I was placed into the back of a horse-drawn carriage. A Nakovan guard sat on either side of me, each wielding daggers that pointed menacingly in my direction. They said not a single word, and in less than an hour we had arrived at the jail.
The jail was, unsurprisingly, a dank and dismal place. Though it was constructed with the same awkward oval bricks that constituted Nakovan’s other structures, the jail was clearly designed to lack the cozy warmth of Nakovan’s homes. The clay that reinforced the doorways and shingles was cracked and in disrepair, as was the hard cobblestone floor. Iron bars and bricks separated those who were jailed from the guards sitting at an uncharacteristically well crafted table, drinking what smelled like lager. There were no individual cells, and the jailed men were packed densely into a large, singular holding cell. Inside the cell was a wooden bench, a large bucket for the prisoners to relieve themselves in, and another bucket of water which was stored far too close to the refuse bucket for comfort.
As I made my way inside of the jailhouse, I noticed a familiar banner hanging on the wall. Much like at the inn, the Nakovan dungeon had a bright banner with a sun on it.
The guards held on to my shoulders and forearms as they pushed me toward the cell door. About fifteen inmates were contained within the cell. As one guard unlocked the gate, three others stood ready with swords drawn. A fifth guard looked on, amused, and carried a thick truncheon. The man carrying the truncheon rattled it against the bars, earning himself the attention of the inmates. He made an announcement in Seltsi, and the inmates began to grow restless and excited. He turned to me, and spoke in Seltsi. Another guard interrupted him, and then the man cleared his throat and began speaking again, this time in Ijatian.
“How big are you? You are able to kill ten men? More? We have curious to see what can you do.”
I stared at the guard, unsure what to make of his questions.
“I have to the men offered a freedom if they can make you die. Do you bet?”
I did not respond.
“You are at loss, then.”
He rang his blunt object against the bars again and shouted toward the inmates in Seltsi. Immediately after he spoke, the four guards pushed me to the ground inside of the cell and locked the door behind me. Once the gate was locked, every guard in the jail began to watch.
I stood quickly, and attempted to speak to the inmates.
“I can kill you all.” I said. “Do not attack me.”
Whether because they were too stupid for their own safety or too ignorant to understand what I had said, the inmates took no heed of my warning. A man charged me. He was scrawny and disheveled, giving the appearance that he had been jailed for some time. I stood still as he charged and, once he had closed enough distance, I crouched down low. He could not stop in time and barrelled into my shoulder. I then stood, carrying him over my shoulder, and dropped him face-first onto the cobblestone floor. I heard his skull crack as it made contact with the floor.. The guards let out an enthusiastic cheer.
Another inmate approached me, this one clearly older and wiser than the other. He dug into his pocket and revealed a shiv, prompting yet another thunderous roar from the guards. The inmate approached me slowly, circling around to try to catch me from a weak angle. He lunged and closed distance with a surprising quickness that suggested a military background. I knocked the hand which was holding the shiv away from my body. He re-postured and put distance between us again.
In the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of another inmate trying to take my back while I was tangled up in my skirmish with the older man. The man attempting to flank me did not appear armed, so I kept the majority of my attention on the shiv. The older man lunged at me again, and the flanking inmate used the opportunity to attack my back at the same time. The flanking man swung a fist at the back of my head. It hurt, but he recoiled his hand in pain after making contact. He had not considered that my skull was harder than man’s. The shiv meanwhile pierced my wrist, sending my blood squinting into the older inmate’s own eyes. He faltered backward, temporarily blinded, and I quickly closed the distance. I grabbed his wrist and elbow, locking his arm in position. As he struggled to free his arm, I took advantage of the chaos by rearranging my feet so that I stood behind him.
His vulnerability catapulted me into a state of euphoria. The dank musk of the jailhouse gave way to an aroma that felt more akin to music than a scent. The room grew warmer and my thoughts raced. At this point, it felt as though I was watching the fight unfold from the balcony of an arena.
I pulled him around in a tight circle, ensuring that I had full control of his arm. I dragged the old man toward the flanking inmate that had punched me, who was still clutching at his hand and cursing. I forced the armed inmate to stab the other one who had attempted to flank me. I repeated the stabbing action several times, piercing his chest, abdomen, and groin. I then twisted the knife so that it faced toward the man carrying it, snapping his wrist past its maximum range of motion. I felt my spine tingle as it had when I was eliminating the weak and unprepared Pelik leaders. Though the man resisted with all of his might, I slowly forced him to pierce his own face with the knife, and he fell limp.
I had momentarily forgotten the reason why I was fighting. I let out a roar, flinging spit across the cell and into the faces of the other, now terrified prisoners. I had grown excited at the sight of blood spilled from my hands. I dropped the limp man and approached the other inmates, but they all immediately cowered toward the wall. I stomped my foot, producing a loud thump that made them all jump as though they had practiced synchronizing. The guards whooped and hollered, clattering their weapons against any nearby hard surface.
