One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. This year I’m taking part in the competition with my own team. You can keep updated on our progress and all of our content on my SPFBO 5 page!
Tales from the Asylum is a new feature I came up with for SPFBO. I wanted to create a unique opportunity for the authors to show off their story telling skills by taking their characters and putting them in an asylum room to see how they would deal with the situation. A lot can happen in a closed space…
Lisa is a self-published fantasy author by day and book nerd in every other spare moment she has. She’s a self-confessed coffee snob (don’t try coming near her with any of that instant coffee rubbish) but is willing to accept all other hot drink aficionados, even tea drinkers.
She lives in the Australia’s capital city, Canberra, and like all Australians, is pretty much in constant danger from highly poisonous spiders, crocodiles, sharks, and drop bears, to name a few. As you can see, she is also pro-Oxford comma.
A 2019 SPFBO finalist, Lisa has published the YA fantasy series The Mage Chronicles, and is currently working on her latest epic fantasy series A Tale of Stars and Shadow.
She has also partnered up with One Girl, an Australian charity working to build a world where all girls have access to quality education. A world where all girls — no matter where they are born or how much money they have — enjoy the same rights and opportunities as boys. A percentage of all Lisa’s royalties go to One Girl.
You can also follow Lisa on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook
Of course the main part of the asylum was overcrowded.
Of course that meant she had to be temporarily located in the secure wing—the highest, most locked down section of the building.
At least she had a ‘room’ to herself, though the occasional screams coming from across the hall weren’t going to be conducive to any kind of sleep. A single arched window let in the morning light—it remained grey and snowing outside, the cold leeching through the window and into the room. The iron bars on the other side of the glass made getting in or out that way impossible, but at least the window could be opened to let in air.
Which was the first thing she’d done after trying to take a breath and being assaulted with some horrific smell she really didn’t want to know the source of. She’d take freezing over enduring that any day.
“We’ll have to lock you in too, for your own safety,” the orderly had apologised profusely. “I promise it won’t be long. We’ve got some patients downstairs leaving next week—we’ll get you out of here then.”
Potentially she should have listened to her Callanan partner’s insistence they spend more time coming up with a better plan to go undercover in the asylum. Talyn would have been the first to point out that sneaking around searching for hidden crates of izerdia and trying to identify which employee was the contact for the smuggling gang they were trying to catch might be a tad difficult while locked inside a cell.
Oh well. Too late now. She’d make it work.
Sari lifted a foot, made a face at the bits of straw sticking to who knew what on the floor, then tip-toed her way to the single cot pushed against the wall.
She’d just arranged herself on the cot, lifting her feet off the floor, when a knock came at the door and it was unlocked and pushed open. A balding man with stooped shoulders entered. He wore a friendly smile and seemed completely non-threatening.
“Hello, Sari. I’m Ronster. One of the healers working here,” he said. “A friend left a note for you down at the front entrance—I thought I’d bring it up, take the opportunity to meet you.”
He passed her a piece of folded parchment, and she opened it up to reveal a drawing of a laughing face etched in Talyn’s distinct hand. Sari snorted, folded it and tucked it into her boot. When she glanced back up, Ronster still lingered, looking at her expectantly.
“Is there something else?” she asked.
“I’m here to help you.” He beamed, pulling up the room’s chair to sit opposite her. “Shall we discuss your troubles?”
This had been a bloody terrible idea.
“Uh…” Sari looked skyward, searching for inspiration. “I think I just need some time to myself first, Ronster, to understand what I’m feeling, before I can talk about it. My mind is very muddled at the moment. You understand?”
“All right.” Fortunately, he accepted her words without complaint and heaved himself to his feet, digging around his tunic and pulling out a small bag. “This contains herbs for a calming tea. I’ll give it to the orderly to make for you with lunch and dinner. It should help you settle your thoughts and think more clearly.”
“Thank you, that’s wonderful.” Sari pasted a pleased smile on her face. “Can I ask a favour?”
“I have some… belongings that I was hoping could be stored here while I’m staying. Do you have a storeroom or basement or somewhere that could accommodate that?”
He frowned a little. “How large are these belongings?”
