It was easy to get carried away with hope and the joy of victory after the battle. Seladon was alive, and Brea, and Rian, and oh, so many faces that she had seen in that unusual dreamfasting with Deet in the palace. Mother Aughra was alive. The Skeksis had withdrawn, and somehow all of the horrible things that had happened were being made good again. Unused to these feelings, Seladon’s heart boiled over and she was embracing, laughing, skin singing with rightness. This was what it felt, then, to be united with her fellow Gelfling. To be with and not above or apart.
With the setting of the third sun, however, those feelings quickly faded. There were so many people who needed to be returned to Thra. Their loved ones sang of them, and collected their hastily dream-etched memories in whatever was to-hand. Pebbles, sticks, leaves. Seladon had no connection to these people. She did not know them or know of them. She sung for Tavra alongside Brea, and knelt at Maudra Fara’s side wishing she had called her All-Maudra instead of tearing her from the sky, and once that was done she stood on the edges once more. Hidden in shadow, she held tightly on to Fara’s one-eyed Fizzgig, Baffi, as they watched the assembled clans mourn and embrace each other and make promises of unity together.
Brea found her there, and Seladon’s heart cringed at her kindness. “Come, sister, we can return home now.”
Ha’rar was known to the Skeksis, but the mountain passes and defensible design of the palace made it far safer than lingering in the Stonewood forest, so close to the Castle of the Crystal and the spreading darkening. The city bustled with refugees from other clans. The palace was bursting with Paladins, new recruits, and the growing numbers of the Resistance. Everybody was busy, energised by the rise of the Resistance and their new sense of purpose. Seladon lay in bed later every morning, staring at the ceiling and listening to her own feelings growing in a dark ball inside her chest.
In her fury and rage, she had blamed Brea. She had blamed Tavra, too, and Rian, and Mother Aughra, but it came down to this: Seladon had betrayed her mother, and it had caused her mother’s death. She had betrayed her family, which had caused Tavra’s death. She had betrayed her people, had handed them over to be drained; countless more deaths. She had knowingly turned away from the truth, because deep inside she had believed that their cruel and evil masters were stronger than any other power in Thra.
As she lay alone in her bed, she still felt that horrible fear of the power the Skeksis held over their lives. She was still vulnerable to it, unable to be trusted. She did not wish to die, but there was no denying that had she died first – had it been Seladon in the Castle of the Crystal, drained of her essence – then Rian’s dear friend Mira would have lived to become a force of good. If Seladon had not been there to object, her mother would have listened to Brea sooner. Everyone would still be safe and well.
It was a round, heavy, wet feeling inside of her. As dark as the rage and fear that had filled her when she had walked into the Castle of the Crystal to try to bargain for the safety of her clan. When it grew too huge, as if it could not possibly be her own feeling, in her own body, she rose and went to stare at herself in the mirror on her dresser.
As always, her skin was clear and her eyes were bright. There was no sign of the Darkening in her body. “It’s there,” she whispered to herself, raising a hand to the glass. “It has to be there. There must be a reason that I feel this way.”
The mirror gave her no answers.
When she opened her door, Baffi was waiting for her. He barked at her angrily, chastising her for some imagined slight.
“Ask Brea to feed you, then,” she told him.
Baffi grumbled, and jumped up into her arms. With a sigh, she carried him to the kitchens to get them both some food.
With the food shortages in the farms and the sudden increase in the palace’s residents, the kitchens were chaotic. Jars of stored grain lined up on the floor, jammed into every corner. Foraged berries sat waiting in large clay bowls, and herbs were hung to dry from the ceiling amongst the pots and pans. No less than three chefs from different clans shouted out instructions to frantic Gelflings and even a few Podlings. Seladon held Baffi close to her chest and ducked between them, eyes searching for something she could safely take.
“All-Maudra!” Lesha, a Vapran serving girl, cried out to her.
“There is no All-Maudra,” Seladon explained, for what felt like the thousandth time. “We have to throw off the labels that the Skeksis used to control us.”
“Of course, my Maudra,” Lesha replied with an indulgent tone. She took a look at Baffi, and said “For three, then.” She ducked under the kitchen bench and rattled around before coming back up with a bread roll and a handful of forest berries. She placed them on a tray that already held two plates of food, a jug, cups, and several huge round pearberries.
“This is-” too good, Seladon wanted to say, but Lesha shushed her.
