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Farrel continued his work as I told him a summarized version of how we ended up at the tower. I brought up Gamath, but made no attempt to tell the story–it was far too long and it made my chest turn tight to think of Sedwick changed, and Baldwin…dead. The man’s eyes remained on his work, but I could see his ears visibly tweak in my direction as he pressed the fresh bandages around Lethia’s torso. I noticed there was an ointment or salve of some sort spread over her wounds before the bandages covered them from sight. Encouraged by his skill and confidence, I helped him by propping the girl up, and while I went on telling our tale, I glanced at Elmiryn to see how she was doing. The woman had migrated further down the room to closer inspect the sleeping soldier. Then she drifted toward the open cabinets which Farrel had left open prior.
I went on quietly.
“…After Lethia was taken, we saw that there was a a loose but visible connection between what happened in Gamath and what is happening in Belcliff. It’s like…a looming sort of presence or heavy aura in the air. One of our companions has been suffering strange dreams about…about…ah…” I faltered and the halfling looked at me with curious eyes. I looked up at Elmiryn again. She was looking closely at bottles, still at the other side of the room. I shrugged one shoulder and laid Lethia down. Farrel was done wrapping the bandage around her torso. “Well, anyway, we decided to help Lethia and her mistress. So far everyone working with us has a reason to want to help them.”
“Sounds like I’m on the right side,” The man chuckled. “A wizard, two monster tamers, an enchantress, a therian, and an ex-soldier? Gods! Even with the marshal’s men, I get the feeling they’re outmatched!”
“Who says you’re on our side?” Elmiryn said as she came near us, holding three bottles with her right arm.
Farrel looked at her, his grin fading.
The woman looked down at him, her eyebrow quirking. “Well go on, Rabbit. What makes you think you’re with us?”
I looked at her, aghast. “Elle, I thought the matter was settled!”
Elmiryn shook her head. “How do I know he won’t backstab us the first chance he gets?”
“You didn’t have such qualms with Hakeem!”
“Well the wizard was different. We had him trapped and he had the option of fleeing. He chose not to. He chose to put himself into unnecessary peril on our behalf. That’s a level bit more trustworthy than this guard, who I’ve known all but ten minutes and seems more inclined to saving his own skin than putting up a fight.”
“Are you saying I’m at fault for not wanting to harm the ones who showed me mercy?” Farrel said angrily. He stood up and stared the woman down.
Elmiryn threw the bottles on the bed where they bounced and clinked together. She smirked at him. “I’m saying you have a poor concept of fealty.”
“I owe the marshal nothing! I was a traveler, an honest entrepreneur selling paper imported from Santos. It had a small harmless charm to it that brought inspiration to any that wrote on it, but I was accused of black magic and put to trial.” The man rolled his eyes and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “They found me innocent of black magic, but decided I still violated the law. ‘Smuggling contraband and reckless magical exposure,’ they said. So they confiscated my merchandise and forced me to become a guard. I’ve only been here three months! Even after this escape plan of yours is finished, I’ll still be here for another seven months with the daesce snorting at me through the gaps in the barred windows! What fealty am I supposed to have, woman!?”
Elmiryn shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “Either way, you’re coming with us now. See, the girl was supposed to sap the information about the tower from your head, but after her run-in with a daesce, I’ll be lucky if she can tell me what a hungry person is supposed to do with their food. So I need you to do her job instead. Do you remember much about this prison? The layout, the security?”
Farrel frowned and rubbed his forehead. “I…remember some. But it’s filled with gaps. I can tell you about the next three floors, but not beyond that. I’ve never been up there. There’s atleast four more floors.”
I interjected pointing at Lethia. “Wait! We aren’t going to leave Lethia here, are we?”
Elmiryn shook her head. “No. One of you two will have to carry her. There’s a chance she might be able to tell us whatever the Rabbit can’t. If she wakes up. Plus, if what he’s saying is true, we can try and see if she can sap some more information about the upper floors from one of the other guards.”
“Is that wise, pushing her like that? She passed out the last time she tried such a stunt!” Farrel objected.
Elmiryn gave him a hard look. “No, she passed out saving your gods damn life when she didn’t fucking have to. Saving her mistress was her mission, and she would’ve wanted to keep going. So if something happens to her, I promise there will be no mercy at the tip of my sword.”
Farrel’s exhaled harshly through his nose, his wisterian eyes flashing.
