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Ædarik was face-first on the ground and seeing stars. The earth shattering quake had brought the cave ceiling down around him and his escort. One of them was crushed from the waist down by a large boulder. The other went running for the hills and he was alone. He could feel the blood trickling down the back of his head.
“Fuck!” His head was still ringing. “Get up, Arik. You still have a job to do.”
The way back was closed off from the cave in. His only option was to go further in, maybe find a ‘warden’ to help him. He also needed to save at least a couple of people lest his mission be in vain.
I hope she’s okay.
He limped down the cave, feeling faint. Before long, he started to feel dizzy. That rock had hit him really hard. Thud! Once again, he had collapsed face-first onto the ground. Only difference was that he hadn’t even noticed it happening this time. The loving grip of consciousness let him pass into oblivion.
“We need to go now!” Rowan shouted. She wasn’t going to wait around for another earthquake. With the exception of Seres and Amran, nobody got up. Some were crying. Others were shaking with fright. None of them looked ready for action. “What are you all waiting for? We have a chance to be free of this place. Take it!”
“No buts. Do you want to die? Do you want to be slaves? No? Then get off yer damn asses before you get fucked sideways. And before any of you think we’re insane for trying, you’re probably right, but we would also be crazy if we stayed. We also learned of a couple escape routes from a girl in another cell so we have a chance. This is your chance to say ‘fuck it’ and reclaim your lives.” Rowan’s time in the caves had done interesting things to her vocabulary. She saw some people rouse. Feeling like her work was done, she grabbed Seres’ hand and ran. Amran followed closely behind.
Once they were outside of the cell, the three of them started making their way to the training chamber. It was the one landmark that everyone knew and from there, they would be able to trace a path to the route that they had been given by Maro, a young girl with the Gift of the Wayfarer from another cell. She had been through much to memorise the different routes and Rowan wasn’t about to waste her suffering. Her story had reminded Rowan of one of the fates that had been suggested for Tehri back when they had been captured.
They ran onwards to their destination.
Why couldn’t this have happened after breakfast?
Rowan could feel the hunger rising. She wouldn’t be able to channel her anger effectively without a meal in her.
It didn’t take long to find the first casualties on the other side. Some of the guards and wardens had been crushed or killed by falling rocks. Some had been killed by the sheer violence of the earthquake. One of them, however, gave Rowan pause. The guard had been thrown into one of the cell gates. She was frozen solid. Rowan remembered when Anri had nearly lost her hand to the heat sapping crystals. It made her feel sick. It was a twisted way to die, just like the entire operation that had engineered it.
Rowan armed herself from the corpses and handed Seres a knife so that she could defend herself if absolutely necessary. Amran refused. Even in the chaos and danger of the situation, he stayed true to his pacifist ways. Instead, he offered to scout ahead. Then, without a hint of fear, he walked forwards with serene determination. With each step, he slowly sped up until he was moving at a comfortable jog. Then he did something that truly surprised Rowan. Instead of vaulting or jumping over the first obstacle he came across, he stepped onto the cave wall and continued onwards as if nothing had changed, he was jogging upside down. Well, almost upside down.
“Since when could he do that?” Rowan exclaimed.
“Does it really matter?” Seres responded hesitantly. “We should hurry up already.”
The two girls followed Amran at a more measured pace. They weren’t alone; some of the people from their cell had caught up and they were being joined by others. Everyone was weak and afraid. They were all so thin. Some of them looked like they hadn’t eaten in days, as if they had been forgotten. Rowan knew this was their last chance. There were few that would be able to handle being captured again if the escape failed. It was an all or nothing gambit. Even so, it granted them the smallest flicker of hope. Rowan felt it too. She let her hope Resonate with everyone. Everyone looked that little bit brighter and Rowan literally started to glow. It was a dim but comforting light that guided their way and banished away all the small cuts and bruises that they had acquired.
Seres smiled gently at Rowan. “We’re actually doing this, aren’t we?” she asked.
“Of course we are,” Rowan smiled back, “I made a promise after all.”
Then, as if to prove her wrong, Amran came running back, all the confidence he had before gone to the winds. “Quick! Turn back,” he shouted. “They’ve started the round up.”
“What? No, we can’t turn back,” Rowan responded. “If we don’t get to the training cavern, how are we supposed to find our way to Maro’s cell? All of her routes are from there.”
“It’s too dangerous. They’re using their Awakened.”
On hearing that, people started to falter. Rowan was still glowing, but she couldn’t bolster an emotion they were starting to lack.”
“What do we do now?” Seres asked with a face full of worry and a quivering voice. She still clung to hope, but only barely.
“I don’t know,” Rowan admitted. “I doubt I can fight any of their Awakened one on one like this.”
“We should have stayed back,” one of the other prisoners cried.
