Chapter 5: Esrahaddon
They entered into total darkness. The air was dry, still, and stale. The only sound came from the rainwater dripping from their clothes. Hadrian took a few blind steps forward to make sure he was completely through the barrier before releasing Myron’s hand. “See anything, Royce?” he asked in a whisper so quiet it could scarcely be heard.
“No, not a thing. Everyone stay still until Myron gets the lantern lit.”
Hadrian could hear Myron fiddling in the dark. He tilted his head, searching in vain for anything to focus on. There was nothing. He could have had his eyes closed. Myron scraped the tiny metal lever on his tinder pad, and a burst of sparks emitted from the monk’s lap. In the flare, Hadrian saw faces glaring from the darkness. They appeared briefly and vanished with the dying brilliance.
No one moved or spoke as Myron scrapped the pad again. This time the tinder caught fire, and the monk lit the wick of the lantern. The light revealed a narrow hallway, only five feet wide, and a ceiling which was so high it was lost in darkness. Lining both walls were carvings of faces, as if people standing on the other side of a gray curtain were pressing forward to peer at them. Seemingly caught in a moment of anguish frozen forever in stone, their terrible ghastly visages stared back at them with gaping mouths and wild eyes.
“Pass up the light,” Royce ordered softly.
As the lantern moved from Myron to Royce, its light shone on more faces. To Hadrian, it seemed as if they screamed at the intruders, but the corridor remained still and silent. Some of the figures had eyes wide with fear, while others were shut tight, perhaps to avoid seeing something too frightening to look at.
“Someone certainly had a morbid taste in decorating,” Royce said, taking the lantern.
“I’m just thankful they’re only carvings. Imagine if we could hear them,” Alric said.
“What makes you think they’re carvings?” Hadrian asked, reaching out to gingerly touch the nose of a woman with glaring eyes. He half expected warm skin and was grateful when his fingers met cold stone. “Maybe they let go of their gemstones too soon.”
Royce held the lantern up high. “The passage keeps going.”
“More faces?” Alric asked.
“More faces,” the thief confirmed.
“At least we’re out of the rain,” Hadrian said, trying to sound cheerful. “We could still be back…” When he turned around, he was shocked. The corridor extended behind them seemingly without end. “Where’s the wall we just came through?” He took a step and reached out. “It’s not an illusion. The hallway keeps going.” Turning back, Hadrian saw Royce pressing on the sides of the corridor, unlike the wall outside, his hand did not penetrate the surface.
“Well, this is going to make matters difficult,” the thief muttered.
“There must be another way out, right?” Alric asked, his voice a bit shaky.
The thief looked back, then forward, and sighed. “We might as well travel in the direction we entered. Here, Alric, take your ring back, although I’m not sure what good it will do you in here.”
Royce led them down the corridor. He checked and tested anything that appeared suspicious. The passage went on for what seemed like eternity. Despite the hallway appearing perfectly straight and level, Hadrian began to wonder if the dwarves had built in an imperceptible curve that made the hallway loop back onto itself to form a circle. He also worried about the amount of oil left in Myron’s lantern. It would not be long before they were cast back into utter darkness.
The lack of variation in their surroundings made it impossible to judge exactly how long they had been walking. After awhile something luminescent appeared in the distance. A tiny light bobbed and weaved. As the light drew closer, the echo of sharp, deliberate footsteps accompanied it. At last, Hadrian could discern the figure carrying a lamp. He was tall, trim, and wore a long-hooded hauberk. Over this was a scarlet and gold tabard that shimmered in the lamplight. The tabard was marked with a regal coat of arms depicting a celestial crown and a jeweled scepter above a shield divided into quarters and supported on either side by combatant lions. At his side was an ornate sword, and on his head, a pointed silver helm exquisitely etched with gold ivy trim. Below the helm was a pair of dark eyes, and an even darker look.
“Why are you here?” His tone was reproachful and threatening.
There was a pause before Royce replied. “We are here to see the prisoner.”
“That is not allowed,” he responded firmly.
“Then Esrahaddon is still alive?” asked Alric.
“Do not speak that name!” thundered the sentry. He cast a tense look over his shoulder into the darkness. “Not here, not ever here. You should not have come.”
“That may be, but we are here and we need to see Esra—the prisoner,” Royce replied.
“That will not be possible.”
“Make it possible,” Alric ordered. His voice was loud and commanding. He stepped out from behind the others. “I am King Alric of Melengar, lord of this land wherein you stand. You will not tell me what is and what is not possible within the boundaries of my own kingdom.”
The sentry took a step back and eyed Alric critically. “You lack a crown, king.”
Alric drew his sword. Despite its size, he handled it smoothly and extended the point at the sentry. “What I lack in a crown, I more than make up for in a sword.”
“A sword will not avail you. None who dwell here fear death any longer.” Hadrian could not tell whether it was the weight of the sentry’s words or the weight of the sword, but Alric lowered his blade. “Do you have proof of your rank?”
Alric extended a clenched hand. “This is the seal of Melengar, symbol of the House of Essendon and emblem of this realm.”
The sentry stared at the ring and nodded. “If you are the reigning sovereign of the realm, you do have the right to enter. But know this, there is magic at work here. You will do well to follow me closely.” He turned and led them back the way he had come.
“Do you recognize the emblem on the guard?” Hadrian whispered to Myron as they followed him.
“Yes, that is the coat of arms of the Novronian Empire, worn by the Percepliquis Imperial City Guard. It is very old.”
Their guide led them out of the corridor filled with faces, and Hadrian was grateful to be free of it. The hallway opened into a massive cavern with a vaulted ceiling carved from and supported by pillars of natural stone. Torches lining the walls revealed a magnificent expanse. It appeared large enough to hold all of Medford. They traversed it by crossing narrow bridges that spanned chasms and traveling through open arches that rose like great trees whose branches supported the mountain above.
