Chapter 15 Part 1

The sun was low in the sky when The Wind Rose raised its anchor. Everyone was on board and they had been given as much room as Dralik could spare. Admittedly, that wasn’t much as his hold was filled with goods and food for the voyage.

The crew was remarkably quiet as they set sail. Ædarik hadn’t expected it with how boisterous Captain Dralik had been the night before, but he appreciated it, especially as everyone else was still sleeping. Ædarik, however, was leaning on the portside railings, yawning heavily. 

He hadn’t slept well and Dralik had insisted on buying everyone a drink, even the former prisoners, which didn’t help. So instead, he leaned there watching land drift past. It was an eerie sight. The entirety of the day in the small port he had been blind to the devastation the earthquake had caused. He saw it now. A sizable portion of the town was damaged with some of it in ruins, crushed by falling rocks. 

The further out they went, Ædarik also saw evidence of several wrecked ships. After each one, the sailors looked out to sea and saluted before bringing in their fists towards their hearts. It was a gesture that Ædarik had never seen before, but it didn’t take a genius to understand it’s significance. Another aspect of these sailors that he hadn’t expected. It still wasn’t enough to help with the uneasiness he was feeling about everything.

*****

On the first day, Seres woke up just past noon. It was a strange feeling. After five years of being a prisoner, she was finally going home. She wasn’t sure if she should be excited or relieved. Fortunately, she wasn’t overly anxious, unlike many of the others; they still hadn’t accepted that they were free. If it hadn’t been for Amran she might have been, but he had assured her that the captain and the lord and ladies in their company were genuine. She would still have preferred it if Rowan was more cognisant of the situation, but she had been asleep for almost the entire time. Seres wasn’t even sure if Rowan was aware that they were on a ship. There was little she could do about it though. Rowan had drained herself completely during the escape and then some.

As the day continued, the sailors started getting more and more jovial, but it never got to the point of them being rowdy. Even when they started drinking, they acted with remarkable sobriety which was a stark contrast to how they had been yesterday when the captain treated everyone to a drink regardless of age. What surprised Seres even more was that the captain, who looked more like a pirate than even the best artistic depictions, didn’t drink at all. From the way he declined a mug of ale at dinner, it seemed like it was contrary to his normal behaviour.

The crew and the captain weren’t the only people that were quiet on the first day. Everyone kept to themselves, almost depressingly so. She was no Empath, but she didn’t need to be to feel the oppressive weight of apprehension. She hated it, but she also didn’t know how to deal with it. Before, she had always been bright and cheerful, talking to everyone, but five years in captivity had locked that away and she was yet to find it. She may have been free, but her nature was not.

The next two days passed much like the first. Rowan still slept, having only woken up a few times to eat and relieve herself. Amran was meditating, though somewhat awkwardly with the rocking of the ship and everyone else remained quiet. Seres had to do something before she went insane. With little to do and no one willing to talk, she wandered the ship, making sure to keep out of the way of the sailors. It was a large ship, much larger than the ships that had taken them to the caves and notably less slender. It also glowed with the soft light of Resonance, more so than was normal for a ship. Seres had only ever seen this kind of Resonance a couple of times during naval parades and that had been on the Midiran Navy’s Flagships. She followed the Resonance to its most concentrated point, the figurehead. Before her was the majestic and practically naked figure of a Tæran woman decorated with crystals.

“She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”

Seres jumped as a deep resonant voice spoke behind her. She turned to see the hulking form of the captain with his own Resonant glow. Even though he was on the small side if you compared him to an Al’duur, he was a giant amongst humans and he absolutely dwarfed Seres. Her ears drooped unconsciously at the sight of him; it was difficult not to be intimidated by him. 

“Excuse me?” Seres responded.

“The figurehead. I know you can see the Resonance from her,” Dralik boomed quietly.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Seres lied.

“You can do better than that, lass. I may not be the smartest man, but even I know what gift the Mark of the Goddess provides.”

“That isn’t exactly common knowledge.”

“I did just say that I’m not a smart man.”

Seres wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She looked at him quizzically. ”Who are you?”

Dralik responded at a volume that could only be equated to that of a stage whisper. “I’m just a simple vice admiral enjoying his retirement, Your Highness.” 

The sailors didn’t react, but Ædarik and his friends who had been talking on deck certainly did. So did Seres. “How did you…” she stammered.

“I’d recognise you anywhere, even all grown up as you are. You probably don’t remember me so let me introduce myself again. I am Captain Dralik Vasra-Kaan, former Vice Admiral of the Midiran Royal Navy Vanguard. My family has served the crown for generations and it was I, under the command of your sister, who led the charge against the raiders that plagued our lands. We’ve been looking for you ever since. I never believed that I, out of the seven that were searching, would be the one to find you.”

Seres hadn’t recognised the name ‘Dralik’, but she did recognise his last name. The captain of her guard when she had been attacked had the name Vasra-Kaan. “Is that why your ship has a naval Resonance Array?” she asked, somewhat awe-struck.

“It is indeed. The crown called it a retirement gift.”

“Are we safe?”

“Every man and woman on this ship is a veteran and the hull has been reinforced with its own Resonance Array in addition to the mobility array in the figurehead. We will ensure your safety and that of the others to the best of our ability and then some.”

“Thank you.”

Seres excused herself after that and retreated below decks. She had a lot of things to process. 

*****

“How did you not know she was a princess?” Davra shouted at Ædarik.

“I thought there was something familiar about her name, but it isn’t like I’d ever seen her before,” he responded.

“Did they really just walk into that village after the earthquake?” asked Alena with a hint of doubt.

“I assure you that they did.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“They told me so.”

Not convinced, Alena looked around at the others. “I think he’s hiding something. Don’t you agree, ladies?”

All three of them nodded.

“I’m not lying!” He didn’t want to reveal the truth about Lord Feilan with Ashlin right there.

Unfortunately, it was Ashlin that continued to prod him. “Are we so untrustworthy?” she sniffled.

“No, no, no, no. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“They were being kept prisoner. You heard the rumors when the princess disappeared? Well there was some truth to them.”

All four of his companions gave him a flat look that said, “What?” 

The floodgates opened. “There were these caves that they were being held in. I don’t know why but Lord Feilan had something to do with it, he was taking young girls from there and doing whatever he wanted to them before sending them back. That’s how I found out about this whole thing. During the party I accidentally discovered him with one of these girls. I couldn’t stop him, but I did follow the men back to the caves and I saved the girl. She’s here. The really young looking one. After that I got captured, but the man in charge treated me with respect. Then the earthquake happened and a rock hit me in the head. I collapsed but then Rowan, the girl with crimson hair, and the Ferran boy saved me.” He continued to describe the events as he remembered them. Davra took it all face on; Deilin excused herself at the mention of what Lord Feilan had done, her face dark with horror; Alena went white as a sheet, but remained; Ashlin was throwing up over the railings by the end of it.

“How could a man like that live with himself?” asked Alena when Ædarik finished.

“I don’t know,” Ædarik admitted.

“I’m more concerned with how he was able to act like there was nothing wrong,” Davra scowled.

“I promise I didn’t know,” cried Ashlin, her face looking slightly green. “Mother never said a thing.”

“You don’t think she was in on it do you?” pondered Davra.

“Impossible!” Ashlin objected. “Mother has a heart of gold.”

“It could be an act, just like with your father.”

“Stop right there, Davra,” Ædarik interjected, “We don’t know that and forcing it is just cruel on Ashlin. She’s innocent here.”

Davra bowed her head. “Sorry,” she apologised.

“What now?” asked Alena after a moment of silence.

“We take them to Midiris and then we go home. There isn’t much else we can do other than report this to the military and the Royal Bureau of Information.” 

“What if…”

“This isn’t the time for conspiracy theories, Davra.”

“But…”

“I’m sure that Queen Elarin of Llen Fær and the Midiran Royal Court will be investigating as well.”

“You have a point.”

After that, Ashlin looked up. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

“Sure thing,” responded Alena, “I’ll go get Deilin and we can talk Arik’s ears off about dresses or something.

Ædarik groaned slightly at the prospect, but he agreed that a change of conversation was appropriate. He smiled warmly at Ashlin and they spent the rest of the day talking about inane things.

Authors Note: You’ll notice that this is an extremely short chapter by my standards, being more in line with some of the Interludes. It has also been divided in two, with this being the best division point I feel. This is because I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday regarding the various issues that I’ve been having. That took up a large portion of my day and I wasn’t able to finish the chapter in time, especially as I am also very busy today. That is also why the chapter is late. However, I’m sure that I’ll be able to operate at a more healthy level, now that I have the appropriate medication for my jaw. Part two will be out later this week and will conclude the voyage. If I have time, I will also release Chapter 16 this week. One last thing. I am trying to get onto the first page of trending on Royal Road, so I you are enjoying the story, I would greatly appreciate it if you would give me a rating/review at this link. I would also appreciate it if you give me a boost here on Top Web Fiction.

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Chapter 14

The small group sighed in relief as they stepped out into the soft blush of dawn. Freedom! They had finally done it. Gone were the hellborn caves that had come so close to breaking them. They had been destroyed by Illyria’s wrath. The first part of Rowan’s quest was complete. She hadn’t saved everyone, far from it, but she had made a start and Lord Fein was dead. Rowan also took solace in knowing that Maro could have also lead people to freedom.

Out of the thirteen individuals in their group that had escaped, not one was without scars. They weren’t all physical. In fact most of them weren’t. Rather, the majority were of the mind and soul. Even the brands on their backs also branded their souls. Yet, despite knowing pain and suffering beyond their years, they hadn’t given in.

Many would consider them to be poor broken souls. Rowan might have been inclined to agree, but she saw the truth of things. She had seen people break in the caves. She had seen people shatter like glass, only to be forged into a grim and horrible weapon. Instead, she and the others found themselves on the other side of the gauntlet battered and cracking at the seams but still whole for the most part. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that none of them had been changed by their experiences. For better or worse, they were not the same people they had been before they had been taken. Now they had to make a choice.

Rowan turned to the last member of their group, the only one who hadn’t been a slave, Lord Ædarik. “You came here from the castle, right?” she asked.

“I did, but I really can’t recommend taking you there,” he replied.

“That’s not what I’m asking. Castles tend to have settlements nearby to help support the family living there. Can you take us there?”

“I can do that.”

“Good. Then you’ll need to get us some food from the castle.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“You got out didn’t you?”

“Well yes.”

“Then you can get back in. You might want to get some other supplies as well. Maybe a change of clothes.”

“You’re giving me a lot of opportunities to betray you,” said Ædarik with a quizzical look.

“Do you want me to stab you?”

“No.”

“Then don’t say stupid things. You said you wanted to save us. I’m going to hold to that. Now show us that not all lords are evil sadistic fucks and see this through to the end.”

“You got me,” he finally responded, having seen how serious Rowan was. “You have my word as a lord and on my family’s oath to the king. With that said, call me Arik. What is your name?”

“Rowan.”

*****

The journey to the nearby village was long and slow. Amran couldn’t walk and the others barely had enough energy to support him. Rowan was only managing to stay active through sheer force of will. Her body was drained and breathing was difficult, but they weren’t home free yet. 

The sun was nearing its peak by the time the village came into sight. Rowan almost collapsed from relief when they saw the villagers; Seres only just managed to catch her. They circled round to approach the village from the other side to avoid anyone from the castle seeing them. Arik suggested it as he wasn’t sure how many guards were in the know. 

When they came into view, a woman with a wicker basket saw them. “Som’n come quick,” she exclaimed, “there’s another group of them there children.” Some other people came hurrying over in response to her call and someone went running into the village.

“I hope this is a good sign,” muttered Seres quietly when she saw the congregation of men and women waiting for them.

“Me too,” Rowan groaned.

Back amongst the villagers, a younger man looked at the woman that had called them over. “They be a lookin’ like they be needin’ some help, Geta,” he said.

“Then go then there helpin, lad,” the woman responded. Shamefaced he took a few of the younger men and women to help the strange group. As they approached, Ædarik walked forwards to greet them.

“Salutations, sir. My name is Lord Ædarik and we are in need of your assistance.”

The young man man and his friends stepped forwards to start helping people along. “Right you is, yer lordship. You isn’t the first such group to come here wandering.” 

“We aren’t?” Ædarik responded, somewhat surprised.

“No, yer lordship. The other came a wanderin’ in with the first beatin’ of the heart.” 

“The first beating of the heart?” Ædarik asked with a rather perplexed expression.

“Just as I said, yer lordship.”

“What does that mean?” Ædarik said again, this time making sure to clarify his confusion.

“First light o’course,” the man replied confidently, as if it was obvious.

Rowan’s heart soared at the news. Another group had gotten out and from the timing, it was likely Maro and the others in her cell. “Are they safe?” she asked.

“That they is, young miss.” 

With the confirmation, she finally passed out.

“Is she there okay?” one of the young women asked.

“She needs a bed,” Ædarik ordered, “and water.”

After that, more people came to help and they were led into the village. It was in shambles. The earthquake had destroyed several buildings and Ædarik could see the bodies laid out to rest. Even so, the villagers faced the disaster with a smile and those that could worked together to get everything back in shape. Some were clearing away rubble, others were rebuilding and those in the fields were harvesting the damaged crop.

In the village, they were reunited with the other group who were for the most part, in remarkably better condition. As Rowan had suspected, the group had been lead by Maro, a girl of around sixteen years of age. When they escaped, they had also found the young girl that Ædarik had saved. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t stopped crying.

Ædarik decided to wait until nightfall to return to the castle. He could have left earlier and tried the front gate, but he didn’t feel confident explaining why he was outside the castle walls. Instead he planned on using the same route that he and the slavers had taken to get outside.

“I swear I’ve gotten more active use out of my Gift in the past twenty four hours than have I in the rest of my life,” he muttered to himself as he took to the shadows en route to the castle.

The secret entrance to the castle was extremely well hidden, even more so than a standard postern. On the flip side, it was also less well defended than the postern as it appeared to be largely forgotten. When Ædarik found it again, he could feel how thick the air was with dust and cobwebs. He was surprised that he didn’t notice it the first time with how suffocating it felt.

Ædarik continued on through as the passage led him into the castle’s wine cellar. In hindsight, it made him laugh a little bit. He remembered how in the stories he used to read, the secret passage always led to the wine cellar. The smell as he entered the room was dizzying. Countless broken bottles made the air thick with alcoholic fumes. 

“This has got to be a liquid fortune,” Ædarik winced as he stepped into a sticky red. Each time he moved through the cold cellar he was treated to a sickly squelching sound. 

He hurried through, not wanting to linger lest he get himself drunk on the fumes. When he ascended to the ground floor of the keep, he saw the remnants of the carnage that the quake had wrought. Just small bits of broken ceramics that had been missed or damaged frames. Beyond that, the keep was surprisingly clean.

The servants must have been working overtime.

Ædarik’s plan to get in and out without being seen soon came to an end as he stumbled into the path of a maid. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “Lord Ædarik? Is that you?”

“Ah, yes. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get in your way, Miss Tama?” He flubbed the last part, trying to remember the maid’s name.

“That’s correct, Lord Ædarik. Where have you been? The castle staff have been trying to find you all day.”

Shit!

