Descending into the Pit of Thorns invited a sudden rush of warm air, infused with rot and the pressing stink of close, unwashed flesh. Dewer breathed the reek in sharply as he reached the bottom of the winding staircase and stepped down into the entranceway, taking a flickering torch from a rusting wall sconce. He may have been known throughout Joria for building Armoria, but the creation of the Pit had given him the most satisfaction. Winding for more than five miles beneath the city and stretching out to bore into the rocky bed of the Thet itself, the Pit was a burrowing stone web that twisted and split into so many passageways, even the Pit Masters could get lost on occasion. No one but Dewer knew how big the labyrinth really was, or even the true reason for its construction.
Brandishing the torch in one hand, Dewer strode beneath an archway and began making his way through the maze of thick brick and dripping rock. His footsteps echoed loudly. Placed at intervals along the walls on either side of him were the heavy doors of cells, iron bound so that those imprisoned within had no hope of battering them down and escaping. The cells were bare and cold, devoid of light and constantly damp. This was the first level of the Pit, reserved for those whose crimes deserved a punishment more severe than a simple whipping in Coin Square could provide. Murderers and would-be revolutionaries were left to scream into the dark with only a thin scattering of mouldering straw for comfort.
Dewer paused before turning into the next corridor, lingering at the door of a cell he knew all too well. The changeling caged within was infamous amongst the Salt Swords, caught as she was with a blade against his throat as he slept. No one else had ever come so close to ending him.
“Louella,” he called softly. “How are we this morning, Louella?”
He waited for a few moments before stepping closer to the roughened wood of the door and pressing one eye against the narrow slit cut into the top. The complete lack of any natural light made it difficult to see inside but his eyes soon adjusted and he was able to make out the changeling’s shadowy form, huddled into a corner of her straw mattress. The mattress was a rare luxury, something she had earned by servicing the less upstanding members of the Salt Sword guard entrusted with the care of the common prisoners.
“I see you, Louella,” he tried again. “You know how I react when I am ignored.”
At this, the dark shape on the mattress turned and roused, climbing to its feet and pattering across the floor towards him like a large, wild-haired rodent. Louella stood on tiptoe against the other side of the door, her clouded, slightly bulbous eyes pressed to the slit.
“My Lord,” she rasped in greeting. Dewer could never be sure if he had truly broken this woman, or if she was constantly mocking him. “I am fair this morning. As fair as a blushing daisy on a clear summer’s morn. I have been walking with the koskin, skipping upon the fragrant riverbanks of the Weeping River. I asked a little fluttering fellow if he would lend me his wishes, but he snapped at my fingers and shit in my hair.”
“I think you will find the shit in your hair was deposited by the rats who scurry across the floor of your cell while you sleep.”
Louella banged on the door with her fists in a vain attempt to startle him. “They’re my friends. Even the one who ate my toe. He will take me dancing when the moons turn.”
“I am afraid, lovely Louella, that the moons have already turned. The Changing of the Moons took place over a week ago. Aikana shines upon you now, child. Not that you can see her violet brilliance. Not that you will ever see it.”
The manic glow faded from Louella’s eyes and the corner of Dewer’s lips twitched as he fought a smile. He could see that hearing she had missed the return of Aikana wounded the changeling deeply. In the cold shock of silence that followed he fancied he could hear the breath catch in her throat. She stepped away from the door, slipping back into the dark folds of her prison cell.
“Give my regards to the rats,” Dewer called over his shoulder as he resumed his march along the corridor.
He turned into a further six corridors and descended two long flights of stairs before stopping again. The cells in this part of the Pit were much further apart. Dewer was standing at the end of a long, echoing corridor, thrusting out from the city to end beneath the sea. Despite the thick walls, oozing with something black and viscous this deep down, the weight of the seawater could be clearly felt. It was a dense, claustrophobic feeling that prickled the back of Dewer’s eyes and made his ears ring.
The door of the cell before him was magickally sealed. Dewer held one of only two keys, forged into a thick gold ring set with a perfectly translucent ruby. He passed his hand over the door and the heavy lock clicked open, allowing it to swing slowly ajar. Dewer pushed it all the way open and stepped inside, sweeping his thick cloak back from his shoulders with a flourish.
