Chapter II

Pain came screaming back in full fury as Malok cracked his eyes slowly open. The room he was in felt more like a slimy stone box than anything else. He grimaced, starting to roll over before he remembered his situation. It was too late to feign sleep—whoever was standing over him knew he was awake. Malok groaned, tilting his head upwards to see who watched him.

"Get up, scum," Galen snarled, moving his foot in a threatening gesture.

"Talking to yourself, I see," Malok replied softly, knowing very well his words were childish. He sat up slowly, shackles rattling in protest to his movements. He grit his teeth to prevent a gasp of pain from escaping. His body was a mass of pain, especially his cheek, shoulder, belly, leg, and head. Blood was crusted on his cheek where the arrow had grazed him. His shoulder felt as if it were on fire. He could feel the broken shaft and the arrowhead still lodged in his flesh, but it was unable to bring himself to look at it. Bastards probably want to see how soon it will fester…

"Get up, not sit up," Galen ordered, voice dripping with his irritation. He moved to the door, arms folded over his chest. "Don't make me waste more time by pulling you out by the scruff of your filthy neck."

Malok attempted to keep his face blank as he pulled himself to his feet. He knew quite well he failed: his mouth twisted on its own accord. His left leg buckled unhappily, causing him to nearly lose his balance. With a snarl, he stood as straight as he could, squarely meeting Galen's eyes.

Galen smirked at the prisoner, smacking the door three times to summon two burly guards. "One on each side," he ordered, motioning towards Malok. He watched long enough to be sure that his orders were followed before turning to walk through the door. "Come along, then. You two be cautious—he may be shackled, but he's a wily bastard."

Malok, prodded into movement by the two guards, followed Galen through the twisting hallways of Manris Castle. His mind raced through different escape plans—almost to the point where he didn't pay much attention to his own feet. Shackled as he was—hand to hand, foot to foot, a chain trailing from his hands to his feet—there was little he could do. He knew it would be stupid to even try, but his instincts had always thrived on one thing: survival. He knew he couldn't give in. No matter how small the chance, it was probably better than what he would get if he let himself be docilely led to execution. Besides, he reasoned, how would it look of the great Malok Shadow went without any type of fight?

Feigning a stumble, Malok crouched down. The guard to his right attempted to pull him back to his feet, not fast enough to realize the ploy. Malok rammed his shoulder into the man's groin. Collapsing with a yelp, the guard let go of the prisoner. I'd apologize for that, but I don't think I will…

The second guard had drawn his blade, eyes wide with surprise and anxiety. He lunged at Malok in a blatant attempt to kill.

"Damn you! He is to be taken alive—" Galen shouted.

Malok, swifter than the other man, despite his injuries, caught the man's sword in the chain that ran between his hands. He twisted the sword free of the guard's grasp with one deft movement. The sword clattered to the ground, both men scrambling to reach it before the other. Malok's outstretched hand wrapped around the hilt.

Crouching, Malok lifted the sword. Pain burst anew in Malok's left shoulder, his vision blurring. He wavered, the tip of the blade dipping to the stone floor. I can't do anything like this.

Before the prisoner could react, Galen seized him by the collar of his bedraggled tunic, knocking the sword from his hand. He tapped a small dagger against the nape of Malok's neck. "Try something like that again and I may well go against my direct orders," he hissed.

Malok didn't reply as he screwed his eyes shut. He wasn't sure if it was to clear his vision or deny his failure. Breath came in short pants. He felt someone roughly seize his left arm and he was unable to suppress a gasp. The movement had jarred his shoulder. If he hadn't been held, he knew he would have collapsed.

"Get off the ground," Galen growled, still not letting go of Malok's collar.

As Malok opened his eyes, the first guard stumbled to his feet, glaring at the prisoner. With agonized movements, he moved to Malok's side to grab hold of his right arm. "S-sorry, Sir," he muttered.

Galen let go of Malok, causing the prisoner to stagger. The sound of metal sliding against metal marked the sheathing of his dagger. "I doubt I need to warn you two again, do I…?" Galen rumbled, once again moving to the front. "If this happens during the audience…" He began walking, at a quicker pace than before.

Malok, weakened by the burst of action, was practically dragged by the guards as they continued their way through the castle passageways. He was dizzy from the pain, his mind in a confused state.

When the small procession abruptly stopped, it was before a set of ornate doors. Malok blearily stared at them, unsure of where they were anymore. He shook his head fractionally, hoping to clear it of a few of the cobwebs.

