“Loop a past gain, fall oh hid by tail.” Meekee’s fingers followed his words as he made the twine move like he’d been taught. He could barely see them, but his dad and brother had learned him good. He bent his neck further and looked at the finished knot on his shoulder. The scrap of cloth he had found behind Margant’s rag-shop, with only a few holes and a tear in it, was going to make a perfect cape now that it was attached to his shoulders by the right knots. Lots of overs and unders and crosses, nice and showy, and nice and tight. Like his kin had taught him, before their ship hadn’t returned.
Meekee twisted his neck the other way and grabbed up another bit of twine. Biting his lip between chanting his moves, he tied a second knot just as good as the first. He swung his shoulders and felt the cape move on his back. He knew he looked just like the captain of Dad’s ship, standing in the wind, cape flapping behind him. Important people wore capes, so it must be true that you were important if you wore a cape. Meekee knew he was important, and now so would everyone else.
He looked around the empty room he lived in. Candle stubs, scavenged like his rag-cape, burned in all four corners and showed how clean the space was. Meekee didn’t like clutter or dirt. His mother had taught him to clean before she’d died, told him how important clean was. Once she’d left, he had cleaned for his dad and brother, waiting for the day he could go to sea with them. At six he’d been too young. At seven, they’d disappeared. At nine he was a shadow boy, keeping his abandoned room clean so the rats and spiders couldn’t hide and sneak up on him.
Meekee didn’t like rats and spiders, and he didn’t like being alone. But he didn’t like the dark more, and it was dark now. Barlid, the shadow boy he shared his lair with, was out in the dark on an errand. Meekee hoped that when he got older, like Barlid, he wouldn’t be afraid of the dark anymore. Or afraid of spiders, or horses, or the sea, or death.
The room’s door creaked as it opened, and Barlid walked in with a huge smile on his face. He said, “Still cowering in your den, eh, Meekee? Well, we’ll have to do something about that!”
Barlid was tall and good looking, and he was good at keeping his clothes tidy and his hair neat. He made a good role model for the younger Meekee, who had learned all about being a shadow boy from him. Most nights, Barlid came home from his errands with a bag of pickings, but this time his hands were empty. Meekee wondered why Barlid was smiling so much if he hadn’t scavenged anything. Then he noticed the round, puckered, red wound on Barlid’s right temple that gleamed wetly in the candlelight.
“You … You did it, didn’t you?” he asked.
Barlid’s fingers went to his temple, and he nodded. “I did, Meekee, I did. It was painless and quick, and I feel fantastic!”
“The Kiss of Courage,” said Meekee with awe in his voice.
Barlid’s smile calmed and an intensity came into his eyes as he looked at Meekee. “It’s all they said and more. It’s a feeling of lightness, of freedom. Like you’re a giant, invincible! Come with me, Meekee, come with me right now. They said to bring my friends along. You’ll love it. Trust me!”
Meekee trusted Barlid, but he didn’t know if he trusted the Kiss. There were all kinds of rumors in the shadows, and they weren’t all good. Not to mention that he would have to go out in the dark.
Meekee felt something on his hand. He looked down and saw a longedy-leggedy spider crawling on the back of his hand. He shouted in disgust and flicked his hand hard against the wall. The spider flew off before he hit the jagged bricks and scratched himself. Barlid roared with laughter, strode over, and stomped the spider without hesitating. Looking at the stain on the floor, Meekee made his decision.
Lord Janid sat at his highly-polished desk in his richly-appointed office and carefully inked the date — Seber 13, 1018 — into his ledger. It was part of his nightly ritual of noting his profits, a pastime he thoroughly enjoyed. He had a goblet of fine wine to his left, and a plate of bread and slices of meat and cheese to his right as a late snack. In front of the ledger was a pile of purses and pouches, each one lumpy with coin and marked with a different symbol. If all went as it usually did, he would be up past the fifth bell of night counting his spoils.
Janid began to work through the piles of bags. He lifted one, the symbol on its side telling him that it was from Sir Bansk. He spilled its contents out and rapidly totaled up the value of the coins, then picked up the folded parchment, opened it up, and read the small, neat letters it bore. Nodding to himself, he inked his quill and made the appropriate notation of the bribe in the correct column of the ledger. He opened the proper drawer in his desk and put the coins inside, slipping the refolded parchment into the slot reserved for requests he had decided not to honor. Then he drew out a small slip of parchment and noted on it that Sir Bansk had contact with the Children of Oak, a fringe faction who desperately wanted to put their views before the duke. He sanded the parchment to dry the ink, then put the slip into his drawer of secrets for further investigation.
The symbol on the next pouch he examined told Janid that it had come from the custom house on the deep-water docks. It contained several rolled sheets of parchment along with both copper and silver coins. He quickly read the parchments, making notes of his own from the information his agent had provided on incoming and outgoing goods, as well as rumors from other lands. For Janid, information was as useful as money in his quest to climb the ranks of nobility.
Janid continued opening and cataloging the bags. He paused at times to sip his wine or take a bite from a leftwich; he was in no hurry to finish. In one, along with the proceeds of the sale of one of the forged authentication documents that his agents sold to merchants with goods of questionable quality, was a rumor about Lady Samkar, the wife of Lord Casolis, who was one of the more popular and influential members of the duke’s court, carrying on shamefully with her bodyguard. Janid hastily wrote out several notes of his own: one indicating Samkar as a blackmail subject; one to remind him to let Lord Stangol, who had an interest in Casolis’ wife, know, for the right price, that Lady Samkar was not totally loyal to her husband; and one to let the right parties at court kn ow of the problems of both Lord Casolis and Lord Stangol, at the appropriate time, of course.
