Hallowed

XXV. Crucible

It was nearly noon when Izra emerged from the cottage, wiping bloody handprints onto her smock.

“How is she?” asked Garthniiel. He had been pacing all morning, wearing a groove in the dirt by the cottage’s door. Next to him, Nicholas rose from the log on which he had been sitting.

“Alive,” said Izra. “I’ve done what I could, but—” She stumbled, falling forward, and Nicholas reached out his arms to steady her. A hint of blood trickled from her nostril, and she hurriedly covered it with her hand.

“Izi,” said Nicholas warningly. “Don’t—”

Izra waved him away. “She has a fever—hypothermia, I think. I don’t know when she’ll wake. Deena’s watching her. I—I had to use magic to stop the bleeding and knit her bones back together, but there’s only so much I could do.”

“I know,” said Nicholas. “Rest. We’ll take over from here.”

Izra hesitated, then nodded. “I left my medicine chest inside. If she wakes—”

“The blue jar is for fever and the red one for pain,” finished Nicholas. “I know.”

Izra nodded again. “Wake me if you need me,” she said, and they watched as she stumbled off toward her tent and bedroll.

“You—you should be the one to take care of her,” said Garthniiel, more to the dirt than to Nicholas. “Avenel, I mean. She knows you better than me, and she would probably prefer a familiar face when she wakes.”

“She hates me,” said Nicholas. “She’d probably prefer a face she actually likes.”

“Deena can’t take care of her alone.”

“I meant you,” said Nicholas. He looked at the other man for a moment. “You’re worried for her, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” said Garthniiel. “Aren’t you?”

“Less worried than I was before,” said Nicholas. “Izi’s a damned good doctor, even without her magic. If she felt confident enough to leave us here while she slept, then Kass—I mean Avenel—is going to be just fine.”

“But she’s not awake yet,” said Garthniiel. “And her injuries—you saw her injuries.”

Nicholas put a hand on Garthniiel’s shoulder. “I’ve been on this world longer than you,” he said. “Sometimes, all that can be done is to wait and have faith.” He turned toward the cottage. “I’ll sit with her this afternoon so Deena can get some rest. You take over tonight. Give Izi some time to recover her strength.”

Garthniiel noded. Across what had once been the village square, Frost was watching them, though she quickly looked away when Garthniiel glanced her way. “I—I should go help Frost with lunch,” he said. “I’ll bring some to you and Deena when it’s ready.”

Frost didn’t look at Garthniiel as he approached, her gaze fixed on the potatoes baking in the fire. “How is she?” she asked.

“Still unconscious,” said Garthniiel, “but Izra and Nicholas seem to think she’ll be fine.”

“How long until she wakes up?” asked Frost.

“We don’t know.”

“So it could be months. Years.”

Garthniiel sighed. “Frost, don’t.”

“You know I’m right,” said Frost. “If it’s going to be months or years or even just weeks, we can’t afford to wait for her.”

“But we can’t—”

“She doesn’t need you, Garth. She already has Izra and Deena and even Nicholas, for whatever that’s worth. You left Greoore at the Meridian, didn’t you?”

“That’s different,” said Garthniiel. “We’re in the middle of the woods—”

“Then help her get to a town,” said Frost, “but after that—Garth, this is the fate of the world. Avenel herself would agree it’s more important than one person.”

Garthniiel didn’t answer. He looked back at the cottage where Avenel lay unconscious. “Wait a few days,” he said. “Please.”

Frost looked at him for a moment, then turned her attention back to the fire. Using a long stick, she rolled the clay-covered potatoes out from the cinders, one by one. “Food is ready,” she said, picking one up and cracking open the clay. “I’m going to bring some to Flame. Let us know when you’re finally ready to leave.”

Wakefulness came to Kassandra in fleeting moments. It was barely light out, and Izra was threading a needle through her flesh. It was midday, and Deena was wiping the sweat from her back. It was dusk, and Nicholas peeled away a bloodsoaked bandage. It was night, and Garthniiel placed a damp cloth across her brow.

