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. Read Chapter Nineteen here.
Madeline was lost. Utterly, irretrievably, she thought. I will wander down here forever. No, forever was unlikely. She would surely be killed by something long before forever arrived.
She had been driven back by the weight of the revenants. The sphere had accounted for a number of them but they seemed less self-aware than the ghouls and they hadn’t fled. She had heard Nicholas fire at them and hoped that meant he had been able to get away. No, she was sure of that. He had been closer to the stairs than she had. She would have made it herself if she hadn’t slipped and fallen down through that damn crevice at the edge of the stairs. Between the bad light and the dark color of the stone she hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Now she was bruised all over and hopelessly lost.
She had found her way into a wide passage, the blocks in its walls regular and obviously shaped and set by human hands, the remains of a curving, dressed stone ceiling overhead. Whether it was part of the catacomb or some long forgotten underground level of the old fortifications, she couldn’t tell. And since I don’t have the damn map of Vienne, underground and above, memorized, like Nicholas does, small good it would do me if I did know.
Hopefully he had been able to get back to the relative safety of the sewers. Hopefully. It infuriated her that she was stuck down here, uselessly.
The ghost-lichen’s light was just enough that she hadn’t had to resort to her candle yet. She hadn’t been attacked again but the ghouls couldn’t be too far away; the sphere was trembling, its insides spinning like a top.
She drew near the end of the passage and saw the regular walls deteriorated into tumbled rockfalls, though the opening still seemed to continue. She could tell the floor had a distinct slant downward, which was not encouraging. Madeline peered suspiciously into the shadows and the gaps in the rock at the end of the passage. She thought she could see the gleam of eyes and a surreptitious movement there. No, the ghouls weren’t gone. She hoped they were only ghouls; she had reloaded her pistol from the box of spare ammunition in her coat pocket but it hadn’t been too effective against them before.
Suddenly in the silence she heard footsteps. One person walking at a deliberate, heavy pace; the sound seemed to come from all around her. She hugged the sphere tightly, looking up and down the apparently empty passage. Her mouth was dry and she couldn’t swallow past the lump in her throat. It wasn’t Nicholas; she would have known the sound of his walk.
Out of the shadows at the far end of the tunnel a figure appeared. Madeline stared, too overcome with shock and sudden relief to react. It was Arisilde.
She made a motion to step forward but from the sphere in her arms came a sudden vibration, a pulse that she felt deep in her chest. She stopped in her tracks. That had been a warning.
Arisilde came toward her. He looked as she would expect him to, very pale and thin, wearing a dressing gown of faded blue and gold. He smiled at her as he drew near and said, “Madeline, you’re here. How very good of you.”
“Yes, I’m here, Arisilde,” she managed to say. The sphere felt like it was going to fly apart in her arms, its wheels clicking in furious motion.
“And you brought the sphere.” A breath of air moved down the passage and lifted his wispy silver hair. He held out his arms to her. “Give it to me.”
She could feel sweat running down her back despite the cold. She said, “Come and take it, Arisilde.”
There was a hesitation but his expression of slightly daffy goodwill didn’t change. He said, “It would be better if you were to give it to me, Madeline.”
She felt that strong vibration of warning from the sphere again, as if it had reached a tendril into her heart and touched her soul in fear. She drew a deep breath. Maybe it is alive. But how could a thing of metal, even imbued with magic, be alive? How could it think? Something that was alive and powerful wouldn’t sit on a shelf in the attic at Coldcourt all this time and do nothing. Not unless it needed a person, a living being, someone who could sense magic, to live. Maybe it used the consciousness of the person who held it to think with. Maybe that’s why this sphere works for me, and the one Octave had worked for him. And if I give this one to a real sorcerer… “You built this sphere with Edouard, Arisilde. Why can’t you take it from me?” Why doesn’t it know you? Why does it tell me to be afraid of you?
He hesitated again, then shook his head and spread his hands helplessly. “It’s because I was the one who did all these things, Madeline. I was only pretending to be unconscious all that time. I called the Sending and transformed the gargoyles in the Courts Plaza, and sent the creature into the prison. But I would never have hurt anyone. I was trying to get revenge on the men who killed Edouard, but it didn’t work.” The violet eyes were distressed. “I think I’ve gone mad, I’m afraid. A little mad. But if I could hold the sphere, I think that would help me. There’s a part of myself in it, a part of me from before I went mad. If I could take that part back… But you have to give me the sphere.”
Madeline watched him for a long moment, then her brows lifted and she said dryly, “Do you think all women are fools, or just me?” He looked like Arisilde and he had Arisilde’s sweet smile, but he was never Arisilde. Even if one included Isham in the plot, Madele had examined Arisilde and the notion that her grandmother could have been deceived in such a way was ridiculous. That Nicholas could have been fooled in such a way was unthinkable. Nicholas was suspicious of everyone. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he had considered Arisilde as the possible culprit already and discarded the idea as simply not feasible. He had said their opponent was Constant Macob and Madeline had had to admit there was every sign in favor of it.
He stood there, expressionless, then her eyes blurred for an instant and she was looking at another man. She had never seen him before. He was young and very thin, with lank blond hair and a weak chin, his expression vacant. His coat and trousers were muddy and his waistcoat was torn open.
Madeline’s brow furrowed. Who the hell is this? It might be one of Macob’s victims, abducted off the street, but under the dirt his suit was a little too fine; Macob had preyed on the poor and street people he thought would not be readily missed. Then she remembered that Octave had had two other companions who had never been accounted for. Octave’s driver had mentioned them before he had been killed. This man could very well be one of them. “I take it the driver was lucky,” she said to herself.
He stepped forward and she moved back out of reach. Behind her she heard a frantic skittering among the rocks as the ghouls scrambled to get out of the sphere’s range. There was no expression at all on the man’s face; he might have been as mindless as one of the revenants. He took a sudden swing at her with his fist and she ducked away from it. She considered drawing her pistol, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to fire it down here; there was no telling what else the sound would attract.
Watching him warily, she shifted the sphere to her right side, tucking it under her arm. His dead eyes followed it. He lurched forward and she let him grab her arm, then slammed the heel of her free hand up into his chin. His head snapped back and he staggered back a pace, tearing the sleeve of her coat. She kicked out, striking him solidly between the legs. He collapsed onto the floor of the passage, obviously in pain but making no sound.
