The creature groaned and we looked at it. It stared mistrustfully at Wren.
"He stays," I said darkly. "Now tell me the rest of it."
"We are Moarte," the creature rasped. "We are death. Despair. Fear. We feed on the energy of humans and creatures. We cannot feed on she who calls herself Corstelis."
"Why not?" I demanded.
"She is too much."
"Too much of what?" Wren asked.
"Energy. Too much energy."
"Then why do you want to make more of her?" I asked, confused.
"She can bring us more energy," it said. "Beings like her attract others. They will fall into our trap."
"Where did you come from?"
"We were created," it answered. "By the greed. By the fear. By the death. By the-"
"Yes, by the despair," I interrupted. "So you were not an original part of the earth?"
"How many of you are there?"
"We have reached over 300 strong."
Wren bowed his head with a groan. I felt discouraged. Three hundred creatures that feasted on all these things? No wonder people were avoiding the forest.
"If people don't go to the forest, will you starve?"
"How long can you last without energy?" I asked, an idea forming in my mind.
"Two hundred years."
"Of course you can," I grumbled and I sighed. "Can we make peace with your kind?"
"No. We only know how to feed."
I stood up and Wren did, too. I stared down at the creature. It wasn't looking at me; it was looking at the wall. I felt pity for it. It had spared me, chosen to share his wisdom with me. But why? The Sword hummed and I stared at it. Was the Sword of the Thousands the reason? Or was it because I knew, death, despair, and fear very well?
"Yes," the creature said and I frowned. It wasn't looking at me. "You know these things. You and she who calls herself Corstelis. You know death. You know despair. You know fear. That is how you know. Your Sword has no relation."
"Right," I muttered. The creature put his head on the floor. "Come on, Wren. Let's go find the Queen Mother."
The Queen Mother was among the gardens. When she heard me coming, she turned and her face was confused.
"What are you doing back here?"
"You're in danger," I panted, pointing at the forest. "There are creatures in there that-"
"They're called Moarte." I looked over my shoulder. Bryan and Wren were approaching us. They both looked grim. "And they have reached over 300 in number."
The Queen Mother gasped. "What can be done?"
"We could go to war," Bryan said, "but that will only give them more energy. They feed from death, despair, and fear. We could try starving them out by closing off the forest but that will take 200 years. There's one thing that they want, though.
"What?" I asked. "Let's give it to them. They can drive people insane with this kind of green smoke. It's got to-"
"They want you, Corstelis," Wren whispered.
"Me?" I repeated, looking between the two of them. "Why me?"
"Because you are three beings combined into one," Bryan said sadly. "You have too much energy. If they can make more of you then they believe you can draw people - both humans and supernaturals - into the forest for them to feast on."
"Can we bargain?" the Queen Mother asked.
"No. They're hell bent on Corstelis."
"But we can't make more like me," I said desperately. "Not the way they think we can. Let's tell them!"
"They don't think logically," Bryan said, looking at me with sad eyes. "All they see is a creature that has more energy than they can handle. Basically, you're stronger than them and it intimidates them. So, they see one solution: create or destroy."
"I'm feeling a little lightheaded," I mumbled.
I went back to the home I had stayed in before I left and lay curled in my bed. So this was all because of me. They wanted me. But I didn't have what they needed and Bryan claimed they won't understand that until they've killed me.
I paced my room, ignoring the fact that my skirts were all but shredded. Finally, I made up my mind. I packed a bag with plenty of arrows. Before I left, I grabbed my flute and put that in as well. I knew they would sense me but it didn't hurt to have something to help them.
I opened my door and nearly ran into Wren. He saw the bag on my back and shook his head.
"No," he said firmly. "No. We'll find something else to do."
"There's nothing else that can be done, Wren," I whispered, walking around him.
He followed me. "There has to be. We can shut off the forest like Bryan said. Block it with a barrier!"
"If they see that I cannot be duplicated, they will give up."
"How do you know that for sure?" he demanded.
He grabbed my arm. "Then how do you know this is going to work?"
"I don't, Wren," I snapped. "All I know is that a lot of my friends and family will be hurt if something isn't done! I love them too much-"
He groaned. "Love! Love again! What is it with you and love!?"
I glared. "What is it with you and love?" I challenged.
"You really want to know?" he snapped. "Fine." He dragged me to one of the waterfalls and pointed. "This is the waterfall my father threw himself off of. Why did he do it? Because my mother disappeared and he couldn't handle not being with the person he loved the most!"
"I'm sorry, Wren," I whispered. "But I have to go."
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"At least let me come with you, then," he said and I stared at him.
"Why? You hate me."
"I don't hate you," he whispered and I lost my temper.
"I don't understand you! First you treat my cousin and I like dirt. Then you help him. Then you call me horrible names and tell me to leave! Then you save and kiss me. Make up your mind, Wren!"
He didn't answer so I turned and stormed over the Bridge. The night wind lifted my hair and I felt his hand on my arm again. I shut my eyes wearily and spun around. Before I could speak, he grabbed my chin and kissed me.
At first, I fought him but I gave in to his soft touch. His hands went around to my back then down to my hips. I stood on my toes and put my hands on his face. He pressed his lips harder to mine, burying a hand in my hair. I hooked my elbows around his shoulders and we both groaned at the same time.
I had never experienced something like this before. My heart hammered in my chest as our tongues moved as one. I could taste tears but I wasn't sure which of us was crying. I could feel his heart pounding as fast as mine. I never wanted the moment to end.
But then I remembered the Moarte.
"Don't go," he whispered into my lips when I broke away. "Not alone."
I shut my eyes tightly. "Wren, if you come with me, they'll kill you."
"Then I'll be with you." My eyes opened in shock. He touched my cheek, his eyes tender. "I love you, Corstelis. I have for a while. I would watch you as you wandered around the palace. I could feel your longing to leave, for freedom. I knew that feeling. That's the real reason I became a creature hunter. Not because of my mother. If you go, I'm coming with you."
"We're not coming back," I whispered. "Not without a miracle."
He smiled. "I finally have you after all these years," he whispered back. "If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is. Perhaps the gods will grant us another one."
I sighed and looked down. He was still holding me as close as he could. He put his lips on my forehead.
"Okay," I said finally.