She heard a noise in the quietness of the palace that was typical for that time of night. She didn’t pay attention to it even though her heart skipped a beat. If anyone was trying to sneak up on her, she wouldn’t have heard a thing. She was safe at Marion and Oritel’s palace. The Coven couldn’t reach her there. It wasn’t herself she needed to worry about. It was everyone else.
It soon became clear who the footsteps belonged to. Oritel’s armor gave off its signature pattern of clinking as he approached her. He was always ready for battle to the point where it had made her wonder if he ever took it off. But when he and Marion had announced the news of her pregnancy, it had become clear that they both still had lives outside the war. And Griffin had been happy for them, shutting out all parts of her brain that were hissing it was madness or somehow unfair. It was a miracle that they still managed to retain some happiness in the midst of everything that was happening and relief flooded her system every time they proved that not all was lost. Even if she didn’t deserve it.
She focused even harder on her work, making sure to let him know she was ignoring him on purpose so that, hopefully, he would leave her alone. She needed to work. And he needed to go back to his wife.
“Won’t you be retiring for the evening?” his voice startled her with the fact that her strategy had failed and he was still there, trying to talk her out of helping. “It’s quite late,” the words echoed like a response to her thoughts, like Lysslis’ cackle after one of her illusions had left you completely shaken by your worst fear and Griffin had to do her best not to fall back into the memories of her time working for them.
“I still have work to do,” she said, controlling her voice and herself to stay calm. The easiest way to win an argument with Oritel was not to start one in the first place, not because he always had the right arguments but because he was too stubborn to convince no matter how obvious the truth was. It would be ill-advised to fall into that rabbit hole this late at night when she was tired and everyone had already gone to bed. She didn’t want to wake the whole palace by starting a shouting match with him, which, unfortunately, was almost always the case. So she hoped her collected attitude would convince him she didn’t need his interference and he’d just go back to his queen.
“It will be there in the morning,” Oritel tried, his tone quiet and relaxed–so unlike the king she knew–as if he didn’t want to start a fight either but the fact that he was still there made his best intentions insignificant.
“Debatable,” Griffin gave a curt response, incapable of anything better without exploding. If the Coven struck at night, in the morning their job would be to find what was stolen and return it–and that would only happen by winning the war–instead of preventing them from taking it in the first place so that they couldn’t add more power to their magical arsenal. And that was the best case scenario. Sometimes there were bodies–more and more often, actually–and they couldn’t do anything about that except bury the dead and accept defeat. Try not to let it repeat. But it had repeated too many times already for them to just sit idly by and wait for the next strike. “We need to figure out the Coven’s plan.” They needed to get ahead of them if they wanted to save anyone.
“Surely it will be clearer in the morning, with fresh eyes and a rested mind,” Oritel still kept his composure even in the face of her stubbornness–especially since she still hadn’t raised her head from her notes to acknowledge him as she spoke–and she didn’t know whether to be offended or to give him points for trying a logical approach. Either way, it couldn’t sway her will.
“No time for that,” she shook her head as she hastily moved some sheets around to create a feeling of alarm and restlessness and felt him shifting uncomfortably under the subconscious influence of her tactic. “The Coven works day and night,” she brought up her knowledge of their process to convince him she knew what she was doing and, hopefully, push him away and get him to leave her alone. He resented the fact that she’d worked for them and she understood. She did too. That would never change. Neither for him, nor for her. “We have to do the same,” she said, circling the table to force him to move out of her way physically and figuratively as well.
“I’ll get someone to look at these while you get some rest,” Oritel didn’t seem to get the cue even though he knew better than that.
Griffin’s head snapped up and she turned to where she’d left him isolated in the middle of the spacious hall–she’d taken over it and turned it into her own kingdom–to glare at him. “I am your best strategist.” Because she knew the Coven so well. Her value lay in the fact she’d made a grand mistake before finally opening her eyes but if it could save lives, she was ready to swallow all unpleasantness that came with that.
“And that’s why I need you in top shape,” Oritel objected. She had to give him credit for keeping himself in check. Normally, he would’ve started yelling a long time ago. But his cautiousness only made her blood boil. Now of all times he chose to be patient, when they didn’t even have time to breathe freely, not to mention sleep.
