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 Thirteen. Read Chapter Twelve here.
The entrance to the prison Infirmary was dangerously near the Prefecture, but Madeline hoped that the confusion that still reigned in the plaza on the other side of the building would keep anyone from noticing them. She and Halle waited on the opposite street corner, using the projecting bay window of a china shop to stay out of the prison guards’ view. Even now, with people running everywhere, the guards might be alert for someone showing too much interest in their position outside the gate.
The Infirmary door was set back in the dark stone wall, not as large as the main gate but still imposing, and there seemed to be four uniformed warders armed with rifles on duty all the time. Madeline smoothed down the front of her borrowed constable’s coat; she had removed the braid from it so it was only a plain dark jacket. With her gray dress and the jacket covering the tear in her sleeve, she should make a passable nurse. She knew there were also cellblocks for women convicts; once inside she might be able to assume a wardress’s costume and gain more freedom to search, but it was useless to plan when she didn’t know what she would encounter once they passed those doors. She noted with annoyance that her hands were shaking. She always got stage fright before her best performances.
Halle paced nearby, his agitation evident, but he hadn’t attempted to engage her in conversation. She was glad of that. She saw Cusard approaching again and straightened expectantly, taking a deep calming breath. It was always worst right before the curtain went up.
Cusard stepped a little further down the alley, drawing a brown paper-wrapped parcel out of his coat. “Here it is.” He handed it to Madeline carefully. “You remember all I told you?”
“Yes. A fourth of a cap for a wooden door, a whole one for a steel door, at least four for an outer wall of stone and plaster, and a coffin full for a supporting wall, because that’s what I’ll need if I use it on one.” She looked at Halle. “Can we put this in your bag, Doctor?”
Halle nodded, his face preoccupied. “Probably wise. If they searched you –”
“It would be disastrous.” She waited for Halle to open the bag and lift out the top tray of instruments so she could place the small package carefully within.
Cusard eyed Halle thoughtfully, then said to Madeline, “And I brought you this, just in case.” He handed her a six shot revolver and a small tin box of extra bullets.
Madeline checked it automatically to make sure it was properly loaded, then started to put it in the bag. Cusard coughed sharply.
Madeline knew what that meant but shook her head firmly. “I can’t carry a pistol into the prison in my pocket. They know Doctor Halle, they know he investigates for the Prefecture. If they find it in his bag the most they will do is take it away.”
Halle was looking toward the prison. “I fear my reputation won’t be of much use to anyone after this.” He glanced back at her. “But I’ll worry about that later.”
Madeline hesitated. There was something else she couldn’t risk carrying into the prison in her pocket. She had given the two quiescent spheres in her carpetbag to Cusard to take back to the warehouse safehole. The active one, that she knew had been created with Arisilde’s help, was wrapped in her handkerchief and currently weighing down her coat pocket. Both logic and instinct had said to hold on to it. Witches’ instinct, Madeline thought. Not always worth listening to when you weren’t one. Logic, and something she thought of as artist’s instinct, told her to trust Halle.
She drew the sphere out of her pocket, carefully, feeling it thrum lightly against her fingers, and lowered it into the bag.
“What’s that?” Halle asked, frowning.
Cusard looked puzzled as well. Knowing him, he had put the whole carpetbag in the safe without opening it. Knowing Nicholas, Cusard was probably afraid Count Montesq’s head was in it, Madeline thought. She explained, “This is a magical device that may help us if we run into any more of those walking statues, or any other sorcery.”
“Ah.” Halle sounded relieved. “How do you use it?”
Good question, Madeline thought wryly. “I don’t know. It works by itself.”
Halle’s expression was doubtful and Cusard rolled his eyes in eloquent comment; Madeline ignored both of them. She said, “May I carry your bag, Doctor? The guards know you, but I need a prop.” That was true in more ways than one. She hadn’t realized before what a calming effect donning makeup and proper costume had had on her.
Halle closed the bag and handed it to her.
As they hurried across the street toward the prison, Madeline wondered if she had gone mad and what Nicholas would say. Nicholas damn well better not say a word, she thought suddenly, remembering he had been the one to go into the damn place first, with Inspector Ronsarde of all people, and cause all this. Then they were in the shadow of the wall and under the arch that protected the entrance, the pavement damp underfoot and the stone radiating cold, and it was time to stop thinking entirely.
The man who stepped forward to stop them was a constable, not a prison warder. “There was a report of men injured here,” Doctor Halle said quickly, before the man could speak. He managed to sound both out of breath and anxious, though undoubtedly the anxiety was real. Madeline thought his approach was ideal; guards from the prison had been involved in the riot and were sure to have been injured. No one could know if they had all been attended to yet or not.
The constable looked confused and mulish but one of the prison warders came forward, saying, “I thought they was all took to the surgeons. They said –”
“No, there are more still inside,” Halle interrupted. “I spoke to Captain Defanse not an hour ago.”
The prison warder swore and gestured emphatically at the heavy iron door. There was a grill in the center of it where another sentry could peer through; it swung open with a creak and then Halle hurried inside and Madeline followed him.
