The young drow runs, as far and as fast as his feet can take him. Sandals were lost long ago, along with any logical recognition of where he is running. It doesn’t matter, a left turn or right, each one is taken without thought. The well worn cobblestones are violent on feet without protection. As the putrid muck of city life squishes between his toes, it stings the open scrapes that the uneven rocks have sundered. His heart thunders, drowned out only by his breath, heavy and hard with each footfall forward.
Other drow lift their attention his way, their thoughts on his flight. He can read wonder in their eyes, about a potential reward for his capture, for only one with something to lose would run as far and as fast as he runs. But none approach, more than likely out of fear that whatever is chasing the young man could destroy their lives as well. |
Vvrock’uvin’s uneven streets have been constructed over centuries. Difficult inclines and sudden potholes drain away Vonagh’s energy to where ascending even a mediocre hill is impossible. With burning lungs, he leans against a wall, oblivious to the looming buildings oppressing the narrow street. The depilated structures crowd and push for dominance, their stones layered atop darker stones each time the district had been rebuilt. It is sad and degenerate part of the City of Wicked Pleasure, far from the comforts he has earned.
The young artist has been through so much lately, the turmoil of his life displayed by the gauntness of his frame and the cold hue to his obsidian flesh. The pampered noble has been stripped away, leaving nothing behind but a starving waif lost in the darkness. His once cherished, now grimy red and green striped sweater hides narrow ribs and sharp bones covered only by a thin layer of tissue. It is his heart now, still pounding painfully hard with fresh heartbreak, that he clutches while its weight crushes him down to his knees.
Fingers fist into curls as he looses his composure; hysterical sobs wrack his little body. Hot tears stream down his face without end. He tries to contemplate where everything went so horribly wrong. Was it as the Matron had surmised, the moment he walked a line that was forbidden? Was this the fate of men of his kind to die of heartache and agony? The answers aren’t found in those horrible moments when despair triumphs, yanking him away from his love and his life, both of which reside in a city far different from this one.
When Vvrock’uvin’s street cleaners thunder down the block, people dart out of their path. All know that to get in caught is certain death. The glorious construction of stainless steel, whirling blades and churning gears is well cared for by some of the lowliest of creatures to hold a position in the city. The combination of mindless miscreant and deadly blender shreds a path through rock, refuse and vermin, all in a massive sweep of the city - every day, district by district. Four workers at the front of the team carry pick-shovels to throw objects into the whirling scoop that churns along behind them. Those unfortunate objects are instantly pulverized, remnants blasted out the back, where a team of large perciformes, sucking slugs, slurp up and digest the remains.
Churning this street at the peak of the incline, one of the workers heads out a bit farther from the group as the construct develops problems navigating between the closely grouped buildings. He stumbles upon a drow man tugging on a bit of red cloth. The drow, startled by the appearance of the leather clad worker, screams in sudden fright and darts away without his prize.
Curious, the worker approaches, his team calls from behind him to wait up. Lifting his grimy goggles off his eyes, he discovers a body against the wall. With its shirt nearly removed and narrow exposed stomach, the worker surmises that it has not been dead long. It was truly a treasure because it had not been picked clean yet. Perhaps, the worker reasons, there is gold in the pockets still. Kneeling while his team catches up, he pats down the pant pockets, just to notice the thin stomach suddenly flinch away. The worker launches to his feet, startled.
Without precedence, at that exact moment, the wrenching of gears and screaming of metal fills the air, followed abruptly by a slam and the whole cleaner jolts cold. The worker turns just in time to hear his foreman scream, “Hey! Why’d you stop?”
Banging quickly follows, more workers bolt from the riding module in the back. Dark dust billows out from underneath and foreman swears, “VITH!”
The goggle-less worker shouts back at his crew, “There is a live one here!”
The foreman shouts back, “Who cares? He’s in the street, throw him in.” And under his breath he says while approaching the now broken contraption, “If it ever moves again.”
Shrugging, for what was it up to a mindless miscreant to make decisions, he kneels and grabs the wrist of the apparently dead body that wasn’t. It is mercifully light, seeing as it is just bones and skin, and so the worker has no problem at all lifting it to his shoulders and carrying it to the front of currently frozen chopping construct.
Suddenly the entire structure shutters then cracks, thick sludge burbles out of the bottom, spraying the foreman and a handful of workers with its rancid filth.
The men that avoided the dousing all snicker, enjoying that the bastard that dishes out orders finally got something of what he deserved. The foreman bellows out at their jubilation, “Fine!! Fine, you worthless piles of shit. Get back to the yard. You’re done for the day. No pay!”
The cleaning gears are stuck in the passage for now, lizards will have to be used to haul it away. Several men retreat to guide the slugs to their pens, the rest just sulk disappointedly home. The man with the added weight on his back is never given the order to put it down, so he thoughtlessly carries him all the way to the work yard.