Each moment of wakefulness sent pain screaming through her body, drowning out her other senses, her other thoughts. Mercifully, oblivion was quick to return to claim her, and Kassandra Avenel surrendered herself willfully to the abyss.

She dreamt, too. She was standing over a dead man and his sobbing wife, rain dripping from her cloak as the sky outside flashed with lightning. Each object in the room was thrown into sharp relief, each chair and plate and overturned globlet. In the crack of the door across the room, a child’s frightened eyes stared back at her. A moment later, the earth shook with thunder.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” asked a voice.

She turned. Lys stood on the balcony above her, her grip tight on the banister, her knuckles white. Avenel lowered her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Lord Lys. Lord Ephraim has passed away in service to Elyria.”

“No,” spat Lys. “He died in service to you.”

“It was an Ajjraean ambush—”

“Then why didn’t you die too?!”

She opened her mouth to reply, but someone called her name. She turned; Ephraim was there, laying beneath the tree, bleeding.

“Ephraim!” exclaimed Avenel. She put her hands to the wound, trying to staunch the flow, but it wouldn’t stop. And it hurt, it hurt so much as she lay there looking up at him. “Ephraim,” she said, “I know too much. They’ll torture me.”

“They won’t,” reassured Ephraim.

“I just want it to stop.”

“Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement. You must do what must be done.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to do this. I can’t.”

Ephraim sighed and sat down beside her. Gently, he took the ruby pommeled sword from her hand. “How many times do I have to tell you? Hurting yourself won’t bring them back.”

“But it was my fault,” she said. “Everything I touch, everyone I love—I’m destruction. I’m death.”

“Yes, that’s what you are,” agreed Ephraim. “But is that what you want to be forever?”

“I don’t know how to be anything else.”

“Quick and clean, Kassandra, just like I taught you.”

She picked up the sword. “Tell Deena that I love her.”

Ephraim smiled as she drove the blade through her heart.

Izra Grey knelt on the bank of the stream, splashing cold water onto her face. She coughed into her hand; the phlegm was tinted pink with blood, and she hurriedly washed it away in the stream.

“I saw that,” said a voice, and Izra turned to see Nicholas standing a few feet behind her.

“I’m fine,” said Izra. “I just didn’t want anyone to worry.”

“Don’t lie to me, Izra. I know how your magic costs you.”

Izra didn’t answer.

Nicholas took a seat beside her. “Why are you doing this? She’s not Inoor, you said it yourself, so why are you killing yourself like this?”

“I’m not doing it for her,” said Izra. “If she dies, we lose Inoor’s soul. Who knows how long it’ll be before I can find it again?”

“Is that it?” asked Nicholas.

“No. We need her to—” She stopped and shook her head. “Nevermind. It’s not something you need to burden yourself with.”

“Izi, I can tell when you’re lying. If you want to tell me, tell me.”

Izra studied him for a moment. “You wouldn’t say that if you remembered.”

“Remembered what?”

Izra shook her head. “It’s nothing. Forget it. Is there a reason you came to look for me?”

“You were gone a while. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine,” said Izra. She stood. “I need to go check on Avenel. Change her bandages.”

“You’re not fine,” said Nicholas. “Izi, I’m worried about you. I know you. Undertaking a journey like this, removing your own memories—those aren’t decisions you would make lightly. What am I missing, Izi? What don’t I know?”

Izra’s hand went to the beads around her wrist. “You’re better off not knowing,” she said. “Sometimes… sometimes I envy you.”

Katrina, age four, was playing by the fireplace, building a castle from the ash. She reached for the hot embers with chubby child hands, aiming to grab a fistful of cinders.

“Kat, no!” cried Kassandra. She swatted Katrina’s hand away, and in the process, knocked over the fragile construction, reducing it to a smoldering ruin.

Katrina looked up at her, tears welling up in her eyes.

