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 Twenty-One. Read Chapter Twenty here.
Nicholas watched the fay stalk back and forth, clawing at its belly. It had lost interest in searching for them but refused to go away and perish somewhere else. The lost time was grating; he only hoped Crack or Madeline had reached the surface by this point to carry the word of Macob’s whereabouts to the help that was, theoretically at least, waiting for them.
Crushed back into the crevice as they both were, it was hard to tell if Arisilde was showing any more signs of returning consciousness. If he didn’t wake soon, Nicholas had no idea what to do with him. He couldn’t leave him here in this condition. With the giant fay eliminated there was no telling what other inhabitants of this place would emerge and if Arisilde wasn’t conscious enough to defend himself, it would be murder to leave him here. “What am I going to do with you?” Nicholas muttered to himself.
“Might I move now?”
The voice was a weak whisper and plaintive, but as the first time Arisilde had spoken in days, it was entirely welcome. Nicholas could have shouted in relief but he confined himself to saying, “Yes, but slowly. It’s still down there.” He pressed back against the wall to give him room. “How do you feel?”
“Rather…horrid, actually.” Arisilde managed to sit up a little. He blinked as if even the dim light of the ghost-lichen was too much for him. His face was terribly drawn and gaunt, but he was alive. “Rather confused, too.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“I thought I was at home.” Arisilde peered at the fay pacing below. It gave a high-pitched shriek of anger and clawed at its belly again, leaving wide tears in the putrid flesh. “Oh, my. That’s awful, isn’t it?”
“Mildly, yes,” Nicholas agreed. “It’s a fay or what’s left of one. I tried to poison it but since the creature is already dead it’s taking much longer than I thought.”
Arisilde greeted this speech, which must have sounded quite mad, with a complacent nod. “I see, yes. Most inconvenient. Now, why are we here again?”
“The necromancer I was searching for enspelled you with a corpse ring, do you remember that?”
Arisilde’s vague gaze suddenly sharpened. “Someone came to the door. Isham was out so I went to open it. There was a man, he handed me something… Oh, I’m a fool. That’s the oldest trick in the world.” He shook his head, his expression rueful. “He handed me a ring and said he wanted me to tell him where the person who had owned it was now. I said I’d work on it. He even paid me. People around the neighborhood bring me those sorts of commissions all the time. The ring probably had a charm, a simple, subtle one, that suggested I put it on. Where was I wearing it?”
“On your foot, oddly enough,” Nicholas said. Arisilde’s opium habit must have left him open to this. His power was proof against open assaults, but his failing senses left him vulnerable to more subtle, indirect attacks.
“That’s quite a good idea, actually; Isham would have checked my hands. I don’t remember putting it on at all. But if I was under the influence of a charm, I wouldn’t.” He sighed. “I failed you, Nicholas.”
“We can assign blame later, Ari.” Nicholas was thinking hard. Macob must have put the ring back on Arisilde and simply dumped his body down here with the unwanted revenants. Well, it was hardly surprising. He knew Macob had no respect for life.
Nicholas considered the fay again. It seemed increasingly distracted and was staying at the far end of the pit. They might be able to make it back up to the opening into the fissure, and from there get through to the other side of the pit and reach the way out. “Can you stand?”
Arisilde frowned in concentration and tried to pull his legs up. With some effort he managed to bend his knees, wincing in pain. “Not yet. I’ll keep trying. Is there a time constraint?”
“We can’t afford to wait long.” Nicholas drew a sharp breath. With so much time in an unconscious state Arisilde must be unbelievably stiff. He said, “Listen: this necromancer is Constant Macob and he’s been dead nearly two hundred years. He has what’s left of his corpse and he seems to be using one of the spheres–”
“Macob, the Necromancer, himself? That’s not good,” Arisilde interrupted, startled. “Is the corpse intact?”
“No, he’s missing the skull,” Nicholas answered. The expression on Arisilde’s face was not encouraging. “What does it mean?”
“He’s trying to bring himself back to life, that much is obvious. But how?” Arisilde frowned into the distance. “The planets are in entirely the wrong configuration for that sort of– Wait, I wasn’t unconscious for months, was I?”
“No, no. Only a few days.”
“That’s all right, then.” Arisilde paused in thought again, then asked urgently, “You said he had one of the spheres? That Edouard made? Which one?”
“One that Ilamires Rohan helped him with. Doctor Octave blackmailed Rohan for it.”
“Rohan helped Edouard? I didn’t even realize…” As the knowledge sank in, Arisilde swore incredulously. “That bastard Rohan. He didn’t even offer to testify in Edouard’s behalf. I knew he was a hypocrite but–”
“I know,” Nicholas said, his mouth set in a grim line.
Arisilde ran a trembling hand through his hair, as if trying to get his thoughts in order. “What does the sphere do?”
“I don’t know, Ari. I was hoping you could tell me.” Nicholas’s voice rose a bit in exasperation and he lowered it hastily, glancing at the fay to make sure he hadn’t drawn its attention. It didn’t look in their direction, entirely occupied with the iron in its belly.
