Chapter Five, Part Four: [SOW] Chapter Five, Part Four: A Ward in the Dark
The Nail Ward, as they called it, was as miserable as it looked from the outside. The thousands of needles covering the floor and walls made it impossible to relax, and sleep was terribly out of the question.
So Kerrick stood in the corner waiting, patiently, for the sunrise.
“Whatever Veihn was doing doesn’t matter anymore.” He considered. Lackadaisically observing the guard stationed outside his cell who occasionally shot him a snarling glance. “She wanted to get me out of the picture. But if she was framing me for the attack, what did she tell me to leave Icehold for?”
He swallowed a knot with all jagged edges as the first beam of sunlight shot over the frame of the window-slit above him. Footsteps popped down the hall.
“It’s time, Snow.” The guard growled, casting open the cell door as General Vandruss rounded the corner.
His commanding officer didn’t speak, and barely muttered a sound while he charged through the door and hoisted Kerrick by the neck.
“Why do I keep finding you at the foot of my troubles, Snow?”
Vandruss shoved him into the wall and a thousand nails pierced his back and legs.
“Sir,” He coughed through the furious, calloused grip of Vandruss’ massive hand. “I don’t know why it happened. She left the barracks and I followed her, and then she started stabbing herself. Why would she do that?”
Vandruss dropped him unceremoniously to the ground. The floor nails sunk into his knees and hands. He pulled himself to his feet with a series of tiny pops and leveled his gaze at his commander.
“I will not be blamed for what happened to Veihn.”
Vandruss glanced back and forth between him and the guard, watching with a twisted look of excitement.
“You can’t be blamed for anything, if you’re dead.”
Vandruss reached behind him and unsheathed a small knife from a gilded scabbard.
“We will not allow the likes of you within our ranks, Kerrick Snow.”
Then, to his horror, General Vandruss plunged the knife into his stomach.
He closed his eyes, possessed by the thought of his final moments trapped in the Nail Ward, where witches and the diseased elderly are thrown when the city doesn’t know what to do with them. Briefly, his mind flashed with the thought of the blonde witch, Emry.
Then, when his mind caught up to his body, he realized he felt no pain.
“Obey me.” Vandruss whispered just before a small pop sounded, like someone snapped a reed against his belly, and the General shoved him back against the wall. Kerrick bounced and tumbled to the ground, stunned, but otherwise unharmed. From his abdomen a gush of blood poured.
Behind him, by the sound of his voice, Vandruss turned to face the guard.
“Come with me, let’s talk about what comes next. We’ve got a dead soldier on our hands.” The clap of the guard’s breastplate against Vandruss powerful hand echoed in the chamber.
Kerrick laid as still as possible, pretending, against his belief, to actually be dead.
“You know what that means, don’t you?”
The guard’s voice shakily replied. “No, sir.”
“It means, as far as I know, you killed one of my men.”
The guard took a step back. “I saw you kill him. You can’t tell anyone differently.”
At that, Vandruss laughed.
“What do you expect will happen, boy? Captain Fane is dead, which means we will report to Rogier, who is not known for his sympathy, or his cunning.”
The guard swallowed loud enough that the pop in his throat echoed through the Nail Ward.
“I’ll go easy on you, I promise.”
The guard took another step, then another, and left the Nail Ward.
Vandruss whispered to Kerrick.
“Stand up. We won’t have much time.”
He obeyed immediately, his mind alight with questions. None of which easy to ask.
“Why did you pretend to kill me?”
“Who are you, really?”
“What will this gain you?”
Vandruss hefted him from the cell and out to the hall.
“What is going on?” He stumbled, catching himself on the General’s greaves.
“You are dead, Kerrick Snow.”
He gripped Kerrick around the bicep and dragged him, quietly, through the prison. It took a moment for him to realize that Vandruss was taking him to the infirmary.
“Go limp.” Vandruss ordered, and he obeyed, falling limp while Vandruss dragged him through the kitchen, populated sparsely with other guards who turned their attention to the scene immediately.
“General?” One stood.
“Stand down, this is under control.” He replied.
Kerrick’s ankles bumped against the tables and chairs as he did his best to look like he was dead, which he’d not considered to be as difficult as it was.
Vandruss pushed through toward the barracks, to much of the same shocked looks from the guards preparing for their shift. When he passed by the Captain’s office, Kerrick stole a glance within to see a pair of well suited men, their armor gilded and painted with the insignia of the king deliberating over the blood stained desk.