They passed through at least three grim chambers each guarded by heavy doors, iron gates, blank-eyed men, existing only to prevent those inside from getting out. Madeline tried not to think about the getting out part. Find Nicholas and the others first, then worry about the rest.
The next ironbound door opened into a tiny gray-walled court, little more than a shaft to let in light and air. Then another door opened for them and she knew from the thick odor of carbolic that they were passing into the prison Infirmary.
It was a high, stone-walled chamber, with a vaulted ceiling overhead, with still visible oval patches of newer stone high on the walls where windows had been filled in long ago. The further end was walled off by wooden partitions, but the beds in the two long rows nearest them seemed to be mostly occupied by constables or warders. There were guards at the door they had just come through and a few women in dresses of the dull brown of the prison warder uniform: wardresses probably hastily pressed into service to tend the injured.
From the shape and size of the place it had probably once been an old chapel. Madeline saw another door at the opposite end that would lead further into the prison interior. Then she spotted a man who must be the Infirmarian, a stoop-shouldered young man with a frazzled appearance and spectacles, dressed in an old suit with a stained apron over it. Halle saw him too but apparently not quite quickly enough, because he made to dodge behind a curtained partition and stopped when the Infirmarian called, “Doctor Halle! I didn’t realize you were here.”
Halle glanced at her and stepped forward to shake hands as the younger doctor hurried toward him, saying, “We’ve had quite a day, as you can see.”
“Yes,” Halle said, “I’ve been called in to speak to the governor about something. I’m not sure if he’ll still be able to keep our appointment in this emergency, but I thought I’d better –”
“Of course, but while you’re here, could you look at this one case, just for a moment… ”
Halle’s lips thinned in frustration but he allowed himself to be led away. Madeline kept her eye on him, making sure the Infirmarian was only leading him down the row of beds a little ways, though she supposed it was too early to suspect traps. Halle’s explanation had been offered smoothly enough, though a little too readily; fortunately the other doctor seemed too busy for suspicion. And who would suspect Doctor Cyran Halle of as mad a plan as this?
She should use the time to gather information and try to discover if Ronsarde had been recaptured and if there had been anyone with him. One of the prison wardresses was standing nearby, washing her hands in a metal sink against the wall. Madeline started toward her.
“Madame!” someone said. Madeline was too well-trained from stagework to jump guiltily or allow herself any other reaction. She ignored the preemptory summons and kept walking. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a man approaching her. This is trouble, she thought. He was older, stern-faced, dressed in a dark, very correct suit. Not another doctor. With the way her luck was running it was probably the prison governor himself.
He came straight toward her and she had to stop and acknowledge him with a nervous little duck of the head, the gesture a woman in her position would be expected to make. The nervous part wasn’t hard to manage. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Doctor Halle’s nurse, sir.” That should quiet him and send him off. Doctor Halle was a frequent visitor here.
Instead the man turned, spotted Halle with the other doctor and stared at him, his eyes darkening with suspicion. Madeline felt a coldness grow in the pit of her stomach.
Halle glanced up and saw him. He was too far away for Madeline to read his expression accurately, but she didn’t think he looked happy. He excused himself to the Infirmarian and came toward them.
“Doctor Halle,” the man said as he approached. “What are you doing here?”
Halle’s expression was grim. He hesitated, then said, “Could we speak privately, Sir Redian?”
All Madeline felt was disgust at her luck. She didn’t need to be told this was some high official of the prison, someone who wouldn’t believe their hastily concocted lies. Redian eyed Halle a moment, then said, “Come this way.”
Halle started after him but Madeline stayed where she was, trying to fade into the furniture. But Redian snapped, “Your nurse also, please.”
Madeline swore under her breath. Of course, I was always more accustomed to stealing scenes than to disappearing into the chorus. Halle glanced back at her, his features betraying nothing, and she had no choice but to follow.
They were led away past a row of cubicles screened off by canvas partitions to a small office that must belong to the Infirmarian. It was cramped, the desk and shelves overflowing with papers, books, and medical glassware; not nearly grand enough for someone with a “Sir” in front of his name. Redian closed the door behind them and said, “Well?”
That single uncompromising word didn’t give Halle much to work with and Madeline couldn’t contribute without ruining her role. She stood with downcast eyes, her hands beginning to sweat on the handle of Doctor Halle’s medical bag. The walls that blocked this office off from the rest of the Infirmary were thin and would conceal no loud noises. She wondered if she would have time to get the pistol out of the bag if Redian called for help, and exactly what good that might do her. The little room had no windows to leap out of. No, if Halle couldn’t talk his way out of this, and it seemed unlikely, their only chance would be to take Redian hostage. And that’s no chance at all, she thought.
Halle said, “I’m not sure what the cause is for this suspicion.”
It was evasive but it made Redian talk. Glaring, he said, “The reason for suspicion is that your colleague Ronsarde escaped from the constables under what I lightly call extremely suspicious circumstances. The last reliable report we have is that he entered this institution. Now I find you here.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Halle said, incredulous and annoyed. “Ronsarde was abducted, almost killed, you can’t accuse him –”
“I was on the steps when the riot started,” Redian retorted. “I know what I saw.”
