Craven was dead. We had won our brutal battle, but at great cost.
My body went limp, falling next to the body of our fallen foe. Whatever strength I had managed to dredge up after Elora had left my soul was gone and I felt the full force of my many wounds.
“Orin!” Elora scrambled across the damp earth, her palm going to the side of my face that wasn't a charred mass of blackened flesh. Her tear-filled eyes filled my vision and I attempted a smile, though it more likely resembled a pained grimace.
“You... you did it, Princess,” I said, staring up at my Smith, “Well done. Thought we'd be in trouble there for a second.”
Elora looked over my broken body, her tears drying up and resolve shining through. A white light emerged from her chest. She was attempting Etherin, but something was wrong. The light of her soul only consumed a small portion of her torso before it retreated, returning down into the depths of her soul space. She nearly keeled over in exhaustion, her face red from the exertion of trying to Bond.
“I...can't... too weak,” The Princess said between great rasping breaths, “Not enough Aurum for the Bonding.”
I grasped her hand and squeezed it gently, “Don't worry, Princess. I still heal faster than normal. Won't get rid of me that easily.”
Elora chuckled and ran her fingers through what remained of my hair, “I didn't plan on it. We have a Weapon now. You're all mine.”
My smile faded slightly at that. I was happy, more than I could properly express, at getting to keep my connection with the Princess, but it meant things would be different going forwards. Would she still marry Cellus? Would I be able to let her? It also threw my own plans for the future into disarray. I didn't think the Princess would willingly abandon her Kingdom to join me on adventures around the continent.
But that was a problem for later. I had other issues to deal with now.
“Orin. Boldrin... Brin... I'm so sorry.” Elora said, tearing up again at the thought of my fallen mentor and friend.
“Yeah,” I replied, my own voice cracking, the memory of watching Brin get run through and Boldrin thrown across the clearing still fresh in my mind. The fact that their bodies were still warm and close by only added to the grief piling up within my chest. “They died well. They wouldn't want me to cry for them.”
I would. But when I was alone, when I had the chance to mourn. Not now, not in front of Elora and the other members of the band. No one wanted to see that.
“Can you help me up, Princess?” I asked, “We need to get out of here. We're still too close to the Dunhold camp and Craven wasn't exactly subtle with his Element.”
That's what I needed to do. Focus on something else, keep the pain from crippling me. There was no time to feel sorry for myself or anyone else. We were still in danger here.
“Orin, I don't know,” Elora sounded troubled, “Your body is wrecked. It'll take a long time to heal these wounds and longer still for your soul to recover. I don't think you should be moving right now.”
“Move he must, your Highness,” I heard Eric's voice somewhere behind me, he sounded just as upset as I felt, “Kid's right, can't stay here. My team and I'll help.”
I felt hands grab my body and I barely stopped myself from wincing as I was pulled to my feet, the world spinning as one of my helpers grabbed my left arm.
“Careful!” Elora snapped, receiving a grumbled apology in response.
I could stand at the very least, which was something. Walking was difficult though. Trying to move even a single step made me stumble and if it hadn't been for Elora and my band mates I would have fallen once again. The Princess took her place on my right side, her small body pressing against my unburned torso and wrapping my arm around her shoulder. Any of the others would have been better suited to the job but the look on my Princess' face would broker no argument as to who would help me return to camp. I noticed that one of Eric's archers, Forgress, had thrown Tessa's unconscious body over one shoulder like a sack of wheat.
“What happened to Tessa? Craven catch her?” I asked, my throat dry and making me cough up a little blood.
Eric winced, “Nah. As soon as that bastard grabbed you she went berserk. Thought she was going to kill Boldrin to get past him. The old man knocked her out to save us having to tie her up. Never seen her react like that before.”
Elora glanced at me from the corner of her eye, the expression on her face complicated. I didn't even try to explain it. If I had learned anything over the last half hour it was that I knew fuck all.
“And what Boldrin called me. An Heir? You guys know anything about that?” I asked sharply, my good eye scanning the faces of my friends.
Most of the them looked confused, including Eric, but the older Forgress looked guilty and couldn't meet my eyes. Forgress had been with the band a long time, part of the first wave of Boldrin's Brigade and had been with the giant band leader since he started the group.
“Forgress?” I asked quietly, “What're you not telling me?”
The man didn't look me in the eye but he shook his head all the same, “Not my place, Orin. Tessa will tell you when she comes to, if you ask.”
I gritted my teeth at the man, “Boldrin and Brin just died because of me, Forgress. The boss knew that piece of shit enough to have a chat with him and the bastard nearly wet himself in excitement when Boldrin told him I'm an Heir. No more secrets, no more fucking lies. Tell me. Now.”
Forgress clenched his jaw, “Watch your tone, boy. It ain't my place to say. I'm not saying nothing.”
I made to retort but the soothing touch of Elora stopped me as she laid her palm against my chest. “It's alright, Orin. We'll figure it out later. Like you said, we need to get out of here.”
