Life in the Moonlit residence is a hard but fulfilling one. On the days when Meta isn’t helping Eve in the garden, she’s out gathering supplies with Adam in the forest. The three of them take turns taking care of the children, and though the twins remain particularly attached to their birth mother, Adam and Eve take pleasure nonetheless in Hansel’s silly babbling and Gretel’s mischievous antics.
And at the end of the day, when all three of them are tired but happy, Adam, Eve, and Meta retire to their shared bed and share stories and songs before drifting peacefully off to sleep.
With Meta around, the darkness in Eve’s heart grows fainter and fainter with each passing day.
With Meta around, the darkness of Adam’s past fades further and further with each passing day.
With Meta around, the days seem to go by faster and fuller and everything is perfect, or as close to perfect as things can be.
But for Meta herself, the shadows in her heart and the shadows of her past seem to call out louder and stronger with each passing day, berating her for not doing her duty. Spread “evil”. Destroy the gods, and everything related to them. Rip, tear, kill—
Meta opens her eyes with a jolt, barely escaping from the claws and fangs of her nightmares. Well. Another sleepless night for her, then.
Beside her, Adam mumbles something incoherent in a voice muffled by sleep. Eve, with eyes still shut, reaches over with a wandering hand, one that Meta carefully brushes off with more than a little guilt.
Raising herself upright, Meta stares at nothing until her vision swims into focus on the crib holding her sleeping children, framed by the gentle moonlight streaming through the windows. The sight puts a smile to her lips, though even that small reprieve is taken away from her by HER call, like poison in her blood.
She needs something.
Her gaze drops to the two other people still adrift in repose. Adam and Eve, limbs tangled around each other in a perfect fit. Like gears in clockwork doll.
She needs a distraction.
Even in slumber, they look… beautiful. Meta remembers Adam’s strong hands and Eve’s soft touch, back when they rescued her. She remembers Adam’s voice, warm, sweet. Like honey, or the embers of a crackling fire. She remembers Eve’s lips, soft, pale pink. Curled into a teasing pout, enticing.
Meta remembers their warmth in disconnected memories of chaste kisses, affectionate embraces, feather-light touches that promise more, more, more… and it’s not like Adam or Eve would begrudge her that, right? Surely of all people, they would understand her loneliness, her wanting comfort, her desire for pleasure—
Meta gasps, pulling away her reaching hands like they’ve been burned. What… what was she about to…?
“I need to get out of here,” Meta whispers, more to herself than anything, and pushes herself out of bed, careful not to nudge the other two or make any sudden noises that would wake them. Taking her cloak— one deep red in colour, lovingly handmade by Eve, since her old hood had been torn apart during that strange incident in the forest— and pulling it over her head, Meta leaves the cottage with nary a look spared behind her.
The forest is dark, as dark as that night or even darker still. Meta lets her feet take her where they may, too focused on her thoughts and fighting against HER call in her blood. She starts to regret it, her hasty decision to escape into the night, the cold and the dark and the shadows pitting themselves against her defences, wearing down her mental walls.
“I should’ve stayed,” Meta says to thin air, blood burning in her veins. “They’d understand. Right? Adam would… Eve would… they love me… they’d let me… I should’ve…”
Images flood her mind, unbidden. The three of them curled around each other in a fit of passion. Adam’s strong hands and Eve’s soft touch. Adam’s voice. Eve’s lips. The three of them, limbs tangled around each other in a perfect fit. Like gears in a clockwork doll. Adam and Eve, catering to her every whim, her every desire. A dance of passion. Like flowers wrapped around a sword, dripping with venom and liquid passion on a lunatic moonlit night.
Spurred on by the suffocating cold around her, the fire in her mind’s eye burns higher and higher into a raging inferno of want, need, lust, more, more, more—
Something interrupts her rapidly spiralling thoughts and lifts the hazy curtain of desire from her mind.
Meta blinks, raising her eyes from where they were staring at nothing in particular. The sound of a soft burbling, a white noise clears away the shadows in her mind like mud washed away by drizzling rain. She strains her ears to listen to the sound, makes a move to follow the noise, and soon enough she comes across a…
A spring. A gentle, burbling brook, its waters flowing on by across the forest floor. The white noise of its bubbling waters greets her with a welcome, and an unspoken question of concern.
The moon’s reflection wavers on the surface of the bubbling brook, a downturned crescent eye that regards her with concern. The spring burbles invitingly, piercing the shadows in her mind and washing away the lust bleeding purple into her blood and bones.