Ædarik had to improvise fast. “That’s my bad,” he apologised, “It seems that, in my drunken stupor, I wandered into one of Lord Feilan’s wine cellars. I think I remember an earthquake and everything crashing down around me. Something must have hit me on the head because I don’t remember much else.” He pointed towards the crusted blood on his scalp to give some credence to his lie. It was hasty, but she seemed convinced.

“Oh no! We need to get you to the castle healer immediately.”

“It’s fine. I just need a bath.”

“I’ll have one prepared, but I must insist on you being seen by the healer. She can check in on you while you bathe.”

“Very well. I will acquiesce. In return I would like you to do me a favour.”

Her response came with a smile, “And what would that be, milord.” Ædarik couldn’t help but notice the not so subtle change in her tone.

“None of what you are probably thinking, sorry. I’d like you to prepare me a hamper for tomorrow morning.” 

Thankfully the maid didn’t seem too disappointed at the rejection and was instead more curious about the actual request. “May I ask what for, milord?”

“The village, Miss Tama,” Ædarik explained, “I imagine they were hit hard by the earthquake and a little charity never hurts. I will of course pay if need be.”

Tama smiled more at that. “I’m sure a little bit of food won’t be missed too much, milord. Now let’s get you that bath.” 

With that said and done, she led him towards the East wing of the castle and into his quarters. Once there she started to draw the bath while making sure there was nothing else he needed or wanted.

He was soon soaking in hot water contemplating the events of the past day. He felt sick remembering what Lord Feilan had done. He had to wonder if Landras knew, if any of his family knew, and if they did, how could they be okay with it? There was also the strange situation with Lady Ashlin. Landras had never mentioned her being adopted.

Such thoughts continued for the duration of his soak. He had hoped they would be interrupted by the healer like Tama had suggested, but she decided to wait until he was finished bathing.

When she finally made an appearance, he was greeted by an older lady with grey hair kept in a neat bun and weirdly high cheekbones. Her uniform was notably different to that of the maids. From what Ædarik could tell, it was an older style of dress made from a sturdy grey wool and covered with a white apron. In her hands she held a small bag filled with medical implements. 

“Greetings, Lord Ædarik. My name is Latria and I am the resident healer of this castle. Miss Tama informs me that you were injured during the earthquake. I can’t say I’m surprised. It was particularly vicious and few people had the sense to get underneath a table. Now tell me, was it pride or inebriation that led to your injury?” She spoke with a clear and crisp tone that did well to hide how tired she was from dealing with idiotic lords and ladies all day.

“The latter, ma’am,” Ædarik admitted, staying true to his earlier lie. “I found myself rather intoxicated and in a wine cellar when the earthquake hit. Something hit me in the head and I passed out.” Once again, he motioned to where the rock had hit him on the head.

“Very well. Any signs of nausea, dizziness, memory loss…” She continued to list various symptoms as she examined him and concluded that he had a concussion. Then she went on to properly clean the injury and ensure it was free from any debris or shrapnel before stitching closed.

“Thank you, Miss Latria,” said Ædarik when she announced that the job was done. “Before you go, I was hoping I could ask about Lady Ashlin. I was rather enchanted by her at the party and wanted to make sure she was well amongst other things.”

“Apart from a sprained ankle and some bruises, she is well. Though she and your friends were rather distraught when you didn’t show up for breakfast.”

“Damn. I’ll need to apologise when I see them.”

“That would be wise.”

“Thanks. I also wanted to ask about Lady Ashlin’s rather unique appearance. Has she always had such magical hair?”

“Her hair has been that colour for as long as she has been in my care. Before then I cannot say for sure, but I would assume so.”

“You mean you weren’t the one to deliver her?”

“I was not, though I have been told that it was a traumatic delivery for Lady Larissa. I was actually hired just before Lady Ashlin was born due to the previous healer tragically passing away.”

“That’s awful!”

“It is indeed. Should your symptoms worsen or you need anything, send a servant right away.”

“Will do. Thank you, Miss Latria.”

After that, Latria bowed her head and took her leave. Once again, Ædarik was left to his own thoughts. Not wanting to face them, he retreated to his bed and collapsed from exhaustion.

*****

The next morning, Ædarik was woken by a loud knocking at his door. He groaned as the knocking got even louder. “I’m awake. Who is it?” 

Instead of getting an answer in words, the door flew open and his friends came running in. “You’re alive!” Deilin cried. “We thought something terrible had happened to you.”

“Easy there, Deilin,” Ædarik smiled. ” It was just a small bump on the head.”

“Are you really okay?” Alena asked.

“Sure he is,” Davra answered in his place. “It’ll take more than that to end the tale of Arik, heartthrob extraordinaire.”

Ædarik blushed at that. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you don’t.”

Not wanting that particular conversation to go any further, Ædarik quickly tried to change the subject. “Where’s Landras?” he asked.

“Talking with his father,” Deilin answered, still sniffling slightly.

Damn!

“Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“He said something about staying behind,” Davra added.

“What if there’s an earthquake?” 

“We said the same thing,” responded Alena.

Davra shook her head. “He seems to think it will be fine. We’re leaving, however. Ashlin will be coming with us. We managed to convince Lord Feilan and Lady Larissa that it would be much safer in the capital and a learning experience for her.” She winked at the last line.

“I agree, it will be a good experience for her. When are we leaving?”

“As soon as you’re ready.”

He was afraid Davra would say that. “I’ve got something I need to do first. I’ll meet you at the docks.”

“And what is that?” Alena asked.

Ædarik hesitated. “I thought that I would bring some food down to the villagers.”

Alena’s tail started to swish as the idea. “We can help with that.”

“Honestly, I can do it myself.”

“I insist.”

“Fine!” He knew there would be no persuading Alena in any meaningful way.

His friends left after that to allow him to get dressed and pack his things.

*****

Before long, Ædarik, Davra, Alena, Deilin, and Ashlin were walking out of the castle gates with two guards and a wagon full of food and supplies. It was significantly more than Ædarik had expected, but Ashlin had insisted that this was the bare minimum they could do. 

Unfortunately, the soldiers were going to be a problem. When they were out of earshot from the castle, Ædarik approached them. “Gentlemen, I would like to offer each of you the deal of a lifetime.”

Rightfully so, the two men gave him a cautious look. “Go on,” one of them said.

“I am offering a full year’s pay plus an additional gold sovereign for each of you and all you need to do is not report anything that does not directly threaten Lady Ashlin to Lord Feilan or Lady Larissa.”

The two guards looked at each other and then in perfect sync said, “We can do that.”

When they arrived at the village, they were quickly surrounded by a babble of farmers and other such workers. The five of them had their hands full when the Ferran girl that Rowan had been especially protective of walked over expectantly. Ædarik handed her a large bag of food and she scampered away.

“I’m going to look around and see if anyone needs help,” Ædarik called out.

“Go ahead!” the four girls chorused.

With some food in hand, Ædarik went in the direction the Ferran girl had run off to. Finding himself at the door to one of the houses, he knocked. The woman that had called out to the others when they arrived opened the door. “Yer late,” she said brusquely. “Get inside. They is waiting for yet.”

With little choice other than to oblige, he stepped into the squat house. Inside he saw the Ferran girl, the Ferran boy, Maro, and Rowan who was still sleeping. Out of the three conscious people, it was the boy that spoke. “Seres tells me that you didn’t come alone.”

“There was no helping it,” Ædarik apologised. “They insisted on joining me. I guarantee they won’t be a danger. They may even be able to help get you out of here.”

“What about the guards?” Maro asked.

“I bribed them. As long as Lady Ashlin isn’t in danger, they won’t say a thing.”

“That’ll have to do, Amran,” said the girl now identified as Seres. It was a strangely familiar name and not just because of its similarity to Særis, his home country.

Amran relented and looked at Ædarik again. “So how can your friends help us?” he asked. 

“We’re going back to the capital. I’m sure I can convince them to take you with us.”

“Which capital?” Seres asked.

“Særis, of course,” Ædarik responded as if it were obvious. 

“Through what means?” asked Amran.

“By ship. Going through the Straights of Fire.”

Seres brightened up at that. “You mean we’ll be going past Midiris?”

“Yes?”

“If you take there, I’ll make sure you are rewarded.”

“How?”

“That’s not important,” Amran interjected. “Can you do it?”

“I’ll give it my all,” Ædarik responded honestly.

“Good. Now go.” 

Nodding, Ædarik turned on his heel and left. Just before stepping outside, he noticed Seres shake Rowan awake.

“Well this is going to be a challenge,” he muttered to himself as he walked on over to the others.

“Oh, you’re back,” Ashlin called to him. “We’re almost done here.” 

“That’s great!” Ædarik replied.

“You better not have been lazing around while we were doing all the hard work,” Davra teased.

“Hardly. I actually found some people I think we can help.”

“I thought that is what we were already doing?” Deilin asked.

“Even more so. Yesterday a group that suffered greatly from the earthquake arrived in the village. Some of them are barely fifteen and they need help that the village can’t provide. I was thinking we could take them with us.”

“More charity?”

“Why not? I’ll cover the expenses. You just need to agree.”

“I say we allow it,” said Ashlin with a smile while Davra muttered something to herself immediately after.

“If you’re paying, we can’t exactly complain,” responded Deilin.

“Sounds good to me,” added Alena.

“I guess you have your answer,” Davra conceded.

“Excellent. I’ll let them know. I should probably see about hiring another wagon as well.”

Within the hour, they were on their way to the nearby port town with twenty-nine adolescents and young adults. Ædarik spent the better part of the afternoon trying to haggle for a reasonable price. He was on his third failure when a passing Midiran captain took one look at Seres and immediately barged into the conversation, kicking the female captain he was trying to bargain with out of her chair 

“Get out here, you sea cow,” the large captain shouted. “The lad here isnae gonna take an offer like that.”

“Fuck you, Dralik!” the female captain shouted back.

“Shitting hell, Mari, and go shove a spyglass up yer pisser while yet at it.” 

The two of them threw expletives at each other for a good few minutes. Ædarik was beginning to think he should leave when the captain turned to face him. “Sorry about Mari, lad. She’s a lovely lass once you get past the drinking and the foul mouth, but you cannae fault her for trying to take a lad such as yerself for all he’s worth. Thing is thirty-four passengers that cannae help on deck is an expensive proposition.”

“I can help,” Ædarik interrupted defensively.

“Even if I believed that, the others cannae do shit. Now back to what I was saying before you interrupted me. I will offer you the voyage at a more than reasonable price. All you need to do is tell me that girl’s name.” 

Ædarik turned to see who Dralik was pointing at when he saw a pair of auburn ears twitch. “That’d be Seres,” he responded after identifying her.

“In which case I would like to offer you travel for no more than half the cost of any additional food that will required to accommodate the lot of ya.”

Ædarik was flabbergasted by the offer. “That’s beyond generous.”

“That it is,” the large captain bellowed. “People will be calling you a pirate with a deal like this.”

“Well I’d be a fool to decline. When do we leave?”

“First tide on the morrow. Load yerselves onto my ship, The Wind Rose. As you may have heard, my name’s Dralik. If anyone causes you and yours any trouble in port, drop my name and they should back off.” 

Dralik then spat into his palm and proffered it towards Ædarik expectantly. Fearing he had to do same, Ædarik decided to get it over and done with, spitting into his own palm and clasping the man’s hand.

The next day, they set sail.

Author’s Note: From this update onwards, I intend to start building up my backlog for patrons, By the time I’m done, patrons will be five chapters ahead of the public release. Unlocking these chapters early will only cost £5 a month and is by no means mandatory, but it is greatly appreciated. It will also give you access to some other exclusive benefits. Once I’m done with rebuilding my back log, I will start work on the first side story “The Merchant and the Bard” which will cover how Gyren and Hæra met and fell in love

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 13

Content Warning: Click here for details.

Ædarik was face-first on the ground and seeing stars. The earth shattering quake had brought the cave ceiling down around him and his escort. One of them was crushed from the waist down by a large boulder. The other went running for the hills and he was alone. He could feel the blood trickling down the back of his head. 

“Fuck!” His head was still ringing. “Get up, Arik. You still have a job to do.”

The way back was closed off from the cave in. His only option was to go further in, maybe find a ‘warden’ to help him. He also needed to save at least a couple of people lest his mission be in vain.

I hope she’s okay.

He limped down the cave, feeling faint. Before long, he started to feel dizzy. That rock had hit him really hard. Thud! Once again, he had collapsed face-first onto the ground. Only difference was that he hadn’t even noticed it happening this time. The loving grip of consciousness let him pass into oblivion.

*****

“We need to go now!” Rowan shouted. She wasn’t going to wait around for another earthquake. With the exception of Seres and Amran, nobody got up. Some were crying. Others were shaking with fright. None of them looked ready for action. “What are you all waiting for? We have a chance to be free of this place. Take it!”

“But.”

“No buts. Do you want to die? Do you want to be slaves? No? Then get off yer damn asses before you get fucked sideways. And before any of you think we’re insane for trying, you’re probably right, but we would also be crazy if we stayed. We also learned of a couple escape routes from a girl in another cell so we have a chance. This is your chance to say ‘fuck it’ and reclaim your lives.” Rowan’s time in the caves had done interesting things to her vocabulary. She saw some people rouse. Feeling like her work was done, she grabbed Seres’ hand and ran. Amran followed closely behind.

Once they were outside of the cell, the three of them started making their way to the training chamber. It was the one landmark that everyone knew and from there, they would be able to trace a path to the route that they had been given by Maro, a young girl with the Gift of the Wayfarer from another cell. She had been through much to memorise the different routes and Rowan wasn’t about to waste her suffering. Her story had reminded Rowan of one of the fates that had been suggested for Tehri back when they had been captured. 

They ran onwards to their destination.

Why couldn’t this have happened after breakfast?

Rowan could feel the hunger rising. She wouldn’t be able to channel her anger effectively without a meal in her.

It didn’t take long to find the first casualties on the other side. Some of the guards and wardens had been crushed or killed by falling rocks. Some had been killed by the sheer violence of the earthquake. One of them, however, gave Rowan pause. The guard had been thrown into one of the cell gates. She was frozen solid. Rowan remembered when Anri had nearly lost her hand to the heat sapping crystals. It made her feel sick. It was a twisted way to die, just like the entire operation that had engineered it.

Rowan armed herself from the corpses and handed Seres a knife so that she could defend herself if absolutely necessary. Amran refused. Even in the chaos and danger of the situation, he stayed true to his pacifist ways. Instead, he offered to scout ahead. Then, without a hint of fear, he walked forwards with serene determination. With each step, he slowly sped up until he was moving at a comfortable jog. Then he did something that truly surprised Rowan. Instead of vaulting or jumping over the first obstacle he came across, he stepped onto the cave wall and continued onwards as if nothing had changed, he was jogging upside down. Well, almost upside down. 

“Since when could he do that?” Rowan exclaimed.

“Does it really matter?” Seres responded hesitantly. “We should hurry up already.”

The two girls followed Amran at a more measured pace. They weren’t alone; some of the people from their cell had caught up and they were being joined by others. Everyone was weak and afraid. They were all so thin. Some of them looked like they hadn’t eaten in days, as if they had been forgotten. Rowan knew this was their last chance. There were few that would be able to handle being captured again if the escape failed. It was an all or nothing gambit. Even so, it granted them the smallest flicker of hope. Rowan felt it too. She let her hope Resonate with everyone. Everyone looked that little bit brighter and Rowan literally started to glow. It was a dim but comforting light that guided their way and banished away all the small cuts and bruises that they had acquired.

