Waldon opened his eyes to the jagged ceiling of his cell. He could almost tell where each chisel had been placed and driven in by heavy impacts, slowly carving away at the rock that made up the walls and ceiling.

After idly rubbing his neck, Waldon lifted himself out of bed. He was to be hung today.

The sound of dripping water soothed his mind away from the topic. It was coming from the roof, most likely a low producing aquifer that they’d dug into. He collected several drops into his hand and proceeded to wipe the dirt from his face.

Was this number twenty-five, or…

He couldn’t believe he was losing count… but at the same time, he couldn’t believe his mind still gripped sanity. Many others had broken from less.

Distant torchlight gave the cavern a dull glow, pulling Waldon’s attention like a lighthouse through a thick fog. The sound of footsteps followed a moment later, distant at first, then increasingly louder.

It was time.

Soldiers appeared before his cage and every other that lined the walls. They proceeded to pound their metal rods against the cell bars, rousing anyone who had not already awakened. One at a time, the cells were opened, and the inmates were placed in a line.

Waldon found himself looking into a regretfully familiar face. Garoot Hintol was the warden of the prison he was held captive in…. though, truth be told, a warden was the least of what he was. The title of warden in this prison was only ever placed upon one person’s shoulders, the Queen’s chosen champion, the Shepherd of Justice.

That is to say, he was staring into the face of the Queen’s shield and spear… which is to say, he was staring into the face of the protector of the woman he’d tried to kill.

Garoot spit on the floor in front of him. “Sleep well?”

“Not too bad,” Waldon said. “I got a small kink in my neck, but—oh, that was rhetoric, wasn’t it?”

Garoot let out a growl of seething displeasure before taking a step back. The soldiers to his left and right occupied the space, unlocking the cell’s door and stepping inside. One circled behind him while the other stood their ground in front of him. He felt a nudge on his back that prompted him forward. He’d been through the process enough to know that resisting would only add broken bones to the already strenuous day.

Waldon began walking forward but found himself doubled over in pain from a blow to his stomach the second he exited the cell. Garoot leaned down so that he could whisper in his ear.

“Your humor will not last.” He let out a quiet chuckle. “You will not last.”

Waldon felt hands pulling him up and placing him in line with the others. He used the wall for balance until his breath returned to equilibrium and the pain faded to a dull annoyance. At some point during his ragged breathing, he’d noticed that the person in front of him was shaking. He didn’t recognize him. A newcomer, then?

Before he could speak, he felt another nudge from behind, forcing them all forward. They marched in dreading silence, their minds far too focused on containing the existential dread that came from knowing you were going to die. The sound of dragging feet adding an eerie ambiance to the cavern, accenting the constant flickering shadows cast by the torchlight.

The ground shifted upward, and the torchlight ceased to be the only provider of light. Before long, Waldon was feeling the morning’s crisp air and looking up at the patches of blue through the clouds above. He preferred morning hangings. He hated that he had a preference, but repeated experiences often created preferences. It was… unavoidable.

The rock beneath his feet turned briefly to dirt before transitioning to the familiar squeak of wooden stairs. Forty-five; it was the number of stairs. He’d counted them. It had taken more days than he cared to admit, but he’d done it. Rather than for knowledge or information, he’d counted them as a distraction—as a numbing agent for his mind. After running out of steps to count, he’d turned his attention to trees. They speckled the surrounding area in clumps of small forests, ensuring the distractions longevity.

The cheers erupted as soon as the first guard emerged on the platform. Waldon and the rest were pushed forward until each had a noose swinging beside their head. They started with him, wrapping the noose around his head and tightening it. After his was placed, they moved to the man next to him, who trembled under the noose as if it weighed the world… and perhaps it did.

“First time?” Waldon asked once the guards had moved on to the next in line.

The man looked over and gave a curt nod. Probably couldn’t speak from fear.

“It gets easier… then harder—but then easier again, don’t you worry,” Waldon said.

The man returned a bewildered expression. “H-how do you stay sane?”

“Distractions… Just like the one we’re having right now.”

The man paused, then returned a faint smile. Waldon returned the smile, letting it slip the moment the man turned away. He felt guilty not telling people the truth, but they needed hope. There was relief in distraction, but what held his sanity was pure, seething rage.

Waldon lifted his eyes to make eye contact with the Queen, sitting on the wooden throne carved into the far side of the stands that encircled them. He would show her what defiance looked like.

