Escape From Darkness
Mystia lay alone in a cold, rat-infested dungeon cell. How long she had been there she knew not. Whether it had been a day or a week it did not matter; time had no meaning in that dark place. She had not eaten since she had been brought there, for she could not bring herself to touch the moldy bread the guards had served her. She was so cold she felt as though her heart had been pierced with ice. Her whole body was racked with severe coughs, and she was so tired she could not even sit up but instead lay crumpled upon the slime-covered floor.
Though in misery, she had grown used to the routine of the dungeon–the long silences punctuated by brief visits from the guard. She was startled, therefore, when the door to her cell was unexpectedly thrown open. A guard carrying a huge battle-axe strode in and, towering over her, paused just inside the cell. She gasped in fear and scrambled into the corner, sending the rats scampering in all directions.
"Your Highness!" the guard exclaimed as he dropped his axe and started toward her. She did not hear his words but pulled herself tighter against the wall and, with a strangled sob, cried, "Stay away from me!"
"Your Highness, 'tis I: Orion." Even as he spoke, he fell to his knees and pulled his helmet from his head to reveal his long auburn hair and bright, blue eyes. For a moment Mystia could only look in disbelief upon him.
"Orion!" she finally cried and, bursting into tears, threw her arms around his neck. Even as she did, she was taken by a sudden fit of coughing. Orion could only hold her as her whole body convulsed violently.
When her coughing had abated he looked at her intently. "Did Kozan hurt you?"
"No," she breathed, her voice still trembling. She sobbed and, holding him tighter, rested her head against his shoulder. "No, he did not hurt me."
The relief that filled Orion was quickly overcome with concern, for, although the princess shivered with cold, her skin seemed almost on fire.
"Your Highness," he said mournfully, "had I come but sooner." He silently cursed the two days it had taken him to infiltrate Kozan’s palace and find her.
"I didn’t think you’d come at all," she whispered.
"Never say that, Your Highness. I swore to serve and protect you. Of course I came."
"'Twould have been better had you not." She spoke so softly Orion could barely hear her. "Now Kozan shall capture you as well."
Orion realized she was drifting into unconsciousness.
"Your Highness, wake up," he said as he shook her gently. She awoke with a start and was taken by another fit of coughing.
"I have to get you away from here," he said when she had caught her breath. "Can you walk?"
"I suppose I will have to," she answered with a wan smile.
Orion put his helmet back on, picked up his battle-axe, and turned to the princess to help her rise. It was only his strong grasp that kept her from dropping back down to the floor. His heart sank; how was he to lead her out of Kozan's palace when she could not even stand unaided?
She placed her hand against the stone wall for support and ordered, "Let go of me, Orion."
He did as she commanded. For a long moment she stood, breathing deeply, trying to gain her strength and balance. Taking her hand from the wall, she turned to Orion and with a brave look said, "Now, Sir Guard, take me where you will."
Orion led Mystia out of the cold, small cell, past the jailer who lay dead from the wound Orion had dealt him, and up into the dark corridors of Kozan's palace. That there was only one guard with a prisoner would have immediately drawn the attention of any soldier, but only slaves walked through those darkened corridors. Whether they knew or cared that the princess was escaping could not be known; they looked with dull, unseeing eyes upon the two and went silently about their business.
For many minutes Orion and Mystia walked, with only the sound of their footsteps to break the silence. Presently, they reached a long corridor which was empty save for one, lone woman. Her back was to them as she stood and looked out of a window into the night beyond. Her hair was long and golden and adorned with many pearls. Her flowing, blue dress was made of the costliest of material, and the bracelets upon her bare arms were made of gold and inlaid with the most precious of jewels. She was clearly no mean slave-girl, and the closer they drew to her, the stronger grew the sinking feeling within Orion that he knew her. For a moment his steps faltered as he realized he did indeed know her; she was Lareina, Kozan‘s second wife.
She turned her head to look at them. Upon her face was a look of wistful daydreaming. She smiled softly and, after giving a slight nod to Orion that he might pass, turned back to the window. He breathed a sigh of relief and walked on.