I fought against myself for a second. The need to know the reason for Boldrin's sacrifice eating away at my soul more effectively than even Craven's corrupted flames, before I finally realised the Princess was right. Now was not the time to try and unearth Boldrin's secrets. The fact that Tessa knew didn't surprise me. She had been acting strange ever since we had left Myrin. What was curious was that Forgress wanted to wait for Tessa to tell me, which could only mean she was more involved than I thought.
“Fine. But as soon as-” A rustle of movement from behind interrupted me and I turned to look at Craven, his body still on the ground and unmoving, mouth slightly ajar and Elora's dagger still wedged into his socket.
“What was that?” Elora asked from beside me. She, like me, was focused on the yellow-eyed Knight's corpse.
I frowned and continued to watch, trying to ignore the body of Brin that lay nearby. My old drunken friend was still wearing that damned grin and every glance I took made sorrow well up at the back of my throat.
'An honour'. The words of old Brin still echoed in my ears, the final phrase both confusing and infuriating me. What honour was there in this? To be struck down by a foul creature like Craven. Boldrin should have left me behind and escaped. Yet apparently that was never an option in the first place, according to his own testimony. Why? Why was my life more important than theirs?
The twitching of Craven's burnt chest yanked me from my thoughts and my jaw dropped. I must have been seeing things.
“What the fuck? Is this guy still alive?” Eric asked, just as dumbstruck as I was.
It wasn't a trick, then. My hand instinctively went to my hip for Rionna but of course she was absent, returned to my soul without Elora. The thought of the Princess made me move my arm down until it was protectively around her waist and I turned my body so she would not be in range for whatever was going to happen.
The imprint of a hand appeared on Craven's chest, pushing out against the skin. I could hear the sound of breaking bone, the noise filling the clearing. Then the tearing began. Whatever was inside of Craven desperately wanted to get out. Elora, the others and I watched on in horror as another hand joined the first and they started ripping away at the skin, the sound of snapping becoming all the greater as Craven's ribs gave way. A hand finally broke free and out into the open air.
It was gnarled and rotten. It's finger nails were cruel and jagged claws, yellowed with age. The skin was sickly, burned and looked to be paper thin,. Veins of black ichor could be seen through it's translucent body, reminding me rather vividly of Craven's own Weapon and Armour.
Slowly but surely the monster pulled itself free and it fell to the ground beside the man it had just crawled out of, immediately curling up and wrapping it's hands around it's legs. Shivering in the cold rain.
“What... what is that?” Eric asked, he and the another members of the band already had their weapons drawn, their pale faces looking at the creature with terror.
“Orin, I think that's his Smith,” Elora sobbed, horrified, clamping both hands over her mouth and turning her head to bury it against my chest.
Whatever this thing was, it only barely resembled a human. It was stick thin, it's skin pulled tightly across it's bones. It had no hair on it's body, nor any way of telling if it was a man or a woman. Black veins could be seen below it's traumatised flesh like a living map, pumping the foul liquid that Craven had conjured mere moments before. It's face was a mass of scar tissue. It had no eyes, no nose and it's lips had been cut off. Who the fuck would do something like this to their Smith?
“By the Spirit,” I muttered. Did Craven do this to his Bonded partner? How? The Bond should stop any action to hurt the Smith cold. Was this the reason for his corrupted Element, why his fire burned the soul? Was this the work of Craven's mysterious Mentor?
I heard the chattering of the Smith's teeth and I gazed at it's face. It looked like it was trying to say something, but all it could do was gurgle. They had cut out it's tongue.
But I knew what it wanted.
“Eric. Sword.” I said quietly, reaching out with my left hand towards the man.
“Orin, we shouldn't go near it-”
“Sword, Eric,” I interrupted, my eyes never leaving the poor creature's face.
There was a moment of silence behind me before I heard of metal against leather and the hilt of Eric's sword was pressed into my blackened palm. I grasped it as best I could, the pain a reminder that I was still yet living.
I released Elora gently, extracting myself from her prying hands and making my way over to the Smith, using the sword as a makeshift crutch for my ruined left leg. When I stood above it, it's mouth opened again, it's broken teeth smashing together uselessly as it squirmed beneath me.
“Be at peace,” I muttered and lifted the sword with difficulty before driving it down and into the thing's skull.
I might have been just imagining things, but I could have sworn it's body relaxed a moment before the blade went into it's brain and ended it's suffering. It was so soft, almost like mush, and the sword went right through it with almost no effort at all.
We all stood there in silence for a moment after I had ended what was left of Craven's Smith. What in the name of the Spirit had happened to them? Questions were piling on top of questions and my frustration grew to match. Ever since I had first Bonded with Elora my way of looking at the world had been changing. The ways of the Knight, the Smith, all of it. It wasn't a world I ever thought I would be a part of, let alone join as a Knight myself. But as much as I had enjoyed the power Elora gave me as my Bonded partner, the secrets that were coming to light were slowly beginning to outweigh the boon of Knighthood. Now Boldrin was gone. My friend, my father, my mentor. All that was left of him now were fond memories topped by a bitter end. The most frustrating thing was I couldn't remember his final words, the ones he spoke just before Craven ended his life with a single blow. They were at the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't recall them.
