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.

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