Chapter 22: Perfect Opportunities
"We're in," exclaimed Alice in a whisper, prompting a shush from Thomas.
The four had spent a week trying to figure out how to get in to Samanao Castle. From everything they had learned of the king it was clear they could not simply walk into his throne room. The attempt alone could very well have gotten them arrested. Fortunately for the group, they met a man in a pub that was able and willing to help them out.
The man, named Alex, was a young man of short stature, shorter then Alice even. Although he claimed to be in his early thirties, his face made him look 20 years younger. He worked in the kitchens at the castle. He was the chef in charge of preparing food for the king. One of his assistants would deliver the food to the king. Because of this, his assistants often heard tidbits of the king's conversations. According to Alex, the king's confidence was grounded squarely in the seal over the kingdom.
"He doesn't admit it to the public but His Majesty actually does believe in the Archfiend," Alex had explained. "He denies it to the people because he doesn't want them to panic. The way he sees it the Archfiend could never get through the seal, so Samanao is safe as far as he's concerned. Undermine his faith in the seal and he'll have to reevaluate his position on keeping Samanao isolated. If he thought the Archfiend could reach Samanao he would be much more eager to join an alliance with other nations."
The group had not revealed that they were not from Samanao but had implied that they knew how the seal could be broken. Alex had been excited at the revelation, believing that if they were right, the king would have to change his mind on the whole issue and stop abusing his own people. Alex had also given the group a way to gain audience with the king: he could lead them to the hidden service entrance on the east side of the castle, away from the heavily guarded main entrance.
"I can show you the door and tell you the best time to come in," Alex had said, "but I can't actually get you in. The king has us locked in the kitchen. He puts a pretty strong enchantment on the door too. But if you know how to break the seal then you should definitely be able to get past that."
"I don't like it," Thomas had said later. "It's too easy, too perfect. This king, who kills his own people by the dozens for even talking about outsiders, will mystically change his mind if he sees outsiders? Just because it proves his seal isn't infallible? And we just happen to meet a man that can give us the perfect information and opportunity to speak with the king without being disturbed? It's a trap."
"I agree," Suzanne had replied. "That's why we're going to make a detailed plan B. We may even spend more time on plan B than on plan A."
Now here they were, in the kitchen of the castle. They had found the service entrance locked and enchanted but had used their enchanted key to gain entry. The kitchen was surprisingly small and cramped. The workers did not even stop working as they eyed the group that had entered so unexpectedly. The workers took one look at the weapons the group had and continued at their frantic pace.
"I get the feeling that these people are used to armed people coming through their workspace," whispered Ron.
"The king probably knows there's rebellion brewing," theorized Suzanne. "He may be preparing for a fight by concealing the movements of his men, having them use the hidden entrance instead of the main entrance."
As the four made their way through the crowded kitchen they inevitably found themselves in the way of the kitchen staff. The staff was clearly afraid to touch the armed group but would try to sneak by or get around the four with desperate effort. Never had they seen a staff of workers display such athleticism just to avoid losing a few seconds due to an unexpected interruption. The four had the distinct impression that the staff believed those few seconds could mean their lives.
"Don't see Alex here," Ron noted darkly.
The four found the door out of the kitchen was also locked and enchanted, prompting them to use their key again. They came into what looked like the main hall of the castle. The hallway was very spacious but sparsely decorated. There were numerous nooks and spaces on the walls that suggested they had once held paintings and decorations but as of now those spaces were now vacant.
"Kind of makes the place seem duller than if they just had plain walls," observed Alice.
"At least the king doesn't spend all day admiring priceless artwork while he orders executions," said Thomas with disdain.
The hallway was empty; Alex had told the group when the guard changed so they could arrive when security was at its lightest. Nevertheless the four moved quickly and quietly through the hall. Fortunately, the throne room was not far away. They saw the red carpet sticking out just a few dozen feet down the hall.
"So much for dull," said Ron as they entered the throne room.
