This is the final part in a three-part serial, following Other Ways In and Lifting Enchantments. Fitzwilliam has sneaked into the Underground City from his privileged life in the City Above, and became enchanted by a Siren. The spell was lifted by a trio of housewives, and now he tries to find his way out.
Fitzwilliam couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed. He looked over his shoulder as he picked his way along Green Dragon Close, and peered down the alley as he turned onto the main street, but there was no one there.
No one I can see, at any rate.
He’d heard the stories of the Underground City, of mysterious figures that lurked in the darkness, jumping from shadow to shadow. Occasionally tales abounded in the City Above of Shadowkin caught stealing in the dead of night, but the harsh punishments meted out to anyone from the Underground City usually deterred all but the most determined of opportunists.
If only Penelope hadn’t backed out. She wouldn’t have been any better at spotting a Shadowkin than he was, but at least she would be company. He considered turning back and asking the housewives for advice, after all, they’d been the friendliest inhabitants he’d encountered so far. Of course that meant going back past whatever was behind him.
Maybe I’m being paranoid.
Something had clearly befallen him to lead him down a narrow close in an unfamiliar place, and while he wasn’t sure what, Fitzwilliam suspected an enchantment of some kind. If he was right, then he had every reason to be suspicious – hardly a sign of paranoia.
Fitzwilliam headed back to the shop that would take him back up to the City Above. A string of lanterns hung above the street, casting their sickly glow across the bustle below, and Fitzwilliam kept to the centre of the street where the light was strongest. Shadows pooled against buildings between gas lamps, outside their circles of flickering light. He eyed the puddles of darkness, and hurried onwards.
A gaggle of housewives poured out of a small shop to Fitzwilliam’s right. By the lank cloth in the grubby window, he guessed it was a haberdashery of some kind. They were laden with baskets and boxes, and ignored the people hurrying to and fro as they careered across the street. Fitzwilliam tried to slow down, to give them room, but they jostled him to one side, and he stumbled into one of the shadows.
The arm wrapped around his neck before he could cry out. Pressure on his throat, gentle but firm, kept him quiet. Another arm snaked downwards and he felt the tip of something pressed against his stomach. By the thickness of the metal, and the bluntness of the blade, Fitzwilliam judged it to be a Novocastrian slake, a dagger designed for causing as much damage as possible.
“I’m going to move my arm off your throat, but if you so much as whimper, this goes in your gut, see?” The voice in his ear was female, which surprised him. It was deep yet husky, as though it were made of cobwebs and darkness.
Fitzwilliam nodded and the arm loosened around his neck, although the slake remained pressed against his stomach. At that angle, she could have his intestines out before he could blink. He tried to think of defensive tactics, or counter-moves, but blind fear robbed him of his training.
“Whatever you want, you may take,” whispered Fitzwilliam. He stopped himself from adding some form of insult.
“That was my intention, you dolt,” she replied.
“I have a bag of coinage. It’s for the City Above so it will do you little good, but you may take it all the same,” he said. He fished the bag out of his coat, and held it out to her. She remained behind him, but he guessed that she was taller than his own six feet.
“This is pretty leatherwork. Keep the coins, but I will keep the purse.” She dumped the money back into his pockets.
“Is that all?” Fitzwilliam couldn’t believe such good fortune. The purse was a present from a distant relative on his father’s side. He’d never really liked it, which was why he used it on his illicit excursions, in case something like this took place.
“Not all. I want a memory.”
“Yes, a memory, not an echo.” The Shadowkin jabbed at his stomach with the slake to make her point.
“Which memory do you want? I have more than one I’d be happy to part with.”
“I don’t want memories of your disgraces, dog. Hold still.”
The sensation was incredibly unpleasant, as something cold penetrated the back of his head, as if she’d dipped her own ethereal hand into his skull. His memories swirled in a monochromatic haze, colliding into one another in a confused montage that unspooled before his mind’s eye. Fitzwilliam clutched at his head, clawing at his scalp in an effort to stop the maddening procession of images.
“Ah, this is what I want.” The coldness disappeared from the back of his head, and Fitzwilliam slumped against the wall. He didn’t notice the removal of the slake from his gut, or the exit by the Shadowkin. His vision darkened, and he spiraled into oblivion.
* * *
He came to in a dark room, the only source of light pointing to a staircase that led up into the gloom. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there, but he knew he wanted to go home. He scrambled up the stairs, and stumbled through a maze of corridors until he found a door that led into the street. He burst out into a familiar quiet street at the edge of the City Above, with the pink fingers of dawn beginning to grasp the edges of the sky. Fitzwilliam saluted the growing sunrise as he ran through the streets towards the Military Academy.
It was only when he let himself into the side gate and sneaked past the guards that he realised he couldn’t remember the layout of the building, or even where his room was. The memory was gone.
If you’ve enjoyed this serial, then why not try my novella, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, set in the dual world of the Cities Above and Below? Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo!