In The Bowels of the Sick Man is part 4 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Great Game, Part 4 — In The Bowels of the Sick Man
by James Vachowski
What is that swill you have brought me? I called for coffee!
From Colombia, you say? Where? South America? My dear lad, America is but a speck along the timeline of history and hardly worth mentioning, much less pinpointing on a map. Ah, but real coffee… now that is something timeless.
Of course, there is only one place on earth where one can get such a draught. Hmm? I mean Istanbul, you fool! Here now, if you cannot manage to make proper coffee then at least steep a kettle for tea, and be quick about it.
Where was I? Oh yes, Istanbul. During the War it was a dusty den of thieves, as I imagine it still is today, but a loyal soldier does not have the luxury of choosing his assignments. I was sent on this secret mission behind enemy lines for one purpose and one purpose only: to assassinate both the Sultan and his Vizier. Their motorcade was due to arrive at the Blue Mosque for early services one Friday morning, and I was ready as always. I had surveyed their route and cached my arsenal of weapons. Child, believe me when I say that the Great War would have ended in a quiet fizzle had I seen my task through and not stopped to take a bath.
What? A bath, child! Surely you are familiar with the magnificent luxury of Turkish baths? No? Well, it is my hope that one day you might experience them. This particular bathhouse was a palatial steam room, built of the finest Italian marble. I had just begun to relax and prepare my mind for the mission to come when a squad of the Sultan’s own bodyguards crept up behind me, their scimitars at the ready. My plot had been discovered! It took all of my speed to elude their grasp and disappear away into the thick clouds of steam. I shimmied down a drainpipe and was off, flying through the city’s back alleys in a wet, nude blur. The mist of the bathhouse shifted into a thick cloud of opium smoke as I raced through the bazaar, pausing only long enough to steal a caftan and a pair of slippers. The chase was on!
I fled the city heading west, hoping to seek cover in the Taurus Mountains. We ran for miles, until the setting sun glowed blood red in the sky, but still I could not break away. My chances looked grim indeed! The Sultan’s cadre was hot on my heels, their rifle shots whistling perilously close above my head.
That might have been the end of me, child, had I not spied the slightest opening at the base of Mount Ararat. A cave! I dove, stretched, and was in, just as a ricochet hit the talus slope above and triggered a landslide! I was safe, ‘tis true, but how I was to escape I knew not.
I crouched there, silent, listening to the cries of frustration from the Orientals above as they searched in vain for another entrance into the cave. I willed myself to remain motionless, holding my breath for several hours until finally hearing their jackbooted footsteps as the soldiers climbed further up the slope. In time my eyes adjusted to the inky darkness, but there was naught to see but the blackest of nights.
Then, from afar, the sooty air was pierced by a soft glow. A magical light in the distance seemed to hover at ankle height as it slowly drifted towards me. Having no pistol for defense, I could but brace at its approach. Both my fear and the cavern’s dank chill set me to shivering. The light fluttered onward, coasting slowly to a stop when it was several paces out. It was only at that distance did I discover its true nature, when I saw that the glow was no more than a lantern of faerie fire held aloft by the stoutest of cave gnomes!
The squat beast made not a sound, but his beardy lips sneered at my disheveled and sooty appearance. In a flash of movement unnatural to his thick stature, the gnome lunged forward and clasped a set of irons around my ankles. I was his prisoner! The fat monster kicked me square across the rump to set me moving and I followed his command, shuffling and clanking my way further into the cave.
Down and deeper we marched, splashing through a chilly stream that cut sharply into the rock floor. Blind fish and salamanders brushed past my shackled feet as the chill air turned to a raw cold. My legs stiffened. Up ahead, an eerie glow of mystical origin lit the tunnel and the gnome sheathed his hellish light, as he required it no further. Before us lay the gnomish metropolis of Underworld, capital city of all subterranean dwellers.
Millions of glow-worms dangled perilously from stalactites overhead, giving the city a starry light of full noon. The gnome-kin filling the city streets below us plodded furiously about their labors. Most bore barrows of coal, but a select few worked under heavy guard and struggled to heave carts loaded with precious gems. The scene was extraordinary, child! Were it not for the cavernous ceiling above it should have almost seemed that I was back in the great city of London, but in miniature of course.
