Tuesday, May 8, 2018

No Better Life - Chapter 5

 By Gerard "Gray" Chartier

[Editor's note: click to read Chapter 1; Chapter 2; Chapter 3; Chapter 4]

The elf straightened from his slouch against the far wall, l, clutching close a worn leather satchel case. “You’re not one of them?”

Gray shook his head. “I’m actually closer to being one of you.” He reached over and pulled Swift into the light, so the elf could see the heraldry he wore.

The elf sprang to his feet and rushed forward, embracing Swift and kissing both his cheeks. “Blessed Creator! I hadn’t dreamed I would portal down to find…” He cast a sidelong glance at Gray. “…civilized folk.”

“Oh, sure!” Gray muttered, “I master arcane arts beyond the ken of most mortals. They poke holes in things with big knives. And somehow every time a new one shows up, I’m the barbarian!”

Killer chittered in commiseration.

The elf disengaged from Swift, clearing his throat. “Ahem. I meant no offense, ahh, Gray.” He straightened up, his hands smoothing down the tattered vest over his filthy tunic. “Diedrich Fessler, Professor of History at the University of Vladivystek.”

Charwindle pressed forward, past the clustering Mayerlingers. “We’re not out of danger yet, Professor. Please, come with us at once!”

Fessler nodded. “Of course, captain.”

Swift stripped a cloak off one of the dead cultists and handed it to Fessler. The academic grimaced, but wrapped the bloody, smelly garment around him, raising the hood to hide his distinctive skin tone and delicately pointed ears. The group followed Boll back the way they came.

Tension rippled through the living members of the procession as they emerged into the courtyard. Fessler hesitated at the sight of cultists dipping buckets into barrels, the smell of oil reaching them as they soaked the mound of firewood surrounding the pole in the middle of the courtyard, but Gray shoved him forward, keeping his hand on the back of his head to both keep the academic advancing and to keep his face down and hidden by his hood.

They were just about to pass the pole when shouts of anger rang across the courtyard, then sounds of fighting, then screams of dying. Dark figures began bursting from doorways, part canine, part humanoid, blood dripping from their claws and maws.

“Darkspawn!” Kamilla screamed.

“You think?” Swift retorted, raising his bow for a snap shot at the werewolves bounding towards them.

“Fall back!” Charwindle shouted at the top of her lungs, “Soft, slow them down!”

“Get’em boys!” Soft cried as he spun and ran for the door they’d just come out.

Bedlam ensued as Soft’s zombies lurched forward towards the werewolves, the werewolves cut their way through cultists, and the cultists realized there were enemies in their midst and attacked indiscriminately with swords and torches.

A few cultists tried to intercept them, but a glancing blow from Eoin’s bastard sword sent one reeling, and Charwindle cut down two others. Gray stopped at the yawning doorway, turning and drawing power to himself as his companions dashed past. Bringing up the rear, Darvan stopped.

“Gray, what are you waiting for?” he demanded.

Gray only had to wait seconds for the werewolves to make it halfway across the courtyard. Lightning arced from his outstretched hand, impacting the oil barrels.

The explosion was titanic, scattering burning debris and splashing flaming oil across the whole courtyard. Cultists were knocked flat with their robes ablaze, werewolves were sent tumbling with their fur on fire, and Gray and Darvan were slammed through the open doorway and landed in a heap on the stone floor. Gray rolled off Darvan, beating out the burning oil spattered on his cloak.

“That was excessive!” Darvan said as he hauled Gray back to his feet.

“We needed to slow them down!” Gray retorted.

“Yes, but now we’re cut off!” Kamilla accused.

“We can try and go around the fire, but we’re bound to run into cultists and werekin!” Charwindle observed grimly.

Fessler slipped between Eoin and Soft. “Captain, I think I can get us out of here!”

Charwindle only took a moment to decide before nodding. “Very well. Lead the way!”

The elven scholar led them back down the stairs into the unlit passageways of the palace’s basement, pulling a leather-bound tome with a silver clasp out of his satchel. Pushing to the front of the procession, Gray summoned a ball of green light to his hand, illuminating Fessler’s tome and their way forward as the sage led them down the lightless hallways.

“How do you know where to go?” Gray asked Fessler.

Fessler flipped through pages of his book, stopping on a partial map. “Because I’ve been studying this place.”

“The palace?” Gray asked.

“Specifically yes, but more generally the whole city!” Fessler stopped and turned to the whole group. “Some of you are from this plane, but most of you are from the Empire, are you not? Have you not felt a certain degree of familiarity to the city above us?”

Gray watched as looks passed between the descended Mayerlingers.

“Ah! You have!” Fessler crowed. He resumed leading them through the basement, but half-turned to keep talking to those following him. “It’s no coincidence! Thought it’s concealed by age, neglect, and the improvised rebuilding the residents have done, but the architectural styles of the structures here mirror those seen on older buildings within the Empire!”

“That must be a coincidence at best!” Kamilla scoffed.

Fessler shook his head. “I don’t think so!” He stopped again, pulled a sheet of paper from his satchel, tucking his book under his arm so he could unfold it for the group to see. “This is a rubbing I took of a memorial plaque stored deep in the archives of the university of Vladyvstek. It commemorates one Kristoff, an early prince of the dynasty, and his retinue. See here, it states “They give their lives to safeguard a great treasure.”

“What does that mean?” Eoin asked.

Fessler folded the rubbing back up, stuffing it back in his bag as he resumed leading the party. “Note the wording. Not, ‘they gave’, but ‘they give’. I hypothesized they portalled down, taking the treasure with them as they went. So far, my studies seem to confirm my hypthosesis.”

“Do you have any proof?” Charwindle demanded, her normally soft voice an almost inaudible whisper, “Other than architectural similiarities?”

Fessler twisted around to nod to Charwindle. “I do. I have transcripts from an ancient tome I found in the catacombs under the ruins of the city’s library. Much of it had already rotted, and the pages crumbled as I turned them, but they referred to angels who descended from the heavens to bring culture and civilization to the savage tribes who’d dwelt here. Some of the angels were described as steely eyed revenants whose touch froze souls. Others were described as gleaming like gold, whose every word was music. And, I have…”

Fessler’s exposition was interrupted by howls echoing from the passageways behind them.

“Werekin!” Kamilla hissed.

“I guess they got around the courtyard,” Gray observed.

“Or plunged through it,” Charwindle remarked grimly, “They would regenerate from being burned.”

“Not only that,” Eoin announced, “But it seems to be getting warm down here.”

Now that Eoin pointed it out, Gray couldn’t help but notice the same thing. Plus, he thought he was beginning to smell smoke. He dismissed his light for a moment. In the ensuing blackness, a distinct red glow emanated from between the stones lining the arched ceilings of the passageways.

“There’s fire above us!” Soft whispered.

“How is that possible?” Fessler demanded, “We shouldn’t be under the courtyard!”

“These ruins are hundreds of years old,” Swift said, “Any wood left in them is dry as bone. The whole palace is probably going up!”

“That is really not good!” Fessler rasped, “Much of the palace used wooden support beams! If they burn, the structural integrity…”

The ceiling made Fessler’s point for him by collapsing, as tons of flaming rubble caved in the ceiling, smashing through the stone under their feet. The floor dropped out from beneath Gray, and he found himself plummeting through the dark.

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