Offline Valor: Chapter 2
Previous Chapter: Chapter 1
Next Chapter: Coming Soon
Word Count: 3587
CW: Blood, flashbacks of death & violence
Rowan the Crownbreaker, son of Clan Ash, knew he should feel more pain than this.
His fingers twitched idly as he stood upon the rampart of cardboard and cobble. Through the open window at the far end of the room came a warm, arid wind that smelled of a storm. It filled the cavernous attic’s interior almost like a whispering omen from the Low Heavens. Rowan desperately wished he could close the window, but to do so would require a strength that none in Clan Ash possessed.
With no other option, Rowan opted to stand watch. He stood vigilant upon the wall for any sign of shadow that might cross the window in front of the warm amber glow of the monolithic light pole that stood as a lonely sentinel for this block of the sleepy titanic neighborhood. He even readied himself whenever he heard a cricket too loud, lest a mercenary ranger from the Forsaken Fane swoop in under cover of night.
Despite his resolve, his eyelids grew heavy. He bit his cheek and dug his fingers into the cardboard, hoping that a bit more tactility would keep him alert. He could sleep when the Lowlord lay in a pool of his own blood.
He wasn’t worthy of rest, not yet.
Be it the gravity of exhaustion or the absence of Ash’s typical merriment around their warrior’s sacrament, Rowan found his attention flitting down to examine the meager campfires near the base of the wall. He surveyed the loose circles of tissue paper tents and the faintly illuminated faces of the remnants of his family polishing off their crumm finalis. Typically there was laughter, singing, and dancing, but tonight the camp was silent as a grave. There would be no singing before the morrow.
As he took note of those who were alive and those who were absent, Rowan felt a pain like a dull knife carving deep in the chambers of his heart. It was a slow, methodical feeling. He hurt, but he felt like he deserved to hurt more.
It almost didn’t seem fair.
Rowan spied his aunt, the Raidsinger Nail, slipping out from her tent and making her way over to speak with one of his cousins. Though the cousin sat outside the glow of the fires, he could only assume she was attempting to make last minute preparations for their final stand against Lowlord Yucca’s forces in the morning.
The stairs creaked behind him.
Rowan’s hand was a blur as fingers curled around creaking leather and plastic as he gripped the hilt of his dagger. He pivoted, the blade ready to fly from his fingertips-
-as he turned, a hand caught his wrist. Rowan grunted in surprise.
“A bit slow on the draw, nephew,” came the soft chuckle of Uncle Oleander. He released his grip and let Rowan’s wrist fall. “Rest easy, ‘tis only me.”
Rowan sighed. He sheepishly sheathed his blade. “My apologies, Uncle.”
“For being too slow? Or nearly slitting my throat?” His uncle grinned as he moved to join him upon the parapet. And though Oleander teased, Rowan couldn’t help but feel a bit of embarrassment at both his ineptitude and paranoia.
“All is forgiven, Rowan,” Oleander hummed as he laced his fingers and rested his arms on the wall. Though his lips were a permanent smile under his mustache, the glow from the campfires below cut strange shadows across his face that almost seemed to cast him in a dark, weary light.
“I see appetite has eluded you as well,” his uncle noted. “This kind of thing always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I personally try to avoid connotations between merriment and death. But your aunt typically revels in tradition. So if the Raidsinger wishes to perform one last crumm finalis, to give our clan a little faith, then I see little harm in it. Faith can be a powerful motivator, after all.”
Rowan didn’t respond. He had his own personal distaste for the crumm finalis, but that all seemed so trivial at the moment. After a few seconds of the two men studying the camps below, his uncle cleared his throat.
“How do you fare?” he finally asked as he looked toward Crownbreaker. His tone was somber. “Nail was looking for you.”
Rowan could answer honestly. In truth, he felt vivisected–laid bare before an altar of rage and anguish. But despite the pain, he still couldn’t feel anything. How do you explain a paradox of this sort?
“I fare.” Rowan shrugged halfheartedly.
There was a beat as Oleander waited for Rowan to elaborate. When he did not, his uncle turned his full attention towards the Crownbreaker. With his hand now resting upon the saffron pommel of his rapier he asked, “Is it fear? Grief? I know this last excursion into Ash Haven might have been difficult for you…and you were one of the few who made it out alive.”
Rowan shuddered. His mind went back to Lowlord Yucca…the look of fury in his eyes…the hands at Rowan’s throat. Rowan couldn’t even think of the family he lost that morning, all he could feel was the Lowlord’s fingers digging into his neck
“No,” Rowan corrected quietly. He dug his fingers deeper into the parapet till he felt the cardboard bend under his grip. “Anger.”
