Chapter 32: Of Flesh and Bone
Carina allowed the navigational pull of Lumi’s connection guide her toward the cluster of oaks where their quarry waited in the shadows. She could see a faint outline of the snorting, snuffling wild pigs foraging for acorns, roots, and various mushrooms like a transparent film across her vision. However, maintaining the dual image of the scriva’s visuals along with the forest trail she and her white mare were riding on was far too disorienting for the Duchess to maintain for more than a few minutes.
Lumi sent a warning alert once their group had come within earshot. Before Carina could halt the hunting party that followed her, Harry sidestepped around the pretty white mare and charged ahead, heedless of the Duchess’s protests.
With a flash of irritation, Carina dismissed Lumi and urged the mare into a gallop as she followed the aggravating huntsman. She caught a glimpse of the boars as they crashed into the underbrush before the hooves of Harry’s startled gray mare, leaving behind their peculiar and rather unpleasant scent in the small clearing.
The ghost of an arrow chased after the slowest hog but missed its mark, judging by the speed with which their quarry vanished. Gladestone lowered his bow with an angry breath, then shifted his grip on the reins as he turned towards the huntsman. “What the bloody hell were you thinking?”
“What?” Harry retorted distractedly, busy handling his still-spooked mare. “I was just hoping to get a look at these trained wolves in action.”
Carina exhaled in disbelief as Isaac and the remaining eight Bastiallano knights caught up to them. “You are meant to serve as a guide and witness—not interfere with our hunt simply to satisfy your curiosity!”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, your ladyship.” The huntsman snorted dismissively as he dismounted. He yanked the mare’s reins impatiently, then moved off to examine the disturbed forest floor. “Strange—no sign of any wolves here. Perhaps their shy?”
The Duchess ignored his smug stare and drew in a slow breath as she turned to the Colonel beside her.
“Shall I hogtie the pig to his saddle and send him back to base?” Isaac asked calmly, prompting one of the knights behind him to loosen a coil of rope.
The ice witch pressed her twitching lips together to suppress a laugh but shook her head.
“Well, we know them pigs will be back eventually,” Harry commented, gesturing to the still visible patches of mushrooms and plenty of half-buried acorns. “Might as well clear out and look elsewhere. Perhaps we ought to try the northern woods?”
‘That’s the second time he’s suggested going there. I wonder why he’s so persistent?’ Carina pondered cynically. She sent a subtle nudge to Lumi to search over the northern section of their quadrant again, then turned her focus to Viscount Gladstone. “Perhaps we should return to base. My knights may have located Jasper by now.”
‘I need him for more than one reason at this point.’
“I think that would be best,” Gladstone growled with an understanding nod, still glaring at their intentionally oblivious guide. “Before this huntsman suffers from an unfortunate accident.”
“Lord Rykard won’t let that foreigner back into Gilwren Forest,” Harry barked with an angry scowl, eying the Viscount warily. “We have time for a small detour before—”
A loud, ear-splitting crack rumbled through the forest like a heavy thunderbolt. The horses twitched and danced uneasily as the sound echoed through the trees around them. Colonel Isaac drew his musket free from his saddle while the Bastiallano knights moved into a protective circle around the Duchess and Viscount.
“What—was that?” Carina whispered. Her hands tightened around the reigns as a similar booming noise repeated.
“Just a fallen tree,” Harry remarked dismissively, though his words lacked confidence. “Nothing to be afraid of—” He trailed off as three more cracks and bangs filled the hollow silence. Small thrushes, wrens, and sparrows fluttered through the branches above them in a panic as they zipped away from the deafening clamor.
“Sounds like it came from the stream we just left,” Gladestone observed tensely as he nocked another arrow to his bow.
“I think it’s time we returned to base,” Isaac growled as he turned his stallion towards the Duchess mare, turning them both north.
“I second that. Huntsman, find us a path back that avoids the stream.”
“The only trail leading back is the one that crosses the stream!” Harry protested as he climbed into his saddle. “I can’t find what isn’t there.”
“Then make a new one for us and snap to it!”
“Whatever it is, it is getting closer,” Isaac muttered tensely as the knights drew their swords.