“Good morning, Prince Elgot.” He spoke into the freezing air, his words turning to an icy steam that bloomed from his lips. The inside of the cell was so cold, the walls shone blue and glassy beneath a thin sheen of ice.
“Lord Dewer,” returned a deep voice from the darkness. “What an honour it is to receive you.” The voice was devoid of all emotion but Dewer knew his prisoner was being sarcastic. He had come to expect it.
“Apparently, you have friends in the city,” Dewer said, moving the torch before him to illuminate the room.
Elgot, or Prince Elgot as Dewer insisted on calling him because he knew just how it rankled, was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the centre of the room. His face was a mask of calm, his long, silver hair lying lank across his bare shoulders. The man’s back and chest were crisscrossed with long-healed scars, ugly welts raised by the whips of Dewer’s Pit Masters.
“Did you hear me, Frost Prince?” Dewer tried again. He retrieved the charred eye amulet from a pocket inside his cloak and threw it at Elgot. The man caught it without looking up, although his eyes flickered briefly when he realised what it was he was holding. “I knew you would recognise that,” Dewer said. “Your people made it, did they not? It would appear you are not the only Asrai to have ventured out from the Wastes.”
“You found this here?” Elgot said. “In the city?”
“Yes. Where else would I have found it? Amusing as it would have been, I certainly did not make the horrendous journey to your frozen waste of a homeland just to retrieve this little trinket in order to toy with you.”
Elgot’s pale eyes darkened as his fingers closed almost protectively over the pendant in his hand. The Asrai’s hatred for him was so intense, Dewer could feel it in the air between them; a heavy, electric surge that only dissipated when Elgot closed his eyes and forced himself to take two deep breaths.
“I want to know what the purpose of that ugly bauble is,” Dewer said. “I want to know why it was brought into my city.” He moved closer, brandishing the flaming torch like a sword.
“Why don’t you ask one of your pet druids?” Elgot replied. “Surely they have some flashy magick they could use to reveal the amulet’s secrets?” Dewer simply stared at him, a rising fury making the icy stream of his breath plume faster from between his clenched teeth.
Elgot watched him carefully for a moment before laughing. “You don’t want anybody to know about this, do you?” he said. “You are afraid the amulet’s former owner will find out you are looking for them. Do you fear the Asrai have infiltrated the Crimson Citadel? Maybe they have recruited members to the Salt Sword guards, too. They could at this very moment be sleeping in a dormitory mere floors away from your own bedchamber. Do they plan to murder you, do you think? Perhaps in your sleep? Do you believe they will have more success than that babbling changeling you keep upstairs?”
“Enough!” Dewer roared. Dropping the torch to roll and hiss against the stone floor he rushed at Elgot, punching him so hard in the face the bones in his knuckles protested and cracked. The Asrai fell backward and Dewer leaped on top of him, crushing his chest beneath his weight until he was unable to move.
“How dare you talk to me that way,” Dewer raged, his face so close to Elgot’s he could smell the rank, musty tang of his breath. His nose was broken and bloody, the skin around it already beginning to purple with a deep bruise.
“Why are you so afraid of us?” Elgot managed, obviously in a great deal of pain. “The Asrai have little interest in the affairs of Armoria.”
“Lies, lies, lies,” Dewer hissed, his voice dangerously low. He struck Elgot across the face again, catching his right eye with the full force of his open palm. Elgot grunted with pain. He struggled to free himself, his wounded eye blooming a livid red against the pale ice of his skin. Dewer wrapped long fingers about his neck in response, slowly tightening his grip until the Asrai relented and lay still.
“I am afraid of no one,” he said, his gaze locked with Elgot’s. The Asrai was unable to look away. “I can’t have anyone meddling in the affairs of my city, though. Meddling as you did, all those moons ago. You were so imperious back then, so bloody condescending. Descending upon Armoria’s changelings like a silver god coming home. You were dangerous, putting such ridiculous thoughts in their heads.”