His uncle clicked his tongue knowingly.
“Anger can be stoked for the most righteous of causes,” Oleander admitted with a sigh. “But it is a hot coal and if one is not careful, it can easily devour if left unattended.”
Rowan flinched as his uncle put a hand on his shoulder. Rowan felt guilty for not being able to meet his eyes. He knew his uncle was right–he was always right, but the gravity of this conversation made it feel like this might very well be Oleander’s final lesson to him.
“Be careful with how long you let that emotion dwell, Rowan.”
Silence fell over the pair as they regarded the titanic vista beyond the faroff window. Oleander stroked his mustache thoughtfully as rolling dark clouds started to choke the Heavens Low. Oleander drew breath and went to say more, but-
Cold water ripped Rowan the Last back to consciousness.
He gasped and flailed. Panic replaced the air in his lungs as the chill robbed him of his breath. As he splashed around, his fingers managed to find a glass rim that encircled him. He gripped the rim till his knuckles went white. His knees knocked against a wall in front of him, and his feet settled on a floor of some kind. He steadied his breathing as he slowly regained awareness…
Not drowning then. Just standing in a vertical glass tub filled with cold water.
Rowan couldn’t be sure what was happening. His memory felt melted–it was hard to grasp the last few days, let alone what happened to get him in this position.
All he could remember was Uncle Oleander’s face…his words…
Even as Rowan tried to come to his senses, he saw movement around him, before him, and above him.
When Rowan finally had the sense to look up, he recoiled and pressed up against the back of the glass tub. It all was coming back to him now, like ink to water.
Rowan had nearly forgotten about the titan that saved him.
The titan was a woman with olive skin and soft pink hair that cascaded past her shoulders like soft waterfalls. Her features were smooth and her eyes dark and soft. She had grace and femininity that belied her mountainous figure.
In fact, Rowan would dare say she was rather pretty.
She pulled her hands back ever so slightly and fingers the size of able bodied men curled back instinctively; however, she still kept her hands hovering within grabbing distance of him and the glass tub.
“You’re…” The Titan seemed breathless. Her eyes were wide and kept darting with microscopic movements. “...you’re not dead. That’s, um…pog.”
As soon as that last word slipped out the Titan closed her eyes tight. Rowan wasn’t sure the meaning of, but it certainly wasn’t one that the Titan had intended.
“I mean, um…wow. Sorry, l-let’s try that again,” the Titan laughed awkwardly. She pursed her lips and swallowed. “You’re awake.”
Rowan slowly nodded. He was too exhausted to verbalize any sort of response. While out of his periphery he could tell they were in the kitchen, he refused to look away from her.
He searched her face for any indication that might suggest she meant him harm. And despite his searching, he saw nothing that suggested ill will. The memory of her words–you can trust me–was an odd reassurance that filled his chest with an uncomfortable warmth. The moment he felt that, he tried to shove down. Every lesson of Oleander bubbled under the surface of his groggy consciousness like hot tar as he considered his next move and the echoes of his family screaming in his ears: do not trust her.
Rowan ran a damp hand down his face as he broke her gaze. He closed his eyes and tried focusing on the feeling of his calloused skin against his scruff. The sensation was oddly grounding. He sighed, then scooped up a bit of water to splash his face.
Perhaps sensing he was finally relaxing just a bit, the Titan pulled her hands back all the way and took a seat. Earth Below, even sitting, she easily towered over the kingslayer.
Rowan got a better look at the kitchen. It was a bit tidier than some of the other titan homes he had frequented. The walls were white, the cabinets were dark black, and the fixtures brass. A massive chrome coffin with two handles on one side stood proudly off to the side–it was a Frigid Vault. Rowan fondly remembered when Aunt Nail taught him how to throw up a hook and rope to get a secure grip on one of the handles. Within the Vault lay many wondrous feasts that were preserved by the icy magics of titanic understanding.
But for once, Rowan wasn’t considering looking for food. The thought of eating made him nauseous.
He was up on the counter by the sink. Between him and the brass canyon was his cloak, his shirt, his daggers, a pair of tweezers fit for the fingers of a titan, and a tube of medicine salve that Rowan recognized from foraging runs.
Finally, he spied a large washcloth bundled up like a hill of linen next to his clothing and weapons. It had once been an olive green, but now it was stained with blood. A lot of blood.
He could only assume it was his.
“Take deep breaths for me, okay?”