Carina tilted her head towards the already fading echoes. The rumble beneath them was quiet at first but quickly built as the trees around the small clearing began to tremble noticeably. “Enough of this. I’ll lead the way back myself. Follow me!” She summoned Lumi at a safe distance from the clearing and followed the invisible scriva with Viscount Gladstone and Colonel Isaac close behind, followed by the Bastiallano knights.
“You’re only going to get yourself lost!” Harry protested, kicking the gray mare’s flanks as he trailed behind.
The dense forest growth made moving forward in a straight line difficult. Lumi focused on the swiftest route away from the stream that horses could travel across. Carina did her best to ignore the intense rumble of earth building behind them as she focused on avoiding low-hanging branches along their path. A sharp flash of warning from Viktor’s bracelet turned her gaze back to the large shadow closing in behind the lagging huntsman.
Harry’s horse breathed heavily as she stumbled across the uneven ground that splintered and crumbled beneath her hooves. The huntsman swore as he jerked the reins to avoid a low-hanging branch. The tiring gray mare squealed as she nearly lost her footing, banging Harry’s left leg into the side of a narrowly avoided birch tree. The nearly dismounted huntsman bellowed as he clung to the saddle, fumbling for the reins slapping against the mare’s neck as a dark hissing shadow loomed behind them.
For a moment, Carina thought she was looking at a dragon until she realized the colossal serpent chasing after them had no legs or wings of any kind. The viper’s body was composed of scales that resembled rocks and small boulders compressed together with mud and roots. A thin, shimmering veneer of murky brown and gray fluid ran over the hardened exterior like a running stream that held the monster’s body together. From the serpent’s two-horned triangular head, two blazing green eyes narrowed in on the struggling huntsman. A black tongue that resembled tangled tree roots hissed ominously before the viper’s cheeks inflated and black fumes poured out of the two slits of its nostrils.
Harry heard the reverberating hiss and turned. He took one look at the terrifying visage leering down at him and promptly lost his shit. The screaming huntsman managed to grab hold of the reins, but before he could alter the mare’s course, they were buried in a stream of toxic black liquids that melted man and beast down to the bone.
The colossus viper’s enormous body crushed the brittle remains of the fallen huntsman into the ground as it continued to chase after the fleeing Duchess and her knights.
‘What the fuck is that thing? I can’t lead that back to Gilwren Manor—it would be a massacre.’
A loud, mournful tune pulled the ice witch’s frantic gaze towards Viscount Gladstone, who blew against the small gray horn tied to his belt.
“Calling for backup?” Isaac shouted over.
“Yes. In the meantime, I suggest we head north with all speed!” The Viscount gestured to where the faint outline of a forest trail appeared through the trees ahead.
Carina complied, turning her white mare onto the path sharply as Lumi sprinted ahead. “Someone needs to break away and return to base to warn the Crown Prince.”
“Go,” Isaac urged the Viscount riding close behind him. “You’re more familiar with these woods than any of us.”
“I’m afraid I cannot,” Gladestone retorted as he adjusted his reins around the saddle horn, then notched an arrow to his bow. “Make haste, your Grace.”
Before the Duchess could respond, the Viscount turned his horse east with little more than his knees. Gladestone drew back his longbow, took aim between the trees, and released. The arrow moved at a blinding speed, the wind forming whirlpools in its wake before the projectile sank into one of the remnant’s glowing green eyes.
The colossus viper let out an ear-splitting shriek of rage as its body thrashed against the ground. Carina turned the white mare west as she unhooked her crossbow. Summoning a bolt of pure ice magic, she loaded the weapon and took aim at the ground below the thrashing monster.
The ice bolt sank into the serpent’s rough exterior and then bloomed into coils of ice magic that wrapped around the serpent’s body before anchoring the beast to the forest ground and trees nearby.
The viper’s head spun towards the Duchess with a venomous hiss before its cheeks inflated once more.
“Take cover!” Isaac bellowed as he raised his shield toward the downpour of acidic rain.
Carina hastily erected a shield of ice around herself and the knights. The acid hissed and burned against the barrier, slowly working its way through. At the same time, the colossus viper thrashed and coiled its massive body around its face, uprooting the trees the Duchess’s ice magic had anchored it to with little difficulty as it formed a defensive position.