Vandruss kicked open the infirmary door and shouted.
“Mirja, I need you!”
Vandruss hefted him onto a bed and began pacing back and forth. Kerrick, in the interest of maintaining his freshly murdered appearance, remained limp on the bedside. He rolled his head so that he could see toward the other end of the infirmary. From the end of the bed rows, the same nurse who’d tended to his wounds emerged from the hall with her small bag and her finely decorated glove already equipped.
“Vandruss I insist you stop accepting such flimsy soldiers to your troupe. We will wind up crushed beneath the foot of even the feeblest army with your flock of daisies to protect us.”
“This time, it’s not about making someone better. It’s about making him safe.” Out of the corner of his eye, Kerrick saw the man’s smile turn dour.
“Oh dear.” Mirja set her bag on the bed beside him. “You may stop pretending, young man.”
“I know you aren’t really dead.” She shot a look at Vandruss. “The General wouldn’t kill his favorites.”
He sat up.
“Enough.” Vandruss stopped the question before there could be one. “Kerrick, you are, from this day forward, dead to Godspine. Kerrick Snow, the hot headed private of my army was killed by a rogue agent after the murder of Private Veihn. Neither of the bodies were recovered.”
Kerrick’s heart skipped a beat. “Veihn’s body is gone?”
The General held a hand up, quieting him.
“You were discovered to be involved with the Dragon Witch, and were killed as a result before Veihn’s ritual could be completed.”
“Ritual?” Kerrick leapt off of the bedside.
Vandruss ignored him.
“You will need to leave, Kerrick. You have been released of your duty.”
He couldn’t believe it.
“Vandruss you can’t be serious.”
Mirja giggled. “Oh dear, he’s deadly serious. Do you think this is the first time he’s done something like this?”
The world was spinning.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Do you have any personal effects? Things you’ve held on to since you joined us, or did you abandon them all for your charade as Private Snow?”
“Nothing I don’t have on me.”
“The remainder of your belongings will be sent to your family then, with a note.”
“Please don’t do that.” Kerrick began pacing. He couldn’t control his expulsion from the army, but he could prevent his family from getting wrapped up in whatever Vandruss was pulling.
“Then they will be burned.” Vandruss checked the door, likely as thankful as he was that the infirmary remained empty.
“We must get going, Master Windvar.” Mirja reached for his hand.
“Not before I get some answers.”
“Answers are in short supply with us, I’m afraid.” She grinned, her yellowed teeth chipped in places.
“What was Veihn doing?”
Vandruss sighed. “We don’t know, not yet. It looked like a ritual.”
“What does that mean?”
Kerrick couldn’t believe of all things, Vandruss was eluding to magic.
“She could have picked it up from anywhere, but most likely was in contact with the Witch at some point. She could also have been a cohort of some other group, likely trying to finish what the young woman started in Icehold with the breakout.”
“So, where is she?”
“She’s gone.” Vandruss glanced to the doors a second time, his eyes narrowed. “There isn’t time, get him out of here.”
He passed Mirja a note who slipped it into her bag before she clasped hands with him.
“Be safe, Vandruss.”
He nodded and approached the infirmary door.
“Quickly now, dear.” She whispered to Kerrick, taking his hand.
The old woman led him to the opposite end of the infirmary, where two doors led out of the room. One of them slightly ajar, revealed a separate barracks for the nurses of Icehold. The other was suited with a large padlock, left unlocked and dangling from a metal latch.
“This may explain what you are questioning. It may not. Truth be told, The General isn’t so adept with words.”
She stuffed the letter into his tunic and pried open the door.
“Get going, find somewhere safe to lay low for a while. If you pop back up in the city, people will know. Godspine doesn’t take kindly to those who come back from the dead.”
He had much to say, the words shot from his throat like a geyser and stopped, blocked by a stone in his mouth. He took the first step into a torch lit stairway descending around a corner into unknown darkness. What could have been an access tunnel to another building could have, just as easily, been a dungeon.
Behind him, Mirja snapped the latch closed and locked the padlock behind it.
“Well,” He sighed, and began his walk into the dark.
Deep beneath the cold stone walls and glowering of the Icehold guard ship, Kerrick found himself in what he could only describe as a dungeon. The long descent from the infirmary brought him to a sprawling, interconnected series of tunnels lined in shale bricks and affixed with torches every few steps.
