Andrew Landis

Sisters of Strife

Frigid rain drenched Ayrel despite the thick canopy of branches and leaves above. She trudged through the muddy mess of the forest floor, hauling Brilyn beside her. Ayrel could tell she clung to consciousness by the faintest effort put into remaining upright. Hope flickered inside Ayrel—her sister’s fever hadn’t gotten any worse.

With her right hand, Ayrel pulled Brilyn’s soaked maroon cloak tighter around her shoulders. Brilyn made a slight noise at the gesture and turned her head toward Ayrel. The gloom masked everything, but Ayrel didn’t need light to visualize her sister’s face. Deep blue eyes, the same as hers, stared wearily back at her.

Ayrel smiled, knowing the gesture’s meaninglessness. She pulled Brilyn closer and picked up their pace, but she stopped herself. Her spirits soared, but Brilyn couldn’t go faster. She cursed her foolishness and eased off.

Ayrel glanced around. The dark, thick trees pressed in around them, and her breath caught in her throat. Her stomach churned as panic began to bubble up from deep inside her. Hours passed with the forest and the driving rain as the only landmarks, yet a strong force pulled her forward, toward something.

The draw compelled Ayrel on for days. She couldn’t explain the feeling, and she tried to ignore it. There were more important things on her mind—taking care of her sister, for one. That sole purpose took over her thoughts.

A shadowy, square object materialized out of the darkness to Ayrel’s left. She stopped, jostling Brilyn, and did a double-take. The small structure stood tucked away between the trees and brush. She took a moment to focus, banishing any doubts of her imagination playing tricks on her before she stepped toward the shack.

The muddy ground gave way. Ayrel’s legs went out from under her, and she tipped forward. Brilyn made a muffled gasp at her sister’s floundering and gripped her around the waist. She couldn’t stop Ayrel’s momentum—she didn’t have the strength. They both tumbled into the brush.

Sharp, stiff undergrowth scraped and pricked Ayrel’s skin through her soaked travel clothes as tiny pinpoints of pain. None of them would amount to anything, but the fact that she dropped her sister made her heart race. She hauled herself and then Brilyn back to their feet.

Now face-to-face with Brilyn, Ayrel could see her sister’s facial features. Her big blue eyes drooped with fatigue, and a slash of crimson on her cheek marred her otherwise fair skin. She moved her pale red lips, but Ayrel held up a finger. Brilyn swore on her health even if nothing else could be further from the truth.

Ayrel gave her sister a weak smile. Brilyn’s eyes flicked down before coming back up, a little more life to them. Her lips curled in a small smile of her own, but pain overwhelmed the gesture. Ayrel clasped her sister’s shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze.

Dismissing the uneasiness in her gut as mere paranoia, Ayrel slipped her left arm around Brilyn. She propped herself underneath her sister’s arm to help support her weight. She told herself to not dwell on her mistake, and her attention turned once again to the silhouetted structure. From outside, it appeared abandoned.

Ayrel took a hesitant step forward—more cautious this time, finding sure footing before attempting to move. Brilyn dragged on the first few steps, but Ayrel tightened her grip and exerted more effort. They needed to walk a bit further to be out of the pouring rain.

Brilyn let out a pained grunt as they approached the tiny structure. Ayrel closed the gap and leaned her sister against the wall. Brilyn gave her a weary look but said nothing. Ayrel turned and searched for the entrance, groping around blindly until she found the latch. Her fingers wrapped around the freezing metal before she pulled.

The door didn’t budge. Ayrel’s heart sank, defeated. She took a deep breath and mustered the will to try again. This time, the door popped and creaked open. She peered into the darkness. Nothing but wooden debris, torn cloth and a candle at the end of its wick lay strewn about the place.

Ayrel took Brilyn’s hand and pulled her inside, drawing an annoyed noise from her sister. The air within felt as cool as outside, only much dryer. That slight change made her sigh in relief. At least they could attempt to dry off now. She closed the door behind them, securing the fragile-looking lock with a frown.

“Rel,” Brilyn whispered, breaking their long silence.

