Part 6: Vermin
Running through slimy tunnels slick with mildew, trying to escape thugs with truncheons. Good times. We can't keep this up forever.
"Eric! You go on ahead!" I call as we dart down a tunnel.
"Why?" He asks.
"We need a distraction. I'm going to go provide one."
I saunter out of the tunnel he ducked down and wait. The Bullyboys round the bend. Leading them is my friend with the broken nose. Excellent.
"It's about time you showed up." I say glibly. "I've been waiting for you." They look confused.
"In the name of House..." Broke Nose begins.
I don't let him finish. Instead, I kick him in the knee. He lets out a yelp that could wake the dead. The others stop and gape at me. Good.
"Now watch him, 'cause this is a very dangerous man." I say before they can do anything. "You may not know it, but this man's a spy! He's an agent of House Von Jeggett, and he's been sent to infiltrate Lord Dythanus's protection rings."
He's still groaning on the ground. They aren't looking at him though. They're looking and listening to me. I have no idea what I'm talking about, but that's no reason to stop.
"Yeah, he's a friend of those brutish monkey thugs. Why, I bet he's got the House Von Jeggett colors hoisted up in his offering room. He's a snake in the grass! I tell you, guys, he may look dumb but that's just a disguise. He's a mastermind in the ways of espionage."
They all start looking at him, really suspiciously. He starts bubbling out a protest, but I don't stick around to hear what it is. Bullyboys may be dumb, but soon they'll figure out I was spinning a load of dragondung. I'd best keep moving, hope I don't run out of luck. I make tracks for a bit, and then I see Eric standing at a junction.
"We need to keep moving!" I shout.
"There's nowhere to go." he replies.
What? Scat! he's not standing at a junction--he's standing at the lip of a chasm. I can hear water falling somewhere below. I look down. Not enough light to see the bottom. Wonderful. But hey, I have rope. I pull it out and tie a rock. Eric stares wistfully over the edge. I have about thirty feet of rope to work with. Can't see the bottom, but from the sound of the water, at least there is one. I'd rather not go flying again, so I tie the end of the rope around me. I shake Eric from his reverie.
"Down we go!" I'm way too cheerful.
I stow my dagger and Eric does the same. He grabs on to my back. I would've preferred Jessamine. Eric's much heavier than she was. And not nearly as pretty. We slide down the wall. With any luck, the Bullyboys won't see the rope, and think we went another way.
I hear footsteps. Moment of truth. They stop at the ledge. I hold my breath and try to think silent thoughts. Now is the time for the saint we paid off to be watching over us.
"Snuff and spite! We missed them!" One curses. "I want them found, Chevin. I want them to BLEED for all this trouble they've put us through!"
"Wait, Cob. I know you're mad about the knee..."
"Rut the knee! The Exile nearly turned you against me! He broke my rutting NOSE!"
"Lord Dythanus wants them alive." another voice says. Sounds like the leader. "And unharmed. You can get your turn after he's seen them."
"Lord Dythanus can..." The voice trails away, followed by a cry of alarm. There's a squeaking sound.
"Oh, RATS!" Someone shouts. Then there's the sound of running. It's heading away. I'd breathe a sigh of relief, but I'm not sure there's anything to be relived about. I climb back up the rope...it's not that easy with an armed guard hanging on my back, but at least he can keep still. I peek over the edge, and stare into a pair of beady eyes.
Well that's certainly a rodent of an unusual size.
I've seen dogs smaller than the rat that's looking me in the face right now. No wonder the bullyboys ran. I'd run, too. Can't run right now, though. And I'd rather not have it gnaw at my face. I draw the pistol and aim. Here goes nothing. I squeeze the trigger. There's a flash in the pan, and a loud bang...and nothing. The gun misfired. At least the rat was spooked. And the flash DID do something else. It lit up a couple dozen pairs of eyes. We're surrounded. Time to go back down the chasm. Quickly! I start sliding down as fast as I can.
In Calisapas, rats are considered to be a nutritious, if unpalatable, food source. Rats THIS big, however, might consider us the meal. The rat I spooked before is starting to sniff at the rope. Wonderful. I shake the rope to try and startle it, but we start swinging wildly. So instead I concentrate on getting us down. Eric is remaining blessedly quiet...He's holding on for dear life, not screaming in my ear.
We are running out of rope, and I have no idea how close to the bottom we are. The rats are growing bolder...one is climbing down towards us. I stab at it, the fireglass shimmering in the gloom. It squeals, mostly in annoyance, as it dodges my clumsy strikes. Boil it! I swing again.
Fighting from a swinging rope while trying to hold on AND balance a 13 stone man on my back is not quite as easy as it sounds. I miss again. So I bounce against the chasm wall, and pull the rope taut, before letting out a little more. Eric moans in fright, but the rat drops off. I hear a SPLOOSH! down underneath us. Not that far, really. Good to know. Even less rope remains. Two more rats get bold and climb down. Scat. End of the line. No more rope, and no bottom yet. I snap the rope taut again. These rats cling better. I'd hoped to avoid this...
"Hey Eric!" I say, as cheerfully as I can. "Ever wanted to fly?"
"Huh?" He whimpers.
"Well, now's a good time to learn." I cut the rope.
Thankfully, it's only twenty feet to the ground, the last six of which is under water. Reeking, filthy sewer water, but water nonetheless. I struggle to the surface. I hear Eric sputtering and thrashing nearby, and pull his head above water. I hear him gasp--I doubt he can swim.
“What now?" he shouts. I can barely hear him. The sound of rushing water drowns a lot of noises out. Not a great place to practice your breaststroke on a good day. There's a strong current. Not, thankfully, rapids, but still tricky to swim.
"We follow the current!" I shout back. "Until we can fine solid ground!" I think he nods...the fireglass is very dim right now. Scat. Dim fireglass tends to mean there are things around that its magic doesn't like. Things connected to The Shadows. Things that mess with me.
I have a bit of rope left, so I tie part of it to Eric. I'd rather he not go floating off without me. He's been out of his element all night. Does that mean that I'm in mine? By the Dragon, I hope not. I'm not the least bit comfortable considering The Shadows as "My element".
We swim for about half an hour, I think. It's hard to tell how long we've been on the move without stars or sky. Finally, we find dry land. Well, dry-ish. Enough for us to rest, ring out cloaks and shirts, and have a bite to eat. Too bad we have no food. My stomach rumbles.
Instead of eating, I mess with the pistol. I clean out the wet powder, pack it again, and refill the pan before I cock it and put it away. Maybe now It will actually fire when I want it to. I'd prefer a bow to this contraption. I'd ditch it if it weren't worth a small fortune.
We seem to be safe for the moment, but my dagger is still alarmingly dim. Not comforting. I wonder what's next in this gallery of horrors. Not going to dwell on that. "So. Here we are. What now?" I ask instead.
"We keep moving." He says. "Shadows below, what else CAN we do?"
"We can sit and have a nice chat about who this Lord Dythanus is, what he wants with you, and, more importantly, what he wants with me."
"I have no earthly idea what he'd want with you." he mutters darkly. "But he wants coin from me. A large amount of coin, spent frivolously. Failing that he wanted my daughter to work the debt off in one of his brothels." He spits. "She's beyond his reach now. Thus, the bullyboys."
I blink. I've heard this story before, but from the other side. No. No, it can't be related.
"I would think a Noble wouldn't stoop to running something as base as a whorehouse." I say.
Eric scoffs. "You'd be right, normally. Each of the Noble Houses of Miir controls one of the major trade guilds. House Dythanus is fairly new in the city--there wasn't much left. They came in, then ran all the independent pawnshops, gambling dens, bliss houses, and brothels out of business. It wasn't hard. They grew too rich to ignore. They call themselves purveyors of entertainment to sound legitimate, but everyone knows what they really do."
He's certainly forthcoming about this. "And The Shadows fit in how?" I ask. He doesn't reply. Great. So much for that. Though I wonder...No. It's not relevant. I've heard this kind of story a hundred times. Why, it was only last night...stop that! It's not related! But there's a chill in my spine that has nothing to do with the fact that we're underground and I'm all wet. And it's not going away.
Along with that chill is anger. Eric, you seem to be a good person. Loyal, religious (ok, that's a bit irritating), and calm in a crisis. But if I find out you were responsible for Jessamine being locked in that offering room last night as a bribe for The Shadows?
I won't wait for them to come for you. I will kill you myself.
I wonder if Naros is behind this. He seemed confidant that I'd do what he told me to. Dragon take him. Swallow him to the Belly.
This can't be coincidence. Eric said the Shadows were in people's hearts. He sounded very sure of that. Could it be he's running from himself? From his guilt? Is that why he didn't draw his sword against the bullyboys before? What was going through his mind as he looked over the chasm? Suicide?
Great. Wonderful. Fantastic. Do I try and save him from himself? Should I even try? I don't know.
He shakes me. "We should keep moving. We're not getting any closer to the mountains by staying here. When we get there, we will be free." Somehow I doubt that, but I say nothing. We continue on for at least an hour. The air is getting warmer. Good. I'm still wet and cold.
The stone has changed, too. We've finally reached areas that aren't lined in granite. It's bare cavern now, tricky to navigate. Don't slip. We pass by a head on a pike. I stop. Blink. Look at it again. Yup. It's a skull. On a spear, stuck into the rock.
"Eric...we're in trouble."
He turns, looking quizzical. Then he sees the friendly skull grinning at us. His mouth makes a little "o" of shock. "Who would...?"
"Redcaps. I think we've found their nest." I mutter darkly. The very last thing I want to do is fight a pack of cannibal goblin children on slippery rocks in tunnels they know much better than me. If we are very lucky, they're out hunting through Miir, taking advantage of the night.
"What say we go back the way we came?" I say.
"AW, but manny-man, where be de fun in dat?" I hear a giggle off in the darkness around us. "Don't manny-man want to play wit da powrie?"