Back in May, I started a fantasy story tentatively titled "The Heart of the Thief." You can find part one here. The idea was to write a fantasy epic involving a handful of character who each represented various life-philosophies. The project was mainly influenced by Thomas Ligotti and the Thief video games series developed by the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios. I don't really write genre stuff, so after about one-thousands words, I abandoned The Heart of the Thief only to take it up again recently. Make sure to check out part one linked above if you want any of this to make sense. Part One.
“Save the philosophizing,” says the Thief. “I hear enough of it from various sources.”
“Unless you have elevated your company, I doubt that the gutter riff-raft have much to say beyond voicing their complaints. To whom else beside myself would you turn for stimulating conversation, my terse friend? Were it not for me, you would be blind to the essential horror of your existence. Rankar knows you wouldn't ponder the nature of your being on your own initiative. You are a man built for a single purpose if I have ever met one, Thief.”
“How do you know this courtesan?” asks the Thief. “She can be trusted?”
“What a fool you must think me to be. I am most assured of her loyalties. Believe it or not, I have dealt in these schemes before. Dazbog is no mere conjurer of petty tricks. Cassilda is, shall we say, disgruntled. Her life has not proceeded as planned. The poor creature does not realize what little control she has.”
“That's all you speak of. Control, or the lack thereof.” The Thief gets up from his chair and stands by the window, looking out over the city. He doesn't think much of it, for it has never been very kind to him. The pup snuggles into the crook of his arm, sleeping. What is he doing with this animal? He should have let the boys beat it to death. Just another hungry mouth to feed, a burden on its owner. An old weakness has surfaced, one that he thought was buried. He always had a fondness for parasites.
“You should toss that creature out the window,” says the wizard suddenly, his mouth twitching, his great eyebrows arched. For a second it looks as though the Thief might do as he suggests. He takes the pup by its nape, dangles it out in the nothingness, lets it hang there, watching to see if it reacts, to observe if it senses its own doom. The swollen eyes do not open; the pup just continues its ragged breathing, lost in a netherworld, unaware of its circumstances. Poor thing doesn't even know it can die, thinks the Thief, pulling the animal back toward him. The wizard looks satisfied as though he has learned something. He puts the tunic, lute, and balm into a burlap sack, ties it together, and hands it to the Thief.
“Go to Cassilda tomorrow night at the twentieth hour and wait by the porter's entrance near the westward tower on Ablemarle. There will be a guard, a drunkard named Bernard. Give him a bottle of cheap port. He is used to being bribed as long as you act as though nothing is out of the ordinary. You have such a way with people, my friend. Utilize your natural charm.” The wizard turns toward his instruments, his bony hands working feverishly. The faun glowers at the Thief, letting him know that he is dismissed. Down the steps he goes, wordless, his parley with the wizard having ended as abruptly as usual. I am an instrument, he thinks to himself. Such is the natural order of things.
On the steps of his building an old man lies stretched out, a wineskin in between his legs, his hands supinated, eyes swimming in murky pools. A ragged old change purse sits beside him, disemboweled. A red ooze trickles from his mouth; whiskers sprout from his chin, gnarled, twisted things of grey. He has been sleeping for a long time, undisturbed by the urchins and rats that prowl the street, just another fixture, a perverse statue, a tribute to the debauchery and weakness of man. The Thief rouses him with a gentle kick; the old man awakens suddenly, lurching forward, mumbling curses.
“What do you want?” he asks, looking up at the Thief. “I was having a very nice dream.”
“What do the dead dream of?” asks the Thief.
“The same things all men do. Virgins, drink, and a warm hearth. I've never been able to obtain all at the same time.”
“You've never owned a thing in your life, old man,” says the Thief. “I brought something for you.”
“An offering? I was an oracle once. You know that, right?”
“Only women are oracles. Will you care for this beast?” The Thief places the pup in lap of the old man.
“I cannot care for this,” says the drunk.
“You can beg for two. When it is older, it will keep the rats and urchins away. A dog is warmth in the winter.” He steps around the old man, opening the door.
“I will give you your fortune, though you burden me with an unwanted gift,” says the old man. “Nothing will go right for you. One cannot survive on luck alone. Be wary of your friends. You have none.”
“So nothing will change,” says the Thief, entering the building.
“Don't be so sure,” replies the drunk.
