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Posts Tagged ‘The Dastard’

Here’s my latest pulp short story in edited, amended and shiny form for you to purchase. Perfect for a commuting read. This whole series of short stories are based around a more modern-ish, knowing wink at the pulps.

The Dastard is a thief and an outcast, he cares for nobody but himself. To pull off this job, however, he’s going to need friends – and permission. Neither of which he’s used to dealing with. Then the treasure may not be entirely what he expected either…

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This is, roughly, a halfway point in my pulp short story project, there will be a compilation at the end of all this. You can get every short story so far in a single lump from DrivethruFiction HERE.

If you run a pulp-friendly blog, podcast or other review thingy, please get in touch and I shall shower you with freebies in exchange for publicity.

Art by the world’s most fantastic cat-mum, Rowena Aitken (with assistance from Pixel the cat).

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We stood a moment, the three of us, Calcun, Deltius and myself, letting our eyes adjust a little to the darkness. The only light was moonlight and torchlight bleeding around the door behind us. Carefully I lifted the wooden bar and set it back into place. Now nobody else could get in, unless they had my cunning and few did.

The soot and oil covering us made us virtually invisible to each other, even in this dim light. We looked like sets of disembodied eyes, bobbing around in the darkness.

“How about a little light, great sorcerer?” I grinned, white teeth in the darkness, at Calcun, stepping ahead a little to try and peer down the corridor.

“Calcun’s power, squandered on a little torchlight?” The twitchy little man grumbled but still rummaged in his satchel, drawing out a little ball of foul smelling wax, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger and muttering nonsense over it. It sparked, flared and crackled flaring to life, bright white light and six inches of pale flame, though it seemed not to burn his fingers. Suddenly the tunnel was lit.

We jumped, started, at the sight of a sinister idol, splitting the tunnel in two. A single-breasted woman with fanged teeth and pointed tongue, a skull in each of her hands, stained rusty with blood. Some heathen goddess I did not know and looking to the others neither Deltius nor, more disturbingly, Calcun seemed to have any better idea than me.

“Old and heathen magics Calcun thinks,” the little man hobbled up to the statue and poked at it with his gnarled fingers before, disturbingly, licking it. “Very old.”

“It hardly matters. Let’s get this done before Eris’ charms lose their appeal,” Deltius gave Calcun a nudge to get him moving again and followed in his wake, leaving me to trail behind. I gave the statue one last look and ducked after them.

The corridor widened slightly and Calun’s unnatural light, throwing the shades of his fingers against the walls, revealed the dry and mummified remains of a half dozen men and women, laying in the alcoves. Calcun muttered a prayer to the spirits and the gods and hurried on – superstitious – but I stopped to look in the waning light, running fingers over leathery skin and turning the sign upon one body’s neck so I could read it.

‘Thief’

That didn’t bode well. I was snapped from my thoughts by Deltius hissing back to me, “Dastard, a door. Let’s see you open this one, hmm?”

I must have stung his pride when I opened the entrance and he was determined to prove his worth to me and Calcun, that was good, it would make him more determined to get the damn thing open and it was, in truth, beyond me.

We stood and watched, Calcun and I, as Deltius unwrapped his tools with the care and delicacy of a groom approaching his wife after the wedding feast. The door he faced was like the first, heavy wood, bound in bronze, ornately carved and decorated with animals, faces, symbols. The keyhole was strangely shaped, an angled cross, made to fit a unique, four-bladed key.

Deltius set to his work with a childish grin upon his face, muttering the arcane terms of a locksmith to himself as needles an hooks of metal were worked into the lock and fixed in place one by one with delicate hand-motions and precise and confident pushes. My attention drifted, interesting as it was, all the action was unseen, inside the mechanism.

There was a sudden, louder click and a clockwork whirr from inside the door, in the quiet it seemed deafening and we both turned back to Deltius with a start.

“Ah,” he said.

“Ah? That doesn’t sound good.”

“No. It isn’t. I think I’ve tripped a trap. When I move, it should open the lock but…”

“…it’ll also set off the trap.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe it won’t hit you.”

“Chance would be a fine thing.”

“Calcun shall invoke the spirits for your fortune!” The little man hopped forward, rattling his bones and smearing ash over Deltius’ brow. Either he really didn’t want to move, or he really didn’t care. Calcun stepped back again with a theatrical bow and held his light up high.

