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one step forward, six steps back

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There’s fire rising from all corners of Rhalgr’s Reach, and Roe’s eyes and throat are burning. The noise is incomprehensibly loud—the clashing of metal, cannon fire, roars of fury and terrified screams echo through the smoky air from all directions. Imperial and Resistance bodies alike are littered across the field, some writhing and twitching pathetically but many, many more lying eerily still and gods, there’s blood everywhere. She nearly slips in a particularly wet patch as she charges through the gates of the Reach with a full head of steam, sprinting as fast as her legs can carry her with Pipin, Krile and the twins hot on her heels. Dozens of wounded and terrified stragglers stream past them, some jostling into them in their panic as they flee to the relative safety of the Fringes.

“We have to stop them while there’s still someone left to save!” Alisaie yells to her above the din, but Roe’s gaze is already locked onto the wall of 12th Legion soldiers sprinting straight toward them with their weapons raised. She is in full Warrior-of-Light-mode, her heartbeat roaring in her ears, and she intends to ensure that every man who makes the mistake of drawing a blade on her lives to deeply regret it—but suddenly she flinches, adrenaline flaring, as a wounded man stumbles into her and clings wildly at her sleeve for support.

She’s about to fling him away when he wheezes something colorful about the Imperials’ maternal ancestry into her shoulder and coughs up what appears to be part of a kidney, and she realizes with a jolt that his armor—now soaked, bright crimson—is Resistance. Roe waves Alphinaud over while she lowers the wounded man to the ground, and he kneels at her feet to attempt to stabilize him. Roe’s hands come away from the soldier’s armor wet.

“Fuck me,” she mutters, “it’s a shitting bloodbath.”

As she wipes her mouth on her sleeve a flash of movement over her shoulder catches her eye—Alisaie, tiny and righteous and furious, skewering an Imperial through the stomach with a snarl. “Those monsters,” she spits down at the man’s body, breathing hard. “These people had surrendered.”

A blur on her other side—Pipin cuts a man down with an elegant slash to the back of his knees. “It’s not too late for the others,” he then says: as calm and collected as one would expect from the Flames’ finest, although Roe can hear a quiet fury blazing beneath his words.

“Reinforcements are on the way.” Alphinaud still kneels at Roe’s feet as he casts. Against the glow of his spell, Roe can see his face has paled somewhat at the sight of the gore resting an inch away from his foot. “We should keep moving.”

“I’ll clear the way.” Roe can tell by the distant sounds of gunfire and metallic creaking that Imperial magitek have joined the fray, and frankly she’s itching to get to dismantling. “Back me up?” she asks, already knowing the answer.

“Of course.”

“Thanks.” Roe shuts her eyes for a moment, feeling her muscles faithfully tense in preparation. She takes a small breath. “Okay. Let’s get going.”

And Krile’s voice rings out from somewhere behind her, something about “remember that we’re here to save lives,” but Roe barely hears her, because she’s already off like a shot—sprinting down the hill toward the roiling chaos at the center of the Reach. Straight for the biggest magitek, obviously. And the Imperials rise to meet her on her way, as they always do.

It’s time to get to work. Lucky she’s very good at her job.

12th Legion armor doesn’t stand much of a chance even though she fights bare-fisted, like always, she’s learned;  and she starts off the day by quickly cracking a man’s skull with a solid right hook. His fellow receives an elbow square in the nose that rings through the air with a crunch, and they both crumple to the ground like wet paper. A third swings for her throat but she pivots on the ball of her foot and sends him flying with a powerful, sweeping kick to the side of his head that sends blood spraying out of his mouth—poor bastard must have chomped down on his own tongue.

One, two, three. Easy and bloody and fast.

One collapses at her feet like a puppet whose strings have been cut after she catches him mid-charge and cleanly snaps his neck—he barely even twitches as he hits the ground. Two more burst through the crowd and swing for her head, but she ducks beneath to send them stumbling, and before they can right themselves she palms the backs of their heads and spikes them ingloriously, face-first, into the dirt. Another goes to fire a bolt of magic but she snatches the words from his throat as she grabs him by the neck and crushes his windpipe as easily as one would a brittle piece of wood.

