The following short story was the very first piece of content I sold as a professional writer back in February 2008. It’s an adventure tale revolving around a veteran thief named Deleroth in the heart of Finglis Mirror. It was originally published in Flashing Swords Magazine, Volume 13. Hereis the unedited version (about 1300 words longer than the published piece).
I wrote this while on a ski trip to the Bulgarian ski resort of Bansko in January 0f 2008, just a week after moving there and launching my writing career.
The Widowed Peasant was no different than it was on most nights as Del stepped through the doorway into the murky interior. A permanent haze of smoke hung thick as a blanket over the entire room from his waist to the ceiling, stinging his eyes slightly as they adjusted to the dim light. He scanned the crowd but found nothing out of the ordinary. A dark-haired girl, perhaps a year or two beyond twenty and dancing on top of a table, swayed in time to the tune of a flute being played by a short, thin man of perhaps thirty, a smile on his lips as his fingers flowed up and down the wooden pipe.
The song was called Maiden’s Kiss and from the look of the dozen odd men gazing in rapt attention at the dark-haired beauty nearly spilling out of her too-tight dress it was clear they all hoped they were the one to claim it. Del knew for a fact she was no maiden and winked at her as he caught her eye on the way to a table in the back. She gave him a smoldering look that left him chuckling as he motioned towards the bar for a serving woman and sat down at an empty table.
There were perhaps thirty people scattered around the main floor, some of whom he recognized but none of which he had business with. Tonight was one of those nights that had the hair on the back of his neck raised in anticipation of something just around the corner, something that he couldn’t quite place but knew was coming.
He always had that feeling when meeting a new client, even if it was someone who his contact had cleared in advance. You didn’t come into this part of the city unannounced, and you most certainly did not make it within a beggar’s toss of The Widowed Peasant without clearing your visit beforehand with the proper authorities, who in this part of the city weren’t exactly authorities; rather, they were simply the people you paid to keep your skin where it was most comfortable…on your back.
“What can I get you, Del?” The voice was one he recognized, and he smiled up at Erla. She was an older woman, veteran of the floor. She had a few streaks of grey in her hair, loosely tied up at the nape of her neck, but her face was still mostly free of lines and handsome, her bosom firm enough and large enough that he wasn’t ashamed to look.
“Just ale for now, Erla.” Hopefully he wouldn’t be sitting here too long, but you never could tell. He was settled in for the night at any rate, but a clear head was better that one clouded with spirits when doing business.
She nodded, a stray wisp of hair floating free across her cheek. She brushed it back behind her ear. “There’s a man here looking for you,” she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder towards the back. “Dressed in fancy clothes, like a nobleman. Though why such snooty types as him be coming ‘round here is beyond me.”
Del felt mild surprise as he turned his head and looked. His gaze was met with a smile and nod from a man who was clean-shaven and smooth-cheeked, dressed in what looked to be black and silver velvet with intricate pattern-work upon the breast and sleeves, and knee-high black boots, silver engravings of roses twining up the sides. Del was not late to the appointed meeting time; either his client was early, or this was someone unannounced. If it was the later, he idly wondered if he’d stepped on anyone’s toes recently during business hours. “I’ll take it over there, if you please.” He pushed his chair back and made his way over to the table.
“You would be Deleroth?” The man’s voice was smooth, almost smoky. His eyes gleamed brightly despite the dimness of the interior, and he smelled of cinnamon and oranges. His hands were upon the table, palms down; several rings encircled fingers that were long and elegant, almost womanly hands.
Del nodded as he sat. “What can I do for you,” he asked cautiously. He set his hands in his lap as he sat, close to the handles of two of his belt-knifes. It never hurt to be prepared.
“Would you like something to drink,” the other man asked, gesturing with one of his long-fingered hands at a bottle of wine and two glasses set upon the table.
Del shook his head. Whoever he was, he was certainly brash enough, and hedging. “Get to the point,” he replied shortly.