Ayrel turned, expectant, but Brilyn said nothing. “It’s all right. You don’t have to say anything.”

Brilyn stared into Ayrel’s eyes for a moment before she broke her gaze and focused on the uncluttered spot on the floor to her right. She started to crouch down, but Ayrel stopped her, a gentle hand on her arm. Brilyn gave her a harsh glare but conceded. She moved several feet over and collapsed against the wall.

Ayrel cleared the floor. The smaller, drier pieces of wood and cloth went into the fire pit. She would build a fire after she cleared a place for Brilyn to rest. With any luck, there would be enough to warm their bones. The thought of going the night without some warmth made her tremble.

Ayrel didn’t take long to clear a satisfactory spot on the floor. “Bri,” she called as she turned from her work. “You can lay down here while I—” Brilyn slumped against the wall, dead asleep.

With a lopsided smile, Ayrel stood and walked over to her sleeping sister. She pried Brilyn off the wall and into her arms. She peeled the soaked cloak off her and tossed the article to the side; she would deal with that later. Brilyn’s worn travel clothes were damp, but the fire would dry them.

Ayrel awkwardly side-walked her unconscious sister over to the cleared-out space. Gently, she set Brilyn down. Ayrel wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep, but work remained. She tore herself away from her sister and turned toward the fire pit, shedding her own drenched cloak off in the process.

Luck took Ayrel’s side, and a victorious little smile found its way onto her face. The materials she collected crackled to life after a slight effort. The miniscule, dancing flame hurt her eyes, but she ignored the pain to drink in the sudden warmth. A chill ran down her spine as she went about feeding more fuel to the growing flames.

Satisfied, Ayrel stepped back over to Brilyn, eager to rest. Brilyn shivered in her sleep. Ayrel frowned, and her heart broke. Ayrel got down behind her sister, wrapped her arms around her and pulled her against her body. Brilyn let out a noise between a whimper and a sigh but remained asleep.

Ayrel loosened her tight embrace, allowing herself to relax. She brought her right hand up to play with her sister’s wet black hair. She tried to spread it out, to dry better; however, no matter what she did, it always knotted back up. Soon she gave up and decided to stroke Brilyn’s hair until unconsciousness took her.

                                                        #

The sounds of crackling fire and popping wood woke Ayrel from her tenuous sleep. Her eyes fluttered open, only to snap shut as sunlight flooded her vision. She opened her eyes again. Brilyn no longer lay beside her—she knelt next to the fire pit, fanning the flames. Ayrel sat up with a groan.

“Rel,” Brilyn said, distressed. “I didn’t mean to wake you. It was getting chilly in here, and I wanted—”

“You should have woken me,” Ayrel chided. “I would have started a fire. No need for you to do it.”

Brilyn gave Ayrel a long, hard stare, tossing more wood into the flames. “You’ve done so much for me, I wanted to do something nice for you.”

Ayrel noticed their cloaks up on the wall, looking much drier. She sighed. “You’re right. I just don’t want you to overexert yourself. I…don’t know what I would do if something happened to you.”

“I’m okay, sis.” A series of hacking coughs overtook Brilyn. Ayrel leapt to her feet, but her sister shot her a dirty look. “Ignore that.”

Ayrel stepped across the small hut and placed a hand on Brilyn’s arm. “If only I could,” she said, with a hint of smile.

“Please.”

Ayrel couldn’t disregard the sadness and shame in her sister’s eyes. “Hey, it’s me. You don’t have to act like everything is fine; you don’t have to pretend to be strong. I’m here for you, Bri.”

Brilyn’s eyes began to tear up, and she glanced away from Ayrel. “I know you are. That doesn’t make this any less frustrating or humiliating. Just,” she swallowed, “let me do what I can.”

“Okay,” Ayrel conceded, wrapping her arms around Brilyn and pulling her in tight. To Ayrel’s surprise, Brilyn hugged her back. A genuine smile found its way onto her face.

Brilyn pulled back from Ayrel, a smile on her face as well. “Weather outside seems nice today. Then again, anything is better than yesterday’s storm.”

