Ch. 25 - Wickedness

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If Niva told the rest of camp about Devan before Lacey could figure out some kind of peace between the humans and the Wished, Goeden and his cats would hunt him down just for being in the Wood. And Lacey wasn’t entirely sure Ezerelle would do anything to stop them.

“Niva, wait! Let me explain.” Lacey could barely keep up with the fox-girl. It was too dark to see but Lacey could hear the sound of feet squishing on sodden pine needles getting further away. There were other sounds too. Careful sounds. Whispers.

Lacey stopped and looked up toward the trees, hidden in the pitch black of night. The trees this far from the well weren’t haunted, were they? No, this was someone being careful not to reveal where they were. A hunter. Those golden eyes had not been her imagination.

The sounds came from several directions. More than one hunter. Niva might not have to say a thing about Devan to the others. They could be on his trail already.

She was about to turn around and go after Devan when she heard a ripping, crashing sound ahead. A scream cut short the same moment a shockwave rippled out through the ground. Niva!

Lacey started after the fox-girl again. She strained to hear the sound of her friend running, but the Wood had gone very quiet. Nobody was running but her.

She entered a space that felt too open. Overhead a halo of black surrounded a gap where the clouds were visible. Dark and grey, they glowed compared to the impenetrable shadow of the canopy. It was wrong. There was no clearing here. A chill crawled up her back like a hundred spiders. Lacey stepped forward inch by inch, reaching out to where she knew a tree should be. Nothing but air.

A tree couldn’t get up and walk away, no matter what she had seen by the well, or heard stories about. She refused to believe a tree could walk. She wasn’t even near the well!

The rain had stopped, though below the canopy water continued to drip. The clouds thinned and glowed brighter until they broke apart to let the Night Mother shine through. The moonlight bathed a scene of carnage.

Dirt and pine needles torn asunder, gashes in the forest floor pooling with water. Great, twisted, wrecks of tree roots splayed in an arc above a deep wound in the earth. Sticking out from the roots, like an appendage at an unnatural angle, the massive tree trunk laid on its side.

Lacey followed its length. Splintered trunks of smaller trees poked up like spikes on a spring-trap, snaring the fallen giant in their grasp. She walked for an impossibly long time and was still nowhere near its top, when the moonlight caught on something brilliant and red. More red than the poppies in the fields.

Lacey ran toward her friend, forcing her way through the branches that had once been a part of the distant canopy. Sticky sap, oozed from those broken and mangled tree limbs, coating her hands, clothes, hair. She collapsed to her knees beside Niva. Her friend’s wide eyes stared at the moon; her slender snout gaped, tongue lolling out to the side.

She reached out and caressed a furry red ear. The lifelessness of it was a shock--even more than seeing where the trunk had slammed down and crushed her middle, or the black shining color of blood in the moonlight, as it leaked out from under the tree.

The sound of running reached her ears again. She heard shouts that seemed distant, but then the tree branches were shaking and faces appeared. Hands lifted her up, checking her for wounds. She hugged the closest warm body, screaming into a furred shoulder.

Blayd came. He ran, sliding, to the heap of red fur, no longer as brilliant as the poppies, because the rain had started again and feet churned up mud. His hulking form bent and twisted beside the trunk, muscles strained in the moonlight as he tried to lift its massive bulk.

“Blayd,” someone shouted.

He heaved and panted, ignoring them.

Lacey planted her feet solid beneath her and motioned away the hands that were supporting her. She stepped toward the straining wolf-boy.

Even if he had been strong enough to lift something so massive, his feet could not find a solid purchase in the churned earth. But he picked himself up over and over from the mud to try again.

“Blayd,” Lacey said. Her was voice barely a whisper, but he stopped when he heard it. She laid a hand on his shoulder. “She’s gone. You can stop.”

His shoulders slumped and he let her pull him away. He only went a few feet before he sank to the ground and howled with the same grief and rage she felt inside.

Finally, his howling became a keening, then a soft whine, and he looked up at her. There was a question in his eyes. Why?

“I don’t know,” she said stroking his furred face.

She didn’t know why, but she was certain of whom--Goeden, or one of his cats. Maybe Golden-eyes.

Before the rain had melted the earth into shapelessness, she had seen claw marks in the gouged dirt at the base of the tree. Goeden was wicked and violent in ways Lacey almost couldn’t understand. Almost. The desire for revenge burned in her heart, every bit as wicked and violent as the horror of Niva’s death.

“What should we do?” A voice startled Lacey out of her thoughts. It was Tiny Tee, the moon was gone again masking everyone in shadows, but there was no mistaking the silhouette of her rounded ears, or her high, piping voice. Nearby a hulking shadow, which could only be Berellan, held a wailing figure, which could only be Star. There were others she couldn’t make out. All of them were turned toward her and Blayd. He was their leader. But he was not going to be able to communicate with them in his current state, much less figure out what to do.

Lacey pushed the thoughts of Goeden and revenge out of her head. Her friends needed her. Maybe it was because she could not cry, or maybe it was because she had gotten here sooner than the others, and had more time to get over the shock, but her head was suddenly clear and her heart was calm.

“We can’t just leave her there,” she said.

Not even Berellan was strong enough to lift the tree, so they dug. When they were finished, and Niva was free, she knew she could not ask anybody to carry those remains. They were not entirely whole, and none of the night-hunters could stand to look at them much less carry them. So they dug the hole deeper and buried her there.

The moon came out again as they stood over the new mound of dirt that was Niva’s grave. Some said a few words. Star spoke, but most of it came out as a blubbering babble. Blayd howled again, and Lacey hugged him tighter. He had not moved and she had not left his side. He could be gruff, and he could be bossy—and he seemed so strong—but this had stripped it all away, leaving nothing but the innocent boy.

Lacey looked around and saw it in all their faces, young and old. They didn’t deserve wickedness in their lives anymore.

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