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For two weeks, the Silent Sisters continued to torture Rowan, trying to break her and for two weeks, they failed. Amran remained strong of mind in the face of adversity as always. With Seres, they had slowly started introducing more and more physical elements to her torment. Fortunately, she had been managing relatively well, all things considered. She had made sure to follow Amran’s advice and it had clearly helped her. Rowan was also glad for the conversation. Anri, however, continued to deteriorate.
Rowan felt like she was failing as a friend as she found herself unable to support Anri in any meaningful way. Their conversations only provided her with some small relief that barely lasted. It was as if that small bit of positivity pushed her enough over a lip of depression to fall down into a deeper pit of despair. She wanted to do more for Anri, but everything else she had went to resisting her own torment at the hands of the torturers.
On the fifteenth day, the schedule changed. The wardens arrived that morning and took Rowan, Anri, Amran and around half of the other prisoners away. The Næmyrans and those that had been tortured the day before were left behind along with a couple of others, including Seres. Rowan hadn’t really considered it before, but with the exception of her first week and the Næmyrans’ first week, there would be days in which the wardens would show up a further two times throughout the day to bring and return a large group of the prisoners much like there were doing that particular day. Rowan hadn’t really paid attention to it because none of the new arrivals were every part of the group.
Now she was in a position where she wished she had thought about it more. The more she thought about it, the more she realised that there were quite a lot of things that she hadn’t considered. Up until then, she had only ever been taken away at noon, but that was only one of three times that people tended to get taken away. They would also take a small group away at the same time that they brought in the meal for that day. Whatever happened to that smaller group would continue to remain a mystery. For now, however, she was about to get a different set of answers to questions she had never thought to ask.
They were taken to a large cavernous chamber lit with crystals of myriad hues, all blending together to give off a soft ambient light. It was by far the largest chamber in the caves that she had seen in the caves, barring the cavern she had arrived in. The chamber had been divided into quadrants with a large amphitheatre in the centre where everyone had been gathered. Almost five hundred prisoners from all throughout the caves had been thrown into the amphitheatre. Rowan could see all the blood that had seeped deeply into the dirt floor of the amphitheatre; it was a combat arena. Her face blanched at the thought of how much blood it would take to stain the dirt so thoroughly.
The wardens started to divide everyone into five equally sized groups. Those in Rowan’s group were kept in the amphitheatre while the others were taken to the four quadrants. As they were directed away, Rowan and the rest of her group were given new clothes and ordered to change. A whip was cracked at the feet of any who refused, which combined with a large detachment of well armed guards watching over the amphitheatre convinced even the most adamant to listen to the command. Rowan, resolute in her defiance, was amongst the last of the prisoners to change. Some, however, didn’t need convincing; well groomed individuals, compared to the other slaves at least, who stood with purpose. The outfits they were forced to change into were little more than sturdy form-fitting vests and a loincloth. Some of the older prisoners had shorts or trousers of a similar construction to the vests instead of the loincloths.
While everyone was changing, a caged weapons rack was brought into the amphitheatre. The weapons confirmed everyone’s growing suspicions that they would be made to fight. A small part of Rowan wanted to encourage everyone to rush the cage. Thankfully, the rest of her crushed the highly suicidal notion before it could gain any traction. Even if she could get every single prisoner in the chamber to take up arms, it would be suicide. The guards were simply too well prepared and focused as well as armed to the teeth. She even discarded the idea of smuggling out a weapon. There was no way they wouldn’t be expecting that.
Before she could think of any other stupid ideas that could get her killed, a large and exceptionally well decorated guard shouted, “Everyone, sit! Today marks yet another step in your paths to becoming weapons for The Good Masters. Those who refuse to fight will suffer great pain, either at the hands of your opponent or by the steel of the guards. Now ready yourselves for the first round of lots.” With every word, his voice radiated throughout the cavern.
