Shimar the thief crouched over the sack of gold, running his hands through it over and over. In his eyes was a look of ecstasy.
Shimar had been waiting for this moment for a long time. He’d planned and schemed, and worked hard, and at last, here was his reward.
Of course, it was only just beginning. Shimar hadn’t spent a year of his life for one miserable sack of gold. He wanted more, much more. And he would have it.
Behind him, lying against the far wall of the cavern, the wizard Kaklash lay silent. The wizard had long since given up struggling against the chains of sarabandium with which he’d been bound tight, and merely lay glaring at the thief across the cave’s cluttered expanse.
Shimar did not waste any time gloating. There was work to be done.
Shimar had first heard of the wizard a year and a half ago when he’d come to the village in the valley. He’d then not intended to stay for longer than a night, not even to steal anything. The village was so small and wretched there was obviously nothing in it worth stealing, and Shimar did not waste his time on trifles.
He’d been fleeing the capital, had been running for days, and at last had thought it safe to stop and rest for a night. He was used to fleeing when necessary, and had developed a keen sense of being able to tell when he was no longer pursued. Back in the capital they would still be hunting for him, and searching high and low in the villages and towns north of the Great River. But they would not come this far south.
Shimar had been tired, footsore, disappointed and deeply frustrated. The theft he’d planned in the capital should have gone off perfectly, what with all the planning and preparation he’d put into it. And it had been worth all the trouble and expense, if only it had come off – and it very nearly had.
He’d waited for months, hanging around the royal treasury each day selling fried snacks in the street, watching the guards come and go and little by little had got to know some of them. He’d learnt their names, something about their families, and enough to find out their guard schedules, what the inside of the treasury was like, where the keys were kept, and more. Even then he’d waited, knowing that he must not hurry, aware that the opportunity would come.
It had come during the king’s son’s marriage, when the city had been busy with festivities, and the need for security for all the venues and the guests, not to mention the newlyweds, had been so great that even the treasury guards had been withdrawn, except for a skeleton force, for duty elsewhere. This had been done in great secrecy, the guards coming to the treasury as usual before changing their uniforms and sneaking out through a hidden rear entrance so that to anyone watching it would look as though the treasury was as well guarded as ever. But Shimar had been listening as well as watching, so he knew.
That evening, while fireworks had burst over the royal palace, Shimar had pushed his cart into an alley where he had long since known it would not be disturbed. He’d then slipped into the dark overalls he’d hidden under the snacks, the ones with large pockets sewn into the folds, and gone to the rear entrance which he’d known would be unattended because the few guards remaining were all placed out front where they could be seen. The entrance had been locked, but that was nothing to a thief of Shimar’s capabilities; and with only a little fiddling, the lock had fallen open, defeated.
Though, of course, he’d never been inside the treasury before, Shimar had listened to the guards long enough over the months to have worked out a rough plan in his mind, and he unerringly slipped along the passages, and down dark stairways, until at last, deep underground, he came to the room where the keys were kept. This was, of course, guarded, but tonight there was only one sentry on duty, and he was seated comfortably sucking on a water pipe with his spear held negligently across his knees. Although he disliked violence and tried to avoid it at most times, this was an occasion when it was necessary, and Shimar had come equipped with a short dagger.
A little while later, the last of the locks of the main strongroom of the treasury had given way, and Shimar walked unhindered into the vaults where the kingdom’s gold was stored, watched over only by guttering torches set into holders on the walls.
And it was just as he’d stood, looking around with wonder at the heaped caskets filled with coins and jewels, that he heard the commotion behind him, as of a crowd advancing down the passage...
Luck had so long smiled on the thief, had eased his path so completely, that he later berated himself bitterly for not anticipating that she’d turn against him all of a sudden. Instead of stuffing his pockets with the choicest, most expensive of the riches on display and then making a leisurely getaway, he’d had to rush back down the passage, his dagger thrust out before him, thrusting and stabbing; even so, he had been certain that he was about to be cut to pieces. Luck, however, having foiled all his efforts, had decided to aid him again, and the suddenness of his assault had sufficiently cleared the way so that he’d managed to escape, though with a mob in pursuit. He’d even had to abandon his cart in his flight, and he’d been running ever since.
