Gort heard the man's sniveling before he saw him. He stopped his cart and checked the scratchboard with the day's assignments on it. There were seven traps to reset this morning, three of them in the main cavern. This one, deep in the labyrinth beneath Castle Dhoom, was clearly last on the list.
The man cried and whimpered. He begged to some human god. He sounded weak. Probably dying...
Gort rubbed at an itch underneath his chin. The overseers didn't like it when anyone went off the plan. The plan had kept Lord Dhoom in power for three thousand years. The plan was perfect.
On the other hand, wasn't a live prisoner more valuable than a dead one? Dead prisoners were nothing but ghoul-food. But live prisoners went upstairs. Live prisoners went to see her.
All at once, Gort's black little heart began to flutter in his chest. He giggled like a whelpling. Upstairs. Upstairs to see Pustula. The thought sent grave-moths fluttering though his stomach.
He pulled a mallet and a rusty knife from his cart. He set the handbrake and crept forward on foot. When he came to the cross-tunnel, he pressed his body to the wall and peered around the corner.
A short ways ahead, the rough stone floor gave way to iron grillwork. The grill stretched from wall to wall, and continued down the tunnel for twenty-five yards. Dozens of long spikes jutted up through holes, their points nearly touching the ceiling. One of them had speared the man through the upper arm. Another had snagged his cloak. He dangled between them like a whimpering, whining scarecrow.
Gort made his way to the man, deftly weaving his way through the spikes. He looked up and smiled a toothy smile.
"About to have a bad day, you."
The man hawked and spat. "Choke and die, orc-filth!"
"Don't think so, me. Sorry." Gort used the knife to slice away the man's cloak. All of the weight sagged to the speared arm. The man cried and whimpered, but he didn't fall. Gort took hold of the ankles.
"Might feel a slight pressure, you. Some discomfort."
"May the Lords of Light shine forever dark-spawn. May they burn the eye--eiiiiiieee!"
Gort pulled down sharply. The man fell heavily to the iron grill. He clutched his ripped, ruined arm and wailed in pain.
"Told you," Gort said. He raised the mallet and brought it down squarely on the man's forehead. The screaming stopped abruptly.
Gort stowed the knife and mallet in his girdle. He dragged the man back towards his cart, whistling a song of slavery, pain, and misery. It was going to be a good day.
As he pedaled his cart through the tunnels, Gort felt light and airy. He couldn't believe his luck. In his mind, he tried to rehearse what he'd say to her.
Hello, Pustula. Look foul today, you. No. That was too forward.
Going to feed the ghouls tonight, me. Want to help dismember corpses? No. That was stupid. Pustula dismembered corpses all day. Why would she want to do it again after work?
See the elf-stink gladiator fights, you? Didn't think the mewling princess had it in her. He sighed and shook his head. Did Pustula even like sports? He couldn't remember.
The unconscious man moaned and stirred. Gort made an annoyed noise. He rummaged in the cart for the mallet and gave him another sharp whack on the forehead.
"Concentrating, me. Be quiet."
Gort was still trying to think of what to say when he got to the crank-lift. Rat-fang, the lift operator, shot him a suspicious look. He jabbed a barbed spear at the crumpled man in the cart.
"Ghoul pens are the other way, mucker. No meat allowed in the lift."
Gort bristled at the way he said "mucker." Rat-fang was a contemptuous little worm, weak and skinny by orc standards. His tusks grew out of the middle of his top jaw. He wore thick lenses over his eyes to correct his vision. Anywhere else in Lord Dhoom's army, Rat-fang would have been slaughtered and turned into shoe-leather.
But not here. Influential parents, probably. As always, Gort bit back his rage. "Not ghoul food, him. Live one. Fresh from the traps."
Rat fang's eyes narrowed. "He doesn't look very live."
Gort dug a finger claw into the man's wounded tricep. The man sat up and shrieked in pain. Before he could try to escape, Gort put him out with the mallet again.
"Said so, me. Live one."
"So you did. All right. Climb aboard."
Rat-fang pulled the cage door closed behind them. He slid the locking-bolts into place and started turning the massive, ancient crank handle. The cage began to climb slowly through the darkness.
Rat-fang grinned his weasely little grin as he turned the crank. "She's out of your league, you know."
"You know 'who.' Don't play dumb with me, mucker."
"Maybe shut up and turn the crank, you."
Rat-fang cackled. Gort rode the rest of the way in silence, the tips of his ears turning red with embarrassment.
