Pearly Gates 4: Call Me Cordy

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Here is a scream. Hers. Alone? More than she would like, less than she needed. Fire? A lone blazing light, extinguished. Now birdsong - there is always birdsong - and blood of her own veins. Head swimming, the whole world whirling, stars twinkling in her helmet before her eyes. Mud creeps in somehow, through the visor.

It tastes of memories.

How long had she lain there? Too long. Could have died. Not long enough. So tired.

Why? Why here? It didn't matter. Could not matter. The forest, a different one, older woods, more familiar. It stretches on, it bars and beckons. Onward. Always onward.

Further. Step by step. Slowly she staggers, the broken cursed thing that calls herself Megumi Minakata. One foot forward, then another, little by little she collapses into the waiting trees. Into their outstretched branches.

They wait. They will not be patient.


Here is a home.

A roof. Four walls. A window and a bed. She had had them. They were not home. Not home. Only a house. House of cold stone dark rooms shrieking breaking-

The forest is her home. The forest is safe. The forest is kind. The owl on her shoulder preached in whispers. Reassured, soothed, made a call of gentle calm.

The branches are so gentle, the trees so welcoming. Here the leaves speak only kindnesses. Vine and bark and leaf, so careful, so cautious, holding her up with inhuman care.

Fire, somewhere. Shouting. Something broken, a great many things. The owl tells her not to worry. The cat purrs at her feet. The hive buzzes and hums sweetly.

Where had the rabbit gone?


Here is forbiddance.

The ground wails, her steps make it broken. The sky whimpers, unwilling to look on. Thunder and rain, thunder and rain. Neither burning nor extinguishing. Sound and fury, empty weather. The fire struggles. The fire endures. The forest triumphs still.

The stars, the moon, almost in sight, almost out. Do they laugh or do they hide? They say nothing and still she tumbles through the impenetrably thick night.

Let them have their secrets. Bury them in it. What good would they do her here?

A tree stares at her through a barn owl's half-face, and through choking sap it howls in the voice of a tearful beast. 'Do not take her', it pleads. Wishes of bark, cries of roots. It means nothing.

It lashes, it strikes. The woods are angry, they are hungry, they will not cease, they will not slow. Blood? Of course, of course. A wonder she has more left. A happy wonder. Do they drink, or do they waste it? No time to look. Feet on earth, feet on leaves, faster, further, onward.


Here is peace.

The rabbit, it spoke so sweetly. The rabbit, it promised such things. They would come for her soon. They would take her back. Take her back and never would she break away, the branches the leaves the soil the swarms the packs never to see them again gone forever always gone-

A dream with snow of fur and the sea for eyes. It came for her, it came to save her.

They came on two legs, on two wheels and four, perhaps they would come with wings. Come to take her away, drag her from the forest. The forest she never wanted to leave.

'Would you like to make a wish?'

Yes. What else? To have peace, to never leave. To never leave. Never leave the forest.

She smiles softly. The pelts of trees wrap around her, and the beauty of petals see through her. To the beasts, solace. To the hives, shelter.

The rabbit had been so kind, but where did it run to?


Here is a grave.

Mud. Hungry rain-soiled mud. It swallows her feet, it pulls her down. Each step wrenches away, tramples it, overpowers the earth. It cries tears of little pebbles and brown water. The earth, never a gracious loser.

The sky mourns every step. Loud wails. Almost enough, but sirens will not be drowned out. A call breaks through the din of the woods, once, twice, then silenced.

The ones that came before. The ones that she must outrun. A rescue to be made, before others find-

She trips, and gleefully the leaves swallow her. What had caught her? A hand, an arm. What broke her fall? A man, nameless now. No. Nothing of the sort. Too many pieces. Too many for one. How many had the woods taken?

One more soon, no doubt.


Here is a fortress.

She waits. She watches. She blooms.

A monster still, a hand, it would steal the forest from her, it would steal her from the forest. End the hand, end the calling the voice, cut it away, drown it out, hear only buzzing, hear only howls.