It quickly became apparent that the lots the guard mentioned were used to determine everyone’s opponent as well as the nature of the engagement. Rowan’s lot dictated that her first bout would be an unarmed fight against one of the individuals that Rowan was sure was a plant of some kind. He was on the smaller side, but clearly better fed than everyone else. He seemed to be eyeing up one of the girls with a predatory gaze as he took position. Rowan couldn’t help but feel disgusted with her opponent and was concerned for the girl he had looked at. Her face was white with horror. As Rowan and her opponent had experience at the very least, likely honed by their time fighting in the amphitheatre. Rowan knew that he had the advantage, but she hoped her training would outweigh his experience.
In the beginning, Rowan hesitated and was instantly forced on the defensive. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to fight back, even if he was already on the other side, but then she remembered the guard’s words. She didn’t want to suffer any more than she already was. Even so, it wasn’t that that pushed her to fight back. She saw the girl her opponent had looked at give her a pleading look, as if something terrible would happen if he won. Rowan couldn’t let that happen so she started adding in some attacks in between her dodges.
It was an exhausting fight. As it dragged on, Rowan’s lack of any significant sustenance began to take its toll on her. The only thing that was keeping her from being outright defeated was her own training. Thanks to that, she was more skilled than her opponent, but he was surprisingly strong for his size. Every time she went on the offensive, she risked being overwhelmed and pummelled to the ground; a fate she didn’t want to share with those that had come before her. She needed to take a different approach to tip the scales back into her favour before she lost the war of attrition.
Think, Rowan! Think!
She wished she knew more about what she could do with her Ardent powers. Anger was out. Every time she drew on the heat of anger she grew tired even quicker. She didn’t really remember the day she Awakened well enough to even attempt to parse what was doing what. Then something clicked, a memory from before she had Awakened. The risk of what she was doing had always helped with her reactions and in training her muscle memory. That was the answer.
Rowan dropped all pretences of a defence and faced him almost face on with her hands down by her sides. It worked better than it probably should have as it also incited his arrogance. He swung heavily at her head and overextended as Rowan danced under his arm. Now facing him from behind, Rowan went to kick his legs from under him. However, in her haste, she kicked with much more force than necessary, causing her to miss her mark and strike the side of his knee instead. What followed was a resounding crack as the foot remained anchored in place and the leg collapsed inwards at the knee.
With the fight won, the overseer of the fight gave Rowan an expectant look, as if to say, “Go on, finish what you started.” Instead Rowan stood still, taking in several deep breaths. The overseer’s expression changed quickly as he held up three fingers and motioned to a guard. A whip cracked into Rowan’s side. Then again. And again. Three times the whip cracked, biting deeply. Winning clearly wasn’t enough, they wanted more, they wanted to forge a viciousness into their weapons.
The cycle of torment continued. Within another two weeks, Rowan had been shown everything that the caves had to offer and already people were starting to fall to the hammer. One of the Næmyrans accepted Lord Fein’s offer almost instantly. Even if Rowan didn’t know the girl, it hit her deeply. She couldn’t blame them especially knowing the pain that the torture would have brought them. Even after a month under the crystalline needles of the Silent Sisters, there was no getting used to it. Even so, it was a loss worth lamenting as much as any other.
Thankfully, they weren’t tortured daily, but the cavern with the amphitheatre offered little respite. She hated being forced into the arena. Yes, she would fight when she needed to, especially against the people that had already fallen or took some perverse enjoyment from the fighting. However, she refused to beat her opponents to a pulp like the wardens seemingly expected, even if it meant that she would be lashed or would suffer more the next day. She felt like doing so would just serve to bring her closer to their ideal. Instead, she intended to use the arena to train up her body and her skills so that one day, she’d be able to fight back against her captors.
Likewise, she intended to fully capitalise on the rest of what the exercise cavern, as she and Seres had dubbed it, had to offer. Granted, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice. None of them did. Any and all failure to comply would result in several lashings at the very least. Fortunately, all the other activities weren’t dependent on fighting others, though Rowan highly suspected that those that performed less well were punished for it. Those suspicions were all but confirmed when Anri was having significant difficulty in following along with some combat training in the plainest of the four quadrants. She cried for an entire day when she was released from the torture that followed.
