The two women climbed through a thicket of trees that grew particularly close together, and Barely was surprised to find that the air was a degree or two warmer on the the other side. Even that much difference was soothing, and her shivers started up again. When did she stop? Her anxiety subsided, however, as she looked around to find a willow tree growing over a strange little pond. The ice melted just a little way from the shore and, looking closer, it looked far deeper than its surface area would suggest, like a naturally-formed well. The whole area veritably hummed with some kind of magical power, full of life and laughter. This place made Barely giddy, like her presence was too different from the spirit of it to properly belong here.
Cerlissa seemed to feel the same way, “This place gives me the creeps, sometimes.” she mumbled before taking Barely’s hand and stepping into the water. When Barely hesitated, Cerlissa looked back and smirked, saying “Don’t worry. I think this is the last place in the Spine where you might get hurt.”
Taking small, hesitating steps, Barely entered the pool. She held tight to Cerlissa’s hand. She didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t sure if she could swim anymore. She hadn’t done so since the Change.
She was hip deep when Cerlissa suddenly dove, dragging her down with her. She managed a short breath before kicking, wide-eyed and blind, deeper into the pool. The further they went, the warmer it got. Barely’s lungs were burning when Cerlissa pulled her up short and steadied her, putting her hands on Barely’s hips until she found the ground with her feet. Once she did, the burning need for oxygen subsided and Barely calmed down enough to notice that there was a figure forming in the darkness of the well.
She was strange to look upon. As the form became brighter, more detail became apparent. The woman in the water didn’t seem to be formed of the light, but that what little light came down from the surface was simply captured better on her body than on Cerlissa’s still-dark shape. She looked like an elemental goddess, with a body made from the same elements that made up Vulcanica herself: stone, fire, wind, water. Seamlessly and magnificently forming the visage of the fabled ascendant of the Dawn Patrol. Her voice was enchanting, like the water itself was speaking, though she didn’t know what she said.
“Mm mm,” Cerlissa said negatively, “She’s Norscan.”
“I wasn’t expecting a visitor,” Gwind spoke again, softly, “One of yours, I assume?”
“She’s got Moxie. I found her just a moment ago.” Cerlissa replied.
“She reeks of your demons already.” Gwind’s face twisted into a grimace.
“Please, Gwind,” Cerlissa had a smile in her voice… how was she talking under water?
“She hasn’t even used her Pact yet. Wait… do you think I have a smell?”
Gwind didn’t respond, she only moved toward Barely and gave her a looking-over.
“I’m, uhm… Barely.”
“Barely?” The woman turned a questioning look to Cerlissa.
“I told you how they earn their names.” Cerlissa’s voice echoed in the dark, “It’s a slave name. She needs a new one.”
Gwind said nothing, only looked at Barely.
“I came to bring news.” Cerlissa broke the silence tentatively.
“Oh?” Gwind smiled, though it held no joy, “Did you release another demon onto my land?”
Cerlissa’s bubbly attitude deflated immediately. The shift was subtle, but even in the diminished light, Barely sensed Cerlissa’s fluid, playful movements freeze. She wasn’t sure what Gwind was talking about, but Cerlissa certainly did, and suddenly it was painfully tense at the bottom of that well.
Through gritted teeth, Cerlissa finally broke the silence, “They’re not so bad as you make them out, Gwind, I wish you’d just—”
“What? You released another… Cerlissa!” Gwind interrupted.
“No! Gwind, listen to me!” Cerlissa was pleading now, but it was clear that Gwind wasn’t listening at all, “They’re beings of balance, they literally can’t give anything without taking something in return. They just… if you could just understand…”
Gwind turned her back on them, hands curled into fists at her side. Barely couldn’t stand it.
“I thought you were friends.” Barely half-mumbled, half-spoke as she stood stick-straight and stared resolutely at her feet.
Gwind seemed surprised. She turned her head toward the Beastman woman with a look meant to wilt her into silence. Barely looked toward Cerlissa, but couldn’t read her face. The woman only studied the Beastman woman like a piece of meat.
“The stories say…” Barely hesitated, then looked up to stare the woman in the face. An hour ago, she might have cringed from it, but she swallowed that fear and put her chin up. Barely was surprised at her own sudden bravery, but she was a scion of Cerlissa now, not some slave to have her teeth looked at for quality. “There are songs about you. About your strength and loyalty. I see now I sang lies to the Northern babies in my homeland when I sang to them of you.”
Gwind’s countenance receded, and she glanced over to Cerlissa, whose jaw hung open. Gwind began speaking, but Barely couldn’t understand her. As her words went low and threatening, Cerlissa’s expression shifted from shock to anger. Cerlissa’s hand came up and cut through the water between them to interrupt, and their conversation battled as tempers rose.
Barely’s heart began to beat rapidly as she realized what she’d done. The power of this place became oppressive. She wasn’t even trying to follow the argument anymore, she felt like she was spinning, her eyes refused to focus.
“Barely?” Cerlissa’s voice cut through the haze, and Barely focused on her face. “Gwind! What are you doing?”
“It looks a lot like she’s drowning.” Gwind’s voice no longer vibrated with emotion. It was cold as the stone cliffs Barely was born under. “Maybe you should rethink your choices, Cerlissa. Seems your new champion can’t even swim.”
Barely watched Cerlissa glance, stunned, at Gwind, before she waded toward Barely and snaked her arms around her waist. Only then did she think to try to save herself. Barely pushed off the bottom of the sunken pool, kicking wildly and grasping at Cerlissa. Just before they broke the surface, she heard Gwind speak, calling out the last word.
“I’ll have my lands wiped clean of them, Cerlissa. With or without your help.”
The air was sweet and sharp in her lungs as Barely sucked it in.
“Come on, girl, you’re freezing. We have to get back to the horses.” Cerlissa began to drag Barely out of the water, her limbs numb and heavy and awkward.
“I’m s-sorry, Cerlissa.” Barely chattered, “I shouldn’t… I’m-m so sorry.”
“Shh, stop. You’re perfect.”
“What?” Barely coughed and crawled away from the pool.
Cerlissa lowered her voice, keeping their heads close as she continued to drag her away, “You heard what she said? Getting the demons off her land?” Barely nodded and Cerlissa continued, “I’ve got three little demons at home…” one hand patted her stomach, “…and three on the way, if you get what I mean.”
Barely’s eyes got wide as she turned to stare at Cerlissa and whispered, “You mean…?”
“Yes, my Champion, you just saved my babies from my best friend, and earned a shiny new name in the process, if you so choose to accept it. But right now, we need to get out of here.” Cerlissa looked around the tranquil little grove and back at Champion, who had indeed chosen to accept it, and said, “hold onto me, the first jump is always the worst.”
Champion felt like she was falling, and when she finally landed there was such a feeling of queasy newness and adventure that, despite the days of wandering, hungry and cold, she felt strong, and smiled for the first time in weeks.