Chapter I

So, here’s the first chapter. (Esty, if you’re reading this, I still want comments on the prologue). My main concern here is whether or not I described Below decently, it’s a bit of a mindfuck, so I want to be sure I paint an accurate mental picture. It’s a bit long, but it’s double-spaced so reading it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.  Opinions are mandatory. You shall be assimilated.

I

Far away, another ship, a different ship, pulled into the docks of Below, the city beneath the world. Here, the rain was lighter, more of a depressing drizzle than an obliterating downpour.

The crew of the Lucinda scurried about, making ready for landing. They were making port for the first time in months, and all were excited. Some had wives and children on land that they were eager to see, but most simply looked forward to ale and wenches, probably in that order. The only crew member not in a frenzy was, oddly enough, their captain. He stood, solitary and drenched in rain, at the bow of the ship, looking toward the city, thinking. The crew knew their captain, and knew that if he was thinking it was probably about something important. This was because he rarely bothered with thinking, preferring prompt action and sorting out the mess later.

He stood, staring at the the city of Below with his pleasant blue eyes, though not entirely seeing it. He looked about thirty, perhaps either ending his third decade or beginning his fourth. His left hand engaged in a constant struggle with his long, black hair, which was attempting unsportingly to blow into his face and obstruct his view. His right, in contrast, was deep in this pouch, gripping something unseen.

He wore the standard clothes for a sailor of the Cloudsea: baggy, beige colored pants that had probably once been red, tight at the waist but loose at the bottom, so that if he fell overboard the rising thermals would catch his clothes and arrest his fall. His shirt, though white, adhered to the same principles of design as his pants, with many seemingly extraneous folds designed to catch the wind while not catching the rain. He wore a small leather pouch, for personal effects, in which he currently had his right hand. The only way he differed in dress from any of his crew was the bright red, silk sash tied loosely around his waist, like an afterthought, proclaiming his rank of captain.

One of the crew approached him, a man of medium height with a long scar on the right side of his face, though otherwise unremarkable. “Captain Corentin,” he said in respectful tones, “We’re ready to dock.”

The captain stood still for a moment, likely finishing his thought. He spoke without looking at the sailor, keeping his eyes on the city. “Pull in on one of the upper docks.”

“Cap’n, that’ll cost a bunch! Th’ docking fees are bloody crazy up there.”

“I know; I’m in a hurry. Give the order.” The sailor ran off, shouting at the rest of the crew to get to work.

The docks of Below were rather oddly situated. The problem with Below was that, as it was an entire city placed on a sheer cliff face on the underside of the world, it had rather more vertical space than it did horizontal. Thus, the docks were on the underside of the rest of the city, so that the city did not have to deal with them taking up space. The uppermost docks, usually reserved for visiting nobility, were a few seconds walk away from the Main, the area where most of the work went on in the city. The lowermost, on the other hand, were both rather poorly constructed and cut off from everything else, the only access available a series of bizarre mechanized lifts whose maker had probably been several cards short of a full deck.

All this, Captain Corentin thought of as his crew prepared to dock in the ritzy upper levels. They pulled in alongside a richly decorated transport ship, its triple sails and freshly painted red sides cutting a stark contrast to the Lucinda’s shabbiness. Aboard it, some pompously dressed fop looked at the Lucinda with disdain. His look was greeted with rude gestures from several of the sailors.

Corentin leaped off the bow as soon as it neared the dock, leaving his men to tend to the ship and setting off at a brisk pace.

“Cap’n!” called a voice after him. He turned; it was the scar-faced sailor from earlier. “Shouldn’t one of us go wit’ you, sir?”

“I think I know my way around Below, Arak,” replied Corentin. He turned back to the city.

Despite his hurry, he took a moment to breath in the sights. Below was, truly, an amazing place. The city had been founded, as a mere outpost, a century and a half previously. The idea was that the bountiful wind-power of the Cloudsea should be put to some good use. Of course, the group of crazy dwarves who had the idea thought it was too simple to merely build a city on the coast. There are lots of cities built on the coast, where’s the fun in that? So, they gathered up their equipment, and made it, somehow, down the side of the world and to a cliff face that would soon become Below.

The original outpost was constructed on a kind of ledge, an outcrop of rock that, while near the underside of the continent, was probably still technically the side of it. A cave behind said ledge provided shelter and the main living space for the scientists, while on the ledge itself they performed their experiments. Then, they discovered that the underside of the world was actually incredibly strong and could support any number of things hung from it. Thus, Below grew into a city partially on a ledge above itself, but mostly hanging down in the form of all manner of docks and hastily thrown-together buildings.