“That’s certainly true.” Ayrel tried—and failed—to hold back laughter. Brilyn flashed a toothy grin.

“We should go out and see if we can find anything around here,” Brilyn said. “When I peeked outside earlier, it looked like the forest thinned out to the east.”

“It would be good to figure out where we are, huh?” Ayrel asked, cheerful.

“Unless you have some secret stash of supplies I don’t know about,” Brilyn nudged Ayrel in the ribs with her elbow, “yeah, we should probably go find something.”

Ayrel shook her head. How could she be so worried about Brilyn’s health when she joked around with her?

Ayrel slipped to the side, dodging another of Brilyn’s jabs. “No, I don’t.” She narrowed her eyes and stared at her sister. “You would have sniffed them out if I did.”

“It’s not my fault that you’re no good at hiding things,” Brilyn countered, grinning the entire time.

“All right,” Ayrel said, exasperated. “Let’s go.” She moved toward the door without giving Brilyn a chance to respond.

Blinding sunlight struck Ayrel as she opened the door. The oppressive storm clouds were replaced by bright blue sky, and Ayrel couldn’t be happier. Warm air filled her lungs and, as it did, filled her with a renewed sense of vigor. Her fears and aches receded to the back of her mind. She shielded her eyes from the sunlight, taking in the surrounding forest.

The dark and claustrophobic trees from the previous night had beautifully light bark and grew scant. Ayrel frowned at one of the nearby shrubs, unconsciously prodding at a scrape on her arm. Tearing her eyes off the bothersome plant, she focused eastward. The forest thinned thirty yards out.

Brilyn come up behind Ayrel, snapping twigs underfoot along the way. She spared a quick, unconscious peek over her shoulder. Brilyn swept up beside Ayrel and gave her a little push forward on the small of her back. Ayrel continued, but with a frown. It faded as they got closer to the edge of the tree line.

The partially cloudy sky stretched out before Ayrel. She stood on a mossy outcropping suspended a hundred feet up a cliff face. Down below, the forest continued for half a mile, if much sparser. A small village rested beyond. Her hopes rose with the distant smoke.

Ayrel’s inquisitive gaze turned back skyward. Amidst the clear sea of azure, a massive black and faint gold spire protruded hundreds of feet into the air. The spire remained a common sight along their travels but now loomed a mere dozen miles away: its base lost in the distance, masked by an unnatural fog.

Ayrel never once set their course toward the spire, yet, somehow, they ended up closer. She had been drawn toward it, beckoned. A shiver ran down her spine at the thought. She didn’t hold any hopes of the spire, or the reason for her unnerving attraction, being benevolent.

Brilyn let out a soft whistle. “That’s awfully close now.”

“Yeah,” Ayrel blurted out, trying to regain her composure. “I’m not sure how, though.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing, Rel. It’s easy to lose direction while traveling, especially with last night’s storm.” Brilyn’s words meant to wave off Ayrel’s apprehensions, but her shaky voice betrayed her own concerns.

Ayrel blinked before she tore her eyes off the spire and sought something to take her mind off it. A switchback to her right worn into the cliff face wound all the way down to the bottom. The path at the end headed toward the town in the distance. It appeared like easy going, much easier than their previous travels.

“We’ll make sure to go south when we leave this place,” Ayrel muttered. “Like you said, it’s probably nothing, but I’d feel better that way.”

Brilyn flashed a grin. “You won’t hear me complaining.”

Ayrel smiled as she gazed at her sister’s vibrant face. “We should grab our stuff and head down to check out that town.”

“All right,” Brilyn said with a cough that she attempted, and failed, to suppress.

They walked back to the hut in silence. Ayrel went about putting out the dwindling fire as her sister gathered their cloaks. Satisfied with her work, Ayrel stood. She flinched when Brilyn placed her cloak around her shoulders, and she shook her head before heading outside.

The trek down to the distant village proved effortless, and Ayrel’s spirts rose higher. Still, a little over halfway through their journey, Brilyn wavered. Ayrel eased her cheerful pace. She encouraged Brilyn to lean on her, but she waved her off. The gesture made Ayrel frown, yet she pushed it from her mind and focused on what lay ahead.

