29: The Prophecy
Ceres’s curious face curled into her field of vision. “What’s up?” she asked. “C’mon, you can’t let that whole prophecy thing get you down! Those people were brainwashed. Nobody wants you dead. We made sure of it, didn’t we, Korrie?”
“You’re safe with us!”
Emily forced the corners of her lips into a slight smile. She had to keep the illusion alive if only for her friends’ sakes. The less they knew about who she really was and why this was really going on, the better. It was safer that way. It always had been.
Her smile faltered, however, when she realised where Korrie was leading them. The grove of silver-barked trees only seemed to grow larger as they approached, its thick canopy rising to devour the sky and leave the girls wandering beneath a synthetic night. This, thought Emily, was the fate of Torhout Forest, the result of decades of unchecked synthetic growth. Soon enough, there was no sign of the way they came, nor any sign of escape; the trees continued forever, an endless illusion of aethex, frightening in its unnatural silence.
Emily pulled her arms around her chest, suddenly cold at the thought of a whole group of Rorric Yentas sitting atop that tower, watching her every move. “Are you sure this is the place?” she asked.
“It depends on what you’re looking for.”
It wasn’t Ceres, and nor was it Korrie—but instead a figure slouched in the branches above them. An oversized shirt hung loose around his shoulders, unbuttoned to expose a boyish chest. With a twist and a spin that could rival the greatest of Olympian gymnasts, he was standing in front of them, bowing low. “Or, indeed, who.”
The boy stood. He had large, elegant eyes and a sharp face the colour of almonds. His hair was short, but wild, a young tangle of weeds Emily wanted to reach out and ruffle. “I am Himeros,” he said, his voice a sweet melody of childish innocence, “the purveyor of this little slice of Paradise. I am honoured to make your acquaintance.”
Korrie-Anne introduced herself without pause, then introduced Ceres and Emily before they had a chance to do so themselves. Himeros bowed his head to each of the girls in turn. “I heard of your approach. It seems you might require my services. If you would follow me, I would be happy to offer them.”
It was as if the moment they made his acquaintance, the familiar and comforting greens and browns and golds of nature emerged from hiding, and when Emily looked back the way they came, there was no sign of the silver trunks or starlight fruits of the synthetic forest. Even the aether was abloom, a vivid painting of vibrant colours, detailed down to the smallest of strokes.
Ahead of them, the forest opened upon a cottage sitting next to a gentle river, its waters turning a creaking mill. A young woman in a headscarf was working the soil with a fork. She looked up at the newcomers and smiled.
A Maiden’s smile, to match her Maiden’s eyes.
Korrie, being Korrie, danced over to greet her.
Why do strange boys always hang around in trees?