// A writing prompt from a dream I had the night of 07JUN19.
// After some deliberation, I decided to upload the first chapter to gauge people's reactions and decide whether or not I should continue.
// (Comment in the shoutbox what you think!)

Otto's Ashes

CHAPTER 1 | The Sweep

¶   As a chimney sweep, one can easily lose your equilibrium. Walking across rooftops three or four stories up, blinded by soot. When cleaning larger chimneys, you can find yourself stuck in a cramped space, occasionally upside down, with your arms pinned to your sides and blood rushing to your head. The risk of being stuck in an unrecoverable position. In these cases, the only solution left is to burn you out.
¶   Because of these risks, most Sweeps band together in teams of two or three and use all manner of gear and ropes and pulleys and other machinery. But with all that fancy safety equipment comes equally fancy prices. I myself was on such a team during the foundational years of my career, but I was dissatisfied with my environment so with little fanfare I resigned to a career as a freelance Sweep. Self-employment comes with less distractions, plus more clients willing to pay for a cheaper sweep, and overall the profits are better due to less equipment and personnel maintenance.
¶   Most chimneys are small, requiring a simple cylindrical wire brush attached to a sturdy cable that’s fed up and down the chimney shaft in a quick and easy manner. However, in larger buildings, the central fireplace is quite wide, and requires an equally robust chimney to distribute the heat and smoke properly. Said chimneys are quite the hassle, notorious for requiring many hours of work and usually entail use of a team of two or three Sweeps. Or one enterprising journeyman such as I, risking his single life for the much higher payout.
¶   Of course, this risk came with its fair share of close calls. I was once stuck in a particularly tight chimney with my knee pushed up in an awkward position near my chest for five hours, and only managed to recover after my sweat lubricated my body enough to slowly shimmy down to the space above the flue. I stamped down on the flue hatch for a few minutes until a passing maid opened it and helped me squirm out. Managed to ruin that poor client’s carpet, so I waived that job’s fees plus paid a little out of pocket as an apology. Since then I find myself rappelling down particularly narrow chimneys with much more care and attention.
¶   Being a Sweep isn’t exactly a glamorous job. Every working day you are covered head to toe in soot. Your hair is soot. Your teeth are soot. Your lungs, soot. But for me it’s a simple, comforting job. Away from the bustle of the Hearth outside, slowly and surely scrubbing the black walls of a chimney, listening to the sounds of my metal brush and the crackling flame of the lantern-band on my forehead. I enjoy the quiet solitude as I work my way down and up the brickwork.
¶   Sweeps are a necessity within the Hearth’s many parishes. Within the walls of the caverns, air can quickly be contaminated if the fires are simply left to burn. Plus, too much soot can collapse and spread a fire into a room, which can spell disaster if not quickly contained. In some parishes, Sweeps are a public utility paid for with local taxes, bringing a steady but rather small income. Public Sweeps are usually novices learning the trade or old freelancers looking for prospective apprentices. There are even Sweep unions in some old parishes deeper in the Hearth.
¶   All said, as necessary as they are, Sweeps are rarely seen at all in the public eye. When spotted, it is usually down the nose of the more privileged, with a look of mild annoyance and a huff. Understandable, imagine a clean shaven and well-educated gentleman of a more well-to-do parish looking around to the paved walkways and painted walls of his neighborhood as he drinks his tea on his porch. However, the tranquility is abruptly broken when a squat, lanky coal sprite comes tumbling out of an alleyway, wire brush in hand over his shoulder, coughing and throwing expletives to the wind. A once peaceful image of communal order brutally disrupted.


¶   Today, on the 22nd day of Mars during the 1891st year of Ascent, I was on my way to meet with one such privileged citizen, longtime client Mr. Rudolph Black, Leading Foreman at the Mills & Morton Mining Company. Not one minute after entering my office this morning had I heard the chime of the mail coach and a knock on the door. The lettergram was punctual, straight to the point, and promised the usual affair of a moderate capital. In turn I promptly gathered my tools and coveralls into my pack-pack, strapped my lunch pail to my belt, and with my long wire brush over my shoulder I left my office beneath my humble brickwork apartment with little flourish.
¶   After walking a few blocks in the dimly lit streets during the wee hours of the morning, I arrived at the ticket gate at the Hearth’s edge and bought a ticket to the parish above my own. After a quick check through customs, I alighted the cable elevator alone and began the lengthy ascent into the darkness above.

