Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Chapter Twelve
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 Twelve. Read Chapter Eleven here.
Madeline walked the short distance from Coldcourt to the city gate and there got a ride on the public omnibus. She had learned from past experience that a public conveyance was always best when transporting valuable objects; even though it meant taking a more roundabout route to the warehouse, the omnibus was safer than a hire cab.
The spheres were in the carpetbag she was holding in her lap. Once at Coldcourt, she had taken time only to change from her dusty suit into a dress and jacket she thought of as Parlormaid’s Day Out and stuff her hair under a dowdy and concealing hat. If she ran into any close acquaintances who recognized her as Madeline Denare, it would be easy enough to invent a story about some romantic escapade or wager. Most of her theater acquaintances were fools, and were sure to believe any lie as long as it sounded risqué enough. You sound like Nicholas, she told herself. When did you become so cynical? Sometime after sorcerers started trying to kill me, she answered. Sometime after I met Nicholas. She had also brought a muff pistol with her which was now tucked under her shirtwaist.
The omnibus was a long open-sided carriage with bench seats accommodating about twenty persons if they were willing to become over familiar with one another. It was about half full now, and Madeline had managed to secure a seat not far behind the driver’s box. She was staring abstractly at the people passing on the street, thinking of their current problem, when she noticed the sky. When did it turn so dark! She fumbled for the watch pinned to her plain bodice. It was still early afternoon. Those clouds came in quickly; it’ll rain in a moment.
There was something happening in the street up ahead, people were running, shouting. Madeline sat up straighter, trying to see, and finally resorted to standing up and leaning out to see around the box. Other carriages, slowed by the sudden increase in foot traffic, blocked the way and the omnibus driver reined in.
Madeline frowned, tightening her hold on her carpetbag. The other passengers shifted and complained and one impatient man in a top hat got off to continue on foot. The driver was shouting for the other carriages to get out of his way or tell him what the devil was wrong.
“There’s riot in Prefecture plaza!” one of the other drivers shouted. “Go around!”
“Not riot, sorcery!” A bedraggled man, his coat torn and his face bloodied, staggered out of the confusion of coaches and addressed the passengers of the omnibus and the other halted conveyances as though he was preaching to a packed hall. “Sorcery, ruin! Demons overrun the halls of justice. We are doomed! Flee the demons in the Courts Plaza!”
The omnibus driver watched this performance in silence, then took a piece of fruit from the bag at his feet, stood and shied it at the speaker’s head. Missiles from the other coaches and a few of Madeline’s fellow passengers followed and the man ran away. The driver took his seat again, cursing, and began to try to turn the wagon. Madeline stepped off before this awkward operation could get underway and hurried across the crowded street to the promenade.
Demons weren’t difficult to imagine after the Sending. And the ghouls. She supposed there were other people in Vienne who might currently be drawing that sort of sorcerous attention but that they would also be visiting the Courts Plaza this afternoon was a bit too much for coincidence. No, it had to be Octave’s pet sorcerer.
Madeline hesitated for only a moment. The warehouse was a mile or two away and the plaza was barely two streets over.
She cut through alleys until she reached Pettlewand Street, which paralleled the plaza. She passed enough people fleeing the other way and heard enough confused reports of mayhem to confirm that there was riot, at least. She reached the avenue that would take her past the Prefecture building and the southern entrance of the plaza. It was ominously deserted, bare and colorless under the gray sky. She passed a darkened shop window and caught flashes of her own reflection out of the corner of her eye. She adjusted the strap of her carpetbag on her shoulder and kept walking. She could see the fanciful designs on the cornices of the Prefecture and the flight of steps flanked by two gas lamps in ornamental iron sconces. The sudden silence was so disconcerting it was almost a reassuring sight. Madeline told herself they were sure to know what had happened there, whether it was riot or sorcery, and if by some chance Nicholas and the others had been arrested… Well, it was the best place to find that out, too.
Madeline stopped abruptly as shouts sounded from up ahead. A group of men, uniformed constables and what appeared to be a mixed bag of court clerks, shopkeepers, and street layabouts tumbled around the corner of the Prefecture. Madeline stepped back against the wall of a shop, flattening herself against the dirty bricks as one of the constables pointed a pistol at someone just out of her line of sight and fired. She winced as the loud report echoed off the stone. If the riot moved into this street the Prefecture was likely to become a fortress under siege; she couldn’t afford to be trapped there. She edged back toward the nearest alley.
The constable fired again and his target lurched into view.
Madeline swore, loud enough that one of the men glanced her way. The thing moving toward them was like a cross between a goblin and an ape, with a rictus grin and vestigial wings, its skin gray and pitted as weathered stone. It lurched forward again, moving with unexpected speed, and the constable who had fired at it dodged back out of its reach. Well, my dear, it’s definitely sorcery, Madeline thought grimly, fumbling for her muff pistol.
