Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Chapter Nineteen
By Martha Wells
This is a complete novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Martha Wells, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Martha Wells.
This is Chapter Nineteen. Read Chapter Eighteen here.
Nicholas read the telegram one more time in disbelief, then crumpled it into a tight little ball. The struggle to control rage took all his concentration for a moment, but then he was able to turn to Reynard and say tightly, “I’m informed that any messages I send will not be delivered to Captain Giarde.”
Reynard stared in disbelief. “Fallier?”
Nicholas considered it, then shook his head. The Court Sorcerer couldn’t affect the delivery of private messages to the palace. No, that was the Prefecture’s realm. “Albier. He thinks I’m trying to undermine him on Ronsarde’s behalf. He has probably given orders to block messages from Ronsarde and Halle, as well.” No one in the Prefecture knew that the two men had been in the shattered apartment in the Philosopher’s Cross. Nicholas had sent his message from the telegraph office on the Boulevard of Flowers and then returned with the others to the Panzan apartment to find the place chill and empty, the fires gone out from lack of tending. As he had feared, Crack was nowhere to be found. Nicholas had sent Lamane over to check the warehouse, hoping against hope, but he knew Crack must have followed Ronsarde and Halle to Arisilde’s apartment.
He threw the telegram into the hearth. Madeline was sitting on the divan near the window with her knees drawn up. She lifted her head and regarded him with a dark unflinching gaze, but said nothing. Cusard was pacing anxiously.
“But Albier’s honest, or enough so for this purpose,” Reynard said, looking thoughtful. “We could go to him and explain, ask for help.”
Nicholas grimaced at the thought but as much as he disliked the idea of an appeal to Albier, it was the quickest way to get Captain Giarde’s assistance. “Madeline will go to Albier.” He hesitated, not wanting to drag Reynard into this. He had lost enough people to this sorcerer. But I can’t do it alone. “You and I will go after the others.”
Reynard stared hard at him. “You know where they’ve been taken?”
“It’s only speculation.” Nicholas found the folder of maps he had tossed into a chair and dug out the one he needed. He spread it on the table. “This is the key. The Monde Street sewer.”
“He’s hiding in a sewer?” Cusard said, coming over to look, his doubt evident.
“For the past few days the Monde Street sewer syphon has been subject to blockages, caused by bone. Human bone,” Nicholas explained. At their expressions he said, “No, it’s not what you’re thinking. These bones were years old, that was apparent from even a cursory examination. That was why the sewermen were not alarmed.”
“Better start from the beginning,” Reynard said, exchanging a dubious look with Cusard.
“From experience I know how difficult it is to find a reliable, safe hiding place in this city,” Nicholas said patiently. “Considering that our sorcerer chose Valent House the first time, I found it unlikely that he would have tried to purchase or acquire property, and the Prefecture would be investigating any deserted buildings that were possibilities. So before extending the search outside the city walls, I wanted to see if he had gone underground.”
“The Sending. Isham said it could have been the remains of a long dead fay, buried somewhere, didn’t he?” Reynard tapped the map thoughtfully. “A catacomb?”
“Exactly. After speaking to the sewermen and looking over the maps from the Public Works office, it became apparent that a catacomb was being cleared, the bones dumped into the sewer somewhere above Monde where they were flowing down into the syphon.”
“But what if there’s been a collapse somewhere, and the bones washed out of a catacomb naturally?”
“The sewer level would have dropped since there hasn’t been rain for days.” Nicholas hesitated. It was all a tissue of suppositions, but he still thought his reasoning was sound. “It’s only a theory. But I’ve thought hard about it and it’s the most likely option.”
Reynard eyed him thoughtfully. “How long have you known this?”
Nicholas glanced at Madeline, but though she was watching alertly she still betrayed no reaction. “Since I looked at the maps I received from a clerk at the Prefect of Public Works office last night, before we went to meet you. I wanted to be sure it was possible for a catacomb to exist in the location it would have to occupy for this to work. There’s been so much building in the past few decades and none of the original catacombs that are still accessible are very deep.”
Reynard was nodding. There were catacombs that were still in use under the cathedral, and others in the older parts of Vienne that were opened occasionally for tours. “But this was a catacomb only our sorcerer knew about? The same way he knew about everything else, I suppose.”
Nicholas nodded, distractedly. “Once we know for certain that this is the sorcerer’s hiding place, we can return and direct Fallier and Giarde and his men to the exact location.” He glanced at Cusard. “I’ll need some things from the warehouse.”
Cusard nodded and let out his breath in resignation. “Sewers. Ghouls. I’m glad I’m old.”
“Let me be clear on one point,” Reynard said. “The idea is to locate the sorcerer so he can be dealt with by Fallier and the other resources the palace can command, not take care of him ourselves.”
“Correct. The situation doesn’t call for suicide,” Nicholas said, a brow lifting ironically. “But should we be cornered, there can’t be that much difficulty. After all, I am related to the man who killed the sorcerer Urbain Grandier.”
“As I remember the story, Alsene shot him in the back, from a distance,” Reynard said dryly, folding his arms.
“That would be my preference as well.”
“Hmm.” Reynard stroked his mustache and said consideringly, “How does one dress for the sewer?”
