Don’t look down

Angus McNicholl

Don’t look down
September 25, 2020 Angus McNicholl

This short is a piece of worldbuilding for Angus’ setting of Hoarfrost, a tabletop roleplaying game work in progress.

 

Don’t look down.

Trov’s fingers hurt. His foot found a tiny purchase on the sheer black stone of the wall.

Don’t look down.

He shifted his weight to take the strain off his fingers, and inched his left hand upwards over the ice-cold surface, seeking his next hold. Another irregular stone gave him just enough to brace his fingertips upon.

Don’t look down.

He looked up. The ledge that he had seen from far below was now almost in reach. An overhang that he couldn’t see beyond, and had no idea if he could pass.

A gust of icy wind threatened his precarious position. His body tensed, fingers strained, body pressed hard against the frigid stone. He tried not to shiver as the wind passed. He had left his cloak below with the others; too much risk that the wind would drag him from the tower, but he wished for it now.

Don’t look down. Don’t think about what’s below.

His foot found a new purchase and he inched higher. His questing fingers finally bumped the underside of the ledge. He lifted his eyes. The overhang was narrow; it would require complete commitment. He would make it or he would fall.

Don’t look down. 

His cold, numb fingers reached up, seeking, finding the edge. Above, he could feel it was icy-smooth. The top was flat and perhaps as wide as his leg. With determined effort, he secured first one hand, then the other, and waited… timing his breath with the next icy gust, and moment of commitment. His tired body came slowly away from the wall. His arms strained, and he hooked his foot over the ledge and pulled himself up.

He stood now with his back to the cold wall. Below and beyond stretched the city, a tangled web of lights in the shadow of the caldera of mountains. Up here the air was clean, with no trace of the smoke that drifted from a hundred thousand hovel fires or the foul vapours that blew in from the Tar Sea. The wan, bluish light of the sun cast no warmth, but held its unmoving vigil low over the southern mountain range. 

He had chosen to climb the sunward face; the dark side would have been even colder. His fingers fumbled with a small pot wrapped in an intricate lattice of stripped Cassa bark. He found the toggles, opened the top, and, cupping it in both hands, gently blew into it to kindle the hot coals within. The warmth made his fingers ache even more, but it was a welcome pain — one that told him he was still alive.

There was no certainty as to how long life would last. He blew again and warmth seared into his hands. He had only ever known life in the citadel; the city sheltered from the great ice storms beyond the encircling shield of mountain peaks. From his vantage point on the ledge he could see the sprawl of streets radiating outward from the temple mount; and beyond, to the great tunnel of the Pilgrim’s Road. In the citadel, warmth was life.

He looked again towards the cold sun, seeking an indication of the hour. To the west, the red moon, Dollure, began his rise. It was in the transit of Dollure that daily time was measured. Each day, that red disk would rise to touch the sun; not eclipse it, just brush past it. That marked the hour of prayers, when the congregations of the faithful would pay tribute to Vaulan, the Lord of Fire, who slumbered wounded and exhausted in the sanctums beneath the temple. The bright moon, Corra, would not rise for several more days. Her light would brighten the eternal twilight for twenty days, before sinking again beyond the peaks.

Trov’s thoughts returned to his surroundings, to the cold, narrow ledge. His feet were wrapped in soft boots to better help him climb. Even with his back to the wall, his toes stuck out over the edge. He resealed the firepot and adjusted his position for the final assent to a small shadow not far above him. He hoped it was a window or some point of ingress. Even if he could climb down, his ‘friends’ below would not take kindly to failure. There had been other portholes below, but they had all been sealed. Why should this one be any different?

He risked a quick glance over the precipice. The streets below were lost in shadow. His associates were well above street-level, on one of the connecting bridges between the ancient towers. They had climbed the stairs within one of the adjoining towers and crossed the high span to access this tower, the north-most; still sealed, silent and unplundered. He judged them to be about four hundred yards below. They would have been unnoticeable had they not lit a small fire for warmth.

Kolic and Jar were little more than thugs who had worked the streets of the undertown all their lives. The lure of riches had encouraged them to think a little above their station. The third one, the silent one, they called ‘Pad’. He stood unbent, his eyes never leaving Trov’s ascent. He had arrived with the pilgrims two nights ago and beaten the snot out of Kolic and Jar both, when they tried to shake him down. He didn’t make threats. He barely spoke at all, in fact. It was he who had told them of a way in. Trov was certain there was something not right about him… His eyes were too bright, his stare unflinching, unblinking.

