It was a street auction; not an unusual event in the back streets of the Fohee district. A crowd of people huddled around the entrance to one of the notorious taverns yelling and gesticulating. Most of them had come just to see the belongings of the deceased, or to spit at the outrageous prices some people were willing to pay. This auction however, was a little different from the usual. Everybody knew the name, or more accurately the alias, of the deceased man whose belongings had suddenly become the property of his excruciatingly lucky landlord. Gregor the Black was the name they all recognised, the whisper on the breeze was that he was the best thief who had ever lived. His life’s work was now on display, arranged on tables and watched over by the Emperor’s Guard, no less. There wasn’t a great deal to show, considering the pile of coins he had surely amassed over his career. There were a few notable paintings, a pile of gold candlesticks, a ceremonial sceptre encrusted with gemstones and several boxes of jewellery. The rest was just furniture, old and worn, and not particularly desirable or valuable.
Ealeel stumbled into the crowd, shoving people out of his way until he was stopped by a burly guard, “Let me through!” he yelled.
“Get back, you damned drunk.” The Guard lowered his halberd and shoved him and the rest of the crowd until he cleared a space.
Ealeel fell backwards onto the cobbled street, “Listen to me! You don’t understand, this is vitally important, a young woman’s life is at stake!”
“What are you talking about?”
He scrambled to his feet grasping awkwardly at the guard’s chain mail tunic. “I have a valuable item that I must retrieve from the Golden Monkey. It’s a rare ingredient I must have. I’ve paid the last of my wealth to get it, it’s everything that I have in the world, and I must bring it to her before it’s too late!”
“You don’t have any wealth, look at you, you’re nothing but a lousy drunk.”
“Please let me through. I must meet with my associate inside.”
“There isn’t anybody inside, they’re all out here. In a few moments they’re selling all this off to anybody who has enough Anders.” The Guard waved the head of his halberd in the general direction of the loot. “Who is it you’re supposed to meet with? Perhaps I can find him for you.”
“I doubt you know him. Can’t you just let me by?”
“And watch you run off with as much as you can carry? Sorry, don’t take this personally, but you don’t look like the sort to trust, if you understand me.”
“I’ll have you know I’m a warlock.” Ealeel felt his anger suddenly build, and for a moment he considered drawing his knife and gutting this brain-dead imbecile. But then he would never be able to save his Selina. He imagined himself sitting in a stone cell, unable to help as she slipped further away.
“What are you looking at me like that for?” the Guard asked suspiciously. “You don’t look anything like a warlock, go and bother somebody else.”
“No! No, you must let me through!”
“Who are you supposed to meet here?”
“His name was Gregor,” Ealeel eventually answered.
“Gregor? Gregor the Black?” The Guard started to laugh.
“Yes, and before you accuse me, I’m not any kind of thief.”
“He’s not any kind of thief anymore either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s as dead as a coffin nail. It happened up in the palace last night. I suppose even the greatest thief in the world will get caught eventually.”
“Don’t take it so hard, if he had what you wanted, I’m sure his landlord will sell it to you, for the right price of course.”
“But I don’t have any money left!” Suddenly Ealeel realised what must have happened. “Did you say he was caught in the palace?”
“Yes, of all the places. I thought people had given up trying to rob the Emperor after all the hangings.”
“They hanged him?”
“No, they ran him through where they found him. It saves a lot of trouble in the long run, you know.”
Ealeel felt the colour drain from his face, and his knees wanted to buckle under him. “Where did they find him?” he asked in a small defeated voice.
“He got right inside the bell tower. That place is forbidden, even I know that.”
Ealeel stumbled back through the crowd. He couldn’t believe it. The thief had failed. Now he was penniless and lost in this vast city of Anayia. His last hope of saving his beloved Selina spilt as the thief’s blood on the stony corridors of the palace. He stumbled blindly until his legs failed him and he slumped into the gutter where his mind began to spin.
He remembered Selina, her beautiful sparkling eyes, dark raven hair, the light scent of after lilies. He didn’t want to remember what had happened, to relive the horrible events in his mind yet again. He howled like a lost dog and shook himself, to shake away the memories. He sat up and his head throbbed from the stale mead he had been constantly drinking. He had to get the prism, it was the only way to save her, but he didn’t know how, now that the thief he had given the last of his money to had died in the attempt to steal it. He pulled himself up against a wall and walked unsteadily along an alley, until he smelled alcohol and found a rusted tavern sign.
Besides his worn clothes, he had only three items left. In his pocket was the small wooden box that had once held their wedding ring; inside the box now, nestled in folds of velvet was a lock of Selina’s hair. Their wedding ring was hanging on a plain, worthless chain around his neck. He also had a knife; it wasn’t prudent to stay in Anayia without some protection. He took his belongings to the bar and held the shiny gold and ruby ring out to the barman, “How much will you give me for this?” he asked as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Ealeel stared at the fat face before him in utter disbelief. He had spent seventy-eight Anders on this ring; that was over half a century ago and he knew it was worth much more than that now. For the second time this day, Ealeel considered the possibility of carving grotesque patterns into another man’s face. But he needed a drink, needed it more than he needed to carry his wedding ring around his neck; needed it even more than he needed to show this bloated criminal how he was feeling. He took the coins, exchanged one for a bottle of whisky and found himself a corner, where he slumped into an uncomfortable wooden chair and proceeded to dull the pain with mouthfuls of bitter liquid. As he gulped straight from the bottle, he thought about the pathetic drunk he had become. Not so long ago he would have kicked a man on the street for daring to beg a coin for a bottle of spirits. Now he knew why they asked; why they begged with horrid pleading eyes at every passer by. It sickened him.
Slumped in the corner beside him was an old man with dark leathery skin, matted grey hair and beard. He was wrapped in rough fur clothes and snuggled against the arm of his bench like a dozing grehn. Ealeel supposed he looked very similar, although he hadn’t looked in a mirror for a very long time. There was one mirror he longed to look into, but he didn’t expect he would ever be able to gaze into the mirrored prism. For no reason he could determine, he poured some of his whisky into his new friend’s glass and nudged him awake.
“Wha? Leave me alone,” he mumbled.
“Drink,” Ealeel said, and as he expected the drunk suddenly found himself wide awake and he slurped noisily.
“I swore I would save her,” Ealeel said solemnly. “I’ve spent the last fifty or more years – I was so close! I can’t give up now, not when the artefact I need is just idly sitting there in a darkened room. Damned Anayans! Why do you people have to hoard all of the interesting items in this world?”
“I ain’t no Anayan, lad. I came from the steppes. Ahh, such beautiful country.”
“I thought the steppes were as barren as a desert?”
“Ahh, that’s what most people in the southern lands say. Empty and cold,” he cackled, “all weak and lily-livered you southerners. It’s a hard life I’ll admit, but you’re as free as an eagle out there. On a clear day you can see for leagues and leagues, nothing like it my friend, nothing in this life at any rate.” The weathered old man gazed upwards with his head tilted to one side as he remembered.
“I used to live near the mouth of the Guildwash.”
“That’s a beautiful river and no mistake.”
“I used to think so once. We had a cabin close to the shore and a small herd of grehns. Time seemed as though it was standing still, I thought it was. If only it would just stop and leave us to our lives. But it didn’t last. In the blink of an eye everything was washed away. One moment we were asleep together in our bed, and the next, the walls caved in, and the floods washed everything away. Sometimes I wish I had been washed out to sea. My beautiful Selina was gone. By the time I pulled myself out of the mud there was nothing left along the bank of the river for leagues. I wandered for days, but I never found a trace of her. All I have left is a lock of her hair.” Ealeel pulled out his small wooden box and held it to his chest.
“I’m sorry friend, I see life is just as hard south of Anayia after all.”
“I’ve lost count of the years since that day. I would guess that something like fifty years have passed but I can’t be sure.”
“Fifty? But you look like a young en’, even with your beard and all.”
“I’ve spent all that time trying to discover a way to save her. First I travelled to Blennham, I was convinced that the Seekers would help me, but they are fools. So, when I had read almost every book in their cathedral, I searched for a warlock and became his apprentice. I learned much, but I never discovered anything of any use to me. Warlocks have some strange ideas about morality, and eventually I left him behind and found my way here. It seems I’ve spent the rest of my life following the Guildwash up into the mountains. And here I am.”
“So, you’re a warlock then?”
“Yes, though I don’t really care for it, it’s just a means to get what I want.”
“What are you doing in here with the likes of me then?” The old man stared at him.
“I found it.”
“Found what?” the old man appeared to sober up miraculously.
“I found what I’ve been searching for.”
“You found her, alive?”
“No, I discovered the prism.”
“Prism? What’s that?”
“It’s a device that some say was found deep under the Kankra district. A golden box, set with glass and mirrors. Some say it was brought up from the depths of the earth, while others say it was given to the first Emperor of Anayia thousands of years ago by the Gods. I don’t much care for the stories and legends, and I’ve yet to discover any Gods Anayan or not, but I want to get my hands on that prism.”
“Why? What’s so important about a gold box with mirrors?”
“There are many accounts of past Emperors who have used the box to look into the future, and even into the past. If only I could study it! The things I could learn! If I can look into the past, perhaps I can find away to go back, back to that terrible night and carry my Selina away! I almost had it. I found a thief and gave him everything I had.”
“What happened? Did he manage to steal it?”
“He was a fool. He was caught last night and killed. Everything I’ve worked for is wasted. My Selina is more lost now that she ever has been.”
“How did you stay so young looking? I’ll wager any Emperor would trade you a great deal of wealth for a way of keeping himself young.”
Ealeel looked at his drunken friend for a while. “You know I’ve never even considered that. Perhaps I should have taken more notice of the various side effects of the experiments I’ve performed. Unfortunately, in my single-mindedness, I didn’t consider anything that didn’t bring me closer to Selina. It could have been from any number of things I’ve tried. I’ll probably never know for sure, and I have no interest in pursuing such fanciful notions as longevity. I always tried everything, no matter how dangerous, if the procedure or alchemy was enough to kill me, then I would surely find my Selina in Ethrillah. So far, I seem to have survived relatively unscathed.”
“This life is a harsh mistress.”
“You know, you’re a very interesting fellow.”
“I might say the same about you.”
“I should like to visit the steppes one day, I think I could learn to like your people.” Ealeel poured his friend another drink and proposed a toast. “To drunken fools of Nauticia, wherever they may be.”
“And to the wide open plains of the steppes.”
“And to the harsh mistress.”
They drank quietly for a while. When the bottle was empty Ealeel spent his last Ander on another. When the second bottle was almost empty and they were both thoroughly inebriated, Ealeel began to reflect on his life and his falling at every hurdle along the way. He pulled out his dagger and started to scratch away the varnish between rough grain on the worn tabletop.
“She took everything I ever had away from me…” Ealeel said as he scratched at the wood.
“Your harsh mistress.”
“Oh, yes I see what you mean. It doesn’t matter if you’re innocent or guilty as sin, when she decides to take from you, all you can do is accept it.”
“I won’t accept the death of my Selina. It wasn’t meant to be.”
“That may be so, but those of us that don’t become warlocks and the like, we just have to accept it. I’ve seen my share of death, and I’m sure that before very long I will see it again, up close you could say.”
Ealeel glanced at the old man, then continued to scrape the table harder. “I’ve never hurt anybody.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“When I started to experiment, I knew that Selina wouldn’t have wanted me to hurt anybody. In all these years, with everything I’ve tried, I’ve never hurt anybody or resorted to necromancy. I’ve worked hard for the items and reagents, I sometimes stole a few, and I sometimes paid less than they were really worth. Now I find the one artefact in all of Nauticia that can help me, and it is beyond my reach. It’s up there now, I can feel it waiting patiently for me.” Ealeel ground his knife into the table. “I can’t borrow it. I can’t buy it. I can’t pay a thief to steal it.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“There is only one way left. I will have to take it myself.”
Some hours later Ealeel stumbled out of the tavern into the dim light just before dawn. He walked along a grey, empty street and looked up above the roofs of the terrace. The three towers of the palace were framed by the mountains beyond, the first sunlight shining on the gleaming walls made it glow brilliant yellow against a purple backdrop. It was beautiful: it made Ealeel’s stomach turn. In a short while he was passing under a gate and ascending flights of stairs up to the district of Osorris – the God of Emperors. Here, just outside the palace grounds beside a statue of Osorris in the form of a lion, was the library he had come to every day since he arrived in this magnificent city in the mountains. Part of him wanted to love this place, but another was insanely jealous of the magical artefacts they guarded so effectively.
He walked through the entrance hall, polished wood beneath his feet. In the centre, the twenty foot high marble and gold statue of Suuna’mon looked down at him. She had a serene and gentle smile. He spat on her polished toenail as he passed. He knew this library better than the senile curator did. He knew where to locate historical texts on all of the Gods of Anayia, written, of course, as fact. He knew where to read about the Emperors, good and bad; and he knew where to discover the antics of the notable characters from the long history of the Eternal Empire. The most interesting part of the whole building was the rotunda at the back, where all of the books regarding sorcery, alchemy, necromancy, spirits, Ethrillah and the underworld were kept. He had learned a great deal there, and the views into the palace gardens were a welcome distraction. But he had no plans to continue his studies; instead he walked to the far end of the library, under an archway and into a conservatory. In the centre was a large table that could have served twenty or more guests for dinner and along the only wall that wasn’t glass was a set of wide, shallow drawers that held maps of almost every part of Nauticia. He studied a thick book dangling from a piece of string, and quickly discovered the number of the drawer that held the maps to the palace and its grounds.
He spent the entire day studying maps and plans. Some of them were surprisingly detailed. He discovered the location of the bell tower and plotted several routes. When the light failed and the muttering curator lit the lamps, Ealeel was still not sure exactly how he was going to do it. When his stomach began to rumble, he decided to test his new resolve by acquiring some food.
The curator had an office of sorts. It looked more of an alcove with a desk. It was built into a wall near the entrance. In the evenings he had noticed the curator would set aside some time to slip outside and return with a flat, circular piece of bread with a spicy sauce. He only noticed because of the strange smell emanating from the little alcove just before it was time to close the building. It was very quiet in the library today, due no doubt to some religious activity elsewhere. It was so quiet that when the curator returned with his aromatic supper, Ealeel heard the hinges of the door squeak and the soft click as it was closed.
Ealeel replaced his maps, then pulled out a small, badly drawn plan of the library; he was sure he wouldn’t need it later. He screwed it into a ball and placed it on the floor. Crouching over it, he tore a tiny peace and rubbed it vigorously between his thumb and forefinger until it became hot. When he let the scrap of paper go it had turned into a glowing ember, the tiny orange fleck settled onto the paper ball which smouldered and then a tiny flame took hold with a gentle blow. He marched quickly along the central aisle, and called for assistance, “Excuse me, my good fellow.”
“What is it?” The old man with frizzy grey hair and beard, placed his almost untouched supper onto a paper bag that served as a plate on his desk.
“Your library appears to be on fire.”
“What?” A look of panic crossed the Curator’s face and Ealeel noticed how grey and bloodshot his eyes were.
“Down that way,” Ealeel pointed. “You’d better hurry.”
The old man hobbled in the direction of the smoke. When he was far enough away Ealeel grabbed the paper bag and its contents and walked quickly for the exit. As he passed through the door he looked back over his shoulder, he could just see the old curator stamping energetically at the smoky remains.
“A little exercise will probably do him good,” Ealeel whispered to himself.
The spicy bread and lamb wrap wasn’t particularly good, there were various hot spices competing to smother the flavour; it burned his tongue, throat and even his lips, as most of the food in Anayia did. He found himself yearning for fresh bread covered with melted butter made from grehn’s milk.
The palace grounds were surrounded by a high iron rail fence. Every few hundred meters a lamp illuminated the area. He found a bush growing against the fence far enough away from the lamplight to conceal him. Even at this late hour, four guards wandered up and down inside the perimeter, physically out of Ealeel’s reach. Further along he could make out the dark shape of a tree; it was too far from the fence to climb over and drop down, but it was growing beside a long, low building with a flat roof. He was sure he could jump over the fence with a good run along that roof. It was too well lit to climb up; he had to take precautions. Ealeel reached into the shadow of the bush where he was hidden, he grasped at the shadow that fell across his hand and pulled a handful of nebulous darkness out. When he released the dark cloud, it covered him completely. Deciding that speed would help to cover his tracks, he climbed the tree, crawled along a branch and dropped down onto the roof; without stopping he waved a shadowed arm and ran the length of the roof. When he jumped a wind blew into his cloak and softened his landing on the damp grass. He moved out of the light and kneeled. The guards were coming back towards him.
One of them was pointing at the roof, “I tell you I saw a shadow or something.”
“Well, it ain’t there now.”
Ealeel stayed still as the guards came nearer. They went to the fence and examined the roof for a while. One of them turned and looked directly at him, but all he could see was a dark shadow; he convinced himself it was nothing, and they returned to their patrol. When their backs were turned Ealeel ran across the lawn towards the outer wall of the palace. He followed it for a few hundred feet until he found a flight of steps that went up the side of the building to a roof garden; he climbed them quickly. As he walked towards another stairway to a higher garden, he looked up to the three central towers, one for each of the Higher Gods. The bell tower was dedicated to Suuna’mon, and was rung regularly in the daytime. Ealeel had seen markets full of people stop and offer their thanks to Suuna’mon with a fist in front of the face and then an open palm directed skywards, or sometimes to the highest peak of the mountains. He imitated the gesture towards the tower and smirked.
In a short while he was on the roof of the main structure, yet another high garden. Anayia had by many roof gardens, mostly because of the lack of space and good soil. This garden was just for show, but the shrubs and statues served as good cover. From there he could see the base of the three towers, and the grand entrance carved with lions. A guard was sitting in a brightly lit alcove drinking a mug of steaming tea, his halberd leaning against the wall. The last thing he saw was a billowing shadow in front of his face, and the blade of a knife just before it severed his throat. Ealeel stood over him as he slumped, gurgling, to the floor then he pushed the door open and entered the hall of Higher Gods. He climbed the spiralling stairway that took him countless floors higher, until he reached an iron doorway. It was locked.
He placed both his palms and his ear to the door; he couldn’t tell if anybody was inside. He stepped back and regarded it, he knew he would have to negotiate it from the plans but he hadn’t expected it to be so substantial. He held up his hand and watched the shadow drift from it, it bubbled like black fire, then he turned his palm to the door and directed shadows to smother the hard metallic surface. Then he passed through shadow and door alike and stepped into the room beyond. There was a guard either side seated on a stone bench. They both stood up as the shadow appeared before them. Ealeel readied his knife, but to his surprise both guards dropped their halberds and ran in different directions. He threw his knife into the back of one but the other escaped. Ealeel walked up to the dying man, removed the knife from his back and cut his throat. It seemed an effective solution.
He followed the sound of footsteps up a flight of stairs and out to the platform at the top of the tower. Here, he could see the great bell of Suuna’mon and the dark city of Anayia far below. The guard was standing by the edge and looking right at Ealeel, but all he could see was the shadow of the entrance. Eventually the guard relaxed and as he could see no more apparitions, turned to look down at the palace grounds. Ealeel pushed him, and watched him fall. The scream was chilling, and extremely loud. He was sure the place would be swarming with guards as soon as they realised where he had fallen from. The prism was on its own pedestal in the room directly below the bell. Ealeel picked it up as he might have a fragile glass vase and spirited it away.
In the conservatory at the back of the library, Ealeel broke a window and climbed inside. He placed the prism on the table in the light of the moon and gazed at it. He could hardly believe it was finally in his possession. He carefully removed the lock of hair from the little box, placed it in the palm of his hand and then put both his hands around the golden prism. He felt a dizzy sensation, and images filled his mind, some he recognised as places, others were the faces of people he had never met. They rushed past him in a blur. Suddenly Ealeel found himself transported back through time. He saw the beautiful face of Selina, happy and asleep, but he was unable to move, all he could do was watch. He tried to warn her, to make a sound, a scream, a yell or even a whimper but he could not. He watched helplessly as the water came, torrents of muddied filth splitting timbers and sweeping house, tree and earth away as if it were dust on an old book. Ealeel tried to get to Selina, to take her in his arms and bring her back with him, but he could not move. And then he began slip away, this time up through the water until he broke the surface and gasped for air. Then he was back in the library, and suddenly he was able move. Ealeel lurched forward and let go of the prism. He watched it slide across the table and teeter on the edge. It tipped slowly, out of reach, and then fell to the hard polished wood smashing into tiny shards.
“Oh no! What have I done? What have I done!” Ealeel screamed.
He ran round the table and tried to pick the pieces up, to put them back together somehow, but with tears streaming down his face he realised the prism was beyond repair. He howled into the empty, echoing library until his pain became anger and his anger became rage. Then he pounded his fists into shelves of books until they fell, flung books at walls, tore out their covers, their pages and their hearts. Then he slumped, weak and exhausted, to the floor, where he wept until dawn broke over the cold stone city of Anayia.
In the light of dawn, as the first glimmer of sunlight shone through the library window revealing the toppled shelves and corpses of books, Ealeel struggled to his feet. As he left the carnage behind, he noticed a large black book resting on a table. He picked it up read the title “Tidenium’s Secrets of Necromancy, Volume One”. He raised an eyebrow and tucked the book under his arm. It was the only book he ever stole from the library.
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