• Chapter One: Prisoners

    Torchlight only penetrated a few feet through the dust in the hollow darkness around Cosette and her superiors. The Sovereign wheezed as his aging body fought him, putting every ounce of his strength pushing the Prince ahead out of the assassins’ clutches. Prince Demetrius' loud and uncontrolled breathing appeared to pain him with every step; even Cosette, young and fit from years of training, felt her strength wane, silently cursing the immense weight of her armor. The rattle of their greaves echoed in the hallway, drowning out the footsteps of their predators. But Cosette didn’t have to hear to know they were approaching; she could feel the stomping rhythm in tandem with the wild pounding of her heart.

    A knife whizzed past her head, missing her by a hair’s breadth, and clattered against the stone wall.

    “s**t!” the Crown Prince swore.

    While Cosette agreed with the sentiment, she didn’t have the breath to curse. Her side split with pain from running, and sweat dripped in her eyes. Shouts from behind echoed throughout the labyrinth.
    Another knife flew past, grazing the Sovereign’s shoulder plate.

    ‘I’m going to die; I’m going to die; I’m going to die’. The mantra pounded in her head as intently as her heart thumped against her ribs. If she kept this up any longer, she felt her heart would explode, and she’d be just as dead.

    “This way!” the Sovereign gasped as he swerved right. The crown prince hesitated before quickly following.

    Cosette snapped out of her trance. A surge of adrenaline pulsed through her body. ‘I can’t die now.’ she thought. ‘Not until they’re safe.’
    She swerved to the right, following the prince, then scurried down the stairs, inadvertently overtaking the Sovereign. The sound of his footsteps ceased. Puzzled, she turned her head and saw that he had come to a halt, facing the entryway.

    She cried, “Sir, what are you-!”

    Not another word escaped her lips.

    An azure aura of magicka quickly engulfed the Sovereign’s forearm and began to pulsate violently. Cosette’s heart thumped to the deafening sound of the erratic flares. The Sovereign gripped his forearm with his other hand, trying with all his might to stabilize the volatile current.

    The storm calmed; the flaring ceased. The warmth gently caressed her face, stroking her skin; slowly filling the emptiness in her heart those assassins had induced upon her.

    The Sovereign thrust his arm out towards the entryway. “Magnus Signum!” he roared.

    Cosette could feel the earth quake beneath her. She heard metal grinding against metal from beneath the cold stone floor.
    A colossal iron slab disgorged from underneath and smashed against the top of the foyer. A thunderous sound of metal slamming against the apex jolted Cosette out of a state of bewilderment. Thick clouds of dust spewed from the impact point. Cosette shielded her eyes with her hands until the clouds cleared. A seal was emblazoned on the slab. Soon, the entire mass was engulfed in an aura of magicka which was pulsing with its own heartbeat. The aura around the Sovereign’s arm dissipated.

    The aged man stumbled as he stepped down the staircase, letting out a whistling wheeze, and grabbed his side. The Prince draped the Sovereign’s frail arm over his broad shoulders and leaned him against the cold stone wall. Cosette caught up and slid her slender shoulders under the other arm in support. The wall softly flickered in the glow of the last torch lamp they had just past, and she could see his hollowed cheeks drawn tight as the old man grimaced in pain.

    “We must keep moving, Prince”, Cosette whispered sharply.

    The young man lifted the old man’s arm off his shoulders, steadying him against the wall. The Sovereign bent over, gasping for air. He waved a bony hand in the air. “Give me a minute to catch my breath,” he said quietly as Cosette collapsed right beside him.

    “Jesus, what is that stench? It smells like something died in here,” the Prince said as his face contorted. Cosette gave a forced smile as he shut his nostrils with his fingers in a futile attempt to block the scent. At least it’s better than breathing dust whilst running for your life through a blistering corridor, she thought.

    “Looks like we’ve arrived at the dungeon halls,” the Sovereign noted.
    The Prince lurched to the side, his upper body colliding into the wall. He turned his head toward his father, his eyes wide filled with horror.

    “It seems God favors us today.” The Sovereign added.

    “The dungeon!?” the prince bellowed, “You’ve locked us here in the dungeon halls? Jesus Christ, are you mad father?”

    “How many times must I tell you? Never use the Lord’s name in vain. I raised you to be more respectful than that, Demetrius,” The Sovereign retorted.
    Cosette glanced back at the seal, and then proceeded to scan her surroundings. The light illuminated the entire staircase, baring the muck that had coated the stone foundation with a diffused cobalt hue.

    “There is a hidden passage in one of these cells which leads to the sewers,” the Sovereign said.

    To Cosette, this answered one question but raised so many others. Demetrius began to wander down the stairs in his familiar posh gait; his expression was filled with aggravation.

    “That explains the awful smell, doesn’t it?” the aged man let out a chortle, briefly reverting back to that jovial character she admired so much before he became afflicted with grief after losing his wife and two eldest sons.
    The Sovereign fell his knees and started hacking up phlegm. He clutched his chest with his bony hands, his face drawn tight as he grimaced in pain. Demetrius began patting his back with fervor, issuing sufficient force yet refraining from trying to hurt his father. The Sovereign’s breathing became stable once more.