There was no visible sign of wood, fabric, or leather. Everything—chairs, benches, desks, tables, shelves, and doors—was made of stone. Huge fountains hewn from rock gurgled with water from unseen springs. The walls and floors lacked the adornment of tapestries and carpets. Instead, carved into virtually every inch of the stone were intricate markings—strange symbols of elaborate twisted designs. Some of them were chiseled with a rough hand, while others were smoothly sculpted. At times, from the corner of his eye, Hadrian thought he saw the carved markings change as he passed them. Looking closely, he discovered it was not an illusion. The shifts were subtle, like cobwebs moving in the wake of their passing.
They moved deeper, and their escort did not pause or waver. He walked at a brisk pace, which at times caused Myron, who had the shortest legs, to trot in order to keep up. Their footfalls bounced off the hard walls throughout the stone chamber. The only other sounds Hadrian heard were voices, distant whispers of hidden conversations, but they were too faint for him to make out the words. Whether the sounds were from inhabitants around an unseen corner, or the result of some trick of the stone, it was impossible to tell.
Farther in, sentinels began to appear, standing guard along their path. Most were dressed identical to their guide, but others found deeper in the prison wore black armor with a simple white emblem of a broken crown. Sinister-looking helms hid their faces as they stood at perfect attention. None of them moved or said a word.
Once more Hadrian asked Myron about the emblem these men wore.
“The crest is used by the ancient order of the Seret Knights,” the monk explained quietly. “They were first formed eight hundred years ago by Lord Darius Seret, who was charged by Patriarch Venlin with the task of finding the lost Heir of Novron. The broken crown is symbolic of the shattered Empire which they seek to restore.”
Finally they reached what Hadrian assumed was their final destination. They entered an oval chamber with an incredibly tall door dominating the far wall. Carved of stone, it stood wreathed in a glittering array of fine spider web-like designs, which appeared organic in nature. Like the veins of a leaf or the delicate, curling tendrils of sprawling roots, the doorframe spread out until its artistry was lost in the shadows. On either side of the door stood dramatic obelisks covered with runes cut deep in beveled stone. Between these and the door, blue flames burned in braziers mounted on high pedestals.
A man sat on a raised chair behind a six-feet-tall stone desk that was exquisitely sculpted with intricate patterns of swirling lines. On two sides of the worktable, barrel-thick candles twice the height of a man burned. So many melted wax tears streaked down their sides that Hadrian thought they might once have been as tall as the great door.
“Visitors,” their guide announced to the clerk who, until then, had been busy writing in a massive book with a black feathered quill. The man looked up from his work. His gray beard hung all the way to the floor. Deeply lined with wrinkles, his face looked like the bark of an ancient tree.
“What are your names?” the clerk asked.
“I am Alric Brendon Essendon, son of Amrath Essendon, King of Melengar, Lord of the Realm, and I demand an audience with the prisoner.”
“The others?” the clerk motioned toward the rest.
“They are my servants, the Royal Protectors and my chaplain.”
The clerk rose from his seat and leaned forward to examine each party member in more detail. He looked into each of their eyes for a moment before he resumed his seat. He dipped his feather quill and turned to a new page. After a few moments of writing, he asked, “Why do you wish to see the prisoner?” With his quill poised, he waited for a reply.
“My business is not your concern,” Alric answered in a kingly voice.
“That may be, however, this prisoner is my concern, and if you have dealings with him, it is my business. I will know your purpose, or I will not grant you entry, king or not.”
Alric stared at the clerk for sometime before relenting. “I wish to ask him questions concerning the death of my father.”
The clerk considered this a moment, then scratched his quill on the page of the great book. When he finished, he looked up. “Very well. You may enter the cell, but you must obey our rules. They are for your own safety. The man to whom you wish to speak is no ordinary man. He is a thing, an ancient evil, a demon that we have successfully trapped here. Above all else, we are dedicated to keeping him confined. As you might imagine, he very much desires to escape. He is cunning and perpetually tests us. Constantly he is looking for a weakness, a break in a line, or a crack in the stone.
“First, proceed directly down the path to his confinement; do not tarry. Second, stay in the gallery; do not attempt to descend to his cage. Third, and this is the most important, do nothing he asks. No matter how insignificant it may sound. Do not be fooled by him. He is intelligent and cunning. Ask him your questions; then leave. Do not deviate from these rules. Do you understand?” Alric nodded. “Then may Novron have mercy on you.”
Just then, the great doors split along the central seam and slowly started to open. The loud grinding of stone on stone echoed until at last the doors stood wide. Beyond them lay a long stone bridge that spanned an abyss. The bridge was three-feet wide, as smooth as glass, and appeared no thicker than a sheet of parchment. At the far end of the span rose a column of black rock. An island-like tower, its only visible connection to the world appeared to be the delicate bridge.
“You may leave your lantern. You will have no need for it,” the clerk stated. Royce nodded but kept the lantern nevertheless.
As they stepped through the doorway, Hadrian heard a sound like singing, a faint mournful song as if a thousand voices joined in a somber dirge. The sad, oppressive music brought to mind the worst memories of his life and filled him with a misery so great it sapped his resolve. His feet felt weighted, his soul chilled. Moving forward became an effort.
Once the party crossed the threshold, the great doors began to close, shutting with a thundering boom. The chamber was well lit, although where the light source was not apparent. It was impossible to judge the height or the depth of the chasm. Both stretched into seeming emptiness.
“Are other prisons like this?” Myron asked, his voice quivering as they began to inch their way across the bridge.
“I would venture to guess this is unique,” Alric replied.
“Trust me, I know prisons,” Royce told them. “This is unique.”
