1 - Nyxabella
Each night when Belle was a little girl, she would lie in bed, close her eyes, and pray to Mother Dark that she would wake up a monster. Nowadays, as a grown woman, her prayers came in the daytime as well.
Belle ran a hand over gashes as thick as her arm and twice as long that marred the bark of the enormous oak tree before her. She let her fingers toy with the residual magic of the monster that had left the marks behind, cool purples swirling around her hands. The monster was huge, certainly, but she read no anger in its magic—most likely it had just been sharpening its claws.
Not much was known of the monsters that lived in Silvax Forest because so few people who went in ever came back out, and those who did weren’t usually the social type. The idea of meeting a brand of beast she’d never seen before seized Belle’s mind and took off with it.
Mother Dark had yet to grant Belle’s request, but she hadn’t given up hope yet.
She whispered, “My Dark Mother, Goddess of Chaos and curiosity, fear and awe, I pray—”
Behind her, Jac grumbled, “You’re muttering again.”
“I’m praying,” Belle said.
Belle wrapped her arms behind her back, holding her own elbows as she stared up into the canopy of leaves that seemed to stretch a full mile over her head. The branches forked and splayed like a lightning storm reaching toward the sky, and the magic that hummed through these trees, that weighted their massive branches and dripped off their leaves, was breathtaking.
Or, more like breath-giving—it breathed life into Belle’s own magic, which had a habit recently of withering, dulling, breaking.
She craned her neck to look into the forest behind her, her gaze leading her so far back she eventually just folded herself backwards, her wild, blonde curls cascading over the grass and fallen leaves, and she continued her prayer all the while.
There was a particular magic to looking at things upside down.
Jac grumbled something that sounded like, “Mother Light,” and Belle looked up to see a grimace shaping Jac’s beautiful, upside-down face. Jac tried to keep to herself how much Belle’s occasional contortion freaked her out, but Belle really hadn’t thought this was enough to bother her.
With the back of her head brushing against her own thighs, Belle said, “I’m just bending back.”
“You cannot name that just bending back, Nyxabella.”
Belle sucked her teeth, a habit she had picked up from Jac, then straightened. “Fine, Jacqueline.”
Jac’s golden eyes flicked up to the scars on the tree, and her right hand reached up to touch the handle of the weapon strapped to her back. The weapon itself was hidden beneath a leather wrap, but mere leather could do nothing to hide its bulk.
“Hurry up,” Jac said, striding back to the trail Belle had strayed from. “I want our asses within city walls before nightfall. I’m not getting eaten by some damn monster in a Mother-forsaken forest on the way to Mother-forsaken, thief-ridden Urden just for one of your wild schemes. One you won’t even name.”
“I don’t read ‘nightbeasts’ on our list of worries,” Belle said, trotting after Jac on her toes, a few stray leaves still stuck in the curls that bounced around her head. The forest’s magic swelled her own so much, she felt like she was barely touching the ground. “I’ll take care of the monsters, so long as you take care of the people.”
“That,” Jac said, “I can do.”
Now that they were safe from the sun in the shadows of wooden giants, both girls shrugged their cloaks back behind their shoulders to let their limbs breathe. Both had traded out the finer clothes that they were usually required to wear for simpler clothing. It would be unwise to stroll into Urden clad in fine silks—they might as well dangle their coin purses in front of any shadowy figure they came upon. So Belle’s dress was little more than a faded pink tunic with open sides and a waist belt to keep it in place, and Jac’s was her usual yellow to bring out all the sun-kissed highlights of her warm, brown skin and short, golden curls.
Back on the dirt road, Belle bounced along behind Jac. She should be thinking about their destination, about what they would do once they were inside Urden’s walls—but this forest was so thick with humming, heady magic that all Belle wanted to do was breathe it, play with it, dance in it. She wanted to, but the deeper they walked into Silvax Forest, the tighter, tenser, louder Jac’s magic grew, until it was all Belle could focus on.
Not much scared Jac. She was easily the strongest person Belle knew, and Belle constantly marveled at how she faced down every opponent, every threat, with unshakable confidence. That is, when there was a clear opponent to face. Something unknown, unfamiliar, possibly hiding in the shadows was another story. Belle would bet that if a monster dropped in front of them right now, no matter how big it was, Jac would feel better simply knowing what she was facing.
“So.” Jac had given in to the desire to reach for her weapon, and now walked along with one hand hanging from the handle. “What the fuck’s in Urden, Belle?”
She’d been waiting for this question, but that didn’t make it any easier to answer. Belle ducked her head and gave a sheepish smile. “That knowledge will be hard to swallow.”
Jac turned those brilliant golden eyes on Belle, her beautiful, heart-shaped face wary. “How hard?”
As she considered this, Belle bobbed her head from side-to-side. “About like stones,” she said, though she quickly added, “but small, smooth ones! You could get it down all right with a good bit of water.”
Jac turned back to the trail ahead with a deep sigh. “Doesn’t sound pleasant coming out.”
Belle winced at the thought. “Guess it doesn’t.”
Though Jac was silent, Belle could see the clenching of her jaw and the twist of stress in her magic, and a fresh wave of guilt bubbled through her. Quietly, she said, “That’s why I told you not to come.” Then, to lighten the mood, she added, “I’m always looking out for your ass.”
Jac snorted, but it only eased Belle’s guilt a little.
Belle just had to make sure this worked, and they weren’t caught. If she could pull this off, it would all be worth it, and Jac wouldn’t get hurt, and finally Belle could free her mother. Maybe even herself.
She just had to make sure this worked. The alternative was the few people Belle cared about that were still left living would…
Belle quickly waved that thought away. She would make sure.
“Feed them to me quick, then,” Jac said with goddess-like patience.
“Might be best if I keep all the evidence,” Belle said. “Plausible deniability and all that.”
“Nyxabella, when you and I took that left fork in the road a day ago, Plausible Deniability took a hard right. Even if I had a horse I couldn’t catch the bitch now. Just tell me what the hell I’m walking into.”
Affection for her fiercely loyal friend and guilt over dragging said friend into more of her own sweet shit battled in Belle for the title of reigning emotion. Belle took a deep, shuddering breath, wound her fingers together tightly, and opened her mouth to finally explain.
Then she froze.
A new magic tickled the forest’s, somewhere behind them. Working its way steadily down the trail, toward the two girls.
Jac’s grip tightened on the handle of her weapon, eyes locked on Belle’s blank face, ready. Waiting. Jac couldn’t sense magic like Belle could, so she just watched for a signal from Belle.
Belle’s pale, freckled face split into a grin, and her eyes flashed all the green of the forest. But Jac didn’t relax. That smile could only mean—
Belle whispered, “Monster.”