Halle had managed to distract him into a side issue but he was still only playing for time. “I don’t care what you saw.” Halle turned, took the medical bag from Madeline and opened it as if looking for something, then set it down in the chair she was standing next to, all the while saying angrily, “And if you knew anything at all you would realize the charges against him were complete fabrications.”
Brilliant, Madeline thought and started to breathe again. He had placed the pistol easily within reach, almost directly under her hand. It wasn’t quite as good as working with Nicholas but close, very close. Halle turned back to face Redian, shifting enough to the side that he blocked the man’s view of both the bag and Madeline’s right arm. That might give her the edge she needed; if she didn’t manage to surprise Redian, he would have time to call for help.
“That is hardly the point,” Redian was saying. “If Ronsarde had a hand in this riot –” He stopped, grimaced and added, “And that is hardly the point either. I want to know why you’ve come here, Halle. Do you have anything to do with the armed men who forced their way through one of the guard rooms after Ronsarde escaped?”
“I can’t believe you are accusing me –”
“Oh, we haven’t caught them yet, but we will. Now give me an answer or I’ll have you turned over to the Prefecture on suspicion of collusion in an escape.”
Madeline dropped her handkerchief and bent down to reach for it, reaching instead into the bag and finding the grip of the pistol. The door burst open and Halle started and turned. Madeline had a heartbeat to make the decision and stayed where she was, half bent over, her hand inside the bag. She looked at the door and saw a young man in constable’s uniform standing there, and almost drew the gun, but he wasn’t looking at her.
The constable was breathing hard, his eyes wide. He said to Redian, “Sir! We found five dead men in the lower level.”
“They’re torn apart — it’s sorcery, like what was outside.”
Forgetting Halle, Redian strode to the door, following the constable. Halle looked at Madeline, his face a study in mixed relief and consternation. “Follow him?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” she whispered and pulled the pistol out of the bag and slipped it into the pocket of her jacket.
Nicholas approached the archway carefully. Gas hadn’t been laid on in the last few corridors and it was as dark as pitch. Their source of light was a stub of candle Crack had had in his pocket, lit from one of the last sconces. It was now dripping hot wax onto Nicholas’s glove as he slid carefully along the damp wall. The curve of it and the way it was constructed suggested the prison sewer outlet was just on the other side. He hoped they wouldn’t have ghouls to contend with as well, though he didn’t see any way in from the sewer tunnel.
Nicholas reached the darker shadow across the wall that was the low opening of the archway. A current of air came from it, also damp, but just as stale and flat as the atmosphere in all the passages. It was not an encouraging sign.
Improvements in the walls, gas laid on, new doors, Nicholas thought. Let them not have had time to block in the catacombs that led up from the old fortress’s crypt to the new prison’s mortuary. Let fate grant him that one small favor.
No ghouls or other inhuman products of an insane sorcerer’s craft leapt out at him and he slipped inside the archway. He lifted the candle.
The jumbled contents of the low-ceilinged chamber were in the disarray he remembered. Old bones, splintered wood from coffins, broken fragments of fine stone that had once sealed grave vaults, all heaped on the stone-flagged floor and covered with dust and filth. Except that a path had been hewn through it, pushing the jumbled mounds to the walls, and at the far end the passage that should have led upward was sealed with nearly new brick.
Nicholas was too tired to curse Fate at the moment. He would have to remember to do it later. They must have had escapes, somehow. He couldn’t take credit for that. When he had broken Crack out a few years ago he had left a reasonable substitute in the form of a recent corpse from the city morgue in his place; Crack was marked down in the prison records as dead. This debacle was the result of untidy persons who broke out on their own and left trails any fool could follow.
He ducked back out the archway and returned down the passage to where the others waited. “It’s blocked. There’s only one alternative.”
“Steal guard uniforms and try to bluff our way out,” Reynard said. His sour expression revealed how likely he thought the chances of success were.
Nicholas knew success was not only unlikely, but with Inspector Ronsarde along, wounded and sure to be recognized by any constable they might pass, it was damned impossible. At this point he was even desperate enough to risk the sewer, but they had no way to get to it. “I’m open to suggestions,” he said dryly.
Leaning heavily against the wall, Ronsarde said promptly, “I have one.”
“If it’s the one you’ve had the last three times I asked, I don’t want to hear it again,” Nicholas said. He was aware his patience was wearing thin, making him more likely to make mistakes, but there was little he could do about it now.
Ronsarde only grew more determined. “You said yourself, if I am not with you it would be relatively easy to explain your presence. You could walk out of here with a blessing from the prison officials –”
“And leave you to bleed to death?” Nicholas interrupted. What kind of man do you take me for? He wanted to ask, and managed to hold it back just in time. Damn fool question to ask Ronsarde, when he didn’t know himself.
