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Monday, November 12, 2012

Short Story about the Undercities

The relevant part of a conversation held in Old Batterly's Pit and Stone eatery in Concourse Square in Falondé. The primary speaker was Batcholi; he was addressing three of his nephews who where curious about his work in the undercity. We enter the conversation after they had just dined and had leaned back to enjoy a smoke and some wine.
"Fine wine, very fine wine indeed" Batcholi said with a contented sigh. His nephews murmured their agreement though it was obvious to him that Salek wasn't a wine lover. He was taking small sips and doing a very good job of sloshing it as he animatedly interacted with his sightly young brother Roctin. Batcholi took a draft of his cigar and puffed out a mass of smoke, sadly noting a current of air took it away before it could form into the shape he had wanted.
“Uncle”, Kaomok said.
Batcholi pulled his gaze down from the smoke.
Kaomok had a serious look on his darkly cast face. Of course, he always had a serious look. Probably because he was the oldest of the three rascals that Batcholi was sharing the table with this fine evening.
“Uncle, tell us about what you do these days.”
Batcholi regarded him for a moment and laughed quietly. “That, my young nephew is a big question. I do many things these days. Not the least of which is watch over you.”
Kaomok was still young enough to redden, especially when Roctin jabbed him with an elbow while he tried, rather unsuccessfully to cover up a laugh.
“Uncle, what he means to ask is what you do in the undercity”, Salek said.
Batcholi winked at him and set down his cigar. He took a drink of his wine, taking his time as he eyed the three.
“I, of course, run a healthy business. One of imports and exports, like the rest of our family, as you rakes know quite well.”
The three of them looked at one another and it was Kaomok that piped up. “We know that, uncle. What we were curious about was the undercity.”
Batcholi eyed them and then laughed. “Its fine. I have found that most people have a poor sense of what the undercity is like. What do you want to know?”
They leaned eagerly forward, sharing a glance among each other.
“What it like down there?”, Kaomok asked, right as Salek said at nearly the same time, “Is it dark all the time and smell like a sewer?”
Batcholi grunted. “Let's see. Well, its like being in the city except its below it. Also, like the city above it has its areas that are both very good and very bad.”
That was obviously not what they wanted, which didn't surprise him.
Roctin sniffed. “Not quite what I hoped, uncle. I mean, we have heard all kinds of things about the undercity”, he said looking at the other two for support. “I mean, we've heard that they have black masses that eat people, temples to the dark gods; people that sell slaves, black marketeers with auctions of illegal goods, and impromptu parties.”
“Someone has been listening to all kinds of tales.” Batcholi remarked. “Well, let's put some truth to those tales. Its looks like its time to attend to your education. I told you that the undercity is like the city above and just like the city it has its characters.
“The family business lies in a part of the undercity under the control of the March Warden of the Deep Spike. Like his title suggests, that part of the undercity is called Deep Spike, much like our own sector of Falondé is called Djaksim after the exotic Djaksim Tower. It, however, is not as spectacular as the Djaksim tower, though it has a certain mystique of its own.
“The area, in fact takes after the name, since it was once a part of the sewers you mentioned earlier though its been long bereft of scent. It's full of vaults and once was the primary pumping station. The rework of the sewers and capture tanks to handle overflow from the river led to a dry area with numerous vaults connected by a ton of corridors. A very perfect place to do business, since it makes for a good area to put established stores.”
“Uncle”, Salek interrupted, “that doesn't sound very different than the city.”
“Indeed. In fact, if it were not for the gloom that fills the place and the somewhat stifling atmosphere, it could indeed be like the city. People come and go, dropping in from the city and going up from the undercity. Business occurs as does other things you would see in the city. Its just a bit wilder and a trifle more dangerous down below. At least in the Deep Spike.”
“Why isn't it dark?” Kaomok asked.
“Well”, Batcholi said taking a drag on his cigar before responding. “The Deep Spike area retained the large metal grates that once allowed water in. Now, they let in the light that filters down that is captured by the mirrored repeaters that spreads it around.”
“Is the rest of the undercity that way too?” Kaomok asked.
Batcholi shook his head. “No, its generally darker if not outright pitch black.”
“Tell us about the black marketeers!” Salek requested.
Batcholi coughed into his hand before starting. “Well, let's just say that the undercity is where people go to buy things they can't get in the light of day. Things they shouldn't or things that are illegal.”
“Have you ever been to one?” Roctin asked.
He coughed again into his hand. “Well, let's just say that from time to time some of our family business flows that way. Not all of it; its mainly aboveboard but a few things the family acquires can't be sold out of our stores.”
