Varkas Aurelian could feel the pain and sickness in others. It was a gift from the White Lady, she had to tell herself over and over, for the pain that others suffered was her pain too. But the White Lady was not all cruel gifts, for Varkas had the spark-like touch of the Dreamer herself; she could heal the pain, the sickness. Some called her Dream-Daughter, a term not used in centuries, since before the restrictions on Magic had been imposed. She could heal illness that other Serenity’s could not. She could have been a White Sister of the highest order, Dreamer’s form made physical. But that was not why she had been given these gifts. Not for prestige or power. No, she was meant to heal, to rid the world of plague and disease and illness. So why was she here, in this castle, instead of wandering the land, healing the weak and praising the Goddess of Dreams? She went where the pain was greatest, followed where Dreamer led her, like a little lamb on a leash. And Dreamer had brought her here, to the castle Andrese, to the royal family of Ur.
When she had first arrived she could feel the pain like a wound in her own heart. It seemed to emanate from the King and Queen. She could not tell which it belonged to. She closed her eyes when she stood near to the royal pair and looked with Dream-Eyes upon them. The King’s pain came from the top of his head and suffused his body like mist in the bay of storms. The Queen’s pain was centred around her heart like a miniature sun, glowing bright and radiating outward, touching everyone around her. She maintained a decent outward composure, but the pain within her was not something Varkas could ignore. So she set to work on the Queen, as much as she could, as much as she was allowed. She could not heal someone who refused to be healed. And the Queen held onto that bright sun as if it were her child.
The King’s death was as much Varkas’ fault as anyone’s. If she had started upon him and ignored the Queen, if she had only paid more attention. But the Queen’s pain eclipsed everyone and everything and Varkas’ heart ached night and day.
Something changed. The dream came, the vision. She had settled down at the simple altar she kept in her chamber, had barely closed her eyes, had only just opened her mouth to say the prayer when Dreamer’s face loomed before her, bright enough to blind. The vision lasted barely long enough to draw a breath. Dreamer, a slender figure made of white light, with eyes like glowing embers which looked upon her with the heat of a burning building, let out a soul wrenching cry and thrust a finger into Varkas’ chest.
She gasped with the pain, it was a white-hot spear thrust into her heart. She let out a weak animal noise and laboured to draw breath. The pain still sharp, she came to herself lying on her back, arms out-flung as though she had been struck. Never before had the White Lady spoken so vividly and violently to her. It was a warning. She was not using her power as she should be. The pain in her chest did not lessen, but she came to be able to bear it. She sat up, took several deep breaths and made the sign of the Dreamer.
She was afraid, as she got to her feet, she had never feared the White Lady before, but now she feared to use her Dream-Eyes for what she might find. In her hesitation another stroke of pain seemed to impale her heart and she staggered, reached out for a wall to steady herself.
“Yes, Mother,” she said with ragged breath. She closed her eyes and opened her Dream-Eyes. There was pain everywhere. She could feel it all, little bits of pain like sparks floating in the breeze, landing upon bare flesh. Those were bearable. And the sun-like pain of the queen shone bright hot so that Varkas could tell almost exactly where in the castle the woman was. But the new pain that made her feel like she was standing under a waterfall, that pain came from below. What lay below her? The rock on which the castle stood pounded by waves from an angry autumn ocean. And then she knew.
She almost laughed. A dungeon. What was a castle without a dungeon?
She had seen the two men before, members of some standing in the Royal Guard. She hadn’t often seen them on their own, most times there was a third, who was it? She was so terrible with faces, she remembered people by their pain. The third man, yes, she remembered now, a Captain. His pain had been a death wound just above his heart. She had healed it best she could, she had saved his life. But she could not touch the root of that pain, lodged in his body like the tip of an arrow, festering. She had tried to tell him that he could expel it, if he wanted, but he seemed to want to hold it, to keep it. Not unlike the queen with her pain.
“You’ll come with us.”
“Will I?” she asked, eyebrow raised. She would not be spoken to in this manner, she was not some weak old woman to be pushed around by guardsmen. The man to her left lowered his gaze, the fear of magic still held at least some sway, but the other man stared at her. He was not fool enough to fear all magic, he knew she could do no harm.
“Yes,” he said. “You will.”
She let the silence ring for a long moment before she replied.
“As you say.”
They took up positions on either side of her. She tried to think of them more like an honour guard, the alternative was much too unpleasant.
She hadn’t yet been to the dungeon and she cursed herself for a fool. How could she have been so caught up by the Queen? It was as though her sense had been burned away by the Queen’s bright orb of pain, it had eclipsed everything. She should have gone to the dungeon first. She should not have spent so much time on a woman who did not want to be healed.