Nicholas started to answer but Madeline stood suddenly, saying, “Nicholas, I’m going with you, not Reynard.”
They both turned to stare at her.
She seemed to realize she would at least have to clarify her position. “There are a number of reasons. One of which is that we know Edouard’s sphere works for me and we don’t know that it will work for anyone else, and there’s no time to make a suitable test. I assume there will still be ghouls in the sewers.”
She paused, as if to give him leave to interrupt at this point, but Nicholas kept silent. He had never been spoken to in this tone by anyone not holding a pistol trained on him and he found himself unwillingly fascinated. He wondered if she would mention Madele.
After a polite interval, Madeline continued, showing no sign of being disconcerted by his silence, “I could threaten, I could shout. I could follow you or delay you if you try to stop me. But I’m not going to do any of those things. I’m just going with you.”
Nicholas waited but that seemed to be all. He cleared his throat. “That would mean Reynard would have to attempt to contact Albier and Captain Giarde.”
Her mouth tightened. She must know Reynard had been acquainted with Giarde from his days as a cavalry officer and Nicholas had to admit it was a low blow. Dryly, she said, “I don’t think Reynard’s sensibilities are as delicate as yours.”
Reynard and Nicholas exchanged another look. I know she just insulted both of us but I’m not sure how, Nicholas thought. He said, “You almost fainted from the stench when we went into the sewer from the prison.” He was aware he sounded accusing. And ineffectual.
“You were ill when you saw the carnage in Valent House,” she retorted. “I’d say that makes us even.”
Nicholas took a deep breath for calm, then looked at Reynard, who said immediately, “This is your decision. I’m not in the middle of this.”
The problem was that she was right about the sphere. Once they found the sorcerer’s hiding place they would certainly be pursued; it could mean the difference between getting out alive and perishing nobly. Nicholas wasn’t fond of the idea of dying heroically, alone or in company.
“We’re running out of time,” Madeline said softly.
“There’s something I need to tell you both first.” Nicholas folded the map slowly. Regardless of which of them went, he wanted them to know what they might be facing. “I don’t think this sorcerer is a man pretending, to himself and everyone else, to be Constant Macob.”
Madeline frowned. Reynard looked confused. He said, “But I thought that was the conclusion indicated by everything we’d discovered.”
“It is,” Nicholas assured him. “But I think he actually is Constant Macob.”
There was a moment of silence, then Reynard said, “He is Macob, but not in the flesh, you mean?”
Cusard groaned and covered his face.
“Not in the flesh,” Nicholas agreed. “Not anymore.”
“You mean Edouard’s device brought him back to life?” Madeline asked. She shook her head doubtfully.
“Good. We’ll all need it later,” Cusard muttered.
“No, I don’t think Edouard’s device did that. Or at least, not yet.” There was an uncomfortable silence as that sank in. “I think Octave must have been in contact with Macob before he obtained the sphere and the notes on Edouard’s work from Ilamires Rohan. I think Octave contacted, or was contacted by, Macob in one of Octave’s earlier attempts at spiritualism. Macob used his sorcery to discover things of benefit to Octave. Necromancy is, after all, primarily concerned with divination and the discovery of secret knowledge. One of the things Macob discovered for Octave was that Ilamires Rohan still had one of Edouard’s spheres. Octave blackmailed Rohan to get it, then must have used the sphere to strengthen Macob’s connection with the living world.” He paced away from the table. “Macob must be planning some way to make that connection permanent, to bring himself back to life. To do this he apparently needed to get his body, or whatever was left of it, out of that room below what used to be Ventarin House. He sent Octave to contact the Duchess of Mondollot, but he didn’t quite trust his accomplice. It was after all in Octave’s best interest to keep the business of holding circles and discovering hidden treasures going as long as possible. Macob must have realized that Octave never meant him to succeed. So Macob sent the ghouls he had made with his necromancy and they located and stole the corpse for him. But it must have startled Macob that we arrived in Mondollot’s cellars almost in time to witness the retrieval of the body, because he sent the golem of Octave to question my motives. He was afraid I had discovered that Octave was using Edouard’s sphere.” He shook his head. “No, he didn’t want Octave to know what he really wanted, not at that point. He was playing at helping Octave with the spiritualism confidence game. I think it wasn’t until that night after the circle at Gabrill House that Octave began to suspect the truth. He wanted to tell Macob that someone had tried to follow his coach, so he went unexpectedly to Valent House. Perhaps he truly didn’t know the extent to which Macob had returned to his old practices until then. I only know that when I saw Octave at Lusaude’s the next night, he was very frightened.”
“But Macob’s had his body back for days,” Madeline said, gesturing in frustration. “That can’t have been all he needed.”
“No, there is some other element still missing. Something that is presently in the palace.”
“The palace?” Reynard said, frowning. “What does the– Wait, you said Fontainon House was inside the palace wards. So Macob wanted Octave to hold a circle there and that would let Macob inside the wards and into the palace?”
“I suggested as much to Captain Giarde,” Nicholas agreed. “But there was no proof.”
“But what does Macob want there?”
Nicholas shrugged. “I don’t have the slightest idea. The palace has been a home for sorcerers for hundreds of years. It could be anything. It might be something no one knows is there. No one except Macob.” He looked at Madeline. “Do you still want to go?”
