Preceded by: Orua, Session One, Part V: The Rondrell Home
“I need to go check on Melark.”
Delphine strode off purposefully, leaving Garrett to stand, frozen, next to Rowan. The door to the Rondrell home had just shut behind him with a thumping blow that felt like it had struck directly against Garret’s heart. He knew Rowan hadn’t meant to harm the baby, but he still had, and Garret felt like it was his fault. The well of power Alrhea blessed him with for his devotion had run dry. If he’d tried to heal little Mia, rather than let Rowan try, maybe she would still be… whole.
“Shouldn’t we come with you?” Garret asked, feebly. He hadn’t felt fully rested since they’d awoken, but now he felt drained and useless. Delphine, though, had already reached the road.
“No,” she said. “I just… I want to see him. I want to know that he’s still okay. Wait here for me.”
“I’m sure he’s fine, Delphine,” Rowan said. “We shouldn’t be splitting up.”
“I need to do this, okay?” Delphine’s voice was strangled and harsh. She was on the edge of shouting. Garret suspected the only thing that kept her from it was a fear for what might hear her.
“Okay.” Rowan held up his hands as a sign of submission. “Okay. Just come back quickly. We’ll wait.”
And she was gone, her whole body moving quickly and easily thanks to her speedforme. Garret sometimes felt jealous of Delphine’s ability to shift herself into new shapes that better fit what she expected of her needs for the day. He was stuck with one short, dumpy body, which hardly anyone except for Jillian looked at with a smile. Delphine could be fast and lithe, or muscled and powerful, and all she had to do was… think the right things in her sleep. Well, it was more complicated than that, but Garret had never truly understood her explanations.
Rowan, without a word to Garret, stepped away from the door.
“Hey.” Garret followed after, one hand help up as he considered grabbing Rowan’s arm to stop him. “What are you doing? We said we’d wait here.”
“I can’t,” Rowan said. “It’s… too near. I’m not going far.”
Indeed, he stopped at the end of the walkway, where it met the road. There, he crouched, one elbow resting upon his knee so that he could lay his head upon his hand.
“Are you alright?” Garret winced at his own question, knowing it immediately to be a foolish one. None of them were alright. They probably wouldn’t be for quite some time.
“Yeah,” Rowan said, though his sideways glance at Garret spoke to the fact that they both knew it was a lie. “I just… I need a minute.”
“This is hard.” The simple statement hardly encompassed the truth of the matter, but Garret had never been able to stay silent for long, not even when he had nothing of worth to say.
Rowan grunted. “You’re not wrong.” He sighed, heavily. His free hand drew random lines in the dirt. “I really thought I was helping. I’ve tested it before, you know. It worked fine.”
“I believe you.” Garret stepped closer, placing his hand on Rowan’s shoulder, and for once, Rowan didn’t shrug him away. “I’m sorry I reacted the way I did. It was just, you know, a lot. A lot of bad stuff, all at once.”
“It’s alright. I get it.”
A silence came up between them, and though it was not an uncomfortable one, it built up higher and higher until Garret felt like he couldn’t break it. He wandered away from Rowan, into the street, because his legs began to itch with the discomfort of not speaking or moving. That’s when he saw her, to the north, looking down the street at him from the village square.
He knew her immediately, because he would know Jillian from any distance. She stood out from the other women of the village because of the branch-like thinness of her limbs and the way her neck seemed too thing to support her round head. She was turned away from him, but in his mind he could picture her smile and the warm kindness she radiated when she graced him with it. Her tiny, weak chin made Garret’s heart flutter, because he found it adorable.
“Jillian,” he breathed. A new energy filled him. He felt as though a cable had been strung between the two of them and now, unseen, a hand cranked a handle, shortening it and drawing Garret to her. He began to jog toward the village square.
“Garret?” Rowan stood, his leather armor creaking, though its noise was nothing compared to the clank of Garret’s own plate. “Garret! What are you doing?”
“It’s Jillian. She’s right there! I have to go see her.”
Rowan’s footsteps came quick and sharp as he ran to Garret, but Garret didn’t turn. He had eyes only for Jillian. She was waiting for him. He had to save her from this place, like he’d always wanted to do. He would take her away from Orua and they would find a bigger, better place to live, where everyone saw how beautiful she was.
“Garret, you know she isn’t going to be herself,” Rowan pleaded. “Listen. We haven’t seen a single other person without one of those stones in their head, and Jillian is just standing out in the open. She’s not going to be right, Garret. Let’s just go back to where we said we’d meet Delphine. Let’s just not even go near her. You don’t want to see her like this.”
“We can save her,” Garret said. “We’ll just… take the stone out of her head, and she’ll be okay.”
“We haven’t gotten any holy water yet,” Rowan said. “We have no way to destroy it.”
