Before she came, she knew very little of Orholt.
Only the facts that everyone knew about the prison city in Underland. Every Magical in Hurst who committed a crime severe enough to threaten their peace were sent to Orholt, regardless of powers, age, genders or connections. The only way prisoners were differentiated was by the degree of their crime, their regret for their actions and the risk of repeating them. That’s why there were levels.
Everyone knew about the five levels of Orholt, knew the names the Guards had for them and the prisoners that lived there. Level one, the Benign; level two, the Atoning; level three, the Disgraced; level four, the Banished; level five, the Unforgivables.
She had not known much more than that before she came to Orholt, except for one thing. She knew without a doubt that she deserved to be there.
It had been an age, yet she still remembered the day she arrived. It wasn’t one of her most pleasant memories to revisit, but she learned long ago that simply because a memory was bad, that was no excuse to neglect it.
They blindfolded her during transport, and she recalled every jerk and bump of the carriage, the heat of the Guard on either side of her, making sure she couldn’t run. As if she would have run.
When the blindfold came off, they were in a long metal hallway with flickering, yellow lights. There were no windows, of course – they were not needed in a place buried so deep in the earth that even Underland was high above.
Hands gripped her arms tightly as they escorted her down the hall and into a before a stairwell that seemed to spiral down into the pit of the Earth herself.
They walked down, down, down, their heavy steps shaking the metal and jarring her bones, and though she was cold and afraid, she fought the desire to fight and squirm.
I deserve to be here.
The first door they passed was marked with a blood red number one. At least it must have been blood red, once, before the rust claimed it. Level One, for the smallest crimes, the ones who threatened the order and system more than the peace itself. Often these criminals were created by circumstances and did not want to do what they did. Which is why they were named Benign.
She had felt much like a victim of circumstance at the time. The ache in her heart that told her what her people were doing was wrong; she felt she did not have any choice but to act. But the result of that choice… She knew there was no one alive who would consider her crimes Benign, and was not surprised when they continued down the steps.
Later when they came to a door marked with the number two, she felt a prick of jealousy for the prisoners behind it. These were Magicals whose crimes might be severe, but they had a valuable knowledge of skill set, or anything other that the Council thought in the future might help prevent threats to the peace, and they had offered to serve the Council with what they knew. Of course, none were offered the chance of Level Two unless they also showed sincere regret for their crimes, otherwise they would not be the Atoning.
She had shown regret for her crimes. If her actions had not been so unspeakable, she may have been an Atoning. She had never wanted to do what she did. They had left her no choice. She had given them so many chances, yet they refused to listen…
She was valuable enough that her gifts could be of great use to the Council one day, if the need arose, which was the only reason she had left herself alive, and not ended her misery on that dreadful day. But that was not enough to earn her place as an Atoning.
Her crimes were far too great for Level Two, and they kept moving down into the darkness.
I deserve to be here.
When reached Level Three, she shivered, and the air turned damp and staler than before. She looked at the red number on the door and was surprised to find herself judging the inhabitants behind it. She had no right to judge, she knew, but the Magicals on Level Three, the Disgraced…
She had done incomprehensible things, but she had not betrayed their world, she had not turned her back on Hurst, though some might accuse her of it. The Disgraced were the corrupt, the hateful, the ones who not only threatened the peace but everything the Council and Hurst stood for, their very existence, and all for their own selfish ends.
She, at least, had not done that. Everything she did, she had done to protect the sanctity of Hurst and the peace. Her judges understood that, even if her reasons meant little in the face of her despicable crime.
As they had argued at her trial, she could have found another way, could she not? She could have locked them all away, she could have used their powers against them, yet she had chosen a much more extreme course of action.
I deserve to be here.
The steps between Level Three and Four seemed to draw out, her feet grew heavier, her head ached as she imagined the sheer amounts of metal and dirt that loomed over her this far down. Finally, they reached Level Four. The Banished.
The place of those that time wanted to forget, whose crimes were so deeply disgusting that the world wanted nothing more to do with them, and yet the evil in their hearts was not dark enough for them to be brought one level down, to the Unforgivables.
One guard put a key in the door of Level Four and twisted, then banged on the door with his fist. Soon the sound of a second key could be heard turning from the other side, and the heavy door creaked open.