Without a weapon, or a tool of any kind to his name, he crept through the darkness until, in one of the rooms, he found a small series of desks.
Heavy oak table tops were covered in scattered scrolls and equipment the likes of which he’d not seen in quite some time. The scrolls themselves had beens crawled with writings detailing all manner of experimentation. From tests on human subjects to extensive notes on how “bonding” effects worked in regard to various wildlife subjects, he found himself overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information littered about the room.
The room itself, a large space with ten desks, each covered in their own writings, stood lined in the center of the room. The far wall was covered with bookshelves which contained books more properly crafted, filled with more of the same.
Line upon line within the pages as he scanned through them spoke about the practice of “bonding” as if it were some kind of unique process, and not something each of the mortals unconsciously committed to with anyone they knew. Though, the further he read, the more he realized that the “bonding” spoken of in the pages of the books was indeed something far different than what he’d first assumed.
“They’re talking about Dragons.” He muttered, his caution wavering at the realization.
“What are you doing here?”
He snapped the book closed and locked eyes with the owner of the voice, a young woman a season his senior, who held a short sword with its tip pointed toward him.
He dropped the book and raised his hands.
“I mean no harm. I was put here from Icehold.” The woman eyed him cautiously. “My name is Kerrick Snow, I was formerly a private under the command of General Vandruss.”
He sucked in a breath. This place was especially a place he should use his alias.
She stepped closer.
“Why did they send you here?”
Her long, flowing dress brushed the sand covered ground, and he realized, despite the season the halls of this dungeon weren’t cold at all.
“To be honest, I don’t know. I witnessed something I shouldn’t have, and I think they sent me here for… I don’t know, protection?”
“Are you alone?”
“As alone as I’ve ever been.”
Kerrick kept a close watch on her sword, even as she moved closer and closer to him, she was shaking.
“I mean no harm.” He repeated.
She gestured to the far wall.
“No one means harm, until they do.”
He obeyed her signal and stepped slowly toward a bare wall, far from the desks. The woman slid her hand into a desk and tossed a pair of handcuffs to him.
“Put these on.”
He rolled his eyes. How many times was he going to be locked up in some fashion before he was able to get out and do what he wanted to do again?
He obeyed, with a groan, and snapped the cuffs around his wrists.
“What is this place?”
“It’s part of a research facility. Like a library, of sorts.”
“Would you tell me your name?”
“Girina.” She spat. “Sit down there. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
He obliged, sliding against the wall until he reached his seat.
“So, Girina, Are you here bye yourself?”
She laughed. “No, not remotely.”
He smiled. “What do you do?”
She took a seat and let the sword fall to her side. “I do not think you understand the situation we are in. You are not going to get answers from me, and I will not be letting you leave until whoever left you here comes to claim you.”
He shrugged. If he was going to spend any stretch of time locked up, he might as well make the most of it.
“It doesn’t hurt that she is pretty, either.”
“You can ask me whatever you’d like.” He offered the gentlest smile he could.
“Why were you in Icehold?” She fired back, eyes locked on him.
“I was stationed there beneath the General.”
“It was just broken into, barely more than a day past. What did you do there?”
“I,” He paused, confused. “I just told you?”
“I want details.”
Kerrick stopped a groan from slipping out of his mouth.
“I was patrolling the Cell Rows, for the last few days. Our troupe had only arrived a few days prior and we were stationed to assist in preventing the rumored jailbreak.”
“Sounds like you did a wonderful job.”
“We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to. The woman who attacked us was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” He shivered, remembering the look in her eyes as she slaughtered any of the guards who tried to oppose her.
“So, how does she lead to you being here?”
He gulped. It didn’t matter what information he offered, he assumed. She could easily kill him if she wanted to. Unless she wasn’t as skilled with the sword as she wanted to make herself out to be.
“After the disaster, we cleaned up and went to bed. In the middle of the night, a girl from my troupe left the barracks and I followed her,”
“Creepy.” She interrupted.
“She was in our Captain’s office, who’d just died, and was carving herself up. I don’t know what for, but when I found her she gutted herself and called for help.”
“In that order?” Girina cocked an eyebrow. “Seems backwards.”
Kerrick sighed. “I don’t remember the order, it was all at the same time, looks that’s not important.”
“So you were over her, bleeding out.”
He sighed. Telling this much to the woman was tiresome. “So the guards found me and imprisoned me for killing her, and then Vandruss pretended to kill me and put me here, where I found—“
“Me, who has locked you up.”
