Sunday, 17 July 2016

Of Fire and Shadow, Part 4 of 4



In the final part of Of Fire and Shadow, Jaedor and Derryk, now reunited, make a desperate bid for freedom from the chaos-torn city. With the help of their unlikely ally, the two young men find themselves descending ever deeper into the dark bowels of the city in the hope of finding escape and salvation...

This is the last part of Of Fire and Shadow, and it has been a true joy sharing it with you all. As per the norm, the entire thing will be released as a single post on Wednesday the 20th of July.

Jaedor was unsure whether or not he was the one to blame for the complete chaos the streets of Palvia had exploded into once again. The fighting, which seemed to have initially quelled quite quickly, had erupted once again following what had taken place in Fidelas Square. People were being rounded up anew – civilians forced into their homes, and the large army of mercenaries which had marched into the city was now far more visible than they had been.
            ‘They went to the south side of the city,’ Derryk told Jaedor in a whisper as the two of them and Preacher Cassidus crouched in the shattered storefront of a looted tailor. ‘The Empire had a garrison there, and that is where the worst of the fighting took place.’
            ‘How did you get caught?’ Jaedor asked quietly.
            Derryk glanced out through the large, shattered window to see if the patrol they were hiding from had passed. Quickly, he ducked down and lowered his voice. ‘I got lost without you,’ he muttered. ‘I thought you were dead. When Carl the Red’s reinforcements came in through the gate and you went down, I just ran away from them. I found myself almost being followed by the main body of the army, and realised I was heading south. I stumbled upon the massacre outside the garrison – the Legion was annihilated. As I tried to flee from there, I ran straight into a group of Maedarian defectors, who dragged me to the square.’
            ‘She provides, even against the servants of the demon Azgorha,’ Cassidus said, a faraway look in his yellowed eyes. ‘She will lead us all from this city and to the Promised Land beyond the sunset.’
            Derryk sniffed sharply and wrinkled his small nose. ‘Now, look here,’ he said in an irritated snivel. ‘I don’t know who you think you’re speaking for, but I assure you, it isn’t the Divine Empress. She has no Promised Land, and there is no demon called Azgorha.’
            Preacher Cassidus sighed from where he crouched under a cracked table. ‘But how can you know this? She comes to me in dreams! She fills my head with light and-…’
            ‘I’ll have you know that what you spread is heresy,’ Derryk said with a waggle of his finger.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes and adjusted his round spectacles. ‘We haven’t the time for this nonsense,’ he said. ‘You can have this debate once we’re outside of Palvia and away from the people trying to kill us all.’
            Derryk screwed his face up in protest for a moment and took a deep breath. Jaedor could tell he was panicking, but doing his best to hold it at bay. ‘Alright,’ he said, quietly. ‘What do you propose we do?’
            ‘I read a story once,’ Jaedor said, fondly touching the bloodied cover of his broken sketchpad, ‘you may have heard of it, it’s about a dwarf called Grimnir the Giantslayer. Grimnir was adventuring through the Empire’s lands one day-…’
            ‘We don’t have time for the whole story,’ Derryk hissed. ‘Tell us the important part.’
            ‘Sorry,’ Jaedor said quickly. ‘Well, at one point Grimnir escapes captivity by navigating a set of sewers-…’
            ‘No,’ Derryk said firmly and waved a hand. ‘I’ve just got out of one awful place, I’m not hurling myself into another. Think of something else.’
            ‘What?’ Jaedor said and gestured wildly with his good arm. ‘The gates are shut, I very much doubt access is granted in to or out of the city. What do you suggest?’
            Derryk thought for a moment. ‘We could take their armour,’ he said. ‘We could dress up like them and-…’
            Jaedor snorted. ‘Firstly, any armour we scavenge will be damaged and blood-covered. Secondly, none of us have any idea how to get into or out of armour, or what Carl the Red’s mercenaries do for patrol routes. This leads me to the third thing: if we are challenged, what can we do? None of us can fight, and in ill-fitting armour, I doubt we’d be able to run away!’
            Derryk’s eyes narrowed and he glared at Jaedor. ‘So, what, we go scrambling through other people’s sh-…’
            ‘Sometimes,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a slow, thoughtful voice, ‘the safest place to hide from Azgorha is inside him. He never expects his enemy to be within.’
            Jaedor and Derryk both peered at the greasy preacher, whose face was pulled into a cringe of smile. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Derryk hissed. ‘Not to mention Azgorha doesn’t even exist.’
            ‘The sewers,’ Preacher Cassidus said. ‘My blessed martyr, Johnas, once went into the sewers on a quest to fight and slay a basilisk there. He said he saw a great, worm-like creature there, but scared it off with a shout.’
            ‘More-like scared it off with his face,’ Jaedor muttered under his breath.
            ‘A basilisk?’ Derryk scoffed. ‘You and your friends really are full of rubbish. You mean to tell me he saw a six-eyed, snake-like creature the size of a sea-faring vessel in the sewers under Palvia? Nonsense!’
            Preacher Cassidus rose to his feet. ‘Blessed Johnas is with Vidoria now, and wields a great sword of fire in her ever-lasting battle against Azgorha. Do not insult him, for otherwise he shall see to it that you are left behind when She comes to take us to Her Promised Land.’
            ‘Right, you listen here,’ Derryk said, scrambling to his feet. So short was he, he barely came up to Preacher Cassidus’ chest. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your heretical nonsense. I’m no man of great faith, despite my garb, but I don’t like it when people get things so wrong.’
            Jaedor rolled his eyes and glanced out of the wrecked shop-front. ‘The street is clear,’ he said to his two quarrelling companions. ‘If you two can just give it a rest for just a moment, I think I can see an entrance to the sewers not far away.’
            ‘Does he have to come with us?’ Derryk moaned.
            Jaedor glared through his cracked, round-lensed spectacles at his short, curly-haired friend. ‘We’d probably both be dead if it wasn’t for Cassidus,’ he said firmly. ‘Whether or not you agree with whatever it is he preaches, you do owe him a debt.’
            Jaedor jumped through the wrecked front of the tall shop and back out into the street beyond. Behind him, he heard Derryk mutter and mumble darkly to himself as he struggled to manoeuvre over the large, broken wreckage of the tailor’s shop. Behind him, Cassidus made no such complaints and instead continued to gaze at the burning city beyond, a faraway, vacant look in his dark eyes.
            Quickly, Jaedor led his companions across the street. The cobbles under his feet were bloody, for a terrible skirmish had taken place outside whilst they hid in the tailor’s ruined shop. Vidorian Legionnaires and Maedarian mercenaries were scattered across the cobbled road, some dead, others dying. A mercenary, his bright blue tunic stained with blood and his mail pierced by a great spear which protruded from his stomach, groaned at them as they passed and tried to clutch hold of them. Jaedor ignored him, though Derryk recoiled in disgust. Preacher Cassidus instead glared at the dying man. ‘Azgorha take you, for you are an evil thing,’ he said and raised his arms to the dark sky.
            ‘Come on, we don’t have time for this,’ Jaedor hissed. Once Preacher Cassidus had begun to follow them again, Jaedor led the two men down a narrow street between an unscathed warehouse and a pillaged butcher’s – a whole pig’s carcass had been tossed out of the front window of the low building and lay abandoned in the road, peppered with shards of glass.
            As Jaedor had hoped, a low hatch waited at the bottom of the dead-end street. The sounds of far-off battle ringing around him, he hurried towards the wooden trapdoor. As he bent to try and grab the worn-wood handle, his whole body flared in a great throb of pain and he toppled forwards, reaching out with his good arm to steady himself. His shoulder-wound was bleeding anew, and the numerous cuts and burns covering his body from the shattered glass he had landed on stung as if he was being assaulted by a whole swarm of wasps.
            ‘Derryk, get the trapdoor,’ Jaedor said in a weak voice.
            Mumbling and muttering to himself bitterly, Derryk begrudgingly did as Jaedor bid and heaved the trapdoor open. As he did so, he cried out: ‘Ah! My hand!’
            Jaedor shot upright. ‘What is it?’ he said, his concern for his friend overriding his own pain.
            Derryk began to clutch at his right hand. ‘A splinter! I’ve got a splinter! It hurts awfully.’
            You hurt?!’ Jaedor snapped. ‘I’ve been shot with an arrow, Derryk! I’ve been beaten and battered and burned in my quest to find you, and you’re going to whine about a splinter?’ Jaedor took a long, steadying breath. ‘Get into the sewer before I push you down there!’ he said after a moment’s pause.
            His face wrinkled with disgust, Derryk begrudgingly lowered himself into the hole the hatch had revealed. ‘There’s a ladder,’ he called. ‘It’s not very big and it’s terribly old. Only come down one at a time-…pwoahr! The smell!’
            Jaedor walked to the edge of the narrow entrance, about to chastise Derryk for his moaning, when a great waft of fetid air blew into his face – air upon which the rotten odour of an entire city’s excrement was carried. Coughing and gagging, Jaedor leaned away from the hole.
            Preacher Cassidus appeared at Jaedor’s side and leaned over the hole. ‘Are you nearly down?’ he called, apparently completely unfazed by the wretched stench from the sewers.
            After a few moments, a terrible retching sound came from below, followed by a tell-tale splattering sound and a long groan. ‘It’s awful, I don’t know if I can-…’
            A shout came from behind Jaedor. ‘You!’
            Spinning around, Jaedor found the entrance to the narrow dead-end street they had walked down cut off. Half a dozen Maedarian mercenaries stood there, and at its head was a tall man in a fine suit of steel armour. His bloody-red plume was repentant in the fiery night, and his longsword was raised. Oh no…
‘They’re Vidorians,’ Carl the Red yelled, levelling his sword at Jaedor and Preacher Cassidus, ‘get them!’
            ‘Hurry!’ Jaedor cried, as the Maedarians behind him began to charge. Preacher Cassidus dived into the hatch and onto the ladder, scrambling down it as fast as his baggy, dirty habit would allow. Footsteps hammered behind Jaedor, and he leapt onto the ladder, yanking the trapdoor closed as he went. It slammed shut with a crash, and from above Jaedor heard Carl the Red’s voice, ordering his men to open the hatch and follow them.
            Hand over hand, Jaedor began to scramble down the damp, rotting wooden ladder. The sewer around them was pitch-black, and the smell was like nothing Jaedor had ever experienced before. Then, as Jaedor reached for his next handhold, he heard a terrible snap as the ladder broke and all of a sudden there was nothing but air around him. He jarred his arm as he fell, crashing through the remaining rungs of the ladder as he plunged downwards. The slimy stone ground of the sewer rushed up to meet him, and with a bone-shaking thump, he crashed into the floor in a shower of rotten splinters and mouldy wood. Again, his entire body wracked with pain and pain shot through his right side. I’ve broken my ribs, he thought. I’ve broken my bloody ribs.
            ‘Jaedor!’ the wounded young scholar heard his two companions cry. Momentarily helpless and groaning with pain, Jaedor felt two pairs of hands grab him by his filthy, blood-soaked tunic and drag him backwards, further down the wide, reeking tunnel of the deep, dark sewer.
Suddenly, there was light in the dark sewer from above him as he was dragged, writhing in pain down the clammy near pitch-black tunnel. Opening his eyes, he looked up and saw Carl the Red’s mercenaries glaring down at him from the hatch which they had got open again. ‘They’re going to escape!’ one of them cried. ‘Someone, fetch a crossbow and hit one of them!’
‘We must hurry,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a level, calm voice. ‘We can lose them in this thick gloom, and I doubt Carl the Red himself will dare to descend into the very bowels of Azgorha.’
‘For the last time,’ Derryk snarled, struggling and slipping down the slimy tunnel, ‘there is no such thing as Azgorha! You’re in a sewer being chased by murderous bastards ­– not otherworldly demons inside Azgorha’s bowel-tract! Besides, there are no other plains of temporal existence, the Faith of the Divine Empress says so!’
Preacher Cassidus sighed and shook his head as he dragged Jaedor away into the gloom, apparently unfazed by the yelling coming from the trapdoor. ‘Azgorha is in all things – as we are in him. Only She can save us and lead us to Her Promised Land.’
Derryk snarled in frustration. ‘You don’t make any sense!’ he said as he dragged Jaedor further into the gloom. ‘What evidence is there for this so-called demon? What-…’
‘Will you both shut up?!’ Jaedor snapped, looking around from the fast-disappearing beam of weak light that poured in through the open sewer trapdoor. ‘This is not the time! Unhand me, both of you! I can walk myself, and the Maedarians aren’t following us.’ He smacked his companion’s hands away and staggered to his feet, wiping off some of the dark, sticky muck that had covered him. ‘We have to try and find an outlet – somewhere that lets us out beyond the walls of the city.’
Cassidus spoke in his slow, faraway tone. ‘When the Blessed Martyr Johnas – praise his fiery soul, for he was taken too soon by the servants of Azgorha – faced the basilisk, he did so on the south-east side of the city. It was coiled in a deep pool of waste-water, near a large outlet in the hillside.’
‘Excellent,’ Jaedor said and began to lead the group quickly away over the slippery, muck-encrusted stones in what he guessed was a south-easterly direction, ‘but I doubt he faced a basilisk. Basilisks, according to Ludwig Nicstaed’s famous bestiary, live both in and out of water. They stay near coastlines, or by rivers. They don’t dwell in city sewers, Ludwig never says anything about city sewers.’
‘Even I know that,’ Derryk said irritably and wrinkled his nose. ‘Just what was your friend doing in the sewers anyway?’
Preacher Cassidus’ pause allowed for the group’s squelching footsteps to echo through the near-pitch-black gloom. When he finally did speak, he did so quietly. ‘A wager,’ he said.
‘He was drunk, wasn’t he?’ Derryk said, triumphantly.
Cassidus paused again. ‘He had consumed several tankards of strong ale,’ he said quietly, before quickly speaking again: ‘though he was never a man to let strong drink err his senses!’
Derryk said nothing. Instead, he beamed triumphantly up at the dark-skinned Eagle Islander and folded his arms across his chest. Jaedor could see his hands were shaking, and his fire against Preacher Cassidus was Derryk’s way of trying not to panic.
The group continued in silence, glad that any fears about the existence of a basilisk within Palvia’s expansive sewers had been allayed. They seemed to stretch on infinitely, a great, winding maze of dark tunnels and narrow, slimy steps and walkways. Beyond the sounds of their feet upon the wet, sticky ground, the only noise that filled the endless, dark tunnels was the slow drip-drip of far-off, reeking water.
Jaedor continued to lead his small group of companions further and further down into the long, dark network of sewage tunnels. Occasionally, they would branch or criss-cross, and he would have to guess as to which the right one to take was. He would stop the group, and together they would peer at the slow-moving trickle of sewage beneath them and try to ascertain which way it was heading.
‘If it’s of any consequence,’ Derryk said once they had taken a right at a crossroads in the dark sewer-tunnels, ‘it does feel as if we’re heading somewhat downhill.’
‘Good,’ Jaedor muttered, ‘hopefully that means we’re heading down a drain and towards an exit somewhere.’
Cassidus’ voice floated through the stagnant air: ‘Vidoria will guide us from Azgorha’s jaws, for we have only to remain-…’
‘Look,’ Derryk snarled back, glaring up at the gangly, tall preacher. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your heretical prattle; I may not be the best priest in the World, but I do know my faith – and what you preach is heresy, Sir, and nothing else.’
‘And who tells you that I am a heretic, but other priests and bishops – the Mothers and the Archmother above them. What if they are the heretics, and they are telling you that they are correct so you spread their lies, and then you become the Liar – a servant of Azgorha yourself?’
Because there’s no such thing as Azgorha!’ Derryk cried loud, his voice echoing off the walls either side of them and bouncing away, deeper and further into the sewers. ‘You’re a mad Islander, preaching your untruths!’
Jaedor turned and cried out in anger. He had endured enough. Despite his aching, cracked ribs, his slash-marked body, and his ruined shoulder, he began to kick the thick, unwholesome slime that caked the sewer floor at Derryk and Preacher Cassidus. ‘Oh, shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’
The two other men recoiled and raised their hands to cover their faces, but Jaedor kept kicking the filth at them. It arced through the gloom in great, gloopy lumps and splattered across their clothes. ‘I’ve had enough of you both! I do not want to hear another word of your silly little quarrel! If I do from either of you I’ll leave you both down here!’
            With that, Jaedor turned and marched away as fast as his aching body would allow him. He clutched the battered remains of his precious sketchpad in his hand as he went, although it was still fastened to his belt by its chain. It felt more like a hindrance now – a wrecked icon to the time lost trying to further the world of Vidorian academia. All he had to show for his weeks of travel, hard work, and enduring Derryk, had been snatched from him in the last few hours. Blood and dirt had soaked the pages, and the blow he had struck the Maedarian priest had thoroughly snapped the spine of the pad. What an utter waste of time, he thought to himself. Professor Kerras will never agree to take this, never.
            ‘Kerras will accept your work, I’m sure,’ Derryk’s voice came softly from behind Jaedor – it seemed as if the short, curly-haired man had read his thoughts. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll understand what happened, and you’ll find a compromise.’
            Despite the voice in the back of Jaedor’s mind telling him that Derryk was wrong, the lank-haired, skinny young man managed a smile. ‘It has been quite an adventure so-far, hasn’t it?
            ‘It has,’ Derryk said quietly. Despite the gloom, Jaedor saw his face wobble into an unhappy smile.
Derryk reached up and patted Jaedor’s wounded shoulder – apparently forgetting it to be injured. After a cry of pain from Jaedor and a torrent of apologies from Derryk, the two friends continued, their quiet companion with them – silent and melancholy in the gloom.
            When the group finally came to a fork in the tunnels, Jaedor and his companions took a right and continued a little further along the slippery tunnel. The dark, reeking network of passageways they had been trapped in suddenly took a sharp right and then, before them, was light. The group found themselves at the end of their tunnel, and were greeted by an opening which led into what would have once been a large natural cavern set into the hill on which Palvia was built. The great, wide space was on all sides covered by the same dark stone that had made up the tunnels through which the group had staggered, and these walls had many other tunnel-holes in them, leading away to other parts of the expansive sewer network that sprawled underneath the city.
These high walls flanked a wide, dark and deep pool of sluggish, grey-green sewage on all sides, into which the waste from the other sewer-tunnels was draining. Once upon a time, it would have been a natural lake of crystal-clear cave water, though now it was a dump for Palvia’s excretions. On all of its jagged, uneven sides, the lake-sized pool was surrounded by a narrow, slippery stone pathway – great pools of runoff slathered the uneven stones here and there, making them treacherous to walk upon. Heavy stalactites hung from the far-off cavern ceiling, above the group’s heads, drip-dripping into the deep, dark pool below, sending tiny, slow ripples across the surface of the thick, reeking liquid.
            But at the back of the great space was a large, wide hole in the stone wall, out of which the huge amount of sewage in the great, dark pool was draining via a long, waist-deep stone trench. Once it would have been covered by a heavy iron grate, but that had long-since broken away and been tossed aside, and through it was a tantalising glimpse of far-off, pure-white moonlight.
            ‘We’ve done it,’ Derryk said in a trembling voice. ‘We’ve escaped.’
            Quickly, the group hurried from their tunnel and scrambled down towards the narrow, slippery pathway that bordered the great lake of organic waste. It was only two paces wide, and the great, dark pit of slurry beside them leered at them like a great, stinking maw, threatening to swallow them up. The smell was unlike anything they had ever experienced before, and Jaedor, Derryk, and Preacher Cassidus all found themselves gagging and retching as they staggered around the edge of the lake of sewage.
            Just a little further, Jaedor told himself as he staggered forwards, keeping one hand pressed against the high wall for support, ignoring the occasional droplets that fell onto him from the runoff pipes above. He held his breath and marched forwards. My wounds will be infected, he thought as he went. Soon, he had skirted the horrid lake and was at the last, wide tunnel – he could see the moonlight upon the hills of the Emerald Peninsula beyond. There are surgeons and doctors in the Heartlands, the Empire has some of the finest – if I can just get out of this sewer, we’ll make it back, there is hope, we can do it, we’ll-…
            A figure stepped into the far-end of the sewer, his dark silhouette blocking the moonlight. There was a longsword in his hands and a tall, feathered plume upon his fine, steel helmet. As he began to march slowly down towards where Jaedor and his comrades stood, frozen in fear, more men appeared at his back.
            ‘What do we do?’ Derryk said in a trembling whisper. ‘We can’t-… he’s blocking the way. Jaedor, what do we do?’
            Jaedor wanted to give up. He wanted to fall to his scuffed knees and throw his hands into the air in surrender. He wanted to accept defeat and just let Carl the Red burn him. His shoulder wound was agony, sending terrible, spasmodic jolts of pain down his arm, across his chest, and up his neck. His ribs ached as if they had been hit by a hammer, whilst the burns and cuts that laced the rest of his body stung and tingled painfully.
            ‘We can run again,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a low mumble, though he sounded as if the fight had been knocked from him. ‘We could make for the other sewers and see where we end up? Perhaps find a ladder back up into the city and-…’
            Carl the Red was now but paces away, half a dozen well-armed men at his back. ‘Go on,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Flee! I’ve just become a wealthier man off the bets we placed on what you’d do! My boys all thought you’d try and re-surface somewhere in the city, but I, oh no, I had the truth of it! I thought you’d pop out here, where all the sewers connect and run off towards the South Seas!’
            Jaedor suddenly felt angry. Bets? He thought, grinding his teeth. This was a game to them, our suffering was a game. My wounds were a game. ‘You want us to run?’ Jaedor cried. ‘Then we shall! Come, chase us! Get lost in these sewers and die trying to eat the excrement of the innocent people your bloodshed and pillaging has supposedly “saved” from Vidorian oppression!’
            He turned and grabbed Derryk by the arm and pushed Cassidus backwards. The group all span about and began to run back the way they had come. Familiar shouts erupted from behind them, followed by the sound of heavy boots slapping upon the slimy stonework, and heavy metal armour clanking and shifting.
            Jaedor led Derryk and Preacher Cassidus back onto the edge of the huge lake of filth, his wounded legs aching and burning as he ran. As fast as their tired and battered feet could carry them, the three men began to skirt around the slimy edge of the great lake and back into the horrid gloom of the wretched, reeking sewage system. The turgid sewage-water from the many outlets above splashed down on their heads and shoulders as they scurried away as fast as they could. Twice, Derryk slipped on the uneven, slime-covered stones that made up the narrow walkway and almost fell into the reeking expanse of pool only two paces away, but both times Preacher Cassidus caught him and dragged him back to his feet.
Quite suddenly, Jaedor became aware that the Maedarian mercenaries were not following them. The sounds of their boots slapping the slimy muck that covered the great sewer-chamber had ceased, and their laughter and taunts were distant. He stopped with Derryk and Cassidus behind him, and carefully turned about to look back towards where the Maedarian mercenaries and their leader, Carl, were standing. They had not followed them far, only part-way around the great pool of sewage. Instead, Carl the Red and his brightly-coloured mercenaries had positioned themselves upon the fleeing group’s flank on an adjacent branch of the unevenly-edged pool. A good, wide arm of the stinking lake ran between them and Jaedor’s small party, but as his eyes settled upon them, a terrible fear took hold of Jaedor’s gut.
