Not the final version. Book version may vary.
One, two, three . . . Was it three halls? Four? No, three. Third door on the . . . left.
At the end of Ropak’s directions Alden turned a corner then doubled back. A couple castle sentries guarded a steel door. The dungeon, no doubt.
How am I going to get in–?
Alden looked around the corner. The guards sat slumped next to the door as if taking a snooze. He crept forward but the guards lay sprawled as if something had knocked them out. Alden creaked open the heavy dungeon door and peered inside.
A stone staircase spiraled into darkness. Alden crawled down, taking each step only when he knew he wouldn’t fall. He could hardly see his hand in front of his face.
At the bottom Alden gasped and was cut short by a cough. The musty air caught in his lungs. It was the dungeon, all right—scalagos in chains sat on the floor and hung on the wall. Many looked malnourished, either from lack of food or lack of hope. Alden thought he’d left atrocities like this behind on Zhop.
He crouched to a prisoner and asked, “Are you all right? Are you—This is—How long . . .” The prisoner remained still. All his hair was gone, though judging by the clumps of hair on the floor not necessarily missing.
Alden heard a tiny cough and rustling, followed by a mutter of, “Who are you?”
He turned to a scalago on the floor, her arm chained to the wall. Her dirty skin looked like pond scum and she wore a ratty towel. She appeared shrinking and her face repeatedly winced. Alden couldn’t tell if she was young or old, but had she not been in the dungeon she might have looked his age. He started wincing with her, his eyes wet.
Alden crept to her as if she were a small animal he didn’t want to frighten. He glanced at her skin then stared, her body covered in cuts, before looking away to her sunken eyes.
“My name’s Alden.” He wondered what else he could say. He asked for her name.
“I’m”—she coughed—“Olivia. What are you doing here?”
“I’m here . . .” Without thinking Alden said, “I’m here to set you free.”
Olivia’s eyes glistened. “Really?”
No, that’s not really why I’m here. But then, why not? Why not set them all free now that I’m here?
Because he didn’t know who they were. They may not have even been Salenthian. Why would he stop to free them?
Because Salenth or Thraundlus, no one should have to live in such squalid conditions. If they were from the Thraundlus Kingdom they could start a new life in the Salenth.
There was the problem of him being just one scalago. Saving one person was one thing; a whole dungeon was another.
Alden shook his head. “Do you know where Princess Serani is?”
“Her Royal Highness!” A wrinkled prisoner looked up. His leathery skin was colored like chewed bubblegum. Alden stared, shocked that anyone so old could survive in such a decrepit place. “I can’t express my astonishment when I realized who that vision of beauty was.” He looked at Alden. “I hadn’t seen her since she was but a toddler. I couldn’t be prouder of our royalty.”
The prisoner groaned and clenched his toothless mouth. “That selfish, dastardly Eintandus! You won’t find the princess here anymore, I’m afraid. She’s been brought to the throne room. Eintandus plans to force her into a marriage with him.”
“What?” Alden asked. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I know it is,” the prisoner said. “But that’s his plan. Marry her and become the rightful heir to the Salenth throne. Will anyone believe the wedding was real? I wouldn’t, not if I saw it with my own eyes, but he seems to think he can pass it off as legitimate.”
Alden’s head hurt. He couldn’t believe it. The king of the Thraundlus Kingdom kidnapped Serani in order to marry her? So that he could become the king of the Salenth Kingdom? That would never work. It couldn’t work. It wasn’t allowed to work.
“So that’s where she is!”
Alden jumped. Steven appeared and the prisoners jumped too—at least those who could.
“Steven?” Alden asked. “Of course; that’s why the guards were knocked out.”
“I searched every inch of this dungeon but couldn’t find Princess Serani,” Steven said.
“She’s long gone,” said the older prisoner. “Whisked away to the throne room.”
“We have to hurry to her,” Steven said.
“Yeah, but . . .” Alden looked around. “We can’t just leave these people here, can we?”
Steven shrugged. “We do have a job to do. That should be our first–”
He covered Alden’s mouth and put a finger to his own. A creak from upstairs was followed by stomping. Steven pulled Alden into the shadows and a fustornis charged in, all spikes and plates and appendages thick as trees.
“Hey! Who’s down here?” They snarled like rocks tumbling into a swamp. “I saw the guards out front. Come out or . . .” They looked around the room and grabbed Olivia. “I’ll twist off this prisoner’s arm. I know we have something down here that can do that.” They grimaced jagged teeth in a spiky mouth. “It’s called me.”
Alden looked at Steven and his mouth dropped: the cyborg aimed a hand to shoot the fustornis. Alden shoved Steven’s hand aside; the bang echoed and stone glinted.
Steven threw his hands up and mouthed something at Alden, but the scalago couldn’t read him in the dark. Alden shook his hands; he was wholly against shooting anyone.
“What do we got here?” The fustornis trudged to them. “An aspiring prisoner and a robot?” Alden looked at the fustornis in the dim light—their face looked as rough as the side of a volcano. Many of their spikes and plates looked cracked or broken.
“Run!” Steven shouted. The fustornis lunged at them. Alden jumped aside and Steven disappeared.
“Stop right there or I’ll blast a hole in you.”
Alden turned; the fustornis held a revolver as big as his head. “No, not an aspiring prisoner; a soon-to-be stiff.” In the darkness Steven appeared and aimed at the fustornis.
“Look out!” Alden shouted.
“Hah, you think I’m gonna fall for that–” A bang shot out and the fustornis stumbled. He opened fire on Steven.
