Chapter 6: The Dragon’s Lair

Mainland, Central Newhaven

The hazard that would soon become the insane escapade of robbing Khathmir’s most prominent man began long before

Davek even set foot on royal grounds.

Two nights after Davek Averneus’ triumphant return from his hunt for Parvus Diam’s treasured ship, the master thief found himself wondering (not for the first time) if he would come out of this game alive, and relished the quiver which ran down his spine. It should be a crime that he found the notion of skirting death and stealing from the realm’s Supreme Overlord so irresistible.

The ominous, high wall circling the entire parameter of Newhaven’s Imperial Quarters seemed impregnable even from his perch atop a cliff nearly a mile away. Fulkarin’s Shield, the proud citizens called it – a wall of smooth, black stones perched on the side of a cliff high above the quaint, painted houses that dotted the valley below. The last warmongering idiot who tried to lay siege on the Shield quickly discovered the unpleasant side of watching his entire army burn and drop like dead moths hundreds of feet to the ground. This sparked a whole new breed of bigheaded, smug guardsmen, who proclaimed the Shield impenetrable to all manner of scum and brigands.

All, except ambitious little thieves like Davek, who did not understand the concept of staying out of places he was not welcomed to enter. He drew his lips back as the anticipation for the perils that come with his trade teased his thoughts with a hundred possible life-threatening scenarios.

“Have you ever seen anything so tempting?” he asked the woman standing next to him. “They might as well place a huge sign that says try and rob me, right at the entrance.”

Seated on a moss-ridden boulder that faced the moonlit vista below, Vanora looked away from her spyglass and scowled at him. Her mood had not improved since their long, arduous climb from the river to the aqueduct’s topmost waystation, where the first of five of the city’s water reservoirs stood, untouched for the past century.

“What entrance? The place is practically devoid of doors!” She folded her spyglass shut with a snap, her mood as dark as her coated, chameleon-skin tunic and pants while they blended to the color of the shadowed stones behind her.

“And to answer your question, yes, it is tempting. Perhaps the last tempting view I’ll ever live to witness.”

He surveyed the landscape beneath, noted the systematic movements of men on horseback. The glint of moonlight on polished steel and their bright yellow badges suggested they were the Supreme Overlord’s Justice. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them spread out across the neat rows of pillared houses and paved, marbled walkways.

“I couldn’t let you stay behind while I’m out here hunting,” he said.

“That’s a pathetic attempt at an excuse.” She crossed her arms. “And now your selfless decision to whisk me away from the thugs that you alone have galled and baited will be rewarded with my untimely death in the Supreme Overlord’s hands.”

It was his turn to scowl at her. “You have the option of staying out here while I enter the aqueduct. You know that!”

Somewhere among the maze of buildings, the city’s great obelisk clock struck the twelfth hour of the night and drowned Vanora’s answer. Music followed suit, played by an ensemble of cleverly constructed puppets powered by a complex series of springs and ropes. From this distance, the melancholic old tune mingled with the steady drum of marching feet. The night watch was changing. One by one, the glow of lanterns and candles spread out in the houses beneath them were smothered for the night. Time for the trespassers to make their move.

Thunder drummed in the mountains stretched out before him. The cragged points of the Seven Peaks flashed white under the constant streaks of lightning. Davek hefted the bundle strapped behind his back and climbed several more feet up the side of the rocky cliff towards the rusted gate of the waystation.

Vanora was already up there, poised on her toes between the gate and the outcrop it stood on. Whatever she saw beyond it quickly quelled her anger to trepidation. He could almost hear the pounding of her heartbeat as she contemplated the depths of the tunnel with calculative eye of a collector.

She wrinkled her nose when he arrived. “You might want to stay away from the gate for a while. The place reeks.”

“Of course it does. What self respecting, dark lair would smell like a garden of roses?” Davek paused a couple of paces before the gate to filter out the pungent smell of bat guano, although he had caught the scent nearly half a mile below when they were at the base of the cliff and had to suffer the stench long before she did.