The man raised his hands in defense. “I apologize for my manners. You may call me Willem. I represent someone who has need of your particular, hmm, how should I put this?” His voice took on slightly questioning tone. “Your particular skills, yes.”
Erla appeared at his shoulder and caught his eye as she set his mug down on the table. She raised her eyebrow at the well-dressed man calling himself Willem as if to say “Everything ok?” He nodded slightly at her and she disappeared. “Go on,” he said to the man as he took a swallow.
Willem nodded. “The person I represent would like you to acquire a certain object from the Museum of Antiquities.”
Despite himself, Del felt his eyebrows rise slightly. The Museum was one place people in his line of work just plain avoided. Not out of fear, necessarily, but because the risks just weren’t worth the effort involved.
“I can see you appreciate the delicacy of this particular matter,” the man continued, watching Del’s face. “We are prepared to compensate you quite handsomely for your time and efforts, should you choose to accept.”
Where to begin? Not least was the simple fact that the Museum of Antiquities was one of the most heavily-guarded treasure-trove of artifacts in the city aside from the King’s own coffers. Then there was the matter of it being a mere stone’s throw from the City Watch headquarters, which made a nightmare out of any type of approach to the building, not to mention getting out in a hurry should things go downhill. The risks just weren’t worth it. “I’m afraid I can’t help you, sir,” he said as he shook his head. “There is, quite simply, no chance of success, regardless of what you and your employer might have heard regarding my skill.” He took his mug in hand and stood to leave.
The man in velvet raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Please, hear me out,” he said calmly. “The individual whom I represent happens to sit upon the board of directors for the Museum and, to put it bluntly, would like to add one of the items recently brought to the Museum for research to his personal collection. He would like to employ someone of your particular skills to retrieve the item for him so as to avoid any unpleasant repercussions against his own person.”
Del sat back down and took a heavy swallow of his ale. Was this a setup? One of the Museum directors wanted to hire him to steal an item from the Museum for his personal collection? “What is the item,” he found himself asking slowly. “And how much compensation are we talking?”
Willem smiled. His teeth were perfectly proportioned and perfectly white. Del nearly shivered. “My employer is prepared to offer you the sum of ten thousand gold crowns.”
He could not keep the shock from his face. Ten thousand crowns! That was more money than any job he could think of anyone ever pulling off in the history of the city.
The man across the table went on. “The item is a small coin with the image of a young woman on the front and an old woman on the back. It is engraved with these symbols on each side.” He slid a small piece of parchment across the table to Del. Despite himself, he found his hand clutching the parchment as if it were a floating piece of wood and the only thing keeping him afloat on a river wild with flood.
He wet his throat with the ale again, flipping the parchment over to take a closer look. Four strange symbols he did not recognize stared back at him. He could feel his pulse racing and hoped his voice was calm. “Aside from the fact you have just offered me more money than any job I have ever done in my career, which makes me doubt the sanity of your employer at being willing to pay such a fee for a simple piece of antiquity,” he paused for a moment, catching his breath. “There is still the Museum security to deal with, not to mention the City Watch. The patrols in the streets make any sort of entrance nearly impossible.”
“Not to worry, Deleroth.” The man’s smile was smooth and came quickly. Too quickly to Del’s mind. He felt alarm bells ringing in the back of his head. “My employer can get you assigned as the new night janitor for the Archive department, where the coin is being held at present while it is researched. All you have to do is acquire it.”
Del licked his lips. He could not deny it sounded too good to be true. There was that old saying that if something sounded one way, it probably wasn’t. But ten thousand gold crowns was a fortune, more than enough to establish him among the ranks of history’s greatest thieves. To be the man to pull off such a job…. “I’ll do it.” He could not believe the words as they escaped his lips, but there it was. He had just signed his life away for ten thousand gold crowns.