Most of the scientific work in Below occurred in the Main, the most sturdy area. A grid-like system of ramps and wooden streets ran everywhere, cutting the Main into neat little squares. In each square was a building, or several buildings, dedicated to the pursuit of wind science. Underneath the streets hung bizarre instruments, doing everything from measuring wind-speed to powering transportation to just sitting there, blinking with seemingly incongruous lights.

Further back in the gloom underneath the world lay the living area for most of the workforce of Below. It hung like a badly-constructed model, streets going random places, sometimes stopping, sometimes having large pieces missing, and saturated with a myriad of badly constructed houses, if they could be called that. The house-like objects mainly took the form of large communal living areas, low and squat, with canvas sheets as roofs, as that was the most conservative way to construct them and wood was expensive. The thinking of the scientists was that their living quarters should not be particularly comfortable, as the most important aspect of the city was the technology. Thus, they hadn’t put much effort into their living quarters, earning it both the ire of everyone living in it and the nickname the Ramshackle.

In between lay the area of the merchants, where the hardworking men and women who had nothing to do with science were yet intimately connected with it, as all their customers were either scientists or grunts working for said scientists. It was a combination of the styles of the Main and the Ramshackle, slightly less organized than the scientific district but not as decrepit as the living quarters, as that just wouldn’t do for the merchants. Here, one could find butchers and bakers aplenty, though candlestick makers were a rarity, as open flame endangered the mostly wooden city. The merchant area had no name, as such, though some called it the Mainshackle and thought themselves incredibly witty.

Corentin took all this in within the space of a second, seeing everything going on in the busy city. He continued along his path, though looking all around him as he did, for Below still amazed him, despite the many times he had visited. Around him swirled daily life in Below, a confusing, busy thing. The main population of the city were the Wind Dwarves, dwarves who had forsaken their native mountains and come to further the pursuits of science, their close-cut hair and shaven faces a blatant contrast to their mountainous cousins.

Nearly as numerous were humans, who came in every size and shape but were mostly relegated to grunt roles in the technological city. A sizable minority were the Underfoot, a race of mischievous beings roughly the same size as human children, who scampered about doing all sorts of odd jobs. Though these three were the clear majority, nearly every other race could be found in Below: elves, attempting to remain aloof and distant in the bustle of the city; the winged Rhokari of the northern forests; horned minotaurs, bull-men from the islands to Below’s south and east; a few of the Njorlghar, rat-like beings who subsisted in filth and squalor. Corentin even thought he caught a glimpse of purple-furred Satyr, deep in conversation with a dwarven overseer. Though all were different, all shared the same style of dress: loose clothes with safety folds in the case of a fall – a very real danger in Below.

Watching all this, Corentin was pleasantly surprised when his feet took him directly to where he wanted to be: the Below headquarters of the Explorer’s Society, a squat building made of a patchwork of stone and wood, bearing the symbol of the society, a boat imposed upon the rising sun.

He entered, and found everything aflutter. The welcome room, though small, was large for the standards of Below. Dozens of people ran about it, giving papers to each other and checking various bags, occasionally scurrying into a back room, and all talking in very loud voices.

Corentin, after blinking slightly in the face of the bustle, grabbed one of the hurrying men by the arm. “Excuse me, do you know where I could find Shorac?” he asked the man, who motioned toward one of the back rooms and sped off. Corentin shoved through the multitude and opened the door gingerly, fearing another scene like the one he had left.

He was greeted, however, by a scene of quiet and calm, a small study warmly lit by a glowing lamp. A desk on the far side of the room was covered in all manner of papers, books, and assorted hodgepodge. At it sat a slight, balding man, who had not noticed Corentin’s entrance. His nose was nearly touching the book he was reading, and the tip of his quill was tracing the lines as he read them, occasionally underlining something of apparent importance.

Corentin watched him work for a bit, smiling slightly. He then grew bored, and contemplated the best way to interrupt the scholar. After thinking a bit, he said “Boo!” in a loud whisper. The man jumped, and looked up. He was obviously annoyed at being interrupted, but the scowl on his face quickly turned to a warm smile.

“Drogo Corentin!” he said, rising from his desk.

“Thale Shorac!” replied Drogo, and the two embraced. “Though,” began the captain after the greeting, “You should know as well as anyone that I despise my given name.”

“Don’t see why, perfectly pleasant name,” replied Shorac, grinning. “Name of a saint, y’know. Saint Drogo. Healed the emperor of a deadly sickness, a few centuries back.”