The throne room was much more decorated than the main hall. There was the usual red carpet that led up to the large golden throne, upon which sat the king, an older man with gray hair wearing an elegant crimson and purple robe. Surrounding the king were a number of young female attendants fanning or massaging him. At first glance, the women seemed attractive but after further inspection the servants gave off a sinister and otherworldly feeling. Also unnerving was the fact that each one had red eyes.
On the walls of the throne room were a number of paintings, each one portraying a vicious monster. In particular, there were several paintings of a huge, fat, and green humanoid wielding an equally huge wooden club. There were also two artists in the room working on making more paintings, which also portrayed the large green monster. Unlike the lady servants, the artists seemed on edge as they did their work.
"Trolls," whispered Alice, identifying the large green monster. "Native to the valley of the Necrogond. "Though I was under the impression they had orange skin."
So intent were all the room's occupants on their respective tasks that none of them noticed the group's entrance. As the four made their way slowly towards the throne, all the people seemed to notice them simultaneously.
"So these are the outsiders! What brings this evil band of scoundrels to my throne room!" yelled the king.
"Sounds like he knew we were around," muttered Thomas.
Suzanne was undeterred, "Your Majesty, I apologize for entering your throne room unannounced but we carry with us dire news that could prove dangerous to your kingdom."
"The only danger to this kingdom is you evildoers!" cut in the king. "Somebody bring the guards! These outsiders have come to assassinate me!"
"We have not come to assassinate you!" protested Suzanne. "Your Highness, I can sympathize with your isolationist policies; the world is a frightening place. But this threat goes against all humanity and is much too powerful to be kept away with a simple seal. We must all unite to fight it! You must drop the seal!"
"You don't tell me what to do!" grunted the king. "Now I know who has turned my people against me! All the blood spilt is your fault!"
"The blood spilt is our fault!" yelled Thomas, unable to contain himself. "Did we execute your people for doing nothing more than talking! Did we send people to the gallows for so much as thinking that isolationism might not be the answer!"
To the group's horror, the king laughed at Thomas' statement. "What choice do I have to deal with rebels?" chuckled the king. "Speaking of which, it's about time you arrived!"
The group turned around and found that while they were arguing a swarm of guards had arrived. There were a couple dozen guards wearing crimson armor, as the group had expected would be in the castle, but along with the guards were the crimson-skinned zombies the group had seen in their travels across the countryside a week earlier.
"Now even the vilest of rebels can still serve his country," cackled the king.
"You're sick!" yelled Thomas, overcome with the horror of what he was seeing and hearing.
"Keep your head, Tom!" said Suzanne. "We're going to need to keep our wits about us to get out of this. Alice, will our magic help?"
"I don't think so, Susie," replied Alice in a dire voice. "There's no way I'll have the time to cast the teleportation spell and the soldiers' armor is magic resistant and there's too many for you or Tom to hit with a single spell. The survivors will be on us like a tidal wave."
"Very well," said Suzanne calmly. She turned back to the king. "Your Majesty, we surrender."
The king let out a deep-throated, evil laugh. "And I was wondering what would entertain me tomorrow night! We'll see if outsiders are at least similar in how they scream! Alex, take our prey to the dungeon."
At this point, Alex stepped out from behind the king's throne, his short stature having easily fit behind the king's grand chair. "It would be my pleasure, Your Highness," said Alex with a grin.
Alex gleefully walked over to the four, who greeted Alex with nothing but scowls. "I can't believe you fell for it! I guess outsiders aren't too smart!" gloated Alex. He began issuing orders for some of the soldiers to search the group for hidden weapons while some of the soldiers and zombies stood behind the four, ready to tear them apart if they made any threatening moves.
"I should search this one myself," said Alex, as he walked towards Alice.
"Big words for such a small man," returned Alice. "You try anything and I might decide running you through is worth dying over."
"Oh I don't think you would do such a thing," retorted Alex, though he took a noticeable step back after hearing Alice's statement.
The soldiers continued their search of the group, taking off their armor to make sure they were not hiding any weapons or tools on their person.