The exception to the whole thing seemed to be Seres. A few days after the rest of the Næmyrans arrived, they started bringing her torment to the same level as everyone else. However, they rarely brought her to the exercise cavern. Even after a full month of the exercise cavern being in the rotation, she had only ever been there a grand total of three times compared to Rowan’s seven and Anri’s six. At first, Rowan just thought that Seres was being taken while she was being tortured, but Seres had confirmed it herself that she had only been there once when neither Rowan, Amran or Anri had been there to see.
Instead of the exercise cavern, Seres was typically, discounting torture days and rest days, taken at the start of the day. This was by far the smallest of the three main groups that were taken throughout the day. It also had a purpose that Rowan hadn’t expected; teaching. It was such a simple thing and it completely blindsided her. They had a weirdly well functioning school system and Rowan couldn’t understand why. They would sort everyone into groups that actually suited their individual learning styles and then divided them even further down based on their own intellectual abilities and acumen.
She and her friends were given a curriculum centred around combat strategy, tactics, and theory and supplemented by a more general education. They were also given extensive lessons on Særan geography and politics. Beyond that, Rowan wasn’t sure if everyone else was taught similar things, but she was able to form a solid idea of who it was they were supposed to be fighting. It was tough. They were tested ruthlessly at the higher levels and Seres was at the top. For some reason they were more interested in training her mind than they were training her physically.
On one rare afternoon when Seres had been sent to the exercise cavern with everyone else, Rowan was assigned to by far the strangest of the four quadrants. It was a labyrinth of jagged stone which gave it the appearance of a gaping demonic maw or the back of a monstrous leviathan. The objective seemed simple enough; navigate the labyrinth and get to the other side unscathed. Of course, it was anything but simple as it was laden with traps and sharp rocks and you had to get a significant distance from your starting point which was also easier said than done. To make matters worse, everyone was encouraged to make it harder for everyone else and whoever was last would get a number of lashes based on their performance. Everything was a contest designed to forge vicious warriors after all.
In spite of all that, Rowan was actually growing to like it. That is to say, she would have absolutely loved this kind of exercise in any other circumstance. Instead it was tainted by the bitterness of pain and torture. Even so, that wasn’t actually enough to completely sour her enjoyment of it and she was one of the best at it. Granted she had the unfair advantage of having already Awakened, but she wasn’t the only one, though she was one of the few that hadn’t been broken. From what Rowan could tell, less than one in five of the people that Awakened remained unbroken for any meaningful amount of time. Though one thing that did strike her as odd was that there was at most no more than ten percent of the group that had Awakened. It was as if most of the Awakened were shipped off somewhere else once they were broken.
This time in the labyrinth, something unexpected happened. Running through the jagged maze and narrowly missing a trap, Rowan caught a glimpse of some long brown hair touched with gold.
It couldn’t be.
But, what if it was?
Rowan’s heart was racing. She had put all hopes of seeing Kiriin behind that she hadn’t even considered it a possibility. She hadn’t even bothered looking for her amongst the other prisoners. Yet here she was, convinced by what was probably just a random person. Then she heard two voices cry out from behind a few nearby rocks. It was in the direction that the hair was going. Rowan hurried over to see Seres on her backside and standing in front of her was a girl with long brown hair.
“K-Kiriin?” Rowan asked hesitantly.
The girl started to turn around but all Rowan could hear was Seres. “Owie! Sorry, I didn’t mean to run into you. Oh, hi Rowan. What’s with the face? Do you know this person?”
Before Rowan could say anything, the girl jumped right into her arms and hugged her with tears streaming down the girl’s face.
“Rowan! It is you isn’t it? I’m not hallucinating, am I? I’ve missed you so much.” Rowan had her answer, and as she hugged Kiriin back, Kiriin had hers.
“I’m so lost,” Seres said, still on the ground and looking at the two childhood friends.
