By Ryan Harvey
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Ryan Harvey and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
He was the first person I met who did not have the Sorrow. One day I may meet another, but I’m afraid he will come to the same end as Dyzan Ludd.
At the time I had lost interest even in the meager profession of begging. I gave up my alms bowl and crawled into a smoke pit in the most dismal part of Ahn-Tarqa’s most dismal city to join the others who wanted to drown their lives in illusion. My remaining coppers went to purging away tomorrow with the dream-smoke of the mokkah flower.
I do not know how many days I droned away on a cot in a sweltering common room filled with narcotic smoke before I heard that voice. I didn’t catch the exact words, but its tone spoke sharp and clear from a place outside drugged dreams. Even when it whispered, it sliced like a blade. I propped myself onto an elbow so I could listen to it.
The voice belonged to a tall man perched over the dreamer in the cot behind mine. The speaker was pestering the dreamer with questions. The thick smoke seemed to have no effect at all on him, and he didn’t seem to understand why the only responses he received from the man on the cot were slurred nonsense.
Nobody speaks much in smoke pits except to babble their delusions, but I found myself drawn toward this intruder from the waking world. “You’re a fool to bother,” I muttered.
My head swam from the smoke, but I could see the man turn to look at me. “I’ve heard that sometimes the best knowledge in the city comes from men in smoke pits.”
“Sometimes. But this near to the Month of the Moon we’re all close to dead. You’re better off pestering the sots drowning themselves in a tavern.”
“Taverns are filled with other thieves,” he answered. “I don’t want to make competition. Not with the haul I plan to make.”
I sat up to get my blood flowing better. As the haze lifted from my eyes, I got my first look at Dyzan Ludd. He definitely had no place in a smoke pit. He had on simple clothes, but they weren’t tattered. He must have had a few coins in his purse and a drop of ambition left, or he wouldn’t be talking about making a haul. Most telling was the light shade of his skin and long hair. He had the blood of the Fencer Mountain people. That explained much: he wasn’t from the city, so he couldn’t know how criminals work in the trenches of Gasper.
“If you think you can steal on your own during the Month of the Moon, you’re an even greater fool. Every cutpurse and alley stabber needs sanction from the Brotherhoods to work then. If you don’t know the Brotherhoods’ rules, they’ll gulp you down like a ravager in two bites.”
“I’m not working in the city. I’ve got a plump target — a caravan — coming down the North Road next month.”
The last effects of the mokkah flower left me. “Are you insane?” I hissed. My eyes darted around to see if any of the other dreamers had overheard. “If the Brotherhoods hear you mutter even a word about a hold-up on the North Road, it won’t take two bites to swallow you. It won’t take one. Dead, like that!” I was about to snap my fingers, but thought better of making more noise.
“You seem to know the Brotherhoods well,” he said. “Tell me what you know. The knowledge might save my life, and you wouldn’t want my death on your conscience, would you?”
Few people in Gasper have any conscience, but I still had some dregs of it. I signaled for him to stay quiet, then pointed toward the stairway to the street. He tossed a few coins into the keeper’s bucket as we left the stifling room.
Outside it might have been any time of day, and by the end of the week this chilly darkness would lie constantly over the city as the Month of the Moon started. Even during the Month of the Sun, Gashpuh is never bright. The torch towers to the gods of good and bad fortune burn continually and pour fumes into a shroud overhead. It gives the city its more fitting nickname, “Gasper.”
In the hellish glow from the towers I could see Dyzan Ludd better. His strong build confirmed that he had Fencer ancestors. His eyes shone with a clarity I did not at first understand. It made me uncomfortable yet also intrigued.
He told me his name, and explained that he had arrived in Gasper two weeks ago from Iden. Rumors in the southern cities spoke of an opulent caravan that would pass through Gasper by the North Road during the Month of the Moon.
I blanched when he mentioned that highway again. “The Brotherhoods allow any crime during the Moon — except pestering travelers from the north. The last thing they want is to anger the Shapers. Those masked sorcerers have left us alone for two hundred years, and we all want it to stay that way.”
“But what thief wouldn’t want to pluck a few treasures from Black Spires?”