“I am more than capable of handling this,” she snapped at him. She’d left herself no choice. She’d left herself no peace when she’d decided to work with the Coven. No rest for the wicked indeed.
“If this is because of the nightmares...” Oritel came closer, leaving her feel cornered, and the thought of him trying to provide some comfort by touching her was more terrifying than what he was talking about.
She stepped back, running from the memories of burning fear creeping through her that only Faragonda and Marion’s warm hands in hers and their soothing voices could rid her of. She’d been tempted to pretend that those were illusions she was made to see and not her own dreams. But her torture was her own conscience catching up with her. Too late. It was all too late.
“They’re under control,” she said, making sure the same held true about her body language even if it was too late for that, too, for Oritel had already seen the truth. Nightmares couldn’t find her when she wasn’t sleeping. Though, that left her face to face with the horror of reality. But at least she could be useful there. She wasn’t paralyzed by fear. She could help others and that kept her going.
“Griffin, you have to sleep,” Oritel insisted and she was glad to hear the firmness of the words as well as his conviction that he knew best since it brought her a sense of normalcy and she could use that even when she didn’t deserve it.
“I will when I feel the need.” She couldn’t remember when was the last time she’d slept well. Probably before she’d learned that the arms that hugged her every night were those of a soulless killer. Before she’d realized she’d given her heart to a demon. And she couldn’t waste time sleeping when he was still out there, threatening the entire world in his thirst for power and greatness. Especially after she’d helped him. “Go back to Marion, Oritel,” she said as she held his gaze even though he was looking at her like that.
There was a knock on her door. Just on schedule. Marion and Faragonda had practically trapped her in her room and were checking on her periodically to make sure she was resting and not wrecking her brain over another strategy. As if trying to save them all and win the war was something bad.
She ignored it, hoping whichever one of them was outside would take it as a sign that she’d fallen asleep–though, her recent sleep patterns didn’t exactly lead naturally to that conclusion–and would leave without getting in the way of her work. She didn’t have time for a fight that would surely occur if either one of them were to enter now. However, she was tired of stopping everything and hiding her most recent project from them as if she weren’t in her own room and didn’t have the freedom to chose what to do with her own time. She was doing the right thing this time and she didn’t need guidance to avoid making a disastrous choice. She just needed them to stay out of her way.
The door opened behind her back, the creaking sound beginning the test of her patience.
“I don’t recall inviting you,” she said, snappier than necessary. She didn’t care that Marion was a queen. She couldn’t just barge into her room like that. Faragonda wouldn’t be so impolite.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Marion asked as she came in and closed the door behind herself, unmoved by her protests. Griffin hadn’t expected anything different. The queen had always been strong willed but she usually didn’t behave like entitled royalty. Though, that was exactly what she was displaying currently. Even if she was telling herself that she was doing it for Griffin’s own good. She deserved the right to make her own choices even despite the terrible mistakes she’d made in the past.
“I am,” she snipped back without looking at her. Technically, it was true, though, it could hardly pass for rest. She had sheets strewn around all over the bedspread and the position she was currently sitting in was killing her back. Numbers were swirling in her head to the point where it was starting to ache and her wrist hurt from so much writing. Still, it was enough that she was doing all of that in bed for her to have a smartass comeback that was sure to annoy the queen to no end.
“Yes, just you and all of this paperwork. Seems really cozy to me,” Marion bit back as she came closer, towering over Griffin even though she was shorter when they were on equal footing. She bent down to pick up one of the sheets, making Griffin pause with her gaze still trained on the paper in her hands but the thoughts in her head were halted as she waited for a reaction. “What is this?” Marion asked, her voice quiet now that the contents of the sheet were sinking in.
Griffin looked at the queen slowly, afraid that if she wasn’t careful, she’d break her, afraid that a quick movement would be too much of a shock for the pregnant woman after the digits had left her paralyzed. It was a lot to take in. “The number of casualties the war is taking,” Griffin answered in the same tone of voice that Marion had used even though the queen had already figured that out if the paleness of her face was any indication.
Marion’s gaze shifted to her as she threw the sheet back on the bed as if it had bitten her, her eyes wide like saucers as panic seemed to set in. “Where did you get it?” she asked as she wrapped her arms around herself as if trying to shield herself and the baby from the horror invading her system. Her words sounded somehow strained as if she was holding back from taking the information by any means necessary in her desperation to learn whether the digits she’d seen were real and not just one of Lysslis’ cruel illusions.
“I’m calculating it,” Griffin wasn’t too terribly quick to answer, unsure of what effect her words would have on the queen. Because once they were out, she would know the numbers weren’t a lie. They were painfully real. And that wasn’t even the entire tragedy. “It’s not even finished yet.” It was already so high. Too high. And it would keep growing if they didn’t put an end to the war.”
Marion closed her eyes and shook her head as if to get rid of the terrible knowledge and erase all traces of it from her memory. Her hands were on her arms still and she hadn’t moved them over her belly like Griffin had expected her to since she probably didn’t want to connect her unborn child with the reality of the war even in her mind. Which was all the more reason for her to stay out of Griffin’s way and let her work her magic so that they could know they were safe.
Marion looked like she’d snapped out of the grip of the fear when she opened her eyes and cleared a spot on the bed, her movements unhurried and driven by determination, before she sat down and locked eyes with her. “Griffin, you can’t keep doing this to yourself,” she said, her voice full of compassion despite the seriousness she put in the words. There was no irritation at the fact that they were having that conversation for what felt like the millionth time, though, which could not be said about Griffin.
“This isn’t about guilt,” she tried to speak as calmly as she could manage, for showing any annoyance would only make it seem like she was deflecting, but the look in Marion’s eyes made it clear that she didn’t believe her. Probably because it was obvious that the slow pace of speaking was getting on every last one of her nerves. “This is about perspective,” she said, and this time the desperation was in her voice because she needed Marion to understand. “It helps me get some, remember what’s at stake, what we’re fighting for.” She needed that. She needed it more than oxygen because she knew the Coven and it was already hard to believe that they stood any chance against it. And some days they beat them so easily, as if it was a game they were playing, and she felt like crawling into a hole and dying herself at the thought of the people that had perished because of their incompetence. Because of her terrible choices. “Besides, I’m looking for patterns,” she said, going for a more logical approach as well. Anything that would work, really. “Granted, most of it is just senseless bloodshed,” she had to look away as she felt bile rising in her throat at the knowledge that it had been him behind some of the carnage at least, “but if there is even the slightest chance to find something that could help us beat them, then it is worth every second,” she forced herself to finish as she clutched at her pen as hard as she was grasping at straws when it came to defeating them.
Marion’s hand on hers startled her back into reality and she should have been grateful because she never wished to return to the Coven, not even in her thoughts. But the warmth of Marion’s hand made her grip loosen and her determination slip through her fingers, leaving her confused and lost, for it wasn’t what she needed to feel. “Is it worth the wreckage in your head?” Marion asked as if she could see into her mind, almost making her jerk her hand out of her grasp, before Griffin realized that it clearly wasn’t the case since she was still having the desire to touch her and offer her comfort.
“We need to protect the universe from them.” Griffin couldn’t believe she had to remind all of them of that when she’d been the one who hadn’t realized it on time.
“By tearing ourselves apart?” Marion asked, convinced that she was trying to steer her away from self-destruction when it was too late for that. The choices that she’d made were like land mines just waiting to explode in her face and the fact that she’d planted them didn’t mean that she could avoid them. It only made the blow worse to know she’d been the one to put them in her own path and now had to step on all of them if she wanted to reach her aim.
“By any means necessary,” Griffin pulled her hand away, the action leaving her dangerously close to the edge of the bed. “If they win, nothing will matter.” She couldn’t understand how they kept forgetting that when they knew the ruination the Coven had caused. Maybe it was because they’d never been on the inside of things. They didn’t know the Ancestral Witches personally and they hadn’t seen their capacity for evil in the plans. But she had. And it refused to leave her head, hand in hand with every other realization that had come along with the truth about them.
“I understand that,” Marion said, still calm but her tone was more insistent now, as if conveying a subtle order to Griffin to believe her and drop the subject.
“Maybe,” Griffin spoke, her expression cold like it never would have been in the face of a plea. “But I don’t think you realize what it means,” she said, glad to feel a wave of heat coming off of Marion because it meant that the queen now understood her own frustration with the way they’d been treating her as if she didn’t have a clear grasp on the situation. “Daphne will never be queen. The baby may never get to live,” she pushed harder, her words painful even to her but if awakening Marion’s selfishness and self-interest was what it took for her to understand where she was coming from and let her protect them all, it was worth the low blow.
