Raike - Book Four
Water dripped in from all sides, courtesy of the canal just a few feet above us. Our hand-cranked pumps cracked, sheared, and seized every couple of days, choking us to near asphyxiation. Buckets slid back and forth with scoops of earth, rock, and sludge. I had survived four cave-ins and was pretty sure the defenses surrounding the vault would provoke a fifth.
At the front of the tunnel knelt our pint-sized squeezer — Knuckles. A needle-point chisel in one hand. A hammer in the other. He drew in a deep breath, now with the focus of a monk. Gave the mortar its first tap.
An electric burst shot the chisel back. “Aagh!” A moment to recover. Checked his fingers to make sure they were still intact.
Greaser leaned forward. “You okay?”
Knuckles mumbled as he slid on a pair of gloves. And ever so gently tested another brick.
Crank hollered from the pump ten yards back. “Who’s screaming like a child?”
“Hey, fuck you! You want to be the point man on a wall like this? Huh? Or do you want to shut up and let me do my job?”
“Does your job let you go no more than two minutes without complaining?”
“Gentlemen?” said Greaser, with a growl of authority.
Knuckles tried again, going for his third brick of the day. “Fucking build team. Might as well shove the hose up their asses for all the fresh air we’re getting.”
“Fuck! No. No! Why? Why are you being such a dick about this?!” Knuckles threw chisel onto the ground and bottled everything else up, ready to explode. Greaser dug out a thin metal rod and pressed it against the wall, where it glowed a luminescent pink. Knuckles’ shoulders sank immediately. “What the hell? That didn’t glow at all before.”
“That’s because it’s now reacting to the air,” said Greaser.
Knuckles reeled around. “The wall knows we’re here?”
“It’s a wall, not a god. Let’s give it a minute.” We waited. Wiped muck off our faces. Patched the roof again as a new leak sprung.
It had taken us three months to dig that stupid tunnel. Three long, tedious months of carving a foot a day through solid rock. Crank and Knuckles were practically brothers back in Erast. Now they were ready to go toe-to-toe the moment anything went wrong, which would’ve been one hell of a fight since Knuckles was the size of a twelve year old and had the ferocity of a wolverine, whereas Crank was more of a lumbering sledge hammer. While those two would surely get over it, the same could not be said for me and one of the company’s premiere dickwads. Scratch trudged into the light, dragging along a canopy to keep the tunnel from collapsing onto our heads. Fingers was behind him, his arms overloaded with support beams he nearly dropped whenever cold water dribbled down his gangly frame. Scratch raised one hand in bewilderment at the solid wall. “The fuck? Kid, you said we were in.”
I turned to stare at the scarred rat-like features of our senior most scrounger. “I said no such thing.”
“Bullshit. An hour ago you said we were at the wall and lo and behold — still a wall. Isn’t there supposed to be a big ass hole in the middle of it?”
“We’ve been busy.”
“Doing what? Standing around with your dick in your hand?”
“You could try headbutting it to speed things up.”
Scratch dropped the canopy to the ground. “Ohhhhh, look who’s learned how to be cute during his time with the alpha team. Well, I’ve got news for you — the moment that first brick falls, your job on the dig team comes to an end. So guess who’s just volunteered to help me reinforce the new drop point?”
“Oi, both of you settle down as well and get back to work,” growled Greaser.
“I am settled.”
“Then maybe you can fix the canopy so the roof stops pissing down on us. Kid?”
Greaser leaned in. “Seniority may be a fluid thing on any given assignment but on this one Scratch has it. Keep that in mind.”
“Damn straight,” muttered Scratch. “Hold this.” Once again I was manning a support beam with Fingers while Scratch struggled to fix it in place. While Scratch was usually an unending misery, these days he seemed to always be on the verge of losing his sanity as well. Naturally I encouraged that in any way I could.
Greaser moved beside Knuckles and chiseled away more of the surrounding rock. I asked Fingers, “New drop point?”
“North side of Jade Square, I think.”
Scratch practically hissed. “Northbend, dipshits. No one’s dumb enough to use Jade Square. Well, almost no one.”
I steadied the support beam while doing my best to ignore the gnawing feeling worming its way into my gut. “When do we move in?”
“When the Captain gives the go-ahead.”
I looked to Fingers. Whispered. “Who told you about Jade Square?”
“More or less. Why?”
Greaser interrupted us. “Gentlemen? More work, less talk.”
Greaser sighed. “You okay?”
“Not really, no,” muttered Knuckles.
Crank called out. “Hey uh, you want me to build something for that wall? You know, to get through it? Or should I keep doing this?”
