Friday, April 4, 2008

Chapter Eighteen

Sethyr’s eyes did not need much time to adjust to the blackness inside the tenement. Her reptilian eyes picked up more than the eyes of a Human. She spied the wisps of heat coming from the breath of the men hidden inside the room as if they were standing in pale moonlight on a cold night.

“Follow me,” the man by the door ordered in a gruff voice.

“And how do we do that in this murk?” Sethyr replied.

The brute stopped and puzzled for a moment. He turned toward the trio, a glint of eyeshine betraying a heritage sprinkled with a bit of the night dwelling Basha.

“Take my hand until your eyes come right. Make a chain and I’ll lead you along.” He put out his hand, but none of the trio made a move to grasp it. The man grunted, harrumphing loudly to show his displeasure. He reached out and clutched Brayden’s wrist. The Protector startled at the unexpected contact.

Sethyr saw Brayden grope more than reach for Vijhan’s hand, guessing where the Canid was. He managed to find Vijhan’s arm and then they joined hands. With a sigh Sethyr made a show of fumbling for Vijhan’s other hand.

“I believe the links are complete,” Sethyr said after taking hold of Vijhan’s tail through his cloak. The Canid gave a startled yip, relaxing only after realizing it was Sethyr who held his tail. “You may proceed.”

The hulking guard gave a satisfied grunt and then led them deeper into the abandoned building. An obvious path had been cleared through the refuse littering most of the floor. As he led them through, the guard kicked aside a few piles that had slumped back into the path.

Sethyr heard Vijhan begin to whine and she gave his tail a friendly squeeze.

“Don’t panic, boy. I am sure we’ll be there in no time,” Sethyr said in a valiant attempt at a soothing voice. The words came out closer to a sly hiss, but Sethyr felt some of the tension in Vijhan’s tail subside.

The guard stopped, putting a hand on Brayden’s shoulder to bring the others to a halt. Vijhan halted as Brayden did, but Sethyr stumbled into the Canid, pretending to be fumbling in the dark.

Turning toward a large crate stored next to the nearby wall, the guard knocked on the crate and then pulled it away from the wall. The flickering light of a torch poured in through a passage revealed behind the crate.

“Pass through here and follow the torches. Don’t stray from the path or you’re libel to get eaten. Nasty things live down there…but not as nasty as the magnate.” The guard chuckled, giving them a casual salute as he stepped aside for them to enter.

Sethyr followed as Brayden and Vijhan passed into the stone corridor. Once through, the crate slid back into place, leaving them standing alone in the low ceilinged corridor.

“You can let go of my tail now,” Vijhan said with a barking laugh.

Sethyr released the Canid’s tail, glaring at him.

Brayden stifled a laugh, also earning a glare from Sethyr.

“Shall we proceed? Or do you have more useless mockery for me?” Sethyr tried to keep the irritation from her voice but failed.

Brayden nodded, turning toward the line of torches secured in sconces set in regular intervals along the wall. The floor sloped downward, making it a ramp down into the city’s underside.

Before the Protector took a step down the corridor Vijhan held up his hand.

“What is it?” Sethyr asked.

“Sweet,” Vijhan answered.

“What are you saying?”

“The smoke is sweet.”

“What..” Sethyr began to ask but was interrupted by Brayden.

“How can that be?”

“Use your noses,” Vijhan said. “There is almost no smoke coming from the torches and what there is smells sweet.”

Sethyr strode over to the nearest torch and drew in a nose full of air.

“The dog’s snout does not lie. He is right, I smell it too” the mage said as the delicate scent of fine perfume wafted from the smoke.

“This is all very strange,” Brayden shook his head.

Sethyr’s head swung slowly to regard the Protector. “Yes, very strange indeed. But what hasn’t been strange since Hedgewise?”

Brayden gave Sethyr a strange look. “I’ll admit, it has been unusual…but what are you trying to say?”

“When so many strange happenings occur, it excites my natural skepticism. Some might call me paranoid, but I feel manipulated.”

“I don’t feel that,” Brayden said, a question in his voice.

“I can understand that…but you always see the better half of folk,” Sethyr hissed vehemently. ”That’s a mistake now. I just feel like a storm is gathering and we are at the center.”

“So what do you propose we do?” Brayden asked.

“I do not know,” Sethyr answered.

They stood there, silently regarding each other when Vijhan interjected. “When hunting dangerous prey, you must know the danger is there, be wary, but still move forward with the hunt. If the hunt were safe, everyone would be a wolf.”

Sethyr and Brayden both turned to stare at the Canid. Normally taciturn, he had summed up their only option in a few words.

“So I suppose we leap into our mysterious benefactor’s lair?” Sethyr asked.

“Yes…and snarl often,” Vijhan said. “It makes them think twice.”

“We have little choice now,” Brayden added. “So let’s go meet this magnate that helpful fellow mentioned.”

Sethyr allowed Vijhan and Brayden to lead the way before following them down the corridor. Not a few times, Sethyr glanced back suspiciously, anticipating something. It never came.

The corridor ran straight for some time before turning sharply. Continuing its downward slope, the corridor began to turn inward upon itself turning left at decreasing intervals. As they descended the air grew damp and cool, almost like a natural cave. A throbbing in Sethyr’s sensitive tympanic membranes marked their descent as significant.

The trio encountered several dark corridors branching off perpendicularly, but heeded their earlier advice and ignored these. The last was the easiest to quell curiosity about because of the charnel smell of an abattoir issuing from its dark reaches.

Sethyr chuffed in annoyance. “Is there and end to this infernal drain? It would be quicker if I climbed in a barrel and rolled down to the bottom.”

“I’d wager you’d be much the worse for wear if you tried that,” Brayden answered.

“I suppose, and more than just my feet would be sore.”

Sethyr heard Brayden chuckle. “I’m sure we’ll soon arrive, or we’re likely to be knocking on the demon’s door if we go much deeper.”

The trio’s laughter rang in the confines of the corridor, but the tone lacked its usual easy confidence.

A deep guffaw answered their own levity, startling the trio. The throaty laugh resounded louder than their own. The laughter surrounded them.

A protection spell sprang unconsciously to Sethyr’s lips while Brayden and Vijhan dropped into fighting stances, weapons draw. They scanned the area to determine which the laugh came from, but the resounding echoes made it impossible for them to discern. As if on cue, the flames of the torches flickered in tempo with the laugh.

“Have no fear, be welcome in the down below.” a voice filled the corridor.

Already watchful, Sethyr clearly knew the voice came from up ahead. “It would seem that our host is here to greet us.”

“Well, at least he sounds friendly,” Vijhan added.

Sethyr saw the Canid’s hackles rise, his muscles flexing under his skin, his eyes becoming wide, taking in all of his surroundings. Not for the first time, she admitted to herself, it was nice to have Vijhan with her.

“Of course I’m friendly, my good Canid friend,” the voice boomed. “You are my guests, after all.”

Vijhan wore a look of awe. He relaxed his fighting stance, mesmerized by the voice. There was a hypnotic quality to it that Sethyr took to be not quite genuine. Brayden remained in his ready stance.

“Don’t be so gullible,” Sethyr sneered between clenched teeth. “Of course he knows all about us. Whoever he is, he has been watching us ever since we entered the city. Even before that if you remember how we got the key to the swineherd’s gate.”

Brayden nodded. “Sethyr is correct. Whoever this fellow is, we are in his power at the moment and it would be wise to accept his hospitality. We have little choice.”

“Of course you have a choice, good sir,” the voice interrupted. “As I said, you are my guests and may leave whenever you wish…although I am eager to spend some time with you.”

Sethyr and Vijhan peered at Brayden, the same question etched on their faces.

Once again Brayden nodded and then took a deep breath. He removed his hand from his sword hilt and started down the corridor, addressing their host. “We humbly accept your generosity and hospitality.”

Sethyr eyed Brayden suspiciously as Vijhan followed him and then also followed. “Like femra to the slaughter,” the mage mumbled.

The trio emerged from the corridor into a large, circular chamber, lit brightly by a glowing white globe hung from the ceiling. The room was bare with the exception of a humble, wooden chair in the center. A handsome man lounged in the chair. He wore simple clothes that were obviously of fine quality.

Well, at least he has taste, Sethyr thought.

As the trio entered, the man smiled, straitening up in the chair. Pain showed on his face as he stood up and approached them, favoring his right leg. “Greetings, my new friends.”

Sethyr watched as Brayden and Vijhan executed slight bows. The mage hissed in aggravation at their show of deference.

The man’s smile widened when he saw Sethyr’s reaction. He chuckled softly.

Brayden turned to glare at the mage but remained silent. His eyes said everything Sethyr needed to know. Sethyr met the Protector’s stare and did not flinch.

“And you must be Sethyr,” the man said.

Sethyr managed to keep her face neutral. “And you are?”

Brayden put up his hand. “Forgive our companion’s rudeness…”

“Not at all,” the man interrupted. He placed his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and nodded once to Sethyr. “It is a wise fellow who does not sell his trust cheaply.”

Sethyr’s eyes narrowed at the man’s comment.

The main straightened and turned toward Brayden. “I am the one who has been rude. I have not even introduced myself.” The man gave the trio an expansive bow. “I am called Maquin, Immunda Maquin. My followers have named me the Magnate of the Down Below.” He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “Yes, I know it sounds a bit fancy, but they insist.”

“My thanks for your welcome, Lord Maquin,” Brayden said.

“Just Maquin,” he interjected.

Sethyr stepped forward, “So Maquin, what in the nine hells do you want from us?”

Brayden reached out, laying a hand on Sethyr’s arm.

“A fair question, even if asked with all the subtlety of a smithy’s hammer,” Maquin said. He walked around the chair, trying to hide his limp as best as possible. Sethyr had to marvel at the man’s trust when he turned his back to them. But, then again, the three of them were at his mercy. He obviously knew this and, thus, could safely offer his back.

“That is not an answer,” Sethyr replied.

“If you insist, let me try to explain. Let me think of where to start,” Maquin tapped his chin, thinking.

“Perhaps you could begin with your plans for us,” Sethyr said. “Why did you bring us here?”

“That would be too confusing, so I shall start with some background,” Maquin folded his hands at his waist and began to pace slowly, maintaining eye contact with Sethyr.

“I am a son of Kath. I was born here, as was my father and his before that. I love Kath and I wish to se it preserved.”

“How altruistic.”

“Not just altruism, my reptilian friend. I also have considerable business interests here and chaos in the city hurts those interests. As Kath’s fortunes run, so do mine.”

“And what concern is that of ours?” Sethyr asked.

Sethyr saw the slight upturn of Maquin’s mouth as he tried to stifle a grin.

“Well, I have heard that we may share a common interest. I have a rival that has recently come to the city and he doesn’t share my concern for its welfare. I believe that you have encountered this villain’s machinations as well.”

“And how do you know this?” Brayden asked, suspicion creeping into his voice. He shot a glance at Sethyr and something passed between them. Vijhan’s whiskers pricked up at the comment.

Maquin’s pacing stopped and he turned to face the Protector. “He treats his hirelings poorly and I treat mine well. Some in his employ have sought to curry favor with me with an eye to switching allegiance. A certain number of them have let me know of that three travelers were making their way to my city. I wanted to discover who you were. Their information has proved invaluable.”

Sethyr grinned, allowing most of her pointed teeth to be seen. “You have yet to answer my question.”

Maquin turned back to Sethyr, frowning at having lost just a bit of control. “I was just getting to that.” He took a deep breath. “I have also been told that my rival wants to get his hands on you. I am not sure of the reason, but, having become acquainted with his tactics, I am sure it wouldn’t be pleasant.”

“I am sure that telling us all this is simply more altruism,” Sethyr said.

“No, it is practical. My assumption is that if I can deny him in anything, it will be to my benefit. You and yours are simply the targets of a happy coincidence.”

“So we are allies of coincidence. I can accept that,” Sethyr quipped.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Chapter Seventeen

Skitnik curled up for a nap on a pile of full sacks of oats in one of the less traveled storerooms in the Master’s hidden lair. The warren of dank tunnels and chambers lay deep beneath the streets of Kath. The residents above were ignorant of their existence and probably preferred it that way. Skitnik knew that he preferred it that way, so he could not fathom why any thinking creature could disagree.

Most Human folk saw his kind as pests, at best, or as a menace, at worst. They had a habit of killing Goblins at their whim. Skitnik felt much safer with tons of stone and earth between himself and the city dwellers above. Not that he felt all that safe here in the warrens. The Master and his Jurouk minions held no more love for Skitnik and his Goblin brethren than the Humans did, but he they killed them there would be no one else there to see to the drudgery, so they mostly let the Goblins be.

Skitnik scratched at a nit biting at the back of his knee, shifting slightly to find a more comfortable position atop the sacks of grain. The nit did not bother him again, but another itch pestered him, the itch of hunger. Skitnik elbowed his makeshift bed of oats in frustration. He shared the same curse as all Goblins; of being devout carnivores. If something had not once crawled, hopped, swam, or flew, a Goblin took his chances if he ate it. If Skitnik ate the grain that provided such a fine bed for him, his bowels would erupt in a terrible flux. The ingestion of fruit proved different, but equally uncomfortable for his kind.

No, it had to be meat or nothing. Skitnik sat up, letting out a plaintive squeak. Hunger pecked at his stomach again. He supposed he could go hunting for rats, but held little hope of success there. When he and his brethren arrived the shows ran thick with juicy rats, but over the years the Hungry goblins proved better as hunters than the rats as hiders. The few rats remaining tended toward smart and lean, providing little reward for greater effort.

Skitnik rejected the idea of prowling the cave where the refuse and nightsoil were dumped. There dwelled rats aplenty, as well as tempting cave crickets, but the Master forbade any gathering there. It made no sense to Skitnik or the other Goblins, but three of their fellows dead at the Master’s hands for ignoring the decree were enough for even the densest of them to learn that the price was too high.

Skitnik supposed he could wait until the marrow, but the hunger bit again just as he tried to decide.

“Snog it!” he said to nobody in particular.

“I’ve got to get me some bit of flesh or my belly’ll devour me alive.”

Skitnik hopped off the sacks and paced a square around the small storeroom. His nails clicked on the stone floor, echoing down the bare store tunnel leading back to the main warren.

“I wants the food, but cants get it. Who can get it?” Skitnik asked aloud.

“The Jurouk can,” he answered aloud.

“So hows do I get them to give it to me?”

“They’ll kills ya if ya ask,” Skitnik continued his one sided conversation.

“They’ll gives me some tomorrow…feeding day…best day of the week.”

“Cants wait that long or I’ll be a husk.”

“Steal it!” Skitnik shout and then slapped his clawed hands tightly over his snout.

“Nots gonna steal it. May as well piddle in the Master’s ale. I’d sure end up dead.”

“So shuts your yap, unless ya got another inkling.”

He put one hand on his hip, still pacing, and scratched his head theatrically. The pacing continued for several minutes.

Skitnik froze, one foot still lifted in the air and on finger scratching his head. His eyebrows furrowed as he slowly lowered his foot. Clapping his hands to his muzzle, he let out a yip.

“Eck! By the Firbolg’s fuzzies, I’m thinkin’ I got me the answer!”

Skitnik capered around the storeroom, whistling and snapping his fingers.

“It’s not to steal if it’s not wanted no more. Alls I do is get the Master’s scraps before they go to the heap, and the kitchen’s always wantin’ help gathering the dishes. Sure as I’m a bright one, I’ll clean the Master’s dishes with the scraps in my belly. No need to bother the heap with it.”

Whining in excitement, Skitnik dashed out of the room headed for the kitchens. If his memory of the warren’s routine served, the Master’s last meal had been served not long ago.

If he could get to the kitchen at an opportune time, there was a good possibility the Jorouk cooks would assign him the task of retrieving the dirty dishes.


Skitnik peered into the Master’s chamber from the shadows of the hall. As he had predicted, he had arrived at just the right time for the Talonus, the chief Jurouk cook, to order him to perform the unfortunate task of gathering the Master’s dishes.

Skitnik made a proper show of whining and complaining about the task until Talonus threw a heavy ladle at him. Convinced that the cooks had not guessed his true intent, Skitnik hurried to the chamber, his mouth water the whole way.

From his hiding place, Skitnik listened to the sounds of eating. Whoever the Master really was, they were a very robust eater. The sounds of slurping and chewing and obvious culinary enjoyment emerged from behind the curtains of the large bed that the Master rarely left.

Occasionally a scrap of bread or a fowl bone bereft of flesh flew from behind the curtains, discarded casually for the servants to clear away later.

“Enjoying your dinner?” a basso voice said from within the curtained bed.

“I enjoyed the company,” answered a woman’s breathy contralto.

Skitnik stifled a squeak of alarm. The Master rarely entertained guests, and when he did they normally screamed instead of dined.

“I’m so pleased. My staff takes pride in their…hospitality.”

“Oh, you cad. You don’t have to remind me of that. I have been a guest before.”

“I am so forgetful. I feel lost when I am with you,” the Master said.

“You flatter me. You can have me visit any time you wish. You know that,” the woman answered.

“Unfortunately, I summoned you for you insight rather than you company.”

“Oh really? It has been ages since you asked for my opinion on anything.”

“Yes, I know. But, the situation I find myself in is better suited to you particular stripe of…wickedness.”

“Wickedness? You are one to accuse me of that. You might hurt my feelings...and I might be forced to put and withhold my help.”

“Whithold?” The Master’s voice turned to iron. “I say what you do and do not do. Never forget that, woman.”

“No need to snap. I merely jest. What choice do I have, anyway?”

“Never forget that I hold you in my hand. Your fate rests on my sufferance.”

“Of course, my Master.”

The voices were quiet for quite some time. Skitnik thought of slipping out to retrieve the dirty crockery he had spied on a low table near the foot of the bed. The plates still held many succulent scraps that seemed to beckon Skitnik to nibble them into nonexistence.

With a careful look around the room, the goblin stepped out of the shadows, placing his foot carefully to make sure his long nails did not tick against the floor. As he began to lift the other foot to take another step into the room, the whiskers on his snout began to quiver. This only happened when doom loomed near. Ducking back into the shadows, Skitnik covered his eyes, silently beseeching his ancestors for luck and whatever protection they could provide.

“Are you still angry with me?” The woman asked.

“Angry? No, simply perturbed. Why you insist on this behavior is beyond me. I provide you with everything you ever wanted and still you defied me. I thought that my lesson had demonstrated that my will is not to be trifled with.”

“The lesson was well taught, and learned. I suppose it is just my nature to test those around me,” the woman answered.

“Well, as that may be, I have need of your unique perspective. Will you give it, or must I teach you another lesson”

“There is no need for that. I am eager to hear what you have to say. These little talks are all I have to ward off the boredom.”

Skitnik huddled in the shadows, listening to the two banter back and forth, afraid to move, even breath. His whiskers twitched uncontrollably. If the master discovered him here, eavesdropping he was sure to kill the goblin. Unfortunately for Skitnik, if he tried to slip away, the Master just might hear him, which again led to an unpleasant death. The only other choice that came to mind was to wait for an opportune time to collect the dishes and then run like the reaper was at his heels.

Skitnik decided on the last course of action. Taking a few careful, quiet breaths, the goblin focused on controlling his shaking limbs. He filled his head with idyllic images like long naps with a full belly and nestling with his siblings when he was a pup back in the mountain cave where he had been whelped.

The image helped calm him and his breathing eased. He stopped trembling and his whiskers returned to their normal droopy posture.

Skitnik jumped when the conversation from the chamber renewed.

“My apologies, dear,” the Master said. “I so rarely have company that I am sometimes lacking the courtesies required.” The master nearly spat the word.

“I forgive you, darling, but please go on. I want to hear everything about this delicious plan of yours.” The woman answered, her voice tinged with humor.

“The details are not important. It suffices to say that I have grown tired of the status quo. I plan to slake my boredom with a bit of conspiracy. There are forces in motion that wish to unseat the regent, who has been my pawn. I have not decided if I shall let that happen. He is a buffoon and I grow tired of his incompetence. I have also learned that our plans in Hedgewise have gone awry, but this simply serves to spice our little pot of intrigue. If my new plan succeeds I will be rid of the Regent and those rebels that opposed him to top it off. I shall be the only power is Kath.”

“You are wicked…in all the best ways,” she purred.

“Don’t be impertinent. I didn’t invite you here to be a hussy,” the master responded.

