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Three days had passed since Anri returned to the cell and Rowan was almost entirely healed. It had only been seventeen days since the strange symbol had been carved into her back. Such rapid healing for a wound that large was unfathomable. Rowan originally chalked it up to her Awakening, but the others were healing just as fast, if not faster. Out of the six who underwent the scarring ritual alongside Rowan, only one had fallen to infection. One of the boys had reached the same point as Rowan was now on the eleventh day and another on the thirteenth. It was from them that Rowan knew that the time for her torment was upon her.
At noon that day, the moment she had been waiting for in grim trepidation had finally arrived in the form of wardens carrying chains and manacles. They took her away through the labyrinthine caves. How anyone could navigate them was beyond her. She had only been in the caves a few times and she had either been barely lucid or was going to and from the medical chambers which were relatively nearby. This time, however, Rowan fully took in the sheer scale of the maze-like structure of the caves, lined with a myriad array of crystals which, in a different context, would have been rather beautiful. Instead, Rowan felt all the pain and despair of the caves Resonate from within the crystals.
It’s gotta be a placebo.
There’s no way it’s real.
It cannae be possible.
But maybe it is?
Maybe the crystals are part of the torment?
In that moment, paranoia gripped Rowan and her thoughts began to race. For eleven days she had managed to stop herself from being overwhelmed by fear. In the cell she felt a small sense of security, as if it protected her from being made to suffer any further. She used that superficial shield to hide from the full extent of her grief and terror. The tentative bonds she had formed with her three new friends of circumstance helped with fighting away the crippling loneliness that had been creeping up on her. Now she had been stripped of the security of the cell and the companionship of her friends.
Rowan’s senses exploded from the proverbial slap in the face as the immediacy of the suffering that was about to befall her stripped away all the small deceptions she had wrapped around herself. Every footstep became a deafening cacophony; every glint of a candle as blinding as the sun and every scent a dizzying concoction of soap, perfume, stone, and bodies ranging from sterile cleanliness to putrid sweat.
As Rowan’s senses pummelled her mind with a thousand sensations, she dropped into a ball and clenched her eyes. She also tried to cover her ears, though the chains that bound her wrists made it so that she practically had to choke herself to reach them.
“Move!” a bellowing voice demanded from behind her as someone grabbed her by the shirt and jerked her back to her feet. Pain rippled from where the coarse fabric dug into her flesh.
Oh gods, it hurts!
Never before had Rowan experienced this level of sensory overload and it terrified her even more. That fear served only to further amplify her senses.
“I said move!” the voice bellowed again, followed this time by someone pushing her forwards. Rowan fell to the ground, once again setting her nerves on fire with pain as she cried out in agony.
Someone. Please. Help me.
“Hah,” one of the guards laughed, “If she’s like this on her first day, she’ll be broken in in no time.”
“Assuming someone this weak-willed will be of any use to the boss,” replied another guard.
Amidst the overly loud exchange between the guards and wardens, a whisper reached Rowan. She only managed to catch the odd fragment in between the small breaks in conversation.
“…I’m here with you.”
The whisper came again, this time a full sentence. The voice was strange, yet weirdly familiar. It was that of a young girl, who sounded like she was a similar age to Rowan. Furthermore, she spoke in Midiiran and used the same accent that Rowan had inherited from her mother. Rowan tried to find the source of the voice to no avail.
“I’ve always been with you.”
Rowan hadn’t realised beforehand, but unlike every other sound, the voice wasn’t deafening and it had no direction. The voice was in her head. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was within her very soul.
“Be strong, sister.”
It didn’t seem possible. There was no way Rowan’s sister was speaking to her. It wasn’t Tehri; the voice was wrong, which meant it had to be Rina. But that made absolutely no sense. Rina was dead.
Why does it being Rina make less sense than Tehri?
Rowan’s mind was racing with thoughts and a cacophony of pain as she tried to make sense of it all. She tried talking to the voice in her soul to no avail. It was too distant. Try as she might, Rina couldn’t hear her. Even so, she could still hear the occasional word or even sentence from Rina and it gave her some small token of strength. It was a painful reminder that lifted her heart. Unfortunately, it had once again stopped her in her tracks. She couldn’t tell what happened first; the guard in front of her pulling on her chains or the one behind pushing her.