“Arne, Bo. Make sure the boss has his axe,” Eric said after the moment had passed, “He'll want it with him when he meets the Great Spirit.”
The two grizzled members of the Brigade nodded sadly and made their way over to the huge form of the fallen Boldrin. What would happen now? Who would lead the band into battle with Boldrin gone? He hadn't just been a father and friend to me, but to everyone. He was loved greatly by all who followed him. Would the Brigade break up under new leadership? Who could fill such massive shoes?
Eric noticed me looking in Boldrin's direction and gave me a weak smile, “We'll figure it out, lad. Boss wouldn't want everything he built to end just cause he was gone. We're stronger than one man, Boldrin made damn sure of that,”
I chuckled lightly and nodded at my friend. Yes, Boldrin's legacy would live on in his Brigade. Elora came up to stand with me next to the body of the dessicated Smith, her eyes red and face paler than normal.
“What could have done this, Elora?” I asked, wrapping my arm around my Smith's shoulders so she could support me once again.
“I don't know, Orin, and it terrifies me. Everything I've learned about Knights and Smiths came from my parents, Vera and Annabelle. Not once have they ever mentioned something like this. It almost looks like the poor thing was burned by Craven's own fire.”
“But how?” I asked, more to say the question out loud than to hear it answered by the Princess, “The Smith can't have been helping him, not if it was suffering this much. It clawed it's way out of his body. It was like it's state of Etherin didn't work properly. Was he controlling them, containing them and using their power for his own gains?”
Elora bit her lip in thought, stare fixed on the form beneath us. “I don't see how that's possible. Everything I've learned says that the Bond is symbiotic. You can't have a Knight without a Smith actively taking a role in managing Gifts, Weapons and Armour. What would be the point in the first place? Two heads are better than one. Having two minds actively take a role in battle, especially when they're in complete harmony, only adds an advantage.”
“Apparently Craven didn't think so,” I grimaced.”
“That's just it, Orin. A Knight can't keep the Smith inside his soul. The Smith has the power to leave whenever they wish and can do quite a substantial amount of damage if they were inclined to do so. We are far from helpless.”
“But this one was,” I frowned, “So Craven found a way to contain a Smith within his body permanently. How long can a normal pair keep the Bond going.”
Elora looked at me strangely for a moment before her eyes opened in realisation. “Of course, you don't know. I'm the only teacher you have. I honestly keep forgetting how little you know of the Bond, considering how good you are as a Knight.”
I turned Elora around and we made our way back towards the others. “High praise indeed, Princess. Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Elora said under her breath, the Bond humming pleasantly as her cheeks flushed , “To answer your question: For as long as they want. As long as a Knight and Smith have Aurum they can be in a constant Bonded state, but that is usually discouraged according to Annabelle. Spend too long Bonded with your partner and there are some side-effects.”
“What kind of side-effects?”
“You begin to think and feel as one person. There is no 'we' any more. For the Smith, the world of the inner soul becomes permanent and the physical realm becomes a crutch. That's only in extreme cases though. Those few who would spend months or years together at a time. I think there was only one known pair that it happened to and it was centuries ago, when the Hall was still experimenting with the Bond. At least, that's what Annabelle told me.”
“Could that have happened here? To Craven and his Smith?”
Elora scrunched up her face, “I don't know. Possibly? He wasn't strong enough to have been Bonded for years. A few months of being constantly Bonded might have been able to do it but I can't say for sure. My mother and father may know? Still doesn't explain the state of his Smith, though.”
“Yeah,” Elora and I were just going round in circles. My knowledge was limited to what Elora taught me and hers was restricted to what her parents, the First Knight and the First Smith deemed appropriate to a young Smith. We would have to ask her mother and father when we saw them, if we saw them. I just hoped they got out of Dunwellen in one piece, for Elora's sake. A vision of the Queen right before she attacked filled my mind. Her violet eyes filled with fury as she glared at me. Even the thought of it scared me more than Craven ever did before. I wonder if Elora could talk fast enough to clear me before Queen Gida chopped my head off. I give the Princess a good shot, but I place the odds at about fifty fifty.
I laughed at that, pulling a glance from Elora. I just shook my head at my Smith and smiled at her, nodding to Eric as I handed back his sword.
“Right, lets hit the road. We'll need to get the camp moving as soon as-”
“Eric! He's alive, the boss is alive!” Arne's shout struck as all like lightning, the three of us whipping our heads around to stare at the man, “He's breathing but it sounds off. What do we do?”
“Forgress, put down Tessa and help the others put a cot together!” I yelled at the old man who nodded immediately and jogged towards Boldrin. I stumbled after him as best I could, Elora trying her best to keep me standing.
I made my way over to the others as they moved with a flurry of activity, shouting orders at each other and beginning to pull together a basic cot we could carry back to camp. I was only a few steps away when I saw Boldrin's chest, It looked like it a mottled painting of black and yellow, Eric having ripped away his armour. He was breathing. I saw it rise and fall with difficulty, but it was there nonetheless. He was alive. Boldrin was alive!
I almost broke down right then and there, leaning my head against Elora's as she smiled at me, tears once again falling down her cheeks and about to fall down mine. I thanked the Spirit with a silent prayer that would have made the Sister proud. Finally, something had gone right.
I should have known it wouldn't last. My luck never holds up for long, I've learned.
I caught a glimmer at the edge of the clearing. The moonlight reflected off of some kind of metal and set it alight in the dim glow of the night sky. It wasn't a friend.
“Elora!” I shouted and shoved my Smith as hard as I could, my skin tearing and causing fresh blood to flow as a glimmer of silver light exploded at the clearing's perimeter.
A sword slash suddenly appeared on my hip and shoulder, pain causing white to ignite behind my eyes. Another flash followed the first and I felt my right eye explode within the socket as another cut marked me from my hairline to my jaw. I fell to the ground and screamed, the agony of my wounds from the fight with Craven and this new sudden attack causing me to lose my composure. I could feel the remains of my right eye pour down and into the newly made slash on my cheek, the thought of that only causing my pain, shock and fear to become all the more real.
“Orin!” Elora screamed my name, though I could barely see her. My left eye painted the world in a see of blurry reds, still damaged from Craven's fiery attack.
I watched as Elora made her way over to me, only for the ground between me and her to explode upwards. A large cut could be seen in the damp earth separating us.
“Well, isn't this something?” A voice, feminine but definitely male, rolled across the clearing and struck our ears. “You've done me two favours now, Orin of Myrin. Brought me the Princess and ended the life of Hammond. Or is it Craven?” The voice laughed, an odd screeching that sounded rehearsed and not at all genuine. “I am most pleased with this. Most pleased indeed.”
I couldn't make out what the figure looked like when he emerged from the trees. All I could know for sure was that he was tall, taller even than Boldrin and was so thin he almost looked like the broken form of Craven's Smith.
The man bounced forwards and stopped in front of the yellow-eyed Knight, shaking his head as though in dismay. “Ah, Hammond, you were such a fool. Insisting on doing things alone, only for you to end up in the grave,”
The man looked up and I guessed he was looking at me, “Hammond was something of a strange beast, you see. He had a pathological hatred of common-folk, despite being born one himself. Isn't that funny? He saw being common as a weakness, one he wanted to purge from his body.”
“Who are you!” I snarled pushing myself up onto my right arm, fighting within my own body to suppress the rage and fear that welled up within my chest.
“Me? Why I am a simple fool, here to entertain and incite laughter among the unwashed masses. You may call me Jester. That sounds appropriate, doesn't it? Hammond had his own little nickname of Craven. You chose well, by the way. The man was a mewling coward with little to no value. The Mentor didn't think for one second he would actually be able to kidnap Elora, yet here we are. It seems the old man's little experiment paid off. Though at the cost of little Hammond's mind.”
“Orin-” Elora made to walk towards me again but an unnaturally long arm extended outwards from the man as he pointed at the Princess.
“Stay where you are please, Elora. While I am well aware that you are unable to Bond at the moment, I am quite familiar with an Heir's powers and would prefer it if we kept a little distance.” Jester turned to look at me once again, “An Heir! Here, in this backwater country. The Mentor will be very happy to see you Orin, and the young Princess.”
“Not on our watch!” I heard Eric behind me, the sound of bowstrings being pulled and swords being drawn as my friends prepared to fight this new foe.
Jester looked past me at my band mates before his false laughter spilled from his mouth once more. “Please! You take down one half dead and deformed Knight who was so weak it was almost troubling and now believe you have a chance against me? I was wrong, you mercenaries are funny!”
“Everyone, don't move, don't fight!” Elora hissed, her eyes wide as she looked at me. She muttered a word under her breath. I felt my heart drop and my hopes dash as it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Master.”
“The pretty Princess is absolutely right. I'm a just a tad more powerful than little Hammond here. I'm afraid you are all quite doomed. Especially since you've seen,” Jester indicated towards Craven's broken Smith with one hand, “That. Imagine having that thing stuck inside you, Orin? Not pretty like the pretty Princess. No, sir, not at all.”
“Why am I so important?” I asked, stalling for time. The Bond was keeping me conscious but even it had it's limits. My willpower combined with the natural healing of Knights was the only thing keeping me awake. My thoughts were a mess and fear was building to a fever point, not to mention the Bond itself was screaming at me to get Elora out of here. Whoever this Jester was, it terrified our connection. “What is an Heir?”
“You really don't know? I thought that might have been some kind of ruse by the larger mercenary over there. Surprising, but expected,” Jester raised a hand. A flicker of silver light ran across his fingers and down his arm. Even through my decayed vision I could see it clearly and felt it resonate with my own soul. This man had the same Element I did. Was that how he had cut me before? I had seen the silver light but I hadn't had much time to process it before I was slashed and fell to the ground, “I like that you are trying to buy more time for your friends, but I'm afraid that won't work this time. Come along now, we have things to do.”
Jester raised an arm and the light began to pulsate faster and faster. If his Silver Element was anything like mine then distance didn't matter. He was a Master by Elora's reckoning, a Knight who had reached the apex of what he could achieve as a warrior. How do I fight this? How do I beat this?
