Excerpts for World Without Heroes

A World Without Heroes

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The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep. The chains prevented him from lying down. Whether it was truly light or dark he could not say, for his enemies had stolen his sight.

In the distance he heard screaming--the unrestrained wails of a man trying and failing to escape the deepest agony. The unnerving cries echoed from higher corridors, dampened by intervening barriers.

After untold weeks in the dungeons of Felrook the prince could guess what the man might be feeling. Never had the prince imagined anguish so diverse and exquisite as he had experienced here.

He stood up straight, taking some of the pressure off of his wrists. If they kept him chained here much longer, he felt certain his arms would detach. Then again he preferred his current accommodations to the previous room, where the floor bristled with sharp, rusty spikes, and lying or sitting required bloodshed.

The unseen, wretched prisoner continued to scream. The prince sighed softly. Throughout his tortures, no matter what toxinsthey had forced down his throat, no matter what questions they had asked, he had not yet uttered a single word. Nor had he cried out in pain. He knew that some of the potions devised by Maldor and his minions had power to loosen his tongue and cloud his judgment, so after he was captured, he had firmly vowed to make no sound.

His captors had hounded him expertly. They had tried to bribe him with food and water. They had tried to compel him with pain. Some had come and spoken to him calmly and reasonably. Others had made harsh demands. At times he had faced several inquisitors in a row. Other times hours or days crawled past between interviews. He could not name the array of toxins administered to him, but no matter how they endeavored to blur his mind and weaken his resolve, the prince had focused on one necessity: silence.

Eventually he would speak. He quietly clung to the hope that he would ultimately be brought before the emperor. Then he would utter a single word.

Vaguely, gradually, the prince began to recognize that his mind felt uncommonly clear. A headache persisted, and hunger gnawed at him, but he found himself capable of directing his thoughts deliberately, an ability he had taken for granted before all of his food came laced with mind-altering additives. Aside from holding to his governing rule of keeping silent, his thoughts had meandered hazily over the past weeks, and his identity had felt indistinct.

Without warning, the door to his cell creaked open. He tensed, braced for anything. Keep silent, he warned himself. No matter what they do or say.

"Well, well," said a warm voice that he had heard before. "You're looking worse every day."

The prince said nothing. He heard other men entering the cell. Three besides the speaker.

The friendly voice hardly paused. "If you're going to host a visitor, we had best get you cleaned up."

Rough hands unlocked the manacles. The prince felt perplexed. He had never been cleaned since arriving at the dungeon. Perhaps this was a ploy. Or perhaps he might finally enter the presence of the emperor!

Large hands gripped his arms. The hands led him forward, then down to his knees. Coarse rags scrubbed his bare flesh. Before long, unseen hands began trimming his whiskers. Minutes later a straight razor scraped across his cheeks.

A man held him on either side, which gave the prince a good sense for how he might attack them. He could use his legs to take out their knees, then get the razor, and add four corpses to his count. Since his capture, he had already slain six guards.

No. Even if he defeated these guards, without his eyesight he would never escape the dungeon. But he might ruin his chance for an audience with Maldor. The prince shuddered faintly. Some of his best men and closest friends had given their lives, and despite their sacrifices he had failed. His only chance for redemption was to come before the emperor.

"You seem especially docile today," the warm voice commented. "Could it be you have finally resolved to become a model prisoner?"

Biting retorts sprang to mind. His consciousness had felt muddy for so long, the prince felt tempted to answer. Surely there could be no harm in responding. No, even if his mind felt clear, even if this particular question were innocent, if he broke his pattern of silence, eventually his captors would coerce him into revealing secrets. He only had one word to share, and it would be in the presence of Maldor.

"Ready for a stroll?" the voice asked.

The men on either side helped the prince rise, then escorted him from the cell. He took shuffling steps. As always he wished for his eyes, but he resolutely reached out with his other senses, noting the direction and temperature of a draft, the acoustics of the corridor, the smells of rot and burning torches.

After some time he heard a door open, and the prince entered a new room. His escorts forced him to his knees--locking him there with shackles on his ankles and wrists--and then placed a heavy iron collar around his neck. Without another word the guards left. Or at least some of them left. One or more could have covertly remained.

Minutes passed. Hours. Finally the cell door opened, and then closed.

"We meet again at last," a familiar voice said.

Chills raced across the prince's shoulders. Maldor had visited Trensicourt years ago, trying to negotiate an alliance. As a boy the prince had studied his every move, this man who his father claimed was so dangerous.

"I promised that one day you would kneel to me," the emperor said, his tone dry.