The lift jarred to a stop. Rat-fang slid the locking bolts back and lifted the door. he flashed a sarcastic grin. "Your lady awaits, mucker. Best not to keep her waiting long."
Gort ignored him. He pedaled the cart into the long, dim corridor that led to Pustula's torture chamber. His heart thudded in his chest. His mouth felt dry and his fingers felt clammy.
He found her sitting at a grindstone, sharpening a wicked-looking pair of pliers. She muttered a filthy string of curses under her breath as she worked. Gort watched the way her gray-green jowls flapped. He stared at the gentle, upward curve of her tusks and her wide, porcine snout.
"What do you want, mucker?"
Gort smiled. Her voice was like a hundred hydras gargling pigswill. He imagined what it would be like to hear her whisper sweet nothings in his ear, the tips of her tusks tickling his--
She pounded a meaty fist on the table. The sound snapped him back to reality. "Well?"
"Uh, found a prisoner, me. In the traps."
Pustula craned her neck to see into Gort's cart. "Very well. Bring him in and tie him to the breaking wheel."
She pushed herself up from her stool, and waddled her way over to the wall rack. She carefully scanned the tools and instruments there. She selected a fistful of irons, which she laid point-first in a flaming brazier. She also selected thorn wood club with a heavy brass head.
Gort watched her, his heart pounding in his chest, his ears twitching nervously. Say something say something say something...
"Look very foul today, you."
Pustula glared over her shoulder. "Did you say something, mucker?"
"Um, no. Talking to the prisoner, me."
Pustula snorted. "I don't care what he looks like. I care what he knows. Now stop wasting my time and put him on the wheel!"
Stupid, Gort thought. Stupid stupid stupid. He threw the man over his shoulder and carried him over to the wheel. He laid him across the spokes and fastened his wrists to the leather restraints along the rim.
The man groaned and started to come around. He blinked his eyes slowly. He seemed disoriented at first. Then the waves of pain and horror washed over his face as he remembered where he was.
"Remember that bad day, you? It's about to start."
The man quickly regained his composure. He let out a hearty chuckle. "Rotten orcs! Lomax, the Thief-king of Khadasan, laughs at torture."
"Laugh at this, tiny man." Pustula traced a dirty finger claw along the thief's arm. She stopped at a spot just above the elbow joint, in between two of the wheel's spokes. She dug in and drew blood. Then she swung the club at the spot, neatly cracking the man's humerus bone in two. He let out a high-pitched shriek.
"Where did you come from," Pustula asked. "How many are with you?"
"Rot in the eternal flames of the abyss, orc-witch!"
Pustula set down the club and picked up the pair of sharpened pliers. She eyeballed the man's fingernails. Just then she glanced up at Gort.
"Need something else, mucker?"
Pustula wrinkled her snout. "Well, I'm sure you've got work to do. Back downstairs."
"Right. Lots of work to do, me." Gort stood there, fiddling with the cart's handbrake and awkwardly shifting his weight back and forth.
Pustula slammed a fist on the table full of torture implements. "Leave, gods curse you!"
Gort jumped and stumbled, nearly falling flat on his rear end. He hurriedly wheeled his cart back to the crank lift. A string of curse words followed him down the tunnel. They were quickly replaced by the Thief-king's screams of pain.
Back at the crank-lift, Rat-fang couldn't hide the joy in his eyes as he pulled the cage door closed. He gloated silently as he turned the handle, lowering them back into the dungeon tunnels. Soon he couldn't contain himself.
"'Talking to the prisoner, me.'" Rat-fang mocked.
"Rude to eavesdrop, you."
"Face it, mucker. You're nothing. She knows it. You know it, too. Stop wasting your time."
Gort wanted to shout something, some witty retort. But Rat-fang was right. Pustula was fetid, hideous, and terrifying. On top of that, she was one of Lord Dhoom's most accomplished torturers. What would a perfect orc-woman like her ever see a lowly dungeon mucker?
Gort was lost in his thoughts as he went about his work. He mindlessly cranked levers and set locking bolts. He numbly mopped up the red splashes and piles of gristle that were left over from the traps' victims. It was mostly dogs and wolves today, with the occasional farm boy following some great destiny or other.
The crushers didn't care, of course. They just mashed intruders into pulp.
He grumbled under his breath as he finished mopping the latest spot. He climbed into the seat of his pedal cart. He wished someone would just write a work order for that faulty gate in the south cavern already. He kept asking Rat-fang to tell the overseers about it.
Rat-fang. The thought of him boiled Gort's blood. He saw the way Rat-fang always looked at Pustula. He imagined the two of them at the gladiator pits together, eating popped pixie skulls from the same box, cheering as a barrow troll bit into a mewling little gnome boy...
He shook his head angrily to clear the image. He checked the scratchboard to find the next trap on the list. It was a squeezer, just four tunnels over. Gort pedaled his cart, not hurrying, until he arrived at the iron-barred door. He double-checked the scratchboard to make sure this was the right one.
Squeezers were different than crushers. A crusher dropped a slab of ceiling on you when you hit the trigger. The slab came down quickly, smashing you like a bug. But a squeezer made the walls close in on you. It did it slow, so you could see it coming.
Gort climbed off of the cart and applied the handbrake. He fiddled with his keys. As usual, the body was close to the door. A steel-armored hand poked out from between the two granite slabs.
He opened the hidden panel in the floor, and began to turn the screwshaft. The two walls beyond the door slowly parted. The body collapsed to the floor in a tangle of crushed, bloody armor. Gort turned the screw until the walls were back in their original position. Then he threw the locking bolt into place.
The body came apart without much difficulty. He threw pieces of the crumpled armor into his cart, pausing occasionally to shake out the wet chunks. Then he got to work with the mop.
Just as soon as he finished cleaning the stain, Gort heard voices in the tunnel. He quickly closed he screw-panel. He dragged his cart to the nearest bolthole, and slid the door shut. He placed his eye to the peep-ring and waited.
At first, Gort saw nothing but the eerie glow of witch-light. But soon a burly, loin-clothed warrior crept into view. He was a blonde-haired giant, with a massive broadsword held in his hand. A robed figure with a long white beard tiptoed behind him. The second man held a staff covered in archaic runes, the tip glowing like a will-o-the-wisp.
The warrior leaned back to his companion. "I don't like this, Zaphrias. We should have found the others by now."
"Never fear, Delnar. Lomax and Sir Allared are nearby. I can feel it. We'll find them soon enough. Then we'll put an end to Lord Dhoom once and for all."
"By the Gods of the Sea," said Delnar. "If anything has happened to my sworn-brother Allared, I will take bloody vengeance on those responsible!"
"Stay calm, my barbarian friend. And keep your eyes on the tunnel."
Gort waited impatiently as they approached the trigger stone in the floor. He waited one heartbeat. Two. Four. They were almost there. Closer. Any second...
The blonde-haired barbarian was the one who stepped on it. Gort nearly yelled in triumph—and caught himself at the last instant. Nothing happened. The ironbound door didn't slam shut. The walls didn't slide inward with their slow, relentless grinding sound.
Gort's clenched his fists. It was the locking bolt. He forgot to pull the gods-damn-it-all-to-the-flaming-abyss locking bolt when he closed the panel. Right behind the warrior, the wizard stepped on the same rigger stone. Again, nothing happened.
Gort's stomach twisted itself into knots. He was in trouble now. Big trouble.
He waited until the intruders passed by. Then he slowly eased his way out of the bolthole. He ran back to the crank-lift as fast as he could, sticking to side tunnels to stay out of sight.
"Rat-fang!" he called. "Got to help me, you!"
"Help you with what? Spit it out, mucker."
"Heroes. Heading this way, them. Already past the squeezer trap."
Rat-fang sneered. "So what? The spike trap will get them, just like it got their stupid thief-friend. The spike trap gets everyone."
"Uh, about that. Got something to tell you, me."
Rat-fang's eyes narrowed. "You didn't reset the spike trap, did you? You were too busy pining over that rotten little torture-orc!"
Gort nodded sheepishly. "Got to help me, you."
"No, I don't 'got to' help you! This is your mess, you imbecile! You need to fix it yourself!" Rat-fang reached up to drag the cage door closed.
In a panic, Gort seized him by the neck. He hauled the scheming little weasel out into the corridor, and with his free hand he slammed the cage shut. As a final measure, he bent the latch to the side.
As soon as Gort let go of him, Rat-fang cursed. He dropped to the ground and heaved against the latch with all of his might. It wouldn't budge.
"Skinny for an orc, you. And weak."
"Open my cage this instant!"
Gort simply crossed his arms and smiled. "Now got to help me, you."
Rat-fang gripped his spear nervously. "This is a stupid plan," he whispered.
Gort scowled. "Got a better one, you?"
"Then maybe shut up."