The party fell into silence during the crossing. Hadrian was in the rear concentrating on the placement of his feet. Part way across he paused and glanced up briefly to check on the others. Myron was holding his arms out at his sides like a tightrope walker. Alric, half-crouching, reached out with his hands as if he might resort to crawling at any minute. Royce, however, strode casually forward with his head tilted up, and he frequently turned from side to side to study their surroundings.
Despite its appearance, the bridge was solid. They successfully crossed it to a small arched opening into the black tower. Once off the bridge, Royce turned to face Alric. “You were fairly free about revealing your identity back there, Your Majesty,” he reproached the monarch. “I don’t recall discussing a plan where you walk in and blurt out, ‘Hey, I’m the new king, come kill me.’”
“You don’t actually think there are assassins in here, do you? I know I thought this was a trap, but look at this place! Arista never could have arranged this. Or do you honestly think others will be able to slip in the same cliff door we entered through?”
“What I think is that there is no reason to take unnecessary chances.”
“Unnecessary chances? Are you serious? You don’t consider crossing a slick, narrow bridge over a gorge, which is who knows how high, not a risk? Assassins are the least of our worries.”
“Are you always this much trouble to your security?”
Alric’s only response was a look of disdain. The archway led to a narrow tunneled corridor, which eventually opened into a large round room. Arranged like an amphitheater, the gallery contained descending stairs and stone benches set in rings, each lower than the one before it, which focused all attention to the recessed center of the room. At the bottom of the steps was a balcony, and twenty feet below it lay a circular stage. Once they descended the stairs, Hadrian could see the stage was bare except for a single chair and the man who sat upon it.
An intense beam of white light illuminated the seated figure from high above. He did not appear terribly old, with only the start of gray entering into his otherwise dark, shoulder-length hair. Dark, brooding eyes gazed out from beneath a prominent forehead. No facial hair marred his high cheekbones, which surprised Hadrian because the few wizards and magicians he knew about all wore long beards as a mark of their profession. He wore a magnificent robe the color of which Hadrian could not quite determine. The garment shimmered somewhere between dark blue and smoky gray, but where it was folded or creased, it looked to be emerald green or at times even turquoise. The man sat with the robe gathered around him, his hands, lost in its folds, placed on his lap. He sat still as a statue, giving no indication he was aware of their presence.
“What now?” Alric whispered.
“You talk to him,” Royce replied.
The prince looked around thoughtfully. “That man down there can’t really be a thousand years old, can he?”
“I don’t know. In here, anything seems possible,” Hadrian said.
Myron looked around the room and up toward the unseen ceiling, a pained expression on his face. “That singing…it reminds me of the abbey, of the fire, as if I can hear them again…screaming.” Hadrian gently put a hand on Myron’s shoulder.
“Ignore it,” Royce told the monk and then turned to glare at Alric. “You have to talk to him. We can’t leave until you do. Now go ahead and ask him what you came here to find out.”
“What do I say? I mean, if he is, you know, really a wizard of the Old Empire, if he actually served the last Emperor, how do I approach him?”
“Try asking what he’s been up to,” Hadrian suggested, which was met by a smirk from Alric. “No, seriously look down there. It’s just him and a chair. He has no books, no cards, nothing. I nearly went crazy with boredom cooped up in The Rose and Thorn last winter during a heavy snowfall. How do you suppose he’s spent a thousand years just sitting in that chair?”
“And how do you not go insane, listening to that sound all that time,” Myron added.
“Okay, I’ve got something.” Alric turned to address the wizard. “Excuse me, sir.” The man in the chair slowly raised his head and blinked in response to the bright light from above. He looked weary, his eyes tired. “Sorry to disturb you. I am Alric Ess—”
“I know well who thou art,” Esrahaddon interrupted. His tone was relaxed and calm, his voice gentle and soothing. “I have expected thou ere long.” He raised an arm to shelter his eyes and peered at them. “Where doth thy sinlister be?”
“Thy sinlister, Arista art her name.”
“Oh, my sister.”
“Sis-ter,” the wizard repeated carefully and sighed, shaking his head.
“She is not here.”
“Why did she not come?”
Alric looked first to Royce and then to Hadrian.
“She asked us to come in her place,” Royce responded.
Looking at the thief, the wizard asked, “And thou art?”
“Me? I’m nobody,” Royce replied.
Esrahaddon narrowed his eyes at the thief and raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps, perhaps not.”
“My sister instructed me to come here and speak with you,” Alric said, drawing the wizard’s attention back to him. “Do you know why?”
“Because I told her to.”
“Neat trick since you’re locked in here,” Hadrian observed.
“Neat?” Esrahaddon questioned. “Dost thou mean to say, ’twas a clean thing? Or a well-done effort?” The four men responded with looks of confusion. “No matter, Arista hath been in the habit of visiting me for the last year. At least I think it hath been a year. ’Tis quite difficult to tell the time in this gaol. She fancies herself a student of The Art, only there art no schools for wizards left. She learned all she could and then sought me. She wished to be mine apprentice and I her grinder. I was bored, as thee can imagine. So I obliged her. She entertained me with news of the outside world and teacheth me to speak the new language style. I taught her some neat tricks.” His attention turned to Hadrian as he accentuated the last words.
“Tricks?” Alric asked concerned. “What kind of tricks?”
“Do not worry, dear boy, ’tis nothing of consequence. I believe thy father ’twas ill not long ago. I teacheth her to make a henth bylin.” They all looked at him puzzled. Esrahaddon’s gaze left them. He appeared to search for something. “Arista called it a…a…” His face strained with concentration. “Alas, I cannot remember.”
“A healing potion?” Myron asked.
The wizard eyed the monk carefully. “Yes, that is what she called the henth bylin—a healing potion.”
“You taught her to make a potion to give to my father?”
