The following contains themes of sexual assault. While nothing is explicitly described, the situations may cause distress for some readers. Please proceed with that in mind.
Lorelai stood in the temple courtyard, watching as patrons passed by. She hoped none of them would eye her. The temple never gave the girls much to work with, and Lorelai struggled to cover whatever dignity she might have left – if there was any at all. A young man’s gaze met her eyes, and she forced a smile. He looked away, quickly setting his attention on one of the older priestesses. If she were lucky, no one would be drawn to her too long. No one would ask for her.
She still remembered the first time she was required to ‘fulfill her duty’ to the Makers. She would never forget her thirteenth birthday, as her cries of pain were blatantly ignored.
The previous night, another priestess had visited her – Delilah. She always snuck Lorelai extra food, and always bought her a gift for her birthday. She had a secret stash hidden under her bed so that the other priestesses couldn’t find it. That night was the last time Lorelai saw Delilah. She told her what was going to happen; Delilah told her that the High Priestess was going to make Lorelai perform her first ‘upholding of the Pillar of Life’.
Delilah had told her to focus on the wall. To choose one spot on the wall and stare at it, and to remember her voice. To think of all the gifts she’d been given and the life she wanted to have, instead of the life she did have. And to remember the last words Delilah ever said to her: “I love you.”
The next day, Delilah was gone. The higher priestesses claimed she’d disappeared into the night. Others said that the priestesses did away with her and dumped her in the city sewers to be eaten by rats. Then, as the sun began to set, the High Priestess, who claimed to be Lorelai’s mother, came into her room with a man she’d never seen before.
He was tall, and had fair skin, and a silver circlet sat upon his head – the symbol of priesthood. Lorelai was told to take off her clothes and lie down on the bed. She complied, reluctantly. As the priest climbed onto her, she struggled. It was then her mother held her down, pinning her on her stomach so she couldn’t fight. For a brief moment, her face was smashed into the mattress and she struggled to breathe. Hands wrapped around her as she let out a silent scream, muffled by the cushion. Finally, her face was free. She took in a deep breath and stared at the wall.
Slowly, she retreated inside herself. Imagined that Delilah was her mother. That she lived away from the temple – in the countryside, maybe. That she had an older brother, who defended her from those who would do her harm. That she had a father who loved her and cherished her. She’d never met her father, and she was fairly convinced she’d never met her real mother.
Slowly, she retreated deeper and deeper inside herself until she couldn’t think. She couldn’t hear. She couldn’t see. The only thing she could feel was her vocal cords wearing out as she let out scream after unanswered scream. She thought she heard a laugh – her “mother’s” laugh. By the time she returned to her body, she was alone again, lying in a puddle of filth and tears on her bed.
The courtyard suddenly became silent as Lorelai returned to the present. People around the courtyard sneered at the entryway. She looked over to see a man, dressed in tattered armor, and covered in muck. He had a scar down the side of his face, and a disheveled beard matted with mud – or worse. It was a disgusting sight, were it not for a single feature. Around his left shoulder was a braided cord, made of strands of bold crimson.
She looked to the High Priestess, who was scanning the courtyard to see how her subordinates would react. There would be trouble if Lorelai approached him, but she needed to leave this place, and a Paladin of the Crimson Cord was just the person to help her do that.
Lorelai began approaching him, only to be cut off by her supposed mother.
“My name is High Priestess Aurora. Is there anything I can help you with, Crimson?” she asked. “Have you perhaps decided to uphold the Pillar of Life our way?”
The Paladin’s eyes locked with Lorelai’s before returning to Aurora’s. “How much?”
He nodded to Lorelai. “I’ll take that one.”
“Tsk,” Aurora shook her head, “unfortunately, that one’s a favorite of certain patrons of ours, so it’s going to cost extra. One hundred Jades.”
Aurora and the Paladin locked eyes for what felt like an eternity. Paladins helped people without pay – they depended on the generosity of strangers and, as such, were usually poor. Aurora knew this.
The Paladin took in a deep breath before letting out a quick huff. Lorelai couldn’t believe her eyes – a small bout of fire leapt from the man’s nostrils.