Rowan let out a silent, yet audible cry. She was pulled into a room and Rina said some last words of comfort before falling silent. The guards started stripping her much like she had been when the man, who she believed to be an Al’duur, had carved the symbol into her back. Once she was deprived of almost all of her clothes, the guards left her in the company of three grim figures. A man stood before her, dressed in fine clothing of a deep azure blue. Rowan recognised him from the day she arrived. He had been there when they were sorted into groups. This time, however, he was flanked by two women wearing dark, blood red robes.
Rowan quickly turned away, trying to hide her body. There was no one else in the room other than herself, the man, and his attendants. She wanted to run, but her hands and feet were still bound. And even if they weren’t, it would be a futile endeavour. With her fear enhanced senses, she could hear a significant amount of activity in the caves beyond and that was all before considering that she still had no idea how to navigate the caves.
This is wrong.
“Hello there, little lady,” the well-dressed man said from behind her, his voice possessing a quality as genteel as his appearance. “My name is Lord Fein, overseer of this facility. May you grace me with your name?”
Rowan looked over her shoulder at the man. “Can I have my clothes back first?” she asked.
“They shall be returned to you soon enough. However, I would still appreciate your name before we continue to converse.”
“You cannae be serious, acting all polite like that whilst leering at me. I can tell you think I’m beneath you or something.” Rowan tried to bite back with her words, drawing on whatever fragmented emotional strength Rina had given her to keep her fear and despair at bay. The effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that she was still trying to hide her body from the man.
Rowan felt wrong. The man felt wrong. Everything felt wrong.
“While it is true that a great canyon lies between us in terms of status, we should not let that fact leave us bereft of our manners.”
“Last time I checked, it was bad manners to strip someone without their consent.”
Lord Fein seemed to smile smugly as he responded, “We did ask and you did not resist. I must say, this exchange would have been much easier if you had remained docile.”
Rowan didn’t remember being asked, and she certainly didn’t answer. “You’re sick!” she exclaimed, a look of horror painted on her face.
“I prefer to think of myself as more pragmatic. If you don’t give me a name, I cannot offer you any reprieve. Instead I will have to leave you to your fate.”
As Lord Fein continued to speak, he came across as more and more of a monster. Even the sailor Luut with his hollow voice seemed less depraved. If anything, Fein’s courteous and personable demeanour make him all the more monstrous. This man spoke with a silver tongue coated in fool’s gold.
“I-I’m not scared of whatever you plan on doing to me.” Rowan responded with a few quivering notes of hesitation.
“Please, I’ve already heard of your episode in the caves. Fear already seeps through your every pore. Furthermore, instead of facing me, you cower. I can, however, grant you release from that fear.”
“Fine! I’ll tell you, but dinnae expect me to go along with whatever you’re plannin’ to offer me. My name’s Rowan.”
“A beautiful name,” Fein replied. “And, I am merely offering you a way across the canyon that separates you and the other slaves from what some would call freedom. If…”
“Some?” Rowan interrupted. “Sounds like a loose definition. And you call us slaves, yet last time I checked, slaves were made to do gruelling tasks and the like.”
“It is true that that is the path that most slaves follow, we have a different purpose in mind for this operation. If you just agree to work for us, you will be spared all the pain that awaits you.”
“I’d rather die, than work for you,” Rowan spat defiantly.
Though she knew it was likely futile, she coiled her body and tried to launch herself at Lord Fein, hoping to maybe catch him off guard and strangle him. In the blink of an eye, one of the robed women stepped between Rowan and Fein and with blinding speed, drove her leg into Rowan’s ribs, sending her flying across the chamber, and the air quickly escaping her lungs.