“You shouldn’t have phrased it as a challenge,” she said dryly.
Reynard had already departed for the Prefecture and hopefully a meeting with Lord Albier. If he couldn’t convince Albier of the urgency of his errand, and if he avoided being thrown into a Prefecture cell, he would try an audience with Giarde directly. Nicholas had to admit that Reynard would be far more adept than Madeline at tackling the issue of Albier’s bullheaded stupidity without infuriating the official to the point where he had him arrested.
After some hasty preparations, Cusard drove them in his wagon to the sewer entrance Nicholas wanted to start from. It was on a street with little traffic, lined with tenement apartments that were quiet during the day, with broad walks and potted trees that kept passersby at a distance. It was also very near to the Monde Street syphon.
The wagon was drawn up in such a way as to block the view of the manhole, and Nicholas checked through the waterproofed knapsack he had quickly packed, enduring Cusard’s doleful inquiries about extra candle stubs and matches.
Madeline stood nearby, with the sphere wrapped in sacking and tucked under her arm. She looked more impatient to get started than anything else.
Cusard followed his gaze, and muttered, “Take care of her ladyship there. And find Crack. I didn’t realize I’d gotten so used to the bloody bastard.”
“I will,” Nicholas told him. “And don’t worry; if everything goes well, we shouldn’t be in much danger.”
“Don’t say that,” Cusard demanded. “You’re tempting fate.”
They pried up the heavy metal cover and Nicholas went down first to get the lamp lit, using the shaft of mild sunlight from the opening. Madeline climbed down after him and he motioned for Cusard to slide the cover closed.
As their eyes grew used to the darkness Nicholas could see this was one of the newest galleries. Their lantern revealed high brick-lined walls and a wide channel of dark flowing water. The walkway was clean and almost dry and there was only a faint trace of unpleasant odor.
The sluice cart was tied to a ring set into the walkway, the current tugging at it. It was a small boat with metal plates mounted behind it that could be raised or lowered to control water flow around the craft and a pierced metal shield in front to flush the sewer channel. This cart was one used for inspections and had had its shield removed so it would travel faster. Nicholas had bribed one of his recent sewermen acquaintances to provide it. His explanation that he was an investigator assigned to discover information detrimental to the Prefect of Public Works had insured enthusiastic cooperation.
He held it steady for Madeline, who climbed into the front and immediately unwrapped the sphere. “Anything?” he asked her.
“No.” She shook her head, studying the sphere carefully. “It’s still and cold.”
As Nicholas retrieved the broad paddle from the walkway and stepped in behind her, he noted she hadn’t asked “What if you’re wrong?” If I’m wrong, our friends are dead, and we’re wasting time here. But he didn’t think he was wrong.
Besides, there was more to worry about if he was right.
He untied the line anchoring the cart to the walkway and braced his feet as the flow jolted the little craft forward. “Ho,” Madeline commented, startled at the speed. “We don’t know what we’re going into but at least we’ll get there quickly.”
“Isn’t that always the case?” Nicholas said, keeping his tone light. He was relieved that she sounded more like herself, then silently cursed himself for allowing it to distract him. He knew she blamed him for Madele’s death and justifiably so; if not for him the old woman would still be in peaceful retirement outside Lodun. But there was nothing he could do about it now. After a few false starts he used the paddle to direct the cart toward the gallery exit and into the main sewer.
The cart slid into a channel that was only slightly larger than the metal plates mounted behind it. Their speed increased somewhat, but there was no need to steer and Nicholas laid the paddle down and crouched on the narrow shelf at the stern of the cart. The ceiling was much lower here and the walkways narrower, and the lamplight reflected off the water pipes in the curved roof. It bore a strong resemblance to the sewer channel they had entered from the prison, but it was still far cleaner. Nicholas knew that would change as they reached the older areas.
The cart carried them rapidly down the Piscard Street channel where they passed through another high-ceilinged gallery and exited into Orean Street. The walls and walkways grew dark with slime, the odor rising from the water grew more noxious, and their cart encountered solid objects that Nicholas preferred not to look at too closely. Madeline dug in the knapsack for the dark-colored rags Nicholas had brought and they each tied one around their nose and mouth. The rags had been soaked in a strong Parscian perfume oil; the scent was cloying, but it warded off the sewer stink admirably.
The new sewers were all long and straight, orderly channels with their flow controlled by syphons and galleries, though even these broad tunnels could be dangerous. They were lucky there had been little rain lately; sudden torrential downpours sometimes drowned sewermen. The older sewer, begun with the birth of the city and altered over hundreds of years, would be much harder to traverse. Nicholas said, “We’re not far now.” Orean Street would cross Monde, just below the syphon.
The lapping water made very little sound and Nicholas clearly heard voices echoing down the tunnel. “The lamp,” he whispered urgently. Madeline hastily shut the cover on the dark lantern and lowered it to the bottom of the cart. Nicholas slowed their progress by stepping forward to the front of the cart and thrusting the broad flat of the paddle down into the muck at the bottom of the channel.
