Lostvox was almost defeated.
He had gone straight to her cell, of course, as soon as he’d heard. Hours and hours he had spent there, trying in vain to snap her out of it. The banter and the jokes, the reminiscences, the encouragement—that had been so hard to force out, seeing Tree tied up like this, the mad glint in her eye, hissing and spitting and fighting to break free.
Worst were the times when the Warden lost control, when Tree seemed to come back for a split second—and then was gone. Each time, his heart soared, and each time, when the crazed Warden returned, it plummeted and smashed on the hard, unrelenting earth.
But still he kept on, for Tree was his friend, his dearest friend, and never in any life could he bear to lose her.
The steady stream of murmured encouragement was running dry, now, in the dark hours of the night. The rebels had kept a near-silent vigil since the sun had set—near-silent but for Vox’s constant voice, trying and trying in vain. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hold back the tears, as he whispered, “You’re so close, Tree. I’m here, bud. Just keep fighting. Keep fighting. The Warden has no power over you. We’re all here to help you—just break free.”
And then his head snapped up against his will as he heard Tree’s soft, hoarse voice whisper back, “…Lostvox?”
He couldn’t keep his eyes from widening. That was the first time she had said his name! Please, please, please, he thought, numb to Brooke’s excited yell and rush of movement as she dashed to Tree’s side.
“Yes,” Vox said, hardly daring to believe it, “yes, bud, that’s it! Tree! I’m so glad to see you. So, so glad.” He dashed the tears from his eyes. “Are you okay?” he asked in an urgent tone. “Are you hurt?”
“I…I think so…oh gods, my head.” She pressed her hands to her temples. “Vox…vox, why am I all tied up?”
A relieved, sobbing laugh came from the edge of the cell. “He did it!” Akkey whooped. “The man did it!”
“It’s over?” Alpha asked in a hushed tone. “Lostvox broke the curse?”
Vox didn’t hear any of it through the pounding in his ears, the salty tears streaming down his cheeks. “Untie her, m- my King,” he managed, etiquette forgotten in the joy of Tree’s return. “We’re safe. The Warden’s gone, I can sense it.”
“I… I…” The king shook his head slowly. “How can you be sure the Warden is permanently gone?”
"I need you to believe me,” Vox was saying, the words spewing from his mouth before he had a chance to think about it. “Please. We need Tree on our side to end this, and she’s no good tied to a wall.”
Then arrived, with an insistent flapping of wings, a Terrible Terror demanding Haddock’s immediate attention. He unrolled the letter, scanning it quickly, and scribbled a hasty reply. The messenger dragon was back almost immediately, and this time, the king took only a cursory glance at the message—”But…I am sorry, my king, but…if this is a ploy, and if it cannot be avoided…would you risk having to kill a friend?”—before tossing it away in disgust and turning back to the gathered soldiers.
“Sire!” came Akkey’s voice from outside. “For some reason, the Changewings stopped attacking!”
“Odin’s soiled underpants and the gods of…” the king muttered, ignoring Vox’s continued string of protests. He unconsciously fingered the hilt of his sword.
“Enough!” yelled Haddock over the chaos.
The room fell silent.
He swore under his breath. “I will unlock her myself.”
Vox sobbed in relief as, with a sharp click…the manacles snapped open.
And then Tree was collapsing into his arms, their hot tears mingling, her head buried in his shoulder and his knee digging into her stomach and they fell to their knees, with Vox whispering in a choked, tearful voice, “It’s okay, he can’t hurt you now…I’m here, Tree…you’re my best friend. Don’t ever forget that. You’re my best friend, and I’ll never let you go. Don’t ever forget that, don’t ever forget that I…I love you, Tree.”
And then she lifted her head to look at him, her face wet with tears, but…but…
There was something wrong with her eyes.
And the second Vox realized it, a horrible dread sank into his stomach, and then she was speaking, and he couldn’t understand what she was saying, and—
And a cold, burning pain ripped through him as he gazed, disbelieving, at his dearest friend, with her claws dug deep into his chest. But no pain could compare to the horrified look that flashed across her face at the last second as she realized what she had done.
He couldn’t feel his body anymore. All he knew was the lingering touch of her hand on his cheek, and her soft, beautiful voice whispering his name. He could hear it now, he realized. He could hear it.
“I’m still here…” he choked out through the blood filling his throat. “Still…here. Just barely…”
And her voice, her tear-choked, sobbing voice, singing to him: “I’ll swim…and sail…on savage seas…”
The blood was coming faster, thicker, and he barely managed, through the deep, hacking coughs, to croak back, “…With ne’er a fear of drowning…”
“And gladly…ride the waves of life…” Her hands. He could feel them, grasping clumsily at his, lending him the strength for three last words…
And then there was nothing.