I shook my head and held up my hand. “At this point, I’m not sure we can afford anymore fighting. With each other, or these guards! Which begs the question how we’re supposed to even make it through three floors, let alone seven? Look at the state we’re in! Lethia hurt and unconscious, you with an injured arm–”
“You’d be surprised what I can do with one arm,” Elmiryn said, grinning.
I rolled my eyes. “Your confidence is reassuring, but not by much. Holzoff’s isn’t a common jailhouse–it’s a prison. And one of the best, as I’ve heard tell. I’m amazed we even got in!”
Farrel looked at me, a small line down the middle of his brow. “Holzoff’s Tower, for a place under constant threat from the monsters outside, is quite a place. The walls are as thick as four men and reinforced with a steel skeleton. There are less than seventy prisoners held here, actually, so each floor is rather small. The stairs wind up, and to reach the next flight you must cross the floor in question. That’s if you know all the codes for entry. The lower floors, the ones I have access to, hold two to three prisoners in each of the five cells. There are five guards on each floor. Beyond that, I can’t really say. Some of the others have told me that they keep the special prisoners there–the ones awaiting death and nobles owing outstanding debts. The top floor is where the prison’s warden stays. I hear that’s where they’re keeping Syria of Albias as well.”
“Of course,” Elmiryn chuckled dryly.
The man’s eyes lit up. “But I’ve an idea! We recently got a message from Belcliff warning us that you would be coming. No one ever sees these messages directly save for the warden, and he’s always holed up in his office. Since no one knows what these documents actually look like, I can fabricate an official writ from Belcliff and pretend that two of you are new prisoners that the marshal has sent. It takes over a day for an escort to arrive at the tower, so you can act as though you hadn’t heard about the prison break threat! I can make the writ, rouse some of the guards, and dupe them into helping me. The fact that they think it’s real will make our lie even more authentic!” He pointed at me. “You’ll have to play the role as bounty hunter and pretend you were the one who caught your companions. It has to be you, as you’re the only one who isn’t hurt. I’ve seen this once before since I’ve started working here. Bounty hunters have two options–either write up a debriefing regarding the prisoner in question, or earn some extra gold aiding in their escort to Holzoff’s to deliver the debriefing personally. When I started here, I saw one man brought in such a way. All we’ll need to do is put your friends in chains and get you something nicer to wear.”
“How far do you think we can carry this ruse? Up to the top?” Elmiryn asked. “What happens if you’re guard friends, the ones you’ll get to help us, wise up?”
Farrel shrugged with a sigh. “After what I’ve done with those guards outside, there’s no way I’ll be able to resume my time in peace here. I’m in this as much as you are now. So I’m giving you the best plan I’ve got.” The man let a crooked smile spread across his lips. He gestured at our grimy, blood stained appearance up and down. “Unless you’re trying to tell me that your master plan has gone exactly as expected, I really don’t see how my idea is any worse than what you’ve been through already!”
Elmiryn sucked at her teeth and looked at me. “He has a point.”
I said nothing, only rubbed at my chin and stared down at the ground. I was already feeling nervous just at the idea of having to “pretend” to be anything…but I had done it once before. Prior to receiving my Mark, I had done my share of undercover work for the Ailuran resistance, so in a way, I was familiar with pretending to be what I wasn’t. But at the time, it wasn’t easy, and given how unfamiliar I was with the particular role I was to play, I was even less comfortable with the idea. But with luck, the plan would result in no more violence, which was good–because we were hardly in the shape to see any more battle, even with Farrel’s help.
I sighed and pulled off my ruined tunic. “…Okay. I’ll need to clean up, too. Have you any place I can do that?”
Farrel nodded and jerked with his head. “Yes, let me show you.” He looked at Elmiryn. “If you could wait here with your friend while I show Nyx to the wash room?”
The woman nodded and sat down on the bed next to Lethia’s. She looked at me. “Will you be alright?”
“Yes,” I said, touching her shoulder as I followed Farrel out the room. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
The man shut the door behind him as we entered the curved hallway. He gestured for me to follow him. Our steps made light sounds on the stone floor, and my body tightened when we came to the first door on the left. It was closed, but the halfling turned to me with a finger at his lips. I swallowed and gave him a nod, being careful to shift my weight back so that my footsteps didn’t come down hard. Not much further down the hall, we came to a door on the right. He opened it, taking up the nearest torch on the wall and entered first. I follow him in as he placed the torch into a corner at the the far wall of the wash room.
