“Death comes for all of us eventually,” Hortencia said. “As you can see by our bodies revealing their natural age, we are well ripe for leaving this Earth… And besides, don’t you think we deserve it? After all I showed you about us?”
“I don’t care whether you’re willing to die or not,” I said. “Or whether you deserve it. I’m not the one to do it. Though I will say,” I couldn’t help but add, “I don’t think you’re really that bad. Honestly, you just seem… intensely unhappy.”
As I said the words, I realized that was exactly what they were. The root of all their meddling seemed born out of frustration. They were unhappy, miserable souls, with a curse in disguise as a gift. Born without eyes, they’d never once been able to experience the true beauty of the world. Even after everything the oracle had put me through, I couldn’t bring myself to feel a sliver of hatred for her. Instead I just… pitied her.
Hortencia smiled broadly. “Now that wasn’t too painful, was it?” she asked.
“What?” Man. She was tying my brain up in knots. Is this all a fourth test?
Hortencia beamed like the Cheshire Cat. “Just as loving is important, so equally is mercy. Remember this, Benjamin.” She clutched my wrists and if she’d had eyes, I was certain that they would be boring into me right now.
“I have lived a thousand lives,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “none of them my own. But I have witnessed enough mistakes by others to have learnt the secrets to leading a wondrously happy life… I also know the makings of a hero.” She paused, removing one hand from me and planting it on her sister’s shoulder. “Now I have done many abhorrent things in my years, as has my sister, but at the dusk of life, whoever we are, we wish to look back on something worthy of pride.”
I still don’t understand.
“Let me tell you something, child. I’ve never been proud of anything I’ve done… until I started helping you.” Huh? A clammy hand reached up to my face and patted my cheek. “In time you will understand exactly what I mean by this. For now, just know that the world in a couple of decades’ time will be in great need of men like you. All final boundaries will collapse, and that which should never be fused will fuse. You will live through this time and it will not be easy. You will be forced to become the hero whom… whom I have been attempting to train you to become. In the brief time that we’ve spent together, I’ve tried to give you a crash course, to instill in you a selection of morals I have learnt and that I believe will serve you well in the future.”
My head spun. Crash course is an appropriate term, all right…
“Why… why would you do this, though? Why would you even care?”
She smiled, bittersweet. “To leave this world with a lighter burden on my shoulders, I suppose. If you become the warrior that I see within you, and set an example for others to follow, fate might smile a little more kindly on me… for where I go next.”
“But… Hortencia. You just said that this was a test, and I should not kill you, right? Then the question remains, how will I fulfil all this without a body? How do we undo the fae’s pact?”
Hortencia let go of me completely and took a step back, her right hand still clutching Pythia’s.
“The answer is simple,” she croaked, beginning to back away from me with her sister.
The motion sent alarm bells ringing. Is she just going to abandon me now? Tell me to figure it all out by myself, as part of some fifth test?
“Wait,” I said, moving forward.
“Fear not,” Hortencia cooed. The twins’ steps sped up, even as they continued walking backwards. Can she sense that they’re heading in a direct line for the crater?
“No, I mean, seriously wait! You’re going to fall!”
I lunged to grab the sisters, but by some mysticism, I found myself grasping air instead, even though they were less than a foot in front of me. Then in a sudden jolt, their speed ramped up to a supernatural level and then it was too late. They’d ventured too far. Except they didn’t fall.
My heart leaping into my throat, I skidded to a stop in front of them. Through the thick smog, I glimpsed the soles of their feet virtually a centimeter from the edge. All it would take to make them lose balance was a strong gust of wind, yet still they remained facing me, their backs to the sweltering crater.
Before I could utter a word, Hortencia rummaged in her robe pocket and withdrew a round metal pendant. She reached out and pressed it into my hands.
“Keep this,” she wheezed amidst the smoke.
As she withdrew her hand, her clothes vanished from her body, rendering her as stark naked as her sister. Then the two, holding hands, whispered in unison like a chant, “Together we came, together we go. Just you and I, sisters both.”
They turned to face one another, their arms wound around each other’s waists, their forms locking together with disturbing symmetry. The next thing I knew, they’d released their balance on the edge and were falling. Falling. Falling. I peered over the edge just in time to glimpse their tightly bound forms making contact with the molten lava. And then they were gone.
The last thing I’d been expecting was for the oracles to kill themselves. Taking themselves out of the picture to not only keep me alive, but also prevent more disaster in the human world—which the fae had promised to cause if we failed—it was selfless.