They were drifting toward the end where an archway opened into the collector near the syphon. Nicholas could see the glow of lamplight ahead, hear voices. There must be men on the walkway above the syphon, conducting an inspection. He handed the paddle to Madeline, who took it with only a little fumbling in the dark. Nicholas stood, bracing his feet apart against the cart’s motion. As they neared the arch more light became visible, illuminating the rounded wall of a high-ceilinged chamber, and a breeze moved the stale damp air in the tunnel. He raised his arms and a moment later felt the slimy stone of the arch strike his hands. He grabbed the lip of it and the cart jerked forward, almost knocking him off his feet. Madeline rose to a crouch and jammed the paddle harder into the accumulated muck at the bottom of the channel. The cart stopped, the water gurgling as it rushed past.
Straining to hold on, Nicholas was surprised they could stop the cart at all. The Monde syphon must be blocked again and the water level dropping.
The men on the platform in the next gallery were discussing a drainage problem. Shadows were flung on the wall opposite the archway as their lamps bobbed and Nicholas caught the words “silt,” “clogged,” and “dynamite.” He hoped that last was indicative of someone’s exasperation and not something they had to worry about immediately. He heard Madeline grunt from effort and felt the cart shift as she resettled the paddle.
The voices faded and the light died away. Nicholas waited another few moments, then whispered, “All right.”
Madeline lifted the paddle with a gasp of relief and he let go of the arch, grabbing the sides of the cart to steady himself. They drifted into the collector, Madeline using the paddle to guide them in a wide circle.
Without the lamp they were in a vast dark pit, echoing and silent except for the lapping of water and a distant rushing from the other tunnels. Nicholas found the dark lantern in the bottom of the cart and raised its cover again.
The light revealed the high walls of the collector and the walkway around the edge. Nicholas could see from the marks on the walls that the water level was normally several feet higher. At the far side of the collector on a broad stone platform was the end of the syphon, a long pipe that drew water from one end of the sewer system to the other. All that was visible of it was a gaping hole in the platform, surrounded by an iron guardrail. Suspended above the pit was what looked like the top half of a circular cage. It was actually the holder for the wooden ball that was used to clean the syphon of obstacles. Nicholas took the paddle back from Madeline and guided the cart over to bump up against the stone footing of the platform.
Cold, fetid air streamed up from the pipe, making Nicholas shiver even in his greatcoat. The surface around it was covered with stinking lumps of silt and sand. Nicholas leaned on the paddle to hold the cart steady and picked up one of the lumps, scraping the silt off it. He handed it to Madeline, who crouched down to examine it in the light of the lantern. She had to break it and look at the inside before she could make sure what it was. “Yes, it’s bone,” she said quietly. “Old and stained but brittle, as if it hasn’t been in the water long.”
Nicholas pushed off with the paddle and guided them toward the exit into the next sewer.
They were well into the older tunnels now and the stench would have been overpowering except for the cloths treated with Parscian oil. The lamplight caught furtive movement on the filth-choked walkways as rats travelled busily along and there was an occasional plop, as a spider or centipede dropped from the rounded ceiling into the stream. The sphere remained quiescent under Madeline’s hands and Nicholas didn’t know whether to be relieved or discouraged. They had had no time or means to test the sphere’s range of influence but if the necromancer was really down here, he thought it should have detected something before now. But if we’re attacked by a ghoul while we’re stuck in this cart, it will go badly, he reminded himself grimly.
Finally an archway sealed by a rusted grating appeared at the limit of the light. “That’s it,” Nicholas said, dragging the paddle along the bottom to slow the cart. “We’ll walk from now on.”
Madeline grabbed the stone lip of the walkway and helped him swing the cart against it. “I could feign delight but I think I’ll save that for when we encounter something really horrible.”
“Then it won’t be long,” Nicholas told her. He wasn’t looking forward to this part of the journey, either. “This is the Great Sewer. It hasn’t been drained in six hundred years.”
Madeline muttered under her breath but made no other comment.
Nicholas tied the cart off to one of the metal rings sunk into the stone for the purpose and climbed up on the walkway to examine the grating. There was a lock which the Prefect of Public Works probably possessed the key for, but it was badly rusted. He pulled the prybar out of the knapsack and set to work separating the grating from the stone at the weak points along the side.
As they had discussed already, Madeline didn’t offer to assist but stood by with the lamp and the sphere, keeping watch. The ghouls couldn’t be running rampant in the newer channels or the sewermen would have seen them. But Nicholas was aware that sewermen died all the time, from falls, from noxious vapors that built up in the lesser-used tunnels, from sudden deluges of rainwater; if more sewermen had been killed in the past months than usual it would be put down to bad luck and no one would think to search for some other cause.
The grating broke away from the stone in pieces and soon Nicholas had cleared enough of an opening for them to squeeze through. He slung the knapsack over his shoulder, collected the lamp from Madeline and worked his way past the broken metal. On the other side he waited for Madeline to follow, holding the lamp up to get a look at the passage before them.
The ceiling was lower, the channel and the walkway narrower. The masonry was crumbled and cracked or coated with layers of filth and festooned with bizarre shapes of fungi. Ghost-lichen mixed in with the other growth threw sparkles of light back at the lamp.
Madeline squeezed through the opening behind him, clamping her hat down tight on her head and clutching the sphere against her side. “Anything?” Nicholas asked her.
She held the metal up against her cheek to make sure, then shook her head. “Not the slightest twitch. But there are water pipes all around us, aren’t there? Maybe that’s confusing it.”