She moved away cautiously, making sure he wasn’t about to jump back up again with inhuman strength. It didn’t look like it. That maneuver had always worked well to discourage the attentions of importunate stagehands and actors; she was glad it worked on men ensorcelled to serve necromancers.
He rolled on the floor, making an attempt to stand and failing badly. She turned and ran up the passage, hearing the ghouls flee before her.
Nicholas realized first that he lay sprawled on his back on a damp, dirty surface, that the dampness smelled foul, that it was cold and firelight was casting flickering reflections over stone walls. He drew a shaky breath and lifted a hand to push the hair out of his eyes. There was a clink and a tug on his wrist. Not good, he thought. He leaned his head back and saw both his wrists were manacled to a short length of chain attached to a ring sunk deeply into a stone flag. The chains were old but not rusty. Not disastrous, but definitely not good. He tried to roll onto his side, but stopped abruptly as a splitting pain shot through his head. He cautiously probed the tender knot at the back of his skull. His fingers came away bloody.
The chains were loose enough to allow for some freedom of movement and he sat up on one elbow, slowly. He was inside one of the crypts; from the domed ceiling, it was the one shaped to resemble a miniature keep that stood in the center of the cave. It was lit by smoky torches shoved into gaps between the stones, and some unhealthy radiance from the ghost-lichen came in through the large crack in the roof. The walls were covered with carving and inscriptions, obscured by layers of mold. It was not a family crypt; there was only one vault, a large, ornate, free-standing one in the center of the chamber. Atop it, carefully laid out as if for a wake, was a very old corpse.
Time had shrunken it to bare bones, held together by withered strips of skin and muscle, festooned with the rotten remnants of leather and cloth. Nicholas thought he must be gazing on all that remained of Macob’s physical body. Except… The skull is missing. Either it had been removed for some purpose of Macob’s or… Or it wasn’t in the room with the corpse when the ghouls broke in. That’s what Octave wanted to question the old Duke about. On the bier next to it lay Nicholas’s pistol.
He squinted and sat up a little more, wincing at the pain in his shoulder and head. The missing skull was not the only oddity. There was a woven webbing or net hung from the ceiling of the chamber and suspended in it was something small and round, of dull-colored metal. For one bad moment he was afraid it was Arisilde’s sphere, which meant Madeline had been caught as well, but then he realized it was far too small. No, it’s the other sphere, he thought with relief. The one Rohan had constructed with Edouard, that Octave had obtained by blackmail.
Except for himself and the corpse, the crypt was ostensibly empty. Madeline was nowhere to be seen. She escaped, he told himself. There was no point in speculating on anything else. As long as she had the sphere, she was in far better case than he was.
The crypt might appear to be deserted but Nicholas didn’t think he was unobserved. He pretended to test the strength of the chains, tugging on them and trying to work the links loose, while actually examining the locks. Someone had searched his pockets, but they hadn’t found the picks sewn into the cuff of his shirt. He didn’t want to risk using them now and betraying their existence to a hypothetical watcher. One mistake and he was dead. He was most likely dead anyway, but the tension engendered by pretending there was still hope would keep him alert.
After a few moments he noticed the quality of light in the chamber was changing, the shadows sharpening, the torches becoming dimmer and the sick glow of the ghost-lichen correspondingly brighter and more defined. Turning his head to look at the doorway, Nicholas caught a growing radiance out of the corner of his eye. It was in the darkest corner of the crypt. He continued to watch the doorway expectantly.
He had time to notice that the damp chill in the air was becoming more concentrated as well, the cold intensifying until his bones ached, and he could feel the bite of it in his fingers. There was a slight sound like a boot sliding over stone; a deliberate betrayal. Nicholas flinched as if startled and jerked his head toward the corner.
A figure stood there in the shadows. It was a tall man, dressed in an old-fashioned caped and skirted greatcoat and a broad-brimmed hat. His face was gaunt almost to the point of appearing a death’s head and it was hard to get a sense of his features. His eyes were dark pits under the shadow of his hat brim, impossible to read.
He stepped forward deliberately and said, “You needn’t introduce yourself, I assure you I know who you are.”
The voice was an old man’s, hoarse and raw, as if he had long suffered from throat afflictions. Or been hanged, Nicholas thought suddenly. That was how Macob had been executed. This was fascinating. Terrifying, but fascinating. The accent was a little off too. It was still recognizably of Ile-Rien and particularly Vienne, but with odd twists in the pronunciation of some of the words. Nicholas hadn’t decided what tack to take, but something in the man’s confident manner made him answer, “Of course. You’re Constant Macob. You know everything.”
Macob took another step forward, the iron gray brows drawing together. He hadn’t expected that response.
For a shade he was terribly real, his wrinkled face and rheumy eyes that of a living person. You would think he would have made himself appear young, Nicholas mused, he has either no imagination, or no vanity. The former was a disadvantage for Macob, the latter a disadvantage for Nicholas and in direct contradiction to his theories. Surely only an infinitely vain, self-obsessed man would try to hold on to life like Macob had. But sorcerers had to be artists as well as scholars; Macob couldn’t lack for creativity or he would never have managed to take himself so far.
An indulgent tone in his rusty voice, the necromancer said, “I suppose you want to know my plans.”
“I already know them, thank you.”
The eyes narrowed, momentarily becoming dark pits, then Macob decided to be amused. “Gabard Ventarin wanted to know.”
“Gabard Ventarin has been dust for two hundred years,” Nicholas said, politely. “His name is known only to historians.”
“A fitting end for him,” Macob said, pleased. But there was something unconvincing about the manner in which he said it. Macob couldn’t be too aware of the passage of time. Did he even really believe his executioner was dead?
What could it be like to cling to the world of the living this way? To refuse to move on, to remain chained to vengeance and old hates? You might be lucky if you don’t find out for yourself, a traitor voice whispered, and Nicholas brushed it aside. Macob must live in the ever present now, all past and no future, never changing, never altering in the slightest degree. Never learning from his mistakes. He saw Macob was about to turn away and said quickly, “Why did you kill Doctor Octave?” He already knew the answer but he didn’t intend to ask any questions to which he didn’t already know the answers; this was no time to court surprises.
Macob’s smile was slow and self-satisfied. “He…faltered. He became infirm in my purpose so I destroyed him.”