“No, I haven’t the faintest idea,” Arisilde assured him. “I suppose it was an early effort. Rohan, hmm? Well, as long as it isn’t that last one that Edouard made, the one I helped with. Even he thought that one was a bit much.” Arisilde nodded to himself. “Now if this necromancer had that one, we would be in a real difficulty.” He looked up and saw the expression on Nicholas’s face. “Oh.”
“It was the largest of the three at Coldcourt, with the copper-colored metal case?” Nicholas asked, reluctantly.
“Yes, that’s it.” Arisilde looked worried. “He does have it?”
“No, Madeline has it. She came down here with me but we were separated and she escaped. At least, I hope she did.” Frustrated, Nicholas looked back at the fay. “I haven’t had any chance to search for her.”
“As long as this Macob doesn’t have it. I don’t suppose we should ever have made that one in the first place, but it’s a trifle late for regrets, isn’t it?”
“What does it do?” Nicholas demanded. He was glad Arisilde wasn’t dead but he was also ready to bang the sorcerer’s head against the nearest rock.
“It’s hard to say.” Arisilde gestured earnestly. “A little bit of everything, I should think, from the spells Edouard wanted me to cast for it. At the time I think he knew more about sorcery than I did, for all he was never able to perform it. The spheres were meant to allow anyone to cast spells, even a person with no talent and no ability for magic. It was all based on Edouard’s theories about how the etheric plane worked. He thought everyone had some ability to sense the presence of magical phenomena–”
“Even if it wasn’t on a conscious level. Yes, he told me.” Nicholas had heard it all at length before Edouard died. Edouard had believed that it was only the people who had a heightened perception of magic, who could consciously sense it, who could learn to become sorcerers, but that everyone had some awareness of it. “And Rohan said the spheres will only work for someone who has some talent for magic, despite what Edouard wanted.”
“Yes, Edouard was disappointed. They never turned out quite right. But Madeline has some talent, she should be able to control it. If she can give it some direction, it can do the rest.” Arisilde looked thoughtful. “This Macob–he’s dead, you say? He couldn’t possibly remain on the plane of the living and use his powers without some sort of assistance. If there’s no other sorcerer in the matter, then it must be the sphere he has that’s keeping him here. If Macob used it the way it was meant to be used, it would be as if he had another living sorcerer performing spells but completely under his domination. If he manages to force his spirit to reinhabit his body, he won’t need the sphere anymore but it would make him…well, terribly powerful.” Arisilde said this apologetically, as if it was somehow his fault. “The spheres seem to give the bearer, in some measure at least, the power of the sorcerer who helped create it. I put all my best spells into that last one I helped Edouard with. Somehow, all that machinery inside it, those gears and things, remember the spells. Edouard explained it to me but I never fully understood.”
“So if Macob brings himself back to life, the sphere he has now will give him all the same power of Ilamires Rohan, Master of Lodun, plus his own not inconsiderable abilities?”
“And if he gets his hands on the sphere Madeline has now, he will also have your power?”
“Well, yes, but not as I am now, you know. It will be as I was then, when I made the sphere. Before I had all my little difficulties, you know.”
Nicholas was almost too distracted to notice that this was the first time Arisilde had ever referred, even obliquely, to his opium addiction. He said, “As you were then, at the height of your power?”
“But how can he possibly retrieve the skull from the palace? It’s protected by the wards. Except…”
Nicholas shook his head, frustrated. “Macob was apparently a genius at creating new spells. With all these dead fay around–”
Arisilde was nodding. “Yes, I wouldn’t put it past him to have thought of some way around the wards.”
For a moment it was tempting to concentrate on finding the others and escaping, leaving Fallier and Giarde to deal with Macob. But that was a fool’s choice; if Macob returned himself to life, he would not suffer anyone to live who had interfered with him. And I’ll be damned if I let him use Edouard’s work to do it. Nicholas swore under his breath. “Whatever he means to do I have to stop him.” He had the germ of an idea but he wasn’t sure if it was even remotely possible. He dug the corpse ring out of his pocket. “Just how subtle is this spell, Ari? Could it fool Macob?”
Ari studied the ring, eyes narrowed. “It might. It’s a very good spell, meant to fool a strong sorcerer. And if Macob was distracted, perhaps by working other difficult spells…”
Their eyes met. Arisilde’s gaze was worried. He said, “You would have to be careful.”
“Careful? You mean suicidally rash, don’t you?” Nicholas asked, smiling lightly. “Will you be all right if I leave you here? There are ghouls and the revenants you told me about. Can you defend yourself?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine.” Arisilde gestured reassuringly, as if Nicholas was leaving him in a cafe on the Boulevard of Flowers and there might be some difficulty in securing a cab. “Do go on. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”
Nicholas eased out of the crevice and stood cautiously, keeping one eye on the fay. It was on the far side of the pit still, reeling drunkenly and snarling at shadows, well past taking notice of him.
“Nicholas,” Arisilde said urgently. “Take care. He is a powerful sorcerer, but you know, I do think you’re much better at scheming things than he is.”
Nicholas had no time to sort that statement out. He nodded to Arisilde and started to climb the wall.
Nicholas had considered the possibility that the ghouls would still be waiting for him up in the tunnel, he just had no notion of what to do about it. With the giant fay still stalking distractedly around, it was impossible to search the pit for another exit.
He made it through the fissure into the other section of the pit and back to the ledge at the base of the slope. The crack at the top of it was visible as a darker patch in the rough stone above and there didn’t seem to be any ghouls actually peering down at him from it. He started to climb.
His shoulders were aching by the time he reached the top and his fingers bleeding through what was left of his gloves. It was too dark in this tunnel to tell if there were ghouls lying in wait or not but he couldn’t hear anything moving around. He dragged himself up over the lip of the crevice and collapsed onto the floor of the tunnel, breathing hard. If the ghouls came now, there wouldn’t even be a struggle. It was a moment before Nicholas could roll over and get to his feet.
He had to cross the crevice again to get out of the tunnel, but after a little fumbling around in the dark he found the far side had a large enough lip that he could edge along it with only the minor danger of pitching head first back down into the pit. That accomplished, he felt along the wall until the relatively brighter light of the ghost-lichen in the main cave became visible through the tunnel entrance. There he paused, concealing himself in a fold of the wall and trying to get his bearings.
He was on the wrong side of the cave for the catacomb entirely, he realized. The mold-covered walls of the nearest crypts blocked his view of the rest of the cave, but he could tell by the light reflecting off the roof overhead that more torches had been lit, probably around the central crypt. Macob must be preparing himself to act. I need a view of what’s happening over there.
He worked his way around the edge of the cave back toward the catacomb entrance, climbing over the tumbled remains of broken statues. Reaching the other side, he found a low crypt near the wall where he could get a vantage point. He jumped until he caught hold of the stone coping along the roof and hauled himself up. From there he could see the central crypt.
Torchlight lit the miniature battlement and the delicate turrets, threw oddly shaped shadows on the great cracked dome. The dais was empty except for an odd pattern of shadow. No, not shadow, Nicholas thought. He felt through his pockets until he found his small spyglass. Looking through it, he could see Octave’s servant standing near the doorway into the crypt and on the dais itself… There were dark markings on the light-colored stone, perhaps of soot. Most of the pattern was lost in shadow but he could see enough to know that Macob was preparing for the working of a spell.
Displaced pebbles struck rock behind him and Nicholas twisted around, violently startled. There was a dark form on the ledge above just below the walkway, but it was gesturing agitatedly at him. “Madeline,” he breathed. He didn’t know whether to be relieved that she was all right or angry that she hadn’t gotten herself out of here yet. He stood and made his way to the edge of the roof.
Madeline jumped and he steadied her as she landed, pulling them both down into a crouch. Their embrace was cut short when something hard and metallic thumped Nicholas in the ribs. He held her at arm’s length and saw she had the sphere in a makeshift sling around her neck.
“We’ve been looking for you,” she said breathlessly.
Madeline glanced down at the sphere and shook her head in distraction. “I mean, I’ve been looking for you. I found Ronsarde and Halle and led them out.”
“Good. What are you doing back here?”
“I came to look for you, what do you think? We have to get out of here now. Fallier is going to collapse the cave.”
Nicholas shook his head impatiently. “That won’t work. Macob knows we sent Crack for help, he knows what Fallier will do. He probably wants them to destroy this place. Then everyone will assume that he’s dead and he will be free to do whatever he wants.”
“Nicholas, we have to leave now,” Madeline persisted.
“I found Arisilde.” He told her about the pit and the corpse ring. “He’s said that Macob can bring himself back to life. With the sphere Macob already has, he could be more powerful than ever before.”
“Dammit, Nicholas.” Madeline swept her hair back angrily. Her face was badly bruised, he could tell that even in this light. She let out her breath in resignation. “And Macob will just come after us again, won’t he? We know too much about him.”
“He won’t take all this interference kindly, no.”
“I saw him, when I found Ronsarde and Halle and we were escaping,” she said, sounding as if the memory wasn’t pleasant. “No, he’s not going to give up on us. Well then, just what are we supposed to do?”
“I have a plan.” This was true. “I just don’t know whether it will actually work or not.” This, unfortunately, was also true.
“What is it?”
“Arisilde said you should be able to control the sphere if you try. He said if you give it the direction, it would do the rest. I need you to make it hide you with an illusion, one so strong Macob can’t see through it or even know that it’s there.”
“No, listen to the rest. Get inside that large crypt, where Macob has his body. Put the corpse ring on it, but not on a finger, on a rib.” He only hoped Arisilde was right and that Macob would fail to detect his own spell until it was too late. “Then when he reinhabits his body–”
“The spell on the ring will take effect and he’ll be a living corpse, like Arisilde was.” She nodded impatiently. “And it will be inside him so a surgeon would have to remove it. But Nicholas, any sorcerer can see through an illusion. Even a layman can see through one if they know it’s there, and Macob is going to be on the lookout for something like that.”
“I know. I’ll distract him.”
“How? By getting yourself killed?”
“There are some things up in the catacomb I can use to make a very suitable distraction.”
“That paraffin that was leaking down the wall?”