“Frightening, is it not? Such a devil as I, administering potions to a king. ’Tis nothing to concern thyself. I did not poison thy father. She had the same concern. I instructed her to bring a taste of the draught, and I drank it myself to prove there was no danger. She also sampled it for her own peace of mind. Neither of us died, nor grew horns, and thy father felt better, yes?”
“That doesn’t explain why Arista sent me here.”
“Was thy father recently killed?”
“Yes,” Alric said.
“That wouldst be why. I told her if thy father was killed, or died in a mysterious accident, to send thou here. She did not believe me. Why should she? But I suppose thy father’s death changed her mind. ’Tis a shame.” Esrahaddon looked deliberately at Hadrian, Royce, and then Myron. “Ye three must be the scrapegars? The ones accused of the murder? I told Arista not to trust anyone except the accused killers as they wouldst most likely be completely innocent.”
“Do you know, then, who killed my father?”
“I do not have a name, if that is what thou ask. I am not a fortune-teller, nor am I clairvoyant. I merely know how things work. Thy father was killed by a man to be sure, but that man is in league with an organization. I suspect it is the same one which holds me captive.”
“The Nyphron Church,” Myron muttered softly, yet still the wizard heard and his eyes narrowed once more at the monk.
“Why would the Church of Nyphron wish to kill my father?”
“Sadly, ’twas nothing more than a foolish case of mistaken identity. ’Twas merely a potion exercise for Arista and a remedy for thy sick father, but the Church, well, they listen to me day and night. Overhearing mine instructions to thy sinlist—sis-ter, they must have assumed thy father wert the Heir of Novron.”
“Wait a minute,” Alric interrupted, “the Church doesn’t want to murder the heir. Their whole existence revolves around restoring him to the throne and creating a new Imperial Era.”
“’Tis what they want thee to thinketh. In truth, they wish him dead. They desire the bloodline erased. ’Tis the true reason why they seeketh the heir even after all this time. And why they have imprisoned me for all these years.”
“Because I know it was the Church who betrayed the Emperor, who murdered him and every member of his family save one. If the heir is found, it wilt prove my innocence and their treachery.”
“The way we heard the story you were the one who killed the imperial family. You are responsible for the destruction of the entire Empire,” Hadrian said.
“And where didst ye learn that, the Church? Dost thou really think one man could do so much? Dost thou hast any idea just how ludicrous that sounds?”
“What makes you think they killed the Emperor?” Alric inquired.
“I do not think. I know. I was there, and ’twas I who saved the Emperor’s only son from death at their hands. I helped him escape in those last desperate hours of the Empire.”
“So you are telling us that you lived at the time of the Emperor. Do you expect us to believe that you are over nine hundred years old?” Royce asked.
“I do not expect anything. I am merely answering Thy Majesty’s question.”
“That’s just an answer like this is just a prison,” Royce countered.
“I still don’t understand what all this has to do with my father. Why would the Church kill him?”
“’Tis because I showed an interest in him. When the Empire fell, I was not killed like so many others. They kept me alive through powerful enchantments for centuries because I alone know what happened to the Emperor’s son and can find an heir if one still exists. They keep me alive in hope that I wilt lead them to him. As I said they art always listening. When I helped thy sister learn magic and I cured thy father of sickness, they must have thought I deemed it important for him to live. They must have suspected that Arista, thy father, and thou were descendents of the heir. While I thought there might be a danger, I did not think they would be so bloodthirsty in their eagerness to end the Novron line. I warned the princess if something happened to her father, something strange, unexpected, and deadly, that she and thou might be the next targets.”
“And that is why you wanted me brought here? To explain all this to me, to make me understand?”
“No. That is why thy sister asked thou to come. I brought thou here for another reason entirely.”
“And what is that?”
The wizard looked up at them, his expression revealing a hint of amusement. “To help me escape.”
No one said anything. Myron took the moment to sit down on the stone bench behind him and whispered to Hadrian, “You were right. Life outside the abbey is much more exciting than books.”
“You want us to help you to escape?” Royce asked incredulously. He held out his hands and looked around the black stone fortress. “From here?”
“’Tis necessary I am afraid.”
“’Tis also impossible. I have gotten out of a number of difficult situations in my time, but nothing like this.”
“And thou art aware of only a small fraction of the measures used to contain me. All thou sees art the walls, guards, and the abyss. There art also magical forces at work. Magical locks art on all the doors here, just as ’twas on the door through which ye entered the gaol. They disappear upon closing. ’Tis the same enchantment on the bridge ye came across. Go look and ye wilt find it so. ’Tis no longer there. ’Tis not invisible—’tis gone.”
Royce raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Alric, I need your ring.” The prince handed it to the thief, who climbed the steps and disappeared into the tunnel. He returned a few minutes later and gave the ring back to Alric. A slight shake of his head confirmed what Hadrian already suspected.
Hadrian turned his attention back to the wizard, and Esrahaddon continued. “Still, ’tis not the most serious of the barriers in use here. Perhaps ye saw the runes which line these walls? They create a powerful magical force protecting the stone from magic or physical damage. These enchantments create a magical barrier. Inside this field, no new magic can be cast, and the passing of time is suspended. It is why I have lived for so long. None of ye has aged a second since ye entered this cell. Due to the field created by the runes, what ye perceive as a singing noise, ye will not get hungry or thirsty, or at least not more than ye were when ye entered. Ye will not become sleepy. Ye wilt remain just as ye art. ’Tis really quite remarkable all the trouble they went through to contain me.”
“I don’t believe you,” Alric challenged.
“Put a hand to thy chests. Ye wilt find the lack of a beating heart.”
Myron inched his hand across his breast and let out a tiny squeak.
“And with all these obstacles, you expect us to help you escape?” Hadrian said.
“I am counting on it,” the wizard replied with an impish grin.
