Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writer's Block: Heart of the Thief Chapter Nine


I haven't posted anything from The Heart of the Thief in a long while (here are some previous chapters), so I thought I'd share Chapter Nine, which might not make it past the editing process, if that day ever comes. I do think it functions well as a stand alone story. Excuse any formatting errors: blogger hates preserving pasted formatting. Without further ado:

Chapter Nine
They reached the town of Dunfermline in a week’s time. Built around the ruins of an old fortress constructed ages ago on a hillside overlooking the veldt, the village was otherwise composed of shoddy dwellings pieced together with mud, thatch, and what little timber one could find in the Agmarian Plain. The inhabitants were pale-skinned, filthy people who appeared gaunt and malnourished, and who seemed to lack industry; indeed, Fergal theorized that their only occupation was huddling in alcoves to stare menacingly at newcomers. “I know something about this town, but for the life of me, I cannot remember it,” he said as they walked the thoroughfare searching for a tavern to rest their wearied feet. “It’s like something out of dream, though I admit that I have trouble separating delusion from reality.” No one replied to his admission, for they had all been in a sombre mood since the encounter with the wraith. Josun had spoken but a handful of words after regaining conscience, his experience having caused his withdrawal into himself. Fergal had attempted to engage the taciturn barbarian in conversation many times only to be rebuffed again and again. Josun had no desire to ask for help with the psychological scars of whatever it was he was dealing with, unlike the Aiv, who had broken down in tears after sharing his horror with Cassilda, who lent a surprising sympathetic ear. The Thief remained much the same, his temperament cynical and ugly, though he had kept his remarks to a minimum as of late. The fragility of their company was obvious to all, yet the sorceress prodded them along, and they followed, quietly feeding off of the presence of one another, unaware of their silent dependence.

They finally found a poorly-marked tavern, the only indication of its function as a bar a crudely illustrated sign featuring an amorphous wench balancing a tankard on her deformed bosom. Through the windows one could see a faint yellow glow and hear the mixed chatter of men, and despite the general unease they felt, by all appearances the place seemed normal, so they entered. Immediately, all conversation ceased; they were greeted by leering eyes and contorted expressions plain in their unfriendliness. Alongside the far wall sat several disheveled men, their hairy hands on their mugs, which were half-full of a dark, blood-colored liquid. “Howdy,” said the Thief as they moved together to the bar. The patrons collectively grimaced; all were ugly, their faces pockmarked, noses bulbous and red like swelled ticks. Fergal kicked the Thief in the shin as Josun waved toward the barkeep, a tall, skeletal man with only a few long strands of hair hanging from the center of his bald head. “A round of ale, sir,” said the barbarian, removing a few sovereigns from his coin purse and placing them on the bar. Cassilda shook her head but Josun did not remove any money. The barkeep swept up their gold in one large mitt and stared at it for some time, as though he didn’t recognize its purpose, before finally placing the money in an empty jar. Coming to life, he placed four tankards filled with claret-colored fluid before them and then shuffled toward the other end of the bar, where he began polishing glasses with an obsessive fervor. The company examined their drinks suspiciously. Fergal gave his a good sniff before picking up the mug with two hands and quaffing half of it down. The others stared at him, waiting to see if he would turn green or keel over clutching his stomach, but the Aiv took another hearty gulp to no discernible ill-effect, which gave them enough courage to partake from their own glasses.

“This is not ale,” said Josun, sipping his tankard.

“It is likely poison or some foul concoction,” whispered the sorceress. “There is something queer about these locals. I do not trust them.”

“And we do not trust you,” said the Thief. “This is not ale but a peculiar type of wine, similar in some respects to Cabernet Sauvignon from the Okanagan Valley. High tannins and notable acidity. Pretty good, actually.”

“To think he gave me a pint of it. I should be quite drunk in a minute,” said Fergal.

“Who serves wine in a tankard? Why give us wine when we asked for ale?” asked Cassilda.

“Perhaps they do not speak the common tongue,” said Josun.

“That’s it. Surely this place provides food and lodging. I will sleep in a bed tonight, mark my words,” said the Thief.

“How can you suggest such a thing while they glower at us?” whispered Cassilda. “We should move on and put distance between ourselves and this place before nightfall.”

“And you chide me for my supposed suspicions. We need rest and sleep, witch, peaceful sleep without the fear of beast or phantom rudely interrupting our slumbers. So these people are not friendly. Look at us: a scarred black man; a hulking, armed brute; a dwarf with a giant head and bug-eyes; and an impossibly beautiful woman. We’re a motley crew, to be sure, and these people, with their limited notions and prejudiced views regarding outsiders, likely see us as a carnival troupe. They can stare as long as they want if it means I get a bed and a decent night’s sleep,” said the Thief. “If they want to throw us out of town, so be it, but I’ll wait till they ask rather than assuming I’m not wanted. They served us wine when we asked for ale. How is that a bad thing?”

“It’s not what we asked for,” said Cassilda.

“The wine really is quite delicious. You should try it” said Fergal, pointing to her glass. The sorceress grimaced and sat down on a stool. She was tired, as they all were. At a certain point, protest became impossible, even when the circumstance demanded it, and Cassilda consoled herself with the thought that if anything malicious were to occur, she at least had her powers to defend them. The wine, however, did not look appetizing, and as a general rule, she never imbibed anything from a place where she was not wanted. When Fergal’s hand reached up and seized her tankard, she said nothing. Let the little fool drink himself senseless she thought. Perhaps drunkenness will lead to solemnity and silence.

Drunkenness did not lead to solemnity and silence.

The loosening of inhibitions happened rather quickly and all at once, which didn’t make much sense, since Fergal was much smaller than the Thief, who had an alcoholic’s tolerance, and Josun was larger than both of them, and he was no teetotaler, barbarians being overly fond of intoxicating beverages. Together they became quite boisterous, Fergal talking a mile a minute, the Thief interrupting to tell stories of conquests both amorous and material, Josun grunting, slapping their backs heartily, and even cracking a smile from time to time. They were in stark contrast to the rest of the room, which began thinning out as the denizens of Dunfermline skulked off to their homes. Through their revelry, Cassilda sat silent, watching the villagers watch the company, observing the way they carried themselves, how they dragged their feet, how they craned their necks and scowled their faces as they walked out the door. There was something hiding under their exterior, something strange and shy and suspicious, something more than just provincial mistrust of outsiders. Not one of the locals had approached the company to engage them in conversation; not one had even asked them to keep their voices down, despite the shrill, piercing laughter of Fergal or the loud ramblings of the Thief. Certainly not one of them had ever seen anything like Fergal before—so why were they not curious? She knew from experience that entering a bar was always a hazard, for men propositioned her without fail, no matter how many enchantments or wards she cast to prevent them from doing so. Where were her suitors? Was Dunfermline a town of eunuchs? She then realized that she had not seen a woman in the village. Perhaps they shut their women away like prisoners in a dungeon. The practice was not altogether uncommon in rural villages. Let us see what the bartender knows. Telepathy was always a risk in a new environment—to read someone’s mind without them being aware of it, you had to know them well, or at least be familiar with their personality—but she was bothered enough by the villagers’ behavior to take that risk. She gave the bartender as sideways glance and noticed that he was scowling at her companions, hands dangling at his sides like meat hooks. Focusing her energy, she sent a single, concentrated thought-wave at his skull as a sort of echo-request packet, a low-intensity probe to communicate with his subconscious mind. Ideally, his subconscious would return the thought-wave, opening the doors to a telepathic exchange. She would ask questions and the subconscious would provide answers in the form of words, images, perhaps even memories, although the more one requested, the greater the chance of the subject becoming aware that something was not quiet right in their head. On occasion, the subconscious mind was not communicative, either due to protective barriers enacted by a fellow magic user, or a natural resistance to mental probing. In any case, it was unlikely that a simple thought-wave would be detected even by a wizard, since the subconscious was just that—subconscious.

Out of the corner of her eye, Cassilda watched as the bartender turned his scowl her way. Immediately she felt the intensity of his gaze—an uncomfortable feeling, as though she knew something terrible was hovering over her shoulder, caused her flesh to crawl—and she had to struggle to not leap from her seat and leave the horrid bar. She glanced at her companions, who were still laughing and drinking from never-ending cups, and wondered how they could be so oblivious. They’ve drugged the wine she realized. Something had to be done, quickly, before whatever the villagers were planning could come to pass. She could attempt to take control of the minds of her companions, yet four minds were too many, and they would never trust her again, and she would have to take the Heart by force. A spell of persuasion, then. Subtle, delicate magics had never been her strong suit—she preferred hard-hitting displays of raw power, as any electrician would—but there was no other option, other than to electrocute the bartender and his denizens, and that was a step she was not yet ready to take.

“Josun,” she said, placing her hand on the barbarian’s shoulder. “Let us leave this place.”

“But you haven’t had a drop!” said Fergal, spilling wine all over himself in the process of offering his glass.

“I think they’ve put something in the wine. There is a camaraderie between you all that did not exist an hour ago, and I think it strange that you all are so blind to the malevolent feelings directed at us.”

“Again with your suspicions! Are you jealous of us, witch? Drink with us, and I will forgive you,” said the Thief.

It’s not working. Either the effects of the wine are too strong, or someone is opposing my efforts thought Cassilda.

“She is right. The time for revelry has passed. We should find a place to sleep,” said Josun, putting down his tankard.

“Barkeep! Are there rooms upstairs? What is your rate for a night?” yelled the Thief down the bar.

The man, who had never taken his eyes off of Cassilda since she had tried to read his mind, approached at a dead man’s pace. He’s like a walking corpse realized the sorceress. The lank strand of hair, the unhealthy pallor, the rigor mortis step—he was like something out a necromancer’s laboratory, yet the eyes were vivid and alive. They did not blink, however, as he stared at the Thief, who repeated his questions at the same loud volume. For a moment Cassilda thought he would actually answer; the hairs on the back of her neck bristled in horrible anticipation of seeing those purple, worm-colored lips move. Yet instead of speaking, the bartender pointed behind him toward a doorway where a set of stairs was visible.

“The rate?” asked the Thief, impatience clear in his voice. The barkeep kept glowering at Cassilda, who returned his stare calmly, despite the waves churning in her stomach.

“Perhaps after four drinks, room and board are free?” suggested Fergal. “Is that a human custom?”

“Not anywhere that I know of,” said the Thief. “Let’s go check it out.”

They walked up the stairs to find a common room furnished with eight beds that looked ancient and dust-covered, their sheets yellowed with age and neglect. A simple nightstand sat by the wall in between the middle beds, a single candle casting a weak, flickering light. The air was stale, so Cassilda opened a window, which let in the humidity along with the faintest of breezes. No one complained; everyone but the sorceress claimed a bed and laid down immediately, weariness and drunkenness overtaking them. I’ll cast a circle of protection thought Cassilda, leaning against the window and staring at the doorway. She could hear nothing downstairs. For all she knew, everything and everyone down there had ceased to exist as soon as they had left the bar. She found no comfort in this thought.


When Fergal awoke, he knew he was in a dream. There was a black film covering everything, and an orange, sun-lit glow came from the window, while the smell of ambergris inexplicably floated in the air. He breathed out and watched as bits of gray ash rose to the ceiling. His companions were still sleeping in their beds, yet Cassilda was missing, though he could hear someone walking about, their invisible feet creaking floorboards. The sense of something watching came over him suddenly like a cold breeze on the back of the neck. Dread swelled up in his throat; he turned behind him to see a shadow standing against the wall, human-sized, its face a churning vortex of darkness. A thought came from the ether, freezing, blind, and barren. He didn’t know what it meant; he wasn’t even sure if the shadow was trying to communicate with him. Stumbling out of the bed, he ran to Josun and tried shaking the barbarian awake to no avail. “Thief!” he called out, the word sounding weak and strange. As soon as he spoke, he felt the shadow’s attention, felt it call out in its prehensile manner. A thought, this one almost intelligible, reverberated through his mind. It wanted them to leave, that much was plain. Detaching itself from the wall, the shadow extended an impossibly long arm toward Fergal, a low drone emitting from the swirling vortex. Another thought came into his head. It wanted him to run. It wanted him to run so that it could have the pleasure of chasing him.

Fergal ran.

The stairs he descended were not the stairs he climbed earlier. They were dark and twisting and covered in a strange black vine that expanded and contracted in a respiratory manner. He barely touched them as he flew down the tunnel, moving as fast as his feet would carry him. This is not real he told himself, yet he wasn’t certain that he believed his own words. He could feel the steps beneath his feet; he could smell the saccharine scent of the place, taste the ash on his tongue. Perception was often preserved to some degree in dreams, but he’d never had a nightmare quite like this, in which his senses confirmed every image he witnessed. He could recall nothing relevant from his memory that might aid his present circumstances, though it was possible that he’d stumbled into a similar situation in the past and simply forgotten about it. His recollection had never been that great, and it hadn’t helped that he’d lived for so long in the Great Woods instead of wandering as he had in his youth. The world has changed and so it had, but just how, exactly, Fergal had trouble articulating. For so long his world had been composed of giant oaks and green thicket. All the years meant nothing when so many of them were the same.

What had been the bar was now a dark cavern of writhing black vines and giant mushroom-like growths. White toadstools sprouted from the cave floor, billowing in an invisible wind. He took cover beneath one of the massive fungi and waited. Behind him was presumably the exit—a doorway glowing with bright orange light. Yet Fergal did not rush through the portal, for instinct made him wary. He decided to do what he had always done in dangerous circumstances, which was to become quiet, observant, and infinitely patient. Soon the shadow appeared at the bottom of the stairs. As it glided through the cavern, he saw that it seemed to have a corporeal body beneath the immaterial coating that swirled around it like a swarm of insects. On his belt was his blade. Would a dream knife kill a dream monster? He did not yearn to find out. The shadow moved slowly as though it were listening for any movement, though its head stayed static. Little black puddles like droplets of oil were left in its wake. With much care and dexterity, Fergal turned his body toward the closest fungus and waited till the shadow passed. It can’t see he realized suddenly. What brought about this epiphany, he did not know, but he trusted it implicitly, for he’d had such instantaneous insights before. Moving silently, he made his way back towards the stairs. If the orange doorway was the way out, he couldn’t leave his comrades. Cassilda had been right—there was some element to the wine that facilitated their being in this dream world, if it really was that. Perhaps they had crossed dimensional barriers and emerged in another universe, one with its own elements and sentient inhabitants. If they brought us here, they want to use us for some purpose. Maybe they want to use our bodies to traverse our world he concluded. Up the stairs he went, ignoring the breathing black vines that slithered along the walls, his mind bent on its purpose, fear buried in his chest along with any shreds of doubt. The wraith had been a failure of control, and Fergal was not one to forget such a lapse. You don’t live several hundred years without learning to empty yourself of anxiety he mused. Though he did not understand what had happened to them, he knew that dwelling on the horror of the situation would not be beneficial. He hoped his companions would view circumstances in a similar light.

Josun and the Thief were lying in bed just as he had left them. He went to the barbarian first, gathered the man’s giant hand in his own and gave it several squeezes, to no discernible effect. After several pulls of his arm and multiple blows to the face, Fergal acquiesced to the realization that there was no waking Josun. He then devoted his efforts to aiding the Thief in regaining consciousness, but met with the same results. Why did I awake while they remain sleeping he wondered. Differences between the physiology of my people and humans? He didn’t have much time to contemplate, for the shadow appeared once again, the swirling vortex pointed in his direction, a buzzing drone cutting through the air like the hum of an angry hive. A thought coursed through his head, its message like a hammer to his head. It wanted him to give up now; the chase had been monotonous, and it really would like to get on with its business. Fergal did not know what to do. He could try to sneak past it again, but he would be abandoning his companions, and though he did not particularly hold them in high regard, common decency and etiquette prevented his fleeing without them. The Heart suddenly appeared in his mind’s eye. He reached into the Thief’s jacket and found it. It was warm like a small animal in his hands; its pulsating beat as comforting as the ticking of an old timepiece. Ok Fergal, now what? It was obvious that the thing had powers beyond its cultural significance, but he was no sorcerer and consequently had no idea how to use it. Holding it before him like a fetish, Fergal was about to start mumbling gibberish and praying to Rankar when he saw that the shadow had taken notice of the Heart and was now heading straight for him. “I want this to end,” he said, staring down at the twitching organ. “I want us to leave this place.” How had he learned nothing of magic during all of his years? It did not seem possible. The shadow stretched out its hooks and sent another thought his way, the emotion behind it recognizable as greed. A cloud of insectile noise filled the air; Fergal had the sense that other shadow creatures had been alerted to his presence and were now coming to give assistance. Yet clutching the Heart and staring at it like the lost possession of a lover, he found that his fear vanished. It wanted to help him, he could feel it, he could sense the reflection of his own desires in its every throb, in its every binary beat. Automatically, he placed the Heart in his shirt and reached for his companions. As soon as he grasped their hands, he felt the world falling away, as though someone were dragging him out of semi-consciousness and back to the land of the living. Every dream is a death he heard someone say. It was the only thing he did not remember.



Cassilda was very grateful for having cast a protective ward around the room, for when she awakened, having nodded off while standing guard (finer control over one’s subconscious being a perk of sorcery), she found a crowd huddled in the doorway, staring at her with dead eyes and sagging faces. Surely they are reanimated corpses she concluded, for they continued to try to enter the room even after she disintegrated four of their number with a volley of lightning. More and more of them pushed into the doorway; she felt the strength of the ward sag beneath the sheer weight of bodies pressed against it. She yelled at her companions, but they did not stir, confirming her worst fears regarding the wine. I can’t keep this up forever the sorceress thought after casting another million volts at the seething mob. Every discharge took something from her, exhausting future reserves, and unless the sleeping trio leapt to her defense soon, she would either lose consciousness or be reduced to shooting sparks from her fingertips like a petty conjuror performing for a street crowd. Racking her brain for sleeping curse remedies, she came up with nothing that she could put together without a laboratory and an alchemist. She was just beginning to feel lightheaded when Fergal flung himself out of bed like a man on fire.

“Thank heavens! I thought it had me! Why does it smell like something is burning?” he asked. She pointed him in the direction of the doorway and the Aiv was taken aback.

“It’s the Heart,” he explained, reaching into his shirt and bringing forth the relic, much to the surprise of both of them. “They know we have it and they want it, for Rankar knows what reason.”

“Why don’t you try waking the more martial members of our company before I collapse with a bloody nose and the world’s worst headache?” asked Cassilda.

“Barbarian, awake! It is time to do battle!” yelled Fergal, who felt as though he were experiencing deja vu as he prodded the sleeping man.

“Why is the whore’s spawn talking so loud?” complained the Thief, rubbing his eyes. “Hangovers must be slept off and not rudely interrupted.”

“Arm yourself, we are being attacked!” shouted Fergal hysterically.

“Attacked by what?” asked the Thief, blinking and turning toward the direction of the doorway.
“The possessed people of the town! They wish to take our bodies and steal the Heart!”

Josun suddenly sat up in bed and clutched his head. He let out a moan before collapsing back down like a felled tree.

“Come and help me wake the barbarian, Thief! He can likely deal with the lot of them if he’s anything like the rest of his kinsmen,” said Fergal.

“The ward won’t hold them for much longer, and I’m spent,” said Cassilda, falling to the floor. She was breathing heavily with her eyes closed, and a trickle of blood dripped from her nostrils. The horde congregating in the doorway had begun a terrible moaning, their vocal chords dry and guttural from disuse.

“Get up, you bastard,” said the Thief to Josun, seizing his shoulder and rolling him out of bed. The barbarian landed on his face and immediately began to yell obscenities, including several choice slurs regarding the Thief’s mother, a few of which he had never heard before. Fergal tried to aid his getting to his feet, but Josun shoved him away and swayed back and forth on his hands and knees for a moment, as though he were trying to summon up the will to stand. Suddenly they heard a deafening explosion, and the townspeople streamed through the doorway, stumbling over one another, feet dragging on the floor. One took Fergal by the arm and tried to tear the shirt from his back, but the Aiv twisted out of its grasp and scurried beneath a bed. The Thief had his knife out and soon stabbed a man clutching a rolling pin in the throat, but the former baker kept coming, even after suffering further lacerations. Cassilda managed to knock several of the townspeople off their feet with telekinetic blasts before her eyes rolled up toward her skull and she lost consciousness. It wasn’t until Josun obtained his ax that the company’s fortunes reversed. Drawling the prized weapon from beneath his bed, the barbarian began his assault by screaming incoherently, his eyes wide, wild, and streaked with red, spittle flying from his lips like rain pouring from a storm. He took the closest man’s head off with one fell swoop, and soon extremities were soaring through the air as though they possessed a life of their own. Fergal had an entire arm land right in front of his hiding place with a sicking thud, blood squirting out of the shoulder joint, painting his face red. Two strapping farmhands held the Thief down until Josun’s blade cleaved through their necks and sent both heads tumbling like stones across the uneven floor. The townspeople realized their tactical error too late; they might have had a chance to overwhelm the barbarian before he had reduced their number by half. Ten unarmed men, no matter their dispositions, stood no chance against Josun in the midst of a berserker frenzy. Fergal and the Thief watched in amazement as he dispatched the remaining townspeople with a series of florid movements. “It’s sort of like a dance,” said Fergal, having crawled out from his hiding place. The Thief nodded numbly. He had not imagined Josun of being capable of moving with such speed, nor had he thought him capable of sowing such carnage in such a small amount of time. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

They approached him like a wild beast, giving a wide berth, hands held up to show no arms. He lay in the center of the room, surrounded by the dismembered bodies of the slain, panting hard and covered in blood, his ax surrendered and resting a few feet away. The rage, they could see, was subsiding. They didn’t know what to say, so he spoke first.

 
“It is all right. I am myself again,” he said, picking up his ax and wiping the blood from its blade on a dispatched villager.

“You’re an animal,” said the Thief.

“We’re all animals,” responded the barbarian. He pointed to Cassilda lying in the corner. “How is the witch?”

“Unconscious, but still breathing,” said Fergal, who had hobbled over to Cassilda and was checking her pulse. “I do not think she is well. She feels feverish, and blood still leaks from her nose. She must have overexerted herself in our defense.”

The Thief snorted at Fergal’s comment, but remained silent.

“Well one of you must carry her. I am not able, and we cannot tarry here much longer. The whole of Dunfermline is most certainly under the control of these creatures. There are likely more lying in wait, and they will not take kindly to the slaughter of their kin,” said Fergal.

“I will carry her,” volunteered Josun.

“No, it must be the Thief, for you can defend us,” said Fergal. The Thief had a remark on his tongue, but he lost it suddenly as he walked over to the sorceress. Even with blood dripping from her nose, she was beautiful, her hair auburn, her oval face perfectly symmetrical. He had seen her wear many faces, but this was his favorite, the face of the courtesan, mad and shimmering with beauty like a sea-blown sky threatening to darken. It’s an illusion he thought as he bent down to take her in his arms. She was lighter than he expected, and he found himself wondered odd things, such as whether sorceresses had hollow bones like birds. The resentment, the jealousy, the fear, it all vanished as he carried her down the stairs. I wanted to murder her a week ago he thought. It had to be enchantment—perhaps any man who touched her became so bewildered—but the thought was banished in an instant, for he found that he didn’t care.

They left Dunfermline a lifeless place. The creatures that had possessed its inhabitants fled after Josun’s massacre, for they found freshly abandoned corpses in the street. Fergal wondered out loud how the possessions had started, hypothesizing that a portal had been opened by some naive sorcerer, inadvertently giving the shadow things access to another world. The Thief suggested that maybe Dunfermline had always been possessed and had always existed as an illusion on the outskirts of the wilderness, sustained by weary travelers such as themselves. Josun thought that it didn’t matter. The world was chaotic and nonsensical, and the strange fate of the townspeople did not demand an answer. No one asked the sorceress what she thought, for she remained sleeping, and they let her rest, making camp some distance from the village. They slept in the cold air, open to the elements, with the noises of the night echoing all around them. It was the best sleep they ever had.

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