“Who cares” Salek said. “What about the craziness that we here about down there? Man eating bacteria, Wards of the Chained One, Limb Thieves, undead – its seems like everything ugly you can imagine exists done there!”
“I see something has your imagination fired up. Well, I won't lie to you and say such things don't exist down there. The March Wardens' areas, especially those of Deep Spike, Rainbow Falls and Long Spin are relatively safe areas. The undercity lords in those areas maintain a presence, one strong enough to deter the majority of really dangerous things that live down below. The other places are much less safe to utter dangerous.”
“Like the Red Coated Baron's area!” Roctin interjected.
“Like the Red Coated Baron's area” Batcholi agreed. “His lands, if you will, are adjacent to the Deep Spike and so are not horribly unsafe. At least, in those areas distant from the Azren Maze and near the March Warden's borders. Closer to the maze and its anything goes.”
“Anything goes – what does that mean?” Kaomok asked?
Botcholi drew on his cigar once last time and rubbed it out on a metal plate sat on the table just for that purpose. “Let's say that those man-eating bacteria you spoke about could easily make an appearance. Their nest is supposedly somewhere in the maze so they are predominate there and in the areas that touch on the maze. Outside of the areas defined by the March Wardens, the walkways and passages are very unsafe, unlike our streets and roads above. No one patrols or maintains those walkways in general, especially those beyond the reach of the wardens. Only the hubs that house people are considered safe and in those, safety is secured by the quickness of your sword.”
“People live down there?” Salek asked fascinated.
“Of course they do” Roctin said, elbowing Salek. “They don't all go up to the city, do they uncle?”
Botcholi nodded and signaled for more wine. “Indeed. Some people never go above. They are born, live and die in the undercity.”
“Really?” Kaomok asked.
Uncle nodded in answer. “Yes. Its a motley group, even more so than the mix you would find on our streets. We keep certain levels of decency in force above. Down below, outside of certain areas, those rules are gone. Most, however, are decent sorts trying to make their way through life. Others are outlaws, lawbreakers, wanted by the law or their orders for wrong doing. Joining them are creatures that otherwise could not walk easily in the light of day.”
“What do these people do?” Kaomok asked.
Botcholi quaffed a drink from his newly filled wine glass before answering. “I'll assume that you mean those of the darker nature than the otherwise mundane. Still the mundane are important. Let us say that most live like we do above, excepting that their lives are much more dangerous. Where we have the certainty of law and a basic sense of order that flows from it, they do not. Instead, they huddle in groups, like you would in the wild for protection or seek out hiding holes and places of refuge. Of course, they are not alone. The undercity, for all its danger and lack of law, sees a large influx of visitors. Those seeking out those illegal markets are underground auctions. Those looking for a service they could not get above or fear to partake above in order to avoid prying eyes. Or, just making their way to a party, a theater, a meeting, or some other assemblage. Some even come for the adventure or to find something lost in the dark.
“Now those with a darker desire prey on those that live there or who come there. In fact, a favorite pastime with lightsiders is to dunk them. Never heard of it, have you? No, don't bother answering, I know you haven't. Its when they prey on them, give them a good beating or kill them. Then they toss the body into the pools of water that seem to be everywhere or into the working sewer system. Its a horrible business but doesn't seem to deter adventure seekers and those that should know better from coming down.”
He paused and the nephews looked queasily at each other. Botcholi shook his head and waggled a finger at them. “Now, don't look weird, its not all that bad or we wouldn't do business down there. At least in some areas. Most of the undercity is well deserved for its reputation and is filled with dark, beastly people and equally decadent places. People live down there and act out their lives just like we do. They live in some place relatively safe and traverse the winding pipes, tunnels and vaults that connect the majority of the place together.”
Roctin poked at the table and asked, eyes downcast, “I've heard that it has levels, kind of like the city has the upper terrace and the lower grounds.”
Botcholi swirled his wine, studying it. “True. Though not so cleanly as the jewel of our city. It has deeps like an ocean, where the deeper you go the more dangerous and dark it becomes. What we know mostly as the undercity is but the upper skin of the below ground.”
They loosed uneasily at each other and Botcholi put his wine glass down with a thunk. “Let's call this to a close, young sirs. But I'll end it with a warning. You may have friends who will invite you below. I encourage you to take the loss of face and decline. Too often, those virgins who go below do not return the same. I encourage you to seek safer pastimes, like bearding a dragon in its lair or pissing on the king's statue in Crownmark Square in broad daylight.”
He got to his feet and the nephews did the same. “Now, shall we see what delights the Jewel of Khaas holds for us this evening?”
They nodded and he gestured for them to go first, following right behind.

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