“Your sister needs to eat,” she insisted.
That, at least, was true.
“I will make sure of it,” Seladon promised. She set Baffi on the floor and took the tray. “Thank you, Lesha.”
Lesha shrugged, and smiled. She tucked a stray hair back under her kerchief. “You’re welcome.”
Brea was, as always, in the library. Seladon pushed the door open with her elbow, and followed Baffi as he rolled through the stacks of books. He always found Brea for her, even if he made the Librarian cry out in concern.
“Seladon, there you are!” Brea looked up from her books as Seladon set the tray down on the desk beside her.
“Here I am,” Seladon agreed. “And you can tell me whatever you’re bursting to share while we eat.”
Brea tore a roll in half and picked up a peachberry. “I’ve been reading about the Mystics!”
Seladon nodded slowly. She fed the extra berries one by one to Baffi where he sat at her feet. “You said they are the… other halves… of the Skeksis? When one dies, the other dies also?”
Brea’s eyes shone. “Yes! But they’re so much more than that. We have such limited knowledge of the true natures of the Skeksis, but they are like dark mirrors of the Mystics. I think that we can study the Mystics themselves, to learn more about our enemies and what we are facing.”
“Chew,” Seladon reminded her.
“What?” Brea blinked. “Oh, right. Thanks, mother.”
A cold silence fell between them. Brea swallowed her mouthful. “Ah, I didn’t mean-”
Seladon cut her hand through the air between them. “Forget it. You were saying, we should study the Mystics?”
Brea reached a hand out to her. “Seladon, you can’t just-”
“If you can pretend that I did not kill our mother and our sister, and many more besides, then I certainly can just.”
“But you did not kill them!”
“I sealed their fates. My decisions led to their demise. And we are not talking about it.”
Brea sighed, and closed her eyes. “Fine.” She seemed disappointed in Seladon, but she got back on topic. “I have names for them, from books here. Stories about them. I think that it might help us prepare to fight the Skeksis better.”
Seladon’s stomach turned and she set her own plate back down on the tray. Brea’s heart was good, and her thoughts were of using her knowledge of the Mystics against their real enemy. But Brea was unable to see the world the way that Seladon did. From the moment Seladon had learned that the Hunter’s demise was a result of the Archer’s death, she had known that it would be far easier to kill the Mystics than to resist the Skeksis, or even to heal the Crystal from its corruption.
Mother Aughra had looked sideways at her, as if she had known Seladon’s true thoughts. Whether it was the Darkening, or simply an evil coldness in Seladon’s heart that she was powerless to stifle, her first instinct would always be to manipulate and take advantage of others.
Brea, eyes filled with loving concern, was seemingly oblivious to this truth about Seladon.
“When we met the Heretic and the Wanderer, they said that being separated from each other was agony. But they got so annoyed at each other, too. I keep thinking about that. The big things that drove them apart. We have to find what it is about each Mystic that is the most repellent to their Skeksis counterparts.”
Seladon nodded, watching Brea’s hands trace over sketches of the Mystics with their bowed necks and thick arms. “I have an idea. Naia mentioned meeting a Mystic who was living alone in the forest. The Archer, I believe.”
“urVa,” Brea said.
“He will be gone, but if I visit his home I may find some clues to the other Mystics’ whereabouts.”
“No!” Brea shook her head so quickly that her braids tangled with each other. “You can’t leave now. We’ve got too much to do!”
Seladon smiled and reached out to smooth down Brea’s hair. It was something that Tavra had done, and she felt awkward. “Well if we send an army out, we will definitely draw their attention. We have to send a woman, alone.”
“There’s so many who could go instead! Just because you’re still sore over-” Brea clasped her hands to her mouth, eyes wide.
She was growing up, learning tact, but still a bit too slow off the mark.
“It makes sense, Brea. We cannot fall back into complacency, and we cannot allow my Skeksis-given title to detract from the authority of the decisions that the Resistance makes.”
Brea groaned. “If you would step up and join the leadership of the Resistance, that wouldn’t even be a problem!”
“If you truly believe that, sister, you are not as wise as I thought you. What if I disagree with a decision? Do you think that unity will be served by a reminder of my poor judgement, or how I betrayed us all?!”
Brea recoiled as if burned. “But you wouldn’t,” she said in a small voice.
“My eyes are opened, but I am still the same person that I was.”
“But that’s not who you are. Everything is different now.”