“It seems you are set with that response,” Fein responded, brushing some dust off of his shoulder. “A truly regrettable decision.” Fein seemed genuinely disappointed by the fact that Rowan had rejected his offer. “I wish you had declined in a way that did not risk you suffering physical harm. I do hate my future weapons experiencing more pain than is necessary. Alas, it is clear that I must wait to temper your steel. Until then, this room shall be your forge and these fine women shall be your smiths. I leave you in their care.” With that, he turned away and started walking to an exit on the far side of the chamber. When he arrived at the door, he stopped. “One last thing,” he said before making his exit, “try not to fight back. The ladies are trained to combat Ardents and you simply lack the energy to threaten one of them, let alone both of them.”
Still winded, Rowan was dragged by the robed women to a table much like the one she had been strapped into for the scarring ritual. Once Rowan was secured, one of the robed women brought over a tray lined with various crystal spikes and needles while the other started lighting incense around the room. They also had a Light Crystal Array that was not too dissimilar to the one that Rowan owned except that it was attached to a strange device that she didn’t recognise. They placed it in such a way that Rowan would be forced to either look at it or keep her eyes clamped shut. For their final steps of preparation, they gagged Rowan, and then one of them pulled a pair of gloves with a crystalline array sewn into the fabric onto their hands.
Rowan braced herself for the torment that was finally upon her as the Light Crystal Array started to move, creating a disorienting assortment of colours. The light was accompanied by an awful droning sound punctuated by an intermittent and slightly irregular pulse of a low drum. The combination overwhelmed Rowan’s senses and bit into her lingering fear as a cold shard of crystal touched down on the bare flesh of her back between the shoulder blades. The sensation was a lot tamer than she had expected. However, that only served to momentarily lower her guard as needles were stabbed all over the canvas that was her body. The pain that followed was immense; words could not describe the agony she felt in that instant. Even the fear-ridden pain she had suffered earlier could not compare.
The entire time, in the back of her mind, Rowan had wondered why, apart from the scars on their backs, everyone always returned with minimal injuries despite carrying such pain and defeat in their eyes. Now she knew; these monsters had found a way to cause pain without causing any apparent external harm. It just radiated through every inch of her mind, body and soul. And whenever Rowan felt like she was getting even slightly used to the pain, the robed women would tap on a needle causing a burst of pain to emanate from it or they would twist one which would send ripples of shock through her body. When that didn’t work, or even just because, they would change the orientation of crystals and needles to completely change the nature of the pain entirely; from burning to stabbing to freezing.
The needles were only the beginning of the torment. With the different crystals at their disposal, the women were able to cause Rowan to suffer in uncountable ways. They were able to enhance her feelings of hunger and make her feel absolutely ravenous or her sensitivity to temperature, making her painfully aware of the bone-chillingly cold air of the chamber. They could strip away any and all of her strengths; going from agonising pain to feeling lethargic and sickly. It was as if they were trying to say, “With these crystals, we are the masters of your body,” and they did it all in complete silence, the only sound being Rowan’s cries and the ever present droning.
As Rowan’s torture continued, time became meaningless to her. The droning, pain and lights all weighed down heavily on her, trying to eat away at her will. Nothing could have prepared her for this horror.
This is too much. I-I cannae do it. I cannae…
I cannae give up!
Rowan understood now. Almost painfully so. She understood why people would be tempted by Lord Fein’s offer; why they would want to escape this pain. She knew that if she wasn’t careful that she would also be tempted to do the same. However, she dared not let it come to that. She had made a promise to Tehri that she would return to her and Rowan refused to break that promise.
We’ve lost too much. I will not let us lose each other as well.
Amidst all the pain, Rowan tried to think. Her torturers made sure she had not a single moment of relief and focusing on anything other than her torment was nigh impossible. How could she overcome this pain? Amran had his ways, but he had already said how such methods wouldn’t work for an Ardent. He had mentioned how she leaked emotional intensity. Perhaps that intensity was the answer. ‘Overwhelm the torment and pain with even stronger feelings.’ Rowan drew on all of the emotional strength she could muster to remember anything she could to awaken any feeling that the women weren’t trying to carve into her being, be it joy, love, or even sadness.
