When Roe opens her eyes, she’s staring at the blurry ceiling of her Pendants apartment.
Her room is a light-tinged smear of colors and vague shapes. She has no idea where her glasses are. More importantly, the light is constantly pulling at the edges of her vision now, smears of color tumbling like refracted light, clinging and searing at her retinas. She can feel it, a blinding white halo ringing her field of view, thrumming in her eyes. A new sensation that’s certain to cause plenty of excitement in the coming days, she’s sure.
She pushes herself upright, slowly, and rocks her head from side to side in an attempt to clear it. She regrets it immediately—her stomach gives a pitiful, nauseous lurch. It feels somewhat like her brain has been replaced with a glob of wet clay.
She blinks once, twice, squints—it takes a long moment of staring for her eyes to remember what their job is. Eventually she manages to coax a face out of the Hume-shaped smudge standing across the room by her window. Ardbert, of course.
“Ah,” he says, sounding relieved, stepping toward her. “Finally.”
Feeling a bit too bleary to say hello, Roe makes a vague grunt of greeting and stares at the space next to him, trying to think. She remembers defeating Vauthry—Innocence—bringing the night back to Kholusia, staring up at the stars from the summit of Mt. Gulg… and then— and then—
“What happened?” she asks. Her voice comes out as a gravely croak. “I take it I didn’t dream that.”
Ardbert shakes his head, a sad smile tugging at his lips. “I’m afraid not,” he answers, and the somewhat pitying look on his face jogs her memory.
The light was finally too much. She’d started retching as it roiled in her stomach, set her every nerve on fire, smeared her vision with blinding white. It was far, far too much—it had been too much for much longer than she’d wanted to admit, really—and she’d utterly lost what little control she’d had. Her friends could do nothing but watch as it ripped her apart, as she stumbled, fell to the ground, cracked her head against the hard stone floor, reared back toward the heavens and screamed. The pain was indescribable.
But then the Exarch emerged from the mountain’s path, staff held high, and he was going to save her, save them all, by taking the light back into the rift where it could do no harm, consigning himself to oblivion along with it. He tried to couch it in betrayal, hoping that the sting of surprise would make it hurt less, a quick prick of a needle instead of the rip of a knife—at journey’s end, an opportunistic thief makes off with the hero’s prize, he’d said. Even to the last, he’d never choose to use just one word when he could instead use six.
Of course, she knew his heart, as he had always seemed to know hers, and his facade dropped as quickly as it had risen. She remembers when the hood of his cloak finally flew free and showed her his face, how he smiled at her like the glow of the sun; his eyes were still as bright and vivid red as the last time she’d seen them all those years ago, sparkling against crystalline blue as she’d shut him behind those towering doors, hoping she’d find him again someday, but knowing she would not. The Exarch… no. G’raha—she’d used his name, finally, screamed it from the top of her burning lungs, and then…
Emet-Selch. With a gun, of all things. It would almost be funny, if it weren’t the worst possible thing that could have happened.
Roe swallows. Her mouth is incredibly dry, and her throat still feels raw. She looks back to Ardbert.
His face has gone hard, as would the face of someone who is about to deliver very bad news. “After you collapsed,” he starts, “Emet-Selch vanished. Do you remember what he said?”
She does. Too well. His words beat unpleasantly through her brain, like the rumbling aftershocks of a peal of thunder. She nods dully and shoves the memory down and away, for now. Ardbert, blessedly, does not offer her a recap.
“Then,” he continues, “your friends carried you down the mountain. Ryne did what she could to stay the raging of the light within your body. Thanks to her, you’re still you, but she’s only delayed the inevitable.”
The words hit her with a dull thump. “Right,” Roe says. She had almost forgotten she was dying.
“That said, you’ve had a very attentive caretaker,” Ardbert remarks, smiling, and Roe, mind still bleary and strained from unconsciousness and light sickness, belatedly realizes as she looks down that she is not the only one in her bed.