After a few minutes, Alex was satisfied with the search, "That looks good enough. We want them to be ready to entertain His Highness tomorrow night. Take them to the dungeon."
As the soldiers began leading them away, Alex stopped them, "Wait! I almost forgot." He walked over to the four. "We still haven't found how they got past the seal. The boss said they had a key of some sort."
Suzanne noticed something odd about what Alex had said right away. "Boss?" she asked, "You mean besides His Highness?"
Alex immediately jumped on the defensive, "No! I meant His Highness, of course!" He looked at the king for confirmation. The king looked at him confused, clearly not understanding why Alex was looking at him. Alex gave a noticeable wiggle of his eyebrows and the king, suddenly understanding, nodded his head to confirm what Alex had said.
"Okay, just seemed like a disrespectful name to call the king by," pointed out Suzanne.
"Well I'm his most trusted assistant. He allows some informality from me," said Alex.
"I see," responded Suzanne, acting as though the matter had been solved to her satisfaction. She noticed Alex smirk out of the corner of her eye. Clearly Alex thought he had fooled them again.
"Now back to the matter at hand, where's that key!" demanded Alex, his voice making a weird squeaking noise as he raised it.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Suzanne coolly. "We cast our own spells to get past the seal."
"Oh really?" asked Alex. "Well then we'll have to arrange a quick demonstration of your magic power!"
Alex had the four shuffled to another portion of the castle. He took them to a locked door.
"This door leads to the treasury," said Alex. "It's locked with the same kind of enchantment as the kitchen doors. It's not as strong as the seal but if you wield this magic power you claim you have then you should have no trouble with this one."
"How do you know we won't use this opportunity to blast the lot of you?" asked Suzanne.
"You're in the same situation you were in when you were in the throne room," answered Alex. "Except now you have no weapons or armor. If you didn't blast us then, it would be even dumber to blast us now."
"Clever," scowled Suzanne. Alex smiled at her displeasure. "But you can't make us open this door," Suzanne continued. "We don't want you to know how we break your enchantments."
"Can't make you open that door?" screeched Alex, suddenly angry. You realize I can have the lot of you executed, don't you!"
"I'm betting you were already going to have us tortured and executed," responded Suzanne, having regained her cool.
"You think I can't make you do what I want?" asked Alex with an evil grin, having regained his composure as well. "Hold the small one," he commanded the soldiers. Three of the soldiers suddenly grabbed and held Alice, subduing her despite the fight she put up. He then pulled a dagger from his belt. The dagger was literally dripping with a vile-looking crimson liquid.
"Do you fools know what this is?" asked Alex.
"Poison," answered Thomas with disgust. "The same poison you used to create these zombies no doubt."
"So you do have some brains on you!" taunted Alex. "That's right. Now you'll open this door or this pretty little thing here will be at lot less lively, if you know what I mean."
Suzanne, Ron, and Thomas did not move or say anything while Alice continued to struggle, now with desperate effort.
"Really? You don't care if your friend turns into a zombie? And you act as though the king is guilty of monstrous crimes?" asked Alex.
"He's the one that orders the zombification!" said Thomas angrily. "You're the one causing it now!"
Alex only shrugged at Thomas' outburst. "Well suit yourselves then." He took another step forward and pulled his arm back to stab Alice with the dagger.
"Wait!" yelled Ron. "I'll open it!"
"Stop, Ron!" ordered Suzanne.
"It's not worth it!" protested Alice. At a motion from Alex, both women were given a punch in the gut to silence them.
"No!" said Ron. "I'm not going to watch Alice become a zombie." He reached down into his boot and pulled out the enchanted key. He grudgingly walked over to the door and opened it.
"It seems I've struck a nerve with the warrior man here!" said Alex with glee. "See, that wasn't so bad was it? Much better to cooperate than to put up a fight. Now, hand the key over."
Ron gave Alex the key. Alex admired the key for a moment and then put it in his pocket. He put his poisoned dagger away.
