This is the fourth excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites” which was begun on November 1st, 2020 for National Novel Writing Month and is intended to be the first volume of an as yet unnamed dark fantasy series set in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.
For anyone who has already read the previous excerpt she was in, the rogue witch Maera is still trying to catch the sorcerer known as the Puppeteer, who stole her magic dagger, when she runs into some officers of the City Watch who attempt to question her. She opts to turn and flee.
As crossbow bolts rained down upon the shingles, Maera scrambled up the sloped roof, vaulted over the ridge, and slid down the other side onto the lower flat roof of a neighbouring building she already knew was there. The City Watch knew this area well, but not as well as she. At street level, they’d have to hop a few fences to get to the narrow alley between the two buildings before they could even ascertain where she was headed next. One might’ve thought she was going to run in the same direction to get to the next roof, but not so. While she was momentarily unseen, she veered right, got to the eastern edge of the building, and lithely shimmied down a drainpipe she also knew was there—but not all the way to the bottom where another side alley connected to the one she could even now hear the Watch clambering into. Rather, halfway down she twisted her body a bit to the left in order to quickly and quietly slip feet first through a burnt-out open window so dark it was hard to see from the shadowed alley below.
This was one of her favourite escape routes. She was now on the second floor of an abandoned building that had been mostly gutted by fire, but there were still a few stout beams for her to lightly run across in order to get to the building’s western side, where a stairwell had been largely untouched by the blaze. It had been a while since she’d used this particular getaway but so far it was exactly as she remembered it, so she was reasonably certain the stairwell would still be intact.
In the meantime, the poorly paid officers of the City Watch, if they even figured out she’d somehow gotten inside the building without them seeing her, and then proceeded to discover her entrance, and then took it upon themselves to climb up the drainpipe or use a rope and grapple to get there and follow her, would have to negotiate these narrow beams and take a wild guess as to which ones could hold their weight. Indeed she thought perhaps not even the ones she relied upon now could do so, given that her current pursuers generally had heavier builds and much heavier armour, and certainly would only be able to hold them one at a time if at all, slowing their progress considerably. But that’s if they even chose to risk falling into the shadowed lower storey and injuring themselves or even possibly getting themselves killed depending on what sort of debris lay below. More often than not, she’d seen them give up pursuit in the face of simpler, far less dangerous obstacles, and could almost hear their thoughts as they did so: Ah, she ain’t worth the trouble.
As she got to the top of the stairwell, finding it far from empty but at least not full of foes, she didn’t hear any of the officers attempting her recent gymnastics, but loathe to waste any time just in case she hopped lightly over the sleeping vagrants who lay each upon his or her own step with one or two between them for courtesy’s sake, so swiftly and so quietly that they didn’t so much as stir in their slumber.
It was a switchback staircase, and the next flight down was void of sleepers due to the top half of it being covered with slimy green mould and the bottom half being completely underwater. The basement of the building was flooded long ago, and the stagnant water stank awfully, but she knew she wouldn’t need to wade through it. When she got halfway down the stairs she leapt forward into the darkness, reaching out and up with both hands toward where she recalled that a long thick pipe running along the ceiling horizontal to her was waiting, grabbed onto it, swung a bit back and then a bit forward, and reached out for the next pipe with one hand, grabbed that, and repeated the process.
Thus swinging from pipe to pipe hand over hand she crossed the room until she was back on the southern side of the building, where another burnt-out window waited. It was a small, high, rectangular basement window level with the ground outside, and she knew from experience that she could just barely squeeze through it. So now she swung toward it, grabbed the sill with one hand, let go of the pipe with the other, and was soon hanging from the window ledge with both hands. She slowly lifted herself up just enough to stick one arm all the way out the window, then used her elbow to lift herself more so she could stick the other one out. Then it was just a matter of wriggling and worming her way through the narrow aperture until she was crawling out of it into yet another narrow alley, but one closed off from any of the others and partially concealed by fallen debris from the fire that had gutted the building she’d just emerged from. In fact, she could probably get away with hiding here until the heat was off. But she decided she’d better not chance it, and so made her way stealthily and cautiously along the alley westward, since she knew that at the end of it there was a hidden entrance to yet another abandoned building she could sneak through in order to get to High Street.
