T W E N T Y - E I G H T

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My eyes open to the rhythmic sound of steel against the floor. The room is pitch black, save for the kunanjeh torches lined across the wall. A burning sensation builds on the flesh of my leg each time I am dragged forward—by whom, I am not aware. A blurred gray mess in front of my eyes clears out to form the shape of chains, linked together, each one bound by stifling steel and unbreakable magic. I try to swallow past the dryness of my throat. The only taste on my tongue is the salty tang of sweat and sticky saliva. I crank my neck and spit on the floor. The person dragging me stops abruptly.

"I thought he said she wouldn't be a problem," the person mutters. Through all of it, I smile. Like hell I'm not going to be a problem.

"Well, Augustoire isn't the most formidable or the most reliable soldier you'll meet around," another voice close enough to be trailing after me replies. "Besides, her magic isn't flinging around anywhere with those steel chains on. She'll be easy to handle for the executioners."

We continue in silence, but my mind flutters to what the voice said. Was the executioner planning to bind me up in chains and whack me with a stick? Pity. They could've done better.

"You don't want them to do better, you filthy rabbit. What were you expecting, a fire or something? Ha, well get yourself upright and move along."

I prop myself up and continue walking. Every step shoots a sharp pain up my knees, but I chuckle and move on. "Oh, did I say that out loud now? Sorry, sir."

The soldier whispers some vulgar words under his breath. I grin and swallow again and again to clear my throat.

"So, care to tell me—" I cough, "—where I'm being dragged to?"

"Your death place," the soldier pushing me forward responds flatly. I stumble forward and catch myself just in time.

"Oh, that so? Fun. Why can't someone just transport us with their magic again?" I say. I breathe. In, out. In, out. Don't let them hear your panic. "And where is this death place?"

"Talks too much," one of the soldiers whispers to another.

"Mhm. Answer my question?" I ask.

Nobody answers, so I walk along in the chains, marking every hallway and exit. Guards line each doorway, and beyond was darkness. If I can just keep up this nonchalant mask, make it out of the dungeons and observe my surroundings, I might have a chance.

A small, almost non-existent chance.

We reach the end of a hallway, marked by a series of runes. A hooded man stands in the corner and reaches out to me. Something tingles. I gasp, and—

Broad daylight hits my face. I swerve dizzily. The guards catch me and push me up harshly.

"Sorry, I just need a moment," I pant, blinking open one eye. I am high above an awaiting audience in a plaza. Mostly Elves, with a few Commoners dwindling by the sides. No horns, antlers, or hidden species from the forests. Stone walls and guards line either side. Dried blood splatters the ground I kneel on. Behind the stone walls are buildings and lined rooftops. Some watch through their windows plated with sprawling ivy. The guard with his execution sword stand in front of me, and beyond him, rows upon rows of people, gathering to watch the execution. Behind them, a line of trees, a garden, and a drizzling stone fountain. More people, afraid to show their faces, casually observing from the garden benches. Nowhere to escape.

The guards tether me to a brown post in the center of the elevated area. The executioner takes his place next to me, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to take a clean swipe and deprive me of my head. Not even a butchering stand closeby. No, this execution would be single, final, and hand-done. Special. An example, for all to see.

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