Knuckles eyes narrowed towards the point of murder. “I’m not trying to get through the wall.”
“In that case you’re doing a fantastic—”
“I’m trying to create a hole small enough to get the seeing rod through so we can find out what’s on the other side.”
“It better be the vault.”
“Yes, it better be because I sure as hell am not going to dig my way to another one any time soon.”
“So give one of the mages a go.”
“I would but if you blast open a wall without knowing what’s on the other side then you’re gonna bring whoever is upstairs down on top of us and I’d rather not have that happen!”
Greaser shook his head. “All right, Crank? Swap places with Scratch.”
Third-Eye called out from beyond my vision. “Hey, someone said we’re in?”
“Not yet,” said Greaser, with a glare towards Scratch.
“Then what’s with the ruckus?”
Crank called over his shoulder. “We’re having problems with an enchanted wall.”
Third-Eye grunted. “What’d the Captain say about only good news?”
“Hey, I’m just passing it on.”
Greaser once again pressed the metal rod against the bricks. It glowed blue.
“It has rotating enchantments?” spluttered Knuckles.
“Sure looks that way. Kid? Better go get the Captain.”
Gods, how I was grateful to leave all the bickering behind. I gathered my bucket of sludge and left the increasingly sour Scratch and dopey Fingers in peace. One glared. The other tried to smile bravely as if his parents were fighting in front of him and his friends.
I was eighteen. Had been with the Governor’s Hand for three years and was still the youngest member of the company. I was surrounded by trained killers, mages, military deserters, thieves, runaways, and all manner of assholes. For the first time in my life I felt like I actually belonged to a brotherhood.
We were hours away from pulling off the largest heist in our history — eighty of us in the eastern-most city of the empire, risking our necks to sneak off with a hundred barrels of wine. Not just any wine either, but Vikanda — at one time the single most expensive commodity in the world. The ultimate symbol of wealth. No high-born wedding was complete without someone presenting a bottle, firkin, or barrel to the happy couple. And no senator, priest, or foreign king could keep the emperor forever on their side without spending a fortune on this nectar of the gods. Within that vault was supposed to be the largest cache of fine wine the world had ever seen, and come dawn it was going to be ours.
The build team upstairs was responsible for keeping the tunnel from collapsing and make sure everyone remained alive while we dug — a job they frequently neglected when some moron left the air pump unattended to go and take a piss. The deltas were on lookout duty across the whole city, keeping an eye on our fence, the city watch, and anyone else who would happily attack us if they realized they could get their hands on our wine. Others worked in the warehouses, refitting a dozen barges so we could transport a hundred barrels through Solento’s canals without being noticed. Finally there was the alpha team — the diggers, crawlers, and ones responsible for actually breaking into the impenetrable vault. I volunteered for one simple promise made by the Captain — alpha team are the first into the vault. No one else.
I crept along the tunnel, ducking under another set of support beams, turning over what Scratch had said — there was a new drop point in Northbend. Why? We already had three safe houses lined up and they had been reinforced against potential raids for months. So why was another safe house being worked on? And why did Scratch say it was in Northbend when the Captain himself told me it was going to be in the Hovel? And why did Fingers think it was in Jade Square?
The obvious answer was to somehow confuse Luuko — our fence. A renowned dick whom we had mutually burned the last time we were in Solento. Unfortunately he was the only person capable of handling a hundred barrels of wine stolen from one of the richest and most connected senators in the world. Half of our scouts were watching him and his people, convinced he was going to fuck us over, yet no one — not even Rush, our closer — could find out when and where the inevitable ax was going to fall.
I found Third-Eye at the ladder, yawning and scratching his butt. “Hey, Third-Eye, there’s no chance of me being pulled from the alpha team and put under Scratch’s watch, is there?”
“I dunno. Depends how much you piss him off.”
“Sounds like a sure thing, then. Has something happened to one of the safe houses?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“Just heard we needed a new one.”
“Yeah, Rush found a new place over in Caldwell. Closer to Luuko.”
My pulse started to race. “Will it be ready in time?”
“No idea. Never been there. Eh, don’t tell anyone I told you that, okay?”
“Captain has a stick up his butt about doing Luuko a favor. Doesn’t want to reveal his hand just yet.”
Third-Eye climbed up the ladder while I tried to silence the whispers coming from within me. I’m sure there was a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why Scratch thought the new drop point was in Northbend, why Fingers thought it was in Jade Square, why Third-Eye thought it was in Caldwell, and why I had been told by the Captain himself it was in the Hovel.
To make matters worse, we were about to break into the wrong vault.