Cleaning the Dark
Toilet humour in the most literal sense, Cleaning the Dark was a fantasy parody featured in “It’s A Living”, a 2018 anthology of fantasy stories based on the idea of high-fantasy characters with ordinary jobs.
Blood makes me queasy, so I tried not to look at the corpse, but it was my first day on the job, and my duty was to hold the lantern. The elf-mage’s robes were clean but she was days dead and starting to bloat. Something had chewed off her face.
A rune-staff tipped with amethyst lay at her side. Boli, son of Fundar said, “That’s a nice bit of wood there.”
He peeled the dead woman’s fingers from the ashen rod and nodded sagely as he measured it against his thick, stout arms. “I’ll get two shovels out of this, or a mop. Just need to get the sodding crystal out.”
The amethyst flared in the lamplight. He chortled and searched the body. Feeling a breeze in my beard, I turned and peered sidelong into the dank darkness of the sewers, saw nothing more dangerous than shadow.
“Boli, son of Fundar,” said I. “What manner of fell creature could make such a ruin of a face?”
Boli had found the mage’s purse and was adding its contents to his own.
“Seriously, Nori, you can’t talk like that. City folk will laugh at you. That’s if you’re lucky. More likely, you’ll get a smack in the face.”
My cheeks burned with shame. I was House Finnir, of the Iron Mountains. For aeons, House Fundar had been our vassals. Boli was two hundred years my junior. But the Finnir mines stood vacant, wall-timbers rotted and shafts flooded, and I was bound to Boli’s service by chains thicker than fealty. Poverty provided no choice but to accept his impertinence.
“How would you have me talk?” I asked.
“Just proper. Like a normal person.”
“I will try, Boli, son of Fundar.”
“That’s the other thing. Call me Mr. Boli. Or Baz, if you prefer.”
I almost dropped the lantern. “You forswear the name of your house!”
Boli spat into the filthy water. “None of that stuff matters down here. And up there, in the city, a long name is an invitation for a robbery.” He groped inside the dead mage’s tunic and drew out a crystal phial. Within, a vermilion liquid swirled and glowed. “Potion of healing,” he said. “Poor bugger didn’t even get the chance to use it. Still – worth a few coppers at market.”
“What manner of beast?” I repeated, and hefted my shovel like an axe.
“Killed this elf? Rats, I suppose.”
“Giant ones, obviously.”
“Here. In the sewers?” I shuddered at the thought and wished for a band of shield-brothers by my side.
Boli chuckled. “Relax mate. Giant rats won’t give us any bother. They’re harmless, so long as you don’t start lobbing magic missiles at ’em.”
The mage’s mangled face told otherwise. “They don’t seem harmless to me.”
Boli’s orange eyebrows twitched furiously, and his beady eyes glinted in the darkness. For a moment I thought he would laugh at me and start a blood feud that could end only with his death but he saw the anger in my eyes, and politely straightened his beard. “When exactly did you arrive in Androsant?”
“At the moon’s third rising.”
“Yesterday? Shit me. Ever lived in a city before?”
“So, you know nothing of street life.”
“I know of honour and duty and tradition. The value of hard work.”
He smiled sympathetically. “Exactly my point. Where to begin? The elf. This is what I would call a classic balls-up. Our dead friend here is – was – what they call an ‘adventurer’. Probably straight out of that posh wizard school across the middle sea. Green as an orc’s turd, barely two spells to her name, yet she came to the city expecting paid work. To be polite, to give her something to do, someone – a barkeeper most likely – told her there was a problem with rats in the sewers.”
“She sought to kill them? For money?”
“Nobody knows why, but most adventurers work for free. It’s like… a tradition.”
“The barkeepers of Androsant send youngsters to their deaths? For tradition?”
Boli shook his head. “It doesn’t normally turn out like this. Mages are supposed to make friends – form a team with a lockpicker, a priest and someone good with a sword. The rats are an opportunity to gain some easy experience. For some reason this one decided to go it alone. Gods know why. Must have been a proper idiot.” He nudged the corpse with his boot. “And they say elves are smart.”
“A sad tale,” I said.
“Sure. You grab her feet, I’ll take her arms. On the count of three, we swing her into the water.”
Globules of fat sparkled like fetid pearls upon the sewer’s walls. Boli watched as I scraped them away with my shovel. He pointed at a bad patch with his newfound staff.
“Hold the blade flatter,” he said. “And try not to think about whose arse it all came out of.”