Four, five, six, seven. Barely enough to get her heart rate up.

But the Imperials keep coming, emerging from the dust rising through the air in a swarm of black and gold, slowly rolling toward her one by one by one like a spreading spill of oil. No matter how many of their blades swing for her neck or how many of their spells singe her hair as they fly overhead, she does not slow, because she can’t, because her adrenaline is buzzing loud and insistent and triumphant in her limbs and in her brain, and because she simply refuses.

It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say she relishes the feeling, even covered in blood and guts. So she puts her head down, and she pushes.

And after what feels like a small eternity the only soldiers left are either stirring feebly on the ground at her feet, or not at all. Easy. So far so good. She takes a second to catch her breath. Gods, the smoke hurts her lungs.

Then a magitek walker stomps into her field of view, leveling its guns at her head with a screech of metal that rattles her brain.

And suddenly, aching lungs aside, Roe is very excited.

She charges, throws her entire weight behind it, slams her shoulder into one of its legs at top speed. It sends a powerful twinge of pain radiating through her entire arm but it also sends the walker stumbling, which easily makes it worth it—it rocks, off-balance, and she hoists herself up onto its body to stand straddling the cockpit. Much to the dismay of the Imperial controlling it, whose terrified squawking only increases in pitch as she seizes his collar and bodily flings him to the ground below.

She lands a strong stomp square in the center of the magitek’s control panel for good measure and notes with satisfaction the distressed beeping it makes as it slumps to the ground, a small plume of smoke wheezing its way out of the machinery. Nice.

And another magitek is already clanking its way in her direction accompanied by a spray of bullets that whiz past her face. One of them nearly clips her in the temple but she springs forward, undeterred, and lands atop the new machine just in time to smash the heel of her boot directly into and through the face of its pilot with a grunt of effort, who jerks wildly before falling still. A pair of Imperials hollering and waving their blades in outrage charge toward her from below, but rather than allow them reach her she leaps off the magitek and crashes down onto their heads with her full body weight, landing a nasty blow with her elbow into one’s temple that sends him crumpling to the dirt in a heap. The other quavers for a moment before he receives a mighty sweeping kick to the back of the neck for his trouble.

She takes a second to wipe a spattering of blood from her cheek. Four more down, plus two magitek; not a bad start. She turns to find the others.

A column of smoke rising through the air a few yards away and the mighty scream of warping metal tells her that Alisaie and Pipin have taken down another magitek by working in tandem. Behind them, Alphinaud is practically aglow with magic, flinging spells with such speed and ferocity that the hairs on Roe’s arms prickle with electricity as bolts of light shoot past her and across the field, and at his side Krile’s staff whirls through the air at a dizzying speed. An Imperial swings his sword at Alisaie’s head and Roe opens her mouth to shout a warning, but suddenly another squad is upon her and her world shrinks back down to only blades and bolts of magic and bullets and adrenaline; bruises and blood and the crunch of bone beneath her hands. She’s certainly not slow at taking them out but they seem almost endless—for every soldier she knocks away another pops up to take their place. One even lands a solid hit, the lucky bastard, smashing the pommel of his sword into her face and making her see stars, and when she finally breaks through the crowd to get back to Alisaie her nose is bleeding.

“We’re going to be here all day at this rate,” she shouts, planting her boot on a man’s head to punctuate her point.

“I think the others are deeper inside,” Alisaie pants as she unceremoniously yanks her blade from an Imperial’s newly gaping chest cavity. “We need to keep moving.”

“Yeah,” Roe says, eyes already intently scanning the width of the Reach. The very air seems to wobble with heat, and the field before positively churns with bodies, both living and dead—the stink of sweat and hot metal and blood and smoke is dizzyingly powerful, sharp and nauseating. A bit of hot ash tumbles into her cheek and she swipes it away, scarcely noticing the stinging burn it leaves on her skin as she squints into the haze.

