“I tried to crawl faster, my limbs sinking into the muck on the side of the now strawberry-colored creek and coming up with loud sucking sounds that would definitely alert any guards to my presence. Lucky for me, there probably weren’t any guards in the area. In fact, there was probably no one at all.”
The water was red. That wasn’t good… at all.
I tried to crawl faster, my limbs sinking into the muck on the side of the now strawberry-colored creek and coming up with loud sucking sounds that would definitely alert any guards to my presence. Lucky for me, there probably weren’t any guards in the area. In fact, there was probably no one at all.
The bog, a wide, flat plain full of deep mud pits and criss crossing creeks, was the last place anyone would consider using to get into the Warehouse. It was so open that it was assumed that anyone who approached would be spotted from a mile away, and it was considered suicidal to set foot anywhere near where I was now crawling.
And that was where they had been wrong. Or at least I hoped so, since my life depended on it. Covered in mud and crouched low against the marshy ground, I looked just like any other bump on the large, flat expanse. The sun beat down on the bog, drying and cracking the mud on my limbs and face as I scanned the landscape yet again. I couldn’t see or hear anyone around me, and the behemoth Warehouse was slowly coming into detail before my eyes. There was nowhere to run, nowhere I could hide if they spotted me. I certainly hoped they were wrong.
Aptly nicknamed “the Warehouse” by the citizens of Hilliche, the structure in front of me was a massive, flat-roofed building with a broad, brick chimney rising sky-high from its center. The Warehouse was an infamous prison dedicated to holding rebels and thieves prior to execution. And while it had never been mentioned directly by the King or any of his advisors, it was commonly assumed that it was also used for the executions themselves.
I knew this to be true of course; this was far from my first time coming this way to rescue someone or another. This time, my mission was to walk in and then walk back out a few hours later with a certain Master Matthew Dowell, for whose return I was being paid more than I normally made in a year.
Was that fishy? Sure. But for an orphaned 17-year-old girl living alone in the slums of Hilliche, the capital city of this god-forsaken country, money is money, no matter how it comes about.
Of course, that wasn’t why I started risking my life like this. In the beginning, it was more about a personal vendetta, about how my father was brought to the Warehouse and killed for a crime I knew he didn’t commit. That time, at age 14, I had been too late to save him. I had never disappointed since.
Although, I might lose my streak if I didn’t hurry. Darkness fell across my face as I entered the shadow of the factory, and I glanced worriedly at the creek on my left, the one that passed under the Warehouse. The light strawberry pink of the water had already turned to a brighter red. Executions were well under way.
I crawled a few meters further into shadow and then glanced at the creek again. It was here that it turned muddy — and bloody — enough that it was impossible to see all the way to the bottom. And it was here that I had found my way in. I edged towards the creek, my arms sinking ever further into the mud as I got closer until I could move no more. Then, I threw as much of my body as wasn’t stuck in the ground towards the rushing water.
The mud slowly gave way, tilting me closer to the creek. I tilted faster and faster until it let go entirely with a grotesque squelching noise, and I landed with a splash. A hidden current quickly dragged me under the surface of the murky water, pushing me back the way I had come as it ripped at my hair and clothing with icy fingers. I didn’t try to fight it like I did the first time this happened to me, when on the way to rescue my father I had fallen in by accident and panicked as I was dragged down into the murky depths.
It all happened much faster if I didn’t move. Tumbling head over heel, the current dropped me into the mouth of an underground passageway which was a little ways back from where I had jumped into the creek. While it did mean that I had to make some ground back up, I knew of no other place where I could find the same current and really wasn’t all that keen on experimenting, with my life at stake.
Looking around for a second, I regained my bearings. Lit by faint blue light from curiously mushroomy fungi which crowded the walls, this was an abandoned and partially collapsed tunnel which remained from the building of the Warehouse. It was so remote that I very rarely found a guard down here. If I did, the wet mud and blood from the water which coated me would make me look like a rock if I dropped to the ground in the shadows and no one looked too hard.
Muscle memory led me into familiar passages and around piles of rubble until I reached the neat X that I had scraped into the wall years ago. Reaching for the narrow, mud covered opening between two large rocks, I began to slide my way across.
I was a thin girl, but I still had trouble making it through that tight space, and little scars on my legs and arms showed the evidence of what usually happened when I squeezed through. The inhabitants of the Warehouse were usually starving by the time they were rescued, having been kept here for weeks. That’s how they fit through the gap on the way back and the only reason that I could get anyone out at all.
“ — disappearing. They don’t know how… investigate… ” Voices drifted down the rocky corridor on the other side with me halfway through the gap. I froze and went limp, muddy hair tumbling over my head and away from the nape of my neck.
Footsteps approached as the voices got clearer. “Well, I dunno. There ain’t any way in here, not from so deep underground.”
“We should check the upper levels, don’t know why anyone would think there was a way in so far down.”
“Busy work, that’s all this is. I don’t know why they… ” The voices trailed off down the corridor, and I waited a minute before lifting my head. It seemed from their conversation that the absences of the people I rescued hadn’t gone unnoticed.