They continued onward, but scarcely had they rounded the corner when Mystia stumbled and fell to the floor. The warrior knelt by her side in a moment. She tried to rise, but her body was racked with another coughing fit.
"Orion," she said, her voice tinged with fear, "I can’t get up."
"Yes, you can," he answered. He took her about the waist with his right arm and pulled her to her feet. Supporting her with his right arm and carrying his axe in his left hand, he continued down the corridor. They had not gone far before Orion saw two guards coming down the corridor toward them.
"Hide your face," he whispered to Mystia. She bowed her head and turned her face so that her cheek was to Orion's shoulder. Her long, black tresses fell down and almost completely hid her features.
The two soldiers staggered slightly as though they had been drinking and looked with amusement upon the spectacle walking up the hallway toward them. It was not every day they saw a fully armored knight holding a huge battle axe in one hand and supporting a half-fainting woman on the other.
"Soldier," said the larger of the two guards as he stepped in front of Orion, "where’re ye takin' this tender morsel?" He eyed Mystia greedily.
"Where I’m takin' h’r is none o' y’r concern," answered Orion with his best Delovachian accent.
He tried to shove past the guard, but the man stuck out his arm and held him back, saying as he did so, "So ye don't want t' say where y’r takin' h’r? I'm wagerin’ I can guess. And I'm certain thar's enough o' h’r t' go around."
"Haven't ye ever larned no' t' cross paths with a man carryin' a battle-axe?" Orion asked, his voice lowering.
Before he could move, the guard struck him hard across the chest. Orion reeled backward, nearly losing his grip on Mystia. She gasped, and her head flew up. For the first time, the two guards could see her face.
"A High Elf?" the first exclaimed and jumped back, as the second cried for more guards.
Releasing Mystia, Orion took his axe in both hands and lunged toward the two guards. The first guard reached for his sword, but, as his hand was closing on the hilt, Orion sent his axe crashing down upon his head. The man could not even scream before he fell lifeless to the floor, blood pouring from his head.
The warrior turned upon the second guard who, eyes wide with terror, tried to flee. He gave one last desperate cry for the guards before Orion jumped forward and sent his head rolling from his body.
The sound of many footsteps filled Orion's ears as he ran to the princess and pulled her from the floor. He fairly dragged her behind him as he ran through the halls of Kozan's palace. Mystia cast a quick glance behind her and saw no less than a dozen guards charging down the hall, slowly but surely gaining on her and Orion.
She and Orion rounded a corner and found themselves upon a balcony overlooking Kozan's great banquet hall. They ran the length of it until they reached the open staircase at the end. Mystia shrieked and stumbled. Orion lost his hold upon her, and she tumbled down the stairs. The blue-eyed warrior raced down the stairs and was at her side in a moment.
The guards were close behind him. With one swift motion, he pulled Mystia up off the floor, and, as the guards began streaming down the stairs, he ran toward the main doors of the banquet hall. But before he could reach them, they were thrown open, and more than a score of guards stormed in. He skidded to a halt and slowly began to back away from them, looking wildly about for a means of escape, until he stood in the very middle of the room, surrounded by the long, wooden banquet tables.
"Give up," ordered the leader of the guards. "Thar's no escape."
"When I finish with you there will be," snarled Orion. He let go of Mystia and, with one swift motion, pulled a dagger from his belt and shoved it into her hands. With a cry he ran forward to meet the guards as they fell upon him. Mystia, suddenly unsupported, fell to the ground, her body racked with coughs.
"Orion, stop," she cried as she gasped for breath, for she could see all hope of escape was gone. Orion did not hear her but continued to battle, though he was sorely outnumbered. Already crystal blood was pouring from a dozen wounds, but it seemed that each blow he was dealt only increased his strength and fury until he became not a man but a raging beast.
"Orion, stop!" Mystia screamed again. Still he did not hear her. As the fighting drew closer, she crawled beneath one of the tables to escape the fray. Exhaustion, pain, and fear finally overcame her, and she began to sob uncontrollably.