“Wonderful!” Willem clapped his hands together almost like a small child, the gleam in his eyes flaring up in a way that had Del leaning backwards in his chair slightly. The man rose, the silver embroidery on his clothing stark against the black velvet, and held his hand out towards Del. Del stood and shook. The other man’s hand was dry and cool, his grip firm. “If you would be so kind as to be there tomorrow evening to start your shift. We assume it will take you at least a couple of nights to work out the best way to acquire the coin, and naturally you would like to get started as soon as possible.”
Del was more than mildly surprised now, he was close to incredulous. “In a rush, are we,” he said jokingly, even though he did not feel amused in the slightest. Rush jobs were sloppy jobs, and sloppy jobs got people caught. In seventeen years of doing this, he had only come close once, and had never rushed a job since.
“The artifact goes on display in four days. Once it goes up to the display level it will be impossible to retrieve; the magical wards surrounding that section of the museum are impenetrable. Any chance at obtaining the item must be before then, so you must act swiftly.”
“It’s your coin.” Del shrugged. “I do of course require half of the money up front, and the other half upon completion.”
“We assumed as much, Mr. Deleroth. If you would be so kind as to check with the man behind the bar you will find we left a chest in your name when we arrived.”
Del was beyond surprise by this point. He felt as if he were in a dream, floating on air, and the bottom was about to fall out from beneath him. He just nodded. Words could not express.
“Ah yes,” the man added as he started to turn away. “Delivery of the item! We will know when it has been removed from the Museum and will meet you here on the following night for a transfer of goods. Until then, best of luck in your new job!” He turned and walked away, leaving a stunned Deleroth. Best of luck? He certainly hoped so.
Cleaning the Archive section of the Museum of Antiquities turned out to be one of most tedious jobs Del imagined was ever created by man. The basic tasks were simple: push dust and particles upon the floor with broom into pile. Pick up pile and put into a container to carry out to the trash wagon. Carry container to trash wagon. Empty container; repeat. When no more particles remained, fill a bucket with handles and use a mop to clean up residue on the floor. When water turned murky, dump into back alley and refill; repeat. By the fourth hour of his first night, he wondered how any reasonably intelligent individual could remain sane for more than one or two nights of this.
The Museum building had three levels. The first was the lobby level where visitors entered through the main doors and passed a routine inspection and gave over any weapons or things of questionable description. The back of the building housed the Archive section. Amazingly, there was simply one small room leading from the alleyway straight into the Archive room. Granted, there were likely some major traps and sundries worked into the doorways and cases housing the items currently archived and being researched, but that was minor as far as Del was concerned.
When he asked his guide, a senior cleaner by the name of Eliph, why the Museum risked so many valuable items being stored on the main level so close to the back door, the short little man smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement. “They are quite safe,” was all he replied. Not wanting to raise suspicion, Del merely nodded his head and followed the man as he showed him his job and what areas he was responsible for.
The cleaners here were responsible for the entire main level of the building, which consisted of not just the Archives room, but also the main lobby. Two massive wooden doors carved with a seascape complete with foaming waves and sea monsters chasing several ships through a storm rose nearly five paces high and four across, swinging inwards into the marbled grandeur of the lobby itself. Huge slabs were set into the floor, each one measuring at least a pace across in either direction, the pearly cream marble veined with thick rivers of deep greens and browns.
Four round pillars rose from the main walkway towards the ceiling above, thick enough that it would take three men with arms stretched wide to reach all the way around them. They were covered in a deep red wood that was grained a thick brown coursing from the floor upwards. Two stairways curved slowly upwards from the center of the lobby, their marble steps matching the floor but in smaller squares that were expertly carved to the contours of each curving step, a pace across and a few hands deep.
There were two desks situated just inside of each doorway along the main causeway towards the stairs for acquiring your visitor’s pass as well as checking in weapons. The desks were a dark brown wood, polished to a near mirror-like sheen. Plain chests and shelves lined the walls behind each desk, heavily guarded during the daytime hours to protect whatever possessions visitors might have to surrender before heading up to the main display level.
