Glaciem landed heavily on her back. She felt the air in her chest rush from her body as her lungs seized involuntarily. The long drop had been fortuitously cushioned by a soft moss that was piled high on the ground. Alexandros had managed to land on his feet first before slumping back to sit on the moss, groaning in pain. For a moment, they said nothing, the shock of the fall enough to silence them.
The trees had huddled back over the gaping hole, their constant humming never altering. Glaciem looked up to watch them before she realized she had dropped the crown in the fall. She lowered her eyes to scan the ground as she ran her fingers gently through the moss.
“All you alright?” Alexandros asked after a while, turning to face her.
“Yes.” She replied nodding.
“Good.” He sighed as he let himself fall into the moss, his body almost disappearing completely in the vegetation.
“Are you?” She asked, giving up on her search for the circlet.
She could hear the moss rustling with his nod.
The small amount of light that peaked through the leaves of the trees did not provide enough light to see beyond Alexandros and the moss pile. Glaciem stood up and reached out her hand before slowly walking forward and praying there were no tripping hazards on the ground.
When she had traveled about twenty feet away from her fall, she hissed and pulled her hand away. She had come into contact with something sharp. She cautiously pushed her hand out again and could pick out the telltale feel of tree branches.
The tree was dead. There was no humming, no movement. In Glaciem’s mind, all she could see was grey bark. She followed the branch until she hit the trunk of the tree and gingerly ran her fingertips along its rough bark, noting the flakes of wood as they fell from beneath her touch.
“What is it?” Alexandros said, a few feet from her in the darkness.
“It’s a tree.” She replied. “Here, hold out your hand. Let me guide you.”
Glaciem blindly reached for him as she listened to the echo of his footsteps. He worked his way to her, lacing his fingers with hers as they made contact. She carefully pulled him towards the direction of the trunk.
“Why would a tree be down here?” Alexandros asked, running his free hand along the trunk.
In the dark, Glaciem shook her head and then chuckled slightly at her folly. “I couldn’t tell you.” She replied. “I’m hoping it leads us somewhere useful.”
“And if this was a trap and there’s no way out?”
“Your encouragement is greatly appreciated.”
“Sarcasm isn’t going to help us.”
“Neither is your pessimism.” Glaciem retorted. “Regardless of the fact that this may very well have been a trap, there’s still nothing else for us to do but move forward.”
She pushed a rogue branch that had scraped against her shoulder away, taking care to keep it from snapping into Alexandros.
“Besides,” she continued, “I believe it was you who told me I didn’t give my trees enough credit.”
Alexandros laughed lightly, squeezing her hand gently. “I suppose you’re right.”
She grinned even though she knew he could not see it.
They slowly moved forward, following the branches and looking for anything that might lead them back to the surface. As they shuffled along the tree, Glaciem stretched her fingers out so she could touch the farthest reaching branches and beyond. She was surprised as she felt the beginnings of another piece of wood pressing against her hand.
“I found another one.” She said to Alexandros, pulling him along in the dark. He followed her arm to her discovery.
“Glaciem, this isn’t another tree.” He said, uncertain. “It’s far too smooth.”
She placed her whole hand against the hard surface. He was right, it was polished and smooth to the touch, the grain in the trees providing only slight ridges. She could detect a slight buzz from the wood, but it was so faint she couldn’t decide if it was dangerous or not.
“What are you?” She murmured to the wood.
Alexandros untangled his fingers from hers and ran both hands along the edge, brushing past Glaciem in the dark.
“Be careful.” She cautioned, “We don’t know what this is.”
“Give your trees some credit.” He sing-songed, his grin evident in his voice.
“I’m not playing.” Glaciem felt for his shoulders and pulled him back slightly. “I can’t tell what it is and it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve encountered in the Forest so far.”
Alexandros stopped and moved close enough that she could feel his breath against her ear. “What do you suggest then? We can’t sit here in the dark forever.”
“I could try making it a little lighter in here.” She replied hesitantly. “Only I’m not entirely sure of my abilities. I don’t want to burn us alive.”
“Give me your water skin.”
Glaciem pulled the skin over her head and pushed it towards him. Alexandros fumbled around until he could find it.
“I’ll do my best to put out anything that shouldn’t burn with this. You should try. It’s our best option right now.”
“Fire makes me cough,” Glaciem said, stepping back. “I’m afraid I’ll singe you.”
“I’m willing to take my chances.”
Glaciem shook her head.
He says that now.
She closed her eyes and tried to mimic her failed experiment from earlier in the day. It took a moment of concentration, but she was sure she could feel heat building in her stomach and slowly rising into her lungs. She tried her best to slow its progress as it continued to move. The fires licked at her insides, and she choked as a small flame burst out of her mouth.
“Careful!” Alexandros cautioned. “Let it come to you naturally.”