No matter. The White Lady had awoken her to reality and now here she was, descending ever deeper into the cold core of the castle. The farther they descended the brighter the pain in her chest became. She took deep breaths to try to ease the pain, but it was hot and sharp, the kind of pain she felt on a battlefield.
The two men opened a heavy oak door and stopped. The room was dark, three steps descended to a hard dirt floor, and the cold rushed from the room to cover her in goosebumps. It was an odd feeling, to be so cold in her flesh and to burn with the pain inside her heart.
“He’s in there,” one of the men said. She looked first to one and then the other before realizing she was to go in alone.
“I will need light,” she said. The man on the left took up a torch and stepped down into the room. She followed.
It was a small circular chamber with only a few cells. The walls and bars of the cells were frosted with crystalline cold, the floor a vacuum for warmth. It was the pain, though, that was most prominent. She stumbled on the last step and reached out for the guardsman, who steadied her with an arm. Her feet barely struck the floor before her Dream-Eyes opened of their volition. Through the darkness she saw the white hot pain of the poor wretch in the cell, as bright and stunning as the White Lady herself. Varkas laboured to breathe, stumbled toward the cell, gasped for the guard to unlock it. He could not do it fast enough, he had barely turned the key in the lock when she yanked the door and fell to her knees beside the man. How could one man emanate such tremendous pain? It was the pain of a family stuck in a burning building, of colliding armies, she could not contain it.
She rolled him onto his back, could not hold back a gasp, a sob, tears streaked down her cheeks.
“Goddesss help me,” she cried. “How could I not feel you before this?”
His face hardly resembled a human, his shoulder was swollen, the flesh purple and green and oozing foul smelling pus. She wanted to vomit, she couldn’t stop crying, the pain bore the weight of the castle down upon her until she felt it would crush her. She had to rally her senses before she could begin and found herself praying, not just to Dreamer, but to them all.
She started slowly, once she had regained some control of herself, placing a cold hand upon his bloody face. She pulled the pain away, willed his face to resume its accustomed state and from the raw mess of broken, bloodied flesh something vaguely human started to emerge. The swelling eased and the cracked bones fused. The nose reformed itself and a face appeared. She sucked in a breath, a bare fraction of the pain she had felt from him eased. She moved her hands down to his throat and eased the bruising there, then moved to the ribs, willing them back to their appropriate forms and smoothing the scarring inside. They took a deep breath together, and it felt like the first breath she had ever taken.
Tears still streaming down her face she moved her hands over his weeping shoulder, peeled the putrid fabric away and set to work there. This was harder, for the shoulder had to fight the will of the bolt. The shaft of the bolt had the will to move, but the barbed head wanted nothing more than to dig itself deeper into him. She bent her will alongside that of his body and finally managed to convince the broken bolt to depart from his flesh, which quickly knit itself back up. She gasped when it was done, the release of the pressure was so great. But still she felt a pain from him that outmatched that of the Queen. And she was exhausted, she could not even open her Dream-Eyes. She lay her head down upon his breast, weak and limp, and sobbed.
The guard in the room, already unsettled enough by the magic, shuffled his feet and said nothing. He did not know that this was not part of the procedure and he would not touch a magic user if he didn’t have to.
“She’s gone,” he said. His eyes were pits of darkness, swallowing light and life. He had not slept in...he couldn’t tell, it all seemed like some terrible dream, one moment ran into the next, into the next, into the next...everything was one long misery.
She had been missing for days now. He’d had the low district practically torn apart. He could not hear the cries of injustice from the poor folk there. He did not care if the district burned away with everyone in it, so long as he found his Rora, the entire city could burn for all he cared.
“A Captain cannot think this way. If you cannot protect the lowborn, how do you expect to keep the city safe?”
His father, dead ten years now, appeared to stand before him in the chambers that were once his. He resembled the man Tanis Atholine only a little. Mostly he was a corpse, pale flesh decayed, once regal attire rotten and falling away, bones pressing against translucent skin, or coming out of it altogether. His son hardly noticed that he was speaking to a corpse.
“She’s gone, father,” he said. “I’ve searched everywhere.”
“Everywhere?” his father asked. But the son did not want to search that last terrible place.
That secret terrible place.
“No,” he whispered. “No, not there.”
He was near to breaking as he traversed the long descent into the deep, dark, cold cells far beneath the castle, where prisoners are placed and forgotten. He held the torch high. He did not want to see that tiny lump on the floor of the cell. His breath came ragged, fogging the air around him, and he fell to his knees beside the tiny corpse, so much smaller than he remembered. Her body emaciated, bruised, broken, but her face strangely clear, clean, a small smile seemed to play upon her dead lips. Her hands were black with dried blood and he could not see for the tears. He pulled her into his arms, buried his face in her neck and sobbed.