The first crossbow-bolt cracked into the wall behind them, missing Derryk’s head by a hand’s breadth. The short man screamed and slipped, falling to his knees and sliding towards the great dark lake of sewage – a sight the mercenaries excitedly whooped for. When Jaedor and Cassidus both grabbed Derryk’s arms and pulled him back to his feet, they were greeted by boos. Another crossbow bolt followed, this one going wide and ricocheting harmlessly off the wall and into the great dark pool between the two groups of men.
Jaedor stared wide-eyed through the gloom to where the mercenaries stood, cheering and yelling. Three of them had crossbows, and before Jaedor could shout a warning, the third man fired his shot. It whizzed across the lake towards them. Jaedor gasped and leapt away, slipping on the slimy stones beneath his feet and falling hard to the floor. Derryk stumbled too, trying to hold himself up as he covered his head with his hands.
The bolt smashed into Preacher Cassidus’ left knee. So powerful was the shot, and so strong the projectile that it tore the Islander’s lower-leg clean off. Blood, blackened by the gloom of the great cavern, erupted from beneath Cassidus’ robe, though he did not cry out. In silent shock, he stumbled and slipped, keeling into the great, deep lake of grey-green human runoff. There was a sucking splash as he broke the surface of the thick, terrible goop, and for a few moments he lay there, the colour of the thick fluid around him darkening. Then, quite abruptly, as if a great weight had been attached to him, he vanished below the surface and did not re-emerge.
The mercenaries and their plumed leader on the opposite bank of the sewage-lake broke into a great chorus of laughs and began to slap one-another’s back with mirth and celebration. ‘Get the others!’ Carl cried. ‘Ten silvers if you make them fall into the sewage! Ha-ha!’
But Jaedor was not listening to them. Derryk was trying to haul him away, but his eyes were fixed on the spot in the great lake where Preacher Cassidus had been. ‘Jaedor,’ Derryk hissed, his voice cracked and broken with sobs, ‘we have to try, we have to try to run! We have to-…’
Jaedor raised a hand to hush Derryk and stared, wide-eyed and the surface of the fetid lake. ‘Hush,’ he said. ‘Don’t move, and don’t make a sound.’
Derryk’s eyes were wide with terror behind his half-moon spectacles. ‘Jaedor they’re reloading,’ he hissed. ‘Jaedor, they’re going to shoot us, they’re going to-…’
Something below the surface of the pool let out a long, terrible rumble. A dark shape, as long as a ship and half as wide, slithered below the surface, sending a wave of grey-green muck towards the Maedarian mercenaries. The half-dozen men and their leader suddenly ceased their merriment, and their eyes turned to the surface of the lake, all smiles vanished from their faces.
Then, as if the grey-green lake of slime were the portent to a nightmare, a thing more vile than any creature Jaedor had ever seen and imagined burst from the surface of the thick pool of slime. It was massive – as long as the largest of ships and without both legs and arms. It was, however, no basilisk. Jaedor had read about basilisks – they were scaled and had snake-like heads. This thing had neither scales, nor any discernible head. The enormous, slime-slathered creature had a long, grey, worm-like body. Down either of its sides were a number of wide gill-like slits as tall and wide as a man was, and where its head should have been was a great maw – a sucker-like face full of hundreds and hundreds of curved, fang-like teeth.
Its colossal girth crashed down upon the Maedarian mercenaries, crushing two of them flat. It let out a horrid, wet roar from its sucker-like face, spraying thick tendrils of rotting, sewage-filled phlegm over the remaining mercenaries. The four reaming soldiers and their red-plumed leader turned to flee, desperate to escape the terrible creature.
It has no eyes, Jaedor thought as he watched the huge, worm-like monster thrash and flail amongst the Maedarian mercenaries. How does it know where they are? As Jaedor squatted silently on the edge of the thick pool of green-grey goo, Carl the Red began to yell at his men. Caught in a moment of insane valour, he tried to organise his four remaining men into a fighting force. ‘We can bring it down!’ he cried. ‘Think of the rewards! Think of the treasures! Attack!’
The monster reared as the mercenary leader yelled, and pitched its great hulk down upon him. Carl the Red managed to dodge aside and thrust his blade into the creature’s grey body. It let out an earth-shaking roar and reared up, high into the roof of the cave, Carl’s blade still buried in its side. Sound, Jaedor thought. It’s using sound to find them
Jaedor grabbed Derryk and they began to move again, back towards the great sewer-cave’s outlet onto the hillside. The great monster was distracted by the screaming mercenaries and, keeping a finger pressed to his lips to signal for Derryk to be silent, Jaedor led Derryk as fast as they could quietly move towards the ring of moonlight visible through the sewer-cave’s final outlet tunnel. As they moved as quickly as they were able to without making a sound, the carnage on the opposite bank continued. The rearing, worm-like behemoth crashed down again, flattening another of Carl the Red’s men before taking another in its great maw of spiralling, enormous teeth and grinding him up. The horrifying creature, its sucker-like face now streaming with blood and entrails, reared high into the cave again and let out a deafening roar.
