Aliza stumbled through the forest, thrusting aside foliage and ignoring the scrape of thorns across her paper-white arms. There were worse pains than cuts and bruises, lingering pains, pains that stalked you even in sleep. That was why she was here.
She rubbed her shoulder. The words still came to her. Whenever she was alone, whenever she was afraid, a cold, gentle wind whispered in her ear. Twelve notes for twelve wings. Even here in the forest, its denizens standing tall, sentinels against encroaching scars, she could not escape it. Behind her, hanging low on the horizon, Theia cast a cool light through the trees, stretching their shadows until they merged into an all-consuming blot of lightless ignorance.
But Aliza pushed onwards. She had seen worse. When you spent your life living underground, when you knew at twelve what most would not know at twenty, yet looked twenty by the age of twelve, you knew better than to judge on appearances. Here, the darkness was her friend. It was her only way forward. It was her only way out.
As she slipped down into a gully, she glimpsed a sparkle of light in the distance, where a luminous sanctuary of silver trunks capped with cerulean leaves stood steadfast against the night. Malkuth’s handiwork: synthetic life planted to help rejuvenate the forest after the fires four years ago. No doubt they already had their eyes on her. In her, even, invading her body with every breath, so small as to be invisible.
Maybe she was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe there really was nowhere left to hide in this world. Nowhere except—
“They really are quite—how should we put this?—persistent, aren’t they?”
Aliza froze at the sound of his voice, smooth, seductive, and self-assured, and emanating from all around her, as if he was the forest itself and everything in it.
“Yet the more they strive to expose the world’s secrets,” he continued, “the more the world endeavours to hide them. And the world would be a very dull place without its share of secrets, wouldn’t you agree, my dear Aliza?”
Despite all her mother had taught her of the otherworld’s many layers, and for all her experience dealing with their various denizens, the Sidhe still gave Aliza goosebumps. They were an existence beyond human understanding, concepts made manifest, dreams given form, gods and demons both and yet neither. Some called them the ‘Fair Folk’, others the ‘Good People’. Aliza’s mother referred to them as ‘phantasias’, souls refined through the dance of life and death, ideals. There were other terms, too, words they loathed, names they punished, but Aliza knew better than to even think them, because the Sidhe were of the aether, and thoughts were to the aether like droplets of colour in a bowl of water.
And it was because of the aether that Prince Freyr Venris, of the Court of Queen Áine Echraide, took a shape wrenched from her imagination. He was as tall as a man could be and more handsome still, his brown body lithe, muscles glistening in the moonlight, and his hair, an impossible bough of improbable green, framed a face long, lean and sharp, a wooden carving with the smile of a wolf.
Beauty made manifest, anarchy given form, a god and demon both, yet neither. But, for Aliza Adel, he was also the only hope she had of living a normal life. She knew that now, and the price no longer mattered to her. She would pay, and she would be free.
She left the forest another person, a new person. Yet, even as she stepped out into the dawn of a new day, it was still there, watching her, its single, cracked eye ignorant of illusions and unhindered by lies. An eternal curse upon the world. And, every day, moving closer, ever closer.
This is a footnote! It’s where I am snarky and/or informative.
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