“Oh, Simm.” The leaden weight that sat upon Delphine’s heart grew heavier
The Rondrell home sat at the end of the street that curved northward toward Rowan’s house. The whole of Orua was arrayed in a rough circle, with the Two Trees and the village square at its center. The few folks that lived in the village proper, and not out on one of the farms, had clustered their homes close together to give themselves a better sense of community. That community was gone now.
Simm Rondrell stood outside of his home, pressing against the door. One hand stroked feebly at the handle, as though he’d lost either the coordination or the knowledge required to turn it. He was not a heavy man, but what weight he’d carried had left him. His skin hung pale and oddly grey upon his bones. Much of his hair had fallen out, leaving only a few stands dangling from his skull.
“Simm.” Garret walked forward, his mace hanging from his wrist by its strap so that he could present his palm, open, as a gesture of peace. “Simm, it’s me. Garret.”
Delphine tensed. She drew her blades. She wanted to call out to Garret and warn him of the danger — she wanted to tell him he was being foolish by even attempting a peaceful approach — but she froze, because she also wished, against the reality standing before her, that they could still save Simm. Or anyone.
Simm’s head turned toward them, though his hand still quested for the door handle. Yes, there in his forehead was a black stone, just like all the others. His eyes faced them, but Delphine had the impression he wasn’t looking at them. Not really. Something dark brown-red had crusted around his mouth and down his chin.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Garret said. “We want to help.”
He was close, now. Closer to Simm than he was to Delphine or Garret. Simm turned the rest of the way around.
“Get back, Garret,” Rowan said. He had something in his hands. It looked like… like a tiny magnifying glass? Delphine knew he liked to tinker with things, but she hadn’t seen that before.
“It will be okay,” Garret said. “Right, Simm?”
Simm twitched, then lunged forward, his mouth hanging open. He made no sound. Garret yelped and backpedaled. Delphine groaned, at him and at herself, and lunged forward to meet Simm. Their bodies thudded together, and though he’d lost most of his mass, he had greater height and momentum. They went down, with Simm on top of her, her twin short swords pinned at his sides rather than piercing through his stomach as she’d half-intended.
Half, because she still didn’t want to believe this was all real. She didn’t want to hurt the people whose village she had called home. These people — she knew their faces, and she knew bits and pieces of their lives. How could fate be so cruel as to force this on her?
Delphine heard the door open, but Simm Rondrell’s open mouth, hovering above her face, drew all of her attention. She felt his body tighten, stiffening; felt his abdomen clench, and then his weight press harder down upon her as he lifted one hand to his mouth. He vomited. Delphine screamed as blood, thick and congealing, splurted between his fingers.
Something hot and bright flashed by her over head. Delphine jerked, struggling, but she couldn’t free herself from Simm’s pin. She had the wrong angle. His hand turned. In it, he held a stone, a mirror of the one sunken into his forehead. “No no no no no,” Delphine moaned. It became a chant, racing through her head and out of her mouth. Simm pressed the stone against her forehead. She felt her flesh sizzle. She screamed.
“Garret!” Rowan called. “Keep Mardra away. I’ll help Delphine.”
Delphine heart Garret rush past, armor clattering, but she couldn’t spare him a glance. She stared into Simm’s blank eyes, horrified at what he’d done. The stone ached where it pressed against her skull through her parted flesh. Something clawed at and clouded her thoughts, like violent exhaustion. She fought it, though the battleground was not one on which she’d fought before.
There came another flash of hot light. A bolt, like fire given a semblence of form, caught Simm Rondrel in the face. His weight shifted, giving Delphine the chance she needed to push him to the side. She scrambled out from under him. On her knees, heedless of her companions struggles, she clawed at the stone in her forehead, desperate to find purchase with her weak, stubby nails. She wished she had taken warforme; but then, she couldn’t have known she would have need of it. She raised one of her short swords, one hand on the hilt and another toward the tip of the blade. With little of the care she would have taken under other circumstances, she gouged the stone from her flesh.
She might have screamed. She didn’t know, because for the briefest of moments, all the world went black as the stone itself. Something pulled away from her. The stone, from her flesh, yes; but also something that had begun to work its tendrils into her mind. It left her gasping for air. When the world returned, she had dropped her swords. Her fingers clawed at the dirt of the Rondrell’s front path as though she was trying to grab hold of Aia and bring herself back to it. The stone, cracked into two pieces, sat on the dirt before her.
