The prison cell at the end of the hall was built almost like an amphitheater. The bars formed a small stage at the center of a wide half-circle of cell, almost completely dark except for the flickering torchlight from the hallway behind them, extending into endless blackness. Perhaps more unnerving were the hundreds of carved symbols, of every color of wood and stone, hanging like gallows from the bars. The prisoner examined it through a swollen black eye, then swallowed hard before the captain shoved him forwards again, closer to the bars.
“Y'think the dead spirit will go for him?” One of the guards whispered to his companion, his free hand edging closer to his blade. “I mean, 'e's kinda skinny.”
“Dead Spirit don't go for bodies, idiot,” the other whispered. “Goes for souls, and then the bones burn up. You've seen it.”
“Yeah, but...” he glanced at the shackled man behind them. “Y'sure 'e's got a soul?”
“Don't matter, numbskull.” The second guard fumbled with his keys. “We just gotta get 'im in before the spirit shows up, and not be 'ere when 'e does. If the spirit don't get 'im, 'e'll just starve. Same deal.” He pried the sticky lock open, and the gate creaked open into the cell.
“Yeah, but... Look out!” The first guard slammed the gate shut again as something white flashed into existence in the back of the cell. “It's the spirit!”
The second guard swore profusely, stumbling backwards away from the bars. “No way no how am I opening that door with that spirit in there.”
“Come on, you two.” The captain spoke up from behind the group. “It's gone. Look.” Sure enough, the cell was nothing but empty blackness again. “Get that door open.”
The second guard fumbled with the keys again, but as soon as the lock clicked, the white returned. He locked it again instantly. “He's watchin' for us.”
“The spirit cannot make you any less alive than the king can,” reminded the captain. “Open the door.”
“'Ey, 'ow's about this?” The first guard spoke up again. “We keep this one in another cell for a couple hours. Once the spirit's gone, we come back, toss 'im in, and run. King don't gotta know 'e's not dead yet.”
“No, we do it now.” The captain pulled his blade. “Or else we'll find how well the Dead Spirit likes the souls of cowards.”
A sudden breeze flowed through the hallway, chillingly cold, coming from the darkness in the back of the cell. The lamps flickered, and one went out. The first guard took a step back in fear.
“Cowardssss...” A thin, raspy voice finally came, echoing around them in the darkened hallway. “Taste of unripe fruit, of sawdust, of old dreams. Perhapsss I should prefer a murderer?” The spirit's tone lilted upwards on the last word, curious and half excited. “You smell of empty pride, and innocent blood. Do come closer, Cap-tain.” The white object began to slowly appear again, resolving itself into the twisted skull of some gigantic bird,with dark patterns carved into the bone. Horns like an antelope's jabbed upwards from the skull, with a net of tangled white string hanging between them, decorated with black feathers and glass beads. It tilted to one side, then the other, as it approached, moving back and forth, up and down with a tuneless rhythm. The other guard took two steps back, mirroring his companion. “Yes, yesss, I smell it on you. Your blade holds nothing but tatters of old soulsss, musty and dry. Do come in, cap-tain.” A claw-like hand of bleached bone appeared from the blackness to reach out for the bars, but stopped short over one of the runes. “I will speak with thee.”
“Dead Spirit, we are honored.” The captain fought to keep his nerve, tightening his grip on the handle of the sword. “We bring you a sacrifice; a rebel and a traitor.”
“He who has spoken to the queen,” The spirit tilted its head again, and beneath the skull the prisoner could see an almost human looking face, painted black save for a row of painted teeth stretching around its face in a hideous grin. “Is he traitor, or is he advocate?”
“Traitor.” The captain narrowed his gaze at the elusive spirit. “He is yours.”
“Are you ssssure you do not want to come in, cap-tain?” The spirit moved silently and smoothly around the bars, bone-clawed hands pausing only briefly over each of the hundreds of runes. “It shall not be painful.”
“This one is yours,” the captain repeated. “No other.”
“Pity.” The spirit seemed to deflate a bit before it stood straight, suddenly towering over them all. “Then he is mine. I allow you to open the door, sssaw-dust-soul. But ssstep not inside.” The bleached bone hands withdrew into the shadow, and the spirit quickly followed. The four men stared after it into the darkness.
“Well,” the captain finally said, “You heard it. Throw him in!”