"Now take them downstairs! Put them in different cells!" ordered Alex. The soldiers grabbed the four and led them down into the dungeon. As they walked, Alice held her stomach where the soldier had hit her. The soldier's metal gauntlet had done some damage.
The group was led down a flight of stairs to the dungeon and each one was shoved in a separate cell. Alice fell to the ground roughly, still clutching her stomach. The doors were quickly shut and locked, leaving the four trapped in the dungeon underneath Samanao Castle.
"That went pretty well," said Ron as he and Thomas returned to the cell with the last of their confiscated goods.
The group's plan B had indeed gone well. Expecting a trap from the beginning, the four had put a great deal of thought into what to do if they were overwhelmed and captured. One of the keys to their plan was to appear out of control of the situation. The horror of the king's actions, turning executed people into zombies, had produced very real reactions and had indeed almost made the group lose their wits, especially Thomas. But they were able to regain their composure without appearing to regain their composure.
The key they had surrendered to Alex had in fact been the Magic Key gained from Isis, not the more powerful Final Key, which Alice had kept on her person. Alice had kept the key concealed using powerful magic, making it meld onto her skin. Of course, the Samanao prison, like any good prison, had powerful anti-magic enchantments placed on it which dispelled Alice's enchantment. Alice had planned on faking a stomachache to conceal the key and being punched in the gut by one of the soldiers had made the act much more believable.
Finally, the group had actually rehearsed the act of surrendering the Magic Key. The four had anticipated that they might have to give up a key to satisfy the enemy and so had worked on a routine to give the less powerful key, making the enemy believe they no longer had a means of escape. They had even worked out numerous scenarios as they could not be sure exactly how the event would play itself out. The group had expected the decoy key to be found when they had been searched but the guards had not thought to search their footwear.
"You sure waited a while to stop him from stabbing me!" Alice had complained to Ron. "I thought you were actually going to let him make me into a zombie!"
"Oh come on! You don't actually think I would've let him stab you do you?" protested Ron.
"We should've let them turn you both into zombies if it'd make you shut up!" hissed Thomas. Suzanne simply hushed the lot of them, silently reminding them this was not a time to make noise.
After night fell, Alice used the Final Key to easily escape her cell and then reunite the group. The next hour had been incredibly tense. Somehow the four had to find their gear and then escape. After clearing the anti-magic field, Thomas cast a spell on the group to make them faster and improve their reflexes. Since a solo person could sneak around easier and since Suzanne had already demonstrated herself to be the most capable when alone, Suzanne was the one to do the major sneaking around.
The group had caught a major break earlier. When Alex had Ron demonstrate the Magic Key on a door that he claimed had been the treasury, he had only partially been lying. The room did not contain the untold riches of Samanao but it was the castle armory and had also been used to store the group's equipment. However, Suzanne was unable to carry the gear of all four on her own and could not even carry all her own gear, since she dared not don her armor and shield since it would be much more difficult to be stealthy with them.
Instead, Suzanne took what she could and then also donned the crimson armor of a Samanaon soldier. She decided the disguise gave her a better chance than stealth alone, especially since the castle was kept almost completely unlit. Sure enough, she met another soldier on the return trip to the prison and the soldier did not even turn his head at her.
Upon dropping off what she had found, Suzanne gave her disguise to Ron due to the fact that if a soldier did get nosy or if she was hit by an unfortunate bit of light, the fact Suzanne was a woman would foil her disguise immediately. This time, Ron led the way back to the armory and made signals to Suzanne to let her know the way was clear. Suzanne dressed herself in another suit of Samanaon armor and the two took back more things to the prison. Suzanne then gave that disguise to Thomas and he and Ron made a couple more trips to and from the armory to transport the rest of the four's gear. After that, Suzanne sent the two out to check the castle's front door and analyze how difficult it would be to leave.
"As easy as things have been so far, they get more difficult from here," reported Ron upon returning. "They keep four men on the front door, which they keep closed and barred. We saw a couple soldiers leave earlier and they actually had to bring an officer with them to get permission to leave the castle. It's like the guards are prisoners here as well."
