Elise wandered through the streets of Thaos like a ghost, unsure of what she was supposed to do. Every part of her body ached not only from cleaning the tavern for General Raul, but from burying Papa by herself, and after she’d finished both those tasks as the sun began to set, the Giskens had dealt one last blow on her: not only were they evicting her from her home, but they were doing it that night. They’d given her an hour to pack her clothes and a few of her personal belongings into two bags, then kicked her out on the streets and informed her she’d be sent to Kurzh with Olrick if they caught her outside after the newly set curfew. With the sun almost set below the horizon, she didn’t have much more time before that happened.
After almost an hour of walking through an almost deserted Thaos, she reached her destination: a small, white church, the only one in town, kept up by an elderly priest.
Elise found herself hesitating when she went to go knock on the door. She didn’t trust the Giskens to not hurt whomever she decided to stay with for taking her in. She desperately didn’t want the priest to get hurt because of her; not only was he one of the kindest people she’d ever met, but he was a man of gods who already hated her. The last thing she wanted was for them to hate her even more for getting one of their servants killed.
Despite her fears, she still found herself knocking on the door. The Giskens wouldn’t dare hurt a priest, would they?
After a few seconds of standing on the church’s stoop, the priest came to answer the door. Alistair had been the church’s priest since before Elise had even been born; in fact, he was old enough that both of her parents had been blessed by him when they were first born. His dark gray hair and beard were peppered with white, his blue eyes were calm and peaceful, his face was wrinkled and worn from years of serving; he was getting older, but judging by the fact that he’d hardly slowed down, there would still be plenty of time before Thaos had to find a replacement for him.
“Elise, are you alright?” he asked as he opened the door wider, a look of concern painted on his face.
She could feel tears beginning to brew up in her eyes. No, she wasn’t alright; she was anything but. Every part of her body ached, her heart hurt, her mind was numb from exhaustion; she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be alright, again. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Alistair gently ushered her in. “Come inside. I was just about to put some soup in the hearth.”
Even though the world outside had changed so drastically, the church was just as it always was. The walls were white, with small windows on the sides and one large colorful one, with a depiction of Arben, the god of the earth and the patron of Thaos. Small candles were set in front of it that church goers could light to offer prayers to him, while tables with objects that represented other gods and goddesses and more candles lined the walls: a bowl filled with grain for the goddess Tria, a small basin of water for the goddess Lynna, a sundial for Jeriah; every major god and goddess they worshipped was represented in some form or another in the small room. Adjoining the small chapel was the priests’ rooms, where the head priest or priestess and any novices lived. Right now, though, the only people who were living in the church were Alistair and Elise, now.
She found herself stopping in the doorway as Alistair walked towards the priests’ rooms. So, this was home for the time being. It wasn’t bad, but… it just didn’t feel like home, not without Papa or Milo. In fact, she doubted that any place she went from this point onward would ever truly feel like home.
After a few seconds of standing there, Elise followed him into the priests’ rooms.
The first room they walked into was the small, modest kitchen. There was a hearth on the other side of the room from them, which had a cauldron in it over the small fire. A table sat on the other side of the room with four chairs, with a counter for preparing the food in between them. A wardrobe filled with dishes sat on the side, while a few sat next to the basin, waiting to be washed.
“Please, sit down,” Alistair said as he hurried to the cauldron on the hearth. He took a rag from the counter and lifted the lid from it, letting the sweet smell of soup out. “Are you hungry? This soup should be ready in a few minutes.”
Elise found herself nodding as she sat down at the table. Now that he mentioned it, she was pretty hungry; she hadn’t eaten much more than scraps of bread all day.
After a few seconds of stirring, Alistair put the lid back on the cauldron, grabbed two mugs, filled them with water from a bucket next to the hearth, and sat at the table, offering her one of the mugs.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked. She nodded, accepted the mug with a quiet thank you, and took a sip. He took a sip of water from his mug, too.
“So, what happened?” Alistair asked. “You look really shaken up.”
Elise sighed and put her head in her hands. What didn’t happen that day?
“Milo’s dead, and so is Papa,” she said as a lump began to form in her throat. “The Giskens killed them.”
“Dear gods,” Alistair said, rubbing the necklace at his throat. It was an amulet in the shape of a double axe, the weapon Deon, the god of the sky, used to exact justice on evildoers in the next life. Many people wore it for good luck, including Papa and Milo. “I’m so sorry. I’m sure They will accept them into the next life.”
Elise nodded, again. She wanted that sentence to comfort her more than anything, but it didn’t. Just as she’d felt since she started digging Papa’s grave, she just felt so numb.
“That isn’t it, too,” she said as she wrapped her hands around her mug. She looked up at her. “They took the tavern for some sort of base and kicked me out. I-I don’t have anywhere else to go but here.”
