“You can talk to him, but not for more than ten minutes. Don’t look at him. If he makes eye contact with you, we will have to shoot you.” The chief warden didn’t look at Alex Jeffries. Footsteps from their black boots echoed off the stone walls in the dark tunnel. Algae grew unchecked on the dank grey blocks.
“What about him?” Alex asked. The warden hadn’t made eye contact since telling him he’d been reassigned. Prisoner Number Four’s new warden wanted to know what had happened to the last one.
“We’ll shoot him of course, but it only slows him down. Prisoner four can’t die. That’s why he’s here.” The chief warden ran a winkled hand through his close-cropped grey hair. The blue veined papery skin over his fingers jittered. Alex knew it wasn’t from caffeine.
“Why is he called prisoner number four?” Alex’s young voice was at odds with everything around him, the oldest section of the oldest prison in the world.
“Because he’s the fourth prisoner to ever be held here.” The quivering, gravelly voice of the boss was distant despite them standing shoulder to shoulder. Chief Maldon fixed Alex with a steely gaze, grey eyes unblinking. He sighed.
“What about the first three?”
“They must have died centuries ago.”
“Does he have a name?”
“His name is never to be spoken in his presence. I’d rather not tell you. If you know, it’s too tempting to say it.” A warning hand clamped down on Alex’s shoulder. Icy eyes fixed him again. “You’re going to pay attention to the instructions aren’t you, Warden Jeffries? I need to make a call to the family of Number Four’s last warden. I’ve had to make five of those phone calls as Chief Warden now. I don’t want yours to be the next. Do you understand?” Alex nodded. “I hope so. He’s the most dangerous man in the world. Why mortals like us must guard him I’ll never know. I think his own kind are too scared of him, so they put it on us.”
Warden Jeffries realised his boss was blinking back tears and diverted his eyes to the navy-blue trousers all wardens wore. He didn’t want the chief to suffer the indignity of Alex seeing him crying.
Rolling his mighty shoulders, Jeffries cracked his knuckles. On the streets he was a mighty figure. Within the stone walls of Fennec Castle, he was considered slight.
Chief Maldon opened a corridor door. The stairs down turned left sixteen times. Alex started to think he was having a nightmare. Is this staircase infinite? Metal grills covered steps worn deep by feet of the long dead.
“Last door,” said the chief. A low entrance with a door of steel was painted 0004. “Tell me the rules, boy. I want to be sure you know them all.”
“Never look him in the eye. He can read my mind, but not control it unless I look him in the eye. Never say his name. Never be beyond this door for more than ten minutes. Inspect the bars when he sleeps. Use the knockout gas if he shows any signs of trying to escape.”
“Any sign,” Warden Maldon doubled down. “Better safe than sorry. This door is airtight. There’s a thirty second delay. Long enough to leave and bold the door behind you. Oiling these hinges is your job. Taking his slop buckets is your job. Delivering his food and water is your job. You will look at the floor as you do. Getting the food, drink, and the bucket in and out is the same as the maximum-security lockdown cells upstairs. Keep all that in mind and follow the rules, you’ll be fine.”
“I understand,” Alex had been working with mass murdering warlocks and witches for five years, he knew the drill.
Chief Warden unlocked the last door and turned his head down. “Look down now. You must have your head down when you enter.”
Alex’s eyes locked on to the contrast between the sparkling metal grating over the ancient stone and the slime on the walls. He heard his boss’ boots clank and followed slowly and steadily.
“Good afternoon, Terry.” The voice hit Alex’s ears like ginger and honey on the tongue, sweet with a bite. “Fresh meat. Hello Alex, wonderful to meet you.”
“Go ahead, say hello,” said Maldon. “You’re going to be the only one he talks to until you retire. If you obey the rules.”
The metal grill beneath Alex’s feet was pink. Streaks of red glistened on the stone beneath. Laughter from the creature beyond the bars was invasive, getting into his lungs with the chill of winter air. It teased his heart into a drumroll.
“Obey the rules, Alex. Otherwise, mother will belt you again, the way she did when you tipped out the fridge in a rage.” Fingers flipped through the pages of his mind. Dirty nails traced the words that defined his memories.
“Nice to meet you, Number Four. I will be in charge of you for the foreseeable future.” Trembling words tripped and fell from his tongue.
“In charge of me?” That laugh again, setting hairs on end, raising goosebumps. “Look at the blood beneath your feet, Alexander William Jeffries. That fool thought he was in charge of me.” Every word was a drag from a cigar. Choking. Addictive. Deadly. “LOOK AT ME BOY.”
His head began to rise.
“NO! FOOL.” Chief Maldon stood between Alex and the bars, the frosted plastic. “He tries that with everyone, whenever he thinks your guard is down. Don’t fall for it or you’ll end up like that one.” A withered finger pointed at blood stains on the floor.
Looking down, the senior guard turned. “Need your bucket changed, Number Four?”
“That’s not my name, Terry Vincenzo Maldon. You know my name. SAY IT.”