“No, don’t cry,” said Kassandra. “I—I’ll help you make it right,” she said, but no matter what she did, the castle refused to take shape again, remaining a pile of ash on the floor. She reached out to wipe Katrina’s tears away with her sleeve, but it was no use. Katrina was crying in full force now. Bawling. Wailing. Shrieking.

Screaming.

Kassandra jerked her hand back, but it was too late. Katrina screamed and covered her face with her hands, and from between her fingers seeped blood.

“I—I’m sorry,” said Kassandra. She took a step back, letting the sword fall to her feet. “I didn’t mean—”

Katrina lowered her hands, and her face was Deena’s.

“It’s my fault,” said Deena. “I’m sorry, it’s my fault. Please wake up, Avenel, please.”

“Wake up from what?” asked Avenel.

Blood was pouring out from Deena’s cheek, damp and sticky. It poured until it filled the room, until it came up to Avenel’s waist, to her chest. Blood came up and closed over Avenel’s head, and she held her breath until her lungs might burst.

She was in a forest, holding a knife, Ephraim bleeding to death in her arms.

No, she was in a castle, holding a sword, and before her Katrina was burning.

No, all of that was wrong. She was in the dark, in the cold, bound to a great stone slab as someone broke her bones one by one.

No, she was floating in a pool of blood, drowning, while a circle of faces watched.

“Help me,” said Avenel. Her words bubbled to the surface and popped. “I can’t do this alone! Help me!”

The faces spoke in unison—Garthniiel, Nicholas, Flame, Frost, and Izra—but they spoke in a language she did not understand.

“Wake up,” said Deena. “Please wake up; this is all my fault, I’m sorry—”

And then a voice, a stranger’s, but inexplicably familiar. “How can you ask for help?” asked the voice. “Look around you. How can they help when you’re lying?”

Avenel looked around. She was lying on her back, and the water around her was merely a puddle.

Avenel’s eyes fluttered open.

“You’re awake!” exclaimed Deena. She was quick to wipe her tears away with the back of her hand, but her eyes were still red and puffy.

“It’s not your fault,” said Avenel. Her voice sounded like a croak and her mouth felt like glue.

Deena shook her head. “No, I shouldn’t have run off like that.” She sniffed. “Izra said to let her know when you wake up.”

“Then go,” said Avenel.

She could hear Deena shouting as she ran out of the cottage. “She’s awake! Where’s Izra? She’s awake!”

More voices—Nicholas, Garthniiel, and Flame—all talking over each other and all at once. Then Izra’s voice, cutting through the rest: “Out! Stay out—Yes, you too. Go boil some water if you’re aching for something to do. And bring some of that stew from earlier.” A moment later, Izra appeared in the doorway. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Avenel. Without thinking, she pushed herself up into a sitting position, then was surprised she even could. Gingerly, she tested the motion of her fingers and toes. They hurt, but each one moved without issue. “I thought these were broken.”

“They were,” said Izra. She sat down to check Avenel’s pulse, then her breathing, and finally her pupils. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Dizzy,” admitted Avenel. “I feel like I’m falling.”

“That’s from hunger,” said Izra. “You haven’t eaten in two days.” Her medicine bag was sitting by the foot of Avenel’s cot, and she retrieved a few vials from within, each tied with a differently colored ribbon. “You’ll need to take these daily,” she said. “Magic can’t fix everything. There were a few wounds that I couldn’t close, and you’ll want to avoid moving your shoulder. I’ll leave you something for the pain, too, but try not to take too much. It taxes the spleen.”

Avenel nodded, then immediately regretted it as a wave of vertigo overcame her. “You said there was stew?”

“Deena will bring you some,” said Izra, rising to her feet. “She might explode if I keep her from you any longer.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you.”

“There’s time for that later,” said Izra.

“I saw Inoor.”

Izra paused by the door.

“You knew where I was, didn’t you? You knew who took me.”

Slowly, Izra nodded. “Later,” she said. “I’ll explain later.”