It didn’t change Nicholas’s opinion on what had occurred. He still thought the initial scheme had been Octave’s quest for an ideal confidence game and that the spiritualist had participated in Macob’s murders only because he had been forced to it. But it didn’t surprise him that Macob’s perception of events differed from this. He said, “Very wise of you.”
Macob’s eyes glinted. “And why shouldn’t I destroy you?”
Ah, now we get to it. Causing terror could be addictive. Nicholas had seen that before in a number of men who had considered themselves masters of Vienne’s criminal underworld. It was a ridiculously exploitable weakness and one Nicholas could diagnose from the first exchange of fake pleasantries. Macob liked to terrify his victims. For all Nicholas knew terror might be necessary to necromantic spells, but he thought the main motive was that Macob had learned to enjoy it. “Since you destroyed Doctor Octave, I would think you in need of more mortal assistance.”
“Which you could provide.” Macob said it without much evidence of interest.
“For a price.” Macob seemed to have an air of preoccupation that Nicholas didn’t like. Not only was it not terribly complimentary to himself but it made him wonder what else was happening in Macob’s little kingdom. Was it Madeline that was drawing the necromancer’s attention, or Ronsarde and Halle, or Arisilde? He needed to do something to regain Macob’s interest. “Despite all your sorcery, essentially you’re just a criminal. A criminal who has been caught. I’m a criminal who has never been caught.”
Macob’s head lifted and his eyes returned to Nicholas. “I’ve caught you.”
Give him that one or not? Nicholas made a swift mental calculation. I think not. “After I walked into your trap.”
There was anger in Macob’s eyes and something of frustration. “I wanted to bring you down here. I wanted to see what you were.”
“And you wanted the other sphere.”
Macob hesitated, then nodded to Rohan’s sphere, suspended above the corpse. “That one is dying. It was never any good to me. Octave made it work for his ghost talking but it was never good to me.” He gave Nicholas a sidelong look. “Not as I am.”
As an attempt to elicit information, it was fairly transparent. Not as he is? Not while he’s dead, he means. And is that state likely to change? Nicholas obligingly said, “It must have been one of the first constructed. And Rohan is powerful, but not as powerful as Arisilde.” That was as close as he wanted to come to mentioning the others. If they were dead he couldn’t help them, but if they lived, the last thing he wanted to do was direct Macob’s attention toward them.
“You know much of the spheres?”
“No.” Macob would know if he made anything up.
“The woman.” Macob hesitated. He knew he was betraying himself and it was making him angry. Dangerously angry. His voice was a low ominous growl. “Does she know of the spheres?”
So Madeline was free and causing great consternation. Nicholas smiled. “She knows all that she needs to.” Or at least she thinks she does. He added, “I could engage to obtain the missing skull for you. That is the item you’re in need of, isn’t it? The one Octave wanted to question the late Duke of Mondollot concerning? I doubt the Duke’s information would have been helpful; it was surely removed by Gabard Ventarin at the time of your death as a further precaution.” He paused. He had Macob’s rapt attention. “It was removed to the palace, was it not?”
“Yes. A trophy.” Macob stared at him, the malevolent eyes narrowed. “I know where it is. I can obtain it myself. I would not engage you to do so. I would sooner engage a viper.”
Nicholas’s mouth quirked. Constant Macob, necromancer and murderer a hundred times over, thought he was a viper. He was not quite light-headed enough to thank him for the compliment, but said, “That’s a rather unjust assessment in light of your activities, isn’t it?”
“I continued my work,” Macob said, but he wasn’t much interested in defending himself, to Nicholas or to anyone else. He was looking at the corpse again, his attention leaving his prisoner. “That is the only thing of importance.”
Nicholas frowned. Vanity might not be the key to Macob’s character after all. Was it obsession, instead? With his family dead from a swift and violent plague he had not been able to stop, had he thrown himself into his work until it had achieved such an overwhelming importance that every other consideration fell by the wayside? It would explain a great deal. And it makes him far more difficult to manipulate.
Macob turned back to Nicholas and started to speak, but the necromancer froze suddenly, all motion arrested, his head cocked in a listening attitude. Without another word, he strode toward the door. As he reached the shadow across the opening his form seemed to dissolve and it was impossible to say if he had walked out or vanished into the darkness.
Nicholas sat up and awkwardly rolled his torn coat sleeve back to get to the shirt cuff and the lock picks. He tore open the seam of the cuff with his teeth and shook out the picks. This explained Macob’s preoccupation at least. Nicholas might have preferred that Madeline had sought the safety of the surface instead of taking the sphere on some sort of rampage through Macob’s hiding place, but he also preferred not to become the central element of the next necromantic spell.
Working the lock picks on his own manacled wrists was difficult, but he had gotten himself out of handcuffs before and the manacles came off with only the sacrifice of some scraped skin. Nicholas stood too quickly and had to steady himself on the crypt wall as the floor swayed and his sight narrowed to a dark tunnel. He rubbed his temples as his vision cleared, thinking this could present a problem.
As soon as he could see he stumbled to the plinth and leaned on it. He checked his pistol but it was empty and the extra ammunition he had had in his coat had been removed, along with his clasp-knife and anything else that might serve as a weapon. They had left his matches and other articles that might possibly be of use, just not at the moment. He shoved the pistol into his pocket with a muttered oath, then looked up at the sphere, suspended in the net above the corpse. Destroying it would probably be a great disservice to the furtherance of human knowledge, but he wouldn’t leave it for Macob.
There was a sound from the door of the crypt, a soft footstep. Nicholas looked up and saw a man standing in the doorway, pointing a pistol at him. He was a large man, about Nicholas’s age, with greasy dark hair and a ruddy, rough-featured face, his once good frock coat ragged and dirty. One of Doctor Octave’s colleagues, Nicholas thought. There had been two other men besides the driver. Perhaps Macob had taken the rest of the ghouls with him and left only this last human servant to guard his prisoner. He had to be running out of ghouls; there had been a limited number to start with and Arisilde’s sphere seemed to go through them rather quickly.
The man’s eyes were lifeless, dull, but the pistol didn’t waver. Nicholas said, “I’m no good to him dead.” That wasn’t quite true, but this man didn’t look as if he had access to all his faculties.
