Thursday, June 7, 2018

No Better Life - Chapter 6

by Gerry "Gray" Chartier
[Editor's note: click to read Chapter 1; Chapter 2; Chapter 3; Chapter 4; Chapter 5]

Gray regained consciousness to a throbbing head and a screaming squirrel.

He seemed to be lying on a bed of uneven rocks, and Killer was next to his head, screeching with rage.  He opened his eyes to see what infuriated the squirrel so.  Torchlight stabbed through to the back of his skull.  He shut them again and raised his hand to block it.

“I wanted to check on you, but I think the squirrel would have attacked me if I’d come any closer.”

Gray dropped his hands and opened his eyes just a crack, craning his head backward and squinting into the light.  Upside down Fessler stood a few feet away, holding a makeshift torch in one hand, the other hanging limp by his side, the sleeve torn and bloody.

“Oh yes, he would have attacked you,” Gray confirmed, “Killer, quiet down.  Let him help.”

Killer uttered one more warning screech and bounded away, keeping an eye on the elf, but subsisting to squeaky grumbling.  Gray tried to get up off the wreckage he was on top of, but discovered he couldn’t move his left leg.  He looked down, saw he was more-or-less half under a massive mound of rubble.

“I’m stuck,” he reported, “Any ideas?”

Fessler squatted down and held the torch close to the rubble.  “I might be able to lever this up enough for you to wriggle out, but I injured my arm in the fall.”

Gray beckoned him closer.  “That, I can take care of.”  He stretched his hand out to touch Fessler’s injured arm.

“Keeper of the Night I call, for future bright or dim,
I your servant need your aid, restore this injured limb.”

Power flowed through Gray’s finger, shaped by his incantation.  Bone knit and muscle mended, the arm becoming whole once more.

Smiling, Fessler flexed his arm.  “Thank you, that’s much better.  Now, let me…ah!”  He picked up a length of wooden beam and jammed it under the collapsed masonry, levering it up.  Gray doubted the slender academic would be able to so much as budge the tons of rubble trapping him, but after a couple tries, Fessler found a point where he was just able to shift it up enough for the sorcerer to slip free.

The elf helped Gray to his feet, almost lifting him off the floor entirely on his own.  “Is your leg all right?”

Gray nodded.  “I think so.  It was just stuck.  You all right?”

Fessler grinned.  “My back would very much like to not do that again, but otherwise yes.”

Gray glanced around.  “You find any of the others?”

Fessler shook his head.  “You were the first I located.”

Gray summoned light to his hand and held it aloft.  They were in a large chamber that seemed to be bisected by the collapse, the rubble walling off one side completely.  He and Fessler searched, but it was Killer who found someone else, squeaking and chirping to summon him to his find – a hand sticking out from under a mound of broken rocks and timbers, a Mayerling bracer adorning the forearm.

Gray attacked the pile of rubble, heaving rocks away left and right.  Fessler joined him, the two of them eventually uncovering Eoin’s limp form.

“Is he alive?” Fessler asked.

Gray felt for the artery in Eoin’s neck, the younger man’s pulse beating strong under his fingertips.  “He is,” he replied with relief, “He’s just out.”

Killer sprang onto Eoin’s chest and shrieked.

Eoin’s eyes popped open, and he sprang up to a sitting position with a gasp.  “Ahh! What happened!  Where are we!”

Gray pulled Eoin to his feet.  “The palace collapsed on us.  I don’t know where we are now.”

“The catacombs under the city,” Fessler said, “This is where I was leading you.  My way would have taken a little longer.”

Eoin looked at Gray, then at Fessler, then back to Gray.  “Is there anybody else?”

A chill gripped Gray’s heart as he jerked a thumb at the wall of rubble.  “Best case, they’re on the other side of that.  Worst case…”

Fessler patted Gray’s shoulder.  “There’s no call to despair as yet.  The catacombs have multiple levels.  They could be higher up or further down.”

Eoin’s jaw set.  “We have to find them!”  He snatched the torch out of Fessler’s hand and strode past the surprised elf, away from the debris and out a door in the far wall.

Gray shared a look with Fessler.  “Kids these days,” the sorcerer quipped.

“I remember being that young,” Fessler observed, “Come on, we should catch up to him before we lose him, too.”

They found Eoin waiting impatiently at an intersection, his torchlight disappearing into the darkness of the vaulted ceilings of the passages.  Fessler nodded to the left, and Eoin dashed ahead, leaving Fessler and Gray following at a more restrained pace.

“So, professor,” Gray said, “You must be pretty committed to knowledge if you…um…portalled down to further your research.”

Fessler glanced at Gray.  “My interest is not strictly academic.  The empire is overrun by the Nosferatu and their minions, and prince’s return is our only hope of driving them out again.”