A scrawny man took the stage in front of them, sending a hush through the crowd.

“Ladies and Gentlemen… My Queen,” he said with a bow, adding as much devotion as he could into the term. “We are here today to witness the hanging of four criminals, three returning… and one new.”

A ripple of soft laughter crawled through the stands, and Waldon watched the trembling return to the man beside him.

“Now, I know you would all wish to skip straight to the hanging, but patience is always a virtue. Ladies and Gentlemen, Queen…” The announcer paused, building the suspense. “It’s time to offer the choice.”

The crowd erupted into a cacophony of excitement.

The announcer turned to the first in line opposite Waldon. “You, as a prisoner of this nation and—by her royal blood—as a prison of Her Majesty herself, are entitled to the choice of serving the sentence assigned… or letting death take you. By the grace and power of Her Majesty, upon death, you may rise.” The announcer lifted his hands into the air. “Or you may fall.” He lowered his hands. “Jambuios Gilleny, bearing a punishment of twenty hangings, currently on hanging twelve, the choice is yours.”

The audience fell mute, waiting for a response. A mixture of tension and excitement sullied the air.

“Rise,” Jambuios said. There was steel in his voice. He might make it.

Murmurs rose in the crowd as purses of coin were exchanged. Waldon had lived within the Queen’s grounds his entire life. Were it an earlier time, he might’ve even been the one elected to be on stage announcing. He knew the crowd. He knew the people in it. Gambling on their lives was the least of their crimes.

The announcer walked to the next person in line, bringing the crowd back to a hush. “Samuel Geshian, bearing a punishment of forty-five hangings, currently on hanging forty-two, the choice is yours.”

Even from his angle, Waldon could see the answer in the man’s eyes before he even spoke.

“Fall.”

The crowd gasped and the announcer nearly stumbled.

“Are you certain?” the announcer asked, garnering a few jeers from those who had bet on his falling. “You only have three left after this one.”

The man’s eyes didn’t move. “Better to die sane than live mad.”

The announcer eyed him with a raised eyebrow before turning to the crowd. “Very well. He has chosen to fall.”

The crowd erupted as thousands of coins changed pockets. Ten minutes passed during which arguments escalated and flared, requiring the Queen to raise a hand for peace. The peace came.

The announcer eagerly approached the third man in line. “Next, we have the newcomer.” Smiles blossomed in the crowd. “Jeral Moss, bearing the punishment of twelve hangings, currently on his first, the choice is yours.

“R-rise,” the man said.

The announcer affixed a smile that a mother would use to humor her child. “Very well.”

He turned and proceeded towards where Waldon stood but halted at the whispers of awe within the crowd. The announcer looked into the stands, then fell to one knee at the sight of the Queen’s raised hand.

“How may I please?” the announcer asked.

Waldon watched with venom in his eyes as the Queen leaned over and spoke to the servant beside her.

“Your Royal Majesty wishes for the rope to be shortened.”

The crowd filled itself with the sound of unabashed chuckling, sending nausea into Waldon’s stomach. He was surprised that he could still feel that, or well… anything.

Waldon looked over at the trembling man. “Breathe out when they pull the lever.”

One of the guards approached and began the process of shortening the rope.

“What?” Jarel asked.

Waldon could see the fear in his eyes. “Your neck won’t break. Breathe out.”

“That’s enough of that,” the announcer said, positioning himself between the two prisoners. “Ah, yes. We mustn’t forget about you. Waldon Vinsen, bearing a punishment of one thousand hangings—” the crowd’s laughter increased, mocking the fool who stood against a thousand deaths. “—currently on his twenty-seventh, the choice is yours.”

Waldon looked the Queen in the eyes. “Rise.”

From that point forward he never broke eye contact with the vile woman. He stared at her as the announcer continued his spiel that he’d heard twenty-seven times before. He stared at her as a member of the audience—rigged to whoever donated the most, he knew—was awarded the right to pull the lever, sending them to their deaths. And he continued to stare even after the lever was pulled, sending his body into free fall.

He felt his neck snap from the rope’s initial struggle against gravity. He thanked whatever god watched over this cruel land that it’d been one of the quicker ones, then let the darkness envelope him.

Waldon opened his eyes to the jagged ceiling of his cell. He could almost tell where each chisel had been placed and driven in by heavy impacts, slowly carving away at the rock that made up the walls and ceiling.

After idly rubbing his neck, Waldon lifted himself out of bed. He was to be hung today.

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