¶   The cage-like elevator jerked upwards a moment, rising and dangling freely in the empty darkness of the main shaft that connected the caves to form the Hearth proper. I looked towards the cavern entrance as the cage began to ascend. I watched the ground beneath me fall away for a bit before I sat down and rummaged through my pack-pack and pulled out my favorite hat. A right proper silk bowler’s hat, the only true “gentleman’s” attire I owned, adorned with a silver brooch in the shape of a Vinegaroon scorpion given to me by an old girlfriend in trade school. I popped it stiff and gently placed it atop my greased black hair.
¶   I sat on the cold metal floor with the bars to my back as I opened my ledger and squinted in the fading light. When completed, this job will net me enough capital to buy a set of the pastel blue gentleman’s gloves I’ve had my eyes on. Not for sweeping, of course, just something extra to wear with my off-duty ensemble. Also, paired with my hat, should be well enough even to start looking for more profitable clientele. First impressions are key for an enterprising gentleman, after all. After a thought, I scratched in the word “blazer?” and circled it a few times. Counting my chickens, sure, but it never hurts to dream.
¶   I pocketed the ledger in my jacket and sat up in the creaky box swaying in the updraft. I opened my lunch and I pulled out a simple sandwich of Chanterelle mushrooms with mustard and a flask of black tea and ate my breakfast. As the elevator climbed higher, I felt the Hearth gradually grew warmer. Clouds of water vapor drifted down in the shaft’s dim light and condensed on the cold metal bars around me, I gathered the droplets with a clean rag and squeezed it into my flask.
¶   I looked below me one more time. I could see the entrance to my home parish’s cavern about to fade away like a dying silkworm’s glow. I strained my eyes for as long as I could, keeping the homely feeling in my heart for as long as possible before I would be forced to acknowledge the Hearth looming above. Then, like a candle reaching the base of its wick, all remaining light vanished.

¶   Darkness surrounded me like a wet curtain. As the elevator was pulled up, I listened to the cables pulling taught with each swing in the damp breeze. I could smell the odd dank of moss and oil wafting around me. My hands touched the chilled metal floor beneath me and felt the vibrations of the machinery many fathoms above. I took a few deep breaths and maintained my composure. Eyes, wide open, not once shutting my eyes to the darkness.
¶   When I am working within the cozy embrace of the darkness inside a chimney, I find myself at ease. It’s an artificial darkness that swaddles me, comforts me. Built by the rough hands of man. But to the utter darkness in the void between the numerous caverns housing the Hearth’s many parishes, I felt nothing but pressure. This darkness had no soul. An inhumane absolute, it was too much for many men to bear. I learned long ago that closing your eyes to the darkness left one worse off than simply observing it the same as it seemed to observe you. I calmed my breathing once again and looked out into the space in front of me as I struggled to keep my thoughts grounded to the rattling cage beneath me.
¶   All for naught, as the infectious thoughts of the nature of the Hearth seeped into the corners of my mind. Why must I endure such stress? What did I, humanity, do to deserve such scrutiny from the void? The Hearth was the center of humanity. One mind bogglingly massive shaft through the rough calcified marble and limestone around us. Angled about fifteen degrees away from the parishes, so not perfectly straight, but perfect for Ascending to higher caverns above. Nobody has seen the other side, or if they have nobody has Ascended to tell the tale. Ascending, always searching for the end. It has been almost nineteen hundred years since humanity supposedly fell and we seem to be nowhere near-
¶   The cage bumped against something in the dark, spiking my adrenaline. On my feet now I held my breath and strained my ears, keenly listening to the wind in the darkness. After an agonizingly long moment, I let out my breath and relaxed a bit. A hallucination, most likely. I had let my thoughts run too wild and nearly let the Hearth consume me. Going up and down this shaft for ten years and I still can’t seem to cope well with mind numbing gloom. I opened my watch and squinted at the glowing quartz hands. Not even halfway through the trip. I let out another long sigh and sat back down.


¶   As the end of eternity neared, I observed the dim glow of the parish above me and waved my hand in front of my face to confirm. Relieved, I gathered my things and donned my shaded goggles to prepare my eyes for the change in light. After calming my heart further with a few slow breaths, I stood up as the elevator crested the ridge.
¶   The bright electric lights of the modern streets lit the entire cavern in front of me. As the elevator reached the arrival platform, I looked upwards and noticed a team of spelunkers chipping away at a particularly large stalactite, at least 40 yards long, hanging precariously above a neighboring platform. The fact that there are still stalactites of this size alone proved the newly established nature of this parish, settled no more than fifteen years prior. Stalactites, left unchecked, could eventually either drip unwanted minerals onto homes below, or worst case break off and crush anyone with unfortunately low luck.
¶   Safely shrouded by my goggles, my eyes adjusted to the brightness around me as the elevator came to a stop. I hopped out and took a moment to stretch my limbs and inhaled the scent of the city. A comforting albeit foul aroma of coal, mildew, and paint. I twisted my back with a satisfying pop and let out a sigh. Assured by the solid stone ground beneath my feet, I walked over to the tollbooth near the exit with my papers in hand.

¶   I rapped my knuckles on the shutters of the toll office loudly. This elevator was used very rarely, as it only had the one connection to my sad little parish below. There have been multiple days I’ve found myself helplessly trapped behind the thick iron gate for hours simply because there was no attendant to be found. I was lucky today, for after my knock I heard a loud crash and a stream of expletives, and a skinny, pale-skinned mess of a man in a pastel blue uniform opened the shutter in a hurry. “W-welcome to the Dorsey parish, I’ll be happy to- Oh! It’s just Mr. Daugherty,” said the attendant in a flush, “I’ll let you through the gate, one moment.”
¶   “‘Just Mr. Daugherty’?” I thought out loud. I scratched my chin. “Were you expecting somebody else at this hour?” The man was a nervous wreck today. He seemed to be having trouble putting the key into the gate’s control panel. “…Vernon?” Vernon jumped. “Ah! No, no, er, I’m not allowed to, I mean, one moment Mr. Daugherty.” I just stared in response. I honestly wasn’t as curious as I may have seemed, I simply wanted to get through the gate. After an awkward moment, Vernon finally got the key into the latch and pressed the lit green button beside it. He took my paper to stamp it as the gate opened with a hiss.
¶   As I walked through the gate, I felt and unusual sense of pity to the ball of nerves named Vernon so I turned my head and called out to him. He looked up for a moment as I gave him a clumsy gloved thumbs up. His shoulders seemed to relax a little bit, but the grey eyes in his smooth oval face stared back with an odd expression of confusion as the heavy gate closed between us. I suppose that was warranted, as far as I recall I’ve never actually spoken a full sentence towards him.

¶   Eyes now better adjusted to the brightness behind my shrouded goggles, I slowly lifted them to my forehead and observed the city below me as I walked along the stone causeway towards the main street. The electric lights here were nearly blinding, much brighter by at least tenfold than the magic-infused quartz lanterns in my own parish. Around me the city was rather quiet, the citizens of Dorsey were late risers, so I enjoyed a peaceful walk through the streets towards the large orange brick townhouse of Mr. Rudolph Black.
¶   As I climbed the small hill, I stopped a passing butcher’s coach heading to the market to price some sliced meat. The meats in Dorsey were quite tasty, sourced from slaves that were fed sweet mushrooms daily and were painlessly harvested using tranquilizing medicine and advanced healing magic, allowing for a more tender meat. Unlike the heavily drugged slaves of my hometown, these advanced magical and medicinal techniques allowed for a much more viable and renewable source of human meat. However, my favorite treat is the heart, something that cannot easily be regenerated with any healing magic, even by the most talented clerics. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised today to find a collection of large, healthy hearts in the butcher’s selection.
¶   After greetings and small talk were exchanged, plus a moment of deliberation with my pocketbook, I caved and I opted for a salted heart, and placed it gently in my lunch pail. I gave the butcher my calling card if he needed any sort of Sweep services at discount, and he puttered his coach merrily away while I started back towards the townhouse. As I made my way to the stoop in the front of the house situated on the corner, I was greeted by the Black’s large Basset hound, Fleas. That’s not his real name, of course, but we were never formally introduced until one fatefully itchy day when I woke up to him sleeping in my bed in the worker’s guestroom.
¶   I made my way around the corner into the alleyway and through the worker’s entrance. I took off my loafers in favor of a flexible pair of split-toe boots for climbing and made my way upstairs with my equipment. The worker’s halls were heavily carpeted, to not disturb those living inside with the sounds of footsteps, so the house was extraordinarily quiet. As I passed through the passage on the fourth floor, I heard Mrs. Black through the wall humming a cheery tune. She’s most likely eating her breakfast in bed once again, so I took extra care to tread lightly not to disturb her. I eventually made my way to the back hall behind Mr. Black’s office and pulled a stool from a cubby nearby to reach the lock to the attic ladder. After fiddling with the large iron combination lock with no small difficulty, it opened with a satisfying clunk and I pulled down the ladder from the ladder-well in the ceiling and made my way upstairs.

¶   Contrary to expectations, the Black’s attic was immaculately empty. Unlike most homes where folks store their precious clutter, there was nothing stowed here. With a lonely circular window at the end to light the triangular room and a heavy shag carpet, the atmosphere in here usually took a form of comfortable laziness.

¶   I reached the top of the ladder. At the further end of the room, a lone figure sat down by the window, face lit by the electric lights of the city. Wrapped in a comfortable looking dark blue knitted blanket, there sat a young girl in her early adolescence, sleeping quietly with her face propped on the sill.

¶   This unexpected development only stopped me for a moment. I crept up the ladder to not disturb the girl and placed my hat on the floor near the trapdoor through the roof. I quietly pulled out a folded set of coveralls from my pack-pack and slipped my body in, boots and all. I wrapped by tool bandolier around my chest and pulled out a screwdriver and went to work, slowly unthreading the screws from the frame securing the access in place. I set each screw in my hat carefully so that they don’t get lost, nineteen screws in total. I carefully lifted the stone slab and angled it through the square hole in the roof and gently set it down against the angled wall next to my hat.
¶   Just before climbing through the hole, I turned to see a pair of dark brown eyes staring at me from within the bundled-up blanket. She looked to be roughly thirteen or fourteen, depending on the calendar. However, I don’t recall the Blacks ever mentioning a daughter. I scratched my chin, staring back at the girl. She held her gaze. I finally turned away and began to climb through the hole, but was stopped short by a quiet voice, “My name’s Marie.”
¶   I stepped back down a moment, my hands still holding the lip of the hole. She seemed to retreat into her blanket a bit, but still held her intense stare. “Otto.” I stared back. “Otto Daugherty.”


¶   I hand screwed a piton into the hole near the peak of the roof. Unhooking a coil of rope from my belt, I fed it through the piton and tied it comfortably around my waist. Satisfied, I shimmied across the roof tiles and made my way towards the chimney. Looking back, I saw the girl’s brown eyes peeking over the edge of the hole in the chimney with curiosity. I gave a little wave and turned back and, with a little effort, loosed the grate covering the crown of the chimney. I set it in the crook of the roof and brickwork.
¶   I reached down and removed the lantern-band hanging from my belt and carefully wrapped it around my head. With a thought I turned around to look at Marie and jokingly gave the band a loud snap against my head. She simply stared back, covering her mouth with the blue blanket. Looking down the shaft of the chimney, there was darkness of course. I pushed the flint pedal on my lantern band a few times, lighting the tiny oil lanterns. I tested the rope one more time and sat with my feet dangling into the chimney.
¶   The Black’s chimney was wide enough for a man of my skinny stature, but just barely so. Preparing myself for the snug fit, I slowed my breathing. Short, slow breaths reduce chest expansion, making it easier so move in the tight space. I pulled my belt up around my midsection, further reducing my profile. Finally, I put on my goggles and slowly slid into the rectangular void beneath me.
¶   Working my way from the top down, I scraped away above my head at the soot lining the walls, using my shoulders and knees to brace my body in the confined space. I used my armlength wire brush for the looser soot, and an assortment of smaller brushes for the nooks and cracks in the brickwork. Every few feet I screwed a piton and secured the rope. Scrape a few feet, piton, scrape a few feet, piton. The work was tedious but fulfilling. When I was about halfway through the thirty-foot chimney, I secured another piton and double secured the rope and relaxed my body for a break.
¶   I shook a heavy layer of soot off my head and raised my goggles. In the orange glow of the tiny lanterns I looked at the details of the bricks just inches in front of my nose. These bricks were poorly crafted, with a lot of impurities and bubbles and obviously an amateur mason’s work, but the bricklayer did an excellent job grouting and layering them as evenly as possible. Though not a mason myself, after years of this work I’ve learned to appreciate the intricacies of their craft with a professional lens. I took off my glove and carefully wiped my eyes.
¶   I looked up at the hole fifteen feet above me and squinted. The electric lights of the city were bright as ever, but their light couldn’t reach down here easily. I could only make out the outline the faint rectangle above. I reached up to put out my lantern-band to not waste any oil, but suddenly noticed movement in the orange square above me. I strained my eyes to see when suddenly my face was pelted by many small soft objects. I panicked for a moment, briefly thinking a horde of mice just landed in my lap, but when I brought one of the objects into the light, I was surprised to find in my hand a morel, or rather the remains of one as it was missing its cap.
¶   Bewildered, I looked up, but there was no trace of my mushroom benefactor. After a few deliberate moments of feeling around my body for more morel stalks, I took the luck at face value and munched quietly on the nutty morsels. It was must have been the little girl with the blanket. Marie, I think she said. The Black’s must have just finished their brunch. I strained my ears to hear any signs of activity through the bricks. Nothing but the sound of my jaw popping while I chewed.
¶   I ate a few more morel stalks and carefully pocketed the rest. After donning my gloves and goggles once again, I untied one loop in the rope and went back to work. After roughly another hour or so I reached the bottom of the chimney and stood atop the hard metal flue, now covered in a six-inch-thick layer of soot to be disposed of tomorrow. The space here was slightly wider so I took a moment to stretch a bit and shook off as much extra soot as possible. Just as I was about to begin the slow climb back out the chimney, I heard voices below me. Mr. Black’s deep voice was drifting a bit through the flue and if I strained my ears, I could hear well enough.
¶   “…enough dear…need to relax.” Mr. Black’s voice reverberated quietly. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but if I moved too much, I might make my presence known, and I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of Mr. Black’s lengthy lectures on “professionalism”. I resorted myself to my fate and waited for him to leave. “…it happens…bought for only a few months.” Suddenly a much louder woman’s voice, “‘Only a few months’, he says...!” Ah, that must be Mrs. Black. Although I have yet to meet her formally, her artistic touch is seen throughout the house, even throughout the service halls adorned with small, strange paintings and queer little ornate limestone sculptures. According to some of the neighbor’s servants, she’s also a lesser sorceress, though that status may simply be rumors sparked on from her odd artistic talents. I held my breath, willing them to bring their lover’s quarrel into another room so I may finally leave.
¶   “It’s business, plain and simple,” said Mr. Black, clearer now, “he owed the main branch a rather large sum. This clears his debt, servicing through-” A clear slap reverberated through the chimney, and I covered my mouth with my gloved hand to make myself as quiet as possible. The awkwardness felt was immense. After an intense silence, Mrs. Black spoke. “Called it cheap…” Her voice fading away.

¶   After waiting for many agonizing moments, I uncovered my mouth and breathed a sigh of relief. Moving on the gamble that they finally left the room the fireplace was in, I began the slow journey back up the chimney, removing pitons as I went. Another hour later, I reached the top and muscled my body out of the crown quickly, slamming the grate back in place to put a full stop on the job well done. I sprawled my body on the slanted roof tiles facing the road and closed my eyes, more exhausted than usual, and stretched. I sat up and pulled up my goggles and removed my gloves.
¶   I slowly peeled off my coveralls and boots and bundled them inside out to control the soot. Stepping back into the hole in the roof, I looked around the attic for a moment. Marie was no longer around, it seemed. Such a small presence she had that I almost convinced myself she never existed. I pulled in the remaining rope and secured the roof hatch with the screws I had set aside. I took out a clean rag from my bag, poured a little water from my pack-pack’s water flask to wet it, and cleaned as much soot off my face and hair as I could. Finally, I carefully placed the soot contaminated clothes into my pack-pack long with my tools and pulled out my lunch pail.
¶   Finally taking a moment to relax, I sat on the thick grey carpet of the Black’s attic and set out a thin cloth. On it I placed another pre-made Chanterelle sandwich, plus the salted heart and morel stalks. Quite a hearty lunch, I mused. I chuckled at my pun. Lastly, I pulled out a small brass flask of Ichor, a liquor distilled from the diluted blood of brewmen. I first tried this brew from a well-built brewman named Sikes one in the neighboring parish after working his chimney. He only ate foods high in glucose, to sweeten up his blood (counteracted with excessive exercise) and claims to have fermented it in water dripping from an iron stalactite beneath the bathhouse of “fair maidens”. I don’t fully trust the accuracy of that last statement, but I can’t deny the hint of sweetness and how smooth the lifeblood going down with felt with a satisfying warmth.
¶   Taking a swig of Ichor, I dug into my lunch. Munching happily, I looked at the window at the other end of the room. No sign of the girl, just the odd illuminations and shadows cast on the ceiling from the bright city lights. This is a nice attic. Dark, dusty, stale, as all attics are. But oddly comfortable. I took a bite of the salted heart and dragged my other hand across the thick carpet beneath me. Comfortable.
¶   A moment later I glanced at the ladder going down into the hall and stopped chewing. The ladder was up. Sandwich still in one hand, I hastily scooted a couple feet across the carpet and leaned down onto the ladder’s tress. It didn’t budge an inch. I finally swallowed my mouthful and set the half-eaten sandwich onto the cloth. I stood up straight in the middle of the room and sighed loudly. Stepping atop the ladder well I threw my full weight down a few times. Sod it all, of course the solid iron lock was quite strong.
¶   I stepped off the ladder well and sat down cross legged in the center of the room and folded my arms in thought. It must have been that mysterious girl, Marie, though how on earth did she reach and set the padlock at her height? I frowned as I closed my eyes. However unprofessional, my only option is to try to scale the three stories outside the Black’s house in my socks. I sighed again. So much for avoiding a lecture from Mr. Black. I lay down fully on the drab carpet. Suddenly, a thought, and I opened my eyes in confusion.
¶   When I arrived this morning, the ladder had been locked before I got to the attic. No one should have been here before me. And yet…
¶   I shook my head before I came to any conclusions. It’s none of my business what goes on in the Black’s house. I rubbed my temples. Back to the issue at hand. Rappelling down will be easy, I have all the equipment on hand necessary. However, there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll be spotted, whether by a neighbor, or more likely thanks to my luck so far, Mr. Black himself. I really should be mentally preparing myself for the lecture and a discount for my services.

¶   I opened my ledger in disappointment. So much for my gentleman’s gloves. And I don’t have another job lined up for a fortnight. Frustrated, I slammed the book shut and replaced it in my pack. I finished my lunch and took two gulps of Ichor before once again removing the screws from the roof hatch. I’ll have to return once again to replace it later. I gathered my things, leaving my hat full of screws, and climbed onto the roof.