After a moment or two of hesitation, Meta kneels by the spring, cupping her hands and splashing some onto her face. The cold feels good on her heated skin, a different, refreshing cold compared to the frigid, suffocating cold of before.
Purifying, the word to describe it.
She stays there for a little while longer, gathering her scattered thoughts and gratefully enjoying the absence of the burning in her blood and the shadows in her mind, even if temporary, before getting up and preparing to return home.
“Thank you.” She smiles to her reflection in the spring. “I needed that.”
That’s right. Just because she feels lonely and cold, doesn’t mean she should indulge in heat. The temptation to do so is strong, but that just means she has to be stronger. Stronger than the shadows in her mind and stronger than her burning blood and stronger than her call. HER call.
As she turns back to face the forest path, the spring burbles behind her in a silent farewell and voiceless good wishes.
Meta makes her way back through the winding paths of the forest, back to the place she belongs, back to the house with the warm fireplace, back to the home where two people wait for her return with worry and love and open arms.
A strong wind blows through the forest, rustling the leaves.
Magic is a wonderful thing. But in the wrong hands, it can become something terrifying. This is something Meta knows more than anyone, maybe everyone… save perhaps Eve.
Even as far back as her earliest memories, blurry and indistinct and mostly of a certain bespectacled scientist she hopes she won’t ever have to meet again, Meta remembers the thrum of magic around her, the feeling of it at her fingertips.
The exhilarating power it gave her, still gives her even now.
The destruction and havoc it can wreak.
Certain people are more attuned to certain types of magic compared to the rest. Meta knows, because hers— her magic, her affinity, HER— is shadow. When she wills it, shadows come to life. When she takes hold of the latent magic in the air around her and pulls, her own shadow comes to life and takes a mind of its own.
A power she’s used many times before to wreak havoc and destruction.
When she’s surrounded by shadows in the dark of night, when the moon and stars take solace behind a curtain of clouds, when she takes hold of the latent magic in the air around her and pulls, the shadows of night and the shadows in her mind’s eye take the form and shape of eyes, hands, gaping maws that reach and grab and pull, rip, tear, eat, eat, eat—
The air around her crackles with the scent of ozone, which her magic and her burning blood and HER call violently reacts to, pushing against the barrier of her bones, flesh, skin, straining to escape her body.
“Meta,” Eve’s voice cuts in, measured and careful. “I need you to open your eyes, please. Slowly… don’t let go, yet.”
So Meta does, her eyes fluttering open by degrees.
The wind picks up, howling and moaning through the trees.
In front of her, Eve stands, hands held out towards Meta, fingers splayed. Tendrils of shadow wrap around Eve’s legs, wandering appendages that rise and fall like ocean waves, reaching up and over to swallow Eve whole, but Adam’s there too, sweating and panting with the effort to protect his wife from the liquid darkness, cutting down the ones that grow too big like invasive weeds or come too close to Eve’s head for his liking.
“Meta,” Eve repeats, strained. “Can you hear me?”
Yes, Meta wants to answer, but only then does she realize that it’s her who has been swallowed whole by her own shadow, trapped in a cage of shifting black. The shadows laugh, having burst free of their confines and free to control her body like a puppet on strings.
But there is a faint outline of green-blue around the grey-black, a barrier of magic, of divine lightning that repels and drives back the liquid darkness, keeping it from truly engulfing her whole.
“It’s getting worse!” Adam shouts, bringing the blade of his axe down on a particularly bulbous mass of darkness that had somehow grown razor-sharp teeth. “Eve, the magic’s overwhelming her! We need to do something before it—!”
“I KNOW!” Eve screams, casting a worried glance over her shoulder at her husband. “But I’m worried that I’ll hit Meta if I use my lightning magic! It’s too dark, we’re surrounded by shadows, so keeping her contained is all I can do for now!”
Meta feels her hands twitching, her fingers flexing, her mouth watering with a rotten, rampant, ravenous gluttony echoed by the roaring of HER call in her blood.
A roaring mirrored by the tempestuous wind, cutting like blades through the trees.
“Meta, please!” Adam calls out, pulling his axe through a blob of black with a sound like tearing gristle. “You need to control it! Don’t let it consume you!”
But it’s not consuming her.
If anything, the hunger is nothing but an extension of her, her, HER. That gluttony is all she is, all that is to her. It’s HER. From the very beginning to the final end. It’s all she is, and all she will be.