Seladon reached out to touch her, then thought better of it and pulled away. She nudged Baffi forward with her foot, and with a grumble he jumped up into Brea’s lap. Brea carded her fingers through his frizzy fur.
“It is different,” Seladon said as gently as she could. Her throat felt like it was trying to squeeze the words out around a hard lump. Her dark feelings rising up and choking her. “There is no All-Maudra, and I am free to do this. You had your own path, your destiny and your quest to find the Shard. Perhaps this is my path.”
Brea snorted, but she gave Seladon a very serious look. Seladon saw their mother Mayrin in her face. It sent a chill down her spine.
“Perhaps,” Brea said. “In that case, you should take my notes with you.” She closed the book, wrapped a cord around it, and slid it across the desk to Seladon.
“I will,” Seladon promised. She lay her hand over Brea’s on the cover of the book, and promised in her bones and her blood and the thin fragile skin of her wings that she would do anything for Brea’s Resistance, to keep her safe.
“And promise you’ll take Baffi along with you,” Brea said, setting him down on the floor.
Seladon frowned. “A Fizzgig,” she said in disbelief.
Baffi barked at her angrily.
“If you don’t,” Brea explained, “we won’t get any sleep. I think he likes you more than he did Fara.”
“You’re wrong,” Seladon said, her stomach turning again at the thought of Fara’s death. “But if it matters to you, I’ll take him.”
Once the decision was made, Seladon’s shoulders felt lighter. She no longer felt like an outsider in her own home. She had her own purpose, and her own path to walk. She gathered what she needed - dry biscuits, strong walking boots, a travelling pack that she could tie on a belt around her waist and a warm blanket inside it. A pouch to carry Baffi. She stowed Brea’s notebook safely in the pocket of a long travelling cloak, slipped her wings through the slits in the back, and paused to look in at the throne room on her way to the upper balcony to take flight.
Brea was waiting there for her. “Sister,” she said warmly. “Dreamfast with me?”
All of the dark feelings she associated with that room, that throne, closed in on her mind. “Do you need to tell me something in confidence, sister?” Seladon asked sharply.
“No, I-” Brea was surprised by her tone. “I merely wanted… you’re leaving and I don’t even know if you’ll be back.”
Seladon took a deep breath in. “I am not willing to share what is on my mind, and I dare not delay in this.”
Brea came close and put a cautious hand on Seladon’s shoulder over the thick fabric of the cloak. “I understand. I remember her too, it still hurts.”
Seladon closed her eyes. “Not our mother, but our father,” she admitted, her voice breaking from pain.
“Our father?” Brea had been an infant when they had lost their father.
“Mayrin was All-Maudra first, and a wife and a mother second,” Seladon said. “And I will not speak ill of the dead, not when I share her sins now.”
Brea raised a hand to her mouth in horror. “I had no idea. Seladon! Nobody ever said anything.”
“For good reason,” Seladon said. “And I am glad of it. I grew up knowing fear; you grew up knowing love. And see what led us to unity instead of to ruin?” She ran her hand gently over Brea’s hair one last time. “I would rather follow your path than mine. So shall I follow my own.”
Brea’s eyes brimmed over with tears. “Come back, then. That is the path I want to walk with you. We cannot be united if we are forever divided. Do not sacrifice yourself.”
She did not say as Deet did, because they were all too shaken by that truth Rian had shared with them. But the throne room felt loud in the silence, as if Brea had shouted her name.
“I will return to you,” Seladon promised. “I have borrowed your book. I should return it, if I do nothing else.”
Brea laughed, and wiped her eyes, and put on a brave face to see Seladon off. It felt like a huge lie, to try and comfort Brea knowing full well that to seek out the urRu was to seek out powerful and unknown beings who had a vested interest in the Skeksis’ survival, regardless how wise or how gentle they appeared.
But Seladon smiled and clasped Brea’s hand tightly for a moment before taking flight. Once in the air, she turned back to wave as the palace and Ha’rar faded behind her, Brea’s small shadow still standing on the balcony.
From above, the spread of the Darkening was hard to ignore. Seladon could see it curling out through the Dark Wood towards Stone-in-the-Wood, and running downhill along the grass from the roots of the whitened dead trunk of the Sanctuary Tree. All Thra was connected, and there was no place that was out of reach from the Darkening’s corruption.
