Limping down the steps leading to the sixth level, I wrapped my cloak tighter around my body. It was cold, bitterly so; the guards posted at the gate had retreated into their alcoves, preferring even the damp darkness to the chilly air. Little warmth had been offered by the Great Flame during these past months, and the pale blue aura coming from the city summit only served to stretch the long shadows that it cast upon the streets.
As I rounded the corner leading to the marketplace, I chanced a look down at the bundle of sticks blanketed in the folds of my robes. Dew was already beginning to form on the bricked footpath and the walls towering around me, and I hoped that my smuggled package would remain dry during my long walk from the Sanctuary.
I hobbled a little faster as I began to near my destination. This deal with Arcturus—this blessed torment—was what allowed me to see my sister for the past eleven years of my curséd life. At the end of every week, after evening prayer, I would spar with the Captain. We would fight until I could not. The infirmary became my haven, where I would lie bruised and battered; the window left open and a small bundle of twigs hidden under my pillow.
Our arrangement could be seen as one that was mutually beneficial for the three of us. Arcturus would gain a means of control over the Guardians' most disobedient initiate, and I would treasure the fleeting moments I was able to spend with my beloved sister.
Finally, I reached the crumbling archway tucked into the far corner of the market, the faint orange glow emanating from its stone mouth never failing to lift my weary spirit. Ducking my head under its low ceiling, I entered the sheltered courtyard within.
As always, she was waiting for me, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
"Cassandra," she greeted me warmly. "My dear sister."
She was so beautiful.
Pulling back the hood of my cloak, I glanced back into the darkness as I stepped into the flickering light of the fire. "Hush, Gwen. Do not voice my name so loudly."
She dropped her gaze to the floor. "I'm sorry."
There was a short pause.
"I missed you, Cassandra. It is so very good to see you again."
The earnestness in the deep purple of her eyes caused the reproach to falter on my tongue, and I was once again reminded of the impossibility of staying angry at Gwen for more than a moment.
Sitting down beside her by the fire, I retrieved the bundle of twigs from my furled robes and placed it into her hands. Her fingers were chilled to the touch, and my brow furrowed in concern.
"Gwen, you're cold."
Gwen withdrew her hands with a gentle smile. "Do not mind me, dear sister. The air has been a little cooler as of late, that is all."
"And I am sure," she added before I could interject, her eyes running sympathetically over the bruises forming on my face, "that any slight discomforts of mine are nothing compared to what you endure during your weekly exercises."
I considered her for a long moment before turning towards the bonfire. "I would not forfeit them for the world."
We lapsed into silence, and Gwen shifted closer to my side, resting her head upon my shoulder. The quiet crackling of the flames was soothing, and I found my eyelids beginning to droop.
Falling into a light doze, I almost did not hear my sister's soft voice as she knelt beside me.
I blinked down at her. "Hm?"
"I love you."
My heart swelled in my chest at her sweet words. "Oh, Gwen. I love you too."
She nodded into my shoulder. "I know, dear sister. I just feel that we do not say it enough."
I did not deny Gwen's simple statement. Instead, I draped my arm over her and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head lightly.
It was a sad truth. More often than not, we did little else than lean against each other in front of the fire, both of us too drained from our duties to share more than a comfortable, peaceful silence.
Feeling Gwen nestle her small frame further into my breast, I knew that I would lie in bed that night wide awake, the cruelness of fate rearing its head in my mind for the thousandth time.
A fate that had left my younger sister weak and frail, scorned and rejected by society while I flourished, having taken everything from our mother—a mother that Gwen would never know. The midwife present at my birthing had been stunned speechless by the crystal blue of my eyes; she had wiped the wetness from my strands of golden hair with trembling, reverent hands.
Indeed, I had been declared perfect before I could even speak, destined to enter the Sanctuary and devote my life to safeguard what lay within. I was our parents' pride and joy for the decade they were allowed to raise me, a divine blessing from the gods for a lowly soldier and his wife. No honour was greater than one's child to be chosen as a Guardian, revered protectors of the fire that allowed humanity to ascend from the cold, swirling mists that blanketed the earth.
And then followed Gwen—beautiful, innocent Gwen.
She was to be named Guinevere, fair sister of the radiant Cassandra. But she was carried in the womb for a bare seven months before being thrust prematurely into the world, our mother's exhausted body mustering what little strength it had left to give my sister her one chance at life.
Gwen's slight stirring roused me from my melancholy thoughts, and I looked down at her slender form lovingly as I ran my fingers through her silvery hair. She murmured unintelligibly before returning to her slumber, breathing softly through her mouth.
How such a delicate, gentle creature was branded as Unclean was something that mystified me every time I lay eyes on her. She was so sweet, so loving; I had never heard Gwen speak ill of anyone. And yet, for being born feeble and thus unable to work the hard soil in the fields, she had been bound to a bonfire in the Sanctuary's shadow, her very soul providing heat and light to the people who had damned her to a wretched half-life.
Cruelty: born from the Darkness and mastered by humanity.
I sighed heavily, and the movement caused my sister to awaken. She peered up at me, blinking enquiringly.
"Sister? What's wrong?"
Holding her at arm's length, I stared into her eyes. "Gwen, please do not lie to me. Are you unwell?"
She looked away, and a chill swept over me.
I tipped her face back towards me. "Please, Gwen."
She remained silent for a long moment.
When she finally spoke, her voice was barely discernible. "Cassandra, the fire…it is beginning to die."
I shook my head desperately, refusing to accept her words—refusing to accept the consequences.
Please, gods, let her be wrong.
"That cannot be, Gwen. The kindling I bring you...you said it was enough!"
Gwen stilled my shaking hands between her own. "It is enough, dear sister. But my soul has become weary with the years; I cannot sustain the flames for much longer."
Smiling sadly, she pressed her cold forehead against mine. "Do not mind me, Cassandra. I'm happy, truly—I have you, do I not?"
I gritted my teeth against the tears threatening to fall. "I'm not letting you die, Gwen. Not like this."
The soft expression in her eyes sparked a burning anger in the pit of my stomach, and I hugged Gwen to my chest fiercely.
Not like this.
Rising to my feet, I took in the sight of my beloved sister, looking up at me tenderly as she knelt amongst the black ashes of the bonfire.
"I will find a way," I whispered. "I promise."