If this is to be my forge then so be it. Let ‘em forge me into the weapon that’ll destroy them.
Rowan was exhausted when it was finally over; they had to drag her back to the cell. It had taken everything she could muster to fight the pain and overwhelm it with even stronger feelings. She protected herself by turning her mind and soul into a maelstrom of emotion. In her enervated state, she collapsed onto a cot, her eyes too heavy to see the new arrivals.
The cell was dark when Rowan woke up several hours later. She tried to find her friends. It didn’t take long to find Amran as he slept against the far wall. Anri and Seres, however, were nowhere to be seen.
I was gone for too long. They’re already gone. I just hope they’re okay. Please don’t make them go through what I just did. I dunno if they can handle it.
There wasn’t much that Rowan could do for the two girls now, at least not until they returned; if they returned. Rowan wasn’t sure which would be the better option. Out of the two of them, Rowan was most fearful for Anri. She had already suffered greatly and it would be so easy for her to accept the offer. Perhaps then she wouldn’t need to suffer. But it would also mean joining them and fighting in whatever war they were planning. Or perhaps the end goal was even more nefarious. After all, Lord Fein’s words were far too honeyed to not be dripping with a sweet and seductive poison. Even if he was genuine in his lament of the suffering of ‘his’ slaves, it was impossible to deny that suffering was at the core of this operation and it went much deeper than the suffering of said slaves. Everyone involved would suffer, be it the slaves, their families or the people that they would be wielded against. Rowan just prayed that the operation would ultimately fail before it was too late and that everyone would gain their freedom.
As for Seres, Rowan hoped that her identity would hold them back. Whatever they had planned would probably be hindered greatly if they used an actual princess. Rowan was sure that Seres’ capture had been a massive mistake on the part of the raiders. On the other hand, it might not even matter. It all depended on who the so-called “good lords” were and who they intended to go to war against.
Maybe they’d find a way to ransom her off.
But, that’s probably really risky for them. She knows too much.
At least they won’t kill her. Will they?
So many possibilities and there was little Rowan could do about any of them. All she could really do was to be there for the girls when they came back.
For hours Rowan grew restless, finding herself unable to sleep and without anything to occupy her mind in the long hours until morning. With everyone asleep, time dragged and the walls of the cell closed in, leaving Rowan claustrophobic. To fight that feeling, she sang quietly to herself; one of the old songs, just like her mother used to. It wasn’t much, but it helped her feel less alone, as if she was once again in her mother’s embrace.
The feeling of comfort was short lived as a small whimper interrupted Rowan’s song. At first glance, Rowan didn’t recognise the crying prisoner. He lay on the floor with his back to Rowan, the bandages making it clear that he was a new arrival. Rowan walked softly over to him to see if he was okay. When she reached his side, her eyes opened wide; the boy was from Næmyris. Rowan didn’t know him well, but she did recognise him. He was the son of the proprietor of The Crimson Drakiir Inn. It looked like he was still sleeping. Perhaps he cried because the song reminded him of home.
Why is he here? Why is anyone from Næmyris here? It’s been weeks since the attack. I thought we were the only ones.
Question after question popped into Rowan’s mind. It gave her a weird sense of Deja vu. She had been asking the same questions when she had arrived. The only difference was that back then, she was asking them because there were far too few people from Næmyris. She had hoped that she hadn’t been as bad and foolishly pushed the questions to the back of her mind. Of course the raiders had split into smaller parties to avoid detection or risking the entire catch if one of the groups were followed. The ship captain had even told Malin that they had arrived early.
Rowan thought about it more and more. Discounting any naval travel, it had been around a month since she had been captured. If anything, it was surprising the others were this far behind. After all, even with the breakneck pace that Malin had used, there was a limit to how fast a horse could move. From Rowan’s best guess, they couldn’t have been more than a week ahead of schedule. It was possible that they had to ship everyone off from a different location, but there had to be a limit to the number of secure coves that they could moor in without being seen.
Rowan almost cried out in frustration before muttering to herself, “Why does my mind have to be as restless as my body?”