“You’ve mentioned before,” said Corentin, prodding Shorac in the ribs playfully. “You also mentioned that the emperor died of the same sickness a few months later.”

“A trifle!” exclaimed the scholar, and the two fell about laughing at the same conversation relived for the thousandth time.

“Drogo Corentin, where in the seven hells have you been?” asked Thale after the levity was finished.

“Oh, you know, here and there.”

“Here and there!” said Thale in mock rage. “You bastard, I haven’t seen you in three years!”

“Three?” said Corentin, genuinely surprised. “I was last in Below six months ago, didn’t I visit you then?”

“Six months? Six months? No, last I saw of you, you were headed off to the outer islands in search of the fountain of youth!”

“Ah, that.” Corentin’s face glazed over in a smile of hazy remembrance. “Good times. I guess I could probably be forgiven for forgetting to visit you last time, I was being chased by minotaur assassins. Bit preoccupied, y’know.”

“I shouldn’t ask, should I?”
“Probably not.”

“I guessed. How’d the fountain of youth go, though?”

“Oh, we never found it. Turns out the map was forged. We did find the fountain of death, though. Bit of an awkward conversation with that sailor’s parents when we got back to port…” Corentin’s brow furrowed, and he stared at the wall for a short while. “Anyway,” he began again, “what’s going on with you? Officially registered Scholar of the Explorer’s Society, you must be very proud! Last time I was here, you were an assistant!”

“Yes, I got the promotion last year. Only a conciliatory gesture, I’m afraid. The Below chapter wanted someone with a bit more prestige to do their research, and headquarters agreed. Still, the pay raise is nice.”
“What’s all the ruckus in the other room, anyway?”

“Oh, there’s an expedition starting… well, about two hours ago, by now. The sixteenth expedition to the center of the continent. They’re convinced they’ll find it this time.”

“Will they?”

“All things are possible!”

The two friends chuckled quietly together for several moments more, then silence fell. After several moments, Thale began speaking again, this time in a more serious tone. “Corentin, what exactly is it you want with this visit?” he inquired, attempting to be polite.

“Couldn’t imagine what you mean,” replied Corentin uncomfortably.

“Oh, come on. You only ever show up when my knowledge could be of use to you. Back in Wyrmspire, you and your delinquent followers came by only when you wanted advice on how to beat the neighboring street’s gang!”

“Hey! You were more my friend than any of those sheep!” exclaimed Corentin, offended.

“That may have been, but you only remembered it when you wanted something. Hells, last time you were here it was only to ask my opinion on that map you won!” The two stood in awkward silence for several moments.

Corentin started again, stumblingly. “I may have something I wish to ask your… opinion on.”

“Ah, here we go,” smiled Thale. “What is it? Another map? Perhaps an ancient artifact you ‘acquired’ and wish to have examined?”

“Closer to the latter…” mumbled Corentin as he fished in his pouch. He pulled out several things, some identifiable and some not, before he got to what he was looking for. “Ah!” he exclaimed, and pulled it out.

It appeared to be a shard of pottery. It was small enough to fit comfortably in Corentin’s hand, but large enough so that he could not entirely close his fist around it. Though obviously broken, it was decorated on both sides as well as on the edges. The decorations were dizzying, all manner of colors and designs, swirls and paintings. Dominating them, however, were several large swirls of silver, shining even in the dim light of the study. They danced intricately, confusing the eyes and confounding the mind.

Both men were silent for several seconds, studying it. Thale broke the silence first. “May I hold it?” he asked. Corentin handed the shard to him, and the silence continued. The scholar turned it over and over in his hands, examining every part of it, every bit of paint.

“I’ve no idea what it is,” he finally pronounced, handing it back to Corentin. The captain looked downhearted, but listened as Thale continued. “It’s… an oddity, certainly. The silver shouldn’t shine like that, but it does. And it’s obviously very old, as the other paint is worn and faded, but none of it’s chipped away. The color has faded, but evenly, which is almost unheard of in artifacts of this age.”

“What should I do with it?” asked Corentin, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

“Well, first, you should tell me where you got it.” Though he loved his friend, Thale was no fool, and new that anything Corentin brought him was probably earned illegitimately. The scholar was fully prepared to scold his friend for theft, gambling, or whatever he had done to earn this object.

“Well…” began Corentin, sitting down at his friend’s desk and putting his feet up, “You know who Dracart Kavarus is, right?”

“Of course, most do. Currently the most dangerous member of the Twelve, ambitious as all hell, pledged unswervingly to Anator. Not a nice person.”