I felt dread rise up and take a hold of my lungs, my breath freezing still. Elora was just as focused on the pulsating orb of silver as I was and I could see the hopelessness I felt reflected in her eyes as she glanced at me.
How many times had I given up today? Too many. I had almost given into my despair when we stood before the gates of Dunwellen, once more in front of Craven. I wouldn't surrender to fear, not again.
I began to pull myself on the ground towards Elora, ignoring the pain and focusing instead on the Bond that beat with fervour in my chest. The golden thread was stronger than it had ever been, thanks to the creation of Rionna. Whereas before it had felt like there were two threads wrapped around one another now they were one, my own irrevocably tied with the Princess'.
I didn't know what I was going to do once I reached her but I needed to do something. To not move at all, to sit there and piss myself, was what a coward would do. I reached out with a hand as Elora did the same, her eyes wide and frightened of what lay in store for us if this man took us away. For that was all but inevitable now. We couldn't win when we couldn't Bond. Even if we could, we would essentially be fighting someone as strong as Vera or the Queen. A fight that would be over in a second and end with our sound defeat.
“Elora... I...” I don't know what I meant to say in that moment. I just wanted to say something, anything, to sooth her thoughts and dry up her tears. As it happens, the words were unneeded.
The glow of the great silver light from the Jester's palm suddenly dissipated. I turned to look at him in surprise, seeing his vague outline still near Craven's body, his eyes fixed on the sky above us.
“I really shouldn't have said they were doomed. I really teased fate on that one. Shouldn't be surprised that she'd bite me on the ass.” Jester said almost musingly to the air, “Looks like my time here has come to an end. I would love to stay and duke it out with you but I only really fight when I'm guaranteed to win. I'm sure you remember that.”
Silver light rose around the man's outline, shining so brightly that it blinded my already damaged vision. The light spread to cover Craven and his now dead Smith. I saw Jester turn to look at us, tilting his head as though trying to decide whether he would be able to reach us or not. He decided not, apparently, as he disappeared a moment later in a large flash of silver.
What the hell had happened? He had us dead to rights, why would he run away?
“Mother!” Elora screamed up at the sky above us.
I followed her line of sight. I could see nothing but the darkness of the night sky, tinged red from my charred eyesight. Shit, the Queen was here. That could only be a good thing considering she had just saved our lives from yet another mad man hell bent on abducting Elora, but those violet eyes lit up my mind again and I couldn't shake them.
I let my arm collapse underneath me and hit earth with a dull thud. I would let Elora explain everything to her mother. It wasn't like I was in any condition to put up a fight anyway if she chose to kill me for Bonding with her daughter. It was strange after all this time that I was still paranoid about being killed by Elora's friends and relatives. Especially as we have just Forged a Weapon, which pretty much makes us inseparable according to the adamant Princess. All I wanted to do now was close my remaining eye and rest. The pain was dull, something at the back of my mind. The agony of my hideous wounds was being suppressed by the Bond somehow, but it was losing it's battle. It had kept me going for this long, but it was at the edges of it's limits after Jester's powerful attacks. My exhaustion after so much fighting was at the forefront and sleep was something I felt my body crave more than anything else. I knew that I needed to get up and keep going. Boldrin was behind me somewhere, alive and breathing and waiting for me to help him, but I could barely move. I just hoped they took him back to Mildred in time. Maybe the Queen herself would help? She was a Master after all, she might know some secret healing tricks of the Knights and Smiths. If nothing else, Queen Gida's appearance meant that Elora was safe and that was my primary concern. The wailing of the Bond had disappeared along with the strange Knight.
My eye shut and the darkness rose up to embrace me in it's warm arms. Finally, I could rest. Finally, I could-
I felt something tighten around my throat and raise me up and into the air. My reddened eye opened again as I struggled to breathe, to think, to move. Nothing worked, my body would not obey me.
My red eye found violet ones staring back at me. The Queen glared at me with unrestrained venom, her whole body glowing and lighting up the world around us. Fuck, this wasn't good.
The Queen dug her gauntlet deeper into my neck and I opened my mouth to scream as she buried her fingers into my burnt and warped flesh. I could vaguely see Elora grabbing her mother's arm and screaming at her, but the words could not reach me now. I was too far gone, my mind was beginning to fragment, my thoughts confused and stilted.
I could not twitch so much as a finger but I stared down the Queen with all the willpower I could muster, my clenched teeth feeling like they were about to break under the pressure of my bite. We seemed to stay like that for an eternity, my existence reduced to agony as Gida continued to up the pressure and cause my silent scream to become all the more intense.
Mercifully, thankfully, she let me go and I hit the ground. My body folded in on itself and my face smashed against the grass. My parchment like skin ripped and dirt made it's way into the wound on my face, but I embraced that pain with relief as I lay against the cold and damp ground. My breathing was ragged. I think she must have crushed something in my throat. I came to hate the Bond for the briefest of moments. At that second, I wished that I had never connected with Elora. Instead I wished for death to claim me. To be without pain.
