I was the monster in the world.
I was the monster in the woods.
And though I was spared, all still feels ruined. Torn apart by claws and teeth.
It’s midnight as I cross the hall. Pause at the landing and look down through the arched window. Cold glass, moonlight on the locked garden below.
Harvestfall has eclipsed Summersend. The trees are hung with leaves that are dying or dead. The ground is dewed with early frost. In the altar beneath the jacaranda tree, at the center of the lawn, a single candle has been lit. Illuminating the blackened streaks that still mar the wooden icon frame, turning the Lady to a shadowed shroud.
I feel the same. Dark as ink, dark as the Corruption that stained the shore, dark as the poison that filled my veins.
There are scars left from what we did. The locked garden. The ruined altar. Earth cut up, a fallen tree skeletal in the moonlight. Deep wounds torn across the ground that look like they were made by claws. All remnants of the destruction I caused when I became a monster. When I meant to drown the world.
The Corruption is gone now. Mended. I’m mended. And yet.
I watched the world tear open. I watched Violeta Graceling—the girl I love—vanish into the dark. Held her in my arms as the poison claimed her, as she spilled her blood beneath the dual altar and called to the Lord Under. In that last, terrible moment when the shadows closed in, I heard her voice as she demanded he take her, alive, to the world Below.
Then she was … gone.
I thought I knew grief. After my parents died, after I lost Elan. Thought I knew the way it softened in hurried moments and returned when the world was quiet. But this is new. This is a sudden violence. It catches me by the throat when I am at my most unguarded.
At night, after I drift into restless sleep, thoughts of Leta rise, always, though I don’t want them. I wake alone in the dark. The spell she marked on my wrist aches and burns. Like she’s still tied to the other end. And every time, I can’t help reaching out. My hand on the bed, fingers clutched at a vacant space.
I hate myself for it. The way I expect to find her there. Grief isn’t a tithe that can be paid with blood. There’s no way to escape this hurt. This is a pain that I can’t work free from.
Once I called her a ghost. And now, ghostlike, she haunts me. Awake. Asleep. All I see is Leta. How she looked when she crossed the shore, went into the water. How she looked when I carried her to the altar. How she kissed me that last time, her mouth tasting of blood and poison.
She said it was her choice. That she wasn’t afraid. That her sacrifice would keep us safe.
With a sigh, I turn away from the window. Peel the gloves from my hands. I go quietly down the stairs. Though everyone is long asleep, I don’t want to risk disturbing them. I need to be alone. Tonight is my first observance since it all happened. The first time I’ve come—uncorrupted—to the dual altar in the parlor.
The room is dark when I step inside. I close the door behind me. Draw back the curtains and let moonlight pool over the floor. The air is draped with the faded scent of smoke. Beneath that, a hint of old blood.
The dual icon hangs in shadow, but I don’t move to light the candles that line the altar. Instead, I kneel down. Keep my eyes fixed on the floor. I touch the boards, feel them rough beneath my ungloved fingers. There’s a faded crimson stain left behind from when Leta cut herself. Gave her blood to make that final promise.
And this is where—long before that—I cut myself and gave my blood and heard no answer.
I find a sparklight. Touch it to one of the candles. The flame wavers, and I feel the warmth against my face. Now I can see the mark on the floor more clearly. The blood, dried to a faded red, is the color of a pomegranate.
Everything blurs as unwelcome tears fill my eyes. I force them away. Force them back until my vision is spotted with darkness. With a ragged breath, I finally look up at the icon. The Lady is bronze and gold. Her hands outstretched. Light blooms at her palms like brilliant flowers.
Beneath her, the Lord Under is shadows and smoke and darkness.
I stare at him. The silhouette of his cloak. The sharp outline of his antlered crown. Here is the creature who saved me when I drowned. Caught hold of me as I fell beneath the water. Whispered to me as the lake stole my breath. Asked what I would offer in exchange for my life.
I’ve never known him the way that Leta does. To me, he was only ever a voice in the shadows, a presence I felt rather than saw. Like the lingering traces of a nightmare or a half-forgotten memory. And though I called to him so many times—after he killed my father, after I realized he meant to take my family to punish me—he never responded.
But Leta could see him. She could summon him. She spoke to him, she promised herself to him, and she walked into his darkness.
I press my hands against the stained floor. Her blood, my blood. So many unanswered pleas and ungiven promises. Sometimes I think of how different it would have been, if I’d not broken my vow when I turned thirteen and he came back for me. If I had gone with him.
