A last sniff of glory, p.1

A Last Sniff of Glory, page 1

 

A Last Sniff of Glory
 

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A Last Sniff of Glory


  Contents

  Cover

  A Last Sniff of Glory – David Guymer

  About the Author

  A Black Library Publication

  eBook license

  A Last Sniff of Glory

  David Guymer

  He stared, unblinking, at the silhouette on the other side of the candle flame. The air curdled with tension, marrow spilt too long ago from the bone. The candle flickered. He wondered what it was for: it stung his eyes, tickled his nose, and they could all see perfectly well in the dark without. Fur and rags rustled edgily on the bench beside him. Someone in the gloomy undercroft coughed.

  ‘Would you like me to repeat the question?’

  Shadows licked at his clawed muzzle as Rurrk glared into the untidy flame.

  His trainer, Kato, squeaked in alarm.

  The rat was padded throat to ankles in a cracked leather suit, arms and legs stiffened to either side, a piebald scruff of head and a twitch of tail sticking out from either end. He scrunched his eyes tight as Rurrk’s broad shoulder took him through his belly padding. Air fled clenched fangs in a foetid mewl, and his footpaws squirmed at the end of their pipe-like leg padding as they were snatched from the ground. By the time Rurrk had grunted off him and stuck a cleated kneepad into his throat Kato was squealing with fright.

  ‘Done-done!’ Kato squeaked, trying to clap a paw on the dirt and managing instead a maggot wriggle of his tackle suit. ‘Good-good. Very good. Time out. Enough practice for now, I think.’

  Groggily, Rurrk released his grip on his knuckles. The cloying scents of dirt and droppings and fur moult panted in and out of his mouth. His lungs were still paying out on the debts they owed, and for a moment he’d been confused about who it was beneath him. Kato’s supine muzzle swam in and out of focus and he lowered his fist, his knee issuing a protesting ‘pop’ as he released the pressure on Kato’s throat and stood.

  Kato struggled to get up too, but could not.

  The temptation to kick a rat when it was down was difficult to resist, but Clan Moulder trainers didn’t exactly grow out of the ground. By some miracle of better judgement he withheld even a correctional shot across the kidneys, and bent to haul Kato up by the collar.

  While the clanrat squirmed out of his armour, Rurrk leant against the claw-cut wall of the practice field cavern system to wheeze, pretending to watch the other vermin train.

  They were whelps mostly, practising scrimmage line-ups and tossing around under-inflated balls that had been filched (judging by the faded logos) from the training fields of Karak Izor and Miragliano. A black-furred Clan Rictus bully with a lumpen cudgel and a vest of rusty chainmail stood guard at the tunnel mouth. A plank of mouldering wood had been hammered into the wall behind him and scratched with the words:

  Skavenblight Scramblers training field – no ball games.

  Trespassers will be eaten.

  Some rats thought just anyone could be a Blood Bowl player.

  Rubbing the old lump at the back of his skull, Rurrk recalled how it was that he had first come to the attention of the Scramblers’ then head coach. The plague priest had given him a nasty crack, but he remembered taking three of his novices down first. He’d learned sometime afterwards that the team’s apothecary had needed to cut the fourth in half to get him out from under Rurrk’s arm before they could fix his head. The lump of bone sticking through the fur of his head was just another memento. Nothing that a pasting of skalm hadn’t fixed at the time, but it ached like bathwater whenever he had to play above ground.

  An intrusion by the present made him grimace, and he twisted some of the stiffness from his wrist, elbow and shoulder.

  He could have sworn it had hurt less back then.

  ‘You in good-good shape,’ Kato chittered, despite the evidence, hyperactive claws making a meal of unfastening the strapping of his vambrace. ‘You improve, yes-yes. Muscles good for their age-years. My regimen good, I think, yes. Yes, I think it is.’

  Rurrk grunted.

  ‘You keep to my exercises?’ Kato asked, then brushed the vambrace off his arm and skipped around the strewn pads as though he had won and they had lost.

  ‘Every day.’

  ‘And the diet?’

  He reached for his gut with a wince.