Aurora recoiled, her eyes wide as she reached up to cover her mouth in shock. Within the same second, her evident fear turned to determination and hatred. “Leave this place, heathen,” she said, “or I will remove you permanently.” Her hand came to rest on the hilt of the sword attached to her waist.
The Paladin smirked as his own hand settled on the handle of his mace. “Very well.”
Lorelai’s face became downcast as the Paladin turned to leave. He stole a glance at her one last time before stepping out the entryway. At that exact moment, a man approached the High Priestess.
“How much for that one?” He pointed at Lorelai.
Normally, she would upscale the price. But Lorelai had heard the previous exchange. She had attempted to rebel against Aurora. She needed to know her place. “Ten Jades.”
Lorelai entered her room and locked the door behind her. She fell against it and buried her head in her hands. She felt dirty. Ashamed. Dejected. She clawed at every part of herself, hoping to feel something as she began to weep. Tears rolled down her cheeks, soaking into her dress – if it could even be called that.
She heard movement but didn’t bother to look up until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She lifted her head and opened her eyes – it was hard to see through her tears. She felt a hand on her face – a woman’s hand – its thumb wiping away her tears. She blinked a few times as everything came into focus. “Delilah?”
Once she could see, she knew that the woman before her now was not Delilah. In fact, if the woman before her now were found by the Church on temple property, she’d be killed immediately.
“Fear not, little one,” the woman said as Lorelai wiped away her own tears.
The woman stood before her, taller than most men she’d seen. Her skin was almost as dark as the night sky, and her eyes were like gold. She was of the Umbrai, people of the Southern Continent descended from demons – according to the Church.
She pulled the edge of her cloak to the side, revealing her shoulder, and the crimson cord tied around it. “I have come by request of my compatriot. I have come to take you away from this place – if you so choose.”
“Would you like to come with me?”
Lorelai brought her knees to her chest, hugging them for support. She stared at the floor.
“What is your name, little one?”
Lorelai lifted her head to look at the woman. She looked at her eyes for only a moment before dropping her gaze to the woman’s feet. “Lorelai.”
“Would you like to come with me, Lorelai? And leave this place?”
Lorelai sniffled. She swallowed as she felt a lump in her throat. “No.”
The woman raised a brow and crouched down, leveling herself with Lorelai. “Why not?”
“It doesn’t matter if I leave. They’ll find me and bring me back here. They don’t let anyone leave.”
The woman reached out her hand, caressing Lorelai’s cheek before lifting her head. Lorelai looked her in the eye once again. She saw empathy – understanding. “My name is Amari. I would like to help you, Lorelai. But I can only do that if you are willing to help yourself.”
Lorelai pulled her face from Amari’s hand. “I told you, they’ll come for me.”
Amari stood once more, her hand resting on the mace tied to her waist. “I, too, will come for you, Lorelai. I will come every night to visit you. We can protect you.”
Lorelai shook her head.
Amari’s face fluttered with a pained smile for a moment before she closed her eyes in solemn silence. Lorelai buried her head in her arms. In a few moments, she heard Amari’s cloak swoosh. When she next looked up, she was gone.
For the next four days, Lorelai’s life continued as it always had. For the next four nights, Amari came to her room and offered to take her away from the temple. She would join the Crimsons at their camp and become one of their traveling companions. Perhaps one day she, too, would become a Crimson – that was their cycle: to amass traveling companions until a group of three set out on their own, donning a new set of Crimson Cords. For the next four nights, she said no.
On the fifth night, she entered into her room and looked around, holding back tears. There was no one there. No Amari, nor anyone else for that matter. She let her clothing fall to the floor and wandered to the wash basin along the wall to begin cleaning herself once more. She’d already cleaned several times that day, but no matter how much she washed, no matter how hard she scrubbed, she felt she could never be free of the sickening filth.
She began to weep, letting her tears drip down into the basin. As the sobs racked her body, she stopped washing and held her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. She couldn’t let anyone hear. She shuddered as she took in a deep breath and looked up. Placed in the windowsill was a piece of paper.
She wiped the tears from her face as she crept across the room. On top of the paper was a locket. She picked it up and studied the outside – it was covered in an ornate design – before reading the paper.
