseating.
She looks at the woman in anguish as blood continues to flood from her own face, her vision going black. The last thing she sees are Umbra’s glittering eyes, molten pools of gold that burn themselves into her mind. The sound of his laughter fills her ears.
“Did I not tell you, Daughter of Kings, that you were mine? Every night, every moment of your slumber belongs to me.” Umbra pulls at her chains, tightening them around her body, crushing her. “I am the god of darkness and soon you shall bow prostrate before me, broken and torn. I am stronger than you, greater than you, more powerful than you. You are but a splinter amongst trees, a pebble amongst mountains. You are nothing, you are helpless, and I will make you watch as I destroy every single thing you have come to love. And when I am finished with that, I will rip you apart.”
Her body gives way and she feels the chains cutting deep into her bowels, renting through her bones, and slicing her into bloodied pieces.