Ædarik felt cold from anger and the ebon flow of night as he followed the two shrouded men garbed in thick, black gambeson. He wanted to kill them, to gut them mercilessly for what they did. In the long hours he had waited, listening to the poor girl’s cries, he knew true torment and that was nothing compared to what she had suffered. If he could, he would go back and beat Lord Feilan within an inch of his life before having him confess all of his crimes. That was, however, beyond him and it wouldn’t guarantee the safety of the girl or anyone else that was in the same position as her.
Somewhere, Feilan was keeping young girls prisoner so that he could fulfil his twisted desires. Ædarik was sure of it. So he followed the men as they carried the girl away from Castle Draskaan into the village below. The girl was limp in their arms, too tired to struggle. Ædarik kept to the shadows as he stalked them at a distance. It was all he could do to not get caught. Were it not for his Gift, that of Shadows, he would have failed before he even began.
The two men surprised him when they turned away from the village. Ædarik had been sure that the girl had been taken from the village. Instead, they turned towards the nearby low lying hills. Then they vanished. Ædarik abandoned all pretences of stealth and ran after them into the deep gully that they had ventured into. They were nowhere to be seen. Even in the dark of night and the labyrinth of stone, they shouldn’t have just disappeared. He had to find them.
He laughed bitterly to himself as he went searching. Not once, but twice, he caught himself on the thorny undergrowth. The second time he was sent crashing into one of the large rocky structures.
“Fuck!” he cried out as it dug deeply into his back. His eyes opened wide from the sudden jolt of pain. By chance, they landed on a jagged crevasse across from him on the other side of the gully. He struggled up and grabbed his cane. This time, he made sure to watch his step as he investigated the opening. It went deep into the gully.
There was no time to waste. He rushed into the cave with his weighted cane ready for combat. In the distance, he saw the dark forms of the two men carrying the young girl. He charged them. THWACK! The head of his cane struck the man on the left, caving in his skull. Before the other one could act, he swung again. This time, the cane struck the man in the throat. He started choking as his windpipe collapsed. Whereas the first man had died instantly, the second took significantly longer to pass into oblivion
Ædarik was breathing heavily. Luck had guided his strikes. He crouched down to check on the girl. They had dropped her in the ground and she just lay there listlessly with her hands bound behind her back. Ædarik caught a glimpse of the massive scarring on her back as he helped her up. From what he could tell, she was around thirteen or fourteen. At a push, she might have been fifteen, but Ædarik doubted that. When she saw him, panic crept up onto her listless face and she tried to push away.
Not wanting to scare her, Ædarik backed away. “Easy there. I’m not here to hurt you.” Judging from her expression, it wasn’t the best thing for him to say. In his own awkward panic, he stood up and took a couple of steps back with his arm up and on show to show that he was unarmed. She only shrunk further away. “Shit, this isn’t working is it?”
No response other than tears was given.
“I came here to rescue you. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it earlier, but I have to save the others. There are others, aren’t there?” The question came filled with anxiety. The possibility that he had delayed too long in rescuing the girl was not lost on him.
She turned pale at the implication that he could have saved her earlier before she nodded hesitantly.
“That’s good. Well it isn’t, but you get my point. Are they further in?”
“I don’t know,” she said meekly.
The girl shrunk again from his sudden remark.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m going further in. The exit is that way.” He pointed in the direction he had come from.
“I can’t leave.”
“Sure you can,” he responded incredulously before seeing her bindings. “Oh. I’m sure one of them has the keys.”
Ædarik found a ring of keys on one of the men and then struggled to find the right one. “Every damn time,” he muttered to himself, “Why is it that no one is able to organise their keys properly?” Eventually, he found the right one and he summarily released the girl from her shackles.
“Thank you,” she whispered, still too scared to look him in the eye and flinching every time he got near her.
“You must be cold. Take my jacket and wait outside. If I’m not back by the time the sun is up, go west. You’ll see a village. It should be safe there; I hope. But, whatever you do, don’t go to the castle.”
