The agonising pain had long faded, leaving in its wake a vast lassitude, as if every cell in her body had been ripped apart and now had to pull itself back together. She felt tired on a level that she hadn't known existed. Beyond her bones and down into the deepest recesses of her marrow, she felt exhausted. The spark of stubbornness in her mind refused to allow her to sink into unconsciousness, and though it was the hardest thing that she had ever done, she forced her eyes open. She still lay in the stone basin, the hard stone unyielding beneath her. Above her the dull light of the enchanted stone was slowly fading, pitching the space into twilight. Morrelia grimaced hard and stretched out her hands. Her body screamed at her not to move, every muscle aching, but she wouldn't listen.
With the gradual movement of an invalid, she pulled herself upright and supported her weight against the wall. Below her, the final drops of concentrated mana were draining away, falling beneath, doubtlessly to be recycled and used again to torment the next trainee to qualify for this hellish process. She took a deep breath and slowly turned around, her bare feet shuffling against the stone. When she finally managed to set her feet and took a moment to steady herself, she looked up to find her father looking at her, a rare show of emotion showing on his face. Pride radiated from eyes but also great sorrow and she knew that he was mourning his son all over again in this moment.
"Congratulations Legionary," Titus voice was rough and tired as she was, Morrelia swore she could she moisture in his eyes.
Morrelia could barely find the energy to smile, but she did.
"Thank you commander," she said.
She couldn't remember what happened next. Later Titus would tell her that she'd passed out on the spot, he'd had to leap forward to stop her from smacking her stubborn head against the rock. When she awoke she was in a small room, on a hard bed. As she groggily took the room in, she realised the furniture was austere, basic. The bed was large enough, but hard, unyielding and the walls were unadorned, bare, except for one thing. On a simple steel hook hung the black leathers of a full Legionary uniform and the moment she saw it she cried. When she gathered herself and put it on, she left her chamber to find her father leaning against the wall in the corridor.
"Come with me," he said.
The two of them travelled in silence through the fortress, neither willing to break the companionable silence that had broken out between them. Both of their lives had changed the moment she had opened her eyes. It was hard for Morrelia to grasp that she had achieved the dream she'd had since she was a child, the dream she'd shared with her brother. She wasn't sure how to feel, or what to say. Likewise, her father didn't trust himself to speak. His chest was full of emotions and he was afraid that if he opened his mouth he'd no longer be able to keep them contained, so he remained silent.
Through the twisted corridors they walked, passed soldiers standing silent and tall on sentry duty, and auxiliaries working hard to fulfill the thousands of tasks that the fortress needed to keep itself running, until finally they came to an inscribed wall covered in carved script. She threw a confused glance at her father and he dropped his chin to his broad chest, his eyes hooded.
"Go and talk to your brother," he instructed.
Morrelia felt her heart beat faster at this command and turned back to the wall, covered in neat rows of names. She stepped closer, her eyes trailing through the list, searching for one that was familiar. The closer she came to the end, the more she began to recognise. Seniors who had gone delving when she was still a trainee, even some in the year directly above her. Finally she found what she was looking for. Romanus Marius. She raised one hand and let her calloused fingers trail through the grooves that made her brother's name. Even now, years later, she felt as if she could never forget his face, his voice. He'd been such a presence, able to lift others up and make them want to be the best version of themselves. He'd been charismatic, charming, somebody people wanted to follow, everything that she wasn't. She'd hated him for that, even as she'd admired him. He would just laugh at her.
"Morr, you're being ridiculous," he would smile and say, "don't you think there are things that you can do better than me?"
She remembered staring at him, dumbfounded. Romanus was perfect! What could she possibly do better than him?! He must have read her expression, because he shook his head, stepped forward and placed a hand on the top of her head. "Trust me, Morr. By the time you're done, I'll be looking up to you."
Lost in her memories, she didn't hear her father step up behind her, his feet slow and heavy.
"This wall," he stated, "carries the names of all of those trainees who didn't survive the baptism."
Shock and indignation filled Morrelia at this and her head flew up to stare at her father. Titus met her gaze and slowly shook his head. Of course he wouldn't lie to her.
"Nobody could believe it. He had passed every trial, every test, every measurement with flying colours. He was so far above the minimum levels, he was practically assured to succeed. Your mother was devastated, I was lost. We just didn't imagine that it would happen to him."
Morrelia still refused to believe it.
"It's not possible! How could I have succeeded where he failed? You can't possibly explain that?!"
There was sorrow in Titus' eyes as he looked down at his daughter. He raised his arms and embraced her as he hadn't done in years. "I don't why he failed. I just don't know. I wish I had an explanation, but even now I have no words. No matter how I searched I haven't found anything to explain what happened. But this is something you need to understand, and something Romanus tried to tell you many times. He believed it, and I always believed it as well. You will be stronger than he was. One day, you'll be stronger than me."
Despite her father's words, Morrelia refused to believe it, but her voice had been stolen away, so she couldn't say anything. Instead she tried to digest the truth that she had tried to find for so long. Despite finally getting the answers she had wanted, all she was left with was bitterness, and determination.
Two days later, the Legion prepared to travel through the gate. They would enter the main legion headquarters, deep below the ground, an impregnable stronghold built during the Cataclysm thousands of years ago.