The entrance to their dreaded water tunnel, or what was left of it, had the makings of a classic death trap, littered with broken piles of fallen bricks and covered floor to ceiling with questionable-looking green slime and an even more dubious coating of black slush. Davek wrapped gloved hands around the bars of the gate and peered inside. Far from the safest place to choose one’s hunt, yet this was the only aqueduct that supposedly led straight into Kharvath’s palace. The larger, main aqueducts are too well guarded.

“Do you realize how many epic plays and books have been written about reckless adventurers entering dark, dangerous lairs such as this?” She pointed out. “This is almost too predictable.”

Not that they had much of a choice to begin with. No simple, half-baked ploy would be enough to bring them inside Fulkarin’s Shield, where the number and skill of Kharvath’s royal guards, and more importantly, his Helsarian sentinels, remained as much a mystery as the Supreme Overlord they served. Too late to turn back now.

“You sure you want to do this?” he asked.

Vanora nodded. “I’ll follow you as far as the cistern that supplies water into the Imperial Quarters, then wait for you at the mouth of the tunnel that leads to the river.” I don’t want you getting lost in there hung unspoken between them.

“You don’t have to follow me in there, you know.” He leaned against the gate, felt the strain of the rusted metal when it creaked under his weight. The trickle of a stream was just a few yards away. Beneath the reek of bat dung, he could smell the stale, metallic tang of water being siphoned down to the valley far below. Deeper in the depths of the tunnel came the telltale signs of life and the chatter of rushing water. Vermin scuttled on nervous feet and squeaked warning. Davek thought he heard the angry hiss of a roused snake.

“I can’t tell you what will be waiting for us in there,” he added. “Bats, spiders, snakes…demons.”

She narrowed her eyes for just a moment, the uncertainty contained within her eyes stark contrast to the certainty in her voice as she answered his challenge. “Would I ever resist the temptation of being the first woman to enter such a perilous, uncharted maze?” She pulled the aqueduct’s yellowed, moth-eaten blueprint out of the small scroll-case strapped to her thigh and in typical, Vanora fashion, brandished her smile like a shield to mask her fear. “Damn your demons! I’ll sooner see my soul sundered by Fulkarin himself than let you have all the fun.”

He inclined his head, smiled. “Your call. And as the brains of our operation, what shall our next move be?”

She waved the blueprint under his nose. It was the only artifact she found in her vast collection that provided an insight on how they could rob Kharvath on such short notice.

“This isn’t the only aqueduct that runs underground all the way to Fulkarin’s Shield. There is a whole network of tunnels down there with it, but god knows where those will take us. We must follow the blueprint to the very last detail.” She pointed to the long, tiered aqueduct that stretched for several miles from the other side of the cliff to the western sector of the city. “One wrong turn could lead us to that, and there will be no way to get off if that happens. Unless you fancy jumping over the side and having a nice long drop to solid ground, of course.”

One need not mention the greater risk of appearing on one of the three communal waterways. Now that would cause them a shitload of problems. Laden with gondolas used to move the Shield’s greater nobility and the aristocrats who have gained the Supreme Overlord’s favor, it was a guarded highway. By Newhaven military law, it must perforce remain under the strict scrutiny of the kingdom’s guards.

“Stick to the blueprint. Obvious enough. Anything else?”

“Like you said, we don’t know what’s in there,” she answered, and ripples of the doubt resurfaced in her eyes. “This particular tunnel has not been used for centuries, so I would advise discretion. Tremendous amounts of discretion, Davek.”

He gave her a chiding frown and pulled his own mask up. He used no other disguises this time, since he did not intend on being seen or caught. “Now now, Van. Your bravado fades too soon! Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“I lost it when you dragged me out of Karpaven.” She tugged at the sleeve of her shirt. “And when you nearly got both our hands cut off when we stole this outfit from the fencer down the riverbank.”

“Didn’t that little performance amuse you?” He released a portion of his magnified senses into the tunnel to scout for would-be trouble, found nothing suspicious, then pulled back. “As I recall you whooped like a giddy little girl when we fled the scene.”

“That was you, Davek. I welcome danger as much as you do. I merely want to leave this place alive.”