Ah, but the opportunity to gaze on in wonder did not last. The gnome spurred me onward with more kicks to my seat, and his weighty boots sent a wordless message that left no room for misinterpretation. I wondered as to our destination, but not for long. Further down we went, into the very heart of the gnomish mines. Waves of steam heat from the forges passed over me, soaking the thin cotton fibers of my caftan and dripping down off my skin in layers of sweat.
Slavery is unjust, child. All who have known bondage will agree. There I was, conscripted into servitude, forced by the stinging end of a whip to mine coal for those wretched creatures! Hour after hour I toiled as endless night gave way to endless night. The pickaxe shaped my hands first with calluses, then with blisters, then finally with raw sores. Were it not for the powerful strength of my youth, my back would have surely snapped from the strain. I strove to keep pace with their demands, but no sooner did I fill a barrow with coal than the tiny ogres would beat me mercilessly, enjoining me to ferry the load over towards their giant smelting furnaces.
I could not believe the sight that my eyes beheld! The War to End All Wars even had fronts beneath the Earth, child! The gnomes were obviously in league with the Sultan, helping to churn out steel for his thousands of artillery batteries. Judging by the frantic pace of the work, I knew they must have been mounting a massive defense against our forthcoming invasion of Gallipoli, miles to the east and leagues above our heads. The information was priceless, but I had no way to warn General Sir Hamilton of the trap that was being set!
At seeing the industry of these creatures’ black arts, my resolve was strengthened anew. I might have been briefly detained from the battlefield, but I was most certainly not going to give aid and comfort to the enemy by working in those gnomish mines! I set my mind to work on drafting a daring plan of escape. Naturally, one was not long in coming.
I pushed myself to work harder and faster, finally gaining the evil gnomes’ trust by convincing them that I had dedicated myself to the Sultan’s cause. I mined coal by the truckload, veritably sprinting each cart down to the smelting furnace now! The furnaces’ fires grew hotter and hotter, the black smoke curling back down through the cavernous passageways until the miserable creatures had no choice but to open the chimney’s flue.
It was then that I made my move! My caftan was still soaked from the steam and the sweat of my labors, so I bunched up the fibers and held them aloft over my head. At a full run, I leaped over the flames from the gnomes’ infernal fires…and was held aloft! The quickly-rising heat from the furnace below filled my damp robes and lifted me up through the faerie chimney. Mobs of surprised bats flurried about in a blind scrabble, rushing to clear from my path of ascent. Rising at a yard per second, I saw the freedom of the blue sky opening up above me.
Quickly, I spread out the folds of my robes to capture more of the heat. In a flash of blinding sunlight, I was free! I curled the toes of my slippers about the hem of the fabric and sealed my legs tight, forming a balloon of hot air between my loins. I was still going up, over the peak of Mount Ararat, when I spotted an entire company of the Sultan’s cavalry still searching for me on the surface below. At altitude, as I passed through the wispy mustaches of cirrus clouds, the soldiers’ fezzes seemed to me mere specks of burgundy velvet on the rocky plains below. Their angry rifle shots, though aimed true enough, fell pitifully short.
Safe now, I re-fastened the grip on my robes as I floated back eastward, drifting silently over the blessed faerie chimneys of Cappadocia. Such a sight, child! The raw majesty of this hard land concealed too well the evil that lurked within the bowels of the Sick Man of Europe. As for me, even though I knew all too well of the terrible battles for which I was headed, for the briefest of moments even the wretched Ottoman Empire seemed a beautiful place.
About the Author
Hi, my name is James and for everyone out there who’s been considerate enough to advise me not to quit my day job, don’t worry– I haven’t. I currently work as a security manager for an independent traveling circus, where I strive to ensure that your next ride on the Cyclone is in full compliance with most, if not all, applicable state safety regulations.
When I’m not living my dream of seeing the great people of this great country from the parking lots of local shopping malls and Moose lodges, I write fiction.
About the Narrator
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.