Having the little pistol in her hand made her feel better but she suspected the sense of security was only illusory. Something of a higher caliber would be more comforting. Through the heavy material of the carpetbag she felt one of the spheres start to hum and tremble, as it had when the ghoul had approached the attic window at Coldcourt. She clutched the bag to her chest, willing it to be quiet. Not now. The creature, goblin, whatever it was was a bare twenty paces away and she didn’t want to attract its attention. It darted at one of the unarmed men and she raised her pistol, though she couldn’t tell if bullets had any effect or if the constables who were already firing at it were just poor marksmen.
Something grabbed her arm and yanked her into the alley. She knew instantly it wasn’t human, even in the semi-darkness of the narrow, cave-like alleyway. The grip was cold, hard as rock, inescapable. Instinctively she tried to throw her weight away from it, a move that would have sent a human attacker staggering, but the thing only gripped her arm more tightly. Her pistol went off as her fingers contracted at the pain. The little gun only held two shots; she gasped and barely managed to bring the lever back so she could try to fire again. Her throat was closed from fear and shock; she couldn’t even scream when the creature squeezed her arm again and sent her to her knees.
Her eyes watering, she looked up at a creature almost identical to the one that menaced the men in the street. The body was the same but this one had horns sprouting from its broad forehead. It lifted its free hand in a fist; one blow would crush her skull. Madeline forced her numb hand to move, twisting the pistol down despite the bone-crushing pain and triggering it. The sound deafened her and a shard of rock struck her cheek, making her think she had missed and fired into the alley wall, but the creature roared in pain. It released her arm and she collapsed.
Do something, run, fight, get up. Her right arm was numb to the shoulder and she managed only to roll away. She came up against something soft and lumpy that buzzed as if it contained a beehive. Her carpetbag. The spheres. She awkwardly ripped open the bag with her one good hand and snatched out the topmost sphere.
The creature loomed above her and she thrust the sphere up at it.
The world went briefly white, overwhelmed by light. Time seemed to hang suspended. She could hear a great roaring and something seemed to tell her that she was seeing sound and hearing color. Then she blinked and time washed back over the alley.
The creature still stood over her but it was motionless, as if frozen into a block of ice. Cautiously she reached up and touched the rough surface of its chest. Not ice, stone. Madeline lowered the still humming sphere to her lap. Now that she had leisure to study the creature she could see it was a gargoyle. An ordinary roof gargoyle like the ones that guarded most of the private and public buildings in Vienne. She had an urge to push this one over and break it on the cobblestones. Oh, for a hammer. She started to stand and gritted her teeth at the pain in her right arm.
There was an explosion out in the street, followed by a peculiar thump, of something heavy striking the pavement. Madeline groped at the alley wall and managed to get to her feet, moving forward enough to peer cautiously out.
There were three gargoyles in the street now but one had been turned back to stone and lay in pieces across the walk. As she watched, another one suddenly halted in the act of seizing a constable and toppled over to shatter with a dull crash. In another moment she spotted the sorcerer.
The doors into the Prefecture building stood open and a spectacled young man in a frock coat was leaning on the stair railing, staring at the last remaining gargoyle and muttering to himself. As he said his spell, the still restive sphere Madeline held shook violently.
She didn’t wait to see the creature destroyed, but turned back to gather the other two spheres and tuck them hastily into the carpetbag. She had to get them away. If she could sense the power in them with her small talent, the Prefecture’s sorcerer was sure to. She slung the bag awkwardly over her shoulder, still nursing her right arm. That was all she needed, to spend hours in a cell while court sorcerers determined that the spheres had had nothing to do with the sorcery in the plaza, while Nicholas and the others were God knows where doing God knows what.
She stumbled out into the street only to be swept up in another wave of refugees, heading for the Prefecture. Madeline tried to push her way free, but someone jostled her bad arm and she couldn’t suppress a cry at the pain.
“This lady is injured!” someone called out. Madeline glanced around in confusion and realized he meant her. She was suddenly boxed in by a young constable and an elderly man, both staring aghast at her. Her sleeve was torn, revealing the discolored flesh of her forearm.
“No, really, it’s just bruised,” she managed to protest. “I must get home –”
They weren’t listening to her. “There’s a doctor inside,” the constable said, urging her toward the Prefecture steps. The older man was helpfully gesturing at the others, exhorting them to look at what one of the horrible creatures had done to the poor girl.
Madeline planted her feet and started to express her wish to be let alone in no uncertain terms, then realized she was barely two paces away from the young sorcerer. She couldn’t afford to draw his attention. She bit back a curse and let herself be guided up the steps and into the Prefecture.
The Prefecture’s foyer was large but packed with shouting, pushing people. Coming into it suddenly from the daylight, Madeline was nearly blind in the gaslit dimness. One of her erstwhile rescuers took a firm hold of her good arm and guided her through the confusion. One could scarcely bludgeon someone in the foyer of the Prefecture and get away with it, crisis or not, especially when he was just trying to be helpful. Madeline decided she would just have to let the doctor tend to her arm before making her escape.
