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.”
“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.