In darkness, he waited.
He? Words lost both use and meaning after so many ages of man. Time meant nothing. Existence meant nothing. What there was, what he could count, was being¸ thought, and darkness. Everywhere, darkness.
Still, the word he was as good a word as any to refer to himself. For millennia he had explored this dark labyrinth with the tentacles of his mind, felt his way around every inch, every speck of these impenetrable walls. To no avail. It was sealed, impenetrable.
Sometimes he fell to wondering what the world was like now, outside. How man lived. If there was still a world, or man, at all. Perhaps there was only a void, and himself drifting around in the empty blackness within his prison, trapped for eternity.
He wondered. And he waited. Waited for the end… or perhaps, a new beginning?
In darkness, he waited.
Garathok hurried along the footway, head down, trying to blend into the night. He had always avoided this part of Vishadesh, the Winehouse Quarter as the locals called it. Those same locals – dirty, repugnant creatures that they were – would gut you in a blink for any manush jangling in your pockets. The stout, short-legged visha was eager to get business done and be gone.
He felt eyes on him. Sizing him up.
I should not have come here alone. Curse you Mantok!
And the smell – Muutha, the smell. Equal parts shit and piss, with a couple of barrels of wine and a rotting corpse thrown in for good measure.
He saw the sign, finally – Traveller’s Rest, it was called, rather optimistically. A brute stood guard at the door. Anxious to get off the street, Garathok approached the door, flashed a quick smile and made to enter.
A thick arm was thrust in front of him, barring his way.
“Nope,” the brute grunted, shaking his head.
“You won’t get past him,” chirped a small voice. The speaker was a rakish-looking boy, leaning against a nearby wall.
Garathok shook his head in disbelief. These people, these commoners. “The man I search for goes by the name Kartakos.,” he said wearily, rubbing his eyebrows, eyes closed. “Mantok Assei,” he pronounced slowly, deliberately, “sent me on this errand. You may have heard that name?”
“All right, all right,” the boy said, straightening up a bit, tapping the doorman on the arm. Muttered something in Tilan. The doorman backed off, clearning the way.
Smiling, Garathok moved cautiously inside the door and began descending the stair. The visha squeezed past various motley characters, some exchanging money or things unseen, a whore or two plying her trade. A roar erupted suddenly from below, the sound of a mob reacting as one. He took a stopped for a moment and collected himself. There was a crowd at the bottom of this stair. Another loud cheer erupted.
At the foot of the stair was a large room, cavernous, thick with bodies and dimly lit. The visha struggled to squeeze through the drunken throng. Smells of smoke, liquor, and all sorts of body odors made the air unbreathable. The mob jostled with each other, joked, fought and bargained, a sea of transactions.
Gradually he neared the centre and glimpsed a raised platform through the crowd. Two warriors paced, skin shining with sweat and blood. A weed of a man, wearing a ridiculous pointed blue hat, like that of a pantomime wizard, spread his arms, palms down, and addressed the crowd in a hollow rasp of a voice.
“My good brothers, I present to you, tonight’s champions of the Pit!” A roar erupted from the crowd. The hunchback called for silence once more. Garathok pushed his way toward the stage, craning his neck to see the action.
“Trained in the mountain highlands of Ravata, the Brothers of Ai-desh!” Another roar, slightly less enthusiastic. Northerners. Garathok squinted up at the two fighters who were being wiped down by a couple of dirty assistants. Maybe Kartakos is one of them, he thought. Thinking was hard in here, though; the heat was unbearable, the air thick and rancid.
The hunchback motioned for silence once more. “Now, friends, I am afraid that our next fighter has changed his mind about entering the Pit tonight. He has decided he cannot face either one of these brothers. What do you think of that, good people?” He put his hand to his ear, the better to hear the shouts of “Coward!” and, “Gutless wretch!” that swelled up from the insatiable mob. He paused for effect, took a breath, then yelled, “He will fight both of them!” The crowd roared its bloodthirsty approval.
The hunchback waited for the crowd to settle before going on. “This man is the most vicious fighter ever to enter the Pit,” he enthused, turning to face the opposite wall. “A disgraced warrior of Khatradesh, he once captained the roving parties that patrolled the islands, raping and burning and putting all to the sword, and finally dismissed from his company, and the Khatra-mangal, for unspeakable acts. Where is he? Come forth, Kartakos!”
Garathok could not see a thing. Hutha.
A sweaty drunk shouted into his ear, “Isn’t this amazing, brother? Have you ever seen such a show?” Garathok grimaced, giving the man a curt nod.
“Care to make a bet?” the drunk slurred, waving a handful of tickets in his face.
The master of ceremonies was looking this way and that, growing more anxious as the hubbub grew. “He is an exemplary warrior with no equal…. I… We can’t seem to find him!”