During working hours the main doors were guarded on the outside by four of the city watch, as well as four more on the interior, two behind each desk. There was also one guard posted at the bottom of each staircase, and two guards—one on each side—keeping a close eye on the door leading back to the Archive room.
The second level was the main display level. Here was where the average visitor could see historical treasures sundries detailing the last few hundred years of the kingdom. More guards, locations unknown. He wasn’t allowed on that level as a newly apprenticed cleaner, but Eliph assured him the magical traps alone were enough to deter all but the most experience of thieves, and even if they managed to bypass the magical side of things, there were still the guards to deal with. Del had no disillusions about the display level; if he didn’t get the coin by the time it went on display, it was out of his reach.
The third floor was apparently off-limits to anyone but senior staff and visitors who paid an insane amount of coin and passed a rigorous reference check to verify their standings as good citizens. This was where the most valuable and magical of the Museum’s items were stored. As much as Del might wonder, he doubted he would ever reach the third floor without a perfectly legitimate reason. He chuckled at the thought. It wasn’t likely he would ever have such.
The short, balding Eliph explained this to Del before handing him a broom and bucket and a pat on the shoulder for listening so well. “Pay attention, lad, do a good job and follow the rules and one day you might even get to see the top floor of the building!” He said it as if the third floor was some heavenly paradise filled with beautiful naked women surrendering to your every desire and rivers of deep red wine to swim in. Del was hard pressed to keep a snicker from his lips.
The door to the cleaning supply room was off in the corner of the Archive area near a stairwell leading down to the research chambers below; a heavy wooden door was bolted and locked to keep any unauthorized persons from entering. It was a tricky piece, but he was sure he could pick it within a few minutes given the opportunity. That was for another night, though. Tonight he was simply a good little peasant, eager to serve and earn an honest wage scrubbing floors.
Several large rough wooden tables with glass cases full of various items lined the walls of the Archive room. There were also two large tables set out in the middle area. Those were empty at present; during normal working hours Museum staff were busy scrutinizing and cataloging items to either be put on display above or sent below for more detailed study. There were plain wooden shelves along the walls above the tables, stacked with brushes, small hammers, neat little stacks of cloth, scores of tiny little vials and larger flasks. Tools of the trade, it appeared.
He saw no coin matching the description he had been given in any of the cases. It had most likely been moved downstairs already. Still, there were many other curiosities. Centuries-old pottery shards marked with strange carvings and runes of ancient languages lay next to a shred of parchment that was marked with faded lines of a script he could not read. There were also some other coins but they were simply older variations of the ones currently in circulation; fat little gold and silver coins etched with faces barely discernable through the tarnish and wear of time. Several stick-figure doll-like models, nearly a foot tall with a few wisps of hair still attached. Necklaces and bracelets of beads and shiny rocks; baubles traded by ancient humanity before the advent of the almighty gold.
His gaze took all of it in. A lesser man might have been tempted by such a gathering of trinkets. Del was not a lesser man. Temptation was another cardinal rule a professional did not break; he had not garnished such a reputation over the years by petty theft. Stick to the job, get paid, stay out of jail. Greedy got you caught. Del didn’t want to get caught.
Eliph poked his head through the door and eyed the floor. “Looks like you’re done here,” he said with approval. He gestured towards the lobby. “Let’s go clean out your water and get to work on the lobby. If we hurry we can be done in a few hours and catch the alehouse before it closes for the night.”
Del ducked his head and scurried off, eager to please his new master.
Del caught his breath as Eliph shifted in his position, but his body still slumped as though sleeping. The draught he had given the old man should keep him knocked out for at least two hours and it was unlikely anyone would discover him sleeping on the job; afterwards it would appear as if the thief had clubbed the old man to avoid detection. There were only two guards who patrolled the lower level of the building in the wee hours of the morning and they never entered the Archive room; the trap and alarm system built into the backdoor was advanced enough they felt no need to worry.