“Why would that confuse it?” Nicholas noted that she spoke of the sphere as if it were alive, as most sorcerers spoke of the Great Spells. He wondered if it was a habit picked up from Madele.
“Some complicated reason having to do with natural philosophy–how should I know? But the sphere is so light, it can’t be made out of anything but copper or bronze or other metals that weigh hardly anything. Iron has magical properties; maybe it interferes with the sphere.”
“Maybe,” Nicholas said, grudgingly. There could be something in what she said. “That would be just our luck to haul the damn thing down here confident that it would protect us and then discover that it won’t work.” He started down the narrow walkway, choosing his path carefully.
“Though it did work in the other sewer,” Madeline pointed out, following him.
“We’re much deeper underground now.” And this was one of the oldest sewers under Vienne, that anyone knew of, anyway. The fay had been much more virulent in the past. What if it had been imbued with forgotten magical protections that were interfering with Edouard’s work? What if the old bones clogging the syphon had gotten into the water by a natural phenomenon and they were heading in the wrong direction entirely? What if, what if, what if, Nicholas thought, disgusted with himself. Why don’t we just give the hell up?
Because he knew he was right. “Would you have followed me down here if you thought I was wrong?” he asked Madeline, out of perverse curiosity.
She snorted in disbelief at the idiocy of the question. “Of course not. What do you take me for?”
The channels here were almost choked at points with stinking mud. When the walkway disappeared for long sections into masses of broken stone, they had to stumble through the muck. Nicholas was glad he had bothered to get them both stout rubber-soled boots that laced up past the knee and that their gloves were thick.
Branchements led off to both sides and Nicholas used the compass to find the first two turns they needed to take, but then the arches overhead became even more cracked and dilapidated and they encountered several blocked or abbreviated galleries that weren’t marked on the map. After taking the wrong turning down one of these blocked passages Nicholas had to stop, cursing, and look at the map.
“We should be close, almost too close,” he muttered, kneeling on a relatively dry stretch of rock as Madeline stood over him with the lamp.
“We’re somewhere,” she said suddenly. “Look at that.”
He looked up. There was a cavity hollowed out of the wall of the passage. Nicholas had thought it a partial collapse, but a closer look showed him that the walls were too regular. He stood and saw what had caught Madeline’s attention. There were chains, heavily corroded but still clearly visible, mounted on the wall. He stepped closer and realized they weren’t the remnants of some method to raise and lower dams in an ancient drainage system; they were shackles. He looked around but any other clues were hidden under years of filth. “This was a cell. They cut the sewer right through it.”
Madeline held up the lamp and squinted at the other side of the passage. There were regular hollows in that wall as well. “I bet that’s another. And that. Was there anything about an old prison on the map?”
“No, but…” He turned in a slow circle, visualizing the map, the streets above. “If we’re under Daine Street, then this could be part of the old rampart. It was demolished two hundred years ago.” It wasn’t on the maps anymore, but neither was the catacomb they were looking for.
“Nicholas,” Madeline whispered suddenly. He looked around and saw she was gazing down at the sphere, her eyes intent. He stepped up and took the lamp so she could hold the sphere with both hands.
“Close, closer.” Her brows drew together, then she shook her head. “No, it’s fading, as if– It’s stopped now.” She looked up and studied the walls around them thoughtfully. “It was as if something it didn’t like moved through a tunnel adjacent to this one.”
Nicholas nodded to himself. That settled all doubts on the sphere’s area of influence. “Back this way.”
They made their way back to the last branchement and Nicholas hesitated, remembering that Monde Street ran roughly east-west and would have hit the rampart, if the old structure had still been there when the much younger street was cut, at an angle. It was difficult to visualize and he didn’t want to examine the map again; the sewers paralleled the streets they serviced, and it wasn’t those streets he wanted to see, but the narrow, barely-passable roads and alleys they had replaced. “It has to be here. The catacomb must have been behind the rampart.” He held up the lamp, studying the filthy, fungi-covered surface of the branchement wall.
Madeline probed the stone beneath the spongy growth with one gloved finger. “There could be any sort of hole or door under this stuff,” she said thoughtfully. “Do we know which side of the channel it’s on?”
Nicholas shook his head. The builders could have cut a sewer right through the catacomb the same way they had cut it through the cells beneath the old rampart. “You check that side, I’ll take this one.”
Nicholas kept the lamp since she had the sphere, and though this channel wasn’t wide the light was inadequate and they had to search mostly by feel anyway. They had moved perhaps twenty feet down the wall, groping along it, when Nicholas stumbled. He felt the surface of the wall give and realized it was rotted wood, not stone. He tried to pull his arm back and felt a tug on his sleeve. He frantically flung his weight back, thinking something had caught hold of him, but his arm came free so readily he sat down hard on the walkway. His coat sleeve had been torn and as he got to his feet he realized it must have been caught on the metal frame still holding the rotten wood in place. Idiot, he thought. But having a limb torn off by a ghoul would be most inconvenient at the moment.
“Are you all right?” Madeline demanded, struggling toward him through the muck of the channel.