“Although I am dying to ask how,” Royce said. “I am even more compelled to ask why? If they went through this much effort to seal you here, it seems to me they might have had a good reason. You’ve told us what we came to hear. We’re done. So why would we be foolish enough to try and help you escape?”
“Because ye hast little choice in the matter.”
“We have a great many choices,” Alric countered bravely. “I am king and rule here; it is you who is powerless.”
“Oh, I will not be the one stopping ye. As ye understand rightly, I am helpless, a prisoner with no ability to do much of anything. They were very careful to ensure my subjugation. ’Tis the guards who will stop ye. When thee call for them, they wilt not come. They can hear ye. They hath heard every word we hath spoken. Just as they killed your father, they wilt also kill you, Your Majesty.”
“But if they are listening, they also know I am not the heir,” Alric said, the courage in his voice melting away.
“They cannot be sure if thou art or not. It wilt not matter to them. They wilt not take a chance. Besides, now that I told thee of their secret, they wilt never let thee leave—any of ye. Thee wilt be imprisoned here, just as I am, or they wilt kill thee outright.”
Alric’s concern showed on his face as he looked first to Hadrian and then to Royce. “He may be right,” the thief said quietly.
Concern turned to panic, and the prince began to shout commands for their release. There was no response, no sound of the great door opening nor of approaching protectors to escort them to the exit. Everyone except the wizard looked worried. Alric wrung his hands, and Myron stood and held onto the rail of the balcony, as if letting go would allow the world to spin away from him.
“It was a trap after all,” Alric said. He turned to Royce. “My apologies for doubting your sound paranoia.”
“Even I didn’t expect this. Perhaps there’s another way out.” Royce took a seat on one of the observation benches and assumed the same contemplative look he had worn when he was trying to determine how to get inside the prison.
Everyone remained silent for some time. Finally, Hadrian approached Royce and whispered, “Okay, buddy, this is where you tell me you have this wonderfully unexpected plan to get us out of here.”
“Well, I do have one. But it seems almost as frightening as the alternative.”
“We do what the wizard says.”
They looked down at the man casually seated in the chair. His robe looked a slightly different shade of blue now. Hadrian waved the others over and explained Royce’s plan.
“Could this be a trick?” Alric asked quietly. “The clerk did warn us not to do anything he said.”
“You mean the nice clerk who took away our bridge and refuses to let us out?” Royce replied. “I am not seeing an alternative, but if any of you have another idea, I am willing to hear it.”
“I’d just like to feel my heart again,” Myron said holding his palm to his chest and looking sick. “This is very disturbing. I almost feel like I’m actually dead.”
Alric looked up at the thief with a scowl. “I just want to say, for the record, as far as Royal Protectors go, you’re not very good.”
“It’s my first day,” Royce replied dryly.
“And already I am trapped in a timeless prison. I shudder to think what might have happened if you had a whole week.”
“Listen, I don’t see we have a choice here,” Royce told the group. “We either do what the wizard says and hope he can get us out, or we accept an eternity of sitting here listening to this dreadful singing.”
The mournful wail of the music was so wretched that Hadrian knew listening to it would eventually drive him mad. He tried to ignore it, but like Myron, it brought forth unpleasant memories of places and people. Hadrian saw the disappointment on his father’s face when he left to join the military. He saw the tiger covered in blood, gasping for breath as it slowly died, and he heard the sound of hundreds chanting the name “Galenti!” He had reached his conclusion. Anything was better than staying there.
Royce stood and returned to the balcony where the wizard waited calmly below. “I assume if we help you escape, you will see to it we get out as well?”
“And there is no way to determine if you are telling the truth right now?”
The wizard smiled. “None whatsoever I am afraid.”
Royce sighed heavily. “What do we have to do?”
“Very little. I only need the king to recite a simple bit of poetry.”
“Poetry?” Alric pushed past Hadrian to join Royce at the balcony, “What poetry?”
The wizard stood up and kicked his chair to one side to reveal two stanzas of text crudely scratched into the floor.
“’Tis amazing what beauty ye can create given time,” the wizard said with obvious pride. “Speak it and it wilt be so.”
Hadrian silently read the lines brightly illuminated by the beam of the overhead light.
As lord of this realm and keeper of keys,
a decree was made and a councilman seized.
Unjustly I say, and the time it is nigh
to open the gate and let his soul fly.
By virtue of gift granted to me,
by rightful birth, the sovereign I be.
Hereby I proclaim this royal decree,
Esrahaddon the wizard, this moment is free.
“How is that possible?” Alric asked. “You said spells don’t work here.”
“They do not, and thou art no spell-caster. Thou art merely granting me freedom as the law allows the rightful ruler of this land. The law predates Melengar, a law that made foolish assumptions about the longevity of power and those who would hold it. At this moment, thou do. Thou art the rightful and undisputed ruler of this land, and as such, the locks art thine to open. Not the physical ones mind thee, but the magical ones, because they art formed not of steel, but of words, and words in time can change their meaning.
“When this gaol stood on imperial ground, ’twas controlled by the Church of Nyphron who built this place. The Patriarch was the undisputed ruler, but civil war came; the Empire fell. Warlords sprang up as the central power weakened. These warlords became kings, and new lines appeared on the maps. Melengar was born and this land became the realm of House Essendon. What was once only the privilege of the leader of the Church of Nyphron has fallen to thou. After nine centuries of educational neglect, my jailers hath forgotten how to read their own runes!”
In the distance, Hadrian heard the grinding of stone on stone. Outside the cell, the great door was opening. “Speak those words, my lord, and thou wilt end nine hundred years of wrongful imprisonment.”
“How does this help?” Alric asked. “You said I can’t open the physical locks, and this place is filled with guards. How does this get us out?”