Rowan frowned as he listened to her voice. For some reason hearing such a gargantuan person make such a soft spoken request was genuinely disarming. He’d never met a titan before–never even thought he’d meet a one–so any expectations of what might sound or act like was based around the stories told to him. Her timbre was surprisingly clear and concise, and she sounded like any Borrower woman of his own size.
Eventually he relented, and tried calming his breathing with deep inhales and steady exhales. As he breathed he felt a bit of soreness in his left side that prickled into a twist of mild pain–it was enough to make him wince. Whether or not the Titan picked up on that, she gestured to the left side of his chest with a finger.
“I, um…had to take off your shirt. Had to see where you were bleeding and why.”
Upon hearing this, Rowan looked down. He still wore his boots and trousers, both of which were properly soaked through. His muscles glistened from the water and the lawn mower's marks stood brightly in contrast–it was a deep lattice work of scars across his pallid skin that he was still getting used to.
Opposite of the burned tissue that dominated the right side of his chest, he spied a strange patch that hugged his left pectoral. It went down to his abdomen, then wrapped back beneath his armpit and nearly touched his spine. The patch’s material was rather confusing to Rowan. It seemed to be some kind of malleable plastic.
“It looked like a stitch had popped,” the Titan explained as she absentmindedly smoothed out her shirt. “It probably came loose from your run in with Chu Cu.”
Even as the words left the Titan’s mouth, she puffed out her cheeks and looked off. It was as if some kind of realization crossed her mind. She ran a hand through her hair and looked in desperate need of a drink. “This is…absolutely [email protected]
Rowan squinted. He wasn’t quite sure what that fourth word meant, but he presumed it was some kind of titanic vulgarity.
After a prolonged moment of silence, the Titan threw her hands up in the air.
“PLEASE say something!” she blurted. Rowan jumped in the tub at the sudden din of her words. “You haven’t said a single thing! I’m trying not to just freak out here! You’re a little man who nearly got eaten by my neighbor's cat, I just cleaned up a lot of your blood, and fixed your stitching. So I would really like some help feeling like I’m not just totally losing my mind right now!”
She looked down at him pleadingly. Rowan looked up at her as he tried to figure out a proper response. Lazuli had been the one with the silver tongue, not him. How could he possibly hope to console a titan and explain to her what he was?
As he attempted to gather his thoughts, a look of horror washed over her expression as she seemed to recognize how her outburst might’ve come off. She put a hand to her mouth then whispered brokenly, “O-Oh [email protected]
$%! I didn’t mean to shout...I-I’m so so sorry! I didn’t mean to scare y-”
At that, Rowan actually managed a chuckle. It was mirthless noise, and it seemed to catch the Titan’s off guard.
“Believe me, miss.” Rowan ran a hand over his dirty hair and shrugged. “Far more terrifying and monstrous things have left me unphased. And seeing as you are neither terrifying nor monstrous, you have nothing to apologize for.”
The Titan stared at him. Despite partially covering her mouth, he noticed her jaw hanging slightly though Rowan couldn’t be sure as to why.
“Y-You are confused,” Rowan pointed with a groan as readjusted himself in the glass tub. He winced from the accumulated pain he’d accumulated over the last few weeks of running. “I would be too, were the roles reversed…so I apologize for any untoward anxiety I might have put into your heart.”
The Titan just mouthed a three word phrase of disbelief that Rowan couldn’t decipher. She blinked and looked taken aback. “I, um…wow. Huh. I…didn’t expect you to be so, um…”
Rowan raised an eyebrow. The Titan cleared her throat and shook her head.
“N-Nevermind,” the Titan replied. “I’m just glad you’re awake and you seem to be doing okay. How do you feel?”
How did Rowan feel?
He felt carved out–hollowed. It was like there was nothing left inside. And truthfully, he felt exhausted.
None of that, of course, was the Titan’s fault.
“I am well enough off.” Rowan waved her off. “But I am grateful for the aid. You saw the beast attempting to eat me, and you stopped it. You saw I was bleeding and suffering from the sun’s heat, and you took me in and treated my wounds and put me in a…”
He paused, then looked down at the water and the glass, upright tub. “...I believe this is a bathtub?”
The Titan looked a bit flustered before correcting him. “That’s, um…that’s a shot glass, sir.”
Rowan processed that. Then a rogue smile tugged at his lips as a flicker of amusement danced in his chest. “You put me in a cup?”
“Okay well when you put it like that it sounds like a really dumb idea, but I was panicking!” the Titan protested with a furious blush. “I wasn’t gonna like, drink you or anything! Th-that was just the first clean thing I saw that could hold water!”