I think the Church suspects trouble. It appears they have increased the guard. I had trouble escaping last night but made it away unharmed. My compatriot has sent this note with a bird, along with a gift, a comfort, I hope, that you will be safe. Know that I loved your mother. She was my dearest friend, and not a day goes by that I do not miss her. I only hope that one day we shall meet again, and, perhaps, on that day, you will be with me. I cannot risk returning this night unless I know that you will be by my side when I leave. If you are willing, tie a piece of bright fabric to your curtain rod before the sky darkens. Once I can see the stars in the sky, I will come for you. Please, Lorelai. Do not make me lose this last piece of her in vain. Come with me.
Lorelai looked closely at the locket in her hand. She flicked it open to see a tiny painting inside. A painting of the one person who’d ever loved her: Delilah.
She let out a single sob as she stared at the painting. She hadn’t seen her face in over two years. She’d escaped the Church. Maybe she was still alive. Maybe she could see her again.
Lorelai looked back to the letter. Amari called Delilah her mother. The life she wanted wasn’t so far out of reach. She could still have it.
For the first time that she could remember, she smiled.
She looked out the window, scanning the outside. The horizon was orange. The sky wasn’t dark yet.
She ran to her dresser and pulled out the brightest piece of clothing she could find – a large, square piece of bright red fabric. She ripped off the corner and scrambled over to her window, tying it to the curtain rod.
She scanned the horizon once more. On a far-off rooftop, a dark figure crouched. It was hard to tell from so far away, but Lorelai was sure that it was Amari, watching her.
Lorelai returned to the dresser and rifled through it as she searched for clothing suitable for outside the temple. As a Daughter of the Church, born into the temple’s service, she was meant to live there her whole life, rarely, if ever, seeing the outside world. There were a few exceptions, such as when a patron made a particularly sizable donation and preferred to use the temple’s services inside their own home. But that was rare, and they were often transported in a palanquin, so their clothes mattered not. Eventually, she found something she thought seemed appropriate. At the very least, it completely covered her legs and torso and was secured by silk cords rather than carefully placed pins.
Once she was dressed, she sat on her bed and waited.
As the orange of the sky turned to purple, the dark figure on the rooftop disappeared onto the street below. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, a shadow flew through her window, lightly tumbling across the floor. Golden eyes looked up at Lorelai.
Amari smiled as she dropped a pack from her shoulder and fished out a wad of clothing. “I believe these will be more comfortable.”
Lorelai unraveled the clothing to find a pair of black trousers, a linen shirt, and a burlap cloak. Amari then pulled a black bodice and a pair of boots from her pack as well, handing them to the girl.
Amari began putting the gifts from under Lorelai’s bed in the now empty pack as Lorelai changed clothes.
“I suspect we won’t be able to leave through the window I came in, so we’ll likely need to go through the hallway.” After finishing with the gifts, she pulled a thin, wooden rod from her other pack and pulled a dart off her belt, pushing it into one end. “We’ll need to move quickly and quietly to avoid attention. As long as you stay behind me and follow closely, we should be safe.”
Lorelai had just tied her trousers when Amari crept over to the door, pressing her ear against it. After listening for a moment, she looked to Lorelai. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
Lorelai quickly slipped on her boots and threw her cloak around her. Once she tied it off, she nodded and made her way across the room.
Amari smiled as she pulled Lorelai’s hood up over her head before listening to the door once more. She held her finger to her mouth and slowly pushed the door open, peeking through the crack. Seeing no one, she opened the door about halfway and peered around the side. The hallway was empty.
She motioned for Lorelai to follow and began making her way to the southern staircase, where there was a door that led out into an alleyway. As they reached the top of the stairs, Amari heard voices down below – men’s voices. Guards, probably.
She looked down between the flights in order to see who was down below. She saw no one.
She started down the stairs as quietly as she could, motioning for Lorelai to stay back. She reached the bottom of the upper flight and leaned over just enough to see the landing below. Two guards, one wearing a helmet, the other holding his under his arm.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm her mind. As soon she opened them, the blowgun she was carrying pressed against her lips, leveled with the helmetless guard’s neck. As soon as the dart was loosed, she slipped her mace from her belt and lunged forward.