“We’ll get some from the temple,” Garret said. “It’s just across the square. We’ll… We’ll grab Jillian and take her with us.”
“Garret. This is a horrible idea.”
“Jillian!” Garret called, because they were close enough now that he didn’t even have to shout. “Jillian, it’s me. Garret.”
She turned, then, to see them. It was Jillian’s face: Jillian’s wide-set eyes, and her round forehead, and her tiny chin overshadowed by her large upper teeth. Garret swallowed. The rest of this… The rest of the being that stood before him was not her. There was a stone in her forehead, as Rowan had warned: dark and black, defying the bright sunlight. A stain had crept out of it, splotching across her forehead like ink, turning her pale flesh to a shadowy grey-black.
Yet the cord that he felt between them continued to draw Garret forth.
Her arms, always thin, lifted toward him as though she pined for his embrace. The flesh still covered them, but he marvelled that she could lift them at all, for they had thinned so drastically that they seemed to be little more than skin covering her knobby bones. Her mouth fell open as she shuffled forward to meet him.
“Garret!” Rowan’s voice had turned hard and harsh. “Stop! You’re being an idiot.”
Finally, Garret stopped. There were mere feet between him and Jillian. Rowan’s words cut the cord; it snapped back, its fraying end slapping Garret across the face. What was he doing? Jillian looked as far gone as the baby. There was nothing left of herself in her eyes, like they’d seen with Melark. Garret looked back at Rowan in a panic, and in turning, he saw what they both had missed: Hob, shuffling toward them from the open door of The Bakery, where he and Jillian made the best bread in the village.
Garret hardly had time to call out before Jillian was upon him. She swung at him with an open hand, and he raised his shield to block it. He winced as her bones struck the metal, hard, with the complete abandon of someone who didn’t care what harm she might do to herself. He practically felt her bones snap. When he lowered the shield, her hand drew his eyes. The fingers hung at unnatural angles.
Jillian didn’t seem to notice. She lashed out with her other hand, and again she met her blow with his shield. The metal rang. Jillian didn’t make any sound at all.
“Please stop.” Garret hated the weakness of his own voice. He didn’t want this to be happening. He hated himself, in that moment, for thinking anything but this might have come from his actions. His grip tightened on his mace until his knuckles ached from the pressure.
Dimly, he was aware of the sounds of Rowan struggling behind him, but Garret couldn’t take his eyes from Jillian. He wasn’t afraid of her. She was unarmed and weak as a child. Her eyes were locked upon him, but she didn’t seem to see him. The only spark in them was one of hunger, like a starving animal with food dangled in front of it. There was none of the intelligence or compassion he’d once seen there. None of the joy she’d used to bring him, when he’d come to pick up baked goods for the house. He always made those trips, even when he didn’t feel well, just so he could see her.
Garret knew he was crying, because the tears blurred his image of the world, but he barely felt it. Somehow Jillian stayed clear — no, became clear, at the center of his watery vision. He could see her as she used to be, so long as the tears washed away the reality. He felt himself sob, but in a disconnected way, as though the body his mind inhabited didn’t happen to be his at the moment.
He swung his mace. He felt it crunch against her bones, and he heard her fall, and he yearned for it to be someone else swinging the weapon and someone else’s body striking the ground, but it wasn’t. It was Garret and Jillian, and he’d broken her left knee with his blow but she didn’t seem to notice, because she was trying to stand and her eyes were still fixated upon him as though, for the first time truly, he was the sole object of her desire.
Garret yelled, a strangled, guttural, horrible sound that he couldn’t believe came from his own body. He swung the mace again, hardly aiming. It caught Jillain in the shoulder. Her body jerked to the side, striking the ground again, but with inhuman resilience she raised herself back up to something like a seated position, putting her head almost level with his own. He swung again, backhand, and he missed because he didn’t want to land the blow. He just wanted this whole nightmare to be over.
She reached out toward him with a broken hand, fingers dangling uselessly. She couldn’t have grabbed him with it. She could barely have stroked him, but the thought of her touching him filled him with disgust and horror. He swung his mace at her arm. It crunched against her elbow, flinging her arm back and twisting it around the side of her body. With another throat-tearing yell, he swung again. He closed his eyes as the mace struck, this time, but from the sickening, wet crunch, he knew where it had struck.
Garret fell to his knees, eyes still closed, though the tears were flowing so heavily that even that couldn’t stop them. His mace slid forward out of his grasp. He let the strap pass over his hand as Jillian’s body pulled it away from him, because he didn’t have the strength, in that moment, to resist, or to pull it free from her skull.
Rowan knelt down beside him. Time had passed — it might have been seconds or minutes; Garret couldn’t tell. His hand found Garret’s shoulder, as Garret’s hand found his only a short time before. “I’m sorry.”
Garret, for once in his life, both had nothing to say and no desire to say anything.