“It is out of the question,” Reynard said, but he said it in his cavalry captain’s voice, very unlike the indolent tone of the bored sybarite that he usually affected. “Because it would be giving in to the bastard, whoever he is, who has gotten us into this with his damned sorcery. And that’s what he wants us to do, so that is what must be avoided at all cost. That’s elementary, for God’s sake.”
“This sorcerer wants you dead,” Nicholas elaborated. He was grateful that Reynard was still supporting him; raised mostly in the slums among the criminal classes, among which he counted his paternal relatives, he wasn’t accustomed to that kind of loyalty. “He went to an untold amount of trouble to arrange it. You must be close to discovering him. If you’re taken by the authorities he’ll move against you again, probably even more swiftly and probably taking quite a few other innocent bystanders down along with you.”
Ronsarde, who wasn’t used to being argued with so effectively, said heatedly, “You forget the most likely hypothesis is that the man is simply barking mad and has seized on me the same way he evidently has seized on you gentlemen, and he’ll pursue us to the end no matter how close or how far we may be from discovering his identity or whereabouts.”
Nicholas and Reynard both started to answer but Crack, having reached the end of his patience, snapped, “You’re doing it again. You’re standing still and arguing.”
Nicholas took a deep breath. “You’re right; let’s keep moving.” He turned and started back down the corridor.
Crack shouldered Ronsarde’s arm despite the Inspector’s mutinous glare and followed. Reynard caught up to Nicholas in a couple of long strides and asked, “Where are we going?”
“If I knew –” Nicholas began, speaking through gritted teeth.
Obviously feeling he had to make up for his earlier show of nobility, Reynard said, “Sorry, sorry. Just trying to think ahead again; I can’t seem to shake the habit.”
Nicholas said, “Try.”
Madeline and Halle followed Redian out into the Infirmary again. There was a stretcher sitting on one of the long wooden tables holding the body of a man. Madeline caught a glimpse of flesh torn away to the bone and grabbed Doctor Halle’s arm. This was partly in relief that the body was that of a constable and not Nicholas, Reynard, or Crack, and partly to keep Halle from rushing up to it with the other doctors.
Redian stared down at the body of the constable, his expression sickened. He said, “Has there been any sign of Ronsarde, or the men with him?”
“No, sir, nothing.” The young constable looked ill. There were bloodstains on the sleeve of his uniform. “We thought they were in the other wing so the search was concentrated there, and we only sent a few men down to the cellars.”
Madeline drew Halle back from the frightened group around the stretcher and said, “Whatever did this is searching for Nicholas and the others.”
He nodded. “There are a great many passages down in the lower levels. I don’t know why they would have gone there unless they were forced to it… Wait, there was an escape using an old tunnel up from the crypt to the prison mortuary, so the tunnel was walled up. Could your friends have been making for it, thinking it was still in existence?”
Madeline bit her lip, considering. “When was it walled up?”
“Only last year.”
“Yes, they could have thought it was still there.”
Halle glanced back at Redian and began to move toward the corridor at the back of the Infirmary, drawing her with him. “Then I suggest we try to find them before anyone or anything else does.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Madeline murmured.
Nicholas traced their path back, finding a narrow stairway leading upward. They approached it with great caution since it was the only way up in this wing and the searchers might be watching it. But the intersection of corridors near the stairwell was just as empty as the other tunnels.
Leaving the others at the bottom, Nicholas went up to the first landing until he could lean around the wall and see what lay at the top. The head of the stairs was barred with a metal door with an iron grill in the top portion. He could tell the room beyond it was lit, that was all. After a moment of thought, he decided to risk it and crept upward toward the top of the stairs, glad that they were scarred stone instead of wood and there was no chance of creaking.
He edged cautiously up to the door and looked through the grill. Another guard room, with two warders and a constable deep in worried conversation. One of the warders had a rifle. That can’t be on our account, can it? Nicholas thought. We haven’t even killed anyone yet. No, it had to be for whatever was hunting them through this maze. They must know about the creature by now, surely. If the authorities killed the thing, at least it would be one less obstacle in their path, Nicholas decided, as he crept carefully back down the stairs. Of course it would also make it easier for the constables to hunt them…
At the bottom of the stairwell the others waited anxiously. “Well?” Reynard asked.
“Two warders and a constable, well-armed.” Nicholas described the door and the guard room briefly, then took a deep breath. This was not a good plan but it was all he could think of and they didn’t have the time to sit about waiting for him to turn brilliant. “Crack will pretend to be a warder, and fumble with the keys to open the door.” Crack nodded, not bothering to question this. His coat was dark brown, close in color to the coats the warders wore and in the dim light of the stairwell, it would be temporarily convincing. “You’ll have a wounded man in tow to add an air of urgency.”
“I shall be the wounded man, I think,” Ronsarde said. He pointed to his right eye, which was nearly swollen shut and surrounded by a large purpling bruise. “This is rather convincing.”
“It’ll do.” It was too bad they couldn’t manage some more blood but…
Nicholas reminded himself not to get wrapped up in detail. “And once the door is opened, Reynard and I will push through and take them by surprise.” And then we shall all be shot and killed. He looked at Reynard, expecting him to say something along those lines.