The helmeted guard’s head turned just a moment too soon. As Amari lunged, he slipped his sword from its sheath, barely blocking the blow. The other guard hit the floor as Amari brought her mace back. The conscious guard tried to jump back, but lost his footing, and his face slammed right into Amari’s uppercut.
Her eyes widened in horror as she dropped the mace to catch him. She lowered him to the ground before rolling him onto his side. His face was covered in blood.
She placed her hand on his heart. “If you shall breathe your last this day, may the Unknowable know you, that you may not fade away in death, but find new life. So let it be said, so let it be done.”
After praying over the guard, she called out in a rasp whisper, “Little one!”
Lorelai’s head peaked over the side of the stairs. Amari motioned for her to follow once more.
As Lorelai reached the bottom of the stairs, she cocked her head at the two men lying on the floor. “Are they dead?”
“No, just asleep. I hope. Come along.”
The pair rushed out the door and into the alleyway before making their way to the next street over. They weaved through the mess of roads that made up the city until finally reaching the Green Gate – so named because it led into the Hartal Wilds. Amari held Lorelai back and watched closely, waiting for one of the guards to be visible under the torchlight.
“It’s not the guard I know, he won’t let us through without identifying ourselves – probably won’t let us through at all if he finds out the truth.”
“Can’t you just… knock them out, like you did with the guards in the temple?”
“No, that would only cause more problems. Here.”
Amari turned Lorelai to face her and pulled a small, folded cloth from her belt. Lorelai wasn’t sure what she expected to see in the pouch, but it certainly wasn’t a handful of mud. Amari dipped her hands in the mud and wiped it on Lorelai’s face.
“You priestesses keep yourselves too clean to pass as commoners. If you’re even a little dirty, they shouldn’t even consider the possibility.”
Amari led her to the gate and stood before the guard. “I’d like to leave.”
“Only those on official business are allowed out after dark.”
Lorelai recognized the voice. As she heard it, she realized she recognized his stature, too. She’d never looked him in the eye, but she’d heard him. Felt him. She lowered her head as her body began to scream. For her to run. For her to hide. She knew he was going to recognize her.
Amari wrapped her arm around Lorelai and rubbed her shoulder. “I’m taking this girl to her mother, by order of Captain Ren.”
“Captain Ren, eh? Let me see her.”
Lorelai and Amari’s jaws clenched in unison as Amari pulled back Lorelai’s hood. For the first time, Lorelai looked up at the guard, into his cold, uncaring eyes.
“What business does the Captain have with a girl like this?”
Amari shrugged as she forced herself to breathe. Hopefully, the guard wouldn’t notice.
The guard sighed. “Very well. Go ahead.”
Lorelai threw her hood back over her head and the pair made their way into the district of Aurora. As soon as they turned a corner, Amari scooped Lorelai into her arms and carried her like a sack of potatoes as she broke into a sprint.
“Why are you running?” Lorelai cried as the constant up and down motion forced the air in and out of her lungs.
“Because a bluff can only work for so long. He’s going to try to get the order verified, and when it comes back I was lying, we’re going to want to be long gone.”
Soon enough, they had passed the last darkened house in the wall-less district. Even then, Amari didn’t stop running as they passed between fields of farmland for several miles.
As they finally reached the tree line, she stopped and set Lorelai down.
“We should be fine to walk from here,” she panted. “Our camp isn’t too far from here.”
She stood to catch her breath for a moment before taking Lorelai’s hand and pushing through the undergrowth.
The moon sat directly overhead as they reached the Crimsons’ camp. Tents littered the ground, centered around a small stream that flowed through the clearing. A few dark figures wandered about; their hands rested on weapons affixed to their hips as they watched the pair approach.
Amari whistled a short tune and one of the figures nodded before they all returned to their patrolling.
“Are they all Crimsons?” Lorelai asked.
Amari shook her head. “There are only three of us which bear that burden. The rest are our wards, whom we’ve saved and who now save us – though they may become Crimsons one day, like your mother.”
“Where is she?”