“Izra, I need to know—”

“You’re withholding the truth, too,” said Izra. She looked about to say more, but there was a knock on the door.

“Um, I have the stew,” called Deena from outside.

“You can come in,” replied Izra. She turned back to Avenel. “Get some rest. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.”

She left as Deena came in with the bowl of soup. “It’s not hot anymore,” said Deena apologetically. “But it’s—the fat’s only congealed a little bit.”

“It’s alright,” said Avenel, taking the bowl.

Deena watched as Avenel devoured the stew. It hurt to see the cuts and bruises on her limbs, but at least her limbs were whole. The sound of her bones grinding together as Izra healed them had been terrifying, but it had been less terrifying than the sight of Avenel unconscious. “What happened?” asked Deena. “Who did this to you?”

“I’m not sure yet,” said Avenel. “Did anything happen while I was gone?”

“No,” said Deena. “We tried looking for you—mostly it was Garthniiel and Nicholas—but we couldn’t find you. And then you came back, but your arms were at the wrong angle, and you wouldn’t wake up. I was so scared—I thought you were going to die, and it would’ve been all my fault.”

“It isn’t your fault,” said Avenel, reaching up to brush a strand of hair from Deena’s face. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

Deena nodded. “I’m glad you’re safe too.”

Avenel smiled. She set down the bowl of stew. “Listen, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“About Lord Vallus and my mother?” asked Deena.

“Yes,” said Avenel, “but also no.” She studied Deena a moment before continuing. “Edith wasn’t your mother, not by birth. Your birth mother died when you were an infant, and Edith offered to raise you as her own.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Then—then who was my birth mother?”

“Her name was Fosette.”

Deena stared. She recognized that name from somewhere, she was sure, and it took her a moment to remember. “I saw—There was a painting of her at Lord Majjreo’s,” said Deena. “But—but that means she’s Ajjraean.”

Avenel nodded.

“But if she’s Ajjraean, and Vallus is Elyrian—I’m—Am I the Harbinger?”

“It would seem so,” said Avenel.

“But I don’t want to destroy the world.”

“I know,” said Avenel.

Deena thought of the Meridian, the meeting there and the attack. “There’s people trying to kill me, isn’t there? The Meridian—The people who attacked you—”

“That isn’t your fault,” said Avenel. “Even if it was, I won’t let anyone hurt you. There’s more that we don’t know, things we’ll have to figure out, but that won’t change. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“Do the others know? Are you going to tell them?”

“That’s up to you,” said Avenel. “It’s your secret, to keep or to tell, but…”

“But?”

“I don’t know if I can protect you alone.”

In the evening, it rained, a light drizzle that made the world shiny with wet. There was a leak in one corner of the cottage, but it was far from Avenel’s bedside, where Deena sat with a book in her lap. She had been reading it aloud, but then she had looked up to see that Avenel had fallen asleep. She continued to read.

It was a while later when Garthniiel knocked on the door. “You’ve been sitting with her all day,” he said, quietly. “Go get some sleep. I’ll sit with her tonight.”

Deena nodded. She set down her book and headed out into the rain.

It was dark, the moon and stars obscured by a thick cover of cloud. The remnants of the campfire still smoldered, slightly, but it no longer provided light or heat. Nicholas and Izra had taken cover beneath a tree, speaking quietly in a language that Deena did not understand. Across the clearing, Frost was engaged in target practice as though oblivious to the rain, and a few feet away, Flame watched.

No one seemed to notice as Deena slipped into a broken hut and out of sight.

Inside, Deena found a spot where the roof hadn’t leaked quite so much. She sat down in the dry patch, on the ground, and pulled her knees to her chin. Perhaps there had once been chairs here, in this hut. Perhaps there had once been a bed.