Trov had already tried to back out of this foolish endeavor, but Kolic had insisted he try. Insisted at knife point. Kolic would threaten your face, but it was Jar who would put the knife in from the back. To go down empty-handed would mean his bones being found in one of the undertown soup kitchens, his meat rendered to feed the starved masses. He made a quick check that his cloth-wrapped tools and firepot were secure, then began to climb again.

Fingers searching out each tiny purchase. Body inching upwards, like a beetle crawling over a cold stone floor.

Don’t look down. Don’t think, just climb.

Kolic muttered and pulled his cloak closer about him. He had appropriated the one Trov had left behind and now wore it over his own. Hunched by the small stove, he placed a kettle of water to heat. Pad stood unmoving, staring up at the tiny, dark figure so high above. The wind pulled at his hood, but he seemed unaware of its chill.

Jar stretched out his hands towards the warming kettle, flexed his fingers several times, and pulled them back to blow in the cup of his palm. He nodded towards Pad, a questioning gesture. Kolic glanced at the strange man, and shook his head curtly. The bruises on his face and his split lip would heal in time, but it was clear to him that Pad was more than capable of taking both of them on. He was not about to repeat the mistakes of the last few days.

“You never said how you knew he would get into the tower through that high port.” It was a statement rather than a question, aimed at Pad. The stranger moved only the slightest muscle, a sign that he had heard, but chose not to respond.

“Don’ start on ’im, Jar.” Kolic was nervous. The bigger man was difficult to scare, but Pad had made an impression.

“Just askin’,” Jar muttered. “Think we have a right.”

Kolic was pouring out steaming cups of hot tea from the kettle. For the first time in hours Pad moved. Nodding with a thin smile, he took three steps towards the fire and took the steaming mug from Kolic’s hand.

“He has a key.” Pad’s voice was as pale and watery as his complexion. Kolic could not place the accent, but then pilgrims came from all the faraway places, and all had strange voices, manners and ways. This one was just more odd than the others.

“Key?” Jar took the other steaming mug from Kolic’s hand.

“A key.” Pad nodded, sipping, his eyes again fixed on the tiny figure above, just cresting the lip of the high port. “I am pleased. You said he could climb; you chose well.” A genuine smile lit the stranger’s face.

“He made it?” Kolic shuffled and looked up in amazement. They waited, the cold temporarily banished by steaming tea. “What now?”

“We wait,” said Pad. Jar groaned.

“There!” Pad pointed. A light was now shining from the tower high above.

Jar groaned again. “That’s goin’ ta draw us some attention. Constables, ’haps one of the gangs.”

***

The high port, like the others below, was a wide, hexagonal indentation twice Trov’s height containing three nested, concentric rings of stone. He placed his feet with care; the surface underfoot had a slippery film of frost. Darkness folded in around him. He crouched against the innermost wall and took out his firepot. It cast just enough light to examine the stone, and warmed his fingers, too.

Sure as Pad had told him he would, he found a small depression just bigger than his open palm. From amongst his tools he carefully unwrapped the cloth around the ‘key’ that he had been given. Pad’s instructions had been precise; he had shown him how to hold it just so and press it into the depression using the heel of his palm and fingertips. He paused; if the door opened, which way would it swing? Would it knock him from the tower?

He secured his tools once more. Looking around, he could find no trace or mark to show how the door might have opened in the past. It must swing inward, surely? Taking a deep breath, he pushed the block into place. Immediately, the hexagonal lip upon which he perched was traced with a faint light, which flowed up on to the wall to reveal an intricate, arcane pattern. The wall split apart across its centre, one half rising into the ceiling and the other sinking into the floor. Trov was suddenly bathed in bright light and warm air.

He shivered, stunned, his heart racing. The noise of grating stone and clanking of great machinery within came to a halt as the port reached its widest opening. The moment he took the key from its socket, however, the grinding and scraping began again as the port began to slide closed. Without thinking, Trov dove inside. Not for the first time today, there was only one choice of action — only one direction of travel.

