Please note this is part of a first draft. Any and all words are subject to change!
We approached from the back. The road leading to the house was already lined with coaches. I pulled my self up onto the wall and peered over. Ornamental gardens sprawled in front of me. There was a lake, with a small stream winding from its shores, and a round, faux-temple type structure with pillars and a statue inside. I didn’t see any dogs, or house-guards.
I turned back to Darius.
“Looks good. Let’s go.”
“How am I supposed to get up there?” he called.
I rolled my eyes. “Can’t you magic your way up here?”
“I told you, it doesn’t work like that.”
“Then do it like a normal person.” I reached my hand down. Why did I agree to this?
Eventually, with much awkward scrabbling, and several near falls on my part, he was sitting, panting on top of the wall. I didn’t waste a moment waiting for him and dropped down in to a flowerbed. There was a thud beside me.
“Bend your knees,” I said. “If you break your legs I’m leaving you here.”
I knelt behind a large flowering bush. There was a expanse of lawn leading down to a lake, a couple of beds of ornamental shrubs around the water, and a set of pillars with a domed roof that looked like a tiny temple. After that, there wasn’t much cover until we got to the steps that led up to the house. Orlando said there was a door to the cellars under the steps.
“Ready?” I asked Darius. “Try to keep up. Oh, and by the way, if I get the slightest hint of betrayal out of you, I’ll not only leave you behind, I’ll pay your family a visit, too.”
Darius looked wounded. “What’s it going to take for you to drop that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe complete elimination of my memory?”
Before he could answer back, I set off, keeping as low as possible, ducking behind whatever cover I could find. Darius, to his credit, was only just behind me the whole way, though I could hear him panting and puffing.
We reached the door, and I tried the knob. It opened with a rattle and we slipped into the cool darkness. I paused for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom.
“Where do we go from here?” Darius asked. I put my finger to my lips.
“Hush. We don’t know who else is down here.”
I rolled my eyes again. Did Belle feel this way about me? I was always provoking the same reaction, but I didn’t think I was anywhere near as annoying. I hoped I wasn’t, certainly.
I didn’t risk lighting a flame. Licking a finger, I could feel the air was flowing directly from ahead to behind, so there didn’t seem to be any other exits nearby. I put my hand on the wall and started walking, hoping Darius was following.
The darkness was that all-pervasive sort that makes you wonder if you are stepping through air or treacle. Darkness shouldn’t make it harder to move, but it does. It was a relief when lantern light revealed we had reached more heavily visited areas.
“If you see anyone, ignore them,” I said over my shoulder. “Whatever you do, leave any talking to me.”
My nose told me the kitchens were to the right of intersection we had reached. Up ahead got murky again, which suited me more.
I could feel the waves of panic rolling of Darius as the voice rang down the corridor after us. I turned slowly to see a panting servant leaning against the wall.
“Cook sent me to get some more of the little…what d’ya call ‘ems,” I said, trying to send ‘calm down’ eye-signals to the wizard.
“Kumquats?” he asked and I nodded as if I knew what a kumquat was. “She wants another bag of flour too. Apparently they’re out of the asparagus canapés already. I bloody hate parties.”
I gave him a grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll grab it for you.”
“Thanks. Those cellars give me the creeps.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “What’s his story?”
“Him? He’s hopeless.” I put a hand on Darius’s shoulder. “Cook’s nearly thrown him out three times today already. His poor mother would surely die if her son lost another job. So I’m keeping him out of Cook’s way.” Without waiting to see if he bought it, I pushed Darius down the passage.
“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” he said when we were out of earshot.
“I did indeed. I hope I get the opportunity to spin the tale out a bit more. We’ll make you a legend in this place before the night is out.”
There was a strange smell in the air, metallic, but not like blood.
“You smell that?”
Darius nodded. In the dim light I could see his hair was standing up. That didn’t bode well. I crept forwards, my hand against the wall. The corridor came to an abrupt end, presenting us with three doors, all identical.
“Which one?” I asked Darius.