“Yes.” It was hard to read her expression in the dim light, but she didn’t sound very happy. “Can you make the sphere hide you with an illusion?”
“I know the spell. Madele taught it to me years ago. If the sphere works like Arisilde says…” She looked away. “I think so.” She let out her breath. “But I don’t like it.”
“It’s only the once,” Nicholas said, and felt like a traitor. How many days ago had he said he would never ask her to use her magic if she didn’t want?
“Just don’t get killed and make it for nothing,” she said dryly. “Here, take the pistol. I won’t have a free hand for it.”
While she was digging the spare bullets out of her pockets, Nicholas considered telling her not to linger here if his trick didn’t work. He wanted her to run and not wait for Arisilde or himself. But he knew it would only be so much wasted breath since she would do whatever she liked, anyway. Annoyed at the truth of this realization, he said, “Let’s just get it over with, then.”
Madeline nodded, but as Nicholas started to stand, she grabbed a handful of his hair and kissed him. It was a hasty embrace and Nicholas lost his balance and sat down hard. Madeline let him go and crawled to the edge of the roof, swung over and dropped to the ground with agile ease. Nicholas whispered after her, “Don’t move until the distraction starts. And don’t be so damn sentimental.”
Madeline crouched behind a crypt, near the dais but out of sight of it. She leaned back against the mold- and filth-encrusted stone and pulled the sphere free of the sling. She held it in her lap and felt it hum gently. All right, here we go, she thought. She closed her eyes and began the spell of avoidance. She felt nothing. The incantation ran through her mind with no rush of power, no sense of gathering forces. It’s been too long, she thought, as she finished the spell and there was nothing in her head but her own thoughts. Too long for me. Madele had been right of course, when she had told her that if Madeline didn’t use her skills she would lose what little power she had. She opened her eyes and started to stand.
She froze when dust moved on the floor around her, pushed outward as if by some unfelt breeze. Holy… Spells of avoidance wouldn’t cause physical displacement. She concentrated, trying to get some hint as to what the sphere had done. For an instant she had it. She was surrounded by not just a spell of avoidance, but by obscura major and minor and various nothing-to-see-here charms, a complex mesh of them. Damn, I wish we had known to try this before. It would have come in handy. Madele would have loved this….
Standing in that maze of power, feeling it under her control even though it was only through the sphere, she understood suddenly that Madele must have cared about magic with the same intensity as she herself cared about acting. Madeline had always seen power as a means to an end and it had been an end she was not particularly interested in achieving; she had never thought of it as an art in itself.
She stepped carefully out of the shelter of the crypt, moving to a better vantage-point. If she was lucky, Macob would never know what hit him.
Nicholas found a place to climb back up to the walkway and from there found the entrance to the catacomb again. After searching through the layers of stinking debris, he dug out two wheels that he had noticed earlier, half-buried under rusted metal and rotten wood. He was in luck and they were mostly intact. While they wouldn’t support a wagon’s weight anymore, they would do well enough for what he had in mind.
He filled the bottle he had used to hold the Parscian perfume oil with the paraffin leaking down the wall, and then quickly lashed the two wheels together with a length of rusted chain. His outer coat was too sodden with sewer water to be of use, so he wound his jacket through the spokes of the wheel, along with some fragments of wood and rags from one of the open crypts. After the spare bullets Madeline had given him were inserted into it at intervals and it was soaked with more of the paraffin, it was ready.
Nicholas dragged the wheel down the steps and back to the balcony. Crouching in the shelter of its broken balustrade, he checked the revolver one last time. He had saved back enough bullets to reload it once, but no more. The diversion needed to be as diverting as possible and if it didn’t work, he doubted there would be time for him to reload.
He took a cautious look over the balustrade and saw there was more activity on the dais. The remaining ghouls were collected on the crypt roof, like a brooding flock of particularly ugly doves. Down on the dais were two men, the one he had fought with earlier and a slighter, blond man, who must be Octave’s second missing servant. The larger man was simply standing near the circle drawn on the stone like the will-less automaton he had become. The blond servant disappeared into one of the pockets of shadow near the wall of the central crypt, then limped back into the light, carrying what appeared to be an old metal urn. He climbed the steps of the dais and set it down just inside the boundary of the outer circle, then backed away.
So Macob was making his preparations though there was no obvious sign of the necromancer’s presence. This would be easier if Arisilde was here, but there was no sign of him, either. Nicholas felt a pang of worry, wondering if the sorcerer had been struck ill again or attacked by something in the pit, but there was no time to look for him now.
Staying in a crouch, he rolled his wheel down the walkway until he reached the point in the gallery where it curved around and the balustrade dropped away. From here it led straight along the wall to the top of the pile of rubble that had been the stairs leading down to the dais. He crouched, bracing the wheel against the last steady baluster, and fished in his pocket for his matchbox.
Below on the dais, the torches flickered and almost died. The blond servant flinched and stared around but the other man didn’t react; he simply stood there, numb and motionless. When the torches surged back to life, Constant Macob was at the head of the dais.