“You outlawed earth magick,” Elgot spat, finding his voice as the old anger returned. “Earth magick belongs to all, it is their birthright.” Even the repeated bite of the Pit Masters’ whips had failed to convince him otherwise.
“The simple fact of birth guarantees no rights to anybody,” Dewer shouted, squeezing Elgot’s throat until he began to fight for breath. “You have to take what you want from this world. You have to rip it right out of the hands of the bugger who would steal it from you.”
“That is what I was teaching the changelings to do,” Elgot wheezed. His bloodshot eye was beginning to bulge and fresh blood welled from his broken nose. “You were the bugger holding on to the thing they wanted to take. The right to practice earth magick.”
Dewer relinquished his grip on Elgot’s neck and sat back. This was one of the reasons why he visited with him so frequently. Except for Aliona, no one else the length or breadth of Joria would dare to talk to him the way this man just had. It could be pleasantly refreshing.
“Perhaps you are right,” he mused. “Still, it is not enough to simply harbour the will to take what you want. You also need the strength to see it through. I was stronger then, and I’m stronger now.” Dewer reached for the eye amulet that had fallen to the floor when he attacked Elgot. Not pausing for a moment, he slammed the amulet into the Asrai’s forehead, making him start and stiffen once more against the floor. “I’ll ask you one last time,” Dewer said. “What does this bloody thing do?”
“It’s just a protection amulet.” Elgot was too tired and wracked with pain to argue any further. “It looks to be of the type given to our people should they ever need to travel beyond the Wastes. It is spelled to activate if the wearer feels threatened.”
“By activate, do you mean it will explode?”
“Yes. It looks as though this amulet already has.”
“Interesting.” Dewer finally rose from Elgot’s chest, slipping the amulet back into his cloak pocket as the Asrai scrambled away from him across the floor. He tried to sit up but found he no longer had the strength and instead slumped back onto his elbows, his chest rising and falling sharply.
“Well, I certainly know why this particular Asrai felt threatened,” Dewer continued, talking to himself as much as to Elgot. “It is a comfort to know this ugly necklace was not designed specifically to wreak havoc on my city. Still, I do wonder why I have another Asrai skulking about the place, so very far from home.” He bent to retrieve the torch, still alight where it had rolled to a stop against the wall. Dewer held it out towards Elgot’s face and the Asrai flinched but refused to turn away. “I sincerely hope they are not here to cause an upset, as you did, Elgot. We both know how that will end.”
Elgot remained silent, the heat from the torch drawing beads of cold sweat from his forehead.
“Do you realise how long you’ve been here, Prince Elgot?” Dewer asked. He did not wait for a reply. “Long enough that the changelings have entirely forgotten you. All you did was make their lives worse. I have my Salt Swords keep a close eye on them these days. No one plays with earth magick and goes unpunished.”
“I know why you are afraid of the Asrai,” Elgot said, his voice low and measured. “I know why you outlawed earth magick. You are a man wedded to absolute power, unable to relinquish control even for a moment. The Asrai and the changelings could muster power to rival that of your druids, if only they were made aware of it. That is why I have been left to rot in this place. That is why you work to drive the changelings from your lands. Yet even after all these years, I still cannot fathom what reason you have for desiring such strict control. What is it you believe would happen should common magick be allowed to thrive throughout the land once more?”
“You are speaking out of turn, Asrai,” Dewer warned. His knuckles ached and he was hungry, eager to return to the citadel above and leave Elgot to the crushing weight of his black prison. “It is not for you to wonder at the reasons behind my actions.”
“You leave me with little else to do, Lord Dewer.”
Dewer smiled. “Perhaps next time I visit, I will bring you a book to read.”
Elgot shuffled further back into the corner of his cell and Dewer sighed, pulling his cloak more tightly about himself as he turned to leave.
“You know, Elgot,” he said, “I believe if we had met under different circumstances, we could have become firm friends.”
Dewer shut the door firmly and began to make his way back up the long corridor. He was accompanied only by the sharp click of his boot heels on the stone floor, the slow drip of condensation making languid paths between the blooms of oozing black growth spreading across the walls and the occasional long, low scream of a tormented inmate.