Marion’s hands instantly moved over the barely noticeable baby bump, covering it as if to protect the small life inside her from hearing the words. “I know that, Griffin,” she said, her look lost somewhere in space as she struggled to keep herself from crying. “It’s all I’ve been able to think about,” she admitted in a whisper that was so loud it managed to cut through Griffin’s own selfishness in pursuit of her goals and had her wishing to comfort Marion and shield her from her own words. “But punishing yourself for things that aren’t your fault will not help,” Marion was quicker to speak, though, and her gaze was focused on Griffin again, begging her to stop hurting herself as if Griffin hadn’t just been the one to push a knife into her back with her behavior.
“It’s a good thing I’m not doing that then,” Griffin said firmly, her gaze cold again as she met Marion’s. She was only berating herself for the mistakes she’d made. It was just a coincidence that those were big enough to take over her entire life.
Marion’s look changed at the face of her stubbornness.
She heard the approaching footsteps but didn’t lift her head from the book she was reading, sending a clear signal to be left alone. Of course, nothing ever went her way because that was not the case. Whoever it was the steps belonged to did not seem to be deterred by her obvious disinterest in them or the fact that libraries were intended for reading, not conversation. In fact, they invaded her personal space and a full bowl of soup got slammed down on top of her book before she could even react.
She looked at it scandalized for a moment before her gaze moved to the culprit. Hagen.
He didn’t seem bothered by the death glare she was sending him. He just kept chewing on his own portion.
The two of them upheld the staring contest for a whole minute–she was counting the seconds, trying to focus on that instead of on the anger that was rising inside her with every moment that got wasted in such ridiculous manner but it only seemed to flare up as the numbers grew instead of diminishing like it was supposed to–with him not breaking eye contact even when he shoved another spoonful of soup in his mouth while her hands clenched in fists. His gaze didn’t leave her face for a moment and she was pretty sure her expression was only pointing to annoyance at most but he seemed to read the rising tension in her. Or he sensed it. In any case, he finally moved.
“Eat,” he motioned with his spoon towards the bowl that he’d left on her open book and a greasy drop fell from it, nearly landing on the pages.
Griffin knew he was a man of few words but his behavior was just rude and unacceptable. And that didn’t even include his carelessness when it came to the books. It was just preposterous of him to order her around like that.
“I’m working,” she said before turning back to her book. She paused at the sight of the food as if it was violent magic that threatened to blast her. Just looking at it made her want to throw up. She didn’t think she’d be able to eat for weeks after what she’d witnessed the previous day.
“You need to eat,” he didn’t give up, drawing her attention back to him.
“Not right now, I don’t. I need to finish my work,” she said, stressing the words to get them in his thick head before pushing the bowl of soup away in a sharp gesture but still carefully enough as to not spill its contents all over the pages.
“You skipped breakfast this morning,” Hagen spoke again, causing her to whip her head in his direction, the motion radiating murderous rage that didn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. “And you also didn’t eat at dinner last night. Come to think of it,” he paused with his still full spoon in midair, “I haven’t seen you eat in the past two days. Save for that cookie you ate with the tea Faragonda forced you to take a break for,” he said, as he let his spoon back into his bowl and pushed the one he’d left for her back towards her, nearly spilling it over her and the paper.
Griffin jumped up from her chair and almost sent it tumbling to the ground. “Okay, first of all,” she waved her hand sharply in support of her angry tone, “I don’t know what the hell you were thinking when you brought food into the library.”
“That you have to eat,” Hagen said calmly.
“Secondly, how dare you interrupt my work?” Not to mention her angry rant.
Hagen opened his mouth but she would not allow him to interrupt her again.
“And thirdly,” she fired out as she raised her voice to keep him from speaking, “why are all of you suddenly trying to be my babysitters?” It was what annoyed her the most. Because if even Hagen was acting the part, then she couldn’t expect any of the rest of them to leave her be. They would all be fretting over her as if she was a baby when she needed to be left alone to work in peace.
Hagen looked at her for a moment in a way that unnerved her to no end since he was acting like he had some divine knowledge that she was incapable of understanding. “All of this would go so much smoother and easier if you’d just take ten minutes to eat instead of arguing with anyone who’s worried about you for half an hour.”
