Ch. 12 - The road home

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There were six people on the road. Not just any people, hunters from Pine Ridge. Lacey felt like her heart would burst with joy. 

“What are they doing here?” She spotted Riley, and waved to him.

Riley waved and called out, “Lacey!”

“They are looking for you of course.” Goeden had his knife in hand. The cats had disappeared into the trees. “It seems you were useful after all.”

“No,” she whispered.

“You have two choices, Village Girl. Be one of us, or be one of them. Right now, they are prey.”

She whirled around to shout a warning, but it was too late. The village hunters had picked up pace at the sight of her and ran straight into the trap. The Wished sprang upon them and the air was filled with hissing snarls and flying claws. 

The hunters were caught by surprise and outnumbered. A few went down, beneath the onslaught of their furred assailants, before they could even draw their hunting knives to defend themselves. 

Riley managed to get his knife out and was slashing the air in front of Golden-Eyes, pushing him back enough that he could not reach Riley with his claws. The cougar drew his machete. Riley’s face was a mask of horror and confusion. Killing animals was a way of life for a hunter, but these beasts were walking upright on two legs, and killing humans was abhorrent to any colonist on Eridan. 

“Riley!” Lacey shouted, as he was driven out of sight by the swinging machete. He was only trying to fend off the attack. Golden-Eyes was out to kill. Riley didn’t stand a chance.

None of the hunters from Pine Ridge stood a chance. They were not fighters. The road was a tumult of blood and screams.

They were her friends, and they were dying. Bile rose in her throat; she turned away from the road, trying not to throw up.

“Not many come into the Wood anymore, or travel the road, we haven’t had a good hunt for some time.” Goeden said, almost gleefully.

“This isn’t a hunt! It’s a slaughter,” she choked. 

“It is a necessity. What is your choice? Die like prey,” he said, flipping his knife so that he held the blade and offered the handle, “Or be what you were born to be.”

The sounds of her friends dying filled her ears. “They were no threat to you!”

“One way or another, you are taking this knife.” Goeden advanced on her. “You just need to decide which end of it you are taking.”

Lacey stepped forward and snatched the knife from his hands. She lunged at him with all her might.

Goeden ducked her attack and grinned. He rubbed the bones of his necklace, muttered something, and stepped sideways behind a tree. Lacey hissed and darted around the other side. But Goeden was gone.

“You!” she heard a shout. “You did this.”

She spun to face the new threat. Devan held an arrow toward her like a spear. She lowered her knife and panted in relief. Before she could explain anything, he launched himself at her. She jerked backwards and the arrow barely missed slicing her face. 

Her fury roared back to life. She screamed and hacked at him with her knife. This wasn’t her fault; this was his fault. None of this would have ever happened if he hadn’t taken her place. She cut his arm and the arrow fell from his grasp. He teetered back, off balance. 

She bared her teeth and raised the knife high to plunge it into his heart. He turned and fled. She leapt after him and her blade sunk into flesh. Blood spattered her face. Devan yelped and clawed at the knife in his calf. She yanked it out. He stumbled off into the Wood, despite his injury. She wiped her face with a corner of her cloak. 

“No! Lacey!” a shout came from the road. 

Riley was still holding on, he had two knives in his hands. But his guard slipped at the sight of her, and Golden-Eyes sunk his machete deep into Riley’s shoulder.

“Riley!” she screamed as she watched him crumple. Lacey looked at the bloody knife in her hand and the red smear on her cloak. What had she done? 

The silence of the pines swallowed the screams of the wounded, until they were muffled and far away. 

Devan was gone, leaving nothing but a bloody trail. She wanted to take it back. She had to undo what she had done. She wished for it with every ounce of her being. The wish clamped down on her heart, like the jaws of a predator.

A whisper tickled to life inside her mind and then exploded into siren song. The well was calling her. It promised safety and comfort, a way to undo her terrible act. 

She ran like a child running to her mother’s arms. It would all be better, if she could just reach the well and make one wish. All of the bad would go away. She could have everything she ever wanted. 

She ran headlong toward the promise of the well, until she tripped on a root, landed on her hands, and fresh pain raked her palms. The call of the well cut off abruptly. She lay there, face down in a carpet of pine needles. The trees crowded around her waiting to see what she would do. But there was no more song inside her head. The only sound was her breath coming in gasps. 

She moaned and curled into a ball. Her breath turned to shuddering sobs and then rose into a wail of grief. Mama was wrong. Lacey was an animal. Even if she could take back what she did; even if she could change what she was on the outside; she couldn’t change what she was inside; she would still be this broken thing. 

She dug her fingernails into her injured palms, trying to blot out the pain in her heart. But no bruised palm could compare with knowing that she was the monster everyone, besides Mama, thought she was. The children, the parents, the envoy, even Papa, had all known. Mama had told her lies, and she had believed then—wanted to believe them. 

Ella.

Ella had always loved Lacey no matter what. But when she grew up, she would know better. Maybe even now she was learning. Lacey had abandoned her. Left her all by herself beside the river.

Wretchedness consumed her whole. She didn’t fight it. She thought of every person who had ever shown her a kind face and told herself they were only pretending. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the trees. Not even a crack of blue seeped in through the dark canopy high above. She could just lay here and die, she thought. And nobody would miss her or care. It was what she deserved. 

The well made curses, not wishes. She was a curse--on Mama, and the whole village; on everyone she ever knew. Her death would be for the best.

Wind shifted the branches above, and a small trickle of sunlight cracked through the canopy. A streak of red, on the tree beside her, glittered in the light. Devan’s blood. She must have followed his path. Or they had followed the same one.

Lacey got to her knees slowly. She wasn’t done. She had one last thing to do. 

He wasn’t far away. She could hear his grunting and gasping.  

She crept toward the sound. The pines were still. The only things that moved in the Wood were Lacey and the lump on the ground ahead of her. A hand reached out from the lump and clawed at the dirt, trying to drag itself forward. 

A twig snapped under her foot. The lump froze and then slowly raised it’s head.

“Don’t kill me,” Devan cried.

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