“Seems to me like you’ve had a rough day.”
She leaned back in her chair and took a long look at the entryway.
Beneath them both, something rumbled.
A look of panic dashed her cocky demeanor. Girina, this woman who had come from nowhere, dropped her sword and stepped out of the room to go presumably, back to nowhere.
Kerrick took the opportunity and stood, struggling due to his inability to use his hands, and followed.
She half jogged out of the room and down a long hallway, through a shoddily kept wooden door whose hinges creaked in spurts as she passed through. They did again as Kerrick bounded through the door.
“Was your intent to leave me stranded in that room?” He chided her as she came to a stop at an iron railing overlooking a massive, shadowed pit.
The rumbling was far louder in this room where Girina came to a stop and gasped. He caught up to her just in time to hear her whimper into her hands.
“I figure since you’re unarmed, now would be the time to ask you questions in return.” He paused. She didn’t seem to care at all that he’d followed, let alone that he could have pushed her over the railing. Whatever sense of danger she’d felt had evaporated and as he approached the railing he realized why.
Deep below, in the shadowy pit, a golden dragon stood and roared. Burning orange eyes turned to face them as flame broiled in the sides of her throat. Girina wrapped her arms around him and leapt back, but not before he noticed the two figures standing atop the dragon’s back.
One, the blonde witch, Emry. The other, the woman with the gauntlet who not two days prior, changed his life forever, again. Between them stood a larger man, whom he didn’t recognize, but judging by the weapons in their hands, it looked like they were not allies.
He slammed into the ground with Girina straddling him. Panic wrapped around her.
“We need to run, now.” She jammed a key into the cuffs and snapped them open as light burst from the pit behind them. All around the cavernous room, people screamed.
A jet of molted fire slammed into the roof, only a few heads above them, and sprawled into the adjacent hallways.
Girina rolled off of him and yanked his tunic, dragging him with her into a side room with an iron door. Just as the curling flame of the dragon bathed them to ash, she slammed the door closed and leapt back.
“You’re housing a living dragon?” Kerrick screamed.
She scrambled to her feet and backed further away as the flame curled beneath the bottom of the iron door. He didn’t have time to investigate the room before the dragon released another bellowing geyser of violent fire into the chamber, and Girina began to weep.
“That is no ordinary dragon, Private Snow. That’s our subject.”
She gulped her tears and turned to face him.
“If you don’t listen to my instructions perfectly, she is going to burn both of us to a crisp. Do you understand?”
He nodded. Not that he understood, or explicitly wanted to do anything she was about to ask, but he assumed, judging by the lack of access paths out of their room, that he was about to have no other choice.
A third geyser of flame erupted from below, followed by the groan of steel and earth rending beneath the dragon’s claws.
“Release me, mortals.” She growled into the room.
He shivered, and Girina took his hand.
“Snow, focus, or we die.”
He nodded. “What are we going to do?”
She wrapped her hands on his face. “We are going to jump into the dragon pit.”
Whatever hope he’d been holding on to melted in the flame.
“Jump into the pit? Where the dragon is?”
He hoped Girina was playing an extremely destructive, but intricate joke on him. He hoped the last half hour was a side effect from Mirja’s strong drugs. He hoped, but as a fourth vent of flame coursed through the compound, the iron door fell from its hinges and sent its heat exhausting into the room.
With a sweaty brow, he nodded.
“So we are jumping into the dragon pit, then.” And he took Girina’s hand.
Thanks for reading todays episode of Sisters of Westwinter!
This brings an end to Chapter Five! The story will continue after the end of Lifeis+ 2023.
Sisters of Westwinter is an episodic fantasy series taking place in a world torn apart by the greed of mortals. Dragons, which populate the world, are considered a pest to be exterminated and harvested for the valuable pearls within their bodies. These pearls power grand machines used by the Merchant Guilds to continue to build up their own empires.
When a young woman named Emry discovers her valley was protected by a great silver dragon, she promises him on his deathbed she will flee from the valley to elude those who wish to seek her harm. She does not know how, or why she matters to the dragon, but she obeys. On her escape with another of the dragons, she is shot down and imprisoned, branded a “witch” for her bond with Balshenai, a fearsome golden scaled dragon.
Locked in prison, she can only think of her family, killed by mysterious men in the night, and Balshenai’s final words to her.
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