One of the apostles pushes me, sending me stumbling along the hallway.
I already was going forward. It’s not like there is any branching path, either, so I’m not going to need directions any time soon, thanks. And if I wasn’t walking fast enough, just tell me so. No need for such unpleasantness…
The apostles’ boots are loud against the tiled floor. The chains linking my ankles and binding my hands behind my back clink and rattle whenever I move. Every sound echoes in the cavernous space of the hallway.
It takes several minutes of walking for me and my escort to reach a large metal door.
The leading apostle steps forward and knocks twice.
A rectangular peephole slides open and a pair of pretty blue eyes appear, gazing at us. The eyes linger over me for a second.
The woman behind the door closes the peephole again, then, with the sound of metal scraping on metal, the door is unlocked and opened, revealing the hall stretching beyond.
The woman walks back to sit behind a wide desk to the left of the door, grabbing a pen and leaning over a thick ledger. Several filing cabinets are neatly arranged in a row along the wall behind her.
The apostle behind me pushes me again – I’m really starting to want to kill him – and we approach the desk. The rest of my escort takes up position around the room, ready to intervene if I start acting up, which I won’t, since I don’t have a death wish.
Without looking up at me, the woman behind the desk asks, “Name?”
Didn’t I already tell you dipshits everything a few days ago?
…Is not what I’m going to say, obviously. It’s been a while since the last time I was a prisoner, so I’ve lost some of the reflexes, but I do remember enough to know that it’s generally not a good idea to antagonize your captors.
So I answer honestly.
“Sif,” I say.
“Asmodians technically don’t have genders.”
The woman doesn’t even blink. She just repeats her question, in the exact same tone of voice as before. “Gender?”
“Female,” I say, then I lean forward and lower my voice. “Will you take my word for it, or do you want to check? I’d be happy to take my clothes off for you, if you ask me to.”
It tug lightly at my collar to reveal a bit more cleavage, but the woman doesn’t even raise her head. If anything, she leans down even lower over her ledge to avoid looking at me. I’d almost think she was immune to my charms, but the reddening of her ears comfort my ego.
…So she really does want me to take my clothes off, does she?
Or maybe she wants to take them off herself?
What a sinful woman…
“A–Age?” the woman asks, stumbling a bit over her words.
“157 years old.”
“鸩, 神经, and 隐.”
The woman scribbles all the information into her ledger, then glances up and flicks her chin toward the door at the other end of the hall.
A faint blush still colors her cheeks when she looks up at me. It’s so at odds with her cold, professional demeanor that I almost want to laugh, but she might find that insulting, so I don’t.
Before I have the chance to decide if it would be appropriate to continue flirting with her – probably not, but I’d like to consider the question with the care it deserves – the apostle behind me yanks on my chains and drags me to the door his colleague indicated. I wince at the pain of the manacles digging into my wrists.
The apostle opens the door, and we enter the next room. The rest of my escort stays behind.
It’s a wide, circular chamber. In the middle of the room is a round platform, raised from the ground like a theater stage. Words I don’t recognize – they’re written in ancient Eashiri – are carved into its surface, forming a pattern of concentric rings. More apostles are stationed along the wall of the chamber at regular intervals. Like my escort, they all wear the same face-concealing helmets and grand, sweeping red cloaks over their immaculate armors, metal gleaming under the light of the chandeliers.
They stay so perfectly motionless I might mistake them for statues. None of them react to our arrival.
The apostle drags me forward, until we stand about a meter away from the raised platform. Then, he turns to me and, with a wave of his hand, the chains fall off my wrists and ankles and clatter to the floor.
The apostle steps away, walking backward, pointedly not putting his back to me, and says, “Step onto the formation.”
…So this really is a teleport formation?
I consciously regulate my body so that I won’t show any sign of fear. I have a reputation to uphold, after all. I do hope these apostles are impressed by my stoicism. But I am a bit anxious, to be perfectly honest.
There are rumors about what’s on the other side of that gateway, of course, but it’s not like anybody came back to talk about it, so the credibility of those rumors is questionable. It’s well established that the prison isn’t actually on Caldera, but I have no idea what I should expect, exactly.
Hopefully, it has a breathable atmosphere.
I wordlessly walk to the platform and up the small wooden stairs placed against its side.
“In the center,” the apostle says.
Then, all the apostles standing around the room suddenly take a step forward, perfectly synchronized. The concentration of qi in the room increases. With so many apostles cooperating together, it quickly reaches the point where it becomes heavy and cloying, as if the air itself is starting to coagulate.
After a minute or two, the ancient Eashiri symbols carved over the formation start shining, brighter and brighter.
They flash once.
And I am gone.
Breathable atmosphere confirmed, at least.
I’m standing on a platform identical to the one from a second ago – the symbols carved over it might be different; I’m not sure – but the room around me is different, smaller and less luxurious, and different people surround me.
There is a thin man, and a tall woman, and an older gentleman, and a pair of identical twins. None of them are human. They all look rougher than the apostles – less shiny – but each one of them is strong, nonetheless. I can feel it in the air around them.
