This episode is number 23 in my ongoing web serial, updated weekly as a part of #fridayflash. If you are new to The UCF Stories, you can read from the beginning here.
Keeping close to the wall, Swazzle skirted round the edge of the courtyard until he came to a door, which, he presumed, lead into the undercroft of the keep. Judging by the barrel, small piles of ash and partly burned pipe-herbs next to the door, this was where the servants came for a smoke, so Swazzle was relieved when he found the door not only unlocked, but the hinges well greased so it swung open silently. He slipped quickly inside and shut the door behind him.
A wide corridor stretched ahead, firefly-filled lanterns making shadows dance along the walls. An opening in the right hand wall gave onto a set of smooth stone steps leading down into darkness. Swazzle crept slowly down the steps, keeping the side wall at his back until his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The steps seemed to go on forever, the air was cool and damp by the time Swazzle reached the bottom. Stepping off the last step, he flattened himself against the wall and peered into the blackness.
To the right darkness continued unbroken, to the left a faint flickering glow hinted at occupation. After a moment's hesitation, Swazzle started carefully down the left hand passage, keeping close to the wall and stopping every few yards to listen.
A few dozen yards down the passage was a doorway on the right from which came the flickering light and a faint sound of contented snoring. Peeping quickly round the corner, Swazzle saw a portly fairy reclining on a low chair in front of a small brazier, hat tipped down over his eyes, feet up on a stool and swaddled in his wings. Beyond stood a heavy oak door, locked by the look of it, with a small iron grille set at eye level.
Swazzle tiptoed silently to the door and squinted through the grille. There was no illumination beyond, but just enough light filtered into the chamber that Swazzle could make out several shapes huddled together on the floor.
What we need here, thought Swazzle, is a diversion.
Re-tracing his steps, Swazzle set off back down the corridor, past the steps and on into the darkness beyond. Conjuring a tiny flame into his palm, Swazzle found himself in one of the castle's cellars, crates and barrels stacked floor to ceiling. He was pondering how flammable the contents of the store might be when he spotted a small door on the far wall. Moving quickly over to it, Swazzle tried the handle and was surprised to find the room unlocked. Slipping inside, he found himself in a small chamber about the size of Rev Beresford's sitting room and filled to the rafters with piping, valves and arcane looking machinery. The air in here was distinctly warm.
Swazzle was just wishing Botchett were here to make sense of the equipment when he noticed a line of wooden boxes laid out on staging down one wall. Closer inspection revealed a familiar design, the faded and peeling lettering marking the boxes as the property of Botchett and Son. Wisps of steam rose intermittently from the farthest box into a metal hood suspended above the box that in turn connected to the piping.
An icy chill ran down Swazzle's spine as he realised what the boxes held. Cheeky bastards, he thought, they're using them for central heating.
Moving closer, Swazzle nearly jumped out of his skin when something cold and limp brushed his hand. As he fought to control his hammering heart, Swazzle held his light closer to the box, the small flame illuminating the tip of a leathery wing poking out from an aperture on the side of one of the box. Swazzle laid a hand gently on the box. It was cold. He checked the others, all bar one other gave off a gentle warmth.
A grim smile was fixed on Swazzle's face as he moved quickly to the last box in the row and began to loosen the fastenings, the Wyrm within growled low and Swazzle felt it moving about. Undoing the last fastening, Swazzle sprinted for the door and was halfway along the corridor when an unearthly roar reached his ears. He ducked quickly into the gaoler's chamber and in one fluid movement, hoisted the gaoler out of his chair and pinned him against the wall, his wand poked into its ear.
'Now,' snarled Swazzle, 'Get that door open.'
The fairy gaoler could do nothing except comply, blinking repeatedly in fear and surprise as he fumbled with the key to the cell. The door squeaked in protest as it swung open.
'Rushalka?' called Swazzle softly. 'Rushalka, are you in there?'
In reply came a general rustling among the inhabitants of the chamber before, after a few moments, a ragged figure struggled to its feet and shuffled slowly towards the doorway, it's pace quickening as it recognised the questioner.
Rushalka threw her arms around Swazzle's neck, nearly knocking him off his feet. Had he not already shoved the gaoler in front of him, the fairy would have bolted as he lost his grip on him, overwhelmed by Rushalka's grateful hug.
'Well, well, well, what do we have here?' a familiar voice dripping with malice sounded behind Swazzle. He swung round, still almost smothered by Rushalka, to face Twinkle and a squad of fairy guards standing in the doorway to the gaoler's chamber.
'Drop the wand, Captain Swazzle, and back away.' Banshee rifles were cocked and levelled at the doorway to underline Twinkle's order. Swazzle did as he was ordered.
'Stinkweed!' barked Twinkle, 'Get out of there and lock that door at once.'
The gaoler scuttled past him, scooping up Swazzle's wand as he went.
The door slammed and the cell was plunged into darkness. As the key turned in the lock Swazzle could hear Twinkle berating the gaoler. Swazzle slumped to the floor next to the softly sobbing Rushalka.
'It's alright,' he soothed, cuddling her to him. 'There's got to be a way out of here.'
This week also marks the release of the sixth episode in The Great Chocolate Conspiracy multi-part story. You can find episode 6 over at JimBronyaur.com. Don't forget to follow the #GtChocCo hashtag on Twitter for more updates on this project. For more information, and to read from the beginning, please go here.