Truce

by i Bethron


February 26, CR 708

After a while of searching in the darkness, the wolf noticed an orange light in the distance, coming from past the end of the tunnel. Reaching the corner, it saw that the light illuminated a large square antechamber, most of which was a collecting pool for the waste that flowed from the way the wolf had come. The room was large enough to act as an overflow buffer, capable of holding the excess water from storms and the spring runoff. Refuse came into the room from several large pipelines at water level and many smaller ones lining the walls above the side ledge, then drained through a hole in the middle of the room. The light itself came from a torch in the far corner of the room which highlighted the many pillars holding up the ceiling and the platform above the muck spanning the middle of the room.

The torch was placed in a wall sconce above a pile of ragged blankets that were arranged in such a way that vaguely suggested the shape of a sleeping body somewhere among them. The wolf couldn’t distinguish the possible smell of this person from this distance over the ever present miasma, so it walked across the platform to the other side and continued on the ledge into one of the other large tunnels. The wolf was gratefully surprised that this sewer had such a walkway at all, as not every sewer system that had been constructed had been well maintained.

In the days of old, when the elves had constructed their great cities that married stone and wood, they had included a sewer system in every one to keep the great edifices unmarred by the natural waste. Then the elves left after the Dragon War, and the humans let their great constructions fall and decay. The wolf remembered the days when the Suielman Empire attempted to repair the sewers, operating under the superstition that concentrating all the filth and disease into one place would placate Tallakath, or weaken him, or create an altar of sorts to him, but nobody cared what it did as long as his attention wasn’t on them. In the centuries after their fall, however, the various city leaders started taking the sewers for granted, and didn’t think about maintaining them as long as they kept the city’s waste off the streets. As a consequence, most sewers these days were falling apart, leaking into the groundwater, getting blocked by cave-ins or the waste they were supposed to ferry away, and generally being more of a hindrance than a help.

The wolf was thankful that this sewer was not even close to approaching that level of degradation. It could faintly smell new mortar over the odor of the toxic river, used to repair cracks in the walls, and a steady flow of water kept the offal from stagnating. It could even feel sconces on the walls for when the sewer rats brought down torches to light their work, but none of them held anything at the moment. Though there was no more light, the wolf navigated by following the channel wall.

Walking through the tunnels, the wolf kept searching for one of the secret rooms that infested sewers, especially old sewers like this one. Any other environment would have made finding the door nigh impossible, but the air in the sewer was special. Normally, sewer air sat stagnant, weighed down by the warm rot away from vents to the outside. However, in order for a door to a secret room to open, it could not be completely flush with the wall, leaving a miniscule space. The air would flow through this space, disturbing the miasma and giving a signal to those sensitive to it.

The wolf crept down the walkway, nose to the wall, searching for the telltale sign. If it had had enough light, it would have searched for signs of scraping on the floor, but the sewers were not even lit by any of the various strains of glowing fungus. It might have even been able to find a room from memory, but the sewers changed too much too frequently, and the old rooms might have been sealed up and new rooms hewn out of the walls. Still, it soldiered on through the maze, scanning the joint between floor and wall for signs of a hidden, safe room.

Eventually, its search paid off. A thin haze of burnt beeswax with a slight tinge of blood hung around a small section of the hallway. The scent was quite subtle amongst the malaise of the sewer, but after a quick stop and reversal of pace, it could tell that the air was slowly spreading from a hairline-thin crack along the wall joint. This door was especially well made, only sitting the barest minimum distance off the ground to allow it to move. Of course, now that the wolf had found the door, it had to open it.

Any of the stones on the door might have been the trigger, so the wolf simply reared up and planted its forepaws on the wall. They were big enough to cover the width of the doorway when placed side-by-side. It ran its claws down the wall, pressing on each stone, making a bit of noise as its claws faintly scratched the surface. In the middle of the wall, one of the stones pressed in until it made a small click as the latch released its weight, pulling the door open.

The wolf’s first view of the room was spoiled by a flare of light that ruined its vision. After the pitch dark of the tunnels, even the small flame burning on a cloth on a nightstand took several long moments to resolve in its vision. Even so, it still scanned the room with its other senses. It could hear nothing but the small crackle of the flame and the flow of the water behind it, but the room smelled of several different creatures.

