The light from a torch interrupts the darkness. A group of guards shackles you and leads you to the warden’s chambers where you join other prisoners, and other guards. Your ankles are shackled to those of the other prisoners and a chain at your back is shackled to the wall. You recognize some of the other prisoners. Were they not shackled to the wall, they’d try for the guards. The guards leave you in the room, with the warden.
The warden sits at his desk. A tall cloaked man stands behind him, a bemused expression on his face. The warden rises to address you, but before he forms any words the cloaked man interrupts him.
“We know some of you are innocent. We know which are innocent, which are guilty. And which made the wrong enemies with the right bribes.”
The cloaked man glances at the warden and grins. The warden is shocked at the man’s frankness, and struggles to keep silent. The cloaked man walks around the desk, inspecting each of you.
“You all share one thing in common, however. You each have a choice. In one hour the sun will rise and you will be executed. I’m sorry, please don’t interrupt. I know you didn’t all have death sentences, but that oversight was corrected.
“So!” the man claps his hands together. “Death in one hour, or, in one hour, you board a ship in my service. The High Duke entrusted a mission to me, asked me to see to it personally.” He sighs for a moment, regretful, then continues, looking directly at you. “The Duke himself, you understand. Quite a dangerous mission, in fact. Far too dangerous for me to risk any of my agents. In fact I would describe it as…suicide. Don’t you agree Warden?”
“He agrees,” the man says smiling, placing a leather gloved hand on the Warden’s shoulder, silencing him.
“It occurs to me, however, that desperate men may succeed where mere training fails. Each of you has a talent and a role in this mission, but really the most important thing is that you are fighting for your lives. And…freedom?”
“I offer each of you a pardon should you complete this mission. Should you die, which as I mentioned is entirely likely, your kin will be notified of your innocence and told you died in jail. So your progeny, if there are any poor souls so unfortunate as to be related to you wretches, can console themselves with the perhaps false belief that you were guiltless.”
The cloaked man walks back behind the warden, pausing for a moment to choose his words.
“Your task – unless you choose the gallows which, by the way, would make the Warden here very happy – is to rescue a man. A servant of the High Duke named Ghulam. Ghulam was sent on an important mission. Ghulam is overdue. You are to bring Ghulam home. Alive.
“Now then, what is your choice? You must decide at this moment! I remind you that any man in this room not accepting my offer must die.”
You look at each other, look back at the cloaked man and nod in confirmation. The warden looks disappointed. From behind the warden’s chair the cloaked man draws a dagger grabs the Warden’s forehead, pulls back and in one smooth motion slits the Warden’s throat.
The Warden, eyes wide, kicks and struggles and gurgles his life away. Arterial blood spatters across you while the assassin calmly smiles waiting for the Warden to die. The Warden’s hands, slick with blood, scrabble over the assassin’s arm until eventually all motion ceases. The room is covered in blood.
“Unfortunately the offer did not extend to the Warden, and no one must know the specifics of our arrangement.”
The door to the chambers open and several cloaked figures enter. A torc is placed around each of your necks and you are unshackled.
“These torcs are the High Duke’s gift. They bring loyalty to all who wear them. He understands your time in his prison may have robbed you of that virtue. Attempt to remove them, and they will kill you. Leave my presence for too long and they will kill you. I can grant a day or even a month of life at a time with the torques. But if I do not renew them, they will kill you. Therefore pray for my health, for my death is yours as well.”
The cloaked man grins.“My name is Kessler, and as of this moment you are my Condemned.”