Rish Vogel walked into the gong chamber, arched his back and grunted with satisfaction at the popping of his stiff vertebrae. After hunching over his desk all day, it felt divine to walk around and stretch. He carefully placed a worn leather scroll tube beside the garderobe bench and took from under his arm a fur pelt with a hole sliced from its center which he spread out over the wooden waste-chute seat. With a few yawns and some general old man grunts he eased gently onto the seat and sighed.
As nature took its course, Rish picked up the tube, pried off the cap and with slow patience and care pulled out a tightly wound scroll. He smoothed out the precious parchment in smooth, practiced strokes with a bony hand as dry and browned as the crinkled old paper. He squinted at the neat, precise writings upon the scroll, blinked his eyes rapidly a few times and pulled the paper up close to his thin nose. Whispered curses slipped between his tight lips as he looked up high on the wall opposite him at the stingy hole of a window. A dull haze of light was all that could get through the head-sized opening; nowhere near enough for a pair of aging eyes like Rish’s to see by.
He tried to read some again anyway. Duke Dargon had stirred up a whirlwind of activity ever since returning from fighting naval battles in the recent war. The Duke’s activity had blown like gale winds through Rish’s office. The Chroniclers’ scribes had been scribbling up documents and researching information at a pace even more feverish than before the war started. The duke’s latest request concerned some farming territories out east. He had wanted some historical references on land ownership, crop production and a slew of other facts and figures. Rish had spent the morning tearing through everything he had, but had trouble locating the land owners’ lineages; information that was important to the issue of land ownership. He had been fairly sure he had what he was looking for when the urge for “physical relief” hit him like a runaway apple cart. He knew he shouldn’t have had Salamagundi’s sunsweet stew earlier today, but it was the only thing his idiot of a new apprentice had brought him for the noon meal. As Rish sat painfully on the gong chamber bench, he thought of a few particularly long, boring scrolls that would need copying by the new boy this evening.
He finally gave up reading the parchment and set it down beside him in frustration. It took many slow, agonizing moments to do his business, but he finally finished and stood with a protesting pop from each knee. He quickly arranged his robes, gave his bald head an invigorating scratch, and snatched up the fur seat covering, eager to be on his way. But he then gasped in horror as his scroll, which had been sitting on the edge of the fur, was launched into the waste chute. With a speed spurred on by sudden fear, Rish lunged for it. His stiff fingers brushed the paper just as it floated out of reach, but failed to grasp hold.
The horror of this unthinkable event kept Rish rooted to the spot, arm outstretched, his mind as numb as his rear. He just stared into the chute. He put a shaking hand to his forehead, closed his eyes and willed himself to think. It was like trudging through a swampy mass of cluttered thoughts. What would Duke Dargon say if he was told this precious, important scroll was lost? Better not to think of such horrid thoughts just yet. Maybe the scroll could be recovered. How far down was it? What was down there? Where did the chute wind up?
After a few more moments of nervous contemplation, Rish decided the best course of action was to find the sewers. If he just kept in mind the layout of the Keep, he should be able to figure out where the chute would empty into the sewer. With any luck he would find the scroll there in a legible condition. Rish sighed uneasily as the sarcastic thought ran through his mind — “And when handwritten copying was no longer needed, I will become a master fisherman.” The chances of finding that scroll intact were slim, but slim was all he had.
Rish had an idea where the sewer entrance might be, but wasn’t exactly sure as he had never been to that section of the Keep. There was never any reason to go there before. He first tried to find a direct way from the gong chamber into the lower levels. However, there was no obvious straight route for the waste chute under the chamber. He completely lost track of where the chute was; it seemed to head off at strange angles that made no sense to him. He gave up on that search method and decided to head over to the kitchen area. It was on a lower level and Rish reasoned its waste chutes would be closer and head more directly into the sewers.
Cooks and servants were bustling madly about preparing the evening meal when Rish arrived. No one paid the old man any heed as he dodged through the commotion. He studied the waste chutes carefully and even stuck his head into one of the larger ones for clues as to where it headed. Long years of dealing with disasters helped keep him steady even though the beginnings of a headache pulsed in his forehead and a persistent gnawing in his stomach which had been eating at him for the past few years picked up a more intense burning than usual. He set aside his personal discomforts, though, and refused to acknowledge fear or despair. He focused his sharp mind on the task and plowed on.
