On the tables, the candles flickered fiery and flirtatious, sparkles stolen from the mighty forges of the upper world. In the corner, her face coloured golden by the flames of the fireplace, a bard was singing skilfully to an ungrateful crowd. In The Heartfelt Curse to the Three Steps Down business was as usual. Blunt creatures of sly dark nights filled the rooms – thieves, smugglers, adventurers, brothel girls, all thirsty for cheap wine and rich gossip, just the way we liked it.
The herald cut through the crowd like a deftly thrown knife. He couldn’t have been more than twenty, yet he already carried himself with a stern self-confidence that would have made you guess him older.
‘Hello, Conor,’ he greeted me once he reached us, ‘one can always trust you to sit with the prettiest girls in town’ his sharp eyes flickering towards my companions with an appreciative nod.
‘As one can always trust you to ruin my recreations.’ I grinned. I knew him well. Ever since four years ago I found him half-dead in the private cellars of a Dewaran warlord. A smart kid even then, bargaining for his life with the right information, but the year he spent there prior to my arrival left him with a chill that would make anyone permanently frosty. ‘Sit down and have a beer with us, Gered!’ I ordered, signalling to the barkeep.
He squeezed in between the dolls obediently, seductive lips cooing over his dark curls that ended in bright blue tips, but his face remained grim even when his jug was tossed in front of him with a cheerful thump. I sighed.
‘Let me guess. He wants to see me.’ I offered. Gered was happily cursed with one of the world’s richest bastards as an employer now, thoroughly obsessed with magic artefacts at that. He had the money to buy them, too and had even more to buy my talents to get the ones he couldn’t. ‘What is it this time? He found out he couldn’t fit into Anthoro’s Enchanted Slimming Wear?’ I laughed, catching the eyes of the ladies as I mused.
‘He wants to see you about something else.’ He replied in a tone that finally snuffed out my good humour entirely.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we take a little walk outside?’ I stood, lifting my jug as I went. There was no need to waste the ale.
Once we were out of earshot, he turned to me. ‘It’s the urn he wants.’ A few curt words that caught me mid-sip and saw to the beer spraying right out of my mouth.
‘He wants you to steal the urn.’ He repeated, the noise of the tavern still strongly audible in the background.
‘There is no one who could steal that for him. He must know that.’ I said, wiping the excess beer off my face with the back of my hand. ‘The mechanical and magical defences are challenging as they are, but there is not much you can do with death himself guarding the premises. Zerillys might be bound to the crypt by a powerful enchantment, but stealing the urn would set him loose. And it’s a little difficult to outflank a monster that never sleeps. Besides,’ I added, ‘the theft would bring destruction and bloodshed on the town. And I like it here.’
‘Damien knows you always find a way, no matter the odds.’ Gered stated, expertly playing for my ego and pride. ‘You are famous for it.’ The little shit knew me too well. I spent a long minute silently considering the matter, but eventually resisted the lure.
‘No.’ I said slowly turning back towards the tavern. ‘Tell Damien he doesn’t have enough gold to have me turn this place into a graveyard.’ I declared with an eagerness to return to my cosy table, out of the way of the bitter wind that was now picking up.
‘But you see, Conor’, Gered put a hand on my shoulder, turning me back to look at him once more, eyes piercing me with a sad certainty, ‘the thing is, that you are going to do it. Everyone has a price.’
Art by Maciej Kuciara
Peace is an illusion. People always fight, people always suffer. There is always pain, always hurt, always violence. Maybe not the same kind, for rather than taking your life all at once, it steals away years without you even noticing. Worries over loved ones, jealousy over despised ones, too much hard work earning your copper, too much idleness enjoying your gold. It makes you ignore how rapidly your days are running out. It makes you think there’s later. It makes you forget the reaper is whetting his blade just around the corner. And without you even realising, you’ve been tricked out of it all. So I always maintained the view, it’s best to keep ahead: no matter how much life is trying to snatch from you, as long as you already have more stolen.
The Urn of Ahalan was perhaps somewhat of a challenge, even for me. Keeping it safe in Aleanna’s Cathedral ensured the peace between the Wolgs and the Ragels, two lands with the most blood smeared pages in anyone’s history book. There were many who preferred things this way, but then again there are always a few who could see the bigger picture and had the means to paint it across the world.