“Have you actually seen Black Spires, on a clear day? Would you want anything that comes from that heap of poison?”
His face didn’t change, as if I had said nothing. Of course he had seen Black Spires. If he had traveled over the plains from the Fencer Mountains he would have watched the city’s silhouette, a tangle like ravagers’ teeth raking the sky, following him along the horizon. He had looked on the Shaper’s diabolic metropolis where they worshipped the Handless God and practiced their witcheries in the Art, and he did not fear it.
I stared at Dyzan Ludd, and began to grasp the fascination and unease surrounding him. I had thought that he was not listening to me or did not understand what I was telling him, but the truth was that he did understand. He simply wasn’t afraid.
I was looking at a Sorrowless man. I had heard that such folk existed, scattered throughout Ahn-Tarqa, but I never imagined that one would come to a melancholy place like Gasper, a city that breathes the Sorrow.
Dyzan Ludd noticed my amazement as I realized what he was. He answered with a shallow nod.
Nothing I could say would persuade a Sorrowless man from this lunatic scheme, but I tried anyway. I checked again to make sure that no one on the street overheard us, and then I told him all I knew about the caravan he hoped to rob.
A beggar hears everything because no one imagines he is truly alive, so I knew a few morsels about this extraordinary caravan from Black Spires. The few merchants daring enough to deal directly with the Shapers’ servants had talked of a fantastic carriage that would rattle down from the north: a behemoth powered by the Art that surpassed anything built in Iden. A guard of Idenites and a company of devil claws, the Shapers’ raptor soldiers enslaved through the Art, would safeguard it.
I embellished the details to make them as horrifying as I could, but nothing shook Dyzan Ludd. “What do you think they might be carrying, with all that protection?” he asked.
“Whatever it is, you won’t get away with any of it, no matter how clever you are. You’ll be fortunate to escape alive. If a Shaper rides with the convoy, even the god of good fortune himself couldn’t save you.”
My warnings meant nothing. The cogs in his mind were turning with plans. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Thank you, brother beggar. I wasted days trying to learn all that you’ve told me in a few minutes.” His eyes held mine for a moment, and an itching sensation touched my mind. It was unpleasant and stirred my own Sorrow. But when Dyzan Ludd turned away and walked into the shadows of the warren of streets, the stirring in my head changed into something I had not felt in months: a desire to live for the sake of living.
When I started to walk, I found my feet were not carrying me back into the smoke pit, but toward the center of the city. I suddenly longed to get away from the oubliettes of Gasper and see, for a short time at least, some place brighter.
Hours later, I again held a begging bowl and stood a post in Gasper’s market square. Business was slow because of the approaching Month of the Moon, but a few tradesmen on hadrosaurs flipped coppers my way as they rode past. After a day I had collected enough to purchase a room in a shamble of stone hovels at the edge of town. It was nothing more than four walls, a slab for a bed, and the tatty hide of an unknown saurian stretched over the entrance, but I could survive the coming month in it, and perhaps make it through another year of the Sorrow after that.
On the first day of continual darkness, a hand tapped my shoulder as I worked my spot in the market. I looked up at a familiar, fair-skinned man mounted on a hadrosaur.
“Greetings, brother beggar.”
The hadro had a saddle blanket pocked with insect holes, but its magnificent crest marked a distinguished breed. The mount was more than a newcomer could afford — honestly, anyway. “You’ve taken easier jobs, I see.”
“Easier, yes,” Dyzan said. “But I haven’t given up the big job.”
“I suppose not. But if you’ve come to learn more, I haven’t anything else to tell.”
“No, I have all I need. I spotted you leaving your home, so I followed to thank you again. You helped me more than anyone else in this latrine of a town, and I didn’t even need to bribe you.”
I shrugged. “There was nothing I wanted at the time.”
He flicked out a coin that fell with a heavy, satisfying clunk in my bowl. I didn’t need to look to know its value; it was worth a week of begging at least.
Dyzan said, “There’ll be more. You deserve a cut of whatever I lift from that — ” He jabbed his thumb to the north.
