Night of the Tall Fires

Last night the Storm Guild tested the twenty-four great flame throwing towers arrayed around the city walls. These towers are storm defences, and this test occurs twice a year.

It’s called the Night of the Tall Fires on account of the hundred meter long jets of flame that are shot into the sky.

To simulate a real storm attack, the city is declared a dark zone, which makes it a perfect opportunity for thieves and villains. That’s why all security personnel leave was cancelled for forty-eight hours. And that’s why Ganhook volunteered Aisling and I as backup guards, which really annoyed us because we’d been looking forward to the show.

We found ourselves assigned to patrolling The Cricks, one of the oldest areas in town, where the wooden buildings leaned so far over the streets we’d be lucky to see the glow of the flares. Shinytop was happy, though. He kept telling us about his days as a thief.

‘I’d make enough during a Tall Fire to keep me drunk for a month,’ he kept boasting, until Aisling threatened him with the silence sock.

We soon grew bored. Everyone had gone to the city limits to get the best view. And, apart from some sewer maintenance workers taking advantage of the empty streets, the neighbourhood was empty. When the first horn alarm echoed over the city, I almost climbed onto a roof.

As the sound of the horn faded, the tail end of a scream echoed out from a nearby alley. Aisling flashed me a glance. We listened. Silence. Then laughter, closely followed by another scream.

‘Sounds like a thief bait party,’ Shinytop hissed.

‘A what?’ Aisling said.

‘Nasty business.’ Shinytop whispered. ‘Some don’t like the fires. Some prefer what the dark might bring them. They’ll set traps for thieves, then spend the night torturing them.’

Unsettled, I barely noticed the second alarm as I followed Aisling down the alley. But when the third alarm sounded, and the sky blossomed orange, I couldn’t help looking up.

‘Beautiful,’ Aisling whispered.

Then the glow faded, and the acrid stench of kerosene fumes broke over us, and I heard the scream again.

‘Here,’ Aisling hissed, pointing at an open basement window.

‘I’ll take a look,’ Aisling said.

Typical Aisling. She always wanted to go first. Not this time. Taking a deep breath, I shoved past her and wriggled through the window.

‘Wait,’ Shinytop hissed.

Too late. In my haste, I forgot to check inside, and I dropped straight into a cage. The trapdoor lid closed above me. A bell jingled. A door opened, spilling light into the room. Two men surged towards me, their silhouettes huge and menacing. Faces crammed the doorway behind them.

‘Another so quick,’ one brute hissed.

‘Coming like rats.’ The other laughed. ‘And a good thief, too. Look how well he’s dressed. We’ll raise the bets on this one.’

Too shocked to reply, they hauled me from the cage, tied my arms behind my back, and shoved me out into a room filled with candles and tobacco smoke and people. Through the pall of smoke, I saw a skinny wretch of a girl staring up from a pit sunk into the centre of the floor. The pit was six or seven feet deep, and looked like a barrel or tank had once sat there.

I guessed she was maybe ten or eleven, but it was hard to see past the dirt, rags and tousled hair. She glanced at me, white eyed with fear. I tried to smile. But I don’t think I made a good job of it, and she looked away, wiping tears from her face.

A woman stood at the far side of the pit, a bucket clasped in both hands. From within the bucket came a dreadful clicking clattering sound. I edged forward, and saw a mass of orange insects seething within the bucket.

My heart froze. Cuttlebugs. Nasty, biting devils.

But what did they want with them?

Then I saw a blackboard propped against the back wall. Scrawled onto it were some kind of competition prizes.

  • Closest time to first scream: Ten schillings.
  • Closest time to first blood bite. Twenty shillings.
  • Highest jump. Forty schillings.
  • Time to unconsciousness: Fifty schillings.
  • Bonus prize: Guess the number of bites: Thirty schillings.

A dwarf stood beside it, his square rugged features unnaturally pale in the candlelight. He was taking money from the crowd, and scribbling names and notes beside each blackboard entry.

Anger surged through me, anger at myself, at these people, at the girl for getting caught. And, especially, anger towards the dwarf for taking bets. As if sensing it, he came towards me, and started poking and pinching my muscles, as if sizing up what odds to lay on me.

‘Get lost,’ I hissed.

Frowning, he backed up. ‘I got tricked into coming here, too,’ he whispered. ‘I normally work at the carriage racetrack.’ He shot a glance towards the two brutes. ‘If I don’t help Badger and Weasel, I’ll be in the pit next.’