Seres smiled gently at Rowan. “We’re actually doing this, aren’t we?” she asked.

“Of course we are,” Rowan smiled back, “I made a promise after all.”

Then, as if to prove her wrong, Amran came running back, all the confidence he had before gone to the winds. “Quick! Turn back,” he shouted. “They’ve started the round up.”

“What? No, we can’t turn back,” Rowan responded. “If we don’t get to the training cavern, how are we supposed to find our way to Maro’s cell? All of her routes are from there.”

“It’s too dangerous. They’re using their Awakened.”

“Shit!” 

On hearing that, people started to falter. Rowan was still glowing, but she couldn’t bolster an emotion they were starting to lack.”

“What do we do now?” Seres asked with a face full of worry and a quivering voice. She still clung to hope, but only barely.

“I don’t know,” Rowan admitted. “I doubt I can fight any of their Awakened one on one like this.”

“We should have stayed back,” one of the other prisoners cried.

“This is all your fault,” another shouted at Rowan.

“We have to go, Rowan, now! I can see the cracks. These people are starting to break.” Amran was already moving. He had made his verdict as both a Stoic and an Empath. Rowan was forced to agree. Her priorities were getting Seres out. If other people could escape with them, it would be great, but she couldn’t let them endanger the mission. If they all broke, Rowan, Amran and Seres could end up in a sea of hostiles. She didn’t want that, not when they could be saved.

“If you still have your resolve, try and keep up,” she shouted. “If you cannae do that much, escaping is on you.” It was all that she could offer them. One last chance to those who still had the strength of will to run. 

One of them turned to Rowan before she could leave with Seres, and gave her a grave look. “I will remain here and do my best to hold them back; give you a head start and everything.”

“What? Why?” Rowan threw the words back at him in shock.

“I know I won’t be able to keep up with you. I’m too heavy set, even with the fuck-all food we’ve been getting. I also have the Gift of the Aegis, so it makes sense.”

“Are you sure?” Rowan had to ask. She was going to leave him behind anyway, but she didn’t want to be weighed down by guilt.

“Completely. Seeing you glow gave me the courage to stand. This is the least I could do.”

“Good luck.” With those final words, Rowan ran at full pelt after Amran. 

Seres clung desperately to Rowan’s hand as they ran. “I hope you have an alternative in mind,” she shouted to Amran at the top of her lungs. He was already a fair bit ahead, though he was no longer running on the walls.

“The classrooms,” he called back. “I think I remember Maro mentioning something about the route to get to them.”

They ran through the long winding caves towards the classrooms. They had to backtrack almost completely to find a route they were comfortable with. It had taken them years to memorise the different routes. It was not an easy task. The caves were labyrinthine in nature and there was little in the way of notable landmarks. As such, they had very little to aid their memories of the route. They hadn’t planned on this at all. Rowan just hoped they could get to Maro’s cell as soon as possible. Then they’d be able to rely on the instructions they had carved onto their arms.

It took much longer than they had hoped to get to the classrooms. They made a couple of errors and the caves suffered several aftershocks. It was a nerve wracking experience, but it eventually came to a close. When it did, they all took several deep breaths. Amran needed to collect his thoughts and remember what Maro had said about the route. It took five arduous minutes for him to formulate a path forwards.

“This way,” he said. “I think.”

*****

The route took them down caves that none of them had ever been down before. Rowan felt lost and blind as they walked on at a hurried pace. They couldn’t run. Not when they were relying on hazy second hand knowledge that they hadn’t committed to flesh. It was a strangely empty and quiet path that they took through the caves. That is until Seres noticed someone collapsed down one of the side paths. She pulled gently on Rowan’s hand to get her attention.

“Look over there,” she said quietly.

Rowan looked over and saw a strange looking man dressed in what she assumed were a noble’s garb. She didn’t recognise him. Granted, it wasn’t easy to get an idea of what he truly looked like other than crap when he was faced down on the ground. 

Is this one of them? One of the Good Lords?

Rowan felt like she may have struck gold with the find. “Hold up, Amran. We’ve got a sighting here. Looks like a lord.”

“And you’re not suggesting we run?” he replied.

“He’s either dead or unconscious. Think it might be one of them?”

“Out here alone? Doubtful.”

“His escort might have run away when he collapsed,” Seres opined.

“No, Amran’s got a point,” Rowan disagreed. “He’d probably have at least one Ardent or Stoic in his escort if he was.”

“Should we leave him then?” Amran asked.

“No!” Seres objected loudly. “We can’t just leave him.”

“He’s dead weight, Seres. Maybe even literally.” Rowan was shaking her head. They couldn’t waste time here. She didn’t care that it was contrary to the fact that she had been the one to stop them. The chance to kill one of the good lords was worth it. A nobody was not.

“What if he knows the way out? If we make him lead us it will solve all of our problems,” Seres countered.

“That is a fair point,” Amran responded in acknowledgement.

“But…”

“It’s okay, Rowan. I can handle this.”

“You can?”

“Easily. I just shock him with some cold and give him a boost of energy.”

“Huh?” Those were indeed some words that came out of Amran’s mouth, but Rowan had no idea how to parse them and her expression showed it. Seres actually laughed when she saw it.

“I don’t see why it’s so difficult to grasp, Rowan. I’m sure Seres understands.”

“Of course,” Seres smiled smugly.

“That’s not helping!” Rowan complained.

“It’s simply a matter of anger and compassion. Well a lack of it. I always found it out that Stoics Resonate with compassion in such an external power. We tend to be much more close and insular with our abilities compared to Ardents.”

Rowan gave up trying to understand him. “Fine, just do it already.”

“Right away. From the looks of it, he’s alive, but he will need medical attention.” Amran turned him onto his back and did a reasonably thorough exam. Then he took hold of the lord’s wrist and did nothing?

The lord shuddered awake. His first few words were a jumbled mess. The only intelligible words that Rowan heard were, “Where is she?”

“Can we do anything for that?” Seres asked regarding the largely incoherent slurry the lord was speaking.

“Give it a few moments. He needs to collect himself.”

While they waited, a few of the people that had kept up started to complain. The three of them spent the time quelling their arguments. They weren’t so convinced that the lord would be anything close to a font of knowledge based on the state he was in. 

“Where am I?” he finally said with some measure of cognisance. “Where is the girl?”

“You’re in a cave system where those of us that you see before you and many others have been kept prisoner,” Amran explained calmly before Rowan had the chance to respond. “Tell me, what do you know of this place? Why are you here? Are you working with the people that run this operation? Don’t bother lying. With the state you’re in, it will be blatantly obvious.”

“Work for who? I thought this place was just somewhere Lord Feilan kept the girls he preyed on locked up.”

“Lord Feilan?” Rowan interrupted. “That must be the man that Maro and the others were being taken to.”

“It seems likely.”

“Who are you people?”

“Prisoners. Slaves. Weapons. Take your pick,” Rowan remarked bitterly. “We’re also breaking out of this place. Now tell us who you are and why you are here?”

“My n-name is Arik. I mean Lord Ædarik of House Beltein. I was following some men who had a girl between them. They came from the castle. Where is she?”

“I don’t have a clue who you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I.”

“Or I.”

“Damn it. I hope she wasn’t inside when the earthquake happened. Prisoners you say? I was supposed to be the one rescuing you. So much for my attempt at heroics.”

“You were supposed to save us?” Rowan said sardonically with a look to match. “You came waltzing in here without knowing what this place was thinking you could save us?”

“I thought it would only be a few dozen people at most.”

“Do you at least know the way out?” Seres asked.

“I only got part way in before the guards found me. I don’t remember what happened between them and meeting the ‘lord’ who seemed to be in charge.”

“Fein,” Rowan snarled. “Well there goes that plan. Let’s get moving. Do you still have a handle on where we should be going, Amran?”

“Just.”

“What about him?” Seres asked, pointing at Lord Ædarik. “He might not have had any useful information, but he did come here to save us. Even if he did fail in the end.” She gave Rowan a pleading look with her large Ferran eyes; her tail was still and her ears were drooping slightly.

“Don’t give me that look, Seres. I don’t need to be weighed down by guilt from leaving him here after he went and told us his idiotic plan.”

“He might also be useful once we get out of here,” Amran added begrudgingly.

“He’s your responsibility, Amran. I need to focus on keeping Seres safe.”

“Fine.” 

*****

They marched onwards with their new addition being helped along with Amran. With each step, Rowan started to develop a nagging feeling of familiarity. She realised why almost too late.

“We don’t need to turn left here, do we Amran?” she whispered.

“No?” he responded at a more normal volume. “Why do you ask?”

“Lord Fein’s offices are just down there,” she stressed as quietly as she could manage.

Practically everyone realised the danger they were in. Lord Fein was almost guaranteed to have one or two Awakened individuals nearby. 

“Do we split up?” Amran asked nervously.

The answer he got was much louder than he had expected.

“Guards! We’re over h…” Rowan stabbed the girl in the throat before she could finish alerting the enemy. She was crying when she withdrew the bloody knife. The damage had already been done.

“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly as she withdrew the knife, tears streaming down her face. The damage had been done, but Rowan couldn’t help but feel regret for the poor girl. She wasn’t to blame for not being strong enough. She wasn’t to blame for being a threat. She wasn’t to blame for reminding Rowan what she needed to do. “Amran. Please keep Seres safe for me. I have some unfinished business.”

Even the young Stoic failed to hide the grim trepidation he felt from those words. “Don’t do it, Rowan.” She was already gone, walking towards Lord Fein’s office. Before long, she was out of sight.

*****

Lord Fein’s office had seen better days. It looked like an incredibly violent storm had passed through, leaving absolutely nothing untouched. Gone was the organised decorum that the room had always tried to present. Now only ruin remained and it filled Rowan with a sense of catharsis. She had marched in as Fein was clambered to get everything organised again. It didn’t take a genius to see how futile an endeavour it was to try single-handedly. 

Rowan cleared her throat to announce herself. Fein turned to look at her. Instead of his usual genteel self, Rowan saw fear. His face had been ruined by the quake and he was caked in blood and grime.

“It’s good to see you, Lord Fein,” she said darkly.

“Miss Rowan,” he started.

“I told you this day would come. My shackles are broken and I will have my vengeance. Know this, Fein. Today marks the start of my crusade. You should feel honoured that I am killing you first. Fear not, it will be extremely painful.” 

“You don’t need to do this. If you let me go, I’ll tell you how to get out of here. I can even deactivate the scars on your back.” Rowan could see the beads of sweat rolling down Lord Fein’s ruined face.

“Are you an idiot? I invoked the true name of the Goddess in my oath of vengeance. Now that we are face to face, I cannot let you go.” Rowan started to walk towards him, the tears from before still glistening softly.

His voice quivered in fear. “Be reasonable.”

“If only you had extended us the same courtesy. You set out to forge a weapon and you succeeded. Take solace in that as I end you.” 

Rowan took the final step. She looked into Fein’s eyes and drove the knife into his gut. It wasn’t lethal. Not immediately at least. He had to suffer and Rowan was no stranger to pain. She pushed down on the handle and twisted it into his diaphragm. Fein clawed weakly at her wrist. It was clear what he wanted and Rowan was all too happy to oblige. She ripped the knife free. Fein cried out in agony, his voice a visceral scream. His breathing started to falter.

“You know, Lord Fein, you should consider yourself lucky that I’m not angry right now. If I was, my left hand would be gripping your frail little neck right now. Imagine your blood boiling as it rushed to your brain.” Rowan’s voice was dripping with venom as she drove the knife into his thigh, just nipping the femoral artery. It was done. Even if Fein got immediate medical attention, his death was all but assured.

With grim satisfaction, Rowan turned her back on Lord Fein. A second later, she went crashing against the wall. A giant fist had hit her square in the ribs. She felt several of them crack.

“Strange small girl. Stop acting wrong.” It was the Al’duur; the giant of a man who carved the brand into her back.

“Back off or I’ll kill you as well,” Rowan wheezed. She struggled back to her feet.

He towered over Rowan, his body and arms covered in thick hide, bony ridges and elaborate tattoos,. “You not able to kill me even if you were three your size.” 

“I can try.” She raised her knife into a forward facing guard. In the distance, she heard the rapid fall of feet on stone getting ever closer.

The Al’duur man blocked the only exit with his sheer size. He was a leviathan next to Rowan. She had to get past him. If it weren’t for her ribs, she could have probably dove between his legs.

“You can do it.”

“Rowan! I’ll distract him,” shouted Amran from behind the Al’duur as he leapt onto his back. The larger man’s movements started to become sluggish as Amran clung to him.

“What are you doing here?” coughed Rowan, “You should be watching out for Seres.”

“That’s your job, you idiot,” Amran said back through clenched teeth.

“You are idiot here,” the giant interrupted as his tattooed arms started to bulge. He grabbed Amran’s ankle in a vice-like grip,  ripped him off of his back and slammed him against the cave wall with a resounding crack.

The Al’duur had moved out of the exit. Rowan could leave Amran behind and run. Instead, her anger flared. Amran smiled, despite his mangled ankle. Rowan limped between him and the giant.

“Rowan, I need you to listen,” whispered Amran, “Don’t attack him. Instead pulse as much heat as you can into this wall. Then throw the knife on my mark.” 

He reached out and gently touched her ankle as she got ready to face their eminent foe. She didn’t understand why he wanted her to heat up the wall, but she had little else in the way of options. The Al’duur just looked at them, confused. 

After a few moments, Amran shouted, “Now, Rowan!” Then the wall started to fracture.

In anticipation, Rowan threw the knife at the giant’s face as a twitch reaction. He managed block in the nick of time, the knife glancing off one of the ridges on his arm. When he lowered the arm, there was a boom and the ceiling came crashing down on him.

Outside the room, Rowan was struggling to drag Amran to the others. “You were supposed to leave me in there, you idiot,” he reprimanded her. “If I knew you were going to be this stupid I wouldn’t have failed to give to any energy.” He was not happy with the situation. Rowan has needlessly risked herself by saving him.

“I couldn’t just let you die. I cannae sacrifice people like it’s nothing,” cried Rowan painfully.

“You’ve already sacrificed people so that you and Seres can escape. You made a promise.”

“They can still be saved!”

“Don’t lie to yourself.”

“Some of them can be. I hope. And it still hurts. I couldnae handle it if it was because of a friend.”

“Damn it. I accepted that I was going to die if I needed to, Rowan. I even left the route to Maro’s cell on the lord’s sleeve.”

“Well you didn’t need to die.”

*****

When they got to the others, Seres ran into Rowan’s arms crying. “We need to get going,” said Rowan as she hugged Seres back. “Someone help Amran.” She was feeling extremely weak. The burst of anger had drained almost all of her energy reserves. It was like she hadn’t eaten in a week. There was no way she could do another fight. Hopefully though, if everything went according to plan, they were home free. Rowan smiled at everyone.

There weren’t as many as before. Some had run away, but it was more than Rowan could have hoped for. Even then, it was not enough. She promised to herself that she would come back and save as many as could while they walked the long road to freedom. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 12

Ædarik felt cold from anger and the ebon flow of night as he followed the two shrouded men garbed in thick, black gambeson. He wanted to kill them, to gut them mercilessly for what they did. In the long hours he had waited, listening to the poor girl’s cries, he knew true torment and that was nothing compared to what she had suffered. If he could, he would go back and beat Lord Feilan within an inch of his life before having him confess all of his crimes. That was, however, beyond him and it wouldn’t guarantee the safety of the girl or anyone else that was in the same position as her. 