In the back of the vast kitchen behind crates of vegetables he found a disused doorway, which he walked through to find a set of stairs leading down. Three rats scattered from underfoot while a fourth one just hunkered down against the wall on a step and looked up at Rish in defiance. Rish pointedly ignored the rodent and strode confidently down the steps until they ended at a perpendicular hall. Rish looked left and right and despite the lack of clues as to which way to go, he turned left only to be stopped by unwelcoming darkness. He retreated to the kitchen, grabbed a torch from its holder on the wall, and without a look around to see if anyone noticed headed back through the door.
With the torch thrust out determinedly before him, Rish pushed through the darkness until his light revealed another stairway. He stood for a few moments at the top of the stairs and peered down into the darkness. The blackness seemed to hang about him thickly, as if it resented his torch light. The clangs and shouts from the kitchen were gone, leaving absolutely nothing in their place. Rish shook his head and plunged an ear with his finger; the silence seemed unnatural to him and he felt his ears had maybe somehow failed him. He stood there for another moment, for the first time wavering in his resolve to reclaim his scroll. The torch shook a little and Rish’s eyes pierced the bony hand holding it as if it betrayed him by letting his inner nervousness show through. He relieved the guilty hand of duty with the other and clenched it tightly in punishment. He set his jaw in renewed resolve and stomped down the steps with determination, all the while inwardly cursing himself for fearing the dark silence.
The farther down he went, the muggier it got. The walls sweated a slime that kept Rish solidly in the center of the stairs. Repugnant smells wafted up causing Rish to gag. He had to stop a few times to clamp his teeth and fight back the nausea lurching up his throat. The stench was thicker and stronger than any he had previously experienced. Waste and rot were nothing new to Rish, but this was a mixture of all the vile smells he knew with a few unidentified ones thrown in. He had definitely found the sewers.
He reached a landing and paused yet again, but this time couldn’t fight back his natural reaction to the stinking cloud around him. His throat went numb and the vomit spilled out of him in a rush. He doubled over, nearly dropping his torch. Eventually his stomach emptied, but kept lurching in painful dry heaves. He could swear his stomach was going to climb out his mouth and run back up the stairs on its own.
He finally regained control of himself, shook his head to clear it, and with slow steps he turned around to go back up to clearer air. No scroll in Dargon was going to propel Rish any further down those steps.
Suddenly a voice rang out behind him, causing Rish to slip on the first step and stumble backward onto the landing. His hand brushed the slimy walls and he snatched it back in revulsion.
“Hold where you are, stranger! Your torch light gives you away. For what purpose do you tread through my land?” The voice was deep, loud and dramatic.
Rish eased around carefully; he was lightheaded from vomiting and unsure of his balance. He thrust the torch out before him unsteadily and peered into the darkness below. The stairs curved downward to the left and about ten steps down from the landing was a dark figure standing back against the inner wall.
Rish tried to clear his throat, and with a hoarse voice said, “Who’s there?”
“You are confronting none other than Knight Commander of the Underkeep Armies.” Then the dramatic tone dropped to a more normal voice. “Shut up! Get back! I’m in charge here,” he said in a frantic whisper. Rish could see the figure move as if shoving someone behind him.
Rish’s brow furrowed. “Underkeep Armies?” he whispered to himself.
The man turned back to Rish and resumed his formal tone. “Name yourself, intruder, so that I may determine friend or foe.”
Rish took a moment to answer. All he wanted to do now was get out of here. This strange “Knight Commander” piqued his curiosity, but the stench billowing through the stairway was threatening to make Rish retch again.
“I’m Lord Chronicler Rish Vogel,” he finally replied.
“What brings you into my domain, Sir Chronicler?”
“I’ve lost something of value. Now if you’ll excuse me, I –”
“Hold Sir Chronicler! It may be that I can be of assistance.” There was a short pause and the mysterious knight added, “My spies inform me there are evil things lurking about the keep. Accept my services and I shall be your protector on your quest.”
“I really should be on my –” Rish was overwhelmed by the stench once again and he bent over to dry heave some more.