“Disgraceful!” came the yell.
“Come on, Gajka! Give us a show!”
Suddenly Garathok felt something sharp pressing into his back. A hoarse command whispered in his ear.
A hand squeezed Garathok’s shoulder, steering him towards a dark exit at the side of the room.
They were halfway down the side passage before his abductor relaxed his grip, then an iron forearm was at his chest, slamming him back into the wall. The blade moved to his throat. It was too dark to see in the narrow passage. His captor was hooded, shrouded in blackness.
“Why are you here, visha? Why do you seek me?”
Garathok swallowed, trying to not to show his fear. “We want to employ you, ulkhatra,” he said, voice breaking. “We… we have a job for you.”
“Job? Doing what?”
“We know you were… are a great khatra. You would make a journey. A long journey, but the salary will be… plentiful.” Plentiful? “Generous.”
Garathok held his breath. There was no answer. He continued. “And you wouldn’t have to do this anymore,” he waved a hand back towards the crowd. “You would have more manush than you can dream of. Gold.”
The hooded warrior was silent, but sweat and heat emanated from him, through his robe, and he breathed heavily, like one possessed. The blade pressed in, just short of biting into Garathok’s soft, moist neck.
He has fought already tonight, his blood is up… Raksha, please… don‘t let me die.
“Why don’t I just cut your throat and take your gold?”
Garathok looked up, and glimpsed the face within for the first time. It was noble face, but disturbed, haunted, the mouth a tight line. “You could take my gold,” the visha said, struggling to keep his voice even. The blade bit in a touch more, it seemed. “But it would be but a pittance compared to what awaits, should you come under our employ. It’s up to you. But… I wouldn’t wait too long.” The knife again, pressing. “My Assei is not accustomed to waiting.” These last words took all his meagre courage to say, but he could not show weakness. Not now. He represented the Guild.
The ulkhatra was silent, considering. “Hmm. Your Assei.” The knife relaxed a little, the word forcing him to consider something new, it seemed.
Muscle can be bought.
“Because of your reputation. You’re… well known…” Please let this be over.
Suddenly it was. The knife was gone from his throat. He looked and saw the ulkhatra’s back, moving away into the blackness of the corridor.
“I will find you soon,” he uttered as he disappeared from sight.
“Wait, ulkhatra… I-”
Garathok coughed, then reached up to massage his throat, breathing heavily.
The visha turned, looking back into the room he had just come from. Time to leave, he said suddenly to himself. Already he was thinking of home, a little glass of wine, a book and bed. Then he remembered.
The Assei had wanted him to report back as soon as he had contacted Kartakos, for better or worse. Garathok sighed bitterly. The portly little visha pushed his way back into the throng, grimacing at the smell of sweat, alcohol, bodies.
“We found him, brothers and sisters, we found him!” the hunchback yelled. Garathok turned in surprise, but could see nothing as a huge roar went up.
Muutha. Fighting his way back to where he was before, near the ring, would be near impossible now – the crowd was crushingly close, raucous and impatient for blood. And Garathok wanted out of there. A slap came from behind him as he shouldered his way to the door, followed by a roar of approval, then another slap, and finally a sickening thud, collision of body with body. He couldn’t see. He didn’t want to see.
Through the seething mass he spied a familiar face; the boy from the front entrance watched him from a little raised stool at the back of the room, smiling.
Little wretch. It was you who gave me up.
It all made sense now – he had been out of his depth the second he stepped through the door. He thought of going over there to thrash the little imp, but he was out of breath already. Garathok pushed his way up the stairs, back past the loiterers and whores, and out onto the street. The Quarter teemed with people now; customers of the Gods of flesh, fortune, forgetfulness. Desperate to leave, the visha flagged down the first scrappy little street carriage to pass.
As he climbed in he flashed his Guild Amulet once more, and croaked, “Port,” to the driver. The little carriage rattled off, and Garathok slumped back into the padded seat, mopping his brow and thanking Muutha that he still had all his parts intact.
A welcome silence had descended over the Port District. This was his side of town, and it was good to be home in these dark, deserted streets. How could he have let himself be ambushed like that? Really, it had been foolish to go to the Quarter on his own. Mantok should have sent an escort with him. But that was his lot it seemed.
Get Garathok to do it. All the dirty work. No harm, Mantok no doubt had a nice fat pouch of gold manush to reward for his troubles. You could say many things about the man, but he always rewarded those who did his handiwork. His pockets were deep, and money was as nothing to the Assei it seemed.
Garathok leant forward to the little window, which was open to the driver‘s seat.
“To the end of this street, and turn left.”
“No trouble, sir.”
