Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Everything was dark. And cold. Jerica turned in a slow circle, stopping as she saw a fleck of light in the distance. She stumbled forward, tripping over unseen barriers that tried to snag her from all directions.
It felt like every time she stepped over the barricade just in front of her, something would shoot forward and wrap around her ankle to pull her backwards once again -- each success diminished by the forces around her that would keep her where she was. It was infuriating.
And yet, slowly but surely she trod toward the light, her trek ever onward despite the snares all around her. After what felt like an eternity she finally stepped into the light -- and the landscape suddenly changed.
It was still cold. The air burned her lungs as she sucked it in, and she felt as though she should be shivering -- but when she looked down she saw nothing but more darkness. She was strangely un-bothered by it.
Instead, she flicked her eyes around the room. It was angular. That was all she could tell about it. There seemed to be tables, or maybe it was chairs? It was hard to say. She couldn't make out specifics. Just the angles. And then --
Jerica tensed as there was a wail somewhere nearby. It started as a single piercing shriek, and then morphed into a prolonged sob that bounced off the sharp angles surrounding her, growing and growing until it filled the entire room. It shook Jerica to her very core.
That was the other obvious thing that she could sense. Angles and sadness -- and it was still so very cold. A shudder racked her body, making her feel as though the grief radiated outward from her liver; unsettling and deep, too insistent to ignore.
Desperation filled her, competing with the despair. She staggered forward breathlessly. She had to help. Or did she need help? She didn't know. Everything was so confusing. And cold. And someone needed help.
Suddenly the landscape changed again and the lights got even brighter, momentarily blinding her. She blinked the stars glittering in her eyes away, and looked around. She was in a small room now -- dingy, damp, still bone-chilling cold.
There was a girl lying on the floor a few meters ahead of her, a soldier taking full advantage.
She had to help.
Jerica sprang forward. A sword suddenly materialized in her hand, and she started swinging it wildly towards the soldier. She struck him in the back of the neck, severing his head from the rest of his body. Blood gushed out and flooded onto the floor in copious amounts.
Then of its own accord the head rolled over, revealing the gruesome face of the village girl. Jerica shrieked and stepped backward, stumbling away from the gore as quickly as she could. That hadn't been what she meant to do. She was only trying to help and then --
Oh gods. What had she done? She was a monster. She looked down at her hands and saw them coated in blood, the sheet of crimson flooding up her arms, towards her shoulders, dripping on the floor. She screamed again and desperately tried to wipe the blood off -- but the more she struggled, the faster the blood appeared.
She scrubbed at her arms again. Her right hand was aching terribly. But it was the blood that she couldn't handle. It was creeping up her neck now. She panted, fighting against blood spreading across her, stumbling backward.
Suddenly she fell.
She yelped again as she dropped into a pit. It was still so cold. Something splashed as she kicked. Jerica looked down to find herself standing knee-deep in a pool of blood. Her clothes were drenched in it. Her arms still dripped.
She let out another screech as she continued scrubbing at her arms. The pool started getting deeper. The blood was to her waist now. Jerica shook her head, tears streaming down her face. Now it was to her chest.
She craned her neck, trying to keep the gore from reaching her face. It kept getting deeper. She kicked as if she was treading water, trying to stay afloat, but the blood was too fast. She couldn't swim fast enough to stay ahead of it. It was to her mouth, choking her as she fought against it.
"No!" She sobbed, tossing her head. "No! Help me!"
The blood was over her head now. She was suffocating. She couldn't breathe; couldn't move. Why was it still so cold? She tried to wipe her arms again but she was fully submerged, sinking, drowning --
Jerica woke with a start, springing straight up in the bed. There was someone close-by, reaching out to attack her. She threw her fist at the assailant, then yelped as her hand suddenly felt as though it was being stabbed by a thousand daggers. She leapt to her feet and staggered away.
"Jerica! Calm down!"
Jerica's wild eyes lit on Aerik. He was sitting on the cot, hands raised, trying to placate her. His eyes were wide and looked worried. She let out a shuddering breath, heart still pounding from the adrenaline. And... tears?
She rubbed her face, confused. And then embarrassed. She swallowed hard, trying to compose herself -- and yet, in that moment, she wasn't sure what composure should look like. Her hand still hurt terribly. She looked down and found it bloodied and bruised -- but at least it was the only blood on her. That was something.
"Come here," Aerik said soothingly, gently gesturing at her to come forward. "Sit down."
"I..." Jerica gasped, suddenly realizing that she hadn't been breathing. She panted, tears still streaming down her face. Why was she shaking? She swallowed hard again. "What are you doing here?"
"I don't want to." She coughed, choking on the snot running down her throat. She scrubbed her face. She had to stop. Aerik couldn't see her like this; no one could. "Go away."
"Jer," he said gently, patting the bed next to him.
Jer. Who called her that? Derik. She missed Uncle Derik. Oh gods how she wished she was home. And yet, she realized that not even Derik could see her in this pitiful state. She needed to be strong. She needed to be something worth loving. Right now she wasn't.
"Come here," Aerik cooed.