Amari tightened her lips. “I wish I knew.”
She pulled a tent flap aside and gestured for Lorelai to crawl inside. Once the girl settled onto the sleeping mat, Amari climbed in and sat down on the other side. Lorelai fell asleep almost immediately.
“Rest now, child,” Amari whispered, “You’re safe.”
Lorelai awoke the next morning as the sun peaked through the gap between the tent flaps. Amari was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear talking outside. She waited and listened. Amari’s voice was among them.
She took a deep breath and focused on the fact that she was free now. She could do whatever she wanted as long as she never went back to the city. She could go anywhere, be anyone. But what did that mean for her?
The life she just left behind was all she ever knew. She was born into the Church, raised in it. She wanted out, but she didn’t know what she’d be going in to. She bit her lip as she thought about it for a moment before shaking the thought from her mind. Then, she climbed from the tent.
Standing outside were four people, three of which had Crimson Cords tied around their shoulders. One was Amari. Another was the man who had visited the temple the morning before Lorelai and Amari met. The last two were a man who looked much like the other, and a woman who Lorelai didn’t recognize at all, who had red hair and warrior braids on the left side of her head.
“Good morning, little one,” Amari said as she smiled. Her eyes looked more green than gold in the sunlight.
“I would like to introduce you to my compatriots. This is Salazar” – she pointed to the man who visited the temple – “and his brother, Tupu. And this” – she pointed at the woman – “is Alianna.”
“It is good to finally meet you, Lorelai,” Salazar said. Tupu and Alianna simply bowed their heads.
“Tupu is one of our wards,” Amari continued, “He and his brother were rescued by the Crimson unit we formed from. Salazar decided to become a Crimson. Tupu decided to travel with us after training with the druids to become a Keeper of the Flame – a lawman of sorts.”
Tupu chuckled. “That is one way to put it. Why do you not be honest with the child, it is not as if she has never seen nor heard of the ways of the world.”
Alianna pursed her lips, suppressing the slight smile spreading across her face.
Amari shot Tupu a pensive gaze. “Because I do not like what you do for us.”
Tupu smiled at Amari before looking down to Lorelai. “I am their executioner. Crimsons must preserve life, you see. That is their purpose. Mine is to enact justice. Mine is to exact retribution. To strike down evil where it stands, without regard for the petty ‘Pillars’ that the Crimsons and Church so foolishly revere.”
Amari’s eyebrows rose for a moment. “Yes.”
Lorelai thought back to the day in the courtyard when she first saw Salazar. “You breathe fire.”
Salazar’s eyes shot to his companions.
Alianna raised a brow and frowned as Amari recoiled slightly.
“You did what?” Amari snapped.
“I was trying to intimidate the High Priestess. It’s not like anyone else saw me.”
“You cannot be that reckless,” Amari continued, “They could have killed you.”
“How does he breathe fire?” Lorelai interjected.
Tupu and Salazar both took a deep breath at the same time. Tupu got his words out first.
“It is a learned skill. To move in natural harmony with the elements is something one must begin training as soon as they can talk, otherwise, there is no hope of achieving it. My brother and I were lucky enough to have been trained in it before our home was destroyed by the Church.”
“They are both elementalists,” Amari added, “capable of bending the will of the elements to theirs.”
“Would you like breakfast, Lorelai?” Salazar asked after a brief moment of silence. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”
Lorelai smiled. “That would be nice.”
The camp was quiet that night as Alianna patrolled its borders. They had sent a small contingent to town to gather supplies during the day before leaving the domain of the city tomorrow. Soon, they would be free of this branch of the Church and likely never have to deal with them again.
As she neared the edge of the clearing, something moved in the underbrush. A twig snapped. A flash of steel.
Lorelai woke up to the sound of a shrill scream. Within a second, Amari had sprung from their tent, her mace at the ready. Over a dozen wards were up and battle ready in a moment’s notice, with more soon to follow.
The flash of fire ripped through the sky as torches held high lit from a single spark, sent forth from Salazar’s fingertip. In a moment, the entire camp and much of the surrounding forest was perfectly visible. The Crimsons and their people were prepared for the sudden flash. The Church’s justiciars were not.