Delphine blinked. In front of her, mere inches away, Rowan drove his sword into Simm Rondrell’s chest as the shell of a man tried to stand. Her eyes were drawn not to Simm, but to Rowan’s face face, which held a stern, disconnected, stony gaze that made him almost unrecognizable.
Pressing one foot against Simm’s chest for leverage, Rowan withdrew his blade. No blood followed behind it, but Simm tried. He was not, to Delphine’s horror, dead. He brought one foot up beneath him, attempting to stand fully. Rowan lifted the little lens in his other hand, fumbling at it with his fingers, and a bolt of flame issued forth, striking Simm in the face. Finally, he collapsed.
Delphine grabbed her swords. She forced herself to her feet. Her head felt light, as though for a brief moment she’d born something incredibly heavy that her mind could never forget. She stumbled, but turned anyway, for the need to help Garret had crashed against her like a wave. It felt like days since she’d even given him a thought.
She fell back to her knees when she saw him, because though he was breathing heavily, it was Mardra who lay upon the ground, defeated, and not him. Delphine didn’t know if it was her own weakness, or her relief, that caused her to collapse.
“Delphine,” Garret said. “Are you okay?” He dropped his mace to hang by its leather strap and rushed to her side. His holy symbol hung from his neck, and he brought it forth, murmuring a prayer to Alrhea.
With a sort of pleasant itching, the wound on Delphine’s head knitted shut. Her mind cleared as though Alrhea had dragged out a wad of scratchy cotton. “Thank you.”
Garret shook his head. “Thank Alrhea. Through health, all things are possible.”
“Isn’t that closer to a quote from the Scrolls of Quet?” Rowan said. “‘Through knowledge, all things are possible?’ Or something?”
“Does that really matter right now, Rowan?” Delphine asked.
“We stand on ground shared by two dead people,” Garret said. “Two good people. And you choose now to point out I made a mistake with my quote?”
Rowan shrugged. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Delphine said. It was the wrong moment for Rowan’s comment, but in a way, it made her feel better. Garret constantly misquoted even his own god’s scriptures, and Rowan often pointed it out. It felt good for at least one thing to remain unchanged.
Something lurked in the back of Delphine’s mind, bothering her like a bee heard in the room, but never spotted. She’d had dreams, of late, about a black wall looming over her, filling her with dread. The wall stood strong, but in the dreams, she could not shake the feeling that it was drawing closer, as though it was about to collapse upon her and bury her beneath its weight. The blackness of that wall made the blackness of the stones feel familiar. She was no devotee of the dream-goddess Morauna, but perhaps one of the Viceroys had sought to give Delphine a warning.
“The children,” Garret said suddenly. “Oh! Mia and Cardel. The Rondrells have children.”
He scampered off, into the house, before Delphine could even register fully what he had said. With a single glance at Rowan, Delphine pushed through the door after Garret, her hands tight upon her blades. She wanted to hope that Mia and Cardel were safe, but she couldn’t find it within herself. Not after what she’d seen today.
Garret was at the bedroom door already, pushing it open, but in speedforme Delphine closed the space between them easily. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Garret. You know what we’re going to find in there.”
“I don’t!” Garret said, his head snapping around fiercely. His eyes, normally soft and kind, seemed lit by an internal fire. “We know nobody’s fate until we find them. There has to be someone we can save.”
“Alright,” Delphine said. “But please, Garret. Don’t let your hopes crush you when they fall.”
Garret frowned at her, angrily, then shrugged his hand from his shoulder and pushed his way into the bedroom. He stopped quickly enough inside that Delphine almost tripped over him. “Ohh,” he groaned. “Oh, Alrhea. Give me strength.”
The light from the shaded window cast their forms into shadow, but even from the doorway Delphine could see that Mia was in her crib, and Cardel, on his small cot next to his parents’ bed. Delphine followed Garret across the room, but Rowan paused in the doorway.
“She’s moving,” Garret said. Delphine didn’t need to look at his face to know there were tears in his eyes. It was plain in his voice. He leaned over Mia. “There’s…” Garret’s voice cracked. “There’s a stone in her forehead.”
