Stuck in Magic CH13

25 Mar


Chapter Thirteen

My gut churned all the way back to the guardhouse.

I was complicit.  There was no getting around it.  I’d played a major role in trapping, catching and shackling the runaways we were marching to their doom.  The citizens on the streets booed and jeered, shouting mockery and insults at the runaways … as if they were any better than the prisoners.  I cursed myself, again and again, for joining the guard.  I could have done something else, if I’d wanted to earn money.  It wouldn’t have been that hard to sign on as a bodyguard or … or something, something other than a guard.  I felt dirty, as if I’d done something irredeemably wrong.  And – in truth – I had.

The guards laughed and joked, chatting about how they planned to spend their share of the reward.  I hated them, hated them more than I could say.  This wasn’t policing.  This was slavery.  The prisoners had fled oppressive masters and come to the city in hopes of a better life and now they were going to be sent back, because the city didn’t care enough to even try to protect them.  And I was complicit.  There was no way I could tell myself that I had only been following orders, no way I could tell myself that I’d at least tried to uphold my standards of justice.  I hadn’t been the one who’d let the rapist go.  I couldn’t blame myself for that.  But this?

I could have hit the deck and claimed I was knocked down, I thought.  It would have been easy to let someone hit me.  I knew how to take a punch.  It would have been a gamble – the runaway might have stabbed me while I was defenceless, or merely kicked me while I was down – but I owed it to myself to take some risks.  And instead I did nothing.

“You want to join us for drinks tonight?”  Fallows slapped my back, hard enough to sting.  “You can even pick a girl or a boy and take them upstairs …”

I didn’t want to do anything of the sort – I really didn’t want to spend any time with them – but I knew I should.  I’d had an idea.  I could free the runaways myself.  I could tell them to flee into the warrens before they were sent back to their former masters.  And I’d need an alibi.  I’d need people who could bear witness I’d been in a bar, surrounded by my fellow guardsmen, rather than alone in the barracks.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be glad too.”

Fallows winked at me as we reached the guardhouse, spoke briefly to the officer on duty and headed out for the night.  A dozen other guards joined us, chattering loudly as we made our way down the streets and into the nearest bar.  I tried to conceal my disgust.  It was crammed with guardsmen, spending their ill-gotten gains.  There was singing and dancing and girls in skimpy outfits, eying the half-drunken men to see who’d give them the most for doing the least.  I felt my stomach churn as a half-naked man stumbled past me and out onto the streets, where he collapsed in a heap.  Fallows laughed, then led the way to the bar.  I said nothing as he ordered several pints.  The drunker he was, the better.

“It’s been a good day,” Fallows said.  “The reward money will keep us going for years.”

I kept my face impassive as I pretended to drink, spilling a little of the booze down my shirt to suggest I was already halfway to being drunk.  Fallows didn’t notice.  He was waving at the girls for more alcohol, then flirting with them in a manner that suggested he was already drunk as a skunk.  I slipped him my tankard, swapping it for his empty one.  He was so drunk he didn’t notice.  Whatever they put in the beer, I didn’t want any of it in me.

“I’ll find a girl,” I said, with a shameless wink.  “See you back at the barracks.”

“Cheap rooms upstairs,” Fallows said.  “I …”

His head lowered, then hit the wooden table with an audible thump.  I stood – he wouldn’t be in any danger, not surrounded by his fellows – and weaved my way through the crowd, heading for the rear door.  I’d marked it the first time I’d visited.  It was right next to the stairs leading up to the brothel.  Anyone who saw me would assume – I hoped – that I was going upstairs, rather than sneaking out into the darkened streets.  I pulled my hood up as I stepped outside, allowing the darkness to envelope me.  I was hardly the only person who fitted my description in the city, but there was no point in taking chances.  If someone saw me and gave a proper description, it was just possible my superiors would start asking questions.  They might been deeply corrupt, with a willingness to do anything for gold, but they weren’t idiots.

Just assholes, I reflected.  I wrapped my cloak around myself to conceal the uniform as I hurried on.  People who could do better if they gave a damn.

I felt my heart twist as I made my way down to the slave pen.  It was little more than a walled warehouse, not that different from the building we’d raided earlier in the day.  I’d checked it out weeks ago, fearing that I might end up in it one day.  It wouldn’t be that hard to escape, even without my tools.  I guessed the runaways were shackled, bound hand and foot.  They knew what awaited them, when they were forced-marched home.  They’d be desperate enough to attack armed men with their bare hands. 

The warehouse rose up in front of me, illuminated by a single burning lantern over the gatehouse.   The wall wasn’t that high, barely twice my height; the interior had been designed to make it difficult to climb.  I scrambled up to the top, then dropped down and landed inside the courtyard.  My lips twisted as I knelt within the shadows, waiting to see if any of the guards had heard my landing.  The designers hadn’t expected someone to try to break into the slave pen.  Who in their right mind would try?