He motioned with the pistol, indicating that Nicholas move away from the bier. The corpse was obviously important to Macob; he had gone to a deal of trouble to obtain it and the missing skull still obviously worried him. While there was madness in the necromancer’s method, it didn’t rule him. He had reasons for everything he did. Not what one would call “good” reasons, perhaps, but reasons nonetheless, Nicholas thought, obeying the man’s gesture and backing away toward the wall.
Nicholas reached the wall and turning suddenly, stretched up and grabbed one of the torches. The man’s reflexes were slow, doubtless the result of whatever Macob had done to him to secure his obedience; he was just raising the pistol to fire when the torch landed on the corpse. The rags of rotted clothing caught immediately.
There was an instant of hesitation, then the man ran for the bier. He dragged the torch out, dropped it on the ground, then beat at the burning clothing, oblivious to anything else. Moving forward, Nicholas picked up a broken paving stone from the floor. The man turned just as he was within reach and brought up the pistol. Nicholas grabbed his wrist to turn the weapon away from him and they grappled.
Nicholas lost his grip on the stone, trying to keep the pistol from pointing toward his head. The man wasn’t inhumanly strong but he fought like an automaton with no concern for his own safety. Nicholas managed to swing him around, driving him back against the wall of the crypt, when there was a shriek of rage from somewhere above their heads.
No, Macob hadn’t taken all the ghouls with him. A quick glance upward showed Nicholas two of the creatures climbing through the crack in the dome and scrabbling headfirst down the wall. He wrenched an arm free and punched the man in the jaw, knocked his head sharply back and sent him sprawling. He heard the pistol strike the floor somewhere but the ghouls were almost on him and there was no time to look for it. He bolted for the door out of the crypt.
Once out in the half-light he ran past the dais and plunged into the maze of passages between the crypts, with no time to get his bearings. The ghouls moved too fast and he only had a few moments head start at best.
He could hear them behind him, careening into walls, screaming in high unearthly voices with all too human rage. He ran down between a row of crypts and saw an open passage into the rock wall. It wasn’t until he had plunged into it and found himself in near total darkness that he realized he was too far down in the cave for this to be part of the catacomb, that he had hared off into totally unknown territory.
He couldn’t go back now. He kept running, stumbling over half-seen obstructions along the ground, bouncing into walls, knowing that if he fell they would be on him in seconds. He saw a darker pool of shadow across the passage in front of him and knew it might be a hole in the ground. There were claws scrabbling on the rock behind him and he jumped wildly, not pausing to judge the distance or gather himself.
He hit the far side, lost his grip on slick stone and slid down. He caught the edge of the fissure, his feet finding purchase on a slope littered with loose pebbles and rock chips. The suddenness of it took his breath away; he hadn’t really believed it was a hole until he felt the empty cold air beneath him instead of solid earth. The ghouls screamed almost directly over his head, so he released his tenuous hold on the edge and let himself slide down.
The ghouls had tried to attack Madeline again and the sphere had destroyed them. The things had come after her only reluctantly, as if they had been driven to it. Since then she had had no sensation of being followed.
She was almost ready to sob with relief when she found a tunnel that led upward. The slope was steep so she made a sling for the sphere out of her scarf and tied it around her neck. Makeshift and none too secure, it still freed both her arms and made climbing the upward passage much easier.
She came out above the cave with the standing crypts again on a reasonably whole section of the walkway, her legs sore from the steep climb. The entrance to the catacomb should be over to the right, above the balcony, if she had her bearings. She could see flickering firelight, greasy in the bad air, showing between the cracks in the walls of the large crypt in the center. What is Macob doing in there?/ she wondered. No, don’t think of it, just go while you can. The sphere didn’t make her invulnerable.
She crept along the broken remains of the walkway, ducking to stay below what was left of the balustrade and moving slowly, despite her fear. As she drew closer to the place where she was certain the walkway met the catacomb, she saw something strange in the quality of light. After a moment her eyes found the glow of another torch, burning at the entrance of a crypt on this side of the cave.
She kept moving but that torch worried her. She reached the ruined balcony and saw with relief the entrance to the catacomb appeared unguarded by revenants. A few steps up and she would be in it and running back toward the sewer. She hesitated. The ghouls didn’t need torchlight. In fact, she rather thought they were afraid of fire, from what Nicholas had said. Firelight meant people.
Her hands were clammy and her back hurt from the fall and she didn’t particularly want to die down here. But if Nicholas hadn’t gotten away it might be him. Muttering under her breath, she carefully found her way past the broken arch that lay across the balcony and back onto the walkway.
The crypt with the torch was closer but there was an impediment. Part of the walkway had collapsed entirely, leaving a gap of a few feet. She was able to get a handhold on an overhang and step easily across, but it would not make for a quick getaway.
The walkway curved and she pressed herself as closely against the wall as she could. She could see the front of the crypt now. A large part of the pitched roof had collapsed but there were still statues of helmeted pikemen on either side of the intact doorway. The torch was jammed into a loose chink above the door and she could see the mortar and stones had been knocked out of it, leaving an opening into the crypt. More evidence: if the ghouls had wanted in they could have climbed the wall; they had no need to open the crypt’s door.
Speaking of ghouls… There were at least three of them, like bundles of dry rags and bones, seated in front of that gaping doorway. They weren’t moving or making any sound and she would have missed them entirely if she hadn’t been certain they were there somewhere. They looked like unstrung puppets, cast aside until they were wanted again.
She edged along the wall, cautiously. She could see down into the crypt itself now, but it was deep in shadow and the torch had dazzled her eyes somewhat, so the ghost-lichen’s light was negligible. Staring hard, she thought she could discern movement inside. Then a form leaned across the shaft of firelight falling through the open door and Madeline’s heart leapt. It was Doctor Halle.
That’s all I needed to know. Moving back until she was above the doorway and the guardian ghouls, she studied the edge of the walkway. The wall had crumbled here so if she was quick and sure-footed she could leap down to the flat spot there, and then to the floor of the cave. Not so hard. Not as hard as hanging in that flying harness in The Nymphs. She moved to the edge and readied herself, then hesitated.
What if she got them killed? Would it be more sensible to flee up the catacomb and bring help? Before she could decide, her foot dislodged a pebble and it struck the rocks below with a loud crack. All three of the ghouls reacted as one, their heads whipping around and the glazed, glaring eyes staring straight at her.
To hell with it, Madeline thought. She clutched the sphere tightly and leapt.