Finally she thinks she spots Lyse, sitting slumped on the ground on the other side of the Reach with her wrists bound. Alive, clearly, thank the gods, but guarded by a squad of Skulls and that redheaded commander of theirs. At Lyse’s side are Y’shtola and Conrad, lying in the dirt—and her stomach lurches hard when she notices Y’shtola’s robes are stained an alarmingly bright shade of red.

“There!” someone shouts—it sounds like Krile—right as Roe quietly says “Shit.” And then again, more forcefully: “Shit.”

She vaguely gestures to the others to follow her and starts to run, quickly. Truthfully it doesn’t even occur to her to check if they’re still at her back—the only thing screaming through her head is get over there, now.

The hot air makes her eyes stream as she sprints past towering flames, nimbly dodging piles of debris and corpses littering the ground but still nearly twisting her ankle on a loose piece of rubble in her haste. A volley of bullets sprays overhead, but it’s nowhere close to her, so it doesn't matter. A few Imperials leap into her path to stop her, but she barely even notices as she barrels straight through them. It only takes a few more heartbeats before she’s there, and she’s got one of the Skulls by the head, slamming him down face-first into her raised knee. She tosses his body to the side.

And his commander scoffs, clearly unimpressed—although with Roe or with her late charge, it’s hard to say. There’s a spattering of blood in the commander’s hair, and Roe suspects it doesn’t belong to her. “A rescue party, is it?” she says dryly as she raises her scimitar, firelight glinting off the gently curved blade.

In spite of the grave situation, Roe feels a prickle of excitement at the note of challenge in her voice. She waits a moment, just until she sees Alphinaud in her periphery, primed to strike, nodding a silent affirmation with a grim look on his face. Then she turns to the commander and grins, daring her new opponent to make the first move, and says “Obviously.”

The chaos of the Reach clashes wildly at the periphery of their battlefield, but it almost seems as though it does not dare to approach them as they stand facing one another, eyes locked. The commander’s face darkens with a furious intensity, seemingly irritated at Roe’s flippant attitude.

Roe, meanwhile, cracks her knuckles. Adrenaline fills her head, smothering her anxiety with its thick, exhilarating fog. This is going to be a challenge, she can tell, and she is ready.

Then the tension in the air seems to snap, and they are at each other’s throats.

It’s easy to tell her opponent is young, probably a few years Roe’s junior, but she’s good; she is undoubtedly skilled with her blade and buckler shield and she wields them with an almost thoughtless swagger, as if they are as natural an extension of her body as her arms. At first her body language is dismissive as she parries Roe’s quick strikes with the pommel of her sword and the shield at her elbow, until the moment after Roe gets a good hit square in the center of her chest that sends her stumbling and wheezing for air. She snarls wordlessly before lunging forward again and now the condescending act is utterly gone: she is passionate, and she is angry. There’s an edge to the way she moves, too—the kind of fury and determination forged through years of desperation and struggle that Roe is intimately familiar with. She’s a captivating sparring partner, in other words; Roe aims a powerful kick at her head but she slips beneath and counters with a lightning-fast flash of steel, her blade whirling in a skillful arc that very nearly takes Roe’s ear with it, and Roe barks out a surprised, delighted laugh.

“You’re pretty good at this, Commander,” she says, breathing hard, flashing her a wry grin. Her opponent simply glares in response.

She’s tough, too, and damned if Roe can’t quite get her where she wants her. They clash together again and again at a stalemate, and with every good, solid strike Roe gets in there’s another near miss. The commander’s blade just barely misses her throat as it skips ineffectively off the pauldron at her shoulder, but that half a moment’s stutter of hesitation, finally, nets Roe the edge she needs to shift the momentum. With a grunt she lands a powerful stomping kick into the side of the commander’s knee, and she cries out in pain as her leg crumples and she goes crashing down roughly onto the injured joint.

“Who in the seven hells are you!?” she hisses through her teeth, glaring up at Roe with a look of fury so potent it could probably kill lesser men in an instant.

But then: she freezes like a scared rabbit. Her eyes dart away, looking at something over Roe’s shoulder. Her face flickers with anxiety, for just a moment, so briefly Roe almost thinks she imagined it.