The doors swung open when Galen pounded upon them. They opened upon a small room, or rather a large office. Malok was dragged forward.

"So…this is the great assassin, is it?" a voice drawled from behind an ostentatious desk. It belonged to a man everyone in the kingdom would recognize: grey hair with still some tinges of black, hard brown eyes, clean-shaven and sallow face, a fleshy figure that marked a person with a love for sweets, and the rich gold robes.

Why would the King want anything to do with a simple execution…? Malok stared at the man before his eyes trailed to one side. Another familiar face: Reicher, from a rather recent meeting. "You basta—" Malok began, breaking off to gasp when the guard to his left twisted his arm a little. He realized he had attempted to advance upon the man.

"Ah. He seems to wish to speak with you, Reicher. Good thing he's chained up like that…" King Terile commented, voice full of miss-placed innocence.

"Kneel to your king, Malok Shadow." Galen, himself, was in a half-kneel before the king.

The two guards both dipped into kneels, dragging Malok with them. He let out something between a growl and a groan, more collapsing under their combined weight than anything else. He spat on the ground in front of him, eyes rising to those of Terile. "That's…what I think…of you," he hissed, only to be cuffed. I won't be killed this way. This disgracefully.

"I've had better men then you say the same thing," Terile scoffed, leaning slightly forward in his chair. "Hmmm. He put up quite a fight, it looks like."

"Yes, Sire. It took all we had just to take him down. He was definitely quick in his attempt to escape us," Galen affirmed. "He even made an attempt on the way here."

Terile chuckled a little, glancing towards where Reicher sat. "I would be afraid, if I were you." He gave a wicked grin. "Now. Have you given the prisoner any inkling as to why he's here? Oh, and do let go of him. I don't think he can do much, except maybe collapse."

After a worried glance towards Galen, who waved his hand in acknowledgement, the guards released Malok and stood a foot behind him on either side. Both hands quickly went to their hilts.

"I don't think he knows, Sire," Galen replied. "We have told him nothing."

"Oh, good." The King resembled a delighted child who had just found a worm to play with. "Why do you think you're here, assassin?" he asked, too cheerfully for the situation.

"To die," Malok replied succinctly. And play games with idiotic royalty, it seems…

"Ha. Really?" Tirele practically giggled the words. "Such a mind. Everything must revolve around death for you, eh?"

"Inspired," Malok replied, not bothering to suppress the overtones of sarcasm. Only one way… I'll win this game, at whatever cost. He no longer needed to pant for breath, which was a relief. "But, really, I can't let you have all the fun, can I?" With a smirk at Tirele's bark of surprise, he quickly grabbed the green earring that still hung, pulling it from his ear. But, before it could reach his mouth, his arm was grasped by the first guard.

"What is that?" Tirele sounded like a shrewish old woman.

"Let…go…" Malok gasped trying to pull his arm from the guard's grasp. Of course, his willowy arm had no real effect against the thick muscles of the guard. His hand convulsed and he dropped the earring.

The room was almost completely silent as the earring fell to the ground. It hit the stone floor with a tinkle, breaking at the contact. Small shards of what seemed to be thin glass sat in a pool of green liquid. Damn, damn, damn…

Tirele was now standing, staring in surprise at the broken earring. "Suicide?" he gasped. Royal dimwit probably doesn't understand what the word means…

"Get that up," Galen ordered. He, too, was now standing.

The guard nodded, pulling a large kerchief from his sleeve to absorb the small bit of poison. Malok watched, heart sinking even further, as his way out disappeared into the folds of the cloth. His arm was released, but he no longer had the motivation to try anything.

"I'm surprised. I didn't think your kind would do such a thing," Tirele commented, watching Malok carefully.

"Better than succumb to your kind," Malok hissed. Death by torture now. Idiot. Why couldn't you have made a clean job of it in the cell?

"I think we need to explain our purposes, Malok Shadow," Tirele continued, ignoring the insult. "We have no intention of killing you, well, assuming you work with us. Far from it. You're going to help us, my dear assassin."

For once, Malok was at a loss for words. He opened his mouth to say something, but he couldn't form any words. What…?

"So. Ready to hear our…proposition?" Tirele asked sweetly, noting the change in Malok's demeanor.

"Spit it out, King," Malok replied gruffly. "Let's see if you can tempt me."

February 10, 2002