Being more used to humans who fled from them, her attack caught them by surprise. As she landed on the cave floor they started back from her but she could already feel the sphere shaking. When the light burst from it an instant later, she turned her head away and shut her eyes tightly to keep from losing her night-sight.
The light faded and she looked back to see three heaps of bones, scattered as the ghouls had started to flee. No, four heaps of bones; there had been a fourth one against the wall of the adjoining crypt that she hadn’t seen.
She stepped forward into the doorway, whispering, “Doctor Halle?”
“Good God, it’s you,” his voice answered reassuringly.
She stepped back and pulled the torch free, holding it so she could see the inside of the crypt.
Ronsarde lay on the ground, his head pillowed on a folded coat. His face was still and sallow, his eyes sunken back in his head. The wrinkles and age lines were brought out in high relief; she hadn’t realized before that he was so old. Halle knelt next to him. Their clothes were torn and filthy and Halle’s face was bruised but he didn’t look as badly injured as Ronsarde.
“You’ll have to carry him alone,” Madeline told him. “I’ve got to hold on to this thing.”
Halle was already lifting Ronsarde, dragging one limp arm across his shoulders and pulling him upright. It was only the two of them, she saw. No Nicholas, no Arisilde. “Have you seen the others?” she asked.
Halle half-carried, half-dragged Ronsarde to the doorway and Madeline stepped back out of his way and cast the torch aside. They didn’t need it and she didn’t have any spare hands. Halle said, “Your man Crack was with us–”
“We found Crack; there’s a catacomb above here and he was in it. We sent him back for help. I hope he’s found his way out by now.” I hope Nicholas isn’t dead. And what did Macob do with Arisilde? There was no time for speculation. She climbed up onto her rock step and took Ronsarde’s free arm.
With Halle pushing and her pulling, they managed to get him up onto the first ledge. Madeline looked up at the walkway unhappily. She could make it and Halle could on his own, but… But we’re not giving up now. She grabbed one of the balusters and swung up, ignoring the ominous crack from the stone and the wrenching pain in her arm. She reached down for the Inspector and caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Ghouls, several of them, leaping from roof to roof across the sea of crypts. And something else behind them, something dark, its form impossible to discern in the half-light.
Halle followed her arrested gaze and swore, loudly. Ronsarde picked that moment to come back to consciousness. He straightened in Halle’s grasp and said, “What the devil?”
“Climb,” Halle ordered succinctly. “Then run.”
Ronsarde didn’t argue, only reached up for Madeline’s hand. She braced her feet and leaned back and in another moment he was scrambling up beside her. His breathing sounded labored and harsh but there was nothing they could do for him now. Madeline got to her feet and helped him stand as Halle climbed up beside them. “That way.” She pointed toward the catacomb. “Hurry.”
Halle caught Ronsarde’s arm and hurried. Madeline followed, not taking her eyes off the approaching ghouls.
The creatures had stopped on the roof of the nearest crypt, watching them with those staring eyes but not coming any closer. Their terror of the sphere was gratifying but the dark thing that her eyes just couldn’t seem to focus on was still coming, flowing over the rooftops toward her, sometimes like an airy mist, sometimes like something far more solid and ominous.
They reached the gap in the walkway and Halle got Ronsarde across with difficulty. Madeline almost stepped backward into it, but her boot caught the edge and she recovered with effort, then turned and jumped across.
It had slowed them down but it didn’t stop their pursuer. The dark thing was on the walkway now. A glimpse back showed Madeline its motion was more halting and jerky now, more like a man running. The sphere under her arm was ominously quiet. If it can’t stop that thing we’re dead, she thought desperately.
They reached the entrance to the catacomb. Madeline caught Ronsarde’s other arm and helped Halle pull him up the broken steps. She stumbled, barking her shins on the stone and barely noticing. The thing was almost on them; its proximity made her skin itch. She gave Halle a shove and shouted, “Keep going.”
She swung around in time to watch it cross the balcony and start up the steps toward her. It was a man now, she could see his shape in the obscuring cloud of shadow and firefly flickers of light. The sphere was silent in her arms. It wasn’t going to help them. He was on the top step a hand’s breadth away and she could see his face. An old man’s face, but hideous with greed and somehow inhuman, like a death mask.
Then Madeline felt a concussion, and there was a searing white light. She blinked and found herself sitting on the step, staring at the cave of crypts, and everything rippled like a hot stone-paved street on an intense summer day.
The man was nowhere to be seen. Then an instant later her eyes found that unnaturally dark blot of shadow and mist, tumbling back across the crypts, a leaf in a windstorm.
The sphere in her hands was hot and trembling a little.
Sense returned to her and she staggered to her feet and ran after Halle and Ronsarde.
The slope was steeper than Nicholas thought and he couldn’t control his descent. He half-tumbled to land hard on a shelf of rock. He blinked dirt out of his eyes and managed to push himself up, feeling bruised and battered muscles protest. He squinted up the slope toward the narrow opening at the top but the ghouls didn’t seem to be pitching down after him.
He was on a ledge hanging above a deep, shadowed pit with sloped sides. There was ghost-lichen here, just enough to see by. The walls were rough stone, pocked with irregular cracks and fissures, and a pool of foul-smelling water had collected in the bottom. It was either the dim, unnatural quality of the ghost-light or his blurry vision, but the dimensions of the pit were hard to judge and a fold in the rock cut off his view of a section of it. There was a crack in the wall nearby that seemed to open into a deeper fissure. He kept an eye on it warily as he staggered to his feet. It was the perfect lurking spot for ghouls or revenants.
The wall just above him was too steep to climb and he started to make his way along the ledge to where the slope wasn’t so dramatic. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of debris from the catacomb down here. He stumbled on a pile of bones and disturbed a ragged heap of detritus that gave off an odor so sickly sweet it made him gag.
There was a scrabbling above him, then a shower of pebbles rained down the slope as a revenant burst out of a crack and barreled straight for him. Nicholas reached for his pistol before he remembered it was empty. He flung himself back against the wall and grabbed up a rock. He had time to see the creature was an old revenant, its features distorted until they were barely recognizable as human, its clothing in rags, then it raced straight past him and flung itself into the deeper crevice he had noted earlier.
Nicholas stared after it, his brows drawing together. That… was not a good sign.