The shadows seemed to cling to the necromancer’s coat like a living cloak of darkness, and his hat brim concealed his features. He took two carefully measured paces forward and stood before the circle. The blond man made a sudden run for the edge of the dais as if he meant to bolt for safety through the ruined crypts. Macob lifted a hand and three of the ghouls leapt off the roof of the crypt and bounded after him.
They caught the fleeing man at the bottom of the dais steps and dragged him back up, struggling and shouting. Macob pointed at him without turning his head and the man’s cries choked off to silence. The ghouls dropped him and retreated back to the roof, leaving their captive to lie in an unmoving heap on the dais.
This ceremony, whatever it was, was obviously going to require a sacrifice. I suppose it’s poetic justice, Nicholas thought, bracing his wheel in the middle of the walkway and squinting along its path. If the man had helped Macob trap his earlier victims, then he surely knew what was in store for himself. Nicholas jammed the perfume bottle containing the paraffin between one of the spokes and the chain and removed the stopper. Madeline must be moving around down there somewhere, but Macob hadn’t reacted to her presence. But to reach the inside of the main crypt she would have to cross the torchlit area between the entrance to it and the dais, and no matter how powerful Arisilde’s sphere, this was her first time to do such a thing; she would need help.
The other servant, who had remained as unmoved throughout all this as one of the statues, now stepped forward. He moved across the dais toward the edge of the circle and stooped to pick something up. Nicholas caught the gleam of light on edged metal and knew it was a knife. It must have been one of the objects the other servant had carried up in preparation for the spell. Nicely ironic touch, Nicholas thought, to force the man to lay out the preparations for his own murder. But he doubted Macob had even considered that aspect, or at least not consciously; the necromancer would maintain a façade of indifference over his enjoyment of his violence.
Macob didn’t appear to be doing anything, but the casting of a spell like this might not appear like much to a layman’s eyes. Most of the work would be taking place in Macob’s mind. The large servant had reached the other man and bent over him, and Nicholas judged Madeline had had enough time to get into position.
He stood and gave the wheel a push.
The two wheels lashed together gave the contraption some stability and it rolled down the walkway without wobbling overmuch. Before it reached the slope and gained speed, Nicholas struck a match and tossed it into the paraffin trail left by the open bottle. The oil caught readily and the flames traveled swiftly along it to the source.
The oily rags caught and the whole mass went up, just as the wheel reached the part of the gallery where it sloped down to the wrecked stairs.
The sound must have caught Macob’s attention. His head jerked toward the gallery. The ghouls ran along the roof of the crypt, leapt down from it, but the wheel bounced down the stairs and landed on the dais near the edge of the circle. It spun and fell on its side, and the ghouls scattered back from the flames. Behind them, Nicholas thought he glimpsed a dark figure run across the lighted face of the crypt toward the door. Macob stood rigidly, fists clenched, glaring at the burning wheel and the shrieking ghouls. The servant who had been about to kill his comrade started back, shaking his head, looking around in bewilderment.
Nicholas was already running back along to the nearest break in the balustrade. He scrambled down over the rock pile to the cave floor. He had thought about firing at the dais to increase the confusion but the last thing he needed to do at this point was accidentally shoot Madeline; she was going to have enough trouble when the flames reached the bullets embedded in the packing in the wheel.
Nicholas ran down past the crypts, came out in the open area before the dais just as the first bullet went off. With another nice touch of irony it almost struck him, tearing through his coat sleeve and ricochetting off the stone wall behind him. Nicholas dove away as other bullets struck the crypts, the floor, the dais. Ghouls shrieked louder, scattering at the onslaught.
It should only take Madeline a moment to slip into the crypt, put the ring on the corpse’s rib, and slip out and back into the shadows. Nicholas got to his feet and bolted down one of the paths between the crypts, hoping the ghouls would chase him now that they had seen him, leaving the way clear for Madeline.
The ghouls were running all right, but in all directions, confused and terrified by the fire and the popping explosions. Nicholas laughed and ducked down another pathway. Then something grabbed him by the back of the neck. He tried to wrench away but he was caught in the grip of an irresistible force. The scene in the street near Fontainon house flashed through his mind: Octave in the grip of that towering, terrifying figure, shaken and cast down like a child’s toy puppet. Then he saw the nearest wall coming toward him and the blow was like being struck by a train.
He didn’t lose consciousness though the world fluttered in and out of existence and everything seemed set at an odd angle. Some snatches of reality were more real than others: the roughness of the stone he tried to grab onto as he was dragged past, the bruising impact on the bottom step of the dais.
At the top he came back to himself enough to recognize the large servant leaning over him. He took a wild swing at him, landed a blow on the man’s jaw, but the return punch knocked him over backward. He struggled to push himself up but the man grabbed his shoulder and shoved him down and he met the rough surface of the dais face first. He had a confused view of Macob looking down at him and struggled to sit up. He was pushed down and held with a knee in his back and despite struggling and cursing he couldn’t prevent his wrists being tightly bound.
The weight left his back and Nicholas rolled over and managed to sit up. The ropes were rough and felt new and strong; he might work his hands loose eventually but not soon enough.