As quickly as he could manage and holding his breath all the way, the aching, agonised Jaedor led the white-faced Derryk towards the final sewer exit. Soon, it was less than twenty paces away, and the tantalising moonlight from the outside world glittered upon the slime-covered stones that marked the exit. ‘We’re nearly there,’ Jaedor said as loudly as he dared. ‘We’ll make it.’
Suddenly, one of the remaining mercenaries appeared before them on the path, clutching a long, sharp halberd. ‘Stop where you are!’ he yelled from under his greathelm, brandishing the weapon aloft.
Jaedor and Derryk froze for a moment, too aware of what was about to happen. From beside them, the great worm-creature with its sucker-face disappeared back below the slime and filth, and for a few seconds there was nothing but silence. Then, with a roar that sprayed terrible, blackish animal-phlegm and sewage across Jaedor, Derryk and the mercenary advancing towards them, the enormous creature burst from the waves of muck with its great sucker-maw wide. It crashed into the guard, swallowing the mercenary whole, and slithered back into the muck in which it dwelled.
The sight of the monster’s chomping jaws as it slunk away sent a great wave of terror through Jaedor. Throwing caution to the wind, he broke into the fastest run he could muster. His breath ripping out from his lungs as he went, he rounded the final edge of the lake, Derryk behind him. With a final leap, Jaedor and Derryk were in the short outlet pipe, skidding through an ankle-deep stream of sewage. From behind them they heard screams, and turned just in time to see Carl the Red half-crushed underneath the girth of the great monster. When it reared again to finish off his comrades, Jaedor realised the red-plumed mercenary leader was not dead. From the waist down, his body was a mangled mess of burst and flattened flesh and twisted, ruptured armour. He screeched in mindless agony as the great worm-thing rose above him again, its maw wide and gaping.
‘Jaedor!’ Derryk cried, grabbing his friend by the wrist. Jaedor found himself dragged towards the end of the pipe and the night beyond, away from the carnage of the sewer-cave. He did not see Carl the Red die, but he heard the terrible crunch-crunch of his armour being crushed and torn by the great monster’s terrible maw.
They leapt from the final outlet pipe, the great city of Palvia behind them, looming on its hill. Smoke still billowed from its fires, and the black clouds that smudged across the sky above it were illuminated by an orange fire-light, cast up from the streets below. Before them, a small and narrow river of refuse stretched away, joining up with the River Vier and making its way southwards, into the sea.
The Emerald Peninsula stretched away to the south, now a part of the Kingdom of Maedar. Green and picturesque, and decked in tall, thick trees, the province was a thing of beauty upon which the bloodshed in Palvia was a dark, screaming stain.
Jaedor and Derryk ran east as far as their legs could carry them, and, after perhaps a half-hour of mindless running, they collapsed in the shadow of a great oak. ‘We did it,’ Derryk said though gasps for breath. ‘We’re safe, we’re safe…’
Jaedor said nothing, collapsing beside him and slumping against the wide, twisted trunk of the fat tree against which they sheltered. He took his ruined sketchpad in his hands and opened it. The pages were streaked with blood and sewage-water, and several of them were missing: the stag-skull he had drawn just a few days before and the skeleton of a grass snake he had been particularly proud of was gone too, along with many others.
With a sigh, Jaedor continued to leaf through the pad, looking for an undamaged blank page. Soon he found one, bloodstained in one corner and torn at the bottom, but otherwise unspoiled. From his pocket he produced a slightly soggy lump of charcoal and began to scribble, whilst beside him, Derryk tried to catch his breath. No-one will believe this, he thought. No-one will ever believe this.

*

Professor Kerras placed Jaedor’s shattered and stinking sketchbook aside, his thin face and pointed nose wrinkled in disgust, before pushing his long, thinning hair back behind his ears. ‘I don’t believe a word of this nonsense,’ he said with a shake of his head, taking a silken handkerchief from his robe-pocket and wiping his fingers.
            Jaedor’s whole posture fell. He was glad for the perpetual gloom of Kerras’ narrow, shadowy office, for it hid the few tears that fell onto his cheeks. Quickly, he reached under his glasses with one hand and wiped them away. ‘But it’s true!’ he cried. ‘Look at me! Do you think I’d lie? Have I ever lied before?’
            Professor Kerras took a long, deep breath before speaking through his thin, wrinkled lips. ‘Jaedor,’ he said slowly, ‘the quality of work you have provided is – sorry, would have been – exemplary, had it not been so badly damaged. However, this story about a, what, giant lamprey-creature? I can’t believe it, my boy. I’m sorry.’
