Jett the Courier
Jett the Courier
By Geoff Bottone
The Red Dragon Inn 9 – The Undercity is live on Kickstarter! Today we dive into a tale from the Undercity. Let’s meet Jett the Courier, a package runner always on the look out for the most daring and exciting paths through the twisting tunnels (and garden beds, windows, clotheslines…) of the Undercity. This is Chapter 4 of an ongoing story. Follow this link if you missed Chapter 1, Chapter 2 or Chapter 3.
Jett hurtled down the dimly lit tunnel, dodging wobbling pushcarts and their irate pushers. His feet flew over the muddy earth, barely leaving footprints as he raced onward, ever onward toward his destination.
He came around a curve in the tunnel, to see that three carts had somehow become locked together, blocking the traffic behind them from progressing any further. Jett assessed the situation as he approached. One cart stuck in the mud. One on its side. One tilting dangerously. Three carters in grey homespun clothes—common couture in the Undercity—had clustered together behind the carts, arguing and waving fists. He could get past them, he was sure.
“Need more speed,” Jett breathed, as he broke into a sprint.
He felt his bouncing shoulder bag increase its tempo as he vaulted forward, alighted on the wheel of the stuck cart, flipped, landed on the side of the tipped over cart, and ran up the incline provided by the third cart. At the last possible moment, Jett leaped, did a somersault in the air, and landed in the mud just behind the now gawping cluster of carters and pedestrians.
“Hey!” shouted one of the stuck carters. “You can’t just…”
“Sorrycan’stay,” Jett shouted breathlessly, as he continued down the tunnel. “urgentdeliveryhopethecartsareokaaay!”
Jett zigged and zagged around pedestrians as he raced toward Malfunction Junction. Here, he had two options: take the Rainwash Culvert or head through the Warrens. He knew that, even with surprise obstacles and slowdowns, the two routes took just about the same amount of time. but the Warrens route was a lot more fun.
That settled it, then. He continued onward to the junction itself and then took the gently sloping passage upward to the top of the Warrens. Before too long, he came out on one of the largest caverns in the Undercity, its walls lined with small apartments that had been painstakingly hollowed out into the walls. These caverns were linked by bridges of various types and quality, from sturdy stone arches to artlessly placed planks of wood. There were also plenty of balconies, awnings, canopies, and other structures that made vertical traversal a lot easier.
He reached the rotting, wrought iron fence that stood at the edge of the topmost landing. As he stretched out his clawed hands and picked up speed, he saw a chubby human stick their head out of the cloth door of a nearby apartment.
“Courier!” the human bellowed. “Courier coming through!”
“Thanks!” said Jett, as he vaulted the railing and began to fall.
Below him, vendors pulled their carts to one side, while cave owners corralled their kids and their pets and yanked them into apartments. The old hands of the neighborhood called out warnings to newcomers and passersby as they pointed up toward the top of the Warrens and directed people to safety.
Jett took this all in one quick sweep of his head as the lower levels of the Warren rushed up to meet him. He tucked into a ball as he dropped into the grey and brown striped awning beneath him, letting the elasticity of the fabric catch him and then hurl him in a gentle arc toward the opposite side of the cavern. He caught the jutting flagpole on the opposite side, and felt its mounting bracket give a little under his weight. Jett made a note of the structural fatigue in the back of his mind. One more run left in it—two at the most—best to figure out another safe place to catch and hang on this part of the route.
He dropped, freefalling again another three feet or so before catching one of the many clotheslines stretched across the Warrens. Ms. Diggtree hadn’t put out her laundry yet, and so the rope still hung relatively taut. Jett hand-over-handed his way back to the other side, careful not to get snarled on any of the splintered clothespins.
Seconds later, Jett reached the drainpipe. He clambered down it before someone to his left whistled to get his attention. He looked down. Oh, excellent. Someone had just so happened to have parked a cart below him that was chock full of fresh lichen.
“Thanks,” Jett said again, before pulling his body into a tight crouch on the drainpipe.
Then he leaped, soaring outward away from the cavern wall. Down below him, a gaggle of Undercity urchins, who had managed to slip the grips of their minders, let out squeals of delight.
“Go, Jett, go!”
“That’s how you do it, Jett!”
Jett pulled himself into a tight ball in midair and made a single full rotation before spreading his limbs wide. He hit the center of the pile of lichen. It huffed deeply beneath him as it cushioned the force of his descent.
Jett lay there for a second—but only one—before springing up out of the back of the cart to the oohs and aahs of the urchins. Then he was off, running down Lower Warren Road toward Crooked Culvert and his destination.
He turned and gave a brief wave as the rest of the observers in the Warrens broke into applause.
About an hour later, Jett, still rehydrating himself from his canteen, stepped back into the cavern offices of the Swifty Courier Service just off of the Grey Market. Yoc, a green and golden kobold with a bit of a belly and a missing fang, eyed Jett over the counter as he walked in.
“Yoc! How’s it going, my reptie?”
“Hey, Jett. Doing just fine. How’re you?”
Jett rooted around in his bag with his free hand and pulled out a tarnished bronze disk. He shook it once, gently, and a ghostly face appeared on one side.
“What was my speed through the Warrens today?”
The ghostly face adopted a look of intense concentration for a moment, blowing out its cheeks. It then smiled brightly, as a metallic ping resonated from somewhere deep inside the disk.
“Sixteen point three tics!”
Jett nodded approvingly at the disk before dropping it back in his bag. “Sounds like I improved my time on the Warrens run by two tics, so, based on that, I’m doing pretty well. Looks like you’re covering for S’tiv today.”
“Yeah,” croaked Yoc. “He’s out with scale fungus. It’s pretty gross.”
Jett downed the rest of the water in his canteen and went over to the small, in-cavern spring to begin refilling it. “That’s too bad. I hope he feels better soon.”
“Me, too.” Yoc pulled up a clipboard and tilted it toward the candle on his desk, squinting at what was written there. “You interested in picking up some extra pay?”
“Always,” said Jett, shoving the stopper into his canteen and throwing it into his shoulder bag. “What have you got?”
Yoc shuffled various papers off of a rectangular, bronze box that had been installed several years ago by a prune-faced mage of the Collegium. Yoc gave it a sharp flick with the claw on his index finger, grumbled when the box did not respond, and then flicked it again.
The box popped, sparked, and began projecting a voice that Jett knew had been sent using another, identical box that the Collegium had placed in various spots around the Undercity.
“Is it on? I think it’s on. Hello? Hello. Ah, yes. It’s Wizard Dunbardenay. I’m casting you this message from the um…where is that sign? Hmm…ah, here it is…Dwarf Ruin Delve Post Three. We’ve unearthed an invisibility belt in the ruins, and I would like a courier to take it to the drop post at…oh, I had it written down somewhere…hold on…”
Jett nodded. “The underside Collegium drop point? Over by Klyphh Canyon Hole?”
“Yup.” Yoc flicked the box again, deactivating it. “Also, she mentions at the end of the message that she wants Express delivery. It may be a little tricky, though, one of the last couriers who went through there mentioned some slime activity. Which makes sense. It’s spring after all. Anyway, can you manage that?”
Jett placed his hands on the small of his back and stretched, grunting in pleasure as his vertebrae popped. “You got it, Yoc. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“All right, good speed.”
All the slimes Jett encountered were itty bitty baby ones, easy enough to zip around or leap straight over. He made it down to Post Three near the Jade Ruins and was only slightly annoyed to see that no one was there to meet him. While this meant that he wouldn’t break his current record–at least not on this run–he was able to study the crumbling greenstone structures in the distance that softly glowed with their own eldritch illumination.
The clan of ancient dwarves who had built this place had a rather unique design aesthetic. They favored elevated walkways, step pyramids, and slender towers that reached almost to the cavern ceiling. Every time Jett had a chance to look at it, all he saw was a perfect, albeit crumbling, playground to run and climb over. It was too bad that the Mage’s Collegium had banned such activities–the signs posted all over the ruins said as much–and that there were usually quite a lot of wizards, apprentices, and research teams on site to make such activities very difficult.
He tried to ignore the itching in his palms and the fire in his brain as he jogged from encampment to encampment, asking around for the wizard with the unpronounceable name and the package bound for the Collegium depot. He finally found someone who knew about it in the third encampment.
“Sorry about that,” said a very young-looking halfing with grubby hands and a freckled, sweat-stained face. “Master Dunbardenay was worried someone would steal it if she left it up by the post unsupervised.”
“Yeah,” said Jett, watching as the halfling rummaged around in a tent and came out with a large package wrapped in brown paper and tied up with twine. “That’s why you’re supposed to wait there until someone from the service comes for the pickup.”
The halfling wrinkled their nose and sighed. “That’s what I told her, but she said she had way more important things to do.”
Jett took the offered package. It was fairly light, but too big to fit into his bag. “I thought this was supposed to be a belt?”
“Yeah,” said the halfling, with a resigned shrug. “She had me triple box it, so that it would survive the trip to the surface.”
“That makes sense, I guess.” Jett tucked the box under one arm. It would be a little awkward carrying it this way, but he could manage. “What’s it made of? Cloth? Beads? Something delicate like that?”
“It’s metal,” said the halfling, their voice carefully without affect. “Hammered plates of gold linked up with iron rings.”
“Oh, yes, very delicate. Are you sure you don’t need to put it in another box?”
Either the halfling did not pick up on Jett’s sarcasm, or they had a very, very good Rogues and Warriors face. “I’m sure she’d have asked me to, if she’d thought of it.”
“All right,” said Jett. “Well, then, let me get this on its way for you before she does.”
“Thanks.” The halfling mopped their forehead with a dusty rag. “I appreciate it.”
Jett squeezed the box against his side as he ran, the constant pressure creating slight divots in two of the box’s edges. Considering what was in the package, Jett figured that this wouldn’t hurt it at all, and it gave a more natural groove for his arm and hip to slot into. He seated it carefully between those two points, vaulted over a much bigger specimen of spring slime, and poured on the speed.
He was finally moving at a good clip, air resistance caused by the bulky package notwithstanding, when a tall figure stepped out into the passageway in front of him.
“HeywatchitsorryI’montheclock,” Jett shouted as he hopped to the right, ran a couple of paces along the wall, and landed back on the floor just beyond the interposing figure.
He continued on his way, slightly shaking his head back and forth. Probably a surfacer who had gotten lost. People in the Undercity knew about the various Couriers’ Guilds, and had more sense when…
A dark shape rippled into view on his left.
He turned his head slightly and saw that a tall, lean figure was now running beside him, effortlessly keeping pace despite the dark cloak that billowed out behind them, flapping in their wake.
Oh, want a race, do you? Well then!
Jett tossed a casual, fanged grin at the figure and poured it on. He quickly outpaced them, and soon the figure was only fading footsteps rapidly receding behind him.
Buoyed up with confidence at his own speed and ability, Jett ran onward, only growing concerned about the person he had left in the dust when a warm, reddish glow gradually began to brighten in the tunnel behind him. Against his better judgment, Jett looked around.
The figure, though far behind him, was nevertheless keeping pace with him. In grim, red light that seemed to be emanating from the figure’s horns, he could see that she was a woman of slender, athletic build, who wore high boots and form-fitting dark clothing beneath her cloak. Despite the fact that she had, up until now, been running along a tunnel in near darkness, the woman also wore black spectacles over her eyes.
And, of greatest concern to Jett, she seemed to be smirking.
As Jett watched, the woman doffed her cloak in one dramatic gesture and let it fall gracefully behind her in the tunnel. Then, with the heels of her boots hammering on the tunnel floor, she began to close the gap between them.
Jett focused on the way forward and spurred his leg muscles to their absolute limit. Even with this burst of speed, he could tell by the proximity of the woman’s footsteps that she was gaining on him. That worried him a little, but not as much as it would have done a few minutes before.
Because ahead of him, Jett saw that the tunnel that led up from the Jade Ruins was opening up onto the Cascade, a massive cavern shaped like an inverse cone. Several roads wound up from the bottom, along the ripping rock walls, to almost two dozen junction tunnels spread out from the Cascade’s bottom tip to its wide, inverted base. Sure, this woman could keep up with him in a flat run, that seemed like it was obvious, but it was unlikely she could compete with him on the verticals.
He reached the bottom of the Cascade and, with one well-aimed throw, tossed the package up onto a ledge about eight feet off the ground, sprang, clasped his talons around two well-worn handholds, and pulled himself up after it. Jett rolled onto the ledge and into a low squat. From this position he caught the corner of the box with both hands and heaved it up to the next higher level. As it landed with a soft thud, he clambered up dusty scaffolding put in place to reinforce the platform above. It was only when he reached this comparatively lofty perch that he dared to turn and look down into the bottom of the Cascade.
The woman, her horns still glowing, gazed up at him behind inscrutable black lenses, a smirk still on her face.
“Yeah I am,” Jett picked up the package and tucked it under one arm. “You’re good, for sure, but I’m better. Sorry to leave you in the dust, but you lose this race.”
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, and smiled a little wider. “I’m not here to race you, champ. I’m here for that package.”
“Uh huh,” said Jett, feeling a little chill settle in the bottom of his chest. “Well, unless your name’s on it, you can’t have it.”
“The name’s Petra,” said the woman. “And I’ll be taking that box.”
Jett glanced at the neat lettering on the outside of the box. “No you won’t. Sorry again. Company policy and all.”
Now Petra’s mouth split into a broad, shark-toothed grin.
“I don’t think you understand,” she said.
And then she sprang.
She got an incredible amount of air from her standing leap. Jett watched, half in horror, half in admiration, as her hands slapped the worn edge of the landing just below him. With a single, graceful pull, Petra lifted herself up onto the ledge, rolled, and came into a crouch, her dark clothing dusted with the light grey dirt of the Cascade.
She looked up at him, one thin eyebrow raised.
“I’m going to take it anyway.”
As she leaped toward the ledge beneath his feet, Jett sprinted for the nearest tunnel entrance, the thrill and terror of the chase releasing copious amounts of adrenaline that fueled his burst of speed. He had been set upon by package thieves before, and though Petra seemed especially skilled, Jett figured that she was no different from the others. He knew these caves, all the routes, switchbacks and shortcuts. He was a professional, and there was no way that this cocky lady was going to best him on his own ground.
And yet, as he ran, Jett could neither escape Petra’s hammering footsteps or the rising terror in his soul.
Those denizens of the Undercity that saw that strange contest of speed, agility, and strength would never forget it. Jett took the most dangerous routes in an effort to shake his pursuer. He clambered over the rusting hills of Artificers’ Junkyard and slid down the slimy outflow canals of Evacuation Point. He splashed through cave fish ponds, took shortcuts through people’s living rooms, and even hitched a ride on a rickety old freight elevator bringing a load of workers and ore up toward the surface.
Somehow–and Jett could not figure out how–he had been unable to lose Petra. Every time he thought that he had taken a path that she wouldn’t dare to follow, every time he thought that he had shaken her tail and confounded her pursuit, every time a carefully kicked stack of crates or shoved food cart or apologetically tripped citizen had been moved behind him to block off his route, Jett would look back and still see Petra still running doggedly behind him.
He was starting to tire, which was bad, but he was getting relatively close to the Collegium’s Undercity Depot, which was good. If Jett could at least reach the depot, he could hand off the package to the waiting mages, point out Petra, and collapse into a heap by the curb and let people with magic deal with the problem.
With that all considered, Jett realized he still had one chance to get rid of Petra on his own, and keep his pride and his unblemished record as a courier intact. Unfortunately, that required him taking one of the deadliest shortcuts in the Undercity, right through the Runoff Pools.
The pools were a magical oopsie near the depot that the Mage’s Collegium had been trying to deal with for a while now. Something had happened that had caused a breach in the Collegium’s so-called impregnable vaults. They had managed to close up the hole, but not before liquid magic had flooded this part of the Undercity and collected in rainbow pools. The wizards assured the Undercity dwellers that it was perfectly safe–as long as no one drank from or bathed in them–and that it would take only about fifty years or so for magic to ebb away and leave clear, untainted drinking water behind.
They had also had the decency of putting up signs warning people away–one of which Jett had just run past in a blur of speed. Moments later, he was running along the narrow, uneven embankment between the rows of pools, staring straight ahead so that he would not be entranced by the swirling, multicolored water.
He had gotten a quarter of the way across Runoff Pools when he heard the familiar clack-clack of Petra’s heels behind him.
“Dontyouevergiveup?” he shouted.
“No!” came the jaunty shout from behind him. This was immediately followed by a cry of, “Look out!”
Jett looked, which proved to be his undoing. The way ahead of him was as clear as it had been before, but his brain, now expecting danger, sent wildly conflicting instructions to each of his legs. As a result, he tripped over his own feet, tumbled, and slid down the embankment toward one of the pools. As he scrabbled to find a grip on the loose dirt, Jett was pleased to see that his last action had been to fling the package clear, so that it had landed safely on its side atop the embankment.
I don’t want to be turned into a rabbit, or a slug, or a frog, thought Jett, as he continued his slide. Nothing against frogs, though, not really. I mean, I’m a lizard and they’re amphibians, so we must be cousins or something, right? Can’t go too wrong if a magic pool turns you into your cousin, I guess.
The twin forces of friction and the panicked scraping of his finger and toe claws finally managed to bring his descent to a halt. As rough earth and small pebbles continued to slide down the incline around him, Jett slowly turned his head and looked below. His left foot–which he had managed to jam most of the way into the side of the slope, was about six inches above the swirling, multihued radiance of the enchanted wastewater.
But, honestly, I’d rather be me. Thank you, Kobold Elaana!
A whistle from above caught his attention. Jett looked up and saw Petra, breathing heavily, the package for the Mage’s Collegium held in both of her hands, one of which was bandaged.
“I’d stop to lend a hand,” she said, “but I’ve got a party to attend and this is the last little thing I needed for my costume.
She shook the package jauntily. Its well-packed contents did not so much as rattle.
“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be all right. So…bye!”
And with that, she was gone.
By the time Jett had pulled himself back onto the embankment, Petra already had a more than comfortable lead on him. He followed her anyway, as best as he could, just managing to keep her in sight as she ran steadily upward toward the surface. At last, he emerged in a cobblestone courtyard, holding his hand before him to shield his eyes against the reddish, afternoon light.
Squinting, he looked around the courtyard, but he could see no sign of anyone else. He kicked at one of the cobblestones in frustration, and said something unpleasant under his breath.
Jett looked around.
Craning his neck, Jett stared up at a tower that bordered the courtyard on one side. He saw a birdcage hanging in an upper window, though the occupant–even from this distance–did not look terribly much like a bird.
“You chasing that horned lady?” shouted down the cage’s occupant.
“Yes!” said Jett, feeling some of his energy return. “Which way did she go?”
The occupant rattled the cage bars and said. “If you’re willing to help a pixie out of a predicament, I’d be more than happy to tell you.”