It’s so easy to regret. To think how I could have chosen differently. But it doesn’t matter now. I am here, with a life stolen from the sacrifice of others. My father, my mother, my brother. And now … Leta.
I light the rest of the candles at the altar. Dip my fingers into the salt, then scatter an offering beneath the icon. I start to chant. Hating my voice, the way the notes catch on my unsteady breath, my throat still rough with held-back tears.
The Harvestfall litany, when sung by others, calls up images of tilled fields and bonfire smoke. Of barren branches, and the slow transition toward long nights. But when I sing it, the litany sounds like a wound. It sounds like mourning.
My hands start to shake. I press them harder against the floor. Close my eyes. I reach for the light we’re told is there. The light the Lady became when she made the world. The golden magic that’s strung through everything. It’s been so long since I felt it. When I was Corrupted and made observance, there was only cold. A sense of vacant darkness.
Now I wait, trying to feel beyond that familiar silence.
The candles burn. Smoke streaks the air. I swallow, and it tastes like ash.
For a long while, there’s only stillness. Then heat pulses against my palms. I feel a pull. Startled, I look up at the altar. But this isn’t magic. This isn’t the Lady.
It’s something closer. A wound, still tender.
I raise my hand; slow, uncertain. A thread is tied to my wrist. I stare as it gleams through the dark; a thin golden line that shifts and flickers, like a candle flame. My heartbeat rises as I watch the thread stretching into the shadows. I feel the pull, the strange pulse of heat, the wounded hurt.
Then, with a sudden rush, colors light over me. Peach and rose and gold. And a figure emerges. Pale freckles, pale skin, hair like summer embers. Leta.
She’s there, just beyond the dark. Dressed in black lace with her hair unbound. I gasp, the noise cutting sharply across the silence. She looks up. Her silver-gray eyes are wide and blank. And I want, so wretchedly, for this to be real. Different from those haunting visions that drag me from sleep, every night.
Slowly, I get to my feet. Certain that in the next moment, the next heartbeat, everything will fracture, and I’ll wake alone. My hands pressed to an empty altar.
I whisper her name, more desperate than any plea I’ve ever made beneath this shadowed icon. “Leta?”
The blankness in her eyes is replaced by recognition. She looks at me, all unbearable tenderness. I am filled with longing. Her lips part. Her mouth shapes a word—my name?—but I can hear no sound.
I reach toward her. My hand trembling in the space between us. The thread glows brighter. The other end is knotted at her wrist. Near the sigil left from the spell she cast to save me, when I was almost lost to the darkness.
I touch her there. On her wrist. At the feel of her skin—cold, impossibly cold—my breath comes loose in a shallow, jagged sob. I’m overcome by all I’ve wanted to say since she left. “Leta,” I whisper. “I miss you, so terribly. I don’t even know if this is real. But I…”
I trail off as the light begins to blur, and everything turns dreamlike. Leta takes hold of my hand. She doesn’t try to speak again. Her lashes dip, a single tear spills down her cheek. And then, she starts to fade.
I clutch for the thread tied between us—tied from my wrist to hers—but all I feel is shadows. I try to pull her into my arms, but she is mist and embers. A pale wisp, replaced by the flicker of altar candles. Slowly, I kneel. Press my hands to the floor. She is gone.
I’m alone in the parlor. Overcome by a taunting blur of thoughts. All the hopes I once had for a life with Leta. The future I wanted to offer her. Books stacked on the library shelves. Her garden, bright with flowers. The two of us alone in my room, in the moonlight.
Then, a jolt of pain goes through me, so blisteringly fierce that my fingers curl sharply against the stained boards. Like I have claws. Shakily, I sit back onto my heels. Unlace my sleeves. Blood wells at my wrists. The scars where I cut myself countless times for the tithe have turned to open wounds. My blood, it isn’t red. It’s black. And around the sigil that Leta marked on me, the day I became a monster, there are shadows pooled beneath my skin.
Just like before, when the Corruption was overtaking me.
I touch a questioning finger to the sigil mark. The Corruption was cleansed in that last, terrible ritual where Leta went to the world Below. I watched the shore heal. Felt the darkness leave my body. And inside me, where a monster once slept, there was only silence left behind.
I am mended. I am supposed to be mended.
I’m still staring at my wrist, at the spell and the too-dark blood, when footsteps come down the hall. There’s a flicker of candlelight. Then a soft knock on the door. Florence steps hesitantly into the room. She has a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, held in place by a carved, wooden clasp.
