Time passed slowly.
But Eris could tell by the slowly lengthening shadows over the rocks that evening was eventually drawing in. Her sharp eyes also told her that other witnesses were hiding in the treeline within sight of the stone barrens, checking on her and Verla and no doubt knowing that she’d see them.
“They’re loyal. And they’re fools.” Verla said from within the bone cage. Gaps between the bones showed Verla no less defiant than she had been hours back. There was nowhere within the cage where her own old bones could rest, but she showed no sign of weariness. Her eyes still blazed as she looked at Eris.
“Let Lios come to the woods with war. He’s been fighting in the East for as long as anyone can remember. Perhaps he is no bloody good at it!” Eris said mockingly.
“Woods-voln will die whether he’s good at war or not. And City-voln. Button men will wear red coats again, soaked through with the blood of the voln.”
Eris spat at her prophecy, letting some poison well in her mouth first so that it hissed and smoked greenly as it hit the stones.
“You are poison.” said Verla firmly.
“Woods-voln use poison. We do not fear it like the city-voln.”
Verla could not deny it and went back to silence.
A dark cloud moved across the grey sun. Eris did not like it here in the barren ‘quarry’. The sky was too open and endless with no trees to shade them and she was afraid to look up at it and be lost in its boundless space. It made her think about Orrin’s retelling of the tale of the Shadowed One. Aye, woods-voln stick to the shadows too. Shadows are safe. But to a Lios worshipper the light was safety. Poison was bad to a city-voln. But to woods-voln it was a part of who they were. And she was both Atta and Sutith. Healer and killer.
The shadows moved again and Eris realised that the ghost was finally there with them. It had come creeping out of the undergrowth as she’d been thinking and was now above Verla’s bone cage; coming between them and the sun beginning to hide behind the trees of the woods-voln. It wasn’t entirely shadow like the first she’d seen. Awkward joints and angles of arms moved it along the ground, dissolving and reforming into leathery wings and scaly flowing tendrils with no bones at all. Faces appeared within it. Animals faces. Fox, bear, stag. Things it might have seen recently. Things it may have devoured.
Eris stood, which made Verla look back to the thing flowing and crawling over the terraces above her. Heading to the bone cage. Her stern resolve failed and she began to shake, clasping her arms to herself to force her muscles to stop.
“Shadow dancer.” Called Eris and it turned from its path to the bone cage and made for where she was. Limbs skittered over loose rocks as it came at her faster and faster. An arrow flew past it, and was ignored. Her guard were still up there, among the trees. Eris held up a hand, commanding them to stop, and no more arrows flew.
The ghost was on her, but it stopped before engulfing her as the first had done with Orrin. Several of its faces turned to her, the black fox shaped one snarling right in her face.
“Shadow dancer. Cursed of Lios. Lost woods-voln… perhaps.” She addressed it, feeling terror like ice in her veins but holding it. Even knowing that the Atta was poison to it did not entirely calm the part of her mind that wanted to run and run and run at the sight of the monstrosity. But as sure as blood is blood she wasn’t going to let Verla know that she was just as scared as she was!
More mouths opened up in the body of the thing, and some of the animal heads made their own sounds as well. But the cacophony was nonsense.
“Creature, the prophet Hui said that you are here as judgement on our sins. Verla Diarnilys accuses me of sinning. I accuse her of trying to kill me. Perhaps you are not what Hui said, perhaps you are just a lost creature in pain and alone, and Lios has no control of you. But judgement is due today.”
No response. Then one of the flowing and supple limbs wrapped itself about Eris’ left leg, the end of it caressing her wyrd foot. Another flowed about her right leg, more about her arms. Eris fought the rising panic at being so restricted by the creature. Another arrow flew past them and smashed on the rocks. She had no way of signalling the woods-voln now, and made sure not to look as though she was struggling.
Verla was laughing in the cage, “It will kill you! It will kill you!”
But it didn’t. The fox head was nearly touching hers and she could see how the black flesh of the creature was mimicking the soft fur pelt of the dead beast. She did not struggle against the thing’s embrace, but she began to summon Atta just in case.
The creature’s pitch black eyes in the fake fox face continued to search her own for altogether too long. And then finally it pulled away from her, gently released her limbs with a final caress about her wyrd foot before it crawled and flowed towards the bone cage.
“No! NO!” Verla wailed as the Shadow Dancer engulfed the cage and then fit parts of itself through the long thin gaps between long leg bones. An even longer and many jointed arm curled about Verla, pulling her closer to the flowing mass of the creature. Tattered wings folded around the bone cage and then passed through it as Verla’s scream was suddenly cut off. Moments later the beast moved away from the now empty cage.
Eris hung her head, breathing out at last. Atta dripped from her hands and her mouth, turning from dark green to milky white as she changed it to Sutith. She felt in desperate need of the kind of healing comfort she could give others. But the Sutith made no difference to her, or her memories of Verla’s last moment. She shivered as the wind whipped through the square stones, and she held her arms about herself as Verla had when she’d defiantly held her fear in. The ghost was now moving onwards, climbing back up the terraces with its misshapen parts dragging and clawing over the stone. Some of the bones of the bone cage had come free and were being dragged along behind it, within it. They pierced through its flowing flesh as though they were spikes running down its lumpen back. One bone seemed to have the skeletal hand of a voln at the end.
It was not Atta or Sutith that came from her but whatever she’d last eaten. She wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand and began to walk unsteadily over the barren land back towards the trees. A crowd of woods-voln awaited her there, lining her slow path in silence. Pierson was there too, ready with an arm to support her and a discrete cloth from a deep pocket for her to quickly rub mouth properly. He pulled her close and spoke gently in her ear.
“She threatened my children, Eris. My children. She would not have stopped if we’d just exiled her. She might have brought the button men here.”
Eris nodded, but inside her the decision she’d made chewed and clawed at her guts. She felt the bile rise again in her throat.
“I need to be alone Pierson. Just for a while.”