Somewhere, Feilan was keeping young girls prisoner so that he could fulfil his twisted desires. Ædarik was sure of it. So he followed the men as they carried the girl away from Castle Draskaan into the village below. The girl was limp in their arms, too tired to struggle. Ædarik kept to the shadows as he stalked them at a distance. It was all he could do to not get caught. Were it not for his Gift, that of Shadows, he would have failed before he even began.

The two men surprised him when they turned away from the village. Ædarik had been sure that the girl had been taken from the village. Instead, they turned towards the nearby low lying hills. Then they vanished. Ædarik abandoned all pretences of stealth and ran after them into the deep gully that they had ventured into. They were nowhere to be seen. Even in the dark of night and the labyrinth of stone, they shouldn’t have just disappeared. He had to find them.

He laughed bitterly to himself as he went searching. Not once, but twice, he caught himself on the thorny undergrowth. The second time he was sent crashing into one of the large rocky structures.

“Fuck!” he cried out as it dug deeply into his back. His eyes opened wide from the sudden jolt of pain. By chance, they landed on a jagged crevasse across from him on the other side of the gully. He struggled up and grabbed his cane. This time, he made sure to watch his step as he investigated the opening. It went deep into the gully.

A cave?

There was no time to waste. He rushed into the cave with his weighted cane ready for combat. In the distance, he saw the dark forms of the two men carrying the young girl. He charged them. THWACK! The head of his cane struck the man on the left, caving in his skull. Before the other one could act, he swung again. This time, the cane struck the man in the throat. He started choking as his windpipe collapsed. Whereas the first man had died instantly, the second took significantly longer to pass into oblivion

Ædarik was breathing heavily. Luck had guided his strikes. He crouched down to check on the girl. They had dropped her in the ground and she just lay there listlessly with her hands bound behind her back. Ædarik caught a glimpse of the massive scarring on her back as he helped her up. From what he could tell, she was around thirteen or fourteen. At a push, she might have been fifteen, but Ædarik doubted that. When she saw him, panic crept up onto her listless face and she tried to push away.

Not wanting to scare her, Ædarik backed away. “Easy there. I’m not here to hurt you.” Judging from her expression, it wasn’t the best thing for him to say. In his own awkward panic, he stood up and took a couple of steps back with his arm up and on show to show that he was unarmed. She only shrunk further away. “Shit, this isn’t working is it?”

No response other than tears was given.

“I came here to rescue you. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it earlier, but I have to save the others. There are others, aren’t there?” The question came filled with anxiety. The possibility that he had delayed too long in rescuing the girl was not lost on him.

She turned pale at the implication that he could have saved her earlier before she nodded hesitantly.

“That’s good. Well it isn’t, but you get my point. Are they further in?”

“I don’t know,” she said meekly.

“Damn.”

The girl shrunk again from his sudden remark.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m going further in. The exit is that way.” He pointed in the direction he had come from. 

“I can’t leave.”

“Sure you can,” he responded incredulously before seeing her bindings. “Oh. I’m sure one of them has the keys.” 

Ædarik found a ring of keys on one of the men and then struggled to find the right one. “Every damn time,” he muttered to himself, “Why is it that no one is able to organise their keys properly?” Eventually, he found the right one and he summarily released the girl from her shackles.

“Thank you,” she whispered, still too scared to look him in the eye and flinching every time he got near her.

“You must be cold. Take my jacket and wait outside. If I’m not back by the time the sun is up, go west. You’ll see a village. It should be safe there; I hope. But, whatever you do, don’t go to the castle.”

Ædarik watched her leave before turning to luck deeper into the caves. Then he threw up. At twenty years of age, he had taken his first and second life. In those twenty long years, nothing had prepared him for the sensation. Even in his bloodlust, he hadn’t anticipated the weight his actions would hold. Only by putting up a brave face in front of the girl had he saved himself from showering her in vomit. Disgusted with himself, he wiped away the acrid remains of his dinner from his lip. Then he took hold of his cane and a dagger from one of the men before starting his stalwart march into the caves. His quest continued.

*****

Meanwhile, deeper in the caves Rowan woke up from a nightmare. Even with her resolve set in steel, she couldn’t stop the nightmares. Not even the comfort of her friends or the fleeting words from Rina would stop them. She lay there in her cot, a cold sweat clinging to her body. 

So much had changed in the five years since she had invoked the Goddess’ name. The cell was quieter for one. A year or so after she had arrived, any and all shipments of new arrivals came to an end. As such, there was no one to replace the prisoners that fell to the hammer and accepted the bargain. To this day, Rowan missed Kiriin dearly. She regretted not trying to do more for her when she had the chance. Even so, she was confident that Kiriin was out there and that meant that she could still be saved. 

That was another consequence to the declining population of the cell was that it was also an aging population. Before too long, it had gotten to the point where it was unusual if you hadn’t hooked up with someone at least once. Rowan was one such person. As were her two friends. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t interested. She was very interested and she wasn’t lacking for options. Many people considered her to be highly attractive, as much as anyone could be considered attractive in their highly dishevelled circumstances. She had even been propositioned that night prior. She declined of course, which resulted in him finding another mate and them having very loud sex in the cot next to hers. In any other situation, she would have considered it, but right now, it was another weapon that could be used against her.

She also had to protect Seres who was blossoming into a fine young woman. Both of them had matured a lot in five years. In some ways, Seres had overtaken Rowan. However, in what felt almost sacrilegious, Rowan was the taller of the two by a good four fingers if you ignored her ears. It made sense, of course, but Rowan was used to being the short one. At least Amran was taller than her, even if only just. Making sure no one made advances on Seres was a challenge, but she found that threatening worked well enough when supplemented by Amran’s watchful eye.

Rowan had also spent much of the five years training her body to use energy more efficiently. It was an arduous task, even with her getting more food to ensure that she didn’t die from the additional torture. It was also a necessary task to make sure that she had enough energy when the time came. She knew that breaking out would take everything she had; maybe more. All the other training she had done was also bound to help. Nothing would stop Rowan from completing her mission.

Then it happened. A small tremor. Nothing major, but enough to terrify anyone that lived underground. The earthquakes were getting more and more frequent. They were also getting stronger on average. Earlier that year, a particularly fierce one caused a cave-in in one of the cells, killing everyone inside. It was one of the few things that Rowan was scared of getting in the way of her plans. Another earthquake like that one could bring it all crashing down. It could…

“Is that you, Rowan?” a quiet voice whispered from a few cots away, interrupting her thoughts. 

“Seres? It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”

“Are you sure?” Seres asked with a note of worry.

“Aye,” Rowan responded a little too quickly.

“I wish that sounded convincing,” Seres said glumly. “It’s too late anyway. There’s no way I can get back to sleep.”

“Don’t be stubborn, Seres. You need all the sleep you can get.”

“Look who’s talking,” she responded dryly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the cell, Rowan swore she heard Amran mumble “Pot meet kettle,” in his sleep.

“How about we both try going back to sleep?” Rowan suggested.

“How about you suggest something possible next time?” Seres retorted.

The ground shook again, as if to unintentionally punctuate her point. It was stronger this time. Still not as bad as the worst they had experienced, but that was still not a comforting thought. This time, more people woke up.

“What’s going on?” someone shouted.

“Not again!”

“Why won’t it just stop already?”

“I’m so done with all this crap!”

Everyone was panicking. Understandably so. They all knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.

*****

Ædarik felt water splash against his face, the shock granted him the gift of cognisance. His quest had come to a sudden end when he took a wrong turn and walked into what he assumed was a guard room. He was outmatched, outnumbered, and deprived of any chance of surprising him. Now he was their prisoner. A man wearing a lord’s clothing stood before him with a quizzical gaze. 

“What do we have here?” the lordly figure asked him. “A lord? Tell me, who are you and why are you here?”

“Lord Ædarik of House Beltein, son of Lord Edaris Beltein and I am here to end your disgusting regime.” He tried to spit his words at the man. They lost their impact when he failed to do so.

“Very impressive,” the lord clapped. “Am I supposed to be intimidated?”

“I swear…”

“Stop right there before you say something that will get you hurt. How did you find this place? Most people would have lied already and said they wandered in by accident.”

“Some of your men were gracious enough to lead me here from Lord Feilan’s estates.”

“I see. Well unfortunately, now that you are here, we can’t exactly let you leave. Not yet at least.”

“You can’t keep me. My friends know where I am.”

“Doubtful.”

“Well they know I wouldn’t just disappear.”

“Perhaps not. However, we cannot let you go and reveal our position. As such, we must keep you here until the information you hold is useless. We will of course show you hospitality befitting your rank as a young Lord of the March.”

“You know my title?”

“Of course I do. I am a lord after all. With that said, I think we are done here. Guards! Take Lord Ædarik here to the guest quarters under close watch. If he needs anything, do what you can to provide. Also send out a patrol. I fear that Lord Feilan’s foolishness may have allowed one of the weapons to escape.”

“Yessir,” the four guards saluted. Two of them escorted Ædarik and the other two went to investigate, leaving Lord Fein alone to set up his Speaking Crystal.

*****

“HE DID WHAT?” Lord Edaris shouted down the crystal. Sena had brought it to him after Lord Fein contacted the keep with news of the encounter he had just had. She had to be careful not to let her anger arc over to Lord Edaris.

“He found one of the entrances into the caves, Lord Edaris. By following some of my wardens, I believe.” Lord Fein was doing his best to sound calm. That didn’t stop him from sweating profusely. Edaris was not a man to be angered lightly. The first lord that had been assigned to oversee the operation was assassinated by his maid for failing him. 

“And how, pray tell, did he manage to discover the wardens and come to the conclusion that he should follow them?”

“My belief is that the fault lies with Lord Feilan, my lord. It seems likely that he bribed the wardens to bring him some of the younger weapons to satiate his appetite. Upon investigating, one of the female prisoners is indeed missing. She will be found. You have my word.”

“Very well. What of my son? How will you deal with him?”

“We are making sure that he doesn’t see the full scope of the operation. For now, we will hold him in the guest quarters. With the earthquakes, I have accelerated our move onto the next phase. Before long, we will be able to release him as the information he holds will be redundant.”

“Understood. Make this right, and the punishment will only fall on Lord Feilan’s shoulders.”

“Yes, my lord. I’ll get ri…” The response was cut short by a loud rumble and a crash. Then it was silent.

“Lord Fein? Answer me, Fein. Dammit.”

Lord Edaris’ face was black with rage. Or was it fear?

*****

The earth roared. Like an explosion, everyone was launched off their feet. Rowan landed with a crash and the ground continued to jolt violently beneath her. It was happening, the strongest quake yet and its tumultuous rumbling called for catastrophe.

“SERES!” she shouted, trying to be heard above the cacophony of moving stone. It was dizzying beyond compare. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stay still. The ground had made her its plaything, and like a child, it played rough.

Rocks started to fall and the floor cracked. Someone was thrown into the rift before another jolt pushed it closed again. Rowan saw the boy get crushed as someone tried to save them. It was the boy that had propositioned her last night.

For several minutes, pandemonium reigned. The sound of trembling earth was deafening. Illyria was crying out. Countless people had died. Rowan was safe and so was Seres. Amran had shielded her with his body. He had clearly seen better days, but he was standing. Across from them, the gate was broken. Now was the time.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Interlude: Lordly Discoveries

Content Warning: Click here for details.

A melancholic lord of perhaps thirty looked down at his indignant son. “No arguments, Ædarik. Until the King decides to extend his protections to the East, you will live with your Aunt and Uncle in the Capital.”

“I don’t wanna,” the boy complained.

“Speak properly, boy. You are a lord, not some uneducated peasant. I will not have my last surviving heir represent our house inadequately with a pauper’s elocution nor will I risk him to poorly veiled incursions by Alaran and Karik.” The lord was growing angry. He didn’t have time to explain things to his son. The attacks had already taken both of his wives, all of his lovers, and every child he had ever sired, bar Ædarik.

“But my friends are here.”

“You can make new friends in Særis.”

“It won’t be the same.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“That’s not an argument. I’m not going. If you want the King’s help, why not just ask him? Then I won’t need to go anywhere.

“I already have. Countless times. He considered the Ru’eni threat to the Ferran Principality of Llyr to be more important than the plight of his own countrymen. And like him, I will not change my mind on this matter. You leave on the morrow.”

In response, the boy stormed out of the office.

“Lord Edaris?”

The sudden voice snapped the melancholic lord from his recollection of years long since passed. “Yes, Sena?” he asked the maid. She was young, roughly the same age as his son, with long, midnight blue hair kept in a well-maintained and braided bun. 

“A report, milord,” the maid responded. 

“Very well. Proceed.”

“Your sister sends word regarding your son. He has been performing remarkably well in his studies at the Azure University. He has also been engaging in one of the lordly schools of self defence. Talanking, with a weighted cane, if my informants are to be believed. Also some Telarik fencing for swordplay.”

“Good. It’s about time he learned how to defend himself. Anything else?”

“Yes, milord. Lord Fein wishes to speak with you. Something about moving on to the next phase. I believe he is worried about the continued stability of the caves with the increased seismic activity that has been happening in the area.”

“Of course. I’ll contact him immediately. Please set up the Speaking Crystal and make sure that the room is secured.” It was a simple request that Lord Edaris knew that Sena could complete with ease, but it was necessary. Not everyone in his employ was privy to the operation.

“Right away, milord,” Sena responded before remembering something. “One last thing. It has come to my attention that one of your son’s friends intends to invite him and some others to a party at their family estates.”

“And this matters why?” Edaris asked with a note of confusion.

“The friend in question is the son of Lord Feilan. Lord Feilan is already problematic enough with his eccentricities. We have had to cover up for him on countless occasions. I don’t understand why you have allied yourself with such a man?” The maid posited the question with a look of disgust and the slight crackling of electricity. She couldn’t stand Lord Feilan.

“Because the caves are on his lands and he was easy to manipulate,” Lord Edaris explained. “He wants to be free of the King’s watch, though for considerably less noble reasons than I. We’ll eliminate him when the time comes. Until then, hold your anger. He is useful.”

“Yes, milord,” Sena relented, the sound of electricity snapping in the air becoming notably quieter. “I also believe that Lord Landras, the friend in question, is hoping to set up your son with his younger sister.”

“I’ll speak with Lord Feilan and make sure that he behaves. As for the second point, some harmless fun won’t hurt Ædarik. It might even be a new and valuable experience for him. Is that all you have to report?”

“Yes, milord. Everything else I shall leave here for you to peruse at your leisure.”

“Thank you. If that’s everything, you are dismissed.”

Sena nodded and turned on her heel towards the door. Just before leaving, she looked at Lord Edaris one last time. “Will you be needing my other services later on tonight, milord?”

“Ah. Yes, that would be most appreciated.”

She gave him an excited smile in response and then left. 

“I really should reward her more,” he said to himself when she was gone. Like him, she had lost practically everything when Alaran and Karik started attacking the Særis outlands. When he realised his plan, she was one from the first wave of adolescents that he took into his service, and unlike those that followed, she volunteered. The attack had left her broken. Now she had a purpose. Vengeance against the king that had abandoned her and against the countries that had taken everything from her. Edaris had given her that chance. 