"Neutralizing the guards and getting the door open will probably take too much time," said Suzanne. "We still don't know where they keep the zombies but judging by how quickly they got to the throne room earlier they can't be far away. And we'll have more guards on us in no time if we start a fight."
"There may be another way," whispered a voice, from the next cell over as near as the group could tell.
The four, shocked that their whispered conversation had been heard, immediately went silent. The voice continued, "I have exceptional hearing, I could hear everything you said. Your four are the outsiders aren't you? Are you with Mathias and his group? Have they returned?"
Suzanne motioned to the others to stay still and went over to talk with the occupant of the next cell. The origin of the voice turned out to be a tall, wiry man. It was clear he was a younger man, perhaps even around the group's age but whatever time he had spent in prison had aged him considerably.
"What is it to you?"
"We've been waiting for you," whispered the man excitedly. "The rebellion that is. We've been gathering strength to challenge the king but have been lacking in strong leadership. If Mathias has returned, we'll have the leader we need!"
"I can neither confirm or deny that right now," said Suzanne. "What were you saying about another way out?"
"If I tell you, will you take me with you? I can be really useful! I've heard the guards say where they shipped Simon off to!" begged the man.
"We'll see," answered Suzanne. She motioned to the man that she would be back and then went to check with the other three. Remembering the man's exceptional hearing, they went into the cell Alice had originally been put in, as it was farther away from the man.
"I'm getting that 'too perfect' feeling again," Thomas said when they were sure they could talk. "An alternate escape route and Simon's location? How does he even know either of these things? Now I'm thinking our escape has been too perfect so far. Their whole operation has been amateur hour so far. I think this man is like Alex, trying to set us up."
"But they already have us in prison," protested Alice. "As far as they're concerned, we're right where they want us. What do they gain by letting us get out of our cells only to be double-crossed by another man? We'll just be right back in prison, where we were an hour ago."
"But they would know we can escape from our cells," said Ron. "From there, they would probably find the Final Key. Maybe they weren't deceived by our ploy with the key from Isis."
"I have an idea," said Suzanne. "If this man is genuine, he'll be desperate to get out of prison and we're his only ticket out. He looks as though he's been here a while and possibly tortured while here. I hate to do it but we can use that to our advantage. If he's not trying to trick us then he'll be so desperate for this window of opportunity that he wouldn't dare risk it closing. If we act like we'll just go out the front, he'll cave and tell us about this alternate exit."
Suzanne returned to the man to put that plan into motion. Upon hearing that the four would go out the front door, the man responded with absolute horror.
"No!" cried the man in a voice well above a whisper, prompting Suzanne the shush him. He kept his voice below a whisper as he went on, "You'll never make it! They keep the door locked at all times! Not even the guards can leave when they want to! They complain about it all the time! And they keep, keep, keep…" The man trailed off, apparently unable to finish his sentence.
"Keep what?" asked Suzanne.
"Zombies!" said the man in a voice so quiet that Suzanne could barely hear him. "I know it sounds crazy but it's true! I've seen them! Seen them walking around with the guards! They keep zombies here! They turn people into zombies! You have to believe me! They'll stop you if you try to leave! They'll turn you into zombies!"
"Settle down!" hushed Suzanne, as the man's voice was in danger of going above a whisper again. "We've seen the zombies. We believe that part. That's why we're so anxious to get out. We think we can get past the guards. It'll be close but we should be able to make it. Unless you can give us a better alternative, that's the option we'll have to take."
"How do I know you won't just leave me?" asked the man miserably.
"I have a deal for you," proposed Suzanne. "You said you heard where they put Simon?" The man nodded his head. "You can keep that information to yourself until we get you out of here. That'll keep your value to us. Tell us where this alternate exit is and I'll have someone check it out quick. Then we'll take you out of here. Deal?"