A constable threw open the door to a room where the gaslight was turned up and high windows allowed in wan daylight. Madeline had barely a chance to focus on the group of men gathered around a table talking loudly before the constable said, “Doctor Halle, there’s a lady injured here.”
Oh, damn, Madeline thought weakly. Of course, Doctor Halle was in the Prefecture. Ronsarde had been about to go before the magistrates; where else would Halle be?
Doctor Halle swung around with an impatient glance that turned into a worried frown when he focused on her. He came forward to take her injured arm and Madeline found herself being ushered into a nearby chair.
One of the men standing around the table was Captain Defanse of the Prefecture. He was saying, “The attack is centered on the prison now, that’s obvious.” Defanse was a stout man with thinning dark hair. He was one of Ronsarde’s chief supporters and had investigated Donatien’s activities on numerous occasions, but most of the time without knowing it was Donatien he was after. If he recognized Madeline, it would be from seeing her on the stage at the Elegante.
“But the Courts –” someone protested.
“That’s where the creatures came from. They were moving toward the prison,” Defanse corrected, shaking his head.
“The important question, gentlemen, is who arranged for the sorcery?” The speaker was a tall man with graying hair and handsome if harsh features. Oh, hell, Madeline thought, light-headed from repeated shocks. That’s Rahene Fallier, the Court Sorcerer. She wasn’t sure how it could get any worse. The Queen will be in here in a moment, I’m sure.
Madeline shoved her carpetbag under the chair and put her feet on it. She was trembling from sheer nerves but Halle would interpret that as reasonable due to her injury. She had never been this close to him before and this was his best chance to recognize her as the woman he had seen in disguise on other occasions, but his attention was torn between her injured arm and the men arguing in the other part of the room. Madeline allowed herself a small sense of relief; with luck he would never look more than cursorily at her face. “Nothing broken… ” he muttered to himself, carefully palpating her forearm.
“No, just badly bruised,” she whispered. She didn’t want him to hear her voice. He was an avid theater-goer and she didn’t want him to recognize her as Madeline Denare, either. “I do need to be getting home –”
“One of the constables saw Ronsarde and the men who saved him from the mob go toward the prison,” one of the men at the table said. He was another Prefecture captain; she couldn’t remember his name.
Halle glanced back at the speaker, his lips compressed as if in effort not to make an outburst.
Defanse gestured in exasperation. “You think they were in league with the Inspector? Impossible!”
“You think this is all coincidence? To happen just as Ronsarde was being taken into the Magistrates Court?”
“The man was attacked by rioters and almost killed, surely you can’t believe this was somehow arranged as an escape attempt? I gave strict orders for the constables to escort the Inspector across the bridge, out of reach of the mob. I would ask them who countermanded those orders but all four men are dead.”
“You suspect a conspiracy? Ridiculous!”
“Ronsarde would not use sorcery to cover his escape, not against his own constables,” Fallier said suddenly. “Someone planned this without his knowledge.”
“You’re right, it’s only bruised. You’re lucky.” Halle noticed Madeline’s torn sleeve and looked up at the constable still waiting near the door. “Get this lady a coat so she can leave.”
He was impatient to return to the argument and defend his friend Ronsarde but he still had time to think about her modesty. “Thank you,” Madeline whispered, keeping her voice pitched low.
Halle met her eyes and hesitated, but said only, “You’re welcome, young woman,” and got to his feet.
Madeline grabbed her carpetbag, accepted the young constable’s uniform jacket to cover her torn dress, and made her escape.
Nicholas knew they had to move now, while the prison was still in a state of chaos.
The room they stood in was bare and empty, lit by a solitary gas jet high in one lime-washed wall, and obviously intended for no purpose other than as one more obstruction to the way outside. The floor was stone-flagged and there was one other door, a solid oak portal with heavy iron plates protecting the lock. Nicholas looked at it and felt a twist in his stomach. He didn’t have the proper tools with him to drill through those plates, even if he had had the hours necessary to do it. If that’s locked, we’re done for right here and now. He stepped forward and seized the handle, and felt almost light-headed from relief when it turned. He pulled it open, cautiously, and found himself in a corridor, narrow and low-ceilinged, lit by intermittent gas lamps and leading in one direction toward another heavy door and in the other roughly paralleling the outer wall.
“That’s mildly encouraging,” Reynard said in a low voice, stepping into the doorway after him. “That we’re not trapped in here for the pleasure of whatever’s after us, I mean. As to what we do now… ?”
Nicholas hesitated. Ronsarde’s presence made the situation several times more problematic. “We could try the main gate, or throw ourselves on the mercy of the first official we meet, but… ” He glanced back at Ronsarde.