He goes up the stairs, passing a girl sitting on the steps. She makes eyes at the Thief, large green eyes that flutter like the wings of a fly, but he doesn't see them, preferring whores to skinny peasant girls who desire husbands to fill their bellies and beat them only once in a while. Never has he wanted the demands of a family, though not for religious reasons like the Antinatalists. Just the other day he passed one of their lot down by Market Street, a wretched creature holding a sign, the desiccated remains of his genitals dangling from his neck like dried carrion. To deprive oneself of one of the chief pleasures of life—he cannot imagine it. Sometimes he thinks that he is the only person in this world who enjoys himself. Existence is a matter of perspective. In the dungeons he thought only of wine, women, and his art instead of pain and isolation, and such thoughts prompted him to find a way, to do what could not be done, to escape. The mark on his hand is that of a dead man's. He looks at it as he produces the key to his apartment. A jagged X, serrated, rough at the raised edges of the scar. There are scars covering his back, his chest, his legs. They scar you until there isn't an unmarked spot of flesh on your body. He turns the key and walks inside.
It is a plain space, just one room with a mattress in the corner, a window above it. A small shelf rests against one wall, its contents a skull and several volumes on miscellaneous subjects. He hasn't read them, not completely, though he will take a book down from time to time and thumb through it. A black leather case full of lockpicks sits below the shelf, unused, a gift from a well-meaning friend. The crowbar that leans against the case is frequently utilized, his large hands suited more for prying and battering than subtle manoeuvrings, though the women have never complained. He goes to the mattress and lies down, not taking off his cloak, his eyes fixated on the cracks in the ceiling, the spiraling shapes flowing with a river's mad sense of direction. Events settle in his mind and sit, fermenting, growing like mold. A great weariness threatens to seize him, to take the Thief and wrestle his spirit away, leaving only a tired, spent creature with no desire to do anything but sleep and drink. That was how it was a week ago. He had come home after casing a joint and simply collapsed on this bed, his hands finding a bottle, and the rest was a blur, a whole day lost. He moans in his sleep, they say, murmurs terrible things, unpronounceable names of monsters. The Thief doesn't know why they spread rumors. He can never recall his dreams.
There she is. A woman with chesnut hair and emerald eyes, long-limbed and lean, her form hidden by a cloak, though he knows her body, he can see her movements in utter darkness as though she were an extention of him. She walks beneath the earth, creeping down the throat of the world, the only beacon a faint light glittering like a star eons away. Do you have it? He can't see it in her hands; she doesn't answer. The coldness of the earth is changing. Hot breath funnels through the tunnel, the warm exhalations of a colossal creature, something unimaginably old and beyond understanding. Did she eat it? Have we eaten it? Suddenly he knows, he sees her, sees himself leaning over a fire with dripping jaws and trembling hands. We made love and basked in our glory and that is why I follow her. He will always follow her. He can do nothing else.
The Thief waits by the porter's gate dressed in musician’s clothes with a lute strung across his back and a bottle in hand. He brought a bottle for the guardsman as well as one for himself, though he hasn't drank enough from it to become drunk. People pass in the street: bands of roving children, gentlemen on the prowl, characters hooded and cloaked, obvious miscreants with razors hidden in their sleeves. Bernard snaps at these fiends, telling them to keep their distance or risk feeling the point of his halberd, which he brandishes about mencingly, bushy eyebrows raised, his mustache inclined at a similar angle. This zealous fool doesn't seem like the type to be bribed with a bottle of porter; rather, he seems more likely to impale a prospective friend such as the Thief before he can even approach. Above are the fortress walls, emerging from the mountain's side like the scutes of an armored beast. Cassilda he whispers suddenly, testing the name on his tongue. He looks to his left and sees a courtesan coming down the street, smiling, a fan clutched in her gloved right hand. She passes the Thief, looking at him with green eyes, lashes flashing, and he is at her side in an instant, his arm entwined with hers. What is happening he thinks, as his feet move and his face breaks into a disarming grin. They march up to Bernard, who eyes them warily, and Cassilda curtseys and he follows with a deep bow. “For you, sir,” he says, presenting the bottle of porter. “As a reward for your exquisite service.”
“Aye, what's that?” asks Bernard, twitching his mustache.
“You are being honored, recognized for your distinction. There is no better halberd man in the court. No men of foul repute will ever pass through this gate, such is the greatness of your discretion. Please, take this.” The Thief offers up the bottle, marveling at the words that have come from his mouth.
“Is that thair some of that spiced wine? Did the boys put yere up to it? I warn ye, I don't like being played fere a fool,” says Bernard, eyeing Cassilda rather laciviously.
“No one would ever take you to be one,” says Cassilda, revealing a full, shiny denture. She extends a gloved hand, touching the hairy arm of the guardsman. Suddenly she wraps herself around him, lips in his ear, and a shudder passes through his body, a sesmic tremble that results in his falling back against the wall, slumped downward, legs bent and barely supporting his stout frame. She looks at the Thief, eyes aflame, burning with emerald glory, and points at the bottle in his hand. He places it at Bernard's feet, and they dart into the passageway. Rankar spare me thinks the Thief, following Cassilda as she hurries through the hall, nearly catching up to her as she takes a left down a winding tunnel, and then finally grabbing hold of her arm as she mount a spiriling staircase.
“Let go of me, vagabond,” she says, tearing free, and continuing to climb.
“We were supposed to bribe him, not poison him,” says the Thief.
“Maybe that's what you were supposed to do,” replies Cassilda. “Dazbog's magic is as predictable as the whims of the Duke's royal concubine. He obviously enchanted us without our knowledge. You followed me without question, and you spoke with words that were not your own. Our guardsman was not persuaded. I said something to him in Elmeric, which is odd, because I don't know Elmeric. This is all bad, Thief. We are being used as pawns.”
“Let's get out of here, then. I won't be used by that sorcerer.”
“I think it's too late. Can you stop your feet?” Cassilda looks at him, turning around as she climbs. The Thief tries to stop, but he keeps climbing, taking each step at an inexorable pace. “Shit,” he says.
“Yes, we seem to be in a pickle. I think it will be best to cooperate with the spell. Trying to resist such things usually results in unpleasantness.”
“'Unpleasantness?' What if Dazbog has enchanted us to kill the Duke? Who knows what that mad wizard has done. You know that he is disgraced? He has grudges. We must break this spell.”
Cassilda laughs, wheezing, her breath shortened from climbing. Through a tiny window he sees the city spread out beneath them, its towers distant and shrinking with every step.
“You know much about magic? I would think that your expertise would be limited to how to break door jambs and twist arms for money,” says Cassilda.
“The Valientice vault, that was my work, as was the Royal Bank heist. What do you know of stealing, courtesan? Harlotry is your profession, no?”
“We all do things for money. Are you good at what you do? You must be, since you're alive and wearing that brand. Let's get the Heart and be done with it, agreed? That's the only way to break the spell. Money from the Galvanians was what you were promised, correct? We have our lives and our fortunes at stake. Say what you will about Dazbog, and do what you will with him afterward, but he is a talented magician. We will make it out of here alive. I promise you that.” Cassilda stops, finally having reached the summit of the stairway. “Well look at that. There's an allure ahead. I hope you don't get vertigo. It's rather high up and there's not much of a parapet.”
The Thief tries to move his feet back down the staircase, but as soon as Cassilda ventures out onto the wall walk, they follow her obediently like two whipped dogs. I will kill that wizard he thinks, stepping out into the air, the wind snapping at his frame, plucking the strings of his lute as he moves across the narrow pathway. Heights have never bothered him; he always considered the rooftops of the city to be his highway and an easy way to travel if one didn't mind making the ocassional mad leap. Cassilda clutches the smooth wall as she rushes toward the next tower, her gaze fixed firmly on the doorway—she's scared, he sees, though she moves gracefully enough, gown flapping as the breeze breaks against the mountain, revealing long, lean limbs. There's a scar on her right calf, an ugly thing stretching across the muscle like a purple leech. Must've hurt like hell he thinks as he follows her into the tower.
“Hey, more stairs,” says Cassilda, already moving upward. “We will reach the lowest level soon, and then we'll go to the atrium and see who's congregating. You look like a social person. Perhaps you play that lute?”
“I know many bawdy songs. I even know one about a harlot who gets a thief killed.”
“I'm sure that will go over nicely with the other courtesans. To tell the truth, I'm very worried about your role in this whole thing. You look as though you'd rather use that lute as a weapon than an instrument. Are you capable of guile, Mr. Thief? You do realize that a lute is a poor thing to arm oneself with? A tongue works much better in my experience.”