Blithe winds blow on an autumn day
But beware the monsters who walk this way
The autumn nights are cozy and bright
A warm fireside guarding you from fright
Ripe hay fields where the farmers work
Far from the woodland where the phantoms lurk…
The brunette child took a step toward the cart.
Nerezza, fear flaring within her, grasped the back of her seat. The wood, though newly sawn, crumpled under her hands. Sharp splinters glanced harmlessly off her unbreakable skin. She opened her mouth, but her scream would not come. She glanced frantically at Sir Karishart, seated beside her. He didn’t move. His pure black eyes stared straight ahead, unseeing. The world was stuck.
Nerezza stood quickly, her eyes snapping back to the little girl approaching her. “Are you doing this?” she demanded. This time, the sound obediently issued from her lips. Yet her voice sounded oddly faint.
The little girl smiled and nodded. “I am indeed. My talents have become finely honed after all these centuries.”
Nerezza slowly descended from the cart. Her motions felt strange against the stillness.
She stopped in front of the child. Really, the resemblance between the two of them astounded her. Every line of Nerezza’s face was mimicked in a rounder, more childlike semblance in the face of the girl.
“It’s been seven hundred years, Nerezza.” stated the girl.
Nerezza tried not to flinch at the sound of that high, cruel voice. “I tried my best. Although I must admit, I’d hoped to survive longer.”
The girl shrugged. “You might have, if you were a Gifted. But you were also so average.”
Nerezza put her hand behind her back. Her fingers fumbled for the pouch on her belt, but the ruffles on her fancy purple riding dress got in the way. “You think so? I evaded you for over half a millennia. Nobody else lasted that long. And I was always your priority target.”
The girl threw back her head and laughed. “Fishing for a final compliment in the face of your demise? Running is hardly a Gift, dear sister.”
Nerezza’s fingers found the pouch. She tore the leather away and felt the cold, heavy little orb roll into her palm. “If you say so, Amaravati. But your talents will not get you what you want.” her words were not true, but she had to keep her sister talking just a little bit longer.
Amaravati narrowed her eyes. “Oh?”
“I don’t have the Vial with me. I entrusted it to someone else.” Nerezza declared. This was false, of course. The Vial was tucked into a hidden compartment on Nerezza’s boot.
But Amaravati seemed to believe her. “You what?” the child shrieked, fury contorting her pretty face. She clenched her small hands into fists and took a step towards Nerezza. “You will tell me where it is!”
Nerezza took a deep breath. And ran.
Nerezza was an immortal. Not only was her youthful body eternal, but many of its once human abilities were enhanced. Including running. She tore through the unmoving world with inhuman speed, her footfall unnaturally loud.
Amaravati emitted a howl of outrage and gave chase.
Nerezza didn’t slow until she entered a forest, half a mile from Karishart’s orchard. She slammed to a halt against a wide-trunked tree. Its great roots shuddered with the impact.
Controlling her breathing, Nerezza opened her palm and lifted the little crystal ball to her face. It pulsed impatiently, angry swirls of red liquid weaving throughout the transparent orb. She tapped it.
Day Buxhöwden’s face appeared inside the milky crystal. She looked at Nerezza with a frown. “Nerezza, what’s going on?” she demanded.
Nerezza could hear Amaravati cresting the nearby hill, stopping briefly, then charging toward the forest, undoubtedly following her scent.
“She’s here.” Nerezza told Day bluntly. “I’m sorry, Day. I think we both knew I couldn’t outrun her forever.” her voice broke in a terrified sob.
Day’s pale blue eyes flashed with shock. Then her face hardened. “Nerezza, where are you?”
“The forest half a mile east of Karishart’s orchard,” Nerezza blurted unthinkingly. She closed her eyes, berating herself. “Day, don’t come to me. Go to Sir Karishart and get him to safety. Amaravati might go after him once she’s killed me. That’s an order, Day.”
