Promise of wrath the hel.., p.14
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       Promise of Wrath (The Hellequin Chronicles Book 6), p.14

           Steve McHugh

  I wasn’t sure in the light, but it looked like William shrugged.

  “That’s what the blood elves say: that they came and the dwarves fled.”

  “That doesn’t sound like any dwarves I’ve ever met,” Diane said. “Most of them liked to fight, liked to test their abilities in battle. They were artisans, craftsmen and -women with no peer, but they were warriors, too. Good ones. They wouldn’t have left here without a fight.”

  “That’s only what we get told. The blood elves like to limit human reading and we’re not allowed to discuss the dwarves in their company. The great library is off limits to all slaves—even those of us who secretly resist them won’t go there.”

  Mordred’s eyes appeared to light up. “The library is still intact?”

  William looked back, and I could see the uncertainty in his eyes. Had he said too much? Had he revealed something he shouldn’t have? He nodded slowly. “Last I heard, yes. Some of the blood elves like to read; there’s a lot of knowledge there. They get angry that they can’t recreate the dwarves’ abilities with alchemy. That and they can’t read the runes—not properly. There’s a machine that’s meant to teach people how to read dwarvish, but it’s guarded by the dwarves. The blood elves have lost many trying to get to it, and now they don’t bother.”

  “That machine might help us recreate one of those tablets,” Morgan whispered to Mordred.

  I wanted to tell her to watch what she said, but it appeared that William hadn’t heard. “More importantly, are any dwarves still here?” I asked.

  William looked uncertain, but nodded. “Mostly in a city they call Sanctuary.”

  “How many?”

  “Several hundred, maybe more. Neither the elves nor the resistance know for sure.”

  “So could the dwarves help us? Or at least help lead us to someone who can?” Remy continued. “Someone outside of this realm knows how to make those tablets, which means they must have come here to do so. Or they’re a dwarf, and have stayed hidden for centuries, if not longer.”

  William didn’t engage in any more conversation with anyone in the group, although what the tablets were, who created them, and how was all anyone wanted to discuss.

  The dividing line between the caves made with haste and those done with love and care was quite literally one stride wide. One second we were walking through an exit from one cave system, and the next we were in a whole new world. Columns of the finest stone stood all along both sides of the huge room. The rock walls had been carved into ornate patterns, the colors of red, gold, and silver shining through. There were members of royalty in the human world who had castles and great halls, but none of them could have held a candle to this. The ceiling was decorated with jewels, showing a huge mural of a battle. Part of it cascaded down onto the walls, as if the dwarves had simply run out of room but were determined to finish anyway.

  “What is that depicting?” I stared at one part where two groups of dwarves were fighting what looked like a huge dragon.

  “I don’t know,” William said without looking up. To be fair, he’d probably seen it hundreds of times, and had it committed to memory. “The dwarves had a lot of myths and stories, each one more exaggerated than the last.”

  “I’ve been wondering something,” Diane said. “How is it you speak English so well?”

  “My father taught me English as a child,” he said quickly. “The blood elves force us to talk in their language, though, so we keep any human languages secret. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t escape with me to the resistance. It’s why I need your help.”

  “To find your dad?” I asked. “What about your mum?”

  “She died just after I left.”

  “I’m sorry for your loss.”

  “It was long ago. Death is a normal thing here: an expected thing. There’s no such thing as living in the city of Thorem. There’s only surviving or death.”

  “Sounds depressing,” Kasey said.

  “It’s all I know,” William assured her. “We don’t have far to go.”

  We followed him for a few more minutes until we reached a set of silver double doors. A huge carving of a stag sat on one door, and what I assumed was a panther on the other; in the center, crossing between the two doors, was a tree. It was a stunning piece of work for something as simple as a door.

  “Once this door is open, you’ll need to follow me exactly. No talking, just in case there are blood elves around. We don’t want a fight.”

  He pushed the doors open and crept inside. We followed until we reached the bright open hallway beyond, then down and around a corner, where the hallway opened out into an expansive cavern. More columns littered the side and there were several doors against one wall. Like other parts of the mountain we’d walked past, crystals were embedded in the walls and ceiling, giving off enough light to see by. The ceiling was at least seventy feet above our heads, leaving a gap of darkness between the light on the wall and ceiling. At one point it had probably been a place of beauty, but over time it had just grown ominous, like much of the blood-elf-controlled mountain.

  The wall opposite the one with the crystals had breaks in it that allowed you to look out into the dark chasm just beyond. If I stared for just a few seconds, I was certain I could make out the faint glow of something purple in the distance.

  We were on a dwarven street, several miles beneath the top of the mountain. I hadn’t been back to the city since I was much younger. It was a strange sensation. I looked up at where the sky should be, and saw nothing but twinkling lights in the rock high above my head.

  “We need to keep moving,” William whispered to me, suddenly nervous and concerned about everything around us.

  We continued on through the city, until we came to a ramp leading down to several buildings.

  “This is it: this is the entrance to the resistance,” William told us. “Here you’ll find help. You’ll find what you’re looking for—I hope, anyway. I’ll go in first, tell them you’re here, then I’ll have you enter. We’ll go in a few at a time. Maybe one group of four and another of three. These people are skittish. They’re not used to trusting anyone. I don’t want them to not trust you. Is this okay?”

  No one had any problems they voiced, although I certainly wasn’t okay about splitting up the group again—not here. Even so, I followed William down the ramp and the whole group stayed in the small space between two buildings, the darkness keeping us completely hidden from the street and anyone who happened to come by. Thankfully, and despite the fact that every noise I heard made me wonder what was out there in the city, the darkness wasn’t needed and we were left alone from prying eyes for the duration of William’s meeting inside the building.

  William soon reappeared, standing in the mouth of the alley. “Four of you come with me, I’ll be back for the others in a few minutes.”

  “You know this could be a trap, yes?” Diane whispered in my ear.

  I nodded. “Give it sixty seconds. If you don’t hear anything, break the door down. Remy, Kasey, Mordred, with me.”

  “No chance,” Morgan said. “He’s not going with you.”

  “Look, I’m not thrilled about it,” I whispered, “but if that’s a trap—and I’d like to explain how much this pains me to say it—Mordred’s ruthless streak will come in handy. And frankly, I don’t trust you two together with my friends. I do trust that if you try to hurt anyone that Diane will tear your head off. Also, Chloe is hurt, and I’d rather she stayed out of harm’s way.”

  “If Mordred gets hurt—” Morgan threatened, seemingly ignoring my own threat.

  “I’ll be fine,” Mordred assured her. “Nathan might hate me, but we need one another. And he’s right: we’re the less threatening of the seven of us. And the poison in Chloe’s body makes her weaker than the others. She needs protecting. Diane is much more capable of doing that. And if anything does go wrong, I know you’ll tear this place apart to search for me.”

  “Would you two like to hug it out?
Remy asked. “Because I’d really like to get on with it now.”

  Without another word, Mordred left the alley, with Kasey and Remy following close behind and me bringing up the rear. William took us to the building’s door and paused. “Don’t make any sudden movements in there; the people are nervous enough as it is. We get a lot of slaves trying to infiltrate us to feed information back to the blood elves.”

  He pushed open the door and we all walked inside, while my hand itched for a weapon to hold. The interior of the building was sparse, with nothing on the floor, not even a rug. Only torches hung on the walls, their flame the only thing lighting the dingy room. Someone stood in the corner, wrapped in dark cloth. I couldn’t tell what species it was, let alone their age or sex.

  “You come to the resistance.” The voice was muffled by the cloth over the figure’s face.

  “Apparently,” Remy said, a slight edge to the word.

  “How do we know you’re not a spy?” the muffled voice continued.

  “You don’t,” Mordred snapped. “We need to get out of this realm. We were told you could help.”

  “Maybe,” the voice said, with a slight chuckle. “Maybe not.”

  “I have no time for games,” Mordred said. Then he turned toward the door, only to pause.

  I looked back and saw William, a broadsword in his hand pointed toward Mordred.

  “A silver sword?” I said. “Isn’t that a bit much? I thought you were the resistance.”

  “In the center of the room,” William commanded.

  “They’re not with the resistance,” Remy said.

  “Yeah, I got that,” I conceded. “Kasey, calm, please.”

  Her soft growls ceased and she nodded once, but her eyes never left the sword. Silver could kill any of us in that room, but if Kasey got stabbed there was a lot more chance of it than the rest of us. Even a small cut from a silver blade could be deadly to a werewolf.

  “So what happens now?” I asked. “Because you really should have thought this through.”

  William moved around to stand beside the cloth-wrapped person, who began to laugh. “Nonhuman filth,” the figure said. “It’s been a while since your kind was here.” William placed his hand on the wall beside him and runes lit up all across the floor, which began to move.

  “You’ll make great fun for us. It’s rare we have something more interesting than dwarf or human to keep us occupied. You weren’t meant to arrive so far out of town; apparently the tablets weren’t specific enough. You will come with us, or die.”

  “Blood elf,” Mordred said, his words filled with enough venom to kill a herd of elephants.

  The figure began to methodically unwrap the cloth from around his face, revealing a gray skin stretched tight against pronounced facial bones. Several scars, some old and some new, crisscrossed his face. At some point his nose had been badly broken and never properly re-set.

  The floor started sliding under the far wall, jerking suddenly and throwing us all to the ground. Mordred was on his feet in a heartbeat, sprinting toward the blood elf with murderous fury. William tried to step between them, but a blast of air from my hand threw him aside, into the far wall with a clout. The silver sword dropped from his hands and tumbled down into the darkness that filled the space where the floor used to be.

  “Oh, shit,” Kasey said. “We probably don’t want to go down there.”

  Mordred and the blood elf were engaged in combat in the corner, with Mordred forgoing all sense of fighting intelligently, and just raining down blows on the elf, who avoided or blocked most of them, all the while continuing to laugh. He struck Mordred once in the chest and sent him to his knees, tearing off the remains of his wrapping to reveal runes tattooed on his bare chest. “You’ll have to do better than that, little man.”

  The floor continued to move, exposing more and more of whatever was beneath us. I created a lightning bolt in my hand and threw it at the building’s door, which exploded from the impact. Hopefully that would be enough noise to get Diane and the others to come running.

  “We need to get out of here!” I shouted as William jumped back onto the floor, another sword in hand. I avoided him, using my air magic to keep him off-balance, while Mordred continued to fight the blood elf, and Remy leapt across to the doorway.

  “Let’s go!” Remy shouted.

  Kasey followed suit and jumped, but after knocking Mordred aside once more, the blood elf used a whip to catch hold of Kasey’s foot, dragging her away from the safety of the doorway and into the darkness beneath us.

  “Mordred, let’s go!” I shouted, and grabbed hold of William, taking him with me as I launched myself into the unknown.


  September 1195. City of Acre.

  You bastard!” Mordred screamed at me as I entered his cell. His face was drenched in blood, although that didn’t seem to be bothering him. “They took her! They took Isabel. And what did you do, you fucking asshole? You did nothing. Nothing!” He spat at the floor by my feet.

  “Why did they take her, Mordred?” I asked.

  “Fuck you, Nathaniel. Fuck. You.”

  “Mordred, let’s get something straight. You’re still chained to a wall; you still have a sorcerer’s band on. And you’re still in a room underground, surrounded by guards. You have no escape, no way of hurting me or anyone else, and this woman you wanted me to help has been snatched away by some awful people.” I sighed. This game we’d played for so long was exhausting. “Let’s stop with the constant chest-puffing and get on with it. We both have something the other needs. I need answers; you need Isabel found safe and sound. How about we actually work together here?”

  Mordred stared at me for several seconds, the veins in his neck bulging as anger permeated every part of him. Then it was gone and he relaxed, picking up his chair and taking a seat. “Siris has her. Siris the goddess of beer has Isabel.”

  “I know who she is, Mordred. I want to know why she took Isabel.”

  “To get to me.” His voice was soft, and there was real feeling there: something I was unused to.

  “Who is she? Really?”

  “She’s the daughter of an old friend: a human friend. Her father died when she was a child, and I knew her mother well. I only found out about her mother’s death a few years ago, so I came here to keep an eye on Isabel. I promised her mother I would always keep an eye on her. I told her that Isabel would be safe.”

  “You loved her mother.”

  “That’s none of your concern. All you need to know is that her mother was a wonderful person, and someone better than most I’ve met over my life. She died from some disease I barely knew about until it was too late. I stayed in the city to make sure that Isabel was taken care of, that no one tried to take advantage of the young woman. A promise, it appears, you’ve broken for me. Congratulations, Nathaniel.”

  “I don’t understand why kidnapping Isabel puts pressure on you. I don’t understand why anyone would go to such efforts to grab one human woman, even one you care about. This doesn’t make sense to me. Are they trying to get you to stop helping us? Are they trying to punish you for helping us? Help me out here, Mordred.”

  “I came here to kill Siris. My reasons for that act are my own, and I won’t share them with you. I infiltrated her organization under the assumption that I was going to help them break the negotiations between Avalon and the Mesopotamians, something in reality I care little for. But she knew: she knew I was there to kill her, and she knows why I want her dead. The latter I was unaware of until it was too late.”

  “That’s why they didn’t share their plan with you?”

  “Yes. Taking Isabel has nothing to do with their plan. It’s to do with hurting me, and that’s all it is. The second I decided to go after Siris was a mistake. I didn’t realize she knew my true intentions. When the time was right, she told me about her plan to take Isabel, and gave me the option of trying to kill her, or save Isabel. I ran to Isabel’s side, and found several m
embers of Nanshe’s security force waiting for me. They’d been tipped off.”

  “By Siris?”

  “I assume so.”

  “So, do you know anything more about Siris and her group’s plan?”

  “She’s in charge—at least she was in charge of those I met. There was Asag and a vampire, who I found quite unpleasant. He liked to kill young men and women; he liked to turn them. I wanted to tear his tongue out. If he’s hurt Isabel, I’ll do a lot worse.”

  “Anyone else in the little group?” I really didn’t want to get Mordred off track.

  “Lots of people, but they were the upper echelon. I wasn’t permitted to talk to any of them. One of them was named Nergal. People spoke to him like he was important.”

  The shock on Nanshe’s face was easy to read. “You’re sure? Nergal? That’s what he called himself?”

  Mordred nodded. “He wasn’t around much. He was always leaving to work with other groups. This anti-Avalon movement is made up of more than one group in Acre; it has spread out across the world. At least that was the impression I got. I don’t think Avalon is all that popular.”

  “Where did you meet?” Nanshe asked, her tone hard for the first time.

  “Siris’s house. I assume you know where it is?”

  I looked over at Nanshe, awaiting confirmation.

  “It’s over by the west entrance. It’s a moderately sized building, on a slight hill. It has views of the ocean away from the port.”

  “It’s lovely,” Mordred said with a laugh. “You must be really angry with Siris right now. Plotting and planning right under your nose.”

  “She has your friend,” I said, regaining Mordred’s glare. “I don’t think mocking anyone else is going to do her a lot of good.”

  “Let me out of here, and we’ll find her together. Like old times. You remember, yes? Those murdered farmers we found back when we were young: you remember us hunting down their killers? That Merlin didn’t want us to go, he was worried I’d get hurt, or that we’d be walking into a bigger problem than we could handle. But me, you, Galahad, and Morgan, we found those murderous bastards and made them pay. We were like brothers, you and I.”

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