    “Once we get out of here, Aislinn should be within walking distance. That seal should last for about an hour provided that the assassins do not possess any ability to override Magnus Signa,” The Sovereign said. He lifted himself off the floor and dusted the grime off his elegant robes and began walking down the stairs under his own steam. The young knight and the Prince followed him; standing side by side. The Sovereign and Cosette each lifted a torch off the stand. The trio marched in unison down the staircase to the dungeon halls.
    The faint smell of blood upset her stomach; her face began to feel cold and clammy as the faint scent of the sanguine fluid invaded her nostrils. Cosette looked down to see the traces of blood mixed in the grime, stone, and the crevasses in the flooring, nearly indeterminable due to the cobalt glow but evident by scent. She could feel the rhythm of her heart beat become irregular, her stomach began to churn. The Sovereign wrapped his scraggily arm around Cosette, rubbing her back tenderly. “Is everything alright?” he asked. “I understand you were an amazing student, top of your class and praised for your swordsmanship, and I also understand you don’t have much combat experience outside all of those practice duels. Let me know if you’re feeling under the weather, alright?”

    “I’ll be fine.” Cosette replied.

    “I haven’t seen you look so pale. Are you sure, dear? The Holy Order would not have admitted you if you possessed any hereditary illness, defect, phobia-”

    “I’m fine.” Cosette interrupted. The Sovereign lifted his arm off her back. “Are there any prisoners still down here?”

    “No. From what the guards told me, there was a bloody riot that killed seven prisoners. It took a dozen guards to quell the uprising. The rest were hung,” the Sovereign said.

    Cosette examined her surroundings. The stench of death, fecal matter, and rancid meat poisoned the damp air. The stone foundation was completely ruined, exposing the flimsy struts. She peered inside one of the unopened gates and saw no sun. No light except for the dying torch in her hand. The faucet had become completely corroded. Bloody, spoiled meat lay on the floor, providing the cockroaches a rare treat. The toilet overflowed with bloodied fecal matter; what appeared to be a man’s intestines dangled over the brim. The disgusting odor of urine and feces forced its way through her nostrils; the sight of maggots dwelling in the toxic waste and weaving in and out of the punctured intestines nearly caused her to vomit. Her heart began to pound violently against her ribs again. The blurring world around her felt like it was spinning. She took just a few baby steps rearward, and then stumbled. She raised her arms up and leaned her upper body against nearest wall to keep her body up off the grimy floor underneath.

    “Cell one…cell three,” the Sovereign said as he meandered onwards, briefly checking each gate for the right number. “Ah, here we are. Cosette! Over here!” he commanded.

    Cosette, startled, tried to regain her composure despite her unease. She turned her back on the cell and marched towards the survivors of the Mazda family, questioning whether or not it was possible to purge the horrors which had just assaulted her mind.

    The Sovereign grasped the corroded iron handle, twisted it, and then pressed it open and took a few steps.

    The hand came out from the cell. He grasped the Sovereign’s throat and threw him to the ground. The prisoner lunged at his defenseless victim and held the aging man against the grime-infested flooring by the collar, clutching a rock with a jagged edge. He took a deep breath and drew his arm up for the kill.
    Following her instincts, Cosette grabbed the back of the man’s collar and threw the assailant off the Sovereign and onto his back. She drew her falchion, lifted it up high, the blade hovering directly above the assailant’s throat.

    A hand grabbed her by the shoulder.

    “Wait!” Demetrius shouted and he forcefully pulled the young knight backward. “Aiden? Is that you!?”

    The prisoner turned his head in response; his face looked like he was just struck by a bolt from the blue.

    An awkward silence permeated the foul air.

    Cosette’s heart was still racing from the sudden burst of adrenaline. Realizing that the prince knew him, the man who attempted to kill his father, left her speechless. She turned her eyes towards the prisoner.

    His sapphire eyes burned brighter than the most intense flame, his gleaming raven-black hair going in every direction. The bloodied, tattered sack cloth outlined the lean muscles of his upper body; his broad shoulders stretching the tight shirt, the seams of the cloth on his shoulders undone. Dried blood plastered all over his shirt; coagulated incisions appeared where the fabric was torn. The fabric near his pectoral was cut open exposing a severe wound close to his heart.

    His face was rather round, a bit too youthful for her tastes, yet seemed to be developing into the chiseled form of a fine-looking young man, his burning blue eyes shimmering in rhythm to the dancing flame.

    She didn’t understand how the Prince could be acquainted with him. Surely she’d be able to recognize him! Out of the names of the prisoners who were executed during the riot, “Aiden” was not listed. When the executioner shouted the names of the damned before they were hung amidst a boisterous crowd, the name “Aiden” was never uttered. The only occasions where prisoners are left in their cells to wither away are either when they have contracted leprosy or were mentally ill.

    Lifting her chin up, she gazed deeply into the prisoner’s eyes. She could not sense distress or astonishment. Not pain. Not even fear.

    His lips arched into a smug grin. “Looks like I will be getting the royal treatment today.”