Oba watched as the assassin disappeared into the night. He clenched his fists and resisted the urge to let out another roar. It would do no good. He turned stiffly, the paralytic effect still lingering in his legs, and walked toward the body of his emperor.
The Emperor lay face-down on the carpeted floor, blood soaking the once-brown carpet and turning it a muddy red.
Oba knelt beside his friend. “My friend. I’m sorry,” he said. He removed the murder weapon, a shard of his broken blade, from the back of the Emperor. More blood trickled out. He then turned the man onto his back and closed his lifeless eyes. He placed a hand on his friend’s forehead. “May the blessings of the Creator be upon you.”
The door to the Emperor’s chambers burst open. Rai’Vynn stood there. Several of the Emperor’s advisers stood behind him. His eyes widened at seeing his father lying dead on the floor and the shard of Oba’s blade lying nearby. “Murder!” he shouted. “Guards, seize him!”
The advisers, gaping at the scene before them were shoved aside as half a dozen guards entered. The guards drew their swords once they were free of the gaggle of advisers. They surrounded Oba. Men he was in charge of pointed steel at him him.
Oba rose slowly, glaring at the guards. A few guards took a step back. “I did not kill your father, Rai’Vynn,” he declared. But you had a hand in it, I’m sure of it, he thought.
“The murder weapon lies at your feet, Oba. What other explanation could there be?”
He’s trying to set me up, Oba realized. He gestured toward the open window and the hidden door behind him. “The assassin came through the secret tunnels and left through the window.” He pointed a finger at the window where a cold wind blew through.
“How convenient,” Rai’Vynn said with derision. “An assassin just magically showed up, without being detected, and escaped…how again?”
“On a shadow drake.”
“A shadow drake,” Rai’Vynn repeated. He paused and gave a derisive sneer the advisers could not see. Then he laughed out loud. “Oh, the tales the true assassin tells to absolve himself of guilt.”
The other advisers laughed nervously. Some had once been friends of Oba. Now they laughed or stood silent as the blame for the death of the Emperor was placed on his shoulders.
“I loved the Emperor,” Oba said firmly. “I would never harm him.”
“Seize him,” Rai’Vynn ordered.
Four of the six guards approached him, swords pointed and ready to strike.
Oba raised his arms. Resisting the guards would play into Rai’Vynn’s hands. His innocence would come to light. Darkness met him as he felt a jolt of pain at the back of his head.
Oba awoke. His hands met cold stone as he pushed himself to his feet, shivering. His head pounded. Metal bars met his eyes. He turned and found a stone wall behind him. A tiny window let in cold air. His armor was nowhere to be found.
Imprisoned, he thought. Why would they imprison me? “Guard.” he croaked, throat dry. “Guard.”
No one came.
He looked into the cell to his right. A mound of ragged clothing marked another prisoner.
“You,” Oba said, stumbling toward the bars. His body still ached from the battle against the assassin and whatever rough treatment he’d suffered at the hands of the guards. “Can you hear me?” Was everyone deaf in the dungeon?
The prisoner lifted his head and looked at Oba. He was an Engrall man with a long brown beard and green eyes. “Stop speaking.”
The man held a finger to his lips and made a shushing sound. “Stop speaking or the guards will hear you,” he whispered fiercely.
Oba fell silent, looking around at the other cells. All the prisoners sat or lay in their cells in silence. He didn’t want to be silent. He wanted the guards to let him out!
“Guard!” he shouted.
The prisoner shook his head and laid it back down on the floor of his cell. “Fool,” he said.
Three guards answered his shout. Two leveled their spears at Oba while the first opened the door to the cell.
“I must speak…” Oba began.
The guard who had unlocked the door approached him and slammed the butt of his spear into Oba’s stomach.
Oba doubled over in pain while surprise paralyzed him. Why had they hit him? “Why?” he asked.
The guard did not answer. He simply slammed the spear into the same place again.
“Any other words to say, prisoner?” the second guard asked from behind the first. “Keep talking and we’ll keep beating you.”
Oba opened his mouth to speak but snapped it closed. No, it would do no good to be continually beaten if he could avoid it. He remained silent.