The carriage rounded the corner into Wharf Street. It had been a long night. Time to report to the Guild, and then home for a well-earned rest. Maybe a goblet or two to wind down.
“Turn right here.”
“No trouble, sir,” the old crone repeated.
The carriage turned down the side of a building, a warehouse.
“As you please, sir.”
From his pouch Garathok took two gold manush. He paused a moment, dropped one back in, then pushed the rickety door open and stepped into the alleyway. Garathok tapped the driver on his shoulder and held out his hand. The driver received the coin with head bowed. When he saw the coin, his eyes widened. “Gold,” he whispered to himself. “Thank you, good brother, Muutha bless you!”
“For your troubles.”
“Thank you, you are too, too kind sir!”
Garathok nodded curtly. “All right, all right. Take your cart out the end of this alley, circle back round to Wharf Street. There’s another one of those for you if you wait to take me home.”
“Certainly, sir. Nothing better to do,” he laughed, surprised at his own good fortune. “Muutha bless you.”
Garathok waited until the cart had rattled off before he knocked on the door. A long pause, and then one more. It creaked open. No trouble gaining entry here. This was home. Well, a second home anyway.
“Thankyou, Tuchak,” he said as he walked inside. Garathok paced as quickly as his little joints would allow, past stacked rolls of fabric, to a door at the far end of the warehouse. He opened it and entered the book-keeping room, immediately catching Reechak’s familiar whine coming from the room at the far end.
“… in place as we speak, if he is following the schedule we have laid out, Assei. The deed will be done within the week, I have no doubt.”
“And if something should hinder him? If he should be caught?”
Garathok entered the back room, where Mantok, Ajjak, and Reetchak were sitting at a table, along with a young man and another visha taking notes into a ledger. The last two he did not recognize. There were always new faces around these days. Mantok nodded at his confidante. The Assei’s content, olive-skinned face sat at the head of the table, swarthy complexion offset by a crop of unkempt black hair. He was draped in a plush ochre robe.
“If that should happen, then there are others who can accomplish the task, Assei,” Reechak continued. “You know me, never one to put all my parches on one horse.”
“What of our mines, Ajjak?” Mantok asked. “How goes Barbos?”
“Barbos goes as it always has, Assei. Steady revenue.”
Ajjak grimaced. “One has shown a drop in revenue.”
“Dukapal,” Ajjak answered reluctantly.
Ajjak returned a blank stare for a second, then made a face. “Perhaps we cannot rely on these mines to return manush to us forever. Perhaps the mountains have yielded all their wealth to us?”
“Nonsense,” Mantok waved the notion away. Ajjak didn’t seem too put out. “We must investigate this. Choose someone to travel to the mine to act as overseer. Give him whatever he needs. I want accounts made, in a ledger. I want him to assess the situation from top to bottom, and if we cannot extract money from it, then we will simply close it down, and find another hole. There are enough holes in this realm that I can make money from, why should I waste my manush on a stope? We cannot afford a drop in revenue right now. All our assets must be returning. And the tyrant Manu will not stop exacting his levies, you can be certain of that.”
Ajjak made another face, shaking his head as he motioned to the visha at the end of the table taking notes.
“What about Tomek, Assei?” Reetchak put asked “He’s very good with ledgers, good numbers man.”
“He is, isn’t he? Yes, I will talk to him.” Mantok nodded silently, considering, tapping his fingers together. Then his eyes shifted to Garathok, still standing near the door. Mantok sat back, assessing the little visha.
“So, my friend. Were you successful?”
Garathok took a couple of steps into the room, but did not sit down. “Yes, Assei,” he answered. “I found the ulkhatra.
“He will work for us, I am sure of it.” Stretching the truth, possibly. He had to show something, though.
“What assurance do you have?”
Garathok took a moment to answer. “His word.”
“The word of an ulkhatra is meaningless, Garathok.” Mantok shook his head, and for a moment, Garathok thought he was lost. Then he reminded himself, this was Mantok’s way.
“You should have known that,” Mantok continued. “He is disgraced, faithless, loyal to no-one. Did you offer him gold?”
“I did, Assei. It did not seem to sway him at all…” Garathok chose his words carefully. “He is a brute, Assei, a killer. I don’t think he can be bought. But I piqued him, I am sure of it.”
A new voice spoke from the doorway behind Garathok, making him jump.
“Piqued, you say.”
No one had seen or heard the ulkhatra. Garathok felt his face turn red, a flush of embarassment and relief, not pleasant. In the light, the warrior’s features were more visible; a chiselled face which had been broken more than once, shoulder-length dark hair, and the build of a man who had done nothing with his life but fight.
Mantok laughed, clapping softly. “Aha! Oh, well done, Garathok. This is our man, doubtless. Doubtless.”