The monster was expecting me.
At least, that was how it seemed as I approached the edge of the barrier to Sorrow-Fell, breaking through the mist to find the demon Molochoron. The thought that this creature anticipated me was nonsense, of course. He was only a ten-foot-tall blob of jelly with dark, sharp hairs protruding from his so-called flesh. He’d no capacity to think or to plot. Only to destroy.
Yet as I stood before the Ancient, I couldn’t shake the idea that he knew me.
The barrier was invisible, but its protection was absolute. These lands had been gifted to Blackwood’s family by a faerie lord, and as such could not be accessed without a Blackwood’s permission. I stood my ground and stared at Molochoron, the Pale Destroyer, studying the writhing shapes within the mass of pale jelly. Were they the monster’s latest victims, now being digested?
The pain in my shoulder flared to think of it.
“There are more today, Henrietta.” Maria had worn her peacock-blue cloak, providing a dab of color against the winter landscape. She pointed toward figures shambling out of the fog to stand beside Molochoron, their master. These creatures appeared human, but only vaguely. Their faces had melted, the flesh on their hands and arms bubbling with sores.
Familiars. Servants of the Seven Ancients.
Molochoron roared, sounding like nothing so much as a lion trapped in a vat of jam. The sound shook snow from the trees, but we were safe behind the barrier.
Maria was right; more creatures arrived every day. Ten this morning, I counted, scribbling the number in my journal. Blackwood had thought it odd that I’d volunteer to check the borders in the early morning. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous--or warm--job. But it was the only way that Maria and I could work in secret on her, well, her particular destiny.
Being the chosen one, she’d a great responsibility.
“What’ve you got for me today?” Maria toed the very line of the barrier. She and Molochoron were a mere half foot from one another. I believed the ball of putrescence purred at having such a challenger near.
I slid my pencil and notebook into my little reticule and tied the strings. “Can you manage an ice tunnel from back here?”
Maria summoned a stinging cloud of needle-sharp snow, then flung it past the barrier to engulf Molochoron, who disappeared from view. The world before us turned a violent white for several minutes before Maria lowered her hands, settling the snow and ice. If we had anticipated a great, bellowing charge from the Ancient, we were disappointed. Molochoron had rolled a half foot to the left at most. Snow had settled on him like a dusting of sugar upon a cake.
“Er, perhaps not. Try something with the trees.”
Maria took my advice readily, placing her hands on the earth. With a grunt, she dug her fingers into the snow.
Molochoron was surrounded on either side by tall, ancient pines. At Maria’s order, they bent like graceful dancers in the midst of a plié. The branches sought to entrap the demon, who merely rolled a few yards back, completely out of harm’s way.
“So far, I’ve a knack for moving Ancients slightly to the left,” Maria grumbled.
“Yes, but you do it so well.” As far as encouraging words went, mine left a lot to be desired. Honestly, it felt like the bloody monster was humoring us.
Maria put the trees back in their proper place. Huffing, she stood. Her face was flushed, and not merely with the cold. Disappointment painted her features.
“Suppose that’s enough for now,” she grumbled, slipping her hands inside her cloak for warmth.
“I think we’re making real progress.”
Molochoron pulsed steadily, the noise coming from him a steady buzz; he appeared to have fallen asleep.
Bother it all. Maria led our way down the snowy path. I cast one look back at the barrier, at the rotting Familiars and Molochoron. Perhaps I was a dreadful teacher for the true chosen one. Why hadn’t the prophecy come with a nice instruction manual woven into its back?
Soon we entered the forest’s embrace. The trees were so dense that the bright morning darkened to twilight. The bracing air was almost enough to make me forget the pain in my shoulder. Almost. It had been months since Rook, in his transformed state as an Ancient, had bit me. Still, the bite had made me Unclean, and the pain that went with such a status varied between aching and excruciating.
Maria took her hands out of her cloak. Her left hand flexed, the fist opening and closing, a sure sign that her temper was nearing its limit.
“Remember how you bested Nemneris,” I said to cheer her. In October, when the Water Spider had destroyed our boat and been about to feast on the lot of us, Maria alone had risen up and dragged the beast back into the sea.
“I was angry then. Besides, there wasn’t an entire country relying upon me.” We walked ten minutes through the trees before we came to the edge of the forest, looking toward the great estate beyond. She put her hand to a tree, running her fingers along the bark. “Once you know you’re chosen, it freezes the mind.”
Well, that feeling I understood only too well.
“All right. Maybe focusing only on your sorcerer abilities is a mistake. What about your witchery? After all, I saw you heal yourself once by taking the life of a plant. That power could be useful.”
Maria’s left hand tightened into a fist once more. She spoke in a lower, more womanly tone now: “Power, aye. And danger. Killing a living thing for magic puts one on the path to losing one’s soul.” The “friend” Maria called Willie was making an appearance. As a child, Maria had spent a great deal of time living off the land, all alone. She’d invented “Willie” as a companion. Sometimes, dear Willie seemed to have a mind of her own. “Death can only ever master, not be mastered.”
Right, we needed a cheerier topic.
“You learned that in your grandmother’s coven, yes? What’s a coven like?”