Friday, March 4, 2016

The Heart of the Thief, Pt. 4


The fantasy epic continues! Read parts one, two, and three if you haven't yet.

...

She watches out the carriage window as they climb, seeing the gilded towers, the throngs of gilded people as they march upward on the never-ending steps, on pilgrimage for themselves, noblemen, merchants, priests, thieves. The fortifications give way to the splendor of the palace, which spreads itself up the mountainside, the power and wealth of the Capetians on full display. Only they could build their house on the great Mons Ascraeus with their plundered fortune, stolen from nations at sea, built with the bones and blood of a thousand kings. She swam in their seas long ago; she knows the calls of ocean birds; she always has the smell of salt in her lungs. She watched as the man she loved as a father was torn from her grasp and thrown overboard while the waters churned and the sky flashed bruised colors, aubergine and crimson. There seems to be a storm brewing on the horizon, back towards the ocean, a mighty tempest that she can feel, even up here, thousands of feet above the waves. Some things you can never forget. The fat lord prattles on, speaking to the supposed master thief about dockside whores. The reason none of the girls will go near him is because he has syphilis. Only the rich, nobles, and priests get ahead she thinks, looking at the climbers. Yet things are changing. The wizard had laughed and said that war was the least of their worries. Plague. The coming of the death-sleep. The final darkness. Coldness...and nothing. She doesn't know how much of it she believes. The Thief has said nothing of the spell; he listens patiently, absorbing Dempsey's foolish words. He hasn't given any sign that he suspects anything; frankly, she thinks him something of a dullard, a petty thug rather than the romantic swashbuckler Dazbog described. All things have their use. What was it he used to say? Whales have their oil, fish give their flesh, and man takes it all. A great mollossus pulls their carriage, using its stunted wings to ascend the steep path, its shaggy head lolling from side to side, seeing the world through compound eyes. Not a day goes by that she doesn't think of the ship. Do I live only for my vengeance? Maybe she will ask a priest at the temple to tell her. But it is forbidden to speak to the holy ones. She has no respect for them, shaved, starving, walking skeletons wearing elaborate robes of red-dyed silk, suffering for their god, giving themselves in the fervent belief that their hunger will feed his quivering heart and prolong existence. She has always hated priests, having never met one that was not a hypocrite. Believe they say, offering the Heart as evidence of Rankar's glory, of the beauty and love of the Creator, the Sufferer, the One who will embrace all of his children, no matter their sins, and give them peace. It is a lie she knows; Rankar didn't sacrifice himself to make the world, it was formed from his suicide, his futile attempt to annihilate his self. No benevolent overlord would've allowed the Captain to die, not in the manner in which he expired: beaten, castrated, having watched his protege's rape, and then tossed into the depthless sea. What thoughts were in his head as he drowned, staring up through the darkness, wondering if she still lived? Did he have any hope? Did he trust in God, the same god that watched his death with heartless abandon? She would never know, and that was why should could not forgive. She places a hand on Dempsey's thigh, her face smiling, giving the gout-stricken lord a glimpse of her straight, white denture. They were almost to the top. Just keep smiling a voice tells her. It's not as though she has a choice in the matter.
     “My family has always served the temple, though my brother is the first High Priest of our line. That fresco there was painted in my great-great-great grandfather's time, a mere decade before the Galvanian occupation,” says Dempsey as they walk through the flame-lit corridors of the outer temple. “A period of much strife and sorrow. It depicts the bequeathal of the Heart, the transfer of authority from the heavens to mankind. You can see that the lord is painted with Capetian features: the aquiline nose, blonde hair, slender build. There is a slight distortion of the colors, however, as though someone tried to erase our lord. The propaganda never ends, unfortunately, and even history pays its price.”
    “Why didn't you join the temple?” ask the Thief.
    “There must be a male heir to continue the family name,” says Dempsey. “Though I have produced nothing but bastards, my wife being a barren creature. Besides, I was never much of a spiritual person. I didn't want to fast. Chastity seemed like a perverse thing, if I must be honest. All that falling down on the knees, why, I don't think I could've made it.” The lord taps one of his swollen feet with his cane. Ahead of them, priests pass in a hallway, their heads bowed, hands cupped together, feet padding softly on the worn stone, murmuring silent prayers. “I shan't take you much further,” continues Dempsey, giving the holy men a wary glance. “I really don't have the authority you assume of me, Cassilda. I was surprised they let us past the anteroom at this hour.”
    “You have no sense of adventure, my lord,” says Cassilda. “Can you not show us more?”
    “There is nothing more to see,” says Dempsey. “The temple is a labyrinthine structure, with most of it closed off to all but the inner circle of the priesthood. Now, I think we should be going before they start to look for us...”
    “The Heart, my lord. You must take us to it,” says Cassilda, drawing close to Dempsey. The Thief sees something clutched in her hand, something that sparkles emerald in the coal-lit hall. Dempsey stares at her dumbly, his face contorted, showing signs of struggle. She's a witch realizes the Thief as the lord's eyes settle into dull stare. A sliver of drool forms at the right corner of his mouth; Cassilda whispers in his ear, speaking ancient words. As soon as she finishes, the lord turns abruptly and begins marching down the hallway, further into the temple. “Keep your distance,” says Cassilda, as they follow him. “A most curious spell Dazbog has cast. I don't know what I said to him.”
    “Since we can't turn back, I guess we'll have to follow him,” says the Thief.
    “I expect you'll deal with any unpleasantness we may encounter?” asks Cassilda.
    “I'm not a hired thug. With that oaf lumbering in front of us, I don't know what I'm expected to do. Eventually he's going to run in to somebody, especially if he's taking us to the Heart.”
    “And what will you do then? Disappear into thin air? Utilize your thiefy powers of invisibility?” asks Cassilda, mockingly.
    “If I can. Seeing how our actions are directed, I may not have a choice.”
    “Oh, I always believe in choice, master thief. You are no puppet. You are being steered in the right direction, I would say.”
    “Just like Dempsey,” says the Thief. Cassilda smiles and points ahead at Dempsey conversing with two priests.
    “What could he be saying to them, with his brain all befuddled?” asks the Thief.
    “Whatever it was, it must've worked,” replies Cassilda. “Though they're coming our way.”
    The Thief grabs her, pulls her toward him, and places his hands on her face, tilting her head downward. “Clasp your hands together,” he says, bowing his head. “Don't speak. Don't look at them.”
    “This seems like a rather stupid plan...”
    “Quiet.”
    The soft footsteps of the priests grow louder. You don't want to look thinks the Thief. There is nothing here but two praying novices, steadfast in their devoutness, hands cupped, their minds blank slates. Nothing is out of the ordinary; you continue on as you are. He can tell by Cassilda's breathing that she is relaxed, committed, trusting his judgment. How are you playing me, witch he wonders. His feet are now his own; the spell that commanded them, cast by Cassilda or Dazbog, has worn off. He would turn and leave her here if he wasn't so close—gaining entrance to the temple is not an easy thing, and to simply waltz inside with the brother of the High Priest was absurd. Witch or no witch I'm getting the Heart he thinks, his pride already swelling. If she thought he was disposable, she was in for a surprise.
    The priests pass without a glance. Cassilda lets out her breath moments after they are gone, her eyes already moving down the hallway where Dempsey has disappeared.
    “Not bad, courtesan. You do well under pressure,” says the Thief, following her as she trots after the vanished lord.
    “You do know some type of magic or weirding way, though you cast no spell,” replies Cassilda.
    “Not magic—just a manipulation of will, presence, and bodily suggestion,” says the Thief.
    “If you don't wish to reveal your secret, I understand. Let us turn here. I believe this is where he has gone.”
    The Thief hears the mountain's voice before he reaches the end of the passageway. Muraled walls give way to endless space; giant stone columns stand like petrified tree trunks, their ceiling having long ago eroded into nothingness. A great staircase rises, its steps nearly edgeless, the summit a long climb on hands and knees, the wind howling and threatening to send any ascendants to their demise. And there is Dempsey, already halfway up the steps, dragging his swollen feet, leaning heavily on his cane but still ascending, taking each step as though it might be his last. The Thief looks at Cassilda, whose eager eyes fix on the enchanted lord. “Up,” she says, placing her feet on the staircase. The moonlight falls on her, bathing her skin, illuminating her slender form as she rises, nervous, afraid of the precipitous incline yet moving onward, upward, ever closer to the Heart. The Thief has known obsession before, witnessed it on the streets, felt it in the dungeons as he gazed into blackness, trying to will the ether to part, yet this witch, this fake courtesan, she reeks of desire such as he has never seen. She's no Galvanian agent he concludes; no, her motives are unknown, making her dangerous. He's not a reckless killer—only a handful of men have fallen to his crowbar, all having been the aggressor—yet he considers seizing Cassilda and throwing her from the steps into the emptiness of the mountain air. You've never killed a woman, gentle thief says a voice. She is right above him, carefully placing her feet on the slippery stone. Enchantress, liar, double agent. He moves his hand slowly, reaching toward a slippered foot, his fingers grasping the air. “Let's see where this goes,” he says, as she climbs out of reach. He can deal with liars and witches. He just has to stay ahead.
    They meet at the summit, winded, bent over and clutching their knees. Ahead yawns an opening into the mountain, lit by tall beacons and guarded by two sentries dressed in golden mail, their helmets crested with the purple-red plumage of the bennu bird. Medjay thinks the Thief; he can tell by the way they stand motionless like marble statues, their eyes hidden behind a thin slit, that they are of the Duke's elite troops. Conditioned from birth and raised on the far side of the mountain, Medjay were feared for their unwavering loyalty and dispassionate thoroughness. They were rumored to be mutated through an arcane ritual passed down for centuries, giving them a resistance to enchantment and physical prowess that bordered on superhuman. The ritual, though, had side-effects; their faces were disfigured horribly and their skin developed a sensitivity to light that made unprotected exposure extremely painful. He should have expected their presence, for though the priests of Rankar operated independently from the Capetians, the royal family considered the Heart key to their sovereignty and worthy of their protection, despite its location in the inner temple of the mountain. And there goes Dempsey right toward them.
    The gout-stricken lord stops a few feet away from the sentries, leaning on his cane. The Thief can hear his wheezing from a hundred feet away, as he and Cassilda slink into the shadows. A plague on them both he thinks, glancing at Cassilda as she watches Dempsey with plain eagerness. This will not go well.
    “I am Lord Horatio Reginald Dempsey, the twenty-second of my line, bearer of the Duke's standard and brother to the High Priest. I demand that you step aside, for I am to escort two guests to see the Heart of Rankar, the lifeblood of our great city, so that they may know the glory of our religion and the truth of our way. I will suffer no delays. This is a matter of great importance,” concludes Dempsey.
    “No one sees the Heart,” says the right sentry.
    “Not with out the Duke or the High Priest in accompaniment,” says the left.
    “I am the High Priest's kinsman! His elder brother, in fact! You know it could have been me who became the High Priest, but someone had to preserve the family name. Someone had to produce an heir!”
    The sentries remain unmoved by Dempsey's protestations, their spears barring the way into the inner temple. Their silence further infuriates the lord, who starts wielding his cane menacingly, his face red, spittle flying from his lips.
    “Who do you think I am, some Galvanian spy? Who placed you nitwits in charge? I say, I will have your rank and privileges revoked and the both of you thrown into the dungeons for insubordination.”
    “We are Medjay,” says the right sentry.
    “Our titles are not for you to remove,” says the left.
    “Well that explains your insufferable attitudes! Medjay! That means you were born peasants. Deformed peasant lunatics are now giving noblemen orders! What hideous times!”
    “Can you sneak past them?” whispers Cassilda.
    “Not in plain sight,” replies the Thief.
    “You hid us from the priests in the hallway. Why can't you do that again?”
    “There are no shadows to play with here. Just two bright beacons and two sentries looking for  my kind of scoundrel. Besides, Dempsey already mentioned us.”
    “So the lighting matters? What are you, an actor of the theater? You were hired to steal the Heart, master thief. If your powers of stealth are not as formidable as billed, what exactly do you suggest we do?” says Cassilda, her mouth curling into a frown.
    “This isn't my usual policy, especially not with women,” says the Thief, looking her in the eyes, “but I suggest you tell me the truth, for one.”
    “The truth, Mr. Thief?” asks Cassilda.
    “You're a witch, not a courtesan. It was you who enchanted my feet and kept me in this mess, just as it was you who bewitched our excited little lord. Seeing how Dazbog didn't mention your being a sorceress, I think it's reasonable to assume that you hid your talents from him, which calls into question the whole nature of this operation. I don't think you're a Galvanian agent. I think you're playing us all for fools.”
    “What powers of deduction you have! I am impressed,” says Cassilda.
    “Do you feel this?” asks the Thief, grabbing her arm and pulling her close. A knife emerges in his other hand and quickly moves toward her throat. “I suggest,” he says, gritting his teeth, the tip of the blade pressed against her skin, “that you start talking unless you wish to have your larynx removed.”
    “I do apologize for the deception, thief, but I'm afraid I don't feel quite up to a discussion at the moment,” says Cassilda, unnerved. “That knife, by the way, is looking less lethal by the moment.”
    The Thief watches his knife melt like butter. Suddenly he is flung back against the mountain with enough force to knock the wind from his lungs. Maybe I shouldn't have called her bluff he thinks, lying dazed on his side as Cassilda walks brazenly toward the Medjay. They notice her immediately and know from her eyes, which glow with green flame, that she is a sorceress. One of them makes the warding sign as a bolt of emerald electricity erupts from Cassilda's fingers and strikes the ground before them, sending current through the armored sentries. Another volley comes from the witch, incapacitating the Medjay on her right, who falls to the ground, writhing in pain. The remaining sentry blocks her next blow with his shield, though the discharge staggers him to his knees. Fly you fool, they won't stay down for long says a voice in the Thief's ear. He pushes himself to his feet and sprints for the opening, running in a zigzag, his chest still pounding from the sorceress's telekinetic blast. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the Medjay turn and fling his spear. They never miss he thinks, ducking as the spear clatters to the floor in front of him. He glances back and sees Cassilda smiling, electricity surging through her fingertips, the Medjay before her, stunned from the onslaught, their limbs twitching uncontrollably. The Heart, the Heart, bring me the Heart hears the Thief. He vanishes into the mountain.
...
    It is warm in the mountain. Water drips off of stalactites and oozes down the smooth path while hot air gushes upward like hot breath. Red light bathes the walls, cast from an unnatural source deep in the bowels of the inner temple. The priesthood have not altered this sacred place with carvings or construction. Already he can hear the rhythmic throbbing, the steady thump thump of the eternal organ reverberating from the depths. A living tomb he thinks, fleeing downward, never looking back, Cassilda's voice in his ears. He doesn't know if he obeys her out of fear or bewitchment. There is only one way to go. Down.

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