In the beginning, I had come after less important prisoners who had been taken from families around the slums where I lived and had charged only small, affordable fees. Stuff that could be paid for by the poor such as myself. About a year ago, my services came to the attention of some more… wealthy figures. For the higher rates, I rescued more important prisoners.
My problem was this: if a minor prisoner disappears in a large prison, it causes a little ripple, soon forgotten. A major prisoner though, one who is kept under careful lock and key… that usually causes a bit more of a splash. And splashes are noisy enough to attract unwanted attention. After this, maybe I should lay low for a while, let things settle.
Goodness knew, I was certainly being paid enough money from this job to afford it. Hell, I could buy a new house on the edge of the slums, maybe try to find a respectable job as a store clerk or something. Whatever worked; it was best not to think too much about the future. First things first, I had to get out of here alive with my human package.
By now I had managed to extricate myself from the crack in the wall and was crouched in one of the shadows left by the torchlight. This hallway was part of the actual Warehouse complex itself, with walls of stone brick and a sandy floor. The sputtering flame from the torches created leaping shadows across the walls, such as the one which I was now crouched in.
I straightened up and winced. Tiny cuts from squeezing through the rock twanged their protest all over my body. For the hundredth time, I wondered if it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a battering ram to that crack and knock a hole straight through. It would certainly be the end of these annoying cuts and scars. It would also certainly be the end of my life.
I smiled to myself and began working my way down the hallway, drifting from flickering shadow to flickering shadow. The metallic scent of blood and a nauseating smell of burning that permeated the air as I got closer reminded me to hurry. The guards had certainly taken their own sweet time passing by.
Luckily, I passed the rest of the way unhindered and emerged on one of many large, unoccupied ledges which overlooked the cavernous room which held the executions. Rough stone walls bounced echoes and a large fire burned in a pit in one corner of the room, making the place a chaos of light and sound. Screaming, pleading, shouted orders, the cracking of whips… all these sounds drifted around me as I stood in the shadows of the ledge. The ledges were originally built for observers, but the Warehouse had long been closed to any of the sick people who enjoyed watching mass murder, and the ledges remained untouched.
I glanced at the line of prisoners who shuffled towards the execution blocks below. I was looking for a man in his 20s with brown hair and slumped shoulders. Reaching into my shoe, I pulled out a small, sealed leather case. I opened it and pulled out a scrap of paper which depicted a black and white illustration of his face. I glanced at it one last time, making sure I had his features memorized, then stowed it back in my shoe.
He apparently used to be quite overweight, but a month in prison should have fixed that problem nicely. I would probably have to wait for a while; the most important prisoners usually came at the end of the line. I stepped back into a shadowy corner, leaning against the rough stone. I had long realized it was was better to be safe than sorry, so I always arrived with plenty of time to spare.
I wondered what Master Dowell had done to end up like this. It wasn’t my job to ask, just to rescue, get paid, and move on. I had been clearly reminded of that by the wealthily clothed man who had met me by a dead-end alleyway to give me this assignment. I was instructed to get Master Dowell out, leave him in the alley, and never breathe a word about it. If I did that, I would get paid. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. It was that simple. But again, this man who I was rescuing was most certainly someone of importance if he was worth so much money. So I couldn’t help but wonder…
My eyes drifted to the three execution blocks, to the methodical chopping of the axe as it swung up and down, each starving prisoner being forced to their knees by armed guards. I watched as the next prisoner was pushed from the line, sulking silently. She ascended the block and was pushed to her knees so hard that she cried out. Her head was locked into place by a lone guard, and the axe reached a shining apex. Then, her head rolled forward across the platform with a nearly inaudible thud, dead eyes still staring defiantly at the ceiling up above.
Blood spilled across a sandy floor which was already red and sticky with it. The creek which I had followed on the way in ran somewhere under this room, and I knew that the blood would eventually soak through the sand on the floor to mix with the water, emerging under the late afternoon sky.
Three guards came forward, hefting the severed head and body into the fire in the corner and releasing another wave of the nauseating scent of burnt skin. I heard a whip crack as the next prisoner in line was forced forward.
I had witnessed this same process at least once a month for the last two years, so I knew all of the different reactions that people expressed before death. Some kept their heads held high like the last woman, some gave speeches that would never be heard, others just cried for mercy such as the old man currently on the block.
My father hadn’t cried, hadn’t spoken, hadn’t acted defiant before he died as I stood watching, helpless, from this same ledge. He had smiled. Smiled with some sort of private victory of which I would never know, as if he had won somehow, even in death.
Tears sprung to my eyes, and I blinked them back angrily, forcing my mind away from him and back toward the situation below me. The next round of prisoners was entering, and it was nearing the end of executions for the day. I recalled the precise descriptions given to me by the wealthy man in the alley and looked over the prisoners below. There were only about thirty of them, none matching the description I had been given. How important was this man? Had I somehow missed him?
