The Dark Below
As the sun sank beyond mountain heights, the city’s long avenues were stained in scarlet and shadow. Plumes of smoke twisted into the darkening sky from burning shingled roofs, and banners of no less than three Naor tribes fluttered above the invaders now striding red-handed through Alantris, hewing indiscriminately through knots of resistance and fleeing, frightened citizens.
There was nowhere for them to run. The Naor had breached each of the city’s concentric ring of walls, flowing even to the foot of the citadel where Rylin watched from a high tower window. The sounds of the conflict washed up to him—the frantic trumpet blasts of defenders, the echoing horn call of the attackers, the clatter of hooves on cobblestone streets. The screams. Most of all, the screams.
Rylin’s mouth shaped itself into an unconscious snarl. The capital’s fortress loomed not only above Alantris, but the surrounding countryside, granting him an unrestricted view of the west wall and the gap blown inward by one of the great winged lizards flown by the Naor. Successive beasts had forced gaps in the rest. Generations of rulers had overseen the construction of those defenses, never guessing how simply their work would be undone.
Even as he stared, Rylin heard a nearby roar that set his citadel tower rocking. He cursed himself for permitting the horror to distract him. One of the Naor wyrms might at any moment focus its stone-shaking blast against the citadel and send its high towers splintering to the ground.
He turned and hurried down the narrow wooden stairs. He bore his friend and mentor over his left shoulder, garbed like him in the blue armored robe of the Altenerai Corps. He’d found no wound upon Varama, but her movements were feeble. The traitorous alten Cerai had attacked her magically and left her stunned, or possibly worse. Since he’d found her, Varama had only managed a few jumbled words uttered singly. It was another horror to contemplate that the most brilliant person he’d ever met might have been rendered a monosyllabic idiot.
He descended in gloom. Here and there, light shone blindingly through arrow slits looking down on crosswalks or courtyards, and he resisted the impulse to stop for longer looks. He would see only minor variation in the theme of destruction and futile defense. Alantris was already dead; it but flailed spasmodically as it expired. Somehow he had to get himself and Varama out of the citadel to somewhere safer in the dying city. Currently even that modest goal looked like an insurmountable challenge.
As he reached the next landing, he heard Varama mumbling something, and he paused, head turned to better hear her. Long habit had taught him that when Varama spoke it was worth listening.
“Can’t hear you,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of the tower before it falls.”
Her hoarse voice struggled for greater volume even against a nearby trumpet blast. She spoke as if with great effort. “Entrance. Hid-den. Tunn’ls.”
“Where? In this tower?”
Her grunt sounded as though it was in the affirmative.
“Where do we get in?”
“First. Floor. Near. Main. Stair.”
“Right.” Once he might have questioned her meaning. Now he trusted her implicitly. Her mind, at least, appeared to be working. She was aware of past and present, and planned for the future. It was the ability to communicate fluently which had failed her. Gods, he thought, let this be temporary.
He adjusted her weight on his already-aching shoulder and resumed descent, wondering even then why he prayed for one person when so many were dead, dying, or in danger even now. Probably because the magnitude of those horrors was difficult to contemplate, and this horror was immediate and evident.
A low, chest-shaking rumble set the tower rocking. He flung out his right arm to steady himself on the rail but increased his pace.
Close by, one of the Naor wyrms had unleashed the deadly energy that collapsed walls, and it pushed him to greater haste. He could all too easily envision their deaths among the crushing stones.
From below he heard a low horn call, and the shouts of men. There were sounds of booted feet on the stairs. “They’re going out to fight,” Rylin said to Varama, a little breathless. “And die.”
He reached another landing. They’d finally descended the long vertical length of the west tower and emerged in the main portion of the citadel, though there were four stories yet between them and the ground. He dashed across an oaken floor covered over with a white flowered carpet, hurrying for the main stairs. “I should be with them,” he said.
He was Altenerai, sworn to defend the realms and their people to his dying breath. “Must. Get. Others,” Varama managed, her breath husky with effort. “In tunn’ls. Squires. Warriors.”
“After I get you to safety.” Rylin turned into the main stair. These were stone, and well worn by centuries of traffic. Indistinct shouting rose from below, followed by a horn call. Rylin understood its meaning: The Altenerai squires were being called to battle. A little late, he thought.