Since when was he the wise one? The spiritual guide that was leading them all through life? Last time she’d checked he’d been acting like a smitten teenager, unable to handle his crush on Faragonda, so he wasn’t exactly qualified to give life advice where she was concerned and she was burning with the desire to throw all of that in his face and watch him crawl away to lick at his wounded ego but she never got the chance.
“Both Faragonda and Marion are worried sick about you, and rightfully so.” Ah, so that’s what it was all about. Now at least his interest in her well-being made sense. “You think nobody saw how you almost fainted yesterday?” Hagen asked, making her heart skip a beat at the mention. If he’d seen it, there was proof it had really happened and she was dying to just push that fact out of her mind and erase it altogether like it had never existed. “You were seconds away from smashing your skull against the floor, no doubt from exhaustion,” he continued, his voice raising as he left his bowl on the table. Oh, he was getting serious now. Enough so to tear himself away from his lunch for a few seconds. How could she not appreciate the sacrifice? “You may not care about yourself, but have mercy on Faragonda and Marion at least because they care too much for you.”
She had to throw the bowl of soup in his face. Both of them. Maybe it would snap him out of his overprotective haze and allow reality to sink in. All over the magical dimension people were dying and leaving mourning families behind. If there were any survivors after the Coven’s raids. And there he was, yelling at her to care when that was exactly what she was doing only to have them all getting in her way.
“I almost fainted because of what we saw on our last mission.” Flashes of red flooded her mind, constellations of blood in some kind of sick tribute to her, tainting her passion for the stars that she’d foolishly shared with him believing it would remain pure with his fingertips all over it. “And that is why I haven’t stopped working,” she suppressed the impulse to hug herself and start rocking back and forth and focused on her anger at Hagen for daring to direct her attention to that again. It was too hard–impossible–to forget even without being reminded of it. Without being reminded of him and that he’d ever existed. “The Coven won’t have mercy on anyone so I can’t afford to stop for food or to spare anyone’s feelings.” Not even her own. She had to figure out the Coven’s plan which would undoubtedly leave her face to face with him. And that was the last thing she wanted to see. But they had to win. And the only way to do that was to go through him. Even if it meant sacrificing her own heart in the process.
“Then stop to save people’s lives,” Hagen reminded her that he was the one she was currently facing and she was glad–probably for the first time ever–to have him stand in front of her. “You won’t be of any help to anyone if you’re unconscious.” Even if he was trying to use logic against her. That was her strong suit, not his. “If you pass out, Marion won’t let you out of bed at least for a week and Faragonda will proceed to babysit you for the rest of time.”
That last part had Griffin grumbling as she sat down and pulled the full bowl of soup towards herself since she would never call the argument compelling–it was the last thing she wanted to hear–but it was true. She choked down the nausea and forced herself to eat because she couldn’t allow anything–not even their concern for her–get in her way. Sometimes she wished they’d never come to care for her and instead just tolerate her like some of the other members of the Company did. Or better yet, she wished they’d killed her during one of those battles when she’d still been working with the Coven, before she could have made the dark forces so powerful. It would have saved them a lot of trouble.
“What is it you’re working on that is so important?” Hagen asked as he looked at the books, his own bowl in his hands again. He was proving to be a welcome distraction from the spiraling thoughts in her head even if he accomplished it by awakening a budding sense of alarm in the back of her mind as he was looming over her book in a constant threat of destroying it if he accidentally spilled his soup over it.
“I’m studying the magical artifacts and powerful spells of each realm, trying to figure out where the Coven will strike next,” Griffin said now that her work wasn’t getting frowned upon so aggressively. She had knowledge on them, on how they operated, and it could be helpful to tell what they’d do next. The Ancestral Witches weren’t stupid, of course. They knew she was well acquainted with the Coven’s inner workings so they were trying to throw her off the trail, some times more successfully than others. Like the day before. She had to keep analyzing quickly and carefully if she wanted to be able to oppose them.
“Do you even taste the flavor of the soup?” Hagen asked, his eyes trained on her face and his look was something she would happily live without.
She studied him for a moment, trying to process the question, trying to understand why it mattered. “Not really?” she said questioningly since she wasn’t quite sure where he was going with that.