Thyme is here, of course. She was there at Mt. Gulg with the rest of them, Roe remembers now, waiting at the mountain’s base for their party to return and no doubt watching the explosion of light from below. Roe had thought of her, then, before the pain knocked her unconscious; she was too far gone to say much of anything by that point, but she thought of her—remembered her smile, her laugh, the feel of her hands—and at the thought of her Roe had screamed and cried like she was already dead.
Now, Thyme lies curled against Roe’s side with her long limbs tucked into her body as though, even unconsciously, she’s trying to take up as little space as she possibly can. It looks as though she dragged herself into bed for a rest not too long ago, not even bothering to climb beneath the sheets—she’s still wearing her work clothes and her hands, curled beneath her chin, are stained with ink. Even at rest, her brow is slightly furrowed, her mouth curved gently downward in a small, discontented frown. She looks haggard and unwell; the circles beneath her eyes are darker than Roe’s ever seen them, her skin almost waxy.
“Poor thing finally fell asleep,” Ardbert says. “She’s been working nonstop. All of them have.”
Roe watches her breathe, slow and steady. “How long has it been?” she asks.
Roe’s heart gives a sharp little twist totally unrelated to the poison coursing through her system. Unthinkingly she brushes a stray lock of hair off Thyme’s sweaty forehead—she doesn’t even stir at the touch of Roe’s fingers. “Has she been eating, at least?”
“Not much,” Ardbert says grimly, “but yes. One of the others comes by to check on you and bring food, every once in a while. She hasn’t left your side for more than a moment since they carried you down the mountain.”
Roe’s stomach feels like it’s been filled with lead. “So… it’s bad, then.”
Ardbert hesitates. His eyes meet hers—stony, cold, piercing blue.
“You’re not going to like what you see,” he says, stepping reluctantly toward the window, beckoning her to stand. “But you still need to see it.”
Roe shifts to the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb Thyme, and gets to her feet, slowly, cautious not to move too fast and take a rough spill onto the tile floor. Her legs feel wobbly, weakened after three days abed. She crosses the room, undoes the latch keeping her window shut, takes a deep, shuddering breath that doesn’t seem to fill her lungs all the way. The window swings open with a soft click.
And she’s briefly blinded as the light prods at her eyes, sends her head pulsing with pain.
Roe knew it would be back, of course, since she watched its reversion from the summit of Mt. Gulg. But seeing it here, now—familiar, lurid, nauseating, staining the skies of Lakeland again—is another matter entirely. She stands dully, blankly, staring up as she wills her eyes to adjust.
Ardbert is behind her, solemn, still, arms folded. “It’s like this all over,” he says. “The whole of Norvrandt is shrouded in light again.”
“And it’s… because of me,” she asks, already knowing the answer.
“The power you absorbed from the Wardens,” Ardbert says quietly. “Yes.”
She’s gone cold, she realizes suddenly, and her hands have started to shake. Looking up at the sky, she feels the enormity of it, of her failure, of everything she did wrong pressing down on her, but it creeps in slowly, sneakily, like it doesn’t want her to acknowledge its presence. She doesn’t know what to say.
“No one knows but your friends,” Ardbert continues. “They told everyone waiting below Mt. Gulg that they didn’t understand why the light had returned. And now they’re out there trying to allay the people’s fears while searching for a way to save you.”
She tears her eyes from the sky, finally, and turns to face him. “And that’s… not going well, I assume.”
He winces at this, just a little, and glances away. “Not precisely, no. There’s no news on the cure front. And… lots of people are angry, and not the least bit panicked.”
Roe stays silent, staring blankly across the room.
“But,” Ardbert continues somewhat hastily, trying for some measure of reassurance, “their anger certainly isn’t directed at you. I can tell you that much.” He smiles. “You’re still their hero, you know,” he says—and that, unfortunately, is the worst thing he could have done.