I grinned as if I anticipated a rich reward. I knew he wouldn’t get anything. He’d be dead. But it wasn’t my business to push the Sorrow onto one of the few who lacked it. I let him ride off with his illusion, and kept a few of mine in the bargain. The only difference was that without the Sorrow he could keep his illusions long enough for them to get him killed. Perhaps the Sorrow wasn’t such an awful burden to carry.
The gold coin lasted more than a week. I squeezed it for every drop of sustenance it had. I huddled in my cube during the sunless days and darker nights, my hands cupped around a blubber candle and my ears listening to the terrified shouts on the streets. The darkness gives the Brotherhoods their richest month of thuggery. They would not bother a withered beggar as long as I stayed out of their way, but with a tiny fortune to spare I took no chances and left my hutch only when necessary. Maybe I was getting too good at clinging onto life.
It was on a rare tranquil night, as I started to drift into sleep, that I heard a distant crack. I recognized it as the sound of a gun. Pistols from the south occasionally find their way into Gasper, although the superstitious Brotherhoods destroy them the moment they find them. I had seen one of these weapons of the Art up close once. An Idenite mercenary who carried the black and white pennant of the Handless God had let me hold one just to enjoy seeing my ignorant fear. I accidentally fired it and shot off the tip of the horn of his ceratops, and was lucky to escape with only a beating. I never wanted to see another pistol again.
Days of nothing but listening had sharpened my hearing, so I could tell the direction of the sound. It came from outside the city, to the north. As I listened for a second shot, a powerful radiance shone around the skin across the doorway. It burned blue like a lightning bolt, but glowed steadily. I flew up from my bed and pushed aside the hanging to find the source.
I had a view of the last arc of luminescence fading behind the north hills. I shivered from something deeper than the cold. That kind of light did not come from nature, but from the Art — a powerful form of it. Idenites might have that sort of magic; the Art powers the torches of their cities without fire or heat.
It was unnerving, but none of my business — and I wanted it kept that way. I dropped the covering and returned to my bed. I tried to sleep, but a memory tickled my mind. It had something to do with a man I had met once who had burning eyes; a stranger with no thoughts of the Sorrow and an insane idea.
Suddenly, he was standing over me.
“I’ve come back, brother beggar.”
I must have jumped when I realized it wasn’t a dream, because I next remembered a hand lifting me and setting me back on the bed. A match struck tinder, and a weak flame flickered from the candle on the floor.
In the feeble light I could see enough of Dyzan Ludd to know he had done the job. Or the first part of it. He hadn’t done the second part — dying — but he looked close to it.
He reeked of blood and singed hair. He wore a sapphire-colored tunic and trousers that I had seen before on Idenites who served in Black Spires. The black and white emblem of the Handless God was woven on the front. Gashes covered the rich cloth, and his pale skin beneath showed deep cuts. Welts covered his wrists and the exposed skin around his ankles, as if someone had bound him. His beard had grown heavy, which only partially disguised the bruises covering his face.
His eyes, however… no, he still did not have the Sorrow. He might survive after all.
“Got anything to drink?” he wheezed.
I pointed to a tin flask. The cheap fiery liquor inside was my only indulgence in the cold. Dyzan grabbed it and swallowed the contents in one gulp, then collapsed against the wall across from me. A sword strapped to his side clattered as he sat. The polished handle had Idenite designs.
Dyzan wiped his mouth with his hand, smearing a blood trail across his beard. “They’re after me, but I’ve got a head start. I can only stay long enough to give you your share of the spoils.”
It looked as if he had nothing to share but blood. “What — what is it?”
“A story,” he grunted. “You gave me one once about a caravan; I guess I owe you one as well. You won’t hear anything like it the rest of your life.”
He checked the flask once more to see if there was any liquor left in it. Then he began.
Dyzan Ludd had not stayed in the city long after our last meeting. He had gathered all he needed to know about the caravan and its escort. He scouted an ideal site to commit the crime where the road made a sharp turn to avoid a boulder. As it passed the rock, the road dipped into a shadowed gully. The god of good fortune could not have created a better place for Dyzan’s ambush.