The Inspector smiled grimly. “But explanations would be difficult? At the moment I also prefer a more unobtrusive exit.” He would not be able to move with much haste. He was bleeding from a cut on the head and one eye was already swelling and he limped with every step.
Very well, Nicholas thought. Then we do it the hard way. His eyes still on the Inspector, he asked, “Do you know this place at all?”
“No, only the public areas, unfortunately.”
Crack was watching Nicholas worriedly. Of all of them, Crack had spent the most time here, but his experience had been limited to the cellblock. Nicholas preferred not to get any closer to that section of the prison than absolutely necessary. “Give me a moment,” he said, half turning away and shutting his eyes in an effort to concentrate. “I’ve been here before under similar circumstances.” Not here, exactly, but on the upper floors.
He had committed a map of the place to memory when he had arranged Crack’s escape, but that had been years ago. Of course, you were dressed as a guard then, and you had keys to the connecting passages, and Crack was pretending to be dead. Doing it without keys, a suitable disguise, or an apparently plague-ridden corpse to fend off casual interest would be considerably more difficult. Sections of the map were coming back to him. He knew where they had to go; it was getting there that was going to be the problem. He said, “That open way looks easier, but it actually leads toward the warders‚ barracks, and the stairs up to the governor’s quarters and the other offices. Straight ahead toward that door will take us to a point where we can get down to the level below this one, which will be much easier to move through.” It was made up of the old cellars and dungeons, connected by a criss-crossing warren of corridors and passages. That was where they needed to go, where there would be far less chance of detection. The lower levels were inaccessible from the cellblocks and not well guarded. “The only problem is that past that door is likely to be a guard point.”
“How many guards?” Reynard asked.
“At least two.” Nicholas eyed the door. Crack’s pistol was empty, its bullets expended on opening the outer door. The weapon Nicholas had taken from Ronsarde’s abductors had only five shots left. “Do you have your revolver?” he asked Reynard.
“No. I didn’t think it necessary in the Magistrates Court,” he answered, glancing speculatively around the bare room. “Crack, hand me your pistol.”
“They won’t know that.”
While they were settling that, Nicholas took his scarf and tied it around the lower half of his face. He didn’t want to make it too easy for the guards to recognize him later. He waited until Reynard had done the same, then he went to the door. “Get ready to force your way in behind me.”
It was sheathed in heavy iron; there would be no way to force it with the materials they had at hand. Nicholas approached it quietly and listened but could hear nothing through the layers of wood and metal. He drew a deep breath and pounded on it. “Open up, quick, it’s right behind us!” he yelled, pitching his voice toward the edge of hysteria.
He heard something from the other side, someone shouting about what the devil was going on, and he continued pounding and yelling. Moments passed, enough time for the men within to make a decision, to realize this door led away from the cellblocks, not toward them, and that this couldn’t be an escape attempt, and to fumble with their keys. The door jerked and started to swing inward. Nicholas set his shoulder and slammed his weight against it.
The man on the other side of the door staggered back and Nicholas caught his coat collar and shoved the pistol up under his chin, snarling, “Don’t move.”
This was directed at the second man in the room, caught just standing up from a desk. Reynard pushed through the door behind Nicholas, caught the other guard by the arm and slung him to the ground.
Nicholas stepped back so his man wouldn’t be able to grab the pistol and said, “Turn around and lie face down on the floor.”
“What — What do you –”
He was an older man, with thinning gray hair, gape-faced with astonishment. The one Reynard had flung down looked to be barely out of his teens. Nicholas found himself hoping he didn’t have to shoot them. “Just do it,” he snapped.
The two guards were unarmed, since unless there was some emergency, prison warders only carried clubs. When both men were lying face down on the floor, Nicholas motioned for Crack and the Inspector to move on through the room. He tore the keys off the first guard’s belt and handed them up to Crack as the henchman helped Ronsarde past.
“Their uniforms?” Reynard suggested.
“Yes, at least the coats,” Nicholas said. “You take –” They both heard it at once, pounding footsteps echoing against the stone walls, coming from the corridor they had just passed through. “No time,” Nicholas snapped. “Just keep moving.”
Crack had unlocked the other door. Nicholas waited until the others were through and then backed toward it himself, saying, “Don’t move, gentlemen, and no one will get hurt.”
“You won’t get away with this!” the older one said.
“Very likely you’re right,” Nicholas muttered. He stepped back through the door and gestured for Crack to pull it to and lock it. Without the keys, the two guards would have to wait for their fellows before they could open this door again. Not that that was likely to be more than a few moments. Nicholas looked around, trying to get his bearings.
They were in another small dim antechamber with two more doors and another corridor branching off. Nicholas hesitated, thinking hard, then took the keys from Crack and stepped to the first door. He unlocked it and yanked it open, revealing a narrow staircase twisting down into darkness. He gestured the others ahead, then turned back to unlock the other door, the one that should, if he remembered correctly, lead to the long straight corridor to the lower cellblocks. He flung it open and turned back toward the stairs. Just let their pursuers believe they had taken that route, just long enough to let them lose themselves in the catacombs below. They should have no trouble thinking us confused enough to go toward the cellblocks, Nicholas thought, starting down the stairs and pulling the heavy door shut behind him. He shook it to make sure the lock had set again. We’re breaking into a prison, after all.
