Wednesday, January 21, 2015
The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 8
Robin woke the next morning, or what she could only assume was morning without the presence of a window, to find Gwynt sitting a foot away, looking at her with a wide grin.
“Arise, Robin the Novice,” he said in a hollow monotone. He stopped grinning for a moment, but was unable to maintain without it for long. “This morning you must face the test which takes place in the sewers which all must take for membership into Bedlam.”
Robin cleared her throat, blinked the sleep out of her eyes, and stood up. Her joints cracked from the night spent on the hard floor. She also found that she was covered in dirt. More than usual, anyway.
“Could it wait until afternoon?” she asked.
Gwynt tossed his head, and Robin noticed that his blond hair was tied back into three shorter ponytails. He also seemed to have polished his leather armor, or at least covered it in a greater amount of studs and half-hidden blades. “Normally, I'd say yes,” he said, “but Anzo and Hudtan already went down to prepare, and it's really not nice to keep them waiting knee-deep in sewage.” He coughed. “I mean...The time of thy reckoning is set in stone.”
“I reckon it is.”
Gwynt led Robin back out of the Plinth and through the alleys of the Columns. He stopped at one point to help a hungover homeless man to his feet. The man promptly turned blue and collapsed again. Gwynt fiddled with a needle protruding from his wrist-guard before happily continuing to find the right entrance to the sewers.
Tunnels underneath the town allow waste to be washed out by an underground river that came down from Mount Kaldelv. The river also provided the town with its water supply, but luckily it did so before reaching the sewage. In the poorer districts, the river was more like a stream, and so the nobility weren't just being rude when they held their handkerchiefs to their noses.
Gwynt knelt by a grate at the foot of a short column. It had long ago been pried loose, and it was now easy for him to take it off and lower himself inside. Robin followed suit. Most people would have had to hold their breath in response to the stench of rotten food, digested food, and mold that permeated the tunnel. Robin was used to such smells, though.
There was no lighting in the sewers except through the grates from above. When Gwynt entered a shadow ahead of Robin, his black leather armor made him disappear from her vision. Robin scrambled to keep up every time this happened.
After turning several corners, Robin was utterly lost. They could have been beneath the Town Hall for all she knew. Gwynt finally stopped underneath a ray of sunlight and flashed a brilliant smile.
“We have arrived.”
Robin danced back and forth on her feet, unable to contain her excitement. Each step made a tiny splash in the sewage. “What do I do?”
“Your first test,” Gwynt said, “is the Test of Dexterity. You must make it from this end of the tunnel to the other.”
Robin looked over his shoulder. All she could see was black.
“Erm, what exactly is that testing?” she asked.
Gwynt let his smile linger as he walked past her, away from the tunnel, and back into the shadows. Robin looked forward, and only emptiness greeted her.
She slid one toe through the muck ahead of her. Nothing happened. She brought her other foot to reunite with its twin. A drip in the water behind her made her spin around, only to see that it was beginning to rain in the world above and some of it was starting to come in through the grate. No assassins covered in poisonous needles were trying to kill her where her body would never be found. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all.
Robin still moved at the pace of a snail, just to be safe.
Each footfall made a sploosh as it hit the water. She remembered that Gwynt had called it the Test of Dexterity. Perhaps he was watching her from somewhere nearby, judging how quietly she was moving through the tunnel. Maybe that was all she had to worry about. To avoid making noise in the water, she moved to the side of the tunnel, where she figured she could walk on the dry curve where the wall met the floor.
Robin felt a tug at her ankle. She panicked, slipped on the slick sewer floor, and fell flat on her face in the murky current.
A swish of metal announced that something heavy and sharp had just swung over her head.
It was a trap, Robin realized. The test is to sneak down a hallway of deadly traps. With no light.
She slid out from under the swinging blade and scrambled to her feet. The sound of the trap was the only thing orienting her, so she slowly moved away from it. Her hands padded along the wall to prevent her weak legs from letting her fall back to the floor. One hand ran along holes in the wall.
