Braxxus and the Lock
Braxxus wore a profound scowl as he descended into the sewers of the machine. His sniveling coward of a servant, named Sniveling Coward or Sniv for short, harangued him as they traveled ever deeper into the belly… actually the intestines of the machine.
"I mean bloody hell! I'm the one wots got to carry all this junk! You're not paying me enough for this!"
"He was late!"
"Couldn't you just have batted him around a little!? Boxed his ears!? Pulled his nose!? Did you have to go and off him? Couldn't you've at least waited until he delivered us!? I can't get a bleeding taxi driver in this town no more."
"I am Braxxus! First Champion to Balthon Lord of Dark Metals! I will not be kept waiting!"
"You're Braxxus who can't drive and I'm Sniv o' the bad back! I ain't carryin' this crap across town no more and YOU, lord high and mighty, ain't being paid enough to hire a limo, not that any limo driver would pick you up anyway."
Braxxus spun on his manservant and stomped his foot in red rage, "Enough! I will not endure this vitriol anymore! I am your master and you will treat me as such."
Sniv sneered, "Oh, really Mr. Blessed Dark Warrior? Wot about that raise you promised me two months ago? Am I supposed to keep me trap shut about that too?"
Braxxus' hand began to play with the hilt of his sword. Sniv caught the motion and sneered, "Oh! You gonna off me now too? Then you'd really be up the creek wouldn't you mate? Who else on this God forsaken metal planet would serve you then? I'm the only one dim enough to put up with your bad temper and poor pay. Go ahead! Off me! At least I won't have to put up with this stench no more!"
Braxxus scowled, spun and headed deeper into the earth, "You try my patience, Sniv."
Sniv dropped his armload of weapons and adjusted his backpack with a growl. The bent and mousy, little man burned a hole in his boss's back with a glare. On more than one occasion he had fantasized about cleaving the Chosen Warrior in two while his back was turned. Sniv pulled a dirty handkerchief from a pocket and blew his prodigious nose. The honk resonated through out the dark pipe lined tunnel around him. Sniv gathered his master's weapons and rushed to catch up with his boss.
Braxxus stopped at an intersection and pulled out an engineer's map of a section of the machine. He wore light mesh Larkev armor about his torso and leather breeches. He had decided against wearing a war helm since he would need every advantage to see in these dark tunnels. A broad sword hung from one hip and an energy blade on the other. He would not be outgunned by the Keepers of the Lock.
Braxxus frowned as he tried to read the map. He fumbled at a vest pocket and then sighed, "Sniv did you bring my reading glasses?"
Sniv growled, "They was supposed to be delivered from the optometrist yesterday, but I couldn't get no one to deliver them since everyone's too afraid to come to the apartment. Let me see that-"
Sniv snatched the map from Braxxus' hands. Sniv jabbed a finger at a corridor to their right, "This way."
Sniv trudged off into the dimly lit tunnel. Braxxus shook his head and followed. He was loath to suffer the disrespect of his manservant, but Sniv's words were true. Braxxus could never replace him.
They traveled for a good hour until they came to a central cistern which collected the secondary gray water from the planet city above. Sniv stopped and dropped his armload of weapons while he caught his breath. Braxxus looked up to the huge hundred foot wide stack that disappeared into the blackness overhead. His nose instinctively curled at the noxious smells about them.
Sniv pinched his nose, "I could do with a bit o' yer flower garden right now, oh lord and master. Old Balthon has surely sent us into the pits 'o hell."
Braxxus smiled at the thought of the beautiful indoor flower garden he kept off of his apartment. The thought of the sweet scent of his latest bountiful crop almost masked the noxious smells around him… almost. Braxxus spied the manhole cover they needed to lift in order to go further foreward into the planet.
"I'll need my mini-crowbar."
Sniv dropped his clutch of weapons next to the manhole that Braxxus pointed at, "I could kick me self for not bringing me gas mask."