She’s hungry. She’s so, so hungry. And her mind’s eye is filled with the images of fruits, rotten and red, the seeds leaking viscous rusty red into a red, bloodstained wineglass.
Her mouth waters.
Her thoughts spiral out of control.
“Hansel, Gretel, get back!”
Adam’s voice startles her, slightly clearing away the shifting greys from her eyes. Meta jolts, seeing through the liquid darkness that had nearly eaten her alive.
The wind slows down.
Hansel and Gretel, huddled around Eve’s legs, barely up to her knees. Blue eyes wide and crazed, small hands tugging on the skirts of Eve’s dress. Their two shadows taking shape, joining Meta’s own tangled mass of liquid darkness.
“What are you doing? What’s wrong with Mama?” Hansel cries, pounding on Eve’s legs.
“Stop hurting her! Let go of Mama! Let her goooo!” Gretel shrieks, clawing at Eve’s dress.
Eve screams again, wild-eyed. Adam tries to grab onto the children, to pull them back, but the shadows ferociously snap at his hands, as if daring him to come any closer.
Meta feels their fear, can almost taste their despair. And the twins, fuelled by the raging tempest of emotions, continue to lash out with their own shadows, the liquid darkness crawling and seeping through the forest floor like a wave of rot and decay.
The wind drops to a gentle breeze, whispering in her ears.
Meta blinks, the black ichor in her eyes dripping away with each tear that escapes. With a grunt of pain, she curls her splayed fingers into fists, pulling in the shadows bit by bit by bit. Slowly, the monochrome filtering her vision lifts like a curtain of fog, returning colour to the world.
In unison, Hansel and Gretel let out a screech, scurrying over to her and latching onto her skirts. The darkness shrinks further at their touch, dissipating and trailing away like wisps of smoke, absorbed into the twins’ own shadows that have returned to normal proportions.
Letting out a shuddering gasp, Eve lets her arms fall to her sides, trembling violently. Adam reaches over, encircling her in a tight embrace. After a moment, the two collapse to the ground, breaths laboured and bodies fatigued.
Meta herself drops to her knees, hugging her two children close, shedding silent tears. For a long while, who knows how long, the five of them stay like that, letting the tension bleed out of the air.
“—Meta? Are you alright?” Adam’s voice, laced with concern, brings her out of her reverie. “We were so worried, when you ran out of the house…”
Meta forces herself to look up, and immediately regrets it. The look of anxious worry on Adam and Eve’s faces brings another bout of fresh tears to her eyes. Sobbing, Meta repeatedly passes the back of her hands over her eyes, trying to wipe away the trailing wetness.
“I— I’m sorry, I’m so— I nearly— almost killed,” she manages to say, voice hoarse. “I almost— let it, let HER— take control— I almost killed Eve—!”
“But you didn’t!” Eve rasps, reaching out to clasp Meta’s hands in her own. “You didn’t let HER take control, Meta. You managed to restrain your magic, even when it wanted out. I saw, when it…” she falters, closing her eyes in grief and recollection, “When it almost consumed you. Meta, I was so scared. But you did it. You controlled HER, even if a little bit.”
Meta stares at them, wide eyes glittery with tears. Adam’s reassuring smile, Eve’s warm gaze. Her vision blurs again. Adam and Eve share a look, before enfolding Meta and the twins in a hug.
“I know it’s not easy,” Adam says, rubbing comforting circles on Meta’s heaving back. “But you can— you will get through this. We’ll always be here to help, promise.”
“And, what you did just now— the way you reined in your magic,” Eve adds, nuzzling her face in the crook of Meta’s neck. “Your inner strength. I’m proud of you. Now,”
“Let’s go home.”
It’s Meta’s turn to travel to the nearest town for supplies, despite Adam and Eve’s assurances that she doesn’t need to do so. Meta knows that she has to learn how to reintegrate into society, and it’s best to start with someplace small, like the neighbouring town.
She stands at the doorstep, carrying a covered basket full of bottles of jam and bunches of herbs. Adam and Eve fret over her, smoothing down her cloak and readjusting her hood, checking and rechecking to make sure that her disguise is good enough to hide her identity from prying eyes.
“I can’t believe Mama’s going without us,” Gretel whines, clutching at Meta’s skirts.
“I don’t want Mama to leave,” Hansel pouts, blue eyes glimmering with tears.
Laughing, Meta gently brushes off Adam and Eve’s hands, kneeling down to look her children in the eye.