The head of the Ragel Sapphire Merchants, Damien Ramnolf, was such a man. He was short in build, high in ideals. He had this clammy way of speaking that soaked you to the bone with all kinds of visions about how to make it stop. Made you wish you were an assassin looking down at him, rather than a thief just um… looking down at him. Not that me being a head taller seemed to unsettle him much. He knew well his strengths and was pretty much used to getting anything he wanted. Almost as much as me.
‘… and of course there is the magical barrier as you would know’ he was dribbling on, testing my patience to its last limits, taking me dangerously close to reaching out to my right where his red parrot was sitting on a perch and demonstrate my exceptional grasp on how to do my job. Instead, by way of interjecting, I pulled a silver watch out of my pocket and raised it purposefully, flipping its cover open with my thumb as I cut him off. ‘Time is a precious commodity, let’s not waste it longer.’
At that moment several things happened at once. Out of nowhere a door appeared in the wall to our left. Damien’s breeches disappeared from view, exposing two rather hairy legs poking out of silken pantaloons. And the parrot fell off the perch with some exaggerated theatricality. That almost took me by surprise, but then again I always praised myself on being able reaching the same conclusion one way or the other.
‘Clever, eh?’ I flashed my winning smile. ‘It unbinds all magic in a twenty meter radius for exactly five minutes.’ I could see his piggy eyes staring at it in disbelief as he was trying to reach for it, but I snatched my hand away. ‘It was specially made for me, however and only works in my hand.’ I grinned as I tried not to look him up and down. ‘But, no doubt, it will be of great assistance in seeing through our … um plans.”
Damien Ramnolf seemingly composed himself, walked behind his tremendous desk and sat down. He got out a parchment, ink and scribbled down something.
‘Here is half of the payment we agreed on. The name and the whereabouts of the person you’re looking to question. The coin you’ll receive once you return with the urn.’
I’m not going to lie, my mouth went dry at that. My heart started to beat in a drunken fashion, as if not quite sure whether to soar or collapse. The Supreme Key. The very thing I have been looking for half my life. A quest. A dream. An obsession. Just the pure thought of it flooded my veins with an unbearable desire to find it. My confident smile faltered, but I dragged it back on. I approached the desk expertly faking a dignified manner, which would have been undoubtedly reduced to the composure of a little girl at a cake stall if not for the trade master sitting right in front of me.
“Is that right? And just how can I know how reliable this information is?’ The tease was unneeded. Damien Ramnolf was renowned for his spy network and his ability to acquire the most guarded secrets across the Nineteen Kingdoms. In addition common sense told me not to push him any further. But it was just too much fun.
He raised an eyebrow and slightly tilted his head to the side as he looked up at me. ‘The trainee priestess you’ve been sleeping with these last three nights to acquire information about the Urn was wearing a silver breast band last night dotted with little moon symbols, for that short time at least you let her do so. She was not completely satisfied with your performance the third time around. Time is a precious commodity, Conor, let’s not waste it any longer, shall we?’ For once I couldn’t agree more.
I took the parchment from him. ‘Selpheros Bora Castaunos, Merdillion High Library, Andastos’ it read. Too damn far to just pop around before completing the work, even if I was considering making a run for it. But I wasn’t. I wanted the gold, craved the challenge and needed to keep Damien in my good books. So I turned, walked past the disappearing side door, glancing at the parrot flying back to its perch.
“You have three days, Conor, three days!’ I heard Damien’s voice behind me. I flicked the bird’s head from behind with one hand, held up the parchment at the same time in front of it with the other, giving it a wide berth all the while as I responded casually. ‘Don’t worry, Damien,‘ I said as the flames burst from its beak lighting the vellum in my hand. I watched it burn. ‘The Urn will be delivered well in time. I can’t wait to go to Andastos and see this Selphi for myself.” I stepped away from the displeased animal and exited the room with a considerable amount of determination, leaving a swirl of burnt parchment petals slowly descending in my wake.
The late afternoon sun forged suggestive dark images onto the cobblestone while I walked to the Temple of the Light. As I was approaching I looked at its glistening walls, the masterfully engraved symbols, the graceful towers. I inhaled the sweet-smelling scents, listened to the enchanting harmonies luring me inside and understood why people see it as a vision of heaven. But we are gullible creatures and see what we want to see. Give us illusions bright enough to mist our eyes a little, give us dreams sweet enough to hope, give us a heart big enough to care and we’ll see heaven where there’s only hell.