“This is all your fault,” another shouted at Rowan.
“We have to go, Rowan, now! I can see the cracks. These people are starting to break.” Amran was already moving. He had made his verdict as both a Stoic and an Empath. Rowan was forced to agree. Her priorities were getting Seres out. If other people could escape with them, it would be great, but she couldn’t let them endanger the mission. If they all broke, Rowan, Amran and Seres could end up in a sea of hostiles. She didn’t want that, not when they could be saved.
“If you still have your resolve, try and keep up,” she shouted. “If you cannae do that much, escaping is on you.” It was all that she could offer them. One last chance to those who still had the strength of will to run.
One of them turned to Rowan before she could leave with Seres, and gave her a grave look. “I will remain here and do my best to hold them back; give you a head start and everything.”
“What? Why?” Rowan threw the words back at him in shock.
“I know I won’t be able to keep up with you. I’m too heavy set, even with the fuck-all food we’ve been getting. I also have the Gift of the Aegis, so it makes sense.”
“Are you sure?” Rowan had to ask. She was going to leave him behind anyway, but she didn’t want to be weighed down by guilt.
“Completely. Seeing you glow gave me the courage to stand. This is the least I could do.”
“Good luck.” With those final words, Rowan ran at full pelt after Amran.
Seres clung desperately to Rowan’s hand as they ran. “I hope you have an alternative in mind,” she shouted to Amran at the top of her lungs. He was already a fair bit ahead, though he was no longer running on the walls.
“The classrooms,” he called back. “I think I remember Maro mentioning something about the route to get to them.”
They ran through the long winding caves towards the classrooms. They had to backtrack almost completely to find a route they were comfortable with. It had taken them years to memorise the different routes. It was not an easy task. The caves were labyrinthine in nature and there was little in the way of notable landmarks. As such, they had very little to aid their memories of the route. They hadn’t planned on this at all. Rowan just hoped they could get to Maro’s cell as soon as possible. Then they’d be able to rely on the instructions they had carved onto their arms.
It took much longer than they had hoped to get to the classrooms. They made a couple of errors and the caves suffered several aftershocks. It was a nerve wracking experience, but it eventually came to a close. When it did, they all took several deep breaths. Amran needed to collect his thoughts and remember what Maro had said about the route. It took five arduous minutes for him to formulate a path forwards.
“This way,” he said. “I think.”
The route took them down caves that none of them had ever been down before. Rowan felt lost and blind as they walked on at a hurried pace. They couldn’t run. Not when they were relying on hazy second hand knowledge that they hadn’t committed to flesh. It was a strangely empty and quiet path that they took through the caves. That is until Seres noticed someone collapsed down one of the side paths. She pulled gently on Rowan’s hand to get her attention.
“Look over there,” she said quietly.
Rowan looked over and saw a strange looking man dressed in what she assumed were a noble’s garb. She didn’t recognise him. Granted, it wasn’t easy to get an idea of what he truly looked like other than crap when he was faced down on the ground.
Is this one of them? One of the Good Lords?
Rowan felt like she may have struck gold with the find. “Hold up, Amran. We’ve got a sighting here. Looks like a lord.”
“And you’re not suggesting we run?” he replied.
“He’s either dead or unconscious. Think it might be one of them?”
“Out here alone? Doubtful.”
“His escort might have run away when he collapsed,” Seres opined.
“No, Amran’s got a point,” Rowan disagreed. “He’d probably have at least one Ardent or Stoic in his escort if he was.”
“Should we leave him then?” Amran asked.
“No!” Seres objected loudly. “We can’t just leave him.”
“He’s dead weight, Seres. Maybe even literally.” Rowan was shaking her head. They couldn’t waste time here. She didn’t care that it was contrary to the fact that she had been the one to stop them. The chance to kill one of the good lords was worth it. A nobody was not.
“What if he knows the way out? If we make him lead us it will solve all of our problems,” Seres countered.
“That is a fair point,” Amran responded in acknowledgement.
“It’s okay, Rowan. I can handle this.”
“Easily. I just shock him with some cold and give him a boost of energy.”
“Huh?” Those were indeed some words that came out of Amran’s mouth, but Rowan had no idea how to parse them and her expression showed it. Seres actually laughed when she saw it.
“I don’t see why it’s so difficult to grasp, Rowan. I’m sure Seres understands.”
“Of course,” Seres smiled smugly.
“That’s not helping!” Rowan complained.
“It’s simply a matter of anger and compassion. Well a lack of it. I always found it out that Stoics Resonate with compassion in such an external power. We tend to be much more close and insular with our abilities compared to Ardents.”
Rowan gave up trying to understand him. “Fine, just do it already.”
“Right away. From the looks of it, he’s alive, but he will need medical attention.” Amran turned him onto his back and did a reasonably thorough exam. Then he took hold of the lord’s wrist and did nothing?