She stared down the long hallway. No turns, just one long metal catwalk with the barred cages on each side. Her guards led her down, beneath the single light bulbs from thin chains dangling from the ceiling, casting low, yellow light that did not even reach half way into the cells around them.
It was so quiet – she had thought there would be screaming, yelling, perhaps pleading or mocking, but there was nothing but the flickering of light and the drip of water from some source she could not see.
Finally, they reached her cell, and she was shoved inside without ceremony.
“Two meals a day, if your blanket gets too wet, let a Guard know,” were the only words she received from her jailers before they locked her in and walked away.
And she had not set foot outside that cell since.
I deserve to be here.
In ancient times, they had been the happiest race on earth. While she still looked the same, back then she was truly young, and as innocent and blissful as the rest of her people.
The twin God and Goddess had granted their kind a country, a bountiful paradise of eternal spring, untouched by war and plight. They had been happy living their simple, peaceful lives in honor of the God and Goddess, rarely straying into the dark world beyond.
She still remembered their home country, and though the images had faded with the centuries, she cherished each precious memory. It had been theirs for a long time, before tragedy and the evils of the world robbed them of their land, ruined it and made it impossible for anyone or anything to live there.
So few of them had been left alive, and they had been so lost until Arabis, the healer who had been gifted with the God’s sacred arrow, united them in a new cause; their people would become nomads, travelling the world and using their gifts to help and heal those in need. They had powers others could hardly imagine, and it was time they shared their gifts with the world.
They were no longer sheltered in their paradise, but they upheld the values of their home, and kept their hearts pure and filled with goodness as they sought to make the world better. She had loved their new lives. In helping others, she felt somehow complete.
Years later, when the great warlock Waver created the sanctuary of Hurst – a home where Magicals could live in peace, away from the growing reaches of humanity – their people decided it was time to leave humans to their own devices, and followed the Magicals in hopes they might bring some light to this new world.
They never regretted their decision, and Hurst became their new home.
They journeyed through Hurst, bringing aid where it was needed, healing and counselling and never growing weak, never falling ill nor aging, so nothing could ever hinder them in their duty to provide for the Magicals of Hurst.
But it was not long until war and violence threatened the sanctity of Hurst, and though it was stopped in time and the race responsible was banished, Arabis and the elders of their tribe begun to worry. They feared that war and darkness would continue to infest Hurst, and the Magicals would bring themselves to ruin.
They did not want to lose another home.
The more they discussed it, the more they realized they would do whatever it took to prevent that from happening.
She had been horrified when the Elders revealed their plan, and so frightened when the others agreed with it. She tried to convince them it was wrong, that nothing would be solved by their devastating idea, but ancient as they may be, she was still the youngest among them, and her people were set on their new course. They refused to listen, shut her out, and they planned.
Every single time she tried to reason with them, to stop them, they dismissed her. Slowly she begun to realize that what they called wisdom and logic was going to ruin them all, and they would never see reason.
There was no one else who could stop them. Who could be strong enough to stand against them, when they had the God and Goddess and the sacred arrow on their side? The sacred arrow – the most powerful tool in existence, and only they could wield it.
If no one else could stop them, then she had to do it herself.
With the future of Hurst in her hands, she was forced to make a choice between her own kind and this world she loved. She had to choose between her people and the Magicals of Hurst, whose goodness and potential she believed in, even if her people did not.
It was an impossible choice, but she made it.
So when the tribe gathered in the fading daylight to thank the God for the blessings of the day and the Goddess for the coming night, she both broke and kept the vow they had made to uphold the good in the world.
She had lived with the consequences every day since.
She missed natural light.
The yellow light from the flickering bulbs in the hallway barely reached beyond the entrance of her cell. There were no sources of natural light in Orholt. Not that she begrudged them keeping her and the other prisoners in the dark. It seemed a reasonable price to pay for her actions.
She just missed the light sometimes.
When she kept her eyes closed long enough, she still remembered how the sunbeams used to reflect off the tallest parts of Skyland mountain, where the pale rock was covered in ice and snow. In her duties, she had to travel that area often to get to and from the blessed city of Fayvale.
When she traveled with her people, they stayed true on the path and never wavered, but the times when she made the trek herself, she would veer unto the ice and take the short-cut across the cold, glittering sheets.
The others would not travel there because they feared injury on, and would not take the risk of coming across the many winter beasts and Magicals that lived there. Both the pleasant and unpleasant ones would distract them on their journey.