Janid’s influence at court was steadily rising thanks to judiciously applied rumors like that one. He intended to get himself a title that came with a grant of land so that he could move away from the squalor of life in the city of Dargon. He intended for his future children, once he found a suitable wife, to receive an inheritance worth having.
His plate and goblet were empty, and the pile had dwindled almost to nothing when Janid lifted the pouch identified by the symbol for the Court of Trees. He chuckled to himself at how inappropriate that name for the Old City marketplace was now; a low marble plinth had replaced the last dying tree just a month ago, during the troubles after the causeway accident, when it had toppled over onto a stall of glassware. The plinth joined the score of others marking the alders that had given the space its name. He opened the drawstring and emptied the contents onto his desk. His practiced eye counted eight Bits and two Rounds, even as his attention was caught by something that looked like no coin he had ever seen. It was the size of a Round, but it was a dull grey, like lead, and not silver or shiny grey like it should have been. It did gl int, but with a sickly, green sheen.
Janid reached out and plucked it up between two fingers. He could feel some kind of markings on its dull sides and he brought it up to his face to examine the thing more closely. As he did so, he felt something crawling on his hand. He looked and saw a longedy-leggedy spider there. Even as he wondered where such a childish term had come from, another spider appeared, and another, and another. Before he could react they were crawling out of the round thing by the score, crawling up his arm and down his body and all over him.
He tried to drop the strange coin and shake them off, but somehow he was covered in webs and couldn’t move a muscle. Writhing in disgust, spurred on by terror, he tried to fight the paralysis, straining to move his fingers, his arm, his mouth; nothing worked. The spiders scuttled around and over him, their legs scritching and scratching his skin, their bodies brushing against his eyelids and nose and lips.
Janid felt the first nip at his fingertip, and then they were biting him all over, everywhere, even through three layers of cloth. He tried to scream, but no noise left his throat. He nevertheless continued to shriek in silent terror, on and on, until his heart burst and he didn’t need to scream any more.
Cefn an’Derrin walked down the street in the bright Seber morning. His fear of the stares he usually garnered in public had wrestled with his fear of the emptiness in his townhouse, and the latter had won. Some days he could bear the echoing silence, but this wasn’t one of them.
Cefn was a mage of some power, and he had lived in the city of Dargon for many, many years, which had still not been long enough for everyone to get used to his appearance. As he looked out of the cowl he always wore in public and saw the shocked stares of the people walking by, he knew that they saw nothing but blackness inside that cowl. He often wished he had a better way of protecting his magic-damaged eyes from light, but that ostentatious symbol of strangeness was all he had yet managed.
As he looked back at the starers, he thought again how separate they all were from him. They didn’t know his face, only his robed form. He walked like a specter through the city streets, causing fear as he went but seldom interacting with any but a few. It was almost as if he lived in a city of his own, never actually coming into contact with the place those gawkers dwelled. He might well inhabit his own order of form, the different levels of reality he at times explored with his magic that existed coterminously with the physical world.
He knew his thoughts were mere fancy, only illusion. It couldn’t be denied, however, that the number of people who knew what he looked like without his cowl was diminishing. Once, his apprentice, Mahr, had lived in his townhouse with him and known his face as well as he’d known hers. Then had come Je’lanthra’en: first a means to an end, and then a companion and friend when Mahr had been lost between those different layers of reality called the orders of form. He rarely welcomed casual visitors to his home because of the secrets and artifacts he hoarded, though there had been a few callers: several of the city’s information gatherers, returning favors or seeking aid; and once, the duke himself.
At the end of an otherwise successful adventure, Je’en had been poisoned; the quest to cure her had failed, leaving the townhouse empty save for him. Other friends and acquaintances had died, both before and after Je’en; just a month past, the information gatherer and physician Aardvard Factotum had been killed by renegade gypsies, and two of his drinking friends had been killed in the causeway accident. He wondered if it were possible that he would cease to exist if there was no one else who knew his face.
Shouts brought Cefn’s attention back to the present. He found himself walking through the Venilek Market on the eastern edge of the newer section of the city. He looked around and saw that a man who was selling apples out of a cart was yelling at a dirt-covered boy who was standing by his cart eating an apple as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Two Town Guards rushed over and grabbed the boy by the arms. The only protest the child made was that he couldn’t get his apple to his mouth any longer.
Cefn stared as the guards carried the boy away. Seeing a thief in the market wasn’t unusual — nor was the fact that the child was probably a shadow boy, from the torn and stained condition of his tunic and trews — but to see a shadow boy thief stand still long enough to be taken like that was unique in Cefn’s experience. The three-person parade went right by him, and Cefn noticed a strange, puckered wound on the boy’s right temple.
The wizard turned away from the boy, wondering whether that scar was familiar or not. He continued across the market and into the next street, having just decided to head for the Inn of the Panther. During his time with Je’en, he had developed a habit of spending time there, and it was a good place to meet clients who were too intimidated by his reputation to venture to his door. These days, sometimes Cefn had to force himself to fall back into such habits, and it was sad, especially when once he and the silver-masked Je’en had been as much a fixture there as the namesake stuffed head over the fireplace.
Cefn had turned onto Nochtur Street, heading for Main Street where the inn was located, when he heard the clatter of wheels on the cobbles of the road and a gruff voice shout “Ware!” He looked up in time to see another child walk into the street in the path of an oncoming wagon. Cefn gasped and started to run toward the boy, who turned his head to look at the horse bearing down on him, and then look away again as if it didn’t matter. The horse slammed into the child, knocking him across the street, and then went down itself, whinnying and twisting frantically between the shafts as the wagon lurched behind it until the yoke snapped.
Cefn reached the boy before anyone else. He noted the torn, threadbare clothes, and the rag the child had tied with complicated sailors’ knots to his shoulders like a cape. He noticed the same puckered scar on the boy’s right temple as he touched the child’s throat and then cupped his mouth and nose.
He shook his head; there was nothing he could do for the boy. He stood and turned away, his attention drawn to the other victim. The wagon driver was looking at his spilled load of dried beans and a broken wheel, ignoring the horse as Cefn knelt beside it. He reached for its head, but it shied away, its one visible eye rolling wildly. Cefn reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a tiny coral-colored ball. When he touched it to the horse’s nose, the beast quieted and its eyes closed. He then pulled out a thin rod of what looked like blue crystal and touched it to the horse’s broken leg. As the blue stick seemed to melt into the animal’s leg, Cefn wished he had magic enough to restore life. Then he thought about his old enemy Vard and necromancy, and took back his wish.
When the blue stick was gone, he stood up. The crowd that had gathered had realized that the boy was dead and were cautiously poking at the spilled beans. The driver shouted at them, then turned and started to shout at Cefn, but the wizard just turned his dark cowl on the man, who shut up and took a step back. Cefn looked at the healed horse, which was struggling back to its feet, and walked away. The image of the boy’s scar stayed with him, nagging at his memory all the way to the Inn of the Panther.
Tarmit paused on the dim landing to catch his breath. He shifted the heavy sack he carried to his other hand, and as he began to descend the uneven stairway, he sidled to the opposite wall so that his now free hand could guide him. As the lamp’s feeble glow receded behind him, he made a mental note to refill it with oil on his next trip down.
After four more dim landings and five more flights of stairs — each of which descended more than a man’s height into the ground — Tarmit pushed his shoulder against the door into the temple. It wasn’t a large temple, nor was it lavish, and the deed to the house he had inherited six months ago made no mention of it. He had discovered it when the foundation of the south corner had collapsed and revealed a broken doorway behind a supposedly solid wall. That had been just a day after the causeway collapsed, crippling merchant traffic in the city and creating a price gouging festival among the ferriers on the Coldwell River. The once-hidden doorway opened onto a passage which led to another door, not hidden but with the rubble of some kind of rune-decorated seal at its base. That door opened onto the stair into the depths.
Tarmit set his burden down next to the door and walked across the well-lit room. The room was furnished with two chairs and a small table that he and his friend Fesh had brought down, and the crucible on the far side of the room that had been there when he’d first stepped into the temple. The walls were covered with curly lines grouped together as if they were words, but whatever language they represented was lost to time. Fesh had copied some of the lines down, but he hadn’t found anyone in the city who had been able to read them. If it hadn’t been for the book they had found, neither of them would ever have learned what the crucible could do. Luckily, the effort of taking the book around the city from sage to sage, as well as the days it had taken for the translation, had turned out to be well worth it.
Tarmit stopped beside Fesh, a small, sallow-faced man with sunken cheeks that were constantly covered by a scrubby beard, who was kneeling in front of the crucible. The strange, ancient device was shaped like a tall, narrow, straight-sided urn made of some dark metal that looked soft but was very, very hard. It had five legs extending from its bottom that held it about two hands above the dais and which also, according to the book, anchored the device deeply into the rock below the platform.
At the moment it was glowing a dim orange that gave off no heat, for all that it looked like a furnace, and the tube that projected from its front was throbbing as if it was alive. The other end of the tube was pressed against the temple of the dirty little girl that lay on the crucible’s dais. The girl’s eyes were closed and she was whimpering, but a moment after Tarmit arrived the tube stopped pulsing and fell away from her temple with a small, moist tearing sound. The girl fell silent as she relaxed into what Tarmit knew was sleep, and the tube retracted all by itself back into the crucible, leaving only the pointed end sticking out. At the place on the girl’s head where the tube had been touching was now a small, puckered, red wound.
The artifact began to hum faintly as green bolts of energy started to flicker about its top. Tarmit counted under his breath, and when he reached thirty, a small, round object oozed out of the top of the crucible, looking just like a Round except that it was grey and glinted with a strange, green sheen. The orange glow and green bolts faded away.
Tarmit picked up the tiny wicker basket and the tongs on the table next to him and went to stand next to Fesh. He picked up the grey coin with the tongs and dropped it in the basket, where it clinked dully against the one that was already there. He returned the basket and tool to the table, and watched as Fesh made sure that the urchin was comfortable before standing.
“That one’s for Genarvus,” said Tarmit, “and our list is dry. What’s next?”
Fesh looked at him with a grin, and said, “We branch out, my boy. We’ve got our revenge. Now we need to get our future.” The slight man walked up and patted Tarmit on the shoulder, then picked up the sack with both hands and staggered the few steps back to the crucible.
“What do you mean?” Tarmit asked.
Fesh pulled a grey brick of lead out of the sack and dropped it onto the flat top of the crucible. As the metal began to melt into the artifact, Fesh said, “Money, Tarmit. Our little secret here is going to become a literal gold mine.”
Another brick went onto the crucible. Tarmit spent a few moments trying to guess what Fesh meant, then asked, “How?”
Fesh lifted another brick and said, “The same way we got rid of our enemies: we make more coins. There’s a whole city of shadow boy fears out there for the crucible to distill. We use those coins to clear our way into strong-rooms and counting-houses. I was once an accomplished rooftopper in Magnus; I think I can break into the houses of a few nobles in this backwater.”
He placed his brick on the empty top, and continued. “We build up some funds, and then maybe we branch out. With enough coins, we could take over a castle, maybe even the keep itself. If we work hard, we could have enough coins to do some serious damage by the King’s Birthday Ball the duke holds every Ober. One month might not be enough time, though. I wonder how many coins we’d get if we took away the fears of an adult?”
Tarmit said, “You know better, Fesh. Remember that sixteen year old we took in back at the start? That convinced me that we should pay attention to the book. It says that the crucible can only contain a small ration of fear before needing to distill it into a coin. I only wish it had a similar limit on the lead it needs; I still can’t believe it takes all those blocks to make one coin!”
Fesh laughed as he placed a fifth block of lead on the artifact. “Don’t worry, my boy. Soon enough we can hire someone to carry the lead down here. Go on back up now and see to the delivery of those two coins. I’ll bring the girl up in a bit.”
Tarmit grabbed the basket and left the temple. He’d been lucky to inherit this property, but he’d been luckier to have met Fesh. He’d never have thought to make the kind of plans Fesh did.
Cefn made his way to the house of Genarvus Kazakian the day after the horse had killed the boy, intent on pursuing his uneasy feelings about that strange occurrence and the red scar. He was hoping that the scribe’s copious collection of information would serve to jog his memory and provide the key to his own chest of tomes and the knowledge therein. Those books, gifted from his teachers the Elders, and collected since, were very specialized and very dense with facts. Cefn had a general knowledge of the kind of information in each, but not of their specifics. Thus he tended to use the broader lore of those like Genarvus the scribe, Corambis the fortune-teller, and the late Aardvard the physician to give him the specific clues he needed for his own further research.
He was within sight of the doorway of the scribe when he saw a man dressed in a serviceable tunic and trews glance furtively around, stoop down as he passed the scribe’s doorstep, and then hurry away. Cefn hurried over to Kazakian’s door, keeping his eye on the man. He glanced down and saw nothing on the step, so he figured that instead of leaving something the man had taken something. Cefn darted after the thief, who had just turned a corner into an alley. His magic-riddled eyes were able to pierce the gloom of the close-walled alley even before he entered it, and he saw the man upend a small cloth pouch onto his palm. Cefn saw what looked like a coin fall from the bag. As soon as it touched the thief, the man’s eyes widened and he began to dance around madly, flailing his arms as if he was fending off a swarm of insects, though Cefn could see no sign of anything assailing him. The thief’s mouth was open wide; clearly he was trying to scream from the look on his face, but no sound was being made.
Cefn had slowed at the first sign of strange behavior, wondering what was happening. The thief’s flailing turned into contortions as he slapped at himself at the same time as he ducked and dodged and even kicked himself in the shins with first one foot and then the other. The macabre dance soon took the man out of the shadows of the alley, where he immediately began to draw attention. Before anyone’s helpful instincts could overcome their unease at the man’s behavior, the thief tripped himself up in his gyrations and he fell face down onto the cobblestone street, making no effort to stop his descent. There was a sickening crunch as face hit stone, and blood began to ooze out across the street.
Cefn strode up to the body, saying, “Stay back!” in his most commanding voice. He knelt beside the thief and reached out to touch the neck, finding no pulse there. He lifted the body onto its side, viewing the damage. So much harm from such a short fall!
He saw the coin still in the man’s hand beneath his body. Cefn reached for it, then thought better of the action. He looked around and found the cloth pouch a short distance away. Retrieving it, he returned to the body and, lifting it again, he plucked up the dull grey coin with the small bag to shield his fingers. He looked at it closely as he stood up, noting that both sides were marked in some way, but whether the markings were runes or just scratches he couldn’t tell.
“Get on, now. The excitement is over,” said a gruff voice.
Cefn looked up to see a Town Guard shooing the gathered gawkers away. She was short and stocky, with a hard face that even so showed compassion. When everyone was moving again, some very slowly with constant glances back, the woman turned to him and said, “Master Cefn, what happened here?”
“I saw this man lift something from the stoop of the Master Kazakian over there. I followed as he ducked into that alley, where he began to dance about most insanely, until he spun himself out of the alley and then down on his own face. I believe that this is what he took; it may also be the cause of his madness.”
Cefn showed the guard the grey coin, balking when she made to take it from his fingers. “It may yet be dangerous!”
“No, no, Master Cefn, and thank you for the thought. If this is as we’ve been told of … ah, yes, those markings are the same … there is no danger any longer.
“This is not the first time one of these death-coins has struck, though it is the first out in public like this. To date, we have recorded eight such deaths among merchants, information gatherers, and even minor lordlings in Old City. Mind, the guard has only been able to glean information from the corpses left behind ’till now, but each death looked to be borne of terror and all had a death-coin just like this one in hand.”
Intrigued, Cefn asked, “Do you have any leads in these deaths? Any idea where these coins have come from or what they are?”
The guard shook her head. “No one seems to know. No one even seemed all that worried about it until Lord Janid was found dead in his counting room. Not as worried as they were about what else they found in that room, mind! But now some are of the idea that there is something sinister going on.”
“Something sinister, indeed,” said Cefn. “Might I keep this coin, then?”
“Surely. We’ve plenty, and they’re naught but lead anyway.”
“Thank you. If you don’t need me here any further?”
“Well, do you know what these death-coins bode, Master Cefn?”
“Nay, not yet. But ideas are gathering, glimmerings of remembrances. Could I request to be kept informed of any further incidents?”
“Of course. I’ll bring news myself! I’m surprised that the captains haven’t enlisted your aid before now.”