She looks at me, then at the altar, and her face turns solemn. “Are you all right?”
“I’m … not sure.”
She takes another step toward me. Her brows rise when she notices my bloodied wrists. I start to pull down my sleeves to hide the cuts. But it’s too late. She’s already seen.
“Rowan, what have you done? Did you hurt yourself?”
The again hangs unspoken between us. I curl my hand over my wrist. “No.” She watches me, waiting for me to say more. But I can hardly understand what just happened, let alone try to explain it. Silence draws out. Finally, I sigh. “There are still bandages in the drawers.”
She puts her candle down beneath the altar. Tucks back a piece of hair that has come away from the braids she wears, twin rows at the sides of her head, the strands loosening to waves as they fall past her shoulders. She goes over to the table beside the chaise and opens the drawer. The box with bandages and a jar of Clover’s honey salve is still inside. Left from when I would come here after the tithes.
I feel strange, hollow, as I watch her take the box out of the drawer. It’s been months since the last time I went to the lake, cut myself, and bled into the ground. But the memory is so vivid.
The cold slither of darkness. The Corruption devouring me. The poisonous magic that ruled my life for so many years.
Florence lowers herself to the floor beside me. Balancing the box on her folded knees, she opens it and takes out the supplies. With a linen cloth, she starts to clean my wounds. I force myself to keep still. There’s part of me that wants this so badly. To let her take care of me. To sit here and feel the gentleness in her touch as she wipes the blood from my wrists.
But the sweet smell of the salve makes me sick. All I can think of is the night Leta followed me when I gave my tithe. We came back here afterward, and I told her about my connection to the curse on the shore. It was the first time I’d ever shared that secret. I expected the worst … that she would be disgusted, that she would fear me. Instead, she held my hand and promised to follow me into the dark.
My chest goes tight, and a strangled sob comes from my mouth. I clench my teeth against the sound. Before Florence can react, I roughly take the cloth from her and gesture toward the door. “I don’t need your help. You can go.”
She hesitates a moment. I know she wants to reach for me. She twists her hands in her skirts, watches me as I finish cleaning the wounds, tie bandages around my wrists. Quietly, she asks, “Before I leave, will you tell me what happened?”
I run my fingers down the inside of my arm. The sigil has gone silent now, but when I touch it, I imagine I can still feel that pull, that pulse. Still see the thread of light, stretching away into the shadows.
I spread my hands; palms upturned. “I saw Leta.”
Florence gives me a guarded look. “What do you mean?”
My eyes go to the floor, the faded stain beneath the altar. “When I made observance, instead of light or magic, she was there. I looked into the shadows, and I saw her. I spoke to her. And afterward, this happened.”
I gesture to my wrists, now bandaged. Florence watches me, her brow creased. Slowly, she moves forward. Puts her hands on my shoulders. She’s careful, deliberating as she struggles to choose her words. “Rowan. She is dead.”
“She was there.”
My voice catches. I take a sharp, wretched breath as I try to fight against it, the slow creep of doubt. Leta can’t be dead. She can’t be gone. It was so real. The way she appeared before me, the pull of the spell, the thread tied between us. Her moods laid out in a wash of colors. The twist of my heart when she soundlessly shaped my name.
I’ve been haunted by memories of Leta since she left. But this wasn’t another dream, a desperate wish cast across the night when I’m alone, in the dark. This was real.
Florence slides her hands gently down my arms. “I know how difficult this has been for you. I thought, perhaps, if we had a pyre—”
I pull away from her. “No.”
Her fingers knot around the fringed ends of her shawl. She looks at the altar. The movement of the candlelight makes the figures in the icon seem, for the barest moment, like they are … alive.
Sighing, Florence lets her hands fall to her lap. “Violeta gave herself up to keep you safe. She tore herself apart for all of us. To reach for her like this … It’s a dangerous path to follow.”
“What other choice could I possibly make, after she risked so much for me?”
“Rowan, my love. You need to let her go.”
I close my eyes against more unwelcome tears. Trying instead to picture myself in the locked garden at midsummer twilight. A slender moon in the gloaming sky. Leta, with her skirts tucked back, showing me her scars as she confessed the truth of her connection to the Lord Under. How she gave her magic to him in exchange for Arien’s life—a trade that left Arien with darkness in place of his alchemy. How she blamed herself for all he had suffered because of that darkness.
Copyright © 2022 by Lyndall Clipstone