by D. S. Tierney
The trees along the ridge were barren and ugly. It was still early fall, but winter was creeping in nicely. The weather wouldn't matter for the job at hand, but damn it all if Grint didn't prefer warmer climates. Somewhere in the south where the women wore next to nothing and what they did, stuck to their glistening bodies.
This was the Papality; not as far north as you could go, but near enough. He supposed that was why jobs up here paid so well. Who wanted to go and work where their fingers froze and piss sprouted icicles? And the women here thought being chaste was a badge of honor. That just made these cold nights a little colder.
"Are we going to stare at this thing all night, or break into it?" The voice uttering that remark was shaky. Grint glanced over his shoulder at the thing standing there. He hated thinking of the demon-possessed as men. Sure, they wore the bodies of men, but inside they were darkness. This one twitched and lurched, like it expected the man-suit to have more legs than it did.
Rounding out this merry little band of thieves was a couple of kids, teenagers really. They were as green as could be and foisted upon Grint by the Broker who set him up with the job. Boy and Girl as Grint called them had been blissfully silent since the trip began.
"Show them what you know," the Broker had said. "But I'm paying you to get into the vault. The demon will take care of the rest." Grint didn't care for the vagueness, but a job was a job.
"I'll ask again," the demon began, but Grint covered its mouth with one callused hand. It was risky to expose your flesh to a demon; one bite from this abomination and it could easily jump inside the open wound. Grint knew ways of fighting things like that, but it wouldn't be pleasant or clean for either of them.
Still, letting it talk freely could be worse. "Shut it, demon," Grint hissed through clenched teeth. "Or I won't be the one who sends you back to hell." He removed his hand and pointed at the priests who were emerging from the tower wall.
No door was present, not one visible to the thieves, but they were exiting all the same.
"The Papality's finest," Grint whispered bemusedly. "That's what I was waiting for. Now if you want to get through this little party, keep quiet and follow my lead." They emerged from the tree line and skulked towards the tower. The master thief's footfalls made no sounds, but such could not be said for the others. To most ears, they were quiet enough. However, if someone were listening, they wouldn't last two minutes. Grint resigned himself to be cautious enough for all of them, and that damnable Broker would be paying him double if this lot got him into a tangle with Papality priests.
"I don't see a door," Girl said. "Are they hiding it?"
"It's a simple camouflage spell," the demon hissed impatiently. "We just need to find where they came out and we'll find how to get in." It approached the tower and began running foul hands across the surface, yet found no entryway. Grint produced a small red coin from his pocket and began rolling it across the back of his hand as he watched the demon grope stupidly.
"I don't understand. This is where they came out, yes?" The demon turned to look at them all, fire dancing in its eyes out of embarrassment.
"You won't find a door because there is no door," Grint replied.
"They can walk through solid stone?" Girl asked, her face going slack.
"I'd like to learn that trick," Boy said right on top of her.
"Join the Papality then," Grint suggested with a half-grin. "It's their magic." He took a moment to scan the ground, making sure to find the right spot. When he was satisfied, he cocked back an arm and threw the red coin at the wall. The others were expecting it to bounce dully off of the stone, instead the coin seemed to enter the wall. What shocked them even more was that the stone, solid just moments ago, now rippled like water.
"Best be quick," Grint said, breaking their collective trance. "This will only last a few moments." Then, leading the way, the thief passed into and through the wall. The sensation was not unlike getting caught in a summer rainstorm where the drops were just cold enough to cool your skin. On the other side, he paused and waited for the other three to appear.
Boy and Girl came through together, an odd look painting their features. If he were to guess, these two hadn't had much exposure to magic.
The demon came last and it carried a pained expression on its face. The Papality's holy magic didn't sit well with its kind. Grint would keep that information handy.
Behind them, the wall solidified once more, and Grint's red coin tumbled out, landing on the floor. Boy crouched down to retrieve it, but his hand was unceremoniously kicked aside by Grint, who then picked it up himself.
"Why would you do that?" Boy whined, favoring his hand. Grint made no attempt to answer or to show that he cared.
"That red coin," the demon cut in. "That's a red charger, yes? From Golganna, to the south?" Grint looked over at the meat jockey and nodded. "Are all of their metals coins able to do that to Papality magic?"
A magician never divulged their secrets, and a good thief did likewise. Grint turned away from the demon and grabbed a torch from one of the brackets on the wall. Girl followed suit and held it high over her head.
The room they were in was large and circular, leading them to believe it covered the entirety of the tower. The ceiling was concealed in shadows, and it was possible to surmise that if they could see into that darkness they would be looking at the very top of the tower.