“And you thought you might find him here?” Gray asked.

“I thought I might find where he was going,” Fessler replied.

“And did you?” Gray pressed as they caught up with Eoin at the next intersection.

Before Fessler could reply, a lupine howl reverberated from the passageway ahead of them.  A heartbeat later, another responded from the right hallway.

“I guess we’re going left!” Fessler said, cutting ahead of Eoin and trotting down the howl-free passageway.

They jogged to the next intersection, finding two passages blocked by the collapse, so they took the only one still open to them, turning them right, with the howls growing louder behind them.  At a T-intersection, the way to the right was blocked by debris, forcing them to turn left as they began to be able to hear the claws of their pursuers clicking on the stone floor.

Their progress was halted by a stone door with ornate carvings.  Set into the door was a panel with eight tiles set with glyphs set in them and an empty space where it looked as though a ninth were missing.

Fessler slipped past Gray and Eoin, examining the door.  “I can open this, but it will take a few minutes.”

A snarl behind them announced they didn’t have minutes.  Gray whipped around, launching magic from his hands as he did so.  His missiles struck the werewolf in the chest and face, sending it reeling back around the corner with a yelp.

Eoin drew his bastard sword, the blade gleaming in the viridescent glow of Gray’s magical light.  Gray pulled power into himself, little tongues of witchfire cascading off him as he readied his lightning to strike.  “The next whatever coming around that corner is going to have a very bad day,” he shouted.

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Gray,” a female voice called back, “We’re here for the elf, and we’ll take the others from our plane while we’re at it, but you and is Eoin, isn’t it?  You two don’t have to be part of our conflict.”

Gray glanced over his shoulder at Fessler, whose whole attention was on sliding the tiles in the panel into different configurations.  “So, you know our names.  What’s yours?” he called back down the hallway.

“You can call me Karayan,” the voice replied, “I’d actually like us to be friends, Gray.  You can walk away, or even join us.  I think you’ll like what we have to offer you.  I know you won’t like what happens if you stand against us.”

Anger flared up from deep in Gray’s chest.  “Karayan, don’t try to tempt me or threaten me.  My soul is thunder, my heart is steel.  I know my spirit’s destination when I pass beyond.  Where’s yours going?”

Karayan’s sigh was loud enough to reach them.  “Eoin, I don’t suppose you want to be rational?”

Eoin dropped into a loose fighting stance.  “I may not be as poetic as Gray, but what he said goes for me, too.”

“So be it.” Karayan declared.

A half-human, half-lupine form bounded around the corner.  A heartbeat later, another followed.  The first was close enough for Gray to smell his fetid breath when the sorcerer let loose.  The lightning launched from Gray’s hand arced into the first werewolf, sending him flying back into the second, the entangled pair of them hurtling to the end of the hall, slamming into the stone hard enough to crack it.

Gray drew his silvered dagger in preparation for charging forward, but a strong hand gripped his shoulder and yanked him back.  He staggered backwards through the now-open door, Eoin and Fessler throwing their shoulders against it as soon as he was across the threshold, slamming the stone portal shut again.

“It’ll take them a while to get through that,” Fessler said, “but not forever.  We should hurry.”

Gray sheathed his dagger.  “No argument from me.  Let’s go.”

The trio hurried down the hallway as fast as Gray could run, stopping when it came out into a corridor stretching both left and right.

Fessler turned to Gray and Eoin.  “The werewolves have my scent now.  If we split up, they may follow me and not you.”  He held out his satchel.  “Take this.  It has my journal, my notes, and -”

“Forget it,” Gray cut him off, “My friends need to know what you know if they’re ever going to find their prince.”

Fessler’s face creased with a frown of exasperation.  “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Prince Rudolf didn’t come here on a whim.  He came seeking the treasure his ancestors left here, because in it there’s a weapon he can use to drive the Nosferatu and their darkspawn minions out of the empire.  If you find the treasure, you’ll find the prince, and everything I know about the treasure is in my notes!”

Gray scowled, but sighed in acquiescence.  “All right.  Give the bag to Acorn.  He’s faster.”

Fessler passed the satchel to Eoin, who slung it over his shoulder.  “What about you?” the younger man demanded, “I didn’t come all this way just to see you go to your death!”

Fessler smiled a knowing smile.  “Oh, I’m a little more formidable than I let on.  You would be doing me a favor if you loaned me a weapon, though.”

Eoin thought for a moment, then drew his silvered dagger, flipping it in his hand to offer it to the elf hilt-first.  “Will this do?”

Fessler nodded.  “Perfect.  I’ll get it back to you.  Now hurry, friends!  It’s vital that information get to your captain!”

Not waiting for a reply, Fessler turned and sprinted to the right.  Gray watched him disappear into the darkness, then followed Eoin as he ran down the corridor to the left.

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