Man, this has been a crawl. After finishing my novel Apophenia (still searching for an agent to represent it), I have had significant difficulties starting a new project. Wolf, a werewolf horror story, was the book that I started on next, but half-developed characters and wavering themes made me abandon it after 20,000 or so words. I tried writing a few short stories, but I was unsuccessful in writing many, and unable to publish the few that I completed. I started three different novels: one about the son of a famous professional wrestler; another about a man stuck in hell; and The Heart of the Thief. It's been difficult to approach this book passionately; I kind of just work on it when I feel like it, which is usually right before bed, and for no more than thirty minutes. So that's why I'm still hovering around 17,000 words despite working on it for what seems like forever. The basic plot is developed, yet it really is a matter of sitting down and putting the time in. I've considered abandoning it for something else, but at some point, you just have to commit and finish it. Here's a link to part five, with links to the other chapters for anyone who wants to get caught up.
Silas Amaro stands in front of the inner temple, his hands on his knees as he peers down at the roasted corpse of one of the Duke's Medjay. My Medjay he corrects himself silently, watching as the High Priest feebly attempts to remove the body's helmet, which seems to have bonded with its flesh. The priest is small, slender, his hands smooth and fragile like the hands of a woman. Coddled upper class trash he thinks, smiling to himself at his heresy. The High Priest was considered holy and seen as Rankar's chief emissary, his word being essentially the word of God. Silas couldn't bring himself to believe that this dainty man was anything more than another nobleman living in comfort off of the deeds of his long-dead fathers, who bled for their privilege. Now I bleed for them he concludes, finally pushing the priest aside and pulling the helmet off with one strong tug of his massive hand. The Medjay's face was blackened, the flesh peeling off in dry, crispy flakes. An improvement in appearance, to be sure he thinks, turning to Frieze, his mage consultant.
“What is this, magician? Damage from a fireball?” he asks.
“Impossible, my lord. Medjay are immune to such attacks. This is the result of massive electrical damage. Even mutations and wards are helpless against such dangerous voltage. The assassin is reckless. Few have these powers,” responds Frieze.
“Then we should have little trouble identifying our criminal,” says Silas.
“Is that so, captain? What a great relief that is! What powers of precognition you must possess! I suppose you realize that our lives are all in danger?” asks the High Priest, scowling. “Who do you think the Duke will blame when he hears that the symbol of his sovereignty has been stolen from the temple, where it has rested since time immemorial? Why, he will blame the High Priest and the captain of his guard! We shall be taken down into the dungeon where we will never see the sun, where you can hear the rats gnawing on the bones of your predecessors. They will maim us, and blind us, and throw us down there helpless to be devoured! Do you understand the gravity of our situation, captain? Do you realize that we are going to die?”
“Shouldn't death be a great joy to you? You will be reunited with your God. He is certain to reward you for you service,” replies Silas.
“Rankar is the god of all, you heathen. It is a great irony that we entrust Medjay and their ilk with protecting the very soul of the world. Look where it has gotten us! Faithless degenerate.” The High Priest spits, shaking his head. Silas takes a deep breath and quells the rage building up inside of him.
“Your watchmen, the ones who let them in, what did they have to say?” he asks.
“They said that Lord Dempsey was accompanied by a black fellow with a lute and a harlot with chestnut hair. Typical court refuse, one would think, though no one seems to know them. They likely persuaded Lord Dempsey to use his position to gain access to the temple.”
“Is Dempsey not your brother?” asks Silas.
“Yes,” says the High Priest, gritting his teeth. “He is not a traitor.”
“He's not much of anything, anymore,” replies Frieze. “I do believe I've found our missing lord.”
“Why, that's a pile of ash,” says the High Priest.
“Yes, a rather large pile. Here is your brother's signet ring. Unlike the Medjay, the late Lord Dempsey had no resistance to magical attacks,” Frieze states, handing the ring to the High Priest.
“They must've forced him,” says the High Priest. “We must not allow anyone to know.”
“So we have a powerful mage with the ability to incinerate an unarmed man through electrical discharge. Is it reasonable to assume he or she is skilled at enchantment as well?” asks Silas.
“Certainly, my lord. I would also venture to theorize that they escaped through teleportation.” Frieze opens his hand and reveals an emerald stone. “This is a periapt likely used to aid a magical user in their focus. Very careless for our sorcerer to leave such a trinket.”
“Why? It is a useless stone,” says the High Priest, kicking a rock.