Ædarik watched her leave before turning to luck deeper into the caves. Then he threw up. At twenty years of age, he had taken his first and second life. In those twenty long years, nothing had prepared him for the sensation. Even in his bloodlust, he hadn’t anticipated the weight his actions would hold. Only by putting up a brave face in front of the girl had he saved himself from showering her in vomit. Disgusted with himself, he wiped away the acrid remains of his dinner from his lip. Then he took hold of his cane and a dagger from one of the men before starting his stalwart march into the caves. His quest continued.
Meanwhile, deeper in the caves Rowan woke up from a nightmare. Even with her resolve set in steel, she couldn’t stop the nightmares. Not even the comfort of her friends or the fleeting words from Rina would stop them. She lay there in her cot, a cold sweat clinging to her body.
So much had changed in the five years since she had invoked the Goddess’ name. The cell was quieter for one. A year or so after she had arrived, any and all shipments of new arrivals came to an end. As such, there was no one to replace the prisoners that fell to the hammer and accepted the bargain. To this day, Rowan missed Kiriin dearly. She regretted not trying to do more for her when she had the chance. Even so, she was confident that Kiriin was out there and that meant that she could still be saved.
That was another consequence to the declining population of the cell was that it was also an aging population. Before too long, it had gotten to the point where it was unusual if you hadn’t hooked up with someone at least once. Rowan was one such person. As were her two friends. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t interested. She was very interested and she wasn’t lacking for options. Many people considered her to be highly attractive, as much as anyone could be considered attractive in their highly dishevelled circumstances. She had even been propositioned that night prior. She declined of course, which resulted in him finding another mate and them having very loud sex in the cot next to hers. In any other situation, she would have considered it, but right now, it was another weapon that could be used against her.
She also had to protect Seres who was blossoming into a fine young woman. Both of them had matured a lot in five years. In some ways, Seres had overtaken Rowan. However, in what felt almost sacrilegious, Rowan was the taller of the two by a good four fingers if you ignored her ears. It made sense, of course, but Rowan was used to being the short one. At least Amran was taller than her, even if only just. Making sure no one made advances on Seres was a challenge, but she found that threatening worked well enough when supplemented by Amran’s watchful eye.
Rowan had also spent much of the five years training her body to use energy more efficiently. It was an arduous task, even with her getting more food to ensure that she didn’t die from the additional torture. It was also a necessary task to make sure that she had enough energy when the time came. She knew that breaking out would take everything she had; maybe more. All the other training she had done was also bound to help. Nothing would stop Rowan from completing her mission.
Then it happened. A small tremor. Nothing major, but enough to terrify anyone that lived underground. The earthquakes were getting more and more frequent. They were also getting stronger on average. Earlier that year, a particularly fierce one caused a cave-in in one of the cells, killing everyone inside. It was one of the few things that Rowan was scared of getting in the way of her plans. Another earthquake like that one could bring it all crashing down. It could…
“Is that you, Rowan?” a quiet voice whispered from a few cots away, interrupting her thoughts.
“Seres? It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”
“Are you sure?” Seres asked with a note of worry.
“Aye,” Rowan responded a little too quickly.
“I wish that sounded convincing,” Seres said glumly. “It’s too late anyway. There’s no way I can get back to sleep.”
“Don’t be stubborn, Seres. You need all the sleep you can get.”
“Look who’s talking,” she responded dryly.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the cell, Rowan swore she heard Amran mumble “Pot meet kettle,” in his sleep.
“How about we both try going back to sleep?” Rowan suggested.
“How about you suggest something possible next time?” Seres retorted.
The ground shook again, as if to unintentionally punctuate her point. It was stronger this time. Still not as bad as the worst they had experienced, but that was still not a comforting thought. This time, more people woke up.
“What’s going on?” someone shouted.
“Why won’t it just stop already?”
“I’m so done with all this crap!”