I ignored his taunting. The work reminded me of the mining of my forefathers, who had fought hard rock for its riches and triumphed. Some imagine that men and elves send our kind into the sewers against our will, out of prejudice or spite, but they are wrong. It is proper for dwarves to work in such places. The rasp of metal on stone is like music to our ears. Where other races are forced to crouch, we stand tallest.
“Did you ever work the mines?” I asked.
“You must be joking. I don’t look that old, do I?”
“There was a time when dwarven labour sent gold and diamonds beyond counting from the Iron Mountains. The wealth flowed like a river.”
“Which is why gold and diamonds are worth less than tin or lead.”
It was true. The elders’ ingenuity and love of riches had known no bounds. Their understanding of basic economics had been limited. Now the deep mines stood idle and in ruin and I scraped fat from walls. I stabbed at an obstinate chunk.
“Fat’s no different to goblins,” Boli said. “If you ignore it when the lumps are few and small, before long you’ve got a real problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“A fatberg.” Boli shuddered and I wondered what could possibly frighten such a man.
“Imagine a great white wyrm, with a stink foul enough to shrivel your lungs and a skin that bursts into flame at the smallest spark. One hundred blows will not do for such a beast.”
I tried to picture such a thing. “I should like to see one, someday.”
When the work was done, I knew I had done it well. The walls were clean of slime and scum, and I inspected the exposed masonry with an expert’s eye. The city of Androsant had been built by men, over elven ruins, but the sewers looked like they had been constructed by monkeys. The brickwork was uneven. What pointing remained was crumbling. Whoever had laid the stones had no feeling for the earth; for its tempers and movements.
“These walls won’t last another thousand years,” I scoffed. “Eight hundred at best.”
“That’s the problem with humans,” Boli said. “No long term thinking. Still, they’ll probably all be dead by then. Or slaves to the dark lord.”
“I would rebuild these walls. Create a sewer that flowed as freely as an ocean.”
“See that’s the problem with us dwarves. The constant tinkering. The over-engineering. The love of work. That said, you’re bloody good with a shovel. I can see you doing well down here.”
Over the coming days, we walked the sewers, so that I might map them in my mind. Some were broad as streets, edged with walkways and lit with glow stones. In others we waded waist deep, heads brushing the roof, valuables held before us, our oiled trews armour against the filth. We crossed parties of our brethren scrubbing and scraping and greeted each with a polite shake of the beard. I thought I saw a distant zombie, though Boli denied it was possible.
In those stinking depths a human would have been terrified – and lost in minutes. An elf’s sensibilities could not have withstood the stink. But I tell you – dwarves are different. We are built for such things. Rock and darkness are our friends.
The pay was poor and I spent my nights above ground, sleeping in a leaking garret with ruined women, drug-addled halflings, and un-guilded thieves. Each had a story to tell, and they opened my eyes to the city, but it was the sewers that I came to see as my home. Boli taught me the rhythm of their tides. Where the iron pipes under the assassins’ guild were had rotted through and were dangerous to touch . Why one should never venture under the temple of the blood priestesses at a full moon, or the alchemists’ club on a Saturday night. How to avoid the night traffic between the banking quarter and the thieves’ guild. Boli showed me many secrets: rooms where a man could hide. Ladders to escape quickly, if there was a flood. Hammers and ropes hidden in the walls, sealed in bricks of wax. I remembered these things as if I had known them my entire life.
A week later we found another elf with a missing face. A man this time. He was still bleeding when we got to him, but very much dead. His staff was tipped with emerald – another gemstone my ancestors had rendered almost worthless.
“More giant rats?”
Boli removed his woollen cap, poked at the corpse with his mop and looked around nervously. “Probably,” he said quietly.
“Looks a lot like the last one. Do you think they were working together?”
“Meh, adventurers all dress pretty much to a type. There’s not much range to the outfits a mage wears, especially when they’re starting out.”
There were scorch marks on the walls. “This one was throwing more than just magic missiles. Maybe we should report it?”
“If we had to report every dead adventurer we found, we’d never get past the Vampires’ palace.”
I didn’t like paperwork either, so I said no more. Besides, Boli was a good boss and I thought he knew what he was doing. In silence, he took from the elf that which was worth taking.
“I still don’t understand what possesses these people,” I said.
“They’re addicted to the thrill of it,” Boli replied. “Or gone mad with lust for glory.”
“But it’s not like capturing a gold-seam from an ogre or defending a deep fort from the orcs. These sewers aren’t their home.”
“Adventurers are a mystery,” said Boli, and with that I could not argue.