Months later he’d finally pieced together, from scraps of overheard conversations, what had happened to so thoroughly ruin his plans. It was absurdly simple; the prince, besotted with his new wife, had offered her the choicest of the jewels in the royal treasury, whichever her heart wanted. It wouldn’t, of course, do to wait till morning; the newly married couple, along with their friends, had at once gone to the treasury, arriving just at the right moment to foil Shimar’s plans.
At least, the thief had thought with a grimace, he’d ruined their wedding for them.
Shimar hadn’t, of course, been caught totally unprepared; an experienced thief is always ready to run at a moment’s notice. He’d had a bag of copper coins at his belt, and a different set of clothes under the black overalls, so he’d been able to escape without great trouble once he’d thrown off the mob. But he’d been running ever since, and when he reached the village the bag of coins was more than half empty.
Still, he’d been planning to move on, after a night’s rest in the village inn, a good meal, and a glass of wine. But it had been while he was sitting against the back wall of the main hall of the inn, quaffing down that wine, that a hush had suddenly fallen over the clientele.
“There he goes again,” someone had said, glancing towards the large window giving out on the street and away again, quickly.
“I saw lights and smoke coming from the cliff last night,” another man replied. “It was going on all night.”
“Each time I see him,” a third man said, “he seems to get more frightening.”
The innkeeper’s red faced daughter, who had been making the rounds with a tray of drinks, had set it down sharply on a table. “I won’t have any dangerous talk here,” she’d snapped. “If you want to talk about him, go outside and natter all you want. But I won’t let you risk his anger falling on the inn.”
Everyone had fallen silent quickly, but their eyes had kept wandering towards the door. Then it had opened and a boy whom the thief had recognised as the innkeeper’s son had come in. He’d been hanging around earlier in the evening, but had slipped out as soon as it had looked like there would be work to be done.
“Has he gone?” his sister, the red-faced young woman, had demanded, her need for the information greater than her desire to chastise the boy. At the boy’s nod, everyone had suddenly relaxed, and the murmur of conversation had started up again.
Shimar had slipped out soon afterwards and gone around the streets of the little village, keeping his ears wide open. Everywhere there seemed to be a sense of slowly dissipating tension, as though a great danger had passed. He’d heard murmurs and whispers, and among them a name repeated in various tones, but always with fear: Kaklash.
He’d seen the innkeeper’s son, out again, presumably to try and avoid the cleaning up at the day’s end. He’d caught up to him in a few long steps. “Hello there,” he’d said. “You look like you could do with a coin or two.”
The innkeeper’s son had proved to be as greedy as he was lazy, as Shimar had expected. “Yes,” he’d said. “You have coins? Give me some.”
“In a moment.” Shimar had glanced around quickly to make sure they weren’t overheard. “Who is Kaklash, and why is everyone so terrified of him?” Seeing the boy hesitate, he’d jingled the bag of coins at his waist. “Well?”
So the innkeeper’s son had told him.
Early the next morning, when the sun was still crawling up past the horizon, Shimar the thief had turned up at the foot of the cliffs and started making his way up to the wizard’s cave.
He had known where it was from quite far away; as he’d walked up the mountain path from the village, he’d seen green and yellow lights sparkle and flicker up among the cliffs, just as the boy had told him. Green and yellow meant the wizard was probably in a good mood, the boy had said, and most likely would not strike out with his magic at some innocent in frustration. If it were red and white, though, nobody ever stirred outside their houses until the lights had changed back again.
“So what was he doing in the village, your Kaklash?” Shimar had asked, holding a coin enticingly above the boy’s open palm, where two already resided.
“He comes sometimes, to buy things he needs,” the boy had said.
“He does?” Shimar had cocked his head to one side, considering the statement. “What does he pay with?”
“With gold,” the boy had whispered, his eyes glittering with cupidity. “But nobody knows where the gold comes from. The coins are strange.”
Shimar had been tempted to ask more, but the boy’s greed had plainly been giving way to fear, and he had no wish to draw suspicion towards himself, so having dropped the third of the coins on to the grubby palm, he’d sent the scoundrel on his way.
Now, pausing on the steep mountain path, he’d looked up at the cave.
It was as though a giant had struck the earth with a titanic axe, cutting a gash in the cliff so deep that it might extend to the bowels of the earth. According to the innkeeper’s son, in fact, the cave hadn’t existed before; the magician had created it himself, when he’d needed a place to stay, and no villager had ever dared approach the cliffs again.
Be that as it may, the wizard had not neglected to provide an easy enough pathway up to the cave entrance, and soon enough the thief was standing in the dawn sunlight outside the gash in the rock, calling out.