Seeing the old man slumbering soundly, he bent his head back to the lock and very gently twisted the pick in his left hand as he jiggled the one in his right hand up and down very softly. A tight grin split his features as he heard the soft snick of the first tumbler. The trick with this particular lock was to get that first tumbler open and locked in place; after that it was simply a matter of repeating the same steps until all five were cleared. He eased the lock open and set it to the side, then heaved the door open, dropped down into the opening and catching the door behind him, closing it as quietly as possible.
It was pitch black. He took the small lantern hanging from his belt and fumbled for his flint. Several sparks later and a soft glow suddenly lit the stairwell, showing a broad dirt floor and several low tables a few steps down. There were two hallways leading off of the first room into others. Del quickly moved through the tables, searching.
He found what he was looking for in the third room to the right. A small table in the corner of the room set apart from the others had several smaller coins as well as several books of indeterminate age placed neatly around a coin that could be none other than the one he was after.
The coin itself was larger than those used for common currency, easily large enough to fill half of his palm. It looked more like a medallion, now that he had a closer look at it. It was thick, at least as thick as two gold crowns stacked together, and it shone with a burnished silver gleam. The woman’s face was carved with intricate detail, her heart-shaped face and full lips turned upwards in a slight smile that spoke of secrets only she could tell. Her nose was small and pert, slightly upturned, and her eyes were large, sparkling with intelligence. Surrounding her face at even spacings around the edge of the medallion at the top, right, bottom, and left were the four symbols his scrap of paper showed. He noted another detail; the woman herself seemed to be wearing a medallion just like the one he was staring at, marked clearly with the same symbol as the one on the right-most side of the circle.
He glanced at the books that were stacked neatly. Three of them seemed to be historical references to coins of past generations, but one of the books caught his eye; Mythos and Legends: Fact or Fiction? A small scrap of paper was lodged in the book. He picked it up and turned to the page.
The Medallions of Lashiva. Mentioned only briefly in legends surrounding Lashiva herself, the ancient crone of legend that lived undying upon the earth and ruled the mythical nation of Parsuval. She had four medallions crafted by the ancient smith Hefistal who, in partnership with the sorceress Lashiva herself, created these talismans of great power. It is not referenced in any way that this author could find as to what exactly the medallions did. However it is rumored they were the source of her longevity, wisdom, beauty and wealth, but that they carried with them a great risk. No one knows for sure what happened to Lashiva. It is said she ruled for nearly two thousand years and then one day simply vanished. The medallions are mentioned in several different folklore legends, especially in the northern regions of Lucimia, but no one has ever actually seen one and they are generally considered simply myth. There was rumor of one surfacing in the late Tilenium dynasty but it was later proven to be a fake.
So his client was betting this medallion was the real thing, even though no historical references could be found. Even with a fake discovered centuries earlier, he was willing to risk spending an extraordinary amount of gold to simply find out. Del snorted to himself. The rich surely had some odd eccentricities.
He idly fingered the edge of the coin then picked it up. It was strangely light, no heavier than a smaller sized silver coin would actually be. He turned it over and blinked, surprised. The image on the back was the direct opposite of the young, beautiful woman on the front. This woman was old beyond measure, her skin taught across her cheekbones, her features ravaged by time. Her hair was sparse and clumped across her scalp; liver spots speckled her hairline where it was revealed by her thinning hair. Half rotten stumps of teeth poked out of a mouth gaping wide in what looked to be a grimace. She was wearing the same medallion as the woman on the front, and the symbols were matched the same around the perimeter.
He took one last glance around the table to make sure there was nothing else of importance, then placed the medallion in a special pouch woven into the inner walls of his jacket. He cinched the ties tight and made his way back up to the door. He blew the small lantern out and let it cool for a few minutes while his eyes adjusted to the dark, then cinched it back in place at his belt and opened the door.