It didn’t matter how much time he had to spend encamped in the desolate hills around the North Road watching for his target; he had mountain blood, and like those barbarians he could bide his time to wait for his prey to come to him. He built a hovel of shale with an opening toward the road. It camouflaged him while he slept, and he needed only open his eyes once to check on the stretch of road. The crimson glow from Gasper’s towers provided light to see, and when the moon struggled through the choke from the city it was like broad daylight to a thief’s eyes.
He survived on rodents and tiny saurians caught in snares. His hadro died a week after he started his vigil. The scattering of shoots that grew between cracks in the rocks were not enough to keep it alive in the cold, and Dyzan couldn’t surrender his watch for a trip back to the city to steal feed. It meant a trickier escape route — but escape was never the hardest part of the plan.
During the third week of the watch, a tremor growled through the ground as Dyzan slept. His eyes snapped open. The rumble wasn’t an earthquake, but the grinding of a heavy body across granite. He didn’t need to see the moonlight reflecting from the top of the carriage or the spear tips around it to know that the time had arrived.
The rumors about the escort and its prize had not exaggerated. Fifty raptors in helmets that transmitted the spell that enslaved them marched around the carriage in a square. Their scythe-like claws tapped on the stones in a hypnotic rhythm. A smaller company of Idenites in sapphire, some strapped with rifles and pistols as well as swords, marched in the front and rear to keep the devil claws in order should any of them escape from control.
The carriage eclipsed its legion of attendants. Even in the cities of Iden, Dyzan had never seen a device of the Art so colossal. It stretched the length of a grain warehouse in a shape like a bloated marsh crocodile slung on wheels. No team of herd animals could lug such a metal mass. Only the power of the Art could push it along, the magic turning its ten iron wheels relentlessly over the road.
The Sorrow was woven into the Art deep in Ahn-Tarqa’s forgotten beginnings, and all Art carries its taint. Art fashioned from the minds of the Shapers exudes it like rays of sun that do not warm. Any normal thief would have fled from what Dyzan saw and looked for easier targets that didn’t make him fear his own existence.
But Dyzan Ludd felt fear only because he knew the monster vehicle and its guardians might kill him. I cannot imagine that feeling — to fear only death — but as Dyzan bent over the candle in my room and whispered of his exploits, I came closer to understanding.
He flung a bundle of clothes bound with cord across his back, wound a length of rope around his tunic, strapped on two short swords and a dagger, and then crawled from his shelter. He bent low to the rocks as he slunk toward the North Road. His slate-gray cloak disguised him, and the caravan lookouts were only paying attention to the road ahead of them.
Dyzan climbed to a perch on the boulder above the gully with a few minutes to spare. He undid the cord around the bundle and hitched the end around a spur of rock. He tucked the wad of clothes through his belt and pulled the cloak tight around him. Like a dusky lizard blending into the rocks, he waited until the carriage trundled below him. He had no worries about swords, pistols, raptors’ claws, or sorcery. He could turn his thoughts from such horrors if he needed to. He grabbed the cord and pushed off from the boulder.
His gloves, stitched from the hide of his dead mount, let him descend rapidly down the cord, like a spider dropping toward the fattest fly in the world. His boots scraped the metal roof of the carriage. The guard posted on top had a half-second to see a gray wisp before Dyzan soundlessly buried a knifepoint into his neck.
No one had spotted him. Fortune had put the moon on the other side of the boulder, and the deep shadows of the rock and gully camouflaged him beyond his hopes. The robbery now hinged on what he remembered of these magic carriages, and the hope that this one, titanic as it was, worked on the same principles as the ones he had studied in the southern cities. He undid the coil around his waist and hooked one end around an iron strut. He then started to repel down the graded side of the vehicle.
The wheels groaned below. If he slipped once, he would fall between them and they would pulp him under their treads. But he moved steadily down the metal slope, lowering himself until he dangled between the wheels. He felt the air from their spinning, but he had enough space on both sides to stay safe.
None of the convoy seemed to have spotted him. A suspicion flashed in his mind, but he doused it quickly. Yes, he thought, perhaps he really was this good. He had timed and planned it flawlessly. Nothing could stop him.
Dyzan gripped the rim along the bottom of the carriage, released the rope, and flipped underneath the metal beast. The wheels raised the underbelly four feet above the ground, so he had ample room to snake along upside-down, using the pipes as handholds. The pipes glowed hot, but he could tolerate it with the hadro-skin gloves.