The man looked torn but finally slumped his shoulders in defeat, realizing he had no other choice. "Okay," he began, "I'll tell you. Of course, I haven't actually seen the tunnel for myself, but something has to be there!" He pointed to one of the other cells. "The king takes trips down here all the time, at least once a day. He goes in one of the cells but then never comes back out! I've seen him enter that cell all the time but he never leaves! How can he get out of prison without leaving that cell? There has to be something there!"
Suzanne thanked the man for the info and went back to her group. They went over to check out the cell the man indicated and quickly saw that there was a tunnel in the back of the cell. Suzanne took a quick stroll into the tunnel and found a set of stairs leading down to a longer tunnel. As she walked the tunnel she estimated that it took her well away from underneath the castle.
At the end of the tunnel there was a locked door, requiring the Final Key which she had left with the other three, but Suzanne could plainly see a set of stairs leading upwards, to the surface by her estimations. She returned to the rest of her group.
"It looks good," reported Suzanne. "The tunnel goes quite a distance away and at the end of it are a powerful locked door and a staircase that definitely breaks the surface. This must be how the king disappears, as the man claims. I say we take him with us."
The four prepared to finally leave the castle dungeon and took the man from his cell. The man embraced Alice, who had been the one to open the door, and the four had to remind him that time was of the essence to calm him down again. The five returned to the tunnel Suzanne had scouted out and traveled down it. They opened the locked door at the end with an audible creek. The loud noise made them cringe at first but the tunnel went for such a distance that they were sure nobody had heard it. However, they were wrong.
"Be gone from me, you foul beast! Have you not tormented me enough?" asked a voice, coming behind a locked cell door across from the one the group had just opened. The voice sounded familiar to the four.
"Am I going crazy, or does that sound like the king of Samanao?" whispered Alice.
"If you're going crazy, then so am I," answered Ron.
"There's something really suspicious going on here," scowled Thomas, with a glare at the man.
"Don't look at me!" whispered the man in a panic. "I don't know what's going on either."
"Do not try to fool me, foul beast!" yelled the voice again, still sounding like the king who had hours ago put the four in the castle prison and apparently not having heard the group's whispers. "I know you are there! Why do you not just kill me and be done with it!"
"Ron, Alice, keep an eye on him," said Suzanne, indicating the man they had taken from prison. "Thomas, with me."
Suzanne took the Final Key from Alice and opened the cell door. She and Thomas went into the room cautiously, weapons drawn. They were surprised by what they saw. Inside the room was a bed and chained to that bed was the king of Samanao. But this king was different from the one they had confronted earlier that day. His features were basically the same but this king looked malnourished, as though he had not had a good meal for a long time. His robes were identical to the other king's except for being torn in numerous places. In these tears and on the man's face were several scars, some of which looked fresh, less than a day old.
"Another trick," warned Thomas. "An illusion, perhaps."
"A pretty powerful illusion," said Suzanne. "And a pointless one. If they wanted to trap us, why not just store a hoard of zombies down here to ambush us?"
The king had not looked at the two as they entered but the two had seen the man shiver as they entered. If his scars were to be believed, the man was expecting a routine torture session and either refused or could not bring himself to look at his supposed tormentors.
"Sir, we mean you no harm," said Suzanne, approaching the bed cautiously. "Who were you expecting to be here?"
The man finally looked at Suzanne and it was clear she and Thomas were not what he was expecting. A look of confusion came onto the man's haggard face. His eyes darted around the room as though the room itself was foreign and alien to him. After a couple seconds of this, his eyes narrowed in a glare at Suzanne and he continued his yelling, "No, I will not fall for it! You cannot fool me, oh foul one! Just bring death to me! I can be of no more use to you!"
"Susie!" whispered Ron, poking his head into the room. "You have to shut him up! I think his yelling is carrying up the tunnel! They might be able to hear him all the way up to the prison!"
Unfortunately, despite Suzanne's best efforts to calm the man down, the man refused to listen and continued to yell at the group. Finally, Suzanne was forced to give up.
"Tom, I'm going to unlock the chains on him. We'll just have to carry him with us and question him later," said Suzanne.