This piece follows on from last week’s flash, The Monarch. This has inadvertantly turned into a serial!
Word must have spread among the guards as no one stopped Artemuse during her flight from the Palace. She left the shining building behind her and plunged into the murky depths of the Old Town, a crumbling maze of dilapidated tenements and ramshackle shops. She made her way between the usual denizens of the quarter who had crept outside to enjoy the early morning sun. Her cloak of owl feathers flapped around her ankles but she daren’t take flight so early in the day.
The Palace stood at the top of a cliff, and the Old Town clung to the side of the hill as it curves down into the valley. A huge gatehouse stood at the far end of the Old Town, built out of the cliff itself. A narrow iron grille hid in the shadows beside the gatehouse, ignored or unobserved by most who passed by. Artemuse wriggled out of the throng of those heading to the market in the Artisan Quarter beyond the gate, and made her way to the grille. A few whispered charms were enough to make it swing inwards.
Artemuse slipped into the rocky passage that led down to the Catacombs. These were not the Royal Catacombs, hewn from the rock just below the Palace to house the royal dead, but rather the original catacombs of Balzarin, the ancient city upon which Rhodenius was founded.
The air was cool and still in the passage, and Artemuse needed no light to see in the dark. She padded downwards until she could hear running water. The underground stream, rumoured to be a tributary of the mighty Styx itself, marked the start of the Catacombs.
A chamber opened out before her, and doorways were cut into the stone of the opposite wall. The stream ran through the middle of the room, appearing and disappearing through low arches, and symbolically marking the boundary between Life and Death. A figure sat on a stool on the Death side of the stream, a floppy hat low on his head, casting his face in shadow. He wore a woolen cloak of the same shade of grey as the rock around him. A book lay open in his lap, and Artemuse could barely make out the arcane writing on its pages.
“Eddister!” Artemuse hailed the man. He looked up, and she could make out the dim lines of his face. He smiled and closed the book.
“Young Artemuse! How goes it?”
“It’s terrible – I need your help.”
Moving to the edge of the stream, Artemuse told Eddister her tale, culminating in the assistance of the guards and her descent below the city. He nodded as she spoke.
“Yes, the Vaal’kyr have been roused. They will reach Rhodenius by nightfall, I should imagine. However do not worry, you will be no payment for their services,” replied Eddister.
“That’s not what concerns me. We need the Monarch to raise the army. The Vaal’kyr can dispatch the wraiths that Lord Draumir brings, but they won’t have time to stop his warriors as well.”
“The Monarch is complacent, it’s true, but he won’t raise the army because he fears them. If they become war-hungry, he worries they may return from battle in a belligerent mood, and attack Rhodenius itself.” Eddister laid the book on the floor beside his stool and stood. Artemuse had forgotten how tall the Guardian was – at least six and a half feet.
“Could that happen?”
“It’s possible. He’s weak but he’s not an idiot.” Eddister removed his hat, and a cascade of red hair fell about his shoulders. The shade of red made Artemuse think of the foxes she observed by night – and Eddister was just as cunning.
“So what do we do?”
“We wake the other army.” Eddister grinned.
“The other army?”
“You don’t think the Death Cult relied on just the Vaal’kyr, do you?”
Eddister moved to the edge of the stream and held out his hand. Artemuse grasped it, and leapt across the water. He held her hand for a fraction longer than was necessary, before bending to slide both the book and the stool inside his hat. Without a word, he put the hat back on his head, and disappeared through the middle doorway in the wall.
Continues next week with The Sleeping Army!