Luc Perrault gasped for breath, but he dared not slow down, not yet. He could feel the Hounds behind him--they were silent, as always, but he always knew when they were drawing near. The back of his neck was sweating, as if drenched by their slobbering breath.
He'd crossed into the 14th arrondissement half an hour ago. It had been years since he'd last been here, and he'd sworn at that time never to return. But here he was again.
He crossed a small street, deserted at the late hour, and stumbled over some piece of garbage. His ankle, already strained, started to throb as he fought to keep his feet. If he hadn't lost count, he was only one block away from the Montparnasse Cemetery. There he might be able to throw them off for a while.
His pace had slowed, and he could feel the sweat trickling even more strongly down the back of his sweatshirt. But he could, finally, see the gate in front of him, and even more blessedly, a shadowy form standing next to it.
"Have you got it, M. Perrault?" Perrault didn't know all of the new youths that Gerard had recruited in the years since he had left, but he thought that this one might be Etienne.
"Of course, you idiot," Perrault gasped. "Now open the gate before we both get torn to shreds."
Etienne nodded jerkily and turned to the gate; Perrault heard the fumbling of keys. He cursed the delay, as the sweat on his neck got warmer. Why hadn't he had the key already out and ready? After at least one failed attempt and a lot of sotto voce swearing, Etienne took out a penlight and held it between his teeth. Finally Perrault heard the click, shoved Etienne out of the way, and yanked the gate open. "Get in, you worthless cretin," he said, yanking on his sleeve.
He mopped at the back of his neck as Etienne locked the gate from the inside, more securely this time.
"Can I see it?" Etienne said after he had put the keys away again.
"Of course not," Perrault growled impatiently. "We've only put the Hounds off temporarily. They will find another way in."
"You mean--but this is hallowed ground, is it not?"
"Apparently somebody forgot to tell them that that was supposed to keep them out," Perrault said. "Maybe hundreds of years ago, but no longer. Now, where is the entrance?"
"The tomb of M. Bartholdi," Etienne said. "Follow me."
Of course, Bartholdi, Perrault thought. Gerard had always been so droll. To escape by passing through the tomb of the creator of Liberty. At least Etienne was better acquainted with the layout of the cemetery, even by the minimal light of the waning crescent moon, than he had been with the location of the lock in the gate outside. He led Perrault unerringly, and quite frankly almost a little too quickly, through the maze of graves and tombstones. Perrault almost twisted his ankle again more than once, and the last time he almost lost sight of Etienne before his guide realized he had fallen behind.
And by the time they had reached the famous sculptor's grave, the back of Perrault's neck was dripping again.
He refrained from sharing this fact with Etienne, though, who was running his hands over the surface of the tomb, looking for some hidden catch. Finally he found it, and a small section flipped out, revealing a lock. Perrault suppressed a groan as Etienne dug in his pocket for the keys again. He nearly screamed as the man--little more than a callow boy, really, was Gerard really that hard up for personnel?--fumbled with them again, the jingling sound seeming as loud as the bells of Notre Dame as it echoed over the field of polished marble. But finally the lock clicked, and a crack opened in the tombstone.
"Help me lift it, monsieur," Etienne said. Perrault winced as he wedged his fingers under the authentically heavy marble slab and the two of them lifted it up. At least Etienne was muscular enough to make up for Perrault's diminished strength. Under the slab was a narrow shaft with a ladder carved in the side. Before Etienne could tell him to go first, Perrault was already scrambling down. The Hounds were closer than ever.
Perrault reached the bottom and stepped out of the way as Etienne dropped the last few feet. The tunnel below was lit with a small oil lantern hanging a few feet back from the shaft. At least Gerard had made that much of an improvement from the smoky torches of their youth. The lever in the wall was also new; Etienne pulled it, and with a grating of stone, the groan of machinery, and finally a loud, echoing thud, the slab above them fell back into place.
Perrault mopped the back of his neck dry again as he looked around at the walls of the Parisian Catacombs. "You know your way around in here, I hope?" he asked.
"Of course, monsieur," Etienne said, his eyes glittering by the light of the lantern. "I have been a cataphile since I was fourteen years old."
Perrault refrained from asking how long ago that was; he didn't want to know. "How far until we are protected?" he asked.
"A few miles, monsieur. The materials for the shield, they are expensive and hard to find, so we can cover little area with them."
Perrault nodded. He knew that much. While the Hounds' victims in Paris had not been that numerous, the fear of them had caused many to take precautions. Some of them were as ineffective as the blessings of a priest, or putting foil over the windows, but enough people knew of the rarer substances that provided true protection that they were hard to come by within a hundred miles of the city.
As one of the few who could actually detect the Hounds, and who knew something of their true nature, Perrault had been much in demand, and much at risk, before he left. He'd spent much of the intervening years far, far away from Paris. He wished he hadn't let Gerard talk him into coming back.
He felt his neck beginning to drip again, and swore. The Hounds had barely lost any time at all. Marble, earth, and bone they could pass through, though it did slow them down. If they had found the trapdoor, that would've simplified their passage enormously.
"Run," Perrault said. Etienne looked over his shoulder fearfully, though of course there was nothing there he could see, and picked up the pace. He couldn't go at full speed, of course, because of Perrault slowing him down. Once or twice they had to stop so that Etienne could double-check their path; being lost in the Catacombs with the Hounds on his trail was about the worst fate that Perrault could imagine.
He stumbled along the narrow passages after the light of Etienne's lantern. His hand crept under his coat, into the hidden inside pocket. He felt the hard outline of his precious cargo. Was it worth dying for? Could he hand it off to this man-child, trust Etienne to carry out the rest of the mission? Could he let the Hounds of Paris claim him, after all this time?
His ankle gave out at last, and he fell into a heap. Etienne stopped ahead of him and began to come back. Perrault could now more than feel the hot breath on the back of his neck, he could hear it. That had only happened once before, and the only reason he was alive now was that he had not been their quarry. This time he was sure that he was.
He pulled the bag out of his hidden pocket. The thick red velvet was glowing like a hot coal, and Etienne stepped back in surprise. "Monsieur--" he began.
"Shut up, boy," Perrault said harshly. His fingers fumbled at the drawstring, as clumsy as Etienne's had been. Time slowed, and he could almost see the red eyes of the Hounds as he rolled over on his back.
Finally he had it free. He held the gem aloft, its white light casting harsh shadows, washing out Etienne's pitiful lantern. He had wondered if he'd be able to see the Hounds by its light. It appeared not, and quite frankly he was not disappointed.
"Fiat lux!" he cried, and if anything the light became brighter still. Just for a second, but that second lasted longer than any other in Perrault's life.
He saw the Hounds at last.
"Monsieur?" Etienne's voice came from a great height above him. "Monsieur, I think they're gone."
Perrault opened his eyes and looked up into blackness. No, not quite blackness, but very dim. The gem was gone. His fingers were still clenched as if they held it, but the gem was gone. "What did you do with it?" he asked.
"Yes, the diamond. Where is it?"
"I put it back in the bag, monsieur," Etienne said.
"Did you touch it?" Perrault asked harshly.
"No, no, monsieur," Etienne said. "It looked too hot to touch. I used my gloves." He peered more closely at Perrault. "Your eyes, monsieur. They are..."
"Yes, I'm sure the iris has almost closed," Perrault said. "That is expected. Hopefully it should return to normal. Until then, everything will look rather dim."
"Yes, monsieur. Take my hand." Perrault felt Etienne's fingers brush against his useless claw, and then took his left hand instead. His head throbbed as he was pulled upright, and he thought he detected a trickle of blood on his upper lip. The back of his neck, at least, was dry.
"What happened, monsieur?" Etienne asked.
"Did you see them?" Perrault asked in return.
"Count yourself lucky, then," Perrault said. "They're gone." And now he would have to tell Gerard how he'd had to use the gem, to save his own life. How many others had he doomed to death by revealing it so early?