The old janitor was still asleep where Del had left him. He quickly replaced the lock and paused as the old man snorted and turned, groaning something about cold porridge and no honey. Smiling to himself he made his way into the smaller room where the supplies were kept, wiped his hands on the seat of his pants, and began to slowly measure his breathing. The real challenge was this door.
Over the past three nights Del had taken as much time as he dared to avoid suspicion studying the door. As far as he could tell there were three mechanisms in place to warn not only the guards, but the City Watch headquarters across the street as well as the patrols out in the streets that foul play was at hand. One was a simple catch trap located in the casing of the lock itself. If a tumbler was turned without the proper key the catch would trip, causing an alarm to go off. It was a simple trap, easy to disable, and meant to lure the unwary and amateur thief into thinking they had managed to break in unawares.
The second was far more intricate. It involved a series of pressure plates just under the tiles entryway of the door. Once set, the plates must be pressed in the correct order as soon as the door was opened. If they weren’t, several small needles tipped with what Del could only assume was a sleeping agent of some kind were fired from several different angles. The merest prick would render a person unconscious for several hours. He hadn’t tested the residue tipping the darts, but he had managed to locate three of the launchers. The sticky red substance tipping the small darts smelled like verifle extract, used to ease the pain of childbirth. Mixed with water it was harmless enough and simply acted as a pain reducer; dried and mixed with the wax of the terunim plant it became a powerful tranquilizer.
The third device was the trickiest and it was not really a trap, just a simple follow-up mechanism that had to be set in the proper order or the alarms would go off. He had only come across such on two other occasions, and both had been in situations where he had alternate exit routes. Once the key was turned, the door opened, and the pressure plates pressed in their correct sequence, the individual then had to quickly close the door and turn the tumblers with the proper key…from the inside.
He had searched Eliph for a key but had found none, which meant there had to be a trigger device somewhere inside the small room to disable all three of the traps for those occasions when the old man had opened the door for him to take out trash and dirty water. Try as he might, he had found no such device anywhere, and that bothered him. He really wished there was a way out through the front of the building, but those doors were sealed every night and patrols on the street out front were very heavy. The easiest way out was through the alley and into the shadows between the buildings.
Which meant setting off the alarm.
He had no way to bypass that third device. The only thing that might have worked was a string-and-pulley lock pick that worked by mounting the device on the handle and passing the strings underneath the door to be manipulated by the user on the other side. The only problem was the door needed some type of a gap at the bottom for the strings to pass through. This door was sealed tight, in all directions.
He breathed a short prayer to gods he didn’t believe in, just for luck, and gathered the rope he had attached to the door handle earlier. He backed around the corner, listened to the beat of his heart as it began to speed up, then gave a sharp tug. The door sprang open. He heard a bell start ringing out in the lobby and the muted shouts of the two guards. He silently counted three seconds; there was a slight whooshing sound followed by a series of tinks as several small metal objects fell to the floor.. He heard footsteps racing closer behind him and waited a few more seconds to make sure another trap wasn’t going to spring. Hearing nothing, he leapt through the room and out the door.
The alleyway was dark and stretched out in either direction. The building across the street was too high to climb and he didn’t have the time or the resources to get a rope up, and leaving one earlier on in the night was out of the questions; guards patrolled these streets every few minutes on a staggered rotation. He heard another bell start pealing from the direction of the city watch building, and the jingle of men in chain mail running in his direction from the left. He cursed. The closest alternate alleyway was in that direction. Towards the right the alley led into the main street along the warehouse across the alley from the Museum for nearly a hundred yards before breaking into a side street. Cursing again, he started running right.