Robin halted with her foot hovering just above her next step forward. There would probably be a pressure plate or another tripwire that would trigger darts or spikes to come out of the wall. She staggered back, regained her balance with the help of the adrenaline rush that comes before almost getting yourself killed, and took a running jump to clear as much ground as possible.
She yelped when her face snapped through another tripwire close to the ceiling.
She heard the sliding of the metal along the stone as what must have been long rods sprang out from the holes in the wall. Presumably they had spikes on the end, but the momentum from Robin's jump propelled her forward fast enough that she avoided having to find out. However, hitting the tripwire on the ceiling did send her body spinning, so that she ended up landing on her back. Her head snapped backwards and splurched into a deep puddle of sludge.
Robin didn't have time to worry about her now grimy hair, because she also landed on another pressure plate.
“This is getting really tedious,” she said as the sewage began to splash of its own accord around her. She sped to her feet in a flurry of fingers. One of her feet rose higher than she had expected. The stones that made up the floor were dancing up and down, some going three feet into the air, causing forward movement to suddenly become a great challenge. The water sloshed past her legs, stirred up and thrown around by the riotous stones as flapjacks on the griddle. Robin quickly returned to a sideways position.
Robin saw a shimmer in the water as she rolled around. She realized that if she were able to see that, there must be a light up ahead. Her head was thrashing around so much in the tumultuous trap that she couldn't get a closer look.
She began tumbling, practically somersaulting, to get to sturdy ground. She was on her back, she was upside-down, she couldn't tell which way she had just come from, and then a platform launched her into the air, her toes brushed the ceiling, and she was face down in the sewage. The traps had all fallen silent.
“Impressive,” Hudtan said.
Robin stood up, her knees trembling. She shook the malodorous water from her hands and looked over into the pure white eyes of the dark elf. She was standing alone in the middle of the tunnel, one hand holding up a torch. It shed orange light on the slimy walls.
“I'm really starting to miss the days where I don't almost die,” Robin said.
Hudtan shook her head. “Gang life is a dangerous one, but there is no turning back. Unless you'd like to face those traps again?”
Robin quickly shut her mouth.
“You have been through the Test of Dexterity, but now you must face off against something much more dangerous, something that has left men quaking in their boots, that has scoured the world and only become sharper...my intellect, and the Test of Intelligence.”
Robin brushed a clump of soggy hair out of her eyes. “And how are we going to see who's smarter?” she asked.
“A game of wits,” Hudtan said, her white eyes growing wider. She swung the torch around, leaving a line of light in Robin's eyes. Hudtan's head tilted back, her eyebrows jumped to the top of her forehead. Her mouth stayed a straight line. “A game...of riddles.”
“Very storybook of you,” Robin said. “But what do my riddling skills matter when it comes to being a thief?”
“While there is not a direct connection, there is a correlation between one's riddling and their performance in this line of work. Being a thief is not all hiding and swiping. You need to know how to talk your way out of trouble, know the art of double-speak, and what kind of thief doesn't know how to hurl a really good insult over their shoulder as they get away?” She tilted her head forward and moved the torch behind her head, shrouding her face in shadows.
Robin nodded and started searching through her memory for any riddles she could remember. It wasn't that many. She brought a hand up to rub her eyes, saw the sewage that had gotten on it, and thought better.
Hudtan twirled the torch some more. “We each take turns asking a riddle. The first to answer incorrectly three times loses. I will begin. Are you ready?”
Robin shook herself again, spraying a shower of droplets around her, and then stood to mimic Hudtan's stance. “I am,” she said.
“Then we shall begin.” Hudtan began to pace, and her torch caused the shadows of the stones in the wall to shrink and grow in a way that resembled a rapidly setting sun. “Your first riddle is this. I always dance, I never halt, but to no music do I waltz. Give me food, I will survive, but give me drink and I will die.”
Robin watched the mesmeric torchlight flicker and twirl, sending a tiny wisp of smoke that built against the roof of the tunnel. “Let's see,” she said, trying not to get distracted. “Dancer, can't drink...uh...A really drunk guy?”