“Uhm… well. I am very worried about my… harpsichord being stolen while I’m here.” Sari winced as she envisioned Talyn’s hysterical laughter inside her head. She really should have left this assignment to an Armun; they were trained for this sort of thing.
“You’re musical? How wonderful.” His frown faded and delight replaced it. “We’ve found music can be very helpful for recovery. This wing sits above our cellar storeroom, though it’s not pleasant down there. The walls are damp because the sea is so close. I wouldn’t want to store such a precious item there.”
“Oh.” Sari affected a crestfallen look. “Is there nowhere else here large enough?”
“I don’t think so, but I’ll ask around for you.” He headed for the door. “I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow. I think we—”
Ronster’s words were drowned out by a sudden banging down the hall, followed by a high-pitched howling. He seemed unbothered by this, and instead of leaving, sank back down into the chair and waited the noise out. Once the howls faded, he stood. Smiled. “See you tomorrow then.”
“Bye.” Sari waved cheerfully.
Before the door could close completely, something hopped into the room. Stifling a shriek, Sari jumped up onto the bed. Horror swept through her.
“What are you going to do when he asks you to start playing the harpsichord as part of your healing?” Talyn’s voice sounded at the window.
Sari snapped her gaze around. How had Talyn gotten… oh, she was perched on the ledge on the other side of the bars, very precariously. Sari scowled, gaze going right back to the creature. “Six thrices, Tal, there are frogs in here!”
“Oh dear.” Her partner’s tone was full of suppressed amusement. “Toss it to me and I’ll get rid of it for you.”
“I’m not touching that thing!”
“Then enjoy your new cellmate.” Talyn shifted. “I can’t stay long, too much risk someone will spot me. All good in there?”
“Yes. Apart from the frogs. And the smell. Doesn’t sound like there’s any obvious place the gang would be hiding the izerdia we’re looking for though.”
“Agreed. Keeping it in the damp cellar risks spoiling it.” Talyn gave her a look. Clearly she was still unhappy Sari had volunteered for an assignment which meant the two of them were separated. “Any thoughts on how you’re going to find where it is, or who the gang member is working in the asylum, while you’re stuck in there?”
“I’ll figure something out, don’t worry.”
“I’m sure you will. You need me for anything, draw a chalk mark on the stone out here. I’ll come straight away.” Talyn’s voice was deadly serious, and she tossed a piece of chalk through the bars and onto the cot.
“I’ll be fine, Tal.”
“I know. But I’m here.” She smiled. “I won’t come back until nightfall tomorrow—too much risk in the daylight someone will spot me out here. But we’ll be keeping an eye out for any chalk marks. Cynia or Levs will be watching when I’m not.”
Sari tore her eyes away from the frog to look at her partner. “Thanks, Tal.”
And she was gone. Dust and other debris rained down past the window as Talyn scrambled up the wall, presumably to the roof above.
Sari sat on the cot, cross legged, and watched the frog for any sudden moves.
She woke to a faint rasping sound. Her eyes flashed open, roving the darkness, ensuring she was still alone in her room. Enough moonlight shone through the window to reassure her nothing had come in.
Then she waited, soaking in the silence, all senses alert.
Another distant rasp. Barely audible, but she was certain it came from the corridor outside her room.
And then a faint cough. A voice hushing whoever had coughed. A soft click.
Instincts prickling, she pushed off her blankets and sat up, hesitating only briefly at the knowledge the frog was somewhere in the room. The cold air chilled her straight to her bones, but she was reluctant to close the window she’d left open in case it made a sound and alerted whoever was outside.
Shivering, she padded over to the door, peered through the grating-covered opening in the centre that was used to deliver food to the more violent patients.
What she could see of the corridor was dark and empty. The air was still. Everything had gone silent. Even the screaming patient seemed to be sleeping.
But something or someone was out there. She was certain of it. The air prickled with it.
So she waited. Breathing lightly. Utterly still despite the cold aching through her.
Time passed, a full-turn at least, while Sari stood by the door, her innate impatience warring with her certainty that there was something to be uncovered here if she just waited.
And then she heard it again. The click. The rasp.
