Interlude: Lordly Discoveries

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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.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

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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Interlude: A Silent Voice

For what felt like hours, Tehri ran, her body growing weaker with each passing moment. She was confused and terrified. Everything that had happened since she woke up made no sense. Cruel people had surrounded her while she lay with her hands bound and mouth gagged. They wanted to kill her or sell her and they nearly did when they dragged her away. Then Rowan appeared.

Sis saved me. She killed someone.

Because of Rowan, Tehri had been able to escape. But escape from what? The last thing she remembered was falling asleep before the eclipse. Maybe this was a nightmare? She wanted to be home, back with her mother and father and with her sister. If she was in a nightmare, she would wake up eventually. However, if it wasn’t, she had no choice but to run and find her way.

Where am I? This forest all looks the same.

It was getting harder and harder to keep running. Tehri lacked the athleticism that her siblings and mother possessed. Instead, she had been cursed with a weak constitution and emotions that swung on a pendulum. To make matters worse, the undergrowth clawed at her arms and legs, sapping her of what little strength she had.

I’m going to die.

However, light breaking through the trees in the distance granted her a small degree of hope. Drawing on everything she had left, Tehri sprinted blindly towards the light, oblivious to the sound of crashing water.

Tehri let loose a silent cry as she ran off the precipice she had failed to see. For a second she lingered in the empty air before plummeting into the swirling flow of water beneath her. Almost instantly she was caught in the wild and treacherous current of the river rapids. She struggled to keep herself above the surface as she was thrashed into the rocks, span around and ragged like a doll. Bones cracked and blood gushed. Every danger of the rapids competed to be the cause of Tehri’s death. Each time she cried out in pain, the river sought out her lungs. 

After a couple of agonising minutes, everything went dark.

*****

“Byrdin! Come quick!” 

Byrdin, the young newlywed blacksmith, looked over to see his wife running towards him. “Hana, what’s wrong?”

“There’s no time for questions. Hurry up!” 

It was rare to see Hana this riddled with worry. He placed down the knife he was polishing so that he could go to her. “Slow down. It can’t be so bad that you can’t catch a breath.” 

Instead of taking a second, she instead grabbed his hand and started pulling him towards the river bank. She was her father’s daughter all right, as stubborn as the iron he had worked and strong enough to work the anvil herself. There’d be no stopping her so Byrdin let himself get pulled along.

They soon arrived at the river. A young girl with strawberry blonde hair had been swept into the bank, her body broken. Immediately, Byrdin understood Hana’s urgency; if the girl was alive, it would be a miracle.

Byrdin rushed over, expecting the worst. Instead he detected a weak, faltering pulse. He was no doctor, but it was clear she didn’t have much time. He cursed himself for not having anything clean that he could staunch the bleeding with.

“Hana, I need one of your sleeves. Then find the healer. We might still be able to save her.” 

Time was of the essence as Hana ripped off her sleeves and rushed off to find the village healer. Byrdin used the sleeve to apply pressure to the most serious of the girl’s open wounds, whilst keeping an eye on her breathing, which was slow but relatively regular. He was unsure of what else to do; bleeding was one thing, but she clearly had broken bones and water had likely made its way into her lungs.

Byrdin grew anxious with each passing moment, his heart beating like a drum as he feared that the girl wouldn’t survive. It felt like an age had passed by the time Hana returned with the healer.

Looking up, Byrdin asked him, “Is there anything you can do?”

“I’ll do what I can,” he replied. “However, the skills required to treat the more serious injuries are beyond my ken: she likely needs a surgeon.”

“So there’s no hope?” Hana asked, tears starting to well in her eyes.

“I didn’t say that. I have poultices that will help with any external bleeding and a medicine that will slow down her metabolism and induce a long sleep in her. That may allow enough time to get her to a surgeon. As for the nearest branch of the College of Surgeons, you have two options. You can get to Tærin by river or Talaran by road. With Tærin you can decrease the likelihood of causing further injury. However, you will need to wait for a boat and the journey itself will be slow. Talaran, on the other hand, is much closer, perhaps only two days in a wagon with good horses, but you’d be going towards the mountains. The risk for further injury will be much higher.”

The healer continued to explain things as he started some preliminary treatments. They then took her to the infirmary for more extensive treatment. She was given medicine to help encourage her body to replenish the blood that she had lost and poultices were applied to her various wounds. Finally the medicine to place her into a medically induced sleep was administered.

As the healer did his work, Byrdin and Hana were left with a terrible choice. If they took the girl to a surgeon, the cost of her treatment would fall on them. For a young newlywed couple, such a cost would leave them with almost nothing, if anything at all. On the other hand, if they didn’t take her, her death would be on their hands. They would also need to work out what route would be best if they did decide to take her.

“What do we do?” they asked each other.

*****

A sterile white room; that is what Tehri saw when she woke up. Her eyes felt heavy and her head was spinning. Tehri remembered falling into a river and a few moments of chaos before blacking out. Now, she lay in this strange room, painfully aware of every facet of her body and of the fact that she wasn’t actually in any pain, instead feeling a weird discomfort.

To her side, Tehri heard some movement. She struggled to look in that direction when a young woman with light brown hair that Tehri didn’t recognise came into view carrying a bowl and a towel. 

Seeing that Tehri was awake, the woman called out, “Doctor! Byrdin! She’s awake!” In response to her call, a young man with strong, muscular arms and a middle-aged woman with a pinched nose and glasses entered the room.

Looking at the three strangers, Tehri opened her mouth and went to ask “Where am I?” only for no sound to escape her small lungs.

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