Hudtan waved the torch again. “No, you fool, it's fire!” Robin had expected her to be happy that she got it wrong, but she seemed rather annoyed. “Fire dances without music, wood is its food, and any water will put it out!”
“Oh, yeah. Pretty obvious, looking back on it.”
Hudtan lowered the torch and ceased pacing. “That is your first strike. Two more, and you will wish you had never taken step in this course.” Robin gulped, but Hudtan ignored it and continued. “Now you must pose your riddle.”
“Well, there's one that I know from when I was a kid. People come to me to draw, but no art do I create. I was made many years ago, but your need I can still abate.”
“Hah!” Hudtan laughed. “Too easy. You should have known better than to attempt to match wits with the likes of myself.”
“So, what's your answer?”
“Right, it's...some sort of really old easel.”
Robin shook her head. “It's a well. You go to it to draw water. It abates your thirst. And once its made it lasts as long as the water continues to flow below.”
“That's a bit obscure,” Hudtan said with a scoff.
“What? Everyone in Fannen-Dar knows it. Our town center is a well.”
“Enough!” Hudtan stomped her foot in the stream, sending a spray of water over her ankles. “We both have answered one incorrectly. I gave my guess, so now I get to give my next puzzle. It is one that has stumped many poor wayfarers who encountered a riddling sphinx or a clever troll, and has led to the deaths of many before you.”
Hudtan cleared her throat, opened her mouth, but then paused. “Wait, let me make sure I remember the rhymes.”
“Take your time,” Robin said.
“Okay.” Hudtan looked back up. “I have it. This thing all things devours. Birds, beasts, trees, flowers. It gnaws iron, it bites steel, it grinds hard stones to meal. It slays kings, it ruins towns, and beats high mountains down.”
Robin felt a wave of relief wash over her. “Only one thing can nothing else, no matter how powerful, survive against. The answer is time!”
“No,” Hudtan said. “That's preposterous. Does time eat things? Gnaw, bite, grind stones and metal? What a ridiculous answer. No, the answer is the ancient tarasque, the legendary beast said to live in the heart of the world, and if it were to awaken it would literally devour everything in Calemor.”
“Oh,” Robin mumbled. “I thought it was a metaphor.”
“And that is why my mind is far superior to that belonging to you,” Hudtan said. She stared at Robin without blinking for a few seconds, before adding, “It's your turn.”
“Okay, uh, let me think...” It was Robin's turn to pace, kicking up the grime that had settled in the grooves of the floor.
“If you can't think of anything, then you lose,” Hudtan said, her blank eyes never moving from Robin's left ear. “Trust me, you do not want to lose down here.”
Robin shivered. She didn't want to find out what Bedlam would do to her if she lost. They seemed...unhinged. So far, though, she was only one answer behind Hudtan. A memory surfaced.
“I think I have one.” Robin gulped. “A young man was heading towards the Shadir Forest. On the way, he walked past a king and his royal caravan. The king was traveling with four wagons, each being pulled by two horses. Each wagon contained three servants and one of the king's sons. Each prince had brought seven dogs, and each dog had five fleas. How many living creatures were going to the forest?”
Hudtan clicked her tongue and moved towards the opposite wall. “You shouldn't have tried to trick me with mathematics. Not only can I see the patterns of numbers as though they were coins on a table before me, but I know the trick you are trying to pull. You want me to say that there are eight horses, plus twelve servants, plus four princes, plus eight and twenty dogs, plus one hundred and forty fleas to make two and ninety and one hundred creatures going to the forest.” The dark elf turned on one heel, her mouth still pulled into a thin line. “But I have not forgotten about the boy. The answer is three and ninety and one hundred.”
Robin took a deep breath. “The boy was headed towards the forest. He passed the king's caravan, so they were all headed away from the forest. The answer is only one.”
Hudtan stopped mid-pace with a foot in the air. “Well, he could have passed them because he was going faster than them, but in the same direction.”
“A boy walking faster than horse-drawn wagons? What would be the point of taking wagons then?”
“To carry all those dogs, apparently!”