I saw an honesty in his eyes that cheered me. ‘Then help me.’

‘I’ll try but . . .’

‘Hey!’ Badger yelled. ‘What you talking ‘bout?’

The dwarf waddled back to the blackboard, and started taking more notes.

‘Make your bets now,’ Badger cried. ‘Two minutes. Two minutes.’

The girl wailed, but it was quickly lost in the chaotic, final betting.

‘One minute! All hurry now. One minute! One Minute!’

Suddenly I found it hard to breathe. I had to do something. I couldn’t just stand by and let this wretch get bitten to pieces.

Badger clapped, the sound silencing the crowd. ‘Ten seconds. Nine seconds. Eight . . .’

‘Stop!’ I yelled. ‘Stop this. Otherwise I’ll summon Ganhook!’

A wall of faces turned to face me.

‘Ganhook,’ the bucket woman said. ‘You know Ganhook?’

‘He’s my boss.’

More laughter. More mocking cries.

‘If you can summon that devil, boy,’ Badger cried. ‘I’ll leap into the pit myself.’

The crowd erupted with laughter. But at least I had their attention, and I could buy the girl some time before Aisling did something.

Pretending to be mad, I gibbered nonsense, and strained against the ropes until my shoulders ached and sweat poured from my face. They soon turned their attention back to the child.

Then, just as bucket woman was about to tip the cuttlebugs into the pit, the bell jingled. The room quietened. My heart sank.

Surely Aisling hadn’t followed me.

‘Another,’ Weasel hissed. ‘Truly ‘tis our luckiest of nights.’

Whooping with joy, the crowd packed so tightly around the trap room door, Badger and Weasel had to crack heads to get through. The crowd settled. I heard the city alarm rise and fall. To get a better look, I climbed onto a stool, just in time to see the trap window fill with a red glow. And, amid that glow, I saw a figure out in the street spilling something from a sack into the room.

‘What’s this?’ Badger cried. ‘Who’s out there doing . . .’

His voice fell away into silence. The crowd shivered. Bucket woman edged towards the staircase. People broke from the pack, and darted for the exit. The dwarf raced over, untied me, and hissed, ‘Follow me.’

With that, he clambered up into an alcove set into the wall.

Before I could move, Badger barrelled through the crowd, some long scaly slivery thing hanging by its jaws from the seat of his pants. Weasel wasn’t long behind him. More slivery things slithered into the room, hissing and snapping and sending the crowd stampeding for the stairs.

I dived for the alcove. The dwarf pulled me up. Together we watched the mayhem until the cellar was clear of people and only a few of those silver things remained, feeding on what had been some kind of food stall at the back of the cellar.

Minutes later, Aisling came down the stairs, two sewer workers behind her. Using long tongs, they gathered up the remaining creatures, and dumped them into sacks.

Aisling looked up at us. ‘You okay?’

‘Never better.’

We clambered down and pulled the girl from the pit.

She hugged me, her tiny body straining with so much nervous energy she squeezed the breath from my lungs.

‘Please,’ I gasped, wriggling free. ‘I . . .’

‘Saved me,’ she said

The dwarf grabbed the sack of cash from the blackboard, and said, ‘If you do know Ganhook, tell him Badger can often be found at the Lock and Key Inn.’

‘Good luck,’ I replied.

‘No, young heroes. Good luck to you. It’s a kind job you did tonight.’ He pushed the money bag into my hands, and nodded towards the girl. ‘For her. For her future.’

Then he was gone, and the girl was hugging me again, and Aisling was staring at the blackboard, her jaw slack. It was only then I noticed a dreadful stink coming off her. Pinching my nose, I said, ‘What have you been eating?’

‘Don’t be cheeky,’ Shinytop said. ‘She went into the sewers for you.’

‘What?’

‘I,’ Shinytop announced, ‘showed her a little trick I sometimes used to clear out a house I wanted to rob. Those sewer silvertails sometimes come in handy.’

Aisling smiled. ‘The sewer workers helped us catch them.’

I patted Aisling’s shoulder. ‘You took a sewer smell for me.’

‘Not exactly a bullet, but close enough.’

‘I owe you.’

‘You owe me nothing. Well, you went into the basement before me. I wasn’t going to check first either.’

Uncovering the illegal betting ring made the news the next day. Yet, while Ganhook took the credit, we didn’t get a mention. The girl did, however. Turns out she wasn’t even a thief, just an orphan looking for a place to sleep for the night. She’s now got her pick of foster parents.