“Sorry, Seres. Um, this is Kiriin. We grew up together and we were kind of…”
“In love,” Kiriin interrupted with a melancholic laugh.
“That’s great,” Seres responded. “Hello, I’m Seres. I arrived at the same time as Rowan.”
“Seres?” Kiriin asked, a few cogs turning in her head. “As in Lanafae?”
“I knew it. You’re the princess, aren’t you? You’re the reason why the raiders are pulling out.”
“I don’t think this is the time for this conversation, Kiriin.”
“What do you mean, Rowan? Also, since when did the second princess look like she could be related to you? I swear it would only take some Ferran ears for the two of you to look like you could be sisters. If I didn’t…”
“Kiriin!” Rowan interrupted her very excited friend. “If we don’t get out now, they’re going to punish us real bad.”
Seres’ ears drooped at the mention of punishment and a look of realisation crossed Kiriin’s face. “Oh,” she said once she understood what Rowan was saying.
“Rowan’s right. I don’t want to ruin your reunion, but can we talk later?”
After acknowledging the truth of the matter, the three girls parted ways and rushed to find their respective exits. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been quick enough and they each received thirteen lashes. After that, they sought each other out again to finish their reunion with Seres acting as sort of a fifth wheel. Fortunately, she was significantly more wanted than a fifth wheel usually would be.
Seres was crying as they sat down and she was cradling the end of her tail in her hands. “They got my tail,” she sobbed. It was fairly common knowledge the Ferran tails housed a surprising number of nerves and Seres’ was clearly bleeding from where the whip had cut into it.
“I could stab those bastards,” Rowan growled.
“Is it always this bad?” Kiriin winced.
“Worse,” Rowan spat.
“They’ve never lashed me before,” Seres cried.
“I’m sorry, it was my fault,” Kiriin apologised.
“No, I should have realised this would have happened. I’m the one with the experience. Can you forgive me, Seres?”
“You don’t need to apologise,” Seres sniffed in response. Rowan gave her a gentle hug.
“You two really do look like sisters. Is Tehri okay? I haven’t seen her.”
“I helped her escape. They were going to kill her and then I Awakened. I’m an Ardent, Kiriin. I couldn’t let them hurt her, so I killed them.”
“Oh, Rowan, I’m so sorry.”
“I’d do it again and again if I had to. I just hope she’s safe.”
“I’m sure she is,” Seres said.
“What about Kyr? Is he here?”
“He was. We were being sorted out in that chamber when we arrived. He was examined just before I was. They said he had no worthwhile Potential so that man, Fein, said that he would be shipped off to the Ru’eni or something.”
“That makes no sense. Surely they would have found some use for him? It’s not like he’s useless or anything.”
“Why are you getting upset about your friend not being turned into a slave?”
“Because he’s just going to be enslaved in another part of the continent and because now I won’t be able to break him out when I’m strong enough.”
“You aren’t seriously planning on breaking out are you?”
“Along with you, Seres, Anri, Amran and anyone else I can.”
“That’s a goal I can aspire to,” Kiriin responded.
“Me too,” Seres added quietly.
“Have you been holding up okay?”
“Barely. It’s been so difficult without you or Kyr around. I’ve been so lonely, And I miss Mum and. Oh Goddess.”
Rowan hugged Kiriin as she broke down into tears. “It’s okay. Kiriin. I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere.”
Some time later that evening, one of the ‘prisoners’ walked into Lord Fein’s. “Draka reporting in as requested, sir. I believe I have some information about the Ardent girl you asked me to keep an eye on. It has become clear to me that she is close to a Næmyran girl from Cell 5; a human girl with brown hair named Kiriin. It seems likely that if we keep them separated, this Kiriin will quickly fall to your hammer and it will also help in the breaking of the Ardent girl. The warden on duty for the Labyrinth today also overstepped his bounds and had the princess lashed alongside the Næmyran and the Ardent. Thus concludes my report, sir!”