“Yes, just startled myself.” He gave her a hand up onto the walkway. He hesitated a moment, holding her gloved hand and looking at her. Her boots, trousers, and the skirts of her coat were covered in unspeakable filth, and with her hat pulled low and the rags tied around her mouth and nose, she looked like a graverobber. He knew he looked worse. He said, “If the ghouls hunt by sense of smell, we’re in luck.”
“Hmm.” She recaptured her hand and cradled the sphere. “It’s shaking again.”
“Then we’re on the right track,” Nicholas said. He turned to the door. There wasn’t much of it left. It was low, only about five feet tall, rotted to matchstick consistency and held together only by the rusted metal frame. Nicholas widened the hole he had inadvertently made so they could peer through and found a narrow passage, the walls slick with moisture from the sewer.
They broke away enough of the door to climb through and began to make their way down the passage. Scraping away some of the thick muck coating one of the walls, Nicholas could see it had been constructed with large cut stone blocks. The surface overhead seemed to be natural rock and the narrow corridor had been dug through it.
“Do you think this is a section of that battlement?” Madeline whispered. “It doesn’t look like part of the sewer.”
“Yes, I think this is all that’s left of the lower course and we’re in the passage that originally led to those cells.”
“This sphere is about to shake itself apart,” she said, sounding uneasy.
“Then we’re close.”
“Nicholas.” Now she sounded exasperated. “This nonchalant attitude is beginning to wear.”
“Would you prefer me to twitch hysterically?”
“If you could bring yourself to express such an honest and genuine sentiment as hysteria then–” She stopped and caught his coat sleeve. “Wait.”
He waited, then heard it himself. A sharp knock, echoing from somewhere up ahead. It was repeated once, then silence. Nicholas moved forward a few steps, listening. He glanced back at Madeline, motioning that he was going to shut the lamp. She nodded and he pushed the shade down.
After a few moments he could see the distinct glow of light ahead, a whitish, green-tinged glow, not natural daylight. He looked back toward Madeline and realized he could see her outline against the wall. “There must be ghost-lichen all through this muck,” he said, quietly. “Come on.”
The light was growing–not brighter, Nicholas decided, but more defined. He could see an irregularly shaped opening ahead and there seemed to be more light beyond it.
They drew closer and Nicholas could see this passage dead-ended into a larger chamber. As he reached the opening he heard a rustle, as if old dry paper had been brushed against rock. He motioned Madeline to come forward and as she stepped up, he accidentally brushed his fingers against the sphere.
The metal was warm, an impossibility in the dank chill of the underground, and he felt a strange tingle in his fingertips, as if he had touched one of the electrical experiments displayed at the Exposition. He jerked his hand back and realized he had felt the contact through his gloves. At least it’s doing… something. He wished they had some notion of how to control it.
He edged up to the opening, drawing the pistol out of his pocket. The passage dropped off into a large cavernous chamber, more than twenty feet high, and the ghost-lichen clustering thickly everywhere revealed pillars and the openings of crypts hollowed out of the walls. A great many life-sized statues of saints with gloomy expressions gazed down forbiddingly from niches above the crypt entrances. Nicholas thought the winged Saint Gathre, its face like something out of a hellish nightmare, was a particularly appropriate companion with whom to view the scene.
They had found the catacomb. The floor was about a ten-foot drop from where the passage broke off, but there was a broken section of pillar just below that might be stable enough to climb. Nicholas started to step down to it when Madeline urgently thumped his shoulder and pointed.
Something moved on the floor of the grotto, a dark form drawing back into shadow. Nicholas squinted in the dimness and saw the tattered cloth and ragged hair, the glint of bone.
There was at least one ghoul, maybe two, moving in and out of the open crypts and darting under the collapsed arches. One of them crept around a fallen slab propped up on a broken column, poking at the dark area beneath it, as if trying to flush something. They’re hunting, Nicholas thought, watching that surreptitious motion. For us? That didn’t seem likely. If they knew to look for us they would know we hadn’t reached the catacomb yet and they would be searching the sewer and the tunnel. That meant–
The ghoul snarled suddenly and darted back from the slab, shielding its head. Nicholas saw the flying rock and the human arm that had thrown it; without stopping to think he leapt down onto the pillar and then to the catacomb floor.
The ghoul whirled on him, jaws gaping, its face little more than a bare skull. He raised the pistol before he realized; he didn’t even know if bullets would hurt the thing. Madeline leapt down after him just as the ghoul darted forward. Light flared suddenly, a glow that washed out the dim radiance of the ghost-lichen and rendered the chamber in stark shadowless glare.
The last time the sphere had demonstrated its power the event had been too quick and violent for Nicholas to really see what had happened. This time he saw it all, outlined in a white haze of light. The ghoul scrabbled at the ground, its claws throwing up dust, trying to turn and flee. Before it got more than a step it seemed to fold in on itself, then it burst apart and dropped to the floor as a pile of yellowed bone and rags.
The bright light was abruptly gone, leaving pitch darkness in its wake. Nicholas, caught in the act of stepping forward, stumbled and cursed. Behind him he heard Madeline yelp. “Are you all right?” he asked in a tense whisper.
“Yes, dammit.” She sounded more annoyed than frightened. “I hope it didn’t kill the ghost-lichen too.”
He found her arm and pulled her close. There had been more than one ghoul in here. If the sphere hadn’t disposed of all of the creatures he and Madeline were at their most vulnerable.