Roe falters, and she turns.

And standing tall and utterly still behind her, looming what feels like miles above her head, is a monster.

Zenos yae Galvus.

It’s the first time she’s seen him in person, but Roe knows him immediately—for one thing, he’s large. Perhaps a couple of heads taller than Roe, which is an unusual feeling. She knew he would cut an imposing figure—the hushed, rattled whisperings about him that permeate the Resistance forces told her that much. What she wasn’t expecting was the curtain of long, golden-blond hair that tumbles down his shoulders as he removes his helm, or the limpid, steely blue of his heavy-lidded eyes as he looks down his nose at her and… smiles.

“See to your men, Pilus,” he says, in a soft, sneering tone that feels deeply, deeply unsettling. He does not look away from Roe’s face.

And Roe… for some reason, she can’t tear her eyes away from Zenos, either. Something about his stare makes her feel trapped, like an insect caught under a glass.

From behind her Roe hears the commander respond with a halting “As you command, my lord,” pulling herself back to her feet with a wince of pain. As the Skulls disperse, she spots Alphinaud and Krile rush over to attend to Lyse and Y’shtola, and Pipin and Alisaie move to stand at her back, ready as always with their weapons drawn.

“Your friends,” Zenos says flatly, as though he is immensely bored, “were a disappointment. But you will entertain me. Will you not?” Roe opens her mouth to retort, but then he laughs lightly, a small, condescending sound, and she finds her voice dies in her throat.

The way his words lilt through the smoky air to reach her makes her stomach twist into dreadful knots, like that anticipatory nervousness when lightning flashes overhead and she waits, counting the seconds before thunder bursts forth to track the impending storm.

Frankly, she’s not used to seeing an opponent and feeling afraid.

But: “If we kill him, here and now, we can end this,” Alisaie hisses into her ear, and determination settles in her belly, hard and sobering. She’s right, of course. Roe swallows hard, her mouth dry. She steps forward.

“I hope so,” she says—although whether she’s addressing Alisaie or to Zenos, she’s suddenly uncertain. Zenos simply cocks his head.

Then he takes a slow step forward, then another: the way he moves across the field to meet her is languid, as though lost in a dream. He extends his sword arm toward her, slowly, beckoning. Inviting.

Well, far be it from Roe to refuse a challenge. Zenos simply stands there, watching them with mild, passive disinterest as they move to charge, at Roe’s signal.

—Until, fast as blinking, he thrusts his blade into the dirt at his feet. A heartbeat’s worth of silence.

Then all hell breaks loose.

The earth beneath his feet thrums with red bolts of electricity, splinters, bursts upward in an explosion that is plenty large enough to catch them all in its radius. The bolts make contact with her skin as a metallic cacophony screams through the air, and her bones rattle, and tears spring to her eyes, and her very veins feel as if they have burst into flames, like they’re being shredded by white-hot wires and broken glass and serrated blades and she has to move, to regroup and charge again, to run—

But then she is hit—blindsided—by a wall of force and a burst of crimson light that explodes from Zenos’ form with a teeth-rattling bang, and she is thrown violently backwards across the field. She lands hard on one knee but stays upright, somehow, although her head throbs as though it’s a blister begging to be popped. When her brain quits rattling against the walls of her skull she realizes Pipin and Alisaie are both in the dirt, cursing and stirring fitfully a few yards away—alive, but incapacitated.

“I have no need for this rabble,” Zenos says, snagging her attention again with a disdainful gesture—and as he looks back toward her, his eyes flash with something she can’t identify.

“You yet stand. Mayhap you have potential.” He raises an eyebrow, and there’s something in his voice—something approaching respect, perhaps. For a brief, unsettling moment, she feels a swell of pride.

“I like to think so,” she says, breathing hard as she gets to her feet, hopeful that she can flatten her anxiety under her signature cockiness. It almost works.

“Well, then.” Zenos steps toward her, raising his blade. “Give me something to remember.”

She will do her best to oblige.