Perhaps there had once been a family here. On rainy nights like this, they would have taken shelter under this roof. Likely it had not been so leaky, at the time, and the family would have retired here after a long day’s labor. They would have slept here, ate here, laughed here, and cried here. Their children would have been born and grown up here, and perhaps they had even died here. Within this village they had lived their lives, but then they had left. Deena wondered what it was that had compelled them to leave. Perhaps, years hence, someone would stumble upon the ruins of Taunsgrove and wonder the same.

Taunsgrove. Had the attack at Taunsgrove been because of her too? In her mind she could pretend that Taunsgrove was still whole, and if she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine she was there. There was the smell that wafted from the bakery, the color of the great oak in the town square, the sounds of children at play by the well. There was the copper kettle whistling on the stove, the chickens clucking as the door banged shut. There was Phea’s laughter, Mattieu tossing his hair. There was the lake where they spent whole afternoons lazing in the sun. There was her cottage. There was her mother.

Her mother— Blood relation or not, she would always be her mother. When Edith Hewe took her in, had she known that the infant in her arms was the Harbinger? Had she known that the child she loved would be destined to destroy the world?

“I don’t want to destroy the world,” she said to the rain. “Why would anyone?” But then she saw in her mind’s eye the man she had killed with Greoore’s sword. She had weighed her life against that of a stranger, and in that moment, she had chosen her own.

What was the world but millions upon millions of strangers?

She thought of the soldier at the Meridian, the one who had begged her for help. She thought of the aftermath, the burnt figures in the courtyard. She thought of the corpses by the tree in Taunsgrove. She thought of her mother.

“Deena?”

Deena turned. Avenel stood in the doorway, leaning heavily against the doorframe. The rain had turned into a proper pour and soaked her through—her hair, her tunic, her bandages.

Deena leapt to her feet. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You should be resting!”

“So should you,” said Avenel. “It’s late.”

“But you’re soaked!”

“I had to find you,” said Avenel. “No one knew where you were, and I was afraid you’d—I was afraid someone had hurt you.”

Deena shook her head. “I just wanted to be alone. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”

“Would you like to be alone somewhere drier?”

Deena looked down at herself. She hadn’t realized that the dry patch she had been sitting in was no longer dry. “Yes,” she said. She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth began to wobble, and she found that she was crying.

Wordless, Avenel pulled her into an embrace. Her skin was cold from the rain.

“I’m scared,” said Deena.

Avenel kissed her forehead. “I know.”

“What if—What if we tell the others, and they try to kill me?”

“Then you’ll still have me,” said Avenel. “You’ll always have me.”

“Do you promise?” asked Deena.

Avenel nodded. “I promise. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

By morning the rain had stopped, and the clouds had all but disappeared. Sunlight streamed in through the open door of the cottage, crisp and bright, alongside a gentle breeze. Avenel winced as she pushed herself to her feet. “Are you ready?” she asked.

Deena nodded.

The others were outside, gathered around the cold remains of a campfire. Garthniiel got to his feet. “I was about to bring you breakfast,” he said. “Should you be up yet?”

“I’m fine,” said Avenel, “and breakfast can wait.”

“Is something wrong?” asked Nicholas.

Avenel sighed. “I have to apologize,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ve been less than truthful.”

“Is this about Deena being Hallowed?” asked Garthniiel. “I’m sure you had your reasons for—”

Avenel shook her head. “Not quite.”

Frost narrowed her eyes. “Then what else are you hiding?”

“I told you that we were searching for the Harbinger,” said Avenel. “The truth is we never were. She’s been with us all along.”

“Who?” began Flame, then his eyes fell on Deena. “Oh.”

Frost reached for her crossbow. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill her, right here and now.”

“Because she’s a child, Sister!” exclaimed Flame.

“So?” asked Frost.

Deena shrank back behind Avenel. “I don’t want to destroy the world, I promise!”

“That doesn’t mean you won’t do it,” said Frost. “All the legends say you will.”

“But—”

Izra stood. “Then it’s a good thing the legends are wrong,” she said.

“What do you mean?” asked Flame.

“The Harbinger isn’t meant to destroy the world. She’s meant to save it.”