Time stretched agonizingly but it was probably only a minute or so until the ghost-lichen’s glow began to return. Nicholas blinked hard, staring around, gradually able to discern the shapes of the fallen pillars and the crypt openings again. Something stirred under the propped slab and he stooped immediately to look under it.
The face peering out at him was Crack’s. He was bruised and filthy, but alive. Nicholas caught his arm and drew him out, demanding, “Are you hurt?”
“Not much,” Crack admitted. His voice was weak and hoarse.
“Ronsarde and Halle? Arisilde?” Nicholas asked urgently.
“I ain’t seen none of them, not since the wall broke open.”
Madeline took his other arm and helped him sit back against the slab. “His wrist is broken,” she reported, her expression grim. “How did you get here?”
“I don’t know.” Crack shook his head, his face tense with pain. “Something came through the wall from outside.” He looked at Nicholas. “It was like the house in Lethe Square, that thing that came through the floor.”
Nicholas nodded. He thought this was all more than Crack’s powers of description could handle and knew he would have to ask better questions. “Did you see what happened to the others?”
“No, I got knocked in the head and I thought the ceiling come down on top of me, then the next thing I know I was here,” Crack answered. Madeline had dug a relatively clean scarf out from under her coat and was trying to fashion a sling for his injured wrist. With his good hand he gestured helplessly. “Where the hell is here?”
“A series of old tunnels and catacombs off the Great Sewer,” Nicholas said. “Were you here when you woke?”
“I was down there.” Crack turned awkwardly and pointed down the length of the catacomb. “I came this way, away from the ghouls and those other things.”
“What other things?” Madeline asked, with a worried glance at Nicholas.
“They look like people but they come at you like animals. I think they’re those things our sorcerer talked about, that come when the ghouls are made.”
“Revenants?” Nicholas frowned. He remembered Arisilde telling them how the necromancer would have made the ghouls, using a ritual murder to give life to the bones of some long-dead corpse. He had said the victim would still have a kind of life, but would only be a soulless remnant of the person it had once been.
“You can kill ’em,” Crack said, rubbing his forehead wearily. “I used a rock.”
Nicholas stood to look down the length of the catacomb. From this vantage point he could tell it went on for some distance, winding through the depths with the ghost-lichen throwing light on the fallen statues and broken crypts. “Was Arisilde awake when you got to his rooms?”
Crack looked up at him worriedly. “No, but the Parscian said he would be soon.”
Nicholas nodded to himself. They should take Crack and return now, while they could. If the ghouls were here the necromancer was not far behind and he knew enough now to find the location of this place from the surface. But if the others were here, perhaps injured and stranded only a little further up the catacomb… He looked down at Madeline. “Well?”
She was watching him and had no difficulty following his train of thought. She nodded.
Crack was too injured to accompany them but it wasn’t that great a distance through the tunnel and back to the sewer. Nicholas sat on his heels next to him and pulled out the map. He found a stub of pencil in his pocket and wrote a series of directions in the margin. “If Reynard has been successful, he should be waiting at the top of Monde Street for me with Captain Giarde and a guard detachment.” If he isn’t, at least Crack is well out of this. “This will tell them where to look for the necromancer.”
Crack took the map but shook his head. “You can’t stay here. There’s more of them things, a lot more.”
“We’ve got to,” Nicholas told him. “And right now you are a liability and will better serve us by taking yourself to safety so I don’t have to worry about you.”
“That ain’t fair,” Crack said, through gritted teeth.
“I feel no obligation to be fair,” Nicholas said, hauling Crack to his feet and ignoring his snarl. “You should know that by now.”
It took both of them to get him up to the tunnel opening and by the end of it Crack was almost ready to admit that he wouldn’t be much help in his current state. He collapsed, panting from exertion and pain, at the mouth of the tunnel, and tried to convince them to come with him. “You shouldn’t stay. There’s more of them things, I tell you.”
“No.” Nicholas handed him the lamp. He and Madeline both had candle stubs and matches in their pockets, enough to see them back through the sewer. “Now get moving.”
“I can’t walk anymore,” Crack said, not convincingly.
“I need you to take the message to Reynard or it will get a damn sight worse for us,” Nicholas told him patiently.
Crack looked at Madeline in appeal. She shook her head. “I’m no help, I’m afraid.”
Cursing both of them, Crack managed to stand. They watched him make his way down the tunnel. When he was out of earshot, Madeline jumped back down to the catacomb floor, commenting, “He’s right.”
“Of course he is,” Nicholas said, following her.
“You really think we’ll find the others in here somewhere?” she asked. “Alive?”
Nicholas stopped and looked at her. “It’s a trap, Madeline, obviously. If you don’t like it, go with Crack.”
She swore in exasperation. “I know it’s a trap, that’s the only reason to leave Crack alive. If we don’t walk into it, you think Macob will kill the others?”
Nicholas pushed on ahead, finding a path through the ruined crypts. “I know he will.”
“Of course, stupid thing to ask,” Madeline muttered, following him.
Further down, the tombs they passed were less elaborate, some mere hollows sealed with mortar. Many had been broken open over time and the floor was littered with smashed bones, moldering rags, and verdigrised metal. They had seen no more of the ghouls and none of the revenants who had attacked Crack, neither of which was a good sign. “I thought there would be some sign of them before now,” Nicholas admitted.