Seladon pressed a hand to her own chest, feeling an answering ache inside. She wished that she had thought to take a mirror, to have some evidence that she was still herself, but there was no turning back. She marked the taller trees that marked the rise in the Dark Woods that Naia had spoken of, where she would find the Archer’s humble home, and once she had noted the landmarks she began to descend towards the trees.
A breeze buffeted her between the trees as she grew closer to the ground. Leaves and branches brushed against her, caught in her tight braids. From the pouch on her hip, Baffi whined.
“All right, then,” she muttered. She wrapped an arm around the broad trunk of an old wise woman of a tree, and set her feet firmly on a thick and steady branch. She set the pouch down and opened it, so that Baffi could feel steadier. She should have known better. He peered over the edge of the branch, shivered, and pressed up close to her leg.
“We will go down after a short rest,” she told him. “It will be safer up here, above the ground.” Away from the creatures that ate the food that grew in the dirt in the Dark Wood, and from the Darkening that might reach them.
Baffi pressed even closer to her, but cheered up a little when she fished a dry biscuit out of her pack and broke a crumbly corner off to feed him.
“I wonder if Fara caught little creatures for you,” she said, looking out across the trees. “Or if you have always eaten like this, anything that was at hand.”
Baffi chewed, swallowed, and opened his mouth again.
“I have to eat too, you know.”
He waggled its feet and opened his mouth wider. With a sigh, Seladon broke off a good half of the biscuit and fed it to him. She nibbled on her half slowly. Alone with Baffi, it was hard to avoid thoughts of Fara. As she had died, she had told Seladon that she thought her mother would be proud of her.
Seladon knew the truth of it, now that she knew all about the Skeksis and their cruel greed. Why her mother had always resented her, no matter how obedient she had been. No matter how carefully she had walked in her mother’s footsteps. Seladon suspected that some part of Mayrin had always felt disgust with herself for cowering under Skeksis rule, no matter that she did so out of a love for the Vapra. Seeing Seladon follow her example must have amplified that feeling a thousandfold. No wonder she had loved courageous Tavra and innocent Brea so much more. Seladon would never know what love or pride looked like in her mother’s eyes, and to see it in Fara’s dying eyes had broken her heart.
“Grr!” Baffi tugged on her cloak, demanding more food.
“That’s enough for now. We need to make it last.” She scratched the back of his head in apology.
She had to remain focused. She touched Brea’s notebook where it lay in her pocket. She would find urVa’s abandoned hut. She would find out as much as she could about the urRu, and hopefully through them, vital intelligence to aid the Resistance.
As they travelled further into the Dark Wood, the trees grew taller and closer together and the light from the two suns that were in the sky faded to a mottled, shifting green between the shadows. Every sound of life in the lower canopy made Seladon’s heart pound faster. She set her feet down gentler with every step, and even Baffi fell still and solemn in his pouch. She pressed her free hand against the pouch to reassure him, as she held back fronds of grass that lay in her path and moved onwards.
Despite her fear and vigilance, nothing interrupted her journey through the woods and up the hill. As twilight darkened the sky further, she emerged from the trees in a clearing that contained a small hut. The yellow light of a warm hearthfire glowed through the windows.
Seladon crept closer. She moved as cautiously and quietly as she could, cursing the length of her cloak as it dragged through the short grass of the clearing.
But she should not have worried. A deep, rumbling hum came from the hut. It was like stone grinding against stone. Like the echo of a war-horn through a mountain valley. Like a groan that came from the depths of Thra herself. Seladon held her breath. She had hoped to find clues, yes. Hints. But she had never thought to find urSol, the Chanter, singing in urVa’s abandoned hut.
The Mystics were the opposites of the Skeksis, she reminded herself. For every crime the Skeksis had perpetrated against the Gelfling there were stories of a Mystic’s kindness and wisdom. Still, she could not suppress the way her hand shook as she reached out to knock on the door.
The singing stopped, and from within the hut she could hear heavy footsteps and dragging fabric.
He was slow; Brea had mentioned that the Wanderer had been as slow-talking as the Heretic had been fast. When the door swung open, Seladon had to recover from surprise. urSol was soft-looking. Old and kind, with long hair and a thoughtfully wrinkled face. He looked at her, tilted his head slightly, and said “Hmmm.”
Seladon waited. It looked like he was gearing up to say something.
“A guest, indeed,” he said. “But not who I was expecting.”
“Who were you expecting?” She had to ask.