  ‘Good-good. Need every edge can get-steal, I think. Yes? Not so young as used to be. No. Stop playing with arm. Joint pains are side-effect, give-give.’

  Kato’s expert claws kneaded the ache from Rurrk’s bicep before moving on to the joints. Rurrk’s eyelids flickered in pleasure. ‘Litter-brother of mine has slave who once had master who mucks out spawn cages for Hell Pit Harridans. He squeak-slips to slave that Princedom of Pain razed three Kislevite villages during off-season. Then had fun-way with dead-things after.’

  Rurrk snarled. ‘Kislev village-places get razed all time. They not even trying any more.’

  Kato frowned at him, claws working. ‘Ear to the ground, master. Squeak-talk of Underway is that the Inviolate Prince stronger than ever. Not too late to back out-down.’

  ‘Seven years too late.’

  ‘You squeak-talk yet to Razzel?’

  Rurrk sniffed. ‘Course I have,’ he lied.

  His eyes adapted to the wavering light. It became a slow sting around the eyes, a rim of golden-red that lanced the corners of the undercroft. His attention wandered. The smell of human fear permeated the stonework. Sweat and blood. Rust from ancient chains. From some distantly connected corridor there was a clink, as of iron on stone, and a whimper.

  ‘You are held as one of the modern legends of skaven Blood Bowl. How hard has it been to make way for younger blood this season?’ The word ‘modern’ was uttered with some spite, ‘blood’ as if it needed the tongue wrapped fully round it in order to encapsulate it.

  Rurrk drew his attention back from the architecture.

  The eyes that stared back were red as his own, but cold, set like ice, while his flickered like a fly over frozen meat. The patrician figure was draped in a long black coat, the brassy glint of a CabalVision pin on his high collar.

  ‘You must have been surprised to find your name on the roster for this match.’

  Grey Seer Razzel sat in the high, cushioned chair of his palanquin, borne on the backs of eight wiry skavenslaves to wheresoever whimsy dictated that the Horned Rat would, at any given moment, bestow his tactical acumen upon this willing servant. At this moment, that position was halfway up one of the decrepit spires of Skavenblight’s Blood Bowl Quarter.

  The Grey Seer peered near-sightedly through a crumbled window that overlooked a courtyard. The squeaks of drilling players and the sounds of balls being tossed and caught echoed up the mossy stonework. Razzel had been appointed to his current position off the back of some debacle or other, the installation of a new head coach to skavendom’s most famous (and varyingly successful) Blood Bowl team being generally considered cheaper than assassination.

  ‘You never care about playing before now. What changes, hmmm?’

  For half a skaven heartbeat, Rurrk managed to meet Razzel’s gaze. The Grey Seer’s black eyes shimmered like magic mirrors in the weak second-hand sorceries of the Clan Skyre foundries. The breeze caused the charms that bedecked his horns to tinkle. Rurrk quickly looked away, his eyes feeling as though they had been removed, turned over a warpstone brazier and then carefully returned. With great relief, he found a safe place for them in the window behind the Grey Seer’s back.

  Age had gnawed it down so completely that, perversely, fissures of the original white stone had become visible where time’s teeth had eaten through the grime. T
he decorative friezes that surrounded it had in most part already fallen away. Rurrk gave the carpet of rubble a distracted stir with his footpaw, black and grey hair drizzling from his thigh as he did so. Some of the frame’s carvings were still visible, effective-looking teams of man and dwarf wearing kits that looked like archaic versions of modern Tilean squads. This had been a place of Blood Bowl, even in the distant whenever when the credulous would have it that the ancestors of men and dwarfs had had the run of Skavenblight’s warrens. For some reason that was comforting. He could almost feel the spirits of past glories snarling supportively from over his shoulder.

  From the window came the shrill note of a coach’s whistle, the skitter of rearranging footpaws.

  Could Razzel really not know why this mattered?

  ‘I can still play. I fit-ready.’

  ‘I let you play season opener, did I not, hmmm? Against Mootland Raiders? Did the Horned Rat not show great faith in mighty Rurrk?’

  Rurrk glowered. Always he had to dig that up. ‘You want-need big rat like me against the Inviolate.’