The lord shuddered awake. His first few words were a jumbled mess. The only intelligible words that Rowan heard were, “Where is she?”
“Can we do anything for that?” Seres asked regarding the largely incoherent slurry the lord was speaking.
“Give it a few moments. He needs to collect himself.”
While they waited, a few of the people that had kept up started to complain. The three of them spent the time quelling their arguments. They weren’t so convinced that the lord would be anything close to a font of knowledge based on the state he was in.
“Where am I?” he finally said with some measure of cognisance. “Where is the girl?”
“You’re in a cave system where those of us that you see before you and many others have been kept prisoner,” Amran explained calmly before Rowan had the chance to respond. “Tell me, what do you know of this place? Why are you here? Are you working with the people that run this operation? Don’t bother lying. With the state you’re in, it will be blatantly obvious.”
“Work for who? I thought this place was just somewhere Lord Feilan kept the girls he preyed on locked up.”
“Lord Feilan?” Rowan interrupted. “That must be the man that Maro and the others were being taken to.”
“It seems likely.”
“Who are you people?”
“Prisoners. Slaves. Weapons. Take your pick,” Rowan remarked bitterly. “We’re also breaking out of this place. Now tell us who you are and why you are here?”
“My n-name is Arik. I mean Lord Ædarik of House Beltein. I was following some men who had a girl between them. They came from the castle. Where is she?”
“I don’t have a clue who you’re talking about.”
“Neither do I.”
“Damn it. I hope she wasn’t inside when the earthquake happened. Prisoners you say? I was supposed to be the one rescuing you. So much for my attempt at heroics.”
“You were supposed to save us?” Rowan said sardonically with a look to match. “You came waltzing in here without knowing what this place was thinking you could save us?”
“I thought it would only be a few dozen people at most.”
“Do you at least know the way out?” Seres asked.
“I only got part way in before the guards found me. I don’t remember what happened between them and meeting the ‘lord’ who seemed to be in charge.”
“Fein,” Rowan snarled. “Well there goes that plan. Let’s get moving. Do you still have a handle on where we should be going, Amran?”
“What about him?” Seres asked, pointing at Lord Ædarik. “He might not have had any useful information, but he did come here to save us. Even if he did fail in the end.” She gave Rowan a pleading look with her large Ferran eyes; her tail was still and her ears were drooping slightly.
“Don’t give me that look, Seres. I don’t need to be weighed down by guilt from leaving him here after he went and told us his idiotic plan.”
“He might also be useful once we get out of here,” Amran added begrudgingly.
“He’s your responsibility, Amran. I need to focus on keeping Seres safe.”
They marched onwards with their new addition being helped along with Amran. With each step, Rowan started to develop a nagging feeling of familiarity. She realised why almost too late.
“We don’t need to turn left here, do we Amran?” she whispered.
“No?” he responded at a more normal volume. “Why do you ask?”
“Lord Fein’s offices are just down there,” she stressed as quietly as she could manage.
Practically everyone realised the danger they were in. Lord Fein was almost guaranteed to have one or two Awakened individuals nearby.
“Do we split up?” Amran asked nervously.
The answer he got was much louder than he had expected.
“Guards! We’re over h…” Rowan stabbed the girl in the throat before she could finish alerting the enemy. She was crying when she withdrew the bloody knife. The damage had already been done.
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly as she withdrew the knife, tears streaming down her face. The damage had been done, but Rowan couldn’t help but feel regret for the poor girl. She wasn’t to blame for not being strong enough. She wasn’t to blame for being a threat. She wasn’t to blame for reminding Rowan what she needed to do. “Amran. Please keep Seres safe for me. I have some unfinished business.”
Even the young Stoic failed to hide the grim trepidation he felt from those words. “Don’t do it, Rowan.” She was already gone, walking towards Lord Fein’s office. Before long, she was out of sight.
Lord Fein’s office had seen better days. It looked like an incredibly violent storm had passed through, leaving absolutely nothing untouched. Gone was the organised decorum that the room had always tried to present. Now only ruin remained and it filled Rowan with a sense of catharsis. She had marched in as Fein was clambered to get everything organised again. It didn’t take a genius to see how futile an endeavour it was to try single-handedly.
Rowan cleared her throat to announce herself. Fein turned to look at her. Instead of his usual genteel self, Rowan saw fear. His face had been ruined by the quake and he was caked in blood and grime.
“It’s good to see you, Lord Fein,” she said darkly.
“Miss Rowan,” he started.
“I told you this day would come. My shackles are broken and I will have my vengeance. Know this, Fein. Today marks the start of my crusade. You should feel honoured that I am killing you first. Fear not, it will be extremely painful.”