He located the hatch in the center of the maze of pipes that carried the power of the Art to the wheels. His hand opened the trapdoor, then darted to his knife. With one slash, the blade cut through a crackling line of power that arched through the compartment. The glow sparked once and vanished. The hulking machine sputtered — and stopped.
The commotion would start now, no matter what. As Dyzan dropped to the ground and unwrapped the clothing bundle, he heard Idenites shouting instructions and the click-clack of the raptors’ claws stopping as the command spell in their helmets ordered them to halt.
In the confusion around the carriage, the Idenites did not notice that an extra man had appeared among them. He wore a rumpled uniform, as if it had been recently unwadded, but they were too hurried setting up a perimeter around the carriage to pay attention to such details. The doors on the carriage burst open to disgorge the soldiers inside to help with guard duties. In the commotion, Dyzan slipped inside one of the open hatches and no one questioned him. The guards would realize what had happened when they found the dead man and the dangling rope or investigated the underbelly of the carriage, but they would not think to look for one of their own until the disguised thief had escaped.
Dyzan took his gray cloak and folded it into a makeshift sack to hold his treasures. He could imagine the prizes in the hold of the carriage: pistols, gems, honeyed spices, even an uncanny device of the Art. He would fill the sack and then slip out into the crowd, just another guard carrying provisions. After a dash to Gasper before the caravan could arrive, he would purchase a mount of the swiftest hadro breed and ride across the southern plains to the wealthy cities of Iden. There he would make a fortune selling his swag from Black Spires. He could live in lazy splendor for the rest of his many days.
Those dreams of a lifetime lasted less than a minute. Dyzan took ten steps down the shaft toward the storage hold, turned a corner, and came face to face with another man in a blue uniform. A captain of the guard insignia was stitched on his tunic, and he held a metal staff pointed at Dyzan’s heart.
“You moved even faster than we guessed,” the captain said. Before Dyzan could twitch a finger to reach for his sword, a tide of energy burst from the staff. His world went as dark as the Month of the Moon.
He awoke looking at a blooded sky and specks of stars. The smell of burnt flesh and the musk of raptors filled his nose. A rock edge dug into his back. The last face he had seen before the blackness took him passed in front of the starlight.
“Keep him held tight, he may still have some fight left,” the captain said.
Ropes constricted around Dyzan’s wrists and ankles. He squirmed his head to see the Idenites who held the straps that flattened him onto the boulder. On a ridge were silhouettes of devil claws looking down at him like an audience in an amphitheater. He recognized the place as a shallow bowl at the side of the road near where he had planned his great robbery.
He had to laugh. Great robbery. Great except for one flaw. His prey somehow knew he was coming. The grin the captain gave him before blasting him into unconsciousness was too smug. A thief can always tell the look of another trap-maker.
The captain now looked at him with the cold Sorrow of the men of Iden. “What’s your name, thief?”
Dyzan was too exhausted to resist. “Dyzan Ludd.”
“I am Captain Robern, and I speak for the Caravan Master. He ordered us not to harm you further. I don’t dare disappoint him, so for both our sakes, don’t struggle.”
Struggle wasn’t a possibility. Whatever power of the Art had hit Dyzan, it had drained all the strength from his muscles. He could only lay there and try to reason why this had happened. “You laid a trap for me,” he said weakly. “You did all this to catch one thief. Why? You don’t know me, I’ve never robbed in the north before.”
“My master needs you,” Robern said, “and you do not ask questions of him.”
From the ridge came a clicking, and Robern shifted his gaze from the captive and toward the sentry file of raptors. The line of enslaved beasts was splitting in the middle. A figure almost twice the height of the raptors passed through the gap. It moved toward Dyzan as if gliding, until its elongated shadow crept over the stone where he was bound. The figure was a blacker abyss in the black of the night. A featureless robe hid its body, and a mask carved from a ceratopsian’s frill covered its face. Eyes must have peered through the slits that were the mask’s only features, but oily dark drowned them. No one knew what the Shapers looked like beneath their disguises except other Shapers; and, if the legends had any truth to them, the Shapers rarely revealed themselves even to their own kin.
Most men would have plunged into madness to see a Shaper so close. The Sorrow oozes from their bodies like venomous perspiration. Even the Idenite guards, who were raised as thralls in the Shaper’s sorcerer-cities, trembled near the dread of the Caravan Master.
But Dyzan Ludd retained a grip on his mind. He was afraid of the Shaper, but only because it might kill him or keep him imprisoned. He could fight those fears.
The Shaper stood still for a moment, and it seemed to look down at the prisoner as if waiting for a reaction. Dyzan gave it nothing.
Robern, almost forgotten in the Caravan Master’s shadow, gasped: “It must be true! He doesn’t fight, scream, or even twitch. He really is one of them. You were right, Master.”
The Shaper’s mask tilted in a nod. Dyzan started to understand. It wasn’t him that they wanted; Dyzan Ludd didn’t matter at all. They wanted anyone without the Sorrow. The caravan and its prizes, the timing during the Moon, the spread of rumors through the south — it was bait to tempt a robber who had the boldness and persistence that only the Sorrowless know. The Month of the Moon and the dread of the Shapers would keep away everyone else. Yet one would come, one without a touch of the melancholy disease of Ahn-Tarqa, and the trap would shut around him like a carnivorous flower bloom crushing a fly.
The Shaper lifted a gloved hand, the palm toward Robern. The captain nodded. “We are ready, Master.” He shouted to other guards. “Men, prepare yourselves for the orb!” The Idenites turned their backs toward Dyzan and the Shaper. Robern turned last, letting a stare touched with mockery linger on the prisoner.
“What’s happening? What’re you doing?” Dyzan asked. The Shaper’s hand drifted into the voluminous folds of its robe. A shimmer stung Dyzan’s eyes. The brightness came from an incandescent orb resting in the Shaper’s palm.
The light from the orb curled and stretched toward the rock. Dyzan tried to turn his head away, but a hand grabbed his neck from behind and forced him to face forward. Dyzan slammed his eyes shut, but the power of the Art that animated the light passed through the shields of his eyelids. The scorching brightness burrowed through his eyes and straight into his mind. There it exploded.
“And?” I asked when he fell silent. My damp palms pressed against the stone of the bed. “What happened? What did you see?”
He made a furtive glance toward the door. He shook his head. “No. Not now. I can only tell you what happened immediately after — after I saw what I saw.”
He stood up, and his hand clasped the hilt of the sword as if he had just realized it was there. “I had this weapon in my hand, the next moment I remember. A dead Idenite with an empty scabbard lay at my feet. My ankles and wrists were burning. I must have snapped myself free. All the weakness was gone, and in its place I felt a — a fear greater than anything I’ve ever known. But it didn’t make me cower; it filled me with an energy that drove me almost mad.
“I heard Robern shout orders, and when I saw figures in blue charging toward me, I lashed out desperately. I swung the blade in blind circles, and the Idenites died all around me in a blood dance. The devil claws stood at attention and did nothing, just like the Caravan Master. That masked sorcerer waited while I cut away at the men trying to bring me down.
“The fury of fear dimmed in a brief break in the assault. I knew I was hurt, but the pain hadn’t reached my mind yet. I had enough sense to run then. An Idenite jumped in my path and aimed a pistol at my head. I heard a bang, and a dragonfly buzz went past my ear. Then a blue light flared around the man. He shrieked and crumpled to the ground. The Shaper had scorched his own solider with the Art. That damned sorcerer didn’t want me killed yet, and he would slay his own servants with a flick of his power to make sure of it.”
“That must have been the sound and light I saw,” I remarked.
“The noise was so terrifying, I don’t know why the whole city didn’t hear it. I kept running. There was still a barricade of devil claws to get through, but as I reached them they parted like a gate swinging on a hinge. The Shaper wouldn’t let them harm me either. I rushed out of the pit and into the hills.”
Dyzan staggered toward the door. His legs buckled and he caught himself on the edge before falling. He didn’t need to tell me that he had run most of the way to the outskirts of Gasper. That he had any strength left to talk or move was a mystery for the gods. A touch of madness from the Art can do miraculous things.