The wizard smiled a great grin. “Thy words wilt release the magical field, allowing me the freedom to use The Art once more.”
“You’ll cast a spell. You’ll disappear!”
Footsteps thundered on the bridge, which had apparently reappeared. Hadrian ran up the gallery stairs to look down the tunnel. “We have guards coming! And they don’t look happy.”
“If you’re going to do this, you’d better make it fast,” Royce told Alric.
“They’ve swords drawn,” Hadrian shouted. “Never a good sign.”
Alric glared down at the wizard. “I want your word you won’t leave us here.”
“Thou have it, my lord,” the wizard inclined his head respectfully.
“This better work,” Alric muttered and began reading aloud the words on the floor below.
Royce raced to join his partner who was already positioning himself at the mouth of the tunnel. Hadrian planned to use its confined space to limit the advantage of the guard’s numbers. The larger fighter planted his feet while Royce took up position slightly behind him. In unison, they drew their weapons, preparing for the impending onslaught. At least twenty men stormed the gallery. Hadrian could see their eyes and recognized what burned there. He had fought numerous battles and he knew the many faces of combat. He had seen fear, recklessness, hatred, even madness. What came at him now was rage—blind, intense rage. Hadrian studied the lead man, estimating his footfalls to determine which leg his weight would land on when he came within striking range. He did the same with the man behind him. Calculating his attack, he raised his swords, but the prison guards stopped. Hadrian waited with his swords still poised, yet the guards did not advance.
“Let us be leaving,” he heard Esrahaddon say from behind. Hadrian whirled around and discovered the wizard was no longer on the stage below. Instead, he moved casually past him, navigating around the stationary guards. “Come along,” Esrahaddon called.
Without a word, the group hurried after the wizard. He led them through the tunnel and across the newly extended bridge. The prison was oddly silent, and it was then that Hadrian realized the music had stopped. The only remaining sound was their footfalls against the hard stone floor.
“Relax and just keep walking,” Esrahaddon told them reassuringly.
They did as instructed, and no one said a word. To pass the clerk, who stood peering through the great door, they needed to come within inches of his anxiety-riddled face. As Hadrian attempted to slip by without bumping him, he saw the man’s eye move. Hadrian stiffened. “Can they see or hear us?”
“No, not really. They might sense something. The hairs on the back of their neck might stand, and they might feel a disturbance in the air as thou moves by, but no, they do not know we are here.”
The wizard led them without hesitation, making turns, crossing bridges, and climbing stairs with total confidence.
“Maybe we’re dead?” Myron whispered, glaring at each frozen guard he passed. “Maybe we’re all dead now. Maybe we’re ghosts.”
Hadrian thought Myron might be on to something. Everything was so oddly still, so empty. The fluid movement of the wizard and his billowing robe, which now emitted a soft silvery light far brighter than any lantern or torch, only heightened the surreal atmosphere.
“I don’t understand. How is this possible?” Alric asked, stepping around a pair of black-suited guards who watched the third bridge. He waved his hand before the face of one of them, who did not respond.
“Actually, ’tis only this way because we are in this gaol. No one person hath the power to stop time, but this gaol was designed for just such a purpose. ’Tis a giant Ithinal. What we once called a magic box. Within these walls the matrices of enchantments art complex. Many of my old colleagues created this place, and according to what Arista hath told me, I may be the only one who can still understand the ancient language. Because this gaol was designed to affect magic and time, I merely ever so slightly adjusted a fiber or two within the weave to throw the five of us out of phase.”
“So, the guards can’t see us, but that doesn’t explain why they are just standing there.” Hadrian said. “We disappeared, and you’re free. Why are they not searching? Shouldn’t they be locking doors to trap us?”
“Because nothing hath happened, as far as they art concerned. We art still where we were. For everyone else in this gaol, ’tis the moment young Alric spoke the last word in my poem. ’Tis why they dost not appear to be moving to us.”
“You turned it inside out!” Myron exclaimed.
“Exactly,” Esrahaddon said, looking with an appraising eye over his shoulder at the monk. “’Tis thrice thou hath impressed me. What did thou say thy name was?”
“He didn’t,” Royce answered for him.
“Thou dost not trust people, dost thou my black-hooded friend? ’Tis quite wise. More people should be as careful, particularly when dealing with wizards.” Esrahaddon winked at the thief.
“What does he mean by ‘turning it inside out’?” Alric asked. “So, time has stopped for them while we are free?”
“In the crudest terms that is correct. Time still moves for them, but very slowly. While unaware of it, they wilt remain very close to the instant the field changed for all time, or at least until someone alters the pattern engraved on the stone.”
“I am starting to see now why they were afraid of you,” Alric said.
“They kept me locked up for nine hundred years for saving the son of a man we all swore our lives to serve and protect. I think that I am being exceedingly kind. There art, after all, many worse moments in which to be trapped for all eternity.”
They reached the great stair that led to the main entrance corridor and began the long exhausting climb up the stone steps. “How did you stay sane?” Hadrian asked. “Or did the time slip by in an instant like it is for them?”
“The time did slip by, but not as fast as thou might thinketh. A year for me passed in about the length of a day.”
“Almost three years,” Myron calculated.
“Not nearly as bad as I thought,” Hadrian remarked, “but still, three years of just sitting there—”
“I was not just sitting there. I fought a battle each day. ’Twas a force of great effort to fend off their attacks to learn my secrets. And I had to decipher the runes etched all around me. I was never bored. Moreover, I have learned patience as a practitioner of The Art. Although there were times…Well, who is to say what it means to be sane?”
When they approached the hall of faces, Esrahaddon looked down its length and paused. Hadrian noticed the wizard stiffen. “What is it?” he asked.