A couple hundred yards out from the settlement, a small group of men dressed in a hodgepodge of drab clothing strolled toward Ayrel. Bows, quivers, knives and other hunting gear adorned them. Several of the men glanced their way, but they said nothing, nor did they seem interested in the sisters.

Relief filled Ayrel as the group passed by uninterested. She and Brilyn looked a mess, but what traveler wouldn’t? The presence of other people drudged up unnecessary worries—it had been only her and Brilyn for so long. She swallowed down her worry and drifted closer to Brilyn.

Brilyn took Ayrel’s hand and gave it a weak squeeze, drawing her attention. The bright smile Brilyn wore dashed the troublesome thoughts in Ayrel’s head and made her focus. They needed supplies to survive and to find a way to cure Brilyn. Ayrel resolved not to let anything happen to her.

The path crossed into the village and intersected the main thoroughfare a hundred feet in. Small homes lined the way, made of lightly-colored wood. The nearby forest proved a bountiful supply for these people, and they took advantage of it.

Several homes were built in strange designs to spite the neighboring bland, square affairs. Dark, almost black, adornments were carved into the buildings themselves or attached later. None appeared to serve a practical purpose like their drab counterparts, and each one of them reminded Ayrel of the distant spire.

Ayrel glanced skyward, and the tip of the spire loomed over the rooftops, watching.

“Rel,” Brilyn said and squeezed her hand. “Isn’t it weird that we haven’t seen anyone besides those men on the way in?”

Ayrel tore her eyes off the spire and surveyed the empty village around her. “A little, yeah. But, compared to what we’re used to finding, this is crowded.”

“I know, but”—Brilyn coughed into her hand several times—“I don’t know; it feels weird. Maybe because…” Her eyes flicked up as she trailed off.

“Try to forget about that. Those men we passed on the way in seemed normal enough and didn’t look like they were passing through.”

Brilyn’s eyes traveled down the path they came in on. “You’re right. Can’t only be them here.”

“Let’s see if we can find anyone that has what we need.” Ayrel took off, and Brilyn followed her.

Shouts came from the east, making it clear that other people lived there. All the deserted towns along their travels proved less than helpful in curing Brilyn. Weeks passed since they encountered any kind of civilization, and Ayrel picked up her pace.

As soon as they hit the halfway point on the thoroughfare, things around them changed. The empty-looking houses began to show signs of life. Windows were thrown open, revealing the modest furnishings inside, and clothes hung out to dry added to the lived-in feel.

Ayrel noticed another dramatic change: None of the black, spire-like adornments marked these homes. It struck her as odd—not that she should talk. Most people would find her dragging her ill sister all over creation odd. Maybe she—

“Good afternoon, ladies,” a gruff masculine voice called out from Ayrel’s left.

Ayrel stopped dead in her tracks. With a crushing sense of apprehension, she turned to face the man. He sat at the open corner of a building twenty feet away. He looked old—in his sixties—and his bald head reflected the afternoon sun. The opening around him appeared to be a form of storefront.

Various knick-knacks were strewn about half a dozen makeshift shelves and tables. Nothing appeared beneficial to Ayrel. No clothes or food, no other travel supplies and no form of medicine. A small selection of books on the floor in the corner piqued her interest, but they had no practical use to her or Brilyn.

“You look like you’ve been traveling for a while,” the old man remarked, looking the sisters up and down. “Where you from?”

Ayrel stared at the man. In all their travels, she never had to answer that question. In truth, she didn’t know how to answer. She only remembered traveling deserted lands with Brilyn. Anything before that seemed unimportant. And yet, the fact that she couldn’t even recall a name troubled her.

The man cocked his head to the side when Ayrel didn’t respond, but realization came over his face. “Ah, doesn’t quite matter nowadays, does it?” He pointed at an empty bench across from him. “Come, sit. You two look exhausted.”