Footsteps, nearer now, heard in the panicked rustling of leaves. The ground warned her, and she spoke to it, calmed it with quiet words and a gentle pat. It rumbles softly, and she soothes its sobbing.

What was this thing at her side, that breathed a hive and saw with sprouting eyes from a bear's body? A friend, and a friend only. Was that not all that mattered? It would protect her. Those that came for her oh so recently, they danced the dance of vines and sung songs of gurgling pollen, so happy were they to find the heart of the forest.

Ah, yes. There she is.


Here is a battle. Here is an end.

The queen awaits, she is so small. Green and brown cover her shape. Rose-red petals, thorned vines stare where once were eyes. Skin of bark, skin of leaves, skin that crawls and buzzes with little wings. Hands that bite, ears that shriek, packs and herds bubbling, boiling under the shell. Branches and roots, extending, reaching from her, fleeing from her: To what do they race?

A voice speaks. Is it a stranger, is it a friend? Is it her? Her own name, stranger or friend? The voice of an old wound, the voice of a spear, a gilded whisper calls to her. It can help, it can save her, and slowly she nods. The helmet's visor is raised to admit its radiance, closed to shield her eyes. Doubtless it can help. Doubtless.

Strangling roots. Rending claws. One and all close in on her, bear down, choking the life from her and stinging poison into her veins. Blood and spit mingle on the inside of her helm, curses drowning in the mix as she flails helplessly, pushing away assailants with unseen force.

It can help her. It would save her. And finally she accepts. The spear, so recently piercing her side, now in her hand. Its touch burns, its presence scars. Voiceless shrieks. The woods recoil; she is free. She cannot be stopped. She will not be contained. Cold metal poised, driven down, seeking only prey, burying itself in rich heart's blood-


It did not end so.

A moment from the fatal strike. The spear vanishes from her arms, and she falls instead onto the soft, yielding earth. So welcoming, so kind, so restful after the torture she faced. The monster is roused. Broken bark shrieks, muffled by sap. A strange beast's roar echoes from deep inside her mouth, forced open by roots from within. Her hair-vines lash, swivel and stare at her as one, and finally her own voice comes from inside blooming eyes, as they watch the small, green-brown jewel in her gnarled hands.

"...Are you going to hurt me?"

"No." Not after coming this far. The helmeted huntress falters, looking at her wounds, and adds "...Suit. Don't nick the suit. Not any more. Holds magic back. Would make you sick. Vomit on my shoes. Bad day all around. Don't make this messy."

"...I'm Kaede. What's your name?"

"You going to remember?"

She falters. She frets. Under her visor, the huntress smiles.

"...Then just call me Cordy. Like the mushroom. You know it, right? I bet you do."

A bright, eager grin. A sharp nod. Cordy's hand, gently pulling the queen of the woods up to her feet.

"Come on. Out of here. Somewhere safe. Before you try to kill me again. Here, take one of these. Press it against that gem. ...Can you walk?"


The dream passes, and Megumi wakes to the Third Officio's hospital wing. What was it the girl had asked her the next day? If she would be safe. What a strange question, in this company. How could Megumi lie?

"Might die if you stay 'round me." Verbose, for her. She looks up, slowly, half-smiling even as she mutters a quiet oath to herself when she sees who else is there. Kaede, of course. How kind of her to visit.


How long had it been since that night in the woods? It wasn't honest, taking her in. Of course it wasn't. She knew that, she always knew, but... but what? The girl was an easy mark. Someone too eager, too attached to the one who had waded through a nightmare to bring a newly-contracted, out-of-control child to safety. She would never run, never turn away, even in the face of a walking disaster area. She would care, she would need help, she wouldn't know any better.

Was it a crime to take her in just to feel needed? That wasn't her question to answer. She could only make it a victimless one.

"Yeah, but you'll get better. Stick around, kid, it's a riot." One gloved hand reaches out, holding Kaede's as Megumi lies prone on the hospital bed. The pain soon convinces her not to move further.

"...So how've you been? Missed a couple things. Stab wounds helped. Go on, here all day."