Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Once Upon a Time in Ar, Part Five

“He be an Aran wizard, fer sure.” The voice sounded muffled at first, and thick like a peasant’s. A dull ache throbbed in Dardaniel’s cranium while his senses slowly returned. He tried opening his mouth and felt the painful grip of an iron muzzle holding shut his jaws. Someone had gone a long way to ensure he could not speak. Lying face down against a filthy stone floor, his hands bound behind his back, he twisted his neck to see around him. He lay at the bottom of a pit, under a feeble light filtering in through iron bars at the top.

“Bah,” spat a darker voice. “He’s more trouble than he’s worth. Wouldn’t be the first time that the hag of Wyvern County sends her slayers into Foresthome to snatch a hostage. And you can be sure they’ll kill every one of us. Better we do in this aristocratic wretch now. The world is better off without his kind.”

“Aye, but we needs gold,” answered the first voice. “I showed his ring to ole’ Philomar. It be from no local Wyvernian house he said, but one from Archon, an’ a rich one too. The old goat probably don’t know he be here, so I be thinkin’ her slayer will stay put, an’ then we can collec’ a fat ransom.”

However careful his movement, Dardaniel could not prevent his iron mask from rubbing against the rough stone floor. Fifteen feet above him, the conversation ended, and the silhouette of a head appeared above the iron bars. “Heh, he be awake now. Ye stay nice an’ quiet, wizard, if ye know what’s best fer ye,” the guard said in a gravelly voice, before vanishing. The sound of footsteps and a heavy door slamming shut informed him that perhaps he was now alone.

Dardaniel sat up as best he could. He had no idea how long he’d been in this oubliette, or where in the blazes this prison lay. Hours went by, perhaps days. His rusty manacles were murder on his wrists. Someone showed up and tossed scraps from a meal that landed in a murky puddle. Torn by the pangs of hunger, Dardaniel crawled to the sordid pile and attempted to gnaw at the pungent remains. His muzzle made the affair nearly impossible, and he only managed to slurp in some of the puddle while the guard snickered above.

His face smudged with greasy muck, the wizard gave up on the odious endeavor and lay on his side. A fat rat trotted out of the dark, sniffed at the helpless intruder, and decided the leftovers were easier pickings. . . for now. Time went by until a breath of air disturbed his dreams of freedom. Keeko had landed on the floor next to his face, and was peering at him with its two big round eyes, while ethereal wings on its back faded from sight. The prosapian examined the iron mask for an instant, climbed on its side, and tugged on a latch pin with its two small hands. Its effort paid off when the metallic piece fell out and rang on the stone floor. The muzzle clicked open and Dardaniel shook it off with relief. He could utter little more than a pitiful gurgle, so dry his mouth had become.

Despite his weakness, the wizard sat up as Keeko observed the manacles’ sturdy rivets. It then approached the pile of refuse, seized a rancid piece of fat, and proceeded to rub it against Dardaniel’s wrists. Clever little beastie, the wizard thought, increasingly hopeful. He joined his fingers as tightly as he could and pulled hard. The pain was excruciating. He thought for a moment he’d broken a few bones when his knuckles finally slipped free of his iron bonds. It helped that he was slim of build.

“Thank you my little friend,” he whispered in a hoarse voice, looking up at the top of the pit. Keeko deployed his wings and flew up to the grate, grabbed a metal bar, and crawled out. Dizzy with fatigue and lack of food, Dardaniel checked his pockets. Alas, someone had emptied them already. He then thought of uncast spells still lingering in his mind, and realized he’d have to take a chance. “Look out,” he cautioned Keeko before he uttered his magic. A loud knock flung the grate open, after which the prosapian reappeared at the pit’s edge, a quizzical expression on its furry face.

“I know, I know,” admitted Dardaniel at the unspoken question. “I didn’t memorize the fly spell. Hate the very thing, I do.” Annoyed, the wizard wondered how he’d climb out of the oubliette. The stonework was rough enough, but he lacked the skill that could help him up the somewhat wet incline, as the pit’s bottom was wider than its opening. Slight grunts sounded until Keeko dropped a rope inside. Despite his weakness, the wizard climbed out and sat on the edge to catch his breath and look around.

A small brazier glowed in a corner, revealing a torture chamber, with racks of wicked tools and a number of doors on all sides. The ceiling above the pit held a pulley and a rope with one end secured to the edge of a heavy wooden table fitted with manacles. None of the wizard’s equipment lay in sight. Annoyed, Dardaniel stood and picked up a nearby lantern, which he managed to light up with a hot poker. He then investigated doors featuring small barred openings. Each revealed an empty cell with shackles, save for one that held a sorry-looking fellow. He raised his head when called out, and despite the prisoner’s hirsute and haggard appearance, Dardaniel recognized someone he’d once known in Sundsvall.

“By the Wands! Aren’t you Syphonean, her Imperial Majesty’s head-butler? What on the Immortals’ green Mystara are you doing here?”

The old man shrugged. “Heh, not as much as I’d wish.”

Assaulting and incarcerating a high-born palace courtier such as himself was bad enough, Dardaniel thought, but a figure from the imperial circles? Outrage suddenly gave him renewed vigor. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

Syphonean raised his shackles, resigned to his fate.

After grabbing a set of hefty pliers from a tool rack, Dardaniel returned, cast off the bar holding the door, sheared the shackles’ chains, and helped the old man out.

“Come, let us find a way out of this hideous place,” Dardaniel said. Keeko landed on his shoulder, earning a feeble smile from the wobbly butler while they approached the last door. “Couldn’t you have used your magic to escape these ruffians, I wonder?”

“They caught me after I’d barely escaped from my tower. I’d spent much of my magic in the process and lost my spellbook. I’d thought the depths of Foresthome provided a good hiding place. I was wrong.”

Puzzled, Dardaniel stopped and gazed at the old man. “Escaped from your own tower? From whom?”

Syphonean seemed to bear a sudden burden. “It is a long story. Perhaps it is best you do not associate with me, for I have become a pariah in the empire, and a target of the highest authority in the whole of Alphatia.”

“Who? Zandor?” Dardaniel pressed on, stunned and increasingly dismayed.

“Yes, the emperor himself. I am a marked man, doomed to face oblivion, the memory of my forebears forever erased from imperial records.”

“Oh, that wretch! I despised that slithering viper the moment I laid eyes upon him. That treacherous scamp. What a villainous scoundrel he is. If his mother were around. . .”

“Alas, she isn’t,” said the old man. “He made sure of it, and I was there to witness it.”

Dardaniel opened his mouth, but remained speechless while myriad questions jostled in his mind. It was a crushing revelation. At once, the wizard understood why Zandor wanted Syphonean dead, along with anyone associated with him, abductors and rescuers alike. Murder among Alphatians was still a capital crime, no matter who committed it, and Zandor wanted all evidence obliterated.

To be continued. . .

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