As the fighting concluded, I became aware of a deep ringing which had overtaken my ability to hear. I could feel my arms shaking and it took a great deal of willpower to not attack another target. I took a deep breath, and the warmth of my body began to give way to a damp coldness as the chilly dungeon air cooled the sweat and blood on my hide. The corners of my lips pointed upward as I grew aware that I had yet again been victorious in battle.
Despite my victory, however, I knew that I could not sustain my position as an adversary to the other inmates. I knew that I could only ensure my safety if I could convince them that I was to be feared, regardless of what wagers the guards could offer. I turned toward the bucket of drinking water. It was clearly for everyone, and as such it was a perfect tool to assert my dominance. I took a massive swig from the bucket and poured the remainder of the water onto the floor. I kept eye contact with the inmates for the entirety of my display. They did not attempt to stop me.
It was over. I allowed myself to fall on the wooden bench, exhausted. It cracked slightly under the force of me dropping down onto it, and I let out a sigh. The inmates remained still, and the guards began to count and divide money that they had bet on my fight.
Later, the remaining inmates made me offerings of poorly rolled cigarettes and makeshift weapons. I was not bothered for the rest of the night.
I awoke at a time which I presumed was the early morning; the sunlight was peeking through the jail’s single, tiny window at a low angle. I had slept on the bench, and I had not needed to share it. The other inmates slept on the hard floor, nearby the bodies of the men that I had fought yesterday. Though the older man had died, the other two men managed to survive, writhing on the ground despite their lack of medical treatment. My wrist had stopped bleeding, as I had tied it off with a shirt that I had stolen from a fellow inmate. Though my wrist no longer bled, it was sore and swollen, and the fingers on that hand were difficult to move.
After a few hours, the guards finally unlocked the door to remove the dead body and replace the bucket of water. The infirm men remained untreated. The guards laid the carcass flat on the ground just outside of the cell, and covered it with a filthy blanket. I picked up the bucket of water and kept it by my side, taking sips of it at my leisure. The other inmates did not attempt to drink from it.
With the chaos of yesterday now a memory, I finally had the opportunity to scrutinize the jailhouse. My eyes were once again drawn to the banner that hung on the wall. When I had first seen the sun banner, I had assumed that it had been intended to identify a structure as an inn. Such was clearly not the case, for the hospitality of Nakovan’s jailhouse was not something that I imagined many people would pay for. The colours on the banner in the dungeon were identical to that of the banner at the inn and thus it was clear that the banner was a symbol of something larger. My experiences in combat led me to believe that it could be a coat of arms of some sort; perhaps the banner was a symbol of Nakovan or Alaxi. My eyes swept the jailhouse from left to right and from top to bottom as I wished for something to look at or to do. However, aside from the banner, the demoralized inmates, and the disinterested guards, there was little else to gaze upon.
Several more hours passed, and I tried to occupy my time by exercising. However, the pain in my wrist continued to worsen and I eventually had to stop. I hoped desperately that the other inmates would not attempt to challenge me again, as I was not sure how much strength I could muster through the pain. A much needed distraction finally took my mind off of the pain when a priest and an elderly woman were escorted toward the jail cell. The woman walked slowly and carefully toward the dead body. Once she pulled the cloth back from the old man’s face, she immediately fell to the ground, wailing in sorrow. The priest began to recite something in Seltsi, and some of the other inmates lowered their heads as the priest spoke. Though the priest’s sermon was recited loudly and with purpose, it remained nearly inaudible over the woman’s crying. I stared in her direction with a countenance of stone. The longer I watched the sermon, however, a pain in my stomach churned and I began to feel the urge to vomit. I eventually turned my head to the side, and tried not to pay attention.
The sermon dragged on for what felt like hours, but was likely not more than forty-five minutes. Once the priest had finished, the guards haphazardly dragged the carcass toward the jail’s entrance. Though the guards’ mistreatment of the body elicited another sorrowful wail from the old woman, I was admittedly glad to see the carcass being removed from my line of sight. A short number of minutes later, the priest returned to the cell. He spoke softly to one of the guards, who acknowledged him respectfully and escorted him to the cell’s gate. The priest stepped inside, and the guard locked the door behind him. The guard remained at attention, diligently watching the priest.
With no fear or hesitation, the priest came and sat beside me. I was admittedly impressed with the man’s boldness, and thus allowed him to do so unhindered.
The priest was elderly, to a degree of geriatric frailty. The top of his head was shiny and hairless, with a large portion of hair from the side of his head combed overtop in a futile attempt to appear fuller. He was pale, and his skin hung off of his bones like a rotting sausage case. Through nearly transparent and veiny skin, one could almost see the priest’s skeleton. He wore a simple black robe, very poor in quality. If his poverty was not made obvious by his ratty clothing, then it was made obvious by his distinctly unbathed odor.
“You killed that man.” Despite the priest’s ancient appearance, his voice was bold and clear, as was his command of the Ijatian language.
“I did.” I responded.
“Why?” The priest asked.
I replied with a matter-of-fact tone: “He attacked me.”
The priest nodded. “I can see that. He was not the only one.”
I furled my eyebrows. “I do not understand how you know.”