He knew that she would die for him, even without strange crests that had been given to him in a deal with the Al’duur of Dreis. She loved him and when she reached maturity, she had started offering her body to him. He accepted, though not because he desired her personally. It was more that he desired the sensation such intimacy could give and because they suffered the same loneliness. They were kindred spirits. It also made for a good reward. She had been exemplary in her services as both a maid and a bodyguard.

*****

Meanwhile, the entire width of the country away, a young lord was roused from the same memory in the middle of a lecture. A piece of chalk had hit him square in the forehead. A squat old man with messy, balding, white hair and a similarly frazzled beard with the faintest remnants of brown glowered at him. “It would seem that Lord Ædarik is more interested in sniffing butterfly dust than he is learning about the heavenly majesty that is the divine anatomy of our world’s celestial mother, the Goddess. Yes. Yes. Disappointing. Mother knows when you are being naughty. That is why She has two eyes and why they are never closed at the same time. Except for that one time, yes.”

“Um, Professor?” another student interrupted, “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

“Who said that? Lord Devlin? Wait no, that’s Lady Deilin now. Ah! I see. It was Miss Linnet. Did someone make you an expert on Divine Anatomy while I was away on my exhibition? No? Then don’t interrupt me unless I ask you to. Questions are fine.”

Lord Ædarik sighed. He hadn’t planned on spending his afternoon in one of the lectures given by the infamous Dori Baille, Scholar of Divine Anatomy and certified nutcase. He was a genius in his field if you believed what he was saying and he didn’t make that easy. He was almost impossible to follow at the best of times and he had a creepy fascination with the Goddess’ hair, which was apparently, according to his most recent exhibition, green. Ædarik would have much rather gone to a lecture by Professor Nolus on Tactics Against an Awakened Force or Traveller Monk Vas’ class on Kairosi Philosophy. Instead he had been dragged along by Landras who seemed particularly interested in the subject at hand. Professor Dori was spouting his theory on the sudden increase of seismic activity and the strange events in the summer of five years prior.

“You see, it is my belief that someone called upon the Goddess’ ire. The events of five years ago screams of a threefold Resonance between the Goddess, Illyria and the Heart of the Sun. Did you not see Her eyes darken? Or did you not recognise how the weather was especially bad that year? Illyria shook and continues to shake even now. We had a catastrophic earthquake not two days ago and Chain of Fire is, well it’s on fire. The Goddess is angry and Her family shares in Her fury. How many people have died? The reports from the first few months show that numbers rose to the tens of thousands and that is in our fair nation and Llen Færa alone. Yes, most tragic. I can’t even fathom the numbers worldwide. This is why, if my theory is true, which I know it is, you should never call upon the Goddess’ True Name if you don’t truly mean to and don’t understand the consequences. Wait! I said that wrong. The validity of my theory should have no bearing on whether or not you should follow my warning. Follow it or beware. Yes. Beware. Did I do a good job, Mother? Yes, thank you.”

The lecture continued on in much the same way. If Professor Baille utilised his uncanny ability to belabour on anything other than his subject of choice, politicians would have hired him years ago to filibuster for days on end. When it was over, Ædarik rushed out into the grand halls of the Azure University, leaving his friends behind. He could finally relax his brain. There was no blocking out Professor Baille for extended periods of time and listening to him was an exercise in and of itself.

“Arik!” Landras shouted after him from the lecture theatre, “Wait up,” 

“Why did you make me attend that lecture, Landras,” Ædarik called back.

“Because it’s interesting and has had a massive impact on us northern families,” Landras responded while stumbling out of the room, their other friends following up behind.

“You call that interesting?” Davra, the one commoner of the group asked.

“You can’t deny that he has a somewhat eccentric charm,” Lady Deilin remarked, shifting the hem of her dress awkwardly. She still wasn’t quite used to wearing the garment, but she has started smiling a lot more ever since her parents had come to terms with who she was.

“Is that what you call it?” Ædarik asked wryly.

“What? I’m just saying that a man that understands and acts on his passions is really attractive. If it isn’t dangerous or hurtful to others that is.”

“Dev knows what’s up,” Landras laughed. Deilin shrunk slightly at use of her old nickname. It hurt more coming from a friend. Everyone glared at him until he realised his mistake. “Oh, sorry, Deilin. I’m still not used to all this,” he apologised awkwardly, motioning towards her with his hands waving up and down her body. It served to only make her more uncomfortable.

“Perhaps don’t do that, Landras,” Ædarik said firmly.

“Thank you, Arik,” Deilin smiled meekly. It was an odd sight to see. She was the tallest member of the group and before she had always expressed herself with an air of confidence. However, when she told everyone about who she really was inside, she admitted that she had just been acting in the way she thought people expected her to act, when in reality it was a lie that she had been telling herself and everyone else.

“Have you started your Hormonal Resonance Therapy yet?” Alena, the younger Ferran girl of the group asked hesitantly.

“Not yet. It’s incredibly expensive and the number of Doctors with the correct Gift that are good enough are few and far between. For now I need to make do with Alchemist synthesised hormones.”

“That’s great,” Landras interjected, “but before we go any further with that conversation, I’d like to invite you all to a party. It’s my sister’s seventeenth birthday and I have to go, but it will be so boring without any of my best friends.” He gave them a massive smile. He was absolutely awful at being sincere at times.

“Where is it?” Ædarik asked. “Somewhere in the city?”

“Noo no no no no. At our family estates. You’ll all be honoured guests of course. Even you, Davra. I don’t care if you are technically a commoner. Rank has no meaning here. And it’s not like you’re a peasant. Come on, I’ll even buy you a dress. Any one that you want. We can make a trip out of it. All of us.”

Ædarik had some sneaking suspicions as to why Landras was willing to go to such potential expenses for Davra, but he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t about to ruin his friend’s chances by exposing his awkward attempts at courting. Davra didn’t seem to mind, thankfully. In fact, when the time came for them to go shopping, she called his bluff and ordered the most expensive dress she could find that matched her tastes.

*****

A month later, the five of them were in a carriage en route to Landras’ family estates. They hadn’t quite anticipated that the journey would take quite so long. Originally they were going to take a ship for the entire journey. However, that plan came to an end around halfway, just before the Straights of Fire between the Isle of Llen Færa and the western coast of Særis. They ran afoul of a rogue wave, driving them towards land. The ship survived, but the damage to the mast was beyond what could be fixed at sea or in any meaningful amount of time. Fortunately, they had left with time to spare, allowing them to take the rest of the journey by carriage. It wasn’t quite as glamorous, but it was functional. It might have even been picturesque if it wasn’t for Landras’ complaints.

“How much longer, driver?” he asked through the window.

“We should be there by tonight’s eve, milord,” the driver answered quickly.

“Evening? It’s already been a week. You were supposed to be the fastest coach driver in port.”

“Imma trying, milord, but I can only push the belass so far.”

“Fine! Just know that I won’t be tipping you if we’re late.”

“Most understandable, milord…” Before he could finish, Landras closed the window in his face.

“You shouldn’t be so rude, Landras,” Alena scolded him timidly.

“We should have arrived days ago,” he complained.

“Considering the sea route, I doubt it would have been that much shorter,” Deilin opined.

“You don’t know that.”

“This route is like a third of the distance from the point where we landed,” she pointed out.

“But ships are fast.”

“Not that fast.”

“Well at least it was comfier.” He just wasn’t letting it rest.

“Enough Landras. You’re just making the trip feel longer with all this complaining,” Davra finally interjected.

“Fine!” he harrumphed, finally shutting up. The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. Which is to say, the entirety of the land trip was uneventful. Landras just liked to complain when things didn’t go his way.

When they finally pulled up, they were greeted by a towering and incredibly imposing castle with a depressing lack of colour. The intimidating form of the castle wasn’t helped by its location on top of a rather large hill. To celebrate the return of Lord Landras, they launched a boulder from one of their trebuchets into the nearby fjord, likely terrifying everyone in the village below.

“Your family certainly has a unique sense of style, Landras,” Ædarik remarked.

“I couldn’t have said it finer myself, Arik. I’ve missed this. My father let me use the trebuchet all the time before he sent me to get an education in the capital.”

“That’s not very… ah responsible,” Alena said quietly, her ears lowered and her tail still.

“What was that, Alena?” Landras asked.

“Nothing.” He failed to notice how intimidated she was by everything. 

Deilin put a comforting hand on her shoulder and smiled. “It’s okay, Alena. We’ll go in together.”

Alena smiled back nervously.

“Shall we, Landras?” Davra prodded.

“Yes of course. Where are my manners. Right this way, esteemed guests of mine.”

“Stop being needlessly dramatic,” Ædarik laughed.

Landras guided them towards the entrance to the main keep where an army of servants awaited them. The maids and manservants whirled into action as they approached, taking hold of their belongings and taking note of who everything belonged to. Then the head butler took charge and led them into the keep.

As they got closer, it became clear that the walls weren’t plain stone as Ædarik had believed from further away. Instead they were painted a deep purple that was reminiscent of some of the star clusters in the night sky. It was an interesting choice for a castle, but who was Ædarik to judge. If it was meant to intimidate, it was certainly doing its job. The inside of the keep was somewhat brighter. Once you got past the first portcullis, the entryway full of murder holes and the second portcullis into the actual entry hall which was much larger than would be typical of a castle very clearly designed with war in mind, that is. It spoke of conflicting extravagances.

“I will take you to your rooms post haste, my lords and ladies. The maids have already drawn private baths for each of you. When you are ready, I will show you to the dining room where you will sup with Lord Feilan and Lady Larissa. Lady Ashlin will also be in attendance. Consider yourselves privileged to be meeting her before her formal debut. If you have any requirements, feel free to ask me or any of the maids if they are not clearly in the middle of a task.” The butler spoke with an old measured diction, as if he had practiced elocution since he was just a babe.

Each of them were given their own luxuriously decorated rooms with all the amenities they could ask for. As promised, they were provided with full baths and they were all offered assistance with bathing, grooming and make-up if they so desired. Ædarik politely declined, though he was sure some of his friends would accept.

*****

Sometime later, they all reconvened in the main entry of the keep, waiting on Landras so that they could be shown to dinner.

“He’s taking his sweet time,” Davra complained. “I could eat a horse.”

“That’s a colourful way of saying you’re hungry, Davra,” Deilin giggled.

“It’s the truth. He spent all that time complaining and now he’s making us wait.”

“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Ædarik reassured her. “He probably spent too long in the bath.”

They waited for five more minutes. Then ten. It was fifteen minutes when Landrass finally put in an appearance.

“Sorry I’m late,” he apologised. “That bath was simply divine and I had so much grooming to do.” 

Everyone stared at him. They too had done some much needed grooming and the girls had also had their make-up done. Yet none of them had taken anywhere near as long. He didn’t even look like he’d done much more than shave and slightly style his hair.

He threw up his arms in response to their gazes. “What more do you want from me?”

They didn’t have anything to say to that.

Seeing that their conversation was over, the head butler guided them down a long corridor and into the family’s more intimate dining room in the private wing of the castle. They were greeted at the door by Lord Feilan personally. It was Ædarik’s first time seeing the man and he was not what he expected. Before him was a late middle aged man, a similar age to his father, with dark green eyes and a face like a raven, his hair being a fitting charcoal black. Somewhat strikingly, he also sported a three peak chinstrap and an immaculate moustache. He also seemed to share little in terms of looks with his only son with the exception of general build and hair colour. Apart from that, it seemed like Landras favoured his mother.

Lady Larissa greeted them from her seat. “My apologies,” she said, “I would stand, but I unfortunately was injured in a horse riding accident some years ago and too much movement causes me great pain.”

“Perfectly understandable, Your Grace,” Ædarik responded politely. 

“Larissa is fine. You are guests here after all.

“Likewise, feel free to call me Feilan. If you must use honorifics, lord is fine. Now please be seated. My daughter will arrive shortly. I’m told she is nervous about meeting so many new people at once.”

“Isn’t it a bit late for her to be shy of a few new people, Lord Feilan?” Davra asked. “Her party and debut is in just a couple of days.

“Exactly,” Feilan guffawed. “I said the exact same thing to her this morning.”

“Yes, dear,” Larissa chided. “Now let us drink while we wait.”

On her signal, everyone was served a beverage of their liking. They didn’t need to ask; the drinks had already been individually prepared.

“Sorry, I went and told them your favourites in advance,” Landras admitted.

“Of course you would,” Ædarik laughed.

They engaged in casual conversation while they waited for Ashlin to arrive. Thankfully, they didn’t need to wait too much longer as the door opened in just under five minutes and she was introduced to the room. She surprised Ædarik even more than Lord Feilan had. She was slender of frame, almost too slender, and her skin had a slight touch of bronze. She wore a petite black dress which would have been seen as scandalous in a court setting despite being perfectly modest. It also complimented her most striking features perfectly. Such features came in the form of her long, perfectly straight, magenta hair and rose coloured eyes. The colours were rare. Exceptionally so, but that was par the course for the nobility. What really made it strange, was the fact that no one else in her family bore traits with even a semblance of similarity. Even the texture of her hair was different. The more Ædarik looked, the more differences he noticed. He didn’t even realise he was staring when Davra elbowed him in the side. 

Ashlin curtsied shyly to everyone, trying to make eye contact with everyone but Ædarik. An odd gesture, but he paid it no mind. Instead he was distracted by Landras kicking him underneath the table and winking at him. Not wanting to be caught in whatever he was trying to insinuate, he turned to Ashlin. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Ashlin,” he said, standing up and taking a bow. “I must say that you look beautiful beyond compare.” They weren’t the words he would typically use to describe her. They weren’t entirely contrary to his opinion of her looks either. It was more that he felt like ‘pretty’ described her better; striking also. However, ‘beautiful’ had a much more regal sound to it and compliments never hurt anyone.

He was not expecting Ashlin to blush quite as much as she did. “Th-thank you, milord,” she stammered while trying to curtsy again.

Seeing the exchange, Deilin placed the middle knuckle of her index finger to her forehead in a rather unladylike manner while Davra laughed under her breath and Alena’s tail swished back and forth. All three of them read between the lines that Ædarik was missing.

“Quit standing there, dear sister. We’ve been waiting forever. Surely our guests are getting hungry,” Landras remarked. The irony of his statement was lost on no one.

*****

The first night at Castle Draskaan was rough despite all the comforts they were offered. Lesser earthquakes disrupted Ædarik’s sleep multiple times. By the time morning came about, he was starting to realise Landras’ fascination with Professor Baille’s lecture. At breakfast it became clear that everyone had had similar experiences and were coming to the same conclusion as he was.

“My apologies, for the restless night,” Lord Feilan apologised solemnly. “The earthquakes have been coming more and more frequently with each passing week. Thankfully they are too weak to do any real damage to anything other than a good night’s rest.”

“That’s the truth if ever I’ve heard it,” Landras yawned. 

Thankfully, the next night was notably quieter, allowing them to be fully rested for the party the following evening. The preparations were long and arduous as everyone wanted to look their best. Everyone had at least a little make-up applied, even Ædarik who usually avoided it. Of course, the girls went above and beyond. They were, after all, proud young ladies of the Azure and Ferran Courts. And Davra, who was a special case. However, they only wanted to show up the other guests, so they offered to help Lady Ashlin with the latest fashions from the capital, making sure that she would be ever so slightly more majestic than they were. She awkwardly accepted their kind offer and they worked their magic.