If I try anything funny, I won’t survive any longer against them than I would have against the apostles.
Before I can ask any obvious questions like ‘Where am I?’, the older gentleman steps up to the edge of the platform and says, “I am Ishwin. Your name is?” His voice is heavily accented, but I can’t recognize from where. It sounds both exotic and distinguished. I like it.
“Eyalen,” I reply without any hint of hesitation.
Ishwin nods. “First things first. This is Hardron Fortress. Lord Hardron is its master. Here, his word is law. Rebel against him or his appointed subordinates – that is to say, us – and you will be killed on the spot. Follow his rules and we won’t have a problem. Do you find that arrangement agreeable?”
I think I recognize the name. He’s a warlord from four or five hundred years ago, one of Yulan’s old generals. I wasn’t aware he’d ended up in this place, though. I remember hearing he’d been killed, but I suppose he was captured and imprisoned here, instead.
“Hello? I asked you a question,” Ishwin calls out to me, frowning. “Should I take your silence as –”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry.” I interrupt with a smile, shaking my head. “I was just a bit surprised. And yes, to answer your question, I do find that arrangement agreeable.”
“Good,” Ishwin replies. He stares at me for a few seconds, perhaps trying to judge the sincerity of my answer, before continuing in a droning monotone. He’s probably learned this speech by heart and repeated it hundreds of times to each new arrival. “Then first, I suggest you give up any fantasy of escaping the Prison,” he says. “Everyone who tries dies. Instead, you should strive to build a new life here. We may call this place a ‘prison’, but what you probably don’t realize is that it’s a plane like any other. Apart from the size, there is no significant difference between this plane and the Caldera plane you come from.”
“You say it like you don’t come from Caldera yourself.”
Ishwin shakes his head. “I don’t. Most of the population of the Prison was born inside it. As I said, it’s a plane like any other. It has its own indigenous population. Though, I suppose we’re not exactly indigenous. We’re the descendants of the first prisoners.”
I frown. “I see. So, if I understand your meaning, there are seas and plains and forests and things like that inside this prison?”
…Unbelievable. Why are the humans using an entire habitable world as a prison? Are they completely insane? This is wasteful on a scale I can barely even conceive.
“Since we have limited resources, you’ll be expected to do your part. In exchange, you’ll be provided with the basic living necessities for your particular species. Doing your part means that you’ll have to serve in Lord Hardron’s army for at least three years every decade. As for the rest of the time, you can either formally become a full-time soldier or take up another profession.”
“Army? To fight against whom?”
“The lords of other fortresses. What, don’t you have wars, on Caldera?”
“We do, but I wasn’t expecting any here.”
“Where people go, conflicts follow. It’s a natural development,” Ishwin says blandly. “Now, come with me. You’ll need to pick your profession from the spots available. After fifty years, you’ll be allowed to change and try something else, if you want to.”
“Wait a moment, please. You didn’t tell me any of these rules I have to follow if I don’t want to be killed.”
…That really sounds like the sort of thing I’d need to know sooner, rather than later.
For the first time since I arrived, Ishwin smiles. It’s a good smile. It instantly takes twenty years off his aged face. “At least, you have your priorities straight. Don’t worry, we get a new arrival every few years, so we’re pretty used to this, by now. We have a small booklet we give newcomers that explains everything. One thing at a time, though. First is choosing your profession. I doubt you’ll commit any capital crime in the few minutes until you do. And if you actually do commit one, I promise you’ll be killed painlessly.”
…How tremendously reassuring.
Ishwin turns around without another word and heads out of the room. I trail after him obediently. The other people standing in the room – are they Ishwin’s bodyguards? – follow behind me as well. I can feel their eyes on my back, tracking every one of my movements. I don’t think I’ve done anything threatening, but they’re still on their guard.
Quite careful of them, I have to say. I don’t think I look particularly threatening, either. Well, I suppose many of those sent to this prison must be dangerous troublemakers, so it makes sense that they’d be wary of me.
But you don’t need to worry, my good people. I dislike violence.
We soon arrive in front of Ishwin’s office. A white plate hung upon the door is stamped with his name.
Ishwin opens the door and we all stream inside after him. The bodyguards fan out, taking positions so that, no matter what I try, I won’t be able to kill more than one of them before the others can strike back.
I ignore them and glance around the room.
Filled bookshelves line the walls on each side. None of the books have a visible title printed on their spine, so I have no idea as to their contents. I imagine Ishwin himself is the only one who understands how everything is organized. The wall opposite the door we came through is made out of a single, large sheet of transparent glass, through which the grounds of a city can be seen, people milling about in the streets. Further into the distance, a high, stone wall crested by battlements and patrolled by guards can be seen encircling the town. And beyond even that, as Ishwin said, plains and forests and lakes and a clear blue sky.
…It really doesn’t feel like a prison at all.
Am I really not on Caldera?
This is… strange.
“Take a seat,” Ishwin says, pointing at an upholstered chair in front of the desk behind which he himself is sitting.
