Death would have been better than what I knew was in store for me. Alec’s gift was not a gift at all, but rather a curse. The crystal contained a catalyst, causing the subject to relive memories surrounding the most painful moment in their life and become compelled to watch them even when the subject tries to look away. The curse often started out with a beautiful memory before the event, a happy reminder of times past but then were strangled with the sheer pain of that particular point of time. The deadly combination was enough to break even the strongest of hearts.
It was one of the cruelest punishments on the mind and heart that I could imagine.
I opened my heavy eyes slowly and blinked, taking in the obvious change in location. Lush greenery from the Fen had given way to the harsh, barren land of Malcor’s Leap and the smell of brine filled my nostrils. The sun had just risen and was now shining through the haze, casting a lifeless hue all around. Pushing myself up, I surveyed the area around me and found Rhys and Sir Fendall talking jovially around a small makeshift camp.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Sir Fendall claimed. “Surely there are others out there on their own who want a place they can call home and others they can call on for help.”
“That may be true,” Rhys replied as he lifted the back of his long coat and settled himself on a rock next to Sir Fendall. “However, there are risks to consider.”
Feeling compelled, I watched the scene start to unfold before me and as I tried to go to my friends, I collided with something. Confused, I placed my hands up in front of me, feeling for the barrier blocking my way. Despite its lack of visibility, it was strong. I began pounding on it, harder and harder, to try to get my friends’ attention but they never looked my way. I tried yelling until my voice grew hoarse, but that did not seem to help either.
“I think the benefits outweigh the risks,” Torran replied as he joined the group with an armful of Omnomberries. “And perhaps we could use it to help others?” His shoulder length dark hair fell forward as he reached down and offered the thick fleshed palm-sized fruits to Rhys and Sir Fendall. They each took one and offered thanks.
“No, we can’t,” a familiar voice said. “But we’ll have a small army at our disposal if we choose the right ones. If you want to do some good, use them for your missions. They can also keep it safe without even knowing what they’re protecting. It could be a win-win situation.”
My eyes widened as I saw the loose shoulder-length red hair and tattered dark clothes. It took me a moment to fully recognize myself. Aside from the color of the hair, it was understandable why my eyes did not make out who I was looking at right away. I was a little younger, my hair was shorter and had less grey. My shoulders were slumped and my posture far from perfect.
“Just remember that’s not the whole point, Nienna,” Sir Fendall said as he cleaned the fruit with a piece of blue cloth he retrieved from his arm guard. “It’s also about the people. Anything in this life that’s worth a damn is about people.”
My other self nodded with a smirk. “True, and we can let them think that,” she said. Her smirk fell. “But don’t ever forget what this is really about.”
Sir Fendall nodded, chewing on a bite of Omnomberry. He smiled as he looked to Rhys and then to my other. “Never.”
“We will need some safeguards, of course,” Rhys advised, brushing a few black strands of hair from his eyes. He wore it longer back then. “Just in case. I have a few ideas and a very short list of contacts that can be trusted.”
My other self shot a concerned glance at Rhys. “I don’t wanna bring in too many people on this. Things tend to not end so well for…others.” She shook her head. “I don’t even know how well it sits with me about building this guild of people.”
“it will be good for you. For us,” Torran assured as he offered her a warm smile. “We can start over and we’ll be helping others in the process.” He placed a gentle hand on my other self’s back and regarded her with his serene, blue eyes.
“Maybe,” she murmured quietly, but she furrowed her brow as she leaned in to his touch.
“We’ll make it work,” he assured.
I felt a smile grow on my lips as I watched the scene unfold before me. It was such a peaceful time amid a life of turmoil and for once in a long while, I remembered being happy. Torran had spent years searching for me and thanks to a tip from a traveling Priory scholar who happened to catch a glimpse of me while resupplying in Wren with Rhys and Sir Fendall, He found me. After all those years apart and with no explanation, I was afraid of what he would say when he opened his mouth, but instead he embraced me. He did not care what had happened to me and we picked up right where we left off.
Suddenly, the scene shifted, literally, around me while I remained where I was. It was disorienting, watching the barren world around me change and shift to bring me a new day and a new scene. My head spun and I closed my eyes to try to stem the motion sickness I was starting to feel. I steadied myself against the walls of my invisible cage as I waited for it to stop.
“Straighten your shoulders a bit more,” Rhys noted as he observed my other self’s stance. “If we’re to pull this off, you will need to exude nobility in your speech, mannerisms, as well as physical presentation.”