Rish heard the knight move forward and a sudden unreasoning fear overtook him. He stumbled around and tried to make his way up the stairs backwards while still gagging. His breath came in gasps. A confusing array of bright colored cloth rushed at him and he thrust his torch out at it. His feet betrayed him, though, and he tripped, landing with a breath-stealing wallop on the stairs. The torch fell from his weak grasp and rolled down a few steps. An instant later the gaily clothed skeleton of a man thrust in close to Rish.
“Be still, Milord. You are ill.” The knight then beckoned behind him. “Come, Edgart. We have an sick man to care for.”
Rish gaped helplessly as the knight took hold of his robes and proceeded to drag him, backwards, down the steps into the horrific darkness. “No,” Rish breathed as the light from the dropped torch faded and disappeared around the curve of the staircase.
Rish deteriorated into a hyperventilating, groping, sobbing, blind man. His tailbone struck each step painfully as the knight dragged him by the collar down the seemingly endless stairs. He could hear the knight breathing heavily with the effort.
Finally, the steps ended and Rish was dragged across a smooth floor. He clawed at the floor in futile resistance, only to come up with fingernails full of slime, adding fuel to his hysteria as he tried desperately tried to flick it away. His head seemed swelled with the fierce pain of a headache. He kicked his legs fiercely but finally gave in.
A few moments later the knight let go, causing Rish to rap his head on the hard floor, sending a flurry of stars before his eyes. He felt hot and sticky, his stomach boiled like a cauldron, his throat burned and tears streamed from his eyes. The smell was horrible beyond anything he could have ever imagined. He just lay on the floor in misery, awaiting whatever his fate was to be. Any mene now he knew the strange knight was going to stab him, or beat him, or maybe even dump him in the sewer. His imagination soared through the multitude of gruesome deaths sure to come.
Suddenly, Rish realized he could see. It was faint at first, but a green glow softly illuminated the room and gradually intensified. He tilted his head to the side and saw his kidnapper rubbing some type of moss coating the walls. As he rubbed it, it started to radiate light.
He was in a small cave, apparently empty. His head hurt too much to look around. He could see the trail of ooze he had tracked in leading to a tall, narrow opening, beyond which was a terrifying darkness.
Rish watched the thin man work. He wore a tattered cape that dragged the floor as he scooted around. A hodgepodge of clothing hung from his skeletal frame in a multitude of colors muted by the green illumination of the room. Various bits of cloth, coins, and unidentifiable metals adorned his chest and softly clattered a disjointed tune as the man hopped hurriedly about. The outfit was like a child’s rendition of the regal uniforms worn by the knight commanders of Baranur.
The knight finished rubbing the last bit of moss within his reach and headed to a corner of the cave where Rish was surprised to see a flower bed of sorts flourished. The man yanked up a handful of pansy-like flowers and brought them over to Rish and thrust them in his face.
“Take these, sir scribe.”
Rish just raised an eyebrow and stared at the man with a mixture of disbelief and distrust.
The knight waved the flowers a little bit and a sweet aroma was released. “By holding them to your nose, the sickly smell of the beast will be warded off.”
Rish hesitantly took the bouquet, held it close to his nose and breathed deep, all the while keeping an eye on his kidnapper. The aroma was wonderful and Rish immediately felt a little better.
A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed.
“What?!” hollered the knight in a sudden rage. Rish jerked reflexively and winced in expectation of a blow. The knight instead whirled to confront someone Rish could not see. The knight cocked his head as if listening then replied, “I was getting to that you fool. Shut up and attend to your duties!”
Rish couldn’t figure out who the man could be talking to as he and the knight were the only ones in the cave.
“Pardon me for my squire’s intrusion, Sir Scribe. He means well but can be rather rude at times.” The knight then turned and wagged a finger at thin air while scolding, “A few pops with the flat of my blade ought to help him mind his manners, though.”
Rish quickly deduced that the man was strange in the head, as if his mother had not given him all his proper due at birth. He sat up and though his head felt unsteady, he thought about escape. The situation was hopeless, however, seeing as how the space beyond the cave opening was darker than a moonless night in a deep forest.