Glaciem forced herself to control her breathing as slowly as the burning in her throat would allow. She held out her hand. The symbol of fire began to burn brightly on her palms, its red line in stark contrast to the blue she had grown accustomed to seeing for so many years. She gently blew onto her palms and a small flame caught and stayed, dancing lightly in her cupped hands.
“Do you see?” She whispered ecstatically, holding the flame as if it were spun glass, delicate and fragile.
“It’s incredible.” Alexandros replied, awed as he bent down to look at the tiny flame in her hands, an infant fire, barely surviving.
He stood to his full height and turned back to the old tree and mystery wood. Glaciem held her hands up, the small fire barely giving enough light to see inside the cave. She peered closely at the object.
“It’s a chair?” She asked, confused.
“No.” Alexandros said, shaking his head, his voice solemn. “It’s a throne.”
Glaciem looked closely and felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. The wood was smooth and so dark it looked black. The throne had been well preserved with a rich oil that glistened in the light of the fire, illuminating the intricate knots carved into its surface. It was large and much taller than she had realized, the bit of wood they had first touched having only been the edge of an arm. Depictions of the Elements were carved amidst the weaving knots, tongues of fire intertwining with water, leaves twirling freely from gusts of air.
“Who does it belong to?” Alexandros whispered, running his hands gingerly over the designs, following the knotwork as far as he could stretch. The top of the throne was easily two feet past the tips of his fingers.
“This belongs to the Heart of the Forest.” Glaciem replied quietly.
Something churned deep within her as she spoke, confirming her answer. She held her flame as far away from the chair as she could while still being able to touch the wood, trying to read the Whispers wafting through her mind.
She pressed her fingers firmly against it. “This throne is almost dead.”
“What do you mean?” Alexandros asked.
“Usually I can feel more life coming from anything that’s a part of the Forest, but there’s barely anything coming from this.” She answered, her eyes closed, concentrating.
“Perhaps it wasn’t made in the Forest at all?”
“No. If it wasn’t of the Forest, there would be no life at all. I can feel something, it’s just very weak.” Glaciem closed her palm around her flame, letting the dark engulf them once more. “I want to sit down, maybe if I’m closer I’ll be able to sense more.”
Glaciem pulled herself closer to the seat of the throne, trying not to run into Alexandros in the process. She turned around awkwardly, lowering herself into what she hoped was the seat. She braced herself as best she could on the two arms, which were almost too wide for her to touch without stretching. She settled into the seat gingerly, feeling almost blasphemous.
This belonged to the Heart, to King Audens. Will the Forest attack me for sitting on his throne?
“Can you feel anything?” Alexandros asked, his voice coming somewhere from her right.
“Yes…” She said breathlessly, overwhelmed as the humming buzzed in her ears.
The humming in her head began to travel from the top of her head down her spine and finally to her toes. While it was more subtle than the Whispers, what she now felt was far more deliberate. The tingle that had traveled down the length of her body now settled in her back, pricking at her like the sharp thorns of a rose bush. She tried to squirm away, but only succeeded in worsening the prickling.
“What is it?” Alexandros asked, blind in the dark, unable to see anything.
Glaciem didn’t answer. She pushed against the arms of the throne, intent on standing up. As she did, vines reached up from the ground and wrapped themselves around her torso and arms, forcing her back down. She yelped.
“What is it?” Alexandros asked again, panicked as he listened to the sounds of the vines.
Glaciem grit her teeth and blew out a sharp puff of air and fire. A small spark caught the dried moss on the ground and ignited. It flooded the room with light. Alexandros shouted in alarm and jumped forward to try to wrench her from the vines. As he did, a single vine snapped back at him, catching him across the hand. It hissed at him.
Alexandros flinched and stepped back, but only for a moment. He moved forward once more, his hand on his sword. Several more vines flew at him and shoved him with enough force to send him back into the moss behind him. The small flame caught on the edge of his cloak. He twisted around and snuffed it out before turning back to Glaciem.
She was almost completely covered, her eyes filling with fear as the vines wrapped themselves around her mouth. Blackness seeped into the corners of her sight until she could only hear Alexandros calling her name, desperate to free her, but helpless to do so.
I’ve found you.
She is being wrapped into a cocoon. Trees, streams of water, fire, and air tighten around her body as she curls herself into a ball. She cannot see or speak, but she can hear.
She twitches against the ever tightening coils around her. The name she recognizes, but the voice she does not.
Lilium. It is time to wake up.
Wake up? Am I asleep? She thinks to herself as her body folds further into itself. Her hair has come undone and tangles around her face and throat.
It is time to remember. Open your eyes, Child.
She obeys, and though it is dark all around her, she can see men and women walking, they are glowing from a light that emits from deep within them. They are smiling. An old man walks into her view, he is also glowing and smiling, his bright eyes sparkling. He is joined by a woman who is tall and willowy, her movements graceful. They nod to her, their smiles warm. They do not speak, but she can hear their encouragement.
They begin to fade from view, and as they do, a young man with green eyes walks into her view. He is most familiar to her.
Bick. She thinks.