Sniv pulled off his backpack and dug around in his backpack until he came up with the crowbar. He handed the tool to his boss and began to secure a line to the bungie cords that kept the bundle of long weapons together.
"Why do you need to bring along so many weapons for anyway? You never use 'em and they break me bloody back."
Braxxus popped off the manhole cover, "In the matters of war it is best to be prepared for all possibilities."
"Like securing transportation to and from the battleground?"
Braxxus sighed in reservation, "All right Sniv! I promise I'll never kill another taxicab driver. Now will you please stop nagging me about it."
Sniv snorted, "Bloody good it'll do now. No one will pick us up anyway."
Braxxus ignored the barb and descended into the hole. Sniv secured the line from the bundle of weapons to his belt. He picked the package up and dropped them into the hole.
"OWWWW!!! Would you be careful Sniv! You just about bashed my head in!"
Sniv smiled and carefully followed his master deeper into the Machine. Their descent continued for at least a thousand feet. By the time they hit the metal plate at the base of the ladder Sniv thought his aching hands were going to separate from the rest of his body.
They were in a twenty-foot square room that was lined with more pipe, valves and gauges. A rusted metal door was their only way out. Braxxus leaned his shoulder into the door and popped it open with a resounding metallic squeak. They emerged into a massive, dimly lit, humid, cavern. The ceiling stretched overhead at least a hundred feet to disappear into the misty dark. Enormous, sweating pipes of unknown functions lined both sides of the cavern. The sound of rushing water was evident from within the pipes.
Sniv took a breath in through his bountiful beak, "At least it don't smell so bad in here."
"We must proceed with caution. We are now in the territory of the Keeper's of the Lock. Did you bring the rubber gloves?"
Sniv dug into his pockets and pulled out a pair of latex gloves and a self-closing plastic bag. He handed them over to Braxxus who shoved them in a pocket. Braxxus loosened his sword in its scabbard and strode off into the cavern. Sniv followed cautiously .
They traveled through the cavern for at least an hour. It seemed to stretch on forever and was totally devoid of any signs of life. The only sound was the constant gurgle of moving water from within the pipes that lined the cavern walls. On occasion they would come to a pumping station that was connected to the water service via two-foot thick electrical conduits that snaked into the distance overhead.
Braxxus brought them up short and motioned to Sniv to be silent. Just in front of them, on the other side of an outcropping of rock, were the sounds of movement. Braxxus silently slid his sword out of its sheath and cat walked over to the rock. He pressed himself flat up against the stone and peered around the edge.
On the other side of the rock an older man was fussing with the wooden handle of an odd looking, bladed weapon. The blade was half a circle of gleaming steel at the end of the six-foot handle. A backpack rested near the feet of the older warrior. He picked up the weapon and sighted down the length it. Evidently he had just resecured the blade to the handle. Braxxus stepped out from behind the rock. The old man jumped in surprise and brought his weapon to bear.
"Ho Keeper! Today is your day to meet your maker!"
The old man crouched and moved sideways in an attempt to secure an opening in Braxxus' defenses, "You will not find me such an easy mark, black warrior."
Braxxus set his sword swinging in figure eights with a smile, "Maybe not, but you'll be just as dead. Perhaps if you tell me where your brothers keep Balthon's lock then I'll spare your life."
The old man relaxed and stood up straight with a smile, "Oh you don't want me, you want the Keepers of the Lock."
Braxxus squinted in suspicion, "What kind of keeper are you then?"
The obviously proud old man tapped his chest, "I'm the Keeper of the Garden."
Braxxus demeanor spun 180 degrees and he relaxed his guard, "Really? What kind of garden?"
"Well down here you HAVE to keep a vegetable garden, but my passion is orchids."
"Orchids! I love orchids, but they're so difficult to keep."
A broad smile broke out on the old man's face, "The key is humidity and the proper nourishment after that they bloom like... heaven."