“Those art the workers who built this gaol. I came here during the last few days they wert building this place. There was a small city of tents and shacks around the lake then. Hundreds of artisans and their families traveled here at the imperial call to do their part out of patriotism for their fallen Emperor. Such was the character of His Imperial Majesty. They all mourned his passing, and few in the vast and varied Empire would not have gladly given their lives for him. They labeled me the betrayer, and I could see the hatred in their eyes as they passed me on their way to work. They were proud to be the builders of my tomb.”
The wizard’s gaze moved from face to face. “I recognize some of them: the stone cutters, the sculptures, the cooks, and their wives and children. The Church could not let them go for fear they would talk. They sealed them in. All these people, all these artists ensnared by a lie and murdered just to keep me here. How many people died, I wonder? How much was lost just to hide one absurd secret, which even a millennium hath not erased?”
“There’s no door down there,” Alric warned the wizard.
Esrahaddon looked up at Alric as if awoken from a dream. “Of course there is a door,” he said and promptly led them down the corridor at a brisk walk. “Thou wert merely out of phase with it before.”
Here, in the darkest segment of the prison, Esrahaddon’s robe grew brighter still, and he looked like a giant firefly. In time, they came to a solid stone wall, and without hesitation or pause, Esrahaddon walked through it. The rest quickly followed.
The bright sunlight of a lovely, clear autumn morning nearly blinded them the moment they passed through the barrier. Blue sky and the cool fresh air was a welcome change. Hadrian took a deep breath and reveled in the scent of grass and fallen leaves, a smell he had not even noticed prior to entering the prison. “That’s strange. It should be nighttime and raining, I would think. We couldn’t have been in there more than a few hours. Could we?”
“Funny things can happen when ye play with time.” Esrahaddon threw his head back and faced the sun. He stood and took long deep breaths of air, sighing contentedly with each exhale. “The question ye should be asking thyselves is what day ’tis? Today could be the same day you entered, or the one after. In theory, ’tis possible to be tens or hundreds of years in the future.” The wizard appeared amused at the shock on their faces. “Don’t worry too much. Most likely ye only skipped a few days or hours.”
“That’s rather unnerving,” Alric said, “losing time like that.”
“I have lost nine hundred years. Everyone I knew is dead, the Empire is gone, and who knows what else hath happened. If what thy sister tells me is correct, much hath changed in the world while I have been gone.”
“By the way,” Royce mentioned, “no one uses the words ’tis or hath anymore and certainly not thou or thy. You sound like a history book.”
The wizard nodded. “I noticed none of ye spoke properly. In my day, various classes had different forms of speech. Properly educated people used more sophistication than the lower classes as a mark of their rank. I assumed all of ye were merely of a lower station or, in the case of the king, poorly educated.”
Alric glared. “It is you who sound strange, not us.”
“I see. Then I wilt have to learn to speak as all of—you—do. Even though—it is—very difficult and sounds crude and guttural.”
Hadrian, Royce, and Myron began the task of saddling the horses, which remained standing where they had left them. Myron smiled, obviously happy to be with the animals once again. He petted them while eagerly asking how to tie a cinch strap.
“We don’t have an extra horse, and Hadrian is riding double already,” Alric explained. He glanced at Royce, who showed no indication of volunteering. “Esrahaddon will have to ride with me I suppose.”
“That won’t be necessary. I will be going my own way.”
“Oh no you’re not. You’re coming back to my castle with me. I have a great deal to speak with you about. You were the advisor to the Emperor and are obviously very gifted and knowledgeable. I have great need for such an advisor. You will be my Royal Counselor.”
“No. ’Twill…” he sighed and then continued. “It will come as a shock to—you—but I did not escape for the purpose of helping you with your little problems. I have more important matters to which I must attend, and I have been too long from them.”
The prince appeared taken aback. “What matters could you possibly have after nine hundred years? After all, it’s not as if you have to get home to tend to your livestock. If it is a matter of compensation, you will be well paid and live in as much luxury as I can afford. And if you are thinking of shopping around, only Ethelred of Warric is likely to offer as much and trust me, you don’t want to work for the likes of him. He’s a dogmatic Imperialist and a loyal church supporter.”
“I am not looking for compensation.”
“No? Look at you. You have nothing, no food, no place to sleep. I think you should consider your situation a bit more before refusing me. Besides, gratitude alone should compel you to help me.”
“Gratitude? Has the meaning of that word changed as well? In my day, it meant to show appreciation for a favor.”
“And it still does. I saved you. I released you from that place.”
Esrahaddon raised an eyebrow. “Didst thou help me escape as a favor to me? I think not. Thou freed me to save thyself. I owe thee nothing, and if I did, I repaid thee when I brought thou out.”
“But the whole reason I came here was to gain your assistance. I am inheriting a throne handed down by blood! Thieves abducted and dragged me across the kingdom in my first two days as king. I still don’t know who killed my father or how to find them. I am in great need of help. You must know hundreds of things the greatest minds of today have never known—”
“Thousands at least, but I am still not going with you. You have a kingdom to secure. My path lies elsewhere.”
Alric’s face grew red with frustration. “I insist you return with me and become my advisor. I can’t just let you wander off. Who knows what kind of trouble you could cause. You’re dangerous.”
“Yes indeed dear prince, so allow me to givest thee a bit of free council: doth not use the word insistin conjunction with me. Thine hath but only a small spill to contend with, do not tempt a deluge.”
“How long before the Church starts hunting you?” Hadrian asked casually.
“What dost thou…” the wizard sighed. “What do you mean?”
“You locked things up nicely in the prison so no one will know you escaped. Of course, if we were to return and start bragging about how we broke you out, that might start inquiries.”
The wizard leveled his gaze at Hadrian. “Art thee attempting to blackmail me?”