“You don’t need to do this. If you let me go, I’ll tell you how to get out of here. I can even deactivate the scars on your back.” Rowan could see the beads of sweat rolling down Lord Fein’s ruined face.
“Are you an idiot? I invoked the true name of the Goddess in my oath of vengeance. Now that we are face to face, I cannot let you go.” Rowan started to walk towards him, the tears from before still glistening softly.
His voice quivered in fear. “Be reasonable.”
“If only you had extended us the same courtesy. You set out to forge a weapon and you succeeded. Take solace in that as I end you.”
Rowan took the final step. She looked into Fein’s eyes and drove the knife into his gut. It wasn’t lethal. Not immediately at least. He had to suffer and Rowan was no stranger to pain. She pushed down on the handle and twisted it into his diaphragm. Fein clawed weakly at her wrist. It was clear what he wanted and Rowan was all too happy to oblige. She ripped the knife free. Fein cried out in agony, his voice a visceral scream. His breathing started to falter.
“You know, Lord Fein, you should consider yourself lucky that I’m not angry right now. If I was, my left hand would be gripping your frail little neck right now. Imagine your blood boiling as it rushed to your brain.” Rowan’s voice was dripping with venom as she drove the knife into his thigh, just nipping the femoral artery. It was done. Even if Fein got immediate medical attention, his death was all but assured.
With grim satisfaction, Rowan turned her back on Lord Fein. A second later, she went crashing against the wall. A giant fist had hit her square in the ribs. She felt several of them crack.
“Strange small girl. Stop acting wrong.” It was the Al’duur; the giant of a man who carved the brand into her back.
“Back off or I’ll kill you as well,” Rowan wheezed. She struggled back to her feet.
He towered over Rowan, his body and arms covered in thick hide, bony ridges and elaborate tattoos,. “You not able to kill me even if you were three your size.”
“I can try.” She raised her knife into a forward facing guard. In the distance, she heard the rapid fall of feet on stone getting ever closer.
The Al’duur man blocked the only exit with his sheer size. He was a leviathan next to Rowan. She had to get past him. If it weren’t for her ribs, she could have probably dove between his legs.
“You can do it.”
“Rowan! I’ll distract him,” shouted Amran from behind the Al’duur as he leapt onto his back. The larger man’s movements started to become sluggish as Amran clung to him.
“What are you doing here?” coughed Rowan, “You should be watching out for Seres.”
“That’s your job, you idiot,” Amran said back through clenched teeth.
“You are idiot here,” the giant interrupted as his tattooed arms started to bulge. He grabbed Amran’s ankle in a vice-like grip, ripped him off of his back and slammed him against the cave wall with a resounding crack.
The Al’duur had moved out of the exit. Rowan could leave Amran behind and run. Instead, her anger flared. Amran smiled, despite his mangled ankle. Rowan limped between him and the giant.
“Rowan, I need you to listen,” whispered Amran, “Don’t attack him. Instead pulse as much heat as you can into this wall. Then throw the knife on my mark.”
He reached out and gently touched her ankle as she got ready to face their eminent foe. She didn’t understand why he wanted her to heat up the wall, but she had little else in the way of options. The Al’duur just looked at them, confused.
After a few moments, Amran shouted, “Now, Rowan!” Then the wall started to fracture.
In anticipation, Rowan threw the knife at the giant’s face as a twitch reaction. He managed block in the nick of time, the knife glancing off one of the ridges on his arm. When he lowered the arm, there was a boom and the ceiling came crashing down on him.
Outside the room, Rowan was struggling to drag Amran to the others. “You were supposed to leave me in there, you idiot,” he reprimanded her. “If I knew you were going to be this stupid I wouldn’t have failed to give to any energy.” He was not happy with the situation. Rowan has needlessly risked herself by saving him.
“I couldn’t just let you die. I cannae sacrifice people like it’s nothing,” cried Rowan painfully.
“You’ve already sacrificed people so that you and Seres can escape. You made a promise.”
“They can still be saved!”
“Don’t lie to yourself.”
“Some of them can be. I hope. And it still hurts. I couldnae handle it if it was because of a friend.”
“Damn it. I accepted that I was going to die if I needed to, Rowan. I even left the route to Maro’s cell on the lord’s sleeve.”
“Well you didn’t need to die.”
When they got to the others, Seres ran into Rowan’s arms crying. “We need to get going,” said Rowan as she hugged Seres back. “Someone help Amran.” She was feeling extremely weak. The burst of anger had drained almost all of her energy reserves. It was like she hadn’t eaten in a week. There was no way she could do another fight. Hopefully though, if everything went according to plan, they were home free. Rowan smiled at everyone.
There weren’t as many as before. Some had run away, but it was more than Rowan could have hoped for. Even then, it was not enough. She promised to herself that she would come back and save as many as could while they walked the long road to freedom. There was light at the end of the tunnel.