I pressed my hand against Deltius’ shoulder, “Whatever happens, thank you for coming and for doing this.” Then I stepped back.

He gave no answer, he twisted and threw his body back from the door. The lock clicked, the door swung open but Deltius fell, thrashing to the ground, foam at his lips, teeth grinding in pain. I leapt for him, covered his mouth to stifle the sound of his agonies and held him until the light faded from his eyes, setting him back to rest upon the dirt of the floor.

Calcun shuffled his feet uneasily in the dirt, “The spirits sometimes answer ‘no’.”

I gave him a withering look and jerked my head towards the open door, “You have the light.” It may seem callous, but when there’s treasure at hand and you hardly know the man who has died, you have no real reason to mourn.

The wizened little sorcerer sidled, cautiously, around the door and into the chamber beyond, with me behind him. Another statue, like that at the entrance but larger, was stood above a second door. This one didn’t appear to be locked, rather it was gaudy, heavy, split down the centre with a leering face half on one side of the door and half on the other. I took a step forward and then Calcun’s knotted fingers slapped against my chest.

“Calcun senses a presence.”

He tossed the flaming little ball into the air and it stayed there, hovering in the centre of the chamber as he rattled his bones and hummed a shamanic chant. The air seemed to suddenly grow thicker, smokier, inky shadow spreading from the corners as his chanting became more frantic. I backed up against the wall and watched, helplessly, as the great statue above the door opened its mouth and a shade, black and terrible, dripped like tar from its mouth and took form before the little magician.

He was all but shouting his chant now, screaming it at the thing, but all the sound was deadened. Vague, taloned hands reached for him as he chanted and made wild gestures, his ragged clothes blowing about him in an unseen wind. He began to shake and tremor, losing his voice, frost forming across his brows and he twisted with one final effort and spat at me.

The thing’s arms passed through him, clutched his bright, shining soul from out of his body and dragged it back, back into the mouth of the statue which slammed shut with the ring of a great bell. Calcun’s body, devoid of life, collapsed to the ground like a stiff, old, corn doll and stayed there.

A deep breath, the count of thirty and I took a cautious step forward. The sputtering light of Calcun’s magic faded and melted away, leaving me in darkness, the only light that seeping through the crack in the door and there was, now, nowhere else to go. I strode up and pushed.

Blinding light, as bright as the sun, I recoiled from it, blinking, able to only see shapes a moment, blobs of pink and brown, green and gold. I heard a sudden intake of breath, a gasp from many mouths, feminine and frightened. Teary eyed I blinked at the light and tried to focus.

Slowly a vision of heaven swam into a view. A great, gleaming, tiled chamber of arches and alcoves. A glowing gem suspended from the ceiling cast its light into many, polished, bronze mirrors that carried the light further into the chamber.

Everywhere, were women and boys. Clad in wisps of silk – if anything at all – every colour, every race, every look or type that I had ever seen in my travels. Short-haired and long, thick and thin, acres of flesh chosen for its beauty and its variety met every single movement of my eyes, drawing back in shock and surprise to see me there, an interloper.

I began to laugh. This was too rich. What else would the treasure, the hoard of a flesh peddler be? Selim was a slaver after all. The vault of a banker would hold gold, a spice merchant’s coffers would be filled with cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron and here was the personal treasure of Selim the Miser. The cream of the world’s beauty as his personal collection.

“Why do you laugh?” The voice was a croak, dusty and old, but assumed authority made it cut through the fearful chatter of the slaves like a knife. I looked and I saw him. Selim, the miser, upon a throne of wood, naked as a child, thin and wrinkled and flaccid of flesh, an oiled vulture attended by a young boy and girl who now shrank back behind him. At his side was a great, fat, slab of dark flesh. A man in silvery mail, his hands slid into spiked gauntlets. He was enormous, sleek and fat, putting me in mind of a rich woman’s lap cat, spoiled and arrogant.

“I laugh, Selim, because I came seeking gold and instead find a different treasure altogether. Still, I’ll take it,” I smiled and began to step towards him, along the ornate rug, up towards the throne. The slab of flesh in the silver armour stepped forward, blocking my path.

“You are the one who told me about the whore. Aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“You must have had other friends.”

“There were other thieves, yes.”

“And where are they?”

“Two souls for the goddess, if one doesn’t have the key.”