‘Damn it. Where did this monster come from, and how do I stop it—let alone kill it?’
“We should make a break for it while we can,” Isaac urged as they retreated from the already melting ice barrier. “I’ve sent one of the knights back for reinforcements.”
“Can muskets stop that thing?” Carina muttered tensely.
In answer, the Colonel leveled his musket with the monster’s barely visible remaining eye and fired. The bullet cracked open a melon-sized rock on the viper’s scales as the serpent closed the gaps between its coiled body but otherwise appeared to do no harm.
‘Bullets won’t work. Getting close to that thing is suicide. That leaves only magic. But is this something I can handle?’
The Duchess summoned another frozen bolt, injecting more of her ice magic into it before she loaded the elemental missile into her crossbow and fired at the same spot Isaac’s bullet had struck. The bolt shattered the already weakened stone, entering the colossus viper’s body where Carina’s magic took hold, spreading along the monster’s quickly stiffening scales in a sheet of ice magic.
‘But not fast enough,’ Carina realized as the serpent burrowed suddenly underground.
“Scatter!” Isaac commanded, smacking the back of the Duchess’s mare as the forest floor beneath them shifted unevenly.
Carina jolted backward against the saddle, her left foot slipping out of the stirrup as she struggled to hold the reins in one hand while clinging to her crossbow. She could feel her cold magic fading within the serpent’s body as the creature’s toxic organs eroded the melting ice. Before the Duchess could contemplate another alternative means of attack, the ground burst open beneath the ice witch as both rider and her white mare were flung into the air.
A single blazing green eye filled Carina’s vision as two long curved fangs sank into the beautiful white coat of the suspended mare. She watched in silent horror as the colossus viper’s acid burned through the screaming mare’s saddle, flesh, and ribs. With all the callousness of a cat finishing off its prey, the serpent tossed the unfortunate beast into the air and then preceded to swallow the mare whole.
The Duchess’s blurred spinning view halted abruptly as she crashed into the ground. Her skull rang beneath the impact that knocked the air from her lungs as she rolled to a stop. An ominous hissing shadow fell over the stunned ice witch that blocked out any glimmer of light as the viper’s cheeks inflated with a promising kiss of death.
Carina blinked as the glittering form of Lumi blurred overhead. The enlarged scriva’s jaws snapped around the viper’s mouth, sealing in the deadly fluids as both wolf and serpent crashed back into the trees.
The Duchess dug her hands, knees, and feet into the tilting forest floor as she frantically crawled away. She forced herself upright, stumbling towards the nearest tree for shelter as a cracked boulder smashed into the ground to her left.
Lumi’s savage snarls and growls grated against her ears as Carina beat her chest, begging her lungs to take a breath and nearly crying when they finally complied. She shook her head, attempting to clear the ringing noise and cobwebs, then turned to scan the forest ground for her fallen crossbow.
The dull thunder of hooves turned her gaze to where Isaac’s armored figure appeared. The Colonel leaned down with his hand extended. Carina quickly rushed forward to grab his offered hand.
The forest blurred and tilted in her prereferral vision as the Duchess turned to watch the battle between wolf and serpent. The scriva had grown to nearly the full height of the giant oak trees. Translucent armor-like spikes covered the elemental’s fur but did little to deter the colossus viper’s fangs as the creature bit and coiled its massive body around the elemental wolf.
Even from a distance, it didn’t seem like Lumi would hold out for much longer. Chunks of the scriva’s fur and armor were missing or eroded beneath the fumes of the viper’s venom. Still, Lumi had managed to inflict heavy damage as well and continued to rip away the flimsy scales of mud and stone. The acidic black fluids that flowed out of the colossus snake’s injuries filled the forest around the wolf and serpent with toxic black smoke that quickly rose toward the forest crown.
Viscount Gladstone appeared beside them, looking pale but unharmed as he scanned the Duchess worriedly. “Your Grace—please don’t do that again.”
“Where’s that backup you called for?” Isaac retorted, his tone oddly flustered and shaken.
“Close. Just don’t be surprised when they get here.”