Braxxus sheathed his sword, "Is your garden nearby? I'd love to see it."
The old man stepped forward and offered an open hand, "My name is Gilford and my garden is only a mile from here."
An enthusiastic Braxxus pumped the old man's hand, "Braxxus, first champion of our lord God Balthon."
The old man reclaimed his hand and bowed, "Of course. I know of you. You were on the ultimate challenge team in '98 against Wang's Whoppers."
"Oh that seems like light years ago now, but that was quite the gladiatorial match."
Sniv cleared his throat and the two men turned, "Oh, and this is my servant Sniveling-"
"Sniv!" Sniv barked, "Just Sniv."
Gilford bowed to the little man, "Honored friend Sniv."
Gilford picked up his backpack strapped it on and turned back to Braxxus, "I'm just back from a shopping expedition on the surface. Besides sundry supplies I bought myself a new spade," Gilford held up the tool, which Braxxus had confused for a weapon.
A sheepish Braxxus replied, "Proper tools are so important for quality gardening."
"Absolutely," Gilford replied. The old man motioned for the two men to follow him, "This way."
Braxxus got in step behind Gilford. Sniv shook his head and cursed under his breath, "This is going to be one bloody exciting adventure. A trip to the mutual admiration society of gardeners."
In a quarter of an hour the three men were enjoying tea in the center of Gilford's expansive flower garden. Gilford had set up his verdant paradise in a sizeable cave that hung off the main cavern. The entire ceiling was covered with artificial lights which illuminated and fed the veritable jungle below. Gilford had the entire area plotted out into sections with various themes.
The section the three men were in was patterned after an English garden. A circular lawn surrounded them, which was in turn bordered by various flower gardens. The sweet perfume of freesia, lavender lilies and roses saturated the air around them.
Sniv held a handkerchief up to his nose and swore under his breath, "It's from one bloody extreme to another."
Braxxus swallowed a sip of tea and turned his attention from the gardens about him to Gilford, "You are truly a master, sir. I just can't believe what you've done with this place. You've built a paradise down here. Your gardens are perfect. Incredible!"
An embarrassed Gilford waved off Braxxus, "Oh no. You're being too kind... really."
Braxxus sniffed in a lung full of the perfumed air, "And it smells absolutely wonderful in here."
"Smells like a bloody whore house," Sniv remarked under his breath.
"How did you do it? How did you end up down here?"
Gilford settled back into his high-backed white whicker chair, "Well, about twenty years ago I was a very successful commodities trader. After too many years I finally became disenfranchised with the rat race. Servicing the machine was wearing me out so I took the down elevator to this place to escape. In retrospect I was probably close to a nervous breakdown. I roamed these tunnels for a couple of months before my head cleared. Down here in the dark I engaged in some serious introspection and came to the conclusion that there was only one thing in life that really made me happy."
Braxxus smiled, "Gardening!"
"Precisely. Being quite rich I had no problem purchasing the necessary equipment and supplies to set up this place. The rest was just hard work and tender care."
Braxxus pulled a sip from his tea, "Unbelievable. I'm surprised the Keepers of the Lock don't trouble you."
Gilford waved the warrior off, "Oh they'd never do that. They're actually quite a nice bunch of fellows once you get to know them. I trade vegetables with them. In turn they hunt the rats that pester my garden."
"Lord Balthon warned me that they are dangerous warriors."
Gilford shrugged, "I suppose if you crossed them. They train constantly, but I've never actually seen them engage anyone. Of course we don't get many visitors down here. What's your business with the Keepers?"
"Lord Balthon has tasked me with their destruction and the return of the lock."
Gilford frowned, "That's really too bad. Like I said they're really a nice bunch of fellows and of course with them gone, I don't know what I'm going to do about the rats."
Sniv snorted, "Why don't you get a cat?"
Gilford grinned, "The rats down here are bigger than most cats."