The center of the room was clear save for a stool and a drain in the center. As I walked further into the room, I noted how the tiled floor was a small concave where the drain was meant to catch the water. Beneath the torch against the far wall was a low partition that resembled a counter, only the surface of it was at an angle. Then, as I came closer, I saw that there were hinges at the back, and Farrel opened this and reached into the dark. He pulled out a rope, and I realized it was a well. It took him a minute, and I could see his arms bulging from the effort as he put one foot on the partition and leaned back far, but soon the heavy bucket was out of the well and sloshing water on the ground.
He set the bucket down, then scooped up a ladle that was hanging on the wall, and pointed at the right, where a shelf housed spare towels and fresh underwear–long cotton leggings and plain tanks.
“There’s all you need there to get you started. I’ll come back and knock on the door three times when I’ve found some armor you can use,” Farrel said, already backpedaling toward the door.
I nodded at him and turned, my clawed hands reaching to undo the bandage around my chest. I got the knot undone and was done removing two wrappings when my mind whispered that something wasn’t right. I paused, and tilted my head, then my face grew hot as I made the connection.
The door hadn’t shut yet.
I whipped my head around, claws at the ready and a hiss building up the back of my throat. My Twin was a hot burn at the back of my eyes. But I stopped at the sight of Farrel staring at me with wide eyes and a deep scowl.
“I heard them say it, you know. That you were a Marked therian,” The man gestured at me with his chin. “I hadn’t got a good look at it till now. This half hour I think I’ve been trying to focus just on helping your friend, and what you did for me. But…I know what the symbols on your back mean. I lived near the Ailuran nation, visited their villages and towns even. I know what those symbols mean…You…what you’ve done…” He gripped the door tightly, his eyes shining as he turned his gaze to the ground. My spine curled and I hugged my body as tightly as I could. My throat had become so tight I could barely breathe.
I suddenly wished Elmiryn were there. I wanted to hide in her shadow…and I hated myself for it.
“My mother always told me” The man went on, “That critical moments in life, small but important, are what paint a person’s true quality, not…not the tapestry of life as a whole. Just choice moments bundled together, like the broken pieces of a beautiful vase.”
Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then slowly let his eyes crawl back to me. His head was angled so that his brows came low ever his gaze. It was aggressive, and it made me tense, but I sensed nothing of danger. Just…just–
“Tell me I won’t regret helping you,” He said in a low voice. “I’m an honest man, and for all my mother’s words, I know that a person can step with the right foot as much as the left–so tell me I won’t regret helping you!”
I swallowed. My eyes were blurring and I didn’t want to speak. I wanted the man to go and leave me alone. I could feel the lines of my Mark, tingling almost, as though it wanted to remind me just what I really was.
I shook my head slowly. “I…can’t. I can’t tell you that. I am in no such place to guarantee that the path I walk with my companions wouldn’t bring misfortune to you. So you would be within your rights to not trust me. To find me disgusting and irredeemable. You truly would be. But…” I swallowed and forced myself to stand straight. Tears leaked down my face but I fought to kept my face from crumpling like paper. I started trembling from the effort of looking Farrel in the face, and I thought my guts would fall out for the shame and fear. When I spoke, my voice was taut with the effort of not breaking down into sobs. “Farrel, you decide for yourself if you want to change your mind. I received this Mark as punishment because I made horrible decisions, and they haunt me everyday. I hold no pride, no joy, no peace over what has occurred in my past. But don’t just think of me–there are others you would be turning on should you decide not to help us. Others, like the girl you just treated, or the boy outside I told you about who is fighting to keep sane. I’m…I’m here because I have been cast out from my people, and rightfully so–but with Elmiryn I think I may have found a way to balance out my blighted existence. And…I will fight any who try to harm my friends, with all my might. Protecting those I loved was all I ever wanted to do. Shame me for my mistakes, but you cannot shame me for my intentions!”
I bared my teeth, and my claws bit so deep into my arms that I felt blood trickle down to my elbows, but suddenly I didn’t care. Suddenly I was angry. Angry that this man would even consider damning Elmiryn, Lethia, or even Paulo just for the spite of me…and at such a critical time! I swiped at my face, wanting the tears gone. If I had to stop him, I would, and we’d just have to figure out another way to the seventh floor of the tower. I would make it happen. All at once, Lethia’s determination was mine.
I would make this work. No matter what.