At the sound of those syllables—hero—anger punches into her with all the fury and weight of a collapsed mountainside.
Roe shuts her eyes. “Don’t,” she says. She stands utterly still, lips pressed into a tight, thin line, fists clenched hard enough for her nails to bite into her palms.
When she hears that word, she doesn’t hear it in Ardbert’s voice. She’s back on Mt. Gulg, suddenly: back with Emet-Selch, who is sneering down at her, voice dripping with contempt and condescension as he called her hero, a disappointment, a failure, unworthy, while she writhed in the dirt like a wounded animal, as G’raha bled out next to her, as the light tore from her body, ripped her apart, poured upward to flood the sky. As he told her he pitied her, with all the compassion of a man witnessing the death throes of a feral, rabid beast that he never liked much in the first place, that desperately needed to be put out of its misery.
Everything she had been trying not to feel since she regained consciousness—hell, everything she’d been trying not to feel for months, not since that first moment they’d realized she was struggling to hold herself together under the strain of the light—it rolls through her body like a tide, works itself up into a roaring, seething, bloody flood that crashes through her limbs and heart and into her brain, rushing to focus on that one word, that godsforsaken title. Hero.
She’s left standing stock-still on legs that can barely support her weight, feeling her biggest failure burning at the skin on the back of her neck, bloodless and shaky and furious. Silence spreads through the room like a poison cloud.
Ardbert speaks into it, quietly saying her name, and that’s his mistake. Roe opens her eyes to level him with a cold stare.
“I said, don’t,” she says, cutting him off, just barely yanking her voice down to a strangled, furious half-whisper pushed through her teeth, but the words still rip through her with the force of a bullet bursting from her ribcage. Ardbert’s eyes have gone wide, because he’s never seen her like this before, Roe realizes dimly—for that matter, it’s been years since she’s seen herself like this. It’s a sudden burst of rage not meant for him, a message delivered to the incorrect address, but she’s seeing red now as her heart clenches in her chest, tighter than a fist, and he has the unfortunate privilege of being both in her field of vision and having said something that pissed her off.
And at the sight of the mildly baffled look on his face, she gets angrier, somehow. “Don’t call me that,” she spits. “Don’t go calling me a hero like it’ll make me feel better, like I’m a child to be placated, or— what, do you think the only reason I haven’t stopped the end of the world yet is because my ego isn’t big enough?”
“That’s— not what I meant,” Ardbert says, and of course she knows that, but right now she doesn’t care. Somehow, miraculously, she keeps her volume low.
“You saw what happened on Mt. Gulg, right? You heard what Emet-Selch said. I can’t just stroll downstairs and fix the entire shitting shard with a few kind words under my belt, Ardbert.” She gestures wildly, blindly toward the window behind her. Her fist very nearly smashes through the windowpane. “A pep talk can’t undo this.”
Ardbert starts to open his mouth, to try and say something, but Roe’s got a full head of steam now, and she can feel her voice growing higher and more hysterical by the moment. A somewhat frenzied laugh bubbles up from her chest, threatens to burst its way out of her mouth. “You know, I’m basically a Lightwarden now. Did you hear that part? I’m just as bad as them—no, wait, I take that back. I’m worse, probably, since I gave everyone a bit of hope before I blew up the sky. Do you think,” she asks, almost maniacally, “if the people knew this was my fault, they’d ask to kill me themselves, or would they have the Scions do it?”
“Roe,” Ardbert says, quiet, almost pleading with her. “Come on. Please.”
From across the room, the soft rustle of shifting bedsheets. Roe’s eyes, roaming wildly about the apartment, fall on Thyme’s sleeping form. And with a huge, overwhelming rush of shame, she suddenly realizes what she’s doing.
“Gods,” she says. Her voice falters, cracks apart. “Fuck.”
All at once the rage melts away like it was never there, like a piece of ice disappearing beneath the hot sun, and her legs give up on maintaining the rigidity required to keep her upright. She sags backward against the windowsill and sinks slowly to the ground.
