Tattoo Book 6 part 3.9
Posted by harmony0stars on November 12, 2010
“Stay close!” Milet hissed at Phoenix for what must have been the twentieth time. They scurried through a warren of streets and alleys, some of them little more than crawlways between the houses of the poor. Hovels leaned against one another for support, no two of them alike. They were built from whatever their owners had found lying around that would serve the purpose, crates, barrels, boards salvaged from the burying grounds in the twilight before dawn, oiled fabric that didn‘t hide the bloodstains, bricks of mud, straw, and excrement. Not permitted to build within the walls of the city proper, the poor sector perched against the northeastern wall of Ilarnek like a spreading ring of toadstools, the collection of hovels, shacks, and barrows unaffectionately called the Maze. Many attempts had been made to clear the stinking shantytown away, but it always grew back like a black fairy ring.
The Priests rarely strayed too deeply into the poor quarter. In the Maze, they were hardly the most fearsome of foes one might encounter. The people who lived in there would as soon kill one like the Lady’s guardsman simply for being clean. They’d kill Milet for the rags on her back if they were feeling particularly avaricious. Some would kill them for the meat on their bones. The ghouls were known to trade old baubles for fresh meat, though they were just as likely to kill whoever brought it to them if pickings had been lean. They let enough flesh peddlers live that more were lured in by the promise of easy gold. Some said that those who escaped with their lives were part ghoul themselves, and though the ghouls were known to eat their dead, ghoul seldom killed ghoul unless it was in a battle over territory.
“Come no further!” a voice barked as Milet tried to crawl into a hovel which was more a hole in the ground leading into a mound of dirt than a building. What little light there was in the dark gutters reflected from a blade that was held out from the hole like an exclamation point.
“Silek, Silek Baine,” Milet whispered. “We’ve come to ask your help. You have no love for the Priests. We want to know how to get into the temple undetected and steal back one they have taken.”
For a moment the knife remained outstretched, but it was finally withdrawn with a wry chuckle. “By all means,” the voice replied expansively. “Far be it for me to convince you to save yourselves a fools errand. I’ll expect payment up front though. No sense waiting on gold that will be lost with you.” The filth-covered hand reappeared, this time without the knife, and gestured for them to come down. “Hurry before some fool relieves you of valuables that should be mine.”
Despite Phoenix’s misgivings, he followed Milet into the hole. He considered it a measure of his desperation that he would debase himself by even entering the dilapidated settlement, let alone this Silek Baine’s midden. Phoenix was startled by the spaciousness of hovel once he had crawled a few feet through the dank entrance. It opened up to reveal the graceful arches of a boat which kept the mound of dirt covering the hovel from collapsing onto their heads. He was actually able to stand straight once they entered the main room… a room, for while it might be a hovel, Silek Baine had apparently expanded the barrow to include other structures. Slender passageways led to what could only be other apartments.
Noticing Phoenix’s attention, the rag-covered man opened his arms wide. “The boat was my father’s before he died. The creditors took it and myself. They gave me to the Priests, but as you can see, I stole it back once I took myself from their tender care. I could not ply the waters as he once did, not if I wished to keep the life I had so recently won back, but it serves my family well in a new capacity.” Catching sight of a small figure in one of the passageways, he yelled, “Off with you! Scat!” The child disappeared so quickly it might only have been a shadow after all.
One small lamp lit the room, but Silek lit another and placed it before an ornate mirror which had been shattered and pieced back together. The light reflected back into the room like a small sun. There were two chairs and bench by a table, none of them matching but all of them sturdy. Silek gestured for his guests to be seated.
For a hovel, Phoenix had to admit at least to himself that it was far from the sty he had expected. Though the carpets where threadbare and some worn through, they layered the floor and walls enough that someone who had not seen the outside of the structure might never have known it was dug from the earth. If there were levels of wealth in the Maze, then Silek Baine was one of its more affluent of its citizens.
Rubbing his hands together with eagerness, Silek lowered the hood that had covered his face up until that moment and smiled. Phoenix flinched and even Milet shied away at the man’s ruined visage. “Aye, you see this? I escaped the Priests, but not without paying a price. There’s things in the catacombs that makes ghouls look like your long lost grandparents. I’ll show you the entrance, sure, but I don’t expect you’ll find your way out again. You best be sure whoever you’re throwing your life away for is worth the sacrifice.”
“I’ll give you every coin I have, if you’ll come with me,” Phoenix blurted.
Silek guffawed, his half-face still as the night sky with its white moon of an eye while the eye of his good half wept with amusement. “Boy, you’ll give me every coin you have regardless, if you want my help. You think I’ve collected all this on my good looks? I have dreams for my children. We’ll be free of this cursed place yet, and if I judge you right, you’ll provide the coins that finally set our feet on the road.”
Phoenix colored. If he’d still been able, he would have turned the man to ash and then gone through the front door of the temple, broiling the priests in the own juices, but he did not have power in the Dreamlands. Power here was reserved for those who had created the place, and their offspring. “I have coins on me… but if you want the gems, you’ll come with me and see this through to the end,” he gritted out through clenched teeth.
“Gems, is it?” Silek Baine said in a wondering tone. “And who is it we’re rescuing then? A man likes to know what he’s risking his life for.”
“My… wife,” Phoenix replied awkwardly, ignoring the incredulous look Milet gave him. “And that’s all you need to know.”
to Book 6, part 3, page 10