Fein looked up from his desk with a sinister grin. “Thank you very much, Draka. This information will be very useful going forwards. As a reward, find a girl or boy that is to your liking from Cell 13. You can do what you want with them until they break or get shipped out to the Ru’eni Empire.”
“Yessir!” Draka saluted and turned on his heel. When he left, Lord Fein started making notes in journal. He saw an opportunity to fell three birds with one stone.
After being finally reunited with Kiriin, Rowan didn’t see her again for another three weeks and even then it was only at a distance. On that day, the inevitable happened. Rowan had been paired against Anri in the amphitheatre. To make matters worse, they had been armed with knives and it was a fight to first blood. The overseer wouldn’t be satisfied until one or both of them were bleeding. Despite knowing what the wardens and overseer expected, and the consequences for not meeting those expectations, Rowan could not bring herself to act. Anri was similarly frozen, tears rolling down her cheeks. When it was clear they weren’t going to act, the guards moved to strike the two of them with their whips. As Anri was struck, the guard holding the whip seemed to wince as she cried out, whereas Rowan fell to a single knee from the pain when the whip bit into her flesh.
Tears continued to stream down Anri’s face. “Please, just let this end!” she sobbed. “I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!”
Rowan hesitated as she saw Anri’s face contorted from all the pent up pain and torment she was suffering. “Anri, calm down. It’s going to be okay.”
The whips cracked again.
Anri screamed again. “No it isn’t! It’s not going to end, not ever,” she cried before her voice fell to a whisper, “is it?”
“I’m sure it will,” Rowan replied, trying to comfort Anri.
“I-I-I just want to go home,” Anri whimpered.
The guards readied their whips again, pausing only due to sudden motion from Anri as she turned to the wardens and shouted, “If it’s blood you want, you can have it!” Then, as if out of nowhere, she slashed her knife straight across her arm, Rowan looking on in horror.
A crimson tide flowed from the deep gash. Within seconds another gash opened up, alarming the wardens significantly. “Stop her!” one of them shouted, urgency weighing heavily on his voice.
Guards rushed in as another cut opened up on Anri’s arm, and then another. With each new cut, another soon followed, quicker than the last. It wasn’t long until the flow of blood started to spray down on the amphitheatre. Anri looked at her arm with abject horror while Rowan stood mortified as her friend’s arm disintegrated from a thousand cuts propagating through to the shoulder. Rowan saw Anri’s eyes grow unfocused and all of the colour in her skin fade away, first turning white before quickly becoming a sickly grey.
Anri collapsed as the first guard reached her. Seeing the state of her arm, they looked up to the warden and shook their heads. She had lost too much blood and preventing any more loss would be nigh impossible.
Rowan stumbled forwards towards Anri, falling to her knees. Her legs and hands were soon painted red by the pool of blood forming from Anri’s mangled arm.
“Someone do something!” Rowan cried.
“Why? She is beyond saving,” the guard responded.
“No, that cannae be. The cuts have stopped, so there’s gotta be a chance.”
This time the overseer replied, “Even if we could save her, that arm is forfeit. Without it she would make for a most defective weapon. Someone clean this up and inform Lord Fein.”
“Yessir!” several guards saluted simultaneously, before unceremoniously removing Anri’s body.
The overseer then turned back to Rowan, “And you girl, what shall we do with you, this loss is after all clearly due to your failure to act. Had you been the one to make the cut, you would have been victorious and her hate would have lashed back at you. Instead, you let her cut herself and the hate had nowhere to go other than inwards. What a terrible friend you are. We must have you punished. Tell me girl, the Silent Sisters are in charge of your forging, correct?”
“Fuck off you heartless bastard or Goddess help me, I’ll gut you.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Take her away.”
Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone that has boosted Ardent Tears on Top Web Fiction. As of publishing this chapter to the public, we have reached the top 20. If you you can continue to boost me at this link, I will greatly appreciate it. With it also being the start of a new month, I hope some of you will consider supporting me on Patreon. For £5 a month, you can get early access to the next chapter as a chance to vote on upcoming Side Stories.