“I’m not safe here,” he said. “They’re following. In fact — they’re here already.”
He backed away from the entrance. The shadow of a man crossed the curtain. I jumped up and grabbed Dyzan by the arm. I forgot everything he had told me as my newfound desire to cling to life took over. “You led them right to my door? They’ll kill us both!”
“They won’t harm you. They don’t care what a beggar hears. They must have been outside for the last few minutes, waiting for me to tell them what they want to know.”
“Not they,” a voice said. “I came alone, thief.”
A glove pushed aside the hanging saurian skin. The Idenite who stepped inside had the purest blue eyes and fairest skin of any of his race I had seen. Such were the people the Shapers chose as their dedicated servants.
“Captain Robern,” Dyzan sighed. “Here to prove yourself for your boss?”
“He sent me on my own. My master is afraid that an angry gang might accidentally injure you. He was so cautious that he sent me without weapons.” Robern held out his palms to show that he spoke the truth. The only object dangling from his belt was a pair of manacles. “I have no reason to hurt you, as long as you tell me what I must know.”
“What your masters must know,” Dyzan snarled. “What do they want to know so desperately that they set up this complex, ludicrous trap?”
“The masters in the Towers of Artifice must know the secret of the vision orb. They found it buried in the earth, where it must have lain since before the rise of the cities of Ahn-Tarqa. My masters cannot gaze into the orb; it kills them instantly. No normal man can peer inside and live longer than a few minutes — and his mind is already too scarred for him to tell what he saw. But you, one of the rare ones who do not share the curse of the Sorrow, might survive long enough to reveal the orb’s secret.”
“What good do your masters think they will gain from this knowledge? If they are bored, why don’t they go re-conquer the world?”
Robern’s features darkened. “I do not question their wisdom. They are planning the future of Ahn-Tarqa in their mighty minds. But there is a treasure woven into the Art that they must first uncover. Part of it is hidden in that orb: it goes back to the Handless God.”
The mention of the fathomless god of the Shapers created a chill icier than the wind from the Ahman-Sah Sea. My jaw trembled. An event larger than anything my paltry Sorrow could imagine was unfolding in my hovel. I listened with fearful attention as Dyzan spoke.
The words burst from him in a laugh: “The Handless God! The future! Until your master poured poison into my head, I never thought about such nonsense. But I will tell what I saw, because it makes everything nonsense. I saw the future, and I saw the past. Prophecy and history at once, and if you think that is madness then leave it to your mad masters to unravel.
“But one thing I saw clear. White death. That’s what the orb holds. White death that strangles everything. Our land twisted into an unrecognizable graveyard of ice. Not a single man — or Shaper — appears in that frozen hell. The only life is their bizarre Handless God, the Black and White Emperor. Not one of him, but countless copies in a swarm. Emperors of nothing but ice! That’s Ahn-Tarqa’s death — or birth.
“There’s the damn secret your masters want. It’s the start of the Sorrow. Without realizing it, you and this wretch in the corner both know that our land is doomed. It comes from and ends in the same killing ice.”
“How can it end and begin in the same — ”
“Who knows? Maybe the riddle itself drives us mad. We live in a hopeless circle, like a saurian trying to devour its own tail. But where are we to go? Look in that orb and you’ll know. Ice at the beginning, ice at the end — and our sad lives crammed in the cruel space between them.”
Dyzan held out his sword so the tip scraped the ceiling, then he dropped it to the floor with a horrendous clatter. “You have what you want. Now I want something from you. I want death. I won’t live much longer with this filth in my head. I can feel the Sorrow worming into my thoughts, and I’d rather die than have it rot me into one of the wretches I see everywhere I look.”
Robern’s hand moved to the manacles on his belt. “You must speak to my master first — ”
“No, I won’t look on his Sorrow again. Now, kill me!”
He lunged at Robern. The captain’s hand flashed to something hidden in his tunic’s folds, but Dyzan slammed into his torso and hurtled him backwards before he could draw it. The two bodies ripped through the skin-covering and into the alley outside.