The doors to the banquet hall were thrown open once again, and Kozan stormed in, the Dark Sorcerer at his back. If anyone could match Orion in anger, it was the king of Delovachia. The warrior cried out his name and tried to run across the room toward him, but the guards were thick and held him back.
Kozan paid him no heed but instead looked around the room for Mystia. When, at last, his gaze fell upon her, he stalked over to where she lay weeping beneath the table. She saw him coming, and anger overcame her fear. She crawled out from beneath the table, and as he reached for her she lashed out at him with her dagger. He dodged out of the way–but not quickly enough. Blood began to flow from the gash she left upon his cheek.
With a snarl he struck the blade from her hand and pulled her roughly to him. Spinning her about so that she faced Orion, he hooked his arm under her chin and cried, "Drop your weapon, Orion, or I’ll break her neck."
A magic spell could not have been more effective. Instantly, all fighting ceased, and the banquet hall became silent. Orion stood, breathing heavily, clutching his battle-axe, simply looking at Kozan and Mystia. The princess returned his stare in terror.
"Drop it now!" Kozan growled as he held Mystia tighter. Still Orion did not move.
Mystia struggled to breath.
"Orion," she whispered. Tears were falling from her eyes.
Slowly Orion uncurled his fingers from around the handle of his axe and let it drop to the ground.
Kozan took his arm from beneath Mystia's chin but still held tightly to her arms.
In the silence that ensued, one of the soldiers walked up behind Orion and struck him hard across the head with the pommel of his sword. Orion fell unconscious to the floor.
"No!" Mystia cried and tried to run to him. Though she struggled, Kozan held her fast.
"Take him to the dungeon and chain him fast," ordered Kozan. "And as for you!" he cried as he spun Mystia to face him, "Be thankful I don’t kill you right now."
He threw her from him, and as she hit the floor her body was taken by another fit of coughing. As she lay gasping for breath, the Dark Sorcerer looked upon her, his face an impassive mask.
"'Twould be a pity were she to die before she could be sacrificed,” he finally said, turning to Kozan. “Permit me to take care of her."
Kozan looked upon Mystia in disgust. "Do what you will. I care not." With that he stormed from the banquet hall.
The Dark Sorcerer knelt and picked the princess up–she was too weak to resist him. He carried her from the banquet hall, turning not once to look upon the floor which was covered with the blood and dead bodies of men.
* * *
Screams of agony filled the torture chamber and mixed with the groans and creaks of terrible machines of pain. The bloodstained walls shone eerily in the flickering, red light of the torches. The floor was strewn with moldy straw mixed with slime and blood, and in some of the darkest corners could be seen the bones and rotting remains of men–the only creatures to find peace in that terrible place.
"Chain him," ordered Kozan.
Orion snarled and struggled against those who held him. It took four strong guards to drag him to the whipping post and bind him there. Sweat poured from his body as he strained to break his bonds.
His armor had already been stripped from him, and now his tunic was torn away also.
"What’s this?" Kozan demanded, his gaze falling upon the golden chain hanging around Orion's neck.
As the king stepped forward Orion gave a low growl, his blue eyes wide like those of a cornered beast. As the king reached out to take the chain from his neck, the warrior tried to bite his hand. Kozan cried in rage and struck him hard across the face, and with one swift motion, took the chain and pulled it up over Orion's head.
For a moment he stared at the ring which dangled at the end of the chain.
"How nice," said he with sneer, "a soul stone." His fingers closed over it, and he held it tightly in his fist.
* * *
Mystia lay upon a soft bed in a peaceful, dimly lit room. The Dark Sorcerer sat nearby and looked thoughtfully down upon her sleeping form. Her eyes flew open, and she began to scream.
* * *
Kozan hung the chain around his own neck. Turning to the chief torturer, he said, with a curl of his lip, "Begin." The torturer drew back his whip, and one more voice was added to those filling the dark chamber with cries of agony.