While they waited for Lady Ashlin to be ready and for the ladies in their company to make their own appearances, Ædarik and Landra waited in the great hall in a quiet corner where they could talk alone before mingling with the other guests.

“So…” Landras started awkwardly.

Ædarik looked at him quizzically. “Yes?”

“What do you think of my sister? She’s a real beauty isn’t she?”

“She is extremely pretty, yes,” Ædarik admitted.

“I was hoping you would say that.” Landras sighed in relief. “Would you perhaps consider courting her?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well she is about to become the most eligible bachelorette in the north.”

“Is that really how you want to be describing your own little sister?” Ædarik asked somewhat uncomfortably.

“Ignore that. Listen, Arik. She has a massive crush on you and I’d much rather call you brother than some random lord from a lesser noble family.”

Ædarik was no stranger to people finding him attractive, but this was unexpected. “How? We’ve only just met.” 

“I may have told her about you in the past. She’s a romantic, waiting for someone to sweep her off of her feet.”

“And I’m that person? How much of what you told her was true?”

“Enough. Trust me.”

“I trust you as far as I could throw you.”

“That hurts,” Landras said with mock objection.

“Deal with it. Did you not think of telling her that sometimes it’s better to take the initiative when it comes to love?

“When did you become such an expert. That might work with peasants and commoners, but the courts have certain protocols. A lady courting a lord is practically unheard of.”

“Are you still bitter that Lady Amalandis confessed to you before you could work up the courage? At this rate, the same thing will happen with Davra.

“You think she likes me?”

“Goddess knows. I’m just saying that her confessing is more likely than you even considering it in earnest.”

“I’m getting better.”

“Sure you are. Hang on. I think the ladies just walked in.”

Right on schedule, their three female friends walked in, looking absolutely stunning. Deilin stood in the middle, flanked on both sides by Alena and Davra. She wore a deep, sea blue dress that grew lighter and lighter the closer it got to the ruffled hem, giving the impression of rolling waves as she walked. It paired nicely with a dark brown wig that she wore down with several elaborately braided loops. She wasn’t quite comfortable with her natural hair yet as it was still on the short side and she yearned for long graceful locks. 

To Deilin’s left, the considerably shorter, doll-like Alena smiled with a confidence that neither lord was used to seeing. Her long tawny brown hair was woven into a waterfall of curls and her light green eyes were lined in an alluring black with a touch of a blush on her pale olive cheeks. Her blood red dress hugged closely to her petite form. Similarly to Deilin’s dress, it had a ruffled skirt, though with less body and an opening on the side to reveal her leg. The dress also featured a rather attractive bodice that led into a rather daring cut for the bust. Of course, it was also modified to allow for her tail to be free.

Last but not least, there was Davra, who had emptied Landras’ coffers a month ago to buy the dress that she now wore. For the cost, it was deceptively simple. It blushed gently like a ripened peach and the fabric flowed freely from the waist down where it was caught by a woven gold belt. The fine straps rested delicately on her shoulders and her ample curves filled out the bust and hips of the dress, only adding to its graceful form. To compliment the dress, she wore her hair in a loose, wavy ponytail, letting her golden locks do all the talking. From across the dance floor, she gave her lordly friends a sly wink from her wing lined eyes.

“Breathe, Landras,” Ædarik cautioned his friend after they saw the gesture. “Breathe.”

“I’m fine, Arik. I think I just took an arrow to the heart.”

“Just ask her already. I thought it was obvious before, but this is killing me.”

“I can do it. I can.”

“Good luck.”

“Later though, when the party is in full swing. I think I’ll need some liquid confidence first. Let’s go greet the ladies and mingle.”

“Sure thing.”

For a good while, they mingled. And danced for a good hour while they waited for Lady Ashlin to put in an appearance. Ædarik danced with all three of his friends in that time along with a few other ladies of the court. He even danced with a shy young lord of around eighteen years of age. Landras had been significantly less adventurous, either due to his lack of confidence or his focus. When he finally got round to dancing with her, it ended with fleeing from the room and her being rather taken aback. Ædarik was about to go after him when the moment they had all been waiting for arrived.

A herald entered the room accompanied by the rolling of a drum. When the drum stopped, he spoke. “Introducing Her Grace. Lady Ashlin Mariel Eladris of House Takiir, most illustrious daughter of Lord Feilan Eldras Alarik Tenten and Lady Larissa Meiliin Rua Ken of House Takiir.” When he finished his announcement, the drums started again as he made way for Ashlin. Ædarik’s jaw dropped when he saw her. She glowed. She actually glowed. Somehow the maids and his friends had figured out a way to make her positively radiant. Her face was like a diamond in a sea of brilliant magenta. The dress was equally stunning. The deep purple was of the same colour as the castle walls, only more vibrant and featuring a swirling galaxy and colourful nebulae. Like her face, the strategically placed crystalline star clusters glistened with every step, changing colours as they moved. Ædarik was not expecting that.

“Wow,” Alena said out of nowhere, stepping in beside him. “I knew she was going to be stunning, but this is something else.”

“Alena! When did you get there?”

“I was nearby when I saw you gawking, so I walked over. You should be careful. If I was standing in front of you, your jaw would have hit me on the head.” She was smiling sardonically at him, her tail swishing mischievously behind her.

“What’s gotten into you, Alena? You’re acting differently.”

“No I’m not. This is how I always act at parties. It’s not my fault you’ve never seen me at one before. I’m like this back at home as well.”

“Fair enough.” There wasn’t much else he could say to that. “Would you like another dance? I think I could do with a distraction.”

“I would love to dance, Lord Ædarik,” she smiled winsomely. “Thank you.”

He promised to himself that he would be better prepared next time.

After an hour of mingling, Ashlin approached Ædarik, having just finished talking to Deilin, Davra and Alena. She curtsied slightly and he bowed, making sure to go lower than she did, even if only slightly. It was her party, after all. “I’m honoured that you have found the time to speak with me, Lady Ashlin. I do apologise as it seems that your brother vanished just before your arrival and he is yet to return.”

“There is no need to apologise, Lord Ædarik. If anything, I should be the one to apologise for the untoward suggestion that I am about to make.”

“Oh?”

“If I may be so bold to ask, would you mind joining me on the dance floor?” She looked at him with the sincere, hopeful eyes of a young woman in love and it made his heart skip a beat. 

I was not prepared for this.

“It would be my pleasure, Lady Ashlin. And if you wouldn’t mind, would you address me as Arik? It is what my friends call me.”

The result of his response seemed to almost occur faster than he could give it. Ashlin’s face immediately brightened and she was practically jumping with joy, her hands in his. “Yes, of course, Lord Arik.”

The couple drew countless eyes, not just because of the pairing, but the fact that it was Ashlin’s debut dance. It wasn’t anything flashy, nor was it close to the best dance of the night, but it held a profound meaning for the young bachelorette. What it meant for Lord Ædarik, he wasn’t yet sure, though he knew that Ashlin had touched his heart in some small way. The one thing he was sure of, however, was that Lord Feilan had been absent for the entirety of the dance.

*****

Lord Feilan never returned to the party and as the night drew on, Ædarik found himself in desperate need of the bathroom, having drunk a fair bit. On his way back from relieving himself, he realised that he had accidentally done so in the private lavatory as opposed to the guest ones. He assumed it wouldn’t matter when a noise from deeper within the wing drew his attention. Lacking the inhibitions to warn against investigating further, he wandered in towards the sound. He did his best impression of what he believed sneaking should be like in his inebriated state. Miraculously, he didn’t get caught. Or maybe not. There was a disturbing lack of servants in the wing.

The noise was getting louder the closer he got. He barely realised that he was holding his breath. “You weren’t seen, were you?” a voice asked from a nearby room. Ædarik immediately sobered up and retreated into the shadows. For the first time in his life, he was actually finding a use for his Gift. He listened closer. He could hear a girl struggling in the room.

“Of course not, milord. We made sure she was silent for the entirety of the way here as well.” Ædarik didn’t recognise the voice that was speaking. He did however, recognise the voice that responded and his heart sank.

“Excellent. And Lord Fein is none the wiser?” It was Lord Feilan.

“He hasn’t indicated anything to the contrary, milord.”

“Absolutely capital. I should have you men rewarded. Perhaps you would like to partake in one of the girls?” Ædarik had to swallow the vomit from hearing the suggestion. He tried to shut out everything. He heard everything. He cursed himself for being unable to act. He wouldn’t let that girl go back to whatever hell she had come from.

*****

“Lord Edaris!” Sena called out to her master, word having just arrived from Castle Draskaan. “Lord Ædarik disappeared during Lady Ashlin Takiir’s party.”

“Fuck! Gods be damned, what was Feilan doing at the time?”

“He refused to answer, milord.”

“That raven-faced bastard! I swear, if he was indulging in his twisted perversions instead of keeping my son safe, I’ll castrate him myself.”

“I’ll make sure to blunt the knife for you, milord.”

*****

When the men left with the girl, Ædarik followed. Wherever they were going, there would be more like her. He would rescue her and then he would rescue the others.

Author’s Note: The first part of this chapter was really fun to write. That is to say, most of this chapter was really fun to write. Especially coming up with ideas for the dresses and writing the descriptions. One of them is a reference to a very popular JRPG. I wonder if you’ll be able to guess which one. Dori is also one of my favourite characters. The last part, however, was very difficult to write. I had to redo it several times to get it to a level that I hope didn’t go to far. The original draft was actually really traumatic for me. Normally I’m fine with letting my writing effect me emotionally. It’s not like I can do much to stop it with my BPD. However this time it went too far and I don’t want to inflict that on other people. I hope that you are able to enjoy this chapter even with the especially dark scene towards the end. This marks the start of Act 2.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Interlude: Broken Silver

Agony. That is what Kiriin felt as her torturer worked his craft. She was strapped to a chair and she was adorned with a crystalline crown. He played a grim melody on the crystals that Resonated deep within her soul. Each note gave rise to a different kind of pain. The only way she could hide from it was by retreating into her mind. She found a place so deep that she could barely hear the crystalline tumult. 

Then it stopped. She couldn’t hear a thing. Lord Fein had walked into the room. “Miss Kiriin, yes?” he asked, motioning her torturer to leave.

“What do you want?” she responded in a quivering tone.

“Merely to check in on you. Perhaps you are ready to accept my offer? Also, your friend Rowan gave in last night.”

“No! You’re lying!” It couldn’t be true. Rowan was stronger than that. She had to be.

“Hardly. She was overcome with grief from the death of her friend. She blamed herself. It was only a matter of time really.”

“But…”

“Tragic really, Miss Anri would have been a valuable asset. Such a horrible death. Are you sure you don’t want to accept the deal? You don’t need to suffer.” Before Kiriin could answer, Fein left the room and her torturer returned. She retreated back into her mind. It was too much. She couldn’t deal with the pain again. Not while she was already hurting so much from the news that Lord Fein had given her. She went even deeper into her mind not wanting to hear the song of torment. She went too deep. There was no escape.

*****

It was a different girl who woke up the next day. Her torture had come to an end. Last night she gave herself over to the good lords. To Lord Fein. She couldn’t remember why. Someone had died, someone she didn’t know. 

Hmm. No. That’s not right. But why do I feel like I’ve lost something? I have nothing to lose?

It didn’t matter. Even if she wanted to consider it further, she couldn’t muster the emotional drive to explore the depths of her memories. No, what mattered was that she now lived to serve and that she would soon be free of the grim halls that had been her hell since… when? She couldn’t even remember that small detail. 

Ah well.

She stood up and stretched out all of her kinks as she waited for her escort. Pain flared in her arms and back. When they broke her they gave her one last gift from the caves. A new set of scars meant to serve her going forwards. She was to be a weapon and they would make her stronger. Or so they said.

The door to the small cell opened wide and two wardens walked in. “This way,” they said in almost unison, motioning towards the door. “Lord Fein awaits.” They guided her through the caves and for the first time in however long, it was without shackles. It was a new experience. Interesting. She continued to observe her surroundings passively as they walked -It wasn’t quite how she remembered it, not that that meant much to her anymore. Perhaps the good lords didn’t need her to remember to be an effective weapon?

The journey didn’t take too long and soon they were in Lord Fein’s office. “Welcome,” he greeted her. “Congratulations on your newfound freedom.”

This isn’t freedom.

“Thank you,” the girl responded.

“How polite of you. A wonderful change of character if I do say so myself.” Lord Fein was smiling as he spoke.

“Should I not be polite to my master?”

No you should not!

“Of course. You will serve the good lords well. Do you know why you are here?” 

“To be a weapon, sir.”

His smile turned sinister. “Yes. We will be proceeding on to the next stage of your forging. Before that, however, you will need a new name.”

“Why is that, milord?” the girl asked.

“Because you are no longer the girl you once were. You are a weapon now and will be known as such.”

“Very well.”

“What to call you? Perhaps… Yes! Your new name shall be Siri.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, with that done with, I will continue with the debriefing. Can you state which Gift you possess?”

“Stalker, milord.”

“Good. Our estimates were correct. Now, going over your profile and recent developments,” he said looking over the girl,” very recent that is, I have come to the conclusion that you will be forged into a knife for the good lords. We will have you cleaned up, well fed and sent off to the training camps. I’m sure you will serve us well. Wardens! Take Siri here to the bathing chamber and then to processing.”

“Yessir!”

Siri was taken away and given the chance to bathe. It was a proper bath in nice hot water. To Siri it was serviceable, perhaps even healing. She wasn’t sure. As she soaked, a man walked in to deliver some clothes. He then helped Siri ensure that she was clean. The assistance was welcomed but unnecessary.

Stay away from me!

As she got out of the bath, the man provided her with a towel and led her to a chair and a mirror. He sat her down and started to work on her hair. In the mirror, Siri saw why Lord Fein had decided to give her that name; her long, golden brown hair had started to turn stark white at the roots. It was almost silvery. She stared at herself with hazel eyes as the man cut her hair to chin length.

What is happening to me?

“Thank you,” she thanked the man as he finished up. He nodded and then left to allow her to get dressed. The clothes were brand new and well fitted. She donned the black form fitting riding leathers and soft riding boots.

Food was brought in after she was dressed and she was treated to her first proper meal in what was probably a very long time. Her stomach even grumbled when she first laid eyes on it. Even so, she took her time eating it. Being overly hasty wouldn’t do her any good after all. When she was done, the server took away her plate and they were once again on the move. 

The path they took was long and winding; far longer than any other path she had taken in the caves and it went up. Slowly but surely, they neared the surface. After an hour, they reached what looked to be a dead-end; then they were bathed in the light of day. It almost blinded Siri as she stepped outside for the first time. One of the wardens had to stop her from going too far as the other checked to make sure there was no one else around. When he had confirmed they were in the clear, Siri was let go to venture outside. It was a strange experience; one that she had been sure that she would never experience again. 

I should have accepted this deal sooner.