Reynard merely smiled and said, “It sounds perfect to me.”
Just then they heard raised voices from the upper reaches of the stairwell, echoing down from the guard room through the grill in the door. A low mumble of male tones, then a woman’s voice, the words muffled but clearly urgent. Frowning, Nicholas took an unconscious step up. It couldn’t be. “That sounds like –”
“Madeline,” Reynard finished, looking worriedly at Nicholas. “She wouldn’t, surely she wouldn’t.”
Crack swore and clapped a hand to his forehead, the greatest emotional outburst Nicholas thought he had ever seen from his henchman. And it was all the confirmation he needed. He climbed the stairs to the first landing, listening.
From here he could pick out occasional words but nothing to make sense of this. He heard another man’s voice with a more educated accent, saying something about medical attention. Ronsarde boosted himself up the last few steps and grabbed Reynard’s arm for support. “That’s Halle,” he whispered, his tone incredulous. “What the –”
“Doctor Halle?” Nicholas asked, managing to keep his voice low, though what he wanted to do was rage.
Dammit, dammit. Nicholas gestured for the others to stay back and crept up to the door again. He flattened himself back against the wall and managed a quick glance through the grill. Madeline was in her dowdy nurse persona and carrying a doctor’s bag, but the light in her eyes was dangerous and entirely her own. She’s distracted and slipping out of character–I’ll have to speak to her about that, he thought. And a few other things. He recognized the man with her as Doctor Halle and his mouth set in a grim line. The nerve of the woman.
All three of the guards faced away now, arguing with Halle. And Nicholas’s irritation with Madeline’s precipitous behavior didn’t change the fact that they would never have a better chance to get past this door. He stepped back down to the others and said softly, “Yes, it’s them. Now let’s go, just as we planned.”
They scrambled quietly to get into position, Crack and Ronsarde moving to the step just below the landing, Nicholas and Reynard behind them and ducking down so they wouldn’t be seen. At Nicholas’s signal, Crack banged on the door suddenly, shouting, “Open up, it’s right behind us!” With Ronsarde moaning in pain, he stuck one of the keys in the lock and jiggled it, as if in his panic he couldn’t make it turn.
There was shouting from the other side of the door, then the lock clicked and one of the guards jerked it open. Ronsarde pitched forward to collapse at the man’s feet, immobilizing him and keeping the door from being slammed shut. Crack lurched forward, apparently stumbling over his wounded companion, then he knocked the startled guard flat. Nicholas and Reynard pushed forward before the other two men could react, Reynard catching the rifle barrel just as it was lowering to cover them and slamming the wielder back against the wall. Nicholas looked frantically for the third man and saw Madeline had him by the collar with a pistol shoved under his ear.
Nicholas stepped back, letting Reynard tell their prisoners to lay down on the dirty floor. When Crack removed the constable from Madeline’s grasp, Nicholas said, “Well, this is a surprise.”
“We found you,” Madeline said, sounding quite pleased with herself.
Nicholas stared at her, not sure if he couldn’t answer because he was seething with rage or because he was merely exhausted. He glanced at Doctor Halle, who was trying to examine Ronsarde’s injuries despite the Inspector’s attempts to fend him off. “It’s moderately helpful. Now there are six of us stuck in here.”
Madeline’s brows lowered dangerously. She opened the medical bag, burrowed in it, and produced a small paper-wrapped packet. “Did you think we would come in here with no notion of how to get out again?”
Reynard was tying up one of the warders with the man’s own belt. He glanced up and laughed shortly. “We did.”
Nicholas glared at Reynard, then said, “What’s that?”
“Blasting powder. Cusard’s special mix.”
Nicholas gasped in relief. “Brilliant!” He snatched the packet from her.
“You’re welcome,” Madeline said with acerbity.
Then Nicholas saw what else was in the bag. “You brought one of the spheres? I told you to take them to –”
“I was,” Madeline interrupted. “I thought it would be useful against all this sorcery –”
Madeline lowered her voice to a hiss. “It’s been doing things.”
“Magical things. You saw those stone gargoyles that were chasing people all over the plaza?” At his nod she explained, “It turned one back to stone.”
He took her arm and drew her out the door and down a few steps, out of earshot of the guards. He kept one hand on his pistol, mindful that they weren’t alone in these corridors. “Just like that? You didn’t do anything to it?”
“Just like that.” Madeline gestured in exasperation. “Nicholas, this device is as far beyond me as the role of Elenge would be for my dresser. I don’t know what it did, but it did it, of its own will, with no help from me.”
“But it’s never done anything before,” Nicholas protested. He was unaccustomed to feeling foolish and he didn’t like it much. He took the sphere out of the bag and examined it as best he could in the bad light. It looked no different than it ever had, a device of nested gears and wheels that apparently had no purpose, something that might be a child’s toy.
“It was sitting on a shelf at Coldcourt. Maybe it never felt the need to do anything before.”
