Britta opened her eyes to find herself lying on the floor of a small room. There was nothing in the room, no furniture, no carpet, no windows. Just a door and Stan, who had his back to her and was doing squats.
“Keeping fit?” she asked.
“Oh, you’re back already,” said Stan. He was sweating. “I didn’t think you’d be back until your next scheduled drop. Every forty-eight hours, isn’t it?”
“What happened when I logged out?”
Stan wiped his brow with his sleeve. “From this end, it looked like you fainted. It was quite funny, really. You made your speech about not being anyone’s prisoner, said your goodbyes and passed out. They all thought you’d lost your mind.” He chuckled to himself.
“And they locked us in here? Is this a cell?”
“I suppose you could call it that. They emptied out a few boxes first, so I think it’s a storeroom. I expect they don’t have much need for a place to imprison people.”
Britta opened her status screen and checked her spells. They were still greyed out. “I can’t use magic,” she said.
“No, I didn’t think you’d be able to. They’re very fond of their anti-magic devices, it seems.”
“It’s a device, not a spell?”
“It’s a pendant the dean wears around her neck. I’d love to get hold of one, it would come in very useful, I imagine. Think how mad any magic users would be if I used something like that in a battle.”
“I don’t have to imagine, I am one of those magic users, and I wouldn’t be very happy about it. Why is it always the magic users that get targeted in this game?”
“Well, to be fair,” said Stan, “we are deep in the heart of magic, aren’t we? If anyone was going to figure out a way to block magic, it would be this lot.”
He had a point. If you were teaching novices how to do magic, you’d probably want a way to make sure things didn’t spiral out of control.
“What do you think they’re planning to do with us?” said Britta. “Just leave us in here?”
“I have no idea,” said Stan, “and I have no intention of finding out. Now that you’re here, we can break out.” He began swinging his arms around.
“What are you doing?”
“Limbering up. I need to get my heart rate up.”
Britta went over to the door and gave the handle a twist and tug. “You’re going to break us out, are you?”
“Yep.” Stan sounded remarkably confident.
“Brute force.” He rolled up his sleeves to reveal intricate tattoos on both arms. He closed his eyes and flexed, the muscles along his arms bulging. The tattoos began to glow white.
He opened his eyes and walked to the door. Britta backed out of the way as he grabbed the handle, just as she had, and yanked the door towards him, pulling it off its hinges. It was quite noisy, but no one came running.
Outside was an empty corridor.
“I hope they didn’t hear that,” said Stan. “Prison tatts,” he added in response to Britta’s curious gaze.
In this world, his special ability was hardly an impossibility, but she hadn’t seen anyone else with that kind of a skill.
“Which way?” she said. Both ends of the passage seemed to be identical.
“No idea. Don’t you have a way of telling?”
“Yes, but I still can’t use my spells. The device must cover the whole Institute. Although it didn’t work where we first entered, only after the dean turned up. Which means she’s close by, or she left it somewhere around here.”
“Or there’s more than one,” said Stan.
That was also true. It was just wild guessing at this point. “Let’s try this way.” She kept her screen open in case they managed to get out of range of the jamming signal.
At the end of the passage, there were two possible directions. Her map, which was working, only showed the areas they’d been to. She turned right for no particular reason and proceeded softly so she might hear someone coming the other way.
“Where did they all go?” she asked Stan.
“Beats me. Maybe it’s bingo night.”
When she reached the next junction, she felt a pull to the right. There was also a buzzing sound. She headed towards it with Stan following her, not asking her to explain her choices. Good thing too, since she didn’t have one.
They hadn’t seen any doors or other rooms. Just long empty corridors. Were they in a maze?
“Didn’t you see the way when they brought you down here?”
“I was unconscious, too.”
“No, I was knocked out during the brawl.”
“Couldn’t you have used…” she pointed at his arms.
“Yes, but then we wouldn’t be behind enemy lines together, would we?”
There was a glow at the end of the corridor. It was coming from a door, light emanating from runes written all over it, a bit like Stan’s tattoos. It was also the source of the buzzing.
They both moved towards it like moths to a flame.
“I think this must be the vault,” said Stan.
That was Britta’s guess, too. “Shame we don’t have a key.” There was an invitingly large keyhole next to the ornate handle.
“Are you sure there wasn’t a clue hidden in the letter?” said Stan.
“You read it, did it seem like a code?” She took out the letter to check. Maybe it would reveal hidden information in this orangey light.
It did more than that. As soon as Britta took out the letter, it left her hand and floated into the air. It slowly folded like origami, transforming into a large key. Once the shape was complete, it changed to metal and fell.
Stan tried to catch it, but Britta was quicker. Those extra points in agility at work.
“He was right,” said Stan. “It was right in front of our eyes.”
An illusion. Britta was surprised the dean hadn’t seen through it like she had with Britta’s attempt to fool her, but then the gnome wizard was probably a much higher level. The dean was also high-levelled, so she could save against Britta’s illusions, but not so high that she could save against someone of similar strength.
Britta put the key in the lock and turned it until it clicked.