Sing muse! A tale of darkness and grime. A tale of hope and of purity. A tale of heroism and adventure in a place opposed to both and in a place naive to both. Sing a tale of invasion and destruction, of insidious outsiders who wish only great harm on all things. A tale of a world in peril and a world destroyed by blight. A tale of a city by the sea, situated on a smattering of islands, and the actions of its inhabitants.
Down in the darkness below the bustling streets of Port Delta, all that can be heard is the sound of rushing water. Nearly inaudible, below the level of the flowing sludge is the almost silent scratching of small rodents searching for savory morsels of food in the rapids. These rodents may once have been able to be called rats, however if we could see them (which we can, as omnipotent viewers), they would look little like the familiar plague vectors we know and love. Horribly mutated as they are, many have more limbs and teeth than expected, while some others still have fewer. One even appears to have transcended physicality entirely, and bobs serenely through the air as a ghostly rodentine apparition.
Our story isn’t about them though, interesting and transfixing though they may be, we suddenly see a light appear from one of the many side passages, illuminating as it approaches the sturdily constructed brick walls with incomprehensible sigils glowing with powers both apocryphal and arcane. The approaching light is cast without appreciable heat, from what seems to be a normal torch held by the shorter of two figures. He also carries with him an ancient, beautiful but viciously pragmatic looking war-axe and is clad in a time worn yet somehow functional chain shirt. His taller, but still average height companion awkwardly wears cheap, second-hand looking chainmail with a notched greatsword. They both carry mops. They have most certainly been walking in silence for some time, the awkward uncomfortability of two strangers forced to spend time together in order to earn wages.
“Hey Dougan, why are we here?” The human asks his dwarven companion
“Look, lad. I know it’s your first day, but try to keep up: we’re here because there was an extradimensional disturbance somewhere near the outskirts of the sewer, and the college has a standing agreement with the city not to allow anything dangerous into the general population’s sewers. Since none of them high and mighty wizard types are likely to come down here and get their fancy robes all mucked up, we’re the suckers getting paid to do this. It was only an hour ago that we were told this, you ought to try to keep up,” Replies the dwarf, obviously a little chuffed at have to explain this.
“No, I mean more generally,” The human replies.
“Um, well. You see… I suppose perhaps you should be talking to a priest, lad,” The dwarf says, obviously treading uncertain ground here.
“Okay, maybe a bit more specifically than that” The human is obviously growing exasperated. “Why are humanoids still used as janitors in these places?”
“Ah. You’re new, aren’t you lad?”
“Well, yeah, you said yourself it’s my first day”
“No, I mean do you have any previous experience?”
“Not as such, but I’m pretty sure I’m qualified. My grandfather was a wizard.” This time it was the human who sounded uncomfortable.
“Ah. Well, you see, my father was a wizard’s janitor, and his father before him, and on back three generations, and I myself have been doing this close on 350 years now. All told, my family has more years of janitorial experience than the city senate has been around. I’ve been put out of this very job by any kind of horrible tame beastie you can imagine, only to have to come back and clean up after their messes. Go on and propose yourself a replacement for the likes of you and me.”
“Ok, well I guess we should start with the most obvious: animated constructs! Surely they would be thousands of times more productive than even a pair of sentients like us, and don’t require any pay at all. Not to mention the advantages of no longer needing to follow labor laws, deal with union negotiations, or worry about employees not liking each other. They’re even immune to most magic, so don’t need all these expensive magical safety precautions.” The human asks, pulling at the rune engraved rubber hip waders he was wearing over his loose armor.
“Aye, they’ll work all day and all night, but don’t rightly know when to quit. This means they usually require full-time supervision to make sure they aren’t doing something they aren’t supposed to. In fact, they’re the very reason why the college’s sewers connect up with those of the town proper. Some hapless neophyte fell asleep at the control rod while they were expanding the sewers, thinking as you do that there isn’t much that can go wrong. Before he knew it, the university’s dirty laundry is crawling up somebodies outhouse and rampaging through the town proper. Suddenly my job becomes part of the safety of the city, and requires tracking down and killing anything even remotely dangerous.
