Chapter Seven, Bodysnatchers, continued

Kara was dimly aware of being carried over a shoulder. Past the crook of a swinging arm she could see Seilu being dragged along by the same man who’d hit him with the blackjack. She felt so angry at herself for letting the fellow with the club get the jump on her while she was kicking his comrade that she half forgot to be worried about Seilu. She couldn’t tell from here if he was alive or not, but the bodysnatchers didn’t seem worried about him waking up, and that was a bad sign.

She could tell Djaren had gotten some kind of message from her, but she couldn’t remember what she’d said. Thinking hurt. She was pretending to be dead, and that was all right, because it was hard to do anything else. Djaren seemed panicked, and his head hurt a lot. It was exhausting trying to keep track of him with all the spinning. They were taking an oddly spinny route down into the earth where brick tunnels dripped and leaned and towered in odd ways like termite paths through wood. Black-robed termites blinked up from corners and scuttled after them, expressionless, with gleaming silver mandibles. More and more termites fell in after them at first one turning, then another, and if Kara hadn’t been dead she might have screamed a warning. Finally one of the bodysnatchers saw them, too.

“Here! Who are you lot? This is Wells’ territory. Answer me!” He drew a pistol from his coat and waved it at the gathering, watchful robes.

Mandibles flashed, and blood sprayed across the man. There were shots and screams, and Kara tumbled into deep water, down and down.

*     *     *     *     *

Eljiah found the water entrance to the Abbeyrose burial grounds gated, but unguarded. He fit easily between the bars, and slipped beneath trails of ivy that shrouded the entrance to the subterranean water channels.  This waterway fed the stream that wove through the scenic Abbeyrose grounds. It ended in a lake with swans, surrounded by towering monuments to past Arienish aristocracy.

Kings, princes, poets, knights, and ladies were buried here, where the most influential people of the nation rested, and more wanted to rest. The cemetery had been enlarged into a walking park, a symbol of the achievements of Arien and the immortality of its heroes. Years ago they’d redone the place to resemble the heights of Mount Heliat, home of the gods, with the royal tombs at the summit. The whole place had been built over old layers of the city, and even older tombs and catacombs. Eljiah remembered several of the layers, and a place in particular where most of them converged before splitting again.

He paused inside the shaded tunnel, half to catch his breath and half to listen. He needed to make sure he was being followed properly. The first Damaera Man he’d found hadn’t been interested in listening to him, a frightened boy with a foreign accent, purportedly missing a classmate to bodysnatchers. The man had even tried to sit him in a chair in the local office while a calmer parent or guardian was found. No well-reasoned vocabulary or sound argument seemed to penetrate the stolid patience of the officer or his colleagues. “We’ll get you all sorted. Set and take some tea. Your friend is probably having a bit of fun with you. None’s gone missing from this piece of town since the fire of ‘74.”

“I was there that year. I helped save a library. The constabulary were more helpful in that era!” Eljiah said, and decided on desperate measures. He climbed up on the desk and snatched down one of the antiquated swords from over the mantle. “I shall go retrieve my friend myself,” he told the officer, and darted out. That had at last alarmed the officers into action, and they’d been chasing him since. He waited just a little, sometimes, to make sure they were keeping up.

Shouts and splashes let him know that his pursuers were on the right path, so Eljiah continued into the tunnels, listening for movement before and behind. He kept the sword at the ready. He took the turnings he remembered, leaving clear marks for the Damaeras. When he heard rustling ahead he pulled himself back into a niche in the wall and hid.

It was not bodysnatchers who passed before the niche, though. It was men in robes that smelled of a stale incense that sent Eljiah back centuries, and into complete paralysis. His memories from the dark time in his childhood before he was rescued were still only shreds of nightmare, but they were enough. He knew the smell of men like these, the sound of that rustle, the feel of cold stone, of being in darkness, trapped, waiting for indescribable pain. He couldn’t breathe any longer. They came into view slow and silent, one holding a silver knife carved with a symbol he knew from his nightmares. He knew what knives like that felt like, what could be done with them by people with dead eyes and orders from something, somewhere, that waited and watched, and never ever let it stop. Eljiah curled and closed his eyes and fought to breathe silently, to breathe at all. He couldn’t think or move, caught in memory. Helplessly, he heard a child whimper, and though he knew he was older now, an adult, free of old nightmares, it seemed that the child was him. He was found again, and he would be hurt a thousand-fold to make up for all the years lost.