“That’s better,” the second guard said. “I can’t wait until you’re sentenced, murderer.”
The first guard turned to go.
“I didn’t kill the Emperor,” Oba blurted before he could stop himself.
The second guard arched an eyebrow. “You are a special kind of stupid.” He stepped into the cell and motioned for the first guard to turn around. “We’ll teach you the hard way then.”
Was this how all of the prisoners were treated? With such a callous disregard? Oba had no idea how the guards had become so brutal.
Two sets of fists began pummeling him. Blows rained on his body, slamming into his groin, legs, arms, his head and more. He fell to his knees and instinctively raised his arms to protect what he could of his head. He could not say how long the blows lasted, nor did he remember them stopping.
He awoke a time later on the floor. This time his hands touched something wet. He opened his eyes. A thin layer of blood coated the stones. He reached up to where a sharp pain emanated from his head. Oh, it was his blood. The door was locked again and the two guards were nowhere to be seen.
“I told you,” whispered the prisoner to whom Oba had spoken earlier, startling him.
Oba, mindful of the reason for the beating in the first place, only nodded. He had brought it upon himself, in a way.
He sat in his cell for an indeterminate amount of time.The tiny window in his cell showed no sky, so he stared at the bars, at the ceiling, at the floor, at the other prisoners. Anything to keep his mind off his predicament. If they truly believed he had killed the emperor there was only one fate that awaited him – death. He had two choices. He could either convince enough people to support him, or he could try to escape.
Oba fell asleep naturally but was awoken by a clanging noise. The guards were back. Here to beat me some more? he thought, not daring to speak.
“Get up, prisoner,” the first guard ordered. He held a pair of shackles. “The Emperor wants to see you. Hold out your hands.”
Oba’s breath froze in his lungs, but he held out his hands. The Emperor? Could he have survived?
The shackles went on and he was led from the prison cell. The other prisoners huddled with their heads down, not daring to make eye contact with the guards.
Oba was led up the steps and through the cold, damp corridors of the Obsidian Tower. He kept his head held high as he walked. To show weakness was to be as good as dead. They passed numerous guards on their path – guards who, yesterday, would have saluted him as the right hand of the Emperor but, now, looked at him with anger, suspicion and hate.
The doors to the throne room swung open at their approach. Oba looked at who sat upon the throne. “No,” he rasped.
Rai’Vynn sat upon the throne, wearing purple robes and his father’s crown. “Bring the traitor to me,” he pointed at the foot of the stairs.
Oba was dragged before Rai’Vynn. He felt like bowing his head in defeat. Yet, he held his head high and gave Rai’Vynn his deadliest stare. Traitor.
A group of advisers stood at one side of the throne. Some looked around nervously, while others glared at Oba or looked fawningly at Rai’Vynn.
A gathering of regal-looking Warbinders stood opposite the advisers. They did not glare at Oba. In fact, they didn’t look at him at all. Just looking at them made Oba feel itchy. Their ability to get into the heads of others was legendary.
Oba sought out Head Mistress Saibinn Rue with his eyes. She stood at the head of the Warbinders and looked toward Rai’Vynn. Why would she be going along with this? Had the whole world gone mad? Could they not see he was innocent?
“Oba Kahn,” Rai’vynn spoke loudly. “You are accused of the murder of my father, and our beloved Emperor, Kulan Gaidian. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Not that it will matter, Oba thought. Rai’Vynn was up to something. Oba feared that no testimony he gave would be believed. Still, he stood straight and dragged his gaze over the advisers and Warbinders alike. “I did not kill the Emperor,” he said firmly. “As I told you before, the Emperor was assassinated by an unknown woman. I believe she was affiliated with the Assassins Guild.”
“Your broken blade was found beside the Emperor.”
“It broke while I fought the assassin.”
“I find it unlikely that an assassin breached the Fortress of Shadows, let alone the Obsidian Tower, without being detected” Rai’Vynn scoffed.
Oba shrugged. “I don’t know how the assassin reached so far without detection, but I did not kill the Emperor!” He pointed toward the group of Warbinders. “Have one of them read my mind. They can tell you I speak the truth.”