As he reached the second floor, a trio of men ran past bearing bows and quivers. The rear one slowed for a moment as he caught sight of their uniforms, then hurried after his comrades.
Starting down the last stairwell, he heard war cries and the clatter of blade on blade. An officer called out for her soldiers to pull back. A Naor bellowed that the Alantrans were on the run.
He eased Varama against the wall and was surprised to see her supporting herself, albeit dazedly. Finally, a stroke of good fortune. Rylin stepped to the inner stair rail and peered at the main floor.
Four Naor had advanced into the wide stone hall in a line, pressing three of the Alantran troops with spears set into the notches in the high corner of their shields.
No expert on the markings of the Naor tribes, Rylin nonetheless knew that the absence of crests on pot helms denoted them as low-ranking troops. They might lack experience, but they’d be eager to prove their ferocity and bravery.
He wondered why the Alantrans didn’t press harder, then saw them shielding one of the city’s councilors and the acting governor, obvious from the embroidered blue scarves wrapped about their heads.
His first instinct was to cripple the Naor with his sorcery, but he was already weakened from Cerai’s attack. Varama had taught him to use the tools at hand, which was why he snatched a bronze flowerpot from a stairwell niche. It made a delightful clang when it smashed into the helmeted temple of the Naor on the left and crumpled him. He grinned to himself that Naor never seemed to take the time to properly pad their headgear.
Before the man had even hit the floor, Rylin vaulted the rail with sword in hand. His attack from on high cut through leather armor and shoulder alike and sent another warrior wailing to the ground. Rylin wrenched his arm pulling his sword from the body and just missed getting cut by an overenthusiastic Alantran charging into the sudden clear space.
Rylin cursed at him, but the wide-eyed soldier had already turned on the next Naor.
Attacked now from both front, flank, and rear, the last two Naor went down quickly. Rylin hurried to the citadel door, and was readying to slam it closed, when he saw a mass of Altenerai squires forming in a square and facing the ruined citadel wall.
He shouted to them; then, when they didn’t turn, hurried forth, and screamed through cupped hands for them to fall back. Finally, the rear rank turned toward him, signaling those in front until dozens were hurrying into the citadel itself, along with some more of the city guards.
The acting governor lay her hand on his arm as he stood at the open door. He could just hear her over the approach of the squires. “Thank goodness you’ve come. You’ve got to lead these forces to battle, Alten.”
He saw the fervent look in her eyes and wished he had something better to tell her. “I’d be throwing their lives away, Governor Feolia. The city’s taken.”
At those bleak words, she smiled gravely and looked to her own weapon. “Then we must die with sword in hand.”
“Not today.” He waved in the squires and pointed a familiar, square-jawed fifth ranker to the stairway he’d quitted. “Sansyra! Varama’s on the steps. Get her down here!”
It took the young woman only a moment to register the instruction and then hurry up the stairs.
“You two—get to the windows on the stairwell and keep watch.”
Still more squires filed into the hallway, along with some citadel soldiers, protesting that they should hold the wall.
He didn’t have time to argue with them. “Close and seal the doors!” While this order was being carried out, Rylin turned again to the acting governor. “Varama knows of a hidden exit. Are you aware of it?”
Feolia cocked her head in surprise.
“Come along, then.”
“What about the rest of our people?” the governor asked.
“I’m going to do what I can, but the odds aren’t good for any of them, or us.”
Sansyra returned, Varama leaning heavily against her. It might have been wishful thinking, but he thought he detected a little strength in the alten’s step.
One of the squires he’d sent to watch from above called down. “Alten! The Naor are all over the courtyard now! Some more are coming closer!”
The second ranker fell silent. Presumably he was counting. From somewhere close by came the twang of bowstrings followed by a shout from outside, and Rylin guessed the small band of Alantran archers he’d seen earlier was finding targets.
The milling squires and soldiers, dismayed and shocked, parted for Varama as Sansyra guided her behind the stairwell. The pale blue alten stopped at the wall beneath it, her eyes roving over a gray stone partly covered over by the stiff tapestry of an archer on a hilltop under wintry skies. Her lidded gaze settled upon the stone where the fabric archer’s arrow was pointed. She then pressed into it. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much strength at her command.
“Sixty-six,” the counting squire announced to a room whose interest had moved on. Someone outside the citadel let out a cry of agony that was abruptly silenced, and a celebratory whoop went off above. “Sixty-five.”
