Equilibrium

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14: Until We Meet Again

Larke, 1182

I followed him down a familiar hallway, one that I remembered from my first days here. It twisted and turned, descended down a staircase, and ended directly in front of the dungeon where I'd been initiated into the Naga gang, only a day or so before. My breath came in short puffs, my lungs barely inhaling enough air. Have I been discovered?

I stood stiff, locking my joints unintentionally. We stayed there motionless in front of the door, the heavy steel door just as thick and imposing as it was the other day. This time though, the guard that stood next to it was promptly alert, not half asleep. He stepped aside to let Dean through.

Dean turned to me, and said, "Well, time is of the essence. Come see what we've found."

Enigmatically, he opened the door for me, and beckoned me to enter before him. Though suspicious, I did so.

The dungeon remained unchanged; moderately-sized and fitted with two isolated cells like large metal boxes. The room was dirty, smelled disturbingly of human waste, and was so dank and moist in the air I felt as if I had been buried alive. I forced myself to look at the corner that had once held the man I'd killed, noting that the bloodstains had mostly been cleaned up. Though, they hadn't scrubbed too hard, as I could see several spots they'd missed. The liquid had found its way into cracks of the stone, likely to stay there for years. It reminded me of the man in the brothel at Mama Jude's that I'd killed and dismembered to fit into a box. I wondered if she'd found him yet. I twisted my lips, not allowing a smile to grace them as I thought of Mama Jude opening that box expecting clothes and instead finding a rude customer.

Adrenaline began to fill my veins as I tensed up, bracing myself for escape. I focused my magic into each sinew of muscle, reinforcing bones and tendons, supplying more strength into my limbs, all in preparation of blowing past Dean and getting the hell out of this well-lined hole in the ground.

Dean stood by the only exit, and I turned to face him, fully prepared to blow past him and run. He looked… calm.

"The isolation cell. The one on the left." He pointed towards the cell he had mentioned, which was suspiciously quiet, nodding his head in that direction.

I twisted my face to look at it, my body still facing the door, then warily looked back at him. Was he trying to get me to enter the cell of my own volition? The joke was on him; if he put me in there, I could blast out. It appeared to be hand-worked steel, and I'd destroyed stronger materials.

His blank, moderately bored, stare told me nothing. So, I decided to play along, confident in my abilities. I kept the magic coursing through my body, enhancing my strengths, and lightly padded over to the cell.

Obviously, it was locked. There was no window to see inside, so I looked to Dean. He was already at my side, holding a ring of keys. He was fumbling through them, searching for the right one, finally settling on a small, shiny brass key that did not look like it fit in the lock at all. But it did, and he opened the door to reveal a man, seated on the floor facing away from us. Though I couldn't see his face, I recognized him immediately.

Narcelliss.

He turned, agonizingly slow, as he heard us enter. He was secured, somewhat unnecessarily while inside the cell, with large metal cuffs around both his wrists and ankles. His dreads were loose and wild, as opposed to how he usually tied them back, his scalp caked with dried blood that must have come from the large cut I noticed above his temple. I clenched my teeth, not allowing my jaw to drop. My second-in command? This man, who had effectively raised me, and taught me everything I knew, had gotten caught? I could never have imagined it in a million years. A sinking feeling told me this was my fault. Had he come to rescue me? Why had he left the palace?

Speechless, I just stared. He blinked a swollen brown eye and gazed up at us. I knew that he recognized me, because it would've been impossible for him not to. We'd seen each other just about every single day for the last almost fifteen years. But his facial expression made no change when he saw my face, saw me standing next to Dean.

Of course, Liss knew I was undercover – I had told him so right before I'd left. Yes, he was in a tough spot right now, but we both knew exactly what he had to do. As for what Dean was expecting of me, I wasn't sure. I hadn't told Liss where I was going, or any other details except for the fact that I'd be gone, so he wouldn't have anticipated meeting me here. How had he found me?

"How did you catch him?" I asked, genuinely curious, though a many more questions were running through my mind. This man knew more martial arts than anyone I had ever met. He wouldn't be training the Suryan Mage recruits if he were anything less than a well-rounded expert.

"I just had to distract him," Dean said absently, the tone of his voice belying the intensity of the situation. "Illusions are a powerful thing."

Obviously, Liss had not gone down without a fight. I reminded myself once more to not underestimate the Naga. If they could capture Liss… then they were capable of anything. The sooner I returned to the King with any information, the better… but how would we prepare against something we had no way to protect against? It looked as if I still had more work to do here before returning to the palace.

"He's a Suryan Mage," Dean said, pointing out the sleek leather armor Liss wore. "Do you see their insignia?"

He indicated towards the indentation on the leather armor, directly above the heart on the chest plate. It was a symbol I knew well; a ten pointed star surrounded by a circle was pressed into the boiled leather. The mark of the Suryan Mages was proudly emblazoned on Liss's chest. As the High Suryan Seconde, he also should have had a brass half circle pressed onto each of his shoulders, but it appeared that his leather armor was that of a recruit, with no rank indicated anywhere. This wasn't surprising, as Liss didn't care for flashy shows of authority, and often wore the training armor for recruits. But why had he left the palace wearing this armor at all?

"Hmmm… are you sure that's the mark? It's not just some foreign country's flag?" I questioned, feigning ignorance.

He gave me an odd look. "I'm very sure," Dean said, sighing with disappointment at my false unfamiliarity. "He's definitely a Suryan Mage."

"Well… what are we doing with him? He won't tell us anything if he is a Suryan Mage. And, anything he does tell us would most likely be a lie." All of this was the truth. If a Suryan Mage is captured, we're trained to die before divulging any information.

"You're right – any information obtained under duress is likely a lie, even if he wasn't a Suryan Mage. But that doesn't make him useless." He rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, holding his elbow with his other hand. "We could always use him to send a message, I suppose."

I didn't know what to say. If I vehemently abhorred the idea, then I would be suspicious. If I agreed, then I would be signing up for hurting one of my closest friends. Through this whole talk, Liss had closed his eyes and effectively ignored us. I could feel his calm temperance permeating through my haze of fear for him.

"We can't let him go," Dean reasoned, "and we can't get any useful information from him." He paced the small area where we all stood, thinking. "We can't send him back, and I don't wish to kill him. Yet." He stopped pacing to look at me. "Personally, I'd like to convert him to our side. You can't imagine how helpful it'd be to have a Suryan Mage with us." His gaze pierced mine, stopping his pacing to look at me. "We'd be able to achieve our goals with minimal losses with that kind of advantage."

His stare continued, and I felt exposed. But there was no way; his line of thought was directly applicable to Liss and his precarious situation, he wasn't baiting me. But I didn't think that Dean's plan to convert Liss would work. No matter what enticements Dean offered him, I was so sure that he would remain loyal to the King.

"What say you, Mage?" Dean asked, redirecting his attention to Liss, who opened his sore eyes at the sound. "If I offer you something, would you turn to our side?"

Liss didn't answer, simply stared at Dean's face. I knew he was using his magical talent, that of hearing lies within words. Not for the first time, I wished I could hear what Liss heard and know the truth as easily as he did.

Dean continued despite Liss's silence, "We could offer you anything. Money, power…"

Liss hadn't moved a muscle at any of these requests.

"…do you have a family?" Dean asked, eyebrow raised.

I knew that Liss was from the Telago islands, a relatively small archipelago that King Zante had conquered right after he'd secured the throne of Ryne and Thiol. Liss had been plucked from his family back then as a young man in his late twenties and had been serving the King ever since. As close to Liss as I thought I had been, I had never asked him much about his life before he came here. It wasn't wise to bring up the past, as it only made the present more difficult to bear. He had given me that advice himself, in fact, when I had first arrived at the castle.

Liss watched Dean, but it looked as if he were pondering the question. It made me wonder if he still had a family to return to back in Telago. Dean leaned in closer to Liss, but safely out of range from Liss' reach – a smart move, on his part. The man was deadly, even on a bad day.

"I'll allow you to consider your options, Suryan." Dean said, spitting out the last word. "Whenever you decide you've had enough of our cells, alert us; we'll provide you with a room and all of the comfort you could desire. All you'd have to do is help."

Liss simply stared onward, silent.

"We're done here." He nodded to me that it was time to leave, and we exited the cell, leaving Liss behind, securely locked in his dungeon.

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