            ‘Ask Derryk!’ Jaedor cried, gesturing with his arm. ‘He saw it too! It almost swallowed us both! It did swallow Carl the Red and his men! How do you explain that?’
            Professor Kerras knitted his long, spindly fingers under his sharp, pointed chin. He was an older gentleman, thoroughly analytical in his approach to everything, and was not impressed by tales and, as he had called Jaedor’s story of what transpired in Palvia’s sewers, ‘fanciful imaginings from a delirious mind.’
            ‘You and Derryk were addled by noxious fumes, fever, and infection,’ Professor Kerras said with a shrug of his wiry, narrow shoulders. ‘You probably imagined the entire episode once you were in the sewers – have you read Mother Alahwehn’s wonderful “Corrupted Air: Spreading the Unholy”? It goes into great detail about what different fumes and gasses can do to one’s mind.’
            Jaedor sank back into the well-cushioned chair on which he sat. His eyes, now behind new and undamaged spectacles, fell to Kerras’ wide, parchment-strewn desk. He had no more fight in him. It had taken him and Derryk two weeks to escape the Kingdom of Maedar, and crossing the southern branch of the River Vier – the new border between the imperial province of Westmoor and the Kingdom of Maedar had been dangerous. They had barely been out of Westmoor when that province, immediately adjacent to the Imperial Heartlands, had declared its support for the Kingdom of Maedar – along with the western provinces of Westernaea and Eagle Island. Full-scale war had exploded in the west, and Jaedor and Derryk had managed to miss the worst of it by a whisker.
            Professor Kerras slid Jaedor’s ruined sketchbook back across the desk to him. ‘Look,’ he said gently, ‘given the war that has broken out in the west, we will be unable to send anyone else westwards for a time – maybe we never will, as Maedar’s support from the other provinces makes them a formidable force.’ Kerras paused for a moment and rubbed his eyes. ‘If you can re-produce the sketches here, we may yet be able to use them in the re-issue of Ludwig’s Bloody Bestiary. Can you do that?’
            ‘And the monster I saw?’ Jaedor said quickly. ‘What of that?’
            Kerras shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I cannot include it.’
            Jaedor reached out with his right hand and took hold of the sketchpad. He stood to leave, sighing heavily. ‘I’ll do it,’ he said and turned to leave after bowing his head formally to his professor.
            ‘Jaedor,’ Professor Kerras called out from behind him as Jaedor pushed the door to Kerras’ study open with his foot. ‘I’m sorry about your arm.’
            Jaedor swallowed and glanced at what remained of  his left shoulder. ‘Thank-you, Professor,’ he said quietly and left the room. The stump where his arm had been was wrapped in thick, wine-soaked bandage underneath the neatly folded and pinned arm of the smart blue doublet he wore. He had feared the wounds upon his body would become infected from being in the sewer, and his fears had been well-founded. By the time he had returned to Vidoropolis, his entire left arm from shoulder to wrist was an awful blackish-purple colour, and the arrow-wound itself had filled with hard, yellow pus. There had been no alternative but to amputate his arm. His burns and other wounds had been treatable, and his whole torso was wrapped in bandages to try and brace his cracked ribs.
            Derryk caught the door from the narrow stone hallway on the other side. ‘How did it go?’ he said quietly as he let the door swing shut and followed Jaedor as he stalked off down the corridor of the Imperial University, back towards the small chamber he called his own.
            ‘He won’t believe us about the monster,’ Jaedor muttered. ‘He said we were high on sewer-fumes and dizzy with infection.’
            Derryk sighed. ‘You lost your arm,’ the short man said quietly. ‘Did that count for nothing?’
            Jaedor shook his head. ‘But he does want me to re-draw those pictures which survived. Have you heard from your parents?’
            Derryk nodded. ‘I had a letter waiting. They escaped at the first sign of trouble. They’re currently in residence with Aesigner Fortescue, earl of the Western Heartlands.’
            Jaedor nodded slowly. ‘Good,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘I’m glad.’
            The two friends turned and left Professor Kerras’ study. Derryk walked Jaedor back to his poky but cosy chambers, and as soon as they were outside, Derryk stopped and placed a comforting hand on Jaedor’s back. ‘I’ll be in the city for another day or two before heading back eastwards,’ he said gently from the low doorway into Jaedor’s single-bedded room. ‘We should meet up and, I don’t know, I can show you how to play Warriors and Wyrms or something.’
            Jaedor had nodded. ‘Perhaps,’ he said mutely. ‘I’ll let you know.’
            Derryk nodded and closed the door. Jaedor reached out with his remaining hand and drew the bolt across, before turning and tossing his wrecked sketchbook onto his single bed. As soon as the sound of Derryk’s retreating footsteps had vanished, Jaedor slumped down against the door to his room and began to sob.



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