Down in the pit below he heard a shifting, something heavy moving and grating against the stone. Nicholas hesitated, but an awkward scramble across the ledge would just make him more of a target. It was better to face whatever it was here with the wall at his back. Then it growled.
It was a low rumble, sounding more like rock grinding but with an animal tone to it that was unmistakable. The sound reverberated throughout the pit like a distant underground train. That isn’t a ghoul, or a revenant. Nicholas sank back against the wall and held his breath.
Something stirred below, creeping out of the deep shadow. At first it blended in against the mottled surface of the rock, then he made out something vaguely like a human head with patchy gray-green flesh. There was a scrambling in the rocks above him and Nicholas twitched minutely before he caught himself. He stayed motionless even when chips of rock and bone rained down on him. Then he saw a revenant burst from cover on the ledge above and skitter down the slope.
The thing below moved in a blur, suddenly resolving into a recognizably human shape. Its skin was horribly discolored and gaped open in places to reveal bare yellowed bone. Nicholas thought it was a larger version of the revenants until it started to climb the slope toward the one that was trying desperately to escape.
Seen in perspective it was far larger than any human, perhaps twenty feet tall. Moving with an uncanny swiftness, it climbed the rocky slope and snatched the revenant. What Nicholas had seen before was the bare crown of its head, and it had been standing further down in the pit than he had thought. Its skull still bore ragged remnants of hair and it wore rusted chains wrapped around its upper body. The revenant had barely time for one shriek of terror before the thing tore it apart.
Slowly, Nicholas started to edge backward toward the fissure in the rock wall. It might be a dead end and teeming with revenants but it was too small for that thing to fit into. It had to be another dead fay, like the one Macob had used for the Sending. Perhaps buried in the catacomb, long forgotten beneath the present-day city’s foundations.
It was eating the revenant, or trying to. It doesn’t realize it’s dead, Nicholas thought. The sight would sicken him if fear hadn’t already overridden every other emotion. He reached the end of the ledge and eased himself carefully to his feet.
It turned suddenly as if it had heard him. The one remaining eye seemed to be staring directly at him, though it was covered with a heavy white film; the other eye was an empty socket surrounded by bare skull. The mouth was open, revealing jagged teeth and the decaying lips were curled in a snarl. Nicholas leapt for the next ledge.
He heard it behind him as he landed and he swarmed up the jagged rocks. He felt a tug at his coat just as he reached the lip of the crevice and threw himself forward. The coat ripped and he rolled down over rough rock and foul-smelling debris. The thwarted roar of rage echoed down the narrow passage.
Nicholas crawled several yards further down before he looked back.
It was digging at the edges of the fissure and pounding the stone, furious at losing its prey. The thing’s face was even worse at close view, the dead tattered flesh revealing the bone beneath and the teeth jagged yellowed daggers. He could see the wound that must have killed it the first time, a gaping hole in the side of the skull that looked as if it had been made by a cannonball or a ballista.
That would have been an ignominious end to a checkered career, Nicholas thought, taking a deep breath to try to calm his pounding heart. His hand was burning and he realized he had ripped his glove and torn his palm open climbing the rocks. He found a handkerchief in an inner coat pocket and stanched the blood, then stood carefully, trying to ignore the fact that his knees were still shaking. Keeping his head down to avoid the low ceiling of the passage, he made his way deeper into it, stumbling a little on the bones and other unspeakable debris that littered the floor.
It was so dark, with only small patches of the ghost-lichen to light the way, that there could have been any number of revenants hiding in the crevices and gaps in the rock, but nothing attacked him. Nicholas thought he would be safe until the fay stopped clawing at the entrance and snarling its frustration. The revenants still active down here must have survived by learning when to go to ground; they would stay silent and still until the creature left.
There was a brighter patch of dimness ahead and Nicholas headed for it. The passage was growing more narrow and he had to climb fallen chunks of stone and navigate narrow gaps. He struggled through the last crevice and almost fell out of it onto a paved floor. There was just enough light from the opening in the wall ahead to show him that this was a room built of regular shaped blocks and not just a hollow carved in the rock. Another part of the old fortification, perhaps. The opening had been a square window but a chunk knocked out of the corner gave it an irregular shape. It was high on the wall and Nicholas had to look for hand-and foot-holds in the ancient mortar before he could pull himself up high enough to look out.
Outside lay another section of the pit about half the size of the area haunted by the fay. There was a gap in the side that must lead back to the other section and a round, regular opening overhead. Nicholas could still hear the creature growling and scratching at the other entrance to the crevice, so he was at least temporarily safe here. There were bones scattered on the ledges below and several corpses in a much more recent state of decay, still clad in rags of clothing. Nicholas squinted at a pallid form on the ledge several yards below and stiffened suddenly. The body lay face down but the hair was almost shoulder-length and entirely white.
Nicholas had scrambled up onto the flat stone sill of the window before he realized what he was doing. He hesitated, listening for the fay, and heard another low rumbling growl echo through the crevice. He lowered himself as far down as he could, then let go and dropped to the ledge immediately below. Trying to move as silently as possible, he climbed down the rocky slope, cursing the small avalanches of pebbles his boots touched off. Closer, he could see the body was the right size, that it wore a dull-colored dressing gown. If he’s not dead, Nicholas thought. If the fall down here or the cold dampness of the place hadn’t killed him yet. He reached the outcropping and crouched near the motionless form, brushing the loose hair back from the face.
It was Arisilde. His face was white and there were dark bruises under his eyes, that was all Nicholas could tell in the light from the ghost-lichen. He looked dead. But he looked dead before. Nicholas rolled him over, gently lowering his head to the ground. There was dirt in his hair and his robe was stained and torn from contact with the damp stone, but Nicholas couldn’t see any new injuries. If he was breathing it was shallowly and Nicholas’s own pulse was pounding too hard for him to detect Arisilde’s. Damn it, we’re both going to be dead for certain in a moment. But Isham had said Arisilde was waking.
Nicholas patted Arisilde’s face and chafed his freezing hands while trying to think. Isham had also said something about a “corpse ring” which Madele had removed. Nicholas hadn’t heard the term before but he remembered Madele’s interest in the ring that had charred the flesh around the dead woman’s finger at Chaldome House. Arisilde didn’t appear to be wearing any kind of a ring now but he hadn’t before either, when they had first found him in this condition in his apartment.