As she expected, he’s a disarming opponent—his moves are slow and unhurried except for the flashes of his blade, which are so quick she frequently finds herself stumbling awkwardly onto her back foot to avoid getting a sword to the head. Speed is on her side, fortunately, but she can barely get any hits on him, and what punches she does land are deadened by his armor. They only spend what feels like a few moments at a stalemate before he roughly shoves her backward and she stumbles, staying on her feet but breathing hard. His lips curl derisively.

Before she can dash back in to close the gap between them he twitches his fingers along the hilt of his blade. With a crackle of lightning that makes the air stink of ozone he sends magicked, phantom reflections of his sword spiraling down to pierce into the earth, surrounding her on all sides, and she barely has time to swear under her breath before they explode into arcs of electricity that stretch through the air toward her like desperate, clinging arms.

She just barely dodges, dashing out of range in the nick of time, but with another twitch of his hand he sends a blade of blue light bursting from his fingers to careen wildly through the air toward her head, razor-sharp and singing with heat—she just barely ducks it and it crashes into a stone column behind her, gouging a huge chunk out of the stone and sending it crumbling. He keeps her on the run effortlessly, mockingly, clearly realizing that closeness gives her the advantage and not deigning to give her the dignity of landing another solid hit.

But in the instant between the lightning strikes—a half a heartbeat’s stutter between the seconds—she sees that he keeps the lightning as far from himself as possible, leaving an opening at his feet.

He gives her an opening, and she lunges.

Seeing her charge he reflexively goes for a sweeping downward strike that could have easily cleaved her in two if she were just a heartbeat slower but she clumsily knocks his arm aside with her wrist as she dashes forward, sending his blade dully thumping into the ground instead—it’s not exactly a thing of beauty and she takes a slice to the arm as his blade skips across her shoulder but that’s fine; she dodged the bulk of it and the stinging pain only sharpens her focus. She strikes him in the jaw, hard, and it crunches satisfyingly beneath her knuckles, but before she can capitalize and strike again he cracks her across the face with a powerful backhand and she reels backward, landing hard on the same knee she nearly crushed before, which fucking hurts.

She glares up at him with a snarl of pain and prepares to spring again but he simply laughs, a single, derisive puff of air. The way he balefully blinks at her gives her pause: she’d say it was curious, even playful, if it wasn’t so dripping with venom. She finds herself caught off-guard, and hesitates.

“It would seem I misjudged you,” he says—it’s almost a croon, catlike. A lumpy, purplish bruise is beginning to bloom on his chin, made all the more obvious due to his pallid, almost sickly complexion.

“Did you? How flattering.” Roe takes a moment to spit a gob of blood into the dirt. Zenos doesn’t move, still gazing at her as though she is nothing more than a mildly interesting insect that has come to rest on a nearby wall. 

Then the tiny smile playing across his lips drops from his face like a stone, like a cat dropping the corpse of a mouse it has grown bored of. “This ends now,” he simply says then, and with a practiced flourish he thrusts his blade back into the dirt.

Another explosion of force and electricity and eye-searing red light and Roe is thrown backward, sent tumbling head over heels like a piece of paper caught in the wind. Unable to catch herself in time on limbs heavy and shaky from exertion she lands hard, face down in the dirt, her head crashing hard into the ground and crunching into her neck at an awkward angle that makes her feel as though she’s about to vomit. She gasps and coughs wetly as the dust from her landing fills her mouth and nose, and her head spins as she reels from the pain still surging through her veins, electric and sharp. 

Before she can even try to right herself Zenos roughly kicks her, rolling her over onto her back. What little wind she had managed to recover is squeezed from her lungs as he plants one boot squarely in the center of her chest. As his entire body weight presses into her, she thinks she feels one or two of her ribs crack.

“Shit,” she wheezes, and he smiles. She sees something in his eyes she can’t define, floating somewhere between gentle and menacing and hungry.

Then his other foot crashes down onto her left wrist, the heel of his boot crushing the bones as though they were made of glass.

