Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Stone Priest's Wife, Part V: The Tower of Al-Kafiri

The sewer tunnel under the Tower of Al-Kafiri was a dark, compact place with a squishy floor covered in the gods-alone-knew-what.  The air was foul with the inescapable stench of excrement.  Combined with an already wretched headache, it made Alaira feel more miserable than she’s ever imagined possible. 
“You sure you’re all right?” Belle asked. 
Alaira turned and looked up.  “I’m fine!”  It wasn’t true, but Alaira didn’t want to waste time answering her supposed friend’s stupid questions.  Lying in a pitch black sewage pipe covered to her elbows in human waste would tend to put anyone off her game.
“Okay,” Belle said, “Whatever you say.  It’s just that with your hangover and whatnot, I thought maybe...”
Alaira turned and looked Belle in the eye.  “Will you shut up, so I can concentrate?  Picking this lock is harder than it looks.” 
Alaira turned back to the lock and again tried to focus, but it was tough with her headache.  It didn’t help that the sewer slime was making her tools slippery.  She’d had to lie down in the tunnel’s sludge just to reach the lock, which was bolted to the bottom of the metal grating that stood between Alaira and her friends and the Tower of Al-Kafiri above.  Alaira had argued against infiltrating through a two-foot tube filled with human waste for the obvious reasons, but stupid Modor had insisted it would be safer than trying to go in through one of the Tower’s many upper story windows.  Thinking about it did little beyond making Alaira angry.  She took as deep a breath as she dared amidst the tunnel’s stench and tried to relax.  Then she leaned into the grating to try to gain more leverage.  If she could just force her picks a little further into the keyhole… 
“Dammit!” she cried. 
She slipped forward and only barely avoided landing face first in unspeakable muck.  As she fell, the lock let off a loud click.  A small dart flew from the keyhole into the sludge below.  It missed Alaira’s hand by a quarter inch.  Had Alaira not slipped, the dart would have hit her left palm dead center.
Belle reached down and grabbed Alaira by the shoulder.  “That’s it.  You’re done.  I’m going back to go get Modor.”
“No!  I can do it!”
“Do what?  Get yourself killed by a poisoned dart?” Belle said.  “I don’t doubt it.”
Alaira looked up from the sludge.  “Why don’t you try worrying about just yourself for change?  Let me worry about me.”  Unlike Alaira, Belle hadn’t had to actually get down into the muck yet.  She was still clean.
“Come on, Alaira,” Belle said, “Don’t be like that.  I was only trying to--”
“Save it.  Let’s just get this done.  It’s not even noon, and I already need a drink.”
“Wonderful.  Considering how much good last night’s drinking did you, I can’t wait to see what this next round’s gonna do.”  Belle shook her head.  “I told you that you were headed for a heartbreak last night.”
“Did I look lonely to you this morning?”
“Fine.  Have it your way.”  Belle looked towards where they’d left Modor and Xarian further back in the tunnel.  “But if you wanna self-destruct, do it on your own time.  And try not to take the rest of us with you, okay?”
“I told you I’m fine!” Alaira cried.  “Gods!  Weren’t you going to go get Modor or something?”
“Great.  I’ll be right back.” 
Alaira fooled with the lock a bit more while Belle was gone, but after a while, she knew it was pointless.  She wanted to close her eyes and put her head down, but in the nastiness of the sewer main, that was completely out of the question.  Instead she sat up and did her best to clean and put away her lock picks.
A few minutes later, Modor crawled up to where Alaira was sitting.  She looked at him and shook her head.  “I can’t get it.”
“Can’t?  Or don’t want to?”  Modor’s skepticism was obvious.
“Can’t Modor.”  Alaira pointed to the lock.  “Look at this damn thing.  It’s not some cheap City Sanitation Department lock.  This is an expensive piece of equipment.  And it was trapped.”  Alaira pointed up to indicate the people in the Tower above them.  “Those wizards set this here on purpose.  They’ve obviously considered that some idiot might try to break in this way.”
Alaira shook her head angrily.  “I told you this was a mistake.  It’s gods-damned disgusting, too.  Dammit!  I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“You’re here for three crowns and the chance for more,” Modor said, “You’re here because—“
Alaira cut him off.  “Three crowns!  Modor, I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed this morning for three crowns.  No, I’m here because you had to bang somebody else’s hussy and got caught doing it.  Idiot!  I’m here because a War Master wants to feed you your balls!  Now I’m elbow-deep in human shit, and—“
“That’s enough, Alaira.”  Modor put his hand on her shoulder.  Despite herself, she appreciated it.  “No one wanted to have to break in through the toilets, but you know damned well that there’s money to be made here.  But if you really can’t pick the lock…”
“Since we’re already here, do you mind if I take a look?” Xarian asked.  He shimmied past Modor to get a better look. 
It would have been a tight fit under the best of circumstances, but with all of their gear, it was more than tight.  It was impossible.  Though Xarian was nowhere near as large as Modor, he’d carried a huge backpack into the sewers in addition to his blunderbuss.  Meanwhile Modor was enormously tall and wide, a reality made worse by the fact that he’d come dressed in his black half-plate armor, and he’d brought both of his swords.  Fang was bad enough, but Claw, Modor’s massive six-and-a-half foot claymore, made moving in the tunnels nearly impossible for him, even when he was moving alone.  Plus Modor had also brought his tower shield.  Alaira shook her head and backed out of the way.  Xarian’s blunderbuss was bad enough, but she had absolutely no idea how Modor was going to get up a two-foot pipe carrying all that stuff. 