“Ahh, alright, fair enough. Let’s cut the banter and rekindle your bravery then, shall we?” Davek squared his shoulders, braced his feet, then gave the gate one hard push. It jerked open with a harsh clang, raining dust on his hood. They both ducked and covered their heads, but no bats flew out to greet them. The noise the gate made echoed long into the dark tunnel, a sound that would have woken the dead.

“We come, o’ foul demon!” Vanora announced and pulled her mask up over her nose. “Ready your hounds and swords!”

“That’s the spirit!” Davek chuckled, then stepped aside as a snake as fat as his thigh slithered past their feet. “Lead the way, my lady.”

*    *    *

The watercraft of their choice made up in ingenious design and function what it lacked in size. Created by a brilliant, yet deformed pair of twin craftsmen who had sworn their services to the Guild for the wealth offered in return, the craft was a lightweight boat made of alchemically cured tree-bark. A parchment-thin bark from an ancient tree hybrid that, once soaked in water, would gain the solidity and buoyancy of a canoe. Its user then had only minutes to mold it into any desired shape before the chemicals hardened the craft into solid wood.

If dried, the bark will collapse into its paper-thin, foldable form once more. It was the perfect tool for two reckless young thieves looking to navigate through Newhaven’s underground, narrow water tunnels. A very expensive, jealously guarded tool that none but the Lady and the craftsmen knew the secrets to.

At least that was what they presumed, of course. Neither the twins nor the Lady would have guessed that a boy thief who possessed an arcane talent would overhear their covert conversations about the craft from behind the thick, so-called soundproof walls of their workshop. Nor had they realized that Davek had slipped inside and, using the shadows to conceal his movements, had stolen the recipe to that brilliant invention and a handful of the tree’s seeds to grow his own grove miles outside Karpaven.

The very thought of that victory so many years ago made Davek grin like a bobcat as he slid the craft down the aqueduct’s murky belly. Guided by the pale glow of the lantern in Vanora’s hands, he expanded his heightened sight and hearing to their fullest potential in an effort to chart the maze before them.

Davek yanked his stifling mask down. “The twins were once joined at the hip you know. Which obviously placed a certain degree of restriction on their wonderfully dark talents. One cannot ferret out the vast secrets of black alchemy with one’s hip stuck to another.”

“Ferreting out the secrets to killing the Lady would’ve saved us all this bloody trouble,” she muttered from behind her mask.

At first the tunnel descended downwards as far as the eyes could see (and he could see very well in the dark). Yet the deeper they went, the slower their progress. Abandoned nearly two centuries ago, the lack of maintenance allowed debris and muck to clog certain sections of the waterway like vegetation in a swamp. At times, where the clog was too thick, Davek and Vanora had to heft their light watercraft out of the water, climb down several sections of rat-infested tunnels, then set their craft down on the path of another free-flowing canal.

Grand arches carved into scenes and characters of long forgotten legends towered around them at regular intervals. Here, the arch bore the resemblance of a three-headed wolf. There, what was once a magnificent marble pillar depicted the flight of the Blind Huntress from her nemesis, the Maned Cat. Vanora crossed each of those arches and pillars on her blueprint to mark their progress, dead certain they were on the right path.

Never mind that it was not an entirely comforting thought, to know that the success of their plan lay solely in Vanora’s ability to navigate through this stinking, putrid water labyrinth and a blueprint that was centuries out-of-date. Davek had to hum fast tavern verses to keep himself occupied, but even that did not last long.

“How much further until we clear all this slush? I’ve been poling my arms off for nearly an hour!” His agitated voice echoed down the grim depths of the aqueduct, where the constant trickle of water seeping through the cracks in the wall and the occasional patter of tiny feet against the tunnel’s stone pathways awaited them. Ironic, how the novelty of entering a supposedly dangerous lair faded when the only danger present was the threat of dust, rats and bat-eating snakes.

Her forehead and brows streaked with sweat, Vanora squinted at her blueprint. “The entire aqueduct was abandoned and sealed in places, remember? We need to move down three miles, at least, before we clear the worst of this debris and slide down into the Imperial Quarters. Keep poling. We should reach the first floodgates soon.”