Closer to the source, it was clear the sound had come from down the corridor to her right… not to the left where the main entrance to the wing was. When she’d scoped the corridor on her way in, she’d seen nothing but a dead end down that end of the hall. The orderly had explained the rooms in this corridor made up the entirety of the secure wing.
Was someone going in and out of a room?
But no… she’d paid attention all day as healers and orderlies had come bringing food or medicine to the patients on the wing. None of the doors had made that rasping or clicking sound.
A muffled cough once again, so close to her cell that she dived away from the opening, heart thudding. Inching back towards it, she peered through, hoping she wasn’t visible.
Two men passed by, heading for the corridor entry, neither dressed as orderlies. Both walked carefully, silently. It was clear they were making an effort to be quiet and pass unnoticed… and that they were well-practiced at doing so. She caught the outlines of a tattoo on one man’s hand as it swung backwards with his walk. The other had a knife-shaped bulge at the small of his back.
Criminals, she’d bet gold on it. All her experience as a Callanan told her these weren’t legitimate employees of the asylum.
Then they passed out of her line of sight. The wing entrance door at the other end of the corridor opened and closed just as quickly—if Sari hadn’t been straining her hearing she never would have picked it up.
And then everything was dark and silent again.
“You look exhausted.”
“That’s because I haven’t slept much.”
Talyn frowned. “You’re worried someone will creep into your room while you’re resting?”
“No. I’m worried that frog will come near me while I’m sleeping.”
As promised, Talyn had arrived at the window soon after night sank over Port Lathilly, her worried expression fading once she saw Sari was alive and well.
Talyn sighed. “I want to make fun of you, but if there was a rat in my cell I wouldn’t be sleeping either. You got anything else to report other than the movements of your frog cellmate?”
“Actually I do,” Sari said primly. She’d been thinking while not sleeping and had something perfectly suited for the Armun spy they’d been working with on this assignment. “Have Saundin get the plans for this building, specifically the northern half. There’s something weird going on.”
“That is odd,” Talyn agreed once Sari related everything she’d seen. “You didn’t see the men when they first went down the corridor?”
“No, but whatever they did down there—open something, I’m guessing—it made a sound that woke me.”
A thoughtful expression crossed her partner’s face. “Maybe it was fortunate you got placed in the secure wing. After all, if there are any nefarious activities happening here, the secure wing would be the best place for it. If any of the patients saw anything they weren’t supposed to, it could just be dismissed as incoherent ramblings or hallucinations.”
“Right. I’ll have Saundin get the plans tonight, maybe I can get back before dawn. If not, it will be tomorrow night. See what else you can learn in the meantime.” Talyn turned as if to scramble away, then tossed her something. “I almost forgot. You should be able to get out of your cell with these.”
Sari opened the small bag to see a set of lockpicks. “Thank you,” she breathed.
“I didn’t like the idea of you being trapped in there.”
“Watching my back, as always. Stay safe, Talyn.”
“I always do.”
Despite her increasing weariness, Sari stayed awake once Talyn had gone, lying on the cot, eyes trained on the door.
Early night crept towards midnight. An owl hooted outside her window. The patient across the hall woke screaming and didn’t calm for a quarter-turn, by which time a headache throbbed at her temples.
The frog pretended to sleep in the corner. She saw through its pretence.
And then a brief shaft of light brushed through the opening in her door before being quickly cut off… the door to the wing had been opened!
Smiling in triumph, headache forgotten, Sari crept up to her door. It was just one man tonight, the faint moonlight glinting off a bald head.
Ronster! Interesting… she hadn’t picked him for the criminal sort. Maybe he was just visiting a patient.
But no. He walked swiftly past her door, a small velvet bag hanging from his right hand. Sari’s eyes narrowed—it looked very much like the money bags the wealthier residents of Port Lathilly carried with them. What would one of the asylum’s healers be doing creeping around the secure wing at night carrying money?
“He’s the gang’s contact in the asylum!” she heard Talyn’s voice in her thoughts as if her partner were standing there with her. And she tended to agree.
Ronster headed down to the opposite end of the hall, vanishing from her line of sight, but not stopping at any of the patient’s rooms. The faint rasping from the night before sounded.
And then silence.