Robin tried counting on her fingers, but couldn't remember what came after seven. She waved both hands and said, “It doesn't matter. You forgot to add the king, so the answer would be, uh...one more than whatever you said.”
“I did n...Oh, yes, you're right.” Hudtan stood still in the middle of the tunnel. “This makes us even. We both have two erroneous answers.”
“And it's...” Robin groaned inwardly. “Your turn.”
“This is your last chance, Robin,” Hudtan said. “If you get this question wrong, you're done. And I'm not going to make it an easy one.”
“Mhm,” Robin squeaked.
“Those riddles I gave you before? They were trinkets compared to this imponderable.”
Hudtan walked towards Robin, who stood rooted in place. The dark elf was not as tall as her, but her empty white eyes surrounded by her indigo hair getting closer and closer made for an intimidating sight. She began to sweat as the heat from the torch grew closer. Hudtan, still neither frowning nor smiling, looked at her from barely five feet away.
She opened her mouth. “How is a raven like a writing desk?”
Robin absentmindedly rubbed her chin. “They...they...” There was nothing similar about them at all, the thinking part of her mind told her. The answer was locked away in a place only the criminally insane could access, and she just couldn't cut it. She couldn't think like that, she wasn't cut out for this job. Her legs felt like they were about to buckle underneath the weight of that moment.
“Hold on,” she said. “They both have legs.”
Hudtan's jaw dropped. “Oh. I hadn't thought of that. It was supposed to be unanswerable, but then I'd say something clever about never spelled backwards...”
“But my answer is true, right? So it counts?”
Hudtan licked her lips. “Debatable. The laws of riddling are ancient and complex. But for our purposes...yes, that is a satisfiable answer.”
Robin took a step back, since Hudtan seemed to lack the need for personal space. “This puts you in the center of the summoning circle, doesn't it?”
“If I get your next riddle wrong...”
“Then you lose,” Robin said. “And...you don't want to lose down here, do you?”
Hudtan squinted. “Do your worst.”
The blood drained from Robin's cheeks. She was fresh out of riddles. Two was her limit. She looked around for an idea. She saw the torch, but fire had already been used. The sewage sloshed past their feet, but she couldn't come up with a clever way of describing people's waste. She felt around her pockets for something to trigger an idea, but they were all empty.
“What,” Robin said, stalling for time, “is the...how many...” Her mind raced around the libraries of her life, hoping something would jump out at her. She dug deeper into her past, tried to remember what made her confused as a child. Hudtan was tapping her fingers on her hip, and Robin knew without hearing what was going through her head. Five...four...three...two...
“What do you get when you cross a snowstorm and a wolf?”
“That would be canis lupus albus, the tundra wolf.”
“Nope,” Robin said with a grin. “Frostbite.”
Hudtan looked into the darkness behind Robin for a few seconds, then sighed. She sauntered over to one wall and pointed her free hand towards the bend in the tunnel ahead. “Go ahead. You win this one.”
Robin trotted off in the direction Hudtan pointed, but looked over her shoulder before turning the corner. Hudtan still stood against the wall, looking into the sewage at her feet. It didn't seem all that bad to have lost after all.
“So!” Anzo greeted Robin as she rounded the bend. He was standing with his hands on his hips and his chest puffed out, in the middle of the tunnel. The first grate Robin had seen since they entered was behind him, with bright daylight shining down into the sewer. Anzo was grinning widely. “You have defeated the Test of Dexterity and the Test of Intelligence!”
“Please tell me the next one is the Test of Cake,” Robin said.
“Better!” Anzo shouted. “Your next and final test is the Test of Strength!” He flexed his right arm. The muscles were as big as Robin's head. “You must defeat me in unarmed combat! The first one to deliver a blow to the other's head wins!”
Robin decided not to go into the details about how cake was better than strength, and instead put up her tiny fists in front of her face.
“Ready!” Anzo shouted, an announcement more than a question. Robin shook her head. Anzo swung a fist experimentally through the air, ignoring her. “Let's go!”