Carina braced herself against the Colonel, then leaned back to gaze at the maze of branches that outlined the tranquil blue sky above. The trees curled and bowed beneath a sudden rush of wind that shook pine needles and leaves into a frenzied dance around the riders below. The blurred outline of over twenty witches appeared through the widening gap of foliage with the Earl of Hawthorne at their head. They glided down toward the knights, their capes billowing into strange bird-like wings that allowed them to control both direction and speed of descent.
Whatever reservations the Duchess had about the appearance of Percy and his purebloods vanished as her connection to Lumi suddenly weakened. Isaac pulled in the reins as the Earl landed amongst the swirling leaves before them.
Percy stepped forward quickly to take the reins of the half-witch’s agitated stallion, soothing the beast with a few charmed, soothing words. “Lady Kirsi, are you all right?”
“A remnant, my King,” Viscount Gladstone rushed out as he dismounted to join the Earl. “We barely got away.”
“A giant snake that spits acid. It appears to be some combination of corrupted earth and water magic. Big enough to swallow a horse whole.”
“Our huntsman. Otherwise, I’d say we’ve been incredibly fortunate.”
“I sent a knight back to the manor for reinforcements,” Isaac interjected as Carina slowly dropped down from the saddle with Percy’s help. “If you’re going to use magic to stop that thing, you’d better do it quickly.”
Percy glared at the Colonel with open annoyance, then quickly turned to one of the pureblood noblewomen behind him. “Find the knight and stop him. Do not harm him—” he added quickly at the Duchess’s warning scowl, “—replace his memory with a task that is less volatile. The less attention we draw to this incident, the better.”
“How do you intend to stop it?” Carina asked worriedly as the purebloods scattered to form a protective half-circle around them, facing the not-so-distant sounds of the forest being torn apart, mingled with growls and venomous hisses.
“We’ll rip it into pieces,” Percy replied confidently with a glint of red visible in his winter-grey eyes. “Your ice magic will prove useful. Water and Earth are difficult elements for us to control. It will make things easier if you can freeze the remnant’s organs.”
“I see—so it’s that simple.”
The Earl arched a brow at her conflicted, cynical tone. “The tricky part will be keeping something of that size pinned down. If it goes underground, our wind magic will have no effect.”
“I could freeze the ground below it.” The Duchess glanced towards the acid smoke still billowing around the battling wolf and serpent. “I tried to anchor it before, but there’s nothing heavy enough to pin it down. And my scriva can’t hold on for much longer.”
“Don’t waste your magic. We’ll contain it as best we can. Just keep your eyes open for any organ you might see. Destroy that, and the remnant will fall apart.” Carina flinched as the Earl pulled her into a one-armed hug before wrapping her right arm around his waist. “Hold on, your Grace. I need to be able to get us in and out as quickly as possible.”
The forest blurred around them as the two entangled giants came suddenly into view. Percy touched down lightly on a tree branch with a clear line of sight while keeping them at a relatively safe distance. The Duchess bit down on her lip as she took in Lumi’s battered figure.
By now, the remnant had wrapped the scriva up in its massive body, though the elemental wolf had similarly managed to sink its fangs into the serpent’s neck. Lumi was missing an ear and several chunks of ice along her back and front limbs. The remnant was no less battered. Nearly half its scales had been scraped free, which allowed a deadly pool of acid to leak out onto the forest floor below.
The same noxious pool now eroded Lumi’s back legs. Even if the scriva didn’t feel any pain, the amount of magic needed to retain its melting limbs was more than it could sustain on its own, even with Viktor’s magic.
“We’re in position. You can release your scriva,” Percy murmured, eerily calm.
Carina didn’t waste any time questioning his plan. She dismissed Lumi, sighing in relief as the elemental wolf returned to the safety of Viktor’s bracelet to heal.
“Get ready,” the Earl growled warily.
The colossus viper continued to thrash against the nearby trees as it recovered from the sudden loss of its prey. Its heavily damaged, acid-oozing body coiled around the serpent’s nearly detached head as it scanned the nearby forest. Carina felt the odds shifting in their favor until the remnant began to reforge its external scales with more mud, stone, and even shattered remnants of Lumi’s ice.
A wave of suffocating anger filled the Duchess’s chest as the Earl gave his signal. Carina blinked in surprise as Percy placed his hands over her ears. Her confusion faded the instant the sirens below unleashed their fury.
