1: The Beginning of the End
They had come and gone like seabirds landing in search of crabs or small fish on the shore only to leave again when the tide came in. Iliya wasn’t sure who they were, but although he felt like a stranded fish gasping for air, and although everything came at him in waves, he did know he wasn’t lying on any beach.
He had no idea how much time had passed since they hauled him in here. Couldn’t remember being captured or the trip to this place at all. But even with holes gaping like empty eye sockets, the crucial points of the story were easy to figure out. He had been discovered. And this was his punishment, the beginning of the end.
When he first began to notice his surroundings, he must have been in the cell for some time already. He was lying on the floor, curled up like a sad dog. There was vomit in his hair and his untrimmed beard. His own, undoubtedly. A rusty layer of cracked, dried blood covered his hands. At least some of that was not his own. Everything smelled of soil and grime and blood and sick and sweat. His uniform was a parody. It hadn’t been in a particularly good repair the last time he looked at himself in a mirror, but now it was a tattered piece of dismal, misunderstood pride, a rag of grey and blue turned brown and muddy. Unsurprisingly, his belt and his sabre were gone. He wondered what else was.
The cell was dark and damp, and the only other occupants were cockroaches that scuttled across the floor once in a while. The door was made of metal bars, and there appeared to be a corridor outside. From his position on the floor, Iliya could make out a window near the ceiling, suggesting that he was in a basement. Half of it was boarded up, but it did provide a little light.
Someone had been considerate enough to put a bucket in the corner of the cell. It would be better than urinating against the wall, at least. Iliya’s mind was foggy and detached, terribly disciplined in the midst of the chaos. It made observations in an orderly fashion, wondered whether he would be left here to starve to death or if someone would come back with with food at some point. It probably would be easier for them to forget him altogether and fetch his corpse later, but since they had already been here several times, it was a fair assumption that they hadn’t forgotten about him.
He was exhausted, and there was a world of pain to be discovered behind the rational thoughts. The paint and the plaster of his mind were crumbling, and it would be only a matter of time before he broke. Again. Because he must have broken in one way or another to end up here. But for now … For now he simply had to try to make himself as comfortable as possible. Make the best of what he had. He sat up and pulled off his uniform jacket, peeling fabric off scabs and dried blood. A wound on his upper arm he hadn’t noticed before began to bleed. He draped the jacket around his shoulders, leaned back against the wall and waited.
He was counting the bars that defined his enclosure for the umpteenth time to keep any other thoughts at bay when a door opened somewhere down the corridor and footsteps echoed towards him. A man stepped into Iliya’s field of vision. He held a lantern in one hand and a bowl in the other. Iliya couldn’t quite place his uniform. It did not have any insignia or a name tag. The broad belt slung around the man’s hips had a keyring with too many, too noisy keys dangling from it. His face was a mask of ill-concealed fear. He didn’t speak, but Iliya knew that he was the object of the wariness. He watched the guard put the bowl on the floor and push it under the bars with his foot.
Was Iliya really that frightening to look at in this state? What could he possibly do? There was a dull, throbbing sensation in the back of his head, and he knew it was not only from exhausting and exploiting his abilities. It was also the prison. It made sense. They would never put him in a cell built for regular people. This had to be a stronghold capable of containing a dangerous felon such as himself. It certainly explained why he hadn’t seen or heard any other prisoners. Whoever had captured him had put him out of anyone’s way for safety.
Iliya almost laughed at the thought. The guard saw the change of mood and stepped back from the cell with a start. His footsteps rang out rapidly as he retreated.
Again, Iliya was alone. But now there was food. They were not letting him starve to death. He crawled across the floor on hands and knees and picked up the dish. It was a thick soup. He put the bowl to his cracked lips and drank. It wasn’t hot or fresh, but it was food. That was all that mattered. Devouring cold kitchen scraps wasn’t the worst thing he’d done for survival.
When there was no more soup to be poured down his throat, Iliya ran his index finger over the inside of the bowl and licked off the remains. Then he had to clamp his hand over his mouth to keep himself from throwing the meal back up. It tasted so bad that he wasn’t sure the extra half mouthful was worth it.
He woke up next to the empty bowl with no memory of falling asleep. Or passing out. The inside of the bowl was dry, and the wound on his arm had closed again. Was it morning? The light from the window was different now.
Another guard arrived with a new meal. She didn’t look quite as apprehensive as the first one, but Iliya noticed that she kept her hand on the hilt of her sword when she pushed the food under the bars. This time there was bread in the bowl, and Iliya had the luxury of a chinked mug of water. It had a sour, tangy taste to it, but it would not do to be picky. He would have wrung the mug if it helped him get more moisture out of it.
After eating, he stood up and stretched. His legs trembled, and every muscle in his body complained. For a moment, he considered if he had been in the cell for so long that he was an old man now.
How often did they feed him? Iliya wasn’t sure, but as time went by, he decided it felt like once or twice a day. He was never full, and sometimes he would catch himself talking to a cockroach about the options of eating it or keeping it alive for company.
He tried to uphold a routine of moving about in the confined space at intervals. It was pointless if he were to be executed anyway, but it helped postpone those long hours when the walls began to close in and he couldn’t keep his hands from shaking and his throat seized up with silent screams. When that happened, he began to think that perhaps this was going to be his punishment, after all. Sitting here alone, kept alive, denied a quick way out or anything to keep him company but the jagged, fragmented memories haunting him.
It was the first words anyone had said to him since he found himself in the cell days ago. Iliya looked up, slowly. His head felt as if someone had wrapped a large, woollen scarf around it. He was too cold and too warm at the same time, and he must have been coughing again because his throat felt like gravel and there was a taste of blood in his mouth.
A tall man was standing at the door. He was sliced into thin, vertical pieces by the bars. Iliya had a vague sense of recognising him. Of knowing him or, perhaps more likely, knowing of him. He was a clean-shaven, handsome man with a long, straight nose, longer, straighter hair and immaculate clothes that gave his profession away. So did the very air around him. He emanated not only importance, but power. Real power. The kind that even Iliya had never controlled.
“Are you Infantry Assault Wizard Iliya Radov?” the man specified.
Iliya grimaced at the title before he could stop himself. He didn’t trust his legs, so he stayed on the floor. He nodded once. “Yes, sir,” he said, his voice cracking like brittle branches. “I am.”
“Good gracious me ...” the tall man mumbled and put his face closer to the bars. Now Iliya could see a thin scar running down his face from the temple to the cheekbone. “What did you do to him? Were you hoping he would die before I got here?” the man asked the guard behind him.
“No, sir … We had to imprison him like this, you see ...” the guard tried to explain. She sounded almost more scared of him than she was of the prisoner. “We couldn’t risk …”
“I realise that,” the man cut her short. “However, he is useless to me in this state.”
Finally the man’s identity dawned on Iliya. An uncontrollable bark of laughter made its way through his throat and burst out of his mouth. Had they really been desperate enough to send for him? Someone was taking all this very seriously.
“What is so funny?” asked the man who wielded the power to be his saviour or his executor.
“I apologise,” Iliya answered. “I am surprised to see the Keeper here. And honoured of course.”
“I emphatically relate to that first statement,” said the man flatly. “I hope it will at least be worth my while.”
“I shall do my best to make it,” Iliya said before a fit of coughing reduced him to a trembling and rattling human heap on the floor.
“I’m no doctor, but the man clearly has a fever, and I daresay that sounds like pneumonia,” the Keeper told the guard. “Get him looked at. And whatever you feed him … I will talk to your superior about that.” He looked through the bars again. “Get better quickly.” That was clearly not a wish, but an order.
With that, they both left. Iliya sat staring at the door, and after a while, he started to think that perhaps the Keeper was right and he really did have quite a fever, so high in fact that he had only imagined the two people being there. The paradox did occur to him, but he could not be bothered to think about it. Instead he lay down on the floor and pulled his jacket close around him.