“A periapt holds a lingering trace of its user's powers. Sorcerers, of course, are well aware of this fact, and usually carefully discard their instruments. Now, we are going to need one of those Medjay, whichever one looks the freshest, I suppose,” says Frieze.
“What in Rankar's name for?” asks the High Priest.
“We are going to have to perform a little necromancy,” replies Frieze, a strange gleam in his eyes.
“Necromancy? Did you just say what I think you said?” asks the High Priest, his voice rising.
“Need I remind you that such black arts are forbidden by the Priesthood of Rankar, and all practitioners shall be burned at the stake?”
“When I said we I really meant someone else,” says Frieze. “There is a disreputable fellow in the city who we'll need to see. He's a rather eccentric person, I'm told, though I'm sure he will be quite eager to help us if we shake a big enough purse at him. Or we could just threaten to set his tower on fire, you know. It's usually not a good idea to piss off wizards, however.” Frieze smiles, displaying his uneven denture. Crooked teeth, crooked nose, crooked heart thinks Silas. Though not particularly skilled in sorcery, Frieze was a learned scholar with an unconventional mind and an undeniable eye for detail. What he lacked in magical prowess he more than made up for in cunning. Silas preferred his company to that of a battlemage because the young man was a hundred times more useful. There are only so many problems you can throw fireballs at, after all.
“I don't think Rankar will object to finding his heart, no matter the means,” says Silas, looking hard at the High Priest. “I swear to you that I will handle this matter personally and with great discretion. Your involvement is no longer required. For your sake as well as ours, I suggest that you keep up the ruse. The Heart is in the temple, my lord. There were no dead Medjay or vaporized lords.”
“So you expect me to sit here while you run away? I will not be your scapegoat, you brutish heathen...”
Silas seizes the priest by the throat in one quick movement, prematurely ending his sentence and effortlessly lifting him from the ground. Terror swells up in his eyes as his feeble hands paw at those of his attacker, who slowly walks toward the cliff side. Pathetic thinks Silas, noticing the urine dripping down the priest's legs.
“Let me make something very clear. Your kinsman played a role in this, and as far as I am concerned, that incriminates you. You are going to keep your mouth shut, or I am going to have you thrown in the dungeon for conspiracy and treason. Don't think the Duke would take your word over mine. I saved his life from Thenias the Brute, you soft aristocrat. I will not have you prematurely ending my investigation by causing a panic.” Silas drops the priest inches from the edge, watches as he staggers, his arms flailing about in an effort to keep from falling. Turning to Frieze, he motions towards the steps.
“Let's go meet this necromancer,” he says, already beginning the long walk.
“My lord, we could simply teleport,” suggests Frieze, struggling with the body of the dead Medjay.
“Have you gotten any better at it? The last time, we were nearly run down by a carriage.”
“I can get us off this mountain, at least,” says Frieze.
“Oh, my lord, one more thing,” says Silas to the High Priest, who sits on the ground with his head in his hands, “The initiates who discovered the bodies did not enter the temple, correct?”
“Yes, captain,” mutters the High Priest.
“I suggest having them take a vow of silence. Remove their tongues. I don't want any rumors spreading.”
“Their tongues?” asks the High Priest, baffled.
“Yes. You're not familiar with the practice? The Thorians remove the tongues of their most devout. Either do it, or throw them off the mountain. Failure to comply with my directions will tell me that you are not serious about keeping quiet. I make good on my threats, my lord. Remember that.”
“Does anyone want any tea?” asks the wizard of his guests. The captain and his consultant shake their heads. They had wanted to be very insistent; they were impatient and time was of the essence. Amaro was a brutish beast capable of regulating his violence to periodic outbursts; his thoughts were straight and to the point. His companion, a failed mage, was also a nasty creature, with a head full of knives and cruel schemes. Of course, he knew they were important and that they had serious business, and if left to their own devices would have resorted to some method of torture or bloody threat. It was likely that they were very confused as to why they had sat down as instructed, and why they now waited for Dazbog to pour himself a cup of tea before parleying with them. Frieze would realize what had happened after the fact if he really thought about it, but a true master of manipulation never let the puppets see the strings that controlled them. Banish your pride, machine thinks Dazbog, shaking his head. There was nothing to be proud of. He was how he was made.
“Mr. Frieze, are you a graduate of the Academy? I do detect a faint aura surrounding you, though my skills are not as sharp as they once were,” says the wizard. “Time takes much from us, and gives us nothing but feeble memories.”
“Yes, I graduated in 1369,” says Frieze. “We have a pressing matter to attend to. You see, there is this body here who was involved in an a magical altercation, and we really must speak with his shade…”
“What is your area of expertise?” interrupts the wizard. “Telekinesis? Telepathy? Pyromancy?”
“Historical studies,” replies Frieze.
“But what can you do?” asks the wizard.
“I have extensive alchemical knowledge, as well as teleportation talents,” says Frieze in a quiet voice.
“Yes, very talented you are,” says Silas. “We appeared in the air above a drainage ditch, and fell a good ten feet and landed on our asses.”
“You should never teleport, my lords. It is a death unlike any other. The loss of consciousness is like letting a fire burn out. You can start the fire again, but you must use new wood. It is a different fire, so to speak, even if it is built upon the ashes of the original. When you teleport, your atoms are disassembled in one place and reassembled in another. How do you even know that your original atoms made the trip? It is quite likely that the spell simply transmitted your particular atomic pattern and used the atoms at its disposal to create, in essence, a copy with your memories. No, I refuse to teleport. I will not die for a convenient mode of transportation,” says Dazbog. “Though many do not share my opinion.”
“Is this true?” asks Silas of Frieze, consternation on his broad face.
“Theories, my lord, unproven theories,” replies Frieze.
“There is quite the consensuses among the magical community, actually,” says Dazbog. “And even if the spell does transmit your atoms to another place, the disassembly still happens. This body that you wish for me to revive, you would not deny that it is dead, no? Yet we can give dead matter a voice, if only for a moment. What is time, gentlemen? It is a vanishing thing."
The wizard turns away from them, looks out his windows, tugs on his stained beard. Something had went very wrong and he had been played a fool by a harlot who hid the fact that she was a sorceress, and now he wasn't sure how to proceed, with the Duke's captain of the guard sitting in his ruined tower. They wished for him to summon the Medjay's shade, but what the dead mutant would say, the wizard could not foresee. Do not call up one that you cannot put down he remembered suddenly, the words of his old master. Necromancy had always been forbidden, but years ago, the Academy was still churning out mages of ability, and certain areas could not be neglected. I will either be saved or damned by my dilettantish dabbling he thinks with a smile.
“Enough of my rambling,” says the wizard, “This body you have brought me, I can see that it is a mutant and undoubtedly a member of the Duke's Medjay. You are aware that the dead speak frankly? That they sometimes say disturbing things? Yes? Very well. We shall proceed. Mr. Frieze, let us put your alchemical skills to use.”
Dazbog retrieves a mortar and pestle from his cluttered work table, placing them before the mage consultant. He then takes a jug of unfermented grape juice from his cupboard, sniffs its opening, and hands it to Silas. “Don't drink it,” he says, rifling through the cupboard and finally pulling out a talisman made of bone. It was a crude circle, with an x in the center, held together by dried tendons, and despite its rather common appearance, it catches Frieze's eye immediately, for he recognizes it as a symbol of the pagan god Prax, whose cult was rumored to still flourish in the Great Woods, though the Priesthood had done much to suppress and eradicate it from the Capetian's capital and the surrounding areas.
“Put this moldy bread in the mortar and pour some juice over it,” says Dazbog, removing a piece of bread from his robe. “Get it nice and wet and then mash it into a porridge. When he's finished, Captain, take your knife and draw blood from the corpse, enough to mix with our concoction.”
Both men do as asked. The wizard then takes the mortar and places the talisman above it, murmuring a few words. Blood from the knife drips over the circle of bone; fingers snap and suddenly the mixture boils and the symbol of Prax glows red. Withered hands remove the talisman and seize the bowl, raising it to wine-stained lips, wetting a ragged beard with spilled blood. The captain grimaces, turning away from the grotesque spectacle, while his companion watches with fascination as their host's eyes flutter and his body begins to shake. “The jar with the X, bring it here,” shouts the wizard in a voice not entirely his own. Frieze quickly complies, fetching the jar and putting it before Dazbog, who breaks it with his fist in apoplectic fury, revealing dozens of scattering centipedes. Silas pushes away from the table in revulsion, yet the wizard is not bothered by his disgust; he seizes as many of the insects as he can and devours them with great relish. Consuming life, death, and decay realizes Frieze, while trying not to hear the moist crunching sounds coming from the ravenous man. He is just about to ask what comes next when suddenly the necromancer collapses on the table mid-meal, a black liquid spewing from his lips, his eyes transforming into murky pools of darkness. All is silent but the insectile movements of the centipedes; the room is heavy, the air thickened, while a palpable strangeness hovers about the men, prickling their skin. The captain is the first to speak.
“Is he dead?” he whispers.
Frieze points a finger at the body, hovering inches away from the wizard's great bulbous nose.
“Touch him,” says Silas.
“He seems to be deceased,” says the mage consultant, withdrawing his finger. At that moment
Dazbog sits up, hands clutching the edge of the table, his mouth sucking in air like a drowning man. Out of his throat comes a plaintive wail that sends a shudder through the listeners, who recognize the sound, though they do not realize it. There is a difference between the scream of the living and the howl of the dead, for the latter is not meant for human ears, and once it is heard, it cannot be unheard. In the quiet spaces they will hear it; in the middle of the night, lying in bed; in their dreams; alone in the woods. Silas hears the men he has killed, their voices growing hoarse with dirt. Frieze hears a cackle, an old woman's muffled laugh as hands clamp around her throat, and he must look away and stare down at his own hands, searching for blood on their fingers. The wailing ceases; something measures them through the wizard's eyes, which are black and lacking pupils.
“What do you want?” asks the creature in Dazbog's flesh.
“Whom do we speak with?” asks Frieze.
“You speak with nothing. There is no one here,” says the thing.
“Were you a Medjay, one of the Duke's royal guard?”
“Who killed you?” asks Frieze.
“Cassilda of the Rock, electrician, carrier of the sea.”
“How does it know that?” asks Silas.
“There is nothing to know,” says the shade.
“Who was with her?” continues Frieze.
“The Thief. The one with the mark. Shadow-stealer.”
“We aren't getting anywhere with this,” says Silas.
“There is nowhere to go and nothing to do,” says the shade.
“Not for you, I suspect,” replies Silas. “Who knows this Cassilda?”
“Wayfarers from the Shimmering Isles. Bodies cast into the sea. Pliny the Black, who awaits her coming.”
“The Shimmering Isles, that's another name for Archaea, no?” asks Silas of Frieze.
“Yes,” replies the mage consultant. “Islands of legend, shrouded in myth. An entrance to the underworld, some say. Is that correct, shade?”
Dazbog's lips spread into an evil grin. “Nothing,” he says, spitting the word. “There is nothing after death.”
“Maybe not for you, but what about for great men?” asks Silas. “Surely their souls survive the mortal realm.”
“Let's not ask it any more questions. It has told us things that the Medjay would not have known. Some think this is because the dead know all; other believe that demons and spirits possess the lifeless bodies of men. Shade,” says Frieze, standing and pointing at Dazbog, “leave this man and return to nothingness. We have nothing more to say to you.”
“You will die in a foreign country with a knife in your belly,” says the shade.
“It lies,” says Silas, drawing his sword.
“Dazbog, banish this spirit,” says Frieze in a commanding voice. The wizard's body shakes briefly, yet his eyes remain black.
“Your father sired you with his own sister, a whore,” spits the shade, staring at Silas. “What man can come of such a union? Where do such things go? They vanish in the night and no one remembers that they were there.”
“Don't attack it! It wants you to kill him,” yells Frieze while restraining Silas's sword arm.
“I am nothing, you are nothing, there is nothing, nothing, nothing,” says the shade.
“Back to nothing the void with you,” says Frieze, reaching into his pocket and removing the periapt, showing it to the shade, feeling its power. This Cassilda is no ordinary sorceress he thinks, emboldened by the traces of her energy. Authority and knowledge swell from the green stone; he points at the shade, says the word of banishment, and the spirit flees in an instant, leaving behind an exhausted and befuddled wizard.
“Where… where did you find… that?” gasps Dazbog, reeling.
“It belonged to our sorceress,” replies Frieze. “Though I am surprised words of gratitude are not bursting from your lips. I do believe I just saved your life.”
“Give me… that periapt, you fool,” manages Dazbog, steadying himself on the table. Silas reaches across and grabs the wizard by throat, dragging him off of his feet.
“You gave us nothing, necromancer, and we grow tired of being played. That was not one of the Duke's men we spoke to, but a demon spouting lies. You've wasted enough of our time. Let us see if your magical skills extend to levitation,” says Silas, moving towards the window.
“Demon or no, we do know her name. 'Cassilda' it said. Pirates from the Shimmering Isles know her. These things, they cannot lie...” Frieze ceases speaking as he notices the look Silas throws at him.
“The periapt… I know this sorceress,” spits Dazbog, his gnarled fingers wrapped around the mighty hands of his antagonist. “I can locate her!”
“We were counting on it,” replies Frieze. “But one must never show all of his cards to a sorcerer. The captain and I were under your spell the moment we set foot in this tower and only regained our faculties when the shade took control of your body. The question is why would a necromancer of your talents cede consciousness to an unpredictable spirit instead of interrogating it yourself? Surely you don't count on all of your customers to be Academy graduates capable of ending a séance. You took a risk, Dazbog, because you're hiding something. Your knowing our Cassilda is no coincidence, I wager. You'd better tell us everything.”
Silas throws open the shutters and bends the old wizard over the windowsill, grimacing, feeling the grotesque man's thin, fragile neck in his hands. Born of incest, to a whore. He never knew his mother, but there were rumors that the other boys didn't let him forget, and the slinking face of Red Jack, a bitter, toothless drunk, looked too familiar to young Amaro, and Jack had a daughter that had disappeared. The weak creature that he held in his grasp bore more than a passing resemblance to that ugly bastard, which made Silas squeeze his throat harder, bringing blood to his face. You can't suffocate the past, he realizes, watching the wizard gradually turn purple. But you sure as hell can try.
“Captain, you might want to give him a chance to speak before you crush his throat,” suggests Frieze tentatively. He knew Amaro was on edge; the longer he went without results, the more his violence would escalate.
Silas pulls the wizard from the sill and lets him crumple to the floor where he lies, eyes fluttering, chest moving up and down with renewed vigor. “Barbarous villains,” he manages, drool oozing from the corner of his mouth. The captain gives him a good kick in the spleen for his comment. He hated wizards, particularly arrogant ones such as Dazbog, though none were as bad as the Duke's battlemages. Always messing with their trinkets and lording over their lessers like Gods.
“Cassilda...was an acquaintance, someone who was not whom she seemed,” says Dazbog, still lying on the floor. “It is obvious now that she is a sorceress of extraordinary power, a generational talent, but still raw and inexperienced. It's the Heart that she has, no? I am sure you are baffled as to how she tore it from its prison and what she plans on doing with it. Galvanian involvement is likely suspected. That periapt, however, shall give her away. Very careless to leave it abandoned, for from the stone we can draw her inner desires. More personal information can be gleaned from it than from a thousand corpses brought to a necromancer. Give it to me, and I can tell you where your thief is.”
“I don't trust you,” says Silas, looming over the wizard like a bird of doom.
“Of course, Captain, why would you? Yet you need me even after I reveal the secrets of the periapt. This sorceress is far beyond the proficiency of Mr. Frieze, and martial prowess will only get you so far. None of the Duke's battlemages are quite equipped to handle such a person as Cassilda. I was a Haliurunnae witch hunter for many years after my expulsion from the Academy.” Dazbog pulls himself to his feet, leaning heavily on an old chair. “Your mage consultant can tell you the significance of that office.”
Silas glances at Frieze impatiently.
“The Haliurunnae are extremely prejudiced against magic users, considering them an abomination, the workings of spells and such being beyond rational explanation. They are very skilled at finding mages and dealing with them. That one could be a witch hunter and a wizard is difficult to believe, frankly,” says Frieze, “though I don't doubt him in this matter. He is something of a savant despite his uncouth appearance.”
“Uncouth, pretentious, and stinking of wine,” says Silas. “No different than any bum lying in the street.”
“This is how we will proceed, oh wise and powerful Dazbog,” begins Frieze. “You are hereby conscripted into the service of the Eighteenth Duke of Massalia and renounce all of your rights and privileges as a free man. You will obey the commands of the Duke's proxies, meaning in this case Silas Amaro and myself, and will be released from your duties only when the Heart of Rankar is returned to the Temple of the Priesthood. If you break this vow, all will know of it, and you will bear the curse of kings, damning your soul to oblivion. In the name of the Duke, you are sworn.”
“The binding contract between man and civilization, cited to me as though I am a savage,” replies Dazbog. “There is no need to conscript me to your cause. I will aid the Duke of my own volition, without charge. The purpose of wizards is to serve their betters. I am at your disposal, friends.” The wizard gives a deep bow.
“That's splendid to hear! We are very much enthused!” says Frieze, handing him the periapt. “Now tell us where she is.”