I opened my eyes and watched another scene play out before me.
“If I straighten my shoulders any more, I’m not going to be able to move them ever again,” my other self joked.
Rhys all but rolled his eyes. “The illusion has to be kept.”
Sir Fendall chuckled as he took a polishing cloth to his chest plate laying on his lap. He looked up with playful dark eyes. “Go easy on her Rhys,” he said. “She’s spend most of her life out here away from civilization.”
“You make it sound like I’m an animal,” my other self scoffed as she shot Sir Fendall a sharp glance paired with a smirk.
Rhys’ eyes widened as he adjusted her shoulders firmly into a rather rigid position. “Did you see yourself last night at our meal?”
Another chuckle escaped Sir Fendall’s lips and grew until his whole body shook. His chest plate nearly fell from his lap.
“It’s true,” Rhys said, raising a delicate, dark eyebrow. Gently, he adjusted the blood red material of her new traveling attire at the neckline until it lay flat. “It was atrocious.”
My other self sighed heavily. “Fine. I’ll watch my manners.”
“Good,” Rhys smiled and clasped his hands on my shoulders. “You can do this, Nienna. We will get the papers inked and the story iron clad. It’s a good thing you gave the Order a fake alias and changed your appearance during your time there. Did you destroy all your records?”
“Ya,” I uttered softly. “‘Fraid I burned some bridges at the same time.”
Sir Fendall clasped on one of his newly polished bracers as he approached. “We will deal with that bridge together if we have come to it.”
“I hope we don’t,” my other self replied as Rhys smoothed the material hanging on my shoulders. “Grenth’s horns, where’s Torran? I’m starving.”
“Where. Is. Torran?” Rhys replied, enunciating each word and then waited with a raised eyebrow for me to repeat.
My other self cleared her throat and repeated the phrase. “Where is Torran?” Each word came out clear in a smooth tone I knew all too well. I had now been using it for years.
“He should be back soon,” Sir Fendall replied. “He’s been gone quite awhile.”
The ground started to shake again and my heart sped, pounding violently against my chest. I knew why he had been gone so long and what was coming next. As the barren Orrian land moved, I closed my eyes again partially because of the disorienting feeling but also because I did not want to see what happened. I would have given anything if I could to make it stop but that was the curse of the crystal. The rose never came without it’s thorns.
“Where are you going?” My other self called to Torran breathlessly as she slowed her sprint and approached him. “Why did you take it?”
I struggled with all my might but the curse compelled me to force my eyes open. Dressed in his dark blue long coat lined with white fur, he stood before my other self, his hands up. A warm breeze kicked up dust from the trail, hissing as it whipped past them. “I am sorry Nienna.” He had the large, carefully wrapped parcel on his back.
“Torran please,” my other self begged. “You can’t take it.”
“I have to,” he replied. “I promised my brother I’d find a way to help him. This thing can help.”
My other self shook her head, feeling her breath catch in her throat. “N-no, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t take it Torran. If it gets in the wrong hands-.”
“If this is as powerful as you claim it to be,” he said, cutting her off. “Why not use it to help people? Why hide it away? I can help my brother and can set straight the wrongs against my family.”
“You may have good intentions, but that’s how it starts. It’s a slippery slope after that. We can’t handle that power. It was never meant for any of us,” My other self claimed as she reached out an unsteady hand towards him. “Please, just give it back and we can go make our home in Lions Arch like we planned.”
Torran shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he uttered. The sorrow from his heart flooded his eyes. “I can’t.”
“NO!” I screamed from my cage. “Grenth please! Make it stop!”
Carefully, my other self reached for her daggers on her hip belt, clutching the hilts with shaking hands. She took a slow step towards Torran. “Please Torran. Put it down.”
“Nienna, what is this?” Rhys asked as he and Sir Fandall arrived quickly on the scene and nearly out of breath from their sprint.
“He took it,” Sir Fendall gasped with surprise as he reached for his sword. “We thought we could trust you!”
With great force, I pounded on my invisible enclosure with closed fists and called out to Grenth and to my friends even though they could not hear. I could think of nothing else to do. I hoped that even though he seemed to not hear me anymore, my god would hear me this time and take pity on my cries.
“Grenth please.” I begged, my words barely coming out as a whisper. “Please don’t make me relive this again. Please have mercy on this dark soul.”