He almost tumbled down the stairs in the dark, catching himself on the wall at the bottom under a barely burning gas sconce, and almost fell into Reynard. They were in a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor of dark stone patched with old brick, passages leading off in three different directions. There were a few gas sconces visible, obviously new additions, with their pipes running on the outside of the walls. Crack was supporting Ronsarde. Nicholas motioned for them to be silent, though he doubted that would do any good if the guards decided to check down here.
The moments stretched. They heard a muted thump as someone tried the door above to make sure it was locked, then silence.
“It worked,” Ronsarde said, quiet approval in his voice. “Simple but elegant.”
Reynard looked at Nicholas. “Well, which way? Or do we flip a coin?”
Good question, Nicholas thought. He didn’t know this level as well as the others. It had been a backup route for him in his original plan to engineer Crack’s escape years ago, but he hadn’t had to use it. “We’ll try this way first.”
The others followed, Reynard immediately behind him, with Ronsarde coming after, supporting himself with one hand on Crack’s shoulder and the other on the slightly greasy stones of the wall. In the narrow corridor there was only room for one of them to help him at a time. That was going to tire Ronsarde more quickly and slow the rest of them down. Worry about it later. Keeping his voice low, Nicholas explained to Reynard, “What we have to make for is the southwest corner. That’s the old chapel and mortuary and there’s an outside door there for removal of the bodies. That’s our only choice besides the entrance we came in and the main gate.”
“Rather appropriate, if you think about it,” Reynard commented, and Nicholas couldn’t find it in himself to disagree. The further away from the outer door, the more stale the air became. Stale, and with a foulness under it that made the back of Nicholas’s neck prickle.
His voice strained from the pain of his injuries and from trying to keep up, Ronsarde said, “If events turn any further against us, this may be our only opportunity to pool our resources. You saw the gentlemen who were pursuing me; I take it the sorcerer who animated the Courts’ architecture is interested in you?”
“I suspect they may have been sent by the same person, whether they know it or not.” Nicholas glanced back over his shoulder. “Do you know who arranged your arrest?”
“Within the Prefecture, no. Halle is currently attempting to uncover that intelligence, but since he can no longer risk trusting our former allies, it will be difficult. As to who ordered my arrest, I can only suspect Count Rive Montesq.”
Nicholas stopped dead, for a moment all thought suspended, hearing that name. Count Rive Montesq….
Reynard thumped him in the back then, saying, “Escape first, revenge later.”
Nicholas started forward again. Careful, careful. He would have to reveal a little to get more information, but he didn’t want Ronsarde to realize how deeply he was involved. The Inspector must have recognized him as Nicholas Valiarde, or he would soon enough. If he recognized him as Donatien… You would have to kill him. As ironic as that would be, after risking his life as well as Reynard’s and Crack’s to rescue him. There would be no choice. Not when going to prison meant taking Madeline and the others with him. “Do you know anything about the sorcerer who is involved in this?”
“I know that there is one, that he is practicing necromancy, and that he is completely insane,” Ronsarde said. “I might have discovered much more if I hadn’t been interrupted so precipitously by my arrest.”
“It’s very possible he –” believes himself to be Constant Macob, Nicholas started to say, but the scream echoing down the corridor from somewhere ahead cut off the words.
They halted in startled silence and Nicholas felt for the revolver in his pocket, but the sound wasn’t repeated. After a tense moment, Reynard said, “I know people must scream somewhat in the normal course of things in a place like this, but –”
“But not normally this far below the cellblock,” Nicholas finished for him. “There shouldn’t be anyone down here.” Of course, Octave’s mad sorcerer had gone to great lengths to get to them already, he wasn’t going to let prison walls stop him.
There was another scream, startling out of the deep silence of the place, and Nicholas could tell it was much closer. “Back the other way,” he said.
Madeline hurried down the street away from the Prefecture, but instead of turning toward the warehouse she took the other way, working her way closer to the plaza. When the official had mentioned the men who had run into the prison with Ronsarde she had had a distinctly sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. There was no guarantee it was Nicholas and the others, but… If he had sent someone for help, he would have sent to the warehouse only a few streets away and that meant Cusard and Lamane.
She scouted the streets and alleys bordering the plaza, passing confused, fleeing people. Finally she spotted Cusard’s wagon on the roadside, the horses tied to the rails of a public water trough. She approached cautiously, but then she saw Cusard and Lamane, standing near the front of the wagon in agitated conversation.
They looked relieved at the sight of her and Madeline suspected that meant they were about to hand her a tricky problem. This thought was confirmed when Cusard greeted her with, “We’re in trouble.”
