The roots were a long way down. It didn’t help that there were no easy routes down there. The only ways down were circuitous, winding, through tunnels that grew narrower and less well-lit as we walked them. We gradually stopped seeing anyone else in the halls with us as we went.
Plan was really a generous word for what had wound up being worked out. Grint and I would be at the lead, trying to push our way through any Crowns that might be guarding the hallways down to where the cells were. Our first goal would be to reach the Crowns’ armory. There, we could pilfer armor for everyone else, and gauntlets for me that hopefully I could figure out how to use in time.
Once we were there, we would need to figure out where Flare was being held, break her out, and then she would tell us what to do next.
Most of the planning that had been done had been less about what we needed to do, since we couldn’t drill through miles of solid wood, and more about our routes and strategies for dealing with the Crowns. From what I’d been told, only a few of the Crowns could actually use the charm needed to launch the grasping branches from their gauntlets. For the rest, they were trained in hand-to-hand combat, but they mostly relied on the bulk and toughness of their armor to bring miscreants down.
We had a few advantages. I could use a few charms to even the odds, and Grint was a former member of the Crowns himself, so he had some ideas on how to fight them. More importantly, we knew from his current job doing logistics work from the Steward that there was some kind of quota of prisoners that he had to meet.
In the past, not meeting this quota was usually followed shortly by a long series of arrests. This time being the furthest below the quota they’d been in a long while, it was little wonder they’d leapt at the chance to arrest Flare and I.
The biggest advantage we had, though, was our route. Vin worked a custodial job, cleaning the halls, which was how she’d put together her maps. She knew where they were likely to post Crowns, and where the armory was, and which places were furthest from any barracks, and she’d designed our route down with all this in mind. The fewest actual confrontations, the quickest way down, the best odds for getting Flare out in one piece.
“Is it just me, or is it getting warmer?” Marz asked. We had only just made it to the areas that people who didn’t have jobs to do seldom went.
I thought about it. Was it warmer, or was I just imagining it was now that Marz had mentioned it?
“Yeah, it is,” Grint said. “You think it means something?”
A few flights of stairs later and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was getting hotter. The heat soaked into everything, making walking down stairs harder than it should have been, making the walls feel like they were pressing us in, making it feel like we were going to be baked alive if we descended any deeper.
What made it worse was that it was an unfamiliar heat. The heat of the forge in Scorched Rock was overpowering, but it never felt like it stuck to you. It never felt like it was dragging the breath out of your lungs. It never made things heavier. Maybe they didn’t even lock the prisoners in, down here. Maybe the heat was enough to keep everyone from trying to escape.
“I never really noticed when I came down here before,” Vin said.
“How could you not notice this?” Marz asked.
Vin shrugged. “I wasn’t really paying attention to it.”
Now that I looked, as much as the heat affected Marz, Grint, and myself, Vin hadn’t slowed her pace or anything. She looked entirely unconcerned with the heat, in fact. I reflected that maybe that was why they kept sending her down here to clean up. She must have been the one custodian they had that could stand this stuff.
Up ahead around a corner we heard the thunking of wooden boots on wooden floors. A Crown. Grint got himself ready to fight, wiping the sweat off his brow and slowly cracking his knuckles. I flexed my hands, ready to sling charms as well as I possibly could.
The Crown came into view. Grint tensed. Then the Crown said, “Oh, thank heavens. Have any of you got some water?” The Crown rested their gauntlets on their knees and panted.
Marz offered some of the water she’d brought.
“You’re a life saver,” the Crown said, and drank greedily. It seemed like the heat was even worse for them, as hot as it was for us it was probably ten times hotter under all that armor. I rethought how much armor I wanted to pick up at the armory. The gauntlets would be uncomfortable, but at least I didn’t have to wear the full suit.
Maybe the heat was a blessing in disguise.
The Crown handed back Marz’s canteen, and said, “Thank you so much. Have a nice day.” They squeezed past us and started to walk away. We all enjoyed the profound relief of not having to fight.
The Crown turned back to us, and we all tensed. They said, “Oh, and if you’re lost, you just want the next staircase on your right, then two more flights past that, and there should be another Crown up there who can help you a little further.” Then the Crown walked away for real.
“Do we even need to get to the armory?” Vin asked. “If the heat’s messing with the Crowns that badly, maybe we can just go up to one and ask for more directions to Flare’s cell.”
“Let’s just be safe about this,” I said. If Vin could walk through this heat unaffected, there would doubtlessly be a few Crowns who could deal with it, too.
We kept walking.