The knight turned back to Rish and smiled pleasantly. It came across as gruesome, though, in the weird green glow of the moss. “You mentioned losing something of value which caused you to venture into my domain. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Rish eyed the scarecrow of a man warily. He had yet to pass judgment as to whether or not the knight was dangerous. He ignored the knight’s question and asked one of his own. “Why did you bring me here?” he asked through the pansies.
“You were ill and weak, good Sir. I could not leave you in such a condition for the beast to find. Oh no, it was my duty to bring you to safety.”
“You know not of the beast?”
“I’m afraid not.”
The knight crouched down to be level with Rish. A serious expression hardened his thin face as he looked right in Rish’s eyes as he spoke. “A monster of evil lurks in this keep, Sir Scribe. I and my band of fighters have been battling the foul beast for years.” He gestured around the room as if a squad of troops were present. “It steals objects of importance from the unwary and it tries to clog the waste chutes in an effort to drive the residents here out of the keep. It’s a sly thing to be sure. I have fought it many times, but it always eludes the killing stroke in the end.”
Rish was now certain the man was completely insane. He felt a genuine fear the likes of which he had experienced only a handful of times before in his long, active life. He refused to let the emotion get the better of him, though. He focused on the sweet aroma of the flowers and the pulse of pain shooting back and forth between his tailbone and his forehead. “I will escape,” he ordered himself. His nimble mind settled on playing along with the mad knight as his only means of escape for now.
He took a deep breath through the flowers. “I think maybe the beast stole one of my scrolls. I could take –”
The knight leaped to his feet as if bit by a snake. “Did you see it?” he asked wide-eyed.
Rish was jolted by the knight’s sudden reaction. Despite his thudding heart, Rish replied calmly, “Not actually. I think –”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“No more than half a bell ago. Help me up and I’ll –”
“Sound the horns, Edgart! Men to arms! Men to arms! We’ll have the beast yet!” He danced about the cave like a marionette with tangled strings and a drunk puppeteer. He shoved at imaginary troops and yelled a quick succession of commands that echoed off the stone walls. In a blur of movement, the man dashed out of the cave. Rish could hear him still hollering commands and making enough noise to make Rish think an entire army was actually on the move.
A moment later the knight burst back into the cave brandishing two pikes and a mad leer. He thrust a pike at Rish, butt first. Rish had to duck to avoid getting knocked on the head with the pike held in the knight’s unsteady hand. “Take it and lead the way, Sir Scribe. A glorious battle is but a heartbeat away. Hurry so that the beast’s trail may still be fresh.”
Rish grabbed the weapon, not so much because he wanted it, but because it wobbled so much in the knight’s grip that Rish was going to end up getting whacked with it. Using the pike to pull himself up, he held the flowers firmly to his nose and went with the excited knight out of the cave.
Rish stumbled hesitantly through the darkness into what was apparently a vast cavern. He could hear the knight ranging farther ahead. His hands trembled and his knees shook. The loony knight was going to leave him alone in the total darkness. Water lapped at an unseen shore somewhere nearby, and an occasional splash echoed off distant walls. The knight’s belief in some horrible beast roaming the sewers sprang foremost in Rish’s mind.
“Hello?” he yelled nervously.
“Edgart, you idiot! You’re supposed to be watching the scribe,” said the knight from a distance. “Lord Chronicler, where are you?”
“Here,” answered Rish and an instant later the knight was by his side.
The knight took Rish by the arm and raced with him through the darkness. Rish rammed his toe into something hard and grimaced in pain.
“Step up, Sir Scribe. We have reached the stairs.”
They made their way up the steps and Rish could see a faint glow ahead. As they rounded a curve, he saw his torch still sputtering on a step. The knight paid it no heed, though, and continued impatiently up, dragging Rish along.
They finally topped the stairs in a familiar hallway. They continued onward and Rish eventually heard the sounds of salvation coming from the kitchen. In just a few moments he would be safe.
The knight stopped when they came to the steps leading up to the kitchen. He looked up and then peered straight into the gloom of the continuing hallway. “Where to now, Sir Scribe?” asked the knight.
Rish stalled for a moment. He was indecisive as the whether he should continue to play along now that he knew where he was. But how would he get rid of the knight? The crazed man was dancing from foot to foot causing his ‘medals’ to jingle and his face was set firmly like a man given a mission from some higher power. Rish figured the man was crazy and therefore unpredictable and even possibly dangerous.