The chair is very comfortable. In fact, the whole office is luxurious, from the bright gleam of the wooden desk, through the soft and thick carpet covering the floor, to the gold-framed lampshades hanging over every light.
Is Ishwin supposed to be someone important?
“So,” he says, leaning on the desktop and steepling his fingers. “Your new profession. Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to do, and I’ll tell you if we have any openings in that position. Oh, I do have to warn you that you should only pick work you are actually able to complete. If you are incompetent or unfit, you will be killed. Lord Hardron dislikes useless people.”
“What if you don’t have any openings for the thing I choose?” I ask.
“Then you can select something else, or become a soldier or a farm hand. Farming is one of the few professions where you will be taught everything you need to know upon arrival. We always need more farmers, since most of our food reserves come from agriculture.”
I consider the question for a minute.
What should I do?
I very much don’t want to be a soldier. I already find the three-years-per-decade rule bothersome, so doing it full-time would be out of the question.
This is quite a difficult question, actually. I’ve never held any normal job, even on Caldera, so I don’t know what I would be able to do appropriately. And if I really discount the possibility of returning to Caldera, I’ll be stuck with my choice for the next fifty years, so I’d rather not make a poor one.
“I can offer some suggestions, if you’d like?” Ishwin says suddenly.
I nod. “Please.”
Ishwin looks up at the ceiling, leaning back into the chair and stroking his beard. “We have openings in quite a lot of fields. You could be a maid in the castle. Considering your appearance, you might catch the eye of a high-ranking official and end up living an easy life.” He looks back at me, quirking an eyebrow. What I think of his suggestion is plain to read upon my face. “No? Then, I assume you wouldn’t be interested in working in a brothel, either? I believe you would prove quite popular with most of the clients there.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but no.”
“Would you prefer working outdoors, perhaps? We need rangers to clear the roads between the fortresses.”
I frown. “I thought that –”
“We’re not constantly at war,” Ishwin says, guessing my question before I can formulate it. “Most of the time, we conduct profitable business with the other fortresses, and they with us.” He pauses for a second before continuing. “Otherwise, we have openings in manufacturing, if that pleases you more. Blacksmiths, tailors –”
“Oh, tailor. I could work with that.”
I’ve always crafted and sewn and dyed my own disguises by myself.
I could be a tailor.
Leading a tranquil life like that…
Might it turn out to be unexpectedly pleasant, I wonder?
No risk of dismemberment or torture or sudden death…
I suppose I’ll just have to see. It’ll be an interesting new experience, at least.
Ishwin nods. “We have tailoring shops that lack employees. You’ll work in one of them, then.”
Even as he speaks, he rises from his seat and walks to one of the cases along the wall, picking out a book similar to all the others around it without any apparent hesitation. Page markers of various colors jut out from the sides of the book. Ishwin opens the book to one of those markers, then turns page after page, muttering under his breath. I can’t hear what he’s saying.
Finally, he appears to find what he was looking for and turns to the thin man who’d been waiting silently along with his comrades as Ishwin and I talked. “Preston, once we’re done here, you’ll take Miss Eyalen to the shop ‘Thread of Marcurio’. They’ve been asking for more personnel for a long time. It’s in your area of responsibility. Do you know of it?”
“Yes I do, sir!”
While Ishwin walks back to his seat, putting the book face down on top of his desk to keep it open at the right page, I glance over my shoulder at the man named Preston.
…His area of responsibility, is it?
So I’ll be working for him, in a way?
He has two short, curving horns jutting from the sides of his head. He’s short and thin, but his face has a certain sharpness and elegance that would make him quite handsome, I suppose, if it wasn’t for the strange smile on his lips. And for his gaze.
I’m quite familiar with gazes like this one.
Gazes that, every time they turn to me, seem to say, “I’m going to fuck you, whether you want to or not”.
If the owner of that gaze fit my taste, I wouldn’t exactly mind, but otherwise, it becomes something of a problem. Especially when I’m explicitly forbidden from killing the person in question.
I carefully keep the frown off my face and turn back to Ishwin, who’s rummaging through one of the drawers of his desk, looking for something.
“Ah, there it is.” Ishwin straightens up and places a sheet of paper in front of me, along with a pen. “Can you write?”
“Then fill out this form.”
I glance down at it. It’s basically the same information I had to give out to the human woman, back on the other side of the teleport formation, half an hour ago – minus the magic; I guess they believe no one would answer that question truthfully.
It takes me a moment to remember the phony name I gave Ishwin when I introduced myself.
Then I pick up the pen and start writing basic information for an elf woman named Eyalen.
“There you go.”
I hand the form back to Ishwin.
In exchange, he hands me a small, folded booklet.
“This is what you were asking about, earlier,” he explains. “The laws of this fortress. I strongly suggest you follow them to the letter. The guards here aren’t very forgiving toward troublemakers.”
I open the booklet.
At the top of the first page, printed in an irritatingly cheerful font – there only lacks a drawing of a sun with a smiley face to turn the thing into a picture book for children – is the title:
“Welcome to the Planar Prison, newcomer!”