Some bosses, coming into possession of a hard worker, grow lazier, happy to pass the effort on. Boli was not of that sort. The more he watched me work, the more he felt inclined to follow, and slowly I awoke something long buried deep inside him. After a few weeks we were cleaning together, singing and whistling as we scoured and scraped, as proud as a team of engineers.
One day, when working at a particularly hard encrustment, Boli surprised me. He suddenly stopped singing, and rested his head on his mop. “What do you think it was like, back in the day?”
“In the mines? Hot and hard. The monsters were all gone when I worked them, but there were still some who remembered those times.”
“Do you think we would have been great warriors?”
“I mean like an adventurer?” And Boli thrust his mop like a spear.
“Not me,” I admitted. “I’ve strong arms, but a coward’s heart. I’ve no fear of work, but an Ogre? I’d shit my pants.”
“Wouldn’t matter,” Boli said. “Not down here.”
“Fair point,” I conceded.
“Just imagine it, though, fighting a real monster. Being a hero.”
“There is heroism in the work of ordinary men,” I said, and with one blow of my shovel sundered the dirt cake from the wall.
By the time we found the third dead elf, dead bodies didn’t bother me anymore. Not unless they had missing faces and jewelled staffs staves of ash.
“I don’t like this at all,” I said.
“Me neither,” Boli agreed, as he searched the corpse.
“This one’s got a diamond on top,” I noted, looking at the staff.
“Might as well be glass,” but the way Boli said it, I knew he was keeping something from me.
“Those other staves. What happened to them?” Boli passed me his mop and I felt the runes that wound its haft. “Is the amethyst still under that lot,” ?” I said, pointing to its stringy head.
“I couldn’t get it off. Couldn’t cut the wood either. Not even with my magic saw.”
“Makes a bloody great mop, though. Tougher than nails.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t report this?”
“The dead elf. ? To who?”
“The town guard? Paladins? The mage’s mages’ guild? An elf embassy?”
“You know what the fundamental difference between an adventurer and a sewer cleaner is?” Boli said.
“Adventurers get involved. Sewer cleaners fuck off.”
“Right you are,” I said. “You grab her feet, I’ll take her arms. On the count of three, we swing her into the water.”
The far eastern reaches of Androsant’s sewers are a long and messy story, and mostly human business. To cut it short, as Boli always did, the last time a necromancer had tried to set himself up as the local dark lord, it hadn’t worked out well for anyone. His tower was on the east side of town, and when his plans went tits-up, the tower collapsed and his death-curse scorched the surface of the earth. Consumed in a pillar of flame, in one terrifying instant the east side of the city became both a notable tourist attraction and uninhabitable until the end of time.
The only part of that story of any interest to us was that, as a result, the sewers under there didn’t need much cleaning. All Boli and I ever had to worry about was the overspill after a flood, or a feast. That year it was our luck that, for the first time in a century, both occurred on the same day. The ensuing shit storm meant we found ourselves wandering tunnels not travelled for years.
In retrospect, I know we both noticed the great circular room with the portal carved into its floor. I know that I clocked the three stave holes in the sacrificial block at its centre, and if I’m honest, the murals of the dark lord which lined the chamber were pretty hard to miss. But some things are best left to adventurers, and some other things are better left alone entirely, and our minds were preoccupied. What we had seen at the next corner was far more interesting.
I had only half believed Boli when he had told me of such things, and yet there it stood, a monolith of filthy white jelly. A dragon. A demon of filth that would let none pass. The stink was incredible and my heart soared. All at once I felt that I had met my destiny in the sewers of Androsant. I had finally found a task worthy of house House Finnir.
“By my father’s beard, look at the size of that thing,” I said.
“It scares me,” Boli said.
“It is a wonder.”
“That mess is going to take a week to clear. At least.”
“Then let us make a camp, as our ancestors once did in the deep ways.”
Something in my voice brooked no argument. Boli looked at me queerly and without jest, said; “At your command, Nori, son of Finnir.”
For three days and nights we battled with the fatberg, rending it with shovel and mop. For three days and nights it resisted all that we could muster. Boli said that we should call on our brethren for help, but I refused to share the glory. We worked in the dark, for fear of alighting the fat and the noxious gasses which poured from the beast, but we did not mind. Dwarves have keen eyes and resolute souls.
It was because of the dark that the adventurers did not see us.
Their leader was an old priest, of grey-blue vestment, an amulet of the redeemer heavy upon his chest. A spectral light led his way, and those of his companions. Behind him scuttled a bald-headed woman, tattooed, and with a fearsome visage. She was sneaky, for a human, and the arrow readied in her bow glinted sharp and cruel. The last of them was a mountain of a man, a knight clad from head to toe in plate harness, with a war hammer taller than Boli balanced in the crook of his shoulder. We heard him coming a mile off. They entered the room of the domed chamber, and we heard great consternation.