“Mother, leave him!” Elora screamed at the Queen and I felt her arms on my body as she flipped me onto my front. I stared up at the sky, unseeing. My sight was gone entirely now, all I saw was emptiness and that scared me more than the wounds on my body.
“He is not... What is this?” A voice echoed out, sounding faintly hollow. I would assume that was the Queen.
“He is my Knight!” Elora seethed, her rage no doubt a result of the Bond. Thankfully she seemed to be holding back from attacking her mother. “I have Forged his Weapon. We are one.”
“Not possible. Zelato was here, you saw him as well as I. This must be a trick. The boy is fooling us!” The Queen was shouting at someone but I didn't think it was Elora. “An Heir? Not possible. There is only one and she is already at the Hall!”
“Orin, stay awake! Stay awake, Orin!” Elora's shouts were coming from so very far away. “Don't go, don't leave me. Orin!”
I plunged into the abyss.
* * *
I awoke with a start. Nightmares of yellow fire and silver light followed me out of my dreams for a second before they dissipated around me like the illusions that they were. Elora's desperate shouts stayed a moment longer before they too disappeared.
Once again I was in a bed, recovering from a daring venture. But my current circumstances were much different from waking up in a palace or an inn.
I was in a cell.
It was made of solid stone and was devoid of decoration with the exception of my rather grim looking cot lying in one corner. I threw off the thin blanket, the covering doing little to stop the dampness from seeping into my bones and immediately examining myself, looking at the wounds I had gained from my bloody battle with Craven and the beating I had taken from the Jester.
I almost sobbed with relief when I noticed that my burned skin had healed somewhat. It was still tender to the touch and had a pinkish sheen as though I had been badly scolded, but apart from that it was healing well. The wounds I had taken on my shoulder and my hip were similarly closed, though they too felt weak when I brushed against them with my fingers lightly.
Then I realised I could see! I raised a hand up to my face and ran it along the skin, taking so much joy in the simple fact of being able to see it do so. But... the other side was bandaged still. My right eye was wrapped. Why hadn't it healed?
“Your soul was too wounded to Bond with Elora to fix your eye with her Gift of Healing,” A voice came from the other side of the bars leading into my cell and I froze in place. “I'm afraid that without it, regrowing anything is impossible. If you were allowed to Bond with her again then your current state would be the Healing Gift's new normal. It's gone for good. I'm sorry.”
Vera stepped out from the shadows to the right of my cell, her face lit by the dim torch that had been placed outside. She looked troubled, deeply so. Her white hair looked lank, without life and the deep bags under her eyes were a testament to how little sleep she was getting. She wasn't smiling.
“Where is Elora?” I struggled to say, my throat feeling strangely numb.
Vera raised an eyebrow as she examined me through the iron, “I just told you that-”
“I couldn't give a shit about the eye, Vera,” I snapped, getting to my feet after two attempts. My body still felt incredibly weak. “Where is my Smith?!”
“You have been asleep for nearly a week, Orin. I'm afraid the rest of us didn't have the time to rest. We're in Paldrum, by the way. A little village about three days from the border,” Vera sighed and grabbed a wooden stool from the far side of the room and sat on it, “We should talk.”
I paced the bars like a caged lion, my remaining eye fixed on the face of the First Knight, “A week? What happened to the army, to my Brigade?”
“Queen Gida and the other Knights managed to get out of the Dunholdian encirclement, thanks to you and Elora,” Vera took a deep breath, “But at great cost. Lord Ivander, the commander of the Dunholdian army, gave chase with surprising speed. We're still counting casualties but, all told, more than half of what remained of the army is either dead, missing or injured. Among them were many Knights of Venos. The country is weakened.”
“Better than being destroyed entirely,” I replied, “Where is the Princess?”
Vera narrowed her eyes at me dangerously, “As for the Brigade, we have no idea. Queen Gida helped you and Elora escape-”
“She tried to kill me first. She mention that? Fucking near strangled me to death.” I interrupted.
Vera smiled frostily. “She did mention that. She also had a good reason for doing so.”
I ignored her annoying little smirk, “The Brigade?”
“As I said, no idea. Queen Gida did not go back to check on them as she was too busy trying to save you and Elora. We assume they escaped. But to where, we do not know. They are forbidden from returning to Venos. If Boldrin the bold or any member of his company set foot in our country they are to be imprisoned immediately.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, my jaw dropping in shock. “Some of those men and women gave their lives for Venos and you're kicking them out?”
“They did not give their lives for Venos!” Vera hissed, jumping to her feet and kicking the stool behind her where it hit the wall with a dull thump. “They gave their lives for you! If that wasn't enough, they were complicit in the kidnapping of the Princess Elora. Something that hangs over your head as well!”
“'Complicit in kidnapping? Don't be so fucking naïve, Vera!” I snarled at the First Knight grabbing the bars and squeezing them until my hands turned white. “You and I both know that wasn't the case. Take me to Elora. Now!”