I just hope there wasn’t a second attack.
Needing answers, Rowan shook the innkeeper’s son awake. “Hey, are you okay?” she asked as he wearily opened his eyes.
“W-what? Why? Who?” he stuttered in a confused fugue. “Wait! I know that hair. Miss Hæra’s daughter? Why are you here? You weren’t on the ship.”
“Easy there,” Rowan said softly, trying to remember his name. “I’m here to help.”
“Truly? Or is the pain making me delirious?”
“It’s okay, Ros” she said, her pitch rising towards the end, unsure if she got his name right, “I’m real. Do you remember my name?”
The boy gave her a look of recognition when Rowan spoke his supposed name. “Uh — Rowan, yes? How’d you recognise me? We’ve barely spoken.”
“It’s not that impressive. You were able to recognise me just as easily.”
“Well your Mum was always performing at our inn and you really stand out with that hair.”
“You say that like we were the only redheads in town,” said a slightly confused Rowan.
“Hardly, but you and your mother were particularly famous for it.”
“We were?” Rowan exclaimed probably a little too loudly, surprise colouring the remark. “I never knew.”
“I was also dreaming of one of the times that your mother performed at my family’s inn for some reason.”
“That’ll probably be my fault. I couldnae sleep so I was singing a wee bit. But that’s of no matter,” Rowan said, moving on. “You asked why I’m here, aye? Same reason as you most likely. I just got here sooner. Now, do you think you can answer some of my questions?”
Ros nodded with a look of pain. Rowan felt bad for getting him to move around.
“Okay, so how is it that you only just got here? I’ve been here for around three weeks already. There weren’t any more attacks, were there?” Rowan realised she was probably speaking far too quickly, but her burgeoning emotions pushed the words out of her mouth.
“I only know of the eclipse attack,” Ros responded, horror slowly flashing across his face as he recalled that night, “oh gods, the eclipse. How could the Goddess let that happen?
“I dinnae ken, Ros. I wish I could say something that would make things easier for you, but I’m at a loss.”
“I’m sorry, that was unfair of me. How have you coped with all this for three weeks?”
“You’ve experienced the worst of it until you heal up.” Rowan wasn’t sure if that was a cruel thing to say; she only hoped it would give him time to prepare.” Do you think you could answer my other question?”
“Right, yes. There was a storm, I think. They made us take shelter in some lowland base on the east side of the Kærinsiir mountains. Then some massive confrontation happened between two of the raider groups. Something about a princess? Whatever it was, they said they were pulling out of the island after they were rid of us. I was so scared that they were going to kill us, but instead they threw us onto those black ships around a week ago.”
It was a lot to take in. Unknowingly, Ros had pretty much confirmed Rowan’s suspicions about Seres disappearing causing problems for the raiders. She wasn’t, however, expecting that it would be enough to drive them off of the island. It was a silver lining of sorts, but it also meant that they would be focusing their efforts elsewhere. Rowan knew that she couldn’t worry about it so she asked her last question. “How many?”
“A hundred or so. Maybe more? I’m not sure.”
“Thank you. Take the cot; it’ll be better for your back.”
Morning eventually touched the crystals that lit the cell. The newly arrived Næmyran slaves woke slowly and painfully. Rowan noted five of them, including Ros, not that she really knew any of them. Though seeing them, she realised that she hadn’t asked about Kiriin or Kyr.
Why are they here? Do the groups have meanings or are they just random?
She was largely just prevaricating with the questions she kept asking herself. She didn’t have the answers and she would only learn if she asked the right people. Even so, she didn’t want to go back and ask Ros questions. It felt too awkward after having already asked him so much and she didn’t feel comfortable enough asking the others. If she had realised sooner, she would have asked Ros before giving up her cot, but now she would need to wait. She just hoped that the two of them had managed to avoid capture, but she knew how unlikely it seemed, especially with Ros and the others being here. Unfortunately, that still didn’t give her much hope of seeing them as she was still yet to encounter any prisoners from the other cells except on that first day when they had been divvied up. That was another reason why she didn’t want to ask about them.