Rai’Vynn cast a glance toward the Warbinders but dismissed his idea with the wave of a hand. “I will not further waste their time with distractions. As the new Emperor of the Engrall it falls to me to decide your guilt or innocence.”
Oba glared at Rai’Vynn. Do it, you coward, he thought.
“I find you guilty of murdering my father, the Emperor. the Emperor and my father.”
The room fell silent.
Oba stood silent. He had expected no less.
“The punishment will be death by crucifixion on the morrow. You will be made to suffer, as my father did, before you die. Take him away.” He waved dismissively. The four guards grabbed Oba, dragging him toward the door.
“You will regret this!” Rai’Vynn shouted. “I swear it by the gods. You shall not get away with this. Justice will be done!”
Rai’Vynn smirked. “What’s done is done, old man. You shall be punished for your crime.”
Oba was dragged indignantly down the aisle and through the double doors. He eventually stumbled to his feet and walked as the guards led him, forcefully, to his cell. They removed the shackles and once again threw him in, locking the door.
He had only been there for what felt like a short while when the main door to the dungeon opened. Back for more beatings? he wondered.
Instead of the guards from earlier, an Engrall, wearing black armor and a skull helmet, stood in front of him. “Arise, Oba Kahn,” the figure said.
Oba rose and squinted in the dim light. He recognized that voice. “Takris?” he asked.
The figure that Oba believed was Takris did not respond. He slipped a key into the lock and turned it. The lock popped open and he swung the door outward. He then dropped a bundle that had been slung on his back to the ground. “Take these and go. You have a small window of time to escape.”
Oba narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Why are you helping me?”
“I was there at the Battle of Entrigall. I saw your true heart.”
The Battle of Entrigall. The day the Emperor’s hunting party, ambushed and surrounded by Shado Elvanians near the Blackwoods, had almost been eradicated. Oba had led the Emperor’s guard that day and held the enemy back until General Takris’ forces could arrive. Oba had spent weeks recovering from the wounds he’d received that day, but the Emperor had not received a scratch.
Oba nodded. He believes me. “Thank you.” He didn’t say the general’s name again, not wanting to implicate him further.
The general grunted, turned, and departed the dungeons.
Oba approached the equipment and assessed it. A set of leather armor and a helmet,a blade-staff,a belt,a sword and a knife lay at his feet. He wasted no time donning the armor and fastening the scabbard and knife sheath to his belt. He hefted the blade-staff. It wasn’t his perfectly weighted one, but it would do. He cast a glance around at the prisoners. He could release them, but he didn’t know why all of them were there. He felt that at least some must have been there for legitimate reasons. Oba moved over to the cell where the bearded Engrall had tried to warn him earlier about speaking aloud. He would release just this one. It would then be up to that prisoner if the others were to be released. Oba did not know why the Engrall was imprisoned, nor did he care. With that, he pulled the key from his cell door, and unlocked the cell next to his. The man’s weary brown eyes studied Oba.
“Reckon I owe you one stranger, name’s Khadd. If you’re ever in need of a rogue with specialized skills, I’m your man,” Khadd said.
The thin man stood and made his way to the cell door.
“I should’ve known. A thief! Is that why you’re down here?” Oba said, turning to the exit hallway.
“Ha! More like stealing hearts. The Captain of the Guard didn’t take kindly to me spending time with his girlfriend at the Dove & Blade tavern. Ah, though, she had pretty eyes and…” Khadd explained.
Oba raised his hand.
“Enough! Go on your way. I would suggest you leave this place as soon as possible,” Oba said.
“What’s yer name my friend? I’d like to tell my grandchildren, one day about the man who saved their grand paps,” Khadd said.
The bearded man smiled, took the key, and began unlocking the other cells.
“Oba, we’re not friends. I just felt the need to give you a second chance, something I was given myself,” Oba said.
“Oba, That’s a noble name indeed. Well, Oba safe travels. May we meet again under better circumstances,” Khadd said.
Oba gave one final glance and slipped out the doorway. He had to escape and warn Tirrin of the coup.