But she loved to make her way slowly and carefully across the ice, letting the numbing cold clear her mind for the tasks awaiting her in Fayvale.
It was ironic, really, how she had treasured that cold.
Her cell in Orholt was always cold, though far from the fresh, icy blast of the mountain. It was a metallic cold, one that smelled of rust and sweat and blood.
It was how a cell ought to be, she thought. Cold, hard, dark, with strange, unpleasant smells. It was a place for punishment and penance, after all. In her past life, she had wondered whether Orholt might be a cruel place, but now she felt that the Orholt brought nothing on its prisoners that they had not earned.
Of course, the other prisoners might disagree.
She sat on the grated metal floor of her cell, leaning against the only iron wall – the other three were bars. There was one wall of iron in each cell in Orholt, she knew; some Magicals had made reactions to iron. Made them weak. It did nothing to effect her, but she saw the practicality of it.
She watched the light bulb where it dangled from the ceiling of the hall outside her room. She listened to the drip that sounded from far away, the moving steps of the Guard somewhere further down the hall.
She peered into the cell across the hall from hers, but as usual saw nothing. The light didn’t reach the backs of the cells, and if someone was in there, she had never seen them. They had never seen her, either. She, too, stayed in the back of her little cage, sitting on the floor with her back against the iron wall, or sometimes lying on her tattered, thin mattress with her rough, scratchy blanket.
She could have put the blanket beneath her now, so the sharp floor would not dig into her thighs so much, but she only used it at night, wrapping it around herself to muffle the sound of her sobs. Sleep was the only place she was still able to cry. She had no energy for it anymore, when she was awake, and the blanket kept her still through the tears.
She hardly deserved more comfort than that.
She closed her dry eyes and took it all in. Sometimes, she thought, it was helpful to let Orholt prison wash over her, to remind herself of where she was, of her punishment and how she deserved it, just like she used to chant to herself during the first few years, when she was still afraid. She listened to the metal groan like an old ship at sea, heard the faint sound of prisoners above her banging against their cells, shouting and crying for the guards, thinking it would make a difference.
Do they not know they deserve to be here? There were no good people in Orholt. That is not what prisons are for.
With eyes closed, listening, she could almost feel the weight of this place pressing down on her. Level Four. The Banished. Hidden from the world, all but one level of this giant, buried city was above her. When she closed her eyes, she could hear the constant sounds of feet on metal as guards walked the halls. She spared a moment of pity for the prisoners on Level Five.
The Unforgivables. She did not waste time pitying herself or the other prisoners of Orholt, for they had all earned their place, but the Unforgivables… She knew the fifth level was much worse than this one, and she imagined the lonely souls rotting beneath her feet. She heard the Unforgivables were rarely given food and drink, and that there was no trace of light down there. Unforgivables did not deserve light, they said.
She did not begrudge these rules, but still she sometimes felt pity.
Perhaps it was because she would have been an Unforgivable.
She was supposed to be, had expected to be. The only reason she was in this damp and dark cell on Level Four, was because she had shown such regret for her actions. She wished that there had been no need for her to commit her crime at all. There had been no way around it, but she was so sorry that the circumstances had been what they were.
That was why she had been spared Level Five, and would instead rot in this cell until she died or until she was pardoned.
She knew which would come first. There were no pardons in her future. She deserved Orholt, in all its tattered glory, for the rest of her days. She would remain on this rusting metal floor, feeling the sharp bars dig into her skin, always cold, back always aching, heart always hurting, until she faded from existence.
After all, had she not slaughtered every last member of her kind, intentionally and willingly? Their kind was ancient, sacred, and a gift to this world, and she had robbed the world of it. She had done it all of her own free will, and with good reason, though reasons did not matter when you committed a crime as heinous as hers.
She had brought an entire species of Magicals to extinction.
There could be no greater crime than that.
She was not always at peace with her past. It had taken a long time to come to terms with her crime and fully accept her fate. While she knew in her heart that she had acted for the greater good and had told herself that she was willing to pay the price for the Magicals of Hurst to keep their own minds, live the life they chose… Living with the consequences had not been so easy.
During those first few years in Orholt, she was constantly haunted by the eyes of her people, seeing them on every dark surface, in every shadow. It had not been a loud massacre, or violent or bloody. She never wanted them to suffer. It was supposed to be quiet, almost peaceful, like the lives they had once led. But they had still seen it coming.