Besides that, do you have any idea how expensive those things are?! I’ve heard it took the full graduating tuition of a dozen students to pay for one of the blighters. Mind you, that’s just to pay for their creation; say nothing of the upkeep cost, control rod cost, and paying for one of the neophytes to babbysit the damn thing for the whole time it’s in use. That limits their usefulness as well, since not many neophytes are willing to stay up all night looking after a hunk of rock and metal and magic that ought to be able to think for itself. Not to mention the fact they smash up everything with their constant stomping about, you think these rune engraved dwarven bricks are cheap? Even if all those weren’t good enough reasons, some of the monsters down here are smart enough to smudge off the animating rune on the damn thing’s face, or kill the squishy little sentient holding the rod and doing the commanding.”
“Okay, Okay, those are some very good points. Well, what about just getting an enormous army of the undead. Sure they’d also need more supervision, but they’re cheap, tireless, and replaceable. It’s not as though there isn’t a surplus of people dying each day, they may as well be used for something that helps others. Plus it allows for family members to visit with their dead relatives, which has to be worth something.”
“Aye, but they stink to high heaven. Ye’re also neglecting just how difficult a veritable mountain of corpses is to come by without resorting to shady tactics, that lot upstairs are academics not adventurers. Besides that, they’re prone to carrying all kinds of dreadful diseases, and are otherwise considered by even the roughest of company to be more than a little off-putting. But the end-all, be-all, number one reason not to use mindless undead as cheap manual labor is that it screams out for all to hear in great blazing letters: Hello, all nearby religious institutions and paladin organizations, please quest on up to our doors and proceed to shove your burning holy longswords right up our collective jacksies.
You’re acting like you don’t even know the story of how a few students of one of the universities went off into the adventurer’s districts to have a few drinks (against university rules, mind you). They wound up in a loud discussion about how that darn necromancy college is probably up to all sorts of weird shady things, no matter how many senate led investigations were mounted into the belly of that black obelisk they used as a school. Some group of murder happy adventurers got it in their head that these dark necromancers had to be up to something fishy, and rounded up a group of the more religiously minded murderhobos to teach those black wizards a lesson or two in respecting the sanctity of life. That’s the very reason there isn’t a necromancy school in the city to this day, nobody wants to get murdered by a bunch of drunken zealots with more faith than sense.”
“Ah. That is an excellent objection on moral grounds. Okay, well what about those organic consuming oozes like gelatinous cubes, or one of those horrible garbage eating aberrations?”
“Oh, aye, just stick them in the hole and forget about ‘em, eh? Well, those cubic bastards absorb whatever junk they eat. Leave the buggers down there long enough and they wind up as half mad, part ethereal, frozen, electric, acidic, extraplanar monstrosities. Euch, that one was a terrible fight. Killed my grandpappy before we even had any idea that the bastard was anywhere near us. Just sucked him into its quivering mass, froze, shocked, teleported and ultimately dissolved him before we even knew it was near us.
Same goes for those horrible otyughs. Just gain an unfortunate amount of magical abilities that make it damn near impossible to fight without burning a crap load of magical charms and potions yourself, barely worth what we spent in order to murder the bugger. I still have nightmares about one of those tentacles reaching through a portal toward me, imbued with every kind of energy you can imagine, all while the bugger slung some horrible mutated spells at random. The worst was that I could see just a bit of the world it was smacking me through in a bit of the portal. Twisted alien landscapes inhabited by similarly twisted and alien monsters, near enough to drive a person mad… Both of those monstrosities killed over twenty students, and that tentacle-beast killed me own brother.”
“Okay, that’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. Well, what about bound outsiders? Demons, devils, angels and the like? They’re damn near invulnerable compared to most nonplanar creatures, and have all kinds of amazing spellcasting abilities that don’t have the limitations of what normal spellcasters have. Besides that, they’re tireless, powerful, and many are actually very excellent critical thinkers.”
“Well, you know all those lovely sounding positives you just listed off? Those are the main reasons they aren’t used as bloody janitors. I’m sure you can tell the biggest issue there is grudges. Those bound outsiders will always outlive their binders, and odds are they’ll come back and take revenge on whatever foolish organization hired that chump who enslaved them. Provided it still exists, and even if it doesn’t some of the more spiteful buggers will go after the offspring of anybody who was associated with the organization. Sometimes they’ll kill people who just walked by the building once, if they’re mean enough, and strong enough to get away with it. That’s if they don’t have pals back on their respective planes willing to come and bail them out, usually by murdering everybody that wizard has ever even heard of, and then murdering the wizard and devouring his soul and dissipating it into the astral plane. The higher planes are not good places to have on your bad side, no matter which plane you’re talking about.