“Nicholas and the others?”
“In the prison.”
Madeline swore a particularly vile oath, a luxury she usually didn’t permit herself in front of people. Lamane even looked startled. She said to Cusard, “That’s what I was afraid of. How?”
Cusard glanced toward a group of constables moving up the street, then gestured her toward the nearest alley. They moved a few paces down it, Madeline catching up her skirt out of habit to protect it against the filth-covered cobbles. The alley was open-ended and they could see a black wall across the street at its farther end. The prison wall.
“The Inspector was set-on as they brought him out of the Prefecture,” Cusard said. “There was a huge crowd gathered, a mob. Himself smelled a trap and he sent Devis for us, only we didn’t get there in time to do nothing but watch.”
“What did you see?”
“Some bullyboys took the Inspector off the constables and were going to hang him at the old gallows. I lost sight of where Nic and the captain and Crack went until they popped up there. They took the Inspector off the bullyboys and chased them away, and I thought, now they’ll want a quick escape, but then the sorcery started.”
“Those stone things off the buildings, yes, I saw those. Then what?”
“Then they ran in the prison, with those living statues right behind them. Just like Lethe Square, it’s us this sorcerer’s after, all right.”
Madeline flinched and turned, badly startled. Not five paces away was Doctor Cyran Halle. He must have stood just out of sight, around the corner of the alley.
“I heard your conversation,” he said.
Lamane started to reach for something in his coat pocket and Cusard caught his arm. No weapons, for God’s sake, Madeline thought. We haven’t done anything wrong, not that he’s witnessed. This was Ile-Rien, not Bisra, and thoughts and talk didn’t count for as much. “What do you mean?” she choked out, trying to sound indignant.
“I followed you here from the Prefecture and I heard everything you said,” Halle answered. His brow was furrowed with worry but his voice was calm. “I must speak with you.”
“You can’t prove nothing,” Cusard spoke almost automatically. “It’s your word against all three of ours.”
Halle held up his hands, palms out, and Madeline wondered if he was asking to be heard out or showing he was unarmed. He said, “I recognized you. You were the nurse, in the morgue that day.”
“That means nothing,” Madeline managed to say. Her throat was dry. Pretending to be offended was no use. The circumstances were too suspicious.
Halle took a step closer, halted when Lamane shifted nervously. “I heard you just now,” he repeated. “Your friends are the men who saved Ronsarde, who ran into the prison to get away from the sorcery. You want to get them out without the Prefecture being involved. I want to help you.”
“You were in that room just now, you heard them. Someone arranged for that mob to be present and ordered the constables to take Ronsarde out on the steps instead of across the bridge, so the hired thugs could get to him. If he’s taken by the Prefecture, it will just give whomever it was another chance to kill him.” Halle hesitated. “If you are who I think you are… ”
Madeline caught her breath. She felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. Next to her, Cusard made an involuntary noise in his throat, but didn’t react in any other way. She said, “Who do you think we are?”
“Ronsarde hypothesized your existence. He knew that this rogue sorcerer was encountering resistance from some person or group, and that there had to be something preventing that person or group from coming forward and reporting the sorcerer’s activity. The incident in Lethe Square seemed to confirm this.” Halle paused deliberately. “As to whatever it is that kept you from coming forward when the sorcerer attacked you, I don’t know what it is and I venture to say that at this stage it hardly matters.”
Madeline exchanged a look with Cusard. They were both too well-schooled at keeping appearances to show relief, but he looked a little white around the mouth. Madeline turned back to Halle. He doesn’t know about Donatien — yet. Ronsarde would recognize Nicholas as the son of Edouard Viller, but that would be all. I need to come up with a story, something to explain what we’re doing and why…. He doesn’t want to know now, or thinks he doesn’t, but he will soon….
“Please,” Halle said urgently. “The streets are in confusion, the Prefecture is helpless, we need to do this now or we will lose our chance.”
Madeline bit her lip. Her instincts said to trust him but it was her instincts that she didn’t trust right now. It came from knowing your enemy too well. She had heard all the stories Nicholas told, of Ronsarde and Halle at Edouard’s trial, she had read Halle’s accounts of the cases they had been involved in before that pivotal point, the cases since. The times she had tricked them herself, the disguises she had worn or designed for others specifically to fool them, the plots she had participated in to circumvent them; she had become far too familiar with them. God help me, I almost think of them as colleagues. She had been startled when they had encountered Halle at the city morgue, but now standing here and speaking to him felt almost natural. And you told Nicholas he wasn’t wary enough; this man could have you sent to prison for the rest of your life. She looked toward the dark stone wall, just visible through the open end of the alley passage. No, not that. She would put a pistol to her head before that.