Day smiled tightly. “I’m a Buxhöwden, Lady Bestower. I don’t take orders unless I like them.”
And she vanished from the crystal ball.
Nerezza had no time to dwell on Day’s disobedience. A tree crashed loudly to the forest floor, probably knocked over by Amaravati as she entered the forest.
Nerezza allowed her fear to overtake her. The world was moving normally again, and icy evening wind rattled the branches above. Sunset slunk away behind the idyllic hills.
It was going to be a long, deadly game of hide-and-seek.
Amaravati, sadistic by nature, like a pretty, demonic little cat, stalked her sister for several hours.
Nerezza was soon feral with terror, and Amaravati reveled in it.
Amaravati was a truly matchless immortal. Fueled by vengeance against her family, a mistress of time-warping, a creature of night.
And what was Nerezza? Amaravati’s older sister, though lovely, was not among the Gifted faction of the immortal order. And she relied upon human bodyguards! Of all ridiculous things she could do. Amaravati curled her lip. She hissed, sharp and clear into the maze of trees. She could smell Nerezza’s fear on the cold night air.
She should probably kill her now. But Amaravati wanted to torment her just a few hours longer…
Nerezza felt the cold, rough bark of the tree biting into her back as she pressed against it, completely motionless, barely allowing herself to breath.
But even these shallow breaths were too loud.
“I can hear you.” Amaravati’s voice hissed through the trees.
Nerezza closed her eyes. A stifled sob constricted her chest. She could smell the sweet scent of Amaravati’s calico apple-picking outfit on the lifeless midnight air.
Amaravati’s tiny boots crunched the dead leaves loudly. She stopped behind Nerezza’s hiding place.
Nerezza came to her senses just in time to roll forward, flinging herself away from the tree.
Wood splintered and the tree’s trunk split down the middle. Nocturnal creatures screeched in alarm.
Nerezza, kneeling in the leaves a few feet away, covered her mouth with a shaking hand.
Amaravati extracted her chubby fist from the decimated tree. She flexed her fingers as she slowly turned to face Nerezza.
“Nerezza.” her childlike voice was imbued with unearthly vengeance. High and cruel, it did not suit her.
Nerezza rose to her feet. “Amaravati.” she murmured, mesmerized by her impending doom. Only her immortal sibling could kill her. Where time and mortal methods failed, Amaravati could rip Nerezza’s throat out with her bare hands.
Amaravati smiled, a twisted smile of artificial sweetness and undeserved beauty. “I’m going to kill you now. It’s been a fun game, big sister.”
Nerezza snarled, her fear transforming into anger. “I hate your games, sadist! Don’t think I won’t fight you.”
Amaravati looked taken aback. But only for a moment. Her smug smile soon overtook her surprise. “I think we both know who’s going to win this fight, Nerezza.”
Nerezza didn’t care. She launched herself at her sister like a lynx.
Immortal flesh hit immortal flesh and it rang out like breaking steel.
Nerezza gasped as Amaravati’s tiny fist slammed into her side. She doubled over as pain shot through her torso. Amaravati didn’t hesitate. She lifted Nerezza clean off the ground with one powerful arm and flung her into a tree like a rag doll.
Nerezza cried out, curling into a fetal position. She groaned as Amaravati’s feet swam into view, advancing on her slowly.
Amaravati halted her advance.
Nerezza’s pain became insignificant as a new fear rushed through her heart. Day Buxhöwden, why are you so stubborn? She roared internally, sitting upright with a wrench of her aching muscles.
Amaravati turned to face the newcomer.
Day’s hair glowed with golden pallor in the moonlit forest clearing. Her jaw was set, and she had a long, gleaming knife in each hand. “Get away from the Lady Bestower, rogue.” she growled.
Amaravati seemed surprised and rather entertained. “Bonita Buxhöwden?” she inquired.
“No, I’m her daughter, Day. And I will not let you kill Lady Nerezza.” said Day.