“Do you think we should see what they’re up to?” I asked.
“They’re adventurers. It’s bound to be nonsense,” Boli replied.
Truth be told I wasn’t convinced either, but I followed them anyway. The old man was staring at the murals, eyes dark, brow troubled. The archer was scouting for secret buttons and the like. The knight was praying.
“Hello,” Boli said cheerfully. The archer drew her bow. The knight raised his hammer.
“What manner of creature are you?” he boomed from within his helm.
“Cleaners,” I said, and waved my shovel in the air. The archer lowered her bow, disappointed.
“We work here,” Boli explained.
The old man made an arcane gesture. “I sense no evil in this pair.”
The archer hissed. “What does it matter? The stars are nearly in alignment, and the ritual is incomplete.”
“Can we help?” Boli said. “Otherwise we’ll just get on with our work.”
“All is lost,” wailed the knight.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Boli said. “Go back through the arch you just came in, take the fourth turning on the right, then left, left, right, and you’re in the pirate shipyards.”
“What my colleague means to say – is that all hope is gone,” said the man in blue.
“He’s depressed,” I said.
The blue priest grimly shook his head. “No. We are here because of the prophecy.”
“Fruitcakes,” Boli mumbled into his mop.
“The dark lord did not die, but was trapped in the very chamber beneath our feet. He remains in vestigial form, but if we cannot defeat him before the sun rises, he will be reborn as a creature of malice and flame.”
“Right,” said Boli.
“But we cannot enter the tomb without the staves of power, and our elven spies have failed in their duty to deliver them.”
“The free peoples are doomed,” said the knight.
Obviously, at that point, things were starting to make a little more sense.
“These staves of power, do they look like…”
“This!” exclaimed Boli and thrust forwards his mop.
“Are you taking the piss?” said the priest in blue.
“Sorry… I meant this.” With a very slow flourish Boli untied the mop’s head and cast it aside. Radiant beams of purple light filled the chamber.
“How is this possible?” asked the priest, wide-eyed.
“Do you have the others?” boomed the knight.
“Yes,” Boli said.
“In the broom cupboard.”
“BRROOM CUPBOARD!” bellowed the knight.
“It’s really not far. Maybe I should get them for you.”
“Take me there, and quickly,” said the archer.
Many claim elven magic to be all show and no trousers, but the light of the three staves combined in an undeniably impressive rainbow hue, and when the seal of the dark lord’s chamber was sundered, the sound of it shook my ribs and showered stones from the murals to the floor.
“Thanks, stout fellows,” said the priest, and though he did not shake his beard, we shook ours in return. A foul, sickly light was seeping from the pit, and the adventurers wasted no time in setting their grappling hooks.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I said.
“Good luck,” offered Boli.
The adventurers lowered themselves inside. There was a lot of screaming.
A few minutes later, I said, “I think we should have a look.”
“No way,” said Boli.
But it was needed, and so for the first time in my life, I did something an adventurer would have considered brave. I peeked over the edge. I can’t say I liked what I saw. In fact, if I’m completely honest, I was true to word. I shat my pants. But like Boli said, down in the sewers, it didn’t really matter.
“What does it look like?” Boli asked.
“A really big spider, yellowish, with bits of priest and knight attached.”
“No. Not good.”
Troubled, we went back to our work. The sundering of the seal had dislodged the fatberg, and the mountain of fat lay collapsed like a great slug, laying in a pool of its own grease and slime.
“Do you think a dark lord would look kindly upon dwarves?” Boli said.
“Probably not,” I reckoned.
“Well then,” he said.
“Looks like a downhill slope to me. All we have to do is get it moving.”
As I’m sure you know, dwarves are good engineers. It took us no more than half an hour to get the winches and pulleys set up right, and that was more than enough time. And so it came to pass that one hundred and thirty tons of fat distilled from human excrement and cooking oil was poured into the birthing chamber of the dark lord.
Before I tossed in the match, Boli grabbed the staves.
“Make bloody good mops, these,” he explained.
The chamber began to seal.
Fatbergs burn much hotter than I thought they would.
“Job done,” I said.
“And better than any adventurer could.” Boli removed his woollen hat, and pulled his beard straight. “You shovel well, Nori, son of Finnir.”
“Your mop knows no equal, Boli, son of Fundar.”
The earth trembled beneath our feet and we heard a scream like the ending of worlds.
Copyright © Adam M. Steiner 2018