“Thank you, again. Fare well.”
Cefn walked away, acknowledging the guard’s salute. He passed Genarvus’ door without slowing. He was already turning the facts — the red puckered wound, the strange behavior of the children, the death-coins — around in his mind, trying to fit them together into an image that he could almost see.
He was literally jerked from his reverie as someone tugged hard on his belt pouch, hard enough to make him stumble and nearly fall. He glanced around in surprise to find himself once again in the Venilek Market, near the far end where Traders Avenue split from the Street of Travellers. He looked down and found a young girl with a dirty face and a ragged tunic grasping his belt pouch with both hands. Cefn knew there was no way she could get it off his belt; the large pouch was a tempting target, but it contained things more valuable than coins, and no one was going to just steal it from him that easily. The child yanked again and frowned up at him, as if it was his fault that she had failed in her attempt. As her greasy hair fell back from her forehead, Cefn saw the now-familiar red, puckered wound on her right temple.
“Give it me!” the girl shouted, and tugged again.
Cefn slapped at her hands and said, “What do you think you’re doing, child? I’m looking right at you! I could lift you off the ground with one hand and shout for the Town Guard without any difficulty at all. So why aren’t you running away?”
The child sneered at him and said, “I ain’t ‘fraid of you, you big, faceless freak! You were just walking along wi’out paying mind, right through my lanes. And that means this belongs to me, so give it!”
Cefn slapped at her hands again, then grabbed a small wrist as the girl reached for his belt buckle. He yanked her other hand off his pouch, lifted her off her feet, held her away from him, and said, “Go!” He swung her just a bit and let her go, knowing she wouldn’t fly far enough to get hurt. As she fell on her rump, he turned and began walking away at a fast pace.
“Come back here, coward!” she shouted after him. “I ain’t ‘fraid of you, or the guards, or anyone! Come back!”
Cefn turned, and the child, who had regained her feet, held her ground. He took a step toward her, and she just glowered at him. He turned back around and started walking away, ignoring the insults, pebbles, and brick chips the child hurled at him.
He had almost left the marketplace when he noticed a number of people looking up and pointing. Cefn followed the fingers, and saw a tiny figure standing in one of the large openings at the top of the market’s bell tower. The person must have climbed up the outside of the tower, since the ringer inside wouldn’t have let anyone into it. Enough silence had fallen on the marketplace that Cefn could hear a faint, “I can fly!” as the figure stepped off the sill and into the air. The bell began tolling the time as the small figure fell straight down, hitting the ground three floors below before the second of the six rings sounded. Cefn didn’t have to go look to know that the body would have a puckered, red wound on its right temple.
Fesh slipped out of the window, his bag of swag over his shoulder. He climbed quickly over the wall that surrounded the silent, dark house, and landed lightly in one of the streets of Coldwell Height.
He made his way cautiously along the street, his feet moving silently on the cobbles, sticking to the shadows, darting across open intersections as fast as he could. He knew that he didn’t belong here, among the houses of the rich and noble, and he knew that it wouldn’t take a guard more than a moment to tell that. At least they didn’t have street lighting in Dargon, like they did in some places in Magnus.
Fesh worked his way out of Coldwell Height without being seen, and made his way back to the causeway. It was unfortunate that the span was still closed to traffic after dark. He didn’t have any fears about crossing it, even with the memory of the accident still fresh, but the two men that guarded each end weren’t going to permit him to take the risk.
As he made his way down to the Coldwell River’s edge, Fesh wondered whether all of this trouble was worth it. The bag that bounced against his back was woefully light; despite the size and furnishings of the house he had just left, he hadn’t been able to find more than a few Rounds hidden in what had probably been the servants’ quarters. All of that family’s wealth was probably tied up in the tapestries on the walls and the fine furniture that filled the rooms, but Fesh was looking for coin, not goods. The candlesticks and rings that weighted the bag down were the kinds of things he could get coin for on any street corner, but his haul wasn’t nearly what he’d hoped it would be. It was barely worth the effort producing the coins that had cleared his way through house guard and owner.
Still, it was something. Perhaps he needed to be more careful in his choice of victims. He had thought he could apply what he had learned in far off Magnus here, but it seemed that not everyone who lived in the privileged section of the city called Coldwell Height kept large sums of money on hand. He thought he could probably have done better at one of the warehouse complexes down by the docks on the other side of the river!
Fesh arrived at the base of the causeway by the riverbank. He had chosen the northwest side, the undamaged side, to make his climb easier. The stones of the construction were rough enough to provide ample anchorage for someone of his talents. It was annoying to have to cross the river by crawling along the side of the causeway like a lizard, but it kept his fingers in shape for rooftopping.
He double-checked that the bag was secure, then flexed his fingers and reached for his first hold on the stone. Suddenly, a grating, deep voice spoke behind him. “Fesh.” He whirled around and saw a tall figure in a dark robe with its hood up and completely concealing the figure’s face. As disconcerting as that was, Fesh could see glimpses of the rock behind it, as if the figure was made out of smoke. He knew that he could have passed his hand through the image before him, though he had never tried, fearing what that kind of disrespect would draw down on him.
“Well met, Fesh,” the voice said.
“Likewise, your lordship,” Fesh replied. The man had never revealed his name, and Fesh was pretty sure he wasn’t actually noble, but it never hurt to be respectful of your employer.
“How goes the plan?”
“Well,” Fesh said. “To schedule.”
“Genarvus survived. That is not ‘well’.”
Fesh looked down nervously and said, “I don’t know what happened, sir. I delivered the coin as you instructed. Perhaps someone stole it before the scribe could get it.”
“Mayhap that failure will not be significant,” the deep voice said. “While the authorities have, of course, noticed the results of your actions, they don’t understand the significance. Nor do I expect them to figure it out, either. Other schemes move apace: the Island Winds and its special cargo will arrive in two days, and soon after the barge from Kenna will arrive bringing another grim surprise. Soon enough, chaos will grip this place. You will be ready by the appointed time?”
“Oh, yes, your lordship. We will have enough coins by the ball.”
“Good, good. Do not let your greed distract you from our purpose.” A bony finger pointed at the sack on Fesh’s back. “Be discreet.”
The figure vanished, smoke drifting away in wisps. A chittering noise drew Fesh’s attention to his feet, where he saw a rat with red-glowing eyes staring up at him. It seemed to nod knowingly, looking him right in the eye, before scurrying away.
Fesh shuddered as he turned back to the side of the causeway. It was bad enough to be beholden to someone, but it was much worse when that someone was a wizard! He stretched up for his first handhold and began to climb. At least you could slip a knife into the back of your annoying employer or unwanted partner, but could you even kill a wizard with an ordinary knife?
The shadow girl saying that she wasn’t afraid was what had triggered Cefn’s memory, putting together the scar with the foolish risks and the death-coin. He now knew what he was looking for.
He spent most of the night doing his own kind of research. He combed a few tomes before finding the correct one, and then he read up on the only remnants of a strange religious sect from beyond time, the artifacts that had been dubbed “Crucibles of Fear”.
The information he was reading was second hand, produced by the research of another ancient culture. As such, there was little available but the basic facts. The artifacts were always constructed in deep, deep caves, and anchored even deeper into the rock they sat upon. They were totally indestructible by normal means, as well as immovable. They worked by absorbing a base metal, the baser the better, and then removing the fear from a subject and distilling it into a coin. The fear, intensified by the distillation process, would be released into anyone who then touched the coin. That described the effect he had witnessed. It also seemed as if someone had wanted to scare Genarvus to death.
The document indicated that children were the best subjects for fear removal, and that the removal process produced a scar on the temple. It instructed that no one older than about fourteen summers should be subjected to a crucible, citing a limitation in the amount of fear that could be converted to a coin at any one time. The warning made Cefn wonder what the original creators had used the crucibles for.
Cefn spent the rest of the night trying to determine where the crucible was. He attempted all of his divination methods, but got nonsense answers and directions: the strange disturbances that had disrupted the portents for about a month — ever since the middle of Sy — were still keeping him from getting any good readings. He contemplated getting some guards to quarter the city and search, but he didn’t know what to search for. The crucible had to be far underground, or else it would have been discovered long ago. For the same reason, there weren’t likely to be any hints to its whereabouts on the surface. He plotted and planned, discarding idea after idea. Then his thoughts returned to the shadow girl, and he knew who would be able to lead him to the artifact: those who had visited it.
Cefn left his house at about second bell the next morning. He strode right over to the Venilek Market and looked around. Commerce was just moving into full swing, with most of the booths and stalls opened and staffed, wares laid out. Customers moved purposefully along, guards made their presences known, and the growing noise nearly drowned out the tolling of the time as second bell finally rang out.
Cefn probed the corners, the shadows, the hiding places where his quarry usually lurked, hunting for the fourth strata of the marketplace: the beggars and shadow boys and girls. He had taken the time to figure out his best approach, since his most potent weapon, intimidation, wasn’t going to work on the fearless. He knew, though, that greed owed nothing to fear, and it was a rare shadow boy who wasn’t subject to it.
Cefn spent at least a quarter bell searching for a marked child before he realized his mistake and stopped looking for shadow boys who were hiding. He still had a difficult time finding one, and he was glad that there weren’t enough of them affected by the crucible for them to be easy to spot. Finally, though, he saw an older boy bearing the mark. The boy was standing against a building at the edge of the market, looking with undisguised avarice at the fine wares out of the Corathin Pottery that graced a sturdy and well-maintained booth.
Cefn walked casually over and leaned against the wall next to the boy. The dirty and ragged shadow boy looked him over and then turned back to the pots.
Cefn said, “Nice goods over there, huh?”
“Straight,” said the boy.
“Which one do you like most?”
“Blue jug, or maybe green bowl,” the boy answered.
“Want one? Or both?”
The boy looked at Cefn with a sneer and said, “For what?”
“Nothing hard,” Cefn answered. “Just take me to where you got that scar on your temple.”
The boy looked back at the pots and was silent for a moment. Finally he said, “I could just go take one.”
“Of course you could. But then they would chase you and you might drop it.”
“Wouldn’t run. Not afraid of the guard.”
“Then they’d just walk over and take it away from you. They’re not afraid of you either.”
The boy looked back at Cefn. “The man said the Temple of the Kiss of Courage was a secret. He’d be mad if I showed it to an oldster. Said only to show other shadow boys.”
“So?” said Cefn, trying to remain calm. “What can he do to you? You’re not afraid of him, are you?”
“But he might not give the Kiss to any more of my friends.”
“So? You got yours, straight? And now you aren’t afraid of anyone! Maybe I want to be just as full of courage. All it will cost you is some knowledge, and you’ll get that jug and that bowl. Sound fair?”
The boy was silent again, staring at the ceramics. Cefn waited, knowing that even if this boy turned him down, he was still on the right track. Someone would eventually fall to greed.
Finally the boy said, “Deal.”
Cefn went over and bought the two pieces. He handed them to the boy, then said, “Lead me to the temple.”
The boy nodded and began walking, cradling the jug and the bowl. Cefn was prepared to be as quick and cunning as the shadow boys who usually moved through the city nearly unseen, but the boy was more concerned with his new acquisitions than with stealth. Or maybe he just didn’t care about hiding.
Cefn followed east, and then south. He was surprised to find himself nearly retracing his steps to his own house, and wondered if the boy was playing with him and just wandering aimlessly. They passed his own house on the hill that rose between Merchant’s Way and the Street of Travellers, and continued around the end of the hill nearly back to Merchant’s. The boy stopped in front of a once well-to-do house that stood back a short way from the road, and pointed to an entrance near the back.
“There,” said the boy. “There and down. Thanks for the goods.”
Cefn watched the boy walk away and wondered if he should have asked his name. The boy didn’t seem as wild as the other marked children, and Cefn wondered if the boy’s age had anything to do with that. While the younger children let their lack of fear free them totally, the older boy had enough common sense to know that fear had its uses, and enough knowledge to perhaps compensate for his false courage. Cefn had an idea that the boy would probably survive to regain his fear, or learn to live without it.
Cefn turned his attention to the doorway. He walked over, keeping a watch for anyone in the area, but there seemed to be no guards. There was no door blocking the opening, and he saw nothing but a small, empty room with another door when he looked in. That door led to stairs, which led to a basement and more stairs, which finally led to an opening where a wall had collapsed to reveal another doorway. In the rubble around that opening, Cefn saw some fragments that didn’t look like building stone. He bent down and saw that one piece had Fretheod runes inscribed into it. From what he could translate of the undamaged runes, the item had been some kind of seal that had probably prevented the discovery of the doorway it had hidden, at least until it had been broken.
He wondered what had broken the seal as he walked through the once-hidden doorway. He found more steps, lots more steps leading deep into the ground.
Cefn descended cautiously, having no trouble seeing despite the relative dimness of the few torches that were spaced out among the landings; the magic within his cowl adjusted to the sparse illumination. He wasn’t sure what he would find at the bottom, nor was he sure what he intended to do if he did locate the crucible. He knew that he wanted to disable it, but he had no ideas about how to do that yet.
He came to the bottom of the stairs and found another door. He pressed his ear to it, but couldn’t hear anything on the other side. He drew his sword, prepared himself, and pushed the door open.
The small room beyond was occupied. Two men stood on the other side of the room next to a tall, narrow metal urn that was glowing with a dim orange light. On the floor in front of the urn, presumably the crucible, was a very young boy, and a strange, flexing, metal tube was stretched from the artifact to the right temple of the child.
Cefn hesitated for a moment, taking in the scene. Fortunately, it seemed as if his entrance had completely startled the two men as well. The shorter one, who had sallow, sunken, beard-scruffed cheeks, said, “Your lordship?” in a surprised voice. At the same time, the other one, taller and more aristocratic looking, picked up a dull grey brick and charged at him.
Cefn sidestepped as the taller man swung his improvised weapon, then lashed out with his fist, connecting with the man’s jaw. The metal brick and the man both dropped to the floor. Cefn pointed at the other man with his sword and said, “Get him out of that!”
“But, your lordship, the crucible is almost finished. We need all the coins we can get if your plan is to work!”
“What plan? Who do you think I am?”
The sallow man said, “Ah, you’re not –? But, then who –?”
“I said, get him away from that thing before I put a permanent end to your questions!”
The short man moved toward the boy, but just then the metal tube separated from the child of its own accord and withdrew into the crucible. It began to hum faintly, and green bolts of energy started to flicker around the flat top. Cefn darted over, pushed the small man away, picked up the boy, and dashed back to the door. He opened the door, set the child down on the other side, and then went back into the small room.
The sallow man was waiting for him, a set of tongs in his hand, a small, dull grey coin clutched in it. With a sneer, the man tossed the coin at Cefn, saying, “Take that!”
Cefn didn’t. He used his sword to bat the coin back toward the man, who dodged it like it was a flaming ember. Cefn closed on the man without difficulty, considering the size of the room. The sunken-cheeked man flailed away with his tongs despite the longer reach and sharper edge of Cefn’s sword. Clanging filled the room for a bit as the two metal items knocked together. The fight wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did had Cefn not wanted to keep the little man alive to find out about the hinted plans. In the end, his intentions weren’t enough to keep the desperate tong-wielder from fairly spitting himself on the sword. With a little gurgle, the conspirator fell to the floor, dead.
Cefn dragged the corpse over by the door and laid it next to the other conspirator. He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a small red capsule. He broke it under the nose of the one he had punched, and then sheathed his sword, knowing that the man would be asleep for some time.
His search of the room took very little time. He found a basket with three coins in it, a stack of what looked like lead bricks in the corner next to the crucible, a table by the door, and the tongs. There was nothing else in the room except for the two men and the coin in the corner, which Cefn eventually picked up with the tongs and put in the basket. And, of course, the crucible.
He walked over to it. It had stopped humming and glowing, and the metal tube was now just a point sticking out of the front of it. The sides of the crucible had no markings, but he realized that the walls were covered with strange glyphs and runes the like of which he had never seen before. He briefly wondered whether Genarvus would be able to translate them.
Cefn gave the crucible a push, but it didn’t budge. He got behind it, braced himself against the wall and heaved at it, but still no movement. He figured that the information he had read was right: the thing was well anchored.
He drew his sword again and chopped at the artifact. He looked at the side of the crucible, and found not even a scratch. He looked at his sword, and shook his head at the mark on it. Sheathing the damaged sword, he tried to think of anything in his belt pouch that might be effective against the artifact. Nothing seemed appropriate.
Cefn looked at the artifact, and especially at the point sticking out of the front. He recalled what he had read about the Crucible of Fear. It couldn’t be destroyed by normal means. The Fretheod had done the next best thing by hiding it, but their method hadn’t been permanent, and Cefn couldn’t think of a more durable method of concealing it.
The limitations on who was to use the crucible intrigued him. The book hadn’t said what would happen if the restriction was exceeded, but it had been a warning. A possible solution seemed almost within his grasp.
Before Cefn could follow his thought through, a sound from behind him made him whirl around. The blood-covered body of the short man stood behind him, metal brick upraised, eyes glowing red in a slack-jawed face.
Cefn flinched away, reaching for his sword, but in his surprise he moved too slowly and the heavy brick slammed into the side of his head. His vision hazed over, and he fell to the ground. He tried to get back up, or at least move away from another brick-smash, but his arms shook feebly and it took most of his concentration just to keep from fainting away.
A strange, halting voice issued from the dead throat above him. “Not. Kill. Use. Your. Fear. First.”
Cefn felt hands roll him over, and then he felt his cowl pulled from his head. A metallic slithering sound came, and then there was a brief flash of heat and pain at his right temple that swiftly faded away, taking his struggle to stay conscious with it.
The corpse with the glowing red eyes stood above the once-cowled magus and watched the Crucible of Fear do its work. The being that rode the corpse, which had entered the room riding behind the red-glowing eyes of a rat, wondered how many coins this man would generate from the artifact. If a child produced one, then someone like this could surely be counted on to create half a dozen, maybe more!
The body-rider didn’t know the rules of the crucible; his minions had not informed him of such trifling details. The artifact had not been loaded with metal after draining the boy, for one thing. For another, he had no idea of the limitations of who it could draw the fears from.
The tube pulsed, and the crucible glowed orange. That glow changed first, becoming brighter and redder as the crucible found nothing with which to blend the absorbed fears. Then it began to vibrate, and jags of green light flickered up and down its entire length as more and more of its victim’s fears flowed up the tube into its inner workings, reaching and exceeding its limits.
The crucible was unable to fulfill its function. It spewed its collected fears out of the top in a single torrent of green light that fell like water from a fountain and flowed across the floor. The standing corpse was hit first, and the animating being was forced out of it by the wave of magic. As the again lifeless body fell, the wave reached the far wall, sweeping over the unconscious man, whose heart ceased to beat in an instant, and the dormant rat, whose eyes were just beginning to again glow red, causing it to give a final squeak and expire. The four coins in the basket vibrated and came apart. The wave lapped against the far wall once, and then vanished.
The urn had quietly melted in the meantime, slumping inward and deforming. The metal tube turned to ash. Its last victim lay, unharmed, before its ruin.
Cefn woke up feeling different. He lay in the small room with odd smells all around him, and he tried to tell what was so strange about the way his head felt. He sat up and looked around. He noticed first that the crucible was now a heap of slag. He pressed his hand to it and found it cool to the touch. He realized that he should have hesitated before laying his palm flat on the melted metal because it could have been hot, but he hadn’t given the possibility a thought.
Then he saw it: the difference he was feeling was a complete lack of fear. It was an odd absence, hard to notice at first, but so obvious thereafter. He grinned to himself, but then the grin faded. He had seen how dangerous this feeling was, watching street kids die because they were no longer cautious, no longer afraid. He thought for a moment, and realized that he still understood consequences. He knew that wagons were dangerous, and that he would die if he stepped off a roof into thin air. His knowledge was intact. He had to believe that it would serve in place of fear to keep him alive.
Cefn stood up from behind the ruins of the crucible and looked around again. He saw the two bodies, the one he had killed unaccountably close by, and the other still by the door, obviously not just sleeping. He saw the rat in the corner with the burnt-out eyes and wondered where it had come from. The rune burned into the rat’s side had to mean something so he memorized it: one circle only three-quarters complete with a chevron in the center of it, crossed by a horizontal line with a circle on each end. He walked to the door and saw that the basket was now empty of coins.
The boy he had placed outside the room was gone. Cefn wondered how long he had been unconscious. He climbed the stairs, squinting more and more as he approached one of the torches until he realized that his cowl was around his shoulders and not covering his face. He replaced it, glad to know that pain still functioned normally.
He climbed and climbed, and finally walked through the last door and outside, and found that the sun was still up. He decided to go home, where he could reflect on his new state in a safe environment. He walked to Merchant’s Way and turned right, then stopped, amazed by what he saw there.
A person was walking along Merchant’s Way, leaving a wake of staring people behind. The individual was wearing an outlandish garment of what looked like round plates of stone draped across the shoulders, down the arms, and across the body down to the knees. These plates clicked and clinked together as the person walked, and were decorated with some kind of pattern picked out in blue.
The person’s nose, mouth, and ears were covered by a mask of some kind. Long, dark hair covered the head, and the eyes were edged in blue with long, black lines that ran down from the corners and beneath the mask. The figure walked steadily, unhurriedly, with some purpose and uncaring of the stares of those the person passed.
Cefn decided to get a better look, and he dashed down a side street so as to avoid the gathering crowd of people and get in front of the figure again. He crossed an intersection and heard a shout. He looked to his left and saw, maybe four paces away, a wagon being pulled by two horses coming directly toward him.
Cefn knew that the wagon was a bad thing, but he hesitated for a moment. Should he dart forward out of the way, or should he step back to get clear? Or was there, perhaps, another option …?