“Maybe it isn’t a trap, though that seems unlikely.”
Nicholas paused to give her a hand over a rockfall that half-blocked the path. Water was seeping up through the cracks in the floor, he noted. “Yes. I hoped he would be incautious enough to leave one or two more of our friends along the way, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.” Nicholas hesitated again. The debris underfoot was becoming more varied and they were tripping over rusted metal and rotted wood. There was even something crammed up against one of the tombs that looked like the rusted skeleton of a siege engine. The catacomb was getting narrower too and the ceiling was much lower overhead. He didn’t like the look of it. Could there have been another passage along the way, that we missed in the dark? No, surely not. Surely the idea was to lure them into the sorcerer’s stronghold, not decoy them off down some dead end.
“Look at that wall,” Madeline said, pointing toward a projection that seemed to be breaking through the rocky side of the catacomb. It was made of cut stone and had a blocked-up gateway large enough to pass a carriage through. “Are we running into the lower part of the rampart again?”
“Possibly.” He moved toward it for a closer look. There was something dripping down the wall that didn’t quite have the consistency of water. Pulling the perfume-soaked scarf away from his nose and mouth, he dabbed his fingers into the dark substance streaming down the wall and sniffed them cautiously. “It’s a good thing we gave Crack the lamp.” There was no telling how thickly the fumes had penetrated the air in this passage.
“Paraffin.” He glanced up at the ancient stonework woven in with the rock overhead. “If I’m right, we’re somewhere below the Bowles and Viard Cokeworks. One of their storage tanks must be leaking.”
“It’s frightening that you know that,” Madeline grumbled.
“It means we’re where I think we are. The directions I gave Crack will be accurate.”
They worked their way past the wall and almost stumbled on a set of broad steps, broken and chipped, leading down through an archway with elaborate scrolled carving. The angle of the steps and the slope of the ceiling made it impossible to see what lay beyond.
“There’s light down there,” Madeline said, low-voiced. “Torchlight.”
They exchanged a look, then she sighed. “Well, we’ve come all this way.”
Nicholas went down the steps first. Past the archway was a wide stone balcony with a broken balustrade, looking down on a bowl-shaped cave, almost twenty feet below the present level. It held a small city of free-standing crypts and mausoleums, many of fantastic design, with statues, small towers, and much ornamentation. The ghost-lichen hanging heavily from the stalactited roof gave it an otherworldly glow, as if they were looking down on a city of fayre. But Madeline was right, there were torches.
The largest crypt was the round one in the center. It had a domed roof and had been made to look like a small-scale keep, with towers with miniature turrets. Smoky torches were jammed between some of the stones of its crenelations, casting flickering firelight on the bizarre scene. In front of it there was a broad, round stone dais, several feet high. It looked like the platforms followers of the Old Faith often built in their holy places in deep forest clearings or high in the hills.
Nicholas moved forward, almost to the broken balustrade. “Careful,” Madeline breathed. He acknowledged the warning with a distracted nod. The air was staler than that in the upper catacomb and there was a sweetish, foul smell under it. He could see there was a walkway or gallery, badly ruined in places, running from the balcony and along the walls on both sides, entirely encompassing the cave and ending in a set of stone stairs that were covered with rocks and debris from some earlier collapse. The stairs had led down to an open space in front of the dais and the keep crypt. Like a processional way, Nicholas thought. Did they hold funerals there? Make offerings? He knew very little about the Old Faith.
There was no telling how old the place was. It might go back to the founding of the first keep that had marked the original site of Vienne. From the martial nature of the statues, these could be the tombs of the first knights and warlords of Ile-Rien.
There was a clink from somewhere behind and above them, as if a rock had fallen. Nicholas looked back, frowning; since they had left the ghouls behind, the only sounds they had heard had been of their own making.
Madeline had heard something too. She moved a step or two away, looking at the shadows and hollows in the cave wall above them warily.
Nicholas motioned her back toward the stairs. He had his pistol and the sphere had been proof against the ghouls up to now, but he had the feeling they had come just a few steps too far.
He saw something luminously white on the edge of the balcony and for an instant thought it was a lichenous growth or some underground parasite. Then it moved and he realized it was a hand.
He shouted a warning to Madeline but it was already too late. They were coming up over the balcony in a silent wave. People — no, not people, Nicholas had time to think. Their faces were characterless, the features slack, the skin pallid and dull. Their clothes were ragged remnants but their bodies were so bloated as to make them nearly sexless and there was nothing in their eyes at all.
Light flared brighter and cleaner than the ghost-lichen’s pale glow as the sphere reacted, but there were too many. Nicholas fired into the thick of them, again and again, but the bullets hardly seemed to slow them. The two nearest went down finally, their wounds bloodless, but there were still at least ten of them, more like twenty; moving with inhuman determination they pressed toward him, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen, and he had to back away. He had lost sight of Madeline but the sphere flared again, telling him she was near the base of the stairs. He shouted at her to run.
Then something crashed into him from behind, knocking his feet out from under him. The last thing he saw was one of the revenants leaning over him before the light vanished.
END CHAPTER NINETEEN
Continued in Chapter Twenty
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