“I’m not picking. You’ll blame me for whatever we find in there.”
Great. A wizard with a persecution complex. Closer investigation showed that the doors on the left and right were not locked, but the one ahead was, so that made my decision easier. I pulled out my picks, then paused.
“Can you see if there’s any magic on the lock?”
Darius nodded. “They took my stuff, but I should be able to improvise.” He reached up and plucked a hair from his head, and tied this onto a small button he pulled out of his pocket. Muttering over the make-shift pendulum, he held it near the lock. It remained resolutely still.
“Looks safe,” Darius said.
I bent down to pick the lock, and a revolting smell wafted out of the keyhole.
“Ugh, smells like something died down there.”
“Maybe we should look elsewhere. There are probably rats.”
There was a sharp click as the lock gave, and I pushed the door open. The smell was far worse now. Darius retched.
“Keep it down,” I said. “I don’t need you attracting attention by puking.”
Darius clapped a handkerchief over his mouth, struggling not to gag. I couldn’t blame him for being queasy. I’d probably be the same if there was anything in mine. I pinched my nose shut and made my way down the steps.
There were more than I was expecting. We’d descended more than two stories by my estimation when we reached another door. This one wasn’t locked, and from the way the wood was damp and warped, it wouldn’t have taken more than a kick to break through.
On the other side of the door was a large chamber. It looked natural, like a cave, rather than a cellar. A crack in the ceiling let moonlight through, washing everything in a silvery light.
The smell was better here, which made me wonder what I’d missed in the darkness of the steps.
“This looks promising, don’t you think?” I asked Darius.
“If by promising you mean distinctly eerie,” he replied. “At least it doesn’t smell like dead rat quite so much.”
The chamber was large, about twenty feet across, and roughly circular. The stone walls formed a rugged dome, glistening with moisture. There was nothing else in here, but footprints in the dust lead to the back of the chamber.
Darius pulled out his make-shift pendulum. It twitched slightly over his palm.
“There’s magic nearby.”
“Then we haven’t come all this way for nothing.”
I walked to the back of the chamber and stopped. There was a triangular gap, wide enough for both of us to walk through side by side. Which was fine, but I could see as it went further back through the rock that it got narrower and shorter until I’d be almost crawling.
“What are you waiting for?” Darius asked as I stared into the deep black, my palms sweating.
I cleared my throat. “There’s magic, right? You should go first.”
Darius looked at me. “Didn’t have you pegged as a coward, Byran.”
“I’m not. I just happen to like this shape, so I want you to go ahead and trigger any magic traps that might turn me into a toad.”
He put a hand to his chin, one finger tapping at his cheek. “You can’t be scared of the dark, and you wouldn’t get that close to Finn if you really were bothered by magic. Enclosed spaces? That’s it, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Get down there.”
To my dismay, he patted my shoulder. “It will be fine.”
Great. Rejected in the morning and now patronised by Darius. My life had hit a new low.
“It’s not too bad,” he called from the darkness. “It’s only about fifteen feet and if you stoop, you shouldn’t need to crawl.”
I took a deep breath, regretted it due to the lingering smell, and forced myself into the passage. As the rock pushed in on me, forcing my back lower, all the air seemed to get squeezed out. My heart was loud in my ears already, and only got louder the more I was forced to duck.
Darius was right: it probably was only about fifteen feet from end to end, but it felt like I’d done about fifty when I popped out, wheezing, at the other end.
Darius offered me a hand. “Are you all right?”
I ignored it out of spite, gripping the damp wall as I pulled myself to my feet.
“N-not a word to anyone.” Though Belle already knew and I doubted Finn gave damn.
I looked around while my heart settled down. It was another roundish cave-room, but this one had tiles on the wall and a drain running round the edge. The smell was back again.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this place,” Darius muttered.
“You don’t say.” There was a lantern on the wall and I lit it with Darius’s tinderbox. Brown stains on the wall snapped into focus. “Well, that’s not good.”
“We should go,” he said, backing away. “There can’t be anything good down here.”
“You don’t know that. There might be books. If we find any, I’ll let you keep them.”