I smiled grimly as I slipped around the walls, remaining within the shadows as I approached the gatehouse.  There would be a handful of guards on duty, probably already half-drunk.  I told myself not to take that for granted as I reached the gate and peered inside.  A man was sitting at the table, his back to me.  I drew my club and cracked it over his skull, sending him crashing to the ground.  He seemed to be alone.  I frowned – there should have been at least three guards on duty – and searched the gatehouse quickly before stealing his keys.  Where were the other two?

Move, I told myself.  Don’t slow down for anything.

I was committed now.  I took the keys and hurried back to the warehouse.  The door was solidly locked, but it was a lock I could have picked in my sleep.  I opened it with the keys, then inched down the corridor and peered into the nearest office.  A guard stared at me, his eyes going wide.  I knocked him down before he could raise the alarm, then glanced around the office.  A handful of papers lay on the desk, covered with unreadable scribbles.  I cursed my inability to read Old Script as I looked at them, then turned my attention to the far doors and tried to open them.  It took me several tries to find the right key to open the locks.

The stench was appalling.  I gagged, stumbling back in disgust.  The darkened chamber beyond smelt like a barnyard … no, like a prison.  I picked up a lantern from the office and held it up, shining it into the chamber.  A sight from hell greeted me.  The giant warehouse had been subdivided into a number of cages, each one holding a dozen chained and shackled men.  Some of them had clearly been beaten into submission, their wounds left to fester and decay.  There were no women or children.  I couldn’t help finding that ominous.

Eyes followed me as I made my way up to the first cage.  I tried to smile at them, knowing they’d take me for just another tormentor.  They might try to jump me the moment I opened the cage.  I inspected the locking system, silently cursing the evil genius who’d designed it.  The cage wasn’t meant to be opened by just one man … I supposed it was a safety precaution, intended to keep the prisoners safely confined.  I cursed under my breath as I opened the first lock, then jammed the key in place.  The system should be relatively easy to spoof.  I told myself I should be glad they didn’t have electronic locks, with fingerprint scanners or PIN numbers.  It would have been a great deal harder to break the prisoners out.

“Go through the office, through the gatehouse and run,” I hissed, as I opened the second lock.  The prisoners stood, shaking off their chains.  The noise was terrifying.  I feared someone would hear it.  I didn’t have time to search for the final guard, if indeed there was a final guard.  “Hurry!”

I moved to the second cage and started to unlock it, working my way through the keys as the first set of prisoners made their escape.  The second set followed the first, then the third.  I tried to open the forth cage and discovered, too late, that I didn’t have the right key.  The prisoners stared at me as I went through the keys twice, fearing the worst.  There were ten separate cages in the giant warehouse.  If I didn’t have the keys to all of them …

Break the lock, I told myself.  Hurry.

I dug a screwdriver out of my belt, inserted it into the keyhole … and froze.  My entire body locked solid.  I could neither move nor speak.  I couldn’t hear my heartbeat.  I wasn’t even sure I was still breathing.  Horror washed through me as I realised I’d struck a magical booby trap, that I’d effectively trapped myself.  I’d thought the locks were absurdly simple, but I’d never realised why.  The keys were charmed to open the locks.  By inserting a screwdriver into the lock, I’d triggered the spell.  And …

My mind raced.  The guardsmen hadn’t given me any training in what to do if I got jinxed, let alone hexed or cursed.  Fallows had told me to make sure I gave magicians the upmost respect – and, if I got zapped with magic, to pray to all the gods it wore off before I went mad or got eaten or … or something.  I tried to think of a way of breaking free, but nothing came to mind.  I didn’t have any magic myself.  And I couldn’t move a muscle.

If my body is completely frozen, I asked myself, why am I still alive?

I heard running footsteps behind me, fading in the distance.  The prisoners I’d freed were making their escape.  I hoped they made it, even though I was grimly sure I was going to be taking their place.  They could have tried to help … I knew there was nothing they could have done to help me.  Fallows – and Jasmine – had made it clear ordinary people were helpless against magic.  I feared, as time started to press down on me, that they were right.  There was nothing I could do, save wait.  And try not to go mad.

“Well,” a voice said.  “What have we here?”

My body jerked, then started to move of its own accord.  I tried to fight, to resist whatever force was controlling my limbs, but it was useless.  Thunder was standing in front of me, his eyes narrowing as he studied my hooded face.  My hands rose up a second later, uncovering my face.  Thunder frowned, then turned and walked into another office.  I followed him like a dog on a leash, as helpless as a baby.  My muscles did as they were commanded by his magic.