He seemed to be looking down on her from a great height, the darkness around them focused on the pinpoint of her limp form. He had as much killed her as Iridian and he could not bear the anguish that filled him. This creature was not his Rora anymore, it was a costume without the actor. It was a shell. His love was gone and the fury of his helplessness welled up within him, unstoppable. Like a storm he flew to his revenge, the fury and the fear and dread blinding him to everything. He wanted to kill but he also wanted to die. The gods granted neither request, tricking him instead, into thinking he had his vengeance.
So he deserved to be here. For being fool enough to think that vengeance could be served. For being so careless with the dead soul of his lover. She haunted him in this cell, he could hear her sobbing. He could feel the weight of her head on his chest, could feel the warmth of her, he could even feel the moist tears as they soaked into his stained tunic.
“I’m sorry,” he rumbled, his voice harsh from disuse. He lifted his hands up and rested them gently upon her head. Her skin was cold, she shivered, but she was warm compared to the cell. The cell where he would see his last days, where Iridian would finally win.
“Let it go,” she sobbed.
“Hush,” he said, stroking her hair. “How can I forgive myself for what I’ve done?”
“It cannot have been so terrible,” she cried. “It cannot be beyond forgiveness.”
“The Gods have forsaken me,” he said. “Abandoned me into the arms of my enemy. Were we not taught that the Gods judgment is final?”
“Dreamer has not condemned you,” Varkas wept. “She brought me here to heal you. She offers you another chance, don’t let it slip away, don’t let this pain inside you rule.”
“She brought you here,” he said, realization dawning. “To heal me.”
He opened his eyes. The bruises were gone. He took a deep breath, in through his perfectly healed nose. He reached his hands up to his throat, no longer painful; his shoulder moved easily, the bolt was gone. He felt weak, yes, but better than he had felt since he had last seen the sun. He sat up and the woman he had thought was the ghost of Rora sat up too. She wiped tears from her cheeks and clutched weakly at the bars of the cell, as if she could not rise.
“Serenity,” Cab said, taking the woman’s arm.
“How can you bear it?” she whispered, her own hand reaching down to rest upon her heart. “The pain is so great, it cannot be a friend to you.”
“It is my shadow,” he sighed.
“Serenity Aurelian,” the guard said.
“No,” she said in horror. “Never say such.”
“Your services have been rendered,” the guard said and he stepped forward to open the cell door. “It is time to return to your duties.”
“Pain is not a shadow or a friend,” she whispered desperately. “It is not something inescapable. You must be willing to leave it behind. Only when you decide that you are done with it will it be over. It is all up to you.”
The guard stepped in and took her by the arm. She pulled away, practically throwing herself onto the floor.
“I am not finished,” the woman hissed. The guard took a step back, battling to keep the fear from his face.
Varkas’ hands grasped at the dirt, weakly trying to maintain her dignity. But there was something there, a smooth stone, too perfect to be a stone. She managed to push herself up again, her body shaking with weakness. She glanced down at the stone in her hand and the world swooned around her.
The ancient Eye of the Tunji tribes. The sigil of a dead, nameless god. She wanted to drop it, to hurl it away from herself but it seemed to stick in her hand.
“W-water,” she managed to say. “Please.”
The guard stepped away, called out to his companion to bring water. She reached for Cab’s hands, pushed the sigil into them and closed his hands around them with her own hands shaking.
“Do not let go of the Gods,” she said.
“They have forsaken me,” he replied.
“No,” she said, with a shake of her head. “You have forsaken them.”
She pulled herself to her shaking feet, with the help of the bars of the cell. The guardsman opened the cell door and helped her out before handing her a cup of water. It was icy cold, impaling the back of her throat so that she nearly choked on it. She glanced once more at the man sitting in the dirt of the cell floor. He stared at the sigil in his hand. She could still feel his pain, only half of the torrent of it had been physical, but like so many others in this castle he held that pain close and did not want to let it go.
She let the guard help her from the dungeon, too weak to do any thing else.
He sat with the smooth stone cool in his hand; the Eye of the Nameless One, the god that was not a god, the forgotten one. It stared at him, unable to blink, its gaze was a powerful thing. He set it around his neck once more, tucking it into his tunic, stiff with filth. The guards were gone, and so the only light. He sat in the darkness in the middle of his cell and thought about what the Serenity had said. He had forsaken the gods? He shook his head in disbelief. And yet he was unsettled. The Eye that rested upon his chest seemed to burn.