Their faces were everywhere, the looks they all had at every stage.
The confusion when the first of them found it harder to breathe and knelt to the ground, unable to stand.
The disbelief once they realized what was happening to them.
The grief when they looked at her and realized she had done this, had crossed the unthinkable like in order to protect the Magicals of Hurst, and their rights to make their own decisions.
Arabis, who had led them all for so many centuries, used the last of his strength to go to her, to take her hand as he fell to his knees. He was unable to speak, his breath fading, but his eyes remained clear, looking at her not with anger or accusation, but with sadness.
Sadness for her, for being so desperate to stop them that it drove her to this. She could see it in her mentor’s eyes as his ancient life begun to drift away. She heard the words he would have spoken if he could.
For your sake, I hope you are right, child, so what you have done will not forever haunt you for nothing. His last thoughts had been for her, and it tore at her each and every day.
They had been the kindest and purest of races once, ruled by reason and compassion. How had things gone so terribly wrong?
Every night, she was woken up by nightmares, her blanket soaked with sweat and tears, her whole body shaking with fear and shame and sobs. The screams from the prisoners around her made each dream more vivid, even though her own victims had never been given the chance to cry out.
Their eyes were everywhere in those moments; their looks of pain and shock as they realized on of their own had betrayed them. Eyes of pale pastel, shades of blue, green, pink, yellow, and the pale grey eyes of Arabis, like the ocean after a storm, looking at her with pity and grief…
In the middle of the night, when she was so desperate to get rid of the memories, she clawed at her head as if she could tear them out with the thin strands of her orange hair. She banged her head against the metal bars, wanting only to be knocked out into oblivion where she would see nothing, feel nothing.
She just wanted the pain to end, wanted the regret to stop eating her alive. She did not want to be alive, with the blood on her hands and the knowledge of the terrible things she had done. She did not want to sit here in this lonely cell just in case, some day, the world might need her to use the sacred arrow and protect it from harm.
She did not want to sit here every day, not knowing if her sacrifice had even been worth it. For all she knew, the Magicals were out there right now, doing exactly what her people had feared; ruining the world they wanted to protect. She had no idea if her sacrifice had been for nothing.
This was her greatest fear. That her people had died for nothing. That she had become a monster, for nothing.
The night she woke up unable to shake her nightmare, still seeing the ghosts of those she killed surrounding her bed, staring at her, she curled up against the wall, burying her face in her knees, and thought of the sacred arrow where it lay forgotten in its hiding place.
She thought of it, and she wished she had jammed it through her heart that night.
She could have died together with her people. The God and Goddess would punish her in the afterlife, would hate her for what she did, but at least everything would be over. She would not have to live each day with a hole in her chest where her people used to be.
They had helped so many. She had helped so many. All that good meant nothing now. It had been wiped away with the blood of her kind. She had only tried to correct their mistake, fix things before they ruined everything they had ever stood for, and now she was going to rot in this place for doing the right thing.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that she had tried to save the world, had succeeded, and yet had to suffer so much for it. She just wanted some peace. She wanted to die, to not have to live with this horrible guilt for another moment.
Suddenly she was standing with her wet blanket in hand, the ghosts of her dreams chased away by her new purpose. She twisted the blanket into a thick coil and threw it around one of the bars and tied it around her neck without letting herself have one second to think.
It happened so fast, and yet not fast enough. It was a relief when she found it getting harder to breathe, the stinking fabric cutting into her windpipe as the world around her begun to blur at the edges.
Within the blurry darkness, she once again saw the eyes of Arabis, so sad and filled with an unspeakable regret. In her weakening mind, she thought it was strange that the look she had relived so many times looked different now, somehow.
The regret in his grey eyes, she realized. It was not for her, and for the consequences she would have to deal with. The regret was for himself.
For all of them, the ones who thought they knew better, the ones who thought they could make Hurst a safer place by erasing free will from the minds of Magicals, throwing away everything that was unique and special about them.
Arabis had not just felt sadness for what she had done… He had felt regret, in those last moments, because he knew what she did was necessary.
And it had been necessary.
Why had she never seen it in his eyes before? The memory had been so tainted with horror for what she had done, that she never thought to see it any other way.