He hummed again, as if he was tasting the sound of the noise as he thought. “I am not sure about that,” he said slowly. “There are few Gelfling in this area now.”
He turned and slowly spread his arm out. “Do come in, the fire is warm.”
Seladon could not leave. As much as she feared the unknown inside him, and his connection to the Skeksis, she could not stand in an open well-lit doorway in the Dark Woods. She stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind herself.
The hut was hand-made and simple, more like something that a Podling would make than an urRu, for all that it was in the right scale for their wide crouching bodies. There was a hearth, one chair, a low table, and a pantry and a low cupboard bench with a basin-bowl on top that served as a humble kitchen. In the corner, under an open window, there was a wide but bare pallet bed.
“Yes, well,” he said. “Make yourself at home.”
“You have,” she retorted. “This is not your home. I did not expect to find you here, either.”
“And yet.” He stretched his neck slowly to acknowledge Baffi in his pouch. “Here we all are.”
“You still have not explained who you were expecting,” she said. She glanced at him, and decided that he would move slowly enough for her to anticipate anything underhanded. She crouched by the small hearth and warmed her hands by the fire. She did not let Baffi out, in case she had to take flight in a hurry.
“There are a lot of creatures out there in the dark who would come to see the fire in the windows,” he explained.
“You mean the Darkening, the creatures it has tainted,” she said.
He inclined his head in agreement. He settled down in a low chair on the other side of the hearth, and drew in a great slow breath, then resumed his humming.
“You’ll draw more of them with your song, Chanter,” she muttered.
He kept humming for a few minutes, until he let his hum fade slowly into silence. He cleared his throat. “What’s that, little one?”
“You heard me,” she said.
“You know a lot about me, and I,” he paused for a long breath, “I know nothing about you.”
“I am Seladon of the Vapra. And I know nothing about you until I know your full identity.”
He blinked. “Ahh,” he said. “Ahh, I see. And you see as well. It takes one to know one, I suppose.”
Seladon bristled at that. “I am no Skeksis.”
“And yet, you are divided from your self.”
She stared at him, and he looked back at her evenly.
“Who is it? Your counterpart?”
“Ahh,” he said again. “Does that matter so much to you?”
She reminded herself that as nice as urSol seemed, any threat to his Skeksis twin was a threat to himself, and she did not know how he would react to that. Even the gentlest nebri could bite in fear or anger.
“Do you know what he is thinking?” She broke their gaze and looked down at her own hands. “Do you hate what he thinks? Does it fill you with disgust and self-loathing?”
“Hmmmmmm.” urSol pondered it. “They are not my thoughts, but also they are. I cannot deny that. But I am not connected to his thoughts so directly as to hear them. I simply… know myself… better than I wish I did.”
Seladon could appreciate that. “Perhaps you are not so different from us Gelfling as you think.”
“Are you troubled?”
“I have to die, in a way. I have to… silence myself. To become the person that I should have been from the start.”
urSol gave her a soulful, empathetic look. She avoided his gaze, instead opening the pouch and letting Baffi roll out of it.
“I am not sure I can do it,” she said.
He looked at the Fizzgig. Baffi looked back at him, and barked a bit, and then urSol began to sing again. Seladon pressed her forehead against the hearth-warmed wall beside her and closed her eyes. She felt his voice vibrate in her bones, and she felt as small as she had when the Skeksis had shattered all of her hopes and posturing, and stripped her of her false crown. Safe, but no less small and no less exposed.
She shivered and wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
As he sang he let the fire burn down to embers. She came back to herself as he drew the final note out, letting his voice fade into the night.
“They can’t see us now,” she whispered. “Can they?”
She tried asking a different question. “What is it like to look at yourself, and to know that you see everything about yourself that you hate?”
He tilted his head, took his time thinking about it.
“It is not easy. But I did not hate myself. I still do not.”
“Even though there is a part of you out there that is draining Gelfling lives, so that you can live forever as gods.”
“I can understand my own fear of death, yes. And I have made many choices that I regret, but I cannot discard myself. I accept the wrongs that he does, that I do.”
She drew her knees to her chest. “You must live with others who understand that. I do not.”
“An interesting theory. How would you know?”
She blinked in confusion. “Well, I- they’re all- Mother Aughra said they were on the right path, and I-” She shook her head. “You’re confusing me. That’s not what I want to know.”
“I-” urSol cut himself off. Seladon’s ears pricked. Someone was coming through the clearing towards them, and they were not being quiet about it.