Shouts went up behind him as guards came around the corner of the building and the light of their flickering torches caught him. He sprinted as fast as he could, the packed dirt of the alleyway hard against his boots. He could see the edge of the warehouse and the safety of the side street up on his left in the dim light of the moon just as he reached the edge of the Museum building and a sudden glare of torchlight nearly blinded him as three Watchmen came from nowhere, charging directly into his path as they came around the corner. He barely had time to lower his shoulder for impact before he crashed straight into one of the men, he and the guard going down in a jingle of mail and twin wooshes as the air was knocked out of them. The other two guards skidded to a stop and tossed their torches to the ground, drawing swords that gleamed in the flickering light as the torches sputtered in the dirt.
Del felt a stabbing pain in his left side as he fell; the handle of one of his belt-knives had jammed into his ribs when he hit the dirt. He felt as though a wagon had run him over and he tried twice to push himself up, gasping for air. He heard swords leaving sheaths and gave a kick towards the head of the guard who was gasping for air next to him. His heel connected with the man’s chin just where the strap of his helm latched tight; there was a dull thud and the man’s eyes glazed over. Del rolled to his right and onto his feet, his breath catching against the pain in his side. The two guards with drawn swords were advancing now, their faces grim in the torchlight. Behind them, at least a dozen more were rushing down the alley. He gulped for air, and turned to run just as the closest man thrust with his sword.
Del felt steel graze his right thigh as he spun away. There was no time to run, and daggers were no match for swords. He dropped to one knee as the other guard swung his sword in an arc and kicked out with his foot against the closer man’s knee. His foot blossomed fiery agony as his boot connected with chain mail but the guard’s leg crumpled and he gave a yelp of pain as he went down. The other guard grunted with the effort as his swing missed and he stepped back out of reach as Del tried to kick his leg as well. Rolling backwards now he slammed himself into the guard who was down on his knee, and they went down in a pile.
Unencumbered by his light leathers, the other guard was left grunting and struggling to rise through his mass of now-tangled chain. Del wrenched the sword away from the man and leapt to his feet, his pain forgotten as adrenaline coursed through his veins like fire. He danced back as the standing guard sliced quickly and then flicked his sword back into a thrust. The rushing mass of men behind was closer now, maybe thirty feet away. Del was out of time. He took the sword in both hand and swung it as hard as he could at the man’s helm as the guard moved back from his thrust. There was a sound like a bell hitting a hammer and he dropped like a stone into a river.
Leaving the sword in the dust next to the guards, Del ran.
Willem was waiting for him the following night, standing just outside of the entrance to The Widowed Peasant. Tall and thin, the silver threads of his clothing glistened softly in the light from the two lamps that hung just on either side of the door into the tavern, he seemed to rock slightly on the balls of his feet when Del came into sight on the street. There was also a coach, pulled by a team of four horses, black as the very night itself. The windows of the coach were black as well. Del suppressed a grimace. Delivering things in the street just outside of his favorite tavern was not something he was inclined to do. Discretion was key; no one wanted to get caught handing over the goods if someone else happened to be watching who could rat you out.
“You have the coin?” Willem’s voice was tight, his eyes bright in the glow of the lamps.
Del nodded as paused a few paces away from the man, looking the coach over as best he could in the dim light. “I have it. But tell your employer that I’m not going to hand it over to him in the street here. I know a place not far from here where we can do the trade. It’s safe, and away from prying eyes.”
Willem frowned. “I supposed you are correct, Mr. Deleroth. Please, if you would wait just one moment.” He moved towards the coach and opened the door just a crack, said something to whoever was seated inside. Del could not make out the reply. Willem shut the door. “He says that if such a place is necessary, then by all means, please lead the way.”
The ride was short, perhaps ten minutes. Del was uncomfortable on the seat next to Willem as the taller man guided the reins with those long fingers of his. Despite the well-oiled springs that gave barely a sound as they rode down the streets, the slight movement jarred his bruised body. He muttered a curse under his breath as wheels hit a particularly large pothole just before Willem stopped next to the building Del pointed out, the horses stamping impatiently, almost as if they wanted to be out of this part of the city. Del told Willem to stay put and went inside.
