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.
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.”
“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?”
“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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