The sooner Rish could get away from him, the better.
The knight tapped Rish lightly on the head with the business end of his rusty pike. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Rish took a deep shaky breath as if he was about to abandon ship and plunged into an attempt to rid himself of the lunatic knight.
“Now, I’m not so sure that some beast took my scroll, sir … um … sir …” Rish looked at the knight expectantly, waiting for him to fill in a name as yet unoffered.
The knight ignored the subtle probe and stuck his face up close to Rish’s, a mere finger’s width nose to nose. Rish flinched back, but the determined man went on with his up-close examination.
Without taking his eyes off the scribe he titled his head to the side and said to his invisible partner, “What do you think, Edgart? Pale face. Bloodshot eyes. Acting weird. Yes, I think so as well.” He nodded, stepped back and commanded, “Disrobe, Sir Scribe. I must examine your buttocks.”
Rish gasped. “I really don’t *think* so!”
“For your own well-being, I must do so. When in the gong chamber, did you engage in a bowel movement?”
“Ahh. An onset of deafness as well. This could be severe, Edgart. We may need to fetch a hot poker.”
“Did you experience a numbness of the buttocks when you stood up from your business, Sir Scribe?” the knight asked in a raised voice. “Because if you did, it could be a sign that the evil beast sneaked up and bit you on the rear, thus injecting a grossly debilitating poison that will race through your body causing –”
Rish threw his pike to the floor, thrust the bouquet of pansies at the knight, shaking it to punctuate his words. “You are insane!” Then at a loss for anything else to say, he buried his nose back into the flowers, turned on his heels, and stormed up the stairs.
“Give chase, Edgart! Do not let him get away! He needs our help!”
Rish looked over his shoulder to see the knight bearing down on him like a left over spirit from the Night of Souls. His eyes were wide and possessed. His arms were raised with ragged clothing billowing about and the pike swinging wildly. Rish broke into a wild dash to get to safety and hollered madly for help.
The knight was too quick for him, though. He tripped Rish with the pike and Rish plunged headlong to the steps, scattering pansies everywhere. Then the knight was on top of him, yanking his robes up. Rish let loose a long, high-pitched scream that even he didn’t know he was capable of.
The knight exposed Rish’s rear end and proceeded to poke and smack the cheeks with abandon. Rish was on his stomach with the knight astride his back. All the old scribe could do was kick and scream.
Then suddenly the knight jumped up. “He’s fine, Edgart. Smoothest buttocks I’ve ever seen, but he’s fine.” Then he whispered to his imaginary squire, “I think he’s just a little touched. Not quite armed for combat if you know what I mean.”
Just then three armed men stormed around a curve of the steps and came to a sudden stop before the prone, half-naked scribe. A few steps behind them came a tight-packed group of nervous servants and cooks curious to see what the commotion was all about.
One of the armed men eyed Rish suspiciously then turned to the knight and saluted. “Sir Knight, we heard a woman screaming. Is everything all right here?”
Rish gasped in humiliation. These fools thought his screams sounded like a woman’s *and* they were saluting the lunatic. “Has this knight somehow infected my spirit?” thought Rish. “Am I seeing the knight’s phantom army now?”
“No, no. Everything is fine, good sergeant. The Lord Chronicler had sighted the beast and was leading me to it. It seems, however, that the scribe is not feeling well.”
The armed men, cooks, servants and a concerned, almost sane-looking knight looked down at the old scribe shaking uncontrollably on the floor.
“Maybe you should adjust your robes,” offered someone to Rish in hushed tones.
Rish summoned all his will power to control his shaking and slowly made his way to his feet, adjusting his robes as he stood. He glared at the onlookers and saw that the armed men were in fact real castle guards and not the knight’s apparitions. Rish could feel his own face radiating an angry red.
“This, this … man … is … is … insane. He *attacked* me! He … he …”
“Maybe you should just tell me where you sighted the beast and then get some rest, Sir Scribe. Obviously this adventure is a bit too much for you,” said the knight.
A guard looked at Rish meaningfully and said, “Yes. Just tell the knight where the beast was and I’ll see you to your quarters.”