The house was empty. Del had stayed here on occasion, as had others of his profession. Technically it belonged to a man named Fillion, but no one had seen or heard from him in over fifteen years, so people used it as a safe house. Del lit two of the lanterns and made sure the shutters were closed, then poked his head out and let Willem know it was safe to come inside.
Several minutes later the tall man entered, followed closely by another man of middle age. In the light of the lamps within the room, Willem’s clothing seemed to be of deep green , but it was his companion who caught Del’s attention.
He was of middle age, of average height, clean shaven, his green eyes sharp as they took in the room. His clothing was tailored velvet and silks, a deep red hue, with dark blue stripes running up the sleeves. Lace spilled out of the neck and wrists, and his boots were of softest leather, dyed red. His upper lip quivered as he spoke. “Show me the coin, boy.” His voice was deep, but there was something in it that Del could not place. Desperation?
“Do you have the rest of my money?” Practicality. Just to make sure he wasn’t about to be cheated. The man gestured to Willem with a curt motion of his hand. The thin man disappeared outside only to reappear moments later, heaving a chest matching the one Del had received and hidden several nights ago. Willem set the chest down in the middle of the room and opened the lid; the glint of coins within was plain to see. Nodding to himself, Del reached into his jacket, undid the ties to the pouch, and took the medallion out.
Willem trembled with excitement, rubbing his hands together. Del could almost hear him cackling, but pushed the thought away as he handed the medallion to the man in red. A look of adulation passed across the man’s face, and a gasp escaped his lips as he took it in his hands. He crooned softly as he held it in his left hand and gently ran the fingers of his right across the face of the beautiful woman engraved in the silver. He stood entranced for several minutes. Del began to feel uncomfortable. He coughed behind his hand to break the silence. As if in a trance, the man merely waved a hand in his direction and said, distinctly “Kill him, Willem.”
Willem unfolded like a spring, his tall thin body flying towards Del with outstretched arms and teeth suddenly grown long and sharp in a mouth bared wide. Del cursed and fell backwards, flinging knives as fast as he could. He fell over the table behind him as Willem’s body crashed into the wall, three knives buried in his face and neck; a fourth had missed and thunked into the wall behind. Ignoring the chaos around him, the man in red caressed the medallion in his hands lovingly. Del raised himself into a crouch and pulled another knife to throw just as the man’s voice suddenly boomed, “By Lashiva’s grace, I invoke the youth of eternity!”
He tossed the medallion into the air. It spun, shimmering, end on end, hovering for what seemed to be an eternity high above the man before it fell to the ground at his feet. His eyes were rapt, his face a beaming smile, pure ecstasy was upon him. He trembled with anticipation.
And howled as he saw the face upon the coin now resting at his feet. The howl turned to a shriek and Del watched in horrific awe as the man’s features began to melt like wax beneath a flame, his hair falling in clumps to the floor, his skin withering and melting all at once. The man’s shriek became a gurgle as his body slowly fell in upon itself, as if the very bones beneath his skin were turned to jelly. Del retched as the quivering mass collapsed to the floor and suddenly burst into green and purple flames, the smell of burning flesh filling the small house. There was a flash of blue light and all was silent.
Del wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood slowly, a knife in each hand. The body of Willem was sprawled awkwardly in the corner of the room, blood seeping from his wounds. He no longer looked human; his fingernails were grown long as talons, and his facial features had reformed and looked almost dog-like, the teeth long and sharp. Del shuddered and turned his gaze to the center of the floor. All that was left was a pile of ash in front of the medallion. He eased closer. The face that looked back at him was that of the old woman.
A fake? He highly doubted it after what just happened. He bent down to pick it up; it would do no good to leave such a thing lying about. A sudden gleam from within the pile of ashes caught his eye as he straightened, the medallion suddenly heavy in his hand. Carefully, he brushed aside the ashes with the tip of his boot.
Three shimmering faces stared back.