I started off towards the door – a proper, normal-looking door thankfully – and he sighed, then followed. When I opened this one, I was hit with that same smell from the steps. It was that cloying, almost sweet smell of something rotting.
It was enough that I almost agreed with Darius about leaving.
The room looked like something out of one my father’s sermons. He particularly enjoyed the ones about the underworld, and how everyone was a whisker away from condemning themselves to it. There would be pain and torment beyond imagination, he would tell us gleefully. Sadistic old goat.
There was a table in the centre of the room, grooves round the edge and a drain underneath it. Cages, some big enough for a person, stood against one wall, while a variety of tools lined the other. They ranged from the precise to the proverbial walnut-mangling hammer.
I took a step back, my heart pounding in my ears. It was taking every ounce of self-control to override my survival instincts to run. There was a reason we were down here and I needed to follow through.
I turned to Darius. The wizard’s face gleamed like a pale moon in the darkness. His hands trembled at his sides as he looked around, trying to keep his gaze falling too long on any one thing. Couldn’t blame him this time.
“Darius.” I had to snap my fingers twice before he would look at me. “Is there magic?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Then find out. I want to get out of here as much as you, but we can’t leave unless we’re sure this has nothing to do with Finn.”
He stared, eyes unfocused, at my chest – probably the only safe thing in the room – and I prepared to slap him. I wouldn’t have even taken any pleasure in it. Then he blinked and took out the button pendulum. It swung wildly over his palm.
“I’ll take that as a yes then.”
He nodded and moved his hand around in a circle. It didn’t surprise me to see it reacting more as he got closer to the central table.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he muttered. “It doesn’t mean it’s connected.”
It was my turn to put a hand on his shoulders. The muscles were tense under my fingers, like an animal at the point of flight.
“Stay by the door,” I told him. “I’ll take a look around.”
He nodded again, gratefully this time, and backed away. I walked down the row of cages, my stomach churning like the sea in a storm. Bile made the back of my throat burn. I hoped Finn appreciated the lengths I was going to for him.
Most of the cages were empty, apart from traces of blood and other things I wasn’t going to look at too closely. On the far side of the room, in one of the smaller ones, movement caught my eye.
“Byran,” Darius called, in a croaky whisper. I ignored him and carried on.
There was a rat in the last cage, lying on its side. Its little paws twitched and clenched as if the animal suffered some sort of palsy. There were gashes and scars all over its body. As I stepped closer, it opened its eyes and I knew we’d found what we were looking for: they were the same blue as flaming alcohol.
“Byran,” Darius said again, more urgently.
“Shut up. Get over here.”
The rat was dying. Its sides heaved like bellows and its eyes rolled in their sockets. I hoped this was the result of its injuries, rather than something to do with its magical nature. I didn’t want to see Finn like that.
The wizard hadn’t come over to join me. I looked up and realised I should have been paying him more attention. He was pointing urgently through the door, back the way we had come and now I understood why. There were footsteps approaching.
There was nowhere to hide in the other two chambers. The only cover between here and the upper cellars was the stone table next to me. I gestured at Darius. He gaped at me, I made a more pointed hand signal, and he got the hint. We scurried behind the big stone plinth and ducked down. The smell here was foul, but it wasn’t going to lock us in a cage and torture us until our eyes glowed at least.
The footsteps were half-drowned by my heart. I itched to peer round, get a glimpse of the person who must have been at the door by now. It could have been another servant, curious now the locked door was open. But my luck had never been that good.
“Gentlemen.” The voice rang out across the room with the confidence of a man with a very large stick. Or a bag of magic rats to back him up. “You’ve been seen coming down here. There’s no sense in hiding. I suggest you come out and explain yourselves. It will go easier for you.”
I ignored Darius tugging frantically at my sleeve and stood up. There was a single man standing at the door, his arms folded like a disgruntled parent. He didn’t look terrible threatening, but then neither did I. A fact many men had learned to their dismay.
I gave him a disarming smile. “Would you believe we were looking for kumquats?”