Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
Jerica took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to relax some of the tension in her shoulders as she exhaled. Guild Master’s hands were warm and soft against Jerica’s face. A moment later she felt a spark somewhere deep within her, and her mind’s eye filled with memories that flashed by so quickly she could barely process them.
Jerica was five years old, sitting in the middle of the nursery with toy blocks. Biryn stormed in and yanked her up by the arm then dragged her out of the room. His fingernails dug into her wrist as he pulled her down the stairs and to the training area where a soldier was waiting for her. He gave her a shove, making her fall. Tears sprang to her eyes as her knees skinned on the stone.
Jerica was seven. Biryn hauled her out of bed and forced her to go for a long run with a platoon of soldiers. Then hit her when she came back. A lot. For not being able to keep up with their pace.
Jerica was eight. They were in her bedroom. The young physician on one side. Biryn on the other. She could feel the serum surging through her body like liquid fire. And then she lost control. Again. The colors. The monsters. The horrific sight of the physician’s corpse when she finally calmed down.
Her breathing was labored. Each memory brought with it all the fear and pain that had been attached in the moment that they were formed. Her entire body trembled, but she was too focused on the assault in her own brain to do anything about it.
The Alherian Ball. The way Darrana Elstan’s words wounded Jerica’s confidence.
The concussion from a hand-to-hand session with a particularly large soldier going poorly for her. Biryn had strictly ordered the soldiers not to go easy on her. This soldier left her sprawled on the stone training block, passed out.
She’d forgotten about that one. That had hurt.
The man kneeling in the Courtyard.
Jerica’s breath caught. No. Not this. Not now. She’d spent years refusing to think of that day. And yet. Here they were. Pulling it to the front of her memory. And there wasn’t anything that she could do to stop it.
She was ten. Palace Guards escorted her to the Courtyard. Levin and Biryn were waiting for her. There were various soldiers crowded around, and as she strode forward, she saw there was a shackled man that knelt in their midst, eyes wide and terrified.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Biryn spat. “Come here.”
Jerica timidly strode forward, looking at the throng of men that now surrounded her. She swallowed hard and curled her fists, trying not to look as scared as she felt. “Where’s Derik?”
“‘Where’s Derik’,” Biryn mocked. “Shut up. Take the sword.”
Jerica sighed and took the sword he thrust towards her. So, it was to be another sparring session. Biryn had taken to forcing her to train even without Derik present these days. She glanced around, looking for her sparring partner. But all the guards were in full armor.
Jerica’s gaze snapped back towards Biryn. Then she looked towards where he was pointing. Straight at the shackled man. A surge of panic ran through her. She looked back at Biryn. “No.”
Biryn’s eyebrows shot up. “That wasn’t a question.”
“Well, you got an answer anyway,” Jerica said, scowling at him. “I’m not murdering someone.”
“It’s not murdering, it’s an execution,” Biryn said, glowering. “And yes, you are. This isn’t a matter that is up for debate.”
Jerica glanced towards the man. He was looking at her pleadingly. She swallowed hard and looked back at Biryn. “No.”
“You’re useless to us if you won’t execute people,” Biryn snapped. “This is literally your only purpose in life.”
“I’ll take being useless. I’m not going to kill him.”
“You are,” Biryn said firmly. “Or you’re going to stand here watching him get hacked apart, piece by piece, until you’re ready to do what you’re told.”
Jerica’s chest felt tight. “Where’s Derik?”
Biryn nodded towards one of the soldiers near the man. “Begin.”
“Where’s Derik?” she demanded again, desperate.
No one answered.
Then the man shrieked. Jerica looked at him, horrified, as the soldier severed the thumb from the man’s left hand. Blood spurted from the wound. She turned and vomited. Tears sprang to her eyes as she listened to the man sobbing. There was no need for any of this.
“Another,” Biryn ordered.
“NO!” Jerica shouted, whirling on him. “You monster!”
“Are you ready to do as you’re told?” Biryn challenged.
“Leave him alone!”
Biryn looked past her and nodded at the guard. “Another.”
Jerica spun around and started forward swiftly as the soldier grabbed the prisoner’s hand again. She dropped the sword and slammed both of her palms into the soldier’s chest as hard as she could, making him stumble backward. Her hands stung from the impact on the soldier’s breastplate.
“Restrain her,” Biryn ordered.
A soldier grabbed her left arm. Jerica whirled around and punched him in the face, bloodying his nose, but his grasp didn’t waver. Another soldier grabbed her right hand before she could hit anyone else, and together they lifted her off the ground and hauled her backward. She struggled in their grasp, but didn’t get anywhere. “PUT ME DOWN! DERIIIIIIIIIIK!”
The first soldier looked at her resentfully, then bent down and severed another of the man’s fingers. The man screamed even louder than he had at first. Tears streamed freely down Jerica’s face as she watched. She struggled in the soldiers’ arms, but couldn’t get free. And no amount of shouting changed anything. They still didn’t stop. Derik still didn’t come.
“Shut up,” Biryn snarled. “Let me know when you’re ready to obey.”
She didn’t shut up.
Jerica kept sobbing and screaming as the carnage went on and on, the soldier systematically hacking fingers and toes off the man. She didn’t know the name of whatever emotion she was feeling just then, but she never wanted to feel it ever again in her entire life. She vomited twice more.
“Please,” the man begged. “Please kill me. Please.”
Biryn held up a hand, stopping the soldier, then looked at Jerica. “Well?”
Her entire body trembled violently, the sobs now turning into gasps that hitched in her chest. “You’re a monster.”
“I don’t care what you think of me,” Biryn hissed. “Are you going to have mercy on the man? Or shall we continue dismembering him?”
“Don’t make me do it,” she pleaded.