  ‘I want-need the young Red Claw Rurrk. This one can’t run. His knees like maggoty cheeses. He out of breath just from come-climb up here.’

  Rurrk self-consciously puffed out his chest as Razzel burrowed under a cushion. The next thing he knew, something that felt like a nut had plinked off his forehead. He snarled at the air in surprise.

  ‘And his eyes!’ Razzel threw up his paws in despair, and addressed his next words to the horned idol atop his staff. ‘Who want-need Blood Bowl player than cannot run-scurry and cannot catch, hmmm?’

  Rurrk’s tail lashed as if from its own irritation. His fists clenched in imaginary gauntlets behind his back, the feel of metal on fur on skin so familiar that he felt it even when his paws were bare or the morning numbness made them tingle.

  ‘Red Claw never run. He never catch. Put me on scrimmage line and you not want me move. I train hard. I...’

  He patted his chest with one clenched fist, tongue fumbling with words his heart did not know how to convey. Like this tower, age had caught up with him. He had felt for a while that he had been on the way out, but the Raiders game had been the moment when everyone else had realised he was no longer the player he had used to be. He should have retired then, when he still had the chance.

  But then he’d seen the teams entered into this season’s Eight Point Star Cup

  And he’d come to a different decision.

  In a part of his mind it would always be Erengrad: it was wintry, his muscles shivered with fitness and youth, the scent of wet astrogranite excited his nose with his first sniff of glory. And on the other side of the painted line… He closed his eyes as if to clothe himself in the fur of his younger self… Prince Amaranth the Inviolate, star player of the Princedom of Pain, never in his three-hundred-year career on the losing side of a Blood Bowl match.

  Until that day.

  ‘I… feel it. I still Red Claw Rurrk.’

  ‘Pah!’

  A chorus of panicked squeals sprang up from the courtyard. It appeared that there was still a kink or two in the new ‘poisoned wind’ ball for the team’s warlock engineers to work through.

  ‘Semi-final of Eight Point Star is biggest-big match of my glorious leadership.’ And an unexpected opportunity to grab one more year’s breath, Rurrk thought. ‘And you expect great Razzel to tinker with the Horned One’s winning formula because Rurrk say he think he no longer rubbish-meat? No-no!’ The Grey Seer shook his head, setting off a discord of clanging charms.

  Rurrk looked through the window as scattering claws cleared the yard below.

  Smog clotted the breaks between towers and rat-runs, crumbling stonework held together by bits of wood and the prayers of rats like a teetering mountain of cards. He stared dimly through the sporadic flash of warp lightning, his mind an unobtrusive blank, while the Grey Seer prattled on about providence and favour.

  ‘… paid right bribes in right paws to speak-squeak to Headsplitter’s handler-rats about two-match contract. Expensive. But worth it when I win.’ He snickered, gazing into the idolatrous carving on his staff as though he looked admiringly on his own reflection. ‘Let rat-ogre take-handle Prince Amaranth. I see it already. The stadium chant-sings my name. It will be feted in every corner of skavendom. Razzel and the Great Horned Rat! Yes-yes, the Great One loves this plan of mine.’ He turned back to Rurrk as if just then remembering he was not alone. ‘Whole pawful of stormvermin before need call Old-Meat Red Claw.’

  He covered his mouth with the paw that he already had held up to demonstrate the many rats in his mighty paw, and tittered at his cleverness. ‘He of the all-smelling nose loves this plan too much to let something befall them all in two weeks.’

  ‘I covered your debut game in Erengrad for CabalVision and I was impressed. But that was nearly seven years ago, a lifetime for...’ The smile was predatory. ‘For your kind. With the success you have seen in your career, I wonder if you’ve given any thought to retirement? There is still an hour or two…’

  The Reeks was a squalid mire of permanently flooded warrens and a tangle of mouldering pontoons that hazarded into the forest of cattails and sawgrass that sucked on the borders of the Blighted Marshes. The local economy consisted of petty piracy directed against the punt-craft that took the marsh channels from the Tilean Sea to Skavenlight’s scrap-pushers, and stealing one another’s slaves. Even the agents of Clan Eshin moved in packs. The clanless rats that dwelt there were better than slaves only in name. Slaves, at least, got fed. Or in less denigrated parts of Skavenblight, they sometimes did. Here they were the food. It was a cesspool without bottom into which any rat without eyes or wits about him might slip, and from which attempts at escape only put more slime on increasingly despairing claws.