“I am Shimar,” he’d said, “and I wish to speak to Kaklash the sorcerer.”
For a long moment there had been no response, and then the darkness at the cave’s entrance had been parted exactly like as though a curtain had been drawn aside, and Kaklash had come out.
Shimar never forgot that moment. The magician was so tall that his head seemed to scrape the top of the cave entrance, and as broad as two strong men. His arms and legs were pillars of bone and muscle, his head a boulder balanced on the platform of his shoulders. His beard, flecked with gold and silver, swept down over the wall of his chest. In one huge hand he carried a gnarled, knob headed staff of grey wood. Little sparks danced around the knob, appearing and vanishing.
He advanced a slow few steps and stood glaring down at the scrawny thief. His brow was a shelf of bone, under which his eyes blazed like red stars. “Well,” he said at last. “Here I am, Kaklash the sorcerer. And what do you want with me?”
Shimar’s legs had twitched with fear, but he’d stood his ground. “I want to take service with you, and be your apprentice.”
He’d expected Kaklash to laugh. But the wizard had merely stared down at him, brow furrowed in thought. “And what makes you imagine that I want to take on an apprentice?”
“You live alone,” Shimar had pointed out. “You have to take care of your own needs, and besides, go down to the village when you want to purchase the things you require; this takes time you must take away from your spells and studies. I can do all that for you, and more, and all I ask in return is that you take me on as a pupil.”
Then Kaklash had laughed, but it was not an unkind or jeering laugh. “You have a lot to learn,” he’d said. “But at least you aren’t too terrified to come to me, and you have the courage to look me in the face. Besides, it would be convenient to be able to concentrate on my work without the distraction of trivialities like those you mentioned.”
So Shimar the thief had taken up apprenticeship with Kaklash the sorcerer, and he had been worked hard, harder even than he’d expected. The magician had had an inexhaustible list of things to do, and by the time each night he fell on to the pallet of straw that was all he’d been given for a bed, he was so tired that his limbs ached with more weariness than he’d ever felt before. But his mind was always active, and he made sure to stay awake long enough to go over what he’d been able to observe and learn during the day.
He’d long since realised that Kaklash had no intention of teaching him anything, at least not for months or even years to come. But he also knew that this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for, that the treasures he could have stolen from the treasury were as nothing to those he might be able to access now. And since he’d never have fled to this village if his theft had gone off successfully, he decided that luck had been on his side after all.
As the days and weeks turned to months, Shimar kept his eyes and ears open, watching the magician while cleaning and cooking, mending and fetching. He had long ago trained his senses to retain all scraps of information that might be useful in any way, and soon he’d built up a good idea of the spells the magician used, and how he could turn them to his purpose. But still, as before with the treasury, he bided his time, waiting.
The key to the wizard’s power, he’d realised long ago, was the great gnarled staff of wood around whose knobbed end the sparks flew. It served him the purpose of a wand, and a key to power, and a talisman to keep at bay the monstrous entities he sometimes summoned at the dead of night when he thought Shimar to be sleeping; creatures with voices such that the thief, who lay still with his eyes closed, was profoundly grateful that he never had to see. He needed to get hold of that staff. The wizard never let it out of touching range, but someday he must grow careless, if only for a moment. It would be just that moment that Shimar needed.
It was a year before the moment came. Last night, the monsters Kaklash had summoned had sounded unusually demanding, their voices even uglier than usual, and the wizard had shouted back at them, till the cave had rung with his imprecations. The magician had been irritable all morning, and he’d set a great cauldron at the cave mouth into which he’d thrown certain powders and liquids whose nature Shimar had never found out. Red and white flames had gone shooting out, blocking the cave mouth and turning the inside into flickering shades of blood and snow. Muttering angrily, the wizard, apparently forgetting his apprentice’ existence, had stumped off to sit on a bench by the far wall. He’d dropped his staff on the cave floor as he’d gone.
Shimar had pounced on it almost before it had hit the ground.
As his hands had closed on it, he’d almost cried out aloud. The staff hadn’t felt like dry wood in his hands; it was hot, and had twitched and writhed as though alive. But, as so many times before in his career, he’d kept his head, having planned out well in advance what he had to do.
He pointed the staff at the magician, and recited words he’d learnt over the months of eavesdropping, in a language without a name. “Be bound,” he’d commanded at the end.
It had worked better that he’d thought possible. The staff had crackled and spit out sparks, but chains of sarabandium had appeared out of the air, twining like snakes around the wizard’s body before he’d managed to get to his feet. As he’d fallen to the ground, more chains had appeared, until he was trussed up so tightly that he could no longer move at all, and could barely breathe.
Shimar had not wasted time on him. Raising the staff again, he’d repeated words he’d heard the wizard utter when he’d brought forth the strange, misshapen gold coins with which he paid for the things he’d bought. “Bring me gold,” he’d said at the end.
And the sack of gold had appeared, exactly as he’d known it would.
Shimar grinned, running his fingers through the coins over and over again. This was power, he thought. This was what he’d been waiting for, all his life. What use were a few baubles from the treasury? With the staff which lay by his side, still crackling and hissing, he could buy the treasury, and the crown, and the kingdom if he wanted to. Who would ever dare to refuse?
He’d stay in this cave, he thought, and make it his home. He’d use his new found power, learn to control it, and do anything with it he wanted. He could, after all, do anything at all.
But first, he thought, more gold. He’d been starved so long, for so many years, that he wanted a surfeit of gold. More gold than he’d seen piled in the royal treasury. Much, much more gold.
Picking up the staff, he stepped back and uttered the words again. More gold appeared. He looked at it, laughed exultantly, and ordered more gold. Still more came, and more after that. Entranced at the play of the red and white light on the glittering yellow metal, he summoned still more. Soon it reached nearly to the roof, and spilled over so far he had to step back even further.
Something nudged at the back of his legs. He turned and saw that he’d backed right to the trussed up magician, who was struggling hard once again.
“Want to get at me, don’t you?” Shimar laughed. “I’d almost forgotten about you. Might as well get rid of you right now, and have done with it.” Pointing the staff at the magician, he uttered words that he’d heard before, and committed to memory. “Burn to ashes,” he concluded.
Shimar frowned and shook the staff again. “Burn!” he demanded. “Burn to ashes right now!”
Still nothing happened. The staff did not writhe. The sparks didn’t whirl in and out of existence. Shimar looked down at it in puzzlement. There seemed to be something different about the cave, too. Something about the light...
He blinked in astonishment as he realised what it was. The light in the cave was merely red and white now. The golden glow had disappeared.
He turned quickly. The enormous pile of gold had dwindled to a tiny heap. Even as he watched, that, too, shrank, until only one solitary coin lay on the floor. And then that, too, winked out.
Something moved behind Shimar, slow, heavy, and determined. The thief didn’t wait to hear the click of sarabandium chains falling on stone to throw down the staff and try to run.
The red and white flames blocked the cave mouth. He never made it.
The wizard Kaklash drew the pentagrams on the floor, whistling.
He felt far, far more cheerful than he’d felt in a long time, more cheerful than he’d ever expected to feel again. He’d been working long and hard, for many years, to gain the ability to summon the demons of the Ninth Circle, and only last night had he finally reached the point of success. And then, when he had tried to summon the demons – creatures so dangerous that even his great abilities had been stretched to the limit to keep them at bay – they had refused to manifest fully unless he offered them something in return, something it was not in his power to give.
Or hadn’t been in his power to give, until only a short while before.
Humming to himself, he looked at his staff, where it lay next to the wall, recharging its powers from the spring of magic at the heart of the mountain. It had been over a year since he’d charged it last, something he’d been planning to do and been putting off constantly, until it had almost been drained of power. There had still been enough left for a week or two, but the thief had emptied it.
Well, it was almost filled with power again, and it would not be long now.
Something moved in the back of the cave, exactly as though a scrawny body wriggled fruitlessly against the ropes – thick, perfectly regular ropes – which bound it tight. The wizard didn’t even glance at it. He went over and felt the staff. Raw power hummed and throbbed inside.
It was ready.
Picking it up, he walked over to the pentagrams. Raising the staff high, he began the incantations. Sparks flowed and flickered, merging into a glow that filled the cave.
Wriggling futilely on his pallet, Shimar the thief tried to shut his eyes to the voices that began to sound in the stillness. He had squeezed his eyes so tightly shut that he felt as though they had been pressed into the backs of their sockets, but he knew that was not enough. Nothing would be enough.
All these months, he’d been happy that he’d not had to lay eyes on the creatures the wizard summoned in the night. Tonight, he knew, he no longer had that option.
Tonight, they would leave him no option but to look.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016