There was nothing remarkable about the shoulder-high stone Varama labored against, not even when Rylin examined it with his inner sight. He dismissed the idea that Varama was confused or mistaken, then gently brushed her aside to place his own palms to the area. It was as cold and gritty as its neighbors.
There was barely space for two hands on the masonry, and Rylin found himself wishing his stronger friend Lasren were there. He’d been too busy to think about him for days. Somewhere in the wilds Lasren was probably still hunting the falsely declared enemies of the realms, Kyrkenall and Elenai.
Suddenly the stone gave way a little, sinking back into a recess, and Rylin halted in surprise before pushing further. He heard a low thunk, felt a vibration through his fingertips. The governor called to him, but he scarcely heard, for a jagged section of the wall in the shadow of the stairwell swung inward. The door was no higher than his shoulder and three feet at its widest. Its edge was uneven, so that when closed it would better blend into the surrounding wall. Rylin peered inside and saw the top of a wooden ladder secured against the far side of a stone shaft leading into darkness.
It wasn’t the most inviting of openings even in these circumstances, but the squires shifted in expectation and the councilor beside the governor muttered a prayer.
“Where does it go?” she asked.
Rylin looked to Varama for the answer. “Deep,” she whispered. “Far. Safe’ty.”
“You heard her. You.” He pointed to the nearest squire. “Get a lantern. And candles.”
The councilor offered, “There’s a supply room just down the corridor. I’ll show you.”
As she spoke, Rylin discovered an even larger band of people had arrived from deeper in the citadel and now waited behind them. Some were soldiers, and some were additional squires, but dozens were ordinary citizens, including children and elderly. Rylin searched their frightened faces, looking for Denalia, Aradel’s niece, and didn’t see her.
“Can all of these people fit?” he asked Varama.
She nodded. “Them first.”
He frowned, but acquiesced. Varama for some reason wanted to remain behind until last; maybe she was gathering her strength to manage the ladder. He’d just have to work quickly. There were hundreds normally within the citadel and fortress and there surely had to be some still above. He couldn’t fit the whole city into the tunnels, but he could certainly get as many as possible. Better to rely on those who knew the building.
“You six,” he said, pointing to a group of Alantran soldiers, “come with me. We’re going to search upstairs.” He pointed to the squire Lemahl, and the governor and counselor. “Search the main floor. Get everyone that you can. Sansyra, stay here by Varama. You two, monitor the door. And everyone else—get down the damned shaft!”
He waved on his charges and they came with him up the stairs. “We have to move fast, and I don’t want to leave anyone behind. But don’t you dare shout that ‘we’ve found a secret exit,’ right? The Naor might hear.”
That seemed to make sense to them, and they declared assent. They looked nervous but eager. Probably they were glad for the direction, the sense that they were involved in something that wasn’t hopeless.
“You know this whole building better than me. You three, take the second floor. Spread out. Alert the archers to fall back to the window overlooking the main entrance. The rest of you come with me to the third.”
From outside came another roar. Damn. He’d momentarily forgotten about the wyrms. How could he be so stupid? If he were to die pulverized by thousands of pounds of stone, then at least he’d be killed while he was helping people. But could he get Varama into the shaft before everything collapsed?
He left the soldiers to search the third floor and climbed to the fourth, racing from room to room, through open doors and calling every twenty paces.
He found a handful of frightened young servants hiding in a storeroom on the fourth floor and sent them down.
Searching beyond was another issue altogether, because above the fourth floor the fortress was composed of seven towers, some of which were linked by crosswalks but not all on the same floor. He climbed one, made his way to a balcony overlooking an inner courtyard and managed to catch the eye of another band of archers who’d taken up a post in the south tower. He waved them over and pointed to the ground floor and one of them raised a hand in acknowledgment.
He dared not be gone for any longer. He found the soldiers ushering a handful of additional refugees down the stairs, and joined them.
By the time he’d reached the landing leading to the second floor, the archer on duty at the window shook his head and pointed down. “There’s a score of Naor in the courtyard and they’re getting a ram to bash in the doors.”
That hadn’t taken very long. “Some archers are coming in from the south tower. I’m not sure where it meets up—get them here, and fast.”
“Yes, sir.” The bowman hurried away.
Below, Varama and Sansyra were still waiting. Alone. It was the first time he’d ever seen the squire’s face brighten at the sight of him. He also noticed a large bruise rising on her cheek.