  It had been a choice that had put Rurrk here.

  The entrance to his burrow was high enough above the swamp to be dry at least some of the time, rain kept out by a curtain of marshweed for which he had traded an old shoulder pad scratch-marked by Hakflem Skuttlespike. The four malnourished heavies he had paid to guard his things put away their fangs when they saw it was him. He dropped a quarter-token into each rat’s paw, then brushed aside the waxy sheet and ducked into his burrow.

  It was musky and dank, and he scuttled into the darkness by scent and familiarity alone. His back hunched, tension seeping out of his muscles as he left the game of being a bigger, stronger rat than he was at the curtain.

  A manskin bag had been left on the three-legged table he kept in the middle of the burrow. It was sealed with a string tie. Rurrk hurried to it, a spring in his scurry that made his ankle click.

  He undid the tie and a green light smeared the underside of his muzzle and printed the walls of his burrow with shadows without the prior courtesy of light. Saliva dripped from his jaws and onto the tabletop. A gut-ache of craving formed a knot there. He massaged it away and with a long out-breath he re-did the tie.

  The unlight went out.

  Kato’s supplier had good warpstone, but it wasn’t cheap. Pushing his way back to the top had cost him everything. But it would be worth it. What else was there?

  He clutched the bag to his breast and checked over his shoulder.

  Satisfied that none of his guards had snuck in or listened too closely at the curtain, he scurried over to the naked firepit in the loamy muck by the burrow’s back wall. Getting stiffly onto all fours, he clawed through ash, pausing once in a while to suck the cooking fat off a bone scrap, to dig up a metal vial with a screw lid.

  With much less enthusiasm, he unscrewed the vial and sniffed inside.

  Empty. Expected, but dispiriting all the same.

  You could say this for skaven – they’re optimists.

  Stuffing the vial into the same paw with which he held the bag, he scurried towards another apparently random spot and began to dig. After a
few minutes his claws struck wood. He cleared it, digging round the edges, until he looked down on a worm-eaten wood chest of the sort that might have been lifted from the wreck of a Sartosan galley. Taking a deep breath he dug his claws around the short sides and, bracing thighs and shoulders, hauled the thing out of the hole.

  Brackish water gushed from its seals and from a hundred tiny wormholes as he brought it above the water table and squelched it onto the floor. Lowering himself onto crossed legs, he flipped the catch and creaked back the lid.

  He paused for a moment, paw on the lid, staring down, as if caught by the sort of petrifying enchantment that would have saved him a warptoken a day on guards if he had been able to afford it.

  The chest was filled with memories.

  Trophies, medals, other mementos he had not yet traded or sold, all packed in with reverence and care. A tooth from the infamous squig thrower, Grubba Greenback, the red paint from Rurrk’s gauntlet still on it. The deflated matchball from the famous 10-10 draw with the Har Ganeth Executioners. A scratching of astrogranite from that day in Erengrad.

  Nostalgia wrapped around his heart like a clinging mother.

  Putting it to one side, he reached instead for another bag. It was depressingly flat, and gave a light clink as he lifted it out. He sniffed at it, and took another quick look over his shoulder.

  The guards stamped their footpaws and complained about the damp in subdued squeaks. At least he wouldn’t have to fork out on sentries for much longer.

  He counted out twenty full warptokens. Almost everything he had left. Then he put the twenty into the vial, screwed the cap, and re-buried it in the firepit where he’d found it. He swept the ash back over it, stamped it in, and then scuffed it back up to look acceptably unintentional before scurrying back to the chest.

  He was about to shut it again and drop it back in its hole when the nostalgic ache in his chest tightened, leading him instead to remove his paws from the lid and rummage inside. Reaching through the keepsakes, he drew out something large and heavy, but jointed in the middle so as to fit inside, and coarsely wrapped in burlap.

 
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