“Why would I do that? As you already know, I have nothing to do with this, being just a scapegoat and all. Not to mention it would be pretty stupid of me to threaten a powerful wizard. The thing is though, the king here, he is not as bright as I am. He very well might get drunk and tell stories at the first tavern he arrives at, as nobles often do.” Esrahaddon glanced at Alric, whose red face now turned pale. “Fact is, we came all this way to find out who killed Alric’s father, and we really don’t know much more than we did before we set out.”
Esrahaddon chuckled softly. “Very well, I will give you some assistance. Tell me how did your father die exactly?”
“He was stabbed with a knife,” Alric explained.
“What kind of knife?”
“A common rondel military dagger.” Alric held his hands about a foot apart. “About this long. It had a flat blade and a round pommel. It was really nothing special.”
Esrahaddon nodded. “Where was he stabbed?”
“In his private chapel.”
“I meant where physically?”
“Oh, in the back, upper left side, I think.”
“Were there any windows or other doors in the chapel?”
“Who found the body?”
“These two.” Alric pointed at Royce and Hadrian.
The wizard smiled and shook his head. “No, beside them, who announced the death of the king? Who raised the alarm?”
“That would be Captain Wylin, my master-at-arms. He was on the scene very quickly and apprehended them.”
Hadrian thought about the night King Amrath had been killed. “No, that’s not right. There was a dwarf there. He must have come around the corner of the hallway just as we left the room. He probably saw the king’s body lying on the floor of the chapel and shouted. Right after he yelled, the soldiers came, and surprisingly fast, I might add.”
“Did you actually see this dwarf approach from the corridor?” the wizard asked.
“No,” Hadrian replied, and Royce confirmed with a shake of his head.
“And when you entered the chapel, was the king’s body visible from the doorway?”
Hadrian and Royce shook their heads.
“That solves it then,” the wizard said, as if everything was perfectly clear. The party stared back at him in confusion. Esrahaddon sighed. “The dwarf killed Amrath.”
“That’s not possible,” Alric challenged. “My father was a big man, and the dagger thrust was downward. A dwarf couldn’t possibly have stabbed him in the upper back.”
“You said your father was in his chapel. As any good pious king, he was no doubt kneeling with head bowed. The dwarf killed him as he prayed. I suspect the dwarf was someone your father knew. Someone he would not be alarmed to see in the chapel.”
“But the door was locked when we entered,” Hadrian said. “And there was no one in the room besides the king.”
“No one you could see at least. The dwarf must have been hiding inside the room when you entered. Did the chapel have an altar with a cabinet?”
“Yes, it did.”
“They did a millennium ago as well. Religion changes very slowly. The cabinet was no doubt too small for a man to crouch in, but I’m sure it could easily accommodate a dwarf. After he killed the king, he locked the door and waited for you two to find the body.” Esrahaddon paused. “That cannot be right you—two—to?” He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “If you have done this to language, I fear to know the fate of all else.
“With the door locked, a night guard or a cleaning steward would not find the body prematurely. Only a skilled thief would be able to enter, which I assume at least one of you is.” He looked directly at Royce as he said the last part. “After you left, the dwarf crept out, opened the door, and sounded the alarm, trapping you before you could get away.”
“So, the dwarf is the agent of the Church?”
“No.” The wizard sighed with a look of frustration. “Unless things have changed drastically since I was last about, there is not a dwarf alive who would carry a common dagger. The traits of dwarves change even slower than religion. He was given the dagger by the one who hired him. Find that person and you will find the true killer.”
Stunned, everyone looked at the wizard.” That’s incredible,” Alric said.
“Actually, it is not difficult to determine. After so many years you learn a great many things.” The wizard inclined his head toward the cliff. “Getting out of there was hard. Speaking as you do is hard. Determining the murderer of King Amrath was…was…soft.”
“Soft?” Hadrian asked. “You mean easy.”
“How is easy the opposite of hard? This does not make sense.”
Hadrian shrugged. “And yet, it is.”
Esrahaddon looked frustrated. “See what I mean? Now, you have what you came here for, or at least as much assistance as I can lend in this matter. Therefore, I will be on my way. As I said, I have to attend to my own affairs. I assume my help was sufficient to prevent any loose tongues?”
“You have my hand on it,” Alric said reaching out.
The wizard looked down at Alric’s open palm and smiled. “Your word is enough.” He turned away and without so much as a parting gesture began walking down the slope.
“You’re going to walk? You know it’s a long way to anywhere from here,” Hadrian yelled after him.
“I am looking forward to the trip,” the wizard replied without glancing back. Following the ancient road, he rounded the corner and slipped out of sight.
The remaining party members mounted their horses. Myron seemed more comfortable with the animals now and climbed confidently into his seat behind Hadrian. He even neglected to hold on until they began down the ravine back in the direction from which they had come. Hadrian expected they would pass Esrahaddon on the way down, but they reached the bottom of the ravine without seeing him.
“Not your run-of-the-mill fellow, is he?” Hadrian asked. He was continuing to look around for any signs of the wizard.
“The way he was able to get out of that place, makes me wonder exactly what we did here today by letting him out,” Royce said.
“No wonder the Emperor was so successful.” Alric frowned and knotted the ends of his reins. “Although I can tell it didn’t come without aggravation. You know, I don’t extend my hand often, but when I do I expect it to be accepted. I found his reaction quite insulting.”
“I’m not sure he was being rude by not shaking your hand. I think it is just because he couldn’t,” Myron told them. “Shake your hand that is.”
“In The Letters of Dioylion, they told a bit about Esrahaddon’s incarceration. The Church had both of his hands cut off in order to limit his ability to cast spells.”
“Oh,” Alric said.
“Why do I get the impression this Dioylion fellow didn’t die a natural death?” Hadrian asked.
“He’s probably one of those faces in the hallway.” Royce spurred his horse down the slope.