“Than what did you invite me here for? You certainly are not looking for my approval. That time passed ages ago. No, I think it was something else.”

“Watch your tongue, witch,” the Master said, his voice booming in the chamber.

“Or what?” she answered, with a giggle. “What else can you do to me?”

“Silence or I’ll drop you in the privy and where would that leave you?”

“In the privy, I suppose,” she laughed.

The feminine laughter rang out unnaturally in the corridors, but was suddenly cut short by the sound of a hand slapping stone. A solid thunk of stone impacting stone followed quickly.

Skitnik watched in fear as a sphere of some sort rolled out of the chamber toward his hiding place in the shadows of the corridor. The sphere rolled smoothly, loosing little of its momentum as it grew closer to the goblin. Skitnik leapt away, avoiding the sphere just before it struck the wall and bounced back a few handspans back out of the shadows.

Now that it had stopped rolling, Skitnik took a moment to look at the sphere. His whiskered stood on end once again as he stared into the eyes of a beautiful woman. The eyes belong to the head encased in the transparent crystal sphere. Whoever she was, she wore a look of surprise and sadness. Something told Skitnik she knew her fate when she was killed.

“Slave!” The Master’s harsh voice jolted Skitnik out of his shock.

The Goblin stared up, realizing that his escape from the sphere’s kiss had taken him out of the shadows. He stared up into the eyes of the Master and the Master stared back.

This was the first time Skitnik had even gotten a clear look at the Master he had feared for so long. It was not a moment he would ever recall with any kind of fondness. The Master’s brawny form nearly filled the wide doorway. His build reminded Skitnik of a gladiator who had once been a guest of the Master before being killed for sport by the Jurouk guards at the Master’s behest. He wore only a loincloth and his body was all hard planes of muscles.

Despite the physical presence of the Master’s perfect physique, the thing Skitnik most remembered was the eyes. The Master’s eye blazed with fury. Elemental anger poured from his visage with nearly physical force.

“You shall die, spy!” The Master bellowed, lifting his hand and pointing a finger at the Goblin.

A vile green bolt of magic flew from his fingertip toward the stunned Goblin.

Only generations of vermin reflexes saved Skitnik as he ducked underneath the bolt and scampered off down the corridor. The Goblin moved so fast he never even saw the hole the bolt burned into the wall where he had been standing mere moments before.

Skitnik could hear the Master pursuing him, his bare feet slapping on the bare stone floor. Even with his head start, he knew from the sounds that death was gaining on him.

Frightened, but still cagey, Skitnik began taking every turn he could. The Master was fast, but he was quicker and each turn helped the Goblin pull away from his pursuer.

Unfortunately, Skitnik knew he was running out of time to escape. He would soon come to the more populated part of the warren and a fleeing Goblin was sure to draw the notice of any nearby Jurouk, and fro a Goblin drawing a Jurouk’s interest was almost always fatal.

Just then he turned another corner and nearly collided with another Goblin. The other Goblin hopped out of his way, but fell down in the attempt. Skitnik recognized the other as Rattik the Lesser, a particularly spotty customer who’s job it was to bring new Goblin slaves to the warren on a regular basis.

Skitnik did not bother to apologize or offer any assistance to the cursing Rattik. He was too occupied with saving his own skin and would worry about catching a beating from the other if he survived the Master’s wrath.

Skitnik changed a glance over his shoulder just in time to see a bolt of green energy streak from the corridor he had just fled and strike Rattik. The Goblin howled in agony as green fire engulfed his small body, sparks popping from the tips of his hair and whiskers.

Ducking around another corner, Skitnik lost sight of Rattik. The corner led him into another storeroom filled with various casks and barrels. Scanning the room quickly, he spied one with its lid ajar and leapt into it. He landed waist deep in brandy and quickly slid the lid of the barrel closed from inside.

Even with the lid closed he heard the Master voice from the other room.

“Look upon this Goblin. Such is the fate of all who spy on me!”

In a flash Skitnik realized that Rattik had paid for his transgression.

With a sigh and a silent thank you to his ancestors’ spirits, he squatted down in the barrel until the brandy reached up to his chin. Skitnik took a deep, deep drink and began to wonder just how in the nine hells he could get out of this with his skin intact.