That was true. Nicholas gave it back to her and ran a hand through his hair, trying to think how to handle this development. Edouard, Edouard, couldn’t you have stuck with natural philosophy. “We don’t have time to deal with it now, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“How?” Reynard asked, coming down the stairs to them. He had the constable’s rifle and Nicholas was relieved that they were a little better armed now. “Are you thinking of blasting open that blocked passage up to the mortuary? The whole place will know where we are and they’ll be waiting for us at the other end.”
“I know, that’s why we’re going out through the sewer. Once in it, we can take any direction, leave it at almost any street. They won’t have any hope of anticipating our direction.”
“Yes, perfect.” Ronsarde seconded the motion. For one of the foremost representatives of law and order in the country, he seemed to be entering into law-breaking with real enthusiasm.
“We’re going to leave those men tied up?” Halle said, as they followed Nicholas down the stairs. “With that thing roaming these corridors?”
“We left it trapped on the other side of an iron door, it will have to find a way past that first,” Nicholas said. “Besides, it won’t go up to the ground floor while we’re still down here — it wants us. Crack, pull that door to and lock it.”
Nicholas led them back to the wall that adjoined the sewer. It was near the point where the corridor dead-ended into the catacombs, which meant they would be trapped down here if anything came in after them. I hope that is actually the sewer behind this, he thought, sitting on his heels to carefully unwrap the package and lay out the contents on the stone flags. If it wasn’t, he was going to cause an awful commotion for nothing. He noted Reynard and Crack were taking the weapons to guard the open end of the corridor. That would buy them a few moments if they were discovered, but much depended on Nicholas getting this right the first time.
The blasting powder itself was contained within a small glass vial, carefully stoppered with a cork. Most of the package contained the accouterments for it, including a long coiled fuse and small chisel to set the charge within a wall. Madeline knelt beside him, saying quietly, “Cusard tried to tell me how to do it myself if I had to, but I’m just as glad I don’t.”
“Watch carefully, in case you ever have to again.” Nicholas squinted up at the wall in the bad light, trying to judge the best point to set the charge. He had chosen a spot between two heavy support pillars, hoping they would hold up the ceiling if he made a mistake. He only wanted to make a small hole, just large enough for a human body to pass through easily.
“If you need assistance, do say so,” Ronsarde said.
Nicholas glanced back and saw that Halle had retrieved his medical bag from Madeline and was redoing their makeshift bandage of Ronsarde’s head injury. That was good; if they were going into the sewer, the less odor of blood about them the better. The sewers had been their enemy’s territory up until now; for that reason Nicholas hoped what they were doing would be unexpected.
Madeline watched as he chiseled out a hole in the damp pitted surface of the wall. “Are you going to shout at me later for allying myself with Halle?” She sounded more abstractly curious than apprehensive at the prospect.
Nicholas glanced back at the Inspector and the doctor again. They were just out of earshot and deep in their own conversation. He said, “I suppose I could, for all the good it would do, since you would simply stand there and nod, going over the soliloquy from Camielle in your head. Of course, I’d be a hypocritical bastard, since all this came about because in a moment of weakness I decided to rescue Inspector Ronsarde.” Nicholas finished the hole, then reached for the glass vial. “Stop breathing for the next few moments, please.”
Madeline held her breath while he measured out a small quantity of the powder onto a piece of the packing paper and carefully slid it down into the spot prepared for it in the wall. When he nodded that it was all right, she said, “A moment of weakness?”
Nicholas picked up the fuse. “Yes. We’ll see how weak if I end up having to break all of us out of here again, this time from the cellblocks after our trials.”
Madeline’s expression was serious. “Do you think he’ll do that? Turn us in?”
Nicholas let out his breath. It had been a long day for hard questions. “If you were him, you wouldn’t. If I was him, I might, in the right mood. I don’t know.”
Madeline drew breath to speak, then made a startled exclamation instead. She lifted the sphere from her lap, looking into it. “Something’s coming.”
Nicholas stared down at the sphere, frowning, then at the empty corridor stretching away in the half-light. “How do you know?”
“It’s humming, it does that when it senses power. Touch it.”
Nicholas hesitated, then reached down and touched the metal of the sphere with a fingertip. It was oddly warm. Madeline was right, it was resonating slightly. “We have a problem,” Nicholas said, pitching his voice louder to get the others’ attention.
Crack said suddenly, “Wait, do you smell that? It’s here again.”
“Yes,” Reynard said, shifting his hold on the rifle. “That’s it.”
In another moment Nicholas knew what they meant. A foul odor drifted down the corridor, the same miasma that had hung over the area where they had found the mutilated warder. He turned back to the wall and attached the fuse, making himself work carefully; there would be no time to try again.
Madeline stood, still looking into the sphere, and moved up with Crack and Reynard. Reynard glanced at her and said, “My dear, really –”
“Hush, I know what I’m doing,” Madeline said, then added, “I haven’t the faintest idea of what I’m doing, but this thing seems to.”
Ronsarde struggled to his feet with Halle’s help, saying, “That is one of Edouard Viller’s famous, or infamous, magical spheres. I hadn’t thought to ever see one in use.”