Farrel closed his eyes and rubbed at his face harshly. He breathed out a curse and slammed his fist against his temple. “Öctér! Okay…alright. I see your point. I’m…sorry, for bringing this up now. It does nothing to help you or me. Perhaps another time, another day, when we aren’t at threat of losing our lives, I’ll get the full story from you. For now, know that you can trust in me.” He smiled weakly, but I saw a staleness in his eyes. “I’ll be back with your change of clothes.”
After my short speech I felt drained of the energy to speak, so I gave him a silent nod. Within the next moment, the man shut the door, and I collapsed onto the stool, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
Elmiryn stared down at Lethia with her elbow digging into her knee from the weight of propping her head. Her fist started to slide up her cheek so that her eye was forced into a squint, but the woman didn’t move. It was funny seeing the girl through one squinted, blurry eye. She looked like a an upside down monster, with a blue pronged head, a white face, and wheat colored tentacles that fanned up along with the body. As far as monsters went, Elmiryn had to say she liked this one best. The daesce were horrible nightmares mimicking sentient life, and batrengs were annoying little imps. Scultones were convenient but far too big to bring around for fun. But blue pronged monsters with white faces and tentacles? How nice and simple! How diverse! How–
“Wait…” the woman muttered, rubbing at her face as she felt a wave of cold sweep through her. Her palm came away, cool with sweat, and she frowned down at her lap. “Blue monsters? What the fuck’m I talking about?” She chuckled. “Why would a blue monster be sitting with me when Lethia is supposed to be in the same spot?” Her smile faded and she poked the girl in the arm, just to be certain it was an arm. Just to be certain there was anything there at all–the last fifteen minutes was getting hard to recall, and her mind danced with phantoms playing with scarlet ribbons, but who could make sense of such confusion?
“Hey kid, you with me?”
Elmiryn trailed up Lethia’s arm where her fingers tangled in the girl’s long hair. “Kid?” she breathed.
When no response came, the woman drew back her hand with a sigh. She twisted around and eyed the man down the room. Still quiet, still silent, still missing parts like a machine broken by an inept operator. She thought about some of the machines she saw in Fiamma–hunks of metal that ran on steam and sometimes magic and sometimes both. Shiny creations of copper and steel. This man was not shiny. Nor was he made of copper or steel. Yet the woman found no better word to attribute to him other than “broken”.
Elmiryn stood from the bed and crossed the room so that she stood at the end of the guard’s bed. The man’s face was entirely covered in a bandage. She was aware that this was not good for the man, would perhaps result in his end, because it made him less of a man, which made the woman’s sense of sympathy for him almost non-existent. She knew this much and yet felt her conscience turn a blind eye to the logic anyway. She had known what real men, injured in war, looked like. Even with her curse, it was something deep and powerful, like a ghostly instinct that failed to fade even given the circumstances. Her heart knew it so well–the bloody limbs, the deep cuts, the burned flesh. It was War. That was the gift her father gave her, and that was the destiny her god pressed upon her, and that was the call that society screamed at her.
But this thing on the bed, this broken machine, was not a relative of War, and thus was not her kin. Elmiryn floated nearer, to get a better look at the thing and its rods and shafts, all wrapped up and leaking red oil. The thing jerked. The woman’s eyes narrowed and she drew her knife from its sheath. It was the enemy’s weapon. What if the guards got it to work again? What if the weapon was put back together again and turned on her? On Lethia? On Nyx? The woman’s jaw clenched.
She reached down and jabbed the blade into what she recognized to be the main shaft. The machine shuddered, making a grinding, bubbling noise before its parts turned still and it made no sound. She pulled the knife away with a jerk and wiped the blade clean on the sheets. Then she took the blanket and pulled it over the ruined creation.
Then Elmiryn walked back to Lethia’s bed and resumed her seat next to the girl, feeling a little more at ease. She tried to remember the significance red ribbons, bandaged faces, and blue tentacled monsters had for her.
She tried and tried.
A long-sleeved thick cotton weave shirt, dyed ash grey, beneath a long black leather tunic. There were extensions from the shoulders that tapered down and were tied around my upper arms by slim leather belts. On the left shoulder, at the back was a gold ring, and at lower right of the tunic, against the back of my right thigh, was another large golden ring. Farrel slipped a slim rapier through both rings, and it was a menacing weight on my back. On my forearms were studded bracers, which bothered me because I wasn’t use to the constant press on my muscles, but the man insisted, stating that the costume didn’t seem right without them. I wore dark leggings beneath heavy wool pants, and menacing leather boots that came up to my knees. We had to stuff strips of cloth in the tips just to keep my feet from sliding around too much, because the boots were far too large for me. Still they were an improvement over the makeshift pair that I had been left to use before.