Everything in the pureblood’s path vaporized beneath the crisscrossed gales of wind that tore through earth and tree like a torpedo. The colossus viper twisted and shattered under their assault. Eerie voices screamed with rage beneath the siren’s wails as the serpent’s body shook violently and disintegrated, piece by piece. The blackened water beneath the broken scales parted and stretched into web-like strings until a pulsating black organ appeared inside the viper’s head.
“Now, Kirsi,” Percy whispered through the cracks of his fingers.
Carina nodded as she focused on the magical cortex inside her frozen heart. She envisioned Kirsi’s spear, summoning the weapon beneath her fingers as she allowed the Scarlet Witch’s memories to overtake her body. She could feel Kirsi stirring as if suddenly woken from a deep sleep, sensing both freedom and danger.
‘Odd. Now that I think of it, Kirsi was slower to respond this time.’
Carina tightened her grip on the flow of immortal power as the Scarlet Witch’s will and Viktor’s magic merged into a perfect storm that burned into the slender spear at her fingertips. She barely felt Percy pull away, his hand carefully placed against the small of her back, offering support as the Duchess drew back her spear, then hurtled it towards the suspended black heart of the ancient remnant.
A dozen vengeful voices screamed in defiance and agony as the frozen spear pierced the oozing black organ, freezing the corrupted heart in an instant before it toppled to the ground. The acidic fluids vaporized as they collided with the falling, crumbling scales of earth and stone.
“You did well to stay alive, Carina.”
The Duchess blinked beneath the Scarlet Witch’s unexpected praise even as Kirsi asserted her dominance.
“I’ll take it from here.”
‘I don’t think so!’ With sudden strength she didn’t recognize, Carina grabbed her other half by the throat and forced the Scarlet Witch back into her prison. Icy claws dug into the back of the Duchess’s eyes as Kirsi lashed out in outrage, but the unexpected pain only helped Carina break free. She stumbled against the tree as her footing slipped over the edge of the branch.
Percy quickly grabbed the ice witch’s waist as he jumped down with her, slowing their descent as the purebloods closed in around the dismantled remnant. Carina grimaced as she took in the blackened lump of ice that gave off a malignant aura of resentment.
“For something this ancient to awaken,” Marquess Winifred murmured as he knelt beside the corrupted block of ice. “It must have sensed something far too tempting to ignore.”
“I suspect we killed the Silver Stag near its lair,” Gladstone explained as he joined the purebloods and their Witch King.
“A Silver Stag hardly contains enough magic to tempt a remnant, let alone one of this size,” Percy interjected with a thoughtful frown. “Although a blood sacrifice is one way to raise the undying.”
‘The undying?’ Carina echoed curiously to Kirsi. She wasn’t surprised when the Scarlet Witch remained silent and decided to raise the question again later. Her attention shifted to the deteriorated skeleton of a horse not far from the remnant’s frozen organ. Pulling away from the Earl’s lingering grip, the Duchess wandered toward the remains of her fallen white mare. The familiar sting of loss burned at the corner of her eyes as she knelt to touch the horse’s skull—and felt the ground lurch beneath her once again.
The second gaping mouth of the colossus viper appeared beneath the ice witch’s boots as the earth opened up to swallow her.
The world moved faster than Carina’s mind could process. She was barely aware of the sharp burst of light from Viktor’s bracelet as the immortal’s frigid magic enveloped her in a protective fortress of ice. The remnant’s fangs and mouth closed around the frozen egg-like shell, cracking but not breaking Viktor’s hardening barrier.
The howling winds of the purebloods lashing against the serpent vibrated all around the trapped ice witch before the colossus viper retreated, dragging the Duchess underground.
What little light remained from the surface quickly disappeared as the pounding in Carina’s ears mingled with the crumbling, breaking earth around her. She braced her arms and feet against the sides of her icy prison in a futile attempt to lessen the jostling motion of the remnant’s escape as she pressed down the panic rising in her gut.
“How are you supposed to fight the gods if you can’t even handle a remnant without the aid of a Coven,” Kirsi demanded scornfully from the corner of Carina’s mind. “You should let me out now. You are not enough.”