*     *     *     *     *

Djaren tried to lead the way for the princes and their guards, but his guesses were imperfect and met with obstacles like locked gates, water channels too wide to jump, and dead ends. Kara was growing less and less clear about where they should be going. As Djaren became more unsure, Isakoa and Lory took the lead, and Djaren found himself trailing them through dripping tunnels, trying to feel where Kara was, and growing more and more frantic as he failed to find her. He was oddly winded, and dizzy, fighting for each breath as if from deep underwater. He only paused a moment to lean against a wall and try to breathe properly, but that was all it took for him to lag behind the others and for the men in black robes to take him by surprise. They didn’t even move very quickly. They grabbed him and pulled him away down a side corridor. He couldn’t shout against the muffling, odd-smelling fingers clamped around his jaw. He tried to fight just too late, and though he remembered to place his hands in a way that, if tied, would let him wriggle free, he wasn’t bound at all, just grappled, arms twisted painfully up behind him.

He wasn’t taken far. Someone had broken a hole through one of the brick walls of the sewer, revealing a small room, an old catacomb of stone tombs like tables, with dry bones spilling from wall niches.

“There are plans for this boy,” one of the men said to the others. “He is not to be damaged. Mark him for the master, as a sacrifice, and then bring him to the meeting place.” He moved off then, followed by most of the others.

Djaren tried again to struggle, but strength was not one of his qualities, and the two remaining men bent him over one of the stone tombs with little trouble. They tore away his jacket and the cloth of his shirt and held him down. Djaren had the sense to stop trying to thrash when he felt a tickling sting on the skin of his back. Getting oneself stabbed by people not immediately trying to kill you was pretty stupid. It surprised him that the series of light cuts didn’t much hurt. Then one of the men poured something from a little vial onto the cut skin, and that hurt very much. Unmuffled now, Djaren screamed as they rubbed the stuff in.

One of the robed men cried out a moment later, and there was scuffling behind Djaren in the dark. As soon as the digging fingers released him, Djaren rolled out of the way and into a corner, trying to grab for a weapon and see what was happening.

The first man in robes had crumpled quickly to the floor, taken by surprise by someone coming through the hole behind them. Only as the second man fell was the new arrival revealed.

A wide–eyed Eljiah, white-blonde hair wild about him, pulled a sword free of the black shape on the floor. “Never again,” he gasped. “Ma’am taught me how to fight nightmares.”

Djaren blinked up at him. “I see that.”

Eljiah looked around, breathing a bit shakily. “Um. Best come along, and tell me why you’re here on the way.” He looked at the floor. “I’m not sure what I’m going to say to the police.”

Djaren grabbed his jacket from the corner, and shook out a few old bones before carefully shrugging back into it, wincing when it brushed against his left shoulder. “I’ve lost Kara to the bodysnatchers,” he said. “I have to find her.”

Eljiah nodded, and hefted his sword over his shoulder. “They grabbed Tallis. We’re going to get them back.”

Djaren collected one of the silver knives, and followed him out.

“Nearly all these tunnels meet at the old dome,” Eljiah said. “We’ll wait there for whatever arrives first.”

“And you’ll take them all on? I didn’t know you . . . are you a banded warrior? I mean, I know most of the uncles were, but I never thought to ask about you.”

“No,” said Eljiah. “But sometimes you can’t wait for anyone to come save you, so you need to do it yourself.”

“Maybe you can teach me to be better at that.”

Eljiah frowned. “Perhaps, but I don’t want you killing anyone. It scars your soul, and your mother wouldn’t like it.”

They rounded two corners, watchful, and met Isakoa and the others coming the other way. “I thought I heard a shout, and we couldn’t find you.” Isakoa said, looking with alarm at Djaren’s rumpled state, and Eljiah’s bloodied sword.

“We have old cultist enemies and bodysnatchers down here,” Djaren explained. “But Eljiah is a Ma’am-trained avenger, so that’s handy.”

Isakoa exchanged a worried glance with Lory. “I think he hit his head.”

“Who is that?” Lory asked, looking nervously at the child with the sword.

“I’ll let you know if I ever find out properly.” Eljiah sighed, and led the way onward. “We need to rescue the others.”

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