“I’m just going for a little while, and it’s safer for you two to say here,” she says, ruffling Hansel’s and then Gretel’s hair with affection. “Besides, you two have to take care of Daddy and Mommy and each other for me, okay?”
“Okay…” smiling, Hansel nods with understanding. “I’ll protect Daddy, Mommy, and Gretel for Mama.”
Gretel, however, stamps her foot and crosses her arms, a sullen look on her face. “I don’t care about Daddy or Mommy,” she huffs, “I only care about Mama and Hansel!”
“Gretel! Don’t say things like that,” Meta chides, placing a hand on Gretel’s shoulder. “Daddy and Mommy are both important to me, just like you and Hansel. Be nice!”
“It’s alright, Meta.” Eve smiles, a little bit sadly. “I’m fine.”
Meta purses her lips, her expression thoughtful. Then, seemingly making her mind up, she leans over to give Hansel and Gretel a quick kiss on the forehead each, the twins giggling at her touch. Getting to her feet, Meta pulls Adam in to give him a kiss on the cheek, then repeats it for Eve as well, lingering a few moments longer to brush her thumb over Eve’s lips.
“Stay safe, alright?” Meta tells them, drawing her hood down and turning around, departing from the warmth of the cottage for the forest.
“Safe travels, Meta!” Adam calls out, waving her goodbye. The twins echo his words, energetically bouncing up and down. Eve watches her go, her lips slightly open as she brushes her own fingertips across them, a blush rising to her face.
With the map that Adam had made for her, Meta easily traverses the many winding forest paths until she comes across the small town that is her destination in just a short amount of time. Gathering her cloak around her, Meta trades and barters with the various merchants in the market, careful to avoid the nosier ones and replying to prying questions with measured, vague answers when she can.
When she’s managed to trade away most of her basket’s contents for bread and cloth and other necessities, Meta decides to take a short break, sitting down at a public bench and resting her basket on her lap.
Closing her eyes and enjoying the bustling environment of the town around her, Meta feels more than hears someone taking a seat beside her, the sudden warmth indicating that the person had settled down quite close despite there being plenty of space on the bench.
“Um, uh, excuse me…” says a quiet voice, almost a whisper, obviously belonging to the stranger beside her. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but… are you… could you possibly be… Meta Salmhofer?”
Meta’s heart skips a beat, her eyes flying wide open as panic floods her chest and fear squeezes at her throat. Her knuckles go white, her grip tightening on the basket’s handle, nearly splintering the rattan under her fingers. She turns her head to glare at the stranger, her destructive instincts barely kept in check as the shadows by her feet suddenly become darker than dark, a featureless void that seems to suck up all the light.
“Sorry, sorry!” the stranger hurriedly apologises in hushed tones, miming pulling a zipper shut over their mouth. “I forgot about your… current situation. I won’t mention your name again, promise.”
The two stare at each other for a moment, before the tension slowly drains from Meta’s shoulders, convinced by the sincerity in the stranger’s tone. She takes in the stranger’s appearance— a young boy, with hair as white as snow and eyes as red as the single red flower tucked behind an ear.
The sight of the flower suddenly makes her heart surge with… pride. Meta unconsciously smiles as memories— of her days as a witch, a terrorist, Apocalypse’s fourth member— resurface in her mind’s eye.
“You were the Witch of Red Flowers, right?” The young boy asks, plucking the flower from his hair and twisting it between his fingers. “My mother looked up to you, though I didn’t understand why. I still don’t, really…”
Her heart sings with pride and her ego swells, the smile on her lips curling into a wide smirk. HER whispers echo with purpose in her empty thoughts. Meta stares at the red flower in the stranger’s hands, mesmerized. Spellbound.
“Mother said that… you were her best friend, that you taught her all the things she knew. About magic, and how the world really works. How the strong dominates the weak,” the stranger continues, cupping a hand around the delicate blossom. “Mother thought the world of you…”
Something about the boy’s words feel off, but that rational part of Meta’s mind goes unnoticed as the rest of it enjoys the praise lavished upon her. She nods her head, her burning blood pounding in her ears and her eyes full of the recollection of rip, tear, kill, red, red, red—
“Mother died because of you, that day.”
The boy abruptly closes his hand into a fist, crushing the petals beneath. He glares up at Meta with wide, wild eyes, searching for— an answer, a reason, something. The memories relived in her mind’s eye shatter like a mirror, spreading shards of reflective glass. Even the shadows in her mind shudder at the boy’s intense gaze, relinquishing its hold on Meta and retreating behind her rational thoughts, understanding slowly dawning as she regains control.