The excursion back is taken in heavy silence. The workers are not friends, they don’t have gossip to discuss, and most are furious that they will have wasted the day. Any other day, and this breakdown would have been an unfortunate circumstance, a nuisance to those that have to pick up the broken machine but nothing more. But today, an unexpected visitor is within the work yard. Warrior guards keep the curious loiterers organized, while a tall beautiful drow surveys that which is hers.
Ilraedra Vayas Torervstyl, The Mistress of the Lower City, Overseer of the Stomach and Bowels of Vvrock’uvin, holds herself with the pride of a Queen. Wearing only the finest red silk, she glides amongst the steam-blasting machines, the filth covered half-orcs, and the rows of polished steel. Her entourage consists of eight of her finest guards, and one scrawny man following a few steps behind transcribing notes upon a clay tablet.
The unfortunate miscreants stumble into this. At first, the foreman just stares at the impossible, but slowly he turns and whispers, “Get out..” to his men.
But it is too late, he has been spotted by the Belly’s Queen herself. “You there, I recognize you, you are foreman 423, of the northern passages. Shouldn’t you be out right now?” A cough from her bountiful chest follows, a dry cough crafted from a lifetime of breathing putrid air. While beautiful, time has started to show its toll on the woman, wrinkles crease her eyes and her long hair seems powdery dull.
The foreman blanches, dark black skin turns ashen as all blood drops to his feet. Hastily, he removes his goggles and spins back around. He falls to his knees, “Xas Mistress. We should.” He tries to come up with an excuse, but he just isn’t bright enough and foolishly decides that truth is his best path, “But our Sweeper broke down, Your Mightiness. Rest assured, my men are getting no pay today. Right now, I am wasting no time in getting a pack of lizards t’gether to retrieve it.”
No one dares move as she steps forward, “You abandoned your Sweeper in the streets of the northern passages?” The pitiful nod the man gives sparks her anger. “Fool! By now it has been picked apart, the metal and blades on that machine are priceless. There will be nothing left to haul back but scrap and bile!” The man lowers further, as if he could ooze himself into the cracks of the cobblestones to safety. With a wave to one of her guards, she voices his fate, “Throw him in the decomposing pits. He can be recycled, his body worth more than his mind.”
Guards seize upon him before he has a second to try to escape. His screams die slowly as he is dragged from the yard. Ilraedra turns to another guard, “See to the lizard team, something might remain. Take one of his men with you to find what you can. Kill anyone near the machine.” About to return to her survey, she notices the man with the burden cast over his shoulder. “You there. What is on your back?”
The man, who had thought nothing of the little bundle blinks to attention. His muscles bunch, ready to run, just the thought of the Belly’s Bitch speaking is enough to instill flight into any man. She captures him with her voice, “Stop!” And under her breath she mutters, “Disgusting, think he’d piss his pants.” She repeats her question.
Kneeling like the foreman before him, he lowers the slack body to the floor. “A mostly dead person. Was gonna to toss him in the Sweeper once it was running again.” He mutters into the stones.
Intrigued, though she shouldn’t be, she approaches, noting the thin frame and rumpled clothing. The sweater was curious, she doesn’t recall the last time she saw knitted wool like that, the temperatures in the Underdark rarely changed enough to warrant warmer clothing. Which meant this man had been on the surface.
“Pick him up, bring him.” She turns before the man has time to comply, but he eventually shoulders the dark body once more and heads off in a trot after the company of guards.
Ilraedra knew something was calling her to the yard, she knew something interesting was going to happen today, she just didn’t know what. At least now, she had a clue: a fascinating young man delivered onto her doorstep.
Vonagh is deposited, none to gracefully, onto an elaborate couch. The lush maroon fabric laced with silver thread is nicer than anything the worker has seen in his life. The miscreant’s grubby filth coated fingers run longingly over the rich fabric, his tongue darts out to moisten greed-dry lips. Ilreadra turns around and notes the man’s look of fascination upon her upholstery. With a disgusted grunt, she tosses a few silver coins at him. “There. Your reward. Now out.” The man bumbles his thanks while bowing each retreating step until he is out of the room.
Ilreadra doesn’t wait for him to exit before she barks an order to her scribe, “Check him out.”
The scribe stumbles over to Vonagh, touches his throat, “Still alive,” he snivels. Parting one eyelid he remarks, “golden eyes.” Jabbing his fingers into his mouth he then supplies, “good teeth.” Tugging off the sweater, he gives two more observations, “No house marks, and there is an armband on him.”
She finally approaches, at first her crimson eyes shift to the dirty sweater, but it had no more information so she turns her gaze down her long nose at his bare chest. “He belongs to no one then. Merchant?” The band on his arm hums with magic, she could feel it even from several feet away. “Don’t touch the band, we’ll have him remove it.” She wasn’t willing to lose her best scribe on something as foolish as a curse.
The scribe complies, nodding at her assumptions, “His skin is clean, nails and palms are rough like a worker, he is been well cared for but is obviously not eating well. Could be he has a parasite.”
Leaning forward, despite the warnings of a parasite, she trails her fingers through his curly hair, noting its softness. Clean, soft curls encircle a face that was not unpleasant. “No, he is not diseased, just lost. A rarity. I want him.” Straightening back up, she gives the order, “Mark him, he is ours now, if he survives.” Turning quickly, her long gown swishes and her heels click against the stone floor of her office as she strides away. The chamber was large, garishly opulent, overwhelmed with polished steel, crimson cloth and shimmering glass. Lavished with some of the finest artwork of Vvrock’uvin, the office of Mistress of the Lower City is more like a throne room. A massive glass and silver desk occupies the furthest wall, to this she approaches. Delicate fingers fall upon decanters filled with numerous potions, all of which she created. A bit of this, a bit of that, and the new boy will be her newest toy.
The scribe retrieves a brass cylinder about the size of an ale tankard, he works the dials which click and whirl into a design and number in reverse. “What shall he be marked as, Mistress?”
She pauses in her effort, her glossy crimson lips pull back into a syrupy smile. “Worker.”
Nodding, the scribe approaches the artist. Putting one end of the cylinder to the sleeper’s neck, the scribe triggers the button.
There is a state of mind in which one can exist that can be called nothing. This state is one without thought of where one has been or who one knows and it is without dreams of pink unicorns munching on fields of sweet puff moss. This place has no emotions on which to cling, it is a place the mind goes when it surrenders. When even absurd imagery reminds one of what life has lost. This nothing lacks everything, especially pain, pain just like the agony that lanced through Vonagh’s neck at this precise moment.
“AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!” The sound doesn’t even seem real, but it pierces through that nothing and pulls Vonagh into his body and into the room. His eyes barely have a second to open before a second jab, this one into his arm, has him screaming again, “AHHHHHH!!!” This cry is more of an exclamation of surprise. A woman hovers over him, holding a syringe to his forearm, and then plucks it away with a satisfied glint to her decrepit features.
“Now, you will return every day for another injection. Soon you will be one of the strongest in my care.”
She didn’t make the least bit of sense to Vonagh. Discovering his hands free, he lifts one to the throbbing pulse on his neck, the home of the first pain that pulled him from his self-imposed coma. He tries to reason through the where, what, when, who, and why of his current situation. Unfortunately, the why comes to him easily. The other answers, not so.
The lanky woman lifts her fingers to her spidery hair to tame a few flyaway strands while she returns to her desk. The syringe is placed upon the glass desk top with a satisfied clink. “You are now known as 4Red27. 4 means you belong to the North district, Red signifies you are a worker, and 27 is your designation.”
The freshly marked worker sits up and looks for a mirror in the room. It is then that the female notices his single red eye, “I thought you said his eyes were golden?” She storms back to the worker and snares the man’s chin with her spindly fingers and wrenches him in her direction. One eye is indeed golden, the other red as blood. “OH!” She says with wonder, “You are in two worlds. I knew you were precious. Tell me where you resign.”
Von has no idea what she means, so he informs her of what he does know, “This is a mistake, you should have not bothered. I’m cursed, I’ll bring only ruin to you.”
Her laughter is airy and rough, her chin inclines toward the circlet on the new worker‘s arm, “Is that what that is for?”
Vonagh would nod if her fingers weren’t still biting into his cheeks, “It protects the world from me.”
Releasing him finally, she muses, “We will see about that.”
Having no interest in anything but his own oblivion, Vonagh’s head drops down to the couch once more, “You can kill me and take it. I care not.”
Her eyes narrow at his bold shrewdness, “Keep it then. But your life is mine now. It will end when I am ready for it to end.” Cutting off his arm wouldn’t do her any good, and this young man presented a challenge. Something much more interesting than what she woke with, at least for today. “Scribe, take him to his chamber.”
The newly named 27 finds narrow hands hiked under his arm and he is forced up to his feet again, hauled out of the room of opulence and carried through the tunnels filled with the aroma of acid and sewage, steam and ice. The world of hissing, whirling activity would normally be found beautifully fascinating by the young man. Or at least terrifying, considering the words of the Belly’s Bitch. But not today. Not when he has lost everything.
27 is lead to a wall of oval openings, like a honeycomb of beds. Wide enough for only one man. The scribe points to one two rows up, one small opening with a tiny number above it. His new home. “The last 27 was not very well liked. Enjoy the name.”