The soldiers he’d brought with him started onto the ladder. The rest of the hall was empty.
Sansyra sighed in relief. “Thank the Gods you’re back, sir.”
“I’d pray to them, but I’m not sure I’d thank them. Did the other three who climbed with me return?”
“Yes, with more soldiers and servants. They already descended.”
He turned to Varama. “Where do the tunnels get you out of the city?”
What was the point of that? “Just inside?” He couldn’t contain his disappointment.
“Exit’s in west wall. West wall fell.”
Right. There’d be no way out from there. He’d have to get them out some other way, but on the bright side, Varama’s sentence structure was improving. “Are there other entrances to the tunnels?”
She answered his question with one of her own. “Your plan?”
“Semblances,” he said, unconsciously imitating her shortened manner of speech, and saw her gaze sharpen as she immediately understood. “I’ll gather as much information as I can about our foes, find a way out for us. And sow a little chaos if I’m lucky. Do you still have your semblance?”
She fumbled with the pouch on her belt, and frowned as her own fingers obeyed only sluggishly. Sansyra hurried to help.
“You guard her with your life, Sansyra. Do you understand? We need her.”
“Yes, sir. I know how important she is.” Sansyra spoke with great sincerity, and an implied rebuke, as if to say she had always known and who was he to just now be noticing?
He deserved that.
Something huge rattled into the outer door, like a giant’s fist. He glanced at the portal, saw it quaver. As impressive as the citadel walls were, the doors themselves looked more serviceable than fortresslike. Probably no one had ever expected that enemies would get so far.
Sansyra handed him Varama’s small belt pack, her gaze seeking his, but he focused instead upon Varama, whose strange eyes fixed him with a particularly intense stare. “Three more entrances … simpler to find.”
The oaken door bar rattled in its holdings as the Naor rammed it again. Up above he heard footsteps on the stairs. The archers. They’d damned well better hurry.
“Temple to Vedessa,” Varama said, then paused to breathe. “North corner. Niche panel of praying man. Press.”
“The second one?”
“Third tier. Below Merivan’s Archway. Fountain of maiden. Third full stone left of her foot.”
There was the sound of splintering wood and Varama pointed toward the door.
“They’re getting close,” Rylin agreed. “You’d better get down. I’ll ask about the third later. I’m going to use one of the faces from these dead Naor—”
“Throw down ladder.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Stand up body. Look well. Then pitch down hole.”
“The hole? You mean where the ladder is? Why?”
She stared at him. The archers he’d called to from the tower had finally reached the landing directly overhead, and the doors were splintering. It was hard to think. “Oh. Oh!”
Of course. The body of the Naor man whose face he meant to steal needed to be hidden so Rylin didn’t look like a dead man’s twin, one lying right in the path of the Naor, and easily visible.
“Sansyra, come with me.” He raced to one of the dead men. “Hold that one up.”
She looked puzzled, but bent to lift the corpse.
Outside the Naor counted, their meaning clear even though their borderland accent mangled the words: one, two, building to a three. There was a mighty grunt and the doors rattled. And cracked. He could see some light through the splinters, but for now they held.
Sansyra hoisted up a scruffy-looking Naor by the shoulders.
“Make him stand.” Rylin had to make sure he got the height right.
The archers finally reached the spot just before the door, their eyes wide in alarm. More than fifteen of them.
Rylin thumbed them toward the ladder and they hurried on. One of them exclaimed in amazement before they started down.
Damned if that particular Naor body didn’t have a nasty cut through his shoulder. That would look a little strange to take as a semblance, wouldn’t it?
“Next one,” Rylin said.
Sansyra released the dead man, and with a look over her shoulder at the door, lifted another.
This body was much better. There was a lot of blood on his cuirass and on his hands, but no noticeable injuries. His head lolled, of course, and his eyes were rolled back, and he smelled like he’d voided his bowels on death, but Rylin assumed the semblance he took on would move like a living person, and he’d work not to mimic the scent as well. He tried to imagine him with normal eyes.
After a long moment, he reasoned he had memorized the man’s face about as well as he was going to manage. “All right, toss him down the shaft.”
He stepped back to the opening to the shaft only to discover that four archers were left in front of the thing, watching as one of their fellows descended gingerly.
Copyright © 2019 by Howard Andrew Jones