“That’s just fine,” Alistair said. “You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you need.” Elise tried to smile, but she just couldn’t find it in her. Too much had happened that day for her to smile easily.
“Now, I think the soup’s ready,” he said as he stood up. He took a few wooden bowls and spoons from the wardrobe and spooned some soup into them with a ladle. “How much are you going to want?”
“Just one bowl for now, thank you,” Elise said. The second she said it, she knew she was going to want more. Now that there was a bowl of soup sitting in front of her, her stomach had started to growl angrily like some sort of wild animal. It seemed that the few pieces of bread she’d had for lunch that day hadn’t been enough to fend off hunger.
She took a spoon and began politely eating the soup. It was good: a little creamy with chunks of meat and vegetables in it. He must have gotten the ingredients from one of the richer families in town; they were the only kind of people who could afford to donate food of that quality to the church. Even as she ate, she knew that she couldn’t possibly take more than one bowl of it: a delicacy like that couldn’t be downed so quickly; it needed to be preserved. Besides, only the gods knew when the next time they’d be able to get more food would be.
After she finished eating her soup, Elise stood up. “Excuse me, Alistair. I-I have some things I need to pray for.” He nodded in understanding.
“Of course,” he said. “Take your time. I’ll take your bags to your room.” Elise nodded and went into the chapel, shutting the door behind her.
For a few seconds, she simply stood there, unsure of where to start. There were so many things she needed to pray for: her brother’s and father’s souls, her safety, Olrick’s life; she didn’t know which god or goddess to make an offering to, first.
Finally, she walked over to Deon’s table, with its eleven candles and ornamental double axe. In her mind, the souls of her family came first.
She took the center candle – a tall and skinny one, as opposed to the ten other candles – and lit two candles: one for Milo, one for Papa. She set the candle back down in its spot, clasped her hands in front of her, and began to say a prayer for each of them. She prayed that Deon would forgive any sins they may not have repented of and would allow them into heaven. She prayed that justice would be dispensed on the men responsible for their deaths, and that their souls would be able to rest easy, knowing that justice would be done.
After she was done, she found herself staring at the candles. She needed to move on; she still had to pray to Batur, the god of war and protector of soldiers, for Olrick’s life and Ellin, the virgin goddess, for her safety. Even though she couldn’t think of any sins she needed to repent of, she found herself taking up the center candle, again, and lighting a third one for herself. There was some sort of serious sin that she had yet to repent for; it was the only reason why the gods would let all these awful things happen to her.
She put the candle back down and began praying, again. This time, she prayed for repentance, more fervently than she had ever before. She prayed that, whatever she’d done to deserve any of this, Deon would forgive her and stop punishing her. She prayed so genuinely and so fervently, she actually found herself tearing up. Elise wanted the punishments to be over more than she’d ever wanted anything.
As she finished praying and walked across the room to Batur’s table to pray for Olrick, Elise couldn’t help but wonder if that day would be the end of her punishment. She hoped it would; she didn’t think she could take any more of it.
Olrick’s legs gave out beneath him, making him fall face first to the ground. He could feel himself twitching, but for a few seconds, he didn’t have control of his body. Even though he’d learned during the past few minutes of that evening’s session that it was a fairly standard sensation when being interrogated by an oraniomancer, he still found it horribly unnerving. Not being able to even brace himself against any blows they might want to toss at him while he laid there was really terrifying for him.
Bram rolled him over onto his back towards Blair, who was supervising the defector’s first interrogation. Both of them were all smiles, Bram enjoying payback for their fight a few days before then, Blair enjoying Olrick’s pain like the sadist he was. Both almost seemed to egg him one, taunting him to stay silent; it would give then an excuse to continue treating him like some sort of an animal.
“You know, I’ve always thought you Watchmen were cowards, but I’ve never pegged you guys for being more stubborn than an ass,” Bram said. “Why do you insist on saving your friends? You’re only postponing the inevitable.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Olrick managed to say. “Apparently, loyalty doesn’t mean a damned thing to you.”
For a few seconds, Bram just stared at him, almost as if he were shocked that Olrick would say such a thing to him. Pale blue sparks began to appear between his fingers, something that was unique to him: out of all the mages he’d met over the years, Olrick had never seen one who used their ability without even realizing it. Then, without a word, Bram knelt down beside him and pressed his hands against his stomach.
Immediately, Olrick’s muscles contracted. It felt like his body was being pulled apart. He began to scream in pain.
Finally, Bram took his hands off his stomach, and Olrick’s body managed to relax as the pain ceased. He closed his eyes as tears began to well up in his eyes: he couldn’t let them see them. If he did, they would win.
“Your so-called friends don’t know a thing about loyalty,” Bram said. “If they cared about you, they would’ve come to your aid by now; you’re wasting what’s left of your life by pretending like they’re going to come charging in here any second just to save your sorry ass.”