“You can’t just stop living,” Hagen said, using the fact that she still hadn’t rolled her eyes and looked away to get through to her. And in all fairness, that was exactly what she had to do but she couldn’t because she couldn’t find any ulterior motive to his words. It was clear why he wanted her to eat but that didn’t mean that he had to keep her company or take care of her mental health and emotions. “If anything, you should live fully since each day can be your last,” Hagen said, uncharacteristically open, especially on a topic that they all looked to avoid since it was too raw and painful to discuss it.
She hadn’t expected a heart-to-heart from him but what he said was true. Just like it was true that she died a little every time she remembered why she’d been working for the Coven, every time she remembered how she felt and why she’d left. Living fully was not an option after the choice she’d made. Surviving was all that was left, although, physical death would at least put an end to the torture in her head. She still had to fight for everyone else, though.
“Let me worry about that,” she said as she let the spoon fall back into the bowl. He’d just reminded her what was at stake. She was done with her break.
Hagen shook his head when she pushed the bowl with the remaining soup away.
She was just about ready to let her frustration take over and start yelling when a hand closed around her bicep and she found herself being pulled away from the soldiers who looked relieved to have her off their backs. She turned to bite off the head of whoever had dared to treat her like that, with zero respect for her personal space and her autonomy. She didn’t get the chance, though, when she was met with Saladin’s serious face.
“Let them catch their breath,” he hissed at her quietly. He was never one to make a scene, even when he was angry. She probably had to thank him for not drawing more negative attention to her, and she would if she weren’t right next to him on an emotional level. And they all knew she handled negative emotions differently than the rest of them. “They just came back from a battle. They’re tired.”
Griffin was well aware where they’d been. It was why she’d been fishing for details. She needed to know every little thing that could help her make life easier and safer for all of them by predicting the Coven’s plans. It was why she hadn’t even waited for them to get out of the infirmary. Time was of the essence.
“We have no time for rest,” she snapped, drawing a few angry gazes that she could feel even when they were directed at her back. “We have to figure out what the Coven is doing next.”
“You weren’t in such a hurry when you had to leave them,” Saladin bit back, his voice hushed again so that no one would hear him. No one but her. The only one his words would hurt since everyone else would probably agree with him. Valtor had become so powerful because of her. And the Coven had benefited greatly from her strategies. She’d done so much for them that nothing would have been the same without her. “I’m sorry,” Saladin’s apology was much louder than his previous words even despite the shame that was accompanying it. But it hurt more to hear him blame himself rather than her.
“For what?” Griffin asked, all of her irritation draining away to leave only the emptiness of resignation. “The truth?”
“You’re not guilty for our current situation,” Saladin was always quick to reassure a friend and had easily figured out the direction of her thoughts. Much easier than foreseeing the Coven’s plans was for her. Because Saladin truly was her friend and had cared enough to pay attention and learn to read her. And she was repaying him by forcing him to regret saying the truth just because she didn’t like to hear it.
“Valtor wouldn’t have become nearly as powerful if I’d just left sooner.” And neither would have she since their partnership had taught her a lot and had helped her cultivate many skills. But that hardly mattered at the moment, for he was doing far more damage than she could prevent. “I should have never joined them, in fact.” If she’d been on the side of the Company from the start, everything would have been different. It would have been better.
“He would’ve found another partner,” Saladin said but the hasty dismissal of her point felt like he’d squeezed her heart with vengeance.
Griffin shook her head. He wouldn’t have. No one else would have done for him what she had. No one else would have fallen in love with him, thus unlocking immense power in their convergence. They’d been unstoppable together and it had been clear to anyone who’d ever faced them where that synchronized power had come from. Saladin just didn’t want to acknowledge it because it was inconvenient for his argument.
“He wouldn’t have come so far without me,” Griffin said, trying to keep away the memories of all the lines they’d crossed together, all the things she had to regret, and not let them in her eyes from where they could leak out into the open and finish her. They had to stay locked away, for they were too offensive to the world she was fighting to protect and the feelings that accompanied them were too dangerous for her to allow herself to fall back into them.
“You’re not responsible for his crimes,” Saladin wasn’t helping since his words pointed to inability to understand the situation at best or willful ignorance in order to spare her feelings at worst. He was acting as if he didn’t know what a partnership entailed, as if he hadn’t seen her work in total tandem with Valtor.
