Chapter 6: City of Corpses

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It slithered on the edge of her senses, ghostlike and tenuous, a shifting murmur of syllables just past the limits of her hearing. She strained and strained, turned her head this way and that, but it was too faint to make out.

"Azdaja?" she said. "Is that you? What are you trying to say—I can't hear—"

She took a few more steps toward the yawning darkness. The whisper grew louder. She began to make out words, barely audible against the stifling dark.

"Gods... lead to cruelty... destruction..."

It did not sound like the azdaja. There was too little hissing, for one thing, and the voice was also deeper, colder, like the sharp mountain peaks Jane had seen beyond the fortress of Dalnushka, to the north.

"Hello?" Jane's voice wavered. "Is someone there?"

She spun in place, still trying to identify the source of the sound, and in a moment of inattention, her big toe collided with a rock.

"Ouch!"

"What are you doing?"

It appeared that her absence had not gone as unnoticed as she thought. Drazan stood behind her, eyeing her quizzically, and beyond him stood Yefim, a sword in his hand.

"The azdaja—" Jane said helplessly. "She disappeared down one of the passages. I don't know where she went. And I thought I heard a voice—someone whispering in the darkness—"

Yefim grunted.

Drazan raised an eyebrow. "Take it from me," he said. "You do not want to wander alone here. Dalnushka's caverns tap into deep magical sources. They are older even than Sengilach. Impossible to guess what might be lurking in these caves."

As if on cue, a scaly form slithered up the back of Jane's neck.

"AAHHHH!" said Jane. "Oh my God! Oh my God. Could you please not do that!"

"Overdresssed man issss right." The azdaja glared at her. "Danger lurkssss here. Foolishhh to wander alone."

"Excuse me," said Jane. "I wasn't the one who just fluttered down a dark passage—"

"You do not have fangsss."

"Now that we've woken the dead with our shouting," Drazan cut in, and Jane clamped her mouth shut in chagrin, "I think we should move to the next level."

But when they tried to descend to the lower levels, they found their way blocked. A rock fall had obstructed the staircase they were trying to descend. Drazan, shrugging, led them back up to the catacombs and tried a different staircase. This, too, was blocked by rocks.

"Not good," said Drazan. "If we're to have any hope of repairing the protective spells beneath the catacombs, we need to be able to get to them." He turned to Jane. "Maybe you could send your azdaja searching along some of the other passages?"

"I am no ssssslave to be exsssploited!" the azdaja grumbled.

"We'll get you lots of fresh meat," said Jane. She'd found it was easier to bribe the azdaja than to reason with her. "Don't go too far."

But the azdaja had no more luck than they did. When she returned ten minutes later, it was with news that all obvious routes to the lower levels were blocked off. "There might be more," she hissed. "Other passsagesss the Kanachssky sssorcerersss didn't dare traverssse. But I did not ssssee one."

Disheartened, they returned to report their findings to Olesya and Kir. The other scouting parties had also found no sign of the living, though—like Drazan's group—they had uncovered many corpses of the dead.

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