When I asked Farrel where he had gotten the armor and clothes, he smiled humorlessly. “As you saw, we like to scavenge what we can from the daesce’s bloody claws. This outfit you’re wearing took two years to put together, apparently. The sad thing is none of the pieces fit anyone, save for those boots–but the boots belonged to a recently deceased guard who’d been stationed here a long time. No one wanted to wear them. You’re lucky.”
Any other time I would’ve disagreed with such a statement, and it certainly didn’t make me pleased to know I was wearing dead men’s clothing, but I couldn’t deny that there was an odd sort of providence in the situation. Given my run of luck, I certainly wasn’t going to be picky. It felt good being clean again, anyway.
The two of us returned to find that Elmiryn had fallen asleep in her chair. I sighed and touched her shoulder.
“Elle.” The woman didn’t respond. Her head simply fell forward and I became fearful. I gave her another hard shake. “Elmiryn?”
“We have smelling salts,” Farrel said, pointing at the collection of bottles next to the bed. “I was meaning to try it on your other friend once we were ready to go.”
I wanted to believe the woman could wake without much aid–in such a dangerous place with so much still yet to get through, I had to believe that Elmiryn was up to making it through. Uncertain of what else to try, I leaned down next to Elmiryn’s ear and said her name one more time.
The warrior’s eyes flew open and she turned and looked at me in mild confusion. Her eyes fluttered as she took in my new outfit, then she reached up and took a lock of my hair between her fingers. “Nyx?” she breathed.
I nodded, sighing in relief. I cupped her cheek. “Yes, Elle. I’m right here.”
Elmiryn looked me up and down. Then she pouted her lower lip and raised her eyebrows. “Not bad!”
I grimaced, “I certainly hope it’s enough! I’m not sure if I can pull off menacing.”
The woman chuckled. “Sure you can.”
Farrel sidled past us to reach the bedside table. “Pardon me.” He plucked up a bottle filled with small translucent bits, which I then noted to be the smelling salts. “I hope this works for your friend. She’s very much out of it.”
Elmiryn and I watched as he uncorked the bottle and held it beneath the girl’s nose. He waved it slowly back and forth for a moment, then made a disappointed frown. My heart sank.
As he started to pull away, that’s when Lethia awoke with a cough.
She breathed in deep, her puffy eyelids snapping up to reveal blotchy red eyes. They teared up, likely from the powerful salts, and rolled about in their sockets before they settled on us. I was careful not to meet her gaze dead on, but the teenager seemed conscious of this even after just waking. The girl took a breath.
“…Nyx? Elmiryn?” she whispered. I noted something odd about the way she said our names, but given the volume she was speaking in, I couldn’t immediately place it. Next her eyes flickered to Farrel, and her face drew up in a frown. “You’re…helping?” she asked.
Farrel nodded. “Lethia Artaud. I owe you and your friend. I want to help you. This is my wish.”
The girl’s lips pulled into a shaky smile. “Thank you.” Then Lethia’s eyes hardened and she pushed up on her elbows. I moved forward–maybe to help her, maybe to stop her. At the moment I can’t recall, but Elmiryn stopped me with a hand. Farrel looked on with a look of intense concern, and though it appalled me at how manipulative it seemed, I was glad to see such an expression on his face. If I couldn’t convince him to continue helping us, Lethia’s determination despite her pain certainly could.
Within the minute, the girl was sitting on the edge of the bed. She had a distant look to her, and I wondered how much longer she could continue pushing herself.
Elmiryn stood. “Are we just about ready?”
Farrel nodded. “The last thing we need is on the way to the staircase. We should start moving before the guards down the hall wake up for shift change.”
The warrior and the guard helped Lethia stand, and the enchantress managed to walk on her own–if a bit slowly and shakily. As a group we exited the room and followed Farrel down the hallway, where he stopped at a door adjacent to the staircase. He opened it with a key, and inside was a small arms closet, where spare weapons and the like were found. He slipped in, carrying a torch, and came out a second later holding two pairs of manacles. Warily he held them out to me.
“Help me put these on your friends…” the man said with a wince.