"The whole thing is empty, barren! There's nothing. Where's the rich stuff?" Boy's eyes bulged out and a pitiful grimace split his pock marked face.
"The priests believe in quiet contemplation -- what can I say?" Grint grinned, but was paying little attention to the rest of the motley gang. Instead, he began a cursory scan of the floor around his feet, which left him blind to the growing anger in Boy's demeanor.
"So we broke in here and risked our lives for nothing? And this is funny to you?" Boy drew out a long blade that was too long to be a dagger but also too short for a proper sword and raised it menacingly over his head. Before he could take a single step forward, the demon put a hand calmly on the kid's shoulder and quelled his rage. A visible shudder racked Boy, as if ice water were being poured down his back. When the lad turned his head, the demon gave him a slow shake of his own. Do not push that man, the look warned, and Boy thought better of his actions.
"What is it you're looking for?" Girl asked. Her voice was without the anger her brother had shown.
"Papality towers are nothing more than symbols. Like the fish statues those imbeciles in Gorsha build." Grint squatted down and wiped at the floor. There was no dust there, but sometimes just feeling something could reveal a lot.
"I don't understand what that means," Girl said, watching what Grint was doing with very studious eyes.
She would go far if she kept at it, the thief thought. All the while his fingers worked with feverish intent, seeking a seam in the floor that would lead to the switch he knew was there. This would be the right spot; the Papality never built things differently.
"Grint," the demon began in its sneering tone, but the thief held a hand up to forestall the damnable beast.
"Found it," the thief said with a smile and pressed down on an innocuous knot on the floor. An audible click sounded and a chuckle of triumph escaped the normally quiet thief. Grint stood and lifted the hatch. He even managed to affect a flourish with his hand as he invited the others to proceed into the depths of the tower. Yet they all stood there, like dumbstruck oxen.
The thief let out a sigh. "Fine. All the Papality towers are like this. They're hollow inside because the priests believe it allows their voices to be funneled up to God while they're chanting or praying or whatever the hell they do. Meanwhile, down below they keep all the good stuff; like the vault."
"Anyone else down there?" the demon asked.
"Shouldn't be," Grint replied. "That group we saw would be all of them, heading down to their nightly pilgrimage and what not. Now if you all don't mind, my arm is getting tired and I'd rather not be standing here when they decide to return and dive into their sacrament cups."
That motivated them, and one by one the crew descended down the staircase beneath the floor. Girl went first, followed by the demon and then Boy. Grint went last and closed the hatch behind them.
For a sublime moment they were enveloped in darkness. The thief preferred darkness to anything else; it just felt more like home. Still, this was no time to get sentimental and teary. There were tasks to be completed and business to be transacted. Grint used the darkness to take care of the first bit.
Sliding up behind Boy, the thief wrapped his arms around the little snot, using one hand to cover the kid's mouth. In the other hand, he held a dagger hard against Boy's throat, so hard, in fact, Grint could feel the boy's pulse drumming against the blade. He drew his head close to Boy's ear and whispered softly, but the deadly intent of the words was not lost in the diminished decibels.
"The next time you draw a blade against me, whether you mean to use it or not, I will put an end to you."
Boy tried to speak, his mouth working against the thief's hand, but Grint had no desire to share this moment with the others. He tightened his grip on the kid and the increased pressure nicked a spot on his throat. "No talking right now," Grint continued. "Just nod if you understand what I mean."
There was an immediate nod and Grint let go. Boy gasped and stepped forward too quickly, and ended up stumbling down the rest of the stairs. The demon caught him and stood him up, an act that Boy recoiled from quickly.
Grint materialized from the darkened stairwell and stepped into a well-lit anteroom. Several comfortable chairs lined the walls and a fine rug adorned the floor. It would be a comfortable place for anyone to sit with a book and a mug of something warm, but Grint doubted if this room had seen an occupant who wasn't just passing through. Priests were never ones for relaxing.
"You're cut," Girl said, inspecting her brother's throat.
"I brushed against a nail on the way down," Boy replied, shoving her off. For all of his other faults, Grint had to admit he was quick with a lie.
"Don't drip any of that blood," Grint said, walking past them. "The Papality will use it to track you."
"What? They can do that?" The voice stammered with fear and it made Grint chuckle inwardly. He was just fooling with Boy now, but he'd not let him know it. Let the kid stew in it for a while.
Boy rubbed at the cut one last time before pulling a kerchief from his pocket and wrapping it around his neck.
"Where to then?"
"The vault will be ahead and to the left, down another hall," Grint answered. Girl took a step forward into that first hallway, but was stopped by the thief. When she looked back at him, she saw him pointing up toward the ceiling ahead of them. Following the path of his finger to that spot, they saw what looked like a paper lantern hanging from one of the tresses.
"What is it?" Girl whispered.
"A snare," Grint said. "You get caught in that and you've got yourself a date with a purification fire. We'll go around it." He pointed at a door to their left. "The rooms adjoin and will come out by the vault."
"I take it we should watch out for more of those snares along the way?" Girl asked.
Grint nodded and they continued on. They passed through three rooms on their way to the other hall. The first was a small library. The second was another sitting room, this one with a roaring fire in the hearth. The final room was full of maps, globes and tables with full-scale models of the surrounding countryside. In each room, they scanned the ceilings carefully, making sure no hidden surprises waited for them.
They moved quickly and quietly enough, but as they approached the vault door a strange feeling had settled onto Grint's shoulders. It was the kind of feeling that said he had missed something or that something wasn't quite right. He paused at the vault door, scanning the hallway again and attuning his senses to the very air that hung limply around them.
"Get on with it," the demon snapped and Grint let it go. Sometimes a kitchy feeling was just your imagination. But no, his mind seemed to be yelling at him, you clearly missed something.
"Keep watch, demon. You two kneel down on either side. This is what the Broker wants you to learn."
"Who?" the twins asked in unison and Grint rolled his eyes.
"Your uncle. The guy who hired us. Now kneel down." The two apprentices did as bidden and even the demon acquiesced, but only barely. It turned its head lazily to one side and leaned against the wall. You could hardly expect more from a creature who could simply leave the body it inhabited and disappear into shadows at the first sign of trouble. What bedfellows Grint found himself with.
"I know how to pick a lock," Boy grumbled.
"This isn't the lock to the bakery," his sister replied. "Shut up and listen for once." Yes, she could go very far indeed.
"There are locks in this world that will kill you if you don't know what to look for," Grint said in a calm, teaching way. "We're looking for enchantments on the lock."
"Priests use enchantments? You'd figure they'd think that was blasphemy," Boy muttered.
"They call it holy power," Grint said in a strained voice as he worked his lock pick in the door. "Most of them are like that paper lantern, they'll just snare you, but this one here is something a little more dangerous."
"Is that normal?" the demon asked.
"No," the thief said as he focused his concentration on the door. His pick was feeding him all the information he needed about the lock and the enchantment. There was no real way of knowing how the pick worked -- as far as he could tell it was the only one of its kind -- but Grint really didn't care how or why it worked. Only that it did. The mysterious pick didn't so much speak in his mind as it made him aware of things. Right now, he was fully aware that the enchantment on this lock would collapse the whole tower on top of their heads if he triggered it.
Now what could be behind this door that the Papality would risk an entire tower to protect? That kitchy feeling just grew stronger.
Picking a lock was like walking a tightrope in most instances, but this particular one was like swimming along the edge of a whirlpool. Straying just a hair to the wrong side would spell disaster. Boy started to ask something, but the thief grunted in a way that shut him right up. Now wasn't the time. He knew he was almost there, if only by judging the pressure being exerted on the pick. That damned enchantment was physically pulling at it, trying to force it into failure. For just a brief moment, the pick slipped in his finger. It moved a fraction of a fraction, but it seemed enough to dance along the bladed edge of that magic. The walls shuddered, or at least Grint thought they did; he couldn't expend the concentration to look away. The force grew stronger, more insistent. Then, a click cut the silence as the lock fell open and the magic dissipated.
"That was educational," Boy said sarcastically. "We just sat here."
"Next time I'll let you do it," Grint replied as he stood. "We'll all end up buried alive, but at least we'd have the demon over there to show us around hell." The demon grunted a laugh and approached the door. Grint turned the small wheel and the vault door opened with a quiet ease. The demon and Boy were the first through the portal, while Girl hung back with the thief.
"How bad was it?" she asked.
"Bad," Grint answered. "Go on in. I'll only be a moment." She stared at him uncertainly, but finally turned and went the way the others did. Grint wasn't ready yet. This whole thing was starting to feel too kitchy. He took a step back towards the door they had passed through. One of those rooms had a roaring fire in it. Would the priests have left that going while they left? Would they risk any of their books or maps burning? And then there was the enchantment. Far too strong for a room of baubles, as the Broker had told him it would contain. Was this a trap or was he just being too cautious?
A strangled, warning cry came from the vault, tearing Grint's thoughts away from whatever was bothering him. A more immediate danger was apparently manifesting itself. His movements were fluid as he turned and darted into the vault. The room was lined with shelves and chests, all bursting at the seams with baubles of gold and silver. A sight of the demon greeted him, standing over Boy with a foot on his throat. Something behind the demon's back was twinkling magnificently.
Girl had her daggers drawn and was stepping towards the demon, who spotted her and responded by placing more pressure on her brother's neck. Boy gagged and choked under the weight.
"Another step, girly, and I snap his neck," the demon mocked.
"What's going on, demon?" Grint asked, holding a hand on the pommel of his throwing knife.
"My brother was reaching for that shining globe," Girl said. "Then the demon went crazy."
"So it would seem," Grint replied. "How about you let the boy up and we get about our business?"
"You did your part," the demon growled. "Take your trinkets and go back to the Broker for payment. This needn't escalate between us."
"I'm not leaving here without my brother," Girl spat defiantly.
"You're not leaving here at all," the demon laughed. "I am giving the thief his leave. The two of you will be a gift for my master. He'll be hungry after all." There was a long pause filled with tension as the thief and demon regarded one another. "Well, thief?"
"I just take what I want?"
"Aye, as I said." The demon replied.
"Fine. I'll take Boy and Girl and that sparkling bit behind your back," Grint said flatly. "It's a summoning orb, I take it?"
"I'm giving you a gift of life. Don't squander it with foolishness," the demon hissed and spat.
"All things being what they are, I'd rather not leave you here to call up whatever demon is connected to that orb."
"The demon he plans to call forth is one of the oldest and most wretched." The new voice was sharp and strong, and directly behind the thief.
Grint jumped sideways and drew a blade to guard his flank, but no attack came. A quick glance revealed whom the voice belonged to.
A man stood in the entryway, tall with blond hair and silver armor. A confident smile split his face, but nothing in that grin touched his eyes.
Grint's heart sank at the sight. This wasn't some simple guard or priest. This was one of the Papality's paladins, a Rope. And he had been here all along, waiting and watching. Grint had been a too confident; thinking the tower was empty. A fool mistake and one that was going to cost him his life.
"Who are you?" Girl asked, her voice quavering.
"A Rope," the demon moaned.
"That's right," the Rope replied, just as easy as you could please. "Now, why don't you all disarm yourselves? I've done a lot of traveling lately and would rather not make the effort. The priests will be along shortly and I'll allow them to see to your personal purifications."
Boy was on the floor, shaking his head in protest. In other circumstances, it would have been a comical sight, with his eyes bulging as they were. The Rope cocked his head as he regarded the boy and then made a tutting sound while shaking his head.
"Yes, I'm afraid there is no other recourse. You've all aided a demon, and that is an unforgivable sin; at least by man. You can make your case to the Lord and perhaps He will take pity on you."
"No," the demon whined. "I have come too far."
"We both have," the Rope replied. "You've given me a merry chase; me tracking you, you tracking the orb, but it ends here. My brethren were fortunate enough to find the orb first, and I mean to see that it stays safely locked away. Your master will remain in his pit."
It all fell into place for Grint, the whole sordid mess. The demon didn't work for the Broker. The demon had hired him. The kids, relations as they may be, were not here to learn a trade. They were to be sacrifices, meals for a hungering demon emerging onto the mortal plane. And Grint? The thief was simply a convenient choice. He had broken into six other Papality towers after all. The Broker would want Grint kept alive if possible. A good thief could make him a lot of money and everyone knew money was thicker than either water or blood.
There was another moment of sniveling from the demon, and then the unexpected happened. Boy, reaching into some unseen wellspring of courage and defiance, drove his knives into the demon's leg. A piercing cry filled the room, followed by a strangled, wet snapping sound. Boy was dead in an instant. A flurry of movement followed.
The demon spun and grabbed the orb from the shelf. As it grasped its prize it started shouting something guttural that only the demonic could understand.
The Rope surged forward like a wave and ran the demon through, adding his own words to the dying, gurgling noises now coming from the demon. What little Grint could make out sounded like Old Speak, meant to send the demon spirit back to hell. The demon slumped, orb dropping from its hand to the floor.
Grint half-expected the sphere to shatter. Instead it bounced lightly, making an eerie metallic sound.
The events played out so quickly that Grint had barely drawn his own blade by the time the orb hit the floor. The girl proved to be quicker, as she dashed forward. For a brief moment, the Rope's back was exposed to her, and Grint thought that maybe, just maybe this was going to turn out. Then the Rope pivoted, dropping the limp, un-possessed body the demon had resided in. Girl was fast, but this man was faster. He was speed made manifest. The Rope's blade swung round and caught Girl on the side of her face. He had used the flat of his blade and it knocked her off her feet.
"Impertinent pup," he spat as he towered over her.
One thought raced through Grint's mind. You're dead anyway, so why not? Grint cursed himself for not bringing a flask on this job. One last drink would have done him well on the journey to where ever. No time to mull it over though, he was just going to have to die parched.
Grint moved, his blade swinging towards the Rope's neck. Not that he expected the strike to land, but did the Rope have to parry the blow with such boredom?
"You wish to die now then," the Rope said. There was no question to it. "The priests will have to make do with one for the purification."
And then the cruelest twist of all. Boy stood up, his head lolling to one side on a neck that was forever shattered. "Aeric?" Girl said with a strangled gasp. But it wasn't Aeric, or Boy. It was the demon. The cut on his neck had allowed the creature to worm itself inside. It laughed in triumph and began its demonic chanting once more. The orb turned crimson and shot to its hand like a pet being called home for supper.
The Rope turned towards the demon once more and his blade danced with purpose. Yet the demon was not without its own defenses. Tendrils of energy snaked out of the orb, knocking aside each blow. Soon, whatever ritual was being performed would be done and the master this lesser demon served would spring forth. Grint had no desire to be here for that.
Crawling across the floor, he grabbed Girl by the wrist and forced her out of the vault. She protested a bit, but not much, and Grint, ever a man of opportunity, grabbed a small lockbox and jammed it in his satchel. Outside of the vault, he slammed the door and turned the wheel.
"Will that hold?" Girl asked. Grint shook his head, but he had other ideas. From his pocket, he produced a long wick and shoved the end of it into the lock. Then he grabbed his flint and struck it until the wick lit. Already he could hear pounding on the door. Whichever of the two had won, Grint did not care. Either spelled death for him.
"Move," he shouted at the girl and she did. They retraced their steps and hoped he had given them enough time to get free. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, Grint's fire had reached the lock and triggered the enchantment. The tower began to sway violently, shaking large pieces of stone loose. They dodged a rainstorm of these as they ran towards freedom. Grint pulled out the red coin and tossed it once more. The doorway shimmered and they dove through, landing face first in the grass beyond. The tower imploded, collapsing in on itself and sucking the air inward; and as the dust settled, a deep, moaning scream. A demon thwarted. They sat up and stared at the ruined crater where the tower stood.
"I'll find another," Grint countered but her look said she didn't believe him. Such things were one of a kind.
"Aeric wasn't...but..." her emotion choked away what she would have said.
"He didn't deserve that," Grint finished for her.
"That demon was going to kill us. Our uncle knew that and still he sent us along." Girl's voice had taken on a cold tone. Grint couldn't fault her. Betrayal was a hard lesson to learn and an even harder one to survive.
"We'll pay him a visit," Grint said as he sat working on the lockbox. When the lock popped, he opened the lid to reveal a fortune in rubies. "Or we can pay someone else to. Come get your cut."
"No," she said forcefully. "Take whatever's there as payment. My uncle...the Broker, will pay me personally." Grint thought about it for a few moments and agreed. Years of travel and experience had taught him that some debts could only be collected by certain people.
"The Papality will be looking for whoever did this. They'll find the Broker, eventually. Make sure you're not there when they do."
"They'll find his rotting corpse," she said with a grin. "Grint? Did we just save the world?" Girl asked.
"I believe we may have," Grint replied with a crooked smile.
"Where will you go?"
"South for now. With any luck I can be on a boat to the Sandy Kingdoms before the Papality puts up much of a fuss." Grint packed the lockbox away once more. "I have some business there that this will take care of."
"I can meet you there," she said, shifting her weight awkwardly.
"Best this be it," Grint said with a shake of his head. "Sooner or later thieves always stab each other in the back. And I like you too much for that, Girl." Without any more ceremony than that, Grint started to walk off.
"Laurel," Girl called out. Grint paused and looked back. "My name's Laurel. Not Girl." She smiled. It was rough and a bit sad, but it told Grint all he needed to know about her. She was tough and would handle whatever this damned world threw her way. "I'll see you around, Grint."
"You never can tell," he called back. After all, stranger things had happened.
© 2012 D. S. Tierney
Bio: D. S. Tierney has written several produced stage plays, and his fiction works have appeared in The Creative Writer.
E-mail: D. S. Tierney
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.