Once again, Sari’s natural impatience warred with her good sense. She should wait for Talyn to come back with the plans. See what they showed. Be better informed before doing anything else.
Nope. That would take too long.
Whipping out the lockpicks, Sari went to work on the lock on her door. Made clumsy by her impatience, it took her several tries to finesse it. But eventually the lock clicked and the door swung open without a sound. She did a quick check to ensure the hall was empty before stepping out.
There she paused, holding the door open for a few more seconds in an attempt to try and encourage the frog to leave.
It remained stubbornly in its corner.
Leaving the frog with a parting scowl, she closed the door and padded swiftly down to the end of the corridor. Her memory had been accurate—the hall did end in a stone wall. Only now there was a dark, yawning opening down one side of it.
Gaze roving the rest of the wall, she quickly spotted the section of stone that had been pushed inwards. As far as she could tell it was indistinguishable from any other part of the wall.
A secret entry!
Best. Mission. Ever.
The sensible voice in her head tried to speak up again. She had no way of knowing how long Ronster would be gone. If she went into the tunnel or whatever it was, she could run right into him on his way back.
She mulled that for a second longer then decided to throw caution to the wind. If she heard him coming, she’d turn and run back to her room before he saw her.
Sari stepped cautiously into the dark opening to find a narrow set of stone steps leading downwards into darkness. Reaching out to press a palm against each wall for balance, she started down it, trying not to wobble when complete blackness enveloped her a few steps down.
But soon a wavering orange light appeared far below and she started moving more quickly. Judging from the number of steps, by the time she reached the bottom she was on the ground floor of the asylum. After the bottom step there was only a tiny narrow space facing a thick wooden door. It stood ajar, the light she’d seen streaming in from beyond.
She pressed her ear to the wood, heard nothing.
Her hand instinctively reached for her daggers as she pushed the door open, but of course they were being held safely with Talyn. The lack of weapons made her pause momentarily, but then she decided she’d come this far so she may as well continue.
A hallway ran straight ahead, lit by the semi-regular placement of flickering lanterns in brackets along the wall. Nothing covered the bare stone floor, and there were several patches of slick mould and moss in the cracks between the stone.
Heart thudding at the knowledge Ronster, or anyone else, might come back along this hall at any moment, Sari moved slowly along it, senses straining for any noise. The air was damp but still, the faint scent of seaweed and salt hitting her nose. Wherever this hall led, it was close to the docks—maybe even right up to the city wall. Brief excitement thrilled through her at the thought this might be a tunnel for smugglers from the docks.
Sounds began drifting to her the further she moved down the hall. At first she froze, but once she established the sounds weren’t moving towards her, she kept going. The further she went, the clearer they became. Chairs moving, coughing, a cleared throat. A gruff voice barking an order.
Maybe being down here alone wasn’t such as sensible idea. Still, she’d come this far, and she hadn’t actually learned anything yet. For all she knew, this could just be a thoroughfare between the asylum and whatever was next door. All perfectly legitimate.
Doubtful. But possible.
The door at the other end of the hall stood almost all the way open. Sari leaned up and slowly, so as not to make it obvious, blew out the lanterns nearest the door… leaving the area in darkness.
Then, she lowered into a crouch and shuffled forward, reducing the chances anyone in the well-lit room beyond would see her.
The space was large… maybe the size of the entire ground floor of a large house, and it was filled with tables. People—men, women and youths—sat in every spare inch of space around those tables. They wore ragged clothes, their skin pale, expressions empty.
They were fletching arrows. Piles of wooden shafts sat at each person’s elbow.
And standing guard at the door leading to whatever was beyond, as well as lining the walls around the room, were armed men. Keeping an eye on the workers. They didn’t wear uniforms, and most weren’t what she’d call well-groomed.
Sari’s heart thudded. Anger began to burn in her chest.
Indentured workers. The gang they were hunting was using indentured workers to make weapons to sell. Probably to the brigands. This was far beyond what Callanan and Armun information had indicated… that they’d managed to hide the extent of their operations from Saundin even though he’d embedded himself deeply into their network. Sari shook her head, mind racing.
If they wanted to bring this gang down, they’d have to do it right. Raised voices caught her attention, and her gaze landed on two men talking in the middle of the room. Ronster was one, the other a tall bearded man with broad shoulders and the watchful stance of a seasoned criminal.
