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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.