“I rather hope we don’t have to see it now,” Halle said. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“I’m almost finished.” Nicholas unrolled the fuse then quickly packed up the remains of the materials, though he hoped they wouldn’t need them again. Halle came to help him and to put the package back into his medical bag. As Nicholas stood to tell the others he was ready, he heard it.
A scratching, like heavy nails against rock, accompanied by a sibilant hiss, echoed down the corridor. Madeline and Reynard glanced at each other and Crack stood like a stone, pistol held ready, waiting for whatever was out there to charge.
It can’t be very big, Nicholas thought, not and fit through these doors. It couldn’t be as powerful as the last Sending either, or they would all surely be dead by now. Maybe that had hurt their sorcerous opponent, to loose that great store of magical power and have it snuffed out by the Great Spell that protected Madele’s house. Whatever it was, they couldn’t see it yet, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t near. It had managed to kill at least several armed men so far. He unrolled the fuse, backing toward where the others waited, laying the cord out along the floor. This gave them about twenty feet of clearance. He wasn’t sure that would be enough, but moving any further up the corridor was out of the question. Nicholas said, “I’m ready to set off the charge. When it goes off, the creature may come at us.”
Leaning against the wall, Ronsarde said, “We’ve no choice.”
“I’m aware of that,” Nicholas said, managing to keep his voice mild and reaching for the candle.
Madeline shouted suddenly and Nicholas looked up to see the corridor ahead of them go dark, as if a wave of shadow rolled down it. He lit the fuse and shouted, “Get down!”
The blast was a shock, louder than Nicholas had expected. He fell against the wall, ducking his head as his back was peppered with fragments of rock. He looked up to find himself blinded by dust and smoke. “Everyone all right?”
There were answering calls and some violent coughing.
Nicholas groped along the floor until he found the candle, blown out by the force of the explosion, then got to his feet. He shook his head, which did absolutely nothing for the ringing in his ears, and stumbled back toward the wall. Between the dust hanging in the heavy air and the darkness it was impossible to see and he had to feel along the wall for the opening. He tripped on a chunk of blasted stone and almost fell through the hole. It was at waist height, larger than he had expected; the stone hadn’t been as thick as it had looked. Lucky I didn’t bring the ceiling down on top of us. “Here!” he shouted.
As he got the candle lit again, the others managed to find him. They were all covered with brick dust, their faces smudged with smoke, and he supposed he looked as bad as they did.
Madeline was holding someone’s handkerchief over her face, the sphere tucked securely under her arm. “It’s not humming as loudly now,” she reported. “The explosion must have frightened that thing.”
“For the moment, at least,” Nicholas agreed. The dust was settling, aided by the damp air from the sewer. He lifted the candle. Through the gaping rent in the wall he could see a wide tunnel with an arched roof, lined with uneven stone blocks. There were ledges along both sides and a stream of dark water running between. A stench rose off that water, striking him like a blow in the stomach. Ducking his head, he stepped through the hole.
Crack scrambled through after him, saying tersely, “Ghouls.”
Nicholas tested his footing on the slimy stone. “I haven’t seen any.”
“Didn’t see any last time, either.”
There was a minor altercation occurring in the corridor, as Halle and Ronsarde tried to make Madeline go next and she protested, “No, I have the sphere, I should go last to cover our escape.”
“Gentlemen, it is useless to argue with her,” Nicholas told them grimly. He helped Ronsarde step through, then moved back to give Halle room on the ledge.
Reynard solved the Madeline problem by wrapping an arm around her waist and lifting her bodily through the gap, then stepping through after her. “If you’d seen what it did in the alley,” she was saying, “you’d realize what I mean. It reacts to the presence of magic — Good God, what a stink.”
“Half the prison knows where we are now,” Reynard reminded them. “Which way?”
“Here,” Nicholas said, moving forward to pick a path along the ledge. The sewer ran roughly eastward, toward the river. He hoped they didn’t have to go that far.
They had only a short time before the constables followed the sound of the blast and swarmed down here after them. Two streets over would be as far as they could safely go. Fortunately it would be growing dark outside and with every other odd thing that had happened in this part of the city today, people climbing out of the sewer would not be that much to remark on.
“The sphere is humming again,” Madeline said, breathless at the stink and the effort of walking on the slick stone in her long skirts. “That creature didn’t stay frightened for long.”
Wonderful, Nicholas thought. Perhaps it will stop and eat more constables. He didn’t think that was likely; there was no question it was after them.
They kept moving, muffled curses marking occasional stumbles. The sewer was a long tunnel, vanishing into darkness a few feet in front of their candle, dissolving into it behind them as they moved along. Vienne had literally miles of sewers, some new and easily traversed by the sewermen in sluice carts or boats, others old and so choked by refuse as to be almost impassable even by water. They were lucky that this was one of the newly built tunnels.