She was so tired. Exhaustion filled the void left by the adrenaline rush and her entire body felt heavier than she knew how to describe. Her shoulders sagged and she walked forward, sitting down on the edge of the cot.
Jerica turned a glare on him, but didn't have the energy to put any hatred into it. She wiped her face again, wishing she could scrub away any evidence that she'd dissolved in a puddle of her own weakness. And yet, even without seeing herself, she knew that the proof of her tears were undeniable with the intensity with which she had been crying.
She took a shaky breath and let it out with a sigh. Part of her wanted to scream at him, to channel all the tumultuous emotions raging inside of her into hateful words directed towards him. The rest of her was far too fatigued to even find the right words, much less find the energy needed to shout them at him.
She swallowed hard, throat burning with unshed tears. She had to get herself under control.
"Are you okay?"
Jerica looked at him, bewildered. What was she supposed to say to that? That wasn't a question that was often thrown at her. Sometimes, if she took a particularly hard hit on the training ground, someone would ask her if she was okay -- but somehow she doubted he was asking about her hand just then.
He wasn't asking if her body was okay, he was asking if she was okay. Her. Suddenly she felt her throat constrict with all the emotions that flooded over her again, and she choked on a sob. Tears streamed down her face freely.
"Come here," Aerik said gently, opening his arm invitingly.
Jerica hesitated, her dignity protesting against the thought of allowing Aerik to comfort her. And yet, seemingly of its own accord, she felt her body moving into his embrace. Felt his muscular arms wrapping around her shoulders.
Suddenly, the arms that had seemed so harsh and foreboding when they were crossed against her were offering comfort. They were strong and protective and made her feel safe -- much safer than she had felt in an extremely long time. The flood-gates broke open.
She buried her face in his chest and sobbed so hard her body shook and her breaths came in irregular gasps. Aerik held her close, one hand slowly stroking her hair as he cooed to her gently, trying to lull her into calming down but still allowing her to have a good cry.
Jerica sobbed for many long minutes, allowing Aerik to rock her back and forth, unable to catch her breath. The emotions she hadn't been able to process earlier were back with a fiery vengeance, jumbling over themselves as each one fought to be expressed.
"I'm... a... monster!" she wailed. "I just... pain... pain is... all I... ever... cause."
"Shh," Aerik murmured. "That's not true."
"It... it is..." She scrubbed at her face, sniffling. "Anywhere... I go... things get... worse!"
"I think that girl from the village earlier would disagree," he answered gently, still holding her tightly and rocking slightly. "You were a hero to her."
"I'm not... a hero," Jerica hiccuped. "I'm barely... barely even... human."
"You seem perfectly human to me," Aerik argued. "Two arms, two legs, the ability to talk..."
"Death follows me... everywhere I go... I bring death... and destruction... and pain." Jerica curled her legs onto the cot next to her, bringing them close to her chest, even though she kept her arm wrapped around Aerik. "That's not what humans do... humans don't kill as many people as I already have... I'm a bad omen."
"You know, owls were once considered a bad omen. In many places they still are," Aerik answered, giving her back a pat. "That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them. They are strong, wise, intelligent creatures."
"Then I guess that means I'm just a monster," she whispered into his tunic.
"You're not a monster, either," Aerik said. "You're a soldier -- and an exceptional one at that. Soldiers do what they're told. The result of their actions falls directly on the commander who issued the orders."
"That makes it even worse," Jerica groaned, thinking to her own troops.
"No, it makes it your uncle's fault," Aerik answered. "If anyone's the monster, it's him."
"Derik is not a monster," Jerica snarled, pulling away from Aerik to glare at him.
"I agree. But your other uncle..."
Jerica was silent for a moment, considering what he said. Levin was responsible for the majority of the carnage and destruction that she had seen in her life. And yet, so little of it was actually his idea. "He's mostly just stupid."
Aerik smirked grimly. "Yes."
"Lord Biryn is the one who..." she trailed off, shuddering slightly. She wasn't sure how she had wanted to end that sentence when she started it, but now that she considered the possible options, she realized she didn't want to think about any of the things that Biryn had done to her or through her.
"Lord Biryn is a monster," Aerik agreed. "He is a very twisted man who is skilled at getting his own crooked agenda carried out by other people. You are a victim of his manipulation."
Jerica tensed. She didn't like being referred to as a victim. Victims were the people who begged for mercy when they were bested by the people who actually knew what they were doing -- she was a warrior, able to command her own fate. "I am in control of myself."
"Of course you are." Aerik looked at her sympathetically. "But what happens if you don't choose to do what you're told? I don't pretend to know what you face in that palace, but I do know men like Levin and Biryn, and I know that they generally have ways to... motivate... people into doing their bidding."
Jerica was silent, glaring at the floor in front of her. She didn't want to think about the consequences of disobeying Lord Biryn. Occasionally the defiance was worth it, to see how angry it made him or to cause a bit of trouble -- but he always found a way to make his retaliation far worse than her insubordination had been. She didn't make a habit of it.
"You are an intelligent, brave, fierce young woman," he continued when she didn't speak. "You have such an incredible amount of potential to do great things, and an entire lifetime ahead of you to accomplish them. Don't put yourself down, just because the bullies in your life choose to say unkind things about you."