She gasps, flailing wildly in pain as she grasps desperately, stupidly, impotently at his ankle with her free hand. Her arms and legs may as well belong to someone else entirely with how utterly unresponsive they’ve suddenly become. His blade begins to draw closer and closer to her face—its length smeared with whorls of blood, some of it hers. She is unable to tear her eyes away from the point of his sword as she strains beneath his weight.

The cool metal makes contact with her left cheek and comes to a sudden stop, stinging as it begins to draw blood. Her breath catches in her throat as the air in her lungs turns to ice. She is paralyzed beneath him.

The seconds stretch to eons as Zenos gazes down to meet her eyes, boring deep into and through her, his calm cerulean blue clashing nauseatingly with the amber flames behind him.

She might die here, Roe suddenly realizes, numbly. He has her now. This could be it.

But judging by the look on his face, he has no intent for it to be.

Then: pain. Pain like nothing she has ever felt before. Searing, white hot, excruciating, blinding—literally, as his blade slowly, inquisitively prods its way into her left eye socket. He rocks his blade back and forth, gently, with the ease and steadiness one would use to rock a baby’s cradle, sending waves of nausea rolling through her body and she can’t see, she can’t see, her eye is on fire. She writhes, frantically, her free hand flying to her face as her tears cut a path through the dirt and soot and blood smeared across her cheeks.

It takes her a moment between her gasps and shuddering and desperate pants for air to realize that the keening, inhuman scream spiraling up through the smoky air belongs to her. Dully she registers him chuckling softly as he stares down at her, before he gingerly pulls the tip of his blade from her face with a sickening, quiet squelch. Then he bends down, sneering, to better look her in the eye.

“I have marked you,” he breathes. “My prey.”

Roe barely registers his words.

He lingers above her for a moment longer, until his smile drips down off his face like her blood, splattered onto his cheek. His scowl is utterly disgusted. “Pathetic,” he spits.

He steps off her, but not before he grinds her broken wrist into the dirt with the heel of his boot for good measure. Then he is gone all at once, a phantom vanishing into the dark leaving only smoke and ash and flame and bodies in his wake.

Her vision spots, starbursts of black blooming over the smoky, fire-filled skies above, and Roe begins to lose consciousness as her head crashes backward into the dirt.

The next time she’s vaguely aware of her own body again she is being carried by several soldiers and healers across the Reach to the infirmary, and the only thing keeping the pain from driving her back under again is Lyse’s hand gripping hers incredibly hard as she whispers “it’s okay, I’m here” and “just keep breathing,” her voice tiny and strangled in Roe’s ear. Shocked murmurings bounce around the whole of the Reach as the crowds scramble to part and let them pass. The medical tent is already a hive of activity, stuffed almost to bursting with the wounded and the dead, and in her half-blind, half-delirious state, the tent’s entrance looks more like a yawning mouth waiting to consume her, glowing with flame. As she is deposited on a hastily-readied bed in the far corner she faintly hears some Resistance soldier whisper to his fellow “gods, they got her too?” and the pangs of guilt and shame she suddenly feels are almost worse than the nauseating headache and the stabbing, searing pain and the screaming and crying that she cannot seem to suppress.

She doesn’t remember much of the days to follow.

She spends many hours slipping in and out of consciousness, her dreams hazy and feverish, and even when she is awake the happenings around her are difficult to grasp: blurry forms leaning over her, haloed by bright, formless spots of light, and sounds that she dumbly realizes are speech directed at her but that she cannot register in time to respond to, like shadows faintly spotted out of the corner of the eye. Even with the cocktail of drugs and potions the medics administer she still reels from the pain, feebly mewling and whimpering like some tiny, pathetic wounded creature, and these sounds enter her dreams, taking the form of looming, shapeless monsters who stare down at her unblinkingly, hungrily, all bearing piercing, evil, cooly cerulean eyes.

At some point she becomes dimly aware of a medic quietly murmuring to someone standing just behind the curtain draped around her bed, something about “vision loss” and “near-irreversible damage” and “extremely unfortunate”. Shortly thereafter she feels a person softly approach her bedside—Alphinaud, she realizes—to take up vigil next to her for a time, faintly feeling his tiny hands clutching at her arm, and she would believe it was merely a part of another of her feverish visions were it not for the faint sensation of his tears dripping down to land on her skin.

