This week’s Friday flash returns to the world of The Necromancer’s Apprentice for this standalone tale!
Fitzwilliam Curtis edged along the vast wall that marked the boundary of the City Above. Penelope Vanbrugh followed, her rosebud mouth twisted into a pout as she tried to keep her dress away from the stonework.
“Are you sure this is worth it?” she asked. Fitzwilliam sighed and shot her his patented ‘Do I really need to answer that?’ expression, complete with errant lock of hair falling artfully over one eye.
“All of the most interesting people have excursions into the Underground City,” he replied.
He’d explained it to her at least three times over tea the night before. Life in the City Above was so boring, an endless round of lectures at the Military Academy in the Palace Barracks and parties with the City’s Elite to make connections that might help him secure a commission in the Militia. Even sneaking away to the Artist’s Quarter for midnight meetings with the Night Ladies had done little to spice up his existence. Surely the labyrinthine expanse of the Underground City, where magick was openly allowed, would offer something more exciting.
“We can’t use Lockervar’s Gate. We don’t have our Seals.” Penelope pointed to the vast gate set into the wall some seventy yards away.
“We don’t need to. There are other ways below, you know. Ones that aren’t watched.”
The buildings lining the narrow thoroughfare alongside the wall were haphazard in their construction, telling of the confusion and haste that accompanied the raising of the City Above. Lead-lined windows were set into whitewashed walls between exposed beams grown black with time. Upper storeys hung over the street, leaning towards the wall like drunken uncles at family occasions. Fitzwilliam led her to a door not far from the mighty Gate. He knocked three times on the door and rattled the doorknob.
A hatch slid open, and a wizened face peered out. Fitzwilliam smiled, the very picture of charm. The face, presumably belonging to a woman, nodded, and the hatch slid closed again. A moment later, the door opened, and she ushered them inside.
“We require passage, my good lady!”
“I know. Yer mate told me yer was comin’.”
Fitzwilliam noticed Penelope’s confused expression and motioned that he would explain later. He handed a purse of coins to the old woman, who led them deeper into the building. The tiny passageway was barely wide enough for Fitzwilliam and Penelope to walk normally, and they followed her around its kinks and sharp turns to a final room, lit by crackling green light contained in lanterns. Fitzwilliam noticed the newel post across the room, and the staircase that descended into darkness below.
The old woman turned and left them. Penelope approached the staircase as a nervous rabbit might approach a fox that may, or may not, be dead.
“We go down there? It looks awfully rickety.”
“Indeed we do, Pen. Then when we want to come back, we repeat this process with our good lady’s sister below.”
“Exactly who is this ‘mate’ of yours that she mentioned?”
“Well he’s not exactly a mate. More a friend of a friend. Passing acquaintance, really. Godby knows him – that’s how I found out about this method of passage.”
“Have you ever actually met this acquaintance?” Penelope raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.
“Well no, but Godby has. He acted as go-between.”
“Fitzwilliam Corby Curtis, this is by far one of your stupidest ideas yet. I’m not going down there into goodness knows what on the say-so of someone you haven’t even met.”
Fitzwilliam scowled. He should have guessed that Penelope would attempt to thwart his attempts at excitement. She was probably afraid that there would be some sort of incident, and it might tarnish her reputation. He snorted.
“Very well, Miss Vanbrugh. If those are your feelings, then I invite you to remain here, in the space between the Cities. I shall inform you of my adventures when I return.”
Without waiting for her reply, he stormed across the room and ran down the steps, taking them two at a time. She squeaked a protest but no footsteps followed him down the staircase. Silly girl. He should have brought Carmilla Whittaker. Her uncle was Dean of the Academy, and she was used to dangerous situations whenever they had a family get-together.
A dim green glow lit the room, and another wizened old woman stood beside a doorway. She beckoned to Fitzwilliam. He followed her, and she led him out of the room. Another long and twisting passageway took them into a bigger room, the mirror of the building back in the City Above.
“Welcome to the Underground City, boy.” The woman’s voice reminded Fitzwilliam of carriage wheels on gravel.
“My thanks, my dear lady.”
“When yer done, knock three times on t’door and rattle t’doorknob, ‘n I’ll let yer in.”
Fitzwilliam bowed, and opened the front door. The street outside was a cacophony of shouts from passing traders, and a Siren practised scales outside a house a few doors down. Gas lamps threw sputtering light into the street below, which was less of a street and more of an open gutter, and crumbling tenements soared into the gloom above. Fitzwilliam stared – he’d never been in a city without a sky before. People hurried to and fro, and he was stunned by the noise and smells. The City Above did not smell so…ripe.
There was a push in the small of the back and he stumbled forwards into the street. The door slammed shut behind him, and he struggled to straighten his jacket, suddenly wishing he’d procured clothing from the Artist’s Quarter that might better fit in with the drab outfits of the locals.
The Siren caught his eye and smiled. Fitzwilliam took in her curves and mass of shining red hair, and decided to follow when she turned and sashayed away along the street.
A shadow detached itself from the darkness below the eaves of the house, and crept along the street behind him.
To be continued next week, with Lifting Enchantments!
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If you enjoyed this story, there are other tales of the Underground City here, or you can read The Necromancer’s Apprentice, in which an apprentice magickian intends to impress an imposing necromancer, but instead raises a bloodthirsty mummy horde. Find it on Goodreads, or check it out on Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.