SAMPLE #4: THE CELL
The four met no other guards until they passed the third landing and entered the cells of the deep prison. All seemed empty save for the last one, where a single guard was sitting, either slumped over lost in thought or asleep. The passage was a straight tunnel and offered no cover of any kind, so Ziggy let loose an arrow from sixty feet away while Steed sprinted after it. The arrow struck the man's gleaming black boot, causing him to bolt up and yell in pain. A single moment of abject terror spread across the guard's pale face as Steed swung his maul into the center of the man's chest. The crunch of chainmail and bone echoed down the dark stone passageway, followed by a labored wheezing and gurgling. Steed slowly drew up the Dukeskewer with both hands and swung it cleanly into the man's jaw, and the wheezing noise stopped.
Ash and Simon caught up in a moment, out of breath. Ziggy was shaking her head at her poor shot and already rifling through the guard's pockets. Ash peered inside the unlit cell, but could see nothing.
No answer came at first. As Ash strained his eyes to see inside Simon tossed in a lit torch through the bars, which reflected the firelight and momentarily dazed Ash's vision. The bars were made of the same shiny volcanic glass as the tower above them. As his eyes recovered, he thought he saw six small fires flicker for a moment in the pitch-black cell.
“Hello? Bhol? We've come from Suboq. We've come to save you.”
A long, bony white arm picked up the torch inside the cell, placed it in a sconce on the wall and slinked off to an opposite corner. Inside was the poorest excuse for an orc Ash had ever seen. Though the Nard had been thin and emaciated, this ancient orc made the Nard look like a fat tub of soft cheese. The orc's shadowed form was unaccountably ancient, his torso so whisper-thin that the outlines of his ribs looked as if they were outside his skin. His intestines could be seen, vaguely, under the milk-white skin of his belly, and his arms and legs were nothing more than a hint of white skin tattooed to elongated bone. The old orc's arms were long enough to nearly reach his ankles. The orc had no genitalia to speak of. Sliced off and burnt in some devilish torture session. The sick spectacle made Ash nauseous, but he steeled his stomach and continued.
“Bhol? We come from Suboq. Your son. We are to rescue–”
“Yes,” the ancient orc hissed, so weakly that Ash had to strain to hear. “Bhol. They once called me that. Bhol.”
Ash looked at the bars to the cell but could not see a lock or hinges. “We've come from Suboq. He's outside the city walls with an army. He means to sack the city, once we free you from this place.”
The old orc stayed at a distance, still shielded from Ash's view in the dim light. “Suboq? My son?” The orc seemed to cough violently. Ash heard a small splash of water and an eerie sucking sound. Suboq said he'd been trapped in here for decades. Would he even know his own son?
“Are you listening, Bhol? We need to get out of here, quickly... if only —where, how do you open this door?” Ash was confused. Ziggy and Simon were studying it, too.
“I didn't find a key on him,” the girl said softly, motioning at the dead guard.
“Sir, we can help you get out, and we'll be on our way. You need to–”
“I need to get out of here,” the old orc laughed in the darkness, his voice still grating and hoarse. “There is no key to this door. My tormentors are highly intelligent men. No key to this door, no.”
Ash was perplexed. “Then how do we open it?”
The old orc paused for a moment, still hidden in the dark corner of his cell. “Which is the mage among you?”
Ash and Simon looked at each other. Steed, who was trying on the dead guard's black spiked helmet behind them, snickered loudly.
“I am,” Ash said boldly. “What would you have of me?”
The ancient orc paused again, and Ash felt the hairs on his neck stand straight up. “You are no mage. The little one, the boy. Him.”
Simon's jaw started shivering. “M-m-me?”
“Yes. You. You are quite powerful, you know. Tarnished, but only slightly. I need a drop of blood from your left palm.”
Simon looked like he was about to faint. “A d-drop of blood? My blood?”
“Yes. Yes, just a single drop. A single drop from a human mage's left palm, right there on the bars.”
Simon reached for his dagger but Ash grabbed his hand. “First, you tell us who you are. We're looking for Bhol, father of Suboq, imprisoned here over two decades ago.” The choking sound erupted again from the corner of the cell. Ash continued, “You need to confirm your identity first.”
“Yes. Yes, I'm Bhol, father of Suboq. Good son. Filial son. Now, that drop of blood...”
“You are in terrible shape, sir. Can you still walk?”
“Yes. Yes. I can walk just fine. I need to walk, to get out of here, stretch my limbs. Now.”
Ash felt like he was missing something. He glanced at Simon, who returned his quizzical look.
“So how do we get him out of here? The tunnels?” Ziggy broke the awkward silence.
“You'll come with us once we release you. Once out, we'll alert the army outside with our warhorn. We know the sewage tunnels well, and can get you back to your son.”
The word slapped Ash in the face with an almost physical force. “No?”
“No. I'll alert the army myself. I know secret ways up this tower. I know of a landing halfway up. I helped build it myself. I'll alert the army, you boys take care of yourselves, get yourself to a safe place.”
Ash was confused. “You built this tower? How?”
“Built? With the lies I give them. When they torture me. Yes. I will alert them for you, you run to safety. After I am freed.”
“But you'll be killed. You're as thin as a spearpoint.”
“Yes, thin. Yes, but I know secrets. I can get up to the landing without them knowing. Hurry, before more guards come and trap us all down here forever.”
Before Ash could ask another question Simon held out his hand. A single drop of dark red liquid glided down his palm and onto his wrist, and Simon flicked it off onto the volcanic glass bars. The drop made a tiny hiss where it hit, but other than that, Ash saw no physical change.
“Did it.. did it work?” Ash asked. Before anyone could answer two bony fingers grabbed one bar, then another pair of fingers latched onto the next. With an effortless tug the two hands ripped the door out of the stone. None of the four could remember how the old orc appeared behind them, naked and surprisingly tall, his back turned.
“Give me the horn.”
Steed hesitated. Ash looked at Steed and followed his glance down to the orc's hand, which seemed to be missing three fingers. Both of his hands have just two long bony fingers. What the...