Sniv's eyes went wide, "Oh."
Gilford turned to Braxxus, "Perhaps there is a way you could achieve your objectives without killing anyone."
Braxxus raised an eyebrow, "I don't see how. I was ordered to destroy the Keepers of the Lock."
Gilford grinned, "Precisely! If you were to just steal the lock, they'd have no reason to be keepers anymore. I happen to know that as a group they're actually embarrassed about their chosen totem. Originally they thought it was a lock from Balthon's scalp not his nose."
Braxxus grimaced, "My Lord Balthon's not too happy about it either. Although your idea has merit good Gilford, I am a warrior not a thief."
"You were tasked with retrieving the lock. In my opinion retrieving a stolen item is not really stealing."
Braxxus mulled this over. He looked at the beauty about him, "It would be a terrible thing to jeopardize this paradise. By the Dark God I'll do it your way!"
Gilford slapped his knee, "Good show Braxxus. After we finish our tea, I'll give you a map which will guide you to a little known entrance to the Keepers cave. From there you can gain entrance to the rear of their altar and return what is Lord Balthon's."
Braxxus took another sniff of the perfumed air and sighed in total contentment. Who would have thought that such sweet smells could be found in a sewer.
After a few hours Braxxus and Sniv were on their way. Gilford's map turned out to be very helpful and enabled them to find the Keepers lair much quicker then if they had to find it themselves. Eventually they found themselves in a medium sized room that served as that sector's pump station control center. They stood before a rusting steel door that lead to a corridor that opened behind the altar of the lock.
Braxxus stripped off his black cloak and relieved himself of most of his weapons. When he was done his broadsword was strapped across his back and a dagger was sheathed in each boot. From behind his master's pile of weapons Sniv looked Braxxus up and down in disbelief.
"Bloody hell! That's all yer takin' to battle with you!? You made me carry this 'ere selection of pointy bits 'alfway across the underbelly 'o the machine and you ain't gonna use even one of 'em?"
Braxxus frowned, "I need to be stealthy in this endeavor. Those weapons are too long."
Sniv snorted and huffed over to an empty chair by a console. He swore under his breath, "He ain't payin' me enough for this crap."
After a few sharp tugs Braxxus spun the wheel on the steel door and pried back the metal hatch. He slipped inside and made his way down the dimly lit tunnel. Sniv watched him go with no small amount of apathy. After half an hour Braxxus found himself in front of another steel door. A keypad was imbedded in the wall next to the door. Braxxus punched in the code that Gilford had given him and there was an audible click.
Braxxus slipped his broadsword from its sheath and held it before him. He slammed the door with the heel of his boot and went over backwards from the impact. He picked himself up and looked around. He was happy no one was around to see his awkward assault on the door. A sheepish Braxxus grabbed the steel latch and turned it. The door opened effortlessly and Braxxus slipped out.
Curtain draped, steel scaffolding stood before him. Overhead spotlights dimly lighted the black curtains. The place was silent except for the ever-present hum of ventilating machinery. The warrior held to the right and followed the rear of the curtains. Eventually he reached the corner of the scaffolding and turned to follow its right side. He was fairly sure he was alone in the place and thanked Balthon for small miracles.
He followed the right side of the curtain until he came to the hall that preceded the altar. Rows of pews stood before the spotlit altar. Braxxus peered around the scaffolding to spy the altar where the lock was worshipped. Braxxus grimaced. Surely only a God could produce such a prodigious quantity of nasal follicles.
Underneath a glass case, pasted to a gold plate, was the crusty object of the keepers worship. Braxxus sheathed his sword, donned his plastic gloves and drew out the plastic bag. He cautiously made his way up the marble steps to the altar. He studied the glass case for a moment, but could not find any trips for an alarm. Very gingerly he lifted the case and set it to the side. He lifted the gold plate with his masters' nasal debris and placed it carefully in the plastic bag. He zipped the bag shut with a smile and turned to go.
