Chapter 95:

Chapter 95 - Lock and Key


Marka awoke with a splitting headache.

He sat up with a groan, probing at the bloody goose egg on his scalp with one of his unbroken fingers, and took stock of his surroundings. It appeared that someone had locked him up in a cell–not a small, shoddy one like those he’d seen in Biffle, but a proper steel-barred, concrete-walled prison cell. All he could see beyond the bars was more bars and more concrete, though he did have the benefit of a trickle of sunlight filtering in through a small window set high on the cell wall.

That same light played across the form of a nearby figure lying in a cot just like his. At first, Marka thought it might be Morgan, but a single glance put that notion from his mind. This person was too slender, and they sported shoulder-length brown hair instead of Morgan’s trademark arctic white.

…And, most glaringly of all, they were looking at him in a decidedly un-platonic way.

“Well, well. Aren’t you a snack?” the stranger purred, propping his head up on one hand. “No, I take it back. You’re a full-on meal. Like… A juicy flank steak. With peas and gravy, maybe.”

The man chuckled lightly. “I’ve got to stop. I’m making myself hungry!”

Marka scowled and rubbed his aching head. “Do you introduce yourself to everyone in this way? By comparing them to food?”

“The ones I like the look of, sure,” he replied. “Forgive me–prison culture has done a number on my social graces. I’m Antony. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Copperlock’s lovely little lock-up.”

Marka cast his gaze around the area again, but saw nothing he hadn’t seen the first time. The view from the cell was unrelentingly bleak, depressing, and featureless. It was a wonder that his cellmate had managed to maintain such a vivid personality despite it all.

“You’re Truvelan, I take it?” the man continued. “Don’t see many of you out on the range. What’s your story?”

Marka paused for a moment, hesitant to give away too much. “I used to be a crime lord. Now I am in prison.”

“Thrilling,” Antony replied with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t suppose you’re in the market for a biographer? I’m always on the lookout for easy work.”

“If you wish to make a good impression with me,” Marka replied, “you are going about it the wrong way.”

“Fine, fine. I’m sorry. I just can’t help myself around closed books–I always try to pry them open and skip ahead to the end.” Antony lay back on his cot and sighed, staring up at the ceiling. “What I wouldn’t give for a real book… Back when I lived in the city I’d read all the time. Now I just make up stories in my head.”

He turned his head slightly, giving Marka a sidelong glance. “They tend to involve lots of smooching.”

Marka couldn’t help but laugh at that one. “I take it you have been here for some time?”

Antony nodded. “A year or two. I stopped counting the days after a while. Copperlock’s men caught me running a very harmless, very innocent grift on some dumb hicks in a podunk town south of here. Apparently, that was bad enough to warrant life imprisonment… At least, I assume I’ll be here for life. Nobody’s mentioned anything about an eventual end to my sentence, and at this point I’m too full of apathy to ask.”

“Did you see what happened when I was brought in?” Marka asked. “The last thing I remember is a blow to my head. Before that, I was with my friends–an older man with pure white hair, and a younger girl with pink hair and vibrant clothing.”

“Sorry, I didn’t see anyone like that. The guards brought you in alone. Of course, they make a habit of splitting up groups of fresh inmates, so it’s possible they were taken elsewhere in the prison,” Antony explained. “We’ll see soon enough. They’ll be taking us out to the quarry soon, and nobody’s exempt from quarry duty. If they’re anywhere around this dump, we’ll be able to spot them then.”

“And if we do not spot them?”

Antony sat up and shrugged. “Then they’re dead. Or they got away. Or, most likely of all, Copperlock has them up in his tower for wizards-know-why. He’s got a bit of a domineering streak, that one, and occasionally likes to keep a captive or two to himself.” He smirked, then, looking off toward the cell’s single window. “Some days I wish that were me. Don’t get me wrong–I’d rather be free. But being at Copperlock’s beck and call has got to be more exciting than moving rocks around all day…”

“Before I was taken, I had my guns with me as well,” Marka said. “Do you have any idea where they would be?”

The man pursed his lips and directed a dubious glance toward Marka’s crumpled fingers. “Why? It’s not like you could shoot your way out in your condition,” he scoffed. “By the way, doesn’t that hurt? Shouldn’t you be complaining, or… I don’t know, screaming bloody murder right now?”

“It hurts,” Marka grunted, “but I am used to pain.”

“How stoic of you,” Antony replied drily. “Anyway, your guns are probably locked up in the warden’s office. One of Copperlock’s toadies, a loathsome little man named Lochlan McQueen, runs the show around here. He’s got some of my stuff, too… And I’ve weathered my fair share of beatings trying to get it back.”

Marka nodded thoughtfully, looking out beyond the bars for the umpteenth time since his awakening. His head and fingers throbbed, but nothing moreso than his heart; thoughts of Beretta and his missing friends cycled through his mind one after another, wracking him with guilt and self-pity. Was this his penance for being a poor father–for taking his newfound companions for granted? Was it his fate to live out his days here, alone, toiling away for one of Gunn’s underlings?

“You’re pretty quiet, you know?” Antony observed, having spun to face him during the course of his musings. “I feel like I’ve been doing all the heavy lifting in this conversation, and you haven’t even given me your name yet! Talk about rude.”

“My apologies,” Marka replied. He offered up the most sincere smile he could manage and extended a hand toward his new cellmate. “I am Marka Moukahla.”

Antony took the proffered hand and shook it gingerly. “Antony, like I said. And I’ll tell you something, Marka–you seem pretty helpless. You’re giving sad, lost puppy energy, and it’s breaking my heart.”

He waited for Marka to frown in silent protest before going on. “Luckily enough for you, you’re sharing a cell with the most selfless and generous man in the enclave! I don’t normally do this, but I’ve decided to take you under my wing. No need to thank me–you clearly need the help, and I ask nothing in return. Getting the chance to plumb your hidden depths will be reward enough for me.”

The man paused, wrinkling his nose. “...That wasn’t a euphemism, by the way. What I mean to say is that I’m genuinely interested in you, and I’d like to see what kind of splash you can make around here. So, what do you say? Friends?”

Marka smiled and bobbed his head. “Friends.”

Suddenly, an obnoxious ringing disrupted the quiet of their prison block. Marka heard the stomping of booted feet on concrete as well, and before long a whiskered man in overalls appeared at their cell door. He didn’t look much like a prison guard, but the pistol on his hip gave away his privileged status more effectively than any uniform could.

“Time for your mornin’ quarry shift, folks,” he drawled. His gaze lingered on Marka for a moment, the side of his mouth curling up in a sneer. “Aw, yeah… The new boy. I heard about you. I unnerstand your fingers are all busted up, but don’t go thinkin’ that’ll get out out of a hard day’s work around here.”

He unlocked the cell door with a throaty cackle, stepping aside to admit them. As they walked out into the hallway, he worked up a big ball of saliva between his cheeks and horked it at their feet. “We’ll have ya push the cart today. Shouldn’t need your fingers for that, right? I’ve seen plenty o’ ‘guests’ do it with their palms alone after me and the boys got done with ‘em.”

“Charming as always, Randy,” Antony trilled, leading Marka off down the hall with the effortless confidence of a man who knew the way like the back of his hand. They proceeded through another cell block, an empty cafeteria, and the prison's somber main entryway before making their way out into the harsh morning sun, at which point Antony turned to him and threw his arms wide. “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, my dear Marka.

"I look forward to watching you work."

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