In seconds, she had ripped the blanket from her neck and tossed it in a messy ball onto her skinny mattress.
She stood there in the middle of her cell, frozen by these new thoughts, this realization that shame and fear had kept away from her.
She may have done an unspeakable thing, but it had been the right thing. Even her victims knew it in their last seconds.
Her people had threatened the very heart and soul of Hurst. The least she could do, to pay for both her crime and theirs, was to remain alive, even if the memories killed a little part of her each day.
She owed that to the world. Her kind owed it to the world, and she was the last one. They were needed. She was alone, and frightened, and torn apart by her actions, but she still had a duty.
And if she was going to survive another night like that one, the first thing she would have to do was forgive herself.
Which was exactly what she did.
After years and years in the same place, in the same room, time looses meaning. She could not say how long she had been in Orholt. At times it seemed she had always been there, despite the memories of her crimes, of her previous life, of the paradise country she had grown up in.
Being what she was, she never faded. She had heard stories of prisoners in Orholt whose bones turned gelatinous with lack of movement, whose skin became so thin and weak from lack of sunlight that it was as though they had no skin at all. Though none were tortured and all were fed, simply being away from the world for so long eventually turned them all into faded and papery versions of themselves.
She always remained the same. It was a trait of her people that they always endured, so nothing would keep them from bringing their gifts to the world. It felt like such a waste, sometimes, for her body to remain so healthy and intact when it was not being used to fulfil her purpose.
And though her body never changed, her mind and soul very much did.
With so much time to think, to dwell, to wonder, it might be strange that she never used that time to dream. She knew her fate was sealed and deserved, so why waste her mind on hopes and dreams for a different life?
Perhaps if it had occurred to her to dream, she would not have been so surprised when the day came and her world was changed for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
She was not surprised when the Guards came. Guards came past her cell every day, as was their duty. But she found herself utterly shocked when the Guards unlocked the door and opened it – the entire door, not just the small hatch where they placed her food.
It was the first thing in so long that had been different. Everything had been the same for so long, with no variation, that she jumped to her feet, suddenly afraid.
She stood there, at the edge of the light from that dangling bulb, and stared at the Guards in confusion. She had done nothing wrong since her crime – she had sat quietly in her cell and accepted her punishment, yet her first thought was that they had decided to bring her one floor down, to make her an Unforgivable, to shut her away in complete darkness and throw away the key.
“We need you to come with us,” said one of the Guards, her voice hard and clipped.
“The Council has requested your presence,” said the other.
“What… What are you talking about?”
It was the longest sentence she had spoken since her trial, and the words scraped against her throat.
“You are needed,” said the second Guard. His voice was gentler than his colleague. “As the last of your kind, the Council needs your assistance. And… they feel that you have been down here long enough.”
She dared not believe his words at first, though nothing in her experience indicated the Guards of Orholt played cruel jokes upon their charges. But his words made no sense, surely.
Was it possible? That she would leave this cell, where she had sat for so many years it felt as if the rust and cold had become a part of her very blood?
She took a shaking step forward, into the flickering light and almost slipped as it hit her eyes and threw her off balance. The gentler Guard reached for her arm and steadied her. She had not been touched since she was shoved through that door an eternity ago. She did not flinch from him as he held her up, and he did not look at her with the disgust that she expected. Even the other Guard, though she looked severe and tough, did not look at her as if she was the scum they had accused her of being when she arrived.
How long have I been here? she wondered.
Since she forgave herself for the atrocities she committed against her kind, time had seemed to lose all meaning. Yet somehow she imagined that on the other side of the bars, time stood still. She had no idea what the world outside had become. Since she arrived, Guards had come and gone; she had watched many faces grow old and wrinkled before they were replaced, and still she had not thought…
Was it possible that the world outside, that Hurst, had moved on from her crimes, as well? That her punishment was… completed? It was a concept she had not even considered, even on her best days.
But now that she did consider it, she realized she no longer felt the need to cower in shame for her actions. It had been so long, a part of history that could not be changed or reversed no matter how tragic it had been. No matter how much she grieved for her lost people, she had known for a long time that she had done the right thing.
She knew she had deserved to end up here in Orholt. She had deserved her punishment, and she bad borne it well, and she had forgiven herself along the way.
Perhaps now she deserved to have the rest of the world forgive her, as well.