Anzo rushed forward and swung sideways at Robin's head. She crouched to the ground to dodge, and thrust out with a punch of her own aimed at his knee. Bone hit bone, sounding a dull and crispy thud. Robin withdrew her hand, shaking the pain away. Anzo seemed unharmed.
“A fine display of agility, Robin!” he boomed. “Now let's see about your stamina!” He swung his other arm, with muscles the size of ripe watermelons, hitting the huddled Robin directly in the chest. The force lifted her up off the ground as his hand swung back in its arc, and then launched her backwards. She skidded to a halt against the filthy floor.
Robin coughed, the breath having been blown clear out of her lungs. “Stamina,” she managed to choke out, “is not one of my strong points.”
Anzo began walking up to her. “That's okay. Strength is the only strong point you need!”
“Let's test that out!” Robin said. She got back up, ignoring the pain in her ribs, and ran to meet Anzo under the light of a street grate. She jumped just before reaching him, throwing her fist down at the same time.
Anzo leaned backwards, dodging the blow, but losing his balance as well. Robin, not having planned beyond trying to get one hit in, landed from her jump on his shoulders. The two fell backwards into the puddles.
Robin was kneeling on Anzo's chest, and he almost looked surprised to find himself in a losing position. One of his hands was pinned under his own body, but the other tried to lurch up at Robin's ear. She stuck her foot out just in time, pinning his arm to the ground. With the perfect setup, Robin swung the most powerful blow she could muster at Anzo's nose.
She missed by four inches.
The arm behind Anzo's back found its way free, took hold of Robin's shoulder, and before she could see what was happening, she found herself on her own back in the dampness of the sewer floor. Anzo brought his left hand down towards her face.
She closed her eyes, but the blow didn't come. She peeked to find his lamb-sized mitt a few hairs away from her cheek.
“And as expected, I am the winner,” Anzo said.
He straightened up, removing his weight from Robin's shoulder. She slowly stood up as well, her eyes cast down into the murky water. “I should have known,” she said. “There's no way I could pass any test. Will you at least let me leave, or are you going to just beat me up and leave me for the rats?”
“What? You think you failed?” Anzo laughed, the sound booming through the cramped tunnels. Robin heard footsteps as Gwynt and Hudtan joined them under the grates. “That was one of the most amazing attempts at the Sewer Course I've seen since, well, since the last person to take it. But that was Hudtan. You did an amazing job! Consider yourself in!”
Robin blinked. “But the fight. I lost.”
“But you lost with style!”
“And the riddles, I only got one right!”
“One is better than none.”
“And I took almost a half an hour to get through the traps! And they almost killed me!”
Gwynt stepped in between them. “Whoa, whoa, killed you? Dear Robin, I designed the Test of Dexterity myself, and I can assure you, I would never kill anyone.” Robin glanced at the vials of poison hiding in his belt. “With weapons, I mean,” he added. “Blood is just too messy.”
“Then what was I dodging around the whole time?” Robin asked.
Gwynt walked the group around the corner, completing the loop that formed the Sewer Course. He pulled a lever and the dark hallway that Robin had started at lit up as wooden shades fell away from the grates above. What Robin had thought were swinging blades were blunt planks of wood and metal; the spears that shot out of the walls were wrapped in layers of soft fabric. She turned back to Gwynt.
“Then what were you worried about happening to me? The thing you said happened to Hudtan when she did it? I thought you were talking about a gruesome scar or something!”
“Oh, no, I believe I meant the same thing that happened to you. You ended up covered in sewage.”
Robin looked at her patchwork armor. It was now tinted a lovely shade of green.
“Let's get you back to the Plinth, and then we'll celebrate in the traditional Bedlam way!” Anzo bellowed. “With planning a heist!”
Hudtan sighed. “We've planned dozens of heists, Anzo, but we have yet to actually enact on those arrangements.”
“Not any longer! For with a fourth member means we are finally capable of pulling off the biggest caper any of us could dream of!”
Gwynt gasped. “You don't mean...”
“I do! Tomorrow night, we rob the orphanage!”