I struggled, mentally, as my body came to a stop.  I’d been caught.  I’d been caught and … I was dead.  Captain Alder already distrusted me.  He wouldn’t need any more excuse to kick me out of the guard, to sell me into slavery, to even kill me outright.  It wasn’t as if anyone would give much of a damn about me.  Horst and Fallows would shrug their shoulders and move on to the next recruit.  Jasmine would never even know what had happened to me.  I wondered, as I waited helplessly, if she’d even care.

My mind raged.  I’d tried to do the right thing and …

Captain Alder walked into my field of view.  He looked tired, tired and worn.  The nasty part of my mind insisted he was exhausted, after spending the evening selling runaway slaves back to their masters.  They were slaves, in all but name.  Bound to the land, unable to leave without permission that was never forthcoming … I wanted to swallow, but I still couldn’t move a muscle.  Thunder held up a hand and twisted it in the air, light pulsing around his fingertips.  My head lolled to one side, as if I’d been hit.  The rest of my body remained unmoving.  His magic held me prisoner as surely as chains and shackles.

“Elliot,” Captain Alder said.  “Guard Constable Elliot, Son of Richard.  Did you think you could claim the bounty for yourself?”

It was hard to speak.  My head felt sluggish and my tongue felt … I tried to think clearly, despite the discomfort.  If my lower body – everything below the neck – was paralysed, so completely frozen my heart was still, how was I even alive?  There would be no blood and oxygen going to be head.  I should be dead.  I should be dead … I felt a surge of panic as I realised I was confronted with a genuine outside context problem.  A wizard had done it.  I almost giggled.  A wizard had done it!

“Answer the question, boy,”  Captain Alder slapped me across the face.  I tasted blood in my mouth.  “Who paid you?”

I stared at him, numbly.  He thought I’d been paid?  It was … didn’t he expect me to do the right thing?  But then, slavery – however disguised – was normal for this society.  Freeing the slaves was nothing more than an assault on property rights.  I felt sick – people weren’t property – and tried to come up with an answer.  My head was scrambled.  What was the name of the rapist bastard, the one who’d bought his way out of trouble?  If I gave his name instead, he could …

“Answer.”  Thunder made another motion with his fingers.  “Answer now – and truthfully.”

My mouth opened, no matter how I tried to close it.  “I wasn’t paid,” I said, dully.  “I wanted to free them.”

Captain Alder gave me a look that suggested he thought I was a bloody moron.  I supposed, by his lights, he had a point.  What did I get out of freeing the runaway serfs?  Nothing, by his standards.  The idea it might help me sleep at night was alien to him.  He would sooner believe I’d tried to steal them all by my lonesome, in hopes of claiming the entire bounty for myself, than I’d simply meant to let them go.

“You wanted to free them?”  Captain Alder shook his head, then started to pace the room.  “What were you thinking?”

“There’s no point in wasting time,” Thunder said, before I could speak.  He made a gesture.  My head froze.  Again.  “We won’t be paid for the missing slaves.”

I felt a flicker of triumph, even though I knew I was doomed.   Thirty runaways had made it onto the streets.  It would be a long time before they could be hunted down, let alone returned to their former masters.  I wanted to laugh.  Captain Alder and the sorcerer had probably hoped to claim the vast majority of the bounty for themselves, while handing out tiny sums to the guardsmen.  That would be harder now, I thought.  They might be lynched if they didn’t pay the guardsmen.  If nothing else, I told myself, the captain was going to be out of pocket.

“We can send this oaf into slavery, in their place,” Captain Alder said, from behind me.  He didn’t sound very hopeful.  One person, no matter how strong, could hardly do the work of thirty.  “Or … do you have something else in mind?”

“Yes.”  Thunder lifted his hand.  Fear gripped me as an evil look crossed his face.  I realised, to my horror, that he was a sadist.  “I think turning him into a frog and selling him should suffice.”

Green light flickered around his fingers, then flashed at me.  I couldn’t move.  My skin tingled … and I felt, just for a second, Jasmine’s lips on my forehead.  Thunder’s eyes went wide as the spell holding me in place vanished.  I didn’t hesitate.  I lunged forward, slamming my fist into his throat.  His body flew backwards, his head cracking into the wall.  I couldn’t tell if he was dead or merely stunned, but either way he was out of the fight.  And …

Something cracked into my skull.  I staggered under the impact, cursing my mistake.  The captain.  I’d forgotten the captain.  Alder was overweight, but that didn’t mean he was useless.  And I’d turned my back on him.  I started to spin around, too late.  He hit me again and I fell, screaming, into the darkness.

2 Responses to “Stuck in Magic CH13”

  1. stephen March 25, 2021 at 11:18 am #

    HeHe brings back memories of my days as a kid in the Saturday morning cinema. Thank you Sir


  1. Quick Updates | The Chrishanger - March 25, 2021

    […] and done the first set of edits for The Face of the Enemy (SIM 23) as well as another chapter of Stuck in Magic.  The next week is going to be rougher, I think, as we have a boatload of bureaucratic hassle to […]

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