“I know, I know,” Rowan reassured with a chuckle. “Sometimes physicians simply have to work with what they have at their disposal.”
The Titan furrowed her brow. “You…you think I’m a physician? N-No, I’m just a-”
“Regardless of what I ended up in, I hope you know how thankful I am for your charity, lady-titan. I cannot recount an instance in recent memory where a titan has expressed that degree of kindness upon seeing a Borrower like myself. So, again, I thank you.”
The Titan’s expression softened. She smiled and hummed, “Oh, um…yeah. For sure. Y-You’re welcome, little guy. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
After a moment of awkward staring and Rowan standing in the cup of cold water, the Titan moved to stand. Rowan’s breath hitched as he was reminded of the Titan’s scale.
“I have…so many questions for you,” the Titan admitted with splayed hands, “but I don't want to overwhelm you. You’ve gone through hell, and I don’t wanna add to it. So, um…you just, ah…have a nice soak, and…um. You just shout when you’re done, okay? Take as long as you need, there’s no rush.”
Rowan felt a surprising wave of gratitude, but it wasn’t without discomfort. Time was not a luxury that nomads like Clan Ash could afford. So to hear the Titan wishing to simply table her curiosity till he had time to rest was perplexing.
“Are you certain? I understand if you have questions, and I wish to answer whatever I can. If you wish to speak now, we can speak. This is not a grievous wounds, I am well able to spe-”
“I’m sure.” The Titan grinned. “Look, guy…I’m not gonna push you. You just rest and we can talk later. But, like…also, if you change your mind and just want to leave, I mean. Window’s open. But please if you do decide to leave, just give yourself an hour or so to cool off. Then make sure you get plenty of water in you, and please please stay in the shade when you’re outside. It’s a kajillion degrees, and I wouldn’t want you getting a heatstroke, okay?”
Rowan considered her words. “I appreciate that. Though I believe I will be staying, if only for a moment. I owe you an explanation in order to express my thanks for you saving me, gracious titan.”
The Titan grew visibly flustered at that. “O-Oh, I have a name ya’ know. You’re sweet but, um…gracious? And, titan? Too much, dude. I’m just a normal person–call me Zelly.”
“Zelly,” Rowan mulled over the name. “Sounds very regal. Are you nobility?”
The Titan–Zelly–threw her head back and guffawed. When she looked back down at Rowan she gasped, “Oh, you were being serious? Um. No. Definitely not nobility. Um…are you nobility?”
“Neither am I, thankfully,” Rowan wryly replied. He was reminded of polished silver and crushed porcelain floors. An open air throne overlooking the treetops. The touch of mercury. The smell of hazelnut. A friend who sat their diadem aside, and sat close to him as they sipped from pewter mugs.
The memory was like sweet vinegar to the taste.
“My name is Rowan the Last, Once-of-Ash,” he added somberly. “But you may call me Rowan.”
“Rowan the…?” Her voice trailed off. Zelly shook her head, seemingly deciding to ask later. “Well, um…Mr. Rowan. You just get some rest, okay? I’m going to grab something from the fridge and, um, go decompress a bit.”
She turned and walked over to the Frigid Vault–which she had called a “fridge”--and effortlessly tugged on one of the handles and opened the Vault with ease. It was a feat that typically took several teams of Borrowers to do, yet she did so with one hand. Rowan could feel a shockingly cold gust of air, even from here.
“Do you want anything?” Zelly asked as she leaned back to meet his gaze. Rowan raised his hand, indicating he was fine.
As Zelly rummaged through the “fridge,” Rowan tried to close his eyes and follow the titan’s request to rest. But even as he closed his eyes, he saw the images burned into his eyelids. He remembered the sound of screaming, the smell of gunpowder, the taste of his own blood…
He remembered hearing the crunch of Uncle Oleander’s shoulder before he vanished from sight as he tumbled off the edge of the roof.
He remembered the Lowlord Yucca running Aunt Nail through with a cruel, gnarled blade.
He remembered when it was just he and Yucca standing on the precipice of shingles while the uncaring storm rained hot tears upon the bodies and blood around them.
He remembered when their blades met. He remembered when two became one, and the Lowlord lay in a pool of his blood.
He remembered how empty that victory felt.
The dull knife carved deep. The pain pressed upon his heart. The grief was so immense that its weight made his ribs groan. No rest would come.
He would never be worthy of rest.
All left decimated, with only a single speck of Ash on the wind.
Rowan, once of Clan Ash, had truly become the very Last.