“But I am responsible for my own.” Valtor hadn’t held a weapon to her head. She’d joined him willingly and had done everything of her own volition. She’d killed people with her own hands, following her own plans. “I stole spells and artifacts that he’s still using to win the war. What I did makes him powerful even now that I am here.” She’d taken some of the artifacts with her when she’d left but there’d been too many for her to restore all the losses she’d caused. She’d stolen too much to be able to fix it all on her own. Her only chance was through the Company and she couldn’t stand it when even that failed, for there were no other options. There was no other way for her to be able to live with herself. “I am responsible for so much evil and I have to fix it before he gets to destroy anything else.” The tears were taking over her eyes just like the thoughts of Valtor were doing to her mind even though she’d promised herself to never let him touch any part of her again, and it was all too much. She needed to go work and collect herself before she could break down.
“Griffin-” Saladin’s voice died in his throat when an agonized hiss left her at the touch of his hand on her shoulder before she recoiled. “You’re injured,” he barely managed as if he couldn’t comprehend what he’d just witnessed, his mind on the other side of the time gap between the last time she’d been on the battlefield and the present moment, and that wasn’t a short distance. She was mostly wielding the books these days, constantly changing and refining her strategies to make them more effective and tracking down Coven members for the rest of the Company to catch.
“I’m fine,” Griffin did her best not to snap since that would have the opposite effect of what she was going for as she refrained from touching her shoulder. She just had to hope her face wouldn’t betray any of the pain she was in. The tears had been chased away by the shift in her emotions now that her attention was directed towards the physical injury and the main crisis had been averted.
“No, you’re not,” Saladin insisted with firmness in his voice that was never there when their arguments were of more aggressive nature, but now his driving force was care. For her. “You should have that checked.” He looked like he had half a mind to grab her hand and drag her to the medical personnel, watching all the time to make sure she got treated, but was afraid that he might discover another injury she was hiding if he dared touch her again. She understood the feeling since the warmth of his friendship that was offered so readily was making it hard to pretend she was okay and more physical contact could make her facade crumble.
“And have the Coven hurt more innocent people while I’m having a minor injury prioritized over the safety of the whole world?” she asked harshly to keep him away and remind them both what was important. Her shoulder hurt like a bitch but it was nothing compared to the hit she took every time they failed in their mission. “It will heal,” she said, the words not bringing any comfort to her because that wasn’t the part that mattered, “but the people they’ll kill won’t come back.” That was what they had to focus on. It was the only thing that mattered and she couldn’t lose sight of it after it had taken her so long to grasp it. “We have to act before it’s too late and not repeat my mistake.”
The look Saladin gave her hurt with the pain she could see her behavior was putting him through.
She heard the quiet steps on the gravel and didn’t try to turn away or pretend she wanted to be left alone. Because it was Faragonda and because she didn’t want to be left alone. That was the thing. She’d never wanted to be alone but she felt alone no matter how many people were around.
Faragonda sat on the bench next to her–honestly, Griffin had had half a mind to just sit on the grass but that would immediately draw the attention of anyone who happened to walk by even at that late hour–and didn’t seem surprised when she saw the tears falling from Griffin’s eyes when she turned towards her. She just looked worried with her eyebrows slightly knit and her lips pursed and that made Griffin wish to turn away again but she didn’t. Faragonda was her best friend. Of course she’d be worried about her. Griffin was worried about herself. Even if the reasons behind that were vastly different from those of her friend.
Faragonda wrapped her arms around her and drew her to herself into a hug that Griffin selfishly accepted even though she shouldn’t have. But she needed some comfort, some warmth, and she couldn’t push it away when it was right in front of her just because she didn’t deserve it.
“Won’t you ask me why I’m crying?” she nudged quietly because that was all she had strength left for but it had to be done. She needed Faragonda to do it. Needed her to ask so that she could get it all out because Faragonda was her closest friend and she couldn’t lie to her no matter how much she wanted to. She would be forced to admit what was going on in her mind.
