Had our writing group meeting last night, and this was what I had submitted. For those of you who have read the first two chapters of Black Powder, Black Magic may be disappointed that this is not Chapter Three….I’m still working on BPBM (fear not), but I had another thing rattling around in my head, and so, in true Garethian fashion, I’ve decided to work on two novels simultaneously.
Here is the first installment of
The old man had wandered in from the desert, or so they say.
That’s how it usually begins.
The teller of the tale often pauses then, allowing for the statements of disbelief, which someone dutifully makes, even though they’ve heard this story a thousand times from a thousand different tellers since the time of their birth.
He wandered in from the vast waste, caked in dust, breathing sand, and entered through the Gateless Gate, the unbarred way traditionally left open as it faced the endless nothing to the south of the city.
It’s true, someone always says. My Father’s Father (Uncle, Brother, Friend–the rite of the tale here is open to interpretation) was a guard, and was manning the Gateless Gate on that very night (Occasionally, in less reverent tellings, it is at this point that some wit remarks that for each time he’s heard that to be true, there must have been an entire Legion at the southern gate that night).
In from the desert, in through the Gateless Gate, walking from where no man walks, caked in dust, breathing sand.
It never rained in Trancentral, but the streets and alleys of the Docking District were always wet.
The skies above the city held no clouds, no sun, no stars —- only the eternal lambent twilight of interstitial space. The endless half-light cocooned the city as it sat at the juncture of countless dimensions, a center of power and trade.
The skies above the Docking District, however, were filled with the constant grinding howl of dimensional displacement drives, and the by-product of massive vessels suddenly bursting into solidity above the District — condensation collecting on their hulls and falling as a nearly perpetual drizzle on the slums and warehouses below.
“Fuck, it’s cold,” Martin said, vainly holding his hands over the smoldering embers of the cooking fire.
The wind off the desert bore no heat, and whipped through the open arch of the Gateless Gate with a stinging, gritty insistence, which did little to dispel the damp. The two guards manning the Gate had kept the cooking fire going for as long as they could, but this gate was not a true gate — the Primacy knew that nothing would come from the south, for nothing ever had, and so two guards and a minimum of fuel was all that was required.
Now, two hours from dawn, Martin and Wullem huddled close to the faint glow of the charcoal, and cursed the lot of the soldier.
“Complaint doesn’t hasten dawn,” Wullem muttered. He thought himself the smarter of the two.
Martin considered a riposte, then thought better of it. Arguing with Wullem wouldn’t make him any warmer, although he thought with an inward smile, it might hasten dawn…or the brightening of the various lamps around Trancentral which passed for daybreak in a sunless city.
Instead they spoke as soldiers do, the eternal litany of home and women and comfort, until a sudden, sand-filled gust blew over the cooking pot, and scattered the remains of the fire.
There, in the faint gloom, they saw a figure standing at the Gate.
Martin was sure that the man (which is what he desperately hoped the figure was) had not been there before the gust of wind…but even now he could see the shadows of the man’s footprints, a pattern on the sand out as far as Martin’s eyes carried.
Out into the desert.
Out into nothing.
The man (for so it was) was clad head to toe in flowing clothes that were same faintly luminous silvered gray of the half-lit dunes, although whether this was by design or merely the effect of the coating of dust and sand was not immediately discernable.
Wullem turned and ran, scrambling into the warrens of the deeper city streets. He thought himself the smarter of the two.
As the man came closer, Martin held his ground. He raised his rifle to where the man could see it. Hopefully the man would not notice that it was an older model – the Primacy would not waste new weapons on a meaningless post like the Gateless Gate.
“Stand fast,” Martin winced as his voice cracked with uncertainty. “Declare yourself.”
The man stopped a few yards away from Martin, and casually swept back the edges of his voluminous overcoat, revealing a sword hanging at his side. Even safely within its scabbard, the sword seemed tensed in a predatory crouch. Only the pommel of the weapon was visible, wrapped tightly in cotton cord stained a deep red-brown by the blood of its wielder.
Martin felt the blood drain from his face. A Wayblade. Gods damn me, a Wayblade…the weapon of a Knight of the Order.
He dropped to one knee, covering his heart with his right fist, and then extending the hand outward, palm up towards the knight. “My blood for you, Sir Knight.”
“You remember the old ways,” the Knight said, a faint edge of surprise in his voice.
“My Da schooled us all,” said Martin, still not daring to look up. “His Da before, too. They said that you all would come back someday.”
“Well remembered,” said the Knight. “Rise.” Martin did as he was told, but did not move his eyes from the ground. In the back of his mind, he felt the buzzing, insect-like presence of the Wayblade’s scrutiny. The weapon was aware of him.
“Direct me to your Justicary, soldier,” the Knight asked.
“Two districts over, to the east,” Martin responded. The Knight resumed his walk, in the direction Martin had indicated. “Can’t miss it — there’s a large plaza in front with a statue…”
“…of a Knight. I know.” The man said softly, before he disappeared into the winding streets of the Docking District.
The catacombs were dark, and as the thieves moved between the stone sepulchres, decades of undisturbed dust swirled in their wake. Styke wished that he had more light. The hooded lantern he held was necessary, though—if the monks of the Abbey were alerted to their presence, they’d come away from this job empty-handed.
It’s not like I’m frightened, Styke thought. More light would just make the job easier. He and Mord weren’t superstitious men, which is why they were in the catacombs in the first place. The other thieves of their acquaintance stayed away from places like this. Holy places…consecrated places… Dead places. Styke winced inwardly. Now don’t go starting up with that. You’ll have yerself jumping at shadows.
Mord, the older and more experienced of the two, set to work on the nearest crypt, prying the heavy stone lid with an iron bar. “Bring that light over here, where it’ll do me some good.”
Styke set the lantern on the burial bier of some long-dead Magistrate, and unslung his bag. The seal of the crypt broke, and the stone grated against stone, shattering the complete silence of the catacombs like a thunderclap in the middle of the night. “Easy…we don’t want the whole Abbey coming down here,” Styke said.
“Don’t be such an old woman,” Mord growled. His additional years of age and experience had imparted little additional patience. “They’re all asleep, with bellies full of roast chicken and sacramental wine. We could sing a round of “Lusty Maid” down here and they’d be none the wiser. Now help me with this gentleman’s goods,” he chuckled, reaching into the crypt.
They’re just bones. Styke helped remove bits of jewelry from the piles of moldering clothes and dust. Nothing more. They were cold to the touch, but no skeletal hands clutched at him, no skulls howled in outrage at being disturbed. After the first, it was easy for Styke to not think about anything other than the shining baubles that he and Mord removed from each long-dead body.
The two thieves moved from crypt to crypt, cracking open the lids and removing the riches of the nameless men and women interred within, undisturbed for centuries. Golden bracelets and jeweled medallions filled the thieves’ bag—the forgotten treasures of lifetimes ages past. Pearl-handled revolvers and silver buttons didn’t escape notice, nor even fine fabrics, woven through with precious metals and stones—all that remained after the fabric itself had rotted away.
“See, Styke, I told ya.” Mord cackled. “Not a one of these fine ladies and gentlemen objected to our presence, and were more than happy to donate to our cause. And here you thought they were going to rise from the grave, shrieking and howling, to drag us down to the dark.” He mimed clutching hands, reaching out towards Styke.
“Don’t even say that,” Styke said. “That’s not to joke about. It’s—“ his voice caught in his throat, as a skeletal hand rose from the open crypt where Mord was working. The bones clawed towards Mord’s face, as the thief’s eyes bulged in terror. A wheezing rattle came from Mord’s throat…
…and quickly changed to harsh laughter. Mord pulled his hands out of the crypt, along with the skeleton’s arm and hand he was holding. He waved it comically at Styke, making ghostly noises. “You great lily,” he laughed. “You should’ve seen your face, boy -— it turned the color of milk.” He threw the bones back into the crypt. “Nothing else in there but bones.”
His heartbeat hammering in his chest, Styke tried to sulk, but the relief that it was a joke was too great. He hefted the bag that he and Mord had filled during the night. There was enough in there for them to live on for the rest of their lives. It was the haul of a lifetime. “It’s been a good night,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
Mord was crouched in front of another crypt; this one embedded in the cold stone wall of the catacomb. A heavy seal was affixed to the cover, carved with the symbol of the Grand Order. “This looks to be it.” He tapped on the stone with his pry bar. “No name…no marking aside from the seal.”
“Let’s have at it and be done, then.” Styke said, hefting his own bar. “The sooner we’re done, the sooner we can leave,” he grinned, “…and then we live like Primarchs for the rest of our days.” The two thieves placed their bars at the edges of the heavy seal, and pried with all of the strength they could muster. “Come on, lad, put yer back into it,” Mord said. “Don’t go counting yer riches yet.”
Gradually, the bars worked their way into the crack between the seal and the stone. Back and forth, Styke and Mord worked their pry bars, driving them deeper into the ever-widening gap, until finally, with a sudden loud crack, the seal broke away and crashed to the floor, sending dust flying in all directions. The men coughed.
Styke motioned for Mord to be silent. That was far too loud. The monks are sure to have heard. The two stood still, as the dust settled around them, and listened for the sounds of running feet and cries of alarm that were sure to come. They’ll come, and they’ll find us. Styke’s mind raced. They’ll find us desecrating the catacombs, and they’ll wall us up with the dead and we won’t be able to breathe, and the dead will watch us die and smile their skeleton’s smile because they’ll know we’ll be down here with them forever….
They waited, with the sound of their own blood pounding in their ears, but no one came. No alarm was raised. With a sigh of relief, Mord hefted the cover away from the crypt opening. Raising the hooded lantern, Styke peered into the darkness within.
There was no body within the crypt. Resting on a small dais was a book, thick vellum bound in dark leather and held with heavy iron hasps. Oddly, there was no dust on the book, despite a fine layer of dust coating everything else. Styke reached in and grabbed the book, quickly stuffing it into the bag at his side.
“Let’s go. Let’s get out of here,” he told Mord. The two men gathered up their tools and their ill-gotten treasure, and headed for the catacomb exit. Styke was glad to be leaving. He felt as though they’d been in there for far too long — the atmosphere of the crypts had begun to play tricks upon him. He had been jumping at shadows. He had fallen easily for Mord’s trick…and there, at the end, he would have sworn that the book had been cold to the touch.
Getting back out of the Abbey unseen was as difficult as getting in. Styke and Mord doused the lantern and kept to the shadows, moving as silently as possible. They had to avoid detection by several monks, who wandered the halls on some midnight errand or another, hands thrust deep into sleeves, hooded heads bowed in silent contemplation as they went along their way.
Styke never understood what sort of man became a priest. It always seemed folly to ignore the pleasures of the mortal world for a life of denial, service and prayer. Although, as Mord often pointed out, denial was often more in word than in deed. He told tales of monks who drank more than a barkeep’s wife and monks who feasted with a glutton’s zeal. Mord’s favorite tales, however, were those of monks who shattered their vows by engaging in the pleasures of the flesh. Mord would gleefully fill these stories with details of women, men, children and animals, rendered up to a monk’s lusts. Such stories were usually worth a drink or two at any bar. People liked to hear tales of fallen piety.
The thieves crept across the courtyard of the darkened Abbey, working their way along the wall until they came to the small manhole cover which led to the sewers beneath Trancentral. Lowering themselves quietly into the darkness, they crawled through the foul-smelling muck, moving beneath the streets and away from the Abbey. Styke held his breath, and concentrated on the comforting weight of the treasure-filled pack slung across his back. This is the last time I’ll ever have to wallow in filth, he mused. We’ll sell this, and I’ll take my share and set myself up somewhere far from here. Not in a wealthy District, either – I’ll book passage on a Voidship and make my way to some other place. They say there are more dimensions than we can count. I’ll find my place in one of them.
Once they were far enough from the Abbey, the two thieves left the sewers and traveled aboveground. They slowed their pace to a walk. Mord’s breath was ragged and misted the cool air before him, chugging like a smithy’s bellows. Styke smiled inwardly. Mord’s age is showing, he thought. Perhaps I should ask for a larger cut of the treasure. Its supposed to last us all of our days, and I’ve got far more than he has left to him. It would be only fair…. Mord looked at him, sideways, almost as if he could hear Styke’s thoughts, and was contemplating putting a bullet in his guts for the transgression.
No bullet came, though, and the thieves arrived a short time later at their camp – an abandoned warehouse in the Docking District. It was filthy, and Styke complained about having to sleep among rats…or perhaps even worse vermin, brought to Trancentral in the dark hold of some Voidship, a mind-rending terror of claws and teeth and poison…
“Better under cover and out of sight,” Mord replied.
Styke poked at their small fire with a stick. “Fine. With this haul, this is the last bloody night we spend living rough.”
“Without a doubt.” A new voice responded.
The two men drew their guns and spun to face the intruder who walked into the flickering circle of light cast by the guttering fire. His face was hidden in the shadows of the hooded cloak he wore. “Was the book where I said it would be?”
“It was,” Styke said, keeping his weapon brandished – a vicious-looking rapid-fire pistol, purchased from a Voidship crewman. Gods only knew where it had come from, but it was deadly enough. Styke was sure of that.
“Don’t try anything…our deal says that you get the book, and we get everything else.” Styke drew closer to the bag, warily watching the man for any signs of betrayal.
The figure laughed — a cruel, mocking sound. “I have no interest in your baubles, child.”
Styke felt the blood rush to his face. I’m no child, damn you, he wanted to say…but the words wouldn’t come. He wasn’t sure if it was fear holding his tongue, or merely the desire to be done with this arrangement as quickly as possible. He kept watch on the hooded man as Mord drew the leather-bound book from the bag, and slowly walked towards their unexpected guest. The man snatched the book from Mord’s grasp like a starving man falling upon a banquet table.
The man’s voice rasped with excitement. “You have done well, gentlemen. Everything is where it should be — the book in my hands, and the baubles….” He paused, and looked up from the book. Styke could feel his eyes upon them, even from the depths of the hood.
“…But wait: those treasures belong to the dead,” the man said, leveling a finger at the two thieves.
Mord hefted his gun. It was a massive hand-cannon, ancient and ugly, but it was a wicked weapon in a fight, Styke had seen that often enough. “We had a deal,” Mord said, with finality. The unspoken threat hung in the cold night air.
“So we do,” said the figure. “…and since the treasures belong to the dead, I think I know of a way for you to keep them.”
The man threw back his hood, and grinned hideously, his dried, decomposing skin, stretched taught across his bones, straining at the effort. His eyes burned with a baleful light and he began to walk, advancing inexorably towards the two thieves, his grin growing wider and wider as the skin pulled away from his blackened teeth.
Gunfire and screams shattered the night air, only to be swallowed up by the depths of the city.