A bit of blood that belonged to something smelling like a mixture of fruit bat and human had been soaked into that cloth before it started on fire. House cat pervaded the lower air level, along with a faint trace of mustelid. Perhaps either a ferret or mink, but too indistinct to be sure. The most recent odor was a human female of indeterminate middle-age, and it faintly tickled the wolf’s memory. That scent was more concentrated than should be possible, as if instead of entering the room and diffusing her essence through the air currents, this woman had simply sprung into existence in the middle of the closed room and walked into a corner. Its vision clearing, the wolf turned to look at that corner – and froze.

Memories rushed through its mind: polished steel armor with swords, an overconfident smile, betrayal, secluded forest, suspicious leave of absence, a ruined breastplate and purple silk tunic, betrayal, the rising new moon, past victory, brilliant yellow hiding cold slate, and a betrayal, all revolving around the small, knowing smile centered on the face that now crouched in the corner.

The woman whose face had borne that smile was pale, but not unattractively so. Her voice, even spoken in anger and frustration as it now was, remained a smooth and rich alto with an edge of authority behind it. Long locks of raven-colored hair, instead of flowing to her shoulders and accentuating her chest, framed her face before sweeping into a braid that trailed down her back. She had traded expensive court attire for fine mottled black leather, tailored specifically for her body so as to protect but not impede movement. Her hand, and the small crossbow held within it, was what finally concerned the wolf.

It dodged sideways as she fired, immediately charging to prevent her escape and running straight into a chair that she swung wildly at its head. As she dove under a desk for a hidden tunnel, the wolf smashed the desk aside to slam its paw on her boot. When she didn’t try to wriggle out of it, the wolf pulled, trying to drag her out to rip her in half with its jaws. She stopped moving before she could completely emerge, most likely clutching a support beam, when the wolf drew back its paw with a yelp. A taloned foot drew back into the tunnel after raking the wolf’s paw, and it shoved its head into the tunnel to snatch at the retreating shapeshifter. She brought her crossbow back up, though, and the wolf quickly pulled back before it lost an eye.

The wolf expected her to close both the passageway and the door from inside the tunnel, sealing it in the room. Thus, after several tense seconds of waiting, it was not surprised when a bolt raced from the tunnel to smack into a loose stone by the side of the door. It was surprised, however, by the rapidity with which the door moved when released, and before the wolf had the time to try to prop the door open, it had ground closed. Then it heard the nock of another bolt in her crossbow, and dodged back out of the view of the tunnel.

This next bolt mocked his efforts to hide as it sprang out of the tunnel with the loud buzzing of a hornet. Upon hitting the far side of the room, it bounced off the wall without losing any speed, smacking off the cockeyed desk and pinging off the wall behind the wolf before finally lodging itself painfully in the wolf’s rear end. Out of surprise, it yelped, but it still didn’t miss the sound of another bolt being nocked. Her confident voice carried from the tunnel, saying “I have plenty more just like that one, Saelor.” The wolf growled low as she used the name that it had first met her with, suppressing another flood of memories to hear her next words. “Now shut up and listen or I'll fill you so full of them you'll think you'd been born a pincushion.” She took a deep breath, then continued, “I’ll make you a deal…”

Some time later, the wolf slowly paced around the small room, taking in its surroundings. The room was very sparsely furnished, in keeping with its previous occupant. The desk was sturdy, if a bit scuffed from being thrown aside. A small mirror lay broken amidst the pieces of chair on the floor, having been thrown from the desk in the fight. A wooden chest stood on the floor off to one side, smelling like it contained salted meat, dried fruit, and hardtack. Satisfied, the wolf walked back to the desk, lifted its leg, and marked the piece of furniture, just to spite her. The spite would have been received much better if the desk had been crafted to her usual level of opulence, but all the furniture in the room was surprisingly simple. Wondering what dire straits could make her give up her expensive tastes, the wolf then padded back to the middle of the room, lay down, and prepared itself for the six-day wait.

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"Truce", copyright i Bethron