He lay on the smooth stone floor for what seemed like an age. Breathing heavily, he became aware that he was hot. He reached up and loosened the scarf that was tightly wound around his face and neck. Looking around, he saw that he was in no threat — no obvious threat, anyway. The chamber was large, with all manner of old, odd-looking machinery. The inner workings of the tower, he reasoned. The bright light had dimmed to a less-painful level, and he noticed glittering, arcane runes lacing the walls.

Now to find something Pad had called ‘Impellor’, and obtain a port key for the span below.

Kolic was breathing hard, clutching a leg wound that would leave him an impressive scar when it healed. Jar was laughing and going through the bodies, rifling them for valuables, before dragging them into a row by the edge of the span. There was blood — a lot of blood. The whole battle had been fast and brutal, and seemingly over in only a few heartbeats. He had killed two of them himself. He had killed before, many times, but this felt like this first time all over again. He looked at Jar. “How many?” he croaked.

Jar paused, and looked around him. He counted to three, then paused. “Eleven?”

Why he was asking Jar when he knew the man couldn’t count past three was anyone’s guess. He simply nodded and looked about to take in the scene for himself. Pad was crouched by the stove, a knife heating in the flame. Two thin, curved blades lay on the ground beside him, looking to be forged of ice or glass, and impossibly thin and sharp. He had produced them from nowhere when the gang had arrived, a lightning-fast draw that had taken three lives before a word had been spoken.

The bodies all wore red torniques around their upper arms, denoting them as the Crimson Savages. He counted seventeen. Two of them were no more than kids; worse yet, he knew them. “That’s Daul’s twins,” he said. Then, louder: “That’s Daul’s boys. This is going to be personal.”

Jar shrugged. “I figure we get a cart and take ’em all ta undertown. We make good coin and no-one’s the wiser we was even ’ere.”

“How we going ta get a cart up here?”

“Park it below, drop’ em over the edge!”

“You got this all figured out?”

From his place by the burner Pad spoke up. “Have you ever seen what happens when a body falls that far?”

Jar shrugged and grinned.

Pad rose, glowing knife in hand. “Your type is fragile; better stop that bleeding.” He knelt beside the larger man. Kolic understood and nodded, before pulling out his own own knife and gripping the handle between his teeth. Pain erupted through his leg, and the smell of burned hair and searing meat filled his nostrils. He passed out.

When he came around, Jar was wafting a pungent-smelling ointment under his nose. He grasped the offered hand and stumbled to his feet.

“I got your share right ’ere, an’ we turn a tidy profit when we cash in the meat. Been a good day today.” Jar was clearly contemplating how he would spend his gains, but Kolic had a sickening feeling — and it wasn’t just the pain in his leg.

A grinding noise, of stone on stone, brought Kolic out of his thoughts. Pad was looking towards the tower that Trov had climbed hours before. The port at the end of the span upon which they stood was slowly opening. He turned his head slightly so as to address Kolic and Jar. 

“Your job is done.” He tossed a small bag towards them and Jar caught it with his off hand. “For your trouble. The bodies are yours too — I want nothing to do with that business.”

A figure stood silhouetted in the light from the port. Pad’s stride crossed the distance between them. Trov’s right hand held Pad’s key to a recess in the stone, keeping the port open.

“When I take my hand away the port will close,” he said as Pad drew close.

“You did an excellent job,” Pad commented, genuine admiration in his voice. “I would welcome your travelling company.” He reached up to pull back the deep hood of his cloak. Light fell upon angular features and a pair of horns, curled to wrap back and down, around his ears. “You have earned that right.”

Trov gasped. “You’re one of… them.”

Pad stepped past him through the open port, and turned, waiting for Trov’s response.

“If you leave here now, don’t go with them,” Pad nodded towards the distant figures of Kolic and Jar. “They will be dead in days. You know how not to be found, so use that. Take what trinkets you have collected here with my blessing — they are suitable compensation for your service.”

Trov nodded, his sling bag bulged with curios he had picked up during his descent.

“There is a vendor, very discreet, on the Cobble Street Market, who will give you a good price for them.” 

Trov stepped out through the port, which immediately began to rumble closed. “Why didn’t you open it yourself?”

Pad smiled through closing aperture. “I fell.”