“That guy. Well, d’ya know that he has a daughter?” This proclamation from Corentin was greeted with a glare from Thale, who knew where this was going. “Deadly beautiful,” continued the captain, “and just as evil as her father. But naïve. Doesn’t know when someone’s trying to… coerce her.”

Thale glared at Corentin for several seconds more. The captain continued, speaking a bit faster. “Anyway, she and I had an… encounter… and while the guards were chasing me out of the fortress I found myself in a trophy room. Nice place, with a bunch of obviously valuable things.”
“Well, what possessed you to grab this bit of pottery, then? Surely there was more of value there.”

“Oh, sure. But it was big. There was a statue that I could’ve sworn was solid gold, and a battleaxe made of mithril and etched with all kinds of things, but the guards were getting close and they had some unpleasantly pointy objects and orders from her father to kill, so I grabbed this and legged it out the window.” Corentin paused for a moment, contemplating. “Fortunately, the castle was on the coast, and I fell into the Cloudsea, where my crew rescued me. It was a bit high up, I doubt I would’ve made the fall if not for that…” He lapsed into silence, having finished his story.

Thale sat for a moment, obviously decided something, and spoke. “Well, I can help you.”

“You can?” Corentin almost jumped out of his seat.

“Of course,” said the scholar, smiling smugly. “I’ve a fellow scholar, a dwarf, who specializes in this manner of thing. Artifacts, and the like.”

Corentin was sitting on the edge of his seat with excitement. “Thale, I love you! You’ve no idea how curious I am about this thing!”

Thale began to say something, then blinked and switched to another. “Why?”

“Huh?”

“Why are you so curious? I’ve never known you to care about something that isn’t directly on the path to your fortune.”

“That’s just the thing, I’ve no idea! It shouldn’t interest me at all, but it does, and that makes it all the more interesting! It’s driving me crazy! Now, where the hell is this dwarf you’ve spoken of?”

Thale paused for a moment, then continued. “…well, that’s the thing, he’s a bit of a long way off.”

“Where?”

“Sentinel Watch.”

“Where in the name of Zaran is that?”

“It’s a newly constructed outpost. On an island to the west… here, I can give you a map…” Thale began rummaging around in one of his piles. Corentin leaned in to look, and gave up after several minutes of not being able recognize anything that flashed under his friend’s hands.

After a seeming eternity, Thale found what he was looking for. “Aha!” he exclaimed, holding a shabby piece of parchment high. He pressed it into the captain’s hands, pointing toward a recent addition to the map, added in relatively newer ink.

“Sentinel Watch…” read Corentin. “By the gods, that’s further to the west than I’ve ever been! What’s the purpose of an outpost there?”

“You’ll find out. You’ll find the dwarf there, his name is Galeun.”

“I suppose I shall…”

Exchanging several more pleasantries, Corentin departed. The room through which he had entered was just as busy as it had been previously, but he paid it no heed. He knew where he was going next, and that’s all an adventurer needs.

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7 Comments

  1. Daniel said,

    May 13, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Neat! I think the description is okay, though let me make sure I understood it properly. The top of Alara is basically flat, right, mountains aside? But the bottom, especially around the edges, probably isn’t. There’s probably a lot of cliff at the edge and then it turns inward, forming a rough quarter-circle. Below, if I understand correctly, starts on a ledge just as things start to turn inward and ends hanging directly from the bottom of the continent. Right? Send me an email with a sketch if I’m wrong, please.

  2. Pieboy from school said,

    May 13, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Yeah, that’s a really good description of Below.

    This is great so far. Kept me interested and shit. Maybe too many space-filling things like “they talked a little while longer and then he left.” You could just end the conversation there and it wouldn’t really matter.

    I’d say something about passive voice, too, but I figure you get a lot of that already.

  3. tuskedchimp said,

    May 13, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    You’ve got it right, Daniel.

    Coo’. I note your objection about the space-filling things. Passive voice I can never manage to avoid, I’ll proofread it again later.

  4. esty said,

    May 15, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    >> this pouch
    is redundant with the line mentioning it next paragraph, and also confusing as you hadn’t mentioned it up to that point

    >> All this, Captain Corentin thought of as his crew …
    Take out the comma. it’s damned confusing

    >> breath in the sights
    breathe, dammit

    >>and new that anything
    “knew”

    brain sleepy. interesting.

  5. esty said,

    May 15, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    also, how on earth does one “breathe in sights”?

  6. tuskedchimp said,

    May 15, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks. I knew I screwed up the breathe thing, I can never get that right. By breathing them in dammit.

  7. pieboy said,

    May 15, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    additionally, I posted on my blog.


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