Halle was watching her desperately. He said, “The only possible way in now is through the prison Infirmary. I’ve assisted the surgeons there before. There are guards but I can get you past them without violence –”
“There’s not been no violence, never, that wasn’t self-defense,” Cusard interrupted. “It was that sorcerer, whoever he is. Three, four times he tried to kill us with those ghouls and he killed all the people in that house –”
Madeline held up a hand to stop him. She said to Halle, “I’ll need your word that nothing we say or do in the course of our association will be passed on to any official of the Prefecture.”
“You have it,” Halle answered readily. “But I’ll need your word that no constables or civilians will be hurt or killed in what we’re about to undertake.”
She hesitated. “I can’t promise that without reservation. If someone fires at me, I’ll certainly shoot back, but I won’t just kill someone for the sake of doing it, if that’s what you mean.”
Halle let out his breath. “That is satisfactory. I won’t expect you to let yourself be shot for my scruples.”
Madeline accepted that with a nod and turned to Cusard. “I’ll need blasting powder. Go and fetch some for me.”
Lamane looked as if he might faint. Cusard gaped at her. “Since when do you know how to set a charge?”
“You’re going to show me how before we go.”
Cusard closed his eyes, apparently in silent prayer. “Oh, no.”
Halle said, doubtfully, “Blasting powder?”
“We can get in without violence, as you put it, but we won’t get out, not with Ronsarde a wanted felon. We can’t just steal a warder’s uniform for him; too many of the constables have seen him, worked with him. We’ll have to make our own way out.”
“Young lady, you have a very… clear view of our situation.” He took a deep breath and she realized this hadn’t been easy for Halle either, that it was just as hard for him to trust her. And he doesn’t know as much about me as I know about him. He doesn’t know I have a sense of honor, that I wouldn’t break my word and shoot him as soon as I don’t need him anymore. He had been brave enough to approach her with Cusard and Lamane here; she knew they were cracksmen and housebreakers, not killers, but he didn’t. He said, “We have no time to lose.”
She nodded to Cusard. “You heard him. Hurry.”
Cusard cursed, stamped his feet, and went.
“You won’t regret this,” Halle said, his eyes earnest.
Madeline nodded distractedly and began to pull the braid off her borrowed constable’s jacket. I regret it already, she thought. If this fails and I get us all arrested, I won’t have to put a pistol to my head because Nicholas will kill me. And in all fairness I’ll just have to let him.
It was becoming more and more apparent that something was hunting them through the darkened corridors of the prison.
Nicholas cursed when he saw their path blocked by another door. So far they had run into four locked doors that the keys Nicholas had taken from the guard upstairs refused to open, but two Crack had been able to force with his jimmie. Two had been too heavily plated to open with that method and they had had to change their route. There were not supposed to be doors blocking these passages; they must have been added in the last few years, perhaps as a response to more escapes.
He gestured Crack toward the door and leaned back against the dirty stone to let him pass. Ronsarde braced himself against the wall, his breathing harsh. Nicholas exchanged a worried look with Reynard. If they kept to this pace much longer they might kill the Inspector. Somewhere up one of the corridors a crash of splintered wood echoed, then a thump and a human cry, abruptly choked off.
“God, it’s got another one,” Reynard muttered. “How many does that make?”
“Four,” Nicholas answered. He was watching Crack work the door. This one looked like it might be forced, with luck at least. When they hadn’t been captured in the cellblock area, prison warders or constables must have been sent down to this level to search for them. Fortunately, the creature the sorcerer had sent after them was indiscriminate in who it killed. “If it knew where we were going, it would have had us by now. It’s just… hunting.”
“Maybe it’s time to start hunting it,” Reynard said.
Nicholas met his eyes, frowning. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll slip back the way we came and try to kill it,” Reynard explained. He looked back down the corridor. “That’s the only course of action that makes sense. From what we’ve heard it moves fast; there’s little chance of all of us outrunning it, not with an injured man and having to stop to break open doors every few minutes.”
“You don’t know the prison,” Nicholas pointed out. He had considered taking this option himself but he was reluctant to do it until he could think of a sure way to destroy the creature that was trailing them. The most likely method he had come up with so far involved the gas jets the passages were lit with, but he couldn’t think of a way to accomplish it without self-immolation and he didn’t think the situation warranted that yet. “If you survived the encounter with this creature, you wouldn’t be able to follow us out.” If we ever find the way ourselves, which is very much in doubt at the moment.
“I don’t have to find my way out. The Inspector is the one who is the fugitive from the Prefecture. Alone, I’m just another damn fool who ran in here to escape the sorcery.”
“You’ll need the pistol,” Nicholas tried again. It would be certain death to confront the thing alone and he estimated he had until Crack forced the door to talk Reynard out of it. “And right now I’ve got it.
Reynard eyed him deliberately and smiled. “I bet I could persuade you to give it to me.”
