Secrets and Shadows: Part Three
“Good day, sir!” Lieutenant Arianna called out as Ambassador Rhydel entered the courtyard. “Are you ready to begin today’s tour?”
“I certainly am,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve spent too much time sitting indoors in a never-ending procession of meetings. I need a change of scenery and a chance to stretch my legs.”
“We will certainly get that today,” the Darigan Eyrie said with a touch of humor in her voice. “I spoke to the quartermasters and they thought that the statues are in storage in one of the lower passages. I looked at some maps and I believe I know the general area that they are being held in. It will be difficult to find them, though. The older parts of the Citadel are a labyrinth of abandoned storage rooms and forgotten treasures. I have never been into this portion of the Citadel before, so this might take us a while.”
“Sounds wonderful.” The Kougra grinned as he stretched his arms. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Then let us begin,” Arianna said as she stooped to pick up a wicker basket resting beside her feet. “I took the liberty of packing some supplies---sandwiches, something to drink, and a couple of these.” She pulled out a wooden torch and tucked it under her arm.
Arianna led the ambassador across the courtyard and threaded her way through a jumble of buildings that the ambassador realized must house the kitchens and warehouses. The Eyrie pulled a set of keys out of her pocket and unlocked an ancient wooden door on the side of a small metal shed. She motioned the ambassador inside and followed him, closing the door behind her. Rhydel was momentarily blinded by the engulfing darkness before the lieutenant lit the wooden torch with a set of matches she pulled out of her pocket.
“That’s better,” she said with satisfaction. She slowly moved the torch back and forth while staring down the long dark corridor. She stepped forward, her feet treading softly on the stone floor. The ambassador followed, momentarily rendered speechless by the oppressive silence as they strode down the ancient hallway.
Arianna moved the torch from side to side as she turned her head to gaze intently at the walls.
“I must confess that I am curious as to what we might find down there,” she said in a hushed voice. “The storage rooms are rumored to contain many wonderful and fascinating artifacts which were put into storage by our ancestors hundreds of years ago. Some of the rooms which date back to the Citadel’s founding may have lain undisturbed for a very long time and might even contain some surviving relics from that time.”
“Do you think we will find any of those?” Rhydel asked with a sideways glance at the Eyrie, who shook her head.
“Probably not,” she said wistfully. “But even some artifacts from a few generations ago would be interesting to find. Ah, here we are,” she murmured as they came to a branching intersection with two other corridors. “We are supposed to take the right-hand hallway.”
“And this will lead us to the statues?”
“It should,” she said as they moved further into darkness.
* * *
“I think we’re lost,” Arianna whispered to herself four hours later. She dragged a hand across her face, and sighed deeply. The Meridell ambassador looked up at her from where he sat on the cold stone floor, leaning against a corridor wall. The Eyrie stretched her wings out as best she could in the cramped corridor, and then leaned down to give Rhydel a hand up. She put on her most confident smile and said reassuringly, “We’ll find our way out soon.” She wanted to scream. She picked up the wicker basket again, and the Kougra climbed to his feet and trudged down the corridor after her. “Bhrack is going to make me pay for this,” the lieutenant muttered to herself.
“Did you say something?” Rhydel asked.
Arianna sighed, and replied, “Just talking to myself.” The Tonu commander was going to be furious with her. Bhrack already hated her to begin with, and getting the Ambassador lost in the lower portions of Darigan Citadel was going to put her even further onto his bad side. He probably was going to suspend her from active duty and dock her pay. Just wonderful. She grimaced.
As they walked through the dark hallways, the Silver Kougra ambassador idly rattled the locked doorknobs which led to the various storage rooms. Arianna had tried to unlock a couple of doors a few hours ago, but she didn’t have the right keys. Suddenly, the Kougra stopped. “This one’s unlocked,” he said, very surprised. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. The lieutenant followed him in, peering around with interest. She was somewhat disappointed by its contents. When she walked further in and held up her torch, all she could see was a few dusky old desks and an ancient, battered couch whose upholstery was disintegrating. A few wooden boxes along one wall held some promise, but they were nailed shut and neither of them had a crowbar.
“I guess we’d better keep moving,” she said glumly and led the ambassador back out of the storage room, closing the door behind her. She stared down the dark hallway and then made a surprised sound deep in her throat.
“Well, that’s strange,” Arianna murmured to herself, and then prodded the ambassador. “Look at that,” she whispered and pointed to a faint glow at the end of the hallway. They walked down and discovered that the light was coming from an ancient stone corridor which intersected their hallway. Very carefully, they stepped around the corner and peered at the source of the light. Beside an open doorway, a rusty metal bracket set into the stones of the corridor wall held a burning wooden torch.
The ambassador’s eyes lit up with excitement as he stepped towards the torch. “Thank the powers that be, we’re saved!”
“Wait a second,” Arianna said quietly, and held up her hand to prevent the ambassador from stepping forward any further. She listened intently. The corridor was silent except for the faint crackle of the burning torches. “Something’s wrong,” she murmured. Rhydel gave her a puzzled look.
“What do you mean?” he asked with a furrowed brow.
“Shhhh, something’s wrong,” the Eyrie repeated in a whisper. “Listen. If this was a rescue party, they would be calling our names. The hallways echo and we would have heard them a long time ago. Whoever planted this torch in the wall bracket here is trying to be silent, and that probably means that they are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. Nobody should be down here.”
“We are,” the ambassador murmured wryly, but his eyes flickered around the corridor with worry.
Lieutenant Arianna put out the burning wooden torch in her hand, and handed it to Rhydel, who accepted it silently. Her heart pounding with anticipation, she slowly slid her foot across the floor, inching her way to the open doorway. She could now hear the faint murmurs of undecipherable words. She edged closer to the open doorway and closed her eyes while she focused her ears on the muffled sounds coming from inside the room.
“Very good... our plans are nearing completion...”
Her eyes snapped open with surprise. She stared down the dark, empty corridor while her mind worked on what she just heard. She shook her head to collect her thoughts and turned to the ambassador.
“You hear that?” she mouthed to the Kougra, who nodded grimly.
Arianna took a steadying breath and very cautiously poked her head around the doorway. At first all she could see was a giant dark room with a single bright spot, but as her eyes adjusted to the light she could make out several small figures clustered around the brightness. Roughly a dozen people completely covered in grey hooded robes were seated around a table. They were listening to something that the cloaked wraith at the head of the table was saying.
“...Excellent work, flawless detail... no one will even suspect a forgery...”
She pulled her head back into the corridor and unconsciously rubbed her beak while her mind raced in thought. These people, whoever they were, were plotting something and were up to no good. If only she could hear more of what they were saying! She put one hand on the ancient metal bracket bearing the burning torch and laid her other hand on the cool stones beneath it, and leaned forward towards the doorway once again.
“...soon, very soon... we shall strike... our enemy will be dead... the Citadel will be ours...”
Suddenly, with a loud screech of abused metal, the bracket snapped under her weight and fell to the floor with a crash. She stared dumfounded at the still-burning wooden torch that was now lying on the ground in front of the doorway.
“What was that?” the speaker called out sharply. Someone murmured a reply. The first voice snapped back, “I don’t care, go check it out. If somebody has been listening to our conversation they must be found and eliminated.”
Arianna whirled around and shared a horrified look with the ambassador, and then in unison they bolted back down the hallway and around the corner. She grabbed hold of his sleeve and prodded him firmly as they ran, pointing to the unlocked storage room door. He nodded and when they reached it, he opened it and they slipped inside. Blinded by the darkness, Arianna stepped forward, stretching her hands in front of her in a vain attempt to avoid bumping into one of the desks. She stumbled and hissed in pain when her shin connected to the corner of one of the desks. She felt the ambassador grasp her elbow and pull her back further into the room. This time her outstretched hands felt the crumbling form of the ancient sofa, and she ducked down behind it. She felt the Kougra settle down beside her, and for what seemed like an eternity, they waited in anxious silence.
Then, without any warning, the doorknob rattled and turned. Arianna listened in horror as the door creaked open, and footsteps echoed in the storage room. She looked up and could see the faint glow of a lantern on the ceiling and walls. The person took another step closer, and moved the lantern from side to side, making the shadows dance. Please, Arianna thought desperately, please go away, leave us, just go away.
“Thomas, did you find anything?” a tenor voice called out from the hallway. The person in the storeroom turned, his shoes squeaking on the smooth stone floor.
Another voice, this one closer, answered, “There’s nobody in here.” The metal handle of the lantern clinked as it was lowered. “Let’s check the other hallways.” The footsteps moved away, and the door creaked and clicked shut.
To be continued...