The wardens gave her a moment to bask in the experience before leading her to a nearby small town. It wasn’t much, not that Siri had anything to compare it to, but it had one important feature that the wardens were looking for; a coach house. She was guided to a very specific coach and told to get inside. Being a good servant, she obliged. They gave her specific instructions not to leave until the door was opened and she was told to. They provided her with food and drink. Then they closed the coach door and it was done. After some time it started moving and it eventually stopped in the middle of a forest estate; her destination.

It was a large place, situated in a clearing. For some reason, it reminded Siri of a ranger’s lodge. Unsurprisingly, given the locale, it was made almost entirely out of wood. Outside of it, Siri was greeted by the woman who would become her primary instructor. The woman stood there with a slender build, raven black hair and piercing blue eyes. She was beautiful. Even Siri, in her muted state, found the woman to be incredibly attractive. Yet, there was also something unsettling about her. As much as Siri considered the woman to be attractive, she was also equally intimidated by her. If looks could kill.

“So this is the new arrival?” she asked the coach driver. 

The mysterious figure dressed head to toe in browns, greys and blacks nodded with a slight grunt. Siri couldn’t tell if they were male or female or even what race they were and she didn’t have much time to consider it as they left almost immediately.

“So tell me girl, what have you been named?” the woman said, turning towards Siri.

“Siri.”

“Hmm. It’ll do. This way.” The woman led her into the lodge and started explaining things. “This will be your home and base of operations for the foreseeable future. Here you will be trained as an assassin or as Fein puts it, a knife. I’ve always hated that term. Despite the brand on your backs, you are still people, but I digress. You will learn how to use weapons effectively and how to take part in covert operations. If the good lords need you to kill someone, you will and you will do it with efficiency and precision. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now this will be your room for the duration of your stay and over here is where meals will be served. Most of our training facilities are in the basement or outside. You will also receive an education fitting your purpose. Most importantly you will be trained to fight Awakened individuals as well as how best to use your own powers as a Stoic.”

The tour through the lodge and the training facilities continued. Siri was introduced to other Ardents, Stoics and un-Awakened individuals that were training to become spies and assassins as well as the other instructors of the lodge. Then her training began. When her hair had turned fully silver, she was sent on her first mission.

Author’s Note: I know this is another short chapter and that doesn’t really explain why this chapter is so late. I’m still having massive pain in my jaw and it is making writing very difficult. I was also writing the patron chapter which is the second longest chapter yet and by far the hardest to write. You’ll understand that when you read it, but I don’t want to go into spoilers. You can read it early by subscribing to my Patreon. I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Interlude: A Voice Unheard

Tehri woke up screaming; a silent cry that no one could hear. Night terrors. She had been suffering from them for almost a year, ever since she had woken up in that strange room. They haunted her every single night and they would wake her without fail. She had nothing. Her family was gone and she was alone; at night at least. No one could hear her silent cries, so no one would come to comfort her. During the day at least, she wasn’t completely without company. She was still in the care of Hana and Byrden, who had saved her from the brink of death. They had found her broken body and brought her to a surgeon. They spent almost everything they had to give Tehri a chance. Now they did what they could to give her love and support while she recovered. It was all they could do other than abandon her and they weren’t about to do that when they had invested everything into her recovery.

Unfortunately, the trauma and her injuries had left her unable to speak. Try and try as she might, no sound would leave Tehri’s lips. She couldn’t even write. Not yet at least. Even painting was lost to her. The muscle strength in her arms just wasn’t there. The months waiting for her shattered bones to heal had taken its toll. Even walking was difficult, but she had come a lot further in that department. She was trying at least, so that one day she would be able to tell them her name and where she was from. 

Why don’t they have a map? I could point out home if they just asked.

Alas, the sad truth was that they couldn’t really afford a map. Not until they had recouped some of their savings. It wasn’t easy for a young married couple with nothing to care for her and make a life for themselves. Tehri felt guilty for having put them in this position. If only she could ease the burden on them. She made a decision. She struggled out of the bed that they had graciously given her, she even had her own room, and made her way towards the door. It was easy enough; a simple ring latch.

*CREAK!*

Tehri had forgotten how loud the door could be and her attempts to open it slowly only made things worse. When it was finally open and she was convinced that she hadn’t woken anyone up, the exceptionally loud hooting of an owl sent her jumping out of her skin. She fell down with a loud crash from the surprise. Her muscles ached from shock and she could hear movement in the other room. A tired young woman tiptoed out of the room with only a linen sheet to cover her naked body. 

“Sindri? Oh no. Are you okay?” Hana whispered to avoid waking up her husband. ‘Sindri’ was the name they had given her when it was apparent that she wouldn’t be able to tell them what her actual name was. It meant ‘River Hero’.

Tehri nodded in pain.

“Oh dear. Did you need to go to the toilet?”

Tehri shook her head this time. Right now, that was the limit of her ability to communicate.

“Hmm. Okay, well let’s get you some of your pain medication. The strong stuff, okay?” Hana asked. She was afraid that Tehri may have injured herself.

Tehri shook her head again. She hated the stronger medications. It made her feel weak for an entire day, sometimes longer. 

“The weaker ones then?”

Tehri nodded reluctantly. She was in pain after all.

Hana walked over to the water barrel on the far side of the common room to fill a cup and mix it with a pale blue powder. Tehri was still getting used to the lack of plumbing in the house, or even how small it was. It was almost the exact opposite of her home in Næmyris. 

“Here, drink this,” Hana said after returning with the water. She made sure that Tehri had a firm grip on the cup before letting go. Tehri drank the bitter medicine in one go. It was unpleasant, but it worked.

“Is there nothing we can do to help you talk?” Hana asked herself.

Tehri just looked at her wishfully. They hadn’t figured anything out yet.

“Anyway, let’s get you back to bed.“ Hana gently helped Tehri up and guided her back to the small bed. She stayed by Tehri’s side as she drifted off. When she was finally asleep, Hana returned to her husband’s side and pondered.

*****

The following morning, Hana was walking through the village market when inspiration struck her. One of the stalls had a few novelties and toys for young children. None of them were suitable for someone of Tehri’s age, whatever that was. However, the collection included rounded blocks with letters, numbers and other symbols. It was an odd thing to see in a village. Most of the people didn’t really need to read and write particularly well for their jobs and they couldn’t really afford to learn. Hana had only learned because her father was a blacksmith and crafting families tended to have a better education. Still, it was enough to give her an idea. She just hoped that Tehri knew how to read and write.

She hurried to finish her chores around the market before rushing to Byrden’s forge. He was working on a horseshoe for the farrier when she barged in. “Byrden! I know how we can help Sindri talk.”

Byrden almost dropped his hammer in surprise as Hana practically shouted down his ear. “Heart of the Sun, Hana. Don’t startle me like that when I’m working the anvil or the forge.”

“Sorry, but I have an idea that you need to hear.”

“Can you at least let me finish this horseshoe?” he asked with some exasperation.

“Sure thing,” Hana responded, taking a seat away from the forge and flattening out her dress as she waited.

Byrden returned to his craft, hammering away at the horseshoe, taking care not to overwork the metal. His muscles rippled with each strike and he was dripping with sweat. Contrary to what a lot of her friends thought, Hana found it to be a rather attractive look. She loved to watch Byrden work. Even when he was apprenticed to her father, she would sneak into the smithy to watch him. Her father had been completely oblivious to the whole thing, as had Byrden. He was rather surprised at how bold Hana was when she took him to bed after her father promoted him from his status as an apprentice. Almost miraculously, Hana’s father hadn’t heard a thing as they romped the night away and was thoroughly shocked when she walked out of Byrden’s room and declared that they were getting married. That had been three years ago, and like the old times, she watched.

Byrden followed a template in the form of a blank horseshoe so that he could ensure consistency. The farrier would need to adjust later when it was actually fitted to a horse. No two horses were the same after all, but it helped to start from a standard baseline. He was also a proud smith and he valued good solid work. His consistency had helped him massively during his apprenticeship and in establishing his own business, but it also held him back with developing his own style. Even so, he was soon done with the horseshoe and it held up to his standards. After ensuring there were no flaws in the shoe, he turned to Hana who had been watching him with an excited smile that was half from watching him work and half from the idea she had. “So what is it that you need to tell me so bad that you are practically wetting yourself from excitement?” he asked.

“I figured out how we can give Sindri back her voice!” Hana replied, her smile glowing in the light of the forge.

“Okay?” Byrden responded hesitantly. “And what is this genius plan of yours?”

“We need a big wooden board with letters nailed to it. Her arms are still weak but she can point. Maybe she can spell things out.”

“You think she’s literate?”

“We can always ask, and I can teach her if I need to. I have some books lying around in the bedroom back from Dad’s house.”

“That could work. What do you need me to do?”

“Make the board of course. I’m sure you have enough scrap metal to put together an alphabet. It doesn’t need to be perfect.” 

Byrden looked hurt at the suggestion, but he nodded. “I can work on it between projects, but we don’t have the money for me to put aside too much time for it.”

“Understood,” Hana smiled.

*****

A few months later, the board was finished. It was rough, but hopefully functional. As it was nearing completion, Hana had asked Tehri if she could read and write, to which she nodded. Of course she could. That was normal wasn’t it? They revealed what they had planned a couple of days later. She was so excited that she didn’t have any night terrors in the nights that followed. Unfortunately, her excitement also came with mania and she still couldn’t get much sleep. It was her first true manic episode in what felt like years. Hana wasn’t equipped to deal with Tehri’s newfound energy or how she acted like pain was a non-issue. 

“Sindri, please sit down,” Hana pleaded, “You’re going to get yourself hurt.”

Instead of heeding her request, Tehri jumped around the small room on legs that weren’t really equipped to deal with the strain yet. She didn’t care. It was the day that she would finally be able to put her thoughts out to the world. Calm was not in her vocabulary that day. She was as intense as the rapids that had almost killed her. Only when Byrden came in with the board did she sit down and even then, she was constantly moving. 

“Easy there,” Byrden told Tehri as he placed the board down in front of her.

“Okay, how should we test this?” Hana asked no one in particular. “Let’s start with something easy. Can you spell my name?”

Tehri did so with ease.

“What about the name of the capital city?” Byrden asked.

Tehri spelt out ‘Midiris’ with ease, but too quick for the couple to follow.

“Easy there, Sindri,” Byrden cautioned, “This isn’t going to be helpful if we can’t follow what you’re trying to say.

She tried again, slower this time. It was difficult. She wanted to tell them everything already.

“That’s better,” Hana smiled. “Do you think it would be okay to tell us your name? We could keep calling you Sindri, but I’m sure you would rather us use your actual name.”

“Tehri,” she spelt out. “Tehri’aana Naliir, but Tehri is fine. Sindri is a nice name as well.”

The couple held their mouths agape. It was weird seeing her so full of words after so long. “Where are you from, Tehri?” Byrden asked.

“Næmyris. I wanted to show you on a map all this time. Can we go already? I don’t want to be a burden.”

“You’re not a burden, Tehri,” Hana assured her. She recognised the name of the town that Tehri had named. It had been the site of a tragic raid during the eclipse just before they had found her.

“I can’t believe we didn’t think of a map sooner!” Byrden exclaimed, looking at his wife,

“We would have needed to buy it back in Talaran.”

“True,” Byrden admitted before turning back to Tehri. “I’m sorry to say, but I don’t think we can afford a trip to Næmyris.” Tehri looked crestfallen at that, but Byrden continued, “However, we can send a letter if you have anyone in mind.”

“Ma and Da! They’ll still be there!” Tehri spelt excitedly.

“Can you tell us their names, sweetie?” Hana asked, trying to veil her growing concern with cheer.

“My Ma’s name is Hæra and my Da is Gyren.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Byrden remarked. “Gyren Naliir? Merchant?”

“Yes!” Tehri responded instantly.

“Hana’s father used to know someone that did business with an associate of his. We could try sending him a letter. We’ll draft it with your approval and input of course.”

Tehri nodded fervently.

Following that, the three of them drafted the letter.

“Dear Master Naliir,

Last year, my wife and I found your daughter, Tehri’aana washed up in our village and severely injured. We took it upon ourselves to have her treated by a surgeon in Talaran. She barely survived the ordeal, but she is now recovering quite well. She has unfortunately lost her voice and is yet to find it again, however doctors assure us that it is only a matter of time. She wants to return home to you and your wife. We would bring her to you, but we are unable to afford it due to the medical expenses. As such, we are hoping that you would be able to come here to Aran Village between the rivers Tanra and Karik.

Regards,

Byrden and Hana Kaafast.”

They sent the letter off at the end of the week with the boat from Tærin city. Two months later, the response came. Not in the form of the man himself or his wife, but in a letter and a coffer filled with gold and silver.

“Dear Byrden and Hana Kaafast,

Thank you for rescuing my daughter and keeping her safe. I regret to say that I cannot come for her. There is no happiness for her left in Næmyris. My wife is dead, slaughtered by bandits. My eldest daughter is still missing. I cannot be the father Tehri needs. I know this is a lot to ask, but please give her the happiness that I cannot. The money with this letter should be enough to cover your losses and help in the future. I will continue to provide at regular intervals. In the coffer is also a bracelet. This is her older sister’s last gift to her. One last thing. Please break the news of her mother’s death gently. I don’t know how she doesn’t know already, but it is a small mercy that she didn’t see it.

Regards,

A broken father.”

It was as Hana had feared. She did what she could to follow the last request, but there was no easy way to break that kind of news to a young girl who had already suffered so much. It might have even been impossible. Tehri ran into her room and cried for days when they told her. She held the bracelet close and grasped at the twin moon necklace as she screamed silently into her pillow. Such was the start of her new life with Hana and Byrden in earnest. In the years that followed, they did all in their power to give Tehri a happy life. It wasn’t much, but it was something and Tehri appreciated it in spite of her grief. In the small village of Aran, she found some happiness amongst all of the sadness.

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Interlude: Aftermath

Storms ravaged the face of Illyria and Rowan returned to her cell as a new woman. She was still young, but she had forged herself a purpose from the crystalline hammers of her tormentors. It had been exhausting, but she had pulled through. She wished it hadn’t cost Anri’s life, that memory would haunt her for years to come, but she would not let it be in vain. This was the beginning of the end and in spite of everything, she smiled as she stepped back into the cell. It was the home she hated to see and the home she would one day destroy.

Rowan saw Seres look up with raw eyes and tears streaming down her face when Rowan took her first steps inside the cell. “Rowan!” Seres cried out and rushed into Rowan’s arms with a leap. “I thought you were never coming back.” She was sobbing audibly into Rowan’s chest, drawing a fair bit of attention to the pair. 

“Of course, silly. It’ll take more than that to break me.” Rowan wrapped her arms around the younger girl and patted her head, neglecting to mention how close she had actually come to breaking.

“What happened? No one would tell me the details. Only that you and Anri had screwed up massively.”

“You should probably sit down for this,” Rowan said with a sympathetic tone. In truth, she knew that she would need to be sitting down as well to break the news to Seres.

“What? Why?” Concern started to touch Seres’ voice.

“Just trust me,” Rowan responded as she turned to see that all the cots had been occupied. She turned to look at a boy on the closest one who was trying very hard not to maintain eye contact with her. He was also notably not using it to sleep. “Move,” Rowan commanded, “You can have it when we’re done.”