Someone else might have thought Reynard was threatening violence; Nicholas knew better. What did the leaders of other criminal organizations do when one of their men threatened to embarrass them into handing over a weapon? He lifted an eyebrow. “Not in front of the Inspector, surely. And besides, what would Madeline think? She’d have to challenge you to a duel.” This was not facetious; Madeline had fought a duel before, using pistols, with a fellow actress who had insulted her. Reynard had acted as her second.
Crack hunched his shoulders, trying to divorce himself from the altercation. Ronsarde merely watched silently.
“True, and I would feel obligated to let her win,” Reynard admitted, obviously torn. He knew Madeline’s temper. “But still –”
The lock gave way with a creak and snap of old metal and Crack pushed it open.
Nicholas quickly offered the most pertinent objection, “But we only have the one pistol, with only five bullets left, and if the creature gets past you, or you miss it in these corridors, we won’t have a chance against it.” This was what had stopped Nicholas from trying it himself, and until he perfected his theory concerning the gas jets, it remained the main objection. He gestured toward the now open door. “I suggest we get moving before this discussion becomes academic.”
“True.” Reynard looked convinced, for now at least. “I hadn’t considered that.”
Nicholas hid his relief. “Perhaps we can find another horror for you to fight at a more convenient time,” he said politely, as Reynard stepped toward the door.
“Oh, but I thought you had your heart set on us all dying together?”
Nicholas decided to let Reynard have that one and turned back to take the Inspector’s arm and help him through. Ronsarde’s expression had gone from quiet observation to quizzical amusement, which quickly shifted back to bland politeness when he caught Nicholas’s eye. Nicholas was left with the rather nervous feeling that they had just revealed more about themselves than they should.
They made their way through the door, Crack shutting it and wedging it closed behind them.
Nicholas handed Crack the revolver without further comment from Reynard. Crack took the lead, with Nicholas assisting Ronsarde and Reynard behind them. About fifty paces down the dimly-lit corridor, Crack lifted a hand to stop them. Nicholas waited, until Crack glanced back and whispered, “Smell that?”
Nicholas frowned, trying to detect something in the stale air besides the normal stink of the prison. Then he had it. There was an animal odor, a foulness like the one that hung around rat-infested buildings, but far worse and growing stronger.
“It’s gotten ahead of us,” Reynard whispered.
“We’re so turned around we may have gotten ahead of it,” Nicholas answered. “Can you see anything moving up ahead?” He could see the open area where the corridor joined another passage, this one with a lower ceiling and fewer lights.
“No. Can’t hear anything.”
“The other victims probably couldn’t hear anything, either,” Ronsarde pointed out quietly.
Reynard and Nicholas exchanged a look. “He’s fitting in well, don’t you think?” Reynard commented, sparing a smile for the Inspector.
Nicholas decided he didn’t have time to be annoyed. “Move forward — slowly,” he said.
Crack reached the intersection first and held up a warning hand to halt them. They stopped, Reynard taking a firmer grip on his sword cane.
After a moment Crack motioned them forward.
On the floor of the wider area where the two passages met, a man in a prison warder’s dark uniform lay in a crumpled bundle, face down, one arm twisted into an unnatural position, a spray of drying blood around him. A heavy steel door barred one end of the intersecting passage, the other led off to the left, the intermittent gaslights along its length revealing nothing but bare stone.
Nicholas could see the door was firmly shut and locked and he knew the creature hadn’t come down the corridor they had just come up. He looked down the apparently empty passage. It’s there. It just doesn’t know we’re here. Yet. Nicholas motioned Crack to hand the revolver to Reynard, then pointed to the guard and mouthed the word “keys.” Crack nodded.
Reynard took the pistol and stepped silently across the corridor where he could cover the open passage. He glanced worriedly at Nicholas, who knew what he was thinking. We can be as quiet as we like, now, Nicholas thought, but it is going to hear that door open.
Crack found the ring of keys on the warder’s belt then stepped to the door. He fit the key into the lock and carefully turned it. The tumblers clicked loudly in the silence.
There was no sound from the open passage.
Nicholas quickly helped Ronsarde past the dead prison guard and through the door. As Reynard turned to follow them there was a rush of air and the nearest gas jets dimmed faintly. Nicholas let the Inspector go, his shouted warning instinctive and incoherent. It was enough for Reynard, who dove through the door, Crack slamming it shut almost on his heels.
Something heavy struck the thick metal with a thump that made the stones under their feet tremble. There was a pause, and then the handle jerked as it was pulled from the other side. “The keys?” Nicholas whispered, his throat dry.
Crack held up the bundle of keys and there was a collective exhalation of relief. If those had been left in the lock… Nicholas thought, Well, our troubles would have been over much sooner.
“Good man,” Reynard told Crack. “Now let’s get out of here before it finds another way past that door.”
Nicholas took the bundle of keys from Crack. They could move faster now at any rate, and take a more direct route to their goal, if they could avoid the guards. He just hoped they could move fast enough.
END CHAPTER TWELVE
Continued in Chapter Thirteen
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