Amaravati shrieked with laughter. “Oh, this is all too familiar. The Buxhöwden line still protects the Lady Bestower? How quaint.” she narrowed her grey eyes, menace glittering through her amusement. “Leave now, child, and I will not harm you.”
Day balanced her blades. “Not a chance.”
Nerezza jumped to her feet, but she wasn’t fast enough.
Day charged Amaravati, her twin knives aimed for the immortal girl’s heart.
Amaravati merely uprooted a nearby tree and swung it effortlessly.
It’s trunk caught Day in the midsection and immediately brought her down. Day fell with a winded gasp of pain, the trunk of the tree effectively pinning her to the ground. Her eyelids fluttered and she lost consciousness.
“No!” wailed Nerezza, starting toward her fallen friend.
But Amaravati was out of patience. She lashed out, striking Nerezza across the cheek.
Nerezza fell. Her hair cascaded over her face, and her weakness and pain kept her down.
Amaravati stalked over to her, hissing in dissatisfaction. “I expected our final showdown to be a bit less pathetic, Nerezza. You’ve disappointed me.”
Nerezza didn’t hear. Her ears rang, and her heart was thudding a slow, measurable beat in her chest. The night air was so cold on her bare arms and neck, it made her skin feel damp. The dead leaves beneath her hands were wet with midnight dew. She exhaled with a puff, watching the leaves fly and dance before her.
One word resonated within her. Autumn.
And suddenly Nerezza wasn’t weak and tired anymore. The earth upon which she lay pulsed gentle, steady strength into her body.
Amaravati, not noticing the change in her sister, made to strike her down again. But Nerezza caught her arm this time.
Amaravati went flying into the dirt, for once in her life overpowered by another. She was far more shocked than injured, and looked up at Nerezza with unconcealed wonder at her unexpected violence.
Nerezza stood facing her, her hair swirling wildly around her bowed head in a powerful wind that seemed to blow only around her.
Amaravati hissed in alarm as Nerezza’s feet lifted off the forest floor, and she rose, hovering like a specter in the sphere of stormy wind. Multicoloured autumn leaves joined the wild dance, entangling with Nerezza’s hair.
Nerezza’s eyes bored into Amaravati’s. “I won’t die tonight, little sister.”
Amaravati shrieked and struggled as thorny vines reared up from the leaf-strewn forest floor, twisting into a barbed cage all around her. She tried to tear the vines away, but withdrew her hand, feeling something akin to fear when she saw blood streaming down her palm.
“How?” the immortal child hissed, disbelieving.
Nerezza held both her hands out, parallel with her hips. She gently descended from the sphere of wind, touching down on the ground once more. She smiled with victorious strength at the trapped Amaravati. “I am a Gifted, dear sister. I did not know it till now, but we are equals. I will no longer run from you in fear now that I have the power to defeat you.”
Amaravati glowered through the thorns. “Will you kill me?”
Nerezza shook her head. “Nay. Where you have defiled the noble Immortal tradition, I will never break my oaths. I will not kill my own sister.” she turned her back, her dark curls falling to her waist. “See you in a century or so.”
Amaravati placed her hands on the vines, panic beginning to gnaw at her. “I can’t break the vines!”
Nerezza shrugged. “They don’t go all the way underneath you. You’ll dig yourself out eventually.”
Day Buxhöwden stirred. Nerezza rushed to her side and lifted the tree off her midsection.
“Day! Are you alright?”
Day groaned. “I think my ribs are broken.”
Nerezza lifted her gently into her arms. “I’ll get you to a healer. Just relax.”
Day fluttered her eyes open and peered at Nerezza. “What happened? Where’s Amaravati? Did she leave? Are you alright?” she croaked worriedly.
Nerezza walked slowly so as not to jostle Day in her delicate state. She glanced over her shoulder at the forest clearing where her sister howled and clawed impotently at her cage. She’d get out eventually. But Nerezza would be ready.
“She’s not going to be chasing me for awhile, Day. And we’ll be safe.”