I entered the temple and soon enough caught sight of my little angel, wrapped in an eye-pleasing white robe, long brown hair lusciously tumbling down in unpredictable waves to her waist as she knelt in front of Sarianna’s likeness. I looked at the Goddess with an apologetic smile. I’ll keep her devotee’s heart for now, she can have her soul later – seemed like a fair deal to me.
I kneeled beside Esten, imitating prayer and whispered: ‘Did you know that your constant throaty murmuring is disrupting the deep spiritual work I’m attempting to undertake in the other end of the hall?’
‘You didn’t seem that bothered about it last night,’ she whispered back haughtily.
‘Oh, it was fine for me, of course!’ I enthused, ‘but here… the lack of appropriate murmuring tone is a very serious business! I strongly advise, Lady, that you immediately accompany me to a most pressing practice session!’
She smiled and gracefully rose with a coy side-glance at me, before turning and walking out to the light. I caught up with her quick enough and gently steered her towards a street leading down to the river. ‘We are going someplace else tonight. It will be fine.’ I added hastily, seeing the appearing creases on her forehead. She didn’t look convinced.
‘Have my things been taken over there already? My combs? My favourite bath-oil?’ she demanded.
Spend enough time with women and you’ll know a tantrum when you see one. Spend a lot of time with women and you’ll know the cure for each and every one of them. Of course, it also helps if they generally consider you better looking than any human man has the right to be. I pulled her close with practised moves.
‘I have something special prepared for us. You’re going to love it.’ That worked, as it always does, and she let me provide a taste of what I had in plan. The dream-root I soaked in the sweet cherry wine will still allow me a little time with her before I set off and attend to other business, I thought as I was kissing her, stroking her back with one hand, carefully pulling out a little red feather of the hair tangle and discarding it with the other.
The following evening the world turned on a sigh. The shift rattled through the bones, twisting hearts along a different melody the wind was now humming, twirling all the pieces around into a skeleton of unborn truths. It was the sigh of a prisoner waiting in the shadow of my tomorrows, wishing upon every star. Somewhere, in a far-away land, a key was singing to me, its sweet melody growing more enchanting by my every night.
I told Esten I had some things to do that evening and just to be sure, I made a few unnecessary circles in town before climbing over the city wall in a half-lit spot, grabbing a torch for the road as I went. Outside I cut through the quiet forest to the abandoned well, which sheltered a secret tunnel to the cathedral basement in its belly and in no time I was opening the locks of a hidden door on the other side. Gaining ingress, just like with women, was always the part I enjoyed most. It’s staying too long that steals away the fun, not to mention your freedom.
The door gave with a soft squeak and I entered into a small passage leading to the crypt. I walked through resolutely, knowing well what was coming, still when the sharp pain hit me I stopped and obediently crouched. The revenant was closer than I hoped, waiting for me patiently, willing me to approach him humbly on my knees as most men would, begging for mercy. I clenched my teeth and pushed myself up. The power of any pain lies in your perception. Get your little toe stubbed on your way to the privy at night and you’ll be in agony in a second. Get your leg stabbed in a deadly fight and in comparison you won’t feel a thing. At least until the fight has finished – supposing you’re lucky. Otherwise, even then, you won’t feel a thing.
I closed my eyes and focused. The pain was wrapping me inside into a violent blizzard, thundering through every nerve, using my spine as the lightning rod. I deeply inhaled the cold, musty air, commanding it against the crushing clouds within, with all the force of seven harsh years I spent practicing in the mountains of Minar Desh. Ten more breaths and I was able to edge forward again, enjoying the taste of triumph in my mouth, ignoring the tang of blood as it started trickling from my nose. Still I smiled. Nothing makes you more alive than a touch of death.
Zerillys was hovering above the grave of Honras, the Merciful, whether by chance or irony I never did find out. He didn’t look happy about my small victory, but of course his kind never truly looks happy, as a generally recognised guideline in the Book of the Undead.
‘Have you come to finish what you started?’ he asked in a frosty voice, menacing black eyes screaming into mines.
‘That’s the plan.’ I nodded. ‘And I’m hoping to push it through without stumbling into any dead-ends.’
He was upon me in the blink of an eye – my eye that is, since he never blinked.
‘My existence here might have its limits, but don’t think you can play games with me! You take one step out of line and I’m free to leave these walls and feast on your flesh.’
I was considering pointing out that once I was upstairs, one step out of line would in fact kill me before he even reached the dining room, but I thought better of it. His stench close up was so overpowering, I decided it was more beneficial for me to hold my breath.
He finally let it go and floated out of my way. I briskly took the chance and advanced towards the stairs at the far end of the hall, momentarily stopping at a half-open sarcophagus to peer inside. Suddenly there was a kind of scattered hissing noise. I turned shocked. Zerillys was not far off, emitting the sound and shaking slightly with it. It was the creepiest laugh I’ve ever seen.
‘Conor, I promise you,’ he said after a while, ‘no one would be mad enough to take anything from here. Not if they intended to leave alive.’
‘Good to hear!’ I called back and sprinted up the stairs.
When the decision to keep the relic in the cathedral was made, a smaller army of architects, inventors, blacksmiths, engineers and bowers were summoned to create one of the most effective defence systems the world has ever seen and boy, have they succeeded. It was specifically designed to keep out guys like me, which is precisely why I loved it so much. Not that I didn’t have a name for myself already, but conquering this mechanism, or Aleanna’s Wrath, as the locals called it, was certainly something I wished to list under my more significant achievements.
The system was turned on every night by the High Priest by flipping a number of adjustable nails on a small metal board next to one of the side entrances, arranging them into a certain combination that he changed daily. Had I known the combination of the day, my evening would have been a lot easier, alas more boring, too.
Upon activation it opened a number of hidden cases built into the walls that held poisoned arrows, ready to be shot at unwanted trespassers. It also set several other devices in motion which main purposes included splitting intruders into two, spearing them, flattening them to the ground and burning them alive. Obviously trapping and questioning unwelcomed guests never occurred to any of the masterminds.
I emerged from the basement and looked around. The building slumbered peacefully under a light purple glow that was radiating from the magic barrier shielding the Urn. It was placed on the top of a single column near the High Altar. I set the torch down, no longer needing it in the eerie light, and cautiously started stepping forward along a straight line. The arrows were designed to be released upon stepping on certain stones or touching particular spots on walls and arches. As far as the floor was concerned, following a specific pattern was required to stay alive. A pattern that Esten taught me, by drawing it on my bare chest a hundred times and making me do the same on her with a rose scented massage oil. A pleasant class, all in all, though some might have considered it learning it the hard way.
I must have been about half way through when I heard noises. As I looked to see where it was coming from I discovered a pair of amber eyes curiously measuring me up and down. It was Doorkins, the church cat, sitting on one of the benches. The stupid animal must have hid somehow when the doors were closing and was now lurking inside, showing strong inclination towards coming and inspecting me from closer.
‘No, no, no! Shoo! Shoo!’ I hissed urgently to no avail, as the cat gracefully jumped down and slowly started heading in my direction. I pulled the first thing out of my pocket, a lockpick, aimed and hit the cat, although my attention was promptly demanded by an arrow, missing me by an inch. Next I took out a throwing knife, but by the time I turned, the cat was gone. I hesitated for a minute. This was not a good time to play hide and seek and I reluctantly decided to advance on with some added urgency.
I soon reached the column that was about five times my height. I slid on a set of climbing claws on my hands, flipped on my watch and started to climb. The Urn of Ahalan was a surprisingly simple piece of pottery. Humble white clay with understated floral pattern around its neck. You really wouldn’t have thought much of it, if not for the elaborate defences.
I was almost down once again, when a side door opened and someone stepping inside de-activated the cathedral’s defence mechanism. Damien Ramnolf sneered up at me, with a handful of his armed men following in his wake. I was promptly surrounded and with the blades pointing at my neck I passed him the urn with a grimace.
‘Very good, Conor’ he stated condescendingly and let it go. ‘Although it’s a shame you were so clumsy in the end!’ The urn hit the floor and smashed into pieces. ‘Search him!’ he ordered. ‘Most importantly, look for a silver watch!’
‘I knew you could do it’ he continued his tiresome monologue, while my possessions were being confiscated ‘Though I wonder how you were planning to sidestep Zerillys. Taking the urn out of the cathedral would have set him loose, you know.’ He stepped towards me holding the business end of a knife to my face – as an indication that my response, in fact, was not required.
‘And the watch that only works in your hands?’ he carried on gaining momentum now. ‘Well, I’m sure I can make a favourable deal with the High Priest in order to acquire both of them. You won’t need them anymore, after all, and I know a few highly accomplished embalming experts!’
‘Nice little plan there, Damien,’ I hissed. ‘You have your war, my watch and you don’t even have to pay me anymore. And you almost pulled it off!’
I could see his confusion at that, but our conversation was cut short by the main gate opening and the High Priest marching in with about a hundred city guards.
‘Conor Drew, I arrest you for high treason in the name of Ronar the Third, King of Ragellan and Nersia, Lord of Thedos. Surrender yourself in this instant!’ he commanded in a booming voice, undoubtedly trained to a perfection during countless majestic performances within the very same walls.
To be fair, I did not see how I could have surrendered any more than I already was, standing there encircled by swordsmen, Damien smugly holding my watch in his right hand in front of me.
‘With all due respect, Your Excellency, I am by no means at fault in these proceedings.’ I said. ‘I was hired to steal the Urn by this man, Damien Ramnolf, Master of the Sapphire Merchants in Regal. It is he, in fact, who has been conspiring against the King, hoping to destroy the Urn and start a war with Wolgland,’
‘That is an interesting claim to make, thief! But even if I accepted what you’ve just said, that would still not make you innocent. You are a known culprit, caught in the act! It would still not change the fact that the Urn has been destroyed and Ahalan’s ashes spoilt! You have brought shame and peril on us, for which you deserve nothing but death!’
‘I will have to strongly disagree with those harsh words, I’m afraid,’ I objected, mock hurt playing on my face. ‘For it is me, who uncovered a traitor’s plan, helped you catch him and saved the Urn. For which services, being a humble servant of the kingdom, I only accept a small payment of a hundred gold, to cover some of my expenses,’ I added modestly.
‘What are you talking about?’ he demanded. ‘The ashes are right in front of you, spilled onto the floor!’
‘Oh, but these are not the ashes.’ I responded calmly. ‘This is just silt I collected on the riverside a few days ago. And if you look at the clay pieces carefully, you may find that the pattern is not quite the same as it is on the Urn.’
‘What?’ He thundered in astonishment and made his way closer to inspect the broken vase. ‘You exchanged it? When?’
‘Last night I dropped by. My evening entertainment proved a little shorter than expected, so I had quite some time on my hands and thought…’ I flashed an angelic smile.’ that this might be important.’
‘Conor!’ he pressed on, a touch of relief now perceptible on his wrinkled features. ‘Where is the Urn?’
‘I left it with Zerillys in the crypt, in a sarcophagus. He can also testify to everything I have just said.’
‘Guards, release him!’ he ordered instantly and turned. ‘Damien Ramnolf. I arrest you for high treason in the name of Ronar the Third, King of Ragellan and Nersia, Lord of Thedos. You and your men are now in Captain Logan’s custody and will await your trial in the city dungeons.’
And with that I snatched my watch back from Damien’s open hand. Time is a precious commodity and I had none of it to waste, if I was to find Selpheros Bora Castaunos still alive. For I had no doubts that the trade master’s influence reached through the prison bars and far beyond. Far and fast, like wildfire across the land, which I was now racing up to the north.
Really, very good. Atmospheric and characterful. A charming hero about whom I would like to hear/read more and with a good twist at the end. Enchanting prose and a light feathery touch where it matters, hinting and alluding at matters unseen, so that images pass from the mind of the author to that of the reader without ever needing to be drawn in detail on the page between them.
Also the images you’ve selected complement the story beautifully.
Now I’m off to either finish my review of Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, or resume my reading of Teresa Frohock’s Misere, and this little piece is not at all out of place in their company
Phew! You are very brave to submit yourself to “trial by peers” but I find myself almost unaccountably pleased & relieved to report that I loved your story!
For such a short tale it managed to display interesting protagonists, a pleasing plot and an intriguing setting, all wrapped around some delightfully resonant philosophical musings and peppered with a fair sprinkling of humour. Colour me demanding, but I want more…
Seriously, I’m delighted for you. At the risk of over-doing it, I do believe you really have got that indefinable “something”, whatever that may be.
Beautifully written prose drives an incredibly fun plot. Well timed aphorisms and humor season your tale perfectly. I too would love to read more of the debonair Conor and his adventures and conquests.
Very nice! The main character is smart, debonair and I liked the first person narration. His thoughts are also very interesting and the story fast-paced. If I can make a little critic, the end is a bit too rushed, there’s no real explanation as to how Damien and his guards gain entry so freely in the cathedral and deactivate the alarm (was he in accord with the High Priest, then why did they enter separately?) and the High Priest changes his mind about who to arrest too easily, and it’s a bit too trusting to come forward alone and when he orders the guards to release Conor, does he address Damien’s guards? Also, I think Conor has too much time to explain while Damien just stays idle. Thank you, looking forward to the next episode!