The camp flew into motion as the justiciars shielded their eyes. Maces whistled through the air, slamming into the justiciars’ helmets and knocking them out cold.
Those who weren’t immediately felled by the camp’s first counterstrike soon regained their composure as the real fight began.
Lorelai scrambled out of her tent to a maelstrom of blades and clubs. She ducked and weaved, avoiding the many weapons swinging about as she searched for Amari.
As a stray blade swung in her direction, she jumped backward, only to be knocked to the ground by someone slamming into her back. She felt an arm wrap around her waist before being hoisted into the air and onto someone’s shoulder. A justiciar had grabbed her.
She flailed wildly, trying to escape his grip. Before she knew what was going on, she was on the ground again, an arrow through the eye of her captor. She had no idea where it had come from.
She looked around once more and finally spotted Amari. She began running toward her. Amari’s gaze broke from the woman she was fighting for only a second as she shook her head at Lorelai. She only barely managed to block her assailant’s next blow.
Lorelai took a step backward as she watched before recognizing the sword of Amari’s opponent – High Priestess Aurora.
She ran back toward the tent, trying to ignore the fighting going on around her.
Someone tackled her to the ground. She began kicking and screaming as her attacker pinned her to the ground. She was slapped. She opened her eyes to see the familiar face of Alianna crouched over her, a massive gash across her face, from one side of her forehead to the opposite corner of her jaw.
Alianna threw down her mace and grabbed Lorelai’s hand, leading her into the woods without a word.
Lorelai protested, “But we need to help!”
Alianna shot her a piercing gaze as she dragged her to the tree line.
Lorelai knew the reality. She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t help. All she could do was run and hide until the battle was over. They neared the tree line as Alianna knocked weapons away with her shield, shoving several justiciars to the ground.
The Church’s focus began to shift as more and more opposition came against them. If Alianna got away with Lorelai, the Church would lose what they came here for. Arrows whizzed past Lorelai’s head. Alianna only barely managed to duck under them.
Lorelai could see the edge of the clearing. She was going to make it out.
She let out a cry as a stray arrow pierced through her back. She looked down. Its tip was sticking out of her chest.
The justiciars shouted as Alianna pulled Lorelai behind a tree to protect her. They’d gotten out just a moment too late.
Aurora and Amari’s attention wavered for a moment as they both looked in the direction of Lorelai’s cry. Amari used that moment of distraction to get the upper hand, knocking her opponent on the back of the head.
The justiciar’s ran, abandoning the clearing. Tupu slapped shackles on the High Priestesses wrists as Amari ran to Lorelai’s aid.
Her head rested in Alianna’s lap.
“Amari,” she choked. She let out a few coughs, splattering blood across her face.
“I’m here, little one.”
Amari sobbed and forced a smile. “Yes.”
She took in a deep breath, shuddering all the while.
“My dear Lorelai. Your days have been filled with turmoil. Your life has been one of sorrow. I only knew you for a short time, but I love you as my daughter. I hope that this is not the day you breathe your last. But if it is, I pray that the Unknowable may know you. That it may wrap you up in its wings and rescue you from the Field of Ash. That you will not fade away in the cold embrace of death, but that you may be brought into the domain of the Unknowable, renewed with life. That you may have the life you always wanted. And that you may find peace.”
Lorelai smiled as she shook. She could hardly breathe.
“So let it be said,” Amari prayed, “so let it be done.”
Tupu stepped up next to them. “Would you like for me to ease her passing?”
Amari smile faded as tears rolled down her face. She let out a sob and cried aloud. Alianna placed her hand on Amari’s shoulder and she pressed her cheek against it.
She struggled to nod her head as she lifted Lorelai from her lap.
Tupu sat down beside her, crossing his legs as he pulled Lorelai close to him. “I am sorry, child, that you could not have experienced more of the good in this world. May you pass into the realm of the Shadows, and may they make you their queen.”
He began circling his hands slightly in the air as his hair stood on end. A blue spark flashed in his eyes as he placed his hands on either side of Lorelai’s head. She flinched as electricity shot through her mind. Then, she was gone.
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