Alden scanned the dungeon and saw chains and shackles in the corner. He grabbed one and ran to Olivia.
“That’s the dungeon keeper,” Olivia said, trembling. “He’s going to kill you.”
“Not if we . . .” Wait, no. No killing him first. “ . . . keep him from doing that. Hold this.” Alden gave her one end of the chain and tossed the other through a metal loop in the wall.
“Steven! Knock him over!” Alden shouted. Steven turned invisible.
“Just try it, you freak. You won’t make me budge. Come within arm’s reach and I’ll–” He swung his arm and bashed Steven to the floor visible. The fustornis grappled him. “Gonna make a junk heap outta ya.”
Alden ran around the dungeon keeper, looking for an opening. Steven shot the keeper in the face and he dropped the cyborg.
“Ha! I hardly feel a thing in this old face anymore.” He fired at Steven. The cyborg shot a rocket and blasted the keeper to the floor.
Alden ran to the fustornis and clamped the shackle around his ankle. “Okay, pull it!” Olivia yanked on the chain and she fell over. Alden groaned. Oh no, of course—she doesn’t have any strength after being down here!
The dungeon keeper stood and yanked the chain back. Olivia screamed and hung in the air under the wall hook, her own chain taut.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be in this dungeon much longer,” the dungeon keeper said. “We’ll throw what’s left of you to the aklonars.” The keeper charged at Olivia. Alden and Steven grabbed his chain and yanked him off his feet.
The fustornis rolled back up and roared. Alden looked around. The dungeon was too open to hide behind anything. The keeper charged; Steven ran aside and Alden jumped back.
“Alden!” Steven shouted. “Over here! Here! No, not there. Jump over here!”
Alden still jumped back, right in the keeper’s warpath. He could see every cut, every scrape in the charging keeper’s stony face.
He lunged aside. The keeper crashed into the stone wall like a cannonball, throwing a cloud of dust into the thick air. He toppled backwards.
“Come on, before he gets up,” Alden said. He and Steven pulled Olivia down. They dragged the dungeon keeper to the wall and suspended him by the chain.
Alden sighed. “All right, now–”
“When I get outta this—” the dungeon keeper shouted, rocking the chain. They left him to bellow.
Alden looked at Olivia. “Let’s get you out of that shackle.”
“What about the princess?” Steven asked.
“I know, I know,” said Alden. “But I’m not going to leave Olivia behind. Come on, help me–”
The door upstairs slammed open and the stairs rumbled. Steven pulled Alden back into the shadows.
Scalago soldiers in chalky-muddy uniforms entered the dungeon. “Spread out. Find the princess. Let’s move.”
“Oh, it’s you,” Alden said. Frenell aimed a gun at them then lowered it.
“You two,” said Frenell. “That explains the soldiers upstairs. Where’s the princess?”
“She’s not here,” Alden said. “The Thraundlus King took her to the throne room so he could marry her.”
“Gaddfern it, really?” Frenell asked. “You saw this? Heard them talking?”
“We saw it,” Olivia said, standing up. “King Eintandus came down and took her away, ranting and taunting her about the wedding.”
Frenell stared at her. He looked at Alden, who nodded.
“Everyone, regroup!” Frenell shouted. “We have a wedding to crash. Don’t question it, just go. We’re heading for the throne room.”
He turned to Alden and Steven. “Come on. Get going.”
“Wait,” Alden said.
Frenell stopped mid-march. “We don’t have time to wait.”
“What about these prisoners?” asked Alden. “We need to help them.”
“We have more important business to attend to,” said Frenell.
“But some of these are your own people, I’m sure,” Alden said. “Even those who aren’t deserve a chance to live in peace.”
“We have our orders,” Frenell said. “Get the princess and get her out.”
Alden groaned. That’s what he came to do, too, but he wasn’t a soldier. He didn’t have orders to save Serani. For that matter—“Steven. You’re not actually part of the military, right?”
“While that is true,” Steven said, “you might consider–”
“Then you don’t have to take their orders,” said Alden. “You could stay and help these prisoners free.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Frenell said. “We’re in the middle of a war zone. They would slow us down too much.”
That was true. However, even a chance . . .
“Listen. All of you imprisoned here,” Alden shouted. “Some of you may have been here for years. You may not even know what year it is now. You may be weak; maybe you hardly have the strength to walk. But if you want to feel sunlight again, now is your time to walk out of this dark, decrepit dungeon.
“But know that it won’t be easy. If you don’t come you’ll stay in here for however long your life goes on, but if you do come, that life may not go on past today.
“You can escape, but if you can’t make it, you may die. But if you do escape, you’ll have freedom again.
“It’s your choice.”
The old prisoner who’d told Alden Eintandus’ plan stood up. “Hex, yes! I’m not going to rot here any longer. If I’m going to rot somewhere, it’ll be all over that rotten Eintandus’ hallway in a bloody mess.”
Other prisoners voiced agreement (except for that bloody mess part), though some held back.
Olivia hugged Alden. “You’ll help us free, won’t you?”
“I have someone else I need to help,” Alden said. “But Steven . . .” He looked at Steven, who nodded. “And then . . .” Alden looked at Frenell. The brigadier sighed.
“Fine. I’ll leave a few soldiers to lead these prisoners to freedom. If they can keep up.” He looked at the prisoners. “What he said was completely true: if you can’t keep up you will be left behind, so the choice is up to you.”
He ordered two soldiers to escort what prisoners were willing to make a bid for freedom. They and Steven freed the prisoners while the other troops, Alden included, marched on the throne room.