The filthy air was making it hard to breathe, but Nicholas noted the odor of rats was growing stronger, though the sewer seemed strangely empty of the rodents. The ledge grew narrow in places and Nicholas caught Madeline’s arm both to steady her and to reassure himself. Most of her attention was on the sphere.
The sphere’s humming grew louder; Nicholas could hear it now himself. Madeline held it nervously; she had taken off her gloves and her bare hands left traces of moisture on the stained metal surface. The rank, animal odor was more intense, combining with the effluvia of filth from the water below and making it difficult to draw a full breath. It was how intelligent the thing was that really mattered and how afraid it was of the sphere, Nicholas realized.
“How much further?” Madeline said. Her voice was thick.
“Just far enough,” Nicholas told her. “It would be a shame after all this to come up within sight of the Prefecture or the prison gates.”
Madeline laughed, a short gasp that turned into a choking cough. And if we manage to escape everything else that’s after us, the stench may still kill us, Nicholas thought.
“Nic,” Reynard said suddenly. “There’s something behind us.”
“Keep moving,” Nicholas said. Looking back, he caught a glimpse of a shadow shifting in the blackness, something that might be a trick of the light and his imagination. He knew it was all too real.
They managed perhaps another fifty yards down the sewer, before Nicholas said, “We’ve come far enough.” He had been counting paces and even given a generous margin of error, they should be at least two streets east of the prison by now. “Look for an outlet.”
“Thank God,” Reynard muttered from behind him. “I thought we were going all the way to the river.”
“There’s a ladder up here,” Halle said. Nicholas peered into the dimness ahead, then suddenly caught sight of it himself.
Nicholas handed Halle the candle and stepped up beneath the ladder, which led upward to a round metal cover in the curved roof. It was a street access for the sewermen. “Reynard, would you make certain we’re in the right place?”
“The wrong place being the prison courtyard or the steps in front of the Magistrates Court, I presume.” Reynard handed the rifle to Nicholas, then caught the lowest rung of the ladder and swung up it. Nicholas faced back the way they had come, the gunstock sweat-slick in his hands. He heard the heavy metal cover slide over, grating on stone, then muted daylight suddenly washed down through the tunnel. Nicholas thought he saw a form scramble back to the edge of shadow. He had the sudden conviction that it had changed, that it had taken a shape more suited to this fetid underground river. “Hurry,” he suggested from between gritted teeth.
“It’s Graci Street,” Reynard said from above. “Come on!” Halle came forward, half-supporting Ronsarde, and Nicholas realized the Inspector was in far worse case than he had been before. In the wan daylight his face was gray and he was gasping for breath. He’s old, Nicholas thought suddenly. He wasn’t a young man when Edouard died, but I didn’t realize how old…. Halle climbed far enough to hand his medical bag up to Reynard, then reached down to pull Ronsarde up the ladder, apparently on strength of will alone. It was going to be slow. Nicholas told Crack, “Help them.”
Crack hesitated and Nicholas gave him a push. “Go, dammit, help them.” Crack pocketed his pistol and gave Ronsarde a boost from behind, climbing up after him.
Nicholas looked back down the sewer. The darkness was pressing close, a palpable barrier. He swallowed in a dry throat. The next few moments would make all the difference.
Crack was through the opening now and looking anxiously down at them. Staring into the sphere, Madeline said tensely, “Go on.” Nicholas caught her arm. “Madeline, I’m not going to argue with you –” The darkness surged forward, blotted out the fading daylight from the opening overhead. A burst of white light flared with the strength of a bomb blast. Madeline cried out and they both fell back against the slick wall.
It took long moments for Nicholas’s vision to adjust to the dimness again, to be able to see anything beyond the spots of brilliance swimming in front of his eyes. The light from the opening overhead showed him nothing but empty ledges, the water below, the brick-lined tunnel leading off into the dark. But he could see further than he had before and there was nothing moving in those shadows but the flow of the stream. The others shouted down from above, demanding to know what had happened.
Madeline pushed herself away from the wall and made a futile effort to brush at the stains on her dress. The sphere she still held carefully in the crook of her arm was silent. “I told you so,” she said, preoccupied. “Edouard built it for this, after all.” She caught the rung of the ladder and swung up easily, one-handed.
I’m beginning to believe he did, Nicholas thought, and slung the rifle over his shoulder to climb after her.
END CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Continued in Chapter Fourteen, coming next week!
Martha Wells is the author of fourteen novels, including The Cloud Roads, The Wizard Hunters, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. The Siren Depths was published in December 2012 by Night Shade Books, and is the third in the Books of the Raksura series. Her YA fantasy, Emilie and the Hollow World, was published by Angry Robot in April 2013.
She has had short stories in Black Gate, Realms of Fantasy, and Stargate Magazine, and in the anthologies Elemental, The Year’s Best Fantasy #7, Tales of the Emerald Serpent and The Other Half of the Sky. She has essays in the nonfiction anthologies Farscape Forever, Mapping the World of Harry Potter and Chicks Unravel Time.
She has also written media-tie-in novels, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary and Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and has a Star Wars novel, Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge, due out in October 2013.
Her web site is www.marthawells.com
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