Fortunately her fever breaks later that evening, and the healers are able to finish properly mending her broken wrist and the wound on her face without much difficulty, which grants her some modicum of peace. Finally, her sleep becomes mostly dreamless, and the monsters leave her be.

On the afternoon of the third day of her recovery, Roe is pulled from yet another fitful sleep by the unsettling silence of the now-emptied medical tent.

Her head still throbs painfully and her vision swims if she moves or even thinks too fast, but she is able to lift her head off the sweaty pillow beneath her and prop herself up against the crude metal headboard at her back without too much difficulty. It’s cool against her skin through the thin cotton robe they must have put her in not long after she got here, though she can’t recall that moment herself. Her head feels strangely lopsided from the thick bandages wrapped all the way around her skull and heavy from exhaustion, even though she’s been abed for almost half a week. She flexes her fingers, testing them, and is relieved to feel little in the way of pain in her wrist. The healers have done their work well.

Her eye, though… She’s trying not to think too hard about that. She closes her eyes and lets her head fall back against the headboard. In response her brain thumps painfully.

She spends the next few hours absently staring at the canvas tent above her. On one of the first instances in which she was lucid enough to maintain conversation, she was commanded in no uncertain terms to rest as much as possible until told otherwise (Alisaie had caught her attempting to cross the room in an attempt to get a drink of water and very nearly flung her back across the tent, insisting “if you're not going to rest on your own I’ll just make you,” and Roe would rather not challenge her on that proclamation). So she remains in bed. She should be declared free to go soon, she hopes.

She learns of the aftermath of the battle from visitors who drift in and out to check on her, listening intently as they describe the Resistance’s next moves—most importantly, how they’d decided to move for Castrum Oriens, as the Reach is no longer believed to be safe. Apparently Lyse and Alisaie very nearly refused to leave with the rest of the group, wanting to make sure Roe would pull through first, but the importance of their mission won out in the end. It’s better that way, Roe thinks. She’s not entirely certain she could bear seeing that pitying look on their faces again.

She also learns that Meffrid is dead, along with countless others. They only told her the exact numbers when Roe insisted, prodding them for names and details with as much authority she could muster while still swaddled in bandages, at which point they quietly related to her the full list of casualties, the length of which made her stomach churn. Even Y’shtola very nearly succumbed to her injuries, apparently, and they might have lost her entirely were it not for Krile’s quick work.

Far, far worse than all the crippling headaches and the new lack of depth perception and the boredom and the confinement is the guilt; the knowledge that dozens died because she was not there to help them, because she was laid low from a single, stupid mistake, and because her injuries monopolized the attention of those providing care that could have—should have—gone to people more deserving. Her cheeks feel blotchy and raw from three days of crying.

But the war waits for no one. Certainly not for Roe and her fits of self-loathing.

She is officially granted her release from the medics’ care not long after that, though they caution her to take it easy as much as she can in the coming days. Fat chance of that, she thinks as she gets dressed and peels the bandages off her face to leave them discarded on her now-vacant bed. They need her in Castrum Oriens. And she needs something to do, something else to think about, desperately.

On her way out she ties a simple black cloth over her eye to function as a makeshift patch—she can get a proper one later, probably. For now she just needs something to keep dust and light out of the still-healing wound. She looks kind of cool, she thinks, as she stops to check her reflection in the simple mirror near the tent’s washbasin. A small consolation, but it’s something. Nice of them to clean the dried blood off her face, too, though it looks like there’s still some matted in her hair that she doesn’t have time to wash out.

When she steps outside the smoke of the battle has of course long since dispersed, though the grounds of the Reach are still covered in rubble. The dirt beneath her boots is stained a blotchy brownish-red. 

But the sky is blue and clear and cloudless. Like nothing even happened.

She takes a long, deep breath of the dry Gyr Abanian air and starts walking. She’s got a lot of work to do.