The Heart of the Thief is a fantasy novel that I'm starting on after Wolf is complete, which, considering my current writing speed, might be awhile. The idea was to write a philosophical fantasy novel, one that considers whether or not mankind is a positive force in the universe, as well as the nature of existence itself. That sounds a little heady and too ambitious, but what the hell. Here is the incomplete first chapter. Influences include standard D&D fantasy troupes, the Thief video game series, the horror works of Thomas Ligotti, Lovecraft, and Kipling.
He moves through the shadows of the city, watching the beaten trudge the streets, his form hidden, hooded, obscured. Crows perch on the crumbling stone of ancient walls reduced to knee-high rubble; he traces his hands along the pathways, his fingers following the prints of time. The birds squawk and flutter but they don't leave, they know him well as passes by, a nondescript shape, a cloak stepping out of the alcoves and into the crowd. Such sprawl, such cramped confines—he witnesses lives being lived, suppers being cooked, blows being exchanged, kisses and caresses and knives and the whole bloody mess—but he is just a silhouette, a breeze, the faintest rustle of fabric on the move. Over the stacked slums and tenement houses rises the smoke of the temple, nestled in the heart of the palace, where the Duke and his priests reside along with the noble families, their servants, and their guardsmen. Built into a mountain side, the palace, to tower over the people in their squalor. He leans against a lamp post and lets a cart pass, twin oxen pulling it, great beasts with spiraling horns. A pickpocket tries to get close to him, but he glides again into the shadows, letting the evening blanket his passage, his destination ahead, the ruined tower of a ruined wizard. In the street before him three boys beat a small dog with sticks, joyful curses flying from their lips as the pup cowers and whimpers under their blows. It is no special occurrence—the boys are likely beaten often themselves and so look for something weaker to abuse—yet he can't pass, not this time. He cuffs the largest boy, sending him to his knees, coming out of the darkness tall and heavy, a looming creature spreading wings of doom. The boys see the scars, the brand on his hand, and know him to be the Thief. Terror manifests on their dirty moonfaces; eyes widen, shouts are born and then die suddenly in their throats. He points a finger at an alleyway, and they drop their sticks and scatter, dumb vagabonds, orphans, cowards. Children of the city, motherless urchins, destined to grow into feeble men who rape and plunder each other, blind to their cannibal madness, lashing out at their own progeny, who will in turn repeat the curse. The pup lies bruised and battered at his feet. He takes it by its nape and goes to see the wizard.
The tower is all that is left of an old castle belonging to long-dead rulers, rumored to be entombed in the collapsed catacombs. There were once apartments connected to it, but they burned down in a conflagration, leaving only solitary stone. The Thief does not know how the wizard came to own it; he doesn't care, being uninterested in much besides material wealth, women, and vintage wine. It is a crooked structure, leaning to the west, its thatched roof built hastily to replace a rampart which was destroyed in an ancient war. He steps up to the thick wooden door and beats the twisted iron knocker four times, then lets himself in. The stairs wind upward, hugging the walls, and he begins a long climb, his steps careful, his hands once again tracing worn stone. It is impossible to know how many feet have climbed these steps; they are edgeless, slippery, dangerous. How the wizard manages them he can't understand, but that is the way of wizards, Dazbog being no exception. Eventually he comes to the top, a final door, green smoke oozing out from under it, the smells of onion, garlic, and blood tingling in his nostrils. The pup, silent all this time, whines. Again he raps the knocker, beating it four times. He enters.
No smoke in here, just a dimly lit room with a lantern swinging from the ceiling. There are books stacked against the walls in half-hazard piles, volumes of long-forgotten lore; optical equipment, strange plants, and pagan figurines rest on a lengthy work bench. A painting catches his eye—he stole it, after all—a portrait of a smiling faun, its teeth large and uneven, lips bruised red, a peculiar gleam in its eyes, a certain mischievous evil telling of sins that whisper to the Thief. Suddenly a voice speaks, a raspy croak full of dust and embers. The Thief turns and sees the wizard standing near the window. He is tall but hunched, dressed in a dingy old robe of burlap, one bony arm grasping a broom for support, his great bulbous nose red, his beard filthy, stained, and stinking of wine.
“What did you say?” asks the Thief, finding a chair. He does not like to stand around the wizard, for the old man comes too close, spreading his reek and spittle.
“He says you'll lose that hand,” says the wizard.
“Which one?” asks the Thief.
“The one that has stolen the most, of course. Why did you bring that creature in here? I don't eat dog, thief. I am no savage. In my glory, I dined on venison and suckling pig. Give him here, all the same.”
“The painting speaks to you?” asks the Thief, still clutching the pup.
“Why of course it does, my slinking friend. That is Prax, a God of the forest, lord of debauchery, patron of the lost, the drunk, the misinformed, a true seer, they say, of what really lies within the so-called soul. Somewhere in my library I have a volume dedicated to him and his cult, which has, sadly, died out in all but the most remote places. There were certain heathen festivals coinciding with the harvest, involving violent, sexual rituals, all done in Prax's name. Even a man of your relative uncouthness can see how the holy men of the temple would not tolerate such discord. An unknown artist did this most excellent portrait. He sees right through you, doesn't he? That's because there's nothing inside that mongoloid skull, thief. You are a false construction as I am a false construction. We do as we must. We cannot choose to make a choice. Do you understand me?”
“I never do,” says the Thief, reaching out toward the work bench, where a bottle of wine rests. He ignores the wizard's frown as he uncorks the bottle and puts it to his lips.
“It is my curse to be misunderstood or ignored,” says the wizard. “Consider my expulsion from the academy and the ruin of my bright career. I should be at court, you know, whispering truths into the Duke's ear. He is surrounded by optimists, men who lie because it is easy, men who tell him what he wants to hear. They look at the fractured horizon and tell him tomorrow is there, that it is still beating in the last piece of their dead god. We linger and we fade, my friend. The glories of yesteryear have past. This is the twilight of the world, and soon the sun will rise no more.”
“All the better for me,” says the Thief.
“You can steal from skeletons, but they don't pay well,” replies the wizard. “Nothing will grow under constant darkness. The cold will set in, turning the world into an icy rock. The endless circle of death and suffering shall cease, and entropy shall have only a brittle husk to devour. Rankar, the great creator, could not live with his consciousness, the terrible weight of being, and so desired death. This is apocryphal, thief, so of course it is true. Immortal and therefore unable to bring about his demise, Rankar divided himself, creating the universe; yet the will to die was preserved in all living things. We are always fighting the drive toward death, even when it will bring us peace. Such is the central paradox of life.” The wizard pivots on his broom, looking out at the city, which glows and simmers with thousands of scattered lights. “Man pretends not to see, thief. He is miserable, suffering, a brute unaware of the strings which pull him to and fro, making him dance. Here, give me that bottle before you drink all of it.”
The Thief shrugs and hands him the bottle. The pup shivers weakly in his grasp, its eyes swollen shut. The wizard, of course, had a job for him; wizards, however, are never straight to the point, possessing a love for the sound of their own voices. Thankfully, patience was one of his few virtues.
“I have a task for you, thief, a grand heist worthy of your skill. I want you to steal the Heart from the temple, the last remnant of Rankar.” The wizard pauses but does not turn toward him. “What say you? Can you do this?”
“Do you wish me to kidnap the Duke as well? What about the royal consort? Surly each will bring a handsome ransom.” His scarred face smiles, then turns to a frown. “What do you want with it? And what could you give me in payment to perform such an impossible task?”
“The Galvanians want it, not I. They will pay us a fortune, for they have always desired the pride of the Capetian dynasty. Having the Heart will grant them legitimacy when they take this city and deliver us from the tyranny of the Duke and his nobles. But you don't care for politics, do you, thief? Here is an advance, a small portion of the gold that awaits. Five-hundred sovereigns. You are to meet a courtesan who calls herself Cassilda. She will reveal the rest of the plan.”
The wizard tosses a pouch at the Thief's feet, but he makes no move to take it. On the wall the faun stares at him, his grin growing wider, his teeth crooked mountains.
“Blasphemy, treason, the ire of an entire city. Have you been in the dungeons, wizard? I've had to eat rat while listening to the screams of the dead. I can't imagine what tortures await the man who attempts to steal the Heart.” He bends down and takes the pouch, opens it, counts the coins, thinks of his rent, wine, and Guinevere the whore. Five-hundred sovereigns is enough for him to live quite comfortably for a good while, yet money isn't worth much when you're not around to spend it. He was, however, the Thief, not a thief, an artist, a true professional, and the wizard, despite being cantankerous and somewhat mad, was also a credible source and true to his word. A reputation is built on performing the impossible.
“Where do I meet this Cassilda?” he asks.
“At court, of course. You will not go dressed in your slinking clothes, however. You will wear this,” the wizard holds up a green and yellow-striped tunic, “and carry that,” he says, pointing toward a lute lying against the window sill.
“A minstrel? But you know I can't sing, nor can I play the lute. And have you ever seen a minstrel with a thief's brand? Or scars on his face?” The Thief touches his own hand, feeling the raised flesh, remembering the pain and the hours spent clutching the wound, the darkness his only constant companion.
“You forget that I am a wizard, oh prowling menace. I will give you a balm to cover your marks, a potion to improve your voice, and this lute, which just so happens to be a magic lute, upon which you can play no wrong note.” The wizard smiles, his denture yellow and incomplete. “I would say they will sing songs about you, but there will be no one left to do the singing, master burglar. That ego of yours, residing in your imaginary self, prompts you to do as I ask. You are a slave to it, a automaton guided by internal impulses, invisible processes of which you are not aware.”