The light above cuts through the open window and casts hard shadows onto the tile floor. Ardbert doesn’t have one, of course, but she does, and she sees herself—slumped, tired, pathetic. She stares into her shadow for a second or two that may as well have stretched for weeks.
“I’m sorry,” she says, finally. She opens her mouth to start again, trying to explain herself, but tears prick at her eyes and swell in her throat, strangling her sentence to death before she can put the words together, and she furiously scrubs at her face with her sleeve, presses the heel of her palms against her eyes hard enough to see stars.
This shouldn’t be happening. None of this should be happening. Everything was going to be fine, she should have been able to hold it together. And now…
She takes a shuddering breath. “Fuck,” she says again, quieter this time. “Dammit.”
Ardbert moves to sit next to her on the floor—he still moves so quietly, even in that platemail of his—and this little act, his instant forgiveness, his compassion, is almost enough to get Roe started crying for real. She swallows hard, still staring determinedly at the floor, valiantly attempting to quash the swelling lump in her throat.
“If it helps,” Ardbert offers after a few moments of silence, “I would wager I know precisely how you feel.”
Roe huffs out a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
“Thanks,” she mumbles, face still buried in her hands. “You didn’t do anything wrong, though—even if you had, I shouldn’t have yelled.”
When she lifts her head and turns to meet his eyes, Ardbert’s gaze is steely—but with a gentle edge. “It was a poor choice of words, I admit,” he says. He’s smiling at her now, albeit somewhat awkwardly. “Should’ve considered the context, given… recent events.”
“I mean, on a normal day, you would have been fine, probably.” Roe leans back against the wall, feels the sharp brick corner of the window’s ledge digging into her shoulder blades. She heaves a heavy, tired sigh into the silence of the apartment. “But, you know. Things aren’t really… normal right now.”
“Have they ever been?” he asks.
Roe snorts. “Good point. I guess that this,” she says with a vague wave of her hand in Ardbert’s direction—meaning the two of them, sitting here, everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve done together— “this isn’t exactly normal, is it.”
“I’d say not. Or do you meet a lot of ghosts in your line of work?”
“You know, you’d be surprised.”
He laughs softly, and she swears she can almost feel the warmth of his shoulder pressing against hers.
After a moment she lets her head drop back into her arms, now folded across her knees, and shuts her eyes. If she blots out the light entirely, it almost makes the white halo in her vision go away. Almost.
“I think,” Ardbert says slowly, “that if you're well enough to be up and out of bed, you’re well enough to get some fresh air. Better that than stewing in here.”
Roe lifts her head to look at him. He grins, clearly seeing from the look on her face that she has an issue with his proposal.
“Yes, I’ll keep an eye on her for you,” he says, inclining his head toward the bed. “But with the way I saw her burning the candle at both ends, I expect she’ll be out for another hour or so, at least. You certainly have time for a walk.”
Roe laughs, a little sheepishly, and looks toward the bed, toward Thyme. To be honest, a large, very loud part of her brain wants to just go back to sleep, to pretend for at least a little while that the last few days never happened. To just stop thinking. But Ardbert’s right—he’s usually right, she’s learned—and this isn’t the kind of thing that she should just ignore anymore.
So she nods. Takes a quiet moment, with her eyes tightly shut. Takes another slow, deep breath. And then gets herself back onto her feet.
After she hastily scrubs the tear tracks from her cheeks, leans over to the bed to press a kiss to Thyme’s forehead, fetches her glasses and slips on her shoes, she heads for the door. But before she goes, she turns back to look at Ardbert, still sitting beneath the window—to say thank you, to apologize one more time, to say something.
Ardbert just grins and waves her off from his spot on the floor. “Go on,” he says. “Go.”
So Roe gives up on words, for now. She just gives him a smile and a nod, and slips out into the hallway.