Gort had doubled back to the squeezer trap and retrieved his cart. While Rat-fang kept watch, Gort carefully laid he smashed pieces of armor along the westward tunnel, making a trail that led away from the crank-lift. He made sure to place them irregularly and at odd intervals: a pouldron here, a sabaton there, a few links of mail scattered in between.
Now, hidden in a bolthole, Gort surveyed his handiwork through the peep-ring. He gave a satisfied nod. It looked suitably suspicious, but not definitely deliberate.
"They're going to see right through it," Rat-fang whispered. "Nobody's this stupid."
Gort elbowed him sharply on the side of the head. "Told you shut up. Hear something, me."
In the gloom of the passageway, Gort saw the eerie light of the witch-fire again. Delnar and Zaphrias were talking in low voices. Gort strained to hear them.
"This looks like a main tunnel," said Delnar. He stalked into view, the point of his sword leveled at the shadows. Zaphrias followed behind.
Gort felt his heart pounding in his chest. He felt the tickle of the sweat beading on his brow. If this didn't work...
"There's an intersection ahead," Delnar said.
"Keep going straight. This tunnel obviously leads somewhere important, or it wouldn't be so well maintained. And we—"
The beefy warrior held up a hand, shushing Zaphrias. He pointed at the bloody, half-crushed pouldron in the cross tunnel. "Sir Allared has been this way," he whispered. "And not alone."
Gort watched as Delnar stepped warily into the westward tunnel. Zaphrias followed closely. Gort waited, counting his heartbeats. When he got to fifty-four, he could no longer see the glow of the witch-fire. Slowly, he eased the bolthole's door open.
"Stay close, you," he whispered. "Need your aim soon."
They moved carefully and quietly, always staying to the shadows, always staying just outside of the witch-fire's light.
"Gods of the sea," swore Delnar, "When I get my hands on the orc-scum who have my sworn-brother Allared, I'll—"
The wizard cut him off. "Yes, yes. You've already been over that. Blood. Vengeance. I know. Pay attention to the tunnel."
"There's some kind of grate in the floor. Like a cage."
"Now!" shouted Gort. Rat-fang aimed his spear and heaved. It struck a spot on the wall and tripped a hidden catch. The grate flopped open beneath the two intruders, spilling them into the pit below.
There was silence at first. Then there was a hungry roar. The wizard gave a pitiful cry of fear, and the warrior shouted some nonsense about sea gods. Soon there was nothing but the quiet sounds of feeding.
Gort walked to the edge of the pit and looked down. The ghouls were ravenously tearing strips of flesh from the warrior's carcass. The wizard was mostly picked clean already, with two of the smaller ghouls fighting over the scraps still clinging to his skull.
Gort glanced side-eyed at Rat-fang. "Work together good, you and me. Maybe be less of a jerk next time I see you."
Rat-fang let out a sharp laugh. "The next time I see you? Pustula will be boiling the hide from your bones, mucker. Lord Dhoom is going to hear about your failure today."
Gort shrugged. Oh, well. No one could say he didn't try.
He grabbed the back of Rat-fang's jerkin and heaved, tossing him into the ghoul pit with the rest of the meat. Then he strolled back to the crank-lift, whistling a song of slavery, pain, and misery.
The shadow that fell across Gort was cold, and it seemed to crawl like a cloak of living maggots. The sound of distant screams filled the air, but came from nowhere in particular. Gort fell to his knees.
"All hail Lord Dhoom!"
"Where is Rat-fang?" Lord Dhoom hissed. "He usually runs this device."
"Don't know, terrible excellency. Was feeding the ghouls last time I saw him."
Lord Dhoom waved a hand dismissively. "No matter. Bring me to the torture room. I wish to see this so-called Thief King."
"At once, terrible excellency."
Gort turned the crank, lowering the lift into the bowels beneath the castle. He stopped at Pustula's floor.
Pustula threw herself to the ground as soon as Gort opened the cage. "All hail Lord Dhoom!"
"Where is the prisoner?"
"On the breaking wheel, terrible excellency."
Lord Dhoom laughed. It was like the sound of a madman's dreams. "Wait here, torturer. I will speak directly to his mind. I would not like to be disturbed." He strode down the short hallway to the torture chamber.
Pustula climbed to her feet, brushing the soot from her leather vest. Gort flashed her a quick smile.
Go on, he thought. Just like you practiced.
"Hello, Pustula. Look very foul today, you."
"Fester and die, troll dropping."
Gort's heart fluttered. The sweet nothings were sweeter than he'd ever imagined.
In the torture chamber, the thief's screams rose to a fever pitch.