“Do you not understand this?” Vera replied sharply, her eyes intense and searching, as if she was looking straight through me. “You'll never be allowed near Elora again. The King and Queen are besides themselves and the Kingdom is in anarchy. We are weaker than we have ever been before and that is because of your actions!”
I stopped, realisation dawning as I began to understand Vera's point. “I'm getting blamed for everything?”
“Everything,” Vera repeated. “The escape from the palace, the devastation of the army. Even Craven's attack on the wedding. Everything. The King and Queen need a scapegoat to feed to the Nobles and you offered yourself up on a silver platter. Everyone in the Kingdom knows that you're the Princess' Knight. The King will argue that had you not turned up then the Queen would have gotten them out of the siege. Plus, they're saying you coerced the Princess into following you along, and she did so out of kindness and compassion. On top of that, they're saying you hired Craven to do what he did, so you could Bond with the Princess.”
“But that's a fucking lie!” I shouted, kicking the bars and immediately regretting it as my foot began to throb. I limped away from the entrance of my cage and fell onto the cot, my head tumbling into my hands. “They can't do this. Why would they do this? Elora and I saved their lives.”
“They are grateful for that,” Vera sighed and leaned against the wall opposite my cell, “They truly are. But they can't let Elora be in your life, Orin. The Nobles would never accept a common Knight. Even in the short weeks you stayed at the palace, the uproar was great among the Nobility. The King and Queen are weakened politically after this whole debacle. You being here, doing the things you have done. It's offered them a way out of the trouble they're in. At least it'll give them something to work with.”
“I'm so glad I could be of help.” I said dryly, Vera wincing at my tone.
“I know this is a lot to take. You are getting the raw end of this deal and I'm sorry for it. I tried to talk them out of it, Orin. Elora, Annabelle and I tried as hard as we could. But we serve them, not the other way around.”
“Elora is just going along with this?” I asked weakly, looking to the golden thread within my soul space, it touched the edges of my black flames. My soul had recovered slightly but it still looked injured. The Bond was as strong as it ever was but strangely dormant. I could barely feel Elora's presence. I knew she was close by but that was all I could tell. Her emotions were closed off to me. “I can't feel her.”
“A ward, created by Masters,” Vera grimaced, “It is to protect her from what comes next.”
I looked up sharply at the First Knight, who looked away quickly. Anger and helplessness shone within her eyes.
“Vera, what are you talking about?”
“I told you when this all began, Orin. The Bond will be broken.”
I shot to my feet, fear stabbing me in the heart as I made for the bars once again. “That's not possible. Elora and I have a Weapon, our Bond is permanent!”
Vera sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “The things that Elora knows about Smithing could fill a small cup, but the ways of the Knights and Smiths are so vast they could fill an entire ocean. There was a reason we didn't want you two to have a Weapon. A reason for not wanting you to Bond as much as you did. There is another way. I didn't consider it an option. It's dangerous and incredibly difficult to perform. In fact, it never even crossed my mind but the Queen feels differently and she is insisting it be done. That's why you can't feel Elora's emotions. The first part of the ritual is to protect the aggrieved party.”
“The aggrieved party?” I repeated. My mind was spinning and I was sure if I had any food in my stomach it would now be on the floor of my cell.
“In times long past there have been cases of Knights or Smiths taking advantage of their pairs,” Vera grimaced, “If a situation is deemed turbulent enough then they are taken to the Hall and a Severance is performed. It is a brutal and barbaric thing that is used when there is no other option. Either Knight or Smith is protected by powerful magic created by a group of Masters and the other takes on the strain of the Bond breaking. It will be snapped right off of your soul. Your Weapon, your Forge, all of it will become inert, floating in your soul space and never to be used again. Over time, Elora's end of the Bond will dissipate with no ill effects. But as a result of this, your own soul will be crippled. You will never be able to Bond again.”
“What the fuck,” I paled, leaning back and staring at the ceiling overhead. “What the fuck.”
“It is painful, but not fatal in most cases. You're strong. You will live.” If Vera was trying to console me she was doing a piss poor job of it.
“But I never did anything to Elora!” I shouted, “She wants me in her life, Vera. She does!”
“I know it. I've spoken to her since I arrived yesterday and I know she wants you to stay. But the Queen is saying that is a result of the Bond. She believes that when it is broken, Elora will Bond with Cellus and it will be like you never existed.”
“That won't fucking happen!” I roared at the bars, shaking them and trying to make them move. The Bond was beginning to panic within my chest but it felt suppressed and numb. “Bring me to Elora. I-I need to speak to her!”
“Fool!” Vera hissed, “She is doing this to keep you alive. She has cooperated with everything they've done so far to stop the Queen from killing you as soon as the ritual is done. Those were her terms. You will be released over the nearest border, that being Dunhold, and you are never to return to Venos.”
I slid down the far wall and wrapped my arms around my legs. The Bond gone? Elora gone? “But my family. The Sister, the kids. I won't be able to see them any more?”
“That is their choice. At least I now know why the Sister kept your origins a secret. An Heir. In Myrin all this time and we never noticed.”
I blinked,”What are you talking about? Do you know what an Heir is?”