Braxxus spun to find twenty black clad warriors pointing various unpleasant weapons of destruction in his direction. A gargantuan leather clad warrior bearing a battleaxe strode to the front of the group and jammed an accusing finger at Braxxus.
"You would steal the Lock of the almighty Balthon from us!"
Braxxus threw caution to the wind, jammed the plastic bag in his belt and snapped out his broadsword. The tall warrior frowned and continued, "You would steal our totem and tell all that you destroyed the keepers of the lock! You would tell this to all who inhabit the machine!?"
Braxxus snarled, "I doing this willingly large one!"
The warrior sighed, "Oh thank the lord."
A dumbfounded Braxxus watched as the tall warrior sheathed his sword and the rest of the group became all smiles and light.
"Thank you so much Braxxus, first champion of Balthon."
A short wiry warrior with a gold nose ring turned to his fellows, "Let's all give Braxxus a round of applause."
The warriors very politely applauded Braxxus as he relaxed and scratched his head, "I don't understand."
The tall warrior smiled, "We've been hoping and praying someone would steal that nasty bit for the past five years."
The wiry one exclaimed, "We didn't know it was the Lord's nasal dirties. Old Frexxus was supposed to bring us a totem we could worship with pride. Instead he brings us that bit of holy refuse."
"He won't do it again," cried a particularly dark warrior in the back of the pack. The keeper's broke out into laughter.
The tall one answered the question obviously written on Braxxus' face, "When we discovered what Fraxxus had brought us we tied weights to his legs and threw him in the bottomless sewer."
Braxxus grimaced as another warrior screamed, "A fitting end for the snotling puke!"
The tall warrior came forward and offered Braxxus his hand, "I am Gene head keeper, recently of the lock. We owe you a great debt Braxxus."
"You know me!?"
Gene smiled, "Of course. You're first champion to our most holy Lord Balthon. How could we not know you? We're all big fans of yours from your arena days. Do you think we could get an autograph while you're here? We'll put it next to the shoe."
Gene smiled and spun. He clapped his hands loudly and intoned, "Bring forth the shoe!!!!"
The black clad keepers all bowed their heads as a keeper, dressed in a hooded floor length robe brought forth a somewhat scuffed wing tipped shoe. The keeper held the shoe high above his head as the keepers, now of the shoe, parted and chanted Tibetan like monosyllables. The keeper reverently placed the shoe on the center of the altar and knelt before it.
Gene jammed his sword in the air and yelled, "Long live Lord Balthon God of Dark Metals."
A raucous cheering went up among the keepers and they slapped each other on the back.
Gene noticed Braxxus was eyeing the shoe suspiciously, "Not to worry champion. We acquired this totem legally at a charity auction for those with very large feet."
The wiry warrior chimed in, "Yes! Not only did we gain a much more fitting relic to worship in the name of our lord but also we're helpin' the podiatrically challenged. Did you know that hundreds of people a year must endure the agony of shoes that are too small, because they simply can't buy a proper fitting shoe?"
Braxxus looked at the man sideways, "No... I didn't know that."
Gene chimed in, "It's true! Hundreds of people must endure the humiliation of wearing sandals or poorly constructed footwear due to their oversized appendages."
Braxxus wondered if the sewer gasses were having an ill effect on these men, "That's too bad. Well, I really must be going now."
Gene whipped out a pen and autograph book, which he kept in a pouch on his belt next to his favorite dirk, affectionately named Gut Ripper, "Autographs?"
Braxxus smiled and signed the book as the rest of the Keepers, now of the shoe, made an orderly line behind their leader and waited to have their books signed.
Braxxus smiled to himself as he signed the various books. His first labor had gone quite well although not as expected. He wondered if the next one would be as interesting. After a few hours of socializing with the Keepers he eventually collected an irate Sniv and headed back to the surface of the Machine.