“I can’t let you take it,” my other self said firmly as she clenched her quivering jaw. She hesitantly drew her etched daggers from their holsters.
“Don’t you trust me to do the right thing, Nienna?” Torran asked, outstretching his arms to her. “You know me. You know I’ll only use it for good.”
My other self shook her head. “Even our best intentions can lead down a dark path, Torran and I can’t let you start down it.”
“Do you mean to do me harm?” He asked, surprised as he lowered his arms and took a step back.
Slowly, Rhys turned his staff in his hand, the end making a hole in the ground next to him. He narrowed his violet eyes. “Torran, we trusted you with this and you know how important it is to keep it hidden away.”
“But should we?” Torran argued and he gestured wildly as his tone hardened. “There are so many we could help. So many battles we could win. Isn’t that its purpose?”
My other shook her head. “We don’t know. But what we do know is that it needs to stay out of the wrong hands.” She took another step towards Torran and something changed. I remembered that difficult moment when I had to let duty take over because I knew my feelings were getting in the way of what had to be done. Torran was not going to give the parcel up so I had to take it away by force.
“Give it back, Torran,” my other self commanded.
“I thought you trusted me,” Torran claimed as his face flushed with anger.
“I did,” my other self replied somberly.
Rhys and Sir Fendall joined my other at her side, weapons in hand and despite all the pounding and yelling from me inside my viewing cage, it began.
Sir Fendall drew his shield from his back and charged at Torran, hitting and stunning him for a moment, giving my other a chance to move in quickly. Reaching out a hand, she sent out a tether of dark energy that gripped Torran tightly and pulled him back to her. They struggled against each other while Rhys slipped under a veil and worked his way back around behind the struggling pair. Torran’s body pulled back against an invisible pull and the large, wrapped parcel pulled free. Feeling the force, Torran reached back around and managed to grab the edge of Rhys’ coat, pulling him out of his veil. Swiftly, Rhys raised up his staff and with a flash of violet light, teleported back away with the parcel from Torran, free from his grasp.
“No!” Torran cried desperately as he ran after Rhys. “Please, I need it to help my brother. To help my family!”
Sir Fendall and my other self ran after him but failed to see the concealed blade he drew from underneath his fur-lined coat. The blade cut across Sir Fendall’s cheek and hit my other self in the shoulder. She winced from the sharp pain but raised her blades defensively, preparing for another strike.
Torran’s eyes grew wild as they fought him, holding him back away from Rhys as best they could while trying to subdue him. My hands were numb from pounding on the invisible walls of my cell and my voice nearly gone. There was nothing I could do but watch them struggle, blades dancing, while Rhys tried to keep the parcel safe. And then came the last plea.
“Torran please,” my other self begged. “Please do not do this!”
“It’s too late for that, Nienna,” he warned. With a short wave of his hand, a clone of himself stepped out of Torran’s body in a flash of violet light and sped towards Rhys. Torran turned, ready to take the clone’s place as soon as it reached Rhys. He had only taken a few steps when my other self screamed, reaching out with her hand towards Torran and pulled him back with a dark tether of energy. Suddenly, a stillness took over as all struggling stopped. My other self held on to Torran tightly, laying her head on his chest. Her eyes grew glossy and tears spilled over onto her cheeks.
“I’m sorry dear friend,” she whispered as he groaned and his body grew slack.
I fell to my knees, sobbing, as I watched Torran’s lifeless body fall from my other self’s grasp, leaving behind a bloody dagger in her hand. Her whole body shook and she dropped the bloodied weapon and fell to her knees beside her dead friend. A piteous cry erupted from her lips as Sir Fendall and Rhys knelt next to her offering their somber support.
My heart ached so much I swore it would tear in half. There had been many moments of pain in my life but this was by far the most painful which is why I had buried it deep within me, not allowing it access to my conscious thoughts as much as possible. I watched on as my other self argued with Rhys and Sir Fendall about what to do with his body. They wanted to burn him so the Risen could not get their hands on him, but my other self could not bear to do such a thing. So, they buried him in a secret place, along with the bloodied dagger. I remembered feeling then that I could never look upon the weapon again without the harsh reminder of what I had done. I never carried any dagger in that hand again and instead, traded it for an axe.
My cheeks wet with warm tears, I collapsed fully and fell over onto my side sobbing. I was emotionally spent and as I brought my knees to my chest, I wrapped my arms around myself to give what little protection I could.
Death would have been better.