Macob was looking down at him, his hat brim shadowing his expression. The necromancer seemed more solid than he had before and there was an air about him like the breath from an open grave, detectable even in this place of damp and cold and fetid odors. He said, “It wouldn’t have mattered if you had run away. I would have found you.”
“I know,” Nicholas assured him. “You’re predictable that way.”
Macob was already turning away, his form wavering, drifting like smoke, then rematerializing into solidity as he stepped back to the edge of the circle. Nicholas worked at the ropes though he knew it was hopeless. This is damnably embarrassing. He looked at the servant who was standing nearby, staring off into space, his eyes red-rimmed and empty. The other man still lay on the dais, motionless except for the rise and fall of his breath.
Macob must have the two men completely under his control though how, Nicholas had no idea. He had never heard of a spell that could enslave the human mind in such a way. But Macob had used drugs to help render his victims suggestible; this might be any combination of drugs, mental suggestion, and spells.
Macob lifted a hand. The servant retrieved the knife where it had fallen and moved woodenly to where his comrade still lay insensible on the stone. No, not insensible, Nicholas saw. The man’s eyelids were fluttering. He must be aware of exactly what was happening.
From this close an observation point, Nicholas could see dust stirring within the circle, moved by the invisible forces Macob was drawing into it. The movement centered on the urn and from the dust pattern it was as if the currents of power were spiraling down into it.
Macob gave no outward signal but there was a sudden strangled cry. Nicholas twisted around to see the servant grab his former comrade by the shoulder and stab him in the chest. Blood welled and the man clutched helplessly at the protruding blade. The other servant straightened, still no expression on his face. In the circle the urn was trembling. It shook violently, fell on its side, and started to spin.
Over the clatter of the metal urn, Nicholas realized he was hearing something else. Something familiar. He turned his head, pretending to be wincing away from the sight of the man bleeding to death, trying to hear it more clearly. It was the humming, clicking whir the sphere made when it was in the presence of inimical magic. Nicholas swore under his breath. Madeline must be close, only a few steps away.
The urn was still spinning but now a dark gray substance poured out of it. It wasn’t dust or ash or at least not anymore; it streamed out in a solid mass, spiraling up until it made a spinning column almost five feet high. Now there was a shape forming out of it, as if a statue was buried in the center and the gray sand was streaming away to reveal it.
The sound of the sphere was closer and Nicholas watched Macob carefully for any sign of awareness. The necromancer was staring at the circle and the thing forming out of the gray sand, all his attention apparently caught by it. One of the ghouls crouched near Nicholas sidled away, its mad eyes empty of anything like thought, as if some unseen force had gently nudged it aside. Nicholas took a relieved breath. He had been afraid the sphere would give itself and Madeline away if it came within striking range of one of the creatures, but either she had managed to restrain it or it knew what it was about. Nicholas sat up a little more, holding his bound hands out from his back. She must be almost there.
Then Macob turned toward him and he saw the gleam in his eye and the cold smile. Nicholas snapped, “He knows, dammit, run.”
He heard boots scrape on the stone behind him but it was too late. Macob lifted a hand and light flashed; Nicholas fell away from a searing heat that singed his face. He twisted around to look, heart frozen in fear, but Madeline stood unhurt in the open space below the dais, still holding the sphere. He shouted, “Strike back at him, hurry!”
Madeline’s head twitched. He had disturbed her concentration and Nicholas cursed himself for distracting her. Of course, that was what she was trying to do.
Deliberately, Macob moved to the edge of the dais. He was still smiling. He said, “She cannot strike me. The device was only meant for defense.”
Madeline and Nicholas exchanged a look. It might be a guess but it explained too much of the sphere’s behavior. And it would be just like Edouard to build in such a stipulation, Nicholas thought grimly. “He can’t attack you either,” Nicholas told her. “If he does you can turn his own power against him. Just walk away.” Macob could, however, threaten to kill him, but he was rather hoping that aspect of the situation would slip the necromancer’s mind.
Madeline must have realized the other point that Nicholas hadn’t dared voice aloud. That if she could bring the sphere within range of him, then Macob could hurt neither of them. She leapt forward, made it almost to the last step of the dais. Then she staggered back as if she had run into an invisible wall. She recovered her balance, swearing loudly.
Macob said, “The barrier is around us.” He gestured, indicating Nicholas, the circle and the thing now crouched inside it, the nervous ghouls and the castle crypt, the enslaved servant standing motionless and the man who lay dead in a pool of blood. “It is also purely a work of defense. The sphere will not react.”
He turned back to the creature inside the circle. It was a gray, wizened figure, its body human except for clawed hands and three-toed feet. Its head was a triangular wedge with predatory eyes buried in deep sockets. Macob gestured again and the creature disappeared.
“You sent it to the palace,” Nicholas said. He was aware of Madeline storming up and down at the bottom of the dais, trying to find a way past the sorcerous barrier. I’m going to have to do this the hard way, Nicholas thought. He met Macob’s eyes. You don’t think I’m capable of it, do you? You won’t suspect anything until it’s too late. “It’s a fay but it’s already dead, so the wards won’t stop it.”
“Correct,” Macob said. His expression was sane and quiet, almost peaceful. “I will have my life and my work. Everything that was taken from me. You have lost.”