Everyone was panicking. Understandably so. They all knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
Ædarik felt water splash against his face, the shock granted him the gift of cognisance. His quest had come to a sudden end when he took a wrong turn and walked into what he assumed was a guard room. He was outmatched, outnumbered, and deprived of any chance of surprising him. Now he was their prisoner. A man wearing a lord’s clothing stood before him with a quizzical gaze.
“What do we have here?” the lordly figure asked him. “A lord? Tell me, who are you and why are you here?”
“Lord Ædarik of House Beltein, son of Lord Edaris Beltein and I am here to end your disgusting regime.” He tried to spit his words at the man. They lost their impact when he failed to do so.
“Very impressive,” the lord clapped. “Am I supposed to be intimidated?”
“Stop right there before you say something that will get you hurt. How did you find this place? Most people would have lied already and said they wandered in by accident.”
“Some of your men were gracious enough to lead me here from Lord Feilan’s estates.”
“I see. Well unfortunately, now that you are here, we can’t exactly let you leave. Not yet at least.”
“You can’t keep me. My friends know where I am.”
“Well they know I wouldn’t just disappear.”
“Perhaps not. However, we cannot let you go and reveal our position. As such, we must keep you here until the information you hold is useless. We will of course show you hospitality befitting your rank as a young Lord of the March.”
“You know my title?”
“Of course I do. I am a lord after all. With that said, I think we are done here. Guards! Take Lord Ædarik here to the guest quarters under close watch. If he needs anything, do what you can to provide. Also send out a patrol. I fear that Lord Feilan’s foolishness may have allowed one of the weapons to escape.”
“Yessir,” the four guards saluted. Two of them escorted Ædarik and the other two went to investigate, leaving Lord Fein alone to set up his Speaking Crystal.
“HE DID WHAT?” Lord Edaris shouted down the crystal. Sena had brought it to him after Lord Fein contacted the keep with news of the encounter he had just had. She had to be careful not to let her anger arc over to Lord Edaris.
“He found one of the entrances into the caves, Lord Edaris. By following some of my wardens, I believe.” Lord Fein was doing his best to sound calm. That didn’t stop him from sweating profusely. Edaris was not a man to be angered lightly. The first lord that had been assigned to oversee the operation was assassinated by his maid for failing him.
“And how, pray tell, did he manage to discover the wardens and come to the conclusion that he should follow them?”
“My belief is that the fault lies with Lord Feilan, my lord. It seems likely that he bribed the wardens to bring him some of the younger weapons to satiate his appetite. Upon investigating, one of the female prisoners is indeed missing. She will be found. You have my word.”
“Very well. What of my son? How will you deal with him?”
“We are making sure that he doesn’t see the full scope of the operation. For now, we will hold him in the guest quarters. With the earthquakes, I have accelerated our move onto the next phase. Before long, we will be able to release him as the information he holds will be redundant.”
“Understood. Make this right, and the punishment will only fall on Lord Feilan’s shoulders.”
“Yes, my lord. I’ll get ri…” The response was cut short by a loud rumble and a crash. Then it was silent.
“Lord Fein? Answer me, Fein. Dammit.”
Lord Edaris’ face was black with rage. Or was it fear?
The earth roared. Like an explosion, everyone was launched off their feet. Rowan landed with a crash and the ground continued to jolt violently beneath her. It was happening, the strongest quake yet and its tumultuous rumbling called for catastrophe.
“SERES!” she shouted, trying to be heard above the cacophony of moving stone. It was dizzying beyond compare. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stay still. The ground had made her its plaything, and like a child, it played rough.
Rocks started to fall and the floor cracked. Someone was thrown into the rift before another jolt pushed it closed again. Rowan saw the boy get crushed as someone tried to save them. It was the boy that had propositioned her last night.
For several minutes, pandemonium reigned. The sound of trembling earth was deafening. Illyria was crying out. Countless people had died. Rowan was safe and so was Seres. Amran had shielded her with his body. He had clearly seen better days, but he was standing. Across from them, the gate was broken. Now was the time.