He smiles at her thought, his eyes flashing with mischief.
You are dead. I watched you die.
“Not dead.” He replies to her unspoken thoughts. “I am where you cannot yet go.” His smile is now sad. “But I will always be by your side.”
He too begins to fade, and she desperately cries out to him, begging him to stay, knowing that he will not. Eventually, she is left alone in the darkness once more.
It is not dark for long. She looks up and sees the moon and sun in the sky, dancing together, their light illuminating everything around them. She sees the two drops of light that fall from the heavens. She sees two baby boys cradled in moss and leaves, and a boy with wide eyes standing beside them. She sees the babes grow into mighty men, strong, and powerful, the passing of time never altering their features.
She sees Umbra’s love for a beautiful young woman, and sees her mother’s love for Audens. She sees Audens turn her mother away, the love he feels for his twin too great to betray for the sake of his own happiness. She sees Umbra’s wrath and anguish at losing the woman he loved, she sees him disappear from the Forest, sees him embrace the darkness of his heart, sees him turn into the monster she and the rest of the world has come to fear. She sees Audens crowned king, and she sees him find the woman he loved. She sees them welcome Umbra to their home, and she sees Umbra’s betrayal. She sees Auden’s people dying. She sees their Spirits united with the Elements, with the Forest.
She watches as a baby girl grows up into a powerful warrior, she sees this woman fight alongside her father, the Daughter of Kings, the Daughter of Trees. She sees Umbra’s return, she sees him fight against Audens and his daughter. She sees the blow of poison to the daughter’s head, she sees her father plead for her life. She sees Audens placing her in a man-made coffin, the stone shielding her from the prying eyes of barbarians and shadows. She sees Audens strike a deadly blow to Umbra as he is locked away in an ancient tree, an eternal jail cell, the tree too old to allow Audens control over it. She sees Umbra slither away into nothingness, a mere Shadow in search of a place to regain his strength. She sees him push his way into a young woman as she sleeps, her belly is large and round, her son kicking in her womb as Umbra pushes further into the child’s heart.
The images fade away, as do the Elements constricting her movement. She is released and feels herself floating in the black abyss, her hair floats freely above her, suspended in space.
She swivels around and sees that he is watching her. He is tall, and his features elegant and calm. His eyes are grey like hers, and his hair is white, like hers. She reaches out to touch him and as she does, he walks towards her. When he is close enough he reaches for her palms and places them flat against his own.
“It is time for you to remember who you are and what you are capable of. It is time for you to take back the Forest, and it is time for you to put an end to Umbra’s Shadow.”
Pain seers into her hands and she tries to back away, but he will not let her. His eyes flash as he pushes harder into her palms.
“You must remember, Lilium.” He insists quietly.
Her voice breaks through the silence that barred her from speaking and she screams in pain, her cries echoing in the darkness. The agony makes her knees buckle. Still, he does not let her go.
“You. Must. Remember!”
The pain stops and the man releases her hands. She drops to the ground that has now materialized beneath her, whimpering. She holds her hands to her chest. They are bleeding, but even though the thick, red stream, she can see the full markings of the Children of the Forest. She looks up at the man, wide eyed as the memory of him floods her mind.
“Father.” She whispers.
“Lilium.” His voice is solemn, but filled with warmth and fondness.
She raises herself to her feet, her hands burning. As she lifts her head to look at Audens, he gently runs his fingers across her cheek.
“You look so much like your mother.” His voice is soft. “I have missed you terribly. For so long I thought you would never return. My brother’s poison seeped deep into your wound.”
“Umbra.” She says, her voice hardening at the sound of his name on her lips.
“Yes. Umbra. And yet, here you are. It seems that the Forest is not yet done with you.”
“What am I to do now?”
“What you had always intended to do. Avenge those lost to the Shadow. End the darkness. You will not be alone. The Forest will answer your call if you only ask It.”
“The Forest has not been entirely hospitable.” She rebuffs.
“You were not entirely yourself either, my love.” He answers without hesitation. “I have no doubt if you act like the leader you were raised to be, It will listen to you. At least, those who are still loyal to the cause will.”
“And those who aren’t loyal?”
Audens looks at her, his eyes are hard, but she can see the pain behind them. “There is darkness, and there is light. There can be no middle ground.” He pauses to embrace her. “I have missed you.” He says once more.
She holds him tightly, afraid he will disappear as the others had. As she lets her head rest against Auden’s chest, he strokes her hair gently, but his smile turns as he spots a single strand of brown hair amongst the white.
“What is it? She asks.
Audens looks at it and chuckles ruefully. “It seems Fate has decided to challenge us still.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Whether it be from the poison in your wound, the length of time you were away from the Forest, or some other reason entirely, I cannot say. What I can tell you, however,” He pauses to hold up the strand of brown hair for her to see. “Is that the gift of immortality is leaving you.”
He lowers his head as his gaze locks with hers, his eyes intent.
“you are becoming human, Lilium.”