Brilyn stepped forward before Ayrel could do little more than open her mouth to decline the invitation. Taking her by the waist, Brilyn moved into the shop. She pushed Ayrel forward until she took the offered seat. Ayrel narrowed her eyes at Brilyn. She knew Brilyn must be tired, but she didn’t desire to speak with this stranger.

“Thank you,” Brilyn said, chipper. “My name’s Brilyn, and this is my sister,” she glanced over at Ayrel, smug, “Ayrel.”

“The name’s Hralvar, and you are most certainly welcome, young lady. We have travelers passing through fairly regularly, so we’re used to it.” The entire time he spoke, Hralvar smiled.

Ayrel glanced around the small shop, anxious. “Why does half your town appear to be deserted?”

“Ah, that,” Hralvar replied, disappointment evident on his face. “It’s only natural for travelers like yourself who aren’t familiar with our town to wonder. We had somewhat of a schism in our populace a while back. Those people aren’t here anymore.”

“What happened?” Ayrel asked. She admonished herself. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”

Hralvar took a moment of consideration. When Ayrel thought he wouldn’t talk, he spoke: “You see that spire-like thing looming in the distance over there?” He nodded to the east. “Some of our people began worshipping it when it rose.

“At first, it wasn’t anything too bad. Some inexplicable practices and people coming down with delusional illnesses. But it soon got out of hand. Talk of magic rolled through, they started carving those adornments into their houses and tried to convert those of us who didn’t see their way. Fights broke out and ultimately the faithful left to worship the spire up close. That’s the last we ever saw of them.”

Brilyn shifted beside Ayrel. “Is the Spire really that dangerous?”

“I would say so,” Hralvar said. “No one has come back to say exactly how, but there have been sightings of bizarre, abominable creatures stalking the land surrounding it.”

“You’re not worried, being so close?” No matter how ridiculous it sounded, Ayrel couldn’t help but feel the truth in what Hralvar said.

Hralvar leaned back in his chair, and contempt flashed across his face. “No, we have the brave men of the Militia to protect us. Besides, none of those creatures have been seen away from the base of the Spire.”

Ayrel frowned. “The Militia?”

“The brave boys of the Militia,” Hralvar repeated in a derisive tone, “have been traveling around, offering aid to those in need.” He shook his head and gazed out of the shop, toward the east. “They took special interest in our village since we’re the closest living people to the Spire.”

“From what you said,” Brilyn started, “aside from the issues with your fellow villagers, it doesn’t sound like you’ve had many problems here. Sounds like they’re not needed.”

Hralvar grinned. “I’m glad to hear that someone feels the same about them as I do, even if you are just passing through.”

“It’s not like you’re hurting for shelter,” Ayrel said. Both Hralvar and Brilyn focused their attention on her. “I don’t know about resources, or if they even help at all, but the protection should be reassuring.”

“Bah,” Hralvar growled. “You notice the empty half of our village? Who do you think made it empty? The Militia. Even if our homes have none of those adornments, the boys of the Militia want nothing to do with ‘em. They even went so far as to divide the place into proper living sections.”

“Brave indeed,” Brilyn agreed with a soft cough.

Ayrel glanced at Brilyn and frowned—she had been so sidetracked about the Spire that she forgot their purpose. “As enthralling as tales of desertion, monsters, magic and brave knights are, we have something else to take care of. My sister is sick, and we’re trying to find help.”

Hralvar opened his mouth to say something but chewed on his lip instead. His eyes flicked about his shop for a moment, searching. “Well,” he said, “I don’t have much here that would be of use to you, but Jaylon—”

“Where can we find this Jaylon?” Ayrel sat on the edge of her seat, ready to hurry away.

“He’s been spending a lot of time with the Militia recently. East end of town. They asked for his time and expertise since he’s the only medical man of his skill left here.” Disgust grew on Hralvar’s face.

Ayrel shot to her feet, resolute. Brilyn grabbed her wrist a second later. “We have to go,” Ayrel insisted. “You of all people should understand.”

“I do,” Brilyn admitted, staring Ayrel in the eye. “But that doesn’t mean you should be rude or in a rush; we have all day.”