Seladon picked up Baffi and glanced around frantically. There was one cupboard, a pantry, fortunately bare. She crowded herself inside it and pulled the doors shut, hiding herself completely in the time that it took urSol to rise and move to the door.
“Open up, damn you, I know you’re in there!” He was angry and in pain, but she recognised the Chamberlain’s voice nonetheless.
“Ah, skekSil,” urSol said. Seladon could hear the Chamberlain’s gasps of pain, the two heavy bodies scraping and shifting across the floor.
“What’s this!” the Chamberlain said, sniffing the air. “Gelfling! Gelfling have been here! Where are they?!”
“Enough,” urSol said slowly. “There is time to heal you, first.”
“I will be well when I have their pure, pure essence to heal me! Don’t you dare try one of your muddy poultices. I’ll get hives!”
“I would like,” urSol grunted, “to see you try to return to the Castle without it.”
“Oh, oh, oh! You’re not! You’re not doing it to me! Ahhh!” As the Chamberlain screamed, Seladon heard a wet slapping sound. Obviously urSol had applied whatever poultice the Chamberlain had feared.
“Ohhhh,” the Chamberlain groaned.
“Ahh,” urSol said. “Now you will heal.”
“Enough of that. How far away are the Gelfling? Is it here, is it? How many?”
“Long gone, before even I arrived,” urSol said.
“Liar! Know you’re lying, don’t think Chamberlain can’t tell!”
“Then,” urSol asked slowly, moving some crockery about in the kitchen, “why did you even bother to ask?”
“Oh, you’re useless, you are! Absolutely, utterly worthless. How sad wretch like you ever gets out of bed I’ll never know.”
“I think,” urSol said, “I shall sing to help with the healing process.”
“Brother.” The Chamberlain’s voice turned smooth, wheedling. “Please, no. My poor injuries, my sore, sore, tired, body. My dainty little ear-drums. You’re my friend, are you not? Help heal me, and by all that is in the skies above us, do not sing.”
Seladon held tightly on to Baffi, heart pounding in her chest. She had a knife in her belt, but she was alone, and there were two of them out there. If she was discovered-
“Bah, off, off, off! I’m wrapped up now and you can feel yourself I can walk. You’re just trying to keep me here so I don’t find Gelfling you are so protective of.”
“I am not keeping you here,” urSol said. “But you do not have to go.”
“What?! Of course I will go. Unless you would like to come join us, home in Castle?”
The Chamberlain waited for a moment, but then Seladon heard him struggle to his feet and drag himself toward the door.
“Of course you wouldn’t! Nothing-for-brains, the lot of you. The offer stands, my dear. It is so horrible to be stretched so thin, so far apart… no?”
“No,” urSol said resolutely. “I have no wish to be involved.”
“Pah! Involved you are, like it or not!” With that, the Chamberlain slammed the door of the hut behind himself and dragged his robes back through the clearing.
urSol waited for a long time before knocking on the pantry door. Seladon waited a good while longer before emerging. The first sun of the day was rising, shining bright through the windows of the hut.
“Do you often see each other?” she asked.
“Not for hundreds of trine,” urSol said.
“The way that you talked...” She trailed off. It had been like her own inner thoughts. Impatience with herself, disgust with herself. Unable to accept her own choices.
“I do not like what skekSil does, but I cannot deny that they are choices I might have made, or at least considered, were we whole.”
“How do you live with it?” she whispered, scared of the answer.
“I accept it,” he said. “And when I make decisions, I try to make decisions that I can live with.”
“I have to go before he returns,” she said. “Did urVa leave anything written behind, anything at all?”
urSol looked around, and shrugged. “He took with him his bow and his arrows,” he said.
“I have to go,” she repeated. “Thank you for not turning me over to him.”
urSol looked at her as if she had said something funny. “I made the decision that I would not regret. At times we all must hide things from our selves.”
“I think I understand,” she said. She waited for him to open the door and take a good look around outside, before dashing to the trees and the cover their shadows afforded her.
When she let Baffi out, he told her off very loudly. She walked unafraid along the ground as the Dark Woods towered over her, listening to Baffi nag her and worry at her. She walked until she came across a lake, thick with reeds along the edge. She sat down beside it and fetched out two dry biscuits. She crumbled one into smaller pieces for Baffi, and chewed slowly on the other one, taking small sips from her waterskin.