“You…” Meta whispers, bringing a hand up to cover her mouth in her shock, “You’re… Raisa’s…?”
“Cagliostro.” The boy hisses, narrowing his blood red eyes. “My name is Cagliostro Netsuma, you witch! How could you let her die? What gave you the right? Why did the gods let you live, while my mother—?!”
Guilt lances through her like a knife through the heart. Meta’s eyes prickle with hot tears, her basket put aside as she takes Cagliostro’s trembling hands in her own. Cagliostro, to his credit, doesn’t immediately pull away, instead glaring at Meta with red eyes full of hate.
“Your mother, she was… my best friend, in Apocalypse. She helped me through a lot, back then,” Meta explains, humbly ducking her head as she sifts through her memories for Raisa’s face. “Truth be told, I think… we were… both terrible people, at heart. But I definitely had a hand in leading her down that path. And I truly regret it. I regret everything I did to her, everything I was to her. I failed to protect her, from myself above all.”
“I still hate you,” Cagliostro seethes, but the boiling malice in his voice has cooled down to a subdued simmer. “I still wish that you had died that day, instead of mother.”
Meta smiles. “Sometimes, I think that myself,” she responds, bringing a hand to her chest. “But there’s nothing I can do; we can’t bring back the dead. I don’t,” here she falters, taking in a shuddering breath, “I don’t deserve to ask your forgiveness, so I won’t. If you wish to— to punish me in some way, then, I… I’ll accept it.”
Startled, but still unable to let go of his anger, Cagliostro surges forward, pulling at the fabric of Meta’s cloak until the both of them are face-to-face, his hot breath on her cheek.
“What if I want you dead?”
“Th-then,” Meta stutters, her eyes fluttering shut. “Allow me… one more day? Let me return home, and I’ll… I’ll meet you here, tomorrow, I promise. You can… avenge your mother, then.”
The two stare at each other for a few tense moments, before Cagliostro sighs, releasing his grip on Meta’s cloak. Meta settles back, smoothing down her clothes and readjusting her hood, then looks at the young Netsuma boy again, her expression sorrowful.
“Even if I kill you, there’s no point,” Cagliostro admits, shaking his head. “Like you said, we can’t bring back the dead. And I don’t think mother would be proud of me for murdering her best friend.” Here, he allows himself a small, sardonic smile. “You’ve changed, Witch of Red Flowers. You’re so different from what I expected, from the tales mother used to regale me of you. Tell me— why the change of heart?”
Meta averts her eyes from his, a lump forming in her throat at the pleading tone in his voice. Then, squaring her shoulders, she gazes at him with a gentle smile.
“I… I’ve found someone, two people, who, despite all my shortcomings, all my sins, rescued me, took me in, accepted all of me, gave me a second chance,” she recounts, her voice growing warm at the memory of Adam and Eve. “They, along with my children, bring me such joy… all of them are so dear to me. I want to protect them, at any and all costs.”
“They must be very important to you,” Cagliostro says, closing his eyes. “Fine. I have one last question for you. Answer me this: was my mother that important to you as well?”
“Yes,” Meta answers immediately, surprising even herself. “Yes, she was. More… much more than I cared to admit to her, back then.”
Abruptly, Cagliostro stands, the crushed flower fluttering to his feet. Bending down to pick it up, he presents it to Meta with an unreadable look on his face. Meta accepts it, gazes at the red petals, thankful. She slips the stem behind her ear.
“I wish you well in your new life,” Cagliostro says in a controlled, neutral tone, giving Meta a nod of acknowledgement. “Thank you for allowing me to find closure. I won’t seek you out after this. Just, promise me this? Remember my mother… remember that she lived.”
“Of course,” Meta replies, getting to her feet and giving Cagliostro a grateful bow. “I’ll always keep her in my heart; may her soul rest in peace and find salvation.”
The boy bites his lip, chewing on both it and his next words. Inhaling deeply, he draws himself up to his full height, looking up at Meta with determination.
“Promise me that, from now on, you’ll protect the ones that you love, no matter what…?”
“—Of course. I will, with my life. I won't fail again.”
Without another word, Cagliostro turns on his heel, walking away into the crowd. Meta gazes at his retreating back, before shaking her head and sighing, preparing to make a journey of her own.
To return to her home.