“It’s quite all right.” Hralvar chuckled. “Your sister is worried. Go.”

Brilyn let go of Ayrel and turned to Hralvar. “Thank you for your hospitality, Hralvar.”

Hralvar nodded. “You’re welcome, girl.”

“Thank you,” Ayrel begrudged as she shuffled out of the shop. Hralvar smiled.

Ayrel hurried out of Hralvar’s shop, Brilyn close behind. The anxiety bubbling up inside Ayrel bloomed. Hralvar treated them well enough, but everything he said made her wish to leave as fast as they could. She cut to the east, picking up her pace despite the voice in her head telling her to slow and calm down.

“Rel,” Brilyn scolded. Ayrel stopped, pivoted to face her, and the burning need to run vanished. “I know you’re worried about me—it’s not like I’m not worried myself—but I’m okay.”

“Bri,” Ayrel said, lowering her head. “I—”

Placing her hand on Ayrel’s arm, Brilyn gave her a wry smile. “I know.” She dug around under her travel cloak for a second and then produced a black leather book, holding it out to Ayrel. “Here.”

“Where did you get that?” Ayrel asked, eyeing up the book.

“Hralvar’s shop,” Brilyn said matter-of-factly. “I know how much you enjoy reading, so I…took it. It’ll help you relax.”

Ayrel frowned, her hand coming up halfway before stopping. “No, you should take it back. Or at least get rid of it.”

“Don’t be like that,” Brilyn teased to hide the dissatisfaction on her face. “You’ve been so wound up lately worrying about me. Please.”

“All right,” Ayrel relented, taking the book. Brilyn grinned. “But first, we need to see if this Jaylon can help us.”

Brilyn rolled her eyes but nodded her head in acceptance. “Fine but—”

“What do you ladies need with Jaylon?” Ayrel spun around to see five armed men standing behind her, hands near their sheathed weapons.

Ayrel blinked, tore her eyes off the men’s weaponry and shook her head. She glared at the man who spoke to her—a stout man in his mid-thirties, with graying brown hair—and steeled herself. “My name is Ayrel. My sister, Brilyn, is sick, and we were told that Jaylon might be able to help.”

The man eyed Ayrel with suspicion as one of the others took a hesitant step backward. “She looks all right to me.”

“I assure you, she is not all right.” Ayrel winced at her own words. “We want to find a cure.”

“Bren, look,” one of the other men said, pointing at Ayrel. She followed his finger—it pointed squarely at the book in her hand.

“Where did you get that?” Bren asked, his eyes never leaving the book.

For a moment, Ayrel thought about telling Bren Brilyn stole it from Hralvar’s shop, but she thought better of it. “We found it in our travels. I haven’t even opened it yet.”

“Give it here,” Bren barked. Ayrel recoiled at his sudden command, but she did as he said. He took it, opened it up and flipped through several pages.

“Satisfied?” Ayrel put her hands on her hips and stared Bren down. “Now, can you take us to Jaylon or point us in his direction?”

Bren’s eyes flicked up from the book to meet Ayrel’s. “No. We can’t let potential collaborators go free.” He gestured at Ayrel and Brilyn with his head. “Take ‘em.”

The men behind Bren advanced toward Ayrel and Brilyn at an alarming rate. Ayrel flinched backward, bumping into Brilyn. Her sister said something, but it didn’t register. Her eyes focused on the men coming at them, perplexed by their fear. Regardless, she would defend Brilyn if it came down to it.

“Stop,” Brilyn shouted. The advancing men hesitated for a moment, but Bren’s disappointed sigh spurred them on. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You’re clearly part of the cult or sympathizers,” Bren said, snapping the book closed and lowering it. “We can’t afford to tolerate hostiles running free.”

Brilyn took a step forward as the other four men began to circle them. “We’re not part of this…cult. We have no idea what you’re talking about. We only got here today.”

“All the more reason not to risk letting you go. Outsiders are as dangerous as the cult itself.” Bren flicked his hand at Brilyn.