He tried to stammer a response, but Rowan just gave him a look. He stopped after that and scampered away to give the girls his seat. Rowan gave him an appreciative smile. When they sat down, Rowan took Seres’ hands into hers and looked compassionately into Seres’ deep gold and blue cat-like eyes. “This isnae gonna be easy to hear, but you gotta listen. The day I didnae come back from the exercise chamber, Anri and I were pitted against each other in the arena. We weren’t about to go at each other, but the wardens just had us whipped. It was too much for Anri. She just wanted it all to stop, so she cut herself with the knife they had given her. The hate overwhelmed her and within seconds, it was over.” Rowan was being careful to be clear with her explanation rather than obfuscate any of the facts. She would learn eventually and it was better to learn from a friend. Plus, Rowan had a better way to soften the blow. Through her compassionate touch, Rowan let Seres’ pain flow into her. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough. 

Seres was breathing heavily as Rowan finished the first part of her explanation. It was a lot to take in. “That’s awful,” she said in a mortified tone.

“Yes,” Rowan said simply. There was no point adding any unnecessary bells and whistles and it would only complicate things. Instead, she continued with her explanation, staying in contact the entire time.

“You don’t need to worry about them torturing you or anything now,” she said at the end. “I made a deal with Lord Fein to take on anything and everything meant for you.”

“No, you can’t!” Seres sounded horrified at the idea. “It’s too much! I can handle it.”

“So can I,” Rowan smiled, “especially if you aren’t suffering. I failed Anri. I won’t fail you.”

“I’m not your responsibility,” Seres objected, trying to pull away slightly.

“But you are my friend,” Rowan stressed. “I can handle whatever pain they throw at me. They want me to be a weapon so they won’t risk breaking my body beyond repair. That’s nothing. The Silent Sisters peaked last week and it only made me stronger. The thought of that being directed at you, however? That could break me.”

“You say it like you can’t feel pain anymore. Physical pain that is.”

“Hardly; it hurts like a bitch. I’d rather wrestle with a drakiir or get trampled by a stampeding bull.”

“Then…”

“It’s still better than seeing you suffer. I promise I will free us from this place and return you home. From this day until the day my soul fades, we are soul sisters, as are all that I love.”

Taking Rowan completely off guard, Seres actually giggled at that. “Everyone?” she asked. “Even boys or your parents?”

“Well, who says boys cannae be sisters?” Rowan blushed. “And. Well. You know what I meant,” she said in an accusatory tone.

“It was getting too serious. But I like the sound of being your sister. Just so you know, this doesn’t make you the new second princess of Llen Færa and the Chain of Fire.”

In response, Rowan gave Seres a look that went from confusion, to comprehension, to obviously, and finally to mirth. The two girls laughed and the cell was a little brighter for the time being. Shortly after, they let the, now, very confused boy have his cot back.

*****

After her conversation with Seres, Rowan realised that Amran wasn’t around, so she decided to wait for him in his usual spot. She even gave Seres a wink as she did her best impression of Amran meditating. Her plan sort of fell flat when the exhaustion caught up with her and she inevitably passed out. She was awoken some time later by some gentle shaking and a calm and collected voice. “Rowan, wake up. You’re drooling.”

Rowan’s resulting wake up from those words was far from calm or gentle. “Huh! What? No I’m not,” she objected suddenly, her eyes wide open and the side of her chin very damp.

Amran gave her a flat look as she failed to collect herself. “Welcome back. Care to explain what happened earlier?”

“What do you mean by earlier?”

“With Seres? And that deal that you made with Lord Fein?”

“Oh that? I thought it was pretty self explanatory,” Rowan responded, forgetting that she had planned to explain everything to Amran.

“I’m not sure if you are incredibly brave or incredibly stupid with that deal.”

“Wow!” Rowan responded before sticking her tongue out at him. “Rude. But, yeah it’s probably both.”

“Did you consider the wisdom of your actions first?”

“Long and hard. More than you could imagine even. After they were done torturing me, they left me with nothing other than my thoughts. I realised that they weren’t going to break me through physical pain. They’d already done their worst. It was because of my emotions that I faltered. My greatest strength and my greatest curse as it stands. If I let them do whatever they wanted to Seres, I would break. Losing Anri nearly pushed me over the edge and I won’t let that happen again.”

“What about me?” Amran asked pointedly.

“What about you?” Rowan responded with a confused look.

“Why didn’t you offer to take on my pain and torment.?

“Oh. Right. Yeah, that. Because, I’m not strong enough to do it for three people and you seem to have it down.”

“I thought you said that they couldn’t break you with physical pain.”

“My mind, aye, but I know there are still limits to what my body can handle.”

“That’s more intelligent than I was expecting.”

“Hey! It’s not like I’m an idiot and I dinnae care about what I said before about being incredibly stupid. You cannae use my own words against me.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” he smiled in response.

“Well bleh.” She stuck her tongue out at him again.

“If you are done with your objections, would you mind wiping away the drool that is still there and giving me back my place?”

Rowan jumped up in embarrassment and quickly wiped away at her face to hide her rosy cheeks. “Um yeah, take it.” She returned to Seres immediately after that only to find out that she had been watching the whole exchange with great amusement.

*****

In the months and years that followed, Lord Fein held true to his word. Seres had been left completely untouched. Physically speaking at least. They still tried breaking her through indoctrination and mind games. They tried to play heavily into her supposed guilt from what Rowan was going through all because of her. They failed. Just like how they wouldn’t use Seres against Rowan, Rowan made sure that she wouldn’t be used against Seres. It was a simple solution really and one that Seres was receptive to. Talking, just like Amran had suggested. He remained as the stoic observer of the cell, always watching and waiting with a perfect clarity of mind.

Rowan had also spent those years being a surrogate for Seres’ mother when it came to helping through the same challenges she had gone through and was continuing to go through in regards to growing up. Both girls garnered more and more interest from the other denizens of the cell. As time went on, however, that number became less and less as more people fell. The intake of new captives slowed down massively after the end of the third year, after all. Even with new people coming to the caves, most didn’t last more than a few months. The lucky ones lasted a year and the extremely hardy ones continued to hold strong. 

Throughout the rest of the world, things were changing. Seres’ capture had led to thorough investigations into the raider activity on Llen Færa and the surrounding islands. Even the Azure King of Særis started to devote resources away from the Ferran border with the Ru’eni Empire to the south to look into the disappearances at the behest of Queen Elarin of House Lanafae. Even though she had managed to wipe the raider threat from her home, Queen Elarin cursed herself for not noticing it sooner, for letting her daughter travel into such dangers. It didn’t matter that the raiders had been concealing their tracks extremely well before then or that their extremely overt raids from that year was a new behaviour. It was her failure as a Queen, and she wouldn’t rest until her daughter had been returned to her.

Matching Queen Elarin’s wrath, the Chain of Fire had awakened when Rowan evoked the Goddess’ name. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were becoming more and more common in the north around Llen Færa and Særis, as were extremely violent storms. Rowan had sworn an oath and the Goddess and Illyria would do what they could to ensure that she had a chance of making it come to pass. Alas, the gods could not easily make such big changes in such a short amount of time. All they could do was set things in motion. After that it was a matter of time. So they waited and bridged the gap between Rowan and the family she had lost. They would give her the strength she needed when the time came. 

When the day finally came, Rowan was ready.

Author’s Note: This is the start of the post-act interludes. I plan on releasing 5 chapters this week so look forward to that. The update is a bit late because I’ve been suffering from really bad jaw pain and I only just got the stronger pain meds yesterday. Unfortunately the meds along with the heat knocked me out before I could finish writing the patreon chapter, so I’ve spent all of Tuesday morning writing the chapter so I could release both at the same time. The joys of being an insomniac in the UK. I also acknowledge that realistically this chapter should have been released alongside Chapter 11, which may have made it feel less abrupt, but it wasn’t ready yet.

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Chapter 11: Ardent Awakening

For many long arduous hours, Rowan was tortured by the Silent Sisters. As they worked their grim art, a warden, one of the educators, droned on with an unrelenting tirade of blame. Each word hammered on that Anri’s death was her fault, that Rowan’s unwillingness to act and her feeble attempts at comfort led Anri to the irrational decision that would cause her own demise. The warden let Rowan know that had she only done what had been expected, then the fight would have eliminated any chance of such thoughts from forming; that with the fight done, the knife would have been taken from her possession. Finally, he argued that had she been a true friend, Rowan’s compassion would have allowed her to take on some of Anri’s pain, lessening the damage long enough for the guards to have prevented her death.

It was all meaningless. They could spout all the rhetoric that they wanted to. It mattered not. Rowan could not, would not, hear them. Even the pain of her torture was nothing to the emotions she was feeling. It was a feeling akin to when she lost her mother. It was primal, something that couldn’t be described in one or two simple words. It was pain, grief, loss, guilt, despair and so much more. It was a deep umbral darkness and through it, Rowan could see the cracks. Was this the end?

“Don’t let ‘em win!”

Through the cracks, Rowan heard a voice. She recognised it. Rina was speaking to her again.

How? What? Why? Where have you been?

“Always here. Always with you.”

This was something different. Before, Rina had never directly responded to Rowan’s thoughts.

I don’t understand!

“Talking is hard. Your voice, it doesn’t carry. Not like your feelings.”

Why now though? Why not before?

“Because I’m incomplete. I sacri… my core… rescue mother… set… free.”

Rina?

“I can’t main… this much longer. Be strong… not your fault. Mother sends her love.”

And with that, the voice was gone. Rina was gone, but a part of her remained. 

What if it’s already too late? I’m such a failure. I don’t…

No, I cannae think like that. It doesn’t matter if I deserve Ma’s love or not, I have it and I won’t let it go to waste.

The thought gave Rowan a small token of strength and a shadow of a smile broke through the grimaces of pain. Seeing Rowan smile, the Silent Sisters grew livid, as if the act was a personal slight against their craft. This was a completely different side to them. The warden could do nothing to respond to their anger as one grabbed one of Rowan’s fingers, a fire in her eyes, and twisted it back with a resounding crack. In almost perfect tandem, the other pierced the flesh of the small of Rowan’s back with her crystalline needles, carving a wing like cross on either side of her spine. The pain that followed was beyond words, as if every bone in her body shattered, the shards lacerating her nerves from within.

“ROWAN!”

The intense pain called back Rina’s cries, however, it all came too late as the pain drained out her voice. In her newfound agony, Rowan was left completely and utterly alone, unable to shake away the suffering.

*****

For three days straight, Rowan was tortured. The Silent Sisters did not rest. Even the requests of Lord Fein would not stop them. Rowan closed herself off from the world and from everyone in it. She was unworthy. The silent cries of Rina echoed from the depths of Rowan’s heart, landing on deaf ears. Instead, Rowan only heard the mocking laughter of a phantom revelling in her despair. Instead she huddled around the last embers of comfort that remained within her being.

Why am I losing everything? It’s not fair! It’s not…

No one was coming to her aid. No one was going to save her from breaking. All she had was her own wavering strength. She was bound by the shackles of grief, weighed down by the crushing emptiness of isolation, and crippled by fear. Even the Silent Sisters were beginning to feel it. She hated them so much.

Why can’t they feel it? They should be crippled by the same pain I am.

It was almost too much.

No more!

She couldn’t keep running and hiding. She hadn’t lost everything. She wasn’t broken. Not yet. Tehri was alive and so was she. Seres and Kiriin could still be saved. It didn’t matter that no one was coming to save her; she would save herself. Though her body cried, Rowan stood resolute. Though her heart grieved, Rowan moved forward. The Silent Sisters had pushed too far. Before she had been cracking. Now they closed the gaps with each passing hour. 

This ends now! I cannae let my feelings destroy me nor can I reject them. I am my feelings and my feelings are me. So what if I falter every now and then? So what if I cry? It proves that I am alive and I WILL KEEP LIVING!

Rowan practically screamed her defiance across the threshold and prayed that her words would reach everyone she had lost. They had forged their weapon.

*****

Rowan was kept in isolation for an entire week following Anri’s death. When the wardens finally came to bring her back, she gave them a look of determination. “Take me to Lord Fein,” she demanded. They obliged happily, Rowan could see their smiles. They thought that she had finally cracked and that she was about to give in. She followed them proudly as they led her to Lord Fein’s office.

Lord Fein looked as genteel and well dressed as he always did. He gave Rowan a polite smile. “What can I do for you, Miss Rowan?” he asked, “Finally looking to accept my generous offer?”

“Hardly.”

“Then why are you here?”

“To make a bargain of my own,” Rowan responded confidently.

“Oh really? And what are the terms of this deal that you have come to offer?”

“I want to take on all of the suffering and torment meant for Seres, the Ferran girl with the Mark of the Goddess in my cell. If she is to be punished, punish me instead. If she is to be tortured, torture me in her place. I will take it all. I won’t let you break her.”

“And what makes you think that I would accept this deal?”

“Because you want me to break, and you want me to be as strong as I can be when I do. That’s why you will also continue to have me trained. Furthermore, if I break, you will be able to consider this agreement void. It’s not like I’d be able to stop you. Think about it.”

“You make some points. Especially about being able to break her highness if you were to crack under the weight of the suffering meant for her. Your friend, Kiriin, is already a perfect example of that fact.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“I didn’t do a thing, Miss Rowan. She just came to the conclusion that Miss Anri’s death had caused you to shatter into a thousand pieces, so to speak. She didn’t last long after that. You know, it’s rare that I see someone withdraw that deeply into themselves. It…”

“Doesn’t change anything. Do we have a deal? You risk little and I get to maybe save a young girl from being used in your sick war.”

“Don’t you want to try saving your friend as well?”

“I can’t save everyone. Not yet.”

“Fine. You are a smart little girl aren’t you? I’ll tell you what, you’ve managed to pique my interests and I was quite the gambling man in my youth. As such, I will add an additional term to the deal in your favour. If Princess Seres comes to any physical harm under my direct orders while you remain unbroken, I will permit the two of you a kind of freedom. A house arrest if you will. If any of my men and women act against orders in this matter, they will be dealt with. In the name of the Goddess, I do so swear.”

“I can accept that.”

“I look forward to you joining us, Miss Rowan.”

“Not gonna happen. I may not be strong enough yet, but it is only a matter of time. I promise in the name of Niir Talæren, Goddess of the Awakened Eyes, Betrothed of the Sun, and Mother of all Life that I will break free of these shackles. From this day, you and the so-called “Good Lords” are marked. I will see that every last one of you falls. You will not hold us forever. I have Awakened and the world will know the strength of an Ardent’s tears.” Rowan stood adamantly in defiance as she uttered an oath that made the world beneath her feet shudder in shock. She had spoken the name of the Goddess. She heard and the Goddess wept. Meanwhile, Her daughter, Illyria shook with anger and the Heart of the Sun grew fierce. That day the world saw storms of the like that hadn’t been seen in over a thousand years and the Chain of Fire grew restless. Even Lord Fein could not deny the significance of what had just happened and he trembled.

That day, everything changed.

Author’s Note: This concludes Act 1. Yay for Title Drop. I know it’s a small chapter, but I feel like it packs the right punch. Maybe this feels rushed and maybe it didn’t come soon enough. I wonder what people will think. Next few chapters will be an epilogue of sorts for Act 1 and a series of Interludes to bridge the gap between Act 1 and Act 2. I hope that with the first Act done, you will consider supporting me on Patreon and joining the Discord. When I reach 100 Patrons I’ll be doing an in-character Interview as Rowan on my Discord.

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