The chaotic planes resent your intrusion onto their freedoms, and really don’t have the attention span to accomplish anything anyways. Besides that they aren’t terribly strong physically or reliable at all. The lawful planes will follow commands and are physically quite capable, but always think they have better things to do and see you as interfering with their purpose. The problem with evil planes should be evident, as they’re just waiting for somebody stupid enough to show up to torture. The good planes are the worst of the lot though, since binding one of them interferes with their holy mission making you the most evil sort that a mortal can be, who deserves whatever horrible punishment they can think up for you.”
“Okay, okay, okay. I get it now. Why don’t the colleges just hire adventurers then?”
“Ah, now you’ve hit the nail on the head son,” The dwarf said, while checking a map and turning down one of the many sewage offshoots.
“I have?” The young man asked, perplexed.
“Oh yes. Don’t you see? They did exactly that,” The dwarf said.
“Now listen. I don’t know about what you do in your nights and weekends, dwarf, but I’m certainly no adventurer,” The young man stated, a little offended at the implications.
“Well, not in name, and the city certainly doesn’t see you as one (not that I’m too torn up about that) but by all other accounts the biggest difference between us and adventurers is that an adventurer would have to be crazy to go into the same crypt or tomb or cavern every day for their entire professional lives. They know very well they cleaned the joint out of treasure the day before, but who’s to say there aren’t any more beasties come to tear them a new one? Or that they didn’t miss some, or that some weird experimental magic interacted with a ley line and broke open a portal to the elemental plane of earth.”
“That can happen? Wait, so you’re saying we’re basically on-call adventurers for a group of jerks living over a dungeon? That we basically exist to do daily troubleshooting for any dangerous messes or monstrosities that may pop up in the basement?” The young man was obviously beginning to become distressed.
“Well, look at it this way: how many unbelievably sized rats did you yourself kill on our way to get to this point today?”
“Oh god…” A look of horror slowly crept over the young man’s face, “my father will be more displeased than I originally thought.”
“Well, very few people think of it that way these days. Most humans, especially, forgot that we were ever looked at this way (no matter for how short a time it may have been). Besides, the job was created by a treaty between the city and the universities. That automatically adds an air of authority to any occupation, even one as smelly as ours. We also protect the city from all sorts of unspeakable magical creations every few days, whereas a group of adventurers could only claim to have done it once or twice in a decade, any good metropolis destroying plot requires decades to come to fruition. All them wizards upstairs manage to make it happen in the course of a few weeks, what with all that magic they dump,” The dwarf explained, holding his light close to map straining his eyes to see where he might be going.
“Wait, monsters? I sort of thought this job was just cleaning up messes from the wizards,” The young man sounded worried now.
“Well, you didn’t think we were going to be swabbing an extraplanar stain did you?”
The young man simply gulped.
“Ah, think of it this way lad,” the dwarf began, seeing the young man’s concern, “You’re getting paid a steady wage to do what an adventurer only hopes is going to pay off big. Adventurers are mad gamblers, stumbling into whatever holes they find and praying to whatever deity they worship that there is a stinking huge pile of gold or gems or some kind of magic doodads to make the whole thing worthwhile. Then they return topside and head straight to the nearest tavern to drink themselves into a stupor and fight a whole gaggle of other adventurers. They don’t get vacation time, no lunch breaks, no union representation. Hell, they aren’t even allowed into the regular parts of the city unless they’re registered and agree not to cause any trouble or damage. Conversely, we get paid time off, sick leave, compensation if ye’re injured on the job, and we know we’ll be getting a nice paycheck at the end of every two weeks.”
“Plus the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t have to sleep in the sewers a couple of days in a row,” The young man chimed in.
“Aye, now you’re getting it. Now ye ought to be quiet now, we’re coming up on the area where the ping sounded off. Put them goggles on so ye can see once I turn this light off, and ready that chopper.”
The young man placed the goggles over his eyes, and pulled his greatsword out from its sheath (but not without some difficulty) and signaled his readiness.
With that, the dwarf whispered a quiet word over the light, and it winked out leaving the pair in total darkness.
“All right kid, let’s get going towards whatever this thing is. Be quiet, keep behind me, and follow my lead, right?”
“Gulp” Was all the human could manage.