As the first sun grew brighter overhead, she leaned forwards past the reeds to see her own reflection in the water. The eddies and ripples in the water made her jawline blur. The small things living in the water tinted her skin green. Her hair, shaken loose from her long journey and her time hidden in the pantry cupboard, looked tangled and wavy. Her eyes, though, were huge and dark. She saw crackled veins of purple stretching out from her blackened pupils, and she gasped. The Darkening.
But that was not her own face.
As she realised what she was looking at, she drew back. But she was too slow. Deet rose from the water, ragged hair dripping, hands stretched out. Brow furrowed, Deet wrapped her hands around Seladon’s neck.
This was her fate, perhaps. It would be easier and cleaner if Seladon died, if Deet could somehow be cleansed of the Darkening and returned to her friends in the Resistance. Rian had said the energy could be transferred, had he not? Seladon let herself fall backwards, drawing Deet down onto the leaf-littered ground. Deet’s hands stayed clasped around Seladon’s neck, and as Baffi barked furiously at them both, Seladon raised her hand to Deet’s cheek to dreamfast with her.
See? Seladon said in her mind. She fought the hollow, cold taint of the Darkening in Deet’s thoughts, and focused on urSol and the Chamberlain, on her young childhood memory of her mother turning her father over to the Skeksis as a traitor, his blood on the stones before the throne. Her own mother’s body, and the seemingly endless cycle of violence and betrayal. Strong feelings that were hers and hers alone. Then she turned her thoughts to watching Mother Aughra calling her Gentle Deet, her memories of Rian desperately trying to convince the Resistance to help him find a way to draw the Darkening energy out of Deet’s body.
Deet’s thoughts were frantic, confused, sickening. Faces twisted and fell away, that dark feeling of rage burned in her veins. Seladon held on to Deet tighter, even as her head felt light from the lack of air.
You can give this burden to me, Seladon tried to communicate to her. I am full of hatred and of sorrow. I am suited to this, and you are not.
“No!” Deet cried out. She flung herself back and out of Seladon’s hands. The dreamfasting ended abruptly, leaving Seladon with a headache. She curled up in the muddy ground, coughing.
With her last strength, she reached out to Deet. “Deet, I can do this and make everything better! Nobody can face me, nobody can accept what I’ve done. I can’t-” Seladon sobbed. “I can’t go on like this.”
Deet shook her head, burying her face in her hands. “No,” she said, voice shaking. “You’re wrong. Go, now. I can’t… hold it… for long.”
Seladon swallowed down her own tears. She looked at Deet, and Deet looked back at her from between her fingers. Seladon’s thoughts cleared as the madness of the Darkening in Deet’s heart that she had felt in the dreamfasting faded away. She turned from despair, to a quieter shame.
“I’m sorry,” Seladon said. “I can’t hide from myself by surrendering to the Darkening. I didn’t mean to use you to-”
“Just go!” Deet cried out to her.
Seladon stood and shook her head. “No. Not yet.” She took Deet’s hands gently in her own, and pulled her up so that they were standing facing each other.
With shaking hands, Seladon smoothed down Deet’s tangled hair. She wrapped her arms around Deet’s shoulders, and pulled her close in an embrace.
“These thoughts are in your head,” she whispered in Deet’s ears. “They are not who you are.”
She was speaking to the parts of herself that she had feared, that she could see reflected in Deet’s eyes, the darkness of the soul as much as the Darkening of the Crystal heart of Thra.
“I am corrupted,” Deet said, shakily. “I have to stay away, I can’t be near anyone or I’ll-”
“You didn’t, though, did you?” Seladon squeezed her tighter. “You have done nothing you would regret. And I’m not going to make you stay. But you’ll take my cloak, and my boots, and my food and my blanket.”
Deet pushed her away and frowned at her. “You’re- Brea’s sister.” she held her hands to her mouth. “Your mother, she- you-”
Seladon sighed. She was already struggling out of her cloak and pulling Brea’s notebook out of the pocket to stow it inside the belt of her tunic.
“We all have our memories of that day. I won’t argue with you. Now that I’ve got enough air to think, I can see the utter pointlessness of trying to get you to give the Darkening over to me.”
“What?” Deet let Seladon pile her pack, her cloak, and her boots into her arms.
“Well, you’d only go and take it all into yourself again, to save somebody else, wouldn’t you? You’re too gentle and kind like that.”