Bram didn’t have to remind him that they weren’t coming for him. Odds were, they didn’t even know the Giskens were in Caitha, and even if they did, they wouldn’t come and help them. The Giskens thought the Caithians didn’t know they were there, so if his friends did know about them, they would do everything in their power to keep their one advantage.
And so, Olrick didn’t say anything. In the past few days, it had become his standard response to most everything the Giskens said to him. Instead, he began to brace himself for what he knew was coming next.
His bracing didn’t work. The second Bram pressed his hands against his stomach, the same sensation went through his body as before. This time, though, it was different: it felt even worse than the other times. For a few seconds, he thought it was just him, until Bram didn’t take his hands off his stomach after a few seconds, as he had before. Instead, he kept them on, to the point where he could smell the scent of his own flesh burning.
“Stop!” Blair barked. Bram took his hands off him and the sensation finally stopped, allowing Olrick’s body to relax.
The second his body relaxed, he felt his stomach seize into knots. As Blair and Bram began to argue about what had just happened, Olrick managed to roll over on his side and threw up. Blair began cursing.
“You see what you’ve done?” he snapped. “Now, we can’t keep interrogating him!”
Olrick only heard bits and pieces of Blair explanation of one of the few interrogation rules that they’d managed to break (they weren’t allowed to interrogate men to the point where the subject was showing signs of it other than a few welts and bruises) he was fairly sure that he’d drifted in and out of consciousness during it. In those moments where he was awake, he kept wondering if he was going to die. Every part of him hurt. His heart pounded against his chest harder than it ever had before, his stomach was tied into knots, his ears were ringing; he had a feeling that this would affect him for the rest of his life.
After awhile, he felt someone pressing their fingers against his neck, then pressing their head against his chest.
“Are you two trying to kill him?” a man asked. It was one of the Giskens’ doctors, the one that they often went to when something went wrong in an interrogation. As things’ (purposely) going wrong was a common theme in his interrogations, he was there often. “The poor bastard’s barely breathing!”
“Bram got a little over-excited, yes,” Blair said. “Believe me, though, it was all under control.”
“Under control my ass,” the doctor scoffed. “If you hadn’t stopped whatever it was you were doing, he’d be dead.” He stood up. “No more of this; if you still want to interrogate him, you’re going to have to find a way that doesn’t involve violence, or go have a chat with General Raul.”
“But that doesn’t work on him,” Blair argued. “This is the only way-“
“Apparently, this isn’t working, either,” the doctor said. “Perhaps you should actually try non-violent means. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be surprised when you discover that it works better at getting truthful confessions.” With that, he left. Blair cursed, running a hand through his thick hair.
“General Raul is going to be pissed,” he said. He looked up at Bram, whose sadistic grin had been replaced by an annoyed look. “Come on; we’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” Both of them walked out and shut the door behind them, leaving Olrick alone in his makeshift prison cell.
For a few minutes, he simply lay there, staring at the roof of the stables in shock. Never, before, had he been so aware of his own mortality. He came so close to death, much too close for comfort. They almost certainly were going to kill him if they stayed there any longer, whether it was by Blair’s hand or by the hands of the taskmasters that waited for him in Kurzh. He was going to die, unless he managed to escape.
He closed his eyes as tears began to well up in them. He’d never felt so hopeless.
After a few minutes of him lying alone in the stall, he heard the door open again. He found himself blinking the tears away as Kael knelt beside him, holding a burned loaf of bread in his hands. The second he saw the condition he was in, he got a very concerned look on his face.
“Was it especially rough today?” he asked. Olrick nodded.
“Bram got to try his hands at interrogating,” he said, slowly beginning to sit up. Gods, he hurt badly; he’d be feeling that session for weeks. Kael winced as he handed Olrick the bread.
“Sorry about that,” he said. Olrick took a bite out of the loaf. It was definitely old, but he didn’t mind; his last meal was the one he’d had with Elise and her father, the night before the Giskens had arrived in Thaos.
“It’s the best I could get,” Kael said apologetically.
“How did you manage to get General Raul to upgrade my food rations?” Olrick asked. Kael rubbed the back of his neck.
“I didn’t,” he said. “He found out that the ship taking you to Kurzh has arrived; we’re supposed to get you to the ship first thing in the morning.” Kael looked behind him at the door for a few seconds, as if to check if anyone were listening in. “If we’re going to get you and the girl out of here, it has to be tonight.”
Olrick slowly sat up and tried to ignore the pain in his stomach. He’d almost forgotten about Kael’s offer, thanks to his last interrogation session. He still wasn’t sure if he should trust him or not, but it didn’t seem like he had much of a choice: if he didn’t take the chance in trusting him, he was going to die in Kurzh no matter what he did; if he did, he and Elise would have a chance.
“So, are you in?” Olrick looked up at him. He couldn’t believe that he was about to do this.