None of the workers were paying attention to the two men. They focussed on their work, occasionally shooting a wary glance at the guards lining the room.
Ronster’s arms moved in agitation. He held his money bag up and gave it a shake. “It’s not enough.”
“It’s what was agreed upon.” The man shrugged, spat.
“If you want me to funnel more of my patients your way, if you want me to turn a blind eye while your men move stolen goods in and out of the asylum, then you’ll pay for the privilege.”
The man moved quickly, drawing a blade and pointing it at Ronster’s throat. “Or we’ll decide you’re too much trouble and we’ll get rid of you and find someone else to deal with. Someone cheaper.”
Ronster swallowed. Took a step backwards. “The payment is fine.”
“Then get out of my sight. Before I change my mind and decide you’re already too much trouble. Quickly!”
Ronster literally turned and ran.
Sari leapt to her feet and sprinted back along the hallway. She’d only blown out the lanterns near the door… any more and they’d know it had been done deliberately. But she was going to be fully visible in the lit area of the hall unless she got to the stairs before…
“Hey!” Ronster called out, fear and challenge in his voice. “Who are you?”
But then she hit the dark stairwell and began racing up the stairs two at a time. He’d probably only caught a quick glimpse of the back of her, hopefully not enough to recognise who she was. His thudding boot steps sounded on the steps behind her—the man was unhappily fast.
Her mind raced as she climbed, trying to come up with a plan… once she got to the top she wasn’t going to be able to get down the hall and inside her room before he reached the top of the stairs and saw her.
She’d have to keep running and head out the main entrance to the floor, blow her cover, leave the asylum now.
And the gang would have cleared out by morning.
Shit. She should have waited for Talyn and Saundin.
But then she crested the top of the stairs, and a strong arm reached out to wrap around her waist and drag her towards an open door several paces away. She was seconds away from employing sabai to send whoever it was slamming to the floor when she caught a glimpse of brown beard.
They crowded through the door—a storeroom by the look of it—and Saundin closed it just as Ronster reached the top of the stairs. Sari’s heart thudded, breath coming fast. The two of them crouched amidst shelves of spare patient clothing.
“Talyn figured you wouldn’t sit in your cell and wait,” Saundin breathed, a faint edge of annoyance in his voice. “She sent me to keep an eye on you.”
Sari would have smiled if she weren’t so annoyed with herself. “They know someone was down there.”
Boots walked past the storage room. Saundin cracked the door open an inch so they could watch Ronster begin peering into all of the patient’s rooms.
“He’s going to—” Sari winced.
“I filled out your blankets with some spare pillows I found in here. It will look like you’re sleeping peacefully.”
Relief flooded her. “You’re damn good at your job. Where’s Talyn?”
“Fetching the plans you wanted. Was it only him that saw you?”
Sari nodded. “And he was in a panic. I overheard him trying to extort more money from a gang member. Nearly got his throat cut for it.”
“How likely do you think it is that he’ll tell them he let someone follow him into their secret lair after that?”
Her shoulders relaxed. There was no way. “Still, we should move quickly.” She gave him a quick rundown of what she’d seen.
“Talyn will have the plans by dawn. We’ll come up with something and aim to move against them tomorrow night. Sit tight and wait for us.”
“I will. Thanks for saving me. And the operation.”
“You’re most welcome.”
She managed to fall asleep despite her anxiety over what she’d discovered and the frog still crouched in the corner.
A knock at her door woke her unexpectedly. She sat up, gaze going straight to the frog—it had moved about an inch to the left and was once again pretending sleep.
“Hey, it’s me. Let me in.” Talyn’s voice hissed.
Sari crossed the room in two strides and opened the door to let her partner through. At the same time, she clocked that it was still dark outside, but the light had that faint blue quality that signalled dawn was close.
“Here.” Talyn shoved her Callanan cloak and daggers into Sari’s hands. Talyn wore her cloak already, no doubt her twin sais sheathed at her back.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re going to hit them now.”
Relief filled Sari. “Tell me.”