He stepped quietly down the corridor toward the dungeon door. How had Takris gotten in without observation? Or had he used his position to intimidate the guards into letting him pass? Had he told them he wanted to beat up and abuse the prisoner?
His questions were answered moments later as he peaked out between the bars of the small window in the door to the dungeon. Three guards lay on the floor. The absence of blood made Oba suspect they were still alive, merely unconscious.
He pulled the door open and looked around. No one was waiting in the wings to attack him. He stepped around the limp bodies and crept down the corridor. The dungeon was in the sub-levels of the fortress which meant he needed to get above ground before he could hope to escape. I could crawl through the sewers, he thought. Hmm. No, I don’t have the equipment to climb the rock face. He would end up falling to his death if he attempted such a feat.
Oba ascended the stairs at the end of the corridor and emerged on the main floor. This was his home – he knew the layout like the back of his hand. He turned to the right and took a servant tunnel until he reached the kitchens. It was night and the fires in the stove were extinguished only moonlight streaming in from a high window illuminated the room. He pushed open the door from the kitchen that led outside, braced himself against the cold air, and headed toward the stables.
The stable boy lay asleep in the corner, curled up in a blanket to keep warm in the winter air.
Oba leaned his blade-staff against a wall and sought out his stallion, Thunder, who lay in a stall at the far end of the stable.
Thunder snuffed as he smelled Oba approach.
As Thunder stood, Oba extended a hand. “One last ride, old friend. Are you up for it?”
The steed snorted in reply. He was ready.
Oba fetched a saddle and equipment and returned to Thunder’s stall. He entered the stall and very quickly had Thunder ready to ride. He led Thunder to the edge of the stable.
The stable boy startled awake. “Hey, who’s there?” he asked, frightened.
Oba didn’t answer. He mounted Thunder and grabbed his blade-staff. Wrapping a blanket around himself, he made a clicking noise and gently kicked Thunder into motion. Snow flew upward from Thunder’s hooves as Oba steered him toward the gates of the fortress. No alarm had been raised…yet. Perhaps he would make it out undetected.
An alarm horn cut through the silence of the snowy night. Prisoner escaped. Shouts came from the walls and fires were lit. The gate of the fortress started to close.
“Hya!” Oba shouted, urging Thunder on.
Either his voice or his rapid movement caught the attention of the archers on the wall. The first pair of arrows slammed into the snow nearby as Thunder raced toward the descending gate.
Oba hugged Thunder tightly, his eyes on the gate. Come on, old boy, he thought.
Thunder closed in on the gate. The pointy steel spikes prepared to pierce the snowy ground. They would either make it or slam into the gate, probably breaking several bones in the process.
Oba resisted the urge to close his eyes. Instead, he guided Thunder to a gap between two sets of vertical metal bars that would burrow into the ground in moments. Thunder picked up speed…and passed through the gap. Oba let out a heavy sigh.
Outside of the high, thick walls of the fortress the winds were fiercer, and freezing cold bit through Oba’s armor. Even the blanket offered little protection.
Arrows continued to rain down, this time blown by the wind. But these were Engrall archers, accustomed to shooting with the wind. Oba knew he was not yet safe. That thought was reinforced a moment later by a sharp pain in his shoulder. He grunted and his breath caught. He’d been shot in the back.
Thunder continued across the plateau. The first bridge was too snow-covered to catch fire, but it could be covered with ice. He slowed and walked across the bridge. Oba wanted to urge Thunder back into a run, but he knew what dangers awaited when crossing bridges at night during the in winter. They reached the next plateau moments later, and Thunder broke into a trot.
Shouts carried on the wind caused Oba to turn and look behind him. The action caused a sharp spike of pain and he was only able to look long enough to see figures riding in pursuit. There were too many for him to fight in the open. He had to reach the forests. Once there, he could either hide and evade them, or prepare an ambush. I’m coming, Tirrin. I shall not pass away until I have fulfilled my duty to your father.
Within the shadows of a tree hid a figure, watching as Oba road off into the night. Khadd wouldn’t let his new friend get away that easily. There was definitely adventure afoot! He smirked and vanished into the night.