“Then these creatures don’t care about kin, or age,” Rowan said.
“Creatures?” Delphine asked. “They’re our townsfolk. Our neighbors.”
“Not anymore,” Rowan said.
“I want to heal her,” Garret said.
Delphine, against her better judgement, leaned over Garret to see within Mia’s crib. She struggled weakly upon her blankets, hands reaching toward Garret’s face. Her front was stained with dark, drying blood, and small black stones, many of which had crumbled at least partially away, hand piled on either side of her. Her flesh was thin and grey.
“She’s gone, Garret,” Delphine said.
“We need to heal her!” Garret shouted. “It’s… it’s our duty. We killed her parents. We have to save their child.”
“She’s worse than they were, Garret,” Delphine said.
“They attacked us.” Garret made a choking sound, as though the words themselves threatened to strangle him. “We didn’t have a choice. But look at her. Look at Cardel. They’re too weak to hurt us. We can at least try…”
“Fine,” Rowan said. “Take the stone from her head. I will heal her.”
“You? But…” Garret glanced down at the baby, who was still reaching out toward him, her eyes hungry. She made no sound at all. “Okay.”
Rowan handed Garret a small knife, drawn from one of the many pockets lining his jacket. With trembling hands, Garret opened the blade and pressed it against Mia’s forehead. The baby’s fingers scraped at his arm, though her nails were too short to cause any harm. She vomited as he worked, producing a single black stone which rolled down her hollowed cheek.
The stone came free, and Mia’s motion stilled. Rowan came forward, pushing Garret out of the way. He produced a small wooden pipe, like a whistle carved out of wood. Pressing it to his lips, he leaned forward until the other end nearly touched Mia’s wound. He blew. As far as Delphine could tell, no sound issued forth, but instead, an azure light, the same color as that which accompanied Garret’s healing, billowed from the end.
Rowan jerked backward. Where the light met Mia’s flesh, the flesh gave way, dissolving like snow met by hot water. Her fleshed hissed and crackled, flowing away from her bones.
“NO!” Garret screamed. “What have you done? What did you do?”
“I tried to heal her!” Rowan said.
“You killed her,” Garret sobbed. He gripped the side of Mia’s crib as though it was the only thing keeping him upright.
“No,” Rowan said. “No, that stone killed her. This should never have hurt her. It… All it does is draw positive energy, the same stuff souls are made of, from Zhairon. It heals! It heals with the same power Alrhea grants you.”
Garret glared at him. “You think you have the same powers as my god?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Rowan said. He sounded small. Defeated. “I just mean it uses some of the same principals. I promise you, it should have worked.”
“Well, it didn’t,” Garret said.
“We should leave,” Delphine whispered.
“What?” Garret still held the edge of the crib. He didn’t seem keen on releasing it anytime soon, but…
“We should leave this house,” Delphine said. “We need to get out of here.”
“What about Cardel?” Garret asked. He let go with one hand just long enough to point toward Cardel, whose small form had moved since they’d arrive. He was now closer to the edge of his cot.
“We leave him,” Delphine said. “He’s gone at least as far as his sister. There’s no helping him.”
“You don’t even want to try?”
“Look what trying brought us.” Delphine pointed to Mia’s crib. The blankets were soaked through, and her tiny white bones sat in a red-black puddle, as though arrayed there intentionally. “I’ll never be able to forget that sight. Look at her. She… melted, and all because you wanted to heal her.”
“She wouldn’t have lived if we hadn’t tried,” Garret argued.
“No, probably not,” Delphine said. “But at least we could have said we played no part in it.”
Rowan was staring, transfixed, at what had once been Mia. He held the wooden pipe loosely in his hand. His eyes were wide and unblinking. There was not a doubt in Delphine’s mind that he hadn’t expected the outcome of his intent, whatever Garret might be twisting himself into believing.
“We leave Cardel, for now,” Delphine said. “Maybe we’ll come back for him later, if we find a better solution. We don’t have one right now. We only know how to make things worse.”
Garret didn’t answer her. He just turned back to stare at Mia. Delphine stood, for a time, letting both of them process what had just happened. She didn’t want to think about it, herself, and soon the silence in the room had her itching to leave. So she placed one hand on each of their shoulders and firmly lead them from the room, and then from the house. They did not resist.