Vera hesitated but nodded, “The Queen figured it out shortly after she attacked you. It was why she stopped.”
“That why she's doing this? Being an Heir is so fucking terrible that she's willing to risk her daughter's life to see the Bond ended? Why did she attack me in the first place?”
Vera shook her head, “There is little risk to Elora in this ritual. The pain will be entirely on you. She doesn't know about that part. She believes that it will be quick, painless and that your soul will recover in time. I suggest you do your best to keep up the deception. She already believes she is betraying you, knowing just how much this will hurt would cause her more harm. As for why Gida attacked you: She thought you were someone else, someone dangerous. Unfortunately, being an Heir doesn't help things in that regard. In many ways it makes matters worse. You will be hard pressed to find any information about Heirs outside of the Hall. Even we as Masters know little about them. Only that they are dangerous.”
“How? What is an Heir? Would someone please give me some straight fucking answers!”
Vera frowned, sadness blossoming in her eyes. “I can't tell you that, Orin. The King and Queen have forbidden me from telling you what little I know. The only thing I can tell you is that if the Hall finds out that the Princess of Venos is bound to an Heir and they weren't told about it, it could have disastrous consequences for all of us.”
“More vague shit,” I sighed and bumped my head against the wall repeatedly, “Seems that's become my life now. A endless series of half-truths. What's to stop me telling them about it, huh? I could just walk on down to the Empire and knock on the front door of the Hall of Tyra.”
Vera looked down, her teeth clenching and I thought I saw the glimmer of frustration in her eyes for a second. “You'll never make it that far, Orin.”
“What?” I turned to the First Knight. “What do you mean?”
“When you and Elora first Bonded you cut a hole in your soul, to allow her in.” Vera replied stiffly, looking anywhere but at me.
“I remember. You and Annabelle told Elora it was fine.”
“We lied. What you don't know is that doing something like that has consequences. As long as you were Bonded to Elora, you were fine. The Bond took care of the problems as they arose. But without her there is no stopping it now.”
This day just keeps getting better and better. “Stopping what, Vera?”
Vera looked up at me, a sad smile etched into her beautiful features. “You are dying, Orin. You have been dying since the moment you used your soul self to open a door for Elora. Knights usually spend years building a door for their Smiths. It's why we don't Bond people when they're younger than sixteen. That time is mostly dedicated to feeling for the Element and building the door. You have cut a direct opening into your soul with no way to shut it. The energy from your inner soul will leak out and poison your physical body.”
I stared at Vera for a second, my mind processing what she was saying, before I started laughing. It got louder and louder as the seconds passed us by until I was in hysterics, slapping the floor with my forced mirth as tears spilled down my face. I was just taking hit after hit today and I'd only just woken up.
“I wonder what's going to happen next,” I giggled, leaning my head against the wall once more, “I mean, this day couldn't get any worse, right? First, I'm getting blamed for saving the fucking Kingdom. Next my Bond with Elora is taken away from me and now you say that not only am I going to have to be thrown back into Dunhold, but I'm dying on top of it! Oh! Let's not forget losing an eye! I'm assuming that's why Dunhold has been chosen as my point of banishment? I won't last long, not with what I did to their army, and even if I did I'd be dead soon anyway.”
“How long?” I asked, my laughter fading as I stared at one of the blank grey walls.
“A few weeks by Annabelle's reckoning. We thought at first you would be able to Bond with another Smith, but that will only slow it down. A few months in that case. It could be even less as a result of the trauma the Severance will cause.”
“Great,” I sighed, “I take it Elora doesn't know about this, either?”
“No, she doesn't, and telling her will change nothing. We do not need your approval or hers to complete this particular ritual. Telling her would only upset her more than is needed.”
“Good.” I replied numbly, “I don't want to upset her.”
Vera smiled at me, it was genuine and filled with gratitude, “Thank you, Orin.”
Vera turned to leave but I stopped her with a click of my fingers.
“The Queen sent you here to be a friendly face, to coerce me into keeping this a secret from the Princess. That right?”
Vera frowned but said nothing, so I knew that I had reached the truth of it. “She chose the wrong person. I used to admire you, First Knight. But you're just a Noble, and Nobles can't handle it when power is taken from their hands. Tell the Queen from me that she's a spineless bitch who would have died if the commoner hadn't stepped in. Take the Bond, take my life and throw me into Dunhold. I can't stop you, anyway. But I won't forget this, Vera. You understand?”
Vera's expression turned cold and more than a little sad. She nodded once before walking away down the corridor, the sound of her leather boots hitting the stone floor slowly disappearing into the distance before I heard the slamming of a door.
As soon as she was gone I slipped and fell against the cold floor, wrapping my body up as tightly as I could. Elora was being taken from me. Blame for everything that happened since arriving back in Myrin was being heaped upon my shoulders. They wouldn't even let me see her. I just wanted to see her. To hold her once more and hear her soothing voice. Why hadn't she come to see me?
Tears ran down my face and I howled weakly, grabbing the blanket and pressing it against my face to stifle the sound. My world was falling down around me, so I wept. Pathetic and alone.
I stayed there for some time.