Nicholas felt each of Arisilde’s fingers, wary of illusions or avoidance spells, then checked his feet. He felt a hard metal band around the smallest toe and almost didn’t believe he had found it. He worked the band off and sat back on his heels, watching Arisilde hopefully.
There was no change, or at least no visible one. Nicholas looked at the ring he had removed. It was a plain cheap metal band, no odd inscriptions or glyphs inscribed on it, but he was careful to keep from inadvertently slipping it onto one of his own fingers.
Arisilde still showed no sign of waking and in the silence of the place…
Silence. I can’t hear the fay, Nicholas thought. He shoved the ring into his pocket and grabbed Arisilde’s arms, hauling him up and managing to sling him over one shoulder. He didn’t know how long the creature had been silent; if he had any luck at all, it had been distracted by another fleeing revenant.
He managed to get Arisilde up the slope and to the ledge just below the window but it was slow and awkward going. Nicholas let him down, propped him up against the wall, and took a deep breath. He was going to have to climb the rock face to the opening with Arisilde a dead weight over his shoulder.
He started to lift Arisilde again but froze when he heard a skitter of pebbles from the other side of the pit. Nicholas lowered Arisilde and glanced around frantically. There was a small crevice where the rock had broken through the old stone wall, with an overhang that provided some shelter. Nicholas found the pitiful and far too recent remains of the last creature to take shelter there and hastily flung it out, then worked his way as far back into the corner as he could. He dragged Arisilde in after him, pulling the limp body half into his lap and letting the head rest on his shoulder. They were in deep shadow here and it gave them more of a chance than being caught in the open.
There was another rush of disturbed rock chips, then stealthy movement at the far end of the pit. Nicholas stopped breathing, stopped thinking when the huge fay crept into sight. Its head swung back and forth, a seeking motion. It knew there was something alive in here or at least something that moved, and it hadn’t given up yet.
Nicholas’s hold on Arisilde had unconsciously tightened. Suddenly the sorcerer drew a deeper breath. He’s waking, Nicholas thought, stunned. What a time to prove Isham right. He leaned his head down to Arisilde’s ear and in an almost voiceless whisper said, “Don’t move.”
The fay crossed the floor of the pit, the stumps that had been its feet stirring up a small cloud of dirt and debris. Arisilde gave no sign he had heard or understood him but he didn’t betray them with a quick movement. Nicholas could feel him breathing now, deep regular breaths, as if he was in a natural sleep. That might be some intermediate stage before real consciousness. There was no telling how long it would take Arisilde to wake or if he would be capable of performing sorcery when he did. Think, Nicholas told himself. Come up with a clever way to kill that thing because it’s not going to leave until it finds us.
He watched it hunt for them along the lower reaches of the pit, kicking at piles of ancient bone, poking behind rockfalls, casting its hideous head back and forth like a hunting dog on the scent. Cold iron and magic kill fay, Nicholas thought, his mind racing. And we have rocks and nothing. He might try to cause a rockfall to crush it but he didn’t see how; the loose stones were all far too small to hurt it and the large ones too heavy for him to shift. And it was so fast it might well duck out of the way. His pistol was empty and useless… And made of steel, which was still iron, as far as sorcery was concerned. Except if he tried to throw the pistol at the thing it would do nothing but further enrage it. When it eats us perhaps it will accidentally swallow it and that will cause some discomfort…. Now there’s a thought.
He looked at the revenant who had been the last occupant of their shelter. Its legs had been torn away but most of the torso was left. The fay was on the far side of the pit digging at a pile of filth, stirring up a cloud of dust. Now or never.
Nicholas shifted Arisilde over, propping him against the wall. He squeezed out past him and knelt next to the revenant, searching around for a fragment of rock with a relatively sharp edge. The fay whirled around, alerted by some faint sound. Nicholas froze, gritting his teeth, cursing the persistence of the damn thing.
It growled low but couldn’t seem to pinpoint his location. After a moment it turned back to digging at the side of the pit, slinging a small boulder out of the way in its annoyance.
The noise of the fall masked the slight sound as Nicholas rolled the revenant over. He used the fragment to tear the belly open and had to swallow hard to keep from gagging at the stench released.
The fay turned and came back toward this side of the pit, its head cocked, as if certain it heard or sensed movement. Nicholas slipped the empty pistol out of his pocket and forced it into the revenant’s body cavity.
The fay moved closer, the low growl rising again. Nicholas waited until it was almost just below, then tipped the revenant off the ledge.
The fay dove for it instantly, clawing at the rock as the revenant bounced down the slope. Nicholas scrambled back into the shelter of the crevice thinking, come on, you greedy bastard, go after it.
The fay pounced as the revenant rolled to the end of the lowest ledge and crammed the battered corpse into its maw.
Nicholas crouched against the wall next to Arisilde’s limp body. There now. If it worked at all. If it worked in time.
Madeline caught up with Ronsarde and Halle only a little further into the catacomb. The Inspector leaned heavily against one of the crypts. His eyes were closed but the lids fluttered as he fought to return to consciousness.
“He keeps blacking out,” Halle explained as she climbed over some broken steps to join them. “He’s had a bad knock on the head.”
“We’re all right for the moment but we’ve got to keep moving.” Madeline was trembling so hard from fear and their precipitate flight that her teeth were chattering. She was relieved Halle was too occupied to take notice of it. She lifted Ronsarde’s other arm and stretched it across her shoulders to get them moving again. This was going to be difficult. She was strong for a woman but she couldn’t carry Ronsarde all the way out of here, even with Halle’s help.
“The sphere destroyed that thing that was coming after us?” Halle asked as they made their way forward.
“It stopped it. I don’t think it destroyed it.” Madeline was still having difficulty believing what she had seen with her own eyes. The sphere must be alive to some extent. She certainly hadn’t told it to lay a trap for Macob, if Macob that thing had been, luring him close enough and then letting go full blast. That had been no accident; this little metal ball had exhibited human cunning. “Nicholas should be up ahead of us here somewhere,” she added. She only hoped he was still searching for her in the catacomb or the tunnel and hadn’t decided to turn around and look for her back in the cave. “I’ve been lost for a bit.”
“How did you know where to look for us?”
“Nicholas deduced it.” Even in the bad light, she could tell Halle’s face was strained and ill. “How were you brought here?”