Once she was through that, avoiding with expert stealth the shabbily dressed squatters who inhabited it, she found herself in another small alley, this one a cul-de-sac that smelled strongly of garbage, vomit, spilled ale, and stale piss. But there at the opposite end of it was, as far as Maera was concerned, the entrance to paradise: A tavern’s back door. It led out into this alley for the benefit of the sort of patrons who often needed an escape route. She knew this tavern well, as it was famed throughout the city. The Old Black Cat it was called, after the landlady’s beloved pet. Its back door was bolted from the inside, so she’d have to wait until someone opened it. Luckily she didn’t have to wait long. A drunken middle-aged man soon came stumbling out to take a piss. She slipped through the open door behind him unnoticed.
The tavern was busy tonight, as she’d figured it would be. That was a good thing, as it made it easier for her to slip through the raucous crowd almost completely unnoticed. It was also dimly lit, which she had expected as well, and a little smoky from the torches. All these things made it ideal for lying low for a bit, and there was also the added boon of being able to knock back a few drinks as she did so. She picked a dark corner at the end of the bar farthest from the entrance, and waited for the tapster to notice her.
As she did so she started working out a plan in her head. High Street was heavily patrolled, especially at night. Applebough would no doubt have its own safeguards as well, from high walls to literal guards, and probably a few traps as well. Over the course of her highly lucrative career as a professional cat burglar she’d been obliged to plunder such high security estates a couple of times in the past, but she’d done so with a team. This was not the sort of job one attempted solo, if one was smart, which she was. Contrary to what most people believed, even the most skilled and accomplished of thieves tended to avoid heavily guarded prizes, except in rare occasions when the value of the prize vastly outweighed the risk involved in obtaining it. But even then they rarely attempted a stunt like that on their own.
She sighed, even as she caught the tapster’s eye. There was nothing for it. If she wanted to corner this Puppeteer in his den she needed a team of specialists. This was a situation that called for a heist, and yet there was no known treasure to be gained, with which she might lure her accomplices in despite the obvious dangers. She needed something more specific than “chests of gold and gems and jewels,” though there likely would be that, and more. She could easily make something up, but she’d rather not. Underworld folks were, for the most part, not to be trifled with.
The tapster, an elderly fellow with a few wisps of white hair on his head and about as many teeth, shuffled over and asked her what he could get her. She ordered a dark, bitter stout they made on the premises, appropriately called Old Black Cat Ale.
As the old man tapped the keg behind the bar and handed her a tankard full of the nearly black yet beige-headed beverage, she ran through a mental list of possible partners in crime, ticking off each one she would try to enlist, based on availability, reliability, probable willingness to be recruited, and of course, expertise.
She’d only come up with three when she realised she wasn’t going to be able to think in this joint. In the middle of the room at a large round table sat a party of oddly dressed travellers who, while not overly loud, were saying outrageous things, and sometimes it was hard to understand everything they were saying due to the hostile crowd surrounding them drowning out their feeble voices, so she found herself straining to hear even though most of it sounded like doomsayer nonsense she ordinarily wouldn’t have paid any mind. So she left the way she came, slipping out the back door, taking her nearly full tankard with her but leaving more than enough coin on the bar to pay for the vessel as well as the fine brew it contained.
It was a nice night. She hadn’t really noticed before, because first she’d been chasing someone, and then she was being chased. But the waning gibbous moon had risen high in the blue-black winter sky, the bright little twinkling starlets that made up the moonfleet trailing prettily behind it, and of all the true stars arranged in their various constellations, only a smattering were obscured by what few clouds drifted across the heavens. And these were themselves beautiful, being of the puffy white cumulus variety, some of them great galleons to challenge the moon itself, others like smaller sailing ships such as fishing boats or sloops. The air was crisp and cold, and as a light breeze wafted into her face it smelled pure and clean, as if it were entirely capable of washing away the stench of the alleyway she stood in.
Speaking of which, she thought, as unpleasant as it may be, I think our next stop ought to be the Reek. It was in that foulest of neighbourhoods, after all, that she would be most likely to find anyone from her old gang.