The prince moved his arms slightly, enough to jangle his chains.

"I would have preferred voluntary reverence," the emperor admitted. "Perhaps in time. I understand you have lost your tongue."

The prince hesitated. He had to be sure. He had learned this word of power at great cost. The emperor could not possibly suspect that he knew every syllable. Otherwise he would never have come here in person. But could the speaker be a trick? An imitator? The prince knew he would only get one chance at this.

"I had no interest in addressing your underlings," the prince said, surprised by how hoarse and weak his voice sounded.

"The heir to Trensicourt speaks?" Maldor exclaimed. "You inhaled a caustic substance. I had begun to suspect you had lost theability to vocalize. Truly you possess a will of steel. Had I known you merely required my presence, I might have visited you earlier."

If he was an impersonator, he was a very good one.

"What brings you down to the dungeon?"

The emperor paused. "I am here to celebrate the end of my worries."

"You have many kingdoms yet to conquer," the prince protested. "I am one man."

"And a keystone is a single block," the emperor murmured, "yet when it is removed, the structure collapses."

"Others remain," the prince insisted. "Others will rise."

"You speak as though you are already gone," Maldor chuckled. "My friend, I have never meant to kill you. I only needed to prove that you cannot stand against me. The way to confirm this reality was to defeat you. It pains me to see you like this. I would prefer to clothe you in finery and bind up your wounds. You may recall, I have extended my friendship in the past. Not only did you deny me, but you have fought against me, and urged others to do likewise."

"You will never have my loyalty," the prince pledged.

"I wish you would be reasonable," the emperor lamented. "I am fully aware that none of my servants are your equal. You could be my chief lieutenant. I would make you Lord of Trensicourt, and more besides, free to govern as a king in all but name. I could restore your sight, extend your lifespan. You could accomplish much good."

"And all of Lyrian would fall under your dominion," the prince replied. "How do I know this is really you? My eyes are gone."

"Surely you know my voice," the emperor said, amused.

"Years ago you spoke to me in the parlor at Trensicourt. I showed you a toy."

"Has this become a game of riddles?"

"Do you remember the toy?"

"A windup carousel with removable horses. You removed an enameled horse--mostly blue, I believe--and asked me to join you."

The prince nodded in silence. Only the emperor would know that detail. It was too obscure. With hardly a pause he spoke the Word that he had kept secret since his capture. He could taste its power as it escaped his lips, a true Edomic key word.

The prince waited in darkness.

"What a peculiar exclamation," the emperor remarked.

Dismay and confusion left the prince off balance. That word should have been the emperor's undoing! Frantically the prince struggled to recall the Word, but uttering it out loud just once had abolished it from memory.

"You look troubled," Maldor commented knowingly.

"That word should have destroyed you," the prince whispered, the last of his resolve withering, his inner world dimming into a cold place where only the ashes of hope remained.

The emperor laughed. "Come now, my stalwart prince, surely you did not imagine me ignorant of your quest! We are conversing, in truth, but not in person. I am using an intermediary. After all, being a wizard should include a few advantages! My emissary can speak with my inflections, and we can readily communicate from afar. But since he is not me, that perilous word can have no effect on either of us. Now that you are divested of your final weapon, why not reconsider my offer?"

"Never," the prince whispered. All he had left was the fact that he had never let the emperor entice him to switch sides. The prince owed that, at least, to all who had believed in him.

"I am very impressed that you learned the Word," the emperor went on. "You are the first. I have long promised myself that he who learned the Word would be invited to join my inner circle. You have no more options. Do not perish without reason. Furtherresistance will bring no reward. Work with me, and you can still accomplish much good. Respond with care this time, for you will not receive another opportunity. After all, you just tried to kill me. This introduction to the hospitality of my dungeon has been gentle compared to the horrors that await."

Head bowed, the prince remained silent for a moment. After all the planning, the maneuvering, the bold alliances, the narrow escapes, he had failed! He had said the Word to a decoy! He had even anticipated the possibility, but in the end Maldor had fooled him, had ruined him, as happened inevitably to all of his foes. The prince searched inside for hope or faith and found nothing. Perhaps he should accept the inevitable. He was unsure how much longer he could retain his sanity in this unspeakable place.

The prince raised his head. "I will never serve you. You have defeated me, but you will never own me." He owed these words to those who had died for him. He owed the words to himself. To be destroyed was one thing. At least he had not surrendered.

"Very well. You were my finest adversary, this I acknowledge. But you will break here. You know this. You have my admiration, but not my pity." Footsteps retreated, and a door clanged shut with the finality of a tomb.