“You could say that,” Nicholas said. But you would be wrong. Even the best go wrong. The trick is to be there when it happens.
In the circle the dead fay winked back into existence with a suddenness that the eye almost refused to accept. Nicholas didn’t realize he was actually seeing it until it stepped forward and handed Macob an ivory casket.
Macob opened it, not even bothering to watch as his messenger dissolved back into dust and ashes. The necromancer tossed the casket away and lifted up the object it contained, a yellowed skull with crystals set into the eye sockets. Macob lifted a brow and said, in the first thing close to humor Nicholas had heard from him, “His Majesty Rogere always did have execrable taste.”
He turned and Nicholas’s heart almost stopped. God, no, he has to put it with the rest of his bones. He’ll see the ring, he thought. Then the servant stepped forward and took the skull from Macob and turned to carry it into the crypt.
As the man passed inside the dark doorway of the crypt, Macob looked at Nicholas and said, “I meant to use him for my final effort but I think it would be better with both of you.”
“Yes, I gathered that, thank you,” Nicholas said bitingly, to cover his relief.
The servant returned, climbed the dais again and stood ready.
Macob turned back toward the circle. He seemed to be using it as a focus, an anchoring point for the forces he was mustering. He made no gesture but the servant moved stiffly toward the body of his late companion, put his foot on the chest and removed the knife with a jerk.
Nicholas realized then what had struck him when he had last looked at Madeline. She had been standing with her hands in front of her as if she was holding the sphere, clutching it protectively to her chest. But her hands were empty.
She had handed it to someone. Someone who had approached the dais unseen, passed through Macob’s barrier without alerting him and now crouched nearby, aided by the relic created by the lost powers of his youth. Nicholas was never more sure of anything in his life.
A faint whisper, barely a breath in his ear, said, “When he strikes at you, fall down as if you’ve been hit. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Arisilde’s voice. Nicholas whispered, just as softly, “No.”
There was no answer but he felt something brush against the back of his coat. Arisilde had shifted position. Nicholas drew a deep breath. The last thing he wanted to do was startle Arisilde, who must be at the center of a complex web of spells. One strand pulled at the wrong time and the whole structure might collapse, even with the sphere’s help. He whispered, “If we’re to be rid of him he has to complete this spell.”
Again there was no answer from Arisilde. If I were him, I’d kill Macob’s servant as Macob obviously intended to do before I conveniently turned up, and complete the spell for him that way, Nicholas thought. But then, it’s a good thing I’m not Arisilde.
The servant came toward him with the knife and everything seemed to happen far more rapidly than it should. Nicholas had no time to brace himself, no time for anything except to flinch back when the blade struck home. He fell backward, a roaring in his ears, a tearing pain in his gut.
A wave of darkness swept over him, then just as abruptly it gave way to bright sunlight. He was in the garden of the house they had lived in when Edouard was working at Lodun, sitting on the bench near the wisteria. Sitting next to him was Edouard himself.
Nicholas looked into his foster father’s eyes and for a moment saw the same distance and determination that had marked Macob’s gaze.
Edouard smiled, a little ruefully, and said, “Two sides of the same coin.”
“No,” Nicholas said. He didn’t even have to think about it. “If you can see the trap, you’re not likely to fall into it.”
“Ah.” Edouard nodded. “Remember that.”
Somewhere far away there was a scream, compounded of thwarted rage and heartbreaking loss.
“That’s done it,” Nicholas told Edouard, though he couldn’t have said what “it” was at the moment.
A cloud passed over the sun and the light started to die. Edouard leaned forward and said something else, but the words were hard to hear and his sight was blurred and…
Nicholas opened his eyes. The reality of the cave, the cold, the stink of death, hard stone under his back, was like a blow. His head was in Madeline’s lap and Arisilde leaned over him. There was blood everywhere and his chest ached horribly. He took a breath and it was like being stabbed again.
Arisilde sat back on his heels. “That’ll do,” he said brightly. “Close, though, wasn’t it?”
Madeline’s face was bruised and pale, streaked with tears and dirt, her eyes huge and reddened from the smoke. He said, “Madeline?”
She shoved him off her lap. “You bastard! I could kill you.”
She sounded serious. After a couple of tries, Nicholas managed to roll into a sitting position. “You’re welcome,” he said. His voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat. “Help me up.”
It took both of them, since Madeline was more overcome than she appeared and Arisilde was scarcely in better case than Nicholas. The body of Macob’s last servant lay nearby in a pool of his own blood, his throat slit. He must have done it to himself on Macob’s command to increase the power of the spell.
Once Nicholas could stand, he started toward the crypt, Madeline following him.
Macob’s body lay on the slab, still wrapped in the rags of its clothing and winding sheet. It had been restored to an appearance of recent death and the flesh, though bloodless and a little withered, was unmarked by time. The eyelids were open, revealing the crystals King Rogere had had embedded in Macob’s skull.
Nicholas leaned on the slab and pointed up at the sphere suspended above it. “Get that down, can you?”
One hand on his shoulder to steady herself, Madeline found footholds in the side of the slab and got enough height to reach the hanging sphere. She tore the net open on the second try, managed to catch it, and leapt down.