As for the questions regarding the group divisions, she could only think of two people to ask; one who would know for sure and one who might know. Her options were Lord Fein and Amran respectively and she knew which one she preferred. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only questions she had.
Is it really only torture and endless days in these cells that await us in this hell? There must be something more. If only someone would answer my questions about what happens outside of the cell, even Amran gets obtusely tight-lipped when I ask anything about the operation.
As Rowan pondered, the wardens arrived, returning her two friends and a few others. Thankfully, Seres mostly just looked tired. Granted, there were some hints at the terror she must have seen or experienced. Rowan was still surprised at how well Seres appeared to be doing. Perhaps her hopes that Seres’ status would keep her at least somewhat safe had been answered. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for an ashen-faced Anri. Something was wrong. Even if Rowan could understand, having faced the torture herself, the cracks in Anri’s psyche tore at Rowan. It was horrifying to see. If anything, it seemed likely that this was the reason for the slight terror on Seres’ face as opposed to anything she had seen out there. To make matters worse, Rowan was at a loss for words, unable to think of what she could say to help her.
The three girls sat in silence well into the day until they were disturbed by an unexpected individual. Amran stood over them with an almost unreadable expression. “I’m impressed. The mood has become so dour that it is almost tangible so I thought I would remind you three girls that talking is an option. Trust me when I say that you are being less talkative than a babble of Stoics. Even now, I’ve said more than the three of you have said all day combined. So what do you say? Let’s talk.” They looked up at him, each one wearing a different flavour of confusion; Rowan wanted to object, Anri was aghast, and Seres almost looked thankful.
“Talk about what exactly?” Rowan eventually settled on asking.
“Anything,” Amran responded. “I’m not exactly an expert on conversation, but I hear it can work wonders when it comes to shifting moods.”
“What’s it like being a Stoic?” Seres asked before things could get awkward again.
“An interesting question and not an easy one to answer,” Amran said somewhat evasively. “I would say it is like having a different perspective to things. Of course this is just my experience and it’s difficult to remember what it was like before my Awakening. It was two years ago after all.”
“Two years?” Rowan asked.
“Yes. I had been here for four months when it happened.”
Rowan gulped in response, but it was Anri who spoke next. “Does it get better?”
Neither of the girls were expecting it, but Amran was prepared for it. “Yes and no. It depends on the individual. For me it has been fairly stable. If you want it to get better I will give you the same advice I gave Rowan. Be strong and talk to your friends. They can help you with your feelings. Not me though. Not my strong suit.”
“Yet here you are offering advice,” Rowan remarked. “Still, he’s right, Anri. We’re here for you. Aren’t we Seres?”
“Thanks,” Anri replied sullenly. It almost sounded like there was a small improvement, but not much.
“Well I don’t think we can go much further with that conversation,” Rowan said after a moment of silence. “What’s next?”
“What about the weather?” Seres joked.
It was enough to make Rowan crack a smile and she could swear that there was a slight upwards turn. The humour was somewhat ruined yet also enhanced when Amran spoke up after glancing at the ceiling. “Grey, with light showers and some strong gusts coming in from the west.”
“How do you know that?” Anri asked.
“Yeah! Is it some Stoic power?” Rowan added.
“It must be. None of the Lunar Gifts provide weather detection abilities,” remarked Seres.
“I just listened and extrapolated from what the new arrivals were saying,” Amran responded with a slightly hurt expression.
“Oh,” the girls said back in disappointment.
The rather inane conversation continued for the rest of the day and Amran could sense significant improvements in Rowan and Seres. He hoped it was enough for Anri as well, but that would largely depend on the three girls going forwards. Rowan on the other hand was sure that it had gone exceptionally well for Anri. She had smiled after all, which was a marked improvement. Rowan was smiling to herself as she settled down for the night when she remembered that she hadn’t asked Amran any of the questions she had been meaning to ask him.
Author’s Note: Hello everyone. Just wanted to say thanks and let you all know that I am now on Top Web Fiction. I would really appreciate it if you could follow the link and give the story a boost.