Ayrel moved before her brain caught up with the confrontation. The man in front of her drew his sword and lunged at Brilyn. Stepping in between the armed man and her sister, Ayrel tried to shout something. Her words turned to a shriek as the sword pierced her flesh. It slid into her chest, lancing her with a grotesque squelch.

Sharp, burning pain erupted from Ayrel’s chest, spreading throughout her entire being. Agony overwhelmed her for a moment, and then everything vanished. She coughed, blood gushing out her mouth and splattering her chin, clothes and the dirt in front of her. Her knees gave out, and she wobbled backward. Brilyn caught her by the shoulders.

Ayrel tilted her head back. Brilyn stared at her with wide, terrified eyes. Ayrel wanted to say something, anything, to reassure her sister, but only blood and gurgling came out. She grimaced, frustrated at her inability to tell Brilyn she loved her.

Brilyn’s clear blue eyes welled up with tears, and she held Ayrel tight. Ayrel tried to move, but her body failed, so distant. She hoped Brilyn would understand. Closing her eyes, Ayrel fought against her fading breath. Her right arm obeyed her final wish. She managed to place her hand on Brilyn’s cheek before the world faded into nothingness.

                                                        #

Ayrel’s hand slid off her cheek, and Brilyn’s heart stopped. Ayrel’s lifeless body slipped from her arms, no matter how desperately she clung to it. Her sister, who existed a moment before, was…gone, and her butchered body flopped to the ground. Brilyn stared at her empty blue eyes.

“Such a loving, pathetic display,” Bren said, stepping forward.

Brilyn’s sorrow; her emptiness, her shock, flashed away in an instant. Rage. Rage inundated her, and she would pour it all out.

Brilyn’s head snapped up, and her eyes locked on the man who murdered her sister. The man flinched backward under the intensity of her glare. He held up his weapon, unsteady, ready to defend himself. Bren stood by, content to watch it play out. That suited Brilyn—she would get to him in due time.

In an instant, Brilyn launched herself at the man. He took hold of his sword with his other hand to stop the shaking as she closed in. A thought came to her right before she got within striking distance: She had nothing but her fists to exact her revenge with. The thought evaporated, and a wicked smile curled her lips; that made her reprisal even more intimate.

Brilyn’s skin began to tingle with anticipation. The sudden, odd sensation caused her to stumble, to hesitate, but she pressed on. The feeling spread from her fists throughout her body in a pleasant wave until nothing else existed but it and rage. She let it overwhelm her, engulf her. She lashed out at the man’s chest…

…and it exploded.

Gore erupted from Brilyn’s fist. The men surrounding them screamed in shock and horror as blood and viscera splattered them.

Dark wisps of violet twirled and coiled around Brilyn. Her breaths came fast and shallow. She stared at her fist, flabbergasted. She…destroyed a man. Never would she consider herself strong or capable. The tingling danced like pin pricks across her skin. She closed her eyes, shuddering.

“S-she’s one of them!” one of the militia men shrieked.

Brilyn didn’t open her eyes. She focused on the direction of the voice and expelled her rage.

“She—”

A body hit the ground. A boot scraped against the stones, and Brilyn extended her arm. Another dull thud sounded nearby, accompanied by several lighter ones. Something popped and another crashed against a wall. Power flowed through Brilyn, and she felt invincible, righteous, vengeful, empty….

Brilyn collapsed to her knees, her eyes opening. Ayrel’s lifeless body lay before her, soaked in even more blood. The urge to look at the death she delivered tugged at her, but glimpses of severed limbs and gore brought an end to that struggle. Her eyes remained locked on her dead sister’s, her vision blurring.

Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind her, but Brilyn didn’t move. “Welcome back, Mistress of the Spire,” Hralvar’s familiar voice sang.

Brilyn ignored Hralvar, staring down at what used to be Ayrel. No amount of violence, however righteous, would bring her back. Tears streamed down Brilyn’s face, and something inside her snapped. The tears continued, but quiet, hysterical laughter soon joined in. She knelt there, laughing quietly to herself, apathetic to the world that took everything from her.

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