The armory itself was the tricky part. It was unavoidably close to a barracks, it always had a Crown milling about outside it as far as we knew, and it was locked. Luckily, we had a plan for this, too.
Marz had been the one to ultimately come up with it. She remembered when she was a kid trying to figure out how to paint slightly more permanent charms onto paper or wood. She never got very far, but she asked me if I knew how to do it, and I’d dabbled in it before.
So I had a torn-out page of a notebook with the charm for light painted onto the top and the charm for silence painted onto the bottom. Neither charm was exactly great quality, but all I really needed was for them to last me long enough to pull off this trick.
I wrapped a jump charm around my feet. That was step one. I turned the corner into the hallway to face the Crown. That was step two. I leapt at the Crown as they turned to see who had just walked in. That was step three. I slapped the paper on top of his face before he could yell. That was step four. I sticky-fingered my hands, gluing the paper to their helmet. That was step five.
Step six was hold on.
The Crown grabbed onto me and wrenched. My arms screamed in their sockets. The Crown stumbled backwards, then regained their balance and slammed me into the wall. My body rang with pain. The Crown wound up a fist and punched me square in the gut. I bit down on my tongue to kill a scream before it could escape.
As we wrestled, Marz came up behind us and stole the keys off of the Crown’s hip. She started fiddling with the lock. I had my head smacked against the floor as the Crown fell forward onto me, crushing me with their weight. I could feel blood in my mouth. I hadn’t stopped biting down on my tongue. The pain came, then, but given that my tongue had to wait its turn for every other part of my body to scream at me, it wasn’t altogether too terrible.
It was about an eternity of this before I heard the armory door get unlocked. Then Grint loomed in my vision and, hands bound in thick wooden gauntlets, slammed the Crown once, twice, three times. The Crown went limp on top of me. Grint said, “Sorry,” very quietly. Then he dragged the Crown off of me.
Vin helped me up. “Are you okay?” she asked me. I just nodded. I’d taken worse. Vance had given me worse. At least I knew the Crown’s punches weren’t meant personally. They’d beat up anyone attached to their face like that.
Grint was fine with just the wooden gauntlets. Marz put on a little more than that, adding a helmet and some plates for her elbows and knees, but she seemed to regret the helmet the longer she kept it on. Vin put on a full suit of Crown armor, and she still seemed to be mostly okay, although she talked a lot less and breathed heavily a lot more with it on.
I found one set of gauntlets that fit my hands, and immediately found that there was a problem. I couldn’t weave charms at all with them choking my hands. Finger-motions that were second-nature became awkward and clumsy, gestures were suddenly difficult and tiring, and worst of all I could hardly feel the electric dance of lightning thrumming up and down my tendons under the weight. I threw the gauntlets off. I would have to just make do without.
When we exited the armory, we found something else that had gone wrong. Apparently the Crown outside had been stunned, but not knocked out, and had scurried off while we were equipping ourselves. We could hear the hammering of heavy wooden boots against the floor heading our way already.
“Run!” Vin said, and we did. We had turned the first corner under Marz’s urging before it occurred to me that Vin hadn’t followed us. The sounds of shouts and wood thwacking against wood chased us down the corridors, and I grimaced. We just had to get to Flare. Flare could fix this.
We thundered down the stairs, stealth forgotten, and when two Crowns came up the hallway to investigate the noise, Grint charged ahead and slammed his gauntleted fists into their faces. Their moves were sluggish. Marz tugged me along path them. Grint said, “I’ll catch up!” More footsteps burst out of the staircase behind us.
Grint didn’t catch up.
Marz gasped to me, mid-run, “Do you have a way to get the cell open when we find her?” I nodded. I had a few ideas. Marz threw off the Crown armor pads she’d added in the armory, and her breathing grew less labored. The heat shoved itself down my throat, making every breath I took feel like it took the effort of ten.
We reached the first layer of cells. There were two or three prisoners packed into each one. I leapt over a Crown patrolling the hall, and Marz ducked under their swinging arm, and we soon outpaced them, burdened as they were by the armor and the everpresent heat. There was no sign of Flare in any of the ones we passed. Marz gasped out, “If she’s a witch, she’s probably lower! They wouldn’t pack her in with people like this, she might break them out!”
The logic checked out with me. More dangerous prisoners must be lower. Harder to get to them, harder for them to get out. The only problem was that as we went down, the cells started to get more crowded, four or five prisoners in each one.
“There has to be a layer for charm-users, right?” I asked, as we thundered down yet another set of stairs.
Marz shrugged. “How many charm-users are there that would need special cells?”
I didn’t know. Neither did she.
More Crowns started appearing. Coming down staircases in front of us, and behind us. We kept moving, hoping to outpace them, or to find Flare. Something.
I writhed and I struggled when they finally caught up to us, but Marz just kind of went limp in their arms. They dragged us down even further. I tried to use charms, to struggle, to break free, but they clamped down on my hands, and that was that.
Marz and I were thrown roughly into a cell together. Grint and Vin were already inside. Vin waved to me, awkwardly. In the cell across from us, sitting alone with her hands clasped in large wooden cuffs, was Flare. She appeared to be dozing.
“You found her,” I said.