Deet looked down at the boots, and back at Seladon.
“So I will have to save the Crystal, and then we will all be able to heal without any of this nonsense to worry about.”
“But you have no shoes,” Deet said.
“And you’re not as far gone as you’d like to think.” Seladon clasped her hands on Deet’s shoulders, careful not to let their skin touch again.
There was a crack of branches, the sound of somebody approaching them. Seladon’s heart stuttered at the thought of being discovered by skekSil, or whoever or whatever else might lurk in the Dark Woods.
“Go,” Seladon said urgently. “I’ll face them. If you have to stay away from us, then go quickly. I will see you again. Soon.”
“Tell Rian I-”
“I’ll tell him,” Seladon promised.
Deet nodded. She stepped to the side, disappearing between the trees. Seladon used her foot to nudge Baffi back away from the lake, towards the sound of somebody approaching.
She pulled her knife out, and curled her toes into the soft ground. Her bare feet would be steadier in the slippery wet ground near the lake, better able to dig in and grip, an unintended advantage.
“Who goes there?” she called out.
A familiar, breathless voice called back to her. “Seladon? Is that you?”
Seladon gasped. “Brea!”
Her heart was still racing when Brea stepped out from behind the trunk of a tree.
“I came to warn you,” Brea said. “We had reports from our scouts-- they were discovered by the Skeksis near where you were going.”
“And you followed me here,” Seladon said. “I suppose I’m a poor excuse for a tracker.”
Brea laughed and wrapped her arms around Seladon. “Well it’s a good thing I found you, then. Did something happen? Where are your boots?”
Seladon laughed. “I found somebody who needed them more than I did.”
“And you didn’t cross paths with the Skeksis?”
Seladon shook her head. “I did, but I hid and I was safe.”
Brea stared at her with wide eyes. “They came to the hut?”
“The Chamberlain, alone. But he was so focused on himself, he did not notice I was there.”
Brea’s shoulders collapsed in relief. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
Seladon took a step back from her. “What did you think you would do, rushing out here by yourself?”
Seladon closed her eyes. “Never mind. I can’t criticise you for doing the same thing I did. Brea, we need to talk.”
Brea frowned. “Out here? With no shoes on?”
“I was not able to face this in Ha’rar. I am scared that it will be too easy to avoid it if I wait.”
Brea nodded. “All right, then. Say it. I’m listening.”
Seladon gathered her courage. “I want to be there for you, for the Resistance. But I can’t stand beside you if you keep on pretending that I never did anything wrong at all.”
Brea bit her lip. “But you keep on acting like you killed Tavra and Mother, and it wasn’t you who did it!”
“Do you think me simple? I know I did not hold the blades in my hands. But I did act in ignorance and in anger, and I made choices that condemned two of the most important people in my life. I nearly lost you, Brea, and even then I blamed you for it.”
Brea’s eyes filled with tears. “But you didn’t mean it, you never would.”
“I did.” Seladon closed her eyes against her own tears. “I regret it, and I would never do it again, but I did it. That is a part of me. I cannot cut it out and pretend that I am not myself.”
“I- Seladon!” Brea gasped. “I didn’t mean that. I only meant, I don’t blame you, I don’t think any less of you. I know Mother was hard on you, that she always taught you to sacrifice everything to the Skeksis.”
“You don’t know, and I want to protect you from what it means, from everything.” Seladon’s throat felt dry and tight. “But I can’t. I can’t be the sister that you need me to be.”
“I just need you to be Seladon,” Brea said, voice breaking. “I need the you that makes mistakes and gets angry with me and hurts people. Because you always try to make it better. You wanted to protect the Vapra, I could see how much it hurt you to turn on us. I know you wouldn’t have done it if-”
Seladon had thought that she was done with the full, swelling ache in her chest, but it came back and burst. She fell to her knees, crying, blindly clinging to Brea when she came to kneel beside her.
“I’m sorry,” Seladon cried. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Shh, I know,” Brea held her tightly. “I know.”
When her eyes had run out of tears and her breath was coming in slow gasps, she pulled back to look at Brea again. “We have to go home. We have to heal the Crystal, and Thra. We have to save Deet.”
Brea smiled back at her. “We will. No matter what. You and I. We’ll do everything we can. Together.”
Seladon looked down at their clasped hands, and the inquisitive look that Baffi was giving them both.
“Together, then,” she agreed.