Once Xarian was in position and had had a moment to look things over, Modor asked, “Do you think you can blast it?”
“I doubt it,” Xarian replied.  He frowned.  “Even if I’d brought that much powder, I don’t think the tunnel’s ceiling would survive the concussion.  Plus, the noise would almost certainly alert the Tower.”
“Yeah,” Modor said, “That’s no good.  Even if we could fight our way past all the guards and wizards and whatnot, it still wouldn’t accomplish the mission.  We have to keep this quiet.  Anything that could potentially lead back to the Stone Priest is a non-starter.”
No one said anything for a few moments.  Eventually, Xarian pulled off his pack.  Without a word, he started rummaging around inside, eventually emerging with a thick rubber-stoppered bottle. 
“I haven’t had a chance to try this yet,” he said, “and I have no idea how well it’ll work on iron…”
Modor looked curious but said nothing.  Xarian unstoppered the bottle with obvious care and dripped a few drops of its liquid onto the lock’s heavy iron hasp.  He then replaced the stopper and returned the vial to his pack.
“Now what?” Modor asked.
“Now we wait.”
The next quarter-hour wasn’t pleasant.  Modor didn’t like waiting, but he didn’t have any choice.  He kept glaring at Alaira as if to remind her that it was only because of her failure that they were forced to wait in the first place.  Alaira could tell that Xarian didn’t like waiting, either, but at least he didn’t glare.  He did, however, look manifestly uncomfortable resting on his hands and knees in three-inch-deep sewer slime.  The only group member who didn’t seem overtly hostile was Belle.  But Belle had been acting like a self-righteous bitch since the prior evening, so her presence was hardly reassuring.  Eventually, Alaira turned away from her friends, deciding instead to stare at the wall.  It smelled awful, but at least it wasn’t angry with her. 
Stupid Modor, she thought.
A few more minutes passed.  At last Xarian said, “Okay.  Try it now.”
“Finally!” Modor exclaimed.  He reached for Fang.
“Gods!  Don’t use your sword!” Xarian cried.  He fussed in his pack and emerged with a two-pound hammer and a small crowbar.  These he handed to Modor.  “Here.  Always use the right tools for the job.” 
Modor growled.  Looking more than a little skeptical, he placed the crowbar into the lock’s hasp and held the hammer up to strike.  “Like this?”
Xarian shook his head.  “Just get on with it.”
Modor turned back without replying.  He struck the crowbar.
“God of Fire!” Xarian cursed, “Not like that.  Put some ass into it.”
Modor glared, but Xarian returned his gaze without flinching.  After a moment, Modor turned back to the lock.  He raised the hammer and then dropped it thunderously onto the crowbar.  The hasp shattered.
“Finally!” Xarian said, making fun of Modor’s earlier exasperation.  He pushed past and opened the gate, and then he held it open with a flourish.  “After you.”
* * *
Modor led the way up into the shitter.  It was a more than tight squeeze through the foulest space imaginable, but it was the best—and according to War Master Orisis, the only—way to get into the Tower undetected.  Modor tried not to think about what else was in the little tunnel with him.  And he tried not to breath. 
The stench was the worst of it.  Thankfully, there were few actual objects blocking his ascent, but that didn’t change the fact that Modor was crawling through others’ fecal matter.  The connecting pipe was just over a dozen feet long, gently sloping from the main sewer line up to a larger space with three holes cut in the ceiling.  Those three holes were the actual toilets, Modor realized. 
The collective space under the toilets was made of stone and had rungs set into the walls.  Modor used these rungs to pull himself up out of the pipe, avoiding the worst of the toilet pit’s foulness.  He didn’t hesitate but instead instantly stuck his head up through one of the toilet’s seats.
* * *
Khalid hadn’t had a good morning.  He’d had a fight with Safir, his second wife, who was a beautiful woman but who was also a constant pain in his ass.  Then he’d overslept and been late for work, causing his captain to yell at him.  And then the wizard Zafa had gotten angry about something that Khalid still didn’t understand.  Still, as Khalid headed for the basement toilets, his mood improved.  He grabbed the handle for the toilet’s door thinking, At last I can have some peace and privacy.  Every man is a king when he sits upon the universal throne.
Khalid entered the toilet and closed the door behind him.  Then he turned.  He froze.  His mouth fell open. 
A monster was climbing out of the toilet!
The monster reached for him.  It grabbed his shirt and began to pull him closer.  Khalid watched helplessly.  He tried to scream, but his voice failed him.  The monster snarled.
At last Khalid screamed.
* * *
“Gods dammit, shut up!” Modor yelled.  He slammed the man’s head into the stone and then pulled himself up and all the way out of the toilet itself.  The man dropped to his knees and then fell over onto his side, out cold.
“Think you could make some more noise next time?” Alaira asked.  She climbed out of the next toilet over.  “I’m not sure they heard you up on the roof.”
Alaira looked like Hell.  She’d managed to keep her face mostly clean, but her hair and her clothes were streaked through with a muck that Modor didn’t want to contemplate. 
“You need a bath,” he said.  “There’s supposed to be a bathhouse down here somewhere.  If we can keep it quite—“
A voice outside the door interrupted Modor’s thought.  “Is everything all right in there?” it asked.  The door opened, and a man stuck his head in.  Like the man Modor had assaulted, he had a beard and was wearing robes.  “What the Hell?”
Alaira’s dagger answered, slamming into the wall next to the man’s head.  The man disappeared instantly.  The door slammed behind him. 
“Move dammit!” Alaira said as she shoved past Modor.  “If he gets away, the whole place’ll know we’re here!  Then this’ll all be for nothing!”

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