Rish couldn’t believe his ears. Was he the only sane one here? He stared uncomprehendingly at the guard and managed to stutter, “But … but …”
The crowd of onlookers whispered among themselves as if conferring about what judgment to pass upon him. The knight cleared his throat and raised a thin eyebrow impatiently.
“The north tower,” Rish finally said and buried his face in his hands.
“Edgart, inform the troops. There is no time to lose.”
Rish looked up and saw that the guards didn’t seem to find it strange that Edgart did not exist.
The knight shook each guard’s hand. “Wish me luck. A great battle awaits.”
“Good luck, brave knight,” one said.
The knight then solemnly bowed to Rish and ran up the steps parting the crowd like wheat. “Why aren’t you gone yet, Edgart? I told you to deploy the troops. You fool! We can’t let the beast get away.” His scoldings were soon lost in the distance.
A guard stepped towards Rish and eyed the stained, stinking old man. Rish jerked back and eyed the guard distrustfully.
“Relax, Milord Vogel. The gong farmer is harmless. You have to play along to get him on with his business.”
“Yea. He’s the guy who clears out all the clogs in the waste chutes.”
“Ol’s Balls, I’d hate to have his job,” said another guard. “He actually has to slide down the chutes to clean ‘em out.”
“But the man is clearly insane,” Rish protested.
The sergeant nodded. “I think you would be insane too if you were the gong farmer.”
Rish nodded weakly and allowed the guards to lead him slowly upwards in the same direction as the knight. The kitchen workers closed in behind them. Rish could hear their mutterings and could only imagine the stories that would be spread throughout the keep in just a few bell’s time. The parade made it to the kitchen where the cooks finally took charge of the servants and got back to business. With weary steps Rish wandered silently back to his room with the guards behind him. He opened the door, waved off his escort and entered. Once safely inside he collapsed almost immediately and passed out.
Rish dreamed of a huge, worm-like beast with impossibly long fangs chasing him through dark, slimy caves. He heard a pounding that at first he mistook for the worm slamming against the walls. As his dream started breaking up, though, he realized he was sprawled out on the cold stone floor of his room and the pounding was coming from his door.
He sat up and immediately regretted the sudden move. Every joint, muscle and bone sang out in protest from being dragged and abused the night before. He grunted and staggered miserably to his feet. A horrible cloud of stench accosted him from his own clothes and Rish had to clamp his hands over his mouth to keep himself under control. The steady knock became more intense. With slow, shuffling steps, Rish made his way to the door and pulled it open.
Standing in the hall was the gong farmer. He was drenched. A thick liquid dripped off his clothes and creating miniature cesspools about his feet. He held his pike firmly and proudly at his side and thrust out something with his other hand.
Rish staggered back, covered his nose and rapidly blinked his eyes. Before him was the human version of the beast-worm from his just-interrupted nightmare. He grabbed the door for support and moaned.
“I am proud to present you this scroll, which I assume is the item the beast stole from you.” The knight’s face beamed with pleasure.
Rish looked down at the man’s extended hand and saw there a sodden, mutilated mass of parchment. The dripping wad could very well be his scroll, but there was no way of telling. He hesitantly took it and smiled weakly. Rish’s entire purpose right now was to be rid of this madman. He took a step back and slowly began to close the door.
“The beast left it behind in one of the chutes as I gave chase. Edgart here had the presence of mind to grab it for you while on the run.” The knight elbowed the air next to him.
Rish absently nodded a weak thanks to the empty air while still inching the door closed.
“I’m now off, Sir Scribe. The beast has yet again eluded my final killing blow. It still stalks the keep and I must find it. Be more careful when in the gong chamber next time. Examine the seat before sitting.” And with that warning hanging in the air, he turned and squished down the hall. “That was a fine battle, Edgart, wasn’t it? Did you hear it roar in pain that time I thrust from above and …” The knight turned a corner and was gone.
Rish shakily latched the door and leaned against it while gingerly holding the slime-coated parchment. He looked disdainfully down at the ruined parchment and let it drop to the floor with a plop. He thought he certainly would be careful the next time he visited the gong chamber — whether for fear of the beast or the lunatic knight crawling through the sewers.
He felt his bladder was full, but decided to hold it … for now.