The priest pointed to the bloodstains on the ground, which had now dried and left crimson splotches across the floor. “I can tell because of the blood. The men who bled clearly approached you based on the shape of their blood stains. They are centralized, it seems that you barely moved at all.”
I nodded in appreciation. “You are smart.”
He smiled. “No, my child. Just old.”
I did not respond.
The priest spoke again. “The manner in which you killed him.” He paused, taking a breath. “It was artful.”
I smiled and looked at him. I had never heard anyone else describe my skills as art, though I had often thought my killing prowess to be quite artful myself.
“I have killed a lot.” I said.
He nodded. “That much is clear. You must work hard. I can see it in your eyes, you are very skilled.”
“Do you like to kill?” He asked.
“I work very hard to kill.”
He nodded and took another deep breath. Exhaling, he spoke intentionally; “It feels good to be successful, doesn’t it?”
The priest took a momentary pause. “I noticed that you looked away when Quinto’s wife was here. Did that feel good?”
I grunted and turned away from him.
“I’m sorry.” He said. “My duty in this plane is not to judge you, my friend. I have a point that I am trying to make. Please listen.”
I kept my head turned from him for another moment, but the compliments that he had given me for my fighting skills suggested that he understood me better than most, and I decided to give him another chance. I turned my head toward him, and he smiled.
“I don’t think that you like to kill, brother.”
I corrected him; “I like to kill.”
He smiled, which was not what I expected. “No.”
I furled my eyebrows again. “Yes.”
“You like to be successful. You like to be better than your opponent. You like to hone your skills. You like to be an artist. Those are all part of killing, yes, but I do not think that you like to kill.”
I kept silent.
“You do not become a man of The Light One without meeting a lot of dark people, lost one. I have seen murderers. I have seen men so attached to the temptations of The Dark One that they could not” He trailed off for a moment “. . .help themselves. I have seen bodies that the family doesn’t want back.” I continued to listen in silence. “Those men do not turn away during my sermons. Quite the opposite. Those who serve The Dark One embrace my sermons, and grow lustful at the smell of death. I do not see that in you.”
I grunted in acknowledgement, but I stayed quiet because I wanted to hear him speak.
“You could have taken those three men down without killing any of them. I can tell.”
“That is a risk.” I said.
“Sitting down beside you was a risk, too. And I think we have both benefited from it.”
Though I felt that I could point out hundreds of differences between sitting on a bench and fighting an armed inmate, I could not seem to put together any kind of objection to the priest’s words. There was a moment of silence, before bells began to ring softly in the distance. The priest stood.
“I must go.” The priest said. “You are capable of great things.” He smiled for a moment, before reverting quickly to a look of stoicism. “But great evil is one of those things.”
Without another word, the guard escorted him from the prison cell.
I sat still and thought of the priest’s words. They, like the words of Elisabetta, seemed to resonate deep within my brain. After a moment of contemplation, I silently picked up the water bucket and placed it down gently by the other inmates. I then returned to my bench as the inmates swarmed the bucket in desperate thirst.
Though I had intended to remain in contemplation for the rest of the night, I was interrupted some hours later by another ruckus. The door of the jail flung open, and a pack of several armed guards stormed into the building. These guards, unlike the Nakovan guard, wielded halberds and wore much brighter armor. I could also tell with a quick glance that their armor was of greater quality than that of the Nakovan guard, perhaps even crafted from steel. One of the intruders, who I judged to be a commanding officer based on his ceremonial headgear, made a loud declaration in Seltsi. Though I did not understand his speech, I did manage to hear the words “Hoffgorod”, “Martelli”, and “Mastiff”.
Before the Nakovan guard had a chance to react, the Hoffgorodian soldiers unlocked the jail cell and swung the door open. Another inmate attempted to use the chaos as an opportunity to escape, but was quickly cut down by one of the guards’ halberds. The rest of the inmates decided not to try their luck and sat still. A Hoffgorodian soldier approached me and pulled me upward off of the bench. I did not dare to resist him, and went wherever he steered me. I quickly reached into my pocket and tossed the cigarettes from last night back into the cell before I was forced away from it. In a mere instant, I was freed from the prison.
Outside of the prison stood Martelli, escorted by four Hoffgorodian soldiers. Martelli joyfully puffed upon a wooden pipe, smiling in amusement. I was tossed to my knees in front of him.
After a brief moment of silence, I spoke.
“I am sorry, my Duke.” I said. My apology was met with laughter.
“Stand up, Mastiff. I really do not care. All that you have done is assault some lowlife vagrants from a peasant village. That is far beneath my concern.” He took another puff from his pipe, smacking his lips as he inhaled.
I stood slowly, somewhat confused.
“Dominic tells me that you did not instigate the fight.” He began. “I believe him, and so I ordered you a pardon. Let us return to Hoffgorod, Dominic awaits you there.” With that short speech, I was en route back to Hoffgorod just as suddenly and as randomly as I had been hauled off to jail. I sat in silence, watching the world pass by from Martelli’s carriage. Alaxi was a strange place. A very strange place indeed.