The raw Essence of the Realm Opening Pills flooded Arran's body like a river of fire, pain filling every fiber of his being. Yet although his face twisted in agony, there was a near-maniacal grin, too.
Finally, he would be free again.
He stood in front of the door, waiting for the raw Essence to build up inside his body. Finally, when he thought there was enough, he unleashed it at the door.
The burst of power hit the door with a thunderous crash, but to his surprise, it held up against the attack, although there was now a large crack in the door.
Essence coursing through his veins like fire, Arran had no patience to spare. Again he attacked, then again. He battered the door with raw Essence, attacking it relentlessly, his mind only focused on escaping.
Finally, after a dozen attacks, the cracked door held no longer. Yet another blast of raw Essence hit it, and this time, the Essence ripped straight through it, shattering the door in its hinges.
Arran took a moment to savor the achievement, even as his body was racked with pain. At last, he was free.
He stepped through the hole in the ruined door, cautious despite his eagerness to escape, and found himself surrounded by darkness. With a thought, he created an orb of Fire to illuminate his surroundings. Now, he could see that he was in a vast hallway, dozens of doors like the one he had just broken through on either side.
On one end of the hallway was a large wooden door, reinforced with steel bars. On the other, there was only darkness.
After a moment's thought, he headed toward the wooden door at the end of the hallway, as it seemed the most likely exit.
He found the door unlocked, and when he opened it he saw a narrow spiral staircase behind it, hewn from stone and uncomfortably steep. Impatient to leave, he was about to head up, but then, he shook his head.
Behind each of the doors in the hallway behind him, there would be another cell like the one that had held him. If there were people inside, perhaps they could tell him where he was, or even help him escape.
He turned back at once, heading to the nearest door in the hallway. Up close, he saw that it was barred with two thick iron beams, both fastened in place with large locks.
Arran easily destroyed the locks with two blasts of raw Essence, then removed the bars. It was clear that the doors were made to keep people in, not out.
Cautious despite the pain urging him on, he stepped into the cell, using an orb of Fire to light his way.
At once, he could see that the cell was identical to his own — large and circular, with the floor, walls, and ceiling all made from the same smooth stone. The only difference was that in this cell, the walls bore deep scars from what must have been hundreds of powerful magic attacks.
When Arran turned his attention to the interior of the cell, he saw that a body lay at its center. Emaciated and unmoving, it was the body of a man, clad in a simple gray robe. Arran approached the body with some caution, until he was sure that the man was as dead as he seemed. From the look of it, the man must have starved to death.
Arran hurriedly left the cell, then moved to the next one. Again, he found an emaciated body, this one belonging to a woman. She, too, seemed to have been left to starve.
A feeling of nausea cut through the pain caused by the Essence inside Arran's body. Not because of the corpses — by now, he had seen enough death to have become numb to it — but because he realized how horrible their deaths must have been, locked in a dark cell without food, slowly waiting to die.
To Arran's mind, this was far crueler than mere murder. He understood having to kill, but he could not understand locking someone up only to leave them to die this miserably.
He shook his head in revulsion, he moved on to the next door. Perhaps someone was still alive in one of these cells, and if so, Arran would not let them die — not like this, at least.
Once more he found a cell that was identical to the other ones, and once more he found a man's emaciated body inside. He was about to leave when suddenly, a whisper sounded.
Arran hurried over to the man, and only when he approached him did he see that there was some slight movement in the haggard body before him.
He took out some food and set it down in front of the man. With a sudden burst of energy, the man reached out to grab it, and he began tearing into it with the fury of a starving animal.
"Where are we?" Arran asked, but no answer came. Presented with food, the famished man seemed to have forgotten that Arran was even there.
He put down some more food next to the man — fruit, meat, and some bread — then left to open the other doors.
Behind the fourth door, he found another corpse, and he quickly moved on. He now understood that most of the prisoners in the cells would not be alive, and he found himself wondering just what kind of prison this was.
When he reached the fifth cell, however, he was only barely able to dodge a blast of Wind Essence that came soaring at him the moment he opened the door.
He was about to retaliate, but then, he recognized the man in front of him.
Arran had thought the man dead, but here he was. Though he was even gaunter than Arran remembered him, with sunken eyes and deathly pale skin, he was still very much alive.
Recognizing Arran, Windsong dropped his hands, surprise clear on his face. "They caught you, too?" he began. "But there are no guards with you… why are you here?"
"It's a long story," Arran said. "Where are we?"
"You don't know?" Windsong frowned. "We're in an Academy prison. But—"
"There's no time to explain," Arran interrupted him. "I'm escaping as soon as I can. Are you well enough to fight?"
Windsong nodded, although he seemed overwhelmed by the sudden events. "I can, but…" He hesitated, then asked, "Do you have any food?"
Arran handed Windsong some food, as well as a sword and an armored coat from the Herald's treasures. Although he had not forgotten about Windsong's betrayal, this wasn't the time for revenge. Plus, from the look of the man, he had already suffered for his actions.
"Eat quickly and prepare yourself," Arran said. "When I return, we will leave."
Before Windsong could respond, Arran had already left the cell. He immediately shot a nervous look toward the wooden door, but was relieved to see that the hallway was still empty.
He knew that if anyone had sensed his use of Essence, guards could arrive at any moment. Yet he needed all the help he could get, and besides, he would not leave others to slowly starve in the cells.
For a moment, he gritted his teeth, suppressing a scream. The pain of the Realm Opening Pills was still growing stronger, and he found it increasingly difficult to stay focused.
Fighting through the pain, he moved to the next door, forcing himself to stay conscious. Even if he felt like he had been doused in oil and set alight, he could not allow the agony to gain hold of him.
Quickly, he concentrated on breaking the locks on the door in front of him, trying to distract himself from the pain.
He spent the next half hour opening the dozens of doors in the hallway, and although he found emaciated corpses in most of them, over a dozen prisoners in the cells were still alive.
Of the prisoners who survived, most were like the first man - driven to near-madness by hunger and isolation, barely even able to speak.
These, he left behind. They were of no use to them, and he could not take them with him. Instead, he left them food and weapons. If they were to escape, they would have to do it by themselves.
There were only six who were coherent, but even they were in worse shape than Windsong. Without bothering to ask them questions, Arran gave them food, then told them to gather in Windsong's cell.
Finally, after Arran finished opening the last of the cells, he took a few moments to calm his mind. Although the pain had stopped worsening, it raged like a storm within him, threatening to drown out his thoughts.
As he stepped out of the empty cell a short while later, he looked at the darkness at the far end of the hallway.
For a second he hesitated, but then, he headed toward it. If there were any enemies there, they would have already come for him. And if there were more prisoners, freeing them might increase his chances of escaping.
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