The next round was the second to last, then the last, then the final execution. If he was the final execution, there was no way I could get him out. It would be hard enough already with this few prisoners. I really should have asked for more money. Sighing, I re-tied my matted hair and hoped for the best, glancing back at the ground below.
My heart nearly stopped, and I mouthed every curse word I knew — which was quite a few of them — in violent succession as I spied the prisoner who was being forced up to the middle block. What. The. Hell. Why the hell was there a child here?
A small, brown-haired boy was being escorted up the steps with the help of a metal rod shoved into his back. He was very young, seemingly under ten years old and thin-faced with hunger and sadness. He stared at the scene around him with wide, terrified eyes. The guard poked him harder as he stalled on his way up. He took another step and tripped on the stair, scraping his knee with a wail loud enough that I could hear it clearly from up on the ledge.
I stood there, feeling vaguely sick as I realized that no matter what I cursed, he was going to die, and I was going to have to stand here watching. I knew that as soon as I spotted him, knew it as I watched his head be forced onto the block, and knew it as I watched the last spark of life leave his eyes.
Feeling something run down my chin, I realized that I was biting my lip hard enough to draw blood. I wiped my hand absentmindedly across my face, still watching the scene below until the boy’s body vanished into the fire and the next person stepped up to the platform, babbling something I couldn’t hear. I took a step back towards the shadows, trying to shake off the shock. I would wonder what a boy was doing here later. Right now I would just have to wait.
As the last of the prisoners in this round were walked up to the blocks, I focused on my plan. When I saw Master Dowell, I would climb down from the ledge onto the ground fifteen feet below, keeping to the shadows. Hiding in the small crevasse at the base of the ledge, I would catch his eye and beckon him silently.
Upon him coming close enough, I could knock him out with a rock which I kept in my pocket, and we would look like no more than an outcropping in the shadows until executions finished and all that remained were night guards. By that time, he should be awake, and we could climb back the way I had come, dodging guards until we reached the surface of the creek where we had a three kilometer trek back to civilization. However painfully slow it could be to return with a starving prisoner, it was worth the feeling of counting bills when I got back. The plan was flawless. I had it down to a science.
The next batch of prisoners was being herded out, only about fifteen of them this time. Fourteen heads of greasy blond hair and one of greasy brown. Hidden somewhat behind the rest. I could only see the top of his head, but as he glanced towards the execution blocks for a second, I got a quick glimpse of his face, enough for me to be sure it was him.
I pulled off my thin leather shoes and hopped over the rusty railing, climbing down the shadowy face of the rock. I moved with a practiced ease, fingers and toes automatically reaching for the same bumps and cracks in the rock until I was close enough to jump down into the shadowy dip at the bottom of the wall.
Matthew Dowell was still behind the others as the guards had not yet succeeded at herding them into a line, so I couldn’t see him clearly. His face swung in my direction nonetheless, and I shifted slightly, catching his attention. Beckoning, I smiled at him sweetly. While not necessary, I found that the smile sped things up, made the person more likely to trust and come towards me.
The will to survive always came out in the end, and not one person who I had beckoned before hadn’t taken the chance. I had watched starving prisoners go to incredible lengths with strength they shouldn’t have even had, just to save their own skins. Dowell was no exception. He came forward slightly as the prisoners were finally whipped into line, and my heart skipped a beat as I noticed a small detail that was revealed as the rest of him emerged into my line of sight. He was fat.
How… ? That first word shaped itself in my brain, and the thought stalled there. He should’ve been starved before he came out here, they all were. And he wasn’t just fat, he was massive, sporting rolls of blubber that stuck out from under his clothing and rippled when he moved. There were a lot of problems with that. He wouldn’t be able to climb up the wall, dodge guards, fit through the stone crack, or swim up the creek. Even a will to survive didn’t go quite that far. The entire rescue operation depended on being thin, and he, as an understatement, was not.
I realized that I had been staring absently at the bloody sand by the side of the execution blocks. I looked back up, wondering how to get out of this, but it seemed that Dowell had already lost interest. His blubbery face was turned in the other direction, watching something that I couldn’t make out. That was odd, but good: I was getting out of here. If I tried to rescue him, I was good as dead and wouldn’t get paid, and if I left now, I still wouldn’t get paid. Best to at least escape with my life.
I was about to turn and climb back up the wall when a movement caught my eye. A guard was cautiously advancing toward me from the left, a knife that dripped with something black — probably poison — held in his hand. And another one came from the right bearing the same weapon. I froze, still crouched enough to look like a rock. It was then that I noticed Dowell’s hand, a fat finger pointed towards me.
Damn. For two reasons. Damn because it was a trap, and a good one too. And more importantly, damn because I was dead. Running was useless, and I couldn’t climb fast enough. My head shot to the right just in time to see the guard throw his knife. I watched it flash as it arched through the air for just a second and swayed left in a futile attempt to avoid it. I felt a sting as it cut a shallow line on my upper arm, black poison dripping down the cut. That was the last thing I felt before I blacked out.