I crawled on hands and knees to the doorway and saw two mad figures pounding each other with heavy blows. They made a blur as they tussled in the empty street. A swarm of flies surrounded them. My eyes adjusted and I saw it was not flies but dirty snow falling from Gasper’s sky.
Dyzan struck at Robern to madden him, and then left himself open for the deathblow he wanted. Robern fought the opposite way: enraged but checking himself so as not to kill his opponent. They danced in a strange struggle of fury and hesitation.
I noticed an irregular shape on the gravel a foot from where I was hunched. It was a pistol that Robern had been reaching for when Dyzan tackled him. The Idenite had come secretly armed, but if he had wanted to kill Dyzan, he would have to do it with his bare hands now.
His chance came soon. Although Dyzan fought with the wildness of his Fencer Mountain ancestors, his wounds slowed him. Robern grappled Dyzan by the shoulders and slammed his knee into his chest. Dyzan slumped from the blow, and Robern struck like a raptor to lock Dyzan’s arms behind his back. He pressed hard between Dyzan’s shoulder blades and bent him over like a man supplicating himself before his god. Dyzan couldn’t move his arms or stand up against Robern’s weight.
“You won’t die so fast, thief,” the Idenite growled. “You still have a meeting with the Shapers. Maybe you’ll last long enough to enjoy the Sorrow when they drag you to Black Spires. They’ll split open your mind and suck out the sap.”
Then came a sickening snap, as if Dyzan’s back had broken under the pressure. But the sound was not from cracking bones and joints. It came from the pistol in my hand.
Captain Robern stared at me in disbelief. He continued staring as a crimson stain spread over his tunic. He tipped backwards onto a blanket of black snow and lay still, his sightless eyes locked on the poisoned clouds.
My feet slithered over the gravel. I could hardly feel my own body’s movement. The pistol dangled from my fingertips, trying to remind me that I had done something I knew I could never have done. I reached Dyzan, still sunken in a servile bow to an invisible ruler. I tried to raise him, but he flopped over onto his back. I hoisted up his head, and a wisp of breath wafted from his lips.
“Thank you again, brother beggar,” he said. “Now you must do what I asked Robern to. Finish me. I don’t want to feel the Sorrow before I die.”
My hand itched on the sorcerous weapon. I wanted to hurl it away. “The Sorrow isn’t so awful. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“That’s why I can’t face it. Maybe it is better to always have it than to have to face it later. You carry on with it, and finish me before I meet it.”
Even in the chill, my hand was sweaty against the pistol’s grip. Its Sorrow burnt like an ember against my skin. My finger would not move for the trigger. Dyzan’s eyes pleaded with me, but I could not do what he asked.
A new figure slipped into the silent alley to join the corpse, the thief, and the beggar gathered there. I did not see the newcomer, but I felt it. A shadow deeper than the shadows. A pit of the Sorrow. It waited out of sight to see what I would do.
That was the urging I needed. For the third time in my life, I squeezed the trigger of a pistol. A red hole opened in Dyzan’s brow, and then his face turned peaceful. I laid his head against the gravel and dropped the gun beside him.
I peered into the alley to find the watcher. It remained a moment longer, and then the Month of the Moon swallowed it in blackness. It had found what it wanted, or else knew it would not find it here. The Shapers would have other opportunities, other Dyzan Ludds.
A dust of polluted snow started to cover the bodies as I walked away. The Brotherhoods would take care of the dead and destroy the gun before another sunless day passed.
I walked without direction. I let the Sorrow surround me, and I embraced its constancy.
Ryan Harvey won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2011 for his story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” part of the science-fantasy series on the continent of Ahn-Tarqa, which is also the setting for “The Sorrowless Thief,” his ebook novelette “Farewell to Tyrn,” and upcoming novel Turn over the Moon.
His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Beyond Centauri, Aoife’s Kiss (upcoming), and the anthology Candle in the Attic Window. He writes science fiction, fantasy, and the shadowy realm between both, as well as a long stint writing a column at Black Gate.
His lives in Los Angeles with one cat and one less dog, and enjoys the swing dancing and vintage clothing scene when not writing or reading. Find him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com and follow him on Twitter @RHarveyWriter.
Author photo by Kai Martin.