“No.” Such a firm answer. Denial strong enough to make her bleed. Because Faragonda believed she knew her well enough to tell what was going on inside her head when she wasn’t even sure herself. All that she knew was that it was terrible and she couldn’t put an end to it. And Faragonda couldn’t do it for her because she had no idea what was happening in her mind right now–though, it had been going on for quite some time–and Griffin needed to stop pushing before she could reveal all of that to her. She couldn’t be selfish enough to burden her with that too. She’d already burdened them all with plenty and her personal problems had to stay just that.
She took a deep, shuddering breath as she held on to Faragonda, fingers clutching at her clothes and her head rested on the fairy’s shoulder, though, her body was as tense as ever. “Won’t you tell me something to help stop my tears?” That would be the second best thing, small mercy granted to her because her tears were proof of the worst. But Faragonda couldn’t know that because she hadn’t told her of the war in her mind.
“No,” Faragonda whispered as she pushed the hair out of her face so that it wouldn’t stick to her skin and tickle her nose and the gentleness only had more tears flowing because the fairy was always there for her, ready to help her, but this time she couldn’t. The only way to help her was to carve her heart out and Faragonda would never do that even if it was for her own good. Which meant there was no point in telling her. There was no point in hurting her, too. “You need to let it out,” Faragonda said, making her wonder if perhaps she did know what was torturing her. She combed her fingers through Griffin’s hair in slow, soothing motions just like her mom had used to do when she’d been little and reminded her of home. The home she’d betrayed by passing its secrets into the wrong hands. Just like she’d done to herself.
“I cry myself to sleep every time,” she sniveled, hating herself for the pathetic sound. That, of course, didn’t mean it happened often since she barely slept anymore–the things she saw in her dreams were too horrible–but the fact that it happened at all was indicative enough of the seriousness of the situation and she hoped admitting it would get something out of Faragonda. Something that... She didn’t even know what she was looking for. Just something that would make it all at least somewhat bearable.
“We’ve all been through so much. Especially you.” The words were the exact opposite of what she’d been hoping for, especially in Faragonda’s tired voice that was usually mellow but now just sounded drained, and all of a sudden her body gave off the same impression too with her fingers just barely moving through the purple locks. As if she didn’t have the strength to be optimistic and all she could do was sit passively and let the events sweep her away as they played out. “It’s impossible to just keep going on like a robot,” the monotone tone reminded perfectly of one and it was grotesque coming from Faragonda no matter how much Griffin wished she herself could be a robot. Just some parts that Hagen had scrambled together. No emotions, only following orders. Blameless. “You try to focus on the goal but it’s still too much,” Faragonda’s words pulled her out of her fantasy that was as far from reality as her friend was from her usual self. “What we’ve seen, what we’ve been through... It’s something impossible to live with,” Faragonda’s hold on her loosened, her body going limp against Griffin as if all of her energy went into simply getting the words out of her system. “Because even if we win, it will never go away but we have to fight because losing will mean the end of everything.” The words kept going on and on relentlessly, feeding Griffin’s tears and the pain tearing through her heart because she was only thinking of herself when her friends had to go through all of that.
“It’s all my fault,” she cried out, interrupting Faragonda, the agony too strong to allow her to remain selfless and listen to someone else’s problems for once. All she did was burden them with herself and everything else that came along with that. And even if she didn’t want to trouble her friend anymore, she couldn’t keep the words to herself because that was the harsh truth. She’d ruined everything. It was all wrong. Not a single thing had been okay ever since that day...
Faragonda’s voice reached her for a moment through her weeping and the guilt that had cocooned her in its suffocating embrace, “Griffin-”
Her crying drowned out the rest but she didn’t need to hear Faragonda or even look at her to know the persistent worry in her mind.
Griffin looked at the mirror in her bathroom. Her colorless skin and the dark circles under her no longer bright eyes were pointing insistently towards sleep deprivation and exhaustion even though she’d just woken up. She’d been pulled away from the only place where she could be with the man she loved, for he didn’t exist. It had all been in her head while in reality she’d been sleeping in the bed of a demon. Still, she remembered the warmth of his skin and the security of his arms around her, making it seem like she’d lost something real, like she’d lost everything.
Her reflection spoke the truth that none of the others could see even when she couldn’t hide it from herself no matter how desperately she wished for that.
You won’t break.
She couldn’t. She had already broken. Her life was in shambles, her heart was in pieces, her soul was in halves one of which she no longer even had. What more was there to break?