The old man chuckled, a dry, rattling sound that failed, completely to convey any sense of mirth. “You must be the Dastard, the one with the iron blades. My friend here, his armour is iron. You will not find him so easy to overcome as you have others, I am sure. Ma’ak, kill him.” He pointed, stabbing his finger towards me and the huge man began to move, with a speed that surprised me, given his bulk and his armour.

I back-stepped, quickly, sliding my blades into my hands, gripping their hilts and twisting them, ready to stab and slash. The big man was on me in an instant, swinging those spiked, gauntleted fists. It was all I could do to duck and weave, to stay out of his reach, giving ground every moment.

My back hit the cool tiles of the wall and he swung a hammer blow towards my head. I ducked it, barely, an errant spike cutting a line across my brow. Blood poured into my eyes already as I hit the ground, twisted and kicked up hard between the giant’s legs with one foot.

The blow struck home, but barely elicited a grunt. Where I should have felt something soft crush beneath my heel I felt nothing but muscle and fat. There was nothing between his legs. Of course there wasn’t in a seraglio, I cursed myself for a fool but he had me, dragging me up in his arms, crushing me. The spikes of his gauntlets bit into my back and my ribs creaked.

I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see. I shook my head spattering the blood away from my eyes. In the damp and heavy air of the chamber we were both sweaty and I twisted, writhed, pulled a single arm free and stabbed down, hard.

My dagger cut through the chain links and plunged into the fat man’s shoulder, biting deep, between the bones of his collar and shoulder. He bellowed like a river horse and his grip loosened. I plunged the second blade into his neck and hung on for dear life, swinging around him, back and over his shoulders, wrapping my legs around his waist from behind, twisting and driving on the blades.

He hollered and span, trying to throw me off but I clung, tenaciously. Pillows scattered, brazier coals were tipped across the floor. Perfumed and oiled women and boys hurried away from us, crouching fearful and wide eyes in corners as I clung to him like a tick until he slowed, knelt and finally fell in a spreading pool of blood.

I jerked the curved blades free and wiped them clean in the dead man’s hair, wincing from my own wounds and turning back towards the bald old serpent, standing in shock before his own throne.

“But… the iron mail!?”

I twisted one glittering dagger in the light and wiped the still-flowing blood from my brow back into my hair. “Vimanan steel Selim.”

He shrank like lust wilting in the snow. That authority, that self-assurance, vanishing from his voice, “Impossible… impossible… you betrayed the slut, killed your friends. Are you going to kill a helpless old man?”

I shrugged and looked out across his treasure room, I simply nodded.

“I’m the Dastard.”

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I sat cross-legged and looked across the low, knife-bitten table at my new companions. A motley bunch indeed but the best to be had in The Shelf, not that, that was saying much. Eris perched, composed as always, dark eyes the only thing peering through her swaths of silk.

It was all Calcun could do not to drool over her and he fidgeted on his cushion. The man no longer had the slightest idea how to act around people and was thrusting fistfuls of torn bread into his near-toothless mouth and gumming away disgustingly.

Deltius at least was more circumspect, hiding his face beneath a hood and keeping quiet, terrified as he was of being recognised and killed. I could understand the fret, I – at least – was an unknown quantity here in Tuan but everyone else had a reputation of some kind.

People who know just enough to be dangerous often think it ridiculous that people meet in smoky taverns to discuss their plans and schemes but the fact is, even though it’s obvious, they are a good place to talk. The noise of a crowd makes you hard to overhear. If things go badly wrong or the guards turn up, you have allies at your back and there’s many more pairs of eyes looking for spies.

I leant over the table, wafting my hand to break up a trail of sticky poppy smoke drifting from the braziers. “Alright, we’re all together now and I know roughly what we’re going to be facing. If we all work together then I’m confident that we can take Selim’s riches and be away without too much trouble.”

“And we can trust you… why?” Deltius scowled at me from beneath his hood, immune to the charms of the inn around him. Focus, I presumed, was a good thing in a locksmith.

“I had the sense to get you together didn’t I? I had the talent to find you, convince you, bring you all together? I know the dangers we’re going to face and that with your talents we can overcome them.”

“Calcun wants to know what these dangers are,” the old monkey growled around a drooling mouthful of bready porridge. “Calcun also wants to know how you found out what we’re facing.”

“Eris concurs with Calcun,” her eyes flashed from between the veils with amusement.

I sighed, it was only natural that they’d be suspicious of course but it was a bind every single time. “I have my ways. You wouldn’t share all your secrets with me now would you? Any of you? No. The information isn’t perfect and that’s why I need you. You’re good, you can deal with the unexpected.”

“Calcun concedes your point,” he’d finished off the bread and reached across to the next table to steal a piece of fruit. A scattering of coins made sure that didn’t start a fight but I was down to the last of my meagre hoard.

“Eris can deal with the guards, Deltius knows his way around the locks, Calcun’s knowledge of the mystic arts is unmatched…”

“And you dastard, what will you do?” Eris’ eyes changed every time I looked at her, now they were demanding and steely.

“Aside from organising this whole thing and bringing you all together? I am a passable thief in my own right and those guards Eris cannot deal with I believe I can deal with.”

Deltius scoffed, “A slip of a boy like you? You may be quick dastard, but you’re no warrior.”

I slipped one curved dagger from my sleeve and stabbed it down into the table, pointedly, “Care to test that?” I was weary of their questions and their suspicion.

“Iron,” Calcun whispered, half-chewed fruit dropping from his mouth. “Impressive.”

That brought a slight smile to my lips and I spirited the knife away as though by blade magic, before it could be noticed. “If there are no more objections, shall we go over the plan?”

***

Smearing oil and soot over Calcun’s bald pate was about as much fun as it sounded, but I had to show willing. I’d never smelt anything is sickeningly sweetly musky as the old man’s stink and I still had flakes of his skin under my fingernails. Now we were all as black as islanders with furs tied around our feet. Ridiculous as mummers but silent and invisible on a moonless night.

Selim set his house apart. An old Atlantean villa half set into the great boulders the time of ice had brought to the edge of the world. He liked his privacy as much as he liked dealing chained flesh and fever dreams. We could not simply be passers by here. Anyone who came here came with a reason and any of us who came here had to come with a reason.

As we skulked in the shadows Eris’ lamp was struck, red paper in the blackest of night, the only light apart from the villa. The sway on its chain minded me of her hips and brought a salacious smile to my lips as I clapped Calcun and Deltius on the shoulder to move.

Step by step we crept to the wall of the villa, pressed against the ancient, smooth stones. Not a nail’s breadth of mortar seen or needed. Craftsmanship near-Vimanan in quality. I’d be impressed if it hadn’t stood between us and the treasure.

Eris was hard not to watch as she entered the pool of torchlight. Even covered head to toe she moved as slick as oil. The guards could not take their eyes from her and, in truth, it was not unknown for Selim to reward his men to keep them loyal. There were few higher rewards than a courtesan. The guards were certainly not immune to her charms and while we could not hear a word that was said they opened the gates and took her within and, in that moment we had our chance to slip through, silent as spectres, behind her sashay and the turned attention of the guards in the moments before the gate swung shut again. Hands on her hips the guards ushered her into the house and from our sight.

“Calcun hopes she can keep them busy.”

I hushed him with a finger to his blistered lips.

“That, at least, I am sure of,” Deltius muttered, half disgusted, half admiring but he had the sense to shut up without prompting at least.

Across the courtyard and down the steps, our first door. A portal of wood and bronze with no lock, the first thing to bar our way. Deltius knelt before the door and muttered to himself as he looked it over, pressing his hands to the wood, knocking and listening. Calcun rolled the bones in his hands and gave his own nonsense chant over the mumblings of the locksmith.

“I thought it was hidden but there’s no secret mechanism, nothing in the bindings or the bolts…” his fingers played over the surface as I raised my head and my ear towards the guardhouse. There was laughter, distant and muted from inside.

“We don’t have time for this Deltius,” I slipped the blade from my sleeve and pushed it between the door and the frame, pushing up. Out of sight the beam that held it shut lifted from its cradle and the door swung open.

“Make me look like a bloody idiot,” Deltius hissed to me as I slipped past.

“Gods and monsters, I hope it’s harder to do when we get to a real door.”

The tunnel clove back into the rock of ages past and stretched before us.

Into darkness.

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I suppose, in the end, the Brotherhood let me go simply because they thought that Selim the Miser would do for me himself and they wanted to save wear and tear on their own knives. Selim had something of a reputation, he had to in order to be a name that would impress the Brotherhood. His home the most secure, his vault the strongest, his guards the most vicious. It was said a hundred thieves had tried to gain access to his treasures and none had succeeded.

Not that Selim was liked, far from it. As a slaver and a dealer in the more questionable herbs and spices he had accrued a fortune, but he didn’t share, didn’t loan and never ventured beyond the walls of his home. Some said he was a myth or a legend, some that he was an immortal. Tales to frighten children and justify cowardice no doubt. I’d never met someone who couldn’t be killed, or at least robbed.

He virtually ran Tuan, grandest of the Three Cities of The Shelf. Once an Atlantean outpost at the apex of their empire it had been through a dozen hand since their retreat, waxing and waning until it became the port city for The Shelf and a place of neutral meeting between those of Gran and Luax, the other, lesser, warring cities of The Shelf. By the standards of the locals Tuan was a glittering jewel, to a Vimanan it was passable but then, I had been away from home for some considerable time.

It had been my fortune some months past to meet one of Selim’s caravans upon the road and in trade for a few skins of Muan wine the caravan master was willing to set aside his whip and loosen his tongue a little. I soaked up every rumour, every half-truth, every speculation about his master’s vault and squirrelled them away in my mind, hatching the plan I was now engaged in.

With Selim’s wealth an the backing of the Brotherhood things could be made to change across these lands. The things I knew, the things I could do? I could live as a king here. I would need help though.

***

In Gran or Luax a copper coin will buy you an evening in the bed of an unskilled, but enthusiastic lover. In Tuan the slave markets mean you can buy a lifetime of similar service for not much more and there those who would rent their services, rather than sell them, must apply themselves to their trade. For a silver coin the bodily delights of Tuan’s courtesans can be yours for a matchless evening of dream-like bliss that will stay with you forever.

So it was that in the Street of Silks I pressed a coin into the hands of the hulking Thule minding the door and moved, beneath his scarred and scowling countenance, into the House of Mist.

It was hot in here, unbearably so. The walls were damp and hung with silks, painted with murals of the most debauched of acts between men, women, beasts, gods and monsters. I could not help but stop a moment, impressed by the detail that had gone into one particular depiction of what looked like a kraken, but I was not here for the art.

A hand pressed against my rump with firm confidence and I half turned.

“What delights can this house offer you traveller?” His voice was honeyed and the heat was getting to me, but I was not some prince’s catamite and this was not who, or what, I was here for.

“From you? Nothing I am afraid, I have heard tell of Eris and it is her arms I seek tonight.”

The boy hissed slightly, rejected and rebuffed, a curt jerk of his head towards a woman across the cushions, past the fire and the fragrantly oiled dancers. I smiled, lifted his hand and kissed it in thanks, then I moved, slow and dizzy across the room towards her.

She was swathed in silk head to toe and only her almond eyes, chestnut brown and deep, showed through the layers of wound silk. It was expertly done, the way the cloth draped and clung, hinting at the body beneath, the way her eyes flashed and reflected a smile hidden beneath the veil. With only her eyes showing he drew attention away from the gyrating dancers and made the room seem even hotter.

She was attending to a man, a merchant or minor noble from his dress, but the flash of my last Vimanan gold brought her attention to me and left the man scowling and tossing back wine as she wound her silk-wrapped fingers in mine and lead me to the stairs.

Her chamber was hotter still, next to the chimney that ran all the way up the centre of the house. Sweat coursed down me and left me light-headed. It was dim and close and I was finding the lids of my eyes heavier and heavier with every passing moment.

She eased my down to sit upon her cushions and I sprawled, weary, shrugging out of my jerkin to get some air, some relief, watching as she unwound the silk from her skin, revealing an expanse of dark skin that seemed black as ebony in the darkness of the room. Naked, save for her veil, she returned to me, hypnotic curves and pillowed breasts that made it hard to think of anything but I bit my lip and tried to concentrate, thirstily drinking the wine she offered me.

“I have… a proposition,” my tongue felt thick in my mouth, my eyes heavier and heavier.

“Your gold,” her voice was rich, exotic, honeyed “is all the proposition you need make.”

“No, I’m not here for that. I need your help,” I tossed back the rest of the wine, the room swinging about me. “I inten to rob the vault of Selim and I need… your…” my eyes closed and I fell back soft into the cushions.

I started awake, suddenly. Ripped from the bosom of a dream of heaving bodies and pleasures I couldn’t describe, already fading from my thoughts. I was soaking and I was cold. The shuttered windows were thrown wide and Eris was standing over me, still naked, still veiled, am empty bucket in her hands and rose petals stuck to my face. In the sudden cool I saw the marks of puckered brands upon the flesh of her hips, a half dozen different slave houses.

“Speak,” she said.

***

Between the cities, upon the tufted plains, there is many a tor, blasted by the wind and the rain. To a traveller it can seem as though every other tor plays host to a sage, magician or loremaster but in truth most are merely madmen, or dead. The majority of the ramshackle huts and tents are empty. These bleak parts of the land are no place for a scholar to survive and so, most of them do not.

Calcun was an exception to this rule. He was a Lemurian sorcerer who had lived on the plain as long as most people could remember. He was a fixture, if a madman, and perhaps my best hope at finding a free mage to aid me.

The trek to his hut was a long one and the going hard, especially without a horse. Somehow I managed, trying to remember the way. I’d seen Calcun not long after my exile and that was a time ago now, but the body has a way of remembering, even if the mind does not.

The trailing moon was high, its pale light glittering in the sky like a string of pearls, when I found Calcun’s hunt atop the tor. I was glad to see it and the flickering light of his fire casting dancing shadows against the little hide-covered windows. I dragged my weary bones up the sharp-edged granite and hammered upon his door.

“Ho Calcun, you have a visitor!”

There was a scrabbling inside and the tiny misshapen door bowed out as he leaned against it. “And who is it so late at night, annoying Calcun while he is cooking hmm?”

“A far traveller seeking his assistance.”

“And Calcun should care why?”

“Because I bring Quivaran chocolate,” I sighed, I had hoped not to have to bribe him. The stuff was as rare as hen’s teeth this far away and pricey with it. It had the desired effect though and the door swung open.

Calcun never seemed any different any time I saw him. He had the appearance of a mummified monkey. Patchy fur, bright, inquisitive eyes and a way of capering around in the most unlikely way that seemed effortless. The shack stank though and there were tails draped over the edge of the bubbling pot. I made a resolution not to accept his hospitality.

“Chocolate?” The old madman’s eyes glittered as I gave him the treat and he swallowed it whole, like a guilty dog gulping back something that had fallen to the floor. Such a waste. “You are the prince of the air, yes? We have seen each other before.”

“Twice old man,” I sat carefully on the stained furs by the fire and leaned towards him while he unselfconsciously sucked any last trace of the chocolate taste from his fingers. “Last I was here you told me your exile was not a willing one. Was that true?”

His beady little eyes narrowed and he peered across at me. “Good memory dastard. Yes… Calcun was driven out of one city after another for exposing their shamans and alchemists as charlatans and hedge magicians until Calcun had no place left to go. Rich fakers with their talons into kings, merchants and princes are a match for truth it seems.”

“Well,” I smiled. “The cure for the wealth and influence of others is to get wealth and influence of your own above that which they boast. Is it not?”

His manic, insane grin cooled by some degrees and he peered towards me, seeing my sincerity. “Go on dastard. I’m listening.”

***

Civilisation is a fragile thing and when you lose civilisation you lose a lot of the benefits that go along with it. Plumbing, for example. The things that civilised peoples take for granted become precious commodities when it is rolled back. It’s almost like, in being rebuffed, civilisation acts like a petulant child and takes all its toys with it.

Here on the fringes of the old empire there remain bloodlines of those folk, long since diluted, but they retain their secret ways jealously and amongst the knowledge most prized is how to build a true lock. Those mysterious mechanisms and their keys which serve so much better than lock-knots or untrustworthy guards.

Word was Deltius, a man of Atlantean descent and a master of such locks, had designed Selim’s and had been killed for it. I knew better though. The Atlantean nose is hard to disguise and a craftsman who cannot perform his craft is a ball of frustration and annoyance. He slips.

On the outskirts of Luax the dispossessed gather and pick living from the scraps of that city and its many forges. To the human detritus that lives here the smallest possession is as precious as all of Selim’s alleged wealth and they do all they can to protect it. A sneaky man hides his cache, a strong man kills anyone who threatens it, a charismatic man gathers people together for mutual protection. A craftsman? Well, he builds a strongbox and fits it with a lock and then he carries a key.

Deltius hadn’t been too hard to find them, it had only taken a few days of living in the filth and squalor to become one of them and then my keen eye found him out. The proud nose, the deft hands and – of course – the key on a thong about his neck were all give-aways. He also carried himself with a certain arrogance, reminding himself that he was here not because he was poor, but because he needed somewhere to hide. His face was scarred, one eye put out and covered with a cloth patch, the other bloodshot and oddly coloured, but he still seemed able to see. He was watchful, alert, intelligent and it took a long time to get him alone.

When I did get him by himself it was dark and late and he was opening his box, concealing within it the spoils of his day’s scavenging. My polite cough to introduce myself was met with a hiss like a cornered rat and the thrusting of a metal spike towards me.

“My friend,” I tried. “I am not here to hurt you. I’m here to seek your help and your expertise, Deltius.”

He scowled that I knew his name but we were both intelligent men. He knew there was no point denying it and that is why he tried to stab me. I moved back as best I could but got a couple of scoring marks and bleeding cuts for my trouble, insisting – even as he tried to kill me – that I wasn’t there to hurt him.

Eventually he stopped, puffing and panting but holding his crude blade steady towards me. I imagined he hadn’t been eating well out here.

“Selim,” I said. “How would you like revenge upon him?” I cocked my head to the side and smiled and that smile was echoed in his own.

We both began to laugh.

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Upon reflection, things were not going to well for me. The Thieves’ Brotherhood does not take kindly to interlopers or independents and I was no exception to the rule no matter how polite and helpful I had intended to be. That was why, I thought, they had greeted me with laughter, punched me around a little and slung me into their miserable excuse for a dungeon.

I probably didn’t look like much to them, dirty, shaggy haired and bearded. My fine shirt was more tatters and mud than silk before I ever got to them and my fine boots were long gone. All the remained of my finer attire was my jerkin of fine draco leather and even that was starting to look worn. I must have seemed like a vagabond to them. Not that they were any better off than me.

They called themselves thieves but what I had seen so far suggested that they were little more than footpads, cut-throats and bandits. No finesse, no style, nothing to suggest the true art of thievery and, as a result, I had spoken to them with ill-considered scorn.

I act before I think. It is a curse and a blessing. Sharp reflexes have saved me very often, but leaping before I look has caused me no end of pain in equal measure. I was forcing myself to think now though, to consider. The cell’s bars were wooden, it’s wall compacted soil. I could escape this place easily even though they considered it their stronghold. That would not serve me though, I was here for a reason and I had to win them over.

The soft thump of heavy men in furred boots came down the tunnel at last. Waxy yellow light from their lanterns against the wall as they came to find me.

“Rise spy!” Muttered the talkative one, his squat, bald friend keeping to silence. I obliged them.

“Are you come to let me go?” I tried to smile at them. Friendliness is disarming and unexpected from a prisoner and it can help, if it doesn’t just irritate your captor.

“Hah, no. Come on out ya little piss-stain.”

Charming as always they opened the crude bonds that held shut the wooden door and hoisted me out into the tunnel. I was perfectly capable of walking myself wherever they wanted to take me but if they were insistent on carrying me, who was I to argue?

This was the great and terrible redoubt of the Thieves’ Brotherhood? It stank like a bear’s crotch and was darker than an Tukiri’s arsecrack. While they had captured me the more I saw of them the more it embarrassed me. Finally the two lumps set me down and shoved me forward through another wooden doorway and slammed it shut behind me.

The chamber was round and well lit, by the standards of this place. Moonlight shone down through a crack in the rock above and sputtering torches and lambs cast an epileptic light around the place. There was another door at the far side, the ground was black dirt and the stains and drag marks did not bode well.

I looked up and then saw them. The gathered of the Brotherhood. The chamber formed a natural amphitheatre and they were arranged in a half circle to watch whatever fate might befall me. I obliged their sense of theatricality by standing and giving a neat bow.

“Spy,” came a hissing voice from above, echoing loudly in the bell shape of the cave. I looked up and eyes adjusted to the dim glow of the torches I could see the man who spoke. A bullet head, shaven close, a face and bare chest covered in scars. His hands were bound with leather and he sat, leant forward on a purloined throne, worm-ridden and faded in glory. At each arm crouched a Wolf Sister, wild eyed, hairless, teeth filed to points, bare-breasted and scarified, straining at their chains as though they wanted to tear into me. He must have had money at one point to afford such ‘pets’.

“I am no spy great lord of thieves,” I raised my chin and my voice as I spoke out to him. “I came with an honest proposition and your men set upon me.”

“You’re a long way from Vimana, spy,” he leaned forward with a sneer and set his hand on the head of one of the sisters, stroking her bald pate as she twisted and nudged into his hand, drool dripping from her lips. I winced.

“I am indeed, but the fact remains, I came here to deal – honest and open,” I spread my hands and bowed my head, hoping these barbarian ground-dwellers would see reason.

“None may come to our home and live, save those of the guild.”

Reason was not going to be a match for tradition, I could tell.

“Then let me join.”

That got a laugh, not just from him but the motley band around the rocky wall as well. I grinned, hoping I could ingratiate myself by being in on the joke.

Politeness was not going to do me any good either.

“Release the rats!”

The door opposite me cranked open and I turned towards it. Rats? When one is placed in a fighting pit one can expect many things. Dogs, wolves, half-men, bears, unspeakable things from the imaginings of deranged sorcerers but rats?

Red eyes gleamed in the darkness and came closer. My munificent host stood and flung a bronze dagger, down into the dirt before my feet.

“Let none say I am not generous,” his booming laugh filled the chamber as the rat things scurried out.

These rats were not what I had been expecting. Fourteen pounds of muscle and hatred, gleaming red eyes, teeth like hooks and shod in bronze, great scaly tails like whips. I swallowed, nervously, but I left the knife where it was. I didn’t need it.

I flexed my arms and the small blades concealed in my jacket slipped down into my hands, curved and wicked and glinting in the dark. I felt better to feel their coolness in my grip, even as the scurrying foe reached me.

One leapt and I met it, not anticipating how heavy the beasts would be. It slammed into me and sent me staggering back toppling off my feet and landing with a thump upon the dirt to the cheering of the Brotherhood. The rat-thing snapped and hissed, it’s tail slapping at me. It’s brother was I knew-not-where and I did not care with this thing snapping at my face. It’s bronzed-jaws snapped and bit clean through the leather of jerkin as though it was not there. While it chewed on the strips I stabbed down with my blade, the harder metal of my dagger biting through the softer bronze and into the creature’s skull, it spasmed and thrashed against me, spurting hot blood.

“Iron!” The shout went up. They Vimanan steel, but I had no time to contradict them. The second of the hideous creatures had become enraged by the scent of blood, a pink froth at its metal mouth as it burrowed in against the body of its dead brother and tried to bite.

I twisted, desperately, pushing its litter-mate’s body into its snapping jaws. It bit down and I heard the snap of bone, the flow of blood grew stronger. I had a moment. I had to make an impression. I took the opportunity. I brought the other dagger up, sinking it hilt deep between the foul thing’s ribs, out of sight and, swallowing back bile, I clamped my own jaws upon its throat as it thrashed and kicked.

A breath, a moment, stinking and vile, my nose in the creature’s fur. Then I stood, holding its weight, so heavy, in my mouth, letting it drop and spitting a mouthful of blood and rank fur onto the dirt.

There was a hush.

I swallowed, trying desperately not to spoil the effect by vomiting. “Is there any chance we can talk business now?”

The Wolf Sisters strained even harder on their chains, incensed by the blood, almost dragging the throne forward as that bald mass of scar tissue stood up and leaned against the wall, glowering at me.

“And just why should I let you live spy? What is your name? What can you possibly offer us?”

“I am the Dastard, oh lord of thieves. I can offer you my iron,” I smiled slightly at that and then spoke louder, “and I can offer you gold.”

“You had no gold,” he sneered down at me, bunching those great fists against the rock.

“My lord, what good thief would offer his own gold?” I smiled again, broadly, hoping this time they would see the joke. There were a few nervous laughs, quickly stifled.

“Then whose gold would you offer us, Dastard?” His brow furrowed deep, he was weighing whether to have me killed or not.

This was when I truly needed to impress, so I drew myself up, high, crossed my daggers against my chest, bowed deep and then looked him straight in the eye, across the blood, dirt and rock.

“My lord, take me into your fold and I will give you the vault of Selim the Miser.”

There was hush.

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