No sooner had she said those words than Davek spotted the lines and blocks of a brick wall at the end of the tunnel.  Wedged right in between the wall was a studded metal panel. It stood slightly ajar, letting a thin slice of water trickle into the next section of the canal.

“There’s a wall up ahead.” Davek pointed with his pole.

The collector lifted her gaze and pulled her mask down. “Oh really? How brilliant that you can see it, when I, the mere mortal with such boring human senses, cannot.”

Davek grunted. The sting of his magic’s flames surged through his blood as he plucked a piece of the lantern’s fire and with years of practice, tossed it into the space in front of the prow. Pressure formed at the base of his skull while he maneuvered the fire into the shape of an orb no bigger than his fist. One deep breath, and a quick struggle with his will later, the orb darted forward at his command and hovered before the floodgate.

“You have to teach me how to do that,” Vanora muttered.

“You’ll change your mind once you know how much of a pain magic really is,” he said, and hissed at the brewing force inside him. Experience prompted him to wrestle it down before it swallowed him like a tide, and even that simple move was like pushing a mule up a cliff. “Stings like a whip, and highly volatile. Whichever brilliant deity who came up with it must’ve had a wicked sense of humor.”

“Now that’s half a lie right there!” She jabbed an accusing finger towards him. “You cherish and play with that strange, painful force at every given opportunity. Selfish bastard! You’d rather kiss the Lady’s feet than tell me how it works.”

“Ah, once again your knowledge of my motives proves true. Remind me to hire a less sharp-witted partner when this whole hunt is over.” Davek directed the orb across the entire wall, managed to startle a brown snake into the cracks of the stone ceiling. “So there’s the floodgate,” he said, eyeing the snake. “The question should be –”

“Where is the valve? There.” Vanora moved herself into a crouch. The orb had moved to the far end of the wall. Golden light spilled upon a metal wheel that jutted out of a platform as ancient and decrepit as the rest of this god-forsaken place.

Davek handed her the pole. “Stay put.”

“You’ve been doing all the work,” she protested. “Let me –”

“Lady, I don’t doubt your strength, but that piece of crap looks decades past functional.” Davek jumped into the waist-deep water and waded towards the platform. “Keep the boat afloat while I’m gone, will you?”

“Davek, be careful.” Vanora said.

“Of what? Have the rats suddenly gained the craving for human blood?” He hauled himself up the platform with the light to guide him. The wrought-iron wheel held astonishingly intricate detail, formed into the shape of a winged serpent devouring its own tail. Eager to reach Fulkarin’s Shield, he braced his feet against the platform and shoved his weight against the wheel.

And instead of the expected screech and the resistance of centuries-old rust, the wheel turned without protest. The valve slid open effortlessly also, without so much as a creak to betray its age.

“Oh, what’s this?” Davek stopped, suspicion shooting a sharp bolt through his belly.

“It’s working quite well for a piece of crap, wouldn’t you say?” Vanora asked. The valve slid open a few inches. A light kiss from the southern spring wind stopped him short. Davek thought he heard an echo bouncing off the walls beyond. Voices! And what sounded like the splash of an oar in the water. By the startled expression on Vanora’s face, he knew she had heard them too.

Davek made rapid hand gestures. What do you see?

He had a hairsbreadth of a second to register the smell of black powder in the stale air, another fraction to understand how much danger the woman who sat at their watercraft’s prow suddenly faced.

“Vanora! Into the water. Now!” he shouted.

An explosion shook the entire aqueduct. A cloud of flames burst through the open valve, and black water surged through before the thieves could think. If Vanora fell from the explosion, or was swept away by the water, Davek lost sight of her.

“Fulkarin bedamned!” Davek cursed. Pure terror and something else – that temperamental force inside him that he could never quite understand, flared through his bloodstream as he made a dash for the water. A second explosion rattled the foundations of the aqueduct with startling speed and vehemence to thwart him. Fire stung his back, his legs, and the blinding flash drove him face first onto the platform. He felt the wind knocked out of him. The loud ringing that followed harrowed his ears, mocking his helplessness, while the rest of the world turned pitch black and drowned all thoughts save one.

Vanora!

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