“The plans showed the tunnel you found earlier probably leads into one of the row houses on the street perpendicular to the one the asylum sits on… the street is also directly opposite the city wall, which gives all the houses close access to the harbour.”
Talyn hesitated. “The plans don’t actually show the tunnel, it was obviously built in secret… judging from what you told Saundin, and my reading of the plans, I’m pretty confident.”
“If you’re wrong, and we hit the wrong house, they could be alerted and scatter. This is clearly a much larger and more capable gang than we realised. We lose them now, we may never pin them down again.”
“That’s what Saudin said.”
“But you’re confident you’ve got the right house?”
Talyn’s sapphire eyes met hers, no doubt in them. “I am.”
“Leviana and Cynia are in position waiting out the front of that house?”
“Yes. And Saundin is at our Port Lathilly headquarters now, arranging backup in case its necessary, as well as some warriors to come here and arrest Ronster and begin questioning staff.” Talyn paused. “He wants us to wait here for him… until he confirms backup is in place. He thinks we should wait until tonight.”
“I counted eleven armed guards in the room of workers. We can expect there will be more in the house itself,” Sari said. “Not to mention there could be more asylum workers here in the building working with the gang that I haven’t identified yet.”
If they did this wrong, they’d lose their opportunity. But if they waited too long, the same thing would happen. What if Ronster decided to warn the gang…
“We don’t need to wait for backup,” she said confidently.
Talyn grinned. “Agreed.”
Sari’s Callanan cloak swished around her ankles as she led the way down the corridor before reaching up to press her palm against the stone that opened the door. It sank inwards with a hefty push and a familiar rasping sounded.
“Ohh, I love a good secret entrance.” Talyn’s eyes flashed.
Sari reached back, brushed her fingers over her daggers, then looked at her partner. “Take advantage of the element of surprise rather than creeping about?”
“I think that’s the best way.”
The stairwell was as dark as it had been before, their breathing echoing in the darkness as they inched their way down until the light from the bottom provided enough light to see by.
Sari paused by the door to listen for anything beyond—not a peep—before pushing it open.
The lanterns she’d blown out were still dark. Relief shimmered through her again… nobody had been down the hall since she and Ronster had left it.
The door at the end was still ajar.
She and Talyn paused, straightened their shoulders and took a steadying breath. Focusing on nothing but what was coming. Then Talyn bowed, “After you, partner.”
Sari pushed the door full open as she strode through, pitching her voice loud and authoritative. “Everyone stop what you’re doing! I’m Callanan Warrior Astley and this is Warrior Dynan. We’re here to break up this little shindig.”
The workers froze. The hum of chatter ground to a halt.
Sari kept walking, Talyn at her heels, weaving through the tables towards the centre of the room.
A crossbow-bolt twanged. A sapphire energy shield flashed into existence, stopping the bolt in its tracks.
Sari’s smile turned to steel as she took two strides then leapt onto a larger table in the middle of the room. Talyn landed beside her a second later.
The guards were recovering from their surprise and drawing steel now, the crisp ringing echoing through the room. The workers began sliding out of their chairs to huddle down near the floor. The crossbowmen fired again. The sapphire shield swallowed it.
“We don’t have to fight.” Sari said, shifting into a fighting stance anyway. These men weren’t going to back down. “Put down your weapons, and you live.”
“You’ll be in a jail cell,” Talyn added. “But you’ll be alive.”
Sari’s scanning gaze landed on the man who’d been talking to Ronster earlier. He’d drawn his wicked looking knife, and took a step away from the door. “You should have come with backup, little warriors.”
Sari met his gaze. Shrugged.
A sneer twisted his face and he turned to the men lining the walls. “Kill them. And be quick about it.”
Talyn shifted and Sari felt her presence at her back, like always. “Keep them from running back into the asylum, funnel them into the house?”
“Right.” Sari nodded. “Straight out to where Levs and Cynia are waiting.”
The guards were approaching with caution, some with swords, some knives… one man held a cudgel. And they circled the two Callanan, ensuring they were completely surrounded.
There was a hiss of air as Talyn spun her sais. “This is going to be fun.”
And Sari drew her twin daggers and leapt forward, the aethlyx flashing in the lamplight, her partner at her back.
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