“Leave him, Warden Jeffries. He needs to learn to respect you.”
“I WILL ESCAPE, TERRY.” The monster raged as the mortals turned away.
Maldon handed the keys to Jeffries. “These are yours now. That’s your introduction. Don’t let me down. You’re a smart lad. Follow the rules and you’ll be fine. Go and get him his dinner. There’s no need to talk to him today. Ignoring him is fine for a while. Break him in with silence. He needs the conversation more than you do. You ask if he wants his bucket changed. If he doesn’t that’s not your problem.”
Silence walked up the stairs between them.
“Your daughter’s been coughing a lot. I could help you with that. I can do all sorts of things,” said 0004 on day seven of Warden Jeffries’ watch. “It doesn’t look good. I saw a lot of people die like that, it’s always sudden. When they’re sleeping. One minute they’re the light of your world. The next they’re gone, leaving a wound that can never heal. You don’t want that, Alex.” Footsteps shuffled beyond the bars and the glass. The shadow from the electric lights turned on the metal beneath the guard’s feet.
“Shut up, Number Four. She’s fine.”
“I’m sure she is. As long as you’re willing to gamble with the health of your only daughter. That’s brave of you. Most loving parents would do anything for their sick child. Your dedication to the rules is admirable. Hopefully it will bring you consolation as you lay Judy to rest beneath the earth.”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT MY DAUGHTER!”
The laughter, echoing around the walls. Maniacal sandpaper on his nerves.
“Do you want your bucket changed?” Be professional. Be professional.
Judy’s smiling face in the morning light. Tears of joy as he held her in his arms for the first time. She’s fine. The cough she’d had for three weeks. Ignore him.
“Sure, ignore me. If she gets worse though, you know where I am. Yes, take my shit. Carry it in your arms up all those stairs. Cradle it like your daughter. Poor little Judy.” Mocking high notes.
Metal scraped metal as the tank of human waste slid into the exchange box. Pulling the box back, Alex took the tank by the handle and swapped it for an empty one. He carried the tank out. Locking the door, he sank to his knees with his back to the door.
“She’s fine.” He gulped. She’s fine.
Months passed. Alex’s brown hair turned silver. His tanned body paled. Bulky muscle turned to lean strength. Bags darkened beneath red veined eyes.
He was being paid ten times as much as before, working only six hours a day. He wanted to go back to working in maximum security. Chief Warden Maldon wouldn’t have it.
Stomach cramps became a regular part of his life. Ulcers threw parties in his mouth. Hair bid him farewell in the shower.
A nightmare took form in his dreams. 0004 revealed himself, little by little. A boyish face with blonde hair, always long but never growing. Blue eyes woven with sparks of green. Black pupils that were tunnels straight to the darkest pits of suffering.
Alex knew his name; Varith Bloodswell. It was the impossible truth. Warden Jeffries ward was the devil himself. An evil god from the days when Earth’s mightiest heroes wielded spears of flint and wood alongside their magic.
The key turned in the lock. Metal that needed oiled screeched open.
“Alex? Help!” Chief Warden Maldon’s voice was hoarse, panicked. “He’s out, Jeffries. He tricked me. Help. Please. We have to stop him.” Every word was the definition of panic.
“I’m not falling for it, Number Four. He would have killed you.”
“He was laughing, Alex. Laughing as he cut me. Laughing as he burnt me. Please. Just look. You don’t have to look into my eyes. I don’t have any.” The voice gurgled and gasped. “HE TOOK MY EYES.”
Instinct took over. Alex looked up. Red painted everything on the other side of the frosted plastic.
“Alex are you still there?” A figure writhed in the chair next to Bloodswell’s bed.
“I’m here,” said the junior warden with a sigh.
Making sure to keep his eyes down, Alex unlocked the plastic panel door. Bars between him and the prisoner’s area were slick with splashes of blood. Creeping his eyes from the bottom of the bars upwards he saw the well-worn boots of the chief wiggling. The Dark blue trousers shimmered purple. The wooden chair was dripping. Scores along the sleeve of the pale blue shirt were crimson.
“Gods,” Alex said. “How are you alive?” He began fingering the keys he was never to use.
“Barely. If you’d come a minute later. I need a doctor.” The voice was weak. “Hurry Alex, hurry. He’s already away. Get me to medical then sound the alarm.” Something registered in Alex’s head, something further down the list of priorities than saving his dying boss. He looked into the blackened, bleeding pits of Maldon’s eyes.
Three huge keys turned in mighty locks.
“He has powers we never knew about. Hurry.” The word was a dry puff, a last gasp.
Throwing open the door, Jeffries leapt across the tiny room to the chair.
“Finally,” said a sweet, venomous voice. Warden Maldon rose from the chair. Blood flew, back into wounds that were zipping themselves closed. Empty sockets glowed blue. Brown teeth turned brilliant white, and the mouth curved with world ending malice.
“You’re-” was all Alex managed.
“FREE!” Grey hair turned golden yellow. A strong hand grabbed Alex’s neck and gave a sharp twist.