“I’m not entirely certain,” he admitted. “We were in the sorcerer Damal’s apartment in the Philosopher’s Cross and I had just started to examine him. He still appeared to be unconscious though it seemed to be a natural sleep and not the state he was in before. Then something struck the outer wall of the building. I was knocked unconscious. We woke as prisoners where you found us and we’ve seen no one except the ghouls. Wait. Your grandmother and Isham, they were in the apartment,” Halle said suddenly. He stopped, as if ready to turn back to search for them. “Were they–”
“My grandmother’s dead.” The dim light had given her a wonderful headache; she wanted to rub her eyes but with the sphere to hold onto and Ronsarde to support, she had no free hand. She didn’t want to think about Madele’s death. “Isham was badly injured but Nicholas had him taken to a physician, that was a few hours ago.” At least she thought so; her watch had been pinned inside a coat pocket and been torn loose in one of the near-misses. She had lost it and all track of time.
“I’m sorry. Your grandmother–”
She shook her head, warning him off. “Nicholas thinks this sorcerer, this man who’s doing this to us, is actually Constant Macob himself, or his ghost or shade or something.”
“Can that be possible?” Halle muttered, then shook his head, annoyed at himself. “What am I saying? Of course it’s possible.”
“Damn sorcery,” Ronsarde said suddenly, in a weak voice. “Didn’t consider that as a valid hypothesis. Tell Valiarde–”
“Sebastion, save your strength,” Halle said urgently. “You can’t tell him anything until we get out of here.”
“Tell Valiarde,” Ronsarde continued stubbornly, ignoring the interruption, “that Macob isn’t mad. Conclusion I came to, studying the historical accounts. Halle, you know–”
“No, I don’t agree, and you know it,” Halle said, exasperated. “I think he is mad, but it’s a strange sort of madness. Madmen are often cunning, but not so deliberate. Macob’s madness didn’t–that is, hasn’t hampered his intelligence.”
“And he’s dead already, so killing him is problematical anyway,” Madeline said. “It’s all right, Inspector, we’ll tell Nicholas.”
Ronsarde stopped suddenly, let go of Halle, and with startling strength grabbed the collar of Madeline’s coat. Ferocity lending force to his voice, he said, “Tell Valiarde that in my study in my apartment on Avenue Fount, under the loose tile on the right side of the hearth, there is a packet of documents. He must see them.”
Halle recaptured Ronsarde’s arm and urged him to move. The Inspector seemed to be losing consciousness again. He added, “I wanted him to see… Not pertinent to this matter but he must know after this is over…”
“Do you know what he means?” Madeline asked Halle.
“No.” Halle shook his head. “I just hope we last long enough to find out.”
They made their way back through the catacomb with what seemed painful slowness, but fear kept them moving. There were three ghouls waiting for them at the entrance to the tunnel that led to the sewers, but the sphere disposed of them almost desultorily, as if it had faced a greater challenge and now found ghouls rather passé. Next you’ll be talking to it, Madeline thought wearily.
The tunnel was difficult until Ronsarde woke abruptly again. He was able to lean on Halle, allowing Madeline to light one of the candle stubs she had in her pocket so they could see past the point where the ghost-lichen died out. As they made their way closer to the sewers the rising stench, fetid and familiar, was a welcome sign that they were almost home.
They reached the rotted door into the old sewer channel and Madeline was about to help Ronsarde through when they heard voices.
She and Halle stared at each other in the dim candlelight. “Crack got through,” she whispered hopefully. But she didn’t hear Nicholas’s voice.
“I’ll make certain,” Halle said. “You wait here with Sebastion.”
“All right.” They eased Ronsarde down so he could sit against the wall and she handed Halle the candle. “Don’t go too far. There are branchements and turns and you’ll get lost.”
Halle made his way up the broken path toward the voices and she sat next to Ronsarde. After a moment, she thought that was a mistake. Her legs ached from climbing and running in the damp chill, her muscles were strained from lifting Ronsarde and her arms were sore from holding the sphere so tightly. She leaned her head back against the filthy wall and closed her eyes; she wasn’t sure she could get up again.
The candlelight faded as Halle moved further away and they sat for a moment in the pitch dark. Then the sphere began to emit a dim, golden glow. Madeline stared down at it. The color of the light was very like flame, as if it was imitating the departed candle. She glanced up to meet Ronsarde’s eyes. He was still conscious and his gaze was sharper. He smiled and said, “Clever gadget.”
She heard the voices again then, louder this time. She recognized Doctor Halle, who sounded relieved, and the person replying to him was… “That’s Reynard!” she said to Ronsarde.
“Doctor, is the Inspector with you?” someone called out.
“And Captain Giarde,” Ronsarde said, identifying the voice and sounding pleased. “Success may be at hand.”
But where’s Nicholas, Madeline wondered. He must have been far ahead of us. If he had realized she was behind him he would have turned back to look for her and they would have encountered him in the catacomb or the tunnel. If he was ahead of her, she realized coldly. But if he was behind me…
The voices came closer as Halle led the rescuers toward them. “Yes, Crack told us,” Reynard was saying. “Nicholas and Madeline are with you?”
Halle’s answer was inaudible but she heard Reynard reply, “No, he’s not with us, are you sure–”
More confused answers, then Halle saying distinctly, “But Arisilde Damal, the injured sorcerer, was taken prisoner also. He and Valiarde must still be down there.”
The man Ronsarde had identified as Captain Giarde said, “Fallier and the other sorcerers are planning to collapse the underground chambers. If there’s anyone left down there–”
“You can’t leave them there,” Reynard said, sounding furious. “You wouldn’t know where the bastard was without Nic’s help. I’ll go down after him.”
“I’ll show you the way,” Halle said.
“No.” That was Giarde again. “We’d just lose the lot of you. I can hold Fallier off, give them time to get out, but if we wait too long this necromancer will escape–”
More protests. It sounded as if Giarde had a great many men with him and Reynard and Halle were trapped among them. Madeline looked at Ronsarde.
The Inspector’s expression was tired and vexed. He said, “I wish I could accompany you, my dear. You are a resourceful woman but a little assistance never hurts.” He let out his breath. “I can contrive, however, to delay any possible pursuit.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, then got to her feet. “I’ll be back.”
As she stepped back through the door and into the tunnel, she heard Ronsarde whisper, “I hope to God you will.”
END CHAPTER TWENTY
Continued in Chapter Twenty-one
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