“Oh, you are going to be the one who does it,” Biryn snarled. “And we can keep at this all day, if you’re that desperate to be cruel and prolong this man’s suffering. There’s plenty of bits we can hack off him. His ears… nose… tongue…”
Jerica stared at him, aghast.
“Please,” the man pleaded, tears streaking his face as he looked at her. “Please kill me.”
Biryn nodded to the guards and they released her. Jerica shuddered. Biryn picked up the sword and slammed it into Jerica’s chest, hard, the flat of the blade stinging the length of her torso. The tip of the blade clattered on the stone beneath her as she took the sword and let it fall to her side. She choked on a sob; chest too tight to draw a breath as she stared down at the man.
“Please. I beg you.” His eyes were wide and desperate as they locked on hers. “Please save me from this hell. I’m ready to die. Please.”
Jerica sniffled. “Where’s Derik?”
“Do you see Derik?” Biryn snarled. “Stop asking. Do as you’re told, Worthless.”
There was no way to win this.
She either had to murder this man. Or sit back and watch his torture, knowing that she could end it at any time. She stared at him for a long moment, tears streaming down her face. Then she shakily lifted her blade and pointed the tip towards his throat.
Jerica knew what she needed to do.
She’d practiced this move plenty of times before on the training dummies. She just had no intention of ever using it on a real person. But the man wanted her to put him out of his misery. And she knew how Biryn was. He didn’t stop until he got his way. Ever. There was no point in forcing this man to suffer any longer.
Her arms trembled too badly to aim the blade.
The man looked past her, towards Biryn. “You twisted son of a bitch, making a child –”
Biryn looked at the soldier. “Another.”
“NO!” Jerica screamed. She couldn’t handle another.
The man also flinched. Then he looked up at her. “Please.”
Jerica stared into his eyes for a long moment. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. She looked around. There were soldiers in a ring around the man, her, and Biryn. Maybe if she was fast enough, she could sprint between the soldiers and then run until she found Derik. He’d put an end to this.
Jerica threw the sword down and lunged forward in the same motion. She darted towards the gap between two soldiers. She only landed one step before a hand clamped down on her hair and yanked her backward. The motion hurt her neck as he snapped his wrist and threw her down on the cobblestone, flat on her back. She sobbed.
“Oh no you don’t,” Biryn snarled, bending to grab her hair again and haul her to her feet. “You watch, or you participate. You’re not running away like a little bitch.”
“Let me go!” she sobbed.
“Guess we’ll just have to keep hacking off toes…” Biryn taunted. “Another.”
“No!” Jerica shrieked, twisting in Biryn’s arms in an attempt to hit him.
He kept her at arm’s length, holding her by the hair. “Make a choice. Now.”
Jerica stopped struggling. This was never going to end. Biryn never stopped until he got his way. Never. He’d make her stay here and watch until the man bled to death. And then he’d probably go find another prisoner to do the same to until she relented.
Biryn gave her a shove, throwing her to the ground next to the sword. Jerica gathered herself up and grabbed the sword. She briefly considered just stabbing Biryn instead. But she wasn’t a murderer. And she never would be. She wasn’t going to be a person that killed people. Never.
But she didn’t have a choice in this situation. Killing this man was the merciful choice. Jerica sniffled and turned towards the prisoner. She grabbed the hilt of the sword with both hands, steading herself. “I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t fault you,” the man murmured, lifting his chin to expose his throat. He closed his eyes.
Jerica swallowed hard and then thrust her sword downwards.
Blood spurted from the wound, spraying her face. The man gurled for the briefest moment, then collapsed, the sword lodged in his neck at Jerica turned loose of it. Jerica stared at him, horrorstruck. Then she vomited again.
“About time,” Biryn snapped.
Jerica opened her mouth to yell at him, but the only thing that escaped was a muffled sob. She sprinted away from them, towards the castle. Biryn didn’t stop her this time. The guards pulled the doors open as she approached. She ran across the room and towards the stairs, trying to run up them to her bedroom. But she stumbled and fell on the first step and couldn’t get back up.
She wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to comfort herself. But there was no way to comfort what she’d just done. A sob racked her entire body, too deep inside her to escape. She coughed, falling forward onto her hands and knees on the stairs. She’d never been so horrified ever in her entire life.
Jerica gasped and yanked her head back, out of the grasp of Guild Master. She stumbled to her feet, but couldn’t catch her balance. Instead, she fell into the wall behind her, slamming her head and shoulders into it. She scrambled towards the entrance and angrily scrubbed at the tears dribbling down her face. “Get away from me!”
“Jerica!” Zander scolded.
Guild Master put up a hand, silencing him.
Jerica panted for breath. Her body trembled. She wiped her face again, trying to calm herself. The same hurt that she’d felt that day was planted deep in her chest. It was agonizing. Jerica stared at the Guild Master, horrified that whatever she’d just done to her had resulted in whatever had just happened.
Guild Master watched her patiently.
“I… don’t… want…” Jerica gasped.
“Think about it, Princess,” Aerik said. “You do want to join us.”
“I don’t – I can’t – that’s…” Jerica swallowed hard.
Jerica looked down at her uncles, embarrassment enveloping her. She was being pathetic. Sniffling in front of their boss. Humiliating them, no doubt – as well as herself – with her pitiful behavior. She wiped the last of the tears from her face. She needed to calm down. It’d been years since that had happened. And she’d killed hundreds of men since then… so why did this one feel so different? And how had all these emotions surfaced all at once?
“I have seen empires rise and empires fall – and never in my life have I seen so much hurt in someone so young.” Guild Master turned her gaze on Derik and Zander. “The two of you should be ashamed of yourselves for letting her go through all that.”