She handed it to him and Nicholas hefted it thoughtfully. It felt dead like the other two spheres that had been stored in Coldcourt’s attic. Cold and silent and motionless. But he would have to make sure.
He put it down and found a loose chunk of stone from the plinth. He hefted the stone thoughtfully, checking its weight, then knelt and steadied the sphere with his free hand. He thought it would take at least several blows; he might not have been surprised if it had proved impossible. But the sphere shattered on the first impact.
Nicholas started back as odd fragments of colored metal scattered everywhere. Sparks of red and blue light splattered across the floor, rolling like marbles until they disappeared into the cracks between the stone flags. He realized there was a white light on his hand, clinging to it like a thick fluid. He was too startled to be worried and it wasn’t painful. He shook his hand and the light dissolved into tiny sparks that vanished in the damp air. He thought he heard voices whispering, almost familiar voices. Rohan’s? Edouard’s? But the sound swelled and died away before he could identify them.
Nicholas stood slowly, looking at the remains of the sphere. It was only so much junk now.
Then he realized he was hearing something, a deep, rumbling reverberation echoing down from one of the tunnels. He looked back at Madeline, frowning, puzzled. He could tell by her expression she had heard it too. She shook her head, baffled.
Then the ground started to shake. They stared at each other, both coming to the same realization at once.
Madeline said, “Dammit, it’s–”
“Fallier,” Nicholas finished for her. He started toward the door, staggered as the ground suddenly rolled under his feet. Madeline stumbled into him and they caught each other and almost tumbled out the doorway.
Arisilde had been kneeling beside the smudged circle and was just standing up as they came out. He swayed as the ground shuddered again, and the last of the pediment cherubs on the crypt across the dais crashed to pieces against the rocks. Madeline paused to grab up their sphere, left forgotten on the dais. Nicholas steadied her as she stood and they plunged toward Arisilde.
He caught them, bracing them against the continuous jolts. His eyes were distant and he was muttering, “The structure is still here, yes, the dissipation hasn’t been too great, I think I might…”
Nicholas grabbed the sorcerer’s shoulder to steady himself, keeping an arm around Madeline’s waist. There was a great crash as the balcony and most of the walkway cracked and folded away from the cave wall, smashing down onto the outermost ring of crypts. With forced patience, he said, “Ari, if you would…”
Madeline tried to comment and choked on the cloud of dust that rolled over them from the passages that had already collapsed.
“Yes,” Arisilde was saying, “I think I might–” A portion of the roof went, striking the crypt with the armored knight and smashing it to pieces. “I think I’d better,” Arisilde finished. “Madeline, the sphere, please.”
She passed it to him. “Can it stop what Fallier is doing?”
“No.” Arisilde held it out, one-handed. “But if this works, it won’t have to.”
The sphere was reacting as it always did, the wheels inside spinning rapidly. You would think after holding off Macob that long, it would be tired, Nicholas thought, foolishly. Obviously the thing didn’t get tired. If Macob had managed to take it…
Dust and small fragments of rock rained down on them. Arisilde tossed the sphere into the circle. Madeline cried out in protest but instead of smashing on the stone, the sphere hung in midair, buoyed up by the power gathered there.
It spun faster, inside and out, until Arisilde muttered, “It’s not enough.”
There was a crack loud enough to be audible over the shaking and crumbling of the walls around them. The sphere exploded, fragments of hot copper showering over them. Nicholas ducked, pulling Madeline closer. Even as the copper fragments struck them and the blue light flared, he felt an iron grip on his arm and Arisilde suddenly dragged them both over the boundary and into the circle.
Nicholas was seized by a sudden vertigo and then the sickening sensation of falling. An instant later he realized he was falling, just as he landed hard on a smooth stone surface. It didn’t work, he thought. We’re still here. But the rumble of the collapsing warren was distant, a barely audible echo, and the shaking of the ground had become a mere tremble.
Nicholas pushed himself up on his elbows. It was pitch dark and he could hear water running. He said, “Madeline?”
There was a heartbeat of silence that stretched into eons, then he heard her say, “Unh,” or something like it.
A warm white glow sparked and grew, revealing the rounded brick roof and flowing channel of black water of one of the newer sewers. Nicholas was sprawled on the walkway and Madeline was only a few feet away, sitting up and rubbing her head. Arisilde steadied himself against the wall, and the light was coming from a jewel-like orb of spell-light suspended in the air over his head. He looked down at Nicholas and said, “That was close. Two feet to the left and we would have materialized inside the wall.”
“Thank you for the precipitate exit, Ari,” Nicholas said. His head ached and when he tried to sit up his stomach lurched threateningly. He was thinking he might have to lose consciousness now.
There were voices down the length of the sewer, the yellow glare of lanterns. “Now who’s that, I wonder?” Arisilde said, mildly curious.
It was too late, anyway. Arisilde and Madeline will just have to handle it, Nicholas thought, and then he did pass out.
END CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
Continued in Chapter Twenty-two
Buy the DRM-free ebook version of The Death of the Necromancer at any of these fine book sellers around the globe: