Rats in the City
Part Two – The Ancient Tower
The alley led out into a rough street, one deep in the sprawl of the city of Qiaqala, grandest of all cities. It did not much look an improvement over the alley, lacking the pavers that more reputable parts of the city had. The houses, of flimsy wooden design, were packed in tight, making them a perfect candidate for disease and fire. Blade looked each way along the street before simply shrugging.
It was hard to get lost in Qaiqala, for the Red Mesa at the heart of the city, a giant red monolith, towered over all and could readily be seen, even at night. Illumination by lights, both from flames and of more arcane origins, bathed the Red Mesa, highlighting the giant figures of past heroes and rulers that were engraved into its sides, and highest of all burned the Eternal Flame in the tallest tower of the Red Palace atop it, a light visible for many leagues beyond the city. It was a simple matter to aim towards it and find a way back to the walls that surrounded the inner lake of the city, or to take the opposite path and head out from the city, yet even so, in the veritable maze that was the sprawl of the outer city, it was still possible to get lost, or tangled up by the small, winding streets, the back alleys, dead ends and other obstacles. Such as thieves.
“This way, I think,” Blade stated, choosing at random a direction, one headed away from the Red Mesa. He set out along the street, humming a little tune, feeling more at peace with the world that he had for some time, though a part of him that still thought straight wondered just how much of that was the wine talking. After all, he was without money or weapons, in a strange city he knew little about, and with no friends or contacts in, and to top it all, was in the presence of a woman who, at best, could be described as a barbarian, one who no doubt would get them into trouble with her crude behaviour and impulses, if they stuck together. Weirdly, he did not find that an unappealing thought. After all that he had experienced in his city of birth, in Ardanium, a break from cities and civilised society would come as a relief.
His humming came to an abrupt halt, as did he, when ahead he saw more figures emerge from the shadows of side alleys onto the street, figures short and cloaked and hooded, a dozen strong in number. Some held short swords, others crude clubs, but all were scurrying his way. He turned about as fast as he could, almost colliding with a wall and then Peregrine in the process, and set off the other way down the street, his long legs stretching out.
“Run!” he called out.
For a second he was concerned that Peregrine would stay and face them all down but then she made her way after him, catching up rapidly and matching his speed despite her shorter stature.
“We could have taken them,” she told him.
Blade laughed as he ran. “You Aedring are crazy, but I am sure you have heard that before.” He swerved from the street around a corner and into another one, seeking to throw off the pursuit in the twisting ways, and then quickly ducked into another. Strangely, they were all empty, which, in a city teeming with people, struck him as most odd. Part of him felt as if he should know why that was, but he had trouble focusing on little else but the running. “Peregrine, did anyone say anything about this night?”
“Can’t really recall,” she answered. “Something about something happening tonight, maybe. Think they tried to warn us about it when we left the tavern.”
“I think you might be right about that.” Blade glanced behind him as he ran, almost tripping over a pile of broken boxes as he did. The thieves were proving tenacious, clinging to their trail.
“A festival, maybe?” Peregrine hazarded as a guess.
“If it were a festival, then where is everyone?”
“My dear Peregrine, strange as it may sound, there aren’t enough taverns in the city for everyone to be inside drinking.”
Another corner they turned, and still the thieves continued to hound at their heels.
“Got it,” Peregrine proclaimed loudly, startling Blade in the process.
“It is the Night of Tales, I think they said.”
The name meant nothing to Blade. “Never heard of it.”
Peregrine shrugged and then growled as they came to a dead end alleyway, a wall blocking their path. She wrenched free the sword from her belt and turned to face those coming from behind them, her eyes agleam. Blade looked this way and that, seeking for a way out of their predicament. Then an idea struck him.
“Are you any good at climbing?”
Peregrine laughed openly. “I was born in the hill country. Why?”
Blade pointed to the wall before them and then up. A tower rose in the midst of the sprawl, a stone building where all else around was of wood. At some point, before the growth of the sprawl had enveloped it, it had possibly been a guard tower. Now vines snaked their way up its walls, offering a means to climb it.
With a broad smile, Blade started up the vines, scrambling away with no thought of the dangers it may hold, such was the befuddled state of his mind. If he had thought of it, then he would have judged it the lesser of two evils. Peregrine came clambering up soon after, almost running up the wall such was her speed. Higher and higher they rose and the sprawl opened up beneath them, according them a view across the breadth of the city, to the walls that surrounded the lake and the Red Mesa from the middle of it. All around the streets were empty, except for here and there were the odd cloaked figure scurried furtively from shadow to shadow.
About half way up, the vine that Blade grasped crumbled free from the wall in his hand. His free hand flailing, he grappled at another vine, managing to just grab a hold of it before he plummeted down to where a number of their pursuers had arrived at the base of the tower. The experience struck him with a shot of adrenaline that did the work of a swim in an icy cold river. He hauled himself up the rest of the way, pulling himself over the top of the tower to the platform there. In the centre of the roof was set a heavy wooden trapdoor.
From the vantage point, Peregrine looked around across the city. “Big,” she said after a moment of reflection. “You don’t realise how big until you get up high. I want to get up there one day,” she added, pointing out over the city to the top of the highest tower on the Red Mesa, where the Eternal Flame burned. “The view would be spectacular.”
Blade shook his head. “It is impossible. No one gets up there but on the authority of the Sultan, and there are too many guards about the Red Mesa to sneak up there.”
A fey grin took Peregrine. “That just makes it more of a challenge.”
Blade shook his head again before peering down over the wall of the tower to the alley they had climbed up from. More of their pursuers were gathering. In the dark it proved difficult to count their true numbers, but at least half a dozen were there that he could see. “Challenge or not, we won’t get much of a chance up here.”
“Why did you bring us up here?”
“It seemed a good idea at the time,” Blade admitted.
Peregrine leant against the parapets and snorted. “Most things do after a few drinks I’ve found.”
“Are you sure it was the Night of Tales?” Blade asked. The name bugged him for a reason that he couldn’t quite figure out.
“Think so. We were in a bit of a hurry to leave at the time, so it could have been anything really.”
“I tell a tale, a tale, a tale, I tell a tale of wonder and love,” Blade recited in a singsong manner.
Peregrine eyed him suspiciously. “Are you always this way?”
“What way, pray tell?”
Blade waved a long fingered hand dismissively. “Me, madcapped? I am the model of civilised restraint and decorum I will have you know.”
“Except when drunk it would seem.” Peregrine peered over the edge, to see one of the cloaked figures from below starting to climb up the vines, moving with a sure footed speed. She walked over to the trapdoor and tested it. It did not open, not even when she hammered at it with her foot. Looking around, she spotted a part of the parapet where the stones were coming loose, the vines having weakened them. Striding over, she took a hold of one block of masonry and heaved, straining muscle and sinew. The stone tore loose and she tottered back over to the other side of the tower. Lifting it on high, she hurled it down at the climber, almost overbalancing and falling over the edge herself. The stone hurtled through the air. The climbing figure simply swung out of the way on one hand, yet as he did, a part of his cloak blew open and they caught sight of a most unusual thing, for a long tail had been concealed beneath it.
The pair looked at each other and at the same time exclaimed, “The Night of the Tails!”
“That solves at least some of the puzzles of the night,” Blade noted, then added, “You should have used the stone on the trapdoor.”
Peregrine grunted and turned back to the parapet. She tossed the short sword to Blade, who caught it on the second attempt. “Keep them away from the top,” she told him before going to work on another section of broken masonry, this one larger and less crumbled than the one she had earlier broken odd. With gritted teeth, she set her feet and took a hold of the stone. Muscles corded along her arms and neck as she twisted at the stone. Small cracks appeared across it and the stone groaned as it tore free. Peregrine almost fell back with it on her, but managed to right herself after a few steps staggered back.
Blade had glanced across as the stone came free, then back to the parapet, just in time to see a hooded head appear before him. He stabbed at it, or at least in its direction, for it appeared half blurred in his vision, as if there were two there swimming before him. A squeak sounded as the head ducked the strike. Blade flailed away with the crude weapon, hoping to deter the climber from reappearing.
Peregrine made her slow way over to the trapdoor. There she braced herself and strained to lift the stone on high before dumping it onto the trapdoor. The wood shattered as the stone plummeted through. They heard a series of crashes as it continued its downward path, the sound reverberating up through the tower.
“The door is open,” Peregrine announced.
“Aye, and everyone heard it.”
“It was your idea,” Peregrine pointed out.
“True,” Blade conceded, making his way over to it. “Let us just hope that no one is home to protest.”
Peregrine laughed and look through the open trapdoor. An old, rusted iron ladder led down from the opening to a floor below, but without light she could not see much further beyond.
“We may need that glowing ball thing of yours,” she said, starting down the ladder.
“Not sure I am up to it in my condition,” he told her. “I may end up burning half the city down by accident.”
“We’d have light at least.” Peregrine dropped from the ladder to the floor below. She peered into the growing darkness ahead. “Stairs wind down from here. Can’t see where to.”
Blade joined her at the bottom of the ladder, passing the sword back to her. He brushed flakes of rust from his gloves. “Let us see what we can manage.” Fumbling around on the floor, he scooped up some of the dust that lay there. He placed it on the palm of his hand and focused on it, wetting his lips as he did.
After a few attempts, a jaunty tune warbled from his lips, one that sounded better to his mellowed senses than in reality it really was. The dust coughed a few times and a brief spark of light glowed from within. Then it died out again.
“Forgotten how it goes?” Peregrine asked. She stood at the base of the ladder, sword in hand, looking up at the opening.
“Just give me a moment,” he replied. Once more he tried to conjure up the light. Concentrating had, he began to hum the tune again. This time, in coughs and spurts, the dust burst into a flickering ball of light, though one of unstable form, prone to dimming away before surging back to a brighter light. Blade let it loose and the small bronzed orb wobbled through the air, as unsteady in its path as he was. With the light now ahead of them, they plunged on down the stairs, seeking a way to elude those who had followed them to the tower.
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